Burn For Me : Excerpt Chapters 1 – 3

            CHAPTER 1

            A thick cloud of smoke hung low in the early morning light, a backdrop to the sparks dancing in the gentle breeze. The acrid stench of burning masked the vibrant summer scents. The sound of firemen calling to each other jarring in the quiet. Yet another iconic building, harking back to an era gone by, was lost. Nothing more than a pile of ash and dying embers.

            Frustration rode Grayson James hard as he stood taking in the destruction before him. He massaged the knot of tension in his neck. It had become a permanent fixture of late. This was the third fire in a month he’d been called to in the chic suburb of Kloofnek, nestled at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain. Sitting above the bustling central business district of Cape Town, it was a much sought-after area for both work and play. Boasting a thriving business as well as an active residential community, it was the place to see and be seen.

            Another beautiful day was dawning over the Mother City, and Gray took a moment to savour it. His crime scene waited for him, but he needed a moment to centre himself as he brooded over the wreckage that had once housed someone’s hopes and dreams.

            She put on her best face for tourists, but Cape Town in the summer months was a nightmare for firefighters. The brutal African heat mercilessly dried everything out, turning the famous African fynbos into a fire hazard. And built from all timber, the old buildings also succumbed easily to the uncaring flames.

            The previous two fires, however, had turned out not to be the work of Mother Nature, but rather that of an arsonist. The same person, it seemed, since the modus operandi was alike in both instances. And he had a nasty suspicion today’s fire would prove to be the same.

            Residents and business owners alike were unhappy with the spate of fires. Gray knew he needed to close this case soon, before unhappiness turned to anger. If that happened, he knew it would only be a matter of time before people started taking matters into their own hands in a bid to protect what was theirs.

            He knew he was missing something crucial; he just couldn’t seem to put his finger on what it was. He was sure he’d seen something before, very similar to the recent fires in the neighbourhood. For the life of him, though, he couldn’t quite place it.

            Blowing out a frustrated breath, Gray surveyed the scene before him, trying to decide where best to start. The team of firefighters that had tended to the fire were in the process of packing up their gear and stowing everything back in the vehicles.

            “Yo, Gray.”

            Gray turned towards the sound of his name, catching sight of his colleague and friend, Kyle Stevens, heading over to the nearest truck. He couldn’t help but smile as he noticed the appreciative looks Kyle was getting from the ladies who had, to this point, been watching the goings-on around them.

            Tall, well-muscled, and probably too good-looking for his own good, Kyle drew the attention of the ladies wherever he went. They couldn’t keep their eyes off him as he strode purposefully towards his ride. Firefighting was a physically demanding job, and the guys worked hard to stay in shape. They knew it was what made the difference between life and death for them. It had to be said, though, the ladies definitely appreciated the results.

            “We’re all done here. Fire’s out, so I’ve handed the building back to the owner. We’re headed back to the station. I’ll let you have my report this afternoon if there’s no more call-outs this morning,” he continued.

            Walking over to intercept him, Gray replied, “Thanks Kyle. Anything I need to be aware of here?”

             Kyle looked over at the smoking ruin, intense loathing crossing his handsome face. “I hate this, Gray.”

            “Yeah. I hear you.”

            Coming back to Gray’s original question, Kyle added, “Nothing, other than our unsub appears to have been busy again. The signs look familiar.”

            Shit! Definitely not what Gray had wanted to hear. All the same, he nodded. “Thanks, Ace, I’ll keep that in mind. Catch you at the station later, maybe.”

            Kyle gave a nod of acknowledgment and a quick wave before hopping onto the fire truck. He banged the side to let the driver know everyone was on board. Gray waved back before turning an assessing eye to the gutted building, charred and still smoking from its dousing. Pulling his notepad out of his pants pocket, Grayson took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work.

            To preserve the integrity of his scene, he donned gloves and overshoes before making his way through the front door to start sifting through the rubble. Carefully bagging evidence as he went, he kept a lookout for the tell-tale signs that would show him not only where the fire had started but how. Kyle didn’t believe this fire was an accident. Gray didn’t either. His gut told him this was the work of his firebug. He just had to follow the clues.

            Every fire had its own personality, like a game of chess, waiting to see who won. As he trusted his intuition to uncover the next move, skill and instinct had never steered him wrong. And they had kept him alive in this dangerous profession.

            By the time he was ready to call it a day, the sun was just starting its descent. He was tired, dirty, and reeked of smoke. It had been a long day — he’d seen the sun come up, and he now got to watch the spectacular sunset as the day came to an end. He was satisfied he’d made good progress. For the first time, the arsonist had slipped up. They’d left evidence behind, giving him his first solid clue as to who it could be terrorising the neighbourhood.

