“No, Mallory’s big mouth got her fired,” Mrs. Burland said.
“I didn’t get fired,” Mallory said. “I quit.”
Lucille tried to lean in again. “Excuse me, dear,” she said to Mallory. “But—”
“Not now, Lucille. Please.”
“Yes, but it’s important.”
“What’s more important than this?”
They’d come back to life again, blazing good this time. The cake had been scooted back against the pile of menus, and several had fallen too close. The menus went up in flames just as Ty leaped toward them, grabbing Mallory’s glass of water to dump it on the small fire.
The flames flickered and went out.
Except for the middle one, the largest candle. Which turned out to be not just a trick candle but some sort of bottle rocket, because it suddenly shot straight up and into the ceiling like…well, like a bottle rocket.
The fire alarm sounded, and then there was the whoosh of a huge pressure hose letting loose, and the sprinklers overhead came on.
And rained down on the entire diner and everyone in it.
Strength is the ability to break up a solid piece of
chocolate—and then eat just one of the pieces.
Mallory was shocked at how fast total chaos reigned. Instantaneously, really. As the overhead sprinklers showered down icy water, people began yelling and screaming. Everyone pushed and shoved at each other to get out.
Adding to the insanity, the decorations hanging from the ceiling soaked up the water and began to fall, pulling down ceiling tiles with them. A papier-maché elephant hit Mallory on the head, along with the attached ceiling tile. For a second she saw stars, then panicked. Someone was going to get seriously hurt. She tried to blink through the downpour to check the crowd for anyone who needed help. She could hardly see two feet in front of her but it appeared that everyone needed help. People were either running or down for the count. It was utter mayhem.
Mallory gulped some air and shoved her hair out of her face. Her hand came away bloody. Her cheek was bleeding, but before she could dwell on that someone grabbed her, tugged her up against his side, and began to steam-roll her toward the door.
“Let me go,” she said, banging on his chest, which was completely ineffective.
“No. I want you safe outside, now.”
“Forget me, get Mrs. Burland and Lucille!”
“You first, goddammit.” Then, still holding her tightly against him, Ty scooped up Mrs. Burland, too. Lucille was nowhere to be seen. Through the sprinklers, Mallory saw Matt grabbing Amy and Grace, shoving them out the door, and going back in for others. Ty dumped Mallory near them and went back inside.
Mallory went to leap in after him. Ty blocked her.
“I’m going in,” she said. “People are hurt, Ty. I can help.”
His jaw ticked but he stepped aside. The fire alarm was blaring, water from the sprinklers still pouring down. Mallory got several more people outside before she ran into Ty again. He had two of Lucille’s posse by their hands but he dropped one and stopped to stroke the wet hair that wouldn’t stay out of Mallory’s face, ducking a little to look over her bloody cheek, then into her eyes. He was checking on her, making sure she was okay.
But he must know by now. She was always okay. Not that that stopped the warmth from washing through her from knowing he cared. It was in every touch, every look.
And he was going to leave.
He had a job; she got that. She’d never want to hold him back from what fueled him, whatever that might be. But she’d sort of, maybe, just a little bit, wished that she could be what fueled him.
By the time the fire department came, they’d gotten everyone out. Several people were injured enough to require several ambulances, which arrived right behind the fire department. Mallory was helping those lined up on the sidewalk. Near her, Matt was assisting the paramedics. Ty, too, looked just as comfortable in a position of medical authority. He had Ryan, who’d somehow gotten a nasty-looking laceration down one arm, seated at the curb. Ty was crouched at the vet’s side, applying pressure to the wound, looking quite capable.
Josh pulled up to the scene and hopped out of his car. Ryan was closest to him, so he stopped beside him first.
“He’s in shock,” Ty said quietly.
It was true. Ryan was shaking, glassy-eyed, disoriented. Definitely in shock. Josh went back to his car and returned with an emergency kit. Ty and Josh wrapped Ryan in an emergency blanket to get him warm, then made sure he was breathing evenly and that his pulse wasn’t too fast. Mallory took over then, sitting at Ryan’s side, holding his hand as she watched Josh and Ty work together in perfect sync on other victims.
When the paramedics were free, they took over Ryan’s care and Mallory moved toward Ty and Josh.
