heart of stone

 

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1. The end of a promising career

The polished doors of the elevator parted, and I was blinded by the flashes of the cameras that were pointed at me. Men and women were shoving at each other to get a good picture of me. Information of my latest breakdown had been leaked, and the vultures were trying to get a part of me. My heart raced, and my hands were clammy. I knew the feeling. It was something close to panic. I tried to store my emotions away. They were not allowed to see my weaknesses, but I wasn’t sure if I was succeeding. I was not an actor, just a musician without a label. I pulled my cap deeper to hide my face and tried to find my way through the chaos. The strap of my bag threatened to slip off my shoulder, and I pulled it back up again. The small gesture made more flashes go off again. I snorted, as if a falling back was news. I felt like running away. The way from the elevators to the door of the hotel was not a long one, but it felt endless. I took step after careful step. Alone. On my own. Where was my entourage? No one was there. No one was there to shield me from the vultures. I had done this myself when I went off on them and fired them all. Of course, me firing them was just an illusion. It had been the label who had ordered them back to teach me a lesson. When I hadn’t backed off my demands, they had threatened to terminate the contracts. I had never thought that they would do this. I was lost without my assistant, my agent, and my manager and they knew it. I was even more lost without my bodyguards. I understood that they wanted to put some pressure on me, break me, but this was cruel. I would have to crawl on my hands and knees and beg for forgiveness. I knew I would never do it, but at that moment, when I pushed the hotel door open, I decided that I needed them to make me feel safe and to keep my life organized. I was ready to beg.

The air was crisp this morning, just the way I loved it. I wanted to take a deep breath, but I had the paparazzi in my back and in my front. The questions they threw my way made me wonder who had leaked information. They knew exactly what had happened. They knew that I was alone. They knew that in this moment, I was an easy target.

I walked down the stairs scanning the area for my car. I saw it. At least my driver stood by my side. He was loyal. I exhaled and rushed to the car. I would see that he would get a raise after this. The door was already open for me, just the way I always demanded it. I leaped inside the car pulling the door close behind me. I closed my eyes and let my head fall back against the headrest. I exhaled slowly again. I was shaking and out of breath. There was no reason to be, but it was part of my condition. And although I had been spared for months, I felt an anxiety attack lurking around the corner. I couldn’t afford to fall apart now. No one was allowed to see my weaknesses. They were hunters, I was their prey. And they scared me. They had no idea how scared I was when I had to run from them. The paparazzi and the anxiety.

The car started to move, and the distance between them and me grew. I knew it without opening my eyes, and it calmed me. A little chuckle came from my left side, and I jumped at the sudden sound breaking the silence. I opened my eyes and turned my head in the direction of the sound. I was not alone. Someone was in my car. It was another man dressed in an immaculate suit, scrutinizing me with narrowed eyes. Damn vultures. Nothing and nowhere was safe anymore.

“If I had known that I would have a guest, I would have dressed up.” His voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat. I looked at him again and wondered how anyone could dress up from what he was wearing. Then I registered what he had said. Me? His guest? I blinked, not understanding what he was saying. His lips were quirked up, and a small smile was playing on his mouth. Something was amusing him. I just didn’t know what it was, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know, but something told me it was me.

“Riley Stone. Pleased to meet you,” he reached out his hand, and the cuffs of his white shirt were revealed. They were held together with golden cufflinks. He looked at me as if I was expected to recognize him, but I knew that I had never seen this man before. He exuded a power I had rarely seen. It made me straighten my slouch. Also, usually, I was the one being recognized and introduced to people, I didn’t need to remember names and faces. I had people for that.

“Emerson Heart?” I asked, looked at his hand again and back at his face before I shook it. The handshake was brief but strong. He ran his hand across his thigh, and I realized that I had just touched his dry hand with my wet one. Embarrassing.

