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Slow Burn

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“Cases that last that long are the exception, Maggie, not the rule,” he said gently.

“I don’t know…”

“Come stay with me, just until we can figure out where you really belong. I’ve got a quiet little place near the beach and a bedroom to spare. You’ll be perfectly safe there, and it’s a hell of a lot better than some sterile environment where you’ll just be another name on a chart.”

“I might not even live in L.A.,” she argued. “Or California for that matter. Maybe I was just passing through and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe I was visiting someone.”

“Then why hasn’t anyone else come to see you? And why wasn’t anyone else at the scene when we found you?”

She dropped her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes, but not before he saw defeat pass through them.

“It’ll give you a quiet, peaceful place to recuperate and when I’m off duty, maybe I can help you find out who you really are.”

She opened her eyes. “But…how can I?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. “You’re a complete stranger. I don’t even know you.”

“You don’t even know yourself at this point,” he said dryly.

“Exactly.” She sat up again. “What if I’m a serial killer or something equally horrible? How do you know I won’t rob you blind? You wouldn’t even know who to tell the police to arrest.”

Cale chuckled. “The perfect crime.”

“It’s not funny.”

Lifting his hand, he gently smoothed his knuckles over her satiny cheek. “What other choice do you have, Maggie? It’s either me or a state facility.”

“You’re not giving me much by way of options, are you?”

“You don’t have a lot of options,” he said truthfully, lowering his hand. “It’s me or the funny farm, babe.”

“I don’t think I’m used to being told what to do.” She shot him a frustrated glance. “Because I sure don’t like it now.”


SHE WORE BLACK. Simple. Basic. Elegant. Of course for a woman in her line of work, black was always the most appropriate color. She considered it her signature color, with one small exception—the red silk hankie with an embroidered V done in an elegant, delicate script. She preferred to think of it as her calling card.

She pretended mild interest as her bore of a host preened over his most prized possession: a priceless, yet little-known Carracci painting he’d presumably acquired at an estate auction…or so he claimed. She knew better. The Carracci failed to garner her attention, for now. There was only one reason she was in Rome, and it had zilch to do with priceless art.

Slowly and deliberately, she slid her hand over his arm in an unmistakable gesture. He had what she wanted, and before the night drew to a close, she’d have what she came for…

MAGGIE AWOKE with a start, heart pounding, breathing ragged. The thin cotton hospital gown clung to her sweat-moistened body as she struggled to recall the details of the dream. She wasn’t sure what it all meant, but she suspected there was some clue to her identity attempting to rise to the surface. Not just her identity, she thought, pulling in a deep breath that did little to calm her, but her life.

Who was she? Where did she come from? And more importantly, what exactly did she do for a living? From the misty visions of the dream, she almost dreaded the answer.

A quick glance at the clock on the wall next to the television reminded her that Cale would be arriving to take her home shortly. Not home exactly, but away from the hospital and the threat of the unknown. He really was an angel. What kind of guy took in not just a total stranger, but someone who didn’t even know herself. Obviously, Cale was one of the good guys, and for reasons she had no nope of comprehending at the moment, she wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel an enormous amount of gratitude for his unconditional generosity, but what if the nagging sensation in the back of her mind was true? What if she wasn’t what he believed her to be, just some poor schmuck in the wrong place at the wrong time? The dream…

“No,” she said in a firm tone. She had to stop thinking about it, or she’d end up with another one of those horrendous headaches again, the kind that had sledgehammers, jackhammers and a cacophony of chain saws all vying to be the loudest. The doctors may have told her not to force her memory, but in her opinion, that was easy for them to say. What were their chances of getting lost in their own neighborhoods?

She sat up and cautiously swung her feet over the side of the bed to the small footstool. Following a breakfast of stale toast, saltless scrambled eggs and cold coffee, the morning nurse had removed her IV as promised, eliminating at least one cumbersome attachment. Unfortunately, the cast on her right arm wouldn’t be so easily discarded, at least for another six to eight weeks while her wrist healed. One thing she had learned about herself, she most assuredly was right-handed.

The call she’d placed to the social worker had been simple. As Cale predicted, all Mrs. Sutter had asked for had been an address and telephone number in case she needed to contact her. The call to Detective Villanueva had been relatively painless, as well, except his coolness made her uncomfortable. Still, he’d thanked her for the call and promised to be in touch, which sounded more like a threat than an offer of assistance.

She pressed the button to turn on the television to a cable news network for background noise. While the reports of current events were vaguely familiar to her, none of the clips that flashed across the screen of the various cities through the U.S. gave so much as a tiny nudge to her absent memory. She did recognize certain landmarks and buildings from New York City and Chicago. Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Kodak Theater in Hollywood were both familiar sights when she spotted them in a couple of tourism commercials. An advertisement for Disneyland didn’t hold any special meaning or spark a single memory of childhood. She just knew of these places, the way she knew the succession of color in a rainbow or the caloric difference between chocolate cake and a granola bar, and which of the two she preferred.

