Peter hated that pounding in the gym didn’t help anything. It was usually his cover all; screw up and the gym would take away the pain. In truth, he had been useless since returning from Stockholm, and nothing else had helped. He was racked with guilt on so many levels, and he wasn’t managing to deal with any of it. Increasing the speed on his treadmill he rasped for breath and for a moment the aerobic demands of the exercise blocked almost all thoughts. But he couldn’t maintain it. Slowing to a jog he allowed reality to creep back in.
Guilt! The greatest pain.
Where did he start? Leading Alexis on? That was unforgiveable, he KNEW things couldn’t go further, then he slept with her! And whilst it was amazing he’d gone in with no forethought, without even thinking about taking her virginity. He’d behaved like a bloody hormone driven teenager! A beautiful vivacious woman saving herself for the right man, the right time, such a rarity in this world of promiscuity, and he’d ruined her when she’d fallen into a short lived fling with him. It doesn’t have to be short-lived, that voice kept telling him, but he knew that it wouldn’t go further; he just hoped one day she’d forgive him. Maybe that would be feasible if he hadn’t then ignored her, pretended she didn’t exist the very next day. He didn’t think he’d do that, but when Oliver had catapulted straight into his life hours after his daughter had shared her bed with him, well it had been the biggest wakeup call of all. What the hell had he done?
Sorted out things with her? He shook his head in frustration and self loathing, nope, he’d continued to ignore her, Oliver was there, needing his help and he whilst could barely look at the older man for the guilt he felt at deflowering his daughter, that had been his choice, his loyalty. He hated himself for that, but he did it, managing to converse with Oliver as though he hadn’t committed the most heinous crime.
He’d barely slept since. Usually skiing helped, but two days in the mountains resolved nothing. He was unable to concentrate on work, let alone anything else. His punishment to himself was to flog himself into the ground in his basement gym. It was only when the adrenaline kicked in that he stopped worrying and could change his focus, change his thoughts. Temporarily.
This current run had come after the hardest weights program he knew, and before that he’d cycled until he felt like collapsing. And nothing had changed. This was one time when he couldn’t hide from himself.
As he emerged from the basement he threw his sodden t-shirt into the laundry then climbed the stairs to find a drink, it was then he heard the doorbell ring, and ring, and ring.
Rubbing a towel over his face and neck he called out, "Ok ok je viens! I’m coming!" In both languages as he had no idea who the caller was and what language they spoke. Not that he had a huge amount of visitors.
Wiping the streams of sweat from his eyes, he unlocked the door and swung it open, then felt his jaw drop; his mouth gape wide, not even the arctic blast to his sweat soaked body penetrated his level of shock.
There stood Alexis, wrapped up in a knitted beret and matching scarf, her cheeks red from the cold. She wasn’t smiling, but then he hardly expected her to be.
"Alexis! What are you doing here?" he gasped still unable to believe his eyes. Seeing her here in his world was disorientating. He was a man who liked to compartmentalise things.
"I wanted to talk to you." Her voice was quiet, but it caused him to erupt in goose bumps, and he suddenly realised he was half naked.
“Come in...I need to keep the cold out.” He gestured with an arm, and when she moved into the hall he closed the door firmly. "Why didn’t you phone?"
She laughed ironically shaking her head, "Peter you can barely look me in the eye, you’d never answer a call from me! And I DID try, in Stockholm, for what good it did me."
He nodded slowly, "I suppose you’re right."
At least he had the good manners to look awful, and whilst she was glad about that, it didn’t make things any easier. "All I want to know is - why did you ignore me? Act as though I don’t exist? Tell me that and I’ll leave you alone." It was a half lie, but she hoped that once he started talking they could work things out, decipher what had gone wrong.
He sighed, "you’d better sit down." He led her into a huge lounge, dominated by huge glass windows, she could see
She shook her head, "I’m not here for niceties and I’m not some psycho stalker who’s going to follow you everywhere, I want answers, I’m not interested in sitting and making small talk. If you don’t like me, don’t want me, then I’ll walk away. But I at least deserve to know what’s happening, what went wrong."
