CHAPTER TWO - INTERNSHIP
“You’re crazy, Nick. Certifiably insane,” Jade’s voice buzzed angrily through the earpiece of Nick's cellphone. With his motorcycle helmet on, he could hear her rather well even over the roar of his bike.
“You weren’t there. You don’t know how it was. I – I had to do it,” he said even as his eyes stayed on the curving, two-lane highway that spooled out before him like a length of ribbon cutting through the nighted forest.
After Bane had made the initial statement about taking Nick, it had gone silent in his father’s office. The phrase ‘could hear a pin drop’ suddenly made sense to Nick. Then everyone was talking at once or so it seemed. Jake was shouting something about Bane not being serious though his gaze flickered over to Nick like he wished Bane were serious and he would give Nick over to him in a second. Steven was claiming that such a deal couldn’t be legal in his dry, pedantic way. Their father was loudly proclaiming he would never give Nick over, his complexion going as ruddy as it had been gray a few minutes ago. Nick was sure that he said something like ‘no way!’ but his voice was lost in the babble of the others. Bane merely smiled.
“Truly, you won’t even consider it?” Bane asked, his smooth as smoke and aged cognac voice rising above the others effortlessly even though he wasn’t shouting.
“Give you my son? Are you mad?” His father chortled.
His brothers nodded their heads in agreement with his father’s statements. Nick glowed with pride. His father and brothers really seemed to be sticking up for him, recognizing him as something valuable, a part of the family. For one bright shining moment, Nick felt connected to them in a way he never had before.
“For a year. A single year.” Bane spread his arms expansively. “Think of it as an internship … and he’ll even get paid, which is so very rare these days. His payment will be your family’s survival. You might even thrive.”
“I don’t understand. What are you offering here?” His father’s blue eyes suddenly had that predatory look he got when he was assessing a deal.
“Dad? Why listen to him? We aren’t doing this no matter what he says!” Nick cried, but a small sliver of ice formed in his belly. Could his father really be considering this? The man had just gone from ‘never!’ to ‘well, wait, what are you offering?’ He glanced at his brothers. Jake was looking up at his father with that faintly desperate avaricious look. Steven straightened.
They’re wondering the same thing. No, they’re wondering if Dad IS listening to him because he’s interested.
“I just want to know what crazy plan he’s offering, that’s all, Nick.” His father exuded that false bonhomie that he used on underlings that sensed they were about to get a shit job.
His father put an arm around Nick’s shoulders, but instead of feeling warmed by the action, Nick felt trapped. But shrugging off his father’s arm in front of Bane would be a weakness. It would reveal a crack in their family facade. Bane though seemed to know exactly how Nick felt. He had pulled the hood up to more fully hide his face, but there was a knowing smile on his full mouth.
“What I am offering is simply this. Nick will stay with me for one year. He will live on my estate and do whatever I ask –”
“I’m not sleeping with you!” Nick snapped. “If that’s what this is all about thinking you’re going to have an easy lay –”
“You are not to my taste,” Bane interrupted and his lips writhed back from his teeth. They were white and sharp. But the heavy-hooded looks he had given Nick since the young man had walked into the room belied that statement somewhat. Not to mention calling Nick ‘beautiful’ and 'pretty' several times.
Nick threw up his hands. “What the Hell am I even worried about? We’re not doing this so it doesn’t matter what little fantasies you’ve got going on in your head!”
His father squeezed his shoulder and said, “Let the man finish, Nick. I think it’s clear that he’s not looking for – ah, companionship in all this. Please continue, Bane.”
But Nick burst out, “We’re not--”
“I notice that you keep saying ‘we’ as if your family is involved in this decision,” Bane said to Nick.
“Well, I guess it’s my decision, but I mean, we’re family,” Nick said as if that would convey some Norman Rockwell-esque flavor to his very dysfunction clan.
But I do feel this way even if they don’t. Even if they’ll run me out. I keep hoping that things will change. Maybe the change is acting like we’re a family and they’ll go along with it.
Bane nodded. “So you are devoted to your family? You want to see them do well? You certainly don’t want to see them out on the street, begging for coins with tin cups in their hands?”
