When we arrived in conference room B, the room was filled with many people. I recognized a few—Emery and the man she had her hands wrapped around was probably Ronald, the famous lawyer. I saw uncle Tom, Grandma Vee, aunt Becca, and my parents.
“You look a little sick,” Axel spoke from beside me.
“I don’t like family gatherings.” I gave him a side look.
“You don’t have to worry, Hermosa, I’ll be right next to you.” He encouraged and I felt a little bit better.
But that was stopped short when I saw the bride and groom walk towards us. Emery and I were cousins and grew up together. I want to say that we were close but we weren’t. How do I explain this?
In high school there are cliques and according to our genetics and personality makeup, we are sometimes placed into these cliques. Emery was the popular smart girl that everyone wanted to be. I was a drifter. I don’t remain in one place too long.
“Ryleigh, I am so glad you can make it.” She smiled before turning to her groom to be. “This is my cousin Ryleigh. Ryleigh this is my fiancé, Ronald. His father owns the company that I work for.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Ronald said politely. Ronald was around his mid-thirties judging by his looks. He had light blonde hair that was nicely smoothed back with gel and hazel colored eyes. His smile was perfect. Everything about him screamed impressive and confident.
“I have to say, Emery hasn’t mentioned you to me. I know several of her cousins-”
“Ryleigh lives in southern California. We don’t see each other very much.” Emery explained. After she received her degree and passed the bar, she moved up to upper Manhattan, New York. Ronald nodded in silent understanding.
Needing to change the subject, I hooked my hands through Axel’s arm, “This is my boyfriend, his name is Axel.”
“Boyfriend?” Emery raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Your mother didn’t tell me you were dating.”
I tried not to take offense.
“I like to keep my life private,” I said with a fake smile when inside all I wanted to do was scream and run up to my room and possibly order food to be delivered.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Axel. I must say I am very surprised that Ryleigh managed to catch someone like you.”
Oh, fuck me. I want to pummel someone. My hands tightened around Axel’s biceps. He placed a rough hand over mine.
“It is I who is lucky to have found someone like her.” I looked up and saw him staring down at me. The way he looked at me made my heart skipped that spread to my stomach that I can only explain as a butterfly. Why was he looking at me like that? Like I am all he sees in this world.
Ronald clears his throat and broke the connection. I looked at him and saw him smiling sincerely. “Ah, well, we better find a seat and grab some food while it’s hot. If I know my family well, they will be scarfing food down right about now.”
Emery and Ronald walked away. The conference room was set up with several rectangle tables. Most of the seats were taken. A buffet set up was set up against the wall.
“Why aren’t you moving?” Axel questioned, clearly confused as to why I was staring straight ahead.
Biting my lips, I turned to face him, “I want to put on a brave front but I feel...”
Out of place?
Axel must have seen it flicker across my face because he exhaled and wrapped one arm around my shoulder, pulling me into the crook of his side.
“In all the times I have known you, Ryleigh, you have never been anything but strong. You can do this. Don’t let anyone get to you. Now c’mon, let’s feed that stomach of yours cause tonight we are going to-“He winked at me and flashed me a devilish grin.
“In your dreams, Romeo,” I replied and couldn’t help but smile.
Dinner consisted of baked turkey breast, mash potatoes and gravy, biscuits, and green bean casseroles. For dessert, they had strawberry cheesecake. I grabbed a little bit of everything and two slices of cheesecake. Axel took more because he was a bigger man and he had a better metabolism than me.
We walked to sit with my parents. My mother glanced at my plate and then looked up at me with a look in her eyes that I knew very well. Before she could speak her mind though, my father asked Axel a question.
“So, what is it that you do?” My father asked.
“I am a firefighter,” Axel replied honestly.
“Interesting. Although, I admire your line of work, isn’t it dangerous?” My father asked.
“Yes, but helping others is something I enjoy doing,” Axel explained.
My father picked up his wine glass and took a sip before speaking again, “I see. California is a hazardous state when it comes to fires. I believe almost five thousand fires are reported yearly.”
I stopped eating and looked up at my father. What was he getting at? Axel remained silent. His facial expression unreadable.
“Is it something you plan on doing after marriage? Or when you have kids?” My father questioned further.
I set my fork and knife down. I knew where my father was going.
“I’m just curious.” My father asked. “Do you think it is a suitable job for when you have your own family?”
“What is with all these questions?” I snapped, feeling thoroughly frustrated and angry with everyone. Not even an hour in and I feel like dragging Axel and I out of here.
Axel placed a hand over my fist on the table. I glanced down and back at him.
“It’s alright.” He told me. “Your father is right.”
“What?” I replied disbelievingly.
