"Lets see well share a bottle of Bianco Latimis the 99," she said, handing the wine list back to their waiter. She waited until he walked away, then said, "I think youll like this wine, Marcus. Its not exactly what I had in Capri, but the sense memory might help me to remember that I was lying on a beach just last week. I need all the help I can get to keep conjuring memories of my vacation."
"I wouldnt mind lying on a beach right now. This is a cold city in winter. London rarely dips below zero. Oh, I mean thirty-two degrees. This weather will require some adjustment."
"So will your references to Fahrenheit instead of Celsius," Eleanor reminded him. "Were oddly proud of the fact that we monitor temperature in such an arcane way."
"Its a tad noisy in here. Mind terribly if I move closer?" She gave him a noncommittal look, and he moved his chair and his place setting. "Im looking forward to dinner here. Why is it one of your favorites?"
"Well, I love French food, and I love seafood, and La Gamine is the best of both those worlds. They also have fantastic desserts, and Ive been gifted with at least six sweet teeth."
"Six?" His eyes began to focus more intently on her lips, and for the first time that night, Eleanor began to get a funny feeling about this business dinner. Being the direct sort, she decided to put her agenda on the table.
"Im interested in hearing what you plan on doing with our less successful hardcover books to make them pop out once they get to trade paper. I hope youve got some ideas we havent tried yet, Marcus."
Their waiter had busied himself opening the wine and pouring a tasting glass for Eleanor to approve. He interrupted, handing her the glass, and said, "Madame?"
She tasted the wine quickly, then nodded. "Cest parfait. Merci bien."
As soon as the waiter left, Marcus leaned back in his chair, clearly
feeling relaxed and expansive. He gave Eleanor a smile. "Business?
"Youre right. Lets talk about you. Tell me how you ran the London division."
He laughed, giving her a wry look. "I suppose we must."
"Im hopeless," she said. "I have a hard time being social during a business dinner."
Did that give you a clue, buddy?
"Jesus, Annie, just get your camera out. That way you can enjoy her in the privacy of your home."
"Im not " The young woman looked at her friends and saw that dissembling was a waste of time. "Okay, so I was looking at "
"All right, I was staring. Give me a break look at her!"
"I thought lesbians were above that obvious leering," Gayle said.
"Oh, Gayle, Gayle, Gayle. Where do you get these precious notions?" Annie asked. "So archaic, so Nathaniel Hawthorne."
Her friends, who were her co-workers as well, laughed. The four young women shared a table across the room from the lovely, dark-haired woman and her companion.
"Its the twenty-first century, Gayle. Women now have the freedom to feel gasp " she covered her lips with her hand and stage-whispered, "sexual urges." A rakish smile formed on her lips, and her voice dropped. "Maybe youre not wired this way, but I love to look at women and put them into wet and messy and, yes, even nasty fantasies. Men do it, and women do too. And if youve never done the same thing youre missing something hot."
"I fantasize about men all the time," Kit said. "I never fall asleep without a man even when Im alone."
Gayle caved. "Fine. Were all sluts. Lets admit it and move on."
"Another round," Annie proclaimed. She signaled the waiter and nodded in the direction of the dark-haired woman, saying, "Ill be what shes having." At his puzzled look, and amidst the laughter of her friends, she amended, "Well have another round."
Turning to glance at the source of a burst of raucous laughter, Eleanor lingered on the group of four women across the bar.
I wanna change tables, she thought with a mental pout.
She watched the waiter deliver another round of drinks to their table, and she tried to figure out how old the women were by what theyd ordered.
Hmm a beer, two glasses of white wine and something red in a martini glass. Could be a Cosmo or a Raging Bull. The beer says not long out of college. Single glasses of wine makes them look pretty young, too. If they were sophisticated, theyd probably order a bottle, rather than sticking with the house brand. Of course, they could be ordering from the wine list. I think they have some nice whites by the glass. The Cosmos going to ooo the cute blonde. I hope its a Cosmo. If its a Raging Bull that means shes about twenty-two, and Ive gotta throw em back when theyre that small.
Marcus nodded when the waiter approached, and the man poured the rest of the bottle of wine into their glasses. "Care for another bottle?"
Eleanor unwillingly dragged herself back to reality. "No more for me, thanks. If I have any more to drink, I wont be able to concentrate on business."
