When I ventured out for lunch Hans was blessedly absent. Megan was sitting at her desk, though, with her legs tucked up beside her. She’d spun her office chair around to face my door while she waited, and when I came out she put her book aside. “Ready?” she asked.
I nodded. Megan spun her chair back to face her desk and stood. She collected her purse and we walked out to her car together.
Megan and I always eat lunch together. Often this would mean sack lunches shared in my office with Megan sitting on my desk while we discussed whatever manga we’d been working on most recently. But just as often it meant going out to the burger joint down the street, and today was a burger day.
When we arrived the lunch crowd had already started to gather. So we got in line and I wondered if I should broach the subject of our evening plans while we waited.
Megan and I also spend a lot of evenings together – she hates being alone almost as much as I hate being in crowds. So on the evenings that she doesn’t go clubbing she usually hangs out at my place after work. Most of the time we don’t even do anything. I’ll read and she’ll mess around on her laptop, or whatever. But back in college I’d confessed that I’d never had a lot of ‘normal’ growing up experiences, like slumber parties and hanging out with friends, so every now and again she’d order pizza and stay overnight, and we’d sit up watching movies. Sometimes Fumiko would join us for movie night, too, and we’d marathon an anime or something.
Tonight wasn’t a pizza and movies night, but I’m a creature of habit. If Megan wasn’t going to be hanging out after work because she’d made plans to, say, seduce Hans, then I wanted to know. Besides, well, on the one hand I was a little bit anxious about the whole “he’s going to be our boss thing,” but on the other: in college Megan had never hesitated to pursue any guy who caught her eye, but since graduation she hasn’t even casually dated. Even though she hangs out at clubs most weekends and some weeknights. So it was good to see her actually lining up her sights on someone again. Especially since I knew she was way too social to be happy just hanging out with me all the time.
Before I could get up the nerve to ask, though, Megan spoke up. “So,” she said, “you made quite an impression on our new boss-to-be.”
I paled, equal parts fear and mortification. I could still remember Hans’ face when I’d ‘fired’ him. He’d looked like he’d just been pole axed by a chipmunk and couldn’t quite believe it. “Introductions are hell,” I pointed out quickly. “I’ll do better next time.”
Megan reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. “Don’t worry: I’m only bringing it up because I don’t think it was a bad one, and I know how you worry. In fact, he ended up asking about you quite a bit. How long we’ve known each other, and if you’re always so dedicated to your work, and what your favorite restaurant is,” she said casually. “That kind of thing.”
“Oh,” I said. For a second I felt some relief, before the entirety of what she’d said registered. “Wait, he asked what my favorite… what?”
“Mhmm,” Megan murmured to confirm that I had in fact heard what I thought I’d heard. “Don’t worry,” Megan said. “I assured him you would be happy with anywhere that caters to carnivores. And warned him not to get his hopes up as I have yet to see you find anyone manly enough to pique your interest… but I suspect he’s interested in trying.”
I gaped. “What?” I managed to squeak. But if Megan thought there was anything wrong with anything she’d just said, it didn’t show in her serene expression.
Megan smiled. “Mhmm,” she said again. “I may have built you up a little, but I don’t think I needed to. I got the impression that he appreciates a woman who isn’t afraid to dress him down, call out his failings, and make him work for her esteem.” Megan pursed her lips thoughtfully and shrugged. “Or maybe he just likes a challenge. As good looking as he is, and as unfailingly charming in his conversation, I imagine he hasn’t had many… But, no, I definitely picked up on a bit of a submissive streak in there.”
I continued to stare at Megan in horror – which tripled when she abruptly perked up.
“Oh, speak of the devil,” she said. Then she bounced on her toes and waved out the restaurant’s big plate glass windows.
I turned to look and saw that the giant yellow Hummer from work had relocated, and Hans was climbing out of the driver’s seat. He saw us, smiled, and waved back.
“What is he doing here?” I hissed to Megan while Hans approached the restaurant doors.
Megan shrugged. “I asked if he’d like to join us for lunch, since he’s new to the area,” she explained. “And he accepted. Probably because I said ‘us.’” She grinned at me. “Now, be nice,” she said – then reconsidered. “Or mean. I’m really not sure which will get you further, faster.”
I swallowed and did my best to get my heart rate under control while Hans entered the restaurant. Other men might walk or stroll or stride, but Hans prowled over to us. His movements were utterly casual, but there was a power and intensity in his physique that precluded any other description. I don’t know what Megan had been thinking when she’d decided to throw out her suit and start talking me up to him: he was way out of my league. Hell, I couldn’t even keep the interest of imaginary Jimmy and imaginary Carl.
“Hi, Megan,” Hans said when he reached us. “Thanks for having me out. Abigail, it’s a pleasure to see you again also.”
Megan smiled. “Of course,” she said. “I’m glad you found your way.” She gave him a friendly hug, which he returned with a casual squeeze about her shoulders. I was amazed all over again at the ease with which she could take an acquaintance and turn him into someone who acted like a friend she’d known for years. Not that I could really imagine anyone turning down a hug from Megan… even I put up with them, and I have issues about personal space.
Then Hans let Megan go and turned to me. He offered me his hand in greeting, and I had to wonder if some of that time Megan had spent ‘talking me up’ had also involved coaching him on some of my issues. How mortifying. But this wasn’t an introduction and I was determined to do better this time, so I accepted his gesture.
