It’s cold outside, but these guys are roaring hot... Online

1

HANDS ON HIS hips, Police Sergeant Noah Briscoe, head of the general investigations unit, stared at the smoldering rubble of what was once the number-one historical landmark in Pine Crest, Virginia. The mansion home of Colin T. Price, arguably the most beloved governor who ever held the state’s office, and visited by over half a million tourists a year.

The acrid stench assaulted Noah with dark memories that he impatiently shoved aside. No. He would not go there.

But how did he block out the past when charred metal thrust up from the smoldering heap like blackened bones, taunted him, reminding him of another burned house, another injured woman, another ruined Christmas?

When the call came in, Noah had been at a twenty-four-hour gym, working out his frustrations. Lately, he’d had trouble sleeping and it had a lot to do with the stress of the holiday season. Crime went up in November and December. Robbery, shoplifting, domestic abuse. Something about the holidays riled people. If it were up to Noah, he’d outlaw the whole damn thing.

But there was a secondary reason he hadn’t been able to sleep. Sexual frustration. He hadn’t had sex in almost a year and he seriously needed it bad. There was only so much exercising a man could do, after all.

And whenever he thought of sex, he thought of Alana O’Hara, the fiery, redheaded defense attorney he’d almost talked into bed this past summer, before common sense prevailed. They’d flirted for weeks, shared a deep wet tongue kiss in her office and gone out on exactly one date.

At the end of the evening, after they took the making out far past second base in the back seat of his SUV, Alana had chickened out, telling him that while there was no denying the sexual chemistry, they just weren’t compatible.

She was right.

They were oil and water, but hot damn that woman was something else. Great body, mind like a steel trap, strong opinions she wasn’t afraid to voice. Noah suppressed a smile.

Thinking of Alana had the desired effect. It got his mind off those disturbing Christmas memories.

Now, refocus. Task at hand.

The arson investigator, Bic Beckham, was poking around in the ashes. Crime scene technicians snapped photographs. Firefighters moved to and fro. Noah’s men were busy stringing out yellow crime-scene tape and setting up portable floodlights to aid the investigation and keeping the lookie-loos at bay behind sawhorse barricades.

An ambulance sat at the curb, strobes flashing red into the night as the paramedics loaded up the unidentified, unconscious woman who’d been found in the foyer of the mansion. She’d been overcome by smoke inhalation before she could reach the door.

Which raised the questions, who was she and what had she been doing in the mansion after hours?

After Noah finished here, he would follow the ambulance to the hospital to check on her condition. If she died, this would become a murder investigation and Homicide would take over.

“Briscoe.” Bic beckoned with a crook of his finger. “C’mere.”

Gingerly, Noah picked his way around puddles of water and hot debris to where Bic stood beside a pile of crumpled bricks that had previously been one of the mansion’s four fireplace chimneys. “Whatcha got?”

“See here.” Bic pointed to a thin blackened triangular mark seared into the brick paving stones that surrounded the toppled fireplace.

A very narrow V-shape char pattern was indicative of a fire that burned hotter than normal. Say, for instance, one that had been assisted by an accelerant. Noah ran a palm over his whisker-roughened chin.

“I’ll know more when the embers cool and we can start sifting through the ashes,” Bic said. “But between this and what the firefighters observed of the fire’s behavior, it looks like we’ve got a case of arson on our hands.”

Arson.

Noah raked fingers through his hair. Who would want to burn down the town’s biggest tourist attraction, and why?

Bic returned to his work. Noah called his men over, told them it was suspected arson. Most arsonists had a need to watch the fire they’d set and that was often how they were caught. “Anybody among those rubberneckers strike you as suspicious?”

“You mean besides Santa?” asked Jimmy Thornton, an earnest-faced, wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

Santa?

Noah’s gaze shifted in the direction Jimmy indicated. Sure enough, there was a man in a Santa suit standing in the middle of the crowd. Noah’s gaze locked with the blue-eyed man of indeterminate age.

Santa held his stare, and inexplicably, Noah felt a chill pass straight through his bones. Was it just his aversion to all things Noel? Or