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Adam asked me to have dinner with him. I knew my cousin better. He only invites me over for dinner to either drop a bomb on my head or he’ll touch base on what’s going on with the business. So even though it was casual, I was ready with the figures in my head, just in case he asks.
“Business is good?” He asked casually.
“I knew you took me to dinner for a reason!” I accused, pointing a finger at him.
He chuckled. “Just asking.”
I smiled at him. “It’s great!” I said. “In a few months, you’ll see those figures going green.”
“Maybe it’s time to expand.”
I stared at him. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “Well, my investor saw the last reports we gave and he… was impressed. They see opportunities in bigger cities and asked if you were willing to take the business there.”
“Adam, it’s too soon.” Although I admit I have been thinking about this.
He smiled. “And yet look how far you’ve gone! The numbers you’re giving me plus the ones on your pipeline are pretty impressive.”
“Wow!” I breathed. My heart jumped for joy. It’s always good to be complimented for a job well done… especially by Adam. “Tell them, I’m flattered. It’s good to know that your investors understand that businesses take time to earn profits, but we are going on an amazing rate.”
“That’s why he’s serious about branching out.” He said.
Talk about luck. It seems so timely for Adam’s friends to think about branching out. Just a couple of weeks ago, Ryder was mentioning the same thing to me.
“I’m thrilled, Adam! But it’s a huge step! I don’t think I’ve even proven myself here.”
He smiled. “I think you’ve proven yourself enough for him to believe that this idea will work if taken upscale too.”
“It will take a lot of money!” I said wearily.
“And my investor has deep pockets!” He grunted.
“As soon as you say yes, I guess. You can work out the proposal.”
“What will happen to this branch? Will they close this down? I don’t think I can bear that. This is my baby.”
He laughed. “Relax. You can run two branches, can’t you? This branch will still stay. You can hire someone to oversee everything so you don’t need to be hands on, and then you can build the second branch.”
We discussed the possibilities. By the end of dinner, he convinced me that this may be a big step, but it’s a great opportunity for me. I told him I’ll hire Nicole to manage the Malibu branch. Ryder crossed my mind, and I knew the first city I’ll look into.
“Can I choose where to go?”
“My investor already has a city in mind.”
My heart sank. What if I don’t like the place they want to go to? I hope Adam doesn’t say Timbuktu or anywhere outside the country.
“Wh-where?” I asked wearily.
“New York. Manhattan.”
Wow! Talk about luck! Or… fate! I do have my heart set on Manhattan. Because Ryder is there. I’ve been there. Ryder already showed me the places where I could get supplies.
That was really good! But you know, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
My hands started getting cold. A thought played in my mind and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was afraid to ask Adam. I know I still have to, because if I don’t, that thought would not let me sleep at night.
When Adam took the check, I asked, “Adam… you have very rich friends don’t you?”
“Well, yeah. It’s good for my job.”
“This investor or investors, aren’t they asking to take some profits now?”
“The red figures on the report decreases every month. Now we’re on breakeven. When you invest here and there, you know the rules. I’m sure the pressure to see the green will not come until after three months or more.”
“How many investors were there?” I asked.
“One.” He replied. Then he stood up. “Come, let’s go.”
While we’re waiting for the valet to bring Adam’s car, I asked, “Is there another investor who came up to you and suggested a branch in Manhattan would be a good potential? Or is this the same guy?”
He looked at me and drew his brows together. “Why are you asking these questions, Ash?”
I shrugged. “Putting up a new branch takes a lot of money. I just want to know if we’ll answer to more than one guy if we branch out in Manhattan. Different people respond to different types of news.”
“Same guy, Ash. Let me worry about that. You just do what you do best.” Adam replied in an irritated tone.
The car came and Adam and I drove to my place. I was still lost in thought. Adam’s news is great! But somehow, I find it too great! And just too much of a coincidence!
“Why so quiet?” Adam asked.
I took a deep breath. “I’m thinking, Adam.”
“Hey, you can think!” Adam said with a feigned shocked expression on his face.
“Ha-ha! Very funny. And I’m usually smart too! That’s why I feel compelled to ask… You have one investor. Is his name Ryder Van Woodsen?”
Adam didn’t answer. I stared at him. He was staring ahead at the road. I counted. One, two, three… it seemed to go on forever. Nine, Ten. Still Adam didn’t respond and that alone told me the answer I was waiting for.
“Oh my God!” I threw my hands up in the air. Adam bit his lip. It seems that for the first time in many years, he didn’t know what to say.
“Why what?” He asked.
“Why did you do this?”
