I am too relieved, too emotionally dependent on someone I barely know, and I do not understand why. I have had no one. I have relied on me. What is it about this man that makes me want to lean on him, and is that good or bad?
“Food is here,” the waitress announces, and feeling exposed and vulnerable for reasons I can’t quite understand, I take the excuse to look away from Liam, as she adds, “And I’m sorry I didn’t give you much time on the salads. The kitchen was fast.”
It’s not long before we are sipping more champagne and enjoying our pasta dishes, but I have a raw nerve still bleeding vulnerability I cannot seem to seal. Reflexively, I launch into my standard question-asking strategy meant to prevent question answering. Easy to do with Liam when I crave every detail I can learn about him. “Will you tell me about how you started apprenticing at such a young age?”
“The real story or the one I tell the media?”
“There are two versions?”
He sips his champagne. “One for the press. One for me.”
I stab a bite of pasta. “I’ll take both, please.”
“I had a feeling you would. Alex met me at a public event and learned of my interest in architecture and took me under his wing.”
“And the real story?”
“What makes you think that isn’t it?”
His jaw hardens. “No. The real story is that I was obsessed with drawing buildings and I told my mother I wanted to be a famous architect.”
“How old were you when this started?”
“Per my mother’s old stories, I was six. At thirteen I hadn’t stopped talking about it and had stepped up my interest. I was trying to self-teach via books. My mother heard Alex was in the city unveiling a building, and despite working two jobs at the time, she found the time and means to get me there. We were living in the Bronx. And that’s when I met Alex and he saw something in me.” He goes on to tell me all about going to Alex’s house on weekends and summers.
Until this moment, I had not let myself connect the dots of his past to mine. I too, had been a child protégé to my gifted father, and I reach for my champagne to keep from letting the confession fall from my lips. That was my old life, my real life. Amy Bensen has a business degree. She didn’t have a famous archeologist for a father. Dead father. My father is dead.
“Alex tortured me with hours upon hours of math equations,” he continues, and I set down my glass, saved from my past by my interest in his.
“I hate math.” Although his tattoo could make me change my mind. My lips curve. “You seem rather fond of it.”
His eyes gleam with understanding. “Alex used tell me there were infinite possibilities in life and architecture. The tattoo represents that to me.”
Infinite possibilities in life. I am not sure I like that idea. How many people will I be before I die?
“Of course,” Liam adds, “as a kid I just wanted to draw buildings. Alex said that’s what you call an artist, not an architect. I fought the math, and ended up doing the whole wax on, wax off thing like in Karate Kid.”
I laugh. “Karate Kid? But that was to learn karate. What did that have to do with math?”
“It’s hard work. My punishment for not getting the math right and complaining about having to try.” He laughs, but it’s laced with a hollow sadness. “And he liked the movie.” He smiles, shifting out of the past to the present. “I don’t like the movie. I do, however, like math now. Funny how mastering something makes you change your tune about it. By the time I was in college I was a whiz.”
The waitress takes my plate and I am shocked to realize it is all but empty. A few minutes later, we are enjoying coffee and I sigh in contentment, more relaxed than I have been in a very long time. “What did your parents think about Alex?” I ask, not ready for this dinner to end.
“My mother adored him.”
“And your father?”
His expression turns somber. “He wasn’t around to have an opinion.”
“I want to ask. I’m not sure I should.”
He gives me a wry smile. “And that’s about as honest as it gets.”
He’s right. It is and it feels good, but what I sense in him does not. “Do you want to tell me?”
“He ran out on us when I was eight,” he says easily. Almost too easily. “Told me he was going to the store and never came back.”
“You grew up poor.” There is so much more to this man than billionaire architect. “That’s why your mother worked two jobs.”
“Yes. Until Alex came along. He took care of my mother.”
“Did they date?”
He gives a quick shake of his head. “No. They were just close friends and when she came down with cancer, Alex paid for her treatment.”
I blink. “What? Cancer?”
“Cervical. She didn’t have the money for regular checkups so it was caught late, but she beat it twice.”
My throat thickens at the obvious. She didn’t beat it three times. “How old were you?”
“Fifteen. Alex adopted me.”
“Alex lost his kids and you lost your parents.”
“And Alex? You said you lost him, too?”
“He had a heart attack while I was chasing pyramids a couple of years back.”
He cuts his gaze and reaches for his coffee, and I sense his internal emotional battle and do not know the right thing to say or do. I just sit there until his gaze lifts and collides with mine.