“No! But I’m not going to be your slave for a year to –”
“I see. Your devotion only goes so far. Interesting.” Bane leaned casually back against his father’s desk.
“You’ve got to be kidding! You’re trying to turn this around on me?” Nick’s shoulder straightened. Was Bane questioning his motives? “You’re the one who –”
“Who has absolutely no duty to help your family. I have quite the opposite feelings. They are my enemies, after all,” Bane said.
“Nick, Nick, it’s all right. Don’t get yourself all worked up here,” his father said.
Nick did shake off his father’s hand that time and took a few steps away. His skin was jumping between his shoulder blades. Why was his father even indulging Bane in this way? Was he recording this conversation for blackmail later? He knew that his father had done something like that at one point.
Maybe he’s letting Bane dig his own grave. Fine. I can play along with this.
But he still felt panicked. His nostrils flared and the urge to flee was heavy upon him. His brothers were standing still as statues while his father drifted over to the silver serving cart where the cognac was kept. He poured himself a snifter full, but didn’t offer a drink to anyone else. Nick felt like he wanted to upend the decanter into his mouth.
“I don’t think your son likes when you discount his feelings,” Bane remarked mildly.
“I’m not. But the thing is that I already know what Nick is going to -- understandably -- say, but I admit that I have no idea what you are going to.” His father took a large swallow of cognac.
“And you always want as much intel as you can possibly have. Or maybe its because you either listen to my offer or start packing your bags. Only what you can carry, of course, because the cars aren’t paid for either.” Bane’s Siberian blue eyes flared.
Do we own anything? Even the clothes on our backs? Nick felt a wave of despair hit him. He had always assumed that his father and brothers understood money. But now it seemed all they understood was debt and how to rack up so much of it that it became a tsunami of bills due.
“I’m always willing to listen, Bane. You might not appreciate my business practices, but surely you noticed that I’m not a one-trick pony. I can adjust. My strategies are not set in stone,” his father said. There was a hint of his father’s old business flair.
He’s really acting like this is a deal he can make.
“You are truly a fluid creature, Charles,” Bane murmured.
“So lay out your offer in full. Let us here it.” His father spread his arms expansively.
“Right to the point. All right. Nick works for me for one year. He lives in my estate. He does whatever I ask of him. He is at my beck and call twenty-four seven.” Bane’s gaze slid over to Nick. “Which does not include sharing my bed as that has no benefit for me.”
Jake snorted. Nick glared at his older brother. Steven made a tutting sound.
“And what would we receive for this in return?” His father took another long swallow of cognac.
“His payment is that the three of you will be given the chance to prove your worth to me. I will give each of you a division of one of my companies. You will have one year’s time to show that you understand my philosophies and put them in practice,” Bane ticked off the terms on one of his large hands with surprisingly delicate movements. “If you fail you will lose everything. You will be right back here, but there will be no third chance.”
Jake’s head jerked up as he heard the deal. He had that hungry, lean look on his face that reminded Nick of a street kid who hadn’t eaten in a long time. Steven was seemingly frozen in place while his brain furiously worked. Nick could almost see the wheels in his mind turning even as his eyes were obscured by the reflections of the desk lamp on his glasses.
“And obviously, nothing would happen to Nick? He would be well taken care of? Not harmed in any way?” his father questioned.
“He would have to actually work for a living, but I would not ask of him anything that would harm anything but his pride,” Bane answered.
Nick bristled. What the Hell did this man know about him? He acted like Nick was some spoiled little prince! Maybe he’d had it easy compared to a lot of people, but it wasn’t like he was afraid to get his hands dirty.
“What happens if we don’t take your deal?” Steven asked, ever the practical one.
Bane smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. It was a tigerish grin. There was something almost feral about the man. Despite a veneer of good breeding, the remnants of a posh accent that hinted of English public school and the well cut suit, Bane’s nature seemed quite wild.
“You’ll be out on the street tomorrow,” Bane said.
“But there are rules against stuff like that!” Nick protested. He turned to Steven. “They can’t just kick us out of the house even if they foreclosed tomorrow! I’m sure that’s true! Steven, tell him!”
