I thought on that for a moment, not wanting to give him an inaccurate answer. He gave me my time, tapping the corner of a page when a certain dress caught his attention. They varied, so I couldn’t quite tell his taste, other than not super poofy or showing too much.
“It’s not you, persay,” I finally settled on. “It’s more like I’m wary of emotional investment, of myself or into anyone else.”
“And yet you invest wholly in your apprentice.”
“…He’s an exception, to an extent.”
“How so? Is it because he’s young?”
I bit my lip, imagining for a minute if I had been given Gus as a baby rather than a teenager. Initially, that had been what I wanted. But now, with the thought of leaving this world constantly popping up, I found myself less sure.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “It’s more like…I don’t want to deal with the drama of someone getting too attached to me, or me getting too attached to someone and then them leaving me high and dry. I don’t think I could handle that happening to me again.”
“You mean romantically,” he said, quickly catching on. “But how about friends?”
“I’m okay with friends. I’m not afraid of that.”
“Then, if I clarify that I’m giving you a gift as a friend in the future, would you still be uncomfortable?”
“I’d want to give something back too.”
“But you do. How many times do I have to emphasize that you’ve given me back my life? And if not that—“ he cut across me as I started to protest. “I can’t tell you how fulfilling and entertaining our get togethers are. Isn’t that what friendships are anyways? A give and take relationship of enjoyment?”
“That’s just talking though. You give to me in talking.”
“Do you enjoy talking with me?’
“Oh, yes. Very much. I mean, you’re not as hilarious as me, but one can’t have everything.”
He chuckled, and the combination of his happy, soft expression and those downturned lashes made my chest cramp. Seriously, this man needed a mask or something.
“So, you’re afraid that, if you accept gifts from me, you will be expected to repay them in the future with, either your own romantic feelings, or, just to include the extreme, any other nefarious thing?”
I shrugged and turned a page. “The later kind of goes without saying. Oo! Look at this one! It’s like what a mermaid princess would wear.”
“You’ve never heard of mermaids? They’re mythological creatures, half woman half fish, usually super beautiful. They sing sailors to their death, giggle as they drown, all the fun stuff. I guess it might look good on me. All that hard work in the inn’s got to have done something for my butt.”
He made a quiet, throaty little choke and flinch combination that I found hilarious. As I laughed, he simply shook his head.
“One minute you’ve managed to fool me into thinking you are well-bred with the sensibility of a queen and the teachings of a saint, then you turn around and talk like that.”
“Now I feel like I should find a comment on how you talk while shaking my head and saying ‘tut tut.’ But you don’t give any openings, you know.”
“I am hardly aware of how I talk when I’m with you. That’s part of the charm.”
“Then what do you think of the mermaid dress? Pretty?”
“You can always try it on.”
I would much rather have Milly or one of my acne-prone maids for such a trip, but this candidate for friend would do. Even if he did have the wrong plumbing. Guys could enjoy dress shopping too, I guess.
The dresses they had on hand for trying out had to be pinned in place and only came in one color. When you finally decided on a style, they would take your measurements and the color you wanted and custom make it with any embellishments or fru fru you wanted. I was beginning to feel the gold on my skin, and it wasn’t the silky mermaid style blue number I tried on first. As I walked out onto the pedestal and took my first hard look into a mirror, I became endlessly glad that I had Mary do my hair.
I had gotten use to looking at my ethereally flawless skin. My face was still my face, though it did seem prettier without any obvious flaws that everyone hand, like trace amounts of blackheads, acne scars, or the pregnancy mask I’d gotten from my last pregnancy.
But looking at myself in the full length, room wide mirror, with my hair pinned up and gleaming in the sunlight outside, I found myself caught.
There was someone else looking back at me. Someone draped in gossamer fabric that hugged purely feminine curves all the way down to her knees before flaring out to the floor. She had a long, white, delicate neck. Large, doe-like blue eyes with thick lashes, shining with some kind of inner light above a full mouth and a straight, small nose. The red shades of her dark, auburn hair came out all the more above the aquamarine dress.
It took a minute before I could see me again. That small nose upturned a bit, which was why my aunt compared me to a pig. My uneven eyebrows. My larger than normal ears. The cheeks that balled up far too easily when I smiled, sending wrinkles to my neck. The extra large freckle on the side of my arm, more of a birthmark than anything, now standing out more than ever since my true freckles had disappeared.
