Read an Excerpt
"Hold on. I can't hear you."
Pressing the phone to her ear, Sierra wove through the cocktail party crowd, straining to hear above the noise.
Rain sheeted down on the small balcony as she stepped out through the sliding glass door. Shivering, she pressed herself flat beneath the overhang and pulled the door closed. The wind whistled over the faint hum of cars from the street below, but it felt like silence after the chatter of the party.
"Okay. I'm good now. Can you start over?"
"Is this Sierra Clark?"
"Yes, it is." Was this a client? She didn't recognize the voice. "Who is this?"
"Ms. Clark, this is Sheriff Kurt Allen of Barber County, Colorado. Are you the daughter of Delbert and Eleanor Clark of Wilmette, Illinois?"
Her heart lurched. "Yes, they're my parents." Her fingers dug into her cell phone. "Why are you calling me?"
"Ms. Clark, I have some bad news." The sheriff cleared his throat. "Your parents were killed in a plane crash earlier this evening."
Cold rain battered her face and needled through her silk shirt. "What?" The frigid air was too heavy to breathe. "My parents? Colorado? That can't be right." She stared at the Los Angeles skyline, blurred by the rain.
"I'm sorry." His voice softened. "The small plane was identified as belonging to Delbert Clark. Identification on the bodies indicates he and Eleanor Clark were the victims."
Victims? Bodies? Mom and Dad? "No. No, that's not possible." She wrapped her arm around her waist. "They're not in Colorado. They're in Wilmette. At home. There's been a mistake." Someone else was supposed to get this phone call. She'd hang up, dial her parents and hear their voices. Then she could breathe again.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Clark." The sympathy in the man's voice made her want to throw the phone off the balcony. "There's no mistake. Perhaps you'll want to contact the rest of your family. You can call us back when you're ready to make the arrangements." He gave her a number and the line went dead. He'd hung up.
Cold raindrops pelted her face and chest, and tiny pinpricks of pain burrowed deep inside her. Her hands shaking, she pressed the speed dial for her parents' home. It rang and rang, but no one answered.
She tried her father's cell, then her mother's. Not even a dial tone. They both went straight to voice mail. Sierra's hair fell over her face, the curls dripping water down her cheeks, channeling tears onto her chest. The phone scraped against her ear as she listened to first her father, then her mother, tell her to leave a message.
As she ended the calls, she saw the red light blinking and the text box on the screen. "You have one new voice message." Her parents' phone number.
Fingers fumbling, she retrieved the voice mail.
"Hey, honey." Her mom's voice. Happy. Carefree. "Dad and I are off to Colorado for the weekend. Suzie lent us her condo in Aspen. I'll call you when we get home."
"No!" The scream disappeared into the wind and rain. Just like her parents.
The glass at her back was slippery as she sank to the cold concrete surface of the balcony. Water soaked her skirt, drenched her blouse, numbed her feet in their strappy heels. When the cheery voice asked if she wanted to save or delete this voice mail, she covered her head with her arms against the slicing rain.
Hey, honey. Dad and I are off to Colorado. Off to Colorado. Off to Colorado.
The voice came from far away. She barely heard it, didn't bother to look up. Nothing anyone could say was important.
"Sierra?" A hand brushed her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
She turned her head slowly. Nick Boone, her boss, was crouched next to her, rain splattering his dark suit jacket.
"You're soaking wet." He tugged at her arm. "You should come inside where it's warm."
"Doesn't matter." She closed her eyes as the rain soaked her hair, ran in rivulets down the back of her neck. She would never be warm again.
"Sierra!" He put his arm around her waist and lifted her. "What's wrong? Did you have too much to drink?"
He had her on her feet, but she was swaying. Her teeth chattered and her body shook. The blouse dripped water down her arms, onto her fingers, onto the concrete. Onto Nick's shoes. The light from the balcony reflected off them.
He shrugged off his suit jacket and slung it around her shoulders, then opened the door, releasing a blast of warm air. She tried to walk, but her feet wouldn't work.
Nick wrapped his arm around her waist and steered her into the crowded, noisy room. Voices pounded in her ears, bodies jostled her, but they were all a blur. She read shock on someone's face. Pity in another's. How did they know?
"You're drenched," Nick said as he walked her toward the exit. "How long were you out there?"
How long does it take for a world to crumble? "Forever."
"Sierra, what's going on?" His arm tightened around her waist. "For God's sake, this is a professional conference. You have to be careful." He peered at her face, then grabbed both her arms. She swayed once more, and his hands tightened. "Did someone put something in your drink?"
The smell of seafood, salty and pungent, drifted past, along with the tang of lemon. Her stomach churned.
"Sierra? What were you ?" Nick's voice became part of the noise around her.
A moment later he leaned closer, and she smelled the scotch he'd been drinking. Scotch. What her father drank. She closed her eyes.
Nick pulled her against his side, close enough that she could feel the rise and fall of his chest. The rhythm of his breathing.
He felt as warm as a furnace, and she tried to get even nearer. The cold was eating her alive. Consuming every inch of her.
As she shook, his jacket began to slide off her shoulders. He pulled it around her with his other hand, bundling her into a cocoon, trapping in the cold. The smell of wet wool washed over her.
"Sierra?" He bent his head to hers, and his breath feathered through the wet hair over her ear. "Can you walk?"
She took a step, then another. The noise of the party pounded at her, fading as they moved through a doorway. Cool air rippled over her wet blouse, making her shake more violently.
"If I let you go, can you stand?" Nick's voice again.
He bent and started removing her high heels. His hands were hot on the bare skin of her ankle as he slipped the strap off the back and eased one sandal off. As he removed the other shoe, his palm curved over her calf.
