Ch 1. Seven Hundred Dollar Handcuffs - Shannon
“Hey! Are you okay?”
His voice filtered up through my senses. Pain thundered through my skull and rang in my ears so that he sounded like he was calling to me across a distance. He wasn’t though. He was right beside me.
Actually, we were handcuffed together.
I stuffed my free hand into my hair. There was blood. Head injuries always looked so much worse than they were. I was probably lying in a pool of blood. Squinting, I looked around. The light was gray and my vision blurred.
“Is there a lot of blood?” I whispered.
“Is there a bad bump?”
I glared at him. “But…”
As my vision cleared I saw his expression was amused, but he had looked pleased by everything that had happened that night. He had a smile on his lips and a chuckle in his throat. It had been infuriating. He even smiled at me over his shoulder when I held a gun to his back.
He grinned like that as he rattled our handcuffs. “Feeling sorry you didn’t put up more of a fight?”
“How did you know?” I said, my voice garbled as I coughed.
He was so loathsome. The whole time he had been insisting that he was Fletch Litman when both Natalie and I knew he was Carver Criche… the biggest loser/liar/weasel I had ever even heard about.
“What did you do to land yourself here, stuck together with me?”
I sighed. “It’s not important.” I needed to talk as little as possible. “Can you think of a way out of here?”
“No. The last thing I tried,” he said, picking up a brick, “didn’t go so well for me.”
Ironically, it was a brick just like the one that had made the crater in the side of my head. The last thing Natalie said was that she was on her way to the police station to tell them all about the kidnapping. After hitting me over the head, she had obviously handcuffed me to the loser/liar to make sure I didn’t bolt. If I actually believed her story about going to the cops, I would have been terrified. If I was a betting woman (and sometimes I was), I bet that Natalie drove to town and got a hamburger at a twenty-four-hour drive-thru. After raising her blood sugar, I believed she’d change her mind about going to the police. Hopefully, she would come back to the campground we had brought the liar/loser to and try to make a deal with the aforementioned weasel/rascal that didn’t involve the police.
The way I saw things, even with my banged-in head, the solution was quite simple. I couldn’t wait for Natalie to come back. I needed to get the rascal/weasel and me out of the camp kitchen. Breaking the handcuffs shouldn’t be too hard, considering where I bought them. Once we were separated, I could conveniently ‘lose’ him somewhere on the road back to Edmonton.
I looked at the brick he was bouncing in his palm.
In the camp kitchen, there was a stove with a chimney, intended for cooking. It was a million years old, and the weasel/liar had his hand in a hole in the bricks. The other end of the handcuffs was hooked around an even older grill. Natalie and I had done what we could to make sure he couldn’t dislodge it. Unlucky for me, I had quarreled with Natalie and now my hand was on the other side of the grill so that I was practically sitting in the fireplace, handcuffed to the most loathsome man. What could I say? I didn’t gamble on her being spunky enough to hit me in the head with a brick.
“So, you reefed on your handcuff and brought some of the loose chimney blocks down on you?”
“Yup,” he said pleasantly.
I must have missed that when I was outside arguing with Natalie. I didn’t know he’d made the slightest attempt to escape. It made me like him better because it made him seem more like a prisoner. This whole time he’d acted so… happy about being with us… like being kidnapped by Natalie and me was his idea of a party.
I was just about to crawl into the fireplace to see if I could get us uncuffed when I noticed the loser/weasel smiling at me again. It was hilarious for him because he knew that I was the girl in the ski mask with the horrible British accent who had ordered him around with a gun. Now the tables had turned and I was also a prisoner. He grinned wickedly at me.
“What?” I groaned.
“I’m sorry if I’m staring,” he said, attempting to conceal his amusement. “I just can’t figure out why you’re here.”
“Well, when we got here, you two asked me all sorts of questions like why wouldn’t I sign the contract and why I was such a douchebag. All questions that make no sense to me because I’m not Carver Criche. You went out. I didn’t hear your fight in detail, but then your accomplice attacked you. She dragged you in here, handcuffed you to me and we’re done? The chubby one left us here?”
“‘The chubby one?’” I repeated. Was that what he thought of Natalie? She wasn’t fat. She was just really strong, hence she had been able to knock me out with a brick. I’d never call her chubby. Talk like that was why he was a loser/rascal. “Someone asked you why you were a douchebag and you wondered why?”
He chuckled. “Do you think she’s coming back?”
I shrugged noisily.
