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The next Friday, I had a surprise visit from my mother. She was with Uncle Reynolds and his wife.
“We won’t be long. We just want you and Adam to come with us to Manhattan.” My mother said.
“What? Why didn’t you tell me immediately?” I protested.
“It was a spur of the moment thing for us. Your Uncle has a meeting in Manhattan. We decided to come with him.” Aunt Betty said. But there’s a look on her face that I cannot decipher.
There was silence. Then Uncle Reynolds said, “He’s busy. He’s meeting up with some of his associates for the weekend.”
I was not convinced by my uncle’s reply. I immediately felt that something was up. The look on Aunt Betty’s face is far too intriguing. I didn’t ask, though… not yet
“Alright. I’ll pack a few clothes.” I said.
Adam won’t be able to make it. He has a court hearing in the afternoon. He promised to follow if he could but I seriously doubt that.
At the airport, I was watching Aunt Betty carefully. I think she was whispering too many things to my mother that they both did not want me to hear.
“Which hotel are we going to stay in?” I turned to Uncle Reynolds.
“Where does Ryder live? We figured we’ll stay at a hotel close to his apartment. You might want to stay with him while we’re there.”
Shit! Ryder! I didn’t see this one coming!
“Oh, I’m not really sure if he’s available on such a short notice. He’s busy putting up another branch of his family’s… restaurant.”
“What? He’s too busy to see you? Is that what you mean?” My mother asked. And somehow, I know that question is loaded.
I shook my head. “No, no. He was just here last week. One day. You know… because he… misses me.”
“If you ever marry a man, Astrid, just make sure he’ll always have time for you… and that you know where he is all the time.” My mother said. She sounded like she was talking to a five year old child. Her eyes drifted off to my finger. “Geena was telling us that you got engaged. When were you planning to tell us? And where’s the ring?”
Shit! Shit! Shit!
I took a deep breath. “Mom, relax. Ryder and I are not really planning to get married too soon! He… did ask me to marry him. I did… say yes, but with conditions. You know… it’s more like a promise to marry each other… if the right time comes. Which is not today!”
“What are you waiting for?” Aunt Betty asked.
I shrugged. “Well… if the time is right, we’ll both know it.”
“I think he’s a good man. He can provide you with the best things in life.” Uncle Reynolds said. “And he looks genuinely in love with you.”
I laughed nervously. “Well, I am… genuinely in love with him too.”
“So?” My mother asked me.
“So what?” I asked her back. I honestly didn’t know what she was demanding of me.
“So where are we staying? And will Ryder have time to meet up with us?”
I smiled at my mother. “Mom, you took me by surprise. I didn’t know you were coming. He doesn’t know I’m off to New York with you. It could be a long shot. When we get to Manhattan, I’ll try to ask him to see us… but if he can’t, we really cannot blame him.”
“Well, call him now so you’ll know.” Aunt Betty insisted.
Damn! I tried to think of other ways to get out of this. But as I stared at three pairs of eyes looking at me expectantly, I knew that my only way was to give Ryder a call. So I dialed his number.
Please be in Greece or Paris! I silently prayed
“That’s a number I didn’t expect to show up on my phone.” He greeted me cheerily.
“Hey…” I trailed off as the three pairs of eyes are still staring back at me, studying me. I took a deep breath. “Hey, honey.” I said with an emphasis on the ‘honey’. “Guess where I am?”
It took a moment for Ryder to answer. “Hmmm… New York? Or on your way to me?”
Now, I was the one surprised. “How… how did you know that?”
“Intelligent guess, judging by your voice and your unusually sweet greeting.” He chuckled.
“Yeah… I’ll be on board a plane to New York in thirty minutes. With my mother and Uncle Reynolds and Aunt Betty.”
“Let me guess.” He said. “I’m Ryder, the fiancé again?”
