Jake Steele squinted through the smoky haze surrounding the house, his skin prickling with the sensation of being watched. There. In the hedges. It had to be their arsonist. This fire had all the signs of being deliberately set. Jake motioned to his partner Davis, and they started for the hedge.
The face disappeared, swallowed by the drizzly darkness.
Counting on the suspect wanting to avoid the street, Jake beelined to the backyard. Sure enough, a lone figure skulked along the property’s edge. This pyromaniac was going down.
Jake and Davis closed the distance fast, the commotion of the other firefighters masking the thump of their heavy boots. “Where do you think you’re going?” Jake grabbed the guy’s arm.
The scream that met his grip was no guy’s.
Jake turned his flashlight on their culprit, and her panicked brown eyes blindsided him. His grip loosened.
She twisted and squirmed, pounding her free fist against his chest and kicking uselessly at his legs. “Let go of me.”
“Fat chance,” he said, tightening his grip again. Never mind the tears streaking her sooty cheeks. Men hadn’t cornered the market on arson jobs. And with five suspicious fires this side of Seattle in the past nine weeks, he wasn’t about to let her out of his sight until he found out exactly what she knew about this one.
She went limp, her fight gone. “You’re hurting me.”
His gaze shifted to the arm he still held, the only part of her he’d touched as he’d let her wear herself out pummeling his chest. His heart pitched. “You’re burned.” He jerked his thumb off her blistering flesh, sickened that he’d hurt her further.
His partner directed a flashlight at her arm. The underside was flaming red from wrist to crook.
Cupping her elbow with just enough pressure to prevent her from escaping, Jake gentled his tone. “Are you burned anywhere else?”
“I’m fine.” She tried to tug free of his hold.
“You’re not fine.” Megadoses of adrenaline had to be shooting through this spitfire for her to not so much as wince at the pain that had to be blazing up her arm. “This is a serious burn. It needs to be dressed.”
She visibly shrank at his insistent tone. “My friend’s coming for me. He’ll take care of everything.”
Right. If she thought he was about to let her walk away, she’d clearly burned a few brain cells along with that arm. Being careful not to cause her any more pain, he steered her toward the street. “You can wait for your friend in the ambulance.”
As they came around the now-smoldering building, she dug in her heels and darted terrified glances every which way. “No, please.”
Jake caught his partner’s attention and jerked his head toward the sheriff’s car.
Davis nodded and jogged off.
Jake angled his flashlight just high enough so he could study her heart-shaped face without blinding her. How had he ever mistaken her for a guy? She didn’t look much younger than him—late twenties, maybe. Her damp hair, flattened by the rain, skimmed her shoulders, but she was all girl—and very afraid. He’d expected to see fear over getting caught, maybe regret. Not— “I want to help you,” he said, his voice cracking at her terror.
Her watery brown eyes searched his as if she desperately wanted to believe him. “I can’t go out there,” she whispered.
The rattled pitch of her voice tugged at his heart. He tilted his head, softening his expression. “I’m Captain Jake Steele with the Stalwart Fire Department. What’s your name?”
“Ni—” She coughed, the crackly sound rattling through her limbs. “Kara. Kara Grant.”
He didn’t believe her, but nodded anyway. The cough had all the signs of an attempt to buy enough time to come up with an alias. “Did you set the fire, Kara?”
Her eyes flared. “What? No!” She made another useless attempt to jerk free of his grip as the sheriff and Davis rushed toward them. “Sheriff, this firefighter won’t let go of me!”
“She needs medical attention,” Jake growled.
“He thinks I set the fire! When I’m the victim here.”
“Wait. You live here?” Jake’s surprise pitched the question a couple of octaves higher than he’d intended.
“What do you think?” She cradled her wounded arm.
“Lady, you were running away. What do you think I thought?” His department had been called in to assist this neighboring town’s volunteer department. He hadn’t caught the name of the missing victim. Her name.
The sheriff radioed the news to the chief. The firefighters who’d been searching for her inside soon emerged from the house.
