1. the unexpected
THERE’S A KNOCK ON THE door and I rush towards it, praying that it’s not another homeless person asking if they can use my bathroom and then end up sleeping in the bathtub for the remainder of the night. Living in the cheapest apartment in New York City definitely has some perks but security measures aren’t one of them.
Anyone can walk inside the building without a key card and I have come accustomed to not answering my door once it gets dark. I’m not complaining, at least I can afford my own place on my low wage as a junior journalist.
I open the door and I’m met with a boy who looks like he’s in his mid-teens, my eyes dart to the package in his hands, before looking back at his freckled face.
“Are you Calla?” his voice is smooth.
I give a small nod, “I am.”
“Here,” he gives me the box and instantly turns on his heel to leave, stuffing his hands into the pocket of his jeans.
“What’s this?” I ask confused.
He shrugs, turning around slightly to face me, “From Mr Stryker.”
I examine the black box in my hands with a red ribbon and quickly add a “Thank you,” before the young man disappears down the stairs.
Nicholas Stryker, the handsome lawyer that I met two months ago. Nik has a history with my boss, Jennifer, and that’s how we actually met. At a work event, we instantly clicked.
Nik is famous for never losing a case, they call him ‘Stryker’ for a reason and it’s because he instantly strikes his opponent down in a room of court. He’s a partner in New York’s most prestigious firms. Stryker & Portman.
Oreo meows near my feet and I close my apartment door making sure to lock it behind me. My therapist recommended getting a cat – apparently, they help with self-healing, stress and mental health. Their “purrs help heal us”, my therapist had said and there are times like that I wonder which one of us actually needs therapy.
Oreo jumps up on the bench and nudges me with his head, I give him a small rub under the chin before staring blankly at the box, slightly afraid to open it.
Oreo nudges me again and I sigh, “You want to see what’s inside?”
He meows and I raise an eyebrow. I have definitely lost the plot if I think a cat can talk to me.
I reach for the box and tug at the red ribbon that is holding the lid closed. Inside is a stunning, silky red dress. It looks expensive.
I pick up the small card on top of it.
Looking forward to this evening with you.
Nik and I have only been on two dates, he had to go to Paris for a business trip shortly after we had met. However, we kept in contact and talked almost every-day. He is quite the charmer and seems very put-together, unlike the other men I have dated in the last couple of years.
Not one lasting more than a month.
I’m already setting the record with Nik. Maybe it’s because I have spent such a short time with the man. I’m waiting for his skeletons to be revealed.
I look at the tag and my eyes almost pop out of their place; I instantly grab my phone and dial Nik’s number. Too expensive.
“Sweetheart,” he answers. His voice is slow and warm, meaning he’s not in a meeting yet.
“Nik, I can’t wear this,” I tell him.
“You don’t like it?”
“It’s worth more than I have in my savings,” I admit, pacing around my small apartment. More than I will ever have.
“It’s a gift,” he says nonchalantly, like the dress that has four digits on the price tag is no big deal, and it probably isn’t for him. He probably spends triple this amount in a day.
However, I’m not sure if I feel comfortable with a gift that is this expensive, especially when Nik and I are in the very early stages of getting to know each other. He senses my discomfort and adds, “Just wear it and I can return it tomorrow,” Nik says.
I consider this for a moment, it’s a nice dress and I do need something to wear tonight. People like me don’t get invited to things like this. To big events with big names. I don’t think a Target midi dress, from two years ago is going to fit in well in that type of place.
“Okay,” I finally say, running my fingertips through the silky material of the dress.
It’s a fundraiser to raise money for children who are from abusive homes. Good cause but it’s mostly for high-profiled businessmen and women to make connections.
Basically, politicians, lawyers, journalists and CEO’s dress-up, have a few drinks and talk each other into business deals, which some of them regret the next morning.
It all screams uncomfortable and rich. Not my type of scene, but I better get used to it if I ever want to see inside of the top news companies in the country.
Nik invited me as his date and I’m not stupid enough to say no. It’s a perfect opportunity to get my name out there.
“I’ll pick you up at six,” Nik tells me.
When it’s just before five, I have a shower; I shave my legs and wash my hair.
I put some make-up on, I have come to have a small collection since my job requires me to look presentable and even though my sleep has improved in the last couple of years, I still have nightmares at least once every couple of weeks which result in me looking like I have risen from the dead the next day.
I look at my terrible attempt at a smoky eye in the mirror and try to fix it. But it’s as best as it’s going to get. I finish the look with a glossy, nude lipstick. I run a curling wand through my hair and yelp when the wand touches the top of my ear, “Shit,” I curse.
