Kai was making the finishing touches on the sundial pattern when an email finally came through from Erin. Several times as he waited he had been tempted to text her again, but that would be admitting he felt out of control. He had asked her a question, now it was up to her to answer.
He read through the email several times. Erin wanted a traditional relationship, not the sort of thing he had envisioned for himself. He had never even lived with anyone, not in that kind of way. And she mentioned kids a fair bit. He wasn’t opposed to children, but he couldn’t imagine taking on that kind of responsibility. He had always been very careful to use a condom because he knew that one accident could change everything. His mom had gotten pregnant with him, and when she decided to keep him, that’s why she married his father. She wouldn’t have ended up with his dad if that hadn’t happened. Her life would probably be a lot better now if she hadn’t gotten pregnant.
The third time he read Erin's email, he had to jump up and pace back and forth, trying to understand it. She was out of his reach.
That’s why she had said “if it’s only for one night.” She figured this was a torrid fling that would soon end.
And in fact, she was right. He was a free spirit who rarely stayed the night with his lovers. How was he supposed to be a real partner to her? He might never make enough to support a family. Even paying his rent every month was a struggle. So far he had made it work somehow, but it wasn’t because of careful planning. It was more like scrambling from one toehold to the next on a sheer cliff.
His art was the most important thing in his life, and he had sworn a long time ago that he would give up everything else as long as he could continue making his art. He didn’t even try to make a bargain with the devil that he would be successful—the process was his passion, and he couldn’t live without it.
He hated that he had to lie when she asked him how he made money. That’s when he should have told her about his X-rated kinky sculpture. But he had decided he wouldn’t tell her about Hunting Art until after the project was finished. Now he had to protect her because it wasn’t just his job at risk. She could get into trouble, too, if anyone found out she knew about it and was also involved with him.
After her email, he knew she would really hate Hunting Art. Traveling to kink conferences around the country to sell erotic sculptures to pay the rent definitely wouldn’t fit with her idea of a traditional relationship.
Scrubbing his hand through his hair, he only knew he didn’t want to give Erin up.
He didn’t dare send her an email in response telling her that he was a confirmed bohemian who would rather blow up the conventions of society than live according to them. She might run away.
And he couldn’t stand that. So he set to work. He would create a romantic date for tomorrow that Erin would never forget.
Erin kept checking her email, but Kai didn’t respond to her note. It bothered her, but she had made her choice when she refused to sugar-coat her desire for a husband that she could depend on. In fact, his silence showed he didn’t want the same thing. If he was the kind of man who wanted to be in a serious relationship, he would already be in one. Instead he was chipping around with wild girls like Nikki, who probably asked very little from him.
As Erin went to bed that night, she told herself that she would have to deal with a lot worse with this if she wanted to see Kai again. Could she really have sex with him knowing he was doing these things with other women? Her body screamed Yes! while her mind crossed its mental arms and shook its head sternly No!
“One step at a time,” she told herself as she climbed into bed. She could do one step at a time. And when it got too bad, then she would end it. By then, maybe she would be disgusted with his perverted ways and not care. Or she would be a rag-doll left in a gutter after he had used her up as he wanted. But she hoped she had enough good sense so that wouldn’t happen.
It wasn’t the usual Monday as she dressed for work with an eye to her evening date, choosing a tailored sleeveless dress. The A-line skirt flared at the bottom, and it was a luscious dark teal, so it would translate well into evening. She hadn’t asked him a thing about what he had planned, so she had to cover all of her bases.
By the time she saw Kai at work, she was able to smile pleasantly as if there was no open-ended email hanging in the air or the memory of her writhing under him as he dripped hot wax on her.
In front of everyone else, he acted like there was nothing special between them, which she appreciated. She didn’t want her boss finding out about them now. Allison would be furious if she knew they were seeing each other. Ever since Kai had pushed Allison away, she had alternated between being cloying sweet and ordering him around like he was the bus boy.
Kai didn’t seem to care either way, and it was slowly driving Allison crazy. She kept handing him over to Erin to deal with the permits and the contractor doing the demolition, and then stepping back in abruptly to take over, messing up their perfectly good plans. Allison would love to find some way to undermine Kai with Mr. William, and the fact that he and Erin were dating was a big juicy secret she would use against them. They had to be discreet.
Erin was pleased to find she worked well with Kai. He was professional and very quick on his feet when it came to getting around the inevitable red-tape roadblocks that kept cropping up. She had to stop herself from watching him and catching his eye, he was so distracting. She kept thinking of the way he had touched her, never letting go of her while she was blindfolded, keeping them connected.
By the end of the day, Erin was eager to go to dinner with him. She had managed to whisper at one point, “Let’s meet at the deli at the end of the block instead of in the plaza.”
He nodded, and nothing else was said. But when she hurried up to meet him after work, already getting excited, her heart fell when Kai said, “I’m sorry, but I just got a call that the Conservancy Garden may be able to take the fountain. They want me to be up there in an hour so I can meet with the director before the gates close.”
