Chapter 9 ~ The Fallout
I woke up late on Monday. Edward had stayed at my house fairly late Sunday. Throughout the day, we laughed a lot, we napped together, we watched Millers Crossing. We even read books while lounging on the sofa together. After arguing for half an hour about the adverse health effects of bacon, I made him a TLT—turkey, lettuce and tomato sandwich—which he reluctantly admitted was one of the best sandwiches he'd ever had (although he called it a "sammich"). It was one of the best Sundays I'd had in a very long time. Of course, the intermittent make-out sessions didn't hurt at all.
I was still apprehensive about work on Monday, though, and didn't get there until after 8:00, which was late for me. I felt rushed and frazzled and I walked around feeling as if I had two different shoes on or had forgotten my underwear. I was already dreading what might await me as the day progressed and seeing James standing in my doorway at 8:15 didn't help matters much.
I tried to be polite. "Good morning, James. How was your weekend?"
He walked in and closed my door and my hackles went up immediately. I noticed then that he looked pissed.
"Maybe I should ask you that question." He stood in front of my desk, his hands on the back of the chair there.
I gave up any pretense of politeness and rolled my eyes at him. "James, what's going on?" I thought I knew what was coming, but as it happened, I had no idea.
He crossed his arms in front of his chest. "I heard some rather interesting news this morning."
"Gee, let me guess." I sat back in my chair and sighed.
He ignored me and continued. "I heard you had a really good time at that party Friday night. In fact, I heard you were basically making out in the middle of the street with Edward Masen."
"Yes, well. Good news travels fast around here."
"So it's true?" He glared at me.
I didn't answer for a moment. I was seething. I could feel heat under the skin of my cheeks and my heart was pounding. When I felt I could speak without screaming, I did so. "What it is, James, is none of your business."
He huffed. "I thought you didn't shit where you eat."
I stood up and addressed him over my desk. "And I thought you were smart enough to take a hint."
"What about what I told you the other day?" He flailed his arms and spoke loudly.
I almost lost it then. It was all I could do to control the volume of my voice. "Yes, what about that James? You want to think again about what you heard and then tell me about it?"
He didn't say anything at first, but his face was as red as mine felt. When he did speak, his voice was eerily calm and it gave me chills. "I thought you were better than this, Bella. I thought you were better than ... him. You know he just wants to fuck you so he can say he melted the ice queen. He's just using you to get what he wants around here."
"For someone who didn't even know his name a week ago, you certainly seem to know a lot about him."
I started to walk toward the door, but he grabbed my arm as I walked by him, so tightly that it actually hurt. I gasped.
"And you know nothing." His teeth were clenched as he spoke.
Blood pounded in my temples as I looked at his angry face, then down at his hand on my arm. He loosened his grip and I yanked my arm away.
"You're lucky I'm not having your ass run out of here this second, James. If you ever do something like that again you won't be so lucky." I was on the verge of tears, but I took a deep breath and steeled myself. "How dare you come into my office and act like you have any right to address me this way? I have news for you, James. I can see whomever I wish. I can date whomever I wish. I can make out in the middle of the street with whomever I want and I can fuck whomever I want. And I've got more news for you, my friend," I almost spat the word at him. "You are never going to be the person I choose to do any of those things with."
I turned and opened the door and came face-to-face with Jasper. He smiled at me.
"Hey, Bella." He blinked when he noticed James standing behind me and his smile faltered. His eyes darted between the two of us.
"Hi Jasper." I held up one finger. "Wait right there for a second. Don't move." I turned back to James. "James, you are never to come back into this office again, unless you're accompanied by another employee. And if you feel the need to address any subject matter that even approaches what you came here to talk about today, we will do so in the Human Resources office. Do I make myself clear?"
He stood for a moment before walking toward me, a sneer on his face. "Crystal."
"Good." I said. "Now please leave."
James strode by me, anger radiating off of him in waves.
Jasper watched as James walked away from my office and then looked at me, concern written across his face. One of my hands went to my mouth and my eyes went wide. It took all I had not to burst into tears. He moved into my office, effectively pushing me ahead of him, and closed the door behind him.
"Bella? Are you okay?"
I looked at the floor, not wanting him to see me upset. His hands lightly gripped my upper arms and I immediately felt slightly calmer; comforted.
