Project Description

Up in Flames

Nighthawk Island Series

Up in Flames

Southern summers were notoriously hot. But when a series of deadly fires blazed through the city, Detective Bradford Walsh really felt the heat. With temperatures rising, he had to catch the arsonists before the city was reduced to a pile of cinders.

On a hunt for a killer, all roads led to one woman: Rosanna Redhill. The fires seemed to target the elusive beauty, and Bradford had to know why. But he couldn’t let Rosanna’s smoldering glances distract him from his investigation. Because then he’d have another fire to extinguish…one that threatened to send them both up in flames.

Twenty-four years later, July 4—Savannah, Georgia

Detective Bradford Walsh was starving. Starved for food.

Starved for a woman.

Starved for a reprieve from the sweltering heat in Savannah, and a break from the recent crime wave terrorizing the citizens.

But as he watched the blazing fire engulfing Cozy’s Café on River Street, the possibility of satisfying any of those hungers that night quickly went up in smoke just like the building had minutes ago.

Dammit. How long had it been since he’d had a good meal? A decent night’s sleep?

A night of hot sex?

A Fourth of July without trouble?

His partner, Parker Kilpatrick, joined him, soot darkening his jeans and shirt, sweat beading on his forehead. He and Parker had arrived first on the scene and had rushed in to make sure everyone escaped the blaze unharmed. In fact, his captain, Adam Black, knew about Bradford’s history and had handpicked him to spearhead investigations into the recent arson crimes in the city.

Bradford was determined to prove that a screwup with his brother hadn’t cost him his job.

Which was the only thing he had left since his family relationships disintegrated with his brother’s arrest.

Dragging his mind back to the current situation, he assessed the scene. A half-dozen patrons milled around the edge of the sidewalk watching the building deconstruct. Thick plumes of gray smoke curled toward the sky, the orange, red and yellow flames shooting into the darkness. The owner, a pudgy Southern woman named Hazel, flapped her hands around, waving smoke away in between bouts of crying in her coffee-stained apron.

Bradford walked over to her and patted her shoulder. “I’m sorry about your business, ma’am. But at least everyone escaped safely, and you can rebuild.”

“We worked so hard to get this place going, to have a clean business. Then my husband died,” she said between sobs. “I don’t think I can start over by myself.”

Compassion for the woman bled through Bradford. “How did the fire get started, ma’am? Was it in the kitchen?”

“No,” she cried. “I was in the back, making my peach pies, when I heard someone shout that smoke was coming from the bathroom.”

“All right, we’ll check it out.” He turned to his partner.

“This is the third fire in three weeks in the Savannah area,” Parker said.

Bradford nodded. “Any signs of an accelerant?”

“No, but the fire chief just arrived. I’ll make sure he checks for arson.”

“Tell him to start in the men’s room. Someone may have lit a match or dropped a cigarette in the trash.” And paper towels would go up in seconds.

“It is a holiday,” Parker said. “Maybe some kids starting their fireworks a little early.”

Bradford once again scanned the crowd. “Yeah, and the night is still young.”

Parker strode toward the fire chief, and Bradford mentally ticked over the facts they had so far on all three fires. The first one was set at a cottage on Tybee Island not far from the one he was renting, and appeared to be accidental, a fluke with old wiring. The second, an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town had aroused questions, but there had been no evidence of accelerant present. The firemen had speculated that a homeless person staying inside might have dropped a cigarette butt, and with old paint thinner stored inside, the building had caught fire.

This one—smoke in the bathroom, not the kitchen—could have been accidental, but on the heels of the others, it definitely struck a chord of suspicion.

Could there be a connection?

He scanned the spectators who’d gathered to gawk. An elderly couple walking their Yorkie had stopped to console a young mother. Three teenage girls wearing short shorts huddled next to a couple of gangly boys taking pictures with their cell phones. A teenage prank? No, they looked curious, but not like arsonists or vandals.