            Making his way over to his truck, Gray looked forward to a long, hot shower to ease his aching muscles and wash away the grime of the day. He searched for the number of his favourite pizza restaurant as he waited for his phone to pair with the car’s Bluetooth system. Order placed, he contemplated a lazy evening binge watching something mindless to rest his tired brain.

***

            Kitty wrinkled her nose as she breathed in the pungent smell of smoke that hung in the early morning air. She knew it must have been close by, but she was unprepared for the sight that greeted her as she rounded the corner onto her road. The coffee shop up the way from her own speciality bakery lay in ruin. What had once been a beautiful historical landmark was now nothing more than a heap of rubble.

            She was beginning to think that maybe someone was targeting buildings in her area. Surely it couldn’t be coincidence that three buildings in the same neighbourhood had burned down in such a short span of time. Maybe she should phone the local fire house and see if there was someone she could speak with to find out. It would ease her mind to have some answers.

            And while she was about it, maybe she should increase her security and insurance. She definitely didn’t want to be caught short. Decadence was her life as well as her livelihood. Situated on the slopes of Table Mountain, in the chic suburb of Kloofnek, the bakery was her pride and joy. She’d worked hard to achieve success in such a tough industry.

            As a speciality cupcake baker, her creations where in high demand, and her business had far exceeded anything she’d dreamed she could achieve.

Katherine Spence, better known as Kitty to all, had always known she wanted to be a baker. Despite it not always having been an easy path, she loved everything about the business. Most especially the pleasure her cupcakes brought to people.

            Pulling into her reserved spot in the parking lot behind her building, she hopped out of her candy-apple red Audi A3. She set the lock, steeling herself against the creepy sensation of being watched. A shiver worked its way down her spine as she dashed to the back door of the shop, unlocked it as fast as she could, and slipped inside with a sigh of relief.

            Fridays were always busy days at Decadence. Saturday was party day, and she was always inundated with orders besides the usual baking that was needed for the display cases out front. As always, the day flew by in a blur of preparation, production, and clean up before heading for home. In lieu of working on Saturdays, her assistant, Jazz, worked late on Fridays to help her get all the orders filled.

            Thankfully, Saturdays were short days. The shop was only open in the mornings, mainly for customers to collect their orders. Since the majority of the surrounding offices were closed on weekends, walk-in trade was minimal. With all orders already complete, the casual staff working on Saturday morning simply had to box the orders as the customers came in to collect.

            In the middle of the chaos that was life on a Friday, Jazz appeared in the kitchen wearing a big grin.

            “Oh my God, Kitty, the most yummy-looking man has just walked into the shop asking for you. Archie is giving him the evil eye.”

            “What man?” she asked as she rolled a trolley of baking tins into the industrial oven.

            “He said his name is Grayson James.”

            “Did he say why he was looking for me?”

            “No, but does it really matter why he wants to see you when he’s a twelve out of ten?”

            Laughing at Jazz’s sassy comment, Kitty shook her head and simply replied, “Tell him I’ll be out in a second. I just need to set the oven for this batch.”

Giving Kitty an irreverent grin, she replied, “Will do boss-lady,” and sashayed out of the kitchen.

            Setting the oven and washing her hands, Kitty did a quick mental run through to assess her progress and found herself running a little ahead. That would have meant leaving a little early that night, but her unexpected visitor had just put a spoke in that wheel. Walking into the shop area, she spotted Archie Durwood at the counter looking over the day’s selection. Farther back, closer to the door, she saw her friend, Leyla Newman, sitting on a barstool at the window counter. Waiting for her, it would seem.

            The three of them had gone to school together, but Archie hadn’t hung out in the same circle as Kitty and Leyla. While Kitty’s inherent sweetness and sunny nature had made her popular, Archie had never been able to claim the same. Being soft-hearted, she hadn’t been able to bear how badly he’d been treated at school.

            As if it wasn’t bad enough that his parents had named him Archibald, he’d grown up to be downright plain. Insipid strawberry-blond hair, unremarkable features, and eyes too close together made it easy to overlook him in a crowd. But the clincher? Archie lisped. The kids had ragged on him mercilessly, making his life a living hell. Still, she’d been friendly and pleasant to everyone, and made no exception when it came to Archie.

            Smiling, she waved at Leyla and showed her ten minutes with her hands. Layla nodded. Unfortunately, Archie happened to look up as she turned to ask Jazz where her visitor was.

            A smile split Archie’s face as he saw her. “Hi, Kitty. Hi. How are you today?”

            “I’m fine, thank you, Archie. How are you doing?”

