His Sixteenth Face
"Is that really your step-dad?" Trinity asked me from the balcony as we spied on the annual alumni garden party.
I sighed. "I keep telling you, he's not really my dad."
"He might as well be. How long have you been living with him?"
I sighed again and didn't answer her. I hadn't lived with him at all.
Leaning slightly over the railing I fixed my eyes on Christian Henderson. No, he wasn't my dad. Both my parents had been dead for almost six years. When my father was alive, Christian was his most trusted friend and it was a shock to discover when my parents' will was opened that I was not left in the care of one of my aunts or uncles, but instead with this strange gentleman who appeared to be fifteen years younger than my father. Some people said it was because Christian was the man my parents hoped to arrange my marriage with. When I was eleven, I wished it was true. Now that I was almost seventeen, I knew that whatever my parents had wished, Christian's wishes didn't curve that way, so he would remain my guardian until one of us decided to let him off the hook for the job. And who could blame him for viewing me as a child? When he picked me up - I was a child. He always said that living with him would be 'inappropriate' so he sent me to a ritzy boarding school. I looked down my nose at him. That was what my parents had done, too. I suppose that living with them had been 'inappropriate' as well.
I shrugged and pushed my resentment aside. It wasn't often that I got to look at Christian's face. I had to enjoy it while I could. He had been in his late twenties when he had taken me on and now he was supposed to be in his early thirties. I didn't think he had changed. In appearance, every time I saw him I felt like the distance between the two of us lessened instead of widened. He looked the same while I was maturing madly by the minute.
What did he look like? Colour didn't matter. Maybe his hair was blond. Maybe it was dark. His eyes may have been blue, or grey, or violet or orange. I didn't look at those things. To me, I saw perfect shapes, like the line of his jaw bone beside his ear, or the triangle of his collarbone, his Adam's apple and the top button of his shirt, the angle of his widow's peak, and the squareness of the back of his hand. And if his mood was right, I didn't even see those things. I only saw the magic and mischief in his eyes.
He had wonderful eyes for making me excited. Whenever he spoke, he made me feel like he was letting me in on the most magnificent secret.
But it didn't last.
He always went away. I had never spent longer than a week with him at a resort during the summer time. When we were there, we had the most fantastic fun, but the time always passed so quickly and I would be sent back to school or some summer enrichment camp, or something. There was always something on the agenda to take us away from each other.
Christian had to enjoy this in some way. I knew he did.
For one thing - I had to be protected. From what? You would think he was a playboy with mountains of women that had to be kept secret from me. I knew there were women from time to time, but they weren't what kept him away from me. Work? He liked his work and he was good at it, but that wasn't the clincher either. The problem was that his work (vice president in charge of international marketing for a communications company) wasn't his only job.
The fact was Christian Henderson was not his real name.
I watched him shake hands with my English professor. The façade that covered his face was perfect, like everything about him. When I watched him, I didn't see the flawless gentlemen everyone else saw. I only saw the conman who knew how to work a crowd.
So, what was his real job? I wished I knew. The thing was - he kept me at a distance because he knew that I had pieced some of the mystery together. Once when I was staying at a hotel with him in New York he accepted a phone call for Roderick Blakeney. He didn't realize until after he hung up that I overheard his conversation. I was thirteen then, and suspicious, so I read a few of his messages on his laptop. He had the strangest operating system on his computer and the strangest messaging system. I found a request for him to go to Hong Kong.
He caught me and was furious. I had never been so afraid in my life as when he slammed the laptop shut. For a split second I thought he was going to hit me. He didn't, but he sent me back to boarding school that evening. Before he sent me away he gave me and incredibly father-like lecture on snooping. I wouldn't treat my father's things that way, would I? I had no idea how I would have treated my father's stuff. How could I know? He was dead.
On the plane that night I was furious. Christian wasn't my father and him imitating him like he was made me sick to my stomach. How dare he act like that? Even for a minute?
The next time he contacted me, I didn't write him back and I didn't take his phone calls either. I didn't see him again until Christmas when he took me to Paris and showered me with presents. He acted like himself and even apologized for being so angry in New York. I was probably just trying to check my email to see if any of my friends sent me a message, right? I didn't even nod. Actually, I cried like a baby to have him back. Who was I trying to be brave for? After all, he was all I had in the world … even if he was lying to me.
Since then, I learned to be discreet when I heard him referred to by a different name. I didn't hear, or at least I let Christian think I hadn't. It was easy. He really wanted to believe that I was ignorant. Both of us knew that if I knew what he was doing, I would have to be sent away – forever - and if neither of us wanted that then we had to play it stupid.
