This story takes place about a month before the start of Run.
Ryan Granger woke before six on a workday morning to find his East End flat dark and quiet. He groaned. The power was out, again, which meant no coffee. And he desperately needed caffeine.
“This is what you get for partying on a school night,” he muttered.
But Thursday evenings were far too tempting to skip. That was the night the town discounted its delights for the student population, and nothing was more fun or came with less entanglement than hooking up with a college girl. Although his best friend Elle would disagree. As far as she was concerned, he was too old to dive into the college pool. Ryan regularly reminded her that he was barely in his thirties. To which she always replied: “Leonardo DiCaprio. Let him be a lesson. There’s a fine line between hot young playboy and dirty old man.”
With a groan, he hauled his backside out of bed and threw open the door to the hallway. That’s when it hit him. An all too familiar pungent odor.
“Sylvester!” he bellowed.
But the stinking feline was long gone. Ryan’s nose led him to his tiny kitchen, where he discovered the open window that his neighbor’s cat had snuck through. He slammed it shut and instantly regretted it. Now the smell of unneutered male was enough to make him gag. To make it worse, the bloody cat had jumped onto his counter and doused the paper bag full of Danish pastries with eau de Tomcat.
“There goes breakfast,” Ryan grumbled. “I hate that cat.”
The temptation to use it for firearms practice was getting harder to resist by the day.
Wearing only his boxers, Ryan cleaned down all the kitchen cupboards and walls where the cat had claimed his territory. A territory that wasn’t his. He wondered what the cat would do if Ryan whipped out his own equipment and peed all over the neighbor’s yard to get even.
Unfortunately, he knew what his neighbors would do, and that’s what stopped him.
After a cold shower, thanks to a lack of power to run his electric shower unit, he threw on his favorite threadbare jeans, a faded blue T-shirt, and suede boots. It was time to head to work—via a quick detour to appease his stomach.
By the time Ryan had ordered coffee and egg muffins at the local drive-through, his old Land Rover was making a strange squealing sound. He patted the dash and whispered encouragement to it. “You’ve got this. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a beautiful, well-built machine. You can do this.”
“I wish my boyfriend would whisper sweet nothings to me like that,” the server said through the window before handing him his food.
With an embarrassed smile, Ryan took the bag and his drink before coaxing his elderly vehicle out into traffic.
And his day only got worse from there.
They’d forgotten to put the egg in his egg muffins, and the coffee he’d ordered turned out to be tea—without milk. Which was unforgivable.
“Deep breaths,” he muttered as he maneuvered his car onto the motorway, heading to Central London and work. “There will be food and coffee at the office. You’ll be there in no time. I bet Julia bought pastries or doughnuts for the meeting, and you’ll make it there early enough to fill up on them before everyone else arrives.”
Yeah, he liked that plan a lot. Julia always bought extra to cater to his healthy appetite. She was sweet like that.
He was smiling at the thought of their office manager’s soft heart when his car stopped. In the middle of the motorway. There was nothing he could do but glide to the hard shoulder while tolerating the idiots who leaned on their horns. A minute later, he was staring at the smoke coming out from under the hood of his Land Rover.
“Well, this isn’t good,” Ryan muttered as he dialed his mechanic.
An hour later, he found out just how bad it was.
“The engine’s seized.” His mechanic, Dave, wiped his hands on a rag as he stared under the hood of Ryan’s car. “Nothing we can do but tow it to the junkyard. But it’ll cost you to dump it. And for the tow.”
“Great.” He hadn’t even had breakfast yet, and he was out hundreds for nothing. “You got a loaner I can use until I sort something else?”
Dave shook his head. “Sorry. They’re all out. I can give you a lift to the garage, and you can arrange some transport from there. Best I can do.”
“Fine.” Ryan sighed before helping Dave hook his car up for the tow.
Half an hour later, he was even farther away from the office than when he left home. And it was raining. Not just any rain either. No, it was that cold drizzle he hated. The kind that soaked through your clothing and settled on your skin, staying there until you felt you’d never be dry or warm again.
Okay, even he realized that was being a tad melodramatic.
