Read an Excerpt
If only everything were as easy to compartmentalize, Alex thought as he stared at the wall of lockers. His own reflective jacket, bunker pants, boots and helmet were back in their proper places under the nameplate A. Donovan. Outside Station Four's gray brick walls, early October had already dressed Chestnut Grove, Virginia, for autumn in its deepest reds and oranges, but Alex couldn't erase the scene he'd just left from his thoughts.
There would be no golden fall colors this year for the young family that had lived in the tiny house Engine Four had paid a visit to that morning. Only black, black and an unattractive gray.
The cruel irony of that loss of color ate at him when he needed to be praising God that there'd been no serious injuries or loss of life. That family had been blessed; he knew that. Even the family cat had made it out unscathed. Alex had pulled the terrified and hissing kitty out from under the bed himself.
Still, Alex imagined that it was hard for this family, already struggling and underinsured, to feel fortunate when they'd lost their furniture, family pictures and even the children's toys. At least they had memories, even if a lifetime of souvenirs had perished.
Some people weren't even fortunate enough to have memories-at least honest reflections that weren't based on a foundation of lies, he thought bitterly. Images of the day he'd discovered his adoption records entered his thoughts uninvited. His parents had carried the secret of his adoption to their graves rather than face him with the truth, and he would never forgive them for it.
Alex tucked the thoughts away the best he could as he trudged away from the lockers, past Engine Four and the utility truck, Squad Four, and into the back of the building. The only thing that mattered to him now was the shower to come. Perhaps the soap and water could wash away the funk in his heart along with the sweat and grime on his skin.
He was halfway up the stairs, halfway to his destination of steaming hot water and fresh-smelling soap, when a familiar voice rang out behind him.
"Hold up, Donovan."
Alex stopped on command, but he couldn't hold back a sigh as he turned to face Fire Chief Bill Nevins. The chief never liked to let too much time pass before analyzing his crew's performances on a run. Just this once,Alex wished Bill would let them recover before he began his analysis. "You had a message in the office." Chief Nevins extended a pink note to Alex while still gripping a stack of his own messages in his other hand.
"Thanks." Alex returned to the landing and reached for the message, already uncomfortable though he didn't look at what it said right away. He didn't often receive messages at the station, and the last one he'd received had been bad enough news to make him dread the next.
"If memory serves, you might want to get on that message right away."
His boss's strange comment made him look down at the slip of paper in his hand. The feminine name at the top didn't ring any bells, but he recognized the location written beneath it: Grove Elementary School.
Chelsea? Was she all right? Had something happened at school? Had someone at the hospital made a mistake and called the school first instead of him? The questions were still pinging through his thoughts as he glanced up at his boss again. Bill wore a knowing smile.
"It hits hard and fast, doesn't it?"
"The need to shelter and protect. That whole father thing."
Father thing? Alex shook his head to push aside the incredulous idea. He was no father, just a temporary guardian to two kids who had nowhere else to go. Not even a great guardian at that.
Still, he couldn't help looking back at the paper he held and backing away from the man who was getting a kick out of his discomfort. Written at the top of the sheet was "Dinah Fraser," whom he now remembered as the "Miss Fraser" that Chelsea spoke about in the evening over frozen-dinner lasagna or carryout roasted chicken. Even if he hadn't met her yet, Chelsea's teacher was one bit of stability in the child's otherwise out-of-control life.
"Don't worry. It's probably nothing," Bill told him, showing the decency that made him a good leader.
"Thanks." Turning,Alex headed down the hall instead of up the stairs as he'd planned. Inside the lounge was a partitioned area where firefighters could make personal calls either on their cell phones or the pay phone.
He dialed the number on the pay phone and waited, his heart pounding despite Bill's assurances.
"Grove Elementary School, how may I assist you?" said a voice so pleasant that the receptionist must have been smiling as she spoke.
"May I speak to Miss Fraser, please?"
"She's in class right now. May I put you through to her voice mail?"
Voice mail? Was she kidding? "No. I'm sorry, but I must speak to her right away." He managed to keep the agitation out of his voice, but there was no way he would hang up until he made sure everything was okay with Chelsea.
"But-" she began.
Alex cut her off. "This is Alex Donovan, Chelsea White's guardian. I'm returning Miss Fraser's call."
"Oh. I see."
Soon another line was ringing. And ringing. A feminine voice answered on the sixth ring. "This is Miss Fraser."
"Hello. This is Alex Donovan."
"Oh, sorry it took me so long to get to the phone. We were outside conducting a diet soda and Mentos explosion experiment. It was so cool."
"Sounds like fun," he said because she seemed to expect it.
After a lengthy pause, she cleared her throat. "Thanks for returning my call.Yours came earlier than I expected."
He frowned at the phone. "Excuse me?"
"I told the receptionist to have you call after three."
"After three?" Alex looked down at the pink sheet still clutched in his hand. Sure enough, it said to call after three.
"Oh. Sorry." He didn't even bother to correct her that she'd spoken to the dispatcher at the station, not a receptionist. He'd made his own mistake by interrupting her class.