He looked at her, holding up her jaw in a gesture that was more bravery than arrogance, she looked divine. Those long legs suited knee high boots, and her long coat almost met the top of them. She was a perfect package, and would be any sane man’s dream, but not his. She couldn’t be his.
“Do you want a drink?”
Again she shook her head, "I’d rather not. Please just tell me and I can leave."
He groaned, she was staring at him from her huge doe eyes, and he could see how much he was hurting her, but there was no plan B, "You want a word, a reason.....there’s no one thing Alexis. I can’t do a relationship; I’m too selfish, too busy, too egotistical. You deserve more!"
Shaking her head she marched past him, “this is ridiculous, you don’t get to choose what happens to me. If you don’t want me then say that YOU don’t want ME. Don’t give me some martyrdom bullshit, that you’re doing the right thing by me, because that’s what it is! Bullshit!”
"It won’t work Alexis. It really won’t. We’re in different circles, different places in our lives..." You’re young, beautiful with the world at your feet, I’m jaded, cynical, and have promised that this will never happen between us.
"Crap and you know it! We had a great time in Stockholm, we talked, we laughed, without the sex...I think that means it’s worth trying to see where this goes. How can you just turn your back on me?"
He shook his head, defeated.
"You don’t agree?" Anger was spurring her on, and she now hated the way he avoided her eyes, and avoided answering her.
"I enjoy your company."
"But you won’t commit to the odd weekend, visits every now and again? That doesn’t make sense." She tensed her fists at her side, she was so tempted to lash out and hit him.
"I can’t be that for you sweetheart, I really can’t. And you deserve more..." he finally met her eyes with his.
"Don’t stand there and throw empty gestures, token affectionate terms of endearment at me, and don’t presume you know what’s best for me. I’m not proposing marriage; I was thinking phone calls, the odd weekend here and there. You know long distance dating? There’s no way that can be against your rules. "
He sighed, "look, I can’t give you a false hope because I like you and I couldn’t bear to hurt you."
She looked at him, still sweating from his workout, with hair stuck to his head, rosy complexion, damp naked chest and he still made her heart race, "too late Peter. You’ve just done that.....again."
Alexis turned, not giving him time to register, and she was gone, out into the street.
Peter sat awake all night. No amount of whisky would take away the image of her sad face as she’d disappeared into the night. She was right, he did need to grow some balls, he’d failed to explain himself to her, but how did you explain something you hadn’t truly understood yourself? Every time he thought of Alexis, he remembered the conversation he’d overheard all those years ago between Oliver and Chris, the other intern working with him on that project. Those words, those condemnations had cut him to the core, and scared him. And it hadn’t taken Oliver’s warning half an hour earlier to make him run away from Alexis; he was already on his way out of their lives by then.
It was well after midnight when he phoned all the major hotels in Geneva, none of them had Alexis registered there. Ransacking his wallet he called the number she’d given him when they were in Stockholm, but it went straight to answer phone, he emailed her, but there was no response. He tried everything bar calling her father, as he really couldn’t do that. And so he let her walk away...again, like the bastard everyone thought he was.
Her image haunted him; the sight of her forlorn and sad on his doorstep was there every time he closed his eyes. As the hours turned into days, approached weeks, she still failed to answer a phone call, or respond to the emails he sent. And as the time passed he realised he’d lost the chance to have ANY sort of relationship with Alexis, and it hurt.
Struggling to motivate himself for anything, he flitted between his mountain home and the city, usually snow sports inspired him, cheered him up, but this was different. He took to the most difficult black runs, risking his life, pushing himself beyond the realms physically. And whilst he survived he had no pleasure in it.
A few weeks later he was summonsed to a huge meeting in London, he’d produced a paper a few years ago and it was being questioned by a group of students at LSE, and as part of the college alumni he had agreed to go to the debate.
He still had a small apartment in London, and it had been a long time since he’d been to the capital. Peter had loved London, several years ago it had been his home, but six years earlier he’d left. And it had been jaded in his memory since.
