All Strings Attached
Beautifully and carefully illustrated paintings of different Greek myths populated the ceiling, each separated by golden frames. The walls were decorated in a rich, dark mahogany red, intricately patterned with small crosses. A seemingly invisible piano filled the air with its alluring notes.
These details sent chills up Brendan’s spine. Absentmindedly, he traced his fingertips against the table linen in front of him. So soft to the touch; the unmistakably hand-woven silk felt like it would suck him in and never let go. Its texture felt even more refined than his most expensive suit, which she told him to wear ahead of time.
“Do you like it here?”
Her voice made him straighten his back. Coupled with her gaze, it was clear that the question was completely rhetorical.
Brendan pulled his hands back, rubbing them. “It’s certainly better than most of the places I’ve been treated to.”
“‘Most,’ huh?” She let out a delicate chuckle. “Well, I’m glad it suits your tastes. It seems like reserving the entire restaurant for ourselves was worth the effort.”
Instead of offering a reply, he only stared at Arianne Culaccino. She was Italian; a stark contrast from the establishment’s Greek atmosphere. The detail was even more strange to process when he reminded himself that this was her family’s restaurant.
Brendan shrugged. A well-dressed waiter stepped up to them, offering leather-covered menus to the both of them. Where Arianne gave the man a curt nod, Brendan immediately lifted the list of selections, scrutinizing its weight. Opening it, his suspicions were confirmed.
“It’s very thin,” he finally commented once the waiter left, making a careful effort to not meet her eyes.
“The Covo di Dio is a specialized restaurant. Only few dishes are considered worth serving by our finest chef.” From the corner of his eye, Brendan could tell she wasn’t looking at him either as she provided an explanation. “I figured you would have liked that aspect, but I’m sorry if that lowers your opinion of my restaurant.”
Her words made him look back up first. Arianne was one to profusely apologize whenever he would point out a bothersome detail. What she had just said was nothing of the sort; it was too apathetic to ignore.
“No, of course not,” he lied, this time maintaining eye contact. “I was just thinking as to how grateful I am that I get to enjoy an authentic, five-star experience for free.”
“It’s my pleasure.” Her smile reassured him control of the situation. “Please, order anything your heart desires.”
Oh, he most certainly would. The experience Brendan had accumulated in fine-dining highlighted which dishes he wanted. Tastes were irrelevant, only difficulty in preparation and cost were the factors he cared about. After eating a few bites, he would nitpick here and there with his meal. Just a few criticizable details though; doubt was what he needed, not debate.
That should show her. Arianne insisted on waiting until marriage for what Brendan wanted. At first, the challenge had enticed him, yet after juggling so many “maybes” from her for so long, he was starting to grow bored. He knew though, with the right amount of chastising in all the right places, the chastity of even the most adamant young woman can be broken.
It wasn’t the first time he’s tried and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The waiter returned, this time placing a small basket of bread at the center of the table. He pulled out a small notepad and pen. “What would you two like to order?”
“The usual. Chicken Parmesan,” Arianne said. “We have a special guest here.”
“I’ll have the beef Wellington and the chocolate mousse.” Brendan smirked. “Give your chef something to think about.”
Perhaps the waiter didn’t get the joke, because he jotted down both their orders without batting an eye. He lowered his pad and pen before turning to Arianne. “Will that be all?”
“Yes, thank you,” Arianne answered for the both of them.
The waiter walked off, leaving them in awkward silence. Brendan looked around, searching for a conversation topic.
“So, this restaurant,” Brendan began, “How long has it been standing for?”
“Hey,” Arianne rested her head on the palm of one hand and braced her elbow against the table. “Tell me a story.”
“A story,” Brendan repeated to himself, slightly relieved she was giving him something to work with. “What kind of story?”
“You already know which ones.” Arianne grinned. “Tell me about the other women you’ve dated.”
“What brought this on?”
“I’m just in the mood for some juicy gossip is all. Besides, it’s not like this’ll be the first time you’ve talked about your ex’s.” Her eyes lit up. “Oh! Why not tell me more about that one girl! Ahh… what was her name again? Clara?”
“You mean Sarah?”
Arianne pointed at him. “Yeah, that one! Her story was the most interesting of the bunch.”
Sarah. Auburn-haired. Five-feet-ten with pale skin. Constantly conscious of her appearance, making her one of the easier ones. She was too generous, showering Brendan with gifts and pleasantries almost every other date. But what he told people was that she was desperate. It was why he had broken up with her after a single month. That’s how easy it was.
For the most difficult cases, Brendan would bring up his past relationships in an attempt to either praise or intimidate his partner. Naturally, Arianne wasn’t an exemption to this rule, but the first time he told her about Sarah, her reaction was completely off.
Where the average woman would have became anxious about Brendan’s standards, the bashful girl who seldom spoke unless spoken to had giggled on a populated train. And it wasn’t like he had sprinkled humor around his recollections either; he was sure to have delivered it in a monotonous, matter-of-factly manner. Brendan initially brushed off the incident as a reflection of a darker, perhaps sadistic trait within her. In fact, such a possibility had only turned him on more.
He did not feel that way now.
“Uh, alright.” Brendan grabbed a piece of bread in front of him, hoping it would hide his hesitation. Taking a bite, he tries to wind back up to his usual demeanor. “So that Sarah chick, right? I asked her out, thinking she’s gonna be one of those quiet types. I’ve been busy recently with a lot of different things, so I can’t really afford having someone breathe down my neck, you know?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Anyways, on the first damn date, she buys me a gift. And you know, that’s an obvious red flag if I’ve ever seen one.” Brendan munched on the bread as he spoke. “To make matters worse, for the rest of it, she’s constantly losing her mind on things that seriously don’t matter. How her dress looks, if she’s talking too much, if she’s talking too little.”
“Right? Honestly, some people just need to stay out of dating until they get all their marbles together. Wouldn’t have been surprised if that Sarah girl started asking me if she wasn’t breathing the right way.”
Arianne laughed at the joke, providing him with some well-needed relief. A glint in her eyes however, disagreed with the soft smile her face reset to. Brendan swallowed his last bite of bread a little louder than he would have liked.
“Hey…” He wore a uneasy grin back. “Can I ask you something?”
“What do you find so funny about that story?”
Arianne cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “Are you feeling guilty?”
“What- no!” Brendan waved the thought away with a chuckle. “Of course not.”
“I figured.” She let out another laugh. “Well, to answer your question, I find the same things as funny as you do. That girl being desperate and all. She must’ve been going through some crazy problems to be that messed up, don’t you think?”