EXCERPT: CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Her arms wrapped around herself, she rocked back and forth as she sat on the edge of the sofa. Only vaguely aware of her sharp nails gouging her skin, she watched, and she suffered. The recording was pornography…disgusting, vile. There might be worse—more graphic, much more disgusting—films. Having seen only a few porno movies in the past, she really wasn’t a good judge. But for very personal reasons, this film was the pinnacle of revolting.
The man on the screen was overweight and middle-aged, definitely not porn star material. Wearing clothes, he had looked distinguished, sophisticated. Nude, he had the kind of body that revealed what overindulgence and lack of discipline could do to a person. That, along with gravity and the natural process of aging, had taken a toll on his already less-than-superior physique. The recording was over five years old, but the camera had been the best money could buy at the time. Every sag and bulge showed with humiliating clarity. Even the freckles on his dimpled, cellulite-covered ass showed up.
The unattractiveness of the man was made all the more evident by the contrast of the woman with him. She, too, was nude. But she was young, beautiful, with the kind of looks that came from good genes and an overly generous creator.
The man moved on top of the young woman, blocking the camera’s view of her body and exposing his pudgy ass in an even more revolting way.
The temptation to fast-forward was strong—just the press of a button—but to understand everything, to refuel the fury and accept what had to be done, she knew she must endure the entire footage one last time.
As the old man moved his body, the young woman’s face was once again revealed. She lay there, partially compliant, partially participating. The vacant, glazed expression in her eyes left no doubt about why she wasn’t protesting. Five years ago, William Harrington III had arranged for the woman to be taken for his own pleasure. She had been drugged and every perverse act he had performed with her had been recorded.
Harrington was killed when a rescue organization found his secret hideaway. Several women had been rescued that day, including this one. This one had been his favorite, the one he had called his precious jewel.
When Harrington’s home had been raided, his private stash of homemade porn had been discovered. All recordings had been confiscated, all destroyed. With the exception of one. One recording, one copy.
After the young woman’s rescue, she had disappeared. Even the most tenacious investigator had not been able to find her. When she had finally reemerged, she had been a whole new person with a new name. Only her closest friends and allies knew the truth. Until now.
The woman thought she had disguised herself enough to hide her real identity, and to most of the world, she had. Her hair, face, body looked different—more mature, less childish. Yes, she had fooled the world, but there was one person she hadn’t been able to deceive. The only person who mattered.
The beautiful, oh-so-innocent-looking Kacie Dane was on the peak of becoming one of the most recognized faces and names in the world. She was adored. She was worshipped.
And very soon she would be dead.
New York City
Dear Kacie, I feel like I’ve known you forever. We are kindred spirits, navigating the travails of life, connected but not yet bound.
“Oh brother,” Kacie muttered and put that message in her no answer stack.
Dear Kacie, You are my absolute most favoritest person in the whole wide world. I want to be just like you when I grow up.
Smiling at the innocent words, Kacie put the message aside to answer later.
Dear Ms. Dane, Your concern for the refugees in Manitoba Province prompted me to contact you regarding a matter of grave concern.
She put the letter in another stack for research and then rubbed the middle of her forehead, hoping to head off the looming tension headache. Normally, reading her correspondence was either entertaining or uplifting. Occasionally, it was boring. Today, because of one particular message, it was a pain in the ass and the head.
“Stop rubbing your forehead like that. It causes wrinkles.”
Tara Greenfield, personal assistant and self-appointed nag, often threw out homilies and advice as if she were fifty years older than Kacie, when in actuality she was a year younger.
Resisting the childish urge to stick her tongue out at her like the smart-ass kid she’d once been, Kacie scrunched her nose instead. “Just trying to prevent a headache.”
Tara’s golden-brown eyes went soft with concern. “Want me to set up an appointment with Alberta?”
“No. Unfortunately, a massage won’t fix this problem.”
Pulling a letter from one of the stacks in front of her, she read aloud: “Kacie, it’s been much too long since I’ve heard from you. Your lack of concern for my welfare is both unattractive and selfish. If you don’t contact me soon, I will come to you.”
“Whoa. Somebody’s got some nerve. Who’s it from?”
“From my…” She mentally shook herself. Good heavens, she must be tired. “From a distant relative.”
“You don’t talk about your family very often.”
