Excerpt: Passion

Excerpt: Passion

Book 2: In Wilde Country

He drove fast, this man called Matteo, or at least that was how it seemed to Ariel.

She probably wasn’t the best judge of what did and didn’t constitute fast driving.

The fact was, she couldn’t recall riding in a car or driving one.

No. Not true. She remembered arriving at the hospital in an ambulance. Other than that, she really couldn’t recall much of anything, and no, she wasn’t going to go there because she knew what would happen, that panic would suck the breath from her lungs.

Not being able to remember anything, anything about yourself was more than terrifying, it was—it was as if you’d died but you didn’t yet know it.

“Are you warm enough?”

She turned toward him. Matteo. Was he of Spanish origin? Italian? His name was surely not American, and he was dark-haired, but he had green eyes. Amazingly green eyes.


Smile, she told herself, but her lips were so dry she couldn’t really pull them back against her teeth.

“Yes,” she said quickly. Too quickly. She knew it instantly; she heard the wobble in her voice, heard the lie. I’m-m f-fine.”

Big improvement. Her voice didn’t just wobble this time. Her teeth chattered.

“I know it’s cold in here,” he said. “I’ve turned the heat up all the way. Just give it a couple of minutes.”

She nodded and burrowed deeper into the blanket. She wasn’t just cold, she was freezing, but she suspected it wasn’t because of the temperature. She’d been ice-cold since the accident, well, since coming to consciousness in the hospital after the accident. One of the nurses had even commented on it, trying to turn the coldness of her hands and feet into a little joke that she suspected had been meant to try and inject some normalcy into an abnormal situation.

“Cold hands, warm heart,” the nurse had said, and at Ariel’s blank look, she’d added, “It’s an old saying.”

Maybe, but Ariel suspected the coldness was the result of fear. Bone-deep fear.

In fact, that was the one and only thing she did know about herself.

She was terrified.

And she had no idea of who or what or why.

Once they’d moved her out of Emergency and into a regular room, she’d felt her heart jump each time the door swung open. Doctors, nurses, aides and techs came and went, and each instance brought with it a breathless, dizzying moment of sheer panic, as if she were waiting, just waiting for someone who wasn’t a doctor or nurse, aide or technician to come through the door and—

And what?

She was scared half to death, and she didn’t even know the reason.

She gave a strangled laugh, saw the man named Matteo glance at her and she quickly changed the laugh into a cough.

She didn’t know him, either. She’d had his name on a card in her pocket, the emergency room people had told her, and he’d come after Dr. Stafford had contacted him, but really, what did that mean? He could be anybody, even the faceless enemy she feared, but she didn’t think so. Something about him said he was a good person. His face. His eyes. Even the way he touched her and besides, what choice did she have?

She had to get out of the hospital.

She knew that, even if she didn’t know her own name, and Matteo Bellini seemed a safe bet. At least, she hoped he was.

“Hey,” he said gently. “I know this is rough. You just hang in there and I’ll get us to someplace warm as soon as I can. Okay?”

She nodded. “Okay.” She slicked the tip of her tongue over her bottom lip. “Where?”

“Where, what?”

“You said we were going someplace, and I was just wondering where that would be.”

Matteo’s hands tightened on the wheel.

It was an excellent question.

Where, exactly, was he taking her? And how come he hadn’t thought about that until now?

Where, he thought, where…

It was simpler to decide on where he wouldn’t take her.

Not to the airport. No point in that. They’d never take off in snow this heavy—the stuff was coming harder by the minute.

Not to Manhattan by car. Even if Ariel could take the long hours on the road, and she sure as hell didn’t look as if she could, the car couldn’t. Sleek sports cars were great for dry roads. Right now, he was in the same situation he’d been in Saturday, when he left El Sueño. The difference was that nobody was around to offer him a truck with four wheel drive, and going to the rental place and trading the car for something else was out of the question at this hour.

As if to signal assent, the car took a delicate skid toward oncoming traffic. Matteo easily controlled it, but the decision on what to do next, where to go, had been made for him.

