Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Cocky and the Cougar, Chapter Four - The Magic of the Hair Comb

Chapter 4 ~ The Magic of the Hair Comb
When I woke up on Monday morning, I knew I was in deep trouble.
There was no other way to describe it—I was giddy. I was downright joyful with excitement over the prospect of seeing Edward at work for the first time. I could not wipe the insipid grin off of my face.
I was pathetic.
I had woken on Sunday feeling excited, but also worried and stressed out. I spent a good deal of the morning within the confines of my closet, trying to decide on what to wear to work the following day. I wanted Edward to notice me, but we also had our Monday morning Director's meeting and I had no desire to again dodge the leering looks of Jack, our Traffic Director. I needed to look professional, but alluring.
In a near-panic, I called Alice over for her opinion and her moral support. Bless her heart, she also brought champagne and orange juice so we could have Mimosas. Of course, in exchange, I got quite an earful about Jasper and how wonderful he is and how smart he is and how sexy his lips are and how he makes her feel beautiful when he touches her face and how he is not just a graphic artist, but he sculpts as well and I should see his work because it is breathtaking and did I know he’s in line for a promotion, even though he isn't even sure he wants the new position?
Apparently, they had seen a lot of each other since Friday night.
In the end, we settled on a grey, knee-length pencil skirt that was deceivingly modest, but hugged my every curve. I topped it with an equally supposedly modest, light sweater in a dusty blue. Its sweetheart neckline was edged with embroidered flowers and while it didn't exactly show any cleavage, it showed a hint of what was just below. It teased. The whole outfit teased. When I added a pair of patent leather peep-toe pumps with a bow sitting at the back heel, I ended up looking something like a sexed-up version of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.
I spent a good deal longer on my hair and make-up than usual Monday morning, but since I'd awoken long before my first alarm went off for the morning, I had plenty of time to worry over every dark curl and every eyelash. I topped off my look by sweeping the left side of my hair back with my lucky hair comb. It was silver with blue stones set in the form of a small iris. My father Charlie had given it to my mother when they were dating. She left it behind when she left him all of those years ago. I found it buried in his dresser when I was eight and snooping and I took it. Initially, I kept it hidden in a special box I kept in my closet for just such contraband and other illicit or otherwise personal items of great importance. I would pull it out when I was alone in my room and put the comb in my hair, looking at my glamorous self in the mirror. I would imagine my equally glamorous (in my mind at the time, anyway) mother wearing it to parties and balls, Charlie dancing with her like Prince Charming.
One day, when I was about twelve, I was looking through old photographs while sitting in the kitchen, keeping my father company while he cleaned his hunting rifle. I came across a photo of my mother and father, taken when they were young and still dating. In the picture, she wore the comb in her hair. She looked exactly like a slightly older version of me.
I asked my father about the picture and he told me where it was taken and when—at the graduation party for their friend. Charlie was nineteen, my mother seventeen. Which meant the picture was taken the year I was born.
Charlie was not a man who talked a lot and he was certainly not one to offer up information, thoughts or opinions unprovoked. I was therefore quite surprised when, out of the blue, he said, "That comb in her hair. I bought that for her birthday that year. I always thought the blue looked pretty in her dark hair." He gave me a look, but I could not decipher his expression. "It would look nice in yours, too. You should wear it." He gathered up his cleaning supplies and put them back in the box he used to store them. "In public," he clarified, pointedly, and he picked up his clean rifle and went upstairs to put it away until his hunting trip the following day. 
I started wearing the hair comb in public.
When I was a child and wearing the comb only within the privacy of my bedroom, I imagined it as a symbol of who my mother Renee was. In my mind, she was a beautiful and talented woman whose brilliance could not be confined by the small town, the small life, of Forks, Washington. And so, though it tore her up to do it, she had to leave the husband and child she loved more than anything. She was a bright star and she needed to be allowed the chance to shine. The comb was left behind as a sort of remembrance of her beauty and spark.
In reality, Renee was beautiful and she was brilliant and she did always want to get out of Forks, Washington. When she met Charlie Swan, she thought him a sexy and sweet, but ultimately harmless, diversion from her plan to escape. He would keep her entertained until she graduated from high school and moved away—first to college, then on to some glamorous career, likely in Chicago or New York.
