Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue) (4 page)

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

B
eing a rookie was everything Luke had expected it to be. He’d volunteered for Zach’s fire department just for the chance to be the rookie. For the chance to shed some responsibility. For the chance to have a little adventure without having to do any decision-making. For a change, any damned change, from the endless routine on the James Hill Ranch.

He’d gotten that change on Sunday night. Their fire engine had driven through the still-powerful remains of the hurricane as it had moved inland toward Austin. They’d arrived at the coast only hours after the hurricane had passed through, and they’d had rescues to perform the moment they’d rolled into town.

The repetitive ladder drills they’d practiced for months had finally proven useful as they’d reached a family who’d been stranded on a roof by rising water. Then they’d laid that ladder flat to make a bridge to a man who was clinging to the remains of a boat on an inland waterway. In the predawn hours, Luke had waded through waist-deep brackish water with a kindergartner clinging to his neck.

That experience had been humbling. He’d been seeking adventure for its own sake, but that rescue made him rethink his purpose as a part-time volunteer fireman. He’d been blessed with health, and strength, and in that case, the sheer size to be able to stay on his feet and not be swept away by a rush of moving water. Being able to carry a child who could not have crossed that flood herself had made him grateful for things he normally didn’t give a second thought.

But it was Wednesday now, the water had receded substantially, and they’d “rescued” only empty, toppled ambulances yesterday. Today, they’d cleaned their fire engine. And cleaned it. And cleaned it some more.

He shoved the long-handled broom into the fire engine’s ladder compartment, a stainless steel box that ran the length of the entire fire engine, then swept out dried mud that had clung to the ladder the last time they’d slid it into its storage hold.
Yeah, big change from mucking stalls.
At least this dirt smelled better.

Luke had looked forward to following someone else’s orders, but being a rookie gave him too much time to think. He wasn’t required to use his brain at all, not even to decide what to clean next. This gave him way too much time to relive the mistakes he’d made with Patricia last night. He’d been childish, she’d said, refusing to return her clipboard. He’d shoved her into a tent, like giving an unwilling filly a push into her stall. He’d slid a sandwich and a bag of chips and a Gatorade bottle under the edge of the tent door like he was feeding a prisoner.

Yeah, he’d been a regular Casanova.

He pushed the broom into the ladder compartment again, and hoisted himself halfway into the compartment after it, head and one shoulder wedged in the rectangular opening so he could reach farther.

Zach’s whistle echoed in the metal box. Luke felt Zach’s elbow in his waist. “Don’t look now, but I think a certain filly is finally curious about the man who has been standing by the corral fence. You patient son of a bitch, she’s coming over to give you a sniff, just like you predicted.”

Luke backed out of the compartment, cracking his head on the steel edge in his haste.

Zach was leaning against the engine, one boot on the rear chrome platform that Luke would be sweeping next. Zach shook his head as Luke rubbed his.

“I just said ‘don’t look now’ and what did you do? Jumped out of there like a kid to get a peek. You’re losing it bad around this woman, Waterson. Don’t look.”

Luke looked, anyway. Patricia was walking straight toward them, no doubt about it. Her hair was piled a little higher on her head today and her polo shirt was white instead of navy, and God, did she look gorgeous in the sunlight, all that blue sky behind her blond hair.

Luke took a step toward her. “She’s got my glove.”

Zach put a hand in his chest. “I wasn’t in a condition yesterday to fully appreciate the view. Now I am. That’s my glove. I’ll get it. You keep sweeping, rookie.”

He took no more than two steps before Chief Rouhotas appeared from around the side of the engine. The chief was looking in Patricia’s direction even as he stuck his hand out to block Zach. “I’ve got this, Lieutenant Bishop. Back to work.”

Luke crossed his arms over his chest as he watched Chief Rouhotas walk up to Patricia and greet her with his head bobbing and bowing as if she really were the princess she looked like she was. Patricia nodded graciously. They spoke for a minute, then she offered him her hand. He shook it as if it were an honor.

The important detail, however, was in Patricia’s other hand. When the chief had greeted her, she’d casually moved her left hand behind her back, keeping the glove out of sight. She could have given it to Rouhotas, of course. She could have asked for it to be returned to Luke—which would have earned Luke another round of hazing, he was certain, for leaving a piece of equipment behind—but she kept it out of sight as she concluded whatever business deal she was making with the chief. No mistake about it, an agreement about something had been reached. Luke recognized a deal-sealing handshake when he saw it.