Or those women, her libido added. That blonde is just my type. I hope shes old enough to drive.
The waiter left the couple to their conversation. Marcus caught her gaze and asked, "We neednt define business too, too narrowly, need we, Eleanor?"
Eleanor groaned internally. Why me? Why is it always me? How do they find me? Is it pheromones? Why do mine work so well on men? Im gonna stop taking that damned B vitamin.
"No, of course not. Id like to get to know you, Marcus. I think that can only help us to develop a better working relationship."
Ive never had such spectacularly poor results with any woman. Shes not wearing a wedding ring, but maybe shes seeing someone. I suppose she might not find me attractive. Marcus paused for a moment and gave that possibility his consideration. No, thats not it.
"Great," he said, with a slightly forced smile. "Heres to our working relationship." He lifted his glass, and Eleanor clinked hers against it.
"Oh, fuck me, theyre toasting." Annie set her chin on her fist. "What can that mean?"
"Yes, darling, of course Ill marry you?" Gayle offered dryly.
"The syphilis test was negative?" Kit suggested.
"If the poison works as planned, your wife will be dead within the hour," Maggie said.
"I like, Heres to inadvertently having been given a table with a stranger whos going to dinner alone in about two minutes," Annie muttered, moping.
"I cant tell," Kit said. "They dont look like theyre together, but they dont look like strangers, either."
"Maybe its a first date," Maggie said.
"Ive still got a chance if its a first date," Annie said, brightening. "Ten minutes with her in the rest room "
"I want to know why were all focused on looking at that woman," Gayle said. "Especially when the guy shes with is so incredibly hot. Youre the only lesbian here, Annie. Shouldnt majority rule?"
"You look at who you want, I look at who I want."
"I want Taye Diggs to walk in here and ask me to marry him," Gayle said. "I think I have about the same chance as you do."
"I wont let your lack of self-confidence infect me," Annie said. "I know I could make that woman happy. For a night, at least."
"Have you ever noticed," Kit said to the group, "that when someone gets out of a relationship, shes either filled with doubt or bravado? I think our friend here got a healthy portion of bravado from her breakup."
"Hey, Ive been monogamous for two years," Annie said. "Its time to sow some wild oats. And I know just where I wanna sow em."
"Youve been with three women, Annie. That doesnt make you a player."
"Gotta start sometime," the blonde said, her optimism firmly intact.
"You know, Eleanor, I dont know much about you. Youre obviously well thought of at Random House, and the word around the European offices is that youre one of the rising young stars. But that doesnt tell me much about you. Fill me in, wont you?"
"Sure." Warming to her topic, she leaned in and folded her hands on the table, her arms pushing her breasts out and up. The candlelight bathed her features in a warm, golden glow, and her eyes glimmered like jewels. She licked her lips, and her nostrils began to flare. "Id love to work in one of the European offices. Thats been my goal since I joined the firm. I speak French, and Ive been studying German for the last four years, just so I can be ready at a moments notice."
Marcus discretely slipped his hand under the table and made a much-needed adjustment, nearly groaning as the pressure in his lap eased.
Shes obviously not frigid, he thought. But how do I turn that ardor for her job towards me?
His index finger slid down her folded hands, and he played with her dark red thumbnail.
A tiny scowl materialized at his touch, and he pulled away. "Tell me more," he said.
Somebodys not paying attention. Were co-workers. We dont touch. Time to put the chill on.
She sat up straight in her chair, and Marcus watched in amazement and dismay as the sparkle in her eyes disappeared and a door that had seemed open slammed shut.
"My career is very, very important to me," Eleanor said. "I try to stay out of office politics and the petty squabbling and gossip that saturate the publishing business. Im a lot of fun away from work, but I never mix business with pleasure." Her eyes hardened, and she gave him a feral smile. "Ever."
"I see." He sat up a little taller as well and straightened his tie. He was sure it was already neat, but hed felt like shed been yanking on it. "Look, Eleanor, I hope I havent given offense. Im terribly afraid I have, and thats really the last thing I wanted. Youre a beautiful woman with whom I hope to have a mutually beneficial professional relationship."
"Im not offended in the least, Marcus. I dont know of a woman who doesnt like to be found attractive. I simply never date anyone at Random House or in the publishing industry at large."
"Well!" He leaned back again and crossed his arms against his chest. His voice had a somewhat defiant tone. "It must make it hard to find dates when you rule out your entire professional cohort."
