The man on the ladder glanced around, spotted Shane, did a double-take, and nearly fell.
“Whoa,” Shane called. “Need a hand?” He hoped the answer was no, because attractive though this guy was, Shane needed to lie down very soon. His side really did hurt like hell, and he realized that between dragging his suitcase from the dock and hauling groceries from the market, he probably had overdone it. If he thought his family was nagging him now, it would be nothing to the symphony of shame he’d be subjected to if he landed back in the hospital.
“Uh, no,” the guy in the black and blue flannel shirt said. “No thanks.” He wasn’t looking at Shane, and his voice sounded muffled, strange…
Strange but familiar.
Shane went down the little walk to his cottage door, fumbled the door open, and dropped his groceries on the sofa. His hands were shaking.
“You’re crazy,” he muttered to himself.
After two years he couldn’t possibly remember what Norton’s voice had sounded like.
His heart was pounding so hard he felt sick.
“He doesn’t even look the same,” he protested, but he went over to the window, twitched the blinds wide open, and stared out.
From across the road, the man on the ladder was staring at Shane’s cottage.
He didn’t look like Norton. The hair was wrong. Norton’s hair had been a wild yellow bush. The build was… Norton had always worn baggy, loose clothing…clogs, earrings, beads…but he had been tall and well-built. Like the guy across the street. His face…
It bothered Shane that he had difficulty remembering Norton’s face. Especially since he was trained to remember facial types. But whenever he tried to recall Norton’s features, his memories were troublingly vague. Norton had looked like a lot of people. He had been attractive, but nothing in his attractiveness had really stuck out. He’d had a nice grin, and he’d made a lot of faces when he was joking around. Expressive. That was it. His eyes had been alert, his demeanor lively. His features had an almost malleable quality to them.
The guy staring at Shane’s cottage—in fact, he was probably watching Shane watch him—was still and unsmiling. Secretive? Or was Shane projecting? But yeah, had Norton ever had an alarmed or disbelieving moment, that was likely the expression—or lack of expression—he’d have worn.
Shane left the window and went outside. The man on the ladder observed him cross the road. There was no traffic. No golf carts. No pedestrians. Nobody out this misty, gray morning but Shane and…whoever this guy was.
Shane came to a stop on the narrow sidewalk outside the white picket fence surrounding Norton’s cottage. “Well,” he said. “This is a surprise.”
“Yeah?” the man on the ladder said defensively. “Is it?”
Yep, the voice was definitely Norton’s.
“You looked pretty surprised to me a minute ago. What are you doing here?”
“I live here.”
“No, you don’t.”
The blue eyes—how had he forgotten Norton’s eyes were a cold, clear blue?—hardened. “Not all year, I don’t. In the spring and summer I rent the cottage out.”
Shane heard it, but it didn’t really register. He was busy with his own thoughts, struggling to contain the volcano of feelings threatening to erupt out of him. He felt…peculiar. Emotional. He was confused and angry, and he wasn’t exactly sure why. Normally he was controlled and rational. He liked that about himself. He believed it was what made him a good agent. A civilized man. A grown-up. But he did not feel controlled right now. He felt…like his head was about to explode. Like red-hot rocks were going to crack the roof of his skull and go flying, shattering nearby windows perhaps.
He said, “It is you, right? Norton?”
If it wasn’t Norton, it was his twin. Or his doppelgänger.
The man in front of him didn’t answer, seemed to be considering what he should say, and for some reason that made Shane all the angrier.
“I mean, I already know Norton isn’t your actual name. That much, I figured out a long time ago. It would be nice to know the rest of it.”
Nice wasn’t exactly the word.
Norton’s—no, not-Norton’s eyes narrowed. “What is it you think you figured out?”
“You’re some kind of investigator. You were hired by the family or by the Bureau. I’m guessing the family. The Fallons. To investigate me.”
“That’s right,” not-Norton said. “I worked for Metropolitan Mutual. The Fallons’ insurance company. And, as you know, I cleared you of all suspicion of wrongdoing, and you got your job back. So…you’re welcome.”
“W-w-welcome!” stuttered Shane. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say to me?”
Not-Norton frowned. “What would you like me to say to you?”
Un. Fucking. Believable.
“For starters, what are you doing here? You didn’t own this place two years ago.”
“No, I didn’t. I bought it last year.”
“Why would you do that?”
Not-Norton looked bewildered. “Why wouldn’t I? I was looking around for a vacation place on the coast, and I like Catalina. I had a great time here that spring.”
“A great time!”
Not-Norton was getting more grim and guarded-looking by the second. It was surreal. No, it was whatever was more surreal than surreal. Fantastical? Hallucinatory? There had to be a word. It was confusing how much he looked like Norton and how utterly and absolutely different he was.
“Look,” not-Norton pressed on, “I’m not sure what the problem is. We had a nice thing a couple of years ago. Right? Did I miss something? You got your job back. I helped you get your job back.”
It was like they were from distant planets and the homeworld hand gestures were just not the same. Not-Norton seemed to feel he was making a peace sign, and Shane felt like he was getting an Up Yours. Repeatedly. With greater and greater emphasis.
It had to be due to recently getting out of the hospital or something like that because Shane could feel himself growing more and more emotional and upset, which served to make him more emotional and upset. This wasn’t like him. None of this was like him. He was behaving like…well, for sure not like not-Norton, who had enjoyed “the nice thing a couple of years ago” and never given him another thought.
Which Shane already knew. Was obvious from the way things had ended. So why the drama? He had accepted for years that the timing of not-Norton’s leaving had not been a coincidence. Shane had worked it out a long time ago. Not-Norton had to have been some kind of an investigator working for the Fallons.
Or he actually was an international art thief, and he’d figured out what Shane did for a living.
God. Yes. As ridiculous as that second scenario had been, it had actually crossed Shane’s mind a few times. In fact, in an unacknowledged corner of his heart he’d preferred that scenario because it meant not-Norton hadn’t had a choice. It meant Shane hadn’t just been…a job.
But Shane had been just another job. That was clear from the way not-Norton was eyeing him. Like Shane was behaving in an unexpected and worrying way.
Which made Shane feel foolish on top of…whatever else he was feeling. Certainly embarrassed. Because here he was, yelling in the street about, well, getting dumped. Two years ago. And since he was actually not that great at gracefully severing connections himself, this was probably poetic justice. Or something equally awful.
He pulled himself together and said coldly, “You’re right. No problem on my side. Happy Holidays.”
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