LOOK ONLY AT ME
He was late again.
She glanced at her watch for the thousandth time and then wondered for a brief moment if maybe she had gotten the date wrong. It was February 22nd, wasn't it? He had agreed to meet her at the restaurant at 7 pm, hadn't he?
As the clock slowly ticked on, she began to doubt more and more. She took out her cell phone and scrolled through the text messages again, and when she found nothing there, she moved onto the incoming calls section. He could've called but she had missed it.
But there were no texts and no missed calls.
The hour hand on the clock moved another notch.
She looked out the window. It had been drizzling for the past three hours. Maybe that was why he was late. Rain always led to angry drivers and unfortunate accidents. Perhaps he was currently in a traffic jam on the highway, frustrated and worried, and even a little bit angry because his phone had no reception and was thus unable to call her to explain his tardiness.
It was that thought that kept her going. But still, her optimism could only go so far, especially when the waitress who had offered her a fifth cup of coffee came over, her face sympathetic.
"I'm sorry, miss, but we're closing."
She blinked and glanced at her watch. 11 pm. She hastily got out of her seat, thanking the waitress profusely for servicing her for four hours.
She stepped out into the freezing winter air and wrapped her coat tighter around herself. Her stomach grumbled and the emptiness in her heart ached a little, but she refused to acknowledge either. All she wanted to do was get back to her apartment and find comfort in her bed.
She must've looked extremely pitiful at that moment because even the taxi driver, who was always mean and spiteful, gave her a sympathetic glance and even insisted that she need not pay him tip for the remarkably short drive.
Her apartment was damp and cold and felt like an icebox when she stepped in, but she didn't bother turning on the heat. She stumbled over to her answering machine in a last-ditch effort to hear his voice that day. But when the automated recording insisted that there were no messages, her shoulders slumped and she felt tears rise to her eyes.
She chastised herself for crying and angrily ran the back of her hand across her eyes. All she needed was a good night's sleep, and then she would go to work tomorrow as if nothing had happened.
She was tired and exhausted when she got into the office the next day. She had tossed and turned all night, and as a result, walked into work with a huge Starbucks latte in her hand. That, however, didn't deter Tina Donovan from practically pouncing on her the moment she plopped down in her seat.
"Gracie-poo!" she cried. "How was it, hmm?"
Grace stifled a yawn and tried to look as exuberant as possible, if not for Tina's sake then for her own. "It was great! We stayed at the restaurant for so long that the people had to eventually kick us out."
Well, at least that wasn't a complete lie.
Tina beamed, looking ready to gush about it some more, when her eyes landed on the coffee on the table. She frowned and peered at Grace's face, and then her own expression fell. "He didn't show up, did he?"
Grace sighed and turned on her computer. "No he didn't."
"Did he give an excuse at least?"
She shook her head.
Tina let out an angry growl and perched herself on desk, forcing Grace to look at her. Work didn't officially start until 9 am, and since both Grace and Tina had a habit of going to work a bit earlier, they had about ten minutes to chat. Grace wasn't too worried though. She had already turned in her proposal to her manager yesterday so she just had to wait on his response. This was what she liked about working in marketing.
"How many times has it been? Twice? Three times?" Tina asked.
"Just twice," she mumbled.
"Just twice?" Tina let out an angry scoff and made a rude gesture that made Grace look around surreptitiously. "For God's sake, Grace. I don't know how you stand this. This guy is not good for you, can't you see that?"
Grace looked down at her lap. She knew, of course she knew. The moment she heard his story, she knew her life would never be smooth-sailing again. But she had thought she could handle it. Now, as it turned out, maybe she was wrong. Maybe she wasn't as strong as she thought she was.
Tina, unaware of Grace's internal debate, continued ranting. "This guy comes with baggage. He may be rich and he may be brilliant, but besides that, he can't offer you anything else. He obviously doesn't care about you if he can cancel dinner without even telling you about it."
Grace sighed morosely and picked at the thread on her scarf. Tina had been her best friend in college and was now her closest confidant. She was generally very accepting of everyone, so for her to outright criticize him was significant enough in itself.
The door suddenly opened and the manager, Tom Redford, walked in. He smiled cheerfully at everyone as was his wont and then slid into his office. He didn't say anything but everyone knew that work was officially starting.