For Charlie, it was a different story. He fell for Renee the day she walked into homeroom at Forks High and he fell hard. It was obvious she was too good for him. He was nothing special. He was quiet and reserved and enjoyed the simple amusements of hunting and fishing with his father or his friends over on the Quileute Reservation. He was popular because he played baseball and football and people in town placed an unwarranted level of importance on sports. Soon, all of that would mean nothing. He would just be an ordinary young man, going to the Sheriff Academy and hoping he can get a job with the local force when he graduates. Until that was possible, he worked part-time at the hardware store. 
Charlie had no desire or plan to ever leave Forks, Washington. He liked it there. He felt comfortable there. It was his home. The people of Forks were his people.
He knew Renee didn't really like Forks, or small town life in general. She was too big, her spark too bright even for the town they lived in. He thought, though, that with enough love she would come to see that the life he’d chosen was quiet, but it had meaning. He thought she would see that he could make her happy.
When he saw the blue iris comb in an antique store in Port Angeles, he knew he had to get it for her even though it meant spending every last dime he'd saved up to that point. It was worth it. Renee was worth it. He knew the color of the blue stones would be set off by the darkness of Renee's almost-black hair. More than that though, the comb shone and sparkled. It was made of simple, strong materials that when put together made a thing of great and graceful beauty. It was timeless. It reminded him of Renee for all of those reasons.
He said these things to Renee, in his awkward, stumbling way, as he gave her the birthday gift. She seemed genuinely moved and she touched his face, tears in her eyes. As they made love that night, she cried. He was mystified as he kissed the tears from her cheeks.
Six months later, she was pregnant and they were moving into his parent's basement. Charlie loved Renee. He swore to her they would be moved out of the basement before the baby was a year old. He tried to convince her that they could build a happy life together. It would be built on their love for each other.
In just under a year in fact, Charlie had graduated from the Sheriff Academy and, an infant in tow, they moved into a one-bedroom apartment in town. Renee took a waitressing job at the coffee shop, since Charlie was just starting out and didn’t make much money. She would come home and soak her feet in Epsom salts, watching the ever-present rain that fell outside her living room window, and Charlie would try to convince her that it was all temporary; that things would get better as he got some experience under his belt and that with the love they had for each other, all things were possible.
Three years later, they moved into the small, two-bedroom, split-level house outside of town that Charlie purchased after his appointment as Deputy Sheriff. As toddler Isabella sat in the front yard and Charlie held Renee in his arms, watching her, he whispered words of love into her ear. He thanked her for being patient, for waiting through the rough years, and told her they could breath a little easier. He talked about possibly having another baby. And again he did not understand why he was kissing tears away from her cheeks.
Not a year later, Renee was gone. She left a brief note on the kitchen table and she took nothing but the clothes on her back, the extra carton of cigarettes from their kitchen cupboard and $700 out of their savings account. Charlie never understood why she only took $700. If she'd asked, he would have given her everything he had. He certainly would have preferred she'd taken the comb. He would have preferred her to want to take it.
By the time I started wearing the comb — in public — I knew that my mother was not the glamorous beauty who I’d imagined was just too good for Forks. I began to see her instead as a cold-hearted bitch who deserted a wonderful man and an innocent child to feed her own selfishness. Since no one had seen or heard from her since, no one knew if what she ended up with was worth the pain she left behind.
Charlie was certainly not flashy or exciting. He lived a simple life as Sheriff of a small town. During the day, he handled domestic quarrels, he handed out traffic tickets, he arrested the occasional drunk. At night, he ate dinner with me and watched baseball games while I did my homework. On the weekends, he went fishing and drank beer with the same friends he'd been doing that with since the beer was root beer. Every Thursday evening he had a steak dinner at the cafe’ in town and I would cringe as he flirted with Sondra, the waitress, but nothing ever went any farther than flirting. His life was constant. It was routine. You could set your watch by his actions.
Not at all flashy or exciting.
But, although like my mother I found Forks to be entirely too boring and wet to tolerate and I constantly looked for ways to make life entertaining while growing up, I did not think my father was boring. Quite the contrary.
