Teardrops Know My Name

 

 

Chapter One

 

Linda McNair shrieked, bounced from her chair, and did a happy dance around her desk. She’d gotten the job. She’d gotten the job every freelance fashion photographer in New York City had wanted.

 

She claimed her seat again, but only because she had to make sure her eyes weren’t deceiving her. She’d been feeling duped all day by the insistent barrage of anonymous text messages she’d been receiving. Anxiety about those messages threatened to creep in, but she shrugged it off. She had good news. Good news she’d been waiting for. She reread the message:

 

Linda,

 

Your portfolio and references were both impressive. Ross Brothers has decided to go with your studio for the fall print shoot. I’m jumping on a plane, but let’s plan to talk first thing Monday morning about the particulars. We’re on a tight deadline to get the catalog done, so lace up your roller skates. Have a great weekend, and congrats!

 

Bo

 

She let her head drop back and whispered a silent prayer. It wasn’t even the end of the January, and her New Year’s plan to double her freelance income was already coming to fruition. All she’d had to do was put the word out that she was looking for work, and it was practically falling in her lap. She could hardly believe it.

 

Linda folded her arms over her chest and leaned back against the cool leather headrest on her chair. Who would have thought shy, introverted, Linda McNair, who grew up in Seattle sheltered by her parents would have this much career success at her age. Twenty-nine was young in any field, but in the world of fashion photography, most artists her age were still looking for their first assistant job with an established photographer. But not her. She’d taken a chance on doing her own thing for a few years after college, then had signed on with Flaunt Magazine, and her portfolio had grown and grown.

 

Her phone beeped to announce a new text message, and she froze. Her heart began to pound in rapid beats, and her arms tensed up. All the joy she’d just been feeling evaporated from her soul. Not again, she thought.

 

Linda was beginning to hate her cell phone and her office phone. Phones were becoming the enemy, but she couldn’t ignore them. They were a necessity. She bit her lip and reached for her cell. Relief flooded her when she saw it was a message from her boyfriend, Steve. Thinking about the day I met you. Best day of my life and it’s been the best two years of my life. An anniversary. This was a first. She’d never been involved with a man for this long in her entire life. But Steve was special. She’d recognized that the first day she met him.

 

She had stopped in for lunch that afternoon at her favorite carryout restaurant and was flying from the counter to the door in a rush to get back to her studio when she’d run right into another customer.

 

“Oh my God!” Linda shrieked. She couldn’t believe she’d been such a klutz. She looked down at the mess her spilled ice tea had made all over the floor and then let her eyes follow the upward trail to the soaked slacks of the man in front of her. She was horrified. But as her eyes continued their upward path to meet his, the adrenaline shot through her veins. It wasn’t just because the man she’d nearly assaulted was so tall and good-looking, or because his skin was sun-kissed and flawlessly tanned like he’d just returned from a vacation to Bora Bora. Nor was it the way his athletic body had felt pressed against hers when she’d slammed against it, or how perfectly his dirty blond hair lay. No. Those attributes, though stunning, weren’t the ones that had mesmerized her. It was those piercing, cool blue eyes that had nearly hypnotized her on the spot, and even though their color wasn’t warm, they emitted a gentle heat that said he’d forgiven her even before she’d asked. Linda felt winded, but managed to speak her pitiful apology. “I am so sorry.”

 

Their gazes locked for a moment, but when released, she noted his quick once-over of her from head to toe before he smiled and putting his amazingly white teeth on display. More perfection, she had thought. Everything about him said ‘pulled together’—except, now, for his suit. Thanks to her. She reached into her handbag for her wallet. “Please let me pay for your dry cleaning.” She removed a twenty dollar bill.

 

He raised a hand to hers, curling her fingers around the twenty, and said, “That won’t be necessary.”

 

Linda’s breath caught at his touch. She dropped her eyes to his fingers, noting that he hadn’t let her hand go. Magnetic. That’s what this connection was. It scared her. She removed her hand. “I insist,” she continued.