Tina gave her one last look of warning. "Forget about him, Grace. You deserve someone better." And then she hopped off the desk and skipped away back to her own table.
Grace stared at her now-cooling coffee and suddenly felt very depressed.
That was when her office phone rang, startling her from her thoughts. She blew out a sigh, smiled a bit to prep herself, and picked up the phone.
"Hello, Grace Levine speaking."
There was silence on the other end, and then she heard his voice. "Hi Grace."
She swallowed. "Ashley."
His words were hesitant. For Ashley Renault, the man who was so smooth that he could just about charm the pants off any woman, this was somewhat unsettling. "Sorry for calling your office phone. I just… I just thought you wouldn't pick up if I had dialed your cell phone."
Grace wanted to smile. He knew her so well.
She struggled to make her voice pleasant. "Did you need something?"
"I'm… sorry for missing dinner yesterday. Something came up."
She looked down. "I see."
The line was silent for a while, and then his voice came back on, quiet and ashamed. "Gabriella…"
Grace's heart froze when she heard that name. Gabriella Rose, Ashley's girlfriend of four years… or rather, ex-girlfriend. Problem was, she didn't act very much like an ex-girlfriend.
She blinked away the tears that had suddenly popped into her eyes. "It's okay. You don't have to explain. I understand." She sucked in a breath. "I just wish you'd called me last night. It would've saved me some time."
"Did you wait a long time?"
"Yeah." One word, but it spoke volumes.
Ashley sighed on the other end and Grace thought she heard paper crumpling. "I would've called but Gabriella wouldn't let me leave her side. She… she called me, crying, and I couldn't…" He trailed off then, as if he couldn't bear to continue. She didn't much feel like hearing it either.
"I'm really sorry about yesterday, Grace. I…" He abruptly cut himself off, and she could imagine him shaking his head at himself. "Look, are you free tonight? I want to take you out."
Grace sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Ashley, I don't think…"
"Please," he said.
It was that one word that did it. She sighed and caved. "I'm off at six."
"I'll be waiting for you then." He hung up.
Grace stared at the dead phone in her hand. She mentally berated herself for caving in, once again. But this was Ashley, the one man who made her heart beat faster than she thought was possible. She felt like she was on top of the world when she was with him. And honestly, she really, really wanted to see him.
She saw him the moment she stepped out of the building. He was leaning against one of the pillars at the entrance, dressed in black slacks and a dark blue button-down. He was the image of perfection, his black hair and blue eyes matching his attire brilliantly.
He looked up when he saw her and his entire countenance brightened. In a few short steps he was in front of her and he held out a perfectly shaped lily.
He smiled gently. "Thanks for coming, Grace."
"You didn't have to get me a flower."
"I wanted to," he said.
She smiled thankfully and took it. Lilies were her favorite flowers. "Where are we going?"
"I thought we'd head to that nice little Italian place near your apartment. I remember you saying you've always wanted to go but never seemed to find the chance to."
It was at times like these that Grace knew she loved him. He never seemed to try exceedingly hard, but he remembered every little detail about her. She had mentioned that restaurant in casual conversation when they had been taking a walk around the neighborhood. It had never come up again, but somehow, he remembered.
They cruised down the street, his BMW convertible purring contently. "So how have you been?" Ashley asked. "It feels like I haven't spoken to you in a while."
She looked at him, startled for a moment. "Everything's been good. My manager told me he liked my work today."
He glanced at her. "Really? Well, looks like that old man can appreciate talent after all."
She was confused. "What do you mean?"
He didn't look at her this time, but he was smiling. "You're brilliant, Grace. He'd be a fool to not recognize you for your work."
She flushed from his praise and purposefully looked out the window on her side. She had never taken compliments well and she wasn't sure how she was supposed to respond to that.
The car fell into silence again.
It was another few moments before Ashley suddenly spoke up again. "So I'm thinking of taking a trip down to my family's beach house this weekend."
Grace looked back at him. "Oh really? That's great. Is your entire family going?"
"No, just me. " They stopped in front of a red light and he turned to look at her. His blue eyes were startlingly bright in the steadily darkening atmosphere. "I'd like you to come with me."
She stared at him, shocked. He was asking her to go to their family beach house with him? What kind of invitation was that? And what did that even mean? "You're asking me to go?"
