Authors: Jessica Gray
Ethan lowered his head to kiss her when the church bells from the nearby bell tower started to ring. Hazel jumped in his arms and asked, “What time is it?”
He glanced at his watch and answered, “6:30. Why?”
She paled and pushed away from him, “I need to be in Ashton by 7 o’clock and I can’t afford to be late.”
“Why don’t I drive you? My sister lives there and I know my way around the town quite well.” He started walking towards his car.
“Well, I can drive myself. I don’t want to put you out.”
“You’re not putting me out, darling. Remember, you just agreed to let me love you and that includes driving you somewhere. Especially when you’re running late. Besides, with your sense of orientation, you’d never make it on time.”
Hazel knew he was right and smiled. “Fine. You are allowed to drive me to Ashton as part of showing how much you love me. And I believe you meant to say my absence of orientation. Didn’t you?”
Ethan smirked and led her back to his vehicle. The drive to Ashton didn’t take very long and soon they were pulling up to the gate of Inez Barclay’s impressive villa. He depressed the entrance button and then kissed her. “How long will you be here?”
Hazel shook her head. “I really don’t know.”
“Call me when you’re finished and I’ll pick you up. Hand me your phone and I’ll put my number into it.”
“Uhm… well, you see… I don’t actually have a phone.”
Ethan took her tiny hand in his big one and started to speak, but the big gates chose that moment to open. He winked at her and murmured, “Don’t worry about it.” Then he navigated the long driveway up to the villa and parked in front of the massive front doors.
Hazel noticed the tiered stairway, the massive two-story structure that boasted at least ten windows in the front of the house, and she wondered what she’d gotten herself into.
“Promise to call me when you’re finished.” Ethan fished a piece of paper from his pocket, scribbled his number on it, and then folded it into her palm. She tucked it into her pocket and then glanced at her watch and groaned.
“I’ve gotta go. It’s two minutes past seven already.”
She exited the vehicle and he waved her off. The swaying of her hips and her long hair flowing down her back while she walked up the stairs warmed his heart.
I love her.
He wouldn’t give up on her, ever. He’d love her for as long as was needed until she loved him back, and then he’d love her some more.
He started the car back up and left the driveway, unsure what to do next. He couldn’t very well sit in the car in front of the gates for however it took. His sister Reese lived in Ashton together with her fiancé Nikos Petridis, the heir to the Petridis shipping empire and he decided to pay them a surprise visit.
Five minutes after leaving the villa, he put in the key code at the gate to their impressive villa. Reese already waited for him at the front door, having noticed the gates opening, and greeted him with a bear hug. “Hey favorite brother.”
“Hey yourself. But isn’t your twin Ter your favorite brother?”
“Usually yes, but I heard you have a girlfriend and need details. Come on in. You’ll get dinner if you spill the beans.”
Ethan grinned. Reese’s cooking skills were a close second to those of his youngest sister Allison. “Just dinner – that seems a bit measly for my kind of news.”
Reese’s eyes widened. “So Mom and Allison were right, you are head over heels in love?”
“You may find out, but only if you throw in dessert,” he teased.
“Deal.” She couldn’t head in fast enough, anxious to hear the details about the woman who'd tamed her brother. Ethan followed her into the big kitchen.
Hazel was very impressed by the elegant driveway and the massive villa. She was met at the top of the stairs by a butler, dressed in formal suit jacket.
“Mrs. Barclay is waiting for you.”
Hazel nodded her head, hurrying to follow the man down the long hallway. She’d heard of Inez Barclay, but the aging actress rarely showed herself in public nowadays and never allowed her picture to be taken. Therefore Hazel wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted her.
In the room didn’t stand the young and beautiful movie star everyone knew, but a frail lady in her 80s. Her beautiful hair, though, had stayed the same: a vibrant black and perfectly coifed.
Inez Barclay held herself erect with a sour expression upon her face, her lips pressed to a thin line. She sent Hazel a stare that could have frozen hell over and Hazel almost stumbled with the impact. And when she opened her mouth, Veronica’s warning about her being a mean old lady came rushing back.