The professional mask was whipped away as quickly as it had been applied. Eleanors lips, generous, ripe and red, curled into a smile. Once again, her full, lush breasts were thrust forward, her shoulders level and erect. Her eyes glittered again, and she spoke in a voice usually reserved for the most intimate of moments. "Not really."
"Point well taken," he said, crossing his legs.
Eleanor waited until Marcus raised his glass again, knowing that his vision would be obscured, then winked playfully at the blonde.
"Theyre not together!" Annie proclaimed, slamming her glass onto the table.
"They look together to me," Kit said. "She looks like shes gonna have him for dessert."
"No, no, thats just a façade. She doesnt want him. She isnt attracted to him at all! Im sure of it."
"How can you be so sure?" Maggie asked. "Shes leaning against that table like shes scent-marking it."
"Oh, puleeeeze! Are you three insensible to the world around you? Didnt you see her shut down a second ago? Shes playing with the man for some reason. That last sizzling look was all for show. Im certain of it." She leaned over and all three women followed suit. "Besides," she whispered, "I swear to God that she just winked at me."
"She did not!" Maggie said. "Im facing her, and she didnt even look over here."
"Then you looked away for a second. Im telling you, the woman winked at me."
"Whether or not she winked, I think Annie has a point," Gayle said. "I dont know why Im helping her analyze a perfect stranger, but I think shes right. Shes not giving off I like you vibes with that guy."
Annie gazed at the object of her affection with a blissful smile on her face. "She loves me, she loves me."
"Yeah. She loves you. From twenty feet away, without speaking a word or knowing a thing about her, she loves you," Gayle said. "Lets wrap her up and take her home."
"She might not love me yet, but she will. Shes just so perfect. Look at her eyes," Annie said. "See how sharp and focused they are? Thats a sign of intelligence. And shes very animated when she speaks. Lots of energy. That means shed be good in bed."
"Oh, so Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse would also be good lovers?"
"So droll," Annie said, patting Maggie on the leg.
Gayle leveled her gaze and said, "All right, Miss Player, Miss Thing. You found her. Shes perfect. Whatre you gonna do about it?"
"Dont rush me. I just now decided shes perfect for me. Its gonna take a few minutes to figure out how to make her mine."
"How do you know shes gay?" Maggie asked. "She sure doesnt look it."
Annie blinked at her friend. "What does gay look like?"
"Not like that!" Maggie maintained. All four women took another look, and this time, Eleanor caught them. Her eyes met Annies and held for just a second, while a smile turned up the corners of that sexy, red mouth.
Annie blanched and sank into her seat, choking and reaching for her glass. "Oh, fuck."
"Youre in!" Kit declared.
"She really gave you some eye contact, girl!" Gayle agreed.
"Youre about to faint, arent you?" Maggie predicted, having known Annie for years. "You always bite off more than you can chew."
Annie gurgled helplessly in response.
Eleanor couldnt keep the smug smile from her face, try as she might. She truly loved to flirt, and there was something especially gratifying about flirting when she was with someone else. She gazed boldly at the young woman over Marcus shoulder.
Oh, shes blushing! Isnt that the cutest thing youve ever seen?
She shifted in her seat, very proud of herself for eliciting such a reaction.
Now I have to come up with a plan to cull her from the herd. Its almost impossible to do that in a setting like this. I mean, were not at a club. I cant very well ask her to dance here in the bar at La Gamine.
"Pardon?" she asked, not entirely sure that Marcus had spoken, but suspicious of the expectant look on his face.
"Shall I check on our table? It should be ready by now."
"If youd like."
I can spend a few more minutes flirting with that adorable woman. Hmm I wonder if shes going to have dinner, too, or just drinks. If we go upstairs, Ill lose her if she isnt going to eat.
With Marcus out of the way, Eleanor could give full rein to one of her greatest talents. She sat back in her chair, picked up her glass and slowly rolled the liquid around. She kept her eyes glued on the blondes profile as she tilted the glass, letting a bit of the wine warm her mouth. The women watched with as much stealth as they could manage, and Eleanor saw two of them desperately whispering to their friend. The blonde turned, pretending to catch the waiters eye. She shot a quick glance at Eleanor, and when she saw the woman staring right at her, she began to turn inexorably in her direction, nearly tipping over in the process. Kit grabbed her arm and held on righting the chair and helping Annie save face as well as other important body parts.
