My mother often said, “Speak of the devil and he’ll appear.”
I never thought I’d see the day where I’d wholeheartedly agree.
All airflow to and from my lungs instantly ceases, my eyes inflating in their stead, as if trying to accommodate the large, imposing figure approaching them. I watch in muted stupor as Zane closes in, his body filling my entire line of vision, his own gilded stare spectacular against the interior, fluorescent lighting, practically competing with it.
Brimming with unjust perfection, he comes to stand next to me, his intense gaze latched onto mine, not once disengaging. Not even to acknowledge Hank.
I can’t breathe; and not just because my respiratory organs are currently failing at life.
The conditioned air suddenly feels too dense. Compact. Impenetrable.
A strange, boggling slice of quietude ensues, characterized by an almost palpable tension, so heavy it crushes the underlying awkwardness it spawns.
Inadvertently, my eyes dart to Hank, the action born of a loss of what to do as much as a need for a buffer against Zane’s.
“Oh, I just remembered…” he says placidly, breaking the weird, tense silence but barely meeting them, “you have another package.”
Noting Zane’s unwavering—and somewhat perturbing—single-mindedness, Hank excuses himself to retrieve the alleged subject in question, departing without another word while his boss continues to stare me down.
In dire need of a fully-formed inhalation, my lungs spasm in my chest, sputtering in tandem with my heart as his stature dwarfs me, unsullied authority emanating from his prominent physique.
“Mr. Zane,” I croak my acknowledgment, reluctantly meeting his unfaltering stare again, finding myself, once more, in the all too familiar position of wondering what the fuck he’s doing within a space he’s not typically—more like, ever—found.
A due-diligence cross-check with security personnel corroborated Renée’s claim of his absence all day. So, why is an employer showing up at a residential building for his employees when he was MIA in the one place they actually expect to encounter him?
“Myers,” he returns, offering no accompanying gesture or inflection to tell if it’s a greeting or a mere utterance of my name.
A vicious army of goosebumps ambushes my arms and back without warning, trail-blazing all the way up my neck in a silent war cry. My scalp buzzes with their invasion, and I say a corresponding, silent ‘thank you’ to all the deities in the universe, both old and new, that they’re not visible to the pair of jeweled flames that summoned them.
“Did you receive your flowers?” he asks suddenly, his expression static. But the way the words roll off his tongue is sensuous as all fuck.
I nod, more so to snap myself out of the hypnotic allure of his voice than reply.
“Yes…” I clear my throat, my eyes running back to the front desk for cover momentarily. “Yes, Hank was just inf-informing me about that. They’re, um…they’re beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like them. Or their vase.”
He offers a clipped nod, the action void of even the tiniest inklings of accomplishment. “I got the inspiration for the design while attending a fundraiser dinner last year.”
Involuntarily, my fingers ball into fists at my sides, clutching at the perspiration forming between them. I swallow against a colossal stone, the utterance of the word like a karate chop to my throat.
A thing he attended last week.
Where he donated one hundred thousand dollars.
For a date.
My heart pulses with ten times its maximum force, wondering whether he just dropped that tidbit of information to offer a genuine backstory for his creation…or plant a reminder for the reason it’s now found its way to me—in case I’d ‘somehow’ forgotten.
But, even in the back of my head, I register every last word he says and, unexpectedly, they give me some novel insight into his. Into the elusive mind of Atlas Zane. Into the types of things he takes note of, even while immersed in his ilk of privilege and exclusivity.
“The vase is self-irrigating,” he carries on casually, a stark contrast to my unyielding angst. “It’s made from a quartz alloy fused to refract sunlight in a specific way for efficient photosynthesis indoors, particularly on cloudy days. You only have to fill the reservoir once a month.”
My brows furrow, simultaneously impressed and confused by the verbal offerings of its human manual, the traditionally-upheld Valentine’s gift seemingly even more complex than it appears.
“A great deal of thought was put into the design,” I concur, “but…do roses even last a whole month?”
“Yours are a unique species, bred for higher oil content and overall longevity. They’ll live as long as you essentially want them to.”
You mean, as long as I keep watering them.
Which is all fine and dandy, but none of what’s been said is the explanation I’m looking for.
I scratch at an absent itch behind my ear, my gaze breaking away.
“I, uh, I’m…not sure why you sent them, to be honest.”
“Apologies,” his baritone dips, the sound waves rippling through my skin. “I assumed it would be obvious.”
There’s absolutely nothing apologetic in that obscene voice. Nothing. And even less that’s obvious about his ‘explanation’.
My eyes flit back to his against my better judgment, caving under the awkwardness of being in opposition with my lips.
My throat threatens to clam up when I meet his focused, wolf-like stare again, but I somehow manage to pry a response out of it.
“While I appreciate the gesture, you didn’t have to do that. The rose at the office was more than enou—”
My words taper off at the sound of quaint but audible footsteps. Hank reappears with a package, as promised, reclaiming his position behind the desk. Without a word, he hands it to me, his eye-contact brief.
I offer a nervous “Thank you” as I take it from him, profoundly aware of Zane’s as I observe the new delivery. My apprehension subsides a tad when I see the sender’s name.
However, it snaps right back into place for an entirely different reason, the small, brief cushion of Hank’s welcome interruption expiring.
The Head Residential Manager falls effortlessly into the background, performing his duties as though he’s not even here. A professional wallflower.
My gaze defaults back to Zane as his subordinate courteously ignores us. While the wrapped box in my hands comes with its own set of questions, I’m too preoccupied with those spawned from the crushing presence next to me.
“While you’re welcome for both, you misunderstand,” he says, his eyes naturally narrowed, unblinking. “The roses delivered to your residence are in lieu of today’s events.”
My brows rise in unison. “To…day’s events?”
“Yes,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”
A questioning frown greets my lips. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”
“To make arrangements.”
My brow arches impulsively as the highly-confused gaze below it searches his.
Zane meets it with absolution.
“For our date.”