NZ Forest Native Birds

Chapter 1
extract from
Stalker From Her Past
by Laraine Anne Barker

Stalker From Her Past is now

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Stalker from Her Past

M atlin stepped thankfully off the bus from Central Auckland. A freshening sou’westerly loosened several locks of glossy dark hair from the knot at the back of her head and blew them over her face. She impatiently pushed them behind her ears and hurried to her letterbox, where the New Zealand Herald, which hadn’t been delivered when she left home that morning, was still waiting for her in the newspaper slot. She grabbed it, emptied the box and headed down the long drive to her small two-bedroom home. She’d have a cup of coffee and read the headline stories before going to fetch her car. There was plenty of time: the owner of the service garage had said he’d be there until at least eight that night.

      It would soon be dusk and as she hurried up the steps leading to the terrace and let herself in the front door she noticed that the sky over the Manukau Harbour was starting to look grim. Some minutes later she sat under the light from a standard lamp with the newspaper over her lap and took a mouthful of coffee. That was as far as she got: a name in one of the smaller headlines leapt out at hera name she hadn’t seen or heard for twenty years.

      Nearly choking on the mouthful of coffee, she put the mug down, her hand shaking so badly that coffee splashed all over the table. Suddenly in her mind she was a small child enveloped in nightmarish terrorsterrors from which she had inherently known the parents she now barely remembered were powerless to protect her.

      Instinct urged her to throw the paper asideto refuse to read what was under the headline. But such an impulse, she told herself firmly, was a sign that she was yielding to panicsomething that, even as a six-year-old swamped by fear, she had never allowed. Besides, as sales manager of one of the country’s largest computer outlets she knew ignorance was the worst possible preparation for facing a crisis. She read the article quicklyand, in spite of her efforts to keep the childhood memories at bay, they crowded her unwilling mind: memories too terrifying to contemplate; memories she thought she had buried for good. Resolutely she continued trying to batten them down before they could gain an unbreakable hold. But she succeeded only enough to partially replace terror with anger.

      Why wasn’t I told? They had no business letting me find out like this! And what about poor Gran? Have they left her in ignorance too? They must have or she’d have let me know.

      Furiously she tossed the paper aside and rose to fetch a cloth, automatically switching on more lights as she did so but forgetting, in her panic, to draw the drapes.

      Calm down! Calm down! she admonished herself as she wiped up the spilt coffee. Gran can’t have seen the paper or she’d have rung me straight away. And if she hasn’t been told it’s probably best to leave it that way. At her age any stress could be fatal.

      She rushed to the telephone. But no, she was still too angry. Aggressiveness wasn’t going to help her. She’d go and pick up her car. By the time she returned home she’d be in a more rational frame of mind.

      It was over half-an-hour before she was backing her car into the carport above her house. Now, she wondered, as she hurried to the front door, let herself in and locked it behind her, was she calm enough to get that phone call made? Well, it had to be done so she might as well do it at once. But first she’d get changed into something more comfortable and make herself another cup of coffee.

      She went through to the bedroom and switched on the light. She had barely changed into casual trousers and a longsleeved tee-shirt and slipped her feet into warm, hard-soled slippers than a sound from outsidesurely a soft footfall?made her start. In the same instant she saw that her security light had come on.

      But she never had visitors these dayshadn’t had any since she stopped looking after Granso who on earth could it be? Was one of Gran’s friends in trouble perhaps? Tensely she waited for the knock. But it didn’t come. Carefully she picked up her keys from the bed and crept to the door. About to turn off the bedroom light, she paused even as she touched the switch. Plunging the room into darkness would merely confirm that she was home.

      She tiptoed along the passage. But at the door leading to the small entranceway she stopped. The hair on her neck began to prickle; her scalp seemed to shrink. For the outline of the figure behind the glass door couldn’t possibly be any of her grandmother’s friends. It was too tall, too broad and too upright to belong to an elderly man let alone an elderly woman. It was probably just a salesman. She would simply tell him to go away.

      The figure moved. A hand tapped gently at the glass. A voice spokesoftly, but loud enough for Matlin to hear.