“I know who you are. The real question is, why are you in my private car?” He unbuttoned his jacket and flattened his tie, but his gaze was glued to me. Everything I wanted to say sounded stupid, but staying silent was not an option either. I was in his car. I had to wrap my head around that bit of information. No raise for the driver after all. At least not for mine. I felt lost. The calm I had sensed mere moments earlier was eluding me once again.

“There must have been a confusion,” I did my best not to stammer and sound confident, but felt intimidated by this man and lowered my gaze down to look at my hands. I took the cap off my head and ran my hand through my hair, just to deflect. His eyes followed my every move.

“Where do you need to be?” The voice was not gentle, it held an annoyed edge. I was probably keeping him from making money, or from a business meeting or something equally important.

“Anywhere but here,” I muttered under my breath. I didn’t even mean the car and him. I meant the entire situation, with me being chased around and feeling the way I felt. I took my phone from my bag to look at my schedule. I had given up on memorizing. I had become jaded and dependent on my assistant. But she wasn’t here, and I had to manage on my own. And then the car stopped. I looked up, and Riley Stone didn’t look pleased. He had gotten out of his seatbelt and turned to me.

“Two options: get out and get lost, or tell me where you need to be. None of these options accept your rude and bratty behavior. Which one will it be?” I had never seen eyes as cold as his. Brown eyes had always held something comforting for me, not his. His index finger pointed at the door. I didn’t even know where we were.

“I am sorry. I didn’t mean you. With what I said earlier? Honestly, I didn’t. I need to be at Hotel Watts.” I whispered, only a step away from pleading and, for the first time in a long while, there was someone who didn’t jump at my command and who didn’t show signs of being intimidated by me. It was quite the opposite. The tables had turned on me. Was this karma? I had no idea how I would get to my appointment on my own, and as much as I hated to admit it, right then, I needed Riley Stone’s help. “Please,” I added.

“Laurence, did you get that?” The driver nodded, put the address in his GPS system and moments later the car pulled back into the traffic.

“Thank you.” My gratitude was genuine, but Riley Stone didn’t spare me another look. He sat back and buckled up again.

I saw the fans and the paparazzi long before I knew that we had arrived at my destination. I took a deep breath, but it didn’t prevent my heart from racing and my breathing being erratic. I didn’t want to get out of the slowing car. My mouth was dry, my hands were clammy once again. I turned to Riley and wanted to reach out my hand to say ‘thank you,' but it shook too much and I lowered it again. My lungs burned, and my legs felt like lead. The man nodded curtly in my direction, and the door opened. I hadn’t even noticed the driver getting out of the car. Wordless, I left and was, once again, blinded by flashes going off in my face. I felt cold inside. Abandoned. I watched the car leave, trying to drown the noise out, but I couldn’t, it was too loud. I walked into the hotel, and where I was usually greeted by my assistant. This time, no one was waiting. I walked to the reception desk, trying to remember how to properly check in to a hotel and which name I had been using recently for my reservations. The young woman blushed behind the desk stammered telling me the room where I was supposed to have a photoshoot with a renowned photographer and held out the key to my suite where I could freshen up. The young woman blushed, even more, when she pushed an envelope toward me, and our fingers brushed. I tried to smile my most charming smile. I didn’t feel it at all, but she didn’t seem to notice.

Waiting for yet another elevator, I noticed the silence. No one was calling my name, no flashes went off. There were security guards in front of the glass door, and they kept everyone out who didn’t have business here. Finally, something working in my favor. I opened the envelope and took out a note.

“We’re sorry Em, but we’re done. The label called us back. We want to stay employed, Em. It’s not about you, it’s about business. Get in touch with the lawyers as soon as possible, they will explain everything. You are on your own now. Don’t mess it up and don’t try to call. M”

At that moment, something snapped inside of me. I was done too. I didn’t even wait for the elevator to arrive. I stalked back to the reception desk and asked the woman behind the counter to call me a cab and to tell the waiting photographer that I wouldn’t come. She was confused but did as I told her, making the necessary calls. I could hear the seething voice of the man who had been waiting for me, and I felt bad for the girl to be at the end of his rage, but I was tired, exhausted and I wanted out. This was not my life anymore. Nothing was in my control, and that had to change. I put my cap back on my head and a fake smile on my lips and made my way outside to the waiting taxi cab. I ignored the cameras and the calls for attention. My only goal was to get away from this madness.

