Read the first three chapters of Sticking to the Script!

Chapter One

** Steven **

“I promise we can leave as soon as Botstein cuts the cake,” Elizabeth whispered into my ear. 

I patted her hand reassuringly. “No worries, my little Belieber. We’ll stay as long as you need to be here.”

When we arrived, Elizabeth had been dismayed to see that of the dozens of people in attendance, she only recognized a few. To top it off, the party was a definite yawner. I was sure it was going to wind down early.

“Steven!” she hissed. “If you’re going to air my private shame, at least get it right. I don’t listen to Bieber.”

I laughed at her faux outrage. She was too cute. I enjoyed spending time with Elizabeth. She had a sardonic wit and a forthright way of speaking that was at odds with her tiny stature, gorgeous face, and demonstrably affectionate and compassionate heart. Elizabeth was my kind of people. 

She also had a not-so-secret love of pubescent boys singing in harmony. Truly, it was endearing.

Leaning down to whisper in her ear, I said with mock accusation, “I call bullshit. I heard it last Thursday when you pulled your earbuds out.” I straightened and shook my head. “You’re going to go deaf if you keep listening at such a high volume. Aren’t you a doctor? Shouldn’t you know this stuff?”

Elizabeth was an emergency room physician and tonight was a party celebrating her mentor’s retirement. Apparently, he was an excellent doctor and was held in high regard. She hadn’t wanted to attend the party alone, so she begged me sweetly and I gracefully acquiesced—because that’s the kind of friend I was.

Giving. 

Supportive. 

Available… Always available.

She needed me to be her plus-one tonight because her husband, Nico Manganiello, aka Nico Moretti, the famous comedian, was working out of town and couldn’t make it home in time to join her. 

A few years ago, my co-worker, Janie Sullivan (or rather, Janie Morris, as she’d been back then), introduced me to Elizabeth and Nico when I moved into the East Randolph Street building our boss owned. I hit it off immediately with the couple and found they were no hardship to know. Nico was not only hot as hellfire, he was one of the most friendly people I’d ever met. Plus, the hand-delivered homemade apple fritters he brought to me on Sundays meant he had my undying devotion. 

Never underestimate the power of fried dough, folks. Never. 

“Thanks again for coming with me,” Elizabeth said for the fortieth time. “It shouldn’t be too much longer.” 

The party really was abysmally boring, but there was one true bright spot in the whole, dull shebang. Dr. Ken Miles.

DKM, as I now referred to him, was by far the most entertaining person here. He was blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed, and dressed in a suit and tie, the cut of which accentuated his athletic build. The hue also paired nicely with his light coloring, which told me he knew how to dress himself for maximum effect. He was Handsome Level: Corn-Fed Meets Trust Fund.

I smiled to myself at this label. I loved to assign people into arbitrary categories based on characteristics. It wasn’t a scientific or useful thing I did. It was simply fun. For instance, my boss at Cipher Systems, Quinn Sullivan, was Handsome Level: GQ Meets IQ. Once, in the early days, after a painful one-on-one limo ride, I assigned him a Personality Level: Mute Meets Rude. I respected the man, but after that display of moodiness, it was wholly deserved.

Corn-Fed Meets Trust Fund was certainly appropriate for DKM. He had reached the level of handsome that was a turn-off. To the untrained eye, he appeared to be a calm and confident yuppie snob. 

But my eyes weren’t untrained. Oh no, I was a pro. I could spot a faker. I knew pretense when I saw it. He was only pretending to be relaxed. I could see it in the overly casual stance, the flashes of tightness around his mouth, the laugh that seemed forced. 

He glanced around the room, passing his gaze over me, only to clock back immediately when he noticed I was looking at him. I didn’t bother to avert my attention. 

His brows drew inward, and he acknowledged me with a brief lift of his chin. Then he immediately pulled his eyes away and rubbed the back of his neck. 

Just as I suspected. Totally uncomfortable.

Everyone else was chatting quietly in little groups, but not him. He spent most of the time on the fringe, by himself until someone, an acquaintance or stranger, approached him with a handshake and a “how-do?” I noted that the only people he had deigned to approach so far were Elizabeth and Dr. Botstein. But that probably had more to do with the possibility that there weren’t many recognizable faces for him, rather than any anti-social tendencies. 

Earlier, when Elizabeth had spied him walk through the door, she’d stepped up on her tiptoes, elongated her neck for a better view and said, “Oh, there’s Dr. Ken Miles!” She’d given him a wave when he noticed her, and he made his way toward us. 

“Good lord, I must be desperate to see a familiar face in here if I’m happy to see him.”

“My, my,” I said, arching an eyebrow. “Isn’t he a pretty thing.” And he was. So very, very pretty.

When he approached, he slid his left hand into his pocket and gave Elizabeth a smirk. His indolent, relaxed stance came off as completely affected. I was repulsed and intrigued. The conversation that followed did not disappoint.

