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Slow Burn

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Keeping the towel clutched to her chest, she took a step back. “I needed assistance.”

“Assistance…?” he prompted.

She let out a sigh. “Yes. With getting dressed.” Her gaze dipped pointedly to the bra lying on the tiled floor at her feet.

A questioning frown tugged his eyebrows low over his eyes a half second before they arched upward as realization dawned. “Ah,” he said. That killer smile returned to his handsome face, kicking her pulse rate up a couple of notches.

He stooped to pick up the bra and handed it to her. “Slip into it and I’ll fasten it for you.”

With the bra dangling from her fingertips, she stared at Cale in fascination. He couldn’t seriously be offering his services for something so…so intimate, could he? Maybe she shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the man hadn’t only offered a total stranger a place to live, he’d bought clothes for her to wear and had even gone to the trouble of digging through her ruined garments to find out her sizes.

He turned around and stood with his back to her, giving her a sense of privacy. If she refused, she’d feel petty and foolish. The man wasn’t making a pass at her. He was offering to help her dress since she obviously couldn’t do it for herself. There wasn’t anything sexual about it. Well…hardly anything sexual about it.

She turned her back to him, dropped the towel and slipped into the bra. Holding the cups awkwardly in place, she said, “Okay.”

The first brush of his fingers against her sides as he took hold of the ends of the bra nearly had her jumping out of her skin. His touch was gentle and completely impersonal as he worked the fasteners, but that didn’t stop a delightful shiver from glancing down her spine.

He reached around her and bent to snag the navy-blue cotton top from the stool. “Arms up,” he ordered.

Oh, no. This part she could handle on her own. She took the top from him, knowing she’d go just a little more nuts if he put his hands on her body again. “Thank you,” she said, “but I think I can take it from here.”

“I’ll wait outside.” With one last look, he quietly closed the bathroom door behind him. Alone, she couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across her lips at the obvious disappointment in his gaze.

Once she’d finished dressing, she took a moment to check her appearance in the mirror. She might not know who she was or where she came from, but there was one thing she understood completely—sexual chemistry and attraction, especially since her hormones went into overtime whenever Cale was around.

CALE KNEW trouble when he saw it, and trouble definitely had arrived in his life in the form of the mysterious Maggie with her sexy little smile, eyes that changed color with her mood and rich cinnamon hair that had his fingers itching to touch the silky strands. Those reddish-brown tresses weren’t the only thing soft about her, either. His testosterone had shot through the roof for those few seconds his fingers had brushed against her silky skin.

He added a new shade of eye color to his list, too. Turquoise—the color of Maggie’s eyes when she was aroused. Always one of his favorites, this particular shade ranked at the top of his list, especially since he knew without a doubt he was solely responsible for it.

He paced around the hospital room while he waited for her to emerge from the bathroom. Like his brothers, he was no stranger to relationships, although he did like to think his held at least a modicum of meaning in comparison.

His little brother, Drew, hardly ever dated the same woman more than three times. In fact, Drew gave new meaning to the term little black book. He had more of a big black binder. He wasn’t cruel, and he never led a woman on, but no one doubted Drew’s bedroom did indeed boast a revolving door.

As for his older brother, other than a few short-term relationships, Ben tended to steer clear of the opposite sex. Or more accurately, Cale thought, from any form of relationship that remotely resembled a serious or lasting affair.

By comparison, Cale figured he was the most normal of the three. At least he dated. He even had relationships that lasted longer than a week, which was more than he could say for Drew. To his way of thinking, taking the time to get to know a woman was all a part of the fun. For him, there was something satisfying about unraveling all those intimate secrets and feminine mysteries.

So maybe that had something to do with his interest and attraction to Maggie, because she absolutely had plenty of mystery. Sure, his brothers would no doubt consider her another of his damsels in distress; the woman had more secrets than the CIA. But she needed his help, not just in offering her a place to live, but in rediscovering her past. So what if he’d known her less than a week and already was more than intrigued by her? Was it his fault she was sweet and feisty, a combination he found incredibly sexy and damned hard to resist?

She was tiny, almost helpless at first appearance, but he’d seen her handle her own against those two surly detectives last night. And although her situation indicated otherwise, he’d hardly slap a weak or dependent label on her. In fact, stubborn and determined applied to her all too well, telling him whether she knew it or not, Maggie wasn’t just a fighter, but a survivor, as well.

Oh, yeah. Maggie was a mystery all right, but an exciting one. And he’d always been a sucker for a little excitement, not to mention a good mystery, even if he did know what his family would have to say about it.

Ever since he was a kid he’d collected strays. He didn’t need another two-hundred-dollar-an-hour shrink to warn him he was about to repeat the pattern all over again. Although, even he had to admit, sparrows that had fallen from their nest were a hell of a lot more innocuous than a living, breathing woman without a past. But he’d been saving lives ever since his mother had died in the line of duty when he was only eight years old. He couldn’t very well change now. To his way of thinking, there was nothing wrong with being a nurturer. In fact, it had made his becoming a paramedic the obvious career choice.

Okay, so this time he didn’t have a bird with a broken wing that needed to be cared for until it healed. Maggie wasn’t an abandoned kitten, but she did need his help. He wasn’t the kind of guy to turn his back on something—or someone—in their hour of need.

Besides, he reasoned, weren’t his strays always placed in good homes eventually? Okay, except for Pogo, the three-legged dog he’d rescued from a beating by the mean old SOB who had lived in his childhood neighborhood. The dog had been of such mixed heritage, even the vet had been hard-pressed to put a breed label on the poor mutt. It hadn’t mattered to Cale. He and Pogo had remained inseparable until the day the old dog had finally passed on, shortly after Cale graduated high school.