"Of course. Who else would I ask?"
A name popped into her mind, but she forcibly squashed it down. She didn't need any unnecessary angst in this conversation. "Are you sure? I mean, I don't know anyone in your family. Would they be okay with me going?"
He drove into the restaurant's parking lot and smoothly slid into a spot. "My parents definitely wouldn't mind. They like you."
Now Grace was really floored. "You parents know about me?"
Ashley smiled and grabbed her hand, threading his fingers through hers. His palm was warm and comforting and she felt herself relaxing in his hold. "I told them about you. You're too wonderful to be kept a secret." Her cheeks were warm from his words and he must've noticed this because his smile widened and he leaned forward and slowly pressed his lips to hers.
"I like you, Grace," he whispered. "I want this to work."
"Me too," she said.
He grinned and opened his door. "Come on now. Let's go see what this little restaurant's all about."
And at that moment, Grace didn't think she had ever been happier.
The beach house was beautiful. It was a two-story structure painted a soft pink and white, the colors fitting perfectly with the sand and the waves. Ashley grinned as he led her through the door and into the living room. Even the interior was decorated like a beach house. The pictures were of surfers and waves, interspersed with images of the Renault family members.
Everything was bright and happy and it made Grace's heart swell.
"You can put your bag here." Ashley gestured towards the foot of the stairs. "We'll take them up later. It's about noon right now. Do you want to grab a bite to eat and then hit the waves?"
She blinked. "I don't know how to surf."
His smile flashed. "That's what I'm here for. I'll teach you." He grabbed her hand excitedly. "Come on!"
Despite his excitement and her willingness to learn, Grace realized that she was deplorable when it came to sports. She had severe difficulties just getting on the board, and once she had actually managed it, she fell off almost immediately. Ashley, who was perched comfortably on his board, had laughed so hard that he had fallen off himself.
"I think we should give up on this for the day," he chuckled, after hauling her out from the waves. "Maybe sun-tanning is a safer option for you."
She scowled and threw her towel at his face. "Shut up. Just because not everyone is as athletically adept as you are doesn't mean you get to laugh at them."
He shrugged, eyes sparkling. "Of course I do. It's a free country. If I want to laugh at you, I get to. If I want to put my arms around you, I get to." He did just that and pulled her closer. "And if I want to kiss you, I get to."
And then he captured her mouth in a mind-numbing kiss. Needless to say, they did nothing else for the next few minutes.
When they became aware of their surroundings again, Grace was blushing profusely for their very public display of affection and Ashley was grinning from ear to ear.
He pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Want some ice cream? I'll be right back." He ran off with a quick wave and she occupied herself with taking over a small portion of the beach with towels.
She settled down on the two towels that she had placed side by side and started lathering her skin with suntan lotion. She took the time in the interim to observe the happy families on the beach. It was such a relaxing atmosphere that she wondered why she didn't go to the beach more often.
She was still contemplating coming with Tina next time when a cone topped with two scoops of chocolate chip ice cream was shoved in her face. She jerked back, surprised, and saw Ashley settle himself next to her, a Rocky Road cone in his hand.
"You like chocolate chip, right?"
Grace nodded and accepted it gratefully. "You remembered," she said, and then wondered why she was surprised every time.
He scoffed. "How could I forget? Remember the first time we met? I accidentally made you drop you ice cream and you practically tore my eyes out."
She frowned defensively and took a bite out of her sweet dessert. It was cool and contrasted against the warm weather nicely. "You caught me on a bad day," she admitted and then rolled her eyes. "Besides, you weren't exactly a gentleman either. You didn't even offer to buy me a new cone."
"Because you were too busy bitching at me," he retorted.
Grace's jaw dropped. "So now you're blaming me?"
"I would hardly call it 'blaming you,'" he said thoughtfully. "Without that encounter we wouldn't have met."
"And what a tragedy that would be," she deadpanned.
He adopted a soulful expression. "Naturally. I don't know where I'd be without you."
She smiled slightly. "Probably still with Gabriella."
Ashley pulled away slightly, his eyes wary. It looked like he was trying to read her thoughts, but then he turned away and looked out into the ocean. He didn't comment on her statement and Grace was almost sorry for bringing it up. She had convinced herself to forget about Gabriella, if only for the weekend. This was her time with Ashley and her time alone.