Kara gulped. “They were all looking for me? I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“Didn’t realize?” Jake ground his teeth to reel in his tone. “My men were putting their lives at risk while you watched from the bushes. I have a five-year-old boy at home who doesn’t need to lose another parent.”
“I—” Her expression crumpled. “Please, no one was hurt, were they?”
Jake let out a pent-up breath. “No.”
The sheriff cleared his throat. “I still need you to answer a few questions, and I think you’ll be more comfortable doing that in the back of the ambulance than a squad car.”
Her breathing quickened. “Okay, yes. You’re right. Of course.”
Since she’d stopped complaining about his hold on her elbow, Jake guided her toward the ambulance. As they stepped into view of her neighbors huddled in their yards, their Thanksgiving dinners forgotten, Kara clung to his coat. Jake scanned the crowd, looking for anyone suspicious. A bulbous-nosed man stood alone and seemed particularly intent on the firefighters’ actions.
“It’s the tenant,” a woman exclaimed.
A young man cut across the yard and raced toward them. At Kara’s sharp inhalation, Jake instinctively angled his body to block her from view.
The guy raised something in his hands. A camera.
“It’s okay. It’s just a reporter,” Jake said, shifting back.
But at the camera’s flash, Kara buried her face against his coat. “Please, just get me to the ambulance. Please.”
His conscience pricked at her sudden trust, or maybe the way she trembled against his chest. He curled a sheltering arm around her. “Sheriff, I think those questions better wait until after the paramedics check her over.”
Jake pulled back just enough to see Kara’s face. His initial assumptions weren’t adding up. He scrutinized her breathing, her eyes, her skin, for signs of assault, shock, something that would explain why she’d run from help.
Besides the obvious—fear of getting caught.
A section of roof crashed to the ground, spewing black smoke and debris into the air, and over her car. Kara forced herself to draw deep breaths, to release them slowly. The paramedics were bound to insist on taking her to the hospital, and she couldn’t let that happen. Especially now that Jake’s suspicions had confirmed her worst fears. The fire was no accident.
The taste of smoke turned acrid in her mouth. Deep down she’d known the fire was meant for her. That’s why she’d called the marshal overseeing her protection the instant she’d gotten out of the house. She shook her head. And then she’d almost let her real name slip to the overprotective firefighter. Thank goodness, Mrs. Harboyle had been away at her daughter’s for Thanksgiving.
Kara’s vision blurred. Her landlady’s home was destroyed, along with sixty years of memories, and it was all her fault.
“Hang on,” Jake’s husky voice whispered through her hair, an instant before his hands spanned her waist and hoisted her onto the back of the ambulance.
Her breath caught. Oh. After the way she’d fought him back there, she hadn’t expected him to be so nice.
He ditched his hat on the end of the rig, and his sandy brown hair, damp with perspiration, curled over his forehead. “You okay?” he asked, his sweet, lopsided smile not helping her breathe any easier.
Pressing her palm to her chest, she sank onto the gurney. Listen to her. She shouldn’t be noticing a guy’s smile. Never mind how her heart had twisted when he’d mentioned his motherless son. No one wanted a relationship with a woman with a price on her head.
Kara startled at the touch of a petite brunette beside her, and scrambled to catch up to the questions she was spewing.
“I think she’s in shock,” Jake said, his deep voice quieting her frayed nerves.
He seemed genuinely concerned. Could he be someone she could trust? Maybe. Except the marshal had warned her not to trust anyone. Not even the police, because a smart bad guy would pretend to be on her side, pretend to want to help her, pretend to be taking her to safety just long enough to get her somewhere secluded and then slit her throat.
She gulped, sliding her hand up to her neck. Stick to the rules, the marshal had said, and she’d be okay. They’d never lost a witness who stuck to the rules.
So how would Deputy Marshal Ray Boyd explain the fire?
She pushed away the female paramedic’s stethoscope. “I have to go.” For all she knew, the paramedic worked for the adoption ring, too. She glanced from one blocked door to the other, her heart racing. Anyone here could work for it. Be waiting for the chance to finish her off.
