Forbidden Fires (Bondage & Breakfast)
Author:Jodie Griffin

chapter Four

Colin’s mind whirled in a jumble of twisted thoughts and emotions during the ride to the second fire scene in Howard County. Jesus H. Christ, Delia was into bondage? How the hell could he have not known that? They’d had some wild encounters during the time they’d been together, but nothing in their history had prepared him for that bombshell.

Or for what that knowledge did to him. His first reaction had been denial. But the thought of her tied up for his pleasure—and hers—made the always-there-around-Delia erection as hard as a damn firepole.

Stopped at a traffic light, he slid a glance her way, but she had her head turned to look out the window. Her body was ramrod straight, about as stiff as his dick. Then, as if she felt the weight of his stare, she turned and faced him.

Her color was high, accenting the creamy, freckled skin he’d loved to trace with his tongue. In the close quarters of his truck, he could smell the scent of raspberries on her body underneath the faint tang of smoke, and his mouth watered at the memory of that taste. An air of expectation surrounded her, and he couldn’t wait to see where she’d take his last statement.

“Tell me about the next scene.”

With an oddly disappointed jolt, he turned his eyes back to the road. “This fire was big and was reported in the middle of the night. Karenna and Brad McDonough had three overnight guests. Initially, they thought the fire was caused by an accidental gas leak. But last week, forensics came back on the gas line. There’s no doubt it was arson. The line was cut, and an accelerant was added to the gas to make the fire burn faster and hotter. Five people in that house, and none of them survived. By the time the crews got there, it was fully engulfed.”

He turned down the lane leading to the McDonough house. Or, what was left of it. He’d investigated a lot of suspicious fires, but he’d never seen one as destructive as this one. He pulled the truck to a stop and waited.

“Oh my God,” Dee said, falling silent.

“Yeah,” he answered. “You can’t really tell from the pictures how bad this was. There’s not much to search here. I thought we could walk the perimeter so you can get a feel for the size of the property and the house.”

She nodded and got out of the truck, slinging her ever-present bag over her shoulder. She was still wearing the fire boots, which was good. She’d need them. “It looks like it was nearly as big as the Wests’ house,” she commented. “Just as remote too.”

She walked to the edge of the charred home, but before she could step too close, he grabbed her arm. “Hold up. There’s a full basement to this house. The debris is completely unstable.”

She froze. “So has anyone been through it? Or could there be more victims?”

He nodded. “Yeah, a rescue crew combed through it. They had the right kind of gear, including safety equipment. Mostly, they were looking for bodies, but they didn’t find any.”

They walked slowly around the house in silence. Delia seemed lost in thought, and he used the time to watch her while her mind was focused on other things. Her ponytail had slipped, and a long strand of red hair curled around the shell of her ear. A black smudge dusted her cheek, and she was worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

As always, his physical desire for her simmered just under the surface of his skin. But it was more than that, he admitted to himself. He enjoyed watching the way her mind worked, and found himself turned on as much by her brain as by her body. Maybe more. The unexpected window into the kinky side of her was just icing on the red velvet cake that was Delia Robinson.

Yet none of that addressed the main issue between them. They’d had a relationship, and it had failed. In the days leading up to this new—and temporary—partnership, a partnership he’d hoped would be as successful as the last time they’d collaborated, he’d assumed the intimate connection between them wouldn’t exist anymore. Hoped there might still be something there, but figured it was all wishful thinking on his side. He’d been wrong.

But was he interested in starting things up again with her? He wasn’t sure. The temptation was there, the intense physical desire was there, but so was the memory of too many sleepless nights and too much beer. Maybe it wasn’t macho to admit it, but their breakup had hit him hard, and he just wasn’t sure if he wanted to travel that road again.

* * *

Yum. Delia’s mouth watered as the waitress brought over plates piled high with food. She sampled an onion ring and watched Colin dig into his lunch with gusto. For someone as long and lean as he was, he sure did pack away the food.

He looked up and frowned. “Why aren’t you eating?”

She lifted her burger. “I am. I was enjoying feeding time at the zoo, though.” She winked and took a bite. As soon as the burger hit her tongue, she sighed. “Oh, wow. That’s good.”

In a voice she remembered well from a year ago, he teased right back. “Like you have room to talk. This restaurant is rated G, but you’re giving the old cook at the counter heart palpitations with your reaction to his, er, meat.”

She nearly choked on the burger as she started to laugh. “You’re insane.”

A boyish grin lit his face. “So I’ve been told.”

Instead of following up with another smart remark, she blurted out the words she’d been thinking as she walked the perimeter of the McDonough property. “What happened to us?”

He looked startled, then resigned. He put down his burger and wiped his hands, reaching across the table to touch her arm. “You said yourself we needed to focus on the case. You sure you want to get into this now?”

“No, not really. As soon as the words came out, I wished I could take them back,” she admitted. Part of it was an honest statement. Part of it was pure cowardice. She wasn’t sure she’d like what he had to say about her. Her love life had come to a grinding halt after they’d split, and maybe understanding why they hadn’t worked would help her get over her slump. “But when we’re through? Yeah, I think I really want to figure it out.”

He squeezed her arm, then picked up his burger again. “Fair enough.”

