The smell of bleach was one of the least pleasant smells in the world to Elle Cinder, followed closely by the smells of vomit and burnt food. Truly, it had only been in the last year that Elle had realized how horrible the smell was. Before bleach, a bad smell to her was too much cologne, or the sour smell that comes from finding a rotten corndog emanating
|A Billionaire's Love Story, Book One: Falling In A Moment by J.M. Cagle|
from between your roommateâ€™s bed sheets. But for now, those smells seemed downright pleasant, compared to bleach. Elle found the best way to lessen the effects it had on her was to turn her head and hold her breath whenever she had to open a bottle and pour a little into her cleaning bucket. Even if she used a minuscule amount, by the end of her shifts, it would have slipped through her work clothes, and her skin seemed to naturally absorb the smell. It was like a rancid perfume that was slowly choking her to death with its toxic aroma. But like every night over the past year, give or take a Saturday or Sunday off, she held her breath until her lungs complained and an ache developed in her throat, begging her to give in, and started cleaning. For almost an hour, she scrubbed the bathroomâ€™s toilet bowls, washing away the stench of stale urine that was only barely covered by the smell of whatever floral jasmine and vanilla scent they pumped through the air vents. Rising from her hunched position, Elleâ€™s back ached and gave an unforgiving crack that echoed through the empty and pristine white on white room. With her back still protesting, she lugged her heavy bucket across the room and began the process of washing the egg white walls in between the urinals of The Charmant Publishing House until the splashes that marred the off white wall, due to careless aiming, were less prominent. Elle hummed along to whatever tune made the night and her job go by faster, and she checked every now and then that the door was propped open by the dingy yellow mop bucket that she used as a door stopper, so that fresh air could circulate through and not leave her suffocating under a mushroom cloud of Mr. Clean like her first night. She had learned a lot of cleaning tricks since her first disastrous jaunt into being a working woman. Her calloused and brittle nails were testimony that she was no longer the lily-handed book worm, freshly hired a year ago. Elle used her bleach-speckled smock sleeve to brush back her large mass of coarse copper curls off of her sweaty face, careful lest a whiff of the bleach sting her nose and make her eyes tear up. The menâ€™s bathroom on the 12th floor of the prestigious Charmant Publishing House was her final stop of the night, and she wanted to finish as quickly as possible. Her body throbbed and protested the positions she cleaned in, and after sheâ€™d visited her mother and fatherâ€™s grave site earlier that day, all she wanted was to curl up into a ball under her shabby sheets and sleep. Though, even if she slept for a thousand years, Elle doubted it would be enough. Mostly she wanted to sleep so that she could forget about the anger she felt towards her father, who she had only a year ago loved with all her heart. But a flush of hatred and despair seemed to always blossom in her chest whenever she thought of him since then, and those feelings had not seemed to lessen over time. She stretched and let out grunts of satisfaction as her joints popped and creaked. Pulling off her soiled yellow gloves, she grabbed the handle of the bucket and carefully wobbled to one of the farthest toilet stalls to pour the nasty water out. When she was done, she flushed again for good measure, and with a satisfied sigh, happily exited the stall. Giving a cursory glance around the bathroom, she turned out, flipping off the lights as she moved to the small utility closet hidden in the alcove next to the menâ€™s and womenâ€™s bathrooms. Placing the cleaning supplies and bucket in their designated spot, Elle felt almost giddy in anticipation of leaving in the next few moments, and she just needed to find Claire, her roommate, best friend, and fellow maid, before she could hop in The Pumpkin and get into her awaiting bed. Checking that she had not missed anything in her haste to clean tonight, Elle was in the elevator and off to the 10th floor in no time. Claire was just finishing up as the elevator doors opened to let Elle out into the lobby. The floor housed editors and copy editors and the like, if the names and titles on the plaques attached to cubicles were any indication. Elle took note that someone had a copy of the works of Shakespeare stacked in a corner on their desk, and her fingers itched to crack it open and dive into the sonnets and plays she knew filled it. But that was against the rules, for cleaners to touch other peopleâ€™s properties, unless it was for the express purpose of cleaning something. Turning away from the tantalizing view, she decided to watch Claire as she finished putting away her tools. Claire Mather had been Elleâ€™s friend since pre-school. With such pale blonde hair, it had been at times more accurate to just call it white. It was a choppy cut that was currently in style, and just barely grazed her shoulder. Her skin was almost as pale as her hair, but part of the pallor may have been accentuated by the fact that she was forever wearing a shade of red on her lips, and was constantly either dying or shading her naturally pale eyebrows black. Rather than wash her out, the splashes of color seemed to suit her well, and brought out the blue of her eyes and her elegantly high cheek bones. Though she was as thin as a bean, she had the kind of gracefulness one usually only found in swans or ballerinas. It was a shame that she was so short; if she was taller she could have easily been a super model. But sadly, she was stuck being a cleaning woman, all the while waiting for the chance to move on up in the company, and maybe sometime in the future get a book published. Claire was many things, including a loyal friend and a very sharp and fashionable dresser, but she was at heart a romantic. This dreamy mindset greatly conflicted with Elleâ€™s recently decided upon hatred of all things men and love, much to Claireâ€™s chagrin. When theyâ€™d been children, before Elleâ€™s mother had passed and she was sent away to school, she and Claire would spend hours talking and drawing about what their princes would look like. Where their fairy tale weddings would take place, and who would get to ride a unicorn off into the sunset with their prince charming. But like the illusion that unicorns exist, Elle realized that she had an illusion that good men also existed, much to Claireâ€™s dismay. But Elle was taken out of her thoughts on men and her childhood when Claire, with a bounce in her step, bounded up to Elle. â€œReady to go, my dear? The night seemed to go by quicker than I thought. Can it already be midnight?â€ Claire continued to chatter on as they waited for the elevator to arrive, Elle was only half listening as the doors opened and they made their way down. She was quickly taken out of her thoughts of curling into bed and never waking up when Claire poked her in the shoulder. â€œHey were you even listening to me?â€ She half-pouted, drawing attention to the pale pink rose hue of the lipstick she wore tonight. â€œOf course I was.â€ Elle tried fibbing, but upon making eye contact, knew she was caught. â€œAll right, I wasnâ€™t. I am sorry. I am just so tired, I wasnâ€™t paying attention. What were you talking about?â€ She tried to keep the fatigue from her voice, but she knew she was unsuccessful as Claire's dark brows furrowed together, causing little lines to form in between her eyebrows. Claire wrapped her arms around her, pulling Elle into a tight hug. â€œAre you alright? I knew you should have called in tonight, especially with it being the anniversary of your fatherâ€™s death.â€ Her voice was slightly muffled as she spoke into Elleâ€™s frizzy mass of curls. â€œI am fine, I swear.â€ Elle tried to conjure up a smile, but she only half succeeded. â€œWhat is done is done; I have had a year to deal with it and I have. See, no tears.â€ It was a lie, and her eyes burned slightly as she tried to push down the threat of tears as she hugged Claire back briefly before stepping away from the embrace. â€œNow, what was it you were trying to tell me?