Well. Except for one.
"You're sure he's going to pay for lunch?" The single cause for complaint sounded dubious. Violet's face was as sceptical as if her husband had just attempted to sugar-coat blatant lies by calling them alternate facts. "You know as well as I do that this is totally out of our league."
"He said he'd buy the both of us lunch, and then we could take or leave some proposition." Flynn squeezed his wife's hand, grinning like a loon and looking this way and that. A vase of flowers adorned each and every table, and peering through the window he could see that the waiters were all dressed in tuxedos. A chandelier hung in the middle of the room, and elaborate tapestries turned the walls into exhibits. "Jeez, this is unreal, Vi. Can you believe this?"
"I can believe it. That's the problem." She snatched her hand away, and when he turned, he found his wife shaking her head. "In case you've forgotten, Flynn, we're littles. People like Cecil Winters do not offer littles business propositions, they force business propositions, and by the time the little realises they're in too deep to decide hey, maybe this isn't too hot an idea, it's too late to change anything." She was positively glowering now, and had her wrath been directed elsewhere, Flynn might have found it adorable. Violet was too cute to be truly menacing. "You're not stupid, Flynn, even if you insist on acting it," she finished, equal parts exasperated and frustrated. "What in the world makes you think this is a good idea?"
His smile didn't falter, but on the inside Flynn sighed. Skepticism was all he'd heard from his wife since they'd rushed from the beach to change out of their swimwear, and as warranted as it is, Violet's complaining had well and truly worn thin. "I have a hunch," was his honest reply.
"A hunch?" His wife's hands found her hips. A passing pair of in-betweeners gave her an odd look, and she sent them on their way with a venomous glare. She turned it on Flynn before he could so much as see their reaction. "You're risking my holiday, marriage, and adulthood on a hunch?"
He shrugged helplessly. "I want to hear him out."
The expression on Violet's face could have struck fear in the heart of Death himself. Maybe. "Flynn, why are you doing this?"
Violet's eyes were wells of frustration, and Flynn realised he genuinely didn't know what to tell her as he plumbed their depths. A big part of it was simply that in the short time he'd spent conversing with Cecil, the man had treated him as an equal. This was something he'd later realised was a rather incredible feat for a giant; how many people Cecil's height treated littles like they weren't three years old, after all? The man had opened with a indulgent quip or two, sure, but it hadn't been at Flynn's expense. When you got down to it, Cecil had been nothing short of respectful, and that alone had opened Flynn's ear to whatever it was he had to say.
Another part of it was greed. Who wouldn't want to hear out a business opportunity with someone rich enough to wipe their nose with hundred dollar bills?
The last part - the only part, really - was Violet.
But how do I tell her that?
"I think it's a good idea," was his belated response, thinking of all the hours he'd spent wasting away at home over the last six months. Flynn reached for his wife's hand again, and when she waved him away he took it by force. He ignored the look of disgust on her face and made for the door. Dead weight greeted his attempt to manoeuvre her. "You should trust me more, Vi."
"You haven't given me much reason to trust you this last year, Flynn," was all she said. Her hand vanished from his grip. "You should think of that before asking any more of me."
With that, she gave him a final, searching look before turning tail and marching away down the street, leaving him alone to ponder the implications of those parting words.
The waiter standing just inside the entrance was an Amazon. He had a handlebar moustache that made Flynn think of Saturday morning cartoons, and his hair was so thick with product he might as well have worn a helmet to work. A jangling bell cried out as Flynn passed through the door, but the man was so engrossed in whatever it was he had atop his podium that he failed to notice. The height difference did little to help.
How's that for customer service. "Excuse me?"
The man jolted awake and searched the air before him, smiling abashedly and shaking his head. It took him a long moment to even consider glancing down, and when he did his face lit up like Christmas. "Hello there, little sir!" the waiter exclaimed. His voice was one generally reserved for young children. "I didn't see you down there. Is your mummy around?"
Flynn bit his tongue. "I'm here to see Cecil Winters."
The man's psychopath smile went on unperturbed even as he crouched down to the little's level. Flynn was immediately treated to the scent of a fine cologne he himself could only dream of affording. "That cannot be so, my little friend; I was told to expect two little friends, not the one." He glanced over his companion's shoulder, and upon seeing that the smaller man was alone began to frown. "You are all by yourself," he re-affirmed, speaking seemingly to himself.
