Excerpt: Hotter Than Wildfire

Hotter Than Wildfire by Lisa Marie Rice

Book 2: The Protectors

Ellen opened her eyes, then closed them immediately, trying to process the white nothingness covering her entire field of vision. Was she dead? Was this the afterlife? White, flat, featureless?

Forever?

She ached. Every muscle in her body ached, except her shoulder, which burned. Worse was the utter feeling of exhaustion, weakness, helplessness.

The only good news was that if she were dead, it wouldn’t hurt so much. Unless of course this was hell.

There was no noise except for some rhythmic…rustling sound. Or whooshing sound. Like waves on a beach. But how could that be?

She was lying on her back on what felt like a bed. Her hands moved slightly, fingering rough cotton. Sheets. One hand couldn’t move well. She twisted it slightly and something tugged. Tape, a needle. An IV line.

The sharp smell of alcohol, the soothing smell of clean linen. A faint hint of coffee in the air.

A hospital? Or did death smell like alcohol and clean sheets and coffee?

She opened her eyes again, and again saw an expanse of something white. Nothing for the eyes to fix on, just a featureless plain.

“You’re awake,” a deep voice said. Panicked, Ellen turned her head. The world tilted crazily, then righted itself. Of course. That wide, empty expanse was the ceiling.

Right next to her was a man sitting in a chair, looking tired, jaws clenched.

Her gasp sounded loud in the quiet of the room.

The last time she’d seen this man, he’d been running toward her, gun in hand.

Oh God, oh God.

Harry Bolt. The man she’d so foolishly turned to for help. The man who’d betrayed her, the man in the pay of Gerald Montez.

This, then, was the end. She’d run, but not hard enough or fast enough or far enough.

A wheezing, keening sound escaped her lips. It would have been a high-pitched scream but she simply didn’t have enough breath in her lungs to bring it out. Just the whimpering tones of a wounded animal as she tried run away, bare feet scrabbling for purchase against the slick sheets.

She tried to sit up, but only managed to thrash around helplessly. The IV line was ripped out of her hand and blood pooled out under the bandage.

“Jesus, stop.”

The man, this Harry Bolt, stood up immediately and placed huge hands on her shoulders, pinning her down, looking down at her with a frown.

Even in her desperation, Ellen could see he looked ten years older, deep grooves creasing his cheeks, dark circles under his eyes, cheekbones more prominent.

She struggled against his hands, but it was like struggling against a concrete block. She couldn’t move his hands, not even a little bit. They stayed strong and steady on her shoulders, holding her down.

It was the most horrible thing of this horrible situation. She had no chance, none at all. The times she’d escaped Gerald’s men she’d done it by reacting quickly, making the smart decision, moving fast.

Everything that had helped her before—swift reflexes, strength, the will to survive—all of it was gone. Her mind was muddy, confused, slow. It had taken her a couple of seconds to even recognize Harry Bolt, as if her mind had to focus just as much as her eyes did.

Even her ineffectual attempts to shake off his hands exhausted her. There was nothing left in her. She’d reached the end of the line, muscles lax and unresponsive. And, deep down, at an animal level, she no longer had the will or the strength to fight.

It was over.

She made one last pathetic attempt to shake his hands off her and subsided, her spirit sinking into her, spiralling down. There was nothing left to her, nothing.

She closed her eyes and felt the cool tracks of her tears at her temples.

“God, don’t cry. Please.”

That deep voice again.

Hard, heavy hands lifted from her shoulders, took her hand in his. In a second, without pain, the needle was rethreaded into her vein, the bandage gently pressed again to the back of her hand.

Startled, Ellen opened her eyes again and met his. Where she’d been expecting victory and cruelty, all she saw was fatigue and…kindness?

What—?

They stared at each other, Ellen’s heart thudding slowly. “Are you going to kill me?” she finally whispered.

A spasm crossed his face and his head reared back. “Fuck no! Sorry.” He shook his head, looking baffled and worn out. He turned to the room behind him and bellowed, “Nicole!”

Ellen continued watching his face. No craziness, no cruelty. He held himself still, one finger pressed gently on the back of her hand, holding down the tape.

A swift tattoo of heels and a woman appeared in Ellen’s line of sight, bending over her.

Ellen nearly gasped. She was the most beautiful woman Ellen had ever seen. Long, midnight-black hair belling down to her shoulders, intense cobalt-blue eyes, fine features, a soft expression on her face.

Was this Harry Bolt’s woman? Was she the enforcer? Was she the one who would kill her?

It was like having spikes pounded into her brain. With the hand untethered by the IV line and Bolt’s hand, Ellen held her head where it hurt, so badly she whimpered again.

