Molly Roxbury sensed his eyes flash back at her before she saw them. Distressed by the attention, she fumbled with the snaps on her jacket and settled the fabric of her infinity scarf so it lay smoothly atop her collar. Then, still feeling the unwelcome leering, she raised her gaze to meet the male eyes in the rearview mirror. Just as she did, the man broke his stare and resumed watching the road.
That’s where your eyes need to be anyway. Molly was glad for his adjustment. She was paying him to get her to Union Square safely, not paying him to stall by staring. If this taxi driver were sizing her up to see if she’d notice if he took a longer route or made a loop around a couple of extra blocks just to run up the meter, he would be in for a surprise. Molly knew San Francisco. She wouldn’t be taken for a sucker.
“First time in the city?” His words were more of a snarl than a polite question. Judging by his accent, he wasn’t local. He sounded like he could be from Eastern Europe. Molly considered his inflection. Perhaps he was Ukrainian. Maybe Romanian. Russian was a possibility too. She had gotten fairly good with identifying accents through the small talk she came to expect from most every cabbie, though his was harder to pin.
“No.” Molly kept her response curt, not wanting to banter. She was tired from the delayed flight into San Francisco International Airport, and all she wanted was a warm bed. She’d even drag her suitcase up any stairs and through hallways herself so she wouldn’t have to wait for a porter when she arrived at the hotel entrance.
“So you know San Francisco then?”
Molly nodded her head. It didn’t take much to know San Francisco.
She had spent her childhood moving up and down the California coast, even spending a year in Oakland across the bay. Though she had never actually lived in San Francisco proper, something about it always felt like home. Maybe it was the weather, the whip of the breeze off the water that created a year-round nip in the air. Maybe it was the cool shadows cast by trendy shops and warm cafes that beckoned for passersby to duck inside—and stay awhile. Maybe it was the hum of pedestrians in concert with the city’s clockwork mass transit system. Whatever the magic, it all collided to create a pulse in the intimate peninsula only seven miles wide each way that Molly simply adored.
The Golden Gate Bridge, Ghirardelli Square, streetcars, farmers markets, piers, and Fisherman’s Wharf: every bit of the city provided temptation. Molly wanted to daydream about this playground that would be hers for the next week, but it was hard when the cabbie’s eyes kept searching her.
His pupils slanted into focus again through the mirror. “Have I seen you here before?”
Molly’s last trip was exactly a year ago, for the same annual conference with the software company where she had landed a respected job as a sales consultant. There was a remote possibility, of course, that this cabbie was in the city when Molly and her coworkers were, but she wasn’t about to answer with that.
“Afraid not,” she chose instead, wanting him to just drive and avoid what was fast becoming an awkward, oddly personal encounter. She reached down to fasten an exposed snap on her jacket she had missed earlier, steeling her body against any more unwanted attention. Cocooning herself in this firm second layer of clothes made her feel safer from the driver’s prying eyes.
But not safe enough. When they passed an intersection, Molly craned her neck against the backseat’s window to read the street sign. “Just a few more blocks.” She mustered certainty. “You can drop me off at the O’Farrell entrance.”
He snorted. “Where else would I stop?” Then he added, in a tone that was too cryptic for Molly’s taste, “The parking garage? The service entrance?”
His humor didn’t sit well. She cleared her throat and swallowed a lump that formed as her stress mounted. “V—Very funny,” she managed more meekly than she would have liked. Just drive, she willed.
He smirked and hit the blinker. The turn from Taylor Street was the cue she was waiting for, and curbside drop-off was moments away.
“Finally,” she breathed. She read the mileage meter before he had a chance to click anything to change it and dug her hand into her pocket for the two twenty-dollar bills she stashed there for the ride. As she had calculated, it was enough. The tip was small, but she wasn’t impressed.
Not by the cabbie.
But impressed by San Francisco? Now that was a whole other story.
Her door swung open thanks to the gloved hand of a doorman. With a tilt of his head and a “Welcome to the Hilton, miss” greeting, Molly was immediately filled with comfort that had lacked during the taxi ride. She couldn’t help but flash a genuine smile.
Stepping onto the tiled curb, her skin tingled beneath her clothes from the dropped evening temperature. Jacket and scarf fashionably in place, she threw her head back gently and shook out her strawberry-blond hair as she inhaled a deep breath of unmistakable bay breeze air.
It was nice to feel at home.
She knew the routine of hotel arrival, especially since it was her second time staying at this exact Hilton. Through the lobby, she would first stand at the check-in desk. After predictable exchanges, she remembered which direction she needed to head toward the elevators before navigating a corridor to her assigned room. She didn’t recall her exact room number from last year, but the memory of a week spent here from her previous sales conference was still fresh in her mind.
Molly also knew the pace at which everyone who worked for the hotel moved. She had done enough traveling since taking the software-consulting job over a year ago that she knew to have her picture ID out, her company credit card ready, her personal one for incidentals, and her rewards number to rattle off when prompted.
