“Stay and have dinner with me. I’d appreciate the opportunity to tell you what’s on my mind.”
“Maybe this isn’t—” she tried again but Stroud cut her off.
Ever sighed with a faint smile. “Alright.”
Stroud ordered lemon sole and Ever chose the smallest thing she could find on the menu – crab cakes. Stroud ordered a bottle of wine and offered Ever another cigarette.
“I can’t smoke all your cigarettes,” she protested.
“Why not? They’re not expensive.”
“Like hell they’re not,” she said, accepting one.
Stroud laughed aloud, but Ever had gone solemn again. The smoke snaked up from the cigarette in her right hand as she toyed idly with the stem of the rose with her left.
“It’s apparent our backgrounds and lifestyles differ considerably,” she said.
“It is to me.”
“Does it present a problem?”
“Then why bring it up?”
Ever paused, then glanced up, pinning him with a penetrating stare. “Why me?”
Stroud enjoyed the feel of her eyes on him. “I’m looking for a woman. A very particular woman. Someone like you, I think.”
“What makes you think that?”
“A quality I see in you. A complexity. Strength and fragility in conflict. The contrast is quite startling.”
“Startling,” Ever repeated to herself and adjusted into a more aggressive pose. “Well, this mix you describe confuses most men.”
“I find it appealing,” Stroud said. “And appropriate.”
“Appropriate for what?”
Just then, Thomas arrived with the wine. He and Stroud played the tasting game, then Thomas withdrew, leaving two filled glasses and the remains in the bottle on the table. Ever had broken from Stroud’s gaze and now reached for her glass to taste the wine for herself. It was delicate and delicious. Perfect, as she’d suspected it would be. Just the sort of wine she could happily drink too much of.
“I’m looking for a mistress.”
“A mistress?” Ever repeated, almost smiling. “Ah. You’re married,” she deduced.
“No. The term is not intended in that sense.”
“In what sense, then?”
“It is intended merely in the sense that the woman and I are not married. In that there are pre-determined meetings on a routine basis.”
Now Ever could not hide her smile. “Dates.”
Stroud smiled also. “A relationship. A specific relationship.”
Ever was momentarily perplexed. She had interpreted the term in the traditional European sense but a recollection of the exhibition came to mind and she suddenly realized there was another connotation to the term ‘mistress’. A connotation she had not really been aware of before that day. Her eyes widened slightly and the conclusion she was about to draw was abruptly telegraphed to Stroud.
“You mean you want—”
“No,” he interjected. “You misunderstand.”
The tone of this instantaneous denial reconfirmed to Ever that she had not misunderstood.
Thomas arrived with their food and spent just long enough fussing over the details of service to allow Ever time to regroup and find the easiest, most accessible button.
“You want to sleep with me,” she said as soon as Thomas was out of earshot.
Stroud spread his napkin over his lap. “Of course,” he replied. “And more.” He reached for his wine glass, his eyes pinned on her. “It’s an unusual woman in whom submission does not become destructive.”
“I have a feeling you’ve been waiting for a man like me,” he said and sipped his wine, his eyes still on her.
Ever’s hand drew her napkin off the table onto her lap. As her gaze dropped to the three crab cakes on the plate before her, she was suddenly paralyzed with all sorts of irresponsible, undignified emotions. Her notions and his notions of what he was saying might not have been the same, but her notions alone were enough to freeze her to the spot – especially if she dared to think someone like Stroud into them.
She could ask him out right what he wanted but that could spoil the moment. Dowse this wild flush of excitement. Yet, it was this very excitement, flashing her own desires so strongly before her that scared her into a major retreat.
“I’m too old to be anyone’s mistress,” she said, stabbing into one of the hapless crab cakes.
“I’m sure that isn’t true,” Stroud said.
“I just don’t know if I’m up to it. I’m not what I used to be and I have – a defect.” A small nibble of crab cake went into her mouth.
“Of what nature?”
Ever chewed and swallowed without tasting. “A physical nature.”
“Does it prohibit you from having relations?”
“No,” she admitted with a tinge of irony.
Stroud had started on his sole. He seemed to be having no difficulty with the ordeal of food in combination with this talk. Ever reached for her glass. At least the wine went down smoothly.
Stroud studied her for a moment. She was so contained – so isolated. “How long has it been since you’ve been with a man?” he asked gently.
“Full time? A long time.”
“Well,” he said after a moment. “I find you exceedingly attractive.”
“Do you? Well, I’m nobody’s Playboy tear sheet.”
“I don’t take you for one and it’s not what I’m looking for.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Don’t you know?”
They looked at each other a moment, then Ever looked away. She poked again at the crab cakes, tried another small bite.
