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Chapter - 1
I never realized leaving her would be this hard. Even though it was just for three months, it felt like a lifetime. We hadn’t been together for that long. Still, from inside I felt torn when I held her that morning.
“I’ll miss you,” she mumbled, kissing my lips. Her lips lingered and I tasted her sweetness now mixed with her salty tears.
I should tell her I’d miss her too. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and throat constricted. No words came out as I gazed into her hazel eyes. She tried hard to blink her tears away, but they kept falling.
Brushing away a teardrop, I kissed her eyelids, unsure what to say. I wouldn’t see her for another three months. The past twenty-four hours have been pure bliss. My cock ached from all the lovemaking, but now it was time for our goodbyes. Only I wasn’t ready. I’ll never be ready.
“I…” Words failed again. Closing my eyes, I rested my forehead on hers. I didn’t know how long we stood holding each other.
“Sir, we have to leave now,” my driver announced, breaking our moment. I released her from my embrace, cupped her cheeks and nodded. Arianna smiled, a fresh batch of tears filling her eyes. She pressed a kiss on my palm.
“I will.” I cleared my throat, realizing my voice was cracking. Why am I hurting this way?
When I stepped into the elevator, she stood where I left her. Her eyes bored into mine, reflecting the pain of my heart. I watched her knees give way when the door closed as I stood helpless. Resting my head on the cool metal door, I rubbed my aching chest.
Why am I getting so emotional? This shouldn’t have affected me this much. It was not even a minute, but I already missed her. Arianna’s teary face consumed every fiber of my memory. Maybe I should’ve asked her to go with me.
My body was on autopilot when I entered the car. The trip to the airport was short and blurry. I nodded curtly to something my driver said, performing every task in robotic mode. People blurred past and voices echoed around me.
Arianna Swanson, she was all I could think of.
Was three weeks enough time to get to know each other? Three weeks enough to turn my life upside down? Three magical weeks that filled my otherwise dull life with laughter and love.
Love. My throat constricted. I thought I’d never use that word again. The discomfort and denial that normally came after such a thought never made an appearance. I waited for some kind of negative reaction from some corner of my mind, but nothing came.
It’s too soon. What if I don’t feel the same after three months? What if she doesn’t feel the same way? People change all the time, don’t they?
I felt a slight tap on my shoulder and blinked. “Sir, fasten your seatbelt, please.”
Without a word, I secured the seat belt, looking out of the window as the plane moved on the lane. The take-off had always been my favorite part of flying. No matter how many times I had flown, it always filled me with a sense of excitement. Now, I felt nothing.
As the distance between the land and plane grew, the city was now nothing but a chain of lights from bird view. With a sigh, I reclined in my seat and pulled the blind over my eyes, shutting the outside world with it. My thoughts took off to my past, reminding me of a time when she’d just been a friend of my cousin, Mike. A time when I didn’t realize she was more than that.
Two weeks ago.
“Sir, she is persistent and threatens us with a court order.”
“The Cortez estate belongs to my grandfather.” My volume rose. “She doesn’t have any claim to anything that does not belong to my father. I don’t want her anywhere near us, Marcus. Instruct your security team regarding this issue.”
“She won’t be any trouble once we get the restraining order.”
In my peripheral vision, I spotted a group of men and women approaching the corridor where I stood. I turned to see my cousin Mike had arrived with his friends.
“Sure, sir. I’ll take care of it,” Marcus said. “Good.” I disconnected the call and went to greet our guests. My brother Enrique was getting married in two weeks. The event would be colorless without Mike’s friends Arianna and Rosalinda, who had become more of a family over the years.
My gaze swept over them before going back to Arianna’s face again. Something was off on her face. I looked at her, wondering why she appeared dull. She no longer sported her vibrant smile and her eyes didn’t twinkle anymore.
“Mike! It’s great to see you.” I greeted my cousin with a hug and a pat on his back.
“Orlando! It’s been a while, cousin.”
“Arianna and Rosalinda, welcome to the Cortez estate.” Arianna gave me a tight smile that didn’t reach her eyes. When I realized I was staring at her, I turned to my brother. “I’m heading to the city. I have to meet the caterers and the wedding planner to make some final arrangements. Tell Papa I’ll join him for dinner.”
Turning away from the group, I walked toward the heliport when my phone rang again. “Hello.” I picked up, not seeing who it was.
“Sir, Mr. Waylon requests a meeting with you,” Sheila, my personal assistant, said.
Waylon has to wait. I was in no mood to talk about business. “Schedule it after my brother’s wedding, Sheila.”
“I told him, but Mr. Waylon is pressing because he won’t be available to meet for another three months.”
I sighed in exasperation. When Waylon Group suggested a joint venture in a few parts of Europe, I agreed because it would bring us more profit. However, this meeting had been dragging out forever because of our tight schedule. “All right, fix it over lunch today. I’ll be there by two.” Enrique would flip if I missed the meeting with caterers.
My thoughts wandered to Arianna as I climbed into the waiting chopper. I had known her since childhood. I’d watched her grow from this cute little kid to a shy teen and into a bubbly young woman. Though we talked little, I knew all about her. Her carefree laughter and sharp wit were something I’d gotten used to recently.
After what happened in college, I locked myself away from everyone, focusing only on work. Dad, Enrique, or Mike tried to help, but nothing worked. I was closed off to the world with no intention of opening up ever again.
If it wasn’t for Grandpa Cortez, I wouldn’t even attend the weekly dinner. When I missed the dinner a few weeks in a row, he just came over to my apartment and demanded my presence. My family wasn’t ready to give up on me.
