Gourmet 10

She stepped close to him and raised herself to her toes to put her face near his. “I must be losing my touch. I used to play right into your natural inclinations.” She put her hands on his chest, ran them down to his waist, and wrapped her arms around him.

“I–” he spluttered. “I only have so much self control, you know darling. You show up in that dress and those shoes and you suck oysters from their shells and you lick chocolate off your spoon…” Charlotte rested her lips on the corner of his mouth and exhaled, slowly. He trembled. ”…and you get those little patches of red on your cheeks that I find so inexplicably erotic, and now you’re…” Both of his hands went to her face and he held her inches from him. He looked into her inebriated eyes, seeking some answer, which seemed to find. When he spoke, his lips brushed over her cheek, on her temple, her forehead, her jaw. “I only have so much self-control, you know” he repeated. “I’ve been trying to behave myself all night.”

“Well stop it,” Charlotte breathed.

So he kissed her, his lips and tongue gentle but relentless. Charlotte recognized in his touch the sense of savoring a long awaited delicacy. She put her tongue in his mouth. He tasted of wine and coffee and chocolate. With his hands tangling into her hair, he twisted his tongue around hers. Deep inside her body, Charlotte felt a warm tide begin to rise.

With his lips still on hers, Oliver whispered, “Darling, I need to say something. I don’t want it said later that you let this happen under false pretenses.”

“Enough with the chivalry, Oliver, it’s a fuck. I get it. That’s what I want.”

“But that’s not what it is,” he said abruptly, and stepped back from her. “I want you to come back to New York because I want you to…come back. To me. That’s why when the Shop was looking for someone, I came to you.”

“I don’t understand.” Maybe dessert wines cause people to hear nonsense, she thought.

“Charlotte.” Oliver’s voice was quiet. “I’m trying to be honest–I know you want that from me. You’re the one woman…the one person, really, whom I could rely on. We were always friends. When you left, I…well, I waited for you to come back and you never did. But I’ve loved you the whole time, I’ve been waiting…” His voice was drowned out by the ringing in her ears. Her brain spun this new information faster and faster. She heard his voice, felt him take her back into his arms, felt him renew the kiss, felt the urgency in his embrace. She disentangled herself.

“Go away,” she said. “Go away. This is not what I came to dinner for. I’m not falling into a trap.”

“It’s not a trap. I don’t—”

“What happened five years ago?” she demanded, instantly flooded with the old fight, the old betrayal. “It was exactly this. The manipulation. The ‘I love you’ crossed with business deals. And then the disappointment, the betrayal. That’s a trick that only works once.”

Oliver looked as though he had been slapped.

There was a long silence. He cleared his throat and put his hands in his pockets. Charlotte crossed her arms and rallied the threads of rationality holding her together.

“Is it that you can’t stand to lose?”

“No,” he said.

“Then why did you do that?”

Oliver looked at his toes, at the mailbox by the street, at the number on the door.

“I honestly don’t know.”

“Well, ya ruined it. We coulda had a nice dinner and some nice meaningless sex, but instead we had a nice dinner and a useless fight. Thanks.”

“Will you have breakfast with me? My flight isn’t until the afternoon. The Shop will want to know that I… exhausted all my options. I’ll come get you at 9.”

“No,” she said, eyes on the ground. “Don’t come back.” She walked into the house and closed the door without looking at him.

She stood in the foyer listening to the ringing in her ears. Blood thudded in her temples and her head spun with the wine and Oliver’s words. Confusion and disbelief were joined by frustrated rage and a wild, bitter sense of injustice. And something else…the long-suppressed heartbreak of his betrayal. It all gathered in a knot in her chest. Her shoulders tensed and her fists clenched. She drew her breath to release it all in a scream, but what came out was a sob.

It was as though she had left New York yesterday, the howling grief raw and blind inside her. Her best friend, the love of her life, gone. And now he was back, declaring an impossible love. What right did he have? She was content, she was settled, she was successful. Her professional life had never been more fulfilling. How could it be that a few hours and too much wine was all it took to unravel her entire, carefully constructed life? A life built specifically to withstand this very attack?

She got into bed, still in her clothes, and wept like a little girl, alone in a big, empty house.

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