Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue) (3 page)

BOOK: Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue)
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Chapter Three

D
arkness came, and Luke was glad that a strong breeze from the ocean came with it. Cutting vehicles loose from downed trees had been grueling in the motionless air the storm had left behind. When the order came to stand down, Luke was glad for that, too. He considered himself to be in good shape, working on the ranch day in and day out, but wielding an ax for hour after hour had been back-breaking, plain and simple.

The one thing he would have been most glad of, however, never came. Patricia never appeared, not in a flustered way, not in a collected way, not in any way. Whatever the beautiful personnel director was up to, she wasn’t up to it in his part of the relief center. But since impatient Zach wanted his damned glove back, Luke was going to have to go and get it.

Determined to make the best of it, Luke had hit the portable showers when the fire crew had their allotted time. He’d dug a clean T-shirt out of his gym bag and run a comb through his hair while it was still damp. Shaving was conveniently required of the firemen, since beards could interfere with the way a respirator mask sealed to the face. He’d been able to shave without drawing any attention to himself.

All he had to do was tell the guys to head off for chow without him, and then he could take a convenient detour that would lead him past Patricia’s tent on his way to supper in the mess tent. He’d listen for her voice, and if she was in, he’d go in to retrieve his glove. Damn, but he was looking forward to seeing her again.

He was so intent on reaching her tent that he nearly missed her voice when he heard it in a place he hadn’t expected. He stopped short outside the door marked “pharmacy,” a proper door with a lock, set into a wooden frame that was sealed to an inflatable tent, similar to the kind he knew were used for surgeries and such.

“The rules exist for a reason.” Smooth but unyielding, that was Patricia’s voice.

“I thought we were here to help these people,” another female voice answered, but this voice sounded more shrill and impatient. “These people have lost their houses. They’ve lost everything. If I can give them some free medicine, why shouldn’t I? When I went to Haiti, we gave everyone months’ worth of the drugs they needed.”

There was a beat of silence, then Patricia’s tone changed subtly to one of almost motherly concern. “It might help if you keep in mind that this isn’t Haiti. Half of the homes in this town were vacant vacation homes, second homes for people who can well afford their own medicine. You don’t need to give them a month’s worth, just a few days until the town’s regular pharmacies re-open.”

“Then I don’t see what the big deal is.” The other woman, in response to Patricia’s gentle concern, sounded like a pouting teenager. “Nitroglycerin is cheap, anyway.”

“It’s not the cost, it’s the scarcity. I had to send someone almost all the way to Victoria to get more. He was gone for nearly four hours. He used gallons of gasoline that can’t be replaced because the pumps aren’t running yet because the electricity isn’t running yet.”

Luke nearly grinned when he heard that steel slip back into Patricia’s voice. He crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head back to look up at the stars. She was right about the electricity being out, of course. When an entire town’s streetlights were doused, the stars became brilliant. When all traffic stopped, the crash of the ocean surf could be heard blocks away.

It should be easy to set the right mood to explore a little physical chemistry, and he realized now he’d been hoping to find Patricia—and Zach’s glove—alone. It would have been better if he could have waited until she’d had the time and the desire, or at least the curiosity, to come and find him. But since he needed to get that glove, he’d half hoped she’d be happy to see him walk back into her tent tonight. He’d forgotten something important: Patricia was still working. Still working and still the boss.

He should get to the mess tent. He could stop by the admin tent an hour from now, or three, and he knew she’d be there, working. There was no need to wait for her right now.

Yet he lingered, and listened, and admired the way she stayed cool, alternating between logical and sympathetic until the other woman was apologizing for the trouble she hadn’t realized she’d caused, and Patricia was granting her a second—or what sounded more like a third—opportunity to prove she could be part of the Texas Rescue team.

The door opened and Patricia stepped out. As she turned back to listen to the other person, the generator-powered lights inside the tent illuminated Patricia’s flawless face, her cheekbones and elegant neck exposed with her pale hair still twisted up in that smooth style.

“The regular pharmacies will re-open, don’t forget. This isn’t Haiti. The buildings are damaged, but they didn’t disappear into a pile of rubble. If they had, I promise you, we’d be working under a different policy entirely.”

Luke hadn’t thought of Patricia as a high-strung filly, and damn Zach for putting the thought into his head, but now he could imagine a similarity. Patricia was no ranch workhorse, though. Once, after a livestock show in Dallas, Luke had been invited by a trainer to spend time in the Grand Prairie racetrack stables. He’d found the Thoroughbreds to be suspicious and nervous around strangers, requiring a lot of careful handling. But once they were brought out to the track, once that starting gate sprang open and they raced down their lanes, doing what they were born to do, those Thoroughbreds had been a sight to behold. Unforgettable.