I drove straight to the airport. I wanted to go home to the sanctuary of my appartment. Leave everything behind. I didn’t want to be famous anymore, and I didn’t want to meet anyone’s expectations anymore either. I wanted to vanish from the spotlight.

At the airport, I was told that I had to wait for an available seat. This was new but if a life away from the spotlight meant waiting in line, then so be it. At this point, I didn’t care anymore. I asked the man behind the counter to give me a call as soon as he had an opening and he agreed, asking for an autograph in return. I scribbled something on a slip of paper he held out to me and suppressed a shudder of disgust. I felt like a prostitute.

I pulled my hood over my cap and pushed my sunglasses up my nose. I was inside a building and didn’t need the shades, but I didn’t want anyone to approach me, and I didn’t want people to see my eyes or face. I was well aware of the fact that I wasn’t a good enough actor to conceal my emotions. I found a quiet corner and decided to take care of business by calling my lawyers. Where they still my lawyers? Where they still doing business in my interest? After all, they were paid by the record label, and I was not on that payroll anymore. I told them that I would agree with everything they wanted, as long as it didn’t damage my reputation as a musician beyond repair. This included issuing a statement about the split from the label and everyone involved. I paid a shit-ton of money for breach of contract and other things that were listed in small print on my contract, but I did not care. This was my life. I hated it, and I wanted out. When the lawyers said that I would lose every right to my own songs, I jumped out of my seat. I could live with everything, but not that. They were my babies, my emotional baggage packed into lyrics and melodies, I did not want to let them go. I couldn’t do that. Anything but this. I started pacing the aisle making the point at ignoring the stares and glares from the other waiting people. It took a lot of work, some persuasion, and I might have done some ass-kissing, but I won that one. It was and stayed my own intellectual property. I calmed down enough to sit down again and moved to the seat I had vacated. I pulled the glasses off my face and rubbed the bridge of my nose. Still talking on my phone, I tripped over someone’s feet. I was steadied with a tight grip on my arms. When I looked up I looked right into cold eyes I had seen before. Riley Stone. He shoved me off him, and I had a hard time finding my footing. He got up from his seat and took hold of my elbow. I barely had time to pick up my bag. He guided me to a door marked private and I let him push me inside. I was still on the phone listening to my lawyers. My penthouse would go back to the record label, the car lease would be canceled as well as every appointment that had been made through my PR team and my management. Basically, they were throwing me out, and I had to start again from the scratch, but I still didn’t care. Everything was going to waste anyway. So be it. My lawyers assured me that a statement would be issued that would make me look good, and that would provide damage control. I agreed to everything. As soon as I had signed the papers they would send me, I would be relieved of all my duties and rights. Free. Alone. On my own. I stood still and watched Riley Stone pacing the small empty room. He didn’t look pleased, it seemed to be the only look he had reserved for me. It seemed to be the only way I made people feel about me. As soon as the business was done, the call that sealed my fate was ended. I put my phone in my bag and then realized what had happened. I had thrown my last fit, my final tantrum. I was without a label, without support, more importantly, the home where I had wanted to go wasn’t mine anymore. I had just agreed to give it back to the label and have my personal belongings moved to a storage unit.

From across the empty room, Riley Stone still glared at me. His angry stare made cave and finally, I broke down sliding down against the next available wall. I lowered my head to my knees and tried to breathe. I was free from the people that I had felt had held me back. Now I was trapped in my own mess. The hard stare from the other side of the room didn’t soothe me at all, in fact, it only heightened the level of my anxiety. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. In recent time, it had always helped. This time it didn’t. My heart raced, it almost hurt.

“Why did you bring me in here?” I asked looking up. My words were clipped due to my erratic breathing but I had to say something. I had to find some control again. I was furious at myself and I was furious at him and his air of superiority.