She only had to wait for one other patron before it was her turn at the counter. The entire front desk was a model of efficiency.
Molly wheeled her bag to a stop at the counter as she announced: “Molly Roxbury for check-in,” along with her company name.
“Indeed,” the prim check-in clerk confirmed after a series of quick keystrokes to verify her information. “I have you booked for a five-night stay, with departure on Friday. Is that correct?”
“Wonderful, Miss Roxbury.” The clerk swiped a room key card through the electronic activation machine on the counter next to her computer monitor. “May I offer you two keys or one?”
“I’ll take two, please.” She’d be there nearly a week and rooming by herself. But the last thing she needed was to misplace a room key in and among several hundred other employees all bustling around to meetings, breakout sessions, lectures, and daily keynotes. She was anxious to see everyone, both to greet old acquaintances as well as welcome new ones.
One coworker, though, who wouldn’t be in attendance was Whitney. Her friend had recently gotten engaged and was in the process of moving back to Texas. Whitney had excitedly shared her engagement news with Molly over the phone shortly after it happened, letting her know even before their supervisor, Lauren, that she was putting in her two weeks’ notice.
Molly was, of course, sorry to be losing such a great coworker in sales, but she was thrilled for Whitney. And she planned to attend her November wedding in Austin, a perfect excuse to buy a new outfit, shoes, and accessories. Maybe she’d even be able to score a deal on a fab find in Union Square. Surely she could steal away at some point for a bit of shopping.
The hotel clerk completed check-in with precision. “My pleasure, Miss Roxbury.” She slipped both keys into a paper sleeve before handing them to Molly. “And while you enjoy your stay, please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is anything I can do to make it more pleasant.”
“Thank you.” Molly took the cards. Even though she longed to see the vibrant streets and colorful district she’d be calling home for the week, exploring it all would have to wait. Slumber trumped sightseeing for the evening. Check-in led straight into the elevators, up through the many hotel floors, and into a quiet room.
Collapsing into a freshly made bed and sleeping off the Sunday tension from her traveling would be the best way to prepare for the week ahead. Molly would explore San Francisco another night.
“Well don’t you look bright-eyed!” Molly’s regional manager, Lauren, was passing out welcome bags, name tags, and a printed schedule of events in the conference wing of the hotel on Monday morning. “You don’t even need a cup of coffee.” She gestured anyway to the complimentary station with regular, decaf, sweeteners, stir sticks, and a tray of various creams and flavor syrups.
“I wouldn’t be sure about that.” Regardless of what kind of night she had, Molly never turned down coffee.
“You don’t look like you need it,” Lauren countered. Molly smiled at that. She had slept soundlessly through the entire night without waking once. It was a hard sleep after a busy day of traveling, and today she really had woken up refreshed. She was glad she looked it too. “Thanks. It’s good to see you.” She reached across the table as Lauren did the same to exchange a hug.
“You’re one of my shining stars on the sales team. The Rookie of the Year win put you on everyone’s radar.” Hearing that reminder from Lauren regarding the company award filled Molly with pride. It also filled her with memories of Derek Watson, the other up-and-comer from the Pacific Northwest sales region with whom she had shared the prestigious first-year honor.
“So what award do you think you’ll take now on your second year at it?” Lauren continued. The way she asked the question made it sound like she was baiting Molly.
“Do you know something I don’t?” She untangled the lanyard and looped it around her neck, righting the plastic name tag that hung from the center.
Lauren played coy. “Let’s just say I hope you packed something that will photograph well.” Was she hinting at another possible award this year during the company’s closing dinner ceremony?
Molly bit her lip in excitement. She wanted to ask more, but she didn’t want to push. She could work on Lauren to see if she could extract more information later. After all, she had the whole week to pry.
“Go on, now,” she urged. “Full breakfast in the main dining room, and then we’ll break for our first informational session at 9:00 a.m.”
Molly gathered her hair into a low ponytail and pulled it through the lanyard. She stashed her printed agenda into her welcome bag and followed up with a “Got it” before heading to breakfast.
She had to admit she was hungry. And now, thanks to Lauren’s hint, she was anxious too. For the moment, though, perhaps a croissant and hot java could quell the anxiety.
Stepping into the dining room offered her the first view of a scene that was like adult summer camp, revisited. The people and the scene tolled with familiarity, the whole interior ringing with bustling conversation and heralded hellos.
After getting her food and saying requisite greetings to other sales consultants, she settled at a table. More small talk and catch-ups with people there followed. Since the company’s employees were scattered all across the west coast and many worked from home, the yearly sales conference was the one time for everyone to come together, hence the summer camp feel. Unlike summer camp from childhood, though, here there would be no pranks, no tears, no letters to write back home. That last part was especially true for Molly.
Her dating scene for the past two years had been—challenging. It wasn’t that she had no interest in dating. She absolutely did. It wasn’t that she was unavailable. Hardly. It was more like she was…out of practice.