"I met with Mr Winters at the beach this morning," he explained stiffly, noting the waiter's eyes questing somewhere over his shoulder. After Violet's dramatic exit before, he wasn't in the mood to be handled with kiddy gloves, and when he spoke it took some effort to keep his voice level and polite. "And he told me to meet him here. I'm just following orders."
"My little friend - "
"Look, pal, my mummy isn't going to walk through that door no matter how long you stare at it." Flynn crossed his arms and glared daggers at his antagonist. "She's dead. Has been for years. If you're done wasting our time, I'd like you to take me to Mr Winters."
The waiter looked offended, but for the first time Flynn glimpsed uncertainty, too. This was confirmed by a mumbled "perhaps there's been a...a misunderstanding," and then the smaller man found his hand ensorcelled in the powdered grip of his companion's. Well-dressed heads turned to watch the waiter walk the troublesome little through the restaurant, and out of concern of drawing more attention to himself Flynn simply let nature take its course, half-walking and half-stumbling in the doorman's wake. They paused only long enough for the elevator to arrive, and then they were away once more.
Cecil had reserved the entire balcony of the third level for himself and his daughter. The Amazon watched, bemused, as Flynn was dragged through the restaurant and more or less dumped at his feet. "What has the poor boy done to deserve such a fate, Len?" He was still in the same shorts he'd worn at the beach, and although he'd found a shirt to wear, the richest man in Sunrise City still seemed horribly under-dressed for the Square Rose's lofty standards. "When I said bring him up to me, I didn't mean literally bring him up."
"You can rest easy, Len. This is the right little." Cecil flashed his pearly whites the way a dealer dealt a hand of cards. "Your concern is appreciated, but all is well. You may leave us now."
For a second, Len simply stared. When it became clear that truly was all Cecil was going to say, he nodded stiffly and uttered a polite "Sir," and then he was gone, disappearing back the way he came. Flynn didn't fail to notice the confused look the waiter sent his way before he vanished. The sight made him smile. Teaches you to jump to conclusions, he thought smugly to himself. Dick.
"He's right, you know." Cecil was balancing his daughter upon his knee, and as soon as his hand went to play with her hair, Flynn abruptly realised he knew her face. Little Miss was the poster-girl of her father's enterprise, the darling little who had taken the country by storm with her adorable antics in Cecil's advertisements. She was wearing a poke-doted, pinafore dress the same colour as her eyes - a deep, verdant green that made Flynn think of elfin creatures frolicking in the woods - and her hair was tied into pigtails with crimson bows. Polished mary-jane shoes encased her feet, and the seat of a puffy, disposable diaper poked out from beneath the hem of her dress. She regarded him with frank fascination as Cecil continued, "There were two of you, were there not? You and your lady friend. I invited her too, in case - "
"She's my wife, not my 'lady-friend.'." Flynn shook his head, as much to correct Cecil as to break eye contact with the girl he knew only as Little Miss. It was hard to miss the intelligence that sparkled in those emerald eyes, and he suddenly found himself regretting ignoring Violet's warnings. Maybe he'd over-estimated Cecil's character earlier. "Her name's Violet, and she's my wife. She was...um, busy."
That amused Cecil. He threw back his head and laughed boisterously. "I'm sure she is," he agreed with the voice of one who believed no such thing. "I can't say I'm surprised; most littles I ask out for lunch have a habit of being 'busy'. It's lucky they all have legitimate emergencies to attend to, or a man is like to take offence one of these days." Cecil continued to play with his daughter's hair, and despite the humour in his voice, his colourless gaze was decisively cool. "To be honest, I'm surprised you didn't come down with a serious affliction of business, Flynn."
Maybe I should have found something to be busy with. "I said I'd come, didn't I?" Flynn smiled nervously, looking from Cecil to his daughter and back again. Neither's face betrayed the thoughts they hid. Unsure as to how to satisfactorily excuse his wife's absence, he finished lamely, "Violet's not feeling too well right now, that's all. She's gone back to the hotel to rest for a while."
Cecil snorted. "You're going to need to be a better actor than that, my boy. I've been around this block a time or two." The Amazon turned his attention to the girl on his lap, and he removed his hand from her hair only long to pat her thigh. "Perhaps you should introduce yourself, Princess," he prompted. "Give our guest a moment to climb out of this hole he's digging. You're being awfully quiet as it is."
