He parked the truck between a Porsche and an Audi, already feeling in over his head. The Windsor-knotted maroon tie felt like a leash around his neck. He resented it on multiple levels. Because it was a tie, because he was being forced to wear it, because he forgot the salesman’s instructions on how to tie it and had to relearn the process from a YouTube tutorial on Evan’s phone. He straightened it as he walked to the entrance of the restaurant, cursing Brooke every step of the way.
Miguel’s was an upscale establishment in the historic district that shared a remodeled waterfront warehouse with an art gallery and a chandelier company. Elegant white lights were placed within the trees along the cobblestone sidewalk. A doorman in a black tux smiled as he approached.
Mason paused beneath the awning. “Does this tie look like it’s tied the right way?”
He exhaled and stepped inside.
Piano keys, light and atmospheric, mixed with the clink of silver and fine china, providing counterpoint treble to the low hum of intimate conversation. A hostess with pencil-drawn eyebrows awaited him behind a carved wooden dais with a large cursive M on the front.
“Do you have a reservation?”
He was tempted to say “no” and go back to his truck. “It should be under Foster.”
She scanned the ledger with an immaculate red fingernail. “Ah yes. Here we are. Mason Foster, party of two. Your dining partner has already arrived.”
As he followed her between the lacquered booths where the beautiful and the powerful huddled over candlelight, he thought of a book he had read in confinement years before, Prosperity and the Universal Law of Attraction by Sir Everett Rhodes. While the idea of willing wealth into existence still seemed as flimsy and farfetched a concept as it did back then, the truth in the law of attraction was suddenly July-sky clear.
Attractive did not always equal handsome. Being attractive was a drawing force, an energy field. To attract meant to magnetize, to pull toward, and for most of his life he had been doing the opposite. He’d been repelling. What started as a self-defense mechanism for an eighteen-year-old kid surrounded by wolves and sharks was now second nature after thirty years of scowling silence and negative vibration. His energy was not attractive. It was repulsive. Especially in tense situations. He had a feeling this would not translate well to the dating scene.
The hostess led him to a corner booth and made a subtle sweeping motion with her hand. “Here we are.”
A petite and pretty thirty-something with cocaine white highlights and blood red lipstick drained her glass and set it down hard. “Another vodka and cran, Hon.”
The hostess smiled sweetly. “I’ll inform your server.”
He slid across from her. “I’m Mason.”
“Crystal,” she said, extending her hand. “Did she just call the waitress a servant? God, I hate these stuck-up people.”
Her palm was warm. The tops of her breasts spilled over her tight white cocktail dress. He tried not to stare.
“You’re much cuter in real life.” She reached for her empty glass, took a sip of air, then looked around for the server again. “Damn it.”
“Thanks,” he said, not ungrateful for the drunken lilt in her speech. At least it took the edge off.
“What about me?”
“Hmm?” He opened the menu.
She slapped it shut. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
“Absolutely,” he said, silently cursing Brooke.
He was suddenly aware of her foot sliding up his calf.
She licked her lips. “So I’m thinking yes.”
“Come again?” He yanked on the Windsor knot for an extra half-inch of space, his collar already damp with sweat.
“I read online that a woman knows within the first minute of meeting a man whether she’ll sleep with him or not.” She burped. “’Scuse me. I’ve made my decision.”
He wondered if this was a test or a practical joke. Her drink arrived. The server looked Eastern European. Her nametag said Natasha.
“About time! What, did you have to go back to Russia to get the vodka?” She rolled her eyes as she lifted her glass and took a healthy swig.
Natasha weathered her rudeness with professional grace. “I apologize for the inconvenience.” She turned to him. “May I get you something to drink, sir?”
She hurried away.
“Water? Oh Gawd, please don’t tell me you’re in Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Conversation at the nearby tables fell silent.
He shook his head. “Just never acquired a taste for liquor.”
“I saw you flirting with that waitress.”
He looked around for a clock.
She gulped down the remainder of her drink and grimaced. “Aughk. This is my last one. I’m driving.”
“I’ll drive you home.” Preferably soon.
She gave him a knowing smile. “I bet you will.”
The server returned with his water. “Are you ready to order yet?”
“Auck your veady to vordor vyet?” Crystal mimicked her accent. “I’ll have another vodka and cran.”
Although his experience with alcohol was limited to the homemade wine brewed in prison, he’d had a few alcoholic cellmates over the years. Enough to know there were two types of drunks in the world: happy drunks and mean drunks. His date obviously fell into the second camp.
She reached across the table and clutched his tie, pulling him forward. “So what do you think about our little date so far?”
“I’m definitely feeling the chemistry,” he said, surveying the restaurant for an exit.
“Really? Me too.” She released his tie and groped his biceps. “Such strong arms.”
Across the room, an aquarium was built into the wall. Exotic fish darted behind reefs in flashes of phosphorescence. Radium green, nuclear orange, electric blue. The tank bathed the surrounding booths and tables in soft light.
A couple was making out in the corner, their food untouched next to half-drained glasses of wine. A familiar need bloomed within him as he watched them go at it with roaming hands and ravenous mouths.
His own date’s femininity was suddenly pulsating in his peripheral. He turned back toward her. What the hell. Her fake lashes had come partially unglued and hung diagonally across her eye like some mutant insect.
He took a sip of water. Over the rim of his glass, he watched the couple in the corner reluctantly shape shift from one back into two. Dark rivers of silken hair cascaded over alabaster skin as the woman smoothed her dress. Shadows concealed her lover’s face … until he leaned forward to reach for his wine and the unmistakable shovel-jawed profile of Blane Barrington was spotlighted in aquatic luminescence.
He slid to his left, using Crystal as a shield.
Her eyelashes fell into the empty glass. “Oops,” she giggled.