â€ Just as Claire opened her mouth to answer, the door let out a loud ding before opening, letting them out into the underground garage. Elle looked around, cautious of any movements from the shadows, but Claire bounced out of the elevator uncaring of any potential danger that might be afoot. Exhaling noisily in exasperation, Elle quickly caught up. Pulling a set of keys from her scrubs pocket, she quickly unlocked the doors to a rusted and ancient station wagon, that Claire, upon seeing the hunk of junk that Elle had purchased with her little savings, had said â€œlooks less like a lemon and more like a pumpkin.â€ And so the name had stuck, and though it was cheap and old, it was a reliable-ish way for Claire and her to get back and forth to work every night. Once they were buckled in and driving away, Claire turned down the radio, seemingly remembering that she had not shared her news with Elle. â€œWe are going to the party tomorrow.â€ She said it with such finality, that Elle knew she would not be budging on whatever this idea was. â€œParty? What party are you talking about?â€ Elle chanced a glance to the passenger side, the street lamps they passed by casting flickering shadows over Claireâ€™s face, causing her blue eyes to look larger and her skin ethereal. But it was the smile that she gave that caused Elle to shiver with worry; the sly smile of the Cheshire cat, which she only gave when she was feeling especially mischievous. â€œWhy, the publishing party, my dear! Tomorrow night we will sneak up to the top floor at the start of our shift and be back down by the end of it. No one will be the wiser.â€ A lot of thought and questions swirled around Elleâ€™s head, but the question that was blurted out was just a simple, â€œWhy?â€ â€œWhy?â€ Claire seemed confused, as if the answer would be obvious. She settled into her seat, seemingly content to play the teacher and explain all Elleâ€™s confusion away. â€œIt is the best way to break into the company. We go up there, amaze with our natural charisma and ideas. Market ourselves, and poof we get new jobs. Ones that donâ€™t involve smelling strongly of cleaning supplies. All the big wigs will be there, the board members, the executives from all the offices around the world, even the presidents of Charmant Inc. All three brothers. can you believe it?â€ Claire let out a giggle of excitement. â€œAll three brothers?â€ Again the wrong question slipped from Elleâ€™s lips. â€œWell, partly to celebrate the new release of the book and the other to celebrate a job well done by the youngest brother, I am assuming. Mr. Luke Charmant has been in control over the publishing company for a little over a year now. I donâ€™t know all the details. The memo I read it off of didnâ€™t get into specifics, mind you.â€ â€œYou read a private memo!â€ Elleâ€™s eyes went wide as she turned her blinker on to signal a turn. As they pulled into the driveway of their apartment complex, called Luxury Living although it proved to be everything but, she parked the car and turned to stare in disbelief at Claire. â€œWhat were you thinking? You cannot just ruffle through the companies' papers like that!â€ â€œWould you relax, it was sitting right there on the desk. No ruffling necessary. Honestly, itâ€™s like you think this is my first rodeo.â€ Unbuckling herself, she turned in her seat to look Elle in the eye, a determined glint coloring her pale irises. â€œWe are dressing up and going to that party. Everyone in the company is invited to celebrate; and we are a part of the company. So, it will not be like we are crashing it.â€ She pouted her lips again, and gave a pleading look, knowing how hard it was for Elle to turn it down. â€œPlease, this is my one chance to really break into the business, will you please, please, please, please come with me? I cannot do it without you.â€ Elle tossed her head back against the car headrest, and let out a loud resigned growl. â€œAlright, but what are we going to do about dresses?â€ That Cheshire grin was already back in place as Claire let out an excited squeal, â€œDonâ€™t you worry: I have it all taken care of.â€ Why does that make me more nervous than the idea of attending the party? Elle couldnâ€™t help but think as they got out of the car. Chapter Two: What was I thinking, agreeing to this? Elleâ€™s mind was in a panic and her stomach in knots. As she sat quietly in the womenâ€™s bathroom on the 12th floor of the Charmant Publishing House, she was close to losing her dinner in one of the stalls that she had not yet cleaned. I could get fired! The thought sent another way of nausea through her as Claire fretted and fussed over her hair and her make-up. As the minutes ticked by, she became more unsure of the plan that Claire had cooked up. They had arrived in The Pumpkin with their fancy clothes and make-up stashed away in the back seat. Elle couldnâ€™t even begin to fathom where Claire had procured such beautiful gowns, but when theyâ€™d arrived at The Charmant Publishing House, all her curiosity and wonder had turned to anxiety. With half wet hair, they made their way to the elevator, greeting overzealously their fellow cleaning cohorts. Elle and Claire, once everyone had gotten off the elevator, then proceeded to take it back down, sneak back out to the car, and gather all the things they needed to get upstairs to the party. Now here they were, almost ready to go. Claire had finished first, and knowing how Elle was useless when it came to doing anything with her curly hair, and usually shied away from cosmetics, she offered to do both things for her. Grateful for the reprieve, Elle now focused on breathing and not thinking about the worst case scenario, if the plan fell through and they were unceremoniously kicked out and fired. She wished she had Claireâ€™s confidence, but right now she was seconds away from saying to hell with the whole idea and putting back on her cleaning scrubs. Claire must have sensed how close Elle was to flying out of the seat they had pulled into the bathroom from the office, because she began asking her questions and trying to distract her with lame jokes with terrible punch lines. It seemed to work, because as she giggled and snorted away the next few minutes, she found that the knot in her stomach had eased enough for her to take deep breaths again. â€œAnd we are done!â€ Claire stepped back and let out a small grasp before a look of pure joy spread over her face. â€œOh Elle, you look amazing. Not that you donâ€™t always, but with that gown and the shoes, and...â€ she continued to prattle on, but Elle didnâ€™t hear her; as she turned and finally got a closer look at herself, she was stunned at what she saw. A beautiful woman stood before her, her hair, which usually was unruly at worst and frizzy at best, cascaded in silky satin ringlets down to her mid back. The color which her half-brothers had used to call dingy, dirty copper was a vibrant bronze that made her emerald green eyes more prominent. The freckles that were splattered across her cheeks, nose, and even up to her ears, which in the past had made her look like she was covered in flecks of dirt, now looked like artfully placed speckles of color that drew attention to her long lashes and rosy plush lips. But all of this could not have come together had it not been for the dress. It was beautiful, a satin green that matched her eyes, with a sweetheart neckline that elegantly showed the curves of her chest without revealing too much. Elle usually did her best to hide her curves, feeling uncomfortable in overly tight clothes, but this dress hugged all the right places, making her look both sexy and sophisticated in a way sheâ€™d never believed she could successfully pull off. In all the years when she was pampered by her father, and put through awkward social function after function, never had she felt that she looked this beautiful, now standing in a bathroom that she spent night after night on her knees cleaning. Elle was amazed at how funny life worked. Claire gently grabbed Elleâ€™s hand and pulled her away from her reflection. â€œAre you ready?