All the Wrong Places – Joy Fielding

“So, tell me about yourself,” he says. He smiles what he hopes is a sweet smile—neither too big nor too small, one that hints at a wry, maybe even offbeat sense of humor that he thinks would appeal to her. He wants to charm her. He wants her to like him. The young woman sitting across from him at the immaculately set table for two hesitates. When she speaks, her voice is soft, tremulous. “What do you want to know?” She is beautiful: late twenties, porcelain skin, deep blue eyes, long brown hair, just the right amount of visible cleavage. Exactly as advertised, which isn’t always the case. Usually the photos they post are a few years old, the women themselves older still. “Well, for starters, why a dating app? I mean, you’re gorgeous. I can’t imagine you’d have any trouble meeting guys, especially in a city like Boston.” She hesitates again. She’s shy, thoughtful as opposed to self-absorbed. Something else he likes. “I just thought it would be fun,” she admits.

“All my friends are on them. And I’ve kind of been out of the dating scene for a while…” “You had a boyfriend?” She nods. “We broke up about four months ago.” “You broke up with him?” “Actually, no. He broke up with me.” He laughs. “I find that hard to believe.” “He said he wasn’t ready to be tied down,” she offers without prompting. Her eyes fill with tears. Several escape without warning, clinging to her bottom lashes.

Instinctively he reaches across the table to wipe them away, careful not to disturb her mascara. “You miss him,” he says. “No,” she says quickly. “Not really. It’s just hard sometimes. It’s more being part of a couple I miss, our friends…” “Were you together long?” “A little over a year. What about you?” He smiles. She’s trying, he thinks. Even though he can see her heart isn’t really in it. Still, some women never even think to ask.

“Me? No. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a serious relationship. But we were talking about you.” She looks toward her plate. She hasn’t touched her food, and he spent hours preparing it, letting the expensive steaks marinate all afternoon, wrapping the large Idaho potatoes in tinfoil for baking, arranging the watermelon and feta cheese salad just so on the delicate floral china, wanting to impress her. Maybe she’s a vegetarian, he thinks, although there was nothing on her profile to indicate that. He should have asked when he suggested dinner. “Tell me about your childhood,” he says now. She looks surprised. “My childhood?” “I’m assuming you had one.

” Again, the sweet smile hinting at greater depths. “It was pretty ordinary. Nothing much to tell.” “I’m guessing upper middle class,” he offers, hoping to stimulate the conversation. “Comfortable lifestyle, maybe a nanny or a housekeeper, parents who loved you, made sure you had everything your little heart desired.” “Not really. Well, maybe at first,” she agrees tentatively. “Until I was about six and my parents got divorced. Then everything changed.” “How so?” “We had to move.

My mom had to go back to work. My dad remarried a woman we didn’t like. We were always being shuffled back and forth.” “We?” “My brothers and I.” “I like that you say ‘I,’ ” he interrupts. “Most people would say ‘me.’ They have no respect for grammar. Or maybe they just don’t know the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence. I don’t know.” He shrugs, sensing her mounting discomfort.

Not everyone is as concerned with grammar as he is. “How many brothers do you have?” he asks, aiming for safer ground. “Two. One’s in New York. The other one’s in L.A.” “And your mom? Where is she?” “Here. In Boston.” “Does she know where you are tonight? Well, how could she?” he asks, answering one question with another. “Don’t think she’d approve of your agreeing to have dinner in a stranger’s apartment, would she? Are you always this adventurous?” He cocks his head to one side, a gesture some have called charming, and waits for her response.

Another hesitation. “No.” “Should I be flattered? ’Cause I’m feeling kind of flattered here, I gotta admit.” She blushes, although whether the sudden redness in her cheeks is from embarrassment or anticipation, he isn’t sure. “Is it because I’m so good-looking?” He says this playfully, accompanied by yet another smile, his sweetest one so far, and although she doesn’t respond, he knows he’s right. He is that good-looking. (“Pretty boy,” his father used to sneer.) Much better-looking than the picture he posted on the dating site, which in truth isn’t a picture of him at all, just some shirtless model with handsomely generic features and washboard abs whose photograph he saw in a Men’s Health magazine. Good-looking enough to make a woman silence the nagging voice in her head warning her to beware, to follow him out of the crowded bar where they’d agreed to meet and go with him to his apartment near Sargent’s Wharf, where he’s promised a gourmet feast. “You’re not eating,” he says.