The dinner was always a boring event with us all lost in our own world of thoughts and Grandpapa trying to randomly converse with us. Then a couple of years ago that changed. It was just another week and once again I was in the office with no intention of going to dinner. My cell phone kept ringing and I ignored it until I saw Grandpapa’s landline number popping up.
“Where are you, son?”
“I’m working, Grandpapa. I’m sorry, I can’t make it today.”
The silence on the other end stirred my guilt. “I don’t know how long I have, Orlando. Is it wrong for an old man to want to share a meal with his entire family once a week?”
Crap. Not this talk again. “You’re not going anywhere, Grandpapa.”
“How can you be so sure? We have enough money for generations to come. But I need you now, Orlando.”
“The dinner won’t start until you come.” A string of curses broke free when I heard the disconnecting click.
Did he have to pull the “I won’t live long card” every time? With a grunt, I shut down my laptop and headed home. I would have to talk to him today.
Thirty minutes later when I parked in front of our mansion, all I wished was to yell at Grandpapa for blackmailing me every single time. I didn’t see where I was going until I bumped into a bubbly blonde. Flowery perfume took hold of my senses as I blinked her into focus.
“Oh, sorry.” She giggled and before I could respond, she ran around behind me. Her fingers grabbed my suit and I whipped my head around at the sound of another loud giggle.
“You’ll pay for that, Bish!” Rosalinda came barreling toward us with something in her hand.
“I’m sorry, Rosie. I was just kidding,” Arianna shouted while using me as a shield. Her contagious giggle forced the corners of my lips up.
Rosalinda closed the distance with a mischievous grin. “Move out of the way, Orlando. I’m wiping that smugness off her face.”
“Hey, I was merely stating the truth.”
“No, you weren’t.” Rosie chased her. Both running in circles, Arianna using me as her shield.
“You’re in love with Jeff.” Arianna’s face lit up, eyes crinkled as she clutched my shirt, evading Rosie’s hit.
“Liar. I saw you go belly up when he kissed you.” Her giggle drifted around me.
“Shut up!” Rosie hissed.
They both caught me in their banter while pushing and pulling me around while they argued.
“No.” Ari was at my back, dragging me with her as Rosie tried to catch her.
“You’re asking for it, Ari.”
When I turned my head, Arianna stuck her tongue at Rosalinda. A cute gesture that made my heart race, something it hadn’t done in a long time. Suddenly, I noticed her features. She was no longer the shy teen I remembered. Arianna Swanson was an attractive young woman and she had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen.
“Orlando is here.” Mike came into view with a huge grin. “Girls, please let my cousin go. You’re smothering him.”
The girls let me go and when I looked at Arianna again, her cheeks glowed pink as Rosie whispered something in her ear.
“I promised to hang out with them this weekend, but you know how adamant Grandpapa can be. So, I brought them here,” Mike quickly explained. “I swear, it won’t be long before he kicks us out of here. They turned the place upside down from the moment we entered the mansion half-hour ago.”
A chuckle volunteered itself, slipping out of my mouth before I could stop it. Mike threw me a surprised look. His expression changed and I quickly masked my amusement.
“Hey, bro.” Enrique clapped my shoulder. “Thought you weren’t coming.”
“He can be persistent when he wants to be.” Enrique massaged his forehead with a grimace. “I should stop drinking.”
“You say that every time.”
Enrique rolled his eyes. “Come. Dinner is ready.”
Grandpapa and Dad were at the table when we took our seats. The things I wanted to tell him flew out the window when I noticed his full-blown smile. His silver hair reminded me he wasn’t getting any younger and shame filled me for standing him up so often.
“Grandpops, this is so unfair,” Enrique whined, taking a seat beside Dad. “How come Mike’s allowed to bring two girls when you won’t allow me to bring one?” He put a bright smile on his face and sipped the water.
“You know why.” Grandpapa chuckled. “You shall bring no girl for dinner unless she is the girl you want to marry.”
“Yeah, Grandpapa has a point. I prefer to eat my food without choking on it every second,” Arianna snickered. Enrique stuck his tongue out at her.
“Jealous? Puh-lease…” Arianna rolled her eyes. “You have the worst taste in females.”
“Besides, what’s the point of bringing your birches for dinner when they ate nothing that’s being served?” Rosie piped in with her signature smirk.
“Birches?” Enrique’s brows shot up.
“I’m keeping it PG-friendly.” Rosie stuck her tongue out.
“That’s harsh, you know.” My brother rubbed his chest with mock hurt.
The girls shrugged. “We’re just stating the facts.”
“I agree.” Mike joined the conversation. “I never saw any of your girlfriends eating real food.”
I couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled in my chest and a warm sensation washed over me when I noticed Arianna taking big bites of her steak. I liked women who weren’t afraid to eat. Beside her, Rosie was also enjoying her meal.
They showed up for every dinner after that weekend, making each more colorful than the last.
Arianna Swanson. Her name brought a smile to my lips for reasons I couldn’t quite describe.
Her presence always lightened up the mood and I soon found myself looking forward to the dinners. Then, one day, she didn’t come.
“Where’s Arianna?” Her absence was noticeable and I couldn’t help asking.
“She’s on a date with Brian,” Rosalinda replied.
“Oh.” She was on a date. It shouldn’t have bothered me. But it did and I didn’t know why.
