Charlie Kale knows life isn't easy. But for the first time, this truck driver might have finally found her little piece of happiness. She's got it all—her big rig, friends, a great mentor, and a man about to join her on the road.
That is, until the good things in Charlie's life all fall apart, and she finds herself at the mercy of a sexy but mysterious gunman who claims to be a member of a secret order dedicated to fighting the supernatural monsters that filter over into our world.
She's given a choice—join up or die, and while the gunman might be insane, Charlie’s hell-bent on not dying.
Too bad it looks like that might not be an option.
Excerpt Chapter One
Rhonda’s head snapped around, and she mouthed the words “Oh my God.” I tried to stifle my laugh, but it burst out as a quiet snort. I surveyed the aisles around us, almost choking when I caught a face staring at me—but it was only my own dark-eyed reflection, beaming back from the glass covering a poster that aimed to recruit new drivers.
Maybe it was my lucky day, and nobody noticed us checking him out. I mean, the jean-clad behind that triggered her silent exclamation was certainly a fine specimen, but it didn’t mean I wanted to get caught admiring it. In the good ol’ boys’ club of long-haul trucking, being a female driver already got me enough flack . . . being new made it ten times worse.
The driver with the too-tight black jeans—or hey, maybe they were just tight enough—turned the corner and disappeared from sight. We scanned the area for witnesses and exchanged a nod, before slinking after him. Both of us were trying to get a better look at the rest of him as he wound his way through narrow aisles bursting with chrome decals, twelve-volt electronics, and beef jerky displays.
I was about to whisper to Rhonda he might be a butter-face when he turned and revealed a side profile.
She gave me a quick reverse nod, the question clear. Do you like him?
Hmm. I bit my lip. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but he had a face that was clean and honest—although it did seem a bit arrogant. Judging by the wrinkle on the bridge of his slightly crooked nose, none of the Glass Hitch’s offerings were to his liking. I felt my hackles rise in solidarity with my favorite truck-stop. Hey, this is where they have the good showers.
Rhonda’s low whistle caught me by surprise. Before I could react, Jeans turned, his dark eyes catching mine. “N-n-o,” I started to stutter, but before I could explain Rhonda was the culprit, he had already made a disgusted face and turned away. Apparently, the image of un-showered me in a tracksuit didn’t exactly start his engine.
As soon as he faded from view, Rhonda burst into laughter. I nailed her in the arm.
“Hey, Rocky, cut it out!” She pouted and rubbed her bicep, but I could swear there was a definite gleam in her eye.
“Jeans thought it was me! Like I would ever do something so crass!”
She snickered and lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, get off of your high horse. And. . . Jeans?”
My cheeks burning, I cleared my throat and glanced back to confirm he hadn’t returned. The absent aisle filled me with a sense of relief—but also a little bit of disappointment.
I swallowed away my guilt and tried not to hear my mother’s voice. I mean, hey—horniness is natural, right? Everybody’s got feelings, and I was going to embrace them—especially if it meant avoiding a life of missing-husband-induced nun-like abstinence.
I groaned and muttered a silent prayer. Sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean that. It’s just . . . about time that something besides an electric blanket and a bunk heater kept me warm at night.
Thankfully, Luke would be joining me in three days, and then maybe I wouldn’t feel a throb every time I ran into a halfway decent looking man in jeans. My long-running theory that Rhonda could read minds was further proven by her theatric eye-roll and heavy sigh. “You’re too uptight, you know that? Anyways, Randy and I are going to wing night at the Chow Hound. You want in?”
I stretched my neck to each side. Each pop and click—and there were plenty—brought me a little much-needed relief. “Sorry, Rhonda. Need a shower—and my number is up.” I waved my ticket at the screen behind her.
Her face brightened with a giant grin. She was the only other woman on the FLEX Canada Team, and she no doubt understood my desperation. “All right. Well, if you change your mind, you have my number.” She gave me a sly wink and nodded behind me. “Think he’s back.”
My cheeks burned. I ducked and sped down the aisles that led to the showers. I didn’t want to face him again, and besides, I was already drooling like a zombie. Hot water. Massage head. The last three days had held nothing but road dust, diesel fumes, and second-hand smoke, and just thinking about it made my skin itch. I darted around the hall to shower twelve, consulted my ticket, and mashed in my pin-key.
