Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue) (9 page)

BOOK: Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue)
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Patricia sat at her laptop after setting down her clipboard and walkie-talkie neatly to the right. No one dared to approach her table. She told herself she liked it that way.

* * *

Discretion sucked.

Luke wanted to stop by admin to let Patricia know he was fine. The call had been to a traffic accident that hadn’t required the use of any of their tools. They’d basically shown up, met the local police, hung around for half an hour and returned. Luke had joined the fire department to find adventure, but this was the most common kind of call they responded to. He wanted Patricia to know it, because she worried about him.

She was concerned for the other guys, too. Hell, she worried about every aspect of this hospital. But mostly, Luke knew she was worried for him, and he’d gotten the kiss to prove it. It seemed like the least he could do, to let a woman who’d kissed him know he was okay.

Right now, Luke couldn’t spare Patricia from any worries, however, because he was supposed to be sparing her from...hell, he wasn’t sure. In the light of day, it seemed hard to recall just why she’d been so adamant in the dark that their new relationship be a secret. He’d made a promise, though. He’d keep it.

It was painful to watch Patricia at lunch time. The moment she got herself a lousy salad, she had to set it down to write something on her always-present clipboard that the cook had asked about. When she picked her food up and turned toward the tables, Luke knew she wouldn’t sit with him, but he willed her to sit with someone else. Anyone else. She’d been such a lonely princess this morning, sitting with her perfect posture at a table meant for ten.

“Ah, Patricia, there you are.” A woman in a white lab coat approached her.

Good. Someone was seeking her out. Luke relaxed a little and took another bite of the brown meat patty that passed as a preserved hamburger. He’d been concerned that Patricia wasn’t eating enough when she’d taken that salad, but now he had to acknowledge her greater experience with Texas Rescue food. She’d probably known the salad would taste better than the hamburger puck.

“Dr. Hodge,” Patricia greeted the woman. “Did you need something else?”

“Yes.”

Not a friend, then.

Patricia put her salad down once more to consult her clipboard and answer a question. Apparently satisfied, Dr. Hodge stepped away. Patricia stopped to speak to another physician, chucked her coffee in the trash can by the door, and left the mess tent alone, carrying her Styrofoam bowl of lettuce leaves.

Luke managed two more bites of the hamburger before he tossed it onto his plate and stood up. “I’ll see you back at the engine,” he said to Murphy.

Zach checked his radio. “Did I miss a call? Where are you going?”

“It’s time for me to get your glove.”

Chapter Ten

T
he rain had stopped, so Patricia had walked slowly enough that Luke caught up to her easily. Maybe too quickly. He only had a half-formed plan. He wanted to talk to her about how dangerous his job usually
wasn’t
. He also hated seeing her eat alone, and he thought it had something to do with her assumption that everyone resented the boss. She’d said something along those lines last night. And speaking of last night, he wanted to change this agreement that they’d pretend they barely knew one another.

Luke wasn’t sure how he was going to say all that, but he was within a step of her already. “Hey, beautiful.”

She stopped to let him join her, but he watched her brown eyes dart left and right, looking for eavesdroppers. “Just call me Patricia, please.”

“I’ve been thinking.” He paused, weighing his next words, wondering where to begin.

“I assume that’s not an unusual activity,” Patricia said after a moment.

Luke smiled. “No, but it’s more fun when I’ve got you to think about. I’ve had a lot of time to think this morning because we’ve only been on one call, and that call was a boring one.”

She started walking again, and he fell into step beside her.

“Every time you hear the engine go out, I don’t want you to worry. You’ve said a couple of times that you don’t want to date a fireman, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Most calls are very boring.”

They were walking a little distance apart, but he felt her sincerity when she said, “I hope you have many boring mornings like that.”

“It is pretty nice to know a pretty woman cares, and you sure are pretty.”

“Of course I care.”

Yes, she did. After her passionate kiss when she’d learned he wasn’t the injured firefighter, after their intimacy as they’d waited out the rain—

“I care about all the Texas Rescue personnel,” she added.

He felt the sting of her words. She was trying to say she cared no more for him than for the cook or that Dr. Hodge. That was bull, and Luke couldn’t let that statement stand.

He stopped in front of her and crossed his arms, if only to prevent himself from reaching for her. With a kiss, he could remind her just how much they meant to each other.
Not now, not here
.

He strove for outward calm, aware that they weren’t the only people outside. “Why would you say that? We practically made love last night, Patricia. I would hope you’d spare me a little more concern than the average person on your roster.”

She looked very controlled. Too controlled, like all the muscles in her face were very carefully being held in a neutral expression. Her words, however, were fierce. “I do not like when you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Block my way. You are forcing me to stop walking by blocking my way. Physically.”