Without any greeting, he said, “Dr. Finney, let me guess, your husband’s conspicuously out of town again? You should probably get a private investigator to look in on that.”

Oooh, I thought. Ass. Hole. His satisfied smile displayed a row of perfectly aligned teeth. Teeth so vibrantly white, I suspected they were professionally bleached. 

Bleached Asshole, I amended.

The implication that Elizabeth and Nico had marital troubles rankled and I felt the need to jump to her defense.

“Yes, well, even with talent and a hot bod,” I said coolly. “It takes a lot of hard work to earn his level of success. And that just means I get the pleasure of being Elizabeth’s arm candy for the night.”

I glanced down at Elizabeth and she gave me an approving smile, so I gave her a wink. The asshole, however, assessed me for a moment with a blank expression and pale blue eyes.

“So, are you her new bodyguard or something?” he asked, and Elizabeth huffed.

The idea that I was her security detail was pretty funny, given that my body mass was well below the average guard’s, but aside from that, I still thought it was a strange question. She did have a security escort tonight, but he was most likely patrolling the perimeter of the banquet hall. He wouldn’t be mingling in the party with her.

“Dr. Ken Miles,” she began, making an obviously begrudging introduction. “This is my friend, Steven Thompson.” She swept an arm down along my torso as if presenting a prize on a game show. “Steven, this is Dr. Ken Miles.” To him, she simply issued a slight flick of her finger. 

Still expressionless, and with his free hand, the doctor reached out for a firm-but-sweaty handshake. 

“Be careful with this one,” he said to me, releasing my hand. “Could be dangerous and I didn’t think to bring a six-shooter with me.”

Elizabeth tsked in disgust as he dropped his mask and issued her a triumphant smirk. “Enjoy the party.”

The bizarre exchange seemed to have ended with some victory for the man—one I clearly didn’t understand—but as he walked away, I saw him smooth his hair and straighten his (already straight) tie in a nervous gesture. I knew the exchange had made him uncomfortable.

Not long after he left us, he was forced to circle back, as it was announced that dinner was being served, and the seating arrangement put him directly across from us at the large table. 

Throughout dinner, Elizabeth and I chatted between bites and I kept one eye on the young doctor. He ate his meal with a bored, vacant expression, only altering it when someone spoke to him or he clandestinely checked his watch. For a brief moment, his lip would curl, and his nostril would flare as he discovered how excruciatingly slow time was progressing. Same, bro. Same. If he would have bothered to glance in my direction, I would have given him a comical look that conveyed an understanding and kinship in our shared boredom. But he didn’t look across at us. Not once. His avoidance of us—or Elizabeth—seemed pointed and deliberate.

His avoidance was perfectly fine with me, as it freed me up to watch him as closely as I wanted to. Considering how dull the party was, and how fascinating he was, it made the time pass pleasantly.

And now, I found myself curious. Dismissing Elizabeth’s reassurances and talk of pop music, I broached the topic of the intriguing and strange DKM. “Never mind that,” I waved my hand impatiently. “I’m watching your buddy over there. And I think there’s something off about him.”

She snorted. “Ya think? He’s an ass, that’s what he is. I knew he’d make some crack about Nico. He never misses an opportunity.”

“Oh, he’s an ass, no doubt about that,” I agreed. “But what I want to know is, what’s all that weird six-shooter talk about?”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows lifted. “He’s Dr. Ken Miles.” The emphasis clearly indicated that I was supposed to get her meaning, but I didn’t.

“Yeeeaahh, that part was clear,” I tilted my head and gave her my squinty-eye scrutiny. “But what does it mean?” 

“You know how before you and I met, Nico’s stalker attacked me in the hosp—”

“He shot Fancy Nancy!” I gasped.

“Fancy Stalker,” she corrected. “That’s how I refer to her, but, yeah, he did.”

“And the plot thickens,” I murmured. I’d heard the story in bits and pieces over the years and knew the doctor who had interrupted and ultimately stopped an attack on Elizabeth by a crazed, jealous fan of Nico’s, was the same guy who had been making a play for her when Nico was. 

It all made so much sense to me. The snide comments about Nico, the jibe about guards and guns. He was the hero of the scenario and still came out the loser. Poor, Corn-Fed Hottie. 

“I guess I can’t blame the guy for being bitter about getting dumped by an amazing woman for the Hotshot Italian Stallion,” I reasoned.

She gave a half-hearted chuckle but was quick to correct me. “We never dated. We talked about it, made plans to…meet up,” her blue eyes darted away from mine for a moment before returning. She smiled widely as she continued, “But Nico happened. Nico obliterated everything. My fears, my plans. I couldn’t date Ken when Nico was taking over my heart and mind.”

“Oh, aren’t you just disgustingly cute?” I teased. “But really, back to DKM. Is it stress-related, do you think?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look.” Using the hand holding my wine glass, I extended my finger in what I hoped was a subtle point in the doctor’s vicinity. He was standing next to a wall, underneath a sconce that shone down and made a golden halo around his already light curls. The effect was startling, and like a flame seducing a moth, his visage had lured in a pretty brunette.