“You were making a fool of yourself out there. There were at least ten phones openly pointed at you. You are a public person, you should know better than to talk business in the open like that.” I was lost for words. Here I was, being scolded by a stranger. I wanted to tell him so many words of choice, but none of them left my lips. My anger and my anxiety were teaming up inside. I hadn’t felt this confused and conflicted in a long while. “I think you need a timeout,” was his final assessment. I couldn’t deny it, and I didn’t try to. He was right. “Are are you going to do? Is there a plan?” I shook my head, not trusting my voice. He sighed and looked away. “This is a bad idea,” he muttered, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hear it.

“You’re coming with me.”

“Who are you again?” I squinted against the bright neon light that surrounded him.

“Riley Stone,” he said as if I had forgotten his name and he had to introduce himself a second time. I nodded. “We need to go. We wouldn’t want to miss the flight.” There was nothing left to say to that. I pushed myself off the wall and followed Riley Stone through the terminal. Before we left the room, he had told me to lose the cap and the sunglasses, as well as my sweatshirt. He admonished me to walk with a straight back and try to look confident. It was easier said than done, but no one approached me. A steward escorted us to a private plane, and I just walked after them, no questions asked. They knew where they were going. I just followed. I was a nice feeling to leave someone else in charge.

“I thought you wouldn’t want to miss the flight,” I said when we were seated. A private plane usually came with a pilot too. If Riley Stone held so much power, he surely decided when he wanted to take off.

“My pilot has a temper,” he shrugged with a smirk. I didn’t know what to reply to that and buckled my belt. I was torn. This was a bad idea. I was clearly not in the right state of mind to make any important decisions, this week’s disaster was a clear indication of that. And yet, here I was. In a plane. Destination unknown.

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2. Falling apart on a jet plane

I sat on a private plane and realized that I was willingly abducted by a stranger who sat two rows away from me. Instead of being scared, I was excited until I realized that I had left my baggage at the hotel. Distress was spreading inside of me again. I was a stupid man to get on a plane with a stranger. Stupid for not having thought it out. Stupid for not having a plan. I needed to address my predicament, but I didn’t know how. Riley Stone. Who was he anyway? How had he become so filthy rich? I cleared my throat to get his attention, but it didn’t work. The noise of the engine swallowed my weak attempt to get him to turn around. I did it again, louder this time, but again, he didn’t react. A steward came over to my seat and asked if I needed a glass of water. His voice was hushed. I blushed. Maybe Riley, or Mister Stone, was asleep. I declined the offered beverage and looked away. The steward left telling me to call if I needed anything. I knew the drill, this wasn’t the first jet I sat in. Not at all. Not even the unknown destination fazed me as much as it should, it was normalcy for me. And yet, I felt my heartbeat getting stronger. It took all my courage to say: “Mister Stone?” into the now near silent cabin. A young woman approached the seat where he was sitting. I heard murmuring, but I couldn’t make out the words that were said. I saw the woman nod and smile, and then she made her way over to me. I wasn’t even worth his personal time.

“I am Denise,” she sat down opposite of me. “I am Mister Stone’s personal assistant. He doesn’t wish to be bothered right now. Maybe I can help you?” I wondered if she knew who I was. “Mister Heart?” She tilted her head and looked at me as if she was waiting for me to say something.

“My baggage and my guitar. They are still at the hotel, and I don’t… I need them, but there is no one I can call.” I felt embarrassed. By admitting this, I was also admitting that I had failed as a human being, as an artist. I was a huge asshole. I had let my employees down, and my employees had been my friends, the only friends I had left, after years of traveling the world. Now, I was alone. I felt the panic rise. The heartbeat and the breath that wouldn’t stop racing. It became hard to focus on the woman next to me.

