“It’s been three days,” I say.
Harper looks at me with a confused expression twisting her lips. “Three days since what?”
I lower my voice, my gaze darting around the Sugar Cube before I answer in a whisper. “Since Hayden and I had sex. Why hasn’t he initiated anything?”
“I don’t know.” Harper taps her chin. “That doesn’t sound normal for someone like him. Maybe he’s waiting for your vagina to heal? I mean he did dig into it like he was searching for gold or some shit.”
My face heats up and I press my hands to my cheeks. “Sometimes I can’t handle your honesty.”
“But you love me for it.”
“If he’s worried about you, then you could give him the signal that it’s go time.” She waggles her brows at me. “I have plenty of ideas which involve you being naked, a fondue machine, and chocolate. Or cheese.”
I scrunch my face. “No, thank you, but I can get behind the gist of the plan.”
“Can’t go wrong with being naked,” she says with a shrug.
“I suppose. I just need the balls to do it.”
“More like the ovaries. I wouldn’t worry about it though because the pheromones coming off you two could fog up bulletproof glass. So, how’s everything else going? Besides the non-sex after the mind-blowing sex.” She plants a hand on her hip. “You seem happy.”
“I am happy.” I bite my lip in thought. “Probably the happiest I’ve been since my dad’s funeral.”
Harper nods with a knowing look. “Good dick will do that to a girl.”
“It’s more than that. I feel safe. It took Hayden two days to identify my stalker and get rid of him. If that’s not reassuring, I don’t know what is.”
Harper’s gaze narrows. “That was really fast. I guess with his access to certain resources it wouldn’t be hard. I’m just glad you’re not in danger anymore.”
“Then what’s the look for?”
“That one.” She gestures to my face with a circling motion. “Why was there a funny sound in your voice just now?”
“Something’s up.” She turns to look over her shoulder and raises her voice. “Welcome to the Sugar Cube. I’ll be right with you.” Then she faces me, rolling her eyes. “I hate how customers get in the way of our girl talk. I expect an answer once I fill their order.”
I handle the transaction and as soon as I give the customer their coffee, Harper’s on me. She hands me a cake pop as though to placate me for the interrogation she’s about to initiate. I take the dessert with a sigh.
“All right, girl,” she says. “Give me the deets.”
“What if Hayden’s too good to be true? He’s handsome, wealthy, and treats me like I’m his reason for living. That has to be a red flag, right?”
Harper’s lips pull to the side. “Red’s my favorite color.”
I bite back a laugh. “Be serious.”
“I am.” She takes my shoulders and stares at me, her green eyes scrutinizing my face. “Look, you’ve been through a lot in the past year and it’s probably got you in survival state-of-mind. No one can blame you for that, but you don’t want to ruin the happiness you’ve found just because of your past trauma. If Mr. Bend-me-over Bennett is the real deal, you’ll regret pushing him away to protect yourself.”
“And if he’s not good for me?”
After a quick squeeze, my friend releases my shoulders. “If he’s a piece of shit, then you’ll find out soon enough and dump his ass. Don’t be overly cynical until he gives you a reason. You deserve to be happy, okay?”
I smile at her. “Okay.”
She flicks her gaze to the door and does nothing to stifle her loud groan. “It’s time for the bunch rush. Hold onto your butts. Do you know that movie reference?”
“Yes,” I say with a laugh.
The familiar work calms my mind even as my body moves on autopilot. Thankfully, the line of customers moves quickly without any incident and the time passes even faster. My mind drifts to Hayden and I lean against the counter before squirting hand sanitizer on my palms. Once it dries, I check my phone. The lack of messages from him has my lips pulling into a frown.
Hayden: Are you all right?
Calista: Yes. I was just wondering what time I’ll see you tonight?
Hayden: The case I’m working requires more attention than I’d like. I’ll be home a little later than usual.
Calista: Oh, okay. Well, good luck. See you later.
Hayden: Thank you. You too.
With a sigh, I put the phone in my apron pocket. Maybe I need to follow Harper’s advice and tell Hayden I’m interested in sex. My plan won’t involve a fondue machine, but my friend has the right idea. With Hayden working late, I’ll have plenty of time to freshen up and put on something enticing.
I walk over to the now empty tables and wipe them down. A flash of color catches my eye and I pause, lifting my head to peer out the window. A small girl in a magenta jacket walks down the sidewalk with an older woman that I know to be her mother.
“I’ll be right back,” I call to Harper.
My co-worker nods at me and I grin as I dash outside. My assigned bodyguard, a bald man who’s over six feet tall and built like a mountain, steps forward the minute my feet hit the pavement. I wave at Sebastian—who may or may not be part of the Russian mob—and point to the child to indicate my intention. Before I can second-guess myself, I call out the girl’s name.
