He watched her leave, knowing that she only pulled the latch behind her. He had at least two hours before she would be back home. He needed one last souvenir, and he knew exactly where to find it.
It was the kind of day that Scots never take for granted, even in July. Inverleith Park was bathed in warm sunlight by 10 am and it looked like half of Edinburgh had come out to soak it up.
Stephanie was clutching a strong coffee in one hand and her phone in the other. There were more thoughts in her head than she could contain, and she had never been more desperate to see Jo.
Stephanie leapt out of her seat, spilling coffee over herself before turning to see a giggling Jo standing behind her.
"Sorry buddy, I couldn't resist. You looked miles away, as usual."
Jo and Stephanie embraced for the first time in six months, but Jo could feel a tension and fear in her closest friend's body that she had never sensed before.
"Crikey Steph, what's got into you? I go away for a few months and come back to find a nervous wreck. Are you drinking too much coffee again?"
Jo could always tell when her friend had a burden to share and it frequently involved a boy. Usually an unsuitable one and often with a disastrous ending. They had been friends since High School and, while Jo was happily single and apparently too fiercely independent to need or want a male companion, Steph seemed to be drawn inextricably from one promised prince charming to another.
As they sat back down on the bench, Jo caught sight of her friend's phone clasped in her hand.
"Is that a new photo on your home screen Steph? I never thought I'd see the day that your toe nibbling, bum sniffing terrier was knocked off the front page of your life!"
From a distance, Jo could just make out the bottom of a man's face with what looked like the faintest hint of stubble.
"Is there someone you want to tell me about?"
Steph first noticed her new neighbour as she returned from her Sunday morning run to her classic Edinburgh tenement flat building in Stockbridge one weekend. Her heart and lungs were racing as she pounded the last few steps back to her front door. His presence made her instantly self-conscious of her own sweaty and bedraggled appearance. This exciting new stranger held the main front door open for her while gallantly balancing a large box in his other arm. She could just make out the line of his soft muscles straining beneath his tightly fitting t-shirt.
After immediately racing for the shelter of her own flat Steph realised that this must be her new neighbour. A far from unwelcome replacement for 'moaning Maggie' whose departure to a local care home would probably have generated more respect and sadness had she not made Stephanie's life a misery from the moment she moved in. There was nothing that Maggie was happy about in life and she would tell anyone who gave her half a chance.
Now safely hidden inside her own flat, Steph made her way to the shower as her mind drifted with its customary ease to her recent encounter.
He had remarkably soft eyes and smelt surprisingly good for someone who was midway through some serious heavy lifting, apparently with no help from a girlfriend, wife, or significant other?
Her meanderings were cut short by a knock at the door.
Shit. Who the heck is that at this time on a Sunday morning? Was I supposed to be meeting my sister somewhere?
Opening the door in her dressing gown, wet hair, and last night's mascara dripping on to her doormat, Steph once again found herself confronted by those eyes – they looked hazel, a little mischievous but unforgettable.
"I'm so sorry to disturb you, I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Rob and I've just moved in across the corridor. Just in case you were wondering!"
Great. So now the best-looking resident in our block for five years has seen me twice; I was soaking both times and currently resplendent in my three-year-old dressing gown with toothpaste stains.
"Hi Rob. It's lovely to meet you. I'm Stephanie. Welcome to the hood! I look forward to meeting you when I'm properly dressed!"
Oh God, she thought, as she shut the door instantly on his warm and friendly face. Is it any wonder I don't have a boyfriend?
Events of 2020 had meant, much like the rest of the world, Steph was working from home, churning out press releases and media briefings in her role as Communications Executive for the Scottish Government. It was hardly the West Wing of The White House but she enjoyed her job. Steph craved human contact and fed off building relationships with colleagues and friends and she was feeling increasingly isolated. Any new arrival in her neighbourhood was about as exciting as it got.
"Hello again. Is he friendly?" Rob was heading in the opposite direction across the park as Steph was attempting to control her dog who had a nose for almost anything that came his way.
"A bit too friendly actually! He may nibble your toes but take it as a sign of affection!"
The chat between them was surprisingly effortless from the very start. Steph found herself venting about the trials of working from home and Rob would listen, laugh and support in all the right places. He mentioned his job as an IT specialist for a financial services firm but they both agreed to avoid this topic as it held little interest for either of them.
"I presume you know that man across the road?" Rob asked one morning.
"What man?" For all her daydreaming, Steph was often blissfully unaware of her actual surroundings.
"The one sitting on that bench who has been watching you since you sat down?"
