Steel and Smoke: Chapter 1

Five Years Ago

Jack strained to see the road. The wind lashed the trees and the darkness was almost absolute, the rain pouring in great sheets from the sky. The only sources of light was his headlights and the occasional crack of lightning illuminating the sky in bright flashes. He had slowed the sportscar to a tame thirty miles per hour. It still felt too fast in the inky black of the night, and the engine surged. If it were a living thing, it would be growling with impatience at the sedate pace he was setting, but at the moment he was far more afraid of running off the edge of the road. On one side was a tall cliff, the occasional tree fighting for space among the dark rock wall. On the other, a thick forest and steep embankment away from the road. Except for branches and leaves, there was nothing to be seen in the dark abyss.

The party had been the typical Hollywood scene, plenty of high-end booze and vacant-eyed women who were afraid to eat from the buffet and talked about their modeling careers like it was an art form. He had been bored in minutes, stayed for as short a time as possible and then made his escape. It had been tricky, some of the women could sniff out money like it was made from chocolate. One had attached herself to his arm like a lamprey and refused to let go. Eventually she had grown bored, however, and wandered off “to the little girl’s room” which at this party was code for getting high on the complimentary trays of cocaine in the overly gilded bathrooms.

He had watched her go and made his escape seconds later.

The lightning flashed, slamming into a tree up ahead. The light was intense, blinding. The earsplitting crack and boom of the thunder simultaneous. Jack felt the sound pass through the vehicle and he slowed the car even further. This act saved his life, and the car’s, as three deer, a doe and two fawns, came barreling across the road. He slammed on the brakes and fishtailed slightly before coming to an abrupt stop in the dark, rain-soaked road.

He rocked with the car, his body pushing against the tightened seatbelt. “Jesus H.” Jack swore, his heart hammering in his chest. That had been close.

He sat there as the deer disappeared from view, leaping from the roadway into the dark abyss and passing by something crumpled by the side of the road. “What the hell?”

He put the car in park and unbuckled his seatbelt, grabbing a small mag-lite from the center panel. The rain instantly soaked his hair as the downpour continued. He pressed the button and turned the mag-lite on, playing it across the edge of the road. Rocks, tree branches, ferns, and a body. A body. “Oh shit.”

He ran over to it, this crumpled, lump of blue on the ground. Pale white legs, one shoe on, the other off. The legs were scratched, filthy, bloody. As he drew closer he could see the body was that of a woman, wearing a blue dress, her hair wet and plastered to her skull. Small twigs and leaves were caught in her hair. Her eyes were closed, her lips a pale blush of red. His phone was back in the car and Jack was torn between touching the girl to see if she was alive and calling the police this very moment.

“Miss?” He asked, reaching a hand to her shoulder. It was cold, but he could see the rise and fall of her chest now. She was alive. “Miss, I’m going to need to pick you up and get you out of the rain, okay?”

He gently slid his arms underneath her and stood up easily, he dead-lifted weights heavier than her four days a week. Her head lolled back over his right arm and she moaned slightly. He had to get her out of the deluge. That was the first order of business. He was thankful there was no one else on the road. They were in a blind curve and any oncoming vehicle would have seconds to react. Deep gouges in the mud on the side of the road indicated how it had gone for her. A car accident for sure. Could there be anyone else still down there? He tried to stare down through the trees and see if he could catch a glimpse of the car somewhere below, but despite the bright light show in the sky he couldn’t see anything but trees.

He shook his head, spun around and walked to his car, gently balancing the woman’s unconscious body against his as he fumbled the passenger-side door open and gently settled her inside. Her eyelids fluttered but she didn’t move.

Jack ran around to his side of the car and slid inside, wiping the water from his eyes. He was soaked through. The windows began to fog up. Her eyelashes fluttered again and she opened her eyes a crack, shivering from the cold.

She flinched as Jack spoke, “Miss? I need to get us off of the road and out of the way of oncoming traffic. Were you in a car? Was there anyone with you? Anyone we need to go back for?”

She shook her head, whispered “No,” before closing her eyes again.

“Okay, hang in there, I’ll turn the heat up.” He reached out and flipped the heat to max, started the engine and clicked his seatbelt into place before straightening the car out and continuing down the road. The rain had slackened somewhat, for which Jack was very thankful. He was able to drive faster, and within minutes he was turning onto the long private drive and passing through the gates. The water dripping from both of them had soaked the seats and he could hear a steady drip from her dress onto the floor of the car. Her eyes were closed again, her skin pale, her lips blue from the cold. He probably needed to call the police, but at the moment all he could think to do was to set her in front of the large hearth in the great room and warm her up.

