Charlotte Rhinehart wore the same tiny smile of anticipation every Wednesday morning. And occasionally on other mornings, too, if she was lucky.
The smile toyed with the corners of her lips as soon as she awoke, and grew exponentially as the clock marched toward noon. She used to feel silly about its presence. She feared it twisted her elegantly lined face into a pathetic caricature of its former self, making a mockery of her girlish ardor for the young man who put it there. After all, she had to admit that if she were forty years younger, she would be very much in love with him.
But she wasn’t younger. She was what was politely called “a mature woman.” As such, she endeavored to carry herself with the full grace and wisdom of her sixty-plus years, fancying herself a grande dame in the ilk of Helen Mirren. And grande dames did not fawn over men young enough to be their grandsons.
Still, she couldn’t see the harm in indulging this particular young man as if he were. She’d had no children of her own, and after her husband had passed a couple of years ago, she found she missed the male companionship. The gardener was far better at conversing with the flowers and the trees than with her, and the chauffeur split his time between a multitude of wealthy widows in the area. She was lonely. She’d even begun to consider moving back to England, despite her promise to keep Peter’s estate intact after his death.
She had perused the internet profiles of Renaissance Escorts during a particularly low patch, the day after a self-pitying crying jag over a bottle of her late husband’s favorite cognac. She’d scoffed at herself for even entertaining the preposterous idea of calling any of these boys, while giggling at their self-consciously rakish poses. Each handsome face looked more vacant and overconfident than the last, bringing tears of much-needed laughter to her eyes.
But suddenly, there he was, a flower amongst the brambles. Edward Cullen, the profile said. She was entranced by the exquisite landscape of his face: all peaches and cream skin, sandy hair and ivory smile; grass and sky blending seamlessly in his wide-set eyes. She could see that he teetered on the precipice between boy and man - an irresistible combination of almost feminine beauty and rugged masculinity. At twenty-two, he would not linger there much longer. He reminded her a bit of her husband, when he was but a boy himself. And Edward’s profile claimed that he even played the piano, too. She was sold.
That was almost two years ago. She had been one of his first clients, and it showed. His innate charm was almost wholly swallowed in flat-out fear the first time he showed up at the estate to see her. She was taken immediately with the combination of his easy smile and uneasy eyes, and she vowed to make his gaze match his grin by the time their afternoon was through.
The effort required was minimal. As soon as he saw Peter’s Steinway baby grand in the conservatory, his nervousness was replaced by sheer excitement. He was dying to try it out, and would she mind if he tickled the ivories for a bit?
“Tickle away,” she had urged him.
An hour and several Beethoven movements later, they were both in love: he, with the piano; she, with his talent. She bade him come entertain her whenever he wished, and his eyes lit up with gratitude. Thus began a steady stream of Wednesday afternoons together. Edward had rarely missed one in twenty months now. Not that she was counting, of course.
Nor would she admit that she was counting the minutes now until his arrival. He had called this morning, as he often did, to see if she would mind if he showed up early. The call was a mere formality, for he knew she would always welcome him. Even when he was in one of his contemplative - or downright melancholy - moods, she relished in his company. Sometimes they barely spoke, but the silence was always a comfortable one. She sensed her quiet estate was his haven from the trials of the outside world. The piano was his outlet, and she could always judge his mood by the music he chose. Edward didn’t speak his emotions; he played them. They flowed from his fingers like springs from a well, and she never tired of letting them wash over her and carry her away.
Today his mood was decidedly chipper, if his voice over the phone was any indication. In fact, she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him sound so carefree. He almost sounded twenty-four years old instead of jaded and prematurely middle-aged. She was curious to find out what had buoyed his spirits on this balmy summer morning, though she didn’t hold much hope of dragging any details from him. After two years, she still hadn’t gotten him to confess where he’d received his classical music training, though she suspected only a prestigious school such as Juilliard could have honed such a gift. And it had taken her nearly as long to discover what had derailed such a promising career. He’d obviously needed quick cash, and a lot of it, so she had surmised that some kind of family emergency was to blame. He had only recently alluded to the circumstances that confirmed her suspicions. She presumed that her offer of an out-and-out loan would be met with indignant refusal, so she happily paid for his company on a regular basis, hoping that her generous tips and free brunches would help alleviate his financial difficulties.
