Monday, February 23, 2015

Chapter One from #backlist title Perfect Stranger

Chapter One
Approximately 1300 hours Friday
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

         "Hey, watch out!" Chloe Burgesse shouted at the paint-chipped and dented used-to-be gold sedan as the car slipped in front of her from out of nowhere, tires screeching and squealing. Chloe's back came off the seat as she braked, too. The driver ahead succeeded in gaining only a few feet before a tight throng began to spill into the streets between the cars, halting traffic.
         She let out a long sigh. Geez, some people should learn to drive. However, in this country she could consider herself lucky not to have been run over by now. Chloe snorted, watching the passers-by, and gripped the wheel a little tighter. A flicker of annoyance raced through her as she noticed the odd absence on her ring finger where a four-carat ring used to encircle, no diamond there now to turn between her fingers as her grip increased.
         She honked again, this time with a pinch more aggravation. Pedestrians were the only things here that seemed to slow traffic at all. She glanced down on the map across her knees once more as the shoppers milled between the cars, tracing the road with her finger.
         Chloe thumped the map, seeing the road she needed to be on several blocks over, and smacked the map down into the passenger seat—the apparently outdated map she had picked up at her travel brochure acclaimed, five-star, yet nonetheless dirty, hotel. Chloe pushed her sunglasses back up the bridge of her nose and sighed, teeth tightly clamped together.
         This day marked the seventh—and last, thank God—day of what should have been her honeymoon in what she thought would be paradise. Wrong. Not that any of the should-have-beens mattered. The not-honeymoon vacation matched the complete aura of her life right now.
         She had never wanted to leave a place more. Even the reminder of what awaited her at home didn’t deter her want for normalcy.
         Betrayed and left at the altar, she'd found out a little too late her groom wouldn’t make their ceremony—because he'd already married another woman a week before. And what hurt the most, this hadn't been an I-lost-control-and-accidentially-married-a-stripper-in-Vegas-during-my-bachelor-party kind of thing. The happy new couple had known one another for several months, and all the while he had pretended to be loyal to Chloe.
         She had seen the warning signs, but had chosen to ignore the red flags without a single question.
         Still, she didn't understand his tactless retraction from their relationship.
         After the botched ceremony had been cleaned up and her unused gown stuffed somewhere out of sight—she suspected for her mother's fear she might shred it, too—her youngest sister had suggested she take the “honeymoon” alone.
         Chloe could still hear her sister, kneeling down beside where she had sat huddled in a chair, grieving and bemoaning her life. Hey, her sister had said. The trip is paid for, so why not? Take some time to recuperate, let off steam, and perhaps have a fling with a hot Brazilian. What happens in Brazil, stays in Brazil, the quirky nineteen-year-old pest had suggested.
         None of which had happened.
         Chloe had picked up the already packed suitcase without another thought and let her sister whiz her to the airport where she clambered onto the plane at the last second and took full advantage of the in-flight drink menu.
         At the time, she had only wanted a distraction to make her forget, to be somewhere far, far away from her sucky life. Somewhere she couldn’t bump into him.
         So much for getting away. Her mind hadn’t allowed her.
         The entire seven days in Rio had been spent in reflection and beating herself up over the entire relationship. On top of that, she had gotten food poisoning. Gotten sunburned. Slipped on a freshly mopped (or slopped) floor and ended up with a sore tailbone and ruined white capris. Now she'd managed to get lost on the edge of the city as she headed for the airport in her rental.
Chloe lay on the horn as the jackass in the sedan swerved and then braked hard in front of her. She came very close to driving her car right up his ass.
         "For the love of Pete!" Chloe euphemistically cursed, pounding the steering wheel, sending three clearly perturbed short honks to the other driver. "Only a few more miles," she yelled, then huffed. "Maybe. And if I don't wreck the car that would be awesome. Thanks!"
         The vehicle shot to the far right, off the road, sending up a cloud of dust as the driver veered around a jeep ahead. The jeep wisely turned into a drive, but this left Chloe following the raging driver again.