She didn’t talk about them at all and for a lot of different reasons. Besides, the woman who had given birth to her had no interest in Kacie except for what her daughter could provide. “I stopped sending her money last month. She’s not pleased.”
“She recently remarried, and her husband is wealthy. She doesn’t need my money.”
“So she wants her husband’s money and yours, too?”
“To some people, you can never have too much.”
Kacie rubbed her forehead again. There had been several reasons to send the money, but most of them had nothing to do with her mother needing the extra funds. Kacie had realized the futility of her efforts long ago. However, she had continued. When her mother remarried, Kacie had looked upon it as an opportunity for a clean break. No surprise that her mother disagreed.
“I’m tired of thinking about that.” She handed Tara a small stack of printed emails. “Would you mind answering these for me? Just use your best judgment on the replies.”
“Sure. But what about the other ones? Want me to do those, too?”
Kacie glanced back at her desk. She’d taken a swift glance at them all, including the ones that Molly, her secretary, referred to as the you really need to see this for yourself stack. None of them was urgent.
“I’ll handle those later. There’re not that many.”
Paper rattled as Tara pointed her handful of pages at Kacie. “Why don’t you take a few hours off? Go do something fun for a change.”
Fun? That word hadn’t been in her vocabulary lately. She worked, she came home, ate, and slept. Such was the glamorous life of a successful model.
“The fundraiser starts at eight.”
“So? You’ve got a gazillion people working on that to make it run smooth as glass.”
“But I’ll need to get ready.”
Tara snorted softly. “It only takes you about forty-five minutes to get made up and dressed. Then half an hour or so to get to the Plaza. You’ve got plenty of time to relax. Go have some fun. Do some window shopping. Go to the park and breathe in the not so fresh air of spring. Hell, grab a hot dog.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief. “I won’t tell Gustav. Promise.”
Kacie laughed. Her personal trainer would make her pay dearly if he found out she’d indulged. But the idea sounded so enticing. Dare she? It had been months since she’d taken a few hours off for junk food and some mindless fun.
Before she knew it, Tara was gone and seconds later returned with a Tennessee Volunteers cap that Skylar Maddox, Kacie’s best friend, had sent her. Tara handed it to Kacie, along with a pair of obnoxiously big sunglasses.
Laughing, she took the cap and sunglasses. “Okay, Tara the Tyrant. I’m gone.”
Grabbing her purse and cellphone, Kacie scooted out the door, feeling more lighthearted and carefree than she had in months. It wouldn’t hurt to take just a few minutes for herself, would it?
She was glad she’d let Tara bully her into this break. It had been the perfect remedy, and she was feeling tons better. She loved living in New York City. Every season brought a different kind of flavor and excitement, but spring, with its abundance of blooming trees and flowers, was her favorite.
She inhaled a deep breath and then grimaced at the noxious fumes from a passing bus. Okay, not everything had the fragrance of flowers. Turning a corner, she spotted a street vendor, and her day got even brighter.
Without the least tinge of guilt, Kacie ordered the works. And like a kid who knew she was doing something she shouldn’t, she glanced around just to make sure no one had noticed that a fairly famous model was about to down a ginormous hot dog.
One more thing to love about New York City. No one paid her the slightest attention. She paid the vendor and, preparing to thoroughly enjoy herself in style, headed to the park just two blocks away. The tantalizing aroma of her early dinner enticed her to walk even faster.
Within minutes she’d settled onto a bench and unwrapped her delicacy. Then, without a thought that she could easily be on the front cover of a tabloid tomorrow with a glaring headline about a hidden eating disorder or some other nonsense, she took a giant bite, almost groaning as the flavors hit her tongue. She chewed contentedly and then washed it down with a long swallow from an icy, sweet soda.
If Gustav, her trainer and literal pain in her ass, could see her, he’d go all Gestapo on her. Probably put her through a week of detox cleansing plus an extra hour a day in the gym. Kacie couldn’t bring herself to worry too much about that, though. It had been months since she’d taken a day off to just be nobody at all. A nameless, faceless person dwelling in this vast, beautiful, and fascinating city.