"Not a problem. I just wanted to set up a time to meet with you. I'm concerned about Chelsea."
Strange, the teacher had just suggested a problem, and Alex was breathing a sigh of relief. Chelsea was okay, at least physically. Her teacher was worried about her, but then so was he.
"How about after three this afternoon?"
Her question brought him back into the conversation with a start.
"Oh, yeah. That's when you get out of school." Suddenly, the background noise of boisterous kids came through the line. He must have filtered it out before while anxiously awaiting what she had to say. By now her students must have been hanging from the fluorescent lights and taking turns leaping from the teacher's desk.
"This afternoon will be great, if you're not too busy. Sorry again for the interruption."
"It's fine. Really."
Alex glanced at his watch as he stood up from the desk and hurried upstairs. He needed to get moving if he planned to shower before he visited Grove Elementary, and showering wasn't optional unless he wanted to meet Chelsea's teacher smelling like a campfire gone bad.
So much for the long steamy shower he'd planned, to wash away his frustration from this morning along with the soot. He wasn't forgetting that young family's problems, but he and his relatives had some problems of their own right now. For his cousin Karla's sake, he was going to find a way to help her daughter cope.
Alex felt like a giant in a dollhouse as he walked through the halls of Grove Elementary School, passing low-set drinking fountains and artwork displayed far below his eye level. After a few wrong turns in the maze of hallways, he reached Room Twenty-three. A colorful display of artwork made from autumn leaves covered the partially closed door.
Knocking, Alex popped his head inside, looking around for the teacher's desk. Of course she wasn't sitting at it. He was more than fifteen minutes late. He would probably have left, himself, if someone made him wait that long.
But just as he started to back out of the room, the door to a storage closet behind the desk closed, revealing an auburn-haired beauty standing behind it. Her eyes were as blue as the buttoned sweater she wore with a simple black skirt.
Alex knew he should look away-it was rude not to-but he just couldn't pull his gaze away from the woman who stared back at him. She'd tried her best, but even in her prim schoolteacher outfit, she couldn't hide her feminine curves.
Okay, he'd had an unfair picture of what a third-grade teacher might look like. Pixie came to mind. Even matronly. He remembered plenty of teachers like that from his own school days. But captivating? He'd certainly never expected to find a woman who looked like that at Grove Elementary.
A woman who just happened to be Chelsea's teacher, he reminded himself when she cleared her throat and glanced down at the black toes of her shoes. Great, now Miss Fraser probably thought that he was some kind of creep.
"Miss Fraser?" he asked in a voice that barely resembled his own.
"Mr. Donovan?" But as if she'd answered her own question, she gestured toward her desk. "Come in. Have a seat. And please call me Dinah."
Funny, calling her by her first name sounded like a really bad idea when "Miss Fraser" or something even more distant like "Miss Chelsea's Teacher" might be better.
Still, he found himself nodding at her suggestion. "Call me Alex."
He gripped her hand-another mistake-and retreated to the other side of her desk, pulling up a too-short chair from one of the desks. The tingling in his fingers probably had nothing to do with the woman seated across from him and everything to do with the subject they were about to discuss. That she smiled then and left him distracted was beside the point. Dinah-make that Miss Fraser-was probably used to having that kind of effect on men.
"Thank you for coming, especially on such short notice."
"It's for Chelsea," he said because it really was as simple as that.
"Chelsea and Brandon are blessed to have you as their guardian."
Blessed was a strong word, but Alex thanked her, anyway.
Settling back in her chair and crossing her arms, Dinah squinted her eyes as if deep in thought. "You're Chelsea's 'Uncle Alex.' Are you her mother's brother or her father's brother?"
"Technically, Karla and I are cousins." Not even that if they were talking about blood relatives, but he didn't mention that. "But the two of us have always been more like brother and sister. Chelsea and Brandon are like my niece and nephew."
Dinah had a strange look on her face, as if what he'd said had surprised her. "As I said, Chelsea's a blessed little girl."
Alex cleared his throat. What was he supposed to say to that? "But she's also a very troubled girl," she added.
"Can you blame her?" He shrugged and lowered his gaze to the floor. "As if it wasn't bad enough that her dad's a Marine rooting out insurgents in Iraq, now her mom's in a Philadelphia cancer-treatment center undergoing intense chemotherapy."
"She's had an awful lot to deal with," she agreed. Dinah was studying him when he looked up at her again, suggesting that she was including him in her compassionate comment. Alex stiffened. He didn't want her pity. Opening his guest bedrooms, juggling a few schedules and learning to make something edible out of frozen chicken breasts couldn't come close to comparing to what Brandon and Chelsea had been facing.
"Everything's going to be okay, though. Karla's husband, Mike, is trying to get leave soon, and Karla will be just fine." Even as he said it, Alex wondered which of them he was trying to convince.
"You just keep reassuring Chelsea of that at home, and I'll do the same here at school."
"How is she doing in school?" The question sounded strange in his ears. He'd always figured that one day he would attend parent-teacher conferences, but this wasn't at all how he would have imagined it.
"That's just the thing. Her grades are as high as they were last year."