Arriving at Julian’s luxury condo, Jeffery dropped us off at the entrance. One of the security manning by the door had kindly held it for us while we entered the premise. We both greeted the attending staff in the lobby as we headed towards the elevator. As we both entered, we kept a reasonable distance. The air was buzzing from the tension yet both of us didn’t speak. Once we reached his apartment, Julian was haste as he escorted me to the guest room on the left side of the living room.
“Here we are,” he announced as Julian opened a small bedroom at the end of the hall from the kitchen. “It has its own bathroom if you’re wondering. And you know where the kitchen and everything is if you need anything. I’ll be mostly in my office if you need me. But if you don’t find me there, just call me on my phone.”
“Got it. Thank you. I can take it from here.”
“Right. Okay.” Julian lingered by the door for a moment as I entered the room.
I rolled my luggage at the foot of the bed and ceremonially sat down, feeling the light bounce off the springy bed. “This is nice,” I remarked.
“Well, I’ll be in my office then,” Julian spoke up again before making an exit towards the other end of the hall.
When I’m finally alone, I nearly sprinted towards the door and closed it. I leaned on the door, trying to keep my composure. My heart was beating in my ear. My face still felt flushed from the memory of the kiss. Damn. How am I supposed to act properly now? This is a mistake.
I didn’t bother to unpack and grabbed the essentials to the bathroom and wash up. Once I was in comfortable clothes – glad that I had packed extra clothes for an emergency, my rumbling stomach guided me out of the door towards the kitchen. I was weary stepping out and be in the same room as Julian – not that being in the same condo as him helped ease up the tension in my female nether regions. Since I can’t satiate other needs, food seems about the only thing safe swallowing right now.
I was surprised to see the freezer and pantry stocked after nosing around the kitchen. Rather than getting ahead of myself, I headed towards Julian.
I knocked twice before speaking up. “Mr. Hawksley, I’m going to make something for dinner. Do you have any preference?” I called out.
Behind the door, I heard light footsteps before it suddenly opened. I jolted and move a step back, startled at his sudden appearance. He smiled and hid his laugh with a cough. “Sorry. What will you be cooking?” He asked.
I composed my raging heartbeat and answered. “Chicken fritters and mash potatoes. I could cook you something else if you don’t like…”
“No. That sounds lovely. And you’re cooking, for sure? Not calling for a take-out this time?” His words dangled into a question.
“Ah… yes… or would you prefer…”
“No. No. It’s fine. I’d like to have a taste of your own home cooking. It’s been awhile since I ate anything other than four-star restaurant take-outs.”
I pursed my lips at his comment. “Maybe it’s best I’ll order something for you. I don’t want to tarnish your high-class palate.”
Julian smile faltered and arched his eyebrow at my retort. “My eating habits aren’t usually like this, Ms. Curtis. It was only out of convenience. Since I’m not usually home, it’s unnecessary to hire a cook. I have a cleaning service to do the daily housework, but meals aren’t included in the care package.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit a nerve… sir.”
“No worries. I think there still a lot we don’t know each other.” He stated and gestured towards the kitchen. “Shall we?”
I looked at him questionably. “I still have to cook, Mr. Hawksley. I’ll call you back if the food is ready. I was only asking if…”
“Oh! Pssh! I’ll help. We both know were hungry. More hands mean faster results.” He interjected, smiling coyly.
I pursed my lips again and nodded rather than making a verbal response.
Once we're in the kitchen, Julian asked me to put him to work. I was puzzled yet again at his orders. “You’re the chef here, Ms. Curtis.” He informed.
“Right. I’m doing mash potatoes and chicken fritter, if it’s okay.”
Julian nodded. “What would you have me do?”
“You don’t seem sure.”
“Can you make mash potatoes?”
He smiled mischievously. “Today is the day you’ll find out I’m not incompetent with menial housework.”
I held back a smile and got the chicken out of the freezer. While I let it defrost in the lukewarm water in the sink, my concentration wavered as I caught a glimpse of Julian. Though I’m no skill master chef, I could easily pinpoint someone who knows their way around a kitchen. Indeed, I’m surprised.
“Where did you learn how to cook?” I inquired, trying to pass my interest in small talk.