“Okay, I’m looking,” Elizabeth replied, unimpressed. “He’s talking to someone who I think works in administrations at Chicago General. I don’t know her name.”

“He is trying so hard to be Mr. Suave—excuse me—Dr. Suave,” I quipped. Elizabeth was not arrogant in the least about her degrees, but I still liked to tease. “He looks like he’s trying on poses for a modeling shoot.”

“He does,” she agreed, as we watched him first lean one forearm at shoulder-level on the paneling of the wall, then quickly straighten to push one side of his coat back to slide a hand in his pocket, then decide abruptly to cross his arms over his chest. He lifted one hand to scrub his jaw while he nodded at something the woman said, then he smoothed his hair. 

To anyone else, he probably looked like he was trying to maneuver himself into the most flattering position for this attractive woman he was talking to. But I saw agitation. Discomfort. 

The woman said something to him that made him break out his megawatt smile. When she walked away, he watched her for a moment, then let his smile slip. 

What happened next, shocked me. It shocked me and confirmed my suspicion that he was one odd duck.

DKM started to turn his body in toward the wall, obscuring his front from my view. 

But he wasn’t quick enough, because I saw. I saw what he did.

Slowly, I turned to Elizabeth, a gleeful horror radiating through me. “Did I just see that? Did he really just do that?”

“Yes, you did,” she answered flatly. “Yes, he did. Dr. Ken Miles is a nose-miner.”

Chapter Two

** DKM **

It was him.

Steven Thompson.

Why did he have to be in this cafe, this morning? Weren’t there a thousand coffee places in Chicago? How was it that the night after meeting him, he was sitting in my regular Sunday stop? 

I started and ended my Sunday lakefront runs at East Randolph and always popped into Buzzy Bean afterward. I’d never seen him before, and I was positive about that because I would have certainly noticed him. As it was, I recognized him immediately when I stepped inside. 

It was the glasses. His horn-rimmed, hipster glasses were designed to be eye-catching. 

And caught my eye, they had. They suited his face, highlighting his hawkish nose and intense gray eyes.

The night before, those eyes had made me very uneasy.

I debated for a moment before joining the line to place my order. I needed my caffeine fix, and a quick assessment of him told me I could probably get in and out without being noticed. He was sitting at a two-seater across the room, his face in profile. On the tabletop sat a tall-sized beverage, a large muffin—really, these portion sizes were out of control—and a messenger bag. He wasn’t eating or drinking anything, but instead, scrolling on his phone, not looking up. Not once. It irritated me.

The fact that it irritated me, irritated me. I wanted to get my coffee in peace, didn’t I? To not be dissected by his intense gaze? I didn’t need his scrutiny. 

He had made Botstein’s party a strange experience. It was already going to be awkward and uncomfortable, with so few familiar faces, plus, I had been exhausted. We’d been short-staffed with both an intensivist and a nocturnist on vacation and I’d been working long shifts up until yesterday.  I wanted to skip out of the party, but as one of Dr. Botstein’s former Chief Residents, I felt it was only right to attend his retirement bash. He’d been my research mentor, and if it hadn’t been for his encouragement and tutelage, I doubted I’d be in the same position I was in now at BKC Memorial. I owed him a lot, so I downed some coffee, donned a suit, and put in an appearance.

When I spied Elizabeth, my first reaction was to be happy our residency group had been invited. But as I made my way toward her, I couldn’t see anyone else. A cursory inspection told me we were the only ones. 

That struck me as strange. I understood inviting me, but Elizabeth? I guessed Botstein (or his wife) was hoping to get Nico Moretti to attend. 

Ugh, Nico. 

A flash of irritation hit me at the thought of seeing the man, but the feeling had been quickly replaced with petty triumph when I saw her companion was not her husband.

Mr. Thompson had been with her instead. He was bold with his gaze and his words, sticking up for Elizabeth when I picked on her. In my defense, she made a terrible mistake when she married Nico and I wasn’t above an I-told-you-so. Even though his interference was annoying, I respected his loyalty.

But he just wouldn’t stop eyeballing me. From the moment we made eye contact, to the moment they left, I felt his eyes on me—and not in a sexy, appreciative way, either. I knew those looks, I got them all the time, and I wouldn’t have minded if he’d sent me a few. But, no, his were probing and assessing and knowing

It made me nervous and pissed me off.

The more I thought about it, the more I was sure Elizabeth had brought him with her for the express purpose of annoying me. It was just like her to have such an off-putting friend. 

As I paid for my iced coffee, I considered saying something to Mr. Thompson. Our previous interaction left me at a disadvantage, and the competitive side of me always wanted the upper hand. I knew it probably wasn’t a good thing, but I didn’t care to do any introspective digging. 

