I was awoken by a warm hand rubbing on my arm, the familiar scent of my sheets surrounding me, and the sounds of my heater kicking on. As I opened my eyes, I saw Mark leaning over me.
“I’ve been trying to call you, you scared me half to death.” His voice was soft but his face told me how worried he had been.
“Sorry,” I whispered, sitting up. “I had to leave the office and I was exhausted, so I came home.”
He slightly nodded but it was clear that he didn’t believe me. “Says the girl with a tear-stained face, little bruises on her neck, and jeans with dirty knees.” He ran his hand through my hair. “What happened?”
The memory of my stalker invaded my mind as my bottom lip trembled. “It was so scary, Mark!” I turned my face into my pillow and bawled. “He came out of nowhere in the parking garage at work. He held me against the car and told me he was coming for me real soon.” I visibly shook.
“Hell will freeze over before I let that son of a bitch near you.” He continued to soothe me by rubbing his warm hand on my arm. “What did Asher have to say about it?”
I groaned. “He didn’t, because I never told him.”
“Layla,” he scolded.
“Mark, I left in the middle of the night with no word. Do you really think he gives two shits about what’s happening to me right now?” I shoved my face back into my pillow.
“I know he does. And you want to know how I know that?” When I only groaned he continued, “because that man loves you. I don’t know what happened up in the mountains that night, but he is crazy about you. He should know about this, Layla. He can protect you when I can’t.”
His words sank in, but I wasn’t ready to acknowledge them or reply to him so I kept my face in my pillow and muffled out, “I need more sleep. I have to fly out for work tomorrow morning.”
“Work! You’re going to work after what just happened to you?! Are you mental?”
I finally turned and looked at him again and replied, “I have to, Mark. You know how Tyler is and if I don’t get a model for this new campaign I can kiss my job goodbye.”
“Fuck Tyler!” Mark barked, “I’ll tell him to shove this campaign up his ass! Your life is more important than his campaign.”
I glared at him. “I have to do this, Mark.”
He shook his head. “No. I don’t like it at all.”
“I’m going to go see Asher.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Now that is something I can get on board with, but not you going back to work.”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand. Tyler wants Asher for the campaign. I’m going to see Asher tomorrow to pitch the campaign to him and his manager,” I sighed out, “I don’t even know if he’ll see me.”
“He’ll see you.” He sounded so sure while I sat there completely unsure about how things were going to go down tomorrow.
“Don’t sound so sure, Mark. You don’t know Asher like I do.” I pushed myself to the edge of the bed and slid out, walking to my closet to grab something to sleep in before I headed to the bathroom to take a hot shower.
“I don’t need to know Asher like you do, Layla, to know that that guy is probably dying inside not having you in his life. I saw you two together this weekend. The guy was like a love-sick puppy. He will be thrilled to see you.”
I stared at him, not moving. “Can I go take my shower now?”
He rolled his eyes and excused me with a wave of his hand as he stood up from my bed and left my bedroom.
I woke early the next morning and saw a text from Tyler telling me how proud he was that I got the meeting with Asher and how I got everything done. Of course, he threw in there that if I screwed this up he would have my job posted online that afternoon. Thanks for the vote of confidence, asshole.
Luckily I knew some guys at the airfield who we worked with for our travel needs and they were able to hook me up with a private jet on short notice. I didn’t ask how, I was just thankful because there were no flights out of Seattle to California in the time frame I had to work with.
I boarded the jet and prepared for take-off, listening to a meditation on my laptop to calm my nerves. I wasn’t nervous about flying. No, I was nervous to see Asher. If I knew him at all, then I knew he was going to be a giant jerk about all of this.
The jet took off and I went into a meditative state the rest of the flight.
I was surprised to feel how much warmer it was down here than back at home. Sure it was fall, early winter, but we were suffering a colder than normal season this year so the heat of California was welcoming.
A black Mercedes pulled up to the jet and a man got out. “Are you from Blakely Management?”
“I am...” I hesitated, not knowing there would be a car waiting for me. Did I get in? Wait. Was he my stalker? No, this man was much taller and bulkier than my stalker.
“Mr. Barry sent me to pick you up.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and slipped into the back seat of the Mercedes, impressed by its interior.