Arianna missed several dinners after that and I began excusing myself often. Shaking my head to clear the thoughts, I focused on the work. My body was on autopilot when I carried on with the day. Her face kept popping up in my mind and I couldn’t shake off the nagging thought that demanded answers.
Nothing explained why I was feeling this way when I climbed the stairs of one of the finest restaurants in Linnesse. It was a haven for middle-class families with its affordable services and star hotel experience. The restaurant was almost full with the waiters bustling around to serve the customers.
Someone grabbed my pants, causing me to look down. A blonde child with bright green eyes gave me a toothless grin. Chocolate smeared the side of her cheeks and I reached out tapping her nose.
“I’m so sorry.” The mother came running. “Hannah, you don’t grab people with dirty hands.” She threw a strict glance at her daughter and proceeded to dab my pants with tissues. I hadn’t realized they now held little chocolate hand imprints.
“It’s okay, ma’am.” Taking the tissues from her, I smiled with assurance. Being a mother was hard enough. It wasn’t much and my black trousers hid it well.
“Are you sure?” Some tension left her shoulders and relief flooded her features. A man I assumed the child’s father, hoisted the child.
“I’m sure. It’s just chocolate.”
She didn’t move and her gaze still unconvinced. “Your suit looks expensive.” She chewed her lip.
Of course, it is. Hannah, the child giggled in her father’s arms. Then she turned toward me with a shy smile, “Sowie.”
“Don’t be.” I patted her cheek and turned to her mother. “It’s fine, really. You have a beautiful daughter.”
“Thank you.” Her father smiled and pressed a kiss on her forehead. “We’ll be on our way then.”
“Thank you.” The mother mouthed, trailing after her small family.
This was no place for an official meet and greet. Why Desmond insisted on having a meeting here?
I got my answer as soon as my gaze landed on her. What the—shock rendered me speechless. Legs hesitated to move as the world around me spinning. Bile rose from the pit of the stomach. Never in my nine lives had I thought I’d see her again. What is she doing here?
“Sir, they’re over there.” The restaurant manager pointed at the occupied table, pulling me out of my stupor. I can see that. Biting the retort, I managed a tight smile and willed my body to move.
Her gaze met and held mine. The corner of her lips curled up. Discomfort rolled in my chest as my muscles clenched. Willing my gaze away, I kept it on him for the rest of my walk.
“Ah, there he is!” Desmond Waylon, the chairman of Waylon Group greeted me. Another surprise. I was expecting to meet his son, the CEO. For a fifty-year-old, Desmond cleaned up really well, reminding me of George Clooney.
“Hello, Mr. Waylon. It’s good to see you.”I gave a forced smile. The shock hadn’t left my system yet, but the last thing I wanted was to give her the satisfaction of knowing she still affected me. She wasn’t welcome anywhere near my world.
Cerulean eyes continued to access me, which I ignored. “Ken, this is Orlando Cortez, the CEO of the Cortez empire. Mr. Cortez, meet my fiancée Vivienne.”
Ken as in Kenzie. Vivienne Kenzie Jeremiah, my ex-girlfriend. And she didn’t like being called by her first name since she thought it was an old school type.
“Hello.” I gave her a curt nod, hands buried deep within my coat pockets. Her smile widened.
The smile that once made my insides flutter now had the effect of worms crawling over my skin. I averted my gaze and focused on the menu in front of me. The hunger had long left and I ordered a sandwich with juice.
“Sandwich? Come on, Mr. Cortez. Let’s treat ourselves with something better,” Desmond said.
“I had an early brunch. I’ll have something light on my stomach. You go ahead.” Fortunately, he didn’t press me further.
Desmond turned to Kenzie, taking her hand in his. “If you say so. What do you want, darling?” Darling; My stomach churned.
“I’ll have whatever you’re ordering.” She leaned into him, pecking his lips, which was unnecessary.
“Surprise us with your chef’s specialty,” Desmond said to the waiter, who beamed.
“Definitely. Do you have any preference, sir?”
“Anything, as long as it has meat,” Desmond replied and once again turned to her. She leaned into him, laughing louder at something he whispered in her ear. I pulled my phone out, keeping myself busy so I didn’t have to put up with their PDA.
Shortly, one of the chefs walked to our table and spoke to Desmond, taking notes as he inquired if they were allergic to anything. I’d always admired their professionalism and care in catering to their customers. When he walked away, I faced the couple, regretting every passing second.
The entire lunch was a waste of time, considering Desmond continued to act like a lovesick puppy and she just kept touching him to spite me. When he leaned to kiss her cheek or whisper something she’d look at me with a smirk. Was it working? No. I wasn’t jealous. I was furious that I couldn’t leave and was being forced to put up with her immaturity even after all these years.
A few times I tried to talk business, he shrugged it off, saying we had a lot of time to discuss it. I felt like a third wheel, sitting there while they crooned at each other.
When I’d had enough, I stood and checked my watch. “It’s a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Waylon, but I’m afraid I have to leave.”
“Oh, no, stay. We’re having a great time, aren’t we?”
I gave him a tight-lipped smile. “I have other appointments that I can’t miss. I’ll see you some other time. Perhaps in a more professional environment,” I said, my gaze fell on her and I masked the grimace. “Have a nice day.” I didn’t stop for his protests. I couldn't care less for the business deal now that I knew it involved her.
On my way out I flagged the waiter, who served our table, dropping a few hundred dollars in his hands for their bill and didn’t look back.
The sun was a huge ball of fire, floating low on the horizon. I gazed into the ocean lost in thoughts. The restaurant scene kept replaying in my mind.