 

One of the restaurant’s waitstaff came over with a mop. He looked annoyed that she’d made such a mess, so Linda apologized to him also.

 

She felt a hand on her elbow. The man she’d soaked from the knees down was pulling her out of the busboy’s way. He leaned close to her ear and said, “I’m Steve Mitchell, and you are?”

 

Linda followed him away from the mess, gently easing her elbow from his grasp. “I’m someone who feels awful for ruining your suit.” She held the twenty dollar bill out again and said, “I’ll feel horrible if you don’t let me compensate you. It’s only lunchtime. You’ll be terribly uncomfortable all afternoon.”

 

He leaned in again, and this time she caught a whiff of his cologne. A sexy, woodsy scent that she thought might be the new Giorgio Armani fragrance. “I keep a change in the office,” he whispered. “A man has to be prepared for pretty women rushing about in this city.”

 

Linda self-consciously licked her lips. “Well, I’m glad you won’t be all sticky.”

 

“Sticky, huh?” He flashed those white teeth at her again. “Not today.” His voice was flirtatious. “I tell you what. You do owe me, so I was thinking there’s something else you can do instead.”

 

Linda cocked her head. He was talking of stickiness and something else she could do for him. She sure hoped his mind had not gone where she thought it had. “Look, I don’t know what you have in mind—”

 

“Lunch,” he said, cutting her off. “I had lunch in mind.”

 

Linda’s brow knit. He’d surprised her. “I didn’t make enough of a mess of your wardrobe? Or do you ask every woman that you bump into to have lunch with you?”

 

Steve Mitchell chuckled. “Only the ones who take my breath away.”

 

Linda pursed her lips. “Breathless often?” she asked.

 

Steve shook his head and replied, “Rarely.”

 

She wasn’t sure why she’d given him her business card that day. She had thought it was his obscenely good looks, but thinking back now, she realized it was the intensity with which he had released that single word from his lips. Rarely. In an instant, she’d felt unique and special. He’d seduced her in less time than it’d taken for that Styrofoam cup to hit the floor, and now, two years later, he was still doing it. He was still taking her breath away.

 

Linda smiled and sent a text back to him.

 

Happy Anniversary to you too.

 

Seconds after she sent it, another message came through. She smiled, thinking how thoughtful he was being today. But then, once she opened it, she swore under her breath. It was Marc, letting her know that he was at the restaurant where they were meeting for dinner.

 

She hated being late—especially for something with Marc. He was always reminding her that she was the definition of a stereotype. “Losers are on C.P. time,” he’d say. And to make her lack of timeliness worse, this was a special night for him. They were celebrating his promotion. She cursed again and pressed a speed dial number. When he answered the call, there was so much noise in the background that she couldn’t quite hear him clearly.

 

“Marc, if you can hear me, I’m running late. See you in a few.” She hoped that he heard her.

 

She pushed her chair back, grabbed her nearby handbag, and rushed toward the door, pulling her jacket from the coat rack as she passed it. Before leaving, she turned and looked at the prints that were scattered across the conference room table. She was behind on her deadline to get the photos from the exclusive shoot with Victoria’s Lingerie completed early, which meant she’d have to come back after dinner. There was no point in taking the time to shut down the computer. She pulled the door closed behind her and turned the key in the deadbolt.

 

The spot where they were meeting was within walking distance from her studio. The January wind whirled around, nipping at her face as she exited the building. She tightened her coat around her in an attempt to keep warm, but it wasn’t working. She was shivering, and it wasn’t just the cold. The street was unusually deserted for a Tuesday evening. Darkness had stolen the sun’s rays away, and the dying streetlamp on the corner in front of her made a crackling sound that added to the eeriness.

