City of Fire

Lena Gamble Novels (Volume 1)

Robert Ellis

Minotaur Books

Chapter One

She rolled over in bed, nudging the corner of the pillow with her cheek and burrowing in. Dreaming. Sleeping. Searching out cool spots with her legs and feet beneath the clean sheets and extra blanket.

She could hear the curtains moving somewhere in the foggy haze at the edge of her dream. Moist, chilly air filtering in through the open window from the ocean. The promise of sunshine burning the clouds away sometime tomorrow afternoon.

It was April in Los Angeles—Nikki Brant’s favorite month of the year. And things were good right now. Better than they had ever been before.

She groped in the darkness for a second pillow and drew it closer, snuggling with it and pretending that she wasn’t alone. She was dreaming about her secret. Her special secret. The one her doctor told her just after lunch. The one that began with a single word.

Congratulations.

Nikki didn’t really hear the rest. Nothing registered after that word. She couldn’t concentrate because her heart was beating so fast—everything streaming by in a joyous blur. It began the moment her doctor stepped into the examination room and flashed that smile. The moment she caught the glint in her doctor’s eye.

But her doctor was only confirming it for her. Deep inside she already knew.

She stirred and cracked her eyes open, sensing that someone had entered the bedroom. It was James, home from another late night at work. She could see his figure in the darkness, the rim of light from the clock radio behind him outlining his body in neon blue. It seemed as if he was staring at her from the foot of the bed as he got out of his jacket and loosened his tie.

A dog started barking somewhere in the distance.

She guessed it might be that small, white terrier three doors down the street, but she wasn’t exactly sure. Her doctor had given her something to help with the nausea, saying it wouldn’t hurt but might make her feel drowsy. When the dog quieted, Nikki glanced at James’s figure and lowered her head—drifting off again—her body weighted down in the ecstasy of fatigue.

They had met three years ago after being introduced by a mutual friend in graduate school at the University of Oregon. James was high-strung and hard to read at first. He was in his last year at the Lundquist College of Business. She was finishing her dissertation in art history and had already been hired by a small college in Pasadena to begin teaching the following year. At the time, it seemed as if they were from two different planets spiraling in opposite directions. But James was persistent, and after a while he began to grow on her. There was something about his smile. Something about the way he made her feel when he told one of his corny jokes and looked at her with those big brown eyes of his. Within six months they were living together. On the first anniversary of their meeting, they were married. Forget the honeymoon—they were too busy packing. They found a house in West L.A. and would be living within walking distance to the beach.

But when should she tell him her secret?

She opened her eyes again. James remained at the foot of the bed. She wondered how long she had been asleep but couldn’t see the time because he was still blocking the clock radio on the dresser. After a moment, he pulled his shirt out of his trousers and began unbuttoning it.

When should she tell him?

That was the big question. She wanted the moment to be just right.

For the past ten days James had been working until dawn, only coming home to grab a few hours’ sleep before showering and changing and heading back to work again. He was the chief financial officer for a small company merging with a larger one. A young man in an even younger company that no one thought would end up being a company at all. James was overseeing the audit before the deal was finalized. Even though he told her that the merger was friendly, he seemed nervous about it, even grumpy. She knew that he was trying to prove himself. That he was hoping he would still be needed when the two companies eventually came together as one.

She eased her way back to the surface.

Peeking over the blanket, she watched him toss his trousers on the chair and step out of his boxer shorts. As he peeled off his socks, he lowered his head and the clock finally came into view. It was early. Only 1:30 a.m. When he called to check in at ten, he told her that he would see her in the morning. She couldn’t make out his face in the darkness, but it looked as if he was smiling. Maybe they decided to take the night off. Or just maybe the audit was finally done, and they could have their lives and marriage back again.

She wanted to say something to him but was afraid he might guess her secret by the tone of her voice. She wanted to sleep with her secret. Revel in it on her own for a night or two or even longer until she picked exactly the right time. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She also knew that James wouldn’t be as happy about the news as she was. A couple of times last week she’d given him hints—tried to feel him out—but the whole thing turned into one big argument. A horrible fight that lasted longer than all the others and ended in a torturous day of the silent treatment. Why couldn’t he understand why this was so important to her?

That stupid dog started barking again. Louder this time, and at a higher pitch.

She sensed James moving toward her in the darkness. He pulled away the second pillow and slipped beneath the covers on her side of the bed. He kissed her on the lips, deeper than she expected. Harder than she was used to. As he rubbed up against her, she realized that he wanted to make love. She smiled and sighed and kissed him back with her eyes closed, wishing she hadn’t taken that damn pill.

He stroked her chin with his finger. She could smell all over his skin the scent of the soap they used at the office. It was laced with cocoa butter, reminding her of suntan lotion and days spent lazing side by side on the hot sand at the beach. On a chilly night in April, the fragrance seemed so out of place.

He rolled over her leg, finding the center. As he entered her, she wrapped her arms around him and held on as well as she could. Drifting. Sleeping. Keeping her secret locked away in her dreams. She was glad that he’d come home early tonight, glad they were together. This was the way things were supposed to be.

James and Nikki Brant together.

Funny, but she didn’t remember hearing his car pull into the drive, or even the sound of the front door, which always seemed to open with a deafening creak. . . .

Copyright © 2007 by Robert Ellis. All rights reserved.