I put one of my hands over his on my arm and took a deep breath, smiling slightly at the ground before I looked up into his concerned face. "I'm very glad you're here, Jasper."
"What was that about?" he asked, removing his hands.
I sighed and walked toward my desk as he followed. "Well, it seems James heard about Edward and me and didn't really approve." His eyebrows were raised when I looked at him and I explained. "He has a little crush."
Jasper nodded and sat down. "Well, I hate to tell you this, but James is not the only one who heard about you and Edward."
I sighed again and sunk into my chair. "I assumed that would be the case."
"It's kind of all over. If the marketing department hears about it, it's pretty big news." He was trying not to grin.
"What the hell?" I asked, my hands in the air. "Why does anybody care that Edward and I kissed?"
"Well..." He shifted in his seat.
"I know." I sighed again and thought I might well be headed toward hyperventilation. "I know. It's because it's me."
"Well, yeah. I mean, you do have sort of a reputation as all-business-all-the-time, you know?"
I chuckled, cynically. "People are surprised that I'm actually human under here? That I sometimes like to kiss cute boys?"
"I guess." He shrugged and looked at me sympathetically. "People are stupid, Bella. And this place is very much like high school."
I crossed my arms on my desk and lay my head down on top of them. "Can I just go home now?"
"Well, you have my permission." He chuckled.
"I'm sorry.” I raised my head and looked up at him. “You came down here for a reason."
"Well, yes, but before we get to that—you okay with what happened with James? You were really upset."
"You're very sweet, Jazz. I'm okay." I smiled as I paused. "I mean ... I will be. I don't know. There's something off about that guy. I think I made a huge mistake there."
He raised his eyebrows again and I hurriedly waved my hand. "Not that kind of mistake. But ... I mean, I knew he had a thing for me and I ... well, I didn't exactly discourage it for a while. Who knew the guy was gonna flip his nut?"
"Anything I can do to help?"
"I don't think so, but thank you. Anyway, let's talk about something else. How's Alice? I haven't heard from her in a while."
Jasper's smile was wide as he spoke of my friend and it made me smile in kind. "She's good. She's great, really. We—well, we spent the weekend together."
"Well, I guess that would be why I haven't heard from her."
"You can see her tonight, if you'd like. That's why I'm here. We're going out for a drink tonight, to celebrate my promotion. It will be announced today."
"Oh, wow. That's great, Jazz."
"Yeah, you know." He shrugged. "Alice is gonna ask Rose to meet us and I thought I'd ask Edward, as well. And you, obviously."
"Of course I'll go."
"Cool. We're going to the Serious 'Que again." He rose from his seat, grinning. "Scene of the crime, you know. Just come out whenever you get off work. We'll be there."
"I wouldn't miss it."
He nodded and made his way toward the door. "And Bella—don't worry about the shit around here. It will blow over, you know."
"I know. It's just embarrassing."
There was a knock on my door then and I spoke loudly, so as to be heard through it. "Come on in."
Edward poked his head through the door and, noticing Jasper just steps inside, asked, "Am I interrupting something?" He opened the door fully and stepped inside.
"I was just asking Bella out for drinks tonight. I hope you don't mind."
He grinned. "A drink with you I don't mind. You are no competition for me."
Jasper laughed. "We both know how inaccurate that is. But if it makes you feel better, you're invited too."
Edward raised his eyebrows. "Name the place and buy me a beer and I'm there."
"Actually," I said, standing and moving toward the front of my desk, leaning against it. "I think you need to buy Jasper a beer. We're celebrating his promotion."
"Yeah, so loosen those tight purse strings, Edward."
He turned toward Jasper. "Ah. Cool. Okay well, I guess if you drag me kicking and screaming I'll be there. I’ll even pretend to be happy for you."
Jasper grinned and turned to leave. "Yeah, thanks for that, buddy."
"See you tonight, Jazz," I called after him. "And thanks." Jasper turned to smile at me as he left my office.
Edward raised his eyebrows as he looked at me. "Thanks?"
I shook my head and leaned back against my desk. "It's nothing. He just made me feel better is all."
"Yeah, Jasper's good at that." He looked me over, from head to toe. "Damn it," he said.
"You're wearing a bra."
I gasped and blushed profusely, standing straight, up off the desk.
He chuckled. "I much prefer the way you were dressed yesterday. T-shirt and sweats, sans undergarments."
