“Like me?” I ask, my breath hitching in my throat.
“Like you,” he confirms. “I can’t stop thinking about you. Every minute, every day. I even see you when I’m sleeping. My dreams are about you—we’re in the ocean, we’re on the beach, we’re under the stars at night, we’re dancing at dinner. I know this sounds stupid and corny and dumb. But you’ve taken over every thought that I have. And I don’t know what to do about that, because you’re not in my plan.”
I stare at him incredulously.
“What am I supposed to do with that? Was that speech supposed to make me feel better? You like me but you can’t be with me?”
I feel suddenly hollow inside. Like I’d lost my heart along the way somewhere. But that can’t be right because it’s throbbing right now- worse than my head, even.
“No. You don’t understand. I’m just trying to figure out what to do. How to handle all of this. Americans are different. Here in Caberra, we… well, we don’t exercise our freedom to choose as often as you do. My father wants a particular life for me. I don’t know how to go against that. It will devastate him and he’s been devastated enough already. Our culture is polite to a fault, I think.”
Oh, sweet Heavens. I can’t even be thoroughly disgusted with him because he’s so bleeding thoughtful even when he’s being frustrating. He doesn’t want to hurt his father. But that means he’ll have to hurt me instead.
“Should I just make it easy on you?” I ask, trying to swallow my heart. “I’ll just leave. As soon as the airports open back up, I’ll go back home. You can go back to your life with Elena and back to doing things that are in your plan.”
Dante cries out sharply, almost like he’s in pain. And he grabs my arm. I look at him, then look at his hand. He removes it sheepishly.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Please don’t go home. I feel like I have this chance—this chance to do what I’d really like to do with someone who I really like. I don’t know how to go about it, but I’d really like for you to show me.”
I stare at him again.
“And how can I show you that? You’ll have to learn to make up your mind on your own. That’s not something that I can do for you.”
“You’re American,” he explains. “You’re already good at doing what you’d like to do. I can learn a lot just from being around you.” He smiles and I try to decide if he’s joking.
“Are you saying that Americans are good at being self-involved?” I ask, one eye-brow raised. Does he really think insulting me is going to help the situation?
Dante rolls his eyes.
“I’m trying to be sweet here and bare my soul to you. Seriously, Reece. I feel like I’ve got an honest to God chance at finding my own path in life. I’ve never felt the urge to deviate from my father’s plan before. Not until I met you. And now everything feels different. Everything has changed.”
He sits quietly, his hands clasped in his lap, his eyes down. His shoulders are even slumped.
I take pity on him. I can’t help it.
“All you have to do is talk to your father,” I tell him. “Just tell him that you don’t want to go into politics and you aren’t even that thrilled with being in the family business.”
“It’s not the business so much,” Dante says. “It’s the fact that he wants me to go to England to college to learn how to run the business. And trust me, it isn’t so easy as simply talking to him. This isn’t America. Kids here aren’t just given free will over their own lives when we are teenagers. Our lives are planned out from the beginning. And we stick to those plans. Usually.”
Dante looks miserable. And I find that I can’t really relate so I tell him that.
“You’re almost an adult,” I point out. “You are almost of legal age to go to war and fight for your country. Shouldn’t that make you old enough to plan out your own life? I know that I’m not familiar with Caberran law, but you are free to make your own decisions, right?”
“Theoretically,” Dante admits. “But it’s more difficult in practice than it is in theory.”
I look at him, at how the light glints off the honeyed streaks in his hair and how his dark blue eyes are glittering. His mouth is drawn and tight and I know he is upset. And a part of me, deep down, wants to cradle him in my arms and make everything better. It’s like a piece of him, the little boy in him, is broken and I just want to fix it.
But the little girl in me learned a long time ago that kisses don’t make things better.
“I wish I could fix this for you,” I tell him gently. “I truly do. But this is something that only you can do. Standing up for yourself… that’s just a life skill that you have to learn. We all do. It’s part of growing up.”
He nods silently, his gaze meeting mine.
“I know,” he says finally. “But it would be so much easier if my mom was still alive. I wouldn’t worry so much about disappointing my dad. I’m all he has now. And that’s a lot of pressure. He’s got so many dreams for me.”
“But so do you,” I remind him. “And you’ve only got one life.”
“Would it sound stupid if I told you that I think I met you for a reason?” Dante asks. “Okay. It does sound stupid. But I still think it’s true. I don’t want you to go home yet. Please tell me that you’ll stay. Please be an intern for my father and we’ll see what happens. I’m going to do my best to figure it out.”
“All you need to do is be true to yourself, Dante,” I tell him. “It really is that simple. You’re right. I don’t know the culture here. But I do know that your father is a good man. I can tell. And I know that as a good man, he’ll want his only son to be happy in life. Whether that means being with someone other than Elena or not becoming Prime Minister in twenty years or even if that means that you want to work on a commercial fishing boat.”