He’d just listened to Patricia doing what she was born to do. She kept people at their jobs, working hard in hard conditions, serving a community. Whether it required her to revive a pair of unexpected firemen or turn around a pharmacy tech’s attitude, that’s what Patricia did to make her hospital run, and she did it well.

The unseen pharmacy girl was still apologizing. In the glow of the lights, Luke watched Patricia smile benevolently. “There’s no need to apologize further. I’m sure you’ll have no problems at all complying with the policy tomorrow, and I look forward to having you here on the team for the rest of the week. Good night.”

Patricia shut the door with a firm click. With his eyes already adjusted to the dark, Luke watched her polite, pleasant expression fade away, replaced by a frown and a shake of her head. She was angry. Perhaps disgusted with a worker who’d taken so much of her time. Without a glance at the brilliant stars, she headed down the row of tents toward her office space.

After a moment, Luke followed. He told himself he wasn’t spying on her. He had to pass her tent to get to the mess tent, anyway. But when she stopped, he stopped.

She didn’t go into her tent. She clutched her clipboard to her chest with one arm, looking for a moment like an insecure schoolgirl. Then she headed away from the tent complex, into the dark.

Luke followed, keeping his distance. When she stopped at a picnic table near a cluster of palm trees in the rear of the town hospital building, he hesitated. She obviously wanted to be alone. She sat on the bench, crossed her arms on the table, then rested her head on them.

The woman was not angry or disgusted. She was tired. Luke felt foolish for not realizing it sooner.

While she apparently caught a cat nap, he stood silently a short distance away. He didn’t want to wake her. He’d look like an idiot for having followed her away from the tents. On the other hand, he couldn’t leave her here, asleep and unprotected. Except for the starlight, it was pitch black. There’d been no looting in the storm-damaged town, but there were packs of displaced dogs forming among the wrecked homes, and—

Hell. He didn’t need wandering pets for an excuse. He wasn’t going to leave Patricia out here alone. Period.

He cleared his throat as he walked up behind her, not wanting to startle her, but she was dead to the world. He sat down beside her. She was sitting properly, knees together, facing the table like she’d fallen asleep saying grace over her dinner plate. He sat facing the opposite way, leaning back against the table and stretching his legs out. The wooden bench gave a little under his weight, disturbing her.

“Good evening, Miss Patricia.”

That startled her awake the rest of the way. Her head snapped up, and she blinked and glanced around, looking adorably disoriented for a woman who carried a clipboard everywhere she went. When she recognized him, her eyes opened wide.

“Oh.”

“It’s me. Luke Waterson. The firefighter who barged in on you today.”

“Yes, I remember you.” She looked at the watch on her wrist and frowned.

Luke figured she couldn’t read it in the faint light. “You’ve only been out a minute or two.”

She hit a button on her watch and it lit up. Of course. He should have known she’d be prepared. She touched her hair, using her fingertips to smooth one wayward strand back into place. She touched the corner of each eye with her pinky finger, then put both hands in her lap and took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m awake. Did you need something?”

This was what her life was like, he realized. Everyone came to her when they needed something. She didn’t expect Luke to be there for any other reason. Did no one seek her out just to talk during a work shift? To play a game of cards in the shade when they were off duty? To share a meal?

He didn’t feel like smiling at the moment, but he did, anyway. She’d asked if he needed anything. “Nope. Nothing.”

She tilted her head and looked at him, those eyes that had opened so wide now narrowing skeptically. “Then what are you doing here?”

I can’t stop thinking about you. I want to feel you fall against me again.

His mother had always told him when in doubt, tell the truth, but he wasn’t going to tell Patricia that particular truth. He settled for a more boring—but true—explanation. “I left a work glove in your tent. I was coming to get it when I saw you walking off into the dark. I was worried about you, so I followed.”

“You were worried about me?” She gave a surprised bit of a chuckle, as if the idea were so outlandish it struck her funny. She got up from the table, then picked up her walkie-talkie and her clipboard, and held them to her chest.

Luke stood, too. As if he were handling a nervous Thoroughbred, he moved slowly. He stood a little too close, but unlike this afternoon, she didn’t back away.

He hadn’t imagined that chemistry. It was still there, in spades. Looking into her face by the light of the stars, he wanted to hold her again, deliberately this time. To kiss her lips, to satisfy a curiosity to know how she tasted.

But he wouldn’t. Standing this close, he could also see how tired she was, a woman who’d undoubtedly been handling one issue after another since the first storm warnings had put Texas Rescue on alert. A woman so tired, she’d fallen asleep while sitting at a wooden table.

“Let’s go back to the hospital,” he said, when he would rather have said a dozen different things.

