Denise swirled her straw through her gin and tonic. “You can’t know for sure.”
“Know?” Mark dropped his sauced steak knife and fork onto his plate and held out both hands as if to stop an oncoming train. “I saw them. Together. In the break room.”
“I still don’t believe it,” said Adrian while peppering the last of her salad.
“Trust me,” said Mark, “if I could purge the memory, I would.”
Denise wet her pallet with a sip. “I bet they’d be cute together.”
“What I saw was anything but cute.” Shaking his head, Mark sliced another hunk from his rib eye.
Denise smirked, plucked the lime off the rim of her drink, and squeezed drops into her glass. The ram into the back of her chair, however, flung the crushed wedge from her fingers and wiggled the remains of her linguine alfredo.
“Let’s ask them,” said the slurred voice behind her.
“They don’t care, Gretchen.”
“Exactly.” The slurring Gretchen pulled out their table’s lone empty chair and plopped down, her halter-top dress shimmering. Her tumble of raven hair accentuated her droop and her index finger’s waggle. “I have to ask you three a question.”
“Gretch.” A suited fellow with a clutch purse nestled in the crook of his arm laid a hand on Gretchen’s bared shoulder. She shooed him off and turned to the table.
“You don’t mind one little old question do you?”
Denise eyed Mark and Adrian. He shrugged while Adrian hid her laugh by guzzling chardonnay. Forming a quick smile, the one she used when the Director stormed in asking for the impossible, Denise faced the slack jawed but expectant woman.
“Not at all, Gretchen. What’s your question?”
“Okay, so here’s the story.” Gretchen leaned back in her chair, hands flailing with her words. “I’ve got this co-worker.”
With a roll of his eyes, her suited companion leaned against a neighboring table already prepped for tomorrow’s lunch, sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t look up when Gretchen patted his trousered thigh.
“Sorry, this is Walter.”
“And the other guy?”
Denise stifled a grin when Gretchen locked upon her and waited for the question to process.
“The co-worker,” said Adrian when the seconds stretched.
“And the question?” prompted Mark.
“I’m getting there.” Gretchen leaned onto the table, cupping her chin. “So Walter here thinks that Richard has,” she swiveled and squinted at Walter. “How did you put it? Less than honorable intentions toward yours truly.” She managed to point at herself but her fingers became entangled in her string of rice-pearls.
Denise passed over her untouched glass of water, the slosh diverting Gretchen from her extrication.
“How do you mean?”
Gretchen grew wide-eyed and downed half the glass in one gulp. “We’ve had lunch together a couple of times. He walks me to my car at night. Brings breakfast for the department.”
“Brought you flowers on your birthday,” said Walter to his loafers.
“That was him being nice,” said Gretchen.
“Does he know you have a—” Denise peeked at Walter’s left hand and found Gretchen’s similarly devoid of telltale jewelry.
“He’s my boyfriend.” Gretchen grin spread and lit her eyes. “Three years now.”
“Congratulations,” said Adrian, although Denise didn’t think the couple caught the sarcasm on her tongue.
“Thank you.” Gretchen belted another long gulp and perked like a freshly watered fern. “So the question is whether or not Richard is up to no good.”
“I think we need a little more information,” said Denise. “I mean, did this just start out of the blue?”
Gretchen frowned in thought. “We’ve only been working together since the start of the semester.”
“That’s September, so two months?” Denise motioned at the nodding, but downcast man. “Does he know about Walter?”
“Well.” Gretchen sought the answer in the last knot of pearls. “I have a picture of him on my desk and you came to the opening staff party didn’t you?”
“I did,” said Walter. “And I met him twice more, at Nikki’s party and then the poetry reading you dragged me to.”
Forgetting her necklace, Gretchen tipped forward conspiratorially. “My students were doing a reading for extra credit at The Bard’s. Do you know that place?”
“No,” said Denise.
Mark cocked his head. “The Tudor style building off of 24th?”
“That’s it.” Gretchen squeezed Mark’s arm and Denise stiffened when the woman pointed at her. “You should take her.”
Adrian giggled. Denise fetched her gin while Mark’s cheeks colored.
“Gretch,” said Walter.
Gretchen patted Mark’s forearm and twined her fingers around the water glass’ stem. “What else do you want to know?”
“Is he cute?”
“Adrian,” said Denise.
Adrian shrugged. “It could be important.”
“I guess so,” said Gretchen after a considering moment. “In a hippy, surfer kind of way.”
Walter shifted on his perch, ran a hand through his shoulder-length mane of ebony hair, and made a point of checking what Denise guessed might be a Rolex.
“Maybe he is just being nice,” said Mark. “If he’s new in town, he could be looking to meet people.”
Walter crossed his arms. “And take them to lunch three times a week?”
“Everyone’s got to eat.” As proof, Mark finished the last bite of his steak.
“That’s exactly what I said.” Gretchen beamed and reclaimed Mark’s arm. When she nearly fell out of her chair during another conspiratorial tilt, Denise caught her shoulder. Gretchen twisted back around and her meant-to-be whisper blasted into the restaurant’s near emptiness. “He’s a keeper.”
Denise managed a smile and avoided looking across the table while helping Gretchen upright.
“That’s not what this Richard situation sounds like to me.”
Adrian swirled her wine glass and took her time sipping as everyone waited for her revelation. Setting the glass down, she pushed her plate aside and rested her hands on the table.
“A certain someone is spending time with you, one on one.”
“Sometimes Tina comes too,” said Gretchen.
