Thane interrupted my train of thought as I went over the budget for the millionth time, wondering if I missed anything and knowing how important it was to prove my competency right from the start. “Ms. Burke, there is a delivery for you.” I tensed after he said it.
Over the last couple of weeks, I not only found Ryder drunk in his club and took him home but after a bout of intense lovemaking, I severed all contact with him in a vain attempt to protect my heart. It had been a little over two weeks since I retrained all my energy into my business and thank goodness I had something to concentrate on besides the fact I missed him.
Focusing all my efforts on going ‘live’ this week proved perfect timing. Five business days in, and we had garnered only a few small contracts but Maximiliano seemed happy with the results. What little spare time I had only made me more efficient. I went over every minute detail with a fine-tooth comb. As a bonus, I finally got rid of Eliza and hired someone who was interested in the business side more than scoring one of the executives from Maximiliano’s company several floors up.
Thane was able to slide right in, but really, Eliza wasn’t a hard person to follow. He respected my business decisions, wasn’t afraid to give his own advice or glean any knowledge he could, and he called me Ms. Burke even after I offered for him to call me Ami. He earned my respect in the short time he was with my company, and he would go far in the business realm.
Thane even gave me the list of investors I asked Eliza to get me since the first week she came on board months ago. Besides refining my marketing strategy now we had opened officially for business, it was the next thing on my list to devote my attention to.
Regardless of how busy I kept myself my mind somehow always made its way back to Ryder. I still remembered the look on his face when I walked past him and Brandt and walked out the door. We exchanged a wealth of emotions in that one look. He recognized my need to run away from him knowing we had taken things too far. We crossed a line and couldn’t go back. Now that we were a little too intimate both in mind and body, we couldn’t just meet for a weekly fuck. This wasn’t a fling anymore, and we couldn’t go back to meaningless sex. It was better to walk away. Any further contact would make leaving him impossible and neither one of us could make a relationship work. It was bound to end and it would hurt worse than anything I had ever been through before.
Chelsea called me last week to tell me she worked things out with Brandt. Traitor. Of course, I was happy for her. They belonged together, they really did, but their reunion just proved that maybe rockstar relationships could exist for the long haul. I wanted to believe that even the perfect marriages could crumble. That people with the best intentions couldn’t survive in today’s world, not that they just hit a road bump and were as happy as ever. Fairy tales didn’t work. If hers turned out to be perfect, it just meant it could be possible for others.
“Ah, Ms. Burke?” Thane didn’t understand my hesitation. He wasn’t here when Ryder came around and the recent delivery worried me. When I had Thane cancel the rest of our meetings, I knew it would send a message to him and I haven’t heard from him since. No texts, no flowers, no visits. I still couldn’t tell if I was relieved about it or not.
But one thing was sure, I still missed him every single day, especially on Tuesdays.
I tried to keep my voice steady as I answered him, “What, ah, is the delivery?”
I swallowed a lump in my throat and my breathing sped up, “Who are they from?” If it turned out to be from Zeus Enterprises, I would turn them away. Make the delivery driver take them back or have Thane bring them to the customer service center. If they came from him. Why did I secretly hope they were from him?
“They are from Mr. Caballero. Looks to be about two dozen yellow roses. What would you like me to do with them?” I sighed out of relief or disappointment, I wasn’t sure.
“Bring them in and put them on the windowsill and send a note up to Maximiliano on his thoughtfulness for me please.” The door opened and Thane brought in the large bouquet of the long-stemmed roses. They weren’t red but reminded me of Ryder anyway. Maybe it was a mistake keeping them at all but if Maximiliano came to check up on me he would be affronted with not having me showcase them in my office.
“Thank you,” I said, as I turned back to the report on my desk. Thane nodded and went back out the door closing it behind him.
Since my marketing strategy so closely related to funneling some extra business to my investors, I picked up the report Thane had amassed for me. I reviewed the list of investors in detail and thought of ways we could parlay business to them and in what capacity. All except for a corporation called G.A. Antiquities. They were the only company not stationed in the Vegas area so I had little information on them. I needed a more accurate report to see if I could throw some business their way as I felt each of my investors took a chance on me and deserved some patronage.
