Whispers in the Night
Silhouette Intimate Moments
December 2004
ISBN: 0-373-27407-6

Excerpt




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 It began with a bump in the night...

When strange things begin happening at her isolated home, lonely widow Kayla Thorne turned to handyman Paul Fitzgerald for protection. But was that a mistake? Because Paul was not only an ex-cop, he was an ex-convict--though he swore he'd been framed. Yet if he was so eager to prove his innocence, why was he spending time fixing her house, instead?

Paul seemed intent on gaining her trust--and as the mysterious dangers escalated, Kayla needed someone to keep her safe. Paul was the perfect protector, because he needed nothing from her... or did he? Suddenly Kayla wondered just why Paul had come to her--and how close he meant to get...




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Excerpt
Creak.

The noise woke Kayla from a much-needed, dreamless slumber. Her eyes popped open and she sat straight up in bed. The bright red numbers of the bedside clock read 2:30 AM. For several moments she remained frozen, trying to listen over the pounding of her heart. When nothing more happened, she figured—hoped—it had been her imagination and slowly, she sank back down into her down-filled pillow, her lids drifting shut.

Cre-e-eak.

There it was again, coming from the porch directly below the bedroom. Not the high-pitched squeak-ing of the old chains that supported the double swing there, nor the crack-ing sound of tree limbs swaying in the wind. No, this was definitely creak-ing, and definitely coming from the porch, which had several loose wooden slats, and which protested loudly when someone was walking on them.

Like now.

All thoughts of sleep evaporated as fear coursed coldly through her veins.

Oh, God, Kayla thought, something or someone was on the porch.

Quickly, her mind composed several explanations, none of them good. The likeliest was an animal. Of course, it would have to be a pretty heavy animal to make that noise. What kind of wildlife was up here? Deer? Coyotes? She shuddered. Bears?

Was this a common thing, this nocturnal noise? She would ask some of her neighbors, although she used the word loosely; there was nobody around for a couple of miles. Maybe she was making a big deal out of the whole thing.

Cree-ee-eak.

Or maybe she wasn’t.

Her heartbeat accelerated. Were the doors locked? Yes, of course. The other times she’d been here at the cabin with Walter, he’d laughed gently at her city girl fears and told her no one in the little mountain community of Cragsmont bothered locking doors. They all trusted each other. But without Walter, this visit, she’d been unwilling to be quite so trusting herself.

What to do? Kayla’s mind raced frantically, keeping time with her pulse. She could hide under the bed. Throughout a nightmarish childhood, she’d discovered that the way to stay out of the way of danger was to not call attention to yourself, to avoid becoming a target.

But she didn’t do that anymore. For the past few years, she’d forced herself to meet danger and fearsome challenges head-on and deal with them. Not happily or easily, and not that the inner fear went away—no, she was pretty sure she was one of the most frightened people in the world—but, as best she could, she tried not to let it defeat her.

And she wouldn’t let it defeat her now.

Despite the dread, despite the rapid pulse rate, she summoned up reserves of strength. Throwing back the covers, feet dangling over the side of the bed, she ordered her imagination to rid itself of horrific fantasies while she considered her next move.

At that moment, Bailey woke up. The aging, partly deaf, one-eyed Yorkshire Terrier began to bark. Not because of the noise below, but because Kayla had dared to disturb his sleep. Not much of a watchdog, old Bailey, but company, at least. The sound of his bark was high-pitched and annoying, and automatically, Kayla tried to shush him. Then she changed her mind. Maybe barking was a good thing; yes, in fact Bailey’s barking might scare off the intruder.

Whoever or whatever that was.

Licking her suddenly dry mouth and shivering from more than the chilled night air of early autumn, she put on her robe and her ridiculous-looking-but-oh-so-warm bunny slippers, then grabbed the poker from the fireplace in the corner. Ancient wood floors protesting under her feet, she left the shelter of the master bedroom and, scooping up the yipping dog, crept down the stairs.

"Hush," she whispered to the small animal, briefly covering his snout with her cupped hand. He might frighten off an intruder, but her eardrums couldn’t take much more. Besides, Kayla needed to hear what was happening outside. Bailey, bless him, quieted down, curling his shivering body into a snug little ball. Holding him tightly, she strained her ears.

There was more noise below, only now it came not from the porch, but from the side of the house. There was the sound of rustling leaves, crackling branches, and then a kind of moan/grunt/growl.