Damn! Ive never almost killed one! Well, Ive made my intentions clear. If you want to meet, youre gonna have to give me a sign. Other than falling on the floor.
Marcus came back and said, "Itll be another half hour. Can you wait?"
"How do you feel about sashimi?" she asked. "We could have a light dinner right here lets move to the sushi bar."
"Thats fine, if youre sure."
"The sashimi is fantastic, and I generally eat very little at dinner anyway," Eleanor said.
"Whatever you do, it works," Marcus said, giving her a friendly smile.
Face flushed, palms wet, heart thumping, Annie dabbed at her brow with her napkin. "Tell me I didnt almost fall on my face. Tell me!"
"You didnt almost fall," Kit said, giving her a sympathetic look.
"Yes, she did!" Gayle laughed. "Dont lead the girl on. Shes got to know the truth."
"Well, no one noticed," Kit maintained.
"Girl, the whole restaurant looked!" Gayle insisted. "The bus boys came out of the kitchen!"
"They did not," Annie said, her tone pleading. "Please, please, tell me they didnt."
"Uh-huh! They sure did!"
"Ive got to kill myself. What would make less of a scene? Hara kiri or hanging myself with that towel dispenser thing in the bathroom?"
"I favor a simple ritual suicide," Maggie said. "Its always classic."
"Dont worry about it," Gayle insisted. "No one here knows you or wants to."
"Ill have sashimi, a la carte, please. Id like Botan shrimp, kohada, toro and bonito."
"Very good. And for you, sir?"
Marcus laughed, gazing at Eleanor. "Thats not enough food for a cat! I think Ill make up for my light-eating companion by ordering the sushi and sashimi platter."
"What type of roll would you like with that, sir?"
"Excellent choices. Would you care for some saki with your dinner?"
"None for me," Eleanor said. Marcus shook his head, and the waiter walked away.
"So tell me, do you always eat so little? I dont think youre going to have two ounces of food."
She smiled and said, "I eat quite a lot, but I try to eat early in the day. I feel better that way." She was trying her best to keep up the conversation, but it was clear that Marcus didnt want to discuss business, and other than that, she had no interest in him. She was, however, still quite enthralled with the attractive woman who was sitting across the room. The womans friends seemed to be reassuring her that falling off furniture in public was no longer the faux pas it had once been.
God knows I found it endearing. Shes very attractive, and besides that, theres something completely genuine about her. She looks like shed be a lot of fun, too, and I could stand to lighten up a little. Gee, I have a lot of furniture in my loft. I wonder if shed like to come home with me and fall off it.
Annie continued to stare at the floor, convinced shed blown the chance of this or any other lifetime. Her past girlfriends had been attractive, but this woman made attractive seem like an insult. And it wasnt just her looks, which were stupendous, it was the playfulness that Annie could see hiding just behind those indescribable eyes. She had an air that was sophisticated, yet approachable; it made the young woman certain that she was more than just a beauty.
"Oh, what have I done?"
"For Gods sake, stop moaning!"
"There is no God! If there were one, wed be in her apartment, and Id be sitting on her lap, attached to those lips. Not wishing a hole would open up and swallow me."
"What makes you think this woman was attracted to you in the first place?" Gayle asked.
"She looked at me. She swallowed wine at me. I could tell!"
"Well, shes still lookin," Gayle said, "although its from a different direction. Shes got a better angle now, and every time I sneak a peek, shes sneaking one right back at you. Youre still in the running even after falling off your chair."
"I did not fall," Annie insisted. "I nearly fell. Big, big difference, and thank you, Kit."
"My pleasure, buddy."
"Wheres that confident player who was ready to hook up in the bathroom?" Gayle asked. "One little slip and youre ready to give up the game?"
Annie squared her shoulders as she sat up. "Youre right. I cant let something so minor ruin my chance. She probably didnt even notice."
"Oh, she noticed," Gayle insisted, "but shes still looking. Thats what counts."
"The question is, how do I make her look and "
"Unh-uh," Gayle said, "your turn."
"My turn?" Annie gulped. "Really? Cant she make one more little move?"
"Nope. Your turn. Put up or shut up."
"Ive never really been in this situation," Annie admitted. "This is such a formal place, and shes with someone. What should I do?"