“Mister Heart?” I heard the voice, but I couldn’t answer. My thoughts were running in cycles. I was alone. I had no career because I had destroyed it myself, and I couldn’t breathe. Alone. Destroyed career. No, air. The thoughts repeated in my head, and I couldn’t think anything else. I gasped to fill my lungs, but all they did was burn. I had lost the ability to fill them with the much-needed oxygen.

“Mister Heart?” Her voice was more insistent now, but I couldn’t react. I felt her hand on my shoulder, but I couldn’t stand a stranger’s touch and shrugged it off. I needed to get up, walk it off or sit down in a more comforting position. I fumbled with my seatbelt undone but couldn’t undo it. I was trapped. I pushed and pulled. I moaned and groaned, but the device didn’t give an inch. This was not good. Not good at all. Like a freight train approaching a wall, the anxiety attack gripped me and I couldn’t get out. Too late. Too late to think rationally. There was no air.

“Mister Stone…” She sounded desperate now. I didn’t want this to happen, but I couldn’t prevent it. No air. No friends. Nothing left. No air. My fingers were shaking, and I was trapped. In a plane. With strangers who didn’t understand. I couldn’t do this. I needed out. I needed air. My heart hurt, and I was sweating. Was I dying? I was dying.

“Emerson, look at me!” Riley Stone’s voice cut through my thoughts, but I couldn’t stop my frantic tried to get out of the seat. The stone-cold voice left no room for disobedience, but I couldn’t look up, I needed to get the seatbelt undone. Calm, warm hands covered mine. The touch was unwelcome, and I wanted to shake it off. The touch got stronger, and then I was free. Released. I pushed past Riley and began pacing.

“Calm down!” Another order that I couldn’t follow. If I had been able to calm down, I would have done it, but I couldn’t breathe. How was I supposed to be calm when I was dying, and my body didn’t obey me anymore?

“Denise, make sure to get his stuff out of the hotel. I’m taking care of the situation here.” I heard the words but didn’t understand them until much later.

“Emerson look at me!” He stepped in front of me, his hands forced my face to look at him, but my eyes weren’t able to focus on his face. His grip was hard and preventing me from moving. Trapped again. A new struggle began.

“Breathe with me!” Why was he ordering me around? I couldn’t breathe, that was the main reason I was panicking, and he was ordering me around like a child. He was still touching me. I hated to be touched. My mouth opened to say something, but I couldn’t get any words out.

“Lie down!” That I could do. My entire body was shaking when Riley helped me down, but eventually, I laid down on my back. He knelt next to me, his eyes still glued to mine. I was ordered to breathe in and to breathe out, and I did. I gave up. I stopped fighting and just followed orders. My life was out of my control. Everything was out of my control now. His stern voice made me focus on my breathing, though, and I felt the hurt in my chest subside. Filling my lungs with the much-needed breathing air became easier. The feeling that I was dying faded. I gasped to get as much oxygen inside as possible. He must have sensed that I was calming down because he let go of my face and moved away. He stopped choreographing my breathing and scrutinized me. I knew what was next. I had calmed down from the anxiety and a void spread inside me. A weird lightness. And then they came. The tear. I hadn’t had anxiety attacks in years, but they still worked the same way. I tried to keep them in and covered my eyes with my arm, but I wasn’t allowed to hide. Somehow, Riley Stone seemed to like seeing me in distress, and I had no idea why. He took my arm from my face and helped me sit up against one of the seats.

“Let them flow. It’s okay. It’s normal.” He sounded gentle and exhausted. It was a new sound, but I didn’t have the energy to analyze it. I wanted to vanish. I couldn’t deal with these attacks on my own, and I wasn’t on any medication for them either. I thought they had gone. I was weak and frail. A loser all around. I wanted someone to hug me like my mom had used to do when I was a child, but there wasn’t anyone to do the task. Not here anyway. Denise appeared again, and she whispered something in Riley’s ear. He nodded, and I turned away. I didn’t want her to see me like this. The only good thing was that no one was filming or taking pictures. At least I hoped no one was. The tears flowed freely now, and I hugged my knees to my chest. My head lay on my knees. I must have looked pathetic. Riley sat close by. His eyes were closed, and one leg was stretched out. He rested his arm on the knee of the other leg that was bent.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized between uncontrolled sobs.