            “I’m great, Kitty. Great. Thanks,” he lisped.

            “That’s good, Archie. So, what can Jazz get for you today?”

            “Um, you seem to be out of mocha fudge. I always have the mocha fudge. I, er, I… I, er… I don’t know what else… What else should I have?” he stammered, looking very agitated.

            “I’m really sorry, Archie. I didn’t realise you only ever have the mocha fudge. I’ll keep that in mind. In the meantime, why don’t you try the Chocolate Peppermint Delight? It’s very nice with the same moist texture as the mocha fudge. It’s my personal favourite.”

            “Oh… Oh… I didn’t know that. I’ll have that one then, please. So, Kitty, er…”

            “I’m sorry, Archie, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have someone waiting to see me. Jazz will help you. Have a lovely weekend.”

            Looking none too pleased, Archie glanced around, looking for the other man.

            “Um, sure. Okay. You have a good weekend too.”

            “Jazz?” she murmured so as not to be overheard.

            A mischievous grin broke out on Jazz’s face, and she surreptitiously pointed to someone standing behind Kitty.

            Turning, she looked towards the man standing at the far end of the counter and simply stared. Apparently, her brain felt that moment was the perfect time to quit working. Standing a good few inches over six-feet tall with sinfully handsome face, he took her breath away. Dark blond hair and emerald green eyes framed by impossibly long, thick lashes completed the whole fallen angel look.

            Then he smiled. Oh God!

Holding out his hand, he asked, “Ms Spence? I’m Fire Marshal Grayson James of the Cape Town Fire Station. I’m investigating the fire that happened down the road. I wondered if you might have a couple of minutes to chat to me?”

            Kitty forgot how to breathe. She wasn’t sure if she was capable of speech either. In fact, she wasn’t sure she was capable of anything besides staring. The fallen angel had a voice to match the image – deliciously husky and deep. That was not right. No man should be tall, good looking, built for sin, and sound like that. Not right at all!

            “Hi. Yes, I’m Katherine Spence,” was all she could manage at first. Mentally, she slapped herself. For heaven’s sake, get a grip. “I’m sorry, Mr James, Fridays are really bad days for me. And my day is already spoken for tomorrow. Would Sunday do? I have an errand to run before I meet someone for breakfast, but I should be done by about one o’clock. Maybe I can meet with you around then?” she finally answered, making a valiant attempt at pulling herself together. She belatedly reached out to shake his outstretched hand. On contact, it felt like she’d touched a live wire.

            “Yeah, that’ll do just fine. If you can let me have your cell number, I’ll give you a call to firm up the where and when,” he replied.

            “Oh. Sure. Just a second.” Kitty went to the kitchen to retrieve a business card out of her handbag. Back in the store, she handed him the card.

             “Thanks for your time. I’ll be in touch.” With another killer smile, he turned to leave. His walk was part saunter, part swagger, all sexy. Totally not right!

            As the bell over the door chimed, Kitty snapped her mouth shut and gathered her shaken composure. She was sure she’d never encountered anybody quite like Grayson James before. Her brain re-engaging now the distraction of the super-hot fire investigator was gone, she remembered Leyla was waiting for her.

            Looking around, she noticed with a sinking heart that Archie was still lurking. Thankfully, his attention was elsewhere. She headed over to where the other woman stood waiting for her.

            “Hey Lee,” she greeted her with a smile.

            “Hey yourself, gorgeous. Who’s your new friend?” Lee replied with a smile of her own, leaning in for a hug.

            “Not a new friend. The local fire investigator. Apparently, he’s investigating the fires we’ve had around here.”

            “So, what does he want with you?”

            “Wants to interview me to see if I know anything, I guess.”

            “Fair enough. Well, I just popped in to see if you had a minute for some lunch, but I completely forgot it’s Friday.”

            “Yeah. Sorry, love. I really need to get back to it. I was running a bit ahead, but that visit just set me back now.” Kitty sighed. She’d really been looking forward to going home a little early and soaking in a nice hot bath.

            “I’ll leave you to it then. Cheers, babe. I’ll chat to you later, yeah?”

            “Sure. Chat then, babes.”

            She turned and made a quick dash for the kitchen in the hopes of avoiding Archie. She wasn’t in the mood to stand and make nice with the man. Heaving a sigh of relief as she made it to the kitchen without incident, Kitty got on with the rest of her day.

***

            Anger roiled in their gut. He had no right. No right. They wouldn’t stand for it. She belonged to them, and they wouldn’t tolerate it. They couldn’t allow anybody to upset their plans. Everything had been running smoothly up to this point. They would just have to make sure it continued to. Nothing could be allowed to stand between them and achieving their goal. They needed to think things through.

