A small smile touched his lips as he perused Zee from head to toe, his eyes finally coming to rest on hers.
“Elizabeth, my, you look fantastic.”
Inara’s eyes traveled between Zee’s and Michael’s face intermittently.
Zee’s eyes fell. “Thanks.” She responded, her voice slightly croaky as it came out with the hint of a wavering whisper.
“Fancy us meeting here. I see you even know Mrs. Arnold.”
Zee lifted her gaze back to his and gave him a slight nod while Inara smiled at him.
“We are best friends,” said Inara. “I’m surprised you know each other.”
“We do,” Michael responded, snaking an arm around Zee’s waist and pulling her close to his side. “She’s my girlfriend.”
Inara was confused for a moment as she looked from him to Zee. Didn’t Zee just say she was there on a date? “I thought you said…” she began but caught Zee’s entreating look and furtive shake of her head which told her not to ask the question she had been about to ask.
Zee swallowed hard as she struggled to control her jitters and act normal. She prayed that Inara’s brain would work smartly.
Inara was still looking astounded as her eyes returned to Michael’s face. “Oh. I see.” She said to him, still wondering what was going on.
“Yeah.” He said. “I wasn’t expecting her here, so I’m just surprised.”
Inara looked at Zee who gave her a forced smile. She noticed that Zee’s eyes on hers remained imploring.
For the first time, it dawned on Inara that Zee was increasingly getting nervous. It reminded her of how she had been with Lemuel especially during the early part of their relationship.
She tried to focus on doing as Zee had said. It looked like she was afraid of Michael. It was surprising because Zee was usually not scared of anyone. She didn’t know what the problem was but she would try to help Zee out by doing as she had pleaded.
“Oh actually, she forgot her…her…wristwatch at my place the last time she visited so I…I told her I would be here and she could come to collect it if she could make it.”
Zee nodded, agreeing with Inara as she looked at Michael with a smile on her face. She could not read his expression, which frankly was unnerving.
“Oh, that’s nice.” He commented, returning his gaze to Inara who unlocked the silver wristwatch she had on and passed it across to Zee.
“I had to wear it to ensure I don’t forget it,” Inara said to Zee, giving her a furtive wink. Zee mentally thanked her stars that Inara had finally gotten into character.
As Zee received it, the VIP door was opened again as Lemuel strode in. The suit he had on was dark gray and he paused upon seeing them, his brows lifted in surprise at seeing Michael holding Zee possessively. He was even more surprised that Inara was handing her wristwatch over to Zee.
“Now this is one surprising and interesting sight.” He commented. “My new business partner knows my wife’s best friend and uh… my wife is handing her favorite wristwatch to her best friend.”
Zee’s hand tightened on the wristwatch. Damn! What the hell!
Inara threw an exaggerated smile at Lemuel and searched for what to say. She knew Zee was in trouble now. Lemuel had innocently exposed their lie.
Michael looked at Inara who avoided his gaze by looking elsewhere and pretending to arrange an errant strand of her hair.
He ignored her and looked at Zee but she also avoided his gaze. He tried to control his anger. He had figured it out already. Obviously, Zee’s presence in that hotel was not being properly explained. Mr. Arnold’s comment just now had made that clear. The fact that both ladies were behaving fishy just confirmed it. Mrs. Arnold had somehow been covering for her friend but they were already busted and they knew it, judging by their nervous expressions. He would get to the root of the matter.
He watched Zee’s eyes fall on Inara’s face. They looked blaming, almost accusing.
“Yes, isn’t the world such a small place?” he said to Lemuel as he gently removed the wristwatch from Zee’s hand.
“It is, indeed.” Lemuel agreed as he joined them and took Inara’s hand in his.
“This is a beautiful wristwatch,” Michael said to Lemuel. “You said it’s your wife’s favorite?”
“Uh-huh,” Lemuel confirmed. “But if she doesn’t want it anymore, who am I to protest?” he planted a kiss on Inara’s cheek.
“Yeah.” Michael agreed and handed the watch over to Zee. “You have a great best friend. Lucky you.”
Zee’s heart was pummeling against her chest but she managed to respond. “Yeah. Lucky me.”
“Mr. Ray and Zee are a couple,” Inara said to Lemuel as if it was not already obvious.
“Yes, Baby girl. I can see that.” Lemuel responded.
Michael smiled. “So Mrs. Arnold, why would you mistake your favorite watch for the one Zee forgot at your place?”
Inara did not respond. Instead, she leaned into Lemuel and shrugged.
Lemuel frowned. “She forgot her watch at home?” he asked Inara.
“Actually…” Inara began, thinking about how she just developed a hatred for Zee’s boyfriend for being so assertive and intimidating. He was just like her husband. “I mean…” She did not even know what to say. “You see…”
Zee’s heart sank at Inara’s distress. Strangely, she also began to wonder about the exact time that her urge to wee had disappeared. She couldn’t tell. Life could be so full of trouble.
“Mr. Arnold.” Michael cut in. In a way, he was rescuing Inara. “I was quite surprised when I ran into my baby just now and your wife was just explaining her presence by letting me know she was here to collect the wristwatch she forgot at your home.”
“That one?” Lemuel asked, pointing at the watch in Zee’s hand even as confusion still marred his brows.
“Yes,” Michael responded. “But hey, maybe it’s a small misunderstanding. Let’s not make this sweet gathering too intense.”
Lemuel looked at Inara who fixed her gaze on his chest. Then he looked at Zee who had her eyes on Inara’s face, her gaze full of disappointment. He almost let out a scoff because instantly he understood the situation.
Zee was obviously there on questionable grounds. Because she could not explain her presence at the Oxbow to her boyfriend, she had cooked up something like forgetting her wristwatch. Coincidentally, if it were to be believed that both women had not planned to meet there in the first place, Inara was available at the right time to help her out. Only he had appeared innocently and ruined their perfect explanation. Well, there was nothing he could do to remedy that. Zee was already busted. He and Inara would talk when they got home. He decided to support Michael’s move to lighten the tense situation.
Lemuel gave a mindless shrug to that effect. “I guess you’re right.” He said to Michael. “It was nice seeing you, Zee, and you Mr. Ray. Hopefully, the synergy we’re trying to create will come to fruition.”
“Certainly, Mr. Arnold. Mrs. Arnold.” Michael said and Inara forced a smile at him. It was full of guilt.
“We’ll be on our way now.” Said, Lemuel. “Bye.”
“Bye.” Michael waved them off as they started towards the exit of the restaurant, passing by Stanley who hastened towards where Michael and Zee were still standing with Zee full of fear.
“Oh there you are, Zee, I was worried. What’s taking you so long to…” He paused, seeming to take in the rest of the group for the first time. His eyes took on a bewildered expression, widening.
Everyone was looking strangely at him except for Zee who was avoiding his gaze. Her brother looked somewhat angry. Was he always angry? He figured he had to get on his good side at once if he was going to keep chasing after Zee. Stanley gathered courage and drew forward before clearing his throat.
“Um, Zee’s big brother, am I right?” he asked Michael who was staring at him, unbelieving.
“What?” Michael didn’t want to believe what he was hearing. Zee could feel her body starting to shake.
“Look, I assure you that I mean the best for your sister,” Stanley told him. “I will never do anything to hurt her. I swear, she means the world to me.”