Bruiser came to an abrupt stop and Mari took her chance to crouch over and take big breaths. She glanced down at her watch and cracked a small smile. Her pace was still improving. She shifted her weight on her knees and winced slightly when she balanced on her left leg. It had been two months since she was cleared to return to duty, but she hadn't. Instead she was here, in Elk. She had extended her medical leave by using all of her saved vacation time and ended up in this tiny town.
Mari shook her head and straightened up. She looked down at Bruiser and laughed out loud at his tongue lolling around as he panted for air. He didn't like running much but would put up with it to be with Mari. Mari looked out at the coast and lost herself. After staring for several minutes she refocused on Bruiser and directed him back into town, back toward their hotel room.
Mari rounded the last corner to the street where Elk Cove Inn was located. In front of her sat the quaint little café, Queenie's. As she approached the café she noticed an elderly couple sitting at one of the tables.
The woman suddenly stood up and began crying out "Earl! Earl! Honey, what's wrong? Earl!"
Mari slowed down and stopped by the couple. "Is everything okay, ma'am?"
"My Earl! I think he's having an allergic reaction! This hasn't happened in so long. I don't know where his Epi-pen is. Please help him." The woman was frantically crying now.
Mari nodded. "Call 911 now." The woman ran into the café and Mari turned to Earl. "Sir, my name is Mari. I'm a paramedic. Are you having trouble breathing?"
Earl tried to say yes in a hoarse voice. Mari nodded and reached for her running pack. She pulled out her personal Epi-pen and sat it on the table. She crouched in front of Earl and took his pulse. She asked him to open his mouth and nodded to herself.
"Earl, you're flushed, having a hard time breathing and your tongue is swelling. I'm not supposed to use my epi-pen on another person, but I think you need epinephrine right now. Is it okay if I use it?"
"Yes, please" Earl croaked. Before Earl finished speaking, Mari had uncapped and loaded the Epi-pen. She pressed the autoloader into his thigh and watched him closely. Within minutes his skin signs improved significantly and his breathing slowed down. Mari checked his pulse and smiled at him. Nearby sirens approached.
"I think I'm gonna run sir. I believe you're all better." Mari stood to leave. The last thing she wanted was to have a break down in front of the town medics if she had a flash back. Before she could step away Earl reached out and gently grabbed her arm.
"No. Please stay. You may have saved my life and I don't even know your name."
Mari gave the man a flat smile and tried to quickly think of a reason he should let her go. She thought too long. She looked up as the fire truck and ambulance pulled up in front of the café. A whimpering at her side made her look down at Bruiser. He was fine around fire trucks, but didn't care much for the sirens.
Mari slid her hand over his large head and rubbed behind his ear.
"Okay. I'll stay until the medics check you out. My name is Mari, by the way." She extended her hand and Earl quickly took it.
His wife returned from inside the café and ran to him.
"Oh thank God, Earl! You have to stop doing this to me. What did you sneak this time?!" Earl smiled lovingly at his wife and kissed her nose. She fussed over him as the paramedics approached him.
One of the firemen clapped Earl on the back and leaned close to him. He laughed as he spoke to the old man. "Earl tell me you saved half of whatever peanut butter treat did you in this time." Earl smiled big and pulled a half-eaten cookie out of his sweater pocket. His wife laughed but the worry was clearly etched on her face. Mari's heart ached as she watched the elderly couple and she took a few more steps back hoping to slip away.
As she turned in the direction of Elk Cove Inn a voice called after her. She turned to find herself facing the captain.
"Hi! My name is Logan Hatter. Earl said you're a paramedic?" Mari took a step back. She knew she should have left before they arrived.
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry if I overstepped any boundaries. Please forgive me, I—." Logan held his palms up.
"Oh no! Please. I would never expect a paramedic to stand down because of red tape. Paramedics save lives. That's what you did. You'll get no trouble from me or anyone else in this town."
Mari smiled politely. "Okay, well thank you. I think I'll head back to the hotel then. I think this was a little too much excitement for old Bruiser." Logan looked down and his face lit up as his bent down to pet the old gray blue nose Pitbull. Bruiser quickly laid down and rolled onto his back making Logan laugh.
Logan gazed up to Mari. "Okay, then. But I was wondering if all your certifications are up to date?"
