Wednesday, 27 January 2010
"It looks...possible." I frowned. "Do you think they were hoping to harm me?" "Maybe. It's not exactly a foolproof plan, though, is it? Unless they messed around with some other wiring in the kitchen, then there would be very little chance of a fire actually starting, and destroying anything." "No, of course, you're right," I muttered, frowning to myself. It had to be some kind of mistake. But I couldn't stop worrying about it. What if the fire had spread? "Do you want me to check all the wiring in the kitchen and call you if I find something?" he said, kindly. I smiled back at him, deciding that I would call his company and ask for his pay rise. I really don't know why I was so nice to people nowadays. A month ago, this man could've been starving on the street and I would not have cared. Ella was a bad influence on me. "Thanks," I replied, rubbing my tired eyes. "Ash? Oh." I turned around and saw Ella, with nothing but a dressing gown on, her wet hair cascading around her shoulders, droplets of water splashing onto the wooden floor. Her cheeks flushed at the sight of the technician. "This is my wife," I addressed the man. He was too busy staring at Ella, his eyes wide as he took her in. I grit my teeth. He was so not getting the pay rise. "Hi," Ella said distractedly to the technician, before turning to me. "I just wanted to say that the hot water's out, so you'll have to deal with cold water, or just shower at school or something." "What?" I snapped, very aware of her nakedness. "There's no hot water?" "Isn't that what I just said?" she snapped back, looking affronted. "I'll see you later. I'm getting dressed now." She turned, and walked away. "Feisty," the technician chuckled. "My wife's like that as well." I glared at him pointedly, until he looked away, pretending to be preoccupied with his work. Ignoring him, I stalked into Ella's bedroom after her. She turned around, in the middle of drying her hair. I grabbed her wrist and the blow-dryer tumbled to the floor. "Ash!" she protested, pushing me away. "What are you wearing?" I hissed. "How can you dress so indecently? Look how high it's cut!" She stared down at the dressing gown, confused. "It's below the knee." "So what?" I snapped. She was looking at my face in a really distracting way. Her rosy lips were parted, her innocent eyes wide open in confusion, the smell of her shampoo intoxicating. A drop of moisture from her still-wet hair trickled down into her chest, meeting the fabric of the dressing gown. I felt my cheeks burn red. I turned away. "Get changed!" "Ash, I can't." "Why not?" "Because you're in here with me..." "Oh, right," I muttered, feeling stupid, not meeting her eyes as I stalked out. As I slammed the door behind me, I could here her laughing. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I chuckled, but as another wave of nausea hit me, I was forced to lean against the wall to stop my knees from giving out. I breathed heavily. I wish I really hadn't eaten the egg now. I wanted to vomit. But the smile Ash had given me when I'd been eating it...If I'd known he was capable of that expression, I would've liked him much sooner. I imagined his smile again, and smiled myself. It took me a while to realize I'd been sitting there, grinning like an idiot for about ten minutes. What was I thinking about? How could I like Ash? I quickly undressed and pulled on my school uniform. I fingered the skirt, dissatisfied. I'd ordered another skirt, but in the mean time I had to deal with this one, so short it was almost like a belt. Ash grabbed my hand as I left the room, already dressed. I stared at him, startled. I had to get used to living with someone. The Billion Dollar Girl "I forgot to tell you something," he said, as we made our way to the door. I quickly slipped on my black pumps. "We have another...event this weekend. Brunch." "What?" I'd been hoping for some alone time to catch up with my studies. I desperately needed to cram. But I had no choice. Ash wasn't leaving the decision up to me. We had a contract. "Fine," I muttered. Of course. How could I be so stupid? For a moment, I'd imagined that we were a real couple. That was blatantly not true. After all, the contract... We reached the lift and Ash pressed the button for me. There was a 'bing', and the doors opened. We got in together. "The dresses will be delivered tomorrow." "Dresses?" Ash must have noticed my alarm, because he flashed a smile at me. "Yeah. You never seemed to like the dresses I choose for you. This time, you have a choice of ten." "Ten?" I gasped, speechless. "You didn't have to go to that much trouble for me! I mean, I did like those dresses, they were just..." Revealing. "It was no trouble," he said, his blue eyes burning into mine with an intensity that was as delicious as it was terrifying. "None at all." I didn't know how to respond. The lift doors opened again and we exited. Suddenly, I stopped at the entrance, gasping at a wave of nausea hit me. "Are you okay?" Ash said at once, holding onto my shoulders as I blanched, clutching my stomach. "What happened?" I stared into his wide, inquisitive eyes and felt a queasy smile appear on my lips. "Nothing." How could I tell him the truth? *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I sighed, into my hands. The whole class sighed with me. I looked up, glaring anyone who dared to meet my gaze. Everyone turned away. I stared out of the open window, ignoring the persistent chatter of the English teacher. A gentle breeze floated in, brushing against my skin. I was so frustrated. I know I promised myself I wouldn't kiss Ella without her permission, but...she was so damn cute! I grit my teeth. I've never refrained myself like this before... Because before, I've never had the need to. The teacher left, to get some files from his office. At once, the class erupted into the predicable bedlam of anarchy. I just stared out of the window, trying not to think of Ella, until the unrelenting chatter turned into background noise. "Ash!" I turned around, finally aware that Serenity was next to me. She smiled at me, in that all-knowing way of hers, her blue eyes gleaming. Serenity was my ex - but we'd parted on relatively good terms. "Ash, what's been wrong with you lately? You've been sighing a lot, and you look flushed." She'd noticed? Well, she noticed everything. She was the only girl different from the many others I'd dated - because she'd been the one to break up with me. "Just...annoyed." "Because you're not getting any?" My eyes flashed to her face, shocked. How did she know that? She smirked. "It's obvious. You're spreading your pheromones out to the whole class. You're making everyone hot." "Right," I muttered, embarrassed. "Sorry." "Don't be," she said, still smirking in that annoying way of hers. "It's not your fault, right? You're a healthy young male. Self-control doesn't come easy to you." I glared at her. Was she making fun of me? No one else treated me like this...Well, apart from my Father and Ella. "So, tell me, Ash...Are you having issues with your wife?" "It's none of your business," I snapped. "You are, then." God, she was annoying. "Did the honeymoon not go well? I've never seen you so desperate." "Leave me alone." "Haven't you consummated the marriage yet?" Fuming, I stayed silent. "You haven't then," she said. I could almost hear the smirk in her voice. "Wow. Ash Castillo. Maybe you're having problems...performing?" "What? No!" The word ripped out of my mouth like a cry. I glared at her, and Serenity giggled. "Are you always this crass?" I hissed, through gritted teeth. "You know you love it. So why haven't the two of you slept together yet? I mean...which sane woman could turn down...that." I shifted, uncomfortable under her probing gaze. "She doesn't want to me." It was all pouring out now. "I didn't want to force her, and so I made a promise to her - I won't kiss her, until she asks." "And you don't think she'll ask? Is she that obstinate?" I shot her a look of exasperation, before turning away. The Billion Dollar Girl "Well, why don't you just make her ask?" I gaped, meeting her devious eyes. "What?" "Make her ask you," she repeated, smirking. "You know, drive her crazy with desire, until she begs you. I'm sure you, Ash Castillo, renowned womanizer, would be capable of that." I'd never thought of it like that before. Slowly, the corners of my mouth turned upwards. "Thanks, Serenity." "Any time." *** The Billion Dollar Girl Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ My head spun, and I leaned heavily against the rough brick wall of the gymnasium. The bell had gone a couple minutes ago, and I was late. I’d managed to drag myself through first period, but I was losing it now. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten those eggs… I mean, the boy put in lollipops! What was I thinking? The nausea passed, and my mind cleared. With firmer resolve, I hoisted the bag onto my shoulder, forcing myself to walk on. I had to catch up with my studies, and taking an extra day off wouldn’t held matters. A couple seconds later, however, my knees weakened as another wave of nausea hit me, forcing bile up my throat. There was nothing I could do. My head spun, and suddenly I collapsed. A pair of strong arms held me up. The nausea passed again, and my mind cleared. “Thanks,” I muttered, holding my head. The arms didn’t let go. I turned to him, frowning. “You can stop holding me up…now…” It was Will. With a gasp, I used my remaining strength to push his arms away, but when the nausea hit again, I stumbled and Will had to catch me. “Careful…Are you okay? You’re really pale.” I glared at him, shovinging him away. I straightened myself with as much pride as I could muster, but leaning against the wall just in case I collapsed again. My eyes narrowed as I took in Will. He was looking perfectly normal, his shirt ironed, and his sleeves casually rolled up his arms. I frowned. He wasn’t the groveling, depressed mess I imagined he would be. “What are you doing here?” I snapped, trying not to puke. Actually, I should puke, and I should do it all over Will. “I go to this school,” he said, sounding amused. Oh, right. I frowned, trying to clear my mind. I couldn’t think right. I tried to remember where I wanted to go, through my dazed mind. There was a sharp twinge of pain in my stomach, which I ignored. I had to get to a class… “Whoa,” Will said, catching my waist as I swayed unsteadily on my feet. I slapped at his hands weakly, without effect. “Why are you here?” I asked, rudely. “I have something to say to you.” I stopped, staring at him with suspicion. Was he really going to apologize? “Go on.” “About what I did last time, with the ring…Well, I’m not sorry.” I gaped at him, too shocked to even assess the risk of opening my mouth. “What?” “You heard me,” Will said, smirking, leaning over me. I looked up at him, with real fear. “I’m not sorry. I like you, Ella. And there’s no way I’m letting you go, especially for a player like my cousin.” “Oh, and you’re not a player?” I snapped. “Well, I’m not the guy who’s dated hundreds of supermodels, and broken hundreds of hearts. Ash is just playing you, Ella, so he can get what he wants. He only married you to avoid marrying the girl his father had planned. As soon as he gets bored, he’ll throw you away, just like all the other girls he’s met –” I slapped Will, right across the face. My vision was blurred from the tears that were forming. “Don’t you dare talk about him like that!” I yelled, my voice echoing throughout the empty courtyard. His eyes widened in surprise at my ferocity, and he backed away. I took a step forwards, glaring at him. “He’s not going to do that to me! He’s not…” What Will said can’t be true…It can’t be…No… Ash flooded into my mind, his cute boyish smirk playing on his lips, his light blue eyes always full of laughter, his messy blond hair. Another spasm of pain rocked my abdomen, and I fell to the ground, clutching my stomach. “Are you okay?” Will asked, suddenly worried. He rushed over to me, putting an arm around my shoulders. “What happened? Answer me, Ella!” “Let…go of me…” I mumbled. His voice was too loud. “You’re sick, aren’t you? We have to get you to the infirmary!” He hoisted me up, and I groaned. I felt really ill. Oh, God. It was coming. I’d been trying to suppress it all morning, but… I leant over, puking all over Will’s converses. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ “Bad news!” Travis yelled, bursting into the classroom. The teacher stared at him, as if surprised by his sudden appearance. “Will was talking to Ella! They went to the infirmary together!” I stood up sharply. “What?” The Billion Dollar Girl The class erupted into whispers. “Will and Ella?” “No way…” “Ash’s cousin?” “You better hurry!” Travis panted, out of breath. I must’ve run here. I’d asked him to inform me on anything strange. “Ella looked bad.” The world didn’t move for a moment. My heart dropped. I couldn’t breathe. Had Will taken revenge? Had he done something to Ella? “Excuse me, Class,” the teacher said, angrily. “But I am trying to teach here. Mr. Travis, you can’t interrupt – Ash, where do you think you’re going?” I didn’t answer as I rushed past. Travis moved to the side for me, and I walked out of the noisy classroom. At the end of corridor, I heard the teacher’s yell. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I was roughly shaken awake by a pair of large hands. I cracked open one of my eyes, and let out a long, gusty sigh. I’d been so comfortable. “Ash?” I mumbled, into the soft pillow. “Is that you?” “What are you doing here?” he said, at once. “Did Will do something to you? Did he hurt you?” “Calm down,” I said, yawning as I sat up. I took in Ash’s slightly disheveled look. His normally messy hair was completely catastrophic, and his shirt was all messed up. His blue eyes were wide with worry. “Will didn’t do anything to me. He was helpful, actually. He brought me here. I was…tired.” That was a bad lie, but I wasn’t a natural liar. Ash’s look of worry was replaced with one of disgust. “What? Will helped you? Don’t tell me you trust him.” “I do,” I said, with as much dignity as possible. Ash gave a snort of derision. “I mean, he was really helpful before. And apologized for what he did – I mean,” I said, quickly, realizing Ash didn’t know about Will blackmailing me. It wouldn’t be good to tell him either, “he, uh, apologized for the thing that happened at the Debutante Ball, and for the media coverage of the event and everything.” Even though that hadn’t really been his fault, it was the best lie I could come up with in my state. “So you trust that bastard?” he sneered. I didn’t like his attitude now. The Ash I’d gotten to know over the last twenty-four hours was slowly disappearing, replaced with the obnoxious idiot I’d always thought he was. “How can you trust him?” I bit my lip, asking myself the same question. Will had blackmailed me, yes, but I think, despite what he says, he feels sorry about that. I guess I was just the forgiving kind of person – I was willing to give Will another chance. “Yes,” I said, with as much confidence as I could muster. “Yes, I can.” Uh-oh. Another wave of nausea hit me, and I forced myself to push it back. No. I can’t let Ash know I have food poisoning from his food. There was a knock of the door, and the school nurse came in. “Ella,” she said, looking concerned. “Mr. Will Castillo is here. He says he wants to talk to you.” “Oh.” I looked at Ash, who looked away. “Sure, let him in.” She left again, and there was a long pause. “Well, I guess I have to go,” Ash said, refusing to meet my eyes. “Ash.” “See you,” he muttered, half-turning away. “Ash!” “What?” he yelled, suddenly meeting my eyes. I was shocked by what I saw there. In his eyes, there was hurt – real hurt. My chest constricted, and I bit down on my lip, hard. “Ash…I’m…” “I have to go,” he said, cutting me short. He turned away, and left. I watched him go, my heart aching. His shoulder brushed Will’s in the doorway. “Hey,” Will said, smiling at me. He closed the door behind Ash’s disappearing back. “Are you feeling better?” His words seemed to trigger a colossal reaction inside me. I suddenly grabbed the bucket, retching into it. When I was done, I wiped my mouth. “Clearly not,” he chuckled, passing me the water. I took it, gratefully, staring at his face over the rim. What other guy could have had a girl puke over their trainers, yet still laugh at them like that? I suddenly wished Ash was as easy-going. But…if he was, he wouldn’t be Ash. “Thanks,” I muttered weakly, handing back the cup. I leant back in my bed. “Was that Ash I saw, stalking out of this hospital room?” Create Community EvangeliqueSn... English of 3 The Billion Dollar Girl He didn’t sound sympathetic, or helpful – just kind of amused. I glared at him. Was I right, in trusting Will? “You know it was.” “What was he angry about?” “Nothing. Well, you.” Surprisingly, Will chuckled. “He’s always been angry at me.” “What did you do to him?” I asked, curious. “You’ll have to ask him, I’m afraid. He’s your husband.” I grumbled, making him laugh even more. “Well, Ella, I have to go.” I watched him stand up. “I only came in here to see how you were doing. I have to get to class. Bye, for now.” “Wait, Will –” I called. He smiled at me, raising an eyebrow. “Uh… Can you not tell Ash? About what happened?” I didn’t want Ash to know I’d puked his precious egg all over Will’s shoes. Will’s smiled grew even wider. “You have my word. I’ll be our secret.” He opened the door, and I watched the second Castillo boy leave. I relaxed into my pillow, sighing. Why did it just feel like I’d made some kind of promise with Will? *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I pressed myself into the space between the wall and the supply cupboard, watching Will walk away, the blood pounding in my ears. What didn’t Ella want me to know? *** The Billion Dollar Girl ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ My phone buzzed during lunch, interrupting my deep reverie. I’d been thinking about the conversation I’d overheard. I picked up. “Hello.” “Hello? Is that Ash?” the weedy voice said. It was somehow familiar. I frowned, trying to place it. “This is the technician you called earlier today. You asked for a report of the wiring in your kitchen?” Oh, right. “Sure. Hit me.” “Well, I’ve actually found a very serious fault in your oven,” he said, gravely. I sat up a little straighter on the floor of the roof. “It could’ve sparked off at any time…and with the fire alarm broken…” So someone had done it on purpose. “I replaced the wiring and your fire alarm. Everything should be okay now –” “Thank you,” I said mechanically, not really listening any more. I was too busy processing. “I’ll be sure to let your bosses know that you’ve been very helpful.” I hung up. Tapping a slow rhythm on the ground next to me, I wondered. Who wanted to hurt me…? *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ There was a knock on the door. I was definitely recovering – I was actually sitting up. Another knock later, and with no sign of it being answered, I sighed, I pushed the unopened snacks Will had sent me off the bed (I still hadn’t regained my appetite yet), and pulled the warm covers back, my bare feet meeting the cold tiled floor. “Coming!” I yelled, when there was another knock, hopping slightly. Who was it? A glance at the clock on the wall told me it was practically the end of the day. I scrambled over to the door. I glared at Zack. “It was open, you know,” I snapped, turning around. “I can’t believe you made a sick person get out of bed.” I settled back into the bed, curling into a little ball to warm up. “What’s wrong with you?” Zack asked, bluntly. He was standing next to my bed. “Food poisoning.” He raised an eyebrow. “Food poisoning? What from?” “Really, really bad eggs Ash made for me,” I admitted. “He’s an awful cook.” Zack suddenly grabbed my shoulders. “Ash?” he yelled, his fingers digging into my arms. I winced. “You ate something Ash made for you? Did he put something in it on purpose?! “Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes. I pushed him away, grimacing as I flexed my arms. Damn, Zack was strong. “Ash put in a bunch of gross things. But he really didn’t want to hurt me, Zack. Believe me.” “How do you know?” he snapped. “He made you marry him – who knows what he might do. Maybe he was trying to poison you!” I snorted in derision, rolling my eyes. “Ash wouldn’t do that.” “There,” Zack said, stabbing at finger at me. “That is your problem, Ella. You are way too trusting. You put on a front for the rest of the world, and you pretend to be all hateful. But I’ve known you long enough to know that you, Ella, are soft. You trust everyone you meet, even if they treat you bad. And that,” he concluded dramatically, “is your problem.” I rolled my eyes again. “I don’t have a problem, Zack. Ash would never do anything to hurt me, okay? Get the stupid idea that Ash is some kind of evil, manipulative genius out of your mind. Because trust me – he’s not.” He’s definitely not a genius. “Sure,” Zack muttered, sounding annoyed. “I only came here to ask, are you okay for a ride home?” “Are you offering me a ride back on your motorbike? I’m sick, Zack.” “Then you’re going home with Ash?” he snapped, sounding even more annoyed. I thought about the angry way Ash had left the room, and I sincerely doubted that. Ash could be as stroppy as a teenage girl high on hormones sometimes. I bit my lip. It was kind of a problem. How was I meant to get home? Then it hit me. My lips curled up into a small smile. As I fumbled through my pockets, Zack looked at me suspiciously. “What are you doing?” I pulled out the black credit card Ash had given me, smirking. “Time to test out the limit on this thing. How much do you reckon a limo costs?” *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ “Dude, what are you doing?” James asked, staring at me as I leant on the hood of my car. “I thought we were going to Castillo Racetracks to practice. The big race is coming up soon. What are we still doing here?” The Billion Dollar Girl I didn’t answer, my eyes trained on the gates. Surely she’d come out around now? I mean, she really wasn’t planning to stay in that room forever. Right? “Uh, Ash? Are you listening? We’ve got to go.” I forced myself to tear my eyes away. I gave James a small smile. “Sure. Let’s go.” James didn’t move. “Were you waiting for Ella?” “No!” I snapped, right away. He still wasn’t moving. “You were waiting for her, weren’t you? I’ve never seen you wait for anyone before. And that has to mean…You like her.” “Shut up,” I muttered, ruffling his carefully sculptured hair. Ignoring his yells of protest, I got into the car. As I buckled my seatbelt, I frowned. I couldn’t like her. I had to keep everything in context. This was Ella, a girl I’d almost literally picked off the streets. We had a contract, after all. And that was why she did nice things for me – because of the contract. And the fact that she was keeping something from me – and with Will, of all people – was just another reason not to fall in love. James got in beside me, grumbling as he fixed his hair. “So, if you don’t like her, I’m going to make a move on her,” he announced. “At Brunch. You guys are going, right?” I nodded, my heart thumping against my sternum. My throat was suddenly too dry for me to talk. If I really didn’t like her, then how come just the thought of her with another guy made me want to rip my steering wheel from my car? *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I waved goodbye at my new limo driver, before proceeding up the lifts to the penthouse. The reception in an apartment block with over two hundred residents was actually surprisingly quiet, as most of the residents were either at the gym, or shopping, or getting manipedis pretty much twenty-four seven. The lift was empty as well. I unlocked the door and pushed it open. I held my breath, waiting for Ash to jump out