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Beautiful distraction, p.3
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       Beautiful Distraction, p.3

           J. C. Reed
 

  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she hasn’t thought about a stopover to get dinner either.

  I should have known better than to leave the planning details to her. Now, with thick rainclouds roiling and twisting over our heads, and the wind picking up in speed, I can only hope the satnav will guide us safely to the nearest town.

  I groan audibly to communicate my displeasure. “You said you were taking a shortcut, but this shortcut is taking longer than the estimated time to arrival. How do you explain that?”

  “Fine. If you must know.” Mandy shoots me a disapproving look. “We sort of got a bit off track, but don’t worry, we’ll get there eventually.”

  I sit up, suddenly alert. “What do you mean by ‘off track’?”

  Warily, I peer at the satnav, which is a palm-sized black device attached to the windshield, its screen turned to Mandy. Given that neither I nor Mandy are particularly adept at reading road maps, the whole purpose of buying the thing was to get us from A to B without the need for a map. I realize it’s been at least two hours since we last stopped at a petrol station. It’s been even more than that since we last drove past a city.

  With a strong sense of foreboding in the pit of my stomach, I turn the screen toward me and realize in horror that all it shows is a country road surrounded by a huge patch of green and a message stating ‘no service available at this time.’ There’s no street name, no information on the nearest highway, no sign of a petrol station or motel. Wherever we are, it’s not on the freaking map.

  Shit!

  We probably left civilization behind a few hours ago.

  “We’re off the grid,” I say, mortified, as I stare at the screen. “Mandy!”

  “It’s not a big deal.” She shrugs again.

  “How can you say it’s not a big deal? We’re lost.”

  “We’re not lost,” Mandy protests feebly. We’ve been friends for ages, which is why I know she’s lying. She catches my glance. “As soon as the storm calms down, the satnav will start working again. I’m pretty sure we’re headed in the right direction anyway.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Call it my gut feeling.”

  “Is this the same gut feeling that almost got me expelled from school after you suggested we paint the walls red as a means of protest against the lousy food?”

  Mandy remains quiet, so I ask the most obvious question in a voice that can barely contain my anger, “How did this happen?”

  “I took a shortcut.” Her words come so low I’m not sure it wasn’t just the howling wind gathering around the car that spoke to me.

  “What?”

  “I said I took a shortcut!” she yells at me. Then she adds quietly, “Or so I thought. And then the damn thing failed—” she points at the satnav “—probably because I forgot to update the software.”

  “This is so typical of you.” I open the glove compartment to pull out the roadmap, but all I find are cans of soda and several packs of Twinkies. “Where’s the map?” I ask, even though I know the answer.

  “I didn’t think we’d need it.” Mandy shrugs and stares ahead at the darkening road.

  I laugh from the waves of hysteria collecting at the back of my throat.

  Why would anyone ever take a shortcut in the middle of nowhere and consciously decide against packing a map? Then again, this is Mandy. Given that I’ve known her all my life, I have no one to blame but myself.

  “There goes my backup plan,” I mumble.

  “It wasn’t really that much of a backup plan anyway, given that neither of us has ever found her way around with the help of a map,” Mandy says, not really helping.

  “But still. You should have known better.”

  “What about you?” Mandy prompts. “You could have thought about packing one instead of obsessing over your non-existent love life.” The accusation is palpable in her voice. She’s trying to blame it all on me.

  “I’m not even going there because I wasn’t obsessing. I spent the last few months working my ass off. You know how hard I had to work to get where I am now.”

  “Where?” she asks innocently. “We both know that by ‘work’ you mean you were secretly obsessing about the fact that you shouldn’t have brushed off the guy who hit on you at Club 69.”

  Oh, for crying out loud.

  She’s trying to divert attention from her mistakes by annoying the living shit out of me.

  I roll my eyes. “Get us out of here before we end up completely lost and living in a self-made wooden hut. I’m not learning how to set traps and collect berries to keep your sorry ass alive.”