Her cold and poignant voice cut through the air like a knife as she said, “You are late, girl! This cannot happen again.”
Hazel shuddered under her voice, but reminded herself that she had gone through worse times with her mother; this old lady couldn’t hurt her like her mother’s death had done.
Conjuring up her inner strength, Hazel straightened her shoulders and put on her friendliest smile. “You are right, and it will not happen again. I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”
Apparently, Mrs. Barclay hadn’t expected an apology, because she was momentarily stunned before she raised one of her neatly plucked eyebrows into a tiny arch that made her look even stricter.
She turned around without a word and gestured for Hazel to follow her. For a brief moment, Hazel thought of Ethan and she touched the note with his phone number in her pocket. She could do whatever needed to be done, because he was waiting for her. Knowing that he was going to be there when this was done gave her strength. Whatever this turned out to be.
Hazel steeled herself and followed the old lady, who walked amazingly well for her age with a walking stick that made a knocking sound on the white marble floor. The place intimidated her with its grandeur and elegance. They walked back into a grand foyer with dual staircases leading to the second story. The elegant black iron rails with the scrolled metalwork, and the white marble and champagne white walls, were striking, and Hazel couldn’t imagine ever living in such a place.
They entered a smaller room to the right, held in dark tones with black curtains and black walls, but with brightly colored spots placed strategically to take the heaviness out of the interior design. A huge mirrored vanity stood against one wall, the curved glass and bright vanity lights reminding her of the old movie setups. A padded chair stood in front of it, and on the vanity stood a variety of hairdresser tools.
Lizzie had warned her not to bring any of her own tools because Inez refused to be touched with anything that had been used on someone else.
With one glance, Hazel found everything she might ever need to fix Inez’ hair. Not wanting to upset the unfriendly lady again, she stood and waited, which earned her another rebuttal.
“Well, don’t just stand there like an idiot, girl. I’m not getting any younger while you are gawking.”
Hazel bit the inside of her cheek, touching the paper with Ethan’s phone number on it once again.
You can do this. Be strong.
She smiled at the memory of the whimsical heart he’d drawn around his phone number and the smiley face beneath it.
If he only knew how much strength this little piece of paper is giving me.
“You’d better not be laughing at me, girl!”
Hazel was so grounded in herself and in Ethan’s promise to love her through all difficulties that she wouldn’t be derailed by those mean comments. She didn’t even flinch; no, she glanced right into Inez’ eyes and held her stare as she answered, “No, ma’am. I would never laugh at you. I was smiling because this room is better equipped than the hair salon where I work.”
The expression on the old lady’s face softened a bit and Hazel caught a faint glimpse into the soul of the woman sitting so still. It was filled with bitterness. Despite the bad treatment she’d received so far, Hazel felt a surge of empathy towards the glamorous woman who seemed to have it all, and yet didn’t take pleasure from any of it.
“So, I was told you wanted a color and cut, and then would like me to style it for you?”
Inez nodded her head regally and Hazel mentally sighed.
No thrilling conversation going to be taking place here.
The atmosphere was tense the entire time, and Inez found something and everything to complain about. You’re pulling my hair. Are you sure that’s the color I normally use? Your hands are cold. And so on. The complaints were many and multifold.
Hazel held her tongue, thinking about the money she needed so much – and about Ethan waiting for her. It was almost 10 p.m. by the time she’d finished, and she’d never been so happy to be done with a client. Except that she didn’t finish her work, she was dismissed.
Before leaving the room, she asked, “Mrs. Barclay, may I use your phone to call my ride to come and pick me up?”
The old woman shook her head and mumbled something Hazel didn’t understand. Hazel was prepared for her to deny the simple request, but then Inez turned and led Hazel into another room where the butler was waiting.
“Show her where the phone is, but make sure she doesn’t talk too long. I have no intention of paying for my employees to chat on the phone.”
She then turned towards Hazel and told her, “This will be deducted from your salary, girl.”
Hazel bit back tears, touching Ethan’s note once again.
Think about the money. You can do this.