Steph lifted her gaze from the slightly hypnotic effect Rob's warm and now familiar smile was having on her to check out the mysterious man.
"Never seen him before in my life!"
"Well, I don't wish to alarm you but I've noticed him a couple of times when we are out and about and he seems very interested in you."
"Don't be daft," said Steph, mildly entertained at the thought of attracting the attention of one man while falling for another.
There had been a few hints passed between them that suggested there may be more than a friendship developing between Rob and Steph and each time it built Steph's confidence and expectation a little more.
"I think he's just reading his paper and staring into space."
"Your space more like," there was a mildly serious and jealous tone in Rob's voice that both flattered and unnerved Steph. It was just enough to light the fuse of her overactive imagination.
"Let's just move on. You're forgetting I do have the world's most threatening Jack Russell at my heels!"
By the time they returned home, it was early evening and they were giggling like teenagers who had been away from their parents all day.
"Thanks for walking me home," Steph flirted with a glint in her eye when they entered the communal stairwell.
"I feel I should thank you with a glass of something strong."
"How forward of you Stephanie, he joked. "Oh, go on then, one for the – erm – road." Steph briefly noticed that her door was not locked properly but was too distracted to let the thought linger for more than a minute.
She was standing in her kitchen, hunting for the nicest bottle of wine she could find in her cupboard when Rob appeared behind her and placed his hand gently on her waist. Before she knew it, she was wrapped in his arms and felt him kiss her gently.
This is how it's supposed to feel, she thought as she lost herself in the moment.
Later that evening as they were curled up on the sofa together Steph found her gaze drawn to the bookshelf in the corner. That's odd, she thought, where is the photo of Jo and I that I've had up there since for years? It was one of her favourites. They were students on a night out, with probably a bit too much makeup and a few too many cocktails on board. Maybe Jo took it with her on her travels to keep her company?
As the summer weeks rolled on, Steph and Rob's lives continued to entwine. He would bring her coffee and bagels from the local French deli if he knew she had a deadline to meet. Sometimes he would just deliver them to her doorstep and ring the bell rather than disturb her.
Don't want to be a distraction now do I? His texts were distraction enough.
Steph was keen to surprise Rob with his favourite salami and cheese sandwich and find any excuse to visit him during the working day. As she stood in the queue of the deli, watching, and listening to the French proprietor directing the organised chaos around her, she found her eyes drawn to the table in the corner. There he was, again, the same man that Rob had seen in the park and, apparently, on several other occasions. This time, she noticed him herself and there was no doubt, she could feel his stare on her as she moved through the deli.
She was halfway down the street on her way home when she plucked up the courage to turn back and saw him, once again, watching her through the window before pretending to look down at something on the table.
"Do you think I should report him?" she asked Rob, shortly after exchanging his sandwich for a long, fabulous kiss on his doorstep.
"I'm not sure Steph. It's hardly the most compelling case of stalking yet, is it?"
"Yet? Do I have to wait until it is?"
She was clearly unnerved now and looked longingly to her saviour for reassurance.
"Just be careful when you're out and about on your own. Now, are you going to do any work today at all?" His playful reassurance was enough to convince Steph to retreat to her own flat, in forced separation from this gorgeous man who had drifted into her life.
Minutes inside her front door, Steph threw her coat over the only spare hanger on the stand and stopped briefly to have another search for those gloves she was looking for earlier in the day. Often careless with her belongings, she always put this pair in the same spot on her hall table because they were special - a Christmas gift from Jo, after Steph had admired her own pair: a deep purple leather with a luxuriously soft lining.
They'll turn up eventually, she thought, as she flicked on the kettle and fired up the laptop.
Before long, Steph was staying over at Rob's almost every other night. Their relationship was developing at pace and Steph was hopelessly lost in the fairy-tale.
Could this be the one? She found herself asking again. Had she eventually found something true and lasting? She silently mocked those in her life who had told her that love would never just land on your doorstep. How wrong they were!
"Everyone has their issues Steph," Jo used to warn her with a cynicism that cut through her friend's naïve pursuit of the happy ever after.
"There's no such thing as the perfect man."
I can't wait to introduce her to Rob when she gets back, Steph thought as she vowed to keep him a treasured secret until she can show him off to Jo in person.
"Thanks for coming into the office– How's lockdown going for you?," welcomed Steph's boss as she arrived at her desk for a rare meeting. She was due to be there all day and was already dreading it.
The thought of the promised meal that Rob was going to cook for her when she got home was enough to get her through the day.