"Youve never heard of sending someone a drink?" Maggie asked.
"You dont send a woman a drink when shes with someone! Thats an insult to both of them!"
"Just gut it up and go talk to her," Kit said.
"And say what? Hi, I just came over to make sure you were flirting with me. Did I read that right?"
"You dont have to be that obvious, Annie. You could act like you know her. If shes interested, shell tell you her name maybe even give you her phone number or e-mail address. Its worth a try."
"Okay, so Im supposed to say, Hi, arent you Mary Jones? and she says, No, Im Kathy James. Heres my number. Call me."
"I see Ill have to spell this out for you. You just go over and say, Hi! Howve you been? I dont think Ive seen you since and you pause. If shes interested, she jumps in with, the Schindler wedding or the thing at the Met or whatever. Shes smart, Annie, and shes experienced. Shell know what to do."
Annie blew out a deep breath. "Okay. Youre right. I can do this. I can do this." She sat up even straighter and ran her hands through her hair to neaten it. "Hows my lipstick?"
"Cause lipstick is important," she added.
Three voices joined together. "Annie! Go!"
While the debate raged at Annies table, Eleanor was just about ready to give up.
Ive done everything but blow you kisses. Cant you send some kind of sign? Buy me a drink, come over and talk to me, hell, act like you know me. Ill take anything at this point. A lingering, hungry lookll do it! Weve been through a bottle of wine, dinner, after-dinner drinks, dessert and espresso. Work with me, will you?
"Are you ready to leave, Eleanor?" Marcus asked once the bill was paid.
Eleanor stood and realized she felt a little sad. "I suppose I am."
Annie screwed her courage to the sticking place, then turned and took a few confident steps before she realized she was walking towards two empty seats at the sushi bar. She whirled back to her friends and mouthed, "Bathroom?"
Three heads shook. "Shes gone," Gayle said.
Annie walked back, dejected.
"They must have gone when we were coming up with the strategy," Kit said. "Im sorry, buddy."
"Youre sorry? Im gonna be an old woman, living in a studio apartment with an illegal number of cats, all because I didnt get off my butt soon enough."
"Want another drink, honey?" Gayle asked.
"Nah. I wanna go home. Anyone wanna to share a cab?"
"Were gonna hop on the F," Maggie said. "Its right here."
"Ill stay and pay the bill. You guys go ahead. Its cold outside, and I dont want you to miss a train."
They all tossed some bills on the table, then each one hugged and kissed Annie. "See you on Monday," she said.
It took a few minutes for Annie to pay the bill and collect her coat. She walked to the door, unable to summon a smile for the woman at the front desk. Despite all the joking she and her friends had enjoyed, shed actually felt the evening had had possibilities, and now she was unnaturally depressed. She could easily imagine herself with the beautiful brunette, and the knowledge that shed likely never see her again made her sad and tired.
Why does everything have to be so hard? Annie mused. I was attracted to her, and I know she was to me, too. The circumstances just screwed everything up.
She walked outside and saw a cab idling right in front of the door. The light showing that it was available was on, and the departing passenger opened the back door.
Her depression in tow, Annie hurried to the cab, not wanting anyone else to grab it before she did. Approaching from the rear, she watched the passenger get out and speak to the driver. When Annie got to the door, the brunette turned and gave her a brilliant smile. "If youd been ten minutes longer, I wouldve had to let this guy go so I could find an ATM. And then where would we be?"
Annies heart stopped. "Its you."
"Its you and me," Eleanor said. She stepped aside and gestured for Annie to get in. Without a word, the blonde walked to her and took her hand when Eleanor offered it. She slid into the warm seat and waited for the brunette to sit next to her. They shared a look while the cabbie waited for instructions. Decisively, Annie said, "Mercer and West 3rd, driver."
"Lovely neighborhood," Eleanor said. "Its always looked inviting."
Annie was unable to stop smiling, so she decided to revel in her happiness. Her heart was hammering in her chest, but she knew that her date was not easy to spook. She leaned over and rested her head on the taller womans shoulder, feeling perfectly content and at home there.
"I never used to like Valentines Day," Eleanor said. "Until now."
Annie didnt trust her voice, so she extended her hand, a warm feeling washing over her when Eleanor put hers on top of it and kissed the top of her head. They linked hands as the cab sped down the street and towards the future.