Excerpt:

 

In The Dark

 

Copyright: Lyla Sinclair, 2014

Chapter One

Call me.

Two simple words.

But as I stare at my computer screen, they grow larger and more ominous, as does the phone number below it. The direct line to my office phone.

The pen in my fist thumps an uneven rhythm on the laminate desktop. What was I thinking? I never give out my phone numbers to men for personal interaction.

Okay. Calm down. It’s my private line, but it’s just a work number. He can’t use it to track me or find my home address. Why am I freaking out?

Because he’s a man. And men do terrible, frightening things.

My heart pounds harder in my chest. He can’t call. What will I say if he does?

I pushed “send” one minute and thirty-three seconds ago. Even as my heart beats its frantic cadence, a new thought causes it to stop dead.

What if he doesn’t call?

One minute and thirty-seven seconds. I’m riveted to my computer screen, still shocked at my own actions. There should always be a two-minute grace period when you send an e-mail. I want to reach out into cyberspace and pull the message back.

My eyes creep over to the black eight-line phone sitting on my desk. It rings and I jump. My left hand flies to my chest as my right reaches for the receiver.

“Ana Villarreal,” I say. I always pronounce my name “Ah-na,” like my family did, even though I don’t speak to them anymore.

“Hey, Ana, it’s Jim. When’s the manager’s meeting?”

I remember to breathe as I click onto my calendar screen. “I have it down for tomorrow at ten.”

At twenty-three, I’m the youngest customer service manager in the history of East Coast Uniform Supply. Actually, the youngest manager, period. I got the promotion by being more knowledgeable, more organized, and more efficient than anyone else in my department.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’m a miracle worker with the occasional irate client call, passed on to me by panicked customer service reps.

Or that I don’t have a personal life to distract me from learning every morsel of information about our company and our products.

“I’ll catch you then,” Jim says. “Or sooner, if I can’t resist running upstairs to look at you in that skirt again.”

Actually, it’s a whole new suit, but Jim’s an ass man. I’m never sure how to reply when he flirts, but I know he’ll carry on the conversation without me.

“I saw you leaving the break room this morning,” he says. “You’ve been looking really spiffy lately.”

“Spiffy?” I chuckle into the phone. “How old are you, again?” I figure mid-thirties, but it’s hard to be sure with that frat boy personality of his.

“You don’t know how to take a compliment,” he replies. “Or am I sexually harassing you? Because my wife will get pissed off at me if I am.”

“But she’s fine with the rampant flirting?”

“Yeah. I tell her about it when I get home. Then we play ‘Hot Office Sex’ where I—”

“Whoa… Too much information.”

“T. M. I.” He chuckles. “I got it. My wife says I’m an over-sharer.”

“She’s right… and Jim, now that you’re a manager, you need to be careful, especially with the women who work under you—”

He snickers.

“I mean, with you,” I say as I roll my eyes. “Or you’re going to get sued.”

“You’re right. You’re always right,” he says. “You’re the most sensible person I know.”

“Sensible…” I glance at the computer screen and the words “call me,” jump three more points in size. “See you tomorrow, Jim.”

“Yeah, wear the—”

“Bye, Jim.” I hang up the phone and smile.

As politically incorrect as he is, I appreciate having him around. There have been days in the past few years when he’s been my sole reason to laugh. And, despite his questionable sense of humor, he’s one of the only men I feel safe around. Maybe because he’s just too silly and unfocused to have stalked me for over a decade.

I click my e-mail closed and immerse myself in last week’s call reports.

Two hours later, I’ve finished the efficiency recommendations report that’s due tomorrow. I check my e-mail again, but my box is empty. He hasn’t called or emailed. I click to my chat records and scroll back to the day I “met” him.

Delia, who normally takes care of customer chat requests, was out with the flu that day, as were a number of the customer service reps. ECUS was so swamped with calls, several of the managers went on the phones to take 800 orders. I was the only manager who knew the products inside and out, so I redirected the special inquiry calls and website chat requests to my office.

A few hours later, a man named Damien Lazos pinged me. I’ve saved all our chats. I reread our first conversation, as I have many times before.

Damien: I’m looking for surgical masks in black. Do you sell them?

Ana: No, but those must be some very pessimistic surgeons you have working with you.

Damien: Bunch of New Yorkers. You know how they love black.

Ana: Surgeons in black? Doesn’t that scare off the patients?