      “It’s me, Mattylittle Mattysweet Matty. Let me in.” She froze, stifling a gasp that was more like a sob. The voice brought the vile memories flooding in even more effectively than the newspaper article had. How could she have thought she’d forgotten that wheedling tone? And no one else used that diminutive of her nameshe wouldn’t allow it.

      And then she saw in his hand the shadow of what might have been a rifle. Her heart turned a double flip; her mouth went dry.

      “Matty, sweetheartlovely MattyI know you’re there. I saw you go inside.”

      So he’d been watchingspying on her. But he surely couldn’t see her now, standing in the dimness of the hall doorway: if he could he would have said so. Matlin’s thoughts raced. Hiding wouldn’t help her this time. There was nowhere to hide anyway. She’d have to ring the police. But she couldn’t get to the phone in the kitchen. He’d see her.

      She crept back to the bedroom. At the doorway she dropped on all fours and crawled to the bed. Desperately trying not to fumble, she reached for the telephone on the bedside table. She started dialling 111. Then she realised, with chilling horror, that there was no dial tone. Her eyes sought the jack. The phone was still plugged in.

      The soft tap at the front door was repeated. His voice, still wheedling, came again. This time she couldn’t make out the words.

      There was no choice now. She had to get out. She dropped the telephone on the bed, crawled back to the hall and rose to her feet. Quickly she removed her slippers. Gripping them tightly in one hand, her heart hammering high in her throat, she fled to the back door. She unlocked it with trembling fingers, pulled it open and slipped outside.

      “Matty, darling, I’ll have to break the glass if you don’t open up.” He had raised his voice, sounding like someone trying to reason with an obdurate child.

      Thank goodness for the deadlocks. Even breaking the glass won’t let him in. He’ll need to remove a whole pane.

      Matlin closed the door softly and relocked it. She fled down the few steps and up the short path. Briefly she thought of hiding down in the bush. But, no. He washad been, ratheran expert hunter. And even if his skills were now rusty they would soon come back. He would certainly be more at home down there than she would. Besides, the ground would be soggy and cold at this time of year.

      Her next thought was to turn to the only neighbours she knewthose from whom she’d bought her house. But they wouldn’t be home yet. No. Her car was the best option.

      She raced along the short pathway at the side of the house. The noise of breaking glass came even as she reached the front corner. She came to a breathless halt. Cautiously she peered round the corner of the house. But all she could see of him was the heel of one shoe. Of course: the front entrance was slightly recessed. Thank goodness! It means he’s unlikely to see me either.

      Nevertheless, her stomach felt sick to its very depths as she forced herself to come out into the open. Stockinged feet inaudible on the concrete, she sped for her carport. All the time she expected pounding footsteps behinda shouted curse. But all she heard was the sound of more breaking glass.

      The faint tinkle of glass falling could still be heard as she let herself into her car. Willy-nilly she tossed the slippers in. Silently she blessed her habit of backing the car in. He must have found out now that he can’t open the door without a key. Even as she locked herself into the car she could picture himsee him feeling past the broken glass for a doorknob, hear him curse on finding just a handle. Then he wouldshe hopedwaste time getting rid of enough glass to allow him to clamber safely through.

      I hope he cuts himself so badly he bleeds to death! she thought vengefully as the engine burst into life and she let off the hand brake. Next moment her foot went down on the accelerator. Too hard: the car jumped forward like a mad thing; the tyres protested as she swung the wheel hard left. She cursed silently. Anger and fear were making her reckless. Quickly she switched on the headlights as she saw how dark it had become. She steered the car up past her neighbours’ triple garage and the curving steps on her left leading to their front door. Their security light came on as she sent the car hurtling up the main drive.

      And any complacency vanished as it hit her that her reckless accelerationthe squeal of tyreswould warn her assailant of her escape.

      … Only she hadn’t escapedyet.

      With a jerk she stopped the car, straddling the footpath. Why did all the traffic have to be on her side? And why was it that because she was frantic to get out everyone drove so slowly instead of at least five to ten kilometres more than the speed limit?