“It’s going to be okay,” the paramedic soothed in the kind of voice Kara used to use with her kindergarten students. “I can quickly dress this wound and then the sheriff can ask his questions. Okay?”
The sheriff, right. Kara wiped sweaty palms down her slacks. She needed to stay calm. If they thought she was in shock, the sheriff might insist she go to the hospital. And it would be way too easy for her attacker to get to her there.
“Kara?” the paramedic’s voice filtered through her frenetic thoughts.
“I’m sorry, pardon?”
“I asked on a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain in your arm?”
Jake stood at the rear door, watching her, his warm blue eyes radiating concern.
She ducked her head. The pain was bad, really bad, but if she admitted that, they’d dope her up and send her to the hospital and she’d miss her meeting. The marshal might not find her.
“Kara?” The paramedic split open what looked like a ketchup packet. “How bad?”
Kara shrugged. “Not bad. Honest. A four maybe.”
The paramedic clasped Kara’s wrist and started squeezing the packet over the wound.
Blinding pain streaked down her arm. “Ah!” She jerked from the paramedic’s grasp. Bandages tumbled to the floor.
The paramedic swiped at the gel that had spilled from the packet onto her leg. “I’d better give you something for the pain,” she said through gritted teeth.
Kara thrust out her arm. “No, really. That’s not necessary.” Nausea churned her gut. She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. You just surprised me.”
The woman raised her eyebrow and slanted a glance at Jake, with a slight shake of her head.
Kara tried not to wince as the paramedic dabbed the remaining gel around the blistered portions.
“Most of the burn is first degree,” the paramedic explained as she wrapped a bandage around the arm.
Kara swallowed again and again. Why had the marshal suggested a place so far away to meet? With her car covered in debris, not to mention blocked in the driveway by fire engines, she’d have to walk, and…
“These blistered portions are second degree,” the paramedic went on. “I’m afraid they’re going to hurt a lot more than a four before they get better.”
Yeah, they already did. A black haze slid over Kara’s vision.
“Are you okay?” Jake sounded really concerned.
She teetered, reached out blindly to stop herself from toppling off the gurney.
Jake lunged toward her. “She’s going to faint!”
The next thing she knew, her cheek was pressed against his solid chest, his arm wrapped protectively around her. “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
For a few blissful seconds, she lingered in his protective embrace—the kind of embrace Clark should’ve wrapped her in three months ago.
She sucked in a quick breath and straightened, dismissing the memory. She’d made her choice and so had he. Jake’s arm dropped away, and she shivered at the chilly damp air that rushed into its place.
“I’m guessing you’ll want those painkillers now?” The paramedic doused the bandage in saline.
The cooling flow took the edge off the pain. “Uh, maybe just a couple of acetaminophen.”
Empathy brimmed in Jake’s eyes. “You’ll have to forgive my cousin. She needs to work on her bedside manner.”
Kara chuckled, bringing that heart-fluttering smile back to Jake’s lips. She sighed. She would’ve liked the chance to get to know him. But by tomorrow, Kara Grant would no longer exist.
Another paramedic appeared at the back doors, where the now-missing sheriff had been. “Ready to roll?”
“Roll?” She pushed on the gurney to slide off. “No, I’m fine. I don’t need to go to the hospital.”
Jake’s hands dropped to her shoulders, pinning her in place. “You almost passed out. You’re going to the hospital.”
Kara was about to argue, offer to sign anything they needed to let her leave, then she caught sight of the reporter angling for another photograph, and said, “Okay, let’s go.” If by some miracle, the adoption ring wasn’t behind tonight’s fire, her picture in the paper would seal her fate. A haircut, dye job and colored contacts may have transformed her from a long-haired, blue-eyed blonde, but there was no disguising her heart-shaped face.
One good thing Kara learned en route to the hospital was that the coffee shop where she was supposed to meet her handler was only two blocks away. All she had to do was convince the doctor she was fine and get out before anyone tried to stick her with anything.
