Burning For Autumn, On Call, Book One
When Autumn McCoy accepted a temporary work contract in Durango, she thought it would be a safe way to add some spark to her existence. She may be getting more than she bargained for when she finds herself the target of impending danger. The outspoken forty-two-year-old isn’t prepared for that spark to ignite flames threatening to engulf every aspect of her life.
Buried under the weight of responsibilities, all interim Chief of Police, Keith Blackfoot, wants is to get back to good old-fashioned detecting. He gets his chance when an encounter with a feisty redhead seems to incite a wave of arson cases. Although a visit from friend and firefighter, Roman “Chief” Proudfit, provides some direction, he’s left to battle an invisible menace fueling fires that could leave his town—and his heart—in ashes.
I look around as I’m coming out of the small waiting room. I just had to tell the parents of a four-year-old their child is not eligible for a clinical trial we were hoping might benefit her. The little girl’s injuries are simply too severe. The lower part of her face, her neck, her chest, down part of her back, and the upper part of her legs were hit with hot oil when she pulled the fryer off the counter. She’ll surely face years of surgery and that’s the best-case scenario.
Oil burns are awful and often result in third-degree burns. Close to fifty percent of this little girl’s body has sustained damage and about two-thirds of it are full-thickness burns.
“You can say that again.” I recognize the man from one of the presentations I did for the local fire stations. A good-looking, tall man with bulk in all the right places, who’d easily stood out with his red cropped hair and beard. Being a redhead myself, I’m not usually attracted to fellow gingers, but this guy was not hard on the eyes. “Station Two, right?”
“Good memory,” he says with a wide grin.
Damn, the strong white teeth peeking through that soot-stained facial hair bump him up another notch on the hot scale.
“You kinda stand out,” I confess with a shrug. “If I had a brother, I imagine he might look like you.”
“Ouch.” The firefighter slaps a hand to his chest and feigns stumbling back a few steps. That’s when I notice the bandage on his other hand and automatically step forward, reaching out.
“Did you get that looked at?”
“It’s fine, just an occupational hazard. Only one of the reasons I’m here.”
“What’s the other?” I ask, with an eyebrow raised and he grins again.
“I could lie and say I came to see you, but I have a feeling that wouldn’t fly even if it were true.”
I’m doing my own grinning now, enjoying the silly back-and-forth, but in the next moment the full weight of the day settles back on my shoulders.
“Actually, I thought I’d check on a burn victim from a call we answered last night. A little girl, Missy Fraser?” He must’ve seen my face drop, because he immediately followed it with, “Shit, don’t tell me—”
“No,” I quickly stop him. “She’s hanging on. I’m not supposed to…you should probably talk to her parents. They’re in here.” I step aside and motion at the waiting room’s closed door.
He takes a long look at the door before turning back to me. “Listen, I don’t know what you do to wind down after a difficult shift, but there’s a place out on Main Street, The Irish Embassy Pub, where you can find a drink and a willing ear. On any given night, you’ll find a good number of first responders there, doing exactly that. Folks who get the stress of the job. In fact, I’m planning to head over there tonight after my shift ends. You should pop in.”
If I thought he was asking me for a date, I’d shut him down right away, but this feels more like a friendly invitation. I can handle that. I’ve been in Durango almost eight weeks and too busy to strike up any friendships. I miss my friends back in San Antonio. Especially on days like this, where it would’ve been nice to be able to talk to someone who understands. That’s what this guy is offering me.
“I don’t even know your name,” I suddenly realize out loud.
“Evan Biel,” is his instant response, as he holds out his good hand.
“Autumn McCoy,” I return, shaking it firmly.
“I knew that.” The cheeky grin is back. “I paid attention in class.”
“Good to know. I should get going, though, I have a patient waiting in my office. It was good to meet you.”
“Likewise, and keep The Irish in mind,” he repeats his offer.
“I might pop in.” I nod a smile and take off down the hallway. I’m already ten minutes late.