For some reason now he felt sad returning. That was a first. Sat at his laptop he checked out the agenda for the next two days, it was hectic, but well organised. And it was the first night that he slept without the need for alcohol.
The morning debate was great, he relished the mental stimulation, and there were some real smart students who challenged him.
Since he’d agreed to come on the trip he’d considered contacting Oliver, but had bottled it every time, but as he thought of another night alone in his rather sterile home, he plucked up the courage to drop him an email as the first day came to a close. He got an almost immediate reply suggesting a meet in a London hotel bar that evening.
"Peter!" the familiar boom of Oliver Carmichael echoed across the quiet bar. "It’s been SO long!"
The older man stood as Peter approached and their handshake became a hug of sorts. "Oliver. Stockholm was only a few weeks ago!"
"I know, but I barely saw you there. And it’s been a long time since we sat like this, over a good quality malt!" He pushed a glass in front of the younger man, then topped it up from the bottle that sat between them. It wasn’t every man who got given the bottle in a bar like this, Oliver was both a regular, and well respected there.
Peter nodded and took the glass, chinking it against Oliver’s with a silent ‘cheers’.
"So tell me about Geneva!" Oliver smiled, sitting back to look at the younger man.
Peter smiled, swirling the dark liquid around his glass, “It’s good, the skiing is awesome. You should bring Rosa over sometime, the shopping, everything is great!!"
Oliver nodded knowingly, "sounds good! I was glad to see you made Stockholm; you seem to shun all the ‘industry’ soirees! I know they’re tedious, but the more of us that go, the better they are! That’s fact!"
Peter nodded, "I get that, but I just want to get on with things, work, you know? These pompous occasions do nothing for me! If you hadn’t personally invited me I’d never have gone!"
Oliver grinned, "Well then I’m glad I did!" he sipped his drink. "So did you see much of Alexis there?"
It was the question that Peter had dreaded, and he almost choked on his drink, he wanted nothing more than to discuss her, to the right person, and her father wasn’t it, and the fact that Oliver had initiated the conversation worried him. Did he know? Had Alexis confided in him?
He felt the beads of sweat accumulate on his brow as he shrugged, "I had a few drinks with her. She’s grown up well Oliver!"
Her father nodded, "not quite the besotted school girl now hey?"
It was the first reference to that awkward summer that the older man had made, and Peter smiled awkwardly. Oliver took the silence as a gesture to continue, "she was in a right old tizzy when I got back. She had wanted to bum around Mexico of all places after finishing school and had got involved with a worthless oike. Needless to say she didn’t appreciate my interference!" He guffawed at his own behaviour and it made Peter feel awkward.
"Well I suppose she is an adult now,” he murmured.
Oliver smiled, "she’ll always be my baby girl, and I’d do time rather than see her end up with someone like him!"
Peter’s heart seemed to skip a beat and he managed to control the rhythm of his breathing, what would the other man think if he knew?
"Anyway since we came back she’s moved out, and she’s been staying with Hen. I called a couple of days ago and she’d literally just left on a plane, she’s gone to work in the favelas in Rio. Just like that!” He clicked his fingers. “Didn’t even say goodbye. Did she seem out of sorts to you? In Stockholm?"
Peter was cautious, nervous the last thing he needed was to implicate himself in the family feud, though it as quite likely his fault. "She seemed fine. She’s gone overseas? For how long?"
Oliver nodded, "I’m not happy, but as you say she’s an adult. But yes, she’s taken some voluntary post in a medical centre outside of Rio. Dealing with gangs, shootings, drugs...who knows what? I managed to speak to one of the head’s of the charity, so I’ve been assured she’s safe...but you never know, do you?"
Peter continued to sip his drink thoughtfully, "so what are you going to do?"
"Learn from my mistakes? Henrietta knows where she is, and will keep in touch, so I’ll have to just let it go I suppose. Wait for her to come back. Then talk to her, understand what I did wrong.”
They talked for several hours, but Peter’s mind was on Alexis, she’d come to him, heart on her sleeve and he’d point blank pushed her away. Now all he could do was worry about her being away from home, in potentially dangerous situations. And it was all his fault.