“Uh-huh.” I replied curtly. “But… aren’t you out of town or out of the country?” I asked him. Ryder can just say he is and the worse thing I can ask him to do is to give me a call every two hours to check up on me so we can still make a bit of a show. He doesn’t need to make an appearances
“Nope.” He replied quickly.
I took a deep breath. I refused to be discouraged by Ryder’s attempt to be… funny! “I know this is so last minute of us! Perhaps, honey, you can just tell me which places we need to visit.”
“Not a problem. I’ll take you on a tour, myself.” He said.
I was getting irritated. I tried to smile sweetly in front of my family. “We should have told you earlier so you were able to tweak your schedule.”
“Astrid…” He said on the other line. “If I make an appearance, I’m expected to deliver an outstanding performance as your devoted fiancé, right?”
“Uh-huh.” I replied curtly then proceeded with my alibi. “It sucks! I was really hoping to see you! But I know… we should have scheduled this at least a day before!” I gave a pout, which I hope looked really genuine. “I’ll pretend you’re with me, though.”
Ryder didn’t say anything. “Hey are you still there?” I asked.
“Yes.” He replied quietly. I felt really stupid for calling him like this. I know I sounded like an idiot. I took a deep breath. “I’ll call you later… you know… for a chat.” I said. I hope he realizes that I mean it this time. When he didn’t answer, I said quietly. “I miss you.” It was a whisper. I don’t know if he heard it. But I meant it. One week had passed since the last time we saw each other. I made no effort to call him or text him. That doesn't mean I didn’t want to. For days, I have been staring at his phone number on my cell… but I was too scared to make the call. Besides, he didn't call me either.
I heard his sharp intake of breath. “Do you mean that?” He asked.
My heart pounded inside my ribcage. I was scared to answer but I still decided to answer with the truth. “Well… yes. Of course.” I said very, very quietly, I am not even sure he heard me. My Aunt smiled at me. I guess, I was blushing like hell!
Ryder didn’t say anything on the other line, much to my disappointment. I took a deep breath. “We need to go. We’re boarding in like… fifteen minutes.” I said. “I’ll give you a call… if I get lost… you can be my personal GPS.” I giggled nervously. Still there was silence so I decided to hang up.
I was irritated, embarrassed and angry at myself. When I raised my chin up, I found the three pairs of eyes still eyeing me curiously.
I sighed. “He’s… on a business trip. He would love to see you but he said… if only we told him two hours ago, he could have canceled his… trip.”
“We’ll just stay in Astoria when we get there.” My Uncle said.
I was still scolding myself all throughout the flight. I was being silly! What was I thinking phoning Ryder in front of my family? I could have just told them straight that he’s in Paris! I could have texted him later to tell him that I told my family that he was in Paris because they expected to see him in Manhattan.
When we landed in New York and went out of the airport, all ready to get into the next available cab, I was shocked to find a familiar figure approaching us
“Oh my God!” I breathed as I watch Ryder walk towards me.
He had a twinkle in his eye and then he pulled me to him and bent down to give me a kiss on the lips. It was a soft, undemanding kiss... almost yearning, almost begging, and it left me almost begging for more.
“How’s my girl?” He asked me.
I looked up at him, I whispered, “Wonderful.” I cannot find my voice. Too many questions are racing in my head. He smiled at me, then he gave me a kiss on the forehead before he turned to my family.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He nodded at both my Mother and my Aunt. Then he turned to Uncle Reynolds. “Good afternoon, Sir.”
“Lovely to see you again, Ryder!” Aunt Betty said. “Astrid said you were out of town!”
Ryder nodded. “I was just about to go to Chicago for a meeting when she called me. It’s not everyday I get a call from her telling me that she’s on her way to me. So… I canceled everything else.”
My Mother and Aunt Betty looked like they were about to cry after hearing that. “It’s good to know that she’s on your priority list.” My mother said.
“She’s number one, Ma’am.” Ryder said smiling. Then he motioned to the parking lot. “Let me take you to your hotel.” Ryder led us to a black Porsche Cayenne. He drove us to Waldorf-Astoria.