So far, I'd heard him referred to as Christian Henderson, Roderick Blakeney, Damon Cross, and William Farris.
But now Trinity was interrupting my thoughts. "Look," she said, "there's my parents."
"They look pissed."
I glanced at her. "Are you getting expelled this time?"
"Probably not. It looks like dad came carrying his extra-heavy cheque book. See the bulge in his pocket? He's gonna pay them off."
"Didn't he already pay for the gazebo in the park?"
"And the stone gardens," Trinity admitted. "You know, they just don't get the message. I don't want to go to school here. I've said it a million times, but they'd rather go on holiday on the Mediterranean ten months of the year than play house with me. Why aren't they worried about me going astray? I could get addicted to meth or crack, get a STD, or need to get an abortion. Pissy parents!"
"I still think you're lucky. At least they're not dead," I said absently. This was what my conversation sounded like when it was on repeat. Trinity was my best friend. She'd heard my tirade hundreds of times before. It was because I wasn't really paying attention by this point. I was looking at Christian and thinking. "Say, Trinity, what do you think a girl would have to do to get booted out of this school on her first try?"
"Well, I have never been to the disciplinary officer's office. What do you think I'd have to do to get expelled – no negotiation – first try?"
"Well," Trinity said, rubbing her hands together. "The difficulty is hitting that magic number between really annoying the school board and involving the police. You could get booted out easy if you made a bomb threat or set a fire in one of the chemistry labs, but do you really want to toy with getting a criminal record? But those old bats in the school board have dealt with so many wild ones that hardly any scam turns their heads. Believe me, I know." She paused and looked at me with shrewd eyes. "But Beth-baby, if you wanted to get Christian's attention by acting up, shouldn't you have started already? We only have one year of high school left."
"Yeah. It's just that for some reason I always thought that once I graduated that I'd get to live with him. Just now when you were talking, I realized that's never going to happen. Once I finish here he'll just ship me off to a university and things will probably go on as they have been. I'm never going to get to spend any real time with him."
Trinity nodded. "I do understand. There isn't a girl in this school who doesn't faint every time he comes to pick you up for a holiday. He's so ridiculously hot. You should have called in a bomb threat when you were eleven. They would have gone way easier on you."
I rolled my eyes. "That's the best advice you have for me?"
"No," she said, grabbing my arm and looking into my eyes. "You could do the very first prank I ever pulled."
I thought back. "That naked picture you painted of the chairman of the board? No way! I don't know how you kept your gag reflex down enough to keep going."
It stung when she flicked my ear. "No idiot. That was my first prank in high school. I'm talking about my very first please-pay-attention-to-me act of defiance. I pulled it so many times, my parents stopped reacting, but the first time I did it they were pissing themselves and I bet Christian would, too."
"What?" I asked curiously.
"I ran away from school."
"Now, that's an idea," I said nodding.
"Do you have money? How far away could you get?"
"I have money," I lied. Well, it wasn't exactly a lie. I did have money … sort of. It was in the form of a credit card Christian gave me and paid the bills for. If I used the credit card to pay for flights and accommodations, he would undoubtedly be able to trace me in a jiffy, but the idea wasn't to run away to a place where he couldn't find me. The idea was to run away to a place where he would come after me.
"You could give it a try." Trinity winked and started towards the stairs that would lead her down to the reception. We were students and weren't exactly invited, but Trinity didn't let that bother her. Her parents were in the building. She wasn't going to miss the chance to see them no matter how dire the consequences were.
I had been planning to go back to my dorm room when I realized that I felt as strongly as she did. I wasn't going to go to bed without at least saying hello to Christian, so I followed her.
In my school uniform I sauntered up carefully behind him. He was drinking a glass of champaign and talking to some nondescript parent. I put my fingers over his eyes and said, "Guess who."
He put his hand on mine and asked, "Is she out of bed without permission?"
"Is she wearing her pajamas?"
He took my hand off his eye and turned around slightly to see what I was wearing. "Darling, you look quite respectable. I thought you'd dress up if you decided to crash the 'adult's' party'."
I put my hands down and the parent beside us started talking. "This must be Beth." He shook my hand. "Good job sneaking in. I don't know why they don't allow students to come to these functions. I hardly ever see my boy." Then his cell phone interrupted him and he had to excuse himself to take a call.
Workaholic, I thought to myself as the man walked away. No wonder he never got to see his kid.
"So, Beth," Christian said conversationally. "What have you been up to? Slip anything good into the punch? I hate to break it to you, but it was already spiked and not with anything tasteful, I might add."
