Finding Kate

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“Finding Kate”

 

I was on a date. Again. I was supposed to be charming. I was suppose to laugh at his jokes and look him in the eye and seem interested until the bill was paid. Forks clinked against plates in the background and I tried to focus on what he was saying. Politics always bored me. I couldn’t be interested in what a bunch of old men had to say about a future that didn’t include them. I smiled and shoved some more spaghetti into my mouth. I had given up the salad rule months ago. I didn’t care anymore. The excitement in meeting strangers had dulled. My date laughed and so did I. He didn’t care if I was listening or not, the sound of his own voice seemed to make him happy.

“How is everything?” the waiter purred.

I nodded and tried to swallow the carbs swelling in my throat. I never understood why they waited to ask you how your dinner was until you had food stuffed in your mouth. I looked up to answer. His chiseled face marked a sense of keen intelligence. There was something wild in him. It writhed underneath his tightly buttoned collar. He stared at me. Did he just lick his lips? I blinked and looked back at my plate feeling unexplainably dumb. He smiled and I swear I heard him laughing under his breath as he walked away.

“And that was how I came to possess a yacht in the Virgin Islands,” my date rambled on.

“Lovely,” I mumbled, forcing myself to pay attention.

Rich men were supposed to be exciting and care free. They had the money for it. I wanted an escape, I wanted adventures only rich people could afford. I wanted to see exotic places. I recharged my interest and tried harder to like him. He could give me whatever I wanted.

That waiter, though. I couldn’t help but wish he were the one I was sitting across from. I couldn’t stop watching him move around the restaurant.

I dragged the date on. I ordered dessert. I made any excuse to see him. More water. More wine. I was getting drunk. I was breaking my rules. I chatted more with my date, asked more questions, listened to more boring answers. I was feeling looser and braver. I stole glances to see what table he was serving.

I checked myself. He was a waiter. He was probably poor, living in a small apartment. Or worse, at home. What future could we possibly have together? But I wanted him. Badly. I shifted in my seat and tugged on the hem of my dress. My feet were hurting. I should have worn something more comfortable, something easier to get out of. What was I saying? Was I planning to strip right here? I was overloaded with sugar and wine. I looked one last time before leaving. He was gone. I sighed and stood with difficulty. My date touched my arm to help and I smiled sympathetically. He wasn’t awful. He was just so damn boring.

“Thank you for a wonderful night,” I lied as I departed from another unsuccessful date.

The cool air pressed against my neck. It was going to be a long walk back to the apartment. I was getting used to it. In fact I almost looked forward to the time I spent alone. It wasn’t that I hated being single. I hated being too poor to distract myself from my miserable life.

“You left without saying goodbye.”

A hand gripped around my arm. I spun around. The waiter met my surprise with a smile. My heart was in my throat. My body tensed under his hold. Whatever sense of wildness I had seen inside had slipped out in the dark. I couldn’t believe he was standing in front of me. I didn’t know what to say.

“I watched you all night,” he went on, “I watched you watch me. I watched you want me. Did I assume wrong?”

I shook my head and laughed nervously. He never took his eyes from mine, never stumbled through his words. He was precise and alert. I could feel my body responding to his blatant hunt.

“Good. Then come with me.”

My numb toes crashed into the front of my heels as I chased after him. I cursed under my breath before kicking them off to keep up.

“Where are we going? Who are you? I don’t even know your name,” I protested a few feet behind him.

He said nothing. I kept following. What was I doing? Was I really that desperate? I stopped walking. I caught my breath, cleared my head. It took only seconds for him to sense my absence. He reached me before I could blink again and stood inches from my face. His breath was cool against my skin, his eyes penetrating whatever I wanted to keep hidden.

“Come with me or don’t. Keep going on boring dates. Or don’t.”

I was thrown off my game. I wasn’t used to being submissive. I couldn’t remember the last time a man took charge for me.

“But I don’t know you or where we’re going.”

“You didn’t know the man you dined with. You had never been to this place before. Why do you care now? Because you’re out of your comfort zone? Are you scared? Is it because it’s dark and I’m a stranger? You are responding to every social condition you have been trained to fear. Step out of the little box, Kate. Live a little.”

I swallowed.

“How do you know my name?”

“I’m a waiter, my job is to listen when everyone else stops. This is your last chance.”

He held out his hand. I placed mine in his. We slid through side streets and avoided being noticed like fugitives. He moved like an animal; precise and soundless. Maybe he was a secret agent. Maybe he had been watching me my entire life, waiting for the right opportunity to take me away. I smiled to myself wondering what kind of agent I would be. I could be just like Scarlett Johanssen in the Avengers. He was probably Iron Man. His intensity suggested a kind of brilliance. He was lean, but not bulky like Chris Hemsworth. Definitely Iron Man. We were going to his expensive tower. He had disguised himself as a commoner so no one would identify him. We walked faster. He looked over his shoulder as I trailed slightly behind, lost in my day dream. We turned a corner and before I collected my sense of direction, he had me pinned against a wall. My heart flew into my throat.

“Do you know who I am?” he prodded smoothly.

I shook my head and swallowed. I should have felt afraid, but I was aroused.

“Kate, tell me who I am.”

“I don’t know who you are.”

“Kate, you know who I am, tell me,” he said, his lips inches from mine.

“I’ve never seen you before.”

My mouth parted, my eyes closed.

“Dammit! Tell me who I am!” he yelled.

Startled, I opened my eyes and stared. I didn’t think.

“Iron Man!”

He looked to my bare feet and sighed. He ripped his shoes off and kicked them towards me.

“Put these on, quickly.”

I obeyed. He turned and we kept walking. I wanted to cry. He should have kissed me. We emerged from city buildings and trailed along the park’s outskirts under the night sky. I was getting tired. He slowed his pace. His fingers wrapped more firmly around mine. His shoulders relaxed and I could feel him watching me out of the corner of his eye. The trees seemed taller without the sunlight shining on them. Shadows stirred in the bushes and I watched, waiting for his assailant to come flying towards us. If I was going to follow James Bond I’d need to be prepared for attacks. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, looking around as acutely as I.

“Does it make you nervous to walk here at night?”

I shook my head. I wouldn’t make the mistake of telling him what imaginative role I had cast him in again. The pathway took a small bend and reached a fork. We either took the bridge over the harbor and to suburbia, or we dared to enter the park at night with all sorts of strange things crawling around unsupervised. He stopped and turned to me. He looked me in the eyes.

“Are you afraid, Kate? You don’t know me. You don’t know where we’re going. Where do you think we will go? Where do you think I am taking you?”

He spoke closely. He tantalized me. Each word dripped over my body and prickled all of my senses. It was hypnotizing. I begged him to touch me with my eyes. He wanted an answer.

“I’m not afraid that I don’t know you. I don’t know where you’re taking me,” I purred.

“Not knowing is not living. It is accepting a fate that is handed to you. You are already dead if you cannot think for yourself. Where am I taking you?”

I bit my lip. He was annoyed and it only made him hotter. Had he unbuttoned the top half of his shirt? My god, I wanted to feel his chest.

“You’re taking me home,” I mumbled, “to your….place.”

It wasn’t a guess, it was a plea.

“And which way is that, Kate?”

It better not be the park. No. He was James Bond. He was Iron Man. Not the park. I jerked my chin towards suburbia. He said nothing and tugged me in the direction I had guessed. How boring. He held my face in his hands, lowering his lips just over mine.

“You are almost there.”

I reached out to pull him against me but he had already started moving forward. Now I was on edge. I couldn’t take the teasing any longer. I was a toy for his amusement and I didn’t even care. I wanted to tear his clothes off. Another couple approached and he linked his arm in mine, laughing out loud, pretending as if we had been old lovers. I looked at him and smiled, automatically sliding back into the persona I’d become so comfortable with on dates. The others passed by without suspicion and he stopped laughing as soon as they were out of sight. I looked up at him.

“I knew you’d think quickly. You are so good at faking it. You can slip in and out of personalities better than any professional. It’s as if you’ve forgotten who you actually are. Tonight, you will not be able to do that. Tonight you will have to be yourself, Kate. Do you even know who that is anymore?”

I didn’t answer, and he didn’t stop for a reply. He already knew it. There was no need for me to try and smooth over the reality he’d witnessed. I was a fraud in my own life. I spent endless nights on endless dates to forget who I was. I used men to placate my boredom. My endless appetite for adventure was just a distraction from the dull fate I had accepted. I was a nobody.

We walked through tidy streets with clipped lawns and freshly painted houses. We walked up a driveway. His driveway. He unlocked the door. My heart raced. It was happening. Finally. He lead me through the dark, up the stairs and into the bedroom. I groped the wall for a light.

“No,” he whispered, grabbing my hands, “no distractions from this. Just you and I in the dark.”

He lead me towards his bed and the back of my legs touched the mattress. A finger traced the vein in my neck.

“Do you know who I am?” he whispered against my ear.

I wasn’t allowed to say I didn’t know. I wasn’t going to risk screwing it up. But I didn’t know who he was. I thought quickly.

“James Bond,” I replied through a tight throat.

He smiled against my cheek and he dragged his quivering lips towards mine. He kissed me with patience and intention. I melted under my clothes and I scrambled to get them off. He wrapped his fingers around my wrists and pushed me back against the bed. Maybe this was a game of fantasies.

“I’ll undress you, Kate. You will be too busy to worry about clothes. Now tell me who you are.”

He slid my dress up my thighs. I said nothing. I couldn’t. He lingered, unmoving, his breath warming my inner thighs.

“I’m Kate Neilson,” I whispered.

He pushed my dress up over my hips. He waited for more.

“I’m from Chicago and I work in a law firm as an office assistant.”

“I don’t want small talk.”

His tongue darted along my hip as his mouth worked its way up my stomach. My mind scrambled. I couldn’t focus on anything meaningful when his gorgeous body was discovering mine. I closed my eyes and turned my head to the side. His hands were following the trail his mouth had left.

“Why do you go on so many dates, Kate?”

“I’m bored. I want adventure. I want you,” I pleaded.

He pushed my dress off my body.

“Why are you bored?”

Jesus he knew how to drag it out.

“Because I’m broke. I can’t afford to see the things I want to see.”

He unhooked my bra and it disappeared. His fingers ran freely over my body.

“Why are you broke, Kate?”

I didn’t want to answer. I wanted to lie. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I tensed underneath him. His mouth explored my breasts and I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t fair. No one needed to hear this story. It was sad. I had worked hard not to think about it every waking moment of my life. Tears gathered in my throat. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry because of what I had to say or at the thought of stopping him if I didn’t. Damn it.