“You promised, Orlando.”
I didn't even hear him coming in. With a deep sigh, I turned to face my younger brother, Enrique. He used my name only when he was pissed. He must have found about my meeting with Desmond.
“I’m sorry, Enrique. You know how much expectation we had from this deal.”
My brother glowered, running a hand through his unruly hair. His honey-brown eyes pinned me with accusation. His eyes were the only feature he inherited from the woman who brought us into this world.
“And, I tell you we don’t need this deal anymore. That bastard is dating her, brother.” He stabbed the air with his index finger. “The gossip magazine is full of their photos. Didn’t you read how she dated his son for a year before jumping into his father’s bed?”
“I didn’t know.” Turning away from Enrique’s scrutinizing gaze to hide the storm in my eyes, I stared at the intense orange hues in the sky through the window; Outside, the wind ruffled the trees. Lazy blue waves kissed the beach in the distance. Such a calming sight. Only it didn’t ease the turbulence in my mind. “I don’t follow the gossip columns.”
No one knew about Kenzie except, Enrique and our father. My brother wouldn’t have discovered if it wasn’t for his playboy habits. I never spoke about my past to anyone. The way he found about us still made me sick. No. Don’t go there now. Pulling the leash on my thoughts, I met his gaze.
His shoulders slumped and he cocked his head to the side. “Tell him no and move on. We have enough wealth for generations to come,” his gentle tone pacified.
He was right. This deal wasn’t a priority. But this partnership would open job opportunities for thousands of blue-collar workers. Losing this deal won’t affect the Cortez business, but I didn’t want my personal feelings to destroy the promising future of many. Moreover, I don’t want to back off just because of her. No. That wasn’t me. I always stared at my problems in the eye while I made lemonade out of the lemon life handed me.
“This isn’t about us, Enrique.”
“I can’t talk you out of this. Can I? But you promised you won’t work until my wedding. Two weeks. That’s all I asked, brother.”
“I’m sorry, Enrique. I promise these two weeks are yours.”
“Good. But it’s not just about me.” He sighed and gave me his trademark smile. “It’s time for dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.” Kenzie’s smile flashed in my memory, churning my stomach. I walked back to the dresser, removing my watch and emptying the contents of my pockets on the table.
“Tell that to grandpapa. I dare you.” His right brow shot up as I unbuttoned my shirt.
“Can’t you handle for tonight?” I urged, meeting his gaze through the mirror.
“I’m not letting you off tonight, brother. Did you forget Ari and Rosie are here?”
Ah, yes, Arianna. There was that fluttering in my heart again. She was joining after a long time. Why wasn’t her boyfriend here? Perhaps, he would join her for the wedding. My jaws tightened. There was no explanation of the sudden hatred spread across my chest at the thought of her boyfriend. Fuck.
“Give me five minutes.”
Too much to handle in a day. Kenzie’s face with a mocking smile popped in my memory. The way her nails traced Desmond’s arm made my skin crawl. Bile rose from the pit of my stomach. My head throbbed from the day’s exhaustion. Massaging my forehead, I walked toward my bathroom. I didn’t know why thinking about Arianna had my heart clench, especially now of all times.
She’s a friend. Nothing more. Her love life shouldn’t have mattered to me. What was his name? Did it start with B. Brian or Brandon? Brian. Right. Brian came from a good family. I ran a background check on him and found his family did business with the Swanson family and had a close-knit friendship with them. He was perfect for her. Then why do I feel bad about it? I hadn’t felt these emotions in years.
Water pelted on my body when I turned the shower on. But it was a little later when I realized I forgot to remove my shirt and pants. Damn. Cursing aloud, I stripped and forced my mind to shut off.
When I went down to the dining hall after fifteen minutes, my gaze swept around looking for her. My body relaxed when I sensed her absence. Papa gave me a tight nod when I sat beside him. Now that we had guests, the chef had prepared a feast that was pleasing to the eyes and the taste buds. Only my appetite was long gone.
“Ari, here,” Mike hollered patting at the empty seat next to me.
My gaze jerked to the right and I saw her. Looking gorgeous in her floor-length purple dress, she took my breath away like she always did. The dark purple complimented her light complexion. I loved her new hair color; it brought out her hazel eyes well. She wore one of my favorite colors and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
“Arianna, you look lovely, my dear,” Grandpapa greeted from the head side of the table and Papa nodded at her with a tight-lipped smile; A rare affection he reserved only for people in his tight circle.
“Thank you, grandpapa. You aren't bad yourself. I see where the Cortez handsomeness comes from.”
“So, you agree we are handsome.” Enrique grinned with a smug look.
“Never claimed you weren’t. Except I wish you had inherited a brain similar to Grandpapa.” The table boomed with laughter and her cheeks blossomed with pink.
A smile tugged at my lips. It was refreshing to see her teasing smile, still, I couldn’t comprehend the dullness in her eyes.
“You sure know how to boost an old man’s ego, Arianna. I like your new look. It suits your personality, bold and elegant.”
“I agree. The dark color suits her well,” I said before I could reign in my tongue.
“Thank you.” She gave a shy smile, pushing her food around the plate.
“Chiara, when is your family coming?” Papa asked.
“Next week, Papa.”
“Orlando, have you made the necessary arrangements for their stay?”
“Yes, Papa.” He always had a soft corner for my brother, who was abandoned by our father’s ex-wife while he was barely three-weeks-old.