â€ she asked, handing her the purse that matched her dress. Elle could only nod, afraid to speak due to the fear that was back in full force. Claire seemed to understand and wordlessly grabbed her hand and pulled her towards to elevator. The doors opened instantly and they hurried in, lest they lose their nerve. Claire clicked the button for the 26th floor and they anxiously began their ascent. Elle looked at Claire, her pale hair pulled up in an elegant chignon, with little wisps left out to frame her oval face. The red of her dress matched her lipstick color perfectly, a kind of brick red or fire engine color that made her skin look pearly and luminous. The high neckline and simple drape of the dress seemed conservative, until she turned and you saw that her back was fully exposed save for a few crisscrossings of material. It was a gown that she seemed born to wear, and her confidence shone through even just standing there. But Elle could see that she was nervous; it was in how she crossed and uncrossed her fingers continuously, a little nervous habit that she had had since they were children, and a tender feeling washed over her. She leaned in close, and squeezing the hand she was still holding, whispered, â€œWe can do this.â€ Putting on a big smile she didnâ€™t know she was capable of wearing, she looked straight ahead as the door dinged open and they walked out of the elevator, heads held high, confidently moving into the throng of party goers. Chapter Three: Luke looked at his watch for the fifth time in less than an hour. It was barely 8:30 pm and he was already bored out of his skull. The party had been going on for a little more than an hour and a half, and already some of the guests were feeling the effects of the free-flowing alcohol that was being provided by the swarmed bartenders. From his spot in the shadows, nestled between two tall awkwardly placed plants, he leaned a shoulder against the large plane window that offered a breathtaking view of both the city and the sea. It would be beautiful, if he was viewing it with a beautiful woman whom he loved, but instead he had spent the better part of the evening battling off desperate women seeking his money and access to his family. Why was it so hard to find a woman who wasnâ€™t either put off by his fortune or turned on by it? Why was there not a woman who wanted him for him, and to hell with the money? Luke knew his older brother Andrew would have just told him that women and their love were a liability. But Luke knew he spoke from a bitter place due to his divorce nearly 5 years earlier. If he listened to his older brother Jonathan, he would tell him it was impossible to love just one woman, and tell him to enjoy the perks of having women throw themselves at him. But he wasnâ€™t a playboy like Jon, or a recluse like Andrew. He wanted a love like his parents had. Theyâ€™d met on the subway and clicked, and next thing they knew they were married, and happily so through to this day. It was because of their love story that Luke didnâ€™t give up on finding a woman he, as his father described it, just clicked with. When Luke had years ago asked his father to clarify more, heâ€™d just said he would know what the click felt like when it happened. But Luke was close to giving up on the click. Even though he was only 27, he was tired of attending these parties and business trips alone, only to fight off attention and return to his apartment unaccompanied again. Watching his brothers navigate the room, he glanced at Andrew, a tall giant of a man who looked like he would be more at home felling trees and plummeting down a bean stock than wearing a custom tailored suit. He had the Charmant dirty blond hair, though he was flecked with premature gray and kept it cropped close to his scalp. He had a broad chest and had a booming voice, which carried even if he tried to whisper. He had their fatherâ€™s eyes, a silver gray, which at times looked the color of storming clouds. He was holding an impromptu business conference in one corner with all the investors and other important guests, his personal secretary Julia not far from his side, scribbling notes; he rolled his eyes at what he saw. His brother was not someone who stopped working, even at a party in his little brotherâ€™s honor. Sweeping the room, he saw his older brother Jon holding a similar conference, except with all the eligible and maybe even ineligible women hanging on his every word and mannerism. Jon, though just as tall as Andrew, was lean where his brother was broad and, while Andrew enjoyed his hair cut short, Jon kept growing it long, his honey blonde hair tied up in a flattering pony tail at the nape of his neck, much to the chagrin of Andrew, who viewed this style as unprofessional and dirty, but Jon never cared. He too had inherited their fatherâ€™s stormy gray eyes. Luke, on the other hand, while he had inherited the customary dirty blonde hair and height that characterized the Charmant men, had taken after his mother and had her hazel eyes. He marveled at how different his brothers were in that moment. Yet, he was amazed at how similar they were, both graduates of top schools, and in the top percentage in everything they did. Theyâ€™d been the faces of the company since his parents began to take on less and less responsibility, especially with each brother running a specific piece of the large Charmant family business. Their father had built a business empire, and they were the heirs to it. No pressure. right? Luke snorted when he realized he too was now a part of the family business, and had been for a little over a year. He too had excelled in his classes, ranking in the top percentage. He had studied business like the rest of his brothers; though his heart had called for him to study art and literature, he knew it would not be supported. So, he followed in the footsteps of those before him, and even now he was mirroring his brothers. He had been given control over the family publishing company once heâ€™d finished getting his Masters in Business Administration, and was pleased when his older siblings had designated this part of the company to him. He did not believe he would have done so well in the technology and innovation sector that Jonathan controlled, or the import and export division that Andrew oversaw. At least he was immersed in a part of the company that he enjoyed, and could speak with people who held a similar passion as he. But still, he chaffed at the bit at times, going to meetings where people only cared for the bottom line and not producing quality literary works. With a deep sigh, Luke looked at his watch again, 8:35 pm. Great. Luke knew he had to mingle, had to thank all these people for coming. Had to network, but the idea seemed too unappealing, Maybe just a few more minutes away from the crowd. And so he just watched the people milling around. Then he heard something to his right. Pressing himself closer against the window, he moved nearer to the source, and at first all he heard was men laughing, but then he heard an angelic voice. â€œBut you see with such work by women like Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, you would not see such a rise inâ€¦â€ The voice was cut off by a loud cluster of women moving towards his hiding spot. Quickly ducking away before they could see him, he snuck out of his corner and made his way through the crowd towards the voice that was not only pleasing to his ear, but was discussing some of his favorite Victorian authors with such authority. He tried to push his way closer to the source of the voice, but found that he was constantly being congratulated and thanked for such a lovely party along the way. Trying hard to maintain his manners, he was at the end of his ropes before finally he broke through the crowd and found himself stumbling and face to face with the woman who had enthralled not only him but the crowd around her. When his hazel eyes locked with her Emerald ones, he found that his father was right, something had clicked and he knew it. This was the one he had been looking for all his life, and he had just embarrassingly almost knocked her down in the process of trying to meet her. Straightening, he quickly remembered his manners and closed his gaping mouth. Bowing slightly, he could think of nothing else to do in that moment, but bow deeply to this woman, who as he took her in upon rising, looked like a goddess from ancient times. With such fiery hair cascading in curls down her back, he ached to reach out and touch one of the silky curls to see if it was really as soft as it looked. Her gown, as dark green as her eyes, drew his gaze to all her curves, and he felt a heat rising up in his body that he was sure those around him would notice. But it was the adorable freckling that covered her face and neck that made him wish he could pull her to him and place delicate kisses over each and every one of those speckles. Her dainty hand coming towards him is what snapped him out of his musings. First learn her name, you dolt, he chastised himself for being such a fool. She held her hand out and waited patiently for him to grasp it to shake. But as he captured her supple hand, he tenderly turned it so that her knuckles were presented and softly grazed his lips across her skin. A jolt of pleasure shot through him at the contact, and looking into her eyes, he saw how they darkened, and he hoped it was because she felt the same connection and flair of passion that he had. Realizing he had still not secured her name, he rushed out, â€œI am Luke Charmant, and you are?