he flames continued to lick at the structure as one of Aidan's fellow firefighters climbed onto the scorched top of the low-slung rancher to cut a hole in the roof for ventilation.
“It's spongy,” the firefighter shouted over the roar of the fire.
“Then get down,” the captain yelled.
He made it to the ladder just as the roof caved in.
Structurally, the entire home was toastâby tomorrow a heap of kindling. The best any of them could hope for was containing the blaze before it spread to the two neighboring houses. Unlike downtown Chicago, there was plenty of space here between homes, providing a good defensive zone. But it was drier than dust. Front yards consisted of nothing but brown patches of grass that had somehow survived the dry summer and strict watering rules.
If they worked methodically, though, he figured they could have this mother knocked down in another hour and could start a thorough overhaul. Already, a few guys had gone in with axes and hooks. Eventually, they'd rip out the ceiling, Sheetrock, windowsills, and door frames, checking for hot spots.
Aidan hadn't even officially started at Cal Fire when he'd gotten called out on the boomer. That's what they called a good working structure fire. He'd just completed his six-week training at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's academy in Ione, a Gold Country town only slightly larger than his new home, Nugget. Although a seasoned firefighter and arson investigator back in Chicago, he didn't have experience fighting forest and wildland fires.
That was all about to change.
With California in its fourth year of record drought, wildfires burned at breakneck speed across the state. And Cal Fire was responsible for protecting thirty-six of California's fifty-eight counties, meaning millions and millions of acres.
Aidan gazed out over the scene. The owner of the house stood in her bare feet and a thin nightgown on the sidewalk, away from the crowd, helplessly watching as firefighters desecrated what was left of her home. Aidan grabbed a blanket from one of the engines and approached her. A paramedic had already checked her over for injuries. She'd apparently been awakened by the smoke alarm, had tried to open her bedroom door only to find it too hot to the touch and succeeded in crawling out the window.
“Here you go, ma'am.” Aidan handed her the blanket.
She stared at the gray woolen department-issued throw, clearly wondering what to do with it. Even past midnight it was at least seventy degrees in Nugget and, with the heat from the fire, closer to a hundred near the flames. Aidan didn't want to point out that her nightgown was see-through. So much so that he could make out the smiley faces on her bikini underwear in the glow of the klieg lights.
“You might want to cover up,” he said.
She immediately glanced down at herself and grimaced. “Oh God.”
He helped wrap the blanket around her and said, “No worries,” which, given her plight, was a pretty stupid thing to say. She'd just lost everything she owned. Everything but the car. It had been parked on the street instead of in her garage, which now resembled a stick pile.
“When will I be able to go back in?” She stared up at Aidan with golden eyes, and for a second he couldn't stop staring back.
It was the eyes, he supposed. They were unusual, like precious stones. Amber or tiger-eye, he couldn't remember the name. Anyway, they went nice with her brown hair. Truth be told, he liked the underwear too. A lot.
“Not tonight, that's for sure.” They'd have to check what was left of the structure to guarantee its safety. “You have any idea what started the fire?”
Early on he'd smelled something like paint thinner or varnish. Arson investigators had extraordinary noses.
“I think I may have left a candle burning.” She looked down at the ground, her face turning red, plainly mortified.
“In which room?” As soon as he got inside he'd likely be able to tell for sure.
“The dining room. I was trying to get the smell out.”
“From the stain. I was refinishing my table . . . I can't believe I did this.”
At this point he had no reason to suspect her of anything nefarious. “You have a place to stay?”
“Dana!” A woman pushed her way through the gawking neighbors. “Are you all right? Cecilia called me. She heard about the fire from Jake. They're on their way over.”
“I'm okay.” She gazed over at the wreckage and her eyes welled up.
A Nugget police vehicle drove to the end of the cul-de-sac, parked, and Jake and Cecilia jumped out. Aidan knew them and a handful of other people through his sister, Sloane.
Jake joined Aidan at the curb while Cecilia fussed over the woman . . . Dana. “You know what caused it?”
“She thinks she left a candle burning.” Aidan suspected the stain or paint she'd been using had probably been in close proximity to the candle. “I'll know better in a few hours.”
Aidan glanced at Dana. It looked like Cecilia had brought her a pair of tennis shoes. “She have relatives or friends she can stay with?”
“Her family lives in Reno, but in this town they'll be no shortage of people who will take her in,” Jake said. “We live just a block over and have a couple of spare bedrooms if she wants to stay in the neighborhood. My guess is the insurance guys will show up first thing in the morning.”
“Yup. She should make sure she knows the extent of the damage and construction costs before she accepts a check.” Aidan didn't want to see her get ripped off, and it had been known to happen. At least in Chicago.
“She's a real estate agent so I don't think that'll be a problem.”
The captain waved him over and Aidan excused himself.
“Talk about your trial by fire, huh?” Captain Gregg Johnson reminded Aidan a little of his father. Barrel-chested, ruddy-faced and, according to word on the street, a leader who inspired unwavering loyalty. “Sorry to have pulled you in like this, but we're short staffed.”
“Not a problem.” Aidan was anxious to jump in, especially because he'd be wearing two hats: working for Johnson as a firefighter and reporting to the state fire marshal, who oversaw the agency's arson investigations. “She says she was staining some furniture and left one of those scented candles burning to deodorize the room.”
“Yeah, seems consistent with the odor. Dana's no firebug.”
That's what Aidan liked about this town. Everyone knew one another. “I'll go in and take a look around. Anything in there salvageable?”
“Not likely,” Johnson said. “Can you come in tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I just have to sign the rental agreement on my new house. But it's only a couple of blocks from the firehouse.”
“Tawny Wade's old place?”
