“Should I be worried?”
I stand at the doorway, looking out to the sitting area in our hotel suite. There is a small table overflowed with room service, and a writing desk at the French windows where the two men hovering over a laptop.
Burner's hand goes automatically to the holster at his waist. Upon seeing me, his entire body goes slack and his hand drops casually to his side. He dresses in an expensive-looking suit with a black dress shirt underneath. The top two buttons are open. A black-feathered tattoo wing pokes out from the gap of his shirt. “Morning.”
Dad, wearing an even more glamorous suit with a navy blue double-breasted trench coat, gives me a once-over. “You don’t look well, Precious.”
“Have a weird dream.” I mutter, remembering Dad’s faded voice. Doll. He calls me various things, but Doll is not one of them. “Anyhoo. Any reasons why you guys are so dress-up?” I know Dad likes to dress nice. But Burner gives me more of an I-wear-whatever-I-feel-like-it vibe. Seeing him in a fancy suit... Well, he is absolutely an eye candy. But I get a bad feeling of it.
“Work.” Dad says, not skipping a beat. And he checks his watch. “Go wash up and eat your... I guess it’s afternoon tea now.” He gestures to the table full of food.
I nod, eyeing the men one last time before finding my way to the bathroom. A paper bag is set by the sink. With some hesitation, I peer into the bag and find a sequinned pleated dress. The price tag is still attached to it, and I gasp at the number on the paper slip.
“Dad.” I yell, not taking my eyes off the 4000-dollar dress in my hands. Footsteps approach hastily before a short knock on the door.
“Precious?” Dad’s voice booms from the other side of the flimsy wooden door. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh yes, this is so wrong.” I exclaim. He throws open the door and practically runs into me with Burner at his heels. To my utter horror, Burner’s gun is out and his eyes are sweeping over the space in a practiced manner. Both men visibly relax when finding no signs of danger.
“The fuck?” I say, not sure I am thrown aback more by their reaction or the dress in my hands. “Put the goddamn gun away, Burner.”
Dad grabs my shoulders and shakes me slightly. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
I blink and hold up the dress. “What is this?”
Burner, with his gun back into the holster, gives me a weird look. “A piece of fabric you put on your body to cover yourself.” He says it as if he were explaining global warming to a three-year-old.
I huff irritatingly. “I know what a dress is. Is it for me?”
“Or can any of us fit into that thing?” Burner snaps back. “Damn, I can’t believe I pull a gun at a dress.”
“Taylor.” Dad scowls at the man. “Some space, please.” The other man grumbles under his breath but retreats from the bathroom as he was told.
“4,385 dollars.” I exclaim once Burners is out of sight. I own a 4000-dollar dress back in Taiwan and it’s the most expensive thing in my closet. But 4000 as in New Taiwanese dollars, which means a hundred buck and thirty-ish in American dollars.
“It’s Balmain.” Dad replies like it explains everything.
“Is this what you meant in Manhattan? Proper attire for special occasions?”
He signs softly and removes the dress from my grasp. He cups my face with his big hands and lowers himself so we are at the same level. “Precious, you are not freaked out over a gun but a dress. Why?”
“Who says I am not freaked out over a gun?” I retort and wince sheepishly. Because he is right. I might be startled by the sight of a firearm, but I won’t overreact like this.
He smiles softly, petting my head. “Tell me.”
I open my mouth, trying to explain. But the words stuck in my throat. “I don’t...”
“You don’t know how to tell me or you don’t want to tell me?”
I look up at his eyes, my eyes, and see my reflection in them. I look away.
“Don’t want to.” I admit. He grabs my chin and gently makes me meet his stare again. We stand frozen in the bathroom, just staring each other down. And eventually, I give in. “Christ, Dad. I don’t know what to think. You always kept things from me. And I was fine with that. I was comfortable living with the things you are willing to show me. Guns and knives are always there but this,” I reach for the dress again. “I am not familiar with this. With this part of your life. I am beyond happy you are showing me more, but I am also terrified.”
He frowns deeply. “But you said you wanted to come with me.”
“Yes, of course I want to come with you. I will always want to come with you.”
“Then what you are afraid of?”
We both jump a little when Burner appears at the door with the phone at his ear. He tilts his head, silently telling Dad something. Dad sighs heavily. “This conversation is not over.” He kisses my forehead before leaving the bathroom to take over the phone call. Burner stays at the doorway, watching me with an eyebrow raised.
“What?” I ask annoyingly.
“Clean up, Princess. We are going out.”
