The foreign businessman was back again.
Aya found herself glancing up every few seconds to take quick peeks as he strolled through the store, pausing every now and then to inspect a plant here or there. It so closely resembled a behavior she had come to recognize during her stint in the shop, that she found herself leaving the cleaning solely to Seiji, busying herself with trivial tasks at the counter where she could keep an eye on things.
She'd seen it before; boys, even older men, who would come into the shop with no intention of actually buying anything. They would wander aimlessly for a few minutes, then casually make their way to the counter and start chatting her up. Sometimes it was amusing. Sometimes it was annoying.
Aya realized she'd completely lost count of the bills in her hand-- and that this would be the third time she'd counted them anyway. Flustered, she stuffed the yen back in the register.
All right, so he was a bit more handsome and refined-looking than her usual customers. But he had to be ten years her senior, and he hadn't looked her way since entering the shop. This all made perfectly good sense, but she still felt a flash of disappointment when he selected a small potted fern and carried it over to the register. Feeling foolish, she nevertheless forced a smile and accepted the leafy plant. "Will this be all?"
"Yes." He reached for his wallet, and his eyes flicked to her nametag once more.
She arched a brow at him, turning the pot to find the price tag. "Did you used to know a girl named Aya?" she teased.
He glanced back up at her, lips quirking in a small, automatic smile that didn't reach his eyes. "A boy, actually."
"Oh?" She scanned the barcode. "That's a strange name for a boy."
"Yes, well, your brother did have rather strange notions of 'normal'."
She fumbled, almost dropping the pot. He reached out, cupping his hand under it to steady the plant. She gaped at him in shock. "You... you know Ran?" she whispered in desperate hope.
"A bit." When her grip on the pot didn't tighten, he took it from her and placed it safely on the counter. "Though I admit we tended to meet under.. unusual circumstances. Where is he, by the way? I haven't seen him in quite some time."
"I... he's..." Aya fought to compose herself. Someone that knew her brother personally-- might even have been friends with him. The only disappointment was that he didn't know Ran's whereabouts either. The bell above the door jingled, and she looked over in dismay as Seiji called a greeting to a new customer.
The businessman was already pulling out his wallet. "How much do I owe you for the fern?"
"Um..." She stared at her register blankly. "Four hundred and fifty. How well did you know my brother?"
He shrugged, seeming unconcerned. "We weren't close. But I knew him when he went by the name 'Aya'." He handed over the money.
Aya hesitated for a brief moment, then made up her mind hastily. "I know this sounds a bit forward, but... are you doing anything right now? I would love to talk to you about my brother. It's just... I haven't seen him in so long...."
He smiled again, and if she'd been paying more attention, she might have noticed the slightly smug turn to his lips. "My day is free," he assured her smoothly. "There's a coffee shop just down the street."
She paused, glancing at him sharply. That couldn't have possibly have been his plan all along, could it? "This had better not be some twisted way of trying to get a date," she warned.
"Perish the thought."
She peered at him for a few seconds, but in the end her desire to talk about her brother overrode her initial caution. Besides, even if it was in some way a ploy for a date... Well, she had to admit that a very small part of her was flattered. He looked a bit out of her league. "Just a moment." She handed over his change quickly and stepped out from behind the counter, untying her apron quickly. "Seiji-kun, I'm going on break," she called. "I'll be back in about half an hour."
Seiji looked from her to the foreigner in dismay, mouth open, but Aya wasn't sticking around to hear any protests. She tossed her apron onto the stool, snatched up her purse, and followed the businessman out of the store.
Seiji watched them go helplessly, clutching his broom. This had been the day he'd been going to finally ask her out, but he'd waited too long. Who did that man think he was, hitting on a girl obviously so much younger than him? He was a perverted old man, that's what he was. He should have spoken up. Should have questioned the man's honor...
He forced himself to turn away, trying to drag out a weak smile for the other customer. "Um... So, can I help you find anything?"
The man reached up to push up the brim of his hat, mouth stretched in a wide grin. "I'm just here for the show," he drawled. Turning his back on Seiji rudely, he began browsing the shop with disinterest, long orange hair clashing sharply with the green trenchcoat he wore.
Seiji made a face at his back and began sweeping furiously. There was nothing funny about all this. Snarky foreigners.
Most people were already at work, so the coffee shop only had a few customers when they arrived. As he led her to a table near the windows, Aya's common sense kicked in, and she pulled her suspicion around her like a protective cloak.