Gone were the early days of lockdown when she missed the fun chats with her colleagues – she had a special someone now with whom she shared everything and found herself disinterested in the mundane office gossip that used to be her lifeblood.
With all her meetings finished and a bag of files stuffed in her tote bag, Steph made a dash for the door when her boss was not looking. It was only 3 pm but she wanted to surprise Rob with a bottle of his favourite Rioja.
Stopping briefly at the metro supermarket on the way home, she turned the corner of her street by 3.45 pm. Steph was scrambling for her keys when she stopped in the hall just outside Rob's door. The door was slightly ajar and there were signs of forced entry around the door frame.
Stop Steph, she warned herself, you have no idea what you are going in to here.
Pausing briefly to remind herself of her vulnerability, she reached for her phone and started to dial 999.
What if he's in there and he's hurt? Why can't I hear any voices?
So many competing thoughts were swirling in her head but, before she knew it, she was nudging the door open with her feet. She was in the hall now and could hear some movement from the living room. Instinctively she sensed it was not Rob.
"Hello?" The words fell from her before she had a chance to consider their consequence.
Within seconds she heard someone moving towards her, she could immediately tell it was a male by the deep breathing and heavy steps moving in her direction. Urgently reversing to the door, her escape was hindered by tripping over a large box in the hallway.
"Hi. Don't be alarmed, madam. We are police officers and we have a warrant to search this property."
The words hardly registered with Steph as she was distracted by focussing on the individual standing in front of her, showing her his warrant card. It was him. The man in the shadows that Rob had noticed from a distance in the park, the Deli, and seemingly everywhere.
"My name is Detective Sergeant Mike Tosh. And this is my colleague Detective Constable Steve Cairns."
"This makes no sense. Where is Rob?" her head was spinning now and she almost fell back into the seat in the hallway.
"May I ask about your relationship with the owner of this property?"
"He is my….boyfriend. I live just across the corridor. Has something happened to Rob?"
"Rob is currently in police custody. We can't tell you any more at this stage, I'm afraid.
"Please be assured you are not in any current danger and one of my colleagues will be in touch shortly."
With these devasting words, the police officers asked Steph to leave the property.
For the rest of that afternoon, Steph sat watching out of her window as the detectives left Rob's flat with several items including the large box that was sitting in the hallway.
"Not in any current danger?" Hardly the most reassuring of words to hear in the circumstances.
In the space of three hours, her fairy-tale world had been turned upside down. She picked up her phone and did the only thing she was capable of at that moment – find her best friend Jo.
Jo had been listening to every word her friend spoke. Steph was a shadow of her former self as the final devasting twist in the tale wreaked havoc on the scene of lust and contentment that was first promised.
"Jo, what the hell am I supposed to think? I've not seen or heard from him since that day and it's been a week."
As Steph's fingers shifted on the grip she had on her phone, Jo could see Rob in all his glory. The soft, dark eyes, the rolling curls that fell casually over his face as he grinned into the camera coyly.
Steph raised her head for the first time to look at her best friend, revealing the tears in her eyes and fear that sat behind them. This was when she noticed something had shifted in Jo too. When friends know each other as well as this, nothing goes unnoticed.
"I'm sorry, I've dragged you down too Jo. You look like you've seen a ghost. Maybe I should have let you settle back home before dumping my latest drama on you."
"Steph, is that a photo of Rob on your phone?" Jo's tone was urgent.
"I can't stop looking at him Jo. There has to be an explanation for this."
"Oh God Steph."
By now Jo was rigid, looking at her friend in a way that a child would look at a stranger.
"Not him. No. Not you as well."
The two friends stared at each other with fear and uncertainty passing between them like poison.
"Steph. I'm so sorry but I didn't tell you the real reason that I left Scotland for six months.
"I was terrified and ashamed. I thought it was my fault and I just wanted to run away from him."
"Terrified of what Jo? Run away from who?"
"From him, Steph. The man in your photo. His name is Tom Miller and he has been stalking me for months."
"Where do you want this box boss?"
DI Mike Tosh was just getting comfortable in his chair at West End Police Station in Edinburgh's city centre. He was preparing to sift through the mound of paperwork on his desk but wanted to have a look at the contents of the box that came from the morning's property search. He had lifted it from the property on the way out as a cop of his experience doesn't leave without checking a padlocked box.
After cutting open the lock, he pulled out one item at a time, savouring each piece of the puzzle as it emerged, beginning with the photo. He saw two happy young women, dressed up for a night out and oblivious to the fact that their lives would be later darkened by the predatory behaviour of a dangerous and captivating stranger.