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The shattering glass broke the stillness of the moonlit forest, startling sleeping birds into flight and scattering grazing deer in the meadow below. As the last tinkling echo faded away, Kitty McGuire studied the hole she'd created in the back door of the mountain cabin.
Tree branches rustled. A twig snapped. Heart pounding, she whirled and pointed the flashlight beam into the woods. Nothing stirred. Then an owl lifted to the air, its wings silhouetted against the full moon. Kitty sighed as the bird soared toward California's majestic Sierra Mountain range.
The air held a tang of fresh, clean snow from the highest of the Four Sisters' rugged peaks standing like sentries over the little valley. Her father had loved the Sisters, claiming they brought him good luck. Instead, they'd overshadowed his death.
Kitty blinked back hot, angry tears as she punched out the last triangle of stubborn glass and turned the deadbolt. Her hand hesitated on the doorknob as she fought the urge to jump in her Jeep and race back to L.A. She hadn't planned to return to Pine Lake two months after the funeral. Only a murder accusation against her father could've drawn her back to a place overflowing with aching memories.
Tomorrow she'd hunt down the sheriff and the new fire chief, Luke Tanner, to set the record straight. Her father had died as he'd lived—an honorable public servant—and no one could prove otherwise. Then she could be out of here forever.
With renewed determination, she stepped into the dark kitchen, a blanket of stale air engulfing her. She batted at the filmy web clinging to her forehead.
Kitty shivered and tucked her hair firmly under her baseball cap. Scanning the rafters for any looming creatures, she felt along the wall for the light switch and flipped it. Nothing happened. A fuse must've blown, a common occurrence in the cabin's ancient wiring system.
She yanked open the drawer where her father had kept the spare fuses and stared in dismay at the jumbled pile. She tugged open the next drawer, and then the next. They were all in the same state of chaos. Her fingers sifted through the utensils, matches and other kitchen items. No fuses. Maybe there were extra in the utility box. Slammimg the drawers shut, she turned, and choked back a scream.
A large dog stood in the open doorway, a stream of moonlight gleaming off his fangs. The beast's nails clicked on the vinyl floor as he stalked toward her. A low growl rumbled from its chest.
"Good dog. It—it's okay. Stay!" she said hoarsely. The dog stilled, but the rumbling intensified. Kitty snagged a heavy copper canister of flour. If she threw it and distracted the dog, maybe she could dash outside and close the door.
Sweat trickled down her back. She inched along the counter. Almost there. Lifting the canister, she fumbled behind her for the doorknob, but instead of cold metal, her fingers brushed against something damp and warm.
"Got you!" a husky male voice said. His arm wrapped around her neck, slamming her back against him. The canister flew out of her hand, exploding against the rafters. Flour showered down on them. The dog barked. The man coughed, his chest heaving.
Holding her breath, Kitty wrenched free and darted out the door. She tore around the corner toward her Jeep, but the man tackled her and knocked her into a pile of pine needles.
He pinned her flat. "Freeze!"
She froze. His heart pounded against her spine. Even with her nose pressed into the pine needles, she smelled his male scent of sweat and musk.
"You're not getting away this time," he said.
She twisted frantically under him. Her nails raked his arms. He grabbed her hands and hauled them over her head, knocking off her cap. Hair spilled over her face.
The massive body stiffened. "Hey, you're a woman."
"You'd know it if I were." He shifted his weight, and she gasped. "Get off me. I can't breathe."
He rolled to the side with his fingers clamped on her wrist and pulled her onto her knees. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and glared at her captor. Clad in black jogging shorts and tank top, his damp skin gleamed in the moonlight. Dark eyes scrutinized her from a strong-featured face masked with flour.
"Jack, guard." He released her arm as the dog sat, his glowing, canine gaze focused on her. "Don't try anything dumb. The sheriff's on his way. Just be thankful I'm the one who found you and not someone with a shotgun. People are getting mighty fed up with stealing around here."
She sucked in the thin air, trying to catch her breath. "Wh-what are you talking about? Who are you?"
He glanced at the cabin and shook his head. "Returning to a crime scene is really stupid, you know?"
