Excerpt: Burning Love

Burning Love by Debra Cowan

The Hot Zone Series, Book 1

The smell of wet ash settled over Terra August like a cloud of fog. The sole fire investigator for Presley, Oklahoma, she stepped inside the house, moving across slick tile then soggy carpet, down a long hallway to her left. The wall’s creamy paint was hidden beneath streaks of soot and ash. Wood and glass littered the floor. A clump of men and women stood in the doorway at the end of a hall and Terra knew the body was there. The bedroom door had been blown from its hinges. Was this room the point-of-origin?

She’d need to check every room for that, ask if anyone had discovered any sign of forced entry, anything that might indicate arson, but all she cared about right now was seeing the victim and making sure it wasn’t Harris Vaughn, her mentor.

The bedroom was now a skeleton of burned rafters and support beams, studs peering out from gouged and blackened Sheetrock. She automatically noted those details as her gaze went immediately to the body lying on the bed.

She drew in a deep breath and moved closer. The face was too severely swollen to be recognizable, but her gaze snagged on the victim’s cowboy boots. Water-gray, Australian sharkskin.

No! Her vision grayed. Dizzy and nauseous, she turned and stumbled blindly toward the door. Harris. Those boots had cost a pretty penny. Terra and the other Presley firefighters had pooled their money to buy Harris the pair for his retirement along with an Alaskan fishing trip. The M.E. would have to use dental records for a positive identification, but for Terra the boots were a macabre dogtag.

Trying to breathe without keeling over, she reached for the nearest wall, grabbed only air and pitched forward.

An arm, solid and thick, caught her at the waist. “Easy there.”

The deep masculine voice commanded rather than soothed. Reflexively she clutched at the arm bracing her waist, her stomach rolling. For an instant, she let herself lean into the steel-hard strength, tried to absorb the pain slashing through her. Her entire body throbbed with it. In another few seconds, her vision cleared and she registered dark brown hair, hard blue eyes and a mouth that meant all business.

Cop. She saw the gold badge clipped to the waistband of his faded jeans at the same time she realized he still held her. She felt steadier and managed a thank you.

He frowned, his lips flattening. “This your first body at a fire scene? Something like this isn’t for a rookie.”

Irritation flickered through the smothering pain. She mumbled thanks only out of politeness and pushed her way out into the hall.

“Cut her a break, man,” Terra heard someone say to the cop. “The victim’s a friend of hers.”

She ducked into an empty bathroom, boots squishing through ashy water and crunching over glass, splintered wood. Tugging off one of her gloves, she pushed back her helmet and wiped at the cold sweat on her forehead, her nape. Tears burned her throat and she thumbed off the strays falling down her cheeks. The cop’s disapproval of her pricked, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was what had happened to Harris and she meant to find out.

Despite how difficult this case was, fire investigation was her job, what Harris had trained her to do. What she would do. For him.

After another minute, she pulled on her glove and returned to the bedroom. She fought down another swell of emotion as she walked to the far side of the bed. At the bedside table, she noticed a blackened brass lamp and knelt to check the electrical cord. No frayed lamp circuit here.

“You the fire investigator?”

She remembered the rough velvet voice. Standing up, she had to tilt her head a bit to look him in the eye, something she didn’t have to do with very many men. “Yes.”

“Detective Jack Spencer, Homicide. I’ll be the primary on this case.”

In the harsh flood of the portable fluorescent lights the firemen had set up for her, Terra noted fine lines fanning out from Detective Spencer’s eyes. Very blue eyes. Hard blue eyes.

He stuck out his hand.

She shook it and released it quickly. “Terra August.”

“I apologize for my comment earlier. I didn’t know he was a friend of yours.”

She tamped down the slash of pain. Presley was still small enough that all police, including the detectives, worked solo rather than with a partner. Except in fire death cases like this. Procedure between Presley’s police and fire departments stated that when P.F.D. found a dead body in a fire, they worked to contain the blaze, then stopped and called Homicide. “I guess we’ll be working together.”

“Yes. Looks like murder.”

Struggling to keep a rein on the emotions swirling inside her, she pressed her lips together and nodded.

His gaze lasered into her. “Since the victim was a friend of yours, I’ll need to interview you before I leave here.”

The victim had a name. Terra bit off the sharp words. The cop was doing what she should be doing — putting his emotions aside so he could do his job.

His features were just as exacting as his eyes. The stubborn chin, rough-hewn cheekbones and shadow of whiskers did nothing to soften a jaw that looked as if it could take a few blows. “Should you be working this case? He was your friend, after all.”

Her jaw tightened. “I am working it.”

“Look, I apologize for what I said when I first walked in, but seeing him obviously affected you. I don’t want anything to jeopardize this case.”

“Neither do I. And nothing will. What happened earlier was shock. I’m not used to seeing my friends burned to a crisp,” she said sharply.

“I know you’re the only fire investigator we have, but maybe someone else could help you out, give you some space.”

“What I need to do is my job, and I will. Maybe you could do yours.”

His lips flattened. “I’ll be by to talk to you once I finish my preliminary interviews.”

“You know where to find me.” She wondered if his blue eyes were that hard all the time, then she pushed the thoughts away and focused her attention on piecing together what had happened to her mentor.

© 2003 By: Debra Cowan

® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.

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