“You were supposed to be here over an hour ago,” he snapped, eyes never leaving the phone in his hands. Per usual, he looked as if he’d stepped straight off a fashion magazine page; navy blue pants riding low on his hips with a starched sky blue button up hugging his shoulders and tucked to his abdomen along the dark buttons. He leaned casually against the rail but I could read the stress in the corners of his mouth, the tense set of his jaw accentuating his sharp features.
Morning sunlight dappled the sidewalk as I wiped my face clean of emotion and strode forward, faking confidence. The bistro crowd behind him chattered along with the melody of some indie tune on the sound system, the smell of coffee and cinnamon contradicting his dark attitude.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I mumbled, coming to stand in front of him. “My brother’s wedding is coming up and I’m a bridesmaid and I haven’t-”
“I don’t care, Lillian,” he interrupted, finally tucking the phone away in his pocket. His eyebrows knitted deep into his forehead as he took in my appearance, shock etching quickly across his face. “What the hell did you do to your hair?”
Defensiveness buzzed along my backbone at his rudeness. I’d spent an hour getting ready for a brunch with my fellow bridesmaids, every hair in place and makeup impeccable. The haircut I’d so enjoyed yesterday took on a new spin as I learned to style it myself.
“It’s called a bob,” I murmured, looking up to his eyes. “I was tired of the heaviness. I don’t think my hair interferes with my ability to do my job.”
Warm amber irises met mine, too inviting to ever fit his chilly personality, glinting with a sarcastic edge.
“I wasn’t questioning your capabilities, Miss Hawkins.”
Sighing, I leaned my back against the railing and felt the cold metal seep through my silk blouse, fighting a smile. He was teasing me – something I rarely experienced working with him. His anxious demeanor still simmered beneath the surface but a smirk crinkled at his eyelashes.
“Of course not. I apologize. I never know when to take you serious,” I stated.
Smiling, he pointed me to a table. His real smile was enough to make any woman pause, dimples for days with a contagious effect.
“Was that a test?” As the question left my mouth, the taste of it rang metallic on my lips and felt too brave. Instantly, I regretted the words. I was never casual with him. With him it was always work and no play. He allowed me to walk past him, pulling my chair out for me in one smooth gesture.
“Perhaps,” he nodded. “We’ve been working together for six months now. I was curious to see if you would defend your individuality. Now, Lillian, I called you because I want you to tell me how yesterday went. Details, please.”
Stiffly dropping the menu, I dared a look at his face.
“Oh, yes, I know all about it,” he continued, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. Just like that – cold, then hot, then cold again. He was a walking, talking roller coaster. “Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. So, I’ll ask again. Tell me what happened?”
The waitress approached, two glasses of ice water laid in front of us before she quickly made a retreat. It gave me just long enough to gather my composure. All teasing aside, we were back to work. Straightening my shoulders, I reached for my bag and pulled out a single four by six photograph.
“This young man’s name is Eli. He attends three of the same classes as me, parks in the same section, is two cubbies down on our library pass, and frequently ‘accidentally’ bumps into me. He thinks I’m an idiot if he assumes I don’t feel him frisking me when he does so. It’s no coincidence we’re always in such close proximity and I’ve known it for weeks.”
Taking a single bite of a breadstick, I slid the photograph across the table. Glancing at his hands while he studied the photo, I didn’t fail to notice when he laid the photograph down he balled them into fists. Gone was his usual cool arrogance. Instead, his studied aloofness had been replaced with bottled temper.
“I approached Grant about him. Asked if he knew who he was or why he would be following me. He got ridiculously defensive. Kept changing the subject and shrugged me off,” I said, tucking the photo back into my bag. “And judging by your reaction I can tell you know something, too. So, before I tell you anymore, I want your answer. Do you know him?”
A tense silence stretched between us, his eyes glued off in the distance. I knew I was being too firm, too chancy giving him the ultimatum. He could refuse to tell me outright and I’d have no other choice but to continue telling him about Eli. Finally, he spoke after what felt like hours.
“I know him,” he sighed, rubbing the space between his eyebrows. “Finish out the details of the day and I’ll explain.”
Jaw slack with surprise and adrenaline buzzing under my skin, I was tempted to pressure him for more but knew it would only result in him locking me out. He ran fire and ice but the one thing I knew was never to push him too far. I’d never given him reason to lose his temper but didn’t want to start. Resentfully, I continued even though I wished I didn’t have to.
“Eli must’ve followed me to the meeting with Grant. God knows a million people passed us by on that bench but I spotted him clear across the park. He was just standing there, watching us. When I pointed him out to Grant, he put a gun to my ribs under his coat and told me to walk with him to his car. I did and there was Eli. I should’ve let them talk, I know, ok? I remember my training but I never expected this from Grant. Lucky for me Grant forgot I don’t go anywhere without my nine milometer. I pinned him before Eli even knew what was going on. He took off. I told Grant to get in his car and drive. I bolted.”
“You stupid, stupid girl,” he groaned, gritting his teeth.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Bayou