He took the clipboard and the radio out of her hand, then offered her his arm. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow immediately, and he suspected she did it without thinking. Her debutante ways and his cowboy etiquette meshed with ease for a second. Then she seemed to realize what she’d done and started to drop her hand.

He pressed her hand to his side with his arm. “It’s dark. This way you can catch me if I trip.”

“This way you can drag me down with you, more likely.” But she left her hand where it was as they walked in silence.

When he started to pass her office tent, she pulled him to a stop. “You need to get your glove.”

He turned to face her, and now it was easy to see every detail of her face in the light that glowed through the white walls of the hospital’s tents. She was so very beautiful, and so very tired.

“I thought that was what I needed when I first followed you out into the dark, but now I know I need something else much, much more.”

He moved an inch closer to her, and he felt her catch her breath as she held her ground. “What is that?” she whispered.

“I need to get you into bed. Now.”

Chapter Four

H
e wants to take me to bed?

What a stupid, stupid suggestion. They were in the middle of a mission, in the middle of a storm-damaged town, not to mention that Patricia felt gritty and hungry and so very damned tired. How could any man think of sex when all she could think of was—

Bed.

Oh.

“You’re trying to be funny, aren’t you?” she accused.

That lopsided grin on his face should have been infuriating instead of charming. She drew herself up a bit straighter. It
was
infuriating. It was.

Luke had the nerve to give her hand a squeeze before she pulled it away. “There, for a few seconds, the look on your face was priceless.”

“I hope you enjoyed yourself. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

He didn’t let go of her clipboard when she reached for it.

“Nope,” he said. “You go where this clipboard goes, so you’ll just have to follow me if you want it back.” He took off walking.

She was so stunned, he was several yards away before she realized he really expected her to follow. He turned at the corner of her tent and disappeared—but not before he looked over his shoulder and waved her own damned walkie-talkie at her.

Shock gave way to anger. Anger gave her energy. She caught up to him within a few seconds, her angry strides matching his slower but longer ones as they headed down the aisle between tents.

She snatched her walkie-talkie out of his hand. “You’re being childish.”

“I am.” He nodded, and kept walking.

“This isn’t summer camp. People are relying on me. On all of us. They rely on you, too.”

“And yet, I can still respond to a fire if I hear the signal while I’m enjoying this romantic walk with you. It’s okay, Patricia.”

She yanked her clipboard out of his hand and turned back toward the admin tent. He blocked her way just by standing in her path, being the ridiculous, giant mass of muscle that he was. She felt twenty-two again. Less. Make that nineteen, handing a slightly altered ID to a bouncer who was no fool.

“It’s not okay,” she said, and her jaw hurt from clenching her teeth so hard. “I cannot do my job if I can’t get to my headquarters. Now move.”

Instead, Luke gestured toward the tent they’d stopped next to. “This is the women’s sleeping quarters. Recognize it? I didn’t think so. You were first on scene, weren’t you? You decided where the first tent spike should be driven into the ground, I’ll bet. So, you’ve been here forty-eight hours, at least. You were supposed to have gotten sixteen hours of sleep, then, at a minimum. You’ve taken how many?”

Patricia spoke through clenched teeth. “You’re being patronizing.”

The last bit of a grin left his face, and he suddenly looked very serious. “I just watched you fall asleep sitting up on a piece of wood. Forty-eight hours is a long time to keep running. Take your break, Patricia.”

Patronizing, and giving her orders. She didn’t know him from Adam, but like every other man in her life, he seemed to think he knew best. She was so mad she could have spit. She wanted to shove him out of her way. She wanted to tell him to kiss off. But she was Patricia Cargill, and she knew from a lifetime of experience that if she wanted to get her way, she couldn’t do that.

She’d learned her lessons at her father’s knee, and she’d seen the truth over and over as stepmamas and aunties had come and gone. If a woman got spitting mad, Daddy Cargill would chuckle and hold up his hands and proclaim a soap opera was in progress. His cronies would declare that women were too emotional to be reliable business partners. The bankers would mutter among themselves about whose turn it was to deal with the harpy this time.

No one ever said those things about Patricia Cargill, because she never let them see her real feelings, even if, like her father’s discarded women, those emotions were justified now and again.

Luke was standing over her like a self-appointed bodyguard. He’d decided she needed protecting. That was probably some kind of psychological complex firefighters were prone to. She could use that to her advantage.

She placed her hand oh-so-lightly on his muscular arm, so very feminine, so very grateful. “I’ve gotten more sleep than you think. That power nap was very refreshing. It’s so very thoughtful of you to be concerned, and I’m sorry to have worried you, but I’m fine.” She took a step in the direction of the admin tent.

“Where are you going?”

