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Authors: Julie Miller

Riding the Storm

BOOK: Riding the Storm
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E-mail from: Mitch Kannon, fire chief, Turning Point, Texas
To: Dan Egan, fire chief, Courage Bay, California

Sky’s gray, rain’s starting to come down and the main roads are jammed with traffic. Hurricane Damon is on its way to Texas.

Haven’t got much time, Dan, but I wanted to let you know your crew arrived safely—the least I can do after you sent me four of your best to help out. One day I hope to return the favor—but what would California’s finest emergency team need from a small-town fire chief?

I picked up the four this morning at Corpus Christi airport and they’ve jumped right in to help. We’re hoping we just have to deal with a flood of evacuees, but having a doctor, nurse, paramedic and EMT handpicked by you sure makes me feel better.

I’ve already sent out the paramedic with my daughter to see to a woman in labor. Nate Kellison looks as if he could handle just about anything. Jolene figured she could go on her own, but no father would let his pregnant daughter set off in this storm alone–even such a determined and capable girl as my Jolene.

Gotta run, Dan. The wind’s really picking up now. I’ll keep in touch unless the power’s off. Don’t worry about us down here. You know we Texans are tough. Just say a prayer Hurricane Damon realizes that and heads back out to sea.

About the Author

JULIE MILLER

attributes her passion for writing romance to all those fairy tales she read growing up, and shyness. Encouragement from her family to write down those feelings she couldn’t express became a love for the written word. She gets continued support from her fellow members of the Prairieland Romance Writers, where she serves as the resident “grammar goddess.” This award-winning author and teacher has published several paranormal romances in addition to her beloved romantic suspense. Inspired by the likes of Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown, Julie believes that the only thing better than a good mystery is a good romance. Born and raised in Missouri, she now lives in Nebraska with her husband, son and smiling guard dog, Maxie.

JULIE MILLER
RIDING THE STORM

 

Dear Reader,

I grew up in the heart of America’s Tornado Alley, so when Harlequin asked me to write a story set in the midst of a hurricane, I almost panicked. I mean, when was the last time a hurricane hit the flat plains of Nebraska?

When I put out a help message on the loops, I received several responses from friends and fellow writers. One grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, another survived Hurricane Andrew, and yet another talked about East Coast hurricanes. The coolest part was that every person I contacted was willing to share personal stories—funny, graphic, inspiring and practical.

By the time I’d completed my research, I felt I could give my story an authentic tone. I had the facts about heavy rains and scary winds and spooky calms. But I could also imbue my characters with realistic reactions and emotions. I could
feel
that hurricane coming to life.

So as you read
Riding the Storm,
keep in mind all the real-life stories and adventures that went into creating the characters and the disaster they must survive. A few of you might even see something familiar.

Stay warm and dry—and enjoy!

Julie Miller

www.juliemiller.org

PROLOGUE

“K
ELLISON
. Y
OU AWAKE
?”

Paramedic Nate Kellison scrubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked at the clock on the bedside table into focus: 10:00 a.m.

“Yeah?” he snapped into the phone.

It was an amazingly civil response, considering he’d just gotten home late from a thirty-six hour sleepless shift with the Courage Bay, California, Fire Department an hour ago. A shift where he’d worked several car wrecks and a house fire. A shift where he’d helped save a handful of lives—people whose names and faces blurred in his sleepy memory except for one little girl. Her features had been serene and unblemished, even as he’d unbuckled her dead body from the car seat and tried to resuscitate her. That tiny face was etched as clearly as a photograph in his mind, and Nate knew it would stay there forever.

“Dan Egan here.”

Nate sat up, springing to attention. Troubling thoughts were instantly pushed aside as he answered the call to action as surely as he did every time the alarm sounded. “Chief. What’s up?”

“I know you had a rough shift and should be asleep.” Chief Egan’s gruff concern put Nate on alert.