“Because of my brother,” I whimpered.

He sat back and stood off the edge of the bed. My heart slammed in my belly. It was done. I had killed the mood. I should have lied. I should have said I was a Bond Girl.

I heard him undoing his belt. His pants fell to the floor. His shirt too. I was quivering uncontrollably. He ran his hands up my legs and hooked his fingers around my underwear.

“What did your brother do?” he asked hoarsely.

For the first time, his nonchalance had cracked. The hair on my arms stood. I hadn’t talked about it for years. I didn’t want to.

“Why are you broke because of your brother?” he asked again, impatient with my hesitance.

I forced the tears back.

“Because he died.”

I was naked in seconds and his body was hovering over mine. I could feel him waiting. I didn’t have anything else to say. He didn’t need to hear about the car accident. He didn’t need to hear about my depression or the fact that our deadbeat parents couldn’t afford a funeral. He wasn’t going to care about how I dropped out of college and a journalism internship to deal with the hardship. He already knew I was just existing, just passing time until I too would die. He was forcing me to face my life. I’d do anything to forget it. I needed him to take me past the point of feeling, to balance the equilibrium with a little ecstasy.

“We were in a car accident. A drunk driver hit us and killed my brother. I survived and I hate it. It should have been me. Please,” I begged.

Tears ran down my cheeks and he slid in between my thighs. I arched my back and gasped. I wanted to turn on a light, I wanted to see his body moving in mine. I wanted a distraction from the headlights glaring behind my eyes. My hips moved into his with desperation. I groped to hang on and clenched my fingers into his back. Tires were screeching in between my ears. A raspy moan crawled out of his mouth and I clung tighter. We moved faster, connecting and disconnecting. The jolt from the car collision boomed in my chest and I yelled out, hopelessly wishing to be saved. I felt the stars rise from my toes and explode through my head. He fell limp beside me as I reeled. Silence hung in the darkness. I smiled to myself, I finally found exactly what I needed to come back to life.

“Kate, do you know who I am,” he whispered, voice trembling.

“I thought you were James Bond,” I laughed a little hoarsely.

He didn’t laugh.

“It was June, two years ago. I was leaving a cast party at the theater. We were celebrating. Our show had sold out on opening night.”

My body went numb. I stared upward into the darkness. I felt him leave the mattress. He padded around the room. Pacing.

“I had to get back home to my mother. She was very sick. I was too drunk to drive.”

I sat up. I needed to leave. Now. The lights flipped on. I jumped out of the bed and met him face to face. Naked bodies. Naked souls. His eyes were red and broken. His poignant glare had softened.

“I’m so sorry, Kate. I’ve tried for two years. I tracked you down to apologize, but I never had the balls to tell you. I watched you struggle, I watched you cry when you walked home from dates and back to your empty apartment. I knew why you suffered. I didn’t know how to make it better. When you showed up tonight, I knew it was time.”

I stepped away from him. I fell to the floor, scrambling to find my clothes, sobbing.

“Kate, stop. Please. It’s sick, I know. But tell me you didn’t feel something too. Maybe it’s fate bringing us together. How could you ignore what has happened tonight?”

He was pleading. I was trying not to listen. I didn’t want to hear the confession hanging on his tongue. He kneeled down next to me and cupped my face in his palms. He forced me to look him in the eye. My tears soaked his fingertips.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for killing your brother. I don’t want forgiveness. I don’t want anything. You shouldn’t have to battle this alone anymore. Look how strong you were tonight. Look what we did together, Kate. You were so alive. Let me help you.”

I couldn’t breathe. My entire body trembled. What kind of sick human being would orchestrate a meeting like this?

The zipper on my dress caught and I tugged with my numb fingers, cussing as I ran for the door.

“Kate, wait.”

I spun around, tears streaming down my face.

“Fuck you. You murderer. You sick piece of shit.”

He didn’t try to follow me. He stood still, arms limp at his side. But I yelled anyway.

“You better not follow me. Ever again.”

My legs shook as I made my way down the stairs and the door slammed behind me as I walked out. This felt like a nightmare. My brother’s face flashed in front of my eyes and I dropped my heels from the crooks of my elbows. My knees scraped against the sharp blades of grass and I crumpled into the dew that was collecting on the lawn. A hellish cry tore from my throat and I called out.

“Lucas. It was supposed to be me!”

I didn’t care who heard me, who saw, or what would happen. I didn’t care if I died at the hands of the psycho just inside the house. My life had already ended two years ago. The breath twisted out of my lungs and my shoulders convulsed as I cried on the ground, barely dressed. I did not recognize myself anymore. I was a shell of a woman, and the emptiness spread out into the dim light of morning. Lucas was never coming back. His vibrant laughter would never fill my room. He’d never play pranks, never lift me up when things with our parents got hard. He had left me.

The grass sliced the inside of my fingers as I grabbed a handful and pushed upward. I could feel the makeup running down my cheeks. I stood up. I started walking. My eyes burned and I stared numbly in front of me. I reached into my clutch and grabbed my phone. I hated taking taxis. I hated driving. But tonight I did not care. I welcomed the idea of another crash. I looked around for the closest address to give the driver before sitting on the curb outside another unfamiliar house. Another deep breath. I could do this. Turn it off, Kate.

The cab pulled up and I got in, a little self conscious of the way I looked. The driver smiled and said nothing. The walk of shame was never a good look and I knew it.

“Avalon Apartments, please.”

The tires rolled slowly off the sidewalk and I rested my head against the window. I was more tired than I had realized.  My life had become dedicated to strangers and look what it had given me. I had just slept with my brother’s killer. I closed my eyes, but the tears fell anyway. I didn’t cry for Lucas. I cried for my mistake. I cried for my stupidity. I cried for his panther’s eyes, his preying. I cried because I couldn’t ignore the feeling he had given me. I inhaled slowly and forced the tears to stop falling. The night had been strange and it was time to go home.

I stepped out of the cab and didn’t make eye contact when I handed the driver the last of my cash. I couldn’t stand to see the sad puppy eyes that people seemed to give me whenever I let myself feel. It’s why I often didn’t. It was easier to live without feeling, to live in a world dominated by material possession. I understood why people did it, why it had become so addictive to society. Nobody wanted to spend time feeling their heart obliterate itself.

I buzzed myself through the security gate and walked tragically up the five flights of stairs, feeling sorry for myself. There was nothing materialistically beautiful about this. But his bedsheets had felt unusually soft. Maybe to take the sting out of eating a girl’s soul. I shook my head and shoved my key into the door. I didn’t even know his name. I dropped my purse unceremoniously on the floor and kicked off my shoes. My apartment smelled stale and I sighed, opening the window and walking down the hallway to my bedroom. I had to get out of this dress and into the shower. I had to wash the night away. I turned the water on and listened to it sputter through the shower head. Like I had stuttered through my confession last night. My dress fell around my feet, nothing like the way he had stripped it off. Even my naked body seemed lackluster without his intensity to devour it.

“What am I thinking?” I breathed, stepping into the steaming water. “The guy is a psycho.”

I titled my head back and let the scent of his mouth wash off my body.  I let the adrenaline of following him through the night slide down the drain. I closed my eyes tighter, scrubbing his lingering hands off my breasts, his tongue off my thighs. My skin turned pink from the friction. My pulse raced. Everywhere. I couldn’t believe the memory was turning me on. Maybe I didn’t care in the solitude of my sorry existence. I dropped my loofa and let my soap covered hands run over my body. I retraced the map he’d left. I wanted to find myself the way he did. I left a trail of goosebumps as my hands moved over my stomach. My back arched and my fingertips trailed over the place his tongue had left me senseless. My mouth parted and the sound of the shower fell away. I could hear him begging me to break open. I could feel him move into me. I curled my toes. I searched for freedom from myself. The memory of his shaky breath against my neck raised my pulse and I cried softly into the oblivion of ecstasy. My hands found the cool tile behind me as I leaned against it. I would never get out of here. Out of this shitty pattern I called life.

I turned off the shower and grabbed my towel. My Sunday would be spent in oversized sweats, watching tragically sappy movies on Netflix. Just like every Sunday. I pulled a shirt over my damp skin and headed towards the kitchen, hoping I had something indulgent to eat. I knew I did. My grocery list only ever consisted of ice cream, popcorn, and wine. I’d relied on dates to feed me anything real. I grabbed the Ben and Jerry’s from the freezer and searched for a clean bowl. The intercom next to my door buzzed and I turned my head to look at it before laying one last scoop into my semi clean dish. It was probably Dee, looking to gossip about last night’s escapades. I pushed the button.

“Hello,” I drawled as I licked the spoon, waiting to hear her raspy voice reprimand me for not calling last night.

“Kate.”

The spoon fell from my mouth.

“Kate, just listen to me. Please don’t walk away from that speaker.”

It was him. Here. Of course he knew where I lived. I said nothing. I couldn’t if I wanted to. My throat had swollen shut. I was frozen next to the intercom.

“God damn it, Kate, can you just come to the window. I have flowers. I’m not going to hurt you. Please let me in. Or come down. Please. I brought a bag of stuff from the bakery. And coffee.”

I was out of coffee. Who was I kidding, he probably had been in my apartment and took stock of my entire life. I tiptoed to the window, barely peeking outside to see him standing there. We made eye contact. I dropped to the floor. My heart slammed against my ribs and I held my breath. I had no idea what to do.

“Kate!” he yelled up through the open window. “Kate, please let me explain!”

The entire world told me to call the cops. Everything I had been raised to know as truth said to get this insane person far away from you. Are you afraid because it is what you have been conditioned to believe? His own words rang hard in my ears, and I crawled toward the intercom to buzz him in. I had no idea who I was anymore.

I pushed damp hair off my face and panicked. There was already an ice cream stain on my shirt. I looked like shit. I was hungover and bloated. I didn’t have time to fix my appearance and cursed under my breath for not thinking. This dangerously hot, and insane, man was making his way up to my apartment. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about another round of heartbreaking sex, I was definitely bringing none of that to the table.

He knocked on my door. I looked through the peephole, trembling.

“Open up, Kate. I’m already here,” he said through the door, lifting up the coffee. His eyes seemed gentler than they did last night.

One breath and I unlocked the door. I had sworn I didn’t care about death, and it certainly seemed like I was inviting it into my apartment with open arms. He stood at the threshold and stared at me. I couldn’t tell if he was amused with my appearance or appalled.

“Kate, I’m not going to come in without permission. I understand what you’re feeling and I will not terrify you. Changing your life has to be your choice.”