The girl and her mother turn around, eyes widening in surprise. Erika’s face splits into a toothless grin at seeing me and my heart expands in my chest. I kneel down and hold my arms out.
“Miss Calista!” Erika tugs her hand from her mother’s to launch herself at me.
I meet Sebastian’s gaze and he gives me a quick nod. Now that any potential issues have been averted, I look at Erika, willing myself not to cry. “How are you, sweet girl? It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you like crazy.”
Erika’s beams at me. “I’m doing good. Mama got a new job so we got our own apartment now.”
I release the little girl and look up at her mother. “That’s wonderful, Alice. I’m so happy for the two of you.”
“We couldn’t have done it without your support, Miss Green,” Alice says. “You helped me with my resume and talked to the boss. I’m convinced you putting in a good word for me got me the job. Although, we’ll miss seeing you at the shelter.”
“I appreciate that.” I hug Erika again, tighter this time. “I’ll miss seeing you too. I’ve been busy so I haven’t been volunteering at the shelter, but hopefully I can after the holidays.”
The lie chills my bones faster than the winter afternoon. The very idea of stepping into that place makes me want to throw up. My stomach begins to churn and I push away the thoughts of my assault.
“You should go back to volunteering,” Alice says. “You made such a difference. Not just in our lives, but for other families as well.”
I dip my head in acknowledgment. “Thank you.”
“Well, we better get going. It was so great to see you, Miss Green.”
“Please call me Calista.” I look at Erika. “I’m going to miss you most of all. Don’t tell the others, but you’ve always been my favorite.”
With step one complete, I walk into Hayden’s closet, looking for something to wear as a surprise for when he comes home. I’ve already reapplied my makeup and run a brush through my hair, leaving the long tresses unbound the way he likes them. Hopefully this plan will “encourage” him. I think about having sex with him all the time and I can’t believe it. I was never this way with my ex. I may not have been a virgin when I met Hayden, but he’s definitely ruined me for any other man.
Just like he wanted.
I sift through the different articles of clothing, undecided if I should wear one of his dress shirts, his jacket, or his trench coat. I could also choose something from my new wardrobe, but in the end it won’t matter. If he’s not interested in the fact that I’m completely nude underneath, then nothing else will get his attention.
My gaze lands on his favorite suede jacket hanging neatly on a hanger. I visualize myself wearing it for him and enjoying his smile of approval. Decision made, I slip my arms into the buttery-soft sleeves. The hem brushes my knees and the garment immediately swallows my petite frame, which is perfect for the reveal I have in mind.
A sigh escapes me as I run my hands over the supple leather and leisurely trace the fine stitching. My fingers encounter strange lumpy objects deep in the right pocket and I purse my lips at the discovery. I insert my hand into the opening and nearly yank it right back out when I feel the smooth texture of the objects inside.
With my heart galloping in my chest, I grab a handful of the items and withdraw my fist. I stare at it, watching my knuckles begin to lose their color and feeling the first tremors streaking through my forearm from my tight grip. Trepidation fills me until my breathing thins and becomes difficult, my body acknowledging what my brain is refusing to.
With aching slowness, I uncurl my fingers, revealing the small, round objects resting on my palm. Over half a dozen loose pearls sit in my hand, with several more still resting in Hayden’s pocket. I stare at them until my eyes dry out and force me to blink.
My blood runs cold as the horrifying truth hits me like a bolt of lightning. How else would he have gotten these pearls if he wasn’t the one who took them? Hayden, the man who claims to want me safe, is in fact the stalker who terrorized me for months. Revulsion courses through me as I picture him stealing the necklace, breaking it, and then leaving a single pearl for me to find.
Tears blur my vision and sobs wrack my body as I sink to the floor, clutching the pieces of jewelry. The man I loved, who I thought cared about me, violated my trust. And for what? To manipulate me into being with him? This entire charade was unnecessary.
I would’ve been with Hayden because I’m already in love with him.
My heart pumps harder with every beat until I worry it’ll explode inside my chest. Given the pain zipping through my body, I almost wish it would. If only to stop the agony. I gave Hayden everything and he made me question my sanity while taking away my sense of security.
I knew he was too good to be true.
I just wish I understood why he did all of this when we could’ve had an honest relationship; why he chose obsession over love.
Taking a deep breath, I roughly wipe my eyes. The sadness churning within me hardens into icy resolve, a cold wall that’s impenetrable, similar to the one I created when my father died. Except this one’s more fortified. When Hayden gets home and walks through that door, the fantasy of him ends. And the real man—the stalker—has much to answer for.
I invited a genuine monster into my life. The only thing left to do is face him and hope I make it out with my sanity intact.
Because my heart is definitely a goner.