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Narrow Escape

Sonoma series, book #4

(Love Inspired Suspense, January 2013)

This is the fourth book in my romantic suspense Sonoma series (although each book is stand-alone). This story stars Nathan Fischer, whom readers met in my book Stalker in the Shadows


KIDNAPPED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT

Arissa Tiong and her three-year-old niece are snatched off the street by members of a notorious drug gang. Having lost her police officer brother to a drug bust gone bad, Arissa knows the danger she's in. But she has no idea why they want her. Desperate to protect the little girl, Arissa escapes and runs straight to Nathan Fischer. She knows the handsome, weary former narcotics cop hasn't told her everything about the night that ended her brother's life and Nathan's career. But he's all that stands between her and dangerous thugs who are after something she doesn't even know she has.

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Excerpt of chapter one

Arissa Tiong awoke to darkness and the stench of fear. Pain throbbed from a sharp point at the back of her head and radiated forward to pound against the backs of her eyeballs. She drew in a ragged breath and swallowed dust. She stifled a cough against the scratchy nubs of the frilly carpet she lay on.

Where was she? She tried to move and realized her stiff arms were fastened behind her back, and her ankles were tied together. She attempted to straighten her legs and found her feet were tethered to something. She was bound like an animal.

And Charity. Where was Charity? Her heart began to speed up, and each beat felt like a hammer blow to her breastbone. Her entire body ached.

The dim room narrowed into focus before her swimming vision. Slivers of light came from a boarded-up window. Daylight, it was still daytime. They'd taken her sometime in the morning, and she didn't feel she'd been out for that long, so it must have only been a few hours. The rays spilled onto a rusty metal bed frame that held a thin, sagging mattress with no sheets and several dark stains. Her mind shied away from what made those stains.

The smell of mold was almost overpowering, and dust had settled on the thin carpet, pooling in holes and rips across the surface. The walls had dark water stains painted over older water stains.

She didn't realize there was a ringing in her ears until it started to fade and she could hear noises from outside the room. The sharp hard cries of street kids playing a pickup game in the middle of a road. She made out a word or two here or there. The kids spoke in Tagalog. She was still in Los Angeles, maybe still in the Filipino community where she lived. She hadn't seen the faces of the men who had nabbed her off the street, but if she remained in her neighborhood, they hadn't taken her far.

What had they done with Charity? Her last memory had been seeing the three-year-old's huge dark eyes, her mouth wide open, screaming and reaching for her as Arissa was hauled backward into a van. Had the men left Charity on the street? A three-year-old girl alone on the streets of L.A.? A cold knife blade slid under her rib cage and pricked her heart.

And why had they taken Arissa? She was only an international flight attendant. Her parents owned a tiny grocery store in a low-income Filipino community that barely earned enough to feed and house the four of them in the minuscule apartment above the store. They had nothing anyone would want.

The men must have taken her by mistake, and when they realized it, they'd kill her.

She closed her eyes. No, she had to see if she could get out of here. She would get out of here.

Arissa tugged at her hands behind her back. It felt like tape wrapped around her wrists. She twisted her arms, arched her back. Agony jabbed from her right shoulder—she must have injured it or fallen on it at some point. She gritted her teeth against the pain and pulled down her arms, getting them under her rear end.

She folded her body in half as she scooted her bound hands along the back of her legs toward her feet. Rope secured her crossed ankles, and a line ran into a tiny closet and fastened to the head of a large nail sticking out of the closet wall.

She reached down to see if she could untie her ankles even though her wrists were bound, but the line gave her a better idea. She sat up and drew her legs closer, pulling the rope taut. She set the edge of the duct tape around her wrists against the rope and started sawing back and forth.

It took forever, but soon the rope cut through and created a tear in the layers of duct tape. Then it was easier to saw through the rest and free her hands, ignoring the blood that trickled down the creases in her wrists from the tape and the friction from the rope.

She was about to untie her ankles when boot steps sounded outside the closed door, coming closer. A child's sobbing approached with the steps.

Charity. They had her niece. Arissa wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or terrified.

She dropped back down to the carpet, tucking her hands behind her back again. Hopefully the men wouldn't realize the tape was gone. She settled into the same position she'd been in when she awoke, and shut her eyes.

