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Slow Burn

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His heart stuttered at the pure pleasure softening her features. “The lady knows her junk food.”

“I can’t believe you remembered,” she said in the same soft voice that had been haunting his dreams all week.

The awe in her voice had him wondering why something so trivial as a cheeseburger brought her such delight. Almost as if no one had ever done anything as ordinary as bring her a special treat. He’d ask her about it, but she’d only whisper, “I don’t know,” and then her eyes would cloud with worry or frustration.

He reached across the bed to settle his hand over her fingers peeking out from the cast that extended to her elbow. Her skin was soft, smooth and silky. If her fingers were this soft, he’d surely drive himself insane imagining the feel of the rest of her body.

“You said it was your favorite.”

Her grin widened, and she playfully snatched the bag from his hands. “I might not know much about who I am, where I belong or what I was doing in a burning warehouse but I most assuredly know a cheeseburger and fries when I smell them.”

Cale chuckled again despite the frightening truth of her statement. Where did she belong? The absence of a ring on her left finger, or of the pale circle caused by wearing one for any length of time, might indicate she didn’t have a husband in the picture, but it didn’t alleviate the possibility of a boyfriend or a serious relationship. The doctors had told her she’d never had any children, but she’d merely shrugged and muttered they no doubt knew more than she.

According to Maggie, the psychiatrist who came to see her on a daily basis had told her she was suffering from level III amnesia, which was generally caused by medical trauma. Well, she’d certainly had that, Cale thought, watching her carefully unwrap the cheeseburger with her good hand. In addition to a broken wrist, smoke inhalation and enough bruises to play connect-the-dots, she’d suffered a severe concussion when a shelf filled with paint cans had fallen on top of her.

She took a bite of the burger, closed her eyes and issued a sultry little moan of pleasure.

Cale exhaled slowly as his imagination took flight. “I take it the lady is pleased.” He leaned back in the chair and propped his foot over his knee, which did nothing to lessen the snug fit of his jeans.

A brief nod followed another bite before she finally answered him. “Very pleased. This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day.”

“I know those detectives must’ve been rough on you, but they’re only doing their job.”

She sighed and set the rest of the burger down on the wheeled table as if her appetite had vanished. He took the action as warning sign of impending not-so-good news.

She dropped her gaze to the cast on her right arm. “That’s not what I meant. A social worker came to see me today,” she said quietly.

“And?” he prompted.

She pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly before she looked over at him. That same desperation he’d seen the night of the explosion, along with a dose of panic, returned. “And they’re releasing me tomorrow. Mrs. Sutter suggested I consider going to a long-term care facility.”

He straightened, alarm rippling through him. “Why?” he demanded. He’d been around the medical profession long enough to know long-term care was code for nursing home. Because of Maggie’s inability to remember anything about herself, it wouldn’t be all that unusual for her to be transferred to a psych hospital. The thought of Maggie in an understaffed, state-operated facility filled him with more dread than he imagined possible.

She made an attempt to cross her arms over her chest, but the weight of the cast and the cumbersome IV line had her frowning instead. “Because,” she said, dropping her hands to her lap, “I don’t know who I am or where I live. It doesn’t appear so far that anyone is looking for me, either, since the detectives informed me they had no missing persons report on file for anyone fitting my description. The social worker said I should consider her suggestion, since, according to her, I’m relatively incapable of taking care of myself.”

From what Cale had witnessed upon entering her room, she could take care of herself just fine. There had to be something he could do to help her. So what if he felt himself slipping into a time-honored tradition? He’d been lending a helping hand to others for as long as he cared to remember. Granted, he’d been making a concentrated effort of late to be a little more discriminate, but Maggie honestly needed a champion. Until she regained her memory, she had no one else. Besides, he hardly believed helping Maggie would result in him having to change his telephone number again or require him to obtain a restraining order, the way he had when Paulette Johnson had become a little too clingy.

“What about fingerprints?” he asked. The authorities had taken her prints in an attempt to identify her. “Haven’t you heard anything?”

Disappointment filled her gaze. “According to Mrs. Sutter, nothing showed up. She also said it’s not all that unusual. I’ve just probably never been fingerprinted for anything.”

He slid his hand over hers again. “Hey, look at the bright side. At least you’re not a criminal.”