The door clicked open to reveal a vista of sparkling-white tile. I had to pause and drink in the sensation of something recently cleaned just for me. I whirled in, flipped the deadbolt, and dropped everything on the bench by the door. Physics kicked in and it all fell in the messiest way possible, the clean clothes somehow sliding down the shower bag and onto the floor.
I groaned. If I didn’t sort and hang them, they were all sure to get wet—but I couldn’t get my body to move. Maybe it will be all right. I’ll just be careful in the shower. I stripped off my clothes and fought off a monster yawn. Naked and shivering like a Chihuahua, I took a deep, cleansing breath—in through the nose, out through the mouth—and turned to face the mirror.
Gut-shot! Even if you didn’t consider the mussed hair and dirty streaks that covered my once-tan skin—and how in the hell had I lost a tan that fast, anyways?—I looked exhausted. Sick, even. The bags that oozed out from under my bloodshot eyes were almost as dark as my hair. My t-zone shined, my cheeks were flaky, and the sides of my nose and my forehead bristled with whiteheads and blackheads and God-knew-what-else.
“Fucking reefer,” I muttered, although the noisy cycles of the condenser during my sleep was only part of the reason I looked like crap. After all, the other drivers up here could just drop—lay down for a nap and be fully unconscious thirty seconds later, refreshed when the alarm went off to deliver their load. I still needed time—time to unwind, time to drift off, time to wake up, and I couldn’t fall asleep during the day. As a result, I was starting to look an awful lot like a zombie.
My gaze dropped lower, past the birthmark on my collarbone and okay, larger than average bosom, to my gradually flabby-fying stomach. I felt the sob start in my throat, and I choked it back. Three months ago, I’d clocked in at a hundred and fifty pounds. Curvy, maybe even chubby, but only on a bloated day.
The budding gut that stared back at me from the mirror almost needed a name. I mean Jesus, what would Mom think, God bless her soul?
It’s the chicken fried steak. And the biscuits and gravy. And the Boss Hog burger. And the wings, and—
I sighed and rubbed my belly. Good thing I had turned down wing night.
I wonder what Jeans would think if he could see this? Would his eyes bug out of his head? Would he snicker and move on? Would he point and laugh?
I stiffened as another thought rose, like a deep-sea monster, from the depths of my subconscious. What will Luke think? He hadn’t laid eyes on me since before I left for Driving School.
I managed to break myself away from the mirror and pulled a one-eighty. With a quick breath, I flipped the shower handle and jumped in.
Ice rained down on my skin. “Mother Fucker!”
I leaped out. Shivering and dripping water on the floor, I could suddenly hear music. The sound was muffled from forcing its way out of a pile of dirty clothes and over the shower’s hiss, but I could make out the song. It was “Happy Together,” by the Turtles.
I didn’t react in time to catch the chill that went through my gut. Things with Luke had been tough lately. He was always picking little fights, not returning my calls—
But he’ll be here, soon. He’s giving up everything to move onto a truck. That’s how much he loves you. By the time I managed to find the phone and flip it open, my apprehension—and part of my ice bath—had been driven out by a warm glow. “Hey, baby.”
“Hey, Charlie. You busy?”
I eyed the evil stall behind me. “No, baby. I’m waiting for the shower to warm up. You’ve got me all alone.” I let my voice drop into a flirtier tone. “What’s on your mind?”
“We need to talk.”
I mentally waved away the clenching in my stomach and plopped my bare butt on the towel, which had somehow miraculously stayed put on the bench. Give him a chance to say something before you jump. “Okay. What’s on your mind, baby?”
“I don’t know how to say this.” He fumbled for a little while, and I could feel my dread growing, my fingers clutching the phone tighter and tighter. “I can’t. . .”
“Can’t what, babe?” Please be anything, anything but—
“I can’t do this anymore.”
I let out the breath I didn’t know I had been holding. Don’t jump to conclusions. “You don’t have to, baby. Three days from now, and you’ll be here, with me, and this horrible distance thing will be all behind us.”
