Protected, p.16
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       Protected, p.16
 

          
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  Because he wasn’t completely sure she was as fine as she said. She’d seemed okay on the drive to the hotel. She was acting normal—better than normal, in fact. She was acting like the Kelsey he’d spent all those hours talking to in the rubble, not the snarky, closed-off Kelsey he’d taken to his beach house. But he knew what she’d seen at Foster’s house had freaked her out. He’d seen it in her eyes before she’d gone outside. And he’d felt it when he’d hugged her and she’d clung to him as if she never wanted to let go.

  The master bedroom door opened just when he was seconds away from knocking to make sure she was still alive, and Kelsey stepped out into the living room with a one-sided smile and his iPad cradled in her hands.

  He breathed deeply, knowing she was safe, but frowned because she wasn’t dressed and ready for dinner as he’d expected. She was wrapped in a plush white bathrobe, with her wet hair covered by one of those weird towel things he didn’t know how girls made stay on their heads.

  “Sorry I’m running late,” she said as she moved past him toward the bar and pulled the fridge open. “I’ll be ready in twenty minutes.”

  “It’s fine.” He tracked her across the room, watching her carefully as she popped the top on a water bottle, tipped her head back, and took a long sip. Her features weren’t drawn or tight. Her eyes weren’t puffy from crying. She didn’t look upset in any way. And she absolutely shouldn’t look sexy in that bathrobe and head towel, but, holy hell, she did. Free of makeup, she was gorgeous. And he was a complete louse for thinking about shit like that after what she’d just been through.

  Water bottle in hand, she moved to stand next to him and stared at the television above the fireplace. “Who’s playing?”

  She also smelled divine. Her grapefruit scent made him completely mad. “Playing what?”

  “The basketball game?” She pointed toward the screen with an adorable smile. “The one you’re watching?”

  “Oh.” He glanced toward the TV even though all he wanted to do was go on looking at her. “Warriors and Celtics.”

  “Hmm.” She watched for a few seconds as she sipped her water, then said, “I’ll be ready in a few minutes. Thanks for letting me use your iPad.” She set the tablet on the coffee table and turned back for her room. “I took a bath and got distracted reading.”

  “Sure. No problem.” He watched her go, part of him wishing she’d stay. Another part really wishing she’d plop down next to him and keep watching the game in that sexy robe. “What were you reading?”

  She paused at the threshold of her room and gripped the doorframe to glance back. “A book.”

  When he frowned, the cutest smile spread across her fresh face, one he liked seeing way more than the worry he’d seen earlier.

  “A biography,” she clarified. “On Vivienne Armstrong.”

  “The dead actress? Why?”

  “Because I saw a copy of it on Foster’s desk. One of the officers was paging through it before I walked out of the house. There were long sections inside highlighted in yellow.”

  Hunt wasn’t one to follow the Hollywood gossip scene, but Vivienne Armstrong had been a rising star until her death from a drug overdose sometime in the last year. “Why would Foster be highlighting a dead actress’s autobiography?”

  “I don’t know. Thought maybe if I looked I could find a connection between them, but I didn’t see anything. It’s filled with all kinds of juicy Hollywood gossip, but nothing about Foster. You can keep looking if you want. I only read the first three chapters before I realized it was a waste of time.” She pushed away from the doorjamb. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

  She left her bedroom door open but disappeared around the corner into her bathroom. Relaxing back into his seat, he reached for his iPad and glanced through the book she’d been reading while he waited.

  Kelsey was right. The book was filled with long sections about movies the actress had worked on, actors she’d dated, and the actresses who hated her for being Hollywood’s latest “it” girl. Nothing of interest—at least, not to Hunt. He was just about to close the reading app when he spotted a chapter entitled “My Biggest Regret.”

  He skimmed the first paragraph, then went back and reread it word for word when he realized what the chapter was about. A child. A child the actress had given up for her own good.

  The hair on his nape tingled as the story unfolded before him. Vivienne Armstrong claimed she’d come from an abusive home, that when she’d been no more than sixteen, she’d gotten pregnant and her parents had thrown her out of their house. She’d moved in with her boyfriend, a mechanic who was a few years older and living on his own. But when she lost the baby, their relationship deteriorated, and she eventually moved out. She was at the end of her rope, had no one to lean on, and fell back on the one thing she’d always been good at: theater.

  She moved to LA with the dream of making it big in the movie business. She auditioned for parts and waitressed to make the rent. Slowly, she started earning roles—first in commercials, then as extras in sitcoms and TV dramas. And she fell in love with a man she shouldn’t have—someone not in the film industry who didn’t understand her dream.

  Hunt flipped pages faster, reading with more interest, sensing without even asking that these were the pages that had been highlighted in the book at Foster’s house. A child had resulted from that union—a little girl—and Vivienne had been overjoyed. But the relationship fizzled soon after because of what the actress called the girl’s “special needs,” and Vivienne soon found herself single, still struggling to make it in Hollywood, but now raising a daughter on her own and working three jobs to pay for child care, rent, and her acting classes.

