Linger Excerpt

Diamond in the desert winner-1

When wounded souls collide, anything can happen—even love.

 

DRIZZLE, MORE AGGRAVATING THAN A DRIVING RAIN, smeared Brit Gentry’s windshield when the wiper blade squeaked across the glass. Brit clicked it off and growled. She’d picked a lousy day to travel Interstate 68. The only thing lifting her spirits was the jagged notch cut into the ridge of Sideling Hill. Like an open jaw, it allowed the flow of vehicles to pass from the east and into the west. She sped up, putting more miles behind her, when her Pathfinder slid onto the shoulder, kicking up rocks. With her heart in her lap, she pulled back on the steering wheel.

Slow down.

Brit eased off the accelerator. Smashing into the side of the Allegheny Mountains, although tempting, wouldn’t bring highly decorated Afghan war veteran Sergeant Beau Crenshaw back from the dead.

Nope. But she wouldn’t have to live with the guilt of killing him, either.

Brit’s fingers skimmed the semi-automatic inside the pocket of her driver’s side door. She hadn’t wanted to bring it, hadn’t wanted to look at or handle another firearm, but black bears thrived in the mountains. If she ventured out once she made it to her getaway in Deep Creek, Maryland, she would need the added protection. The sentimental piece of metal had been her father’s and the first gun she’d ever fired. She’d almost tossed it into the Chesapeake six weeks ago—a watery grave the perfect resting place for everything and everyone who had ever caused her pain.

The sky grew darker, fog rolling in as she approached the town of Cumberland, Maryland. The wind picked up, buffeting her SUV, making it a challenge to keep from swerving into the next lane. The interstate, now more circuitous, cut a path high above the old brick city once known as the gateway to the west. Brit would usually crane her neck to catch a glimpse of the Linger_600x900ornate spires of the courthouse and the churches that seemed to stretch toward the heavens. But not today. Her hands remained clenched on the steering wheel, the gorgeous fall colors of October dull and muted through the murk.

Trucks whizzed by on her left, a wall of dirty water spraying her windshield. She hit the wiper again, along with the washer fluid, and fishtailed. Gritting her teeth, she counter-steered until she regained traction. Damn it, Brit, get a grip. She was normally rock steady in all situations. She couldn’t fall apart—not with her job. Only Brit had been slowly succumbing to an all-out breakdown since that night in March on the Chesapeake, the maiden voyage of a Sun Odyssey 33i sailboat she never expected to own.

Since then the hits just kept coming. Brit shook her head in defeat. Sergeant Beau Crenshaw and a little thing called a financial disclosure investigation had been the cherry on top of the melting tower of ice cream that was her life.

Brit swallowed, the pressure from the elevation lessening in her ears. The road narrowed. The usual two-way highway traffic, reduced to one heading west in two lanes. Fringed with dense trees on both sides, westbound 68 and its constant grade, either on the incline or decline, could be treacherous with the slick roads. Brit needed to get past the two idiot truckers up in front who were playing cat and mouse with each other.

She signaled and pulled around the semi into the left lane, its height making it difficult to see the road up ahead. Brit pressed down on the gas pedal and flew past him. A dark compact car behind her seemed to have the same idea and came up on her bumper, then eased off. Damn good thing. One tap of the brake and he’d find himself fishtailing or in a three sixty.

Brit put her sights on the next truck ahead in the right lane. It was a double tandem—two trailers hauled by one lonely cab. Now that made her nervous. It was like a train on a collision course.

A white pickup flew by in the right lane, then zigged over in front of her. Brit tapped the brake, holding her breath. Shit. Not good. The idiot better not try that around the—

Too late.

The pickup darted in front of the tandem, and Brit tensed. Air brakes screeched and the trailers tottered on their wheels before swinging across the highway like a giant metal gate.

Brit sucked in air and jerked her Pathfinder onto the shoulder. With dense trees to her left and the skidding semi to her right, she squeezed through. Tree branches struck her driver’s side window like spears. They clunked and scraped her SUV, the uneven ground bumping her up and down until she was able to pull back onto the highway. Something clipped the right rear of her quarter panel. She stiffened at the crunch of metal on metal. The SUV spun, and a hot flash of panic radiated up her chest. Like a merry-go-round, everything whirled—trees, roadway, the semi—except for a black projectile coming toward her at lightning speed.

I’m going to die.

Brit shut her eyes tight, waiting for the impact that would shatter her bones and tear her flesh. God. Let it be quick.

Her SUV stopped, rocked a few times until she sat at an angle, motionless in the right lane. A thunderous clap came from somewhere—maybe behind her—the ground shaking. Brit’s eyes popped open. The awful groan and whine of metal bending and twisting echoed around her. The black projectile she now knew to be the compact lay flipped on its roof on the left shoulder, smoke billowing from its hood.

