Linza stood in front of the mirror in her little apartment, fussing over her reflection. The dress from Wyn was emerald satin, off-the-shoulder and tight through the hip.
Linza had been shocked to learn that Wyn owned anything that was a solid color.
She wondered if Wyn had bought it for her, just in case, because it fit Linza like a glove. It was just the sort of thing Wyn would do—especially because Linza would never knowingly allow Wyn to buy clothes for her. Linza would have to thank her properly later.
The dress alone probably cost as much as one of Linza’s loan payments, not to mention the diamond necklace and makeup that she’d also borrowed.
She hardly recognized herself in the mirror. It had been years since she’d dressed this fancy. JSMI had an annual gala, but she’d skipped it her last two years at university because it was the week before finals. She didn’t realize how much she’d missed dressing up. Practicality had dominated her wardrobe since she’d graduated. She’d been so focused on dressing to be taken seriously, she’d almost forgotten what she liked.
She liked to feel… pretty.
Would Grun think she was pretty?
Why did she care what he thought?
The door bell chimed. Linza nearly jumped out of her skin, then snatched her clutch from the table, locked up, and hurried down the stairs to meet him.
She swung open the front door, and their expressions became mirrors of each other—surprised, blushing appreciation.
Linza could not remember ever seeing a suit fit someone so perfectly. He wore a shirt this time, white and neatly tucked into well-tailored trousers. The black coat traced his shoulders and then his waist, sweeping down to coattails. His hair was slicked back to a bronze clasp at the nape of his neck, but he’d left a few curling strands to frame his face. He smelled of vanilla and sandalwood.
They each came to their senses at about the same time.
He bowed to her. “You look lovely this evening.”
“I look lovely always, thank you very much.” The mock arrogance was only a half step over from self-deprecation. The prospect of actually accepting the compliment was much too terrifying.
“It’s true,” he said.
It sounded like he meant it. Linza’s cheeks blazed hotter and she hoped he thought she’d overdone her makeup. “Your… outfit is quite nice, also.”
Linza was relieved to find that he hadn’t commissioned a carriage or anything so ostentatious. In fact, he’d planned for them to ride the trolley, where they were far overdressed compared to the after-work crowd. Linza had to admit it was a bit fun, being so done-up in such a mundane place. She half expected that they’d similarly end up at a normal dining establishment. That would be a clever spin on the fancy date.
She was wrong.
They got off the trolley in a fancy part of town close to where Wyn lived, and he led Linza to a restaurant that she had heard about from Molly but never been to.
Even at the door, the smell of spices and herbs and roasting meat washed over her.
Inside, she recognized elements that were like those at the estate. The lighting was dim, close. The seating was arranged in booths with high backs, private. The upholstery, curtains, and carpet were all velvet.
A woman in a slim black dress guided them to a booth that had already been set for two.
Linza looked around, wide-eyed. “I’ve never been any place like this before,” she whispered.
“Really?” he chuckled. “I assumed that this would be the standard of living to which you were accustomed.”
Linza snorted a laugh, which was as much proof as anything else that she was no socialite.
“You did?” she said.
“I did! I’ve never been any place like this before, either!”
They leaned closer, now co-conspirators in their imitation of the well-to-do.
“Will either of us know the etiquette?” Linza said.
Grun smirked. “I’m sure that on your worst day, you’d be more polite than nine out of ten people that actually come here. Rich people are assholes.”
Linza snickered, a spark of thrill from the bold statement. “I can be an asshole too, you know.”
“No, you can’t,” he said.
She folded her arms. “How do you know?”
“How do you not know?” he said.
Linza tried to glare at him. She wasn’t sure if someone who riled up her competitive streak so easily was good for her. But Wyn and told her to enjoy herself… and she was, so far.
A slender man in a black silk robe, similar to the first woman’s dress, appeared next to them and asked what they’d like to drink.
“What do you have?” Grun asked.
What ensued was a verbal essay describing each of the wines available and the details of their vintage, the conditions of their soil, the weather of the years of their harvest, the reviews of the local wine experts.
Linza did her best to follow along, but she was soon totally lost.
The man finished his speech, then waited.
“That last one sounded absolutely perfect,” Grun said.
The man bowed and left.
“What was the last one?” Linza said, grateful that Grun seemed to have been able to keep up.
“I have no idea,” Grun said.
She scoffed at him, but laughed despite her best efforts to look indignant. “We’re bad at this!” Linza said.
“Are we? I’m pretty sure that’s how rich people pick, too. Or they’re like, ‘oh, a horse pissed within three miles of those grapes on the third moon of their ripening? I love horses! I’ll take that one!’”
Linza snorted and covered her mouth with a hand. She felt out-of-place in such a fancy venue, but sitting across from Grun… that felt right. Easy. Conversation flowed between them, especially once the wine arrived.
When it was time to order food, the list of specials was also overwhelming. Linza struggled to understand even the first item. She could do whole alchemical proofs in her head, and yet for whatever reason, remembering a verbal list of food options was totally beyond her capacity.
