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By K.N. Casper
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe black ribbon of highway twisted and rolled. The ground grumbled. Instinctively, Jackson Fontaine tightened his grip on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, slammed on the brakes and skidded the Jaguar to a dusty stop at the side of the road.
"What the -" An earthquake? In Louisiana?
Only then, through the windshield, did he see the orange ball of fire mushrooming into the sky on a gray and white column.
His breathing stopped. There was only one thing beyond the expanse of cane fields ahead of him. The sugar refinery ... His sugar refinery.
Heart-hammering adrenaline kicked in a second later. He reached for the cell phone on the seat beside him and stabbed in 911.
"There's been an explosion at the old Dewalt ... at the Fontaine refinery."
"I heard it," the female voice at the other end stated calmly. "Where are you? Can you tell me the extent of the damage and if there are any injuries?"
Jackson slipped the transmission into gear and cut back onto the hardtop. "Don't know. I'm on Refinery Lane about two miles west, headed in that direction." He rammed the pedal to the floor. The wheels dug in and the car shot forward, its engine screaming.
A mile down the road, he heard fire engines wailing somewhere off in the distance. Lord, he hoped no one had been injured or killed. He checked the digital clock on the polished-wood dashboard. 8:40 a.m. No longer in operation, the place should be deserted at this hour - unless Murray Dewalt decided to show up. He hadn't said anything about coming by today, but that didn't mean he wouldn't. Jackson's jaw tightened. If his friend had been killed or injured, he'd never forgive himself.
He tapped the brakes, executed a controlled skid onto the narrow, gravel access road to the refinery, rocketed as far as the fence guarding the front of the compound and swerved to a tail-tilting halt on the grassy shoulder. No vehicles in sight, and the gate was still locked. That didn't mean a thing. The sides and rear of the complex were open to several unimproved byroads. This barrier was nothing more than a cosmetic facade, designed to discourage the curious.
Like the woman yesterday.
She'd been skulking around the warehouse behind the main building. When he'd called out to find out what she wanted, she'd bolted. He'd considered giving chase, but his car was parked at the opposite end of the compound. By the time he reached it, she'd be long gone. Did she have something to do with this explosion?
After fishing a key from his pants pocket, he opened the hefty padlock and spread the doors of the gate wide. Fire engines would approach from this direction.
The cloying stench of burning sugar, charring wood and hot metal put an acrid taste in his mouth, but his watering eyes were already assessing the situation as he ran toward the smoke-enshrouded plant. The refinery proper seemed untouched. A quick scan of the small high windows suggested there was no fire inside. He hoped it was true. Hoped, too, the place was as deserted as it appeared.
He dashed around the side of the massive structure to the source of the smoke. The galvanized tin roof of the attached single-story warehouse had been blown clean away. Twisted pieces of jagged metal hung in trees on the edge of the compound. Light-brown, raw sugar covered everything: trees, bushes, the refinery itself and the ground, while smoke billowed from the gaping shell of the structure. Amazingly, the warehouse walls appeared perfectly intact. The sliding doors weren't even buckled. Through the single window of the now-topless building, Jackson saw orange flames shooting sideways from the main building into the storehouse. A gas line. Had it ruptured in the explosion? Or was it the cause?
The nerve-shattering blast of an air horn announced the arrival of the first fire engine. A crew member jumped down and ran toward him. The rest of the team set about unrolling hoses with swift efficiency.
"You all right?"
"Fine," Jackson shouted over the noise of the roaring fire, grumbling engines and blaring radios. "I just got here."
"Not that I know of. Gate was still locked when I drove up. Haven't seen any vehicles around." What if someone came here on foot? He didn't voice the question, but it worried him.
A tanker truck pulled up.
"I have the key to the main building, if that'll help." He handed it over. "Maybe you can get to the gas cutoff from there."
"Thanks." The man grabbed it. "Stay here." Which Jackson interpreted as "Stay the hell out of the way." He had no intention of interfering. Some jobs were best left to professionals. But standing still was torture.
Dear God, he'd almost brought Megan along this morning. His daughter had been living with him now for almost six months, but the four-year-old still hadn't completely adjusted to her new surroundings. She'd stopped asking about her mommy, but he knew she still missed Janis. He would do anything for his little girl, but bringing back her mother was beyond his power.
"Children are resilient," Aunt Esme told him.
"She'll come around."
She was right, of course, but patience didn't come easily to him, not when it had to do with Megan's welfare or happiness.
Last evening when he was reading her a bedtime story, she'd asked where he went every day. Janis had always been home and until recently, so had he.
"I go to work, sweetheart. Don't worry - it's not far away," he'd assured her.
"But you work in the room downstairs." He used to keep his office door closed when he was there; he left it open now so Megs could pop in whenever she wanted.
"I have two places to work in," he'd explained, "just like you play here and at preschool."
"Oh." That seemed to make sense. "You came to see my preschool. Can I see the other place where you work?"
Her sweet innocence brought a lump to his throat. "You bet you can."
He'd given her a big kiss and pledged to take her to the refinery real soon, but she had preschool till noon, and he didn't want to disrupt her schedule. Having a routine was important to her sense of security.
Suppose he'd left the house twenty minutes earlier with her ... They would have been here, maybe inside, when the place exploded. Megan could have been killed or injured.
An icicle of dread slithered down his spine. In his twenty-eight years, he'd done things he wasn't particularly proud of, made his share of foolish mistakes, but Megan wasn't one of them. Megs was the brightest thing in his life. The thought of losing her terrified him.
Amid the orderly chaos of firefighters unloading equipment, the crackling pops of burning timbers and the noxious smell of molten sugar, the team captain made a call on his phone.
Scant minutes later, the roar of the fire and the blowtorch jet of blue-and-yellow flame abruptly ceased. The gas had been cut off. The relative silence that ensued was stunning and disorienting, the sense of relief exhilarating.
Excerpted from Jackson's Girls by K.N. Casper Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.