“Nothing to apologize about. Are you able to get in your seat? We are about to land. Denise arranged for everything to be sent here.” He got up with a grunt. It took a lot of efforts to get up from my position, but I did it on my own. It was a small victory. This time, Riley took a seat next to me.

“You need to wear your seatbelt. Do you think you can handle it?” His voice wasn’t as cold anymore, but he still sounded again. I just nodded.

“Where is here anyway?” It was the first coherent thought I had after the attack. Where were we? How long had I lost control? Why was he doing this?

“Stone Island.” There was the smirk and the shrug again; as if it was obvious. I had no idea where Stone Island was, but the moment I looked out of the window, I could only see a big green Island with a white sandy beach. And a long landing strip. Did this guy own a private Island??

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3. Stone Island

The plane landed smoothly. Around us, people appeared in the cabin, and I had no idea where they had been hiding all along and if they had seen my breakdown. There was Denise again, and the steward from earlier was there too. I followed the motions and waited for what would be happening next. I trudged after Stone and refused every offer to have my bag carried for me. It held everything I had left in this world for now, and I had no intention of sharing it or stupidly giving it away if there was the slightest chance of not getting it back.

“Welcome back, Mister Stone. Everything is arranged for your stay here, Sir.” The man who had said it wore a black suit and mirrored glasses. Judging by the plug in his ear, he could only be a bodyguard, and not for the first time I wondered who Riley Stone was and why did he need security? He was loaded, that much was clear. But apart from that, I was completely left in the dark as to who he was. “We didn’t know about an additional guest. I am sorry to inform you that the houses are not entirely ready yet, but they will be just in time for the official arrivals.” The man looked away as if he had failed his boss. The dynamic was weird, to say the least. Stone nodded and turned to look at me, then he shook his head with a grunt.

“He stays with me.” The answer was gruff and unexpected. I wanted to turn away and get back on the plane. Anywhere but here, was my desired destination. I felt like a possession, the way he spoke about me. It had been one of the reasons why I had snapped at my entourage so many times. Yes, they had done their jobs and followed orders, but they had somehow forgotten that I was a human being. I wanted to say something witty, but I felt invisible and unneeded.

“Denise, could you please arrange for dinner to be served at seven.” His tone was different when he spoke to her. I could tell that he liked her, and I wondered if they had a thing. It was none of my business, of course, but it wasn’t unheard of. I didn't let my mind wander further. What good would it do, apart from the distraction? She nodded in his direction and then she left, not waiting for any acknowledgments. A breeze ran through my hair. It was refreshing, and I stopped to take the deep breath I had wanted to take since leaving my hotel that morning. It smelled of kerosene, which was no surprise because I still stood on the landing strip. And yet I enjoyed this moment. It was simple, but it made me close my eyes and I felt a grin appear on my face.

“Are you coming?” Stone looked at me impatiently, tapping one foot and burying one hand in the pocket of his black slacks. When I started to move, he walked ahead, not checking if I followed or not. My grin was gone, the contentment that I had almost felt was gone again. We walked to a car and, of course, a driver, the same as this morning, opened our doors. He must have been in the plane too, but I hadnd’t seen him, and frankly, I had been too preoccupied to notice him, too. I climbed in behind my host. Once again we sat next to eaxh other in silence. The car drove away and down a narrow strip of street. To my left I saw the sea and the beach, on my right, there was only green. I leaned closer to the window to see more. I could make out brownish rocks and on top stood a big white house with large windows. It made me feel small. I had millions in my accounts, but everything I owned was peanuts compared to this. I took my phone out to see if I had reception. To my surprise I had, and I also had a couple of messages. One was from my lawyer asking where to send the documents that needed to be signed. I sighed. I had to find the courage to ask for help with this, but that also meant admitting failure and showing weakness. My pride was taking blow after blow, and I gave in. I had nothing to lose anymore.

