I was in a noticeably better mood apparently. Over the week, people kept saying that they were glad I was feeling better, which was weird, but interesting. I hadn’t noticed any changes in me, but whatever.
If I felt anything distinct or new, it was nervousness. Tomorrow was Saturday, the weekend, finally, but also the date set up with Mr. Anderson for the anxiety inducing business dinner at an incredibly reputable hotel that was located in the wealthier part of town I barely ever ventured to. It was where the CEOs, celebrities, old money, nouveau riche, and the like frequented. Not for the likes of middle class normies like me.
I had to get a suit. And tie. And slacks. And shoes. According to Carson, anyway. Apparently, the one set of formal clothes I owned was not up to par. Which was why he dragged me straight from Vendi to a branded store that specialized in men’s formal wear. The staff were better dressed than I was at graduation, from both college and high school.
I couldn’t tell the difference between racks of clothes but apparently, they were all unique. Since my idea of formal wear was a penguin suit, I was ignored as Carson spoke with one of the employees.
“He’s completely hopeless,” Carson explained after the man gave a shocked look when Carson said that I needed an ensemble for tomorrow night.
“I resent that,” I muttered, but was, like the moment we set foot in the store, completely ignored.
“What type of event is it?” the man, his nametag – also incredibly fancy with its gold trimming and cursive font – read Phil, asked as he led us into the store towards rows and rows of shirts that only had the barest nuance of a difference between them.
“Business dinner, so a lounge suit would be best. I was thinking muted brown or purple two-button suit and a white shirt.”
Phil gave me a critical once over and then pulled out two white shirts. And then I just let the two argue and agree and discuss and point and gesture because nothing made a lick of sense to me. I just let them do what they wished; trying on what they thrust at me, letting them poke and prod and move my body, nodding when appropriate, and basically becoming a marionette.
In the end – and this was a frightening amount of hours later – I was ringing up Carson and Phil’s final choices, afraid to even see what the total amounted to even with the sale and the fact that we had stayed with the clothes in the lowest price range available. In the end, they finally agreed upon a brown-purple jacket with two buttons, matching slim-fit pants, a dark purple and silver skinny tie, and a pair of dark brown shoes. I had a white dress shirt at home, so I managed avoid having to go through the pain of trying on several similar button downs, but I was still annoyed and filled with regret as I handed over my credit card to the way too smiley cashier.
“I hate you,” I grumbled as we left the store. My purchases were folded and packaged carefully in a decorative cardboard bag with the store’s name emblazoned upon it in the most exaggerative way. The gold, silver, and brown patterns were hard to miss.
“You need to make a good impression tomorrow and the suit you wore to your interview eight years ago is not good enough,” Carson retorted. “Just be glad you’ve got a best friend like me or else you’d have looked like an idiot.”
I stuck my tongue out at him in response as we settled into his car to drive back to the part of the city I actually belonged to.
“So I hear you and Tim are going on a date tomorrow night,” I said as Carson pulled onto the road.
The stupid man grinned goofily, “Yeah. I’m taking him to this little Vietnamese fusion type place near his apartment. He’s got a huge thing for hole in the wall places and this one’s got some really good vegetarian options.”
I frowned, “But you can never handle Asian food. Your spice tolerance is extreme white level.”
Carson rolled his eyes, “I’m fine with spicy food.”
“Riiiiiight. And don’t even think about punching me, you’re driving.”
Carson grumbled before casting a sideways glance at me, “What about you? You seriously forgave Cole?”
I nodded, “Yeah. You know I was never good at holding a grudge and his apology gave me a good laugh. Besides, unless either of us quit, I’m going to have to get used to him. It’s better for everyone if we’re on better terms.”
“True, but you’ve been having coffee breaks with him.”
“So has everyone else in the company,” I rolled my eyes at his accusing tone. “He invites groups to join him and he hasn’t singled me out at all. We’ve got a completely platonic relationship now as boss and employee.”
I frowned, “What the hell is that ‘hmm’ for?”
Carson looked to me briefly before putting his eyes back on the road, “He’s still got the hots for you, Jack.”
