Erik Stevens didn’t like client meetings. He honestly didn’t like his clients. He hated sitting with them and forcing down an expensive meal rife with subtext and innuendo. All he wanted to do was get down to brass tacks. How much did they want to spend and how much was he getting on the commission.
Ulysses Klaue had the benefit of being a billionaire and the launchpad for Erik’s career. The Belgian Billionaire had a fetish for African art and a reputation for paying on time. Erik snatched him right from under his mentor’s nose and used the money from his first commission to go out on his own. He'd only been twenty-one at the time.
Klaue had been a loyal if demanding client of his for a decade now. And while Erik didn’t like the man, he’d elevated his quality of life so he tried to tolerate Klaue’s grandstanding.
One thing Erik hated, beyond client meetings, was clients that wasted his time. Half of his meetings could be solved in email. Yet they insisted on trapping him in situations he had no business being in.
Like now, for instance. He’d come to this restaurant at Klaue’s insistence. Erik had a habit of coming to client meetings fifteen minutes early. It allowed him time to secure a table and scope out the menu without being watched. His clients ranged between old white men wanting a taste of black culture and old white women wanting a taste of Erik. They all invited him to dinner or lunch or coffee and they all watched him. What he ordered. How he ordered. How he pronounced the French words on fancy scented cardstock menus.
It was exhausting. Years of meditation and discipline kept Erik from lashing out, but only just.
Erik hadn’t seen the couple when he’d chosen this booth, but they had to have arrived ten minutes after he was seated. He'd chosen the booth because it was in the back corner of the restaurant and it had a view of the kitchen and two exits. The Belgian Billionaire was late, big surprise. Klaue knew Erik’s stance on wasting his time. So after ordering and eating his lunch Erik he scanned the room for a waiter and packed up his portfolio.
A soft-spoken, feminine voice carried to Erik while he searched. He'd been intent on locating a waiter and wasn't paying attention to the occupants of the booth behind him.
“Olly the shoot schedule looks nice and all but I think we’re going to have to talk about the baby at some point.” her blunt way of speaking was softened because of the strange, dreamy quality of her voice. Like a cartoon angel or sleepy baby. Erik wasn’t good at describing shit like that.
Erik stiffened immediately. if there was anything he hated more than late clients and client meetings it was being in the middle of someone else's business. Erik had gotten this far in life by staying in his lane and sticking to himself. He'd rather go back to the military than be stuck in a booth while a relationship crashed and burned behind him.
He glanced around the restaurant for a waiter. He only wanted to spot one before the couple could carry on with their breakup. Erik didn't want to be in the room when they inevitably began yelling and crying at each other. Fuck the person who designed this fucking restaurant! The booths were meant to look like high backed chairs or something, but all they did was obstruct Erik’s peripheral vision.
The silence was broken by a cold, accented voice intoning, “I already have four children Ruby. Think of Moira, the shoot schedule has already been so hard for her. And you know she has a book tour coming up.”
Erik scoffed, really nigga? Erik settled back in his seat, he had to hear this play out. There was still a chance Klaue could show up and in the meantime, Erik could be entertained.
He expected the woman he’d heard before to snap back, instead she carried on in that sweet, soft-spoken voice. The only give away that the other man’s words had affected her was the slightly insistent lilt of her sweet voice.
“I know all that. I’ve known that. I did not come to you with this to derail anything. You know how much I never wanted to be a burden on anyone. But we have to discuss this. I’m not going to suddenly stop being pregnant if we don’t talk about it.” she paused, then continued, a question in her dreamy voice, “Although it’s an admirable idea. Imagine if it worked?”
Erik had to fight off a smile at that. It was such a nonsensical thing to say. It was as if she didn’t understand the gravity of the conversation she was having. Or maybe she did and this was her way of coping? Erik didn’t have time to figure it out, that accented voice hissed at her.
“Ruby, what could you possibly expect me to do about that? You know I don’t have time for another child. With the new show shooting soon and then we roll right into the tour for Get Out The Kitchen. We have the opening for La Femme in four months.” he sighed, as if it pained him to be such a dickhead, “I’m gonna need you on your feet and ready to go.”
Erik clenched his jaw, all humor fading. Listening to this wasn’t fun anymore. He should leave and let them finish this important, private conversation. But a stubborn part of him wanted to hear what the woman would say, so he stayed in his seat.
The soft-spoken angel didn’t speak for several beats. Erik nearly grew impatient enough to lean around the booth and beg her to fucking speak up. She had to have a response to the most self piece of shift Erik had ever heard in his life. And he worked with billionaires.