A throat cleared to my left. “Tonight, I’d like to toast.” Grandpapa’s grin was contagious. “To Enrique and his lovely bride-to-be, Chiara.”
Raising my glass of water, I noticed Arianna had done the same on my right. An amused chuckle vibrated along my chest and she returned it. I’ve never seen her drink in any of our gatherings.
“Arianna,” Chiara called.
“Yes.” She took a bite of her food, looking at Chiara with a smile.
“There is something I wanted to ask you and Rosalinda. Will you both be my bridesmaids?”
“And you ask this after arranging everything, including my dress for the wedding?” Arianna teased.
In my peripheral vision, Chiara raised her arms in surrender. “I was sure you wouldn't say no. Don't make me beg, please...”
“You don't have to, Chiara. You’re one of us now. Besides, we wouldn't miss it for anything else,” Rosalinda said. A permanent smile resided on her face when Jeff was around. I vaguely remembered Mike telling me about them.
“That's great. Arianna can be Orlando's plus one for the wedding.”
My gaze narrowed at my brother, who had no filter to his mouth. He often teased me with her, but I never thought he’d go to this extent. What was his plan? She already had a boyfriend. A boyfriend who’s missing from the group. Didn’t that bastard know how important this was to Arianna?
Arianna shifted in her seat. “It won't be necessary. I'll go alone.” Her grip tightened around her spoon.
Alone? Ah, trouble in paradise. While it eased my mind to know I wouldn’t have to put up with that asshole throughout the wedding, it also didn’t make it easier. My hand clenched around the glass. I should have guessed this was coming. She would never want to go out with me. To her, I’ll always be her best friend’s cousin, nothing more. Whoa. What was that? Disbelief rendered me speechless.
“You don't have a choice,” Mike snapped.
They hadn’t even given me a chance to respond and conversed as if I wasn’t present.
“If Orlando doesn't want to go with you, then you can be my third wheel. I'm sure Skyler wouldn't mind,” Mike continued.
She wasn’t a third wheel. Not for me at least. What’s wrong with him? How can he even say that to her? My eyes widened. Where did that come from? I swallowed. My emotions were a wreck. The afternoon tension was getting to me, I concluded.
Arianna hit his arm with a playful grin, but I noticed the flash of pain in her eyes. She didn’t want to be his third wheel.
Fortunately, Enrique and Mike dropped that speech and we continued to eat in silence. I couldn’t help but look at her now and then, trying to figure what was wrong. She was silent. That was wrong. The silence wasn’t her thing. Arianna loved to talk. This wasn’t the same girl I knew.
She faked a yawn and pushed her half-eaten plate away, excusing herself from the table. I’ll bet that on my balls she faked her exhaustion. She wasn’t the one to sleep early and she sure wouldn’t leave the American chicken untouched. That was her favorite dish.
“Why can’t you be her plus one?” Enrique asked as soon as she disappeared from our view.
Because you didn’t give me a chance to respond. And I never said I wouldn’t take her. No. I gritted my teeth. When I hesitated, wondering if it was a joke, they assumed I wouldn’t want to go and made that choice for me. “She can invite Brian. You didn't have to push this in my face.” The bitterness of the day’s events got the best out of me. I didn’t want a plus one.
“They’re not together anymore, dammit! I thought you knew that already.”
Huh? Now, I felt like an asshole.
“What are you talking about? They’re getting married, aren't they?”. When my gaze locked with Mike’s, mixed emotions assaulted me. Did they break up? Shock gripped me. What does that sudden lurch of my heart mean? A sudden emotion warmed my heart. This shouldn’t excite me, but it did.
“No. That bastard cheated on her with her sister. He is marrying Alana, her twin.”
Alana. That name was familiar. Now everything clicked. One of the recent incidents surfaced in my memory. Arianna rarely spoke about her family when we were younger. When I saw the bride's name as Alana in the email, I didn't piece it together. The couple wanted to get married in the Cortez estate and I denied their request. It wasn't a mistake then. I did that purposefully and suddenly, I was glad I declined their request.
“I thought... I'm sorry.” My gaze flicked toward the exit as guilt weighed me down. I shouldn't have lashed out like that.
“It's okay. We should’ve told you earlier. You don't have to go with her.” Enrique's shoulders slumped.
“It's fine. We’ll keep her company.” Skyler smiled and Mike squeezed her hands while leaning down to peck her lips.
It didn't feel right. I saw the discomfort in her eyes. She didn't want to go with them. Arianna didn't want to be here. I knew that feeling well. “I'll go with her,” I announced and noticed a smile cracking grandpapa’s lips in my peripheral vision.
As I excused myself from the table, everyone sported a smug grin which I ignored. My focus was on Arianna. The look of hurt on her face pulled at my heartstrings. This was why she wasn't like her old self.
Her father called to book for a wedding. Was it a misunderstanding? I still remembered the call and he said it was for his daughter.
“Mr. Cortez, it's Henry Swanson.”
“If this is regarding a deal you know the procedure, Mr. Swanson.”
“No. I have a request.”
“Make it quick.”
“It's about my daughter's wedding.” The world around me stopped functioning for a moment and I felt like I was doused in the ice water. “She wants to get married in Cortez estate.”
“You should contact our office for the bookings, Mr. Swanson.” My grip tightened around the phone.
“They said the venue isn't available. When I checked, there was no wedding on the said date. I'd really appreciate it if we can negotiate on this. I'm willing to pay double.”