Ashley's phone chose that time to ring. He frowned and looked down at himself, and then reached into his pocket. His face immediately sobered when he saw the caller ID and he glanced at her, almost ashamedly.
"Um… I… I'll just be a minute."
Grace sighed and looked away. Speak of the devil.
Ashley hesitated, his hand still on the button. "I… I don't have to take this."
She turned back to him and saw his reluctance, but also his desire. He was at war with himself. On one hand, he wanted to take it because he still cared about Gabriella. But on the other hand, he didn't want to offend her. Decisions, decisions.
Every part of Grace wanted to tell him to ignore the call because this was her time with him. Gabriella could wait. But she couldn't, because she wasn't that type of person, and because she knew it was what he really wanted. Who was she to deny that?
"Go on," she said. "I don't mind."
It was the green light Ashley needed. He walked away with the phone pressed to his ear, his voice light with his greeting. Grace convinced herself that his contact with his ex-girlfriend was fine because he was here with her, after all. He had asked her to come to the beach with him, not Gabriella.
But she wondered, ten minutes later, if this distinction mattered to him at all. He had an apologetic look on his face when he told her he had to leave. Gabriella needed something urgent and apparently, he was the only one who could provide it for her. But he assured her, hastily and urgently, that he would be back later that night.
"Just relax here, all right? Take a look around, have some dinner, and I'll be back before you know it." The smile on Ashley's face was bright as he grabbed her shoulders and gave them a comforting squeeze. "I promise I'll be back soon, okay? And then we can toast marshmallows by the fireplace."
And Grace, the stupid girl that she was, gave him the go-ahead with a bright smile and a nod that contradicted everything she wanted. And then she watched him drive away, feeling more alone than ever.
She spent her afternoon exploring the neighborhood and playing with the neighbor's dog. The evening came and went, and she found herself relaxing on the porch, waiting for that familiar car to drive up the street. But the sun went down and the clock ticked on, and still, Ashley didn't come.
There was no phone call either.
Grace fell asleep waiting on the couch.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and she sped to the door, hoping, praying, wishing, that his car was in the driveway. But it was empty.
Her heart plummeted into her stomach and she slumped down on the porch, feeling the tears well up in her eyes. She was so stupid to have believed him, so stupid to have let him go. Who did she think she was? She couldn't do the right thing all the time. But, she thought wryly, that had never stopped her from trying.
The morning passed slowly and Grace mindlessly ate a sandwich she had made with the ingredients they had brought up for lunch. She hovered around the house, and finally, when she saw that it was 3 pm, she mustered up the courage and dialed Ashley's number.
She reached his voicemail.
That was when she finally understood. Ashley wasn't coming back.
Grace gave herself a few minutes' worth of crying time before calling Tina. Tina had been both horrified and angry on Grace's behalf and was spewing flames by the time her car was parked on the driveway, two hours later. She drove them to her house, because in her words, "Who knows what you'd do if you were alone right now?"
They were drinking hot chocolate when she asked the fateful question. "Are you still going to see him?"
Grace shook her head, because this time, she finally understood. "No. I'm done with him."
The next night, Grace was in the middle of washing her dishes when she heard the furious pounding on her door. She was frozen in fear for a moment. Did someone want to get through? She cautiously approached the door, an umbrella in hand as a weapon. But as she neared, she heard his voice filtering through the door.
"Grace, please. Open the door! I'm sorry, so unbelievably sorry. Just please, let me talk to you."
She swallowed and wondered if it was better if she pretended she wasn't there.
He slammed his fist against the door again. "Grace, I know you're in there. Please. I'm so sorry. Will you hear me out at least? Just five minutes, that's all I want. Just five minutes."
She sucked in a determined breath, and said as resolutely as possible, "There's nothing to talk about, Ashley. Go home."
"No, wait! I can explain. Just let me explain. Grace…"
She yanked open the door in a bout of fury, nearly sending him toppling in from the force of it. Grace nearly winced at his haphazard state, but she schooled her expression to one of blankness.
"What?" she snapped.
His eyes widened when he saw her but then he shrunk back from her angry tone. "I didn't mean to leave you there," he whispered.
