chapter 13 - new toy, ace?

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The thoughts that are preoccupying my mind are slowly drowning out Jade's voice. She excitedly talks about the details of her newest midi-dress creation, the emerald green fabric flowing between her fingers as she describes it. I stare straight at her, and I can tell by the gleam in her eyes and the wide smile on her face that she's incredibly proud of this one. She mentions the fabric was imported from the bustling Thai silk markets, which were handwoven using traditional techniques. I manage a half-smile, fighting between the lines of wanting to fully engage with her, but the memory of what happened with Ace yesterday keeps coming back.

But I can't focus on her words. Ace was so close, close enough that I could see the worry etched into the lines around his eyes, the way his brow furrowed in a helpless attempt to shield me. My eyes ran along the collar of his shirt, crisp and white against his tanned skin. I could feel the warmth radiating off of his body, which was a contrast to the cold knot in my stomach from not knowing what was going on. I did catch a glimpse of who Ace was trying to protect me from—if he was trying to protect me at all—before I was shoved into the safety of my car.

The sight of the paparazzo skulking in the shadows like some stalker in a bush sends a fresh wave of panic through me. I've never been one to bite my nails, but the uneasiness about the potential photos is an unwanted impulse. The not knowing is the worst part. Did he get a clear shot of my face where it'll be plastered across tabloids? Even if my face isn't visible, everyone will know it's a girl from Harlock; the uniform is a dead giveaway.

Jade, thankfully, pulls me back from my worries. "Want to try it on?" she asks, her eyes shining with excitement that's hard not to catch. "We can have a mini photoshoot!"

"Me?" I stammer, forcing a smile. "Are you sure? Don't you want to wear it? You worked hard on it."

Jade dismisses my protests, shoving the dress into my hands. "I work hard on all of my creations, and they're meant to be worn and seen. Besides, it'll look better on you, trust me!"

I step into the bathroom, shutting the door with a soft click. My hands move to peel off my clothes, discarding them carelessly onto the counter. I slip into the silky fabric, cool and smooth against my skin. It's simple in design, yet the color is breathtaking—a jewel-toned emerald that seems to dance and shimmer in the light. Standing before the arched body mirror, I trace the line of the halter neckline with a finger. Then I let my gaze travel down the elegant drape of the fabric that skims my curves to the revealing high slit at mid-thigh.

When was the last time I wore a dress that made me feel pretty? I couldn't remember, but I feel a surge of confidence bubbling up, pushing me to take a step and see how the dress moves with me. I shift with a lively twirl, and the emerald fabric sways around my legs, reflecting the happiness I'm starting to feel inside.

A knock comes at the door, and Jade pokes her head in. Her eyes land on me, and a wide grin spreads across hers. "Told you!" she exclaims, practically bouncing into the room. She marches over to the cabinets, her peppy self already rummaging through drawers and pulling out a curling wand and a set of pink alligator hair clips.

The California sun dips toward the horizon, casting an orange glow across the sprawling veranda, which stretches out from the left wing of the Daniels' mansion. The yard beneath us is brimming with rich greenery, its colors deepening by the gentle touch of the setting sun.

Jade and I spent the last couple hours snapping pictures and videos with our phones in hand or propped on a durable tripod. Every now and then, we'd huddle around Jade's phone, giggling and pointing at the screen as we edited our portraits and posed shots. Jade had done an amazing job on my hair, creating loose curls that perfectly framed my face with her nimble fingers and an eye for detail. Meanwhile, I channeled my inner makeup artist and created a smoky brown fox eye.

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