“Why does that tick you off so much? That I called that woman chubby? She kidnapped me! I could call her a lot worse things, but chubby ticks you off? All things said and done, you have more reason to hate her than me. I didn’t make you bleed.”
I huffed angrily. “Yeah, well, I might not be very fond of her, but I’m really not fond of a man who only thinks about a woman’s sexual appeal.”
“And your boyfriend never thought about any of that stuff when he got together with you?”
That did it. I turned myself so my face was out of the fireplace and I could see his horrible, smug expression. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
He smiled. “You’re more beautiful than your voice under the ski mask hints at, even with the fake accent. Did you know?”
My blush went crazy red. I turned away from him, but he kept talking.
“I’m not Carver. He is the producer for the band, Stark Mad? The band I was playing with tonight is called City of Vines and they were opening for Stark Mad, which is why I was on board their tour bus. I was just saying hi, and when I stepped off the bus, you two grabbed me. You got the wrong guy. I was a replacement drummer. I’m not even a member of City of Vines. When you were out cold, I showed your friend my social media profile and convinced her that although I bear a slight resemblance to Carver Criche, I’m not him. Then I gave her my money clip to handcuff the two of us together and leave. Lovely, isn’t it? Sorry that she won’t be back.”
I swallowed hard. “How much cash did you give her?”
“You had that much on hand? What is wrong with you?”
“It was my pay for the impromptu drumming. They paid me in cash twenty minutes before you picked me up.”
I felt like screaming. Natalie owed money everywhere. “You promised her you wouldn’t go to the police?”
“Yes, and I won’t. Not on her and not on you.”
Natalie probably would have done what he asked as long as he promised not to go to the police. The money had been a nice bonus.
“So, Fletch,” I said, steaming and feeling like I’d caught an even bigger weasel/creep than I’d originally guessed. “Why do you want to be handcuffed to me in a camp kitchen?”
“This might sound weird,” he said, his face out of my view, “but I’ve heard about you. The famous Shannon Bilx. That’s why it’s so confusing that you kidnapped me tonight. Why would Simon Crew’s ex want to kidnap me?”
“How do you know Simon?” I snapped.
“I’m his cousin.”
I refrained from making the tiniest sound. I knew Simon. He was what I would have called a lifer, meaning that he had pursued me off and on for two and a half years. I called all the guys who chased me for over a year, without concrete encouragement from me, lifers. No one ever lasted longer than three years. Simon reached his limit and said goodbye a few months ago, which was fine by me. I didn’t keep him around to flatter my ego, even though he did. Regardless of my non-interest, he had been a decent guy.
The thought gave me the sudden, unhappy idea that Fletch was telling the truth about not being Carver and that he might be a good guy if he was close to Simon.
“So, what do you want?” I asked coldly.
“I want to see what Simon found so loveable.”
I stuck my head around the corner of the stove and poked my tongue out at him. “Are you finding it?”
A slow satisfied smile spread across his face. He had me exactly where he wanted me.
I continued lashing out. “Or are you going to tell me how awful I am and how no man could ever love me? Don’t hold back. I’ve heard it all before. I’m not even pretty. You should start your tirade by insulting my butt. That’s where they always start.”
“I didn’t spend seven hundred dollars to badmouth you to your face. I’m here to correct you.”
I nearly died. “‘Correct me?’”
“Yeah. Do you think it’s okay to treat people like that? Simon loved you. Why treat his heart like your personal dishrag?”
“Look,” I said, preparing to defend myself. “I was not as bad to him as he’s let on. Let me tell you the system.”
“The system?” he asked with disbelief.
“Yes. The system. You’re going to hate me when you hear it, but you might as well get the whole story from my perspective. Everywhere I go, it seems like every guy I meet likes me.”
Fletch didn’t snort. He looked at me evenly, which helped me like him better.
I continued. “But doesn’t that seem arrogant? To naturally assume that every guy who meets me is instantly infatuated? I am full of myself, but even so, that seems crazy. Some guys are just flirty. They probably treat every woman they meet like that, right? So no matter what overtures of affection a man might put on for me, I always assume it’s nothing until he says something serious.”
“Like, ‘I’m in love with you’, or ‘will you be my girlfriend?’”
“So how do you treat a guy before he says those things?”
“Like nothing. I don’t hold hands with him or kiss him on the doorstep, or anything. Usually, I have a collection of guys I classify this way. Everything they do seems to indicate that they like me, but until they say so, I wait.”
“Then what happens once he does say something?”
“Usually, I say what I think, which is that I’m not interested. All the time that he’s been hanging out, I’ve been figuring out whether or not I think we’d make a good couple. Almost every time, he isn’t what I want.”