Her last semi-serious relationship lasted about four months with Henry the accountant. After that was a blind date with Trent the personal trainer. There was a random bar encounter with J.R., who showed such promise until Molly learned he was unemployed. Maybe she could have excused that, if he hadn’t immediately followed up with, as he put it, being “between houses at the moment.” She didn’t want to get involved.
And then last summer there had been Derek, the unexpected bonus of attending her first sales conference. Derek was professional yet approachable, intelligent yet easygoing. As her counterpart from Portland, they had so much built-in conversation about their jobs. Then, they were rewarded for their skills as they shared the “Rookie of the Year” award, a surprise to them both. Because of the honor, they were thrust together in several meetings and sessions, even spending some lunches together. There was the final closing dinner where Molly had gotten the nerve—through their sparks—to ask about his wedding ring.
A wife. Two kids. In Portland.
That put the brakes on any romantic pursuits. Why were the good ones always taken?
That didn’t stop, though, their communication through the year. They found themselves part of several shared regional projects and conference-call strategy sessions. They emailed. They telephoned.
The shared texts started as work-related. She’d send a funny emoji after a particularly long meeting. He’d counter with a joke or weird-faced selfie to make her laugh. But then their communication grew more personal. About two months ago, after one exhausting conference call she had complained to him about, he typed the words, “Poor baby.”
And something about that second word made her pause. She evaluated why he would use that word.
Whatever the reason, she couldn’t deny the smile that single, weighty word solicited from her as she read it.
But when she didn’t respond to the message, he tried again the next day: “Baby, what’s wrong?”
So it started.
The texts were fun—harmless, really—and she was careful not to cross a line herself because he was married. They could be friendly, but exploring anything greater than friendship would be…complicated.
And I don’t need one more complication in my life, Molly reminded herself.
For this week, at least, she wanted the opposite: no complications. That would be her pursuit. She took a final sip of her coffee at the breakfast table before glancing at her watch. “We should get going,” she announced to her coworkers. “Ten minutes until the opening session.”
Her tablemates roused themselves and mumbled, stuffing final bites of croissants, sweet breads, and fruit into their mouths. “Right behind you,” one called.
“Yep, in a minute,” another managed.
Molly pushed back her chair. “Well I’m going to grab some water before the first session.” She snatched her tote bag and swung her lanyard out of the way. “See you.” She waved, turning on her heel.
Stepping out from the large dining room’s double doors, she identified the registration table, but she needed to recall in which direction she had seen water coolers. Before I talked to Lauren? Or were they further down that hallway over there? She snapped her head in each direction, wondering which would be the wiser choice.
Hotels that doubled as conference venues were like labyrinths. With so many hidden corners and intersecting hallways, it was easy to get turned around even though this was a place she had been to before.
It’s only Day One, Molly enumerated, and already I need a map.
Not wanting to bother Lauren for directions, Molly chose the hallway to the right. If she didn’t find the water coolers, she’d stake out the best restrooms to use later. Getting her bearings now would help ease stress for the rest of the day.
Molly paced across the plush hallway carpeting, tapping the heel of her ankle boots in muted, tight rhythm. The zippered sides and mocha leather of the boots were trendy, an impulse online purchase. But she should have read the reviews. The leather had little give, and perhaps breaking them in on a work trip wasn’t the wisest choice. Already, she felt their pinch against her Achilles.
But I’ll be sitting most of the day, Molly reminded herself. She found the Ladies’ restroom and caught a glimpse of herself in a long mirror.
They do look hot. With their fold-over top and stacked two-inch heel, their fashion points outweighed their functionality points.
There wasn’t a wait in this restroom area, and Molly thought about using the faucet to fill her reusable water bottle. She was sure anything flowing from a Hilton tap—from bar to bath—was just fine and safe to drink. Still, she wanted to give the coolers another shot.
Stepping back out into the hallway, she spied a corner she hadn’t seen from her angle when she entered.
She’d cut it close with time, but the opening session was on the main conference floor. More steps also meant more opportunity to break in the boots. There’s an upside to everything!
After reaching the water coolers, she widened her stance and leaned back on one leg as she shifted her tote in front of her. She had deliberately chosen a large, fashionable carryall, though she had to admit it was easy for things to get lost in it. Rifling past wallet, makeup bag, cell phone, a hairbrush, earbuds, and the printed company agenda Lauren gave her, she finally gripped the bottle.
“There.” She held it in one hand, unscrewing the cap with the other. As she bent to fill it, a door swung open near her shoulder. Her voice caught in her throat as her tote was forced aside by fast hands that then yanked the lanyard around her neck, pulling her inside an open storage room. She stumbled forward as a finger pressed to her lips in a shushing fashion.
Two eyes met hers, and a flash of the prying stare from the cabbie the night before ran through her mind and overcame her in a fit of terror. Shadow shielded the perpetrator’s face as darkness enveloped them both. Unease seized her gut and petrified her throat as she longed to scream.
But no sound came. She couldn’t find her voice.
End of Excerpt