Authors: Susan Stoker
When Crash came back into the small room with a bottle of water, Adeline looked more like she had when he’d first met her thirty or so minutes ago. She’d sat up on the couch and was petting her dog absently with one hand. She smiled up at him when he neared and reached out for the water.
She took a deep swallow and sat back with a sigh. As quickly as she relaxed, her body tensed and she sat forward as if she was about to stand up. “Well, thank you for helping me out, I appreciate it. I should get going.”
“Stay,” Crash immediately protested. “At least for a while.”
“I’m really all right,” Adeline said softly. “Unfortunately, I’m used to the seizures and they don’t wreck me like they used to.”
Crash sat on the couch next to her. He felt exactly like he did the first time he’d asked a girl out in the seventh grade. Nervous and hopeful at the same time. “It’s not that, I…damn. Okay, if you’re sure.”
“What is it?” Adeline asked, looking concerned now. “Did something happen while I was out of it?”
“No,” Crash protested immediately. “Nothing like that… Are you seeing anyone?”
She looked taken aback at his question, but Crash was relieved when she answered immediately without looking away from him. “No. Why?”
“The guy at the diner wasn’t your boyfriend?”
Adeline wrinkled her nose adorably. “No. First—and last—date.”
“You never got to eat. Want to go back across the street and grab something…with me?”
“Are you asking me out?”
“Yes. Obviously very badly, since you have to clarify,” he said sheepishly.
“Oh…well…you don’t have to babysit me. I’m okay. Honest.”
“I don’t want to babysit you,” he said immediately.
The fact of the matter was he
want to keep his eye on her for a while to make sure she was okay after the seizure. But it wasn’t just that. He was nervous…which was out of character for him. Asking women out usually didn’t faze him. But for some reason, Adeline had gotten to him.
“I’d like to get to know you,” he told her honestly. “And you have to be hungry.” He added the last bit to try to cajole her.
“You don’t care that I have epilepsy?”
“Or that I have a dog?”
“No. I love dogs.”
She considered him for a long moment, then finally nodded. “Okay. Then yes, I’d like to have lunch with you.”
“Thank God,” Crash breathed out and pantomimed wiping sweat from his brow.
Crash stood and held his hand out to her. “Lunch awaits.”
Taking his hand, she stood as well. He kept hold of hers as he led the way to the door. Feeling her small, smooth fingers around his as they walked made Crash smile. There was just something about her that made him feel as though he could do anything.
Maybe he was an idiot. Maybe Adeline was a horrible person. But as stupid as it seemed, for some reason, Crash felt as if he was taking the first steps toward his future.
verything all right
?” Chief called out as Crash and Adeline made their way back across the main room to the front of the fire station.
“Yup.” Crash didn’t even slow down, but continued on as if his friend hadn’t spoken. The sooner he could get Adeline to the restaurant, the sooner he could start to learn more about her.
They headed out the front door and across the street toward the diner. “Are you on shift right now?” Adeline asked.
“Yeah, but I can take the time to buy you lunch. No worries,” Crash told her. “There’s a chance I might have to bail on you though, and I apologize in advance for that. If I get toned, I’ll have’ta run.”
“It’s fine,” Adeline told him. “I understand.”
“You’ll be okay to drive home?”
She nodded. “After I get something to eat, I’ll be fine. Promise.”
Crash stopped outside the doors to the restaurant. “I’ve learned never to let the possibility of a call stop me from getting out and about,” he said seriously. “I spent the first years of my career as a firefighter sitting inside the station, afraid to go anywhere because I was scared we’d get a call. But the fire chief sat me down and had a talk with me. He told me that as long as I wasn’t off doing anything irresponsible, I wasn’t tied to the station. I don’t go more than a couple miles away, but I’ve learned, for my own health, that sometimes it’s good for me to get some space from the other guys.”
“I totally get that,” Adeline said. “Well, not getting space from guys, but not being afraid and sitting around waiting for something to happen. I was that way with my epilepsy too. I was so afraid I’d have a seizure that I barely went anywhere. I hid inside my house and I think that actually made it worse. Since I’ve had Coco, I’ve been able to feel more confident about going about my daily business.”
They smiled at each other.
“See? Something we have in common already then,” Crash said warmly.
Adeline smiled shyly and examined the man standing in front of her. She hadn’t really had much chance to check him out with everything that had happened. But now she looked her fill. Dean was good looking.
good looking. He had dark brown hair in a short cut. It kinda stuck up on the top of his head, but in a natural way, not one that took a ton of hair goop to achieve.