Nick guided her into a small alcove and onto a stone bench. It chilled the backs of her thighs as she sat, and she hunched her shoulders.
"Are you sick?"
His blue eyes studied her face, and she forced herself to focus on him, the man she'd been working with for almost three years. She'd been nothing but professional with him. Always calm, always prepared, always exacting in her work. No drama, no scenes.
Why did Nick have to be the one who found her? Why did he have to be the witness to her disintegration?
She wanted to get up and run away. Hide. Bury herself in a hole and block out everything else. But he still had his arm around her. Holding her in place. Preventing her escape.
She licked her lips, which felt dry and chapped. How could they, when the rest of her was so wet? "I I got a phone call. My parents were killed in a plane crash."
He stared at her for a moment, then she saw understanding sweep over his face. He sucked in a breath.
"Oh my God."
He opened the cocktail purse at her wrist and rummaged inside. Pulled out her hotel key. "What's your room number?"
She stared at him blankly.
"Sierra." His face came close again. His eyes were the color of the sky. Had her parents seen that color before they died?
Nick shook her gently. "What room are you staying in?"
She stared at him blankly, and he pushed her wet hair out of her face and tucked it behind her ear. "What room are you in, Sierra?"
She closed her eyes. "Fifteen something. No. Twelve."
"Okay." He pulled her upright and she stumbled with him to the elevator, his arm steady around her. His fingers pressed tight above her hip; his palm rested in the curve of her waist.
A bland, horrible version of a Beatles song played. "I Get By With a Little Help from my Friends." She stared at the elevator door. The metallic surface reflected a stranger's white face, streaks of mascara on her cheeks. Nick held her shoes in one hand, supporting her with the other. She began to cry.
A soft ping and the door opened. The lighting in the corridor was muted, the carpet thick and sound absorbing. That was good. Sierra couldn't stop crying.
"Do you remember your room number?" Nick's voice was soft. Understanding. She'd rather he remain the brusque man from the balcony. The one who'd thought she was drunk.
The kindness in his voice made the tears fall faster.
Her room. "Fifteen. Twelve fifteen. Magna Carta."
He paused in the door of the elevator. "You remembered your room number because of the year the Magna Carta was signed."
"Twelve fifteen. Yes."
"A woman with hidden depths." He curled his arm around her waist again and led her down the hall. When they reached her room, he let her go carefully and unlocked the door.
Inside, the room smelled like disinfectant overlaid with cloying air freshener. He put her shoes in the closet, then took her arms.
"Do you have brothers or sisters? Can I dial them for you?"
"No." She felt his jacket slip off her shoulders and whisper past her legs as it landed on the floor. Cool air from the vent above the bed washed over her, and she shivered. "Th-thank you. No brothers or sisters." No family, other than a distant aunt and uncle.
She was an orphan now.
Sinking onto the bed, she drew her knees to her chest and let the tears fall.
Nick was still there, at the end of the bed. She stared at the bedspread, a blinding white duvet. "Thank you for walking me up here," she said, her voice thick and hoarse. Why wouldn't he leave and let her fall apart?
Another long moment stretched as she struggled to control herself. "Sierra, I can't leave you alone after news like this. You need to get warmed up. Why don't you take a shower?"
"I'm fine," she said.
"You're not fine." His voice was more gentle than she ever imagined it could be. "You're in shock. Freezing cold. You need to warm up."
Warm. Yes. She needed to be warm. "Okay." She slid off the bed, then stood there, swaying.
He reached around her, the sleeve of his blue cotton dress shirt brushing her cheek, and unfastened her lapis necklace. The one her mother had given her to celebrate her first architectural job. The start of her career.
Nick stared at her, as if waiting for her to do something. Finally, he put his hand on her back and guided her toward the bathroom. "Take a shower, Sierra. Warm up. I'll wait. You shouldn't be alone right now."
Alone. That's what she was. What she would be from now on.
He left the bathroom door ajar behind her. She began to undress, but the tiny pearl buttons down the front of her blouse seemed to have gotten much bigger. She fumbled as she tried to push them through the tiny holes.
"Sierra?" Nick cracked the door open and peered in. "Do you need help?"
She looked down at the blouse. "No." She fumbled with the buttons again, but couldn't manage to undo them. Finally, he stepped in, moved her hands away and unbuttoned the blouse. It fell open, revealing her cream-colored bra. The lacy one she'd chosen to go with the blouse.
He slid his hands to the waistband of her skirt. They were trembling as he unhooked, then unzipped the garment. It slid off her hips and landed on the floor in a dark blue puddle. "You can do the rest, can't you?"
His voice sounded rusty. She nodded.
He backed out of the room, and this time the door clicked shut. She turned on the shower, waiting until it was hot, and stepped in.
Sierra stood under the spray, feeling it cascade over her body, and thought about her mom and dad. Had they suffered? Had they known they were going to die?
She sank to the floor of the shower, curled into a ball and sobbed.
Nick stood at the bathroom door, listening to the water beat down. Listening to Sierra cry. She'd been crying for fifteen minutes.
He cracked the door, and steam billowed out. "Sierra? Are you okay?"
Nothing. He'd have to check on her.
He didn't want to see her naked. Having to undress her was bad enough. Seeing all that pale skin and her long legs, the purple string bikini, the creamy lace of her bra, had rattled him. Made him want.
He was a bastard.
Steam filled the shower, leaving her a smudgy figure curled on the tiled floor. Her head was on her knees and her red hair, long and dark, hung around her face. Her body shook with sobs.
"Sierra. You need to get out of the shower." When she didn't respond, he said more loudly, "Turn off the water."
She stared at him as if she had no idea who he was.