Mari's brows furled. "I'm sorry?"
"Well, my department is mostly volunteer based and one of our guy's wife just went into labor. I'm having a hell of a time finding coverage for the box for Saturday. I know it's not my place to ask you to work during your vacation, but were a pretty quiet municipality and Bruiser is welcome at the station."
The silence between them felt heavy as Mari's mind raced. She hadn't stepped on a box in eight months. Before the accident you couldn't keep her off the box. But now, the thought terrified her.
Logan's searching gaze was glued to her face and he must have sensed her apprehension. "I'm so sorry, Mari. I just heard how that must have come across and it was totally inappropriate. Please enjoy your vacation in Elk. Feel free to stop by the fire house if there's anything you need."
Logan leaned in close to Mari and she felt like her heart stopped beating. No man had been this close to her in eight months. As the thought crossed her mind she was filled with shame and longing. She had no right to think about men. She scolded herself for being self-absorbed and heartless. "I bet you could get dinner out of Earl and Berta. Berta used to be a big time chef in Portland. It would be worth it" he whispered.
Before Mari could collect herself Logan was 10 feet from her and intently discussing paperwork with another fireman. She watched for several minutes as they talked to Earl and then the six firemen got back on their rigs and drove away. Berta walked up to Mari.
"Honey is there anything at all we can do to repay you? You really did save my Earl. We are so blessed you were in the right place at the right time." Berta's wide smile lit up her face and made Mari want to smile. There was a storm of emotions raging in her heart, but no one else needed to know that.
"Well I never turn down food."
Berta just about knocked Mari down as she lunged at her and wrapped her in a tight hug. "How about tomorrow evening around 6? Just ask Janine and she'll tell you where to go."
Confused, Mari asked "Janine?"
"The inn keeper darling. Janine. She is my middle daughter" Berta chirped through her smile.
Mari smiled back. She couldn't help it. Berta's smile was the most contagious she'd ever seen. "I will. I'll see you tomorrow."
Logan stared out the rig window.
"What's going on in your head Captain?" Dylan, his engineer, sat next to him maneuvering the fire truck.
Logan glanced his way "Nothing."
"Well that's a damn lie. You've practically ripped off that collar. I haven't seen you this anxious since we tagged the court house senior year." Dylan continued to glance his way so Logan let out a long breath. He glanced in the back of the truck to see Sammie and Red eagerly watching him.
"Well if you nosy fucks must know, I'm thinking about that girl." When no one said anything Logan looked around at the other men. "What? Just say it."
"She's a tourist bro." Red spoke up. He is a sturdy man with a no-nonsense attitude. Growing up he had always seemed much older than the other three, but he said he never felt it. To him, the other three were just his best friends and that was all. But they knew better. Red is an old soul. He would always make them feel like clueless children. Logan looked at the other two men.
"And?" When no one said anything more he turned back to the window, back to his thoughts.
Maybe they were right. She is a tourist, but she just seemed to need something. He couldn't place it, but she had a sadness she seemed to carry. He had only suggested she jump on the box because when they first pulled up he hadn't seen that sadness. It was only noticeable when she was alone, trying to sneak away from the chaos that was Earl.
Logan shook his head. When would that old man learn to carry his damn Epi-pen? He'd been playing this same game all of Logan's life. His dad used to tell Earl stories to him when he'd return home from the fire house.
Logan's thought shifted back to Mari. He mouthed her name to himself and loved the way it felt. He loved the way the sound rolled of his tongue. He could use that tongue to make her feel so good. If he could do all the things he was thinking about, she would never be sad again. Logan shifted in his seat and hopped out of the truck as it parked in the fire house. He had to get himself together. He was on the first 12 hours of a 96 hour shift. Since Ned's wife went into labor they would be in Ukiah for at least four days. That coupled with Jeff's hand injury meant he didn't have enough bodies to provide minimum coverage on the truck and ambulance. That meant more hours for everyone. He shook his head. He wished he could get more volunteers on board. He'd hate for any of his full time staffers to get burnt out.
Lost in thought, Logan began working in the kitchen. As the other guys filed into the fire house the six men fell into an easy rhythm preparing dinner. The other men joked and horsed around. The television came on in the background, but Logan felt disconnected. He couldn't stop replaying his conversation with Mari in his head.
