Authors: Nathan Field
Stacey knew something wasn’t right when he asked who was feeding her cat tonight. She deliberately hadn’t mentioned Jasper, aware of the stigma some guys placed on single girls with cats. That’s why she’d left the “Pets?” box unchecked in her Love Letters profile and had carefully sidestepped Jasper during the dinner conversation – no easy task, since he was the second most important guy in her life, a whisker behind her baby brother.
But if anyone was worth the effort, it was Dr. Adam Reynolds. When his photo popped up in her in-box as a potential match, Stacey thought she was being punked. A six-foot-four, thirty-one-year-old ophthalmologist from London with thick black hair, dark brown eyes and impossibly white teeth. He looked like a daytime soap star, a big step up from the grungy, unshaven losers she was used to dating in Portland. Thinking he was probably too good to be true, Stacey had braced herself for disappointment when they arranged to meet at a wine bar downtown, just a few blocks from her office.
As it happened, Dr. Reynolds was even better looking in person. Wearing a clean-cut two-button suit and a cornflower blue shirt, he was sitting up at the bar when Stacey arrived fifteen minutes late for their date. A couple of predatory cougars were already sizing him up from a nearby table, their eyes thinning when they spotted the newcomer moving in. Stacey felt a little dizzy when Adam rose to his full height and greeted her with a debonair kiss on her cheek. His smile dazzled under the hanging lights and when he complimented her outfit in a sexy English accent, she literally went weak at the knees, resting her hand on a stool for support.
They stayed at the wine bar for two drinks before Adam suggested they head across the street for a bite to eat. Stacey made a show of checking her watch and umming and ahhing, not wanting to appear overeager, but inside she was doing cartwheels at the prospect of spending another hour or two in his company. Adam was not only successful and handsome and incredibly well groomed – he also seemed
. In Stacey’s experience, handsome and nice didn’t often go together, at least not in single guys.
But Adam was a real sweetheart: sensitive and intelligent without being a complete wuss. He loved being an ophthalmologist, which Stacey learned was even better than an optometrist, and he was particularly passionate about improving the quality of eye care in poor communities. He even volunteered at a mobile clinic that provided free treatment to underprivileged children, giving up an entire Sunday every other week. When Adam mentioned his selfless charity work, Stacey had to pinch herself under the table. She’d never come across a man with such strong values before. She thought they only existed in romance novels.
The Italian restaurant had drippy red candles, rustic wood furniture, and a traditional menu that hadn’t changed since the last time Stacey ate there a year ago. Her attraction to Adam deepened as the evening wore on, and before long they were leaning intimately over the table and feeding each other twirls of pasta. The bottle of white wine was drained just in time for the bill.
Surprisingly, Adam began to fidget nervously while he waited for the return of his credit card, the first time the conversation had faltered. From the way they’d been gazing into each other’s eyes over dinner, Stacey had assumed they were a done deal. However, it seemed her date needed an extra push over the line.
“How are you getting home?” she asked. “Because I live just around the corner.”
“Yes, I remember from your profile. Grant Park, wasn’t it?”
“Uh-huh, it’s only ten minutes away. And you’re in the West Hills, right? Talk about lifestyles of the rich and famous. Hope you don’t mind slumming it.”
“Grant Park is a slum?”
“No,” she laughed. “But it’s not exactly packed with wealthy ophthalmologists.”
“I’m hardly wealthy,” he said tightly. “I make a reasonable living, that’s all.”
Stacey thought his definition of a reasonable living was probably a lot different to hers, but she decided to keep her mouth shut. It was obviously a sensitive topic, and Adam hadn’t yet caught onto her dry sense of humor. During the evening, she’d made at least a half-dozen joking remarks that had flown right over his head. She wouldn’t describe him as humorless, exactly, but he was very straight up and down. Maybe it was a British thing. Or maybe it was just the price you paid for being so earnest.
“Sorry, I know I sound uptight,” he said quickly, as if reading her mind. “But I’d hate people to think I was just another rich doctor asshole.”
“Don’t worry, Adam,” Stacey said, reaching over to playfully pat his hand. “I don’t think anyone could mistake you for an asshole.”
