(You must read Parts 1 to 3, if you still haven’t. You’ll find the link to the first three chapters on one of the tabs above. Thanks! – Ella)
A phone was ringing in Stella’s dream. She pressed Snooze, only to realize that she had reached for her iPhone, which was actually ringing, and that the Snooze button only worked for the alarm, which in her dazed state last night, she forgot to set.
She was dreaming of a tall, handsome, green-eyed elf who was kissing her hair and swearing love in the liquid elven tongue, and she most definitely did not welcome this rude awakening at all. The caller would receive the full wrath in her voice.
“Go away, Richard!” She said, and it was all that she could muster. Her vocal chords were still at rest. How could some people be so dense and self-absorbed? She thought. And why did she answer the phone when she could have pressed the red button and denied the call? She berated herself. There were ten reasons to hate Richard at that precise moment and Stella added them to her growing list of resentment.
“Good morning, my princess. I have good news for you. I am picking you up from the Kingsford international airport! I wouldn’t want you to worry about carrying your heavy luggage full of toiletries on the train, like you so heroically planned to do. Tell me, are you on your way already?” Richard was being unusually cheerful, blissfully unaware that Stella was really and truly in the process of leaving him. Wait, Stella’s groggy inner voice told her, he must be realizing that his powers on her are weakening, hence this stubborn refusal to let go.
“Since when did I become your princess? You would do well to remember that I already told you that I’m staying longer in Auckland!” This city was beginning to feel like sanctuary, she thought. She didn’t realize how tired she was, how absolutely tired, of Richard’s neediness.
“You mean, you are doing this to me? Just when I need you to edit the words to a song inspired by your absence?” Stella could hear the pout in Richard’s voice. It made her feel sick.
She sat up despite her body’s refusal to leave the warm bed. She felt her blood rising, which was a strange feeling. She used to have infinite patience for Richard, even when they were constantly bickering like an old married couple. It was too early in the day for that image, and she felt the irony in it. For they would never be married. For the first time, Stella felt she could stop repeating the same mistakes she had been making for two decades. She could stop hoping Richard would choose to be with her. For he couldn’t, and he wouldn’t.
“No I am not doing this to you. I am doing this for me. Please, Rich. Maybe this is good for us? For me, I mean.” Stella needed to be stronger and more consistent if she was going to be serious about moving on. Then she remembered Eddie.
“Stey-a!” Richard screamed his pet name for her, which he only used whenever he wanted her to do something against her will, which usually involved asking her to stay. Stella interrupted him before he could further hurt her ear drums.
“I have to go now, Rich. And stop calling me. I cannot afford the mobile roaming charges! I am here and I will make the most out of my trip. I can deal with my classes online. I’ll see you in a week.”
She could hear him building his protests, but she pressed the End Call button. She put the phone on silent mode and resolved to ignore Richard for the rest of the day. Make that for the rest of the week, which she planned to spend happily with Eddie.
Speaking of Eddie, she jumped out of bed and started preparing to meet him. Richard was right about the toiletries, for she loved special shampoo-bath gel-conditioner combinations that only came in huge bottles, and she always brought at least two each of lotions, creams, perfumes, colognes, and soaps. She liked to have her options, and for her scents to match her different moods. Thus, she was definitely not a light traveller.
She dressed up deliberately, thankful that she packed the old rose-colored lace dress she bought on sale from Witchery, which went well with her black tights and ankle boots. A black Banana Republic jacket, a purchase from Manila that she had always treasured, and a floral scarf from Richard (whose taste was exquisitely perfect) completed the outfit. She did not bring enough clothes for a week, but maybe this was an excuse to splurge and do some of her own shopping. She wondered if there were outlet stores in Auckland.
Stella had great skin and needed little makeup, but she still made the effort to put on cream blush, sheer lip gloss, and lash-lengthening mascara on top of her powder foundation.
She was attempting to close her suitcase when the hotel phone rang. “Do you need help with your bags, ma’am?” came Eddie’s voice on the other line. Stella laughed, because she felt like it, and said “Why yes, but don’t expect any tip. I’m saying yes as a favour to you! What an excuse to enter my hotel room!”
In less than five minutes – what, did he fly? – Eddie was knocking on her door. She opened it and felt a little rush of excitement upon seeing him. He was dressed in a blue knit sweater that was definitely Ralph Lauren – this was Richard’s voice in her head and she needed to shush it -, jeans, and brown suede boots, with his leather jacket hanging from his pointer finger that was casually resting on his right shoulder. Without the unflattering North Shore cap on, his hair was revealed in all its glory, black curls cascading up to chin level. He did not shave that morning and that left a stubble that made him look even more ruggedly handsome.
“Hi,” he said, and flashed a smile that revealed pearly white teeth. Stella wondered how this could be the same guy she was annoyed at just yesterday morning. She was definitely a fan of having enough time to get ready in the morning, for it made a world of difference in them both.
