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Darcy O'Brien's hands shook as she brushed her hair behind her ears. She stared down at her fingers, covered with soot, the black reminding her of the charred remains of the barn only yards away. The heat from the fire chased away the early-morning chill. Smoke curled upward from the darkened boards to disappear in the fog that had rolled in to encase her in a gray cocoon. But there was nothing protective and safe about her surroundings.
Eerie. Unearthly. Darcy shivered and hugged her arms to her.
The sound of a deep, husky voice floated to her from the swirls of smoke and fog. Her eyes stung as she searched the yard. Emerging from the shroud of gray a man appeared, dressed in a black jacket with yellow strips and black pants. He removed his fire helmet and cradled it under his arm. Dark brown hair, damp from sweat, lay at odd angles. Black smudges highlighted the hard angles of his face and emphasized the blueness of his eyes. For just a moment Darcy thought of a warrior striding purposefully toward her.
"Yes, may I help you?" she asked, pushing away her fantasy.
"That man over there said you're the one in charge." The firefighter tossed his head in the direction of Jake, one of the grooms.
The idea that she was in charge weighed heavily on her shoulders, even though it was only for a few months. She straightened, ignoring the exhaustion that cleaved to every part of her. "Yes, I am."
The firefighter stuck his hand out. "I'm Joshua Markham. I conduct the arson investigations for the department."
The strong feel of his handshake reassured her. For a few seconds she forgot the past couple of hours. Then she remembered pulling the frightened horses to safety, watching the barn go up in flames, the scent of burned wood heavy in the air. But mostly she remembered trying to persuade her father to return to the main house before he collapsed. That had been the hardest task of all.
"Yes, ma'am, it's definitely a possibility. This is the third barn fire in the past few weeks."
"Please call me Darcy. 'Ma'am' reminds me of my students."
He moved away from the pile of blackened rubble.
Darcy followed. When she looked back toward the barn, all she saw was the swirls of fog. The stench of smoke clung to the air.
"When it's safe, I'll bring in my dog. I'll know more after I can take some samples and check the area out more thoroughly."
"Dog?" Her mind refused to grasp the implication of what he was saying.
"He'll be able to locate where the fire originated. We'll pinpoint what the accelerant was. If it matches the other fires, we'll know we have a serial arsonist on our hands."
"Serial arsonist? But why here?"
Joshua shrugged. "There are countless reasons why someone sets a fire. Most are for some kind of personal gain, but occasionally we find a person who just likes to set fires and watch them burn."
Darcy shuddered. Sweetwater was always such a quiet town, not like where she lived now. Even though there were nearly fifteen thousand people in Sweetwater, she still thought of it as a small, close-knit community.
"If it's arson, there'll be a thorough investigation."
"I'll be looking into all the reasons why someone would set a fire. That includes personal gain."
For a moment her mind went blank. Stunned, she couldn't think of a reply.
"Just thought I'd let you know."
"I know your father had a heart attack a few weeks ago. Shamus Flanaghan is a respected member of our community. I don't think he had anything to do with this, but I still have to check out the possibility."
"And you want me to cushion the blow?"
The corner of his mouth quirked. "Yes, ma—Darcy. I would appreciate it."
"So in other words, you want me to help you with your investigation."
Joshua plowed his hand through his damp hair. "Well, not exactly. I just don't want to be responsible for causing your father further grief. But questions will have to be asked—and answered."
"Then you can ask me. As of last week, I'm acting as the manager of this farm until my father gets back on his feet." If she said it enough times, perhaps it would be true.
"I'll be back later with my camera and Arnold. I'll know more after I take a look around." He put his helmet on. "Good day."
Frustration churned in her stomach as she watched the firefighter walk away, the thick fog and smoke swallowing him until all she saw was a gray wall. Another shiver rippled down her spine. What in the world had she gotten herself into? A serial arsonist?
Normally this was her favorite time of day, when the sun was just peeking over the horizon, the sky lit with color, the birds chirping in the nearby trees. Even when it was foggy, there was a certain appeal to dawn, a mystery waiting to be uncovered. But now there was a real mystery. Who would want to set fires to barns filled with horses?
A pounding behind her eyes hammered at her temples. Her father raised jumpers and hunters. People from all over the country came to him. His reputation as a breeder had always been paramount to him—at times to the exclusion of even his family.
Darcy closed her eyes for a few seconds and tried to compose her shattered nerves. There was so much she had to do. She didn't know where to begin. Finally she decided she had to check on her father first, to make sure he was following his doctor's orders, before she could even take the time to assimilate this latest news.
She started up the road that led to the main house, white painted fences on either side of the asphalt. Somewhere out in those fields were some of their prize broodmares. But the fog that adhered to the ground obscured her view. She would need to make sure all the horses were accounted for—after she saw her father and reassured herself that he was all right.
She entered the house through the back door. Lizzy Johnson, the petite housekeeper, stood at the stove, shaking her head while she prepared French toast. A strand of gray hair fell forward on her forehead. With a heavy sigh, she brushed it back in place.
"What's wrong, Lizzy?"
"One thing. Shamus. He insists on eating a proper breakfast. He wanted eggs, bacon and toast. He's getting French toast. I figure that's better than a plate full of cholesterol-high eggs fried in bacon grease."
The frustration in Lizzy's voice matched her own feelings. Darcy knew how difficult her father could be. He didn't like change, and the new diet his doctor wanted him on was definitely a change.
"I'll have a word with Dad. Is he in his room resting?"
