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Authors: Melanie Rawn

Fire Raiser

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Fire Raiser

TOR BOOKS BY MELANIE RAWN

Spellbinder

Fire Raiser

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

FIRE RAISER.

Copyright © 2009 by Melanie Rawn

All rights reserved.

A Tor Book

Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

175 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.tor-forge.com

Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Rawn, Melanie.

Fire raiser / Melanie Rawn.—1st ed.

p.  cm.

“A Tom Doherty Associates book.”

ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-1533-5

ISBN-10: 0-7653-1533-5

1. Family secrets—Fiction.  2. Slave trade—Fiction.  I. Title.

PS3568.A8553F57   2009

813'.54—dc22

2008046455

First Edition: April 2009

Printed in the United States of America

0   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

This one is for

Eugena May Fisk

and her daughter

Tracy Sue Lang

and her daughter

Tiffany Amanda Taylor

Fire Raiser

Prologue

June 1, 2004

“HOLLY HONEY, you want to see these kids anytime soon, you better stop planning your next signing tour and get to work.”

“I’ll sign my name in gentian violet on your shiny bald head if you don’t shut the hell up!”

Evan Lachlan, who had by now perfected the art of pacing without actually moving from beside the birthing chair, felt his gut lurch. His wife had been cussing her way through labor for five and a half hours. He’d been coaching her under the assumption that sooner or later—maybe before she ran out of invective, maybe not—he’d be holding a baby.

A
baby.


Kids
—?” he managed feebly.

William Cutter, M.D., F.A.C.O.G.,
1
P.W.D.,
2
grinned at him. “Surprise.”

STEM CELLS CREATE ALL TISSUES, organs, and systems in the body. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or to become another type of cell with a more specialized function (muscle, red blood, bone, brain, etc.). Triggering to differentiate stem cells into a desired type could lead to growing neural cells to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, blood vessel cells that would allow a cardiac patient to grow his own bypass, or to producing an entire organ such as a pancreas, liver, or kidney.

Umbilical cord blood stem cells are the “youn gest” available stem cells. Freezing these cells essentially stops the clock and prevents aging and damage that may occur to the cells later in life.

“C’MON, HOLLY—PUSH—”

“Lachlan, you tell me that just one more time and I’ll make you a goddamned coloratura soprano!”

“Don’t worry, Evan,” said Dr. Cutter. “They all threaten that.”

“I figured. I’m still waiting for how she’s never gonna let me touch her again.”

“She’ll get around to it,” was the philosophical reply. “They all do.”

Holly growled through a breathless grunt of effort—altogether an interesting sound, though Lachlan wondered whether it was physiologically possible. “What about the one where I string you both up by your balls?”

“Heard that before, too,” Cutter scoffed. “Like the man said, honey—
push
!”

AFTER THE UMBILICAL CORD is severed, cord blood can be collected two different ways. In blood bag collection, a needle is inserted into the umbilical vein and gravity drains the blood into a bag. This method of collection is usually done before delivery of the placenta. Syringe collection draws the umbilical blood into syringes containing anticoagulants for storage. This method allows a larger volume of blood to be collected, and can be done before or after delivery of the placenta. The collection process takes less than five minutes and should be performed within ten to fifteen minutes after birth.

“BIG KIDS,” DRAWLED DR. CUTTER, stripping off latex gloves as the nurses finished weighing and measuring the babies.

“Yeah,” Evan agreed, watching eagle-eyed to make sure nobody dropped his children. “By her fifth month I was walkin’ in front of her with a sign:
Oversize Load
.”

“Go play with yourself, Lachlan.” Holly eased back into piled pillows. “And excuse me, Dr.
Oy-Gevalt
-Holly-You-Look-Like-You’re-Carrying-Quints, but
you’re
telling
me
they’re big? Who’s been lugging them around for eight months, anyway?”

“Eh, quitcher bitchin’, girl. I got ’em born without a C-section, didn’t I?”

“Huh. All you did was play catch. You really think I’d let anybody named ‘Cutter’ near me with a knife?”

He smiled, supremely unimpressed. “A little more respect for the man with the pharmaceuticals, please.”