I nodded and waved him in. Wait. Who the hell was he to think that he was here to change my life? He was no angel, no savior. My cheeks burned red and he caught it from the corner of his eye. He set the coffee on the table and sat down on my couch as if he owned the room. A fire flashed in his cold eyes before he tucked it away. My bravery caught in my throat.

“Sit down and talk to me. You have every right to be mad. Yell at me, Kate. Feel something for once. Stand up for yourself. Stop living in nonchalance. You might hate me, but at least I make you recognize the life you’ve buried inside a numb existence.”

I boiled beneath my skin, but I stood there. He was right. I had spent so long detaching from the trauma that I had forgotten how to be a participant in the world around me. He laughed quietly and patted the couch.

“Sit down, Kate. We can go at your own pace. Let’s talk about last night.”

What a cocky motherfucker. Coming to my house, inviting me to sit on my couch. He was going to solve all my problems. The problems that existed because of him. I clenched my fists and sat down. As far away as possible.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?”

He blinked. I knew he was trying to hide his pain and it pissed me off. He was also a hypocrite. A really hot, hypocritical asshole.

“I deserve that.”

“I don’t even know your name,” I stuttered, feeling the adrenaline rise under my baggy clothes.

“My name is Eli. Does that help you feel safer?”

“Stop being so condescending. You’re the one who killed my brother, you have no right to hold anything over my head.”

He leaned in, focusing on every detail of my complexion.

“At least I had the courage to face what happened and continue forward, Kate. I may be a monster but I can look in the mirror and accept that. Can you look in the mirror and accept what you see?”

I held my breath. He was inches from me, calling me out on all my bullshit and the only thing I wanted to do was rip his clothes off. He smirked.

“Give it up, Kate. You won’t get to touch me until you wake up from your daze.”

I slapped him. Hard. He sat back against the couch, a little surprised but pleased. He was actually pleased. Of course he was, he was a sadist.

“I just touched you, Eli,” I hissed. “I broke your rules. What’s going to happen now that I ruined your little plan? I don’t want you to touch me, you sick bastard.”

My lip was trembling. He was silent for a moment. The two versions of himself battled inside. He was tapping his foot slowly against the floor, staring out the window behind the television. I stared at him.

“You don’t have anything to say? Where are all your fancy tricks and blunt opinions now?”

My body was shaking, tears welled in my eyes and all the anger and hurt stirred in my body. His silence only reminded me of the constant silence that had filled the air after the accident. I could see the rain falling on the windshield. The red lights flashing as they pulled me from the driver’s seat. The dark, limp silhouette of the brother I’d never see again. I cried. I covered my face with my hands, unable to show anyone the pain. I couldn’t look him in the eye. The dispassionate background sounds of the hospital room filled my apartment. No one had come to visit me, no one had cared if I had lived or not. They were busy mourning Luke. I curled into the corner of the armrest, trying to find comfort against the onslaught of memories.

“Kate,” Eli whispered. “Kate, come back.”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have to face him. He had shown me the truth of my importance without even knowing it. My entire life had been lived in the shadow of my brother. I felt Eli’s hands wrap around mine and I strained against him, curling harder away from the world.

“Kate, let me help you,” he cooed, unfolding my body.

I gave in against his persistence. He wrapped his hands around my face.

“Open your eyes.”

Swollen lids rolled slowly upward. He looked straight through me, gracefully dissecting all that laid behind the irritation and brightened anguish. I could feel myself grow cold. He was reading me too well.

“It’s time to stop lying, Kate,” he encouraged softly. “Tell me what’s in that expansive mind of yours.”

“I can’t,” I cried quietly, closing my eyes to his interrogation.

His lips brushed against mine. His grip around my jaw tightened a moment before he ran his fingers through my hair. I moaned reluctantly, and parted my lips, losing his to the delicate skin on my neck.

“Tell me,” he asked, raising goosebumps over my entire body.

His hands slipped under my shirt, cupping my breast. I could faintly hear the buzzer on my intercom.

“It’s Dee,” I pleaded. “She’s waiting for me.”

He pushed my shirt up my body and rolled his tongue over my nipple. My head fell back against the couch. I had already played this game. I knew what he was doing. There wasn’t a need to talk, to argue. He wasn’t going to stop until he had what he wanted. And I wasn’t going to get what I wanted until he was placated. My body ached for him as he continued to explore the tender flesh along my ribcage, his hands never leaving my breasts unattended. He wouldn’t go farther and I cursed under my breath.

“I hate my parents for leaving me alone that night.”

His mouth trailed downwards, his hands toying with the waistband of my sweats. He lingered and my legs shook.

“No one had come to see if I was okay, and I hated myself.”

He slid my sweatpants to my knees. I was bare in front of him. He wanted to give me what I needed and his hands clenched around my thighs with impatience. I bit my lip. I was suffocating on the confession.

“Part of me was relieved that my brother had died. Without him, I hoped my parents could finally love me.”

I cried when his tongue darted between my legs, his fingers working mercilessly to find my release. I arched against the rise, digging my fingers into the leather, finally blowing above the misery and the secrets. I sighed and he slowly pulled my sweats back over my body. He slid my shirt down over my chest, my skin sensitive to every graze of his fingers. I rolled my head to the side, lazily looking to see the chiseled features of his face. His eyes were broken and he opened his mouth, breath ragged, to speak.

“Kate, I had no idea..”

The apartment door opened.

“I’ve been ringing forever, Kate. What the fuck are you doing?”

I scrambled to recover my composure, twisting to look over at my best friend, who was standing in the door way with coffee and an incredulous smile on her face.

“Well, this is a first,” she laughed.

Dee wasted no time in making herself comfortable and she unceremoniously dumped her things on the coffee table with the rest of the spread that Eli had brought. She looked him wickedly in the eye, understanding exactly why she had to let herself in.

“I see you know Kate well enough to know that you’d better bring food if you actually want to eat anything but ice cream. Kate, where have you been hiding this one?”

I glared at her, smile frozen in the request she was ignoring. She knew I wanted her to leave, and she had no intention of honoring my wish. I looked to Eli, pleading for him to excuse himself. He only smiled, completely composed, and brushed his fingers across my cheek as I leaned over to sip the coffee Dee brought. It was cold like usual. Why did she always do that?

“Kate really is an open book, isn’t she?”

My eyes were popping out of their sockets. I grabbed the cup Eli had brought. I sipped slowly. Perfectly made. Of course it was. He had been following me for years. These two were the worst and I was stuck in the middle of whatever charade that was unfolding.

“If you mean that she’s a serial dater and you’ve had enough dates with her to realize she doesn’t go grocery shopping, then yes,” Dee laughed, pushing me closer to him and making herself comfortable in my secure corner of the couch.

“Excuse, her. She’s probably more than slightly mortified that I’m sitting here talking to you. I’m Dee.”

Eli reached across to shake her hand, leaning his arm across my breasts, never breaking eye contact with me, watching how I was going to handle the situation. I couldn’t tell if he was protecting himself or pushing me through another one of his stupid tests.

“I’m starting to understand that you don’t often meet her dates. I should feel honored to be introduced to the famous best friend. I’m Eli. Kate speaks of you often,” he smiled and kissed my cheek before whispering in my ear. “I can go all day, Kate. Are you going to sell me out and tell her the truth or are you going to choose to create a new story for yourself?”

I was unwilling to give away any of my secrets. I was sitting between the only two people who knew how to push my buttons, and I was lighting up with thinly concealed irritation. Three could play at this game.

“It’s not that Dee doesn’t get to meet them. I suppose the others don’t just show up unannounced outside my window,” I smiled sweetly.

The intensity I had seen outside the restaurant last night lit his steely eyes and I swallowed. Of course this shit would turn him on. What I couldn’t understand was how it was doing the same to me. Dee coughed and I closed my eyes, breaking the exchange of lust between us. I looked over to her. Was she biting her lip? Oh my god. Even she was enamored with Eli. If she only knew the truth.

“So Eli, tell me about yourself,” she coaxed between taking bites of her scone.

“Eli was just leaving, Dee. I told him I was expecting you and he would hate to impose on our time to gossip.”

I was done. He needed to leave, I needed to stop. He was luring me into another trap and I couldn’t forget who he actually was. This fraudulent version was dripping too sweetly into my life. It had been a nice distraction, he’d brought some things to my attention. I was good and he was good to go. I looked back and forth between them, realizing they hadn’t even heard me. Apparently, I really wasn’t a participant in my life. I fell back against the couch and crossed my arms.

“I work in theater production at the ShadowBox, and live across town in a slightly stagnant suburban housing track. I only met Kate last night, to be honest, but I feel like I’ve known her for much longer. There is something about the sheen in her honey colored eyes that draws me towards memories we never shared. Do you believe in fate, Dee?”

My mouth fell open. Dee was drooling.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I growled, rolling my eyes to the very back of my head.

“Tell me about yourself, Dee.”

He was digging for things about me, and she was certainly going to give it all away. He slowly unfolded my arms and wrapped his fingers in mine. My palms grew warm. He squeezed gently. I knew it was a warning, and I wondered if it was a suggestion to try something new or a threat of exposure.

“I work with Kate at the office as an executive assistant. It’s a bunch of bullshit, but I can wear heels and pretend that I’m important. Plus, I’ve been told I have a sexy phone voice and who doesn’t want that on their resume,” she laughed sarcastically.

What the hell was happening? Eli rubbed his thumb up and down the side of my hand.

“I’m sure that you have all the men in the office hanging on every last word that falls from those full lips. Between you and Kate, I would think very little gets done around there.”

She was giggling and eating it up. I was going throw up. I never in a million years thought that Dee would fall for this shit.

“If Kate’s around, you can be assured that everything gets done. That’s why I hired her. She’s a beast. Maybe the most important player we have. But she’ll never tell you. She’s too busy moping about this and that to realize how amazing she is. I have a feeling you can already see that in her.”

Dee’s dark eyes bore into me, daring me to shut her up. I said nothing. This was a war they waged against me and I wasn’t even going to bother.

“Well,” she said, standing reluctantly, “I’m satisfied, Kate. I’ll leave you to finish whatever fun I ruined.”

“Dee!”

She laughed devilishly and gathered her coffee cup.

“Enjoy,” she chirped, winking on her way out.

The clouds had parted and by the grace of God, I had gotten rid of one. Now I only had to shove this strange pretender out the door. I looked at him, waiting for his own departure. He’d had his fun, now he could leave. But he sat there, looking at me. He said nothing. I swallowed. He was still holding my hand. The electrical pattern of his thought pulsed across his still expression. He was battling the healer and the instigator that lived within him. His eyes softened and he leaned closer to me.