He opened the menu and ducked behind it. “I’m starving.”
“Knock, knock,” she rapped a knuckle on the other side of the leather upholstered cardboard.
He pretended to study the entrees. “This whole thing is in French.”
“Ooh, speak it to me.” Her face appeared above him, nose resting on menu, lashless left eye twinkling with seduction. “Peekaboo.”
He stole a glance across the restaurant. Blane was stroking his lover’s face.
Natasha appeared beside the table. “Are you ready to order?”
Although he had no appetite, he knew he couldn’t leave without being spotted, so he ordered the only thing on the menu he recognized. “Filet mignon. That’s a steak, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “How would you like it cooked?”
It had been thirty years since he had eaten a steak. “Uh… moderate?”
“Very good, sir.” She turned to his date, visibly bracing for another barrage of unpleasantness. “Mademoiselle?”
“Vodka and cran.”
Whatever. Maybe she would pass out and he could throw her over his shoulder and use her as cover on the way to the truck.
“You’re so far away,” she pouted as she struggled to her feet and stumbled around to his side of the booth.
He slid over to make room, snuffing the candle for added darkness.
She lunged for him but her arm swung wide and knocked his water into his lap.
He set the glass on the table and massaged his eyelids with thumb and forefinger.
“OMG, I am so sorry.”
Soaked from the tip of his tie to the bottom of his zipper, he picked ice cubes from his crotch. “It’s fine. Just … I need you to slide out so I can go to the bathroom.”
He ducked in front of her and bolted down the aisle, weaving his way between empty tables and crowded dinner parties. He almost ran into Natasha, her arm expertly stacked with dishes. “Where’s the men’s room?”
She glanced at his wet midsection. For a moment, her mask dropped and her eyes shone both sympathy and humor. Then she quickly recovered. “Down that hall.”
He pushed through the door and headed straight for the automatic hand dryer, pulling his shirt free of his khakis on the way.
A part of him wanted to sneak out through a back exit and end this train wreck of a date but he could not, in good conscience, allow Crystal to drive herself home. What he could do was stall in hopes that Blane and his mistress would tire of the constraints of a public setting and leave to get a room. He unbuttoned his pants, waved a hand beneath the dryer and let the roaring hot air work its magic.
The door opened. He glanced over his shoulder.
Blane raised an eyebrow on his way to the urinal. “Well, well, what have we here? Premature ejaculation? Or did you piss your pants?”
The hand dryer shut off as he turned to face the attorney. For a moment he allowed himself the fantasy of slamming his smug face into the drywall. Then he quickly abandoned that line of thinking. This wasn’t a prison bathroom and Blane wasn’t a convict. Grown men, free men, did not resort to violence to settle differences.
His urine trickled against the bowl. “I thought that was you. Who’s the bimbo?”
Blane zipped up and flushed the toilet. “I’m surprised that you could tear yourself away from Brooke long enough to have a social life.”
“I don’t see Brooke that often,” said Mason, hating the genuflection in his own voice. “I’m actually closer to her kids than I am to her.”
He smirked in the mirror as he washed his hands. “Pathetic.”
Again, Mason fantasized about humbling him. It wouldn’t take much. Trap the limb, hyperextend the joint, snap, pop, fight over … and straight back to prison I’d go. It wasn’t worth it. Nothing was worth his freedom.
He turned from the mirror and leaned against the counter. “That’s my paralegal in there.”
Mason shrugged. “Whatever you say, man. None of my business.”
Blane smiled. “That’s the spirit.”
As he stood there holding the attorney’s gaze, his already wounded pride not allowing him to look away, he wondered how someone as intelligent and beautiful as Brooke Tyler could fall for someone so toxic.
Blane shoved off the counter, pausing inches from his face. “You need to keep it that way. Because if this ever gets back to Brooke, it would hurt her feelings. Neither of us would want that.”
Mason held his inner nose and swallowed a sporkful of crow. “She does think very highly of you.”
“Exactly. She would be destroyed if someone were to run back to her babbling about some harmless little indiscretion.” He reached out and adjusted his water-soaked tie. “And if she gets destroyed… you get destroyed.”
Against his will, he could feel his own face hardening into a scowl.
Blane chuckled. “You want to hit me right now, don’t you? Go for it. I’d love an excuse to kick you back under the rock you crawled out from. I might punch myself in the face and say you did it. I could, you know. It would be your word against mine. Who do you think they’d believe?” He walked to the door and paused. “Come to think of it, who do you think she’d believe?”
He couldn’t speak. He just stood there in the perfume and wine-drenched wake of Blane’s breath with clenched fists trembling and adrenaline pumping.
Light ricocheted from his pinky ring as he stroked his chin. “Look, you seem to be a fairly reasonable chap, despite your … failings. I’m sure we can agree that it’s in the best interest of all parties if we just forget tonight ever happened, hmm? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to.”
He exited with a wink. The soft clamor of the restaurant flooded in before the door hissed shut.
Mason stared after him like a dazed fighter in the fuzzy wake of a knockout. Echoes of threats spiraled through his mind and throbbed in his nerve endings. He exhaled. And with his next breath came a dawning sense of deja vu. There was something in Blane’s casual dismissal of him as a man that reminded him of strip searches, pepper spray, solitary confinement.
He looked down at his pants. The water stain ran from pocket to pocket and halfway up his shirt. He returned to the hand dryer to finish them off, then headed back to his table.
Blane and his paralegal were gone. His own hot date was snoring peacefully next to an empty glass. A bite was missing from his steak.
Natasha the server was cleaning the adjacent booth. Her eyes flicked to his formerly wet crotch and, finding it dry, she nodded. “Can I get you anything else? Perhaps I could warm your food.”
He shook his head. “I just need the check.”