While a man of few words, the ones he chose were worth listening to. He was thoughtful, insightful and smart and, if you paid attention through his dry, deadpan delivery, quite witty. He was interested in a great many things, literature being the subject he and I had chiefly in common. While Charlie's tastes ran more toward London and Hemingway and mine toward Austen and the Bronte sisters, we still found ourselves embroiled in many a long discussion about the merits of this writer versus that one or how and why we each loved a particular book.
I discovered that he used to write, as a young man, and he shared with me those of his writings he had saved—including a stack of the most beautifully written love letters I had ever read, written from him to Renee, of course. It troubled me a bit that he had saved them, especially when she could not have been bothered, but reading them gave me an insight into my father I don't think many of us ever get a glimpse of. The letters were especially enlightening in contrast to his other writing, which leaned toward Science Fiction subject matter. While I felt a bit invasive seeing that side of him, it was beautiful.
Charlie was a good man. A very good man. He could be counted on to help out anyone and everyone in town knew it (and took advantage of it). He was honest and straightforward and he expected everyone to adhere to the same set of rules, no matter the circumstance. He was a loving, if not overly affectionate, father. I watched as he gave quiet, unspoken but constant support to his friend Billy throughout the illness and eventual death of his wife. I listened as our phone rang at 3:00am and he ran out of the house to make sure Jeffrey Taylor didn't kill his ex-wife now that he'd gotten out of jail and apparently landed on her doorstep. I'd cried on his extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable shoulder when John Vitale broke my heart at prom during my senior year and thought it extremely suspicious when John showed up at my doorstep two days later, looking nervous and glancing constantly over my shoulder, to apologize for hurting my feelings.
In my mind, Renee didn't deserve him. She didn't even deserve the hair comb he had so lovingly bought for her and she had so carelessly tossed aside. I began telling people that Charlie had bought it for me, that I was the thing of graceful and timeless beauty he had thought of when he saw it in the antique store.
Not only was it lovely and a sentimental piece, but the hair comb had brought me luck. I was wearing it the day I met Jacob and the night he proposed to me (which, until recent years, I had thought was a good thing). I was wearing it during all three job interviews that netted me the positions most important to my career. I was wearing it that night in 1991 when I got back stage at the U2 concert. The night I developed my passionate obsession with rock and roll drummers.
Larry Mullen is simply a god and don't let anyone ever say anything different.
I smiled as I patted the comb into place on my head, made one final check in the mirror to make sure everything was in order and made my way out of the dressing room and toward my Monday.
My hand shook slightly as I poured hot water over a tea bag in my cup. Internally, I chastised myself for not eating anything that morning. I knew better than to deprive my body of food, especially in the morning, but I had been too keyed up to eat anything. I looked at the donuts sitting on a plate in front of me and my stomach turned at the prospect.
It was 9:00 and I had yet to see hide or hair of Edward. I had been expecting somebody from Human Resources or maybe even the VP of Sales to bring him to my office and "introduce" him, as was the usual course of events when Con-Vert hired a new executive. So far, nothing. I realized he was most likely stuck in employee orientation with HR (the ladies in that department loved to drag everything out for an interminable period of time), but that didn't keep me from getting more and more nervous as the ninety minutes since I had arrived clicked away.
I was irritated, as well. There was absolutely no reason to be so nervous and excited and yet, there I was. Over a new coworker. Over someone who was eleven years younger than I.
And quite possibly the best kisser of all time, but that was entirely beside the point.
It was ridiculous, really. I was a strong, smart, self-assured woman of thirty-eight, not some fifteen year-old school kid with knobby knees and braces. Why was this young man making me feel so nervous and awkward and ... giddy?
I began to wonder how much trouble I would get in if I were caught sneaking a cocktail before the Director's Meeting when he walked into the conference room. To be more accurate, I should say he swaggered in.
I watched as he moved through the room, stopping to shake hands with a couple of the other department heads. A cocky and slightly crooked grin I already knew well never left his face. His hair was disheveled in a way that almost looked intentional. He wore an obviously expensive dress shirt and jacket with a long, skinny, plain black tie. He was clean-shaven.
And he looked delicious.
