Stipulations and scripts
“What’s good here?” Lucas asks casually like he hadn’t just said what he said and done what he’d done. Like he hadn’t contemplated throwing caution to the wind and let that same wind sweep her into his arms right there on the busy sidewalk.
He leads her along as if nothing happened until they get to an empty booth in the back. Alaine can’t help but admire how truly gentlemanly he is when he steps aside, allowing her to sit before him.
Kudos to his parents for a job well done there, she thinks.
“They have menus,” she says to answer his question because they serve nothing here that she would really consider good. Something he will soon discover for himself.
She is still recovering slowly from the emotional damn he cracked with his unanticipated show of tenderness. Internally she begins to patch herself up. She decides that she needs to be careful with Lucas Bright. For most if not all of her life she has been starved of the most basic of human emotions. Instead of looking for scraps of affection like her sister had, she learned to contend with it. There’s no way she is going to allow this billionaire, self-proclaimed bachelor to fill her with pie in the sky ideas during his fleeting moments of romanticism.
Right now he is looking everywhere but at her. Giving her firm confirmation that if she does indeed need an emotional bedrock, she definitely will not find it in him.
When he takes his seat after her, he is deliberate in leaving enough space between them in the crescent-shaped booth. His eyes are distant, his demeanor suddenly aloof and forbidding while he stares at the slow-moving traffic outside.
This is why he was hesitant to come here in the first place. This girl has a magnetic field surrounding her. One directed at drawing his soul from a dark cavernous recess where he had to learn early to hide it way. The more time he spends with her, the stronger it gets and the weaker his resolve to fight it. She draws him into a kind of blinding light. After so many years of nothing but pitch black, it is almost painful. It’s a feeling that twists his insides. While the sensation is not exactly unpleasant, he doesn’t enjoy it because it is foreign and he fears the repercussions if he stops fighting.
It makes him want to look at her. It makes him want to step out of the night and into daylight. He wants to get lost in her eyes. More than that he wants her to look at him right back. This is why for her sake, for his, he needs to not look at her for a little bit while he tries to restore himself.
He crosses his hands over the table and looks down at the surface, littered with crumbs, when his palms are dampened by a ring of water left from a previous customer’s drink. The expression on his face is priceless as he yanks them back. One that should be captured. It’s disgust that scrunches up his features but it is the cutest thing Alaine has ever seen. She laughs, wishing she was bold enough to take the picture with her new phone.
Lucas uses that moment to latch on to the distraction. In his mind, he curses poor customer service and the animals who ate at this table. He tells himself that next time he gets to pick where they eat and it won’t be anywhere so dismal. And next time? He lets out an exasperated huff at himself.
“A waitress will be by shortly I’m sure,” Alaine tells him. “Why don’t you look at the menu?”
Finally, he turns his attention back to her but not because he is ready to. It’s because her voice is a sweet siren’s call. “I ordered for you last time, remember?” he tells her and doesn’t bother picking up the laminated menu lying in front of them. “I could do so comfortably because I was familiar with the menu. This is your territory, so I trust you to choose.”
Taking pity on him when he brings his hand back onto the table top and immediately draws it back with a scowl of disdain, Alaine pulls a small bottle of hand sanitizer from her bag. She squeezes a hefty glob onto the red glossy plastic surface and follows up by wiping it clean with a piece of tissue paper from the stack in the plastic centerpiece.
“There,” she tells him. “All better.”
Lucas picks up the centerpiece and studies it before setting it back down again. “I’m going to solve the problem that is plastic,” he tells her.
It’s an odd line of conversation after what he just did. Alaine is still flustered by it. She decides that her assessment is right. If he can so expertly – easily – dismiss what passed between them, then she most certainly should ignore it too.
Before she is able to express her intrigue in just how he intends to save the world from plastic, a young waitress dressed in a gaudy, yellow uniform, covered in a white apron stops by their table. Her countenance shifts noticeably from a bored disgruntled worker, to eager to serve when she encounters Lucas’s upturned face. She swallows the gum she had been chewing gracelessly on her way over, and gives him a glowing smile, becoming fluttery and over attentive.
Embarrassed for the girl, Alaine tries to look away but it’s like observing a car crash. She knows she shouldn’t be fascinated by it but it’s an involuntary reaction.
Mentally, she makes a note not to trip over herself and look so silly when in his company. But her brain brands her a hypocrite. She’s done that already, many times over. Well, no more, she responds to her own thoughts. With steely resolve, she nods her head firmly and misses Lucas’s words to the waitress that has her walking away.
“Is this how it is everywhere you go?” she asks.