Caution dampened the adrenaline sparking through each nerve ending. Surely his boss hadn’t wakened him to offer condolences or counseling. The department had a counselor on hand for that kind of stuff. And Nate had his family to turn to if the emotional baggage got too heavy to deal with.

Or rather, he used to have a family to turn to.

Grandpa Nate had been gone for years now. And his older brother and sister, Kell and Jackie, had moved on to families of their own. Nate glanced around the small bunkhouse turned studio-style apartment. Hell. This wasn’t even a home for him anymore. It was just a place to sleep between his shifts with the fire department and work on the ranch.

“I’m okay, Chief.” Nate scratched at the dark, stubbly growth of beard on his jaw, and tried not to feel anything as he asked the next question. “You’re not calling to tell me the mother in that crash didn’t make it through the night, are you?”

“No. She’s still in stable condition at the hospital. They’ve located the father and he’s with her right now. Last I heard, the chaplain’s there, too.” Last he heard. Nate almost smiled at that one. Dan Egan had probably just gotten off the phone with the hospital. The man was nothing if not thorough.

“So why’d you call me in the middle of my beauty sleep?”

The chief laughed. But when he spoke, his words were deadly serious. “I just got a call from an old buddy of mine in my hometown of Turning Point, Texas.” Nate knew the chief was a transplanted Texan. “We used to work together at the fire department there. He was a
mentor of mine—about five years older than me. He taught me the ropes about fighting fires and public safety. His name’s Mitch Kannon.”

“Sounds like a good man.”

“The best.”

Sensing the urgency in Dan’s voice, Nate flipped back the sheet and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The shiny scars from reconstructive knee surgery after he’d shattered his right leg eight years ago gleamed against his tanned skin. “So what does Mitch Kannon want from us?”

He could imagine Chief Egan’s grin. “You’re reading my mind, Kellison.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”

“Your best talent is your reliability. I know I can count on you, no matter what situation I throw you into. And I’ve got a doozy for you this time.”

Nate was wide awake now. “So what do you want to throw me into?”

“Mitch has a hurricane headed his way. He’s looking for medically-trained volunteers and supplies to man an emergency station for Corpus Christi residents being evacuated to Turning Point.”

Nate remembered seeing reports on the national news of the tropical storm forming out in the Atlantic and picking up strength as it headed into the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “Hurricane Damon, right? Don’t they have disaster procedures in place?”

“They do. But Mitch is in a tight spot. The town’s only doctor had a heart attack a couple of weeks ago and is recuperating at a hospital up in Houston. He had one licensed EMT, but she just got married and moved to
North Dakota to be with her husband. All he has is a group of volunteers—some with basic medical and emergency training, some not. He’s got plenty of stubborn Texas horse sense, but even that won’t get him too far on his own.”

“He doesn’t have anyone he can call for backup?”

“He called me.”

That said a lot about the strength of Dan’s friendship with Mitch Kannon. As a result, Nate extended a degree of respect and loyalty to this man in Texas he’d never met.

Nate didn’t even have to be asked. He rose to his feet.

“When do you need me?”

CHAPTER ONE

A
LONG, LOW SCREEN
of pearl-gray clouds clung to the horizon over the Gulf of Mexico in the distance, refusing to surrender to the sunrise. Mist drizzled in the air, hanging like a translucent shroud and muffling the world outside.

Nate absently massaged the dull ache in his right knee and took note of his surroundings. Despite the jostling and jarring of the Chevy Suburban he rode in, the morning seemed unnaturally still. Way too still for his peace of mind.

The chatter from the five souls inside the official white vehicle provided the only signs of life in the middle of this vast stretch of flat scrub land. Where were the birds, winging to the sky, searching for the proverbial worm? Where were the tiny rodents, scurrying from cover to cover as the snakes and other nocturnal predators turned in for the day?

Wise enough to protect her own, Mother Nature wasn’t waking up this morning. She knew something Nate could only sense.

