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Slow Burn

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Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo)

Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo)


“WHAT’S YOUR NAME, sweetheart?”

She looked up into the clearest, bluest eyes this side of the Rockies and would’ve sighed with pleasure if her throat didn’t feel so darned ragged. All she could do was blink before her world tilted again, and those sexier-than-sin eyes swam before her blurred vision. Her head ached, her chest burned and a searing pain gripped her right arm. Someone said it was because of smoke inhalation, but she couldn’t be sure.

She tried to shake her head to clear the haze, but a pair of large, warm hands held her still. Her head rested against a pair of rock-hard thighs she assumed belonged to the black-haired angel of mercy who’d hefted her over his shoulder and carried her from the burning building seconds before the explosion.

What she was doing in a paint warehouse, she couldn’t say.

“You got a name, honey?” he asked again in a rich, soothing voice that made her think of silly things like white picket fences, children’s laughter and golden retriever puppies.

“Maggie.” She tried to shake her head again, but he held her still. Maggie? That wasn’t right. Or was it? “I think,” she added with a croak, her throat raw and as hot as the Sahara Desert.

Someone jammed a needle into her left arm and she winced. She hated needles. Her frown deepened. Why did she hate needles?

She fought down a sense of panic as voices she couldn’t decipher rose around her. She looked up at the prime male specimen again. “What happened?” she asked in the croaky voice only a bullfrog would envy.

“You’ll be fine.” His lips curved into a smile and those eyes the color of blue topaz filled with a reassurance she wasn’t exactly buying. She didn’t feel fine. She felt as if her body was on fire.

“What’s your last name, Maggie?” he asked, smoothing her hair away from her face with a tenderness that felt almost foreign to her. Now why was that? she wondered.

Her vision blurred again until there were two of her angels of mercy gazing down at her with concern banked in their heavenly eyes. Her world started to fade to a dark murky gray, then quickly to black seconds after she whispered, “I was hoping you could tell me.”

AS HE’D DONE every day for the last six, Cale Perry pulled his Dodge Ram pickup into the visitors’ parking lot of the UCLA Medical Center. He avoided the emergency access where everyone knew him and opted for the anonymity of the main entrance. Holding a brown paper bag that was giving off the tantalizing aroma of fried foods, he sauntered through the automatic sliding glass doors, a tuneless whistle on his lips. After a quick scan of the corridor for familiar faces, he slipped into the elevator, where he pushed the button for the fourth floor.

He hadn’t told a soul where he’d been disappearing to once his shift ended, especially not his nosy brothers, Drew and Ben, or Tilly Jensen, a family friend and E.R. nurse, who happened to be on duty the night of Maggie’s accident. They’d never understand the inexplicable need that drove him to the hospital on a nightly basis, and they most certainly couldn’t possibly understand how Cale felt drawn to Maggie. In fact, about the only thing he did know was that she needed him, and that alone was reason enough for him.

Where she came from or why she’d been trapped in a burning paint-supply warehouse were as much a mystery to her as they were to Cale, not to mention to the cops or the arson investigation team. The way he figured it, there were a lot of blank spaces in Maggie’s memory, and he couldn’t find a single, solitary reason why he should not be the one to help her fill in those gaps.

A rueful grin slid across his lips when the doors opened on the fourth floor of the medical center. If his brothers found out he was acting out yet another knight-in-shining-armor fantasy over a woman he didn’t know they’d never let him hear the end of it.

He turned left when he got off the elevator and nodded to the medical staff huddled around the nurses’ station as he made his way toward the rooms at the end of the long corridor. Without a doubt, his brothers would most definitely think him crazy, and in all honesty, they were probably right. There wasn’t much information on his mystery woman, except that her eyes were an intriguing combination of blue, green and gold. Her hair, a shimmering shade of cinnamon, hung halfway down her back in long, soft waves, and she had a serious penchant for junk food. A petite thing, she had plenty of curves to heighten any man’s interest, along with a sweet, lyrical voice that had returned once the effects of the smoke inhalation had dissipated. She had a disposition to match, as well. Considering her past remained unknown, he thought her attitude admirable.

For reasons that defied every known source of logic he’d reviewed and subsequently discounted since he’d first found Maggie With-No-Last-Name surrounded by gallons and gallons of paint cans inside the burning warehouse, he was more than intrigued by this mysterious stranger who stirred his blood and fired his imagination.

He’d stayed with her in the hospital that first night. His shift had ended, so he’d just…stayed. At first he’d told himself it was only because she’d asked him to—a desperate plea that had tugged at his heart. It hadn’t been the first time a victim he’d treated on the scene had wanted him to stay. Until Maggie, he’d always just assured them the doctors would take good care of them, then left without a backward glance. But something in her voice, something he couldn’t quite define, had pulled at him hard. In the end, he simply couldn’t leave her.

