Excerpt: Code of Honor
Book 3: The Rockford Fire Department
“You’re the perfect person to deal with Chelsea Whitmore, Scarlatta.”
Jake Scarlatta stared at Chief Talbot, the Rockford Fire Department’s top man, whom he’d always liked and respected. Still… “I’d rather not do that, chief.”
“There’s already two women in each firehouse, except yours. And you have the setup with Francey Cordaro on another shift.” Fire stations ran four shifts, scheduled for four days on, three days off, three nights on, three days off. “Besides, you fought tooth and nail for Francey’s rights when she came on. Top it off with Johnson’s retirement, you have room in your group right now.”
There had to be some way to convince the chief that moving Whitmore to his crew at the fire station wasn’t wise. “I wish you’d reconsider,” Jake said lamely.
Talbot studied Jake. “This have anything to do with that incident with DeLuca years ago?”
Jake kept himself from flinching at the mention of his one, very public mistake. “In a way. I like to run a tight ship.”
“And Whitmore will rock the boat.”
More like cause major flooding. But women were a fact of life in firefighting, which he welcomed. Over half of those in the RFD had made it to officer’s position, and one would make battalion chief soon. And he knew Chelsea was a good firefighter. No matter what his personal feelings were, it wasn’t fair to smudge her reputation. “Her joining us won’t be easy. My men aren’t as…liberated as Ed Knight’s group. Francey was an easy fit there.”
There was also the fact that a member of his crew, Joey Santori, hated her for what she’d done to a good buddy of his. But Jake wouldn’t call attention to Joe because his bias would reflect badly on the young firefighter.
Jake would just have to suck this up as he had when his guys got wind of Whitmore’s possible transfer. They grumbled to the point that Jake had to put his foot down and tell them to shape up and be professional. Quint/Midi Twelve was a good solid place to work, but sometimes its members needed firm leadership.
Talbot leaned forward. “Bottom line is Whitmore didn’t make a stink about what happened to her over at Engine Four, but she could sue the pants off us if she wanted to. We’ve got to be very careful this time.”
Tales of what had occurred on her last assignment had swept through the department quicker than brushfires. She’d made the classic mistake—dated a fellow firefighter in her group, broke his heart and then the guy went berserk and endangered himself and his entire crew. The woman would never live that down.
And since Jake knew all about making classic mistakes and having them haunt you, dealing with Whitmore must be his penance.
“When would she start?”
“Her leave was open-ended. She wants to come back as soon as possible.”
Jake sighed heavily. “Transfer her to me, then. We’ll manage.” Somehow.
“I knew I could count on you. We really—”
Jake’s cell beeped with a text, startling him. He was on edge not only because of the topic of discussion, but because his good buddy’s wife, Beth Winters O’Roarke, was expecting their first child any time within the next month, and Jake had agreed to be ready to fill in for Dylan on his shift at the firehouse at a moment’s notice.
He read the text and bolted out of his seat.
Talbot’s brows rose. “O’Roarke?”
“Yep. Beth’s in labor. Gotta go.” Jake was out the door in seconds, and Whitmore was the last thing on his mind.
Chelsea Whitmore gazed in the direction of the state-of-the-art birthing room where they’d taken her best friend Beth two hours before, and where the expectant father, Dylan, had flown to when he arrived at the hospital. Worried, Chelsea paced. God, what an afternoon. The surprise, the confusion, the fear…and she hadn’t slept well last night. Again.
She tried to calm herself by checking out the maternity area of Rockford Memorial Hospital. The space was posh, with cushioned couches and chairs, plush carpet, a TV and even a small refrigerator. Late-afternoon May sun filtered through the large windows to the side.
Tired, she sank onto one of the couches, leaned back and closed her eyes. It’ll be all right, she told herself. They’ll be all right.
Though she was a certified EMT—Emergency Medical Technician with advanced training beyond that—she’d struggled to block out her fear as she sped to the hospital, Beth belted into the front seat of her Camaro, in full labor almost a month early. Especially since Chelsea had just learned last year of Beth’s traumatic past and all the loss she’d experienced at such a young age. Chelsea closed her eyes, silently praying.
Her eyes snapped open.
A man loomed over her—Jake Scarlatta, a lieutenant in the fire department and a surrogate brother to Chelsea’s other best friend, Francey. His linebacker shoulders were tense, his gray eyes worried.
“Hi.” She cocked her head questioningly. She knew he was replacing Dylan on his shift when he’d got their call. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s four o’clock. Dylan’s relief heard what happened and came in early, so I headed right over.” He glanced at the door. “Is Beth…is everything all right?”