He didn’t have to wait long to have that mystery solved. Patricia walked away—without a backwards glance for as long as Luke watched her—and the chief started bellowing orders.

“Waterson. Bishop. Murphy. Report to the hospital’s storage trailer. Bring your sledgehammers. Looks like they need help setting up a tent to make an extra waiting room for the walk-ups.”

Zach and Luke exchanged a look, but Murphy complained. Out loud. At nineteen, he still had moments of teenaged attitude. “Seriously, chief? It’s already a hundred degrees.”

“That’s why they need the shade, genius.”

Murphy opened the cab door and retrieved his own work gloves, muttering the whole time. “We’re not even part of the hospital—”

“They’re feeding us and giving us billets, so you don’t have to sleep in this engine,” Chief cut in.

Murphy ought to know the chief heard everything his men uttered. Luke had figured that out real quick.

“So quit your whining and moaning,” Chief said, “or I’ll let Miss Cargill be your boss for the whole day instead of an hour. You’ll find out what work is.”

Miss Cargill, was it? Patricia Cargill. He liked the sound of it. They couldn’t get to Patricia’s job soon enough to suit Luke. He had no doubt that more back-breaking labor would be involved, but given the choice between sweeping mud here or getting an eyeful of Patricia, he’d take the hard-earned eyeful.

First, of course, they had to pack the engine’s gear back in place. The engine had to be ready to roll at all times. Luke took one end of the heavy, twenty-eight-foot extension ladder as Zach gave the commands to hoist and return it to the partially swept compartment.

It was more grunt work, leaving Luke’s mind free to wander, but there was only one place his mind wanted to go: Patricia. She’d kept the glove. She still wanted to talk to him later, then, maybe to chew him out for last night. That was all right with him. That gave him a second chance.

She was waiting by the trailer, no glove in sight, when he and his crew walked up in the non-flammable black T-shirts and slacks they always wore on duty, even under their bulky turnout coats and pants. They were big men, all of them, and they carried sledgehammers, so they were stared at openly as they hauled the several-hundred pound tent out of the trailer and carried it on their shoulders, following Patricia down the row of hospital tents.

When a nurse wolf-whistled at them, Luke grinned back. Whether working on the engine or on the ranch, a little female appreciation never hurt his spirits.

He wasn’t getting any of that appreciation from Patricia, unfortunately. Or maybe he was, but her calm, neutral expression certainly gave none of it away.

They dropped the tent where she indicated, and Murphy and Zach started freeing the straps. That was a two-person job, so Luke kept himself busy by taking their sledgehammers and setting them aside with his, right at the feet of the woman who was pretending he didn’t exist.

“I’ve been officially informed that you are my boss today,” Luke said, giving her the smile she was so good at ignoring, but which he liked to believe she wasn’t entirely immune to. “What do you want to do with me? Tell me to go to hell, maybe?”

She didn’t say anything, but held a cell phone up in the air and squinted at its sun-washed screen. “The cell towers are still down.”

“I think it’s only fair that we reverse positions after last night. I was a bit overbearing, so now it’s your turn. You should order me to get in bed. I’ll be very obedient.”

She lowered the phone with a sigh and gave him a look that could only be described as long-suffering martyrdom. “I assume you are, once more, enjoying yourself ever so much.”

He smiled bigger. “Around you? Always.”

She shook her head, but he caught the quirk of her lips. He wasn’t in the dog house, after all. Her next words confirmed it.

“Thank you for the sandwich last night.” Before he could say anything, she smoothly changed the subject. “There’s no cell phone service. The towers are usually fairly high priority after a disaster. Phones have really become essential to daily function—”

“You’re welcome. What are you doing for dinner tonight?”

“Absolutely nothing. I’m your boss. I can’t go on a dinner date with a subordinate.”

“You’re only my boss until this tent goes up. Twenty minutes, tops.”

“It’ll take forty,” she countered.

“Twenty, and you have to eat dinner with me.”

“You’ve made yourself a bad deal.” But she held out her hand, and they shook on it.