"It's 'cause I was listening." Little Miss' voice was the soprano to her father's baritone, and had its patterns not been modelled on that of a very young child - she missed the first syllable of 'because' and middle syllable of 'listening' - Flynn might have thought it was the sweetest sound he'd ever heard. She slid off Cecil's lap, tucked her right foot behind her left, and proceeded to perform a perfect curtsy for her guest's benefit. "Hi!" the little girl that wasn't a little girl squeaked. Her hands disappeared behind her back and her feet came together with a plastic clack. "Daddy likes to call me 'Princess' - and most people call me Little Miss - but my real name is Aurora!"
Did...did she just curtsy? "Nice...nice to meet you, Aurora. My name's...uh, Flynn." He shook his head, once again questioning the world his eyes were presenting him. He wouldn't have picked Aurora any younger than twenty-five or twenty-six, and yet here she was simpering like a little girl. On one hand, Flynn found it oddly sweet; on the other, this was a grown adult he was talking to. "I've seen you on TV."
The comment drew a smile to Aurora's lips. "It's because I'm the cutest girl ever," she explained. Her pigtails bounced like golden bungee cords as she nodded. "Daddy says they only let the cutest girls on TV, and I'm the cutest of them all. That's why you know my name even though you're just some stranger that Daddy brought to lunch."
"The girl's right," Cecil agreed sagely. "Always is."
"I'm not meant to talk to strangers, but Daddy's a grown-up and can talk to whoever he likes. That's why it was okay for him to tell the bad man last night to go away but I had to stay inside and watch through the window when Daddy wasn't looking." Aurora didn't seem fazed by the double-standard - she used that same matter-of-fact voice she'd used to proclaim herself the cutest girl in all of existence, as if any other scenario violated the very laws of nature. "Daddy said he was one of the paprati and he wanted to put my face on his website to drag my name through the mud. I'm too pretty to have my name dragged through the mud. If I was covered in mud my hair would be all messy and then I wouldn't be the cutest girl ever and I wouldn't be on TV and strangers wouldn't know my name. They'd probably think I was a dirty little girl who needs to get her bum in the bath. Daddy says I can't be the cutest girl on TV if I'm a dirty little girl who needs to get her bum in the bath, so I had to stay inside where the paprati couldn't see me. Do you think I'm cute, Flynn? I think you're cute, even if you're a stranger." She blushed. "Do you want to be my friend? We can play with Sunny and Ronny together. They're my pet unicorns, but only I can see them. They're married and Sunny's gonna be a mummy soon."
"Close your mouth, my boy." Cecil's voice seemed to come from a great distance. "I'm going to get the wrong idea if you keep gaping at my daughter like that."
"It's 'cause I'm cute." The amount of exasperation in Aurora's voice left no room for modesty.
"You talk far too much, Princess." Cecil kissed the crown of his daughter's head and swept her back into his lap. He ignored the pout it earned him and instead turned back to Flynn, who promptly hurried to retrieve his jaw from his ankles. "I'm awfully sorry," Cecil said with a smile. His hand resumed playing with Aurora's hair. "Her tongue has a habit of running away with all those littles I invite to lunch. Why don't you take a seat? Perhaps we can talk some business."
"Sh - sure," Flynn managed to stammer out. He glanced at Aurora, scarcely unable to believe a grown woman was capable of expulsing such mindless driven...and was even further taken aback when she then winked at him. Shaken and confused, the little gulped and clambered into the seat opposite Cecil. "I'm not much of a business man," he warned his companion. "I don't even have a job at the moment."
"If a world-class resume was required for this position, I wouldn't have offered it to a stranger I stumbled upon at the beach." Cecil's teeth glittered like stars. "No, Flynn. All I need from you is your co-operation, your patience...and your face."
"Indeed." Cecil leaned forward, his eyes alight with hunger. "My company specialises in designer clothing for female littles, as I'm sure you know. We're currently in the process of opening a new line for male littles, and I want you, to be our poster-child."
He dropped the bomb-shell with the casualness of a man noting the day was rather warm, and for a long moment, Flynn could only stare. He wants me to model? He raising an incredulous eyebrow, waiting for his companion to drop the punchline on him. This is a joke. Surely.
But Cecil simply stared back, waiting for his answer.
"You're not serious," he answered at last.
"Deathly so, my friend."