“Let’s get your glove. It will only take a minute.” She smiled at him, friendly and unoffended, neither of which she felt. She didn’t give a damn about his stupid glove, but it gave her an easy way to get back to her office.

“Forget it. You’re very charming, Patricia, but you’re very tired.”

For a fraction of a second, she felt fear. She’d failed in an area where she usually excelled. She’d failed to manage this man effectively.

Luke lectured on. “The rules exist for a reason. You’ve been working nonstop, and you’re going to get sick or hurt.”

The rules exist for a reason.
She wasn’t sure why, but that sounded so familiar.

“Who takes your place when it’s your turn for downtime?” Luke tapped her clipboard. “I bet you’ve got a whole organizational chart on there. I’m curious who you answer to, because you seem to think the rules don’t apply to you.”

“Karen Weaver is the head of the Austin branch of Texas Rescue,” Patricia said. She sounded stiff. That was an accomplishment, considering she felt furious.

“I bet you make sure every single hospital volunteer from the most prestigious surgeon to the lowliest rookie gets their breaks, but Karen Weaver doesn’t make sure you get yours?” Luke used her own trick on her, running the tips of his fingers lightly down her arm, all solicitous concern.

“Karen is...new,” Patricia said.

Luke laughed. The man laughed, damn him. “She’s new and she doesn’t know half of what you do, does she? You don’t trust her to take care of your baby.”

Bingo.
But Patricia wouldn’t say that out loud, not for a million dollars.

Luke’s hand closed on her arm, warm and firm. “Karen isn’t you, but she’s good enough to handle the hospital while everyone’s sleeping.” He turned her toward the sleeping quarters and pulled back the tent flap, then let her go. “Please, take your break.”

She wanted to object. She made all the decisions. She was in charge. But even her anger at his high-handedness wasn’t sustaining her against her exhaustion. He’d brought her to the very threshold of the sleeping quarters. To be only a few feet away from where her inflatable mattress lay, empty and waiting...it was enough to make the most adamant woman waffle.

Luke’s voice, that big, deep voice, spoke very quietly, because he was very close to her ear. “I’m not your boss, and you aren’t mine. You answer to Karen, and I answer to the fire chief. But this afternoon, you gave me orders, and I obeyed them because they were smart. You told me to drink; I did. You told me to sit; I did. So it’s my turn. I’m telling you to get ready for bed. I’m going to bring you a sandwich from the mess tent and place it inside the door, because it’s a sure thing that you haven’t taken time to eat. You’ll eat it and you’ll get some rest when you turn off that walkie-talkie, because you know it’s the smart thing to do. You’ve worked enough.”

Patricia had never had a man speak to her like that. Telling her to stop working. Telling her she’d done enough. It made her melt the way poets believed flowers and verse should make women melt. It made her so weak in the knees, she couldn’t take a step for fear of stumbling.

Weakness was bad.

“You can’t give me orders,” she said, but her voice was husky and tired.

“I just did.” With a firm hand in her lower back, an inch above the curve of her backside, Luke Waterson pushed her gently into the tent, dropped the flap and walked away.

* * *

Patricia felt strange the next day.

It should have been easier to focus on the relief operation after a full meal and a good night’s sleep. Instead, it was harder. That sleep and that meal had come at the hands—the very strong hands—of a fireman who looked like—

Damn it. There she went again, losing her train of thought.

She checked the to-do list on her clipboard. The items that had been done and crossed off were irrelevant. Being at the helm of Texas Rescue’s mobile hospital was like being at the helm of one of her sailboats. Congratulating herself on having handled a gust of wind two minutes ago wouldn’t prevent her boat from capsizing on the next gust. Whether on a lake or at a relief center, Patricia looked ahead, planned ahead, kept an eye on the horizon—or in this case, on her checklist. One unfinished item from yesterday jumped out:
Set up additional shade for waiting area.

Patricia tapped her mechanical pencil against her lips. She had the additional tent in the trailer. She just didn’t have the manpower to get it set up. According to the tent’s manual, it would take three people twenty minutes. That meant it would require forty minutes, of course, but she didn’t have three people, anyway. She could serve as one, although she wasn’t good with the sledgehammer when it came to driving the spikes in the ground. At this site, the spikes had been driven right through the asphalt in many cases, and she knew her limits. Driving iron spikes through asphalt, even crumbling, sunbaked asphalt, wasn’t her skill set.

An image of Luke Waterson, never far from her mind this morning, appeared once more. Appeared, and zoomed in on his arms. Those muscles. The way they’d flexed under her fingertips as he’d escorted her back to the tents in the dark...

Luke could drive a spike through asphalt.

Patricia went to her tent and fetched his glove.

BOOK: Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue)
10.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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