“I don’t know. She’s been in there two hours.”
He nodded solemnly, then studied her face. His expression softened. “Babies take a while, you know.”
“I know. And the doctor told her last week it weighed at least seven pounds, maybe more.”
“That’s probably why the little rascal’s coming early.”
Chelsea shook her head. “Those two don’t do anything the easy way, do they?”
The story of Lieutenant Dylan O’Roarke of the Rockford Fire Department and Beth Winters, his ex-instructor, had become legend at the fire academy. Eight years of open animosity that rivaled that of the Hatfields and McCoys had ended last winter when they were forced to work together—and had fallen in love.
But they hadn’t had smooth going after that. Though Beth had kept her past a secret for a long time, she’d lost her husband and child when she was twenty. She’d been almost unable to risk a relationship with Dylan, never mind having a baby with him. To make things even chancier, she was forty years old, not exactly prime childbearing age. But she’d accepted Dylan and a baby into her life because of pure, unadulterated love.
Which Chelsea no longer believed in.
Jake cleared his throat. “Mind if I sit?” He was normally reticent and old-world polite, but today his carriage was stiff, his voice controlled.
Chelsea was pretty sure she knew why. “Go ahead.”
The couch dipped with his considerable weight. As a fitness trainer as well as a firefighter, Chelsea appreciated good muscle tone and mass. Jake was a big man, but in dynamite shape.
“What happened?” he asked. “Ed Knight called me to come in and sub like we planned, but Dylan had shot out of there like a rocket and nobody knew the details.”
Chelsea shook her head. “I had lunch with Beth around noon, then we went to my place.”
“Dylan told me you and Francey were trying to keep Beth company when he was working.”
“Well, given what she went through in the past, we’ve all been extra careful.” She smiled. “And let me say you were very generous to rearrange your life to be on call for Dylan this whole last month.”
“Not much to rearrange,” he mumbled. Chelsea remembered Francey saying she worried about Jake’s life revolving around the fire department. “So, what happened?” he repeated.
“About two, her water broke and contractions started.”
“Yeah, and I was scared to death because they came fast and furious. We got here in time, though.”
Jake nodded reassuringly at the birthing room. “This is a wonderful thing for them and I believe it’s going to work out.” The faraway look on Jake’s face intrigued her.
Interested, she asked, “You’ve got a kid, don’t you?”
“A daughter.” The corners of his mouth turned up. “She’s the light of my life.” Then he frowned, abruptly stood and jammed his hands into the pockets of his light twill jacket.
Chelsea recognized the distancing maneuver—like a colonel who’d revealed too much to his troops and was embarrassed. Though she didn’t know Jake very well, mostly just through Francey and being paired up with him at the wedding, she could tell he was more remote today than usual.
She decided to address his reaction to her. “Jake, I know they’ve talked to you about my transfer.”
For a few seconds, he held her gaze. “They’ll be calling you. It’s official. You’re coming to my group.”
Though she wasn’t surprised, the certainty of the decision unnerved her. Watching him, she couldn’t read anything from his face. “Are you upset about getting me on your crew?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “I’m a big supporter of women in the fire department but integration is always dicey.” He would know this, Chelsea thought, from Francey, who worked on another group in his station. “Don’t get me wrong. Francey’s like a sister to me.”
“But I come with extra baggage that has nothing to do with my gender.”
“If it’s any consolation, I think what the guys at Engine Four did to you is despicable. They deserved the official reprimand. And you deserved the public apology.”
Chelsea cringed. The nightmare at her previous firehouse haunted her even in her waking hours, like a ghost from the Shakespearean plays she’d loved to read in high school. “Some people say I deserved the way they treated me. Because of what happened to Billy.”
“We make our own lives. Nobody’s responsible for the actions of another.”
The expression of sadness on his face surprised her. She wanted to ask him about it, but the door to the waiting room swung open.
Both of them turned to see Dylan, in a green gown and hat, a white mask hanging around his neck. His cheeks were wet with tears. Chelsea bolted from the couch. Dylan crossed to her. “It’s a boy. I have a—” choking on the last word, he grabbed her in an emotional hug “—a son.” Though the standard prenatal sonograms revealed the child’s sex, Dylan and Beth hadn’t wanted to know.
Chelsea’s eyes misted. She bit her lip to keep herself under control. “He’s okay? Beth’s fine?”
Dylan drew back. “They’re just great. She’s breastfeeding him now.” His eyes shone. “It’s unbelievable, Chels.” His face sobered. “And thanks for your quick thinking. If you hadn’t been with her…gotten her here…”
“Well, I was, and she’s fine.” Chelsea’s voice betrayed none of the panic she’d felt when Beth’s pains had come too close together, too fast—and a month too soon.
