Cassie Jo Stevens stepped out the door and down the porch of her small home, throwing her long blond hair into a ponytail as she hopped down the steps. This was her favorite part of the day. The birds chirped as the sun slowly rose from behind the mountain, sending rays of beautiful pinks and oranges through the trees. She started a slow jog along the two-lane road that led into town. A quick one- or two-mile jog would be the perfect start to the day. Followed by a huge cup of coffee. Mmm, she could already taste the delicious peppermint mocha creamer she would overload it with.
She continued her slow jog toward town, listening to the other animals and birds as they awakened with her. The humidity in Elkin, which lay on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, was always fairly high, which was why she was up and jogging at 5:30 in the morning, when she could have been snoozing. The heat so far this summer had been off the charts, creating a drought and more triple-digit temperature days than she could count.
She replayed her list for the day in her head.
Coffee—Mmmm, coming up.
8 a.m.—waitressing job at Mac’s until 4 p.m.
6 p.m.—dinner and drinks with her best friend, Paige, and listen again to endless chatter about her amazing boyfriend, LJ the god, LJ the awesome, LJ the fireman, LJ the magnificent in bed.
Ugh, one more day of that and she was going to hurl. She had beaten up Mr. Magnificent almost twenty years ago in kindergarten. He had grown a bit since then, and now went by the nickname Bear, but still…
She was forgetting something. She furrowed her brow and concentrated as she carefully paced along the side of the road closest to the ravine. This dang road was too narrow! And the sharp curve came at the worst place. They needed to do something to make it safer. Add some guardrails, widen it, something. The hundred-foot drop below was a scary sight, and she crossed quickly, sighing in relief when she was back on the open stretch of wide blacktop road.
A loud bang, followed by the screeching of tires, shook her body to the core. She turned to see the old white Volkswagen fishtail before crashing into a tree, stopping to teeter just along the edge of the cliff side.
Oh, my God! She sprinted to the accident site and flinched at the damage to the driver’s side. But the scariest part of the scene was the passenger side wheels hanging precariously over the edge of the shifting rock and dirt.
It was Mr. McAllister, a sweet older widower and the town’s war hero, who spent his time caring for stray animals.
“Mr. McAllister, are you okay?” she shouted through the cracked window.
The old man raised a shaky hand and groaned. Good Lord, the poor guy really looked banged up. Please let him be okay. She could smell the leaking gas as it poured out of the car. She prayed it wouldn’t catch on fire as she carefully maneuvered the driver’s side door open. The poor man had blood running down his temple, and winced in pain. She reached for him gently.
“Mr. McAllister, I’m going to unbuckle your seatbelt and help you get out of here, ‘kay?”
She pulled and yanked, but the dang buckle wouldn’t release. She rubbed a frustrated hand over her eyes, and heard the sirens in the distance. Thank goodness.
“Just wait, Cassandra.” The old man grimaced as he spoke. “I can hear the sirens, and I don’t want you to get hurt. Move on out of the way now, hear?”
“O-okay.” She nodded and backed up a pace. The whole car started shifting as more dirt fell from the spot below the rear passenger tire, shaking the car.
“They’re not going to make it in time, dammit!” she yelled as she searched the horizon for the truck belonging to the distant sirens. She picked up a large shard of glass and frantically sawed at the seatbelt, only cutting herself a few times. The worn cloth strap had almost ripped free from the seatbelt buckle when the fire truck arrived on the scene, lights flashing, sirens blaring, men jumping out to assist. And one voice rose above it all.
“We’ve got this, miss. Please step away from the car.” A handsome blond, very tall fireman strode purposefully toward them. His face was stern and confident, his blue eyes assessing everything in sight. This man was in charge and he knew it. And so did her body.
Oh, for Peteness sake! She was just overwhelmed from the endorphins. When everything calmed down, he would probably look like a troll with an eye patch and a mohawk.
Arrgh, matey. I be a fireman.
She shook her head and took a few deep breaths. Lose your mind later, Cass. Thankfully, the firefighters seemed to have their heads on straight, so she backed to the side of the road and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. She was so relieved when they finally got Mr. McAllister free, and had carried him over to the waiting paramedics.
The large blond firefighter came over. He still looked pretty dang good. “Thanks for helping out until we got here, miss…”
“Cassie Jo Stevens.” She shook his large hand and tried not to blush. “I heard him crash. Is he going to be all right?”
