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The divorce club, p.9
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       The Divorce Club, p.9

           Jayde Scott
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  "Could be a 'she'." He holds up his hands. "I'm just saying, don't shoot the messenger."

  My mouth drops open. I must admit I didn't consider that alternative. "You've just helped me widen my suspect options."

  "Check your Facebook account. That's where stalkers usually strike first." He cocks his brows knowingly.

  Never been a fan of wasting my time on Facebook, but I nod nonetheless and point at what looks like a huge intercom on the wall. "Now, that's fancy."

  He winks. "Eye-catching, huh?"

  "Is that something I should get?"

  "Our MSX 2000 Pro? Good choice," he says. "It works straight out of the box. Just attach the sucking cups to the windows, plug it into the telephone socket, call your landline provider to activate the line, and you're ready to go. In the case of a break-in, the alarms will wake up the whole street and automatically summon the police."

  Impressed, I turn over the box and feel the color drain from my cheeks. This miraculous device costs a few hundred. Asking Jamie to pop over's cheaper. And so is getting a Rottweiler.

  "Bleed me dry. Do you have anything that's not so costly?" I ask.

  "Here's something more in your price range." He doesn't even blink as he moves to the next box. "This is the MSX 2000 Basic. It doesn't call the police for you. You'll have to get two though if you want to cover the windows upstairs."

  "Why would I do that?"

  He smiles at me as though I'm dense. "Some intruders use ladders to climb walls."

  Now, he's making me even more paranoid. It still costs two hundred, so I put the box back in its place. "Let's assume he won't do that because he's afraid of heights or breaking his back in the process, what else do you suggest I use to secure the doors?"

  Shaking his head lightly, he reaches under the counter and retrieves a metal wedge the size of my hand. "This will block every door from inside. Just squeeze it underneath. It's only a fiver."

  I'm intrigued. Could I find it cheaper on eBay? "Only a fiver? Are you sure it works?"

  He's back in his element now. "Come on, I'll show you." He places the wedge in front of the shop door and pulls the handle. The door moves an inch or two, not more.

  "Let me try." I yank with all my might, but the door doesn't budge. "I'll take it."

  He retrieves two boxes. "You might want two. One for downstairs and one for the bedroom."

  "Make it three." I'm thinking of Sam's door, although explaining the need for something like this might prove a difficult task. Then again, what if she uses it to barricade herself inside and smoke cigarettes or worse? The frightening fiasco of a fire burning down the house pops into my head, making me shudder. "No, wait! I only need two."

  "You might want these as well." He tosses a few small parcels on the counter and opens one. "This is a window alarm system. You attach the magnetic strip to the wall and the tiny piece here to the window just half an inch away from each other. If someone opens the window, it will trigger the alarm. They're only three quid each."

  "That's a bargain." I can't resist a bargain and am already counting all the windows I have. "Make it five."

  "I suggest you get the ones with the remote control. They cost more, but you want the best you can afford, right?"

  A remote control sounds so high-tech and advanced. I nod and he gets the stock from the staff room.

  "Is that all?" He rings up the till without waiting for my answer. "You know these are only temporary solutions. You'll need a proper burglar alarm system that's connected with a security firm."

  I nod and pay. "Sure, as soon as I win the lottery. Thanks so much."

  "Good luck," the assistant says before I leave.

  My enthusiasm makes me forget my angst. I drive faster than usual just to get home as quickly as possible. I don't even bother to take off my shoes before I start unpacking. It takes me an hour to figure out how to attach all window alarms in the appropriate distance so the magnets aren't too far away from one another. The alarm shrills a few times, but I don't care. What irritates me is that the neighbors don't even bother to come over and ask what the noise is all about. So much for watching out for your neighbors.

  I push the wedge in and test the door. It works just like in the shop. When I'm finally done I take care of the dishes and start preparing my timetable for the next few days. The usual club and individual meetings will take most of the week and I won't have much time for Sam, but after sorting out our safety issues I'm confident I can do anything—until I head upstairs.

