Auggie Anderson had suspected he was screwed long before that precise moment, but the inescapable truth hit him in the face like a two by four as the tap-tap-tap of Annie's wedges receded as she crossed the hardwood floor of the restaurant along with the subtle scent of her shampoo.
"Hi," a decidedly female voice said at his two o'clock, right on cue.
I wonder if Annie even made it to the bar, he thought as he leaned toward it. "Hi."
"Do you mind if I—"
"Sure, go ahead. Something tells me that she's not coming back."
"I didn't come to steal a chair. I came to join you. That is, if you don't mind?"
She sounded like a brunette.
He had a weakness for brunettes.
"Why would I mind being joined by a beautiful woman as I am clearly all alone? By myself. As my date has left me. And did I mention I was on my own?"
"I'm Sherry." There was an expectant silence, and he guessed that she had extended her hand. He reached beneath the table and lifted the red and white cane he used outside the Agency.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry—"
"Unless you were driving the truck that hit me," he said with a smile as the cover-story rolled off his tongue, "you have nothing to apologise for. Auggie," he said with a warm smile as he extended his hand.
She was one of those girls who grasped his fingertips in hers, rather than pressing palm-to-palm. His father had always said you could never trust someone with a weak handshake. Still, he was potentially willing to forgive her, if her presence distracted him from Annie's voice as it drifted through the crowd from where she was engaging Henry and Jai Wilcox in small talk.
The problem was, for the first time in a very long time, he wasn't able to focus on the lovely and—if the cues he was getting from her proximity and the way she kept brushing up against him as she leaned her head closer to his even though the restaurant wasn't that crowded—willing company. The truth was, as he heard Annie's laughter drift across the room, the extent of his predicament was beginning to sink in.
Yeah. Okay. He hated Jai for a lot of reasons—some of which predated losing his sight—but right now, what he hated most was that Annie had left him for the Seventh Floor Wunderkind and his demonic scion.
He hated that Annie had left him, period.
Because, hey, he was just her wingman, her confidant, her work buddy. Besties, even. The closest he got to a physical relationship with her were their infrequent sparring sessions in the Agency gym—a fact that did not escape his notice as he'd begun using the office facilities a lot more often since she'd started working out on the heavy bag during her lunch breaks. He even let her throw him down to the mat despite the ribbing it earned him in the locker room because for those few seconds the world shrank to nothing but sweat and bodies on the floor.
He didn't tell her how often he revisited those moments in his head first thing in the morning, or last thing before he went to sleep. For one, it made him sound creepier than usual. For another, he was pretty sure Annie thought of him as her faithful St Bernard. Not sweaty horizontal tango partner material.
No, he was cute, dependable Auggie, always ready with a quip and a beer.
Oh for fuck's sake, he thought as he struggled to remember what Sherry had just said so he could make an appropriately witty and charming reply. This was the worst possible time in all of history for August Anderson to develop self-awareness where his relationships with women were concerned.
"Would you excuse me for just a moment?" he said, leaning forward so his lips brushed Sherry's ear. He felt a shudder go through her as he placed a hand on the back of her chair to lever himself up, his cane tapping along the floor until he reached the carpeted bar. He knew every inch of Allen's as well as his own apartment, and the weathered wood and brass bar met his fingertips just as he stretched out his hand.
"Another round?" the bartender asked as Auggie pulled out his wallet. Nick, from the overpowering smell of Axe body spray and the sound of his shoes on the rubber mats that lined the wood floor behind the faux-antique bar.
"I'm taking off. Do me a favour—get her at least two more of whatever she's drinking, and then apologise for me?"
Nick laughed as he took his money. "Auggie, man, you're killing me. You know she's gorgeous, right?"
Auggie sighed. "Yeah, I know. Lemme guess—brunette? Early twenties, about a size 2, willowy with shoulder-length hair?"
"How do you do it?"
"If I tell you—"
"—you'd have to kill me, yeah. I know. You need me to call you a taxi?"
"I'm good. Thanks, man." He raised a fist, which the bartender tapped with his own.
Thinking of Sherry-the-brunette, Auggie felt a twinge of guilt as he stepped out into the cool, damp night, but not much. He thought about how a few weeks ago he'd have spun some elaborate lie to get Sherry to take him home, and he'd get a cab back to his place as soon as she fell asleep.
A few weeks ago, Annie had just been The Probie. Fresh meat for him and Conrad to fight over only half-jokingly. Now she was Annie, and it would take a dozen Sherry-the-brunettes to make a dent. Conrad had long since ceded the field, but Jai Wilcox was another matter entirely, and from the way Annie talked about him, Auggie had a feeling it was going to be a very long, very bloody battle ahead.
A soft rain began to fall, the sound of cars zooming along the busy street slowing as drivers adjusted their speed. Voices on the street dropped to a low hum, and he kept tap-tapping along the pavement, relishing the damp air even with the strong smell of exhaust and cigarette smoke from groups huddled under awnings and beneath trees outside the bars and restaurants that lined this patch of downtown McLean.
There were at least three hotels within walking distance; their doormen could hail him either a cab home or back to the Agency.
Oh who am I kidding, he thought as his cane swept back and forth along the wet pavement. I'm going back to the office.