Except the triage nurse didn’t hold out much hope that she’d see a doctor anytime soon. “The fog caused a huge traffic pileup,” she said. “Every E.R. bed is full, and I’m afraid it may be some time before we can even transfer care from the EMT. We need to give priority to the most critical patients.”
“Yes, I understand,” Kara said, fishing for an out. “Perhaps I should just wait to see my own doctor tomorrow.”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” the paramedic—Sherri, she’d said her name was—piped up. “You have no home to go to. And besides the sheriff is coming here to interview you.”
“Okay, then.” The nurse recorded all Kara’s pertinent details, and then directed Sherri to wheel her into the hall to wait until her care could be transferred.
Not good. She could be stuck for hours waiting for a bed, never mind waiting to see the E.R. doc. “You really don’t have to stay with me,” Kara said to Sherri after her partner wandered off to do paperwork and restock their rig. “You must have other calls to get to.”
“No, not until the hospital takes over your care. That’s the policy.”
Kara sat up. “If you just need the gurney back, I can sit in the waiting room.” She felt silly lying on the thing anyway.
“That’s not how it works.”
Sherri hitched her hip onto the edge of the gurney. “So how long have you known my cousin?”
“Oh, the firefighter.” Kara vaguely remembered him referring to Sherri as his cousin, although they shared little family resemblance. “Just since tonight.”
Sherri’s head jerked back as if she didn’t believe her. “Really? He didn’t act like it.”
Jake’s “It’s okay. I got you” replayed in Kara’s mind as she realized for the first time that he’d caught her, when Sherri had been closer, right at her side, even.
Sherri studied her intently, her expression unconvinced.
“Why don’t you grab yourself a coffee?” Kara suggested.
“I’m fine.” Sherri asked her about her family and job and Kara did her best to avoid giving direct answers.
Once more, Kara suggested Sherri get herself a coffee or bite to eat or a breath of fresh air, anything to get her away for a few minutes so Kara could slip out of the hospital. She needed to go before the bad guys figured out she was here. But the woman wouldn’t budge.
Kara readjusted her position on the uncomfortable gurney for the umpteenth time in two hours. “What happened to the sheriff? I thought he wanted to ask me questions.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon. Why don’t you try to get some rest?”
No, she couldn’t do that. It seemed as if every person who walked by looked at her oddly. Any one of them could be a goon of the adoption ring waiting for the chance to finish her off. She needed to get out of here. Somehow she needed to get word to the marshal, but with Sherri hovering so close, Kara hadn’t dared even to try to text him. “Um, Sherri? I need to use the washroom.” Why hadn’t she thought of that sooner?
Sherri smiled, her eyes crinkling as if she genuinely cared, so different from her all-business attitude back in the ambulance. “No problem. I can walk you there.” She led her to a single-stall facility.
“Uh, maybe you could find out how much longer the wait will be while I go.”
Sherri propped a shoulder against the hall wall. “I’m sure it won’t be much longer.”
Great, sneaking away is out. Kara shut the door and opted for plan B. She turned on the faucet and the fan and prayed the noise would muffle her voice as she dialed Ray’s number. Voice mail picked up on the fifth ring. What did she do now? It wasn’t like him not to answer.
A knock sounded on the door. “You okay?” Sherri called.
“Yes. Almost done.” Kara lifted her voice over the noise of the fan, and then cupped her hand around her mouth at the receiver. “Ray, it’s Kara. They made me come to the hospital and the sheriff wants to question me and… Please come get me if you can. Or I’ll meet you as soon as I’m released.”
Sherri knocked again. “They have a bed for you. You ready?”
Kara stuffed the phone back into her pocket, snapped off the faucet and fan, and jerked open the door. “Ready.”
Rather than return her to the gurney, Sherri led her to a curtained-off bed at the end of a long room lined with beds. “Here you go. Lie down here and the doctor will be in to see you soon.” Sherri nodded at the sheriff waiting by the bed then left. Facing the sheriff alone, Kara suddenly felt a whole lot worse than she had a minute ago.
