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I have died and gone to hell, Parker decided, groaning inwardly.

She impatiently tapped her foot to a silent rhythm and shot an offhand glare at the man seated across the table. After a minute or so of silence, through which the air was heavy with tension, their waiter, who had introduced himself as Paolo, arrived, interrupting her glowering and forcing her to plaster on a saccharin smile.

‘Thank you,’ she offered sweetly as a dish of steaming pasta was set down in front of her. She nudged her dinner partner sharply with her foot beneath the table, and he too feebly voiced his thanks.

She’d just raised her fork to her mouth when she lowered it and gave an exasperated sigh.

‘For God’s sakes, Broots, would you lighten up? This is a restaurant, not a morgue.’

Her comment only seemed to dishearten the tech further, as he cast a nauseated glance at his meal before meeting her gaze.

‘I’m sorry, Miss Parker. But… I guess I’m a little uncomfortable, given, you know, the circumstances…’ he mumbled.
‘What?’ she asked, arching her eyebrow playfully, a good as sign as any to Broots that she was about to be cruel. He’d just placed a spoonful of food in his mouth when she asked innocently, ‘This is your first time?’

Broots almost choked on his mouthful of Italian cuisine at her loaded question, and she bit back a smirk as she elaborated,

‘In a five star restaurant.’

Hiding her amusement, she helped herself to her pasta, and then to a sip of wine.

Apparently, this particular corner of hell has nice food.

She’d been at the l’Amore Matto – the most acclaimed Italian restaurant in Dover, possibly in Delaware itself, whose name incidentally translated to “crazy love” - a grand total of eighteen minutes, eleven seconds and she was willing to admit, though begrudgingly, that she wasn’t having too bad a time. There was no shortage of entertainment as long as her bumbling colleague remained seated at the same table of herself, and she was willing to wager he was long ago frozen to his chair anyway. The poor man had been all but shaking since the moment they’d arrived, and, as per usual, she’d been taking advantage of the situation - at his expense, of course.

It was a very nice restaurant. The atmosphere was warm and inviting – the décor a clever play of light and shadows in order to make the customers feel completely at home while at the same time laying foundations for a romantic mood.

And nice furniture, she added to her earlier thought, leaning back in the soft, black, genuine Italian leather seat and pulling at the hem of her garb of the same colour.

She quite often dressed to impress – to stun and to impose – but tonight, Broots was added incentive and she had dressed to tease. Her charcoal dress finished at a length that was barely legal, perfectly displaying her best asset; long, creamy legs capable of, with the right application, rendering speechless any heterosexual man with a pulse. Her hair was in curls; something she rarely did as it was a time consuming affair and time was a precious commodity in her world. The outfit was finished off with a pair of diamond earrings and a matching necklace – a gift from her father.

She looked stunning, and she knew it.

Broot’s wandering eyes and a dumbfounded “wow”, not to mention the numerous glances she received from the male population of the eatery, were only confirmation, and any other day she would have been irritated by the attention but this night she was enjoying her companion’s discomfort, amused by his attempts to engage her in conversation.

She’d tried her best but some of her computer geek’s opening lines were impossible not to answer to with barbs, and although she knew she was killing the mood with her dry sense of humour, he seemed unaware that he was being laughed at – albeit silently – and persisted. It wasn’t until they were waiting for their dessert orders – classic gelato for herself and tiramisu for Broots – that he said something that actually sparked her interest, giving her an idea.

‘So, you’ve… you’ve been to Italy, right?’ he queried.
‘Been to? Broots, I lived there for practically the entire duration of my adolescence.’
‘Oh. The waiter… he seemed… er, pleased that you can, you know, speak it. The only Italian I know is ciao, au revoir, that kind of thing.’

Ah, he’s multilingual, I see.

‘Mmm. Actually, they do say there’s no time like the present and if we’re going to sit here in awkward silences like we are then you might as well be learning something. Lesson one: it’s Italian etiquette for the head male of the dinner party to address the waiter before eating with, presto, presto – ho fame!’
‘Really?’ he asked.
‘Mm-hmm,’ she answered, nodding absently and pretending to interest herself in her napkin, just as Paolo approached the table with their dessert.

Apparently gathering his confidence, Broots straightened and looked up at the lean man as he set the plate of tiramisu down in front of him. He delivered the line with commendable pronunciation.

‘Presto, presto – ho fame!’