Damien: No. We ship all our nurses in from Vegas. They wear red sequined bikinis, so it all balances out.

Ana: LOL. I guess you have a large number of male patients.

Damien: Mostly mobsters. We have a high turnover rate, though, because they keep running off with our nurses.

Ana: I think you have a new HBO Original Series there.

Damien: Good thinking. I’ll get an agent.

Ana: Are you really in New York?

Since that day, we’ve joked and talked—via chat or email—about everything from religion to politics to late-night talk-show hosts. Damien, a man I’ve never seen, has become my best friend, which is not really difficult, since I have mostly work acquaintances.

The phone rings and I startle again.

Idiot. This is a customer service center. Am I going to jump every time a phone rings?

“Ana Villarreal.”

“Hello, Ana.” The deep, raspy tone tickles my eardrum, brushing softly down the side of my neck. My nipples tighten. The voice doesn’t belong to anyone I know and the sound of it makes my heart beat faster.

“Hi.”

“You asked me to call you.”

It’s him! A hot shiver ripples through me. Fear mixed with excitement.

“Yeah…I did.”

“And have you regretted it every moment since?”

I laugh and the tension leaves my body. “I don’t regret it, now.”

“And? Why did you ask me to call, after six months?”

“I guess because we talk every day, but I’ve never heard your voice. It was an impulse. I don’t even know what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“In that case, why don’t you tell me about your job? You don’t mention the details very often.”

We’ve spent most of our time talking about current events and pop culture. We haven’t gotten that personal. And still, he’s the best friend I have. Kind of sad, I guess.

“That’s because my job is completely boring and tedious.”

“And your personal life? Any boyfriends, husbands? Say ‘no.’ I don’t want to have to imagine you…”

The sudden awkward silence makes me jumpy again. After several moments, I hear myself say, “No one. And maybe it doesn’t have to be in our imaginations…unless you have someone else?” I can’t believe I just said that.

“No,” he says quietly. “No one.” The timbre of his voice is tangible to me. When he speaks, I can almost run my finger down its soft, rough surface.

“Maybe we could meet for coffee.” Where are these sudden bursts of courage coming from? After years of avoiding personal interactions with men, why am I so desperate to be in the same room with this one?

“I don’t meet.”

My skin stings with rejection, but I can’t let this go. “You don’t meet? What does that mean?” I guess I “don’t meet” normally either, but it still hurts that he’s giving me the brush off. Besides, I don’t go out with men because I’m afraid of them. What does he have to be afraid of?

“This was a mistake,” he says. “I shouldn’t have called.”

The line goes dead.

* * * * *

I sit in my office longer than usual, hoping he’ll call back. Typically, I’m here eight to four, work through lunch, and take extra work home with me, but today I need to hear his voice again. Every time I think of it, my body heats. The air I suck into my lungs is cool in comparison.

When I pace over to the window and open my blinds, I realize it’s almost dark. I’ve forgotten the time changed.

No!

Snatching my coat from the rack next to my office door, I struggle into it. I grab my purse and briefcase and race for the elevator.

As I punch the button and stare at the doors, I try to decide what to hope for. If I hope for other people on the elevator, I could end up with nothing but men, or worse, a lone man. If I hope for an empty elevator, I could be by myself when that man gets on at another floor.

I hold my breath. The elevator seems to take a long, long time.

When the doors finally slide open, I suck in a lungful of air. It’s half full of both men and women. I step on and turn toward the doors.

By the time I get outside, the sun is on the verge of setting, the buildings casting long, dark shadows over the street.

Darkness is a beautiful thing.

I shiver and shake the frightening sentence from my brain. Turning up my collar, I lower my head and watch the shoes go by.

Is anyone looking at me? I shouldn’t have bought this new suit. By Jim’s reaction, it may be more alluring than I realized.

Oh, yeah. I’m wearing a coat over it. This is why I like fall and winter. I can hide from the glances of men on the street, in the elevators, in the market. I don’t want to invite them to talk to me. To stare into my face or ogle my body.

The subway is teeming with people, as usual, and I feel better until I think of the two blocks I must walk from my stop to my apartment building.

In the dark.

I come to and realize my eyes are closed and I’m rocking in my seat. I slit my lids open, looking right and left, but no one has taken notice.

That’s the good thing about New York City. No one really cares what you’re doing as long as you leave them alone.

Minutes later, when I emerge at street level, I’m glad to see the throng of humanity. Since I’m rarely out after dark, I wasn’t sure what to expect tonight.

