The Billionaire's Embrace Page 36

When I went to pick up my Little Brother that Saturday, for an afternoon of wandering around the zoo, he looked at me suspiciously and said, “Are you on drugs?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not on drugs. I’ve been juicing.”

“That’s drugs,” he said, and yelled over his shoulder into the house, “Ma, Carter’s on drugs!”

“Not juicing like steroids,” I said. “For God’s sake, Nelson. Like vegetable juice.”

Nelson’s mother came to the door and gave me the same suspicious look her son had bestowed upon me. “You on drugs, Carter?”

“Vegetable juice,” I said. “And meditation. Honestly, Ms. Turner. You know I’m not into that sort of thing.”

She grinned at me. “Just making sure. Y’all have fun. Don’t keep him out too late, he’s got that robotics thing tomorrow.”

“I’ll have him home in time for dinner,” I said, and sternly pointed Nelson toward the car.

Nelson was ten. He liked computers, science fiction, and geology. His mother told me that he mainly hung out with the girls at school, but that he was considered so peculiar that nobody messed with him. I had known him for three years, and he had always seemed very content with himself, unbothered by what anyone else thought. He knew what he liked, and he was going to do it.

His mother had confessed to me, a few months back, that she had initially been doubtful that a white man could provide her son with the sort of role model he needed. I still wasn’t convinced that I was the right person for the job, but I was doing my best. I had helped Ms. Turner enroll Nelson in a magnet school, and I sponsored his robotics team. I taught him how to swim. I took him to the library as much as he wanted. I would, when the time came, help him navigate the process of college applications.

I wouldn’t have to do anything in terms of actually getting him into college. I was confident that Nelson had that part covered.

That afternoon, we went to the Bronx Zoo. It was cold, but we agreed that winter was the best time to visit the zoo, because we had the entire place practically to ourselves. Nelson showed little interest in the charismatic megafauna—“They’re big,” he said about the elephants, looking unimpressed—but he would have spent all day in the reptile house if I let him. I didn’t find frogs particularly interesting, but Nelson’s excitement was contagious, and I had to dredge my memories of high school biology to answer his questions about camouflage and toxicity.

“So why don’t they just make themselves brown, like the lizards? They can’t get eaten if nothing can see them,” Nelson said. “Why go to all the trouble of making themselves blue?”

“I don’t know, Nelson,” I said, for the fourth time in a row. “Why don’t we find a book about amphibians?”

“I thought you were supposed to know this stuff,” he said, and shook his head slowly, so like his mother in his disappointment that I couldn’t help but laugh.

We had pizza for lunch, at the overpriced cafeteria, and he said, “You’re acting all sad and stuff.”

“Am I?” I asked. I didn’t think I was behaving any differently than I usually did.

“Yeah. Like, quiet,” Nelson said. “Was somebody mean to you?”

I smiled at him. For all his sharp intellect, Nelson was still very much a child in some ways. “Sure,” I said. “You could say that. It’s not a big deal. Let’s finish eating and go look at the monkeys, okay?”

He didn’t mention it again, and was so worn out by the time we left the zoo that he fell asleep in the car on the way back. His mother took one look at him and said, “Oh Lord, dinner and straight to bed with you, kid.” He nodded sleepily and shuffled inside.

“Sorry,” I said. “You know how he gets.”

“Oh, I know all too well,” she said. “You won’t come in for dinner, will you?”

I shook my head. She always asked, and I always refused. I didn’t want to impose. “I still have some work to take care of tonight. Tell him good luck at his competition tomorrow.”

“I will,” she said. “Thank you. I know he’ll have all sorts of stories to tell me about those animals.”

“Make sure to ask him about the frogs,” I said, and waved to her as I walked back to my car.

I thought about it over the next few days. Was I acting sad? I didn’t think so, but nobody could accuse me of being excessively self-aware.

I asked my mother about it, when I had dinner with her on Tuesday night.

She set down her fork and gave me a piercing look. “You seem perfectly ordinary to me. Is it about that girl you’re seeing? Oh, what was her name—”

“Regan,” I said. My mother hadn’t forgotten a name in all the years I’d known her; she being deliberate obtuse in an attempt to annoy me.

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “My mind isn’t what it used to be. Old age, you know.”

I rolled my eyes and took another bite of food. I wasn’t going to embark upon this conversation.

“She seemed like a very nice girl,” my mother continued, obviously unwilling to let it rest.

“I’m not seeing her anymore,” I said stiffly. This wasn’t a topic I was eager to discuss.

“Oh?” my mother said, perking up. “That’s a shame, although I have to say, she didn’t seem as though she would be capable of meeting the demands placed on a politician’s wife. She didn’t have any fire in her.”

That was completely untrue. Regan’s fire was banked down to hot coats, but it still burned fiercely. She had, I suspected, spent most of her life trying to extinguish it altogether, and she hid it well, but I had caught enough glimpses to know that it was there. But I had no interest in defending her. She had left me—thrown me away with a five-minute phone conversation that let me know exactly how little I meant to her. So I merely said, “Mother. I’m not going into politics.”

“Of course you aren’t, dear,” she said, which meant she had already started planning the first campaign.

She didn’t push the issue further. We finished our meal with a pleasant discussion of the new exhibit opening at the Guggenheim. Then, over dessert and coffee, I said, “I’d like to ask you a question about Father.”

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