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It all began with the red shoes. I just didn't know it at the time.
I was out shopping with my roommate Gemma on a Saturday afternoon. That wasn't unusual. The unusual part was that we were shopping for me. Even more unusual was the fact that we were shopping for something for me to wear on a datea real date. Not a blind-date setup, but an honest-to-goodness date with a guy who'd asked me out for a second date after a first date that could have made the record books for weirdness.
Any guy who asks you out for a second date even though he nearly had a nervous breakdown caused by your friends and coworkers on the first date has to be pretty special. He deserves a little extra effort. And that's why Gemma and I were in Bloomingdale's that Saturday.
"Let's go upstairs and look at shoes," she urged me, tugging at my sleeve.
"But we haven't found anything for me to wear yet," I protested. "How are we going to figure out what shoes I need?"
She looked at me with pity in her eyes and shook her head sadly, like a doctor about to tell me I had two weeks to live. "Oh, Katie, honey. You have so much to learn. We need to find the ultimate pair of shoes, and then we'll build an outfit around them."
When she bypassed the moderate shoes and continued up the escalators to the designer boutiques, I got the impression that her "ultimate" would exceed my budget. "Gemma," I warned, trying not to whine, "if we buy shoes up here, then I'll have to wear a plastic garbage bag as a dress, and I'll only be able to afford that if we already have some under the sink."
"We only have clear ones, so I doubt you want to go there," she said, not breaking stride. "And relax, I'm not going to make you buy designer shoes. We just come here for ideas and inspiration, then we'll buy the closest thing we can find at a more reasonable price."
I knew her well enough to know what she was doing, and it had nothing to do with putting together a great outfit for my date that night. She couldn't go into Bloomingdale's without making a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of shoes. Her pace quickened as we bypassed the designer boutiques and headed straight for the upscale shoe department. There she paused reverently at each display, lightly touching certain shoes. Every so often, she picked one up, held it to her breast, and closed her eyes in silent contemplation. I tried not to look at any of the shoes because I knew I couldn't afford them and there was no point in developing longings for things I couldn't have.
Not only was that a wise philosophy where shoes were concerned, it was also the reason I was going on this particular date. It only made sense to go out with the guy I could have, who fit every requirement I could think of for a man, rather than pining over someone I couldn't have. Ethan was good looking, intelligent, nice, and had a good job. He also wasn't the most powerful wizard of his generation, unlike someone else I could mention but didn't want to think about. Blinders, remember, I warned myself.
Then Gemma let out a gasp of awe mixed with longing. "Katie, look at these. You have to look at these."
I lifted my eyes from the carpet to see Gemma holding a red shoe. Not just any red shoe, but a high-heeled stiletto pump that looked like it was made out of candy apple coating, all rich, shiny, red, and good enough to eat. "Nice," I admitted.
"Nice? Nice? That's all you can say? These are amazing. These are shoes that say, 'Worship me.' You have to get these."
"Do I really want men to worship me?"
She gave me another one of those pitying looks. "Why wouldn't you?"
"Because I'm not the kind of girl men worship. And I'd prefer a more equal relationship."
"Wear these shoes, and you get the worship. And then you can have the relationship on any terms you wantequal or otherwise."
"But I don't have anything to go with them," I said, changing tactics.
She gave me a "what will I ever do with you?" sigh. "You don't find clothes that 'go with' shoes like these. These shoes aren't just accessories. They're an outfit that you accessorize with a simple black or gray dress. This is what you should wear on your date."
"I can't afford to buy shoes that don't go with almost everything I already own."
She flipped over the shoe she held and checked the price tag. "These are only two hundred dollars. That's half the price of a pair of Manolos. They're a bargain."
"They look like I could click my heels three times and get back home to Kansas."
"Oh, no, honey," she said, shaking her head. "These are the shoes that get you out of Kansas. Go on, at least try them on."
"You're the one who likes them so much. You get them."
"They'd make me look like the Jolly Green Giant. I'd tower over Philip." Philip was her boyfriend, and the fact that she'd given up towering heels for him was a sure sign of true love. Philip also used to be a frog, but she didn't know that. It's a long story. Suffice it to say, there was more than a hint of weirdness to my life. "But Ethan's really tall, and you're not all that tall, so you could totally wear these."
I could probably even wear them and still be shorter than a certain someone who wasn't quite as tall as Ethan, but I'd promised myself I wasn't going to think about him all weekend. "Gemma, I don't think so. Not yet. This is only a second date. I don't want to look like I'm trying too hard, and those shoes scream 'pulling out all the stops.' I don't want to give him that impression."
"So we're playing it cool?"
"Yeah, playing it cool. A strategy taught to me by a certain person named Gemma."
With a deep sigh, she replaced the shoe on its display. I grabbed her arm to drag her to the escalators so we could look at clothes I could actually afford, but when I turned around, I saw something that made me do a double take: two women with wings looking at shoes in the adjacent boutique.
For most people, the wings would be the cause of the double take. That's not something you see every day. But the fairies caught my eye because I knew them, and they didn't strike me as the kind of people who shopped at Bloomingdale's. I had them pegged as the type who wouldn't think of buying anything north of Fourteenth Street.
I was trying to think of a way to get Gemma to another department, fast, when one of the fairies said, "Katie! What are you doing here?"
"I was about to ask you the same question," I said, trying to keep my voice light and casual even as I glared at them. I was pretty sure Gemma couldn't see that there was anything odd about themother than that they were so obviously downtown girls who probably wouldn't wear most of what was in that storebut I still wasn't comfortable mingling my work life and my personal life.
