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Missed Connections

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Chapter 1

Late November

As he rode the Underground for the first time in years, Mark Darcy vowed to think of it as an adventure. His car had failed to start and he'd had it towed to the garage; the driver he usually called upon was not available; and every taxi in the greater London area was apparently engaged through the evening.

However, keeping that vow would prove to be difficult. The weather was not exactly cooperative on the walk to Temple Station; chilly and drizzly, as early winter often is. He didn't have a knack for navigating the Underground since he took it so infrequently, so he ended up overshooting the connection at Embankment; he had to backtrack after disembarking at Westminster to head back towards it. He successfully navigated off of the Circle Line and on to Northern, then, at Tottenham Court, he transferred onto the Central Line and towards his home.

The carriage was crowded, but he did manage to find one vacant seat next to a dozing woman, whose brownish-blonde hair was pulled up at the crown of her head and flopped over to the side. He had a look around to ensure there wasn't an elderly or pregnant passenger more in need of a seat than he was, and when he didn't see one, he took the seat.

Within a few seconds he felt a light pressure upon his upper arm, and a glance to his side revealed that the woman had leant up against him. She seemed to be fast asleep. He glanced across the aisle to find a second woman smirking a little, but trying to hide it behind the edge of her magazine.

He turned his head towards her to try to get a better look; strangely enough, he didn't want to disturb her. She was wearing knee-high boots, tights, and a miniskirt. Beyond that he couldn't tell because of her coat. Her perfume—shampoo? He could hardly tell—was distinct: sweet, maybe a little nutty. He hadn't smelled anything quite like it before.

The carriage shook and shivered as it picked up speed after departing Oxford Circus, which startled the young woman. Her pale cheeks flooded with a blush as if realising she had been leaning on him, and she jumped back from him. She smiled a little and then opened her mouth—presumably to apologise—when the announcement came over the PA system that they were approaching Bond Station.

"Bond Station?" she said, confused. "Oh my bloody God and fuck, I've missed my stop." She got to her feet, belatedly turning with an embarrassed "Sorry, sorry" to Mark as she made her way to the doors. She ran out into the station the moment they parted.

Mark could only feel as bewildered as she seemed to be.

The woman who had smirked spoke up. "So, did you know her?"

"Not at all," he murmured.

"Pity," she said, then added with a nod of her head in the direction of the recently vacated seat, "She left her muffler behind."

For some strange reason, he felt obligated to reach out and pick it up. "I'll take this to the lost property office," he said, as if he had to justify why he was taking it. He tucked it into his attaché, and he had every intention of doing as he'd said, when he said it. As the carriage chugged ahead, his mind wandered away from thinking about the interaction he'd had and how odd it had been, quickly moving on to reviewing the day he'd just finished; when they announced that Holland Park Station was approaching, he gathered his things together then rose to disembark. It wasn't until later that night, when he reached into the attaché, that his hand brushed against the soft knit of the muffler.

"Right," he said to no one, holding it up to inspect it. "I forgot about this." It was a pale purple, very soft; it was a loose knit and long enough to wrap around a couple of times comfortably. He folded it back up and tucked it into the attaché, and promptly forgot about it again.

………

It was the next morning, after the retrieval of his vehicle from the garage, that Mark encountered the purple muffler once more. He set the attaché onto the seat behind him, and at the first turn, it fell over, disgorging the muffler from within. He glanced back at the next red light to see it had fallen to the floorboard, out of his reach as a driver. He made a mental note to retrieve it later.

His mobile went off at that moment. A glance at the dash told him it was his work colleague Natasha; he let out a weary breath and engaged the hands-free option to answer the call. She would only just continue calling if he didn't.

"Mark Darcy," he said.

"Glad I reached you," she said. "The morning meeting is bumped up a half-hour. How soon can you be here?"

He exhaled roughly. "I'm on my way, will be there as soon as I can."

In the rush to get into the meeting, the muffler was left behind on the floorboard.

………

"Didn't know that was your colour."

"Well, of course it's not my colour. Purple? Are you daft? I just find this so intriguing!"

As he passed by, the secretaries were gabbling on as they often did, and it barely registered until he heard the word "purple," because it reminded him of that muffler left behind by the sleeping woman on the train several days prior. He'd forgotten about it again. The conversation, though, would prove to be more relevant than he could have imagined, which he realised as they continued speaking.

"She must really love that muffler…"

"True enough; I mean, to be putting up a Missed Connections advert, looking for the 'mystery man I fell asleep on,' all in search of tracking it down…"

Mark was glad he had not been drinking anything at that moment, because he surely would have choked on it. That reference had to be much more than a coincidence. Surely there were not scores of women falling asleep on strange men all over the Underground then leaving their mufflers behind.

Purple mufflers, at that.