He groaned, his breath snuffling in the phone. We had been together long enough for me to envision his face, the scrunched eyebrows and stiff lips that meant he was hunkering down for a fight. Well, let us fight, then. Better than you just giving up on us like this.
“Look. I don’t know what I want, but I think I’ve finally figured out what’s been bothering me all this time.”
“All this time?” I flinched at the rise in my voice and re-steadied myself. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t act stupid. You know what I mean. We’re always fighting—”
“We’ve been under a lot of stress. And what couple doesn’t fight?” My eyes stung with hot little pricks. “You make it sound like that’s all we do, like we don’t have good times. What about our good-bye vacation? We curled up in that cabin by the beach. Are you really telling me you weren’t happy? Cause you sure seemed happy to—”
“No, I was—”
“Then why are you acting like this?” I cleared my throat and took another nose-mouth breath, but it didn’t help. For a moment, it was as if I could ascend above my body and see myself—naked, wet, fat, crying and shivering as I lost my head.
“Charlie, listen to me. Don’t interrupt me. Just . . . listen to me. Can you do that?”
I was nodding when I remembered he couldn’t see me. “Yes.” Please, baby. Please God.
“I’ve had doubts from the very beginning.”
The words hit me like punches. “Everybody has . . . sorry, go on.” I bit my lip, determined to control myself. I could win that much.
“I’ve had doubts. . . I never liked you the way I should have. I was so broken-hearted over Rachel, and there you were, so great and willing to rescue me. I let it happen, because you were fun, and smart, and nice, and pretty—”
I eyed myself in the mirror, suddenly grateful he couldn’t actually see me.
“—and even though I knew you weren’t the one—”
My throat closed up on itself. I’d had doubts about him, too . . . but there isn’t a one, is there? Isn’t that just a stupid, old-fashioned idea?
“I just pushed it all away. I tried to ignore them, to compromise—”
The words burbled their way out of my throat before I could stop them. “Compromise? I’ve given up everything for you. We were broke. I gave up going back to school for you. I got on this truck to make money, to pay off the bills and give you a chance—”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
His roar was like a punch to the stomach, and I fell into a stunned silence.
“Don’t you think I know what you’ve done for me, and how much you’ve given up? I can’t let you keep giving your life up for me! I can’t. . .”
He sobbed, and in my mind, I could see his eyes close, the tears rolling down the chiseled planes of his cheeks. They were cheeks I had kissed until my lips were tingling from his stubble, cheeks I had pressed against mine at dances, during hugs, before falling asleep. “I’m sorry. . . I shouldn’t have said that. I take it back—”
“No. Listen to me, Charlie. You are wonderful. You are everything a man could ever want, but for me, you aren’t the one.”
I flailed. I was sinking into quicksand, and every move, every word just made it worse. “The one? What does that even mean? What is that supposed to mean? Can’t anybody be the one, if you let them?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. But I know that I need to be single right now, and I can’t treat you the way you need to be treated. I mean, you know about Lydia—”
I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the hurt that I knew was coming. Yes, I knew about Lydia—and knowing about what they did meant I could never eat at that restaurant again. Like pigeons loosed, the other pains came. Anniversary dinners where he couldn’t keep his eyes to himself. The texts to other women, the ads on Craigslist that were “just curiosity.”
Except for Lydia, it never went anywhere. No man was perfect—wasn’t almost perfect enough? “I know . . . but that was so long ago. And you wouldn’t do it again, right?”
He paused for so long that I heard my heart stop.
“No, I haven’t done that . . . but I can’t promise I never would. I just don’t love you like I should.”
A spike of righteous anger flared through me, a klaxon that roared for immediate damage control. “Do you really want to be that guy? Thirty-something, texting girls in chat rooms?”
He didn’t answer. His silence was brutal—it pinched the air out of me, punched my heart into a gallop. “What about your mom? What would she think if she knew that she’ll never have grandkids or see her son married, because he’s too busy avoiding me to screw our waitress?” I flinched, horror overtaking me, as time froze. I hadn’t meant to say that. It had a ring of truth to it—but then again, it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, either. “I’m—I’m. . .”
Finally, I heard the phone hiss as he took a breath. “Don’t act so high and mighty. You act like the only reason you took this job is for me—but we both know that isn’t true.”
