Jeremy Rhider was one of the sexiest men I'd seen in all my twenty-one years. He was tall and rugged, always looking slightly edgy behind dark shades and a mask of indifference. He was the best kisser I'd ever had the pleasure of judging. He was also one of the FBI's most wanted criminals, and until he kissed me, shoved a briefcase in my hands, and jumped out of my second-story window, I had no idea.
But don't let me get ahead of myself.
I met Jeremy Rhider on a Friday.
That evening three of my closest friends and I made the short drive from Denton, Texas to downtown Dallas for a night of general college debauchery. I'd slid into a slinky silver dress, tossed my hair into a ponytail, and spent the night guzzling over-priced cocktails and dropping it in true white-girl fashion on the dance floor. I was having a good time, too, until one of my cheap heels broke. Then I made the fateful decision to slip out the side exit to catch my breath and figure out what the heck I was going to do about my stupid shoe situation.
And while fanning the sweat from my underarms as I hobbled on one stiletto, I caught sight of the brooding man leaning against a building across the alleyway. A cigarette hung from his lips. Oh his lips, which had been pulled into a smirk as he took me in.
I should have been offended, the way his dark eyes deliberately scaled the length of my exposed legs, lingering on the sparkling hemline of my dress before skipping directly to — and lingering far too long — on my chest. His eyes finally settled on my face. I stood there, stiff and frozen, with a blank expression on my features and one elbow still cocked where I'd been trying to dry the sweat that had collected in my armpit from the time spent in the sweltering club.
Jeremy Rhider pushed himself off the wall and closed the distance between us. The cigarette dropped to the pavement and he'd stomped it with his shoe, his eyes never leaving mine.
"Are you Ukrainian?" was the first thing he said to me.
I had blinked. Once. Twice. And then I managed to find my voice after a thick swallow.
"I don't know."
He'd cocked his head to one side, and replied, "You look Ukrainian."
I didn't have time to respond since he took the next second to press his lips against mine.
Between the alcohol and the side effects of the thumping bass in the club and the abrupt kiss, when he pulled away a befuddled croak from somewhere in the back of my throat escaped. I'd barely registered the sound as coming from me.
And as though he were James Bond, as if he thought he could play off being the good guy, he grinned and said, "Rhider. Jeremy Rhider."
It was most likely because he was on a last-name basis with nearly everyone. I liked to think it was because he secretly thought 'Rhider' just sounded cool.
Either way, I brought my index and middle fingers to my lips and pressed, hard.
He shot me a look that suspected me of having a mental deficiency. "And you are?"
"Tori," I replied. I could see myself reflected in his eyes. They were the same dark shade of brown as my own, though not nearly as wide with confusion in that moment. I wondered if he might be Ukrainian, too. If that's what I was, anyway. My mom wasn't really sure and I never took the time to research or question my origins. Genealogy wasn't really my thing. "Bravi."
"Hn." His eyes had a hard edge as he nodded, and taking a step back he assessed me for a long moment, eyes raking up and slowly back down my frame. Then he pulled out a cigarette and continued back down the lowly lit street in the opposite direction.
I watched him disappear, clutching my broken heel and teetering to one side as my bare toe fought to keep pointed, to keep me stable. Bending down, I removed my other shoe and entered back through the side door, barefoot and weak-kneed and entirely perplexed.
When I spotted Jamie, Olivia and Laura and recounted the events of the alleyway, they laughed and asked me how much I had to drink.
At the time I'd been offended, but as the remainder of the weekend past I too began to wonder if I'd simply imagined the whole thing.
But on Monday afternoon as I exited my Ancient Civ's class, there was Jeremy Rhider leaning against the Humanities building, taking long drags from his cigarette, waiting for me.
In hindsight, I probably should have been a bit freaked out that a guy, a guy I'd met outside a club once, had tracked me down and gotten hold of my class schedule. But I wasn't. Call it a poor judge of character.
Or, you know, it was probably the muscles straining his white t-shirt and the way his lips took shape around the cigarette clouding my sanity. That had to be it. I don't even like smoking.
We dated. Well, he came over and usually succeeded in getting me out of my clothes. Sometimes I cooked for him, and sometimes he asked me strange questions I didn't have answers for. Three weeks later, I was making dinner when he slammed the door behind him and rushed into the kitchen, demanding if I'd been followed.