He smiled appreciatively before turning to look for the waiter. It was quickly agreed that Adam’s place would be best since he had an early start the next day and he’d left his medical bag at home. Besides, Stacey was happy to spend the night away from her apartment, especially while her brother was sleeping on the other side of her bedroom wall. Although she had a 9:00 a.m. start herself, she could always call in sick if she slept in too long. The girls at work would understand, even if they suspected she was lying. It wasn’t like she did this sort of thing every day.
The warmth of the restaurant clung to their winter coats as they stepped out into the clear, breathless November night. Adam wrapped his arm around Stacey’s waist as they walked down the sidewalk, making her feel like a baby bird tucked under his protective wing. Being five-eight and fond of heels, it wasn’t often she felt small and delicate alongside a man. It made for a nice change.
The streets had emptied of the after work crowd and only a few bored teens and dirty-faced drunks were braving the chill, congregating outside fast food stands and drug stores. Portland was hardly a dangerous city but Stacey enjoyed the added security of walking next to Adam, knowing it wouldn’t matter who she accidentally bumped into or made fleeting eye contact with. Nobody would hassle her while she had a towering, two-hundred-pound Englishman on her arm.
Adam’s ride was a sleek black Jaguar, its dark coat gleaming in the moonlight. Stacey loved Jaguars, especially the low, sporty ones, but she stopped herself from gushing in case she came across as a gold-digger. It was gorgeous though – from the moment the door thumped shut it was like sinking back into a tub of richly scented oils. And from the way her waist and butt fitted snugly into the leather upholstery, she thought the Jaguar suited her very well. The whole evening kept getting better and better. She only hoped Adam would measure up in the sack; always a concern when a guy gave every impression of being Mr. Perfect. But hell, he’d scored A’s in so many other departments, she was willing to overlook a minor shortfall.
They headed west towards the river, Adam’s Jaguar purring quietly through the city streets. The relaxed mood in the cabin meant Stacey no longer felt obligated to fill every moment with small talk. She sank deeper into her seat, listening to the piano concerto tinkling softly in the background. It was only when Adam spoke, jolting her awake, that she realized she’d dozed off.
When she turned her head, Adam was looking straight at her, the shadowy light masking one side of his face. They’d stopped at a red light on the outskirts of downtown, closing in on the steep slopes of the West Hills. She must’ve been asleep for five minutes or more. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was miles away then. What did you ask me?”
“Who’s feeding your cat tonight?” he repeated slowly.
Stacey smiled; a nervous reaction. “I haven’t mentioned a cat.”
“Maybe not. But you do own a cat, don’t you Stacey?”
She frowned, unsure of how to respond. The atmosphere in the car had changed. The way Adam continued to study her with a strange, unreadable expression on his face was making her uncomfortable. She felt a coldness in her hands, creeping up under her sleeves. This wasn’t right – the way he was looking at her.
She jumped up in her seat when the car behind them blasted its horn. The light had turned green. Adam slowly trained his eyes back on the road, easing the Jag forward. When the car behind sounded its horn again, he squinted into the rear view mirror, keeping his speed at a gentle roll. He wasn’t about to be rushed.
Stacey was suddenly afraid of going home with this man. The coldness had spread to her shoulders and she was beginning to feel nauseous. Sick with the realization that she’d made a huge, huge mistake. But it wasn’t too late. “Adam, I’m sorry,” she said in a pained voice. “I don’t feel well.”
“Really? What seems to be the problem?”
“I’m not sure, I just feel sick. It must’ve been something I ate.” She groaned, putting her hands on her belly. “Sorry Adam, can we stop? I think I should go home.”
He kept driving, slowly. “But we’re almost there. You can lie down at my place.”
“I think I should be in my own bed,” Stacey said, casually reaching down for her handbag.
“I hope you’re not worried about the cat comment. It was only a guess, Stacey. You see, most of the women I go out with don’t tell me about their cats until the second or third date. They probably think I’ll dismiss them as crazy cat women, even though I couldn’t care less. Actually, I quite like cats.”