CORD BLOOD SHOULD BE SHIPPED as soon as possible to the storage facility. Processing should begin within forty-eight hours of collection. Blood will first be tested for infectious and genetic diseases (hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, leukemia, sickle-cell, etc.), and is then separated by centrifuge or sedimentation.

After division into plasma, red blood cells, and white blood cells, the latter are removed for storage. It is essential that all red blood cells be extracted; these can rupture when thawed, compromising stem-cell viability.

Cryopreservation solution is introduced to prevent blood from damage while frozen. Subsequent to gradual freezing to a temperature of–196°C, blood is transferred to permanent storage, remaining frozen via either liquid or vapor nitrogen.

Studies have yet to make a conclusive determination regarding the freezer life of stem cells, but estimates are from ten to fifteen years.

ACCEPTING A BABY into the crook of each elbow, the doctor remarked, “Pretty good work for an old broad.”

“ ‘Pretty good’? ‘Old’?” She glared. “Sheriff, where’s your gun? I want this man shot at sunrise.”

“Too late by about an hour,” Lachlan replied, grinning. “Will tomorrow do?”

“The four of you will be home by then,” Cutter told him, easing a blue-wrapped bundle into Holly’s arms. “In fact, I could probably kick you out tonight, but then you’d miss my five-star room service. I highly recommend the apricot cobbler, by the way. Your turn, Ev.”

Lachlan accepted the pink blanket, slightly apprehensive as its contents wriggled. “So when did childbirth become an outpatient procedure?”

“Thank all that tough Irish ancestry,” Cutter said. “She probably could’ve had these kids at Woodhush.”

Holly arched her brows. “May I assume, then, that you won’t be charging us for the privilege of sitting around doing nothing?”

“I had to listen to you, didn’t I? For all the insults, I should tack on hazardous duty pay. But tell ya what—I’ll throw in the cord-blood collection process for free.”

“You got it already?” She blinked. “When did this happen?”

“You were too busy snarling at your husband to notice. It’s already on ice and headed for CryoCache. Here’s hoping they never need it.”

Nodding fervently, Lachlan contemplated his daughter’s auburn hair, thick frowning eyebrows, and rosebud mouth, and completely forgot his self-imposed strictures against making foolish and peculiar noises.

“Mush,” he heard Holly accuse. “Absolute marshmallow mush.”

Cutter chuckled. “This is your brain. This is your brain as a daddy. Congratulations, Evan. Ready for the handoff?”

“They’re not footballs!” Holly griped, clutching her son protectively.

“Oh, shut up,” said Evan and the doctor at the same time.

Trading the pink bundle for the blue, Lachlan took his first close look at his son. Tufts of black hair crowned a remarkably self-composed little face that even at five minutes old could clearly be seen to have his nose. He knew he’d started making those noises again when Holly gave a loud snort.

“Double the marshmallow mush,” she announced.

“Be glad it wasn’t triplets,” said Cutter.

That reminded Evan of something he’d been meaning to ask. “By the way, lady love, I’m curious—just when did you find out it was twins?”

She squirmed. “Billy-boy, did y’all say something about pharmaceuticals?”

“One of the sonograms, was it?” Evan suggested brightly.

“Third,” said Dr. Cutter.

Holly made a face at him. “We kind of suspected before that, but—it’s not unusual at my age, you know. The chances of a multiple birth go up as a woman gets older—”

“No lecture, no statistics,” Evan warned. “What I wanted to know is, you kept this information from the father of these twins
why,
exactly?”

“I wanted to surprise you?” she offered tentatively.

“Oh, you did that, all right. Twice the stinky diapers, twice the screaming at three a.m., twice the college educations—God help us.” He grinned. “If I wasn’t so happy about it I’d probably have a seizure.”

STEM CELLS FROM UMBILICAL CORD blood can also be used for cloning.

A human clone is a time-delayed identical twin of another person.

Using scientific techniques, the cloning process has a massive failure rate.

No one has ever succeeded using magic, either.

1
Fellow, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

2
Practicing Witch Doctor

One

September 3, 2006

THE WATER IN THE BUCKET was meant for the tomatoes. As it cascaded instead over the tousled head and shirtless torso of her husband, Holly felt her knees wobble. She’d been watching him from the parlor window for a few minutes now, still amused after two and a half years that her city boy had taken so enthusiastically to life in the Virginia sticks. The vegetable garden had been all his idea. Tomatoes, squash, onions, corn, peas, and four varieties of chili peppers received his intense devotion every evening when he got home; on Sundays like this one he spent hours out back, babying anything that needed extra attention.