Drawing in a breath, Dylan shook his head and glanced at Jake. Dylan smiled again, a goofy, I’m-a-father grin. Without a word, the men hugged. Chelsea hadn’t seen that much emotion out of Jake even at Francey’s wedding. “Congratulations, Dad.”
Dylan grinned. “This is a miracle.”
“I know.” Jake’s tone was dry.
The proud father glanced at the door. “You can see them in fifteen minutes.” He scanned the area. “Where are France and Alex?”
“I called them as soon as Beth went in,” Chelsea told him. “They’ll be here by the time we can see her.”
“Good.” Another dumbstruck smile. “I’ll come get you then.”
With his usual flourish, Dylan headed to the door, still grinning like an idiot.
As Chelsea watched him go, a little bit of jealousy sparked inside her. She’d wanted all that once—marriage, children. But no more. That dream had vanished after what had happened with her boyfriend—her ex-boyfriend—Billy Milligan. Right now, the only male she wanted in her life was Hotstuff, one of her cats.
She turned to find Jake staring at her.
Chelsea stared back.
For two people who were going to be spending days and nights together, they had little to talk about.
Jake had never seen Beth Winters look quite so mussed, not even after the strenuous Confidence Walks at the academy. Stringy-haired, sweaty, lines of fatigue etched around her eyes and mouth, she beamed at the baby nestled in her arms, then at her visitors. Alex and Francey had arrived within minutes of Dylan’s announcement and had come into the birthing room with Jake and Chelsea.
The space had been designed like a homeowner’s dream bedroom. A big bed with a soft print comforter. Matching throw pillows. A couple of stuffed chairs. Thick carpet. Jake stood behind the others as they crowded around the new mom and baby. Dylan had taken a seat on the bed. Leaning over, he placed his index finger in the sleeping child’s tiny hand. The infant, still mottled and red, grasped it reflexively.
“Hey, buddy,” Dylan whispered. “Don’t you wanna wake up and meet your family? Aunt Francey and Aunt Chelsea are here. So are Uncle Jake and Uncle Alex.”
All four visitors were as quiet as fire hiding in walls, silenced by the aura of absolute joy that surrounded the trio. Jake remembered feeling as awestruck when his daughter, Jessica, was born, though the setting had been a sterile delivery room. It had been, in fact, the best moment in his life.
He glanced at Francey. She leaned her head on Alex’s shoulder. He loved seeing her happy. She and Alex had had a rocky time, trying to reconcile his constant worry about Francey’s safety in her work as a dedicated firefighter. At lunch a few days ago, Francey had filled Jake in on how Alex was faring in his never-ending struggle to accept her job. He was coping better, she’d said, but some tension remained.
Jake’s gaze traveled to Chelsea Whitmore, off to the side and breathing deeply. Hmm…was she trying to calm herself? Her eyes glistened.
“What’s his name?” Francey asked.
Beth looked up and smiled serenely. All signs of anxiety, prevalent during her and Dylan’s tumultuous courtship, were gone. Absent, in fact, during her whole pregnancy. “Ask Dylan. I let him pick the name.”
Dylan reached down and took the child from Beth. Holding up his son in the crook of his arm, he said proudly, “Meet Timothy Dylan O’Roarke. Timmy for short.”
The women gasped. Alex’s eyebrows rose. Jake tried to contain evidence of his own surprise. The beloved husband Beth had lost twenty years ago in a tragic accident was Tim Winters.
She touched Dylan’s arm. The look that passed between them was so intimate that Jake opened his mouth to suggest the rest of them leave the new family alone.
But then Dylan turned to Chelsea with the devil in his eyes. “Now, how long before you can teach him to pitch?”
Chelsea laughed. It was a low, husky sound. “A couple of years. He’ll probably be able to strike out as many of you as I did Thursday night in the department softball game.”
Francey snorted. “We just found out she’s on our team starting next week when she comes to House Twelve, so that’s not an issue anymore.”
“Great, Chels. We’re glad for you.”
The smile on Chelsea’s lips died like fire under foam. Jake guessed she wasn’t any happier about breaking into a new group than his crew was to have her. But they’d all pull through, he’d see to it, mainly because the fire department couldn’t afford any more fallout over her breakup with Milligan.
When the baby began to fuss, the group decided to leave the O’Roarkes alone. After hugs and kisses, the four of them ended up in the waiting area.
Alex put his arm around his wife, who was beaming like a proud parent. “I envy them,” Alex said.
