2 Not-So-Fragile Heart

“I’ll turn around so you can change,” he said, averting his eyes as Riley slid the dress off her shoulders and quickly slipped on her T-shirt. She folded the skimpy dress and stuffed it into her purse, along with the Louboutins.

“You can turn around now,” she said. “I’m decent.”

When he moved back around to face her, he grinned. “You look much more comfortable now,” he said, sitting back down on the floor. Riley did the same, bending her knee and resting her foot on her opposite leg so she could rub her toes. They were still sore from being crammed into the two-hundred-dollar shoes—on sale—she’d bought for the occasion. She wondered whether she could return them if she made sure there weren’t too many scuff marks at the bottom of the shoes.

They were silent for a few minutes as she continued to rub her feet before he asked, “Do your feet hurt?”

Riley couldn’t help but laugh. “Of course, they hurt. That’s why I brought these,” she said, pointing to her canvas shoes. “I always bring these as a back-up in case I don’t last ten minutes in my Louboutins, which I never do anyway.”

“Then why didn’t you just wear your back-up shoes?”

“Because they didn’t go with my dress. And men like seeing women in high heels,” she said. “Don’t you?”

“Of course, I do,” he said. “I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t. But I do prefer women to be comfortable first. There’s nothing like good sturdy shoes.”

“You sound like a grandfather—there’s nothing like good sturdy shoes,” Riley laughed, mimicking his deep voice. “No offense, but you’re too young to be an old fart.”

“Why, thank you! I’ve never been called an old fart before,” he laughed, and Riley could see a blush forming on his cheeks. “But we all know an old fart, and in my case, it’s my dad. My mum always wore comfortable shoes. She had to, and still does.”

“Why?”

“She was a teacher, and she stood all day although these days she helps dad out on the farm even when they have help,” he said. “But you’ve just changed the topic. If those shoes hurt, why do you wear them—even if they do go with your dress?”

“Isn’t that the history of fashion?” she said, squeezing the ball of her foot. “We suffer to be beautiful. Makes you wonder if it’s all worth it.”

“And is it?”

She made a face as she continued to massage her toes. “If my feet could talk, they’d probably say no.”

“May I?” he asked, the hand closest to her upturned. Although his offer startled her, Riley surprised herself, even more, when she leaned back, allowing him to take her foot onto his lap. She didn’t know why she’d acquiesced so quickly, but someone offering to rub her feet right when she needed it seemed heaven-sent. Then she wondered if it made her look desperate.

“Wait, maybe I shouldn’t let you,” Riley said, drawing her foot back.

He chuckled. “Given that we might be in here for a while, I’d rather occupy myself with something to do—if you don’t mind me rubbing your feet. It could be hours before we get out.”

She shuddered. Oh, please don’t let that happen, she thought. It would be so embarrassing if it ever made the news that she was stuck in an elevator.

“As long as you promise not to tickle me,” she warned, reaching for the can of pepper spray she had left on the railing. “I do have pepper spray, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

“I promise,” he replied as he gave her foot a gentle squeeze. His hands were warm and, although she was tense when he started, keeping her hand on the black can of pepper spray, Riley relaxed and leaned her head back. Minutes later, she returned the can to the railing.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” she asked, stifling a moan of pleasure. She bit her lower lip and sighed. “Your girlfriend is one lucky woman.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said.

“Boyfriend then?”

“Alas, no boyfriend either,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “I used to watch my father rub my mum’s feet every night as they sat in front of the telly. He still does.”

“Lucky woman,” she said, stifling a sigh that almost escaped when he pressed on a spot on the ball of her foot. “You like keeping your hands busy, don’t you?”

His warm fingers kneaded her toes gently, and she could tell that it was something he enjoyed doing. And boy, did he know how to do it well.

As the man continued to rub her foot, his thumbs gently pressing certain points, Riley watched his face. He seemed neither bored nor too engrossed in what he was doing though a slight smile graced his lips.

“I sure hope you don’t have a foot fetish,” she said, stiffening.

He chuckled and shook his head. “No, I don’t. I just like to keep my hands busy.”

Riley sighed as he set down her left foot and picked up her right foot. If he hadn’t done so, she’d have parked her foot on his lap anyway. “Well, you’re doing an excellent job. And since we’ve just met, I’d like you to know that I typically don’t offer my feet to anyone for a massage like this. I mean, I’ve never done this before.”

He shook his head, grinning. “Neither have I.”