After a moment, his eyes met mine and his grin widened. I couldn't help but smile in return and I really hoped that wasn't an actual blush I felt coming over my face. Edward made a beeline for me and as he approached the wet bar where I stood getting my tea, I dropped my gaze.
"Bella," he said, still smiling brightly. "Although, I understand now that it's actually Isabella."
I looked to his face and was momentarily struck dumb. He smiled down at me and all I could think about what how his lips felt against mine and the heat of his fingers at the flesh on my lower back. My own fingers tingled with the memory of his pounding heart beneath them. I grasped my cup of tea in an effort not to reach up and run a finger along his smooth cheek and jaw. And then I really was blushing, beyond a doubt. I watched a smirk come over his face.
I cleared my throat and looked down to my tea, irritated again that I allowed this man to have such a ludicrous effect on me. "It's Bella." The sound of my voice emboldened me and I raised my eyes to meet his gaze. "I prefer Bella."
"As do I." There was a glint in his eye I wasn't expecting and I was again thrown off center. I watched as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"So have we been keeping you busy on your first day?" I asked, wondering just why my first words to him of the day had to be so incredibly lame.
"Well, I just spent two hours with our lovely Human Resources department."
"Ooh, lucky you." I replied. "You got off easy, though. When I started, my orientation was four hours long."
He raised his eyebrows at me and I nodded. 
"No joke. Four hours."
"Well, t was worth it," he said as he stirred sugar into his coffee (two sugars, to be exact. No cream). “I have your cell phone number now.”
I was startled. "Wha-? Huh?"
He laughed, softly. "I have everyone's. HR gave me a list of everyone's cell phone numbers."
"Oh ... well, yes. Of course." I smiled, embarrassed and feeling like a total geek. Of course they had given him my cell number. The phone was company-owned and paid for. My number was distributed throughout the company and frequently used. Sometimes at very annoying hours.
"Yes, and now I'm here." Edward looked down at my hands as we naturally moved away from the wet bar. "No donut for you?" he asked.
"Oh no," I said, wrinkling my nose. "I can't eat that stuff. Pure fat." 
His eyes briefly scanned my body, but he caught himself quickly and met my eyes. I couldn't help but grin knowingly, anyway. I felt a little less like a geek.
"Well," he said, a cocky grin quickly returning to his face. "You could always do what I do. Just eat whatever you want and work it off later."
As he pulled out a seat for me at the large conference table, I looked up at him and sank down into the chair. 
"Mr. Masen, there are not enough hours in the day to work off the calories I would consume if I ate everything I wanted to eat."
His eyes sparkled at me and, as I glanced around the room, I was happy to note that there were still several conversations going on around us. We were far removed from most of the others and no one seemed to be taking note of our interaction.
"Nah," he almost-whispered. "You're not doing the right exercises. There are ways to work off a lot of calories." His eyes looked into mine, a teasing spark in them that left me flustered yet again. "And you'd even have fun doing it."
I almost couldn't speak. I couldn't believe the nerve of the guy, flirting with me so openly in front of our coworkers. I quickly glanced around us again and, seeing that nobody was yet paying us any attention, I replied. "I enjoy a good workout, actually."
He raised his eyebrows. "I figured you did."
He didn't even try to hide his gaze at my figure this time and his eyes wandered over me. By the time they returned to meet mine, I was convinced the blush would never leave my cheeks. 
"I can tell," he said.
I dropped my eyes as I tried to recover myself. "I do. I enjoy it so much that I try to work out every day." I raised my eyes to his. "Sometimes, I'll work out a little in the morning and then work out a little when I get home at night."
He grinned widely and started to say something, but he was interrupted. Carlisle Cullen, Con-Vert's principal shareholder and Chief Executive Officer, was standing behind our chairs, his hands in his pockets. His grin was almost as wide as Edward's.
"Edward," Carlisle said, clasping a hand on the man’s shoulder. "I see you've met Bella Swan, our brilliant Credit Director."
He rose and looked Carlisle in the eye. "Is that how her title reads on her business cards?"
"Um, hello," I said from my seat. "I'm sitting right here."
Carlisle chuckled. "Well, if it doesn't say so on her business cards, it should. She has saved this company a lot of money. Ask her about it. She loves to tell people."
