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       Kindling Flames—Gathering Tinder, p.1

          
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Kindling Flames—Gathering Tinder


  Kindling Flames

  Gathering Tinder

  Julie Wetzel

  Crimson Tree Publishing

  THIS book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the authors' imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  NO part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  Kindling Flames-Gathering Tinder

  Copyright ©2014 Julie Wetzel

  All rights reserved.

  Cover Design by: Marya Heiman

  Typography by: Courtney Knight

  I’d like to dedicate this book to my sister, Amanda, and the sailors from the maiden deployment of the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77). Without you this story would never have happened. May you find calm waves to bring you safely home once more.

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Rupert surveyed the carnage, while the screams of approaching sirens split the air. Flames licked at the night sky as they consumed the once beautiful home. Stepping back into the shadows of the neighboring houses, he watched as the fire truck roared up and spilled out first responders to quench the raging inferno. The light of the fire glistened off the bloody mess on the lawn that had once been his friend.

  Turning from the chaos, Rupert slipped into the night, trying to wrap his mind around events. It had been nearly a month since the first of his people went missing. It took two days to determine that the bloody chunks strewn across the lawn of the first unexplained fire had been the missing man. The body had only been identified by the cell phone and wallet found in the mix. The police concluded that he came over to help his neighbor and was caught up in whatever had flash-burnt the home. Rupert had called for patrols of the surrounding area in an attempt to find what was responsible for the death. Now, a second fire had broken out, and another of his was dead. But how? He hadn’t been away from Brian for very long. What could reduce a body to fist-sized bits in a matter of minutes?

  A tawny wolf appeared out of the darkness to rub against his leg. Rupert scrubbed his fingers into the scruff at the back of the wolf’s neck. “They will pay,” he promised. Whoever had done this would pay dearly. Rupert’s mind turned on the possibilities. There was no way a human could have killed like that, but what could? A rampant werewolf? A crazed wolf could have caused that degree of destruction, but it would have taken much longer than the few minutes allotted. A vampire? They had the strength and speed, but how had they gotten the fire to engulf the home so quickly? The fay? There were certainly possibilities there.

  Rupert turned back to where he had left his van. He could do no more until the police finished processing the scene. Later, he would bring others back to see if they could find anything the police had missed. It had to stop. Something capable of this couldn’t be left loose in the city. If they couldn’t figure out what it was, he could only think of one person that would have the resources to help.

  Rupert’s eyes turned north toward the heart of Brenton. Darien could help if he could just be persuaded into action.

  Darien looked up from his desk to the young woman waiting and sighed. This was the fourth personal assistant the temp agency had sent this month, and she didn’t seem any more promising than the last three. His own personnel office had already offered six possible candidates, all of whom had been unable to handle the task of dealing with his hectic life. Oh, how he longed for Marianna to come back, even if she was five months pregnant with triplets. If only she hadn’t fallen in love with that rascal, she would be here, running his life, not stuck in bed with a high-risk pregnancy and three brats to look forward to. Letting out another sigh, he read over the girl’s credentials one more time.

  He read the name from the file. “Victoria Westernly.” He saw the slight purse of the woman’s lips as he used her full name, but she kept a cool and confident air. “Do you go by Victoria?” he asked.

  “I’ll answer to Victoria, but I prefer Vicky,” she answered.

  Darien wrote the nickname on her file, disappointed that she would shorten such an elegant name.

  Continuing on, he looked at her schooling. “Mid-State University?” he asked, reading over her course list. It was a local school, well known, and her marks were good.

  “Yes, sir,” Vicky answered politely.

  She still stood confidently, but Darien could smell her fear. He hadn’t gotten where he was without learning to detect the subtle tang of adrenaline. Raising his eyebrow at her, she straightened a little more. He considered her for a moment longer before continuing. “All right, Miss Westernly, I understand this is your first time as a personal assistant.”

  Vicky nodded and took a breath to relay her job history, but Darien stopped her with a wave of his hand. She let the air out and shut her mouth, waiting for her potential boss to speak again.

  Darien liked that she could follow simple instructions without having them explained. Wanting to see how much the girl would fidget, he tested her patience by flipping through her entire file one more time.

  He watched her carefully for a few minutes more, pretending to read. Every now and then, her eyes would be drawn to something in the room, but they would quickly come back to him. The only major movement he detected was when Vicky shifted her weight from one foot to the other as her legs tired from standing in the same place for too long. There were two very nice leather chairs in front of his desk, but he had purposely forgotten to offer her a seat to see how she would handle it. He was pleased to see she hadn’t taken one without being offered. The only other thing he noted was the incessant movement of her thumb as she scratched the pad of her middle finger, waiting for him to answer. Had he been a normal human, Darien might never have detected the slight, nervous fidget from where Vicky hid it in her folded hands.