Stupid? Her mind seized on a few choice words to call him, but the sound of crunching gravel from the driveway heralded the sheriff's car. Kitty stifled a groan. She and Stan Johnson shared a tumultuous history, and their relationship wasn't going to improve when he found out why she'd come back. She watched with growing apprehension as he squeezed his rotund frame out of the car door.
"Arrest this man, Sheriff. He attacked me," she called out. Sheriff Johnson strode toward them in heavy boots, his fingers tapping his gun holster.
"Trouble here, Tanner?"
Kitty's mouth dropped open. Luke Tanner? Of all the lousy coincidences. No wonder he hadn't identified himself.
"I found her ransacking the kitchen again." Tanner stretched his long body upward.
"Again? He's crazy." Kitty scrambled to her feet, ignoring the dog's warning growl. "I just got here tonight and was only looking for a fuse."
The sheriff's cool gaze flickered over her and Tanner. "What's that white stuff all over you?"
"Flour," Kitty replied with a lift of her chin, glad more of the fine powder covered Tanner than herself.
Johnson's thin gray mustache twitched. "Breaking and entering is a serious charge, Miss McGuire. You should know that."
She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the implied reference to her past sins. "Give me a break. Since when is it a crime to break into your own place?"
The sheriff's jaw tightened as he rubbed his evening shadow. "Yeah, well, things have changed around here. This property reverted to the town."
"What?" Kitty's voice rose an octave.
Johnson shrugged. "Something to do with funds your father borrowed on behalf of the fire department. Didn't Pete let you know?"
"No, Pete didn't let me know!" She hadn't seen or heard from Pete Roth, her father's lawyer, since the funeral when he'd informed her Sam had left everything to her. "Okay, maybe Pete tried to contact me, and I never got the message. I've been really busy. This whole situation is absurd. I'll call him right now."
"Can't. Pete left with the missus on a Caribbean cruise. Won't be back for a month."
"How convenient for the town council," Kitty said, hands on her hips. "No one around here to argue. They just take what they want. Well, they won't get away with this."
The sheriff stared at her without blinking and then slid his attention to Tanner. "I'll run her down to the station. You want to come in and press charges or wait till morning?"
Charges? Her stomach constricted as she glanced at the shiny handcuffs dangling from the sheriff's belt.
Tanner shook his head. "Wait a second, let me get this straight. This is Sam McGuire's daughter, Katherine? The firefighter who lives in Los Angeles?"
"Oh, don't tell me you didn't know." Kitty pointed her finger at Tanner. "And nobody except my mother ever called me Katherine. It's Kitty. Got it?"
A muscle in Tanner's cheek tightened as she continued, "I don't know what scam the town council is trying to pull, but the cabin is mine. I have a key. Something's wrong with the lock, which is why I broke the back window. The lights wouldn't come on, so I searched the drawers for a fuse."
Both men stood, silent. Kitty gritted her teeth to keep from saying more that might get her into further trouble.
"Miss McGuire," Tanner said. "I can assure you, I didn't know your identity. The cabin's been vacant since the funeral.
I understand before that, you hadn't visited for years, which brings up the question—why are you here?"
Johnson's eyes widened. "Yeah, why now?"
"You know why…." From their blank expressions, they didn't have a clue. How strange. She looked from one man to the other. What was going on here? "Someone called me last night and said you two had turned up evidence that my father set the Wildcat Ravine Fire, which is totally ridicul—"
"Whoa." Tanner held up his hand. "Who called you?"
She scowled at his rudeness. "He didn't say—and before you ask, no, I didn't recognize the voice."
The sheriff glanced at Tanner and nodded toward the car. "Wait here," Johnson said to Kitty as they traipsed away. She wanted to scream. They treated her as if she was a pesky mosquito buzzing around their heads, something to shoo away or, if she got too close, squash. Were they nuts? They'd accused her father of murder. Of course she'd be here. Of course she'd be involved.
She took an experimental step toward the house. The dog, which she could now identify as a black-and-tan German shepherd, rose, the rumble back in his chest.
"Okay, okay, settle down." Kitty leaned against a tree, frustration vibrating through her. What a waste of time. She only had six vacation days left from the Los Angeles Fire Department and couldn't afford unpaid leave after inheriting some of Dad's bills.
The two men conferred for what seemed a year, and then the car's engine roared to life. Her mouth dropped open as the sheriff drove away. Who would've guessed? She wasn't going to jail after all.