I work for a company called Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc.it's kind of like a Microsoft for magic users, only not as into world domination. I'm not actually magical myself, but I have this strange immunity to magic and illusion, which in the magical world counts as sort of a superpower. I hadn't yet shared this information with my nonmagical friends, who thought I was just another administrative assistant at a boring corporation.
"We're out shopping," said the taller fairy, whose name was Ari.
"Same here," I said.
"Oh yeah, tonight's the big date," said the smaller fairy, whose name was Trix. "Getting something special to wear?"
"I'm trying to, without much luck."
"Friends of yours?" Gemma asked.
Remembering my manners, I made introductions. "Gemma, this is Ari and Trix. We work together. And this is Gemma, my roommate and fashion consultant," I said, watching Gemma's reaction to the fairies. I wouldn't have put it past Ari's twisted sense of humor to let her magical veil drop so everyone could see her wings, just so I'd have to scramble for an explanation to Gemma.
Fortunately, Gemma didn't seem to think anything was weird. "Nice to meet you," she said. "Maybe you can offer a second opinion. Don't you think Katie should at least try on these shoes?" She headed back toward the shoe boutique, and Ari and Trix followed.
"Katie can't afford these shoes," I said as I brought up the rear of the procession, irked at Gemma trying to get around my objections even as I was relieved that she hadn't questioned why I was talking to people with wings.
"Oh, fabulous," Trix breathed when Gemma held the sample shoe up for all to admire.
"Not your usual style," Ari said while staring hungrily at the shoes. "But there's nothing wrong with giving your image a little shake-up."
"See?" Gemma gloated. "Just try them on."
The three of them were practically drooling. Yeah, it was an eye-catching shoe, but I couldn't imagine it changing my life. I mentally added this to the list of popular things I just didn't get, along with George Clooney, designer-logo handbags, and reality television. As I watched them discussing the merits of the red shoes, I wondered once more what Ari and Trix were doing there. I had a very strong feeling they were following me. I shouldn't have been surprised; it was barely a week since I'd played a crucial role in giving the competition a major setback, so I probably needed a magical bodyguard or two. But I'd prefer it if I didn't have to face them when I was with a nonmagical friend. I could cope with fairies, people making coffee by flicking their wrists, and talking gargoyles at the office, but it still gave me a jolt when I saw those things in the "real" world when I was with people who weren't in on the secret.
"Come on, Katie," Ari urged. I felt like I was being recruited by the Cult of the Red Shoes.
"No, not this time," I insisted. "I need clothing, and I need to buy it soon so I'll have time to get ready. Gemma, we'd better get down to moderate dresses." She sighed and put the sample shoe down. "I'll see you two on Monday," I added very pointedly to Trix and Ari as I began walking toward the escalators, with or without my roommate.
"They seemed like fun," Gemma said when she caught up with me. "I can't believe you haven't talked more about your coworkers. You only talk about that one cute guy. Whatever happened with him, anyway?"
"Nothing. He's just a friend. Besides, with the gossip mill in that place, dating a coworker would be suicide." Ethan fell in the gray area between coworker and non-coworker, since he was contracting his services to MSI and didn't have an office in the building. Also, I hadn't yet told my roommates that he was working for the same company, since I'd met him through them and explaining why he'd ended up working with me would have been more than complicated. To change the subject, I said, "So, what look should I go forcasual, sexy, trendy, sophisticated?"
With the opportunity to dress me, Gemma quickly forgot about discussing my coworkers. She picked out a simple black dress with an embroidered cardigan that fell within my budget. But she hadn't had the last word. "Those red shoes would go with this outfit," she said as we left the cash register.
"I swear, what is it with you and those shoes? You'd think they had you mesmerized. I've spent enough on this outfit as it is, and the black shoes I already own will do fine. Now home!"
Several hours later, I was dressed in my new outfit, my hair and makeup were done, and my roommates were getting on my nerves. "You don't have to wait around, you know," I told them. "You've already met Ethan, and I don't need anyone to help pin on my corsage and take our picture together."
"I wonder if there's any film in my camera," Gemma mused.
"No! Geeze, you act like me going on a date is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
"With you, it almost is," Marcia, my other roommate, said from her position on the couch.
"I've been on dates recently," I protested.
"Yeah, but this is the first time I can remember in a very long time that you've been on a second date with the same guy," Marcia replied.
She was right. After I went out with a guy once, he seldom wanted to see me again. Most of the time, it was because I was too normal, too boring, too girl-next-door, too much like a sister. That had changed lately, though. Now they were more likely to think I was too weird, and they'd be right. Take my last blind date, where a strange man appeared in the restaurant and serenaded me during dinner while claiming that I'd saved him from a lifetime as a frog. Really, all I'd done was rescue him from an illusion that made him think he was a frog. When he wasn't stalking me, he was an okay guy, and now he was dating Marcia. Gemma's boyfriend, Philip, was the one who really used to be a frog, but I had nothing to do with disenchanting him. I was only there when it happened.
Most of that crazy stuff wasn't my fault at all, since I can't actually do magic, but my job means I'm around a lot of weird things that I can't explain to normal people without them thinking I need to be medicated. It was tough living a double life where I couldn't talk to my closest friends about the things I saw or what happened at the office. It was kind of like being a spy, I guess, only a lot less glamorous.
Then there was Ethan. On our last date I'd discovered his magical immunity, then a couple of guys from work had shown up to test him by making increasingly outlandish stuff happen in the middle of the restaurant until he was forced to admit that he was seeing things, and that had dragged him into my crazy world when MSI recruited him. He'd asked me out again, anyway, even after he'd been involved in an all-out magical battle. It was the first step toward having a real boyfriend. But that would be more likely if he didn't have to run the roommate gauntlet when he came to pick me up.