“I hope you don’t mind, when Astrid said you were going to visit, I took the liberty of booking a suite for you.” He told Uncle Reynolds at the front desk.
“Lovely.” My Uncle said and he took out his credit card.
Ryder held his hand up. “No worries, Sir. My city, my treat.” He smiled at them.
“That’s very generous of you.” My mother said beaming.
The bellman took our bags. “This way, Mr. Van Woodsen.”
As we made our way to the elevator doors, employees of the hotel were smiling at us, greeting Ryder all the way. The room that Ryder booked for us was massive. It was probably the most expensive room in the hotel.
“We’ll be having this room.” Aunt Betty said going to one of the rooms.
We took the room with a very good view of Manhattan. “Mom and I will have this one.” I said.
My Aunt stared at me. “Aren’t you going to stay with Ryder, dear? I mean, you don’t see each other everyday. You may have a lot of catching up to do.”
I shook my head, “No…” I started.
“Actually, if it’s okay with you, Ma’am, I would rather Astrid stays with me in my apartment. It’s only a few blocks away and you’re welcome to visit anytime.” He asked my mother without looking at me.
“Not a problem. I’m sure you two lovebirds missed each other over the week.”
“Very much, Ma’am.” Ryder said.
Damn it! Why is he doing this? I asked myself helplessly
“I’ll give you time to settle in.” Ryder said. “Freshen up. Do you have any particular agenda for the day?”
My Uncle shook his head. “We just want to go around the city. Have dinner. Hey, maybe I can finally eat in one of your restaurants. It was very hard to get a booking.”
Ryder smiled. “Certainly, Sir. Where do you prefer
“Hmmm… I’ve always tried to reserve at Sugu but they’re always fully booked.”
Ryder chuckled. “Yes. Business is good. Japanese food is a seller. I will make the necessary arrangements. Meanwhile, Astrid and I will go to my place first. We will see you after two hours? We can probably have some snack and then I’ll take you wherever you wanna go.”
I stared at Ryder. He was not even looking at me. It was as if he isn’t giving me a chance to say no to his plans. I looked at my mother and my aunt and they’re quite excited. Damn! I think they’re in love with the guy! He’s such a charmer. Even my Uncle seems to approve of him very much. Now, how can my next real boyfriend compete with my current fake fiancé?
As we set out to go, Aunt Betty called to me, “Astrid, I heard your ring was huge! When will we get to see it?”
I stared at Ryder nervously. He chuckled. “Today, Ma’am. I took it from her last week to have it polished. I was planning to give it back to her when I see her this weekend. It’s wonderful that you decided to go to New York and drag her along with you. It’s been a miserable few days for me.”
“Wow! You’re so sweet, aren’t you?” My mother sighed and she looked like she was on the brink of crying again.
“Now, off you go, lovebirds! We’ll see you after two hours.” My aunt said,shooing us away, as if she was afraid my mother will say something that I wouldn’t like or would embarrass me in front of Ryder.
I didn’t talk to Ryder on the way to his apartment. I was mad at him. He ruined my alibi! He’s doing his part too well… It’s not just a job well done, it’s an overkill! It’s almost as if he’s really trying to gain my family’s approval! And he’s not afraid to use his charms and his… privileges to achieve that!
He took me to a penthouse apartment. All throughout the ride, he also didn’t attempt to talk to me. He swiped his access card and the elevator opened up to a huge apartment, much bigger than the suite that he rented for my family. It has a huge fireplace, a billiards table, a huge plasma, entertainment system. He has a sofa set and a massive rug in front of the fireplace. Towards the center, beside the door leading to the balcony that has a wonderful view of the Empire State building is a huge king-sized bed. His apartment is one massive space, no separate bedroom.
I turned to him. He put my bags down on the floor. He raised a brow at me and asked, “Do you think you can talk to me now?”
