They all went quiet the moment I walked in.
The lady at the bar smiled at me warmly, her hair a strawberry blond—the shade I used to have. “Hi, what can I get you?”
This was the third place I’d hit today. This could be another complete bust, or…
I took a picture from my coat’s pocket and pushed it towards her. “I—I was wondering if you’ve seen this person?”
In the photo, my brother wore sports clothes and a face-splitting grin. Back when his face was slightly fuller and his smile was broader. More genuine. I couldn’t remember the moment I’d stopped seeing it.
That was all on me.
It was too late. He was gone before I’d noticed that he wasn’t the person I knew anymore.
Her smile died. She went completely still, her eyes still on the photo. “I think you need to leave,” she whispered, her expression shuttering.
She pushed the photo back towards me, her hand trembling.
My heart felt like it would jump out of my chest, slamming hard. This was it. A lead—finally.
“You know something, don’t you?” I pressed. I put a hand on her elbow, desperate, “Please—”
“You need to leave, or you’ll be escorted out.”
She refused to budge. I’d been too impatient.
I ran my fingers down my hair in frustration. I’d went for a red shade, so different from before, but now I’d embraced the change.
With steps heavy, I turned on my heel and walked out to the biting cold without another glance. She didn’t know it yet, but I wasn’t the type to be deterred that easy.
Chapter One- Favor
One week later
“Eva, darling, what happened to you?”
I mustered a small smile. Leslie, one of my aunt’s good friends, slid across the seat from me. Her own smile froze when her eyes landed on me. I know what she must’ve seen—my hair dyed, my clothes looser. My smile tighter.
“I’ve been… traveling.” I’ve never been a good liar, but this lie came smoothly. It was easier when you’ve practiced the lie a dozen times.
Her coffee arrived. She took a small sip, her expression thoughtful. “Well, that’s wonderful. You never told me you were coming here, you should’ve let me know. It came as a surprise when you called me.”
“I hate that I’m asking this, but… I need a favor,” I began. I braced myself for rejection. I dropped my eyes down to my hands clasped on the table. I wore glittery pink nail polish today—my favorite shade. Just one of those things that gave me a small illusion that everything was okay. The truth was, I was embarrassed that I met with her just to ask for something. I didn’t do it often, and by that I mean at all, and asking made me feel uncomfortable.
Around four months ago, my brother went missing. After I found a stash of drugs in his room, I freaked out and confronted him about it, and then the next day, he was gone. Before he left, he told me not to get the police involved, and so I decided to take matters into my own hands. And here I was—searching for him, and searching for answers.
I took it as a sign when, months ago, I cracked open a fortune cookie on a night out with friends. Inside, the piece of paper held an email, and told me to get in touch with her if I wanted to find out more about Alan. We’d been exchanging information since then. I don’t know why I got the impression that it was a “her”—I suppose it was a gut feeling when reading our exchanges. So when she told me of a place my brother was seen in, I packed up my bags in Fortuity and went all the way to Michigan.
“Of course,” Leslie replied without hesitation. “Is something the matter?”
The swiftness of her response made me jerk my head up and look at her in surprise. “I… I haven’t even said what it is yet.”
Her smile didn’t waver. “You were always quick to offer help without knowing what it was. Now, ask away.”
I had no idea why this made me want to cry, but I stopped myself. The new Eva didn’t cry easily. She handled her own problems without involving others in her mess.
“Is it okay if…” I stopped. “I need a place to stay around the area for a little while. Do you know anywhere that I can…?”
My cheeks felt hot as I trailed off, waiting for her response. She was going to tell me no and walk away, I could feel it. Maybe I should leave now. I opened my mouth once more, preparing for an excuse. “Les, forget it. I’m sorry I asked, I know it’s a last minute thing, and—”
“Well, I know someone, but…”
She gave me a look, and the edges of her eyes softened. Her order arrived. To my surprise, she pushed the plate of club sandwich towards me.
I stared at the plate before me and swallowed the lump that formed in my throat. “I can’t…”
“I’m paying,” she said sternly, her voice brooking no argument. “You’ve lost weight. You need to be eating more.”