"Not exactly. I think the adults are plenty capable of getting themselves smashed without my help. Besides, it's not like the alcohol would improve their personalities."
He laughed. "Probably not." Then he dumped the rest of his champaign into a plant. He never overdid it with drink.
"I came to see you," I said straightforwardly, looking into his face.
He averted his eyes and placed his empty goblet on a waiter's tray. "Which reminds me," he said without skipping a beat. "I was going to ask you where you wanted to go this summer. I was thinking Sydney or maybe Okinawa. Want to go swimming?"
"What about your place? I know you have a flat in London. I've never been there."
He shrugged his immaculate, elegant shoulders. "It's boring, and I only stay there for work. It's nothing but a bed and a window."
"Yes, but I haven't seen anything out that window," I persisted.
"It's an alley-way, Darling. An alley-way. I'd much rather take you scuba diving."
I sighed and tried a different tact. "Christian, do you realize that I don't have a home? I may not have visited my parents' home more than once a year when they were alive, but at least there was a place that I could plop down on the couch and say 'this is home-base'. I haven't had anything like that in years and I'm so lonesome for it I could die. Can't you give me a place I can go that is home?"
While I was speaking, he looked worried, but by the end he had calmed down and was able to answer smoothly. "Is that all? Why didn't you say something sooner? I hate always being in the same place, but I can understand it if you want to hang your Christmas stocking on the same hearth every year. I'm sure we could arrange to visit one of your aunts'—"
"No," I interrupted. "I don't want to see any of them. They're still pissed that my parents didn't leave them any money. Don't try to fob me off on them. I want a home with you."
He shook his hand dismissively. "You know my work has me hopping planes every other day. I would never be there."
"Fine. I bet I'd see you more in London than I do now."
Christian looked like he was tired of talking to me and I knew from his expression that he had no intention of giving in to my demand.
After that, he danced with me twice and Trinity once. Then he faked a yawn, patted me on the head and said his good-nights.
I stared at the pristine lines of his back and shoulders and felt like clawing my heart out. That was the moment that I made up my mind – I was going to run away from school.
Running away from school was too easy. Maybe it was because I was sixteen instead of eight like Trinity had been, but it was despicably easy. I made flight reservations online and then I faked a headache that day to get out of class and slipped over the fence by the pool. That was where Trinity always snuck out and for some reason no one ever clued in that she just hopped over by standing on the crates of salt. Once outside, I called for a taxi and went to the airport.
It was hard for me to decide where to run away to. In the end, I decided to stay in Canada, but the further away from Toronto, the better. There was a horse stable outside Calgary that I was quite fond of, so I decided to go there.
The trip was uneventful, just like my checking into the hotel.
Day one: I was hoping Christian would follow me there immediately, so I didn't go out. I stayed in the hotel room and watched pay-per-view and ate room service hoping to annoy him by racking up the bill.
Day two: I took a taxi out to the stable and went riding all afternoon. Except that I hadn't been riding in ages and my thighs and can ached like murder by the time I dismounted and headed back into the city. When I got back to the hotel, there was no sign of Christian.
Day three: After the bruises from the day before, I didn't want to go riding again. Instead, I lounged in the tub for most of the morning and then went shopping in the afternoon. Except, I couldn't find anything I wanted to buy. In the evening, I had supper by myself in the hotel restaurant. I drove myself crazy staring at the door. No matter where Christian was in the world when he found out I was missing, he should have been able to make it to Calgary by now, shouldn't he?
Day four: Sick of Calgary and depressed that Christian hadn't showed up, I decided to take a train to Vancouver and made plans to be on the next one. The journey took two days, so he would have to meet me in Vancouver if he showed up in Calgary after I left. Whatever. I went to the dining room and ordered four lobsters without any sides to drown my sorrows.
Day five: I didn't want to leave the room. What if Christian came? I lied on the bed and cried and watched day-time T.V. until nightfall and then I watched late night T.V. which wasn't any better.
Day six: No Christian. I packed up and paid my bill. It was nice that my credit card still worked, but I was in the kind of mood where I didn't care if it didn't.
I went to the train station.
When I got there, there was still about a half an hour before boarding. It took much less time to get to the station than I expected, so I took a seat in one of the waiting room chairs. The place was virtually empty, but for some strange reason, the seat next to me was immediately occupied by one of the creepiest people I had ever smelled.
It was a man, swarthy and unwashed wearing cheap cologne. He hadn't shaved in days and his loud hibiscus printed shirt was halfway unbuttoned. For pity sake, we were in Canada. Who did he think he was? And why did he keep looking at me?