  It's only two p.m., but I feel dirty from all the shopping and running around, so I decide to take a hot bath. The bathroom door's open. I'm sure I closed it before I left this morning. I push it open and stare at the damp towel in the sink. For a second, I think I can smell a whiff of aftershave. Someone was in here. My mind's frozen; sweat's pouring down my back. How did the sicko get in?

  My phone rings. It's my neighbor’s number. I don't know whether I'll be able to say a word, yet I need to hear someone's voice, even if it's just to talk about the garbage bins which I've forgotten to put away yet again. A sweet fragrance fills the air. Flowers? I bend down to retrieve the phone from my handbag when I notice a red rose petal by my foot. I pick it up and rub it between my fingers. It has a soft and velvety feel like butterfly wings. Why is this on my floor? And why's there a trail leading to my bed? Petrified, I stand and stare straight ahead.

  My sheets are covered in scarlet like some kind of morbid, romantic fantasy. I gasp. Some of the petals are arranged into a big, red heart standing out against the snow-white comforter. The others spell out something I can't decipher. I inch closer, trying to put the letters together to make sense of them until I read—You're mine.

  Lounging forward, I peel the duvet aside and toss it across the floor shouting, "Do you see this? Do you see me now? I'm not scared of you, you piece of crap!"

  I shout until my voice's hoarse and my head's throbbing. My body's depleted of energy, but the anger inside hasn't subsided. He must've broken in when I was out. I don't even want to contemplate the other possibility—that he was in here before I left. Like on automatic, devoid of any thoughts, I change the sheets and toss the towel in the washing machine, then go about cleaning the kitchen because I always scrub when I need to sort out my mind. I'm not hungry so I skip lunch, and I spend the afternoon baking a diet chocolate cake and going though names and places I've recently visited. In the end, I come up with a handful of people I suspect: a guy from the supermarket who recently asked whether I was single now because I wasn't wearing my wedding ring, the postman who's in his forties and married, but he has this sick habit of patting my parcels as though to check what's inside. The last person is a former workmate who once had a crush on me and still sends me Christmas cards. Granted, my list is thin, but it's a beginning nonetheless.

  As I finish the chocolate topping on the cake, the doorbell rings. I wipe my hands on a kitchen towel and hurry to answer. My heart's beating too fast again. I was never a fan of unannounced visitors, but lately the simple feeling of being inconvenienced has turned into a strong need to just keep quiet and pretend no one's home until the visitors go away. I peer through the spy hole at my neighbor’s gaunt face, then open with a sigh.

  Deborah's in her fifties, skinny with straight, blonde hair and too much bronzer, and has been living on the street since her childhood. She doesn't usually visit, unless it's to exchange Christmas cards or to complain about the garbage bins. The way she's standing in front of me, rigidly clutching her cat to her chest, reminds me of being summoned to the mean headmistress's office.

  "Hi Deborah. I'm sorry I forgot to put them away." I point at the empty bins. "Would you like to come in?"

  "Another time." She smirks. "This used to be such a beautiful neighborhood, don't you agree?"

  I nod, unsure where this is going. "It still is."

  "You know, Fluffy is mad at you." She hugs the white Persian cat and kisses its head. "Aren't you, Fluffy?"

"What did I do to ruffle his feathers, uh, I mean fur?" Laughter bubbles up at the back of my throat.

  She peers behind me, scanning the hall, which makes me self-conscious because I know I can't afford her yearly redecorating to keep up with magazine trends. "Maybe you should've stayed married because—"

  I narrow my eyes, annoyed. "Because what?"

  "I don't know how to say this." She takes a step back, hesitating. "Oh dear, this is embarrassing." She looks at Fluffy and pats its head. "Isn't it, lovely?"

  I cock my head to the side, waiting for her to get on with it. She wasn't happy to hear someone on the street actually divorced. Has she heard about the club and now wants me to move away so no one associates my business with her?

  "I'll just blurt it out." Our gazes lock. She takes a deep breath before she continues, "Do you think you could tell your dates to stop roaming around our house? That man last night scared Fluffy to death."

  I almost burst out in laugher before I realize what she just said. "You saw someone outside last night?"

