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The long drone of the fire horn shattered the peace of the dawn, the noise rippling over the still waters of Long Island Sound. Kayleigh Baker and her youngest sister, Leah, exchanged looks and began to rapidly reel in their lines.
“Sorry about this,” Kayleigh said. She was the fire chief in their small town of Mulberry, Connecticut, and even if she wasn’t on duty, Leah knew she couldn’t sit still on the boat and wonder what was going on.
“That’s fine. The fish weren’t biting anyway. I was snoozing with my line in.”
A second horn went off, followed by a third, and then a fourth. It was a big fire and EMS was needed.
“How quick can you get me back?”
“Depends on if there are any kayakers out.” Leah flashed Kayleigh a grin. “Help me with the anchor.”
As Leah started up the motor, Kayleigh sprinted up to the bow of the ship and started hauling up the anchor chain, hand over hand. “Tell me again, why you don’t have this on a winch?”
“I did. It broke.”
After their mom’s death almost a decade ago, Leah had taken over Mulberry Fishing Tours. The boat had seen better days, but Leah would never even consider a new one. Too many good memories of their mother and their childhood were wrapped up in this boat.
With a tug and a grunt, Kayleigh brought the anchor aboard. She had just secured it when her sister put the boat into gear and punched it.
“Hold on,” Leah said.
Kayleigh wobbled on the bow, years of practice keeping her from losing her balance. Old as it was, the fishing boat could still move. And there wasn’t anything Leah liked better than letting the throttle loose. Muttering under her breath about reckless boat drivers, Kayleigh grabbed hold of the canopy frame that kept Leah’s customers from getting too much sun, and swung herself back into the cabin area. The roar of the twin engines and the spray of the waves made her heart beat fast as the boat bounced toward the harbor. Kayleigh enjoyed it when the boat was going full speed too. It felt like flying. She couldn’t keep the grin off her face. This was the reason she came back to Mulberry and she needed to remember that when she got restless about staying in one place for too long.
Blazing by the No Wake signs, Leah expertly maneuvered the boat toward the dock. There weren’t any kayakers out, thank goodness. Otherwise, the waves they’d created would have really tested the paddlers’ bracing skills.
“Back it down,” Kayleigh said.
“Don’t tell me how to drive.”
“You’re going to give Burt a heart attack.” Burt was the dockmaster. He was storming down the pier to where Leah’s berth was.
“I need a siren,” Leah said. “Don’t you think I need a siren?”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what you need.” With practiced ease, Kayleigh flipped over the bumpers to protect the side of the boat as Leah slowed down, so Kayleigh could jump off at the dock.
Burt was already standing on the end of the dock, hands on his hips, glaring at them. Cigar sticking out of his mouth, he grabbed the rope Kayleigh tossed at him to help keep the boat from drifting away. Leah idled it and gave him a little wave.
“I’m going back out,” she said.
“You’re lucky this is an emergency. I’d have your license for coming in like that.” He pointed his finger at her. “Keep it under six mph in the harbor area.”
Leah smiled innocently at him and batted her eyelashes. “Okay, Burt.”
He grunted in disgust, obviously not buying her act. He had known them both since they were born, since he’d been one of their mother’s closest friends. The crusty old seaman was all bark and no bite—unless you were from out of town and not following the rules.
“I’ll see you later,” Kayleigh said. “Thanks for the help, Burt.” She clapped him on the back as they started up the ramp to the parking lot.
Leah turned the boat around and went back out at a much more sedate pace.
“Have you been listening to the radio?” Kayleigh asked him.
Burt nodded. “It’s a bad one. Ambulance took away the whole family for smoke inhalation. Your guys are still duking it out with the fire. It’s a hot one, and they’re worried about it spreading.”
“Thanks for the heads-up.” Kayleigh sprinted for her car, jumped in, and turned on the siren. After plugging in her phone, she called into dispatch to find out where the fire was, and was told it was in the Lake Hills area of town, where the big mansions looked down on a man-made lake. In the Hills, away from the small farms and the harbor area, the residents could pretend they were their own village. But they were just as much a part of her jurisdiction as the residents who lived down in the Harbor in smaller cottages and apartments.