Now, I remembered that I was mad at him. I was so irritated, I didn’t want to speak, so I just started hitting him, mildly on his arms.
“Wait! Wait!” He caught my wrists to prevent me from hitting him again. I glared at him.
He laughed. Then he leaned forward and kissed my forehead. He pulled me to him and wrapped him arms around my waist.
“Boy, am I glad you’re here!” He whispered against my hair.
Suddenly he's hugging me and I knew he meant what he said… He was glad that I was here with him.
I stared up at him and I can see the circles under his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’m just tired. It’s been a long week.” Ryder pulled me to him again and rested his chin against my head.
“Ryder… you didn’t have to do this!” I said. “You could’ve just stayed away. Even my mother could understand why you wouldn’t be able to see us. You didn’t have to… go against my plan!”
“And what? Have your mother think that I can only give you a fraction of my time?” He asked. “I told you I’ll never be too busy to see my girl.”
“And I told you this is a fake engagement!” I muttered under my breath.
“I think you also told me you miss me.” He countered.
I pulled away from him. I knew I was blushing from head to feet. I was so embarrassed. I know I did say that. And I did mean it. But when I said that to him, I thought I wouldn’t have to face him for at least another week!
He brushed his fingers against my burning cheek. “God, I missed that blush!” He said, adding to my embarrassment. He stared at me deeply. “And I missed you too.” He said. “And I will never pass up the chance to play your fiancé again. So… just… humor me for a while.”
“Ryder… I know you’re busy. This is too many favors already.” I said.
I felt him shake his head. “I’m really glad you came.” He said. “I could use some time to unwind.”
“And you need me to do that?” I asked.
He hugged me again and then he took a deep breath. He didn’t say anything. Somehow, I knew that he’s been stressed out and he was glad to see an ally… a friendly face, someone on his side who wouldn’t put any pressures on him, instead, attempt to take that pressure away. I wanted to help him too… in what little way I can. So I wound my arms around his waist and hugged him back.
“Thank you, Ryder.” I said quietly. “I don’t think my family would be doubting that this… relationship isn’t real. You’re not some random guy I picked to pretend to be in love with me so I could escape the embarrassment of a broken engagement.” I sighed. “You’re doing more than you should. You didn’t have to pay for their hotel rooms. I have to pay you back.”
“Shhh.” He said. “My city, my treat. Besides, it’s the first time you visited me here. It’s my treat to you.”
“It's an expensive treat! Ryder, you have to stop spoiling me!” I groaned.
He laughed. Then he pulled away from me and to my surprise he bent down and swept me off my feet and carried me towards the bed.
“Hey!” I complained. But I don’t really know what I was complaining about. I stared at Ryder and he looked tired, as if he hasn’t slept in days. “Are you okay?” I asked him.
He stared at me and then he smiled. “I didn’t sleep last night.”
“I’ve just opened Rig Style Manhattan.” He replied. “Two bartenders didn’t show up. I had to fill in. And then by the time I closed at six in the morning, I had to fill in for my Dad in meeting his accountant who just flew in from L.A. The meeting just finished when you gave me a call.”
He settled me on the bed. I kicked off my sandals. Ryder took off his jacket and his shoes. He lied on the bed beside me. He looked really tired.
“I really shouldn’t have imposed on you.” I said guilty.
He smiled. “I just need one hour to recharge.” He said. I stared at him. He looked like he didn’t sleep for days. He was stressed. But he still has a smile on his face. His eyes still has that glitter. He looked like a happy man, albeit, really tired. And saying he just needed one hour and he’ll be able to entertain my family again was too endearing fo
I reached and touched his cheek with my hand.
He smiled at me and then he reached forward and pulled me to him. My heart pounded in my chest. Is he going to kiss me
But he didn’t kiss me. Instead he pulled me to lie down next to him, making me rest my head on his shoulder, enclosing me in a hug.
