I blinked a few times and looked at Eli, who was still standing next to the car door.
“Do you understand what I mean when I say we can’t walk to where we’re going?”
Lord, these imaginative scenarios were going to make me look as insane as I felt. My knees were shaking with nowhere to hide in this little LBD. I shook my head, throat too tight to pretend to be anything but what I was. Scared.
“Tonight is a journey out of your void. A void I was responsible for.”
He was a breath away. How’d he get there so fast? Did he float? Was this some magical hallucination and his car would be a pumpkin by midnight? Really, what was happening right now?
“Understand the quality of emotion, Kate,” he cooed, tucking a piece of my semi-crunchy hair behind my ear. “You put so much of your energetic ability into fear and falsity that you do not have what it takes to put your attention where it matters. If you just get in and displace a little of that fear energy, I can show you what I mean in a manner you will enjoy. I know you to be a sensual woman, Kate, let me indulge you.”
His breath was warm. Worried even. I could feel the weight of his past linger on each syllable. Was this the real Eli? Was he revealing him because I was revealing the real me? Afraid, wimpy me? He was meticulous in his actions I had to give him that. At least I wasn’t the only broken person standing here for once. He kissed me softly on the cheek like the gentleman he looked.
“I understand what I’m asking you to do, Kate. I hope you understand how heartfelt I am in my desire to give you the breath of life I stole from you.”
I sighed. I was going on a date with my brother’s killer and was happy about it. If I died in a car, well, wouldn’t that just be a karmic irony? He held out his hand and I wrapped mine in his. My palms were sweaty and that was embarrassing, but he didn’t falter, leading me gracefully to the passenger door. He squeezed a little harder as I wobbled my way in to the nightmarishly black vehicle, closing the door gently behind me. Before I could get my seatbelt fastened he had already slipped inside and was hovering over the ignition. He was being obviously cautious so I couldn’t bite out any judgement to his reckless driving record. Maybe he was sensitive about it.
“Did you get a lot of hatred for it?” I asked quietly.
His jaw clenched and he turned the key, starting the near soundless modern carriage.
We pulled out onto the street, and cruised quietly. I didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t offer any kind of conversation. Maybe he was waiting to play off whatever I was feeling since I was the one struggling to stave off a meltdown. I glanced over at him without turning my head, watching him watch the road, two hands on the wheel. No one drove like that anymore; but he did for me. I smiled weakly and loosened the grip I had on the door handle. I had never stopped to think about what he had actually experienced post murder. After the car crash, Kate. It’s not like he meant to do it. I clenched my teeth. Was I easing off my hatred? Should I? Was I a bad person if I did? The silence was letting too many thought cross my mind and I would only ruin the date if I kept on it.
“Where are we going to dine?”
There, nice and casual. Ease into whatever this shit show was going to produce.
“A little place just out of the city. They have decadent desserts and the best french press you’ll ever sip.”
“No wine and dine? I thought I was going to be able to get drunk on this soul revival date?”
“I don’t drink. You can,” he quipped.
I really needed to class myself up. Of course he didn’t drink, he was still punishing himself too. Sarcasm and wild behavior made me feel stupid in his presence. So much for a casual screw with a hot waiter.
“This car is so nice,” I offered, trying to smooth over the tension, but I was only setting myself to sound more materialistic than I actually was. I gave up trying to discover how he could afford it on his current income. Stop while I was ahead.
The road slipped beneath us and I looked out the window as the city faded behind. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d left the security of tall buildings and the blanket of warm exhaust stuck between them. If I was free enough to leave then I was also obligated to see my parents, who refused to come back to the scene of the crime. It didn’t matter if their daughter was drowning in the lights; their son was gone. I shifted my feet against the floor. Eli placed a hand on my thigh, the density of the action instantly calming my angst. His tattoos peeked from beneath his shirt cuff; he had his own darkness too.
“I hope you like this place, Kate. It’s one of my favorite places to go and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.”
The deep tone of his voice did not lack the danger from the first time I met him. He was still as sexy even when he was being nice. In fact, I was enjoying the intimacy of this new persona he was using and I wanted more than anything not to ruin the night.
“Stop trying so hard,” he laughed. “It’s not like you can shock me with your personality.”
“Shut up,” I sighed, smiling anyway.
We pulled up to a valet outside a dimly lit cafe. Music drifted in muffled waves as we got out, and the window was steamy with the chill of the night. What a curious man he was. As we walked in I could not be more perfectly certain that this was a mere representation of him. The darkness, the live band, the underground-ahead-of-the-crowd vibe. The depth he held reminded me that being a waiter did not suit him. Or his lifestyle. We were seated in a corner booth and handed the small menu and drink list. Well, he said to stop trying so hard.
“How are you able to afford all of this? Are tips that killer at Magliano’s?” I asked, pressing a finger against the decadent list of treats, and posh prices.
He hadn’t even picked up the menu to consider, clear that he had memorized this place. Like everything else. How did he become so meticulous, and why? I guess I still only knew the shell of who he was. Careful, Kate.
There was no smiling when he explained.