I tried to ignore him by burying my face in my magazine, but he was getting so close to me that I could feel his breath on my neck.
"Do you mind?" I said in my snottiest rich-girl voice.
He didn't move. "You like the fashion magazine, yes? Yet you dress so boring. You need more style," he said in a thick French accent. "Do you know what I mean by style?"
I moved over into the next seat.
He slipped right into the chair I had just emptied and kept talking. "You should let me teach you. I can turn you into a star."
At this point, I turned and looked directly into the sleazy loser's eyes. Colour didn't matter. Shape was all that mattered and I saw it at once. The nose was wrong, but everything else checked out. I took a chance. "Stop teasing me, Christian. It's never funny when you joke around like that. I like the way I dress. Not everyone has the shape to dress like a supermodel."
The twerp had been smiling, but he abruptly stopped when I said my line. He leaned back in his chair and his shirt fell even more open as he placed his hands behind his head. "How did you know it was me?"
"You look like you," I said like my calling his bluff was nothing to me, even though I was proud of myself. I stuck my head back in my magazine and pretended to continue reading.
He scratched his head and got out of his chair. "Whatever. The fun part of our meeting is over. Get up."
"But my train doesn't board for another twenty minutes."
"Doesn't matter," he said. There was zero humour in his voice. "I only scheduled five minutes for pleasantries, so get up now and walk with me."
I got up.
He grabbed my arm and ushered me out the front doors. "I look like crap and I need to change. I have a hotel room down a few streets." He pushed me into one of the waiting cabs and told the driver where to go.
Sitting in the seat next to him, I got a better look at his face. He had to be wearing pounds of makeup to make him look so dark. I had seen him just last week. There was no way he could be tanned that quickly. Well, even if it was a tan, that still didn't explain why he was wearing a rubber extension on the end of his nose. As I looked closer, I saw that he was wearing phony eyebrows, too. Why was he dressed so strangely?
"Christian?" I said softly.
His glare could have killed me, but he seemed to check himself before the daggers got to me. "Did you forget my name already?" he asked flippantly in his French accent. "It's Louis. Try to remember."
"I'll remember," I said. The excitement inside me was really starting to ignite now.
We stopped in front of a dingy hotel. I had only ever seen such low places from car windows and I'd certainly never been inside one of them. Christian took me past the check-in desk and up the stairs to a room on the second floor. He pushed me in and locked the door behind us. I watched as he stooped to put some strange electronic device under the door frame. Then he tugged his shirt over his head and disappeared into the bathroom. He closed the door and I heard the water running.
The room was the sorriest excuse for a lodging I'd ever seen in my life. I wanted to sit down on the bed, but the covers looked stained. Instead, there was a plain wooden chair that I plopped myself into while I waited for him to get cleaned up. It was then that I realized we left my luggage at the train station. Crap! I'd have to tell him when he got out that we'd have to go back for it.
When Christian came out of the bathroom, I expected him to look like the man I'd known all my life, but he didn't. Actually, he looked about ten years younger. The dark aura had been completely washed from him and instead he was a freckled redhead who looked scarcely more than five years older than me.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"My room here is under the name Charles Lewis," he said simply as he dropped his bag on the floor. "From here, the story is that I helped you run away from school because we're in love."
"Can we talk about why I actually ran away from school?"
"There isn't time," he said as he circled the room picking up oddities that he had left scattered. "After we spent a few days on the lamb, we ran out of money and I convinced you to go back to school. So, I'll fly with you back to Toronto. The plane leaves in an hour and a half."
"Can we go back to the train station?"
"I left my bag there."
He snorted. "Then you left your bag there. Honestly, I'm willing to put up with all kinds of crap from you, but taking the time to go back to the station – that's a no-go. Look, Beth, seriously – I understand. You want attention. I wish I could give it to you, but I don't have more time to give you than I already do. The truth is you are the only thing I have in my life that even resembles normal. So, please, don't wreck it." He looked at me with appealing eyes.
I shook my head. Now I had processed everything he said. I didn't come this far so that he could ship me back off to school without even one shot being fired. "What's your real name?" I asked without batting an eyelash.
"Charles," he said evenly.
"Is that what I'm supposed to call you the next time we meet?" I asked crossing my legs and mentally gluing my butt to the chair. He wasn't going to get me out of there without a fight.
He zipped up his bag. "Now it's time to go." He picked up the phone and asked them to have a car waiting for him downstairs. Then he went to the door and was about to pick up the little device from under the door when he saw that I wasn't moving. "Beth, get up. We've got to go."