For over a year after her rescue, she hadn’t wanted to be anyone, least of all herself. It had taken her a long time to be comfortable in her skin again. She’d hated every single particle of her being, body, heart, and soul. Every day she’d woken with her inner demons reminding her of her sheer stupidity and naïveté. She’d been the one to go blindly into the situation. It had been her fault and hers alone.
Having no one to blame but your own blind ambition gave a person nowhere to go. She’d been forced to look deep inside herself for answers and had hated what she discovered. She could blame poor judgment and an unhealthy desire for fame and money as the culprits, but after digging even further, she’d accepted the real cause. She had wanted validation. Somehow, she had believed that being a famous model would give her what she craved.
Changing her name had been harder than she’d thought it would be. Not the actual process, but accepting that she was someone else. In the end, she realized she’d had no other choice if she wanted another life for herself.
She was now living the dream she’d originally wanted with every breath of her being—the modeling career that she’d once believed would make her the happiest person on earth. Thankfully, she had developed a healthy dose of common sense to go along with her ambition. Fame and fortune did not and should never define a person. It was what they did with it that mattered. And she’d learned the hard way what really mattered.
Refusing to dwell on those dark days any longer, Kacie took one last bite of her super-bad-for-her-but-oh-so-delicious meal and then stood. The break had done her a world of good. So much so that she even had the energy to deal with the issue of her mother before getting ready for tonight’s event.
Breathing in the fragrance of a coming rain, along with the delicate scent from the cherry trees a few yards away, Kacie dropped the remains of her meal into a nearby garbage can and strolled leisurely back toward her apartment.
Refreshed and renewed, she was ready to take on the world once more.
She never saw them coming.
One moment she was on the sidewalk, the next she was doing a clumsy midair tumble like an inebriated gymnast. She came to an abrupt and painful landing on the soft, forgiving earth.
Stunned and breathless, Kacie lay still for a few seconds, trying to figure out what had happened. Had she gotten dizzy and fallen? Had she run into something?
A multitude of whispers floated toward her. Twisting her head slightly, she blinked her confusion as she realized several people were standing over her. Were they here to help her?
One of them, a young man, moved closer and whispered something.
Kacie blinked up in confusion. “What?”
The whispers started up again. What were they saying? It sounded almost like a chant.
The one who’d come closer leaned over her. His breath coated her face with the smell of something strong and spicy as he whispered in an eerie, monotone, “He’s. Coming. For. You.”
Any breath she’d gathered left her again. Kacie managed to croak, “Are you crazy? What are you talking about?”
“He’s coming for you. He’s coming for you.” The voices around her increased in volume in a creepy, mantra-like symphony.
The man who leaned over her straightened, and then almost as one, the entire group disappeared from sight.
What the hell?
“Miss. Are you all right?”
Kacie looked up into the concerned eyes of an elderly man who stood over her.
Gathering her wits, she drew in a shaky breath and assessed the damage. Other than getting the crap scared out of her and a couple of bruises, she was unharmed. “I think so.”
“My wife called 911. They should be here soon.”
“Oh…I…” Don’t be stupid, Kacie. Not calling the police because you want to avoid publicity is insane. “Thank you.” Feeling both vulnerable and foolish for just lying on the ground, Kacie attempted to sit up.
“Maybe you should stay put until the paramedics can check you out.”
“I’m okay…really.” She sat up, pleased that she spoke the truth. Other than an accelerated pulse that was beginning to slow down and a couple of aches on her shoulder and hip, she felt fine.
Pushing herself up, she flashed a grateful smile at the elderly man as he put out a shaky hand to help. Though she took his hand, she did her best to get up under her own strength. The kindly gentleman was bone thin and so frail looking she feared she’d pull him down on the ground if she tugged too hard.
Her legs wobbled only slightly when she was finally standing. She looked around, pleased to see that, other than the man and his wife, who was still on the phone, no one else was around.
“Did you see what happened?” Kacie asked.
“Just a glimpse when they were leaving. There were six of them, all on skates. I told my wife the other day that those kids are going to kill somebody someday.” He looked around. “Did they steal anything?”
“No. I didn’t have a purse or anything. They just startled me.”
The man glanced over his shoulder. “Looks like the police made good time. I’ll stick around and give them a statement.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
As Kacie waited for the mounted policeman to reach them, a chill swept through her as she remembered those eerie chants: He’s coming for you. He’s coming for you.
What the hell did that mean?
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