Chapter 1: The Lie
I leaned against the front of my apartment building, a late Gothic Revival called the Kirby, on Main in historic downtown Dallas and waited for the afternoon drizzle to let up before my one-block walk to the Kirby’s sister building, the Adolphus. I wore my favorite red patent stilettos and had no intention of letting the rain or my terrible judgment ruin them.
Today’s adventure was courtesy of my twenty-ninth birthday, which I spent alone in my loft with a six-dollar bottle of Prosecco and a handful of other bad ideas. The next morning, still holding a little buzz on my lips, I made the call and hired Dallas’s most eligible bachelor, Cotten Hammond, Private Investigator. I didn’t have a case. I had a crush.
When Dad passed away last year, I took over the reins of the family business—Petra Energy Resources—as well as the Diane Pawley-Peters Memorial Women’s Foundation, named after the mother I never knew. Hammond was one of our donors, and I had the privilege of honoring him at the foundation’s banquet last month. He stood taller than I expected, with dark brown eyes and a jaw that could part a crowd. He balanced the obligatory black tux and white tie with a well-groomed five-o’clock shadow that emphasized his cleft chin. On top of that, his handshake was firm, warm, and respectful. I was in lust.
On that night of bad ideas, I devised my scheme. When I called the following day, he assured me he knew who I was and that he’d help in any way possible. I explained that I believed I was being followed, maybe stalked. It wasn’t true, but I figured he couldn’t prove how I felt, so I went with it. According to my scheme, he would follow me for a couple weeks, take a few pictures, and then give me his guarantee that I was perfectly safe.
In my rich imagination, he’d see my exquisite taste in food, friends, and fashion, and fall head over heels. I realized—about two hours and three aspirin after the call—that I had ruined any chance I had with the man by creating this ridiculous charade. That’s what I do, though. Meet a man, become infatuated, sabotage the relationship, and end up alone with a bottle of bubbly. Rinse and repeat.
I glanced at my watch—ten minutes to four. My neighbor’s gray kitty, Marlowe, loped up beside me and purred a damp figure-eight around my ankles. “What are you doing out here? Spencer will be so worried.” Marlowe was well-known for escaping his apartment and had become somewhat of a mascot for the Kirby. “Now get back inside before you catch a kitty cold.” I held the door open as he slunk into the lobby. Marlowe was the only soul with whom I’d shared my scheme.
My absurd scheme. Now or never.
I stepped back into the drizzle. I couldn’t be late for my follow-up appointment. The whole thing was a mistake, but I’d look good making it.
Walking into the back lobby of the freshly restored Adolphus Tower office suite, I did a little shimmy to lose the clinging raindrops and let my trench coat drop from my shoulders. A digital office directory on a loop with announcements and five-second ads hung between the modern staircase and the glowing brass elevator. I checked my lipstick in the monitor’s reflection and noted that Hammond’s office was Suite 202. To the stairs.
I froze in front of the stained curly-pine door and studied the hand-painted lettering on the translucent glass panel. C. Hammond, P. I. By Appointment. Do I knock or just walk in?
I reached for the brass handle, but it turned when I touched it, and my hand instinctively drew back. I stifled a gasp, which spoiled any sultry entrance I might have otherwise made.
“Ms. Peters, it’s a pleasure to see you again.” His baritone was as deep as his eyes and as warm as his handshake. “Please, come in and have a seat.”
“Call me Ronni.” I tilted my chin, and he directed me to a Bordeaux leather wingback on the client side of his mahogany desk. Behind me was a wall lined with old leather books. I hesitated at the chair and drew a full breath, inhaling the sweet scent of Eastern spices and first editions. He took my coat and placed it on the hook by the door before he rounded the end of the desk and, with his eyes, asked me again to sit down.
I took a quick appraisal of the office. His desk, two wingchairs, and a credenza behind the desk. On the wall opposite the books was another door with frosted glass—this one marked PRIVATE. I lowered myself into the chair and sighed. I let my lashes rise and fall a few times. I was all in. No confessions.
Drawing another deep breath, I simpered, “I appreciate your time, Mr. Hammond.”
“Please, you should call me Cotten. Can I offer you some water or a Coke or something?” He smiled, gesturing vaguely to the door beside him, but the crease in his forehead grew more pronounced. Something was off.