“Do you like it that much?” Roman asked.
As I came back to earth, I caught sight of his sparkling gaze behind me, as well as that of the two female assistants, one who had her fingers to her gaping mouth.
“It suits you wonderfully, miss,” she said.
There were still many more dresses to look at and try on, but I felt oddly shaken.
“Yes,” I said. “I really like it.”
After some talk, I tried on a few more dresses I liked, each of the same aquamarine blue, but eventually settled on the mermaid dress with some added fabric to loosen the shoulders so they covered more of my arms and mother-of-pearl flakes sewn in to the skirt to resemble scales.
“Now you really will be a mermaid princess,” said Roman, even as he signed the receipt. “Can you sing?”
“Nothing anyone would die over.”
“That’s probably for the best. You in that dress was enough to fear for my life as it is.”
He’d given me such swoon worthy compliments and words before. But it was only now that I felt myself blushing and my chest warming a bit.
“It’s…it’s been a while since I’ve really looked at myself.” I said without thinking.
“Oh? I’d think commoners would have mirrors.”
I didn’t know. The only commoners I’d lived with were Hal and Milly, both of which weren’t too enthused to spend the money just so they could look closely at their faces. Practical folk they were, down to their toes.
“I can’t believe you suggested encrusting it with jewels.”
“Mother of pearl is hardly a precious jewel.”
“It’s shiny, it has rainbows, and you have to claw it out of an oyster by hand, it’s precious.”
“Oh, so it’s the money you’re so pained over? Lillian, dear, do you have any idea how rich I am?”
“Alright, I get it. Just let the pauper me lick my monetary wounds in the corner.”
“Wounds? Would a luxurious apple desert help you be more forgiving of wealth?”
I perked up at that. He had remembered I liked apple treats the most.
He laughed at my obvious reaction.
“Then, would you allow me to gift you one as well as the dress and accessories? As a friend?”
I only gave it a moment’s thought before smiling.
“Alright. I’ll trust you not to take away my soul.”
He smiled, but there was a bit to a grimace in the crinkle of his eyes. After a pause, he shifted in his seat.
“To be honest,” he said slowly. “I can’t say I…don’t have any ulterior motives. But, I daresay I’d challenge any man to not have any when it comes to you.”
I let the uneasy prickles that jumped out at that admittance slide up and down my legs and arms without responding.
“But, please, do believe me when I say that I would never force…anything upon you. Feelings or otherwise.”
I wanted to dig my fingertips into my eye sockets then and rub my eyeballs hard. Was he saying he liked me in that way or not? Or was he just being honest?
“Roman, I don’t deal with indirect delicacies, you know that. Be blunt.”
“…I’m afraid I can’t, in this case. You’re not the only one who is apprehensive of emotionally investing in others, Miss Lillian. Allow me the cowardly defense of being indirect with simply assuring you that I won’t do anything to hurt you. Consciously, at least.”
I felt bad all a sudden for being so harsh. His face didn’t show it, but I thought I could see a tension in his shoulders and the way he sat with his legs crossed. Being blunt either meant you were honest, or uncaring of the sensitivity of others feelings. I wasn’t foolish enough to not know I had been guilty of both in the past, and right now.
And looking at this stiff man gazing out the window, remembering his once greasy, crunched up and forgotten form along with the gentleness he had shown me up to this point, the last thing I wanted to do was hurt him.
“Roman,” I said, trying to inflect my apology into my voice with the softness of his name. “I already know you would never hurt me.”
His eyes glanced to the side at me. A finger from the fist propping up his head slipped out beneath his chin. Those stiff shoulders seemed unusually still.
“You’re going to be eating desserts with me, right? Caramel, if I remember correctly.”
That drew something not quite a smile, but very soft, to his mouth.
It looks like I’m going to have to stop free updates here, folks. Some sites have been pirating my stuff and haven’t left open a way for me to contact them and ask them not to. Sorry. :< On the plus side, I just sent in chapter 161 to my publishers yesterday and finished writing chapter 164. Gus is super buff and finding adorkable ways to show off to Lilly while she ruins it for him. ^.^ I’ll include the links here again to make life easy for you on where to find them. The third place you can find it is on an app called iReader.