The man didn’t say a word as he drove away from the airfield and onto the freeway, which was fine with me, to be honest. I was a nervous wreck and wouldn’t be much of a conversationalist at the moment.
But then he pulled into a parking lot and stopped at the front entrance of what looked like a warehouse and got out to open my door. I slipped out of the back seat and looked at the building in front of me. It didn’t look all that fancy but it sat right on the beach which made the location perfect.
I noticed a man walk out the front door as he smiled at me. He was taller with dark short hair and he was dressed in jeans and a tee. Not at all professional but it made me feel more comfortable.
“You must be Tyler’s girl. I’m Tristan!” He stopped in front of me and shook my hand.
“Yes. My name is Layla. Is the client ready to see me?” My professional side came out and Tristan must have noticed because he lightly laughed and then nodded.
“He’s just finishing up with the press, but you can go in and see him anyways.” He waved for me to follow him as we went inside.
My heart pounded and in just a few minutes, I’d be face to face with Asher again, but this time I’d be in his world, not a romantic cabin in the mountains. I could do this.
I took a deep breath and followed Tristan down a long hallway. It was filled with conference looking rooms with windows into the hallway but they were all empty as we passed by.
Except for one.
The one where Asher sat at the head of a table and smiled and laughed with some people taking notes as he spoke. I noticed two very beautiful women sitting next to him and they were looking at each other as if they’d known each other for years and maybe they have. I don’t anything about Asher’s life.
As we passed by, I noticed Asher caught sight of us and he went from care-free, smiling Asher to a stern face and tight jaw.
Tristan entered the room, holding the door for me to enter too as he clapped. “Alright, people!!” And that’s all he had to say in order for these people to get the hint and leave.
I stood frozen on the other end of the long table, my laptop tight to my chest, as I stared at Asher and he was staring back, not pulling his eyes from me.
Once the others were gone, Tristan began, “This is Layla from Blakely management. The meeting I told you about last night.”
“No.” He kept his eyes on me but stood from the table, rounded toward me, and walked right out.
“Wow. I’m incredibly sorry. He’s not usually this rude,” Tristan started and then added, “Let me go run him down.”
I lightly laughed, shaking my head. I knew he was going to be a dick about this, I just didn’t expect him to run out on me. But I guess I deserved that.
I had left the conference room, following behind Tristan as he went after Asher.
“Creed! You stop when I’m talking to you.” Tristan did not sound happy. It was like watching a scolded child stop when his mother was calling. “This lady has come a long way to have this meeting with you and it’s me who decides whether or not your answer is no.”
Asher glared over Tristan’s shoulder at me and replied, “I have nothing to say to that woman. And I’m no longer interested. I assume you can show her out?”
He went to walk away, Tristan yelling at him to stop, but he just kept walking.
“Asher. Please!” I called out. Tristan looked at me strangely when Asher stopped but didn’t turn around. I knew my personal feelings came out in the way I called after him, hence why Tristan was looking confused.
“Asher, I know I hurt you and I know I shouldn’t have left the way I did, but it was the only way I could say goodbye to you without completely breaking down.” I stopped, waiting for some kind of reaction but got nothing.
Tristan was still looking at me strangely but I didn’t care.
I closed the distance between me and Asher and lightly touched his back.
He flinched and spun toward me, giving me a mean snarl.
“Don’t,” he hissed out a warning.
My bottom lip trembled and Asher’s eyes trailed down to them before he glared back into my eyes.
“You don’t get to do that, Layla. You’re the one who walked away. Not me.” He sounded angry, filled with hatred, and I couldn’t blame him.
I nodded. “I know... and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” My voice was a whisper, my eyes pooling with unshed tears.
“Ash?” Tristan’s voice came from behind me and Asher looked over my head at him.
“Tristan, I’d like you to meet Layla Stanford, the girl who ripped my fucking heart out.” His voice was filled with so much venom and his eyes sent daggers into mine.
"This is LS?” Tristan asked, sounding amazed. So he clearly knew about the tattoo and the meaning behind it, but he had no idea who I really was.
“You should leave, Layla.” Then Asher turned and walked away from me.
A single sob escaped my lips before I sucked in a deep breath. I turned to find Tristan staring at me.