I quickly make my way to my apartment and lock myself in.

Relief washes over me as I glance around my cozy living room. My sofa is a pleasant color somewhere between pumpkin and terracotta. The throw flung over the back contains stripes that match the couch, along with several other colors.

My rusty red armchair matches one of the stripes in the throw. I love the dark oak of my coffee table as well as my small dining table that sits adjacent to the living area.

When I moved in, I wanted this apartment to be as cozy as I could make it. My refuge. It’s the only place I feel even close to safe.

My stomach rumbles, reminding me that, in my rush, I forgot to pick up something to eat.

I pull a menu from the kitchen drawer. Is it racist that I’m not afraid of the Chinese delivery man? But there were few Asian people in the small town where I grew up. Definitely not in my neighborhood. He couldn’t be the young man from my memories. From my nightmares.

What if I look for a job in Beijing or Tokyo? Then, maybe I could finally stop being afraid.

I tell myself I’m seeing a psychologist because of my constant fear. But the one thing worse than fear is loneliness.

I’ve sentenced myself to solitary confinement for protection, but some days I’m so desperate for companionship I think I might die. Is that why I reached out to Damien?

* * * * *

 

Bed time. After I change into my black yoga pants and gray long-sleeved t-shirt, I make my usual rounds, double-checking the door and the windows. I’m on the sixth story of my building, but I often wish I were higher. Farther from danger.

I turn the kitchen light back on and leave the one in the living room burning brightly. I turn on the lamps on either side of my bed, but flip the ceiling light off so it won’t beam directly into my eyes. The one in the bathroom always stays on.

Tonight I’ll be safe, I tell myself. It’s the affirmation my psychologist suggested so I can sleep at night, and it usually helps.

My mind repeats the sentence, but this time, in a rasping, gravelly tone.

Tonight, you’ll be safe, Ana. Tonight you’ll be safe.

 


Chapter Two

The next morning, my mind refuses to stay focused on work. Damien’s voice commands my mind’s ear, scraping down my arms. My shoulders jerk. Goose bumps form on my skin.

What I wouldn’t give to hear that voice again! I’ve heard a few notes of it and now I want to experience the whole concert. When did a voice ever affect me so profoundly?

Once. A long time ago. And it still does today.

My shiver of pleasure turns to a shudder of revulsion. That was another voice. The voice of a monster.

I open my email and type in Damien’s address. I’ll tell him I’m sorry and maybe he’ll speak to me again.

Sorry for what? I gave him my phone number. He called. He refused my offer and hung up on me. What could I possibly apologize for? He was the rude one.

He’s most likely a married man. His wife probably walked into the room, and he had to hang up.

Hurt stabs at my chest. How could he lead me on like this? How could he let me think we might be soul mates when he had no intention of ever seeing me?

But he hasn’t led me on, really. I scan back through message after message. He’s never written anything romantic or sexual. I’ve turned friendly compatibility into passion because I’m so lonely. God, I’m so lonely I’m inventing Internet lovers.

Maybe I need to leave. Change my life. The final seven years I spent in the town where I grew up seemed like an eternity, fear and anxiety my constant companions. I moved to New York to get away, knowing there would be throngs of people to get lost in. But once I came here, I was still so afraid.

I am still so afraid. It’s not the place that’s the problem. It’s something inside me.

My phone rings and I answer it.

“Ana, I’m ready for you.”

* * * * *

Carol Woo’s office is simple and no-nonsense like mine. No silly knickknacks. No clutter or decoration. As a V.P., she did get to choose her real cherry wood desk. I’d like a wood desk someday.

Carol has the best cheekbones of anyone I’ve seen in real life. They’re high and slash upward, mimicking the slant of her dark, almond-shaped eyes. Her skin glows, even though she doesn’t seem to be wearing any makeup.

Every time I see her, I think she should be a model, but I’m sure she’d never consider doing anything so frivolous. She’s my boss, one of three vice presidents here, and, by now, I know what to expect in meetings with her. I like her because she’s efficient and straightforward.

As usual, I have all my ducks in a row. I’m prepared to defend any budget items she might question. However, my mind keeps wandering as she’s talking, and I have to refer to the pages in front of me more often than I should, since I had everything memorized down to the smallest detail.

“Ana?” she says after half an hour.

“Yes?”

“Is there something wrong? You don’t seem quite as sharp as usual.”