She wasn’t able to swallow her disappointment. “Oh… well, that’s good. If we can recycle the fountain, we should do it. Where’s the Conservancy Garden?”
“It’s in Central Park, on 5th Avenue and 100th Street.” He checked his watch. “I’m hungry so I’m going to grab a bowl of noodles. I know it’s not what you had in mind, but do you want to join me? Then we can go up together to the garden. It should be pretty at sunset.”
She smiled, feeling better. “That sounds nice.”
He explained on the way down to Delancey St. that the director was making a special trip up to the garden from the park headquarters on the west side. But instead of listening, she kept watching his mouth, when he spoke and the way he gestured. She kept thinking of the thrill she had felt when he faced off with those thugs on the subway. And how he had kissed her while her eyes were covered until everything spiraled away into bliss. All of the things she had forced from her mind during work hours. Now she could indulge herself.
He took her to a tiny storefront Chinese noodle shop that was filled with steam. Several small round tables and rickety chairs were next to the refrigerated display cases for pastries lining both walls. A counter cut off the back half where the kitchen was going gangbusters turning out food for the steady stream of customers that came and went.
Kai didn’t ask her this time; he went ahead and ordered two bowls of noodles and chose several buns from the display cases. The woman tending the counter couldn’t speak English, but that didn’t seem to slow either of them down as they smiled and thanked each other.
Kai set everything down on the table, including a bottle of water that he opened and placed on her side. “I noticed you drink water instead of soda. That’s good. It’s better for you to not drink soda.”
“That’s ‘yes, sir’ to you.”
She made a rude noise before she could stop herself. Then covered her mouth with her hand.
“I’m sure I can make you say it, with the right encouragement,” he said.
He laughed and deftly took a bite of noodles, as she looked down in confusion.
“I’d love to hear you call me Sir because you’d have to force yourself to do it.” His voice lowered. “Just the thought it of makes me get hard.”
She looked around quickly, but nobody was listening. Leave it to Kai to make her so flustered with a few words. She had to stoop over her bowl and bite off the noodles, letting the rest slide back into the broth. It was the most awkward food you could possibly eat on a date. But it was delicious with bits of shrimp and spices. She had no idea what they were, but it tasted good.
The buns were even better. She bit into one, and it was filled with shredded BBQ pork that was somewhat sweet. She could have made a meal on those pork buns alone. The other one had a dense custard cream that, funny enough, wasn’t as sweet as the pork. She ooh-ed and ah-ed over the unusual tastes.
“I love to watch you eat,” Kai said. “You don’t hold back, do you? I hate women who pick at their food. Why eat out if you’re going to order and then sit there staring at it?”
She picked up the bowl to drink the last of the broth. “I like to try new things.”
“That’s what you said in your email.”
Erin swallowed and wiped her mouth with the paper napkin. “You never did answer it.”
“Didn’t I?” He stacked up their bowls.
“No.” She stayed seated though he was making motions for them to leave. He had managed to distract her from the conversation about relationships they were supposed to have over dinner. “Since I told you what I want, now it’s your turn. What are you looking for?”
“I’m not looking for anything particular. I take what comes along.” He leaned over and touched a light finger to her lips. “And I’ll definitely take you.”
It sent a shiver up her spine. The way he was looking at her, like he wanted to slurp her up like he did with the noodles… everything else flew out of her head. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her right there.
But instead he said, “We’re going to be late if we don’t go.”
They headed over to the subway, and as they went down the stairs together, it brought back vivid memories of when the gang had chased them down. Kai's posture changed as if he was remembering it, too. When they got onto the train car, he squared his shoulders, glancing around at every man nearby as if assessing their potential for causing problems.
“That was the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Erin said quietly. He understood. “It was off the hook.”
Kai was standing right in front of her, and she was against the door, so he blocked her off from everyone else. The car had a lot of people standing nearby, but it wasn’t packed.
Feeling him so close, rocking in time with the train, she couldn’t think of anything except how he had stood between her and the gang. Exactly like this. She remembered how she had rested one hand lightly against his back, too afraid to look at the approaching men.
Kai had kept her safe. He had done what he needed to do.
It made her weak in the knees. She wished he would kiss her now. But he was too keyed up to let down his guard. And he was probably right. Now she knew how quickly something could get out of hand.
Getting off uptown, they walked several blocks to Central Park and entered through the wide iron gates just minutes before seven o’clock. At the bottom of the flight of steps was a broad avenue of trees. Running down the center of the promenade was a grassy plot surrounded by hedges. Along each side were flower beds filled with spring blossoms and trimmed bushes. It looked lovely in the rosy twilight.
As they walked down the promenade toward the back, Kai said, “Look at that!”
At the end was a small gray fountain sitting in the middle of a broad circle of grass. It was lost in the midst of such an expanse. And the trickle of water spouting from the top was not impressive either.