Once dinner was prepared, Logan hung back while the others made plates. Once everyone was seated he started making his own plate. Movement on his left caught his eye and he looked up to find Dylan leaning on the counter next to him.
Logan shrugged. "It's nothing. I just thought she could help out the station. That's all. It's not often we have an extra paramedic in town." Logan turned to face Dylan. Dylan stayed in place, his gaze leveled with Logan's.
Logan sighed and put his plate on the counter. He crossed his arms and stood up straight. "I guess. She's gorgeous. She seems lost, but when she was helping Earl you couldn't see it. You couldn't see the sadness. I miss us having someone Dill."
Dylan shifted and stepped closer to Logan. He grabbed his arm and lightly squeezed. "She is gorgeous. She'd understand our lives better than anyone else ever could. But, she's on vacation."
"Who brings a dog on vacation?"
Dylan gave a small smile. "You don't know anything about her. You know it takes a very special very particular woman to accept us, fit with both of us, love us because of who we are not in spite of it."
Logan nodded his head. "I just felt something. Something I haven't felt since you."
Dylan lost his smile and took another step closer. He leaned in and lightly kissed Logan. Logan barely deepened the kiss before pulling back. "Then make her stay. Get to know her. See if it goes beyond initial chemistry" Dylan whispered. He turned and grabbed both plates from the counter and headed to the dining room.
"Let's eat Cap."
Logan stretched his left calf. He kept his eyes on the inn that sat a quarter mile down the road. He didn't see her yet. He switched to his right leg. Doubt began to fill his mind. Maybe he was crazy. It wasn't good for anyone for him to force himself on a visitor. If word got out that the fire captain in Elk was a creeper, it could hurt his town. Maybe Janine had been wrong about what time she took her first run. He had been shocked by all the details Janine told him the night before. Apparently Mari and Bruiser run three times a day. And Mari is pescetarian. Janine had also mentioned that she had found Mari in the library half reading half day dreaming during the middle of the night a couple of times. It didn't seem like Mari slept.
Logan shook his thoughts clear. The problem with a small town is that everyone notices too much and talks even more. He shouldn't have asked Janine about Mari, but he didn't know how else to run into her again. It could seem normal for him to run through town and along the beach. He normally runs on a treadmill or on the forest trails, but she wouldn't know that.
Logan had almost talked himself out of his plan when he saw a small silhouette and a big dog walk about of the inn. Mari stretched for a few minutes. When it looked like she was about to start her run, Logan began jogging. Within five minutes she was on his heels. He tried his best to focus on keeping pace and looking natural. Not on her rhythmic steps and Bruiser's wheezing breaths. After a few minutes of her within ear shot, the sound of her footsteps disappeared.
Frantically, Logan stopped and looked around. Where the hell did she go? They were still in town but maybe she didn't want to run with someone and detoured. Frustrated Logan decided to keep his course. Janine said she runs on the beach. There's only one beach.
She'd had to change directions. She couldn't stop staring at the man in front of her. His long sleeve dry fit shirt clung to his muscles and his ass moved as he ran. There was no way he didn't hear Bruiser. He sounded like a diesel truck approaching. But he hadn't slowed or looked back so he must want to run alone. Such a shame, Mari thought.
It seemed like the further she ran away from the mystery man the more she thought about him. He had short brown hair. Like Logan's.
As soon as the though crossed her mind Mari cursed herself. She loved Joe and just because he was gone did not mean she could fantasize about every man she saw. Although, if she were honest she hadn't noticed another man, until she saw Logan. Now apparently she noticed every man.
Mari was mentally kicking herself as the beach finally came into view. She continued to run in the directly of the beach when she slammed into something hard. She fell on her bottom and Bruiser began jumping on whatever she ran into. His happy tail was wagging a mile a minute. Mari looked up and realized it wasn't a what she ran into, but rather a who. It was Logan.
Logan petted Bruiser patiently and reached down to give Mari a hand. "I'm so sorry. I didn't hear you coming and ran right into you."
Mari blinked. Logan had taken the words right out of her mouth. Dazed, she took his hand and let him help her up. He pulled her up and she ended wrapped in his arms. He looked down at her with concern, "Are you okay?"