  “One last question.” Darien looked up and locked eyes with the woman. “What’s sitting on the corner of the desk just outside this room?”

  Vicky cocked her head and gave the man an odd look as she searched her mind for the answer. She had spent thirty minutes sitting in that room, studying the desk. “A glass vase filled with water. There was blue gravel in the bottom and some kind of water plant growing from the top. It had a red beta in it,” Vicky answered, picturing the desk.

  Darien made a noise in his throat and marked something on her file.

  “Oh, and there was a vase next to it.”

  His eyes lifted at this unexpected answer. “A vase?” he asked.

  “Yes, it was about six inches tall with a square, fluted opening at the top.” Vicky described the trinket as best she could remember. “Brown. Very pretty. It had some kind of beaded thing around the neck.”

  Darien lifted an eyebrow at how well the girl remembered the details of the items on the desk. He wasn’t surprised Marianna had left the knickknack when she had packed her things away. She hadn’t liked the present very much when he gave it to her. Darien read the words he had written and drew a line through them. ‘Only sees the obvious’ definitely did not describe someone who noticed the little vase next to that elaborate fish bowl.

  “Very well, Miss Westernly.” He closed the file and slipped it into his desk drawer. Pulling a black messenger bag from under his desk, he stood up. “We’ll see how it works out.” Darien noticed the sigh of relief that issued from her, but she still managed to keep the emotion from her face. He stepped around the desk and held the leather bag out to her.

  Vicky took it gingerly from his hand.

  “This contains my entire life. It’ll be your job to keep up with everything.” Reaching into his pocket, Darien pulled out a phone for his new personal assistant. “Here. Keep this with you. If it rings, day or night, answer it. You’re on salary now, so you work when I tell you to.”

  The young woman nodded, taking the phone from her new boss.

  “The desk and computer in the other room are yours. The password’s in the bag. Feel free to change it to whatever you like.”

  Vicky’s eyes widened a little as she took in what he said.

  “You’re here to keep my life in order,” he continued. “Get your work done, and any free time is yours to do with as you please. However, I don’t want you to think this means your job will be easy. I’m a very busy man.”

  He paused for a moment to let Vicky process this information. “Be here at seven. We stay till we’re done. There will be some weekends, but I’ll let you know in advance so you can make arrangements. If there are any problems, bring them straight to me. Otherwise, do what I say when I say it. Oh, and if you don’t already have a passport, get one. Is that clear?”

  “Yes, sir,” Vicky started.

  “Ritter,” Darien corrected her.

  “Yes, Mr. Ritter,” she quickly restated. “I’ll do my best.”

  Darien took a moment to actually look at the well-dressed woman standing in front of him. He had glanced her over as soon as she came in, but now, he really studied her. She had a shapely face and lightly done makeup. Her eyes were the grayish-blue of a rainy sky, and her dark blonde hair was twisted up and held by a pin to the back of her head. He guessed it would fall well past her shoulders if he yanked the pin from it. Long and lean for her height of around 5’4”, she wasn’t what he would call beautiful, but she was well built and could turn heads in the right outfit. Overall, a pleasant girl to look at. Darien nodded his approval.

  She stood in front of him and waited until he was done.

  “If you have any questions, please let me know.” Darien dismissed her and returned to his chair.

  Vicky clutched her new possessions as she waited for him to notice her again.

  He turned questioning eyes up to the woman he had expected to leave. “Was there something else?” he asked, slightly annoyed she hadn’t left to settle in.

  Vicky nodded. “Where’s the charger?”

  Darien gave her a strange look, not comprehending the question.

  Vicky held up the phone. “The charger.”

  Enlightenment crossed his face as he realized his omission. He reached down to the power strip under his desk to pull the cord out and wadded it up. “Here.” Darien handed the wire to her.

  Vicky took it with a very polite ‘thank you’ and turned to go to her new desk.

  He watched the door close behind the woman he’d just entrusted his human life with. Maybe she wasn’t going to be worthless after all.

  ***

  Vicky closed the door behind her and took a deep breath to clear out the terror haunting her. When the temp agency sent her for the assistant’s position at Ritter Enterprises, she hadn’t expected it to be with the main man himself. Anyone in the business world could tell you that Darien Ritter was the CEO and owner of a worldwide shipping company. He had inherited the firm when his father, Michael Ritter, had died suddenly in a plane crash. Darien was the epitome of wealth and power, a philanthropist known for backing small businesses that piqued his interest, and was high on the list of Forbes’ most eligible bachelors. He stood six feet tall at around 180 pounds of solid muscle, with rich, brown hair, and the most beautiful green eyes Vicky had ever seen. What the magazines failed to mention was his voice. It was like black velvet—commanding, almost tangible, yet it warmed her to her toes. Vicky drew another deep, calming breath and took the leather bag to her new desk.

