Time ticks away. Slowly.
One. Two. Three.
And, slowly, I flip open the engraved, wooden card, even more confused by its presence in the absenteeism of its custodian.
I could’ve sworn I was pretty clear I didn’t want anyth—
My eyes swell inside my skull without delay, in simultaneity with the lungs below them, both locking in their inflated positions.
Like a living entity, Michaela’s Uncensored 21 Questions game stares back at me instead of a culinary itemization.
My breath sputters in an exhale I do not will, my heart palpitating at the brazen sight of it, and I practically jump along in my seat.
Warily, my gaze drifts to Zane, reflecting shock and disbelief.
He runs a shapely index finger along the stem of the new glass of Noir, the motion bearing a seductive yet sinister quality.
“If you have no more questions about the project, we’ll progress to our weekly interview. I acknowledge it’s well past the usual allotment, however, rescheduling was unavoidable given the charity commitment. But now is as good a time as any.”
The contents of my stomach reverse bungee jump as it bows and coils all over again, more belligerent despite the fact that it’s now stuffed full of expensive food.
Hell of a way to end a meal.
Zane remains stoic, his body language unlike the relaxed disposition he displayed in his office. “Begin, Miss Myers.”
The involuntary purse of my lips veils a struggle to swallow. Perspiration and the kindling of a headache converge at my temples even though the air is conditioned to slightly below room temperature. Throbs form like flickers in my head, mimicking the controlled flames around us. The overly-intimate vibe of the table’s isolation and the dimness brought on by candles in decorated glass makes it peculiarly nerve-wrecking, the romantic setting pointedly off-key with the explicit, indecorous nature of these “interviews”.
As mind-shredding as it had been in his office—and certainly not easier, by any means—there was, at least, a certain sense of compartmentalization; an inherent, defined line of propriety because of the professional environment we were in. The space served as its own buffer, in a way. Something I’m now keenly aware of because it’s not here.
I truly, genuinely felt like I’d suffocate under the inordinate intensity of being inside his designated work arena but…I think that made it…better, somehow. Boundaries were evident. Things were clear-cut.
This right here, charity or not, muddies it all up.
My immediate impulse is to object. To suggest we reschedule this for another, more appropriate time and place. But the inclination disintegrates almost as quickly as it conjures itself when I realize how ludicrous and laughable the thought is.
There’s nothing remotely appropriate about any of it. Now or later. Here or there. It doesn’t make a difference. Not really.
Might as well just get it over with…
Having it pushed back would only drag out an already painful, humiliating process. And, frankly, I’m not sure I can endure an extra one-on-one sit-down with him—for whatever reason.
Not to mention, I’m not exactly in a position where I get to call the shots.
Plus, I knew we were supposed to have an “interview” today—just not like this.
Zane spares a nonchalant glance at his watch with only the barest shift of his eyes. “It’s just after nine-thirty. You have less than a three-hour window before the day is over. The charity dinners were stipulated to span two hours. I pride myself on punctuality and adhering to agreed-upon rules. The countdown began at eight when you were picked up and, therefore, our timer will run out at ten o’clock on the dot.”
He eyes me squarely, his feral focus conveying what words don’t have to.
You have less than thirty minutes to complete this interview. If you don’t, you’ll be in violation of our ‘agreed-upon rules’—and I’ll have no reason to hold up my end of it.
Every cell in my body spasms in a joint, gargantuan freak-out, his words, both spoken and unspoken, more than enough to shove me forward despite my reluctance.
He could have proposed we do it during the drive when he’d picked me up earlier, but chose not to. Granted, there was a specific agenda at hand—not to mention, the inglorious interruption of a synthetic “third party”—but he could have made it work had he decided to improvise then.
This move—this delay—was intentional.
My eyes lower to the encased sheet of paper, squinting in the candlelight even though the last thing I want to do is see clearly. My heart continues to pound, twitching in sync with my fluttering—and faltering—lungs as the ability to breathe escapes me.
I come close to choking again, this time on nothing more than my own spit, unable to draw from previous experience. From the so-called “practice” I had last week. I get the feeling that no matter how many times I sit down to do this, it’ll never get any easier. Any less nerve-racking. Any less gut wrenching.
And, right now, my gut is all kinds of twisted up.