A very efficient nurse wasted no time checking her vitals as the sheriff pulled up a chair and flipped open his notebook. Between his crisply ironed shirt, unflattering crew cut and the hard lines creasing his face, he reminded her of a drill-sergeant principal she’d once worked under—the kind of guy who didn’t let anything slip by him.
“Your pulse is very rapid,” the nurse scolded.
Yours would be too if someone was trying to kill you! Kara took a deep breath and willed it to slow.
“Tell me what happened,” the sheriff said.
“I was upstairs watching a movie in my room when my landlady’s cat started scratching my door and mewing frantically.” Kara dug her fingers into the sheets. Had she cost Mrs. Harboyle her dear companion, too? “Did the firefighters save the cat? It ran when I tried to pick it up.”
With a suppressed huff, the sheriff stopped writing. “A large, long-haired white cat?”
“Yes, he was rescued. Please continue.”
“I turned off the TV and—”She squeezed her eyes shut as the panic crashed over her all over again. “That’s when—” Her breath came in short gasps. “I heard the crackling, smelled the smoke.”
The nurse touched Kara’s shoulder. “You’re okay now. Take deep breaths.”
Inhaling, Kara pressed her lips together.
“Did you hear anything downstairs before that?” the sheriff asked.
“It’s an old house. It creaks and groans a lot. I try not to pay too much attention.” She bit her lip. It wasn’t a lie, exactly. She did try not to pay attention, but with a death threat hanging over her head, every creak and groan made her jump. That’s why she’d turned on the movie, extra loud, to drown out the noises of the storm outside, and the one inside her head and heart. She was spending Thanksgiving alone, and couldn’t help wondering if she’d ever be able to spend another holiday with her family, as paltry as their celebrations had always been.
“How about outside? A bark? A car engine? Any kind of movement?”
She twisted her hands in the sheets and buried them in her lap. “No, nothing.”
“Were you home alone all day?”
“No, I work for a janitorial service.” The furthest thing from a kindergarten teacher the marshal’s office could find. And she missed being with kids so much. “I got home just after five.”
“Was the door locked?”
“And you didn’t smell any smoke at that time?”
“No, I reheated leftovers and went to my room.”
“You didn’t check the other doors?”
“I did.” She gulped. She was always checking and double-checking the locks, because Mrs. Harboyle had a bad habit of letting out the cat and not relocking the door.
“And you didn’t hear anyone break in? See any evidence of a break-in?”
“No.” Kara’s throat constricted at the possibility that Mrs. Harboyle left the back door unlocked before her daughter picked her up. That the arsonist might’ve still been in the house when she got home.
The sheriff flipped over a page in his notebook. “How did you get out?”
She fixed her gaze on the sheriff’s badge. “I covered myself with a wet towel and tried to get downstairs, but—” The words clogged in her throat. The flames had moved so fast.
“That’s how you burned your arm?”
She hugged it to her belly and nodded. “I ran back to my room and jumped out the window onto the roof of the woodshed and from there to the ground.”
“Did you see anyone then?”
“A car stopped on the street and I hid in the bushes.” Her heart ratcheted in her chest at the memory—the fear that she’d escaped the fire only to face the man who’d set it.
“Our 9-1-1 caller. Yes, I talked to him. He said he pounded on the door. Why didn’t you show yourself? Tell him no one else was inside?”
“I—” she gulped “—I guess I was in shock.”
The sheriff drilled her with the same questions, phrased a dozen different ways, for what seemed like forever. Finally the nurse shooed him out to make way for the doctor. To Kara’s relief, he said he had all the information he needed for the moment.
By tomorrow, she’d be out of town and it would be the marshal’s problem to explain her disappearance.
The nurse returned with a tall, dark-haired doctor who immediately started into his own litany of questions as the nurse removed the arm dressing so he could examine the burn.
The more questions he asked the edgier Kara grew, but she couldn’t figure out why. There was nothing weird about his questions. Except…
He never actually looked her in the eye. Not once. Was he afraid she’d be able to read something there?