Two men in suits stood chatting quietly. A gaggle of tourists with cameras and souvenirs from the gift shops on River Street hovered around, enraptured by the blaze, but no one stuck out as suspicious looking.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled.An older black woman in voodoo priestess garb watched, her colorful clothing highlighted by the firelight. Beside her stood a nondescript blond man in his early twenties.

A movement to the left caught Bradford’s attention, and he spotted a woman with flaming-red curly hair. She was slender, wore a long, flowing skirt, peasant blouse and beads around her neck. A short brunette leaned near her and said something, but they were out of earshot.

Although the redhead looked like some kind of throwback to the seventies, his gaze met hers, and something hot and instant flared inside him. She was so natural, so earthy and untamed-looking, that his baser primal side reacted immediately. Her eyes were the palest green he’d ever seen, and looked almost translucent. For a moment, he felt as if she’d cast some kind of spell on him.

Then she darted away, through the maze of onlookers as if she’d sensed the connection and couldn’t get away from him fast enough.

He started to follow her. But heat scalded his neck, wood crackled and the sound of walls crashing shattered the hushed silence. The owner of the café cried out, other onlookers shrieked and he halted. He couldn’t go chasing some woman during an investigation, not unless he thought she was a suspect. And he had no reason to think that.

After all, ninety percent of firestarters were men, not women. Bradford had studied the profiles. A large percentage were out to collect insurance money or exact revenge. But there was another percent that had a fixation. To them fire was a living, breathing monster. The obsessive compulsion to watch something burn escalated with each fire set.

He knew because his little brother had been one of them.

Shaking off the troubling memories of his past, he squared his shoulders. If an arsonist was playing havoc in Savannah, Bradford damn well wouldn’t rest until he found the son of a bitch and put him behind bars.

Fingers of tension crawled along Rosanna Redhill’s nerve endings as she passed the graveyard with its tombs and granite markers standing at attention, honoring those who’d passed to the other side. Death surrounded her, as did the stories of witches, voodoo and sin in the city.

Smoke painted the sky in a hazy gray, floating across the tops of the graves like ghosts whispering to the heavens. The pungent smell of the blazing building followed her, chasing away the lingering scent of the therapeutic herbs and candles in her gift shop, Mystique.

At least no one had died in the fire.

Still, the blaze left her with the oddest feeling that something supernatural was happening in Savannah. That something dangerous and evil was lurking nearby. That someone in the crowd was not quite normal.

Like her.

But it was that cop who had her rattled so badly that she was trembling as she rushed toward the apartment she’d rented in one of the Victorian row houses. Her friend Natalie, a girl she’d met at the Coastal Island Research Park, CIRP, three months ago, hurried along beside her.

“Why did you run, Rosanna?” Natalie asked. She darted up the sidewalk and onto the porch, then jammed her key toward the keyhole in her apartment door. Her fingers shook, though, and she dropped the key, then had to bend to retrieve it and start all over.

How could she explain without revealing the truth about her childhood? Without divulging her secrets? Secrets she’d guarded over for the past twenty-four years.

“Rosanna?” Natalie said softly. “Come on, tell me what’s wrong? You looked spooked back there.”

Rosanna pivoted, wondering if her new friend had a sixth sense. The experiment she’d joined at the Coastal Island Research Park involved testing for special abilities. Some of the participants were control subjects; others claimed to have various gifts ranging from telekinesis to psychic powers to those who communed with the dead. They were beginning a support group session this week, but so far no one had been forced to share his or her reason for being involved in the study.

“I don’t like cops,” Rosanna said, admitting the partial truth. “They make me nervous.”

Natalie arched a dark brow. “Hmm. I thought those two at the scene of the fire were kind of cute.”

Cute was not a word Rosanna would have attached to the hulking male cop who’d stared at her through the crowd. He was tall, broad-shouldered like a linebacker, with a square jaw, strong nose, cleft chin and thick hair as black as the soot from the embers of the charred wood. Even his eyebrows were thick and powerful looking, framing his eyes in a way that emphasized his coldness.

He had a dark side. Whether it was anger, his job, or the criminals he’d dealt with, something had hardened him.