“Lie with me for a while?” He whispered
How could I say no to that? It was too sweet! And because I thought I would scream the minute I open my mouth, I just nodded.
I felt him kiss the top of my head. Then he drifted off to sleep with me locked in his arms.
I didn’t know how I was going to feel. I knew I was attracted to Ryder. I meant, physically attracted. I think he’s hot and the touch of his skin burns me every single time. But this… this is not the same. This isn’t sexiness or physical attraction. This is… warmth and comfort.
As much as I would like to deny it, because I know I’m not ready for a relationship just yet, this… feels wonderful. I felt comfortable, and warm. As if there’s no place I would rather be. As if he really does belong to me.
I fell asleep myself and my dreams were filled with warmth and laughter. I woke up after an hour and a half. I was still locked in Ryder’s arms, my head comfortably rested on his shoulder. He smelled of faint aftershave, fresh and masculine.
He tightened his hug on me and then I felt him kiss the top of my head again.
“Astrid.” He whispered.
I thought he was calling me, waking me up. However, when I looked up at him, I realized he was still sleeping. Instantly, I felt warm. He whispered my name in his sleep! I smiled to myself, unable to believe that it could be real. I buried my head deeper into his shoulder and I closed my eyes.
I woke up after another thirty minutes. I stared up at Ryder. He opened his eyes lazily and he stared back at me. He smiled.
“Ready to go?” He asked. “Up to you. Are you sure you don’t need any more sleep?”
He smiled. “I said one hour. I think I had two. I should be fine.
“Alright.” I said. I slowly pulled away from him and sat up from the bed. I looked around his apartment.
“Ultimate bachelor’s pad.” I whispered.
“I’ve lived here since I was twenty-five.” He said. “The house in Malibu is more like… entering into adulthood.”
I giggled. “Yeah. And you stay here a lot don’t you?”
He shrugged. “I travel at least at least six times a month. I stay in Malibu about two nights a week. I can’t really say I stay here a lot.”
“Must be tough being you, Ryder.” I whispered. “You have the world in your hands. It’s… hard to keep up with you. No wonder you couldn’t find a steady girl to introduce to your friends.”
“I introduced you.” He said.
I laughed. “Not the sham relationship, you know. The real one.”
He stood up from the bed. “Well, as far as your family and my friends are concerned, I have a real, happy relationship. And we need to go, so I can make an impression on my future mother-in-law.”
I laughed. “I think they’re already in love with you, Ryder.”
“I seem to be winning every one of your relative’s approval, except yours.”
“That’s because I was the only one who knew you were acting.” I giggled.
He stared at me for a while and then he turned away and opened the drawer on his bedside table. He took a box out and then opened it. It was my ring… I mean, the ring he gave me. He took the ring from the box and held his hand out to me.
“What? I said I will not wear that ring again… unless you find a good reason why I should.” I said.
“Your mother expects to see it on your finger tonight. How about that?” He asked, his eyes filled with challenge.
I raised a brow at him but I knew he was right. My mother and my aunt would be looking for this ring.
I held my hand out to take the ring from him. He raised a brow at me and then he took my hand and placed the ring on my finger instead.
“You know I will be returning the ring before I go.”
“I’ll find a reason soon enough. And after that, who knows? You won’t be taking that ring off your finger ever.” He said and I think I forgot to breathe for a whole minute.
I sighed and stared at the gorgeous ring on my finger. And somehow, I had to remind myself that it all was a sham.
“It will break their hearts if they find out we aren’t for real.” I said.
“They don’t have to find out, you know.” He said.
I sighed. “Yeah. But we’ll have to invent the breakup story of the century.” I smiled at him. “Don’t worry. It will be my fault. Let’s blame it all on me.”
“You don’t have to break their hearts.” He said. “At least not yet.”
I nodded. “Works either way, Ryder. Let me know anytime you can’t pretend to be my perfect fiancé anymore.”
And somehow that thought pinched my heart.
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