“I know my way around a knife and do simple stuff. I had to feed myself through college.” He nonchalantly replied.
“Really?” I stopped what I was doing and peered at him with more interest.
“The old man gave my brother and I a strict budget. Though he hadn’t neglected us with basic needs like a place to live, other than that, we were mostly on our own. Believe it or not, I once worked part-time as a barista at a nearby coffee shop at my college. I need some extra cash for food and necessities.”
“Wow, I didn’t expect that,” I muttered to myself.
It was the first time I heard Julian strip down a few of his walls. And it wasn’t helpful in my battle against my emotions. Plus, the sight of him mashing up the chopped potatoes in the bowl was sinful – it was like him seeing fresh out of the shower, wet hair and all, over again. He was painfully handsome, which something I couldn’t deny. I don’t know how I’m going to stop myself from adoring him more if he was no longer an arrogant jerk in my eyes.
I snapped out of my stupor when Julian called at me again, glancing up from his handiwork. “Let’s talk about you now. Have you ever thought of changing career paths away from working with cunning men?”
I smiled and looked away, trying to keep most of my attention on the heated pan. “I’ve once thought of going into design back in high school. But I discovered I’m not artistically inclined. So I decided on marketing and business.”
“Have you at least tried to improve the skill?”
“Oh, trust me. I did. My art teacher in high school has little hope for me in that area. But she had told me I was great with organizing things,” I beamed remembering our brief conversation that day. “I had been a part of the homecoming committee. I joined because we were doing some art stuff and designing the venue, but in the end, I was in-charge of organizing everything from the event flow to what sort of food and drink we were serving. I proud to say we have extra money for a pizza party for all the committee members a week later.”
“That’s impressive.” His voice sounded closer this time.
Watching him from the corner of my eyes, he situated himself beside me as he placed a pot on one of the burners. As he was about to turn on the heat, I reached out toward it at the same time as he did. Our hand brushed for a moment before I quickly pulled away.
“Oh! Sorry. I thought I’d do it for you.”
“No worries,” Julian smirked and turned the heat.
In embarrassment, I walked around to the counter behind us and clear it up while I allowed the chicken to cook in low heat.
“That looks delicious. Have you cooked chicken fritters before?” Julian asked as he lingering by the stove.
“Uhm… yeah. I had. I’m the one who usually cooks if Ben and I…” I trailed off when I realized I’ve said his name out loud.
Like a switch, I started remembering everything that had happened these past days. I suddenly felt guilty about how I’d easily forgotten the man I used to love. How easily my heart wavered and shifted its attention towards another man. Though I knew what Ben did was unforgivable, but what I’m feeling – in a way – may not differ.
“Ms. Curtis… Zoey, hey. Are you okay?” Julian gripped my arm and lightly shook me.
I didn’t realize I had spaced out again. “Ah, yeah. I’m…” I cleared my throat. “I’m fine.”
Julian studied my expression for a moment but I didn’t meet his gaze. “If you want to talk, I’m all ears.”
I hesitated for a second and then sighed. “I’m fine.”
“You know, you keep saying you’re fine, but you don’t look fine to me.” Julian firmly said.
“I’m…” I was about to say it again stopped me with a glare.
“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, Zoey.”
I looked away from him and headed back towards the stove. Julian let me go without a fight. “If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so.” He added.
“I don’t,” I muttered.
I felt Julian’s piercing gaze on the back of my head as I fished the crisped chicken fitters out of the pan.
“Are you really sure? Because whenever you say his name, you suddenly go quietly.”
“I did a bit of talking a couple of hours ago…” I trailed off, feeling choked by my own words. But then, I swallowed my emotions. And pretended like we hadn’t gone through that topic. “Are you done?”
It took a moment for him to reply. Julian quickly noted my mood and stopped pestering me. The condo had gone eerie silent as we both worked with each other and placed the food and plates on the dining table. We sat down across each other, our eyes not meeting. It was then Julian became the better man in the situation and spoke up first.
“Would you want some wine? Red, perhaps?” He asked.
Like he read my mind. “That would be great, thank you.”
Julian lingered for a moment, studying my expression. Unexpectedly, he said, “I’m sorry what I had said. I won’t bring up about your personal life again without your consent.”