I swallowed the sudden surge of anger before schooling my emotions. “Mr. Swanson, there is nothing I can do for you in this matter. If my office said the venue isn't available, then it isn't available.” I didn't wait for his response before disconnecting the call and throwing my phone on the table.
There was no explanation of why I behaved that way. It was easy for me to make an adjustment, but I didn't. Enrique wouldn’t mind. An uneasy feeling crept into my mind and settled within my bones. My body was in an automated mode when I dialed my PA. “Sheila, send in the recent booking request for Cortez Estate, including the declined ones.”
They just started to date. Why am I even furious? I should be happy for them, shouldn't I?
When the email came in, I was quick to sort out Swanson's request. Groom: Brian Schultz. My blood boiled on seeing that name. Bride: Alana Swanson. What?
That must be a mistake. I shouldn't be feeling or reacting this way. It was their life. With a strained breath, I looked at the date requested and realized; it fell in line with Enrique's wedding. My brother would spend their honeymoon on the estate. So, it wasn't available either way. Well, Enrique wouldn't say no if it was for Arianna, but I couldn't say yes.
The view of the familiar purple gown pulled me out of my thoughts.
There was an urgency to her steps and her shoulders were stiff. She whipped around, almost losing her balance. I swore as she regained her balance and forced a smile.
“Yeah, I’m fine…” She pushed the loose strands of hair behind her ear.
Liar. When she looked at me, I could see it in her eyes. “I'm sorry about earlier. I wasn't expecting that and I didn't know about...” I didn’t know how to bring it up without hurting her further.
“So, will you be my date for Enrique's wedding?”
“You don't have to do this.” Her lashes fluttered, blinking away the tears and her fingers bunched the dress she wore, fiddling with the soft material.
“I was upset because I wasn't informed about this earlier and I had no chance to ask you properly. You deserve nothing less.”
“It’s okay. Really.”
Her teeth caught her lower lip. Oh, how much I wanted to reach out and release them from their grip. Were they soft and warm as it looked? How does she taste? The thoughts shocked me and I pushed my hands deep into my pockets before I did something we both would regret. Okay, that was a lie. I wouldn’t regret that.
“It’s not okay, Arianna. It’s not that I don’t want to go with you. If we are going together, then I'm doing it the right way. I'll ask you again. Will you be my date to the wedding?”
“Um… Ah, yes, sure.” The pink color returned to her cheeks while she gave me a nervous smile. It felt good to know I have affected her to some extent as well.
“Good.” I smiled, swallowing the urge to brush the tear that tracked down her cheek. “Come, I'll walk you to the door.” She hadn’t realized she was crying, yet.
“That's... um... you don't have to do that.”
It was the least I could do. “I told you earlier, Arianna. You're my date and I want to do it the right way. Let me do this, please.” That was BS. I just wanted to stay in her presence a little longer. A part of my mind contemplated cooking up a plan to extend my stay. Then, I realized I never talked to her longer than a minute before. Offering to stay wouldn’t be a good idea. That might make her uncomfortable.
“Good night, Arianna.” It was hard to take leave. I wanted to stay and make sure she was all right.
“Good night,” her whisper was weak when she slipped inside the room, locking the door behind her.
I stood there for a minute before moving on to my room. She’s hurting. The pain I saw in her eyes before the door closed kept replaying in my mind. An unknown ache started at the center of my heart, spreading to the other parts of my chest. I wanted to take that pain away. I wanted to make her laugh, but how?
Once again sleep evaded my eyes and I walked toward the beach. The beach always soothed me. The salty air and the sound of the unrelenting waves always put my mind at ease. Whenever I stayed here, I’d spend the night at the beach, enjoying the peaceful solitude.
The water was warm despite the cold breeze that bit my skin. The cold didn’t hurt any longer. It helped to numb the raging emotions. My personal therapy. Every person reacts differently to pain. To me, it was the work and sometimes the biting cold.
Meeting her today wasn’t on my agenda. It never was. Fate set us up all those years ago. I did not realize it took more than a few dates to understand someone. Having sex with a woman wasn’t love. At the tender age of eighteen, I was unable to differentiate infatuation from love and that led to my downfall.
I never revealed my true identity to anyone in college. My privacy mattered the most and that was why I stayed in the college dorm and used public transport. There were thousands of Cortez's in this world and no one gave a thought about my background. Growing up in the eyes of the press for most of my life, the freedom I found in the big apple tasted divine. It was too far from home for anyone to recognize me. Those were the best days of my life until Kenzie.
It wasn’t easy to get over one’s first love or so they say. While I still contemplated if that was love or not, it nevertheless affected me, leaving me scarred. Kenzie was every boy’s wet dream and so popular in college. She excelled in everything she did and there has been always a group surrounding her.
It took over three months to build enough courage to ask her out. I still remembered the ecstasy that made my heart jump when she said yes to have coffee with me. Only the memory has now left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Our relationship was under wraps for several reasons. Only Dean, my best friend knew about it in college. I hid it because it would put us in the limelight if paparazzi got wind of it, while she hid it for other reasons. I was a fool to not foresee it.
Easing out a breath, I went to sit on the idle park bench. The ocean was oddly calm in contrast to the distressed state of my mind. Why did we have to cross paths again?
Seeing her at the restaurant this afternoon once again ripped open the wounds I thought were healed. The meeting shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I couldn’t help but wonder how she has moved on with ease while the brief dalliance left me to pick up the pieces of my heart, still scared to trust another.
