I register a distinct ringing in my ears, loud enough to supersede the continuous hum of ventilation and interjecting keyboard strokes in the background. Like all the thoughts in my head are literally crashing into each other. But the staggered wheezing inside my chest is even more prominent.
Molecules of oxygen evacuate my lungs in hordes, sputtering out of me like I’m chock full of puncture holes. Almost mechanically, I behold eyes that bore into mine, not quite looking at them as much as struggling to bear their weight—and the message their owner just conveyed.
I’m…stunned. No. Stunned would be an understatement. Prior to right this second, any insight or enlightenment on the auction and its aftermath were up in the air at best. I’m not sure what I was expecting in way of an explanation. But this wasn’t it.
Frankly, there was a growing part of me that began to assume—and hope—he’d forgotten. Or simply changed his mind and decided not to bother with the ‘extensions’ of his unparalleled donation. His scarcity all week and total absence today only compounded those sentiments. They weren’t unreasonable assumptions, considering. And I wouldn’t have blamed him for either. Being constantly wrapped up in his company and the minds of every living woman within a hundred mile radius of it is seemingly just part and parcel of his life. He could literally have anyone he wants. Whenever he wants.
I mean…look at him.
And, with no prior notice of a rendezvous outside his office today—or a change of schedule within it—I had no reason not to.
I’d been ecstatic; grateful for the unexpected mercy that would spare me having to end another work week asking a high-profile chief executive officer the most excruciating questions ever penned as my insides incinerated.
But the words he just uttered to me—three little words—reduced all that to ash.
I blink against the sheer overwhelm of that statement, even though it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“A-About that…” my voice trails off weakly, unsure of how to word the gazillion thoughts running amok in my head. Even though each and every one of them is desperate for closure.
Zane offers zero assistance in that regard, making no attempt to bridge the stilted silence as I gather myself. He just keeps staring. Waiting for me to go on.
I clear my throat. “Mr. Zane…” my voice lowers as my eyes impulsively dart behind us to Hank, hoping he’s not within earshot even if he seems like he will undoubtedly mind his own business. “How…Why were…I mean…” My eyelids flutter against my accelerating heart, fumbling spectacularly.
Despite the seductive depth of his voice, his naturally-narrowed eyes make him look austere. “Is there a question in there?”
I swallow audibly, the lone muscle lodged in my chest distending, racing faster, if that’s even possible; the loaded implication of that question like a boulder perching on top of it.
I don’t know if he’s being sarcastic or not. Either way, it scares the crap out of me. Impulsively, I grit my teeth, trying to actively block out the image of my cousin’s stupid game.
I lick at my lips, unduly cognizant of how dry they are all of a sudden.
“You mentioned…arrangements,” I breathe, hoping he doesn’t pick up the unnatural tug in my speech. “What sort of arrangements?”
His reply is matter-of-fact. “Among other things, procuring attire for you.”
My eyes bulge without restraint, gaping at him like one of us has lost our minds but I’m not sure which.
“Yes,” he relays simply.
I stutter in spite of myself, floundering in a sea of jumbled assurances.
“Th-that’s completely unnecessary, Mr. Zane. There’s really…really no need for that. Honestly—”
“It’s not a problem.”
With an eerily calm disposition, just a few words utterly demolish mine. And, despite them, I doubt he’s actually asking for my opinion.
I exhale, silently relenting, unsure of what else to do. His presence alone is crushing, and I can barely breathe right while he’s standing so close, let alone address him without feeling like I’m about to hyperventilate—upside down.
He glances between me and the package in my hands. “Unless, of course, you have a prior engagement with someone else.”
“Ah…no,” I blurt without thinking, dismissive of the implied notion. “It’s from my cousin,” I add, eyeing Michaela’s wild handwriting on the postage sticker. I cringe immediately, worried my unwarranted explanation may have come off a bit too adamant.
Zane checks his watch intently, his mesmerizing stare solemn, then gestures to the package. “Bring it with you.”
He doesn’t wait for a response, starting for the exit. My lips part, but before a single word can leave them, he’s already walking away; long, effortless strides converging into powerful footfalls. Brisk. Deliberate. Like a stallion.
My head whips between his soaring figure and Hank’s, struck with mind-crushing paralysis in a split-second attempt to leave it at the desk. Perplexed, I follow after the former, reluctantly departing the complex with Michaela’s box in tow. It’s clear he’s making time for something he can barely afford to. What’s not is why.
Is this some sort of test?
My heart comes down like a hammer, pulsing in my ears as we transition from machine-treated air into nature’s. I grip the package to my chest, as if to help contain it.
Parallel to the entrance lies a solitary, fire-engine red sports car that appears far more appropriate for space travel than California’s highways.
A sleek, continuous design that I can’t compare to anything adorns it, lacking distinct compartments or separations. There’s no obvious bumper, hood or trunk, the windshield extending all the way into the lid, hovering over tires that look more like propellers than wheels, inconspicuously integrated into the rest of the polished metal that they seem irremovable.
Pins and needles prick my soles as we approach it, unbridled uncertainty welling up inside me, on the brink of spilling over. We walk up to the passenger’s side, Zane towering over the low, bird-esque vehicle like a giant from a Tolkien book.
He touches his index and middle fingers to the tinted window, barely grazing it. The door promptly disengages, rising and fanning out in a robotic sequence. Like a wing.
He pauses, waiting on me to go in. I swallow, feeling his eyes on my face as I comply, avoiding them. Though the act is unnecessary, given this isn’t a real date—and the doors are obviously automatic—the gesture is chivalrous nonetheless.
I enter the double-seater apprehensively, another layer of unease adding to the already unbearable anxiety I feel due to the sheer foreignness of this apparent means of transportation.
Cold, pristine air greets me, mingled with the smell of novelty and luxury, as artificial as the vehicle it fills. But it does nothing to soothe my increasingly-flushed skin. To temper the rising temperature on my neck and ears. I never quite understood it when people talked about the “new car smell”. I think I get it now. But on a whole different level.
I come into contact with simultaneously firm and flexible fabric, the seat somehow lightweight, like foam, but also sturdy. It heats up as soon as I settle into it, warm and cozy despite its unfamiliarity.
Hesitantly, I put my seat-belt on, dragging sophisticated yet intuitive X-straps across my rattling chest, the digital “buckle” automatically securing itself when it comes in contact with the latch, like a magnet. I tug on it for good measure, the act as much to distract myself as ensure my safety.
Though, frankly, I’m not sure whether I’m seeking protection from other drivers…or the one about to sit next to me.