The look she gave him momentarily startled him. Cold and icy, and not the Maggie he’d come to know the past few days.

“Maybe I’ve just never been caught.”

Cale didn’t think so. He’d seen and treated enough of the criminal element in Los Angeles to know the difference. Maggie’s identity might be unknown, but that she was a criminal wasn’t even a remote possibility in his mind.

“Can you?” he asked. “Take care of yourself, I mean?”

Slowly, she pulled her hand from beneath his. “I know red means stop and green means go.” Anger and frustration lined her voice, and the gold rim surrounding her irises brightened. “I know fire is hot and ice is cold. If it’s raining, take an umbrella. If the telephone rings, answer it. I know what day it is, the month and even the year. I think I can cook, and I know how to make change so I can at least buy my meals if I can’t.”

Cale shrugged. “Then what’s the problem?”

“I don’t know where I live or even how I make my living. Since I don’t know if I have any family or anywhere to go, Mrs. Sutter explained a long-term care facility would at least assume my care until I’m better equipped to do so myself.”

“What if…” He stopped and carefully considered his next words. Once uttered, he couldn’t take them back. But, dammit, he just didn’t have the heart to turn his back on someone who really needed him.

“What if you had someone willing to take care of you?” he blurted before he could change his mind.

She tilted her head slightly, and frowned. “What do you mean?”

His brothers were right. He was crazy. Not to mention so far out of control his common sense had deserted him…again.

She’s not like the others, his conscience rallied. Or was that his libido talking? Did it really matter? He didn’t think so.

“What if you had someone willing to see to it that you’re safe?” There. He’d said it. No taking the words back now.

“I don’t know anyone.” She blinked back the moisture suddenly shining in her eyes. “I don’t know anything,” she said, her voice tight.

“Tell this Sutter woman I’ll care for you.” The ground slipped out from under him as he stepped off the cliff into a sea of insanity. His own history with the opposite sex should have had him running in the opposite direction. But how could he turn his back on Maggie when she needed him the most?

He couldn’t. And that’s when the trouble always started.

Her smile was thin as she swiped at the tears with her good hand. “That’s very sweet of you, Cale. But it still doesn’t solve my problem. Besides, what if Mrs. Sutter decided to check on me.”

He had his doubts on that score. “So what if she does? In any case, it’ll never happen. The heavy case-load of the social system in this county prohibits extravagances. The social workers spend their time on only the most severe cases, and, Maggie, you hardly qualify as a severe case.”

He reached across the bed and grabbed her hand again. He wanted to do more than hold her hand, he wanted to gather her in his arms and hold her close, promise her everything would be okay in the end. It didn’t matter that her future was uncertain. The urge to comfort her was strong, just as strong as the need to feel her soft curves pressed against him.

He smoothed his thumb over her slender fingers. “You call Mrs. Sutter and tell her you’ve got a place to go tomorrow when they release you, and that’ll be the end of it. You can stay at my place for as long as you need.”

She snatched her hand away. “No—”

“Just until you get your memory back.” He moved from the chair and sat next to her on the edge of the bed. He braced his hands on the mattress to bracket her hips, his body stirring at the closeness. Momentarily distracted by the shape of her mouth, he simply stared.

“I couldn’t,” she said, but she didn’t sound convincing.

“Yes, you can. Look, aren’t your doctors saying it could only be a few days until your memory returns? Do you really want to go to a long-term care facility?”

She shook her head, and a hank of fiery hair fell over her shoulder. The wavy ends teased the slope of her breasts beneath the cotton hospital gown. “Or maybe a few weeks, or months, or even never. You’ve already been so kind to me, Cale. I won’t ask any more of you.”

“You aren’t asking,” he argued. “I’m offering.”

He understood her fear, or at least he liked to think he did. The truth wasn’t that simple. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like not to know where he came from or the members of his own family. Of course, when his brothers learned he’d brought home a total stranger, they’d be convinced he’d taken leave of his common sense for sure this time.

Where Maggie was concerned, they were probably right. Didn’t he have enough disastrous relationships in his past to prove their arguments? Okay, so maybe there was some truth here. But, none of those women was Maggie. She genuinely needed his help. He wasn’t offering a permanent solution, only a temporary one.
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