Parker had to glance away and bite her tongue as the tech obliviously and rather rudely told Paolo to hurry, as he was hungry. Turning back, she quickly endeavored to rectify the situation before the tech caught wise.

‘La prego di perdonare le maniere di mio marito,’ she told the disgruntled waiter, proceeding to hold a quick conversation with the man regarding her dim-witted husband and his atrocious table manners.

The waiter, obviously smitten, graciously accepted her apologies. Towards the end of the exchange she had shifted in her chair and adjusted her dress, making a casual remark about how uncomfortable looking good was these days. Paolo had been called away to another table, but not before supplying her with a,

‘Il nero le dona.’

Black suits you.


At some point during her brief bout of flirting with the young waiter, Parker had decided she was having a fabulous time. Not what she had expected, especially given her present company. Remembering that Broots was in fact still seated directly across from her, she cleared her throat.

‘Paolo says he is most impressed with your efforts with the language,’ she told him once she was sure she could deliver the line with complete sincerity.

The tech looked pleased but said nothing, instead taking a bite of his dessert.

A minute later, his glass of wine at his lips, he noticed that her glass was empty, and it was his turn to clear his throat as he mustered the courage to ask,

‘More wine, Miss Parker?’
‘Trying to get me drunk, Broots?’ she quipped, arching an eyebrow, observing as he choked on his drink, not for the first time.
‘Of course not!’ he said hurriedly, trying to explain his actions when he saw the smile tugging at the corners of her lips and realized she had been teasing.
‘You know, Miss Parker, you have to admit… this is kind of weird. I mean… who would have thought… You… me… here…’
‘Right back atcha,’ she said amusedly. ‘Though this incognito thing is addictive. Suddenly I understand what Wonderboy sees in it. There’s so much power in anonymity. Think… no one at the Centre will ever know we were here. It’s our little secret.’
‘Yeah,’ Broots said with a somewhat goofy smile.

Lovable moron. Not exactly my type, but there has to be someone out there that would see the charm in his idiocy.

‘Tell me, Broots – just how long has it been since you’ve been on a date?’
‘A date?’ he all but squeaked.
‘Yeah, you know… it’s what they call it when two people go out to dinner.’
‘Uh… well, you know, with Debbie and all, I’ve been a little too busy for that kind of thing.’
‘I see,’ she said indulgently.

She nodded to her glass.

‘Fill me up, then,’ she said, wondering if he’d catch the double entendre. Evidently he didn’t, which was probably best.

He busied himself acquiescing to her request. During the pouring process, however, the bumbling tech somehow managed to knock over her glass. Icy wine quickly soaked the tablecloth and a small minority of the spill dampened her dress.

Deciding that he had already faced enough humiliation, she abruptly stood up and grabbed a napkin to wipe at the black fabric.

‘Paolo!’ she called. The waiter came as quickly as possible. ‘Mi dispiache, ma… Silly me, you know… wasn’t watching what I was doing, knocked the glass over…’
‘It happens all the time,’ Paolo said in understanding, picking up the now-empty glass. ‘Can I move you to another table?’

Glancing at Broots, who looked positively miserable, she shook her head.

‘We should be going, anyway. We left… our… daughter at home, on her own, and we need to be getting back. Ma la ringrazio ugualmente.
‘Prego,’ Paolo said. ‘Let me get you your coat.’

She collected her coat, but not after placing a hand on Paolo’s shoulder and whispering something in his ear. He raised her palm to his lips and kissed it, bidding her goodnight. Her innocent flirting with him throughout dinner had only added to the fun, and she was more than happy to allow him the gesture.

Joining Broots at the door, she supplied him with another Italian tradition to support her actions - something about the female always communicating the gratitude for the meal, in turn receiving a “you’re welcome” by means of a kiss on the hand - and the pair of them had ventured out into the crisp night air.

Once the rather uneventful ride had come to an end, she stepped out of the car – Broots’; she’d insisted they do the thing properly – and walked past his door to pause at the window, bending down and raising a perfect brow.

‘Not much of a gentlemen, are you, Broots?’
‘Huh?’ he said, not-so-intelligently.
‘Aren’t you going to walk me to my door?’

Confused by her out of character behavior, but not one to complain about the pleasant change in her demeanor, Broots pulled himself out of his blue sedan and followed her up her front path.

Once they reached the entrance to her house, she turned to face him, leaning casually back against the wall.

‘I know it obviously didn’t go how it was meant to, tonight, Miss Parker, and I don’t know about you, but I still had a good time,’ he said, a little defensively.
‘So did I,’ she said lightly. ‘It sure beat sitting at home alone, anyway.’