Aidan laughed. Small towns were funny. “That would be the one. I don't think Sloane wants me to get too comfortable in her guest room.”
“Nah, she and Brady love having you. The girl's been walking on sunshine ever since she knew you were taking the job. Us too.”
It was nice to be wanted, Aidan thought as he made his way through the shambles of Dana's house. The guys had gone a little crazy with their axes. But with the property line being so close to the state forest, he knew they couldn't mess around. Those pines would ignite like dry kindling. He made his way to what was left of the dining room using a flashlight. The cracking patterns on the windows corroborated that the fire had started here. He could see remnants of burned rags. Dana had probably used them for her staining project.
“You the probie?”
Aidan looked up from a deeply charred table to see a guy in his turn outs, holding an ax, smiling. “That's me.”
“Welcome. I'm Kurtis. Glad to have you on board.”
“Thanks, Kurtis. Glad to be here.”
Kurtis swept his flashlight around the wreckage. “Poor Dana.”
“You know her?” Of course he did.
“She sold me and my wife our place in Graeagle. Nice lady and a straight shooter.”
“Looks like she'll have to rebuild.”
“Yep,” Kurtis said and shook his head. “It's a shame.”
At least she'd made it out. Plenty of times folks slept right through the fire and never woke up.
“Catch you later, probie.” Kurtis continued through the house, looking for hot spots.
Aidan finished up in the dining room, satisfied with Dana's story. From what he could tell, one of the rags had caught fire from the candle. Add in the varnish and poof! Too bad. If the neighbor's places were anything to go by, it looked like it had been a nice house. Nothing fancy, not like his sister and Brady's palace, but comfortable. By the time he got outside, the crowd had dispersed. From the dark houses that dotted the tree-lined street, he figured they'd gone back to bed. Dana and her car were gone and Aidan wondered if she'd gone home with Jake and Cecilia.
“You done in there?” Captain Johnson asked.
“Yep. Unless you want me to help out with the overhaul.”
“We're good. See anything suspicious?” Johnson tried to hide a grin.
“Looks like it went down the way she said it did. Where'd she go?”
“Maddy Shepard insisted she stay at the Lumber Baron tonight. Carol wanted Dana to stay at her place, but she's allergic to her cats.”
“Who's Carol?” Aidan assumed that Maddy was married to Rhys Shepard, the police chief and Sloane's boss.
“She's Dana's real estate partner. The inn will be goodâshe'll be treated to some of that five-star service. Tomorrow”âhe turned to the burned-out remnants of her houseâ“she'll have to deal with this.”
Aidan got a ride back to the station with the captain and drove his own Expedition to Sloane and Brady's. They lived in Sierra Heights, Nugget's only planned community. He parked his truck in their driveway and punched in the key code at the front door. The place still blew him away. The McBride kids had grown up in a better-than-nice home in a safe suburb of Chicago, but this house was like something you'd see in
. A nearly four-thousand-square-foot log house with views that went on forever.
He went into the kitchen to see if there were any leftovers from dinner. Brady had grilled wild salmon that melted in Aidan's mouth and he was still thinking about those rosemary potatoes.
“You're eating at this hour?”
Aidan pulled his head out of the industrial-sized refrigerator. “Yeah, I'm starved.”
“I don't know where you put it all.” Sloane rubbed her eyes, tightened the belt around her robe, and grabbed a plate for him.
“Sorry I woke you up.” Aidan had tried to be quiet.
“I was waiting up. Is it as bad as everyone says it is?”
“You mean the house?” He nodded. “It's a total loss.”
“Ah, jeez. Poor Dana.”
“You know her?”
“Just in passing, but still. All her stuff too?”
“Gone.” He loaded the plate and heated it in the microwave.
“How did it happen?”
“She left a candle burning next to a couple of rags covered in furniture varnish.”
“Seriously?” Sloane went slack-jawed.
When the microwave dinged she pulled out Aidan's plate and looked at it askance. “In a few hours it'll be time for breakfast.”
“Can't wait.” He chuckled, and she shook her head. “Hey, it's not my fault your boyfriend is a four-star chef. A guy can get spoiled living here.”
“I can't figure out why you're not big as a house.”
“Good metabolism.” He shoveled a forkful of salmon into his mouth. “I probably won't have time for breakfast anyway. I've got to be out of here pretty early to sign the rental agreement for the house, then the captain wants me to come in.”
“Wow. They're not giving you a lot of time to get settled.”
“What's to settle? My furniture comes at the end of the week. I'll move it into the new house and get the cable connected. Done!”
“You like the house?” she asked.
“It's fine. More important, it's available, affordable, and a block away from the firehouse.”
“You're lucky it's available. From what I hear, Tawny and Lucky's new house isn't even completely finished yet, but with the cowboy camp in full swing, Lucky needs to be on the property.”
“Tell me the deal with these people again . . . the guy is a champion bull rider?”
“Mm-hmm. They own a big dude ranch on the other side of town where corporate types pay big bucks to pretend they're cowboys for a week. The rest of the time Lucky teams up with the Lumber Baron to hold destination weddings and events. Brady oversees the catering.”
“And Tawny makes boots?”
“Beautiful boots. You see them in the garage when Tawny showed you the place?”
“Yeah. But I was too busy looking at the house to really check them out. Thanks for hooking me up with her, little sister. Although I've gotta say, I'm gonna miss Windsor Castle, here.”
“You know you're welcome to stay as long as you like, even if you are eating us out of house and home.”
The house was still new for Sloane and Brady, who'd just started living together. Aidan suspected the lovebirds wanted their alone time. Who wouldn't?
“Sue call?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“No. Wouldn't she call your cell?”
Yeah, that was the thing; she hadn't. It had been nearly seven weeks and not a peep.