Even when he was no longer touching her, she could feel the warmth and strength of his fingers against her skin. It set loose something inside her, something that had been frozen all these past months. That scared the crap out of her. What was it about Colin—and only Colin—that resonated in her? Roy, her sometimes-partner on undercover ops, had come close to breaching the large divide that seemed to exist between her and men in general. And the day Colin had come to ask her uncle for help, Roy had asked her to join him for dinner. She’d been tempted. He was sexy, straight and available, but something had held her back from saying yes. Was that something actually the someone sitting right across from her?

They ate for several minutes in silence, until Colin sat back with a satisfied sigh. “Man, did I need that.” He gestured at her plate, which was mostly empty now. “Want any refills?”

“No, I’m good. Thanks.” She looked around before she spoke. The only other occupants of the diner were at two tables on the opposite side of the room. Good. She didn’t want to ruin anyone’s lunch. “So I saw in the report that the bodies in the McDonough fire were found in the bedroom area of the house.”

He nodded and took a drink of water. “Three in the master bedroom, two in an adjoining room. We think, anyway. The master bedroom was on the ground floor, and situated almost directly over the furnace room in the basement. The blast was severe in that area. Bodies may have shifted from where they were originally.”

“So they likely died instantly?”

“Probably,” he replied, his face grim. “Between the explosion, the resulting fire and the collapse of the upper floor, those five people didn’t have much chance.”

Her stomach twisted in sympathy, threatening to unload the lunch she’d just eaten. “That sucks.”

“Yes, it does,” he replied. “Now that we’ve fed the beasts, are you ready for the third site?”

She nodded. “Yep. Let’s get this show on the road.”

They drove a short distance to get to the third site. As it came into view, she leaned forward in her seat. “Jesus. You weren’t kidding when you said all of these fires happened at high-value properties.”

Colin snorted. “Tell me about it. I didn’t know real people actually lived like this.” He paused. “This third fire was the charm in putting this together as a serial arsonist. Two is a coincidence. Three is a pattern. When my boss was going over incident reports from across the state, it set off his radar.”

She followed him out of the car. If the other two properties had been estates, she wasn’t sure what she’d call this one. A sovereign state? The house was huge, surrounded by old growth trees, lending it, like all the others, extreme privacy. She saw signs of wealth everywhere, from the tennis court to the swimming pool to the eight-car garage. What she couldn’t see, though, was any fire damage. She could smell it, but she couldn’t see it.

Confusion laced her voice as she spoke. “Have they already repaired the damage from the fire?” She couldn’t imagine it, but if you had this much money, she supposed anything was possible.

He grinned. “Nope. The fire wasn’t in the main house. I just wanted you to see it.” He pointed to a path between some trees near the tennis court. “It was in the guest cottage. And I use the word cottage only because they did.”

She could see what he meant the minute the cottage came into view. “I know I’ve said this before, but Jesus. This is a cottage? It’s bigger than my parents’ house. And their house isn’t exactly small.” The two-level structure had been heavily damaged by fire. “Tell me about the arson part of this fire.”

He opened the file in his hand. “The estate is owned by Nils and Nina Lindstrom. It looks as though the walls were doused with gas and set afire. They got out, but one of their two guests, Kyle Winters, wasn’t so lucky. I know the local police were questioning that, but I haven’t seen the results yet.”

“Can we go inside?”

“We should be able to look at some of it. Just make sure you follow behind me and step only where I step.”

The entrance was mostly intact, but the rest of the cottage was burned almost beyond recognition. Almost. Because in the room where Kyle Winters’s body had been found, she saw something she recognized. A quick glance at Colin’s face confirmed that he didn’t see it as she did. Her heart sped up, and she realized she might have found the key to this entire case. But she needed to be sure before she said anything. “May I see the photos?”

He handed her the pictures taken at the scene.

“Where was Kyle Winters when he died?”

“At the hospital,” Colin said. “He suffered severe burns over seventy percent of his body, and succumbed to his injuries the next day.”

“So you don’t know where he was in the room?” When Colin shook his head, she pointed at a pair of objects in the middle of the room in the photo. “What’s this?”

He looked at her and frowned. “You’re leading up to something, I can feel it. But sure, I’ll play along. Those are sawhorses. According to the owners, they were getting ready to renovate in here and had started moving the equipment in.”

Bingo. If those were plain old generic sawhorses, she’d turn her shield in. “Are those them over there?” she asked, gesturing toward the back of the room, where at least one of them lay on its side.

He frowned “Looks like it. Why?”

Even from where she stood, across the room, she could see it was different than a regular sawhorse. “Two things make me question the Lindstroms’ statements about construction. First, why would they have guests staying here while they had construction going on? They have a huge house. Surely they’d have put their guests up in the main house if that were the case.”

“Makes sense. What else?”

“Do you see rings on the legs of the horse?” At his affirmative, she swallowed hard and laid it all out, realizing she was opening the door to her psyche even more. “What would you say if I told you I thought it wasn’t a sawhorse, but a spanking bench? With iron hooks, so restraints can be attached. The top is wider, too, to accommodate a person’s body.”

His response came so fast, she knew he was speaking without thinking, on instinct. “I’d want to know how the hell you know that.”