What I could do was walk up to Mr. X-Ray Eyes and compliment him on something. Put him in a position to be polite. Show him I wasn’t bothered by his intimidation tactics last night. 

Whatever I did, I needed to do it soon. I couldn’t stand around the shop staring at him and his stupid, big muffin all day. 

I squared my shoulders, set my expression into one of practiced coolness, and walked over to his table. He didn’t notice my approach until I was standing next to him. 

He glanced up, then set his phone on his bag. “Well, well, Dr. Ken Miles,” he said, smiling broadly. His eyes gave me a sweeping once-over and he sat up straighter in his seat.

“I like this rumpled, sweaty look you have going on.” He gestured briefly to my running shorts and T-shirt. “It suits you.”

Damn him. He sounded sincere. I was supposed to be the one saying nice things, disarming him. I struggled to find the right words. Your glasses are sexy. What? No, Jesus, I needed to think quickly. I like the way your shirt matches your eyes. Creepy…something not creepy. 

My window for an appropriate duration of silence was shrinking fast, and I was on the verge of losing this match without having said one thing, so I blurted loudly and with unintended derision, “Nice messenger bag.”

There was a beat of silence in which Steven arched one blond eyebrow over the rim of his glasses. His smile didn’t dim. If anything, it grew broader.

“Your tone confuses me, but the words were phrased as a compliment, so I’ll take it as such and say, thank you, it is a nice messenger bag.”

“I-it was,” I stuttered. “Meant as a compliment, I mean. Excuse me if I was terse.” I gave myself a head tilt to crack my neck. I felt the need for movement, but what I really needed was to turn the conversation around. I forced myself to relax and issued him what I hoped was a charming grin.

He pocketed his phone, grabbed his bag, and hung it on the back of his chair. “Well, in that case, please have a seat and tell me more.” He pointed to the chair across from him. “I love compliments. More so if they’re spoken as insults. Maybe if I get to know you better, I’ll let you verbally abuse me in a pretty sing-song voice. It will be psychologically thrilling and completely unhealthy. I’ll love it.”

His statement shocked a laugh out of me. Uncharacteristically, and probably because Steven’s comment struck me as so funny, I started to sing low as I sat in the chair. “You’re a weird, little freak of a man, Mister Thoooomp-son.”

I could feel a slight heat rise to my cheeks as I did it, but Steven didn’t make fun of me. Instead, he said, “Hold up there, DKM, we need to be in a very special place in our relationship before you start with the head games.”

The heat in my cheeks intensified as the implication of us in a relationship planted itself in my mind. It unnerved me because Steven, with his messy hair, lanky build, and prominent proboscis, was just the type of guy I went for. Except, ideally, he wouldn’t be looking at me like I was an oddity or a specimen under a microscope.

Steering the conversation away from relationships, I asked, “DKM?”

Smile still in place, he nodded.

“Dr. Elizabeth Finney’s influence, I presume?”

“Oh, no,” he chided with a strange wobble-shake of his head. “Give it up, it will never catch on. You can’t out-Finney Finney.”

Elizabeth always called me “Dr. Ken Miles.” Never “Dr. Miles” or “Ken.” At one time it rankled because I knew it was her way of keeping me at arm’s length. Now, it just seemed oddly petty, like she was going out of her way to take me down a peg. Steven obviously didn’t think my attempt at turnabout was working.

I sighed. “Well, if you’re going to call me that, I should get to call you MST.”

“M?” Steven furrowed his brow and adjusted his glasses with the knuckle of one finger. I liked it.

“For Mister,” I clarified.

“Yes, of course. Hmm, it’s okay.” Steven took a sip of his coffee and then made a show of pondering the nickname. He tilted his head to the side, squinted, and tapped his lips with a forefinger. “If you tack on 3K to that, I’ll approve. But it will have to be a private, pet name.”

“MST3K? What does that mean?” I asked, genuinely confused. I was also—again—hung up on the suggestiveness of his comment. A private, pet name? I was beginning to suspect he was making these comments to rattle me. I’d felt from the start that he knew me, knew every thought, flaw, and vulnerability I had.

“Gasp.” He said this with an odd lack of inflection but wore a comically horrified expression. “I knew it. You were raised on corn, football, and textbooks, weren’t you?” His assessment wasn’t far off, and it set me on edge again. I wanted to fidget, but instead, I smoothed my hair.

“An adolescence without Mystery Science Theater 3000,” he continued, “is a joyless one.” He bit his bottom lip in a way that I supposed was to convey pity, but the truth was, it only served to draw attention to his mouth. Hot.

“I’m afraid I missed it. Was it a cartoon or something?” 

“It was—or is, I guess, since they have a reboot now—a television show with poor production value, robots, and horrible B movies narrated by a funny and sarcastic cast, who were being held hostage in space by a mad scientist.”

Oh, man, he was a nerd.

A Hot. Nerd.

I didn’t have a ready response, so I was honest. “Sounds like a colossal waste of time.”