Turning Point, Texas, was a disaster waiting to happen.

Apparently, Nate, who’d taken the red-eye flight from California to Corpus Christi with the other three volunteers, wasn’t the only one to think so.

“All hell’s gonna break loose.” Turning Point’s Fire Chief, Mitch Kannon, a friendly, authoritative man, reminded Nate a lot of his own boss. Though Mitch had a bit of gray peppering what was left of his short brown hair, both he and Dan easily carried the weight of responsibility on broad, sturdy shoulders.

Mitch glanced across the Chevy’s cab and shook his head like a weary father trying to make sense of a recalcitrant child. He looked into the rearview mirror to include the three women who’d volunteered for this mission along with Nate. “I’ve been watching Hurricane Damon on the radar for a week now. Having Corpus Christi send their evacuees down to us is a mistake in so many ways—the scenario reads like a comic strip.”

Clearly, Mitch wasn’t amused. He had driven to Corpus Christi to pick up the California team and had been dismayed at the caravan of cars already heading south to Turning Point. As they left the main highway now, he turned his steely blue gaze back to the road that would eventually take them into town. “What am I going to do with a thousand extra people in my town?” he complained.

Nate braced his hand against the dashboard and watched the flat plains, just forty miles inland from the Texas Gulf Coast, zip past. Though the terrain was more brown than green, and trees stood at a premium in the sandy soil, he recognized good ranch land. Not unlike the quarter-horse ranch in Southern California where he’d grown up. Where he’d buried his parents before he was old enough to remember them. Where Grandpa Nate had raised him, and left a little bit of his wise old soul inside him. Where he and his older brother and sis
ter, Kell and Jackie, had formed a bond that had seen them through hell and back.

Where he no longer had a home.

Nate shut down that disturbing train of thought and shifted in his seat, trying to alleviate the stiffness in his knee. The old injury had been acting up more than usual the past couple of days—probably due to fatigue. He felt uncharacteristically restless. But not about the job at hand. Never about the job. He’d always been able to shut off his emotions when it came to the business of saving lives. “You don’t have the facilities to handle that many evacuees?” he asked.

“I don’t have the facilities, the supplies or the manpower to handle Damon and whatever he decides to throw at us.” Mitch rubbed at his receding hairline. “Turning Point is a small, rural town. Times like this, it doesn’t seem as if it’s changed all that much from when the pioneers first settled here in the 1880s. Right about now I’d happily exchange our
quaint and historical getaway
reputation for a fully-staffed, state-of-the-art hospital and a couple of interstate highways to get people in or out of here as fast as we need to.”

“Well, we can’t build a new highway for you overnight.” Nate shrugged, trying to ease the older man’s concern. “But we’ll do whatever we can to help.”

“I appreciate it.” Mitch slowed the Suburban as he neared an intersection. “I wasn’t sure Dan could deliver when I called and asked for help. But he promised he was sending his best.”

The look Mitch slid Nate indicated he’d be holding them to that promise.

“Yes, sir.”

Mitch stopped at the intersection to let three cars pass. Though a skyline of low rise buildings indicated the town was in view several miles to the east, the older man gripped the wheel in both hands and stared down the road to the west. Nate turned his head to see what had captured his attention. But the black asphalt ribbon, long and empty, faded into the mist.

Nate glanced back, noting the lines of strain bracketing Mitch’s mouth. “Is there a problem?”

“No.” Mitch expelled a long, shaky breath, then turned and headed east. “My daughter lives out that way. On the Double J Ranch. Hopefully she’s got enough sense to stay home today.” Hopefully? Mitch didn’t sound convinced that
sense
and
daughter
belonged in the same paragraph. “I’ll call her from the station house. Make sure they’re okay.”

They.
Son-in-law? Grandchildren?

Before Nate could ask another question, Mitch turned on the Suburban’s siren and lights. Resolutely burying any hint of concern about his daughter and her family, Mitch sped around the three cars and headed into town.