“With the occasional third wheel.”
Denise hid a wince when Adrian crossed her legs with a purposeful nudge beneath the table.
“He’s keeping an eye out for your safety, he’s thinking about you outside of work, as more than just a colleague.”
“But he’s just being friendly, being nice.”
“No nice guy I ever knew brought me flowers on my birthday.”
“Except for that producer,” said Denise.
Adrian squinted into empty air. “Didn’t I end up dating him?”
“For three months.”
“Until the dog?”
“Until you found out about his wife.”
Adrian waved her hand dismissively. “All I’m saying is that Walter here might be right.”
Gretchen frowned into her water glass. “Maybe.” Her furrows remained when she lifted her gaze and Denise squirmed under the quartet’s combined stare. “What do you think?”
“What do I think?”
Denise sucked up the rest of her drink while her leg throbbed where Adrian had kicked and thoughts flavored of gin and alfredo danced. Casual luncheons with Mark where sometimes Adrian tagged along combined with chivalrous hustles to her car beneath his umbrella, the little gift baskets appearing for her birthday and the day of her promotion, as well as the pint of ice cream left in its own tiny cooler when her break up with Paul had leaked through the office. The pleasant if wheezing conversations up and down the stairwells while everyone else took the elevator and the afternoon jaunts to the corner coffee shop all twirled together with the last winter, spring, summer and now early fall since Mark had been hired.
The creak of chairs drew her out of the comparisons and Denise snuck a glance across the table. Mark met her gaze, then seemed to find something remarkable written on his pint glass. She jumped when Adrian touched her hand.
“Earth to Denise?”
“Sorry.” Brushing back her sway of blond bangs, Denise squared herself to Gretchen. “I have to agree with Adrian.”
Denise waited for Adrian’s hallelujah hands to quiet.
“But,” said Denise, “if this Richard guy is really interested, then I think he should say something and get it out into the open. Then you’ll have something to work with, to discuss. For now, so long as you know where you stand, then be his friend and leave it at that.”
Walter stepped forward, one hand on the back of Gretchen’s chair. “So I’m supposed to stand by and let this guy wine and dine her?”
“Do you trust her?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then what does it matter?” Denise corkscrewed her straw around her finger. “Unless Gretchen’s feelings change and she, you know, ends up liking this Richard guy, then Richard’s just going to have to live with the fact he can’t weasel his way between you two.”
Gretchen covered Walter’s hand with hers. Tipping her face to look at his, she grinned. “Never in a million years.”
Walter’s stern expression softened and he stroked her bunched cheek. “A billion.”
They stared at one another until Mark worked up an intruding cough and the rest of the restaurant seemed to rematerialize.
Gretchen blushed and wobbled to her feet. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you guys.”
“No,” said Adrian, “I’m glad you did.”
Denise endured another under the table nudge and felt her cheeks flushing with Adrian’s knowing smile.
“I think it’s been education all around.”
A cha-cha ring tone erupted from the purse Walter held and Gretchen dove into the satin bag. She stared at the glowing screen, and then held it out, the name Richard Jenkins clear.
“Told you,” said Adrian as she dabbed her lips with her napkin.
Behind Gretchen, Walter stiffened. “Aren’t you going to answer it?”
She turned to him as she silenced the phone. “He can wait.”
Reclaiming her purse, she slipped the phone away and her arm through his. Together they waved, and then strolled to the door where the waiters hovered like a flock of vultures. One peeled off, approached, and hovered at their table’s edge.
“Anything more for you three tonight?”
“No,” said Denise after a check with Adrian and quicker glance at Mark.
“I’ll just leave this then.” He set the billfold on the table’s empty fourth place setting.
Before Denise could reach for her bag, Mark had his wallet out, credit card tucked into the leather seam, and the bill back in the waiter’s hand.
He polished off his beer. “My treat.”
Adrian pushed back from the table. “Be right back.”
With similar speed, she skittered toward the restroom. Denise watched her disappear down the shadowed hallway, the rest of the vacated restaurant suddenly enormous. She felt Mark’s gaze on her loose ponytail and forced her hand from soothing the growing bruise on her calf.
“So,” he said. “That was weird.”
“You mean Gretchen?”
He glanced at the exit where the waiter loomed over the credit card reader. “Do you think they’ll be okay?”
“It seemed like it at the end.”
“I guess you can never tell with that kind of thing.”
“Not unless someone is brave enough to say something.” Denise busied herself piling dirtied dishes as the waiter returned.
“See you folks next time.”
“Thanks.” Mark claimed the bill, his attention on the slip, and the lines for a tip and signature. Closing the cover, he laid the pen on top, and stowed his card.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Denise.
“I wanted to.”
“Why?” She saw the question dangling in the air like a feather and held her breath, wary she might blow it away.
Mark’s gulp inched down his throat, his voice emerging hoarse around it. “Same reason Richard does.”
With a tittering laugh, Denise buried her gaze into the tablecloth. When she lifted her eyes, she found Mark’s waiting and a nervous grin frozen on his lips.
“I don’t know about Richard,” said Denise, “but I’m glad you’re braver than I thought you were.”
The rigidity in Mark’s shoulders eased and a full smile bloomed. “Sometimes it takes a little time.”
Denise glanced over her shoulder and felt a sudden sense of relief when Adrian had yet to reappear. Pivoting, she leaned forward.
“What do we do now?”
Mark slid the billfold out of the way and tipped close. “Do you want to check out that Bard place sometime?”
“Crazily enough,” said Denise. “I do.”