Read an Excerpt
The last time Nate Houston had been this close to Robin Daly she had been wearing a wedding dress. And the gorgeous detective wouldn't be any happier to see him now than she had five years earlier.
Just after eight on a Thursday morning, Nate parked his black SUV in a fairly new subdivision. He had taken a job with the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal's office six months earlier, but his business at this hours-old fire scene with Presley fire investigator Collier McClain wasn't official.
The June air was warm, the wind gusting occasionally. White clouds scooted across a clear blue sky. The smoke had dissipated, though its acrid odor hung thick in the air. The fire was out, the firefighters gone.
Water from the hoses puddled along the street, saturated the neatly trimmed lawns. Gouged earth and pockets of mud marked spots across neighboring yards where the firefighters had dug in and battled the flames. A single police cruiser sat at the end of the scene nearest Nate.
After showing his badge to the patrol officer guarding the scene, he pulled on a pair of steel-soled boots over his shoes, to protect his feet from sharp objects and hot spots.
Ahead, parked at the curb in front of a soot-streaked home, Nate saw a white pickup and a dark blue sedan. The pickup belonged to McClain, a longtime friend from college. The dark-haired, rangy man stood a few feet from what had been the garage, talking to a petite brunette who had her back to Nate.
Just the sight of her tightened his chest.
Procedure between Presley's police and fire departments stated that if a dead body at a fire scene was determined to be homicide and an arson, a police officer and a fire investigator worked the case together.
Neither Collier nor Robin had requested help from the state fire marshal's office. But Nate had compiled data on recent fires that made him suspect a serial fire setter was at work. If any of his information could help catch this firebug more quickly, help stop more fatalities, he had to share what he knew.
Even if it meant dealing with an armed woman who'd probably rather shoot him than look at him.
Muscles taut, Nate started across the sodden yard toward Collier and Robin. She would have caught his attention even if she hadn't been wearing that drop-dead red top. He couldn't seem to stop his gaze from skimming over her trim waist and the sleek flare of her hips in khaki slacks. Absently, he noticed the badge and holster clipped on to the waistband of her pants.
Her dark sable hair was in a neat twist low on her nape, several silky strands feathering her neck right behind her ear. At the wedding, the satiny mass had been swept up in a style that bared the graceful line of her throat.
"I've finished the walk-around," Collier was saying. "The structure is secure, if you want to take another look—"
McClain broke off as Nate neared and a grin spread across his face. "Hey."
Robin turned, and when she recognized him Nate saw shock, disbelief and a fury in those blue eyes that cut through him like a cold, sharp wind.
Just like the last time he'd seen her.
Then her face went blank and her hand closed over the butt of her gun.
Even with that stay-back slant to her jaw, she was a pretty woman. The misty blue eyes and dark hair were striking with her pink-and-white rose petal skin. As he mentally mapped her full breasts and slender curves, a little current of energy zipped through him.
The purely physical reaction took him by surprise. When he had last seen Robin, he had been trying to work things out with his now-ex-wife, so he hadn't noticed much more than the fact that Daly was pretty. He noticed more than that now.
Dark brows arched delicately over thick-lashed eyes. Her skin was as pure and smooth as ivory, her mouth slicked with pale pink gloss. Clean, classic lines emphasized her high cheekbones and the soft curve of her jaw. The jaw that went tight when he reached her. He nodded. "Robin."
Her lips flattened. "Houston."
Collier looked from one to the other. "I'd introduce the two of you, but I get the feeling you've met."
"Yeah." Nate supposed she would never forgive him for what he'd done, but he would do it again in a heartbeat. Even though he had often regretted the hurt she had suffered, he hadn't doubted his decision once. Not then. Not now.
He and Collier shook hands as the other man said to Robin, "Nate recently started work at the state fire marshal's office."
"How's the new house?" his friend asked.
"I'm settling in." He slid a hand into the pocket of his navy uniform pants. "It's nice to have a little land. I missed that while I lived in Chicago."