Turning to my computer, I started my own search. An antiquity’s dealership had little to offer the global traveler. Most antiques in this area were not as old as what was in the native land my travelers flew in from. Unless of course, they dealt in international relics, so I felt I should look into the company a little more closely.
The search yielded very little results. The initials G.A. stood for Golden Apple and it seemed an elderly couple from Florida opened the little mom-and-pop shop for tourists. Nothing that would be of interest to world travelers but it piqued my curiosity. How would a senior couple with a quaint yet slightly rundown store obtain enough money to invest in a start-up company in Vegas? And why? There were several people in that boardroom the day I presented my plan but none who looked as old as this couple. Something smelled fishy.
Changing tactics I searched for the location of the store. Maybe they had a distribution center in the area or a subsidiary but nothing came up for Vegas. They only listed one location in Florida. Southern Florida to be exact. Nothing suspicious there as it was usually where old people went to retire but I needed to understand the connection.
My search went on longer than it should, and when I hit a wall on background information on the couple themselves I started to get frustrated. I wasn’t sure why it was so important I found out about this company but it wouldn’t leave my mind. I searched for generalities with the name Golden Apple but still came up with nothing. Searching through page after page of articles and websites I found several references to celebrating teachers with the Golden Apple award, but nothing to lead me to this company. I was about to give up when I finally thought to search the significance of the golden apple itself.
The computer lit up with information on the Judgement of Paris. As I read the story, I felt heat rise in my face as anger worked its way to every particle of my body. The Judgement of Paris consisted of a contest of the fairest of the fair. It was held between Athena, Aphrodite, and... Hera.
Reading on the article talked about Zeus forfeiting judging the contest as he feared backlash from not choosing his wife. In the end, a god named Paris did the deciding. Aphrodite cheated and used her womanly ways to get the golden apple but the story went on to state Hera had been the true winner and sought her revenge during the Trojan war.
My blood felt at the boiling point unable to believe the betrayal. Ryder invested in my company. He invested in my company even after I specifically told him not to. He lied to my face and betrayed my confidence in him.
Fury rose up inside of me and I refused to sit back and accept his deceit. He could take his money and shove it. I didn’t need it. I could have made it all on my own.
As I grabbed my purse, I headed out the door to confront him. I wanted him out of my company. He had no right. None. And not only would he be taking his money back, but he would be apologizing to me for being such a low life to go behind my back and do such a thing.
Leaving my office, the late September heat seemed nothing compared to the fire in my body boiling with indignation. I stomped down the three blocks to his nightclub letting my rage build. It wasn’t open at this early hour but it would only make it easier to locate him. I knew he was in town from my conversation with Chelsea. She asked if she could see me this weekend as evidently, the band had a gig at Ryder’s nightclub and she wanted to get together for drinks which made it lucky for me, but most certainly not for him.
Making my way to the door, I pounded on the frame. The same manager I yelled at over two weeks ago came to the door with a curious expression on her face. “Yes?” Recognition shown in her eyes remembering how I helped him to his house drunk off his ass.
“Is Ryder here? I need to see him.” She took time to weigh her options trying to decide if the crazy woman would be worth the follies to her boss. Just then music exploded around her seeping out through the door, and she sighed knowing she wouldn’t be able to deny his presence.
“Yes, he is inside, but---”
Not waiting for her to finish, I barreled past her and through the double doors in search of the louse.
Once inside, I saw all of them. Social Offender. They were on the stage and practicing a song, one I even remembered although I never listened to their type of music.
As soon as I entered the main space, all the instruments stopped one at a time. First was the drums with Ryder behind them as if he knew I would find him sooner or later and had been waiting for me to finally come around. He sat forward and leaned in not at all curious of my arrival. His normally coiffed hair was disheveled, and he dressed in faded jeans and a loose t-shirt. His brown eyes bore into mine seemingly unremorseful and it only fueled my rage further.
One by one the guitars stopped blaring through the speakers. All three band members stopped strumming in a strange gargle of sound until there was only my voice making its way through the room.
“Ryder, you son of a bitch!” The click of my heels became deafening as I stomped up to the stage and started to climb the steps to face him. “Damn you!”
