Emmett and Rosalie disentangle themselves as they spy me at my cubicle, separating with knowing glances in lieu of goodbye pecks as Rosalie settles in behind her glass wall.
“How was your New Year’s, Eddie?” Emmett asks as he bounds over toward me, unwinding his scarf.
I recline in my seat and fold my hands together behind my neck, watching him. I’ve had about enough of his nickname. “Primo, Emily. Yours?”
His face opens up into that wide dimply grin and he responds, “Okay, fine, dude. Truce. So seriously, how was the ringing in? Anyone…special…to kiss at the stroke of midnight this year?”
I don’t even try to hold back the upward pull of my lips as I recall our night. “I’m pretty sure I was asleep by 11:30.”
Emmett shakes his head in pity as he tucks his gloves into the pockets of his down coat. “Lame-o, Edd—Edward.” He eyes me with true concern. “Now, what are we going to do to zip up your 2012?”
Just then, before I’m required to provide an answer, Rosalie knocks on the glass and summons me inside. Saved by the finger. I stand and squeeze Emmett’s substantial shoulder in passing. “You keep working on that, Emmett.”
“Edward,” Rosalie starts in, all business. “I just forwarded you a memo from the top floor. I need you to disable Swan Chat.”
I can’t quite get a read on whether she has an opinion on it either way. Orders are orders, I suppose. I hold in my smirk with a practiced restraint.
“I’ll handle it first thing before I head upstairs to start the updates.”
“Great,” she says indifferently, turning back to her screen.
“Rosalie, there’s something else I’d like to discuss with you. When you get a few minutes.”
She looks up at me, giving me her full attention for the first time. “Shall I ‘get a few minutes’ right now?”
“If you can, that would be terrific.”
Rosalie gestures to the visitor’s chair and folds her hands apprehensively on top of her desk. It’s not a secret that I’ve been arriving with Isabella Swan every morning and leaving with her most nights. Rosalie is a sharp cookie, and she may have put two and two together about the chat system. Even if she’s not exactly suspicious of me, my boss is smart enough to be wary.
“What is it?”
I lean forward in the chair, resting my elbows on my knees and clasping my hands in between. “I have a proposal I’d like to run by you.”
Her antennae fully extended, she narrows her eyes. “What kind of proposal?”
“A suggestion for how our department might take more of an active role in the organization.”
Slight twitch of the brow. “Tell me more.”
I give her basically the same shpiel I’ve presented to Charlie and the other five CEO’s who’ve implemented the plan. She remains tense through the entire discussion, but takes in what I’m saying.
“Well, Edward, clearly you’ve put an awful lot of thought into this. Why don’t you write something up and I’ll take a good hard look.”
“Actually, I can email it to you right now,” I respond, doing my best to smile without raising her hackles.
“Oh.” She’s clearly surprised but recovers quickly. Her own smile is forced. “Great.” She stands abruptly and I feel dismissed.
I stand as well and turn to leave. Pivoting back with my hand inside the doorframe, I add, “Rosalie, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s only fair that to tell you I’ve shared my idea with Mr. Swan.”
“Is that right?” she answers, attempting to disguise her defensiveness as mere curiosity. “And what did he have to say?”
“He said I should start with you.” I am careful to keep my tone friendly, and not make her feel any more threatened than she already must. “Proper channels and all that. Okay then…” I tap the wall on my way out.
“’Sup with that?” Emmett asks, eyeing Rosalie through the glass.
“Oh, that?” I gesture toward Rose with my thumb as I fall into my chair and wheel myself back to the keyboard. “We’re taking down chat.”
“What? What the…? But, why?” Emmett is comical in his frustration. He swivels back and forth between Rosalie and me, not knowing which of us to blame or beg for reversal of this swift and cruel death sentence.
I chuckle, “Looks like you’re going to have to find yourself a new way to zip up 2012 now…dude.”