Mari nodded and stepped back. Bruiser was still trying to tackle Logan who excitedly pet his head and neck. He murmured praise to the dog as he pet him, but kept glancing at Mari. Every time their eyes met, Mari felt her skin flush. It felt like her cheeks were on fire and her stomach tied itself in knots. It took Mari a few minutes to realize he had asked her a question.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"Are you okay?"
Mari nodded slowly. "Yes, yes. Just a little rattled. I'll be fine in a minute. Better get Bruiser back to running. He'll think were done if we stop for too long."
Logan smiled "Okay if I join you two?"
Before Mari could think about it, she nodded yes and resumed running.
The three fell into an easy pace. Logan was surprised by Bruisers running. He looked like a tank, but ran well. Mari focused on the ocean to her left and the ground under her feet. She took long deep breaths and slowly exhaled. She hadn't even marked her start time, but she felt like she was keeping a good pace. She wanted to do a victory dance—her pace was even faster than before the accident. She had proved everyone wrong by healing as well and as quickly as she had. Dread settled and she realized that it didn't mean anything if she didn't give back. And she only knows one way to do that.
As they reentered town, Mari slowed her pace. Logan easily matched her pace without a word.
"So I think I'd like to take you up on your offer."
Logan stopped and Mari did too. Bruiser happily sat down. "To work the box? That would be great, but I don't want you to feel pressured to do so. It was wrong of me to ask you to interrupt your vacation. I swear it's not something I would usually ask, but I am in a tight spot so I won't turn you down either."
Mari took a step toward him. "I think it would be good for me. But you should know I haven't worked for eight months. I've been out on medical leave then extended it with vacation time. I was cleared to return to work two months ago, but I—." Mari looked away abruptly. Tears rolled down her face and Logan couldn't stop himself from pulling her into him. He had never had such a deep connection to someone in such a short time—except once before.
Logan caressed her hair and hushed her.
"I told you that you were welcome, and you still are. I don't care about why you haven't been working. Just that you are confident you can do the job and have the certifications the state requires. I don't know about your experience, but watching you with Earl proved you have loads of it. Will you volunteer for Elk Fire and Emergency Medical Service?" Logan pushed her away to look at her face, but still held her arms.
Mari was content and felt safe right where she was. She couldn't explain the feeling, but she didn't want to lose it. She had six weeks of leave left and she could think of nothing more enjoyable than staying in a fire house. She had always been her happiest in a fire house and in this moment she couldn't remember why she had ever stayed away. She couldn't form words, so she simply nodded.
Logan nodded back. "Okay, then. We'll head to the inn so you can grab your belongings. Then to the courthouse to get your certifications reviewed by the clerk and filed. Then to the fire house. Emma is our only other female in the house and she only uses the women's dorm when she's on shift. You are welcome to use the dorms for the rest of your stay, or until you get sick of volunteering and want to head back to the inn."
Mari smiled small. "Let's play it by ear. I'll move in and if it doesn't feel right then I'll go back to the inn when I'm off shift."
Logan grinned. "It's settled then. Let's go."
Dylan pushed through another repetition. Sammie caught the bar and lifted it back into the rack.
"You ever get Logan to explain what was up with him?"
Dylan shrugged. "Sort of. He felt something with that Mari woman. He's wrapped up. Did you talk to her. I just saw her when we pulled up. She's hot."
Sammie got a goofy grin on his face. "Yeah if hot means 5 foot 3 inches of sexy brunette with curves and an ass that—"Sammie cut short when he made eye contact with Dylan.
"Okay." Dylan clipped. "She's hot. But did you talk to her?"
"Nah. She was trying to leave as soon as we pulled up. You didn't notice that? She looked scared. Crazy reaction from a paramedic?"
"I was helping Jack with the equipment. He swears he's going to get Earl on that gurney one day just to prove a point. That is a weird reaction. But after the way Logan was talking about her I wish I'd gotten to watch her a bit more."
"Is Logan really thinking of pursuing her?" Sammie grabbed a bottle of disinfectant and began cleaning the vacant bench press.
"Yeah. He thinks she could be our third." Sammie looked up at Dylan with wide eyes.
"Wow. You guys haven't... not since Grace." Dylan nodded. And leaned on a nearby treadmill.