“Why the hell would I ask for an opinion from a bloody waiter?”
Startled, Oliver heard Rupert’s angry voice above everything else in the restaurant: the chatter of the other late night guests, many of them the worse for drink; the clink of cutlery; the Spanish guitar music piped in as background ambience. He twisted in his chair, turning towards the back of the room and the source of the argument.
Rupert was glaring at one of the young waiters, the one who’d earlier brought Oliver an extra portion of stuffed mushrooms. The food really had been excellent. In fact, Oliver thought the whole evening’s service had been very efficient. But Rupert was gesturing towards the counter where the liqueur bottles and card payment machine sat.
Was it a problem with the bill? Rupert’s handsome face was rather alarmingly red, his broad shoulders looked tensed. The dark-haired waiter was just as tall as Rupert but he leaned back as if trying to avoid Rupert’s breath. He was frowning: his fist was clenched at his side.
Oliver stood up, ready to pour oil on these troubled waters. This was often his role. Instinctively, he patted his suit jacket, right over the inside pocket where he kept his bank card. Everything would be fine. He nodded reassuringly to a group of bemused diners at a nearby table, who’d stopped mid-forkful to stare at Rupert and the waiter’s altercation. Yes, Oliver would pay the bill as usual, and then it’d be time to ease Rupert away from the restaurant and back to Oliver’s flat. Or he assumed that was where they’d go, again as usual. Rupert had never invited Oliver to his place, but that was something to look forward to when they were a more established couple, wasn’t it? Everyone’s personal time had been severely curtailed while the bank had been involved in the recent merger. But now that the deal was done–and successfully–Oliver was anticipating a more intimate reward for those long, long hours and short, short tempers. He was sure Rupert was, too, considering the way his knee had pressed against Oliver’s all through the main course.
He surreptitiously smoothed down an unruly curl of hair that always fell over his brow and swallowed against an unexpected knot of tension. Rupert was striding back towards their table. The other guests had turned back to their meal, the waiter had slunk behind the bar to fetch something. Oliver sat back down and smiled up as Rupert reached him. “Is everything all right?”
Rupert shook his head dismissively. “Brandy’s your tipple, isn’t it, old chap? I ordered that boy to bring over the best bottle they have.”
“Brandy?” Oliver blinked at Rupert’s abrupt words. They clashed painfully with Oliver’s more tender thoughts. “I…yes. That’ll be fine. Don’t you want to…?” He realized Rupert wasn’t making the appropriate moves to sit back down. He had to crick his neck to look up at his dinner companion.
“I have to go now,” Rupert said. Oliver listened closely for regret in Rupert’s tone but couldn’t quite catch it. Rupert patted his jacket pocket, in unconscious mimicry of Oliver’s own, earlier gesture. “Got a phone call from the Director.”
When? Oliver knew Rupert’s phone hadn’t rung at any time during the meal. Why would he lie about it? “Of course. We can leave now–”
“No. Not you.”
Oliver blinked again. In contrast, Rupert’s gaze didn’t waver, his eyes gleaming in the muted restaurant lighting. In the background, a rather muffled version of That’s Amore piped its way through the sound system.
“Oliver.” Rupert’s face twisted as if he found the softer tone awkward. “This is probably a convenient opportunity to wrap things up.”
Rupert was concentrating on buttoning his jacket. “Obviously this was never meant to be long-term.” He waved an aimless hand through the air.
What wasn’t? The meal? The affair? Oliver bit back a sudden, shocked moan.
“You’ve been fun of course, and very rewarding.” Rupert’s gaze flickered briefly up and down Oliver’s body and his eyes darkened. “Very. But there was never any intention of making more of it than that. It’s not something the Board would approve of at this stage of my career, if you know what I mean. Well, we’re both men of the world, aren’t we?”
Oliver couldn’t find the words to respond. He knew it was rude to stare at Rupert’s mouth, but he was trying to make the words he was hearing match with the ones he’d hoped for.
Rupert clapped him briefly on the shoulder with rather too much force. “Thanks for the meal, Betts. Was good to have you on the team, while it lasted. I’ll write you a damned good reference for your next move.”
“My next move…?”
Rupert gave a short, brusque laugh, and turned on his heel.
In a barely conscious gesture, Oliver reached out for Rupert. He didn’t catch him, but his elbow caught the edge of his plate instead, sending it spinning off the table. It landed on the tiled floor with a hideously loud crash, and the remains of a very fine Veal Saltimbocca splashed all over Oliver’s shoes.
Oliver didn’t move. He stared, speechless, at Rupert’s back as the other man left the restaurant without a backward glance.