      She had to admit it wasn’t really all that busy. The rush hour was over. But there were headlights coming as far as she could see on her right: a steady stream of traffic not widely spaced enough to allow her througha flow that seemed specifically designed to give him time to get up the drive after her …

      Which was what happened.

      Her mind had been partly on the unseen shadow surely coming up behind her and partly on the traffic. But her eyes had been wholly on the never-ending stream of cars. So when he loomed up beside her she started violently and nearly screamed. He peered in at her and grabbed the door handle. With the nearest street light behind himand all the headlights coming from the same directionshe couldn’t see his face properly; didn’t want to either. But he could probably see hers. Desperately she tried to school herself to anger untouched by fear.

      “Go away! Leave me alone!” Her ears rang with the force of her shout. But she doubted if he could hear through the closed windows.

      At any moment he would do the thing she dreaded: dash in front of the car to stop her getting onto the road. Her thoughts galloped like a panicked horse. Would she have the guts to ram into himpossibly pushing him in front of another carif she could find no other way? She didn’t knowhoped with all her might she wouldn’t have to find out.

      But first he tried the back door. When that wouldn’t open he made a dive for the front of the car. And Matlin felt she had no choice: with another shriek of tyres she accelerated and wrenched the wheel to the left. The driver of the car behind was forced to use his brake to slow down. He blared his horn at her. But she took no notice. She was safeat least for the moment.

      She bit down hard on her lower lip and glanced briefly at her hands on the wheel. They were shaking like leaves in a gale. In such a state, she wondered, was she really safe? At the same time she saw that she was coming up to the roundabout. She put her right indicator on and within moments was on the route she took to workheedless of the fact that she had nowhere to go.

      It wasn’t until the car was speeding along the western motorway to the city that she was able to think properly. Where could she go? She had no mother to run toand no sister. There was nowhere for her to hide. He had made sure of that. The grandmother who had brought her up had recently moved into a retirement home. There was no place there for her to hide. And she had left home in such haste that she didn’t even have any money with her.

      The best thing to do, she thought bleakly, was what she should have done as soon as she’d escaped: go to the police.

      At that moment the lowering clouds opened in huge, slow drops. Within a few minutes the drops became a downpour that forced her to turn the windscreen wipers to high. Almost in the same instant the engine spluttered and died. She barely had time to pull onto the shoulder of the motorwayglad that at least there was somewhere to stop safelybefore the car rolled to a standstill.

      With the headlights emphasising the density of the rain through the water-sheeted windscreen, Matlin stared in disbelief at the dials on the dashboard. It can’t do this to me! The damn thing’s just been repaired. That was when she remembered that she’d intended to buy some fuel after picking up the car. She was out of petrol. Hurriedly she turned off the windscreen wipers and the headlights. A drained battery would be the last straw.

      She would have to thumb a liftsomething she’d never done before. And most of the cars on the motorway were going the other wayout of the city.

      Every nerve in her body screamed at her to stay put. But she resolutely ignored her feelingssitting there until daylight would drive her crazyand opened the door. She was surprised at how cold it had become. Desperately she hoped it wouldn’t be long before someone stopped. Surely most motorists could put themselves in her positionfeel for her embarrassment at having broken down on the motorway?

      But getting a motorist to stop was more difficult than she had thought. One by one they all went past. Well, she couldn’t really blame them. What she was doing was illegal.

      And standing in the rain in stockinged feet must make her look very suspicious.

      By the time a vehiclesome type of large motor caravan that sounded as though it ran on diesel—pulled over to the shoulder a little way ahead of her car, she was starting to feel chilled to the bone. She ran forward in relief. The passenger door opened just as she drew abreast and a welcome pool of surprisingly strong yellow light spilled out. Momentarily blinded, she stared apprehensively into the cab.

      And as soon as she saw the driver clearly she drew back. For the strong, broad face all but glowering down at her belonged to the largest man she had ever seen. It’s his sheepskin coat that makes him look so big, she tried to reassure herself. When he spoke, however, Matlin knew that such a rich, rumbling bass could come from only a truly massive chest.

      “What seems to be the problem?” Even as he spoke, his eyes flicked over her speculativelyalmost suspiciously.