With Brit safely insulated behind the downed semi, vehicles on the other side collided, one after the other. She tensed at each deadly impact, crunching metal and shattering glass echoing all around her until only her erratic breathing remained. Her head fell back against the headrest, her eyes closing while she worked through the sharp pains radiating up her back.

She was sore but alive.

Her eyes opened, and she scrabbled for her cellphone sitting in the console. Shaking fingers stabbed at the keypad, #77. She knew the call would go to the closest state police barrack and didn’t hesitate.

“Multi-car pileup, tandem on its side on 68.” Her breaths came in waves, and she squinted against the fog. She tried to find a mile marker, anything, when a wisp of fog thinned and lifted. “There’s a sign.” She squinted at the yellow background and black lettering. “Caution. Truckers steep descent,” she almost shouted into the receiver.

“Ah . . . you’re going to have to be more specific than that.”

“Triangulate my phone!” Brit scrubbed her face hard. That’s all she had. She couldn’t say when the next exit would come up. This wasn’t a frequently traveled route for her. Brit swung her head around toward the wreckage on the shoulder. She couldn’t determine the make of the compact. “Possible fatality.” Brit got out. The highway in front was a proverbial ghost town, the fog enveloping her in its misty shroud. She turned behind her and gasped. Flames shot above the semi, left to cool on its side. “Vehicles on fire.” She clicked off, hoping they’d taken her serious about the triangulation thing and threw her phone onto the driver’s seat. Thinking better of it, she grabbed her gun and shoved it into the back waistband of her jeans. There was no way to know how many lay injured or dead beyond the semi. Like a rockslide, it filled the highway from shoulder to shoulder, making it impossible to get to those who were now keening and shouting for help. Fire and EMS were on their way. If the semi was leaking fuel, it could be a ticking time bomb. Staying away from it was her best option. Brit put the agonizing voices out of her mind and bolted toward the compact.

She’d do what she could until the emergency responders arrived. Then hightail it out of here. No way was she staying for the media circus that would ensue or for the boys from the Cumberland Barrack. That was all she needed—to be recognized and linked to a deadly pileup and possibly the only survivor. They’d blame her. Find some way to pin this tragedy on her. Why not? They’d love to parade her photo on national TV. They’d been doing just that in recent weeks since the shooting.

Brit edged around the compact and crouched down. With the windows blown out, she’d know if the driver survived. The quiet unnerved her—not even a moan. With her hand on the frame, she peered inside. Her shoulders slumped when she found the vehicle empty—until she noticed the missing windshield and the shards of broken glass glistening on the gravel shoulder. Brit skirted the wreckage. Her hands began to tremble at the blood and dark hair embedded in a spidery chunk of windshield lying in the grass. Her breathing became erratic. She clasped her hands together and tried to control her airflow.

In, out, in, out.

That night on the hill came flooding back. The grisly hole in Crenshaw’s forehead, his wide-eyed stare, the blood.

Get it together, Brit. Find the driver.

Right. Probably up in the tree line. Cold and wet from the constant drizzle, Brit shivered at the prospect and hugged her draping black sweater around her. A trendy style, it had kept her comfortable in the heated SUV but wasn’t functional out in the elements. Neither were her lacey cami and thin straight leg jeans. And her footwear—forget it. She loved fashion—craved it more than most women because of the uniform. Glancing down, Brit cursed the perfectly coordinated outfit she’d chosen this morning and her good sense. She wouldn’t get far traipsing through the woods in her high-heeled tall suede boots.

She’d do her best.

Brit rounded the mangled metal and headed up the grassy, wet incline. She hovered at the tree line. “Hello!” She took a few steps into the low brush, its leaves a golden brown, rubbing against her legs. “Are you hurt?” Brit shook her head. Now that was stupid. She knew whoever it was would be in bad shape, if they had survived.

No answer, except for the pitter-patter of rain hitting the crown of trees above. Brit moved deeper and grimaced at the suction her designer boots made as they sunk into the mud.

Whatever. She could replace the boots. Pulling her heel out of the muck, Brit swatted at low-lying branches. If she could help this person she would. She continued through the woods, cupping her right ear. Still nothing. The wail of sirens grew more distinct. Thank God for modern technology. They’d be here soon, faster than she wanted if she continued to search in vain for a victim she felt sure was no longer of this world.

Turning around, she then maneuvered back the way she came. Her vehicle was maybe fifteen yards away, parked at an angle in the far right lane where it had finally rested. The pickup that had caused all the problems had vamoosed. Lucky for him.

Brit crossed the highway, grabbed her phone from the seat, and hopped inside where she’d left her Pathfinder still running. She snagged the gun digging into her back, juggled it and her phone, and lifted the lid to the center console. She placed the gun inside, shutting the lid with a thunk. Brit clicked her seat belt and did an inventory of her truck. Suitcases were scattered in the back from the impact and a small cooler lay on its side in the passenger footwell. She righted it and then angled her head to check her driver’s side mirror. Brit lurched backward, her unexpected scream, shrill and so unlike her, drowning out any conscious thought except—holy shit!