Her concern made me smile. “Thank you.” I picked it up and ate slowly, because I wanted it to last.
“He’s a bit quiet, my son,” she explained. “Works a lot, too. But you couldn’t find a better man. He’ll take care of you.”
I nearly choked on my next bite. “Your son?”
I’d probably met him a handful of times when I was younger, when we visited, but I couldn’t remember much about him. I knew he was into different sports when he was a kid, Leslie spoke of it so proudly, but that was about it.
Take care of you? I didn’t need anyone to take care of me. But… I suppose if he wasn’t home much and we both got to do our own thing, all the better. That meant he wouldn’t find out what I was doing—that I wanted to find my brother, and if he agreed, bring him back home to Fortuity.
I pondered her words, and I listened as she told me all about him. And while the food filled my stomach and the company was kind, it left a strange ache. I missed home.
Leslie pulled her phone out and made the call. I waited patiently, my fingers crossed underneath the table for luck. The food was somehow harder to swallow. I looked out the window, trying hard not to focus on the conversation before me.
“He said yes,” she said brightly as soon as the call ended.
There was unspeakable relief in the breath I released.
“There’s just one thing…” she added somewhat hesitantly, her expression suspiciously blank. I waited, dreading what she’d say. “He’s not expecting a woman.”
Chapter Two- Not a Thief
I’ve never had to hide who I was before, and I wasn’t even sure this was going to work.
Oh, it’s not like he’ll kick you out, Leslie’d told me jokingly. But… what if he did kick me out? Because that would really, really suck. On one hand, it was wrong to deceive him. But on the other, having a place to stay for the time being would take a load off my shoulders.
Leslie handed me the keys. “Here you go. Keys for the front and the back door.”
I dragged my bags behind me and looked down at the keys that were now in my hand. The feeling of guilt lingered. I closed my fingers around them. I wondered if this was the right thing to do. Maybe I’d tell him. I’d wait for him to come home, and then I’d come clean… And then what? He could kick me out. He had every right to.
Leslie mentioned he had trouble letting people in because of a rough breakup, and because he’d just lost his work partner a year before. The last thing someone like him would want to be dealing with right now was someone like me who came with her own set of problems.
I drew in a slow, deep breath. What would my best friend, Sierra, do? The answer came quickly—she’d deal with the problems as they came and go with the flow. I could go with the flow.
I unlocked the door and we went in.
A white husky with dark gray between his ears and along the length of his back stood in front of me, tilting his head as if assessing me. His coat was beautiful. I love dogs, but I had no idea what this one’s owner was like. Peaches. My golden retriever flashed back in my mind. I’d left her with my cousin before I left. I wondered how she was doing. As if making up his mind, the husky came straight to me, giving me a sniff. Deciding I was okay, he lolled his tongue.
“Hey.” I scratched his chin and he wagged his tail happily. Friendly. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
“Coco likes you,” Leslie murmured.
“His name’s Coco. Travis adopted him a couple years back.”
I stroked the top of his head and stood up, examining the place around me. It was warm. Homey. A lot of the furniture had darker tones of leather and wood. There were frames of him and his family that lined a side table.
“He’s at work,” Leslie told me. She shook her head. “Always working. I asked him how I’d have grandkids that way, but he told me it will come when it will come.” She pulled in a deep breath and released it in a huff. “Your room’s supposed to be the second one on the left.”
For someone who didn’t spend much time at home, inside it felt warm and welcoming. A Christmas tree stood in the corner, filled with colorful decor. It was so striking, it drew attention. I noted that he also had a fireplace.
Leslie brought us food from a Korean restaurant across the street and kept me company throughout dinner.
“He’ll be home soon, maybe. You never know with his work. Let me know if you need anything. Anything at all.” She gave me a hug. She meant well, and I felt it deep. I was grateful for it. I squeezed back, wishing with all my heart that this would be done and I could go back home.
* * *
I had a headache. It was stubborn as fuck, too, because it hasn’t gone away since late this afternoon. Coco circled me, excited to see me. I bent down to give him a good rub.