“I suppose it is if you don’t much value entertainment and humor.” He said this with a friendly and calm tone, but his gray eyes caught mine with an intensity that contradicted his careless persona. I broke the contact and took a long pull from my straw.

“I didn’t mean to rain on your nerd parade.” The slight reproof I detected bothered me, so I said the word ‘nerd’ as if it were completely repugnant. As if a nerdy man wasn’t my personal, potent Spanish Fly.

“My parade’s impervious to your rain.” He waved off my words. “But seriously, check it out. You might actually enjoy it.”

“Even if I did have a desire to sit around watching old TV, I really don’t have the time.”

“Ah, yes. Elizabeth mentioned you were running an ICU or something.”

I cleared my throat and briefly met his eyes. “In rotation, yes. I do switches between the ICU and inpatient and outpatient pulmonology.” I shrugged. “It’s what I trained to do,” I said modestly.

Normally, I wasn’t modest about my position. I took a lot of pride in my job and the work I had to do to get there. I’d finished my fellowships and was an intensivist double boarded in critical care and pulmonology. I found my niche in the ICU and was suited to it. 

But I didn’t want to come off boastful or cocky to Steven. Clearly, Elizabeth had been talking about me and I didn’t want to sink to whatever low opinion she’d given him. I knew the residents under me had never appreciated the standard of excellence I’d required of them. I’d been seen as a hard-ass or Botstein’s sycophant, but neither of those things were true. I just wanted everyone to do their best. We had immense responsibility, needed to be cognizant of that fact, and act accordingly. Elizabeth and I had not only disagreed about behavior on shift, but we also had a near-brush with romance. So, I didn’t hold out hope that Steven heard much that was positive about me.

Imagining all manner of skewed embellishments, I became increasingly agitated. I placed an elbow on the table and propped my chin in one hand, letting my fingers graze the tip of my nose. I hoped the move looked casual. I wanted to fidget. I wanted to leave.

I also wanted to stay.

There was a protracted silence during my woolgathering, and Steven watched me with an amused glint.

“See, this is the part where you say, ‘Oh, yes, Steven. I have grand plans to do such-and-such and so forth and make a difference in this terrible world we live in,’ and then I say, ‘Good for you, Dr. Ken Miles!’” He said this last part with such exaggerated happiness and an energetic fist thrust, that I couldn’t help but laugh again.

“Good, relax. You need to relax,” he encouraged.

“I am relaxed.”

“No. No, you’re not,” he said with a small shake of his head. “You look perpetually uncomfortable. It couldn’t be me, I’m a delight.”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “A real ‘delight.’” I made air quotes with my fingers, and, I swear to God, I never hated myself more than in that moment.

His assertion pissed me off. Generally, I was a confident person. My ego was very healthy. But in those times when I felt unsure or off-kilter, I faked it. I knew how to disarm with a smile, speak with authority, and keep completely calm when chaos was happening around me. I took great pains to never let anyone see me falter or experience stress. If someone took me by surprise or I didn’t immediately know the best way to react, I had a mask. A set, blank expression that gave nothing away. It usually worked like a charm. At least I thought it did. No one ever accused me of being ‘perpetually uncomfortable’ until now.

This only confirmed what I already suspected about Steven: He was too astute. I wanted to admit that it was him, that his propensity for examination was something I didn’t think was particularly delightful. But that admission felt like giving him power over me, so I choked down my irritation as well as I could, stood up slower than I wanted to—because I really just wanted to fly out the door and jog out my frustration all the way home—and made my excuse to leave.

“I’m not high-strung, Mr. Thompson. Just busy.” I could hear the stiffness in my voice, and I hated it. “I need to leave, but I appreciate you letting me interrupt your breakfast.”

I held my hand out for a shake.

Steven opened his mouth and glanced from my face, to my hand. Then he closed his mouth and looked again, from my face to my hand. He made a small whimper in the back of his throat before muttering, “Oh, what the hell,” and giving me a firm shake. 

It was a bizarre moment, but I didn’t take the time to ponder his behavior. I released his hand, left the cafe, and headed back to the trail for another run.

Chapter Three

** Steven **

I examined Janie’s face from across the table. She was seemingly oblivious to my scrutiny, so intent was she on glaring a hole through the wall her husband, Quinn, had just passed behind.

I heard the front door of their penthouse close as he left. Janie fumed at the spot a full twenty seconds before she growled and brought her eyes back to me.

“Let’s eat.” It sounded less like a suggestion and more like an order, so I dutifully mirrored her movements and lifted my fork. Their part-time housekeeper had presented us with a beautiful lunch of couscous salad with chicken and vegetables. It smelled divine. I was happy to eat it, but Janie was angry that when I’d arrived for our meeting, my contribution to lunch—Italian beef sandwiches with extra giardiniera and fries—had been confiscated by her husband. 

“Sodium,” had been his only explanation or greeting as he’d taken the bags from me.