  Hunt wasn’t sure how much of the story he was reading was true. A large portion was probably dramatized to sell books. But Vivienne Armstrong painted herself as the struggling, devoted single mother. According to the actress, her infant daughter had attachment issues. Vivienne couldn’t leave her to work. She couldn’t quit her jobs, or they’d starve. Social services convinced her the child needed specialists and medical intervention Vivienne couldn’t afford. She took on yet another job but was fired when she repeatedly had to leave to deal with the girl’s emotional outbursts with the sitter. And at the end of her rope, unable to take care of her daughter, and now struggling to take care of herself as well, Vivienne began to believe what the social workers repeatedly suggested, that perhaps the best care for her daughter could be found somewhere else. With a new family who could give her the stability and support she needed.

  The next few paragraphs were vague but got the point across. Vivienne turned the girl over to a friend in her old hometown, one who promised to give her the attention she needed and raise her in a loving environment. Vivienne went back to Hollywood, but she was so heartbroken at yet another failure, she vowed to make a million dollars so she could hire all the people she’d need to help her bring her daughter home. Only when she finally reached her goal, when she did make it big in Hollywood and finally went back to retrieve her daughter, the girl was gone. The woman who’d taken her in had become ill and given her up for adoption. The last paragraph in the chapter claimed by the time Vivienne learned the news, the caregiver was dead and her daughter had been lost in the system. And she’d spent years trying to find her only to come up empty.

  Hunt stared at the page, the tingle at his nape shifting to a full-on vibration as he remembered a conversation he’d had with Kelsey’s brother Alec years before.

  “I’m all set.”

  From the corner of his eye, he was aware of Kelsey stepping into the room. She was doing something with her hair, running her fingers through it or fluffing it out, he wasn’t sure which because he couldn’t turn to look.

  “Hunt? Are you all right?”

  “Alec told me once that you changed your first name when the McClanes adopted you.”

  “I did,” she said hesitantly. “A lot of adopted kids do. Why are you bringing that up?”


  He looked up at her, standing feet from him, wearing a slim black dress with cap sleeves and a wrap bodice that accentuated her cleavage and the curves at her hips. Standing in the early light of evening with her blonde hair hanging in gentle waves past her shoulders, she looked angelic and gorgeous. Ready for a night out away from the nightmare of the last few days. Which she deserved. But she wasn’t going to get it. And he felt like a complete ass for being the one who was about to destroy it.

  He pushed to his feet and handed her the iPad. “Because I think it just became important.”

  Wary, she took the iPad and glanced from his face down to the screen. The second her wide eyes shot back up to his face, he knew he didn’t even need to hear her say her birth name.

  “I need to make a call.” He stepped past her, gently brushing his hand over her shoulder in the process. “And you need to sit down and read that.”

  She didn’t answer, just slowly sank onto the chair he’d vacated as she furiously scrolled back to the start of the chapter and began reading.

  He watched her for a second to make sure she was okay. She would be, he knew. Not because she was made of steel or tough under pressure, but because she was a survivor. She might have trouble trusting others. She might keep her emotions closed off and tightly guarded. But he knew now why she did those things. Because she’d learned at an early age it was safer than being rejected. If she was that child he’d read about in Armstrong’s book, if she’d had those attachment issues even from birth, it explained a whole lot more than he’d ever imagined. Even her relationship with Benedict made a sick sort of sense when he thought about it. For someone like her, who was scared to death to get close to anyone, he was a safe choice because she’d known from the start he’d never push her to let him in.

  His heart beat hard and fast as he watched her, sitting in the chair reading. They were the same, really. Both alone, both wary of relationships, both scared of taking a chance on someone else. Only her reasons were so much stronger than his. After everything he now knew about her, after everything she’d survived, his just seemed . . . cowardly.

  Especially when she was the one person he was starting to think might be worth risking everything for.

  Kelsey swirled her wine and watched the red liquid stick to the sides of the glass as she sat at a table on the sparsely populated balcony of the bistro where she and Hunt had grabbed dinner in downtown Palm Springs. She knew she needed to snap out of the melancholy mood she’d slipped into after reading that chapter in Vivienne Armstrong’s autobiography. But she just couldn’t.

  Was it possible? Could she really be the late actress’s long-lost daughter?

  Logic said no, but Kali-Shae was not a common name. And the backstory . . . the dates . . . they matched up.

  Footsteps sounded close, then the chair across from her scraped the floor, and she glanced up to see Hunt sitting across from her. “That was the detective.”

  “Well?” She sat up straighter, her pulse ticking up at those four simple words. Hunt had left a message for the detective in charge of the investigation before they’d left the hotel, and the man had called back in the middle of their meal.

  “You were right. That was the chapter that was highlighted.”

  Her stomach rolled, and she looked down at the food she’d ordered but barely touched.

  “He also said they got a positive ID on fingerprints in the house. They’re Foster’s. The last time he was seen was four days ago at a gas station outside LA.”

  “Plenty of time for him to fly from LA to Portland to set that bomb.”

  “Yeah.” A worried look passed over his features.

  “What else?”

  His jaw clenched, then he said, “The cops found an outbuilding on his property with some interesting contents. Several barrels of diesel fuel, a couple pallets of fertilizer bags, and wiring that could be used to build a bomb.”

