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The Long Road Home

By Jamie Nicole White


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*Copyright 2004 Jamie Nicole White

Chapter One

New York City

The cold wind blew through the valley of road and sidewalks, surrounded by the iridescent glow of skyscrapers against the dark night. A frigid breeze ripped through her, causing her to shiver. Hayden Laurence pulled her coat around her shoulders tighter, pinning her long hair underneath the fabric of the collar, and drew the plain wool scarf over her ears. Her breath penetrated the blistering air, a faint fog filling the void. She glanced down both ends of the busy street before darting through the traffic.

Hayden stood still and took pleasure in the sights and sounds of New York City. She loved the chaotic noises and crowded sidewalks of Manhattan. Everything about the city was interesting, from the vendors selling anything from t-shirts to small replicas of the Statue of Liberty, to the hustle and bustle of the over populated streets that reeked of carbon monoxide and noisy car horns.

She had grown up in a small town in Texas. The largest city she had ever seen was Houston, which couldn’t hold a candle to Manhattan in the greater scheme of things. The first time she had set eyes on the New York skyline, she knew that it was the place for her. A new beginning in a city that was filled with color and diversity, a fresh start in a place where no one knew her name. It was the city of potential opportunity.

Leaving home had been the hardest and the smartest thing she had ever done. She had been in too deep, ready to give up any semblance of a life for a man that seemed hell bent on destroying it. And despite the fact that she had missed him every second of the day, leaving him behind had been the right thing to do. The love of her life, her best friend in the entire world, had deserted her when she needed him the most. And in turn, she had ran as far away as she could.

With three thousand dollars in her bank account and barely one asset to her name, she quickly found a small one room apartment in the seedier part of Manhattan and set out to find a job. Her only priority had become herself, finding out who she was, and making a life for herself, independent and full of optimism.

She started out at a small deli, making sandwiches during the lunch shift. It paid little and was an ego deflating job, but she had no choice. Bills had to be paid and her mouth needed to be fed. For eight months, she slaved away at the deli, almost certain that this was all New York had to offer for her. Until one day when a modeling recruiter walked in to grab some lunch and walked out with her on his arm and the vision of a promising new career dancing in her head.

The first two years of her modeling career had been filled with nothing more than empty promises. She made a meager amount of money and had been forced to pretty much take on any and all legitimate but less than appealing jobs. At one point, she had been the poster girl for STD’s, her picture hanging in most subways stations. The caption basically said that even the beautiful could get herpes. It was most embarrassing when men actually recognized her from that simple poster and immediately backed away.

By the third year of her career, she had somehow gotten fortunate enough to be chosen as a runway model for one of the top designers in the United States, lucky that one of the regular models had gotten the flu and she had just happened to be at the right place at the right time. From then on, she soared. The jobs started rolling in, as did the money and for the first time since leaving home, she was actually making it without begging her father for supplemental income.

Now, three years later, life was good, her bank account was plump, and she could have had anyone or anything she wanted. Even though her love life had been lacking, she was certain that her past was behind her. She could barely remember the small town of Bakersfield, Texas where she had grown up. The only thing on her mind was the now. And New York City was her past, present, and future. It didn’t get much better.

Finally things had started to make sense, had fallen into place. Then, Brian Stratford had come into her life and turned everything upside down. He was thirty-four and handsome beyond any description. Brian haled from New York, where he was the son of Grant and Evangeline Stratford, rich and powerful socialites. Grant owned and operated Stratford Financing, one of the oldest and most prestigious financing firms in Manhattan. Evangeline owned the upper crust society, the obscenely rich and foolishly snobbish her disciples.

Hayden and Brian had met at a publicity party for a hot new magazine that she had been the cover girl of the month for. It seemed Brian had a thing for models and frequented those parties in search of his next arm candy for the week. And she had fallen into that category.

Brian was reserved and snobbish, mostly from his upbringing. But, he definitely had charisma. He had charmed the pants right off of her, metaphorically and literally. It had only taken two dates before they had found the bedroom.

Their relationship was based on fun with no strings attached. They counted on one another for a date if all other options fell through. But as far as romance, there just wasn’t an ounce of amorous overtures where they were concerned. Brian was just someone to while away the time with, as she was sure her role was the same.

Still, Hayden wanted romance, she wanted to be swept off of her feet. More than anything, she wanted to find a love like she had known once upon a time. She knew the perfect man had to be out there for her. It was her duty to go out and find him. And that was exactly what she had tried to do.