Yep—scratch an Irishman, find a peasant.
She grinned to herself. He made quite the bucolic picture in the noonday heat: six feet four inches of summer-tanned Pocahontas County sheriff, wearing frayed old cutoffs and a pair of sneakers, with a battered Yankees cap pulled low over his forehead to keep the sun from scorching his nose. All he lacked was a thin stalk of hay sticking out from between his teeth.

When he took off the cap and stretched wide, her laughter faded; when he reached for the water bucket, the shift of muscle in strong arms and long back brought a little whimper to her throat. Now, with water gliding down his chest and belly, heat curled low in her abdomen and she leaned a little more heavily on the windowsill in deference to her shaky knees.

After a moment she unlatched the screen, pushed it open, and called out, “Hey, farmboy!”

Evan squinted, using both hands to rake back the wet hair dripping into his eyes. The gesture flexed chest, arms, and shoulders to noteworthy effect; he knew it, too, damn him. The grin he gave her made him look half his forty-two years. Holly gulped.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Don’t you think it’s time you took a breather?” Breathing was exactly what she wasn’t doing very well just now.

“Sounds mighty nice, ma’am,” he drawled in his atrocious version of her native accent. “Pardon for askin’, but y’all wouldn’t happen to be one of them desperate housewives I hear tell about, would you?”

Yeah, he knew what he was doing, all right: knuckles propped just above the low-riding waistband, hips and head in a speculative tilt. Holly’s thoughts turned to pillage and plunder—and she’d do it right in the middle of the crookneck squash if she had to. As he showed off a few more moves with an artfully artless scratch to the small of his back, she pretended to consider his question. “Now that y’all mention it . . .” His answering grin was entirely too smug. So, resting one shoulder against the window frame, she folded her arms beneath her breasts. Instant cleavage. Fairly impressive cleavage, too; becoming the primary milk wagon for twins could do that.

His turn to gulp. But he recovered in a hurry—the rat bastard—and said, “Shucks, ma’am, kinda depends on how desperate we’re talkin’ here.”

Holly repressed a sardonic snort.
Evan Lachlan
and
hard to get
were mutually exclusive terms. She hiked the skirt of her cotton sundress up her thighs, hitched herself sideways to sit in the window, and slung one bare leg over the ledge. Dangling her foot, scraping the soft dirt of a flower bed with her toes, she told herself that if the cleavage and the naked leg didn’t get him over here within the next thirty seconds, she would go with her original pillage-and-plunder plan, and the squash could damned well fend for itself. Evan cleared his throat and took a couple of involuntary steps toward her. She hid a smirk.
Gotcha!
“Y’all got any ideas, farmboy?”

“One or two,” he allowed. The self-confident saunter was back, signaling a tweak in the balance of power. “I’m all sweaty and dirty, though.” He rubbed one hand across his chest as if embarrassed by his scruffiness. “And there you are, all pretty and sweet. . . .”

She heard herself growl. She heard him chuckle. She came out of the window like a tackle going for a quarterback sack.

The crookneck squash never had a chance.

MUCH LATER, after a change of venue upstairs to their bedroom, Evan hummed low in his throat as Holly’s fingertips stroked his shoulder. His wife knew every one of his buttons and exactly how to push them; the thing was that she never pushed them in the same order. Systematic sequential insanity on a regular basis he could have handled, no sweat. But Holly was way too creative for that. He felt a corner of his mouth twitch, knowing how many husbands would give their left nut to have this problem, and tightened his arms around her.

“You have the most amazing skin,” she mused drowsily, hand drifting down his chest. “Not a mark on you—”

He tried to catch her fingers before they reached the center of his breastbone. He wasn’t quick enough.

“—except for the scar that’s my fault.”

Lachlan was quiet for a long moment, spreading his hand over Holly’s on his chest. He didn’t try to see her face; he knew she wouldn’t look at him. Not that he blamed her; his own mind seemed all bruises whenever he tried to think about that night. Finally, he murmured, “We don’t talk much about it, do we?”