Always the careful observer, Nate shoved his blue fire department ball cap back on his head and peeked inside each vehicle as they drove past. Fleeing the on-coming storm, the cars were loaded down with suitcases, pet carriers, boxes, clothes, food—and a baby strapped into a car seat. Thank God the infant carrier was facing the proper direction in the back seat.

Nate took a deep, silent breath to ease the tightness that clenched his stomach. He couldn’t afford to go there right now. Forcing himself to stay in the moment, he studied the evacuees inside the cars. They wore every
expression from dazed to determined to downright scared.

He’d never witnessed a hurricane before, but in his career he’d dealt with fires, earthquakes, mudslides, and way too many traffic accidents. He recognized the faces of trauma. These people had been uprooted from their homes, chased out by forces beyond their control.

Nate knew the feeling.

He reached into his pocket and rubbed the plain gold wedding band he’d inherited from his grandfather. Carrying the gift for all these years hadn’t exactly been a lucky charm for him, but it was a link to the past. A link to family ties that were changing faster than he could adapt.

With Kell and his wife Melody living on the ranch in California, there was no longer a need for Nate to hold down the fort while his brother worked odd hours as a mounted police officer. And after a disastrous first marriage, ending in her husband’s suicide, his sister had finally found a good, solid man to love in Casey Guthrie. Jackie no longer needed Nate’s shoulder to cry on. She had a husband to listen to her troubles now.

Hell. There were no more troubles. Not for Kell, not for Jackie. After their grandfather’s death, Kell had been the father figure. Jackie had looked after their home. As the youngest sibling, Nate had wound up being the listener—a sounding board for his brother and sister. But the role that had defined him for so many years had eroded beneath his feet.

He’d have to deal with his own troubles now.

Almost like an empty-nester, Nate felt alone for the first time in his life. All the personal relationships he’d knowingly or subconsciously put on hold in order to be
there for his family and friends had passed him by. It was time for him to move on—like the evacuees seeking a haven in Turning Point from the approaching storm.

But like that fictitious man without a country, Nate felt adrift at sea. His future seemed uncertain, and except for his work as a paramedic, he’d yet to find anything to spark his passion or earn his loyalty enough to convince him to make a change.

Nate plucked at the collar of his dark blue uniform shirt and settled his cap down over his short, dark hair. He turned his focus back to the older man beside him. Enough self-analysis. His personal life might be in a state of flux right now, but his work had always been there for him. And right now, his work was here in Texas. As self-appointed leader of this band of volunteers, it was his responsibility to have all the facts in place so their team could make the most efficient use of the supplies they’d brought, and utilize their skills and talents where needed most.

“It was my understanding that the hurricane’s due to make landfall sixty miles northeast of here.” Nate didn’t have to be psychic to sense the older man’s tension. “But you sound as if you’re expecting casualties.”

“I’m expecting anything and everything,” Mitch said. “You should, too. My old bones are sending me a different message than the weather service.”
Old
was a figurative term, Nate decided. Mitch Kannon couldn’t be a day over fifty. And though he was apparently well-fed, the stocky fire chief was in good shape. “Mark my word. That storm’s gonna turn.”

“You think the hurricane will hit farther south, closer to us?” came an energized voice from the back seat.
“Will we be able to see it this far away from the coast?” Dana Ivie, a firefighter and EMT who worked at the Courage Bay station with Nate, was known for her enthusiastic approach to her work. “I’ve never seen a hurricane before. Except on TV. Now I wish I’d brought my camera.”

Nate couldn’t hide his indulgent smile. He and Dana had shared more than one middle-of-the-night chat over a cup of coffee at the station house, relishing the excitement and bemoaning the hazards and heartbreaks of their chosen career. “You’ve never seen an avalanche or tornado before, either,” he teased. “Maybe you’d like to take the scenic route on the way back home.”