There was something in the way Hans tilted my hand when he took it that made me think his instinct was to raise it to his lips, but he just shook it instead. “Hi,” I managed to say. Megan had wanted me to be nice or be mean, and ‘hi’ seemed to be a neutral alternative. It was also about all I could manage: what is it about tall, handsome, muscular men with ‘I am from a nation where the men make love for hours without tiring’ accents and large, warm, surprisingly gentle hands that makes a girl break out in goose bumps and quiver inside? Really, it wasn’t fair.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to contemplate it for long. The line in front of us had vanished, so I gave Hans a smile that was probably as sickly as I felt and extricated my hand from his. I even managed to avert my gaze and turn to the counter before Hans could do more than smile winningly at me. Hopefully it was before he saw my cheeks flush, too.
“Hi,” I said to the cashier while fumbling for my debit card. “My usual, please.” And thank God that Megan and I came here often enough for me to have a usual and for the employees to know it. The routine helped me regain some composure. Plus it let me think: See, Hans, I say ‘hi’ and act all flustered with everyone. The cashier gave me a beverage cup and a number, and Megan stepped up to the counter in my place.
Hans had gone to the register next to ours. The girl manning it was staring at him like she was having trouble focusing on his order. She had my absolute sympathy.
“So,” I heard Hans ask as I scurried to the drink fountains. “What comes on your number three?”
At the drinks I surveyed my options. Normally I get a dark cola, but today caffeine seemed like a bad idea. Not only had Hans already sent my heart racing with his touch, but I didn’t think being extra jittery would help with my social anxiety. I picked something non caffeinated at random and ended up with an orange soda. Good enough. I claimed a lid and a straw while Megan was getting her sugar-free iced tea, and then I went and sat in our usual spot to wait until my food was up.
Megan sat across from me. She already had her salad, since those are pre-packaged. “Well, this will be cozy,” she commented. I blinked at her in momentary confusion before realizing we normally sat at a little table for two by the windows. And since I had sat down first, it was going to be on me that we were being mean and excluding Hans. Shit.
If I had been a normal girl and Megan had been anyone else, I probably would have laughed off her earlier speculation that Hans was interested in a mean and difficult woman to win over. But the thing is: I’m me, and Megan is Megan.
In college Megan had majored in art. One of the things she’d done was make the programs for the college’s theatre productions. And she’d told me once about a guy she’d met at a cast party who’d convinced her to go up to his room, where it had turned out he’d had a thing for feet. So she’d spent a couple of hours with him on the floor and her heel on his neck, making him beg to worship her toes.
Now, I will admit that I find that image more than a little hot, and I don’t have a foot fetish. But that’s not the point. The point is: if Megan thought Hans might have a bit of a subby streak, I was going to believe her because she has a hell of a lot more experience than I do with everything. And I did not want to be giving Hans mixed signals. Or any signals at all.
“Do you think we should move?” I asked.
Megan just arched an inquisitive eyebrow and didn’t reply around her bite of salad. And then it was too late, because Hans had already come over to our table with a tray in each hand. He placed one – the one with my burger and fries on it – in front of me, and then deposited the other at the edge of our table. Then he stole a nearby chair and moved it over to join us.
“Thanks,” I said. There: nice. That should balance out the mean of not taking him into account in our seating. Back to neutral.
“Of course,” Hans replied easily. His tray had a milkshake and two burgers. He unwrapped one, revealing a mountain of meat and cheese utterly devoid of veggies.
My eyes narrowed. I didn’t want to know, but I couldn’t help myself. “Is that extra bacon?” I asked.
Hans took a hearty bite, chewed, and swallowed before grinning. “Yes,” he said. “And I opted for a second sandwich made the same instead of fries… but then again, I am an unrepentant carnivore.” I stared. I knew I was staring, but I couldn’t help it. I have a highly overactive imagination, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that extravagant appetite extended to all aspects of his life… and if it was worth becoming a mutilated bunny to find out. “Why?” Hans asked.
I saved myself from having to answer by draining about half of my soda.
“You’re a man after Abby’s own heart,” Megan answered in my place. “That’s her usual, except she keeps the fries.” Megan stole a couple, too, to prove her point.
Hans chuckled. “Well, I’m glad we have similar tastes. Actually,” he said – and turned to address me specifically – “I was still hoping to get your perspective on work. And since you’ve made it quite clear you have no patience for interruptions – and I certainly respect that – I was hoping we could discuss it over dinner.”
I did my best not to gape at him, but there was no salvation from answering because at that point I had to come up for air. I scrambled for a way out and found myself saying: “Okay.” Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Hans lit up with a smile. “Wonderful! Shall I pick you up at seven, then?”
My eyes widened. “Tonight?” I swallowed. “I’m… Megan and I have plans,” I protested. And thank God Megan and I had plans most nights. A-ha, my way out! I could just put this off until it didn’t even happen!
But Megan waved her fork dismissively. “Oh, we’re just hanging out… and we do that most nights. I don’t mind rescheduling.” She smiled. “In fact, why don’t we go out tomorrow instead? Then we can share a ride to the office party.”
I stared, hardly able to comprehend this betrayal – and then it hit me. I’d been set up, twice in one go! Megan had maneuvered me into a dinner date with Hans and going to the New Year’s Eve party at Club Luminescence, all in one fiendishly executed conversation.
I laughed nervously. It sounded weak to me, and I wondered if anyone really bought that I wasn’t totally freaked. “Okay then, sure,” I heard myself say to Hans. “Pick me up at seven.” I smiled.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about Vikings and wolves and brutally torn apart bunnies. Megan thought Hans had a submissive streak? I really hoped she was right, because otherwise I figured it would just be a matter of time before some park ranger found my mutilated corpse out in the woods.