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I found my mother in deep conversation with my aunt. When she saw us coming, she turned away, but not before I saw that her eyes were glistening with tears.
I raised a brow at my aunt, but she merely shrugged.
We went back to the hotel. Uncle Reynolds and Ryder had coffee in the living room and I figured it was time to speak to my mom and aunt privately.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
She shook her head.
“Mother, I’m not a child anymore. Tell me what’s wrong.”
All of a sudden she launched into a fit.
“Oh my God, Mom!” I said, hugging her.
“Your… father is having an affair!” she burst out.
“It’s been going on for a while now!” she cried.
“How can you be so sure? Did he confess?”
She shook her head. “But I know… I just know.”
“Mom, you can’t accuse Dad without proof! How can you tell?”
“He’s always away… he’s talking to someone secretly on the phone… I know he’s having an affair!”
“Mother, come on. You can’t be sure so don’t stress yourself out. Dad is innocent until proven guilty.”
I tried to console my mother. I knew my dad. He couldn’t be having an affair. He was too sweet for that. He was a responsible guy.
Ryder didn’t say much to me on our way back to his apartment. But he held my hand. I was happy about the silence and the comfort he provided.
When we reached his apartment, I picked up my phone and gave my father a call. He wasn’t answering. I tried about ten times, no success.
I stared over at the wonderful New York view from Ryder’s balcony. Tears threatened to pour down. How could my mother think that my dad was cheating? Maybe Mom was just being paranoid about the whole thing.
Suddenly, I felt arms wrap around me from behind. Ryder kissed my neck gently.
“Are you ready to talk?” he asked.
I sighed. “I don’t even know what to say,” I said. “My mother thinks my father is cheating. I tried calling my dad, but he wasn’t picking up.”
“How do you feel about it?”
“Confused. I love them both. But if Dad really is cheating, I don’t think I’ll be able to forgive him either. I know what it's like to be cheated on. It’s ugly and it hurts.”
“But you’re better off now, aren’t you?” he asked.
I turned around to face him so I could look into his eyes. “Which Ryder are you now? Ryder, the multi-millionaire, or Ryder, the substitute bartender who saved me from hell?”
“I’m Ryder Van Woodsen, the guy who would go to hell and back for you,” he whispered. “Doesn’t matter whether I’m rich or poor.”
I smiled at him. “Then yes. I’m definitely better off now,” I whispered.
He leaned down and kissed me gently. After the kiss, I sighed and gave him a hug. I leaned my head on his shoulder.
I closed my eyes and inhaled his sweet masculine scent. Ryder, whether rich or poor, was my solid rock. And he’d become more precious to me each second. I wished I were ready to jump into a new relationship. I wished Kevin Moore hadn’t made me feel I would never be good enough to date a filthy rich guy. I wished Bryan hadn’t taught me to protect my heart with my life. I wished Ryder was just a simple guy who would rather hold my heart in his hands than the world full of power and privilege. I wished things were just as easy as ABC or 123. I wished this moment with Ryder would be frozen for eternity. Right here. Right now. Where I was not afraid to open up my heart again. And Ryder wasn’t cynical about women dating him for his money. Here, where we were on equal footing. So I wouldn’t have to worry about broken hearts or shattered dreams.
“Can you stay like this forever?” I whispered.
He tightened his arms around me. He sighed. “Can you stay like this forever?” he asked back.
“We’re complicated, Ryder.”
He shook his head. “No. You are complicated, Astrid. Me, I know what I want. It’s you who has to figure out what you want.”
I whispered, “You can’t really want me.”
He took a deep breath. “But I do! God, I want you… so much!” There was frustration in his voice.
I stared up at him. “Ryder, I’m not ready for a relationship yet. And even if I were, I’m afraid you are more than I can handle.”
“I want to kill whoever made you like this!” he whispered.
I shook my head. “It’s not just that, Ryder. I don’t want to get heartbroken again… especially not by you. I don’t want to lose you, Ryder. So let’s just… stay as we are. Uncomplicated. Friends.”
He took a deep breath. When he looked back at me, I think I saw defeat in his eyes. Then finally he said, “You’re still in New York. And we still have a deal.” He bent to give me a thorough kiss on the lips. Then he swung me up in his arms bridal style and carried me to bed.
When we reached Malibu and I said goodbye to my family, I didn’t feel like going home just yet.
“Wanna grab a bite?” Ryder asked.
I smiled at him and squeezed his hand. It was like he could read my thoughts loud and clear.
I nodded. He smiled at me. Then he drove to Oil Rig. The place was packed, but he led me to a reserved VIP area. He asked what I wanted to eat.
“Boy, I could really eat some steak, huh!”
He laughed. “Alright. You deserve some comfort food. Steak it is!”