Damn. I’m used to being held up as the model of perfection at this company. It’s all I have to validate my otherwise empty life. It’s not like I have a boyfriend waiting for me after work. I can’t fuck this up.

“I’m sorry, Carol. I’m just not one hundred percent today.”

“You never miss a day of work, Ana. If you’re not well, you should go home and get better. We can reschedule—”

“No!” I say too forcefully. I do not flake out on meetings. A man I’ve never met isn’t going to turn me into a slacker. “I’m fine. I just didn’t get enough sleep last night, but everything is here, and I know the VP’s are trying to approve budgets by the end of the week. Let’s do this.”

She smiles. She’s a fan of my can-do attitude. She’s the youngest VP at ECUS and the first woman VP in the history of the company. In other words, she’s who I want to be when I grow up.

“Actually, I’ve been having trouble staying awake, myself. My two-year-old had a nightmare last night and once I let her in my bed, it was like sleeping with an octopus.” She picks up her phone. “Sarah, can you bring us two coffees, please...black.” She smiles at me and I relax.

An hour later, I’m back in my office, explaining to one of my phone reps that she needs to sound professional, even when customers are rude to her. I’m unusually impatient today. No one ever had to explain professionalism to me. I inherently understood the rules of customer service.

Okay, maybe I’m not impatient with her. Maybe I’m just annoyed that I have to deal with anything other than my Damien-distracted thoughts today.

When I’m finally alone again, I go back to the blank email I addressed to him earlier. I don’t even have a subject line.

I ignore it. I’ll start with the body of the email. I type “Hi Damien.” Then I sit and stare at the screen for an eternity. I erase the salutation, unhappy with its casual tone. My fingers move of their own accord. I watch as they type “I miss the sound of your voice.”

Way too much. I can’t possibly send him that. It’s what you say to a lover, not a man you’ve never seen before. Certainly not a man who’s never said one intimate thing to you.

I check my calendar to make sure I’ve scheduled an appointment with my psychologist this week and am reassured to find that I have.

Channeling sensible Ana, I hit the backspace key, deleting the ridiculous sentence letter by letter.

The phone rings. This time I’m glad for the interruption. Hopefully, it’s an angry customer, so I can expend this excess energy unruffling his or her feathers and forget about my obsession with Damien.

“Ana Villarreal,” I say, just as I realize the call didn’t come in on one of the customer service lines, but on my private office number.

“Ana.”

My breath catches as the sound vibrates against my eardrum. It scratches down my spine and scrapes over my breasts.

“Damien.” My voice comes out as a whisper.

“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry for yesterday. I shouldn’t have hung up on you.”

What do I say? That it’s okay? It isn’t really.

“I...didn’t understand,” I finally say. “Why?”

“Now I feel as if I’ve been untruthful with you all these months. It wasn’t intentional. I thought what we were doing was innocent enough.”

Oh, God! He’s married! Or he has a fiancé or a serious girlfriend. Or maybe he’s gay and was just passing time with me. I can’t speak, waiting for his confession.

“I rarely leave my apartment,” he says. “And when I must go out, I only do so in the dark with my face covered. But still, that’s rare.”

I run the words through my head. If he were agoraphobic, he couldn’t leave his house at night either. What does that leave...vampire?

“I don’t understand.”

“When I was a child, I was disfigured…in an accident.” Something in that sentence doesn’t ring true. Is he making this up so he can continue teasing me online without meeting me?

“Disfigured?” I repeat. This is a scenario I certainly didn’t consider. If it’s true, will it matter to me? If we’re as compatible as we seem in our emails and his voice sends my body purring, I’m sure I can get past the way he looks.

“Yes, my face is, well...disturbing. At least part of it. That’s the reason for the surgical masks. For when I have no choice but to go out.”

The bottom of his face is so damaged he won’t be seen in public. I try to imagine what that looks like, but I can’t think of him as anything but handsome.

Does this mean his lips are somehow mangled? The lips that work such magic on my body, even from the other end of the phone.

If they were so damaged, wouldn’t it affect his speech?

“Ana?”

“I still want to meet you,” I blurt out.

“I told you, I don’t—”

“I’ll come to you.” After more than a decade of avoiding men, even in public places, I’ve just offered to go to a stranger’s private residence. Yet I don’t regret it. I don’t want to take it back.

My fingers tighten painfully on the receiver as I wait for his answer.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You can’t leave it like this!” My voice sounds frantic, but I’ve lost control of it. “Please, let me come see you.”