But Steven pressed his lips tightly together as if to stop any words from flowing out and shook his head.
“You’ve lived in Winter Haven all your life and you still think that the rules apply equally to everyone?” Bane asked softly. “Or perhaps you’ve been used to being on the winning side of those rules that you can’t even comprehend how unfair and unequal they can be applied?”
“You can’t do this!” Nick yelled.
He looked at his brothers and father, expecting them to show the same level of incredulity as he was. But none of them would look at him. Jake kept rubbing his mouth with the back of one hand. Steven stared down at the tablet he held listlessly, unseeing. Their father’s gaze was on the floor. They believed Bane. They believed that no matter what the rules were, that no matter what was just, that Bane would have his way. The saliva dried up in Nick’s mouth.
Bane drew himself up to his full height again. His voice was low. “I assure you that your family will not have a home tomorrow. What little is left in their bank accounts will be frozen. No friends will take them in. If they have friends. No one will give them a job. Not even at the corner market. And even if they could scrape the coin up to go to another city or town it will be the same there.”
Nick jerked back as if physically struck by the man’s words. “Why are you doing this?”
“Do you think that your own family hasn’t done the same to countless others? The suffering they have caused around the globe has lined their pockets for many years. I am just paying them back,” Bane said with a tight smile. “Think of me as Robin Hood.”
Nick swallowed the bile that had bubbled up in his throat. He had tried not to know the cost of what his family’s business had done. He wouldn’t even look at the news about jobs lost, lives ruined, and pensions disappeared by keeping his gaze always on the horizon and the time when he would be free.
“We’re not the only ones that do business this way, you know,” Jake said suddenly. “Why pick on us? I mean its clear to me that you were luring us in all the time!”
Their father made a hissing sound and made a snapping movement of his hand towards Jake to keep silent. Jake recoiled and seemed to curl in on himself.
“No, you’re not the only ones. And you’re not the only ones that I’ve destroyed for the same thing,” Bane answered. His frosty blue gaze swung back towards Nick and there was something unreadable in it. The beautiful marred face seemed rather mask-like at that moment. Then he was turning away towards the windows to look at Nick in the reflection instead of head on. “But you are the only ones I’ve given a second chance to.”
“Why?” Nick asked.
“I don’t honestly know,” Bane answered.
“You don’t seem like a man who doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Nick frowned. “Though I’m not sure what’s worse: that you planned this out or that you’re destroying our lives on a whim.”
Bane sounded almost sad as he said, “You think one year of hard labor too much for your family’s well-being? If that is your answer then …”
“No, I didn’t say that! Just -- just give me a minute,” Nick begged.
Silence fell. There was nothing left for anyone to say except for Nick. His gaze swung around the room at all of his family. What he saw on their faces was fear. Raw, unbridled fear.
There’s no recording device. They aren’t trying to trick Bane into anything. This is real. This is absolutely real.
Could they all fit into Jade’s loft? Maybe for a night or two, but then what? At that moment, he could very well believe that Bane’s reach was infinite or that the businessman would make it so. Like an avenging angel he would follow them and make sure his vengeance was met out.
Is he mad or just really pissed that my family tried to take his company? Does he think of his workers? Does he care about them or is all this just an excuse to vent some anger?
His family wouldn’t look at him. He wondered then what they were thinking. If they were given this offer would they accept it to save the others? Some part of him wondered if they would. The irony that his breaking with the business and the money made him safer financially than them was not lost on him. He could walk away from them now. Begin his life alone as he had intended, as his father had said he would if he turned away from the family business. But would he be able to forget them? Would he be at all at peace with himself knowing that for one year’s worth of his life he could save all three of theirs?
One year. How bad could it be?
He looked at the powerful line of Bane’s shoulders and back. He shivered in spite of himself.
“If I do this,” Nick began softly and he saw his father flinch. Was there a look of hope or dismay or perhaps both on his face?
Bane’s head rose. “If you do this …”
Nick tried to read the businessman’s expression in the glass. The full lips were slightly parted as if Bane wanted to capture Nick’s next words with his teeth. The Siberian blue eyes gleamed in the low light. The puckered, ruined skin seemed to glow.