Maybe if he had listened to the psychobabble of the child psychologist who’d treated him and his brothers when their father had died shortly after their mother, he might be a little worried about taking a stranger into his home. He wasn’t helping Maggie because of some misguided or misplaced need to save the world because he hadn’t been able to save his mother or even his father. He really wasn’t. Maggie needed someone, even if she did jump-start his libido with a simple little smile or a teary-eyed, gratitude-filled look in her intriguing eyes.

He stopped his pacing when the bathroom door finally opened and Maggie walked into the sterile hospital room. His breathing nearly halted, as well, or was that his heart that had stopped beating?

He couldn’t be sure, mainly because he couldn’t help staring at the way the dark-blue denim clung enticingly to her legs and outlined the gentle swell of her hips. She approached the metal nightstand and bent over to peer into the drawer. The sight of her curvy backside had him struggling for breath again.

“I’ll be ready in a sec,” she said, tossing the few personal items into the white plastic bag the hospital had provided.

His vocal chords refused to function, and all he could manage was a brief nod of his head. His gaze zeroed in on the lightweight fabric of the plain cotton top as it hugged her very full breasts and outlined her slender waist, leaving him with an almost uncontrollable urge to slip his hand beneath the serviceable fabric and explore every inch of her skin.

Oh, yeah. Cale Perry knew trouble when it saw it, all right. And her name was Maggie.


FROM THE passenger seat of Cale’s red four-wheel-drive pickup, Maggie watched the passing scenery along Ocean Boulevard. Regardless of how thin a chance, she’d still hoped something—a building, a tree, maybe even a street sign or billboard—would pull her memory out of hiding.

“Nothing is familiar,” she told Cale as he came to a stop behind a line of cars waiting for the traffic light to turn green.

He glanced her way, then took her by surprise when he reached across the bench seat to slip his hand over hers, as if touching her was something he did all the time. Her body said otherwise. When he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, delightful little shockwaves traveled up her arm and shot straight to the tips of her breasts with electrifying accuracy.

“Did you expect otherwise?” he asked, his voice one of concern, not lust.

Too bad.

“Hoped is more like it.” She removed her hand from beneath his to slip a nonexistent stray lock of hair behind her ear. She didn’t think she was unaccustomed to being touched, which left only one other option. Her desire for physical distance, however minute, stemmed from something much more basic…like an inexplicable sexual attraction to a total stranger. Her life, such as it was, was complicated enough and she should definitely not compound her problems by allowing her hormones to run amuck. Just because her guide in an unfamiliar world was sexier than any man had a right to be, and was able to make her breath still with one slanted look or a gentle touch, did not put him on her agenda.

Cale turned his attention back to the road and moved forward with the rest of the traffic. “You’re not supposed to force your memories. When your memory does return, it’ll be in its own time.”

She let out a sigh and looked out the window again. “I know.” She might not like it, but Cale was right. He only repeated what the doctors had been telling her for the last few days. Still, it unnerved her that he appeared to possess an uncanny ability to read her mind. An interesting concept, she mused, since her mind was pretty much a blank page.

At least she was out of the hospital and not in a long-term care facility. No matter how diplomatic Mrs. Sutter had been in her explanation, the place she’d described had just screamed loony bin. Maggie wasn’t crazy or even mentally incompetent, she just didn’t know her identity.

“I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done,” she blurted, anxious for a break from her own morose thoughts. “I’m not even sure how to begin to repay you.”

Just as she realized exactly what she’d implied, he glanced her way again. Surely she didn’t imagine the way his gaze swept over her. Only her own twisted imagination could spark the dozen or so lurid images running through her mind with the speed of light. Her throat should never have felt drier than dust, either, and her pulse rate couldn’t have increased. But she’d felt every ounce of those tell-tale physiological changes in her body, just because she’d imagined Cale looking at her with blatant male appreciation in his gaze. At least that was her argument, until she witnessed the adorable grin that tugged his lips and deepened the laugh lines surrounding his eyes. At that moment, she knew it hadn’t been her imagination, just as she knew the sudden acceleration of her heartbeat was as real as it got.

“There’s no thanks necessary.” He shifted his attention back to the road. “If you can cook, that’ll be payment enough. I get kinda tired of my own cooking.”

A wry grin touched her lips. “I guess we’ll have to see, won’t we?”

She didn’t feel completely comfortable intruding on Cale’s life, but as he’d so eloquently stated, it was either him or the funny farm. By accepting his very generous offer, she’d be free to come and go as she pleased, and she hoped to find out a thing or two or three about her past. So what if she’d have to leave the proverbial trail of bread crumbs to find her way home again? At least she had freedom, and that had to count for something.

Shortly after they entered the city limits of Hermosa Beach, Cale took a left off Ocean Boulevard into a residential district, which brought them even closer to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. After several more turns, Cale slowed and pulled into a sloped driveway, parking in front of a two-car garage with a roll-up door painted a hideous shade of turquoise.

Above the garage was the house, in a much more pleasing-to-the-eye shade of dove-gray siding, however, the trim and the concrete staircase leading up to the house were the same garish color as the garage door. Flanking the driveway were two planters made of railroad ties. They were filled with shrubs in dire need of TLC before they completely lost the battle being pitifully waged against a determined army of dandelions.

“It’s a work in progress,” Cale said with a nod toward the house.

She glanced around the area. The well-kept homes only yards from the beach, whether modest in size or more elaborate and ornate, spoke of prime real estate. “Nice neighborhood.”
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