I certainly have hit the floor running since taking on this one-year project at Mercy. It’s not that I wasn’t happy in San Antonio at the Burn Center Annex, but I was starting to feel stuck in a rut. Not just my work, but in my personal life as well: the same routines, the same environment, the same friends. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my friends, but always being the oldest in the group was starting to make me feel like the spinster aunt, always living vicariously through the others. I’m only forty-two and not quite done kicking a few cans myself.
When I was approached to help set up a brand-new burn center at a level III trauma hospital, I was intrigued. The work would be much broader, and definitely more involved than my position as clinical researcher at the Annex had been. More hands-on with patients, which is something I didn’t have much of before. I’d mostly been at the receiving end of data—processing information—but with this new position, I’d be able to follow it all the way from the source.
My role here is more of a liaison between the patient and what is available in terms of new treatment options and clinical trials. The case numbers I’ve been used to working with suddenly have become living, breathing people.
The fact the job meant moving to Durango, Colorado for a year only made the decision easier. A memorable trip with my parents—before Dad up and left us when I was just ten—had introduced me to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, and I’d always wanted to return.
“Hey, Jeff, sorry to’ve kept you waiting.”
The man jumps up when I walk into the small waiting area outside my office.
Jeff Youngman was the first patient at Mercy I’d been able to successfully enter into a new clinical trial. He’d been caught in a barn fire and his neck, shoulder, and upper chest on his left side had sustained second and third-degree burns. Mid-to late forties, and in otherwise good health, he’d been a prime candidate for the promising post-grafting treatment.
“No problem,” he mumbles, following me inside. A soft-spoken man, Jeff is also painfully shy.
“You know the drill, right?” I gesture to the open door of the small examination room off my office.
While he gets ready, I pull his file up on the computer and scan last week’s observations to orient myself. He’s already lying back on the table, his upper body exposed, when I walk in.
“Let’s see how we’re doing,” I offer with a smile, heading straight for the small sink to wash my hands before donning a pair of gloves.
My role is simply to record progress and changes, but that still requires me to touch the patients. He closes his eyes when I carefully remove his dressings, which makes me feel bad. I know all too well how uncomfortable that can be.
“It’s looking good. Let me take a few pictures for your file.” I grab the digital camera, snap off a few close-ups of the burns, and go through the whole hand-washing routine again before grabbing fresh gloves to redress his wounds.
I’m already feeding the updates into his digital file when he walks in.
“Same time next week?”
“Actually, that won’t work for me.” I flip open my planner to find an unfilled spot. “I have some friends from back home coming down for a visit, and I’m taking a few days off.” It will be the first days off since starting here eight weeks ago. Sophie was a colleague at the lab in San Antonio, and one of my good friends. She’s coming down with her boyfriend, Roman—or Chief, as most everyone calls him. He’s a firefighter as well. Good guy. I’m looking forward to their visit.
“You’re not from Durango?”
“Nope. I’m a Texas girl. San Antonio, born and bred,” I inform him with a smile. “Don’t get me wrong, I love it here, but Texas will always be home.”
“Any news on a new chief?”
I hold back the mayor after another long, tedious committee meeting I was forced to sit through. Last April, a few of the town’s council members had voiced some concern about the apparent rise in major crimes in recent years, and to appease them, the mayor had called a committee into action to examine the role and effectiveness of policing in Durango.
Yeah. It gives me a headache too.
For eight fucking months I’ve had to sit and listen to a bunch of yahoos who love nothing more than hearing themselves talk. They discuss ways in which the Durango PD—my department—can improve on their efficiency in combating rising crime. Nothing but a bunch of cackling hens, unhampered by any expertise on the subject. Today’s topic had been how to better integrate police into the community, and one idiot suggested a police float at the annual parade.
What the fuck? Like pulling a group of officers to spend valuable time building a goddamn float is gonna put a halt on rising crime? Jesus, if I ever had aspirations to go into politics, this committee crap has cured me for life.
Who’s got time for this shit?
I wouldn’t even be here if our former chief of police hadn’t been put away for a slew of felony charges, close to year ago. Before I knew it, Mayor Stan Woodard had appointed me interim chief. Except I don’t consider eight months interim, which is why I’m stopping him on his way out the door.
“Things are moving along.” The smile he gives me, along with the friendly hand on my shoulder, are meant to placate. They only piss me off.