After the server finished, Grun asked her, “Are there any foods you don’t like or can’t eat?”
“Not really, I like most things.”
“Great.” He then ordered two different things based on their primary meats, and assured Linza that they could swap if she didn’t like hers.
She marveled at how he took the lead, but he was still very attentive. It was like how he’d marched right up to the madame, stated his case, and then listened to her. Listened so very closely…
Needing to chase away that particular memory lest she behave even more inappropriately, Linza asked Grun how he’d heard of this place if he was new to town. He shared about friends he’d made at the estate, and then they talked shop. It was perhaps not the most appropriate topic for the fancy restaurant, but Linza was two glasses of wine in and she didn’t care.
After forty minutes that passed as quickly as five, their meal arrived—a hock of lamb nestled in potatoes cut like flowers, and a swordfish steak ringed with clams and purple rice. It was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
Whether it was the wine or the company or truly the food, Linza could not remember ever tasting anything so delicious—the lamb melted on her tongue, the potatoes were soft as silk, the rice was a backdrop for herbs she’d never had before and probably couldn’t pronounce.
But the sweetest taste of all was her laugh. Grun was equal parts clever and naïve, earnest and snarky, and he found every chink her in her armor and every gap in her guard.
It felt like dinner had hardly been served—despite their empty plates, empty bottle of wine, and the conspicuous progress of the clock—when their dessert arrived, chocolate mouse with fresh raspberries.
They both tucked in and groaned with happiness.
His groan set her heart racing. It was inappropriate. She needed to get a hold of herself. But… she didn’t want to.
If she’d wanted to keep a hold of herself, she wouldn’t have drank half a bottle of wine.
“I’m very glad I made this bet,” he said.
“How’d you know I couldn’t half-ass anything?” she said. This was the real question, these were the real stakes, not her silly little inhibitions. If he had a suitable answer, she’d have no reason to not throw herself at him. If he didn’t, then she might be able to finally walk away.
“Educated guess,” he said.
“Educated by what? By whom?” If the madame or Nephis had told him, then she would not be so impressed.
“Some hints from Tanyth. They’re quite fond of you, you know.”
Her stomach twisted. Maybe she’d had too much wine. What had they told Grun? Did she want to know? “They’re fond of you, too.”
She took a breath to do the right thing, to tell Grun exactly how Tanyth liked him, when he said, “Why do you always defer compliments like that?”
Linza hesitated. “It feels… immodest to accept them.”
“Why do you want to be modest when you’re talented?” He was insistent, borderline concerned, his own inhibitions softened by the wine.
“I’d be too ashamed to brag.” She avoided his gaze. It was too steady, too knowing, like he might really see her whole heart laid out if his eyes met hers.
Grun gripped his fork tighter and frowned at her. “Who taught you that?”
She blinked. “You’re angry?”
“Well… yes! Of course!”
Linza felt the spark of new understanding, like finally learning a new spell. So Linza repeated to Grun the explanation from the madame’s assistant about the centers of knowing, about how hers was shame—and his might be anger.
He ran his fingers through his beard. “You’re going to have to tell me about that again when we’re sober and I’ll remember better. That’s… that’s something important.” He reached across the table and touched her hand. “But I’ll tell you right now, I don’t think you should be ashamed. Not of being talented, or smart, or pretty. Or knowing that you are.”
Linza’s heart struggled to flutter out of her chest, her throat tightening to hold it in place as her eyes misted. C’mon, hold it together. Not here. You’re on a date. He doesn’t want to see this.
“Oh!” His voice softened. “Are you alright? Did I— I didn’t mean to say anything hurtful, I’m sorry if— I just meant—”
She shook her head. She couldn’t speak yet, lest she actually start crying. She felt so ashamed—she was making him regret being so kind to her.
He straightened in his seat. “Do you want… do you want a hug?”
He stepped around to her side of the table and put his arm around her.
And then she was surrounded by his warmth and the smell of vanilla and sandalwood. She took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. She focused on the sound of his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his chest against her cheek, the soft wool of his suit coat and the smooth cotton of his shirt, the firmness of his thigh pressed against hers, the pressure of his hand against her hair.
And as she leaned in close and breathed deeply, smelling his musk mingled with the vanilla, a heat that was not entirely from the wine flooded her cheeks and curled between her legs. It was utterly inappropriate, a violation of trust, a poor response to such a kind gesture, and yet… was it just her, or did his breath hitch? Was that a stray shadow or the throb of his cock against his tightly tailored pants?
She had not been about to cry because she was sad, but because she was overwhelmed. And the closeness of him was like a catalyst, alchemizing that overwhelm into desire.
Her breathing quickened, her fingers curled possessively around the lapels of his coat.
He tensed with the strain of an impulse tugging at its leash.
She owed him an answer for his kind words and concerns. That wicked, slithering thing looped over her shoulders, trailed down between her breasts and coiled around her thigh, brushing its scales between her legs as it went.