***

 

 

            CHAPTER 2

            The sharp tone of the alarm shattered the early morning silence and dragged Kitty unwillingly from a deep, dreamless sleep. She seriously loathed her early morning starts. There should be a law or something that forbade having to get up at three in the morning. It was just not natural. Reluctantly, she rolled out of bed, heading for the shower, stretching and yawning as she went.

            Kitty loved to bake but hated to get up early. Her mother always laughed at the irony. Getting up at three o’clock six mornings a week amused her mother no end. She knew how much Kitty prized her sleep. But if she wanted to be successful, she needed to be ready to trade by the time she opened for her customers at seven o’clock. Even when she’d far rather still be snuggled down in dreamland.

            Moving through her morning routine like an automaton, Kitty headed for the kitchen to get a cup of coffee to jumpstart her brain. On another jaw-popping yawn, she reached for her travel mug while the coffee machine gurgled its way through the brewing process. The mouth-watering smell of java permeated the air, and she smiled in anticipation of that first hit of life-giving caffeine. Having already added milk and sugar to her cup, Kitty poured the hot, fragrant coffee into it and headed for the door while taking that first, eagerly anticipated sip.

            Traffic being quiet in the early morning darkness, she reviewed all that needed doing for the day. The new flavour she wanted to try out on the customers, all the special orders that needed to be filled that day, and the products she needed to get onto the shelves. Every day, she tried to keep things fresh, changing it up a bit. There were the absolute must-haves they offered daily, but she tried to rotate others to keep her customers coming back. And they certainly did. Slowly but surely, she’d built a solid reputation for excellent quality, innovative ideas, and outstanding customer service.

            Her cupcakes were popular and a big hit for children’s parties. But it was the fabulous special-occasion cakes she created out of the cupcakes that had become the cornerstone of her business. Especially the wedding cakes. She prided herself on being able to bring the bride’s vision to life, helping to make that special day just a little bit more so.

            The parking lot at the back of the bakery was deserted in the early morning hours as Kitty parked her car. Hopping out, she turned to set the alarm. Making her way to the back door of the bakery, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. That constant sense of being watched was really starting to freak her out.

***

            Lurking in the deepest recess, they watched as she made her way across to the door, their eyes hungrily undressing her. What they wouldn’t do to have her all to themselves. That would have to wait. They wanted everything to be perfect when they finally brought her home, but it wasn’t yet. Soon; and they couldn’t wait to show her how much they loved her.

***

            Engrossed so deeply in her preparation routine, Kitty started when she heard Jazz knock at the kitchen door. A quick glance at the clock told her time had flown by as she’d lost herself in the soothing rhythm of baking. Thankfully, the prep work was on target as the shop would be opening in half an hour. Jazz greeted her with a smile, making her way over to the coffee pot.

            She was tiny. From her tiny feet to the top of her head covered in startlingly red hair cut super short, she resembled a pixie. But what she lacked in stature, Jazz most certainly made up for in heart. It was huge and beautiful, with a smile to match.

            Returning the smile, Kitty greeted, “Good morning, Jazz. How are you doing today?”

            “Hey, Kitty. Great, thanks. Gosh, it’s winding up to be another scorcher of a day today.” Pausing to take a sip of her coffee, she hummed in appreciation. “How are you doing?” Jazz replied.

            “Great, thanks. I know, right? It looks like another aircon kind of day.”

            “Yeah. Oh, speaking of aircon, would it be okay if I call the refrigeration technician to come take a look at the display case on the left today? It seems to be struggling a bit in this heat.”

            Laughing, Kitty gave her assistant a look over her shoulder.

            “Are you sure that’s the only reason you want to give the technician a call?” To Kitty’s amazement, Jazz blushed. “Jazz, you little flirt!” She laughed again.

            “Yeah, whatever,” Jazz mumbled, blushing a little more. She drank her coffee in silence for a couple of minutes before venturing, “So, would it be okay? I don’t want to lose stock because it spoils.”

            “No problem. Just remind them to quote first. They’ve got a bad habit of just coming in to do the work without letting us know how much it’s going to be.”

            “No problem.” Jazz went to put her now-empty coffee cup in the sink and headed for the front of the shop. As she got to the door, Kitty called her name.

            “Yeah?”

            “You know I’m was only teasing about the tech, right?”

            “I know.”

            “Thanks for being such an efficient assistant. I’d be lost without you.”

            Giving Kitty a sunny smile, she replied, “All part of the Jazzy service.”