Janie was over seven months pregnant and had recently been put on bedrest by her doctor. Quinn, who’d already been grouchier than normal, had become insufferable. 

I tried to be generous with my thoughts and not take his attitude personally. I knew he was in a constant state of worry over his family and I knew him well enough to understand that he wasn’t going to allow himself to be out of control of the situation. Micromanaging Janie was his new full-time job, and probably the only thing that kept him from going crazy. But throughout the pregnancy, I felt like I couldn’t do anything well enough to please Quinn. It might not have been personal, but at times, it sure felt like it.

I was determined to not let him ruin my good humor, so I dug into work with Janie, all the while trying to stay upbeat.

It was not easy.

Quinn hovered and Janie seemed to chafe at his behavior. Despite all of that, we worked quickly, reviewed expense reports and discussed projections for the Schmidt-Fischer Group proposal Dan and I would be presenting in Hamburg the week after next. When we broke for our Dr. Quinn, Medicine Meany-approved lunch, I was a little relieved Quinn decided to step out. But he took the offending take-out with him, and I bet my next year’s salary that he’d taken those sandwiches to eat with Alex down in the data center. 

Once we’d taken a few bites, I tried to draw Janie into conversation and into a brighter mood. “I haven’t given much thought to pregnancy since health class in junior high, but I wasn’t aware that the parasite could actually imbue the host with the personality of the father.”

She frowned. It was an intentionally stupid statement, and a gamble. I wasn’t sure if she’d humor me, as she’d always done before her pregnancy, or if she’d go full Sullivan and tell me to get the hell out of her space.

Luckily for me, it was the former. “A fetus is not a parasite. A parasite is defined as an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species—its host—and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.” She rubbed her distended belly. “The baby and I are of the same species.”

I smiled, probably my first genuine smile since having the beef torn from my hands. Janie was a gem. A rare and beautiful gem. From the moment I met her, I was captivated. She towered over me when she wore heels, which pre-pregnancy, was almost always, and she wasn’t afraid to accentuate her height. The clothes she wore, the shoes she chose, they all complemented and highlighted her statuesque physique. She looked stunning and didn’t seem to concern herself with the fragile egos of shorter, lesser men. Add to all of that a thick and lustrous mane of red curls and, I don’t care who you are or what your sexual orientation is, you can’t help but watch as she passes by.

When she was hired on with Cipher Systems, I was relieved to have such competent help. At the time, our company was small, but beginning to expand rapidly. Being in charge of accounts management and accounting for Cipher’s private and public security branches, I knew the rate of our expansion meant I needed another set of eyes and hands. I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own for long. We needed to find someone as soon as possible.

And what a find Janie Morris had been. 

To my absolute delight, in addition to her brilliance with numbers, she had an insatiable curiosity about everything and, what I suspected to be, a photographic memory. What she learned, she remembered. Like her husband, I found her knowledge of factoids and data fascinating. 

“There is such a thing as a parasitic fetus, but that is referring to an incomplete minor fetus attached to a larger, more completely developed fetus, called an autosite,” she explained.

“See.” I pointed to her with my fork. “Those fetuses are the same species and one is a parasite to the other. I stand by my opinion that they are all parasites.”

She narrowed her eyes in suspicion, further strengthening my theory that the baby was making her more like Quinn each day. “Are you…well?”

“What?” I asked, confused.

“Your moods have been off the last three times we’ve spoken,” she declared. “It’s unusual for you to have mood fluctuations.”

Before I could respond, she took the conversation off on another tangent.

“This morning I read an online article from the Tribune that said that using your hands meaningfully triggers healthy engagement and activity in about sixty percent of your brain, and the rhythmic, mathematical nature of knitting and crocheting keep the mind absorbed in a healthy way, providing escape from stressful thoughts, but allowing for internal reflection.”

I didn’t know why she was talking about this, but I was glad to go on the ride—grateful she was abandoning talk of my moods.

Or so I thought.

“I think you are suited to such a pastime and could also benefit from its meditative and therapeutic qualities.”

The image of myself perched on a tiny stool, furiously knitting baby booties flashed into my head, and I had to laugh. 

“I’ll email you a link to the article. Also, I could teach you how to crochet.”

I took a bite of my salad and pondered what she said. Janie usually didn’t comment much on my life or offer opinions, rather she liked to listen, observe and ask relevant questions. But she never meddled. Not that I thought offering to teach me crochet was meddling, but for her, it was as close as she’d ever come to it.

“Is this your way of luring me and my sparkling conversation into your knitting group, or are you saying I need therapy?”

Janie was part of a knitting group that met every Tuesday evening. She crocheted rather than knitted—apparently, they were different things—and she seemed to really enjoy the craft.

Janie blinked, giving my question thoughtful consideration. “Neither. Though Nico might like another man to commiserate with.” Elizabeth was a part of the knitting group and Nico had learned to crochet in order to infiltrate the weekly meeting and spend more time with her. It was sweet, really. Bizarre, but sweet.

