Playing with Fire (Mills & Boon Romantic Suspense)

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9780263915600: Playing with Fire (Mills & Boon Romantic Suspense)

In New York Times bestselling author Rachel Lee's latest Conard County romance, passion blazes between a fire chief and a beautiful arson investigator 

 

The cunning arsonist targeting Conard County has fire chief Wayne Camden stymied. Teaming up with investigator Charity Atkins seems like a no-brainer. She has the expertise to track down the firebug before he kills someone. But Wayne never anticipated making Charity a target. 

 

Since his wife left, Wayne's had little interest in relationships. The single dad is unsettled by the electrifying attraction Charity ignites. Wayne is rooted in the community, and Charity's a nomad. But with danger stalking them, irresistible desire forces them both to reevaluate their lives. 

 

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Rachel Lee was hooked on writing by the age of twelve, and practiced her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. This New York Times bestselling author now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Charity Atkins drove into the outskirts of Conard City and suddenly felt sickeningly out of her depth. It was a grandiose name for a small town, she realized, and although she was a good arson investigator, she'd only worked in industrial areas and other businesses in large cities, not on ranches out in the boondocks.

It didn't help to remind herself that location didn't matter, that figuring out whether the arson was attempted fraud remained the same no matter where it occurred. For the first time, though, she knew why Todd had claimed he couldn't handle this job and had recommended Charity take his place. All the stuff he'd said about how she was such a great investigator? She'd thought it was exaggerated at the time, but now she knew why. Separating Todd from his metropolitan comforts might have been too much to ask. She snorted.

Two minutes later she realized she couldn't have been more inappropriately dressed. The casual clothes of people she passed were mostly well-worn versions of Western style. Wearing a gray business suit and high heels was going to make her stick out like a sore thumb. Of course, given the size of this place she'd probably stick out anyway.

She felt like an alien, but that was something she was fairly used to. Always being on the road kind of created that feeling.

She reminded herself that arson was arson no matter where it occurred. Still, when she'd been told to come to Conard City, she'd envisioned a much larger place. Flying in on a four-seater Cessna hadn't concerned her, and she hadn't really thought about it when she climbed into a rental car that wasn't new enough to have a GPS mapping console.

Only now, driving down Front Street toward what she hoped would be the fire station, did she get a clear picture. The houses were all older Victorian and Craftsman styles commingling contentedly. The leafy trees looked as old as the houses, and for a main street this one struck her as awfully narrow, narrow enough that parking was allowed on only one side. She'd been in some older neighborhoods in Atlanta like this, but if this was the whole town...oh, boy.

She was a city girl in rural territory, and immediately she began imagining all kinds of problems with the locals who'd probably resent the heck out of her. She had traveled the world throughout her entire life and knew that outsiders were rarely welcomed. Looking into a big industrial fire often only drew flak from the owners. In a place this small she might draw flak from the entire community. But she always drew flak, some of it potentially dangerous. She'd been threatened more than once.

She shook herself and continued the slow drive. She'd manage. She wasn't here to be liked, merely to protect her insurance company against fraud.

The firehouse was near the town square, she'd been told at the airport. Couldn't miss it. Well, she hadn't passed anything resembling a town square yet so.

Just then sirens penetrated her thoughts. She pulled over immediately to the curb, and soon a fire engine came racing by. Behind it was a red SUV with flashing white-and-red lights. She hesitated, then figured that in a burg this size it was unlikely the chief would still be at the station. He'd probably be out helping.

So she pulled an illegal U-turn and followed the truck. Might as well see how this department operated in action. That could sometimes be useful to her investigation. An ambulance, horn blaring, raced past her, forcing her to the curb again.

She kept to the speed limit, unlike the trucks, but soon reached them. They had pulled over on a side street, already being blocked by police to traffic. Two men in yellow firefighting gear were heading indoors as flames leaped out one lower story window. There must be a potential victim inside, as they didn't wait for the hoses. Others were hooking up hoses to the truck and a nearby hydrant. Not bad yet. It was clear where the fire was, and apparently the window had been open. She studied it with a practiced eye.

One guy stood out, mainly because of his white helmet, the word Chief stenciled in black on it. He was clearly directing operations, his arms and hands moving as he pointed where he wanted things.

