by Rebecca Swartz
Hitchhiking is dangerous. Picking up a hitchhiker even more so. Amy Squires knows this but as an ex-cop and private security consultant she feels safe enough to pick up a young woman thumbing a ride on a blistering hot day. A surprising attraction smolders between them, but they part company—until later that night when Kael Harding reappears outside Amy’s hotel room.
Never one to question her instincts, Amy welcomes what seems to be an uncomplicated one night stand. The morning brings another surprise—Kael is anything but a carefree young woman hitchhiking her way across the country.
While perfectly willing to stand up for victims and their rights, and known to push the limits, everything Amy believes about herself and justice is challenged by Kael—and exactly how far Kael is willing to go. How can a future possibly be considered when the risks are so high?
Praise for Rebecca Swartz
GCLS Goldie Awards — Double Finalist, Debut Author and Romantic Intrigue.
Alice B. Readers Appreciation Committee — Lavender Certificate for Debut Fiction.
The Lesbian Review
Falling by Rebecca Swartz was a delightful surprise. The book is well written and has a compelling concept.
I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers. It’s never seemed like a worthwhile risk. The figure I spied at the side of the highway was barely visible; at first I wasn’t even certain it was a hitcher. The waves of heat rising from the asphalt rendered everything in the distance to a wavery indistinctness that made positive identification of anything near impossible.
As my open-air Jeep ate up the road and I drew closer, I felt a stab of sympathy for whoever it was, as it was bloody hot out. But I didn’t slow, and I had absolutely no intention of stopping, pang of sympathy or not.
The only hitchhiker I’d ever picked up previously happened to be my younger sister, who was making a bid for freedom by running away from home. She had the dubious good fortune to be spotted by me as she thumbed beside the highway, on a day when I had decided to go in to work later than usual.
I didn’t live at home at that time; I had made my own break the year previous. An absent father and indifferent mother will drive most young people away the first chance they get. So I wasn’t surprised that my sister was the one trying to hitch. I pulled over and she looked ready to bolt. I told her it was okay, and to get in. She did.
We went for coffee, talked, and I decided not to go in to work at all. I drove my sister to the destination she had in mind, got her set up as best I could with the money in both our savings accounts, and then drove back home a couple of days later. Since then, we’ve kept in touch. Neither of us has seen our mother or father in fifteen years.
As I neared the figure next to the highway, and noted the slender lines yet definite curves that suggested femininity, my brain seemed to hesitate in its resolve. The hitcher’s stance seemed to be one of complete nonchalance, as if hanging out by the side of the road was simply a way to pass the time of day.
In that brief second as I drew abreast her, we made eye contact. Though her stance was relaxed, and the expression she wore was bored, both bespeaking a I don’t give a fuck if you stop or not; I’m just asking attitude, the look in her eyes as we connected seemed almost challenging, as if she were saying, “Come on. I dare you.”
I felt a strange jolt go through me, and I blinked, and then I was past her. I glanced in my rearview mirror. She still stood in that indifferent manner, but she’d turned her head to watch me drive away. Without thinking, without even pausing to think, I touched a foot to the clutch and the brake, and downshifted.
I pulled off the highway onto the shoulder rather abruptly and came to a stop amid a cloud of dust, scattering gravel beneath my tires. I put the Jeep into neutral, hit the four-ways, and let the engine idle. I looked straight ahead through the windshield, one hand resting lightly on the steering wheel, the other on the gearshift. It felt as if a low electrical current were running through me. My brain felt disconnected, as if it had temporarily shut down. I paid no attention to either. I just waited.
Soon I heard light, unhurried footsteps approaching on the gravel to my right. The corner of my mouth quirked up at that, which surprised me; I tried to ignore that too.
Finally, in the periphery of my vision, there she was, but it was only when she was at the passenger door that I casually turned my head in her direction.
She returned my gaze with a bland look, a hint of curiosity and amusement in her pale blue eyes. They were very arresting, those eyes, intense, surprisingly deep, punctuated by tiny black pupils. She wore her dark blond hair down to her neckline, roughly slicked back, with a loose forelock dropping down her forehead to eye level. She was faintly tanned, shades of red over her collarbones, shoulders, the tops of her ears. A fine sheen of perspiration glistened on her skin. Her body was lean and fit, at least what I could see of it. Her dark green tank top hung loosely on her spare frame. A glint of sun bounced off the fine gold chain around her neck.
What caught my attention, more than anything else, was her poise. She seemed to hold herself in a state of readiness, to almost vibrate with a restrained energy. I got the feeling that if I made one wrong move, she would be off and running. That poise was at odds with her seeming indifference; she clearly wasn’t fearful or nervous, but seemed in possession of a kind of animal wariness. It was so palpable I felt the hairs rise on my arms and the back of my neck.
