The restaurant was situated on a cliff just outside the city, overlooking the salty waves crashing on the rocks below. During the day its wall-length window let unfiltered light brighten the rosy walls, glinting off the silverware adorning the tables. But at night, the restaurant's chandeliers were dimly lit, bathing the room in a warm yellow hue—with the only other source of light being small tealights in tiny frosted glasses on each individual table.
The orchestra was playing music near the entrance across the room, providing soft and elegant background music for diners to listen to. Saria crossed her legs under the tablecloth, shifting in her seat to get comfortable. After another moment, she leaned closer to the table, bending her knees and locking her ankles around the front legs of the chair. There were gentle murmurs in the air, too soft to distinguish individual voices, but not so loud she couldn't hear Darren speaking across the table. The waiters, dressed in their Sunday's best, paced soundlessly from table to table amid the light clinking of the dishes.
The host had their table ready when she arrived half an hour early to claim their reservation. He showed her to an elegant area positioned right next to the window, with a gorgeous view of the beach below. But she rejected it, with the fear someone would recognize her through the window. Unfortunately her request was denied, the host explained that the restaurant was fully booked for the night, with no extra tables. So when Darren arrived, she was sitting at their table with her head turned away from the window, shoulders slumped in an attempt to make herself look unrecognizable from both the window and the entrance.
Saria looked down at her partially touched plate and swept some of the lengthy greens off to the side. She had been so anxious to get the date started, she didn't even bother to check what she ordered. Now, as she nibbled on another rich piece of meat, she wished she selected something more to her taste.
Darren sat across the table, inspecting the centerpiece on their table, having finished his meal first. Their centerpiece stood out in the restaurant, a large flower in a bowl of ice. It was placed there before she sat down, alone the center—like frightening notes from a stalker in those murder mysteries she wished her sister wasn't so fond of. The lily's center was face her, it's abnormality staring her in the face all throughout dinner. She had looked around in the beginning, checking with other tables, quickly noticing she didn't have the flickering candles or the intertwined red roses like the other tables.
"This is your favorite flower isn't it?" Darren remarked, glancing at her as he stroked one of its silken petals with his forefinger. "I remember you saying so when you saw the one at my shop."
"I thought you said they were rare," she admired the lily's unfurled petals. In the dim light, it was difficult to see the pink interior, with its dark magenta spots splattered about the center, but she knew just by seeing the flower so many times in Darren's shop. She knew that if she leaned in closer she could scent the sweet perfume the flower gave off. It truly was a beautiful flower decorating their table. Darren must have thought everything out down to the last detail for their date.
"It isn't rare." he gave her the grin she recognized for when she asked a question of interest. "They don't grow around this coast—there's too much salt in the air here. They would wither and die after a couple of days. You can buy them from specialized florists (she chuckled at this) or from one of the traveling markets. They're easy to care for if you keep them inside with plenty of ventilation."
Listening to him chatter on about the lily, Saria broke out in cold sweat when she felt her phone vibrate inside her purse behind her right shoulder. She hurriedly leaned back in her chair, effectively trapping her purse between the chair and her back, muffling the sound of the vibration until it stopped. She watched as he raised his hand and brushed a mop of his brown hair out of his eyes to inspect the flower closely. It took a few attempts, but she managed to slip the phone out from under her napkin and glance at the screen discretely, disregarding the flashing 'New Message' sign.
"It's not as big as it could be." He said as he withdrew his hand slowly, a puzzled look on his face. "This one must have come from a juvenile plant. This must be the plant's first flowering."
"Did it come from your plant back at your shop?" she asked, leaning closer, toying with a strand of her hair as she put her elbow on the table.
"No." He replied. "I don't know where this one came from. The flowers at my place haven't even opened up this far yet."
"So you didn't ask them to put it here when you made the reservation?"
"No," she swallowed, her stomach dropping as she felt her phone vibrate once again. Stealing another glance down at the screen, she briefly saw 'Jeremy' light up on the screen before she mashed the red button, ending the call before it took place. The familiar chill accompanying a cold sweat was rushing down her back and she hurriedly shoved the phone underneath her napkin again.