"You're saying you accidentally abandoned me?" Grace asked incredulously.
"No!" he cried, shocked. "It's just… I didn't know until I got back that Gabriella desperately needed someone to go to a dinner party with, and by then I couldn't really reject her. She promised that we'd get back before nighttime so I agreed. But then I had a few glasses of champagne with a few of our old friends and ended up getting a bit drunk and crashed at the hotel. I drove back to the beach house as soon as I could walk straight but you weren't there…" He took in a breath to calm himself. "I panicked and looked all over for you, but one of the neighbors told me you had left with someone."
Grace nodded woodenly. "Yeah, I called Tina."
Ashley looked hurt. "Why didn't you call me? I would've-"
"You didn't pick up."
His mouth opened, as if he wanted to retaliate, but then it closed again. "Oh," he finally said.
She sighed and ran a hand through her hair, desperately wanting to be done with the conversation. "Enough, Ashley. I've had enough. I really don't want to hear this."
His blue eyes were wide and pleading. "I'll make it up to you, I swear."
But Grace was shaking her head before he could say anything else. "You can only make up so much. You left me at the beach, Ashley. You threw away everything because of one phone call from her. Do you know what that tells me?"
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"That tells me you still love her. You value her over me and I'm... I'm done."
Ashley looked like he was about to fall to his knees. His hands were shaking as he reached out for her. "I'll be better, I promise. Please give me another chance."
She shook her head angrily and pushed him away. "I gave you chances!" she yelled. "I gave you a lot of chances. All those times you didn't show up to dinner. All the times you were late. All the times you ran off on me. I forgave you for them! But I can't forgive you for making me feel like the other woman."
His expression was horrified. He closed his eyes and took in a shuddering breath, as if he was trying to block her out without physically doing so. "The other woman?" he whispered.
"For all intents and purposes, Gabriella is your girlfriend, not me. You can't let her go no matter how much you profess to like me. And that makes me the one taking you away from her. I refuse to play that role. I refuse to be that person."
"But you're not," he insisted.
Grace smiled sadly. "Your actions speak otherwise. I like you, Ashley. I really do, but I can't deal with this. Go back to her. I think the both of you will be happier that way."
She slammed the door in his face.
For the first time in his life, Ashley listened to her. He had called her repeatedly the first few days, but when she refused to pick up each time, he eventually got the message and his calls stopped.
Grace went back to living her life. She put more effort into her job, and on weekends, hung out with Tina and her college friends who were in the area. She tried not to think about Ashley and succeeded for the most part.
Weeks passed by. Tina introduced her to new men, but no matter how many dates she went on, she still felt that aching loss. These men were unique and attractive in their own way, but they all had one main flaw: they weren't Ashley. And that was something she couldn't overlook, no matter how stupid it was.
It had been seven weeks since Grace had last seen Ashley and she was feeling particularly down at work. It didn't help that there had been constant rain for the past few days. She was just contemplating the end of the world when Carol Alden, the floor's secretary, came up to her desk.
"Grace, there's someone here to see you."
Confused, she followed Carol to the entrance area and then nearly toppled over in shock.
Though she had never met Gabriella Rose in real life, she had seen plenty of pictures, and she would recognize that dark red hair and those sharp green eyes anywhere. But Gabriella, who normally exuded confidence in all her photos, didn't look so confident anymore. In fact, it looked as if just holding up that smile was proving to be taxing on its own.
Grace approached her hesitantly. "Hi. You wanted to speak with me?"
Gabriella's smile wavered slightly, but she held out a hand nonetheless. "I'm sure you know who I am, but I figured the pleasantries never hurt. I'm Gabriella. It's great to finally meet you."
She wondered at the truth behind that statement, but echoed the sentiments all the same. "Did you want to talk somewhere? There's a Starbucks about a block away."
And that was how, fifteen minutes later, they both found themselves seated in the plush armchairs nestled in the corner of the coffee shop. Gabriella fiddled with her cup, looking for all the world like she didn't want to be there. Grace didn't blame her.
"So…" she said, after a few minutes of awkward silence had passed, "was there something in particular you wanted to talk to me about?"
Gabriella looked up from her cup. "Um… yes actually. I… wanted to talk to you about Ashley."
