My eyeballs inflate in their sockets, going as round as the zeros they fall on.

 

“Is everything all right?” Magda asks, inspecting my stunned expression.

 

“Y-yes,” I clear my throat. “Could you give me a minute, please?” I manage, handing her the dress to walk back in the direction we came.

 

Tentatively, I tread up to Zane, my heart quickening as his seated figure grows more prominent.

 

Feral eyes catch mine even before I near their owner. My chest constricts around the pump at its center as I come to stand before my boss.

 

“Mr. Zane…” I begin, swallowing to temper my galloping heart, but the action only seems to provoke its restlessness. “I appreciate you bringing me here but there’s no need for you to do this.”

 

“It’s nothing,” he assures me, a velvet voice mismatching an acute stare.

 

While I don’t doubt that in the slightest, I don’t want his money. Or worse, to be indebted to him. Certainly not at those insane prices.

 

“I’d prefer to purchase them myself,” I insist. Should there ever come a time I can actually afford to—which is highly unlikely.

 

He catches the silent implication. And ignores the hell out of it. “If it makes you feel better, this is an extension of a charitable act and my charity is and always will be offered without any strings, requirements or commitments. You are under no obligation to wear or even keep any purchases past tonight, which you may discard thereafter, if you so choose.”

 

I gape back in utter disbelief, spectacularly stumped by the fact that he clearly just missed the point. Or simply chose to disregard it. And, frankly, I don’t know whether to feel insulted by the inference.

 

Wow.

 

Since when did I become my own charity case?

 

Just…wow.

 

He’s clearly out of touch with mere human mortals, so moneyed that his brain has probably turned green itse—

 

Suddenly, something dawns on me.

 

Despite my knee-jerk reaction, it’s possible that maybe, just maybe, he is, in fact, doing me a favor. It stands to reason, if his general taste is anything to go by, the venue for our date is likely upscale—with a very specific dress code to match. Admittedly, I doubt I own anything I could wear to any of those types of places. Then again, why would I when I have absolutely zero reason to go to those types of places?

 

“Is everything all right?” I hear from behind me.

 

Magda appears again, leading with the same inquiry, her gaze bouncing between eagerness and uncertainty as it bounces between us.

 

Zane’s doesn’t stray, latched on to mine as if there’s no one else present, clearly waiting on an answer from me, as well.

 

I suppress a sigh, wallowing internally as I avert my eyes, unable to take the crippling weight of his.

 

I turn to the far less overwhelming individual with a forced smile. “Yes. We can continue.”

 

She offers a customary grin in return, befitting of the professional attendant she is and escorts me back to the dressing room.

 

I step through the curtain with the first dress in tow, instantly engulfed by a chasm of lit mirrors. Multiple copies of the same woman stare back at me, regarding my uneasy expression as I disrobe with a simultaneously relenting and frustrated huff. Almost comically, I trade my BOGO blazer and pencil skirt for an Empire Line gown that could pay my rent for half the year. I slide into it carefully, handling it like it’s a newborn baby. Lord knows, I’d have to offer one up if anything happens to it.

 

I smooth my hands down the sides of its flared skirt almost timidly, like I’m afraid to touch it, unable to comprehend why anyone would ever pay this much for a single piece of clothing—especially one they’d only use on occasion. But I have to remind myself that this is completely foreign territory; an entirely different world filled with the types of people who don’t cross paths or rub shoulders with the likes of me and, therefore, don’t possess the same standards, considerations or worries I do.

 

“You doing okay in there?” I hear Magda call out. “Need any help with anything?”

 

“No, I’m alright,” I return, carefully reaching for the hidden fastener behind me and dragging it up my back. I pause to drape my hair forward. The last thing I need is getting it stuck in the most expensive zipper in the world.

 

I step out of the dressing room, greeted by Magda’s approving face.

 

“That looks lovely,” she beams, gesturing to an adjacent, panoramic mirror so I can view the dress from every angle.

 

Considering how much it costs, it better.

 

She isn’t wrong, though. It does look lovely. Just not on me. The silver, while bright and reflective in itself, washes out my warm undertones and clashes with my hair.

 

“It’s beautiful,” I concur, “but I don’t think it’s a good fit.”

 

“Not a problem,” she pings enthusiastically, not missing a beat. “This is why we have options.”

 

Following her lead, I try on a couple more dresses, all similarly beautiful but not quite my style—or price range. I feel bad as she hands them to me, uncomfortable with putting on pristine, exorbitant gowns that I’m not going to buy, effectively removing their mint condition just to play dress-up.

 

My “lady-in-waiting” clearly doesn’t seem to mind, though, uninhibitedly eager for me to test them all out to my heart’s content, her enthusiasm no doubt driven by the presence of a certain someone seated at the other end of her boutique. Like his mere shadow is compensation enough.

 

I wonder how many times she’s done this. How many other women he’s accompanied through her doors. How many of them she’s happily indulged.

 

Choice cellophane and kraft paper screech as Magda rips open another package in a flash, a pitch-black extravaganza emerging from it this time.

 

I resist the urge to eye the price tag, feeling more than guilty—and broke—enough for one day.

 

I slide into a stunning mesh of raven lace and silk, dipping myself in an inky piece of wearable art. Barely-there, clean-cut sleeves grace my shoulders, a demure neckline exposing my clavicle as a flattering cinch hugs my waist. Beads of obsidian dance along and across my body, structured yet whimsical in their formation.

 

I step out of the dressing room again.

 

Magda nods with ballooned pride, her eyes imbued with certainty.

 

This is the one.”

 

***

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THIS CHAPTER MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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