Excerpt: Melting Point
The Hot Zone Series, Book 2
On Monday afternoon Collier left the fire investigator’s office early to attend Dan Lazano’s wake. Not just out of obligation to a fellow firefighter, but also because he had come darn close to being in that casket himself. Lazano’s parents hosted the gathering at their modest brick home in northwest Oklahoma City. Collier stepped through the front door and scanned the people overflowing from the spacious living room into the dining room. He managed to make his way through the throng of firefighters, paramedics and city officials to Tony and Simone Lazano and offer his condolences on the loss of their son.
Collier might have resented Dan for what he and Gwen had done, but he hadn’t hated the guy. Not anymore, despite what Kiley Russell thought.
Thinking about his curvy new partner lit off a spark of irritation. Partnering up with her gnawed at him, but he figured it gnawed at her just as much. He’d seen that flare of panic in her eyes last night when he’d delivered the news about the other fire investigator, Terra Spencer, having her baby before either of them had expected her to.
He wanted to believe it was the challenge of Kiley’s back-off attitude that put a kick in his blood, but everything about her from that sexy tangle of red hair to those luscious long legs charged him up. If she were any other woman, he would take her to bed and get her out of his system, but the redhead set off high-powered warnings in his head and he’d learned the hard way to listen.
A flash of red hair caught his attention and his eyes narrowed as Detective Russell let herself in the front door. She sure didn’t let any grass grow under her feet. No doubt she was here to work the crowd, see if she could learn anything about Lazano. The fact that she was doing her job shouldn’t have irritated Collier, but it did. And when she shrugged out of her heavy black coat and revealed the simple black dress beneath, his irritation edged into something else. Something hot and reckless.
Her hair was down today, but pulled away from her face, the thick mass brushing her shoulders. It was the dress that had his grip tightening on the delicate china cup. The soft-looking, midnight fabric skimmed over every curve, accentuating her full breasts and trim waist. The hem fell just below her knees and the legs encased in sheer black hose were the best Collier had ever seen. He couldn’t resist mentally following the line back up beneath her dress.
“Oh, hell,” he muttered. He’d already established he wanted Kiley Russell, but why did his chest always tighten when he saw her? Just like it had the night they’d danced at the Christmas party. He didn’t know, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to figure it out.
She made her way over to a coat closet and began talking to Gwen Hadley. She hadn’t told him she planned to interview his ex, but he could tell by the intent way she listened that interviewing was exactly what she was doing. And she’d left him out of the loop. No doubt his name had come up at least once. The whole idea of the two women talking about him made Collier queasy. He started for them, wondering who had identified Gwen to Kiley as his ex.
As he walked up, he heard Kiley say, “Thanks for your time. If I have any other questions, I’ll be in touch.”
“We’ll probably both be in touch,” he said as much for her benefit as Gwen’s.
His ex pivoted to face him. “Oh, Collier. Hello.”
Her greeting was subdued as was her makeup and clothing. Subdued for Gwen anyway. She was pale, her brown eyes red and swollen from crying. The black, long-sleeved sheath she wore could’ve been painted on her slender frame. Next to Kiley Russell’s vibrant coloring and personality, his former fiancee seemed almost bland.
He had expected to feel at least a twinge of his old anger toward the blonde, but instead he felt sorry for her. She looked uncertain and troubled.
“Why would you need to talk to me, too?” she asked.
“I just transferred into the fire investigator’s office.”
“I didn’t know.” She stepped closer, her gaze locked on his.
He shifted back until his heel bumped the wall. “This is my first official case.”
“I thought the police investigated mur–things like this.” She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
“Since this was a murder at a fire scene, the police and fire departments work together.” He gave Kiley a pointed look over Gwen’s head.
His ex nodded though Collier wasn’t sure she really registered his words. Kiley Russell stood quietly to the side, studying him with the intensity of a bird dog on point.
Gwen crumpled her tissue into a ball. “This is just awful, isn’t it?”
She reached out and touched his arm. “Can we talk later?”
The plea in her eyes said she wanted to talk about them, but they were finished. He’d never felt it with such finality. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he wasn’t interested. “If you think of anything else about Lazano, we need to know.”
Gwen’s face crumpled and tears welled in her eyes. “Collier, I’m so sorry. For everything.”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Feeling caged, he pulled a handkerchief out of his suit coat and pressed it into her hand. “This is a bad day for everyone. Don’t beat yourself up, Gwen.”
He turned and caught Shelby Fox’s eye, motioning the firefighter over. “Let Shelby take you to your car.”
Gwen studied him for a moment, resignation finally crossing her features. She turned to Kiley. “I hope I helped.”
“You did. Thanks.” Kiley smiled.
Collier watched as Shelby guided Gwen through the crowd of mourners and toward the front door. From the corner of his eye, he caught Kiley moving away, too.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” He snagged her elbow and pulled her back.
“Watch it, McClain.”
“You watch it,” he said in a low voice, turning so he could block her escape with his body. “Leaving me out of the loop like that could be construed as breaking procedure. Why did you do it?”
“I’m in the clear on this.” She pulled away from his hold, though she stayed with her back pressed against the wall. “I figured your name would come up when I talked to your ex. She was more likely to give me honest answers without you around.”
Someone squeezed behind him and he leaned closer to her, teased by her soft scent. “So what did Gwen tell you? And don’t leave anything out.”
“I think she’s still hung up on you.”
Collier rubbed the nape of his neck. “She’s confused. Why interview her here anyway?”
“I tried to talk to her last night, but she only returned a few hours ago from a ski trip in Colorado. She agreed to talk to me here.”
“So, she knew about Lazano’s murder?”
“Her mom called and told her.” Kiley watched him carefully.
“Did you ask her about the last time she saw him?”
“She said it was two weeks ago, the night they called it quits.”
“You sound skeptical.”
“I’m wondering if her memory’s reliable. She told me she has a drinking problem.”
“What do you think?” Kiley pressed. “Is she reliable?”
“I don’t know. She was at one time.”
She paused, her blue-green eyes meeting his. “Were you ever going to tell me your ex-fiancee’s name?”
“If you’d asked me, I would have.” He hadn’t wanted to tell her as much as he already had. “Does knowing who she is have anything to do with our investigation, Detective?” He lowered his voice, trying to rattle her. “Or are you asking for personal reasons?”
He was surprised to see a dull flush color her cheeks.
She shrugged. “Just connecting the dots.”
“You obviously would’ve figured it out when you learned she was Lazano’s ex, too.”
“I realize his murder is even more personal to you than the others because of Miss Hadley. Are you going to have a problem working this case?”
“It’s not like there’s any choice.” He wanted her to shut up about this whole thread of conversation. “Terra’s out on maternity leave. It’s you and me. The end.”
“So you can put aside your personal feel–“
“Yes,” he bit out. Collier’s usually even temper spiked. “If there’s a screw up, Russell, it won’t be because of me.”
© 2005 By: Debra Cowan
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.