As she watched, the man coughed up blood then smiled at her. “Don’t worry, pretty. Next time he’ll come for you himself.” He coughed again, his smile fading at the light slowly left his eyes, leaving them blank and unseeing.
She just stared at him, unable to move. Abigail began to shake as the reality of the situation sank in. Reaching blindly behind her on the kitchen counter, she searched for her phone, not taking her eyes off the dead man. She couldn’t look away for a second… in the movies if you looked away they got back up.
Her hand finally closed over the cool case of her cell phone. Funny it had never felt cold to her before. The thought ran absently through her mind as she held it up to dial 911. Her fingers felt thick and she kept hitting the wrong numbers. On the tenth try she finally had it right and hit send.
The ring seemed overly loud in the overwhelming silence of the room. “911, what’s your emergency?”
She jumped at the sound of the operator’s voice, her heart beating in her throat. “I… I…” Abigail frowned at the strange croaking sound coming from her. Why did it hurt her throat so much to try to talk?
“Dead,” she managed to croak out of her swollen throat, her hand going up to touch her neck, confused at the soreness and inability to speak beyond that gravelly whisper.
“I have your address as 931 Raintree Lane in University Heights, is that correct, ma’am?” the operator asked in her no-nonsense voice.
Abigail’s mind went blank and she suddenly felt exhausted. “I think so…” she said in a hoarse whisper as her legs gave out beneath her and she slid down the edge of the cabinets to the floor, her eyes still glued to the dead man.
A strangled laugh escaped her as her eyes fell to the blood soaking into the Oriental rug. That would definitely stain; Abigail wondered briefly if soda water would take it out.
The laugh turned to a sob as tears filled her eyes and she began to shake.
“The police and EMTs are in route. Ma’am, hang on.”
Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks as she stared blindly at the man, his features now indistinct through the haze of tears.
Time seemed to lose meaning as she stared at him… the blood seemed to fill her vision… there was so much blood.
She barely registered the hands touching her… the voices coming from all around her. None of it seemed real.
A light shone directly in her eyes, the hand forcing her head back and obscuring the blood from her line of sight. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Abigail.” She squeezed her name out painfully, the sound of her own voice strange and foreign to her ears.
“Can you tell me what happened?” the kind voice asked.
Abigail shook her head, her eyes going back to the blood as sobs began to rack her frame. “I think I killed him.”
Once the ambulance had brought her into the emergency room, the doctor had taken one look at her and sedated her. The detective she’d talked to last week had been in first thing this morning to take her statement as well as scolding her for refusing his offer of witness protection.
How had her life gone to shit so fast?
Last Tuesday she’d been awarded the title of Best New Chef in Fort Worth, and she’d been over the moon. When the mayor of the city had come back to her table after his meal to meet her and shook her hand, she’d been elated.
Not so much when she had gone out the back door into the alley to get some fresh air on her break fifteen minutes later and witnessed that same mayor shooting a man in the head. The man met her gaze just as the shot rang out. Then his head exploded.
At her stunned gasp, the mayor and the scary-looking men with him looked in her direction. Abigail had run back into the kitchen and locked the heavy deadbolts in place before calling the police.
She couldn’t believe the man who had just congratulated her… the mayor she had actually voted for was a coldblooded killer.
When Detective Kline had brought up the subject of witness protection until the case came to trial, she had waved him off. Things like that weren’t necessary for people like her and the mayor was in jail without bail.
Then yesterday the man had broken into her home just as she was finishing her coffee and the decision was taken out of her hands. Detective Kline had posted an officer at her door last night and he would be with her until she was released and the detective came to pick her up.
In the space of a week she had gone from being an acclaimed chef with the possibility of a James Beard award in her future to witness protection and the possible loss of her identity.
Five hours later she was sitting in a conference room at the police station with the DA, Detective Kline, and a man from the US Marshall’s office who introduced himself as Jeff Green. The DA was adamant that she needed protection until they could secure the mayor’s conviction. Apparently the men she had identified with the mayor at the time of the shooting were Russian Mafia. Her world was just getting better and better.
“I know this must be a lot to take in, Ms. Lassiter,” Marshall Jeff Green told her sympathetically.
“You think?” Unfortunately her tart response came out as more of a croak due to her swollen throat. The man she’d killed had been actively strangling her when she managed to stab him in the throat with her paring knife. She knew she should be thankful she was alive… thankful there was no permanent damage to her throat. While she was grateful these men wanted to protect her, they had told her it wouldn’t be safe for her to return to the restaurant. At this point in her career she couldn’t afford to disappear for any amount of time. She could lose everything she’d worked so hard to build!