I sighed and sank back into the chair, “I know, but there’s not much I can do on that front.” Over the week, I had continued to notice his lingering gaze on me whenever we crossed paths. But he hadn’t done anything, just given me the same polite smile and amicable greeting. The same invitations as everyone else. His attraction to me was only visible to those who looked for it. I just ignored the signs, from the sneaking glances to the subtle touches, and just went on with life.
We drifted back into conversation about Carson’s date until he dropped me off at my apartment.
“Get plenty of rest for tomorrow, and no drinking tonight, okay?” he ordered.
I rolled my eyes at him, “Yes, mother.”
“I’m serious, Jack. I know you’re nervous and when you’re nervous about something, you drink. You cannot have a hangover tomorrow.”
“Carson,” I sighed. “I know. I’ll be fine. I won’t touch a drop of alcohol. Now quit mother hen-ing me and worry about how you’re going to handle spicy Asian food and not make a complete fool of yourself in front of your boyfriend.”
My comment effectively switched the topic and Carson groaned giving me a withering glare, “You are a horrible best friend.”
I grinned, “You love me and you know it, Car.”
“Against my better judgment,” he groused, but a small smile curled at his mouth. “Anyway, I’ll see you later. Good luck tomorrow.”
I stepped back and waved Carson off before going upstairs to prepare for tomorrow night. I had already gone over the details Cole had sent me, along with some notes and pointers from Samantha, but I was just going to go over everything a couple more times so I didn’t look like an idiot.
“Fucking ties…” I grumbled, trying for the umpteenth time to try and tie the goddamn piece of fabric around my neck. I had put on everything else and was just about to grab a cab to head over to the hotel but the stupid purple and silver tie was being a pain in my ass. Or, it could have just been my nerves impeding my motor skills.
In the end, after several YouTube videos and infographics, I managed some semblance of a tie and had to rush to the cab I had called.
The cab driver whistled low when I told him where I had to go, “Popping the question tonight?”
I frowned for a moment before I realized what he was assuming, “Oh god no. It’s a business dinner with two of my bosses and a client.”
He laughed, “You just about looked like you were going to pass out, man. Bet your girlfriend wouldn’t be happy to hear that you’re that against gettin’ hitched.”
I rolled my eyes, “I don’t have a girlfriend so I’m not in any trouble on that front.”
The driver, who introduced himself as George, was a talker. Since I used public transportation whenever I didn’t have someone I knew to drive me places, I was pretty well acquainted with the various types of taxi drivers and he was the type I liked the least. He was the one who had to talk to you and give his life story and then ask for yours. The fact that I was jittery, anxious, and 100% sober as per Carson’s request was not helping things.
I couldn’t get out of the cab fast enough and was immediately lost and intimated in the lobby of the hotel. People were giving me odd glances but I ignored them and walked up to the reception.
“Hi,” I smiled to the woman, “I was wondering what floor Nirvana was on.”
She looked down her nose at me, “You need a reservation to get in, sir.”
I nodded patiently, “I am aware and I do, with some business associates.”
She clearly didn’t believe me and I was about to just give up on her and find the floor myself when I heard my name being called.
“Hey, you’re early,” Cole greeted.
I nodded, “I took into account the possibility of getting lost. Is Samantha here yet?”
Cole jerked his thumb to the elevator, “Yes, she’s already upstairs with our table.”
“Great,” I said and then turned around to smile plastically at the woman who was staring at Cole in shock, “guess I don’t need your help, but thanks anyways.”
We left the speechless receptionist and headed to the elevator, getting in with a man and woman who were both on their phones. Cole pressed the button to the second last floor, 26, while the other two were apparently going to the 8th.
“You ready?” Cole asked me as I leaned against the back of the lift.
I shrugged, “I just really hope I won’t screw up.”
He gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze, “You’ll be fine, and you’ve got me and Samantha as support.”
The elevator stopped and our two lift mates got off, still talking on their phones and oblivious to their surroundings.
As the doors slid shut, Cole commented, “By the way, you look good. Most professional I’ve ever seen you.”