“Do what, Astrid?” He asked back. “Allow the guy to invest in your talent because he believes in you? Because he doesn’t want you to waste your brilliance working for people who would only take advantage of you? Or allow him to help you get back on your feet and see yourself the way he sees you?”
I can tell that Adam was holding back his anger. But I can’t do the same! I was too humiliated. Ryder was playing me all along! I was a business investment! He said he knew the reason why he’s doing me all these favors… and now I do too! He’s making sure he doesn’t invest in a losing venture!
Adam and I started working on this business even before I found out that Ryder Woodson, my bartender, is really Ryder Van Woodsen, the heir born with a silver spoon! When I thought I would never see him again, he’s been there all along! Investing in me. Banking on my talents!
We stopped in front of my house.
“Look Ash… Ryder came to me and said he thought you were brilliant at what you do and didn’t want your talents to go to waste. Plus, he thought that you working on what you do best, and what you love the most would restore your spirits, that he so adores from the moment he met you.
“He was looking at investing in something other than what his family’s been doing for decades anyway. He thought it would be perfect if you start your own wedding planning company. He didn’t want you to know it was him… because he knew you would never agree. So he asked me to take over. But he wanted nothing to do with it. He’s just a capitalist. He just wanted reports on a monthly basis to see the progress. He wanted you to have full control.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And worse, I didn’t know how to feel! I’ll always thank Ryder for my recovery. My getting back on the wedding planning business was the only thing I thought I didn’t owe him. But I was wrong. What was he trying to do? Was he buying me?
“How could you not tell me this, Adam? You know I’ve been torn by lies already. How can you not warn me?”
Adam took a deep breath and I can tell he felt guilty. “Ash… I wanted to. But back when we started all this, you didn’t know that the date you brought to that wedding really was the Ryder Van Woodsen. I was right, you were hell bent on hating him when you found out. Then, when you finally found your common ground, I didn’t know how to tell you anymore. And believe it or not, Ryder also didn’t know how without losing you. For all it’s worth, Ash, I think the guy’s crazy about you. Give him some credit.”
“What credit? For tricking me into managing his business venture?” venture?”
“For getting you back on your feet! For believing in you when you didn’t believe in yourself anymore, and employing all means to make sure that you do again!” He said angrily.
I was upset because I felt manipulated and played. Ryder Van Woodsen, his money and his silly games!
I went out of Adam’s car.
“Ash!” He ran after me. “Please be rational about the whole thing. Just think about how good Ryder had been for you.”
“Maybe that’s the problem, Adam. He’s too good for me! And now, I found out that I was a business venture! Welcome to the lifestyle of the rich and the famous, right?”
Adam closed his eyes in dismay. Then he threw his hands in the air. “Alright, fine! I’ve told you everything I know. Maybe it’s time you wake up from this dream and face reality Ash! It’s time to break your fake relationship with Van Woodsen so you can finally see the difference between what’s fake and what’s real!”
“Well, Adam, I can’t break up with Ryder if he wasn’t really my boyfriend, can I?” I asked back angrily.
“Are you sure, he’s not your boyfriend, Ash?”
He stared at me intensely. I opened my mouth to respond but surprisingly, no sound came out. I guess… I wasn’t entirely sure what my answer would be.
Adam sighed. “ And for your information, he’s only willing to invest in Manhattan if you’re a hundred percent sure you want to move there. Otherwise, he’s willing to fly in and out of L.A. as frequent as it takes.”
He gave me one hard look and then he was gone.
I was trying to sort out the way I feel. It’s been a while since I felt heartbroken, and now, I’m feeling like that again. But why do I feel this way about something that isn’t really mine? Ryder and I were nothing, and we could never be anything!
So he’s my boss. I work for him. Now, it’s even more complicated.
But shouldn’t it be complicated only if I was dating him for real? We’re friends! A couple of times, we did slip away from the boundaries of morality… but who doesn’t sell herself to the devil for a few moments of heaven once in a while.
Maybe Adam is right. It’s time to face reality. Because in reality, as I know it, Ryder and I are nothing. No commitments. No strings attached. He’s done me plenty of favors, I’ve repaid my debt. He invested in my talents, I’ve established his business. In a few months, I’ll be able to show him profits, and then I’m free to go. It gives me time to look for something else, somewhere else. It won't be a lost investment for him because I will hand it over to somebody capable… someone like Nicole.
It’s time to wake up from this dream and start facing reality. I will tell my family that I broke up with Ryder. He’s too serious about getting married, whereas, I have learned the value of not rushing into things when I broke up with Bryan. I wanted to enjoy single-hood, and he wanted to settle down right away. I’ll tell them that as much as he is a good catch, I’m not good enough for him now.