The man took a moment to consider this, then nodded, looking slightly happier.

‘Well, I should be going. You know, Debbie being home on her own, and all…’

He trailed off, and she assumed it had something to do with her prior reference to Debbie as “their” daughter.

‘Why, Broots – here was me about to invite you in for a sleepover!’

The look on his face was classic, and it took everything within her not to laugh at the poor tech.

I’m way too evil.

‘You’d better go,’ she said, biting her lip.
‘Yeah,’ he said, nodding.
‘Oh, and Broots? I almost forgot.’

Unable to resist, she leaned in close to his ear. He nearly quit breathing.

‘Y-yes, Miss Parker?’
‘Say hi to her for me, won’t you? Debbie, I mean.’

And just like that, she was gone, disappearing inside with a flash of diamonds in the moonlight and Broots was left standing on her porch, a closed door in front of him.

‘Of course, Miss Parker,’ he sighed, before heading dejectedly down the steps and back to the car.


xXxXxXxXxXx

The next morning, early despite her having only gotten to bed at two, Parker had just turned on the tap and was washing out her coffee cup – she’d decided she’d had enough alcohol for the evening – an amused smile on her face, threatening to break out into one of her feral grins, as she recalled the past night’s events…

*

‘Mr and Mrs…’
‘Smith,’ Parker answered, playing the part of the amiable wife, choosing to ignore Broot’s spluttering.
‘Ah, si. Signora…’
‘Call me Alessandra, per favore,’ she said, adopting the name of an old friend and surprising herself with how easily the language rolled off her lips. The man brightened further at the use of his mother tongue.
‘Ah, Alessandra, un nome molto bello. Un minuto… I’ll have someone show you to your table.’
‘Grazie,’ she replied out of habit.
‘Prego, signora, e buonaserata.’


*

…when her phone rang, snapping her out of her daze. Forgetting the mug in the sink, she left the tap running and wandered over to the sofa, where she had carelessly tossed her cell phone after returning home.

‘What?’ she asked, wondering how the pretender would have reacted if she had have instead answered with a testy, che?
‘So… how was your dinner date with signor Roberts?’
‘Interesting enough,’ she replied slowly. ‘Who was he?’

*

‘I’m terribly sorry, signor, signora – your dinner guest has just phoned to cancel. Signor Roberts had more urgent matters to attend to, and offers his sincere apologies. But you would still like to dine at the Amore Matto tonight, si?’
‘Why not?’ Parker mused.

Broots, if possible, sunk even lower into his chair.


*

‘As you may have realized, a man with curious ties to the Centre,’ Jarod explained. ‘I thought you might be interested in what he had to say. I’m sorry for putting you on the spot with that one, but I had little doubt that you would figure it out and play along.’
‘Well, there was no need to worry. Your “friend” didn’t show,’ she informed him, picking up the cream placard the pretender had sent them, absently tracing over the gold engraving with her fingertips.
‘No?’
‘No – he seemed to have more important things on his To Do List and bailed at the last minute. I must thank you, however, for giving me one of the best nights of my life.’
‘Is that so?’ the pretender asked, and she detected an underlying wariness in his words.

She put down the placard as she spoke, instead withdrawing a napkin from her pocket. She smiled as her twinkling eyes danced over the decidedly masculine script.

Mia cara Alessandra,

Nel caso abbia bisogno di una pausa dalle pessime maniere di tuo marito.
If you ever need a break from your dim-witted marito.
– Paolo

It was accompanied by a number that she had no intention of calling.

Sorry, Paolo, but clandestine love affairs just aren’t my scene. At least, not anymore. Besides, my dim-witted marito isn’t so bad…

‘I have to say, Jarod, that your taste in food is exquisite, and your choice of restaurant is highly commendable. More than enough to set the ball rolling. Broots and I had a wonderful time and we don’t know how we could ever thank you.’

There was a confused, possibly stunned silence on the other end and she had to summon all of her will power not to laugh. Biting her lower lip, she headed back towards the kitchen, where the tap was still sending warm water gushing into the drain.

‘You’ll have to excuse me a moment,’ she interjected playfully.

She placed her hand over the receiver, but took care not to cover the mouthpiece completely.

‘Oh, Broots!’ she called over her shoulder to the empty house, moving closer to the sink and turning up the pressure.

‘Use all the hot water and I’ll kill you!’











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