  "Yes, I did and we'd appreciate it if it didn't happen again." By we she's talking about herself and the cat. I bet her poor, overworked husband couldn't care less. "I know your visitor was dying to get a peek of me in my silk nightgown, so I closed the curtains. It's not my fault you can't satisfy your dates. It's just natural they're drawn to a well-maintained cougar who takes care of herself and doesn't lose a husband. However, as flattered as I am, we can't have that now, can we?"

  She thinks she's a cougar? I shake my head, barely able to suppress a snort. "No, we can't."

  "Try a little concealer, dear. It could do wonders for you." She looks me up and down. "And that bag you're wearing isn't doing your hips any favors."

  I grit my teeth as I smile. "If you think that'll keep my dates from straying, then I'll definitely give it a try."

  She waves her hand, pleased with herself. "I'm only trying to help, dear."

  "By the way, the man you saw me with wasn't a date. He was a friend who slept on the couch," I say.

  "I didn't see you with anyone." She shoots me one of her irritating looks. "But if that's the story you're telling everyone, then that's the one I'll stick with. With you not being married and all, we wouldn't want rumors to fly. We have to keep you respectable, even if you're not."

  I let the comment roll off my chest because ignoring her is better than starting a fight with the neighbors. I decide to focus on the topic at hand and learn more information in case we're talking about my stalker or the armed burglar. So, she didn't see me. Who did she see then? "What did the man look like?"

  "I don't know, dear, but I could ask Fluffy. He might want to draw a picture for you. Have a good day." Deborah turns on her heels and crosses the lawn to her house while I'm staring after her, my mind spinning.

  Maybe she imagined it because Jamie didn't mention anything. Of course he might be a sound sleeper. I could call him and ask whether he heard any strange noises, but that might raise his suspicion. I close the door and return to the kitchen, still contemplating Deborah's words as I try to make sense of all events.

  My stalker was at the restaurant and later near the house. In the morning, he must've come back, taken a shower and spread rose petals across my bed. But how did he get in? Unless he was here all the time, which I don't believe because I checked all rooms after locking the door and windows. And then it dawns on me, suspicion slowly creeping up. A cold shiver washes over me, turning my skin into goose bumps.

  The stalking started the moment Jamie entered my life. Apart from Sam, the only person with me at the restaurant and later inside the house was Jamie. He could've sneaked out of the house to get something from his car, which would explain why Deborah saw him. I took a shower before I came down for breakfast, so Jamie could've placed the towel inside the sink and spread the rose petals across the bed before he left. It's a weak theory based on nothing concrete. I'm hesitant to believe it. And yet—

  It's him, I know it. I shake my head because it can't be. How could he have sent the text message at the restaurant without my noticing? Maybe he typed it up the few times he hid his hands under the table. I'm being paranoid, unreasonable and distrustful of the one person whose club fee almost covers my monthly mortgage repayment. I can't afford him to be my stalker, but the facts are hard to ignore. Jamie has become the number one suspect on my list.

  Chapter 11

  I'm leaning against the edge of my desk, ready to start our Monday session. Jamie shoots me a crooked smile as he takes the seat next to me. I try to avert my gaze, which is hard because he looks so handsome in his blue shirt and straight-cut jeans. But I won't let a pretty face fool me. My stalker didn't bother me for the rest of Sunday and today. Could it be because he knew he'd see me at the club? I feel the color drain from my face and my heart begins to hammer like a drum. I might be staring at a sick, albeit good-looking, stalker this very minute, and there's nothing I can do about it.

  "Is something wrong with me?" Jamie whispers as he draws closer. "You're staring like my clothes are soaked in blood and there's raw meat hanging from the corner of my mouth." He laughs.

  "What?" My eyes scan his clothes, taking in a stain the size of a coin on his chest. He follows my gaze.

  "Are you serious? That's just ketchup. I had a burger loaded with all the fixings." His finger rubs against the material. "I got nailed at lunch right before the big meeting. Talk about Murphy's Law in action. Anyway, I came straight from work and didn't have time to change."

  "Busted again." I look down at his ripped jeans. "You're allowed to dress like this?"

  "Okay, so I changed in the McDonald's bathroom. Did you really need me to admit that?"