His eyes narrow. “I’m holding you responsible for this, Edward. You and your new girlfriend.”
I do nothing to confirm or deny his accusation. “Speaking of said girlfriend, I believe you have some computers to update?”
Emmett crosses his arms and continues to shake his head at me while I pull the plug on the lifeline of office gossip. Finally, he reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a black neoprene pouch. Standing reluctantly to leave, he mutters, “Harsh” on his way out.
“Sorry…Bella. I’m having trouble with my computer again.”
I look up to regard Jessica in my doorway, a totally frazzled expression on her face.
“I know they’re coming by to fix us sometime today. Can you work around it for now?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s Swan Chat. The whole system is down or something.”
“Oh, really?” I bite my lip to contain my smirk. Edward Cullen and Charlie Swan joining forces. Watch out, Swan Enterprises! “Try using email instead.”
Jessica’s brow furrows at my lack of distress over her predicament. “And Jessica, can you send out that meeting wizard to the Warwick team? We need to get that client visit scheduled ASAP.”
“Of course, M—Bella,” she answers, regaining her professionalism. Jessica reaches for my door as she turns to leave.
“You can leave it open.”
She shoots me a puzzled look, and I smile in return.
I sneak my phone out of my purse and tap out a quick text.
E- You killed chat? ~I
Executive decree. I just followed orders.
That’ll be the day. ;)
You know me too well, baby. How’s that bracelet look up on the 35th floor? Sun’s rays hitting the black velvet?
I tip my wrist into the morning sun and admire the sparkle of the black sapphire. Running my fingers over the bracelet, I feel goose bumps rise, recalling his words this morning.
“Isabella, I’d like you to wear your bracelet to work today.”I’m thrilled by this unexpected demand, especially since this is a night off for us as Master and sub. I’m also a little bit shocked that my Master sees fit to control me again so soon after patiently explaining—repeatedly—why a day off is so crucial after our intense weekend together. I don my bracelet before he changes his mind and wait eagerly for the assignment.
He clasps my hand and draws it to his lips, placing a soft kiss on the pulse point inside my wrist. “Today, when we’re apart, I want you to feel this and know that I am with you. Right here, next to every heartbeat.”
I must be looking at him quizzically, because he chuckles softly and adds, “That’s all.”
Yes, it’s sparkling brilliantly. x
Good. Going up to see Daddy. Later-
Give him a kiss for me?
Damn if his little text winks and smileys don’t make me into a hot mess of girl.
“Good morning, Edward,” Alice greets me, and I’m treated to my second dose of cool, professional businesswoman this morning.
You really have a way with women, Cullen. “Morning, Alice. Would you like me to start with your computer or Mr. Swan’s?”
She tips her chin toward Charlie’s door. “You can go on in. He’s expecting you.”
“Thank you.” I give her my most genuine smile, but the polar ice cap is frozen in place.
I rap my knuckles against the door frame. He’s already out of his chair with a hand extended in greeting. “Edward, come in, come in. Happy New Year.”
“You two, sir.”
He stills our hands in mid-air and gives me a stern look. “Thought you agreed to call me Charlie. You didn’t seem the type to have a problem with that.”
“Not at all, Charlie.” I confirm his fine opinion of me, drawing his wide grin.
“So how long will this take?” He steps aside while I take my seat at his desk.
“Maybe twenty minutes if your system cooperates. Twenty-one, if not,” I add cockily.
He snorts beside me. “Should I leave you two alone?”
Hmmm. Daddy wants to chat. “Not at all. This is more of a babysitting job than rocket science, to tell you the truth.”
His moustache curls with delight as he sinks into the couch against the wall. I look up and smile as the leather squeaks under his frame. Taking command of his keyboard, I access the repair and maintenance screen.
“So, did you sense the ripple in the building at 8:09?” I ask, continuing my tapping while updating him on our little conspiracy.
Charlie chuckles. “Is that when you cut the cord?”