My phone rang. It was Dannie. “Are you still in New York?”
“Nope. Just got back to Malibu,” I replied.
“Where are you?”
“Just got to Oil Rig.”
“We were there a couple of minutes ago. It’s packed! Did you get a table?”
“Yeah. I’m having dinner here!”
“How did you manage that? The line was too damn long!”
“I’m with… Ryder.”
“Well, of course!” I didn’t miss the sarcasm in his voice.
I sighed. “I don’t have time for this Dannie. My parents are having a big fight! I just want to forget about them for a while.”
“Oh shoot! I’m sorry!” he said apologetically. “Can we join you there?”
I looked at Ryder and he knew what I was about to ask him before I opened my mouth. “Three?”
“Send them in, I’ll give instructions at the reception,” he said.
I smiled at him. “Thanks.”
In a few minutes, Nicole, Dannie and John joined us.
I told them about New York and how my mother went there to get her mind off her fight with my father. Ryder dined with us and then he excused himself for a while to check up on his staff.
“Oh my God!” Nicole beamed looking at me. “I’m dying to ask! What is that on your neck?”
“Um… a necklace?”
“Did you buy that or did you get that as a present from your very rich boyfriend?” Dannie asked.
“He’s not my boyfriend!” I protested.
“But he gave you that?” Dannie asked.
I sighed. They knew I couldn’t afford the necklace yet, so there’s no point in lying to them.
“Yeah, he did. And don’t ask me why,” I said.
“And you’re wearing your engagement ring again!” Nicole said surveying my finger.
“I had to. My mother knew about the engagement. They were looking for a ring. Ryder had to give it back to me.”
“So he never returned the ring after you returned it to him?” John asked.
I shook my head.
“What’s this? He’s got a standby engagement ring handy?” John teased.
I glared at John before Ryder returned to our table. Then Nicole and Dannie asked me to dance.
“He’s watching you,” Dannie whispered against my ear.
“Who else?” Dannie said looking over at our table. I turned around and saw Ryder with John. He was looking at me. When our eyes met, he winked.
“I think he really likes you,” Nicole said.
“He plays his part very well!” I said. “Too well, I’m afraid my family will be heartbroken if we break this thing off. It’s not real. You guys have to remember that.”
“Well, tell that to him not us!” Nicole said evenly.
“Do you like him?” Dannie asked.
I sighed. “Yes. But do I want my heart to be broken again? No.”
“But you want him.”
“I’ve wanted him from the moment I met him. But it’s… complicated. And I don’t want to risk my heart or my friendship with him for something that might not last forever.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“Because I’ve been there before. Guys like Ryder have fun with girls like me, but at the end of the day, their families expect them to marry within their own circle.”
“Ash, one rich guy shot you down. Who knows? Maybe Ryder is different!” Nicole said.
“Do I really want to risk everything we have just to prove myself wrong?” I asked.
“Don’t you think he’s worth the shot?” Dannie asked.
“Guys, I came here to have a bit of fun so I could forget that my parents’ marriage may be on the rocks. Leave Ryder and I alone for a while, okay?”
The two finally let it go, but I knew the looks on their faces. Someday, if I regret my decision not to go after Ryder, I had two best friends who would tell me, “I told you so.”
It was one in the morning when we decided to go home. I’d had six bottles of alcohol and was feeling tipsy.
“I’ll take you home,” Ryder offered. I said goodbye to my friends and let Ryder lead me to his car.
When will you be back to Manhattan?” I asked him.
“Tomorrow, six a.m.,” he replied. He looked at me wearily. “Are you sure you want to be alone?” he asked reaching out for my hand.
I intertwined our fingers. It felt warm and I instantly felt comforted. I didn’t answer, but tears were rolling down my cheeks.
He knew the answer even though I didn’t say anything. The next thing I knew, he was parking his car in front of his house.
He opened the car door for me. I’m not sure what I was doing here, but I was sure it was a lot better than whining inside my room alone.
He lit the fireplace in his living room. Then he pulled me to sit beside him on the couch. My heart pounded in my chest. He promised not to make any move on me. The deal we had expired the minute we left New York.
He put his arms around me and held me.
“It’s okay, love. You can cry if you want to. For now, that’s all you can do. At least it will make you feel better,” he said gently.
I buried my face on his chest and let the tears fall again. But now, I knew I was not alone. I had Ryder with me… my savior, my rock.
I must have fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, I was resting comfortably against soft mattresses. Light was seeping through the glass doors. I could hear the soothing sound of the waves on the ocean.
I propped up my elbows and found myself lying on Ryder’s soft bed, with the comforters draped over me to keep me warm. There was no sign of Ryder. I looked at my wristwatch for the time. It was already nine in the morning. I sat up and found myself dressed in a big baggy shirt that I was sure was Ryder’s.