  Noting the comfort of the expensive leather chair, Vicky turned her mind to the job she was hired for. A thorough investigation of the leather satchel left her slightly stunned. In addition to the day planner, address book, and notepad she had expected, there was also an account ledger, a checkbook, and two wallets. She knew the man was rich, but the balance in his bank ledger nearly caused her heart palpitations. And what man needed seven different credit cards? The part that really blew her mind was the thick wad of cash she’d discovered in the second wallet. Who trusted someone they’d just met with nearly four thousand dollars? She had stashed the money back in the bag as quickly as she could. The last thing she found was a large key ring. It looked to be a set of master keys to everything the man owned, but none of them was marked as to where they went. Vicky packed everything neatly back into the bag and stowed it under the desk.

  It was stunning to see how much of Darien’s life she had been entrusted with. As if making sure he was where he needed to be wasn’t a big enough responsibility, she was also expected to take care of his personal expenses. Vicky sighed heavily, pulled the computer over, and flipped the top open. When she entered the password she had found in the notebook, she was greeted by the ugliest picture of a cat in a tutu that she had ever seen. Obviously, his last assistant had no taste at all. She switched the wallpaper to a stock picture of Stonehenge, cleared out the remnants of the last user, and changed the password to something she could easily remember. A quick search revealed several files holding the information from the credit cards and an electronic copy of the checking ledger from her bag. She looked over the files and decided there was something she could already do.

  Vicky pulled out the leather-bound ledger and updated its electronic twin. Next, she pulled out the credit card receipts that had been tucked into the back of one of the wallets. Those files were also behind, so she sorted out the receipts and logged them.

  Once finished, she mulled over what to do with the stack of papers. She looked through the desk drawers, but found no answers. Plucking up her courage, she did the only thing she could think of—go ask.

  ***

  “Come in,” Darien called to the tentative knock at his door. What could his new assistant want? Vicky stepped into the room and approached his desk. He kind of liked that the girl was a little afraid of him. It was a nice change from the last two temps that had annoyed him by spending every moment they could with him. The last one had even propositioned him before he had sent her packing.

  “Sorry for disturbing you, Mr. Ritter, but what do I do with these?” The young woman held the stack of receipts out for him to see.

  “There are some files on the computer where they’ll need to be logged,” Darien explained.

  Vicky tilted her head and looked at him. “What do I do with them after that? Is there a folder somewhere where you keep them, or do they just get tossed?”

  Darien looked at his new assistant, surprised to learn she had already jumped into her job with both feet. “We keep them until the bill comes in.” He pointed to a short cabinet in the corner of his office. “File them over there for now. They’ll get pulled out and shredded once the bill is paid.”

  Vicky thanked him for the help and quickly sorted the slips into the files before turning to leave. Pausing at the door, she turned back to the man watching her.

  “It’s almost lunchtime. Did you need anything to eat?”

  Darien was staggered at the woman’s consideration. Marianna use to remind him to eat, but the last three temps hadn’t. He quickly recovered from his surprise and answered, “I’m fine, thank you, but you’re welcome to take an hour for lunch. There’s a café on the fifth floor.”

  Vicky nodded her understanding and turned to go.

  “Miss Westernly…”

  She stopped and looked back.

  “Thank you.”

  Vicky smiled brightly at him and slipped from the room.

  Darien was shocked again by her response. He had to change his view of this young woman. Her face lit up when she smiled, making her amazingly beautiful. How had he missed that during the time she had been in his office?

  ***

  At twelve thirty, Darien decided to go get some coffee. He didn’t need to eat like a normal person, and the caffeine did nothing for him, but he still loved his coffees.

  He slipped from his office to get a caramel macchiato from the café downstairs. The sight of his new assistant at her desk, munching half a sandwich and playing Minesweeper, stopped him in his tracks.

  Vicky looked up from her meager meal and entertainment to find her new boss staring at her. She swallowed the bite of sandwich that had just gone dry in her mouth and dropped the rest so it was hidden behind her desk. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Ritter?” she asked, in the best professional voice she could muster with sandwich crumbs spread across her lap.

  Darien considered her for a moment. “I did say you could take the lunch hour to get something at the café?” He was sure he had made himself clear.

  Vicky raised the sandwich up to show him. “I didn’t know what to expect, so I brought something from home,” she admitted shyly.

  Darien chuckled to himself. Glancing over the meal she brought, his eyes caught on the little fruits on her desk. “What’s that?” Darien pointed at what looked like wrinkly, mini oranges.

  Vicky looked where he was pointing and set her sandwich down. “They’re clementines.” Picking up one of the citrus fruits, she split open the peel to reveal the cute, little pieces inside, and held the whole thing out for him to take.

 
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