“Is this how what is?” he replies.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed the fawning of women,” she says and he smiles.
“I do, but it’s something I try to ignore unless I’m very interested,” he answers then watches her intently, hoping she catches his meaning. “You don’t fawn over me,” he continues. “I might be open to it if you did,” he says, throwing the bait while trying to pick a path into her mind to see where it might lead.
She clears her throat, obviously thrown and unable to respond right away. Then she leans into the table, her eyebrows creasing and says in a hushed tone, with her ever-ready blush present in her cheeks. “I thought you said you don’t want a complicated relationship. That this is just business.”
“It is, and I don’t,” Lucas answers, pointedly.
“Then why are you saying those things?” she asks, still in a whisper.
Lucas purses his lips in concentration while trying to figure out how best to respond to her question. “You’ve piqued my curiosity,” is the most unobtrusive route he can employ to tell her that she turns him on in the best/worst way. “And, I kind of like the way I make you blush,” he admits with a playful smile when her cheeks heat again and her eyes widen.”
“Mr. Bright,” she begins to protest.
“Lucas, please,” he interrupts, ostensibly unaffected by his confession, while her heart hammers like a jack rabbit’s. “If we’re going to do this you have to get accustomed to referring to me by my given name. Otherwise, it won’t work,” Lucas says with a shrug. “I can tell that you don’t have much experience with men.”
Shocked by his blatant and very personal observation, she gasps and glares at him.
“Don’t be offended, it’s very endearing,” he says. “But for now I would like to keep this simple as I am sure you would too.”
Not knowing what he means by ‘for now’ Alaine sputters with her response. He is intimidating and she is put off kilter by his bluntness. He also has the disposition of a double-minded man. The effect on her equilibrium is threatening. “This is completely off script, Mr. Bright,” she warns, her pitch having risen a decibel.
“I don’t mean to upset you,” he tells her calmly. “I am generally a forthright individual, I apologize. Let’s get back to the script.”
Alaine huffs and takes a deep breath. “I have a few stipulations about this arrangement,” she tells him, her voice shaky but determined. She clears her throat, rolling her eyes at herself while Lucas turns around to motion the waitress over to them.
He orders coffee when she makes her way over to their table and she struggles like a floundering idiot as a result of his oozing charm and good looks. When Alaine considers the waitress’s response to her companion, she realizes that in comparison her behaviour is actually not so bad.
“And you, Ms. Knight?” Lucas says, to remind the waitress that there is another customer seating at the table.
“A bagel and an orange juice,” Alaine says. “I don’t drink coffee,” she explains to Lucas, simply to make conversation that she is comfortable with. “When I was ten, I drank coffee for the first time the night before school reopened at the end of summer vacation. I guess you can tell how that went. I haven’t touched the stuff since.”
Lucas shakes his head. “You don’t drink coffee. You don’t drink alcohol. I think you’re missing out on life," he teases. "I’m curious Alaine, what else don’t you do?”
The way he says her name. It’s the first time he’s used it. She’s never thought of her name as seductive if a name can be described as that. But rolling off his tongue, it sounds mellifluous, like a whispered musical note in her ear, raising tiny goosebumps over her skin.
“You’re doing it again,” she mumbles while trying to understand how he can take a topic as uninteresting as coffee and make it sound so sinful.
Lucas sighs in frustration. Certainly, she is discomposed by him maybe as much as he is by her. But those walls, those damn china walls will be hard to get through without giving himself into the type of relationship a girl like her desires. He should give up on those plans, attend the dinner with her on Saturday and cut their arrangement short for both their sakes.
“It’s merely an observation Alaine,” he purrs. “One you should maybe be proud of.”
She blushes and he smirks at her again. There’s a lot she doesn’t do, he can tell. The thought is pleasantly arousing. “You were saying something about stipulations,” he calmly reminds her.
“Yes,” she breathes deeply. Uncomfortable with the topic she is about to broach, Alaine looks down at the table. “You said you have certain...ummm appetites?” she begins and pauses.
He guffaws at her naiveté, calling the attention of a few other patrons. “What about them?” he asks.
Her eyebrows furrow together. She’d thought about this for quite some time last night, but now that he’s here it seems harder to form into words. Her mouth opens then closes. He waits with curious impatience, she can tell, from his raised eyebrows and wide direct stare.
“Well?” he prompts. “Are you afraid of me, Ms. Knight?” he asks when she takes another deep breath.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Alaine squeaks indignantly.
“Then what are you waiting for? Say what’s on your mind,” he demands. “You will find that I appreciate honesty as much as I like to give it.”