It’s happened. I’ve become so crazy lonely I’m begging a strange man to let me come to him. I must sound pathetic. And, still, I don’t try to take it back or soften my plea.

I think I hear him swallow hard. He sighs. “I want to meet you, Ana, more than anything. But I—”

My mind races. Does he mean it? Or is this just a cover up for questionable behavior?

“Are you married?” I ask.

He takes in a sharp breath. “No. I can’t believe you’d think... Oh, I guess people do that sort of thing all the time. Fair question. No, I’m not married or engaged or seeing anyone. I’m literally not seeing anyone. I’m a deformed recluse who stays in my home all day, working on my computer and reading and tinkering with gadgets I order online. I’m no one you want to spend time around. I have nothing to talk about.”

“We’ve talked for months in our emails,” I argue. “They were some of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had.”

“But I’m not the same in person. I can’t be. I’m always aware of...” He pauses so long, for a moment, I’m afraid he’s hung up. “I’ll always be aware of how beautiful you are and how repulsive I am in comparison.”

He talks as if he knows what I look like. Fear skitters down my spine. What if he isn’t who he claims to be? Maybe he’s the man I’ve been afraid would find me again after all this time, and he’s simply invented a clever way to go about it.

I stand and pace to my office window. Is he there on the street, waiting for me?

Clutching the receiver tightly, I ask, “How do you know what I look like?”

“Your picture is on the company website with the other managers.”

Oh. It is. When I found out they were posting my picture, I panicked, but placated myself with the idea that I’ve changed a lot since I was eleven, and there are probably thousands of Ana Villarreals in the country.

Most would likely fit my general description—dark hair, brown eyes. If a stalker wanted to find me, he’d follow a more logical path. It’s not like I’m off the grid.

I consider what Damien said before and I’m insulted. “Have I said something to lead you to believe I’m so shallow?”

“One doesn’t have to be shallow to be repulsed by me. The fact is that I’m infatuated with a woman who is beautiful and intelligent and funny. A woman who deserves a man who is a match for her.”

“Damien—”

Beauty and the Beast is just a fairytale, Ana.”

I don’t want to let him win this argument. Whether this is a real relationship we’ve formed or a fantasy spawned by my desolate life, I have to meet him. I have to know.

“I’ve found that the more I like someone, the better looking they become to me.”

“But some things are impossible to get past.”

Frustration wells up until I’m sure it will shoot up my throat and blow off the top of my head.

“You lured me in for six months, making me think about you more and more until you’re all that’s on my mind! Do you know how many men I’ve asked out in my life? One. You. I think the least you can do is allow me to meet you!” I sound angry. I am angry. And desperate.

The silence stretches out so long, I wonder if he’s still there, but I’m afraid to speak and find out he’s hung up on me.

“Fair enough,” he finally says.

* * * * *

My eyes pop open in the middle of the night and I listen intently, wondering why I was so abruptly awakened.

Normally, I’m jarred by nightmares or odd noises—imagined or otherwise. But, tonight, I’m not fearful. As I resettle myself from my side to my back, I become aware of the dampness in my panties. The dream comes flooding back. Damien caressing me, his rasping voice repeating my name as his lips brush against my ear.

My body heats at the memory of his hand kneading my breasts, then sliding its way down my stomach to my lower lips. That’s when I awakened, just as he started to slip a hot finger into my slit.

I am so aroused. Surely this once I can finish myself off. If I can, it will be the first orgasm of my life.

I slide my middle finger over my nub as I try to recall the face of my dream Damien, but it’s a blur, so I focus my attention on his voice.

“Ana...” he rasps as he delves into my pussy entrance, dragging the liquid up and over my clit. For once, I lament the fact that my fingers are slender and feminine. This makes it harder to fool myself into thinking they’re his.

Refocusing on the fantasy, I swirl my digit in a light tease.

“I want you Ana.” Damien pinches at my nipples as he rubs my clit more urgently. Sweet arousal rushes to meet my fingertips. No, not my fingers. His.

“I want you, Ana. You’re mine now. You’ll come for me.”

I swirl faster and faster, thrusting my hips upward. The pressure swells in my clit until I think I’ll go mad. I need this.

“Ana.” Oh, God! Damien is going to make me come. “Mmm, Ana...”

Darkness is a beautiful thing.

The light sheen of perspiration on my body turns cold at the familiar sentence. I shiver.

