The small town of Black Falls, Vermont, finally feels safe again—until search-and-rescue expert Rose Cameron discovers a body, burnt almost beyond recognition. Almost. Rose is certain that she knows the victim’s identity…and that his death was no accident.
Nick Martini also suspects an arsonist’s deliberate hand. Another fire killed an arson investigator in California months ago. Now the rugged smoke jumper is determined to follow the killer’s trail…even if it leads straight to Rose. Nick and Rose haven’t seen each other since they shared a single night of blind passion, but they can’t let memories and unhealed wounds get in the way of their common goal—stopping a merciless killer from taking aim straight at the heart of Black Falls.
Originally published in 2010
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Black Falls, Vermontlate February
Nick Martini rolled out of the four-poster bed in his spacious room in an older part of Black Falls Lodge and turned on a light on his bedside table. He glanced at the clock radio.
"Hell," he said, tempted to crawl back under the down comforter.
Instead he stood up on a thick, brightly colored carpetyellow sunflowers against a blue backgroundon the pine-board floor and walked over to the double windows, their cream-colored drapes pulled tightly shut against the Vermont cold.
He'd arrived after dark last night. It'd still be dark out now.
He opened the drapes, anyway.
He felt the below-freezing outside air seep through the windows but left the drapes open. In Southern California, he'd be asleep. Even in northern New England, with the three-hour time difference, he should be asleep. After his long flight yesterday and his drive from a small airport an hour north of the lodge, he'd almost turned around and found somewhere else to spend the night.
He'd always expected he'd check out Black Falls, Vermont, at some point, but it wasn't his ten-year friendship with Sean Cameron, his business partner and fellow smoke jumper in California, that had finally brought him East to the Green Mountains and Cameron country.
It was a serial arsonist. A killer.
And it was Sean's sister, Rose.
Nick looked over at the bed with its posts and pictured Rose in his bed in Beverly Hills eight months ago, her skin glowing in the aftermath of their lovemaking. She'd caught him staring at her and had pulled the sheet over her nakedness, as if only realizing just then what a huge mistake she'd made.
He raked a hand through his hair and bolted for the bathroom, with its gleaming porcelain and chrome and its soft, ultrawhite towels. He turned on the shower and tore open a bar of Vermont-made goat's milk soap while he waited for the water to heat up. He climbed in, stood under the stream of water as hot as he could stand and told himself he still could turn back.
He didn't have to see anyone else in Black Falls.
He didn't have to see Rose.
For ten years he'd fought wildfires, and for six years he'd served on a navy submarine. He'd faced dangers and hardships, and he'd seen people diehe'd come close to death himself. He'd always done his best and acted honorably, even when he'd screwed up.
Until Rose Cameron.
As he shut off the shower and reached for a towel, he could taste her mouth, feel her breasts under his palms, hear her soft cries as she'd climaxed under him, clawing at him, sobbing his name.
They'd known exactly what they were doing that night.
Nick toweled off and got dressed in the warmest clothes he'd packed. He doubted he'd pass for a Vermont mountain man, but he didn't care. He headed out to the hall, shutting his door quietly behind him and taking the stairs down to the lobby. The lodge, long owned and operated by the Cameron family, hadn't seemed crowded when he'd arrived at nine o'clock last night. From what he'd learned from Sean over the years, it drew its biggest crowds in the warm-weather months.
Just as well, considering the spate of violence the town had experienced since the fall.
Since last spring, really.
A brochure tacked open on a bulletin board in the lobby listed daily winter activities. Nick could take his pick of such diversions as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, arts and crafts, yoga, nature walks and dance lessons. He wouldn't lack for things to do, except he wasn't at the lodge for fun.
A fire was already crackling in the stone fireplace just down from the front desk, where A. J. Cameron, the flinty eldest of the four Cameron siblings, stood, still in his canvas jacket. His blue eyes and the hard set of his jaw reminded Nick of Rose. She'd said Sean was the charmer of the family.
It definitely wasn't A.J.
Or her, for that matter.
"Coffee's available," A.J. said. "Breakfast doesn't start until six."
"That's fine. I thought I'd head over to the Whit-taker estate. Sean mentioned Rose has been training her search-and-rescue dog out there one or two mornings a week." Nick tried to sound matter-of-fact instead of like a man who'd impulsively slept with the Cameron brothers' baby sister at a vulnerable moment in her life. "He says she's an early bird."
A.J. unzipped his jacket. Unlike his two younger brothers, he'd lived in Vermont his entire life. So had Rose, but as a search management consultant and member of an expert disaster search-and-rescue team, she traveled frequently.
Her eldest brother frowned. "I suppose you want to see for yourself where Sean nearly got himself killed last month."
"Yes," Nick said carefully, settling on an incomplete answer. "I'm up. Might as well get moving."
A.J. didn't relax, but he didn't look suspicious, either. "I take it you know Rose from her trips out to California."
"We've run into each other a few times when she's stopped in to see Sean."
That was Nick's rehearsed answer, and he thought he delivered it reasonably well.
The Cameron blue eyes narrowed. Nick understood A.J.'s scrutiny. For eighteen months, quiet, cerebral Lowell Whittaker had run a network of paid killers, putting people who wanted someone killed together with people willing to do the killing. During that time, he and his wife, Vivian, had bought a country home in Black Falls.
Now they both were under arrestLowell on serious, multiple charges for his role as a murderous mastermind; Vivian, for attempted murder. She was cooperating with authorities to get the charges reduced. Her husband wasn't cooperating with anyone, including, apparently, his own lawyers, who were urging him to turn over any information he had on his killers, his clients and their victims and potential victims.
