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His hands moved expertly over her hot flesh, bringing it to life, bringing her to life in a way that made her squirm beneath him. What was he waiting for? Why didn't he give her what she wanted, what she ached for?
"Please," she pleaded, her nails digging into his shoulders.
"Not yet," he growled against her swollen breast.
"First, tell me you love me, that you trust me."
He circled the aching tip of her breast with his tongue, sending wave after wave of intense longing through her. The teasing was excruciating. Her body throbbed with need.
She couldn't stand any more of this torture. She had to say it. She had to—or die from the gnawing need inside her. She opened her mouth to speak the words that would release her from this sensual prison, but they wouldn't come. Every time she tried to tell him she trusted him, loved him, she felt as though a large hole had opened beneath her, a hole that would swallow her up the moment the words passed her lips, a hole from which she would never escape and the fall would be more painful than she could stand.
"Say them, Sam. Say the words."
"I can't," she sobbed. "I just…can't."
"Then there will be no release for you." He rolled off her, leaving her emotionally hungry and physically cold.
"No!" she cried. "No!" She reached for him, but she found only air.
Her eyes flew open.
She bolted upright and looked at the empty bed beside her. Slowly the haze of sleep receded, and she realized it had all been a dream. The fabric of her nightgown stuck to her sweat-slicked body. Her hair hung in tangles around her tear-dampened face. The night air sent chills over her, despite the fact that her body was sohot, she could almost smell the smoke coming from it.
Pushing her hair from her eyes, she buried her hot face in her hands. "Samantha Ellis, you're committing emotional suicide, and it has to stop. Now!"
Sam didn't make a habit of talking to herself, but mental admonitions didn't seem to be working anymore. If she didn't get a handle on this crazy obsession with Chief of Detectives A. J. Branson, she'd be serving up her heart to him on a silver platter, and he'd slice it to ribbons.
Sam had already been through that pain with Sloan Whitley, the onetime love of her life, when he neglected to tell her he was married; she was not about to do it again. When she'd added Sloan to the lineup of betrayals by her family, her quota had been filled to overflowing. After the Sloan fiasco, she'd locked her heart away and sworn there would be no more relationships, and certainly not with A.J., a man with a trail of heartbreaks and a history of running from commitment. But if she didn't get control of this attraction she was nursing for the handsome blond detective, she might well find herself back in her old room at the Heartbreak Hotel.
Disgusted with her frustrating lack of ability to control her feelings, Sam rolled over in bed and glanced at the bedside clock's illuminated dial. 5:33 a.m. The alarm would sound in another hour, and she didn't see herself falling back to sleep. Might as well call it a night. Free of the disturbing, erotic dreams of the Orange Grove, Florida detective, dreams that had become all too common of late and all too disturbing, she sat up, hit the off button and rubbed her eyes.
Determined not to give A.J. any more of her time, she threw back the damp sheets, slid from the bed, grabbed her robe and then headed to the kitchen to put on a pot of wake-up coffee. As she passed through the hall and into the living room, she rubbed at her throbbing temples. Lack of sleep had brought on a headache that was quickly increasing in strength to the point that it felt as if someone was twisting an ax in her skull.
She'd taken two steps into the living room when she detected an odor she and every other firefighter knew well. Smoke. A remnant of her all-too-vivid dream? But she was wide-awake now. She sniffed the air again.
Instantly alert, headache forgotten, her firefighter training kicked in. She ran through the house searching for the source. It didn't take long to find it. Just a few feet from the front door, thick gray curls of smoke poured from under an armchair and had begun to accumulate in a misty layer along the ceiling.
Despite her bordering-on-petite size, she upended the heavy chair and found a plain white, smoldering, business-size envelope beneath it. Automatically, she scooped it up by a corner. Racing to the front door and nearly falling on the highly polished cypress floor, she unlocked the door and yanked it open, then ran to the edge of the porch and threw the envelope onto the dew-wet grass.
With the emergency in the past, the surge of adrenaline that had driven her dissipated—just as it always did after every fire she'd ever attended—leaving her drained and emotionally exhausted.
Then realization of what had just happened and its possible outcome hit her between the eyes.
I could have died. And my home could have burned to the ground.
For anyone else the specter of possible death would have been trauma enough, but for Sam, who had spent her entire childhood hopping from motel room to motel room, the destruction of her home almost outweighed her own mortality. To lose her house would be like losing herself and everything she'd worked for since she'd separated herself from the nomadic life her mother had forced on her and her sister for years. This house wasn't just a brick-and-mortar structure. It was home, the very foundation of her independence, her symbol of security and stability. Aftershock set in.
Her hands began to shake, and her knees threatened to fold like an accordion beneath her. She collapsed against the porch railing. Her heart pounded in her ears. Sweat beaded her forehead and coated the palms of her trembling hands. Her empty stomach churned with sour fear.
Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she stared at the smoking envelope. A part-time arson investigator, she didn't have to wonder what had caused the envelope to smolder. She'd learned about them in her basic training at the firefighters' academy, and she'd seen them in the line of duty. As a result, she knew all too well what had caused the spontaneous combustion— hand lotion and potassium permanganate, or some variety thereof.
It was a simple, cheap, insidious device that initially just produced a lot of smoke, but if left to reach its full potential, could cause untold damage. She busied her mind by repeating by rote the steps of its creation.
Hand lotion went into the bottom of the envelope, then it was folded. The potassium was added and the envelope folded again. When the fire-starter got to the scene, he had only to unfold the envelope, shake it to mix the two ingredients together, place it somewhere where it wouldn't be quickly discovered and walk casually away. The ingredients would first begin to smoke, then eventually erupt into open flame. Ideally, no one would know it was there until it was too late. The fire would start long after the arsonist had left the scene undetected, and any evidence would almost certainly be consumed by the fire. Rudimentary, but deadly.
The torch—or arsonist—had taken a calculated risk that Sam wouldn't find it in time to put it out. He had probably counted on her sleeping through the preliminary stages and waking when the fire had already taken hold—hopefully, when it was out of control.
But how did he get it in the house? Everything had been locked up tight. Sam lived alone, and she was smart enough not to take chances with security. This house represented the first real home she'd ever known, and she had guarded against it being invaded in any way. That it had been gave rise to a mixture of fear, indignation and anger.
She glanced toward the open door and at once knew how this had happened. The torch hadn't gotten inside. He'd shoved it through the mail slot in the door. But because of her highly polished floors, when it hit the slick wood, it had probably slid forward, stopping only because it had come in contact with the dust ruffle of the overstuffed chair, accidentally making it more deadly and efficient than the arsonist intended.
Now that she had figured out how it got there, two even more disturbing questions drummed at her mind:
Who had planted the device?
Why would anyone want to burn down her house and possibly her with it?
Though she racked her brain, no one came to mind. Sam was a very private person with only a few friends. To her knowledge, she had no enemies. But since she and Rachel Sutherland had formed FIST, the Fire Investigation Special Team, she had nailed a few property owners who had torched their buildings for the insurance money. Could it be one of them? That was the only thing that came close to making any sense. But if so, which one was ticked off enough at her to want her dead?
While she'd been trying to sort through who could have done this, the wetness from the dew-laden grass had seeped into the paper and the envelope had stopped smoldering. Now that it no longer presented a threat, she picked it up by one corner and carried it back inside, slipped it into a brown craft envelope and sealed it, then marked it with her name, the time and date, and the words incendiary device, then put it beside her purse.
For a moment, she considered giving it to A.J., but that would mean seeing him, and she knew all too well what happened each time she saw him. She turned into an emotional heap who could think of little beyond how much she wanted to give in to her desires. Maybe Rachel's detective husband, Luke Sutherland, could pass it on to his boss.
But first things first. She went to the garage, removed a piece of wood from an old packing crate she'd hung on to, found some nails and a hammer and nailed the wood over the mail slot. That would do until she could have the door replaced with a slotless one. Back in the living room, she threw open the phone book and searched the yellow pages for the name of a carpenter. While she did so, she continued to try to make sense of all this, always returning to the same question.
Who wanted to kill her?
Deep in thought, A. J. Branson stared down at the official-looking letter in his hand. He hadn't expected such a quick reply to his application. At least he'd been given a few months'time to make a decision. Frowning, he rubbed absently at his forehead. Outside his office door the noise of the squad room drifted to him as Orange Grove's finest arrived for night duty. Automatically, his free hand reached for a cigar that would have, until he'd given them up months ago, resided in a humidor on his cluttered desk.
"Don't tell me. The president has asked you to come up with a solution for world peace."
Starting guiltily, A.J. withdrew his hand, then looked up to find Luke Sutherland, one of his detectives and his best friend, standing in the doorway, a brown craft envelope in his hand.
A.J. chuckled, but the sound held no humor. "Nothing that earth-shattering, I'm afraid."
"Oh? Sure looked serious to me. What else would make you reach for a cigar that hasn't been there since last year?" Luke grinned and dropped into the chair facing A.J., then steepled his fingers beneath his chin and studied his boss. "Want to talk about it?"
Did he? A.J. wasn't sure he was ready to share this with anyone. But this was his friend. He'd been the best man at Luke's wedding. Together they'd lived through Luke's child being kidnapped and thought dead, his breakup with Rachel, a series of fires that had threatened Rachel's life and the final capture of the arsonist/kidnapper and rescue of little Maggie and her mother. The reunited Sutherlands had even named their son after him and made him Jay's godfather. If he could share this with anyone, Luke would be that person.
"It's a job offer from the New York State Bureau of Criminal Investigation."
"The BCI?" Luke sat up straight, alarm written all over his features. "You're leaving Orange Grove? What the hell for?"
"It means a promotion and a big pay raise."