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Tuesday night, I met up with my friends. “So, what happened to you last weekend? You don’t just take off to Neverland and not tell us!” Nicole scolded me.
“I went to Miami.” I told them. “Something I needed to do to repay my debt.”
Dannie raised a brow. “Who were you with?”
I took a deep breath before I answered. “Ryder Van Woodsen.”
“Holy crap!” Nicole wailed. “Do tell!”
“There’s nothing to tell!” I told them.
“You don’t spend a whole weekend with a god and say that there’s nothing to tell!” Dannie scolded me.
I sighed. “I met up with his best friends. He had a bet with them. He had to introduce a girlfriend to them before his next birthday. He asked me to pretend to be his girlfriend. Same thing I asked of him at the wedding. Since he didn’t accept my check, I thought I would repay him this way.”
“Didn’t he accept your virginity before?” John laughed. I threw a ball of tissue at him.
“So? Nothing happened?” Nicole asked. I turned red, and unfortunately, my friends could read me like a book.
“So you’re hooking up with this guy! Finally! Next time you meet with your family, you won’t be lying anymore! The charade has turned real.” Dannie said.
“Of course not!” I snorted. “I made a mistake that night of the wedding. Okay, let’s say I repeated that mistake—a lot—this weekend. That doesn’t mean it’s for real. Ryder Van Woodsen? Come on, guys! Do you think guys like him stick to a monogamous relationship that leads to the altar? Besides, I’m not ready for a real relationship yet.”
“Then why did you have sex—a lot—this weekend?” Nicole asked raising her brow.
“It wasn’t part of the deal. We tried to stop it from happening, but the pull was stronger than either of us. We gave in. But we made it clear to each other that it was just for the weekend.”
“Then ... you agreed to not see each other anymore?”
“We agreed to be friends. But nope, we’re not going out on dates. No hope of a commitment in the future. Ryder is a complicated man. He is too busy with work, and too guarded about his… status in life. I’m sure he’d be a great friend… even a friend with benefits. But after Bryan, I don’t need that, guys. I need to believe that I could get married again. That ‘ever after’ is still possible in my future. I’m not looking for a temporary fix or a playmate.”
“Wow! Ryder is a lucky man!” John said shaking his head.
“Just exactly what do you mean by that?” I asked.
John shrugged. “I mean… you’re not exactly a wallflower, Ash! If you weren’t my best friend, I’d be hitting on you right now!”
I rolled my eyes. “And your point is?”
“Within twenty-four hours of meeting you, you gave him what Bryan was coveting for years. And then you spent a hot weekend together, and you told him you don’t want anything to do with him. Wow! I must get pointers from this guy!”
I threw another ball of tissue at him. But even though I didn't want to admit it, I knew that John has a point. Usually, girls spend a steamy weekend with guys and ask for more. I can’t say I’m not tempted. But what for? Ryder isn’t exactly a long-term type of guy. If he was, then he would have found himself a real girlfriend by now, instead of asking me to pretend in front of his very best friends.
I’ve been in a relationship that I thought would end in forever. It didn’t. Why would I risk entering into a relationship that didn’t spell ‘forever’ from the beginning? But Ryder and I have this… physical connection. We gave in to that thirst. I had to walk away quickly… while I’m still scathe-free.
“I’m not ready to have a relationship just yet. Ryder… well, there was a physical thing between him and me. I gave in to that. But that’s all. At least, both of us knew it was just… that. No expectations. No commitments. No strings attached!”
I know that I’d rather be sad about the fact that Ryder and I could never be than heartbroken for trying and then seeing that it was never going to work.
Friday night, I worked late. It was already eight in the evening when I decided to call it a day. My phone rang. My friends could be in one of the bars already, asking me to follow them there.
“Hello.” I answered without looking at the caller ID, expecting it to be Nicole, Dannie or John.
“Ash…” That familiar voice does not belong to any of my three best friends.
My heart pounded inside my ribcage. It took me a couple of seconds to find my voice.
“Hi.” I said almost in a squeak.
“I’m in town.” Ryder said. “I’ve just gotten off a long meeting and I’m starving.”
I smiled to myself. “So, what does that have to do with me?”