If nothing else, she knew that the Steinway brought him momentary peace. She was content to listen appreciatively while his fingers flew over the keys with a skill and dexterity her late husband had only dreamed of. Some days he played for hours; others, only twenty or thirty minutes before coming to join her in a game of some kind. She always left the chess board open for their ongoing match. She was currently beating him, but she knew she would end up letting him win. He needed the victory far more than she did.
A quick glance at the clock told her that he should be here momentarily. She carefully picked up the chess board from the living room and brought it out to the veranda, placing it at one end of the outdoor dining table. She made sure the other end was filled with Edward’s favorites: French pastries, her quiche-like egg casserole, bacon, fresh fruit and juice. She was fiddling with the silverware, placing it just so, when a familiar male voice from behind her echoed her current thoughts.
“Charlotte, you spoil me rotten,” Edward admonished with a cheerful grin as he stepped onto the veranda. His sunglass-covered gaze swept over the breakfast spread before settling on her face. He put his arm around her shoulder in a brief embrace, leaning down to graze her upturned cheek with his lips.
She hid the foolish thrill that raced through her with practiced ennui. “I do spoil you, something dreadful. But you haven’t quite reached ‘rotten’ yet. I’ll cut you off before you do.”
“I know you will,” he said with a laugh. “You look ravishing, by the way.” He pulled out a chair for her, bidding her to take a seat.
“How you do flatter me,” she replied, adding a modest “tut” and shake of her head as she sat down. She had chosen her favorite sundress and styled her sleek bob with a little more care today, as was her habit every Wednesday.
“It’s not flattery when it’s the truth,” he insisted. He perused the silver warming trays with relish as he took a seat across from her. “This looks great.”
He filled his plate with generous helpings while Charlotte beamed in spite of herself. Then she set about studying him, for it was impossible not to when he sat a mere three feet away. There was something decidedly different in his air today. The appearance of his impish smirk - always her undoing - was now irrepressible, even while he chewed and swallowed, then remarked once more that her casserole was out of this world. She knew better than to imagine her cooking was the cause of Edward’s ebullience.
“You’re in good spirits today,” she remarked. She lifted an expectant eyebrow at him.
“It’s a beautiful day,” he said, his grin broadening. “The sky is blue, the birds are singing . . .” he trailed off as he gulped some orange juice.
“Singing birds, eh?” Charlotte eyed him suspiciously. “Take off your sunglasses. I want to see your eyes.”
Edward only laughed as he removed the designer frames and tossed them onto the table. “I’m not on drugs, I swear. Just caffeine. And it is a nice day.” He squinted up into the drowsy sunlight as if to prove it.
“Hmm. That it is.” She looked into her favorite twin orbs, reflecting the blue and green landscape around them, and saw the very twinkle that she expected to see.
Edward Cullen had fallen in love.
It was only a matter of time, she knew. She imagined that most women who fell into his orbit also fell in love with him, to some degree. But thus far, he had remained largely unmoved by their attentions.
“Caffeine doesn’t cause that kind of sparkle in a young man’s eyes,” she informed him. She leaned over and picked up the teapot, filling her fine china demitasse cup. “I daresay it’s a drug of a very different nature.”
Edward’s eyes narrowed. “I can’t pretend to know what you’re talking about.”
“Can’t you?” she said with a laugh. She decided to go for the jugular, since he was so deft at evasion anyway. “So who is the lucky young lady who’s caught your fancy?”
He started, his eyes widening and mouth dropping open before he quickly rearranged his features into a mask of indifference.
“I really have no idea what you’re talking about, Charlotte. I’m just happy to see you, like always.” His smile was as smooth as his voice.
She burst into peels of laughter. “Oh, Edward. Don’t try to pull one over on me, dear boy. I’m not one of your daft young cows that you can dazzle with those pretty platitudes of yours.”
She could see that he was having trouble figuring out how to deflect this one, but bless him, he did try. “’Daft young cows?’ I love how you talk,” he said, in reference to her British slang. “I never get tired of it.”
“Nor do you tire of avoiding the issue,” she replied pointedly.