My eyes darted toward the door to my office and I made a swipe at him, which he successfully dodged. "Edward, shut up. You cannot talk like that here. Things are bad enough without someone overhearing that kind of stuff."
"Bad enough?” He moved slowly toward me, a crooked grin on his face. “What's so bad, Bella?"
I rolled my eyes and squeezed by him, putting the desk between us. "Please. As if you don't know that we are the hottest item on the gossip mill this morning."
The damn crooked grin never left his face. "Of course I know. You wouldn't believe the high-fives I've been getting for the past hour."
I gasped again and my eyes went wide as I gazed at him in shock.
"Bella, I'm kidding.” He laughed, quietly. “Nobody's high-five’d me."
I sat down in my chair with a huff. "Don't do that Edward. That wasn't funny."
He sat down in front of me and smiled, raising his hands. "Okay, I'll stop. But you make it so easy to tease you, Bella."
"Yes, so I recall." It was my turn to grin, then.
He raised his eyebrows and his smile almost burned through my blouse. "Oh, so now who's being inappropriate?"
"I said nothing inappropriate. It's all in the interpretation." I chuckled.
He crossed his ankle over his knee. "Actually, I did come down here to see how you're doing. I know all of this is exactly what you were afraid would happen."
I shrugged and sighed. "I haven't heard much, honestly. I mean, Jasper told me it's pretty much all over the place, but I haven't even been out of my office yet this morning, so I haven't been exposed to much."
I decided against telling him about James' earlier visit to my office. I wanted to keep any additional fireworks to a minimum and since he'd had a jealous reaction to James before, without even knowing about our prior flirtation, I didn't think he'd react well at all to what had happened that morning.
You can take the man out of the cave, after all, but you can't take the cave out of the man.
There was a soft knock at my office door. "Bella?"
I looked to see Jessica standing there, a file in her hand. When Edward turned around and looked at her, she stepped back, an obvious blush on her face.
"I'm sorry, Bella. I didn't know you were—I mean–"
"Jess, it's fine.” I smiled. “What can I do for you?"
She backed up another step. "Why don't I just see you after your meeting?" She was gone before I could tell her to come in.
I heard Edward chuckling as my elbows went to my desk so my hands could support my face, which had fallen into them.
"Oh, great," I muttered. "Poor girl probably hates me now, too."
Edward continued to chuckle and I heard yet another knock on my door.
"Jesus." I muttered, lifting my head.
Carlisle leaned in through the threshold. "May I come in?"
"Sure, why not?” I threw my hands up. “It's like Grand Central Station around here this morning anyway."
I sat back in my chair as he strode into the room.
"Edward. I'm glad you're here." He closed my door behind him. "I'd like to speak with both of you, actually."
Edward shot me a look from across my desk. A strange lump jumped to my throat and I tried to swallow it. I felt like a child about to be reprimanded. I could feel my heart beating fast and reminded myself repeatedly that I hadn't done anything wrong.
Carlisle took a seat next to Edward in front of my desk.
"So," he said. I thought it was a good sign that he was smiling. "I received an interesting phone call Friday night."
I simply looked at him, not willing to give over any information until I understood what he knew already. Edward cleared his throat.
Carlisle continued, barely able to hold back a grin. "Victoria saw something very interesting after our party Friday."
I sighed. "Why does everybody around here love to beat around the bush so much? Can we just get this out on the table so you can yell at me or whatever it is you plan to do and we can all go to the Director's meeting?"
"Ah, Bella." Carlisle said, chuckling. "This is why I fucking love you so much."
"I have a question," I said, ignoring his humorous take on the situation. "Why on earth does Victoria Camden care who walked me to my car and how many times I kissed that person?"
"I do not claim to understand Victoria's motivations for anything, but she is not the sole reason I came to talk to you about this."
I looked at Edward and he seemed as clueless as I.
"Oh, please," Carlisle said when he witnessed our exchange of glances. "Even if Victoria hadn't called to tell on you as if she were twelve, it was obvious from the moment the two of you set foot in the bar the other night that something is going on. Even Jack said something about it during the tournament."
"Excuse me?" I could feel a blush on my cheek as Carlisle laughed.
"Well, you didn't exactly do much to hide it, Bella. It's a good thing you never tried for a career in covert ops."
