Events in this short story happen during Ashe and Riley’s vacation in St. Barth, after their visit to Yorkshire.
If Ashe was going to ask her to dance with him one more time, Riley was going to scream. It had been three hours since they arrived at one of St. Barth’s biggest parties of the year and this year, it was at a hip-hop producer’s mountaintop villa overlooking the island. But even with the food and drinks overflowing and the entertainment sometimes over the top – trapeze artists in the main house and faux mermaids swimming in the rooftop pool for starters – Riley was done. Her feet were killing her, and her head was pounding from the constant hip-hop beats thundering through the speakers.
How Ashe could discuss business with fellow directors and producers loud laughter and the deafening music was beyond anything Riley could comprehend. But from what she’d overheard so far, he’d actually been able to hold a decent conversation – most likely punctuated by the exchanging of sending text messages as if confirming whatever it was they had just discussed. And as he caught her gaze as she sat on the chaise lounge in the far corner, she wondered if Ashe was finally ready to leave.
She’d left his side fifteen minutes earlier, pretending to join a group of models his companions had dismissed for business talk. She’d tried to do small talk but failed, not caring to know who was walking for whom at New York Fashion Week, or whether anyone had something to take the edge off after seeing her ex-boyfriend kissing someone else. Riley just needed to find a quiet place to nurse her growing headache, but going downstairs to the main house would mean she’d lose sight of him and Riley didn’t want to do that – not when she hadn’t bothered to wear her prescription glasses and the cocktail she’d nursed for the last hour was finally hitting her.
Already she’d mistaken Rihanna for someone else, and the woman was not pleased with all, though Riley really did know she was Rihanna but Shakira’s name came out of her mouth instead. And so she figured she might as well sit down and pretend that the mermaids were entertaining her, not wishing to inflict her ignorance on anyone else.
Tired of holding her empty cocktail glass, she set it down on the floor beneath the chaise, making sure no one would kick it. When she looked up from her drink, Ashe was gone, and for a moment, panic gripped her.
What if he found someone else to spend the night with? It was a silly thought, but she couldn’t help it. The models hadn’t exactly been reassuring with their talk about the size of his package, even with her nearby and certainly close enough to overhear their conversation.
“So that’s where you disappeared to, petal. One minute you were there and the next you were gone,” he said, sitting down next to her.
“That’s because you were so busy discussing merchandising percentages for your action figure,” Riley said, resting her hand on his thigh. “So much for coming over just to say hi. We’ve been here almost three hours, Ashe.”
“It was your idea to come here, remember?” Ashe said, wrapping his arms around her. “Have I told how deliciously amazing you look?”
“Not in the last hour, no.” Riley blushed beneath his gaze, hating how his voice easily made her cheeks color so quickly like she had some sort of disorder. She was wearing a white V-neck dress that flared at the hips, giving her an almost Marilyn Monroe vibe. He’d almost ravished her in it if the taxi hadn’t arrived at their rented villa. “You’re not looking too shabby yourself, Mister Hunter.”
“Thanks to you. You picked out my ensemble, remember?”
Ashe’s ensemble included a black fitted t-shirt that emphasized a broad chest and lean torso and tan cargo pants, nothing too fancy, but fancy enough given that they were all from a famous designer and cost a lot of money. And tonight, what he wore would make it online, and on the pages of a European fashion magazine, where his picture with her – if they didn’t crop her out – would say, Ashe Hunter wearing so-and-so’s summer line.
Even while on vacation, he was working, especially since the whole outfit had been among the presents waiting for them when they arrived at St. Barth a week earlier. It had come with the invitation to the party they were attending tonight, along with a gift basket with various cheeses and crackers, fruit and champagne.
What party is this? She’d asked him then, untying the bow that kept the gift basket under its crystalline paper wrap. After two weeks in the freezing cold of London followed by Yorkshire, St. Barth was a welcomed relief with its year-round tropical climate.
He’s a hip-hop producer you may not have heard of, though I bet you’ve heard of his clients. We don’t have to go if you don’t want to. We are on vacation after all.
Are there going to be movie people there? She asked.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t know the answer. Of course, there would be industry people there. Then we should go.
But when the day finally came, they were both exhausted and sunburnt from a day of sailing and would have rather stayed home slathered with aloe vera gel. Instead, Riley felt bad and suggested they show up for a bit and then head back home.
She then spent an hour putting on her makeup, following a video on her phone on how to apply foundation to cover the bags under her eyes, use powder to even out her sunburnt face, and make a smooth line for her eyeliner till she gave up. Her hair had long lost the battle against the humidity, but she made an effort to style it anyway, till she decided a ponytail would have to do.