“I’m not a waiter. I’m friends with the owner of the restaurant. I was dining alone that night when you walked in. In fact, it’s the only place I thought you’d never go. You had never ventured that far from your apartment, and I didn’t intend for us to meet. But there you were and I knew I couldn’t avoid my own biggest fear. We all have roles we play, Kate. I understand that more than anyone.”
I ordered a glass of petite sirah, hoping it’d stain my lips as dark as my mood suddenly turned. He had very calmly restated the fact that he had stalked me. Was it a warning?
“Then what is it you do? Do you still act?” Play it cool. Get your answers.
“I’m not an actor,” he laughed casually, sipping on his lemon water. “I own the theater I told you about.”
I shrugged. I’d never seen a play in my life. I stuck to books and news articles. The whimsy of theater seemed outdated to me.
“But you’re young…ish. Wait how old are you?” He did suddenly seem to be more mature in his features and stature. How in the world was he such a chameleon? I was starting to wonder if the whole secret agent thing was back on the table.
“How do you own a theater? I mean, obviously it’s successful. You drive a Tesla. You take me to these places and in designer clothes. I don’t mean to sound shallow, I just don’t get it.”
“It’s a story for another date. This one’s about you,” he said before ordering desserts for the table. “Did you want another? Or maybe a cappuccino, instead? I ordered to pair either.”
I smirked; he was totally judging me. The first glimpse into the flawed version of Eli. Win.
“I’ll have one more considering the direction this conversation just took.”
He nodded to the waiter and off he went without ever having to speak. Something was beginning to tell me Eli liked being in constant control. I wonder when that started. Pay attention. I looked over the rim of my glass as I sipped, trying to hide the sass curling my lips. It was a poor attempt. He watched me patiently, waiting for me to grow up, I guess. I don’t know. If he wanted that, wine shouldn’t have been offered.
“How’s Dee?” he asked casually.
“She’s good.” This was awkward. Why was I suddenly so awful at this? More wine. I hated the wait. I knew he was working his way into the uncomfortable stuff.
“Last we talked she was telling me that you have no idea how good you are at your job. What makes her say that? Are you happy there?”
“She was building me up in front of you,” I rolled my eyes, “I’m a glorified office bitch. She’s the one that’s got the company under her thumb. It’s not exactly a place I want to excel.”
“Then why stay?”
“I owe Dee.”
“Don’t you think she would understand if you left to pursue something that brought you joy?”
I shrugged. “At this point it seems like too much work to just start over somewhere else.”
Short pause. He was biting his tongue. I got under his skin quick!
“If it wasn’t, would you go back to writing?”
“When’s the last time you smashed something out?”
His eyes were illuminated. Dark as they were, the light still found its way through the cracks, and a hint of that luring animal stirred within him.
“Not since the accident, when I was still interning at the magazine.”
He sipped his water and looked over my shoulder to watch the food arrive. Tiny plates with what looked to be the entire menu were set carefully on the table with a fabulous looking tiramisu intentionally placed in front of me. I couldn’t hide my excitement.
“Did you order everything they had?”
He nodded, a grin spreading across his face, contented by my approval.
“I noticed you like comfort food when you’re upset or facing your past. I knew you wouldn’t be ready for coffee until after two glasses, and I guessed you probably wouldn’t want to get wasted given our relation. So the first half of the tiramisu can be enjoyed with your last glass and the second with a slightly sweet capp.”
I raised my glass and winked. Kudos when they were deserved. His shoulders relaxed a little, but not enough to make him look like a normal human being on a first date. I slipped a piece of tiramisu between my lips, trying not to have a mouthgasm as it melted against my hot tongue. He folded his hands on the table and leaned in. Was this turning him on?
“Have you tried writing, or did you just give it up?”
“I’ve tried here and there, when I thought maybe I could go back, but nothing comes. I just sit there staring off, blank. It’s like I’m permanently burned out.”
“Of course you are, Kate. You spend every day of your life pretending to be someone you aren’t. How do you have room to do anything else? What keeps you going on a path that doesn’t suit you? Approval, lack thereof? Your parents, maybe?”
I set down my fork, and looked him in the eyes.
“I don’t want to talk about them.”
He sat back, impatient again with my way of avoiding what really mattered. It was annoying the way he acted like he knew me so well, when we were practically strangers. Yet, all I wanted was for someone to understand me, to connect with me. The real me. He was trying, and I wasn’t letting him. He rubbed the back of his neck, his sleeve slipped just enough for his ink to poke through. I blinked. Had they changed? I really needed to be more observant. I didn’t realize how self centered I had become. That wasn’t me, and never should be. Damn it, he got me, and didn’t even know it. I sighed.
“I guess it’s because all I have to write about is my fake life, and I already hate living it so what would make me inspired to pull from it? I’ve never needed approval when it came to writing. I wrote what I wanted and it always kind of worked for me.”