Trying to avoid eye contact with her date, Saria turned her gaze to the golden clock hanging on the wall in front of her, watching the seconds tick by slowly, each tick getting slower and slower as she watched.
Her clammy hands drifted over the itchy fabric of her dress, a shimmering gauzy item her sister, Marissa, insisted she should wear for this occasion. She shifted in her seat yet again, discreetly trying to pull up the sides of her strapless gown. She was pleased when Darren complimented her when he first arrived, but she didn't appreciate the gown slipping down her chest, revealing more skin than she would have liked.
"Ma'am?" a slight cough interrupted her thoughts and she looked up to find the waiter looking down at her, holding a tray above his shoulder. It wasn't until she noticed Darren staring curiously across the table that she realized he had been standing there trying to get her attention for some time.
"I-I'm sorry?" she asked, racking her mind for a question she hadn't been listening to.
"Would you care for a refill?" he gestured towards the empty glass in front of her.
"Oh, o-of course!" she hastily pushed the glass closer to the edge. She watched in silence as he slowly refilled her cup, holding the pitcher almost a foot higher than the rim. In that second her phone buzzed twice, signaling yet another message she had no intention of checking. Then she realized the cup was filling up at an unusually slow rate, she glanced up curiously.
Though he averted his gaze when she looked up, she caught a glimpse of his green eyes riveted on her. His skin, paler than her own, made his gaze almost ghostly in her opinion. She looked away, propping her head up with her elbow as she waited for him to finish and leave. She could hear the water spilling faster into the glass, ice cubes clinking against one another as they all struggled to fit in the glass at the end of the downpour.
In a well-practiced manner, he lifted her glass and placed it in front of her, no tremor detected in the water as he moved it. A bright shine drew her attention to the plain gold band on his ring finger, clashing with his colorless skin.
As if he noticed her stare, he drew back, curling his fingers into a fist and folding his arm behind his back.
"Thank you," she said stiffly when another glance proved he was still looking at her. She shifted her shoulders, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. His stare sent daggers digging into her skin and the light fluttering in her stomach didn't disappear until he turned to address Darren.
"Are you finished with your meal, sir?"
"Yes," he replied, handing the dish over to him with one hand. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," he gave Darren a fluid bow, lowering his head as far as the tight bow fastened around his neck would allow. There was a slight, jerky pause when he returned his attention to Saria, his eyes fixated on her face rather than her half-eaten plate.
"Was the meal to your liking, ma'am?" he asked, not bothering to hide his unimpressed tone. Saria noted there was a weak attempt at politeness, but the hostility was the majority of what she felt was directed towards her.
"It was fine," she answered curtly, pointedly avoiding his eye contact. To her surprise, Darren seemed to find this amusing, a slight smirk on his face when he gave a sideways glance at the waiter. The waiter sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Can I offer you two dessert?" he asked, struggling to regain his regality. She felt the familiar prickle of animosity aimed at her as she continued to sip her drink, staring pointedly at the clock on the wall.
"No thanks, just the check, please," Darren chuckled, winking at Saria. The waiter gave him another bow, and after sweeping up Saria's plate onto his tray, he slunk off to the kitchens. Imagining the man sulking in the kitchens brought a slight smile to her face as she lowered her glass back to the table.
"I've never seen you so angry at a stranger before," Darren leaned closer to her, clasping his hands together above the table, propping his head up with his elbows.
"It wasn't anger," she blushed, dropping her arms. "I was annoyed. He was getting on my nerves."
For some reason, he seemed to find her last comment incredibly amusing as he burst out in laughter, causing everyone in the restaurant to look over as Saria felt her face heat up like sunburns from all the attention.
He was still laughing when his phone rang, a charming little chip reserved for calls from his father. He raised one finger and pulled his phone out of his pocket. With a single flip of his wrist, he opened his phone and answered the call.
"Hello?" his voice was shaky as his laughter abated, but Saria could see his shoulders shaking and his face turning red just from trying to speak in a normal tone. After moment though, his expression turned serious.