"You want me to model?" He glanced at Aurora then, sure that she would be the one to let him into the joke, and it was only then that the implications of Cecil's offer began to register with him. I'm being offered the same job as her, he abruptly realised. His stomach lurched sickeningly. I'm being offered the same position as the woman in tights and a diaper. Oh my god, Vi, what have I got myself into? "Of all the littles on the planet, you want me to model for you?"
"Why not?" Cecil shrugged nonchalantly, as if it were perfectly normal to ask a stranger with zero modelling experience to front a multi-million dollar business. "Auditions are scheduled to start early next week, this is true, but I knew you were the one the instant I saw your face. You have a boyish charm about you that is surprisingly rare in littles your age, Flynn. You have no beard, no stubble, no jawline to speak of. Your hair is as silky as a child's, and if you don't mind me saying so, you have just the right amount of pudge to be endearing." The Amazon sucked in his teeth and shook his head. "It is true, I could find a younger man with these traits," he admitted. "I might have some luck with that. But most littles that age have their hearts set on gaining independence in a world keen to deny them it, and as you may imagine, they want nothing to do with an enterprise such as mine. I'm not the type to force a little to do something against their will, and as such I must look elsewhere. It is very important to me that my employees are willing participants in my undertakings. As much for my peace of mind as for PR."
People like Cecil Winters do not offer littles business propositions, they force business propositions. "So I can say no?" Flynn braved to ask. He'd rebuked Violet's criticisms earlier, but he still found himself surprised by Cecil's seeming benevolence. The man was turning out to be something of an oddity amongst Amazon-kind, and the little wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. "I'm free to do that?
"Of course you can say no. You can stand up and leave anytime you wish; who am I to say otherwise?" Cecil shrugged again. "However, you will be passing up an opportunity that does not come about every day. You'll be one of the most famous people in the country, Flynn. You'll be a household name. You'll have more modelling agencies knocking at your door than you know what to do with...and, most importantly, you'll be one very, very wealthy little. All for what amounts to a week or two's work." The Amazon gave his daughter a gentle push, and Aurora slid to the ground. Her shoes clicked audibly as they came in contact with the ground. "Give Flynn the thing we discussed earlier, Princess," he said gently. "Go on now."
Aurora made the short trek around the table, and in her hand was a tiny slip of paper. Flynn stared at, not daring to believe what he thought that might be. "That's not - " he began uncertainly.
"Oh, it is," Cecil confirmed. He waved his daughter on with his hand, and Aurora passed the cheque to her guest. Her lips were curved into a knowing smile as he took it from her. "And that's only half the amount you'll receive for your time with me. This is simply a gesture of my good will."
Flynn unfurled the cheque.
His heart skipped a beat.
What have I got myself into, Vi?
"You'll find that I'm a very, very rich man, my friend." Cecil grinned at the expression on the little's face and settled back into his seat. "And I reward those who earn my thanks lavishly."
No kidding, the little thought feebly. He found himself reading and re-reading the number before him over and over again, as if it might disappear if he looked away. That's...that's more than Vi earns in a year.
He thought of all the nice things he could buy with an account full of zeros. There'd be no need to scrounge together pennies to afford holidays, at the very least. They could afford to travel the rest of the country, not just the Dawning Isles, and they'd be able to go home with money still in the bank. Violet could buy that new car she'd wanted; hell, she could buy all the cars she'd ever wanted, and she could have them at no expense to herself. After footing the entire bill for this trip, she'd surely appreciate that. That made it worth considering alone.
He thought of the job itself. Could his pride survive being paraded before the entire country in outfits that would make a toddler proud? He glanced at Aurora, at her dress and her diaper and her hair and all the things that only minutes before had turned his stomach. Could he really reduce himself to...to that? Had he been presented with the offer an hour ago, he'd have said no out of sheer principle...but an hour ago, he hadn't had a slip of paper in his hands that might as well have been made from solid gold. Could he degrade himself the way Aurora did every day on national television? Cecil had said it was only for a week...that wasn't so bad, was it?
Most of all, he thought of Violet's parting words to him. You haven't given me much reason to trust you this last year, Flynn, she'd said. He could still see the disappointment in her eyes, could still feel his gut plummeting as she turned away. You should think of that before asking any more of me.
And with that, Flynn thought he knew what his answer was.
To be continued in Chapter 3: Happy Wife, Happy Life