Half of their conversation sounded like nonsense to him, though. He had no idea of what they spoke. He hoped "Missed Connections" would be easy enough to find. He was 90% sure that they were talking about something on the internet, because they were constantly talking about websites and social media. He figured it should be easy enough to find.

As he ate his lunch with his door closed, he decided to give it a try, searching on his mobile device. As it turned out, he wasn't wrong. The first result when searching for "missed connections" was a site called Craigslist; thanks to location services on his mobile, the London-specific page loaded.

Aha, he thought, as a long list of posts appeared on his screen. Some of them seemed to be less 'missed connections', more 'in search of' unconventional sexual encounters. He did a search for 'purple muffler.'

There it was.

Central Line—looking for the mystery man I fell asleep on

Monday, 21st, 7.30 pm-ish? In rush to get off train, left beloved purple muffler behind. Hoping you can reunite us. Coffee, my treat.

He clicked on the link to get the full advert, on which there was a way to reply via an anonymised email address (he could hardly blame her for wanting to take that precaution). He was going to respond, of course he was, but he suddenly found himself at a loss for words. He laughed a little. He, known in professional circles for his court orations. Oh, the irony.

He clicked to respond.

Greetings—

I believe it was I upon whom you

He stopped typing, then deleted his annoying, overly formal start.

Hello,

I have your purple muffler.

He realised that his opening sounded like a ransom demand. He changed "have" to "found." Before continuing, though, he realised he would have to add some detail that only he would know. How could she properly vet his credibility without such information?

To prove I'm not lying, I can verify that you disembarked at Bond Street Station in a rush with some very colourful language, and that a middle-aged, dark-skinned woman with her hair in knots was sat across the aisle.

Please let me know how I can get your muffler back to you.

He signed with his regards and his first name, then sent it off. He didn't expect to hear anything back until the evening, or even the next day, so he was surprised to see a reply within ten minutes.

Oh, thank God!

I was serious about the coffee, btw. Maybe after work? The Pret in Trafalgar Square, 6.30pm tonight?

Mark considered. Leaving work to get there by 6:30pm would be a tight schedule on any night. He would just have to leave a little early to make the date.

It was a date of sorts, wasn't it? He shook his head; he was being ridiculous. He replied: Yes, that's fine. I presume you'll recognise me. After a moment, he added: My name's Mark.

He sent it in reply.

Within another five minutes, he received a reply.

Hurrah! See you then!

He smiled a little, charmed by the effervescence of her reply. He would just have to get her name later.

Jeremy, of course, noticed that he was leaving early and had to comment.

"Leaving a bit early, eh?"

"Yes," Mark said. Even though he didn't need to justify his comings and goings to anyone, he added, "I have an appointment."

"An appointment, hm?" Jeremy said, then winked. "Have fun."

This caught Natasha's attention; she looked up from her mobile phone.

"'Appointment'?" she asked, her tone highly sceptical.

Jeremy laughed aloud at Mark's involuntary pursed lips.

Curtly, Mark added, "See you tomorrow."

When he arrived to his car, he dropped his attaché in the back seat. He stood a moment staring into his vehicle; something was not quite right. Then he realised that there wasn't anything on the floorboard. The muffler had apparently vanished.

Mark felt all of the blood drain from his face. How could he return a muffler that had apparently done a runner?

Be logical, thought Mark, as he took a seat behind the wheel of the car. Where could it have gone? He stepped through his day mentally… and remembered that he'd had the interior of his car detailed that afternoon. Could they have thrown it away? He was prepared to ring up the shop when he had the thought to check in the centre console.

It wasn't there.

His hand shot out to the glove box and opened it. There it was, folded neatly. He let out a breath. It would have been highly embarrassing to have to try to explain that he'd managed to lose it again.

………

He arrived to the Pret just before the appointed time; his gaze scanned the faces of the people at the tables there, and he knew immediately that she was not among them.

Despite her offer to buy his coffee, he could only wait about ten minutes before he ordered his own. He felt a bit strange sitting at one of their tables without a beverage.

After another ten minutes he felt his phone began to buzz in his jacket pocket. He palmed it to find that it was an email message from the woman he was meant to meet.

On my way! Promise!!!!

He laughed a little then put the phone away, then reached for his coffee and took a long draw. The coffee was good, at least.

As the minutes continued to pass and his coffee cup emptied, however, his patience wore thin; he told himself that he would wait until half-past seven and then leave. He pulled out his mobile and began to compose an email to her.

Very sorry, but I can't stay any longer. Perhaps we can reschedule for another time.

After a moment, he added, not wanting to sound callous; what if she'd gotten stuck on the Underground, or worse?:

Hope that all is well.

He briefly thought about leaving the muffler with the café staff, but, oddly enough, he felt like he could not entrust it to anyone else, and he had already been a nuisance to them long enough.