“I’m what?” Luke was baffled. They were talking about attraction, or lying about attraction, or something like that, and her change of subject made no sense. “I’m not blocking you.”

She said nothing but stepped around him. Like one of the sailboats she’d described last night, she stepped diagonally to pass him, then diagonally back to her original path, marching on with her clipboard in one hand and her salad in the other.

Luke turned in place to watch her continue walking in a straight line. By God, he had been standing directly in her way. He uncrossed his arms and caught up to her in a few strides.

“I didn’t realize I did that.” And he wasn’t sure what the significance was, but it obviously meant something to Patricia. “I’m sorry.”

They were at the entrance to her tent. He was careful not to stop between her and the door.

“I can’t stand here and talk to you.” Patricia hitched her clipboard under one arm and placed her hand on the zipper of the tent door. “People will start to wonder.”

Two of those people happened to pass by them at that moment, a man in jeans and a woman in scrubs. They barely glanced at Luke and Patricia.

Luke began to cross his arms again, then stopped himself. He didn’t want to do anything to spook Patricia further. She was already dying to bolt into her tent.

He nodded toward the couple that had just passed them. “What do you think those people thought of you just now?”

Judging by the confusion in her expression, it was Patricia’s turn to be thrown by the turn of the conversation.

“Last night,” he continued, “you said they’d think less of you as a boss if you were seen flirting with a fireman. Do they think you are a bimbo for having a normal conversation with me in broad daylight?”

“No, of course not.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Then we can be friends during the day.”

“I have friends,” she said.

It was a lie. She couldn’t meet his gaze as she said it, and he wanted to call her out on it.
Name them, tell me
. She’d have no answer, because she hadn’t made any friends here. With her head bent, avoiding his gaze, she looked just lost enough that his heart wanted to break for her.

“Darlin’, haven’t you noticed that every day, people are becoming friends around here? Playing cards, lingering over delicious meals. People talk. They make friends. We can act like that, too.”

She let go of the zipper to reposition her clipboard. “That always happens, on every mission. Wait until the cell towers are up and running. People will be absorbed in their phones so fast, your head will spin.”

“In the meantime, Patricia, I want to be your friend, not your secret.”

She looked up at him quickly. “That’s very sweet of you, but we made a deal. I didn’t think you were the kind of man who’d try to change the terms. It will be my misfortune if you do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my desk. This salad is wilting in all this humidity.”

She unzipped the door, and slipped inside. The sound of the zipper going up again infuriated him. It wasn’t raining any longer. She wasn’t shutting the weather out. She was shutting him out.

He scrubbed a hand over his face. This woman had him tied up like one of her nautical knots. He felt sorry for her. He was furious with her. Through the tangle of feelings, he grasped onto the one thing that seemed black and white: she was accusing him of trying to welch on a deal. That was an assault on his manhood if he’d ever heard one.

It was absurd. He’d proposed being friendly. Talking to each other, not gossiping to other people about what had transpired in the dark.

On that point, at least, he wanted to be perfectly clear. He’d get that glove back in front of her little platoon of clerks, and he’d give nothing of his feelings for her away. Actions spoke louder than words.

He unzipped the tent. The air inside was almost cool, and the light was considerably less bright, but his eyes adjusted quickly. He saw the panic on Patricia’s face as she looked up from her desk in midbite and saw him.

“Afternoon, Patricia. I came to see if I might have left a glove in here from the other day.”

“Oh.” She set her plastic fork down. “Yes, you did. I have it right here.”

As she unzipped a briefcase bag at her feet, Luke looked around and realized there was only one other volunteer in the tent, a young woman who was typing furiously fast on her computer. One clerk was witness enough as he demonstrated that he was keeping Patricia’s secrets.

Patricia stood and walked around her table, glove in her hand, keeping up appearances herself. “Here you go. Is there anything else you need?”

His poor princess. What a normal question for her to ask any of the personnel she claimed to be so concerned about. Of course she had no friends here; they were too busy bringing her all their needs, their shortages and their problems. He’d thought it was sad that she didn’t sit with friends to eat her meals, but he’d rather eat alone if he were in her shoes, too. If she’d stayed in the mess tent, her to-do list would have grown longer than it already was.

“No, we’re doing fine on engine thirty-seven.”

He couldn’t think of any way to say he understood. He could only wait until dark, and hope she gave him a second chance to explain.

“Finished.” The young woman stood as if she’d just won a race. “I’m going to take my break now before lunch closes, if you’ll be here for a while, Miss Cargill?”

“Go right ahead, and please call me Patricia,” she said, but the young girl was already heading through the door. The sound of the zipper going up after she left was music to Luke’s ears.

He didn’t have to wait until dark to steal her away. They could speak privately right now. He just didn’t know what to say.