â€ A twittering of laughter brought back the fact that he was surrounded by a watchful audience, who had no doubt taken note of how heâ€™d fallen over himself in front of this beautiful stranger. â€œIâ€™m Elle, Elle Cinder. I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Charmant.â€ Her voice was deep and melodic, and the smile she awarded him, though slight, made him want to do whatever it took to see her smile always. â€œCall me Luke; the only Mr. Charmant I know is my father.â€ He smiled wide, still not believing the feelings that were floating around in him. He wanted to take her hand, and run and pull her into an empty room, and learn everything there was to know about her, and also to ravish her, but mostly to speak to her alone, away from prying eyes. Elle chuckled at his little quip and her laughter made his smile grow wider. â€œMiss. Cinder,â€ he stressed the Miss, just to give her time to correct him on her married status. It would break his heart if she had told him it was actually â€˜Mrs. Cinderâ€™. He had only been in this womanâ€™s presence a few moments, and he was already heartbroken at the thought that she might already be taken by another. She did not correct him, so he continued, â€œWould you do me the honor of dancing with me?â€ She seemed taken aback at the request, but sat her purse and flute of champagne down at the nearest table and nodded her head. Holding out his arm, he gently placed her hand in the crook of his own and led her out onto the dance floor, happy that he had listened to all those planners who had said a dance floor would be a necessity for the party. Chapter Four: They spun and swirled around for song after song, easily falling into a comfortable rhythm as if they had been dancing together all their lives. Soon they were in their own little world, oblivious to the other dancers on the floor or how the crowds seemed to part for them whenever they breezed past. She was shy at first, but slowly began to open up as they discussed literary masterpieces they were fond of, and authors that were essential for any library. She impressed him with her knowledge of the workings of Christopher Marlowe and Mark Twain. It was as if there was no literary time period she was not familiar with and able to discuss. Luke found as they floated across the floor that, with every step, he was falling more and more head over heels with a stranger, and instead of being terrified, he was elated. Finally, they both agreed it was time to rest. Seating her at a table near the window with the view of the city and the sea, he rushed off to gather some drinks and food for them. Luke was anxious to return back to her, and glancing at his watch in habit, was shocked that it was already 10:45. They had spent hours on the dance floor, spinning and discussing, and he hadnâ€™t even noticed. With a smile on his face, he quickly returned back to the table, but not before artfully avoiding running into his brothers, who would have either insisted they meet the girl who had taken up so much of his time, or chastised him for ignoring so many of the other guests. Sitting down the platter of food and glasses of water at the table, he caught sight of a waiter walking past with champagne flutes, and quickly grabbed two off the tray as he went by. Pulling his chair closer, he raised his glass into the air. â€œTo Jane Austen and her lessons on love and family.â€ He smiled, and though she raised her glass and joined in his cheering, the smile didnâ€™t seem to reach her eyes like heâ€™d thought it would. Sipping on the champagne and nibbling on the strawberries, Elle seemed lost in thought as she stared off through the window into the distant water. â€œA penny for your thoughts, Elle?â€ He had long done away with the formality of calling her Miss. Cinder, somewhere along when she had called him an idiot for thinking Shakespeare contributions outweighed those of Christopher Marlowe and the third song. He enjoyed how her cheeks colored and her freckles stood out whenever she was passionate or being shy. â€œI am just thinking about the past.â€ Her tone was flat, and though everything about her was screaming for him not to ask, he wasnâ€™t one to read those signs. â€œWhat about the past? I want to know everything about you, Elle. That is, if you are willing to tell me.â€ The sincerity in Lukeâ€™s tone, coupled with the fact that he ever so gently covered her hand that was resting on the table with his, must have shifted something, because one moment she looked like she was going to brush him off, and in the next she was telling him everything. â€œMy father died a year ago yesterday. Heâ€¦ he was the famous architect, Richard Cinder. Maybe youâ€™d heard of him.â€ Luke just nodded; he had heard of the man, who had been an amazing architect who had designed some of the most beautiful modern buildings that could be seen all around the world, but Luke also remembered that the man had died unexpectedly, that there had been some trouble with a will, as well. But he said none of this, choosing instead to keep his eyes trained on hers, pouring all his condolences and support into his gaze. He didnâ€™t want to stop her story; he just wanted to listen, so he gently squeezed her hand to let her know it was fine to continue. â€œWell, Iâ€™m the child of his second marriage. My mother, Rebecca, she died when I was seven, and my father, well, he traveled so much that he thought it best that I go to boarding school. Which was fine, but that meant I didnâ€™t get to see him as much. But when I did I loved it, and I loved him. I always thought I was the apple of my fatherâ€™s eye untilâ€¦ until he died and I found out that I did not mean as much to him as I thought.â€ She let out a shuddering breath, and gave him a weak smile. â€œWhen he died, it came about that he had not updated his will prior to his divorce. Maybe he thought he had more time and kept putting it off, I donâ€™t know. But the will gave all his possessions and left an inheritance to his first wife, Maura, and his twin sons, my half-brothers, Jake and Jacob. I received nothing from my father.â€ Elle looked so broken, coupled with the dim lighting, which caused shadows to dance across her face, it was as if she was being swallowed up by the darkness. â€œBut, surely your brothers would not leave you with nothing. Especially knowing how your father meant to update his will and include you in it.â€ But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he had made a mistake speaking them. Elleâ€™s face grew as red as her hair, and her eyes narrowed in anger. â€œThey did nothing,â€ she spat out viciously. â€œThey told me that he never loved me, for if he had loved me he would have left me something. They are vicious evil brothers and I am surprised we share any DNA!â€ â€œYou want to know why they didnâ€™t help. It is because they hate me. Plain and simple, they have always hated me. I have no idea why: I tried for years to love them, I wanted them to love me. But all I ever got from them was rejection and pain.â€ She held up her pinky on her right hand, which Luke saw was noticeably crooked. â€œThis was from them slamming my hand in the car door when I was three.â€ Moving her hair from near her face, she lifted her chin and showed a pale scar that ran across her jaw line. â€œThat was when they throw a cat at my face, for no reason.â€ Elleâ€™s nostrils began to flare and her hands began to shake. â€œThey enjoy hurting me, they always have. They take great pleasure in denying me. I knew they would, but I still went to them and asked.