Lizzy arched a brow. "Resting? No, he's dressed and ready to go back down to the barn."
"But he promised me—" Darcy swallowed the rest of her sentence. It was hopeless. Her father didn't know how to take it easy or to follow orders. Why had she thought she would be able to help her father recover when he had never slowed down for anything in the past, not even when her mother had died? He'd put in almost a full day of work the day of the funeral.
"Child, he's in the dining room drinking his coffee. Praise the Lord, decaf. But it was a battle to get him to drink that instead of regular coffee. I'm surprised you didn't hear it down at the barn." Lizzy flipped over the pieces of bread, her gaze clouding. "How bad is it?"
"Bad. The barn is completely gone. Thankfully no one was hurt, but we lost one mare in foal. The rest of the horses we managed to save. Now I have to handle finding places to stable seventeen mares until we can rebuild the barn." Darcy thought back to what Joshua Markham had said about a serial arsonist. What if the other barns were in danger?
"And a father who won't listen to his doctor's advice."
"Yes, that, too."
"Here, I suspect you could use some of this. Just keep it away from your father." Lizzy passed her a glass pot full of a dark brown brew. "This has lots of caffeine."
"Thanks. I can always count on you, Lizzy," Darcy murmured as she made her way into the dining room.
Pausing halfway down the long, cherry-wood table that seated twelve, she put the pot on a thick place mat. Then, instead of sitting, she gripped the back of a brocade-covered chair, leaning into it for support.
Her father glanced up from reading the newspaper. "I thought you were Lizzy with the breakfast she insists I eat. What's taking her so long? Never mind—I'm sure she's not hurrying because she doesn't think I should go down to the barn."
"You shouldn't, Dad. I can take care of everything. Did you rest at all?"
He frowned. "Rest when one of my barns is burning? What do you think?"
"When did you come back to the house?"
He looked away, busying himself with taking several sips of his coffee.
"Thirty minutes ago." His sharp eyes returned to her face. "Did you really think I would go back to the house and sleep? I thought you knew me better than that."
Darcy took in the tired lines etched into his weathered face, an ashen cast to it. She noticed the slump to his shoulders and the slight trembling as he brought the cup to his lips. He was barely holding himself together, and she didn't know how to make him stop and rest before he—She wouldn't think about what could happen to him if he didn't do what the doctor said. Their relationship might not be a strong one, but he was her father and she cared.
"Dad, there isn't anything you can do now. I can take care of stabling the mares and seeing to the mess. That's why I came home to help you."
"When I agreed to you coming home to help, it wasn't for something like this. I could have lost a third of my breeding stock last night."
Her grip on the chair tightened until pain shot up her arms. "I'm capable of handling it."
"This is my life." He thumped his chest. "I need to see to it."
Darcy pulled out the chair and sat before she collapsed. The long night was finally catching up with her, and she felt the lack of sleep in every fiber of her being.
"If you don't take care of yourself and follow the doctor's orders, there will be no life to see to."
"You don't mince words."
"You've always taught me to tell it like it is. You've been home from the hospital only a few days. You aren't supposed to deal with anything stressful, especially something like what happened last night."
He leaned forward, clasping the edge of the table. "Don't you understand, not knowing is more stressful than seeing to my job."
"I came up here to check on you, then I intend to return to make sure everything is taken care of. I'll report back to you as soon as I deal with stabling the mares. I'll keep you informed as if you're right there." The tightness in her throat threatened to cut off her words. She swallowed several times and continued. "Please let me do this for you." Please, for once in your life, need me.
For several moments he stared at her. Then suddenly he slumped back in the chair and dropped his head. "You win. This time. But I don't intend to stay in my room for long. Just as soon as I feel a little better, I'll be down at the barn."
The weak thread to his words, the fact that he'd backed down, underscored how sick her father really was. He would never admit more than he had, but she knew he was definitely feeling the effects of being up most of the night.
"Then you'll go rest and wait for me to come see you?"
Darcy poured herself some coffee, her hands trembling as much as her father's had. She didn't particularly like the bitter taste, but she needed a lot of caffeine to keep herself going. She decided to tell her father later about what Joshua Markham had said concerning the fire probably being the work of an arsonist. Until Joshua confirmed it, she didn't want to upset her father any more than he already was. But if there was someone going around setting fire to barns, the next few months would be more difficult than she had anticipated. Somehow she had to protect her father, even though he would fight her every inch of the way. Maybe then she would live up to what he expected.
From the paddock Darcy saw Joshua with a big black dog exploring the pile of burned rubble that had once been the broodmare barn. This afternoon was so different from earlier, when smoke had lingered in the air and the sun had been obscured. Now the sun's rays touched her face and warmed her skin. The sweet smell of freshly mowed grass peppered the air, almost wiping away the memory of the fire, the smell of charred wood—until she looked at the destruction the flames had caused.
With a sigh, she made her way toward Joshua, who ducked under the yellow tape that cordoned off the area. He strode toward his pickup with his dog on a leash and holding two metal cans.
"Did you find anything?" she asked, catching herself staring at the man, dressed in his navy-blue firefighter's uniform, his badge glittering in the sunlight. She forced herself to look down at the dog at his side before he found her staring at him.
He stored the metal cans alongside some others in the back of his truck, then secured a tarpaulin over them. "Not sure until the lab report comes back, but Arnold was very interested in several spots. I took some samples."
"He's a beauty." She rubbed the black Labrador retriever behind his ears. "How long have you had him?"
"Three years. He's garnishing quite a reputation in the state."