"What brings you by?" Collier asked.
Daly's laser-sharp gaze took Nate apart. It wouldn't surprise him if she drew down on him at any moment, so he got on with it. "I have some information I think you might need on your case."
"You can probably do without me for this," Robin said to Collier.
"Actually, this concerns you, too," Nate said. "Finding you here saves me a trip to the police department."
"Oh? Well, whatever I can do to help you."
Ouch. The silky words were a pointed reference to when he had tried to help her. Aware of the way McClain's eyes narrowed on both of them, Nate kept his focus squarely on the reason he'd come. "Presley's first fire-murder back in April got my attention, then about a month ago, I was assigned to investigate a fire in Warren."
"I heard about that blaze," Collier said.
There was more interest than anger in Robin's face now.
Nate continued, "When I first began my investigation, there was still a living victim, but as of last week that changed. The man who owned the restaurant that was torched died in the hospital after hanging on for almost three weeks."
"So, now you have one fire-murder and we have three, counting the husband and wife who died here last night," Robin observed coolly. "Is that the only similarity? People dying in these fires?"
"No." Nate could well imagine her turning that piercing look on a suspect. "Your first scene and mine showed signs of forced entry, either through a window or door. Both victims were bound and gagged, then burned in their beds. I bet that was the case here, too."
When he glanced at Collier, the man nodded. Nate went on, "The fire at my crime scene was started with chlorine powder in an envelope adhered to an exposed rafter with petroleum jelly."
"A signature which is unique enough to raise a red flag," Collier said. "Made with items anyone can buy."
"It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours for the petroleum jelly to penetrate the envelope and ignite."
"Which gives an arsonist time to flee a scene and establish an alibi." Robin pushed away a strand of dark hair.
"Right." Nate's attention was caught by her hand and the fact that she didn't wear a wedding ring. Had she never gotten married?
Irritated that his thoughts had wandered there, he pinched the bridge of his nose. "These cases also share the same cooling-off period. The time between your first fire-murder and mine was twenty-seven days. Now, twenty-seven days after the blaze I'm investigating, you have a new fire-murder."
"You're talking about a serial arsonist," she said.
"Yes." He dragged a hand across the taut muscles of his nape.
The petite detective exchanged a look with Collier, who cursed under his breath.
"Did you eliminate suicide as a possibility?" Nate asked.
Collier nodded. "Yes, definitely."
"Same for my first victim."
"Have you taken your suspicions to Fire Marshal Burke?" Collier asked.
"Not yet, but I plan to. There's more, though. I've seen this signature before. A big case I had several years back."
"Do you have any idea who this guy is?" Robin asked brusquely. "You first encountered him in Chicago and now he's shown up here?"
Nate was surprised Daly had noticed the earlier reference to where he had lived before.
"No," he said. "It's not the same guy."
"How do you know?" she challenged.
"Because I put that SOB in prison seven years ago. And when I realized what we were dealing with, I checked on him. He's still locked up."
Collier frowned. "So, we have a copycat."
Nate hoped with everything in him that that was the case. Because, if they weren't dealing with some twisted disciple setting these fires, he had made a mistake. A dangerous and possibly career-killing one.
Robin's blue gaze met his. "Or you screwed up and put the wrong guy away."
His jaw clenched. He was tempted to categorically deny it, but that wouldn't help their investigation or his. "I don't think I did, but it's a possibility."
He hadn't thought her eyes could get any colder. Wrong. She was looking at him with the same glacial disdain that had been in her eyes five years earlier.
"If I did arrest the wrong guy, and the real torch is still out there," he said, "it is possible that he followed me from Chicago, although I doubt that, too."
Her eyes narrowed. "Was your case up there personal?"
He gave a sharp nod. "During his run of six arsons, he killed a total of twenty-two people. The last blaze was at a nursing home and eighteen of its residents died. So did three firefighters."
"I remember that. It made the national news."
"Yes." One of the firefighters killed by that bastard was Nate's father, but he saw no reason to tell her that.
