He sighed. “Oh, the Japanese stock market opened low, and the guys in the Tokyo office started panicking. It took me half an hour on a conference call to calm them down. I need to send someone out there to get a handle on things. They’ve been acting like headless chickens since the chief finance guy got poached by Mizuho.” He shook his head. “Let’s not talk about this. Very boring. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat,” I said, unwilling to admit that my stomach had been gurgling almost continuously for the past half an hour.
“Starving, I take it,” he said. He released my hand and signaled to the waiter, who instantly materialized at our table. Carter ordered a bottle of wine and requested our food, and I sat there like polite furniture. This was Carter’s world, not mine.
That part of it was still hard. I was determined to be honest with myself about our developing relationship. We hadn’t made each other any promises, and I was trying to keep my eyes open and stay realistic about the situation. If things weren’t working out, I needed to be able to walk away with my heart and dignity intact. I didn’t want to completely lose myself in him, because then there would be nothing left of me.
Dinner came, in tiny, elaborately arranged portions that didn’t look much like food. I poked at the first course with my fork, not totally sure what it was.
“Scallops,” Carter said. “And...” He peeled off a long green strip and dangled it from the tines of his fork. “Well. I don’t know what this is.”
And just like that, effortlessly, he made it a joke between us, a shared experience, both of us laughing about our mysterious food. I had to take a gulp of wine to hide my gratitude. He could so easily have started pontificating about varieties of caviar or something and left me feeling completely out of my depth. Instead, he was making fun of himself, and inviting me to join in.
I wondered if someone had taught him to be so careful of other people’s feelings, or if it was just an innate part of his personality.
“Next time we’ll go to an Olive Garden,” I said. “I guess you probably haven’t ever been to Olive Garden.”
“I can’t say that I have, no,” he said.
“It’s the food of my people,” I said. “Bland, mass-produced, and... full of carbohydrates, I guess? It’s wonderful. You’ll be horrified.”
He grinned. “You’re funny. Did I know that about you? You usually seem so shy.”
“I just don’t like to talk all the time,” I said, “unlike some people.”
He pressed his close fist to his chest and slumped in his chair, pretending I had stabbed him in the heart. “Ouch. I deserved that.”
“I’ll try to talk more,” I said. I shoved some food around on my plate. “I just, you know. I don’t always have much to say.”
“Oh, Regan. You should talk exactly as much as you want to, and no more,” he said. “I shouldn’t tease you. I know this is a sore spot.”
I would have responded, but just then the waiter brought us our next course. I stared helplessly at the pillar of food on my plate, leaning to one side, with a spray of some sort of herb—parsley?—draped over the top.
Carter started laughing, and when I gave him a questioning look, said, “The look on your face! We’ll have to eat it and find out.”
As peculiar as everything looked, it tasted incredible. I wasn’t used to this sort of fine cuisine, and I was awed by the careful melding of flavors, and the way one dish laid the groundwork for the next. I realized that Carter had gone easy on me the first time he took me out to dinner. We’d gone to a sushi place—fancy, but nothing out of the ordinary. I grew up in California; I’d had sushi plenty of times. This food, though, was something else entirely. There was probably someone in the kitchen wearing a tall white hat and speaking French.
We made light conversation throughout dinner, talking about the food and the wine and what we had done since we’d seen each other last. Carter was easy to talk to. He asked enough questions to seem interested without prying, which I appreciated. I was still a little wary of sharing everything about myself with him. There were things about me that I didn’t think he would understand, and I didn’t want to pour my heart out and have him reject me in some way.
I was determined to play it safe. Maybe it was a bad idea—Carter seemed like the kind of man who was ready to jump in with both feet—but I was cautious by nature, and I wanted to take it slow and see what happened.
Our final course arrived at last: creme brulee, perfectly golden on top. The waiter asked me if I wanted some coffee, and I shook my head. Whenever I had coffee in the evening, I had trouble sleeping. I was like an old person.
Carter requested a cup, though, and I raised an eyebrow at him. “Planning a late night?”
I only meant that he was going to stay up late and work, but he looked at me in that slow, dark way that was so familiar, and my heart rate kicked into high gear. Oh.
“I suppose that depends on you,” he said.
“I just meant,” I said, flustered, “you know, if you—have to work more—”
“I don’t need to do any more work tonight,” he said. He folded his arms on the table and leaned toward me. “I cleared my calendar. And if you want it, you can have my absolute, undivided attention.”
Oh, I wanted it. We hadn’t had sex since that night at his penthouse, when he took my virginity. It was mainly due to lack of opportunity, but I had also sidestepped the issue. After our first date, he took me back to my apartment and lingered in the doorway, obviously waiting for me to invite him up, but I had only kissed him and said goodnight. I didn’t quite understand why. Maybe it was that I wanted a clean slate. We had turned a new page, and were writing the beginning of a new story. I didn’t want to screw it up by rewriting the old story.
But it had been a long and frustrating two weeks of steamy kissing, flirtatious text messages, and lonely nights spent touching myself in bed. I missed the feeling of Carter touching me. I missed the way he could make me feel. I was ready to have that again, his hands on my body, making me crumble into pieces.
So I said, “I want it. Your attention, I mean.”
He leaned back in his chair, looking as pleased as the cat with the proverbial canary. “I’ll ask for the check,” he said. “And none of that business about how you’re a grown woman who can pay for her own dinner. I picked the restaurant; this is my treat.”