I rolled my eyes, “Carson dragged me out to some store after work yesterday to buy most of this. Unlike you and him, I don’t usually need to wear really formal stuff.” I glanced at him, adding, “You don’t look half bad yourself.”
Now, he wore formal clothes regularly at Vendi, but his outfit for tonight was of another league. Navy blue suit no doubt picked to match his eyes, muted gold and white tie, white dress shirt, and sparkling cufflinks. While we were dressed similarly, you could still tell the difference in our social standing in how his clothes were definitely of a high-grade material and he knew how to carry them. And his tie didn’t look like it was done by a four year old.
I tugged on my tie, frowning down at it. If possible, it looked worse upside down than it did when I was glaring at it in the mirror back home.
My head shot up when I heard a muffled snicker.
“What?” I demanded.
Cole grinned sheepishly, “Sorry, but it’s a bit amusing that a grown man doesn’t know how to tie a tie very well.”
I huffed, “Well, it’s not like I wear them often… The last one I wore was at my job interview for Vendi.”
“Here,” Cole said and brought his hands up, gently grabbing the end of my tie. “Mind if I fix it for you?”
I could tell that he was about to just fix my tie without permission but he managed to restrain himself and actually ask. That, and the fact that I would rather save myself from ruining Mr. Anderson’s first impression of me by showing him I didn’t know how to tie a stupid tie, was why I nodded.
Cole held back a grin, reducing it to a small smile as he undid my attempt and adjusted the fabric around my neck. “I’d do it slowly so you could learn, but we don’t have much time,” he said as he quickly did some kind of magic rope trick and then tightened the completed product just as the elevator stopped on our floor.
I gaped at him, “It took me like twenty minutes to make a crap attempt and you just did it in a few seconds.”
Cole winked over his shoulder as he led the way out, “I’ve just had a lot more practice. Tends to happen when you had to know how to tie various types of ties since middle school.”
As we entered the restaurant, Cole said something to the maître d’ – I was too busy gawking because no restaurant should be that fancy – who then led us to a table for four propped against the panoramic window where Samantha was waving.
“Damn, Samantha, you look gorgeous,” I blurted upon taking the seat next to her. While she usually wore semi-casual clothes like formal shirts and either a skirt or dress pants of some sort, tonight she was dressed up elegantly in a pantsuit that coincidentally matched the color of my suit, but hers was of much better quality and fit her like a glove.
Samantha laughed, “You too, Jack. I have to admit that I was a bit curious as to how you’d dress tonight. I didn’t even know if you knew how to tie a tie.”
“Glad to see how much faith you have in me,” I drawled before conceding. “Carson picked this out and Cole fixed my tie. I am the helpless child you know and love.”
“Definitely know you, but love might be a bit of an exaggeration,” she replied.
I pretended to be affronted, pouting and looking away from her with my arms crossed over my chest, “Well, I don’t like you either. I have plenty of people that love me.”
“Right, onto more important matters, you ready?”
I nodded, “I think so.” But if I could have some liquor in me, I’d have felt much better. “He should be arriving soon, yeah?”
Cole nodded and it was just then that we noticed a man coming towards us being led by the maître d’.
The three of us got to our feet, Cole greeting the newcomer first with a firm handshake. “Evening, did you get here alright?”
The man nodded, “Yes, sorry to make you wait.” He turned to me and his eyes gave me a brief look over before his stretched his hand out to me, “And you must be Mr. Gallagher.”
I smiled, “Jack will do. It’s a pleasure to meet you—”
“Jon,” he interrupted.
I nodded and he then greeted Samantha before we all retook our seats.
Cole picked up the wine listings and looked to Jon, “Any preference for wine?”
“Is everyone fine with white?”
Samantha and I had no disagreement so Cole rattled off some fancy sounding name for a drink that was almost the same age as me. After that, we went over the menu and since I didn’t know what half of anything was, I just picked out a pasta that sounded familiar and didn’t cost as much as the majority of offered food.
We quickly placed our orders and then finally started conversing, beginning with Jon asking about Samantha and I.
“What?” Oh no,” I replied. “Us matching was completely accidental.”
“Besides, I’m married and certainly not to him,” Samantha added, making me frown at her.