"Oh, ha-ha," I muttered. Hey, facts are facts and the fact was I was damn good at my job and I had saved the company a lot of money. People just needed to be reminded of that occasionally.
Carlisle laughed and again clasped his hand on Edward's shoulder. "You'll want to stay on her good side though," he said. "Trust me on that one."
"Um, again, she is sitting right here," I said, agitated. "You can talk to me, not about me. And besides, what the hell do you know about being on my bad side, Carlisle?"
He looked down at me and again patted Edward on the shoulder, chuckling. "Just take my word for it, Edward. Play nice."
Edward chuckled as well as he took his seat and Carlisle moved to his chair at the head of the conference table. I watched as the other Directors took seats around the table, some pocketing their Blackberries, some putting them on the table in front of them. 
"Well, that was ... enlightening," Edward whispered so that only I could hear him, amusement still evident in his voice.
"Shut up," I muttered.
The meeting started with Carlisle's "Good morning," and a request for everyone to put their phones on vibrate. The first order of business was to introduce Edward to the room.
"Edward moved out here from Chicago for us and we are very lucky to have him on board."
"Well," Edward interjected. "I hate to break it to you, Carlisle, but I really moved out here for the weather. The job is just a bonus."
The bulk of the meeting was filled with the same boring bullshit as always, the same nonsense and hyperbole being forced through the lips of my coworkers, all trying to make themselves and their departments look as good as possible under the expectant scrutiny of Carlisle. Carlisle was a great guy and I had nothing but respect, admiration and affection for the man. But he was a tough task master and he expected things to be done correctly. And profitably.
Which is what led to my rather vocal participation in the meeting.
One of my main duties over the past several months was to figure out why Con-Vert was being charged an exorbitant amount of money in noncompliance charges. These were charges leveled against the company by customers of ours, because we failed to adhere to one or another of the stipulations in our contract with them or for some reason our performance was sub-par. Our customers were some of the largest retailers in the world and they had many stipulations before they would agree to buy product from us, as opposed to a different electronics distributor. I went over each contract and often entered into weeks of negotiations before I signed off on them. There was nothing in any contract that Con-Vert was not prepared for and able to deliver.
When Con-Vert was assessed noncompliance fees, they hit the credit department first, since they were deducted from payments to us and therefore sat on the customer's Accounts Receivable balance until resolved. It therefore made sense for me to spearhead the investigation of these charges, be sure they were legitimate, and work with other departments to resolve whatever issue had caused the charge.
Over the past few months, I had worked with almost every department head. We'd instigated process changes or the training necessary to stem the tide of constant fees and had already seen positive results from the work we'd done. In all but one department, that is.
Jack Berber was the Director of Traffic and the bane of my existence. A bully to most, incredibly sexist and just a plain ol' pig most of the time, he and I had butted heads more than once in the years I'd been at Con-Vert. He was constantly either looking down my blouse or making one of my team-members uncomfortable with his quick temper and ranting and raving. He'd made more than one of them cry in the last year and I often wondered who he had pictures of in a compromising position because there was no way the guy should have had a job at Con-Vert. Granted, my field was credit and not transportation, but I could not see that he was very good at his job and he left Con-Vert wide open for a harassment lawsuit—sexual or otherwise.
I will admit I had a strong dislike for the man to begin with. Therefore, when he dodged my every effort to work with him on the noncompliance charges stemming from his department, the heat under that hatred had turned up several notches and I was left almost at a boil.
I outlined for Carlisle the progress we had made with other departments before I turned to Jack’s.
"The only department we still have to work on is Traffic," I said. "In the second quarter of this year, we paid out $130k in fees stemming from that area. So far this quarter it's been $95k and we're not done."
Carlisle and I both looked at Jack, waiting for him to respond. When he did not, I continued.
"Most of them are from four customers: ComputerZ One, Mike's, Reliable Comp and Sugar Daddy's. There are others, of course, but they just trickle in. We get charges from these four almost weekly. They are usually related to delivery times. I don't know if it's because of how we are entering the orders or how we're scheduling their deliveries."
Carlisle looked at me. "Why don't you know? You've been working on this for months."