      Alarm rushed through Matlin as she became aware that her wet tee-shirt was clinging to her like a second skin. And she didn’t have to check to know that her nipples would be standing proud with the cold. Defensivelyautomaticallyshe clasped both hands at chest level to hide them and opened her mouth to answer his question.

      But she got no further. For in the same instant he shifted his eyes from her to a point somewhere above her right shoulder. And this time she couldn’t mistake the suspicion in their amazing blue depths.

      There was someone behind her! Somehow he had managed to follow her.

      But there was no time to check. Only one place offered any hope of safety now. Blindly she sprinted for her car. She heard a growled expletive from behind, followed by the slam of the cab’s passenger door. A few moments later the big engine abruptly died. She was still fumbling to unlock her car as the second door slammed. She had barely thrown herself into the car and locked herself in when the light of a large torch shone in at her. As soon as she shrank from it, covering her eyes with her hands, the beam of light was lowered. But when she looked up again it was to find the light had been replaced by the face that had glowered at her from the motorhome. In the reflected glow from the torch she could see that the thick straw-coloured hair that had shone like pale gold under the cab’s lights was already darkened by the rain.

      “Open the bonnet and I’ll see if I can find out what’s wrong,” he shouted.

      Matlin shook her head. She couldn’t have answered even if she’d tried.

      “Listen, I’m sorry if I frightened youbut I can’t help you if you won’t co-operate. At least wind down the window a little so we can hear each other.” He sounded more than a little exasperated. When she simply continued staring at him, too numb to do anything else but wish he’d go away, he hammered on the glass with his knuckles. “For God’s sake, you asked for my help when you thumbed me downand I’m getting drenched out here! The least you can do is grant me the courtesy of telling me what the problem is.”

      Reluctantly Matlin inserted her key in the ignition and turned it . Gingerly she pressed the window winder switch, lowering the window no more than five centimetres. But how could she tell him she’d run out of petrol without getting him angrier and making him think she was a complete idiot ? She took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice steady. “There’s nothing wrong. I was justjust so upset over something that I forgot to fill up with petrol after I picked the car up from the mechanic.”

      He adjusted the torch’s light so that he could see her face more clearly without blinding her. He didn’t answer her immediatelyand since she couldn’t see his face very well she wasn’t able to gauge his reaction. So she simply stared up at him in studied defiance. But to her surprise he didn’t berate her, asking instead: “Where were you going?”

      Well, here goes: I might as well be recklessly honest. “Toto the police.”

      He evinced no apparent surprise. “Well, central headquarters is probably the nearest from here. I’ll take you there, get some petrol for your car and see you home safely.”

      He sounded so reasonable, soalmostsympathetic, that Matlin found herself feeling something she had never felt about a man before: that she could actually trust him. Nevertheless, habit still persisted and it was with considerable reluctance that she closed the window, took the keys from the ignition and slowly opened the doorready to shut it at the least provocationwhile he directed the torch beam for her.

      “Where are your shoes?” he growled as she swung her legs out and the torchlight hit the torn wet nylon clinging around her feet.

      Matlin didn’t bother to answer. Instead she turned back into the car and scrambled around in the footwell of the passenger seat for her slippers. In her panic-stricken haste it took her many long moments to find them. With the torchlight showing all too clearly that they were slippers rather than shoes, she put them on and scrambled out. She expected him to make some commentbut he didn’t.

      “What about your handbag?”

      “I-I didn’t have a chance to grab it.”

      She had the feeling that if she could see his face she would find its expression very grim. But all he said was “Come on then. Lock up and let’s get out of this damned rain.”

      She locked the car and he made to take her elbow to steer her towards the passenger side of the cab. With a gasp she was unable to suppress she shook him off.

      “Sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” With this growled apology he strode to the passenger door, unlocked it for her and waiteddeliberately, she suspected, not offering any helpwhile she hauled herself up onto the seat. He closed the door on her and strode round to the driver’s side.

      She pressed herself as close to the cab door as she could as he climbed behind the wheel, inserted his key in the ignition and leaned towards her to shove the torch into the glove box. He really was intimidatingly large, she thoughteven more so in the relatively confined space of the cab.