Francey stared at him. “You do?”
“Well, that’s news.” She scowled. “I’ll think about that later. Right now I’m starved.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Alex said dryly, then dropped a kiss on top of her head.
“Want to come to dinner with us?” Francey looked from Jake to Chelsea.
Jake smiled, surprised at the envy he felt. So many happy people. Happy couples. At forty, he’d missed his chance for that kind of thing, but his emotions were running high today and the armor he kept in place buckled under such obvious devotion. “No, thanks. I’ve got plans.”
Turning away, his gaze landed on Chelsea. He recognized the look on her face—it mirrored his. “I’ll take a rain check, too. I’ve got to be at the gym in an hour.” Chelsea owned The Weight Room, a health club about two blocks from his firehouse. Though he never worked out there, other firefighters did, and they had nothing but good to say about her gym.
As they all headed to the elevator, Jake ended up walking behind the Templetons, next to Chelsea. At the door to the parking lot, they bade goodbye and left. Chelsea looked at him. “I guess I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
“Yeah, Friday morning, right?”
He stared at her. He’d never noticed what an unusual shade of brown her eyes were—light with flecks of gold. This afternoon they reflected a weariness that had nothing to do with fatigue. “Have a nice night.”
She nodded and pushed the bar on the glass door.
She turned. The late-day sun behind her sparkled off the silvery gold of her hair as the mass swung softly around her shoulders. Unsmiling, standing tall, she looked lovely. And lonely. “Yes?”
“It’ll work out at Quint Twelve.” He winced at how inane he sounded.
Her expression was bleak. “Will it?”
She gave him a half smile, opened the door, stepped out and let it swish shut behind her. Jake watched her until she was out of sight.
As soon as he crawled through the doorway, Jake could see flames licking the roof of the rickety three-story building. The biocarbons in the insulation created a whirlpool of black smoke, temporarily blinding him and his partner, something even the thermal imager couldn’t help with. Intense heat stilled his movements. Wondering why the ventilating crew hadn’t cut the roof yet, Jake gripped the hose to spray the windowless attic bedroom. He levered the handle forward. No water spurted out the nozzle. He could feel the line buck, so he knew it was charged. Sensing his best friend, Danny DeLuca, behind him assisting with the hose, Jake started to turn.
Then it was there. Flashover. A bed, an old desk, several stacks of magazines and a full bookcase burst into flames of their own volition because of the temperature they’d risen to. The fire breathed in new life. It crouched in front of him, hovered above him, attacked from each side.
In that instant, Jake knew he wasn’t getting out alive.
He pivoted to Danny. In seemingly slow motion, glowing timber dropped onto his buddy’s head. Jake opened his mouth to warn Danny, but his breathing apparatus muffled the sound…
Jake bolted upright. His hands fisted in the light blanket that had fallen below his hips. His entire body was covered with sweat and as taut as a stretched lifeline. From the sliver of moonlight peeking in from the skylights, Jake could just make out the row of bookshelves, the oak desk that had been his father’s, the stacks of magazines he’d been cleaning out the day before. He was home, on the third floor that he’d converted into living quarters for himself. He wasn’t in a fire with Danny. Forcing his hands to unclench, he made his shoulders relax. In a few minutes he was able to move.
He swung his feet onto the thick carpet, rose and crossed to the windows behind the desk. Outside, the street was deserted. A quick look at the clock over the bookcases told him the reason. Four a.m. His heart still pounding, he tried to calm the thud inside him.
Jake had had this dream before, but he’d gotten some help in analyzing the images that haunted his midnights. From Reed Macauley, the department psychologist, whom Jake knew through Dylan and from his own brief stint at the academy. When Jake had recounted his dream to Reed, the psychologist had listened without speaking until Jake had finished…
“From what you tell me, this seems to come when something stressful is happening,” Reed observed. “Your mother’s death. Your daughter’s surgery. Ben Cordaro, who’s been like a father to you, getting hurt.”
Well, the stressful event now was Chelsea Whitmore’s joining his crew. In fact, he’d see her at the fire station in about three hours.
He didn’t need this. He didn’t want it. He wanted the status quo. He wanted his life left undisturbed.
Reed had focused on that, too.
“This nightmare is the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it, Jake?”
Jake had thought about lying, but only a fool sought help and then didn’t tell the truth. “Stuff’s happened to me.”
Reed had waited.
“I was responsible for somebody hitting bottom. Somebody I cared about.”
The psychologist had been the one who’d said the words he’d parroted to Chelsea last week. We make our own lives. Nobody’s responsible for the actions of another.