“If I do this, they’ll be okay?” Nick gestured towards his brothers and father.
“They will be given exactly the things I promised,” Bane answered.
“And you’d give them a real shot, right? It wouldn’t be the deck stacked impossibly high against them or anything?” Nick pressed and he saw a flash of Jake’s eager face, wanting this chance, wanting to prove that he could do the impossible.
Bane let out an earthy chuckle. “The deck is always stacked against people somewhat. But yes, they will get a fair chance.”
“And whatever you’re asking me to do won’t be illegal? It won’t be to hurt someone else or myself? And it won’t be to sleep with you – because believe me that so isn’t happening.” Nick sliced his hand through the air.
Bane let out a sharp laugh. “From the sheer amount of times you’ve brought up sleeping with me, I might begin to think that you protest too much against it and perhaps are interested.”
Nick’s cheeks flared. “Ah, no. But that’s usually what is the main part of these arrangements. It’s normally the reason for them, okay?”
“You’ve heard of many of these arrangements?” Bane suppressed a laugh.
Nick flushed hotly again. “Not in real life, no. But … but I’m sure they happen all the time.”
Bane chuckled. “The rich and powerful always have someone under duress, don’t they? I’m sure you have seen lots of that.”
Nick bridled at the implication that his family was completely avaricious. “My family has never had a live-in slave -- or should I say intern, thanks.”
Bane lifted his hands in the air as if in surrender. “I see. I am lower than them then in your eyes.”
Steven gripped his tablet tighter and Nick knew that he was worried Nick was going to blow it if he kept up being so aggressive. He said, “I just want things to be clear between us.”
“You have been crystal,” Bane said the word as if it had a taste.
Nick advanced on Bane. He saw the man’s large shoulders stiffen in surprise as he approached. His family shot worried glances at him, but he ignored them. Bane slowly turned to face Nick. The young man stopped a foot from him. Bane was so much bigger than he was. The man could engulf him in a hug. There was the slightest scent of sandalwood and cinnamon. Exotic spice. Other than the terrible wounds to his face, Bane was handsome. Sensual is the word that Nick found when he searched for it. Bane was compelling. If Nick had met him under other circumstances he wasn’t sure what his reaction would have been.
I wouldn’t have known that he’s the type to take an indentured servant. Now I do. So no matter how handsome he is, he’s still ugly to me.
Nick looked up into that hooded face and didn’t blink. “And if you break any one of your promises to me or to them, you forfeit my family’s company. It all goes back to them. Are we crystal on that, too?”
“You think you are in a position to make any terms?” Bane’s heavy-hooded blue eyes stared right back into his.
“I think that you fancy yourself honorable in some weird twisted way,” Nick guessed and the slightest flicker of emotion on Bane’s face confirmed that. “I think you don’t intend to break any of your promises so what’s the harm in putting that on the table, too?”
Bane studied him for long moments. “All right. Agreed.” The businessman was suddenly spinning away from Nick and heading towards the doorway. He called over his shoulder, “Your father has my estate’s address. I expect you there this evening. Do say your goodbyes. Your family’s new positions will be emailed to them in a few hours.”
“But what about a contract? Surely, we should write this all down!” His father cried, reaching out towards Bane.
Bane laughed. “A contract? In writing? Your son in exchange for a job? I think not. Your son is wise. I will honor my promises so long as you and he honor yours. That is more than you deserve.”
Bane then turned and strode from the room, without a look back, as if he was certain everything would go exactly as he wished it. And they probably will. Nick realized he could smell a faint trace of sandalwood on the wind.
What happened next with his brothers and father, Nick didn’t want to think about. He glossed over their grateful yet hollow words to Jade as he had explained to her what had happened and why he wouldn’t be at her place that night or any night for a year. He didn’t even tell her how his father had promised to pay his way through art school and get some of his art dealer friends to take an interest in Nick’s undoubtedly incredible photography after the year was up. He didn’t tell her how then the three of them had turned their backs on him to feverishly check their email and research Bane’s companies to try and see which ones they would be put in charge of. He didn’t tell her how they hardly noticed when he went away. He didn’t want her to think that he had done this for his family’s love. Because it couldn’t matter either way.