“Kate, you’ve been strong for too long. Please let me have a shot.”

Before I could respond with something mean spirited, he kissed me. His mouth brushed so softly against mine. His breath tickled the nerves pulsing  in my lips and goosebumps ran down my arms. His hands ran through my dirty blonde hair with such careful compassion, I could feel a very broken part inside of me shatter a little more. His tenderness was going to break me open. I leaned into him, and he kissed me more firmly, but not with the intensity I needed to numb what was happening. He left me to linger in the moment of gentility and affection. Slowly, Eli pulled himself away, studying my face, rubbing his thumb up the back of my neck. My eyes closed half way.

“Go to dinner with me tonight. A real date. We’ll have a fresh start, Kate. I want to show you who I can be.”

I couldn’t refuse when he was this close, his warm breath tickling my skin. It was like I was in heat and couldn’t resist the stupid. God I could never be an animal, losing total control anytime the chance to breed wagged itself in my face. I needed to get my shit together and quick. This whole escapade needed to end, and I needed to go back to the real world. Monday was fast approaching and I didn’t have time to leave this open ended. I pulled my face from his proximity and stood up.

“No. No dates. I’m not indulging in this psychotic play you’ve created to amuse yourself. You had your fun. Now get out.”

To my shock, he didn’t argue, but stood to leave.

“Fine, Kate. But when you walk home from another date feeling sorry for yourself and thinking about how pointless your life is, don’t look for me over your shoulder. I know what I’ve done and I wanted to help you the only way I know how. I can’t help if you don’t want me to.”

He shrugged blankly and walked out the door. I locked it in haste, walking wide eyed into the kitchen.

And Kate lived happily ever after because no one should let a crazy stalker into their lives.  It’s unnatural and unhealthy no matter how hot they look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least that was what I needed to keep telling myself because heaven help me, I actually felt sad that he didn’t try to fight me. The sense of abandonment started creeping back and feelings started to happen. I looked in my empty fridge before I remembered I didn’t have any food. I sat on the couch and browsed Netflix, erasing life with my ice cream. Just like every weekend, I would just submerge so deeply into my binge-worthy TV that I would forget whatever disappointment had taken place. This was my talent, my expertise. You’re so good at pretending you’ve forgotten who you actually are. 

“Damn it,” I muttered, powering off Netflix.

I couldn’t even do that. I stood up. I walked to my room and changed into real clothes. I grabbed my keys and my purse. For the first time in over a year, I felt the need to go grocery shopping. I mean, I couldn’t sit on the couch and allow myself to fantasize about a murderer, and how could I eat my repressed feelings when I’d already finished my ice cream? I reminded myself it was time to get back to reality like the adult I was. Dee would be shocked to hear about my grown up accomplishment come Monday.

I looked at my cell phone as I walked, thumbing through endless Facebook posts of weddings, babies, and happy couples. At thirty, I was way behind my circle of friends and their agendas. I smirked and scrolled bitterly, waiting for a small animal to improve my mood, or someone else’s injury to make me laugh. When nothing succeeded in curing my bitchy attitude, I shoved my phone in my back pocket and walked through the automatic doors of the local store and grabbed a cart. I walked up and down the crunchy mom aisles.

“Sugar free, fat free, no flavor, gluten absent, hemp milk infused bullshit,” I muttered under my breath.

I guess my carb loving, ice cream addicted thighs were taking Round One of cleaning myself up. I grabbed some coconut milk ice cream and a gluten free frozen pizza. Baby steps. Why did he have to ruin what was going so well for me? Why did he have to rip me out of my denial? I was good with robotic. I was good with using people. He didn’t have a right to try and make me better. He was a horrible person. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, throwing a box of granola into the cart. I tapped the search engine on Facebook and hovered over the keyboard. Did I really want to know more about him? He probably had a perfect life, and I’d only get mad at all the other countless girls he had probably tricked into sleeping with him. I put my phone back in my pocket.

“Organic whole milk, eight hundred dollars.” Let’s put that in the cart too and pretend the organic part will make the rest of it less fattening. Wasn’t it trendy to be thicker now? I was good, golden, just what the boys wanted. Maybe I’d even let the next one have a second date with this new enthusiasm for life. I internally rolled my eyes like the sarcastic bitch I was.

I checked out with my fancy new groceries and walked home. Sweat quickly beaded at my temples as I tried not to act like the bags were one hundred pounds. I was a strong, independent female who definitely didn’t need a chiseled, fox eyed man to help her carry them up the stairs. I looked over my shoulder.  Eli stuck to his word, he was not hovering anywhere. Grand! I still couldn’t believe that had happened. What a freaking cluster my life had become. I opened the door and wasted no time in dumping my findings in their appropriate spot. Except the ice cream. The ice cream came with me to the couch.

The fifth season of some vampire love show droned on Netflix as I sucked on my spoon, once again hovering over the keyboard of my phone.

“Screw it.”

I typed in his first name and waited for any fingernail sized photo to look familiar. Fourth from the top. Tap.

Up popped good old Eli’s Facebook page complete with headshot profile photo and inspirational quote in the background. I laughed to myself. What a stereotypical wanna-be. I scrolled cautiously downward, unsurprised that all his visible friends were beautiful women. He hadn’t changed his occupation from theater production to stupid waiter at a crappy Italian joint. I guess I wouldn’t either if I were him. It felt good to know that he possessed the ability to feel shame.

The most recent post was from years ago, linked to an Instagram account. I was in it now, so I might as well go deep into my own cyber stalking. I was getting semi-even with his devious scheming.

A dark satisfaction curled my lips as I squinted at more recent photos. I scrolled slowly, trying to grasp what kind of life he was granted after ruining mine and ending Luke’s.

“Cancer,  cure cancer, cancer, positive life quote, food pic, reading a book pic,” I mumbled.

Car crash. Our car crash. Two years ago. I clicked to enlarge it and read the comment below.

“Worst day of my life, and not just because I ruined my dream car…” I read out loud.

There was more, but it wasn’t loading and I couldn’t click it open. I thumbed around trying to refresh the photo. Red heart. Shit. I was caught liking his photo. From two years ago. I shrugged uncomfortably and committed, tapping the box to add a comment. I had to own it.

Okay. Dinner. Saturday night. 

I typed the worst commitment I could possibly ever make. I tossed my phone on the table and stared out the windows behind my television. What the hell was going to happen now?

…….

 

It was Friday morning. I tossed my phone into the desk drawer at work, annoyed. Still no response. He was even too cool to have frequent updates to his social media; one of those hipsters trying too hard to be disconnected, all the while silently stalking people online all day. I had to remember that he was stalker, a murderer, and completely delusional to think that I could ever be interested in him.

But did he really have the nerve to beg to go out and then ghost me? Worse, why was I upset? I couldn’t help but wonder if this was another one of his stupid tests. The idea of him constantly making me squirm was infuriating and inspiring. Maybe I was giving him too much credit. I glanced at the time on my computer screen, clicking absently through a never ending list of incoming email. I was counting the minutes until I could clock out and stop worrying about being productive. Just another facade I stood behind. I hated this job, but I was so good at it because all I had to do was pretend that I was. It’s how corporate America worked, and it was gloriously, repetitively, dull.

Dee walked by my door with a stupid look on her face. I wished I’d never told her about the mistake I made while scrolling Eli’s Instagram. She’d spent the entire week agonizing about a date that never materialized. Of course, I didn’t tell her the truth about him, which made everything worse. As I worked to forget about the strange encounter, she only egged the memory on, not knowing the dangerous game I was playing.  I got up to meet her in the break  room.

“Took you long enough,” she snarled sarcastically. “So?”

I shook my head and bit my nail.

“Nothing. Oh well, it’s better this way. I don’t need anyone digging through my personal space. We both know I’m not girlfriend material anymore.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You know what, you’re right, Kate. You, as you are now, sucks. I miss the old you. The adventurous, daring, creative journalist who aspired to travel the world, guided by her pen. This bulldog, office bitch version may be climbing the ladder of success, and your tits may be on point in a button up, but you’re boring as hell.”

“Um, thanks for the pep talk.” We knew she was right. I stared at the bowl of granola I had packed for the end of the day.

“Girl you know that shit ain’t you,” Dee laughed looking at the brown mass I tried to digest. “That shit ain’t even basic, it’s cardboard. Just like you. Cardboard Kate. A tasteless imitation of true pleasures.”

When I didn’t respond, she softened. She always did.

“Look, I’m just saying, the other day, when he was there, I caught a glimpse of the old you. If he can bring that back out, then I’m fully Team Eli. Aren’t you?”

“It’s complicated,” I whined, tossing my food in the trash. She had no idea how complicated.

We walked to the front desk to clock out before leaving.

“All I’m saying is don’t shut it down just because it scares you. Eventually you’ve got to crawl out of your hole, and it wouldn’t be so awful if he was the one who helped you.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. She was right about that.

“I’ll see you Sunday morning, if anything happens, text me immediately,” she said, before leaving.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I forgot my phone in the desk. Shit. I hurried back down the hall. This was the perfect movie moment, where I’d finally stopped obsessing  and I’d turn on my home screen to see him finally respond to my stupid comment. I ripped open my desk drawer, but waited until I left the office to check just in case I got an idiotic look of excitement on my face. The last thing I needed was ammunition for teasing from anyone other than Dee. I rushed beyond the doors of our office and started my walk home, waiting a block before pulling my phone out of my purse. My heart was racing.

Nothing.

Was I relieved or disappointed? Well, I knew what I should be, but I couldn’t shake the truth. I was actually disappointed that I wasn’t going to see him again. I ran my fingers through my end of the day, half curled hair. I guess I would have to log back into my dating profile and see who was going to take me to dinner tonight. I decided it would have to be a low key, poor, down on his luck loser, because I wanted to drown myself in pizza. I wasn’t going to wear heels tonight either, my feet were killing me from the long work week.

When I got home I dumped my stuff on the floor and plopped down on the couch, trying to decide which dating app I’d be swiping through today.

“Well this one has the most messages,” I muttered, tapping the blue box.

“Russian immigrant, Russian immigrant, military, military, oh my god.”

There he was in the inbox of a freaking dating site. Freaking Eli.

“I know I said I wouldn’t bother you again. But then I saw your profile on this site and I couldn’t let it go so easily, Kate. It’s so sad that this is your life,” I read aloud, getting angry.

“Screw you!”

Why did I want to go out with him again? Oh yeah, because he’s hot as hell and the best sex I’ve ever had. Damn it. My fingers punched the keyboard before I could rethink my response.