Still, for a minute when he’d looked at her, she’d felt some cosmic force draw her to him.

The reason she’d run. The last person she’d ever get involved with was a cop.

Rosanna pushed open the door and hurried into the foyer, trying to shake the cobwebs of lust from her brain.

After her father had died, she’d been sent to live with her grandmother, a descendant of a witchdoctor. Rosanna had grown up a recluse with Granny Redhill, shunned by some, yet welcomed by the underground population of Savannah’s believers in the supernatural.

She had never had a boyfriend. Had never wanted a man before. And it had never bothered her that she was alone. She liked being alone.

So why had she been drawn to that detective? “Earth to Rosanna?” Natalie said with a laugh. “What are you thinking?”

“About that fire,” Rosanna said. “There were two others in the past few weeks.”

“But they weren’t related,” Natalie said. “Besides, it’s been so dry with this heat wave that fires have been breaking out all across the South.”

True. So why was she nervous? “Come on, Rosanna, let’s go to the Pink Martini. They have live music on Saturday nights. Maybe we’ll meet some guys.”

Rosanna sighed and dropped her purse onto the ottoman in the den. She’d read her own tarot cards, and a lovelife was not in her future. “You go ahead, Nat. I’ll just curl up with a good book tonight and go to bed early.”

“No,” Natalie protested. “It’s the Fourth of July celebration. Don’t you want to see the fireworks?”

“We just saw enough fireworks for me,” Rosanna said.

Natalie pushed her toward her bedroom. “Not for me. I’ve been begging you for weeks to party with me, and I’m not taking no for an answer. Now go put on something sexy.”

Rosanna glanced down at her colorful skirt and sandals. She liked her gypsy look. “I don’t exactly have good luck in the relationship department.” Because she could never be her true self. Her own parents had thought she was a devil child and hadn’t been able to love her. And she’d proven her father right that fatal day…

“Please,” Natalie said, giving her another push.

“It’s not safe to go barhopping alone. I need a buddy.”

Her last words convinced Rosanna. With the recent crime wave in town, Natalie was right. Rosanna didn’t have very many friends. She didn’t want to lose this one.

In her bedroom, she slipped on a black sundress, strappy silver sandals and silver hoop earrings. Nothing she could do with her mop of hair, so she left it loose, then added some lip gloss. Seconds later, she and Natalie headed back outside into the hot, sultry summer air.

But once again, a chill of foreboding tiptoed up her spine as they strolled toward River Street.

She spun around twice to see if someone was following her, but saw nothing. Still, tension charged the air, and she sensed something dark and sinister in the shadows.

He still felt the heat of the flames from the café burning his hands, singeing his hair, the smoke filling his lungs. And he tasted the fear.

Laughter bubbled in his chest. The terrified screams of the onlookers was music to his ears. Food for his hungry heart.

While the firefighter raced to extinguish his handiwork, he had stood in the shadows of the live oaks, letting the spidery web of Spanish moss shroud him. His heart raced, his blood hot from the excitement of watching the flames light up the inky sky and the knowledge that he had exerted control over all of them.

They would never catch him because he had left no evidence behind. Laughter bubbled in his throat. Detective Bradford Walsh would spin in circles.

Perfect. He hated Bradford Walsh.

Now the woman was a different story. He’d felt her presence, sensed that she was like him. Different.

What her talents were he didn’t know. But he would find out.

And he would use her if needed.

He followed her now. Had seen her before, but couldn’t place where.

She was dressed to kill and heading toward the party end of town. Probably on the prowl for a man to fulfill her fantasies.

He had fantasies of his own.

His thirst for another fire already burned inside him, stronger and more intense than before. The city would host a fireworks show in the park tonight, but those would be pitiful compared to his work.

The café fire was only the beginning of the festivities he had planned.

But he had cut short his fun in watching the flames die down at the café because of this woman. He wanted that lost time back, those lost moments of joy, of seeing the final embers dwindle to ashes. That part usually satisfied and fed him for hours. Sometimes days. But not tonight.

She had robbed him of that pleasure.

And she would suffer.