Excerpt from THEIR SECRET SON, February 2005

CHAPTER ONE

With every call to a fire, a shot of pure adrenaline coursed through Joe Davenport's blood and didn't let up until the last hot spot was out. And this one was no different.

The scent of ash filled the air as Joe walked through the charred weeds that once blanketed the vacant lot on the corner of Tidal Way and Harbor View Drive. He was searching for a point of origin and spotted it near a melted blob of blackened red plastic.

The blaze had taken only ten minutes to contain, but the situation could have become deadly if the flames had reached the Billings place, an old clapboard house that sat next to the burned property.

Edna Billings, whose arthritis confined her to a wheelchair, might not have escaped from the house in which she insisted upon living alone.


Dustin Campbell, a rookie fireman, strode toward Joe, his hand clamped on the shoulder of a kid who looked no more than seven years old. "We've got us a firebug, Joe. I caught him standing in the copse of trees, and he smells like smoke."


The boy wore a crisp pair of khaki slacks with dirt and grass stains on the knees. A suspicious bulge rested in the ash-smudged pocket of a freshly pressed, white button-down shirt.


"What do you have there, son?"


The towheaded boy, whose clothing suggested he'd grown up in a well-to-do home, shrugged, then reached into his pocket, withdrew a gold, monogrammed cigarette lighter and handed it over without any qualms.
J

oe had no intention of scaring the kid, but a serious talk about the dangers of playing with matches or lighters, followed by an offer to make the youngster a junior fire marshal usually worked like a charm.


He'd found that instilling a bit of fear and guilt didn't hurt, either. A small flame became dangerous in the hands of a child. He assessed the boy with a narrowed eye of authority. "What's your name?"


"Bobby." The boy stood as tall as his seven-year-old stance would allow. The small, squared chin told Joe he'd have to practice his intimidation skills a bit more.


With a stubborn cowlick, a scatter of freckles across his nose and a dirt-smudged cheek, the boy reminded Joe a lot of himself at that age.


Joe had also been a cocky, towheaded kid, prone to trouble. But he shook off the comparison. "Did you start the fire?"


"Nope." Bobby crossed his arms and shifted his weight to one side.


"But you must have seen it."


The kid nodded sagely.


Joe continued to prod for some answers and a confession. "How big was the fire when you first saw it?"


The boy used his thumb and forefinger to measure an inch. "About that big. But I didn't start it."


Joe merely nodded at the pint-sized explanation that had to be a lie. "Only that big, huh? You must have been the first one on the scene."


Bobby shrugged his small shoulders in a flip defense that reminded Joe of his own run-in with the law after starting a fire in an abandoned building when he was a kid. Joe hadn't meant to do anything other than to draw attention to his father's illegal activities.


His old man had been dealing crack from that building for years, and Joe decided to do something about it, something that would make the firefighters and cops take notice. As a fourteen-year-old, he'd hoped the efforts the authorities might cause a drug-addicted dad to see reason.


That day, nearly twelve years ago, had been a real turning point in Joe's life.


Once charged with arson and delinquency, Joe Davenport was now well on his way to becoming a fire chief, thanks to the guidance of Harry Logan, patron saint of bad boys.


"How do you suppose the fire started?" Joe asked Bobby.


"It was my mom's fault," the kid said in his own defense.


Now the story was getting interesting. "Are you telling me that your mom started the fire?"


"Nope. But it was her fault."


Joe remained focused and controlled, but a grin tugged at his lips. "Suppose you tell me why it was her fault."


The boy took a deep breath, then blew out a sigh, as though frustrated he had to explain something that should have been apparent. "I got a model car for my birthday, and some of the little prongs that hold the parts together broke off. I asked her if I could use her nail glue, 'cause it works good enough to stick your fingers together forever, but she wouldn't let me."


Joe raised a brow, but refrained from showing any other expression. "So she set the field on fire?"


"No. I had to figure out another way to make it stick together. Then I remembered how plastic melts, cause once I stuck a plastic fork in the fireplace and it melted into a glob that got real hard. So I took my grandpa's lighter, even though I'm not s'posed to play with it, but I was gonna be real careful." The boy's hazel eyes shimmered, and his bottom lip quivered in what looked like his first bit of remorse. "And the car caught the field on fire when it melted."


At the boy's defensive explanation, Joe considered turning his back so the kid wouldn't see him grin at a child's logic. How did parents deal with this stuff on a daily basis? This boy needed some firm, loving guidance.


Not a fist, of course, which was his own father's way of dealing with a strong-willed child. Joe wasn't an expert on child rearing, by any means, but he knew what didn't work.


"Bobby!" a woman's voice called from across the street.


So, the mother had arrived. Well, Joe had a little talk for mothers of small-fry firebugs, too. Gearing himself for a confrontation, he slowly turned around.


