Wes can't get the song out of his head. It plays on a loop, over and over, until he finds himself humming it out loud. So addictive, and he doesn't have a clue who sings it.
The music doesn't stop until an alert pops up on his phone. His famous-quotes app sends daily words of wisdom.
Love is a serious mental disease.
Wes swipes it away. Love is the last thing on his mind, especially today. The only thing that matters is time.
His calendar is a wall of meetings, back-to-back-to-back, without a single break. Wes has to leave the office by five thirty, drive home, shower, shave, dress, and get back out of the house by six forty-five. Assuming he wants to be on time for his date. Which he does.
They met at a bar called Liver. Her name is Annabeth, and she had been very specific about that.
"Not Anna, and not Beth," she had said. "I don't answer to either of those. It's Annabeth." He said, "I got it," and she said, "Are you sure? Because you wouldn't believe how many people forget." And right then, he almost blew it, because he wanted to say, "Jesus Christ, what kind of idiots do you date?" But he stopped himself. Wes told her, "I promise. I got it." Finally, they were able to move on.
The conversation improved after that. Her name had been the only problem. Otherwise, she was smart and interesting and fun to be with. Pretty, too. Not stunning, not the girl every guy wanted, and that was a good thing. Gorgeous girls are always-always-high-maintenance, and who the hell has that kind of time.
Annabeth is pretty in the wholesome way, the kind of girl who can dress up and be sexy if she wants but doesn't do it all the time. Dark hair, big eyes, and real curves. Not the implanted or injected kind. Good voice, too. A little husky, not too nasal or annoying.
In other words, he doesn't want to be late for Annabeth. And it has nothing to do with love.
But work has other ideas.
His three o'clock meeting runs over by fifteen minutes, making him late for the three thirty call. That pushes back his four thirty, which means he is screwed. Almost. An imaginary "call from a client" comes in handy, because no one gets mad when you have to leave a meeting to talk with someone who pays the bills.
On the way back to his office, Wes stops in the break room to get an energy bar from the vending machine and check the time. Twenty minutes to go. Enough time to send a few emails and stay on schedule.
Bianca waves to him when he gets to his office. Wes holds up his phone and points at it, indicating that he is busy. Still pretending to be on the line with his pretend client.
In truth, if he had explained to her that he really wanted to be on time because he has a date, Bianca probably would have cleared his schedule for him. But it wouldn't be professional to involve her in his life like that. She isn't his personal assistant.
These days, not everyone has their own admin. The sales department has one who works for everybody, and that's Bianca. She is ridiculously young, he can tell, though he has never asked her age. That would be inappropriate.
Once he is back in his office with the door shut, he sits at his desk and puts down the phone. His fingers fly over the keyboard as he bangs out the last few emails of the day, and so far, so good. A few more minutes and he'll be gone.
The knock on his door is unexpected.
Bianca. He waves her in. She keeps her head down, almost like she is embarrassed to interrupt him.
"Mr. Harmon," she says.
That gets his attention. She never calls him Mr. anything unless a client is around.
A woman steps into his office. Wes races through his mind, trying to figure out if she is someone he knows but can't remember or someone he should know but hasn't met yet.
"This is Detective Karen Colglazier. She's been waiting to talk to you," Bianca says. She leaves and closes the door behind her.
Detective. Wes has to repeat that in his head a few times.
She is about forty-five years old, give or take, with olive skin and short, choppy hair. Dark eyes, sort of brown, sort of grey. He doesn't like them. Those eyes are full of shadows. They move around the room, taking in everything at once, before landing on him.
He gestures to the chairs in front of his desk. It's a test-he gives it to everyone, to see which one they'll pick. The one on the right is directly across from his own; anyone confident will choose it. The one on the left is off-center, seating his guest at an angle, forcing them to keep their head turned to maintain eye contact.
The detective picks the one on the right. She is quick to reassure him that nothing horrible has happened, that no one has been in an accident or been shot.
Wes is left wondering why she is here. She is not as quick to reveal that.
"Thank you for taking the time to talk to me," she says.
"Of course. What can I help you with?"
"Well, this is more of a courtesy call, so to speak."
Wes has no idea what that means. His brain is still scrambling, trying to figure out if this has something to do with work. It's possible. Siphon, Inc., is a company that links investors with startups. In other words, they're the middlemen. With access to a lot of money.
"May I ask what kind of detective you are?" Wes says.
"I'm with the Sex Crimes Unit."
Didn't see that coming.
Something pings in the back of his mind. No, not a ping. An alarm. "I'm not sure I understand," he says.
"Yesterday, a young woman came into the station looking for help, because someone has been stalking her."
"Horrible enough to make her terrified. And angry."
She lets that description hang in the air. Wes isn't about to grab it.
"What makes this situation particularly difficult is that her stalker technically hasn't broken the law," Karen Colglazier says. "So there isn't much the police can do."
Wes feels his heart ramp up again, thumping so hard against his chest that it must be visible. "May I ask what this has to do with me?"
For him, a rhetorical question. He knows the answer. Maybe he knew it as soon as Karen walked into his office, but he had shoved it aside, thinking it couldn't be true. Still, he manages to look surprised when she says it.
"The woman's name is Ivy Banks."
The Plato quote pops into his mind. An hour ago, it was irrelevant. Not now.
His plans for the night dissolve, vanishing like they never existed. It doesn't matter when Wes leaves the office, whether it's at five thirty or ten o'clock at night. He will not be going out with Annabeth.
Because Ivy is back.
UC Davis, 2012, a Theta Rho frat party.
That's where he met Ivy, though he didn't belong to the fraternity. A friend of his roommate's brother did. Not that it mattered-it's not like they were checking credentials at the door. Theta Rho parties were known across campus, always huge bashes of the highest magnitude. The house was packed tight and hot as hell, exactly what the students wanted.
