Charlie's was busy, but then it was Friday and Charlie's was always busy on Friday's. He sat at the bar looking around at the chaos that was swirling around the room. There was the usual mix of workers. Normal 9 to 5 types, their work done and there were retail workers, finished for the day and pretending for now that they did not have to go back to work in the morning. Michael took it all in, the wage slaves paying for drinks for the women that flocked to Charlie's for just that reason. He smiled to himself and took another swallow of his scotch. At forty, Michael, sat on the stool at the end of the bar and watched the ebb and flow of the crowd, not interested more than aesthetically in the short skirts and tight blouses. There was too much make-up and too much hair spray to even attract his attention sexually. He sighed inwardly and took another swallow of scotch before putting the empty glass on the bar. Mitch filled his glass and slid the bottle under the bar, rather than putting it back on the shelf. Michael's scotch was not for general consumption.
"A good crowd tonight," Michael said toasting Mitch who was overseeing the bar. Laci and Butch serving the drinks as fast as the patrons were placing them.
"Looks good, yes," Mitch said. "Charlie would be happy."
Michael smiled. "Yes he would. To Charlie."
"To Charlie," Mitch said, as he clinked his glass of tonic against Michael. "So what's the bet tonight?"
"Good question," Michael said, looking around the room. There were several clumps of people here and there. "OK. The guy in the blue shirt, white collar and cuff. Braces. Grey slacks. Hitting on the blonde, big tits, blue dress. She goes home with the redhead and not him."
Mitch smiled. "You should drink less Michael. OK. Twenty dollars," he said, putting the note on the bar. Michael took the twenty out of his shirt pocket and put it on top of Mitch's bill and watched Mitch scoop them up and put them in a glass on the top shelf, reserved for that purpose.
The door opened and another crowd of rain speckled patrons pushed in. Michael only gave them half a look and then did a double take. In the center of the group was a brunette. She was not tall, nor was she petite, but she was definitely a woman. She had a chest, she had hips, and from where he sat, she had a nice round ass. She was wearing a skirt, not tight but it flowed over her legs. She was wearing nylons but whether they were stockings or pantyhose, he could not tell from his seat across the crowded room. Her blouse was white and buttoned loosely, showing off her cleavage, curving down into the shadows of her blouse. Her heels were of a height that she stood comfortably on them without obvious strain. All these little details Michael took in one glance, but it was a flash of her blue eyes that seemed to cut through the darkness and catch his attention. He watched the group of revelers move to a table and placing their order. Overhead, the cast of Rent was crying for wine and beer and singing about La Vie Boheme which Michael found ironically appropriate at that moment.
Michael studied the group. Retail he thought, not enough of them in the uniforms of wage slaves, but too well dressed for anything else and most of them appearing to be barely out of University. The three women were of similar age. She appeared to be the oldest and he was betting she was the "adult in charge."
He noticed she had ordered wine as Janice put the glass of the red liquid in front of her. Michael smiled slightly and grimaced right along with her when she took her first sip. The house merlot was not bad exactly, but it was not the best money could buy either. He watched them raise a toast to Friday, or the end of the quarter, or random Chaos, any one of those things that people toast when they get together to blow off steam after work. The conversations seemed to devolve into little groups and he noticed that while she participated, she spent more time watching, her brilliant blue eyes missing nothing, a drop of Lapis hanging teasingly at the top of her cleavage moving slightly with the steady beat of her heart. Michael settled back and took another drink and looked quickly where her eyes seemed to roam. She did not spend much time looking at anyone in particular, and her drink was seemingly forgotten in front of her, as if she was cataloguing characters in a story. Figuring out what their next scene would be perhaps, maybe writing their story. He smiled as he imposed on her the very same qualities that he would look for. As a writer, Michael did just that and Fridays at Charlie's gave him plenty of fodder for the following week's writing.
"She's pretty," Mitch said, indicating his empty glass.
"Yes, she is. Not the sort of woman most here would look at twice, but I suspect there is a brain under that very nice body. Mitch, would you bring me two glasses of the Australian please?"
Mitch raised his eyebrow only a fraction at this request and signaled Butch who pulled the glasses down and pulled the bottle of Shiraz out of the wine fridge.
"By the way, thanks for the drinks," Michael said as the blonde and her redheaded girlfriend, both very tipsy, started for the door, the businessman nowhere in sight.
"Alex?" Mitch said to one of his servers. "The two at the door, the blonde and the redhead. Get them a cab."
Alex nodded and moved off to intercept the ladies and Michael smiled and walked over to the table, his wine in each hand.
"Might I offer you something more ... palatable?" Michael asked her, sliding the Shiraz across the table to her. He scooped up the merlot and put it on a tray of passing dishes. Her co-workers all stopped their conversations as she looked at him and he tried not to drown in her eyes.