Inez Barclay had refused to call her by her name, instead using the term
, which Hazel found humiliating. But she’d swallowed down her pride. She needed this job and as long as it didn’t get worse than today, she’d manage.
Hazel just nodded, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes or show any other sign of annoyance because someone living in such a luxurious villa, wearing jewelry that was easily worth seven figures, would charge her for a single phone call.
She called Ethan and quickly told him she was finished and could he please come get her at the gate. After the call was completed, the butler looked at a sheet of paper and informed her with an apologetic glance, “Your call was under one minute and will cost one dollar.”
Hazel groaned inwardly. This was absolutely ridiculous, but she reached into her pocket to finger out a dollar bill she’d received as a tip during the day.
The butler shook his head. “No, miss, Mrs. Barclay will deduct it from your salary. You will be paid at the end of every week, but only if you come here every second day. If you choose not to return, the work today will be considered free of charge and Mrs. Barclay will gift you the phone call.”
Hazel had the urge to tell Mrs. Barclay to stuff her money up her ass, but she swallowed down the words and quickly said good-bye to the butler. She was so fed up with everything; she couldn’t stand staying in this house one more second, and quickly walked to the front door to let herself out.
Waiting for Ethan outside the gates suddenly seemed like an attractive thing to do. The cold night air hit her bare arms, as she had left her jacket in her truck. Now she wished she’d brought it along. But then she didn’t really care; everything was better than the frosty atmosphere in the house.
She hugged her arms around herself and rubbed them up and down. Alone and freezing in the dark night, the complete disaster that was her life overwhelmed her and she cursed the day her mother had gotten sick.
She cursed the doctors who couldn’t help her, the medical insurance that hadn’t paid all of the bills. She even cursed God, who had allowed such a lovely and sweet woman like her mother to die after a painful illness, while a bitter and mean old lady like Inez lived way into her 80s.
Fortunately, she couldn’t wallow in self-pity for long because a few minutes later, Ethan’s car showed up at the front of the gates and he jumped out to hug her.
Ethan immediately noticed her shivering and the red rims around her beautiful eyes. He took off his jacket and hung it around her shoulders before he kissed her and then opened the passenger door for her. She looked even more fragile when wearing his oversized jacket, and his heart filled with love for her.
“Are you okay, darling?” he asked, bending down to meet her eyes as he protectively helped her fasten the seatbelt. Like everyone in Sandy Beach and Ashton, he’d heard the rumors about Inez Barclay.
She gave him a shaky smile. “I’m better now that you’re here.”
Ethan gave her another concerned look and then hurried back to the driver’s side of the car. Once seated, he leaned over and asked, “So, how was it?”
Hazel shrugged. “It was fine.”
Ethan clasped her hand in his own. “You know, you agreed to allow me to love you, and that means I also get to worry about you.”
A small smile showed up on her lips and his insides melted away. Why wouldn’t she let him fix all her problems away and make her happy?
“You don’t need to worry about me. And it was okay,” she insisted.
Ethan placed a soft kiss on her nose, before he switched on the engine. “Hey, darling, this is me, not some random stranger. If we want to make this work, you need to be honest with me and trust me.”
Hazel was very quiet, and he could tell she was fighting an inner battle. He didn’t interrupt her train of thought and drove home to Sandy Beach. After ten minutes or so, she began to tell him about her evening.
“She was horrible. So bitter and angry inside. She complained about everything I did. And she refused to call me by my name. She kept calling me
! Oh, and she’s going to deduct the cost of the phone call from my salary.”
“What? It’s a phone call.”
“Yes. And the butler reminded me that I will either come back every other day and be paid at the end of each week, or I could quit, not get paid for tonight, and consider the cost of the phone call a gift.” Hazel fisted her hands angrily.
It broke his heart to see her in such a state of agitation. “Hazel, you don’t need this. Don’t go back.”
Hazel shook her head. “No! I’m going to see this through. Besides, I need the money.”
Ethan sighed. “I can pay your debts.” He realized that his offer was a huge mistake and wanted to shove the words back into his mouth.
“I may have allowed you to love me, and I’m willing to try having a relationship with you, but I didn’t give you permission to fix my financial problems. This is my battle, not yours.”