“My cousin owns a car yard in Vauxhall. He’ll do you a good deal if you mention my name.” Dave handed Ryan a business card as he waited in the doorway of the garage for his Uber to arrive. “Do yourself a favor. This time, don’t buy cheap. Spend the money to get a decent ride. It’ll save you in the long run.”
Ryan glared at him. “My Land Rover lasted years.”
“It did.” Dave nodded. “And you could have bought three cars for the money you spent fixing it.” With an eye roll, he sauntered back into the building.
“Smart arse,” Ryan muttered as his Uber pulled to a stop in front of him.
“You’re going to Victoria.” The driver beamed at him. “Excellent.”
For his driver, maybe. Not so much for Ryan, who’d almost passed out on seeing how much the ride would cost. Unfortunately, he had to suck it up and console himself with the fact it was cheaper than a taxi and faster than public transport, because he was already way too late for his team’s morning meeting.
They ended up idling behind an accident that’d blocked the road. The wait wouldn’t have been too bad, except his driver decided it was a perfect opportunity to explain how he felt about Brexit. In detail. With many hand gestures. By the time Ryan arrived at the Benson Security building, his ears were aching, his stomach rumbled, and he’d missed the team meeting entirely.
Yay for him.
His boss, Callum McKay, stood behind the front desk, chatting with his wife, who he’d recently hired as their receptionist. So far, Isobel had shown absolutely no affinity for the job. Messages weren’t taken, protocols weren’t followed, and deliveries disappeared into the cupboard behind her, never to be seen again. Despite being the world’s worst receptionist, Isobel received rave reviews from every member of staff asked about her performance. This was because Callum was a scary Scottish guy with a hair-trigger temper, and Isobel wasn’t beyond calling her three sisters in to help her deal with people who annoyed her. Turned out that Scottish women were just as mad as the men.
“You’re late,” Callum barked because that’s pretty much how he talked all the time.
Ryan couldn’t answer, as his jaw had hit his chest. Callum wasn’t wearing one of the five million gray Henleys he owned. Instead, he had on a pale blue, paisley patterned, button-down shirt. And, if Ryan wasn’t mistaken, it had a silky sheen.
“Is it disco day?” Ryan asked as soon as he was able to speak.
Callum’s frown spoke volumes, and a wiser individual would have stopped talking at that point.
Nobody would ever accuse Ryan of being wise. “I can’t see behind the counter. But I’m guessing you’ve paired that shirt with white trousers?” He looked around. “Are the Bee Gees here?”
“Keep your commentary to yourself, Ryan Granger,” Isobel said. “I bought that shirt, and Callum looks sexy as hell in it.” She smiled at her husband. “You’re totally getting some special attention later.”
The big bad Scot blushed, cleared his throat, and glared at Ryan. “You missed the meeting.”
“My car died. The engine seized on the motorway.” He shuffled in place. “Any chance I could use one of the company cars until I find a replacement?”
“Hell no!” Callum bellowed. “I’m fed up with taking cars out on a job and finding women’s underwear in it. Or fast-food wrappers. Or women’s underwear tucked into fast-food bags. It’s unprofessional.”
“To be fair,” Ryan said, “I’m fairly certain most of the underwear you find belongs to Megan. Her and Dimitri like to ‘christen’ their vehicles before each job.” And sometimes during, but Callum didn’t need to know that part.
“What the hell? This is a business,” Callum railed. “Not a hangout for a bunch of randy teenagers who’re allowed to play with guns. When I was in the service—”
“We know.” Isobel patted Callum’s chest. “None of this would be tolerated. Including our hanky-panky in your office during lunch breaks.” She cocked an eyebrow at him.
Callum flushed beet red, coughed, and strode down the hallway to his office. The door slammed behind him.
Ryan let out a whistle. “Nicely handled.”
“I’ve got skills.” Isobel buffed her nails on her shirt before handing him a box wrapped in brown paper. “This arrived for you this morning.”
“And I’m actually getting it?” Wonders never ceased.
“I can call Callum back if you like?” the witch said with a toss of her dark hair.
“What I meant to say was thank you.”
“You bet you did.”
Ryan flashed her a grin and jogged up the stairs to the breakroom—only to find the pastries were gone. All that was left was fruit. How was a growing boy supposed to live on fruit? He needed carbs—pastries, doughnuts, cookies. Anything with sugar. And all there was in the fridge was some crackers and cheese and a bunch of bananas. The world was definitely out to get him today.