"So?" Robin tilted her head. "What kind of person are we looking for?"
"Caucasian for sure, the same as all the other victims. As for more of a profile, I don't have enough information yet to determine if the firesetter is male or female."
"Before you got here," Collier said, "Robin was telling me she's found no connection between these victims and our first one."
"Not so far anyway," she put in quietly. "And no one remembers seeing anyone who seemed out of place."
"Since this accelerant takes a while to ignite," Nate observed, "someone might have seen something and not connected it with the fire."
Beneath the lingering smoke, he caught a faint whiff of soap and woman. Her hand still covered the grip of her gun, as though she were itching to use it. On him.
Fatigue pinched her refined features. "I'll reinterview everyone I've talked to, in both our cases."
"Thanks for the information, Nate," Collier said. "The more we have, the better."
"Maybe it will help catch this torch faster. I'd appreciate it if you let me know what you find here."
"I'll let you two get back to work then."
"Okay. See you later." Collier lifted a hand in farewell.
Robin said nothing and Nate was glad. As far as he was concerned, she'd said enough.
He started across the yard toward his SUV, her earlier words circling round in his head. Or you screwed up.
He hadn't, not concerning the man responsible for killing his father. Nate refused to let himself second-guess his work on that case or the conviction that followed.
Regarding these current fire-murders, he had done what he should have, shared valuable information with the people who needed it. Now he and the gorgeous cop who hated his guts could continue on their separate ways.
Resentment boiled inside her. Robin watched Nate Houston walk away, her grip tightening on the butt of her weapon. She had never wanted to slap handcuffs on someone so badly in her life.
The sight of him dredged up all kinds of bad memories, along with a razor-sharp stab of the heartbreak and confusion she'd lived through.
For a few seconds, she was swallowed up by her past. Five years fell away, reopening a wound of brutal pain, rage, betrayal.
She hadn't thought about her aborted wedding for months, let alone felt its effects, and she resented Nate Houston for making her feel it now. The arrogant infuriating man.
She turned her attention back to Collier. "You were telling me you had finished your walkaround."
He nodded. "The structure is secure if you need to go back inside."
"I don't, but thanks." She had known Houston was back in Oklahoma, just as she had known the fire marshal's office was running the investigation for the small farming community of Warren; she read the paper, after all.
Even so, Robin hadn't imagined she would have to deal with Nate Houston. If for any reason it became necessary to see him again, she would ask Collier to deal with him. McClain was a laid-back, super nice guy. He wouldn't give her any grief for asking such a thing of him.
He shot a look toward Nate's SUV as it drove away. "Have you known Houston long?"
"Long enough," she muttered. "How about you?"
"Since college. We had several fire service training classes together at OSU."
The fact that Collier had asked his friend if he was settling into his house suggested the two of them had spoken with each other at least once since Houston's return.
Robin thought her partner might continue to probe about the other man, but he didn't. She refused to think about Houston for one more second. "What did you find out about our victims, Dennis and Sheila Bane?"
"So far, not much more than they're husband and wife. Both worked outside the home. From my interviews with people at the scene last night, I haven't found anyone who might want to hurt them, but I'll also check at their places of employment."
She knew McClain had spent all night trudging through black, sooty water, and shoveling through ashes and debris. "Once we finish here, I plan to canvass the neighborhood again and re-interview anyone I've already talked to. I'll also do that with the people we interviewed for our first fire-murder. Maybe I'll turn up something."
"I'll take my samples back to the lab and let you know what I find." Collier's green eyes were bloodshot, probably from exhaustion. "The videotape from this fire scene will be ready to view when you want."
"If I learn anything new, I'll call you. Otherwise, I'll plan to see you later today."
After she and Collier split up, Robin spent the day interviewing people who hadn't been available the previous night, as well as the same people she had spoken to before Houston had shown up with his information. Did tonight's victims socialize with her first one? Go to the same church or doctor? High school or college? Did they, or had they ever, worked together?