“Is the steak too rare for you?” “No. I just can’t…” “Please. You have to at least try it.” He cuts a piece of meat from his own plate and extends his fork across the table toward her mouth. “Please,” he says again, as blood drips from the steak to stain the white tablecloth. She opens her mouth to receive the almost raw piece of meat. “Chew carefully,” he advises. “Wouldn’t want you to choke.” “Please…” she says, as the cellphone in his pocket rings. “Hold on.

I’ll just be a minute.” He removes the phone from his pocket and swipes its thin face from left to right, then lifts it to his ear. “Well, hello there,” he says, lowering his voice seductively, his lips grazing the phone’s smooth surface. Finally, he thinks. “Hi,” the woman on the other end of the line responds. “Is this…Mr. Right Now?” She giggles and he laughs. Mr. Right Now is the name he goes by on the multiple dating sites to which he subscribes. “It is.

Is this…Wildflower?” “It is,” she says, more than a trace self-consciously, not as comfortable with pseudonyms as he is. “Well, Wildflower,” he says. “I’m so glad you called.” He’s been anticipating this moment for what feels like forever. “Are you still in Florida?” she asks. “Is this a bad time?” “No. It’s perfect. I just got back into town about an hour ago.” “How’s your mother?” “Much better. Thanks for asking.

How are you?” “Me? I’m fine.” She hesitates. “I was thinking maybe you were right, that it’s time we give this another try.” “No maybes about it,” he says, eager to nail her down. “At least on my end. How about Wednesday?” “Wednesday is good.” “Great. Are you familiar with Anthony’s Bar, over on Boylston? I know it’s usually crowded and it can be pretty noisy, but—” “Anthony’s is great,” she says, as he knew she would. Crowded, noisy bars are always a woman’s preferred place to meet. He smiles at the woman sitting across the table, notes the tears now wriggling freely down her cheeks.

He checks his watch, making no move to wipe the tears away. Anthony’s Bar is where he met her less than two hours ago. He is being rude and insensitive. “Say six o’clock?” he says into the phone. “Six is good.” “No more last-minute cancellations?” “I’ll be there at six on the button.” “No!” his dinner companion shouts unexpectedly. “Don’t…” He is instantly on his feet, his hand sweeping across the table to slap her hard across the face. It connects with such ferocity that the chair to which she is securely tied, her hands handcuffed behind her back, teeters on its hind legs and threatens to fall, causing the noose looped around her neck to tighten. He watches as she gasps frantically for air.

Another minute of flailing uselessly about and she will likely lose consciousness. He’s not ready for that. He isn’t done with her yet. “What was that?” the woman calling herself Wildflower asks. “What was what?” he asks easily in return, walking around the table to steady the chair, then covering the frantic woman’s mouth with his free hand. “Oh. Probably just the TV. Some guy getting the shit kicked out of him. Excuse the language.” A second’s silence.

He can almost feel Wildflower smile. “Are you going to tell me your real name?” she ventures. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” he replies flirtatiously. A lie. He never tells any of the women his real name. “Although I gotta say, I kind of like Wildflower.” “Then suppose we leave things the way they are for now.” “Till Wednesday, then,” he says. “Till Wednesday.” “Looking forward to it.

” He returns the phone to his pocket and removes his hand from the woman’s mouth. “If you scream, I’ll stick this steak knife in your eye,” he says calmly, brandishing its serrated edge in front of her face. The noose around her neck is now buried inside her flesh. He doubts she has enough air to scream, even if she were so inclined. Still, he’d underestimated her before. She’d been so easy. Almost too easy. Mesmerized by his beautiful exterior, she’d gone along with his every suggestion, agreeing to leave the dark, crowded bar to enjoy a homecooked dinner in his apartment, then eagerly sitting down at the small, round table with its white linen tablecloth already in place, not comprehending the danger she was in until her hands were handcuffed behind her and the rope was literally around her throat. She’d tried so hard, been so compliant, going along with his silly game of pretending they were on a real date, answering his stupid questions, even offering up a few of her own, undoubtedly hoping to save her life. And even when she recognized this for the pipe dream it was, when the phone call convinced her that she was simply one of many, that there was nothing special about her, and that he was already moving forward, who’d have thought she’d have the gumption to try warning his next victim? He admires that.

