Looking up from the book she had been reading, Mayuko glanced over at her boyfriend - if he could even really be called that - and saw him spread out on the floor of the backroom of her parents' bookstore, stacks of books sitting around him, unread. She sighed and rolled her eyes in exasperation, accustomed to Sohma Shigure's sometimes child-like nature.
"I'm sorry I'm so uninteresting," she said, turning her attention back to her novel and flipping to the next page.
"I wouldn't say that, Mayu-chan," he drawled, "but you do have to admit you haven't exactly been the most…enthusiastic of girlfriends."
Mayuko resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. Was it any surprise? The only reason why she had even agreed to become Shigure's girlfriend in the first place was because the man she really loved - Shigure's cousin, Hatori - was off-limits, dating Mayuko's best friend Kana. She had hoped going out with Shigure would help her move on with her life, but the truth was, she was still as hopelessly in love with Hatori as ever.
"You know, Haa-san was just telling me the other day about the romantic dinner Kana-chan made for him last weekend," Shigure continued, either not noticing her silence or choosing to ignore it. "Steak, steamed rice, corn, homemade rolls… Truly a meal full of love."
Finally closing her book, Mayuko raised an eyebrow in Shigure's direction. She was smart enough to know where this was going. He looked innocent, but Shigure knew that all he had to do was mention Hatori's name to get to her. "You want me to make you dinner?"
"Are you offering?"
"You don't want me to cook for you, Shigure," Mayuko said firmly. Her legendary lack of culinary talent was one of the many reasons why her mother was worried she would never land a husband. "Believe me. I'm absolutely clueless in the kitchen."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Shigure stood back up and walked over to one of the bookshelves full of back inventory. After a quick search, he pulled out a book that looked suspiciously like a cookbook, if the illustration of a plate of spaghetti on the cover was any indication. "Here, this should help," he said, handing the book to her.
Sure enough, it was a cookbook, titled Cooking So Easy Even an Idiot Can Do It, which did not make Mayuko any more inclined to agree to Shigure's idea than she was before. "Oh, so you think I'm an idiot, do you?" she asked, flipping through the book of easy recipes. "That's a sure-fire way to convince me to cook for you."
"You misunderstand," Shigure said, waving his hands in front of himself. "It says 'even an idiot can do it.' That doesn't necessarily mean that you are one. Indeed, you are truly one of the most intelligent women I know, Mayu-chan. After all, you were smart enough to agree to be my girlfriend, weren't you?"
"I plead temporary insanity. I wasn't in my right mind when I said yes."
Shigure smirked. "You kid, but I know you like me in your own special way. And, that, my dear Mayuko, is why you are going to make me a romantic candlelight dinner worthy of even Haa-san himself."
"H-Hey, I never said I was going to do it," Mayuko objected, but Shigure was already half-way out the door, carrying a large stack of books underneath his arms.
"See you tomorrow night," he called back. "Oh, and put these books on my tab!"
Mayuko groaned as the door closed behind him.
What had she gotten herself into?
The next evening, Mayuko's apartment was filled with all kinds of enticing aromas, courtesy of her mother, who had come by to help after Mayuko had burnt the chicken, overcooked the rice, and accidentally dropped her bakery-bought lemon meringue pie on the kitchen floor. Even using the cookbook Shigure suggested had not helped improve her culinary skills, proving that she was even worse than an idiot when it came to her cooking.
"Okaa-san, I can't thank you enough for doing this," Mayuko said for the fifth time that night as she scrubbed one of the pots they had used, one of the few jobs her mother entrusted her with. "I really appreciate it."
"It was no problem, dear," her mother insisted with a conspiratorial wink. "After all, Shigure-san has no need to know what a terrible cook you are until after you are married, right?"
Mayuko sighed. Her mother never could leave well enough alone. "How many times have I told you that Shigure and I aren't getting married?"
"Then why are you dating him? Is the sex that good?"
"Okaa-san!" Mayuko felt her cheeks warm, and she began scrubbing the pot even more furiously.
"What? It's a reasonable question. There has to be some reason why you are still together."
"Well, if you really must know, we haven't slept together yet," Mayuko admitted, realizing for the first time how strange that was. She and Shigure had been dating for about a month now, but he hadn't as much as kissed her, much less tried to get her into bed. Funny, considering how much of a pervert he was.
"Ah, so he's the old-fashioned sort. Rare these days," her mother said, obviously approving of the fact.