“So, what happened with Simon, exactly?”
“Yeah.” Fletch’s face was set.
“Same thing. He came around. I thought it was nothing until one night we were watching TV. It was time for him to head home and he started talking.”
“You know, that I was so beautiful I took his breath away.”
“Wait. That sounds like an okay line to me.”
“It is,” I conceded. “It just would have been better coming from a different man. He was a little different than the other guys though, as in he didn’t demand a monogamous relationship with me. If he had, I would have thrown him out the door. He didn’t say he loved me. He didn’t say he wanted anything. He merely expressed an appreciation for my appearance and that he wished our relationship was something more. I don’t deal in that kind of ambiguous crap, so I let him go home without acknowledging a confession of any kind.”
“Did you ever kiss him?”
Fletch looked surprised. “I owe you an apology. All this time, whenever he spoke about you, it sounded like you two were dating, and you were blowing hot and cold. Were you dating him?”
“I went on dates with him, but there was never any kind of commitment. And I resent the accusation that I blow hot and cold. I only blow cold.”
“Were you aware that he was deeply in love with you?”
I rolled my eyes. “It may seem snotty to you, but I can hardly keep track of all the guys who are deeply in love with me. Sometimes, men, I would barely call acquaintances, have confessed that they love me. I have other things to occupy my mind. I can’t be bothered with what a man might be thinking when he can’t be bothered to open his mouth.”
“If I’m understanding you properly, Simon never had a chance with you and all along his feelings have just been a sad, unrequited love?”
I nodded. Then I examined Fletch’s ponderous face, hoping our conversation had reached its conclusion. “Does that mean we’re done? Look, I’m sorry we picked you up if you were the wrong guy.”
“Does that mean you’re going to go kidnap the right guy if I let you go?”
“No. That was something I was helping Natalie with, but let’s be clear, if there was such a thing as the ‘right’ guy for me, I’d kidnap him if I wanted to.” I winked.
I put my head back in the fireplace to see if I could figure out how to unchain us when he suddenly said, “We’re not quite finished. You have to tell me exactly what is wrong with Simon.”
“Doesn’t that seem a bit grueling to you? I mean, would you honestly want to hear every detail as to why a woman didn’t want you?”
“You’re sick. Simon is a great guy, but his being a great guy isn’t a good enough reason for me to date him or fly to the moon with him. It is a matter of compatibility. Unfortunately, loads of men just see something pretty and they think that’s the woman for them. They don’t know what they want.” I grabbed the grate and started yanking on it. “I hate watching sports on TV. The sound of it rankles my nerves and Simon liked to watch football. I hate football the most. I used to kick him out when he would turn it on. I could never live with someone who liked watching sports on TV, and why should he turn me into Lady Macbeth by making him watch his favorite thing on the tiny screen of his phone with his earbuds in? We’re incompatible. He should be with someone who enjoys the same things he does.”
“Well, what do you enjoy?”
I made a face at him. “I never tell.”
He laughed. “You never tell people what you like?”
“No. I never do. If I do, I know men who would turn themselves inside out to be whatever I want. Though I do think that telling Simon to turn off the TV before my ears started bleeding should have been enough of a hint.”
“Wait. Are you telling me that you and he hung out for years and he never knew what you like?”
“Of course. Did you know that the word ‘romance,’ the word ‘seduction,’ and the word ‘mystery’ all mean the same thing? Once someone knows all about you, the romance will be over. Not the love, the romance.”
“You’re scared to let go of the romance because if someone really knew you, they couldn’t possibly love you?”
It was in that second that I realized I had laid myself bare in front of someone I shouldn’t have. My theories about dating weren’t exactly top secret, but I didn’t realize they could be used to dissect me. I had always thought my taste in books, my hobbies, my passions, and my ambitions were the things to keep quiet about. He had seen through me. It was a particularly distasteful experience.
I withdrew from him.
“I’m sorry. You’re not wrong… about Simon,” Fletch’s mellow voice sounded from the other side of the chimney. “If you’re not compatible with him then he didn’t do anything wrong and neither did you. Also, it sounds like he wasn’t very daring in love. If he had been, you would have rejected him and he would have started to heal much sooner. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
I didn’t dare look at him.
“You see, he mentioned you almost every time I saw him. After I heard you’d dumped him, I wanted to get you alone, so I could set you straight. This conversation has been a revelation. I thought you were the kind of girl who dumped guys for kicks. You’re just looking for the right man and he hasn’t shown up. Am I right?”