After unpacking the tent, Luke drove the first spike into the earth around the remains of the town hospital building’s shrubbery in a single, satisfying stroke. He glanced in Patricia’s direction, ready to deliver some smack-talk that twenty minutes was all they’d need at his pace. But her back was to him, the walkie-talkie pressed between her shoulder and ear as she signed a form for one of her staff members who’d appeared from nowhere. She’d missed his fine display of manliness.

The heat was already broiling. Murphy and Zach shed their shirts to a few appreciative female whistles, but Luke, too aware of Patricia, kept his on. Call it instinct, but behind that neutral expression, he thought the wolf whistles from the women bothered Patricia.

Maybe she just thought others were being lazy. Actions spoke louder than words or whistles. While passers-by slowed down to watch the men at work, Patricia helped. She didn’t just give verbal directions, although she did plenty of that to get them started, but she also held poles, spread canvas, untangled ropes. She cast a critical eye at Murphy’s first guy line, then crouched down, undid his knot, and proceeded to pull the line beautifully taut while tying an adjustable knot that would have impressed any lasso-throwing cowboy.

Since Luke threw lassos in his day job, he was impressed. “Where’d you learn to tie knots? Do you work the rodeo circuit when there aren’t any natural disasters to keep you busy?”

“You’re quite amusing.” She didn’t answer his question as she moved to the next line. “Once it’s up, I want to be able to pull the roof taut. There’s more rain in the forecast.”

And since she wanted it taut, she did the work. Patricia Cargill, with diamonds in her ears, didn’t stand on the sidelines and giggle and point at shirtless men. She worked. Luke thought he might be a little bit in love. He’d have the chance to explore that over dinner. They had half the tent up already, and only ten minutes had passed.

The spikes on the other side of the tent, however, had to be driven into asphalt. Although they adjusted the lines to take advantage of any existing crack or divot in the asphalt, their progress slowed painfully as every spike took a dozen hard strikes or more to be seated in the ground. The sun cooked them from overhead, the asphalt resisted their efforts, and then Patricia’s walkie-talkie squawked.

“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I’m needed elsewhere. You’re free to leave when you’re done. I’ll come back to check on things later.”

“Doesn’t trust us to put up a tent,” Murphy grumbled.

Patricia was a perfectionist, Luke supposed, a usually negative personality trait, but if she wanted a job done just right, it seemed to him she had good reason for it. When she’d told him rain was in the forecast, she hadn’t needed to say anything else. A tent that sagged could hold water and then collapse, injuring those it was supposed to shelter. Luke understood that kind of perfectionism.

He stepped closer to her. “Just take care of your other business. Don’t worry about this shelter. That roof will be stretched as tight as a drum. I’ll check all the guy lines before we go.”

She looked at him, perhaps a bit surprised.

“In other words,” he said, “I’ll fix Murphy’s knots.”

She almost smiled. Luke decided it counted as a smile, because it started at her eyes, the corners crinkling at their shared joke, even if it didn’t quite reach her perfect, passive lips.

“Thank you,” she murmured, and she started to walk away.

“I know it’s been more than twenty minutes,” Luke called after her, “but you could still eat dinner with me.”

She kept walking, but tossed him a look over her shoulder that included—
hallelujah
—a full smile, complete with a flash of her pearly whites. “A deal is a deal. No welching, no cheating, no changing the terms.”

Zach interrupted Luke’s appreciation of the view as Patricia walked away. “Hey, Romeo. It’s not getting any cooler out here. How about we finish this up?”

Luke peeled his shirt off to appreciative cheers from the almost entirely female crowd that had gathered, then spread it on the ground to dry. Without cell phones, TVs or radios, Luke supposed he and Zach and Murphy were the best entertainment around.

For all his talk about hurrying, Zach was going all out for the onlookers, striking body-builder poses and hamming it up for the ladies for the next quarter hour as they finished the job.

Luke double-checked the last line, then bent to swipe his shirt off the ground. The sun had dried it completely. He stuck his fists through the sleeves, then raised his arms overhead to pull the shirt on. Some sixth sense made him look a little distance away. Patricia was leaning against a tree, eyes on him, watching him dress, not even trying to pretend she was looking at anything else.

BOOK: Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue)
2.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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