As the hours pass by, I consider more and more that conversation with Michael. It’s all so much to take in. I can’t help but feel more than a little foolish as I recap to myself everything I said to him. He must see me as a complete loony; he can’t possibly be seriously considering what I said to be true.
Yet he stayed there the entire time. His eyes were focused and without judgment. He made me believe he wasn’t lying. That I could trust him, and I do. The entire issue was still completely out-of-this-world crazy, though.
I go to bed that night with all of these thoughts swirling around in my mind. Chalk up another sleepless night. This is getting old…
When I make it to Jack’s place, he can tell right away how ragged I am. I’m sure my hair is a mess and I can feel my eyes almost desperate to jump out from my head. I’m exhausted. But there is nothing I can do. I made a promise to my friend to take her shift, and if I hadn’t come in, Jack would be in big trouble.
After I bat away Jack and Roy’s initial protests, the day continues normally. It drags on, and the minutes seem like hours.
Before I even notice, it’s close to quitting time. Michael’s text messages help the day go by faster and even though I’m ecstatic to see him tonight, I don’t think I’m up to it. The door to the restaurant swings open and my heart jumps immediately. I’m hoping it’s Michael so he can just sit at the bar with the boys and keep me company until we are really done for the entire day.
But instead of a surprise early visit from Michael, it’s just another customer. Except I’ve never seen him before in my life. And honestly, I don’t know if it’s the exhaustion or the last-minute patron, but this guy has me feeling irked.
Until I see his face, that is.
He stares at me with a smirk on his face. He has this arrogant look about him, the kind of look that would make me almost immediately hate him. But his face is perfect. He’s almost the complete opposite of Michael. Whereas Michael has green eyes this man’s are sea blue, and they glisten like sapphires. Once again I find myself wondering if a person’s eyes could possibly really be that color. They are just so blue. The angles of his face, his cheeks, his complexion, he is…beautiful. Instead of Michael’s big, athletic build, this man is lithe, but his muscles are also very clearly defined. His hair is light, not like a dyed blonde, but his hair almost looks as if it is spun of gold.
“Hey sweetheart,” he whispers softly near me. I’m so lost in my own thoughts I must not have noticed him walking towards me. “You are the one to see about a table, right? Or am I being too presumptuous?”
He smiles at me confidently, seductively. His smile is also perfect. This guy has to be a model or something. If he isn’t, he really should be.
“This way,” I reply as I walk him to a table. I extend my arm and motion for him to sit, but he just stands there, looking at me. Almost as if he’s judging me.
“I think we have a mutual friend, Elizabeth,” he whispers again as if we are exchanging pillow talk.
Truth be told, this guy is incredibly attractive. But I’ve seen his kind a million times before, all over campus. Spoiled rich kid who‘s been given everything he ever wanted in his life. Exhibit A is his perfect smile. It screams of braces and whitening treatments.
Besides, I am technically seeing Michael. Technically. And I am way too inexperienced in romance to even be thinking of flirting with a guy like this.
“I know where this is headed, hotshot,” I respond assertively. “You’re a great looking guy, and I’m sure you have all the women fawning over you. But I’m just not that type of girl. I never was and I doubt I ever will be. Besides, I like my men to be manly and honorable. I bet you’re just your typical player who stepped out of a fashion catalog. So if you don’t mind, here is your menu, if you need anything, I’ll be waiting right over there.”
“Ouch, crash and burn,” he says, feigning a wounded heart. “Always treat your customers that way? How could you earn a living like that? I’m guessing you’re a student, right? Working here to make ends meet? The public can’t possibly tip you well with that attitude. I like that attitude, though. It’s like a tiger, caged all her life. All she needs is someone to release the lock.”
“Very smooth turnaround,” I remark sharply. I wasn’t lying, either, but I try to make it sound as snarky as I can as I turn to walk away. I give him my back in hopes of hiding my smile. Something about his confidence is really attractive. “Just let me know when you get your mind settled on something to eat.”
“You should really take my advice, you know,” he continues, unfazed. “I know what I’m talking about. The customer is always right and all that. It’ll affect your tips. But then again, I’m sure you aren’t really concerned about tips right now, are you? Good ol’ Michael is tipping you as much as you need, isn’t he?”
I feel both indignation and fear. Who is this creepy model guy who knows about Michael?
“Is that the mutual friend you spoke of earlier?” I ask, still turned around to avoid his expression.
“Yep, sure is,” he answers proudly. I imagine a large grin on his face. “You’re really quick to judge people. That’s a very savage quality, especially in a young lady like you. You don’t want the folks around here to think of you as unladylike, would you? But then again, they really don’t have you figured out…do they? I wonder why that is.”
I turn slowly towards him and prepare myself for the worst. Did Michael tell this guy everything about us? Is this his employee, or a friend? Or maybe even worse, some sort of relative?