She dated man after man, looking for the sparks she knew would inevitably be out there. And it had worked to her advantage. While shopping for a man, she had made Brian more interested, which was almost unbelievable considering he had been a known playboy. Brian was notorious for being a ‘now you see him now you don’t’ kind of boyfriend. His idea of a long relationship was somewhere in the week ballpark. If it had lasted a week, it was lengthy.

Somehow, their liaison had developed into something more over the last year. What started out as innocent flirtation that ended in a quick romp beneath the sheets had turned into a relationship. And she had been completely blindsided by it. He was a nice enough guy. But a relationship with him wasn’t quite as intense as she had hoped to find.

Tonight, he had asked her to meet him for dinner, had said he had something important to talk to her about. The fact that it was a week night, which Brian was usually unavailable Monday through Friday, had already put her mind spinning. And secondly, their conversations had never been classified as deep. They talked about the weather, the day they had had, and that was it. Important dialogue was never part of their repartee. It just wasn’t one of the few facets of their relationship. So what on earth could he have to talk to her about that could be so important?

Hayden stepped into the dimly lit restaurant, adjusting her emerald green eyes to the new atmosphere. The host immediately helped her shrug out of her heavy coat and she smiled sincerely as she slipped a twenty dollar bill into his appreciative hand. Her eyes roamed the clientele that was known to frequent the plush French restaurant. No wonder Brian had chosen this place. It was so stuffy with the upper crust society of Manhattan, she could barely breathe.

She scanned the rows of neatly lined white linen and tables. Hayden caught a glimpse of his sandy blonde head and immediately strode over to him. He smiled that amazing smile as he watched her approach. His aquamarine eyes sparkled as he rose from the table and greeted her with an affectionate kiss on her cheek.

Hayden had never seen Brian dressed in anything but his crisp white button down shirt and bland tie. He always wore black or gray slacks and those shiny loafers. His hair was permanently combed back neatly without a single hair out of
place. He was the image of perfection and he was the complete opposite of what she found handsome. Brian was too flawless to be real as far as his appearance went. It was his personality that was imperfect.

Brian was too caught up in his own endeavors and ambitions to see the simple things in life. He was overly involved with impressing his father and placating his mother to take the uncomplicated joy of just living. And despite the fact that he had a pretty much nonexistent sense of humor, there was something about him
that drew her in.

Perhaps it was his caring and gentle side that many had not been so fortunate to see. Or it could be that for the first time in a really long time, she had found someone that could keep her feet on the ground and bring order to her chaotic life. Either way, they had been inseparable over the last six months and she had stopped seeing other men. For the first time in many years, she found herself indescribably pleased to have formed some sort of romantic relationship with someone of the opposite gender. She only hoped that her affection for Brian wasn’t solely based on her fear of being alone.

Hayden took her seat at the opposite end of the table and watched Brian sit as well before she spoke. “This is quite unexpected.”

“What’s that?” he asked in his exquisitely mellow voice, leaning back in his chair and taking in the pure beauty of the woman sitting across from him. Her long golden brown curls were tousled from the wind, her high cheeks rosy from the blistering cold. Those hypnotic emerald eyes danced with amusement. Brian had to admit, this woman was a sight to behold, splendidly attractive and amusing enough to hold his interest.

“It’s a week night and you asked me out to dinner,” she teased.

“What can I say? Sometimes I too live life on the wild side,” Brian responded in a teasing voice.

Hayden rolled her eyes, chuckling as she reached for the crystal goblet and sipped the blood red wine. “What is this about, Brian?”

“Does it always have to be about something?” Brian reached over and grabbed her hand. He offered her a magnificent smile as he leaned down and kissed her exquisitely manicured finger tips.

Hayden gave him a knowing look and replied, “With you, yes.”

“Alright,” he conceded, releasing her hand and lifting his own to his tie, smoothing the silk fabric nervously. “You’ve got me. I called you here to talk to you about a new project I’m thinking about taking on.”

“That’s a bit odd.”

“Why is that odd?”
“It’s just that you normally don’t talk shop with me. Why the sudden candor?”

“Because I thought that this particular project would be of interest to you.”

“What kind of project is it?” Hayden asked in a suspicious voice.

“It’s sort of a long term commitment,” he announced jovially.

Hayden propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her palms. “Really?”

“Hayden, I want you to know that I care about you very much. Your opinion matters to me more than you’ll ever know.”

“I appreciate that.”

“And I want you to be my partner in my newest endeavor.”

“Okay,” she said with skepticism.

Brian stood up, walked over to where she sat and knelt down on one knee. She was speechless as she watched him pull out a black velvet box. He flipped the box open and inside rested the most stunning two carat diamond ring she had ever seen.

“I think you and I can make a really good team. Be my partner… in life. Marry me.”



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