The only answer that seemed right was her mouth around his cock and her fingernails scraping his skin.
A black-clad server walked by, paying them no mind, but reminding Linza that she did need to keep some modicum of control over herself here in the restaurant, lest they never be invited back.
With great conscious effort, she forced her hands to release his lapels and smooth the wool. Stroking his chest proved no less tempting, however, especially as she saw his imploring eyes.
She dropped a hand to his upper thigh.
He froze, except for the throb of his cock against his trousers.
Linza’s fingers brushed higher.
Grun jolted. “R-ready to head out?” He stood and stepped back around to his side of the table.
Linza cursed herself. Was he aroused, or truly uncomfortable? That had been a stupid, stupid thing to do. What would she have done if Grun had attempted the same?
That slithering thing looped happily between her legs, filling her mind with the image of her melting back into the booth, mouth gaping in shadow as Grun subtly slid his fingers up her skirt, finding the wetness there and then plunging easily inside—
“We’ll take the check, please,” Grun said to the passing server, who nodded politely.
Linza needed to get a handle on herself. She was dizzy and overwarm and making bad choices and it was definitely not just the wine.
She should have asked Grun, right then, whether she had made him uncomfortable. Whether his hurry to leave the restaurant was to flee her or attend to his arousal or both. She should have said that if he was game, she was game.
But she didn’t. The words died in her throat, unable to surmount the fear of how she might feel if he really did want to leave. That thought was enough to sober her.
For the first time that night, they didn’t chat as they waited for the check.
As it arrived, Linza reached for her clutch, but Grun waved her off. “Hey, now. I won our bet fair and square.”
“But I don’t mind—”
Grun smiled, his blue eyes twinkling like circles of sea glass. “You can get the next one.”
The next one. Hope welled in Linza’s chest, igniting and flaring into arousal. Her breathing quickened. There would be a next time. She hadn’t ruined everything.
A second date!
Tanyth was going to be devastated.
Guilt curled icy claws around her chest, thickening the air.
It was just like the calligraphy. She was supposed to half-ass it—lose the contest, ruin the date, keep the peace.
But she’d forgotten.
She was physically incapable of half-assing anything.
And… Grun understood that about her in a way that Tanyth didn’t. Tanyth was kind to her, yes… but in the way that they were kind to everyone. And if Linza could get over her crush on Tanyth, then… Tanyth could get over Grun too. Like Wyn said, they were an adult.
And so was Linza. And she did indeed want to do very adult things with Grun.
As they stepped out of the restaurant, she found a reason to restart the conversation, and the conversation flowed easily again as they took the trolley back to her place.
As they reached her front door, she was in the middle of a story about her freshman year at JSMI, so she leaned back against the railing of the stairs up to her door and finished the story. That reminded Grun of something, which reminded her of a different thing, and so they just kept talking for another half hour. Linza would have stayed for hours more if the chill of the night hadn’t cut right to her bones, even through the suit coat which he’d draped over her shoulders while they were still on the trolley.
She had resolved to invite him upstairs before they’d even left the restaurant, but now, in the moment, it was so much more intimidating. What if he said ‘no’?! She’d wither away and die, if she didn’t just start sobbing immediately. And she certainly did not want him to agree out of pity or guilt.
But the idea of giving him his coat back, watching him walk back towards the trolley, knowing that he’d been waiting for her to ask… no, that was much worse.
At the next break in the conversation, she said, “Looks like you’re getting a bit chilly too. I can think of some ways to warm up… want to come inside?” Alright, that was actually pretty smooth.
“That’s my favorite place to come.” Grun smirked.
Linza snorted, smoothness gone. She smacked his shoulder. “Oh my gods, shut up and get in here already.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her.
“You know I just meant my apartment, don’t be an asshole.”
His smirk didn’t fade. “So does that mean you don’t want…”
Her cheeks flushed with heat. She did her best to still sound suave. “I didn’t say that.”
He leaned towards her, his vanilla and musk and sandalwood scent curling around her. That slithering thing vibrated with glee.
But he stopped, just a hand’s breadth from her lips. Deferring to her. She pushed up onto her toes, bracing a hand against his shoulder. But just before her lips brushed his, she paused. Not out of fear—but because that wicked thing inside of her whispered a better idea in her ear.
His breath shuddered, his expectations subverted. But he didn’t move to close the gap.
“How long would you wait for me like this?” she whispered, her lips brushing his as she spoke.
“Forever,” he breathed.
She hooked her hands around the back of his neck and pulled his lips hungrily against hers. There was only the softness of his lips, only the heat of his neck on her palms, the steel of his chest against hers, until her tongue snaked out to part his lips and taste him.
His arms wrapped around her, fingertips digging into her ass as he lifted her into him. She moaned at the closeness of him, then purred at the throbbing of his cock against the front of her hips.
He groaned and broke the kiss, scooping her up into his arms.
She yelped and giggled.
“What floor?” he said.