"Believe me, okaa-san, the only thing old-fashioned about Sohma Shigure is his family home."
"Then perhaps tonight's the night."
"The night? For what?"
"Mayu, certainly you aren't that naive?" her mother asked in disbelief, wagging a wooden spoon at her. "Think about it. You - well, actually me, but he doesn't have to know that - are making your boyfriend a romantic dinner here at your private apartment. Do you really think he's going to care that you dropped that lemon meringue pie you bought when he can have you for dessert instead?"
Mayuko's eyes widened, realizing what her mother was suggesting. "You think Shigure wants to sleep with me?"
"He is a man, dear. It's a natural assumption."
Placing the last dirty pot in the dish rack, Mayuko wiped her wet hands on a towel and sighed. "I suppose so."
"You don't sound very excited. Tonight's a special night!"
"I'm not even sure I want to take that step yet," she admitted with a frown, thinking of Hatori. If they were to sleep together and Shigure told Hatori, which he no doubt would, then that would definitely put an end to any hope that they might one day be together.
What am I thinking? Mayuko thought. Hatori and Kana are in love. I've already lost him. Even if something were to happen and they broke up, I could never date my best friend's ex. It wouldn't be right. In that case, maybe it would be best if I gave this relationship with Shigure a real chance after all…
"Mayu, are you all right?" her mother asked, noticing that Mayuko had spaced out for the moment.
Mayuko smiled and nodded. "I'm fine, okaa-san," she assured her mother. "In fact, upon second thought, tonight could be the night after all."
"Well, it won't be if you don't clean yourself up before he arrives. You're a mess!" Her mother playfully shooed her out of the kitchen. "Now, go take a bath and get dressed. I'll handle things in here while you get ready."
An hour later, Mayuko came out of her bedroom, dressed in a blue strapless mini-dress that made her feel incredibly self-conscious. Her usual wardrobe consisted of mostly jeans, T-shirts, and work clothes, but Kana had convinced her to buy it one day when they went shopping, claiming it made her look like a movie star. Mayuko wasn't so sure about that, but she was certain of one thing.
She hated strapless bras with a passion.
"Whoever invented these things obviously hated women," she muttered, adjusting the bra, which matched her lacy panties, for the third time since putting it on.
"Oh, Mayu, stop fidgeting like that," her mother scolded upon coming out of kitchen. "It's not lady-like."
"But the underwire keeps poking me!"
"Well, if things go well, you might not have to wear it for too long."
"Okaa-san!" Mayuko admonished.
Ignoring her outburst, her mother walked around her, looking Mayuko over with a critical eye. "That dress does suit you, though," she admitted. "You should wear dresses more often. You have such nice, long legs. Why not show them off?"
"Because it's a pain shaving them. It's just so much more convenient to wear pants all the time."
Her mother sighed, no doubt wondering how she ended up with such an unfeminine daughter, but before she could say anything else, Mayuko noticed the time. It was five minutes to seven, when Shigure was supposed to arrive for dinner. Feeling a swarm of butterflies begin to flutter in her stomach, she pushed her mother toward the door.
"Okaa-san, you have to go," Mayuko said, opening the door. "Shigure's going to be here any minute."
"Okay, okay, I'm going, I'm going." Upon exiting the apartment, though, her mother couldn't resist giving her one last piece of sage advice. "Just remember, a lady always plays hard-to-get, but, in your case, you shouldn't play too hard-to-get," she advised. "You aren't getting any younger, you know!"
Mayuko rolled her eyes. "Thank you, okaa-san, I'll keep that in mind," she said sardonically. "See you later."
"Good luck, and have fun!"
After her mother left, Mayuko closed the door behind her and sighed as she once again looked over at the clock. Shigure would be knocking on her door in a matter of minutes. Though she still hadn't decided yet if she would definitely take the next step with Shigure if the situation should present itself, Mayuko headed back to her bedroom to make sure she didn't have anything embarrassing laying around. She placed a picture of Hatori and Kana out of sight in a dresser drawer, then took one last look at herself in the mirror, running a brush through her loose hair and making a final adjustment to the bra of torture.
This thing might be killing me, she thought as she admired the way the push-up bra made her normally small chest look much fuller than usual, but I have to admit my boobs have never looked better.
By the time Mayuko returned to the living room, Shigure was knocking on the door. She took in a deep breath to calm her nerves, then walked over to let him in.
"Hello, Shigure," she said, opening the door. "Come on in. Dinner is almost ready."
