"I just wanted to disappear. But, you also have to understand that I hated myself for leaving. And I suffered as much as you did.
We’re both quiet for several minutes, me still blotting my eyes, absorbing his answer, when he continues.
"I grew six inches the summer I moved to California and I started playing sports, working out. It helped a little as an outlet, and I continued through high school, but it didn't help enough.
"I started drinking, doing drugs, partying, using girls. In part it was all because I despised myself and I craved anything that would numb my pain, but in part it was because it made Lauren livid to see me go through one girl after another and I had grown to despise her, too. She's a manipulative bitch. She was lying to Phil, she…"
I interrupt him. "She's a pedophile, Leo."
He looks at me finally, then. "I guess, but I take responsibility, too. Especially, since it continued and it became our secret from everyone, especially my dad." He looks away, a look of shame crossing his face.
“Did you ever try to tell him?” I ask.
"A couple months after it started, I thought about telling Phil, but I felt so damned guilty and shameful for my own part in the situation. What if he didn't believe me? And what if he did and I destroyed them? Could I live with that, too? Eventually, I just focused on numbing myself.
"And then, even more shameful for me, I wanted to have a family so much. I loved all the things they were giving me, the luxuries, the trips, stuff I had never had before. And that made me hate myself the most." He scrubs his hands down his face.
"Anyway, I was a f**king mess in high school. I dragged my parents through hell. Lauren always bailed my ass out with my dad, for obvious reasons, and my poor dad just tried to help me. But there was no help for me, not then. He had to think, 'what the f**k did we do adopting this kid?' a million times, but he never, ever said that to me.
"Things started getting better for me when I moved out to go to college. I finally got some distance from my mom," he lets out a humorless laugh, "and started thinking a little more clearly. My dad and I were hanging out more, outside of the house and I developed a relationship with him - finally. He had to have been doubtful that I'd ever be trustworthy enough to learn the ropes at his company, but about a year after I was out of the house, he came to me and asked me if I'd work with him. I said yes and we started getting even closer. It was nice. He was a good guy. A workaholic and distracted, but decent and good.
"Anyway, when I graduated, he and Lauren bought me a Porsche as a gift. The night of my graduation party, Lauren cornered me in my bedroom and made another one of her passes. I pushed her off of me and she was pissed about it so she lashed out and then she told me that she hadn't wanted to tell me, but that she had gotten information on my brother years ago from the family attorney she had asked to investigate it for me. I was constantly asking her to find any information she could so that I could visit him. She told me that he died three years before of pneumonia but she hadn't told me because she knew it would upset me. Jesus. Upset me? I practically raised that kid from the time he was born. And she just threw it out there because she was mad that didn't want to have sex with her."
He stops and I can't help it, I grab his hand and I squeeze it. He turns his head to me, an expression of pain crosses his features again before he goes on.
"I tore out of there, taking my new car, driving like an idiot, tearing around corners, accelerating to speeds I knew were dangerous, suicidal even. I lost control, side swiped a semi and flipped my car six times. Or so I'm told. I don't remember any of it. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital with a head wrapped in bandages and tubes sticking out of me."
I suck in a breath.
"I had a fractured jaw, had shattered my right cheekbone and broken my nose all to hell, I had an eight inch gash across the back of my head, three cracked ribs, a ruptured spleen, two broken arms and a broken leg. I was in the hospital for six months while they rebuilt my face and my body healed."
"Oh my God," I breathe.
"I had nothing to do but lie there and self reflect, so in one sense it was the best thing that could have happened to me. A part of me actually had died and was being reborn. I almost had no choice but to face my demons. The unfortunate part was that Lauren came to see me every day and there was nowhere I could run. One day after I had been there about a month, she came by to tell me that she had convinced them to let me come home with her after my next couple surgeries so that she could nurse me back to health. I protested, got angry, told her I was over 18 and there was no way I was letting her get near me. She tried to convince me by throwing back the covers and going down on me. There was nothing I could do. I was literally helpless to stop her, although I was railing at her to cut the shit, that I wasn't going to stay quiet anymore. That's when my dad walked in. She jumped back and we all just froze, stunned for several minutes and finally he said, 'This is why? All these years, this is why you hated us both.' It was like it all finally just clicked into place for him. Then he started clutching his chest and Lauren screamed and pressed the button for the nurse. He had had a major heart attack."
"Oh God, Leo," I whisper, more tears coursing down my cheeks.
He continues but he sounds tired, almost monotone now. "He regained consciousness the next morning and we thought he was recovering but he got a blood clot five days later and that's what killed him. It can be common after a heart attack. The morning that he came to, they wheeled me in to him and he put his hand over his heart and told me how sorry he was and that he didn't blame me. I cried like a damned baby."
I squeeze his hand again.
"The day after that, his lawyers came to the hospital and he changed his will to give me full ownership of the company. Lauren has all she needs to live the life she's become accustomed to until the day she dies. But the company is 100% mine."
We're both quiet for a minute as I consider something. "Was it Lauren who came to your hotel room in San Diego and answered your phone?" I ask quietly.
He runs his hand down his face again. "Yeah. She found out I was in town and surprised me in my room. I basically told her to leave or I'd call security. I know from experience how ugly it could have gotten and I wasn't up for it and so I told her that I was going to get in the shower and lock the door and if she wasn't gone by the time I got out, I'd have her thrown out. I wasn't ready to give you details about her at that point and so I lied. It just felt like the lies were piling up and I didn't know how to deal with it without telling you everything. What a f**king mess. And it was all my fault."