Axel turned to my father, “Sir, you are absolutely right. This job is a dangerous job. I am risking my life to fight a force that has proven over and over that it can kill but if fighting it means that it will keep my children and wife safe than I will continue to fight it. It is a sacrifice I will make for my family. It is what I will do for anyone.”
I turned back to my father. His jaw ticked slightly. He does it when he is pissed or when he is in deep thought. A quick nod came from my father before he went back to eating. What I would give to read what was running around in my father’s mind.
Axel turned to me and flashed me a smile as if he didn’t just give a life-altering statement a second ago.
“Well, this is lovely.” My mother said with a nervous laugh and picked up her fork again. She also was rendered speechless.
I know where my father went. He didn’t want me to get hurt. He knows me well and although I put on a brave front and toss aside people’s comments about me. Inside, I was insecure and need reassurance. I was a little girl and never been hurt or never been truly hurt before. He wanted to protect me.
I’m glad Axel stood up for himself and not let my parents step all over him. I agree with him a hundred percent. His job is dangerous but in all the years that I have known Axel, he was nothing but persistent and strong. Underneath all those pickup lines and playboy look, he wasn’t a bad person. It was one of the many reasons we became friends. He might tease me but he was always there for me.
Again, I felt a tug in my chest and my heart thumping erratically. I wasn’t familiar with this feeling. It was like a tide that knocks me off my feet.
After dinner, Axel and I made our escape without any idle conversation. I thought we were going to head upstairs but Axel took hold of my hand in his and headed for the main entrance of the hotel.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
"Hermosa, we are in Barcelona. We should be exploring the city as much as we can.” He rebuked.
“It’s late and I just ate two cheesecakes.” I made a point. “Plus, I’m wearing heels because that’s all I brought with me.”
“It will only be briefly. Let’s take a walk around the block.” He urged.
Exhaling in defeat, I allowed him to pull me up to his side and we walked outside together. The air was a little cooler now that the sun has gone down. We walked together in silence down the city streets of Barcelona. It was a few minutes in when I became alarmingly aware that he was still holding my hand and with any passerby, we must look like a couple. I tried pulling my hand back but he glanced down and held on tight.
“We are just holding hands.” He rationalized.
“But they will all think we are a couple.”
He didn’t seem to care. I didn’t fight him. I guess I didn’t really care either. We walked a few more blocks before my feet started hurting. This was why I don’t like heels.
“Can we go back now?” I complained.
He chuckled, “We have only been out for like 20 minutes.”
“My feet hurt,” I whined.
He sighed and let go of my hand. Frowning, I watched him moved to crouch in front of me with his back facing me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Get on my back, Hermosa."
“Uh no, not going to happen.” I was more than 160 pounds--medically I’m considered obese.
He growled impatiently before grabbing onto my arms and slinging it over his shoulder. He grabbed my thighs lifted me up onto his back. I let out a squeak and closed my eyes, prepared that we will fall at any given second but we didn’t. He carried me like I was nothing.
I placed my chin on his shoulder and tightened my arms around his upper body.
“See?” He said cockily.
I scoffed but sneaked a smile. He could carry me and didn’t seem like he was struggling at all.
"Hermosa, let’s roleplay for a bit.”
“Oh, you are getting kinky now since I allowed you to carry me. I don’t know if we should get to that base yet, babe.” I teased and heard his laughter.
“I think we well on our way there. Let’s see...” He looked straight ahead with a curve to his lips. “On our first date, I saved you from burning our apartment building down.”
I laughed and slapped his chest with my palm playfully, “I didn’t mean to! I just wanted some food.”
“I also cook you dinner every night.” He justified. “I might also add, I have seen you cried—ugly too might I add.”
“Axel!” I warned. “I do not cry ugly.”
He laughed again, “We have watched multiple movies together in our apartments. I even stayed up and watched The Notebook with you.”
“So?” I countered.
“Ok, I’ll take it a step further, I even picked up your tampons at the grocery store.” He vindicated.
“Oh my god! Will you stop it?” I laughed.
He laughed with me. With him, I feel like I can be the real me and nobody will judge me.
“Ok, kidding aside- “He said after we have calmed down. “Seriously, roleplay with me.”
“Aren’t we already?” I asked.
He nodded slowly, “Yeah, I guess you can say that.”
“Then we don’t need to roleplay.” I reasoned with him.
“I beg to differ. We have never kissed before. What if your family and relatives start to question our relationship?” He asked.
He stopped and slowly dropped me back down to my feet. We were halfway back to the hotel now. He turned me around to face him.
“So, what are you saying?” I eyed him suspiciously.
“I’m saying let me kiss you, Hermosa."