“I have some business that needs to be done. Documents that need to be signed and such,” I told the seat in front of me. I felt Stone’s eyes on my left cheek, but I couldn’t make myself look up. It was clear that he didn’t want me there with him, and it felt weird to make demands. I rolled the words on my tongue to ask for his assistance, but I didn’t have to say anything out loud.

“Denise will take care of it. Just give her a quick run through the things that need to be done. She’ll do it.” He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, and when I looked at him, he was looking outside. If it had been anybody else, I would have yelled and ranted about the lack of respect, but Riley Stone seemed to be the same as me. He was closed off and distant, and there was something about that that made me angry.

“With all due respect, it’s private, and I would rather take care of it myself. I just need an office with a working computer and a fax machine.” I sounded like a businessman who knew what he was talking about. The truth was, I didn’t. I had always had people around who took care of it all. I just read contracts – if I wanted to know what they said, and signed them. For the rest, I was told where I had to be and when. I was driven everywhere I needed to be, and all I had to do was be creative, sing my songs and come up with new ones. I was completely useless in the real world. Riley smirked. He knew it. While he saw through me, I couldn’t even look at him. I had no idea where that submissive streak came from all of a sudden, but I didn’t like it. Maybe it was the aftermath of my panic attack?

“Suit yourself, but it’s her job, and she is very good at it.” He saw directly through me, and I hated it. “Fax machine,” he repeated snorting. Clearly he was amused. I felt exposed as it was, but if I showed him that I had no idea about my own business, I would look like a complete fool. I decided to leave the answer pending. I read my other messages, one was of my former assistant, Melinda. She apologized for leaving like the way she had but reiterated that it was the best solution for everyone involved. I wasn’t so sure about that, but I didn’t reply to her message either. Last was a message from my mom. She had seen footage of me pacing the rows of seats at the airport and asked where and how I was.

“Just a stupid question, but where is Stone Island exactly?”

“Caribbean.”

“And it is private?”

“Yes, it sure is. Everyone needs a timeout, sometimes.” Stone chuckled humorlessly. I couldn’t read him. At all.

“Can I tell my mother where I am?”

“Sure. You're not a hostage, you know. She won’t find anything about the island though if she cares to do some research,” he shrugged, cleared his throat and resumed looking out the window.

The car drove up a winding road, and the ocean was out of my view. I sent my mom a short message telling her that I was alright and that I was taking a timeout, hiding from the spotlight. I told her, once again, not to speak to any journalists or other people about me and my whereabouts and then, I put my phone away. I felt tired and hungry. I also still felt lost, and I missed my mother. She would have known how to comfort me. A little physical contact would have been nice.

The car pulled down a driveway, and we approached the house I had seen from the street. It was huge. The car stopped, and I waited. I knew the drill. I knew that someone was waiting to earn their keep and open the door for me, but no one came. Stone got out and I hurried behind him.

It was nice outside. Not scorching hot but not cold either. It was pleasant. I was glad I still had my bag. It gave my hands something to do. I looked back and had a view of the seemingly endless ocean. It was very nice. I had stayed at many hotels with great views, but it never got old to look at the sea.

A young woman waited at the door. I saw how she opened her eyes wide. Definite recognition. Laurence, the driver, took Stone’s bags and heaved them up the stairs and inside the house. Riley himself approached the girl. I followed.

“Emerson, this is Sibel. She is our maid. If you need anything, from food to laundry, you ask her.” I nodded and smiled. She blushed and looked away. “I see you already have a fan here. Let me show you your rooms.” Again, he led the way, and I followed without any objections. The house exuded a serenity I had often missed in recent times. A large stairwell led upstairs. I followed Riley to the left where he opened a door that revealed another corridor. He stopped and turned to me. For a brief moment, he just stared at me.