He grinned. "Good," he replied, "because I'm absolutely starving." After taking off his shoes at the door, Shigure sniffed the air. "Ah, it smells delicious! See, I told you that you could do it. You were just a flower bud waiting for the right time to bloom."
"Uh…something like that, I guess." Mayuko had fully intended to tell him that it was her mother who had done the actual cooking, but something that sounded suspiciously like her mother's voice in the back of her mind stopped her from doing so. "Well…uh…"
"So, this is your place," Shigure commented, apparently not noticing her awkwardness. He took off his jacket and handed it to her, which Mayuko hung on the rack by the door, then plopped down on the couch. "It suits you, Mayu."
"T-Thanks." She had expected him to ask for a tour of the place, which, on the rare occasions she invited a man over, always inevitably ended in the bedroom, but Shigure seemed content enough to stay where he was. Mildly surprised, and unsure of what to do with herself in such an unfamiliar situation, Mayuko announced, "I think I'll check on dinner," before shuffling back to the kitchen.
There wasn't much for her to do in the kitchen, though. Her mother had already prepared two plates, which sat on the counter, ready to be served, so Mayuko wasted a couple of minutes making random noises with the pots and pans, then grabbed some silverware from a drawer and headed back to the living area, where she set everything down on a low table, poured two glasses of wine, and dimmed down the lights.
Shigure, upon noticing her reappearance, leisurely walked over and sat down on the floor beside the table. "Ah, what a wonderful meal," he said as Mayuko lit the two tapered candles in the center of the table. In the candlelight, she noticed for the first time the tiny flecks of gold highlighting his brown eyes.
He's not a bad-looking guy, Mayuko had to admit to herself. A bit on the unkempt side, perhaps, but still quite attractive. And he does possess a slight family resemblance to Ha- No! Don't think about Hatori, Mayu! He's off limits, remember?
Mayuko shook her head, forcing the forbidden thoughts from her mind, and took a seat across the table from Shigure. "Sorry, just spaced out there for a moment," she said, feeling her cheeks warm. "So… Shall we eat?"
"Let's. I've been looking forward to this meal all day!"
After reciting the traditional before-meal phrase, Shigure dug right in.
"Hmm, delicious!" he said after taking a bite of everything on the plate. "My compliments to the chef."
"Uh, thanks, I guess," Mayuko replied, silently berating herself for again not admitting the truth about who actually prepared the meal. Changing the subject, she asked, "How's the new manuscript going?"
Shigure's debut novel Heartthrob had recently been published to great fanfare from the critics. Even Mayuko, who considered herself somewhat of expert when it came to good fiction thanks to growing up in her parents' shop and becoming a literature teacher, had to admit it wasn't half-bad. Despite his laidback demeanor, Shigure actually had talent when it came to writing.
"I'm trying something a little different this time," he admitted. "Something a little more, shall we say…risqué. The working title is Summer-Colored Sigh. Catchy, isn't it?"
Mayuko could barely hide her disgust. "You're writing a trashy romance novel?"
"Non, non! Belles lettres!"
"You can call it whatever fancy French phrase you want, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still a romance novel." She rolled her eyes. "I can't believe you want to waste your talent, not to mention risk your budding reputation as a serious author, to write that kind of garbage."
He waved off her concerns as if they were nothing. "Oh, no need to worry about my reputation. I've already chosen a nom de plume. You can just call me Kiritani Noa."
"Well, at least you're not dumb enough not to publish it under your own name."
"You wound me, Mayu-chan. You really wound me," Shigure said, although he didn't seem the least bit offended at the dig. In fact, he was actually grinning, as if a little proud of himself.
Mayuko suspected it took quite a lot to actually hurt Shigure's feelings.
After that, the conversation came to a bit of a standstill as they ate. Most of their "dates" - if they could really be called that - consisted of the two of them getting together to either read or drink, neither activity requiring much need for serious conversation, so Mayuko had no idea what to talk about, and Shigure seemed more interested in the food than her. Mayuko didn't really mind the silence, though, finding Shigure far more attractive when he kept his mouth shut.
In fact, if he played his cards right, she was seriously considering letting him have his way with her. It had been a while, and maybe Shigure was just the guy to help her get over... well, that person she wasn't supposed to be thinking about. She doubted anything serious would come of it, but what was the harm in having a little fun with a good-looking guy?