"Really? What did the doctor say?" she almost dropped her phone when it went off again, slipping down her lap aided by the smooth outer fabric of her dress. She hadn't found a chance to see who was so insistent on calling her. When the phone quieted down, she relaxed in her seat, waiting patiently for Darren to finish.
"Wait. What did he do? No, that's impossible. I hid that," his hand curled into a fist as he looked at the entrance. Saria fumbled with phone again, searching for the red button underneath her napkin when it went off yet again.
"Hold on a minute," he pulled the phone away from his ear and turned back to Saria. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—It's my father."
"No, it's all right!" she was startled by his apologetic look. "Go right ahead."
"I'll be right back," he promised, relief washing over his face as he got to his feet and hurried away to talk in private.
Right after he left, Saria yanked the napkin off her phone and had a brief scan of the 'Missed Call' announcement before she started scrolling down the messages and phone calls she missed over the dinner. The phone buzzed again, its gray screen lighting up as a new message came in. Jeremy. She opened the new message, swallowing nervously.
Where are you?
Are you okay?
She felt like shrinking in her seat, reading message after message. Reading each one, knowing he was sitting at a table a mile away awaiting her arrival, felt worse than the day she forgot his birthday. She didn't forget about their date, nor did she forget to call Jeremy to cancel. She was just procrastinating the inevitable, trying to avoid a potentially loud confrontation in the future.
Her phone buzzed again, the screen going white as 'Jeremy' flashed by in bold letters. Her fingers hovered over the green accept button. Though she was on a date with Darren, she really wanted to answer her boyfriend's call. It was her fault he was calling in the first place—she didn't show up for their reservation almost an hour ago. The pit of her stomach dropped further with each buzz.
She closed her eyes and pressed the 'end' button. In an instant, 'Jeremy' disappeared off the screen, replaced by a silent 'Call Missed' message. She dropped her phone in her lap and stared out the window, wondering how she'd gotten this far.
Even her sister didn't know her plan when she stepped out of her car at the restaurant, fully believing the lie Saria made up about Jeremy taking her to an expensive restaurant as a 'good-bye' present. Saria had escaped through the doors before Marissa could attempt to press more details out of her.
She watched as Darren paced near the front podium. A smile tugged at her lips as he caught her gaze and gave her a small wave she immediately returned. He had this innocent attitude that always made her blush. She glanced in a different direction, her cheeks burning under her fingertips, a small smile adorning her face.
Saria accidentally caught the eye of the waiter as he exited the kitchens, once again carrying two metal covered dishes on his tray. He didn't seem fazed by her scowl as he stopped by her table again.
"We didn't order anything else," she remarked when he placed one of the plates in front of her, its silver cover hiding its contents from her view.
"Complements of the manager," he explained smoothly, placing an identical platter on Darren's side.
"Not of the chef?" she asked dryly when he removed both covers off at the same time.
"Enjoy," he replied, ignoring her snide comment. Settled in the center of her plate was a thick envelope—Darren's plate held the same contents.
"I'm sorry, I don't—" she looked up, but the waiter was already gone, presumably already back in the kitchens to hide out whenever he wasn't needed. Confused, she stared back at the envelope in front of her.
Saria lifted the textured envelope and flipped it over to open it. The envelope was sealed with golden wax, smooth to the touch, but still warm from the recent sealing. She ran her finger over the embossed letter—probably an initial of some kind. The seal made it difficult to open the envelope properly, forcing her to rip the paper around the seal. She pulled the sheet of paper out of the envelope and flipped it over to look. Then she gasped and dropped the photo on the envelope, where it lay face up on the plate.
She was looking at an image of herself, dressed in a short red sundress, her sandals in one hand and Jeremy's hand in the other. She was laughing, dragging her amused boyfriend in the direction of the camera. From her memories, she was dragging Jeremy towards the beach to cool off in the water. Jeremy was enjoying himself, one hand in his pocket as he dawdled behind his excited girlfriend, putting just the right amount of resistance without annoying her.
