Chloe Addison is on the verge of a promising career in real estate development until an explosion destroys her first major project and casts suspicion on her in an arson investigation. Her career is suddenly at risk—and possibly her life.
Firefighter Ryan Monroe wants a spot on the arson team, and getting close to Chloe might be the best way to solve his first investigation. Despite a painful past of his own, Ryan has dedicated himself to saving people, and when he realizes Chloe is in danger, she’s no exception.
He just might be the perfect guy to rescue her, but their attraction could bring them both down in flames.
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|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
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|Age Range:||3 Months|
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Romance in Ridgeport
By Dawn Altieri, Vanessa Mitchell
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Dawn Altieri
All rights reserved.
Chloe Addison took one last look inside the vacated storage facility — the sole structure on Pier 7 in the up-and-coming Riverfront District. Soon, the cracked, cobweb-riddled windows would be replaced with elegant French doors leading to patios and balconies overlooking the river, and the stained, pitted cement floors would be covered with gleaming hardwood and travertine tile. The cavernous space would transform into eight distinct residential units. And eight lucky buyers would become the proud new owners of a luxury condominium at Riverfront Gardens.
A satisfied smile stretched Chloe's lips. For weeks, she'd been planning the condominium construction with the contractors who'd left a few minutes earlier. As an assistant project manager at Toriello Development, she'd begun to build a reputation in the Riverfront District, an area ripe for renovation and the key to the city's plan for a downtown revival. She'd cut her teeth on a few smaller projects, like the dual-use building that now housed an upscale women's boutique, the coffee shop Beans & Brews, and a five-star new age bistro on the lower level. Three generously sized apartments filled the upper level. Watching the pieces come together, taking something abandoned and neglected — something no one ever expected to be of any value — and turning it into a place of beauty and function to be appreciated and enjoyed had been more thrilling than she'd imagined. If only she could find a way to do the same thing with her life.
She closed the large metal exit door and checked the lock, knowing the eastern end of the docks wasn't the safest area of town. The abandoned buildings often provided shelter to some of the city's seediest residents, but the neighborhood would turn around quickly like the rest of the Riverfront had. She made her way past rusted shelving units, stacks of cardboard boxes, and plastic storage drums that would be cleared out by the demolition crews, and headed toward the office area at the front of the building.
After packing up the signed work contracts, she sent a quick email to Blake Harris, her manager at Toriello, to tell him the meeting had gone well and all the plans had been finalized. She'd be heading home for the day, as they'd previously agreed, leaving her the rest of Friday afternoon and the short respite of the weekend before the real work began Monday morning. She gathered her belongings and stepped toward the main entrance.
A loud pop sounded from the storage room behind her, followed by a crash and the clang of metal. She spun around to face the door again, staring at it in uncertainty. Another crash made her drop her things to the floor. She hurried back, fumbled with the lock, and shoved the storage room door open.
Unbearable heat smacked her face, and she squinted against the blinding, brightly colored flames rising from the floor in the far corner of the room. Cardboard boxes stacked nearby ignited, spreading the blaze farther into the space, stealing the air from Chloe's lungs.
Her feet rooted to the floor. Visions of the fire that destroyed the small home she and her parents once shared filled her head until another loud crack tore her from her trance. A second metal shelving unit collapsed, and one of the blue plastic storage drums in the far corner burst with another, even louder pop.
The blaze grew to a slow roar as Chloe yanked the storage room door shut. Her fingers trembled violently as she released the handle. Everything had been fine moments ago. What the hell had happened? And why hadn't the sprinkler system turned on?
She glanced around for a fire extinguisher but found nothing. This was a job for the fire department. They could get things under control, maybe prevent the blaze from destroying the entire building. But more importantly, she needed to get out.
She grabbed her things off the floor and ran through the front entrance, desperately groping inside her purse for her phone. Her heel caught on a crack in the last of the cement steps, and she tumbled to the ground, peering over her shoulder as another explosion rocked the ground beneath her.
Ryan Monroe's bunker boot landed with a slosh as he made his way through yet another soot-filled puddle of debris early Saturday morning. The crew from House 14 had cleared the warehouse's partially charred storage room for inspection several hours ago. Now, Ryan shadowed Chief Fire Investigator Charles Rowen, Battalion Chief Jim Flanagan, and the rest of the team.
This wasn't Ryan's first post-incident inspection. After he announced he'd be returning to the University of New Haven in the fall to begin the master's program in fire investigation, Chief Flanagan had taken him under his wing and brought him in on every candle mishap and electrical malfunction the department had looked into over the last few months. So far, they'd all been ruled accidental.
Ryan knew in his gut this fire wouldn't fall into that category. He'd seen all the signs as he and the crew from House 7 battled the active blaze the night before — sprinkler systems that had been deactivated, distinct areas of concentrated fire indicating multiple points of origin, strangely colored flames and smoke that meant something unusual was burning in the old paper storage facility. With the department's rapid response, portions of the storage room remained intact. Locating the physical evidence of an ignition setup would hopefully be the next step, followed by determining who would've had a motive and an opportunity to put it there. Arson wasn't something Ryan expected to ever wrap his head around, but he hoped to someday come closer to understanding what drove people to it, to play the dangerous game of setting fires with the intent of destroying not only property, but other people's lives.