Wes was no exception. He was more than buzzed, less than drunk, and very, very horny.
Girls were everywhere. All kinds of girls, each one better looking than the last. Or they seemed that way. Might've been the beer. He maneuvered around them, smiling at one, then another, and then a third. Their eyes scanned him up and down, the same way his did to them. Everybody was looking for something, and on that hot spring night, it felt like they would all find what they wanted. Including Wes.
He was a junior, so he was used to these parties. At first, not so much. Going from tiny Holman, Michigan, to Davis, California, went beyond culture shock. Wes felt like he had stepped out of a barren, snowy field right into an MTV show.
It took a minute.
Over the course of two years, he morphed from a skinny, pale Midwestern boy to a Californian with a bit of muscle and a tan. His new normal. By his junior year, he had fully immersed himself in this big, wild world, where the rules changed stunningly fast.
Wes made his way outside, behind the big house, to get some air. The yard was almost as packed as the house, and that's where he found his roommate. They stood around talking, mostly about the girls, when someone stepped on Wes's foot.
Ivy had been walking by, and she stopped, turning back and throwing out a quick "Sorry."
She wasn't bad, but kind of plain. All covered up in a UCD sweatshirt and khaki shorts, hair in a ponytail, and no makeup. Not what he was looking for that night.
She kept walking, and he continued with his conversation. That was the end of it until he ran into her again inside the house, when he passed by her in a hallway. She was in line for the bathroom.
Now that he was closer to her, he noticed that she wasn't so plain after all. It was her lips: They were pink and full with a hint of shine. Like she had just licked them.
He stepped on her foot.
"I owe you that," he said.
She looked at him, a little shocked. A little angry.
"Because you stepped on my foot," he said. "Outside, in the back-"
"Oh, right. Okay, fair."
"I'm Wes," he said.
He forced himself to look away from her, glancing down the hall at the line to the bathroom. "You're going to be waiting awhile."
"Looks that way."
"You want another option?"
She gave him a half smile, like she was skeptical. He was back to looking at her lips. "What is it?" she said.
Wes nodded toward the stairs. "There's a bathroom in the basement. Maybe the line is shorter."
"Thanks for the tip."
She walked away from him like they were done. They were not.
Eight o’clock at night, Wes is at home by himself. The date with Annabeth had been canceled hours ago, easily broken with a call about work he couldn’t get away from. She’s a memory now. Vague, too, like she was someone he’d known years ago.
Wes replays the conversation with the detective a few times. A few hundred times.
"When was the last time you saw Ivy Banks?" Karen had asked.
He pretended like he had to think about this for a minute. "Probably four months ago."
"Where was that?"
"An engagement party for one of our college friends."
"Did you talk to her?" Karen asked.
"Briefly. Hello, how are you . . . that kind of thing." Maybe a little more than that, but he was not about to repeat every single word. Also no reason to mention how Ivy had looked.
"So, no problems?" Karen said. "No animosity, no anger?"
The detective didn't react at all to what he was saying, so it was hard to know how much she believed. But it was the truth: That engagement party was the last time he had seen Ivy.
"As I said, I'm here more as a courtesy than anything else," Karen said. "Someone has been bothering Ivy, leaving her notes and presents, along with pictures of her. They're letting her know someone is watching."
"That's so disturbing," he said.
"When I asked her who she thought was doing it, she gave me your name."
"Ivy and I haven't been involved in a long time," Wes said.
"Then why would she think it was you?"
"I have no idea," he said. "I can only think it's because we had a relationship that was . . . intense."
He sighed. On purpose, like this was a tiresome subject. "We met in college. It was a first love kind of thing."
"What does that mean?"
"Like I said, it was intense."
"She said you dated for years."
"On and off, yes." Wes had never figured out if it was more on than off or the other way around, and he had spent a lot of time thinking about it.
"As I said, I'm here as a courtesy." Karen didn't move when she spoke, didn't use her hands at all. As someone who used his all the time, Wes found this fascinating.
"If you're the one doing this to her, you need to stop," Karen said. "Get over it, move on, find someone else, do whatever you have to do. But leave Ivy alone."
Not so courteous. More like a threat. "I'm not the one doing this," he said. "I haven't gone near Ivy, and I certainly haven't left her any presents or notes." Another sigh, followed by a glance at his computer screen. "If I'm your suspect, you're wasting your time."
Karen stared at him like she was waiting for him to say more.
Not a chance.
She stood up, the movement so sharp and quick it surprised him. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Harmon."
He also stood up, as he always did when a meeting ended. Wes waited until she was gone and the door was closed to sit back down. He swiveled his chair around, toward the window, though it wasn't to look at the view.
All he could see was Ivy. And he smiled.
Ivy clicks the ballpoint pen over and over, until it becomes a rhythm instead of noise. The repetitive sound keeps her focused.
She sits at her desk, where one computer screen displays her emails, the other a spreadsheet. Earbuds firmly stuck in place. To anyone walking by, it appears as if she's listening to music while working. She would be-if there was any to do.
That's the thing about working for a bloated corporation with bad management: No one realizes there isn't enough work to go around. Or they don't care.
She was done with her required tasks by lunch, and since then she's been listening to Mandarin Chinese for Beginners. This is her new thing, learning languages. Spending all day on social media got old forever ago.
The pen jams, breaking her concentration. She hurls it into the trash can and picks up another. Someone interrupts her before the first click.
"How're you doing?"
Lucia stands in the doorway to Ivy's tiny office. It's barely big enough for two people, nothing more than a cubicle with walls. Or a cage, because that's how it feels. Lucia fits because she is small; her near-Lilliputian frame squeezes right into the space.
Copyright © 2023 by Samantha Downing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.