Fall had arrived in New York City in fits and starts, blustering with chill one day and sunny, bright, and hot the next, until finally cool weather settled in to stay. It was Christie’s favorite time of year, relief from the scorching hot sun that turned the concrete jungle into an oven, but not too cold to enjoy sitting outside her favorite coffee shop with her best friend, people-watching and enjoying the contrast of crisp breeze and hot coffee.
Kate had walked the kids to school on her way here, as usual; as usual, she was dressed for yoga, which was a few doors down from the coffeehouse. Christie was, of course, dressed for work in a pencil skirt, silk dress shirt, and blazer. She’d chosen black and red today, the red top a splash of daring against the sedate black skirt and jacket. Shiny red heels completed the picture of a woman who was at once professional and creative—or at least, Christie hoped that was the impression she was giving. She always wore heels, even though at her unusual height she already towered over most of her colleagues.
This morning’s conversation had ranged from Kate’s children’s grades to the auctions Christie was overseeing this week. It was a quiet day, fallen leaves occasionally scuttling over the pavement. Christie felt, right now, a deep contentment with her life. She took a long sip of her coffee, savoring it.
“So,” Kate said, putting down her latte, “I was having a look through the personals.”
Christie held a straight face for all of two seconds before slipping into a grin. “Uh huh,” she smirked. Kate was married, and monogamous.
“They’re entertaining.” Kate pursed her lips in an attractive pout, and Christie laughed. “Anyway. Saw something you might find interesting.”
“I doubt it,” Christie said, but she raised her phone as Kate texted her the link.
“Third one down.”
Christie’s eyes caught on the first ad:
White male, 34, scary, lean but fit, seeks large, athletic man in need of long-term discipline. Preferred age is between 25 and 40; bears welcome. I have experience barehanded and with belts, canes, and floggers. Happy to experiment so long as all is agreed upon before the first session.
“What kind of site is this?” she asked, eyebrows climbing her forehead.
“Keep going.” Kate shoved Christie’s shoulder playfully. “Number three. Go on.”
“Right,” Christie said, skipping past the next block of text, which started off with I need a pilot. Someone to ride me until I scream his name…
Woman, 19, seeking older, professional woman with exquisite taste in dining, enthusiasm for travel, and the wherewithal to frequently indulge in both. I am interested in being doted upon and trained as a lady. I offer myself as a companion, a dinner date, a conversation partner, an arm ornament, and more; whatever you might wish me to be.
Christie felt her face go hot. She tapped hastily out of the browser, then locked her phone and set it screen-down on the table. When she finally raised her eyes, Kate was gazing at her expectantly.
“Surely not,” Christie somehow managed to say without stammering.
Kate raised an eyebrow. “Surely not what?”
“That can’t be real,” Christie said. Her heart was pounding, blood rushing in her ears.
“You saw what kind of site it is,” Kate said.
Christie shook her head, concentrated on breathing normally. “She says ‘anything’.”
“You’re not that much older.”
“Kate.” Christie closed her eyes. She was sure her face was scarlet now. “I am nearly twenty years older. I am twice her age. I could be her mother.”
“But you’re not her mother, are you?” Kate’s voice sounded incredibly coy.
Christie was suddenly angry. “Look,” she said, fingers lacing together tightly in her lap, “I know I’ve...made some remarks. Some offhand comments. But I could never...this isn’t who I am, Kate.”
“...Okay,” Kate said, drawing the word out as she brought her latte to her lips. She raised her eyebrows over the brim of the oversized mug. “You’re taking it a lot more seriously than I was expecting.”
Something that felt an awful lot like horror washed through Christie’s veins. A joke. It had only been a joke.
Christie had never felt so flat-footed in her life. She dropped her gaze, stared into her coffee, wondered what on earth she could say.
After a long moment, Kate spoke instead. “I’m sorry.”
Christie looked up to see that her friend had ducked her head. “No, I’m sorry, it’s okay,” she said, waving a hand. Her face still felt hot. “I should have realized you were joking.”
“It was kind of a mean joke, though.” Kate gave Christie a tentative smile. “I don’t think that about you.”
“Okay.” Christie realized there was a tightness in her chest only now that it was loosening a little. She drew a long, deep breath slowly through her nose, then let it out the same way.
“Well...I guess it’s about time for yoga,” Kate said. She rose from the table, abandoning her half-finished latte. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Christie said. Kate shouldered her gym bag, offered a small wave, and headed off down the block. After a moment of considering her own unfinished coffee, Christie sighed and stood up too.
She normally worked remotely on Thursdays, but today she decided to go to the office. Her assistant had the day off, and the floor was quiet; Thanisson was in China sourcing centuries-old artifacts, Mitaka was in California running down leads on Japanese-American artists, and Netal had gone to India again. Christie hoped the professional environment of her glass-walled office would be enough to focus her scattered thoughts.