It looked like my guest was already fast asleep in the guest room, the door a crack open. I pulled it shut with a soft click to give him privacy and quiet.
I walked to the bathroom and splashed water over my face, and in doing so, knocked over a plastic bottle. I stared at it blankly, the cold water dripping down my face. Lavender wash. Not mine. What the fuck?
Mom must’ve left it today. Why she brought it with her, I had no idea.
Denver Collins, she said was the guy’s name. He was a good friend of hers on holiday for the time being and needed a place to stay for a little while. She said they’d already had dinner, so I wasn’t going to disturb the guy.
A small pink face towel was hanging on the rack to the side next to my towels, as if trying to be inconspicuous. That was decidedly not there before I left. Probably his.
As long as he didn’t cause trouble, didn’t drone on too much about clients and stock markets like my brother enjoyed doing around me because he knew it pissed me off, we’d get along just fine.
I undressed and headed straight to the shower, the steaming hot water sluicing down my shoulders and back, and recalled the phone call from my brother earlier.
“On the twenty-eighth, me and Trish were thinking of having an anniversary dinner,” my brother began.
I knew where this was going, him being the mediator he was. We’d already tried this before. “No.”
“What? But you have to go. Mom said.”
I sighed inaudibly, stomping on the slightest bit of frustration welling up. “Derek, you know I’d like to, but Trish can’t stand me,” I pointed out.
Trish was his wife, and we both knew after last year that she hated me. “It wasn’t your fault.”
But it was. How many times did they try to convince me it wasn’t? Her younger brother was my partner, and when a psycho woman pulled the trigger on him, she held me accountable. Not that I could blame her.
I flicked the shower knob and dried off.
* * *
A lifetime of practice of wearing heels couldn’t prepare me for this moment. I wore a black skirt and a top that hugged my chest area a little too tightly.
If my mom saw me like this right now, she’d lose it. I hated that I was doing this, but I needed a way to monitor the area and gain some new information. The club across the bar was the closest spot that worked for me.
“This isn’t permanent,” I tried to remind myself. Since Alan must’ve been going to that bar, if he frequented this area, or knew people who did, he could’ve visited the areas around it, too. That meant there was a high chance I’d see him.
I mentally prepared myself for some handsy people. We had a bouncer around, but there was still that risk. A tall girl with a high ponytail and bright red lipstick approached me. She shot me a wide grin. “Hey, you must be new. I’m Sarah.”
She was the first person who’d said more than a few words to me today, and I relaxed a little, returning her smile with my own. “Hi! Yes, I’m Eva.”
Another woman who passed by carrying some drinks gave me a once-over, a look of distaste on her face.
“Ignore her,” Sarah said quietly. “She’s Daisy, but since she’s been here the longest, she feels like she’s better than everyone else, and she’s great at making others feel that way.”
I pasted on a smile. “I will. How long have you been working here?” I asked. I looked around the club. Time to keep my eyes and ears open for anything out of place. Because I wasn’t just here to work—I was here to gather information.
* * *
My feet ached a little. There were a lot of people in the club today, and I had a slight headache. I wiggled my toes. I knew I was putting off getting out of the car, not just because of the cold, but because of what was waiting for me inside. Or more precisely, who. But I couldn’t hold it off any longer. I needed to be careful getting back inside, because he was probably sleeping. I badly wanted to remove my shoes, get changed, and slip into a warm bed. Okay, that visual was powerful enough. I finally grabbed my bag and got out.
Feeling a little on edge, when I made it to the door, I pulled the keys from my coat’s pocket and accidentally dropped them. I bent down to pick them up and tried to insert it in the keyhole, missing slightly at first. Relax. You’re not a thief. Nothing to be nervous about. Why did I feel like I was sneaking in?
Two strong hands grasped mine from behind, and I yelped, dropping my keys again. “Don’t move,” a man said sharply, his voice deep, but smooth. Warmth emanating from behind me, he pinned both my wrists behind my back, and I struggled to break free. His next words stopped me in place. “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t arrest you.”