Beauty and the Geek 2: When In Rome

5 years after their complicated high school relationship, Emily and Will are miles apart leading completely different lives. A chance meeting in Italy could bring them back together...but there's a couple of skeletons in Will's closet to sort out first. Will this starcrossed pair finally be together?

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5. Chapter 4.



"A letter came for you this morning,” Giovanna dropped the neatly folded envelope onto my desk.

I glanced down at the ornate paper, complete with gold framing around the corners and my name in bold, calligraphy lettering.

“Well,” Giovanna pushed. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

I nodded and slowly opened the little seal, perfectly held together by an official-looking wax crest. A small piece of card slid out and onto my lap and ,as I unravelled it, I felt my breath hitch in my throat.



“Dear Miss. Masson,

The Town Council for Community Development in association with Hudson Construction cordially invites you to our annual community fundraising mixer.
We understand that you work closely with the Southside orphanage, a former integral part of the community, and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss the future plans for the land.

We hope to make your acquaintance soon.

Regards,
Town Council”



Reading from behind me Giovanna’s eyes grew wide and she leaned closer as if she couldn’t believe what she was reading. I felt the oxygen in my brain disappear as if someone had sucked it out of me with a vacuum cleaner.

“This must be a joke,” I shook my head, offering Giovanna the invitation. She turned it over a few times, as if to make sure it were real, and eventually returned it to me.
“I don’t think it is,” Giovanna’s voice fell flat like a burst tire. “Are you going?”

Truthfully, I felt like both decisions were bad in their own way. On one hand, I could turn down the invitation and spend the weekend cooped up alone trying to figure out ways to save the orphanage from the path of destruction. On the other hand, I could face the “villains” and maybe convince them into giving us a chance to continue our work. I doubted that they would listen but it was worth a try. It seemed like the decision had already been made up for me.

“I guess I’m going,” I touched the invitation again. “What do you wear to a ‘fundraising mixer’?”

I air-quoted those words like they were foreign to me. In a way, ‘fundraising mixer’ was completely new to me – I was a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl and didn’t go to any of those crazy parties. Giovanna and I stood dumbfounded for a second, finally processing that I was going to breach enemies territory. Suddenly, outfits were the last thing on our minds.

---

“Give it back!” I yelped with mock anger. “Don’t you know journals are supposed to be private?”

Will waved my journal high above his head, his sing-song laugh filling the almost empty room. I had just found an old box of junk from our high school days; old letters and photos long forgotten and numerous journals dotted with dates leading all the way from my 13th birthday.

“Let’s see what you thought about me all those years ago,” He teased, flicking through some pages.
“Please don’t,” I groaned, hot under his gaze now as he held me at arm’s length.
“In other news, I’m still flunking English no matter how hard I study. But it doesn’t hurt that Will is kind of cute, in a dork way.”  

His mouth twisted into an amused smile as he read from the page. He raised an eyebrow in my direction as I wished that the ground would swallow me up. Noticing my reddened face, he put down the journal and pulled me into his safe arms.

“I’m just kidding,” He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “I think it’s sweet that you wrote about me – even if you called me a dork.”
“I did call you cute though,” I offered matter of factly.
“I suppose that does make it better.”
“Maybe we should read some more.”
“Why not,” He pulled over a stool for me. “I think we could do with a break anyway.”

Knowing that the orphanage could be closing any day, I had taken it upon myself to undertake the huge task of cleaning out the whole place, including my office. It was hard to even call it an office anymore; every possible surface was covered with things that I didn’t have the heart to throw out or cardboard boxes I had filed there to sort out later. Maybe my office was even a metaphor for the mess I had let my life become over the years.

I don’t know why Will had offered to help me sort it all out – in fact, it was kind of twisted to be doing it with him. He was still working with the council to tear down the orphanage and yet seemed happy to help me sort out everything and get to know all of the kids. I don’t know why that didn’t bother me more either. Inside I knew I was just happy to have the old Will back in my life, even if  he could leave again at any point.

“How about this one?” I laughed, skimming through one of the journals and picking out a memory. “Will drove his Mom’s car into a ditch today – I told him to get help but he resisted like a typical guy and now we are getting a ride home from a tow truck. For such a smart guy he can really be stupid sometimes.”
“I remember,” Will’s eyes crinkled in the corners as he let out a hollow laugh. “My Mom was really pissed off too – I had to give her all of my savings to pay for the damage.”
“Do you remember the tow truck guy?”
“Yeah! He was weird,” His chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I thought he was putting the moves on you too.”
“You thought that about everyone,” I narrowed my eyes playfully.

I picked up the final journal and turned to the last page, decorated with my painstakingly, scribbled writing. As I craned closer to read, I felt Will’s arm around my waist loosely like he knew what was coming next.