Edward sighed, his expression souring slightly. His countenance was that of a child who’d finally been chastised for an offense he’d repeatedly gotten away with.
“She’s just a girl,” he finally said with a shrug, though he couldn’t pull off nonchalance. His cheeks colored slightly and he turned his attention to his plate, attacking his meal with renewed vigor. He was smitten, all right, and the proof lay in the relentless smirk that dimpled the corners of his mouth despite his attempts to banish it. The dimples reminded her of his true age - still a boy, in some ways. And now he was a boy in love, though she was fairly sure that he was not yet cognizant of that fact.
“Just a girl,” she repeated in a tone that called his bluff. “And how did you meet this inconsequential girl, who has nothing at all to do with your incessant grinning like the Sphinx?”
He squinted up at her, scowling good-naturedly at her perception. He put down his silverware and sat back in his chair, giving her a look of resignation. “She hired me.”
“Ah.” That was a surprise. He’d rarely expressed more than a passing interest in the women who pursued him, especially the ones who paid him for the privilege. “So she’s fully aware of your vocation. That’s a major hurdle you’ve already cleared, then.”
He blanched slightly and reached for his coffee cup. “I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think she’s quite grasped the reality of the situation. Or maybe I haven’t,” he added morosely.
Charlotte was now sorry she had pursued this line of questioning. She’d managed to erase the grin that had engulfed his lips until now.
“Perhaps she’s more tolerant and understanding than you know,” she offered, trying to bring the grin back. “If her eyes have a twinkle anything like yours do right now, then I believe you have more than a fighting chance at making something work with her. Assuming that’s what you want,” she added.
In truth, she couldn’t imagine any girl being able to put up with Edward’s line of work. He had probably been blithely ignoring that likelihood until she’d brought it out into the daylight.
Edward’s face clouded further. “I can’t afford to want. Anything,” he mumbled into his coffee cup, taking a prolonged sip.
Charlotte frowned and partook of her own teacup. “You can’t afford not to want things. The minute you stop wanting is the minute you stop living.”
Edward’s brief laugh was wry. “Wanting things you can’t have is a sure way of setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s better to try to find satisfaction with what you have, isn’t it?”
“Oh, Edward,” she sighed, disappointed herself. “It most certainly isn’t better to be complacent. At the risk of sounding trite, it’s far better to try at something and fail, than to shrink from the attempt. Regret for the things you’ve done is much easier to deal with than regret for the things you haven’t. You can trust this old woman to know whereof she speaks.”
Edward’s grin was sincere. “You’re not old. You have one of the most youthful spirits I know.”
“And you have the spirit of a crotchety old bugger right now,” she retorted with her own affable grin. “Stop being so maudlin. You seemed quite excited about this girl when you first arrived, so you must have good reason to be hopeful. It’s nice to see you invested in someone for a change. I think you should do whatever it takes to nurture the connection you have with this young lady. What did you say her name was?”
“I didn’t. But it’s Bella. Short for Isabella.”
The rapt expression on his face as he spoke the girl’s name was all Charlotte needed to see.
“Well. I think this Bella is a very lucky girl to have captured your attention so thoroughly. Those kinds of feelings shouldn’t be wasted.”
Worry pulled at Edward’s features. “But I have nothing to offer her right now,” he said softly. “You know I can’t be a proper boyfriend. It’s impossible for me to get involved with anyone. It would be unfair to let her think otherwise.”
“Why don’t you let her decide what’s fair and what’s not?” Charlotte suggested. “You can’t make those kinds of decisions for her. But you might have a few of your own to make, should you decide to pursue her.”
He let out a resigned sigh and pushed his plate away. “There’s no point. I can’t walk away from Renaissance yet. Maybe, possibly I can in a couple of years, when the mortgage is paid off. But right now, this is the only way.”
Charlotte took a deep breath and decided to finally offer what she’d always wanted to.
“Let me take care of the mortgage, Edward. Let me pay off the bank for you; at least get one burden off of your back.”
Edward flinched as though she had struck him. “I won’t be your charity case,” he refused through gritted teeth.
“It’s not charity. Consider it a loan, with the best terms possible: zero percent interest and no deadline for repayment,” she amended.
“I can’t let you do that. You’ve given me too much already.”