The next day his tendency toward heroism faded into worry for one simple reason—he hadn’t been able to get Maggie out of his mind.

Because this one victim out of the thousands he’d treated since becoming a paramedic six years ago had caught him off guard and touched an emotional chord he’d kept carefully hidden, he’d been more than a little alarmed. Maggie was sweet, pretty and scared, however, so what guy wouldn’t feel like a knight on a white charger?

The next day he brought in a motorcycle rider who’d been involved in a collision and damned if Cale didn’t act like a fool by asking the E.R. doc who had treated Maggie about her condition. Mere curiosity, he’d told himself over and over once he’d left with his partner, Brady Kent.

Until his shift had ended, and he’d driven straight to the hospital.

Curiosity and his arguments of “it’s only mild concern” flew out the window when he’d walked into her room. His heart had slammed into his rib cage when she’d looked over at him and offered a weak, morphine-induced smile.

He’d pulled up a chair and had sat with her that night, and every night since, waiting until she’d fallen asleep before finally going home to his small house near the beach. Getting to know Maggie wasn’t exactly the easiest thing he’d ever done considering her past remained elusive, but Cale knew enough about her personality to be highly intrigued and maybe even a little bewitched.

Now, he couldn’t seem to stay away from her.

He pushed through the door to Maggie’s room, the tuneless whistle stilling on his lips. She glanced his way from her hospital bed, her eyes a piercing shade of blue rimmed in gold. With her mouth set in a grim line, she didn’t look at all pleased to see him.

He stepped into the room and quickly realized she wasn’t alone. He easily pegged the two gentlemen dressed in suits as cops. One stood at the foot of the bed, while the other leaned casually with one shoulder braced against the wall closest to the window overlooking the parking lot.

The older of the two detectives shot him a dark look. “You’ll have to come back later,” he told Cale without moving from his stance near the window.

Maggie shifted her attention to the detective. “He’ll be staying,” she replied. Her firm and somewhat harsh tone took Cale by surprise. The Maggie he knew was sweet and soft-spoken. Obviously there was more to his mystery woman than met the eye.

The younger detective looked Cale up and down. “You a lawyer?”

Cale approached Maggie and set the grease-stained bag on the tall metal nightstand. “No. A friend,” he answered cautiously. “Is there a problem, detective?”

Being a paramedic, he came in contact with law enforcement practically on a daily basis, however most of his experiences were either with the uniformed cops or the guys in the arson unit within the fire department.

Maggie let out a huff of breath. “I already told you. I must’ve lost my purse in the fire. I don’t have any identification.”

“How is it you know Ms….” The detective glanced in Maggie’s direction. “Ms. Doe?” he finished, his gaze skeptical.

She looked at Cale. “What Detective Villanueva is trying to ask is if you know who I am. Isn’t that right, Detective?”

“What’s going on here?” Cale demanded, feeling his protective instincts rise to the surface.

“We’re only trying to determine why Ms. Doe was at the Harrison Paint and Wallpaper warehouse. Alone. Especially since the warehouse was closed, not to mention that it isn’t open to the general public.”

The color in Maggie’s eyes brightened considerably. “I already told you, I don’t know anything.”

“How convenient,” Villanueva muttered.

“Until my memory returns, I’m afraid I won’t be of much assistance to you.”

The older, stout detective near the window straightened and gave his partner a quick glance, motioning toward the door with a nod of his head. “You have my card,” he said. “In case you remember anything.”

Cale waited for them to leave before turning his attention back to Maggie. “What was that about?”

Maggie straightened the already perfectly arranged bed covers. “Exactly what they said. They want to know why I was in the warehouse. I’d like to know, as well.”

The question had crossed Cale’s mind, too, more than once. He also understood that Maggie had spoken the truth when she’d told the detectives that until her memory returned, she’d have no answers, only questions of her own.

“They don’t believe me,” she said abruptly. “Who can blame them, really? I sound like something out of a bad soap opera.”

Despite the hint of truth to her statement, Cale chuckled lightly as he carried the visitor’s chair closer to the bed. “I thought the truth was supposed to be stranger than fiction.”

She looked over at him, her eyebrows suddenly pulled down into a frown. Whatever was on her mind, she kept it to herself. After a brief moment, she shook her head then graced him with a hint of a smile. Her pert little nose twitched, as if she were a bunny rabbit anticipating the delightful feast of an unguarded vegetable garden. “Is that a cheeseburger?”
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