I was lost in my thoughts when I saw something or someone moves in my peripheral vision. My gaze jumped to the shadowy figure approaching the beach. Wrapped in a blanket it was hard to tell who it was, except for the fact it was a woman.
Her feet made no noise as she walked toward the water, seemingly lost in thought. As she turned slightly, the light fell on her face, illuminating a side of it. Arianna? What is she doing here? I raised my left wrist out of habit to check the time, realizing I didn’t have my watch then.
The fluffy blanket slid off her shoulders, making her shiver. She secured it around her and stepped out of her fluffy flip flops.
Uh, oh. Here it comes.
Arianna never liked the cold. The moment her feet touched the cold beach sand, her face twisted. With a shudder, she jumped back into her flip-flops, her expression turned comical and it drew a smile on my lips.
I continued to watch her as she moved further to the ocean, close to the water, but not close enough to touch it. She stared into the distance. Her body shivered as the cold wind brushed against her. Her forehead creased and a frown tugged at her lips. She stood statue-still for the next few minutes. It was hard to tell if she was even breathing.
She hadn’t noticed me yet. Should I make my presence known? It was clear something bothered her. Was it that bastard? What else could I be? I was in her shoes once. After contemplating for a few more minutes, I decided it was time for a little chat. A young and confident woman like her shouldn’t be pining over a fool who clearly didn’t deserve it.
“Beautiful, isn't it?”
A scream ripped out of her lips and I covered her mouth on instinct. There were security guards on duty and the last thing I needed was for them to find us and assume something else. They usually left me alone if I was here.
The blanket slipped to the ground as her warm body connected with mine. “Shh... it's me.” Her body went still as another shiver passed through her slender frame, mild perfume teased my nostrils. “What are you doing here?” I asked and stepped away, picking the blanket from the ground. I missed the warmth of her body and quelled the urge to pull her close to my body again.
“I couldn't sleep.”
Her appreciative glance swept over my body, lingering a little longer than it usually did, making me aware I was shirtless. Stray strands of her hair danced around her cheek. It was hard to tell the color of her cheeks when her gaze averted to the ground.
Handing her the blanket, I turned to walk away, hoping she would follow.
“You’re cold.” Her comment followed as I took a seat on one of the benches laid out on the beach.
“I'm used to it.” The cold helped in more ways than one. She didn’t have to know that.
“My blanket is huge enough for both of us.” She sat beside me and threw one end of the blanket over my shoulder, bringing it around us to hold it together. “You're freezing.”
A sigh of contentment left my lips as the warmth of her body seeped into mine. The words of protest died down in my throat. Her floral scent crept again into my senses, making me want to bury my face in the crook of her neck and inhale deeper. What the hell? Where did that thought come from?
“So, Mike said you resigned from your job. What happened?” I asked, wanting to distract the straying thoughts.
“You broke up with him?” I wanted to hear it from her mouth. Every bit of it. Why? I didn’t know. Maybe it was because I wanted to rip his hide into shreds after this. Looking away before I did something stupid, I tried to control the tongue that had the mind of its own.
“No,” she said with a dismal shake of her head. “He dumped me for my sister. They are getting married in three weeks.”
The pain in her voice was raw. It sliced through my heart. “Ass-hole.”
“And he didn't even care to break up with me.” A chuckle chimed out from her, but it held no humor. It didn’t brighten her eyes. Her gaze grew distant, as she stared at the ocean again.
“When did you find out?” Clenching my fist tighter, I stared at our feet because all I wanted to do was to close the few inches between us and pull her to my chest. Her nails were free of paint. My gaze flicked to her. Did she stop painting them because of him?
“Two months ago when he showed up for one of our family parties.” Her voice lowered. “He proposed to her in front of everyone.”
She was silent for the next few minutes. Her eyes gazed at the now restless waves.
“You know, that night at the party when he began telling everyone how he met a girl from his dreams and how much he loved her, I thought he was talking about me. I believed he finally got his parents’ blessings and was going to surprise me.”
Her voice cracked as she took a deep breath. I despised the tears in her eyes. The fun-loving and flamboyant girl I knew no longer laughed like she used to do. A permanent sadness now resided in her eyes. All because of him. That fucking bastard. My jaw clenched as the anger for that unknown face reached a whole new level.
“Then he got on one knee and said her name.” Her resolve broke and a violent sob choked out. “He said, ‘Alana, my love, will you make me a proud man by becoming my woman?’”
The strangled cry gripped and squeezed my heart in a tight fist. I could no longer hold myself. The intensity of her sobs increased when I pulled her in my arms, rubbing her back as she cried.
“I don’t remember how I made it to my room that night. I was numb.”
Every cry that left her lips sliced through my heart. Please don’t cry. I wanted to tell, but my throat constricted and words failed. I continued to rub her back, my fingers slowed down to run a smooth circle in a soothing motion.
“A month ago, there was a request to the estate office for a beach wedding. I didn't accept it since Enrique's wedding is planned here and he wanted the beach guesthouse for his honeymoon.”
“Is it them?”
“Brian Schultz and Alana Swanson,” I confirmed. She needed to know. Returning to the room after dinner, I looked for that particular email. It was no mistake like I initially thought. “Your father called me personally to request when I declined their initial request.”
“I wanted to get married here.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
Did that bastard know? I shifted her, so we faced each other, my hands encircling her body. She never relied on her family. Arianna always worked hard. Why would she resign her job? Wouldn’t that put her at a disadvantage? A frown tugged at my lips. Perhaps she was in transition mode when the breakup happened.