She stopped against the curb outside the cordon. After a minute, she climbed out and joined concerned neighbors across the street who had either been ordered out of nearby houses or were gathering out of interest. "She's got a baby!" one of the onlookers shouted, trying to be heard over the racket of the pump truck, other vehicles and raised voices. "Upstairs, bedroom on the right."

The chief turned, gesturing that he'd heard. He pulled up his flash hood, donned his face mask and, moments later, he ran into the house, to rooms that had to be right above where flames spewed out the open ground floor window. He went alone, seeming to ignore the two-in, two-out rule. Another firefighter saw and raced after him.

Yet another two stood near the truck, ready to run in if any firefighter ran into trouble. The two out.

Charity felt her heart speed up. She didn't know these people, but she hated fires, hated what they did, and was intimately acquainted with the dangers for those who fought them. Her career of investigating arson wasn't just a job, it was a mission. Preventing fraud was one thing. Stopping people who killed and hurt others was even more important to her, though it wasn't often she had an opportunity to do that.

"Who are you?" one of the onlookers asked her. She glanced over and saw a man of about seventy, thin and a bit bent.

"I'm here to see the chief," she answered quietly. "Business."

"Oh, no!" someone cried.

Charity looked at the house again and saw flames had reached the second story. The beehive of firefighters began to swarm even more rapidly. A hose doused the outside wall of the house. One was aimed right inside the lower floor window. The roof, too, was getting its share of water. Another truck pulled up and in seconds was fanning water over the neighboring roof and side wall to prevent the fire from spreading. That must be a constant danger with the houses so close.

She knew all the dangers. Fire spread fast enough, but when combined with the gases it created, it could turn into an instant conflagration at the point of flashover. That was why windows were giving way to axes even though the fresh air would fuel the fire. It would also dilute the explosive gases and flammable black smoke that was roiling out the front door.

She'd lost track of how many firefighters were now in the house. Her heart was slamming like a trip-hammer.

Then one came out of the house carrying a woman. His buddy followed close on his heels. Others immediately went to help him, quickly putting her on a stretcher and turning her over to EMTs. Two more firefighters ran in to battle the blaze, but already the flames were shrinking from the side window. The smoke coming out the front door was turning gray. The water was doing its work.

Where was the chief?

Almost in answer to her silent question, he burst out through the front door, carrying a tightly wrapped bundle. Ignoring everyone else, he threw off his respirator mask and helmet, then knelt on the grass, unwrapping a baby.

Charity's heart nearly stopped. The infant looked pale, almost blue. She raised her fingers to her lips, trying to hold in the anxiety. Not a baby. Please, not a baby.

"Oxygen," the chief shouted. He bent close to the child, listening for breath, then feeling for a pulse. An EMT rushed over and joined him. The infant's color improved within seconds after the oxygen mask was placed over its face. The child was swiftly moved to the ambulance.

Relief nearly caused Charity to sag. Leaving the spectators, she returned to her car, watching the scene unfold. She'd seen this many times. Too many times. She'd even trained with firefighters and had volunteered so she could understand.

Now she understood too much.

An hour later, the scene had quieted. While firemen, including the chief, moved through the house, axing open walls to make sure they concealed no fire, others rolled up the hoses. The house still stood, but it was a mess. The outside wall was covered with soot, two window frames charred black. Inside, everything would be ruined by smoke, ash and water. She wondered how much these poor people would be able to salvage.

Pulling out her cell phone, she went to her company's site, logged in and tapped in the address. Her company covered that house. She scanned the firefighters and realized the chief was once again outside, occasionally speaking to his crew. The small crowd of onlookers still lingered, talking to each other. Already she heard plans to help the family. Good people.

No one hindered her passage, and she reached the chief's side. He was preoccupied and didn't immediately notice her. He was still talking to the other firefighters, making sure everything had been taken care of. She was certain he had a running head count going in his mind. She didn't want to interrupt it.

His face was smudged with soot. Apparently he had wiped it a few times, probably to get rid of sweat. The gear he wore was heavy and hot, at least fifty pounds as he was dressed now, more in full paraphernalia. She had worn it and hated it even though her life depended on it.