Grateful there was at least coffee, he poured himself a mug and sat at the table to open his package.
At the sight of its contents, he sucked in a breath.
In front of him lay his old passport, a bundle of cash, a new phone, a packaged handgun—along with a box of ammunition—and a brand-new iPad.
A replacement for everything that’d been stolen from him while at a wedding in South America.
With hesitation, he reached for the envelope peeking out from under everything else and sliced it open. It was the same handwriting as the note left in his hotel room.
The woman who’d cursed his love life with her betrayal.
He took a deep breath and began to read.
By now, you probably know that my name isn’t Esperanza but Esther. Although most people still call me Essie. When we met in South America, I was in a bad place. My husband had been killed, and I was on the run from the men who killed him and the authorities who thought I was responsible. With the money and resources I stole from you, I was able to get out of the country. I’ve now managed to clear my name and, with the help of an old friend who has skills in this area, have been tracking down the people who ruined my life.
I wanted you to know that I’m in a better place now, but I regret what I did to you. Please believe me when I say that I had no intention of stealing from you when we went back to your room. That idea came once you’d left. It seemed like the only solution to my problem at the time. I was desperate and afraid that if I involved you, you’d get hurt. Now that I know who you are and who you work for, I realize I should have just told you what was going on. I know you would have helped me, and I’m sorry I didn’t give you the chance.
We had something special during our short time together. And although we’ve both moved on, I wanted you to know that it meant a great deal to me. I still think of you fondly. You’re a good man, Ryan. And I hope you’ll accept my apology and these replacements for the things I took. I’m so sorry that I used you and stole from you. You didn’t deserve that. I know there’s a woman out there who’ll treat you the way you deserve to be treated, and I hope you’ve found her already.
Have a wonderful life,
Ryan reread the letter several times, then checked the box and its contents for some clue as to where she’d mailed it from. But there was no postmark or return address. Nothing to tell him how to find Essie. Because Essie didn’t want to be found. She’d moved on.
So that was it. And he honestly didn’t know what to think about the package. She’d said she’d repay him, and she had. He supposed he should have been grateful that she kept her word. Mainly, he felt empty inside. Which made no sense at all. They hadn’t been in love. They’d barely known each other, but there’d been chemistry for sure—before she’d betrayed him. And now, there was an apology. Along with a reason for her betrayal. It should have put an end to the whole sorry memory of their time together.
Instead, he found himself focusing on the last line of her letter: I know there’s a woman out there who’ll treat you the way you deserve to be treated, and I hope you’ve found her already.
He wondered what Essie would think if she found out he was as alone now as he’d been on the day they met. Would she feel sorry for him? Would she find it sad?
Ryan pushed the box away, got up, and strode from the room. Only to bump into Elle in the stairwell.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” she demanded.
Ryan focused on her Minnie Mouse T-shirt because he wasn’t up to looking her in the eye. “Going to buy a new car.” He kept on walking, hoping she’d take the hint that he wasn’t in the mood to talk.
Thankfully, she did.
A few minutes later, Ryan sat on the Underground, speeding through the tunnels toward Dave’s recommended car yard. It was time to live a little, to splash out. To get something nice and shiny to take his mind off of his sad, pathetic life. And what better way to boost his ego than buying a car? Hell, wasn’t it an established tradition? Weren’t guys supposed to lose their self-confidence and find a sexy car? He could do that. He wanted to do it. Cars were more reliable and easier to handle than women anyway.
It took the rest of the day to find the one he wanted—a sleek, silver Audi Spyder convertible. Even used, buying it wiped out most of his savings. But it was worth it. The thing was sex on wheels. Sleek, low to the ground, and curved in all the right places. It even purred as it drove. James Bond would have chosen the exact same model. And Ryan felt just like him as he sat behind the wheel.
After dinner and another shower, Ryan dressed in his sharpest suit. James Bond could eat his heart out. With a smile at the mirror, he snatched up his phone and opened Tinder. A couple of minutes later, he swiped right on a date who was happy to meet him at a club in Central London. It was just what he needed: a night of fun, flirting, and sexy times. Sure, she probably wasn’t the woman Essie had in mind when she’d wished him well, but she was the one who could give him what he needed—an enjoyable end to a crappy day. In fact, she might even agree to skipping the club and going for a ride in his new car. He could think of nothing sexier than a hot woman by his side as he drove through London with the top down.
