he noise sounded a little like a mouse scratching behind a wall. The strangeness of it pulled Charlotte’s gaze from her budget calculations. Daytime was when the apartment’s mice should have the sense to sleep instead of scratching loudly enough to draw a predator’s attention.
Charlotte looked back at her white plastic laptop. She frowned at the clicking-whirling noise it made. Maybe the computer had made the scratching noise? She hoped it wasn’t about to break. She relied on the old laptop for her struggling matchmaking business.
The sound again. A metallic scratching.
The fish tank? She looked at it with a frown. No, the noise wasn’t coming from her cloudy freshwater aquarium or its quiet motor. She needed to clean the water again, she noticed.
Her door rattled slightly.
The front door.
Someone was messing with the lock. Not the landlord. He had a key. Besides, he’d knock.
Charlotte’s hearing zeroed in on the tiny scrapes, the metallic jiggling. Picking the lock? Breaking in to her second-floor home.
Her heart sped into a staccato beat and she leapt silently to her feet. She paced the tiny living room in a tight circle, trying to prevent adrenaline from fogging her thinking. What to do? “Okay,” she whispered to herself. “Okay. Yell for a neighbor, call a friend, a boyfriend, anyone. No. There’s nobody.”
The realization stopped her steps. Half a year after her divorce finalized, and she was still solitary. She knew she should’ve forced herself to get out more, to meet people. To date. The solitude now impaired her options. She didn’t know her neighbors, and aside from the ex himself, there was no one to call.
“Okay, okay, okay. No, it’s not okay. Shit.”
She started pacing again, and her mind started working again. “Gotta do something. Call the police, of course.”
Following her own advice, she dove for the small flip phone next to her notebook. Its rounded edges squirted from her sweat-slicked grasp, falling to the hardwood floor. The crack of plastic, then the clatter of the battery projecting out across the room sounded calamitous.
The scratching sounds stopped.
Charlotte held her breath until small black dots swam before her vision.
She strained to hear. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she tiptoed to the door. She brushed it ever so lightly with the pads of her fingertips, leaned toward the peephole.
The door shuddered under a blow, jerking a scream from her. Charlotte stumbled back without having seen the pounder. The fist-slam against the door told her he was strong. She hoped her door held under that level of assault.
What if it didn’t hold?
She curved into the same pacing circle, passing the broken phone. She braced herself against the next loud noise, but it didn’t come. She whispered to herself in the ominous silence, “Okay. Okay. Dead phone. Lunatic outside door. Go out the back sliding doors, jump. Crap. Go.” Obedient to her own instructions, she’d half climbed over the balcony’s wrought-iron railing when she heard the sound of knocking on the front door.
Polite knocking, not pounding.
Was it a trick? As if she’d be stupid enough to just open the door.
Still she paused, with a reluctant glance down. It was a long way to a hard landing.
Another polite knock.
It wouldn’t hurt to look.
This time she didn’t tiptoe to the door, but stomped. “I own a gun! And my boyfriend’ll be back any minute! And I have a vicious attack dog!”
She peered through the peephole.
“Dogs aren’t allowed,” her landlord said. He waited, lanky and familiar, his lean body propped against the iron railing on the concrete balcony. It was the exact same type of railing she’d just been climbing over in the back.
The guy couldn’t be more than thirty, but his frown made him look old and mean. She hoped he wasn’t feeling mean. She didn’t have the full month’s rent.
She also didn’t have a boyfriend, gun, or an attack dog. Hoagie, her little brown and yellow mutt, wouldn’t dream of biting anything but his toys and bones. He lived at Cory’s anyway.
Her ex got the sweet little dog. She got the goldfish.
“Oh, man. Okay.” Charlotte calmed her breathing, smoothed the front of her shirt. It clung to her sweaty skin and revealed more than she wanted to show her landlord, so she peeled it away and fanned the material to cool herself down. Her hands stopped for a moment. “Can I ask you something? Were you pounding on the door a couple of minutes ago?”
“No.” He sounded impatient. His impatience convinced her he wasn’t the same guy.
“Okay, just a sec.” She walked toward her desk, stepping over the phone pieces, and quickly wrote out a check.
She opened the door with caution, looking past the landlord. “Did you by any chance see anyone? A man running away?”
“No,” he repeated. He stared pointedly at the check.
“Because someone was trying to pick my lock,” she continued, not to be deterred. “Whoever it was tried to break down my door.” She held her check folded in one hand. “Could you please look at the lock?”
He sighed. He examined the lock. “Scratches. Could be from keys.” He gave a cursory glance at the door. “The lock’s intact. The door’s undamaged. Seems fine now. Did you call the police?”
She bit back a number of replies. The police weren’t high on her list of good guys lately. They hadn’t managed to find her stolen car in the past months, and their swaggering presence while writing traffic tickets or sprawled in uniformed groups inside that donut shop down the road didn’t do much to deter the brisk local drug trade. She often heard gunshots at night.
She frowned unhappily. Other than Cory, cops were the only lifeline she had. She really needed to get out more. It was past time.
At the moment, she shifted from one foot to another, wondering how to manage the landlord situation. “Yeah, I was about to call the police. But then, you showed up.” She smiled brightly.
“Uh-huh.” He held out his hand. His left hand. She noticed he wore no ring.
A man of few words. She could work with that. “The check is short. I’m sorry. The thing is, I have a small business I’m growing, and I can make it up to you in service. It’s a matchmaking business. To help people locate dates and true love. I have many happy clients.” A slight exaggeration. She’d
many happy clients. Now they were happily paired-off former clients.
His scowl deepened, but he withdrew his hand.