“Our fountain would look so much better!” Erin exclaimed. “It’s huge compared to that one.”
Kai was nodding, his eyes alight. “And it’s a nicer color for this setting. It will anchor the avenue of trees without being overpowered like this one.”
A middle-aged woman wearing a dark green work shirt walked up and introduced herself as the director of the Central Park Conservancy. She liked what she had seen in the photos Kai had emailed her, and when they marked off how much bigger the fountain was, she was delighted.
“My only problem is that we don’t have anything in the budget for moving it,” the director said. “We have the pavers and the manpower to widen the base for it, and the plumbing was run a few years ago, so that’s fine. How much would it cost to move such a huge object?”
“I spoke to Mr. William about that,” Kai said. “He’s offered to donate the cost of moving the fountain up here to the Conservancy Garden. We can dismantle it into sections for easier transport, so it’s only a matter of a big truck and a forklift to unload it once it’s here.”
That was the first Erin had heard of this, but she saw the opportunity and added, “We’d like to take photos of the move and let some of the papers know about our donation of the fountain to the Conservancy Garden. It will be good publicity for Central Park as well as BioEnd.”
The director was enthusiastic about the deal, and Kai looked very happy to find a good use for the fountain. They talked about the timeline and details of the move which would have to happen very quickly to match the plaza renovation timeline. It got quite dark before they wrapped it up.
As they were walking back to the subway, Hunter said, “It’s a good thing you came tonight. I wouldn’t have thought of the PR angles like you did.”
“You did all the work on this. Michel must be thrilled.”
“He will be when I tell him.”
“But I thought you said he would donate the transport up here?”
Kai grinned. “I got him to agree to that before I started calling places. I didn’t want money to be a problem if a community park or green space wanted it. I wasn’t expecting Central Park to have budget issues, but parks are underfunded.”
Erin glanced at him, struck by his delight over the whole thing. He was the one who had made this happen. He had done outreach to all sorts of parks and public spaces, trying to find a place that could use the fountain.
She remembered he said his last project was a pro bono piece for a park in Bed-Sty. There was something really admirable about that. His motive in finding a home for the fountain was even more altruistic than hers—even though more publicity for the project would bring more publicity for him, he hadn’t considered the PR angle until she brought it up.
He hesitated when they reached the top of the subway entrance. They both looked down into the black maw and neither one made a move to step down.
“It’s such a nice night,” he said. “Our date’s been busted up and we both have work tomorrow. But what do you say about walking a little further down to the river? There’s a water ferry there we can take to Williamsburg.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely.”
He gave her a sideways look. “I think secretly you like being on the subway with me. You like it that you were afraid, now that it’s over.”
She looked at him quickly, but there was no judgment in his eyes. “You’re probably right.” To change the subject, she asked, “So why didn’t you answer my email? For real.”
“You might not like my answer,” he said slowly.
She felt a chill. Here it was. “I thought you said honesty was the most important thing.”
“It is. But some people really don’t want it when they get it.”
“Now I’m really curious. What did you think of my answer?”
He grimaced. “I don’t think that’s what you really want.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you don’t know what you want.”
“Oh, really? So you know me better than I know myself?” She felt a little irritated. “That’s funny from someone I just met two weeks ago.”
“Ten days,” he corrected absently.
That irritated her even more. “So tell me what do you think I really want?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I do know that those things—a husband, kids, a nice house—those are things you’ve been told you want. It’s the story you tell about yourself, that you tell other people, because it feels safe. It’s not really you.”
“What do you mean? It’s not really me?”
“It’s a front you put up, your way of getting through the world. You want people to think you’re a nice person, a good girl. So you do things to please other people. But all the while, you’re hiding behind your façade of niceness, judging people and hoping they don’t see you in there making calculations about what they want and what you’re willing to give in exchange.” Her mouth fell open. How could he say that about me?
“Maybe it’s unconscious, this pretty way you have of dealing with people.” He looked at her harder. “But I think you know what you’re doing. That you think things out. That you rarely do anything by impulse. Even what happened with me the other night. You thought that through, put everything on the scales, and made the choice to ask me back to your place.”
Pinned, she felt pinned like a dead butterfly. Every scallop and color block catalogued, and put in her proper place according to size and type.
He’s right, she thought helplessly. She couldn’t have spoken for the world. She felt naked and exposed, even more than when she had been lying naked on her coffee table with her shirt over her face. Her shirt over her face! No wonder she liked it. To be hidden from his prying eyes. To be able to relax and not have to think and wonder…
His arm went around her shoulders. It felt better than anything she had ever felt before. “It’s okay, Erin. Everyone has their shining armor they wear when they battle life. But you can’t get lost in thinking that the way you learned to deal with other people is really you. You’re in there, struggling to get out. To find what’s really important for you. Maybe it’s BioEnd and the environment. Maybe it’s something different. But you have to give yourself space and the freedom to make mistakes, to take alleyways and go down side paths. Because sometimes that’s the best way to find yourself.”