The garage door closed silently behind them and the Ferrari purred to a stop, the heat from the vents ceasing the second the engine stopped. The girl still didn’t move. In the bright, harsh light of the garage it was clear how young she was. Perhaps twenty, probably younger. Jack slipped open her door and leaned in, murmuring gently to her as he lifted her out of the car. A few quick strides took them from the spacious six-car garage through the mud room and into the back hall. It was a few more seconds’ walk to the great room, where a fire burned merrily in the handcut, imported marble fireplace. The warmth of the fire enveloped them and Jack set the girl gently in a chair near the fire.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, covering her with a thick, luxuriously soft blanket.

The half bath yielded a first aid kit stuffed at the back of the sink cabinet. Jack grabbed it, along with a handful of towels and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror. His shirt, a silk Versace tee was covered in dirt and soaking wet. His pants weren’t much better. Water still dripped from his hair down the back of his neck. He grabbed a fluffy robe with his free hand.

He turned and walked back into the great room. The young woman was still there, staring at the fire, shivering uncontrollably.

“I’ve got a first aid kit and some towels. And a robe if you would like to get out of those wet clothes.” She shook her head, and he wasn’t sure if it was her shivering or telling him “no.”

He knelt at her feet and gently slid off the remaining shoe, lightly wiping at the sticks and leaves that covered her pale skin. She flinched, and he looked up at her, realizing with a start that she was absolutely terrified.

She’s terrified of me.

Her pupils were enormous. Is she on drugs? Afraid she will be caught driving under the influence?

“I won’t hurt you. You’re safe here.” Jack said softly, gently. She reminded him of a cheetah, and he half-expected her to spring away from him and streak away into the stormy night. “I should call the police, they could help…”

“No, please, no police.” Her voice was soft, almost pleading. “It’s not what you think.”

“Honestly, I don’t know what to think,” Jack replied, focusing once again on her legs. The left knee was a snarl of mud, blood, and chewed up flesh. “If it hadn’t have been for the deer running across the road I never would have seen you. You could have died out there.”

He felt rather than saw her nod and her knee jerked back at his touch. She sucked a breath in, wincing, as he gently cleaned the wound. Her legs were bruised, the ankles a mess of abrasions and bruising that didn’t look new, but rather as if she had been restrained.

A shudder went through him. And Allie’s face flashed before his. Her eyes were different from this girl’s, and of course she had been younger, just sixteen, but still. This, whatever it is, is more than just a car crash.

“My name is Jack, Jack Benton.” He waited for her to recognize it, but she didn’t respond, just stared at him. A surge of relief went through him. She didn’t know who he was. There had been no look of recognition, no change to a coquettish flirtation, like the girls at the party he had just come from. The look that betrayed their glee at meeting a billionaire, and a single one at that.

This girl, whoever she was, turned away instead, saying nothing, biting her lip. He waited, but she didn’t speak.

And then it hit him, “You’re scared, really scared, aren’t you?”

The gentleness of his tone had an effect. When she looked up again, her eyes were full of tears. They spilled down, even as she tried to brush them away, to wrest back control of her emotions. She nodded, still shivering in the blanket.

“I can help you. No strings. No expectations,” Jack said, turning away from her tears, focusing instead on the knee.

She had probably fallen on the hillside and there was dirt and pebbles in the flesh. He stole another glance at the abrasions on her ankles, took in the other bruises. They weren’t recent. Someone had hurt this girl, terrified her, abused her, and restrained her. And somehow she had gotten away, possibly been in a car crash, run through the night and the rain, and collapsed on the side of that lonely, empty road.

“Look, let me get this knee cleaned up and there is a large guest suite upstairs that you can use. The door locks from the inside. You can take a shower, change out of your wet clothes. I’ll fix you some tea or coffee, perhaps you would like something to eat? And then we could talk, or not, your choice. How would that be?” He looked back up at her face, so pale, so frightened and she nodded. A small jerk of her head, the semblance of a tiny smile on her lips.

What or who was she so frightened of?

“Okay. I’ll clean this up and bandage it, and don’t worry if it loosens up in the shower, I have plenty more and we can just re-apply it. I’ve got the dirt out and this might sting a little.” She winced as he sprayed on the Bactine. “I know, they always said it’s not supposed to hurt. Ouch-less spray and all that b.s. Or perhaps I was just overly sensitive as a kid, but this stuff always hurt like hell.” Jack smiled at the small smile that ghosted across her lips and just as quickly vanished.

