“Please, boss-man, sir? I want a dress too!” begged Aaliyah as she stared up at James.
Shrugging, he said, “Sure.”
Was he forgetting that we were here for me, since one of my dresses was destroyed by that fey he refused to restrain? I turned to him and said, “James! Really. You shouldn’t give into her begging so easily. Who knows what your amicable attitude will cost you when she’s involved. You know good and well that she can easily afford her own dress, so must you indulge her in such a manner?”
He really needed to learn a modicum of caution when dealing with Aaliyah. If he had the slightest clue what she really was, he’d be horrified all over again by her. I still hadn’t worked out why she displayed herself to him again, killing a man right in front of him in her true form, but she always had a plan. If her plans didn’t often cause difficulties for others, I wouldn’t feel quite so worried about his attachment to her. Why was she grinning at me with such apparent glee?
“Why should you get one from him and not me?” she asked, looking at me with such earnestness that I almost believed her confusion despite myself.
“You know very well that his little friend cost one when I was simply trying to persuade her to go home.” I snapped, annoyed that I couldn’t figure out what game she was playing with us.
“I really do appreciate what you did, but I have mentioned before that my friend knew you wouldn’t get hurt. Frankly, I’m surprised she’s not more intimidated by you, like the rest seem to be.” stated James.
I knew at a glance that he meant well, but that didn’t stop the anger in me from lashing at its cage. I turned away from him, trying to calm down. He was far too trusting. That was the root of the problem, but I couldn’t deny my own frustration at knowing I couldn’t protect him from Aaliyah. Okay, so there might be some small part of me disheartened by knowing the truth of his words too. I had felt the fear within the fey. Most of them feared me even as they accepted me as one of their own. Were they scared of my power or the other part of my heritage? I couldn’t say.
James took my hand as he said, “Alma, please don’t be upset.”
I wanted to squeeze his hand in turn, but I also wanted to pull away. I did neither, just letting myself enjoy the feel of his hand around mine. I never wanted to hurt him in any way. I basked in my memories with him. There were plenty of disheartening ones, but I wasn’t anymore immune to James’ charms than anyone else, despite my protective spells. He was an incredible person with a heart far too big for his own good, and I would protect him as well as I could.
“Aaliyah has worked incredibly hard for me, so showing a little gratitude to her isn’t unreasonable. Besides, you know she can look perfectly cute when she’s not completely mismatched.” he claimed.
And he was right. As she was now, Aaliyah appeared as cute as she was terrifying in her normal form. The girl was disarming, helping James in countless ways toward some plan I could not fathom. Would he survive her schemes? I hoped.
“Boss-man, sir! Are you saying I’m not always cute?” asked Aaliyah, seeming to plead with him through her large, blue eyes.
“Oh, enough of that.” I snapped. “Let’s just proceed.”
Aaliyah’s grin to me was disarming. She climbed up on my lap as if that were perfectly normal, and I indulged her as we started using the store’s tablet to peruse and modify dresses. I also made mental notes on where the software could use a little work. The U.I. was fairly elegant in this version, but I felt the utility of it could be improved. As Aaliyah and I worked, I tried not to be too competitive in my redesigns, but the girl’s skill was formidable as ever. If James were to participate, he’d surely help us both keep in line.
“James, which style trim do you prefer?” I inquired as I showed him the original, my own, and Aaliyah’s.
He studied them all intently but said, “I find them all to be perfectly lovely, so why not trust your own instincts and go with the style that suits you best?”
He couldn’t have given a more typically noncommittal answer, and I couldn’t help rolling my eyes as I told him “The twins always spoke about how much they enjoyed shopping with you. Is your current company so much worse that you can’t be more interested?”
“What?” he asked in surprise. “No. Of course not. I simply know next to nothing about dress design and would hate to lead you astray.”
“Then let us teach you.” I suggested, wiping the current project into storage.
He didn’t argue, so Aaliyah and I commenced with explaining the high and low points of current fashion as well as the nuances in detailing which could make or break a design. James proved to know more than he had admitted, but I always knew he had good sense in fashion. When I brought back the previous project, he still wouldn’t commit to a favorite between the designs, but he at least explained why this time. I resisted the urge to argue for mine, knowing I was simply being biased against Aaliyah’s.
After the orders were placed, we discussed where to eat, but Aaliyah and I couldn’t agree. James declined to state a preference even as he suggested possible courses when he knew the restaurants.
Several minutes into the conversation, he told us “I’m sure Marco could have something prepared by the time we arrive if you two don’t mind just eating at home.”
“Her home is on the opposite side of the park.” I pointed out.
I couldn’t argue against Marco’s meals being the best we could find even if we were to include the whole of the world as possibilities, but I wasn’t ready to return home quite yet, not with knowing James’ time would be taxed by the others there.
“You don’t really want to go back already, do you, boss-man, sir? Alpy’s actually taken time off work for once.” explained Aaliyah.
“Well, more or less.” I replied, having been in constant communication with some of my employees via text on my phone.
I was both grateful and nervous about her statement. Did she have plans for us nearby? Was there something happening at Somerset Estate that she was keeping from us?
“I only suggested it because I adore Marco’s cooking. Why don’t we just go to the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce?” inquired James.
“No, sorry. That won’t do.” I stated. Part of the binding contract between the Slayer’s and Aaliyah was to avoid entering that restaurant in all of its locations, one of the many parts that contract which often had me on edge. What was Aaliyah hiding there?
“There’s a pizza place around the corner that has great reviews!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she stared at her phone.
Nodding, I said, “Oh, yes. I haven’t tried that one yet.”
James looked at me in surprise.
“What?” I asked. After some thought, I decided he was confused as to how I knew which one Aaliyah had meant. “I’ve memorized every street of this city as well as the suburbs.”
“What!? That’s incredible!” he exclaimed.
I shook my head and explained “No. You simply don’t give me enough credit. Knowing your way around is important.”
We then proceeded to the restaurant, making idle conversation along the way. I found the place a bit quaint, given the appearance. At a glance, most consumers would probably feel the place hadn’t been updated in sixty years, but the registers were actually computerized, despite their appearances. In the heat from the oven, I could easily picture the entire kitchen, which utilized a large number of modern implements. By the designs, I’d guess the place had been refurbished within the past two years. I allowed myself a wry smile as I realized why this place seemed familiar. This place would have needed refurbished after the massacre Aaliyah had committed. Fifteen people were found decapitated. Weapons were found on all of them, and not one managed to get off a shot. Adelmar had thought someone was trying to send our family a message. If he would have known then what we do now, would he have wanted my mother to come here at all?