I looked down at my desk, mortified that people had been talking about me in that way. People like Jack fucking Berber. At a work function.
"Look," he continued. "I don't care what you two do with each other. I like you both and frankly, Bella, it was nice to see you having fun. But just don't be so blatant about it, whatever it is, okay? I have enough problems with Victoria and people like her. I don't want this sort of bullshit adding fuel to the fire."
Edward spoke then, for the first time since Carlisle had settled into his chair. "Just to be clear—we haven't broken any company rule I'm not aware of, have we?"
"Not really, no," Carlisle said. "On a practical note, though, you need to be sure things are not misconstrued in any way. You two may not work directly with each other, but we all know how Sales depends on Credit. There had better not ever be any question about credit lines extended to your team's customers or orders shipped that shouldn't be."
My face flushed with anger. "Carlisle, I would hope you know me better than that by now. I–"
Carlisle raised his hand to cut me off. "Of course I do, Bella, and I'm sorry to be insulting. But not everyone knows you as well as I and I also don't have to tell you that some people around here are just chomping at the fucking bit, waiting for you to fuck up. It's messed up and it's unfair, but it is what it is. Don't give them any fucking ammunition. That's all I'm saying."
I took a moment to let what he'd said sink in. He was right, of course. I rarely made a misstep and I was hard on people who often did. That had made me fewer friends than enemies over the years.
I sighed. "I understand, Carlisle."
Carlisle turned to Edward. "Anything you need to say before I go?"
Edward shook his head, an odd expression on his face.
Carlisle stood and Edward followed in kind. "Okay then, I'm leaving now. Don't be late for the meeting." He stopped as he approached the door and turned around. "And don't spend too much time in each other's offices. Remember—you've both got jobs to do."
I blushed again as he left, leaving the door open.
After several moments spent examining the wood grain of my desk, I heard Edward start to laugh. I looked up, annoyed.
"Does he always use such colorful language?" he asked, his face distorted with the laughter he was obviously trying to hold back.
"That's what you have to say in response to all of this?"
The laughter came though, then. "Well, it's just that I've never known the CEO of a company to spew the 'f' word around like that."
"Well, yes. Carlisle tends to use some language that might be seen as inappropriate. But he's ... well, I consider him a friend, not just my boss. I'm friends with his wife, too. We all hang out sometimes, outside the office. I think he feels comfortable around me."
He stood and leaned over my desk, his hands on top of it. "Hang in there, Bella. This will all blow over." He straightened and put his hands in his pockets. "Would you care to walk with me to the meeting?"
I put up my hands, showing him my palms in a warding-off gesture. "Uh, no. Thank you. That's all I need."
"Suit yourself." He shrugged, grinning.
Once Edward was gone, my head fell again onto my arms on top of my desk. It wasn't even nine in the morning and I was exhausted.
I considered the situation. Edward was, indeed, one sexy motherfucker and he was quite possibly the most beautiful man I'd ever laid eyes on. Fuck, that jaw alone was enough to send my girlie parts fluttering into overdrive. More than that, I truly enjoyed his company. He made me laugh and he was quick enough to keep up with me in our verbal sparring matches, which was rare. More often than not, the combination of my quick wit and sharp tongue sent guys running for the hills before the second cocktail. Edward had also shown himself to be sweet and he was passionate about the things he enjoyed, such as literature and film and, as I discovered during the day we spent together, the outdoors. I smiled into my arms when I remembered his reaction to The Big Reveal about my inability to have kids the old-fashioned way and I shivered as I recalled the feel of his long, silky fingers traveling over my scars. When I thought of how his lips and tongue felt against mine and how they made me squirm as they traveled over the skin of my throat, I had to forcefully push the thoughts from my mind before I shut the door and shoved my hand in my pants.
I found the fact that he was so much younger than I to be less and less important the more time I spent with him. But regardless of how excited I was about him, I was still surprised and annoyed that I had allowed things to unfold as they had.
I was used to earning the respect of others at work, no matter how begrudgingly it was given. I had never been fodder for gossip mongers and I usually took great pains to keep it that way. The fact that so many people were obviously whispering about me and my private life throughout the halls at Con-Vert made me extremely uncomfortable. The fact that most of it had been my own fault made me sick to my stomach.