“No, thank you.” I crossed my legs and shifted forward in my seat—the most effective pose when wearing a faux-wrap dress. “I hope I haven’t wasted your time.”
He shook his head and opened the drawer at his knee. He maintained eye contact, but it was all business. My seduction foundered.
He centered a black file folder on his blotter, and his gaze finally broke. He seemed to look me over for the first time. He released an almost imperceptible chuff and then sat back in his chair.
“Do you know the name Steven Wexler?”
I took a moment to mentally flip through my contacts. “I don’t think so.” Before I could guess where his questions led, he slid a photo of a man from the file and positioned it in front of me.
“Maybe you recognize his face?”
The photo might have been a mugshot or an employee ID tag. A middle-aged man stared dead ahead with artificially orange hair, a black mustache, and bags under his eyes. A chill, maybe from the persisting rain, ran down my spine. I shook my head and pushed the picture back, touching only the corner of the photo with my fingertips. “No. I don’t know him.”
“You don’t know any reason he would be following you?” He stared as if he thought I might slip up and he’d catch my lie. My therapist would suggest that was my guilty imagination.
“What?” I tried to do my part in the conversation, but my brain sputtered.
“This man, Steven Wexler, has been following you for the last two weeks. At least, but who knows how long before that. You’ve never met him before?” As he spoke, Cotten opened the file and spread out at least a dozen photographs of me, with Wexler somewhere in the background.
My mouth went dry, and every other part of my body broke into a cold sweat. I don’t know whether Cotten said anything else because, for the next several minutes, all I could hear was the pounding of my heart. My vision blurred. I blinked several times, trying to clear it enough to study the snapshots.
At the grocery store. At the park. On my walk to work. In the lobby of my apartment. In each picture, Wexler was staring at me. No mistake. He knows where I live. Where I work. Where I do everything. I had no idea I was actually being followed. I’d never even caught a glimpse of Cotten in the last two weeks.
I leaned closer to the photos, hoping to see a mistake. Were they photoshopped? Maybe it wasn’t me in the pictures, or it wasn’t Wexler. But it was.
I looked up at Cotten, who flipped sharply on his side. His arms reached out to me across the desk, and I heard him calling my name from far away. “Veronica. Ms. Peters!” All at once, someone turned out the lights.
Chapter 2: The Damsel
I opened my eyes and found myself horizontal on a tobacco leather couch under the window in Cotten’s private office. The blinds were drawn, but the sound of the rain on the glass assured me the storm had picked up again. Lightning flashed, and I could feel the rumble of thunder as the window frames rattled. The room matched the dark tone this day had taken.
My scheme had been ridiculous, and now everything had gone sideways, quite literally. I should have known better.
I started to sit up, but as soon as I moved, a two-ton rhinoceros plowed into the side of my head. I had no idea that those little stars you see circling cartoon characters’ heads were real until this moment.
“You hit pretty hard.” A voice soothed from somewhere nearby.
I turned to find the owner of the voice, but the rhino hit again. I squeezed my eyes shut and clutched at the sides of my head. My ice-cold fingers soothed my temples, and then just above my left ear, I felt it. A goose egg. Maybe from a small goose. Okay, maybe a duck.
“Let me help you.” This time I was sure it was Cotten.
I inhaled and exhaled slowly, allowed my eyes to open a slit, and then a little more. Cotten knelt in front of me. He slid his arms around my shoulders, and in one strong lift, I sat upright. My shoeless feet dropped to the floor, and my toes flexed on his fluffy white rug.
Without a word, he held out a glass of water in one hand and two white pills in the palm of the other. “I think you’ll be all right.” He waited for me to take the chalky tablets.
Proving my judgment as faulty as ever, I allowed my fingertips to linger a second too long on his skin as I gathered the pills. My breath sputtered. I laced my fingers between his as I took the cool glass from him. Electricity. I parted my lips as seductively as possible and slipped the pills between them.
Aspirin. Plain aspirin. Bitter on my tongue.
I gulped down the water quickly and handed the glass back to him, all my sexy gone.
“What happened?” My voice sounded scratchy and raw.
Cotten furrowed his brow. “You fainted. I showed you the pictures, and you went down like a house of cards in a March breeze. If I’d known you’d take it so hard, I’d have been by your side. You collapsed before I could get around my desk.” He narrowed his eyes. “And your head made a quick stop on the arm of the chair on your way down.” He sounded embarrassed.