â€ Tears began to swell in her eyes and her knuckles became white from where she clenched the tablecloth a little too tightly. â€œAll I asked was that I could continue to live in the home I had grown up in, and for the rest of my school tuition to be paid so that I could graduate with a Masters in Modern Literature. I wanted nothing else of my fatherâ€™s fortunes. But they cast me out! They in fact moved in the day after his will was read, with their horrid mother, and kicked me out without money, any place to live, and without a way to continue with school. If it wasnâ€™t for my friend, Claire, I donâ€™t know what I would have done.â€ Luke wasnâ€™t sure what to say after all of this. Sure, he didnâ€™t always get along with his siblings, but no matter what, he knew they would support him. He could not imagine how hard it must be to know that the only family you have hates you and wants you to suffer for no other reason than for their amusement. The tears that were swelling in her eyes, she tried bravely to keep from falling. But one did escape, and Luke gently rubbed his thumb across her cheek to stop it in its track. Elle leaned her face against his hand, seeking its comfort and warmth, and he gently cupped her cheek, wanting desperately to give her it. Leaning in, he pulled her closer and gently placed a kiss on her lips. Brushing the velvety softness ever so gently, giving her time to pull back in case he had overstepped any boundaries. When after a few moments she did not recoil back in disgust, he hungrily pressed his lips firmer against hers. It was an explosion of emotions of longing and love, and it sent a pulsating heat throughout his body. But he pushed no further, not wanting to scare her off, and also a little afraid of how strongly he was reacting to the kiss. When he pulled back, he was pleased to see that, with her eyes closed and her eyelashes grazing her freckled cheeks, she seemed to have enjoyed the kiss just as much as he had. â€œDo you believe in love at first sight?â€ The words were out of his mouth before he realized he had spoken them, and they hung in the air. â€œWhat?â€ she answered in a confused haze, before it truly registered what he had asked. â€œDo you believe in love at first sight?â€ he couldnâ€™t take the question back, he knew that. So he had to cross his fingers and hope for the best. â€œI used to.â€ She spoke so quietly that he had to strain to hear her response, but when it registered, it echoed in his mind. â€œUsed to?â€ Luke seemed unable to grasp what could have happened to change her mind. â€œI donâ€™t believe men are truly capable of love. Or more specifically, I donâ€™t think a man is capable of loving me.â€ She seemed resigned to what she was saying, and she looked down to avoid his confused gaze. Luke cupped Elleâ€™s cheek and turned her face upwards towards his bewildered stare. â€œEveryone deserves to be loved, and I, only knowing you for a short time, canâ€™t imagine someone not falling in love with you.â€ â€œWell, there must be something wrong with me, or how else could you explain how my father and brothers treated me?â€ â€œThey obviously did not know what a jewel you were, but their mistake and ignorance should not cause you to shun the idea of love. You are wonderful, intelligent, funny, passionate, and so beautiful. I have only had the pleasure of being in your company for one evening, and I am already in love with you.â€ Luke was so focused on changing her mind, and showing her that the attitudes and lack of attention did not mean she was lacking in any way, that he did not notice the slip of his tongue until Elle let out a delicate gasp. â€œIâ€¦Iâ€¦What I meant to say wasâ€¦Iâ€¦umâ€¦ I, â€ Luke was not sure what to do, and he was terrified he would scare her off if he admitted to what his heart was telling him to be the case, but his head was saying all of this was too soon, to back off. This one time, he decided to go with his heart. â€œI,â€ he quickly took a swig of champagne to gather his courage and loosen the knot that had nestled itself in his throat. â€œI know this sounds impossible, and that everything and everyone will say that loveâ€¦ that love at first sight is impossible. But I know it to be the case, it happened to my parents andâ€¦â€ Luke gathered Elleâ€™s quivering hands in his and tenderly raised them to his lips, placing small kisses across the whitening knuckles, all the while holding her emerald gaze, hoping that she could see into his soul as he was seeing into hers, and know him to be speaking the truth, â€œandâ€¦ I have only dreamed for it to be the case for me. When I saw you this evening it happened, the click my parents always told me about, and I knew from the moment you held my gaze that you were the one who I was meant to spend my life with.â€ Tears silently flowed down Elleâ€™s cheek as she waged an internal battle over her emotions, over what her bruised heart was beating for and what her mind was telling her logically could not be happening. She opened her mouth to speak, but only a small choked sob escaped. Luke quickly gathered her into his arms. â€œShhhh, my love, you do not have to say anything, and I understand if you do not feel the way I do, though I will admit it would break my heart.â€ Pulling back slightly, he looked down at Elleâ€™s tear soaked face, her mascara running and eyes shining with residual tears, and all he wanted was to heal the hurt her family had caused to her heart, and make her tears go away, and so he did what his body and heart told him to do, and he kissed her. Pouring all his hopes for their future together with his blossoming feelings into the kiss; and when her arms wrapped around his neck and she pulled him close, he felt like maybe, just maybe, he would succeed in banishing these feelings from her heart. â€œBut how can I believe that you will not be like my father, leaving me broken and uncared for? How can I trust you?â€ Her tone was accusatory, but her eyes pleaded for him to help her, to show her that he was nothing like the men in her life. He didnâ€™t know how to respond, so he spoke plainly as he gently wiped her tears. â€œI cannot ask you to place your trust in me, so let me earn it, let me show you how wonderful it can be to be loved by me. I dedicate my life this moment to showing you that I am nothing like your father and brothers. I know we have only known each other a short while, but sometimes life can be a fairy tale, and sometimes love can bloom in an instant, so trust in that. Trust in your feelings.â€ Entwining his fingers with hers, he hoped that she would take the plunge and realize that this was foolhardy and risky, but that it was worth it. â€œOh my God, I canâ€™t believe it is midnight!â€ Confused at her sudden distress at the time, he glanced down at his clock to confirm that it was a few moments after the stroke of twelve, but when he looked up, ready to reassure her that the party was going to continue for a while longer, she was already gone. He caught sight of her breaking through the crowds and running towards the exit, where a pretty blonde girl in a red dress seemed desperately happy to see her, before she was unceremoniously shuffled into the quickly crowding elevator. Running after her, Luke could not believe how quick she was in heels. By the time he had reached the elevator, it had already been making its way down. He took his chances and hopped into the next open elevator, and followed his gut down. As the doors closed, he caught sight of his brothers making their way across the room towards him, but he had no time for them. He had a woman he had to find and convince that love could happen in just a few hours. Chapter Five: As soon as the doors opened, Claire and Elle were out, a rush of satin and curls. They hurried to where they had stashed their scrubs and shimmied out of their dresses as quickly as they could. Shoving their dresses and shoes in the garment bags, Elle quickly realized she had left her purse back upstairs. They were going to have to forget about it for now, and hope no one connected the ID inside of it with the Elle Cinder who worked as a cleaning lady on the 12th floor. But that was something she would have to worry and stress about later. Right now, her main concern was getting away before Luke discovered her. At the thought of him, an ache of longing filled her heart and a sad smile graced