“I may be sad, but how sad are you for stalking me yet again, and on a dating app, just to beg me to go out with you again? You have no right to be so smug. If you know so much about having a great time, and a fulfilling life, then I dare you to show me. I bet you can’t even get it up for a second time, the thrill of hunting me down and lying to me is gone, you sicko.”

Sent. Sorry not sorry, prick. Before I could put my phone down and go to the bathroom, it buzzed. Didn’t waste time. I smirked, feeling like I finally had the upper hand.

See you soon.

“That’s it? See you soon?”

I couldn’t believe him and his stupid games. When was soon? Should I get ready now? Was soon today or this weekend? I stared at the phone waiting for an elaboration to buzz in. Nothing. Were we going back to the first night, secret agent status? Did I need to wear a killer agent dress? Did I even have a killer agent dress? I stood up. Stared at the phone. Nothing. I needed a shower. Did I have time? Phone, still silent. This crazy person was going to be the death of me, maybe even literally.

“Screw it,” I muttered and walked down the hall.

If he meant right now, soon, then he would have to wait. Heaven forbid he relinquish a little control in this psychological affair. I wasn’t going anywhere without a shower first. The hot water felt good on my tight shoulders, and I let the stress of the week dissolve. Even though I didn’t care about my job and excelling, I had strict inner moral code that wouldn’t let me be as lazy as I wanted to be. As lazy as I wished I was. It was Dee’s fault, I couldn’t let her down. She’d pulled a lot of strings to get me hired in a time I desperately needed a job and a distraction. I owed her the magnificent employee personality I adopted; she’d been there for me when I had no one. But I hated this job, this workplace, and everything about my good old nine to five. I slicked the soap off my body, wrung out my hair and turned off the water. It was definitely a man’s world and we were the pretty dolls that organized it. I know Dee worked it to her advantage and called it a use of her divine power, but I found it predictably suffocating. I was not a woman who got off on using her sexuality to move upward. I wrapped my hair in a towel and walked back to check my phone. Still nothing. I sighed and looked at my kitchen. I guess I was going to need a date after all. I picked up my phone. Then put it down. I was that kind of girl, I just used it for food instead of promotion. God, fat kid at heart. I sat down on my couch and stared off.

I didn’t want to go on dates anymore. I didn’t want to pretend.  I was exhausted. I flipped on the television and picked up my phone to order a pizza. I hadn’t been this upset about a vague, semi-not rejection since I was in middle school. Why couldn’t Eli just tell me what he meant? I searched through endless crappy movies, hellbent on finding the perfect romcom to drown my sorrows in. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had stayed in on a Friday night. It was like I was breaking one of my rules. Did I even have rules? I must have made them somewhere along the way or how else would I be so messed up? Wait, why did I care? I didhave rules, and this was me breaking a big one. No questioning my feelings or thoughts or actions.

“Nicholas Sparks it is,” I mumbled and clicked play.

Netflix and chill, check. Now I just needed to figure out how awful I was going to make the pizza. My granola inspired week was officially over and I was not about that life. I clicked onto Instagram and scrolled through my feed, bored before I started. I tapped the search icon and hesitated. It wasn’t like he’d have an updated photo. I typed in his name and touched his profile, bringing up his inconspicuous account. It may not be revealing as to his current nature, but he had to have been different before the crash. Just like me.  I scrolled carefully downward, beyond the moment it seemed we both hated to relive.

My buzzer cut through my creeping like a cow prod in the butt and I nearly fell off the couch.

“Never mind, your neighbor’s letting me up.”

Shit. He was here. He did mean soon-soon. I scrambled. I had about ten seconds before he got to my door, and I was a hot mess. I ripped the towel off my hair and shook it out as best I could. It was too late. I had towel hair. God, what was wrong with him? Did he have my phone bugged? Was he filming me on my own home, waiting for the worst moment in the world to surprise me? Why did he always have to surprise me? And why does everyone find him so trustworthy? He literally killed my brother. Just let him right up on, George. Thanks!

He knocked on my door. Shit. Shit. Shit.

I tilted my head to the side and plastered on the sexiest smile I knew how to make. Why was I flirting? Why was I so fake? When did this happen? I unlocked the door.

“I guess you really meant soon,” I said too seductively.

He stared at me. Not in a good way. He was confused. Come on, Kate, get it together.

“Well, I would have been more specific, but your anger only proved to me you weren’t ready to be prepared. If we’re going to do this, Kate, then you need to be yourself. You’re still hiding behind that smart mouth of yours.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but he stepped in and kissed me. His lips felt like pillows on a Sunday morning after really great sex. He tasted like cigarettes. Mr. Fight Cancer smoked? Or was he nervous? Anxious? Did Eli even know what these emotions were? His tongue slid across my lower lip and I forgot what I was thinking.

“Stop, Kate,” he ordered as he pulled himself off of me. “We both know it’s a front. So are you going to let me take you out? The real you?”

I rolled my eyes and bit my tongue. I wanted to make some comment about his fake ass personality. How he tasted like a bar and preached like a saint, but I was hungry. The pizza!

“I already ordered pizza Mr. Mysterious.”

“Can I come in?”

“Oh, yeah.”

He strode in like he lived here and was merely allowing me to think I was running the show. He was lucky he was so hot because he was also irritating as hell.

“Pizza delivery on a Friday night? We’ll be gone before it gets here.”

“But I can’t cancel it.”

He looked at me a little surprised. He placed the box he was holding on my table, wait when did that box appear?

“Does this solve your dilemma?”

He threw forty dollars in front of me.

“We can leave it outside your door. That should compensate for the inconvenience you caused the delivery boy. Stop worrying about being a hinderance to the world, Kate, we aren’t all like your parents.”

I had nothing to say in return, that one hurt. But he knew it would.

“I thought you wanted to show me how you could treat me, Eli,” I whispered a little too delicately.

“You’re right,” he softened. A lot. But he didn’t apologize. Interesting.

“What’s in the box?” I asked, changing the subject, “And if you say a dick you’re leaving now.”

He laughed. So did I. The tension faded and for a second, I felt where this could have gone if it wasn’t where it had been. Careful, Kate. Don’t forget the entire truth. He picked up the box and opened the lid. A dress I never would have picked for myself lay perfectly folded inside, complete with accessories and shoes. Damn, okay.

“It’s like you knew I wouldn’t be ready for you.”

He struggled between personas. It was visible.

“I wanted to spoil you. Make you feel as special as I think you are. Let you dress in the way someone who admires you views you.”

I wanted to ask if it was hard for him to be so nice. But I didn’t. It was obvious he was struggling not to push my buttons, to turn down that intensity that was so sexy. I didn’t know what to do with this softer version. It made me feel weird. I didn’t hate it. I plucked the stuff out of the box, remembering I was still in a towel. Ugh, my hair.

“How long do I have?”

“As long as you need,” he smiled, sitting down on the couch.

He grabbed the remote and turned up the sappy movie I had left playing. I stared at him. He looked over at me.

“Go get ready. I’ll be here, analyzing your movie choice.”

And he was back. He was exhausting. I trotted down the hallway, hoping he’d be watching. I snuck a look back over my shoulder as I slipped into my room only to be disappointed. I stared at the back of his head, wondering just what he was all about.

“As long as you need, Kate. Not as long as you want.”

What was he? Freaking Batman? I closed the door harder than I needed, mouthing off.

“Not as long as you want, Kate,” I muttered, slipping on the dress.

I looked in the mirror, raising my brows. Eli had great taste. Probably a dress left at his house from one of his little floozies from Christmas past. I knew it wasn’t. They were too skinny for this size. It was too new. It still smelled like the store. I would have never picked crushed velvet, but these long sleeves felt amazing under my fingertips. He was a sensual man. The short length proved it. Definitely not as pretty as I would have guessed from him. This was darker. Chic grunge.

The strappy heels, though. I was all about them. I slipped my foot through like a sinful Cinderella, buckling the thick ankle strap with joy. It had to be his background in theater. I wonder how being an actor allowed him such perfect judgement on a woman’s foot size. Definitely at the top of my questions for him tonight. He had no idea what he was in for. I was coming armed with an interview. He wasn’t going to get to enjoy me in this dress and not give me a little of what I wanted too.

My hair was hopeless. Years of bleach did not offer the beautiful, silky hair that a good shower gives everyone else. I missed my chance for leave-in conditioner. I’d need to play on this alternative vibe he asked for. I grabbed some waving mousse and ran it through my hair, hoping for beach waves, getting a day at the pool kinks instead. I sighed. Hopefully he was enough of a man not to notice how awful it looked. I dug through my makeup bag and quickly smeared on foundation and a half assed smoky eye. I fingered through my lipsticks, but thought better of it. Maybe I was being hopeful, but if this was going to end like before, colored lips would only make things messy. Or was it supposed to be? I grabbed something subtle that I could slip on in the bathroom somewhere if the occasion called for it. One last look in the mirror. I smirked. Not bad, Kate.

The heels clicked like a power goddess against the old wood floors and Eli stole a glance over his shoulder before standing. His eyes dissected every detail like the animal he was.

“How’d we do?”

“Perfectly. Should we go?”

I nodded and he grabbed the forty off the table for the poor pizza guy. I held up my hand.

“Don’t. That’s a couple rounds of drinks, and I have a feeling I’ll be needing some.”

He didn’t say anything, slipped the cash into his pocket, and opened the door. I picked up my keys and purse, which sorely matched my outfit, and walked out the door. He offered his arm on the way down the stairs. I could smell his cologne; it was expensive. I felt kind of bad that he was trying to impress me on a waiter’s income, he didn’t need to, truthfully. We walked through the apartment doors. He unlocked his car with a click. I stopped. First of all, he drove a Tesla S Coupe?! Second of all, nope. I didn’t do cars.

“You own a Tesla?”

“Yes.”

I guess I did sound dumb.

“Why don’t we just walk to dinner? It’s always such a hassle trying to get around in the city.”

He put his hands in his pockets, leaving the passenger door open.

“We can’t walk to our destination. It’s time to get in the car.”

He was being sweet about it, even if I could almost see his pulse rising with impatience. I knew I was a stubborn bitch, but this was just something I couldn’t budge on.

“We don’t have to go to that place, then. There’s plenty of nice places nearby.”

His shoulders slumped slightly, a pain flashing over his eyes, a quick admittance of guilt for my hang up. He walked to me and put his hands around my arms. He didn’t say anything, just looked me in the eyes, searching for the right thing to do. It wasn’t something to push me into doing and he knew it.