“I can see that about you. But, still, it had to feel good when your parents showed pride in what you were doing.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
The truth was my parents had never cared about what I did after Tyler was born. Not that I could remember a time without him. We were Irish twins as they say, and born one after the other. Tyler was the center of their world, not me. So I learned to live without their love and admiration. It wasn’t easy, and I can’t say I succeeded, but I learned to live at least. I didn’t realize I had been staring into my empty wine glass, and dared to look across the table at King Analyzer. The predatory light had filled his eyes, warming them to a rich chocolate covered honeycomb, softening only slightly. He beckoned the waiter with a flick of the wrist and two mugs appeared before us.
“So you’re telling me they never complimented you on accomplishing your points of passion?”
I shook my head. This information surprised him. To me it was old news, and I had never really thought that anything I did was worth recognition. Not until now, watching him look at me. I want to treat you the way that other people see you. My legs shook. So this is what it felt like to have someone genuinely admire you?
“They really had no idea how incredible you are.”
It was simple; almost reminiscent. But so genuine, I let go of the strange way he said it. I smiled and sipped the foam off my cappuccino.
“When was the last time you talked to them, anyway?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Was it the hospital?”
“No. They didn’t even come to see me. They were too busy mourning over Tyler’s dead body.”
It came out more bitter than I wanted and guilt still soured my mood even thinking it. He was my brother, and it wasn’t his fault that my parents didn’t love me. It wasn’t his fault he had died. It wan’t his fault I had been shunned. What the hell was I doing? I was at dinner with him….the man. My shoulders stiffened and suddenly this felt more like a well planned attack. I felt like Gretl in the witch’s candy house. If it felt too good to be true it probably was. For the first time since we’d gotten there, after many plates I had emptied myself, he reached across from where he was sitting and pulled me next to him, draping his arm around my shoulder. It was such a masculine move of domination. I was angry. But I didn’t move. I was a sad shell of a woman. He took a sip of his black coffee, and I was done talking about my parents.
“How come you haven’t had anything to eat?”
He kissed the top of my forehead. God his lips felt so good.
“I wanted to spoil you. You are a woman unlike the rest, Kate. One day, if you let me, I’ll show you in ways you can’t imagine. One day, you will see yourself the same way I see you. But, for now, you can’t escape my topic of conversation. I really am curious as to when you last spoke to your parents?”
I was stuck between feeling trapped by his arm and wanting to curl closer into his chest for comfort. I had tried the first and it wasn’t working for me, so I tried the second. Minus the cuddling.
“I guess it was right before the accident. A couple days before. In fact, the entire conversation was very strange. They were trying to convince me to come home, because they wanted to talk to Tyler and I about something. It was so odd and irritating I had agreed. Then we got hit on our way…” I trailed off.
I knew he’d been irresponsible, but suddenly, I didn’t want Eli to feel bad about what had happened. It’s not like he’d intentionally caused so much pain and isolation in my life. It was there long before he even came in to the picture. If anything, he was the cause of some relief. What a terrible thing for me to think, but it was true.
“Should we get out of here?”
I nodded, and guzzled the last bit of my coffee before he helped me out of the booth.
“Good night, sir,” the host called dutifully behind us as we slipped out of the door and to the car already waiting.
“It’s like your a damn celebrity around here, or something,” I laughed.
“I come here often.”
He didn’t offer any more, and I couldn’t help but be curious about his professional life. Or any part of his life. Just when I thought I knew him, I didn’t. However, I was realizing that it was because he kept it that way. I thought what he wanted me to think, and it was such an intelligent manipulation that I fell for it every time. I couldn’t see it coming. I picked at my nail polish and watched the stars blur from the window as we drove back to my apartment. I wasn’t as calm in the silence as he seemed to be. I had too many questions, too many feelings I didn’t understand. I peeked a glance at him, but he wasn’t paying attention to me for maybe the first time all night. I could smell his cologne, and I caught myself remembering the way he felt so bold against my skin. I didn’t want him to walk me to my door and kiss me good night like the good boy he was pretending to be. I wanted him to come inside like the animal he was.
We pulled up to the curb of my place and he wasted no time in getting to my door to help me out. The date was over. I was off the hook for good behavior, and promptly took my shoes off to walk up the stairs. He smiled and took them from my hands, opening the door for me as I buzzed us in. The clock on our night was ticking, and as we walked up the stairs I grew more and more nervous. We had already dug deep into each other, but the formality of the night had changed the dynamic. He had put me on a pedestal and I was trying to act the part. Oh shit. Did I finally get one step ahead of his game? Was this another test to see if I did what I actually wanted. Yes, Kate! I unlocked my door and spun around to face him.
“I had a really lovely time,” I cooed, playing with a button on his oh-so-fitted shirt.
“So did I,” he replied without interacting.
I looked up at him, asking for the kiss we both wanted. He stared back, hard and unmoving. We both wanted it, right? I faltered. No, no Kate. This was his test. I tiptoed up to his lips and kissed him. His shoulders relaxed as his mouth fell into mine. It was warm and bitter still from the coffee. I tugged him through the threshold of my apartment, tearing at his shirt. His fingers were tangled in my hair and his teeth grazed the veins in my neck. God this was going to be a good night, bravo, Kate.