I know with every fiber of my being that I’m being monitored, but I don’t dare look up to confirm it again, my own eyes dutifully glued to a steadily-diminishing plate.
The thunderous echo of my heart snarls between my legs, each throb reverberating like a wild ripple through my entire body.
I reach for the water again, my mouth suddenly arid. I exercise immense caution this time, allowing myself just a sip. Inadvertently, I catch the tie looping my boss’ neck from peripheral view, draping his long, toned torso against the backdrop of a crisp white shirt, matching the pitch-black suit jacket on top of it.
Against my will, I exhale almost audibly, still keeping my eyes mostly averted as I continue to sample invigorating, spring droplets. Unexpectedly, a flash of my fingers against the strip of fabric ambushes me from nowhere, forcing more water down my throat. I almost can’t decide which would be better: keeping it on or taking it o—
Woah, hold up, wait just a doggone minute! What in tarnation am I talking about, keeping it on or taking it off?
I blink against asinine thoughts that can’t be mine, annoyed with myself and the man responsible for them even as I battle to fend off his effortless, intrinsic pull. Everything about him is an attack from all angles; the way he smells. The way he takes up space in his chair. The panty-dropping physique beneath impeccably tailored clothes. Literally…everything.
Each heightens the tick and thrum in my core, building on to the next. An exponential amplification. A cumulative domino effect. A recipe for danger.
Lucien returns with more food, replacing our now empty plates with replicas of their original configurations.
Despite lingering apprehension about the decision, the sight of mine has me pleased as punch that he insisted on a second round, after all. I’m going to have to tattoo the memory into my taste buds because I sure as hell won’t be getting the opportunity to after tonight. Seems like both a blessing and a curse; being fortunate enough to experience such exquisite, divine food, knowing I can never do so again. The type of double-edged sword I feared would come with being exposed to Zane’s level of wealth and the unrealistic standards it might leave me with once I leave his company and go back to my real life.
We eat and drink mostly in silence, but then he asks, “What did you actually intend when you proposed the briefing two weeks ago?”
I literally stop mid-sip, water suspending in my mouth. The ridge of bone in my back turns to dust against my chair, shaken by the sudden probe—and the implication of it.
‘Intend’. The key word.
I exhale, forcing myself to swallow as I set the glass down with a hand that’s gone quaky again. I lick at my bottom lip impulsively, trying to gather my splintered thoughts around the simple question—and all the baggage surrounding it.
“I don’t have my notes here with me,” is my honest but disingenuous response, wanting nothing more than to erase that epic fail of an interview from the face of history—and the catastrophe that followed it. Besides, what’s the point? What difference does it make now, two weeks in? Two weeks too late?
But, as much as I try to convince myself of the inconsequentiality, I realize this might be the only opportunity I have to make it right. To redeem myself. And as good chance as any to bring up suggestions he just might be more receptive to in a less formal setting. One I may not get again.
One he may not offer again.
“However,” I quickly add, tasking my frazzled mind with the recollection of annotations and bullet points, “primarily, I wanted more insight on the project. To learn the actual vision behind it—directly from you—before going into any specifics. Perhaps, hearing you talk about it might jog my memory. Or even make me think of new details.”
He nods, a measured, single-motioned gesture. “Very well.”
He jumps right in, narrating a condensed history of Zanergy’s inception and how it ties into his current goals for the company.
Founded by his grandfather, Jethro, and further established by his father, Richard, the inter-generational, prized possession of the Zane family scaled to unprecedented prominence, acquiring astounding market share at record speed under the administration of the youngest of the bunch. And, now, his flagship, projected to catapult the family business to the highest of pinnacles on a global level, was born of nothing more than an apparent, seemingly-fundamental aspect of his existence:
I know I’ve read most of it on paper, but something about hearing it straight from the gorgeous horse’s mouth is…ugh, and I hate myself for even thinking it, even a little, but it’s…inspiring, somehow—even with all the hang-ups in the world about traditional oil and gas. But, despite the legacy enterprise he runs, I get the sense there’s nothing quite ‘traditional’ about this man.
Still, no matter how impressive his accomplishments or charismatic his recital of them, I am and always will be against unclean energy. Against the multitude of dangers and irrevocable damage its acquisition and production poses to the environment. To life.
Zane eyes me keenly, like he just spied into my thoughts.
“While I can’t imagine anyone else would share the level of excitement about this project I do, you seemed rather dejected when you got enlisted.”
My heart skips, completing its loop in a jagged beat, unsure of what to make of the eerily calm etched in his words.
While I won’t apologize or feel bad for how I feel, I’ve definitely done my utmost best not to allow my disappointment to fester from the minute I stepped foot in the HQ building.
Blame it on the ‘resting bitch face’, I guess.
I choose, instead, to play it down, hoping I sound believable even though I know I’m lying through my teeth. “I was just caught off guard by the short notice, that’s all.”
If Zane realizes it, he doesn’t let on. “Once more, you have my apologies for that.”
I shake my head. “That’s not necessary. We’re well past it.”
“Indeed,” he nods, something gleaming in his eyes, a flash…and then it’s gone.
I avert mine again, a shiver slithering through the discs in my spine.
Lucien pops in to check on us, his timing impeccable.
“Is everything to your satisfaction, Monsieur? Mademoiselle?”
“Yes,” we chorus, my hushed, involuntary mumble muted by Zane’s natural baritone.
“Can I interest you in dessert?” the maître d’ beams. “If I may be so bold, our Saint Valentine’s Tarte for Two comes highly recommended and is only available on this day of the year.”
Zane shrugs before I get a chance to say anything. “Very well.”
My heart instantly wrings itself at the prospect of dessert with my boss—and a Valentine’s-themed one, at that. Typically romantic in nature, portioned and served with lovers in mind.
Zane, however, seems adequately unaffected by the suggestion.
What am I even getting worked up about?
It doesn’t mean anything. Clearly. This is just par for the course. Even charity-based dates have to be authentic to some extent, right?
You’re overthinking it.
The maître d’ nods, withdrawing with our empty plates, once again taking leave with the promise of his return.
“Do you have any other questions about the Z to A project?” Zane resumes, not missing a beat.
Two weeks ago, I would’ve said ‘yes’ without hesitation, offering all the suggestions I’d written down and potentially more. But, right now…right now, I, for some reason, find myself less interested in his company…and more curious about the man running i—
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You need to pull it all the way together, girlfriend. This is your boss. Even if it’s only for a couple of weeks. No matter how attractive he is, he. Is. Off. Limits! Not to mention, a thousand stratospheres out of your league. Besides, you won’t ever see him again after this. Seriously. Get a grip.
With record speed, Lucien makes his latest entrance with our dessert; a graduated, chocolate heart lined with raspberries and rouge ribbons, rested on a flat, crystal-rimmed, glass canvas, conjured into picture perfection. So beautiful it seems both a sin to devour it and to not.
“Your Saint Valentine’s Tarte for Two. Amended to accommodate Mademoiselle’s vegan diet, but just as delicious.”
He places it at the center of the table.
With a single dessert spoon.
The maître d’ smiles. “Enjoy.”