“Patricia,” Luke said. He got no further.

“Thank you for not making a scene.” She tossed the glove on the table and then turned to perch in a half-sit on the table herself. “I thought you were charging in here to make some kind of point.”

“I was. I just can’t remember what that point was. Something to do with showing you that you can count on my discretion.”

“Why did you follow me out of the mess tent in the first place? You wanted to tell me I had no friends?”

She was direct, his Patricia. Luke scrubbed his jaw for a moment. “I think I wanted to tell you the opposite. Last night, you said that it was easy to be labeled as a bitch when you’re the boss. I’m guessing you sat alone at breakfast and you didn’t sit at all at lunch because you assume that everyone thinks of you that way.”

“I don’t put that much thought into it, I assure you.”

“It’s just a reflex with you, an automatic assumption. But I don’t think it’s true.”

“You don’t?”

Those two words gave so much away. Luke realized his intuition had been right. Patricia, deep down, assumed no one liked her.

“What I see is that everyone has a great deal of respect for you. They bring you all kinds of problems, and you never roll your eyes or act like they’ve wasted your time. I’ve watched you, Patricia. Not once have you made someone feel foolish for asking for your help.”

“And yet, plenty of their requests are absurd.” She crossed her arms over her chest as if his words didn’t particularly interest her, but she was listening. She stayed exactly as she was, waiting for him to go on.

“You may think that when you take charge, people resent your abilities or your assertiveness. I think the truth is, they’re glad you’re on their team. You know what you’re doing, and you don’t let anyone fail. That is not a bitch. People are glad you’re part of this hospital, more than you know.”

He moved to take a spot next to her, leaning against the table like she was, hip to hip. She glanced at the door immediately.

“It’s zipped,” he said. “You’ll have plenty of notice before anyone barges in. Even a couple of firemen would have to stop for a second to undo that zipper.”

She smiled a bit, then she moved her arm toward him an inch or two, just enough to pretend she was digging her elbow into his ribs. “I do have friends, by the way.”

“I’m sure you do. You also have me now.” If he’d hoped to see her smile at that, he could only be disappointed at her small frown.

“You are hard to be friends with,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it while you were at the fire. I couldn’t...not care.”

He kept his arms folded like hers, wondering why a woman would be so set against caring for a man.
What happened to someone you cared for?
There would be time for questions like that, as long as he was patient and didn’t push too soon.

Job safety was a simple issue to address. “It’s not as dangerous as you think.”

In a flash, the memory returned.
Keep the wall to my right. Trust the mask. Get out of the building.

He wasn’t lying to her, really. He’d made it out without a scratch.

“You should come and check out engine thirty-seven. We’ve got the best equipment available, and I know we might not seem that impressive, but we are well trained. Come and see, and then maybe you’ll have a little more confidence.”

“That will seem just a tad suspicious, don’t you think? Me, coming to inspect a piece of equipment that isn’t technically part of the hospital? Chief Rouhotas would have a fit.”

“People love fire engines. They look all the time. Come and see it for fun, on a break. Talk to Murphy the whole time. No one will suspect a thing.”

That did get her to smile a bit, if only at the idea of Murphy being sociable.

Luke pressed his luck. “This being discreet thing has its limits, you know. You’re right that it would seem odd if we were suddenly close today, but our public relationship has to evolve. A week from now, if we still aren’t speaking and you’re still avoiding me like I’ve got mange, that will set people talking. It’s not natural in this situation. We’ve only been here a few days, and I can see bonds forming all over this relief center.”

“They don’t last.” She stood and walked away a step. “This is an unreal situation. People get close too fast, and then when the situation is over, the relationship is over. Friendship or otherwise.”

He stood, too, close but trying not to crowd her. The need to touch her was strong, so he placed his hands on her upper arms and tried not to hold very tightly.

Her breathing was unsettled, her arms flexed and still crossed over her chest. “It really is like a summer camp. Friendships seem so real, but they don’t last after everyone goes back to their regular lives.”

Luke rested his forehead to hers. A minute ticked by, but their silence made it feel like a long and lazy time. Patricia uncrossed her arms and placed her hands on him, palms against his chest. He drew her in close, and she slid her hands up his chest to wrap her arms around his neck.

“It’s nothing but a summer romance,” she whispered against his lips.

“If that’s what you believe—”

“It’s what I know. It will only last a week.”

“If that’s what you believe, then I believe we should make it the best week of our lives.”

The zipper was loud. And fast. Luke only had time to drop his arms as Patricia whirled to the desk to snatch up the glove.

One male clerk came in, followed by another.

“Here it is,” Patricia said, sticking the glove nearly into Luke’s stomach, because he was standing a shade too close.

BOOK: Not Just a Cowboy (Texas Rescue)
10.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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