He realised as he pulled his mobile out after arriving back home that he had gotten an email whilst driving.

Soooo sorry, my bag got tangled up in the carriage door and I had to wait to be rescued by Transport staff, couldn't get into it to get my mobile :( Maybe next week?

His first response was irritation bordering on anger for having been so inconvenienced. He was doing her a favour, and she clearly didn't respect his time, to the point where she felt the need to make up such a ridiculous story. More than ever, though, he wanted to get her muffler back to her so that he would not have to deal with this lunacy any longer. He was set to reply in the affirmative when he remembered that he was leaving on Friday for New York, to wrap up the rest of his affairs there. Then there would be the madness of the Christmas holidays.

I'm sorry, no, that isn't going to work. Perhaps just after the new year.

He didn't get a response right away. In fact, he only noticed a reply the following morning, though it was largely incomprehensible.

Vv srooy k vv godd

He pressed the side button to darken his mobile's screen. He didn't need to reply again. He had to start to think about more pressing matters, like his trip to America and the holidays beyond.

Boxing Day

Oh, God. Do they really still do that bloody Turkey Curry Buffet?

As Mark thought this, his strove to keep his facial features neutral as he listened to his mother tell him that it was occurring on New Year's Day.

"Say that you'll stay through, Mark, and come with us," concluded Elaine. "We haven't seen you at a family gathering like this in so many years."

Mark was torn. He was really not interested in doing anything but watching sport and resting after the tedium of wrapping up his life in New York then the bustle of the Christmas holidays, let alone attending this inane luncheon… but his mother had a point. He had been so long gone from London, he felt like he owed his parents many more such missed occasions. "All right," he said. "I'll come."

"Wonderful!" she said, clapping her hands. "And as an added bonus, I have someone lovely for you to meet!"

Again he kept his features neutral, though honestly, he felt tricked. However, he said nothing. He would just have to stiffen his upper lip and do what he needed to do to get through the day. Until then… he had more football to watch.

………

Mark had gone to the Turkey Curry Buffet with a sort of resignation, a 'grin and bear it' attitude, despite an impending romantic setup. He wasn't actively worried about said setup—he was a grown man and he could be polite but firm when it came down to it—until he met the woman's mother again for the first time in many years.

He had known the Joneses for years, of course, being that they'd been friends of his parents for years, but Mrs Jones' brashness and forwardness, not to mention taste in clothing, worried him more than a little. Was he getting a sneak peek into what her darling daughter would be like?

Fortunately, he had shored up his defences: he had purposefully worn a horrendous holiday-themed jumper to ward off any designs that she might have on him. Not to flatter himself, but he often got unwanted attention when women heard what he did—rather, how much he made an hour.

Mark knew the moment that Pam's daughter Bridget arrived due to the high-pitched, excited timbre that Pam's voice took on. He had been talking with his parents, and was hesitant to turn around to face the newcomer. At the sound of his name, he knew he could avoid it no longer.

He didn't know exactly what to expect, but it certainly wasn't what he saw. This was not a young woman decked out to the nines to impress, but rather… she seemed to be wearing a tapestry fabric waistcoat and skirt. She held a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. He caught her expression at seeing his jumper; he hoped his own features did not betray his own surprise at her attire.

The two of them were left to their own devices, and he found himself for a lack of words, not because she was making nonstop small talk, but because he was distracted by a nagging sensation that he had met her somewhere before, but couldn't place where. Not during their childhood, but as adults.

"Pardon me," he said, interrupting her monologue about New Year's resolutions, "but I have the oddest feeling that we've met before."

With her mouth slightly agape, she blinked a couple of times before saying, "Well, my mum says we played in a paddling pool together—"

He waved his hand. "No, no, I don't mean as children. I mean… more recently." As he said the words, it came to him, even though he wanted to dismiss the thought the moment it had entered his mind. He couldn't, though, because despite the wisp of cigarette smoke, he caught that unique perfume scent once again, and that cemented it for him.

This was, inexplicably, the girl from the train.

She squinted a little, as if really concentrating, really looking beyond the silly jumper. "Still not ringing a bell," she said at last, stubbing her cigarette out into an ashtray.

He remembered that he still had the muffler in his glove box. "Come out to my car with me," he said abruptly. "I have something for you."

"No way." she said, recoiling a little, her drink sloshing in its glass. "Are you mental?" Under her breath she added, "Creeper."

"No, sorry," he said, holding up a hand. "That came out all wrong." He paused a moment. "I remembered where I've met you before. It was on the train. The Underground."

"What? How? I haven't taken—" She stopped short, squinting again. She held up her hand, as if to blot the jumper from her sight completely.

"You left your muffler behind," he explained, "and I have it in my glovebox."