 

Linda thought about the text messages and phone calls she’d received. She stopped in her tracks when she thought she heard a noise behind her. Heart slamming in her chest, she turned. No one there. She swallowed and made quick steps down the street to the restaurant. Just as she approached the door, her phone chirped in a text message. She reached into her pocket, thinking it was Marc, and removed her cell to check it.

 

A sad smiley face.

 

A violent shiver passed through her entire body. She swallowed. Instinctively, she looked around her and over her shoulder. Was someone following her? She dropped her phone in her bag and closed her eyes for a moment. This is too much, she thought. This has been going on for too long to be kids playing as she had originally suspected.

 

She pulled on the door to the restaurant and stepped inside. Instantly, the lobby’s warmth and safety enveloped her. There were people here. Not as many as there usually were, but she spotted the one who would make her feel the safest. Marc was in the far right corner of the restaurant—one hand on a beer and the other on a newspaper, no doubt his favorite, the Wall Street Journal.

 

Linda released a cleansing breath, handed her coat to the coat check attendant, and made her way to the table.

 

Marc stood, as he always did when she approached the table, and she leaned in and kissed him on his cheek.

 

“Don’t say it,” she said.

 

“I got your call,” Marc replied, pulling her chair out. “You’re going to be late to your own Photography Masters Cup event.”

 

“Ha, ha,” Linda said taking her seat. “I won’t be late for that.”

 

“You know we are whatever we do.”

 

“Excellence then is a habit,” Linda said, finishing the Aristotle quote he had begun. “I’m only late for personal stuff. I’m never late for business.”

 

“Says you,” Marc replied, folding his paper. He stared at her for a moment.

 

She became self-conscious, looking down at her cherry red dress to see if she’d spilled something on it. But she didn’t see anything. “Is there something on my face?” she asked, touching the corners of her mouth.

 

“Nah, lil sis, you just look kind of pretty tonight.”

 

Linda smirked. “Kind of?”

 

“Well, you know. As pretty as you can look to me.” Marc raised his sweating glass and took a long sip of his beer. “Sometimes you come out of that studio looking like you been in a dark cave instead of dark room.”

 

Linda smirked again and picked up her menu. “All the better to serve our clients—” She stopped midsentence. “Clients! Oh my God . . . congrats on your deal!” She jumped up from her chair and reached over to give Marc a hug.

 

“I was starting to think you forgot.”

 

Linda reclaimed her chair. Marc’s lips spread wide, boasting a smile. “You’re a rock star,” she said. “I’m so proud of you.”

 

Marc took another sip of his beer and said, “You know how we do it. Work hard, play later.”

 

“I know, but even with working hard, landing Ouch Magazine was a big deal.”

 

“Yeah, it was,” Marc replied. “Maybe I can get you some work over there.”

 

Linda picked up her menu and let out a long sigh. “That would be great, but sometimes I think I already have more than I can handle.”

 

“You’re too meticulous, girl. You need to push some of those photos out faster.”

 

Linda let her shoulders drop. She and Marc had had this conversation before. He was a numbers man. There was no way he could understand that, as a photographer, her work took precision and time. She couldn’t cut corners and rush through a program. She wasn’t dealing with Excel or Access. She was creating art. “We’ve had this conversation before.” She glanced at the menu and decided on the dish she always had before closing it. “It may be time for me to take on an intern.”

 

“It’s past time.” Marc frowned. “I’ve been telling you that.

 

The waitress approached their table and, after some not so subtle flirting with Marc, took their orders. Marc was by far too good-looking a brother to be in the friend zone. He wasn’t exceptionally tall, but he was tall enough for most women. He had great skin which made him look like a velvety smooth chocolate bar and dimples that would make any woman’s heart flutter. Women friends were always surprised that he was so good-looking when she introduced him for the first time. They all quickly followed up with the question, “Are you guys dating or something?” Even though they knew about Steve.

 

“Nothing wrong with having vanilla and chocolate ice cream. They have a name for it—the swirl,” one of her more brazen colleagues had stated. But Linda had never thought of Marc that way. She had already been involved with Steve when she met him, and Marc’s initial approach was all business. He was a consultant, and she needed a new business plan. The fast friendship came as a result of them working together so closely.

