Strict Confidence (Rochester Trilogy #2) by Skye Warren



CHAPTER ONE




Jane Mendoza


I dream about angels with white robes and talons for hands. They scratch at me, angry, accusing. I gasp against the pain. Flames lick at my skin. And all the while there’s the voice, low and vibrating with fury. I could have loved you, it says.

Consciousness reaches down a hand and drags me up. It’s like breaking the surface of the water—salt on my tongue and sea spray clouding my vision. It’s too much. I can’t move my arms or legs. Can’t stay afloat. I cough into rising water.

Alone. I’m alone in this hazy, painful place.

“Hey,” comes a voice. “Take it easy. Let’s get you sitting up.”

There’s a mechanical whir, and then the world tilts. I look into concerned green eyes. A stranger. My waterlogged mind attempts to place him. I’ve seen him before.

My lips feel swollen as I mumble something. A greeting. A plea.

The nurse bustles around me, straightening the blanket. “Don’t try to move. You’re doing very well, but I want the doctor to sign off before you so much as sneeze.”

I squeeze my eyes tight, trying to orient myself. Frantic moments at the hospital. A doctor shouting. The rest of the memories fall on me like a tidal wave.

Beau Rochester. The sex. The fire. The words he spoke in the inferno when I believed I was going to die: I love you, damn you.

A muted beep speeds up, and the nurse’s face reappears. “Hey, now. No freaking out. You’re going to be just fine. Some smoke inhalation. Some contusions. Let’s not have a heart attack while you’re under my care, please and thank you. You’ll ruin my stats.”

He keeps talking, so I can hear him, sense him, even though I can no longer see him. I like that he’s got a touch of humor. It helps me focus on the current moment. The beeps slow down again. I guess that means I’m calm, but inside I feel frantic.

“Paige,” I say, my voice hoarse.

“The little girl,” comes the answer. “Two floors below us. She’s going to be fine.”

Relief washes over me. “Thank you.”

“How long do you think it will take that handsome man of yours to get here? He insisted I text him as soon as you woke up, so I did. I’m guessing he skips the elevators. They’re slow. No, he’s probably climbing the stairs right now, which is not great for his leg, but does anyone listen to me? No, he’s putting pressure on all the fractures which means that any minute now—”

“Jane.”

The pale hospital room fades into the background. The beeping quiets. The nurse retreats to his work, scribbling down notes on a clipboard that’s attached to my hospital bed.

There’s only him. Rochester. Dark eyes. A square jaw covered in a two-day beard. He looks rumpled and strong. But when he steps into the room, he limps. God, his leg was already messed up from the fall. It hadn’t fully healed when the fire happened. It must hurt like crazy. I’m sure he shouldn’t be walking around, but he is. He took the stairs to get to me as soon as I woke up. Something tightens in my chest.

“Are you okay?” I whisper.

Emotions flash through a stormy night gaze. Relief. Guilt. And anger. It’s the last one that holds my breath hostage. “Am I okay?” He makes a slashing motion with his hand. Then with visible effort he reins in whatever he’s feeling. He strides over to me, his limp barely visible; I can tell he’s trying to hide it. “I’m fine. The child in my custody almost died from a fire. And her nanny just woke up, when I thought she was going to—Yes. Fine.”

My heart lurches. I remember his fury in the middle of the fire. His anguish that he couldn’t force me to leave while he was pinned. “I’m sorry I didn’t leave when you asked me to.”

One dark eyebrow rises. “Are you?”

That’s the worst part. I’m not really sorry, and he knows it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. How could I have left him to die? I know how it feels to be abandoned. I would never do that to him. “I’m sorry you’re mad about it.”

“Mad.” A harsh laugh. The smoke inhalation affects him. His voice sounds like gravel. The exhaustion I feel must be affecting him, too, but he doesn’t seem to show it. He’s vibrant with anger. “Mad doesn’t even touch what I’m feeling right now.”

I want to ask more about how he’s feeling, about whether he meant what he said. I love you, damn you. I search his expression, but I don’t find any love there. Nothing soft or even kind. He looks as hard and as remote as the man I first met on the cliffside.