In a determined effort to stop stressing herself into another migraine, she shoved her encased arm into the plastic bag and used the white medical tape the nurse had left her so she could seal the bag closed around her cast, hoping to make it watertight. Moving slowly, she managed to make her way across the room to the bathroom she shared with the patient in the next room. She wasn’t setting any speed records, that was for sure, but at least she was able to shower and wash her hair, albeit awkwardly. Drying herself off wasn’t quite the sideshow she’d expected, and she’d even managed to apply lotion to most of her body.

Cale had thoughtfully brought her some clothes to wear since her own had been ruined. He’d proven quite resourceful, too, checking her tattered garments for the right sizes. His choices left little to be desired, but a woman in her situation had no room for complaints, especially since he’d footed the bill. She’d made him give her the receipt and as soon as she found a job, or better yet, herself, she’d pay back every cent.

She slipped into a pair of panties and tried not to think about Cale purchasing something so intimate for her. A blush stained her cheeks even though the plain white cotton panties to match the plain white cotton bra didn’t exactly scream sexy. She didn’t know whether she had Cale or a saleswoman to thank for the thigh-high comfort of the panties, but as she stared at the freshly laundered, button-fly jeans, she couldn’t help wondering what on earth he’d been thinking.

She stepped into the heavy denim and pulled them up her legs without too much trouble. Before even fastening them she knew they’d be a comfortable fit, but the dancing around on her toes as she struggled with each button had her not only breaking out in a sweat, but near tears. As much as she appreciated his thoughtfulness, couldn’t he have brought her some leggings or even a pair of sweats? She’d be happy with a pair of pull-on pants made by Poly and Ester, the tacky fabric twins, just so she could avoid buttons, snaps or zippers.

Dammit, she would not cry. She’d been doing far too much of that lately.

She sat on the edge of the commode to catch her breath and stared at the bra on the little stool next to the shower as if it were a two-headed snake. With nothing else to do but try, she reached for the bra and entered a new realm of humiliation. Slipping her arms through the shoulder straps and hooking the back was out of the question, so she decided to put the evil contraption on backwards, fasten the ends together in front, then twist it around her body.

After several failed attempts, her stern lectures about not crying came back to taunt her as her eyes filled with more tears of frustration. There was no way around it. She’d have to swallow her pride and ring the nurse for assistance.

Her hand stilled over the little pull chain in the small, semiprivate bathroom when she heard the door to her room open. “Nurse?” she called out in relief. “If you have a minute, I could really use your help.”

Without a sound, the heavy door swung open. Maggie gasped when she turned to find Cale instead of the nurse she’d been expecting.

His expression instantly shifted from concern to desire right before her eyes. The man was definitely good for her ego. Not five seconds ago she’d managed to convince herself she looked like an idiot incapable of doing something as simple as buttoning up a pair of Levi’s. Now she was only behaving like one as she stood and stared at him, shocked into utter silence by the not-unpleasant sensation of warmth uncurling in her belly and spreading outward with languid heat through her limbs.

He cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he murmured as he spun around quickly to allow her a modicum of privacy.

Still feeling decidedly confused and definitely aroused by her reaction to him, she made a hasty grab for the towel she’d tossed on the edge of the sink earlier. With a hard snap, she swung her cast against the white porcelain. Tears sprang to her eyes as pain shot up her arm. She reached blindly for the wall to steady herself, but instead of touching the cool ceramic tile, her good hand came in contact with a solid wall of masculinity.

His arms were around her, steadying her and holding her close. Don’t cry, she thought.

But one whispered word of comfort, one large male hand gliding over the exposed skin of her back in a gentle, soothing motion, and tears of pain and frustration poured from her eyes like a busted water main.

“It’ll get better, Maggie. I promise you, it will.”

She pulled back slightly to look up at him. “How can you say that?” she asked around a sob. “You know as much about me as I do, and we’re not talking a wealth of knowledge here, either.”

His incredible smile was as kind as the expression that softened his intense blue eyes. “You’re in pain.” He slid the pad of his thumb across her cheek to dry her tears. “I’ll call the nurse.”

The tenderness he showed her stirred something deep inside her, a wealth of emotion she had no hope of truly understanding until she acquired at least some recollection of her past as a comparison.

She sniffled and shook her head. What she really wanted to do was scream. Between her faulty gray matter and the delicious tingling sprinting through her body, she figured she was more than a little entitled.

No doubt she was suffering with some twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome. Cale might not be her captor, but she had come to depend on him, if only slightly. Although she’d actually started looking forward to his nightly visits, that little piece of reality saddened her. Did she really have no other person in her life that cared about her? Wasn’t there someone, somewhere, missing her? Parents, grandparents, an uncle or an aunt? What about siblings, an employer? A cat or a pair of goldfish?

She pulled in a steadying breath only to be swamped by the unique scent she’d come to associate with Cale. That sensual blend of spice and pure male any woman in her right mind, or not as her case might be, would have difficulty resisting.

She used the edge of the towel clutched to her chest to dry her eyes. “My mind is foggy enough.” She managed what she hoped was a brave smile and tried not to think about that musky, masculine scent giving her most feminine senses a sharp jolt. “Adding pain-killers to the confusion is the last thing I need.”

He didn’t look that convinced. “You were calling the nurse for a reason.”
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