I share in his amusement. “Yep. I can practically see the productivity level rising all around me.”
Charlie laughs again, “Not so much for me,” he says, crossing his legs and getting comfortable.
He’s doing his best to put me at ease, but there’s a prickly feeling I can’t shake, and probably shouldn’t. This man isn’t just the Biggest of all the Big Kahunas; this is Bellarella’s father. The man most likely to dice me into tiny bits before tossing me and my sad little potted cactus into a cardboard box and kicking us to the curb, should he ever find out exactly how Isabella and I spend our free time. No, I think I’d do well to remain just a bit prickly in his presence.
“Well, this should help,” I respond, noting with alarm that his hard drive is a fragmented mess. “When was your last update performed?” I ask, already scanning his system for the answer. “March of 2010? That’s criminal! See, right here is a perfect example of something we can do better. You’re not going to believe how much faster you download now…Jeez, look at this pile of updates…Charlie…”
My head’s already shaking and I get ready to launch into one of my epic lectures, but fortunately, better judgment kicks in and I stifle the impulse. I peer around the monitor to meet his steady and positively amused expression. “Yes?”
“I’m putting you and the rest of your team on a strict update schedule,” I relate calmly, the madman’s rant now out of my system.
“Fine.” He smiles agreeably. “So, how was Montauk?”
I disappear behind the monitor, just in case my face decides to give anything away. I swear this man’s intuition rivals my mother, and that is a terrifying realization.
“It was great,” I answer blandly, my watch suddenly feeling heavy on my wrist. I engaged the bezel this morning, just as Isabella slipped on her bracelet. We’re in sync.
“Must’ve been romantic out there this time of year. Did you skate?”
“We did,” I answer steadily, beginning a litany of prayers.
Please don’t ask me if I pressed your daughter against the window and fucked her brains out.
Please don’t ask me if I trained her to leash commands while she crawled around naked for me.
And whatever you do, dear God, PLEASE do not ask me if I tied her up and used my leather paddle on her ass!
“Good,” he clucks, his head bobbing in approval in my peripheral vision. “I understand from Renee that you two will be joining us for dinner at Sutton Place next week.”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to meeting Bella’s mother.”
“She’s excited to meet you, too, Edward.”
I shift my eyes just high enough to read his expression. I don’t detect a drop of malice, but I can’t help but feel like a strain of bacteria extracted from the Petri dish for scrutiny under his microscope.
Refocusing on my work, I begin the update routine and sit back in the chair to watch. It’s going to be a tedious day, performing this same routine again and again. But we can’t risk one of Swan’s top executives doing it incorrectly. I glue my eyes to the screen, watching as the tiny green boxes fill up the thin, wide rectangle and the percentage complete number rises in small, uneven increments.
This is unexpected. What does chocolate have to do with anything? My eyes shift away from the screen to decipher the hidden message.
He gives me this huge guy-to-guy smile and adds, “Renee is a sucker for chocolate.”
“Don’t you need my password to get into the system?”
Emmett guffaws as he leans over to insert a flash drive into the tower below my desk. “No. Passwords are like burglar alarms. They’re put in place to discourage amateurs from mischief.”
“Wait, so last week…” I hate the cloud of doubt that rolls in over my heart.
“Oh. No, that was different,” he answers, quickly dispelling my fear. “That was a malware virus that specifically brought the password screen into play. This is a systems administration issue. Two totally different animals.”
“So how long will this take?”
“Around thirty minutes. You can go do something else if you want. I can find my way around.”
Why did this not occur to me sooner? Emmett is going to be finding his way around my computer, all right. “I’ll be back in a few,” I respond, and he nods absently, fully immersed in his task.
E- Is Emmett going to find *anything* on my computer??? Freaking out.
Five minutes go by without an answer.
Isabella, do you honestly believe I’d let that happen?
I can practically see his eye roll at my lack of trust.
Sorry. Phew. Okay.