He already knew the answer. We had discussed it, in private. He wanted it out in the open, in front of everyone and on the official record. I think he hoped that public embarrassment might work wonders where my previous attempts had failed.
"Well," I replied. "I have done all that I can, really. I need Jack's help to dig any deeper."
Both Carlisle and I looked again to Jack. He had a sour look on his face, but at least he responded this time.
"First of all, a lot of these charges are bogus and we should charge them back. CompterZ One, for example. Have you not learned by now that they use these fees as a source of income?"
"Well," I replied, trying not to start fuming so early in our conversation. It seemed every word out of the man's mouth drove me to extreme anger. "I'm happy to note that you actually pay attention when I speak, Jack, since those are the exact words I used to describe the situation with them three weeks ago in this very room. The problem is, in order for me to charge them back, I need proof that we are in the right. Get me the proof. I am more than happy to get our money back."
"I thought it was your job to research these things. I have a lot to do, you know."
"And it is. But I have to work with other department heads to see if we are in the right or not and, if not, what we need to change to put a halt to the fees. If you leave it up to me, all I am going to do is research it, figure out which department was at fault and issue a credit, hitting that department. Are you okay with that?"
"Of course not."
"Then I need your help. I don't work in Traffic, Jack. I do not have access to the same information that you do."
"You want access? I'll give you access." I heard a few chuckles around the table.
I really think I deserved a round of applause for not jumping over the table and shoving my fine point pen in his eye.
Carlisle spoke up then, obviously growing impatient and I don't blame him. We'd had this or a similar conversation at that table more than a few times. "Jack, Bella - knock it off. You know what you need to do here. I don't understand why it's not getting done."
"Well, I don't understand why these things are automatically Traffic issues,” Jack said. “The stupid computer system doesn't work right. The scheduling is always off." 
"I don't think I said it was always a Traffic issue," I replied, tersely. "I honestly don't know, yet. That's why I need your help." I shrugged in mock casualness. "We can't fix what we don't know is broken. If we find it's a system issue, I will charge IT for the fees and you can work with them to get it fixed. If it's all due to human error, figure out where the holes are in our training and get that fixed."
"Well, yeah," he said. "I assume this is because those stupid girls in Customer Ops can't enter the orders correctly. They've been messing things up since the computer conversion."
I simply looked at him, blankly, content to let him dig himself in deeper. He was his own worst enemy. If I wasn't so disgusted by him, it would be extremely comical to watch.
"Listen, missy..." 
He didn't continue. At hearing the condescending term "missy" fall from his mouth, my back stiffened and I raised one eyebrow at him. The room became eerily quiet and some at the meeting appeared to shift in their seats. Several picked up their phones and pretended to have something urgent to attend to, all of a sudden.
Jack cleared his throat and continued. "Look, you obviously know nothing about what I do. Perhaps you should come spend a day with me and I could show you just why we're getting so many charges against the traffic department."
I continued to stare the man down and was quite pleased when he finally looked down to the pad of paper in front of him and fidgeted with the pen in his hand.
The condescending tone of my voice was noticeable. "I would be pleased to do so, Jack, as I have offered to do several times over the past few months. There's no need to get defensive." When I said that, I thought he was going to break his pen in two. "You're right. I know little about what you do. I would love for you to show me what you, exactly, know about what you're doing and justify to me why there is no way for this company to rectify losing a hundred thousand dollars every quarter. Again—I have been asking you to do that for months."
Jack cleared his throat again and shifted in his seat. He started to speak again, but Carlisle interrupted him. 
"Okay, enough of this. I already know which of you two has the bigger penis, so let's cut the crap and get to the real issue." 
There were plenty of chuckles around the room at Carlisle's comment, but none of them came from me. Nor from Jack, who was still looking down at his pad of paper, while I continued to stare him down.
Carlisle continued. "Jack, Bella is right. We never lost this kind of money before and a simple change in our computer system should not be justification for you continuing to lose this company so much money. If you really think there is no way around the charges, justify that to Bella. If that's truly the case we're going to have to raise our freight rates." Several people in the room started grumbling and Carlisle held up a hand. "Obviously, none of us want that as it will be a detriment to sales. Therefore, I expect the two of you to put your heads together this week and come up with a plan by our next meeting." Jack began to protest and Carlisle again held up his hand to stop him. "Jack, you have had months to work this out with her. Get to it already."
