To Have and To Hold

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Chapter 29

If Louisa only knew how to whistle, she would be whistling up a storm as she drove to The West Grove Hotel; she was near bursting at the seams with happiness.

But since she didn’t, she settled for listening to ‘A Thousand Years’ over and over on her car’s music player. She liked the song before, but now it held special meaning to her. It brought back the wonderful memories of their engagement party – of images of Gabriel singing to her, of him kneeling before her and slipping that gorgeous ring on her finger, of him kissing her in front of all the guests as he announced to one and all that she was now officially his fiancée.

Well, as for the kiss, she really didn’t need the song to remind her of how it felt. She had just sampled Gabriel’s face-melting kisses a while ago, the taste of Gabriel’s lips still on hers. Her cheeks flamed, recalling how Gabriel’s ‘goodbye kiss’ turned into another steamy make-out session. It was as if he could never get enough of her. Yet, amazingly, they had not gone beyond kissing, which made her admire Gabriel’s self-control. He had teasingly said that he wanted to save the ‘main event’ for their wedding night, something he was fervently looking forward to.

Just thinking about her wedding night brought color to her cheeks again and a wild fluttering in her stomach. She wasn’t dreading it per se, but having been given a foretaste of Gabriel’s passionate nature she feared that he would render her senseless when that time came.

The funny thing was, although both of them were initially against their betrothal (for different reasons entirely), the connection between them when they finally met again was so intense and instantaneous it had actually shocked the both of them. They clicked in a way that went beyond the physical, something she never thought was possible with Gabriel.

Louisa smiled to herself, thinking of the things that she had learned about Gabriel. For years, she had been harboring a deep infatuation for a boy with the most enchanting eyes she’d ever seen. Her heart broke when she discovered that the object of her affections didn’t share the same fascination. To survive the pain of rejection, she focused (from what she could dig up from her childhood memories of him) on his less admirable traits – his boorishness, his arrogance, his bossiness, his conceit.

Yet, the more that she spent time with him, the more she saw different facets of her fiancé’s personality. He was witty, smart, funny, and fierce in his beliefs. He was not afraid of responsibility, has nerves of steel, and a deep sense of duty and compassion for others. She also knew that behind that disarming, magazine-cover good-looks ticked the efficient and calculating mind of a full-blooded businessman. When it came to managing an empire, no one would be able to run circles around Gabriel Montoya.

Yes, he tended to be arrogant and stubborn at times but that went with the territory. Who, when born with as much privilege and wealth, wouldn’t be just a tad arrogant and stubborn? Besides, the same could be said of her. And she didn’t even have the same excuse. He has a fiery temper, but so did she. All in all, Gabriel was truly a good catch. No, not just ‘good’; he’s a great catch and her father was right in choosing him to be her husband, her protector (although she would never say that to his face! Nope, never in a million years).

Turning now towards the West Grove Hotel she drove down the basement parking and smoothly slid into one of the slots. She snatched a quick look in the rear-view mirror while killing the engine and immediately gasped at the sight.

So that’s why the brute was smiling so smugly when he waved goodbye! A slow, sensuous smile tugged at her lips as she was reminded again of their earlier interlude. God, that man really knows how to kiss! Lucky, lucky me! She giggled.

Rummaging inside her tote, Louisa grabbed her hairbrush and vanity kit and repaired the ‘damage’ her over-zealous fiancé had wrought. Another glance in the mirror assured her that she was now decent enough to face the civilized world.

Walking towards the elevator, she was surprised by a sight she’d never seen before – Angelo Montoya smoking by the metal trash cans near the service lifts. She knew for a fact that none of the Montoya brothers smoked, so what was Angelo doing skulking and smoking in the darkened hallway? He was obviously in deep thought because he did not even look up when she approached.

“Angelo? Is that you?” she asked, tentatively stepping before the slouched figure of Angelo.

He practically jumped at her voice, looking very much like a naughty child caught with his hands inside the cookie jar. Had the lighting been just a little brighter, Louisa was sure that she would find him blushing with shame. Angelo swiveled away from her and hurriedly tamped the cigarette butt into the metal ashtray.

“Louie! Fancy meeting you here,” he said, turning to her with his trademark lopsided grin, his hands disappearing behind his back pockets.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” Louisa said, taking note of Angelo’s disheveled appearance. His wavy, tawny hair was rumpled and unkempt, his loose, white shirt untucked. And his eyes held a wariness that was a bit out of place in his usually smiling face.

“I don’t. Not habitually, that is. Only when the occasion warrants it,” he replied.

“And what, pray tell, warrants it now?” Louisa asked, keeping her voice light to avoid offending her already jumpy friend.

Angelo did not answer. He just looked at her with a quiet intensity that brought shivers down her spine. He must have felt her unease because his face suddenly broke into a devastatingly beguiling smile, the kind of smile that brought women swooning at his feet. Had Louisa not been so enraptured with her fiancé, she probably would’ve succumbed to its power, too. As it was, the only thing she noted was how Angelo’s eyes looked so much like Gabriel’s.

Taking advantage of the lull that came upon them, Angelo took Louisa’s arm and guided her towards the elevator. When the door closed, Louisa caught a faint whiff of Johnny Blue emanating from Angelo.

So, he’s not only smoking. He’s been drinking, too. Whatever is bothering this man today? Louisa thought as she tried to assess Angelo’s mood. Observing him closer, she also noticed that there were dark shadows under his eyes, his jaw and chin unshaven.