My remorse snuffed out like a candle. “What are you imply—”
“Like you would have done this if your Daddy hadn’t been a trucker? You think I don’t know that you’re looking for him? I may not have been the best boyfriend, but I know you better than anyone—than anyone—”
I winced, my protest sticking in my throat. Now that Mom was dead, that was true—and to be honest, it might have been true before.
“—and this whole thing has been a cracked-out trip to work on your Daddy issues since the get-go. Except that you were too scared to do it by your damn self.”
I tried to cut in, but he was a force unstoppable now. “I don’t know what I want. But I know for sure now that it isn’t you. Thanks for confirming that for me.”
How had this gotten out of my hands so quickly? How had it gone this far? I could feel myself shutting down, and I switched tracks. “Hey . . . don’t say that.” I blew out, hard, trying to relieve the pain and pressure in my chest. “I shouldn’t have said that last thing. . . I’m just tired and stressed. I’ve been running hard three days straight. I’ve got another nine months on this contract, and you know I can’t afford to pay it out and leave early. Can’t we just try it, see how it goes?”
Two years together had taught me all of his moods. I could read his silence. He was steeling himself, pulling away, getting ready to bring it to a close. Another mean cramp tore through my stomach.
No. I’m not ready to let go. Not like this. Not yet.
“Don’t do this—”
There was a slight click, and for a moment, I didn’t understand. Where was the drama? Where were the curse words, the tears, the phone slamming, the angry dial tone in my ear?
He was gone.
It took me three fumbling tries to pick him out from my contacts list, but it went straight to voicemail. He’d probably pulled the battery.
I stared at my phone for a little while longer, willing it to ring, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Eventually, the sound of running water faded back into my mind, and I realized the shower was still on.
I turned around. The room had misted over with a fine film of steam, water droplets clinging to tile and glass. I closed my eyes, shutting out the light that was suddenly too bright, and tried to swallow the lump in my throat.
He couldn’t have been right, could he?
I know you better than anyone.
I stepped into the shower. From the steam, the water was hot, but I could barely feel it. It ran over my skin, over my aching limbs and throbbing head. It ran over the sore, empty hole in my chest that I knew would hurt if I let myself feel.
I bluffed my way through the rituals. Shampoo. Toothbrush. Conditioner. Soap. I left out the parts that weren’t necessary: the loofah scrub, the razor. Finally, I shut off the water and stumbled over to the bench. I managed to dress myself, although not without dropping everything into the pool of water that was gathering around my feet.
I progressed, like a flower girl, back to my truck, shedding something from my arms with each aisle passed. I knew them from the sounds they made as they hit the ground—shampoo bottle, wet washcloth—but I couldn’t stop, because if I did, I would have toppled then and there, screaming and crying in a puddle on the floor of the Glass Hitch. I just kept moving, ignoring the cries of “Hey, lady!” and “Are you deaf?”
There was a half-second, when my truck was in view, that I felt an electric snap, sharp enough to penetrate through the fogginess in my head. I knew somebody was watching me, but I just kept going, right until I shook the key into the lock and climbed up the running board and into my truck. I scrambled into the bunk, shutting the black-out curtains behind me.
And when I was finally alone, in the dark, a thousand miles from home, I let myself break.
The knock at my door sounded like a pissed-off horse trying to kick it down, but that was normal. The roar of the reefer behind me vibrated through the walls and shook the whole cab. Standing outside, the condenser rendered you half-deaf, as if you were next to a waterfall, and the only way to make your presence known was to wallop on the door.
Thump thump thump.
Sorry, pal. I’m not getting up. You’re gonna’ have to park somewhere else.
Thump thump thump.
“Charlie? Just let me know that you’re okay, and then I’ll go away, all right?”
I paused, and my stomach clenched. I could just hide here, act like I had just left the idle running while I was in the shower. . .
But he had brought me a cupcake on my birthday last week—complete with a candle—and he had even scrounged me up some cold medicine on my first week on the road—that week where I didn’t think I would make it.
I crawled through the curtains, the magnetic catch parting around me, and Jeff’s grizzled face came into view through the passenger window. As soon as we locked eyes, his wrinkled visage relaxed with obvious relief.