He sent her a photo of his car with exactly that suggestion and received a coy “we’ll see” in return.
With one last grin at his reflection, he left his flat and headed into Soho.
And three hours later, he called Elle for a lift home.
“What happened this time?” Elle asked as he folded himself into the passenger seat of her blue Mini Cooper.
Her bright blue hair was tied up on top of her head in a messy knot. The color did not go with her lime green T-shirt, nor with the lavender dungarees or even her hot-pink Doc Marten boots.
“You look like a unicorn vomited you up.” Irritated, he wrestled with the car seat until he managed to squeeze an extra inch of legroom out of it.
She frowned at him before pulling out into a road filled with drunken revelers streaming out of the closing nightclubs. Some would find another club that was still open and party until dawn. The rest would head straight for a kebab before riding the Underground home.
“Don’t change the subject,” Elle said. “Just tell me what happened. You know I’ll find out anyway.”
Sadly, with her hacking skills, that was probably true. “What do you think happened? The same thing that always happens—my curse kicked in.”
“Which one? The one where every woman you date is dodgy as hell? Or the one where every date you go on ends with you being ripped off?”
“Aren’t they two sides of the same coin?”
“Well, there was that one woman who lied about her identity. She didn’t steal anything.”
“Just goes to show how sad my love life is that she was one of the good ones.” Ryan glared at the dashboard. This wasn’t a car. It was a toy.
“I’m guessing tonight’s date didn’t fall into the good category?”
“Hell, no. She stole my car.”
Elle’s eyebrows shot up. “The one you just bought? The Spyder?”
Yep, he’d sent a photo of it to Elle too. And the rest of his team. And his family. He’d even sent one to his mechanic. Which meant everyone he knew was going to have a blast with his latest disaster. He’d hear about this for years to come.
“Yeah, the Spyder.” He sank back in the seat—as far as he could without ending up with his knees around his ears. “If only I’d brought it to the office first. You could have put a tracker on it.”
“I don’t do that sort of thing.”
Elle had a habit of keeping tabs on her friends, usually without their knowledge.
“So, are we heading to the police station or the office to try to find her ourselves?”
“I suppose I should report it before it’s stripped and sold.” He thumped his head back against the headrest. “I’ll never live this down. Did you know that Rachel suggested I join a dating site for ex-cons because that’s clearly my type? Her words, not mine.” He groaned. “What is it with me, Elle? Ever since South America, I’ve been a magnet for women who only want to rip me off. It feels like Essie opened a floodgate when she stole from me. Now every woman on the planet views me as a mark. Do I have sucker tattooed on my forehead in ink only women can see? Do I come across as gullible and dumb? Seriously, you’re a woman. Tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
Elle sailed through a green light only to pull over and park on the other side of the crossing. She turned off the engine, twisted in her seat, and patted his hand.
Ryan found himself holding his breath as he waited for whatever she had to say.
“I think you’re looking at this whole thing the wrong way. Do you want to know what your real curse is?” She looked more serious than he’d ever seen her.
He swallowed hard. “Singleness?”
“It’s stupidity.” The pat on his hand turned into a smack before she sat back, folded her arms, and glared at him. “Seriously, maybe if you got to know some of the women you date before taking them to bed, you’d weed out the crooks and weirdos. Have you ever thought of that? Hell, I’d do a background search on anyone you want me to. Try thinking with your brain instead of your libido. Then maybe you’ll stop falling in lust with every pretty face that crosses your path.”
“That’s not fair. I’ve been careful since Essie—”
“No, you’ve been colder since Essie, but you haven’t been more careful. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be on our way to report your car stolen, would we? I mean, seriously, when did you meet this woman?”
“Um, tonight,” he mumbled.
“Tinder.” Elle sighed. “And she got your car before you even got her into bed. That’s talent.”
Ryan didn’t answer.
“You had sex at the club?” She sounded outraged. “Please tell me you used protection. Oh! You didn’t do it in the toilets, did you? That’s just unsanitary.” Her face scrunched up in disgust. “Ryan, if you’re looking for love, you’re doing it in all the wrong places. And in the wrong way. With the wrong women.”