“Ami?” Brandt went to head me off. He stood in front of Ryder with his hands out but not daring to touch me afraid he would singe himself. “Whoa, what the hell is it?” I ignored him as I kept walking toward Ryder now sitting docile behind his drum set. A stoic look covered his face. He met my eyes but gave away nothing at this point although I was sure he knew the reason for my ire.
“Ryder you are an asshole!” My hands clenched in rage as I screamed at him. I never could control my temper when worked up and this put me over the top.
Quade turned and chuckled, “Actually that is JJ’s job.”
When I glared back at him with a heated look he had the decency to put his hands up in a surrendering gesture and turn to the side stage, but the amused look remained.
“Ami will you just calm down.” Brandt tried to act as a go-between and I wouldn’t let him get involved. I only had one person I wanted to chastise at this point.
Scanning the room to see if anyone else would interfere I met JJ’s apathetic look. He saw my determination and had the audacity to smirk at me before saying, “Shit Ryder. Looks like you really fucked up.”
JJ shook his head and laughed but Brandt seemed the only one stupid enough to intervene at this point as he said, “Ah, Ami we are trying to rehearse for a gig we are playing here this weekend. Chelsea will be here soon so you might want to, ah...” He nodded to the door obviously worried about his own neck seeing he kept our recent tryst under wraps from his wife. There was no need for him to be afraid Chelsea would find out about us seeing as Ryder and I were through.
Ryder continued to sit indifferently and it pissed me off further. He wanted to show me I didn’t affect him, but I wouldn’t stop until he let down his cool facade for once. I stomped up to his drum set and started to kick at it as I picked up his symbols like a two-year-old throwing a fit. “You just had to do it didn’t you.” I pushed over the drum set and was about to throw the symbol when he stood quickly finally showing some emotion and grabbed my arm. A fire rose in his eyes and it was about time. I wanted him to fight back. I wanted him to yell and pitch a fit like me. It just didn’t seem right I was the only one losing my shit right now.
“Enough!” His fingers dug into my arm, but he was careful to not cause pain. “We will finish this in my office.” He let go of my arm and took the cymbal from my hand throwing it to the ground as he left to the side stage. The guys turned and made it as if they would go back to rehearsing but I knew their eyes would be on us as we left through the wreckage and down the steps.
I followed behind him trying to rein in my anger at least a little to hear his excuse before I gave him a piece of my mind. Once down the steps I straightened my blouse and held my head up higher. Although I may have been acting like a stubborn toddler, I would not be treated like one. Not even bothering to look back, he wound his way down the corridor to his back office as I continued behind him.
Before he even got three steps into his office I pounced on him, “Golden Apple Antiquities? Did you really think I would never find out you bought into my company?”
He had the good sense to look at least a little embarrassed, “It was a good investment. You wouldn’t let me any other way.”
“I told you I didn’t feel right letting you put money in my company after we fucked!”
His brown eyes grew darker as he leaned against the desk and I slammed the door shut. Brandt may know somethings about us, but he didn’t deserve to know my whole life’s scandals.
“What about Mael Villeneuve? He is an investor.”
Startled, I grew quiet. How did he know about Mael? I never mentioned him. Marius kept him private understanding most people wouldn’t agree with his lifestyle, and I did so too out of respect for my ex-husband. His naming of my ex-brother-in-law shocked me into calming down. My voice went softer with confusion, “How do you know about Mael?”
“You ran to him after our night in Paris together.” A look of hurt surfaced briefly on his face, but he recovered quickly.
Thinking back to Paris and the trouble we had, I realized he must have known about Mael from him tracking me. “You had me followed?” But why would he? My unease turned into alarm. Was I being watched all this time? By Ryder or Enzo?
Ryder straightened up and made a step toward me. “I had to make sure you were safe. What we did that night could have put you in a dangerous position. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you.” The earnestness in his eyes seemed genuine, and I was relieved to learn the tracking was all done on his end.
“Amilyn, your safety is important to me. I can’t lose you too.” His eyes looked heavy as the pain turned shadows on his face. “I... I...”