“Paramedics are checking him out right now—”
“Captain Waters,” one of the paramedics interrupted him.
“I’ll be right back. Stay put.” He gave her a stern look.
“Fine.” She rolled her eyes and huffed, looking over at the car. Poor old Mr. McAllister didn’t need this. He was one of the truly good guys.
A small flash of movement in the front seat caught her eye as the car continued to teeter on the edge. The firemen were having difficulties getting a line on the car to pull it from the edge. She inched closer to the old car.
There it was again. That small movement under the blanket on the front seat. Her eyes widened and she rushed toward the car.
“What the hell are you doing?!” the fire captain bellowed from the other side of the road.
Too late now. In for a penny. She carefully inched into the front seat of the car, praying it would hold on just long enough for her to get to it. She wrapped her arms around the moving blanket and inched her way backward out of the car, just as it started groaning and teetering over the edge. She screamed as large arms wrapped around her, yanking her from the car, just as the car teetered one last time and fell into the embankment below.
He placed her on shaky feet, still holding her shoulders, and stared down at her. Never had she seen such intense, dark, angry eyes—not directed at her, anyway.
“Do you have a death wish, little girl?” he gritted out as he patted her body down for injuries.
“I’m fine!” She pulled away from him and gasped at the sight below. Just two seconds later. Shuddering, she pulled the blanket tighter into her arms.
“Want to tell me what that was all about?” He glared at her.
She shoved the blanket up at him and opened it up. Five tiny sets of eyes peered up at them both, and the soft mewling began. “Mr. McAllister rescues animals.” She held the little bundles of fluff up to her cheek and smiled. “These were probably his latest finds.”
“Well, your little rescue attempt almost got all of you killed, young lady. Go over to the paramedics and get checked out while I finish up here.”
It took an awful lot of energy to unclench her fists and not tell this arrogant man where he could shove his check-ups. No one talked to her that way. “You don’t have to be so bossy about it.” She scowled, seeing the look in his eye and the twitch in his cheek. This new fire captain didn’t know who she was. She was twenty-four years old, and was not going to be bossed around like some child. Well, she would put a stop to this domineering behavior.
His blue eyes narrowed. Next time.
“I’ll head over to get checked out, but only because I think it’s a good idea,” she huffed and turned with her delicate bundle in her arms. “Come on, babies. Let’s go see the medics and find your papa.”
Her body started shaking and her legs felt like jelly suddenly, so she staggered over to a spot next to a paramedic and tried to look like she was holding it together. If she could just get her dang hands to stop shaking. The sounds from Mr. McAllister’s car screeching and crashing into that tree replayed over and over in her head. She bit down on her lip hard, drawing blood, and flinched as the pain helped shake her out of that nightmare. It’s all over, Cass, suck it up. Get it together, girl.
When the paramedic came toward her with the blanket and a concerned look on his face, she yanked it out of his hands and glowered at him. He retreated faster than you could say Speedy Gonzales, and she wrapped the blanket around herself and the kittens, soaking in the warmth. Okay, she exhaled slowly. Her hands had finally stopped shaking. She could breathe again.
Eric Waters couldn’t believe the little spitfire who had just stalked off. Dressed in a jog bra and shorts, a light sweat glistening down her firm body, and a fearless attitude that matched. Strong personality, flashing expressive blue eyes. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to kiss her for her bravery, or turn her over his knee for being so reckless.
He was an animal lover, always had been, but the thought of this brave little angel crashing over the side of that edge had his stomach all up in knots. He sighed and ran his head through his short haircut. What a way to start his second week on the job as Elkin’s new fire captain.
“Captain Waters, we’re taking him over to Mercy,” a paramedic cut into his thoughts. “Think you can do something for our little heroine?” The tall man in the navy pants and jacket pointed toward the shivering young woman and the bundle in her arms.
“Is she okay?”
“Weeeell,” the paramedic drawled, “she hasn’t talked in over five minutes, a new record for our Cassie, by the way. I’d say she’s in a little bit of shock.”
A thin blanket had been draped over her shoulders, and she stood rocking her feet back and forth while she snuggled with the blanket of mewling fluff balls.
“Is she in any danger? If she’s in shock—”
“She’s fine. Just a little overwhelmed. But she won’t let us check her out, and she won’t come back to the hospital with us.”
“Then make her,” Eric growled.