But I was the one who fainted. I tried to remember that moment. We were talking. Cotten said something about a man. A man following me. He had pictures. It couldn’t be. I didn’t really have a stalker—I made that up. But the photos were real. And that’s when everything got a little fuzzy.
“I have a stalker?”
Cotten moved to sit in the chair beside the couch. “Yes, but don’t worry. I have his name and ID. All we have to do is file a complaint with the police. I have a buddy who’s a detective.”
“But you’re a detective.” Things were still a little fuzzy.
Cotten squared his shoulders. “I’m a private investigator. My friend is a police detective. I can gather evidence for the complaint, but you have to file to get the law after the guy in an official capacity. It’s not like on TV.” He leaned forward with an intense stare.
Oh, those eyes. I longed to dive in and take a full-body bath in those eyes.
“But it’s not a problem,” he continued, snapping me back to attention. “I’ve got you covered.”
How I wished.
Something clicked over Cotten’s shoulder. I turned my head to see what it was; this time, the rhino was only about four hundred pounds. Progress.
“You want a cup of coffee?” He sauntered to the coffee maker and poured out a cup. “It might help with the headache. At least warm you up a bit.”
“It'll hold me over ‘til I can get something stronger into me.” I took the mug from him and wrapped my still-chilled fingers around it. A quick glance let me know he disapproved of day drinking. Well, I disapproved of his judgey look, so I guessed we were even.
Cotten sat down and watched me sip my coffee for a moment. This would have been the perfect time for me to be charming and seductive, but the bump on my head still throbbed, my ego lagged, and some freak stranger was following me around downtown Dallas. Seduction would have to wait.
“If you know who the guy is, can’t you just call the police and have them throw him in jail?” I really had no desire to spend the evening at the police station.
“That’s not quite how it works. We’ll go in and talk to my friend. He’ll take your statement. You’ll tell him how you first suspected you were being stalked. He’ll want specifics. Did you see Wexler wherever you went? Did he make threatening remarks? Was he intimidating you? Have you met him before? Did he have a grudge against you or someone in your family?”
I flinched a little more with each question. No matter how hard I tried to keep a poker face, my expression and resolve crumbled.
He leaned forward in his chair. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t. I don’t know. This is all too much.” My cool shattered, and something else broke through. My damsel-in-distress—or I’m-caught-in-a-lie-but-now-the-truth-is-so-much-worse panic breakdown—seemed to work wonders with Cotten. He shifted from his chair to sit beside me on the couch.
He shushed me as he took the coffee mug from my trembling fingers. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right by your side. The photos I have are all time-stamped and geo-tagged. It won’t be a big deal. It’s not the Spanish Inquisition.”
I held my breath for a minute, releasing it only when the throbbing in my head melted into the sound of my heart beating in my ears. “I’m not sure what to say.”
“Just tell the truth.”
The truth? That wasn’t going to work for me. I pasted on my best helpless expression.
He shook his head and almost reached for my hand. When he didn’t take it, I nearly lunged to grab his. But I didn’t. I was just a client to him, and I did this to myself.
“I’ll help you.” His tone was calm. “First things first. Do you know, or have you ever met, Steven Wexler?”
“No.” Maybe the first honest word I’d spoken all day. Then my mind started second-guessing. “I mean, I can’t say that I’ve never seen him before in my whole life. This is Dallas. I might have passed him in the street or something.”
“But not to speak to?” Cotten glanced at my hands again. “You didn’t know his name or have a relationship with him?”
“No. For sure, no.”
“Good. Easy enough.” Cotten clapped his hands together and laced his fingers into a church-and-steeple configuration. “And how many times had you seen him before you suspected he might be following you?”
Now we arrived at the problem. I’d never seen him. Ever. Wexler had been following me for at least two weeks—apparently quite closely—and I hadn’t even noticed him. At all. But I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t tell Cotten Hammond that I had only made up this crazy story to spend an afternoon gazing into his beautiful, brooding eyes.
But I also couldn’t tell him I had seen the man before. I knew that if I lied and said I’d seen him on this date at that place, well, somewhere, someone would prove that it couldn’t have been. And then Wexler gets away with it, and I’m the crazy one.