her face. It had been truly a magical night. She had not felt so free and wonderful in such a long time. After she had gotten over her initial fear, sheâ€™d found herself discussing and arguing literary merits with like-minded fellows. It was wonderful to feel a part of the academic circuit once again, and when the handsome Luke Charmant had stumbled in front of her, bumbling and stumbling and looking both dashing and sweet, sheâ€™d allowed herself to be swept away by the fair-haired gentlemen. His hazel eyes, a wonderful swirl of brown and green with flecks of iridescent gold, had held her attention, especially when he began having deep discussions about literary masters she so enjoyed. He was a delightful combination of boyish charm and rugged intellectual. Plus, Elle was not unaware of the warmth that spread throughout her body upon the mere grazing of his hand, or how her senses were heightened by the closeness of his body. When their eyes had first connected, it was as if time stood still, and for the whole evening it had felt that way. Which was why she was so late meeting up with Claire. They should have been out of the party by 11:30 at the latest, but she was too busy bearing her soul and being kissed senseless to take notice. Elle didnâ€™t know where her head or her heart had been this evening. But she knew she could ill-afford to lose both again. Finally, Claire and Elle were ready to leave. Dressed again in their working clothes, they moved quickly to the elevators, hoping for an empty one that would keep them from being possibly ousted as the girls who had been upstairs at the party. As they waited for the elevator to arrive, Elle was sad that the night had ended the way it had with Luke. She wished she could explain better why she was so cautious to love, especially after the one man who sheâ€™d loved deeply had wounded her by not even caring enough to provide for her in his will. She felt guilty at the anger she felt towards her papa for it, but she could still not justify his lack of care in writing an updated will to include her. Though her heart told her differently, her mind told her logically, that maybe her half-siblings were right, that her father did not love her as much as she thought, and it was that which shattered any notions she had of love. It was better to protect your heart than to get it ripped out by those closest to you. But Elle could not get the image of Lukeâ€™s confused and saddened face out of her mind, and it broke what little heart she had left to leave him like that. If she was capable of love, she would have believed that, even though theyâ€™d only known each other for a little while, it was fated that they meet, and that it was love at first sight. But that idea belonged in the past and at the end of fairy tales. Once out of the elevator, the girls hastily rushed to The Pumpkin, and as they peeled out of the garage, Elle chanced a glance at the elevator doors and made eye contact with Luke, and instantly regretted not being able to turn the car around and run into his arms. But she could not, she would not, so she continued driving, his lone figure growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. â€œDo you want to talk about it?â€ Was the tentative question from the passenger seat. â€œNo, no I donâ€™t.â€ And the rest of the ride home was spent in reflective silence. Chapter Six: Riding the elevator back up again, Luke felt he left a piece of his heart on each floor he passed, and by the time he reached the 26th floor he would have no heart left. He wished he could blame alcohol on why he felt so lousy, but knew that it wasnâ€™t the case. He had found the girl who he had clicked with, and lost her in the span of a few hours. He was a cluster of fighting emotions, and anger at the men who were supposed to love and cherish her, but instead they had broken her and left her fighting the idea of love. Sadness and tenderness for the woman who was resigned to live such an empty life, and resolve and determination that he would mend her heart. Though, how to find her and get her to allow him into her heart was another obstacle, especially since all he had from her was a name. It was frustrating, as he was a man of means, with money and people at his disposal, but he had never felt more uncertain and powerless. What was the point in having all this money when he had no one to share it with, and could not even use it to help capture the woman he loved, or could he? A plan began to form, names of private investigators that needed to be gathered, no limit on how much it would cost to use what information he had to track her down. As the elevator opened up on the 26th floor, the room was emptier than he had left it, and spotting his brothers, speaking in the center of the room, Luke resigned himself to going over there and dealing with their interrogation; then he could excuse himself and begin sorting through his ideas. With a heavy sigh, he began to trudge over, but not before a flash of forest green caught his eye. His heart leaped to his throat, as for a second he thought it was a flash of Elleâ€™s dress, and her coming back to him. But sadly it was just a clutch. Going over to it, he curiously opened it and saw nestled inside the folds a few dollars and an ID card with the name Elle Cinder, and her address for his eyes to feast on. Quickly placing it back inside, a new and more intricate plan began to form in the back of his mind. A plan to show her she could trust him with her heart, and hopefully win her over to the idea of loving again. With those thoughts, he felt his head perk up again, and his resolve strengthen. In the romantic novels he loved reading, never did the man ever give up on his lady love, even when it seemed like gaining her affection would be impossible. He would emulate these literary characters and hopefully in the process gain his soul mate. Chapter Seven: In the days that followed the party, Elle had been coming home to every space in her tiny two bedroom apartment filled with flowers and balloons. It was starting to become a little absurd how much like a florist shop her apartment was becoming. It was sweet on the first day, a few bouquets of breathtaking roses and daisies, and a note from Luke which included her ID, a heartfelt apology for if it had been something that he had said or done that sent her fleeing from the room, and the chance to get back the purse if she agreed to meet with him at noon, on the 26th floor, the next day. She ignored the card and its demands. But the flowers kept coming, each day with a new note, but the same request. Some days, the note would tell her a little more about who Luke Charmant really was, how he has a scar on his thumb from where heâ€™d touched the stove when he was young, just to see if it was truly hot. Or the note might tell her how much he was thinking about her and how he wished she would consent to seeing him again. New kinds of flowers arrived every day, and finally with the arrival of the tulips, which were her favorite flower, and a note about how he was stubborn and didnâ€™t know what giving up meant, she broke down and decided to see him the next day. If only to get Claire off her back, with her knowing looks and raised brows, Elle had decided. Though Claire herself had been the recipient of some secret roses and jewelry, so that when Elle rose an eyebrow in question, she disappeared into her room with a huff and a blush on her cheeks. She was curious, but Elle was also afraid that if she asked Claire what had happened to her at the party, it would open up the flood gate of questions that she would in turn also be obliged to answer; not wanting to share quite yet, she happily continued to keep her mouth shut. But as the flowers began pouring in day after day, Elle knew that Claire had pretty much figured out what had transpired between her and Luke, whom she must have seen clearly staring at them from the elevator as they pulled away. Nonetheless, Elle still asked Claire if she would help her get ready the next morning, and Claire smiled her Cheshire grin and happily agreed, dropping hints the rest of the day about happily ever after and true love. With a roll of her eyes, Elle said nothing, letting her continue to prattle on. The next morning, once her make-up was done, the anxiety began to settle in, and as she climbed into The Pumpkin to drive to the publishing