Pimpernel: Chapter 5

Forty minutes later, Claire pulled into her assigned parking spot at her off-campus apartment. She was home. Finally. Even better? Her roommate’s car was in its assigned spot, so she wouldn’t be returning to an empty apartment. It would be nice not to be alone tonight.

Taking a moment to enjoy the peace of being in a not-moving car, Claire closed her eyes and did her best to relax. No dice.

What in the world was her life coming to? She’d just spent the evening defrauding a businessman in China only to almost get pulled over by a fake cop.

Part of her was disappointed that it hadn’t been a real officer. Then this whole mess would be over. If she was in jail, no one could hang Ryan’s life over her head and make demands. Her hands would be tied. Literally. And that, in turn, would set her free.

Instead, she was still playing puppet to an invisible puppeteer who allowed her most of her freedom, so long as she did what he needed whenever he needed it and kept her mouth shut after the fact. It was the same thing the puppeteer must have done to Ryan—forcing his hand and then using him as leverage against her when he fell short and got caught.

If only Claire could talk to Ryan and find out what he knew. She was doing her best, but information on how he’d been roped into this whole mess might help Claire figure out how to expose the guy who was ruining their lives.

Someday she’d sit down with Ryan and ask him all about it, but first she needed to return everyone’s money to take the target off their backs. Then the two of them needed to run like mad.

Claire still hadn’t figured out the whole running away part yet. Where to go…if Ryan even had a passport…

“He’ll know where to go,” she whispered in her parked car. “Just remember the numbers. That’s the hard part. Getting on a plane is easy.”

The words sounded good to her ears, but a sour feeling in her stomach begged otherwise.

 “It’s just anxiety,” she told herself, hoping it was the truth. Then, before she could second-guess her assessment, Claire grabbed her purse, engaged her emergency brake, and locked her car with a silent prayer that there would be no more investor meetings before Monday’s evidentiary hearing for Ryan. As much of a high as it was to run the actual meetings, the stress of the aftermath was unraveling her.

Claire walked up the pathway to her apartments, her mind compulsively noting new pieces of litter and a quarter that had been dropped. As she passed the mailboxes, she could see that the locks for apartments 5, 7, and 16 were at a slightly different angle since she’d last left, indicating those people had checked their mail while she was gone.

Noticing little things like this often made Claire feel more in control, but tonight the observations did little to soothe her nerves. Her hands shook as she pulled her keys out of her purse and singled out the key for her apartment on her keychain.

You’re fine, she told herself even as invisible pressure gripped her chest like a giant vice. You made it home, and no one has any idea—

The high-pitched scream from the other side of her apartment door shattered Claire’s thoughts.

“Daniel?” That shriek had been way too high to come out of a man.

“Help!” Daniel’s voice cried out from the other side of the door.

Claire unlocked the door and pushed it open, finding Daniel cowering on the couch in sailor-themed boxer briefs. Classical music played from his bedroom, indicating Daniel had been sewing before he ended up on the couch. On the ground between them lay the lounge robe Daniel had made in his fashion design class along with his house slippers. They looked like they’d been flung at random.

“Move!” he shrieked at her, stabbing his finger at the ground like a mad man. “Take the high ground and leave the door open. Maybe it will go back to the gates of hell, where it belongs!”

Claire followed the direction of his manic gesturing, freezing when her eyes locked on something the size of her fist with eight hairy legs. “Daniel? Please tell me that is a toy.”

“That. Is. NOT. A. Toy!”

The spider chose that moment to make its move—which happened to be sprinting her way.

Claire shrieked as Daniel motioned for her to join him on the couch. “High ground!”

Was he insane? She would have to leap over the tarantula to get to him. Why in the world would she do that when she could just run away and go to a hotel for the night?

“Voldemort?” a man’s voice said from behind her a split second before Claire backed into a male body blocking her retreat. Not only did Claire scream, but her body was suddenly possessed by an Olympic hurdler as she scampered across the living room and flung herself into Daniel’s arms on the couch.

“You found her!” a flagpole of a man said from the doorway as Claire latched onto Daniel, hiding her face against his shoulder. If she didn’t see the spider, maybe it would cease to exist.

“Found it?” Daniel scoffed. “That thing tried to duel me for my sandwich before I batted him off my kitchen table.”

Claire shuttered, only vaguely realizing that the shoulder she was hiding her face in was bare. I’ve never hugged a guy who was only wearing underwear before, she thought a moment before Daniel pulled her keys out of her hand and flung them at the ground to join his slippers and robe.

“Don’t chase it this way!” Daniel yelled at the other guy.

“Come on, Voldemort,” the spider guy cooed. “Let’s get you back into your habitat—Don’t run!

Wait, it was running? Claire didn’t want to see that, yet something compelled her to turn and look anyway.

People always said that horrible things seemed to happen in slow motion, but Claire could have sworn the giant arachnid was coming at her in fast-forward mode. In a heartbeat, she had climbed up to ride piggyback on Daniel while he responded by flapping his hands in panic as if he could fan the thing away with a light breeze.

Not only did the spider keep running, it was sprinting like an arachnid with a plan—heading straight for the couch.

When Daniel backed away, Claire felt her back thump into the wall. Before he could move again, she pushed off his back to stand on the back of the couch, dropping her purse when it threatened her balance. On the way down, it ended up in Daniel’s hands and he wasted no time finding items inside and tossing them at the spider while its owner moved in to act like a human shield.