Her throat hurt, she was tired because she couldn’t sleep without seeing the two dead men, and she was pissed. Abigail didn’t ask for any of this! She didn’t want it!
All her choices were being taken away from her and it wasn’t fair. And the first person that told her life wasn’t fair was getting bitch slapped!
She saw the compassion in the Marshall’s gaze but right now she was too frustrated and tired to care.
“I think Ms. Lassiter has done all she can do today. Let me get her settled in the station with another officer while we finish our meeting,” Marshall Jeff told the other men, who all nodded in agreement.
Abigail settled in a chair next to a nice young officer who had been introduced as Officer Adam, looking through a stack of magazines he’d given here. There really wasn’t a lot available. She had to choose between Police Magazine, American Police Beat, and something called GUNS Magazine. So she abandoned the idea of reading to get her mind off things pretty quickly.
Feeling fidgety, she looked at Adam. “Is there a place I can get coffee? I think it might help my throat.” The sound of her raspy voice made them both wince.
“There’s a machine in the hallway outside that does coffee, tea, and cocoa.” He got a dollar out of his desk and then led her to the machine. While she was deliberating between coffee and tea she noticed several cuffed men in orange jumpsuits standing with a couple of officers at the end of the hallway. Abigail decided to ignore them as she finally selected black coffee and waited for the little cup to fill.
She had just picked up her coffee when a fight broke out between the prisoners and Adam ran to help break it up. As soon as Adam stepped away from her there was a flash of movement to her left and then a man had a knife to her throat. Abigail reacted instinctively, flinging the hot coffee in his face. The man jumped away, nicking her neck just under her jaw as he grabbed his face.
“You bitch!” he bellowed.
She didn’t wait to give him another chance. Turning to see the prisoners still in a scuffle, she dove between the sea of orange-clad legs. Abigail ended up down on the floor amidst the chaos of the fighting men trying to dodge the feet, knees, and fists that seemed to be coming at her from every direction. By the time Officer Adam managed to pull her from the melee Abigail had taken a knee to the ribs and an elbow to her jaw but she was alive.
“Are you okay?” he asked in alarm.
Abigail swayed on her feet dizzily. She could feel a trickle of wet heat along her neck, making her reach up to wipe it away. When she looked at her hand and saw the blood her vision swam. Everything just started to go dark around the edges and she gave in to the darkness that swallowed her whole.
She came to lying on the couch in the chief of police’s office with Adam, the chief, Detective Kline, the DA, and Marshall Green all frowning at her.
“I just wanted something hot to drink,” Abigail said in a quiet rasp.
“You need to stay in this office until Jericho gets here to pick you up,” the Marshall told her.
She frowned. “Who’s Jericho?”
“An ex-Marshall, who is now a security expert we contract with in special cases,” the Marshall said.
“Why do I need special treatment?” Abigail asked nervously.
“The prisoner fight in the hallway was staged,” the DA said with a frown at the chief of police. “There is a leak in this department. I need to ensure your safety until the trial. Jericho will take you and keep you safe.”
“I don’t want to leave my home,” she said stubbornly.
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice in the matter, Ms. Lassiter. You’re an eyewitness in a high-profile racketeering case. You will be remanded into Jericho’s custody the minute he arrives. You will not have phone contact with anyone. No one in my office or this office will know where you are. Until we find the leak it’s not safe,” the DA told her.
“You can’t just take over my life this way! I had a life!” Abigail glared at the men surrounding her.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, none of us has a choice in this.”
It was all too much, like an unending nightmare from which there was no escape. Her throat hurt and now her jaw and ribs hurt as well. She lay back down on the couch turning her back to all of them, quietly crying about the hopelessness of her situation.
Suddenly she felt a sharp pinprick in her arm and looked over her shoulder to see the doctor from the hospital with a hypodermic needle. “That will help her relax. She needs rest more than anything right now.”
“Relax, my ass,” Abigail said as her brain went muzzy. The bastards had knocked her out.
Jericho walked through the police station ignoring questioning looks from some of the cops as he made his way to the chief’s office. He knocked once then opened the door without preamble. If what Green had told him on the phone about this case was true, they didn’t have a lot of time for niceties. He had to get the Lassiter woman out of here and disappear before the Russian mob found her again.
“Jericho.” Green stood up and shook his hand.
“It’s very important that you protect this woman until the trial. She is my only chance at Mayor Braden and hopefully a few of his Russian counterparts,” the man he assumed was the DA said earnestly.
Jericho eyed him skeptically. “What about after the trial?”
“My only concern is protecting her until I get that conviction,” the DA answered.