         She clenched her teeth and groaned as she came back into a residential neighborhood. The street narrowed snugly between buildings, and her speed slowed drastically for the sake of more pedestrians. Steadily, she watched the driver ahead. His impatience was evident in the way he swerved left to right in a constant zigzag.
         "It's not like your going to pass anyone here," she mumbled, momentarily throwing her hands in the air over the steering wheel, then smacking her palms back on and gripping hard. She sighed deeply and fell back against her seat to rub at her forehead.
         A headache was beginning to strengthen, tightening like a band around her skull.
         Chloe counted the rows of clothing fluttering on lines above, connecting from building to building in the impoverished neighborhood. At last, the line of cars exited the one street onto a busier thoroughfare. She made a point to get around the angry driver, casting a sharp glare out her window as she accelerated past.
         Chloe blew out a breath, relaxing, but suddenly her shriek-growl filled the compact car as the driver yet again swerved back into her lane, tightly. All lanes seemed to freeze simultaneously, and much honking chorused objectionably to the halt. Her car, unluckily, ended the procession, the jam far enough ahead she couldn’t see what had happened.
         Great. Chloe slammed back in her seat, this time with much more gusto, and checked her watch. She still had two hours, fortunately, but after a miserable week, she itched to be on the plane headed home to Charlotte, back home to her mom and her two unruly sisters.
         An odd movement in the car ahead caught her eye then.
         Chloe blinked, squinting as she saw the movement again. "What in the…" Chloe scrunched her nose as she peered closely over her steering wheel, gripping the worn leather tightly. Had the back-end of the car … bounced?
         Her eyes flared.
         The trunk did it again!
         She gasped as a boot-print imbedded the trunk lid of the gold sedan, from the inside out. Chloe sat rigidly. Her eyes widened even more as another dent obtruded up from the top of the trunk.
Her spine stiffened, and she jolted back into the seat, riveted to the tail end of the car. Her hand fluttered to her open mouth. She lost her breath at the sharp realization.
         "Oh-my-God," she breathed in a rush. The irate driver had a person in his trunk!
         The cars began to move again, though slowly. Chloe inched along in fascination, picking up pace but making sure to stay three car-lengths behind the erratic driver. She really couldn’t afford to pay for her rental on top of the weighing debt from a wedding that didn’t happen, although the insurance on file for her rental was under her ex's name. If anything happened, she would undoubtedly be stuck with that expense, too, since she had fudged the paperwork at the rental agency.
         Technically, she was still on his insurance, but didn’t want to have to deal with him to clear anything else up.
         They had said all that needed saying on their should-have-been wedding day.
         Chloe continued to watch the trunk for any signs of movement.
         Swallowing hard, she admitted she really wasn’t sure what to do. Did she dare get involved in a criminal case in a foreign country when she was due to leave within a couple hours? Or let someone else on the busy thoroughfare call in on the deviant driving the gold sedan. She looked around. There were plenty of other passersby. They would surely notice, too.
         Chloe scoffed to herself as she realized she didn’t even know any emergency numbers in Brazil, then cringed. Naive, wasn’t that what he had called her the last time they spoke, in the gigantic argument over the phone, which had reverberated throughout the entire church?
         The trunk bounced ahead of her, nearly bumping the road.
         She pursed her lips and fixated her stare and mind on the footprint. Judging by the size, that surely wasn’t a child in the trunk. Her worry edged a bit, though her brow remained furrowed. The trunk bounced several more times, more heavily than before, nearly contacting with pavement.
         Chloe chewed her lip, worrying and pondering over what she should do.
         She had sworn off being kind and generous, accused of being too nice by her ex. He had accused her of a healthy number of faults, which had all stabbed too deeply. She'd never thought a person could be too good. Apparently that was the taboo thing to be and not what a man wanted anymore—not what he had wanted.
         She sucked in a little sob at the same time as her eyes flared wide. Chloe slammed her brakes as the car's trunk flew upwards. She screamed when a man's face, bloodied and haggard, came into view. Their stares clashed for a brief second as he struggled free of bindings around his shoulders and sat up, catching the trunk lid from flopping closed again.
         Chloe screamed louder.
         Though she had watched all along, somehow she had not expected quite the sight before her.