“A hotel,” he said, hoping he sounded as if he’d intended that all along. “In fact…”

He reached for the GPS embedded in the dashboard, punched a few keys, hoped the thing worked the same as the one he normally used—and it did. A list of hotels appeared onscreen. Marriotts, Hiltons, Sheratons.

If Tony were looking for his wife, wouldn’t those be the first places he’d check?

She’d been smart enough to travel by bus. He had to be smart enough to bypass the bigger hotels for smaller ones.

He hit another button, watched as motel names scrolled by. Forget the major chains. He wanted some generic listing, a name that a middle-class traveler wouldn’t notice…

The STAY-A-NITE Motel. Fifth and Benson, four miles ahead.

That, Matteo decided, would do it.

* * * * *

The STAY-A-NITE did it, all right.

Maybe the only question was what, precisely, did it do.

The sign was barely visible in the heavy fall of snow. S-AY-A-NI—HT it said, in blinking red neon.

Matteo pulled onto the gravel driveway and hesitated.

The motel was old. It probably qualified as an antique. There was an office ahead and beyond it stretched a line of a dozen attached units, all of them accessible from a sagging communal porch. He recalled seeing places like it as he’d driven through dying small towns in the Catskills that time years ago when he’d first gone hang gliding.

Could he really take Ariel into a place so old and ugly?

He glanced at her.

She was lying as far back as the seat would permit, the hospital blanket drawn to her chin. Her eyes were closed. Her face was almost as white as the snow except for two blobs of unnaturally bright color in her cheeks.

Was he nuts? Of course he could. She was exhausted, frightened, cold and almost certainly in pain. She needed a place where she could rest and get warm; he needed one that would offer anonymity.

He put the car in gear, drove up to the office and stopped.

She hadn’t moved.


Did she hear him? Was she asleep or was she pretending to be asleep? Worse still, had she slipped into unconsciousness?

He undid his seat belt, leaned over and put his hand lightly on her shoulder.


She came awake with a gasp.

“No,” she said, and what he saw in her eyes wrenched at his gut.

“It’s okay,” he said quickly. “You’re fine. We’re at the motel. You stay put while I check us in. Understand?”

She nodded.

He nodded, too. He wanted to say something more, something reassuring. What he really wanted to do was pull her into his arms as he had done in the hospital.

Only to reassure her.

Only for that.

Instead, he offered what he hoped was a smile, set the engine in neutral to keep the heat going, and trudged through what was already several inches of snow to the office.

He came out a minute later with a key to unit eight, or what the gum-chewing clerk had euphemistically called bungalow eight.

The man had given Matteo his choice of accommodations. Except for a beat-up pickup parked outside the first unit, they seemed to be the only customers. He’d chosen eight because the clerk, when asked which unit had the best heating system, had scratched his head, pinched his nose, poked a finger into his ear and finally said, well, the heater in eight had been fixed just a couple of weeks ago.

“Others ain’t been touched in a while,” he’d added, and Matteo had said that eight would do fine.

Ariel was awake, clutching the blanket to her and shivering.

“Got the best room in the house,” he said briskly, hoping for a smile.

All he got was another nod, but he figured that was better than nothing.

He parked outside their unit. Stepped out into the snow and went around to her side of the car. She was trying to undo her seatbelt. Not easy, one-handed.

“I’ll do that,” he said, and he opened the latch, then reached for her.

“I can walk.”

The blanket had slipped open, enough for him to see that she was wearing blue hospital scrubs and paper slippers. No wonder she was cold, and hospital footgear wasn’t going to stand up to snow.

“I’m sure you can,” Matteo said as he scooped her into his arms, “but let’s not risk a fall.”

She stiffened as he lifted her from the car.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said in a low voice. “And I’m not going to let anyone else hurt you.”

She looked into his eyes. Then she gave another of those quick little nods and he carried her up two rickety steps to the porch, held her to him in the curve of one arm as he fitted the key into the lock.

The door swung open.

And, man oh man, had he picked the right place. Nobody would ever look for her here.

