“Good afternoon, Mrs. Lepin. I’m Mr. Dillon, and this is my assistant, Ms. Currie. As representatives of the Collette-Ashbee Collection, we would like to offer our condolences on your loss.”
Ms. Lepin frowned at the mention of her late husband but seemed to swell up at the attention Mr. Dillon gave her. She was a champagne flute of a woman, tall and slender with just a hint of feminine curves. Her blond hair was layered on her head with the delicate beauty of whipped cream. She wore a black dress, apparently in mourning, but the way it clung to her body was more appropriate for a romantic dinner for two. Her bright blue eyes lingered over Mr. Dillon but flashed only contempt for Ms. Currie.
“You have arrived in time for lunch,” Mrs. Lepin announced. “Please join me for a repast, and we can discuss my husband’s gift to your collection.”
“I would be honored, Madam,” Mr. Dillon said.
Mrs. Lepin looked down her nose at Claire. “I am afraid that I only had settings placed for two.”
“That is not a problem,” Mr. Dillon said. “Just a meager portion of salad will be fine. My assistant doesn’t even require silverware. She is more than capable of eating with just her mouth.”
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“That I would like to see,” Mrs. Lepin said. Cruel amusement pulled her lips into a smile.
“The librarians of the Collette-Ashbee Collection believe in entertaining guests wherever we go,” Mr. Dillon said. “In any way possible.”
“Now that does sound promising,” Mrs. Lepin said.
Claire was a little stunned. Not quite so much at the proposed humiliation of eating without utensils, shocking as that was. No, she was more disturbed by Mr. Dillon’s behavior. Was he flirting? She hadn’t thought him capable of anything other than impossible demands.
The table was set for two, with soup waiting in gorgeous stone bowls. Mrs. Lepin came out with a cheap plastic bowl filled with a plain selection of greens. Claire saw with dismay that it was topped with a generous serving of creamy white dressing. She sat there with her hands in her lap, trying to judge whether Mr. Dillon really wanted her to go through with this.
“What a delightful soup,” he said. “Is that mint? I don’t think I’ve ever tasted mint in carrot soup.”
“You have an experienced tongue,” Mrs. Lepin said.
“I try to use it whenever I can,” Mr. Dillon responded. “Ms. Currie, do not be rude. Eat the generous meal that has been prepared for you.”
Claire was tempted to say that she wasn’t hungry. The words were on her lips when she heard Mrs. Lepin snicker. It was a brief sound, and Mrs. Lepin kept eating as though nothing had happened, but Claire had heard her. The widow wanted to see Claire squirm for some reason, and that annoyed Claire greatly. She didn’t understand what the widow had against her, but she was not about to embarrass herself in front of Mr. Dillon. Librarians are made of sterner stuff than that.
With her hands folded in her lap, Claire dipped her head down and reached for a piece of lettuce. She used her tongue to tilt a piece up and then bite down on it. A small drop of dressing clung to her cheeks, and she noticed that she hadn’t been provided with a napkin. She could have wiped it with her hand, but that seemed undignified. She ignored it and dipped her head back down for a second bite. Her glasses just missed hitting the side of the bowl, and Claire was proud of herself for her dexterity.
If Mr. Dillon was impressed with her grace, he didn’t say anything. “Are you a chef as well, Mrs. Lepin?”
“I was,” she answered. “I worked at a restaurant that Jean-Paul was visiting for his television show. It was his early show, the one where he traveled around showcasing local cuisine while trying to get into the pants of star-struck young women. They just never showed that part on television.”
“Pity, I might have watched it then,” Mr. Dillon said. “I am sure you were not one of his star-struck conquests. He had to seduce your properly, I would imagine.”
Mrs. Lepin laughed. “Would you believe, Mr. Dillon, that he seduced me with one piece of lemon cake? He gave me a piece and asked my opinion of it. It was quite honestly the finest cake I had ever eaten. I told him I would kill to have that recipe. He asked me if would mind fucking instead. I agreed on the spot. Does that shock you?”
Now it was Claire’s turn to snicker. She almost choked on a piece of lettuce. Mr. Dillon shocked? The same man who once read aloud an entire chapter about a Chinese army orgy just to teach Claire the proper way to pronounce grunts? It struck her that few people know Mr. Dillon nearly as well as she did.
“Shock me?” he said. “Of course, I am shocked. I would have imagined that a three-month courtship would be required to earn a simple kiss from someone as beautiful as you.”
Claire stopped eating and stared at Mr. Dillon. This was the man who kept three erotica books by his bed to aid nocturnal emissions. She realized that he was presenting a different face today, and she had an ugly suspicion that it wasn’t for professional reasons. Her stomach twisted, and it had nothing to do with the salad. It was pure jealousy.
“Oh, Mr. Dillon, I am afraid I am not nearly that beautiful,” Mrs. Lepin lied. She stood and picked up the empty soup bowls. “I agreed to his demands right there. In the storage room, he pulled down my pants and bent me over a box of apples. He fucked me, and when he was done, he laid me down on the dirty floor and fucked me again. He ravished me, in every sense of the word.”
Mr. Dillon stood up. “Please, let me help you serve the next course.”
Claire stared at him again. In the three months that she had been working for him, he always required her to fetch him even the smallest of objects. Once he had her bring him a book that was literally two feet away from him. The fact that he was offering to help with the food seemed terribly unfair.
“No, thank you, Mr. Dillon. You are my guest,” Mrs. Lepin said. “Much as Jean-Paul was my guest when we first met.”
