Strict Confidence (Rochester Trilogy #2) by Skye Warren

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, and her chin wobbles.

I try to give her a hug, but she turns her face away.

She holds it together until it’s time to take a bath. She takes one step onto the marble tile and freezes. The copper clawfoot tub gleams in the bright light. Her chin lifts. “What is that?”

“It’s a bathtub. Like the one you have back home.” As soon as the words leave my lips, I know they’re the wrong thing to say. The one she has back home has been burned to a crisp. Then again, I’m not sure there is any right thing to say in this situation.

Tears glisten from her eyes. “Why does it look like that?”

Her voice has turned shrill, and I make mine soothing. “It has feet, see? To make it higher. It’s really pretty. A little bit old fashioned but beautiful.”

“I can’t even see inside. How can I get in? I’ll drown!”

It is definitely higher than her tub at home. “I’ll find a step stool,” I tell her. “I’m sure there’s a step stool somewhere here. And we won’t make the water go to the top.”

Watching this meltdown is like watching a volcano erupt. There’s no way to protect myself. Nowhere to run. I can only stand here and burn. She screams loud enough that I wince. The only saving grace, the only positive thing I can think of is that we’re the only ones in this inn. Beau and Mateo are somewhere in the building. Marjorie mentioned she sleeps on-site, but that’s it. No other guests to complain about the child shrieking every word.

I kneel on the marble floor. The movement sets off a thousand aches in my body, which hasn’t fully recovered from the fire. “I can see that you’re upset. Let’s take a deep breath. We don’t have to take a bath right now. Let me ask if there are any other bathrooms we can use.”

“There aren’t,” she says, her eyes wild. “There aren’t. There aren’t.”

“Paige. Sweetheart. Let’s go sit on the bed together.” It’s clear a bath isn’t happening at the moment, and my concern right now is helping her calm down.

Except she’s approaching panic, her wide gaze darting around the room, her little nostrils flaring as she pants. Fight or flight. “I don’t want to sit on the bed. I don’t want to take a bath. I don’t want to do anything, anything, anything.”

The last words crescendo to a pitch that makes me flinch.

It’s like I’m reflecting her own feelings, because panic rises in me. Logically I know that I’m safe here on this bathroom floor, but faced with her anxiety and the lingering fear from the fire, it doesn’t feel that way. “Paige.” My voice cracks, pleading. “Please.”

She’s beyond caring. “You can’t make me. You’re not my mom. You’re not my dad. You’re a stranger. You don’t even belong here.”

The words steal my air. They vacuum it right out of my lungs, leaving me gasping. Tears sting my eyes. I know, I know she’s only saying it to lash out. It was a common enough refrain at the group and foster homes. It’s not personal; it only feels that way. There’s a squeeze in my chest. Hard enough that I bow my head before I can think of something to say.

Bang. The door from the bedroom slams open. Beau stands there, a dark expression on his handsome face. “Paige Louise Rochester, apologize right now.”

She turns a mutinous face toward him. “No.”

I stand up, trying to head off disaster. Beau Rochester is stubborn and fierce, the strength of his will surpassed only by that of his niece. If they go head-to-head, I’m afraid that neither will be left standing. “She doesn’t have to apologize. I’m fine. Really.”

“Her behavior is completely out of line. Unacceptable.”

Paige’s lower lip wobbles, and I hold my breath. If she breaks down crying, I’m definitely going to start crying, too. All three of us still smell like disinfectant from the hospital. Bandages pull my skin every time I move. All I want is a hot bath and a long night’s sleep. I’ve reached the end of my tether, and my breath feels shaky. Don’t cry, sweetheart. Don’t cry.

Paige doesn’t cry. She screams.


Beau Rochester

Damn Mateo. Maybe it’s completely a coincidence that he put my room next to Jane’s, but I doubt it. The man knows it will drive me insane.

I should be on a different floor from her. It’s too easy to pretend that we’re back at the house before the fire. Too easy to imagine cornering her in the hallway. Each suite contains a sitting area overlooking the ocean. I recline on a floral armchair that feels too small, too fragile for my size, watching the endless horizon.