But nothing had prepared him for seeing Kristin Reynolds, a woman he'd dated eight years ago. She was still just as pretty as he remembered, tall and willowy, with hair the color of honey and eyes of emerald green.


The years had been good to her. Damn good.


She wore cream-colored slacks and a black sweater. Cashmere, most likely. And it fit nicely, showing off near perfect breasts, much fuller than he remembered.


They'd both been seventeen and balanced precariously on the cusp of adulthood when they first met.


Joe had been moonstruck that homecoming night in November. And he still found her attractive, stunning. More so, he supposed.


His heart slipped into overdrive, reminding him his blood was pumping in all the important places. There were some things time didn't change.


The pretty socialite hurried toward them, distress in her expression, an expression that looked a lot like maternal concern.


Surely, Kristin wasn't this kid's mother.


"Uh-oh," the boy muttered. He kicked the toe of his leather shoe at the dirt. "Here comes my mom."


Kristin had only recognized her son, Joe realized, because her eyes hadn't caught Joe's yet, which was just as well. He wasn't sure what to say to her anymore.


His heart thudded in his chest like a loose ball bearing, although he wasn't sure why. Anticipation at seeing her again, he supposed. And awkwardness, too. Kristin Reynolds was the first lover he'd ever had.


Joe had broken up with her after pressure from her dad, a wealthy property owner who had never forgiven the kid who set that rundown warehouse on fire and drew a ton of unflattering media attention on the condition of one of the many buildings he owned.


Thomas Reynolds had made no secret about the fact that Joe Davenport wasn't good enough for his daughter. When he went looking for Joe, demanding he stay away from Kristin, Joe hadn't backed down. Not until the red-faced man threw Kristin's happiness and her sky-is-the-limit future in his face.


At one time, Kristin had been an honor student and college-bound, but her grades had slacked and her interest in the fancy school her mother had once attended had waned.


"My daughter never lied to me before," Thomas had said, "never snuck around behind my back. And now look at her."


Joe hadn't known that Kristin had lied to her dad, nor had he known that she had to sneak out of the house in order to see him.


"Do you want to drag her down to your old man's level?" Thomas had asked.


That was the last thing Joe had wanted to do. The pompous bastard had been right, though. Kristin would be throwing her life away on a guy who would never be able to compete with her father or any of the other men in her social circle.


Joe had faked it pretty good that June day out at the ball field, when he told Kristin he didn't love her. The lie had nearly torn him in two, but her father was right. Kristin deserved so much more than what the son of a drug-dealing scumbag could offer her. And letting her go had been the right thing to do.


So why, after eight years, was he having such a heart-banging reaction to seeing her again?


Her scent, something classy and exotic--expensive, no doubt--wrapped around him like a quilt of memories on a cold and lonely night.


Joe cursed under his breath. How could she still evoke this kind of reaction in him--both emotionally and physically?


It had been eight years since he'd last held her. And it had taken ages to get over her.


"I'm okay, Mom," the boy said.


Joe looked at Bobby, and suddenly the similarities he'd seen in the kid slapped him across the face. His mind, although somewhat taken aback, did a quick calculation, starting with eight years and subtracting nine months.


The tall, honey-blond woman addressed her son. "You were supposed to be in your room, young man." When she turned her gaze to Joe, she sucked in a breath, and her lips parted in recognition.

Kristin stared at an adult version of the high school senior she'd once loved, once given her heart and virginity to. The guy who'd thrown it all back in her face and walked away.


It wasn't that she hadn't expected to see him when she returned to Bayside to spend the summer with her ailing father. She just didn't expect to see him now. Like this.


"What happened?" she asked, trying to regain her composure.


"Is this boy your son?" Joe asked.


Did he see the resemblance? Did he suspect?


How could he not? She'd been faced with the obvious every time she looked into those sweet eyes--amber-colored like his father's.


And she'd been rem,inded all over again of the heartache caused by the rejection of her first and, up until recently, only lover.


It had taken years to forget Joe, but seeing him brought it all back to the forefront--the pain, the rejection, the humiliation of telling her dad she was going to have a child out of wedlock. The lie she'd told when asked who had fathered her baby.

"Yes," she said. "I'm his mother."


Joe's eyes sliced right through her usual cool and formal demeanor. And she found herself at the awkward, gangly stage again, staring in wonder at the new boy in school.


Joe had matured, filled out and grown taller. His amber eyes, more sharp and piercing than before, studied her and Bobby with a keen assessment, threatening to peel away each layer of the lie until he discovered the truth, the truth she couldn't allow to surface.


She brushed her moist palms against the hips of her slacks and prayed for a quick and easy escape. She had to get out of here, before the secret she'd kept for the past eight years muscled to the forefront.


Did Joe know?


Did he see what she saw everyday? A boy who was the spitting image of "that Davenport kid?"

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