Mr. Dillon smiled. “That is a pleasant comparison. Ah! That has to be steak-frites I smell. I haven’t had proper steak-frites in years!”
Claire could smell them, too. Peppery steak soaked in a red wine and shallot sauce mixed with the aroma of the potatoes to create an olfactory reminder that she was stuck with nothing but greens and dressing for her meal.
Mrs. Lepin poured Mr. Dillon a glass of red wine before sitting back down. For Claire, a small saucer of water was provided. She glared at the tiny saucer and the even tinier amount of water. Mr. Dillon, of course, took a moment to thank Mrs. Lepin for her thoughtfulness.
“If I may be so bold,” Mr. Dillon said, “was the lemon cake one of Jean-Paul’s recipes from ‘Succulent Sutra’? And before you answer, may I also add how delicious this steak is?”
“Thank you, it is a personal recipe,” she replied. “I am afraid, though, that the lemon cake was just cake, delicious though it was. As for ‘Succulent Sutra,’ I hope you will not be too disappointed to hear that the book doesn’t exist.”
It was Mr. Dillon’s turn to choke on his food. “Doesn’t exist? But Mr. Lepin willed it to the Collette-Ashbee Collection. Are you sure?”
Mrs. Lepin smiled sadly. “I am very sure. Jean-Paul loved to brag about that book, but to my knowledge, he never wrote it. It was just a line he liked to use to impress other men’s wives.”
“Amazing,” Mr. Dillon said. “So you have never seen it? Could he have kept it a secret from you?”
Mrs. Lepin brought a frite to her lips very slowly. Her tongue reached out and brought the frite into her mouth. It was, Claire thought, an amateurish and crude attempt at seduction. The fact that Mr. Dillon was watching with what looked like smoldering lust in his eyes made Claire’s twisting jealousy contort into new knots.
“Mr. Dillon, Jean-Paul did not keep secrets,” Mrs. Lepin said. “He loved to brag too much. Whether he’d fucked his publisher’s wife or some 20-year-old fan in Miami he met on a book tour, Jean-Paul told me everything. He was a very proud man.”
“My apologies that he was unfaithful,” Mr. Dillon said.
Mrs. Lepin took another slow, sensuous bite of her steak. “What makes you think I was faithful?”
Mr. Dillon did something Claire didn’t think was even possible. He blushed. Mr. Dillon, librarian, boss and tormentor, blushed at Mrs. Lepin’s words.
“That’s it, I have to kill her,” Claire muttered into her salad.
“Quiet, Ms. Currie,” Mr. Dillon said. “The adults are talking.”
Claire nodded as curtly as possible and took a lick from her water saucer. Two could play at this game. She tilted her head just like a cat and arched her tongue out as far as possible. She lapped up the water with a grace that surprised even her. For an extra effect, she ran her tongue over her full lips, as if trying to lick every possible drop of moisture.
Mr. Dillon ignored her. “So ‘Succulent Sutra’ doesn’t exist? I am terribly sorry we inflicted ourselves on you, then.”
Mrs. Lepin waved off his apology. “I am glad for the polite company.” It was clear this did not extend to Claire. “Besides, Jean-Paul had a box filled with dirty books. It was quite the embarrassment when we were married. Why read about it when you can be doing it? Since you are here, could you look it over and take whatever your collection needs? It would save me the trouble of having to throw it all away.”
“We can gladly do that,” Mr. Dillon said. “It is disappointing to find out there is no ‘Succulent Sutra,’ but at least we can be of service to you.”
“Oh, I could use all the services I can get.” Mrs. Lepin laughed.
Claire chewed her salad. She was fuming with so much hatred for the widow that she completely forgot the glob of dressing she had been avoiding. It clung right to her chin, and the heavy cream stuck just out of reach of her tongue. Against her dark skin, Claire just knew it looked like semen. She waited for Mr. Dillon to notice and make some sort of insulting comment.
“Allow me to clear the plates this time,” Mr. Dillon said. He walked right by Claire without a single word. Frustrated, she reached up and wiped the dressing off with her finger. She expected a rebuke for using her hands, but when Mr. Dillon returned, he sat down without even noticing her indiscretion.
Being ignored was far worse than being punished, Claire realized.
Mrs. Lepin brought out chocolate tarts for herself and Mr. Dillon. Claire was finished with her salad, but no dessert was brought for her. She just sat there trying to look like a professional, not a fuming, angry woman who had nothing better to do than watch two people shamelessly flirt with one another.
“This might be the finest tart I have ever eaten,” Mr. Dillon said.
“The day is still young,” Mrs. Lepin said.
Kill me now, Claire thought.
“Well, if you ever wanted to write ‘Succulent Sutra’ yourself, this would be the recipe to start with,” Mr. Dillon said.
“Oh? Have I seduced you with this one?” Mrs. Lepin asked.
“A gentleman never tells,” Mr. Dillon said. “Although it is like sex for the mouth.”
“Oh? And what sex act would it be?” Mrs. Lepin said.
Mr. Dillon thought about it. “Like a kitchen tryst with a beautiful chef.”
Mrs. Lepin raised her glass to him. “We might need to verify that.”
Claire sat in her chair and prayed for the meal to end. She didn’t know which was worse, the terribly unsubtle flirting or the fact that she was being ignored by her boss. When the dessert was finally over, Claire thought the end to her suffering had arrived as well. How wrong she was.
To be continued.