“Perhaps I can explain it best this way...” Stroud suggested and placed a square, plain white box on the table before his dinner companion.
Ever’s eyes locked on it.
“Open it,” he coaxed.
He heard Ever’s breath catch softly as she lifted the lid of the box and her eyes fell upon a white gold necklace of flexible herringbone chain. The chain itself was about an inch wide with an unusual, square clasp. From the center of the necklace hung a single, gleaming white gold ring. Ever had never seen anything like it before and she had no idea what the cost of such a thing would be.
Only one of her fingers ventured over the side of the box to tentatively touch the edge of the necklace, although this single finger had now withdrawn.
Stroud placed his napkin on the table and slid across to her side. He picked the necklace out of the box and, before she could react, raised it to Ever’s throat and fastened it around her neck. He sat back and regarded her.
“Does that clarify things for you?” he asked softly.
Ever’s hand drifted up to the oval ring depending from the choker. Her second hand came up and both reached back to the fastening.
“It’s a locking clasp,” Stroud said. “I’m sure you noticed.”
Ever released the choker, her hands sliding down to her lap like guilty thieves.
“Wear it a while,” Stroud suggested. “It looks very becoming.”
Ever was too numb to speak. She was very well aware of how the necklace must look. For a few frightening moments, nothing in the universe existed but that necklace, that choker, gleaming around her encircled neck like a beacon. Stroud stroked back a lock of her hair, but she could not speak or respond in any way.
Stroud returned to his side of the table to resume his meal. Ever ate as much as she could, which wasn’t a lot. Stroud ordered coffee, without consulting her, and Ever was not forced to speak again until he solicited her preference in liqueur.
“Amaretto, please,” she choked out.
When coffee was served, Ever offered cream to Stroud.
“No, thank you.”
Ever took cream herself and two sugars.
“One, please,” Stroud indicated and Ever served him one sugar. His mood had undergone a change.
“Have you ever been with a dominant?” he asked.
“Have you considered it?”
“To be honest, I didn’t believe such people actually existed.”
“Do you want to believe it?”
When Ever failed to respond, Stroud said, “The answer to that question is most important.”
Ever didn’t need Stroud to tell her that. Or, perhaps she did.
“I want to spend time with you,” he said, “and I should like to assume control immediately.”
“Do you want me to come with you tonight?” Ever asked with a hint of alarm.
Stroud smiled at the courage it must have taken her to voice the question. “Yes,” he admitted, “but that would be rather abrupt. This is intended to be seduction, not abduction.”
A slight blush pinked Ever’s pale features.
“When you consent to come with me, I want you prepared to spend the week-end.”
“Next week-end, is my hope.”
This was a request no man had made of her in a long time. Ever was certainly flattered, but what were the perils in entertaining ideas of running off with this insolent stranger? Would it place her in jeopardy? Threaten her life? Her life. A half life that had become a walking death with no contact, no exchange, no intimacy. The plain truth was she ached to take off into the unknown with Stroud.
“It sounds like you mean to wear me out,” she said softly.
“I promise I will attend to you every minute,” he said, which they both understood could mean any number of things.
Thomas stopped by to refresh their coffee. Stroud accepted a second cup, but Ever covered hers with her hand. More coffee would do nothing to dissolve the surrealism of the situation. Stroud asked for the check and Thomas went away. Stroud sat forward slightly.
“I warn you,” he said quietly, “I’m not easy, but neither am I an inexperienced brute. Naturally if, at any time, you feel things go too far, you have only to say so. You can call a halt. My underlying aim will be to please you like no man ever has and, if I fail; you will be free to leave me without fear of pursuit or reprisal.”
“That’s a comfort,” Ever murmured, sipping the tepid coffee.
“However, as I proposed, I want to keep you the entire week-end and I will do anything within reason to prevent you from leaving before time.”
“It seems like you’re trying to frighten me.”
“A little fear is a good thing.”
That statement, above just about everything else he’d said, convinced Ever that she understood the implications of Stroud’s proposal.
Stroud sat back, spooned sugar into his coffee and stirred it. “I think we’ve communicated enough and, yet,” he added with a smile, “not so much as to destroy all anticipation.”
Ever nodded solemnly.
“Promise me you’ll at least think it over?”
“I will,” she agreed.
Much to her relief, Stroud did not try to coax Ever into allowing him to drive her home. A cab was called from the restaurant and he waited, his hand on her arm, until it arrived.
He opened the door and Ever slid into the back seat. He passed a bill to the driver. “Make sure she gets home safely,” he instructed. The driver nodded and Stroud turned back to Ever. “I’ll be in touch,” he assured her, pressing the key to the necklace into Ever’s hand through the window. “Sleep well.”
He stepped back and stood watch until the cab was out of sight.