Excerpt from Silence Knight, a romantic suspense by Irene Estep. Losing her job. A body in her new neighbor's kitchen. Abducted at gunpoint. Can Claire's day get any worse? She can identify the killer. Now Ryce Knight must protect her until he testifies at the dirty Miami politician's trial. But, who will protect him from Claire?
Ryce only had fourteen dollars and some pocket change left after paying for the room and their supper. He'd taken a big chance on using Barbara's credit card earlier, but he didn't dare use it at the motel for fear it would be traced before they could clear out in the morning. He couldn't survive a week on the few bucks he had, let alone feed Ms. No Onions enough food to keep her from starving to death, however small her appetite. He noticed she'd only taken a couple of bites of the hamburger.
"I have to go to the bathroom," a meek voice interrupted his reverie.
"Over there." He pointed at the door a couple of feet from the end of her bed.
"I know that. I need my clothes."
Ryce turned and saw humiliation reflected in her soft blue eyes. He didn't like degrading a woman like this, but, he reminded himself, this woman couldn't be trusted. He lifted her slip from the bundle of clothes beside him and tossed it into her lap. "That should do for modesty's sake."
"You're such a gentleman," she said sarcastically. "Would it be too much to ask you to turn the other way for a moment?"
He almost laughed. He wondered what she'd do if he refused. Having her parade around naked would be a delectable treat, but an agonizing one. So he rolled away from her and allowed his imagination to roam as he listened to the rustle of the fabric falling into place around her soft curves. When her footsteps padded across the floor, he said, "Leave the door open."
He heard her sharp intake of breath, then her movements inside the bathroom. The tap came on, an obvious attempt to camouflage her call to nature. For a cold-blooded murderer, she sure acted bashful. His former fiancée had seemed harmless at first, too, and now he considered Marge Swenson more deadly than any of her father's hired killers.
He realized the water had been running for several minutes. A bit too long. He shot off the bed and into the bathroom.
The unexpected sight of her silk-covered rear pointing at him from a pint-sized window made him chuckle with relief. His hands fit nicely around her hips when he reached over and caught her. "Need some help?"
"I think I'm stuck." There was no defeat in her muffled voice, as if exiting through a window were as normal as taking a stroll around Eola Park in downtown Orlando.
He had to stand in the tub to lift her. Her perfect bottom wriggled in front of his face and he had a swelling masculine reaction.
"Stop squirming, dammit," he commanded gruffly, and tried not to breath in her enticing peach scent as he pulled her back through the tiny opening. He lowered her slowly to stand beside him in the porcelain tub, torturing himself with the feel of her soft curves. Reluctant to let her go, he rubbed his hands up and down her arms. "Are you hurt?"
"Of course not." She shoved him away and stepped over the rim of the tub.
He slowly followed her back into the room and again reminded himself that she wasn't to be trusted. She climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her as if nothing untoward had happened. He flipped on the television as he passed it and pretended the same, flopping back on his bed to watch the evening news. When the camera zeroed in on his destroyed safe house, he sat up. A female reporter with a microphone to her heavily painted lips appeared in the foreground.
"An explosion of unknown origin rocked this quiet neighborhood earlier today. The Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms-a division of the Federal government called in to help with the case due to the explosives involved-is still sifting through the debris for clues. A body found inside is still technically unidentified, but the woman who lives next door tells us the victim is her sister."
The camera focused on a woman with red-rimmed eyes. "Ms. Youngson," the reporter asked, "how did your sister come to be inside your neighbor's house at the time of the explosion?"
"Maggie," the woman in the bed across from Ryce whispered. Her face turned as pale as the sheets she lay on.
Ryce looked back at the petite blonde onscreen, the neighbor he knew belonged next door. She cried softly. "It's all my fault. Claire didn't even get to tell me about her trip to Los Angeles. She forgot to get sugar at the market. I sent her next door. I-I didn't know it'd be the last time I'd see her ..."
Her disjointed sentences wouldn't make sense, except Ryce had heard a similar version already. When it appeared the woman named Maggie couldn't go on, the camera switched back to the news reporter. She interviewed another shocked neighbor who hadn't seen anything significant, but went into a lengthy description of the blast.
"Now will you believe me?" Claire asked.
He didn't answer, but continued to watch the newscast. The camera faded from the scene of the crime and then zoomed in on the service station where they'd gassed the car. The program sensationalized the event as if it were a major breakthrough in the case.
"The car, believed to be taken from the scene, was spotted earlier this evening leaving this Exxon store just off I-4," the reporter said.
A picture of a car, the same model and make as Barbara's, flashed onto the screen along with a license plate number. The anchor then gave a short description of the male who had gassed the car, but no photo. Thankfully, the police must still think Ryce Knight too valuable a commodity to take a chance on releasing his picture to the public and giving Swenson the edge on finding him.
The reporter said, "It's believed the man is Frank Morgan, the owner of the house that was bombed. He is being sought for questioning about the incident."
The woman next to him gasped. "You're Morgan?"
Ryce cursed, jumped to his feet, and switched off the TV. He tossed the bundle of clothes to his prisoner-that's what she was, he realized now, an innocent bystander and he had kidnapped her. "Get dressed, we've got to get out of here."
"You've got to get out," she said flippantly. "I'm going home."
She began slipping into her clothes, while Ryce paced the floor. "You can't go home," he said.
She had her panties halfway up her thighs when he turned around. He quickly looked the other way. "You told me you saw a man sneaking around my house."
"Sneaking? Well, I suppose he did act a little weird. Although I didn't think anything of it at the time, I saw him peek into one of the side windows."
"He's probably the one who shot Barbara." And planted the bomb in Ryce's car three months ago, too. The one that had killed his brother. But, Claire might now be in as much danger as he, and it curbed his elation at discovering she could possibly identify the murderer.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you, only I didn't know he wasn't you, or Morgan, or whatever ... Anyway, I can identify him. The police will catch him and you'll be cleared."
He shot her a disbelieving look. Could anyone be that naive? He waited until she dropped her eyes and fumbled with the buttons on her blouse, then he said, "Don't you understand? I trusted the cops and it nearly got me killed. You can't go back now. Not until we know who to trust. We have to stay together until I can figure a way out of this mess."
"That's absurd." She brushed at the wrinkles in her skirt with as much gusto as she brushed off his suggestion. "I'll just go to the police station and tell them everything I saw. You don't have a thing to worry about. I'll say we ran because we thought the murderer was watching. That must have been what was in your mind, wasn't it? You were scared-"
He walked over and gripped her by the arms, shaking her a little to get her attention. "Hell yes, I'm scared, and you'd better be, too. These guys don't take lightly to anyone testifying against them. Why the hell do you think I'm on the run? Why do you think the Miami police department sent one of their own detectives to another county to keep an eye on me? Why do you think that detective was murdered?"
"Oh, my God," she said. "I remember now. You called her your handler. You-You're in some kind of witness protection program, aren't you?"
PROMISES, PROMISES/coming 2005/ www.awe-struck.net
CONNER'S BACK/ RS/ www.www.fictionwise.com
SILENCE KNIGHT/2003 Booksellers' Best FinalistOVERPROTECTED/2002 Laurel Wreath Finalist/www.fictionwise.com