Strict Confidence (Rochester Trilogy #2) by Skye Warren

You’d never see her again. The thought whispers through my head, the faint scent of salt on an ocean breeze. It’s selfishness that keeps her here. My selfishness.

She’s so strong. It breaks my heart that I need her to be strong. Part of me wants to sweep her away to some island paradise, far away from the cold, drizzly cliffs. Far away from the fire. Paige needs me. I made a promise to her when her parents died.

And there’s an ongoing investigation into the fire.

Instead of sweeping her away to an island paradise, I help her stand.

She trembles slightly in my grasp before shooing me away. “I’m fine,” she says with only a fraction of her normal voice. It’s shaken her, that fire.

It’s shaken both her body and her spirit.

Her dark lashes lower. She sways gently. It’s Mateo who’s there to catch her, to escort her to the passenger seat. “Hey, now. Careful. Don’t worry. I’m not a superhero, but I play one on TV.”

“I thought you’re in movies,” Jane says, her voice faint with thread of humor.

He acts offended. “You thought? You thought? Does that mean you haven’t seen my movies?” He continues teasing her as he helps her into the SUV.

I have to bite back the urge to warn him away. Don’t touch her. She’s mine. There’s no room for caveman antics, not when I have responsibilities.

“Come on,” I say, leading Paige to the other side. “Hop in.”

She frowns, clearly thinking about stalling. Then she hesitantly lifts her hands. She’s been in a mood since the fire. I can’t exactly blame her. I settle her into a bucket seat and lock the seat belt into place. Then I climb into the backseat beside her, holding back my wince as my leg protests. It’s stiff and throbbing. The crutches I got after the fall, the cane I sometimes used—all of them were consumed by the fire. Which is just fine with me. I could have gotten new ones, but I don’t want them. I don’t need them. I was caught unaware once. It won’t happen again.

Mateo guides the Escalade out of the hospital parking lot and onto the road.

“I’m hungry,” Paige says when we reach the highway.

“We’ll have dinner soon,” I say, even though it’s only three p.m.

“I’m hungry now.”

I glance at her. She isn’t usually this demanding. And I happen to know she ate the entire burger we got from the cafeteria for lunch. I don’t think she’s hungry, but she needs… something. Reassurance maybe, though I don’t know how to provide that.

“Mac and cheese,” she adds in an imperious tone.

I hesitate. It’s been hard enough figuring out a place to stay, somewhere safe and secure, dealing with the officials. Hard enough without also making sure the kitchen would have her particular essentials. “Maybe they can make mac and cheese. We’ll ask.”

Feather-light blonde eyebrows rise. “We’ll ask who?”

“The innkeeper.”

“I thought we were going home.”

“No,” I say gently. “Remember we talked about this? Home is going to need work. Construction work. It will take a long time. In the meantime, we’re going to stay at the inn.”

Her face turns red. I’ve seen this color before. Exactly one time before.

We were at the wake for her parents. She had made it through the funeral with grave obedience. Stand here. Walk there. Say goodbye. All the times when I would have expected her to rage, she held her composure. It was only at the end, when families gathered at the Coach House, when they offered empty words of consolation and casseroles, that she lost it.

“Get out,” she had screamed, her face red and splotchy, tears leaking down her cheeks. No one could console her. No one could reprimand her. In the end they left, one by one, darting glances of worry between me and her. In the hollow house, once everyone had gone, she beat her fists against me and sobbed into my chest for hours. Until she fell asleep in my arms.

She looks the same way now. Mutinous. Angry.

Consumed by grief.

“I want Kitten.”

“She’s at the vet, remember? We’ll pick her up soon.”

“I want mac and cheese. And I want to go home.”

Despite my general ineptitude as a guardian, I’ve tried. I’ve read books and listened to podcasts. Don’t raise your voice, they say. Lower your voice, and the child will mimic you. “We can’t go home,” I say, my words quiet. “There’s yellow tape everywhere. It’s a crime scene.”