I remind myself that wasn’t Damien. It was another voice from a long time ago.

I swipe the memory away as I try to revive my clit. I manage a slight twinge of pleasure and, for a moment, I’m optimistic.

You like it. You want it.

My hand stills. Yet another voice from the past. A voice that turns my stomach. My mind is careful not to put a face to it. Or a time. Or a place. It’s just a disembodied voice, that’s all.

I pull my hand from my panties and draw the covers over my head. A tear escapes the corner of one eye. I focus on the moist sensation as it clings to my skin, creeping slowly down my temple until it falls away.

Why have I been fantasizing about Damien? Or any man for that matter? I can never have a relationship with a man.

No matter how much I want things to be different, sex is out of the question for me. And every time I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise, I’ve been wrong. Horribly, humiliatingly wrong.

Perhaps I’m not meant to be happy, but I don’t want to die. I’m a survivor.

Setting my mind on my “To Do” list for work tomorrow, I itemize until I fall asleep.

 


Chapter Three

“Did you do your homework?” my psychologist asks. Unusually friendly for a New Yorker, Nikki started chatting with me in a coffee shop one day and, before we parted, she gave me her card.

Her full name is Nikkola Jalloh. Nikkola from her Eastern European mother and Jalloh from her father, who came from Sierra Leon in Africa. She has a straight, strong nose and full lips and, every time I look at her, I’m surprised at how green her eyes are, jumping out at me from her caramel skin. She’s striking and unusual and I’m pretty sure men are especially attracted to her.

I’m envious of her hair, which falls in glossy brown ringlets below her shoulders. I always wonder if she wakes up that way or if the effect takes hours of hard work to achieve. My hair is straight, so, of course, I wish I had the curls.

“Um...sure,” I say. My voice sounds more like I’m asking a question than making a statement, since I’m sort of lying. The truth is, once Damien called, I completely forgot about my homework.

My guilty eyes wander to the edges of the Kimoni wingback chair Nikki is sitting in. It has zebra-pattern stripes, but they’re black and brown like a tiger’s coat. Her furniture matches her look perfectly.

When I meet her gaze again, she tilts her head, a doubtful expression on her face. “So...you made eye contact with men?”

“Yes.” Maybe I can get away with a lie this once.

“Tell me about that.”

Damn.

“I made eye contact with Jim. Several times.”

Jim? Do you really think he should count for this exercise?”

“He’s a man. And he even flirts with me.”

“You know he’s a very married tease. You feel safe interacting with him because nothing will ever come of it.”

I came to Nikki because I didn’t want one of those silent therapists who simply nods and scribbles notes all the time. Be careful what you wish for.

“Was there anyone else?”

I need to come clean about Damien. “Not as far as eye contact goes.”

She raises her eyebrows expectantly.

“I...did a little more than that, I guess.”

“What does that mean?”

I explain about the email containing my phone number and that he called me, and I’d like to meet him. But I leave out the other details of our conversation. I’m protective of Damien, and don’t want to discuss his masked hermit lifestyle right now.

Still, Nikki watches me for several seconds after I finish, clearly dumbfounded.

“We’ve talked about facing your fears, but this is an...unexpected way of going about it.” I think she used the word “unexpected” because they taught her not to sound judgmental in shrink school, but it’s almost impossible for her to accomplish. “You don’t know anything about this man.”

“I know all kinds of things. I told you we’ve been emailing for months.”

“You know the person he’s representing himself to be. You have no way of knowing who he really is. People lie all the time online. They’ve made reality shows about it.”

I nod, but she knows she hasn’t convinced me.

“Ana, up until now, you’ve been incredibly fearful, but your behavior has been consistent. Suddenly it seems erratic. I wanted to let you tell me in your own time, but it seems more urgent now.”

Oh, God. She thinks I’m having some sort of psychological meltdown. Am I?

“Tell me what happened when you were eleven.”

My heart races. I don’t want to talk about my childhood. But if I don’t, what am I paying her for?

I sit up straighter. I need to get this out fast. “I went blind, suddenly. The doctors ran lots of tests. My sight came back on its own after nearly a week.”

“And do you think that’s the root of your fears?”

“Yes...well, no, not exactly.” I can’t look at her face, the way children can’t when they lie to you. But I’m not lying. I’m telling the truth, aren’t I? For a split second, I’m not sure it’s the truth. Or I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

I shake my head to clear my thoughts. Of course it’s the truth. I could never forget that night.