Ashe fared much better. For starters, he didn’t need any makeup. And he didn’t even need to shave, not when he’d stopped shaving since Christmas and now, three weeks later, he had a hell of a beard to groom. Some days, it seemed to have a life of its own, as if sprouting an inch overnight, or at least a centimeter or two. It amazed her how having a beard was actually not a wash-and-go affair, at least not with Ashe. He had to condition the damn thing, though she loved how it felt against her face – and the rest of her body once he got going.
Ashe took her hand and brought it to his lips, bringing her back to the hip-hop pounding present. “I’m sorry you had to wait. I thought you were with our new friends-“
“I was, but they left to dance – over there,” she pointed to a group of men and women dancing in front of the DJ’s booth at the opposite end of the deck. “And so I stayed here. Besides, I got to meet Rihanna, though she wasn’t too happy to be called Shakira.”
Ashe laughed. “With music this loud, I doubt she heard you-“
“Oh, yes, she did, and she gave me one of those death stares.”
“You should wear your prescription glasses then, petal.”
“You’re not wearing your glasses, and I know you’re not wearing your contacts either.” And it was true, as Ashe wore contact lenses every day, though at home he was comfortable wearing thick-rimmed glasses that gave him that Clark Kent vibe.
“Yes, but I do know Rihanna from Shakira.”
“Hey!” Riley swatted his arm as he laughed out loud and pulled her to him just as a man with an official-looking camera appeared in front of them.
“Mister Hunter, may I take a picture of you and your beautiful lady friend?”
“Her name is Riley Eames,” Ashe said, helping Riley to her feet. They both grinned as the man snapped two pictures, the flash blinding Riley and she forced herself not to blink. “Can you remember her name for your publication?”
The man stared at him for a few seconds, as if unsure if he heard what Ashe had said. Then he squeezed himself between Ashe and Riley and lifting his camera, he showed them the pictures on the display.
“Let me add her name manually,” he said, adding Riley Eemes underneath the digital picture.
“It’s Eames. E-a-m-e-s,” Ashe said as the man corrected the caption, thanked them both and left.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Riley said.
“Of course, I did,” Ashe said as he guided her towards the stairs leading to the main house. “And I’ll do it every time until they get it into their heads that you’re not just ‘and friend’ to me, but Riley Eames.”
“Are we leaving?” Riley asked, glancing behind them. “We never even got to say good-bye.”
“Would you like to?”
Reggae music blared from the speakers then, the mood of the party changing as a fresh group of guests made their way up the stairs from the main house.
“It’s only polite to say good-bye.” Riley had to shout the words to him but by the time they made it halfway around the pool to do just that – more like shouting their goodbyes above the music – she realized it was futile. Apparently, the change from hip-hop to reggae had been some kind of signal for everyone on the lower floor to head up, filling the deck with more people than there already was. Now they were surrounded by people whose names she’d forgotten and new ones whose names she didn’t know, and all Riley wanted was to get out of there.
By the time they did make it to a waiting cab, half an hour had passed, for people had wanted to say hello to Ashe, do the usual small talk about how long he was going to be on the island, and whether they could meet for lunch or dinner before he left so they could talk business—a movie in the works, a screenplay for him to read, a collaboration.
But Riley couldn’t blame him for spending time with them. They’d been together enjoying their island adventures for the last seven days, and he was bound to talk business eventually, even while on vacation. After all, showbiz was a fickle mistress. If he kept his eyes on her, she’d find someone else to shower her gifts to, and Riley knew that Ashe couldn’t afford to do that – not yet.
* * *
As the cab driver dropped stopped in front of their rented villa ten minutes later, Riley could hear the wind whispering through the trees, the waves lapping the shore below. In the distance, the full moon cast shone brightly over the water and somewhere on the property, someone was playing the guitar.
“Sebastian’s serenading his wife again.”
Sebastian was a man in his late fifties who lived in the servants’ quarters behind the villa with his wife, Anita. With their children all grown up, they took care of the villa and all the guests’ needs, making sure the refrigerator was fully stocked – as well as the bar—and that they’d have everything they needed, from bowls of fresh local fruits in the morning and even fried plantain bananas that Anita would sneak in for Riley. It didn’t matter that for the first four days, Ashe and Riley were hardly ever home, too busy sailing, horseback riding, or hiking, returning home only to pass out. The owner, a major movie investor Ashe had worked with in the past, had offered Ashe two weeks to use it.
“I love the classics that he plays for her,” Riley whispered as Ashe pulled open the gate and ushered her inside. Some days Anita even sang along. “I wonder what he’s playing. It sounds familiar.”
“Something we can dance to, I hope.”
Riley paused to listen to a familiar song filled the air. She’d heard the song before, so many times over it was ingrained in her memory. “That’s…that’s Habanera. But you can’t dance to that.”
“Says me. My mother used to play that record, with Maria Callas as Carmen,” Riley said. “It was one of her favorites. Not that any of us attempted to sing along, thank goodness, or the neighbors would have shut us down.”