“There’s a vacancy in one of my companies if you’re interested. You can stay at the staff quarters if you want to,” I offered, feeling she’d appreciate a change. Maybe she’d find solace with work. It’ll help her through this pain.
“I'd love that.”
Good. Arianna knew better than to argue with Cortez brothers. A smile tugged the corners of my mouth again. She rested her head on my shoulder and a sigh escaped her lips. The silence stretched between us.
“What's your story?”
My body went stiff. “I don't have a story.” The treacherous heart galloped within my ribcage. How did she know? Kenzie’s face flashed in my mind. Kenzie with Desmond. Kenzie in college. My jaws clenched.
“I want to forget. I refuse to cry and I don’t want to ruin my life over him. This trip supposed to be a distraction, but when I’m alone, all I can think is about him.”
Her confession forced me to relax, reminding me she too was in pain. It was a good thing she talked about it. While talking didn’t take away the pain, it sure helped to ease it.
“What did you do?”
“I worked.” My voice whispered out, though I wanted to avoid the question. “I drowned myself in work until I could no longer keep my eyes open.”
The silence settled between us again and I adjusted our position so she could lean on my chest. It felt so right, having her in my arms. A sigh of contentment left my lips as I rested my chin on her head. Her body relaxed further. My fingers continued their massage, caressing her silky smooth skin on the hand.
It wasn’t always like this between us. Hell, we rarely spoke despite knowing each other for years. I still remembered Mike’s warning when they were barely thirteen. It was his birthday party and we were hanging out at the beach. A few of my friends, including Dean—now a popular footballer—was there. It was also the first time I saw Arianna wearing a two-piece bikini.
An eighteen-year-old me thought it was cute. Definitely not in a sexy manner. She was a kid and my cousin’s best friend. I have known her since their diaper days. Before kindergarten Mike, Enrique and Arianna were in the same daycare. That day at the beach when her eyes found our group, I could almost feel her self-consciousness. To make her feel comfortable, I’ve said she looked good. And that warranted Mike’s wrath.
“Stay away from her, Orlando!” The anger on Mike’s face caught me off-guard.
“Who are you talking about?”
“You know who. Arianna. Don’t talk to her.”
Oh, now I understood. “Chill, dude. I said nothing bad.”
“You said she looked good. That’s worse than it could get.”
“Come on, Mike. She is just a kid. I meant nothing by it.”
“She is thirteen and she is not a kid.”
“Calm down, Mike. My brother didn’t mean anything.” Enrique took my side.
“Are we really having this discussion right now?” I couldn’t even believe the direction the conversation was headed to. I would never look at her that way.
Mike took deep breaths and puffed his chest like a man as his hands fisted at his sides. If it wasn’t for the burning anger on his face, I would’ve laughed out loud. His coffee-brown eyes narrowed at us. “Look, cousin, she is off-limits. She might have a crush on you, but I won’t let anything or anyone hurt her.”
Whoa! Arianna had a crush on me? Damn. I raised my arms in surrender. “I wouldn’t even dream of it.”
“That goes to you too, Enrique.” His index finger pointed at my younger brother, who was turning into a flirt.”Treat her and Rosie as your sisters. If I heard you whistling at them one more time, I’ll break that dirty mouth of yours.”
Enrique’s eyes almost popped out of its sockets that day as he surrendered, crossing his heart as he promised Mike.
The memory of Mike confronting me and Enrique several years ago brought a smile on my lips now. How would he react if he saw us together now? There was nothing wrong with the way I was holding her, I assured myself.
Arianna had always been beautiful. It wasn’t just the way she looked. It was mostly her bright smile and carefree nature that made her presence delightful. She had a knack for diffusing the tension and make people laugh. Her casual jokes had even made Papa laugh. He rarely laughed after our mother cheated on him. Our mother tore our lives apart. He never loved anyone again. But when Arianna was present, he loosened up and often laughed during their conversations.
A small sound from her brought me out of my thoughts. She shifted in my arms, snuggling into my chest further. Her lips murmured something incoherent and I admired her with a smile on my lips.
I didn’t know if I served as a comfort to her. Her company took my mind off my ex though, for the first time, it was calm without the suffocating need to work. A deep sigh relaxed my lungs. It was growing late and everyone must be asleep.
Standing up with her, I adjusted her in my arms, carrying her to the room assigned to her. Her lips whispered out my name when I lay her on the bed, once again drawing a smile out of mine. I covered her with a blanket and walked to my room.
“It's good to see you smile.”
Mike's voice took me off guard. He was sitting on my bed, his expression impassive.
“Thanks. What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to talk.”
“What do you want to talk about?” Tension coiled around my body as I knew what was coming.
“There is nothing to worry about. We just talked.”
Mike took a deep breath before fixing his sable eyes on mine. “Good. Because I don't want to feel helpless again and worry if my friend would do something stupid while trying to pull herself together.”
“Mike...” The desperation in my voice was that of the kid, who was denied his ice cream. I didn’t know why it made me feel this way. It felt good to hold her in my arms and be there for her. My thoughts were jumbled as I turned away from him.
“I trust you, cousin. Though you won’t admit it, I know you were in her shoes once. Please don't hurt her. Stay away if you have the slightest doubt this wouldn't go any farther.”
“I won't hurt her.”
“It's not just her I'm worried about.” Mike's concerned gaze pinned me when I risked a glance at him. When he put his hand on my shoulder to squeeze, I could only release a shaky breath with a nod.
Could I bring myself to stay away from her?
Only time would tell.