“Go on.”

“One night, while I was still blind, my parents had to go somewhere. I don’t remember where. They told my older brother and sister to take care of me, but their friends came by and they went outside to talk to them... They left me alone.”

I realize I’m rubbing my forehead with my shaky fingertips, as though I have a headache, but I’m not sure there’s any real pain.

“I was sitting in my room, waiting for them to come back. I heard footsteps and called out, but no one answered me.” My hand turns and slides down my face until my knuckle reaches the indention above my lip. It stays there, digging into my skin. I welcome the pain to distract me from the full force of the memory.

“Someone sat down on the bed next to me. He was much taller than I was. Taller than my brother, I think. He lifted my chin and kissed my lips.” My brows knit together so tightly, the movement brings on the headache that was only a ghost a few moments ago.

“And how did you feel in that moment?” Nikki coaxes gently.

“When I realized a stranger was in my room, touching me, I started to shiver so hard my teeth chattered. I’d never been so afraid.” The fear is with me now. I press my lids closed. My lungs freeze and I can’t take a breath.

“Ana!” Nikki says sharply. I open my eyes and stare at her. “You’re in my office with me. You’re safe.” Concern darkens her expression as she reaches out and grasps my hand, rubbing the backside with her thumb.

The soothing motion on my skin calms me. My lungs start to function again.

“Can you tell me what happened then?” She asks me quietly, as if trying not to spook an injured animal.

“He put his lips next to my ear and said, ‘See, Ana, darkness is a beautiful thing.’ Then I felt him move off the bed. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure if he was in the room...or in the house. I didn’t scream. I just sat perfectly still, barely breathing, until my sister came in. I don’t know how long it was. It seemed like hours.”

“That’s a very frightening experience to have at any age.”

“I remember shaking all night. I couldn’t cry or sleep. I just shook.”

“And you believe this is where your fears of the dark and of men come from?”

Surprised at her questioning tone, I meet her gaze. “Don’t you?”

“It’s very likely. One traumatic event happened on top of the other—the blindness, the visitor...” Her pencil moves over her legal pad, but I can tell she’s doodling, probably a figure eight. She does it when she’s thinking. “Did the doctors ever find a cause for the blindness?”

This seems like a strange question following my revelation of the young man in my room. “No,” I say quickly, but my eyes flit away from hers. Why do I feel like I’m lying again? My head is swirling. Too many unwanted thoughts.

“I assume they never found him?”

“No.”

“And how does this relate to the fact that you’ve cut off all ties with your family?”

Isn’t it obvious? “They didn’t take care of me when I needed them. And, when I told them about the kiss, they acted like it wasn’t a big deal. My parents didn’t even call the police. I was traumatized, but they had a ‘kids will be kids’ attitude about the whole thing.”

“Did you tell them how traumatized you were?”

Tell them? They were my parents. Shouldn’t they have known? “No.”

“So, this happened when you were eleven, and you were still so angry at them at eighteen that you left town and cut off ties forever.”

Her tone of voice tells me she finds this unreasonable. Annoyance stings at my nerve endings. “Yes.”

“Ana...” She leans forward, an earnest look in her expression. “Are you sure there isn’t more you’re not telling me?”

Something lurches inside me. I jump up from the chair. “That isn’t enough?” I yell. “I went blind and no one knows why, so it could happen again anytime and maybe this time it won’t go away! A strange boy—or man—came into my room and touched me...and he knew my name. It was like he’d been waiting for the opportunity to find me helpless. I was a helpless child and he touched me!”

Nikki stays in her seat, calmly assessing me. I want to slap her. “You said ‘touched’.”

“What?” Dizzy, I drop back into my chair.

“Just then, twice, you said ‘touched’, instead of ‘kissed’. Why do you think you chose that word?”

“I don’t know. I was upset. A kiss is a kind of touch.”

“Yes, it is.” But something isn’t adding up in her mind. “I’d like you to think about whether there’s more than you’ve let yourself remember until now.”

“There isn’t more. He was only there for a moment.”

“I’m not just talking about the stranger. I mean more...in general.” The urge to smack that placid look off her face nearly overwhelms me.

“Why are you so convinced there’s more?” My stomach boils with anger. My head swims with denials.

“Parents and siblings make mistakes all the time, Ana. Lots of them. Big ones. But most of them don’t cause such a permanent rift.”

I don’t know what to say. I need to think. But a voice in the back of my head tells me I don’t want to think too hard about this.

