I couldn’t hear her response over the cheering. The only two words I managed to decipher were “fucking” and “hot.”
I leaned in closer to her. “I can’t hear you.”
“I said you should go over there. This could be your second chance to win him over.”
“What? I don’t even know what he’s doing. He might not even remember me.”
“You pinched his goddamn nipple, of course he’ll remember you. Go find out.” She nudged my shoulder but I remained steadfast in my seat. As serendipitous as this encounter was, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of approaching Vincent in this strange social situation. If Richard had been right about the meeting going well, talking to Vincent could sabotage our efforts rather than help.
“Let’s just watch them a little first.”
We witnessed the burly guy down his shot, slam his glass against the counter, and grunt something in Afrikaans. I couldn’t understand it, but if I had to guess by the tone, it meant “Is that the best you got?” He then reached into a nearby bag sitting on the counter and produced a large clear jar. I squinted my eyes to identify the contents. Thin strands, black dots scurrying.
Cobwebs and spiders.
The crowd didn’t seem surprised, instead they clamored approval like they were at a sporting event. Why would he have such a thing? And here of all places. I hate spiders.
My disgust and surprise must have been palpable because Vincent turned his head in my direction as if attuned to my specific frequency. For the second time today, we locked eyes. A part of me wanted to hide from the embarrassment of this morning, another part of me knew my company had important business to conduct with him.
Before I decided whether I was going to wave at him or shrink behind the crowd of bodies, a ghost of a smile touched his lips.
He waved me over. In disbelief, I pointed my finger at my chest as I mouthed “me?” and he nodded. What did he want with me? I looked to Riley for advice and was met with eager shooing motions. Sensing an opportunity to clear up any confusion over this morning’s meeting, I worked my way through the crowd to him. The women around him were reluctant to make room, shooting me catty-glares, but I managed to wiggle through an opening.
“Hello Kristen,” he said.
He did remember my name. “Hello Mr. Sorenson.”
“Please, just call me Vincent. I didn’t expect to see you here, but now that you are, this’ll be a lot more interesting.” He grinned.
I wasn’t sure what he meant. Confused by the whole situation, I asked, “What are you doing here, Vincent?”
“Business. And you’re going to decide if you want to help me.” He gestured to the big guy and his bizarre pet spiders.
Okay . . . that doesn’t explain a whole lot.
“I should tell you, Mr. Sorenson. I have a fear of spiders,” I said, eyeing the jar.
He leaned close to my ear so I could hear him. “All the better. You asked for my money earlier today, Kristen.” His smoky voice was implacable. “I wasn’t impressed. Here’s your second chance to convince me to trust you with my assets.”
Shit. We did blow the meeting this morning. I gulped. “What do you want me to do?”
As if to answer my question, the hulk uncapped the jar and picked out a spider with a pair of chopsticks.
The sight of the tiny black creature outside its confines made me panic. I tried to escape but Vincent caught my elbow in a light but secure grip and pulled me to him. “You’re fine, trust me. Just watch.”
With his hand on the filled shot glass, the big guy placed the spider on the skin between his thumb and forefinger. The spider—whose backside displayed a red dot—remained surprisingly still, perhaps in as much suspense as I was. Never taking his eyes off the poisonous creature, the big guy slowly brought the drink to his lips, keeping his hand steady, and in one smooth motion downed the contents, flicked the spider off his hand, and crushed the arachnid as he slammed his glass on the bar. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The big guy looked expectantly at me and Vincent. His steely eyes said “your turn”.
“You’re not seriously going to do that are you?” I blurted without thinking.
His eyes narrowed as he smiled. “I am. And you’re going to help me by putting the spider on my hand.”
I was about to say “hell no” but thought better when I noticed his probing eyes. “I’m really not comfortable with this.”
“Consider it a test. How far are you willing to go to serve my interests?”
I felt my breaths shorten. “Are we talking about money here or poisonous spiders? Because those are two very different things.”
“Believe it or not, there’s a lot at stake if I don’t follow through.” He gestured to a pile of documents on the counter. I couldn’t read the language, but from the formatting I could tell they were contract documents—so this wasn’t just a wager between two inflated egos. “I imagine there’s also a lot at stake for you.”