He was muscular, but not overly so. He had a strong jawline, deep brown eyes, almost the exact color of the dark brown coffee table she had at home. All in all, he kinda reminded her of Chris Hemsworth. An even more gorgeous version, if that was possible.
He grinned at her, and for a second Adeline was afraid he could read her thoughts, but he merely said, “After you.” Dean held the door open and gestured toward the entrance, inviting her to walk through.
“Thanks.” Adeline had only partly been cognizant of Dean as they’d left the small restaurant not half an hour ago. She’d been more concerned with her imminent seizure and getting to a safe space. But now, she was definitely aware of the man behind her. His fingertips rested lightly on the small of her back as he guided her into the waiting area. He didn’t pull away as they stood side by side waiting for the hostess to find them a table.
Adeline probably should’ve felt crowded or pressured by his touch, but instead felt protected. Her hand tightened on Coco’s leash. She hadn’t ever felt that way before. Her parents had always been worried about her, to the point they hovered and really weren’t comfortable going anywhere in public with her because of her frequent seizures. She’d always felt nervous when they were out together, hypersensitive about not wanting to embarrass them. But, for just a moment, standing there with Dean, she almost felt like any other woman would on a first date.
“Right this way,” the hostess told them, walking in the opposite direction from where they’d both been sitting earlier.
Still feeling the light pressure on her back, Adeline followed the woman to a large booth along the back wall.
“Will this work?” the hostess asked.
“Perfect,” Dean told her.
Adeline scooted in on one side of the booth and Coco settled in without a fuss at her feet. Dean waited until Adeline was seated before moving to the other side. Without asking, he looked up at the hostess and said, “A large water for the lady and an ice tea for me, please.”
The woman nodded. “I’ll tell your waitress. Ruth should be right with you.”
Adeline bit her lip in nervousness after the woman had left. She hadn’t been anxious before, but now she was. She wasn’t sure what to say to the man sitting across from her. Before, he was there to help her and she wasn’t worrying about making small talk. But now, it felt like they were on a date, which was ridiculous. It was only lunch.
“Relax, Adeline,” Dean told her, putting his forearms on the table and leaning forward. “I won’t bite.”
She laughed nervously. “I don’t know why I’m nervous. You’d think I’d be used to this by now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Blind dates. I’ve had quite a few in the last couple of weeks.”
“Yup. I’ve been trying the online dating thing.”
“And I take it that hasn’t been going well?” Dean asked.
Adeline shook her head. “No. You saw Bud today.” She took a breath to continue, but Dean interrupted her.
“Bud? His name really was
Adeline giggled. “Yup. I should’ve known, huh?”
“Yeah, definitely. Who else?”
“Well, there was Dirk, who was twelve years younger than me. Not my kinda thing. Then John was fourteen years older than me, and that didn’t work for me either. Roman looked nothing like his picture on the site and Mark was simply odd.” She shrugged. “I know people find their true loves online all the time, but I’m beginning to think it’s not for me. It’s just too easy for people to misrepresent themselves online and it’s frustrating to think that I’m really trying to find someone I’m compatible with, and they’re just…I don’t know what they’re doing.”
“Full disclosure here and all that,” Dean said. “One day we were bored on shift and a bunch of us went online and made profiles on one of those sites. It was kind of a joke and I was shocked a week later when I checked it out and I had a ton of messages. I didn’t answer any of them, as I really prefer to meet women in person before deciding if I want to go out with them or not.”
Adeline could swear she saw Dean blushing. She wasn’t sure what to say to his admission. Part of her wanted to admonish him for putting up a profile when he had no intention of doing anything with it, but she supposed that happened all the time. She was saved from having to reply when their waitress came by the table with their drinks.
“Water and ice tea. I’m Ruth, I’ll be your waitress. Do y’all need more time to look over the menu?”
Dean looked over at Adeline. “You know what you want?”
She nodded. “I might as well get what I’d ordered before I had to leave.” She looked up at Ruth. “I’ll take a BLT with ranch dressing instead of mayonnaise and extra tomatoes added on, please. Oh, and a side of ranch for my fries as well.”
Ruth wrote it all down and looked to Dean.
“I’ll just take a bowl of the broccoli cheese soup.”