and interrogate me. He wasn’t here. I frowned. That was new. I was used to having Ash anxiously waiting for me to return. Don’t tell me he was still mad? Looking around the empty apartment, I suddenly felt a spasm of loneliness as I realized I’d never been alone in the penthouse before – Ash had always been with me. And no matter how much I complained about him, his presence had always been big and boisterous and dominating, making me feel at home in a place I should definitely not feel at home. But now he was gone, I suddenly felt small. I noted that the kitchen had been cleaned up. I had to thank the maids tomorrow. Ash wouldn’t do it. I slipped into my bedroom with the intent of studying, and found the kitten lying on my bed. “Aw, Eyelash, did you miss me?” I cooed, scratching behind her ears. She gave an indignant yelp. I sat myself onto the bed next to her. “You must be hungry again. Do you want more tuna?” Eyelash gave a low purr, which I took to be yes. I set out, busying myself with the hard and important task of first opening the tin and dumping it onto an empty plate, just like I’d done last night. I could sense a tradition in the making. I took as long as I could, keeping one eye on the door, waiting for Ash to come back. I told myself it was because I was angry at him, but deep down I knew it was because I was worried. I got a fork, making myself pick out a teeny strand of tuna and placing it onto the place. When it was beginning to get ridiculous, I sighed and quickly finished scraping. I was being stupid, waiting for him. I opened my bedroom door again and set it down in from of Eyelash. I watched her eat, all thoughts of studying and homework forgotten. I could finally understand how the slackers did it now. Before, I hated the thought of undone homework, and getting in trouble, and having people yell at me. Now, I finally realize now they feel – they had bigger and better things to do, and the world could wait until tomorrow. But those people were the ones who would never get into a college. Sighing, I left Eyelash to it and picked out my books. I sat at my new mahogany desk, getting stuck into the Latin text we were supposed to translate. After a while, Eyelash jumped onto my lap, curled up, and fell asleep. Pretty soon, I lost track of time. I wasn’t paying attention to the text, but I never would’ve admitted that I was staying up, just to wait for someone else. Finally, I heard the scuffle of feet outside my door. The Billion Dollar Girl Rubbing my tired eyes, I stood, picking Eyelash up in my arms. It was well over midnight. “Ash?” I called. “Is that you?” I wrenched open my bedroom door, just in time to see Ash’s bedroom door slam shut. I stood there, for a long time, just staring at his cold, unmoving door, letting the loneliness rise up and engulf me. What did I want, right then? Did I want Ash to come out and tell me he was only pretending to be mad at me? Did I want cry and hit Ash for making me feel so helpless? Did I want him to hold me and protect me against everything else in the world? Yes, I guess I did. But this was life. What I wanted didn’t happen. Reality hit me with as much force as a tidal wave. Ash was himself – the rich, charismatic player who didn’t care about anything, let alone a worthless commoner. I was me…Just me. Society had already chosen, before we were born. This is what life would be like, for the rest of our lives. Always separated by an immovable door. *** The Billion Dollar Girl Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ A couple days passed in a similar fashion – us both arriving home, separately, him usually much later than me. Then we would do our separate things. I would eat like a normal human being, while he probably photosynthesized or something. I would then wash up and go into my room and sleep. Ash was carefully avoiding me. I had no idea why, but I couldn’t deny I was hurt. It was agonizingly painful, the way we were so close, yet so far apart. I know it sounds so stupid, but I actually felt lonely without him. Once or twice, I’d been brushing my teeth, and my eyes would catch on his bottle of cologne. I couldn’t resist spritzing it onto myself a couple times, closing my eyes as I breathed in Ash’s smell. I’d always tried to put it back in the exact spot, but I had no idea if Ash realized or not. I hoped for my pride that he didn’t. I guess he was playing another game. I was sick of his stupid games. Maybe Zack and Will were right. Maybe he was a stupid, manipulative douche. I ticked off days on the calendar I’d made during my depression at Christmas – the calendar that counted down to the day we were meant to divorce. Looking at it, I realized that our one month anniversary was coming up in over a week. I raised my eyebrow, and immediately dismissed the thought. Ash hadn’t said anything, and I guessed that the stupid, childish way he was acting now suggested he was hardly likely to. Finally, Saturday came and with it brought relaxation and a late morning. It’d kind of been a tradition for me to stay in bed until midday on Saturdays – after all, I’d worked hard at my new lessons all week, and finally managed to catch up with the rest of the class. I deserved a little break. “Get up!” Ash yelled, ripping my paltry dream into shreds. I sat up, dazed. Rubbing at my eyes groggily, I glared at the boy in my room. I was fighting the ridiculous urge to both kill him for waking me up, and kiss him for finally talking to me. I settled for disgruntled. “What time is it?” I snapped, my tone annoyed. I stretched, letting my covers drop – after all, I slept in a tank top, so it wasn’t really a big deal. “Nine,” replied Ash, glancing at his Rolex. “And we’re late. Hurry up.” “Nine?” I yelled, throwing my pillow at his head. He caught it easily. “That’s practically dawn! Where the hell are we meant to be going?” “Brunch,” he answered, before disappearing into the hall. I stared at the place he’d last been, mentally groaning. Oh, God. I shoved my face into my other pillow, my scream masked by the fluffiness. You were kidding me, right? *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I slammed the door closed, holding my hand over my chest. This really wasn’t natural. I was never like this. I was cool, calm, collected. Did Ella notice? Oh, God… But even as I tried to push down my embarrassment, a smirk formed on my lips. It was definitely working, this seduction thing. I mentally thanked Serenity for reminding me of who I was. I was Ash Castillo, serial womanizer. I’ve dated more girls than Ella has talked to, and I knew how this game worked. All girls need attention. That was a given fact. All girls needed to be constantly reassured, complimented and pampered. If you didn’t, they started to get clingy. They started to need you more. Then, after that – they’re totally dedicated. It’s a move I’ve performed many times before. If it worked on the whole cheerleading team, why wouldn’t it work on someone as mediocre as Ella? Self-satisfied, I hurried to my room. I needed to get my tux on. It was time for Brunch. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ Smoothing down the creases of the turquoise dress I’d chosen, I did my hardest not to even glance at Ash. He was standing silently beside me. We were both waiting. A fellow tenant passed us, not even sending a look in our direction. It was probably a normal thing for her to see two people in evening wear at about ten o’clock in the morning. My new limo slid up to the sidewalk, just as Ash’s car did. Without a second glance at him, I walked up to the glossy black side-door of the limo, my driver already standing next to the door open waiting, his hand on the handle. Ash grabbed my hand, pulling me back. I ignored the familiar stirrings in my stomach, and forced myself to glare reproachfully at him. The Billion Dollar Girl “What are you doing?” he demanded, staring at me like I’d just committed some kind of crime. “We’re married! We have to go together. My car, now.” Suddenly, all the anger and frustration I’d been bottling up for the last couple of days erupted. “Oh, so now we’re married,” I snapped, slapping his hand away. “For the last few days you completely ignore me at school and treat me like I’m not even there. You never even tell me where you go at night! Married, are we? Ash, you haven’t said a single word to me, until this morning – then, it’s suddenly all ‘it’s time for brunch, so why don’t you get out of your nice cozy bed and I force you to go to some stupid, lame Brunch thing you now have to attend because we signed a contract’. You didn’t even warn me, beforehand!” Ash’s face was completely unreadable as I ranted. His clear blue eyes were calm. That just got me angrier. “There are a lot of important issues you haven’t told me as well,” Ash said, so quietly he was almost inaudible. I frowned at this, distracted from my blaring anger. “What are you talking about?” There’s nothing I haven’t told him about…unless it’s the calendar…or the food poisoning…or the thing with Will… Okay, there’s quite a lot I haven’t told him. But there was nothing that should make him that angry. The calendar was simply a stupid piece of card – and didn’t he want to divorce me as well? And the food poisoning secret was more for his own benefit. The Will incident…Well, I resisted him, right? Okay, it wasn’t for Ash, or our ‘marriage’, but more for my own pride, but I still didn’t kiss him. I’m not sure that would count as an affair, but in Ash’s stupid Jealous-Alpha-Male brain (something I was just beginning to discover) it probably would’ve been. “You know,” Ash said, cryptically. I glared at him, but he remained unrevealing. “You are a massive hypocrite, you know that?” I snapped, shoving an indignant passerby out of the way in my mission to get to my ride. “You haven’t told me a whole bunch of stuff!” “Like what?” he snapped back, getting kind of annoyed as well. “Why do you hate Will?” I fired up, immediately. It was a constant mystery to me, and Will maintained secrecy. “Why do you hate your Dad? And…” I struggled for another question, and remembered something. “Why did you break into my gym on that first night?” Ash relapsed into annoying silence. I’ve never found silence so annoying. My fists clenched. I wanted to beat his stupid, handsome, charismatic face in. “You know what?” I articulated, glaring at him. I was so angry I could barely speak. “Screw you, Ash. And I’ve changed my mind. Don’t talk to me. It’s better that way. Don’t say another word to me, until the day we divorce. And if for some bizarre reason we meet again on some street, ignore me then, as well. We won’t exchange another word until the day we both die. I can’t stand you, Ash, you arrogant, stuck-up, condescending, son of a –” Thump-thump. My heart leapt as my eyes widened. How the hell did that happen? One minute, we were standing a foot apart, my face red from yelling, his so placid he looked almost bored, then…now… I could feel the muscles of his chest even though the tux jacket. His arms were warm, so warm, and they brought a sense of security and peacefulness. Ash buried his face in my hair, his breath on my neck. The smell of his cologne mixed with the smell of his clean shampoo, and swirled in the air around me, making it impossible for me want to pull away. Hell, I didn’t even think I could pull away right now. I sighed, a sigh of content. How could Ash make me feel like…this? The anger was flowing away now, replaced by a burning in my chest. But it didn’t hurt – the complete opposite, in fact. It was…passion. Passion for Ash? No way. “I’m sorry.” I stiffened. Did he just say that? Wow, he had to be serious about this…Ash wasn’t the type of guy who apologized much. “Please, Ella,” Ash continued. He was completely begging now, his stupid macho pride disappearing and the gap between us becoming just one inch shorter. The façade was slipping away, and Ash the Jerk was melting back into Ash, the sweet guy who made me food, albeit really bad food. “…Don’t leave me.” The Billion Dollar Girl I swallowed, hoping that he couldn’t feel my jumping heart through the thin layers of clothing. “Ash, I –” “Let’s not divorce.” *** The venue was another work of art, of course. It was littered with classy, well-dispersed marble statues and oil paintings of classy, well-dispersed marble statues. A perfect combination, some might argue. But honestly, it’s pretty much just incredibly, mind-numbingly, boring. But I was too much in shock to do anything other than vaguely look over the décor. Had Ash really meant what he said, or was it this just another game to him? I shot a quick glare in his direction. After he’d said those words, I’d managed to tear myself away from him and jump into my limo. It would’ve been nice, I thought bitterly, if he’d followed me. Maybe even begged a little more. Ash, as usual, was surrounded by a huge gang of girls and so hadn’t seen my abrupt display of hostility. I watched him laugh at them, his lips twisted upwards into a beautiful smile, and my anger changed. I started wanting to kill all the girls instead. A head in the crowd turned, and it was Lucy. Seeing me glare at her, she smirked, purposely laying a hand on Ash’s arm. I fumed at her, gritting my teeth. I was not jealous. This wasn’t jealously. No. Definitely not. Damn you, Ash. First, you practically confess your love (well, almost) and now, you’re not even looking in my way. If you didn’t want me to ‘leave you’ or whatever, you could at least try a tiny bit harder – at least shake your fans off, for God’s sake, and sit this boring, pointless Brunch out with me. I poked unenthusiastically at the smoked salmon and cream cheese, muttering darkly about boys and mixed messages. Brunch was apparently a lazy abbreviation of the two words ‘Lunch’ and ‘Breakfast’, which meant that the food should be something you would eat at lunch or breakfast, right? Who the hell has smoked salmon for breakfast or lunch? Who the hell even eats smoked salmon? Maybe I was just being bitter, and taking it out on the salmon. “Ella,” Will said, smiling. He made me jump, the way he always did. How did he move so silently? Will had fully mastered the walk Lady Emily had tried to train into me, but never fully achieved. “How are you?” “Bored.” Will flashed a smirk at me, his eyes taking in my dress in his usual probing way. “You’re so blunt all the time,” Will remarked, leaning casually against a wall. “It’s kind of unfeminine.” “I’m honest,” I defended, feeling kind of hurt. “It’s not a bad thing.” “Did I say it was? I just said you’re blunt. I like that.” “Right…” This conversation was slipping into dangerous waters again – conversations with Will tended to do that. I could feel a hot blush rising in my cheeks, as I leant on the table, feeling really awkward, not knowing where to look. I had no idea how to react to Will. I tried changing the topic. “But I don’t really get the point of these events. Why do people come?” “Enjoyment?” I raised an eyebrow. “Funny, Will. But what’s the real reason?” “No, I’m totally serious. This,” Will said, gesturing around him, “is all for fun. You don’t find it fun?” I stared at him like he was crazy. “Fine,” Will said, sighing. His eyes dulled, and he turned serious. “I’ll tell you the truth. This is all networking. You’re supposed to get to know people, set up some contacts, strengthen business relations, or just start a relationship with someone new. That’s what this is for.” “That,” I muttered, shooting a dark glare at Ash and his stupid groupies, all laughing away like a bunch of shiny-faced blockheads, “I can believe.” Will speared a ridiculously small sausage onto a stick and bit into it. “You don’t like the food?” he said thickly through some sausage. I looked over the plates and plates of different meat, vegetables, fruit, sauces and dips, all colorful and nice-looking. I glanced back at Lucy, who was so effortlessly skinny, and the delicious smell of food which had just enticed me, nauseated me. “I haven’t had much of an appetite recently,” I admitted. “Well, you look skinnier.” The Billion Dollar Girl “Really?” I asked, suddenly hopeful. “Do I?” “Yeah, you do.” I felt the disgusting feeling of elation. What was wrong with me? I’m not this shallow…I’m not that kind of person… I don’t care whether I’m skinny or not… I glanced at skinny Lucy, again, laughing with Ash, surrounded by dozens of her friends. Maybe I was just kidding myself. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ The door closed and the loud, constant chattering of the girls finally ceased. I panted hard, leaning against the wall. At least they can’t follow me into the men’s room… This place was my last sanctuary. “Hey, Ash,” James said, matter-of-factly. “How’s it been?” “Great,” I panted, still out of breath. “Bloody fantastic. I think they’ve killed me, James.” “That’s nice, man,” James muttered vaguely, spiking his hair in the mirror, clearly not listening to me. He patted my back. “I’m going to do it, Ash. Finally. I’m ready.” “Do what?” I said, an impending sense of dread creeping up on me. “Make my move. On Ella.” *** The Billion Dollar Girl ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ How did things turn out like this? Watching my date from across the room, flirting with both my sworn enemy and my best friend? This had to be the worst thing to ever happen. I glared moodily over at them. Will said something, and Ella laughed. I wanted to rip my heart out my chest, just so I would have something to throw at them. “Ash, honey? Are you staring at that bitch, Ella? God, isn’t she, like totally desperate? I can’t believe she’s whoring around with the most eligible bachelors in this room – apart from you, of course. Isn’t she totally unbelievable?” I looked down at the girl I could be married to right now, and I thanked God that I’d met Ella. “Yes, Lucy,” I said, smiling. “Ella is unbelievable.” She didn’t seem to read the threat in my tone, but giggled instead, turning pink. I sighed. My malice was completely wasted. But now Lucy had started this conversation, all the other girls were joining in. “It’s not like she hasn’t got a guy already,” a nameless, faceless girl quipped. She looked at me like she knew me. I stared back at her blankly. “But she’s over there, flirting with Will like a slut.” “All the guys are making a huge deal about her, and she’s not even pretty,” Jennifer said, examining her blood-red nails. “Everyone says she sleeps with any guy who’s got influence or cash. Isn’t that how she got into Charlotte Private in the first place? I mean, how did she afford it all?” “You think she’s a call girl?” My fist clenched. “That’s what rumor says. She’s already married to the sons of one of the richest men in the country – so why doesn’t she go for another? James’s family is almost as rich as Ash’s.” “So she’s going to sleep with him?” “She might’ve already.” “God, what a bitch.” Ella looked up. As soon as she saw me, the laughter died from her green eyes. Her expression became resolute. She hated me for everything I’d done to her. Did I blame her? No. I was a terrible person. I was a player who’d countless broken hearts, and this was my punishment. The one person I cared about, the one person I truly wanted, wouldn’t want me back. There was no changing that. The only thing I could do was desperately cling onto her and never let go. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ Will coughed and I broke away from Ash’s stare. I turned back to James and Will, who’d both so kindly decided to talk to me. It was clear I was a complete social reject here, so I was really grateful that they were actually noticing me instead of ignoring me like everyone else. “Are you having issues with Ash again?” Will asked, his eyes staring intensely into mine. “Oh…I…” I squirmed, uncomfortable. James was here, and he was Ash’s friend. I didn’t want to say anything bad. “It’s fine,” James reassured, flashing an easy smile. “I won’t say anything to Ash.” “Well…” I still didn’t want to say anything, but I had to now. They were both staring at me. “He’s a really bad cook…?” Will gave me a knowing look, while James just looked confused, yet awed. “You got Ash to cook for you? Ash doesn’t even get me water from the water cooler.” “Yes, well…” I had no idea how to respond to that. “You know what you should do…” Will said, pulling out his phone to check the time. “You should get him to go to a cookery class.” “I’m not sure about that…” But already, the image was flooding into my mind. Ash, standing in our kitchen, a cute little apron tied around his waist, a blob of flour on his nose, and that adorably hopeful look on his face as he held out a plate of double-chocolate cookies. “Think it over,” Will said, bringing me out of my little daydream. He patted my back as he stood up. “But I’m afraid I have to leave both of you. I’ve got a top-secret meeting with someone important. Have fun by yourselves.” “You’re leaving?” I asked, taken aback. “Can you just…do that?” Will smirked. “It’s not a prison, Ella. You can leave whenever you want.” “Sure you can’t stay for a while longer?” James said, half-heartedly. I had a nagging suspicion that he was secretly quite happy that Will was leaving. “I’m sure. Bye, Ella.” The Billion Dollar Girl I waved him bye, watching him go. Once he was gone, James stood up as well. I looked up at him, confused. Was he going to abandon me as well? But he only outstretched his hand towards me. “Ella,” he said, smiling. “Do you want a tour of this building? It’s quite famous.” “Oh. Yeah, sure.” I took his hand, and James pulled me up. Taking my elbow, he led me away, out of the double doors. Giving Ash’s back one last glance, I sighed, and left with James. