They eyed my card, seeming pleased with the offer. I sincerely hoped they took me up on it. I preferred, always, to repay my debts.
The driver from the day before, Thomas, picked me up. He was stunned speechless at the sight of me, opening the door for me without a word. “Ms. Middleton, can I take you to a hospital? You look unwell, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
I just shook my head stiffly. “Thank you, no. Please just drive me to the hotel. I’m quite fine.” My tone was colder than I’d intended, but again, the effort to keep myself composed had robbed me of all social graces.
We weren’t far from the hotel, arriving there in short minutes. Thomas held the car door open for me, his eyes concerned. “Can I help you, Ms. Middleton?” he asked.
I straightened as I stepped out of the car. “I just need my room key and number. That will be all, thank you.”
It took an eternity for me to actually get to my room, my progress slow but determined. I leaned against the closed door, my eyes shutting in relief. First, a bath, I decided. I needed to eat, and to sleep, but I needed to be clean more than anything else just then.
I got in the large tub even as it filled with water. I didn’t turn off the scorching flow until it was filled to the brim. I drifted off almost instantly.
The water was cold when I awoke, startled out of sleep by…something. I didn’t know what, but I thought that it had been a noise. Only silence greeted me. I got stiffly out of the cold bath, resolving to get some actual work done.
I dressed in a cream-colored pencil skirt, paired with one of my countless white dress shirts. I tucked the shirt in, wanting to feel normal again, back in my business attire, and my business state of mind. I slipped on some electric blue Minolo stiletto’s, veering as far as I could from the barefoot urchin I’d turned into after just a day back home. My feet were already killing me, so I figured why not give them a good reason to hurt? Cute shoes were a good reason.
I braided my hair back as tightly as my curls would go in the humid climate. I even made an attempt at makeup, though it was minimal.
A glance in the mirror told me that I looked infinitely better, my pink cheeks the only visible evidence of the rough day I’d had.
I made slow but sure progress to the hotel’s large offices, going into the spacious, well-appointed office that was reserved for use only by the Middleton family. I was aware of the startled glances I received as I walked, smoothly but slowly, past the office workers. I nodded politely to several faces that I recognized, but no one stopped my progress—thank God.
My desk was already covered in papers that needed either my approval or my signature, or both. I sat down heavily, getting to work. I was grateful for the distraction.
I worked for a good ten minutes without interruption. I thought it was unusual. Normally, when I visited one of the properties, I was practically mobbed with various local ideas and concerns. I didn’t dwell on it long though, too grateful to just be left alone to work. Ten minutes was all I got, though.
A startled hand flew to my chest as a large figure burst through my door. An agitated Akira stood panting in front of me, his eyes running over me, his face wild and almost…scared.
He lowered himself into the chair in front of my desk, his worried eyes never leaving me. “Are you all right?” he asked, his voice harsh. He was dressed in slacks and an uncharacteristically wrinkled white dress shirt. It brought attention to his beautiful brown skin.
I sighed, biting my lower lip so that it wouldn’t quiver at the sight of him. I looked down as I answered, signing the paper I’d been studying. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
He cursed. I didn’t look up. “Thomas called me. He said he’d picked you up from the beach, and that you looked as though you’d been attacked. What on earth happened? I’ve been looking for you ever since you disappeared from my house yesterday. I spent the night searching the beach for you. I had half of the island looking for you.”
My gaze shot back to him at that, my eyes wide with shock. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry anyone. As you can see, I’m perfectly fine.”
His eyes widened, and I saw his temper rising by the way his muscles tensed up, his fists clenching. I watched that tension build in him with no small amount of fascination. His anger had never scared me, but it always got my attention.
“Tell me what happened,” he said, his teeth clenched.
I flushed. “It’s embarrassing, ok? But I’m fine now.”
He just leaned forward, giving me his, ‘I’m not backing down’ look.
I sighed. “I went for a walk, barefoot, and scraped up my feet, then fell in a hole. It got dark, and I was lost, so I slept on the beach. In the morning, I found my way back. Nothing exciting, see?”
He buried his face in his hands as I spoke, rubbing his temples. “You slept all night on the beach, by yourself? Do you have any idea how unsafe that is?”
I wanted to pull out my hair; he was so frustrating. “I didn’t want to sleep on the beach. Like I told you, I got lost.”
“Why did you take off like that? I told you to wait outside.” He didn’t look up at me as he spoke, still rubbing his temples, but I could tell from his voice just how angry he was.
His words made me angry, as well. “Did you think that I was just going to wait patiently for you outside while you made up with your girlfriend?” I asked, trying to make my voice sound steady, instead of hurt.