He smiles at me again and extends his hand to me.
“Please, sit down here,” he says as I notice his eyes staring deeply into mine. “It’s a really comfortable booth. Take a seat next to me, I insist. You could learn a thing or two.”
As if the sea truly was in his eyes, those two deep blue orbs are sucking me in. I feel a need to sit down next to him as he asks. But I’m not that type of girl. And I’m definitely not falling for his playboy crap. I want to know everything he knows about Michael.
So I’ll bite and listen to him rant. For now.
I walk closer to the booth and sit across from him. Ironically, we’re in the same exact booth I sat Michael down in when we first met. I notice the man’s face smirk once more as he chuckles to himself.
“I see,” he says softly, as if he is the only person in the room who gets the joke. “Well then, so your Michael’s new friend eh? It’s the talk on the internet and newspapers worldwide.”
I eye him suspiciously as I arrange the salt and pepper shakers on the table. He’s starting to make me more than a bit nervous. Is Michael really the kind of guy that would brag about us to his friends? We haven’t even done anything yet! If he is that type, I swear…I could just punch him in the face.
But I do suppose it’s my fault as well. I’m the one that’s rushing into everything. And I also might have made Michael out to be better than he is. He’s the first guy I ever dated as an adult. after all. Who am I kidding? He’s the first guy I’ve ever dated.
“Don’t pout, now,” the man says as he reaches for my face. “I’m only joking. I’m sorry; I have a dark sense of humor. I hope it can grow on you?”
“That’s not something you joke about. I have never been accused of being that kind of girl. I don’t intend to start that reputation now either.”
“What kind of girl are you referring to exactly?” he asks with another confident smile. “A girl who has fun? As opposed to the nun you currently are?” He places his right elbow on the table and plants his face in his hand, examining me closely. Just who does this guy think he is?
“So, let me get this straight,” I say as I motion to Royto get me a drink. If I’m going to be yelling at this jerk, my vocal cords definitely needed the fluids. “Not only do you come in here and insinuate I’m some type of floozy, but now you’re also going to pretend like you know me? All of the sudden and out of the blue?”
“Hey now, I can see you’re getting upset,” he states as he straightens and offers his hands up in peace. “I never meant anything like that. But I do have a way of knowing people. For example, I can tell you’re a very intelligent girl. You want to be taken seriously. And although you could get by in the world easily with your looks, you want to get by with your brains. You’re also a goody two shoes. Were you a girl scout?”
“What?!” I almost yell at the top of my lungs. “I was never a scout, I didn’t have the time. It wasn’t really my thing either. You obviously aren’t as good at reading people as you thought you were.”
“Everything alright here, Lizzy?” Roy asks as he places my soda on the table in front of me.
I nod at him and take a deep sip of my glass. Roy walks away with clear confusion on his face. I stare at this guy sitting across from me. Oh, if my eyes could burn a hole in him…
“See that?” he says as he tilts his head to the side without a care in the world. “That glance right there. Only a caged tiger could produce such a powerful stare. If I’m wrong, please, feel free to tell me how wrong I am.”
I continue drinking from my glass and staring at him. I don’t know what to say. I’m still wishing for that ability to burn holes in him with my eyes.
“So I’m right, I take it? What a surprise,” he says in a mocking tone before extending his arm. “I’m not only right, you know. I’m also Vincent. And it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
I breathe deeply as I remove the glass from my mouth and extend my hand also to shake his. At least now I have a name, and that’s enough to interrogate Michael with.
“So Vincent, did you come over here tonight to eat, drink, or just torture me?”
“Oh but I was hoping I could do a little of everything,” he says with a boyish laugh. “I suppose I’d take the torture option if I only have my choice of one. But really, I just came to see what had Michael so enraptured and out of focus. I can clearly see why he hasn’t been able to…concentrate lately.”
“It’s just that I knew you’d be lovely, and knowing Michael the way I do, I figured you were more than just another pretty face,” he continues on as if having a monologue in front of a sold out audience. “Michael’s a brooder. When something took him out of that loop, I figured it had to be someone extraordinary. I never counted on it to be so very exquisite, however.”
“So, are you a family member or do you work with Michael…?” My unease is growing and I fear that Vincent will realize it immediately if given a free moment. “Has he talked about me to you much? And I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Vincent, but you do have a lousy way of introducing yourself to people.”
Another soft laugh. This time he doesn’t even allow his mouth to open as he stifles the noise. He looks down briefly before turning right back to me with yet another smile.
“Michael and I met through work,” he explains as if the topic itself is dull. “Now, I merely consider him a very old friend, more likely my little brother. Frankly, I’m hurt he never told you about me. I guess I’ll have to cross him off my Christmas list this year.”
