Strict Confidence (Rochester Trilogy #2) by Skye Warren

My heart thuds a warning. A security system? I turn to face Beau. My voice sounds strange to my own ears. “Why would we need a security system?”

“It’s always good to be safe,” he says, his tone nonchalant.

Before I can question him further, Mateo comes in from the outside with a gust of cold air. “I’m heading to the mall after this to restock your wardrobes, so let me know if you have any special requests.”

“No,” I say, whirling.

Everyone stops and faces me. The large space becomes quiet. There’s a tick tick tick from an ornate grandfather clock. It feels like this is spinning out of control.

“You can’t buy me new clothes,” I say, fighting to sound calm over the beating of blood in my ears. I felt calm enough when we were leaving the hospital, but I didn’t understand.

I couldn’t understand how much everything would change until I was standing here, about to sleep in a room I’ve never seen, about to wear clothes that aren’t mine. About to become a different person.

It’s like I really died in that fire. Someone else stands here now.

Not Jane Mendoza. A stranger.

Concern darkens Mateo’s eyes, but he doesn’t respond. Marjorie looks away as if she’s embarrassed for me. Beau wears that same impassive expression I’m coming to hate. It made sense when I was new to Maine. He didn’t know me then. Now he’s held me close, trying to shield my body with his own. He told me loved me, but he stands there as aloof as… an employer. That’s what he is to me. My boss.

There’s a tug on my hand. I look down. Paige wears a solemn expression. “They burned in the fire. Your old clothes. Uncle Beau explained it to me. They’re gone.”

Maybe I look ridiculous for making a stand over clothes. They’re just things, right? It’s just that they’re my only possessions in the entire world. My only heritage. Our lives are the most important thing. We made it out, safe and sound.

Reassurance comes from Paige’s eyes, blue as the sky.

“You’re right,” I manage to say. “Of course you’re right. Thank you, Mateo, for getting me clothes. And for getting us rooms here. I’ll pay you back.”

Mateo shakes his head. “It will go on a Rochester credit card. Black, of course.”

Beau won’t look at me. It’s not my imagination. Part of me wondered if he’d been avoiding my gaze, but now I’m sure of it. He stares at the wall, as if the hunter green lace wallpaper pattern holds the secrets of the universe.

“Then I’ll pay you back,” I say, willing him to look at me.

Then he does, his dark gaze so full of torment that my breath catches. It’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s that he’s overfull with it, brimming with worry and anguish and fear. It simmers at the heart of him, as hot as the fire we barely escaped, smoke filling my lungs.

He doesn’t say no. He doesn’t have to. It’s there in the room, his refusal. His challenge. Don’t even try to pay me back. I won’t let you. He doesn’t know how badly I need to stand on equal footing with him, how much I need to not owe him. Clothes aren’t part of the compensation package. If I let him buy me clothes, then I let myself become a whore.

“Well,” says Marjorie, still with that embarrassed half smile, not quite meeting my eyes. I’m the crazy one in her eyes. She’s not even wrong. “I’m sure Beau Rochester can afford a few pairs of jeans. I read the article about him in Forbes. Can you believe it? A fisherman’s son.”

“The room keys,” he says, his voice soft, almost menacing. He doesn’t acknowledge her gushing. Does it make him uncomfortable? It feels like something deeper is going on.

Pink floods Marjorie’s cheeks. “Of course. I have them right here. All of you are on the second floor to give you privacy. Mateo’s already set up in one of the rooms on the right. Beachfront rooms, of course. All of them. Breakfast is at eight a.m.… well, usually it is. Normally we’re rather strict about it, but I suppose now that you’ve rented out the entire inn, we can do it whenever works best for you.”

He rented the entire inn? There must be twenty guest rooms here. I looked it up when the dinner party happened. One room is expensive. I can’t imagine how much the entire place costs. And the fire only happened three days ago. It’s beautiful by the beach. Prime tourist season. Only now the empty parking lot registers. “Didn’t you have reservations?”