"I don't see why I should come with you. I haven't got what I want."
"What did you want?" he asked as he kneeled on the floor. He was looking through the black thing on the floor. "Back at your school didn't you say something about a home?"
His offhanded way of describing my most crucial desires made my blood boil. I didn't answer him.
In the end, he came over to the chair and grabbed my arm. "Get up," he ordered again.
"I don't understand your perspective," I said, looking up into his face, tears forming in my eyes. "You're getting what you want out of our relationship, so you don't want me to wreck the balance. What about what I want? And you – I don't even understand what is so great about what we have according to you. I think your explanation is flimsy and I won't accept it."
"All right," he said, tightening his hold on my arm. "I'll give you what you want, but you've got to give me what I want."
"What exactly will you give me?" I demanded.
He frowned darkly and then said, "I'll give you a key to one of my places and you can go there this summer – whether I'm there or not."
"Done," I said, allowing myself to be led out of the room without the necessity of being manhandled.
After we left the room, we had to walk down a long hallway to the stairs that led to the hotel lobby. When we first started down, the stretch was empty, but as we continued down two men in suits appeared in the exit. Suddenly, Christian put his arm around my shoulder and holding me like a teenage boyfriend; almost put me in a headlock. Then without warning, he began nuzzling my ear with his nose. I involuntarily pulled back, because I was completely unprepared for him to touch me like that, but he had me frozen with his arm around my neck.
"Smile," he whispered in a seductive tone as he buried his face in my hair. "Make your face look like this is normal. I know you're not used to it, but try to bear it until we get to the end of the hall."
I bit my cheek.
This had to have something to do with the men we were passing. They went by us without noticing us at all, so when we got to the end of the hallway, I peeked over Christian's shoulder to see which room they were going to. Sure enough, they knocked on the door of the room we had just vacated.
Heat flooded my cheeks. If I had made Christian wait any longer there, we would have been caught by those guys.
In the lobby as Christian finished paying his bill, we heard a crash from upstairs. It sounded like those guys broke down the door to our room. Christian acted like he it mustn't have anything to do with us and got us out to the taxi cab in record time.
My heart was beating like a drum machine as he stuffed me into the car and told the driver where to go.
I wanted to ask him all kinds of questions as we drove, but I didn't have the heart. He wouldn't tell me anything and he didn't want to have that kind of conversation with me now. Even if I spoke to him he would want me to call him Charles.
I was just as quiet on the airplane, except that my brain was acting funny. We didn't talk, but Christian was holding my hand. I told myself that it shouldn't boggle my mind the way it did, but this strange sense of pleasure kept creeping through my arm. Why was I this happy? I shouldn't be. He was only doing it to keep up with the charade, but I couldn't stop myself from imagining what it would be like if the gesture was real.
Back that the school, he dropped me off in front of the gates and ripped a page from a book in his pocket. He scrawled on it and said, "This is my address – one of them anyway. You can use this as home and if you ever decide to run away, please run away to here." He produced a key ring from his back and removing one, gave it to me. "This opens the back door. Don't get lost. I think that's everything. Now, is anyone watching us?"
I peeked around. "I don't see anyone, but who knows?"
"Yeah, teenagers could be hiding anywhere. Better make it real, just in case."
With that, he bent and kissed me on the mouth and my senses blotted out everything else. There may have been teachers yelling, or high school students hooting. I didn't care.
If it wasn't real for him, it was thoroughly real for me and my reality changed forever.
Whatever happened after that has always been a bit blurry in my mind. I didn't get expelled, but I got suspended from classes for two weeks. The principal called Christian and he came and had meetings with the administration. Then he gave me a couple of lectures on how I was too precious to run away from school with a boy no matter how attractive he might be. It was amazing how straight he kept his face while he lectured me about my romance with 'Charles'.
When I was alone with Trinity, she asked me what happened. "I still can't figure out how the heck you managed it. You were supposed to run away to get Christian's attention and instead you turn up back here with some amazing new boyfriend?"
"It's simple really. Christian never came to get me," I lied. "I'm certain he could have looked up my Visa bill online and tracked me down, but he didn't have time. After spending almost a week in a hotel room in Calgary, you meet a few people. His name is Charles Lewis."
"So, what's going to happen next?"
I smiled. "He's invited me to his home in Scotland for the summer and Christian says I can go, just so long as I don't run away from school in the meantime. Cool, eh?" Well, that wasn't exactly what he said, but whatever. Two could play his game.