  “If this helps, I did pick up how to make a fire when I was a Girl Scout.”

  I grin at her. “Yeah, your fire will be of immense help when we’re trapped in a storm.”

  “Check the cell,” Mandy says, her face brightening at the idea.

  “And call who if we don’t even know where we are?”

  “The police, obviously. They could track us.”

  Intentionally, I don’t praise her as I retrieve my cell phone and then stare at the no signal sign. “Dammit. No bars.”

  Which isn’t much of a surprise.

  We are in the middle of nowhere. There’s no doubt about it because ninety-nine percent of mainland USA has cell phone coverage, which is about everywhere. Mandy has just managed to find the remaining one percent, and she didn’t even have to put a lot of effort into it.

  “No signal,” I say needlessly and drop my cell phone back into my handbag, which I then toss it onto the back seat amid Mandy’s toiletry case, several shoeboxes, and countless fashion magazines, all of which she picked up during our petrol station stopover. For the money, she could have bought at least two roadmaps. The thought manages to make me even crankier.

  CHAPTER TWO

  We remain silent for a long time. At some point, I consider asking her to drive back to the gas station, but then decide against it. For one, she’s taken so many turns that I doubt she’d find her way back before the rain begins cascading down on us. And second, the gas station is at least a two-hour drive away. If the weather’s playing along, we have three or four hours to find a motel before dusk falls.

  “I could turn around,” Mandy suggests, jolting me out of my thoughts.

  “No. Just keep going. The road’s bound to take us somewhere.” I open my eyes and scan the sky, worried. The gathering clouds dim the light, bathing the deserted road in semi-darkness. It’s only four p.m., but it feels as though nighttime is about to fall. As the car rolls on, the first drops of rain begin to splatter against the windshield.

  Within minutes, the drizzle turns into a raging downpour and the road begins to resemble a huge puddle of water. The engine is roaring and the tires keep slipping on the muddy ground. The visibility’s so bad Mandy slows down the car and leans forward in her seat, fighting to see through the foggy glass.

  “Should we stop and wait this one out?” Mandy asks.

  “No. Don’t stop,” I yell to make myself audible through the noise of the splattering rain. “I fear if we stop, the tires will get stuck in the mud and no one will ever find us out here. No one can possibly survive on Twinkies and soda forever.”

  “You’re right.” Mandy hits the accelerator, and the engine thunders in protest. “We’re almost there,” she says for the umpteenth time, casting another nervous glance at me.

  I squint my eyes to make out the road, but it’s too late to make out the dark silhouette to our right.

  “Tree!” I shout.

  Instead of swinging left, to the other site of the road, Mandy turns the wheel sharply to the right, the unexpected impact of hitting unpaved, muddy earth pushing me against my seatbelt as we barely escape a collision with a tree.

  Thunder echoes in the distance, once, twice, when I realize it’s not thunder but the spluttering sound of a dying engine.

  The car cogs several times…and then stops abruptly.

  “That was close.” Mandy leans
over the steering wheel, panting.

  “Yeah. You could say that.”

  She turns the key in the ignition, but nothing happens. She tries again. Still nothing.

  Double shit.

  This isn’t good at all.

  “Ava?” The panic in her voice is palpable.

  “We’ll be fine,” I lie, even though I know better than to make false promises. More than likely, we’ll have to spend the night in the car, huddled together for warmth in the hope that the rain will stop at some point.

  I make a mental note to be mad at her for the rest of our lives.

  I peer out the passenger window into the dark. The sky has turned black, and the torrential rain makes it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.

  Except for a road sign consisting of a wood panel that appears to have cattle carved on it, I have no idea where we are.

  “Great. Just great,” I whisper.

  We’ll freeze to death.

  The thought is so scary I shiver against the coarse fabric of my jacket and barely dare to look out the window into the pitch black.

  Mandy shoots me another nervous look and tries to start the engine a few more times, without any success.