"I am stuffed!" Shigure declared, interrupting Mayuko's thoughts and finally breaking the silence between them after finishing off the last bit of rice on his plate. He leaned back on one hand, using the other to rub his abdomen. "Seriously, I don't think I could eat another bite. Thanks for the meal."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Mayuko said, standing back up and gathering their plates.
"Is there dessert?"
She cocked an eyebrow. "I thought you just said you couldn't eat another bite."
He grinned up at her. "I always save room for dessert."
Suddenly remembering what her mother had said earlier when they were preparing the meal, Mayuko felt her cheeks warm. Was Shigure really expecting dessert, or did he mean he wanted her? She prided herself on usually knowing what men wanted, thanks to all the experience she had with her parents constantly setting her up on blind dates in order to find her a husband, but Shigure was infuriatingly unreadable. It was a trait he shared with Hatori, although in Hatori's case, Mayuko found his mysteriousness actually intriguing.
Stop thinking about Hatori! she lectured herself for what felt like the hundredth time that night.
"Um, yeah, if you want dessert, I'm sure I can whip something up," she said, thinking quickly to what she had in stock in the kitchen. Her mother hadn't had time to make anything on such short notice to replace the ruined pie, but Mayuko thought she still had some ice cream in the fridge. At least sundaes were one thing that would be impossible for her to screw up.
"Okay, then I'll be right back."
Mayuko headed back to the kitchen and scooped out two small bowls of vanilla ice cream, placing them on a tray. She then brought out the usual sundae fixings - chocolate syrup, whipped cream, sprinkles, and a jar of marashino cherries with the stems still attached - only then realizing that she hadn't thought to ask Shigure what he liked on his ice cream. She started to call out to ask him, but stopped herself as a plan began to form in her head.
Chocolate syrup. Whipped cream. Cherries.
It was the perfect way to test if Shigure was really interested in her or not. What man could have those items placed in front of him and not suggest anything erotic, especially a pervert like Shigure? (Well, Hatori wouldn't, because Hatori wasn't that kind of guy, but she... was... not... supposed... to... think... about... Hatori!) Mayuko set the items on the tray with the bowls and brought it out to the table, where Shigure was still sitting, his tie loose around his neck and the first two buttons of his shirt unbuttoned.
Mayuko blushed when she saw him. Was it her he wanted for dessert after all?
"Ah, ice cream! Perfect," Shigure said as she sat down at the table, this time taking the spot on his right. He was waving his hand in front of his face like a fan. "I was just thinking something cool would hit the spot right about now. This place is like a sauna."
"Really?" Mayuko hadn't noticed. Her apartment was always a bit on the warm side, so she was perfectly comfortable. "Um, well, you can take your shirt off, if you want." She blushed even brighter.
Shigure, however, didn't seem to notice. "No, that's okay," he said, much to Mayuko's surprise. "I think this ice cream will do the trick."
So, it hadn't been a ruse to suggest they get undressed, as she had suspected. Mayuko wasn't sure if she was disappointed or relieved.
"I wasn't sure what you liked, so I thought we could make our own sundaes," she explained, indicating the syrup, whipped cream, sprinkles, and cherries. "Is there anything else you want?"
Like me, naked, covered in whipped cream and chocolate syrup and doing that silly bar trick with the cherry stems that always seem to drive guys wild? she added silently to herself.
Shigure looked over the assembled products, then shook his head. "No, it seems like you brought out all my favorites," he said, grinning as he began preparing his sundae. "Thanks."
Mayuko sighed. Not even the flicker of an innuendo from the King of Double Entrendres. Was Shigure even attracted to her at all? "Are you sure?" she pressed, feeling silly as she purposely leaned over the table to reach for the whipped cream, giving him the perfect opportunity to look down her strapless dress at her bra-enhanced breasts. "There's nothing else you want?"
Tapping his spoon against his chin, Shigure appeared to ponder the question for a few seconds before saying, "Now that you mention it..."
Mayuko sucked in a breath, preparing herself for the inevitable. "Yes?"
"...if you happen to have any nuts on hand, this sundae would be even better."
"Nuts," Mayuko repeated in a deadpan voice. "You want nuts?"
"Yes, I want nuts. Do you have any?" he asked, looking completely innocent for once in his life.
Sighing, Mayuko stood up. "Yeah, I'll go get them," she said, shaking her head in bewilderment as she headed back to the kitchen.
Honestly, why did she bother? Sohma Shigure was like a ripple in the water: impossible to catch.