"This looks like something," Flanagan said as he crouched toward a small pile on the heavily stained concrete floor in the corner nearest the rear exit. "Monroe, want to tell me what I've got here?"
Rowen held a high-powered flashlight over his shoulder, and Ryan leaned in close for a better look. He may not have taken a single class in fire investigation yet, but he recognized the setup easily. "Cigarette tucked into the middle of a matchbook, sir. The cigarette burns down and ignites the matches. This particular setup failed to ignite, so there were likely others used. And there should be a fuel source nearby."
Flanagan rose and patted Ryan on the back. "Someone's been studying."
Chief Rowen took the artifact from Flanagan and examined it more closely. "Free Spirits. That's a fairly uncommon brand, which could make it easier to track down who bought it. We can canvass the local convenience stores. Maybe we'll get lucky." He tucked the cigarette and matchbook into an evidence collection container before handing it off to another inspector.
Flanagan angled the beam of his flashlight toward a plastic storage drum a few feet from where the investigators stood, then swept the light to the far corner where a heap of warped, melted plastic lay in front of a soot-covered V on the wall.
"Bingo." He traversed the path of toppled metal shelving units to pick up a piece of the plastic and lifted his face shield to sniff it. "Smell that?"
He held it toward Ryan, who was instantly overwhelmed with the memory of his sisters and the pedicure parties he'd narrowly escaped as a young boy. "Acetone."
"That's right." Flanagan dropped the plastic into another evidence container and handed that off as well. "We'll run it through the lab to be sure." He clapped his gloved hands together. "Okay. So, we've got a container of acetone that didn't withstand the blaze in one corner of the storage room, and an unsuccessful ignition setup in another corner. What now, Monroe?"
"The perpetrator likely left setups in each of the corners."
Rowen swept his gaze across the room. "The one that's intact was likely the last setup he attempted to ignite before he fled the scene, but he didn't stick around long enough to make sure the cigarette stayed lit. Rookie mistake."
Ryan nodded in agreement. This was not a professional job, with high-tech explosives wired to remote devices the perpetrator could have detonated from a safe distance. This fire was caused by someone who lit some matches near some flammable chemicals and took off as fast as they could. An amateur.
"Fits the scenario we've been building with the woman we're questioning," Flanagan said.
Ryan eyed his mentor with a raised brow. "A woman?"
Flanagan nodded as Rowen made his way to the next corner. "Claims she was in a business meeting here with a construction crew, but she was the only one still around when the fire started. Says she ran out the front entrance and supposedly tripped and fell down the steps on her way out." He let out an incredulous chuckle and added, "Even has the bruises to prove she fell because she was in such a hurry to outrun the fire. We don't have enough to hold her, but she's a person of interest and we're definitely not finished questioning her and the guys she had that meeting with." He followed Rowen to another pile of debris.
A woman. Ryan knew better than to doubt a woman could be capable of something like this, but the news came as a surprise all the same. He wished he was able to sit in on those interviews, to come face-to-face with the potential suspects, to get a feel for what kind of person might do something like this. But until he finished his certification, he couldn't be involved in that part of an investigation.
"Monroe," Flanagan called from the far corner of the space, motioning toward another twisted pile of plastic. "Want to take a look at this?"
Yes, he did. He wanted to absorb everything he could from this treasure trove of learning opportunities. To gather the evidence, uncover the facts, and put away the person responsible.CHAPTER 2
Chloe grasped the brass handle of the massive wooden door to O'Malley's Pub and heaved it open. The place was practically empty, even on a Saturday night. As she'd expected from the run-down exterior, it was a total dive, reminiscent of the local burger joint back in her hometown in Idaho. The air inside was heavy with the smell of beer and Buffalo wings, almost masking the odor of burnt wood, cardboard, and plastic still wafting through the streets from less than a mile away.
"So, this is O'Malley's." She followed Lizzie — her roommate and one close friend from the office — to the bar at the back. "I've been living here in Ridgeport for a year and a half. How is it possible I've never been in this place?"
Lizzie took a seat on an imitation leather stool, pushing a lock of her shoulder-length blond curls behind her ear. "Desperate times, my friend. You know we'd be at one of the good clubs if the entire Riverfront wasn't closed because of that damned fire."
Damned fire was right.
She'd spent most of the previous day speaking with the police and fire investigators, half expecting them to slap the cuffs on her since she was the only person in the warehouse when it burst into flames. She'd given them all the information she could — which wasn't much — and now she wasn't all that picky about where she and Lizzie spent their Saturday night, as long as she could get a drink. Or five.