I remembered that he had to take the six a.m. flight. Did he cancel his trip?
I stood up from the bed and went out of the bedroom.
“Ryder!” I called. No answer.
I went to his living room. There were keys on the table, and there was a note under them.
I hope you’ll be okay while I’m gone. There’s a meeting in Manhattan that I can’t miss. Otherwise, I would have stayed.Keep the keys with you until I come back. You’re welcome to stay here anytime you want… in fact, I would like it if you do.
Don’t worry too much. Things will fall into place soon. And if they don’t, you know I’ll always be here for you. You just say the word…
Call me as soon as you wake up.
By the way, you can arm and disarm the alarm system. The passcode is 278743.
I read the note a couple of times. Tears rolled down my eyes again. But this time, I wasn’t crying because of my parents’ problems. I was crying because I missed Ryder already.
He’d been the epitome of strength to me. He’s been there in my darkest hours. He helped me get back on my feet. He’d been too sweet, too kind. And every day, I wished more and more that he was not a complicated man. That he was just the boy next door that I could hope to have an ‘ever after’ with. So I wouldn’t be scared to take a chance with him.
I dialed his number. He answered in one ring. “Good morning, love,” he greeted cheerily.
“Do you feel better?”
“Yeah. Except I need coffee,” I said.
He laughed. “I have a coffee maker in the kitchen. Water’s in the fridge.”
I walked over to his fridge. Its only contents were a box of milk, a pitcher of water, a box of orange juice and a pack of butter.
“Do you live in this place at all?” I asked giggling. “Your fridge is almost empty.”
He sighed. “I can’t really trust the maids to refill the fridge.”
“So what do you do when you’re here and you need to… eat?”
“I order out. Or I call the bar and have one of the guys bring me food. Or I just simply go out.”
“Don’t you want to stock up your fridge at all? I mean, you’re here at least once a week.”
“Well, I just don’t have the time to do the grocery shopping.”
“Oh well, would you have time for anything other than work?”
“I have time to be your fiancé, don’t I?”
I felt guilty. That was true. No matter how busy he was, Ryder magically found the time to pose as my devoted fiancé in front of my family.
“I’m sorry I impose on you too much.”
“Why are you sorry?” he asked. “I like being your fiancé.”
I sighed. I wished it were true. That he really likes being my fiancé… and not just for the sake of the charade.
I broke the uncomfortable silence that followed. “I forgot to give you back your ring.”
“It’s your ring, Astrid,” he said in a serious tone.
“Ryder… I don’t want to have this argument anymore.”
“Neither do I,” he replied.
I held out my hand and looked at the beautiful ring on my finger.
“You don’t give thirty thousand dollar diamond rings to strangers, Ryder.”
“You’re not a stranger, Astrid.”
“You promised you’d find a good reason. Our engagement in New York was just make believe. So I’m compelled to give this back to you.”
He laughed. “Alright. You win,” he said. “Just hold on to it until I get back.”
“Can’t I leave it here?”
“No. Please. My safe will be installed next week. It’s more secure on your finger. I promise I’ll take it back when I see you.”
“When are you coming back?”
“A couple of days.”
“Alright. I’ll have coffee and then I’ll lock up,” I said.
“Hold on to the key for me,” he said. “Ash…”
“You can go there anytime you want.”
I laughed. “Ryder, you go to another person’s house to visit them. Why will I go here if you’re not here?”
“Well, just in case you need a change of scene.” He chuckled.
I walked over to his living room. “Hmmm… that I can use.” I looked at his movie collection. “Have you watched all these movies?”
“Some,” he replied. “Some I’m finding time to watch.”
I read some of the titles on his huge collection. “Let’s see what sort of movies Ryder Van Woodsen fancies… The Godfather, Scarface, The Godfather II, The Godfather III… you’re an Al Pacino fan.” I went all the way to the other side. “There you go! Notting Hill, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Runaway Bride, Stepmom… you’re a fan of Julia Roberts, too. Hey, there’s a movie I’d like to watch! Pretty Woman!”
“You haven’t seen Pretty Woman?” he asked.
“In passing,” I said. “My friends in college were watching it once, I was cramming for an exam the next day.”
“Hmmm… you can watch it.”
“One of these days, when I need to unwind, I just might treat myself to a pizza and a movie here at your place.”
“You’re welcome anytime. You have the keys,” he said.
We chatted for another ten minutes and then I said goodbye to him. Then I finished my coffee and went off.
For the next few days, I kept my mind off my parents’ problems by keeping myself busy. Ryder and I had been texting each other almost every hour. He narrated what happened each day to me. I did the same. Every night, he would call me and we would talk until one of us would fall asleep. It was like he was not in Manhattan at all. Like, he was just right there beside me.
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