“I understand what’s at stake Oliver. I just…” the angel sighed, “I’m going to have this baby. I have my first visit with the doctor next week. I was hoping to discuss adjusting the filming schedule around my pregnancy. Maybe discuss taking a backseat in the kitchen until after the baby arrives.”
“Ruby I won’t allow you to implicate me in this. I can’t have you waddling around on camera and bringing up questions you know we both can’t answer.” the man sighed, and the woman started speaking in that dreamy, insistent voice. Erik suspected it was as close to begging as she got.
“I won’t ask for more of you than you’re willing to give but you can’t fire me because I’m pregnant. I love my job, Oliver. I put as much blood sweat and tears into what we’ve created as you have.”
“What we created? I’m sorry my dear but where were you when I was toiling away under the tutelage of the Greats? Getting my life threatened over shallots and overcooked scallops? I paid my dues long before you came along with your caramels and dimples.”
The vitriol in the other man’s voice makes Erik’s hackles rise. He clenched his fist under the table, his body now one long line of tension in the booth.
“Of course, I know-” Ruby tried to placate Oliver and Erik felt sick to his stomach at the sound of her already soft voice growing weak and earnest like that. She cared deeply for the man disrespecting her and Erik hated to see it. Just on principle, he didn’t believe in kicking someone while they were down. Yet this “Oliver” had no such morals.
“The network and I discussed bringing in one of those Instagram chefs for the ratings. Someone with a decent following to bring in another audience.”
Silence fell over the table like a wet blanket. When Ruby spoke, her voice had a care lack of any emotion at all. Though it seemed to retain it’s dreamy quality, “So you’d decided to replace me long before the baby then.” she huffed what Erik was sure was meant to be a laughed yet sounded too devastated to hit the mark.
A sniffle followed the huff and Erik felt devastated for her. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t raging out. He’d have flipped the table as soon as ‘Oliver’ said, “I already have four children.” Those were fucking fighting words alone. And the way he spoke to her wasn’t any better, both condescending and indulgent. Like she was a pet to him, a misbehaving one at that.
The dirty dog was fine laying down with his employee and cheating on his supposedly fragile wife. Yet he showed no mercy for the woman before him. The woman he knew was carrying his child at that very second. Erik had always thought of himself as a cold bastard. He’d done things during his service he’d rather not think of, and even he thought this was cold-blooded.
Emotional warfare only a few feet away, at brunch no less.
“I guess that’s it then. I’m out of the job and you want nothing to do with our child.”
“Well, I’ll still need you for the opening of La Femme. Be serious Ruby we built that place together. Four years on the road has worked up to this, remember?”
Erik couldn’t believe what he was hearing. One second Asshole Olly was talking down to her for even thinking he’d be interested in his unborn child, now he was insisting he help him open his restaurant.”
Erik listened intently for Ruby’s response. She’d been disappointingly mild throughout the conversation but she had to have something to say to that at least? A person could only tolerate so much disrespect.
“Then consider this my informal request for maternity leave.” Ruby’s soft voice had the slightest edge to it.
“Consider it denied.”
Ruby huffed, “Then consider this my resignation. You can want nothing to do with my baby, but you can’t bully me into abandoning it too.”
“I can’t condone this Ruby.” the fucker actually had the gall to sound disappointed. Erik wanted nothing more than to turn around in his seat and let him know just what he thought of this whole clusterfuck of a meeting.
At that moment Klaue, with perfect timing, as usual, announced himself from across the room, “Mr. Stevens! How kind of you to faithfully await my arrival.” He approached with the hostess speedwalking a step behind him.
Erik’s attention snapped away from the trainwreck in the booth at his back. He fixed Klaue with an unimpressed stare, “You’re thirty minutes late. I was just about to bounce.”
Klaue’s shiny, manic blue eyes widen impossibly more, “So there’s still enough time for me to order a cup of something delicious while you show me what you’ve bought with my money.”
Klaue settled across from Erik and the hostess smoothly slid him a menu. Klaue immediately snatched it up and grinned at Erik from over the top of it.
“Go on then Mr. Stevens, wow me.”
Erik rolled his eyes and subtly shook the tension out of his frame. It was for the best that Klaue showed up when he did. Erik was getting way too caught up in someone else’s business and he knew better than that. How had he let himself get worked up over something that didn’t concern him? Had he learned nothing from his father’s mistakes?
Schooling his features from annoyed to blank, Erik spread his portfolio before Klaue and waited patiently as the billionaire perused its contents. And he did not, absolutely did not hear the pitiful sounds of quiet sniffling from the booth behind him.