Strict Confidence (Rochester Trilogy #2) by Skye Warren

I clear my throat. “She’ll manage. You shouldn’t feel obligated to leave with us, of course. Facing a house fire wasn’t part of your employment contract. If you want to leave, I’ll understand. I can have a car pick you up from the hospital and take you directly to the airport.”

Jane swallows. “Is that what you want? Do you want me to leave?”

No. I’m not even sure I could let you. If you tell me you want to leave, I might have to tie you to the hospital bed with plastic tubing to keep you here. They’ll lock me up, and then who will take care of Paige? “You almost died, for God’s sake.”

“I didn’t think you’d be this angry,” she says in a small, halting voice.

How can I explain? It felt like blades tearing my skin into strips. I would have burned a thousand times over rather than hold her, clutched in my arms, my hands uselessly covering her head against falling, burning debris, knowing she would perish. I’m not angry; I’m fucking insane with worry. Even thirty-six hours later, I still feel it.

Years ago I fell in love with a woman. I could afford to take that plunge, even if it nearly drowned me. I can’t do it again. Not only for my own sake. I can’t do it because Paige needs me. She needs me whole and sane—and numb. Numb to this emotion.

“A bonus,” I say. “There was no house fire clause in the contract, but it’s only fair. If you decide to stay on with Paige, you’ll receive a sizable bonus.”

Tears fill her eyes, but they don’t fall. They hover there, dancing on her dark lashes. “I’m not leaving Paige. A bonus isn’t necessary.”

“Here’s a tip,” I say, my voice caustic. “If your employer offers you a bonus, take it.”

“Right,” she says, her voice hollow.

I know I’m being a patronizing asshole. Someone should take me out behind the hospital and kick the shit out of me. Maybe Mateo will do it later. He probably owes me an ass kicking for something. Then again, my leg hurts bad enough already. Maybe that’s my penance for being an asshole. This throbbing sensation that will never go away.

But I can’t act fucking normal about this. I was in her bed when the fire started. Would it still have happened if I hadn’t been obsessed with her sweet pussy? The thought haunts me. Did I cause the fire by fucking the nanny? I can’t let it happen again.

“What we did that night… what we did before…”

“Sex,” she says, her head high, her chin quivering. She won’t let me shame her.

Good girl. “That’s right. Sex. It won’t happen again.”

She tugs at the coarse white sheet that covers her, using it as a shield. Because she needs protection. From me. It wrenches my stomach. “Okay,” she says.

“It’s not that you aren’t beautiful. You are. It’s—”

“Let me guess,” she says, her voice quivering. “It’s not me, it’s you.”

“Correct.” It’s not her. She’s beautiful and smart and kind. She has a whole life ahead of her. Meanwhile I’m a selfish bastard who used her. The fire was a disaster in ten different ways, but there is one small, shining upside. It was also a wake-up call that I desperately needed.

She manages a wry, watery smile. “Don’t worry, Beau. I hear you loud and clear. And I respect your boundaries. I’m not going to take advantage of you.”

Oh the fucking irony. And worse, she knows it. She knows that I was using her. It’s a little joke at my expense, and I deserve it. What can I say to that sharp awareness? What can I do but fall to my knees and beg her forgiveness? I won’t be able to last a day without her in my arms. I won’t be able to watch her without wanting her.

“Jane. I’m dangerous to you. Look at what happened to Emily. Now look at you, almost burned to a crisp in a fire, small and fragile in a hospital bed—because of me.” Her brow furrows, and I know she means to argue with me. “God, I’m not even good for Paige. You know it. You said it yourself. I snap at her. I argue with her. I’m the problem here.”

Her eyes fill with tears. “You love me. You said you love me.”

It would be better to deny it, to claim I didn’t mean it, but I can’t quite bring myself to lie to her that way. “It doesn’t matter. My love is dangerous.”

There’s a knock at the door.

A woman in a white lab coat. Dr. Gupta. I met her earlier. Made an ass out of myself swearing at her and then pleading with her, demanding that she promise Jane would be okay.