The metal doorknob rattled as someone unlocked it, then two different footfalls sounded against the carpet—one lighter than the other, but neither were the steps of a child. One of them must have been carrying Charity, whose soft crying erupted into a wail as she saw Arissa on the floor.

"Let her go," growled a man's voice in Tagalog.

Now she could hear Charity's footsteps, followed by tiny hands that wrapped around Arissa's head and neck. "Aunty Rissa," Charity sobbed. "Wake up, wake up. Why won't you wake up?"

It took every ounce of willpower not to throw her arms around the small trembling body. Arissa kept her eyes shut. Thankfully, Charity's body shielded her face from the two kidnappers.

"Now be quiet," said a second voice in Tagalog, sharper than the other and slightly higher pitched. They were both men, both Filipino.

Charity gave a startled cry of fear, but then her sobs softened and she buried her face in Arissa's hair.

"See, I told you it would make her be quiet," said the sharp voice. The men walked out of the room. "Why'd you bring her, anyway?"

"It would have been better to leave her crying and screaming in the middle of the street?"

He was one of the men who'd grabbed them, then.

"All this trouble," the deeper voice groused. "If Mark hadn't gotten shot.." The door closed behind him and metal scraped as they locked it again.

Mark? Arissa's brother, Mark? But he'd been killed in the line of duty over three years ago. Why would these men care about his death and kidnap Arissa now?

And would they go after her parents, too, now that they had Arissa and Charity?

She reached out to gather Charity close to her, and the little girl gave a surprised noise. "Shh, shh. We have to be quiet or they'll come back."

"Why did they take us, Aunty Rissa?" Fresh tears trickled down Arissa's neck.

"I don't know. But we have to get out of here, okay?"

The little head nodded against her ear.

Arissa sat up and worked on the rope tying her legs together. It had been knotted tightly but inexpertly. She tore a fingernail trying to loosen the first knot, but after that she was able to undo the other knots quickly.

The window had been boarded up with plywood so that only slits of light shone through, but as she leaned closer, Arissa could see that the drywall securing the boards was brittle and crumbling. She yanked at a plywood board that she was fairly certain hadn't been nailed into a wall stud, and the bottom edge pulled away easily, with white dry-wall flakes drifting into the dingy carpet. She tried the top of the board, and it drew free.

So that's why the window had been boarded up—cracks splintered out from the glass, radiating from a small hole. A bullet hole. She glanced behind her into the room, and saw a corresponding hole high in the wall next to the closet door.

She shuddered. Growing up in her area of L.A., she'd gotten used to hearing gunshots every night, but she never got used to seeing the damage to buildings, to people.

She tore away as many of the boards from the window as she could and set them quietly on the floor. Outside, the kids playing in the street had moved on, and the empty road echoed with the whisper of cars driving elsewhere nearby. It seemed to drowse in the bright sunlight as drug dealers slept off a busy night and nosy neighbors watched reality TV shows.

There was also nowhere to hide. The street ran in a straight shot in either direction. These small, old houses had postage-stamp front lawns and broken metal fences around the better ones. Only an occasional scraggly tree or decrepit bush. If she ran with Charity, they'd be spotted down the street in an instant. How long could she run with a three-year-old girl in her arms?

What had Mark always said to her? "Distraction evens the odds."

She scanned the room, easier now that it was brighter, and stepped into the empty closet to look up. A square in the gray asbestos-snowlike ceiling pointed to an entry to the attic crawl space.

She used a board to nudge up the panel and slowly, quietly shift it aside to clear the opening. She wasn't tall enough to get to it easily, or to check that it was safe. She'd have to trust there wasn't anything dangerous in there.

Arissa picked up Charity and whispered in her ear, "You have to be brave for me, nene. Can you do that?"

The girl hesitated before nodding slowly. She wasn't her father's daughter for nothing.

"I need you to climb up there and be very, very quiet," Arissa said.

"In the dark?" she whispered, her breath coming faster.

"It's not so dark, see?" Arissa stood under the hole and could see faint rays of sunlight coming through a crack in the roof, illuminating the crawl space. "If you stay very quiet, we can get away from the bad men. Okay?"

Charity took a quick breath. "Okay."

Arissa lifted up the girl and she scrambled into the hole. She pushed at her niece's round bottom, covered in her favorite pink stretch pants, to get her over the edge into the attic. There was a soft shuffling, then Charity's large dark eyes stared down at her from the edge of the hole.