Grace swallowed and forced herself to maintain eye contact. "I don't talk to him anymore, if that's what you're worried about."
Gabriella shook her head immediately. "No, no that's not what I mean. It's just um… Ashley actually wanted me to come today." She smiled slightly at the look of shock on Grace's face. "He wanted me to… clear the air, I guess you could say."
"Are you two back together again?"
She shook her head, and while Grace could see that she was trying to keep the conversation light, she looked sad. "We never were actually," she admitted. "As you probably know, I had some difficulties letting go. Ashley was very good to me about that. He let me take it at my own pace and helped me with the coping… a lot."
Grace couldn't help the twisted smile on her face. "That's only because he still loves you."
This statement caused Gabriella to look up at her. "But that's where you're wrong," she said softly. "At first I thought that maybe Ashley didn't mean to break up with me. So I went after him, hoping that he'd come back to me. And for a while, I thought it would be possible. But then… the next morning after the dinner party, he was so angry at me that he didn't even let me explain before he ran off. That's when I knew I had lost him for good."
A tear rolled down her cheek then and she hastily brushed it away.
"I'm sorry for ruining your relationship. Believe me, that wasn't my intention." She sniffed slightly. "I just couldn't let him go, not after four years of history."
Grace smiled sympathetically. "It's okay. I understand. You weren't the only one who couldn't let go."
"But I was," she said. "Ashley made it clear to me a few weeks ago that he didn't love me anymore. He… he loves you, Grace."
Grace, who had been in the middle of drinking her coffee, nearly spat it all out. "Excuse me?" she choked.
Gabriella gave her a watery smile. "It's true. He never told you because he knew you wouldn't believe him, not after he ran out on you so many times because of me." She reached across the table and grabbed Grace's hand. "And that's why I'm here. Won't you listen to him, Grace? He really does love you."
She took in a deep breath then and stood, her coffee in hand. "I have to go now. It was really nice meeting you." She smiled. "I wish the both of you happiness."
Grace watched as Gabriella disappeared out the door, her coat flapping behind her from the wintry wind. She stayed, staring at the green felt of the armchair across from her, trying to process everything the other woman just said. Was it true? Did Ashley really…
She shook those thoughts away and glanced at her watch, knowing that her break time was up. She sighed and grabbed her bag. She would just have to deal with all this later. Work had to come first.
She pushed open the door, bracing herself from the cold wind. She mentally berated herself for not having brought a warmer coat and was about to head towards her building when she looked up and saw him.
He was standing in front of the lamp post, huddled in his dark coat but still looking as immaculate as ever. Grace found herself staring at him, a part of her still unable to believe that he was actually there.
Ashley approached her slowly, his steps hesitant. It was almost as if he was scared she'd run away from him. He stopped a step away from her, his smile uncertain. "Hi Grace."
But she didn't have time for pleasantries. Her mind was spinning too quickly for her to realize what was coming out of her mouth before she said it.
"Is it true, what Gabriella said? Is everything true?"
His smile dropped and he regarded her seriously. "Every word," he whispered.
Grace felt a little unsteady and a little giddy from the revelation. "You really… you really love me?"
Ashley reached out and took her hands, his fingers running over the back of them almost reverently. "I really do," he said. His eyes were very blue and sincere. "Please, believe me."
She did, oddly enough. She really did. And yet she still couldn't completely forget what had happened previously when she had placed her heart in his hands. "Is this going to be a repeat of last time?" she asked.
He shook his head and gently pressed her hand to his chest, right over his rapidly beating heart. "I only have eyes for you," he said quietly.
He held her gaze, his blue eyes dark with their seriousness. "I've gone seven weeks without you in my life. I don't think I could survive that again."
She let out a watery chuckle, a few tears dripping down her cheeks. He reached out and gently wiped them away, his hands framing her face. "Truthfully, I don't think I can either," she admitted.
Ashley smiled then, a smile so radiant that she had to stare, just for a few moments. He pulled her against him, closing all possible distances between them. His lips brushed her ear caressingly.
"Be mine?" he whispered.
She smiled and melted against him. "Always was."
Author's Note: I was listening to "Look Only At Me" by Taeyang and got inspired to write this :P Hopefully it's not too long and dramatic. Thanks for reading and please let know what you think! :)