“Because I happen to drive by your block and I was thinking maybe you’re hungry too.”
I giggled. I didn’t have dinner yet and I am starving.
“So what do you have in mind?”
“Japanese, or Chinese. Something Asian.” He replied.
There’s nothing wrong with dinner. We did agree to be friends. Have some dinner some time. Not exactly a date. And I’m hungry. He’s looking to have his dinner. He happens to be in my block. I don’t see anything wrong with this picture.
“Alright.” I said quietly. I could barely breathe.
“Okay. Come out of your house anytime you’re ready.”
I laughed. “You’re here already?”
“A few seconds away.”
“Then what would you have done if I said no?”
“I’d… be eating alone.” He chuckled.
“Okay, give me fifteen minutes.”
When I hung up, I raced to my room. I hopped in the shower quickly and then I dressed in a white floral dress. I only put on lip gloss. No time for make-up. Didn’t really want Ryder to think I’m trying to look good for him. That is just completely the opposite of what I was standing up for. We slept together in the past, and now we’re just friends. I don’t need to impress him.
When he saw me come out of the house, he went out of his car and opened the passenger door for me. I looked up at him before I went inside. He has a crooked smile on his face.
“Hi.” He whispered softly.
I smiled back at him. “Hey.” His smile was about to melt my knees and I’m sure I’m blushing already so I quickly hopped inside his car. I took deep breaths as he rounded his car to get into the driver’s seat.
We didn’t speak to each other for the next five minutes. It’s as if we both didn’t know what to say.
I stared over at the car window. Stop this, Astrid! You have to stop feeling all giddy and weird! You’re friends who are going to dinner! Treat him the way you’d treat John!
“So, how are you?” He finally asked, breaking the silence.
“Busy. Business is picking up.” I replied. “I’m going to do three weddings this month.”
“Yes. Especially since we’re just a startup company.”
“You’re not exactly new to the business. And you have it in you. I knew you could do this.” He said to me, smiling.
I felt warm. I sincerely felt that Ryder meant that. This is one guy who believes in me.
I smiled back at him. “Thank you, Ryder. You have… faith in me.”
He didn’t say anything. He just smiled that crooked smile again.
Damn! This guy is just too handsome for my ‘just friends’ scheme!
“How… how about you? How are you doing?”
“Not bad.” He replied. “Janis is asking for your number.”
My eyes went wide. “Oh my God!” I breathed. “Did you give it to her?”
He shook his head. “I keep on conveniently forgetting to text it to her. But I gotta warn you. I may not be able to hold it off forever. She will get your number and give you a call.”
“What do I do?”
He chuckled. “Talk to her. She’s not that bad.”
“That’s not what I meant, Ryder. She’ll ask about you. About us.”
“Tell her that you have not seen me in days. But we keep in touch by calling and texting each other. I don’t talk to them everyday for them to know exactly where I am and what I’ve been doing. I think you’ll be fine.”
I sat back on my seat. “That’s easy enough. She knows you’re a busy man. You’d be too busy to see me at least five times a week.”
He raised a brow at me. “Wanna bet?” He asked in challenge.
My heart pounded inside my chest. I bit my lip. He continued staring at me seriously and it was getting more and more difficult to breathe. I turned away from him. “Eyes on the road, mister.” I said instead.
He went quiet for a while and then he said, “I’ll never be too busy to see my girl, you know.”
I smiled. “You’re too busy to find a girlfriend. You had to ask me the last minute.
He shrugged. “What if I wasn’t really looking?”
“What if you were too busy to realize she’s already passed you by?”
He shook his head. “Nope. My girl will sparkle so bright it will be hard for me not to notice her.”
I stared at him and somehow he was staring at me deeply. Part of me was flattered. I looked away from him, unable to bear the weight of his stare. I looked out the window.
“I thought you didn’t believe in ‘ever afters’, Ryder Van Woodsen.” I said.
He heaved a sigh. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” He said. “I’ve been cynical about dating and going on relationships because of… who I am. I was afraid the girl I’d meet would only be interested in my money… my financial status.”