The photo didn't give her a sense of happiness, nor did it give the nostalgic feeling she expected from remembering a good date. Who took this picture? She of all people would have known if someone took a picture of them. They were walking towards the camera, in the middle of an empty sidewalk—she had to have seen the photographer.
"Hey, sorry about that. I told my father to call me in an emergency, but I guess I should have been more specific," Darren apologized as he sat back down at the table. Saria yanked her dinner napkin over the photo before he could see it. "Did the bill come yet?"
"No," she replied, her mind still on the photo. Time seemed to slow down as she watched him pick up the envelope and flip it over, inspecting the seal on the back. Any minute now, he would find out her secret. She longed to tear the envelope from his hands and hide it from view, but she didn't want to alert Darren. She sat at the edge of her seat, her throat dry and her heart beating desperately against her chest.
How many minutes passed? One? Two? Ten? He was sliding his fingers underneath the flap, slowly breaking apart the seal. It would only take a few more seconds before he was going to see the photo.
A few more seconds to stop him. Her staring was causing her head to hurt from concentration so hard. Already she could see obscure black spots forming on the sides of her peripheral vision. They were increasing in size, until they almost completely covered half of her eyesight.
She blinked, feeling cool hands holding her shoulders in place. Someone was pressing a cold glass to her lips, trying to get her to drink some water. Darren was standing up, the envelope lying forgotten on the side of the table, his eyes wide in worry. It took her a minute to realize he was the one who shouted her name.
"Saria are you okay?" she was confused by the urgency in his voice. "Saria!"
"Give her a minute. She doesn't know what happened," a man spoke up behind her, his accent so thick it took her a moment to make out what he said. She craned her head trying to see who spoke to her. To her surprise, she met the waiter's troubled eyes as he leaned over her, checking on her status.
"Alistair. Alistair Kingsleigh," Darren answered her question before she finished. "He's a friend of mine. He caught you before you fell out of your chair."
"I fell?" she asked, startled. She didn't even remember losing consciousness.
"Are you all right?" the waiter asked, slowing his speech so his accent was completely obscure. It took a minute for her to realize that this was how he'd been speaking with her all night. He was the one who'd caused her panic in the first place.
"Jeremy Parker," she breathed, looking Darren right in the eye when she said this.
"Jeremy Parker," she repeated. "He's my boyfriend."
She spent a second revealing in the silence, all of the tension in her mind relaxing. She knew she should be feeling anxious for Darren's reaction, but it was a relief to be telling him the truth after all these months. She watched as he slowly sat down, staring at her with a mixture of surprise and shock. Nothing she hadn't been expecting, though she preferred it to the anger she was going to get from Jeremy when she told him.
"How long?" he asked weakly.
"Two years," she replied.
"I've only known you for six months," he said. "You were going out with me and somebody else at the same time? Does he know about me?"
"I should have told you in the beginning. But I didn't want it to change our relationship," she explained, ignoring his last question. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alistair taking up a position at a table across from them, hovering nearby in case he was needed again. "I really wanted to be with you." She stopped when he laughed softly, looking up just in time to see him sniff and run the side of his hand across his eye.
"And here I thought it was because there's a five year difference between us," he gave her a half-hearted smile. "An older man dating a teenager? What would your parents think?"
"I told you two months ago, Darren. You didn't listen."
"Shut up Alistair," he sighed. "I also remember telling you not to make Saria's life difficult, but it appears you didn't listen to that either. You annoyed her every time you came up to the table."
"What did you tell him?" she narrowed her eyes at the taller man. To her frustration, he took his time with her answer, stretching his legs out luxuriously as he leaned against the table, inspecting his fingernails to pass the time.
"I figured you were dating someone. That's what high school kids do these days."
"We were in high school a couple of years ago," Darren reminded him. "Don't belittle Saria." Saria felt a rush of pride at these words, but because of the situation, she turned away hoping he didn't see her smile. Across the way, Alistair looked up at her, scowling.
"You and I have been through quite a lot since high school."
"Are you referring to that rent bill you stole?" Alistair crossed his arms and raised his chin, looking down at Darren and his accusation.