“What if it bites you?”
“Let me worry about that. If it does, it won’t be your fault.”
“What if it climbs up and bites me?”
“I won’t let it happen. Trust me, you’ll be fine.”
This wasn’t professional; this was insane. Crazy. I’d never done anything close to this dangerous before. If I had known I’d have to handle deadly bugs to win clients, I might not have taken this job in the first place.
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place: don’t do it and for sure lose Vincent as a client; do it and possibly kill both the hottest man I’d ever met and my career. Either way, I was screwed.
I glanced over at Riley and saw her give me a thumbs up.
Damn you, Vincent. I picked up the chopsticks and unscrewed the jar, grimacing as I lowered the utensil inside. When I touched one of the creatures, it moved and I instinctively retracted my hand.
“No way. I can’t do this,” I exclaimed.
“Giving up so soon? Nothing worth pursuing comes without risk.”
Inflamed by his taunting, I tried again. This time the black creature didn’t move and I was able to clamp it with the chopsticks. It felt hard and squishy at the same time and when I pulled it out and got a better view of its wriggling legs, it took every ounce of willpower not to throw it across the bar. My hands were trembling and I was afraid I’d drop the spider or worse, rile it up enough to bite Vincent. Then a warm hand around my upper arm steadied me.
“You’re doing great. Just relax a little. Focus on controlling your own body, not on what you’re holding.”
“Easier said than done,” I replied, even though his advice seemed to be working.
The next few moments were a blur, but I somehow managed to place the spider gently on Vincent’s hand. He downed his drink and went the extra mile by flicking the spider back into the jar instead of killing it.
Once again, the bar roared approval.
Afraid I would have to do it again, I turned to the big guy and was relieved to see him passed out on the counter.
Vincent had won.
It wasn’t long before the ruckus died down. The big guy had woken up, signed the contract, shook Vincent’s hand, and left. The crowd had dissipated and Riley was now being entertained by one of the British guys from the expat group. I found myself seated beside Vincent at a cozy table in a secluded part of the bar, alone.
Even with all the alcohol I imagined was flowing through his system, Vincent looked as sober as a judge. Not only were his nerves steel, but so was his blood. I began to wonder if those were the only parts . . .
“What can I get you to drink?” Vincent asked, flagging the waitress.
I considered avoiding more alcohol in case we discussed business, but I didn’t want to be rude either. “A mojito please.”
The waitress flashed a flirty smile at Vincent before leaving, which made me bristle.
He returned his attention back to me. “I’m surprised. You struck me as more damsel than dame.”
The comment was decidedly personal and I felt justified in taking offense. “And you strike me as more reckless than brave. Why were you in a drinking contest with a spider-loving thug?”
His sinful lips curved into a wicked smile. “You can’t always judge people by their appearance. Nambe is a real estate mogul. He owns a lot of property in the area including this bar. I wanted one of his private beaches and he set the terms. You’ll find the most successful people play by their own rules.”
His comment made me recall how far I had just gone to win him over as a client. “Do all your business transactions involve endangering your life?”
“Just the interesting ones. The bite wouldn’t have been fatal if I went to the hospital immediately. When you want something bad enough, sometimes it’s surprising what you’re willing to do.” He adjusted his seat and his leg brushed mine sending an unwelcome flutter through my belly.
The waitress returned with my drink and I took a sip, relishing the taste more than I should have. “Does that apply to swimming with sharks and jumping off cliffs?” I said, feeling emboldened by the mojito as well as the other alcoholic beverages I’d consumed since setting foot inside this bar.
“It applies to whatever gives me a thrill. What gives you a thrill Kristen? Besides winning my account.”
Unsure if that was a flirtatious line or an accusation, I answered, “Who says that gives me a thrill?”
“It makes you good at your job. Pitch aside, the materials you gave me were polished.”
“Thank you.” I flustered at the compliment. It was rare to have my work given the appreciation I felt it deserved even by my colleagues, let alone a client.
“What would you do if I chose your company?”
“You’re saying after I did all that, you’re still not convinced you can trust us with your money?”
“What you did puts Waterbridge-Howser back in the running. After your partner insulted my intelligence this morning I had almost ruled you out.”
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