As she waited impatiently for her computer to boot up, Christie fought not to think about that ridiculous ad, and what she might have said to Kate that inspired her to come up with a joke like that.
She was very satisfied with her life, after all. She had a fulfilling job and good friends and interesting hobbies. Sure, she longed for a romantic encounter every now and then. But she wasn’t desperate. She had no need to troll the personals for a date.
And she certainly was not considering a nineteen-year-old.
Thankfully, when Christie’s email finally loaded it offered plenty of distractions. There were reports on a few new leads, updates on several negotiations, the status of last week’s acquisitions, and an overview of the new bidding app the marketing team had put together. Christie busied herself with approvals and timelines. All but one of the buyers looked to be in good shape; Rodinon seemed a little nervous about his latest find, so she advised him to recheck his sources and seek an outside appraiser.
Kaplan, the marketing manager, reported that the bidding app was nearly ready to launch. He added that he’d like to get it out to the public as soon as possible, and strongly suggested the following Wednesday. Christie frowned; the app hadn’t even gone through quality assurance testing yet. She typed a polite but firm response: she would not approve a launch without QA.
There was no need to rush. And Christie was not one to do anything prematurely. She was sensible. Prudent. She made thoughtful, measured decisions that took all factors into account. That was why she was the CEO.
That was why she would never do something so brash as reply to a personal ad. Certainly not the same day she saw it.
Christie blinked. She’d picked up her phone, as if she was going to pull up the ad again. But that was ridiculous. She wasn’t this kind of person. She did not answer personal ads. She wasn’t looking to take advantage of a nineteen-year-old. She was not...a predator.
She opened Kate’s text, finger hovering over the “Clear all messages” option.
Then she tapped the link to the ad instead.
What sort of person placed an ad like this? Christie read it through again, and again. Did this girl know what she was getting into?
Whatever you might wish me to be.
Christie crossed her legs at the knee, feeling self conscious despite being completely alone in her office.
The girl couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of that statement, could she? No. She would have no idea the sorts of people who might respond to such an ad.
What if she ended up hurt? Or worse?
Maybe Christie should respond. Not to agree to the girl’s terms, but to warn her. To advise that she remove that ad, and delete her account on that site for good measure. Before it was too late.
Christie tapped the “Reply to this ad” link.
You must be logged in to reply to an ad, the site informed her.
The last thing Christie needed was an account on curiousliaisonsnyc.com. She should close the window and forget about this.
She tapped the “New account” link.
I am writing not to respond to your ad, but to suggest that you remove it. There are people out there who would take advantage of someone like you. It’s very dangerous. Please take it down.
Christie read and reread the message she’d composed. Would the girl truly understand, or would she simply delete and ignore it? Christie sighed, leaning her chin on her hand, then added:
A woman of your age is an attractive target for the wrong sort, and your ad only sweetens the attraction. I worry you will only meet predators this way.
She blew out a puff of breath. That would probably do it. Christie hit send.
Christie worked through lunch, belatedly remembering to grab a protein bar from the vending machine at 2 o’clock. She kept herself busy and avoided looking at her phone. Every time there was a lull, her mind wandered to the girl. Had she seen the message yet? Would she take it seriously?
Would she respond?
A response would be good, Christie thought. It would put her mind at ease. She would know that the girl would be all right, and that would be the end of the whole ridiculous matter.
Christie opened her personal email as soon as the clock struck 5. Sure enough, a message had arrived from the personals site.
Thank you for writing! I googled you and discovered that you are a 38-year-old woman with a prestigious, professional job. Christie is a very pretty name. :) I would love to meet and learn more about you and what you do. Please give me a call!
The message ended with both a phone number and an email address.
Christie let out a shuddery breath. She’d been so careful, filling out the site profile with dummy information. But she’d created the account under one of her old internet nicknames. She’d thought all traces of “Phasma” had been scoured from the internet, but apparently not. Somehow, that name was still linked to her, enough that this girl was able to find her true identity.
Hello, Rey, she tapped out. I am not sure you read my message. I was not writing to suggest that
How to word it? Christie bit her lip.
I was not writing to suggest that I wanted you to become my companion. I just want you to be safe. Please consider removing your ad. -Phasma
Five minutes had barely passed when she received a response.
Hello :) It’s good to hear from you again!
I wanted to let you know that I did read your message, and it was very thoughtful of you to warn me of the potential danger. I truly do appreciate your concern. However, as I have already demonstrated, I am intelligent. I did not respond to you until I discovered who you were. Meanwhile, you never had any idea who I was until I offered my name and contact information. I am being perfectly safe.
And now that I know who you are, I would really like to meet you. I am certain I could learn a lot from you. And I am also certain that you would treat me respectfully.
This time, below her phone number and email address, Rey had included a picture.