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I’d finally shaken off the girls by telling them I had to leave. Ella wouldn’t want to stay, right? I glanced around, behind me. My jaw dropped. That was her, right? Why was Ella leaving with James? I looked around for Will. I thought he liked Ella! Why wasn’t he stopped her? Will chuckled into my ear, right behind me. I spun around. “You!” I hissed, grabbing the front of his shirt. “Ella’s leaving! What are you going to do?” Will simply looked amused. “What am I meant to do about it? It’s not my responsibility. It’s yours. Ella is your wife, not mine. You’re the one who has to stop her… Unless you’re afraid of rejection?” I let go of his shirt in surprise. “What?” “You’re afraid,” he said slowly, a smirk spreading across his lips. “Aren’t you? You, Ash Castillo, are afraid of a girl not accepting your feelings! I can’t believe this,” he laughed. “I really can’t believe this. Wow, Ash.” “What are you talking about?” I demanded. “I’m not afraid!” “Then why aren’t you running after her?” Will asked. “Why aren’t you following her? You better hurry. That boy is pretty enthusiastic about her. You wouldn’t want anything to happen, right? You should go after her, and tell her how you feel…Unless you really are scared.” “I’m not scared!” I snapped, sitting down on the chair and crossing my legs. “I just don’t care. She’s got nothing to do with me. Ella can do whatever she wants.” “And whoever she wants?” I glared at him when I realized what he was implying. “Will, you –” “Ash,” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m not here to argue with you today. I was just planning to annoy you a little by going after your girl, but I guess that guy’s already done it for me. I actually have to go, so see you at school.” I watched him leave, glaring at his back. Coward. How dare he say I was scared? The reason why I wasn’t going after her was simply because I didn’t care about Ella. She wasn’t my property. “Ash!” Lucy cooed. I stared up unseeingly at her face. “You don’t have to leave?” Ella wasn’t mine. Ella could do whatever she wanted with James. I don’t care about her at all. Ella could even hold James in her arms, if she wanted to. “Well,” Lucy continued, tugging at my hand. “Do you want to dance, Ash?” Ella could even…kiss James, if she wanted to… My fist clenched, and my knuckles shone white. “Ash?” Lucy said, tentatively. “Ash…are you…?” Ella…could even…sleep with…J – Suddenly, words burst into my mind. They were undeniable true – I was just repressing them. Ella was mine. I stood up suddenly, pushing past Lucy in my haste. I heard her yell after me, but I wasn’t listening. I was running too hard, the pounding in my ears making it hard for me to hear anything except my panting breath. Bursting through the double doors, I took the left. The only way I could find them now was if they were still in this building… Scrambling up the wide steps, I cursed, panicking. Where are you, Ella?” *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ “Wow,” I said, my eyes wide. My fingers traced the grooves of the wooden frame. “This painting is amazing! Who painted it?” “It’s an original Renoir,” James replied. His hand reached out slowly, his fingertips about to brush against mine. I pulled my hand away before he could. I had no idea what he was doing, but I didn’t like it. James’s hand brushed the frame instead. Somehow, he’d gotten close to me without my realizing it. I could feel his hot breath on the back of my neck. “You know a lot about this building,” I said, trying to distract him. He was so close, I could feel his body heat even through my clothing. The Billion Dollar Girl “My parents know the guy who owns this building – the CEO of Beau. They often hold events here.” “Oh...right…” I mumbled. James was twisting a stand of my hair around his finger. His chest touched my back. I couldn’t ignore it any more. “James! What are you –?” *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ This was the last door on the end. My heart pounding, my shaking fingers went to the handle. Suddenly, Ella’s voice burst through the wood. “No!” she shrieked. “James, that’s not fair! No, James!” My heart plummeted through my stomach. Oh my God. I swung the door open, my mouth open, ready to yell – *** The Billion Dollar Girl ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ “Ella –!” I yelled, bursting into the room. Ella’s hand was gripped on James’s. Their faces were identical masks of concentration and anguish. Veins stuck out from their foreheads and they were both panting. Each had one elbow on the mahogany table in the middle of the room. “No, James! You can’t cheat and use two hands! That’s not the point of an arm wrestle! Oh, Ash. When did you get here?” “Ella…” I muttered, shocked. “James…you…” Ella finished it, using one of her hands to slam both of James’ onto the table. I advanced, pulling Ella away and grabbing her by her shoulders. She made a little noise of surprise. “What are you doing?” I yelled, shaking her hard. “Why are you alone in a room with man?” Ella slapped me off, her cheeks red and her ebony curls slowly unraveling from her updo. “Are you out of you mind?” she snapped, glaring at me and rubbing the angry red marks I’d left on her skin. “What did you do that for? We were just messing about! Ash, what’s wrong with you?” I shoved left hand at her face, holding it just in front of her eye. “Do you see this?” I spat. “This ring means you’re mine, and mine alone. Do you know what it also means? You do not hang out in rooms with other guys, and damage my family’s reputation. Do I make myself clear?” Ella grabbed my left hand as well. “Well, I’m pretty sure,” she yelled, wavy locks of hair falling out of her elegant hairstyle. It framed her face perfectly. Even in her anger, she looked like some kind of Goddess, with her long, flowing hair and her perfect features. I couldn’t help but stare at her full lips as she talked, “that this also means you should spend time with me at these stupid events, instead of the dozen or so socialites, all of whom you’ve slept with.” She threw down my hand, as if just touching my skin disgusted her. “Don’t you dare,” she snarled, articulating every word, drawing them out slowly, “tell me what or what not to do. You think just by acting a little cute lets you have power over me? I can talk to whoever I want, spend time with whomever I want and even date whoever I want.” She stared at me, letting the words settle in. The ebony curls that contrasted so heavily with her blood-red lips, loosened and finally spilled out, falling past her shoulders. The hairpins, useless now, were stuck in ostentatious points of her hair. “Do you understand?” Ella asked angrily, not quite realizing just how beautiful she was. She was panting slightly from her long speech. Blazing green glared into mine, waiting for my reply. A smirk formed at my lips. I took a step in, and Ella’s eyes widened. She backed away slightly. So she did know fear. My fingers, slowly, drifted to her cheek. Ella flinched and I, still smirking, redirected my hand to her hair. One by one, I pulled out her hairpins, letting myself get closer and closer to her. Finally, as I pulled out the last pin, my mouth was just over the delicate skin of her neck. I parted my lips. Just the barely audible sound of skin leaving skin made her gasp. “I think you’ll find,” I whispered, my voice small enough for her to hear but James to not. I took her hand and forced her palm open, “that the contract we both signed says that you have to do…everything…I…want…” I dropped the pins into her open palm. She was frozen, from shock. “And if,” I breathed, “what I want is for you to stop seeing any other guys, then you’ll do that. You want you to stop seeing other guys, and only see me. Am I clear?” I just about heard Ella’s short intake of breath, and took it as yes. Satisfied, I pulled away. Ella slapped me. Wow. How many times had that been now? Yet it never stopped to amuse me. The fact that she actually seemed to think she was doing me harm… Almost like a kitten who thought it was a Lion. But still, no matter how ineffectual, the amount of times she’s hit me was disturbing. No one’s ever hit me so many times without some kind of retribution. She ripped my ring from her finger and threw it to the floor. It bounced once, and landed onto the floor. “I’m not yours to play with!” Ella raged, just like a kitten trying to roar. “No, actually, I’m just not yours. Get that into your head, Ash. I can do anything I want! You don’t even like me – so why can’t I find someone who does?” The Billion Dollar Girl She turned to James, who’d been standing there, looking pretty uncomfortable. “James,” she said, loudly. “Do you want to leave?” “Uh…” James looked at me. I stared back at him emotionlessly, giving him nothing. “Let’s go,” Ella snapped, taking his hand. She dragged him from the room, not even turning back to glance at me. James gave me an apologetic look as the door closed behind him. When they were gone, I sat down, thoroughly worried. Every girl before, I’ve been able to control through money, jewelry or even just plain sex. But Ella…trying to control her was like trying to hold water with your bare hands. Impossible. But somehow…something deep inside me liked that independence about Ella. She didn’t need anyone. Slowly, I got to me knees, gathering up the hairpins she’d dropped. Finally, I picked up the ring. Her body heat was already ebbing away from the platinum band. Softly, I pressed it to my lips. But I what I craved wasn’t an Ella who needed me. It was an Ella who wanted me. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ Once we were out of the building, I let go of his hand quickly. I didn’t like his hand. Unlike Ash’s, James’s hand was cold and clammy. Ash’s was warm and wide, and when I held his hand my own hand looked so small and dainty. I shook my head. What was I thinking about him? That idiot didn’t care about me. This was just a game to him, I reminded myself. Nothing but a game. “Ella?” James asked tentatively. “Where are we going?” “Anywhere,” I muttered. As James maneuvered me back down the stairs, the sound of clinking glasses and laughter met my ears again, aggravating my pounding headache. “Just away from here.” “I can’t believe that guy,” James sighed, giving a dry chuckle. “I never knew he could get so jealous. I mean, I knew Ash was the Alpha-male type, but never like that…” “Jealous? What are you talking about? That was about control. Ash is a control freak.” “No, he’s not,” James said, shaking his head. “Trust me, I’ve known him a lot longer than you, and he’s definitely not a control freak. He’s the most lax person I know. That was definitely jealously.” He opened the door for me and we stepped out, breathing in the beautiful, polluted, dirty New York air. James tried to hail a cab. “Maybe he was just mad because I was talking to Will. Doesn’t Ash hate him for some reason?” “Maybe…” he said, but I could tell he didn’t believe it. James waved at another cab, but he was ignored again. “But wait a minute, you don’t know why Ash and Will hate each other?” “No,” I said, frowning. “Should I?” “Yeah! The story is completely infamous! You really don’t know? “No…Ash never told me. Why do they hate each other?” Finally, an empty cab pulled by. James pulled open the cab door for me, and I slid in. The grime and dust of the worn cloth seats surprised me momentarily. I hadn’t ridden in a car that didn’t smell brand-new, had plush leather seats and was meticulously clean for a very long time. Trying to ignore the slightly dirty feeling, I held my breath while keeping the disgusted look off my face. Oh, God. I wasn’t turning into one of those girls, right? One of those rich, spoilt princesses who were unnaturally obsessed about cleanliness? I mentally made a note to start walking to school instead of taking the limo. Plus, I could lose some weight. Don’t think about that, Ella. Being obsessed with weight was as bad as being obsessed with germs. But I couldn’t help examining my face in the mirror and let the torrent of physical worries flood me. “So,” James said, dragging me out of my pit of self-loathing, “you say Ash never told you the story?” *** ʘ Will Castillo ʘ “Mr. Will Castillo?” the woman said, inclining her head stiffly towards me. She was a twenty-something-year-old, beautiful, blonde-haired assistant. The type of elegant, refined woman who would have trouble respecting an obviously young teenager, no matter how important the said teenager was. “He’s ready to see you.” Getting up from the waiting room chair, I flashed a charming smile as I walked. She blinked and stumbled a little, obviously fazed. The Billion Dollar Girl “Thanks…” I drawled, making an obvious show of checking the nametag that was pinned to her chest. “…Penny.” She made a little noise, half-surprise, half-pleasure. Smirking, I strode in, holding the hard leather briefcase that carried my ticket to everything I’d ever wanted. The door clicked close behind me. The lone man in the huge office was standing at the window, staring out at the small portion of the world he dominated. “I’m sorry for taking up your time. I know you’re very busy.” “Cut to the chase, Will,” he said, turning around to face me. “Tell me what you want.” The man who so many despised was not an ugly man. In fact, from a distance, he looked so trustworthy it was hard to imagine he’d actually committed the heinous acts I knew of. He had chiseled features, clear skin and those startling blue eyes that ran in our family. In many ways, I could see where Ash got it from. But there was one thing that set him apart from Ash and, well, me. The cold deadness in his eyes, the way he looked at things without seeing really them, the view he had on the world. I didn’t blame him. After all, I’d seen it all before. I’d seen the same narrow-minded, self-centered concentration on anything work-related and the instant dismissal of everything else. I’d seen it all, in my own father. I saw the job slowly throttle him. It would’ve killed him, if he hadn’t died before that could happen. But I wasn’t here for that today. “I have a proposition.” Ash’s father raised his eyebrow. “A proposition? I’m assuming it’s to do with the company.” “Well, yes,” I admitted. There was no point trying to hide it. This man could see everything. “But it’s also to do with your son.” “You want to inherit the company after I die,” Asher Castillo Senior said, tilting his head and examining coldly me with those dead, dead eyes. “That is not going to happen. But out of respect towards you and my dead brother, I will listen to whatever proposition you have for me.” My fist clenched. Don’t kid me, old man. If you honestly respected my Father, your brother, you would’ve also respected the last wish he had on his death bed. You would’ve respected his will. You would’ve left the company to me. I pushed the burning resentment down, and slowly met his eyes. “Right,” I said, my voice slightly strained as I tried to gather my thoughts. I cleared my throat. “The proposition.” “Are you okay, Will?” my Uncle said, his tone layered with fake concern. “Are you sure you can do this? You can always come back later.” “No!” I protested, accidently leaking some of my anger into my voice. “I can do this now.” “If you’re sure,” he sighed, pouring himself a scotch. I grit my teeth. He thought he’d won this. Yeah, right. I dropped my briefcase onto his desk with a clatter. “This briefcase contains pictures,” I said, my voice clear. “Of various meetings that you have been having with the CEO of Beau.” The scotch bottle dropped to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces, the priceless contents splattering over the wooden flooring. “How did you –?” he snarled. For the first time in a long time, I saw real emotion in his eyes – absolute “From my various associates. They are pretty keen on your company’s demise as well. So what do you think? I leak this picture to the world, accompanied by the rumor that you’re selling out? What do you think your shareholders will think? Do you think your investors will jump ship or not?” “Those meetings weren’t about that! It was about –” He shut up. I would’ve questioned him further, but now was not the time. “You think the world will care? As long they have a story, they won’t listen to the truth. You’ve lived in the limelight long enough to know how the Media works. And I have to say, the pictures were pretty suspicious. The bosses of the biggest corporations in the country meeting together, all alone, with no executives or shareholders, or even just an assistant. Doesn’t that suggest some sort of big deal that they don’t want anyone else to know about? Say…one of the corporations selling itself out?” “You wouldn’t dare…” The Billion Dollar Girl “I also heard the shareholders are already upset by the past year’s Net Income. They just might withdraw if they hear about this.” “Will,” he said, sweat forming at his brow. “You don’t want this. Trust me.” “No, I don’t. I don’t want to wreck the company my Father spent years building up. What I want is twenty percent of your shares. Not much to ask, considering the company was meant to be mine.” “Twenty percent? Be reasonable!” “I can have those pictures out by Monday. And don’t even think about taking me out. My associates have another copy, and if anything happens to me, they’ll have the pictures out in a second.” There was a silence as the billionaire considered. “You’ll destroy the pictures?” he finally uttered. “I will,” I said, smiling, sensing my victory. “And you’ll have a contract set up with my lawyer by the end of the week?” “Deal,” he whispered. “Thank you.” I picked up my briefcase and turning around, ready to leave. I reached for the doorknob. “I never wanted any of this, Will…” the man whispered, so quietly he was almost inaudible. His voice was taut with the emotion I didn’t think was possible for him to convey. “I never wanted things to turn out like this. You were such an innocent boy…” I squeezed my fist so hard my nails crushed against my palms. “Do me a favor? No propositions, no anything. Just a favor. Make it up with your cousin. Ash was as hurt as you were when…it happened.” Not possible. No one has hurt as much as I have. “You seem to care a lot for the son you claim to hate.” “I don’t hate him. I just wish he could just see sense. I don’t hate you either, Will, no matter how hard you try to make me hate you. You are my nephew. Nothing can change that.” With my back to him, I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he would have the same look my father always had when he was devastated. I wasn’t prepared for this, this isn’t part of my plan, I don’t know what to say… Squeezing my eyes closed, I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Have the contract ready by Wednesday.” My voice was suddenly as cold as the man’s I’d just been mocking. With shaking fingers, I opened the door and walked out. A few minutes later, I was completely out of the building. I left the empty briefcase into the dumpster. I pushed down the guilty feeling building up in my chest, and tried to relax. I took in a huge lungful of cold, sharp air and exhaled in a big gust. After all, it was time to celebrate. I’d managed to pull off the biggest bluff in my life. If he’d asked me to open the briefcase… A smirk reached my lips. I was about to become an extremely wealthy man. Even richer than Ash Castillo. To be richer than Ash Castillo…Think of the possibilities. *** The Billion Dollar Girl Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ “That’ll be three dollars and ninety-nine cents.” I gave the man the money and he handed me the pack of lollipops. Neat exchange. Right away, I ripped it open, pulled out my current craving – strawberry – and tore off the wrapper with my bare teeth. Soon, it was in my mouth and I was sucking happily on it. “You look ecstatic,” James said, watching me. I gave him a broad smile, pulling out the lollipop as I did so. “They’re my favorite food.” “You count it as a food?” “Yep. What else would it be?” “I don’t know. Junk?” We were walking down the sidewalk. I was waiting for him to start – after all, he did promise to tell me the story. About three lollipops later, once we’d depleted all subjects of small-talk, I started wondering if he’d simply forgotten. As we passed through a park, I was working on a way to bring it up casually. James surprised me by grabbing onto my hand and pulling me down onto a bench. “Do you really want to know?” he asked intently, as I regained my sense of gravity. James lowered himself onto the bench beside me. “The story about Will and Ash?” “I want to know,” I said at once. It was long enough. I would’ve liked it if it had been Ash to tell me, but apparently he didn’t trust me. “I’m married to him. I have to know why Ash is being so hostile.” “Right,” James mumbled. “You have to know.” He gave a heavy sigh. “Do you believe in love at first sight, Ella?” James asked. I frowned, wondering where he was going with this. “Well,” he continued, “that’s how it was like for them. They couldn’t help it. As soon as they saw each other, it was over.” “Are you talking about Will and Ash?” I said incredulously. “No! God, no! I’m talking about Ash’s mom and Will’s dad. Brother and sister-in-law. They weren’t related by blood.” “Oh, right,” I said, sighing in relief. “Start from the beginning.” “Will’s father…” James muttered, mirroring my sigh. “…ran the company Ash’s father runs now. He basically brought it back from the dead after his own father almost wrecked it. Will’s dad reclaimed his family’s fortune, and more. The whole Castillo family owes everything to him.” I had no idea Will’s father was the one who originally owned the company. It was interesting, I guess, but I didn’t really see where the story was heading. “Ash’s father was grateful as well. Suddenly, everything was going right for him again. He was welcomed back into Manhattan’s social circle, and went straight to the top. He met a beautiful woman – Ash’s mother – and fell in love. Ash’s parents were probably glad that Ash didn’t have the pressure Will did. Because Will, being the natural heir to his father’s company, had the weight of the world on his shoulders.” “Will used to be the heir?” I gasped. I was starting to see the rift. “And it didn’t help that his mother had divorced his father shortly after she gave birth to him,” James continued. “They split, because of marital difficulties. And with his parents hardly around, Will was lonely. Ash was his only friend.” “They used to be friends?” “The best,” James confirmed, nodding. “Until they were about six or seven, I think.” “So what went wrong? How did Ash end up as heir?” “Love,” sighed James. “The second Will’s father and Ash’s mother saw each other…it was the end.” “Wait…” I frowned. “They only met when Ash was six? Surely if they were brother and sister-in-law…” “Maybe I didn’t explain well enough. One of the reasons Will never had his father around was because he was in Europe, to look over some branch of the company there. When he finally came back, it happened that Ash’s mother was also in town. Kind of lucky, since she’s almost always abroad. She was a model,” he added, when he saw the confused look on my face. A model? I was beginning to see where Ash got his damn good looks from. “And I think it was at Ash’s fifth birthday party they first met. And, like I said, love at first sight.” “So Ash’s Mom left him?” “Not at first, but she was pretty unhappy for a long time. Caused a rift in the family, I guess. But the Christmas when Ash was seven…Apparently, there was some kind of fight. I don’t know much about that. But that was the day Ash’s Mom ran away. And what happened after that…” He sighed. “Well, there’ve been rumors, but Ash tells me nothing come close to the truth.” The Billion Dollar Girl He paused for a moment, probably for dramatic effect. “And the next thing the world knows is, Will’s Dad is dead, Ash’s Father is control of the company, and Ash is the heir.” There was a silence as I took it all in. For a moment, all I could hear were the chirping birds, the harsh winter wind and my own thoughts. “And Ash’s Mom?” I finally asked. “What happened with her?” “She left his father not soon after.” There was another silence. I was finally beginning to understand the hostile relationship between Will and Ash. Will had so much taken away from him – first his Mother, then his Father, then his company. Plenty of reasons for Will to hate Ash. But then…why would Ash be mad at Will? There was no reason for Ash to treat Will the way he did, not when Will seemed so intent on putting things right between them. So immersed in my thoughts, I didn’t realize that so much time had already passed by. I glanced at my watch, and jumped. “I have to go. Sorry,” I said, breaking the silence. I stood up. James looked at me, alarmed. “Now? Why?” “I have to get back to Ash,” I explained, leaning down to quickly kiss him awkwardly on each cheek. I waved and ran quickly, hailing the first cab I saw. *** Wincing, I pressed on the intercom button for the penthouse. I’d somehow misplaced my key, so I had to do this. A couple seconds later, I was buzzed in. I heaved a sigh of relief. I’d been afraid that Ash wouldn’t let me come in. The lift took me upwards and when it opened out, I saw the door was already open. For me? Slowly, I walked to the door. I peeked through, and saw that it was clear. I took one step in, and – A hand grabbed my arm, slamming me into the wall. I opened my mouth, about to yell out instinctively, but another hand covered my mouth, completely blocking my protests. My eyes widened when I saw that it was Ash. Then, they narrowed into a glare. “Why are you so rough all the time?” My voice was muffled by his palm, but I think he got the gist. I shut up when I saw the crazed look in his eyes. Ash’s sharp blue eyes were burning straight into mine, a look so ferocious it could almost be interpreted as hatred. I shrunk away from him, but Ash pushed up against me, crushing his chest against mine. He was so close I was scared he could hear my heart pounding. “Ash…” I mumbled. “What are you –?” His hand against my mouth shifted, and I realized he was cupping my cheek. Suddenly, the fire in his eyes vanished and his expression turned almost