         Wide-eyed and still screaming, both Chloe's hands flew to cover her mouth. A wisp of a second elapsed before she jumped to grab the wheel and regain control, her rental coming close to the other vehicle as her tires squealed.
         Hesitation flickered in the briefest instant.
         This poor man, he'd been tied up and looked to have been tortured. Chloe peered around him into the trunk, expecting the worst.
         Shit, shit, shit. Her silent mantra began.
         Guilt instantly swallowed her for not immediately trying to signal someone for help, too caught up in her own dilemma.
         Too caught up trying to be someone she wasn't.
         But how could I help him? Chloe wondered, watching the man search the surrounding road, blood crusted on the side of his face. Other cars whizzed past, honking, staring, laughing and pointing, but no one stopping to do anything.
         A noise of disgust escaped her.
         Did they think this was joke? A stunt?
         Chloe glanced around, too, but saw no movie cameras.
         Something snapped in her then. She was sick of the world and sick of the uncaring assholes in it. Humans lived to hurt one another and nothing else.
         They might not want to be kind, but damn it, she was a kind person.
         A seedling of doubt sprouted.
         She might be caring, but she was not of hero material by any stretch of the mind. She would stop and help an old lady if she spilled her purse, but this…. Helping this man was out of her league for kindness.
         Chloe's shoulders slumped, watching the lid to the trunk as it flopped above the man's arm where he kept it from hitting him on the head. He seemed unsure. Trapped. He struggled to pull himself free of ropes around his legs.
         She didn’t know what came over her then, because normally she tended to stay within the beloved “box”, never daring a thought of trespassing those boundaries, but obviously that wasn’t working well for her anymore. Chloe clenched her jaw.
         Her ex had claimed she was too predictable, too boring.
         A little pang began to ache in her heart, but Chloe chased the memory away with a snort.
         Ha!
         She could be unpredictable and still be caring.
         She sped up, bumping the other car with a slight sense of glee, and beckoned the man to take the leap onto the hood of her car. He looked at her strangely through the windshield, panicked almost. His look made her wonder if he would take the offered help.
         She watched as he kicked ropes from his feet, and a tangled net of bindings flew from the trunk as he tossed them. The gold sedan swerved, now well aware its prisoner had freed himself.
         Chloe bumped the gold sedan again, harder this time as the driver attempted an all out stop. Just as the other car swerved to the side, the man from the trunk leapt out, catching onto the top of her hood, near the wipers. He grunted at his landing, slipping across the hood, his long legs going over the side. In the last instant, as she thought he would surely slip to the pavement and be hit by an oncoming car, he pulled himself back up.
         Chloe tapped her brakes. The stranger growled as he tried to hold on and cast her a look of annoyance through the glass as his body slid up the windshield from her sudden halt.
         She swerved again, hitting the gas. The bumpers caught between her car and the gold sedan, sending them in a spiral, and the other car crashed headlong into a ditch and the trunk snapped shut.
         As Chloe sped by, feeling triumphant and rushed with adrenalin, she saw the other car's engine steaming. She hoped she hadn't killed the person, no matter how bad they were. Terrified, she kept going, though in the wrong direction of traffic. Many honks sounded around them as cars swerved out of her way. Chloe gassed the car, breaking intermittently as car after car sent her swerving, too.
         "Drive," the tortured stranger shouted. "Don't stop." He grunted. Blood smeared against the windshield and light green paint of the hood as he pulled himself toward the passenger side of her car. Chloe met his incensed stare, nodding wildly and tried not to hit her brakes again. She reached over to roll down the window, keeping one hand on the wheel.
         Somewhere deep, deep inside she began to wonder if she had gone completely crazy.
         Chloe squeaked out a tiny shriek as the man threw his long legs around and slipped inside, effectively filling the small car with his dominating size. He gave her a strange look, as though he thought her insane, too.
         Chloe swallowed her tongue and gawked, her stare quickly falling down him. Her foot unconsciously pressing a little harder on the gas-pedal.
         His tan t-shirt had open slashes in several places, bloody gashes revealed underneath. Tan pants showed proof he had been through little less than hell. Her gaze halted on the empty gun holster strapped around his thigh.