That was when I saw my phone vibrating. I snatched it from where I had left it alongside my notebook. I tried not to use my phone during meetings and everyone in my department knew not to interrupt my meetings unless it was an emergency. 
I had a text from an unknown number.
Damn, Carlisle was right.
I had no idea what the text was about and so chose to ignore it. Moments later, I received a second text from the same number.
It really is not good to get on your bad side is it?
My lips thinned in a I-am-too-pissed-to-actually-have-a-sense-of-humor-at-this-moment smile and I looked over at Edward, understanding that he was the one who sent me the texts. He had a knowing smirk on his face.
The meeting eventually came to its inevitable end and Jack was the first one out of the room. I gathered my things and started to rise to leave as well when I felt Edward pulling out my chair.
"Thanks," I said, looking up at him.
"Oh no," he replied. "Thank you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, that would have been an extremely boring meeting if not for the little fireworks you instigated."
I gave him a look. "Gee, thanks ... for the record, I instigated nothing. I don't start off being pissy, but after you dodge your job duties for a few months, you might find me a trifle ... testy."
"That's one way of putting it." Edward chuckled. 
I looked at him, trying to read his face. I honestly saw nothing wrong in what I'd said during the meeting. It was all true and I was completely in the right. 
"Carlisle's 'bigger penis' comment didn't bother you?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Nah. I love Carlisle. Besides, I already know Jack has a bigger penis. But that's okay, because I have bigger balls."
Edward laughed loud enough that the few other people who remained in the room looked over at us.
"So listen," I continued. "After you get settled in, I'd like it if you would come down to my department."
"Oh really?" He raised his eyebrows in animated interest.
I rolled my eyes as we walked out the door and into the hallway. "Put it back in your pants young man, this is for training purposes."
"Training purposes?"
"Well, I assume you'd like to know the process for opening new accounts. Plus, I'd like to show you around the system a bit, so you can figure out what customers are on credit hold and read our notes on accounts and stuff."
"Makes sense," he said. We stopped at the top of the stairs. I needed to go down, toward my department and my office. Edward's office was on the second floor of our three story building. 
"How about this afternoon?” he asked. “After lunch?"
"Cool," I said with a smile, and headed down.
I didn't get far before he started speaking to me again. "Speaking of lunch..."
I smiled and looked up at him. "I think you will find that you're busy for lunch, Edward."
"What do you mean?"
I shrugged. "Carlisle will take you out, most likely. It's your first day, that's what he does. Unless you've managed to piss him off already, of course."
He chuckled. "Unlike somebody I know, I don't piss people off."
I laughed as I continued down the stairs. "You forget—I already know that's not true."
I walked through the department when I got back downstairs and chatted with the members of my team, discovering what fires needed to be put out. There were few, which was a relief. I filled my tea cup with water before returning to my office, where I found James sitting at the small conference table therein.
I paused at my door and he looked up at me.
"Well, gee, James. Come on in and make yourself at home." I walked to my desk.
"I knew you'd be back any minute."
I dropped my pad of paper and other items on my desk and sat down. I gave James a halfhearted smile. Between waking early, continual thoughts of Edward's lips and hands and fighting with my favorite person, I was already fairly worn out. And it was not even eleven o'clock.
"What can I do for you James?"
"Ah, that's not really the question." He stood and walked toward my desk. "The question is what can I do for you?"
I had my eyes on my email and so only gave him a glance. I was really not in the mood for him. "Do you really think I am going to ask you to expand on that, James?"
"You should." He grinned.
I sighed in exasperation. "James. I don't want to be rude, here, but I just got out of a meeting and I need to get to work. Do you have a work related reason for being here?"
He put his hands in his pockets. "The work related reason for my being here is to tell you that your budget is due at the end of the week."
"Well, thank God you didn't send me an email to say that. What a waste of finger energy that would have been."
He looked taken aback and I almost felt bad for the way I was speaking to him. It wasn't his fault I didn't want to play his games anymore.