Have faith, baby. Feel the power of the bracelet.
Better now. Thx.
I meander back down the hall to my office, where Emmett is watching the screen with a bored glaze. “So, how was your New Year’s celebration?” he asks.
Please don’t blush, I beg my traitorous capillaries. “It was very festive, thank you.”
“Did you see Dick Clark’s countdown?”
“No. We didn’t have a TV—” Shit, that’s TMI.
He grins around the screen and cocks his brow expectantly.
Redirect. “No. I didn’t see it this year, but I heard he doesn’t look too good.”
“Naw, poor bastard. So, it’s a real shame about Swan Chat, eh?”
“Oh…uh, yeah, I guess. I mean I didn’t use it much, but…”
“Huh,” Emmett nods knowingly. “That’s what I thought.”
Things are not going too well right now in my office. Jesus, what is it about this guy? He seems like this sweet naïve pussycat but all of a sudden, I’m revealing all kinds of information. It seems like an excellent time to go to the bathroom.
Jasper’s assistant waves me through and I find myself outside his office, looking through the glass window at the man who used to share Isabella’s bed. He’s my last fix of the day; I was half-hoping he wouldn’t still be here by the time I got to his machine.
My emotions have certainly run the gamut where Jasper is concerned: envy, pity, anger, annoyance, and now…I’d have to admit to a grudging respect for the man. Sure, he needed a little while to lick his wounds, but the guy has shown some real class, and I admire his turnaround.
I knock on the glass and hold up my case by way of explanation when he looks up. Jasper stands and straightens his tie. Christ, he buttons his jacket just to shake my hand. I’m pretty disheveled after hitting every computer on 37 and spending a fair amount of my time crawling around on the grimy floor. I have a new proposal for Rosalie—vacuum cleaners. Do they seriously not understand that someone needs to clear the dust away from the equipment once a year or so?
“Thank you for coming, Edward,” he says, clasping my hand firmly and looking me earnestly in the eye. He’s one of the few men around these halls who stands to my full height.
I think I felt more comfortable when he was glaring at me and spitting insults at Isabella. This new detente is just plain weird. What am I supposed to say? Thank you for not being an asshole anymore?
“Can you give up your machine for twenty minutes?”
“Sure,” he answers, welcoming me into his seat Carol Merrill style and pulling a couple stacks of paper out of the way. “Should I stay?” he asks me.
“You don’t have to. But I’m not gonna kick you out of your own office,” I jest, realizing immediately afterwards that snatching his girlfriend might have been just a wee more serious.
“I think I’ll leave you to it,” he says finally, with a quiet dignity.
“Shit,” I mutter under my breath. “Jasper…”
“Listen, I know this situation is…” Now, why in the hell did I not prepare for this? It’s not as if I didn’t know I’d be coming up here today. “I just want to say, I thought it was really big of you to send that email to Bella yesterday.”
He blinks at me as realization dawns on him that she’s shared his message with me. I didn’t say it to emasculate him, but now I feel guilty for doing just that.
“It was time. I couldn’t go on being angry with Bella.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry you got hurt in all this. I know it’s not what she wanted.”
A hint of a smile plays at his lips. “I know that.”
Jasper comes to some kind of a decision and walks back toward his desk. Sinking into one of the chairs, he lays the files down on the floor and riffles both hands through his hair. It’s strange, sitting in his chair regarding him across the way, and I’m quite sure he’s feeling the odd juxtaposition of roles as well. To minimize the discomfort we’re both feeling, I focus my attention on fixing his computer and let him take the lead in the conversation. When I look up again, he’s sitting back in the chair, arms crossed over his chest, watching me.
I have no idea what he’s thinking until he speaks. “I’m not ready to like you yet.”
A surprised snort breaks free. “I’m an acquired taste.”
Now it’s his turn to snort. The maintenance routine gives us both the distraction we need. I understand why he’s still here. He’s trying so goddamn hard. He’s staring brazenly, and I know his concern is not for the machinery at my fingertips. I set the longest repair process into motion and turn toward Jasper head on.