  "There's this neat invention," I say. "It's called a napkin."

  He winks. "I might give it a try because this self-cleaning silk shirt was a rip-off."

  The corners of my mouth twitch, but I'm not going to show him I appreciate his humor. I set my jaw and turn my back on him, eager to start the session. Lucy's sitting the farthest from Jamie, so I focus on her as I speak, "Last week we learned how to blame the ex-spouse. This week, we'll work with that to boost our self-esteem. When someone leaves us, our confidence is shattered and we keep asking the same questions over and over again. Were we not good, attractive, or desirable enough to keep their heart and love?"

  Mindy starts to take notes; the tip of the pencil's making a scratching sound against the thin paper. I feel Jamie's gaze on me. My nerves are on edge again.

  I rub my temple. "Mindy, could you please stop that for a second?" She shrugs and halts her scribbling. I breathe in and out to calm my thumping heart before I continue, "When someone cheats on us, most women will forgive and attempt to work it out, but not because the relationship's worth fighting for. Moving on doesn't come naturally to us, because we're scared to end up alone, unwanted and unloved. We're afraid that we're past our sell-by date and there's no one else out there who'll see beyond our sagging skin and chubby thighs."

  "Speak for yourself." Lucy's laughter sounds forced as though she's trying to lighten up the oppressive silence. The frown between her brows deepens, and I know I've hit a soft spot. The words resonate with her. Since she's the only one who hasn't yet asked for an individual meeting, I assume she's still too shattered inside to really open up.

  I resume my lecture, "But I'm not here to convince you of the benefits of plastic surgery." The others laugh and I find myself smiling with them. "I want to talk to you about ways to let go."

  "One way is to toss out the wedding gifts," Jamie says. "Or even better, did you ladies ever hear the saying, 'Dump the dude and ditch the ring'?"

  I spun toward him, glaring. Does he think he's funny? "Could you keep it serious here for a moment? We're having an important conversation."

  His jaw drops, and for a moment he just stares at me, flabbergasted. I feel bad for snapping at him. Then again, if he's the stalker he deserves all that's coming.

  "One way to let
go of the past is to stop thinking of your spouse as your possession," I say. "With a low self-esteem this will be easier said than done because you may feel as though by letting him go you're left with nothing but a hole where your heart once was."

  "What if he doesn't want to let go of us?" Simone asks.

  I really don't see the woman's problem. The husband dots on her and yet she can't bring herself to meet him halfway. "Then you'll have to make him let go of you."

  "It's all part of my individual plan, isn't it?" she asks, wide-eyed, as though she can't wait for her husband to dump her. Most women would kill for a guy who can't keep his hands off them, but not stunning Simone. She's probably had so many, she must be bored out of her mind.

  I nod. "Yes, and I hope you've stopped shaving your legs. But going back to the topic at hand, have you ever done unreasonable things out of jealousy?" I peer around me, avoiding Jamie's gaze as I wait for an answer.

  "Once, I got a friend to follow a love interest to find out everything about her." Of course, Jamie's the one to come up with an example.

  "You mean you stalked her? Yeah, I bet you're that type." I scowl at him, wishing I could ask him whether he still practices this morbid behavior, but I need to remain professional for the club's sake. "That's plain wrong. Anyone else got a story for us?"

  He gapes at me, open-mouthed. The others keep quiet. I don't know what's wrong with everyone today. Maybe letting Jamie join us wasn't such a good idea, because my female clients seem reserved and intimidated.

  "What? I asked a friend to do it. That's different," Jamie whispers.

  "Really?" I shoot him a questioning look. He frowns as though he has no idea what I'm talking about.

  "I cracked his password on Facebook and changed his interests to raising pigs and dating nuns," Shannon says.

  "Oh, please." Lucy snorts. "When I found out my hubby was gay I was so jealous I called his bank and told them he had died." Jamie laughs. She holds up a finger. "Wait, let me finish. And then I got a pregnant lassie to pee on a pregnancy stick and left it in the bathroom for him with the note, I'll be collecting child support for the next eighteen years, sucks to be you, huh?"

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