            At exactly seven o’clock, Jazz opened the doors to a queue of people making their way to their office, looking for something to get their day started. For the next forty-five minutes, Kitty and Jazz were run off their feet. With stocks severely depleted, Kitty had just turned to head back to the kitchen for the next round of baking when the door sensor chimed and Archie walked in. He came in every day.

            “Hi Kitty, hi. You’re looking beautiful today, as usual,” Archie lisped.

            “Hi Archie. Thanks,” she replied, turning to head back to the kitchen.

            Jazz rolled her eyes at Kitty before turning to assist Archie.

***

            Archie gave Jazz a creepy feeling, but she tolerated him for Kitty’s sake. Kitty had been willing to give her a chance when everyone else had simply shown her the door, so she would do almost anything for her. Even putting up with the very weird and somewhat unsettling Archie Durwood.

            “What’s it gonna be today, Archie?” Jazz asked.

            “Um, I think I’ll have a mocha fudge today, please,” he replied, frowning as he watched Kitty turn to leave.

            “So, Kitty, I was… was, er, was wondering if you would like to have a cup of coffee with me today?” he stumbled, blushing a rather unbecoming shade of red.

            Smiling through gritted teeth, Kitty turned back to him.

            “Thanks, Archie, but I’m really snowed under with work today. Maybe another time,” she replied.

            “Oh, well, um, sure. Sure. No problem.” Taking his boxed cupcake, he bowed his head. “Another time then.” He headed for the door. Casting a last look over his shoulder, he left.

            Jazz followed her to the kitchen. Leaning a hip against the counter, she faced Kitty. “Coffee?”

            “Yes, please!” came the prompt reply.

            “Man, I gotta tell you. That Archie is a right weirdo. He gives me the heebie-jeebies, pure and simple.” With a shiver, she handed over the cup of coffee.

            Grimacing, Kitty reached for her mug. “Jazz!”

            “What?” she grinned back unrepentantly. “You can’t tell me he doesn’t have the same effect on you! There’s something seriously off about that dude!”

            Sighing, she replied, “He’s always been a little… different, shall we say? His parents did him no favours with that name. And the lisp sure as hell doesn’t help. Life was unbearable for him when we were at school. As he’s grown older, he’s gotten worse.”

            The doorbell on the front door chimed, saving Kitty from having to say anything more on the topic. Jazz headed for the front, and Kitty got back to work. The rest of the day whizzed by in a blur.

***

            With the bakery put to rights, Kitty locked the front door. Letting herself out the back, she locked the door behind her and made her way to the car, rolling tired shoulders. A prickle of the ever-present feeling of eyes on her made its way down her spine. Looking around, she didn’t see anything out of place, but the feeling wouldn’t abate.

            She was sure somebody was out there in the dark recesses somewhere, watching her. Her imagination ran wild as fear gripped her. She disliked feeling this way. Rushing over to her car, Kitty fumbled with the fob to unlock, scrambling into the safety of the interior when she finally managed to get it open. She slammed the door and locked it, glanced around one last time before starting the engine.

            To distract herself from the dread, she connected her phone to the car’s Bluetooth system. First, she dialled her friend Morgan’s number. When she got no answer, she dialled Lee’s number. While she waited for her to answer, Kitty started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. She couldn’t wait to get home.

            “Hey gorgeous. How goes?” Lee answered.

            “Hi yourself. Just headed for home, so I thought I’d check in. How’s your day been?”

            The mindless chatter helped calm her jangling nerves and made the drive home more palatable.

***

            Summertime traffic was the worst, especially over the weekends. Everybody was either headed for the beach to enjoy the sun or the mall to enjoy the air conditioning. Eventually, Kitty pulled into her parking space at home, heaving a sigh of relief. Sitting bumper to bumper scarcely moving for kilometres on end wasn’t her favourite way to spend her time. It had been a long day, but nothing that a hot soak, a good book, and a glass of wine couldn’t cure. Not necessarily in that order. And at least she’d had Leyla’s rapier wit to keep her company on the irritating drive.

            Usually Kitty came home earlier in the day, but today she’d stayed until closing so she could try out some new ideas. So, she was definitely looking forward to relaxing.

            Life, it seemed, had other ideas, as the downstairs buzzer sounded. It looked like her much-anticipated soak wasn’t to be.

            “Hello?” she said.

            “Hi, open up,” a voice replied.

            Smiling, she pressed the door release to let Morgan Preston in. Their mothers were childhood friends. Even after getting married and having children of their own, their friendship had endured. And, of course, they were thrilled when their girls had become best friends almost since birth. Kitty stood by the open door waiting for the lift to arrive.

            “Hiya, precious. I saw you were looking for me earlier, so I thought I’d pop by. How was your day?” Morgan queried as she made her way into the apartment.