Tanner reappeared from the shadows. "I apologize for the misunderstanding, Miss McGuire." He snapped his fingers. The growling ceased, and the dog sprang to Luke's side.
"A misunderstanding?" Kitty sputtered, following them around the corner of the house. "That's the understatement of the year. Tell me something, Tanner, where in your job description does it say a fire chief is supposed to be out patrolling for burglars, or in this case, jumping defenseless females?"
Tanner paused at the fuse box, then the kitchen flooded with light. "I'm a neighbor. I was out for a run, minding my own business, until you decided to wake the whole forest by smashing a window. File a complaint against me if you wish, but the fact is, you still broke into town property." His gaze sifted over her, making her skin prickle. "And I wouldn't call you defenseless either. You managed to get your claws into me, but I guess I can't blame you for defending yourself."
He flipped on the porch light and brushed back his black hair, sending up a puff of white before he entered the cabin. "Be careful," he warned. Glass popped under his shoes. "Jack, stay."
She stepped cautiously around the dog that had halted in the doorway. The narrow, outdated kitchen looked even worse in the dingy light. Flour coated the countertops and floor like a fine snow. "What'd you mean when you talked about me returning to the scene of the crime? What happened?"
Tanner brushed his hand along the counter, and flour cascaded to the floor like a waterfall. "Someone broke in here yesterday. Third burglary in town this week. Jimmied the back door open, but at least there wasn't any major damage. Just a few drawers tossed around. I live up the hill, so the town council hired me to oversee this place. I put in deadbolts this afternoon. You may want to check to see if anything's missing."
Kitty nodded as the hairs on her arms stood up at the thought of a stranger pawing through her father's things.
"I filed a report. You would've been contacted soon." Tanner's military-straight posture exuded self-confidence, even streaked with flour. Kitty's insides relaxed some. Maybe he wasn't as incompetent as she first thought. Maybe she could reason with him.
He glanced around the kitchen. "Broom?"
"There used to be one in here." She opened the closet door and handed it to him. He swept the flour into piles as Kitty scooped up glass fragments with the dustpan.
"Why didn't the sheriff take me in?" she asked. "Johnson loved to make my life miserable when I was a kid."
"Since the property is in legal limbo and no real harm occurred, we'll forget about the incident if you do. I'll get the window fixed tomorrow, and you can retrieve any personal things you want to take before I lock up. I can ship the rest to you later."
Kitty bolted upward, dropping the dustpan. "It's two in the morning. Where am I supposed to sleep? The hotel burned down. Even if I decided to go, I'm not driving seven hours back to L.A. tonight. Besides, I can't leave until this stupid accusation about my father is cleared up, and I get my cabin back from those thieves on the council."
Tanner stopped sweeping and scrutinized her. "I suppose there isn't any harm in you staying here until morning."
"You're not listening," Kitty said with a steely edge to her words. "I'm not leaving Pine Lake until my father is off the suspect list. He's not an arsonist any more than you are."
"I'm sorry, but the evidence suggests differently." The bristles from his broom hit the linoleum with such force, clouds encircled her boots.
"What evidence? I have a right to know!"
A muscle twitched in his jaw. "Miss McGuire, go back to L.A. and let us do our jobs."
"Not when you aren't doing your job right!" Her frustration boiled over. Tanner eyes narrowed as he towered over her. She fought the compulsion to retreat and lifted her chin to glare at him.
Tanner sighed. "Look, I know it's difficult, but this isn't just about your father. Two other people died too. I can't compromise the case."
"I already know some of the details. The two construction workers were trapped in the hotel when the firestorm hit, but my dad was miles away and already…gone." She took several deep breaths, fighting the mental image of her father's battered body lying at the bottom of Wildcat Falls. "He had nothing to do with it."
"Even if he was at the fire's origin before the fire started?"
Kitty gasped. "How do know you that? Everyone just assumed he saw the smoke and went to investigate."
Tanner turned his back to her. "I've said too much already. The details will be available when the investigation is concluded."
Kitty bit her lip to keep from screaming. "I can't believe this. He was the fire chief for fifteen years and an honorable man. You of all people should understand what he stood for. He protected this town."