  Her shoulders tensed.

  “The cops also told me Foster has a reputation in this area for being a bit of a recluse who likes to complain about the evils of Corporate America, the media, and the US government.”

  “So he’s a conspiracy theorist.”

  “Sounds like it.”

  All the scenarios she’d tried not to let invade her brain came crashing in. “So what are we hypothesizing here? That Armstrong was my mother? That this guy Foster was my father? That he set that bomb in Portland because he knew I’d be there and he . . . what? Wanted to get back at Armstrong in some way for leaving him?”

  “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Hunt placed his hand over hers against her wineglass.

  The heat of his touch was gentle and warm, and it calmed her just enough so she didn’t freak out. “We both know that’s the logical assumption.”

  “Maybe. But it doesn’t make sense. Why go after you? You didn’t know her. We don’t even know if you’re related to her. And if you really were the target, why set a bomb? There are a dozen easier ways to hurt someone that will draw way less attention.”

  “Unless he didn’t want anyone to know I was the target. If I’d died in that bombing, it would have just looked like a random accident.”

  “Then why send the text message?”

  “To scare me. To make me crazy.” Exactly as she was right now. “And you just explained he’s a nutjob. If he hates the media and Corporate America so much, setting off that bomb at a major television studio would hit two targets at one time.”

  “Maybe,” he said, squeezing her hand. “But it’s just as likely Foster is nothing more than a crazed fan. Until we know how you’re connected to both Armstrong and Foster, it’s not worth stressing over.”

  She wasn’t sure about that. She couldn’t shake the things she’d seen in that house and the fact her name—her birth name—was in that book.

  Hunt released her hand, and even though she knew she couldn’t lean on him as she wanted, part of her wished he’d hold her hand just a little while longer, the way he’d held her against him outside Foster’s house. “The detective gave me the name of Armstrong’s attorneys. I think we should try to set up a meeting. They should be able to either confirm or deny everything I know you’re worrying about right now.”

  She nodded as he cut back into his steak, cold now because he’d had to leave to take that call. Her own meal was cold, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t eat it. Lifting her wine, she swallowed what was left in her glass and signaled the waiter, knowing it wasn’t smart to keep drinking but needing it at the same time to keep her sane.

  Hunt eyed her warily as she thanked the waiter for refilling her glass and then took a large sip. Her brothers eyed her like that when they thought she was being reckless. She hated that look from them almost as much as she hated it from Hunt now. The only plus was that Hunt was smart enough to keep his opinion to himself.

  He tried to change the topic and talked to her about the city and what they should do after dinner—get dessert, walk through the shops, or hit a few galleries. She nodded where appropriate but barely heard what he was saying. All she could focus on was that chapter she’d read in Armstrong’s book.

  “Even if Foster was nothing more than a crazed fan,” she said when he paused long enough to finish his meal, “it doesn’t change anything.”

  He swallowed his last bite, lowered his silverware to his plate, then used the napkin to wipe his mouth. Pushing his plate to the side, he said, “Okay, tell me why not.”

  “Because his being a crazed fan actually explains my situation. He transferred the grudge he had against her to me.”

  “Kels,” he said softly, leaning his forearms against the table, “you don’t know that she’s your mother.”

  “Yes, I do.” She looked back at her wine. “And you do too, even if you’re not ready to admit it.”

  “The name and timing are similar, I’ll give you that.”

  “It’s more than that. The developmental delays she wrote about? The attachment issues? I had those, but
they weren’t from any sort of special-needs birth defect like she made it sound. They were a direct result of fetal alcohol syndrome. My mother drank when she was pregnant with me. I was a fussy baby and a difficult child who was developmentally and socially delayed for a long time. I went through three foster homes because I was so hard to manage, and the only reason I’m not an alcoholic myself as an adult is because the McClanes adopted me.”

  “And you think that proves she’s your mother?”

  She knew she sounded irrational, but she didn’t care. “It goes one step further in proving it. Vivienne Armstrong died of a drug overdose. I’ve seen pictures of her online, and in every one she always had a drink in her hand. And don’t tell me you don’t see the similarities. People have told me for years that I look like her. You heard that production assistant at the studio say so just before that damn bomb went off.”

  He reached for her hand, but she snatched up her wine before he could touch her, not wanting his calming presence or strength right now. She wanted to wallow and rant and rage because life was being so goddamn unfair to her. Again.

  “Don’t do that.”

  She paused with the glass to her lips and swallowed the large sip in her mouth, looking across the stem at his eyes, realizing what she was doing.

  Realizing exactly how similar she was to the actress.

  Nausea swirled in her stomach as she lowered the glass to the table with a shaky hand, wishing she could get up and run out of this restaurant, wishing she could run away from her pathetic issues in the process.

  “Don’t do that either.” He captured her fingers before she could pull her hand away, only this time his grip was fierce and insistent, and the edge in his voice matched the chill she’d seen moments before in his eyes. “Don’t sit there looking like I’m scolding you because I’m not. I don’t care if you have a drink or ten. I’m not your brothers, and I’m not your ex. When I said don’t, I meant don’t shut me out.”

 
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