Not that it matters. He resumes his seat at the table and calmly finishes his meal, careful to chew each piece of meat thirty times, as his father used to insist. He hopes she won’t do anything stupid, something that will make it necessary to finish her off quickly. He wants to take his time with her, show her he’s more than just a pretty face. He smiles, hoping to convey that she has his full attention. She deserves that. But even as he lifts the last piece of steak toward his lips, his imagination is already leaping ahead. To Wednesday. And the woman who will be his crowning achievement: Wildflower. CHAPTER TWO THREE WEEKS EARLIER At just after seven A.

M. Paige Hamilton woke up to find her mother sitting on the side of her bed in her pajamas, her normally youthful features betrayed by a series of worried lines that made her look every one of her seventy years. “Mom?” “How was your date last night?” “You woke me up to ask about my date?” “How was it? “Not good.” Paige pushed herself up on her elbows, recalling last night’s unfortunate rendezvous as she shook her shoulder-length brown hair from her eyes. The man had been at least twenty pounds heavier and five inches shorter than his profile on Match Sticks indicated. What was the matter with these guys? Did they think that women didn’t have eyes, that they wouldn’t notice the discrepancy? “That’s too bad,” her mother said. “You thought he sounded promising.” “Mom…what’s going on?” “I don’t want to worry you.” “Too late for that.” “I’m sorry.

” “Don’t apologize. Tell me what’s wrong.” Her mother’s sigh shook the double bed. “I think I might be having a stroke.” Paige was instantly on her feet, dancing abstract circles on the hardwood floor. “What are you talking about? What makes you think you’re having a stroke?” She searched her mother’s face for signs of anything off balance. A drooping eyelid, a twitching lip. “You’re not slurring your words. Are you dizzy? Are you in pain?” “I’m not in pain. I’m not dizzy,” her mother repeated.

“You have such a lovely figure,” she said, as if this were a perfectly normal thing to say under the circumstances. Paige grabbed her pink silk robe from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her naked body, trying to make sense of what was happening. “I didn’t realize you slept in the nude,” her mother continued. “I always wanted to do that, but your father preferred pajamas, so I followed his lead.” “Mom! Focus! Why do you think you’re having a stroke?” “It’s my vision,” her mother said. “It’s kind of weird.” “What do you mean, it’s kind of weird? How weird?” “I’m seeing all these flashing lights and squiggly lines, and I remember reading that a change in vision is often the first sign you’re having a stroke. Or maybe a detached retina. What do you think?” “I think I’m calling nine-one-one.” “Really, darling? Do you think that’s necessary?” “Yes, Mom.

I really, really do.” Paige grabbed her cellphone from the night table and pressed the emergency digits. “Try to stay calm,” she advised her mother, although she was the one on the verge of hysteria. She’d lost her father to cancer two years ago. She wasn’t ready to lose her mother, too. At thirty-three, she was much too young to be an orphan. “What are you doing?” she asked as her mother pushed herself off the bed. “I should probably get dressed.” “Sit back down,” Paige said, listening to the phone’s persistent ring against her ear. “Don’t move.

” She threw her free arm into the air in frustration. “What’s the matter with these people? Why aren’t they answering the phone? I thought this was supposed to be an emerg—” “Nine-one-one,” a woman’s voice said, interrupting Paige’s tirade. “What is your emergency?” “My mother’s having a stroke.” “Well, it could be a detached retina,” her mother qualified. “We need an ambulance right away.” Paige quickly gave the dispatcher the address of her mother’s posh Back Bay condominium. “They’ll be here in five minutes,” she said, crossing to the en suite bathroom and throwing some cold water on her face, then applying deodorant before grabbing the first thing she saw in her closet and pulling it over her head. “That’s a pretty dress,” her mother said. “Is it new?” Paige glanced at the shapeless floral sundress that Noah had always despised. She quickly reminded herself that Noah’s likes and dislikes were no longer her concern.

“No. I’ve had it a while.” She retrieved a pair of lace panties from the top drawer of her dresser and stepped into them, pulling them up over her slim hips. “You don’t wear a bra?” her mother asked. “Well, I don’t really need one,” Paige said, deciding that attempting a normal conversation was her mother’s way of assuring her that everything would be all right, that even if her retina was detaching or, God forbid, she was having a stroke, she would be fine. Except things weren’t fine. They hadn’t been fine in a while. “I never used to need one either,” her mother said, almost wistfully. She looked down at her more than ample chest. “And then suddenly, I get these.