“I believe that, only not in this case,” he’d told Reed.
“Tell me the story,” Reed had urged.
He hadn’t been able to then, or the second or third time he’d found himself in the psychologist’s office. But after successive bouts with his demon, insomnia, and frankly, after seeing how Reed had helped Dylan and Beth, Jake had finally been able to breach his staunchly erected defenses…
“It was my buddy, Danny. We’d been friends since high school. Played football together, were best man at each other’s wedding, had a kid the same year. We got into the academy at the same time, and after a couple years, wrangled being on the same group in the RFD. It was great until I made lieutenant and Danny…”
The pain had blindsided him, and he had to stop. He still felt guilty that his career aspirations had triggered a rift between him and the man who’d been closer to him than a brother.
After a moment Reed said, “Finish, Jake.”
“He started going downhill. First there was drinking. Then some drugs. I hauled his ass when I found out. His behavior didn’t interfere with work for a long time. Even when it did, I let it go because Danny always had trouble with my being a lieutenant. I didn’t report his screw-ups for several months. By the time I did, it was too late, for him and for me.
“What happened to him?”
“Before the brass could can him, he quit.”
“He left town. Left his wife and son without a second thought.”
“He left you, too.”
“Yeah, after calling me every name in the book.”
“You said it was too late for you. What did you mean?”
“I, ah…damn, this is hard to say.”
Reed gave him a grim smile. “I know.”
“Before this happened with Danny, I’d wanted to be everything in the department—lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, hell, maybe even chief someday.”
Jake pushed back the sadness welling inside him. “How I handled Danny’s downslide was a black mark on my record. I was formally reprimanded, and a letter was put in my file.”
“From what I hear, that letter’s got company with a lot of commendations.”
“So you could move up the ladder. You could take the captaincy exam this summer.”
“I guess. But I’ve lost the drive, the interest.”
“You’ve lost your dreams,” Reed had said…
Yeah, Jake thought now, he’d lost the dreams. He turned from the window, disgusted with his ruminating, stalked to the spacious kitchen and bath alcove he’d carved from under the dormers and switched on the coffee.
Surveying the area, he thought of Ben Cordaro’s remark. The man who had been like a father to him after his own dad had died had taken one look at this haven and recognized it for what it was. Hell, Jake, you could live in this room and not come out for months. That was true. He’d spent a whole year renovating the third floor of the house he’d grown up in. His mother had lived alone for years after Jake and his sisters had left home. When Jake’s marriage had broken up, he’d taken over this mortgage, moved in with her and stayed after she died, which was five years ago. He’d modernized the other floors with help, but it was the top level he’d lovingly worked on solo.
He’d nailed in every tongue-and-groove oak board of the ceiling, cut through the roof for the two skylights, put up the Sheetrock and painted the walls a deep beige. He’d laid the expensive wood floor and picked out the furniture with care. Its dark tan upholstery and brown plaid pillows accented the wall color and the warm wood. He’d chosen a sofa bed, telling himself the space was for guests, but he knew in his heart he’d live here. No one else had ever slept in the bed, and only Ben, Dylan, Francey and Jessica had been allowed up here.
When the coffee finished perking, he poured some into a huge mug labeled World’s Hunkiest Dad—Jessie’s sense of humor—and trekked to the leather recliner. On the low oak table was a manual he’d been reading the evening before—Sexual Harassment in the Firehouse. Damn.
Ignoring it, he gazed out one of the windows flanking the recliner at his backyard. He remembered playing there with the Cordaro kids, who’d been like brothers and a sisters to him.
His phone shrilled in the darkness.
Firefighter instincts on alert, he bounded off the recliner to the kitchen table and scooped up the cell on its second ring. “Scarlatta.”
“Jake, it’s Barbara.”
Danny DeLuca’s wife. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry to phone so early, but Derek just got in.”
“It’s five in the morning.”
“Why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“I can’t bother you every time my son does something he shouldn’t. But…” She hesitated, then finished, “He smells like pot. And he’s obviously drunk.”
“What did he say?”
Barbara hesitated again.
“He asked me why I was surprised.” Her voice filled with tears. “He claimed he’s just like his old man.”
Jake clenched his fist. “I’ll be right over after I shower.”
“I’m sorry to lay this on you.”
“Don’t talk like that. I’ll be there soon.”
After he hung up, he stared at the phone. Did he have time to do this? He was due at the station early, because of Chelsea Whitmore’s arrival.
God, he hoped the rest of the day would go better than his early morning.
As he headed for the bathroom, the memory of the nightmare hovering over him like a black cloud, he somehow doubted it would.