“What does that mean? Moving along. Have you got any interviews lined up? Do you have suitable candidates? Heck, are you even looking?” I don’t even attempt to hide my irritation.
I know Stan wants me to take on the job permanently—he told me so himself—but I thought I’d made it perfectly clear there is no way in hell I’ll do it. I was perfectly happy in my job before the chief’s responsibilities landed in my lap. These days, I hardly have any time for real police work, I’m buried in bureaucracy and politics. No thanks.
“Are you telling me how to do my job now?”
I’m not about to let him divert attention by pretending to be insulted.
“You know damn well I’m not. Just as you know damn well, because I’ve mentioned it a time or two, if you try to prolong this any more than is necessary, you’re gonna force me to quit. And don’t make any mistake,” I hammer home when he rolls his eyes disbelievingly. “I’m this fucking close to throwing in the towel. Goddamn parade floats—you’ve gotta be kidding me.”
I’m still muttering in frustration when I walk out of the boardroom, out of City Hall to the Durango PD office right around the corner.
“I take it that didn’t go well?”
Tony Ramirez, one of my detectives and a friend, saunters into my office and flops down in one of my visitors’ chairs.
“Understatement of the fucking century,” I groan, rubbing my hands over my face. “I’m afraid he’s going to push this right to the edge. He’s gonna force me to put my money where my mouth is. I’d better start looking for openings elsewhere.”
“Bullshit. I’m not used to you being Mr. Negativity.”
“Can you blame me? Look at this fucking office.” I wave an arm at the disorganized stacks of paperwork the secretary adds to religiously on a daily basis. “I’m getting buried under administrative and procedural shit, and I’m about to drown.”
“Well snap out of it. You’ve been a miserable son of a bitch for months. Since when do you let life dictate you? Take fucking control.”
There aren’t many people who have the guts to talk to me like that, even less I’d accept it from. Lucky for Tony, he’s in the last group. “How do you suggest I do that?”
“By finding your own replacement and introducing him or her in front of the entire council at next month’s council committee meeting. You’d have to make sure this person is beyond reproach, has a stellar policing record, is an accomplished leader, and knows how to play the political game.”
My snort is loud. Even if such a person existed, chances they’d want to relocate to Durango to handle its relatively small police department would be slim. I’m still chuckling when I notice Tony’s not laughing.
“Fuck me. You know someone?”
“Possibly.” He smirks, getting up. “Get your cranky ass up. Time to get out of here, grab a bite, I’ll tell you all about it.”
A few familiar faces greet us as I follow Tony inside The Irish. He picks a booth near the bathrooms, I’m assuming for privacy.
“So? Care to enlighten me?” I prompt after we’ve placed our order for a couple of beers and burgers.
“You know I spent six years with the Denver PD before signing on here, right?” I nod my confirmation. “Joe Benedetti was my commander in the Major Crimes Division. We’ve stayed in touch over the years.”
The waitress interrupts with our beers. Tony waits until she leaves before he explains how his former commander has indicated he might be in the market for a smaller department and a smaller community to raise his kids in.
“Okay, so he’s an experienced leader, and I assume he has a solid record, but does he have the stomach to deal with the politics of the job?”
This time it’s Tony’s turn to snort. “We’re talking about thirteen years as division commander in the Denver PD. Trust me, he knows how to play the game.”
From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a wild mop of red hair passing by, but when I turn for a better look—all I see is the door to the ladies’ room swing shut.
Shortly after, the waitress appears with our burgers and hungry as a horse, I dig in. I’m feeling a fuckload better with a full stomach and a plan. Tony is going to talk to his former commander to see if he’s interested enough to come down to Durango for a weekend, so he and I can meet.
“I’m heading out. I’ve got to hit the gym,” Tony announces, getting up and pulling out his wallet.
“On me.” I wave him off, and with a chin lift he tucks his wallet away and heads out.
I’m not ready yet. Feeling a lot lighter than I have in a long time, I head over to the bar to see if I remember how to socialize. I chat with a few guys from the firehouse and have just ordered my third beer when a sexy, almost hoarse voice sounds behind me.
“Is this seat taken?”