A huge part of me felt shattered. As if I really did break up with Ryder… as if the relationship was real.
I met up with my friends the next night and I told them the truth.
“What?” I asked. “Are you not going to say anything?”
Dannie sighed. “I would. But you’re not going to like it.”
I raised a brow at him. When did Dannie care about my feelings when he opens his mouth and lets his brains spill out? “Say it!”
He shrugged. “Are you sure Ryder isn’t your boyfriend?”
“He’s a friend. Sometimes, he’s a fling. Because I wasn’t ready to date just yet.”
“That’s dense, Ash!” Nicole said crossly. “You were ready to date ages ago! You just didn’t want to. You don’t feel the need to because Ryder’s there!”
“He’s my rock!” I sighed. “But I knew from the start that we could never be! Whatever we had was temporary! We’re like the best of friends. But beyond that… I’m scared it wouldn’t last. So… I would rather have him as a friend forever.”
“Then why aren’t you dating anybody else? Not even one date, Ash! Your thoughts, your time, your days are pre-occupied by Ryder Van Woodsen and you didn’t mind. In fact, you loved it! So he’s not nothing to you!”
“He’s not!” I said crossly. “He’s… a dream. And it’s time to wake up now.”
They looked at each other wearily. Then Dannie said to me, “Okay. Try. One date. Go out with another guy. Maybe you’ll be able to tell the difference.
“I’m not sure I’m ready.” I sighed.
“You’re ready to have a relationship, Ash! You’re so over Bryan, which was the point of your whole charade with Ryder! But still you refused to date because you’re not waking up from your dream, if that’s what Ryder is! It’s him you want!” Nicole said.
“It doesn’t matter! Guys like Ryder want you for a while… but in the end, they are bound to marry their female counterparts. Rich. Privileged.”
“Then try going out with somebody else. Maybe you don’t need to move on from Bryan anymore. You need to move on from Ryder!”
That thought still echoes in my head until the next day. I wasn’t myself when I met with the preferred photographer of one of my clients.
Ryder hasn’t called me or texted me in days. Ten bucks say that he’s already spoken to Adam. Maybe even the great Ryder Van Woodsen needs time to make up excuses!
“You okay?” Tyler asked.
I shook myself back to reality. “I’m sorry. I just… didn’t have much sleep last night. You were saying?
He smiled. “I’ll show you these styles in the coffee shop around the corner. I can use some caffeine as well.” I stretched out from my seat. “You’re probably right.”
We went to Starbucks. After getting our coffee, we discussed the shots that the bride would like to take specifically. I suggested places, and took down the list of establishments I have to contact to make the arrangements.
Afterwards, Tyler and I had a chat about the business. When we finished, I stood up and gathered my things.
“Tomorrow night.” Tyler said. “I have a little get-together with some photographers I know. Do you want to come as my date?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry.”
If Tyler was surprised, he didn’t show it. In fact, I think he was more amused when I turned him down.
“Just broken up?”
I didn’t answer. I have gotten out of a bad relationship a long time ago. And yet… why am I turning down a date with Tyler? “Okay. I’ll change my answer. Yes, I’ll come with you as your date.”
There is nothing wrong with saying yes to Tyler. It is probably the first time I’ve been formally asked out by a guy after Bryan. Not as a favor or as repayment of my debt.
I know I should feel excited. Instead, I feel … really uncomfortable. The feelings were too strong that I wanted to call Tyler even at six o’clock the next evening to cancel.
Tyler is cute. He’s an average guy with ambition. Someone like me. I really don’t understand why I feel so heavy inside. Even when he picked me up from my place, my heart feels like it’s going to break in halves and shatter to the ground. Like I have to stop this whole thing, and be somewhere else.
Most of the people in the party were photographers, and some of them are like me, who were brought in as dates. I should be feeling happy to meet all these people. But the fact that we met up in Rig Style made it more difficult. The place has a way of reminding me of somebody I really didn’t want to remember.
I belong in this world. I kept repeating to myself. Somehow, I feel silly because I don’t know why I felt so out of place. I wasn’t even at ease talking to these people. I stood in one corner while Tyler talks to one of his friends on the other table. Man, this date is the worst! And it’s not because of Tyler!
“Still working?” I heard someone ask behind me. The hairs at the back of my neck rose as I felt his warm breath in my ear.
I was almost too afraid to turn around to face the owner of that very familiar voice.
I stared at Ryder blankly. The expression on his face was hard to describe. He looked sober and haggard, as if he hadn’t slept in days. He looked… miserable. When I looked into his eyes, a voice inside me was involuntarily saying, This is where I belong. This is where I belong. I wanted to hug and kiss him and lose myself in his masculine scent, his warm embrace.