The young paramedic laughed. “She’d hand me my balls on a platter, and probably drive poor old McAllister into myocardial infarction if I tried to make her do anything. Sorry, but I’ve got to get my real patient out of here. Can you keep an eye on her?”
“Where’s she live?”
“Three quarters of a mile up, and on the left. Thanks, man!” he called over his shoulder and jumped into the ambulance.
Eric surveyed the damage below, and the open crash site and fire truck blocking the main thoroughfare into the small town.
“Whatcha wanna do, Hoss?” A sturdy hand clapped his shoulder. Louis—LJ—Johnson, otherwise known as Bear, was a fantastic second in command. By all rights, he should have been Captain. But when they had met and become friends at an annual fire conference, LJ had talked him into applying for the job.
“It’s almost six a.m., and people are going to need this route for morning jobs, right?”
“And school, and preschool, and Mrs. Johnston’s funeral is at 11:30,” LJ added.
He bit down on a curse. “Where is the sheriff?”
LJ grinned. “Sheriff’s out of town on vacation. Deputy called in sick with the flu. Guess who that leaves in charge, Hoss?”
His headache intensified when he realized just what the old sheriff had meant in his cryptic remarks about helping out from time to time. He had thought it would be a bit tricky sharing a chief between two fire stations, since Elkin wasn’t big enough for its own, leaving him in charge. But this definitely made things a bit more interesting.
“Welcome to Elkin, boss.” LJ clapped him hard on the back. “I hope you big city folk know how to handle a crisis, because this is about to become one with a huge capital K.”
“C,” he mumbled.
“Just trying to keep you on your toes,” LJ laughed.
“All right, here’s the list of objectives,” Eric said as he mentally ran everything through his mind. “Circle up the men.”
He gave quick directions, letting each man jump in where he could. He liked this team of young men already. Hard workers who could follow directions, but didn’t need to be hand held. Not like his old fire station. The men separated in a loud hurrah of activity; they needed to get the big fire truck off the main road; they needed to get a barrier over to the accident site before this happened again; and they had to get Mr. McAllister’s car out of that ravine before it caused any more damage. He made a few calls to some of his friends from the city to get some K-rails. Now someone just needed to pick them up.
“LJ, we’re going to need a truck to go get those K-rails. Mind if the bed gets a bit scratched up?”
“It’s a truck,” the large man laughed and snorted. “It’s supposed to get scratched up with real work. Please tell me yer not one of those city folk who drive a Hummer through the city streets.”
“Hell, no,” Eric said, smiling. “I just wanted to warn you. These K-rails can be a bit feisty.”
“Like our next project?” The large man nodded over at their next job, getting Cassie Jo Stevens home, healthy and happy.
At least that’s what Eric intended.
“We can do two of the three, but I don’t know about the third one. She’s only happy when she’s makin’ trouble for fun,” LJ added.
“Okay, I get it. But we still need to get her safely home.”
“Come on, string bean, we’re gonna get ya home now.” The big burly man tried to put his arms around Cassie to steer her to his truck.
Her eyes widened and she slipped from under him, shaking her head. “I’ll walk,” she muttered and started off down the street.
LJ dialed his cell phone and explained everything quickly and quietly to the person on the other end. “My girlfriend, Paige, is friends with her,” he whispered to Eric. “She’s going to come over and keep her company for a while.”
“All right, string bean, why don’tcha just go shower up or grab some coffee. We’ll stay until Paige gets here,” LJ said when they arrived at the small white house with the long dirt driveway.
“I don’t need a dang babysitter! And I told you to stop calling me that, ten years ago, Louis.” Her eyes flashed in anger as she enunciated his name. “I just need a…” she cursed again as she looked wildly around the living room, “a box.”
Eric stepped in quickly. “Where’s the door to the garage?”
She pointed off to the right.
He found the box he was looking for, dumped the old newspapers and magazines into a pile on the floor, and quickly wiped it out. It was the perfect size. “Here you go.” He placed it on the floor at her feet, watched her gently set the blankets and kittens into it, and then carried it into her bathroom. “LJ, call her friend and ask her to pick up some litter and food on her way. I’ll pay her back.”
The large man nodded and stepped outside.
“How do you take your coffee, Miss Stevens?” Eric asked as he turned toward her kitchen.
“Cassie, and you don’t have to do that. I can get my own—” She stopped when she saw the look in his eye.
He had perfected that look over the past five years. “Coffee?”