“No!” the tall guy cried as he tried to corral the beast. “Don’t throw things at her. You might hurt her.”

Just then, Claire’s favorite lip gloss bounced off the hairy spider, stunning it.

That lip gloss was dead to her—not just the tube, the actual brand. She’d never be able to look at it the same again.

The next thing Daniel grabbed out of her purse was a small pocket mirror. He was about to hurl it when she reached out and stopped him.

“No!” she said, not really knowing what she was saying. “Broken mirrors are bad luck.”

Daniel glanced up at her with an expression she might expect if she’d just grown two heads. “Seven years of bad luck later is better than eight legs sprinting at you now.”

He was right, of course. Claire was just about to release his hand when Voldemort’s owner let out a cheer. “Gotcha!”

Claire looked down to see their neighbor scooping the spider up in some sort of modified Tupperware spider holder.

Claire was going to have nightmares about this. Lots and lots of nightmares.

“I’m so sorry,” the guy babbled. “I know Voldy doesn’t make the best first impression, but she’s quite harmless.”

Nightmares. For years. Not Claire’s definition of harmless.

“I really don’t know how she got out.”

Voldemort was a she? Somehow that made things worse.

“I really am so sorry,” the still-unknown guy repeated. “Her habitat is quite secure. Maybe I should rename her Houdini because I have no idea how she pulled off this trick.”

A tarantula named Houdini? With that single thought, Claire was pretty sure her life would never be the same again, awake or asleep.

“Um, excuse me,” Daniel said, wiggling his fingers to get the other guy’s attention. “I’m sure you’re a nice person, but right now I need you to be a Houdini and make you and your bestie disappear before I unload a can of Raid on you both.”

The man drew the Tupperware closer to his chest protectively as he made an effort to gather the contents of Claire’s purse scattered on the floor. “I really am sor—”

“I don’t care!” Daniel said over him. “Just get out. And shut the door behind you, or we’ll find out how well that atrocity swims in a flushing toilet.”

The man’s jaw fell open in dismay before he sent Claire a look of regret she didn’t quite understand. All she knew was that in the moment she became keenly aware of the fact that, even standing on the back of her couch, she was barely taller than this new stranger. The guy had to be at least six-foot-four—the kind of tall that probably had strangers asking him if he played basketball all the time.

“Sorry,” tall guy muttered, before placing all Claire’s thrown belongings in a pile and backing out of the door. The moment the door clicked shut, Daniel grabbed Claire’s forearm.

“Honey, you literally just saved my life,” he gasped, pressing his other hand to his heart. “If you had even been one minute later, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Claire did nothing more than nod in response, her mind still taking in the last sixty seconds of her life as Daniel dropped to sit cross-legged on the couch, staring at the scattered belongings on the otherwise immaculate floor.

Neither of them moved to get off the couch.

“I feel like the carpet will never be clean again, but it’s illegal to set it on fire,” Daniel said after several moments. “Do you think ‘spider invasion’ is a valid reason to vacate and still get the deposit back?”

Even though she knew he was joking, Claire felt her stomach drop at the thought of Daniel moving out.

“Only if you take me with you to your new place,” she said. “Four weeks is far too short a time to live with the perfect roommate.”

His lips pursed adorably and his bright blue eyes peered at her through mascara-covered lashes. “Ah, sweet talk. My favorite. What’s for dessert?”

Daniel may have the gay man’s curse of average looks and a non-chiseled physique, but what he lacked in favorable DNA he made up for using flirt and fashion. His fastidiousness over his appearance and environment was the quality that made him the perfect roommate for Claire. He wasn’t OCD like her, but he took pleasure in noticing and correcting the smallest details. This translated into scrubbing sinks with toothbrushes and being incapable of sitting down for a meal if the drapes weren’t properly steamed.

Between the two of them, it was almost a competition to see who could be higher maintenance, and Claire loved it. For once she felt normal, even though she knew she wasn’t. Then again, neither was Daniel, which somehow made him that much more perfect as a roommate. It was like living with a guy without living with a guy…which brought her attention back to the robe and slippers on the floor.

Apparently he’d thrown them in self-defense, but she was glad he’d drawn the line at throwing his briefs. If Daniel wasn’t more of a girl than she was, she might have felt more uncomfortable about being in a room with a man wearing only underwear. She definitely wouldn’t have taken note of the fact that his sailor boxer briefs were cuter than any underwear she owned. Plus the aqua blue in the print matched his eyes, which she was pretty sure was not an accident.

“You’re wearing shoes,” he said, breaking into her thoughts. “Want to grab my house slippers so I don’t have to spend the rest of my life on this couch?”

“Sure,” she said, understanding his reluctance to set his bare feet on the same carpet the spider had touched. She was hesitant, even in her shoes. “I’ll grab the steamer if you grab the surface cleaner.”

He hesitated. “The cleaner under your bathroom sink?”

“Yes,” she said, stepping off the couch to gather his clothes.

He grimaced. “Where the tampons live?”

Impossibly, after everything that had happened that night, his protest got an honest chuckle out of her. She let him see her roll her eyes as she handed the robe and slippers over. “Fine. I’ll get the cleaner, you get the steamer.”

“Deal,” he said, and stepping into his slippers while still holding his robe. “Right after I drop this contaminated fabric in the laundry.”

“Of course,” she agreed and headed over to the sink to get the cleaner.

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