She’d known Angelo to be an easy-going, level-headed type of guy. He was coolness personified. He’d never let anything upset his equilibrium and he always looked for solutions in a calm and methodical manner. His charming, playful demeanor hid a sharp and brilliant mind that often caught people unawares. Always impeccably dressed with nary a hair out of place, Angelo projected the image of a rich, spoiled playboy – totally in control and unaffected by life’s troubles.

Seeing him in such an uncharacteristically tousled state was quite unnerving to Louisa. She wondered at what could ruffle Angelo’s bright feathers. However, if she were to be truly honest with herself, she’d been noticing these subtle changes in Angelo ever since the day of her engagement party. He never laughed or cracked jokes as often as he used to. And even when he did, they always felt stilted and forced. She’d also caught him looking at her in a strange, brooding kind of way more than once.

It wasn’t creepy or screwy in any way. It just felt like he was hiding something; like he knew something that she didn’t and he was struggling to keep it in. Only her fear of embarrassing him kept her from haranguing him about it.

“Were we supposed to meet today?” he rasped, his blood-shot eyes narrowing at her, as if trying hard to recall his schedule without consulting his calendar.

“Well, not really. We didn’t set an appointment. I just wanted to do some rounds and see if there’s anything else that needed to be changed, added or repaired,” she paused when she saw Angelo’s disappointment, “but I was planning on dropping in on you unannounced. Just to annoy you,” she finished, flashing him one of her most charming, dimpled smiles.

She was relieved when Angelo’s face brightened instantly at her casual joke. He moved closer, leaned in and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. He then took her hands and looked deep in her eyes.

“I’m glad you’re here, Louie. I missed you, you know,” he said, his sad eyes now focused on her lips.

Louisa felt the misery in Angelo’s voice and her heart went out to him. But she knew that she could not offer more than what a good friend could – a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. She doubted if he needed the latter (men don’t really cry as much as women do, do they?) but she was willing to keep him company if he needed an ear to bend.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Want to tell me about it? I could re-schedule the inspection, if you need me,” she said, touching his cheek.

Something sparked deep in Angelo’s greenish gray eyes and for an instant they blazed with undisguised longing. But then, it disappeared, extinguished just as fast as it was ignited, to be replaced by the same gloom that Louisa had seen earlier. He sighed and closed his eyes. His head moved forward to briefly touch hers, then he pulled away and looked down at her, his lips curving into a smile that did not quite reach his eyes.

“You’re a sweet one, Louie. I’m afraid I won’t be good company today, though. You can go through with your inspection. Would you mind doing the rounds without me?”

“Not one bit. I can manage on my own. But, what about you? Are you okay?”

Angelo hesitated, a silent battle raging within him. In the end, he just shook his head and smiled his sad smile again.

“I’m fine, Louie. Don’t worry about me. Just go on ahead. I’ll be in my suite, just text me if you need me,” Angelo said, moving away from Louisa and leaning back against the elevator’s paneled wall.

“Okay, if you insist. I’ll just see you later, then.”

The elevator door opened on the fourth floor and Louisa reluctantly stepped out. She turned back to wave goodbye to Angelo but the door was already closing and all she saw was a glimpse of Angelo’s profile, his head tilted back, leaning against the wall, his eyes closed and his lips puckered tight in an expression akin to someone trying to hold back tears.

Something’s really wrong. I must speak to him again before I leave. He’s still my friend, afterall and I don’t like seeing him like this, Louisa thought while walking down the hallway to begin her inspection of the hotel rooms, her IPad open to her ever trusty checklist.

Although her encounter with Angelo had been a bit peculiar, Louisa remained inside her own bubble of bliss. She went through her chores with the same light spirit she’d had since morning and nothing seemed to upset her; not even when she learned that one of the foremen had misunderstood her instructions regarding the wall paper for the double rooms on the 14th floor. It would mean another week’s delay, at the least, but she took it all in with a grin.

Normally, she would’ve reprimanded the man severely (she really was a stickler for schedules) but not today. Today, she was immune to trivial upsets. She was too happy to be distressed by anything short of Armageddon. Today, she would be benevolent and forgiving; to the great delight of her subordinates.

Louisa was never cruel or unfair, but she was very exacting; a veritable perfectionist. Anyone who had ever worked with her learned a thing or two about professionalism, whether they be a manual laborer or a project manager; everyone was measured by the same yardstick.

After giving final instructions to the rest of her crew, she took out her phone and dialed Angelo’s number. It kept on ringing but Angelo did not pick up. She tried three more times before she finally gave up. Thinking that he had probably dozed off, Louisa decided to send a text message to tell him that she’s done with the inspection and would be leaving now. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was only 4PM, still too early to go to her appointment with Rajo.

Louisa smiled when she thought of Gabriel. He’d said that he still had a 4PM meeting so he would be late (again) for their 6PM appointment. Well then, he didn’t need to be late now, did he? Not if she drove to his office and waited for him until he was done with his meeting. They could go to Rajo’s together, and if ever they were late, they would be late together. No punishments necessary.

Gabriel had taken her to his office a couple of times before, after they were officially engaged, but she’d never gone there to pick him up. There’s always a first time for everything, isn’t there? Besides, Gabriel loved surprises; he had already treated her to a few of his own and it’s about time that she gave him one, too. And since he’d been such a sweetheart today, Louisa decided to buy him a blueberry cheesecake to further liven up her surprise.

With such happy thoughts in mind, Louisa drove out of the parking garage humming to her favorite song, blessedly ignorant that before the day was through, she would be the one receiving the biggest surprise of all.

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