“You’re very capricious,” she accuses softly. “There’s no telling what your next mood is going to be I’ve noticed. So give me a minute. I like to weigh my words before I speak.”
Lucas snorts. “Do you? I wouldn’t be able to tell,” he rebuts. “Since I’ve met you, you’ve ignored me, blown me off, rolled your eyes at me, hit me, multiple times, attempted to hit me deliberately. You’ve actually hit my driver, called me insane, snapped at me and a few other things, I’m sure. And all while you continue to appear unassuming and meek as a mouse.”
Alaine falls silent pursing her lips together guiltily.
“If one of us is capricious, I dare say it’s you,” he accuses. “As I’ve told you, I like honesty, Ms. Knight. Say what is on your mind. Don’t pretend.”
“Fine I’ll be honest, you are very, very intimidating,” she states. “And confusing and it has more to do with your mood shifts than anything else. It makes me nervous and I have no idea how to sit here comfortably with you because of it.”
At first, Lucas is stunned by her mini-tirade. Then he is amused by it. “There, doesn’t that feel better?” he asks while trying to fend off the ensuing smile. “Is it only my moods then?” he enquires jokingly. “Tell me, which of my many moods do you prefer Alaine?” he leans his elbows onto the table to ask with that side smirk and his irresistible glimmering eyes and she stutters like an idiot.
This isn’t the result she was expecting. Rather than being scolded, he is jovial and it is more off-putting than anything that has transpired between them for the morning.
“Give me your hands,” he tells her as he places his on tables, palm up. The soft, inciting command sees Alaine lifting her tremulous fingers from her thighs hesitantly.
“Place your hands in mine,” he tells her again. “Trust me.”
“No,” she replies, intending to be firm, but her voice breaks like a plea.
“Why not?” he asks her.
“Because,” Alaine answers and takes a deep breath. “They’re shaking,” she says honestly. “You’re making me nervous and uncomfortable. This is the off script I’m talking about.”
“I know, please give me your hand," he requests gently. "I just want to show you something.”
Slowly, she does as he requests and swallows when his smooth palms close over her fingers. He examines their joint hands, marveling at the size difference.
“You are a delicate flower,” he says thoughtfully then remembers that his intention is to set her at ease not further incite her nerves. “See?” he says, looking up at her to find her studying their hands just as intently as he had. “Your hands are small,” he says still perusing her beautiful features while she is distracted. “But hands all the same. I am a man of flesh and blood, just like you Ms. Knight. There’s no cause to be nervous. Either of us,” he adds at the end as a reminder himself.
Stunned by his admission that he is as equally affected by her presence as she is by his, her eyes snap from their joint hands to his face. There in his eyes is an emotion that she just misses but those words -- that he is nervous -- act like a depressant, calming her anxieties.
“Back to stipulations?” he reminds her when she continues to look at him.
“Right,” Alaine begins. “If I agree to do this,” she says and gives her hand a little tug to remind him that they’re still trapped in his. “You can’t be consorting with anyone. Not in secret and certainly not in public. I have a reputation, Mr. Bright. I will not have it tarnished.”
“You can’t be serious,” Lucas scoffs, relinquishing his hold on her.
“I am very serious,” she retorts.
“This arrangement is only a few appearances, eight at most,” he continues to argue.
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem,” she counters boldly. “You said I could negotiate. These are my terms or you can attend your sweetheart charity dinner with Natasha. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
Lucas laughs uncontrollably at her audaciousness. The little snippet. Both awed and amused, he continues to watch her. “You drive a hard bargain," he says. "You know when I saw you at that wedding reception three years ago, I could tell you were headstrong,” he muses. “I will tell you what. Accompany me on Saturday. We’ll see if we enjoy each other’s company and if we do, I will accept your terms,” he concedes.
Indeed, he will acquiesce to her non-negotiable terms but he has no intentions of spending the next six months or so celibate. Not that he will tell her so. She’s just given him a perfect reason to pursue her in the way he wants.
"Okay," she agrees, though his submission to her ultimatum came a little too quickly. It makes her prickly and apprehensive. She's missing something. She knows it. "But, I reserve the right to end this whenever I feel," she states as a precaution.
“As do I,” he responds with a nod.
The waitress finally returns with their orders. Alaine breaks off a piece of her bagel and hands it to him casually. “Please, share this terrible bagel with me.”
Thoughtfully, Lucas accepts her offering and takes a tentative bite. The only people this casual with him are his siblings. By just that simple action, where she appears so in control, their roles suddenly seem reversed.
"The charity event is out of state," he declares absently. "I forgot to mention it. You will need an overnight bag."