Older businessman takes much younger girl along to a cafe to discuss a pseudo-relationship with a common acquaintence out of nowhere.
Sounded like the description of a police file that ended with rape and murder.
She sat tensely in her seat across from him, slipping her hand unobtrusively inside her purse, the plastic feel of her can of mace comforting against her fingertips. 'This was a dumb idea,' her brain hissed. But her emotions elbowed such trifle matters to the background; she was desperate to talk about her brother. The ache of his disappearance had been something dulled and easily put aside until this stranger had mentioned him ten minutes ago.
He ordered plain coffee and she a mocha, and she spoke up the moment the overly cheerful waitress was gone again.
"Did you really know my brother?"
He smiled slightly, as if he didn't fault her for the audible suspicion in her voice. "Yes. Though to be honest, we didn't exactly get along. I knew he had a sister he was quite devoted to, however." He extended his hand. "Crawford."
It took her a moment to realize he was offering an introduction. She shook his hand briefly. "Fujimiya Aya." She wondered if it would be rude to ask if he'd just given his family or surname, but he was already speaking again.
"I haven't seen your brother in some time. I admit I was a bit surprised to see the shop still running-- especially when I noticed your nametag."
"He's..." She hesitated, staring down at the curve of her spoon. "To be honest, I don't know where he is," she said quietly, wondering why she was being so open with a man she'd just met. She never talked about her brother if she could help it. "I know he has very important things to do with his friends, but... I almost never hear from him. He was going to shut down the store, but I told him I would take over until he got back..." She trailed off, swallowing hard. "I thought he'd only be gone for a little while. Running a flower shop is a little more difficult than I anticipated. Especially in the off-season." She glanced up at him hopefully. "I don't... I don't suppose you know where he is?"
"No." Their coffee arrived, and he tore open a little tube of powdered creamer, dumping it into his cup. He ignored the tiny packets of liquid sugar and stirred his coffee methodically, watching her with an unreadable expression as she sipped her mocha. "Your brother and I never saw eye to eye," he continued. "He seemed to disagree with my.. more unscrupulous clients."
"Oh, are you a lawyer?"
He snorted quietly. "Hardly."
Aya hesitated, looking him over in his pristine suit and educated air. "Accountant?"
He arched a brow at her, setting his spoon down beside his coffee. "I look after the well-being of my clients and, when needed, their interests."
That still sounded like a fancy way of saying 'lawyer' to Aya. Or... "A.. bodyguard?" she hazarded a guess.
He tilted his head slightly as if he had never associated the word with his profession before. "In a nutshell," he admitted after a moment.
She blinked. "You don't look the part," she said bluntly.
"I don't know, I just..." She waved a hand vaguely, feeling a bit silly. Perhaps because he was so obviously intelligent and older; it made her feel as if she had to struggle to prove she wasn't some air-headed schoolgirl.
"You don't exactly look like a shop-keeper yourself," he noted, voice muffled against the rim of his cup.
Aya bristled automatically, thinking it was a dig at her youth. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"You just look like you should be in college. And you're obviously not stupid; I would think you would have a decent pick of universities."
"Oh." She stared down into the mound of whipped cream floating atop her mocha. "I'd like to. Go to school, I mean. One day. But I promised my brother I'd look after the shop. Maybe when he gets back..." She didn't finish, but there was an obvious 'IF he comes back' unspoken, and she got the feeling Crawford picked up on it, though he was polite enough to ignore it.
Crawford folded his hands together atop the table and met her gaze solemnly. "I feel it's my turn to be honest with you."
She stiffened, mug frozen halfway to her mouth. She eyed him a bit warily. "Should I be nervous right about now?"
He gave another of his brief, humorless smiles. "I have no intentions of harming you, if that's what you mean. I merely have an unusual proposition for you."
She set her mug down firmly, fixing him with a hard look. Out of sight under the table, her fingers tightened around her mace. "If you're about to ask what I think you are--"
"No offense," he interrupted smoothly, "but you're a bit young for me."
Aya hesitated, insulted and relieved at the same time.
"I have recently been hired for a job with... strict requirements. My colleague and I can not afford to turn down this opportunity. And it has occurred to me that a flower shop that seems to attract more admirers than buyers might prove a bit of a financial strain."
"It's harder and harder to make ends meet," Aya admitted slowly. "Though I don't see why this is the business of someone I just met."