The sun was just coming up and the chill of the dawn would soon fade away into a hot June day. Kayleigh could smell the smoke and see the orange red nimbus cloud of fire as her car climbed up the hills.
She wasn’t surprised to find Police Chief Liam MacAvoy there with his team, keeping a perimeter, so the gawkers and media trucks couldn’t get in the way of the firefighters. Liam had light brown hair, trimmed neat and efficiently, but he could do nothing about his chronic five-o’clock shadow. He was lean and muscular and kept in shape by teaching kids martial arts on the weekend. Even though he was a black belt in tae kwon do, she never saw him showing off by breaking boards or anything like that. She liked that he was humble and not flashy. He was tall and handsome in a boy-next-door kind of way, and when she stared at him for too long, she lost all sense. Their eyes met as she stepped over the crime-scene tape, and she raised her eyebrow at it. He gave her a tight nod, his gaze cold and flinty, as she shook her head at what it meant.
They didn’t need to speak to understand each other. They had grown up together in this town. He was from the Lake Hills area and she was from the Harbor, but the class difference hadn’t bothered them. Not when they’d been in school anyway. In fact, back then, they had been best friends. Along with Evan Johnson, who was now the town’s first selectman, they had been inseparable like The Three Musketeers.
Or as her mother had put it, “the three monkeys,” because they’d always been swinging around trees and getting into trouble for being rowdy.
It hadn’t gotten messed up between them until high school, when Liam had taken their pranks a bit too far and kissed her. Kayleigh was furious that he used her unrequited crush for him against her. After that, things had gone downhill—not only in their friendship, but in their lives as well. And then she went off to Iraq, and everything changed.
She had spent ten years trying to forget all about Mulberry and the pain of her mother’s death. But she couldn’t run away forever; so now she was back, and the guilt and memories hadn’t gone away. Liam and Evan had stayed in Mulberry waiting for her, and she’d spent the last year and a half trying to come to terms with them.
Shaking off her mood, Kayleigh hurried over to the truck where her fire captain, Hank Stewart, was in control of the situation. She’d gathered, from Liam’s expression, that this had been arson. That would explain why the fire was so hot and hard to control.
“They used an accelerant.” Hank sounded tired and dejected.
“How’s the family? I heard they were transported to the hospital.”
“They’re going to be all right. Well, the wife and kids are. The husband confessed to hiring people to set the house on fire for the insurance money. But the thugs got the dates wrong. They should have waited until next week when the family was on vacation.”
Kayleigh whistled low. Nothing people did surprised her anymore. If her years in the army hadn’t taught her that, her time as a firefighter had. She got into her gear and waded in to give one of her crew a break.
Liam’s eyes were drifting closed, and he got out of his car to stretch so he wouldn’t be caught napping on duty. Mulberry was a sleepy little town—except when it wasn’t—and he’d tried hard not to become the stereotype of a police chief, like his father had been.
The day had started out terrible with the fire that Kayleigh and her team had managed to keep from spreading. No one was seriously injured, thank goodness, but the house was a goner. And he had the unhappy privilege of arresting one of his mother’s neighbors for committing a felony. All in all, it had been a busy day, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
He’d been happy to see Kayleigh, though. Not that they’d had any time to talk. She had looked good, probably having just come off her sister’s boat. Kayleigh was as tall as he was and built muscled and sturdy. She worked hard and played even harder. When they’d been in high school, she’d wanted to play football. She was a heck of a defensive tackle, but her mom had yanked her off the team because she’d been afraid Kayleigh would get hurt. They’d compromised on ice hockey. It wasn’t any less dangerous, but her mom trusted the safety gear more.
Kayleigh was also drop-dead gorgeous and had no idea he’d been in love with her for most of his life. The first time Liam had asked her out, it had gone so badly, he’d never done it again. He should have known she wouldn’t be interested in a guy like him. Too boring. Too much of a small-town kid with roots in the place she was dying to get out of. When she’d left for the army right after high school, Liam had thought he’d missed his chance with her. However, after a few tours in Iraq and working as a firefighter up and down the East Coast, Kayleigh had come back home with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a thousand-yard stare that made him wonder if the girl he knew was gone forever. Still, she’d been back two years now, and it looked like Kayleigh was finally putting down roots. It gave him some hope.