Vincent was right, now that I think about it. And as I allow myself to return to my first impression of Vincent, I realize that I was spot on with my initial instinct. This is a man that is completely different, almost a polar opposite of Michael. Michael is tough and rugged; Vincent seems more like an aristocrat. Michael is extremely tall with wide shoulders and large arms and legs. Vincent is noticeably in shape, his muscles easily visible in any light I’d imagine, but he is still very slender and statuesque.
But their biggest difference perhaps is what Vincent himself pointed out. Michael does seem to be the quieter of the two. He is introverted and pensive. Vincent seems to be at home in social situations and wears his thoughts on his sleeve. He has a dark sense of humor and seems like the guy who is always sarcastic and cracking jokes. Most of all, Vincent seems to enjoy making me squirm. How could these two be friends?
“To ease your mind, no, Michael never told me about you,” Vincent announces. “Michael doesn’t really talk to me about women or his relationships. I don’t think Michael talks to anyone about his personal life, really. I just saw that he was a little off key lately, for him, anyway.”
“What do you mean, off key?” I ask with worry ringing clearly in my voice.
“He’s happy,” Vincent says, almost as if the idea of Michael being happy distresses him. “I can see why now. I guess I just didn’t expect the object of his newfound bliss to be such a…keeper.”
Yet again, Vincent laughs to himself. I officially have had enough. I was done playing his game.
“Listen here Vinny,” I say as I look at him dead in the eyes. “I bet you make all the women fall all over you with your subtle wit and banter. I’m sure that icy, mysterious stare works on all the girls, but it doesn’t do a thing for me. And this whole act of laughing to yourself as if you’re the only one who knows what’s going on behind the scenes and everyone else is in the dark; it’s getting really old. So how about you stop laughing to yourself like a jerk and let the world in on the joke? If Michael is in trouble or if he’s going through something, I want to help him. I feel he would do the same for me. So fess up, order something to eat, or leave. Because right now, you’re really getting on my nerves. And I’m nowhere near nice when I’m angry.”
Vincent curls his lips up in a toothless smile and tilts his head to the other side.
“Vinny, huh? Like I said, you’re a tiger,” he says as he licks his lips. “I have quite the temper on me as well, you should know. I guess that makes us both tigers. It just recently dawned on me, just now, that is. He hasn’t told you, has he?”
“Told me what? Michael isn’t the type to keep secrets. He’s been nothing but honest with me. You, on the other hand, are playing some sick, twisted game that only you’re enjoying.”
“Michael is a stickler for the truth,” Vincent says with a couple clicks of his tongue and a nod of his head. “I’m amazed he’d keep such a secret from you. But then again, he’s probably trying to protect you. You are indeed worth protecting. I’m not so sure he really is by keeping the truth from you. And in keeping the truth from you, some might say that in itself is lying. How do you feel on the issue, Elizabeth? If I withhold some important information from you, is that lying?”
My mind races at all the possibilities Vincent could possibly be getting at. I really don’t know this man; I should just brush off whatever he says to me. But for some reason, I know he’s telling me the truth. But I also suspect it’s a distorted truth.
“Is he married or engaged?” I ask with a shake of my head. Confusion and panic are starting to settle in. That would definitely explain his absence earlier and why sometimes it was near impossible to get in contact with him.
But Vincent just laughs, harder than before.. His face is flooded with amusement.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” he answers softly, calmly. This time, there is a tenderness to his tone. “Michael is a good guy, a goody two shoes, like you. He wouldn’t do something like that.”
I exhale a sigh of deep relief. What else could be so bad to make such a big spectacle of it? It’s like Vincent was intentionally trying to make it ominous, just to grab my attention firmer. He reaches across the table and takes my drink, pulling it towards him without a second thought, and takes a sip.
“Excuse me?!” I exclaim in frustration. “How could you just grab my drink like that?”
“I was thirsty, you haven’t taken my drink order,” Vincent says as he looks up from the glass. “You really are a very poor waitress.”
This guy has a real way of getting under my skin. Worst thing about it is that he wasn’t really upsetting me. The only time I was truly frustrated was when I thought Michael might have been in trouble or seeing someone else. Now I’m just surprised at the depths of Vincent’s confidence. I wonder if he has any limits in trying to push my buttons. It’s as if all of this is a game to him. I’m not about to give him the satisfaction.
“What did he tell you he does for a living?” Vincent asks nonchalantly, still attending my drink.
“He told me he inherited his family’s wealth,” I reply, a little unbalanced by the question. “But he said he also has a family business that’s involved with protection of the environment. I assumed it was mostly pro bono work.”
Vincent smiles to himself as he wipes the excess liquid from his lips with a napkin.
“I suppose all that is truthful, if a little…skewed,” he answers. “Did he tell you why he was here? I hear he’s going to school. Always very meticulous, that one. I’m just surprised he’s stayed in the area for so long. It’s not usual for him.”