The room was small, maybe 10 feet by 12 feet. It held a double bed—he hadn’t thought to ask for twins—along with a dresser, a night table and an armchair that looked as if it had lived a hundred lives. The floor was linoleum, the color indecipherable under layers of time and grime. A door against the far wall stood open, revealing a sink, commode and a tub hung with a sagging shower curtain.

“What’d I tell you?” he said. “Only the best.”

“The Ritz,” she said, with what was almost a laugh.

A good sign, because that thing she’d turned into a laugh a little while ago had made the hair rise on the back of his neck.

“And we’re in luck. The guy at the desk says there’s a Michelin four star restaurant right across the road.”

“A four star restaurant? Here?”

“Yup. Some bistro called McDonald’s.”

He gave the name a drawn-out French pronunciation. She laughed. This time, it was definitely a real laugh.

“Mac-Dohn-ahlz,” she said, imitating him. “Very nice, monsieur.” Her smiled tilted. “See? I recognize the important things. The name of a fast food joint. The name of a fancy hotel. I’m only clueless when it comes to remembering me.”

She spoke with a lightness he knew she didn’t feel. Her courage in the face of what had to be a terrifying situation made him want to pump his fist in the air.

Or kiss her.

Are you nuts, Bellini?

The last thing she needed was him, coming on to her. The last thing he should be thinking about was him, coming on to her.

He had to concentrate on keeping her safe—and on coming up with a plan. Staying in a broken down motel for a night was only a stop-gap.

He carried her to the sagging armchair and deposited her in it.

“Okay,” he said briskly. “Let me just turn up the heat and—”

“Matteo?” He looked over his shoulder. Her face wore a serious, almost solemn expression. “Why are you helping me?”

He’d asked himself the same question. Now, for the first time, the answer came easily.

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I don’t even know who you are. You realized that, didn’t you?”

He smiled. “Yeah. I kind of figured it our.”

“The nurses told me about the card in my pocket. They said it belonged to a man named Bellini. They said Dr. Stafford would get in touch with you. So when you walked into my room and spoke to me the way you did, you know, not threateningly…”

“Had someone spoken to you in a way that seemed threatening?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember—but I have this feeling that someone did. Not since the accident. Before.”

“Can you remember anything else? Who the person was? What he looked like?”

“It was a man. That’s all I know.” She hesitated. “I wish I had recognized you. I mean, I wish I could remember you. And I’m sorry if you came all this distance because you thought that I did.”

Matteo squatted before her and clasped her hand in both of his.

“It’s all right, cara.”

“It isn’t. Having no memory… They explained it, over and over. What amnesia is, I mean, and I understand the explanation. But I can’t understand it inside me, where it matters. Because it doesn’t make sense,” she said, tears rising in her eyes. “To have no knowledge of my own name, of anything before I woke up in that emergency room…”

“Ariel.” Gently, Matteo thumbed the tears from her cheeks. “I know it must be terrible, not knowing these things, but your memory will come back.”

“Will it?”

There was despair in those two simple words.

“Yes,” he replied. How could he say otherwise?

“Because—because, you know, it has to! I can’t go on not knowing who I am.” Her glittering eyes searched his. “I have to remember things. All this, for instance, what you’ve done for me… How can I not remember you? We must have—we must have an important relationship if yours was the only name they found on me, if you came to—to rescue me, to do all this for me.” She drew a shuddering breath. “And I don’t even know who you are.”

He brushed a lock of hair back from her forehead.

“Sure you do,” he said softly. “I’m Matteo Bellini. I’m an attorney.”

“Is that how we know each other?”

Dammit. He should have known one simple question would lead to another.


“Then, how do we know each other? Who are you to me?”

The questions were no longer simple. He recalled Stafford’s warning about letting her memory come back on its own.

“Ariel,” he said, “do you trust me?”

She gave a sad little laugh. “I must, or what would I be doing here?”

“If you trust me, you have to be patient. I can’t give you the answers you want.”

Her eyes flashed. She yanked her hand from his.

“Dammit I’ve lost my memory, not my ability to think!”