“I know.”

“Three years this Hallowe’en.”

“Yeah.”

“It wasn’t your fault. I know damned well I’ve said
that
before. I’ve got a scar. You didn’t put it there.” He waited, but she wasn’t talking. “Holly, I’m
alive
because of—” Something occurred to him, and he drew away from her, turning onto his side. “Why
am
I still alive, anyhow?”

“Evan?” She met his gaze, frowning.

“I never did ask you why I’m still breathing. What you said about how if I ever raised a hand to you again, you’d kill me—”

“We avoid talking about
that
night, too,” she muttered.

“At the Hyacinths,” he persisted, “I didn’t just raise my hand to you. I put a gun to your chest.”

He didn’t know whether he was more grateful or exasperated when she tried on a smile—not a very good fit—and said, “I thought you were supposed to have amnesia about all that. Or did you forget? To have amnesia, I mean—”

“Knock it off. You know what I’m talking about.”

Relenting, she bit her lower lip, then said, “It wasn’t you.”

“Part of it was.”

“No. Whatever Noel called up, it took you—Evan, I watched it, I saw it come toward you and—and
merge
with you. But it wasn’t you that night—either of those nights.”

“Is that what you’ve been telling yourself this whole time?”

“What have
you
been telling yourself?”

He lay back flat again and stared at the ceiling. “That I have to be careful. I always knew that. We’ve talked about my parents before. We both know I have a temper. If—”

“I have a temper, too.”

“Ya think?” He smiled briefly, but didn’t look at her. “You don’t have a family history like mine. If I ever hit you—or one of the kids—”

“Never.”

“I know you’re sure, Holly. I can’t be. I can never be sure.”

“What does that mean? That you’ll only stop tormenting yourself about it when you’re dead? Listen to me,
a chuisle.
The one time, you’d been drunk for a week and you were in martyr mode—”

“You really want to go there?” he asked softly.

“No.” Holly took a deep breath. “The other time, you were loaded half out of your skull on that incense stuff to begin with, and then Noel’s little playmate came along. I saw it happen, and I was cold sober. You weren’t. Not either of those times. Do you remember anything about what happened?”

“Some. Not much.” He considered for a moment. “I never knew the flowers on my mother’s dress were hyacinths, that day I saw her with the priest. That’s what I saw, all those goddamned purple flowers—only it was you wearing the dress. How did Noel do that? What did he tap into?”

“I don’t know. That’s all the answer I’ve got,
Éimhín.”
Shifting against him, she went on, “We’ve both had nightmares about it.”

“Yeah. I can always tell, because those are the ones you won’t talk about.”

“And who does this remind us of? My point is that I actually remember both those nights, and you don’t, so you’re just gonna have to trust me on this, husband mine.”

“I am, huh?” He turned his head and eyed her grimly determined face. “Does that mean you’re gonna have to trust me about the scar? That it wasn’t your fault?”

“Oh, clever man!” she snarled—but her heart wasn’t really in it. “Got me that time, didn’t you?”

“Yep,” he agreed, unrepentant.

Holly sulked for a moment, then settled into his arms once more. “It still doesn’t negate the fact that we’ve never discussed either of those nights in any detail.”

“I don’t think we want to go
there,
either.”

“Just be glad we survived it, and move on?” she suggested.

“It’s worked so far.”

She kissed his throat by way of apology. “I can’t help it. I analyze.”

“And you’re only turning analytical about
us
because you’re not writing a book right now.”

She groaned elaborately. “Don’t remind me.”

“You’ll find something. You gotta admit you’ve been a little busy.” Time for a change of subject, he told himself. “Speaking of the offspring, are you sure Lulah’s okay with us stashing them with her all afternoon?”

“And tonight.”

“That gawdawful politicking party. I’d forgotten.”

His grimace gained him no sympathy. “Democracy in action, Sheriff honey.”

“I’m still not clear on why I actually have to run for office. Your family—in all its permutations—pretty much runs Pocahontas County, doesn’t it?”

“For the last three and a half centuries,” she confirmed.

“So—?” he prompted.