“Am I not good enough to marry, Samantha?”
She smirked, “You’re just not my type, Jack.” She turned to face Jon again, “What about you?”
Jon brought up his right hand, showing off a gold ring proudly, “Twelve years and counting.”
“Congratulations,” Cole said. “And we can toast to more years of marital happiness since our drinks have arrived.”
We all turned to see that our waiter had returned with a bucket of ice and the wine. We went through the odd ritual of sorts where someone, Cole in our case, tested a sip of the wine before declaring it fine and then each person receiving a small amount in their glasses.
“To years and years of continued marital happiness,” Cole said as we raised our glasses, letting them clink together at the center of the table.
“What about you two?” Jon asked Cole and I as he sipped his wine.
“I’m single,” Cole replied and I echoed the response. I was staring at the watery yellow liquid in my glass. I hadn’t realized I was staring at it so intently until Samantha nudged me gently and Jon commented on it.
“Oh, sorry. I’ve never had…this before,” I replied sheepishly. My wallet couldn’t afford it.
Jon was completely good-natured about my awkwardness, “Well, drink up then.”
I nodded and brought the glass to my lips. I had promised Carson I wouldn’t touch any alcohol, but I couldn’t really say no. And it wasn’t like I was going to get drunk off one measly glass of wine.
“So, how is it?” he asked.
“It’s different from dollar store beer and whiskey, that’s for sure,” I joked, enticing a round of laughter. “It’s pretty citrusy with a hint of spice. Not bad.”
“Not bad? That’s it?” Jon exclaimed in disbelief with Cole raising a brow at me as well.
I shrugged, “I personally prefer a drink that won’t make my wallet weep.”
“True, but it’s nice to pamper yourself once in a while.” Jon stated.
The first of our food arrived soon after and conversation began to drift towards business and the reason we had met up for dinner in the first place. While I managed to joke earlier, my nerves began to act up again as we began to discuss seriously. I was acutely aware of the fact that a single misstep would ruin everything and I was the one with the highest chance of doing so. I hadn’t even realized that the wine had finished and I was the one who drank the most of it.
When we finally came to an agreement and Cole paid the bill, later to be reimbursed by the company, I was tipsy and more than relieved.
“Well, this turned out great,” Jon said as Samantha, Cole, and I walked him to the lobby.
“Indeed. It’s a pleasure to be working with you,” Cole replied.
“Definitely,” Samantha agreed. “We’ll keep in touch and Absolute Evac will no doubt be amazing.”
We all shook hands then and said goodnight to Jon who grabbed his car from the valet and drove off.
“How about we head out for a quick celebratory drink?” Cole suggested.
A strong drink sounded great and both Samantha and I agreed. When the two found out I came by taxi, Samantha offered me a ride to the bar we decided on, and soon we were clanking our drinks of choice together and cheering at the success.
“Good job tonight, Jack,” Samantha said, sipping at her beer. She and Cole were drinking light since they had to drive. “You did great, Jon was definitely impressed.”
“You think so?” I replied, drinking my whiskey. The strong burn felt great and helped along the lingering effects of the wine from dinner. “I thought I almost blew it when I brought up a change in how to market the game.”
“You did fine,” Cole insisted. “Seriously. We’ve got the client and now we just need to give 100% and pull through with the job. I have no doubts that you’ll achieve brilliant results.”
I smiled at the compliment and nodded even though I was still incredibly doubtful. When I finished my first drink, feeling a nice strong buzz, Samantha’s phone beeped and she excused herself.
‘Sorry, boys, but I have a family to get home to. Good night and see you Monday,” she said, paying her tab and waving at us. “Get home safe.”
“Later, Samantha. Tell Victoria and Kaiden I said hi,” I called to her before she got out of range. When she was gone I pulled out my phone, hers going off having reminded me that I had turned mine off for the dinner just to be on the safe side.
I wasn’t surprised to see a few texts from Carson, however, I had a number of missed calls and texts from Lesley that made me think something was horribly wrong. His texts said nothing but that he needed to talk to me about something important and that he needed me to call him as soon as possible.