            “Crazy busy, but good. Yours?” Kitty reached out to give Morgan a big hug.

            “Urgh! The day from hell. Somehow, the dick managed to corrupt the document file he needs for a meeting on Monday, and guess who has to ride to the rescue yet again? And on a Saturday,” she pouted. Throwing herself down on the nearest sofa, she continued, “I don’t get paid enough for this crap. Even the side benefits don’t make up for that frustration.”

            Kitty laughed at her friend.

            “Don’t let Greg hear you calling him a dick!” she teased, referring to Morgan’s boss.

            “I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking going to work for him. God, he’s a terrible boss.”

            “Come on, Morgs. Surely he can’t be that bad.”

            “Yes. Yes, he can. And he is,” Morgan replied before continuing. “How about a super big glass of wine to unwind?” She grinned hopefully.

            Shaking her head at her friend, Kitty replied, “My thoughts exactly. I had intended to have that super big glass of wine in the bath, but since you’ve nixed that idea, what did you have in mind?”

            “A nice girly night in with lots of that wine? Greg’s out tonight, so I thought we could just hang out. I miss our girl time.”

            Something in Morgan’s tone didn’t quite sit right, and Kitty tried to get a read on her without making it obvious. She and her boss, Greg, had gotten together one night while out of town on business, but theirs had not been an easy relationship.

            There was a vulnerable light in Morgan’s eyes that Kitty didn’t like. It was so unlike her. Kitty had tried to warn Morgan that getting involved with her married boss was not a good idea. She had worried about an eventuality like this. Unfortunately, Morgan caught her look. Her eyes shuttered immediately, and she smiled.

            Not wanting to upset her friend by pressing, Kitty simply replied, “Sounds like a perfect evening.”

            She headed for the kitchen to grab the wine and glasses.

            “Archie came into the shop again today,” she called over her shoulder. “I really don’t know what to do about him anymore. He creeps poor Jazz out, and I’ve got to agree, he makes me pretty uncomfortable too. But I really can’t find it in my heart to ban him from the shop. He’s a paying customer.”

            Morgan looked over at Kitty as she came back into the room. “You’re far too soft for your own good. You know that, right?”

            Sighing, she couldn’t help but agree with her friend. “I know. But to be fair, he hasn’t done anything untoward. Other than to constantly ask me out for a cup of coffee, he’s done nothing to warrant me banning him. I just wish he’d stop asking me to go out with him. I don’t know how to cut him off without hurting his feelings.”

            “Yeah, sorry to break it to you, precious, but this is destined to not end well. There’s no way to avoid hurting his feelings. Wouldn’t it be better to just make it a clean break?”

            “Urgh! I know you’re right, but I just can’t. I don’t have it in me.” Pouring them each a glass of wine, Kitty passed one over. “Chin, chin, darling.”

            Morgan tapped her glass gently against Kitty’s. “Bottom’s up, babes.” Her smile finally reaching her eyes, she took a big sip. “So, what’s new, newsy, and exciting in your life?”

            “I met the hottest guy on the face of planet Earth.”

            “What? You sly devil! Why am I only hearing about this now?”

            Kitty laughed at her friend.

            “Because our lives have been crazy busy? And it only happened yesterday,” she replied.

            “I guess you’re right.” Morgan nodded. “So? Spill, girlfriend. Tell me all about McHottie.”

            “Oh God, Morgs, I must have come across as the lamest bimbo ever. I got one look at him and my brain stalled. I’m just grateful I wasn’t drooling.” Kitty buried her face in her hands, feeling it heat up.

            “You? At a loss for words? Never!” Morgan chuckled. “I would have paid good money to see that.”

            “Yup. Me. It was so embarrassing. And now I have to meet up with him again about the recent spate of fires in the area,” she mumbled through her hands.

            “Ooh. There’s potential here, methinks.”

            Tossing a scatter cushion at Morgan, Kitty reached for her glass, laughing. “Only you would think like that. Now, what are we going to do about food?”

            The rest of the evening sped by as they joked around, enjoying each other’s company. But Kitty kept a close eye on her friend. All was not well with Morgan, she suspected. And she didn’t like it. Not one bit.

***

            The excitement was overwhelming. It was all they could do to contain themselves. Everything was in place for their next target. It wouldn’t take much to get it done, and it would be one less for her to worry about. She would realise how much she loved them when she understood that they were doing all of this for her. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for her. Staring at all the photos on the wall, they smiled. Soon, my love. We’ll be together soon, as we’ve always been meant to be. They stroked a loving hand over the photo nearest to them, their eyes gleaming with madness. The madness that consumed them a little more every day.