“You shouldn’t be hitchhiking, you know,” I said casually. “It’s dangerous.”
She tilted her head and studied me, the hint of amusement going up a notch, as did the corners of her mouth.
“Did you stop to give me a ride, or a lecture?” she asked in a low, pleasant voice.
I detected a hint of the South, and an undertone I couldn’t identify. Whatever it was, it sent another charge through me, and my mouth dropped open. I covered quickly. “A ride. Of course. Hop in.”
She didn’t move. Instead, she studied me a few more moments; I stayed perfectly still.
“You sure?” she finally asked. Before I could answer, she added, “You don’t strike me as someone who would stop to pick up a hitchhiker.”
“Just an observation,” she said.
Now it was my turn to study her. I could see her amusement had gone up another notch, but her eyes had narrowed. She watched me very closely, very intently.
A vehicle whooshed past us on the highway. Neither of us reacted.
“I’m sure,” I said.
Her eyelids dropped a fraction more. She tilted her head again, then, with a small forward thrust of her chin, said, “Take off your sunglasses.”
That was unexpected. I could still feel that energy coursing through me, and my brain was still on standby. I was distantly aware of the fact that it was very hot, that the sun was beating down on the two of us, but it didn’t seem to matter. I slowly raised my right hand, turned my head away, removed my sunglasses, and then looked back at her. I kept my expression neutral.
She considered me another couple of moments, eyes intent on mine. “Say it again,” she invited me, in a lower tone of voice.
That undertone again, but this time I identified it: she was testing me, challenging me. Why, or for what reason, I didn’t know. And didn’t really care.
“I’m sure,” I repeated, as calm and level as before.
Another moment or two passed before she blinked twice then nodded. “All right,” she said. And she smiled.
Her smile changed her entire demeanor. It dispelled the wariness and intensity, relaxed her. She now appeared friendly and open. The shift was sudden and surprising. And pleasing.
I returned the smile with one of my own, and raised an eyebrow. “Can I put my sunglasses back on? That sun is a bitch.”
Her smile broadened. “Sure.”
As I did so, she opened the passenger door, tossed a beat-up red and black knapsack onto the floor, and climbed into the Jeep after it. She wore baggy khaki shorts that came down to her knees, the type with a multitude of pockets that bore snaps and zippers. Her hiking boots were scuffed and dusty, her socks a startling contrast of clean bright white. As she dropped into the seat, she half-turned her body toward me and said, “Thanks for stopping.”
She leaned down to the knapsack at her feet. “No, really, thank you. There’s not much traffic on this highway.”
I watched as she fiddled with the knapsack. It was half-open, and just before she zipped it closed, I caught sight of the stock of a handgun. I didn’t react, but I also didn’t move.
She straightened, and turned her head toward me. Even with my sunglasses on, it had to have been obvious where I was looking. She hesitated a heartbeat, maybe two. “Oh, yeah, that. Don’t worry, it’s not loaded. I just carry it for show.” She sat back with an embarrassed smile and a shake of her head. “I probably couldn’t even shoot the damn thing, anyway. But I like having it. Makes me feel safer. Hitching is dangerous, like you said.”
I nodded once. “I did say that.”
We paused, while we both seemed to try to decide what should happen next. A hint of her wariness reappeared, and I didn’t like that. I’m not a careless or stupid person. I trusted my instincts and my instincts told me she wasn’t a threat, gun or no gun, loaded or not.
I stuck out my right hand. “I’m Amy.”
The corners of her mouth turned up, and the wariness vanished. She put her own hand out and grasped mine firmly. “Kael.”
“Not like the vegetable,” she said. “K-A-E-L.” She released my hand.
“Ah. What is that, Gaelic?”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Very good.”
“I know a thing or two. Nice to meet you, Kael.”
I reached for the gearshift once more. Putting the Jeep into first, I threw a look over my shoulder to check for approaching traffic. Then I looked back at her.
“So, Kael, where are you headed?”
She pointed straight ahead. “That way,” she said, in a serious tone. And then she smirked.
I couldn’t help myself. I gave a light laugh. “All right then. That way, it is.”
I stepped on the gas, the tires spat gravel, and we were on the highway, headed in the direction she had pointed.
She wasn’t very talkative, my new passenger. In fact, for the first half hour, she said nothing at all. Granted, riding in an open Jeep is nothing like riding in a sedan with the windows closed and the AC on. Going down the highway at seventy miles an hour was our air-conditioning. The tires on the road hummed in the background. Plus, I had the stereo on. So it was possible that she felt stymied if her desire was to make conversation. But that wasn’t the impression I got.
