The drive across town is short, expedited by unusually low traffic for rush hour and the speedy vehicle hurtling its owner and I toward an unknown destination. But it feels excruciatingly long, thanks to the harrowing, immeasurable disgrace currently imbuing every living cell that forms me, eradicating them by the billions.

A thousand deaths doesn’t even begin to cover it.


I default to silence for the entire ride, my heart still coming down like a hammer from an angry judge, its echo blaring in my cramping head. I exhale my mortification for the millionth time in five minutes, my mouth clamped shut over chattering teeth as I continue to clutch Michaela’s “gift”, wishing with every bone in my body, with every fiber of my disintegrating being that I could just toss the wretched Pandora’s box out of the window. I’ve always been adamant about anti-littering, never once having considered the act, even as a child. But now, for the first time in my life, that virtue is tested like never before. We continue to outstrip the wind along the highway, Zane’s “land spaceship” gobbling up miles and miles of San Francisco in record time, and I come pretty close to attempting it. But, despite the almost unbearable compulsion to follow through, I chicken out, petrified by the likely consequence of Zane’s notice. Or, worse, having the cops pull him over.


How the hell would I begin to explain that?


Good evening, officer. No. No, I haven’t been drinking but I thought it was an absolutely splendid idea to litter San Francisco’s roads with a brand spanking new dildo.


A shudder ripples through my organs as I suppress a cringe. But the really fucked up thing is, the mere thought of that confession reaching the lupine human being next to me is far, far more daunting than getting tangled up with law enforcement. I’d get slapped with a hefty ticket and some unequivocally odd looks from the police. But I don’t even want to imagine the volcanic glower I’d collect from my employer.


He’s equally silent as his futuristic car zaps us across the city, sharp, sunlit eyes on the unending stretch of road ahead, a large hand set to the peculiarly-designed steering wheel, flexing intermittently.


I chance another peek, catching his stunning profile from a shifty peripheral view. Long, balanced fingers guide the helm. Masterful. Relaxed. A commander in complete control of his ship. There’s such a sophisticated ease about him; a kind of effortless confidence that’s almost innate. Natural.


Which makes it all the more intimidating.


We veer off the highway into uncharted terrain, the engine’s smooth hum dropping a bite as it decelerates. My skin grows tight when we funnel into a conspicuously high-end district, my eyes catching displays of prominent names in fashion through lightly tinted glass, sitting atop strings of adjacent buildings, lined one after the other, block after block. We drive past a myriad of them, taking a turn through a void, seemingly-private route before we come upon an underground parking lot. Zane descends further still…into a secondary lot.


Underground underground parking?


That’s a first.


The engine dies down as its modulator pulls up into an unjustifiably wide grid. The rest of the brightly-lit lot is empty, however, uncomfortable quietude settling over the artificial sub-terrain. I spy the expanse through my window incredulously, wondering if the whole thing’s reserved just for him in its entirety. I can’t imagine it is, but who the hell knows with people of this ilk.


Zane puts his space car in park, sightly, expert hands setting his life-sized toy to sleep. My heart races all over again when I register the click of his seat belt sliding off. The sound is echoed over my own chest a second later, the centered cube coming undone at Zane’s silent command, freeing me against my will. I mimic his actions, pulling the disengaged straps away, but with far less enthusiasm, the sensation of release anything but liberating, robbing me of armor I so desperately need, even if it isn’t mine. I look down at the box in my lap, my face twisting in a deathly scowl. I have the good mind to toss it under the car while he isn’t looking, the idea of getting it mercilessly run over still forming when I hear my door open.


Malicious thoughts in my head crumble as it pivots to find Zane’s suited form on the other side, soaring above me and his vehicle. I crane my neck involuntarily, my eyes finding his without thought as I force the rest of my body to move. They peer down at me. Exquisite. Absorbing. And, then, he holds his hand out.


My heart jumps into my mouth, and I blink rapidly against its distress signal. I struggle to swallow down the humongous lump clogging my throat, ironically reluctant to place Michaela’s package on the car’s floor, apologetic for tainting its pristine state. Even more hesitantly, I extend my hand, willing the extremity to be still as I place it in another’s. The second we make contact, an instantaneous exodus of oxygen hits my body, his larger palm engulfing mine, securing it in a gentle yet firm grip.