Now there’s the reason why Ryder and I could never be! I couldn’t stand him thinking I was only interested in his money. The thing with Ryder is… I think I like everything about him! Except for his financial status. So he and I… we can never be more than what we are now. Friends pretending to be lovers when the occasion calls for it. Friends who slept with each other at some point in their lives.
“How did you get to be that cynical?”
He shrugged. “My Dad is not exactly a saint.” He said. “He… well, he’s been through marriages and divorces. Some are with younger women, who left him too soon… taking some fortune with them.”
“Oh… you mean your parents are not together anymore?”
He shook his head. “They divorced when I was younger. Then they got together again and had Paris. Then they divorced again when Paris was about five. Now, they’re just business partners. My Mom tolerates my Dad’s marriages as long as he just spends his share of the family money and he leaves my Mom’s, mine’s and Paris’s alone.”
“And so he’s been through a series of failed marriages with… gold-diggers?”
He chuckled humorlessly. “All six of them.”
“S-six?!” I asked, astounded.
He nodded. “All loveless. All failures. All for the money.”
“Whew! That’s… tough. You know… to not even have a successful marriage out of all those six.”
“Yeah. He’s a rakehell anyway. I don’t think he’s heartbroken when the marriage is over. Some of those divorces, he initiated.”
“Wow! I should meet your father.” I said.
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“He sounds like a great potential customer. You know… lots of repeat business.” I said, laughing.
Ryder laughed. “Yeah. You should. By the time he’s seventy, he’ll probably give you at least five successful transactions.”
“How old is he now?”
“And he’s been married seven times?”
Ryder nodded. “Actually, eight times if you count my mother twice.”
“But he and your mother are still in good terms?”
Ryder nodded. “They’re business partners who used to be married to each other and have two kids.”
Ryder took me to a famous Japanese restaurant close the beach
We talked more about each other’s families. I told him about Adam and how he grew up with me and Geena. I told him how Geena had been like a sister to me, and how Uncle Jack had been like my second father.
When the bill came, I took out my wallet. Ryder handed in his platinum card.
“How much was mine?” I asked.
“Nothing.” He replied.
I raised a brow at him. “That’s not fair! This is not…”
“I know.” He replied cutting me off mid-sentence. “But I dragged you out of the house so I can have the pleasure of your company. I owe you. It’s only fair that I pay for your dinner.”
“I was gonna go out to dinner too, Ryder.”
“Yeah and you could be with your friends. Instead, you accompanied me.”
“You’re not convincing me.”
He chuckled. “Alright, then you owe me. I’m gonna have to ask you some favor some day.
“You have a habit of hanging a bomb over my head, you know.” I groaned.
He laughed. “I promise this payback will not have you boarding a plane.”
“Yeah, right!” I rolled my eyes.
When we drove around my block, it was just eleven in the evening.
“Where do you stay here? A hotel?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I have a house here.”
“Oh. That’s good. You’ve got business here. Only makes sense for you to own a property here too.”
“Yeah, but then sometimes I don’t come here for more than a week. The house is left alone with no one maintaining it or overseeing it.”
“You’re rich, hire a maid.”
“I have one. She cleans when I’m here. But it’s not the same, you know. I want things to be spic and span all the time, and when I’m not here, I want to make sure that… my furniture is tended to, my plants are watered regularly… you know those things.”
“Get a roommate.”
“I don’t know many people in this city.” He said.
“I can tell. Otherwise, you’d have better company for dinner tonight. I guess I was your only choice, huh.”
“Well, what do you know? Sometimes it’s good to pull your hair out or hit your head with a sledgehammer.” He teased.
I reached out and pinched him in the arm.
“Ouch!” He complained, laughing.
“Where do you live here
He stared at me for a while and then he gave me that crooked smile. “Actually, a few blocks from you.”
I raised a brow at him.
“Come, I’ll take you to my place.” He said. “I’ve been coming and going in this city for a year now and that house never had a visitor.”
He shook his head.
He parked in front of that huge house a couple of blocks away from where I live.
I stared at the gate for a while and then I laughed. “It is your house.
“Remember that day at the wedding… We agreed to tell people that you lived in this house and I was afraid that one of the guests would actually be the owner of the house and we would be caught. You… must have been laughing at me a lot that night.”