“It’s time, Kate.” His mouth was inches from mine. I could feel his breath on my mouth. Before I could react, he lifted me in his arms and straight up princess carried me into his Tesla threshold like the damsel in distress I was being. He fastened the seatbelt and closed the door. My heart was racing. He slipped behind the wheel and reality hit me. He was driving. I was in the car with the man who had smashed into me and killed my brother. He was deviously excited and revved the engine. Quiet, but no less predatory in performance. Just like him. He was sending me a reminder. I had been seduced and trapped.

Fuck.

“Kate.”

I blinked a few times and looked at Eli, who was still standing next to the car door.

“Do you understand what I mean when I say we can’t walk to where we’re going?”

Lord, these imaginative scenarios were going to make me look as insane as I felt. My knees were shaking with nowhere to hide in this little LBD. I shook my head, throat too tight to pretend to be anything but what I was. Scared.

“Tonight is a journey out of your void. A void I was responsible for.”

He was a breath away. How’d he get there so fast? Did he float? Was this some magical hallucination and his car would be a pumpkin by midnight? Really, what was happening right now?

“Understand the quality of emotion, Kate,” he cooed, tucking a piece of my semi-crunchy hair behind my ear. “You put so much of your energetic ability into fear and falsity that you do not have what it takes to put your attention where it matters. If you just get in and displace a little of that fear energy, I can show you what I mean in a manner you will enjoy. I know you to be a sensual woman, Kate, let me indulge you.”

His breath was warm. Worried even. I could feel the weight of his past linger on each syllable. Was this the real Eli? Was he revealing him because I was revealing the real me? Afraid, wimpy me? He was meticulous in his actions I had to give him that. At least I wasn’t the only broken person standing here for once. He kissed me softly on the cheek like the gentleman he looked.

“I understand what I’m asking you to do, Kate. I hope you understand how heartfelt I am in my desire to give you the breath of life I stole from you.”

I sighed. I was going on a date with my brother’s killer and was happy about it. If I died in a car, well, wouldn’t that just be a karmic irony? He held out his hand and I wrapped mine in his. My palms were sweaty and that was embarrassing, but he didn’t falter, leading me gracefully to the passenger door. He squeezed a little harder as I wobbled my way in to the nightmarishly black vehicle, closing the door gently behind me. Before I could get my seatbelt fastened he had already slipped inside and was hovering over the ignition. He was being obviously cautious so I couldn’t bite out any judgement to his reckless driving record. Maybe he was sensitive about it.

“Did you get a lot of hatred for it?” I asked quietly.

His jaw clenched and he turned the key, starting the near soundless modern carriage.

“Yes.”

We pulled out onto the street, and cruised quietly. I didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t offer any kind of conversation. Maybe he was waiting to play off whatever I was feeling since I was the one struggling to stave off a meltdown. I glanced over at him without turning my head, watching him watch the road, two hands on the wheel. No one drove like that anymore; but he did for me. I smiled weakly and loosened the grip I had on the door handle. I had never stopped to think about what he had actually experienced post murder. After the car crash, Kate. It’s not like he meant to do it. I clenched my teeth. Was I easing off my hatred? Should I? Was I a bad person if I did? The silence was letting too many thought cross my mind and I would only ruin the date if I kept on it.

“Where are we going to dine?”

There, nice and casual. Ease into whatever this shit show was going to produce.

“A little place just out of the city. They have decadent desserts and the best french press you’ll ever sip.”

“No wine and dine? I thought I was going to be able to get drunk on this soul revival date?”

“I don’t drink. You can,” he quipped.

I really needed to class myself up. Of course he didn’t drink, he was still punishing himself too. Sarcasm and wild behavior made me feel stupid in his presence. So much for a casual screw with a hot waiter.

“This car is so nice,” I offered, trying to smooth over the tension, but I was only setting myself to sound more materialistic than I actually was. I gave up trying to discover how he could afford it on his current income. Stop while I was ahead.

The road slipped beneath us and I looked out the window as the city faded behind. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d left the security of tall buildings and the blanket of warm exhaust stuck between them. If I was free enough to leave then I was also obligated to see my parents, who refused to come back to the scene of the crime. It didn’t matter if their daughter was drowning in the lights; their son was gone. I shifted my feet against the floor. Eli placed a hand on my thigh, the density of the action instantly calming my angst. His tattoos peeked from beneath his shirt cuff; he had his own darkness too.

“I hope you like this place, Kate. It’s one of my favorite places to go and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.”

The deep tone of his voice did not lack the danger from the first time I met him. He was still as sexy even when he was being nice. In fact, I was enjoying the intimacy of this new persona he was using and I wanted more than anything not to ruin the night.

“Stop trying so hard,” he laughed. “It’s not like you can shock me with your personality.”

“Shut up,” I sighed, smiling anyway.

We pulled up to a valet outside a dimly lit cafe. Music drifted in muffled waves as we got out, and the window was steamy with the chill of the night. What a curious man he was. As we walked in I could not be more perfectly certain that this was a mere representation of him. The darkness, the live band, the underground-ahead-of-the-crowd vibe. The depth he held reminded me that being a waiter did not suit him. Or his lifestyle. We were seated in a corner booth and handed the small menu and drink list. Well, he said to stop trying so hard.

“How are you able to afford all of this? Are tips that killer at Magliano’s?” I asked, pressing a finger against the decadent list of treats, and posh prices.

He hadn’t even picked up the menu to consider, clear that he had memorized this place. Like everything else. How did he become so meticulous, and why? I guess I still only knew the shell of who he was. Careful, Kate.

There was no smiling when he explained.

“I’m not a waiter. I’m friends with the owner of the restaurant. I was dining alone that night when you walked in. In fact, it’s the only place I thought you’d never go. You had never ventured that far from your apartment, and I didn’t intend for us to meet. But there you were and I knew I couldn’t avoid my own biggest fear. We all have roles we play, Kate. I understand that more than anyone.”

I ordered a glass of petite sirah, hoping it’d stain my lips as dark as my mood suddenly turned. He had very calmly restated the fact that he had stalked me. Was it a warning?

“Then what is it you do? Do you still act?” Play it cool. Get your answers.

“I’m not an actor,” he laughed casually, sipping on his lemon water. “I own the theater I told you about.”

I shrugged. I’d never seen a play in my life. I stuck to books and news articles. The whimsy of theater seemed outdated to me.

“But you’re young…ish. Wait how old are you?” He did suddenly seem to be more mature in his features and stature. How in the world was he such a chameleon? I was starting to wonder if the whole secret agent thing was back on the table.

“Thirty-six.”

“How do you own a theater? I mean, obviously it’s successful. You drive a Tesla. You take me to these places and in designer clothes. I don’t mean to sound shallow, I just don’t get it.”

“It’s a story for another date. This one’s about you,” he said before ordering desserts for the table.  “Did you want another? Or maybe a cappuccino, instead? I ordered to pair either.”

I smirked; he was totally judging me. The first glimpse into the flawed version of Eli. Win.

“I’ll have one more considering the direction this conversation just took.”

He nodded to the waiter and off he went without ever having to speak. Something was beginning to tell me Eli liked being in constant control. I wonder when that started. Pay attention. I looked over the rim of my glass as I sipped, trying to hide the sass curling my lips. It was a poor attempt. He watched me patiently, waiting for me to grow up, I guess. I don’t know. If he wanted that, wine shouldn’t have been offered.

“How’s Dee?” he asked casually.

“She’s good.” This was awkward. Why was I suddenly so awful at this? More wine. I hated the wait. I knew he was working his way into the uncomfortable stuff.

“Last we talked she was telling me that you have no idea how good you are at your job. What makes her say that? Are you happy there?”

“She was building me up in front of you,” I rolled my eyes, “I’m a glorified office bitch. She’s the one that’s got the company under her thumb. It’s not exactly a place I want to excel.”

“Then why stay?”

“I owe Dee.”

“Don’t you think she would understand if you left to pursue something that brought you joy?”

I shrugged. “At this point it seems like too much work to just start over somewhere else.”

Short pause. He was biting his tongue. I got under his skin quick!

“If it wasn’t, would you go back to writing?”

“Of course.”

“When’s the last time you smashed something out?”

His eyes were illuminated. Dark as they were, the light still found its way through the cracks, and a hint of that luring animal stirred within him.

“Not since the accident, when I was still interning at the magazine.”

He sipped his water and looked over my shoulder to watch the food arrive. Tiny plates with what looked to be the entire menu were set carefully on the table with a fabulous looking tiramisu intentionally placed in front of me. I couldn’t hide my excitement.

“Did you order everything they had?”

He nodded, a grin spreading across his face, contented by my approval.

“I noticed you like comfort food when you’re upset or facing your past. I knew you wouldn’t be ready for coffee until after two glasses, and I guessed you probably wouldn’t want to get wasted given our relation. So the first half of the tiramisu can be enjoyed with your last glass and the second with a slightly sweet capp.”

I raised my glass and winked. Kudos when they were deserved. His shoulders relaxed a little, but not enough to make him look like a normal human being on a first date. I slipped a piece of tiramisu between my lips, trying not to have a mouthgasm as it melted against my hot tongue. He folded his hands on the table and leaned in. Was this turning him on?

“Have you tried writing, or did you just give it up?”

“I’ve tried here and there, when I thought maybe I could go back, but nothing comes. I just sit there staring off, blank.  It’s like I’m permanently burned out.”

“Of course you are, Kate. You spend every day of your life pretending to be someone you aren’t. How do you have room to do anything else? What keeps you going on a path that doesn’t suit you? Approval, lack thereof? Your parents, maybe?”

I set down my fork, and looked him in the eyes.

“I don’t want to talk about them.”

He sat back, impatient again with my way of avoiding what really mattered. It was annoying the way he acted like he knew me so well, when we were practically strangers. Yet, all I wanted was for someone to understand me, to connect with me. The real me. He was trying, and I wasn’t letting him. He rubbed the back of his neck, his sleeve slipped just enough for his ink to poke through. I blinked. Had they changed? I really needed to be more observant. I didn’t realize how self centered I had become. That wasn’t me, and never should be. Damn it, he got me, and didn’t even know it. I sighed.

“I guess it’s because all I have to write about is my fake life, and I already hate living it so what would make me inspired to pull from it? I’ve never needed approval when it came to writing. I wrote what I wanted and it always kind of worked for me.”