He noticed my confusion and grazed my arm with his hand, but I still kept him at arm’s length, “I can’t let anything happen to you. I love you.” My breath caught in my throat and all feeling left my body. He just told me he loved me. I wasn’t prepared to hear it. I knew we drifted into heavy territory but I thought I ended it before we could fall any farther.
“You... you don’t do relationships. You.... you promised.” It was accusatory but I couldn’t think straight. He loved me. He actually said it and now I wanted him to take it back. Ryder was an acquaintance, a companion, someone to pass the time with. Someone to find pleasure in. He was never meant to be more but somehow he turned into a lover and more importantly a... friend.
“I don’t do relationships but somehow this just fucking ambushed me. I fell in love with you along the way. I don’t do love and commitment but I haven’t felt this way about anyone in fifteen years. You were supposed to be one night of fucking. You are right, I shouldn’t do relationships. I consume the people I love and make them mine. It is a preservation factor. I can’t shut it off and I won’t. I need to know you are safe and you are mine completely.”
My head was spinning and my breath grew shallow as I considered that just mere seconds ago I wanted to rearrange his face, and now I heard of his undying love. His hands felt their way up my arms to my shoulders, the gesture soft and filled with emotion to the point I could no longer look into his deep brown eyes. A question lurked behind them that needed an answer and I didn’t know what to say, overwhelmed by his honesty once again.
“Do they know who I am?” The question was meant as a distraction as I knew Ryder would have informed me of any impending trouble since I understood the lengths he would go through to keep me safe. Enzo and his men in France didn’t know my name so there was little chance they could find me unless they were also looking at him.
Suddenly my heart quickened for another reason as I looked up at him anxiously. Ryder’s hands cupped my cheeks and his touch calmed me. “Not to my knowledge. We were careful but I can’t leave it up to chance. Connor is watching both of us and there has been nothing to indicate we were exposed. I swear to you I would never put you in harm’s way. That is why I am quitting the business.”
My eyes widened in shock, “Quitting? But why?”
“To keep you safe. I was lucky enough to get away with my dealings in Belarus and around the states but I would never put you in danger. I couldn’t survive it again.” His eyes look at me with clarity. He did so much good for the forgotten woman and children who couldn’t protect themselves. He was a savior to them, and they didn’t even know of his existence.
“I would give it all up for you Ami but I need all of you too.” He caressed my face so softly I barely felt the pad of his fingers.
Suddenly, as if I was fire, he dropped his hands and backed away. “I just can’t do this anymore Ami. I need all of you or none of you. I can’t turn off my need to make sure you are mine. It isn’t right, I know, but I can’t be with you knowing you have others.” His eyes fell away from mine as he bared all to me.
“Ryder--” He didn’t let me finish.
“I can’t do it to myself anymore. I am going insane with visions of you with other men. I need to be the only one or no one at all.” He walked away and over to the door. Looking at his distraught face I could see the anguish he had on his shoulders for the last couple of weeks. The fine lines around his eyes and the weariness in his posture. He had been hurting without me just as I have been hurting without him. He was just better at admitting it to himself.
“Don’t come back unless you can commit too. I couldn’t take sharing you. I can’t sleep and I can’t eat and I can barely live without you in my life so if you can’t see yourself with me then do me a favor and stay away. I love you too much to keep putting myself through this.”
He grabbed onto the door handle and opened it, but before he exited he looked back at me one more time. “Don’t come back unless you want all of me. My heart can’t take it.” His eyes looked like they were drowning in sorrow and I forced back a shudder. This incredibly powerful man had opened his heart to me and I stood there like a damn idiot unable to move or utter a word.
He took one more punishing look at me and walked out the door.
It took a while before I could compose myself enough to leave. All my senses had suffered. I didn’t have a clue what went on but I couldn’t think straight right now. Not here at least. I needed time. I needed to think about what just transpired and come to terms with the fact he wanted all of me. Not for a meaningless fling but as a partner to share his bed and his life.
After what felt like an eternity I straightened my blouse and skirt and walked out the door down the corridor. I didn’t even look in the direction of the stage as I made my way to the front door. Whatever they think went on right now, I refused to leave with my tail between my legs. I walked out to the silence of the band as I once again heard the clicking of my heels on the concrete floor. This time the sound was haunting.