“I guess,” I mumbled. I got on my knees in the fireplace and started looking at the grate more carefully. It looked like I might be able to get my handcuffs unhooked if I bent one of the bars. It was pretty tough iron and the nosy man wasn’t at an angle where he could help. I messed with it for a few minutes without success when I heard him say something. It was a muffle. “What was that?” I asked, coming out for a break. My hands were sweating.
“Want to try something with me?”
“Are you going to try pulling on the handcuffs instead of letting me do all the work?”
He chuckled. “Why would I do that? They’re still doing what I want them to.”
“You haven’t got what you want out of me yet? What’s left?” I exclaimed.
“A date? With Simon? I’ve been on tons of dates with Simon. He’s had his chance. Leave me alone.”
“You’ve got the wrong idea,” Fletch corrected. “Obviously a date with Simon is ridiculous. I’m talking about a date with me.”
I groaned. “Now you’ve got romantic ideas about me? Forget them. I’m not for you.”
“Do you already have someone in mind?”
I shook my hand like I was shaking off the idea. “No. It’s just that you’re a drummer. I already told you that noise bothers me. The only thing I can think of that would be worse than dating a guy who likes watching football is a drummer. The idea makes the inside of my ears hurt like someone just shoved a needle in each one.”
He blinked. “You get more intriguing by the moment. I don’t think my drumming should be a barrier between us.”
“I’m actually a xylophone player with the city orchestra. I was just doing the drumming as a side thing. It was a favor for a friend. Trust me, if you were my girlfriend, you wouldn’t be touring sleazy bars and packing drum kits.”
I paused and let my breath out slowly. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? “You have the keys to the handcuffs, don’t you?”
It was an impossible situation.
“Do you have a phone?” I asked, thinking of how my phone was still in Natalie’s car. I felt so powerless without it. If I had my phone, I wouldn’t have tolerated Fletch’s interrogation. I would have called for help immediately. I had a head injury! The first person I would have thought to call would have been Natalie, except now that she thought blunt force trauma was a part of our friendship, I doubted I would ever call her again.
“Good,” I said, realizing that ‘losing’ him on the way back to the city was no longer an option. Instead, I’d have to work with him to get home. “Why don’t you hurry up and unlock us while I explain to you why a date with me isn’t a good idea.”
“I can’t wait to hear your reasoning.” He chuckled, produced the keys from his pocket, reached up to unlock the handcuffs, and accidentally let them slip from his fingers. I couldn’t see where they landed. I only heard the sound of them clattering on the cement floor.
Natalie and I were right the first time. He was the worst.
I didn’t say anything while he fumbled around trying to retrieve the keys.
“You know what I think?” I said, after pondering.
“I think the only reason you want to date me is to show Simon, and anyone else, that you can. I’m a trophy and you want to win me, just so you can show that you’re better than them. You don’t know me. I didn’t enchant you. You only know me by reputation, and that reputation is what you want to date and not me. You’re confused though.”
He didn’t reply. He was embarrassed about dropping the keys and was still wriggling the toe of his boot to try to pull the keys within reach.
“You’re confused…” I continued when he didn’t respond, “because you don’t recognize that getting together with me would not be winning anything. I’m not actually fun. I’m like a cat that looks adorable in the shelter. You take it home expecting it to give you love and cuddles and it only scratches the hell out of your furniture. You said it, if anyone really knew me, they couldn’t love me.”
“Your argument is interesting, but it won’t make me change my mind,” he said triumphantly as he swept the keys up in his palm. “I didn’t ask you to marry me. I just want to see you in all your glory. I want to see what you’re like when you pour on the charm. Is that too much to ask?”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “That sounds amazing!”
“It does?” he asked curiously as he successfully unlocked the handcuffs.
“Yes, it does!” I turned to face him. He looked a bit battered. We had just spent the night in a deserted camp kitchen, and he looked less sleek than he did when we kidnapped him, but he had some appeal: a touch of attractiveness at his lips, in his smile.
“Because, I’m always worried about taking things too far, being too charming, looking too good, being all that a man wants so completely that if I leave him, he’ll never get over me. I’m always holding back, but if you just want to see what I’m like out on a date, I can be all those things I never get to be… and you’ll know. You’ll know I’m putting on a show and that will be it. It sounds really fun.”
“So you’ll go on a date with me?”
“Yes! It’s only one date.” I got up and looked around. “Although, you do have to get me home first.”
“I’ll be honest, I don’t even know where we are.”
“We’ll work it out. Is Friday night good for you? It’s good for me.