After a speedy breakfast/afternoon tea, Burner and I left the hotel for a ten-minute walk to a small block of shops. Dad is left behind to deal with his work (mostly the man on the phone who yelled so loud even I could hear him without the speaker on). Dad spoke German the whole time, which was a surprise for me. I didn’t know my father can speak the language.
Passing a few road signs and the signature pink wall, I am pretty sure we are in Beverly Grove. What I am not sure about is the creepy store we are stopping at.
“Please don’t make me go inside.” I say under my breath, glancing at Burners. He takes off his Ray-Ban Aviator and gives me a riled smile.
“You are so going inside.”
“What is this place?” I snap at him as he approaches the door. The sign hung there says closed, but he pushes the glass door open without any struggle. I look at the devilish artworks pasted all over the windows with a shiver before catching up with the man. I cough when the smell of chemical substances filled my nostrils. Burner doesn’t share any of my discomforts, just heading straight behind the counter to a closed door. “Wait, are we breaking into a stranger’s store?”
“Stay here.” is all the reply I get before Burner heads into the attached room without a knock. I stand rigidly at the center of the room, taking my chance to observe the place. There are more ghastly drawings and murals on the walls, most of them are monstrous-looking creatures like chimeras. My eyes fall on the binder resting on the counter. I open it and gasp at the pictures displayed on the pages.
“Holy crap.” I exclaim as I realize they are pictures of tattoos. Burner reenters the room with another red-hair man trailing behind him. I spin on him, pointing at the binder. “What does this mean? You are gonna ink me?”
The stranger steps out, his green eyes sweep over my body swiftly. I recoil slightly at the eeriness permeating from the guy.
And he smiles (all teeth).
“This is fun.” The man says.
Burner huffs out an irritated breath, walking to stand beside me. “Fox, This is Precious. Princess, this is Fox.”
The man sticks out his hand. Not trusting him, I stare at it flatly until he gives up and drops it to his side again. Burner shifts on his feet. From the tense lines of his shoulders, I can tell he is uncomfortable.
Fox circles me like a predator. His green eyes glint under the dim light. Now I realize Fox might not be a real name, but a stage one. This man is literally a fox in human flesh.
“Are you done?” Burner deadpans, eyeing the other man coolly. “Do your help and we can leave.”
Fox makes a ding-don sound. “The keyword. Help. This is not how you talk to your rescuer, T.” He croons.
Burner murmurs colorfully. I catch a son of a bitch and a Xavier is gonna pay for this. I watch as the two men stare down at each other until the green eyes cut to my way. I tense, holding my breath subconsciously.
“Hello again.” He says, pivoting on his heels so he faces me fully. He watches me with his head cocks on one side like I am an exotic creature.
“My father will skin you if you ink me.” I threaten, glaring back at the man.
“He will.” He agrees, closing the distance between us swiftly. “Throwing warnings as a greeting. She is a real Alston. We actually met before.” Fox squints his eyes a little, assessing me. “But you were only like... yeh tall.” He puts a hand at his waist.
I fumble through my memories, trying to put a name on the face. If I did meet him before, it’s impossible for me to forget a memorable face like his. Unless it was a long time ago. My eyes widen when his face resurfaces from a distant memory. “You were one of Olivia’s partners, in the gallery.”
The man flashes another grin, but something grim settles in his gaze. “She would be so disappointed to see you grow more and more like your father.”
Burner clears his throat, obviously uncomfortable to share the grieve of a woman he never met. “Like I told you over the phone, you only get two hours. She has to show up in an event at six and I don’t want to risk the traffic in LA during rush hours.”
Fox tears his attention away from me and nods. “You’re gonna tip for an express pass?” He drawls and walks back to Burner. He drags a finger down Burner’s chest and practically purrs against the man. I blink, failing to process the situation. The red-head man meets my stunned expression and gives me a lopsided smile. “You don’t know T plays for a different team, girl?”
Spluttering, I round my eyes at the man who I’ve been glued to in the past 48 hours. Even though I am pretty sure what Fox is insinuating, I can’t make myself believe it. There are no signs.
“He is gay.” He says with a pat on Burner’s chest. The other man seems frozen at the moment. His hazel eyes pin on me but not quite focused.
The phone rings and Burners snaps out of his stupor before pulling out his cell to answer. He pushes himself away from Fox and heads for the door with a deep frown. Since he’s speaking German, I don’t know the frown is from the call or the fact that he was just outed by a tattoo artist in front of his coworker’s daughter.
“God, the man doesn’t look gay.” I whisper, still slightly unhinged.
“You never know.” Fox croons and gestures to the door behind the counter. “Tick tock. To the back room, your Highness. Your father will really skin me if I don’t get you all prepped up soon.”