“Ha! One.” I held up my index finger. “Nico doesn’t need to commiserate at all. He’s living the dream. And two.” I extended my second finger, frowned and shook my head in mock sadness. “I doubt he would like my testosterone invading his sacred space. I’m magnetic and I would be a usurper of all of the adoration you ladies bestow on him every week.”

Janie smiled and shook her head like I was ridiculous. It was funny, the idea that I could out-shine Nico. I was friendly, and knew I had a fair amount of my own charisma, but he was a force of nature. Everyone liked Nico. Everyone.

Nico was currently the only male yarn-crafter in the group. Aside from Elizabeth and Janie, there were five other women. Two of them—Marie and Ashley—I didn’t know very well. I’d only been in Marie’s presence a handful of times. Ashley, I had only ever seen on the screen of a laptop once, since she attended the meetings via Skype from her home in Tennessee. Fiona, the eldest of the group, now worked for Cipher Systems and Sandra, a psychologist who worked with Elizabeth at Chicago General, was part of the CS family too, as she was married to Alex Greene, our Chief Information Security Officer. Alex and Sandra happened to also be my neighbors across the hall. 

Lastly, that left Kat. One might think that with Kat’s shy demeanor and lack of affiliation with Cipher Systems, she would have slipped past my radar. But, oh no. She was my favorite. 

There was something about Kat Tanner that drew me in. We had become fast friends, and since she worked in the Fairbanks building, too, we met up often for lunch. Though recently, not often enough.

Thinking of Kat, I asked, “Has Kat been making it to knit-night? She’s so busy lately, we can’t make our schedules mesh for anything.”

“She’s been there,” she replied. “But she had finals, work and…” She averted her eyes. “Boston. You know.” 

Janie mentioned Boston hesitantly, probably unsure of how much I really knew about Kat’s family situation. It was a closely guarded secret that she was Kathleen Caravel-Tyson, heiress to the Caravel Pharmaceutical fortune.  

Kat had been living life here as Kat Tanner. Working full-time as the executive assistant to the CEO of an architectural firm and going to school part-time at the University of Chicago. Her destiny as a woman who’d inherit controlling shares of her family’s empire, meant that sooner or later, she’d have a monstrous amount of responsibility on her shoulders. She was working very hard to be prepared for this eventuality, even though it hadn’t always been what she’d wanted. So, in addition to getting an education, she was also flying to Boston two weekends a month to learn all she could about Caravel Pharmaceuticals. I admired the hell out of her for it.

“Well, I think sweet, stinky German cheese is in order,” I announced. “I’ll pick some up on the trip. I’m positive a few wheels will help lessen her burdens.” 

Kat’s favorite thing in life was cheese. She adored it, craved it, fantasized about it. If I had to go abroad for a business trip, the least I could do was bring back her drug of choice.

“I also like cheese,” Janie stated, rather pointedly. 

I gave her an indulgent smile. “And cheese you shall have, darling. I’ll bring you back a suitcase full.”

“Thank you. But we’ve gone off topic. Back to my point,” she said, and I sighed. I didn’t want to get back to the subject of me.

“The thought occurred to me that you might be stressed. You’re taking on more work because I’m on bedrest and you’ve stopped talking about your weekend escapades altogether.”

“No!” I said quickly—and probably too forcefully. I lowered my voice to assure her, “It’s not the work. Work is fine.”

Her concern that the bedrest was causing me stress was off base. She did quite a bit of work remotely from the comfort of her bed, though Quinn did limit her. We lived in the same building, so it wasn’t hard to meet if we needed to do so. For me, the worst and most inconvenient part of the pregnancy was her husband’s cranky ass. The last thing I wanted was for her or Quinn to think I couldn’t handle the workload. Things were already stressful enough for them without worrying I wasn’t giving the accounts the attention they needed.

But she hit close with the ‘weekend escapades’ comment, though she might not have realized it. Too close for my liking. I didn’t want to do it, but sharing a bit about it would at least, hopefully, assuage any concern she had about my problems being work-related.

I widened my eyes in feigned surprise and excitement. “You mean I haven’t told you about King?” 

She shook her head. “No, who or what is King?”

I rolled my eyes dramatically, trying to convey that this story didn’t end well. “King is the name—first, last or nick, I have no idea—of this guy I met last month. Red hair and gorgeous eyes. He sent me a picture of himself in a kilt and boots. Shirtless, of course. We’d been texting back and forth, and I asked him what he liked to do, what his hobbies were because, you know how I am, I like people who are offbeat and interesting.”

Janie nodded. She knew this about me. I collected an interesting bevy of friends and dates because people and all their oddities fascinated me. I always imagined when I found someone to be my perfect match, he wouldn’t be the sexiest guy or the handsomest man, but he’d be captivating and fun and there would never be a dull moment in our relationship.