The trip upstairs was slow. The girl moved slowly, painfully, her feet bruised and swollen. The long hallway on the right, took them past several doors. “I’m that first door on the left, at the top of the stairs, and I’m going to put you over here, in the guest suite,” he said, his arm gently supporting her as she hobbled on the thick, plush carpet. “It has a full ensuite and there are some clothes in the closet that will probably fit you.” They stopped at the doorway and he opened the door, revealing a spacious suite with a high ceiling, modern fixtures, and a small sitting room off of the bedroom. “Let me know if you need anything. I’m going to go change and then I’ll be downstairs. Okay?”

She nodded and walked inside. As Jack turned and made his way toward his room he heard the door gently close and the lock engage.

Fair enough. She doesn’t know me.

He walked into his room, a large suite that included his office, library, a smaller workout room, and the rest of the master suite. Except for food, he could spend most of his days in here and never need to leave. He didn’t, but the reality was that living here alone in this giant house seemed rather lonely at times. When Allie had been here, it hadn’t felt like this. Of all the properties he owned, it was here, deep in the hills where he felt her absence the strongest. She had loved the house, loved the remote feel of the place with the nearest neighbors miles away.

He pulled off his shirt and tossed it into the hamper in the corner of his walk-in closet, reaching for a charcoal silk t-shirt, and looked down at his pants in surprise. They were covered with sticks and burrs. Off they went as well and he slipped into a pair of Rag and Bone denim jeans, kicking off his shoes and leaving his feet bare. He took a moment to towel out the last of the rain from his hair.

As he walked downstairs he could hear the water running.

The kitchen was large and rustic. The heavy wood beams met the sleek matte black of the appliances. Jack reached into the Sub-Zero fridge and pulled out a carton of eggs, a haunch of prosciutto, mushrooms and cheese. He set the heavy cast iron pan to heat on the range and set to slicing the mushrooms. He had just finished slicing the ham off in paper-thin slices, a pile of mushrooms and a small diced onion already sauteed to a golden brown when he heard the water shut off. He added a dollop of butter to the pan and it sizzled as it melted. Jack whipped the eggs into a froth and poured them into the buttered pan, adding the cooked mushrooms and onions and the shredded cheese, and flipped the omelet over with a practiced hand as he heard the door open from the guest suite above.

“Do you prefer coffee or tea?” He called, glancing over at her. She was wearing a pair of yoga pants and a t-shirt that disappeared into a zip-up sweatshirt. A pang of sadness hit him. Allie had loved that outfit.

“Coffee,” she answered, paused and then added, “Please.”

“Help yourself,” Jack said, and nodded at the coffee station, “There’s cream and sugar if you want it. And I’ve made an omelet. I figure it’s after midnight, so it’s breakfast time, right?”

A tiny smile. “Thank you.”

He slid the omelet out of the pan and cut it in half, slipping one half onto her plate and the other onto his. He ate his slowly, fascinated as he watched the girl tuck into hers with an appetite he had not expected. Moments later, it was gone. Half of his still remained. He slid the plate over, smiling, and received a real smile in return as she demolished it in a handful of bites.

Her hair was quickly drying into a mass of blond and honey brown ringlets. Some color had returned to her cheeks. She sipped her coffee and that’s when he noticed the bruises on her hands, the red chafed marks on her wrists.

My God, what happened to this girl?!

She noticed his gaze and pulled the cuff of the sweatshirt down, trying to hide the marks. “Thank you for the food. I can’t remember when I ate anything that good.” It was by far the most words in a row she had said aloud since had found her.

“So, shall we start with your name?” He asked, hoping she was ready to talk.

“The less you know about me, the better. Especially my name.”

“I see.” He sipped his coffee and thought on that. “Well, I have to call you something.”

“Call me Kaylee. I always liked that name.”

Jack smiled, “Ah, Firefly. I met Nathan at a party a few months ago. He’s a nice guy.”

The girl blinked at him.

“So Kaylee, what can you tell me about yourself?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

She reached up and rubbed her temples. She looked exhausted. “Honestly? You seem nice. Really nice, and I don’t want anyone else to die because of me.”

Interested in reading more?

Book Two of Benton Security Services, Steel and Smoke, will be available for purchase soon.

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