The opening of Identity Withheld (November 2014) changed a few times in the draft stages (including the name of the heroine). I dropped the prologue (which was a different backstory than ultimately went into the book), because I felt that it was stronger to let the reader learn it as the hero did. My editor asked me to delete the fire rescue, since it wasn’t suspenseful.
So here’s how the first draft of the opening read:
A grizzled-faced man yanked the arm of a child deliberating over prizes at the restaurant’s exit. “Time to leave.”
“Hey, take it easy.” Nicole Rice herded her stray kindergarten students back to the game area for their end-of-school party and whirled around in time to see the disgruntled parent give his child another hard yank. “You’ll rip her arm out,” she blurted.
The man drilled her with coal-black eyes. Eyes so cold they sent a shiver down her spine. Then he stormed out with his kid in tow.
Five Months Later:
The marshal assigned to her by the witness protection program sat on the park bench outside Stalwart’s library, watching firefighters hosing down their rigs at the station across the street.
Nicole’s heart jerked at the sight of him. In the five months since she’d been banished to this tiny town on the outskirts of Seattle, he’d only ever checked in on her on the last Friday of each month.
Today was Wednesday.
Heart pounding, she slid into the seat beside him. His torn jeans and scruffy hair poking out from under his ball cap did little to incite confidence in his ability to safeguard her. She nervously brushed her bangs from her eyes, and smoothed what remained of the hair she’d been compelled to cut and dye. “What’s happened? Has the mob figured out I fingered that little girl’s kidnapper?”
“Shh,” Stewart hissed, his gaze sweeping the area. He calmly handed her a truck-stop coffee and then slung his arm over the back of the bench. “Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. I’m taking a long weekend, so I thought I’d stop by early to check on you. How are you doing?”
“How do you think I’m doing?” she blurted at the inane question.
Across the street, a lanky firefighter’s attention snapped her way.
She ducked her head and reeled in her frustration. It wasn’t Stewart’s fault she was here. He was only doing his job. She peeled back the coffee cup’s plastic lid. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Thanksgiving was always a big deal for my family. I hate that I can’t be with them to celebrate, can’t even call them.”
“It’s for your own protection, and theirs.”
She let out a sigh. “I know.”
Schoolchildren scurried past, their cheeks rosy from the crisp late November air, colorful construction-paper turkeys clutched in their hands.
Nicole—Kathy, she mentally corrected, not yet used to thinking of herself by her new name—imagined the Thanksgiving party the students would have had at school today, and longed for another chance to be part of a school party, even one at Cheesy Monkeys.
She blew out a breath. That life was about as far removed from her new library technician job as Stalwart was from her Boston home. Some days she wished she’d never heard the Amber Alert on her car radio as she left the restaurant that June afternoon.
No, that wasn’t true. She was glad her tip saved the girl’s life. She just wished she’d never said anything to the man who turned out to be her kidnapper. “If wishes were horses, paupers would ride.” She shook her head. How many times had she recited the nursery rhyme to her students to encourage them to act instead of sitting around dreaming?
If only she were free to act…
Stewart squeezed her hand. “You could join me for the weekend if you like.”
Kathy jerked free of his grasp. “That would not be appropriate.” She gulped down her coffee, then sprang to her feet, crushing the cup in her hand. Not for the first time, she wondered if all witnesses placed in the program received monthly visits from their handlers. The friendlier Stewart got, the more she wondered. “I need to get back to work. They’ve asked me to lead story time this afternoon.”
He tipped up his ball cap and squinted at her. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Maybe not.” When she’d bitterly protested the mundane job of library tech they’d dreamt up for her, they’d drilled in the importance of doing nothing that might tip people off to the skills, hobbies, or associations she’d enjoyed in her former life, especially anything to do with teaching. Teachers’ registries would be the first place the mob would look for her, they’d said. “But it would’ve raised more eyebrows if I’d refused when the usual volunteer called in sick.”
“Just don’t make a habit of it.” Stewart chucked his unfinished coffee into the nearby trashcan. “Listen, I know this gig can be a tough haul, especially around the holidays. I’ll make a point of stopping by again before Christmas.”
“That’s not necessary. I’d be happy knowing the next time I see you is when the prosecution is ready for me to testify.”
He nodded, but a thought she could read all to well tightened his jaw. If she lived that long.
Before their fire engine rounded the corner, the pillar of dirty yellow-black smoke rising from the old two-story had Jake Steele pulling on his breathing apparatus. A gnarled oak towered over the front porch, its barren branches looking like a giant reaching through the haze to free the occupants. As their rig slammed to a stop, Jake prayed Mrs. Harboyle was already out. She’d lived in the place as long as he could remember, but twisted with arthritis now, she didn’t move too well.
He jumped from the rig and grabbed the attack line, honing in on the chief’s orders. An ancient TV aerial teetered at the corner of the roof, where two firefighters aimed their ladder to hack in air vents. A fan-shaped trellis, the plant twined around its arms shriveled and brown, unhinged from the wall beside the side door. Jake turned his hose on the flames licking out the ground floor windows as two firefighters hauled Mrs. Harboyle out the front door.
The old woman doubled over coughing. “My tenant’s still in there. You have to save her!”
“Where’s her room?” Jake shouted, motioning to his partner.
Someone on the street pointed to the second story. “There she is!”
A young woman—the one with the pixie haircut he’d seen outside the library—stood at the window with a cat secured under her arm, football style. She reached up as if unfastening the latch.
“No,” Jake yelled… too late.
She shouldered open the window, and hungry for oxygen, the fire leapt for the air. The woman disappeared behind a wall of flames and smoke.