house, she was sorely tempted, many a time, to turn back around and to forget the whole thing. But then she would remember Lukeâ€™s smile, and the wonderful things he had shared with her in his notes attached to the flowers he sent, and she realized how much she truly wanted to see him again. She had been battling her heart these last few days. She was so scared to put herself out there, especially after what had transpired between them at the party. But she wanted to try, as she didnâ€™t want to feel broken anymore, and she wanted to feel like sheâ€™d felt being in Lukeâ€™s arms, and how sheâ€™d felt when he kissed her, which was loved and cherished. It had been over a year since she had had her heart broken, and she hadnâ€™t realized until these last few days how much she desperately wanted it to be healed. As she pulled The Pumpkin into the parking spot in the garage and slowly made her way to the elevators, she bit her lip as she pressed the button for the 26th floor. She wanted to take the plunge, and a man who could write so many notes and send dozens of flowers, each day, all the while waiting for her every afternoon in the hopes that she might arrive... even she had to admit that it spoke to her heart. So as the elevator moved, she found herself less anxious and more excited to lay her eyes once more on his face. Chapter Eight: The ding of the elevator drew Luke out of his melancholy. It had been days since he began sending Elle flowers, and though every part of him wanted to show up at her doorstep and proclaim his love, he realized that maybe that would be too much, and he should allow her to come to him, when she was ready, on her own terms. So he sat, day after day at his desk, as heâ€™d had it moved so that it was not only on this floor, but also so that it was by the window that they had shared their first kiss at, and he waited. Writing little notes to her, that would be included in the next shipment of flowers he was planning on sending. But the dinging of the elevator had him rising from his chair and practically running towards the doors before they even had a chance to open. He held his breath, as he had been disappointed a lot this past week, with visits from his brothers, his secretary, and anyone else who had an appointment to see him, but every time those doors opened he was prepared to lay eyes on her lovely face, and every time he had been disappointed. But something told him this time was the charm, that this was the moment, and he wasnâ€™t proven wrong, because there she was, in all her glory. Just dressed in a simple pair of blue jeans and a green sweater, she was even more beautiful standing there, mouth agape and eyes widened, than sheâ€™d been the night of the party. Luke didnâ€™t even remember moving towards her, but then all at once she was gathered in his arms and he was holding her close, cradling her head, his fingers encased in her satiny curls. He just breathed in her scent, a lovely mixture of peppermint and honey. He hadnâ€™t noticed before how well she fit against him. She was the perfect height, where he didnâ€™t need to bend too low to capture her lips, and she didnâ€™t need to stand on her tiptoes for him to detain her in a toe curling kiss. Smoothing her hair back from her face, he stepped back and looked her over quickly, trying to absorb as much detail as possible, afraid she was a ghost and that she was not truly there with him. But the gentle squeezing on his arm told him that she was solid, and real, and there. He couldnâ€™t hold back, and the next thing he knew he was pressing her against the closed elevator doors, and was attacking her lips with a fervor. She tasted of sweets, and heâ€™d never realized how much of a sweet tooth he had until that moment. His hands, which were holding her waist tight, began to make their way up her sweater, and she began moaning softly against his lips as his tongue began to duel hers. A fire began building inside of his body, growing hotter and hotter until he couldnâ€™t take it any longer and he pulled away lest he lose all control. They were both left breathless and amazed at what had transpired. Luke knew that if she kissed him like that, then maybe his wooing had worked, and she felt something for him, too. She leaned against the cold metal of the elevator doors, her hair mussed and her lips puffy and red from the fury of their passion. It was her eyes, hooded and dark with longing and passion, that nearly sent Luke over again; ready to assault her with passionate kisses and caresses. But instead, he set right his own clothing and held out his hand. Without hesitation, she placed hers in his and he quickly entwined their fingers together. Gently, he pulled her towards the large bay windows. Letting go of her hand for only a moment, he reached behind his desk, pulling forth a fully laden picnic basket. â€œWhere did that come from?â€ Elle asked, amazed, as Luke captured her hand once again, and he led her to a spot cleared of all cumbersome plants and furniture, one that offered an amazing view of the sea, and he laid a blanket down. â€œI packed a picnic every day in the hopes that you would show up. I wanted to be prepared to take you on a romantic first date the very moment I had you in my sights.â€ Luke let out a chuckle at the blush that alighted on Elleâ€™s cheek. â€œWhat did you do with the picnics that I did not show up for?â€ â€œWell, there are a lot of confused and grateful passerby who I might have gifted the unwanted meals with, when you didnâ€™t show up. Someone had to enjoy my excellent cooking.â€ Elle giggled and leaned her head against his chest, letting out a content sigh. She felt happy and relieved that it had not been an awkward reintroduction. Watching as he pulled a meal from the basket, all the while trying to keep her head on his chest and their hands still tangled, finally she took pity on his struggle and helped set out lunch. After a meal filled with laughter and flirting, Elle felt confident that she had made the right choice in coming. With every smile he gave her, and every caress, it was like a healing balm on her aching heart, and the weight of anger and guilt that she had carried like a mountain on her chest, for the past year, seemed to disappear completely when in Lukeâ€™s presence. â€œI wanted to apologize; I pushed you and made you uncomfortable, and that is something that I never wanted to do.â€ Elle was touched by the sincerity in his voice and the sadness in his eyes at the perceived notion that he was the one who had caused her harm. It was that apology, that simple act of sincerity, that she knew she would never have received from her father or her brothers, and that showed her he was different, and when she realized that, her heart seemed to warm and burst forth with new vigor and emotions, so much so that it brought tears to her eyes. â€œOh no, why are you crying? I am sorry, I say the wrong things around you. I can never get my head on straight. Did I do something wrong? Was it something I said?â€ The gentle tones and touches with which he handled her caused fresh tears to burst forth, as well as a smile. â€œYou did nothing wrong.â€ She cupped his cheek and turned him so she could look deeply into his eyes, much like he had on the night of the party when sheâ€™d spilled her heart ache to him. â€œYou have done everything right, and it is I who needs to apologize. I would like to change my answer to the question you asked me at the party.â€ â€œWhat question?â€ His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. â€œThe question, if I believed in love at first sight.â€ Lukeâ€™s eyes widened in response and he held his breath, waiting for her to continue. â€œAnd I have to say that I didnâ€™t. I was lost in a swarm of grief and anger. I never wanted to feel the pain of loss and rejection again. But you changed that; as soon as I laid eyes on you, you began to heal my fractured heart. I loved you from the first moment I saw you, even if my mind was not ready to admit it yet.