At the thought of her mother, Riley sighed. She hadn’t thought about her mother since they arrived in St. Barth, though she had been foremost in her thoughts when Ashe took her to meet his family home in Yorkshire three weeks earlier. She loved seeing just how close Ashe was with his parents and with his young niece, Rowan, and how devoted he was to them.
“It’s one of my favorites, too,” Ashe said as he took her right hand and placed it on his left shoulder, letting his left hand drift lower to hold her waist.
“Wait, what are you doing?”
“We’re dancing – even if it is the Habanera and I have no idea what the steps are supposed to be. But who needs to know steps when we can just do this,” Ashe whispered as he led her across the deck, barely missing the edge of the pool. “Way better than all that hip-hop, you think?”
She laughed as he spun her around. She even forgot all about her sore feet as they made good use of the deck overlooking the beach below, though in the darkness, the only thing they could make out where the reflection of the moon against the scattering of rooftops and trees. The villa was secluded enough – and high enough – that they’d been able to go skinny dipping without worrying about paparazzi. Though if there were any lurking about the trees, they’d probably find out when they’d return to New York in a week. Riley only hoped she looked good.
As Ashe spun her around, Riley forgot all about paparazzi. She always loved it whenever they danced. It didn’t even matter if the dance would only last a few seconds before his phone would ring, his agent calling from Los Angeles, or hers, usually from the Library Cafe, probably a coffee bean shortage that needed to be dealt with. But the moments where they danced obliterated every distraction, for the world around them faded away, and the only thing that mattered was that they were together.
As Riley lay her cheek against his chest, she felt his arms wrap around her waist, and she closed her eyes. She heard the beating of his heart through his shirt, the rhythm of his own feelings playing out live – full of passion and drive. She knew there was more to him than just the easygoing Ashe she knew and loved, something much darker. The prospect both scared her and intrigued her, but for now, she was okay with the Ashe she knew. Sometimes baring one’s soul just took time.
As he led her gracefully across the deck, not caring what kind of steps they were dancing – salsa, tango, the twist or whatever – Riley felt all her anxiety ease, fading just like the pounding inside her head. All her doubts and her insecurities about not being as skinny as the women she’d seen at the party, or as easygoing as they were, disappeared into the night. It wasn’t long before she realized that Ashe was humming something, but when she drew closer, she could hear words. French words.
“I didn’t know you knew how to speak French,” she said, pulling away and looking up at him, perplexed and impressed.
“Not exactly,” he said. “I just know that part of the song because it’s my mum loved Carmen, too. But while I could attempt to sing it, Maria Callas style, I’ll spare the neighbors – and the wildlife – that agony.”
“That’s really thoughtful of you,” she murmured, chuckling. “But what does it mean—the lyrics you just said? It has the word Bohême in it. Carmen was a gypsy, wasn’t she?”
“She was, I think. It’s been awhile since I studied French, but I’ll try,” Ashe murmured as he thought for a few moments, before leading Riley to the deck again, in time with Sebastian’s guitar. “‘Love is a gypsy’s child who has never known any law. If you don’t love me, I love you. If I love you, then beware.’”
“Beware? That doesn’t sound so romantic.”
“Love is not romantic all the time, petal. Sometimes, it’s dark; sometimes selfish, and for some, even scary at times. It’s difficult to control yourself when you love someone. Even when your brain says one thing, your heart can say another.”
“What’s your heart saying now?”
Ashe didn’t answer right away for Sebastian was finishing up the song, and Ashe ended their dance with a flourish – a slow dip that sent Riley’s heart racing. It was a slow progression to know she needed to let go during such moments and trust him, and this time, she did. She let go, just as he whispered his answer to her question.
“I love you, Riley-I-am.”
He’d said it so low and so softly that it took her breath away. And as he brought her upright, she leaned towards him and kissed him gently on the lips. When she drew away, he looked at her, surprised, before a sheepish smile crossed his face. Suddenly he seemed like a boy unsure if the girl he loved him back.
Then Riley realized something else. She always kept things too close, so afraid she’d lose them so soon – and so she would never say the things that needed to be said, not till it was too late. But she couldn’t keep doing that anymore, not when Ashe always bared his heart to her, telling her the words that always made her life brighter, giving her everything he had, even his heart.
“I love you, Mister Hunter, more than you’ll ever know,” she whispered before deciding, to heck with it, she was going to scare the wildlife after all, if just to show him that she meant every word. Then Riley began to sing the same lines he’d murmured earlier, though Ashe had another idea, if not better.
Lifting her in his arms and ignoring her pseudo singing-squeaking-laughing attempt at raising a diva from the dead, he carried her into the house, and all the way to the master bedroom, kicking the door shut behind him. He had other things in mind that wouldn’t quite offend the wildlife, he told her before silencing her singing with a deep kiss—though sadly, he couldn’t quite guarantee not offending the neighbors.
* * *