Asshole. Jericho didn’t bother to ask for the man’s name. Everyone in this room knew Abigail Lassiter would not be able to walk back into her old life once the trial was over. She would never be able to come back here. The Russians would have a price on her head.
It galled him that the DA was pretending his only responsibility to the woman was keeping her alive until she could testify. Bureaucrats were all the same no matter their affiliations. Shaking his head, Jericho moved to the sleeping woman and began to gently pat her down. He frowned when she didn’t stir at all.
“The doctor sedated her after the attack in the hallway outside,” Green told him helpfully.
“Probably for the best,” Jericho said, finishing his search and removing a cell phone from her pants pocket. He tossed the phone on the desk and then scooped the sleeping woman up with the blanket they’d laid over her as she slept. Turning back to the other men, he asked, “What the hell was she doing out in the hallway?”
The young uniformed cop in the room blushed. “She wanted some coffee.”
Jericho shook his head and walked out of the office. “I’ll be in touch,” he said over his shoulder as he carried the woman out.
“He’s a charmer,” the DA said snidely.
“He’ll keep her safe. No one is better than Jericho,” Marshall Green said firmly.
“Let’s hope so. A lot is riding on Abigail Lassiter’s testimony.”
Jericho settled his charge on the back bench seat of his truck, carefully tucking the blanket around her. Abigail Lassiter was short, no more than 5 2″ but curvy with large breasts and a rounded ass that made a man want to cup it and test its fullness. She had shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair that had an obvious tendency to curl.
He smiled at the way it had tried to wrap itself around his hand as he tucked her in, and took a deep breath, acknowledging he was going to have to be careful with this one. She was far too tempting a morsel for his peace of mind.
He got in the driver’s seat and pointed the car west. It wasn’t his ultimate destination but he wanted to get a few hours between Abbie and the city before they stopped for supplies. Once she was awake he would explain the game plan for keeping her safe.
He wasn’t sure how she would take to his rules but follow them she would. Her life depended on it.
Abigail woke slowly as she became aware of the sensation of being in a moving car. She sat up and gasped when she didn’t recognize the man driving the truck.
“Settle down. I’m Jericho, the man Marshall Green and the DA hired to keep you safe,” he told her in a deep baritone she would normally have enjoyed listening to.
“How do I know you aren’t just taking me somewhere to kill me and dump my body?” she asked, wrapping the blanket even more tightly around herself protectively.
He looked back at her with a raised brow. She noted his dark hair was cropped close in an almost military style and cool ice green eyes appraised her from the front seat. “If I’d wanted you dead, little girl, you would already be dead.”
Her tummy flipped as she realized that was true. Neither of the men who had attacked her in the last two days had tried to take her for a drive first. “It’s condescending to call a grown woman little girl,” she rebuked him primly.
Jericho snorted rudely. “If that offended you, Abbie, you’d best prepare to have your sensibilities well and truly trounced because I am no Mary Poppins.”
“My name is Abigail,” she said firmly, sitting up straight.
“I like Abbie,” he told her quietly.
For some reason those quiet words made her tummy flip pleasantly, which irritated her so she glared at the back of his head. “What kind of name is Jericho?”
“My last name,” was his only answer.
Abigail frowned and barely resisted the urge to stick her tongue out. “What is your first name?”
“Vincent,” was all the maddening man said.
“Then I’ll call you Vinnie,” she said with a little grin.
“No. You won’t,” Jericho said firmly.
“Jericho,” he said succinctly.
“I wouldn’t,” Jericho said in an almost growl.
Abigail crossed her eyes and fell sideways on the seat.
“Since you’re awake you can sit up and fasten your seatbelt.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re bossy?” she asked.
“A time or two.”
She sighed and resigned herself to a lack of conversation for the duration of this drive. Then something occurred to her. “Jericho?”
“I have to pee,” Abigail said with all of the dignity she could muster.
A few minutes later Jericho was checking them into a small motel.
They entered through one door where Jericho turned the television on before leading her through a connecting door, which he immediately closed and locked, then taking her through yet another connecting door.
“This is your room.” He studied her dirty rumpled clothes and then reached into his bag and handed her a big t-shirt. “Take a shower and put this on. You can wash your clothes out in the sink. I’ll go grab us something to eat before bed. Tomorrow we’ll go to Walmart and get you some things.”
“Wait. Where’s my phone? I can’t find it.”
“We left it in Fort Worth. Too easy for someone to use to track you,” he told her matter-of-factly.
Abigail felt her jaw drop open. She had everything on her phone. Recipes, her contacts, games, and her Kindle app! “But…”
“No buts, believe it or not you will survive without your phone,” he said firmly.
