Authors: Minka Kent
Waking my computer again, I pull up a search engine and jot down a list of local private investigators, along with their contact info.
A few minutes later, I grab my phone and dial the first name on the list: G. K. Thomasson.
“Yeah.” A man’s voice answers in the middle of the first ring.
“Hi,” I say. My tongue moves like sandpaper in my mouth as I try to speak. I wasn’t expecting him to answer so quickly, or to answer at all for that matter. I was fully expecting to leave a voice message. I hope it isn’t a bad sign that he’s not too busy to answer the phone on the first ring.
“Who is this?” he asks.
“Hi, yes. I’m sorry. My name is Brienne,” I say. “And I believe someone has stolen my identity.”
“You need to contact the local authorities,” he says, “and if it’s across state lines, you’ll need to open a case with the FBI. You can do that online.”
“No,” I say, “this person—she hasn’t stolen any money or opened any credit cards.”
He’s quiet on the other end. I can practically hear his thoughts transmitting over the air.
“She’s . . . living as me,” I say, speaking slowly and carefully.
“And you know this how?”
“A key was mailed to me by mistake.” I swallow before continuing. I know how this is going to sound, and I already get the sense that he’s far from the type of man to believe much of what he’s told. But that’s what he does for a living. He looks above and below and finds the truth
somewhere in between. “I called the place that sent it, and they said I had just signed a lease with them two weeks ago.”
He chuckles, amused. Not a good sign for me. “And you don’t think that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that two people could share the same name?”
My hand shakes, I’m holding the phone so tight. “If it was another person with the same name, why would the key have been sent to
He pushes a raspy breath into the receiver. “Clerical error? I don’t know. Don’t ask me.”
“If you don’t want the case, just say so.” My tone is sharper than usual, and I hate the way it makes me sound. “No need to be rude about it.”
The man stops laughing. “This is a joke, right? Did C.J. put you up to this?”
I force a breath through half-pursed lips before summoning some calmness. “This is not a joke.”
“Then I think maybe you’ve called the wrong guy, lady,” he says, sounding almost in all seriousness. “I can’t help you.”
“Of course you can. I need to find out who this woman really is because she’s sure as hell not who she’s claiming to be.”
“No, no,” he says. “You don’t need a private investigator. You need a doctor. The head kind. Something’s not right about you.”
My cheeks flush; my insides burn.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt the physical sensations of embarrassment, and here I am, allowing a complete stranger to make me feel silly and all of two inches tall.
“Screw off.” I hang up on him and shove my phone away before getting up and pacing the room.
I have to untangle this sordid web.
And if no one’s going to believe me, if they’re all going to think I’m crazy, then I’m going to have to do it alone.
I’m not sure what day it is or how long I’ve been sleeping, but when I open my eyes and sit up enough to reach the window curtain, I’m met with a storm-darkened sky, the soft patter of rain, and the gentle roll of thunder. I can’t be sure if it’s early morning or the onset of night.
The emotional strain of this “other me” nonsense worked me into another debilitative state, though I’m not sure how many days or hours I’ve lost this time.
I’ve only been sitting a few seconds when the searing throb on the side of my head roars back to life. My stomach churns, and I mentally calculate how long it’s going to take me to reach the bathroom.
Ever since the attack, I’ve suffered stress-induced migraines. Sometimes they last half a day and I can sleep them off; other times they last a solid twenty-four hours or longer.
I need to grab my phone and check the time. Every time I take my migraine prescription, I make a note in my Notes app so I don’t accidentally double up, but my vision is so sensitive that the mere thought of checking my phone screen in this dark room makes the pain in my head throb harder in anticipation.
With eyes half-shut, I trudge out of my room, dragging my hands along the floral-patterned walls and feeling my way toward the kitchen, where my pill bottle rests right where I left it, next to the sink.
I fill a glass of water, one eye shut and one half-open, and I choke back another pill before returning to my room and burying myself beneath a mountain of covers.
I just need to sleep this off, and I’ll be okay.