"I did not steal anything. You left—"
"Sir? I'm sorry to interrupt," a rather flustered waiter hurried over, cutting him off mid-sentence. He was clutching a black folder in his right hand when he approached their table. "Your card was declined." He thrust the folder at Darren, his arm shaking violently.
"No, it shouldn't be. I used it this morning," Darren looked worried as he pulled out his card, glancing down at the expiration date on the bottom. Saria leaned over and nodded when he flipped it over for her verification. "Are you sure?"
"Yes sir, I tried using it several times but each time the register declined it," the man wiped his brow with his sleeve. It appeared he had never encountered such a problem before. Alistair snorted and strode forward, shoving a black card into his hand.
"Run that card, Belby. And then clean up this table. They're done here," he ordered, taking folder from Darren and shoving the receipt in his pocket. Without another look at Darren, he walked over and seized Saria's wrist.
"Let me go!" she tried to yank her arm back, but he only tightened his grip, turning her wrist from red to white. As he dragged her out of the restaurant, she found it surprising how he was able to withstand every blow and attempt to escape. Each time she tried to pull away, the sharp pain held her back. As they passed, the diners mysteriously ignored them, pretending nothing of interest was happening over their heads. Chatter suddenly became louder and strained as each diner tried to force conversation to change the subject at hand.
Surprisingly enough, it was reaching the last few minutes of sunset when they sped through the doors, the sky the color of ripe orange rind off on the horizon. Once outside, Alistair turned on her and shoved her away unexpectedly, sending her tripping over her heels. Darren lunged forward, catching her in a strong embrace before she had a chance to get nearer to the ground.
"What was that, Alistair?" he demanded as he helped her up. Saria leaned in to his tight embrace, feeling the muscles on his arms tense up to shield him from the other man. "You couldn't ask?"
"You were getting nowhere in there," he replied coldly. "You were deliberately avoiding the subject."
"Avoiding the sub—how would you—"
"Get the car," he ordered, before adding, "Ask the valet for directions." To emphasis his point, he glowered at Darren until he gave in, reluctantly loosening his hold on Saria. Right before he left, however, he stepped forward and kissed her gently on the cheek.
"I'm sorry," he whispered gently. "I'll be right back."
She must have made an involuntary step in his direction—for long, pale fingers wrapped around her wrist again, holding her in place as she watched Darren walk away. When he left her line of sight, Alistair dropped her hand and started undoing the bow around his neck.
He'd just finished when Belby—the waiter—ran through the doors, holding out some things for him to take. The first, she recognized as the card he handed to him to take care of the bill, but the second she didn't recognize until he slung the coat over his arm.
"Darren, always forgetting things," he chuckled, his voice a great deal lighter as he handed a roll of money to the man. "Thank you. I don't need your assistance anymore tonight." To her surprise, the man bowed to him as he left, even giving her a polite gesture as he passed by.
She tried to think of something to say as he shook out Darren's coat. He glanced at her, and as if he read her mind, he folded it carefully over his arm and spoke.
"I am Alistair Kingsleigh of the Kingsleigh family. This restaurant is one of my older brother's places, but he agreed to let me borrow it for tonight at Darren's request."
"I thought Darren only asked for a reservation."
"And I was going to give him that—if I knew who you were," he cupped her chin and lifted her head to look at her face closely. "So I emptied the reservation list and hired some friends of my family to dine here tonight instead. I did make your reservation, planned the table, the atmosphere, waiters, host—even the orchestra was staged."
"Why?" she tried to shift away when he started pushing some of her hair behind her ears. But he continued his attempt, even managing to get that spare strand of hair to stay in its place.
"I'm heavily invested in Darren's shop," he started walking in a slow circle around her. "It would be a shame if something happened to him. It's also a shame your dress doesn't have a zipper in the back." She flushed, crossing her arms over her chest, trying to reduce the amount of cleavage exposed to his eyes.
"What are you doing?" she demanded hotly, turning to face him every time he attempted to get behind her.