He pauses for a second and then continues. "She also came to the club we went out to that night with Landon and his friend. Joe, the lobby deskman told her where we were when she told him who she was. He won't make that mistake again. But that's the point when I decided I needed to come clean with you. I just needed to figure out how to do it."
He takes a deep breath, seeming to rally a little bit. "Anyway, after my dad died, they sent the hospital psychologist up to see me the next day and I liked him, a real straight shooter, we hit it off. He started to come see me regularly after that and I opened up to him, the first time I had ever talked about my past, the first time I had talked about you.
"One of the things he said to me that really hit home was that, 'Looking at the past can be painful, but you can either run from it, numb it, or you can learn from it.' I had run from it and I had numbed it. Neither one had worked. It was time for me to learn from it."
I close my eyes for a minute and when I open them, we are both staring at each other with tears in our eyes.
"I realized that I couldn't remember a time when you weren't the first thing I thought of in the morning or the last before I fell asleep at night. You own me, Evie. You always have.
"It took almost dying to realize I needed to do something about that, f**k my fears. I couldn't deny you anymore. I was terrified though and I didn't know how you'd react to me. They had had to rebuild several parts of my face, nothing so drastic that I don't recognize myself, but enough so that, along with the other things that had changed about me since I was 15, I wondered if you'd recognize me right away.
"First time Gwen saw me when I moved here, she said she loved what the doctor had done to me, 'perfected me' she said. As if I had almost killed myself so that I could get some free plastic surgery. She's a piece of work."
We both actually manage a small smile.
"Do you have a picture of yourself before the accident?"
He thinks for a minute. "I have my old license. Hold on. He pulls his wallet out of his jacket and pulls it out and hands it to me. I see what he means. His face before the accident was still devastatingly handsome but almost more rugged, less Hollywood perfect. Truthfully, he doesn't look that different, but I think I can see a little more of the boy that he was in it. I wonder, though, if that's just because I know who he is now.
He continues as I hand him back the card. "I took over my father's company when I got out of the hospital and told the board I'd be relocating to Cincinnati. And when I got here, I found you. I was so f**king nervous though. I had all these feelings wrapped up in you and I had dreamed about you every night of the past eight years, but I didn't know if you were married, maybe had a kid… I didn't know. I also questioned whether you were the same girl I knew, whether my fantasies of you were partially of my own creation or if they were reality. So I decided to follow you around a little, get a feel for you. I realized that you were my same Evie, only, unbelievably, even more beautiful in every way than I remembered you. You took my breath away and I hadn't even gotten near you yet. I had thought about presenting myself as someone who had known Leo but I wasn't sure the best way to play it or if you'd recognize me or what. I was trying to figure it out, trying to look at it from all angles when you surprised me. I know that sounds like I was trying to manipulate you, but you have to understand. I realized that I was even more deeply in love with you than I had been when I was 15 and that was only from following you around for a week. I couldn't risk telling you the truth and having you run.
"You took me by surprise that day and forced me to make a decision on the fly. But when I realized that you didn't recognize me, I blurted out the lie about Leo dying. You told me that he (me) had betrayed you, and so I just kept going with it. I just wanted to be near you so much. I didn't want you to tell me to leave you alone.
"I almost told you so many times. I was almost sure you realized who I was the night I drove you home from our first date and we sat in the car forehead to forehead, just exactly like that night I first kissed you on our roof."
I think back to that moment in his car, realizing I had felt something, but I had chosen not to examine it too closely. I had wanted so much just to bask in the new excitement of spending time with Jake.
I also think back to the strange moments in the penthouse suite at The Hilton when he surprised me. I had known then too, hadn't I? Or in the nightclub when his angry expression as he protected me was somehow so familiar… But again, I had chosen not to think about what those moments meant.
Or how I had let him lead me so far out of my safety zone again and again, and how I had trusted him despite the questions that kept popping up and the things he wasn't explaining. Something in me had innately trusted him and now I understood why.
"I don't know if I did the right thing, Evie, but after I lied to you, I told myself that I'd just give it the time it took to make you realize that we belong together and then I'd tell you the truth. It just got harder and harder to do and I was so damned happy to have you back in my life, to get to hold you, and make you smile, and also to re-discover you, that I kept putting off the moment when you might decide to leave, the moment when you might tell me you couldn't forgive me for abandoning you.
He runs his fingers through his hair and pauses before continuing.
"I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for hurting you, for lying to you, for all the lies that kept piling up, but I can't completely regret what I did, because it made you realize what we are together, without having to address the way I hurt you eight years ago right away, without having that baggage. I knew we'd have to go there eventually, but I can't be sorry that you saw who we still are together, before having to face the hurtle of our past. Does that even make sense? Does that make me a complete ass**le?"
I sigh and continue. "I don't know, Leo. What I do know though is that I can't even completely put all the responsibility on your shoulders. If I'm honest, all along I felt like something between us was so familiar, something was niggling at me the whole time and I chose not to address it, even to myself."
I pause and he lets me gather my thoughts before I continue.
"I've always been good at pushing things aside that I didn't want to think about, good at losing myself in my own head. It's why I'm good at making up stories, I think. Being able to escape to a dreamland was a survival instinct for me. Maybe I did that with you, too. Inside I knew that there was something I wasn't allowing myself to think about. I let you lie to me because the lie felt good. I admit that now."
He turns to me fully, his eyes pleading. "I won't let you take responsibility for any of this. Maybe you made some unconscious choices, but you can't blame yourself for that. I made all the conscious decisions. The only one at fault in this situation is me. I understand that you need space to digest it all. But please, please, Evie, I can't lose you again. I'll never survive it twice. Can you at least try to forgive me? To understand why?" His voice is choked.