  This is it.

  Now we’re really stuck.

  “It was worth a shot,” Mandy says, raising her chin defiantly.

  I stare at her in disbelief. “Who the fuck tries to turn around on an unpaved road with apocalyptic rain pounding on us?”

  “At least I’m not sitting on my ass doing nothing.”

  Mandy can never shut up. If we continue like this, we’ll be at it all day and night. Someone has to take the high road—and as usual, that someone is me.

  I bite my lip hard to keep back a snarky remark and decide to change the subject.

  “Did you pack an umbrella?” I ask.

  “Yes.” Mandy peers at me warily as she draws out the word. “Why?”

  “There’s no point in us both sitting around and waiting for a car to drive past because that might never happen, so I’m going to find someone who can help us.” I draw a sharp breath and exhale it slowly as I ponder over my decision. It’s a risky one, but what other choice do we have? “I’ll go back to the road and take the first shift waiting. Let’s hope someone else decides to ‘take a shortcut.’” I don’t mean to infuse a hint of bitchiness in my voice, but I can’t help it. “We’re in deep shit. The sooner you realize this, the greater our chance to make it out before we freeze to death or a hurricane hits us.”

  “Are you crazy?” Mandy asks. “You’ll get lost out there. We’ll wait out the storm.”

  I raise my hand to stop her protest. “Where’s the umbrella?”

  For a few seconds, she just stares at me in a silent battle of the wills. When her shoulders slump slightly and she looks away, I know I’ve won. She squeezes between the seats and rummages through the stuff scattered haphazardly on the back seat, then hands me a tiny umbrella—the kind that you usually carry around in your oversized handbag; the kind that couldn’t keep you dry from a drizzle, let alone the downpour outside. But the end is pointed and sharp. It’ll definitely do.

  “You can’t use that thing out there,” she says. “The wind’s too strong.”

  “I know. I’m taking it with me in case a wild animal attacks me and I need protection.”

  “A wild animal in Montana? What are you scared of? A cow?” Mandy lets out a snort. I give her an evil glance that’s supposed to shut her up—but doesn’t. “Yeah, you’ll poke it to death with that thing.”

  “Do you have a better idea?”

  Now she’s silent.

  A flashlight would be extremely helpful, but that’s something Mandy would never think of packing, so I’ll have to make do without one of those.

  “I’ll be back in an hour. Wish me luck that I find someone,” I say and jump out of the car before she can protest.

  “Be careful!” Mandy shouts after me.

  I nod my head, even though she probably can’t see it, and wrap my jacket tighter around me.

  The rain soaks my clothes almost instantly, and a cold sensation creeps up on me before I’ve even taken a few steps. I suppress the urge to open the umbrella, knowing it wouldn’t help much against the freezing wind that makes walking difficult.

  Big drops of water are cascading down my face and into my eyes. I blink against what seems like a bottomless well pouring down on me and spin in a slow circle as I try to regain any sense of orientation. The road is barely wider than a path, with what looks like fields to either side, but that’s about all I can see. The headlights are illuminating the ditch we hit, but did we spin to the left or to the right? I can’t remember, and any tire tracks have already been washed away by the water. Basically, I have no idea which direction we came from, and the pitch black isn’t helping. The main road could be anywhere.

  Dammit.

  Suddenly, my emergency plan doesn’t seem so appealing after all.

  We can’t be too far from the main road, so I decide to make it a brisk ten-minute walk and then turn around and head the other way.

  “I can do this,” I mutter to myself in a weak attempt at a pep talk and start walking down the path. After only a few paces, I realize the ground conditions make it harder than I anticipated. The slippery mud around my shoes and jeans weighs me down, and my pulse begins to race from the effort of lifting my knees up high. It seems as though I’ve walked for miles, which can’t be because I still see the headlights of our car shining in the distance.

  My groan is swallowed by the relentless rain.