â€ With that declaration, Luke pulled her onto his lap and placed loving kisses across her face, just like he had wanted to do the first time he saw her sprinkles of freckles. Her giggles and mock protests to stop warmed his heart, and he knew that he was one of the lucky few in the world to have found his other half. With that, he reached into the picnic basket that sat on the edge of the blanket and pulled out a black velvet box. Elle stilled in his lap as her eyes took in the sight and enlarged; her mouth opened and closed in shock. Luke opened the box, showcasing a beautiful solitaire diamond, on a shining golden band. Capturing her gaze, Luke took a chance. â€œI know this is fast; we have not known each other long at all, and many will see that based on that alone we cannot truly be love. But I donâ€™t care. I have been looking for you my whole life, and I promised myself that once I found the woman who completed me, I would never let her go.â€ Shifting Elle off of his lap, he moved to one knee, continuing to hold her tearful gaze. â€œI found you, and from the first moment I saw you, I knew you were the one for me. Every moment I have spent with you since then has only reaffirmed these feelings I have inside of me. I cannot promise to be perfect, but I do promise to love you with all that I am. To be a protector of your precious heart, and to treat it and you with all the respect and love it deserves. I am asking you to give me a chance; we do not have to marry right away. In fact, we can never marry; all that I want is the promise that I can spend the rest of my life by your side, loving you. So, what do you say Elle Cinder, will you do me the honor of one day becoming my wife?â€ Lukeâ€™s eyes shined with unshed tears and his heart pounded as he watched Elle try time and time again to get the words out, until finally, with a choked back sob and tears running down her face, she said, â€œYes, a hundred times yes. I will marry you. I fell in love with you the first moment I laid eyes on you. I was just too stubborn and hurt to admit it. I love you, Luke Charmant, and I cannot wait to be your wife.â€ Luke wasted no time in pulling her into a tight embrace. Falling to the floor, he didnâ€™t care who came in in that moment as he switched from joyously laughing and smiling to kissing her deeply, her tears of happiness mixing with his feelings of elation and passion. Chapter Nine: In the following months after that fateful party that had started it all, Elleâ€™s life had turned upside down, and all for the better. While she still worked at the publishing house as a cleaner, because she loathed the idea of being solely dependent on a man, she did enjoy the perks of being engaged to a billionaire; the thoughtful gifts and dazzling dates, left her feeling happily spoiled. Though not everything was perfect, many seemed to view her quick engagement to Luke as a joke, and many people, upon being introduced to her, stared hard at her stomach instead of meeting her eyes, always looking to see if her flat stomach had so much as a tiny swell. But the people who they had been most anxious about sharing the news of her and Lukeâ€™s engagement with were Claire and his family. Especially considering neither were aware of any romance between a Charmant heir and a cleaning woman. But, after she had arrived home the morning after her noon meeting with Luke, with a giant rock on her ring finger, Claire was quick to offer her congratulations and quick to rub in the fact that sometimes it paid to be a little bit of a romantic. After sharing the whole wonderful experience and finally being able to tell Claire what had happened in detail at the party, she realized that Claire had been her family just as much, if not more so, than her brothers related by blood. She felt foolish afterwards, thinking that Claire would be anything less than happy and excited for her. Elle was foolish when it came to believing she knew how Claire would react, but she was downright surprised at how she was embraced by the Charmant family. Once he explained how theyâ€™d met and clicked, Lukeâ€™s mother and father were quick to start calling her â€˜daughterâ€™, and for her to begin to call them â€˜momâ€™ and â€˜dadâ€™, and those words made Elleâ€™s heart swell even more with love for the man and the family that she was marrying into. Even Lukeâ€™s brothers, who she thought would look down on her and tell Luke he was making a mistake, trusted in his choice and welcomed her into the family with open arms. Luke had been like a kid on Christmas since she had agreed to be his wife. The flowers had not stopped coming, though they were not in such large quantities anymore, but they still contained loving notes and stories from his youth, as he wanted her to know as much about him as possible. Luke also had taken it into his head to begin giving Elle more and more elaborate engagement gifts. Though she drew the line at replacing her good ole car, she told him it was just as much a part of their love story as discussions on Jane Austen. He just kissed her and told her it was whatever she wanted. She found herself falling harder and harder for her fiancÃ©, especially when she received a notice in the mail that her college tuition was paid up for as long as she wished to attend the school. That was a surprise she was not expecting, especially when the letter went on to state that she could begin her final classes in the fall to complete her Masters. It was such a thoughtful and touching gift, one that she told him again and again that he did not have to make. But he told her that her education and pursuit of a fulfilling career was the least he could do as a supportive fiancÃ© and future husband. That his money was now her money and that she could spend every last bit of it for all he cared. That night, as she listened to his heart beat in tune with hers, she thanked whatever godmother or force had brought this wonderful man into her life. It was still months before the wedding, but Luke had the biggest engagement gift yet to give to her, though Elle complained about him over-spoiling her and not needing anything but his love, Luke would not budge. And so, he packed Elle into The Pumpkin, as he also had begun to affectionately call it, and he began to drive. Once they were out of the city limits, he pulled a blindfold out of nowhere and asked her to trust him and to cover her eyes and not to peek. Deciding to play around, Elle sat in darkness for another 30 minutes, unsure of where they were going, but enjoying the trip nonetheless. Finally, the car came to a complete stop and all Elle could hear was Luke quickly shuffling out of the car, and the crunch of gravel as he raced to her side, seemingly overexcited to show her the secret he had been keeping. Carefully, holding her elbow, he guided her, telling her the whole time not to peek or that she would ruin the surprise. Satisfied they were in the correct position to view the gift, Lukeâ€™s fingers expertly untied the knot holding her blindfold in place, and let it fall. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the brightness of the sun, and then it took a few moments for what she was seeing to sink it. Elle could not believe it: it was her childhood home. They were standing in the entrance way, and moving boxes and bubblewrap littered the floor. â€œ Iâ€¦I donâ€™t understand?â€ Elle was at a loss for words; this could not be her old home, her mind was trying to tell her, but all the signs were there, all the things familiar and that she had always connected to her home staring back at her, assailing her senses. â€œBut my brothers own this home. Where are they?â€ Luke chuckled before pulling a piece of paper out of his back pocket. â€œThey used to own the home. Now you do.â€ Quickly unraveling the paper, Elle was gobsmacked to see that she was indeed the new owner of this wonderful place. Tears began to fall as she hugged Luke close and peppered kisses over his face. â€œBut how did you get them to sell?â€ Elle could still not get over the fact that her vindictive brothers would ever willingly part with something that would make her happy. â€œEveryone has a price, my love, and no price is too high to pay to see you happy.â€ He smiled and gently wiped away any remaining tears. â€œSo, what do you say, shall we set up our new family here?â€ He said with a twinkle in his eye and a smile bright with joy and happiness at seeing how much his gift had meant to her. Elle let out a loud laugh, and responded coyly. â€œOnly if you donâ€™t mind moving up the wedding so that we can start planning out the nursery.â€ A look of confusion passed over Lukeâ€™s face, followed quickly by one of pure joy as he picked Elle up and swung her around, peppering kisses all over her lovely freckled face.