But now I knew Unicorn Level: Eccentric Meets Lovable didn’t exist. It was a deluded fantasy I held on to for too long. I was sick and tired of wading through assholes and freaks. If someday in the future I decided to pick up the dating gauntlet again, I’d battle with someone who didn’t qualify for the circus. Or prison. Or a mental hospital. For now, Steven Thompson was off the horse.

Instead of voicing those thoughts, I continued with my story, pretending it was just another funny, wacky Steven anecdote.

“He told me he was into bagpiping and I thought, ‘That’s different, that’s fun.’ So, when we were making plans to meet up, I floated the idea of going to the Scottish Festival and Highland Games that was happening at the time. I thought it would be something he’d like to do, but he said he’d rather meet up for drinks in a pub. At eleven.”

“Oh,” she said knowingly. 

“Yeah, it looked like he only wanted a hook-up.” I shrugged. “But that was fine, I knew I could weave a charm spell over drinks. I didn’t need a whole afternoon date for that. So, I met up with him, we talked and flirted. I tried asking him about his kilt and bagpipes, but he made everything into a dirty, double entendre.” 

That had been Strike Two against King.

“He was wearing his kilt?” Janie asked around a bite of the salad.

“No, he was dressed in regular clothes. Unfortunately. I thought I might get a little William Wallace cosplay entertainment,” I fibbed. “But anyway, I was buzzed enough that taking him home seemed like a good idea.” Another fib. I had been stone-cold sober when I invited him home. He’d been angling hard for the invitation and I stubbornly held out hope for a connection even though he wasn’t giving me much that seemed authentic. That should have been Strike Three, but I was an idiot.

I leaned forward, indicating that ‘the good part’ was about to happen. I exaggerated my expression and said, “As soon as we were in the apartment, King tore my shirt from my body.” I mimed a tearing motion with my hands and continued. “He ripped the damn thing, pushed me against the wall, pinned my wrists above my head and…and…” I paused for effect, enjoying Janie’s rapt attention. “Licked my armpit.”

She barked out a laugh and sighed, clearly relieved that it was something funny and not frightening. Little did she know

I usually enjoyed dramatizing my dating misadventures—as long as the impression I left my audience with was one of amused astonishment. I turned the tragedy into humor, flipped the bland into colorful and most importantly, diverted any possible pity the listener might have felt for me into a sense that I was living my fullest, best life. Today, I wasn’t embellishing or dramatizing to simply deflect from work concerns, I was downplaying to make sure that the story—if it got back to Quinn—wouldn’t send up any red flags or cause my boss to lose his shit on me. I didn’t need him knowing what really happened in my apartment that night.

“It’s a fetish called maschalagnia,” she said. “I confess, I haven’t read much about it.”

“Janie, he licked it,” I emphasized. “I’m the last person to kink-shame or yuck someone else’s yum, but I am extremely ticklish and I. Couldn’t. Get. Away! He was strong and I was wiggling like a worm, laughing even though I was being tortured.” 

Fib number three. I hadn’t been laughing. Not even close.

Though I was giving the story a light spin, I felt disgusted at the remembrance. I pushed my plate away, appetite gone.

“To cut to the chase,” I continued. “He didn’t mind giving up the licking because the real show, apparently, was the bagpiping.”

Seeming bewildered, Janie asked, “He brought… bagpipes?”

“No. No, he did not,” I issued three rapid staccato shakes of my head. “I learned something new. See, when a man and an armpit love each other very much, they engage in an act called bagpiping. Google it. Or don’t. It will ruin the pipes for you. All I know is that I am scarred for life. I’m ticklish and have sensitive skin, we would have never worked. I told him to hit the bricks.” With a small sigh I said, “C’est la vie.”

In reality, the experience had been disturbing. I hadn’t simply told him to ‘hit the bricks.’ He had used his strength and weight to try to strongarm me into cooperating. We scuffled, which, in retrospect, could have easily ended a lot worse for me than the few bruises on my arms and back. But I had kept calm throughout the short altercation—more incredulous and angry than scared. I was scrappier than I looked, and I had been bolstered by the knowledge that I had back-up.

I knew he noticed the high-level of security: the thumbprint scanner the doorman used to let us in, and the watchful, black-clad guards in the lobby. I knew he noticed and so, with delusional confidence, asked him if he was stupid. 

You think your face hasn’t been recorded since before you set foot in this building?

You think there’s not at least eight elite security team members ready at a moment’s notice to take you down?

Fuck you.

Somehow my tactics worked. He pulled away from me and released my arm. For a moment, I didn’t think he’d leave. 

Shaking with rage, he pointed a finger at me. The tendons in his neck bulged. 

Through gritted teeth, he said, “I don’t give a shit,” spittle fell from his mouth, “about Obama!”

He turned from me then and stormed for the door. Before he left, he yelled, “I’m not afraid of Obama!”

The crazy asshole thought Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America lived in my building.

I locked the door, leaned against it, and said with heartfelt sincerity, “Thanks, Obama.”

** END SNEAK PEEK **

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