Baffled at his words, I could only nod in response. After that, he disappeared towards the direction of my room but stopped and entered a few doors away. I continued to stare where he had gone. As he came back out, I snapped out of my daze, realizing what I’m doing. I looked away and pulled the plate of chicken fitters closer and picked a few pieces, placing them on my empty plate. Julian brought two wine glasses. He expertly poured each glass half full.
“Should we cheers to something?” Julian asked, trying to pull the mood back up.
I stiffly smiled. I’m grateful he tried. “How about the successful weekend business meetings in New York?”
Julian paused for a moment, considering it. “Right. Of course. Then, cheers to that.”
We barely talked as we ate, but we quickly finish our meal to drown out the lack of verbal exchange. Once we finished, Julian was kind enough to help clean up, which was a sight to see him. Julian in prink dishwashing glove and scrubbing the pans. I could no longer hide my amusement and chuckled. The mood in the room lifted just like that.
“You think I look funny,” he cheekily asked, stopping mid-scrub.
I bit my lips and continued cleaning the plate beside him. Since I’m used to the menial task, my hands were already accustomed to dishwashing soaps and detergents. No gloves for me.
“No. No, you look fine.” I timidly replied, trying to keep a straight face.
I could feel his stare boring to the side of my face but I pretended not to notice. Once I finished my share, I tried and gauged out Julian to let allow me to take over.
“Let me do it. You’ve been scrubbing the same pan for nearly fifteen minutes.”
“I can do it… How about you get ready for bed? It’s late.” He insisted and changed the subject.
I arched my eyebrow and peered towards the wall clock across the room. It was nearly past ten. If he hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have noticed. “Are you sure you got this? I don’t want you staying here until midnight scrubbing.” I smirked.
“Joke’s on you. It’ll look new when I’m done washing,” he smugly retorted.
“I’ll take your word for it.” I challenged.
He waved me away as I grinned and dejectedly headed back to my room. When I was in the safe zone, I heavily sighed from all the hidden tension and frustration. I never thought putting up face could be draining. Though I had lived through so many tragedies by keeping a poker face, nothing beats hiding your true emotions towards a man you liked.
I expected Julian to finish when I was done in the shower and in my last pair of sleepwear from my weekend luggage. Thinking about the limited clothes I have, I found a laundry hamper and stashed my dirty clothes in. However, it was too late to do laundry. I pushed back task since I still have a spare suit to wear for work tomorrow.
I was about to check up on Julian when someone knocked on my door. Already standing and holding the doorknob, I opened it without a moment’s notice. Julian briefly looked surprise how quickly I answered but hastily composed himself.
“Hey, I just want to check up on you and see if you need anything else.” He timidly stated. “I finished cleaning, though I’m not sure where to put where, so I left them by the counter.”
I smiled as he struggled to keep face. “Thank you. I’ll returned them first thing in the morning, Mr. Hawksley. And also, thank you again for letting me stay the night and for allowing me to cook.”
“It’s not a problem.” He lightly brushed it off to hide his true intentions. “Are you sure you don’t need anything? I have some extra sleep wear if you don’t have anything…” he trailed off as he noted my similar oversized university shirt I’ve sported as sleepwear over the weekend. “I see you still have a spare shirt.”
I peered down and then my faced heat up as I realized I had nothing but the oversized shirt on. “Yeah… Yup…” I stammered and secretly tugged the hem down like it’ll help.
“Do you need some pants… are you…?” he trailed off and looked away. He cleared his throat before he spoke. “I’ll leave you then. I’m sorry for barging in.”
“Ah, wait…” I breathlessly called out as he was about to walk away.
Not sure where I got the guts to be bold. But I reached out and place my hand on Julian’s shoulder, urging him to lean down. Without second thoughts, I lightly planted a kiss on his cheeks. As I slowly pulled away and let go, Julian wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me close. I heard myself softly gasp as I leaned away. Rather than it put some distance between us, our lips were centimeters apart. I could feel his warm breath brushing my cheeks.
Based on the mood, he didn’t need to ask. But he did. “May I kiss you?”
Drunk with need, my voice came out like a whisper. “Yes.”