Among Lowell Whittaker's past victims was Drew Cameron, the seventy-seven-year-old father of A.J., Elijah, Sean and Rose Cameron, killed last April after he'd come too close to figuring out the Black Falls newcomer wasn't the gentleman farmer he pretended to be.
At first, Drew Cameron's death in an early-spring snowstorm had appeared to be accidental. By November, everyone knew better. He'd been murdereddeliberately left to die of exposureby two of Lowell Whittaker's assassins, both now dead themselves.
In between April and November, Rose Cameron had turned up in Los Angeles to lead a training session.
And now here I am, Nick thought.
A.J. tilted his head back. "You want to tell me what you're doing in Vermont?"
"Curiosity," Nick said with a smile.
A.J. didn't press him further and gave Nick direct ions. And why not? Why shouldn't any of the Camerons trust him with their sister?
No reason. None at all.
"I have no regrets about last night," Rose had told him that morning in June. "I just want to go home to Vermont and pretend it never happened. I won't say anything to anyone. I hope you won't, either."
Nick had promised her he'd keep his mouth shut.
He thanked A.J. for the directions and went out into the frigid mountain air. His jacket, boots and gloves weren't rated for temperatures in the low teens, but they'd have to do. The sky was lightening, Cameron Mountain looming across the quiet road that ran along a ridge above the village of Black Falls. The Camerons' mountain resort consisted of the main lodge, cottages, a shop, a recreational building and several hundred acres of picturesque meadows and woods that hooked up with public land, offering guests an extensive network of trails for hiking, mountain biking and backcountry skiing.
Another time, Nick thought.
His rented car started on the first try. Given the winter conditions and mountain roads, he'd gone with all-wheel drive. He followed the ridge past a line of bare maple trees to an intersection that A.J. had described as Harper Four Corners. A former early nineteenth-century tavern Sean owned was on one corner. Across from it was an old cemetery, its rectangular slabs of granite tombstones etched against the predawn sky. A white-steepled church occupied the corner across from the cemetery. On the fourth corner was a crumbling barn.
Sean had tried to explain his hometown of Black Falls, but Nick could see for himself as he turned up past the tavern and old barn, onto Cameron Mountain Road. He knew Rose's house was up here somewhere.
She lived a totally different life from his in Southern California.
Eventually the road wound its way to a shallow, rock-strewn river, frozen and snow-covered in the Vermont winter cold. He came to a sprawling, boarded-up farmhouse on an open hilltop above the river. It had partially burned in January when Lowell Whittaker had set off a bomb, hoping to kill his wife and a local stonemason he was trying to frame. His wife had figured out what was going on, saved herself and left Bowie O'Rourke, the stonemason, to die in the fire. Sean had saved O'Rourke. Vivian Whittaker now insisted she'd been in shock. The truth was, she'd wanted her husband to get away with murder.
Just not her murder.
Nick had seen pictures of the Whittakers. They looked like an ordinary, upper-class couple.
He pulled into an icy but plowed turnaround and parked next to a black Volvo sedan. It wasn't Rose's. He didn't know as much about her as he should, given their brief, intense love affairnever mind that she was Sean's sisterbut he did know she drove a Jeep.
So who owned the Volvo?
He grimaced as he got out of his car. What if she were meeting some guy here and just didn't want her brothers to know? The prying eyes of a small town and all that. He hadn't seen or even been in touch with Rose in eight months. He couldn't expect her to keep her life on hold, especially since she was pretending their night together had never happened.
He wasn't. He hadn't spoken of it and wouldn't, but he wasn't about to pretend it had never happened. He wanted to remember every second of making love to her, even if it had been a mistake.
A big one.
Nick hunched his shoulders against a cold breeze and headed onto a shoveled walk that led to a small stone house that he knew, from Sean's descriptions, was the Whittakers' guesthouse. He noticed footprints in the blanket of white on the slope up to the main farmhouse. He didn't much feel like a trek through knee-deep snow. All he needed was to trip and end up having Rose Cameron and her search-and-rescue dog come find him.
He stepped into one of the prints, a clump of wet snow falling into his boot. Served him right, he thought, and followed the prints, which looked relatively fresh, to the edge of the woods above the river. He figured he could always forget this whole thing, backtrack to his car and go have pancakes at the lodge, but he continued up toward the farmhouse.
The breeze stirred again as he crested the hill.
He smelled smoke in the air and went still.
The smell was distinct, unmistakable and recent. Nick was positive it wasn't the residue of the January fire that had almost killed two people and burned down the place.
He dipped past a white pine and squinted up at the gray clapboard farmhouse. The sunrise glowed on the horizon, its deep pink color spreading across the sky.
Something was wrong. Badly wrong.
Nick moved faster through the snow.
Rose Cameron paused on the shoveled walk up to the farmhouse that had been built in the 1920s by a New Yorker with a romantic view of Vermont. Too expensive for Black Falls residents, it had always been owned by out-of-staters, but none, she thought, quite like the despicable Lowell and Vivian Whittaker.
But Rose didn't want to think about them and shifted her attention to Ranger, her eight-year-old golden retriever, as he ran into the snow along the edge of the walk. He looked good, she thought. Healthy and agile, not as stiff as earlier in the winter. Taking the time to concentrate on training was paying off. She'd parked her Jeep in the main driveway, and he'd jumped out, as eager as a puppy.
She smiled as she watched the vibrant fuchsia and purples of dawn melt into the early-morning sky. The cold weather didn't faze her.