She sagged onto the couch, pushing her chin out in a mixture of pride and fatigue on her face. “Creamer’s in the door. I drink creamer with a bit of coffee, please. Help yourself to whatever else you find.”
He snagged three cups from the cupboard, and found the coffeepot already brewed and ready to go. He would warn her of the hazards of coffee brewers that run on a timer later. Now wasn’t an appropriate time for a lecture on fire safety.
He poured a generous amount of cream into her mug, and left his black. Not knowing how his new second in command took his coffee, he poured it two-thirds of the way full, and carried all three out to the coffee table. She lay curled up on the couch, as small and frail as she most likely felt after the morning’s adrenaline had worn off. He grabbed a throw blanket from the easy chair and gently placed it over her.
Her eyes flashed open, and she sat up quickly. “I don’t need your help. I’m not a little girl who can’t take care of herself. Go away. You got me safely home, now go finish your job, captain…”
“Waters, Eric Waters.” He smiled. “I come bearing peppermint mocha creamer with a little bit of coffee, as requested.” She huffed and leaned forward to grab the cup, but not before he pulled it back out of her reach. “I believe the proper acknowledgement is thank you.”
She growled and narrowed her eyes. “Thank. You. Now may I please have my doggone coffee?”
He set it gently on the table with the handle facing her. “Since you asked nicely.”
“Mmmmm.” She took a long sip and settled back onto the couch cross-legged. “Nectar of the gods.” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, cradling her mug of cream-swirled coffee as if it were the most precious thing in the world.
“You’re younger than our last captain,” she said matter-of-factly.
He couldn’t quite get a read on her. “Is that good or bad?”
She snorted and took another big swig of coffee. “Well, he was old and crusty, and senile and skugly.”
“Skunk ugly.” She gave him a lopsided grin.
“And I’m younger?”
“Aw heck, you’re the complete opposite.” She sobered and a slight flush crept up into her cheeks. “Never mind.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle at her embarrassment. “If you want to know, I’m thirty. And thanks for not calling me skugly.”
He sat down on the edge of the easy chair in the corner, quietly surveying the room as the young lady got her bearings. It was an older house, with a stucco ceiling and a shag carpet on the floor. There were pictures on the wall of a man and a woman, probably her parents; a few pictures of the same beautiful woman whom Eric assumed must be her mother; and pictures of a little girl, aging in each one until the final picture of Cassie, how she looked today, with a graduation cap and gown.
“My parents’ house.” She grinned sheepishly at him. “I normally wouldn’t put pictures of myself all over the walls, but I haven’t had time to redecorate. Besides, it reminds me of mom before she died.”
He nodded, unsure what to say. He had heard about the tragic loss of Elkin’s very own former Miss North Carolina. But even though it was years ago, he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for him to bring it up. The house was clean, but a bit unorganized, as he surveyed the piles of different projects in the corners.
“I sometimes get sick of a craft and start something new,” she said quietly.
He pointed at the suede-covered square spilling dozens of different yarns in various stages of completion. “Is that what the big box of yarn is over there?”
She laughed. “That was my attempt at knitting.” She leaned forward, setting her coffee onto the table and pulling her hair out of her ponytail. “I tried loom knitting, arm knitting, finger knitting, and the old-fashioned needle knitting.”
“It looks like you made some progress.”
“Nah, I got sick of them at some point and started new ones. It’s on my bucket list, along with sending out my father’s birthday card. It’s there in the yarn somewhere.” She furrowed her brow.
“When was his birthday?”
She giggled and her eyes lit up. “Last January.”
This woman was a riot. Cute as a button, charming, witty, spunky. But a little too brave for her jogging shorts.
“You know you could have been seriously hurt today.”
Her eyes dropped to her coffee as if all the answers she needed swirled around in her cup. “Yeah. Thanks. I don’t know what I could have done if you guys hadn’t gotten there so quickly.”
“That’s our job, Cassie. To take chances and save lives, so townsfolk like you don’t have to.”
“Yeah, well, good timing on your part wouldn’t have helped my mama.” Her lower lip trembled.
He went over quickly and sat down next to her. “I only heard a little bit about that crash. I’m sorry about your mother. Would you like to talk about it?”
She shook her head sadly and sniffled against the back of her hand. “No, it’s okay. It was a long time ago.” She shrugged. “Let’s change the subject. Do you like kittens?”