Vincent is giving me more than plenty to think about.
“Skewed…?” I ask, trailing off. “I know his work takes him many places, but I didn’t know it was strange for him to be in one area for long. You make it seem like he’s always on the move. What do you mean, skewed?”
“I mean it’s all really at how you look at it,” he answers without a second’s thought. “Kind of how I asked whether it’s a lie to withhold a truth. I like to ponder these types of petty, perhaps insignificant things. So, did he tell you why he was here?”
With growing concern, I’m starting to hesitate before answering Vincent’s questions. But if I don’t answer them then that meant that Vincent succeeded in making me uncomfortable enough to avoid him. I’m not about to let that happen.
“He’s trying to scare a Russian businessman away from here,” I say as I look Vincent dead in the eyes, trying to appear completely unafraid. “The guy wants the land to build some stores and things like that. It’ll destroy this tiny town. The small businesses will go bankrupt almost immediately, and all the animals in the forest will have to find another place to go. We’ll end up with rabbits and wolves and who knows what else in our front yards.”
Again, a smile from Vincent.
“I suppose that’s true also,” he says as he scratches his right eye. “Although one might consider that to be skewed as well. A Russian businessman can’t be the only reason he’s staying here.”
“You’re his friend,” I answer immediately in protest. “Shouldn’t you know if there’s more? Maybe he’s staying here because he likes my company. Does that make you jealous? Am I taking away your best friend, and you just can’t handle it?”
In my meager attempt to act and sound tough, I only succeed in making Vincent laugh louder than ever. All of the customers left in the restaurant are now completely focused on Vincent and me. This is beyond embarrassing. After what seems like an eternity, Vincent stops laughing and everyone goes back to their meals and drinks. My face is undeniably red, I can feel it.
“You couldn’t be farther away from the truth, my dear Elizabeth,” he assures me smugly as he sits up again properly. “If Michael wants to ignore me for the rest of all eternity, he could. I wouldn’t say I won’t miss my playful jabs at his oh-so-serious demeanor, but there has to be more than just you keeping him here. Or perhaps I should say, you weren’t the original reason why he came here.”
“Of course not,” I report incredulously. “He came here for his work. He didn’t know I existed until he just happened to come in to get a bite to eat here.”
“Somehow, I really doubt he didn’t know you existed,” Vincent asserts confidently. “What I really do doubt is what that old dog is still doing here. I came looking for something. It was only after coming here that I knew Michael was here. But you…you might be the reason he came here to begin with.”
“Vincenzo” I hear Michael’s voice call out calmly. I didn’t notice him appear next to us. Even though Michael speaks low, his voice still booms, almost menacingly, to Vincent. “That’s enough.”
Vincent smiles and winks at me before standing up to face Michael. Michael towers over Vincent, who, in his own right, was pretty tall himself.
“Playing games as usual?” Michael asks, his tone and expression deadly serious. What kind of relationship did these two “friends” have?
“Ah, I see it now,” Vincent answers suavely as he measures Michael’s body language. Vincent isn’t backing down. It was clear he wasn’t intimidated at all by Michael’s presence. “You did come for the keeper. That’s extremely interesting. I assume you know why I came?”
“To ruin my life, as per usual?” Michael answers with a hint of hostility.
“I came for the ring,” Vincent answers calmly. “I’m sure you know why I would do such a dumb thing?”
“That’s unimportant right now,” Michael says as he diverts his attention to me. “I’m sorry if he bothered you. It’s his way. He gets a kick out of playing with people’s minds. Are you okay?”
Amidst this confusion, I don’t know if I am okay. What in the world are these two talking about? And for old friends, they really do act oddly with one another. I shake my head nervously in hopes that the attention can focus away from me. I want and need an explanation, but Michael can enlighten me later. I have the feeling this should be discussed in private.
“What did you tell her, Vincenzo?” Michael asks, as if he was an interrogator.
“Elizabeth?” Vincent asks coyly as he turns to me once more. “We were just talking. We were getting to know one another. I found out about your…philanthropic work here and your concerns with a Russian businessman. I must say, your work with nature sure has you working a very…unorthodox angle this time.”
“It’s not an angle,” Michael defends his stance as he aggressively grabs Vincent by his shirt. Vincent does nothing to engage or even resist Michael’s grasp. “You know the truth. You also know the danger of finding the ring by yourself. You should have told me, sought me out. Even you shouldn’t take on a circle of this size by yourself. And why did you involve her in all this? She has nothing to do with it.”
“Oh, but Michael,” Vincent says as he turns to face me with a large, comfortable smile even while still gripped by Michaels large and overpowering hands. He stares at me, right in the eyes again. “I think she has everything to do with this, and I bet you knew all about it.”