"Michael Anderson," he said by way of introduction. "The merlot really needs food to be drinkable. It goes very well with the chili for example."
"Claire," she said, smiling at him shyly. "And this is Renee, Sue, Tom, Alice, and Gary." She took a small sip after introducing the group and everyone said their hellos and reshuffled, allowing Michael to stand next to Claire at the bar table. Even in heels she was shorter than his almost six foot frame, but not so much so that he would get a crick in his neck if he were to kiss her for long periods of time. The thought brought a smile to his face.
"You're right, this is much better," she said looking at him quickly. Michael suspected she was cataloging him as he had done to her. His jeans were clean and faded from washing but hardly disreputable. His simple light blue t-shirt added some colour to his grey eyes. He knew he would never win prizes for his looks, but that was never something that bothered him and he was guessing she was not focused on his looks either.
"So, what's my story?" he asked her as he sipped his own wine. He smirked as her eyes widened slightly in surprise.
"I was watching you look at everyone. The same way I do actually. And, since I am a writer, I was guessing you might have similar predilections."
She seemed to study him for a moment and Michael stood quietly, letting her without any self consciousness. He, in turn, was enjoying the gentle way her neck curved and joined her shoulder. Graceful and muscular. She was soft without being fat but he could see the muscles that indicated she did something to stay fit without being a slave to it.
"I'm not a writer," she said.
"Well, maybe not professionally, but I am willing to bet you have very involved day dreams."
Claire smiled at that as he continued. "With very rich characters. Like that guy over there. He just dropped a hundred dollars on liquor and the woman he was schmoozing left in a taxi with a rather fetching redhead. So, you have to wonder, come Monday, will it be all over the office that they are lesbians? Or maybe they were already lovers and he wasn't paying attention and thought he had a play with her."
"I think they were looking for a third and he didn't have the special something they were looking for," Claire said smiling and getting into the game, clinking glasses with him and sipping.
"Oh, now that could be an interesting thought. Of course, they could be on their way to another bar to find Mr. Right."
"I think you mean Mr. Right Now," Claire said dissolving into giggles.
"Probably closer to the truth," Michael agreed, touching her shoulder casually.
"And what about you," she asked, looking at him. "How much have you spent?"
"A gentleman never kisses and tells."
"But you haven't kissed me."
Michael leaned towards her, willing to kiss her cheek if she was opposed to being kissed on the lips, but before he could change direction, Claire closed the distance and kissed him. It was hardly a chaste kiss, it was not something that two impassioned lovers would share either, but it certainly had potential. Michael had forgotten about the rest of the group until the wolf whistles and the applause started.
"Way to go Claire ... That looked hot ... Is he any good..."
Michael pulled back a little and blushed as much as Claire was; his loopy grin matched hers as he dropped his eyes and thanked the crowd while taking a sip of wine to hide his embarrassment. Claire had dropped her head, causing her long hair to fall forward and hide her face from the rest of them.
"Sorry about that," he whispered at her and she shook her head and lifted it, pushing her hair back as she did so in a natural motion.
"Don't be. I liked it." Her smile was reflected in her eyes.
"Can I offer you dinner?"
"I would like that, yes." The rest of the crowded bar seemed to disappear during this conversation before the noise crashed back around them.
"Let me get my coat," Michael said, kissing her on the cheek quickly before walking back over to the bar and fetching his leather jacket from the hook on the side of the bar. He watched Claire make her good-byes and move towards him as he walked back towards her table, meeting him more than half way.
"Your car or mine?" he asked.
"I take the bus, so yours," she said.
"Who is coming to rescue you when I turn out to be an axe wielding creep?"
Claire laughed again. "Renee, and she is bringing Tom if she has to."
"Claire, Tom is gay. I think he would break his arm if he thought about getting into a brawl with anyone."
She laughed again as we went through the door. "Yes, you're probably right. I think he's the driver. Renee has a black belt in some form of martial art."
Michael stood in the doorway for a moment and considered the rain pouring down in front of them and how wet he was about to get.
"You wait here a moment and I'll go and get the car. How do you feel about pizza?"
"Pizza is fine," Claire said and Michael sprinted off into the rain, dodging puddles as much as possible and was back in a matter of moments with his car. He hopped out before Claire could move, the umbrella popping open as he walk back to the door and escorted her to the passenger side. He made his way around and slid into the driver's seat before closing the door. The two wet bodies causing the windows to fog up and Michael fiddled with the controls for a moment before they began to clear.
"I thought all single guys drove fast cars," Claire said.
"They do? Actually I do have a fast car, but I only drive it on warm, sunny days. Otherwise, this old beater gets me where I need to go as long as I don't put anything in the trunk when it is supposed to rain. The thing leaks like a sieve. Besides, what I don't spend on auto maintenance I can spend on other things."