Never show weakness. It was a rule she’d lived by all her life, but right now, she was so weak she was rendered down to her rawest state.

Nicole lifted her hand and put it on her uninjured shoulder, the touch light and gentle. “It’ll be okay,” she said softly. “Everything will be all right.”

That was a lie. Nothing would ever be okay again.

Ellen turned her palm over, crooked her index finger in the universal come here gesture. Even that taxed her strength. Nicole bent down to her, holding her hair to one side. She smiled. “Yes?”

Ellen arched her neck, trying to get closer, lifting her head a little. It fell back. She had no strength in her neck muscles. Nicole bent closer.

Ellen looked at Harry Bolt, then up at this Nicole woman. She was taking a huge risk. Maybe Nicole had no idea Harry was a killer. Maybe she was his girlfriend and thought he was an ordinary guy.

“That man,” she whispered as Nicole bent her head closer. “Be careful. He tried to kill me.”

She closed her eyes, exhausted. There, she’d said it. At least someone would know the truth before she died.

Nicole straightened, startled. She looked at Bolt then back at her. Bolt was completely still, the only thing moving his broad chest as he breathed. His face was taut, remote, completely emotionless.

Nicole laughed and Ellen jolted a little.

The laugh was genuine and so out of place in this room of pain and sorrow that it took Ellen a second to recognize it and process it. Nicole sobered as she looked down at Ellen, beautiful face suddenly very serious. Her hand passed lightly over Ellen’s hair.

“Harry didn’t try to kill you, my dear. Trust me on this. He saved your life. You were walking right into an ambush when he showed up. What’s the last thing you remember?”

Ellen’s hand opened, scraping lightly along the sheet, index finger pointing toward Bolt. “Him,” she whispered. “Running toward me with a gun.”

Nicole frowned and looked at Bolt again. “You didn’t see two—” Harry Bolt held up a big hand, three fingers up. “Three men?” Nicole finished.

Ellen closed her eyes, trying to remember. It was all a blur. Getting out of the taxi, being slammed, shouts…shouts.

“Several men there. Yes.” Her voice came out a weak croak. What else? “A—a truck. Someone opening the back of a truck. Not a truck, a van.” It was all such a blur. Voices, shapes…

She opened her eyes.

“Yeah.” Harry Bolt’s deep voice was hard, rough. “They were going to take you away in that van. I got a chance to look inside it and there were restraints in there. Meant for you.”

Ellen’s heart skipped a beat at the thought of being in the hands of Montez’s men, in handcuffs.

“Did they follow you? Do they know where I am?” Ellen pushed the words out through the tightness in her throat. Maybe this Harry Bolt wasn’t after her, but Montez’s men were.

Silence. Nicole looked away uneasily. Harry Bolt just stared at her with his fierce eagle gaze. Finally, he stirred. “They’re dead,” he said roughly. “No one’s coming after you, not any more. Not ever again.”

Ellen tried to rise on her elbows but she couldn’t. She couldn’t hold herself up and felt panic rising at her inability to move. She was trapped in this house, with people she didn’t know. Her voice rose in panic. “He’s smart. He’ll have followed you, somehow, they could be coming right now, they could—”

“No,” Bolt rapped out sharply, scowling. “No one’s coming. We left before the police came. I used a cold gun, untraceable. I blanked out all the security cameras beforehand. Even if by some chance one of the men saw my license plate and called it in, and there really wouldn’t have been time, it belongs to a shell company it would take a team of forensic accountants a year to trace down. You’re safe now and you’ll stay that way.”

He stated it like a law of nature. Gravity pulls toward the center of the earth. The sun rises in the east. You’ll be safe here.

She twisted slightly, and pain shot through her shoulder. A reminder that ‘safe’ was a relative term.

He noticed and reached for a bottle of pills on a table nearby. He took a pill, poured a glass of water from a pitcher and slid his hand under her head.

“Painkiller,” he said. “It’ll take effect in about ten minutes.” He lifted her easily, somehow not hurting her.

Ellen met his eyes as he gently eased her head back on the pillow. She was so weak it frightened her. Maybe she wasn’t in any immediate danger, but if she were, she’d be utterly helpless to defend herself. She needed help to swallow a pill.

It had to be asked. “What…what happened to me?”

Bolt’s’s mouth tightened into a grim line. Grimmer line. “You were shot, but thank God it was only a ricochet. Gave me a hell of a scare there, for a moment. You lost some blood but it wasn’t life-threatening. If it had been, I’d have had to take you to a hospital, and you can be sure Montez is monitoring all of them. And anyway by law, hospitals have to report gunshot wounds. I’ve had extensive medic training and I had everything I need here. You won’t have the most beautiful scar in the world, but you’re going to be fine. Maybe later, you can have plastic surgery on the scar.”