Good. She was angry. It was the first emotion she’d shown that didn’t involve fear or, even worse, compliance.

“I know that.”

“No. You don’t, or you wouldn’t treat me like a child.”

“I’m only following Stafford’s orders.”

“Stafford.” She shook her head. “He thinks he knows what’s best for me, but he isn’t me. He can’t imagine what it’s like to look inside and see—and see only darkness.”

“He wants you to get better. So do I. You’re hurt and upset.”

“I am fine!”

“You’re better than fine. You’ve brave and strong…but you need to rest. Right now, you look as if you went ten rounds against the heavyweight champion of the world.”

She kept glaring at him. Then, she sighed.

“And lost.”

He laughed. “Let’s just say you look as if you put up a good fight.”

“Right. Black eyes. Stitches. A cast. Some good fight.”

“Actually,” he said softly, “you look beautiful.”

She smiled. “I’ll bet.”

“Beautiful,” he said solemnly, and he leaned in and kissed her.

It was a soft kiss. A tender one. He told himself he’d done it only to soothe her, but the feel of her mouth under his made him want to keep kissing her until she kissed him back.

He jerked away, shot to his feet. She looked stunned. Well, hell, why wouldn’t she? They were strangers. He knew that, even if she didn’t.

Should he apologize? Explain? Yes. Absolutely. An explanation was in order. It was what she deserved.

Only one problem.

He didn’t have one.

He’d kissed her because he’d wanted to kiss her. Because her mouth was a soft, pink invitation. Because he’d wanted to kiss her two nights ago, when they’d first met.

Because he’d known she’d taste like honey, and she did.

Matteo bit back a groan.

Wonderful. He was one hell of a guy. He was alone with a woman in physical and emotional pain. She was confused, frightened, baffled—and he’d ignored all those things and kissed her.

Of course he should apologize. But what would he say?

He could say…he could say he’d only wanted to reassure her. Let her see that everything was going to be fine. That his kiss had been meant as a friendly gesture…

“Matteo?” Her voice was low. “Is that the kind of relationship we have? Are we—are we intimate?”

“Ariel. Honey, I’m sorry. I—”

“Are we lovers?”

Ah, God! “No,” he said. “We’re not. “

“I didn’t think so. Because even though I can’t remember anything else, I know I’d remember if we—if you and I were lovers.”

He stood with his back to her, his hands on his hips, taking deep breaths, then expelling them.

“That kiss was a mistake.”

No answer.

“I shouldn’t have done it.”

Still, no answer. He swung around. She was sitting in the chair, looking down at the floor.

“I promise,” he said, “it won’t happen again.”

She looked up. “You can’t keep avoiding my questions.”

“This isn’t the time to have this conversation.”

“When is the time?”

Why not tell her the truth? “I don’t know,” he said. “Right now, we need to eat something. Ride out this storm. Figure out what we’re going to do in the morning.”

He was right. She knew it. Despite everything, her belly was growling. She was freezing in the thin scrubs, and what they would do tomorrow sounded like the greatest puzzle in the world.

“Okay,” she said. “What can I do?”

He went to the bed and pulled back the spread and blanket.

“You can climb in here and rest while I head across the road and get up some food. The guy at the office said there’s a big, all-night drugstore in that same little mall. With luck, I’ll be able to fill the prescriptions the doctor gave us, see if I can’t get you something to wear that’ll be warmer than the scrubs, and before you know it, I’ll be back. You good with all that? Great,” he said, without waiting for an answer. “You lie down, take it easy, don’t open the door for anybody except me. Got it?”

She studied his face for what seemed forever before she jerked her head in assent.

“Good,” he said, “fine. I won’t be long.”

He went out the door without looking back, and locked it behind him.

The snow was heavy; the mall was directly opposite. Better to walk than take the car, he decided, not only because driving looked like a bad idea, but because a trudge through the storm might just clear his head.

Because it needed clearing.

Matteo almost laughed.

Talk about understatements, he thought, and he set out toward the lights piercing the veil of snow.