Now! When nobody’s looking. When nobody cares.” In other circumstances, Paige might have laughed. Now she could only fight back tears. “I care.” She sat down beside her mother and hugged her close. “You’re a good girl.” Her mother leaned her head against Paige’s shoulder. “I love you more than anything in the world. You know that, don’t you?” “I know.

” Paige felt a pang of guilt. Not because she didn’t love her mother. She did. It was just that she’d always been more of a daddy’s girl, her father’s outsized personality having tended to overshadow everything in its path, even when he was on his deathbed. “I love you, too.” “Don’t you worry.” Her mother patted Paige’s knee. “I’ll be okay.” “You promise?” “I promise.” Paige smiled, knowing such promises were futile.

Hadn’t her mother made the same promise when her father was first diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him barely a year later? “Don’t worry. Your father will be fine,” she’d assured both Paige and her brother, although it was doubtful that Michael, older than Paige by almost four years and a successful cardiologist in Livingston, New Jersey, had been as gullible. Her mother looked toward the bedroom door. “I should at least put on a robe.” “I’ll get it,” Paige said. “Don’t move.” “Bring a change of clothes for when they send me home,” her mother called after her as Paige marched toward the master bedroom down the hall. The July sun was already streaming through the automatic blinds in the living room, sending streaks, like bolts of lightning, across the beige marble floor. Her parents had moved into the two-bedroom condominium five years ago, downsizing from their six-thousand-plus-square-foot home in the suburb of Weston. (“Who needs such a big place anymore?” her mother had asked at the time.

“You kids are long gone and the dog is dead.”) Had her mother always had this sardonic sense of humor? Paige wondered now. Why hadn’t she noticed before? The condo, located in one of Boston’s most prestigious neighborhoods, was spacious and modern, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the living-dining area as well as the library that had doubled as her father’s office and the small family room off the large kitchen. The two bedrooms were located off the main hall in the opposite wing of the apartment. Each room afforded an equally stunning view of the city. Paige cut across the ivory silk-and-wool carpet that covered the master bedroom floor, slamming her hip against one of the four posters of the king-size bed as she hurried toward the walk-in closet. Well, more a room full of closets, Paige thought, wondering if her father’s clothes still occupied the half that had been his, or if her mother had finally packed them off to Goodwill. Robert Hamilton had been such a natty dresser, whether wearing a suit and tie or more casual attire. And those socks, Paige thought with a smile. Years before it had become fashionable, her father had sported a huge selection of colorful, wildly patterned socks that were a perfect complement to his equally huge and colorful personality.

Tears clouded Paige’s eyes and she brushed them aside. She missed her father so much. Was she about to lose her mother, too? Was everyone she loved destined to abandon her? “God, you’re a selfish bitch,” she muttered, retrieving her mother’s blue terry-cloth robe from a hook inside the closet, then selecting a pink cotton dress and some surprisingly racy underwear from the built-in dresser—had her mother always worn bikini panties and push-up bras?—and carrying everything back to her room. Not that the second bedroom had been meant for her. Originally, it was intended as a guest room, for whenever Michael and his family came to visit. But Michael’s busy schedule had precluded such visits happening often, and his wife had preferred staying in a hotel, so the room had stayed largely empty and unused. But then Paige’s father had died, and six months ago she’d lost her job, and two months after that, her live-in boyfriend had left her for another woman—well, technically, she was the one who’d had to move out—so Paige’s mother had suggested that she move in with her. “Just temporarily,” she’d stressed. “Until you’re back on your feet again.” Was that ever going to happen? Paige wondered now, entering the bedroom to find her mother standing beside the window, staring down at the tree-lined street ten stories below.

“Mom, what are you doing? I told you to stay still.” “I’m just admiring the day. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.” “Can you see all right?” Paige asked. “What’s happening with your eyes?” “Still lots of fireworks. It’s kind of like one of those sound-and-light shows. Only without the sound.” Her lips curled into a weak smile. “You’re scaring me.” “I’m sorry, darling.

That’s the last thing I want to do. I’ll be fine. I promise.” The phone rang as Paige was helping her mother on with her robe. Paige listened to the concierge’s worried voice, then hung up the phone and took a deep breath before attempting a smile of her own. “The ambulance is here.

.

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