Chapter 1: The Storm
The electricity of an impending storm raised the hair on Chelsea James' arms.
She stood, barefoot, on her wide, front porch, watching the trees be blown almost in half.
And her dead sister's voice played in her mind.
“It's like nature has to violently clean up," Morgan would say as they stood in this very spot.
They both loved storms.
The power of nature impressed Chelsea. Morgan concentrated on the aftermath. Odd that she never thought of the aftermath of her own actions.
“How so?" Chelsea would ask her older by a few minutes sister.
Morgan's eyes would be wide. “Because a storm gives the trees a haircut, gets rid of the ones that are weak. And on top of that, the rain helps the ones that do survive."
Chelsea would nod.
But this storm didn't bring with it the same renewal. Somewhere deep in Chelsea, she knew this storm was different. This storm could bring destruction.
Or worse this storm might not bring the wanted rain for those trees that survived.
Right now she missed her sister more than anything.
Then Chelsea's firehouse pager went off. “Unit 37 you have a fully-involved structure fire on Briar Lane."
As Chief of Biggin Hill First Aid Squad she had certain duties. But, she was also a firefighter and sometimes that took precedence. The shakiness of the dispatcher's voice told her this fire could be big.
So tonight she'd be a firefighter.
She ran back into the house, leaving the storm behind, to pull on some clothes.
Her brother's form in the hallway stopped her. She bounced off his much larger body. He grabbed her arm to steady her then let go. His hair sported the latest bed head style.
He'd turned the light on without her noticing.
“You okay, Chelsea?" Brad James asked. His gaze studied her as if memorizing her features.
Before answering, she glanced down the steps. For some reason this storm unsettled her. “Yeah, I'm fine." Her voice came out unsteady.
“Your face is red."
“I'm fine," she spat out. His furrowed brow irked her.
“You were talking to someone."
Had she spoken out loud to a sister that no longer existed? “Was not."
“I heard you. You were practically yelling at them."
She poked him with a finger. “I was not. We have a fire to put out."
Brad grabbed her arm before she could get past him. “The strain getting to you?" His face stood inches from hers.
She tugged, but he didn't let go. “What strain?"
“Running the James Empire?"
The sneer in his voice made her blood run cold.
“We have a fire to get to." When he didn't move she said. “Don't start that again, Brad. You can't declare me incompetent to run our finances. Or running the Foundation."
His eyes were cold and without depth. “I can and I will. I just have to find the right way."
She yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Over my dead body."
“Maybe, Chelsea, Maybe."
Brad James parked his Biggin Hill Volunteer Fire Company Chief's truck and shuffled towards the fire scene. The rain had ceased as if someone had flicked a switch.
Chelsea made it to the scene first, but he hadn't been in any hurry. If he didn't arrive to make a decision he wouldn't make the wrong one. Flames shot out of every window of the house.
Despite the humidity hanging in the nearby trees, a chill down his back inspired a shiver.
The sun peaked over the horizon.
How the hell was this thing on fire? Maybe kids playing and they could still be inside. He took a deep breath, then strode towards a group of firefighters that included his sister.
“We'll have to go in," he said.
Hose had been laid and a tanker from a neighboring town joined his to shuttle water from a hydrant a mile away. The fire sizzled behind him, putting pressure on him to make the right decision.
“Why?" Chelsea asked.
Of course she would. She couldn't just trust his judgment.
She stood directly in front of him, her petite body held rigid.
His gaze took her in. Hers never wavered.
He threw his hands in the air. “Why?"
“It's an abandoned house, Brad. We're wetting down the grass so it doesn't spread. What else do we need to do?"
He clenched his fists. “I give the orders around here."
Motioning to the house on fire, she said, “Why shouldn't we let it burn?"
He pointed to his white helmet. “Because I have the Chief's hat and I said so."
She didn't flinch. “You want us to go into an unstable structure to save it?"
She stalked away and shrugged on an airpak.
He blinked in disbelief. Not you. He didn't say the words out loud. She wouldn't have seen them as anything but a challenge. Instead he said, “What are you doing?"
“Fighting a fire," she said.
“No." He couldn't let his sister do it. Ever since Morgan died, he'd wanted alternately to hold Chelsea close and push her away. Now he wanted her safe. No way she would die and leave him.
Her chin notched up, her eyes daring him to question her. Easy and his younger sister were not friends. “Excuse me?"
“Not you. Someone else," he said.
The other firefighters stopped to watch. Hadn't the scene of Chelsea and him going at it bored them yet?
“Don't trust your decision enough to risk your sister going in?" She lowered her voice. “How will it look, Brad, if you don't let me go? Who will want to go in?"
He fisted his hands. Why did he ever take this leadership position anyway? He shouldn't risk anyone, but he'd made a decision. He intended to stick by it. Isn't that what leaders did? Isn't that what his father would have done?
“Go. Take Bowers with you."
Her triumphant smile sent a wave of anger over him.
“Bowers," Chelsea called and left to prepare.
“Show's over," he growled at the rest of the firefighters and turned back to the burning house.