“You might have a point.” What else was there to say?
“Damn straight, I do.” She put the car in gear and drove them back into traffic.
“Fine, next woman I’m interested in, I’ll take it slow.” Did two dates count?
“You’ll get to know her first,” Elle prompted. “Properly. And have me run a background check.”
“I’ll get to know her before I sleep with her, okay?” He felt like a teenager getting a lecture on dating from his mother. And he wasn’t agreeing to a background check. Well, not until he was sure he was interested in her for more than a fling. If that was even possible. Who knew? Maybe he was just a one-night-stand kind of guy.
And wasn’t that depressing?
Everyone around him was settling down. He would have at least liked to think it was possible for him too.
“One question,” Elle said. “You do know how to get to know a woman, right? I mean, it’s more than exchanging numbers or texting now and then. I’m talking full-on conversations about topics other than your favorite sexual positions.”
“I know how to get to know someone,” Ryan ground out. Because now she was just being insulting.
“And you’re going to do it with the next woman?”
“If this conversation doesn’t end right now, I’m asking Lake to email your mystery man to tell him you’re still searching for him.” Elle wasn’t the only one who knew how to play dirty.
“You wouldn’t dare.” She gaped at him. When he didn’t answer, she sighed. “Okay, we can drop it. What’s the name of the woman who stole your car? I’ll do a search on her while you talk to the cops.” Elle turned into the police station parking area.
Ryan wanted a black hole to open up under him because this topic would be just as humiliating as the last.
“Ryan,” she pressed.
“Candy Cotton,” he muttered, his cheeks heating as Elle parked the car.
She switched off the ignition and turned to stare at him. “And that wasn’t a red flag?”
“She seemed genuine.” Ryan climbed out of the toy car.
Elle shook her head as she came around to walk beside him. “I take it back. You do have sucker tattooed to your forehead.” She pushed open the door for him. “Let’s go report the stripper who stole your car.”
“She wasn’t a stripper.” At least, he was pretty sure she didn’t strip for a living… Maybe.
To his credit, the cop who filled the paperwork did his best not to laugh while Ryan recounted his evening. But it was clear that the police didn’t hold out much hope of him ever seeing his car again. Even Candy’s Tinder profile had disappeared, leaving little for them to track her down.
It was early morning by the time they left the police station. London was at its quietest in the wee small hours. Revelers had staggered home to bed, most businesspeople weren’t up yet, and there were only a few night workers quietly going about their tasks.
“I’m good at my job, right?” he asked his friend.
“Then how come I can spot a crook a mile away when I’m at work but am so gullible when it comes to women?”
“You’re a good guy, Ryan. You just need to slow down and find the good women.”
“Yeah, maybe.” He wasn’t so sure. It was possible guys like him were only meant to find the bad ones.
“Breakfast?” Elle hooked an arm through his.
“I could eat.” It was Saturday, which meant he didn’t have to worry about getting to work on time. He could sleep the weekend away and pretend his day from hell had never happened—until he had to fight with the insurance company over reimbursement for his car. That should be fun.
“Covent Garden Cafe?”
He nodded, and they headed for her Mini.
“You know,” Elle said as the streetlamp’s orange glow folded around them, “I found your package on the breakroom table.”
“And you opened it, then no doubt read my private mail.” He wasn’t even slightly surprised. This was Elle; she had her own idea of healthy boundaries.
“Of course.” She wasn’t in the least ashamed of it either. “At least you have closure, and that’s good, right?”
Damned if he knew.
“I mean”—she faced him as they stopped beside her car—“if this curse of yours started with Essie, then surely today’s mail means it ends with her. Don’t you think?”
“Elle,” he said gently because she meant well, “I bought the car after I opened the package. My date stole it hours later. The curse is still in full force.”
“Not if you change your approach to dating.” She squeezed his arm and stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek. “I have faith, Ryan. I believe things are going to turn around for you. In fact, I think this is the beginning of a whole new chapter. You’ll see. Good things are coming. I’m sure of it.”
Her grin was so contagious that he found himself smiling back as she climbed into her car. Who knew? Maybe she was right.
Maybe his life would change for the better.