My head hurts too much to think, so I lie there in an almost meditative state, waiting for sleep to take hold of me, drifting in and out of consciousness.
It’s only when I roll onto my side—in view of my door—that everything begins to fade away . . .
Until a figure appears in my doorway.
A man’s figure.
I try to gasp for air, but I somehow end up choking on my spit before I can get a word out.
“It’s okay—it’s just me,” he whispers. “Just got home. House was dark. Wanted to check on you. Go back to sleep.”
I sink back into my pillow.
It’s only Niall.
According to my phone, it’s early Saturday morning when I come to again, groggy this time but migraine-free. I’m guessing I doubled up on my meds, which knocked me out for longer than usual.
It’s surreal, losing significant chunks of my life, but in a way, it makes me appreciate the clearer moments and the fact that I’m still alive and kicking. And if anything, this last bout has only intensified my desire to get back on track, to take back what’s mine.
All I want is some normalcy.
And to feel like
I hit the shower and wash over two days’ worth of stale sleep smell from my body. When I’m finished freshening up and dressed for the day, I head to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
“Morning,” Niall greets me, a full carafe in his hand. Without saying a word, he grabs a mug and pours mine.
“Thanks.” I fish the creamer from the fridge and dig a packet of sugar from a canister by the stove. “You have the weekend off?”
I ask a question to which I already know the answer, but he doesn’t need to know that. I don’t know him well enough to know if he’d be bothered by how much I know about his comings and goings. I could chalk it up to the fact that we live together and we’ve established a bit
of a rhythm in that respect, but deep down I know it goes beyond that, and he’s smart enough that he could very easily read between the lines.
The last thing I want is to scare him away, especially when his company, his presence, is so invaluable. He’s the only friend I have, and I intend to keep him in my life at any cost. If there’s anything I’ve learned these last six months, it’s that friendships—true friendships—are priceless.
“I do.” Niall leans against the counter, sipping from his mug as he studies me. “Any plans today?”
I blow a cool breath across the top of my drink before shrugging. “I need to get caught up on a few things around the house. Maybe do some dusting and vacuuming. Laundry.”
God, I need to shut up.
I’m not doing myself any favors here by showcasing the fact that I’m the world’s most unfascinating woman. I don’t tell him I plan to watch the Marshall house across the street. Carly travels for work on the weekends, and I’m dying to see if the white Range Rover pulls up at any point today.
“What about you?” I ask.
“I don’t know about the rest of the day, but I was planning on taking this outside. Want to join?” He nods toward the locked front door.
I temper my excitement as I offer him a simple, “Sure.” And I stifle a chuckle at the idea of neighbors passing by, hiding their sideways glances and making assumptions about the two of us that couldn’t be more wrong.
“We’re just friends,” I’d tell them. But none of them would have the courage to ask. People get too comfortable living with their own assumptions. I’m convinced most of us prefer to shun the truth for reasons of our own.
A few seconds later, Niall and I are situating ourselves on the swing, trying to keep our coffees from spilling as we get settled, and we sip
side by side, among the chirping birds and Saturday midmorning sun, among the passing bicyclists and barking neighborhood dogs.
It’s almost perfect.
If only my mind would stop wandering.
There’s still so much we don’t know about each other despite all the time we’ve spent together these last several months.
I can’t help but think about whether or not Niall has a type, if he’s ever had a girlfriend or been engaged. This sort of curiosity is only natural, I’m convinced. Besides, friends are allowed to pry into one another’s dating and personal lives. It’s not unusual. Human beings are built to love and be loved. We’re not meant to be alone. And he’s such a great catch. I’m dying to know why he’s still “on the market.”
His chiseled features, deep-set clear blue eyes, auburn hair, and calm intelligence would make him a magnificent partner for the right person.
I know for a fact he isn’t dating. When you live with someone, when you see their comings and goings, it’s pretty obvious when they’re not in any kind of relationship—committed or otherwise.
Unless . . .
Unless he is seeing someone, and he only visits their house out of respect for me, since he knows about my wariness of strangers.
That’s so something he would do.