      She now expected the engine to burst into life. But instead he reached up to switch on the cab’s lights and turned to regard her critically. Automatically she clasped her hands at chest level. As his eyes flicked over her again she felt that he knew she was trying to hide the way her wet tee-shirt clung to herthat he could almost read her mind.

      With alarming abruptness, she felt herself beginning to shakeand realised in surprise that it wasn’t entirely from cold. She tried to suppress the shivers, but he apparently noticedfor almost immediately he started to shrug out of the sheepskin coat. “Here, put that on. It’s wet only on the outside.” He tossed it to her unceremoniously, ignited the cab’s motor, switched on the headlights and turned the heater on full. “And buckle yourself in.”

      She scrambled thankfully into the coat and cuddled its warm pelt against her. It was so big it would have gone around her more than twice. Its warm male aromaearthy, slightly muskywas unlike the artificial smell of most males with whom she came into contact. She buried her face in the wool, luxuriating in both the smell and the warmth his body had left there, now totally oblivious to the way her companion was looking at her. That was when she realised that she hadn’t thanked him.

      She looked up and stammered the word out as she buckled the seat beltto find those disturbing blue eyes regarding her intently. The faintly sardonic quirk of his mouththe strangely assessing expression in those too-sharp eyesmade her blush uncontrollably. And now that he had taken off the sheepskin coat she could see quite clearly that his size was a matter of large bones and the well-developed muscles of a man who either worked physically hard or went to considerable trouble to keep himself in extremely good shape.

      “What’s your name?” The question came out abruptly.

      “MatlinMatlin Tilney.”

      “And mine’s Andreas Hoffmann”

      So that’s where he gets his blond good looks from.

      “That’s … German isn’t it?”

      “Yes. My parents were Austrian, but I was born here in Aucklandas I expect you can hear.” His eyes raked her again. “Look, something’s obviously frightened you badly. You seem an intelligent womanand yet you left home in stockinged feet, with no money, carrying slippers rather than shoes and, even worse, driving a car that you knew was about to run out of petrol. That suggests to me you’re afraid of somethingor somebodyat home Are you running away from an abusive parent, boyfriend… husband, perhaps?”

      Matlin interrupted him, curtly: “I live alone. My parents are dead and I’m not married.”

      He looked puzzled as he digested this information. “Where do you live?”

      Reluctantly she told him. He looked surprised.

      “But there’s a police station quite near you. Why didn’t you go there? Or why couldn’t you simply have phoned them?”

      She felt herself flush again and immediately went on the defensive. “Look, you’ve no right to quiz me.”

      He shrugged. “Okay. Okay. Only you did ask for my help. I can’t help you properly if you won’t trust me.”

      Matlin squared her jaw. “If you don’t want to give me a lift please say so and I’ll get out.”

      “What d’you take me for?” His voice took on a double-bass growl. “If I turn you out you’ll probably land up in a ditch somewhere raped and murdered.”

      Matlin blinked at him. Not probablydefinitely, she thought bitterly.

      His eyes gleamed speculatively in the cab light. “Now I’m finally getting through to you. You didn’t think of possible consequences like that when you ran away so recklessly, did you?”

      For a moment Matlin stared at him resentfully. Her first instinct was to tell him he had no right to lecture her: he wasn’t her guardian. However, as she looked into those suddenly hard blue eyes, it didn’t seem a good idea. There was no knowing what he might do if she annoyed him enough.

      But he was far too astute. She’d told him very little and he was already jumping to conclusions that were far too close to the truth for her peace of mind. To make it quite clear to him that she had no intention of answering any more questions, she buried her face in the warmth of the coat again, at the same time turning her head away.

      The silence that followed this direct snub was so long she was almost tempted to look up just to see his reaction. But before she was forced to give in to the urge the cab lights went out and she heard him put the vehicle into gear. A few moments later it was moving back into the motorway’s slow lane.

© L A Barker Enterprises
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Go to Stranger in the Mirror to read
the first chapter of my first romantic suspense novel.

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