"Wha?" I sputtered, giving him the look that I found myself shooting him on one-too-many occasions. Jeremy was cryptic and suspicious and just plain weird sometimes. I took a deep breath and removed the breadsticks from the oven with a shrug. "Nope. Don't think so."
And then he pulled me towards a window, one large hand painfully clutching my neck. It was in that moment that I decided I'd had too much. He'd never been that weird with me before. But before I could break things off, I caught sight of the way Jeremy frantically searched the parking lot. Then he turned towards me. Expelling a long, heavy breath, his dark eyes narrowed. Once again I found myself reflected back in his gaze; my eyes were wide, a mixture of terror and confusion.
He shoved a briefcase in my arms and I dropped my gaze from his eyes to stare numbly down at it.
Instead of answering, he said, "I really did like you, Tori."
Did. In the past tense. "Uh."
Then he kissed me. When he pulled away, he looked almost apologetic. The expression didn't last long, because next thing I knew he was bracing himself to jump out the living room window.
"Uh," I repeated a third time, feeling dense and powerless as I watched the shards of glass showering the parking lot. Jeremy Rhider had leapt out of my second story apartment and hit the pavement running.
I didn't have time to ponder much outside of what the fuck just happened? because a flurry of gunshots rang out in the parking lot; a couple shot deliberately through the broken window of my apartment. One tore through the glass and lodged itself in my purple sofa.
"Crap," I howled, coming to life and springing back towards the kitchen. I hunched behind the safety of cheap countertops and caught my breath. "Crap, crap, crap."
The sound of gunshots faded, and selfishly I hoped it was because the gunman was following Jeremy and was no longer interested in me or my purple couch. Our relationship wasn't quite the stuff of myths…
Still clutching the cold metal briefcase to my chest, I reached for my phone on the countertop, clenching my eyes shut as I felt around for the small mobile. With it finally in hand, I dialed the only three numbers I could think of.
"There's someone shooting outside my apartment," I managed, my tongue taking time to catch up with the events my brain still hadn't fully comprehended. "My boyfriend. Well, he's not really my boyfriend but he—"
"Where do you live, ma'am?"
"Oh." And then I'd given her my address and waited not-quite-patiently for the police to arrive.
They'd taken my case seriously — loaded me up, strange briefcase and all, in a police cruiser and brought me into the station. I took the cup of black coffee extended my way, even though I didn't like black coffee. Someone asked about sugar or cream, but I blinked in response and they left.
Two men remained in the room, and my eyes darted back and forth between the pair. I could barely make out their words, but I was fairly sure they were talking about me. I continued to stare into my coffee, wishing I had asked for sugar, until the owner of one of the voices was directly in front of me.
"And you said Jeremy Rhider, R-H-I, is that correct?"
I'd glanced up at the police officer and nodded. "That's him."
"And you said he was your boyfriend?"
"Uh." My lips twitched to a frown. "Friend, maybe. Acquaintance? I don't really know anything about him." Besides his being a fabulous kiss. And apparently a freaking psychopath.
"Hm," the man nodded slowly, his eyes watching me carefully. "Mr. Rhider is a very dangerous man. He has tied to the Russian Mafia. We're afraid you might be in some trouble, Ms. Bravi."
"Well, I gathered that," I replied tersely. "What with the getting shot at and all."
He nodded again and I bit my lip, feeling slightly bad. He was only trying to help me, after all.
"Do you want to take a look inside?" I asked, hoisting the briefcase off my lap and holding it out towards the officer as a sort of peace offering.
"I'm afraid I can't." He ran a hand through his copper hair while flashing me an apologetic frown. "Going to have to wait for the FBI to arrive for that."
My jaw unhinged, and I dropped the briefcase to the floor as though suddenly realizing it was blistering hot. It resounded with a loud, metallic thud and I flinched at the sound.
"The mob want something with you," he said. His eyes held a bit of kindness, but I wasn't too concerned with his manners at that moment. My mouth opened and then closed, and in that moment I felt very much like a fish. "They know where you live and that you are in possession of that briefcase."
"We'll just wait for the FBI; they'll get everything sorted out. Everything will be okay, Ms. Bravi. You'll be in good hands."
I swallowed thickly.
And, since I couldn't do much else, I nodded. "Uh, sure."
Stupid, stupid Jeremy Rhider. When I got my hands on him, he was going to pay.
But then, he was the one with ties to the Mafia and I was just a girl. A girl who'd let him kiss her outside a club, track her down, and leave her to die. Perhaps I never stood a chance to begin with.