“So, what do you think of that kind of service?” she prompted. She offered him the check, a gesture of goodwill.
He glanced at it without taking it, then transferred his gaze to her. His scowl faded to a look of speculation. His thin hair hung in limp, unwashed straggles over his broad forehead. Nice eyes, though. And he had the body of a man who did some physical labor.
He suddenly closed his calloused fingers over the insufficient rent check as if afraid she might attempt to snatch it back.
He looked at her in a way she didn’t like.
She spoke quickly. “Or, if you prefer, I’ll just get the rest of the money to you in two weeks. That’s when Burger Town pays me. Things have been tight, hours have been cut. And you know my car was stolen. Right out of the parking lot down there.”
He didn’t even look. Were thoughts of eviction crossing his mind? “Think about what I’m offering. Just consider it. I mean, you’re not wearing a wedding ring. You’re single, right?”
She noticed his slow smile and tried to ignore the glances at her body. “I’m a fabulous dating coach. Dating coach,” she repeated when she saw the gleam in his eyes. “I help people meet people. I’m good at it. I charge a reasonable fee. Very reasonable.”
“You’re good at it, eh?” His nice smile turned into a leer. “In exchange for the rest of rent?” He eyed her apartment’s door again, and she knew he wasn’t thinking about her intruder. “Sounds like fun.”
“Dating coach,” she said again. “Nothing more. I don’t do sex stuff. You seem like the kind of guy who could use a good woman.” As his scowl returned, apprehension fluttered in her belly. “Okay, a not-so-good woman? An easygoing and fun one. Hmm.”
“What, I look desperate?”
“Of course not! I just want to help—”
“I never need help when it comes to women.” He pocketed her check. “I ain’t interested. Besides, if you were any good at your business, what’re you doing living here and working in fast food?” He gave her a pointed look, then turned his back. “Two weeks, then I get the rest of it. No excuses.”
She felt her lips tighten into a grimace. He was definitely feeling mean. Too bad for him.
Too bad for her. Flipping burgers, even part-time, bummed her out. Though it was only until her business caught on. She had a gift for matchmaking. A real, honest-to-God gift.
She spent every spare penny on advertising her matchmaking business. But people didn’t believe her when she claimed a 99 percent success rate of making matches that resulted in permanent relationships. They surely wouldn’t believe her if she told them how she did it.
Nothing excited her as much as using her special skill. Nothing felt as satisfying as trusting her instincts and her prescient visions. Nothing thrilled her like consulting her X-rated imagination to hook up her clients. Well, almost nothing.
Her dangerous personal fantasies with always-faceless ravishers didn’t count, she told herself. They didn’t count at all. Those were strictly and permanently for fantasyland only.
She gave a brief shake of her head, dismissing the thoughts.
She watched the landlord’s departure with a professional’s assessing stare. He descended the worn steps of the fourplex with a furtive but muscular grace. Lower blue-collar. Very single. Probably frequented Riverport’s numerous strip clubs. But he had a nice gruff voice, broad shoulders, tapered hips, and the smudged jeans and easy gait of a man who spent a bit of time outdoors. Not bad. Not her thing, but not bad. Who’d be into him?
Like images on a jackpot’s spinning wheel, faces of women she’d known and counseled turned over in her mind. Jill, Vickie, Tina. All taken now, thanks to her. Tamara had moved to Southern California. But she could’ve totally seen Tamara being into him.
She asked the question of her special intuition, then watched the answer: Tamara getting it on with the landlord.
Charlotte stared into the stairway’s handrail, its metal imperfections coalescing into the magic visions.
In her mind, Tamara rubbed against the landlord’s strong body, clawing his jeans off with only a little less desperation than his own feral dive for her nipples as he shoved her shirt up over her breasts, jammed her bra up, too, and took first one breast then the other into his mouth. No finesse. But Tamara liked it. Rough and straightforward, a little dirty but nothing too kinky.
Charlotte leaned against the rough stucco of her building with a sigh and made the movie in her head stop.
Tamara was gone and the landlord didn’t want to pay Charlotte for her matchmaking services. That was a problem. No one was currently paying her. She’d hooked up all the clients.
Well, all but the last woman. The difficult woman who represented Charlotte’s only failure.
Charlotte pushed herself from the apartment building’s rough stucco wall, ducked inside to grab her mailbox keys and outgoing mail. Maybe a check or a client referral would be waiting in the box.
Her maiden name listed on her mailbox still had the power to bemuse her. She should never have married Cory. His face had never appeared in any of her visions.
Nobody’s had, for her.
A breeze gusted, propelling a chill that lifted the hairs on her arms. Sweat cooled under her shirt. The wind probably heralded another of Riverport’s frequent fall rainstorms, though the sun still beat down with noontime vigor.
Who’d dared to attempt to break into her apartment in broad daylight?
Would they have succeeded if she hadn’t switched shifts at the last moment with a coworker? What if she hadn’t been home? She supposed she’d have returned to find her few remaining belongings stolen. The divorce hadn’t left her with much—she hadn’t wanted much, just the dog, her exotic fish, and a little money to start her business.
Cory gave her the money and fish but convinced her to let him keep Hoagie at the house. Said the little dog they’d both raised from a puppy would be happier with his own backyard. He offered visiting privileges on weekends.
To her surprise, he’d honored her wish to stop by for a brief visit every weekend. Even more to her surprise, they got along better as friends than spouses. They’d never be close, though. Not after what he’d done to her.
Today she could’ve used Hoagie in her home. The little pup’s barking might’ve scared off the lock picker.
She shivered again when she realized she might’ve returned home to find the intruder already inside, waiting for her.