“The least you can do,” Josh was saying to Ty, “now that you’re cleared and still sitting on your ass, is hire on. You know there’s that flight paramedic opening out of Seattle General. That unit runs its ass off, no shortage of adrenaline there. And hell, look at how exciting Lucky Harbor can be.”
Ty ignored him and crouched at Lucille’s feet. “You okay?”
“Oh, sure, honey.” She patted his arm. “You’re a good boy.”
Ty smiled, and Mallory didn’t know if that was at the idea of him being a boy, or good. Then he straightened and turned to Mallory.
She wasn’t surprised that he’d known she was standing behind him. He always seemed to know where she was. “Wow,” she said with what she thought was remarkable calm. “Look at you.”
His eyes locked in on her cheek, and he touched the wound. With a wince, she batted his hand away.
He pulled her away from all the prying eyes and ears. “You need that taken care of,” he said. “Let me help—”
“No.” She needed more help than he could possibly imagine. “It can wait.” She didn’t know where to start, but she gave it the old college try and started at the beginning. “How is it that a mechanic knows how to treat trauma victims?”
His gaze never left hers. “I was a medic in the SEALS.”
“A medic. In the SEALs.” She absorbed that and shook her head. “That’s funny, because I could have sworn you told me you were a mechanic. A navy mechanic, who was doing similar work now.”
“No,” he said. “Well, yes. I work on cars. Sometimes. But that’s for me, for fun.”
“For fun.” She paused, but it didn’t compute. “I pictured you working on ships, maybe on helicopters and tanks. Not bodies. Why didn’t you tell me?”
He responded with a question of his own. “Why does it matter what I was?”
“Because it’s not what you were, Ty, it’s who you are.” How could he not see that? Or hear her heart as it quietly cracked down the center? “You’re going back,” she said. “You’re only here waiting to be cleared…” She stared at him as Josh’s words sank in. “Except you already are cleared.” Oh, God. He could leave now. Any second. “How long have you known? And why would you hide so much from me?” But she already knew the answer to that. It was because they were just fooling around.
And she had no one to blame but herself. Horrified at how close she was to breaking down, she took a step backward and bumped directly into Sheriff Sawyer Thompson. He’d strode up to the soggy group and now stood there, hands on hips. “What the hell happened here?”
Everyone was still there. No one wanted to miss anything. Every able body in the pathetic, ragtag-looking group immediately gathered ranks around Mrs. Burland, the mean old biddy who’d never done anything nice for a single one of them. In fact, she’d made their life a living hell in a hundred different ways. But they all started talking at once, each giving their story of the drug theft, and how they’d ended up being dumped on by the diner’s sprinkler system.
Once again protecting one of their own.
Mrs. Burland still wasn’t having any of it. She stood up, wobbled with her cane toward the sheriff and held out her wrists. “Arrest me, Copper. But don’t even think about a strip search. I have rights, you know.”
Sawyer assured her that he had no interest in arresting her, because then he’d have to arrest everyone else who’d confessed as well. Looking disgusted and frustrated, he started over, talking to one person at a time.
The crowd began to disperse.
Mallory sank to the curb and dropped her head to her knees, exhausted to the bone and far too close to losing it. Ty, holding so much back from her…How was that even possible? She’d given him everything she’d had.
He wasn’t going to change now, and God help her, she was going to be okay with that if it killed her.
And it just might.
Two battered boots appeared in front of her, and she felt him crouch at her side.
Ty, of course. Her heart only leapt for Ty. He ran a big, warm hand down her back, made a sound of annoyance at finding her still drenched and shivering, and then she felt one of the emergency blankets from the firefighters come around her.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Yeah.” He sat at her side and pulled her in against his warmth. “Extremely fine. But that’s not what’s in question here.”
“What is in question?”
“You tell me.”
“Fine,” she said, and lifted her head. “I don’t get the big secret about being a paramedic.”
“It wasn’t a secret.”
“It feels like a secret,” she said. “That day you came to the hospital to get your stitches out, you could have done that yourself.”
“I wanted to see you.”
Dammit, no aw. “Okay, then what about what happened next?” she asked. “When that patient coded out? You got pale and shaky, almost shocky, as if you’d never seen anything like that before.”