It has officially been one year since I last heard from Will,” I paused, reading the dry, tear stained pages and peeking at him from the corner of my eye.
“Go on,” He nodded.
Everyone keeps telling me that it will get better but how can this ever be better?” I continued reluctantly, reliving the memories. “It scares me that I may never meet anyone who comes close to him and it scares me even more that I can’t admit that to anybody. Now that I have felt the real kind of love the thought of having anything less makes me fearful of the future. I just don’t know if I can live less than I am supposed to be. Or love less than I am supposed to love. I don’t know if any of this makes sense but I do know that this wasn’t the ending I wanted to our story and inside, I’m always going to hope that we can rewrite it…”

His fingers traced my arm as he leaned his head against my own, letting out a deep sigh. I played with the frayed edges of the book and waited for him to make any kind of move or response to let me know what he was thinking but he didn’t. After another moment of staying very still, he finally looked at me.

“You deserve better than me,” He said simply, his throat dry in places.
“That’s not true,” I defended, trying to read the memories flashing behind his eyes.
“It is – trust me. Sometimes, I wish you weren’t so amazing and you would wake up and realise it.”
“Sometimes, I wish you would wake up and realise I love you exactly the way you are – mistakes or not.”
“There is so much more that you don’t know, Em.”
“I don’t want to know anymore,” I shook my head. “We all make mistakes. It’s how you deal with them that makes you the person you are.”
“I’m sorry, Em. I can’t say it enough.”
“I know. I wish we could just quit everything for a while.”
“I wish it was that easy,” He sighed, resting his hand on my knee protectively and rolling up his shirt sleeves.

We paused for a moment as the sunlight spilled into the room through the dusty, white-washed window. I couldn’t help but feel like Will was hiding something from me again; his tight expression had returned and he looked like he had the world on his shoulders not for the first time since we had reunited. But I couldn’t bring myself to think about it anytime we were together this time - it was simply easier to live in denial.

“Hey,” He nudged me softly. “You did get one thing right.”
“What’s that?”
“We did get to rewrite our ending.”

I smiled in return as he kissed each corner of my face lightly before landing on my lips and taking me to a different planet.

---
 
The mansion loomed over me like a painful reminder of what I was up against compared to the lowly surroundings of the orphanage. Ivy draped itself over the crumbling walls and over the fountains decorating the front lawn. I felt myself gasp a little as I took in the full enormity of the building peering from the taxi cab window.

“Fancy place,” The taxi driver commented, shovelling a handful of coins into my hand.
“I’ll say,” I muttered to myself, climbing out eagerly and exploring the grounds.

I had never been anywhere like that mansion in my entire life. Of course, I hadn’t expected anything less from a council full of overpaid suits – it seemed exactly like the type of place they would pick to hold an event. I still wasn’t sure exactly what exactly they needed to raise funds for – it looked like they were doing pretty well already.

“Miss Masson, isn’t it?” A familiar face appeared next to me as I looked on in surprise. It took me a few minutes to place his face before I remembered the elderly man who had tried to drag me from the room on the day I had discovered Will’s true allegiance.

“That’s me,” I smiled politely, shaking his hand. I figured the only way to win the council over was by being nice and proving to them I wasn’t a crazy protestor.

“I’m Alexander Hudson,” He bowed before me lightly. “I’m CEO of Hudson Construction – we’re working with the council for the orphanage plans.”
This could only mean one thing – Will’s boss was standing right in front of me. I wanted to give him a piece of mind but thought better knowing that it would destroy Will to get fired after working so hard all of those years.

“I know I’m probably the last person you want to talk to here,” He chuckled. “But I wanted to offer my sincerest apologies for the situation at the office – it was inappropriate of me. And I’m also sorry for any inconvenience the orphanage closure is going to cause you.”

Inconvenience? That word barely covered what the council and apparently Hudson Construction were trying to do to the kids. Nevertheless, I appreciated the apology and found myself letting my guard down finally. The man before me was like a raisin in a suit; wrinkled and brown from the Italian sun. He looked like the kind of person who ran after his grandkids and wore embarrassing shirts to golf rather than a multi-millionaire businessman.

“Well,” I said stubbornly. “With all due respect, the orphanage hasn’t closed just yet, sir. But thank you for the apology.”
“That’s the spirit,” His eyes were luminous and blue in the midnight. “Would you like me to give you a grand tour?”

Somehow, the man behind this whole process, the changing of Will included, had wooed me into walking around the grounds of a massive mansion with him. Firstly, I hated places that were so filled with materialism you could almost smell it reeking in the air. Secondly, I couldn’t believe I was even associating with the man who was trying to put me out of business. However, there was something utterly fixating about Alexander Hudson – even in his old age. Maybe, it was the kindly, sea-foam eyes or the funny smile on his face; either way, Mr. Hudson seemed like a nice, old man. I couldn’t be mean to him no matter how hard I tried.

“You’ll like this,” He nodded towards a large cardboard cut out as we stopped in the foyer. People were crowded around motioning to it, wine glasses in hand, and writing cheques on the spot. As they cleared, I noticed a bunch of children on the cut out cheering excitedly and working at their desks happily in some photographs.