Dana laughed. “Very funny, Kellison. I’m trying to have a positive attitude here. I’m looking at this thing as an adventure, not a tragedy waiting to happen.”

“I hope you’re right.” Mitch didn’t sound convinced. He killed the siren and stopped at what appeared to be one of the town’s few traffic lights, then turned right past a sprawling brick building easily identifiable as a school. They slowed as they passed the football field and headed toward a residential area. “We plan to put up as many evacuees as we can here at the high school. If that doesn’t hold them all, then we’ll have to ask people to open up their homes. My brother-in-law, Hank, owns the hardware store downtown. He’s donated all the cots, sleeping bags, lanterns and water jugs he has on hand. Beyond that, the townsfolk have pitched in blankets and pillows and food. We kept some at the firehouse, but like I said, we’re nowhere close to being able to provide for a big influx of evacuees.”

“Sounds like you have a real sense of community here in Turning Point.”

Nate cocked his head to make eye contact with the brunette seated behind him. Cheryl Tierney, a trauma nurse from Courage Bay Hospital’s E.R., was as detail-oriented as Dana was impulsive.

“But if your evacuees are scattered all over town, we won’t have a reliable way to track them,” Cheryl pointed out in her ever-practical tone. “And since we’re not familiar with the area, we could be delayed trying to answer individual calls. Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to set up at the school instead of in town?”

Mitch shook his head. “I’ve scheduled a briefing for you down at the firehouse at 8:00 a.m. I’d like to ask you and Dr. Sherwood to set up a triage center at the station.” Amy Sherwood was the fourth volunteer from Courage Bay. “That’ll free up Kellison and Ms. Ivie to handle the more routine calls. I’ll give you a tour of our facilities, such as they are, and a map of the county. Right now, all our emergency calls come through the station, so we’ll use that as our command post. As we get the weather updates, we’ll have a better idea of what we’re facing and whether or not we need to move to an alternate site.”

“Will we be meeting your staff then?” Cheryl asked.

Mitch huffed a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “My
staff
consists of a dozen or so volunteer firefighters who are scattered around the county right now, shoring up their own homes and making sure their families are safe. We’ll see who shows up for the briefing.”

Volunteers. Who might or might not show up for duty assignments. Who might or might not be properly
trained for the potential range of emergencies brought on by a hurricane.

Reassuring? Hardly. Nate stared out the window to hide his scowl. No wonder Mitch had had to call Chief Egan for backup. This had to be the craziest, most haphazard, seat-of-the-pants rescue operation Nate had ever been a part of.

Dr. Amy Sherwood, a first-year E.R. resident at Courage Bay Hospital, raised her voice to be heard from the third seat. “Chief Kannon, perhaps you could tell us a little more about what to expect, weatherwise, with a hurricane.”

“I will if you call me Mitch.” He paused to turn on the wipers, clearing the condensing moisture from the windshield. “Damon is classified as a category four hurricane. If he hits Corpus Christi and the northern Gulf Shore like he’s supposed to, we’ll miss the brunt of the one hundred thirty to hundred fifty mile-per-hour winds.”

“Whoa!” Dana’s expletive said it all. “Maybe I don’t want to see a hurricane, after all.”

Mitch answered with a told-you-so shrug. “Generally August gets pretty hot and sticky around here. But if you noticed the chill in the air, that’s the barometric pressure dropping ahead of the storm.”

That explained the ache in Nate’s knee.

“Joy and rapture,” Dana groaned.

Amy knew what had triggered the sarcastic remark. “Ah, yes. The barometric pressure drops and pregnant women near their term go into labor. Remember the storm that hit Courage Bay a couple months back? We delivered three babies in the E.R. that night.”

Nate remembered it well. He’d brought in one of the mothers who’d gone into premature labor. Mitch’s white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel warned Nate that their temporary boss didn’t find Amy’s story amusing.

“I hope to hell you’re wrong about that,” the fire chief muttered.

BOOK: Riding the Storm
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