At last a firefighter came out of the house. "Clear," he called. The second truck, which had been hosing the adjacent structure, was already pulling away. The fire rescue ambulance had departed a while ago.

It was then the chief noticed her. His gray eyes slid over her from top to toe. "Who are you?" he asked bluntly.

"Charity Atkins, Chief. We had a meeting."

He shook his head a little. "Wayne Camden, and the meeting has to wait a little while."

"Of course." She didn't even try for a smile. She held out a card. He looked at it, pulling off one of his huge gloves to take it.

"What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Be sure the family gets it. My company insures this property, too. What happened?"

He had fully placed her now, his mind leaping from the all-important mess in front of him to her purpose in being here. "You're the arson investigator about the Buell fire."

"Yes."

"Well, this wasn't arson. Looks as if a grease fire started on the stove and was mishandled. The woman's burned. Her husband's out of town. You'll have to wait to get your answers."

"I don't want answers. I just want them to know I'll have an adjuster out here tomorrow if possible. We'll cover alternate accommodations."

He nodded. "Fair enough. I need to finish up here. You can wait for me at the station, unless there's something else you want to do."

"I'll see you there." She returned to her car and called her company to give the family a head start on their coverage.

* * *

Randy Dinkum loved fires. He always had, even though it was a relief to open that damned turnout coat and feel cool air on his skin again. As he closed the last panel on the fire truck and got ready to board for the ride back to the station, he looked one more time at the house. Tragic now, but no one had died. Poor woman was a mess, though. He might love fire, but he hated it, too.

He wanted to pat his own back for how well they'd handled the whole thing. It hadn't spread to neighboring houses, although that was always a huge risk in town, what with all these old buildings so close together. Dried out by the years, their frames and siding were practically tinder.

Kind of surprising they hadn't lost the whole house. The interior was wasted, but a contractor should be able to fix that.

"Great job," said the chief, clapping his shoulder briefly before moving on to the next fireman.

Randy beamed, then pulled himself up onto the truck. A few seconds later, Jeff Corner hopped up beside him. "That was a beaut," Jeff said.

"It sure was," Randy agreed. As the truck started moving, he saw the stranger in the business suit drive away. "Who was that woman talking to the chief?"

"Dunno. Heard him tell her to meet him at the station."

"Girlfriend?" Randy suggested. They both laughed. "That'll drive Donna crazy."

"You think he moves in those kinds of circles? That was a fancy suit."

"Wish we saw more of that around here. Damn, I want a cigarette."

Jeff laughed again. "You know what the chief thinks of smoking in public."

"Considering the amount of smoke we breathe on the job, why should he care?"

"Public image," Jeff said knowingly. "Haven't you heard? Gotta be a good example for kids."

The familiar jolting began as they rolled down the street. They weren't a big fire department and didn't have the fanciest equipment, so they hung on to the rear of the truck since they all couldn't fit inside.

Eventually, Jeff and Randy would graduate to inside seats and younger men would stand here. But even hanging on here was better than being a volunteer, those who responded only when needed.

Soon the summer would dry out the grasslands and firefighting would sometimes become a full-time job for them all. Randy liked those times best, not only working to beat back the flames but because firefighters came from everywhere to help out. When they weren't actually facing the flames it was like a big party. A tired party, but still.

And those were the times he felt best about himself. People treated them all like heroes. He guessed they were, actually. Today they'd saved a woman and a baby.

He hadn't known about the baby. No one had. "Say, Jeff?"

"Yeah?"

"Why do you think no one knew there was a baby in there until Old Man Kroner shouted it out? Was it, like, a secret, or something?"

"I dunno," Jeff answered, leaning as the truck turned into the station. "I thought everyone around here knew everything about everyone."

"Yeah. Kinda weird."

"Well, it looked like it was just born. Maybe the grapevine didn't reach us yet."

"Maybe." Randy pondered that as the truck slowed to a halt. One of the advantages of being in such a small town was you knew who might be in a dwelling when you responded. People didn't get easily overlooked. Which made the Buell arson even weirder. Someone who'd burn a house full of people was scary.

It was troubling, something Randy hoped would be solved—and soon.

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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