Then all of a sudden, I felt Tyler put his arm around my shoulders.
Ryder threw him a cold, murderous look that I haven’t seen before.
But instead of being intimidated, Tyler held his ground and in that jolly expression he seemed to always have, he asked, “Is there a problem, mate?
Ryder raised a brow at him and then he turned to me. I didn’t know what to say to him. I wanted to remove Tyler’s arm around me but I found that my limbs were frozen. Including my tongue!
In a voice colder than the look on his face, Ryder said, “Oh, I get it. You’re on a date!” He made it sound like it is the most disgusting thing he’s heard in his entire life.
“Excuse me, but I don’t think I’ll allow you to harass my date, mate. So back off before I call the bouncer on you.”
Haha! Ridiculous! If only Tyler knew who he was talking to
“Is that all you got? Call the bouncer on me?” Ryder asked squarely. “I’d like to see you try, mate.”
Tyler removed his arm from my shoulders and started pushing Ryder.
Oh God! Kill me now!
“Stop!” I said to both men. I am doing this for Tyler. For his health and his pride. Ryder can doubtlessly strangle a man with his bare hands with all the martial arts training he had.
Ryder gave me a hard look. “Please?” I pleaded him.
He gave me one last stern look and then I saw defeat cross his face. “Fine!” Then he stared at Tyler one last time and then he walked away.
A part of me wanted to run after him. Another part of me kept scolding myself for feeling bad. Ryder is not my boyfriend. Yes, we did sleep with each other some times. Yes, we did go out… as a favor to each other. But other than that, there is nothing about us that is real. All of those kisses, all of those hugs were for the show and for the favors we did each other… there were some that were real, but we both decided on their expiry dates and they never happened again after the last time.
But why do I feel so guilty? Why does being here with Tyler feel so wrong? Is there a part of me that truly belongs to Ryder?
When Tyler took me home, I still was not in the mood to talk. When he walked me to my door, and leaned his face down to kiss me, I turned away. “I’m sorry.” I said to him. I couldn’t bear to kiss him.
“I thought so.” He smiled. “I guess, you’re not ready to go out with somebody else yet
I stared up at him. “What do you mean?”
“Is that your ex? The guy in the bar?”
I didn’t answer. Because I didn't know what Ryder was to me anymore.
“Seems that he’s not over you yet too. Maybe you two just need to sort out your differences. He looked like he was about to murder me when I put an arm around you. And you… you look like you wanted to be with somebody else all evening.”
Tyler smiled at me and then he leaned forward to kiss my forehead.
“I really did like you, Astrid.” He said. “But perhaps in another lifetime…” He smiled.
He went to his car and before he drove off, he said to me, “See you at the photo shoot. Good luck with your guy.”
Was Tyler right? Did I really want to be with somebody else? Did I feel wrong about going out with him because I really do belong with Ryder already? And if he looked like he wanted to murder Tyler, does that mean he feels I belong to him too?
I don’t know what I was doing, or why, but the next thing I knew, I was sprinting towards the direction of Ryder’s house. I don’t know what I will say to him, but maybe when I see him, I will know. When I stared into his eyes at the bar, it seemed that some things made sense… especially about the way I feel about him. Maybe all I needed to do was talk to him once and for all. Maybe it’s time to wake up from the dream and start facing reality. Whatever comes out of our conversation tonight, it seems that I will have to break off my engagement with him tomorrow in front of my family. I need to stop living a lie. For both our sakes… I need to start moving on.
His car was parked in front of his house. Great! He’s home!
I rang the bell twice. No answer.
Courage, Ash. Courage. I said to myself. It’s now or never.
I heard movement from the other side of the door and I braced myself.
When the door opened, I was shocked. I guess the answer to my questions would be… never!
Long legs, light blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes.
“Oh my God!” Alizia breathed when she saw me. “I’m… I’m really sorry… I didn’t mean to… Ryder is upstairs. I thought…” I saw shame cross her face as she trailed off.
Ryder came up behind her. “Who’s that…” He trailed off when he saw me.
Not this again! When can my relationships not end with another woman on the background? I composed myself and with all the courage I could muster, I said, “Just me. I just wanted to tell you that you don’t need to come to my parents’ thing tomorrow. It’s better that way. I’ll be the one to tell them that it’s over.” I stared up at Ryder.
I refused to let tears blind me. I’m not crying over some guy who wasn’t really mine! At least not in front of him. “We’re… over.” I said and then I turned on my heel and left.
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