"Like expensive dinners."
Michael laughed and pulled away from the curb. "Exactly, like expensive dinners. And wine, one must not forget the wine. Life without wine and garlic is just not worth living and might even be hazardous to your health!"
They drove into the older part of town, passing the time discussing the foul weather and the Olympics before Michael pulled up to the curb in front of an Italian restaurant and again he hopped out with his umbrella and escorted Claire to the front door.
"I won't be a minute. Get us a table and I'll be right in," he said. He kissed her on the cheek again and returned to the car to drive it a little farther up the street to an open spot before walking back. Claire was already inside.
"Michael! How are you this evening?" a pimply young girl said as he was shaking the water off of his umbrella beside a fake plant at the front door. She smiled at him and he knew if the family history was true, she would be a stunning young woman like her older sister before she was sixteen, but her body had not quite adjusted to all the hormones rushing through it and she was gangly and awkward looking now.
"Hello Maria. I am well," he replied giving her a little hug before looking around. The rain kept the regulars and tourists both away so the restaurant was almost deserted. In the kitchen he could see a couple of people filling orders for delivery. There were two other couples sitting at a booth in the middle of the restaurant and Claire was sitting alone back near the kitchen, looking at him as he made his way back to the table.
"Ah, a wonderful place to sit. You can smell everything, we are out of the way, but we are where we can see in both directions."
"Exactly my thinking," she replied as Maria passed her a menu.
"I will get Papa," she said and went into the kitchen.
"You eat here a lot?"
"Quite a bit yes, and they have the best pizza in the city. In fact, some of the best outside Sicily. Would you like wine?"
Michael let her look over the menu as he waved at Mario, one of the drivers who was packing up his insulated pack with a couple of orders of pasta.
"Michael, it has been a long time," Mario said, coming over to the table to shake his hand. "Does Giuseppe know you're here? And who is this lovely lady."
"Down Mario. Maria just went into the kitchen. Claire, this is Mario Vitali, he is Giuseppe's nephew and a real lady's man so keep a chained door between you and him. Better yet, don't open the door at all," he finished in a stage whisper that had Mario chuckling.
"A pleasure to meet you Mario," Claire said with a smile. "What do you recommend?" she asked him.
"Whatever Giuseppe serves you cara mia. It is all good. Michael I have to run. Talk to you later. Are we playing poker next week?"
"Tuesday. Bring your money."
"See you then if not before," he said, pulling the hood up on his jacket and venturing out into the rain as the kitchen door opened and an old man in white came out.
"Michael, my friend, where have you been hiding yourself?" he said in a loud, accent tinged voice that made Claire smile.
"Giuseppe, I've been busy I'm afraid, and out of town, but I'm back now. I would like you to meet a friend. Claire, our host, Giuseppe Vitali. Giuseppe, my new friend Claire."
"A great pleasure. Maria, antipasti for Michael and Claire. Wine, yes?" he asked turning to Michael.
Maria came through the door carrying a plate of various meats and vegetables, liberally drizzled in olive oil and two side plates and put it down between the couple while Giuseppe went back into the kitchen.
"I think we are off the menu tonight. I hope you don't mind," Michael said quietly as he pushed one of the smaller plates over to her and offered her the first choice of the food in front of them.
"I don't mind at all. This could be fun."
"Oh, it is always fun. You didn't plan on eating tomorrow did you? Because you will be full for a couple of days."
Claire giggled, covering her mouth as she had just put a roasted pepper into it and Michael smiled at her, waving his empty fork.
Giuseppe returned with a bottle of Chianti and three glasses and proceeded to pour. "To my good friends," he said toasting the three of them and took a healthy swallow of the wine.
"Does Allison know you are drinking?" Michael asked after his own sip and liberating some meat and peppers off of the plate.
"I have special permission," he said smiling.
"In other words, no," Michael said shaking his head.
"I have my medicine here, not to worry."
"Giuseppe, it's what friends do. Now, what are we going to have for dinner tonight? I promised the lady pizza."
"Pizza. Bah. Tonight, some pasta, some salad, maybe some veal. Sit, enjoy your wine. I will be back."
"I warned you," Michael said as he did just what Giuseppe suggested, cutting up another pepper before popping it into his mouth.
The table was covered in dishes. Giuseppe had squeezed his bulk onto the bench of the booth across from them and was swirling the last of his wine. Michael had just finished his last bite of a cannoli and Claire had given up on the tiramisu after making a yeoman's effort to eat a part of it.
"Giuseppe, that was wonderful, as always," Michael said, draining his own glass and sitting back, feeling full and a little lightheaded. They had also managed to drink two bottles of Chianti, with Michael and Claire keeping Giuseppe to just two glasses.
"Thank you my friends," he said, bowing slightly.