Ellen shook her head, her hair rasping on the pillow. That wasn’t important.

“How—” She coughed, to loosen up her throat. “How long ago? How long have I been…out.”

Harry’s mouth grew, if possible, even grimmer, long grooves appearing in his cheeks. “Three days,” he said, the two words falling like stones out of his mouth.

He looked…something. There was some strong emotion there. Anger? At her? Had she been keeping him from something important? Was he mad because she might have put him in danger? She couldn’t tell at all what he might be feeling, only that whatever it was, it was strong.

Nicole looked at Bolt then back at her. “He hasn’t left your side for three days and three nights,” she said softly. “He patched you up and stayed with you. We all offered to help but he refused.”

“All?”

“Me, my husband Sam—you met Sam at the office—our housekeeper Manuela and the third RBK partner, Mike. You haven’t met him yet.”

Nicole’s voice was as calm and smooth as if they were at a tea party and she were describing the guest list.

“We all said we’d be willing to stay with you. You developed a high fever the first night. Very high. Luckily antibiotics took care of that. You drifted in and out of consciousness. Harry stayed right here. Except for going to the bathroom—” Nicole pointed to a door in the corner. “He hasn’t budged from that chair in three days.”

There was no answer to that. Ellen was mulling that piece of information over in her dull, sluggish mind when Nicole’s face changed.

It was remarkable. Where before she’d just been this beautiful woman—okay, the most beautiful woman Ellen had ever seen up close and not on a screen—all of a sudden she smiled brightly and became even more gorgeous. She simply glowed.

Ellen had a limited field of vision. But the reason for Nicole’s blinding smile walked up to her, put a big arm around her waist and bent to kiss her.

For the first time, Ellen noticed something about the way Nicole moved, a heaviness around the belly. She was expecting. And by the way her husband kissed her, it was a happy occasion.

Ellen’s mom had had a couple of pregnancy scares while Ellen was growing up and it had been anything but an occasion for rejoicing. Usually because the man in question was already across the state line and Ellen’s mom didn’t know how to take care of herself and Ellen, let alone another kid.

But this guy looked like he was going to stay, and was really happy about the pregnancy.

Sam Reston. The man Kerry had trusted to get her away safely. The man who’d saved Kerry’s life. The man she said Ellen could trust.

A tiny lingering tension left Ellen’s body.

There was still a question mark against Harry Bolt, but Nicole and her husband Sam felt safe.

Reston’s head lifted and his eyes met his wife’s. He smiled, a secret smile just for the two of them. For an instant, they were encased in a cocoon of love, the outside world completely forgotten.

Oh, man. A pang of…what? Jealousy? Longing? Whatever the emotion, it hit Ellen squarely in the chest. She was really weak, that’s why tears pricked her eyes.

But still. She’d never loved anyone like that and no one had ever loved her like that. She’d never even seen that kind of relationship. Her mom had specialized in deadbeat boyfriends who were mainly out for a temporary bed-mate and often just a bed.

Must be nice to be loved like that, she thought.

Reston turned to her and smiled. It transformed his rough face and made it almost…handsome. She wondered if a smile would do that to Harry Bolt’s face, even though he looked as if he’d never smiled. Not once in his life. As if his face would crack if he smiled.

“Hi.” Reston bent over the bed so she could see him more clearly. “Welcome back. We were a little worried, even though Harry here is a really good medic. He took good care of you.”

Her eyes slid over to Harry Bolt. Maybe. Was she expected to say thank you?

“So…we’re okay here?” Ellen desperately tried to read Sam Reston’s eyes. They were dark and featureless, except when he looked at his wife. Then they burned. “Nobody can find me here?”

“Yeah, you’re safe,” he said.

“She needs a little more reassurance than that.” Nicole jabbed an elbow into her husband’s side. He looked as thickly muscular as Harry Bolt. He probably could barely feel the jab. “My husband here tends to be…protective of me. I don’t think he’d let me be here if he felt there was any danger.”

“Damn straight,” Reston growled. “There isn’t anything that can lead Gerald Montez to here and it’s going to stay that way.”

For how long? Was she just expected to stay here—wherever here was—forever?

It was too much. Her body didn’t have any energy left, not for speculation, not for hope, not even for fear. There was simply nothing left.

She closed her eyes, murmured, “S’all right,” and heard a rushing noise as the world went black.