His head snapped up at that, his eyes wild and baffled. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
I waved off his comment. “Whatever it is you call her, I didn’t want to wait on standby while you went through your usual makeup/breakup routine with her.” I stood up and took a step, intending to walk out of the room. I needed to escape to the restroom, or anywhere, really. I just needed to get out of his sight before I burst into tears.
The abuse I’d inflicted on my starved body in the last twenty-four hours presented itself at that moment, when I stood so fast that my vision went fuzzy. I swayed on my feet for an endless moment right before I collapsed into a dead faint.
I couldn’t have been out for long. I was cradled in his arms when I came to, and we were still in the hotel, though Akira was striding out the door even as I roused.
“Where are we going?” I asked him in a weak voice.
He glanced down at me, his hard face showing relief that I was awake. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”
I shifted in his arms, trying to get down. He just squeezed me tighter. “I don’t need to go to the hospital. I probably just fainted from hunger,” I told him, flushing. I felt like a particularly irresponsible child at the confession.
He blanched at my words, turning around to stride back into the hotel, heading straight into the promenade that led to the large selection of restaurants that the resort hosted. His face was hard and bleak, his mouth turned down in a stark frown, as he studied me. “When did you last eat?” he asked in a gruff voice.
“I ate at Tutu’s yesterday, right before I ran into you. But I was…sick, right after I left your house, so I’m not sure if that counts.”
His lower lip trembled a little, as though with strong emotion. I blinked up at him, wondering if I was seeing things. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and starving, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to think that I might be having hallucinations.
“I’ll order some food, and just eat it in my office. I need to get some things done, so I can set up the meetings that I came here for, before I head back to the mainland. You can put me down. I’m okay now.”
He squeezed me tighter. “Just shut up, Lana.”
My eyes snapped open in shock. Never in my life had he told me to shut up. It was so out of character for him that I actually obeyed.
He carried me into the first restaurant we came to. The staff recognized both of us on sight, and ushered Akira to a secluded table. He ordered as he walked. “She needs to eat immediately, so just bring us whatever is available right away.”
“Yes, sir,” the hostess said, striding away to comply.
He tried to set me in my own chair, but my arms just wrapped around his neck of their own volition.
He sighed, then sat. I sat up, turning until my back was against his chest, my head laid back against his shoulder. It felt so good, in spite of everything, just to be held in his massive arms. His arms had relaxed as I shifted on his lap, and I pulled them tightly around me again. He made a little humming noise, his cheek just touching the top of my head, and tightened those arms just how I wanted.
“You’ll be the death of me, baby,” he murmured against my hair. “Just what am I going to do with you?”
“I’ll be gone soon enough. So nothing, I suppose,” I said, feeling despondent at the thought.
His arms squeezed me. “Tell me about this mainland life you seem to need. Is it so much better for you, living in California?” His voice was very serious, as though he expected a very thorough answer.
Again, I thought it was unmercifully cruel for him to ask me that. I mulled over the question, feeling all of my old wounds as though they were fresh. “California? Is that where you think I live?” I asked, baffled by that. My parents lived there, and I traveled there frequently for work, but by no stretch of the imagination did I live there.
He gave me a little shake. “Your father and brother both told me that was where your residence was, when I asked them about you.”
“You asked them about me?”
He tugged on a lock of my hair, hard. “Oww!” I told him.
“Of course I ask them about you. You don’t talk to me. How else could I check up on you?” His tone was chiding, and I detected a genuine hurt in it as well. I was surprised into silence by the realization. Had he expected me to call him?
After all of the ways I had embarrassed the both of us, seducing him with absolutely no shame, and then professing my undying love for him afterward. He couldn’t have been more clear about the fact that he could not return my feelings, and I had been mortified and devastated. He had felt guilty, and been embarrassed by the whole sordid thing. The thought had never even occurred to me that he would ever want anything to do with me again.
“So where do you live, then?” he asked after a long silence.
“I live…nowhere. I travel all the time. I work all the time. I stay on a lot of the resort properties, because it’s just easier.”
“So you have the flight gene, like your mother? You just like to stay on the move?” he asked, his tone probing. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, I knew. He honestly thought that it was my choice to have no home.
“No,” I said quietly. “I don’t like it. It’s bearable, sometimes, I suppose. But who gets to do what they want? That’s what growing up is all about, right? Giving up the things that you really want.”
He made that sympathetic sound in his throat that always made my throat thicken with unwanted tears. “Oh, Lana, I’m sorry to hear that. It was such a comfort to me through the years, thinking that, though we were missing you, at least you were living a life that made you happy.”