"Stop blushing, it's turning your face red," he instructed sharply. She must have flushed again because he snapped at her again, "Stop it! You don't blush evenly."
"Where did you get that picture?" she asked, changing the subject.
"I hired someone to take it," he answered as he unfolded Darren's coat and slung it over her shoulders. He shoved an envelope into her hand and spun her around on the spot, giving her another quick scan.
"That's when you told Darren."
"Darren is one of my best friends," he informed her, sliding a large flower into place above her right ear. A single whiff told her the flower was the same lily that was once sitting as their centerpiece in the bowl. "I don't want anything to happen to him."
"But apparently I'm fine now?"
"Good enough," he replied, lifting up her hands to inspect her nails. "Darren talks about you very often. I don't think I can have a solid conversation without your name being mentioned. He was worried you didn't like—Thank God you don't bite your nails!" And with that final note, he slipped the strap of her purse over her arm. Spinning her around at the exact moment Darren drove into the circle.
Instead of allowing Darren to get out of the car, Alistair took her hand and guided her to the passenger door and opened it for her to take a seat. She reached over to shut the door, but he lightly brushed her hand aside and finished her action for her.
The two looked at each other at the same moment. A long awkward silence followed when they averted gazes just as quickly. Saria swallowed as she curled her fingers into fists inside his coat.
"I didn't know you were cold," he remarked, dropping his hand from the steering wheel so it was only inches from her own. She glanced at it, slowly unrolling her fingers so the tips of her nails peeked out from underneath the coat's sleeves.
"You forgot your coat," she replied. "I was fine inside, but it was a little windy outside."
"I'm sorry for getting you into that mess," he sighed. She raised her eyebrows in confusion.
"You're sorry?" she asked skeptically, her voice coming out a bit harsher than she intended. "Why are you sorry? I just told you I have a boyfriend and you're sorry? I thought you were against cheating."
"Everyone is to a certain degree," Darren replied, turning to look into her eyes. "It just depends on what path you would like to go on next. Did you still want to go somewhere with me?"
"The beach," the ends of his lips curled into a small smile. "I always see you looking over at the water across the street. It's too dark to go down to the beach now, but maybe we can look down from my shop. Do you want to do that?"
"That's a good idea." Right when she thought about it, the memory of the ocean washed over her mind. Soothing, calm—gentle. The waves lapping up against her feet did sound like a good place to relax for a bit. And it did sound like a good place to put her thoughts together.
"I'll be inside—if you want to be alone," he added quickly as he removed the parking brake and started turning out of the small circle.
Saria fell silent as she thought about that suggestion, watching the world pass by in blurs through the car window. She folded her hands together, meeting at her lap right over a rough, textured envelope. She lifted it up, running her hands over the gold wax seal in the dim light. She'd forgotten what the man shoved into her hands at the last minute.
"What is it?" Darren asked, glancing over at the envelope when she lifted its contents up to the light.
The photo was nothing what she'd expected. Nothing like the picture she had first seen. Darren's picture only had one person in it. It looked like it was placed around the same time, a single girl wearing a light blue sundress. Her blond hair whipped around behind her in the ocean breeze, her dress following same example, entangling her legs as she leaned over the railing. She couldn't remember when this picture was taken—same as before. But she was sure she was staring off in the distance, watching some boat on the horizon. Just like a posed picture in a vacation magazine.
She looked over at Darren, and saw him smile.
"That's how I see you," he explained, keeping his eyes on the road. "I took that picture a few weeks ago when you were waiting for me to close the shop for lunch. It's the same one I gave to Alistair when he asked who you were. I was wondering what he did with it."
She slid the picture back in its envelope and opened his coat, looking for an inside pocket to slide it in.
"I don't want to be alone."
"I will be nearby," he promised. "I'm not going to let you walk around alone in the dark."
"No. I want you with me." he looked at her this time, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "I want to be with you."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." She automatically reached up to push her hair behind her ear, touching the cold petals of the forgotten lily. Then she slid her left hand over his, entwining their fingers over the center. Underneath her slender fingers, she felt the tension ease and his hand slowly reopen beneath hers.