 

Marc’s phone rang, rousing her from her thoughts. He looked at it and said, “I have to take this, lil sis.” Then he stood and walked away from the table.

 

Linda found that odd. He took business calls but rarely excused himself. She shrugged it off and pulled her own phone from her bag. She swiped the screen, and the sad smiley appeared again. It had been waiting for her like an omen that refused to go away. She closed the text message, closed her eyes, and dropped her head back. Fingers on her shoulder caused her to nearly jump out of her seat. She bumped the table so hard her water goblet spilled.

 

Marc hovered above her and then, after picking up her glass, said, “Damn, girl. You had that look like you needed somebody to work the kinks out of your neck.”

 

Linda picked up a napkin and dabbed at the water puddle on the table. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Why are you so jumpy?”

 

She shook her head. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but . . . someone is harassing me.”

 

Marc raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean, I’m getting weird phone calls and text messages. I feel like I’m being followed sometimes. I don’t know. Something’s going on.”

 

Marc released a long plume of air, his brow knit in a frown. “How long has this been going on?”

 

“A while.”

 

“A while . . . Like how long, Linda?”

 

She could see the concern etched on his face. She was grateful for it because it was more than she’d gotten from Steve. He’d dismissed the entire thing as kids playing on the phone and her overactive imagination. You don’t have an enemy on the earth, Linda. Who would follow you? he’d said, and she’d cosigned to that for a while, but then the calls that had started on the office line began to come in on her cell phone. That wasn’t kids. She shared her thoughts about it with Marc.

 

“So what about the police?” he asked, raising his beer again.

 

“What do I say? The number that comes up seems to be one of those scrambled numbers like the ones that those annoying telemarketers use, which leaves me with no real number to report. I haven’t actually seen anyone following me. It’s just a feeling.”

 

Marc nodded.

 

“I have seen a strange car on my block lately. It drives by slowly and doesn’t always park. It seems like it leaves when I come out the door or when I get home. It’s weird.”

 

Marc raised his eyebrows. “That part does sound like an overactive imagination. I mean, why would stalker leave when you show up? Don’t they usually follow you?”

 

Linda shook her head. “I don’t know how this works. I’ve never experienced it before. All I know is something is not right. I can feel it in my gut.”

 

“Then you should report it.” A beat of silence passed between them. “So what does Steve say about it?”

 

“He thinks I’m being paranoid,” she replied, rolling her eyes.

 

“Is that so?” Marc said. “Typical.”

 

“Don’t start, Marc. I love him.”

 

“The question is, does he love you?” Marc deadpanned, and she responded to his comment with the same intense stare.

 

“Of course he loves me. Why do you always have to question that?”

 

“Because you’re scared as hell. Even I can see that, and your man isn’t taking you seriously. That’s why. I mean, I don’t know about you being followed—a car in the neighborhood could be anything—but the phone calls on both phones is a bit much. Maybe it’s a pissed off model or something.” Marc finished his drink and picked up his phone. “I just got an email. I need to make a call.” He stood again and left the table.

 

The food was delivered while he was gone. Linda reached for the glass of wine the waitress had delivered for her and nearly downed it in one swig. Her hands shook, and she found herself looking at the door every time it opened. Marc was right. She was afraid.

 

He returned to the table, and her phone chirped a text. With her free hand, she reached in her bag for the cell. Linda dropped the wineglass when she read the message. Her vision blurred with the tears that instantly filled her eyes.

 

“Linda,” Marc called. “What’s wrong?”

 

She shoved the phone in his direction and watched as he studied it with a frown before reading it out loud.

“Bitch, I hope you choke on a snail.”

 

His eyes met her again. This time she could see more than a little concern, and seeing his fear made her entire body shake. “So do you believe I’m being followed now?”