  That’s when I see the light in the distance. It looks like the beam of a flashlight. I should be getting back to Mandy to tell her about it, but I fear if I return to the car, whoever’s holding it might disappear and I’ll never find out whether rescue awaits us at the other end of it.

  “Help,” I scream, but the light ahead doesn’t shift.

  As I head closer, I realize it’s not a flashlight but a bulb hanging from a string, which stirs in the wind, and there’s a whole house behind it. The pain from plodding around in knee-deep mud forgotten, I quicken my pace and reach the porch in a heartbeat, then slam my palms against the doorframe so hard the sound could wake the dead.

  Thump.

  My fist hammers harder against the wood.

  “Hey! We’re stuck out here and need help,” I yell, just in case my thudding is mistaken for an oncoming hurricane.

  The few seconds that pass seem like an eternity. Eventually, a bolt slides. The door is pried open, and I find myself staring at the six-foot-two figure of a guy.

  My jaw drops open.

  He seems oddly familiar.

  His hair’s dark and curled at the tips; his strong jaw is shadowed, as though he forgot to shave this morning, the dark stubble accentuating his full lips. He’s wearing nothing but tight jeans with the upper button undone, but that’s not what makes it impossible to pry my eyes off of his half-clad body to meet his questioning gaze. It’s his familiar face, the green eyes that are now narrowed in surprise.

  “You!” he states. His voice, deep and sexy, sends a shudder down my spine. Something about his tone rings a bell. Where do I know that accent from?

  It takes me a few seconds before the penny drops.

  My heart skids to a halt as I swear all heat is draining from my body.

  Holy. Pearls.

  It can’t be. And yet, I know it’s him. Or someone who looks just like him: the rich guy with the expensive car who offered me a handout in exchange for some implied fun between the sheets. The one I brushed off.

  What are the odds?

  Even though he’s dressed more casually and his hair is a bit longer—past the need for a cut, and styled in a casual mess that demands you run your fingers through it—I see the resemblance straight away. My gaze brushes over his chest.

  The same muscular build.

  The same features and hard body, all shrouded in a layer of mystery, that have
been haunting my dreams ever since he bumped his Lamborghini into my Ford and then offered me a shitload of money because he felt sorry for me.

  Club 69.

  That’s where we met three months ago.

  And that certainly explains his palpable disdain for me.

  He can’t take rejection.

  For the first two weeks, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I even started skipping through the gossip pages of various magazines in case he might be someone rich and famous.

  Needless to say, I didn’t find his picture, so I forced myself to push him out of my system—Mandy made that part almost impossible.

  Of all the places in the world, I had to meet him here—in the middle of nowhere, with no escape route.

  Shit. Shit. Shit.

  I stare at him, my body frozen in shock. I’m so stunned, for a moment I’m rendered speechless as we continue to eye each other.

  Meeting him here, in the middle of nowhere, feels surreal.

  His chest—all hard muscles—is clearly defined and emphasized by the light bulb dangling over my head. A black snake tattoo adorns his left arm, which is stretched against the doorframe, as though to block my way, while the other is clutching at the door, as though ready to slam it in my face. I look up into eyes the color of storms and realize that’s exactly what he’s considering doing.

  “This is private property. You’re trespassing.” His voice is raw and gritty, with a strong accent. No ‘How can I help you?’; no ‘Please come in.’; not even ‘Hi, how are you? Hey, I remember you. You look great, by the way.’

  I stare at him, dumbfounded, until I remember that Mr. Expensive Shirt has no manners.

  He demonstrated it before, and he’s doing it again. My hands ball into fists, and for a split second, I consider turning around and heading elsewhere. If only he weren’t the only person around. I can’t afford to offend him. Not when he’s the only person who can help us.

  I grit my teeth and force myself to take slow, measured breaths.

  “I need help,” I whisper, my voice slightly hoarse.

  “Say again?”

  “Our car’s stuck down the road,” I say and point behind me in a broad circle because suddenly I can’t remember which direction I came from.

 
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