She muffled a gasp. What if the adoption ring was connected to organized crime and they had a hold over him, like that doctor on the TV show, and they’d ordered him to kill her?
She swallowed. Okay, get a grip. He could just be preoccupied. He wore a wedding band. Maybe he just got off the phone with his wife about a problem at home. He had to at least be a doctor, right? Otherwise the nurse wouldn’t have brought him in.
The doctor glanced at her now-bare wound. “That doesn’t look too bad.”
And it didn’t. Aside from a few blistery spots, she’d had sunburns that were worse.
“You can go,” the doctor said, turning to leave.
Someone stepped around the curtain on her other side, and she practically springboarded into the air.
The person glanced at her in confusion. “Sorry, wrong bed.”
Meanwhile the nurse hurried after the departing doctor. “Are you sure? Her BP is low. And look at her eyes. I’m concerned she’s still in shock.”
Kara blinked. What was wrong with her eyes? Aside from her overreaction to Mr. Wrong Bed.
The doctor stopped, and for the first time, met her eyes, for all of a fleeting nanosecond. “She’s fine.”
Kara swung her legs off the bed, not about to wait around long enough for the nurse to change his mind. Maybe it was her imagination, but the woman seemed a little too anxious to keep her here.
As Kara pushed aside the curtain to leave, the nurse trotted up carrying a hypodermic. “Hold on a second.”
“What— What’s that for? The doctor said I can go.”
“Yes, but he just ordered this to help with the pain.”
“I don’t need it.” Kara edged sideways, putting the bed between her and the needle-happy nurse. How had she not clued in to that maniacal glint in her eyes sooner? It was the exact same glint she’d seen in that goon’s eyes back in Boston, when he’d spotted her snapping his picture and pulled his gun.
An orderly popped a wheelie with a wheelchair at the end of her bed. “You the one who’s getting sprung?”
“That’s me!” Kara jumped into the wheelchair.
The orderly didn’t get three feet before the nurse rounded the bed with the needle. “She’s not going yet.”
“Yes, actually, I am,” Kara insisted, reaching for the wheels herself. “The doctor released me.”
The orderly hesitated.
“Let’s go,” Kara prodded, cranking the chair out of the nurse’s reach.
“Fine, take her,” the nurse relented, and the orderly snapped into action.
“Your ride waiting outside the E.R.?” he asked, wheeling her past the long row of beds and into the hall.
“Uh, no ride.”
He pulled the chair into an abrupt U-turn.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking you to the front doors. There’s a cab company across the street.”
As they passed the E.R.’s reception desk, she glimpsed the nurse talking on the phone and eyeballing her. What if she’d alerted a cohort to cut her off out front?
Spotting an exit sign at the end of the next side hall, Kara said, “Stop, I’ll get out here.”
“Oh, you drove yourself?” the orderly asked.
She shot a glance over her shoulder to see if the nurse was looking. She wasn’t. “Is that the back parking lot?”
“You got it.” The orderly accepted the detour easily.
Maybe too easily, Kara thought as they approached the exit—the uncomfortably dark exit.
“You want me to wheel you right to your car?” he asked.
“No!” Kara hauled down her voice. “Here’s fine. Thank you.”
Two seconds later, the orderly was already halfway back up the hall as she hovered inside the doorway scanning the poorly lit back lot. She dug into her pocket for her cell phone, except…did she really want to hang around here waiting for Ray if maniac nurse had called goons to nab her on sight?
Two blocks. She could run that in under five minutes. Clutching her phone, she yanked up her hoodie and plunged into the misty darkness.
The slap of footsteps on the wet pavement sounded behind her.
Heart pounding, she quickened her pace.
The sound got louder, closer.
Breaking into a sprint, she glanced over her shoulder. The shadowy figure behind her abruptly stopped. Whew, Kara breathed, and then slammed into a solid wall of muscle.
Powerful hands clamped around her upper arms. “I gotcha.”