He smiled. “I admit that part amused me. But I was not laughing at you. For all it’s worth, I was… happy that night. For a change, someone likes me even though I was just a poor bartender.”
I blushed and looked away from him. I didn’t say anything.
Ryder whispered, “Funny how all that changed the minute she realized who I really am
I stared up at him, thinking that he was teasing me, but the look on his face was sober. He was serious. Somehow, something in his eyes told me that he was hurt or insulted or somehow annoyed that I liked him better when I thought he was poor, and I liked him less now.
I smiled at him. “At least we both know we could never be… more than friends. You can’t marry beneath your rank in the society, Ryder. You’ve gotten too cynical for that. You need to find an heiress. Then you’ll know she wants you for you. Not for your financial status.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, as if he wanted to say something but chose not to. Instead, he turned to open the front door.
When I stepped into his house, I felt a sense of coziness. His living room is huge. He’s got a massive set of couches. There’s a fireplace and a huge serenity fountain. His LCD is at least sixty inches, and beside it is a wall of DVD and Blu-ray collection. The whole living room has hues of beige, brown, yellow and green. It opens into a huge deck facing the ocean. He’s got a bar in his deck with a separate fridge for liquors and drinks. His house spelled luxury and comfort at the same time. And I thought Adam’s house was already too luxurious
“What do you think?” He asked.
“Wow!” I said. “And you almost don’t live here?”
He shrugged. Then he led me to the deck. We sat on the chairs and he handed me a beer from the fridge.
“It’s just a shame that I don’t get to visit and check up on this house at least once a week. Just to make sure that the maid has done her job. Restocking the fridge with food is a problem too.”
He shrugged. “Because my schedule has been erratic, I can’t stock up much on milk, veggies or fruits. They’ll just go bad and it’s not nice if they spoil in the fridge.”
“Can’t your maids throw out spoiled foods?”
He shook his head. “They can’t always judge which ones need to go.”
“Well then just stock up on liquids and go for long-life milks.” I suggested.
He nodded. “Believe me, I’m trying.”
We stayed there on his deck, chatting. He took out a blanket that I can wrap around me to keep me warm. We were laughing and talking about almost anything under the sun.
When I glanced at my watch, it was already four in the morning.
“Oh my God!” I breathed. “It’s already four!”
Ryder smiled. “Time flies.”
I stood up from my seat. “Well, I have to go
“I’ll take you home.”
“No worries. It’s only a few houses away, Ryder. No point taking your car out from the parking lot
“I’ll be damned if I let you go home alone, love.” He said, and somehow, I know that I will not be able to change his mind no matter how much I argue with him. one last time.
“Then I’ll walk you.” He said.
I admitted defeat. We took our coats and then we went out of his house.
“When are you going back to New York?” I asked him.
“At nine in the morning.”
“That soon? How long have you been here
“Wow!” I breathed. “Your life must be quite toxic.”
He shook his head. “Not really. I’ve just started Rig Style Malibu. I check on it once in a while. Once it’s established, I can conduct my business over the phone. On the other hand, my family is opening a new restaurant in Manhattan. That’s my project too. It’s like taking care of two babies in two different cities, but once they can stand on their own, I’ll have air to breathe. A lot of it.”
We reached my house. I took out my keys and then I looked up at him. He smiled slowly.
“Thank you for your company.” He said. “It’s been a pleasure.” I smiled back at him. “Likewise.”
“Well, I’ll be off now.” He said. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“See you when I see you.”
He smiled again and then he took a step back.
“You know my number.” He said. “Call me… when you need me. Any more events in your life that I can be of service with… or if you just feel like a chat. It would really be nice to have you calling me for a change.” He said with a chuckle
I giggled. “Okay. I’ll remember that.” He nodded. “Good night, Astrid. Sweet dreams.”
Then it was over. I felt a sense of loneliness as he was gone. Like I’ve been so used to the cold, then he came and I felt warm and I was hoping it will not end but it was over too soon.
I still thought about Ryder when I went to bed. His smile. His handsome face. When we’re together it is hard to believe that he was the Ryder Van Woodsen… rising tycoon… heir of the rich Van Woodsen clan.
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