Carlisle was right, of course. I'd behaved like a silly, besotted school girl during the party, flirting shamelessly with one of my coworkers. There was nothing wrong with flirting, of course, but having done so in front of the likes of Jack fucking Berber and so many others was stupid of me. And I hadn't even thought about it at the time, which really bothered me. I had never let myself get so carried away that I didn't recognize the consequences of my actions. I hadn't even been so thoughtless during my relationship with Jake and I was so in love with him that I ended up marrying him.
We met during my senior year, when Jacob was my American Literature professor. It was obviously against all manner of rules for us to sleep together and yet we did so — a lot — and we fell in love. Our relationship started during only the second week of class, when we went out for coffee under the pretense of discussing the dark period of Mark Twain's writing. We were sleeping together just two weeks after that and professing our love for one another maybe a month later. But throughout the semester that he was my teacher, and even longer, we managed to keep it a secret. Not even my closest friends had any idea what was really going on and were shocked when we came out of the closet about a year later.
What was happening with Edward went completely against my grain.
I sighed and rose from my desk, smoothing my blouse down over my dark pants as I did so. I grabbed a pad of paper and my pen and steeled myself for the meeting ahead.
It was exactly nine when I opened the door to the conference room and the room was therefore full as I stepped in. All eyes immediately went to me. Jack even turned around in his seat to watch me enter, a smirk on his face.
These people really needed a hobby.
While there was an open seat next to Edward and I knew by the look on his face that he expected me to sit next to him, I instead I found a seat on the other side of the table, next to Brent Williams, the heavy nose-breather. He always sounded like he was in dire need of mainlining Sudafed and I hated to sit anywhere near him for that very reason. This, however, was an emergency.
The meeting was excruciatingly painful. Jack and I discussed with Carlisle what we had accomplished in regard to his noncompliance fees and Jack held that snide smirk on his face throughout the duration of our conversation. When Carlisle chose to hand out the bottles of wine Edward, Robert and I had won during the poker tournament, I heard actual snickers coming from more than one person in the room. By the time I left and headed back toward my office, I didn't know whether to cry or laugh or commit a violent crime.
I was therefore in a fairly foul mood when Jessica followed me into my office. I smiled at her, halfheartedly.
"Hey Jessica. What did you need?"
She asked me about how to deal with an issue she was having with one of her customers and when we'd hashed it out, she turned to leave the room, abruptly.
"Jess?" She stopped and turned around at hearing me. She had an oddly detached look on her face and I cleared my throat.
"Is everything okay?"
She nodded, silent, and turned again to leave, but I stopped her again.
"Jess," I said.
She turned back to me, slowly this time. I sighed and sat back in my chair while I regarded her.
"Jessica, I hope everything is going to be okay between us."
"Of course, Bella. Why wouldn't it be?"
"Look, Jessica. I know there is a lot being said about me today. I hope we've known each other long enough that you would talk to me before jumping to any conclusions."
She looked at the floor for a few moments before looking back to me. She shuffled her feet a bit. "So then are you telling me that there's nothing going on between you and Edward Masen?"
"I'm not telling you that.” I shook my head. “My private life is my own business."
She huffed a bit and looked back down at the floor.
"What I am saying," I continued, "is that I would hope you wouldn't let anything you might have heard change your opinion about who I am or how we work together in this department."
She sighed and again fidgeted her feet. "I just don't really get it, Bella. I mean, I sat here telling you how cute I thought he was and all of that. I didn't even think that you ... Well, why would you sit here and listen to all that if you had your sights set on him too?"
"I'm not sure my sights were set at the time." It was the easiest explanation I could come up with.
She looked back at the floor as she spoke. "I guess I'm just—I'm embarrassed that I sat here all googly-eyed over him and then find out–" She looked up at me. "Well, you know."
I sighed. "I honestly don't know exactly what is being said about us, Jess. I mean, people aren't exactly telling me, now are they? And I don't really want to know," I added when it looked like she may tell me. "I don't know what's going to happen between Edward and me, I really don't. But whatever happens, I want you and me to be able to work together, as we always have. You're much too valuable, Jess, for me to be okay with any awkwardness between us."
She didn't say anything, so I continued.
"I am truly sorry if I did anything to embarrass you. That was certainly never my intention."
Jessica looked at me skeptically before saying, "Okay. Can I go now?"
I nodded and she left my office quickly.
Five o'clock could not come soon enough.