The limo goes static as it’s placed in park, a direct contrast to my accelerating heart. In another moment, the driver’s door pops open and Edgar exits it to unlock mine. He helps me from the protracted car, and I’m shaken by how much I actually need the assistance. I step out of it nervously, on legs that are somehow both stiff and shaky, the jet door parting to reveal the grandiose building in front of us.
Countless windows envelope the pointed, sloping structure, pierced by prominent yellow lights, like a giant, concrete Christmas tree lit from the inside out. I gape at its sheer size, towering so far above everything else around, kissing the skyline. My amazement is cut short by the prompt emergence of another senior gentleman. Edgar nods his acknowledgment, offering a polite greeting to the stranger who returns it before turning to me.
“We’ve been expecting you, Mademoiselle,” he offers, a white-gloved hand perched across his waistcoat with the other balanced against the small of his back. “My name is Lucien. Welcome to Le Pied D’Ange, also known as, The Angel’s Foot. I am the maître d’ of this establishment. I will be attending to you and Monsieur Zane tonight. Please, follow me.”
My chauffer bows his departure as he places me in the custody of the new man. “Enjoy your evening, ma’am.”
I’d cough up a bottom-bellied laugh at the ludicrousness of that statement if my nerves weren’t shot to within half an inch of their already-limited lives. But I can’t even manage a smile, swallowing anxiously as I’m led in the opposite direction.
The maître d’ guides me through wide glass doors into a grand, but completely empty restaurant. The vacancy is pronounced by the glaring expanse of the stately interior, every table in sight unoccupied, not a single person within view or earshot.
An almost fantastical, spiraled staircase sits stark in the middle of the main floor, like something out of a storybook, its steps detached from the railing, as if they’re floating.
Lucien nods. “Monsieur Zane is waiting upstairs.”
My heart thunders at the revelation, echoing through my limbs. My fingers ball into fists in an effort to contain the rippling effect.
Treading on the heels of the maître d’, I hike it within the confines of my new dress and with all the reluctance in the world, holding on to its glass railing each step of the way. Silently, we mount shiny, black rectangles one at a time, my anxiety spiking with every step. I almost wish they would go on forever so I wouldn’t have to reach my destination, catching the reflective glint of their metal corners as they curve again and again.
When we reach the summit, I’m greeted by the same vacancy, bathed by a salient sense of isolation. We walk down an outstretched aisle, bypassing several untenanted tables to a somewhat truncated area.
The maître d’ gestures to the sole table for two in the private enclave, and I gulp down a tremor at the sight of my employer already seated.
He looks up, gold-effused eyes modulated by soft lighting, sharply contrasting the dark, tailored suit adorning his glorious, unignorable body. My skin grows taut over mine without delay, like a second dress hell-bent on obstructing my airways.
Zane rises as I approach, my steps intentionally slow while I pun-appropriately clutch the life out of my clutch in front of me like a shield.
His hair is pushed away from his beautiful face, his expression neutral as I advance tentatively.
“Good evening, Miss Myers.”
It’s a simple, generic greeting, but the intensity in his eyes sends a shudder straight through me, a thousand pinpricks lining my spine at the mere sound of his voice.
“G-Good evening,” I stutter, mine atrociously hoarse.
Wistfully, I curse myself for not having some of that champagne back in the limo.
Zane comes around the table to pull out the unoccupied chair. The chivalrous gesture is unexpected for some reason, but I oblige despite the plunging awkwardness about having it performed by my boss. Impulsively, I hold my breath as I brush past him to sit in it, rigid from head to toe even though the entire length of my being is right on the verge of collapse. I fight the impulse to drop like a stone even as my knees buckle under invisible pressure.
I blink against the invasion of his cologne, unique and masculine to the hilt that it seems like an actual part of him, feeling the shadow of his weight behind me as he pushes my chair back in though he doesn’t once touch me. My heart gallops anew when he reclaims his own seat, his gorgeous features and brawny chest occupying my entire scope of vision as I sit across from him, nervous as a long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
With a hungry wolf right at its center.
He stares at me intently; in the unnerving way he always does. Only now, there’s nothing or no one to hedge its effect. Like in his office. Even though he doesn’t own this space—at least, I don’t think he does and, for the sake of my sanity, I’m going to go with that assumption—his presence dominates it with absolution. As if even the inanimate objects and architecture cater to him, right down to the smallest detail.
“You look nice,” he says suddenly, his eyes almost piercing. The flattering remark catches me completely off guard, but there’s no sleaziness in his stare. Nothing suggestive or inappropriate. He doesn’t make any show of imprudence. No stolen glances at my chest or anything like that.
And, somehow, that makes him even more intimidating.
Against my will, I grow hot, feeling blood and fire stain my skin from the inside. My own eyes dart to the table to escape his.
“Th-thank you,” I return through a suddenly clogged throat that I have to clear. “You look n-nice, too.”
I continue to blush in spite of myself, stuttering through my attempt to sound nonchalant. I don’t know if it’s simply manners or something else that drives me to reciprocate the compliment but, good God, if it isn’t the truth.
I fight to swallow, my rigid spine turning frigid—while my core simultaneously decides on doing the exact opposite. Growing pulsations connect my thighs, echoing my heart at the way his eyes seem to devour everything they land on.
And, right now, that’s me.
I know this isn’t a real date. I know. But that very obvious fact does absolutely nothing to quell my anxiety.
Thankfully, the maître d’ quickly appears again, his presence offering minute but welcome reprieve from the almost palpable tension.
“May I start you off with some wine choices?” he asks, looking between Zane and I. “Do you have any general preferences? Perhaps, you are in the mood for a particular vintage tonight?”
“Something rich,” Zane responds assertively, keeping his eyes on me. “And red.”
Lucien nods, handing him a tablet displaying the options he speaks of. “Very good. We have several variants of Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec…”
Zane either already had his mind made up before I got here or decision-making comes easy to him because he does so immediately.
“Let’s do the 2015 Domaine Leroy Musigny Grand Cru.”
“Excellente,” Lucien concurs.
Inadvertently, I catch the price of Zane’s choice on the screen as the maître d’ retrieves the tablet.
Every last drop of blood in my body runs cold.
For one fucking bottle of wine!
Lucien looks to me, perhaps noting my stumped expression, but offering no indication that he has.
“I’ll just have some water,” I offer, my mouth fittingly dry to match the words leaving it.
“Still or sparkling?”
“Both,” Zane interjects before I can choose.
He nods. “Bon. I’ll be back shortly.”
The maître d’ departs with our respective requests. Uncertainty and apprehension re-saturate the atmosphere, snapping right back into place without our third party.
All I can hope is that time expedites itself and the insane situation I find myself in. That dinner goes by in a flash so that this can all be over soon.
But, less than fifteen minutes in and it already feels like I’ve been here for hours. I want desperately to break the silence, to ease some of the suspense, but I haven’t the slightest clue what to say to a person like him.
I think about bringing up work but I’m not sure if I should. While it’s the only thing we have in common, this is still, fundamentally, a philanthropic endeavor and I have to be sensitive to that. To honor my commitment to Hannah and her organization. To fulfill what has been requested of me and properly see my participation in the fundraiser through to the end.
However, this is far from a balancing act because it doesn’t seem reasonable to behave the way I might’ve with a stranger, either.
This isn’t just any charity date.
And this isn’t just anyone.