Stacey nodded, rummaging in her handbag for her mobile phone. Her fingers felt numb and useless, struggling to feel her way through the jumble of objects. “I’d still like to go home,” she said, her voice tightening.
Where the fuck was her phone?
“Come now, Stacey. You’ll feel better once we stop driving.”
“Just turn the car around!” she screamed, her frustration boiling over. “Now, Adam, before you really start to scare me.”
He immediately slowed down, pulling into the curb. “For goodness sake,” he said irritably. “I didn’t know I was scaring you.”
Stacey glared at him; then saw from his open-mouthed expression that he was genuinely shocked by her reaction. Also, the intense isolation and panic she’d felt only seconds ago had dissolved. It helped that they’d stopped outside a busy club, where dozens of saucer-eyed drum n’ bass junkies littered the footpath, cupping cigarettes and bouncing on their toes to keep warm.
She tilted her handbag towards the light spilling in through the passenger window. Her phone was wedged into a far corner and she promptly squeezed it into her palm. Then she took a deep, calming breath. “I’m sorry, Adam. I might’ve overreacted.”
“Don’t apologize, you’re quite right,” he said, keeping both hands on the wheel where she could see them. “If you’re feeling ill, I should take you home.”
Stacey managed a tight smile. “Thanks for the offer but I think it’s better if I get a cab.”
“No, don’t be silly,” he said, looking over his shoulder in preparation for a U-turn. “I’ll drop you off.”
“But like you said, you’re almost home.”
“It’s no bother,” Adam insisted, whipping around in a perfect semi-circle and heading back the way they came. “I’m not about to kick you onto the street if you’re feeling unwell. Just pretend I’m not here.”
Like that was possible
, Stacey thought grimly. But she didn’t want to start screaming like a madwoman again. And now that her phone was safely in hand, she felt a bit more comfortable. Adam might’ve turned out to be a crappy date but he was probably harmless enough. At least he’d been screened and scrutinized by a reputable dating agency, which was more than you could say for most cab drivers.
It was his weird sense of humor that was the problem, she decided. He wasn’t in tune with what other people found funny so when he tried to make a joke, he came across as intense, or just plain weird. And from the way he’d quickly agreed to end the date, this wasn’t the first time he’d freaked a girl out. It was no wonder he was still single. She even felt a teensy bit sorry for him.
Not sorry enough to strike up a conversation, though. Stacey was content to ride home in silence, feeling the road pass underneath her. Gradually, her heartbeat returned to normal. She turned her head, watching the night stream past the passenger window. Losing herself in the streaks of color. The lights blurring into one.
“Good morning, Momentum,” a young woman answered cheerfully. It wasn’t the voice Karl had hoped for.
“Yeah, hi. I was actually after Stacey.”
“I’m sorry, she’s not at her desk at the moment. Is there something I can help you with?”
“No thanks, I really need to speak to Stacey. Do you know when she’ll be back?”
A pause. “Could I ask who’s calling?”
“It’s Karl Morgan. Her brother.”
“Oh.” The phone clunked in his ear; the girl suddenly losing interest in the call. He heard her whining in the background: “What’s the story with Stacey?.....It’s her brother…..Well, how the hell should I know? Okay, okay…..”
“She hasn’t made it in today,” the girl told him flatly. “But she hasn’t called in sick, either. Do you know where she is?”
“No, I don’t,” Karl said testily. “Why would I be asking you if I knew where she was?”
sister,” the girl snapped, failing to follow his logic.
He stifled a weary sigh. “Okay, just get her to call me if she turns up.”
“Fine,” she said, cutting the line.
Karl stared at the phone, his thoughts darkening.
She hasn’t called in sick.
But she hadn’t made it home, either. Meaning she was still with the guy she’d met for dinner last night. The English eye doctor she’d been drooling over all week.
His sister’s one-night stands no longer bothered him like they used to. At school, he’d taken a lot of crap for being Racy Stacey’s little brother. She’d earned her reputation at sixteen when the cops busted her at the local make-out spot, getting it on with the principal’s son. The rumors snowballed from there, most of them untrue. The worst was when Karl was playing football – his teammates thought it was totally fine to make fun of his sister, right up until Karl laid out a three-hundred pound defensive end when he suggested Stacey should make a home movie with the team.