"Well," he said, almost sheepishly. "I always find that personal communication is far more valuable ... besides," he leaned toward me, his hands on my desk in front of him. "I saw you walk in this morning and I wanted to tell you that you look particularly lovely today. I didn't know that I should say that in an email."
I leaned back in my chair. "James..."
"I love that comb in your hair."
I smiled in spite of myself. "Thank you. It was a gift from Charlie. From my father." I was so used to calling my parents by their first names, I often forgot not to do so when speaking about them to others.
"Have a drink with me tonight?"
I sighed. Apparently, I couldn't smile at the man anymore, without it seeming an invitation. "You already know my answer."
"How would I know when I hadn't asked?"
"My answer is no, James. And you need to stop asking."
He started to respond but a throat cleared at the door to my office and he instead straightened his posture. We both looked toward my door and Edward stood there, fingers at his lips, watching us. I didn't know him well enough to read the expression on his face, but his eyes were dark and he looked almost ... angry?
"I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, but he moved slowly into the room anyway.
"You're not interrupting," I said, looking at James. "We're done here, yes?"
"Yes," James smirked. "Budget on Friday."
"Aye-aye, sir," I said.
James paused as he met Edward in the middle of the room and reached out his hand. "I'm James. Cost Accountant."
Edward shook his hand, but the dark look had not left his eyes. "Nice to meet you. Edward Masen."
"Ah, our new Director of Sales, eh? I hear you're from Chicago."
Edward raised his eyebrows. "Word travels fast around here."
James grinned. "This may be a large company, but you will find it is filled with gossip. Much like high school."
I sighed again. "James?" He turned to look at me. "Get the hell out of my office, please."
"Well.” He chuckled. “So long as you said 'please'."
Edward watched as James left before he turned and walked slowly toward my desk. "You sure I didn’t interrupt?"
I shook my head. "Not at all. In fact, I'm happy to see you."
He smiled, his eyebrows raised. The man had the most animated face I'd ever seen. It made me smile. 
"Really? Well, I'm happy to see you, as well."
I rolled my eyes yet again. "What I meant was, I was happy to get James out of my office. You provided the means to politely do so."
He laughed. "Telling him to get the hell out of your office was polite?"
"Hey, I said 'please'." I had to grin, though. "What can I say? I started out being polite ... Anyway, I know you haven't had lunch yet, so what brings you downstairs so early?"
He sat in one of the chairs in front of my desk. "I came to tell you that I can't meet with you this afternoon, after all. Can we do it tomorrow instead?"
"Does nobody believe in email anymore?"
"Excuse me?"
"Nothing. When do you want to get together then?" I looked at the Outlook calendar on my computer.
"Tomorrow morning. Does that work for you?"
"Sure, if it's before ten. Can you send me a meeting request?"
He nodded, but continued looking at me. The darkness was not quite gone from his eyes.
"Something else?" I asked.
"What was that about before?" 
His fingers went back to his lips, lightly tapping them, his thumb resting along his jaw. I had to swallow. The guy had to know what he was doing to me.
"What do you mean?"
"With you and James. That wasn't all business."
I raised an eyebrow at him. "No?"
The look in Edward's eyes darkened further and my pulse pounded in my temples in response. He really did look angry. Was it wrong that I also found him inordinately sexy?
"No," was all he said.
"Well, not that it's any of your business, of course, but James asked me out for a drink tonight."
"Oh really?"
I nodded, but did not expound further. I was convinced that what I saw in Edward's eyes was jealousy and while I thought it completely inappropriate for him to be acting so territorial after one unexpected dinner and a few parking lot kisses, I also rather enjoyed it. I pretended to check my emails, but I was seeing nothing on the screen on front of me.
I looked over at him.
"Are you still free for drinks tonight?"
I looked back at my computer screen and tried to hide the fact that his question excited me. "I am, yes."
He said nothing and when I looked back to him, he was grinning again, his fingers now dropped from his face. I smiled.
At that, Edward rose out of his seat and moved toward the door. "Okay, then. So I'll see you tomorrow morning." He turned to grin at me one last time before he exited my office.


  1. delicious sexy the end, I meant. with Edward, I meant! James is still a pig....Bella is a more than able bodies business woman, yet is still trivialized by some. An old this story!