Slipping into the creamy, silk dress, I smooth it with my fingers.
The dress is tight, but it’s designed to cling to your body. The silk material feels like I’m wearing a sheet and I stand on my tiptoes in front of the mirror, slowly looking at myself from every direction.
It does look good. I look good. I take a deep breath and stand taller in the mirror.
Fake it, till you make it, I tell myself. If you act with confidence, no one will question your presence.
I own a few pairs of heels, as my job contract specifically requires that I wear them. Jennifer, my boss, is all about presentation.
I open my wardrobe and look inside. My eyes land on a pair of nude strappy heels that look identical to Louboutin, however, the difference is that they cost one-tenth of the price.
When I put on second heel, there’s a knock at my door.
Nik looks good in slacks and a white dress shirt. His tie is the same colour as my dress and I give him an approving smile, “You look rather handsome, I think I like you in white.”
He doesn’t reply, his eyes roam my body and I feel naked under his gaze. I can feel the heat rising to my cheeks.
“You look ...” he clears his throat.
“That bad, huh?” I joke to hide my nervousness.
He shakes his head, “Calla, I regret getting you that dress. All eyes are going to be on you.”
His short curls are midnight black and my eyes travel to his.
“Afraid that I’ll take the spotlight from you?” I smile, tilting my head to one side.
“Definitely,” he says, placing a kiss on my cheek.
Nik opens the passenger door to his Audi R8, and I carefully climb inside. I salute him for having the balls to leave his three hundred-thousand-dollar car in this neighbourhood. I’m surprised it’s still here and without a scratch.
“How was work?” I ask him when he gets into the driver’s side and presses the button that makes the car rumble to life.
I lean my head back into the seat and watch as his body tenses.
“A client is trying to...” he pauses, thinking of the right word, “fuck with me. Nothing that can’t be handled,” he adds and puts the car into drive, taking off down the quiet street.
I distract myself from the twenty-minute drive by keeping the conversation going. I ask Nik about his trip and question if he takes such long trips often.
“More often than I like,” he replies.
Even though I am now able to be a passenger in a car at night. I still find myself feeling nauseous every time.
It’s been seven years since the accident that took away my mom and each day gets easier.
Easier to breathe.
Nik turns into the long driveway and follows the road for a few minutes, before stopping in front of tall black gates.
Nik winds the window down and before he has time to speak, there’s a voice on the other side of the intercom.
“Good evening, Mr Stryker. Please drive forward,” a female says from the intercom and the gates slowly slide open.
We pull up to the front of the large building and my eyes follow the steps of the guests who are already making their way inside. I feel almost under-dressed, I have only been to a couple of these events and I can already tell that this is by far the biggest one.
I reach for the door when Nik puts the car in park, but he beats me to it and holds out his hand for me to take.
What a gentleman. I smile, placing my hand in his.
Nik hands his keys to the valet and takes out a note from his wallet, handing it to the young gentleman. We walk up the steps to the entry, it feels like we are walking into a castle. There’s security in front of the entryway but they don’t bother checking Nik for ID, they just give a slight nod of their head.
Everyone knows Nik and we are stopped almost immediately after we walk inside by a group of three men, and one older woman, “Stryker, what a surprise. I take it you’re back from Paris.”
“I got back last night,” Nik tells her.
“And you have already managed to find a date,” another gentleman remarks.
Nik’s lips curve into a smile, “This is Calla Maven,” he introduces me to everyone, and I notice all eyes go on me.
Nik senses my uneasiness and gives my hand a small squeeze.
I find myself getting into a conversation with an older gentleman who enquires about my connection to Nik and asks what I do for a living. In the midst of explaining who I work for, Nik leans into me, “I’ll be right back,” he whispers into my ear and waits for my approval.
My eyes meet his and I give him a nod, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. However, I do have to admit that I do feel a little more comfortable with Nik around.
“I’m the founder of this foundation,” Mr Boulke tells me and I nod in acknowledgment. He’s a short, round man that looks to be in his sixties.
“I’m very grateful to be able to contribute to this cause,” I tell him, and he gives me a smile before turning towards the others.
“There’s someone I would like to introduce to everyone. The man himself who organised this event and who wrote out a personal cheque of ten million to our foundation...” Mr Boulke announces.
Ten million dollars.
That’s a lot of money, even for someone here.
My eyes dart to a familiar face that steps into view next to Mr Boulke. My heart begins to race in my chest and suddenly I can’t freaking breathe.