“I’m sorry. I’ll talk to him. Please don’t go anywhere just yet.” Then he ran past me in Asher’s direction, leaving me to stand there all alone.
I heard shouting coming from down the hallway so I went in the opposite direction. Obviously, it was a really pissed-off Asher shouting so I wanted to be as far from that as possible, without actually leaving. Tyler still needed his model and I wasn’t leaving here until he got one.
I heard Tristan calling for me from the lobby as I stood up and went toward the hallway again. He came toward me with a grim smile on his face.
“So,” he sighed, “he has agreed to do the campaign for Blakely management, but he refuses to work with you.” Tristan lowered his gaze to me, waiting for my reaction.
It was a typical Asher reaction so I wasn’t surprised, but I refused to leave here without his consent to work with me. I was the agent for the campaign and he had to work with me to do it. If he didn’t, Tyler would kill me.
“I see,” I replied, nodding ever so slightly, trying to hold my cool. “Is Asher down that way?” I pointed behind him and started walking in that direction.
“Layla, I wouldn’t do that,” Tristan warned but I ignored him.
I stormed down the hall toward the only door that wasn’t glass, assuming Asher would be behind it, and when I stepped inside, I gapped at what I saw.
Asher was sitting on his couch, his head in his hands, and he was crying.
“Asher...” I whispered ever so gently, gripping the door handle for strength.
He whipped his head up at me and cursed, wiping at his eyes as he stood up.
“What the fuck are you doing back here? I told Tristan to show you the front door!” He turned his anger back on and it was flaming hot.
“Asher, you don’t understand!” I tried to plead with him, but he clearly wasn’t in the mood to listen.
“No, I don’t understand and I don’t give a fuck anymore!” He barked out.
“Says the guy who was just crying,” I replied. “I’m sorry...” I whispered out.
He shook his head. “You don’t get the right to be sorry. Instead of figuring out how we could have made things work, you left in the middle of the night with no fucking word and pushed me back out of your life. Like you always do. Well, this time you’ve succeeded, Stanford. Now get the fuck out.”
A whimper escaped my lips and I trembled with fear of truly losing him if I didn’t tell him how I really felt.
“I love you. I always will. And that’s why I left.” My voice was so soft and quiet that I barely even heard myself.
“That makes no fucking sense,” he snapped, stepping away from me.
“But it does. Don’t you see that? Seven years ago, I gave my heart to you and you ripped it out when you left. I knew we couldn’t be together then as we both wanted such different things. We were going down completely different roads. But I never stopped loving you. I couldn’t. And now you show back up in my life and my heart allows you back in, but this time I was the one who walked away because I couldn’t handle you walking out on me all over again.” I took a deep breath and studied him before I continued, “I didn’t know how we were going to work, and if we tried and failed, I knew it would have destroyed me. You’re the only guy I’ve ever loved so deeply and it would have killed me to think we could have a future together and then it falls apart. I will always love you, Asher, but I couldn’t wait around for the inevitable.”
He just stared at me, his features much softer now as he studied my face.
“You don’t think I was afraid too? Afraid of losing you again? Layla, you’re all I’ve thought about in the last seven years and when I came back last weekend, I knew that you were always what I wanted. I know we got angry with each other. We were both scared, but if you didn’t leave, then you would have learned that I was willing to give up my life here in Cali just to be with you! That’s how much you mean to me.” He was breathless by the time he ended and we both just stood there staring at each other.
Then I ended the silence. “So what does this mean?” I whispered.
He shook his head. “I have no idea, but I do know...” he paused to step a bit closer to me, just in arms reach, “that I will never stop loving you, Layla.”
I swallowed, my heart pounding as I stared up into his eyes, smelling the familiar scent of sandalwood as I began to nervously shake.
“I really am sorry for leaving. I haven’t been able to sleep since that night.” I looked down, averting my eyes from him.
But he grabbed my chin and forced me to look up at him.
“Layla, I...” but he paused as I watched his eyes scan down to my neck, the color leaving his cheeks. “What happened?” He turned my chin this way and that as he took in the fingerprint bruises on my neck.
And I knew then that I had to tell him about my stalker.
“Asher, I have something to tell you.”