“Hey, I’ve got to make a quick call,” I told Cole.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, moving away to go to the bathroom where it would be quieter.
Even though it was pretty late, I called up Lesley and didn’t have to wait long for him to pick up.
“Hey, Les, sorry, I was in a meeting and had my phone off until now. Is everything alright?”
“Hey, uh, I’m not sure. Shit. I don’t even know if I should be talking to you about this…”
Leaning against the bathroom wall, my frown deepened, “Lesley, are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No. Well. Not me, exactly.” He muttered something incomprehensible under his breath before rushing out, “When you were with Dan, did you ever notice anything about him?”
“Dan? What? What does Dan have to do with anything?”
“I’m really worried about him, Jack.”
“Lesley, I’m completely lost here. I have no idea what you’re talking about. And you only barely met Dan.”
“I ran into him later that day, at night. He was…” Lesley paused and made vague noises as if trying to figure out how to phrase whatever it was he wanted to say. Eventually he continued, “We ran into each other and he was in a really bad situation. I don’t want to say more since it’s not my place to tell, but I am seriously worried about him. He’s… Are you sure you never noticed anything in the way he thought about others, himself? How he acted?”
Still incredibly confused, I could only manage to shake my head, “No, not really. I mean, recently, right around the time we split, he was a bit more…possessive, I guess?” I had no idea what Lesley was getting at. Yeah, Dan did start acting a bit weird sometimes, but I just put it off to mood swings or stress or, more recently, misguided notions of love for me.
“Is something wrong with Dan?” I asked.
“Well. I don’t know. That’s why I’m worried. Look, sorry to put this on you so suddenly and so late on a weekend, I just thought you’d know something since, well, you know. But, if you hear from him, let me know? I’m probably much more involved than I should be, but I can’t really help myself in these kinds of situations.”
I nodded, “Yeah, no, I mean. I’ll let you know.”
Lesley bid me good night after another apology and I hung up, closing my phone and tucking it away. I sagged back against the bathroom wall, eyes closed. The door opened and I heard both male and female giggling mixed in with the sounds of wet kissing and slow moaning. I opened my eyes just in time to see one of the stalls shut and a pair of feet disappear upwards from under the closed door.
I ignored them and went to wash my face as they failed to keep quiet. When they started mumbling and moaning declarations of love, I left the bathroom deep in thought.
Something was up with Dan and it was most likely my fault. Well. If it had to do with our former relationship, then it was also his own fault for being stupid and falling for me. Love didn’t exist.
I shook the thoughts of Dan from my head, or at least tried to. He was persistent. My hands twitched at my sides, seeking a glass, and my throat was parched.
I looked around, seeing that Cole seemed to have disappeared somewhere, so I took a seat at the bar since I’d get my drinks much faster. I ordered another whiskey and several shots of the bar’s strongest vodka, chugging down each glass so quickly that the burn down my throat became nonexistent. It was like once I had one, I couldn’t stop. Drinking was easy. It didn’t require thought. It was just motion.
Drink after drink, I wasn’t sure how much I had – the bartender and strangers just handed them over – when I felt a hand on my shoulder, jerking me into some state of awareness.
“Jack, are you okay?” Cole asked. He sounded funny, a little faded.
“Just fine,” I replied, reaching for my drink. I didn’t know what it was but it was some kind of liquor.
“Are you sure, you don’t look too good,” he continued.
I brought my gaze to his, staring into his poster boy blue eyes. “Really,” I smirked, an idea forming in my mind. Drinking wasn’t the only thing that required no thought and consisted only of movement. “Considering you’re attracted to me, I thought I always look good to you.” I leaned on the table and licked my lips, watching his eyes follow the movement. I brought my drink to my lips, looking over the rim at him under my lashes.
I saw him swallow and my smirk widened behind the glass.
At some point, I whispered something to him after clumsily spilling my latest drink over my shirt that had been unbuttoned at some point and we left the bar, driving off in his car.
A/N: This was rather sucky, I am aware. The last few have been, actually. Soz. Also, SP is going to be updated before the 12th because I'm going somewhere on a trip with my family for Songkran, aka spring break.