“Cousin Jesse was duly elected every four years. You’re an interim appointment so he could retire—and, not incidentally, give folks a chance to get to know you and what a staggeringly brilliant law enforcement officer you are. But you still have to be elected.”

“And again I ask: why?”

“And again I reply: democracy in action. Labor Day is the traditional start of the campaigning season—something I wish
anybody
running for president would remember,” she added crossly. “They seem to think everybody in this country really, truly wants to spend two solid years listening to them yammer.”

“I’m no politician,” he groused. “I don’t do the grip-and-grin thing.”

“It’s free food and free booze. You’ll live.”

“Can’t we just skip it? That place makes me twitchy. Don’t tell me I’m being weird—Lulah doesn’t like it, either, and for reasons other than you’d think.”

Many and many a year ago, Lulah McClure and Jesse McNichol had cleaned out a houseful of neo-Nazis who had taken over the old Neville mansion. The magical decontamination had taken many days and enough spells to fill a fair-sized grimoire. They hadn’t known about Holly back then; unaware that she was a Spellbinder, and that her blood would seal any Work they did, they’d had to return again and again to take care of lingering nasties. One would think that the place had been scoured clean. But Evan got the creeps whenever he even drove past the new wrought iron gates marking the entrance to the access road—and he didn’t have a speck of magic in him.

Westmoreland, named (though misspelled, as generations of the truly pedantic had pointed out) for the English title which old Archibald Neville had claimed was in his ancestry before emigration to Virginia, had once spread across a thousand acres. Now it was reduced to about twenty, the rest having been sold off as the Neville fortunes waned. Since they had abandoned the place, back in the ’40s, it had changed hands many times—and languished vacant and deteriorating for many years. There had been some talk in the ’90s of using it as a field project for the archaeology department of the University of Virginia, digs at old plantations—especially the slave quarters—having yielded fascinating finds elsewhere. A preliminary survey was done, and the engineering students had just ascertained that the central staircase, the walls on either side, the vast cellar, and the back of the house were as sound as the day they’d been finished—when a chimney suddenly collapsed, almost on top of their professor. So much for that plan. In March of 2004 it had been purchased by a German businessman who had turned it into the Westmoreland Inn.

The locals had shuddered, certain that an architectural horror would result. Contractors and craftsmen were imported from outside Pocahontas County—partly because almost everybody in the construction business who lived in the vicinity had been hired to refurbish and expand the old overseer’s house at Woodhush. It wasn’t until Westmoreland was completed that county residents got a look at it: an extravagant grand opening party that November had introduced the new Westmoreland Inn and its owner, Bernhardt Weiss.

Not as readily seduced by his kitchen or his wine list as he might have wished, PoCo residents nevertheless admitted, more or less grudgingly, that the Inn was an acceptable successor to the antebellum mansion. Greek columns, gracious portico, grand staircase, great wraparound verandah—everything about the house, with its eighteen guest suites and huge ballroom and muraled dining room, was just an eyelash shy of excessive, just a whisker away from overkill.

Herr Weiss had saved that sort of thing for the Spa.

If the house was Greek Revival, the spa facilities were Roman Resuscitation. It was rumored that at Westmoreland one could even get as classically oiled-and-strigiled as if one were at the Baths of Caracalla, although this turned out to be only a rumor.

Since the grand opening event, Evan hadn’t set foot on the property. Holly and Lulah, taking advantage of the certificates handed out at the party, had spent a whole day getting massaged, facialed, manicured, pedicured, moisturized, exfoliated, and waxed. Holly reported a lovely experience—while teasing Evan that without at least one spa afternoon at Westmoreland, his New York Metrosexual credentials would expire. But Lulah agreed with Evan: the place was creepy. Further, she told him privately, the whole time there she’d felt blind.

Other men in the county admitted to the occasional massage, and more readily to using the state-of-the-art gymnasium. This was the one reason Evan might have considered driving the long spur road to Westmoreland again; relaxational farming, the occasional horseback venture, and intermittent jogging kept him not quite in shape. Although if he and Holly kept at it as energetically as they’d been doing this weekend, he’d be able to toss the t-shirt his snide little sister had sent him last Christmas:
This is NOT a beer belly. This is protective camouflage for my rock-hard abs.

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