Riley allowed herself to sink back and enjoy whatever it was he was doing, his firm touch on the skin of her feet sending shivers up and down her spine. She felt really good, like ‘tub-of-ice cream’ good than ‘after-sex’ good. Not that she could remember how ‘after-sex good’ felt like. It had been a while.

“What’s your name?” he asked a few minutes later. Sweat had begun to gather on his brow as the heat built up inside the cramped space. “We might as well get to know each other’s names if we’re going to be spending any more time together like this.”

“My name’s Riley,” she replied, adding with a raised finger. “Just Riley. No last names.”

“Okay, Just-Riley. I’m Ashe,” he said, raising his index finger to mimic her. “Just Ashe.”

Riley didn’t offer to shake his hand, and neither did he, not when he was still rubbing her foot, giving her toes a gentle pull as he seemed to be ending his good deed for the day. Sure enough, with a gentle slap on the tops of her feet, Ashe ended the foot rub and returned her feet back on the floor beside him. Riley dug her hands into her purse and handed him a packet of sterilizing hand wipes, which he accepted.

“What else do you have in that carpet bag of yours, Mary Poppins?” he asked playfully as he cleaned his hands, wiping each long finger with care. He had such graceful-looking fingers, Riley thought as she watched him, mesmerized.

She shrugged. “Everything but the kitchen sink, as my mom used to say. But I’d rather not do an inventory of what’s inside it right now.” It’s also none of your business, she almost added.

An inventory of the contents of her purse would have produced a hand-bound leather journal that she’d made herself, the short dress and expensive shoes she’d just tucked inside, sexy lingerie she had never worn but had thought might be required tonight, a toothbrush and a travel-sized tube of toothpaste and a small make-up kit. There was also her wallet—and a box of condoms recently purchased at a convenience store two blocks from the hotel. Nope, Riley didn’t want him to see that.

“So,” Ashe said a few minutes later, his expression turning serious. “I noticed you were heading downstairs. Had you met him already then, this online friend of yours?”

“You really are nosy; you know that?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “You have me quite curious now. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

Oh, but she did. Riley didn’t know why she felt compelled to tell him but even though she’d probably never see him again after the elevator doors opened, she didn’t want him to think of her as just a booty call.

“I was supposed to meet him at the hotel bar, but because I was late—” She’d been buying the box of condoms, ribbed for her pleasure, as the box stated, at the convenience store two blocks away “—he went back upstairs and then texted me to meet him in his room instead.”

Ashe didn’t say anything, but Riley saw his left eyebrow lift.

“I know, I know,” she said, looking away. “He could, at least, have bought me a drink.”

“I’m not judging you.”

Oh, yes, you are, she wanted to tell him but decided against it. Must she seem so defensive?

“Anyway, I’m ashamed to say that I did go upstairs,” she continued, biting her lower lip. “But I couldn’t make myself step out of the elevator. It’s probably why it broke down. I kept pushing the buttons to keep the doors open and then close. I wasn’t so sure whether I should stay in the elevator or step out and just see him. After all, I came all the way here so why not? But I could never get myself to step out onto his floor, where the executive suites are. It’s the one that requires a particular card. He left one for me in the lobby.”

“So you made your way back down,” Ashe murmured.

“I’m not as brave as I thought I was. Curious, maybe, to ask him how things went so wrong between us so quickly—like literally, overnight. But I couldn’t.” She chuckled dryly. “But then, he always said I wasn’t brave enough, that I was too timid. He was always the one who did everything first, back when we were together. We grew up together, you know, so maybe I just got so used to him doing everything first that when it came down to doing the one thing that mattered—why I came here in the first place—I couldn’t even do it.”

For a few moments they didn’t say anything, and Riley wondered if she’d said too much though she was holding back what she really wanted to say—that she now regretted agreeing to see her ex. For here she was stuck in an elevator with a stranger who must think that she was nothing but a booty call—even if she hadn’t provided the ex with the booty.

“If you ask me, I don’t think it’s a question of bravery or whether you’re daring or not. Neither do I think that you’re timid,” Ashe said. “Maybe your heart knew that it was wrong, and because of that, it didn’t want to be broken by the same man again. Hearts are fragile like that. They need a bit more care, a bit more thought, before rushing back to the same person who hurt them the first time. And sometimes that’s all it takes—just one time—and the heart will never forget.”