My knees almost buckle as he helps me out of the sportscar, his chivalrous act having the completely opposite effect of its intent. I exhale in silent relief when he lets go soon after, my chest shuddering with expelled air even as a twisted, frayed sense of disappointment stabs at it. Zane leads me into an elevator close by, the lift evidently exclusive, like the lot. He props open a solid, metal rectangle on the left-hand side, revealing a multi-colored number pad. He hits a single button before replacing the cover. The elevator rises to a computed destination, and I try not to think about the fact that, once again, I’m locked inside a moving, metal vehicle with him.


Our ascent is quiet, much like the drive that preceded it, but far more nerve-racking in the absence of other cars and buildings to buffer the journey.


The only upside is the nonattendance of that stupid vibrator.


I have no idea what to say, the air growing more and more depleted by the second, the vibe increasingly wooden.


Zane doesn’t utter a word, either, and I have to wonder why the hell we’re here all over again. I’ve never really been into elevator music, but if there were ever a time to have some, this would be it. Thankfully, the lift dings open soon enough. I step out of it eagerly, putting some much-needed distance between our bodies. But the reprieve is short-lived because I feel him at my heels, his molten eyes on my back. I literally have to watch my steps, my legs shaking of their own accord. Even from behind, he leads, his prominent build intuitively guiding me as we walk in silence, ensuring I’m keenly aware of its presence at all times.


We approach a lone, glass door. Zane reaches for it before I can, holding it open.


“Thank you,” I mutter, my gratitude a jumbled croak, awkwardly shuffling through it as I continue to avoid his gaze.


Mine pivots to take in the space beyond it…and freezes. Within only seconds, I already know that, save for Zanergy, this is, without a doubt, the most expensive place I’ve ever been in. A high-end women’s boutique. The kind I’d never ever even think to venture into. But the store is empty, void of other shoppers. Not even a single customer in sight. I hear Zane close the door behind us. I pause, struggling to swallow, feeling completely out of place.


As if on cue, a middle-aged woman emerges, smiling from ear to ear as she spots him. A pristine, silvery mane curls over her slender shoulders, visible in the halter dress adorning her swimmer’s frame. Her eyes dart between Zane and I, imbued with rich chocolate and amusement.


“I presume this is the young lady?” she asks.


“She is,” Zane answers plainly.


I just stand there, confused.


“I’m Magda,” she smiles, extending her hand in introduction. “This is my store.”


“Reausalind,” I return, wary.


“I’ve secured several options that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Please, follow me.”


Zane gestures for me to go ahead, hovering close behind. Too close.


Reluctantly, I comply, walking behind the woman’s eager trail with clasped fingers. My eyes continue to dart around as we walk up to a lounging area, noting the entire place is completely closed off.


Seemingly for him.


An elegant presentation of champagne and hors d’oeuvres paints a high table.


“Please,” she gestures to the exhibition, “help yourselves to some refreshments.”


Zane makes no move to take her up on the offer, taking up space on a luxurious sofa next to it, instead.


“You can proceed. Whatever she likes.”


Magda nods, turning to me. “I have an assortment of evening dresses set out for you. This way,” she gestures.


My eyes flit to Zane briefly, mirroring uncertainty—unsure of which of the two of them I feel more for—but he offers a confirming nod. Wordlessly, he removes himself from the process, giving the chipper woman next to me the green light to take over.


I follow the woman of the House away from the man who brought us together, my eyes moving in tandem with my feet as we trek to a separate area. Several metal racks line the floors, each lodging dark nude zip-ups suspended from embedded hangers. Like fancy, oversized paper bags.


Magda peels one open, revealing a shimmery, sterling number, fettered with strips of lace at the sleeves and hem. I realize it’s brand new…as are all the others. She hands it to me, pointing to a wide curtain a few feet away.


“Your dressing room is just ahead.”


I take it from her with a tight, unsure smile, feeling far too out of my element.


God, why the fuck am I here?


This is not at all my scene, the sheer anomaly of this ‘activity’ getting me a million ti—


My vision damn near eradicates itself when it inadvertently meets the attached tag, literally stunned into stillness as I fail to comprehend the digits printed on it.











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