No one said anything to his face after that, but he knew they were still snickering behind his back. Karl resented his sister in those days, believing she was sullying the family name. But in hindsight, she was no different than any other teenage girl growing up in Cave Creek, population 4,617. She went out, got drunk, hooked up. Hell, that's what everyone in Cave Creek did.
As he got older, Karl developed a new appreciation for his sister. He began to see her for the funny, warm-hearted, generous person she’d always been. And smart, too – Stacey had always laughed off the slurs and name-calling, dismissing everyone in town as small-minded, hypocritical assholes. Suddenly, rather than being ashamed of her, Karl was ashamed of himself for being so disloyal.
They still fought like a normal brother and sister but they’d formed a pretty close bond since their father passed away last June. Even though Stacey was living in Portland, she made it home at least once a month to help Karl comfort their mother – a fragile woman at the best of times. Mom slowly got better, but Karl was still reluctant to leave town after graduation, thinking she wouldn't cope with an empty house. It was Stacey who'd encouraged him to get out, promising to catch the bus home every two weeks to check on Mom. She was good like that, and Karl realized he owed his sister a huge favor down the line.
After an extended summer road trip through Canada, Karl had arrived in Portland full of optimism, expecting to walk straight into a carpentry apprenticeship. Karl had always been good with his hands and with a high school diploma under his belt, he was sure a local homebuilder or construction company would snap him up. Stacey agreed to let him crash on her living room sofa while he hunted for a job, thinking it would only be for a week or two.
But neither of them had been paying much attention to the news. The construction industry wasn’t what it used to be, and every company Karl approached was on a hiring freeze. After a month of unsuccessful e-mailing and cold calling, the hopelessness of Karl's job search finally dawned on him. He would have to seriously rethink his plans if he wanted to get paid in the near future.
His sister's patience was beginning to wear thin, too. Stacey sympathized with his predicament, but a month sharing a one bedroom apartment with your baby brother was enough to drive any twenty-one-year-old party girl up the wall. Karl knew he was cramping her style, especially when Stacey tried to bring a date home. So far it had only happened once, and when the douchebag learned that Karl was sleeping in the next room, he quickly found an excuse to leave. From that night on, Karl urged Stacey to text him in advance if she planned to bring someone home, giving him time to vacate the apartment and find a bed at a hostel. She hadn't held him to his promise yet, and although Stacey claimed it was because she hadn't met any decent guys recently, Karl knew she was just looking out for his finances.
Given the cramped conditions at home, it wasn't a huge surprise that Stacey had spent the night at her date's place. Karl wasn’t worried about that. But her absence from work was definitely out of character. Stacey wasn’t the sleeping-in type. And if she was playing hooky, she still would've called the office as a courtesy. At the very least, she would’ve called home, if only to check on the goddamn cat.
Her cell was going straight through to voicemail; it had been like that all morning. And beyond calling the office, Karl didn't know where else to turn. He'd met a few of Stacey's Portland friends but he had no idea how to contact them. He couldn't remember any of their last names. Calling the police wasn't an option – not yet, anyway. Stacey was a grown woman and she'd barely been missing twelve hours. The cops would laugh him off as an overprotective brother.
But he had to do
Deep down, Karl knew she was in trouble. There could be no other reason for her silence.
Karl was considering calling his mom – a drastic step that would've raised the collective worry by a factor of ten – when there was a low creaking outside the front door. He stood up from the sofa, holding his breath. Then came the familiar jostling of lipsticks, compacts and sunglasses as Stacey fished for her keys in her oversized handbag.
Karl was already letting out a sigh of relief when the door pushed open and a small black cat squirted into the living room. Stacey came next. She was still wearing her walk of shame clothes, her glossy brown hair messed up. When she noticed Karl glaring at her, she smiled innocently.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“Sorry. My cell was stolen last night. You weren’t worried, were you?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I was. I just called your work and they said they hadn’t heard from you. I was seconds away from ringing Mom. What the hell were you thinking?”
“I told you, my cell was stolen. I haven’t been able to call anyone.”
“What, so your doctor boyfriend doesn’t have a phone?”