Liam was a little stiff from standing all morning at the crime scene, so even though it was a good decade since his beat-patrol days, he decided to walk around the neighborhood that had been experiencing a rash of car thefts. He didn’t expect to find anything out of the ordinary in the daylight, but maybe some insight would hit him. Besides, it would be good public relations for the town to see him out there.
Most of the robberies had taken place at night, while the owners were sleeping. The thieves would park and then go into the driveways on foot. Liam had some blurry security photos of men and women in hoodies trying car doors. If they were locked, the thieves moved on. If they weren’t . . . well, sometimes Mulberry’s residents had to be reminded not to leave their purses and laptops in their cars overnight.
As Liam turned the corner, he did a double take. Yes, there in broad daylight, was a white man in his late thirties, wearing sunglasses and a hoodie, attempting to jimmy open a car door with a wire coat hanger. Deciding to investigate, Liam approached the man slowly, coming up on his blind side.
Mulberry was a small town, but not so small that Liam knew everyone in it. It could be that this was the owner and he’d locked his keys in his car. But as Liam watched, it was apparent that wasn’t the case because the man kept looking around furtively and hunkered down when a car passed the driveway. Liam toggled the microphone on his collar.
“Dispatch, I’ve got a 459 in progress.” Liam quietly gave the address.
“Do you need assistance, Chief?”
The thief took that moment to look up and saw him standing there.
“Don’t run,” Liam said.
The man took off.
“I hate it when they do that. Yeah, send a car as backup.” Liam sprinted after the man.
Another thing he hadn’t done in over a decade was run track, but as the perp jumped over hedges and tipped over lawn chairs behind him, Liam found himself hurdling over the objects as if his glory days in track had been yesterday.
“Stop! You’re under arrest!” He panted, not expecting it to work, but he had to try. While he still had breath, Liam called in the man’s description and location. He should have driven around the neighborhood instead of running full out with the extra weight of his gun belt around his waist. He was a stroller, not a sprinter. “Too much time behind your desk,” he muttered.
Kayleigh would have caught the perp by now. Hell, the guy probably wouldn’t have even run from her. Of course, Kayleigh might have shot him the moment he fled. She was impulsive that way, believing that the best way to stop a fight was to end it before it started.
It had gotten her into a lot of trouble in high school. Their JROTC instructor had tried to drill procedure into her head, but in the end, he claimed she wasn’t officer material and forced her out of the program. Liam should have stood up for her, but he’d been too afraid of what his parents would have said if he’d been thrown out too.
Liam, of course, had never broken the rules in high school and had graduated top of his class. Unfortunately, his father hadn’t made it to see him graduate. A heart attack took him quickly and quietly as he was getting out of his squad car. So, instead of going away to college and continuing on with ROTC, Liam had chosen to stay in Mulberry to take care of his mother. He’d always wondered how his life might have been different if he’d gone to boot camp with Kayleigh like they’d planned.
The perp looked over his shoulder and spotted that Liam was gaining on him. Cursing, the would-be thief darted into the street, narrowly missing getting hit by a car. Liam followed, flashing his badge, but maneuvering through the cars slowed him down.
“Freeze!” he shouted. Again, he hadn’t expected it to work. He was starting to get shin splints, but he wasn’t going to let his only burglary lead get away. Ignoring the discomfort, he dug in and continued with the chase. This running stuff was for the birds.
As Liam gained once more on the suspect, they exited the rural neighborhood. The thief was headed toward the commuter parking lot, but Liam couldn’t let him get to his car. Putting on an extra burst of speed, he leapt in the air and tackled the guy, trying his best to land them both on grass instead of the pavement.
“Police brutality. Police brutality!” the man yelled.
Liam wrestled the thief until he could secure the man’s wrists behind his back. He was hauling the perp to his feet when two squad cars pulled up. They were a little late, but at least he wouldn’t have to walk back to his car.
“I told you not to run,” Liam gasped out. His legs were jelly and he had a stitch in his side that made him want to double over in pain, but no one had to know that.
On the outside, he was the police chief his father would have been proud of, a man Kayleigh could look up to. On the inside, though, Liam wondered if Kayleigh was better off with someone more adventurous, a guy who hadn’t lived his whole life in Mulberry.
End of Excerpt