After a quick inspection to ensure the bar's surface was clean and dry, she set her purse down and hoisted herself up onto the bar stool next to Lizzie's — no small feat in the slim black skirt and matching heels she quickly realized were much too dressy for the neighborhood watering hole. She winced at the sharp pain in her hip where she'd landed on the concrete the day before.
A cheer rose up from the other end of the bar, where four boisterous men sat wearing matching navy-blue jackets with the city fire department emblem on the left shoulder. Chloe glanced up at the Yankee game on the wall-mounted flat screen. The team had scored a run, and the men exchanged high-fives as if they were somehow responsible for it.
"See? I told you," Lizzie said. "Must be Happy Hour. I feel happier already."
Lizzie Duncan loved men, and she knew all the best places to find them. She'd told Chloe the hot guys from Firehouse 7 across the street hung out at O'Malley's when they weren't on shift. Judging by the well-built men focused on the ballgame, her assessment was on target. But while landing a guy may have been Lizzie's plan for the evening, Chloe wasn't interested in the crew at the end of the bar or any other men right now. All she wanted was a drink.
"You need to relax and stop obsessing about that warehouse." Lizzie said, still eyeing the firefighters over Chloe's shoulder. "There's nothing you can do about it, anyway. Now, let's review. We are single. We're having fun and we're not looking for anything serious. The last thing you need is another crappy boyfriend."
Like she needed to be reminded. Christopher Toriello wasn't just the owner of Toriello Development. He was her ex. She'd sworn off men after her miserable experience with him, and even a hunky fire crew wasn't enough to persuade her otherwise.
"You can have all the fun you want, I'm only here for the alcohol." Chloe shifted on her seat and sighed deeply, willing the bartender to look their way. "I was so close to finally proving I can handle this position, and not only because I used to screw the boss." Not something she was proud of in hindsight, but she'd been in love, and she'd thought he loved her, too. "I'll be lucky if I have a job on Monday. He's probably checking with his lawyers right now to see if he can use the fire as an excuse to lay me off. Can we talk about something other than hot guys, crappy boyfriends, and mysterious infernos?" "I can take crappy boyfriends and mysterious infernos off the table, but I'm not so sure I can skip the hot guys with that crew sitting over there."
Chloe shook her head in begrudging amusement. "Did I mention I need a drink?"
"What can I get for ya?" the bartender asked right on cue as he wiped down the bar in front of them. The middle-aged man spoke kindly with a warm Irish accent. With his half-bald, gray-haired head, he reminded Chloe of Grandpa Joe, her mom's father who'd taken her in after the house fire turned her life upside down when she was fifteen.
"Two mojitos," Chloe said.
He tapped the bar and flashed a smile. "Coming right up."
"You could stand a good hookup, you know," Lizzie teased. "Nothing like a hot first responder to take the edge off." She tipped her chin toward the firemen and sat up a bit straighter. "Speaking of which ... heads up."
Chloe glanced down the bar in time to watch the firefighter nearest her slide off his stool, all six-foot-something, God-knows-how-many-rock-solid-pounds of him. "Mint leaves, Danny," he called out to the bartender. "A mojito's got mint leaves in it."
The bartender lifted his head from where he'd been rummaging under the bar and pulled a small, leaf-filled container from the mini-fridge. "I knew that, asshole," he said with a grin.
In spite of herself, Chloe chuckled at their exchange, seemingly the light-hearted ribbing of longtime friends. The firehouse guy made his way over to the seat next to hers. Chloe shifted, shrinking into the seat of the bar stool. She may not have been the best judge of a man's character — Christopher was proof of that — but this guy had "player" written all over him. More trouble than Chloe could ever want, or handle. She took in his imposing, muscular build, his dark curls, and the crystal-blue eyes that locked onto hers with such intensity she had to look away.
She thanked the bartender as he handed her the drink, and she took a generous sip. Maybe he really didn't know how to make them, because it had much more of a kick to it than she'd expected. Not that she was complaining.
"I thought for sure you'd stumped him with that request," the firefighter said, his voice as smooth as his demeanor. "Didn't think anyone ever ordered mojitos in this place. Beer, yes. Whiskey, yes. Fancy mixed drinks? Not so much." He lifted a tumbler of amber liquid to his mouth.
Crap. He was talking to her. The alcohol seeped in, washing away some of her tension, but still, she wasn't feeling all that social. Lizzie was right; she needed to relax. She'd try to play along ... for a minute.
"Well," she said with hopefully the right amount of snark to be funny. "Good to know Ridgeport's bravest are up on the latest cocktail trends."
Some combination of a snort and a laugh emanated from the other end of the bar. The dark-haired man glanced over his shoulder toward his buddies. Chloe followed his gaze to another well-built firefighter with sexily disheveled dirty blond hair, staring at the baseball game with a smirk hiding against the beer bottle at his lips. She'd made him laugh, and an unfamiliar sense of confidence came over her.
Excerpted from Burn by Dawn Altieri, Vanessa Mitchell. Copyright © 2017 Dawn Altieri. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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