“I can see that about you. But, still, it had to feel good when your parents showed pride in what you were doing.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

The truth was my parents had never cared about what I did after Tyler was born. Not that I could remember a time without him. We were Irish twins as they say, and born one after the other. Tyler was the center of their world, not me. So I learned to live without their love and admiration. It wasn’t easy, and I can’t say I succeeded, but I learned to live at least. I didn’t realize I had been staring into my empty wine glass, and dared to look across the table at King Analyzer. The predatory light had filled his eyes, warming them to a rich chocolate covered honeycomb, softening only slightly. He beckoned the waiter with a flick of the wrist and two mugs appeared before us.

“So you’re telling me they never complimented you on accomplishing your points of passion?”

I shook my head. This information surprised him. To me it was old news, and I had never really thought that anything I did was worth recognition. Not until now, watching him look at me. I want to treat you the way that other people see you. My legs shook. So this is what it felt like to have someone genuinely admire you?

“They really had no idea how incredible you are.”

It was simple; almost reminiscent. But so genuine, I let go of the strange way he said it. I smiled and sipped the foam off my cappuccino.

“When was the last time you talked to them, anyway?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Was it the hospital?”

“No. They didn’t even come to see me. They were too busy mourning over Tyler’s dead body.”

It came out more bitter than I wanted and guilt still soured my mood even thinking it. He was my brother, and it wasn’t his fault that my parents didn’t love me. It wasn’t his fault he had died. It wan’t his fault I had been shunned. What the hell was I doing? I was at dinner with him….the man. My shoulders stiffened and suddenly this felt more like a well planned attack. I felt like Gretl in the witch’s candy house. If it felt too good to be true it probably was. For the first time since we’d gotten there, after many plates I had emptied myself, he reached across from where he was sitting and pulled me next to him, draping his arm around my shoulder. It was such a masculine move of domination. I was angry. But I didn’t move. I was a sad shell of a woman. He took a sip of his black coffee, and I was done talking about my parents.

“How come you haven’t had anything to eat?”

He kissed the top of my forehead. God his lips felt so good.

“I wanted to spoil you. You are a woman unlike the rest, Kate. One day, if you let me, I’ll show you in ways you can’t imagine. One day, you will see yourself the same way I see you. But, for now, you can’t escape my topic of conversation. I really am curious as to when you last spoke to your parents?”

I was stuck between feeling trapped by his arm and wanting to curl closer into his chest for comfort. I had tried the first and it wasn’t working for me, so I tried the second. Minus the cuddling.

“I guess it was right before the accident. A couple days before. In fact, the entire conversation was very strange. They were trying to convince me to come home, because they wanted to talk to Tyler and I about something. It was so odd and irritating I had agreed. Then we got hit on our way…” I trailed off.

I knew he’d been irresponsible, but suddenly, I didn’t want Eli to feel bad about what had happened. It’s not like he’d intentionally caused so much pain and isolation in my life. It was there long before he even came in to the picture. If anything, he was the cause of some relief. What a terrible thing for me to think, but it was true.

“Should we get out of here?”

I nodded, and guzzled the last bit of my coffee before he helped me out of the booth.

“Good night, sir,” the host called dutifully behind us as we slipped out of the door and to the car already waiting.

“It’s like your a damn celebrity around here, or something,” I laughed.

“I come here often.”

He didn’t offer any more, and I couldn’t help but be curious about his professional life. Or any part of his life. Just when I thought I knew him, I didn’t. However, I was realizing that it was because he kept it that way. I thought what he wanted me to think, and it was such an intelligent manipulation that I fell for it every time. I couldn’t see it coming. I picked at my nail polish and watched the stars blur from the window as we drove back to my apartment. I wasn’t as calm in the silence as he seemed to be. I had too many questions, too many feelings I didn’t understand. I peeked a glance at him, but he wasn’t paying attention to me for maybe the first time all night. I could smell his cologne, and I caught myself remembering the way he felt so bold against my skin. I didn’t want him to walk me to my door and kiss me good night like the good boy he was pretending to be. I wanted him to come inside like the animal he was.

We pulled up to the curb of my place and he wasted no time in getting to my door to help me out. The date was over. I was off the hook for good behavior, and promptly took my shoes off to walk up the stairs. He smiled and took them from my hands, opening the door for me as I buzzed us in. The clock on our night was ticking, and as we walked up the stairs I grew more and more nervous. We had already dug deep into each other, but the formality of the night had changed the dynamic. He had put me on a pedestal and I was trying to act the part. Oh shit. Did I finally get one step ahead of his game? Was this another test to see if I did what I actually wanted. Yes, Kate! I unlocked my door and spun around to face him.

“I had a really lovely time,” I cooed, playing with a button on his oh-so-fitted shirt.

“So did I,” he replied without interacting.

I looked up at him, asking for the kiss we both wanted. He stared back, hard and unmoving. We both wanted it, right? I faltered. No, no Kate. This was his test. I tiptoed up to his lips and kissed him. His shoulders relaxed as his mouth fell into mine. It was warm and bitter still from the coffee. I tugged him through the threshold of my apartment, tearing at his shirt. His fingers were tangled in my hair and his teeth grazed the veins in my neck. God this was going to be a good night, bravo, Kate.

…..

Loud conversation filled the air around Dee and I as we made our way to a table in the bar. I couldn’t wait to dish and analyze with her, except I was having trouble deciding exactly what it was that I wanted to share and what I wanted to keep hidden. It would be hard to justify my dilemma without telling her why I had my hesitations. She’d just find his secrecy intriguing and if I wasn’t going to chase him down I wouldn’t be surprised if Dee asked for sloppy seconds. The bigger the challenge the better for her. It was a conquering game in her dating life and she was thirsty for victory. We sat down with our drinks and Dee was obviously annoyed by my lag.

“So are you going to spill or not, girl? I can’t wait any longer!”

I smiled and took a deep breath. Dee was my best friend and I couldn’t keep anything from her. Right?

“He took me to some cute little place outside the city and drowned me in desserts. Then we went back to my place,” I said raising my brows over the rim of my drink.

Dee was delighted. She tilted her head back and shook her fists before refocusing on my mouth to make up for the background noise.

“He knows what he’s doing, Dee. Not just in bed, but always. Everything is so well thought out, so planned, it’s hard not to feel like the center of the universe.”

“You say it like it isn’t the best thing that could have ever happened to you! What are you hung up on, dark little cloud? I thought the sun shone and parted your clouds from between his lips?”

I giggled and her innuendo. “It does, god, believe me, it does.”

“But what, Kate?” Dee was annoyed. She hated the negative part of my personality.

“I still don’t know anything about him. He’s so elusive. He works super hard to make sure we never talk about him and his life. I mean, I finally got him to sort of tell me about his job, and once he did, he just grew more confusing. It’s like he just makes up whatever lie he can think of in the moment.”

“Well, are you going to pursue a relationship with him?”

“I’m not sure.”

Dee sipped her drink and watched the room, thinking. I scanned her beautifully rich, ebony skin as it glowed beneath the dim lights, trying to guess what she was thinking. She trailed a finger around the rim of her glass. I envied her to my core. She was so exotic, so multilayered and well learned. She oozed confidence and adventure. Men fell over her and she had her pick from the top of the market. I was just dumpy, basic, mopey, Kate. Eli was the best thing about my life and that wasn’t saying a lot, truthfully.

“Here’s what I think,” she chimed, always weighing the options. “If you want to just play and enjoy all the magic of Eli, then who cares if you don’t know him very well. It’s not like you’re planning on meeting  Mom. But if you think it could be something, or you want it to be something, then treat it with respect….and patience.”

She was scolding me and I laughed. She had no clue what was coming.

“If he wants to take his time letting you in, who cares? He’s a man. Expect him to not understand our need for emotional connection. They don’t work that way. Give him a break, Kate.”

“It’s not that,” I argued, “he specifically does not want to talk about it. It’s not like a typical dude who just wants to get naked, or have fun. He’s not ordinary, Dee, I swear. I don’t get why he’s so into learning everything about what makes me tick, but I can’t ask him anything without him trying to avoid the truth. Not even surface questions.”

“I guess that’s a little weird. What does your intuition tell you?”

I bit my lip. This is where it got complicated and I wasn’t sure if I wanted Dee to know the details. Shit. I was going to have to fess up.

“Well, things are a little more complicated than I let on.”

She leaned in. I could see her razor sharp glare from across the table and I needed to prepare for her response. It’d be brutally honest and too painful for my indulgent, stupid side to endure.

“Spit it out!”

I drained my drink and the shot that I was avoiding. Once my face twisted out of the disgusting aftermath of tequila, I took a deep breath, wishing there was pizza somewhere nearby to comfort me.

“Well, for one he isn’t a waiter, and he doesn’t work at the theater, he owns it. He’s also a scientist of some weird research that helps with cancer or something. He also knew who I was before we met.”

“What?”

“Yeah….and Lucas too.”

Dee’s eyes bugged out of her head, and a slow rage was building on her face. She wasn’t stupid by any means and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d be able to figure it out on her own. But she wasn’t going to let me waste time now.

“Dee…Eli is the one who hit us.”

It felt like all the air was sucked in through her lungs when she gasped. Shock and anger and shock whipped around Dee’s expressionless stare. I started to sweat. She was scary when she stepped onto her soap box. She was scarier when she was silent.

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

“When?”

“The first night,” I cringed, waiting for her to respond.

“Oh my god, Kate! I can’t. I don’t even. What!”

She walked to the bar to order more drinks and I exhaled. Lord, this was going to be rough. When she returned, she seemed a little calmer, but no less high strung.

“Okay,” she refocused, “so you’re telling me he confessed to killing Lucas and you still slept with him?”

“No. He waited until after to reveal that bit.”

“So why did you keep seeing him? Kate, what is wrong with you?”

“I didn’t plan to! I ran the second he told me. But then he showed up at my place with coffee and all sorts of apologies…”

“Your place?” she cut me off, “How did he know where you lived?”

Shit. I forgot that part. The worst part.

“Because he’d been following me since the accident, trying to apologize. He said he was too much of a coward. Then the night I was at Maggiliano’s, he saw me, which was unplanned, and knew it was now or never. He couldn’t just come up to me and declare his truth so he faked his persona.”

“Are you defending him?!”

“No. Yes. I don’t know,” I yelled over the crowd before hitting my forehead against the table.

“Kate.”

I looked up at her, not wanting to hear the truth that had lingered in the back of my mind for the last week.

“Look. I wanted him to go. Then you came. Then you loved him. I was going to leave it alone after he finally walked out of the apartment, but then I accidentally liked his pic on Instagram and I couldn’t just be a stalker of a stalker. I thought maybe there was more to it. I mean, you liked him until now. Maybe there was more to the story.”