But still, my stubborn inquisitiveness gnaws away at me until I can hardly contain it, questions racing from my mind to my tongue in real time.
Mr. and Mrs. Klingenbeard wander past, both of them craning their necks to take a peek at the two of us sitting here together.
Mrs. K waves. Mr. K smiles.
“They recently retired,” I tell him. “Been married over fifty years. Can you imagine spending that much time with someone?”
He takes a sip. “I think it’s a beautiful thing. Rare too. At least these days.”
“True.” I bite my lip before taking a quick breath. “Do you ever think about marriage?”
Niall almost chokes on his coffee, whipping his attention to me. “Why would you ask that?”
Oh, God. Maybe we’re not quite
yet, and I’ve jumped the proverbial gun . . .
“I know. It’s random. Don’t ask me how my mind works. I couldn’t even begin to tell you.” I play off my question with a quiet laugh before hiding half my face behind my mug.
He switches his coffee to his left hand, resting his right arm around the back of the swing—behind me—as he crosses his legs. I can’t be sure, but I think his fingertips just brushed against my shoulders.
“Yeah, I think about it sometimes. Other times I try not to think about it,” he says. “Guess the separation’s really done a number on me.”
My breath catches, and it couldn’t be more obvious.
Had he mentioned that once before, and I missed it?
Or did I know, and I’d simply forgotten? I do that lately, forget things.
My heart sinks, and I glance down at the warm mug now nestled between my thighs. I want to know everything about the woman he married, and I want to know why it didn’t work out—or if there’s still a chance. Of course someone like him would’ve found love.
Niall deserves happiness.
He deserves love.
I hope for his sake, they’re able to work things out.
But secretly—selfishly—I hope for my sake that it doesn’t happen too soon. He’s only been in my life a short while, and already I can’t imagine it without him. Obviously I don’t know his wife, but I can’t imagine she would be okay with her husband maintaining a close friendship with another woman.
I don’t want to think about that, though . . .
Not right now.
“I’m sorry, Niall, I—” I begin to say.
“Don’t be.” He offers me a warm smile that fades fast, replaced by a quick flex of his jaw. “Sometimes things happen in life that are beyond our control. We can only do so much.”
I’m not sure if he’s talking about his separation or reciting some line he feeds his terminally ill patients when all treatment avenues have been exhausted, but his tone is laced in bittersweet, and all I want to do is take his hand.
But I don’t.
It isn’t appropriate, and I wouldn’t want him to think I’m some opportunistic sad sap.
Rising, I rest one hand behind my hip and stretch my lower back.
“Think I’m going to get started on that housework now,” I say.
I take three steps to the front door, and then I glance back toward him. “Oh, hey, thanks for checking on me. Had one of those migraines again.”
“What? When?” he asks, eyes narrowed.
“Last night. Or maybe it was two nights ago . . . ,” I say, starting to wonder if it was actually a dream. “You came into my room? Stood in the doorway? Said you got home and the house was dark so you wanted to check on me?”
His lips press flat, and he squints toward the street, lost in thought almost.
“I got home around five Thursday night,” he says. “Saw your migraine meds were sitting out and your door was closed, so I left you alone . . . didn’t want to wake you. Last night I didn’t come home until ten. Figured you were sleeping.”
I laugh, hoping maybe he’s teasing, but Niall’s too serious to be the joking type and too much of a medical professional to kid about something like this.
“I swear I saw you.” I think I’m going to be sick. I know what I saw. I heard his whispers as they traveled across the dark room. The more I think about it, it was too real to be a dream. “You were in the doorway . . .”
His chin juts forward, his brows meeting. “Nope. Not me.”
My hand fastens around the handle on the screen door. “Huh.”
“Could have been a visual disturbance. Those meds can mess with your REM cycle if you take too much.”
I want to believe him.
I need to believe him.
to believe him.
I can’t shake the feeling that what I saw the other night wasn’t a dream or “visual disturbance” as Niall insists, so I spend a good portion of Saturday afternoon inspecting every square inch of the Queen.