He remained quiet, not sure what to say to undo the damage he seemed to have caused between them. But he couldn’t stand this silence for long and slid his hand over onto her thigh. At first he sensed her leg tightening, but soon she relaxed and some time later, slid her palm over his.
“I love you Hazel, I didn’t mean to…”
“Stop,” she interrupted him, “I have to apologize. I overreacted. You know, your note was the only thing that helped me get through the evening. I kept touching it and it gave me strength. Knowing that when this was over, you’d be there to come get me.” Her voice faded away.
“I want to be there for you each night you come here. Will you let me do that for you?”
Hazel squeezed his hand. “I’d love to. If I know you’ll be there, waiting to hug me and make me laugh, I can handle Mrs. Barclay any time.”
As they reached the intersection to Dale, he suggested taking her home. But she reminded him her truck was still parked in Sandy Beach.
“You can get your truck tomorrow.”
Hazel shook her head. “I know, but I’d rather go get it tonight.”
Ethan looked at her as he slowed down. “I’d really like to see your apartment.”
“Maybe some other time. It’s already late.” She squirmed beneath his suspicious glance, but then he shrugged and continued the drive into the village.
When he turned at the crossing to head to Hairworks, she suggested, “You know, maybe we should drive straight to your place. I can grab my truck in the morning after all.”
“We can do that, but let’s at least stop and grab your jacket. It could be cold tomorrow morning.”
“I don’t really need it,” she insisted.
“It’s no problem. We are already here.” Ethan pulled up beside her truck and was taken by surprise at the speed with which she’d jumped out of his car and raced to open the front door of her truck. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
He hadn’t intended to, but now he got out and followed her to the truck. He peeked over her shoulder into the back of the car and cringed. Her suitcases were lying on the floorboards, and a pillow and blanket lay neatly folded in the corner of the truck bed.
Ethan was sick and tired of waiting for her to share her problems with him. “You’ve been sleeping in your truck? Do you know how dangerous that is?”
Hazel started to explain, but he cut her off and talked himself into a rage. “Why didn’t you tell me? I offered to let you stay with me. I would never have allowed this!”
“That’s exactly why I didn’t tell you. I knew you wouldn’t let it be, and I don’t want to be dependent upon anyone. I don’t need someone to take care of me,” she shouted back.
Ethan was about to explode, hurt by her lack of trust and out of his mind with worry over what could have happened to her. He wanted to shake some sense into her. As he grabbed her shoulders and turned her around, he saw tears in her eyes and his rage disappeared. “Darling, I know you don’t need someone to take care of you. You are the strongest woman I know. I don’t want to take care of you because you need me to, but because I want to. Because it makes me feel good. Do you understand?”
Hazel looked at him, tears streaming down her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be a burden for you.”
“Hazel, darling. You will never be a burden for me. You agreed to let me love you. As much as I want to. As much as it pleases me to.”
She giggled at his choice of words and then grew serious once again. “Ethan, I want to love you back. I really do. I just don’t know if I can. My mother’s death destroyed me. She was my world, and I took care of her for so long, with no one to take care of me. I don’t know if I can let someone take care of me. I don’t know if I can let myself love that much again, knowing something could happen and I could have to deal with another loss like that.”
Ethan looked deeply into her eyes. “I don’t care how long it takes. I’m willing to wait for you to heal. You are worth waiting for.” He kissed her and then instructed her to follow him back to his place.
Once there, he unloaded her suitcases and made it clear that she was done living in her car. “No more. You are going to stay here from now on until you have found a place to rent.” But deep in his heart he hoped she’d never move out again.
He convinced her to unpack her suitcases in his bedroom, even though she had argued about using the guestroom. He refused to hear of it and distracted her by helping her hang up her clothing and put her bathroom stuff on the counter. Once that was finished, he tucked her empty suitcases into the closet and pulled her into his arms to kiss her.
Then he began to carefully seduce her. He needed to get his hands on her body and lose himself in her. But at the same time he wanted her to know how much he loved her and that she could trust him.
“Let me love you, darling.”