“No, you wanted the sex and the distraction and the arm candy. Don’t justify this shit to me, Kate, I know you. You were so goddamn sick of your boring ass life that this was a way out and you got desperate. You thought as long as you didn’t tell me the whole truth, I’d approve and you could do the same. But it’s all a lie! Kate, he’s insane! Did he even apologize for what happened? Did he say why it happened?”

“He told me exactly what happened. He was drunk like the report said. They had been celebrating at the theater, and he got a phone call from his mom who was sick. With cancer. She’s dead, now.”

Oh my god, I was defending him. Was that bad? I wasn’t sure. But the look on Dee’s face didn’t support it.

“Oh boo hoo. An eye for an eye. Sorry, I can’t get on board with this. He stalked you for two years. That kind of stops it for me, I don’t care how hot or sad or whatever he is. You better be careful. Obsessive psychos like that don’t just leave your life because you want them to. You let him in. It’s going to be that much harder to get rid of him. Have you considered calling the police?”

I shook my head. Now I was getting mad. Not that I knew why. Dee was right.

“No, what would I say? Hi, this man told me he killed my brother on accident then stalked me for two years so I slept with him anyway, can you help? They’d laugh in my freaking face.”

She didn’t reply. At least we agreed on that.

“Kate, I am going to get wasted tonight because of you,” she laughed despite herself. “You wanted drama and here it is. And no matter what I say you’re going to see him again, aren’t you? Don’t even answer that.”

She took a deep breath.

“Okay, if you’re going to do this, then I have to support you, and by that I mean make sure you don’t get in over your head. When are you seeing him next?”

I shrugged.

“I don’t know. He left in a hurry this morning. I bugged him about the fact that he never tells me anything about himself. He said it’d be better if he just showed me and left. Didn’t say when or anything.”

“That’s annoying.”

“Tell me about it.”

She shook her head.

“You know how to pick ’em.”

“On the bright side, he genuinely does want to make up for what he’s done. He’s been hellbent on bringing me out of my slump.”

“Well, he’s certainly accomplished that already! Nothing slumpy about this shit.”

I finished my drink and felt the guilt sliding off my chest. At least I had Dee’s support.

“He had this stupid key in his jacket. When I mentioned it to him he got super pissed off that I had gone through his things. It was definitely something to take notice of.”

Dee glared at me.

“Yeah, I know. Give up while I’m still relatively unharmed. But it’s me. The journalist me has to investigate him. I have to know why he got so mad and what it was about the key that ticked him off. I mean, why does he have so many personalities? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“Yeah, but not at the sake of your safety. Well, maybe a little bit at the sake of your safety. I approve forward action so long as you keep me updated as you go; honestly updated, Kate, not just what you want to choose to tell me. I can’t have my girl getting messed up or wose. Who else would I talk shit with?”

We laughed and enjoyed the rest of the night, watching the lonely barstool occupants, trying to pick out who would marry Dee. None of them were ever good enough. We were man haters. So many times they’d left us burned or disappointed that we had given up hope for any real man to come along. Even Eli had his strange and unappealing quirks. Except I found it easy to accept them, they were intriguing. Dee was far enough under his spell that she wasn’t protesting my decision to dig a little deeper either. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe I needed to stop being so judgmental and accept the imperfection that was the human race. I spaced out, lost in the background noise, thinking about my own lacking qualities. I really wasn’t that bad of a person when it came down to it. I just chose to wallow in the worst parts of myself. Now, after two years of making it my gloomy little home, I was ready to move out. If nothing else, Eli was an ass kicking; in more ways than one. I couldn’t help but smirk to myself and what made up fantasies I was already creating in anticipation of his next surprise.

The crowd trickled out as time went on, and by midnight we were over it. We weren’t exactly the endlessly energized twenty-somethings we used to be. Last call hadn’t seen our crazy antics in years. Nonetheless, I wasn’t looking forward to the hangover that was coming tomorrow morning. It had taken way too much alcohol to get through the truth telling and Dee’s concerned opinions. At least she was a snooping bitch like me, and had my back to dive deeper into Eli’s unknown life.

“Remember, every detail, and if I so much as smell a fib or diversion from the truth, I will call the cops myself. I will embarrass you and make sure that potential creep gets a damn restraining order,” Dee demanded as we drifted out of the bar.

“I swear. The worst is out in the open now. Kinda nice to have it that way. I’m going to need the support. And logical observation from a woman who isn’t completely seduced by his body,” I laughed.

Dee raised her brows and spun on her heel.

“See you Monday, girl.”

I turned and headed back to my own apartment, anxious to get under the covers and get some real sleep. Tequila always made me tired. So did overanalyzing. I ran a hand through my hair and shook my head. It wasn’t like me to be so obsessed with a man. I hadn’t crushed on someone like this since I was a teenager, but I had to admit that it was kind of fun.

I pulled my phone out of my purse, hoping to see an elusive text or message from Eli. Then it hit me. He didn’t have my number; at least not because I gave it to him. Maybe in his effort to be less creepy, he was waiting for me. I mean, he had never actually called me before, he had always contacted me through different social media platforms. No, that’s wasn’t right either. The only time he had contacted me through my cell phone was on my private dating profile. How strange. I pulled up Messenger and took some time finding his Facebook profile. I wasn’t sure if he ever went on the thing, but it was worth a shot, so I typed:

Hey, as much as I love a good surprise, I should probably give you my number so that when you decide it’s time to “just show me” about your life, I can have a little more time to prepare.

xoxo Kate 555-0132 call me!

“Call me,” I mocked in my best valley girl accent. I rolled my eyes at myself and hit send anyway. It’s not like I needed to impress him, he knew about my faults and still seemed to really like me. I tossed my phone back in my purse. It was refreshing after all the time I spent trying to be interesting just to get a plate of food. I wasn’t sure if it was solely Eli, or that enough time had finally passed, but I was feeling like myself again. I even wanted to start writing. Maybe I’d ease back into it with journaling. I mean, my life was far from boring now.

I was starting to get sick of walking everywhere too, especially as the buzz wore off and my eyes were getting heavier and heavier. My heel was shredded from my shoes and I could feel the blisters forming on my pinky toes. I couldn’t help but daydream about being carted around in Eli’s Tesla with his heavy hand on my leg to soothe my nerves. As intimidating as he was, there was a magnificent healing quality to him that I couldn’t get enough of. I rounded the corner to my apartment, staring at my sore feet, and dozing so hard that I didn’t see the woman standing in front of me.

“Watch it!” she yelled before I collided right in to her.

“Oh shit. Sorry!”

I tried to slide the other way, but so did she. We were caught in each other’s paths this way and that before we both stopped.

“Thanks for the dance,” I teased.

She didn’t say much, just stared, and I wasn’t sure how to take it. I cleared the haze from my eyes and actually looked at her. She was tall, leveling my gaze as I stood in four inch heels. She had the brightest eyes I’d ever seen; not quite green, not quite brown. Her hair fell wildly down her back and over her crazy sculpted shoulders. Even her dress was a killer.

“Cute dress,” I offered, again trying to slide passed, feeling a little uncomfortable.

I managed to creep beyond her, but without avoiding her marked glare as I slinked off towards my door. I took my time getting there, not quite wanting to let her see where I lived. She continued watching me, muttering something I was too far to hear, so I decided to lap my building. Now I was whispering. I didn’t want to keep walking and it was this crazy woman’s fault I had to cautiously elude my bed a little longer.

“Psycho,” I spat with one more corner to go, angrier than I should be at this hour.

I peeked around the corner to see if she still stood there, but she was gone. Hopefully just another drunk passing in the night. Maybe she’d had too much tequila too. I shrugged and strutted to my complex door, buzzing in, and wasting no time in ripping off my shoes to climb the stairs. I stepped tenderly, letting the cool wood soothe my throbbing feet. In moments like this, I wished fervently I hadn’t fallen so in love with the history of the building because I could have chosen a place with an elevator instead. But no, the romantic writer in me just had to have the refurbished 1920s apartment, complete with no A/C or heating, and beautiful architectural details. You could also hear everything with its shitty insulation, and unlike any other Saturday night, someone was outside banging on a door they probably locked themselves out of.

“Why can’t I just sleep in peace,” I cried to myself as I climbed the last set of stairs, hearing the pounding loud and clear. I didn’t want to live next to college kids anymore.

“Kate!”

I stopped at the top of the stairs, eyes bugged. It was Eli. Eli was pounding on my door, disheveled and worried. Or at least, as messy and out of sorts as he could look.

“What are you doing?” I breathed, moving closer to him, looking around to see if any of the neighbors were peeking out to complain.

“Where have you been? I’ve been here for fifteen minutes.”

“I was coming back from drinks with Dee. Why are you here? Why do you care? Why are you so worried?”

I wondered if this was the controlling behavior Dee had warned me about. She said it’d turn up sooner or later, and I hadn’t really believed her. Or at least, I hadn’t thought he’d show it this quickly.

“May I come in?” he asked, more hurriedly than I was used to.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” I said, unlocking my door.

He practically ushered me inside and locked the door in haste. I should probably be on alert at the way he seemed to lock me in, but I was more concerned over his behavior. It wasn’t like him. I was also way too tired to care.

“Look, Eli, whatever it is, be quick. I’m exhausted.”

Anger flashed through his darkening eyes and I was annoyed that he was angry. I wanted to sleep and I had the right to do so. His arrogance was really starting to get on my nerves.

“Why are you so freaked out?”

He said nothing and sat on my couch, running a hand through his beautiful dark hair. I sighed and sat next to him, placated a little by his unending sex appeal. Lady parts be damned.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. I came because I wanted to see you. Then, when you didn’t answer, I got worried.”

“But you knew I was going out. Why didn’t you just assume I was still out with Dee?”

He looked at me, and the harsh features of his expression softened just a little before he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“Let me guess. More stuff you can’t just talk about?”

He shrugged.

“Eli, you can’t expect me to be at your beck and call. We are seeing each other. We are not together, not married, and even if we were, I’m not okay with a dominating partner. I don’t even know you enough to consider this as acceptable behavior going forward.”

His shoulders slumped a millimeter and he laced his wide fingers in mine, watching how they wove so perfectly together.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ll go. Get some rest, and I’d like to come tomorrow morning. We have a lot of preparations scheduled at the theater tomorrow as we get our next show together and I’d like to show you. If you want…” he trailed off, more defeated than I’d ever seen him.

I squeezed his hand.

“I’d love that,” I smiled, wanting to make him feel better, though I wasn’t sure why.

He smiled, and stood. Without making a sound he was gone as quickly as he had come. I fell back against the leather cushions, empty of energy, wondering how I was even going to make it down the hall to my bed.