Nikki checks the clock on the wall. “Our time is up for today,” she says, as we both stand. “But, Ana, regarding the previous subject, you need to ask yourself, ‘Why this man? Why now?’”

“Thanks. I’ll see you next week.” I just want to get away from Nikki and all her questions. I need to take a tranquilizer and go to sleep.

* * * * *

I’m walking the streets of Manhattan, clutching my smart phone tightly, because it contains Damien’s address and because I’m so incredibly anxious about meeting him.

It’s Thursday and I’m in my work clothes, the new ones I bought yesterday at lunchtime because I knew I’d be seeing him. That was probably a waste of time and money since my new clothes are just as conservative as my old ones—a black pencil skirt, a black and white print button-down top with a long black trench coat over them.

I go shopping with the intention of buying something more like Nikki would wear, but, in the end, I never have the nerve to be so conspicuous.

This part of the city is full of new or renovated office buildings and trendy apartments. It’s hard to believe I’ve lived in New York for almost six years, considering how little of it I’ve seen. But it’s not like I’m comfortable strolling around, exploring on my own. I don’t like to be far from my apartment, my only security.

I stand at the next corner and pause to peer down Damien’s street, lined with brownstones. When I locate the right one, I pause and stare up at it. In a city of eternal clamor, this place is quiet as death.

No movement in or out. No light in the windows.

A shiver slips through me. Do I really want to go in there?

But I’ve come too far. I can’t give up without ever seeing him. I summon my courage and walk up the steps, counting them to calm myself. There’s no buzzer or doorbell on the exterior. Perhaps I should call him to tell him I’m here. When I pull out my cell, I realize I never got his phone number. He has my office line and I have his address. That’s all.

After considering the situation, I pull on the door. It opens with a groan and I start to wonder if I’ve stumbled into a horror movie. Twitches of fear begin in my lips and spread to my shoulders and lungs.

I enter a small room with a dusty coat rack in the corner. I tell myself it makes sense this one is dusty. What New Yorker would leave her coat in an entryway with an unlocked front door?

To my left are about a dozen mail boxes. While they don’t look brand new, they also don’t appear to have been used. All but one are pristine, no scratches, no mangled locks. A virtually unoccupied brownstone in Manhattan where owning property is like owning a gold mine?

I notice a small sticky note on the inner door. “Third floor,” it says. I try the door and it opens, this time, noiselessly. Stepping through, I stand still, waiting for my sight to adjust.

The only illumination comes from dim bulbs in old fashioned wall sconces. Next to each light is a plain brown door, devoid of any number or identification.

A staircase looms in front of me, rising to the second floor landing, then turning, ascending into the unknown. As I climb, my high heels on the wood emit a clomping sound that echoes off the walls, making me feel conspicuous even though there’s not another soul around.

When I reach the second floor, it’s the same as the first. Dimly lit. Blank doors. Quiet as a cemetery.

As I continue up, I question my motivations again. After all these years of supreme caution, why am I so eager to put myself at the mercy of this unseen man?

Despite my glowing performance reviews at work, I know I’m not the most stable person. That’s why, every day, I give money to the dirty disheveled woman who stands outside my building muttering “fuck you” as she holds out her hand for donations.

Because I relate to her. I have this nagging feeling that someday I could be her.

Is this extreme deviation from my normal behavior going to help me in some way? Or am I throwing myself into a situation that could push me over the edge?

I always wonder how that poor woman can go through life, decade after decade, without real human interaction, without physical contact. Because, often, I’m sure if I go another minute without it, I will die.

When I stop at the final turn in the stairs, I allow myself to consider the fact that I’m making a decision to put my physical being in jeopardy. I look down at the stairs I just climbed. I can still leave. I don’t have to do this, whatever “this” is.

Leave and go home to what? I have no life, really. All I have is a job.

I glance around at the emptiness. This place is the ideal den for a serial killer. And I don’t care. I want to make a human connection. Or I want to die.

When I reach the top floor, I find only one door. Several packages covered in online retailer logos are stacked haphazardly to one side.

My fist shakes as I lift it to knock. My whole arm is shaking. I knock anyway, but there is no force behind it and the sound is little more than a tap. But it’s all I can manage because my arms are now glued to my side like my sergeant has called me to attention.

Seconds later, the door opens.

* * * End of excerpt. To be notified of book releases, go to Contact page at LylaSinclair.com and fill in email address.