"Stand back," Arissa whispered, "and don't make a sound."

Arissa took the longest of the plywood boards and slid it under the flimsy doorknob, propping the other end of the board against the floor. It wouldn't hold them long, but she only needed a few extra seconds.

She grabbed the heaviest of the other boards and took a deep breath, then swung it against the window glass with all her might.

The impact jarred her arms and shoulders and the sound of shattering glass rang in her ears, making them ache. She hit at the shards of glass left in the window, knocking them loose and shoving them outside. She glanced down and around the outside of the house, spying some dented metal trash cans a few feet to the side of the window. In order to make even more noise, she threw the board at them, knocking one down and making the other rattle ominously against the peeling paint of the house.

Men's voices sounded outside the bedroom door, and the knob rattled. The door stuck against the board wedged there.

She ran toward the closet and took a flying leap at the hole in the ceiling just as the men began shouldering at the barricaded door with thundering blows. She grabbed at the edge and swung an elbow over with her momentum, then hauled herself up as quickly and quietly as she could. Thank goodness for the hours she spent at the gym in between her flight assignments. She drew in her legs and laid the panel back over the hole just as the men crashed through the door to the bedroom.

"They're gone!" The voice came from the direction of the window.

"Don't just stand there, we have to get them back."

Footsteps raced out of the bedroom, leaving the house. There was a sound of a slamming door, then all was silent.

She waited a few seconds, straining to hear if there was a third man left in the house, but she didn't hear anything, not even the sound of a television or radio. She pushed aside the panel and dropped down. Reaching up her arms for Charity, the girl obediently dangled her legs over the edge, then slid into her aunt's arms.

She stepped through the splintered bedroom door, walking noiselessly into a small hallway. It opened into a dusty living room, with the open front door at one side and a kitchen door at the other. Arissa headed toward the back of the house.

There was a narrow kitchen door with a cobwebby glass panel. Thankfully it wasn't locked. She opened it and let them into an overgrown backyard, strewn with rusting car parts and various pieces of trash. She carefully closed the door behind her, then made for the sagging back fence, which had several loose slats of wood. She wriggled through one of them, followed by Charity.

Then she picked up her niece and ran.
***

Nathan Fischer opened the front door and saw his dead partner's eyes staring solemnly up at him.

It took him a moment to realize Mark's eyes were in the face of a three-year-old girl, her dark brown curls blowing about her round cheeks in the crisp Sonoma breeze. Then Nathan's gaze shifted to the young woman standing behind the little girl. The foyer tiles under his feet tilted sideways before righting themselves.

Arissa.

She had lost weight. Her high cheekbones stood out more, and her collarbone peeked from the wide-necked blouse she wore. It was her favorite color, a dusky rose that matched her lips. Her eyes bore into his, wide and intent.

"I'm sorry to drop in on you like this, Nathan, but I need your help." Her voice was the same as he remembered it—low, musical, her words carefully enunciated in a way that hinted at a Filipino accent, although she'd been born in the U.S.

"My help?" he heard himself repeat idiotically. Maybe because he was exhausted—he'd pulled a double shift, taking over for one of the other security officers at Glencove Towers whose wife had gone into labor.

Arissa cast a nervous glance around the neighborhood. The gathering darkness had cast the other bungalow-style homes into shadows, but this was a safe, quiet street in downtown Sonoma—there were no monsters here. Something had spooked her badly.

Especially if she'd come to him, after the last words he'd spoken to her three years ago.

"Come in." Nathan stood aside and opened the door wider. The little girl caught his attention again. So Arissa had had a child? The girl seemed tall for her age. So much had happened since he'd last seen Arissa.

She stepped into the foyer of Nathan's parents' home and he closed the door behind her, the light from the hallway lamp casting a glow across her almond-milk-colored skin. He caught a thread of rain and roses, and her familiar scent made him have a flashing urge to give her a peck on the cheek, to say, "Hi, honey, how was work?"

He exhaled a sharp breath to dispel the vision. It was the little girl causing this in him, the reminder that he had once had deeper feelings for this woman, had once wanted to have a family with her. The little girl had fooled him into thinking his dream had come true.

His dream would never come true. Certainly not with this woman, and now, not with any woman.