***

 

 

 

            CHAPTER 3

            The sounds of Nickelback filled her apartment’s kitchen as Kitty was drying her hands, ringing coming from her handbag. Everything had been put to rights, and she was about to head out the door. She was on her way to drop off cupcakes at Nazareth House.

            Kitty loved doing her bit for the inhabitants of the home. An organisation steeped in history, their aim since 1881 was to look after the indigent, elderly, and orphaned children. They offered a comfortable home and nursing to those in need. It warmed her heart to see the enjoyment her cupcakes brought to those who lived there, bringing a little bit of sunshine into their lives.

            Finally, she managed to dig her phone out of her bag.

            “Hello?”

            “Ms Spence, Grayson James. I’m calling to confirm a time and place with you for our meeting this afternoon.”

            “Hi, Mr James, yes. I’m just about to leave. I make a delivery to Nazareth House every week and then treat the sisters to breakfast at a lovely little coffee shop down the road from them — the Red Velvet Lounge. How about we meet there around one o’clock?”

            “Great. I know of the place. I’ll see you there.”

***

            The nuns had left a few minutes earlier, and Kitty called for another cup of coffee as she sat waiting for the sinfully gorgeous Grayson James. She couldn’t remember a time that a man had piqued her interest like he did. It seemed like forever ago since a man had made her skin tingle and her belly flutter.

***

            Bold as brass and larger than life, Grayson strolled in right on time. He looked around and spotted her sitting at a window table. Taking a moment to absorb the sight of her, he felt rooted to the spot. She was quite possibly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, with her raven tresses tumbling haphazardly down her back and dimpled smile.

            Walking over to the table, surprisingly, she stood when he reached her, holding out her hand to shake. At around five-foot-two, she wasn’t the tallest woman he’d ever been attracted to, but she certainly had magnificent curves in all the right places, packing quite the visual punch.

            Grayson said, “Ms Spence. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. May I?” he indicated the chair opposite her.

            “Yes, of course. It’s a pleasure, Mr James.”

            “Please, call me Gray.”

            “Oh, well, thank you. Gray then. And please, call me Kitty,” she replied, her soulful eyes the colour of jade and amber lighting up, pouty bee-stung lips lifting, and a heart-shaped face boasting the most adorable dimple when she smiled.

He needed to get his head back in the game. Since when did he wax lyrical about anything, let alone a woman? It just wasn’t him. He was here on business, not looking for his soul mate. Whoa there. Where the hell had that thought come from? Pull it together, man. Go do what you came to do, then get the hell out of dodge.

            “Thanks,” he acknowledged with a grin of his own.

            “So, what can I do for you, Mr – sorry, Gray?”

            For a moment, Gray’s mind wandered into dangerous territory as he looked at her lips. Clearing his throat, he chided himself silently. Not cool, dude. Pull your shit together.

            “As I mentioned on Friday, I’m investigating the recent fires in Kloofnek.”

            “Gosh, yes. Terrible! My heart aches for those poor people. I have no idea what I would do if it happened to me. My shop means everything to me.”

            “I was wondering if you might have any information that could shed some light on the case.”

            “I really don’t think so. I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen or heard anything out of the ordinary.”

            “Well, let’s go through the list of questions I have and see where that gets us. Okay?”

            “Okay,” Kitty agreed.

            Gray asked his questions, and Kitty answered as best she could. Eventually, he decided he’d gotten about all he was going to get about the fires. Completely forgetting his intentions of only interviewing the delectable Kitty Spence and getting the hell out, he turned his attention to asking questions of a different kind.

            She really piqued his interest. He sensed there was a lot more to the woman than she showed the world. And damned if he didn’t want to unearth all that she concealed. Turning loose one of his killer smiles, he leaned in and asked, “So tell me, Kitty, is there a Mr Kitty waiting at home for you?”

            Dimple showing, distracting him from his train of thought for a second, she replied, “Wow, you certainly don’t beat around the bush, do you?”

            Giving an unrepentant shrug, he replied, “I’ve never seen the point of it. Besides, life’s too short. In my profession, you can’t afford to waste a second. You never know when your time is up.”

            “I guess I can see your point. I’m just not used to going at a million miles an hour. But okay, I’ll play.” Taking a moment to drink the last of her coffee, Kitty eyed him over the top of her cup. When she was done, she set the cup back in its saucer and replied, “No, there is no Mr Kitty waiting for me at home, or anywhere else for that matter.”

            Gray first felt surprise and then delight at the fact that she was single. It seemed the gods were smiling down on him of late.