“Rubbish,” she retorted. “I owe you far more than I could ever pay for your company and the endless hours of musical entertainment you’ve given me. Let me do this for you. Please,” she entreated.
He shook his head sadly; maddeningly, from her standpoint. “I appreciate the offer, but frankly, the house is just the tip of the iceberg. I have to take care of my family - I’m the only one who can. And I’m doing a decent job of it, at the moment. I’m making good money. And I certainly wouldn’t get the kind of car and wardrobe allowance from any other job like I do this one,” he added with a sardonic chuckle.
Charlotte’s eyes flitted heavenward. They both knew that while he didn’t mind those kinds of perks, they were immaterial to him in light of his other concerns.
“Well, my offer stands, should you ever wish to accept it. I’d pay off all of your bills if you weren’t so bloody proud and stubborn. Maybe this young Bella of yours will change your mind on a few scores,” she added with the quirk of one brow.
The tiny smile returned. “Maybe,” he said, his cheeks coloring slightly again. “But I don’t think even you have that kind of money, Charlotte. Unless you mortgage your own estate up to your keister.”
“I suppose I would risk my dear departed husband coming back from the grave to haunt me if I ever did such a thing,” she said, making an attempt at levity for Edward’s sake. She sighed to herself and wondered just how much medical and housing bills were setting him back, not to mention Alice’s tuition. Though Edward’s shoulders were broad, his burdens were especially heavy for such a young man to bear.
“How is Emily doing these days?” she inquired gently.
His smile grew thin. “Well, she knew who I was last week, so that was an improvement. Guess we’ll see what tomorrow brings.” His reply was terse, and Charlotte knew that this subject was now closed.
She motioned to Edward’s clean plate and suggested that if he was finished, they should resume their chess game. He readily agreed, and they moved to the other end of the table where the game board sat. They studied their pieces for a moment, each strategizing what their next few moves might be.
“Is it your turn or mine?” Edward asked courteously.
“You know damned well it’s yours,” she replied with a chuckle. “I believe you’re still trying to figure out how to get your knight out of the impossible predicament he’s in.”
“Ah, that’s right. I remember,” he said with a grin, staring at the game piece in question. “Damn your queen, always making things so impossible for my knight,” he complained as he weighed his options for a long moment. “I really do love this chess set. Have I told you that before?” he stalled.
“You have, indeed, several times. I shall be sure to leave it to you in my will.” The chess set had been Peter’s. The game pieces were not the usual symbols, but instead were beautifully crafted, lifelike miniatures of actual human pawns, bishops and royalty.
Edward tentatively fingered the scarlet-colored knight seated upon its rearing stallion, then finally made it retreat to a position of safety behind the few pawns he had left. He knew that his choice left Charlotte an opening to endanger his rook, but it was the lesser of two evils, as his other move would expose his own queen and king.
“So tell me about this Bella of yours,” she encouraged as she perused the game board.
“Well, she’s not mine, for starters.”
Edward’s let out a skeptical laugh. “I don’t know. She’s just . . . different. She seems quiet, but then she’ll blurt out these things that completely stun me. She’s honest to a fault. Beautiful, but doesn’t know it. Naïve, yet wise. Headstrong, then hesitant all of a sudden. Smart. Foolish.” He stopped and shook his head. “She’s brave. Really brave.”
Oh, my dear boy. You have it bad. Charlotte kept those thoughts to herself and simply said, “She sounds lovely. You deserve someone lovely, whether you know it or not.”
Edward only shrugged, while Charlotte turned her attention back to the game. After considering the obvious choice of sending her bishop after his rook, she instead made a seemingly benign move to beef up her front line on the board, then sat back and waited for Edward to respond.
He gave her a suspicious stare. “What kind of half-assed move was that?” he demanded.
“One that wasn’t half-arsed at all. I choose my attacks carefully, as you know. The aggressive move isn’t always the wisest.”
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare throw this game for me.”
She only smiled softly. “Fine. I won’t -- as long as you take your own advice.”
His eyebrows knitted; he appeared a bit unsure of her meaning.
“Play to win, Edward,” she said simply.
His grin returned, and it was grateful this time. He nodded, then went back to studying the chess board, his face a picture of confident determination.