“Good morning. You’re not the bellhop,” Stella returned the smile. She knew her effect on Aussie men, for she had been exposed to them on the beach near Richard’s apartment. They found her short frame and her olive skin and her dark eyes exotic. She, in turn, did not find the tattooed and muscled bodies that frequented the beach that exciting. That’s what set Eddie apart. He was an Aussie, handsome alright, but geeky in his brilliance, a welcome respite from the beer hounds that seemed to roam Richard’s neighbourhood. The last part started to sound sexy. After staying up to get to know him through his social media posts, Eddie felt like less of a stranger to her.
Eddie could not think of a word to say. His brain froze at the sight of Stella’s beauty, and he inhaled her perfume as if intoxicated. He merely followed her to where she pointed to her bags, like a puppy. He wanted to put his arms around her but something told him it was not appropriate. It was amazing how his conscience was still speaking despite his lack of sleep and his mad dash that morning from Rotorua to Auckland, stopping briefly at his room at the Hilton, which thankfully he had reserved for two weeks as his home base. He also had the time, using superhuman speed, to book a car so he and Stella could have a leisurely holiday.
“Have you eaten?” he managed to ask her. Stella did not have time, she said. Neither did he.
“We could have brunch,” Stella suggested, before realizing that brunch sounded like a very Richard thing to do. Straight men like Eddie, they probably only took meals by their proper names.
Eddie looked at Stella’s suitcase and wondered out loud, “Were you planning on staying a week? This definitely is not an overnight bag,” he teased.
“Oh yes, I was planning a tryst with an old lover who is now married with four kids, but he stood me up, and so I settled for you,” Stella quipped. She was a writer and could whip up a storyline at the blink of an eye, except that she was surprised at her own wit that morning, considering the increasingly alarming lack of caffeine in her system.
“Please, can we grab a quick breakfast? I really, really need some good coffee,” she begged Eddie, while closing the hotel room door behind them.
“After having experienced your charm without your drug of choice, yes, I do believe we should find a café at the soonest possible time.”
“We can just have sandwiches, and maybe plan our day?” Stella was surprised how naturally that felt, how she did not feel awkward about making plans with a man she had just met. Of course, she had always been a planner, at least, as to the things she could control.
“As you wish,” Eddie responded. The reference to one of her favourite childhood books, “The Princess Bride,” made Stella smile. She could be Buttercup in her story, finally.
Stella checked out and signed the receipt at the hotel lobby while Eddie got the car. When she stepped out of the hotel double doors, she felt very much like putting on a bandana, wide white-rimmed wayfarers, and a string of pearls, before riding a light blue convertible, except that it was not summer in Auckland, and she immediately knew that she was not going to be warm enough in her well-planned outfit of the day.
Eddie was waiting in his rented Toyota Camry, wearing dark aviator glasses that made Stella doubt if he really was a software engineer. He looked like one of those Nespresso models. How could this guy be single? Oh wait, maybe he’s not. Did she care? She was honestly not in the mood to answer that question.
“I’m thinking of taking you to Parnell, which, according to its website, is ‘New Zealand’s oldest suburb, famed for its galleries, cafes, restaurants and charming boutique-style stores.’ Then we can do something that this cold weather would permit, something indoors, perhaps?” Eddie was on the phone with his travel agent early that morning, planning a changed itinerary that now involved going around Auckland with an amazing Filipina writer. He had previously booked a Lonely Planet-inspired vacation out of the city, but he was only too happy to drop that for Stella, whose charming presence both intrigued and attracted him.
They found a cozy little Italian restaurant that had the best barrista on the Southern Hemisphere, in Eddie’s opinion. Stella was much more reserved in her praises, but definitely enjoyed her first shot of espresso for the day.
“Where do you want to go? We can walk around Parnell, or go to Queen St., which is Auckland’s most iconic and historic street.” Eddie was sounding very much like the tour guide that he was not. “I’m reserving the Viaduct Wharf for dinner as it’s very near our hotel.”
“I know where I want to go, now that my head has cleared after that magical cup of coffee,” Stella declared.
“Where do you want to go?” Eddie asked.
“I want to see the Auckland Art Gallery,” Stella replied. “And after that, let’s walk to the old buildings that house the University of Auckland. Please,” she added.
“The woman knows what she wants!” Eddie observed, amused. “As you wish!” he affirmed.
When they got out of the restaurant, it was raining. Eddie ran to the car to get his extra jacket, and put it around Stella. It was naturally much too big for her. He unzipped the hood and covered her head with it. Unfortunately, it also covered her eyes. They ended up laughing.
Stella did not remove the hood and walked with her arms in front of her, like a blind woman in need of constant guidance. She caught Eddie’s arm and let him lead the way.
After recovering from the spectacular vision that was Stella’s playful side, Eddie started walking back to the car, but moved Stella’s hand from his arm to his other hand, and firmly guided her to where they parked earlier.
Stella, who could not see a thing, felt Eddie’s warm hand on hers, and smiled underneath her large, black winter cloak.
She knew how the rest of that day would be like. She could already write it in her head. She just hoped that, unlike Richard, Eddie would play his part, and say his lines, well.
TO BE CONTINUED.