Oh, God. Was that how a bear sounded? City girls didn’t know a grunt from a growl from a snarl, or what kind of animal emitted what. Well, one thing was for sure, she was not going outside to check it out. If whatever it was out there wanted her, they’d have to come in and get her, and that was what fireplace pokers were for.

###

She steered the car along the main drag, then turned left onto a side street, pulling up in front of a three-story, wood-framed Victorian with the words Susanville Library on a wooden post in front.

Paul reached for the door handle, turning to thank her, but was stopped by the expression on her face: she seemed to be looking inward, mulling over a difficult decision. He waited. Finally, she eased the gear handle into Park and turned a troubled, blue-eyed gaze on him, a frown between her brows. "Paul?"

"Yes?"

"About what we were talking about before," she said hesitantly. "I know it’s none of my business, but I can’t help hearing how much . . . rage you have inside you. I want you to understand that, well, I know what you’re feeling. Needless to say, you have every right to your anger . . . . " She stopped.

"But?"

She placed her hand on his arm, the way she did when she needed to make a point, wanted him to hear her. "I’m going to sound preachy here."

He stiffened, then muttered, "Go on."

"That kind of emotion will eat you up inside. It will hold you back, make you bitter. You won’t be able to start your life again until you let go of it."

She was right on the money: she sounded preachy. Her words of advice made him feel belligerent. "Oh, really. And just what do you know about it?"

"Quite a lot, actually," she said grimly, then offered a brief, sad smile.

His hostility ebbed as, frowning, he gazed at that lovely face of hers, waiting for her to go on. But she didn’t. What kind of pain had she experienced? Hell, how could anything in Kayla Vinovich Thorne’s life possibly compare to what he’d been through?

As he asked himself that question, he realized that it not only smacked of self-pity, but was pretty strong evidence of his own self-absorption.

Understandable, sure, but still . . . .

What was her story? He really wanted to know. One of five kids, she’d said, all boys except for her. Had they beaten her? Abused her? The thought was not a pleasant one, and it made that easily-tapped anger of his begin to simmer. The way she talked—or refused to talk—about her family might mean she was an abuse victim. Sexual or otherwise. Damn.

"Kayla?"

"Yes."

"I, um, appreciate your kindness."

"But I should keep my mouth shut."

"No, I didn’t mean . . . " He blew out a breath, not sure what he wanted to say until it came out. "I used to be a nicer person. I mean, I know I’m . . . angry, but I didn’t used to be this way. Sure, I had a temper, but I knew how to control it, and I never, ever got physical, you have to believe me."

"I do."

"It’s just that, where I was, behind bars, it just got harder and harder to control."

"I understand."

And he knew she did.

He didn’t know what else to say; all he knew was that she got to him, with the understanding and old pain in her eyes, and the way his skin prickled, even through his jacket, at the touch of her graceful fingers curled around his arm.

So what?

The question intruded on the quiet of the moment. He was letting down his guard, and he couldn’t do that; he had to keep and nurture his fine, razor sharp edge of hate, if he was ever to clear his name.

"Thanks for the ride," he said abruptly. Jerking his arm out from under her gentle grip, he reached for the door handle.

"I’ll be heading home around nine or so," she told him. "If you want a ride back, meet me at the grocery store on Middle Street."

"I appreciate it," he said gruffly and began to push the door open.

"Paul?"

Something in her voice made him stop, turn, and face her. "Yes?"

To his surprise, she raised a hand, stroked his cheek, just once, then leaned into him and gave him a brief, light kiss on the mouth. Just a butterfly touch, but it was enough to send his senses into overdrive.

Releasing the door handle, he moved toward her, reached out to touch her. But his momentum was stopped by the way she jerked her head back, hissed in a breath, and stared at him, wide-eyed. She too had been taken by surprise, and was now probably kicking herself for her impulsiveness.

She turned away from him, faced front, and put the car in gear. "See you later."

"Fine." He got out, closed the door and watched her drive away. Then he raised his hand to his cheek, touched his fingertips to where she’d stroked it.

Man, was he in trouble. Kayla Thorne pulled him away from the tunnel-vision he so desperately needed. Kayla Thorne reminded him of the world of, not what could go wrong but what could go right between a man and a woman: quiet talks, gentle touches, wordless communication.

Kayla Thorne made him feel soft inside.

Damn her.

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