“Inner city kids?” I read the massive capital letters and felt Alexander nod next to me.
“It’s just one of the causes we’re here to raise money for tonight,” He said and I thought I detected a note of smugness in his voice. “Why do you seem so surprised?”
“I just didn’t know charity was something billion dollar companies knew about.”
“On the contrary, it’s one of my main goals – we aren’t all soul sucking, money-making demons, Miss Masson.”
“That remains to be seen, Mr. Hudson.”

He chuckled even more, casting me an appreciative glance, and we walked further into the building. The ceilings were decorated with paintings of angelic creatures and designs more reminiscent of photographs with their perfect brush strokes and highlights. Chandeliers hung from every surface and massive portraits of old, Italian men in soldiers uniforms frequented the walls in every room.

“It’s a lovely place, isn’t it?” He said quietly, reading my thoughts.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Can I ask you something, Mr. Hudson?”
“Ask away, dear.”
“Why are you tearing down the orphanage if you can afford a place like this for the evening?”
“That’s a good question,” He paused in reflection. “For me, it was never about the money, Miss Masson. It’s about making this community a better place.”
“But putting all of those kids out of a home is not making the community a better place.”
“We can work together to build something new, Miss Masson. We could build a better future for these kids. The land is so far out on the road – it’s perfect for tourists but it is no place for children. The nearest school is miles away and you know it.” He was right – we had been home schooling the kids for what felt like years due to the distance.
“If you’d give me the chance, I’m positive I could change it.”
“I wish I could, Miss Masson,” He raised a hand to silence me. “But, my hands are tied. It’s too late. I didn’t bring you here to give you that option – I brought you here to show you that I’m trying to help the kids too.”
“I appreciate that. But, if it’s alright with you, Mr. Hudson I don’t think I’m ready to give up the fight just yet.”
“I’m counting on it.”

In our deep conversation, I distractedly bumped into a face full of suit. As I peered up quickly ready to apologise, I was horrified to discover Will in front of me. He looked wonderful in his perfectly pressed tuxedo and gleaming shoes even with his familiar tight expression. I had forgotten that he had to be this person around his workmates and I immediately felt uncomfortable being in such close proximity to him.

“Em?” His mask slipped for a second and his voice sounded urgent as he spoke low. “What are you doing here?”
“I got invited – by your boss no less,” I said despondently. “Didn’t he tell you?”

He reached out to take my arm and drag me across the floor but I resisted, my feet rooted to the ground. Will wanted to get me out of there quick, that was for sure, but I didn’t know why.

“Ah,” Alexander appeared at my side again. “William! Nice to see you. I assume you are acquainted with Miss. Masson?”
“Yes,” Will sounded strangled in reply. “Quite acquainted. We’re old friends.”
“You don’t say! What a small world. Isn’t she marvellous? She’s just so…vivacious.”
“Indeed.”
“I think she’s going to give us a run for our money in regards to the orphanage,” He glanced around quickly. “Is Olivia with you?”

Before I could wonder who the heck Olivia was, the crowd seemed to split in two. A woman floated towards us slowly in an air of expensive fragrance and silk; she was slender with tanned legs, displayed admirably form under her split dress, and she moved like liquid rather than human. Her almond eyes surveyed me for a moment before turning to Will and Alexander with her ivory teeth bared slightly.

“Sorry we’re late, Daddy,” She kissed Alexander on the cheek. “The valet service is tedious here.”
“That’s okay, poppet,” He held his daughter proudly by the shoulders. “You look wonderful.”

I had only known Olivia Hudson for one minute and I could already tell that I hated her. She seemed to ignore I was even there, her eyes trying to avoid me desperately. Maybe, she couldn’t handle the fact there seemed to be other females on the planet apart from herself.

“Have you met Miss. Emily Masson?” Alexander motioned towards me. “It seems she’s an old friend of Will’s.”
“How lovely,” She gritted her teeth, shaking my hand as though she didn’t want to touch me. “I’m Olivia Hudson. What do you do?”
“I own the orphanage your father is trying to shut down.”
“Ha!” Alexander laughed, squeezing each of us with a separate arm. “So feisty! It seems that you have something in common with my daughter.”

The whole scene was awkward as the peculiar old man tried to ignore his daughter’s grimaces and my obvious discomfort. I wondered how I could possibly have anything in common with such a snooty woman.

“What about you?” I offered, glancing at Olivia who could barely fathom the interest to look at me.
“I’m in fashion,” She held her nose high in the air.
“Sounds delightful,” I gulped down the enormous lump in my throat, necking champagne to calm my red cheeks.
“And Will here is my prodigy,” Alexander winked in Will’s direction, wrapping an arm around him. “And soon to be son in law.”

I choked on the champagne, spluttering it everywhere including Olivia’s expensive purse, much to her distaste. Will covered his face with one hand as I felt the world fall apart around me.

“I’m sorry,” I coughed up the remaining liquid. “Did you just say son in law?”
“Yes, he did,” Olivia smiled sweetly, holding out her scrawny finger clad with a massive diamond ring. “We’re engaged.”

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