Jake charged inside, his partner on his heels. The air on the main level was almost clear thanks to the open upstairs window wicking the smoke up the stairwell. The stairs had a striped runner down the center, secured at each step by a brass rod. Hauling the hose, Jake took the stairs two at a time. The hose couplings marked each step with a heavy thunk. In seconds the strength-sapping heat turned oven-hot.
Halfway up, his steps slowed. Sweat streamed down his spine.
A coupling caught on the bottom newel post almost ripping the unwieldy hose from his hands. Leo freed it and Jake heaved the hose up the final step, swept water over the plank pine boards, up the walls.
Drawing a deep breath from his air pack, Jake squinted through the bubble of his mask. Vinyl wallpaper peeled from the walls, landed on his helmet and shoulder in a sticky strip. He swiped at it, but it melted into a gloppy mess on his gloves. Clawing through the smoke, he struggled to orient himself to the room he’d last seen the woman. Too often things weren’t what they seemed in a fire. The walls, the floors blended into a mass of patterns. Overhead, the sound of axes hacking at the roof syncopated to the hiss of water.
“Miss?” he shouted, pushing at a bedroom door. The door budged only a few inches. “Miss, if that’s you, move back from the door.” He muscled the door open another foot.
This wasn’t the room. The window was closed. Thick smoke hung in the air, but the fire hadn’t yet licked through the walls.
“I’m here” came a tiny voice that caught him in the gut like a sucker punch.
Jake handed off the hose to his partner, and ducking below the worst of the smoke charged toward the sound.
She sat hunched by the window, a wet towel over her head and shoulders. “Is Mrs. Harboyle out?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
She shifted, revealing a cat clutched in her arms. “Kathy.”
“Let’s get you out, Kathy.” Jake helped her up and hustled her—still clutching the cat—toward the door.
“I’m so sorry. Mrs. Harboyle wouldn’t leave without her cat. I—”
“It’s okay,” he hushed, needing her to save her breath.
Leo signaled him back inside the room, turning their hose in the direction they’d come. “The fire flashed over the stairs. We’ll have to take her out by ladder.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Kathy’s piercing blue eyes pleaded for forgiveness, her arms tightening around the bundle in her arms.
She was going to have to give it up if he was to get her down a ladder.
As if Leo had read his thoughts, he coaxed her into handing him the cat just as the ladder crew breached the window. With the roof now vented, the fire didn’t rush in. Jake lifted her through the opening where another firefighter waited to guide her down.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
And her gratitude, her surprisingly calm voice, squeezed his chest. She was one unusual woman. Or shock had so detached her from reality that she thought only of the trouble she’d caused by going after the cat and not how close she’d come to getting trapped inside.
Leo hitched a leg through the window next, but the cat streaked from his arms with a bone-chilling shriek.
“No!” Kathy froze on the ladder, lifted pleading eyes to Jake’s.
He turned back to the smoke-filled room as the chief’s voice blasted over the radio. “You’re out of time. Get out of there.” With the image of Kathy’s desperate blue gaze blistering his brain, Jake ignored the chief’s order and dropped to his hands and knees. What was he doing? He had a four-year-old son that needed his dad to come home tonight. He started to rise, but the flick of a white-tipped tail from beneath the bed skirt caught his attention. He lifted the fabric and scooped out the trembling creature before it knew what hit him.
The cat mewed pitifully.
“You’ll be alright, fella.”
“C’mon,” Leo yelled from the window.
An ominous groan rumbled through the attic overhead.
“Go, go, go.” Jake lunged over the windowsill just as hunks of plaster and balls of fire rained down on the room.
A cheer erupted from the crowd below.
He slid down the ladder with the squirming cat, and raced clear of falling debris.
Kathy beamed at him, tears tracing twin sooty streaks down her cheeks.
Oh, yeah, this was worth the reaming out he was bound to get from the chief after they knocked out this fire. Spotting Mrs. Harboyle sitting on the back of an ambulance, breathing through an oxygen mask, in no condition to take the cat, he transferred the little guy to Kathy’s welcoming arms, then peeled off his mask and gloves and returned her smile.
“Hey, look this way,” a female voice called from the crowd—a teenager with a camera pointed their way.
“No,” Kathy gasped and burrowed her face into his fire jacket, never mind that it reeked of smoke and was streaked with soot and melted vinyl, and she was squishing the cat.
“Hey, hey.” He gently clasped her shoulders, urging a few inches between them. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry.” She lifted panicked eyes to his—the kind of panic he’d expected back in the house, not now she was safe. She tightened her hold on the cat and jerked away. “I need to go.”
She didn’t. She plowed through the crowd, her head low, looking like the last thing she felt was safe.
Kathy ducked behind the last fire engine and gulped in deep breaths. Oh Lord, please don’t let this be what I think it is.
Her chest cramped as she scanned the crowd. Was he here? Had he found her? She squeezed Bandit at the thought of how close Mrs. Harboyle and her cat came to losing their lives. That it could be her fault if the fire had been meant to smoke her out. Oh Lord, I don’t want to keep running. Please let me be wrong.
“There you are,” a deep male voice said, a hand clamping her shoulder from behind…
A couple of other scenes that were nixed at the planning stages, because they were a little too hearth and home for Love Inspired Suspense, whereas would have been fine for a straight romance, were showing the heroine in her job at the library reading to the children and a Thanksgiving dinner at Jake’s house, at which his former FBI brother, Sam, clues in to who she really is. In the end, I didn’t even have her new job be at the library.