"I also had to come tonight to apologize," he said. He sat down, apparently not having the same fears about chairs.
For one inexplicably terrifying moment, I thought he was going to take back the part about me being his flame in the dark. Instead, he told me, "If you need to go to Mexico to finish this process off, then I understand. I was wrong to criticize you for it or even imply that I had some kind of say in it. One of the greatest things about you is that in the end, you always make smart decisions. Can't always say the same for myself. Whatever you need to do, I'll support you."
Those annoying tears almost returned, and I blinked them back. "Thank you. That means a lot . . . and to tell you the truth, right now, I still don't know what I'm going to do. I know Marcus is worried about me eventually getting in trouble and being under their control. Then again, staying part of the Alchemists seems like it'd give me more power, and besides . . . I don't want to leave you. Er, you guys."
He smiled, and it lit up his whole face. Like a flame in the dark. "Well, 'we' are certainly happy to hear that. Oh, and I'm also happy to watch our darling little love child dragon while you're in St. Louis."
I grinned back. "As a rock or in his real form?"
"Haven't decided yet. How's he doing right now?"
"He's locked in an aquarium. I'm guessing I'd wake up if he got into bed with me, so he must still be asleep." I hoped.
"Well, I'm sure getting into bed with you would be - " Adrian held back whatever comment he'd been about to utter. He instead gestured to the table, and a Monopoly board appeared. "Shall we play?"
I walked over and peered at the board. It apparently was also suffering from his drinking, seeing as half the streets were blank. The ones that were there had names like "Castile Causeway" and "Jailbait Avenue." "The board's a little incomplete," I said diplomatically.
Adrian didn't seem concerned. "Well, then, I guess that improves your odds."
I couldn't resist that and took a gamble on sitting in one of the chairs. I smiled at him and then began counting money, happy that all was (relatively) right in the world with us again.
SOMEHOW, I STILL LOST.
If Adrian were capable of on-the-fly calculations, I'd swear he was using his powers to affect the way the dice rolled. Most likely, he either had some innate and inexplicable Monopoly skills I just couldn't understand - or he was very, very lucky. But through it all, I had fun, and losing to him was a lot better than having Veronica haunt me in my sleep. He continued the dream visits for the next few days, and although I never felt completely safe from her, I at least didn't have her occupying the forefront of my mind at all times. That honor was saved for my weekend trip to St. Louis, which came around more quickly than I expected.
Once I was on the plane, the reality of what I was about to attempt hit me. This was it, the point of no return. In the safety of Palm Springs, I'd been able to maintain a somewhat cool and collected attitude. St. Louis had seemed far away back then. Now the tasks ahead of me seemed daunting and kind of crazy. And dangerous. There was no part of this that wouldn't get me into serious trouble. Lying to Stanton. Breaking into top secret servers. Even charming information out of Ian could have repercussions.
And really who was I to think I would have any ability to lure secrets from him? I wasn't like Rose or Julia. They had men fawning all over them. But me? I was socially awkward and pretty inept when it came to romance. Maybe Ian liked me, but that didn't mean I'd have some magical power over him. Of course, if that part of the plan with him failed, then I'd be free of my other tasks.
Every single part of this was overwhelming, and as I stared out the plane's window, watching St. Louis grow closer and closer, my feelings of dread grew. My palms were too sweaty to hold a book, and when I refused food, it was because of the queasiness in my stomach, not some obsession with calories.
I'd gone back and forth on whether to get a hotel room or stay at the facility itself, which provided guest housing for visiting Alchemists like me. In the end, I opted for the former. The less time I spent under the watchful eyes of my masters, the better.
It also meant I didn't have to worry about my outfit attracting attention. I hadn't exactly followed all of Adrian's suggestions, but the dress I'd purchased for this trip was a bit racier than my normal business casual wardrobe. Okay, a lot racier. It would have been completely out of place among the modest and neutral-colored attire Alchemists usually wore. But when Ian met me in the hotel's lobby for dinner, I knew I'd made the right choice.
"Wow," he said, eyes widening. "You look amazing."
Apparently, his Alchemists sensibilities weren't offended by my outfit. It was a form-fitting minidress that went about to my mid-thigh, with an open back and a disconcertingly low V-neck that gave me cle**age I hadn't even known was possible. Any demureness the dress's long sleeves might have offered was undone by the fabric combination: a beige underdress covered in black and maroon lace. It gave the illusion that I was wearing lace with nothing underneath. The saleswoman had assured me that every part of the dress was supposed to fit that snugly (for once in my life, I'd actually suggested a larger size) and that I needed at least four-inch black heels to make it all work. With the help of a lot of hairpins, I'd even managed to pull my hair up into a bun, which wasn't easy with my layered haircut.
I felt conspicuous walking through the lobby, but no one gave me any shocked looks. The few I did get were admiring ones. The hotel was pretty posh, and I was just one of a number of women dressed in holiday cocktail dresses. Nothing scandalous or out of the ordinary. You can do this, Sydney. And wearing a revealing dress wasn't nearly as difficult as breaking into a server, right?
I smiled as I approached Ian and gave him a quick hug, which was weird both because it was with Ian and because I felt na**d in the dress. This femme fatale thing was harder than I'd thought it'd be.
"I'm glad I got to see you again," I said. "I know what an inconvenience this must be, with no notice."
Ian shook his head so adamantly that I almost expected to hear rattling. "N-no. No trouble at all."
Satisfied he'd gotten a look, I slipped on my coat, a mid-length black trench, and gestured toward the exit. "Time to brave the elements?"
He hurried ahead of me to open the door. A scattering of snowflakes drifted down, resting on my coat and hair. My breath made a frosty cloud in the air, and I had a momentary flashback to traipsing across that field with Adrian. Little had I known that search for Marcus would lead to me running errands for him in a tight dress.