“Are you okay? What’s going on, sunshine?”
I pushed the button, and the lock disengaged. His head was topped with a pinstriped fedora. He disappeared as he stepped down off of the running board, and then the overhead light blinked, and the reefer roar tripled as he opened the door. He climbed into my cab, too spry for the obvious age of his body, and shut the door behind him. The noise dropped back to a thrum as the papers on my dash suddenly quit fluttering.
“Hey, sunshine. Thanks for letting me in. It’s cold out there.”
He winked, and I had to laugh. Even up in Ontario, it was at least seventy degrees out—a more beautiful night there never was.
“I was worried about you. Word is that you were spotted running out of the Glass Hitch in tears. Told them I didn’t believe it, what with you being a tough girl and all.”
I sucked in air, and my cheeks warmed slightly. “Drivers are such fucking gossips.”
He chuckled, the laugh ending in a deep smoker’s cough. “Yeah. They don’t tell you that in the academy, but it’s awfully true. Can you blame us, though? It’s lonely out here.” He fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and trailed the end into the corner of his mouth.
I fought the sudden burning in my chest, as if I could force my tears back through an effort of will. “Yeah, maybe even a lonelier than I thought it would be.”
He shook out the match—an odd way of doing it, as all drivers used lighters, but Jeff was old-fashioned through and through—and his brows went up. “I take it your fellow. . .”
“He’s not coming.”
Jeff nodded and pushed his fedora back far enough to light his cigarette. The cab filled with the acrid scent of smoke, and I instantly felt torn. There was no good way to ask him not to smoke in here—and part of me also liked it, in a way. It was so familiar, so intimate. I didn’t smoke, and yet, since I started trucking, I was pretty much bathed in it. I didn’t want to stand outside, either. “Say, did I ever tell you about the goose we housebroke?”
I smiled. At least six times. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, you know, we had a houseful of pigs for a while. We were training them to go outside. Pigs are real smart, you know. . .”
Maybe I could call Luke back, convince him to still come? Just for a week? I bet if he tried it. . . The hope died as easily as a fresh-picked flower. He wasn’t coming, and the reaffirmation of something I knew, then forgot, then knew again crushed me as hard as it had the first time. Worse, the idea of looking him in the face made my stomach flip over. How much of what he had said had been true, and how much just designed to hurt me?
The problem was, I wasn’t really sure.
Jeff paused in the story and regarded me. His eyes twinkled. “I’ve told you this one before, haven’t I?”
“Maybe. You told me a lot of stories while we were driving team.”
He snorted. “When I was training you, you mean? I don’t remember you doing a whole lot of driving for half of that.”
I blushed and swatted a hand at him. It was true—new drivers had to build miles up gradually. Sitting in a chair all day didn’t come naturally to anyone. But Jeff had been there, showing me the ropes, easing me through every maneuver until it started to feel like second nature. “I almost quit a few times. I got homesick.”
He chuckled, the sound warm and somehow buoyant, as if it could float me up over my own pain. “Everybody does. That would have been a shame. And I did tell you a lot of stories, but what better way is there to pass the time? After all, they pay us—”
“To be bored.”
Jeff smiled at my memory of his catchphrase.
There were things I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to say them. The silence grew into something that edged on uncomfortable. He sighed and nodded, and pointed back out the window. “All right, well—I’m parked on party row. Pulled in too late to get anything better. At least the weather’s nice tonight. Hope it doesn’t cool down too much, I’d like to just use the windows tonight.”
I nodded. “At least it’s not Jersey.” That state’s anti-idling laws didn’t exactly give drivers a choice.
“You think I listen to that environmental crap? I’ve been driving for forty years, sunshine. I’ll idle when I damn well feel like it, and FLEX can pay the tickets. I ain’t baking to death.” He touched the brim on his hat. On a different man, it would have been cheesy, but Jeff wore it with distinction. “Come and see me if you want.”
I felt a flash of regret as the door closed behind him, but I didn’t get out. Instead, I crawled back into my dungeon of a bed.
They pay us to be bored.
Maybe, but for the next few weeks, they’d be paying me just to keep it together.