“You don’t understand! My recipes and my books are on my phone!” she exclaimed.
“As I said, you’ll survive. Lock this door after me. I’ll be right back.”
With a sigh Abigail found herself complying. Tossing the shirt to the bed she started stripping her clothes off on the way to the shower. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever felt as dirty and grimy as she did now.
Being clean really gave a girl a new outlook. Jericho’s shirt was so big it practically swallowed her whole, falling almost to her knees. Something Abigail was grateful for since she had washed all of her clothing and now had it drying over the shower curtain rod. Including her bra and panties.
As she waited for him to come back, her eyes fell on the room’s phone. Abigail thought about her aunt Polly and frowned.
Aunt Polly had taken her in and raised her after her parents died and was the only family she had left. She really needed to call her and let her know she was okay. Surely it wouldn’t hurt if she kept the call short… surely it would be fine.
Taking the phone in her hand, she quickly dialed her aunt’s number. As usual, Aunt Polly answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Aunt Polly. I just wanted to let you know I’ll be out of pocket for a while.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Aunt Polly asked worriedly.
“Everything’s fine. I’m traveling with a special friend.” Abigail knew that information would thrill her aunt to no end.
“Oooh? When do I get to meet him?” Her aunt was so predictable.
“Sometime soon. Gotta go, Aunt Poll!”
Abigail hung up just as Jericho knocked on their connecting door. She quickly opened the door and then sat down at the rooms table as he sat a burger in front of her. Abigail didn’t usually like McDonald’s but she was too hungry to complain. “Thank you.”
He finished his burgers quickly then just watched while she was still picking at hers. She flushed under his interested regard. “I guess I wasn’t as hungry as I thought.”
The big man nodded. “You’ve had a rough few days.” Then to her surprise he sat another shopping bag in front of her.
Her eyes widened when she opened it to find a Kindle.
“There was a Best Buy next to McDonald’s so I grabbed it. There’s already two hundred dollars preloaded so get whatever you want to read.”
She was so touched she actually felt a little teary but before she could say thank you, there was a loud banging sound from one of the rooms near theirs.
In an instant Jericho was up and looking out the window. “We have to go now.” That was all the warning she had before she was thrown over his shoulder. Abigail frantically clutched her Kindle as his big warm hand closed over her bare ass.
“I don’t have panties on!” Abigail hissed.
“We don’t have time to worry about that now.” He moved swiftly out the door. She buried her face against his back thinking he might feel differently if it was his bare ass hanging out for the world to see.
Jericho practically flung her into the truck seat as he followed her in with an order to stay down.
She hid on the front floorboard while Jericho sped away into the night. He didn’t say anything for a long time and she just stayed where he’d put her, hugging the Kindle to her chest.
A long time later he pulled over, then leaned over and picked Abigail up off the floorboard, placing her on her knees next to him. She felt a shiver go down her back as he glared at her. “Who did you call?”
Abigail licked suddenly dry lips. “Call?” she asked almost as if she didn’t know what the words meant.
“I’m not playing with you, little girl. Who did you call?” His green eyes flashed as he stared into her own.
“My aunt Polly,” she whispered.
“Dammit!” Jericho’s hand slapped the steering wheel.
“I… I didn’t want her to worry…”
“You need to understand right now that I will be obeyed, little girl. Every decision I make is about keeping you alive and you will learn to mind or face the consequences,” Jericho said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Abigail stared up at him, her bottom tingling in response to the thought of consequences. Her face flushed as she felt the wet heat slicking her folds. Kneeling in the truck seat next to him in nothing but a long t-shirt was mortifying. She’d never felt so vulnerable or so aroused.
Jericho took a deep breath then sighed. “This discussion isn’t over but we can’t have it on the side of the highway. You get your fanny in the back seat and lay low. You can read or go to sleep but I do not want to hear a peep.” He was being rather autocratic in her opinion but she decided to keep her own counsel on that subject.
She scrambled into the back seat and Jericho passed a long charging cord over the seat so she could plug the Kindle in and go to Amazon.
In no time at all she was lost in one of her favorite daddy dom romances. She eyed Jericho nervously over the top of her Kindle. If he weren’t so scary he was kind of like one of the daddies in her romances. Of course as much as she loved her stories in the real world, daddy doms and their baby girls weren’t exactly politically correct.
She was always quick to slap a man down who stepped on her feminist toes, but Vincent Jericho seemed to be a man who followed his own rules. The comment he’d made when she’d dared to call him on one of his inappropriate comments had been to prepare to have her delicate sensibilities trounced.
Abigail shivered as she wondered just how thoroughly he’d trounce them.