Breathe for Me(Be for Me 1_ Xander)

By: Natalie Anderson

Chapter One

Chelsea Greene stood at the side of the pool. Despite the sultry air, goose bumps peppered her skin. Cushion covered deckchairs and fairy-light festooned railings evoked a fun, party atmosphere. People from neighboring buildings could probably see her, no doubt wondering why she wasn’t wet already. On a hot night like this, she was surprised she was the only resident breaking the rules to swim after hours.

It ought to be easy.

A sparkling, azure pool on a Manhattan apartment block’s roof was a rare luxury. Kidney-shaped, it wasn’t built for endless laps and fitness, but for fun. And it was time to quit dawdling and dive right in. But her leg ached. Almost two years on from the accident it wasn’t fully fixed.

One foot at a time, one step at a time, inch by inch and all that…

Her pulse skittered. She concentrated, trying to remember the simple sensual delight of warm water washing over skin and the free feeling of floating. But other memories were stronger, creeping and curling like a vine that all too soon overtakes and suffocates the original host plant.

Dark, cold, deep. Drowning.

Her breathing hitched. She froze on the edge. Alarm bells clanged in her head, endlessly ringing out panic. She closed her eyes, tried counting her way to calm.

One, two, three, four, five…

She got to nineteen before it dawned that the alarm wasn’t stopping. It was real. Snapping her eyes open, she turned towards the stairwell. Distantly, beneath the ear-splitting siren, she could hear the slamming of several doors.

Fire alarm. Her building. Wouldn’t that be her luck? Chelsea grinned ruefully. At least it wasn’t all in her head.

She snatched up her towel and walked as fast as her damaged leg would allow. She wasn’t going to panic. Alarms like this were almost always false—a warning, a drill, an electronic hiccup. It wouldn’t be a real emergency. Opening the door to the stairwell, she heard voices. Below, people were filing out fast, calling out to each other. Some laughed. If people were laughing it must be okay.

She clutched the towel around her and steeled herself for however many million stairs. No elevators worked in an alarm, everyone knew they were programmed to return to the ground floor and stay there. She’d have to walk all twenty flights. Her heart thundered rapidly, skipping essential beats, making her breathless before she’d hardly started.

Just a drill. Just a drill.

One floor. Two. Into the melee. A ton of people were ahead of her, moving fast. On the landing of the third floor down a flood of people emerged from one doorway. Apparently Thursday night was party night in that apartment. They didn’t seem to notice her leaning against the banister as they rushed—a gaggle of merriment and energy that streamed by in a hazy push of people. Her towel snagged on something, loosened, then slipped between the railings, falling into that tiny gap in the center of the stairwell. It floated down all the floors in a few seconds. She gripped the banister. The crowd was well below her now too. It didn’t matter, right?

This was only a drill. They’d only be on the street a couple of minutes while the apartment managers reset the alarm. Then she caught it. The unmistakable smell of smoke.

Not a drill?

Her stupid leg weakened as panic resurged along her veins. She grabbed the banister with both hands. From above she heard a door bang. Frozen, she listened to the rapid clip of sure, fit, heavy feet almost skipping down the stairs.

Pull it together Chelsea. Slow and steady.

She glared at the floor, focusing on each space a pace ahead, resuming her regular counting. She carefully went down more steps, but in seconds the fast, heavy feet caught up to her. Passed her. Stopped.

“You okay?”

There was no ignoring that deep-voiced, drawling query. No ignoring the boots planted wide apart on the floor where she’d been staring that one step ahead.

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