Strict Confidence (Rochester Trilogy #2) by Skye Warren



This, despite the books and the podcasts, is the wrong thing to say. I know it when her eyes turn wide. I see the whites around her blue pupils. Her little nostrils flare. “No,” she says. “No. No. I’m not going anywhere else. I’m going home.”

We’re seconds away from the edge. I can see the waterfall—the long drop and the sharp rocks at the bottom, but I don’t have a fucking paddle.

Jane turns back in her seat, her dark hair falling like silk over her shoulder. “Paige,” she says. That’s all. Paige. There’s a wealth of emotion in that one word. Sorrow and sympathy.

Paige’s lower lip trembles. “I hate this.”

“Yes,” Jane says.

“I don’t want to stay at a hotel. I want to go home.”

“You want to go home,” Jane says. “Where it’s safe. Because you’re afraid.”

“You don’t understand,” Paige says, her voice wavering.

“Then tell me,” Jane says, coaxing. “Why do you want to go home?”

“If I’m not there, my mommy won’t know where to find me.”

The whispered words make my throat tighten. Christ. As if the child didn’t have enough to worry about with a goddamn fire destroying her home and belongings. She also thinks her mother’s coming back? I’d fight a goddamn army for her. I’d dive under an eighteen-wheeler if it would keep her safe, but I can’t protect her from false hope.

“Your mother always knows where you are,” Jane says, reaching back. After a short pause, Paige holds her hand. They stay like that, linked. “She loves you, wherever she is. Wherever you are. Nothing can stop that. Not a fire, not the ocean, nothing.”

A sniffle. A sob. And then Paige does break.

She doesn’t scream at everyone to leave her house. Instead she cries quiet tears, her small hand clenched around Jane’s so hard her knuckles turn white, as if Jane is the only steady thing in a stormy sea. It’s an awkward position, Jane turned around in the passenger seat, but she doesn’t try to right herself. Instead she rests her forehead against the leather seat, a tear sliding down her cheek. This is a bond they share, both of them orphaned. It doesn’t matter that I love Paige like my own daughter. Or that I’ve fallen for Jane. This is something outside my experience. They’re both grieving right now. Both finding hope in that tether.

They stay that way the entire ride to the inn, Paige quietly drowning, Jane keeping her afloat. I can only watch from the outside, useless, unable to protect either one of them. I wasn’t lying when I told Jane it wasn’t her. It’s me. My love is dangerous. It’s dangerous to Jane. It’s dangerous to Paige. I should keep my distance from Paige for her own sake.

This feels like more than a moment. It feels like a portend.

Like the fire was only the beginning.

Someone may have set the fire in that house. The fire chief suspects as much. I have no idea who lit a match, but I know one thing: There were no bodies found in the charred remains.

Whoever set the fire is still out there.





CHAPTER FIVE




Jane Mendoza


From the outside, the Lighthouse Inn looks like a large cottage. White columns hold up a wraparound balcony. Thick ivy with purple flowers climbs up the side. A picket fence guards the grassy path down to the beach. Once you get up close, once you get inside, it feels less like a cottage. There are no embroidered pillows or roughened wood surfaces. Dark wood planks on the floor gleam. Waterford crystal glasses sit beside a pitcher of cucumber water. The owner, a slender woman named Marjorie, checks us in personally. She comes around the marble countertop to shake Beau’s hand.

She drops to a knee in front of Paige. “Hi, sweetheart. Would you like anything? Perhaps some hot chocolate? Or some fresh sugar cookies?”

Paige turns her face into my stomach, hiding. It’s to her credit that Marjorie doesn’t look angry at the rebuff. But she does give me a curious glance. And then one at Beau. There’s a knot in my throat. Is she speculating that something’s happening between us? It feels like there’s a scarlet letter A on my clothes, especially after the detective made his accusations.

Meanwhile Beau looks impervious. The limp is barely noticeable. He glances around the lobby with a remote expression. “The security team finished working?”

A series of expressions flit across Marjorie’s delicate features: worry, tension, shame. “They installed a whole system. Have this place locked up tighter than Fort Knox.”