 

            His rather delightful meeting with Kitty Spence long over, Gray had been back at it for hours. Much as he’d wanted to linger over coffee getting to know her better, he’d headed back to the fire station instead and gone over every bit of evidence he’d found. Again. He’d read and re-read the reports. Over and over, until his eyes blurred. What was he missing? Something seemed off at the point of origin. The pattern was unusual – not the run-of-the-mill accelerant pattern. He just couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew it was something important.

            Whatever it was that he was missing, he knew it was the key to solving the spate of fires in Kloofnek. And he was sure it was hiding in plain sight. He’d thought the evidence he’d found at the last scene would give more insight into the perpetrator, but still he had nothing.  Running his hands through his hair in utter frustration, he got up to get another cup of coffee.

            The fire house was quiet in the early hours of the morning. Everyone getting in a bit of sleep while they could. He enjoyed working in those quiet hours. It helped him to focus. Not that it seemed to be helping at the moment.

            The sudden jangle of the klaxon was loud and out of place in the silence. And just as suddenly, the fire house came to life. Firefighters and paramedics alike headed for their vehicles to respond to the call. As one of the firefighters ran past him, he asked where the fire was.

            “High up on Kloof Street somewhere,” came the response.

            Gray’s stomach sank. Damn it, he was too late. The arsonist had struck again before he could figure it all out. Someone had just lost their business because he couldn’t nail this one down. Grabbing his gear, he headed for the fire scene.

            Chaos reigned. Pulling up to the scene, Gray turned his car off and sat looking at it. People were standing all over the place, jostling each other to gawk at the spectacle. Flames reached high in the night sky, lighting the area up like daylight. Fire trucks and rescue vehicles crammed into the narrow street, adding to the general sense of bedlam. To add insult to injury, there were reporters and news crews everywhere.

            Gritting his teeth, he got out of the car and headed for the nearest policeman.

            Showing the man his ID, he asked, “Evening, officer. Who is in charge here?”

            Turning to look at him, the officer replied, “Evening, sir. Sergeant Monroe, over there.” The officer pointed to an older gentleman standing talking to one of his uniforms.

            “Thank you.”

            He made his way over to the two men, irritation stiffening his shoulders. Again, he showed his credentials.

            “Gentlemen, sorry for interrupting, but I need a word with you, Sergeant Monroe, if you don’t mind.”

            “Sure,” Monroe replied. Speaking to his officer, he continued, “Give me a second?”

            The officer nodded and moved a short distance away.

            “What can I do for you, young man?”

            Extending his hand to Sergeant Monroe, Gray said, “Fire Marshal Grayson James. I’m the investigator for the Cape Town Fire Station.”

            “Nice to meet you, Mr James. What can I do for you?”

            “Apparently, the public has absolutely no concept of self-preservation, Sergeant. I would be very grateful if you could please push the safety barrier back farther to keep the public safe, especially from themselves. Also, I would greatly appreciate it if you could keep the press as far away from the scene as you can manage. Otherwise, they badger my guys and generally just get in everyone’s way.”

            “You’ve got it, son. I’ll see to it. Bloody press slither in everywhere they’re not wanted.”

            “Appreciate it, sir.” As the Sergeant turned to carry out his requests, Gray briefly allowed his head to bow as he gathered himself.

            Heading over to the nearest truck, he spotted the senior officer on site. Jeffrey Erickson was a seasoned member of the fire department, and he enjoyed working with him.

            “Jeff,” he greeted the other gentleman, “what have you got for me?”

            “Hey, Gray. Man, this one is putting up one hell of a fight. My boys are battling to put her down.” He shook his head sadly. “I’ve been at this game for a lot of years and pretty much seen them all. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this one arson too.”

            Just then a shout went up. Turning to see what the problem was, they were in time to see the building collapse in on itself. Jeff’s radio crackled to life.

            “Sir, we’ve got a man down in the building. Matthews and Simms went in for search and rescue, but only Simms got out before she fell. Shit, sir, Matthews is still in there.”

            Cursing ripely, Erikson barked into his radio, “Ensure the building is stable enough to send someone in after him. If it’s a go, send Collins and Wilkes in. They’ve got the most experience on the team. Get him out. Go. Go!”

***

            They’d known that he would be a problem from the time they’d first laid eyes on him. The fire investigator was going to ruin everything, and they couldn’t let that happen. They knew she was theirs. They’d just needed to give her the time and space to realise it, but he’d changed the game. They’d have to move their schedule up to win over their girl.

             Let that be a lesson to you, Mr Fire Investigator. If you don’t stay away from her, you’re next. She will be ours. We will not tolerate your interference. She is ours! She always has been. You’re ruining everything with your misplaced arrogant sense of superiority. Not that it’s helped you any. You still haven’t figured it out, have you? That’s because we’re better than you.

***