         What in the heck had happened to this man?
         Her gaze flickered back up his body, and she stopped to wonder at the smudged—was that paint on his face?—blotches of black and green, too.
         Chloe swerved again as another passing car caught her attention. She quickly looked between the stranger and the road.
         There was a bleeding, very large man in her car.
         She swallowed.
         What had she done?
         She meant to ask, Was he was all right? Should she take him to a hospital? Where was the hospital? What happened? but none of that came out.
         Chloe shook her head, gaping. She was without a doubt shell-shocked, and now that he was inside her car, Chloe was not entirely sure she had intended to let him inside—it had just happened.
"Set your cruise control. Give me the wheel." His voice was deep and rough.
         Reality pounded away at her, adrenaline thumping in her veins.
         Chloe stifled a cry as his long tanned fingers slipped around the wheel beside her own. Still glancing between the passenger side and the road, she groped to release her seatbelt, and then attempted what he said by fumbling for the little switch on the end of the signal control, first sending her turn signal blinking left, and then right. Chloe flushed, and glancing down, she tried again. Her wipers swiped across the windshield, and she cursed, giving up and tearing her focus away from the stranger and road long enough to do what he'd asked. She set the cruise control.
         He gave her a half-smile. "Great, you’re doing fine." His voice was so deep and smooth and calm she almost believed him. "Now, I want you to crawl into the backseat and keep your head down."
         "What!" Chloe's voice trembled. She looked at him as though he were insane for the suggestion. She gave a little whimper as she looked at the tight space between him and the console.
         He didn’t so much as glance at her as he steered from the passenger seat. "Just do it."
         Shakily, she managed, lifting herself from the seat and trying not to make contact with the stranger as she slipped over the console. Her knees and butt dipped to the floorboard, and she pulled her legs through the gap, then inched onto the seat and buckled herself in.
         The man commandeering her rental pulled himself into the driver's seat after her and adjusted for his height, muttering curses as the driver’s seat slammed back to accommodate his legs. Their car shot forward and turned right.
         "Who are you?" Chloe asked as she ducked into her lap and splayed her hands against the back of her midnight hair. "Please, oh please, tell me you're not a terrorist or in a cartel." She panicked, fear bringing sobs. She squeezed her eyes, berating herself for the burst of impulsiveness.
         The car rocked as he swerved for a pedestrian. Chloe's head shot up in alarm. A stack of papers knocked from the hands of the person on the street fluttered behind them.
         She tried to scream, opened her mouth, but nothing came out, and so she quickly dropped her head back to her lap and silently prayed she wouldn’t get killed.
         "My name is Jericho Eden." He paused to glance back at her. "And no, I am not a terrorist—unless of course you're a terrorist, then you might consider me such … You're not a terrorist, are you?" He cut another quick glance into the backseat, in attempt to ease her fear, and grinned despite the blood caked on the side of his face and in his hair, evident bruising swelled along a strong, darkly-bristled jaw.
         Chloe shook her head dumbly, peeping up from her knees. "Me? No."
         "Good, Chloe. Things might have gotten really awkward between us had you said yes."
         She paused, then came to edge around the seat precariously. "How do you know my name?"
         "It's on your bag," he said, turning off the road they had been on, onto the tight street she had traveled some twenty minutes earlier.
         They sped along, the people there scattering out of their path. Chloe peeked from over the console. He turned the car back in the exact direction she had come and then off the road the jeep had taken earlier when the sedan sped off the road.
         As their car bounced over the unpaved area, Chloe cut her eyes to her bag beside her in the backseat. Of course, she mentally grumbled.
         "Don't worry. I promise I won't hurt you." Chloe's attention flinched back to him. Their eyes caught in the rear-view mirror. "I'm one of the good guys," he said.
         She swallowed hard, but didn’t drop her gaze. "Then how did you end up in someone's trunk and looking like that?" she asked, her tone rattled. She flicked her gaze over his torn and bloodied clothing, his bruises and cuts.
         The stranger winced as a grim expression crossed over him. His stare returned to the road ahead, a darkness filling his gaze.


©2013 Kerri M. Patterson