He shook his head, distaste pouring off him. ‘She worked so hard but we were so poor she couldn’t afford to pay for my school books. We had food in our belly from Mikolaj—whatever was left over from the day before—but there was no money for anything—not birthdays, not Christmas, not anything.’
Alessandra swallowed, the familiar ache forming in her belly that always came when she thought of his childhood. She hated imagining what he’d lived through.
His gaze bore into her. ‘I was obsessed with people like you.’
‘Me?’ she queried faintly.
‘I would see men and women like you, people who were clean and wore beautiful clothes, and wonder why we were so different, why the clothes my mother and I wore were falling into rags. Then I realised what the difference was: money. They had it and we didn’t. So that became my obsession. Money. I was determined to learn everything about it: how to earn it, how to make it grow and how to keep it so that my mother and I too could be clean and wear beautiful clothes.’
‘You certainly realised your dreams,’ she said quietly. ‘Did you have to study hard for it or did it come naturally to you?’
She thought back to her own single-sex education and how she had resented the strictness, rebelling by refusing to pay attention or do homework until it had become likely she would fail all her exams. If she’d applied herself a bit more, her grandfather would never have felt the need to employ a private tutor to help her catch up. Javier would never have entered her life. Who knew how different her life would have been if she’d never met him?
Would she have stayed a virgin until the age of twenty-five?
She hadn’t been ready for sex with Javier but with hindsight it was because she’d known, even without being aware of his wife and children, that a sexual affair between them was wrong. The balance of power had been too one-sided, in his favour.
But Javier was her reality. She didn’t know if she would have stayed a virgin until the age of twenty-five if she hadn’t met him because that would have been a different Alessandra, not the Alessandra she was today.
‘I studied every hour I could,’ Christian said, adopting the same quiet tone as she. ‘I must have been ten when I realised education was the only way either I or my mother could escape.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said softly after a long silence had formed between them.
‘I don’t know.’ She raised her shoulders, wishing she could articulate the shame churning within her. She recalled the little rant she’d had in Mikolaj’s taverna when she’d put Christian in his place about him not having a monopoly on childhood pain and abandonment.
At least she’d always had clean clothes and fresh food. Materially she’d had everything she could have wished for; the things she’d been denied were to stop her being spoiled and not due to a lack of finances.
After the mess that had been her relationship with Javier, her grandfather had used money—her allowance—as another means to control her. No allowance meant no money; no money meant she stayed prisoner in the villa without the means to bring any more shame to the good Mondelli name.
What a self-absorbed brat she had been.
Christian’s whole life came into sharp focus. No more potted snapshots of her Adonis, the hard working but poor scholarship student, the small child sharing a mattress in a cramped attic room with his harridan of a mother...
Now the snapshots formed a whole picture. Formed the man before her; everything it must have taken for him to drag himself out of the slum. Two decades of suffering before he’d had the opportunity to shower daily.
What must he think of her, the spoiled little rich kid? She knew she’d never been spoiled but in comparison to Christian she might as well have been Imelda Marcos. So her grandfather had been a workaholic and happy to pass the actual raising of his granddaughter to the female staff of his household? At least she’d never doubted his love. So he’d cut off her allowance? Oh, boo hoo. Her grandfather had been teaching her a lesson. Without it she would never have felt compelled to get herself a job, would never have answered the advertisement to be a photographer’s assistant and taken the first steps on the career she loved.