“You want to ask me something,” I say. “Go ahead.”
He fights with himself before giving in to it. When he speaks, his voice is different, deeply affected. And it trails off at the end with his pained, “Are you hurting her?”
I nod, not as in “Yes, I’m hurting her,” but “Good for you for summoning the balls to ask, man.”
He deflates a bit and wipes his palms along his thighs. “Damn, I really want to believe you. And yeah, I know it’s none of my goddamn business anymore, but…” He turns his head to the side to gather himself. Any fool could see how hard this is for him. And yet he sits here torturing himself. In the midst of my empathy for his pain, I cannot help but note how utterly, tragically wrong this man was for my Isabella.
“You can believe me,” I reassure him. “I would never hurt Bella. I care about her...deeply. This isn’t some kind of game for either one of us.”
He turns to face me and the full force of his agony hits me right between the eyes. “Hell, I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.”
Yeah, if this were just sex he could write me off much more easily.
“I can’t tell you how to feel, man. But if you’re torturing yourself by playing out some kind of sadistic scenes in your head, that’s totally unnecessary.”
Jasper’s brow unfurrows a bit. He truly has accepted his loss and now just wants to make sure she’s being well tended.
“I don’t know how much you know about this lifestyle, but I’m experienced and responsible. I’m not some hack out looking for a cheap thrill.”
He has twenty more questions behind his eyes. My silence invites them all. I would never divulge her secrets or share anything private, but to the extent that I can get him over the hump, I don’t mind sharing.
“So, you know how to…do things? Use things?”
“Yes,” I say simply.
“And you have…” He looks down at his hands hopelessly. “Ugh. You have these things?”
Oh my god, the poor guy is starting to sweat bullets. I wish he’d take off his jacket or loosen his tie.
Finally, it’s too much and he throws his hands up in defeat.
“Jasper,” I cajole him softly. “The toys are just a small piece of who we are and what we do. I take care of her needs and she fulfills mine.”
“Okay, okay,” he repeats, holding both hands out like two giant stop signs. “I think that’s about all I can handle for now. Are you almost done with my computer?”
“Yes.” I work as efficiently as I can to finish up the job and get out of Jasper’s face. He stands as I do and offers me his hand again.
“I appreciate your reassurances.”
I nod and hold his hand firmly in mine. “Jasper, you’re a good man. And so am I. I promise, I am taking the utmost care with Bella.”
He hears me, and I release him.
The meeting wizard grid has been staring at me for the last ten minutes. Rationally, I knew this was coming. Emotionally? It didn’t strike me until Jessica forwarded me the results. I have to go out of town in two weeks. My thumb and index finger play at the surface of my bracelet.
You may be enough to get me through the work day, my pretty little bauble, but how am I going to manage three nights away from my Edward and my Master?
Succumbing to the inevitable, I buzz my assistant. “Jessica, please schedule the meeting with Mr. Slade for the 17th and 18th and make the travel arrangements for the team. We’ll need to fly into Sea-Tac on the 16th and head home the morning of the 19th. JetBlue has an easy non-stop flight and you’ll find all the frequent flier numbers and hotel contact info in the Warwick travel folder.”
A feeling of gloom settles over me. I’m not eager to share this news with Edward.
Edward. God I feel ridiculous for missing him so much. I can’t recall ever feeling this way about…anyone else, even at the very beginning. Who am I kidding? There is no experience to be compared to Edward.
I’m weak. I know he’s busy today, and I shouldn’t disturb him, but maybe…if I appeal to him through the one sure fire avenue—that bottomless pit of a stomach…
E- Ready for spaghetti, Eddie?
UGH! Only YOU could get away with calling me that today! And only because it rhymes. Yes, ready.
Touchy subject? *giggles* Meet in lobby in 10?
How ‘bout 8?