She looked down guiltily. “Yeah. I guess I should’ve called.”
“It’s almost noon,” Karl said, unable to contain himself now he’d started. “You should at least call Momentum and tell them you’re okay. Didn’t you say some of you were getting the ax after Christmas? Or are you putting your hand up early?”
Momentum was a boutique advertising company that specialized in mobile billboards and vehicle branding. Thanks to the dismal economy, Momentum was being forced to make cutbacks in line with its falling revenues. Salespeople like Stacey were first in the firing line.
Karl realized he was in no position to lecture his sister on work ethics, but instead of answering back, Stacey hung her head. He suddenly forgot his anger. “Hey, are you sure you’re alright?”
She looked up, forcing a smile. “Yeah, of course. Just a little tired, that’s all. It was a long night.”
“Okay, enough information,” Karl said with a grimace. She looked okay, considering she’d been up most of the night. Her face had been scrubbed clean of make-up, but her fondness for fake tan meant she still had a summery glow. And her light green eyes were bright and free of redness.
Yet something wasn’t right. A change under the surface he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “You going to work this afternoon?” he asked.
“Yeah, I just came home to shower,” she said, moving towards the bedroom. Karl watched her closely, on the lookout for stiff joints or favored legs, but her walk was as normal as her appearance. When she shut her bedroom door and drawers began rattling in her daily hunt for the perfect outfit, he thought maybe he was imagining things. He’d been spending too much time in the apartment, he decided. The confined space was making him stir crazy.
But then a subtle break in Stacey’s routine set him off again. When she came out of the bedroom in her bathrobe, the cat started meowing, anticipating his usual morning cuddle. But instead of scooping Jasper up and smothering him in kisses, Stacey seemed not to hear him, ignoring his expectant little face and trudging straight into the bathroom.
The cat stared at the closed bathroom door, then looked over at Karl as if to say –
What the fuck?
“I know, buddy,” Karl said softly. “I know.”
Karl was stirring canned chili on the hot plate when he heard the bathroom lock slide across. Stacey emerged from a cloud of steam, swathed in fluffy towels. “That’s a lot better,” she declared. “Ooh, are you making me a cooked breakfast?”
Karl frowned down at the bubbling pot. “Lunch, actually. Canned chili. Don’t tell me you want some.”
“I’d love some,” she said, trotting into her bedroom. “On toast, please.”
Karl shook his head, wondering what the hell was wrong with his sister. Canned chili on toast? For the past few years, Stacey had been on a low-carb diet – slightly modified to include copious amount of wine and the occasional chocolate bar. But heavy foods like potatoes and beans and bread had gone right out the window. She didn’t even miss them, she claimed.
Intrigued to see how she’d tackle it, Karl dutifully prepared two plates of butter-soaked toast covered in chili and laid them on the kitchen counter. Her eyes widened when she came out the bedroom, dressed and ready for work. “Yum,” she said. “I’m starving.”
Stacey slid into a stool and started eating, loading up her fork like a trucker at a roadside diner. Karl watched her eat, letting his own lunch grow cold, waiting for a crack to appear in her cheerful facade. But she chewed away contentedly, casually flipping the pages of a Marie Claire, seemingly oblivious to her brother’s scrutiny. “Oh, by the way,” she said after swallowing her final mouthful. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m right here.”
She shook her head. “A real talk. I’m pushed for time, now. What are you doing tonight?”
“Good, why don’t you meet me at Grinderman around six? It’s the coffee house across from Kinkos, the one with –”
“– I know the place,” Karl said quickly, his concern shifting. “Have I done something wrong?”
“No, don’t be silly,” she said, reaching forward to playfully ruffle his hair.
Karl ducked away from her hand, his fringe falling into his eyes. His dark hair was long, and he brushed it back with his hand, a habit he repeated a hundred times a day. “Jesus,” she laughed. “Someone’s uptight.”
“Because you’re acting weird,” Karl shot back.
Stacey was already gathering her coat, unfazed. “Well, we can talk about it tonight. Make sure you’re there on time because I don’t have my phone.”
“I’ll be there,” he assured, his eyes tracking her out the door.