This is the right thing to do. If I do this then I am truly free of them no matter what happens.
“What could I have done?” Nick asked out loud to Jade.
“Ah, how about not becoming an indentured servant! How about that?” He could imagine her shaking a fist in the air in front of her as she paced her loft apartment in downtown Winter Haven. Though he heard her anger, he heard the worry underneath it. This was how people who loved you were supposed to react. He hardly felt the miles between then even as he had left the city far behind as he traveled into the countryside. Vast forest were interspersed with farmland. In the moonlight, everything looked magical and full of possibilities.
“It’s an internship, Jade. That's all," he said.
“Internship in what? Wait, don’t answer that! Because you’ll tell me again how you’re not sleeping with him!” She let out a harsh exhale of hair. He imagined that it would puff up her black bangs. “I thought that the worst that could happen tonight was that you would lose your nerve and give up your dream to be a photographer and become a vulture like your brothers –”
“I would never do that,” Nick interrupted her. He gripped the handles of his bike harder. He felt the leather gloves squeak in protest. His photography seemed more like a lifeline than ever before.
“Oh, what a relief! You’ll never give up photography, but you will give up your freedom!” She was quiet for a moment before she said, almost despairingly, “Nick, I can’t believe you’ve done this. Maybe you can undo it.”
“Unless you want my father and two brothers crashing at your place forever, I’m pretty sure that’s not a good idea. Besides Bane may destroy your EBay business for helping us,” Nick said the last with a sardonic smile.
“Doesn’t that freak you out a little bit? That the guy would go to those lengths? I mean it’s crazy! Almost pathological!”
“Considering I’m crazy, too, in your mind, Bane and I should get along swimmingly,” Nick reminded her.
“How can you be so calm about this? It must shock. It’s got to be shock!”
Nick watched as the moon rose up before him. It silvered the trees on either side of the road. The only sound besides Jade’s voice was the roar of his bike. The vibrations from the road and the pleasant warmth of the motor flowed up his body. He was calm. More than calm. He felt at peace.
“Maybe it is shock,” he answered her, surprised at his own feelings. “Or maybe now I get to live my life without guilt or what ifs.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I was going to leave my family before, I felt like I was letting them down,” he said. “I felt selfish about it like I was taking something from them.”
“Oh please! Those three don’t care – all right, I’m not going to say it. I’m not going to argue with you about it. Go on.” He imagined her pulling her pink sweatshirt tighter around herself as if it were a straight jacket on her feelings about his family.
“They may not deserve what I felt, but I did feel it,” Nick explained. “And now … there’s no more guilt. No more worry. One year of cleaning Bane’s toilets and I’m done with my family’s business for good. I feel free, Jade. Seriously, free.”
“You think Bane is going to make you clean his toilets?” she asked.
Nick laughed though it wasn’t a happy laugh. “From what he said about how he views me – essentially, as a rich pretty boy who was waited on hand and foot – my guess is that he’s going to have me cleaning his toilets with my tongue.”
Jade made a gagging noise, but then he heard another serious huff of breath. “I really hope that’s the worst thing he makes you do, Nick. You’ve given him so much power--”
“I didn’t give him anything. My family did. I’m just cleaning it up this time,” Nick corrected her.
He followed what he guessed to be a final curve of the road before his destination. He knew he was getting close from the directions he had looked up online before he left his father’s office.
“Well, I’m going to come see you this weekend,” Jade said. “I need to make sure you’re okay.”
“Let me ask and see if it’s okay for you to come,” Nick cautioned. “I don’t -- holy shit!”
“What? What is it?”
The screech of the bike’s brakes drowned out every other sound as Nick skidded to a halt in front of an iron gate wrapped nearly completely around with ivy. But it wasn’t the gate he was looking at or the drive beyond it. It was the house.
“I’ve found it,” Nick whispered.
Nick actually laughed as he answered her, “A magnificent ruin!”