"I was just making an observation." He reached up to nudge his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "And I am not here to pressure you. I would just rather ask this of someone I know through association than have to put out an ad. And if it would mean helping Fujimiya's sister, then all the better."
"But you said you and my brother didn't get along."
He smiled again, but Aya thought there was something almost mocking about it. "I like to believe that under different circumstances, your brother and I might have been friendlier.
"My clients usually require me to be discreet-- to blend in at certain settings and events. My partner and I are usually able to pull this off quite easily by ourselves, but as I mentioned before, this particular job comes with certain requirements."
"We will be guarding our current client while he is on a two-week cruise."
Aya whistled quietly. "Doesn't sound rough. What's so unusual about that, other than it means you get to stuff your face with sushi and champagne?"
"It is primarily a couples' cruise."
Aya stared at him.
He waited, but when she didn't speak, he explained, "He was quite insistant that at least one of us have a date. To be perfectly blunt, I shudder at the thought of what my partner considers a 'companion', so it falls to me."
"Wait." Aya held up her hands. "Are you... are you asking me to be your date? For two weeks?"
"My wife, actually."
Aya's jaw dropped. "What??"
"By couples, I mean that the passengers are almost all married. Man and wife. I am not proposing, I am merely asking if you would be interested in playing the part. In public view only, of course."
"You've got to be kidding me." Aya leaned back in her chair, half-tempted to get up and leave. "..You're not joking."
"I am not."
Aya hesitated. The whole idea sounded ludicrous. But... "Since you brought finances into it," she said slowly, "I'm assuming that you're hoping to get me to agree by waving a paycheck in front of my face."
He nodded. "You would get a share of the cut, yes."
She shouldn't ask. She shouldn't even be having this conversation. But her curiosity won out in the end. "How much?"
She frowned at him. "Approximately."
He thought about that for a moment, then reached into an inner pocket in his jacket and pulled out an expensive-looking pen. He scribbled a figure on his napkin and slid it across the table. "Based on what we usually charge, and divided three ways, this is about what you could expect for two weeks.. 'stuffing your face with sushi and champagne'."
Aya lifted the napkin and stared in disbelief at the number he had so calmly jotted down. "Oh my god."
"I'm not offering to provide you with a retirement fund," Crawford said calmly, slipping the pen back into his pocket. "But I'm sure that would help with any current financial difficulties you might have-- and have enough left over to start saving for college for when your brother returns."
Aya struggled to stay composed. She set the napkin down and looked out the window to avoid staring at that tempting number. Crawford said nothing, letting her think it out.
She barely knew him. But that was enough money to clear her debt and then some. He was a bodyguard-- that meant that his job involved a certain amount of risk, and she might be putting herself in danger by taking this bizarre job. But how hard could a cruise be? It sounded more like paid vacation. But she didn't even know if she could trust him; her brother evidently hadn't. And then there was the other unknown factor.
"You keep mentioning a partner," she said, careful to keep her voice calm.
Crawford frowned slightly. "He's a brash idiot at times. And he has yet to learn when to keep his opinions to himself." He hesitated. "But he can be trusted." Aya stared at him, wondering why that last bit had sounded almost like an admittance to himself as well as her.
Aya allowed herself to look back at the napkin, and swallowed hard. The whole thing sounded insane. But that money would be an unbelievable help. "What would I, er... be expected to do?"
"Almost nothing." He took a sip of his coffee. "Wear a wedding ring, refer to me as your husband, and act accordingly when around the other passengers. I do not expect you to do anything you're uncomfortable with, and of course we will sleep in separate beds."
"So I won't have to, um, kiss you or anything to keep up appearances?" She was blushing and hating herself for it.
Amusement lurked in his golden eyes, though he didn't smile. "No."
She gnawed on her lip, unable to tear her eyes away from the napkin.
"Think about it." She looked up in surprise when he drained the rest of his coffee and pushed his chair away from the table. He pulled out his wallet and left enough money on the table to cover the bill, then handed over a plain white business card. "I can only wait until tomorrow evening; the ship sets sail in two days, and I need to be able to find someone else if you decide to opt out. If you decide to accept, come to this address before seven P.M. tomorrow."
She took the card, unable to get her mouth to work. She managed to nod.
Inclining his head slightly, Crawford tucked his wallet back in his pocket and walked away.
Aya stayed where she was for almost half an hour after he was gone, staring at the napkin and the number on it, thoughts twisted and uncertain.
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