Tara met Willow for lunch in a café near where Willow worked. When Willow called, she was tempted to say no to the awkward request for a, date was it? But the dance from the other night and the thought-provoking conversation with Katrina were fresh on her mind and she surprised herself at how the bottom of her stomach fluttered at Willow's voice. She was even more surprised at how readily she agreed.
She arrived a little before noon, there was less traffic than she expected and it took the taxi no time to drop her at the lower reaches of Broadway. The café was a pleasant revelation. Outside it was a bustling deli selling the usual sandwiches, soups and salads; venture deeper inside and there was an indoor conservatory complete with glass ceiling, cast iron garden chairs and a player piano pounding out slightly cheesy modern classics.
Willow arrived on the dot of twelve.
"Nice place," the redhead said as she sat down. Tara thought she looked professional and sophisticated in a burgundy turtleneck sweater and tailored gray slacks. The coat she slung across the back of the chair was pure cashmere. She knew that with her own oversized Shetland sweater and R&R jeans they made a good-looking couple.
"Yes, very. Like an oasis in the middle of the busy city. I'm amazed so few people are in here."
"It's too mellow for the folks around here, I think," Willow joked. "So, what will you have? My treat."
"We can go together, you don't need to pay," Tara protested.
"Nonsense. You take me to a five star Japanese restaurant and I ask you to come to a cheap deli. It's the least I can do," Willow insisted.
Tara was about to point out that the Dozo tab was picked up by the club, when she realized they shouldn't be bickering about something so inconsequential as who bought lunch. She sat back down with a nod of acquiescence. "A turkey sandwich or something like that? And that nice looking cream soup in the copperpot, I could smell it as soon as I walked in," she said.
"Good choice. It's their special homemade cream of asparagus soup. I'll be right back."
Willow was good to her word and was back before the piano finished its next song. The turkey and cheese on grilled farmhouse bread she brought back was delicious. Perhaps it had something to do with the company, Tara thought wistfully.
"Is this your regular lunch place?" she asked. Oh boy, we're back to petty small talk. Last time it was hairstyles, may be this time we move onto something bigger like the latest shoe designs.
"Sometimes, if I want to get away from the office. But I usually eat at my desk," Willow replied. "I only cook at weekends generally," she shrugged.
Not shoes. We'll start talking about the merits of different types of bread next.
They lapsed into a silence that wasn't awkward as they enjoyed their lunches in companionable quietude. Tara noticed how Willow took careful bites into her smoked salmon and cream cheese on pumpernickel, as if savoring the experience and the taste. For a brief moment, she felt as if she too was able to forget the harsh caprice of her life.
But only for a moment.
"Willow," she was loath to break the mood, but she was sure Willow didn't ask her to lunch so that they could eat sandwiches in silence.
It took Willow a second to shake herself back to the now. She had been elsewhere too. "Eh?"
"You, um, mentioned there was something you wanted to talk to me about?" Tara asked.
"Yes," Willow said slowly. "I was thinking, how do vacations work for you? Like do you get a fixed number of days off a year?"
"Not exactly. There's a lot of flexibility, a lot of the front of house staff are on daily rates so they work whenever they are needed."
"What about you?"
Why? "No, some of us are staff." Again, why?
"Can you take a long weekend off?" Willow blurted.
Tara could almost hear the inner babble that preceded that question and blinked as several emotions shot through her in rapid succession. Shock, pleasure, conjecture, anxiousness, longing, doubt. Finally pragmatism won. "Why?"
"I'm thinking of going upstate before the holiday season starts, see if I can catch some snow. Do you ski?"
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea."
"You don't ski?"
"I do ski, but that's beside the point. I don't think we're ready for that."
"You mean you're scared of being with me for three whole days? Come on, I don't bite."
There was a glint of amusement in Willow's eyes; but underneath the light joking she could see a small spark of unspoken hope that she knew she felt herself too.
"I can't. I can't go with you. It's too much," she said regretfully.
Willow slammed her coffee cup on the table so hard that Tara thought it might break. "Damn it, Tara. I thought - what are you trying to run away from this time?"
Me. You. Us. "I'm sorry, Will. I didn't want to lead you on."
Willow's face was so flushed, she looked so offended, that it was all Tara could do not to reach up and smooth away the anger lines. Yes, yes. I'll do anything you ask. She settled for gripping her hands together tightly on her lap.
"Tara! What are you doing here?"
Both Tara and Willow jumped out of their seats at the booming voice that descended on them.
Great timing, Boss.
"Um, sir, I w-w-was having lunch with my friend," Tara managed to squeak out. Willow was looking like she wanted to either kill her for her refusal or the man for interrupting.
"Ah, our young banker friend. One of our esteemed and regular patrons." His smile at Willow was fake and sharp. "Won't you introduce us?"
"Oh, Willow Rosenberg. This is my boss, Richard Wilkins."
"The third. Pleased to meet you, Ms Rosenberg. May I call you Willow, since we're practically family? I heard you're a rising star; I'm like a moth, I can't help flying straight to brightest places," he grinned as he took her hand and pumped it enthusiastically.
Tara could almost hear Willow's jaw snap before she effortlessly transformed into professional mode. "Willow is fine, Mr Wilkins. I do okay. But I must compliment you on your establishment, it's hard to stay away."
"You bet it's a great place, built it with my own blood, sweat and tears. I'm so glad I ran into you, I've been meaning to talk to you at the club but the opportunity never presented itself," he said solemnly.
"Talk to me?"
"I think we may be able to do some business together."
Tara cringed as she watched the sparring between the two and wanted to drag Willow away, but she could say nothing.
"I'll see what I can do," Willow said neutrally.
"I've been meaning to diversify my investment portfolio. How do I set about opening an account with you?"
"Is it for your own money? I mean, your personal funds as opposed to those of your company."
"Yep, my money, every cent."
"I could definitely give you a favorable referral to our wealth management division. They have a lot of products that suit your needs, depending on your appetite for risk."
"Oh I have a huge appetite, you can be sure of that," he winked, not hiding the double entendre. "But I don't want a referral, young lady! I want you to handle my affairs personally."
Tara could see the wheels of doubt whirling in Willow's mind, but she hadn't counted on the response.
"Normally I handle corporate clients, Mr Wilkins. But I could make an exception, I'll need to clear it with my superiors first," she offered. Tara thought it sounded forced, though she couldn't put her finger on the problem.
Wilkins stood up and slapped Willow on the back with the affability of long lost buddies. "Excellent! Tara will give you my contact details and set up an appointment. I'm away a lot, so Tara will be your liaison," he said. Turning to Tara, "Come up to the Suite this afternoon, will you?"
Tara nodded, still speechless, as she watched him make his way back to his associates.
"He sure has a way with people," Willow commented.
"Yes he has. Are you taking his business?" Tara finally found her tongue.
"You are questioning my ethics?" Willow challenged.
"No, no. You know what you're doing, it's not my place to judge."
"I have to go back and talk to Patrick about this. Can I call you? And we need to finish our conversation."
"I won't change my mind."
"We'll see. Next time, I'll take you someplace where we won't get interrupted. I won't give up so easily, Tara," Willow said confidently.
There was one part of Tara who wanted to give in to her feelings, but another part who was too afraid of losing control. She wasn't sure how long her resolve could last.