“These are your private quarters for as long as you are here. Mine are on the other side of the hall. Almost identical. Get refreshed. Dinner is served at seven.” That was all he said. He didn’t open any more doors, didn’t show me around further. I felt shy, like an intruder. The first door I opened was a walk in closet. It was fully equipped with expensive clothes. They were not my size, but it was a close fit. Hidden behind the next door was a luxurious bathroom with a large tub that would undoubtedly be used sooner rather than later, and behind the last door was the bedroom. The center of it was a large bed. The light breeze blew the sheer curtains inside the room, it made me curious to see my view. I put my bag next to the bed and walked out to the balcony. The view was breathtaking. It was a mix of trees and the endless blue sea that merged with the sky. I soaked it all in and tried to remember when the last time was, I had had a chance to do this. I was allowed to be me. There was no need to hide because no one knew that I was here, and I didn’t need to hide who I am because the people who were here didn’t look like they cared and if they did, I could still be me. I felt sorry for the people I was letting down, the interviews I wasn’t giving and the studio time I wasn’t using, but right now, it wasn’t my problem. I looked to my right and saw Riley Stone. He didn’t wear his suit jacket anymore, and his tie was loose around his neck. He rubbed his face with both of his hands. Between the index and middle finger of his left hand was a cigarette. He looked weary, and I felt like being the cause. He took a long drag and blew out the bluish smoke again. A smoker. I hadn’t smelled it in the plane or in the car, but it explained the hoarse voice and the throat clearing.

A knock on my door made me look inside the room and walk back. I didn’t want to be caught ogling the other man.

“Mister Stone told me that you have some business that needs to be taken care of.” Denise pushed past me and came inside not waiting to be invited. She took a seat on the large sofa, crossed her legs and rested her tablet on her knee. “Tell me, what can I do for the famous Emerson Heart?” If the statement hadn’t been accompanied by a soft smile, I would have felt offended and would have retreated. I would have yelled and maybe even screamed, and I would have made sure that she would not talk to me ever again. Not this time. I wasn’t home and maybe I had learned a lesson from my behavior. I hesitated. I didn’t know her, and I didn’t know if I could trust her. Trust was my main issue. I had been working with the same people for eight years straight. They had been with me from the start, and now that my career was dwindling, and my records didn’t sell as good anymore, they left. They had abandoned me.

“I am good and discreet,” she told me as if she could sense my reluctance to talk. I acknowledged her words with a nod.

“I need to sign some papers that my lawyers want to send,” I finally said. It was easier than I had thought. Her concentrated face broke out into a smile.

“That’s all?”

“They need to get them back as soon as possible.”

“Consider it done. Mister Stone wanted me to tell you that you can take whatever you want or need out of the closet.” She stood up again and straightened her skirt. “I just need your lawyer’s details, and I will take care of the rest.”

“Okay.” We stood with an awkward silence stretching between us.

“Okay. Can I ask you one last thing?” I was confused, she hadn’t asked anything at all or hadn’t I listened properly? “He is quite stressed at the moment. There are a few changes in his future, and I know that he worries a lot, even if he doesn’t say it. Be gentle with him. He has a rough façade, but really, he is a good man.” She laid her small hand on my shoulder, looked at me as if to convey something more and walked out. I was speechless and wished for my guitar to be here. There was a song hidden in this situation, I knew it, I felt it, but I couldn’t catch it yet.

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5. Meeting at the swimming pool

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6. The hike

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7. Calling mom

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8. Painting

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9. Can I hold you

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10. Its late and we should sleep

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11. The beach

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12. Confession

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13. Storm is coming

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14. back to reality

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15. Why can't we stop time?

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16. Leaving on a jet plane

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17. Riley: I'm on your side

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18. Riley: the future is sealed

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19. Riley: disowned

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20. Riley: time to take back control

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21. Riley: family reunion

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22. Interlude

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23. Emerson: these feelings

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24. Emerson: delayed flight

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25. Emerson: believe in fate

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26. I need you in my life

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27. I'm not leaving

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28. I am where I am supposed to be

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The End is Just the Beginning

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~

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