The way he uttered the last sentence made Riley stare at him for a few seconds, her breath caught in her throat. Perspiration lined the top of her lip, and she wondered if it had been there for long. The four walls that surrounded them seemed to close in on her, and she swallowed nervously. He was a mind reader, she thought. How could he know what was in her heart? How could she have been so foolish to believe that she’d be able to see Gareth again, screw him senseless to prove that she was as good as anyone else he’d bedded since he left her—the Hollywood stars and fashion models—and then believe she’d walk away in triumph?

Triumph over what?

Riley picked up her canvas shoes and slipped them on. Pulling herself up, she folded Ashe’s jacket and handed it back to him.

“Thank you,” she said. “I hope my butt didn’t leave too many creases. It’s a gorgeous jacket. Must be Zegna or something.”

“It is,” he said as he got to his feet, towering over her as he accepted his jacket, their fingers brushing. “Have I said something to upset you?”

Just then the elevator rattled, and the emergency light flickered just as the bright fluorescent lights came back on. The elevator shuddered, and Ashe put out a hand to steady her as it began to move down, the floor numbers decreasing on the panel in front of them. Together they stood before it as if struck mute, his question hanging in the air between them.

“Thank you,” Riley said again as the doors opened and she stepped out. She walked as fast as she could, past the elevator maintenance crew, the guests and the visitors milling about in the expansive and beautiful lobby, past the journalists and camera crew who’d just come down from the press event that had concluded in the upper suites.

Outside on the sidewalk, she took a big gulp of air and closed her eyes. New York City at nine in the evening was as busy as ever, for the night was still young. A crisp breeze blew through her hair, and she took another deep breath, letting the coolness caress her. It had been hot and stuffy inside that elevator, and though the skies threatened rain, the cold, damp air felt good against her skin.

Riley needed to take a walk. She needed to think. Most of all, she needed to feel, for it had been so long since she’d felt that way, the way she had felt inside the elevator, and she wondered if it was because of the sound of Ashe’s voice, or the things he said. It both scared her and excited her. It beat sitting at home with her cat, Miss Bailey, and a tub of ice cream.

What Ashe had said in the elevator hit her hard, for it was true—her heart was fragile. It always had been. What had she been thinking, assuming that it would be safe to spend time with the same man who had hurt her so much before?

“I’m sorry if I said something to upset you,” said a familiar voice behind her. Riley turned around to see Ashe, his jacket back on, now a little wrinkled where she’d sat on it.

“There’s no need to apologize. What you said back there was the truth, and I needed to hear it,” she said, turning away and walking away from the hotel. “But what I need now is some dinner, so I’d better get going.”

“Would you mind if I joined you?” He asked, walking alongside her.

Riley stopped, perplexed. She turned to face him, a cynical smile on her lips. “You’d rather have some cheap hole-in-the-wall dinner than a five-star meal inside one of the best hotels in New York City?” She gestured toward the hotel behind him. “You’d take a pass on that?”

Ashe smiled. “As a matter of fact, I would.  I’ve been cooped up in meetings all day.”

Behind him, a group of people was watching them, and some had their phones held in front of them. They were filming them, she thought. No, they were filming him.

“Whatever,” she said, turning away from him and hailing a cab. A yellow cab screeched to a stop in front of her, and Ashe opened the door, waited till she slid along the seat before getting in. Riley gave the driver the address of the Chinese restaurant known to serve the best hand-pulled noodles in Manhattan. She knew its owner well, having been a regular for years.

“Oh, shit,” she muttered after they’d gone a few blocks. “My pepper spray! I left it in the elevator!”

“Should we go back?” he asked and for a moment, Riley considered his suggestion. But her stomach reminded her that there were other things more important than a misplaced can of pepper spray—like dinner.

“Oh, never mind,” Riley muttered as she leaned back against the seat and Ashe followed suit. “It’s probably too old to be effective. I just hope the maintenance people found it and got rid of it.”

“And if not?” Ashe asked. “We can still go back.”

And risk running into Gareth who just might be making his way down to the hotel bar to look for her? No, thank you, she thought, though she knew that maybe it was best that they did return to the hotel. But just as Riley was about to tell him yes, her stomach growled. Or was it his?

They laughed, settling back into the seats. The maintenance people would know what to do, Riley thought. Or if the universe was listening in to her thoughts, she hoped Gareth would come down the same elevator, find the canister, and thinking it was hair spray, press the nozzle.

Yes, that would be karma, she thought, grinning to herself—and well deserved at that.

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Loving Ashe Copyright © 2015 by Velvet Madrid. All Rights Reserved.

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