She seemed comfortable enough. She sat low and a little slouched in her seat, the bottle of water she had pulled from a side pocket of her pack held loosely in both hands between her thighs. She looked ahead, or to the side occasionally, but never once in my direction. She raised the water bottle every so often to take a swallow, but other than that didn’t move. Some people fidget in vehicles, but she sat perfectly still.
I no longer felt that charge running through me, but I was very aware of her presence. My brain had come back online; I realized I had questions, but nothing I felt the need to press her on. I had stopped to offer her a ride, not stimulating conversation or entertainment. I was certainly not about to grill her with a bunch of questions, but I wondered who she was, what her story was. I didn’t believe for a moment that the gun in her knapsack was unloaded. No one would carry an unloaded handgun if they were hitching. Hitching is dangerous, and an unloaded gun is simply foolish. I did understand the concept of added security, though, and to me that was reason enough to carry a weapon. I also doubted her disclaimer about not being able to shoot it. You don’t carry a gun around if you don’t know how to shoot it. That’s like carrying around the keys to a car that you don’t know how to drive.
She was an attractive young woman, but not pretty. Pretty was not the word you applied to a woman who stood by the side of the road, in a state of wariness and nonchalance, someone whose persona balanced indifference, readiness and veiled challenge, all at the same time. That’s not pretty. That’s something else entirely.
I guessed her to be somewhere between twenty-five and twenty-eight. She was in good shape, lean but not scrawny, with good definition and muscle tone. I’d seen those muscles gather, bunch and stretch in her arms, shoulders and legs as she’d climbed into the Jeep. She was strong, and even though she was probably only about five-five, maybe a hundred and twenty pounds, I figured she’d be a match for me at five-seven and a hundred and fifty. I have no idea why I thought that, but there it was.
Thirty minutes passed in silence, and then she looked over and yelled something. It startled me and I jumped a bit.
“What?” I yelled back, and then shook my head as she opened her mouth again. I reached to turn the stereo down, where the Black Eyed Peas encouraged me to Pump It.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I shrugged it off. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Why tan?’”
I shot her a blank look.
“Your Jeep. Why did you pick tan?”
The next look I shot her was not quite withering. “It’s not tan.”
“Oh. Champagne. I see.”
I caught her look of amusement.
“So, why champagne?” she asked. A grin played at the corners of her mouth.
I looked back at the road. “It was the only one on the lot. I needed wheels. I wasn’t in a position to be fussy.”
“Oh. I see.” A pause. “Still. Champagne?”
I looked over to see she was grinning openly now. I felt myself return the grin, as I turned my eyes back to the road. “I think it’s nice. You should agree with me.” I glanced over with a raised eyebrow. “If only to be polite.”
She gave me a little smirk back. I returned my attention to my driving. “Seat belt, by the way.”
“Oh, shit!” she muttered, and scrambled for the belt.
I reached to turn up the volume of the stereo. Truth be told, I wasn’t particularly fond of the Jeep’s color myself. But she didn’t need to know that. Nor did she need to know how I’d come to buy it, that I’d totaled my beloved Chevy Malibu four years earlier, and when the time came to buy another vehicle, the odd-colored Jeep was the only one that caught my eye—because of its color. I didn’t need a Jeep, it was completely impractical, and maybe that was also why I bought it. In my line of work, a vehicle with doors and a trunk that locked was much more suitable, perhaps lent a more professional air, but instead I’d opted for the Jeep. Early midlife crisis, maybe.
I’m a private security consultant. I work with women only, specifically women who have been assaulted, physically, sexually, and women who have been raped. I also work with women who wish to prevent this from happening to them, in their own homes at least.
I guess you could say I’m a contractor. I meet with my client, determine her needs, and then, along with a national security company that provides wireless home security systems, I work closely with her to achieve the level of safety and peace of mind required. The company I work with and recommend for my clients provides a wireless system that negates the need for strange male installers or technicians to access the women’s homes. It adds a level of personal security unrivaled by traditional home security installations; women who have been sexually assaulted don’t generally, in my experience, want strange men in such close proximity. At least not the women who hire me. Once I’ve scoped out the residence, I discuss my findings and recommendations, the client orders the relevant security package, and with the help of one of the company’s representatives over the phone, we install the system ourselves. I have found this, along with my being female and an ex-cop, sets my clients at ease, and builds a measure of trust they wouldn’t achieve otherwise. And it provides me with a level of job satisfaction and personal satisfaction I would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. I couldn’t ask for much more than that.