With this, she clamped a hand over her own mouth. "Oh my God. I haven't told anyone about that," she said quietly, "except for the girls."

"And the world, through Craigslist."

"I never would have guessed the train," she murmured; the 180° turn in her attitude was astonishing. He suspected his own was, as well. "So… do you really have it in your car?"

"I do."

Bridget glanced around to see if they were being watched; he realised they were, because of the whole parental setup thing. "I'm going to finish my drink," she said, then emptied the glass, "and take it to the kitchen—I can meet you outside after. I just… well, my mum. Don't want her to read anything in it, you know?"

He nodded. He understood all too well. "I'll try to get out discreetly."

She nodded too, then grinned. "All so clandestine," she explained. "Okay. Be out in a few."

His mother, of course, caught him up as he slipped into his coat. "Where are you going?"

"I have to get something out of the car," he answered. "I'll be right in."

He went out there and couldn't suppress a small smile. She hadn't made it outside yet—reminiscent of their appointment at Pret. He walked over to his car and unlocked it, then reached in to fetch the muffler.

Just as he closed the door of the vehicle, he heard footsteps approaching. He looked up to see Bridget approaching—no coat, no jacket, and clearly regretting the choice. Her eyes lit up at the sight of the muffler, and with a beaming smile she reached out to take it.

"Thank you so much," she said, wrapping it around her neck. "I really am sorry for the whole, you know, 'dozing on you' thing."

"Don't worry about it."

"And I'm sorry I fucked up—sorry I didn't get to Pret on time. All of that stuff I said, it was exactly what happened, I swear. Oh, wait, I can prove it." She pulled out her mobile, then scrolled to some photos of herself with her handbag pretty firmly caught in the door. "Look." He remembered the story she'd given, the one about her handbag getting caught in the door, and had thought at the time it had been a ludicrous lie. He couldn't help laughing lightly now. One of the photos was of Bridget and a blonde friend. "That's Shaz," she explained. "She was coming with me, because you might have been an axe murderer for all I knew… she took no pity, and took lots of pictures as she cackled like a maniac. But obviously you're not an axe murderer. Right?"

He chuckled. "I apologize for being so short with you," he said as she stowed her mobile again. "I had a lot on my mind, a trip back to New York City, and the holidays…" He noticed she had begun to run her hands up and down her upper arms, a pretty universal sign for 'freezing cold.' Without a second thought, he slipped out of his coat and put it around her shoulders, taking her aback.

"Thanks," she said, then smiled. "I still do owe you a coffee."

He almost responded with an automatic "It's not really necessary," but instead found himself saying, "I'd like that."

"Back in London," she amended.

"Obviously." A mental image flashed before his eyes, of the two of them seated in the one and only café in Grafton Underwood, with the faces of his mother, her mother, and the village hens pressed to the glass… 

"Great," she said, grinning again.

"Let me give you my mobile number," he said. "We can try for Pret again."

"Sounds good," she said; she turned to look back at the house. "We should get inside…"

He nodded.

They expected to slip into the house unnoticed, each pick up a plate, and carry on with lunch. That was not what happened. All eyes were upon them, and the only sound was the 70s-era music wafting from the stereo speakers; the silence was broken only when Geoffrey Alconbury spoke up: "Hurr, hurr, what a way to start the new year, eh!"

She slipped out of the coat, which he hung up again; they each tried to ignore the attention from their mothers and Una Alconbury. He could hear Pam harangue her daughter across the room, suggesting crassly that they had slipped out for a little 'heavy petting' (her words) in private. Mark suspected she was not the only one that held this opinion, to his chagrin.

His mother's face was aglow; she clearly thought that the setup she'd had a hand in arranging had been a great success. "I didn't think you were going to hit it off at first," she said, but added smugly, "but something must have clicked if you felt the need to sneak off…"

"Not for the reason you assume," he said wearily, thinking, Not you, too.

"What reason, then?"

"I don't want to go into it right now," Mark said, and that was that; she didn't pursue it further.

He ate lunch, a passably decent curry with potato, and after he finished he decided that though it was early, he could now decently make a retreat back to London. He said his goodbyes; he felt a bit guilty, leaving her to bear the brunt of the commentary, but he could only imagine the chatter that would generate if he'd offered her a ride. Assuming she'd need one, assuming she'd even accept. But the offer itself would have raised eyebrows.

He thought a lot about everything on his drive home to London—the wild coincidence of it all, how wrong he had been about assuming she'd lied about why she hadn't made the meeting at Pret, when in fact she'd just had ridiculous, unbelievably bad luck. How she had been wearing an awful outfit presumably for the same reason he had worn the awful jumper—he had, after all, seen how she usually dressed, and given the boots and miniskirt, he suspected that there had not been tapestry fabric under her coat.

He had to admit was more than a little intrigued to see how things would go during the coffee date.