tender. Ash’s other hand – the one which had gripped onto my arm so tightly – was suddenly at my face as well, stroking the length from cheekbone to my chin, gently brushing against my jaw. He tilted my chin up, almost as if to see my face better. I could feel his hot breath on my tongue. His touch, which had started off so violent, was now so soft I could barely feel his skin against mine. Ash’s face was so close, I could count each of his long, dark eyelashes. He looked almost… decisive. Like he was going to do something… All of a sudden, I was terrified. “Stop,” I said, placing two hands onto his chest and pushing him away. “What are you doing?” “Didn’t I tell you?” Ash whispered, leaning in again. “That if you ran away again, I would punish you?” His words, coupled with the strong scent of his cologne mixed with his pheromones, were almost impossible to withstand. I found my resistance waving and my hands slipped away from his chest again, allowing him to lean in. Our heart pounded in unison as Ash’s lips hovered over the skin of my neck, the prolonged moment making me shiver in anticipation. When he finally, gently, pressed his lips against my jawline, I let out a gasp that quickly turning into a moan. My eyes slid closed. His movements sent an electric current running through my body, making it impossible for me to think straight. Ash’s hands didn’t help. They were everywhere, sometimes intertwined into my hair, playing with the loose strands, sometimes at the small of my back, pulling me closer. The Billion Dollar Girl “I thought…” I managed to say, in between gasps, “that you…wouldn’t kiss me…unless I asked?” He gave a husky chuckle into my ear. “I’m not kissing you,” he whispered. “Our lips haven’t touched yet. I keep promises, Ella. And I will make you ask.” “You could never make me –” I started to say, before my eyes shot wide open again. Ash burst into a frenzy of passion, his lips landing everywhere, from my eyelids to my jaw, never once touching my own lips – though he came close. I was left completely mute, apart from embarrassingly loud breathing that I was unable to control. His body felt so hot against mine, it was like I was on fire. The beats of my heart matched the throbbing light against my eyelids. Ash left a trail of kisses from my earlobe to my throat, then down onto the sensitive skin below, his lips never once leaving my skin. One of his hands had found his way up my dress, his hands melting into my blazing body. There was a feeling building up. It started off, smaller than a spark. Somehow, it had exploded, into a sea of flames, searing my insides. How could Ash do this…? It almost wasn’t fair how he could make me feel. Like I was burning up, but completely blissful at the same time. But I didn’t want it like this. This wasn’t me. I wasn’t the type of girl who fell to simple desire. I didn’t want to be just another one of Ash’s girlfriends. The ones he had thrown away, one by one, carelessly. “No!” The word was ripped from my mouth. I pushed him away with force, and he stumbled back. I leaned against the wall, letting my hair fall into front of my face to avoid looking into his eyes. It was lucky I stopped then, or else who know what would’ve happened. Slowly, my breaths slowed and I was breathing normally again. “Ella?” His voice surprised me. It was gentler than I had expected it to be. I’d imagined him angry, or upset for denying him something he probably got so easily from other girls. I allowed myself to meet his eyes. Ash looked worried, more than anything. He looked worried about me. It was almost like he sincerely cared. Pretty soon, I had to look away again. Just looking into those deceptive blue eyes broke my heart. There was a long silence. Finally, I spoke. “Why do you flip out whenever I run away?” I asked, my voice rough. I knew the change of subject was completely unsubtle, but it was all I could think of to say. I really didn’t want to talk about what just happened there. I turned back to Ash, waiting for his answer. Ash looked confused, probably by my wild mood swings, but he replied anyway. “You’re New York’s Cinderella,” he said, like that was an explanation. “Everyone knows you’re married to me, and everyone know I’m very rich. You probably don’t recognize the risk of kidnapping, but it could happen.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but it did raise an interesting question. Was he worried about me, or just about the money he would have to pay? Assuming he paid at all. “Kidnapping,” I said sarcastically. “Right.” “It could happen,” he snapped. “My Mother was kidnapped. Twice. And if you don’t start taking it seriously, I might have to post a couple guards to protect you.” “Are you threatening me?” I was incredulous. “No,” he sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just want you to be safe, okay?” “Sure.” “I’m serious! I want you to be alert at all times. Never go out on your own at night.” He sounded like an overly-protective parent. “You have some self-defense training, right?” “Uh…” I bit my lip. My self-defense training was basically limited to kicking a guy in the nuts if he got too close. “Then I’ll set you up with some classes.” “Thanks.” I didn’t know whether to be offended or touched. I settled with touched. It was a nicer feeling. “And since you asked me something…” he turned totally serious. “Can I ask you something in return?” “What?” I asked, immediately cautious. “A couple days back, when you got sick and you had to go to the infirmary…After I left, you asked Will to keep something from me. What was it?” Was he listening in on me? I decided to ignore the huge invasion of privacy for a moment, and tried to answer his question. I had to think a long way back to remember. Then it hit me. The Billion Dollar Girl “Oh! That,” I laughed. “It was nothing. Really.” Ash glared at me, stony-faced. “I don’t like the fact that you’re sharing something with Will. Something you can’t tell me.” “Honestly, Ash. You really don’t want to know.” “I do!” he snapped. “Really? It might hurt your feelings.” “It can’t be any worse than what I’m imagining right now.” “Are you sure?” I sighed. “Fine. You know how I was mysteriously ill?” Ash nodded slowly. “It wasn’t so mysterious. I got food poisoning.” “From what?” he asked, his eyes widening. “The eggs you made me.” There was a silence. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah.” “Sorry.” “Don’t worry about it. Told you that you wouldn’t want to know. I only kept it from you because I knew it would hurt your feelings.” Ash’s pale blue eyes blared into mine with an intensity I was not comfortable with. “Really?” he asked, suddenly sounding hopeful. “Really,” I assured. “You shouldn’t have done that,” Ash said sternly, though he sounded quite glad that I did. “If my cooking was that bad, you should’ve just told me the truth instead of forcing yourself to eat it.” “I tried, but then you fixed me with that puppy-dog stare, and suddenly I couldn’t say no. It’s really unfair the way you can do that, you know.” “I know,” he laughed, smiling. My heart thudded. I couldn’t help but love the way he looked when he smiled. I suddenly wished he would smile more, instead of being so brooding all the time. “But was my cooking really that bad?” I smirked. “I’ll set you up with some classes.” We spent a full five seconds grinning at each like idiots, before we both snapped out of it. “I’ve got to go to bed,” I muttered. “Same here.” “Bye.” “’Night.” We both walked away, into our separate bedrooms. I shut the door behind me. All of a sudden, I felt drained. Emotionally and physically. I slid slowly down the door, landing into a mushy jelly on the wooden floors. I could still feel his kisses on my neck and face. The areas tingled when I touched them. I brushed my fingers against my lips, suddenly wishing we’d kissed. Ash’s voice from outside my bedroom door broke through my trance. “Are we really not going to talk about what could have happened today?” I closed my eyes. He was so close to the door, I could feel his weight against it. Ash’s words made vibrations through the wood I was leant again. I thought about what could’ve happened, and it terrified me. “No,” I whispered, so softly I didn’t know if he could hear me. “We’re not.” We both leant against the opposite sides of the door for what felt like forever. I think I stayed awake long enough to feel his weight leave the door and hear his footsteps as he walked away… But I could’ve just been dreaming. *** The Billion Dollar Girl Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ Looking back now, I was completely horrified by my irresponsible actions. How could I just fall asleep last night like that? Especially since I had a test today I seriously needed to revise for. Cramming last minute was irresponsible enough, but not even cramming at all? I had no idea what was happening to me. I shoved my books into my bag, fumbling with the catch a little in my haste. Damn, I was late. Ash had probably already left or just wasn't going to go today at all. That was just the way Ash was. After the first couple of days, I'd learnt not to wait for him or expect him to wait for me. He disappointed me every time. Shunning breakfast, I ran out, cussing as my bag slipped momentarily from my grasp. Grabbing the key from the bowl, I stabbed at the lift button. It opened immediately. When the lift doors opened again, I was shifting through my bag, trying to find that stupid exercise book so I could do a little extra revision in the limo. I wandered forwards blindly, not paying attention to my surroundings, so when I heard Ash's voice I jumped. "What're you looking for?" he asked casually, as if he hadn't just scared the crap out of me. "Nothing," I replied. "What are you still doing here? I thought you left." Ash's cheeks were tinged light pink. "Well, uh..." he mumbled, shuffling his feet. "I just thought...we could go together to school from now on." I blinked. "What?" "I mean..." Ash blushed even harder. "It would save, uh, gas." "Gas?" "Gas." Ash looked so embarrassed, he wouldn't even meet eyes with me. This cute side of Ash never failed to make my heart race. Laughing, I pulled him into a quick hug. When I let go, he was bright red. "Why did you just -?" Ash spluttered. It was hard to believe this guy was a player. Rolling my eyes, I grabbed his hand and led him towards the door. "Let's go," I said, hoisting the bag onto my shoulder. "Don't want to be late." *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ "Aren't you worried about the exams?" Ella said, looking at me incredulously over a pile of books she was flipping through. The papers were spilling out of her lap and onto the Italian leather car seat. I laughed. "Oh, right," she muttered. "Of course. It's you. Ash Castillo." "What do you mean by that?" I asked, frowning. "Nothing." She smirked at me and I swore the driver was grinning. I shot him a glare and he went back to parking. He pulled into the parking spot especially reserved for me and got out of the car. "What are you saying?" I snapped. "Are you saying I'm not...stu...stud...studi..." "Studious?" "Yeah. That word." Ella giggled. I tried not to be distracted by how cute she looked when she laughed. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I still couldn't quite get used to walking with a boy. Admittedly, I wasn't the most experienced girl in the world but I should at least know how to walk with a guy, right? I pretended to look through my bag, just so I would have something to do with my hands. If I'd let my hands hang beside me, our fingers would brush often together as we walked. I would have to yank my fingers away as a spark of electricity passed between us. So my solution - always do something with your hands. We walked together towards the main school building in amiable silence. The grass was still dewy from the morning frost. A few dewdrops trickled down my ankle, making me shiver a little. Ash was looking as brooding as always, his deep blue eyes lost in thought. All I could think about was that my shoulder bag was heavy. It dragged down my right shoulder so much I would slightly worried that I would develop into some kind of lopsided hunchback. I rubbed my shoulder, wincing as I felt a blister. "Are you okay?" Ash asked, suddenly. "Do you want me to carry the bag for you?" "What?" I was surprised. "No, uh, it's fine." "Come on," he sighed, taking the bag from me. I let go of it, though reluctantly. What was he up to? This had to be some kind of strategic move. Ash wore the bag on his shoulder, wincing as the strap cut in the exact place it had for me. "What the hell's in this thing? Rocks?" "Just all textbooks and folders. Oh wait, I forgot about the planner. And my copy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"." Ash gave me a look, his shiny blonde hair catching the sunlight. "So basically, nerd stuff?" "It's not nerd stuff!" I snapped, annoyed. "It's the necessary equipment -" Ash adjusted the strap of my bag, hoisting it higher on his shoulder. The image finally registered in my mind. Ash Castillo, world-famous billionaire playboy, wearing a girl's shoulder bag. People around us were already staring. The Billion Dollar Girl I bit my lip, to stifle the sudden giggle that threatened to ruin my composure. "What?" he asked confusedly, completely unaware of the situation. "Why are you laughing...?" I broke down right there. Maybe it was the cute, innocent look on his face or maybe it was just the fact that it was him, but I was still laughing so hard it stung. "Oh," Ash said huffily, finally realizing. His ice-blue eyes flashed with hurt. "Very mature. You know what." He pulled off the bag and held it out in front of him. "You can carry the nerd bag. I'm done being nice." "No!" I protested, instantly contrite. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking that you, uh, were looking very manly with that bag. Please don't make me carry it." It didn't seem to be helping. Ash dangled the bag in front of me expectantly. "I'm sorry, Ash." I tried the big, Bambi-eyed look. "Please." Surprisingly, Ash gave in. I'd found his weakness. I made a mental note of it. As soon as Ash hitched the bag back onto his shoulder, we both heard a voice from behind us. We turned, to see Will striding towards us, his brown hair tousled and messy. "Hey!" he called cheerfully. "Who would've thought it? Asher Castillo is chivalrous." Ash stiffened, but I ignored him. I was determined to force the two boys make up. James's story had cleared up a few things, but I still didn't get why Ash seemed to despise his own cousin. "Hey, Will," I greeted, smiling. "So I take it Ash doesn't usually carry girls' handbags?" "Nope," Will replied, grinning widely at Ash, who was blushing. "You've got him well trained, Gabriella. This is probably the first time I've ever seen him carry anything vaguely heavy, spoilt prince that he is. He must really like you." I flushed, glancing up at Ash. He was looking down at his feet, embarrassed as well. I decided to break the tension. "Well," I said, taking my bag back from Ash. "This has been great and all, but I have to go to class. Exams and all. Bye, guys." *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ The bell rang, dictating the beginning of break and the end of the English exam. It was exam week for the whole school. I never saw the point to exams. James mumbled something about having "things to do" and wandered off. Please. The guy was obviously having a cigarette break but since he knew I was meant to be off them, he'd hidden from me. I appreciated his attempt at subtlety. But not subtle enough. I took the familiar route through the corridors, taking my time. The break was long. Plenty of leisure time. I was the one who made it that way. When I reached the top of the stairs, I opened the door. Ella was sitting on a step, her bare legs crossed neatly, papers and pen surrounding her in a systematic yet sprawled out kind of way. "Hey," she said, glancing up momentarily to take in my face before looking back down at a meticulously organized folder. With dividers and everything. "What are you doing here, on my roof?" I asked, taken aback. Ella suddenly stood up, dropping a folder. I took a step back. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, her voice icy. "I didn't mean to be on 'your roof'. I'll leave." She leaned down to gather her papers. The breeze ruffled her short skirt, revealing a couple more inches of thigh. I found that extremely distracting. "No!" I protested, shaking my head. "Stay. I'm sorry. I did say you could come here. Sorry. I just forgot." Ella stayed, frozen in that position for a few more seconds before relaxing again and sitting back down. I swallowed, trying to think of some way to break the tension. "How were exams?" I finally asked, my voice strained. She looked at me for a few moments, before bursting out laughing. "Do you honestly care?" Ella asked, grinning up at me. "Yes," I snapped indignantly. I was lying. We have a short conversation about exams, which was mainly one-sided since I had nothing to contribute with. Finally, she changed the topic. "So...when's the next gathering of the pretentious?" she asked. "What? The next event? I thought you hated those." "What do you mean?" she said, innocently. "They're the highlight of my life. The brunch was life-changing. I'm a different woman. I mean, the little lobster cream tarts..." "Right," I laughed. I couldn't help it. Ella was that type of funny, likable person. "After that catastrophe, I wouldn't think you would want to go to the next one." "Wouldn't miss it for the world." I smiled, again. I was smiling a lot lately. The Billion Dollar Girl "I think the next one is Princess Marie's twenty-first. She's having a party on her cruiseboat." "A princess?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "A real one? As in, proper royalty?" "Yep." "Wow. And a cruiseboat?" "Yeah." "Where are we going?" "Just the Caribbean." Pseudo-casual. I did it to show off, really. I knew Ella probably had never been out of America. "The Caribbean?" she gasped, her eyes widening the way I'd thought they would. "Really? Wow! That's amazing! I can't wait." "You don't travel?" I guessed, smirking. "Never got the chance," she shot back. "I was too busy studying...while you were probably out drinking some over-priced red wine in Germany or whatever." "France, actually." "Stop showing off." I laughed, shrugging at her. "Well, if you want to go anywhere, I would be happy to take you." "Really?" she gasped, excited. "You aren't kidding me? Anywhere in the world?" "No. Where do you want to go? We can set off tomorrow." "But...it's exam week." "So?" Ella gave me a disapproving look. "Ash." "Fine. We'll pick some weekend." I rolled my eyes. "Where do you want to go?" I asked again. "Well, I've always wanted to go to Paris, to see the Louvre and maybe -" Ella stopped midsentence and stared at me, open-mouthed, like she was suddenly terrified she'd said something wrong. Her dark hair swayed in the air, in motion with the breeze. I froze, staring into her moss green eyes. Did she know? Did someone tell her about...Paris? The memories came rushing back. The nightmare in Paris. Who would tell her? The answer came as quickly as the question. James. "Paris?" I said, flashing her a fake smile. "That can be easily arranged. We have a hotel there. I'll reserve the penthouse suite tonight." Ella smiled at me, a smile of relief rather than actual happiness. James had definitely told her. Damn him. *** The Billion Dollar Girl Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I’d almost missed having tests. The pen. The paper. And the silence. I always do well in tests. I don’t know why. I get full marks in every single exam and come out top every time. I don’t try too hard. I don’t care too much. I don’t even want it. I just do. It was always something I’d relied on. It was what made me different, set me apart from others. What if I’d lost it? I tried to shake these thoughts from my head. I had to look for Ash. I’d gone into his homeroom and even checked the roof, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I had to go back to the ballroom. I’d been thinking about it and I think I’d left my exercise book there – the exercise book with all my notes in. Without it, I would fail tomorrow’s exams for sure. Today, I’d been lucky. Math. It was my forte. Math was simple and logical. Easy. I wanted to find Ash to tell him where I was going – and hopefully he would come with me. I didn’t want to be one of those dependent women incapable of going anywhere without their “guy”, but I didn’t want to go alone. I always had trouble with foreign places. Maybe that’s why I like tests so much. Because no matter where you have a test, on whatever subject, as long as you have the paper in front of you, it’s the same. My life has always been so unstable, I’d always thought of the exam room as my home. Sighing, I gave in the hunt and pulled out my phone. It was a new one – some brand with a funny name that Ash had handed me. Originally, his name had been the only contact. Thrown into this new world, I’d slowly collected more numbers, but to be honest, the list wasn’t too big to start with. So all the additions to my phonebook were James’s, Lady Emily’s (because she’d forced me to write it down in case of “Emergency”) and my limo driver’s. I was calling my limo driver now. A few minutes later, he pulled into the school gates, the glossy black paint gleaming in the sharp winter sun. I got in and told him the address. A few moments later, we were driving away. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I unbuckled myself from the car, pulling off the helmet. I ran my fingers through my hair. My pulse was racing with adrenaline, just like it always did. Half-way through school, I was too annoyed to carry on so I’d hit the track…just like I always did. I checked the time and immediately hit myself on the forehead. Crap. I’d completely forgotten about Ella. I pulled at my gloves hurriedly, using my teeth when they didn’t give. Finally, I managed to get my hands my phone. I immediately speed-dialed Ella. She didn’t pick up. Just like she never did. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I stood behind a plant, biting my lip. The receptionist was busy talking to an elderly couple. I felt so awkward here, it was unbelievable. Not much had changed since I was last here. The lights were still dazzlingly bright, reflecting too strongly from the over-polished marble floors. The plant I was hiding behind gave me little coverage, but I wouldn’t let it go. Somehow, I really wished Ash was here, next to me. He was way more confident than me. The elderly couple and the receptionist were having a heated discussion. The receptionist looked like she was losing. Just from the nervous expression on her face, I knew that these people were important. They looked important. The man looked to be around his sixties, in a designer suit with graying hair and a clean-shaven face. His wife looked slightly younger than him, but her hair was already completely grey. I’d always had a sort of respect for elderly women who had enough courage to let their hair turn naturally grey. But it was her face I was transfixed on. It was so familiar. His, too. I had no idea how I knew them, but I did, somehow. I took one step towards them. “Ella.” Ash suddenly appeared beside me, his left hand grabbing my arm and his right winding around my waist. I found myself melting into him. Everything about Ash was intoxicating, from the smell of his cologne to his defined chest. For a moment, he held me, just like that. Then he let me go. “What are you doing here?” he snapped. He was angry. When he was angry, Ash blinked hard and his long, sooty lashes would bat up and down at an incredible pace. It was something I was just recognizing. “Didn’t I tell you not to go anywhere alone?” The Billion Dollar Girl “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I was having issues with coherent thought. His eyes were just so blue. “I just needed to get my exercise book. It had all my notes in. If I don’t…I’ll fail.” Ash softened. “No…I’m sorry. I’m just worried about you.” “How did you find me?” “I called your limo driver. He said you were here.” I frowned. “My limo driver told some random person over the phone where I was? That’s not very safe.” “I said I was your husband,” Ash pointed out. When he said the word husband, there was a little flutter in my chest. “True,” I agreed. “But I have lots of husbands. What if she told one of them?” Ash grimaced, playing along. “Bad things would happen.” “Exactly,” I said, smiling. He laughed, looping his arm through mine. “Can we go? I’ll get someone to send you your exercise book later. You should’ve told me. You didn’t need to come here yourself.” Ash tugged at my arm, but I didn’t move. I was busy staring at the couple by the reception. “Ash,” I said, frowning. “How do I know them? I’ve been trying to work it out…They seem so familiar somehow…Are they famous?” He followed the direction I was looking and I watched him stare at them. Suddenly, there was a small flicker of fear in his eyes. Then he smiled. “Ah,” Ash said. “You might know them. They’re pretty famous. That’s Mr and Mrs Beaumont – they own this building and the company Beau. I should probably be worshipping them, actually. My Dad hates them because they’re our company’s biggest competitor.” I stared at him, hard. His voice was even and clean. Had I imagined the fear in his eyes? I decided to let it go. This time it was me who tugged on Ash’s arm, leading him away. He followed me out of the building. “So what were you doing? I couldn’t find you anywhere at school.” “Oh. Right. I was just trying out a new racetrack. There’s going to be an underground competition soon, so I need to practice. They still haven’t announced where the race is gonna be, so I have to be adaptable.” My driver was already by the limo, waiting for us. Once he saw us approaching, he opened the door. I smiled at him, before sliding in. Ash did the same. I let the heating of the car rush over my cold skin. “Racing, huh?” I’d never heard Ash sound so passionate about something before. He must be serious about it. Still, I didn’t like the sound of it. I bit my lip, worried. “Is it dangerous?” Ash smirked. “Is going two-hundred miles an hour down a cement road in a beautiful hunk of metal dangerous?” “Sounds dangerous…” I muttered. Did Ash have to be so dramatic all the time? “Then yeah, it’s dangerous.” He smiled. “Why, you worried?” I scoffed. “You wish.” Suddenly, Ash was serious. His smoldering azure eyes blazed into mine, making my heart flutter. All of a sudden, I was aware how close we were. “I do wish.” My breath caught in my throat. The mounting tension was unbearable. Ash held my gaze, unblinkingly. I felt hot all over. The moment seemed to last forever. The driver broke it, coughing pointedly. We both turned to him. “Where to?” he asked, clearly uncomfortable. “Uh…” I mumbled, my brain numb. My cheeks were burning with embarrassment and pleasure. Only Ash could have that kind of effect on a girl. “Home,” Ash said, clearly unaffected by me. The driver nodded once and started driving. Ash turned to me. “So you never told me…why do tests matter so much to you?” He caught me off-guard. I frowned, trying to remember what he was talking about. “I don’t know, I guess,” I replied. My light head made me feel a little faint and my speech was a slurred. “Why does driving matter so much to you? It’s just a part of who I am, I guess. It’s what makes me Ella.” “Exams are that important? I’ve never given a crap about tests. What’s it like? Stressful?” “At least it’s not dangerous,” I retorted. “What if something happened to you, Ash?” “I’m careful enough,” Ash replied, rolling his eyes. “You don’t have to get all worried.” “I’m not worried!” I snapped. “You sound worried.” “I’m not worried.” The Billion Dollar Girl “You look worried.” “I’m. Not. Worried,” I said, through gritted teeth. I wondered if he could tell I was lying. “Honestly, Ella, you don’t have to worry. I’ve never crashed. Well, recently anyway. Before I forget, I wanted to tell you I booked the trip to Paris.” I stared at him, gaping. Was he serious? Paris? He’d really done that…for me? Ash was staring unseeingly at the foggy car window, his face turned away from mine. I couldn’t see the expression on his face. What was he thinking about, right now? I watched his torso rise and fall, his long eyelashes blink up and down, his blue eyes reflecting the scenery that rushed past us outside. There was an ever-growing feeling in my chest. It was getting too big now, much too big for me to ignore. I was too scared to admit to it, too scared to do anything about it. So, like the coward I was, I pushed it back down into the depths of my heart. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I watched Ella’s reflection in the car window. Her face was open and easy to read. Right now, she looked troubled. Why? I wanted to ask, but I was afraid it was me. Should I have invited her to Paris? We’d only been joking about it, but I could tell she honestly wanted to see Paris. I had to see Paris, too. It was time I got some closure. I’d been bitter about it for so many years now. Bitter at her, for being selfish. Bitter at my Father, for being cold. Bitter at myself, for not being good enough. I’d been bitter for so long. It was time to let it go. And who better to do that with, than Ella? After all, I was a married man now. It wasn’t as bad as I’d always thought it would be. I’ll be a different man than my Father. I’ll care for Ella. I’ll listen to what she wanted and give it to her, whatever she wanted. After all, it was my duty to look after her. She was mine. I closed my eyes. I wonder if Ella realized that today, she’d met her grandparents…? *** The Billion Dollar Girl One Week Later *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ Wow. The Principal’s office. I haven’t been in this place for a long time…though it’d been way too short for me. I’ve never been sent to the Principal’s office in the history of my school career, though I’ve probably committed three times the amount of felonies than anyone else. I used to be “invited” here all the time so the Principal could congratulate me on mostly imaginary and sometimes ridiculously tiny achievements. Example: “Well done Mr. Castillo, you were voted the fifteenth best reader in your English Lit class!” Only twenty people in my class. Nothing much to be proud of. I’m pretty sure half of the class are practically illiterate – or only know text language, anyway. “Asher, you just qualified for the first round of Junior PsychOlympics!” Qualifying for the first round of Junior PsychOlympics is no big deal either. All you have to do is be between the ages of eleven and nineteen. “Fantastic! You have been nominated as our school’s best toothflosser! Here is a certificate!” Okay, maybe I just made the last one up, but you get the point. It was obvious why he did it. So I would go home and tell my Father how “kind” my Principal was, so he could squeeze more funding from my Dad. He’d gotten it seriously wrong. Me and my Dad barely even talked, let alone live together. Eventually I think he realized this and the “invites” dried up pretty quickly. I didn’t mind. But today, for the first time in what had to be several months, I’d been called into the office. I wondered idly if the school was planning a new section of the library or something and needed some more cash. Whatever it was, I wasn’t going to give it to the old guy. I would just sit this whole thing out, nod in the appropriate places and then rush back to the roof. I knew Ella was waiting for me. We’d settled into a sort of pattern. In the mornings, we would go to school together. Break times, we would go to the roof and eat together. At lunch time, Ella would always have to revise for some distant test that she “had” to study for (though now exam week was over, it was getting a lot better) and I would moodily waste away the minutes either watching James smoke his lustful cigarettes or go down to the paltry racetrack I’d made my Dad build in the school and burn some rubber. I would have to go to the other racing arena in the evenings, while Ella would go home, sometimes getting a lift from Zack or James. Though I didn’t like them, I didn’t mind them either. I trusted James and I knew Zack would never have the balls to make a move. No, it was Will I was constantly worrying about. I couldn’t tell if he was serious about Ella. If he wasn’t and was just playing with me, then all I had to do was fight with him a little and then he would back off. If he was serious…well, then, we had a problem. Even as kids, Will could never let go. If he wanted something, he would stop at no means to get it. Will seemed to be getting serious, which was what I was worried about. This was why my Mother had always told me I should marry an ordinary girl – so that she would only look beautiful to me. All those years ago, my Mother had proven her own words true and now, thirteen years on, Ella was proving them true again. I sighed. I was beginning to notice something. The lunches and the evenings spent away from Ella were the longest and the most painful parts of my life. I was also enjoying the weekends a lot more than I used to. On Saturday and Sunday, me and Ella had pretty much spent the whole time holed up at home, doing couple-y things. Even things that seemed so boring to me before were the complete opposite with Ella. Like watching girly movies. Thank God Ella hated them as well. Glancing at my watch, I silently cursed the Principal. He’d been making me wait for well over five minutes. I gave him three more minutes. If he didn’t show up them, I was leaving. Ten seconds later, I stood up. Screw this. I’m leaving now. Just then, the door open and a very harassed-looking Principal entered the room, carrying a stack of papers. He dropped the stack on his desk, making a loud “thump”. “Finally!” I yelled, annoyed. “Do you know how long I’ve been –?” My Father entered the room, right after him. I shut up. The Billion Dollar Girl “Asher,” my Father said, giving me his best disapproving look, his ice-blue eyes staring at me. “Why don’t you sit down? We have something to talk to you about today.” I sat down. I learnt not to argue with my Dad on the small things. The principal’s face was anxious and sweaty. What was this about? “Here,” my Father said, gesturing at a stack of paperwork dramatically, “are everyone’s results for last week’s examinations.” I stared at the stack, perplexed. Was my Dad really here to talk to me about my results? He’d never cared before. What had changed? “Can you guess what place you came?” he asked, his tone steely. He even gave me his intimidating eyes, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. I knew it. He didn’t care about my results. I was instantly cautious. He was playing a game. “Third?” “Be serious, Ash.” He obviously didn’t find me funny. “Second?” He glared at me, then gestured at the papers. “Why don’t you see for yourself?” I did as he said. I quickly scanned the top page. Nope. I turned it over, then scanned the next page. And the next. Then the next. Finally, on the last page, I found the miniscule printed black letters “Asher Castillo”. I’d come last. Reading along the column, I discovered that I’d only gotten fifteen marks out of a thousand. One point five percent. Two percent, since it rounded up. I looked back up, at my Dad. He seemed to be waiting for a reaction. “Well, I was close.” “I am sick of this, Ash!” he yelled, suddenly slamming a fist against his wooden desk. “I am sick of you messing around in school! I am sick of hearing about your crappy results! Do you know what your Principal told me, the other day? The one positive remark he could think of about your school life? ‘Ash is an avid stamp collector’. What the hell is that?” The Principal shuffled nervously in his little corner. It looked like his little plan had backfired. “I want you to retake all your tests!” my Dad screamed, still in I’m-a-caring-but-tough-parent mode. “I want you to get a hundred percent and if you don’t, I’m cancelling your trip to Paris. That’s right,” he added, when he saw the shocked look on my face. “I know all about that. Ditching school to play around with your little wife? How did I raise such a godforsaken child?” I gaped at him. How did he find about that? Damn him! This was it. This is the moment he offers a deal to me and I find out what he needed from me. What I hated the most was that whatever it was, I was going to give it to him. I couldn’t let Ella down and he knew that. He was exploiting that. “What do you want from me, Dad?” I said, through gritted teeth. “What the hell do you want?” His blue eyes flashed with triumph. He knew that he’d won. My Father turned to the Principal. “Could you give us a minute, please?” he asked, his voice polite. The guy didn’t need to be told twice. He was gone in less than a second. Dad dropped the act. We both knew what he was doing, it had been completely pointless. It had just been a show for the Principal. “All I need is Ella in my negotiations tomorrow,” he said, his voice low. He kept glancing at the door, as if he thought the Principal was listening. “I’m negotiating a new deal with Beau Corporation.” I blinked. “Beau? You hate them! Why do we need to make a deal with them?” Then it hit me. “Is the company alright?” “It’s fine,” he replied. Now that I was seeing him properly, I noticed that his usually calm face was gaunt and tight. Something had happened. “Some investors pulled out, that’s all. We lost about twenty percent, so we really need this right now.” Twenty percent. Oh, man. “But why Ella?” I asked. “I already told the shareholders that we had an edge over Beau. They wouldn’t let me have this meeting, otherwise. We need an edge. That edge is Ella. Having their granddaughter is obviously got to mean something.” “You knew about that?” Stupid to ask, really. My Dad knew everything. “Of course,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I got a background check. I’m not surprised, though. I knew you could never marry a commoner.” I opened my mouth and closed it again. I was going to deny it, but I didn’t bother. The Billion Dollar Girl “Is that all?” I asked. “That’s all.” “Do I tell Ella that it’s her grandparents?” He shrugged, obviously not caring. “Your choice. I don’t mind either way, as long as she’s there tomorrow.” I bit my lip. “I won’t tell her, then. I don’t think she’s ready for it.” My Dad was already getting ready to leave. He straightened out his suit and picked up his briefcase. He opened the door and nodded bye to the Principal, who was standing right outside. I stood up as well, in a hurry to leave…before I saw something. Staring down at the stack of papers, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. 1. Ella Castillo 997/1000 99.7% (100%) 2. Zachery Smith 989/1000 98.9% (99%) … I broke out into a wide smile, my heart swelling with pride. Grabbing the page of paper, I sprinted out of the office, ignoring the Principal. Ella was going to be so pleased. *** The Billion Dollar Girl Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ “Remind me why I’m here again?” “You’re here to help my Dad in his negotiations today,” Ash said patiently, pushing me forwards, his strong, warm hands on my shoulders. I reveled in the small contact in a way that probably wasn’t healthy. We were at his company’s headquarters and Ash was leading me to the place Ash’s Dad had arranged. I came along, but reluctantly. “And remind me why he needed me?” I felt his shoulders shrug. “Maybe he wants to get to know you. Maybe he’s starting to trust you. I don’t know.” “Your Dad wants to get to know me?” I said, twisted my head around so Ash could see the worried look on my face. “That’s weird.” For some reason, Ash looked a little uncomfortable. “Uh, you don’t need to be worried about that. Honestly.” “Are you sure?” I asked, unsure. I turned my head back again, just in time to avoid hitting a table. Ash was not the most gifted at navigating. “I’m still a little worried.” My stomach rumbled again, hungry. I ignored it. I was getting good at that. I was on a careful diet now and I was managing to stick to it. Though I’d ridiculed those stick thin girls who were always going from diet to diet, desperately trying to lose another kilo, I was suddenly jealous of them. Why wasn’t I thin? The thought kept running through my mind, making it impossible for me to think sometimes. The only thing I could do was stick to my stupid diet and wait for the pounds to drop away. “You shouldn’t be,” Ash said, though his expression told me that he was also nervous. He hesitated, for a second, as if deciding to say something. He stopped walking, and looked at me. “Ella…” “Yes?” “Uh…How well do you know your grandparents?” he asked. “What?” I asked, surprised. “Why?” “Never mind,” Ash said quickly, clearly regretting having asked. “Not important. Here we are, now.” We’d stopped outside a door that was labeled “Conference Room One”. I could see Ash’s Dad tapping his pen impatiently on the table, his face smooth and cold, surrounded by a dozen or so scary lawyer types. He looked up and his cold blue eyes met mine. I backed away, terrified. He said something and everyone turned to look at me. I turned to Ash. “Please don’t make me go in there.” “Don’t worry about it,” he said, smiling at me, though his eyes were taught. “The meeting’s only for a half hour. I’ll pick you up at ten and take you back to school, okay?” He opened the door and before I could object further, he pushed me in. I was suddenly in the middle of what looked like a very serious meeting. Ash’s Father stared at me coolly, raising an eyebrow. Suddenly, I was struck by how much he looked like Ash. “Thank you for joining us,” he said, his voice emotionless. I couldn’t move. I recognized the way he was talking to me. It was the way a teacher would talk to a late student. I looked around at the faces of all the adults. They all glared at me in the judging way. I wanted to yell out, “No! I’m good! I’m never late! Ask anyone!” This had to be the way other students felt when they were told off by teachers. I will never feel quietly superior to them again. “Please take a seat,” Ash’s Father said, gesturing at the empty spot next to him. I shuffled across the room and sat down quickly, mortified. Ash’s Dad turned to the rest of the group. “Now that everyone’s here...” He glared at me. “I would like to start. Well, as all of you know…” He went on into some complicate talk about the equities, etc, etc. I zoned out half-way through. I still didn’t understand why he wanted me here. He obviously didn’t want to get to know me. After he’d…told me off (there was really no better way of putting it) he’d launched into a long speech and was completely ignoring me. He definitely didn’t ‘respect’ me or whatever bullshit Ash had spewed before. I didn’t even know why I’d agreed to this. I wanted to go home and have a good, long soak in the Jacuzzi. As it turned out, Jacuzzis were addictive. As was seeing Ash in nothing but trunks. I was daydreaming about topless Ash when the secretary’s voice snapped me out of it. “Shall we patch Beau through?” she asked, her hand poised over the button. The Billion Dollar Girl Ash’s Dad gave a hefty sigh. “Go on. We might as well get this over with. Patch them through.” There was a short delay as the internet worked, the Wi-fi beams flowing rapidly through the air. Then, there was a short beep and a pixilated image of another conference room, almost identical to the one I was in (apart from they had cool swivel chairs. I should really tell Ash to buy them. I think they’re a solid investment) appeared on a screen I had mistaken as part of the wall. Slowly, the image loaded and became crystal clear. In the conference room, there were thirteen people sat around a table. Their solemn expressions met ours. There was a small pause before Ash’s father broke the silence. “Friends,” he said dramatically, wearing the same grin Ash wore when he was trying to scare me. I guessed that Ash’s father was wearing it in a different context. “Today is the day we make history.” To be fair, the people in the other conference room looked as dubious as I was feeling. Maybe Ash’s Dad was relying on the webcam to turn his face into unreadable blurry pixels or something, but to me his expression was all wrong. I didn’t know a lot about business, but weren’t businessmen meant to exude charisma and honesty? I mean, his voice seemed confident and strong, but underneath it I couldn’t help detecting just a hint of nervousness. I stared at him, my forehead creasing with thought. Was this deal bigger than Ash had made out? So then…why did he want me, someone with absolutely no experience whatsoever, to assist in a very important business deal? “Chairman Castillo.” My eyes flashed back to the screen, at the man who was speaking. This man was sat at the head of the table. By his posture and the air he was displaying, he was obviously very important. Sat next to him was a grey-haired woman. Though she was completely silent, I could tell just by the way she held herself that she was equally important. I frowned. Why were these people familiar? “It’s been such a long time,” the man on the screen said, his face breaking into a tight smile, the corners of his eyes creasing. “Indeed it has,” Chairman Castillo agreed, inclining his head. “A very long time.” The two men stared at each other for a few moments, each sizing the other up. “Shall we get down to business?” the man finally asked. “Let’s,” Ash’s father replied. “So you say you have a proposal for me?” “Indeed I do.” He clapped his hands together. “I will get straight to the point. I know that in our history, we’ve had a few…” He gave a small shrug. “…differences in opinion, shall we say. But today, I think we should put all of that behind us. Starting with Project Nero.” “Project Nero?” the man on the screen repeated. “I’ve heard about that. Project Nero is a privately funded project to design and mass-produce an improved satellite dish. You’re going to commence that project next month. It could make you billions. Why are you bringing it up now?” Ash’s father gave a short laugh. “Remarkable. Project Nero was a confidential project no one outside my company was meant to know about. You have excellent sources, sir,” he said, smiling. Though his tone was jovial, I could see the fury barely concealed in his eyes. “Well, this is my proposition. BEAU funds say, eighty percent and you can get five percent of the product. Sound fair?” Murmuring broke out, in both conference rooms. It was clear no one in his company had known what he was planning either. I sat there, frozen, wondering why the hell this guy had dragged me into this. “Eighty percent?” the man repeated. I stared at his face. BEAU. Suddenly, everything rushed back to me with about as much force as a wrecking ball. I remembered. This guy was the man in the Ballroom reception. The CEO of BEAU. My eyes flickered to the woman beside him. That had to be his wife. The co-CEO. “You can’t be serious! That’s a multi-billion dollar project, and –” “Who is the girl?” Mrs. Beaumont asked, her eyes staring straight into mine. Her voice was a lot colder than I’d imagined. My eyes widened. She was talking about me. I looked around and saw everyone else had fallen silent. They’d clearly all been thinking the same thing. Under their stares, I felt my cheeks heat up. The Billion Dollar Girl “The girl?” Ash’s father repeated, a small smile appearing on his face. I felt a sudden rush of dread. I had a sense I was going to find out why I was brought here. And I wasn’t going to like it. “Yes. The girl. I assume she’s a ploy, because why else would a man like you let a kid who’s barely out of diapers into your highly confidential meeting?” “Lady Beaumont,” he laughed. “Perhaps people do not give you enough credit. You are quite obviously the brains of BEAU. Why does a strong woman like you let your husband be the face of her company?” “How dare you –” Chairman BEAU started, but his wife shot him a look that silenced him. Her mouth had hardened into a straight line. “Mr. Castillo,” she said, stiffly. “I advise you to explain yourself this moment, before you start something you are unprepared to finish.” He sighed. “It must be the temper. You want to know who this girl is? I think you already know who she is, Lady Beaumont.” In a sudden movement, he’d grabbed my chin and pushed my face closer to the webcam. My eyes started watering. “Hey,” I snarled. “Let me go–” “Are you saying there is nothing familiar about this face?” he asked, almost gently. I struggled futilely to free myself from his iron grasp. “Are you seriously saying you don’t know who this is?” “No…” Lady Beaumont mumbled, though for the first time she was looking uncertain. “Are you sure?” he asked. “You see none of…her…in this face?” “No,” she repeated, shaking her head. Even through the webcam I could see she was terrified. “No, it can’t be.” “Ella,” he said, turning to me. “What is your mother’s name?” “What? Why are you –?” “Just answer the question,” he hissed, pulling at my face painfully. “Eleanor,” I cried, my eyes stinging with pain. “Eleanor White!” The couple on screen froze. Finally, Chairman Castillo let go of me. “From your surprised looks, I gather you understand who she is?” he said, smoothly. “So you’ll accept my generous proposition, won’t you? I mean, a few hundred million dollars are a small price to pay for your recently recovered honor. Don’t you agree?” There was a long silence. Finally, – “Send the paperwork to my offices,” Lady Beaumont said, quietly. “We’ll have them back to you within the hour.” She gave me one last look, a strange look full of sadness and pain, before the screen turned pitch black again. I was the first to break the stunned silence. “What was that?” I raged, my eyes still watering. “Why did you just grab me like that? And what the hell does my Mom have to do with this?” At first, I thought Chairman Castillo was ignoring me. He stood up. “Congratulations, everyone. We just landed ourselves the deal of the decade. You may leave now.” At once, everyone stood up, gathering up their papers in silence. I stared at my father-in-law. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I snapped. “Answer me! Don’t ignore me!” “I’m not ignoring you, Ella,” he said, his voice level. “But I’m afraid I can’t answer any of these questions. That’s between you and your mother. I’m sorry.” I stared at him, my mouth open. “My son appears to be outside, waiting for you,” he said, pointing at the door. I turned around and saw Ash grinning at me and waving. “You shouldn’t keep him waiting.” I turned back to him and was about to open my mouth and say something, when I decided it wasn’t worth it. I grunted and started to walk away. “Ella,” he called after me. I stopped walking, but didn’t turn. “Thank you.” His voice was uncharacteristically warm. “I’ve had reports of my son’s improved behavior. I can only assume that was your doing, because God knows I’ve done nothing for him. You’re good for him. So I’m thanking you. I’m glad you were the one to marry the boy.” I didn’t trust my mouth to speak, so I just carried on walking. The second I was on the other side of the door, Ash grabbed and hugged me. “How was it?” he gushed. “I heard you got the deal! I’m so proud of you. We have to go out to celebrate. Do you want to go anywhere?” I remained silent, but hugged Ash closer to my chest, breathing in the familiar scent of his cologne. I was swept away by the onslaught of emotions – anger, confusion, hurt…and a sharp sting of an unexplainable pain the speared right through my heart. The Billion Dollar Girl “Ella?” Ash said uncertainly. “Are you okay?” “Just take me to school.” My voice was muffled by his chest. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I tried to question Ella on the way to school, but she remained stubbornly catatonic. I gave up and instead offered to buy her a muffin and a coffee. She shrugged, which I took for yes. The driver stopped at the Ritz, but by the time he came back with the chocolate muffin and latte, she was on the phone. “Who are you talking to?” I mouthed. She ignored me. “Hello? It’s me, Ella. I have something to ask, Mom.” Oh. Her Mom. Why would she be on the phone to her Mom? Unless…she wanted to ask about her grandparents? My heart dropped. Damn it. If she talked to her parents, she would realize I let her into that meeting without telling her why she was there. And if history can be believed, Ella would rip my head off and shove it up my ass. Though it would be completely deserved. “Mom…I…” I stared very hard at Ella’s face. She seemed to be fighting a desire to say something. Then she gave in. “I miss you,” she said, in a defeated tone that didn’t reflect her words. “Can I come over this afternoon?” After a few “I love you”s and Ella answering a long series of questions concerning her diet, her sleeping hours and the condition of her digestive system, she finally hung up. By then the coffee was cold and we were at school. “Thanks,” Ella said distractedly, pocketing her phone and taking the coffee and muffin from me. The driver opened the door and she stepped out. I followed her. “I’m going to Trigonometry,” she said, raising a hand to me without turning around. “Bye.” “Hey!” I said, catching up to her and grabbing her by her stomach and pulling her into a one-armed hug. “Not so fast…” I murmured, into her ear. “At least let me say goodbye first…” “What are you doing?” she protested, trying to push my arm away from her torso. “Let me go!” I held on tightly, burying my face in her hair. Breathing in deeply, I closed my eyes. “People are staring,” Ella said feebly, though I could sense her melting away already. “You should let go of me.” “I should,” I agreed. “Yet I won’t.” Ella let out a long sigh and I felt all the tension escape her body. She relaxed. Satisfied, I let go. She turned around and I saw her cheeks were red. “Thank you,” she whispered, very quietly. “It’s okay,” I replied, barely concealing my grin. “You can go to class now.” She shot me a glare before strutting off angrily. I watched her leave, a smirk on my lips. “Having fun?” Will asked, sidling in beside me. I rolled my eyes. “Just when I was enjoying myself. What do you want, Will?” “Nothing in particular,” he said lightly. I followed his gaze. Will was staring at Ella’s swaying ass. “Just enjoying myself, like you.” “Hey,” I hissed, snapping my fingers in front of his face. Will’s gaze returned to me. “Don’t do that.” “You sure are possessive, Ash,” he sighed. “Doesn’t that get old for Ella? Well, you can tell Ella if she ever gets sick of your clingy neediness, I’m always here for her.” “You’re despicable,” I snarled. “Really?” he asked, sounding amused. “I would’ve thought you were worse. Ella should be grateful you’re too scared to make the move. Tell me, how many exotic ‘diseases’ do you have?” I glared at him. “You’re not funny, Will. And stay away from Ella.” “Sure.” I blinked at him. Wow. I’d thought it would’ve been a lot harder. “But if Ella comes to me herself, it won’t be my fault, right?” “Ella would never do that.” “We’ll see, Ash,” he said, patting me on the back. He walked away in the direction Ella had left. “Enjoy yourself while you can.” What did he mean by that? I watched him leave for a few moments, before I was hit with a wave of paranoia. “Where are you going?” I called after him. “Trigonometry.” The Billion Dollar Girl Damn. The school timetable was working against me. As I watched Will’s retreating back, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of foreboding. What was that guy planning? Above, grey clouds loomed, signaling a coming storm. I sighed. I was getting a headache. This clearly meant I was incapacitated and unable to go to class. Where to go instead? Roof, to share a few cigarettes with James? Nope, not since I was trying to quit. I sighed again. Well, since I was trying to develop as a person for Ella, I guess I would go to the Nurse’s Office instead and actually notify the school instead of just skipping. I hope Ella’s proud. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ Class passed quickly. I took the necessary notes, though I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy thinking about what to say to my Mom this afternoon. I was debating about whether to just bringing it up, or sliding it casually into conversation. Like: “Hey, Mom, great cupcakes. Please tell me about those grandparents of mine who, broke your heart by banning you from seeing your one true love, almost forced you into a loveless marriage and, when you refused, threw you out of the family onto the streets penniless and dishonored.” Yeah. I scripted various conversations out in my mind, none of which ended successfully. Even in my mind, imaginary Moms all either burst into tears or started screaming at me. The bell went, interrupting a fantasy in which my Mother was bludgeoning me to death with a shoe. I gathered up my books, just as Will came over to my desk. “Hey, Will,” I said, smiling up at him. “What’s up?” “Nothing much,” he said airily. “Same old. What do you have next?” “English lit.” “Oh, I’m going to the English department for drama. Want me to walk you there?” “Oh, sure.” He knew me well enough to know that I still needed a map to get around this place. I was grateful he was walking me there instead. It would save me ten minutes and a few very embarrassing encounters with some strangers. I held my books to my chest and followed Will from the room. “Are you okay?” he asked as we walked down the Math Block B hallway (I was finally putting names to the unbelievably similar stretches of corridor. Sure, I can learn five hundred Latin words in two nights but give me a map and ask me to give you directions and I’m less than useless). “I mean, you’ve been looking a distracted throughout the whole of Trig. What’s wrong?” “Well, I… Actually, Will, it’s nothing. Never mind.” “No, honestly, tell me. I might be able to make you feel better.” Will looked so sweet and hopeful I gave in and told him. “This morning I had a meeting with Ash’s Dad,” I explained. “You met with his Dad?” “Well, I didn’t exactly meet him. I went to a meeting with him. He got a deal with the CEOs of BEAU. Something about Project Nero. But, the way he did it was really weird, and then something happened that –” Will stopped walking. “Wait,” he said slowly. “The CEOs of BEAU?” “Yeah. Do you know them or something?” “No, I don’t,” he said incredulously. “But you should!” “I should?” I repeated, confused. “Why?” “Did Ash never tell you?” Will asked, running his fingers through his brown hair. “Jesus. That guy…” “He never told me anything. Why should I know him?” “Well…they’re…” *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I lay staring up at the ceiling of the empty nurse’s office, thinking about the way I was wasting my life. I was a young adult. I should be out there shooting things and getting drunk and. Not in here, staring up at a badly tiled ceiling lying in a questionable bed with a mattress whose age probably matched mine. Why was doing things ‘right’ so boring? If they really wanted us to follow the rules, they should make it a lot more fun. In the meantime, I pledged to immediately divert some funding straight to this hell-hole as soon as possible. Turning over, I closed my eyes and forced myself to sleep. It would pass the time quicker. However, a few minutes later a dark figure appeared in the corner of the room. I sat up. “Is that you, Nurse?” I called out. The figure didn’t reply but took several steps towards me. I could hear heavy breathing. The Billion Dollar Girl “Who’s there?” I asked, groping the dark for the lamp switch. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ “You’re kidding me,” I breathed. The corridor was empty now, completely devoid of people. Everyone was in their classes, which meant that we were very late. For once, I didn’t care. “Nope. Eleanor Beaumont, your Mother, was the heir to BEAU.” “So…” My mind struggled to grasp this. “…they’re my grandparents?” No wonder they’d looked so familiar. Damn. I stared down at my shoes. How did I miss that? How had my Mom never told me about her parents? How had I never asked? And how could Ash betray me like that? “Ash knew?” I asked out loud. I wasn’t really talking to Will, but he answered anyway. “Of course he knew,” he said. “Everyone knows. Caused quite a scandal a few years back.” “So he just let me into that meeting? Knowing I would be used? Knowing his Dad would trade me off like some kind of object? Knowing I would be completely…humiliated?” I was getting mad. Really, really mad. “Yeah…yeah, I guess,” Will said, looking alarmed at the expression on my face. “Are you okay?” “Fine. Amazing. Will, do you know where Ash could be right now?” “No…but I think his phone has GPS. I could find him, if you want.” “You do that.” I stood there, waiting for a few moments as Will fumbled with his phone. I closed my eyes, tapping my foot impatiently. Ash was going to get it. I’d never been so angry before. I was fuming. “He’s in the Nurse’s office,” Will mumbled, looking up. “Thank you,” I said curtly, turning and stalking away. *** ʘ Will Castillo ʘ I watched Ella walk away, laughing quietly to myself. Ash, you were making this way too easy for me. She seemed to have bought my act. Well, I don’t get straight As in drama for nothing. Leaning against the wall, I smirked up at the ceiling. I’m counting on you, Lucy. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ I stabbed at the switch and suddenly the whole room exploded into sharp light. Though momentarily blinded, eventually my vision cleared and I could see everything. “Lucy? What the hell are you doing here?” Lucy Andre was stood in my room, dressed in nothing but slinky black lingerie and covered in…was that body glitter? “Wow,” I said. I’d never seen such a desperate wannabe-stripper in my life. And I’ve been to Serenity’s annual Halloween party. “Ssh,” she said, clearly mistaking my ‘wow’ for actual amazement rather than amusement. “It’s okay, Ash. Let me be in charge here.” “What?” I started backing away a little. “In charge of what?” She took another step towards me, the light catching on her body-glitter and momentarily blinding me. Lucy worked this to her advantage and took the opportunity to jump on my bed. “Ash,” she said, licking her over-lipsticked lips in (what she had to assume) a seductive way. “We’re both attractive people. You want this. I want this. Why not let it happen?” Her fingers traced circles on my knee. It tickled. I pushed her hand away, gently. The woman was clearly deluded. “I can think of a few reason, actually,” I said slowly. Maybe if I spoke really, really slowly she would understand me. “One, I don’t actually want this. Two, you’re covered in body glitter. Three, and most importantly, I’m married.” “Oh please,” she laughed. “You haven’t even slept with the girl.” I gaped. “Does everyone know that?” Damn, there goes my reputation. “Of course,” Lucy said, smirking. She crawled over me in a way she probably thought was catty and cute. Others would disagree. Like me. “It’s because you want me, right?” “Wrong,” I said, firm. I was beginning to get uncomfortable. I pushed her back, hard. “Please don’t.” Lucy Andre’s eyes lit up with a sudden fire that terrified me. “You want foreplay? I’ll give you foreplay.” Oh God. Save me. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I was beginning to regret not asking Will to show me the way. It had started to pour and I’d left my map in my locker. I’d been running around in the rain for over ten minutes. My hair was sticking to my scalp and my clothes clung to me like a second skin. The harsh wind whipped against my wet face, freezing me to the bone. Finally, I found a small sign that said ‘Nurse’s Office’ that hung over a doorway. This was a part of the school that had clearly not been showered in Ash’s money. It looked like it could collapse any second. I took a deep breath and prepared all the things I was planning to say. The Billion Dollar Girl A shrill, girly shriek erupted from inside the door. I stopped. A girl? Just what was going on in there? Slowly, I pressed down the handle and pushed open the door. And opened the door to my worst nightmare. I dropped my sodden books to the floor. Ash and Lucy were lying on the bed together. She was on top of him. They were both half-naked. I froze. They did the same. For one long moment, we stared at each other. Then Lucy Andre smirked. “Get out, loser. Can’t you see you’re interrupting something?” To my credit, I managed to smile, though I was too blank to know the validity of it. “Of course,” I said in a weirdly flat voice that didn’t sound like mine. “I’m sorry.” I turned around and walked away, slamming the door shut behind me, though just before it shut, I heard Ash yelling, “No!” *** “Taxi!” I yelled. Rain was pouring down now, the icy water numbing my skin. It didn’t matter. No matter how numb I was on the outside, nothing compared to how numb I was on the inside. I’d run out of school and was now on the main road next to it, desperately hailing a cab. I should be crying right now, but I was too busy feeling numb. That was worse, somehow. I knew the numbness wouldn’t last and as soon as it was gone, it would be replaced by the desperate sobbing and the bitter feeling of betrayal. “Taxi!” I cried out again, frustrated. Though I was screaming the loudest I could, I could barely hear the sound of my own voice over the rain hitting the sidewalk. I walked further down the road. “Taxi!” “You’re not going to hail a taxi.” “Shut up, Ash!” I screamed. I couldn’t believe the bastard has the audacity to actually follow me…and now he was giving me travel advice? “Just shut up, okay? I don’t want to hear it!” “It’s rush hour.” “I don’t care! Leave me alone! Why can’t you just let me be alone?” Ash remained silent for a few more seconds, following me quietly. “I can call you a car,” he said, pulling out his phone. “No!” I yelled, spinning around. “I don’t need any help from you! Why the hell can’t you just leave me alone?” He was stood next to me, just staring wordlessly, being useless. I’d hoped that he would explain it away. I’d hoped he’d beg and plead for my forgiveness and deny everything. I’d hoped that he would just take me into those stupidly big, muscled arms and hold me to that stupidly big, muscled chest and tell me it was all a lie. He did none of those things. Ash had to be the most frustrating person in the world. I turned around and walked on, yelling, “Taxi!” But somewhere, in my mind, I knew it was my own fault. It was my fault for having feelings for him. That’s right. I was through with denial. I admit it. I admit it all. I had feelings for Ash. I was falling with Ash. Hell, I might even love the damned guy, but it was completely clear that he didn’t feel the same. To be honest, it wasn’t a big surprise. I mean…look at me and look at him. I didn’t blame him for not liking me. Otherwise, wouldn’t he be denying it right now, instead of standing here, next to me? “If I call you a car, it’ll be here in five minutes,” he said calmly. In a let’s-calm-down-the-crazy-chick tone. I hated him for that. How dare he be so calm? How dare he try to calm me down? If I didn’t want to be calm, I wouldn’t be calm and there was nothing anyone, especially Ash could do about it. “I don’t care!” I screamed. When he didn’t listen and pulled out his phone anyway, I made break for it. I wanted to run away, in any direction, just as long as I was away from him. But damn it. He caught me easily before I got get away and held me against his chest. I fought against him, biting and clawing, but I remained in his arms. I hated that about him too. How he could easily overpower and control me? The Billion Dollar Girl “Paul?” he said, his voice still perfectly calm, his breath not even labored. It made me feel weak. Another thing I hated. God, I could make a whole list! “Are you free? Yes? Can you come to school to pick up my wife? Thank you.” “Screw you!” I yelled, given up on fighting back. It was useless. “I hate you, Ash Bloody Castillo, I hope you die and burn for eternity in hell.” “A lot of people do,” he chuckled. I was speechless. How could he…be like this when I was so mad? I screamed very loudly, right into his ear, given up on logical, rational arguments. I didn’t care if it was childish or stupid. I was so overcome with hate and anger and frustration that right now, I just didn’t give a damn about anything. “Wow,” Ash said, wincing a little. “Tone it down a little, won’t you?” In response, I screamed again, louder than I’d ever thought possible, so loud my voice went hoarse and my throat started to ache. “Car’s here.” He let me go. And the number one thing I hated about Mr. Asher Castillo? The way he could make me feel, when I was in his arms…and the way I felt when he let me go. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ Because she was so reluctant to get in, I had to all but throw her into the car. For a minute I thought she might consider opening the door on the other side and running through the main road but I quickly jumped in right next to her and slammed the door behind me, urging the driver to go as fast as he could. “Where to?” Paul asked, staring at the wet woman in his rearview window. I glanced at Ella. She sat, shivering in her wet clothes, her eyes staring stubbornly at her own shoes. When it didn’t seem like she would answer, I spoke for her and gave the driver her parent’s address. She didn’t respond, even as I recited the address. Her eyes seemed as cold as the temperature outside. Dead, even. I hated myself for being so stupid. It was obvious Lucy was crazy. Why didn’t I see it? I should’ve pushed her away in the first place, instead of humoring her. Hadn’t my father taught me anything, in all our years together? Trust nobody. Not even a psychopathic woman covered in body glitter. I stared at Ella. She seemed to be in shock. I wondered how I should go about this. Apologies were not my forte. Explanations even less. “Ella –” I started. “This morning,” she said, cutting over me. “Did you know?” “What?” I asked, confused. “Did you know that you were sending me in to be used to blackmail my grandparents who despise me?” “You know about that?” I gasped. “Who told you?” “Does that matter –?” “Will?” “Yes! Does it really matter?” Oh, God. So it was Will. He’d teamed together with Lucy. The timing couldn’t be a coincidence. He’d told her the truth about me and then sent her my way. I ran my fingers through my wet hair. Suddenly, it was all making sense. The hints he kept dropping. Oh, God. “So, Ash? Did you know?” I looked up, to see Ella’s quivering face inches from mine, moisture that wasn’t raindrops filling her big green eyes and rolling down her cheeks. I sensed that the next thing I said would be pivotal. What to do? Lie or tell the truth? Lie or tell the truth? Lie or…tell the truth? Damn it, Ella, you’ve made an honest man out of me. “Yes.” She stared at me, the sadness and pain lingering in her eyes. Then it was gone, replaced by an emptiness that scared me more than everything my Dad’s ever done to me. When she looked at me with those eyes I was terrified. I had no idea what to do. “Stop the car,” she said softly. Paul glanced at her, but didn’t stop. “Stop the car!” Ella demanded, much louder this time. “But ma’am,” he said, confused. “We’re on the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t just stop.” “Now!” she yelled. “Before I open the door and jump out!” “But…we’re going pretty fast…you’ll hurt yourself –” “Just stop!” I yelled. I knew by the expression on Ella’s face that she would do it. “Stop the car! Now!” The car screeched to a sudden halt and we were all thrown forwards – Ella and me, because we weren’t wearing seatbelts. The Billion Dollar Girl Before I could react, Ella had thrown open door and jumped out to the sound of blaring car horns and angry yells as they were forced to maneuver around our car. I tried to follow her but she was too fast for me this time and she slammed the door in my face. “Ella!” I yelled. I struggled to see her through the rain-streaked window as I fumbled with the door. I thought I could just make her out, a dark figure in the distance. Finally, I managed to find the handle. I shoved it open and pelted into the rainstorm. I turned my head, desperately scanning the empty sidewalk, blinking raindrops out of my eyelashes. Finally, I found her. She was leaning into the railings, staring down at the open sea, rain falling onto her head and rolling down her face and falling, returning back into the mass of water below her. Though her dark hair was plastered to her face, her nose was red from crying and her clothes clung damply to her form, I thought I’d never seen someone more beautiful. I walked over to her, pulling off my jacket and held it out. “Sorry. I should have offered it before. It’s wet, but at least it’s an extra layer.” She ignored me. I carried on holding out the jacket like an idiot, until it was clear she wasn’t going to take it. Already, the little dry I’d managed to preserve wearing my jacket was permeated. I sighed and walked to her, draping it around her shoulders gently. One shake and my jacket fell to the sidewalk. Stubborn as usual. “Ella,” I said as seriously as possible, leaning down to pick my jacket up again. I picked it up and dusted it off and held it out to her again. “Be rational. This is for your own good.” She spun around and glared at me, her eyes dancing with fiery light. “No!” she yelled, her cheeks red with anger. She rubbed away the tears that wouldn’t stop. “No, Ash! You don’t get to care about what’s good for me!” “Don’t be stubborn,” I snapped. I knew immediately that this was a mistake. Her eyes flashed dangerous. Suddenly, she was ripping off her own jacket. “What are you doing?” I said, trying to stop her. “Stop it!” she yelled, shoving me away, hard. “You don’t get to care! Not now!” Her jacket fell to the floor next to mine. “Don’t…” She pulled off her shoes and chucked them into the river below us. “Ella…you’re being unreasonable…” Her hands flew to the top button of her shirt. “Stop it!” She undid her top button. “Don’t!” Her hands went to her second button. I grabbed her by her wrists to stop her. “Ella!” She dissolved into tears, tears that were immediately washed away by the relentless rain. I’d never seen her look so defenseless. My heart felt a pang of a longer-forgotten emotion. Was it…pain? I haven’t felt like this in years. “Let me go…” she sobbed weakly. “You don’t get to care anymore…Because if you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have…” “Look at me,” I said. She ignored me, staring unwaveringly down at the ripping water. I tugged at her wrists. “Look at me!” I demanded. Ella just shook her head, sniffling piteously. “No,” she whispered. “Don’t…make…me…” “Look at me!” I yelled. Finally, her gaze met mine. More tears escaped those moss green eyes as I stared into them. I hated the fact that I did this to her. That I was making her sad. It broke me, it really did. Maybe I should let her be with someone who didn’t hurt her the way I did. “Let me explain,” I pleaded. “Just hear me out, okay?” Suddenly, Ella snapped out of it. “No!” she screamed, struggling against my grip. I hated having to hold her like this, but it was the only way she would listen to me. “I don’t want to hear it! Let me go!” “It’s not what you think.” I was falling back on clichés. “I don’t care, Ash!” Ella sobbed. “I don’t care anymore…I don’t have the energy to care anymore…just let me be alone…please…” “Ella!” I said, my voice fierce. “Just listen to me, okay? I would never do that to you. I could never do that to you. Because, the truth is, Ella…” I took a deep breath and let go of her wrists. It was time to say it. I had to take the plunge. I had to say the words I’d despised before, dismissing them as three stupid little words, something I would rather die than ever say to a girl. But everything had changed now. I had to tell her how I feel. The Billion Dollar Girl “Ella,” I yelled, so she could hear me over the sound of the traffic and the rain. “I have something to tell you. I –” “Ella, over here!” Both Ella and I turned around at the same time. Even through the rain, I could see who it was. Will, standing next to his car, gesturing at Ella. “No!” I yelled, making a grab for her, but it was too late. She was gone, sprinting off into the rain. She bottled down the sidewalk and was in Will’s car before I could react. It rushed past me, kicking up water as it went past. I watched blankly as they rushed away, weaving in and out of the other cars. Soon, they were nothing but a black speck in the distance. I stood there, frozen, unable to think, completely and utterly hopeless. “Sir?” The word broke through my trance, though I didn’t react. “Sir?” Paul repeated tentatively. “Do you want to go after them?” I stood there for a few more moments, freezing cold, tired and alone. “No,” I said quietly. I turned away and walked back to my car. “It’s too late. She’s gone.” I sent an unspoken plea to the heavens. Please, Ella, don’t hurt yourself. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ I launched myself into the passenger seat of the car, not even bothering to ask him how he’d found me. I didn’t care. I just slammed the door shut and wordlessly, Will drove off. Ash still stood there, staring blankly at us, even as we drove away. I closed my eyes. Thank God I’d left when I did, because I had a feeling that if I’d stayed even a second longer, he would have told me the truth. About how he didn’t love me and never will. If he’d said that, I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it. At least now, I could maintain some sort of self-delusion. A few silent tears rolled down my cheeks, but without the rain to wash them away they were as clear as day. “Here,” Will said quietly. He passed me a towel. I took it gratefully and pressed it to my face, sobbing quietly into it, the warm air from his car heater blasting into me. Already, I felt like I was drying. I knew how pathetic I must have looked right now, but I couldn’t find the energy to make that fact matter. It was all a lie. Everything. He never cared. He didn’t have the capacity to care. Tears stained the towel. Eventually, however, I ran out of tears. I always did in the end. The tears stopped coming, but I still sobbed. I held my face to the towel a little longer, just until I could breathe normally again. “Thank you,” I said hoarsely. My voice was raspy from screaming. “No problem.” That was something I liked about Will. He didn’t talk when he knew you didn’t feel like talking. It was nice. We rode in silence for a few more minutes. “Where do you want to go?” I closed my eyes. The real question was, ‘Where can you go?’. Well, I couldn’t go back to the penthouse. The last person I needed to see was Ash. I didn’t want to go home, either. My Mom had enough to worry about. She didn’t need to see me like this. I didn’t have any other friends apart from Zack, and I didn’t want to hear his stupid “I-told-you-so”. Suddenly, the headache that had been looming over my head hit me. Pain spiked and I squeezed my eyes, hard, trying to fight it back. “Anywhere,” I told Will. “I don’t care.” *** Will had taken me to the place we’d first met. Starbucks. “From the moment I met you,” he said, smiling as he reminisced, “I knew you were special. I liked you when I first saw you.” Will flashed me a smile. I didn’t smile back. I held the large coffee he’d bought me, using it for warmth rather than drinking it. Now the numbness had worn off and I was done crying, I just felt empty. Will’s face grew serious. “Tell me, Ella,” he begged. “What did that son of a bitch do to you?” I bit on my lip, but didn’t answer. The image was engraved into my mind now. Wherever I looked, I could see Ash and Lucy together. The tears were coming back again. The Billion Dollar Girl “Hey…” Will murmured gently, leaning in and resting a hand on my shoulder. “Hey. You can trust me, Ella. Tell me.” I swallowed, opened my mouth, but closed it again, shaking my head. “Sharing will make you feel better,” he said. It all burst out, along with more tears. I told Will what I’d seen, skipping over the unnecessary details. As the words spilled out, Will’s face become more morose than I’d ever seen it. When I was finished, Will handed me a napkin. I wiped my tears away. “Ella,” Will said seriously, staring into my eyes. His own eyes, were identical to Ash’s, to the last lash. The way he looked at me with Ash’s eyes made me feel uncomfortable. “You can’t let him treat you like that anymore.” I laughed bitterly. “What can you do? The contract means I can’t leave him.” “Contract?” Will repeated, frowning. “What contract?” I froze. Oh, crap. I wasn’t meant to tell anyone about the contract. “Ella? What contract?” Will stared at me intensely, his blue eyes boring into mine. I sighed, giving in. The damage was already done. “Ash and I…have a special agreement,” I said, wording it carefully. I was suddenly struck by how pathetic it was. A girl falls for a guy, though she knows that she’s being used. “Basically, I stay as his wife for three months, then Ash and I will divorce. It’s so Ash’s father keeps off his back.” “And what do you gain from this?” Behind Will, I thought I saw someone wearing our uniform. No way. Why would anyone from the richest school in the country be in a run-down part of town like this? “Um. Ash gave me a billion dollars to marry him, but if I break the contract beforehand I have to give it back. And…I really don’t want to.” Will stared at me blankly. I hastened to elaborate. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of…prostitute. “Not for myself, of course. It’s just that…my Dad’s been a working man all his life and my Mom used to rich, but then…well… you know the rest. It’s just that they’ve been spending so much time and effort working for my tuition, buying me all this expensive equipment for school when they haven’t had new clothes for years. They deserve to live the rest of their lives in bliss. It’s the least I could do for them.” Will seemed to take a moment to process this. Then he looked up, smiling. He leaned in and grasped my hands. “I have an idea!” Will exclaimed. “Divorce Ash and marry me instead.” *** “You’re crazy,” I told him, pulling my hands away from his. “I couldn’t do that.” “Why not?” Will demanded. “There’s no reason you can’t leave him. You can return the billion dollars and you could live more than comfortably on the money I have. Is nine-hundred million enough, or is it a whole billion for a girl like you?” Though he said it in a joking way, I wasn’t ready to laugh about it yet. “Will…” I said, shaking my head. “I couldn’t take your money…” “I don’t see why you can’t. You took Ash’s. This isn’t any different…except, well, you’re not marrying a douche this time. Unless,” he said, reading the hesitation on my face, “you don’t want to divorce him? You like him?” “No!” I blurted. “Of course I don’t like him. How could I ever like someone like that?” Liar, liar, pants on fire. “Then you have no reason to say no. And you honestly don’t have to worry about the money. Money has no value to me.” I stared down at the cup of cold coffee and suddenly I was reminded by the cup of coffee Ash had handed me this morning. He had been so nice then. He’d chased after me and held me, just the way I’d needed to be held. He’d cared. No, Ella. I squeezed my eyes shut. He was simply subduing you by pretending to be nice, so he could get what he wanted. People like him manipulate and will do anything to get what they want, and though you know that one day those people will get what’s coming to them, until then you’ll constantly fall prey to their traps. So I erased any feeling I might have felt for the man Ash Castillo and looked up, a smile ready on my face. “I’ll do it, Will.” “You’ll marry me?” “Yes.” “But…I don’t have a ring.” The Billion Dollar Girl *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ The hot water pounded into my skin, slowly washing away the damp smell of rain from my body. I took a breath, drawing the steam into my lungs. Water cascaded down around me, warming the tiles below me and the soles of my feet. Then, bam – Ella, tears in her emotionless eyes, staring at me blankly. There was the sound of fist against ceramic. I blinked. I’d punched the wall. I stood there for a few more seconds, staring unseeingly at the space in front of me. Then I sighed and turned off the water. I staggered out of the shower, grabbing the clean towel on the rack. Then again. Bam. Ella standing, her small body leant against the railings, her shoulders hunched over as tears and raindrops fell from her face. My legs gave way. I collapsed. My knees hit the hard linoleum with a thud. I sat there for a few seconds, letting the feelings of agony wash over me, my head swimming with dizziness. When I could breathe steadily again, I forced myself to my feet, wincing as I tested my bruised knees. What the hell was happening to me? I’ve never wanted to cry before today, but right now there was nothing I wanted more. I’d picked up my toothbrush before I collapsed again. I slammed into the wall as Ella’s face, distorted with anger, swam into my mind. This time, I heard her voice as clearly as if she were right next to me. “Screw you! I hate you, Ash Bloody Castillo, I hope you die and burn for eternity in hell.” I slid to the floor, drained. A wave of nausea hit me. I breathed heavily, trying hard not to hurl. I stayed on the floor as my mind replaying those moments, again and again. My ringtone broke through the silence. I ignored it for the first few rings, until it occurred to me to answer it. After all…it could be Ella. Suddenly hopeful, I searched for my phone frantically. Patting my clothes, I’d finally found it in my jeans pocket. I brought it to my face. “Hello?” I said breathlessly. “Hey.” James. I slumped over. James paused. “Hey, Ash, are you okay? You sound weird.” “I’m fine,” I grumbled. “But this better be good. Where are you right now?” “Starbucks. In Brooklyn.” I frowned. “You hate Starbucks. A lot. You say they have bad coffee.” “I know, but I had a date, so I risked it.” James sounded impatient. “And you hate Brooklyn. A lot. You say they have bad people.” “Ash,” James interrupted. “You know I hate clichés.” I rubbed my eyes. I was tired. “But this is the only way to implicate the gravitas of this issue.” I yawned. “‘Houston’,” he said, seriously. “‘We have a problem’.” The next few words he spoke woke me up quicker than a Starbucks coffee ever could. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ “What?” This wasn’t happening. Another wave of dizziness hit me and I had to lean heavily against the wall for a few seconds before I could stand again. “I’m not lying,” James repeated grimly. “Will is here, with Ella. And they’re plotting Ella’s divorce.” Again, the dizziness. “What the hell did you do this time, Ash? You’re an idiot, you know that? A big idiot.” “How is it my fault?” I gasped. “It’s Ella’s fault! How could she! How could she do this to me?” “Stop whining, asswipe,” James snapped. “You didn’t tell her how you feel, did you?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped back, indignant. “Oh grow up, Ash. You’re freaking eighteen. I think you can gather your balls long enough to tell your wife how you feel about her!” I was stunned. James had never talked to me like this before. “You claim you’re a huge playboy, a guy who knows girls better than himself,” he ranted. “Yet when it actually matters, when it actually counts, you can’t find it in yourself to open up that damn stone heart of yours and tell Ella how you feel?” “Well, what’s the point now?” I mumbled, depressed. “She wants to leave me.” “Actually, that’s not the worst of it,” James said, grimly. “You should’ve heard what they were saying.” “What can be worse than divorce?” I said miserably. “Maybe marrying Will?” I froze. “Ash? Have you finally fallen silent? Good. That means you can listen to me. This is what you do. One, tell her any secrets you’ve been keeping from her. Two, get rid of your dumbass attitude and treat Ella the way she’s meant to be treated. I know you say you don’t ‘chase skirt’, but you’re going to do whatever it takes to woo her. Three, you’re going to finally tell her how you feel. I recommend making it stupid and romantic because chicks like that. Are we clear?” “Crystal.” I hung up. I sat there for a few moments, before the anger rose up inside me. I threw the phone at the mirror. There was a smashing sound as the huge mirror shattered and tiny shards of glass flew to the floor. My phone lay in smithereens. Will. I am going to kill you. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ “So what do you want me to do?” I asked him. “First of all, get me that contract,” Will said, stirring his coffee. “I’d like my lawyers to look over it and make sure there are no loopholes or anything. If not, then we’ll have to negotiate with him to try and get him to nullify the contract. You will most likely have to return the money, as well as paying a fine. I’ll cover it, of course. Then my lawyers can write another contract for us that we can both sign once we’re married.” I bit my lip. It was all happening so fast, I could barely get my head around it. “Then…what do I do as I wait?” “Just carry on as normal. If you act any differently, Ash could get suspicious and might prepare a defense. It would be easier if he had the shortest time possible to prepare for the court case.” “We’re taking this to court?” I choked. “Why?” “We are talking about a billion dollars here. I’m surprised that there wasn’t an official meeting to begin with.” I looked at Will, slightly suspicious. “You sound like you’ve prepared this. You know a lot about it.” There was a flash of something in Will’s eyes. Nervousness, maybe? Then he laughed, flashing me one of those big shiny grins that he, Ash and numerous dental advert models seemed to specialize in. “Sorry,” he laughed. “I’ve always had quite a business-like brain. I was trained to be a corporate lawyer in my father’s company, you know.” Suspicion melted away to pity. That’s right. Will had had everything taken away from him. I immediately regretted doubting him. I mean, Will was my friend. He was doing this because he cared. “So I’ll give you the contract at school. Is that okay?” I asked. “Yeah, sure,” Will said, looking a little relieved for some reason. He downed the rest of his coffee and stood up. He looked down at me. “Do you want to go home now?” “Already?” I said, looking panicked. I really didn’t want to go back to that penthouse. I knew Ash would be there, waiting for me. I would hate to face him again and listen to his apologies. “Now?” The Billion Dollar Girl “Yeah,” Will smiled. “I think you should, before he gets worried. Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.” Reluctantly, I stood up, leaving my untouched coffee. *** “Thanks Will,” I called as his car sped away. I watched him leave with a sinking heart, suddenly feeling very alone. Sighing, I walked through the doors, nodding at the doorman. The elevator ride was much too short. Too quickly, the doors opened to the penthouse. “I can do this”, I told myself, gritting my teeth. “I can do this. Just act casual. It’ll be okay.” I opened the penthouse door…to complete chaos. The normally organized room was covered in clothes, towels and electronics. Maids hurried around, carrying piles of stuff and shoving them into huge room-sized suitcases. And in the middle of it all, was Ash. He stood in the centre of the chaos, yelling orders and pointing at things. “Ash?” I called, my voice shrill. I’d suddenly forgotten about my anger at him and was concentrating on the swirling whirlpool that was our apartment. “What the hell’s going on?” Ash turned to me, his blue eyes twinkling. Forget what I’d said. Ash’s eyes were nothing like Will’s. Ash’s eyes could make me feel wanted, like I was the only person in the world that he cared about, the only one that mattered. Like I was the centre of his universe. It just showed how naïve I was. I looked down, blushing, furious at myself for being pulled in so easily. “You said you wanted to go to Paris,” he smirked. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ We were sat on my private jet (our second biggest, the biggest was apparently in Spain right now with my father in an international business meeting. Just like him to leave the scene of a crime). Ella was completely nonresponsive. She hadn’t spoken a word to me in the car and I could sense her fuming at me silently. I tried engaging her in conversation, but in the end the ride was completely wordless apart from occasional disgruntled sounds the drivers made as we navigated our way through New York traffic towards a private runway my Dad had built when I’d complained the trips to JFK were way too long. Though, when Ella had seen the private jet, I could sense her astonishment. I would imagine a private jet would be astonishing to someone like her. It exposed to a side of luxury she had never seen before. The penthouse was probably our smallest apartment in New York, but I hated big apartments – it reminded me too much of the huge mansion I’d grown up in, completely devoid of people. That was the problem with owning condos and houses all over the world. You rarely get to see your family. I pulled out my spare phone (my other phone was smashed beyond repair) and started texting someone in Paris to make sure my requirements were being met. I wanted to show Ella some real luxury, not the ostentatious excuse of an apartment we lived in. This was going to be our real honeymoon. “You’re not meant to use your phone on the plane,” Ella said, her voice strained, so quietly could barely hear it over the sounds of the crew as they prepared for take-off. I looked at her, surprised. They were the first words she’s spoken to me since she’d come home and saw my packing. I mean, she hadn’t even objected to the fact we were missing some school. That was how angry she was. We were sat opposite each other, with a table and a flat screen TV in our way. She still looked mad. Really mad. But she was forcing herself to talk to me. Why was that? Was she trying to keep me in the dark about her “arrangement” with Will? My fist tightened around the phone. No. Relax, Ash. You don’t need to break another phone today. The one I’d broken had been an expensive next-generation prototype as well – and you’d been borrowing it. Explain that one to Samsung when they call. “It’s fine. I own this plane, so I can do whatever I want on it.” I immediately hated myself for sounding so patronizing. Ella’s green eyes suddenly flashed and I shrunk back into my seat. But to my surprise, she forced herself calm and choked out, “Fine.” Wow. She might really be trying to keep her thing with Will secret. But Ella was so bad at lying, her attempt at keeping a secret was almost cute. The Billion Dollar Girl “You can watch something if you want,” I said, gesturing at the TV. “And there’s a DVD library somewhere. You can just ask someone if you want to browse.” She didn’t reply. Oh, great. Ella was back to ignoring me again. A few minutes later, there was a familiar rush in my stomach. My ears popped. We’d finally taken off. Ella was staring outside, her mouth open in wonder as she stared down at New York. Her forehead was plastered to the window. I smiled a little to myself. She was secretly excited about this trip, even if she was trying hard to be angry at me. I wondered when would be a good time to apologize to her again, this time properly. I was guessing not now. She might rip off the emergency door and jump out of the plane. If I was bad at giving apologies, Ella was awful at receiving them. “Champagne?” a pretty air hostess offered, holding out a plate with two champagne flutes half-filled with bubbly golden liquid. “Thank you,” I replied, lifting a glass off the plate. As I was taking it, my hand accidently brushed the hostess’s and I saw Ella flinch from the corner of my eye. I smirked a little, though I hated myself for it. It was not right to sort of enjoy Ella’s jealously. Especially since she was so pissed at me already. The air hostess gestured at Ella and she stared at the glass of champagne, about to decline when something changed. She took the glass from the hostess and nodded her thanks. She stared at it for a second, then downed it in a single gulp. Ella looked in my direction, challenging me to question her sudden appreciation for alcohol. I said nothing, just looked over my flute at her amusedly. She looked away again, blushing. This was going to be fun. Ella was staring out of the window again. I did the same. We were flying over some green cropland. I sighed. I was going to be in Paris soon. Paris. The place everything had ended… And I was finally going to come to terms with that. It was time. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ “Where are we staying?” I asked frostily. I was trying hard not to sound awkward, but it was practically impossible. I’d found the contract tucked into my folder and faxed it to Will. He’d texted back saying he’ll pass it to his lawyers as soon as possible. “Where we’re staying?” he repeated. Behind him, a few stewardesses were unloading our luggage. I counted. Thirty-two suitcases. Wow. And we were only staying here for a few days. “Oh, we own this beautiful little chateau on the outskirts of Paris. I’ll think you’ll like it. But it’s a little hard to reach. It’s in a deserted area and I don’t think anyone else lives around there, so it’ll just be you and me.” I bit my lip, my heart suddenly thudding very loudly. Though I was willing myself to be angry at Ash, my body responded automatically. I flushed pink. “I hope that’s okay?” Ash said, sending a sly smirk my way. “Fine,” I mumbled. Just what had I let myself in for…? *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ “Since we only have a few days here,” I said, smiling. “We can sightsee right now, if you want.” I could tell Ella was immediately taken in by Paris. I had to admit, it was capturing, especially at night. Paris was that kind of city. Like New York, it was most beautiful at midnight. The tranquil parks, the night cafés…and, of course, the Eiffel tower. We got into a cab. “Tour Eiffel, s'il vous plait,” I said, the French tripping effortlessly off my tongue. “Merci beaucoup.” The cabbie set off immediately. No taxi driver in Paris needed directions to the Eiffel Tower. I shared a look with Ella. “My Mother was French,” I explained. As I said this, I wondered how much James had told her about what had happened. Than I remembered something he’d said. “…one, tell her any secrets you’ve been keeping from her.” I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. I mean, it made sense to tell her anything I’d kept from her, so we’d become closer. And if I told her this, she might finally understand why I hated Will. I swallowed again. But was now the right time to tell her? I mean, she pretty much hated my guts right now. What the heck. Might as well get this over with. I wouldn’t have to awkwardly explain why I was planning to go to the cemetery tomorrow. The Billion Dollar Girl “James told you, right?” I asked, my voice hoarse. “About the story of me and Will?” “What?” she said, her eyes widening innocently. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Ella,” I sighed. “I know. And it’s okay. I was planning on telling you anyway. I mean, you’re my wife, right? You should know.” Ella visibly tensed at the word wife. Did I pluck a nerve there, Ella? “How much did he tell you?” I asked. We were passing the Louvre. The moonlight glinted off the glass. “Not much,” she said quickly. “Just that your Mom fell in love with her brother-in-law, then left your father for him and came to…Paris. But then something happened. And suddenly your father owns the company, Will’s Dad’s dead, Will’s no longer the heir and instead it’s…well, you.” I couldn’t help but detect a hint of judgment. Her rampant imagination had filled in the gaps with nonsensical events that clearly did not put me in a good light. “That’s essentially it. But you don’t know what happened in Paris, right?” “Right,” she said. Even though I could tell she was pissed as hell at me, her need to know things was currently trumping her anger. “Well, I think I better start at the beginning. See, James wasn’t there for a lot of it so I don’t know how much you understand of the situation.” I took a deep breath and launched into the story. “A long time ago there were two boys. My father and his older brother. They were both good little boys, both equally gifted in school, both equally respected by their teachers…and both equally spoilt. During their young adult years, they fell into a habit of spending money. Back then, Castillo Corporation was just a small company that managed ink toner. They spend through most of their budget on nice clothes, good food and excellent wine. “The company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then my grandfather died. My father’s life was in chaos. Their world was falling apart around them. It looked hopeless for them, until my grandfather’s will came out. Somehow, the old man had managed to save two million dollars. Just two million. It was nowhere near enough to salvage the ruins of the company, but it was enough to start something new. The man gave my father and my uncle a challenge. He gave each one million dollars and told them to each do what they wanted with the money. “My father spent it away in a week, while my uncle started a new company. Castillo Corp. Original, huh? I told you this because I wanted you to understand what kind of man my uncle was. He was amazing. He managed to turn everything around and break into the world of business with no sponsor willing to give him a single penny, no client willing to trust his soiled name and no contacts willing to help him on his journey. Yet, despite this, in a single year he built a business empire.” I paused for a moment, sighing. I’ve never told this story to anyone else before, yet it was all coming out smoothly. Ella was staring at me, frowning slightly, listening hard. “I loved my Uncle a lot,” I continued. “He was a great man. I was always jealous of Will growing up because his Dad seemed to care about him a lot more than mine cared about me. See, with the Castillo Corporation saved, my Dad had a new unlimited cash flow. He spent a few more years partying. He met my Mom – who was a model – and three days later, got married. They met in Paris, in fact. It was all very sweet. But as soon as they got married, they returned to the US and suddenly, it hit them when they were finally sober. They were married. And they sure as hell didn’t love each other. “I don’t deny it. At the beginning, my Dad didn’t love my Mom. At the beginning, my Mom didn’t love my Dad. It didn’t matter to me. But it seemed to matter to them. They tried to get it annulled, but it was impossible. They looked into divorce but my Uncle refused to pay for a lawyer, wanting to teach his little brother a lesson. But when they found out Mom was pregnant it didn’t matter anyway. They wouldn’t get divorced if they knew they were to have me. “Nine months later, I was born. Normal birth, normal weight, normal everything. Perfectly normal. Will’s Dad met his wife in a much less flashy way, at a brunch. It was sweet. They dated, then got married. They were in love. And exactly a year after my birth, Will was born. Growing up, me and Will were best friends. Being born as a Manhattan socialite put a lot of pressure on us, Will especially since his Dad was training him to be his heir, because he wanted to avoid the situation my grandfather had with his two sons. I didn’t mind not being the heir. It seemed like too much pressure. But me and Will were like brothers, man. We only had each other. The Billion Dollar Girl “After years of touring abroad, my Mother finally came back for a week, a single week. It was my birthday. I don’t remember a whole lot of it, but I do remember cake and being really happy my Mom was back. I’d loved her a lot, though she was never around. Looking back now, I finally see that the reason she was never around was probably me. She wanted to get away from me.” Ella made a noise, half-way between a moan and a sigh. I could sense the cab driver listening intensely. “My birthday is on the same day as Will, so that year we were planning a joint party. It was going to be really flash – a huge pool party – and we were inviting all our friends from school. For the first time, my Mom was going to be at my birthday party. She’d never been able to take time off work before. I was ecstatic, completely over-the-top excited, bouncing off walls, all that. Then, at that party…my Mom met Will’s Dad.” Ella sucked in her breath. She knew what was coming next. “And she fell in love,” I said simply. “Or so I was told. I’ve never talked to her about it, but people tell me that the moment her eyes met his, everything was over. There was no question about it. She was going to leave her loveless marriage and her promiscuous husband. She loved my Uncle. Of course, that meant leaving me, but that was no problem.” I chuckled darkly. “No, the problem was Will’s Mom. Will’s Dad still loved his wife, even if he felt attraction towards my Mother. “My Mom sent him a plane ticket to Paris. They were running away together. But Will’s Father was only going to go there to tell her it was over, that it could never happen.” I sighed now, feeling the sadness rush back to me. “But they weren’t the only ones to go to Paris.” Ella’s eyes widened. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I was a lonely boy,” I explained, “who wanted to see my Mother. I begged my Father to let me go to Paris. In the end, in a rare moment of compassion, he took me. And then, destiny took its course. “My Father brought me to the hotel my Mother’s agent had told him she was staying in. I still remember the moment vividly, even now. We’d knocked on the door, but it was already open. I’d thought that was a little strange. I walked in and immediately heard two voices arguing from the balcony. One was clearly my Mother’s. Another was my Uncle’s.” “‘How could you do this to me?’” I said, imitating my Mother’s voice. “‘You promised to take me away, you promise to save me from him.’” “‘I can’t do that,’” I continued, switching to my uncle. “‘I’m sorry, but I have responsibilities. I have a company. I have a wife. I have a son. I can’t leave them…not even for true happiness. And what about Ash? How can you leave that sweet boy? Will pities him, you know. His parents are never home and he has no one else to talk to. You can’t let him go.’” I paused. Ella’s eyes were shining with unshed tears. “At that moment, I felt a flush of betrayal,” I stated. “Will pities me? I hated being pitied. It made me feel like I was being looked down upon. Was the only reason he talked to me because he pitied me? How dare he! I vowed to never speak to him again. But that was just a little boy, making stupid little promises in his own head. I would’ve forgiven Will, if it hadn’t been for the words my Mother had spoken next. “‘I don’t care about that boy! He means nothing to me. No, in fact, I hate him! I hate him for being his Father’s and not yours. I’ve never loved him at all.’” Tears rolled down Ella’s cheeks and there was a catch in her throat. “‘How could you say that? He’s your son!’” “‘I don’t care! I’m speaking the truth. I don’t love him!’” “‘How can you talk like this…? You can’t possibly love me to the point that you’ll disown Ash, your own flesh and blood…’” The Billion Dollar Girl “‘So what if I do?’” “‘I…I can’t listen to you talk like this. Get some sleep. Sort out your thoughts. I’ll come back tomorrow.’” Ella was crying openly now, little sobs making her whole body shake. “He opened the door and saw us, his brother and his nephew. He said nothing. There was a silent moment. Then he walked past as and away, out of the hotel room. “Me and my Father stood there, listening to my Mother’s pleads and cries from balcony. At some point, my Father scooped me into his arms and carried me out of the room, taking me away. I’m not sure when. I’d lost all sense of time, listening to my Mother crying.” I sighed and reached over to wipe a tear from Ella’s cheek. Her lips parted, but she didn’t object to my touch. I stared down into her eyes. “Don’t cry for me, Ella,” I said softly. “I’m fine now. Honestly.” I continued my story. “But that’s not the end of it. Apparently, later on, my Mother had been drunk. She’d been wandering the streets when she’d been recognised, unfortunately by a group of thugs. She was kidnapped, right off the streets of Paris. The kidnappers sent the Castillo Corp. a ransom demand for three-hundred million dollars. But these guys were amateurs. Their phone call was traced to a shack in Paris. “But they’d given in time limit, before they killed my Mother. Ten hours. It wasn’t enough time for the money to be prepared and routed overseas. The US were going to send a team to Paris, but there wasn’t enough time and the Paris police force didn’t have the authority to send a team in themselves. It seemed hopeless. The only way was for my Father to go in and trade himself for my Mother.” I drew a deep breath, then exhaled quickly. “He refused,” I sighed. “My Father refused to save his Wife, though I think he’d grown to love her at least little. Because no matter how much he’d loved my Mother, he loved his lifestyle a lot more. He would not trade himself in, no matter how much we’d begged. “But he wasn’t the only one who had the option. Unbeknownst to anyone, my Uncle made the decision to go to the shack alone, armed only with an army knife. He’d loved my Mother, despite everything else. He entered the shack. “Citizens around the house heard three gunshots and a scream. Two hours later, my Mother was safely back in her hotel room, the kidnappers in police custody and my Uncle in an ICU.” I took a deep breath, letting the information sink in. Ella refused to look at me, but stared down at her shoes, tears falling onto her lap. “My Father and I went to visit him. He’d lost too much blood, the doctors said. He would not survive the night. My Uncle had died to save my Mother and left behind his wife and son. He asked of my Father three things. “One, look after the company and abandon his rich lifestyle. Father did this to the best of his ability. Two, give my Mother the divorce and the freedom she’d always dreamed of. My Father complied. Three…keep my cousin, Will, as the heir to his Empire. “My Father did not do this. As soon as my Uncle died, Will and his Mother were banished, ridiculed as the son and wife of a man who had loved his sister-in-law…They retreated abroad, where Will’s Mother remarried. Will hates that man, but not as much as he hates his dead Father for betraying him. “Why did my Dad do this to Will? I don’t want to be the heir. I haven’t been trained for it. To be honest, Will would be a hundred times more competent than me as the future CEO. So why did my Dad do it? He was taking his revenge on my Uncle by banishing his beloved wife and son. “My Father is a bitter man.” I finished my story and finally silence filled the car. *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ This silence was a lot worse now, a lot more poisonous. This was mainly because now, I wasn’t able to say anything, when before I’d chosen not to speak. But no matter what happened, I couldn’t open my mouth to break the suffocating silence. The cab finally stopped, the gentle humming of the car engine cutting off jolting me out of my reverie. Ash paid the guy in silence. My fingers fumbled in the dark for the handle. When I found it, I pulled it open and fell out into the dark street, breathing in the cold night air. It was liberating, finally being out of that car. As the cars rushed by, I felt the wind whip against my face, my tear tracks extra cold on my skin. I shivered. At once, Ash pulled off his coat and draped it around my shoulders. I was forcibly reminded of yesterday, on that bridge when he’d tried to give me his coat while I’d refused stubbornly. I’d even shaken it off my shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. Now, I held the coat to myself, breathing in the smell of Ash’s cologne. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I was still meant to be mad at him. But it was hard to remember why when I was in this foreign country, in these softly lit Parisian streets. It seemed so long ago, it was hard to believe it was only the day before. The Eiffel was so beautifully lit it took my breath away. Of course, I’d seen pictures of it. I’d even studied its history in French. But everything it was nothing like being there, in front of it, seeing it. I stared, gaping, everything forgotten for a moment. “Do you want to go up?” Ash asked. I didn’t say anything, just nodded. Ash took my hand. Though I knew that I could push his hand again, it felt warm and comforting. Will’s hand had been cold. Was I really going to give up this warm hand for a cold one? No, I thought, shaking my head. You faxed Will the contract. It was too late to turn back now. Even if though Ash was finally opening up and your heart hurt so much for him, and you knew that by marrying Will, it would hurt him more than words could say…it was too late. Yet… I looked at Ash, at his straight nose, his long lashes, his curved lips. The story he had told me was already carved into my still bleeding heart. And I knew, deep down, that I could never let him go. *** ῼ Ash Castillo ῼ “Do you want me to carry you?” I said sympathetically as I watched Ella huff as she climbed the stairs. “I can walk by myself,” she snapped, clutching my coat around her, the breath around her lips forming wispy clouds of condensation. “But I don’t understand why we didn’t just take the elevator.” “Now, where’s the fun in that?” I chastised, offering her my hand again. She took it and dragged herself up. I winced. My arm felt like it was being wrenched out of the socket. But, at least she wasn’t ignoring me anymore. “Jesus, Ella,” I said, my eyes watering. “How much do you weigh?” She suddenly froze. I froze as well, sensing I’d said something wrong. Was it because I mentioned her weight? No, that couldn’t be it. Ella wasn’t that kind of girl. She didn’t care about things like weight. But then why was she looking so panicked right now? “Ella?” I asked tentatively. “Are you –?” “I’m fine,” she snapped. “Let’s just climb up this thing.” She let go of my hand quickly. Silence quickly filled the space between us. I broke it quickly before it could cement and become this huge barrier between us. “Hurry up,” I laughed, grabbing her hand again, this time without asking. “I have a surprise for you.” “What is it?” she replied dubiously. Her hand closed around mine again and I felt a rush of warmth. “I just thought, since we’re in France…that you would like to try some French food.” “In the Eiffel Tower?” She definitely sounded dubious now. “Yes, actually there are two restaurants in the Eiffel tower,” I informed her. “But we’re not going to either of those. We’re going to have our dinner at a very special private restaurant open for one night only. I hired out the top of the Eiffel Tower.” She gaped, worries forgotten. “You’re kidding me.” “Nope. I hear the view’s spectacular.” *** Ͼ Ella Castillo Ͽ The Billion Dollar Girl Okay, I have to admit, Ash knows romantic. We were surrounded by candles, roses and there was even a violinist who serenaded us. It was like something out of a movie. But, apparently, Ash did not know warm. Even the violinist’s teeth were chattering. “Ash,” I said, my eyes dry from wind. My eyelashes were coiling from the cold. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think it’s too cold for me to eat. No, scratch that. I think it’s too cold for me to breathe. You’ve heard of hypothermia, right?” Ash, frustratingly, looked the achingly and painful unaffected by the drop in temperature. He looked relatively comfortable actually, even though his jacket was draped around me. He leant back into the luxurious chair, his muscles visible through his shirt. “Just be patient,” he sighed, that annoying smirk playing on his lips. “The food will come.” “And then it will freeze,” I snapped. “It’s like minus one here.” “Fine. Gustav, bring us fifteen space heaters,” Ash said, snapping his fingers at a man I suddenly noticed was there. “I’ll give you an extra ten thousand if you make it back here in five minutes.” The guy gaped for a moment, then disappeared in a flash. We heard him stumble as he ran to the elevator. Ash smirked. “An extra ten thousand what?” I asked. “Bucks,” Ash said. “Well, I guess, Euros. Whatever.” “Fourteen-thousand dollars for fifteen space heaters?” I gaped. “Well, the money was meant to be for the speed. I mean, you said you were cold, right?” “Yes,” I spluttered. “Yes, I did, but you didn’t have to…I mean…” Ash stared at me and I finally realized something. “You have no idea how normal people live, right?” He gave me a clueless look. “I do live like a normal person.” I wouldn’t stop laughing. Even when the guy returned (three seconds before his ‘deadline’) with the fifteen heaters, I was snorting a little. Ash just watched me with vague confusion, which morphed into bemused resignment. The food was finally coming. The appetisers came to our table and the waiter said something in French which Ash replied to. The waiter left and I stared down at the egg thing on my plate and poked at it suspiciously. It smelt pretty good. Suddenly, I realized how hungry I was. I stabbed a fork into it and shoved it into my mouth. I looked up again and met Ash’s eyes. He was staring at me with a hard to describe expression in those bright blue eyes. “Why are you looking at me like that?” “No reason…” Ash said, looking down at his plate, smiling. It wasn’t his usual cocky smirk, but an honest-to-god smile, slightly tinged with embarrassment. “I just…thought you looked beautiful tonight.” I knew what I looked like. Though I was finally thawing out thanks to Gustav, I knew I looked a complete mess right now. I didn’t have time to change, so I was still in my school uniform that was dirty. My nails were dirty and my hair was crazy. I wasn’t exactly a model right now. Suddenly, I stopped moving. His compliment just threw me off. It made me realize what I was doing right now. I was in Paris, with a boy I…maybe…you know… He was husband, but only for personal gain. He most certainly did not…you know…me back. The sharp memories of yesterday afternoon (yesterday? Was it really only yesterday? Wow) came rushing back to me. The rain. The screaming. The Brooklyn Bridge. How could I just let all of that go, like an idiot? I clutched my stomach. Suddenly, I was nauseated. “Do you like the food?” Ash asked, oblivious to my sudden nausea. “If you want, I can try to make it for you back home. I know it won’t be very good, but I can at try –” He stopped talking when he saw the expression on my face. “Ella…” he stuttered. “Are you okay?” I pushed my plate away, stumbling as I came to my feet. I turned away, hiding my face from Ash. My shoes smashed into a heater in my haste to get away, but I ignored it and just ran for the bathroom I’d spotted on the way up. Ash yelled after me, but I didn’t turn back. Once I was in a bathroom, I found an empty cubicle and locked myself in. Once safely there, I spent several minutes with my knees on the cold floor, my head hanging over the toilet bowl, breathing heavily. I couldn’t quite make myself hurl, but that sick feeling lingered in my stomach.
Posted by Louise Nel at 09:34