Ruth nodded. “Great. It shouldn’t take too long. If you need anything else in the meantime, let me know.”
After she’d walked away, Adeline told Dean, “You’re gonna make me look like a pig, you know.”
Dean looked horrified. “No! I had a sandwich earlier with my friend. It’s not…you can get whatever you want…I didn’t mean…”
Adeline took pity on the man and let him off the hook. She reached out and put her hand on his arm, still lying on the table. “I was kidding, Dean. Sorry, I have a weird sense of humor. It’s fine. And you should know, I’m not the kind of woman who orders a salad and picks at it because she’s scared of eating in front of a guy. I’ve been known to out-eat some of my male friends.”
Dean’s arm shifted and he immediately laid his free hand over hers. He looked her in the eyes as he smiled and said, “Good. I’m not the kind of man who likes, or wants, a woman who isn’t herself in front of me.
be yourself, Adeline. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re thirsty, drink. If you’re pissed, let me know, especially if it’s at me. If you’re sleepy, tell me that too. I’ve always hated the games women play. Maybe that’s why I’m still single.”
Adeline wasn’t sure what to say, so she simply nodded.
Dean sighed and grinned self-deprecatingly at her. “I’m taking this first date into dangerous territory, aren’t I? We’re supposed to stick to innocuous topics and not get too personal. Sorry, I’ll try to be better. Let me tell you the basics about me. I’m Dean Christopherson, and I’m thirty-two. Hopefully not too old or young for you.” He smiled, letting her know he was teasing.
“I’ve been a firefighter for around twelve years, and a paramedic for about six of those years. I’ve never been married and haven’t met anyone yet I’d consider spending the rest of my life with. That’s the basics. I’m sure you’ll get to know all my nasty habits in time. What about you? I don’t think I even know your last name. Where do you work? How old are you? What’s your favorite color? You know…all the normal first date things.”
Adeline was very aware that Dean hadn’t let go of her hand, and she tried not to read too much into it. She liked his no-nonsense approach to trying to get to know her. She appreciated his candor. “My name is Adeline Reynolds. I’m probably not supposed to tell you my age, but if we’d met online, you’d already know it. I’m thirty-four. My job is pretty boring, especially compared to what you do. I’m in marketing. Right now I pretty much hate where I work. Not because of what I do, but because my boss is a jerk. He takes credit for our work and thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”
Adeline took a deep breath. Thinking about Douglas Hill the Third always made her want to scream.
“What is it you do?” Dean asked, running his fingertips lightly over the back of her hand.
Shivers raced down Adeline’s arm, but she tried to ignore them. Dean was a healer, he probably had no idea he was even caressing her. She told herself that he probably did it to all his patients.
“I work for a large advertising-slash-public relations firm. We take on clients who are looking to advertise in all media. We put together promotional packets for them, including advertisements for magazines, newspapers, and even online ads. They pay us to get the graphics and details ready, and then once they’re up and running, the client takes over managing them. Of course, we’ve got larger clients who we do everything for, set up the ads and manage for them, but those kinds of portfolios usually go to the employees who’ve been there longer…or who kiss my boss’s ass.”
Dean smiled at her. “I take it you don’t kiss his ass.”
“No, I don’t.”
“So what’s your ideal job?”
“I love marketing,” Adeline told him, relaxing as she talked about what she loved most in the world. “It’s so interesting to me how much psychology works hand in hand with marketing. From which direction people turn when they’re in a store to colors and fonts most are attracted to, even what websites they go to and what catches their eyes as they’re surfing. I’d love to work for a midsize company and get full rein to do whatever I wanted with their advertising. To help design it from the ground up, then monitor it. See what works and what doesn’t and tweak it as I go. There’s so much more to marketing than making a pretty graphic. If the clicks aren’t tracked and it’s not followed up on, the company might as well be throwing their money into the trash every night for the janitors to take out.”
Adeline took a deep breath and realized that she’d been going on and on without letting him get a word in edgewise. She looked sheepishly over at Dean. “Sorry. I tend to get worked up about it. What do you—”
“Don’t. Don’t brush off your enthusiasm,” Dean told her. “Too many people don’t give a shit what they do for a living. They hate their job and it shows in the kind of performance they give. I can tell just by listening to you talk that you love marketing, and you’re the kind of employee who stays late just to get projects done…without having to be asked to do it. Your dark eyes actually sparkle when you talk about what you love. Your breathing sped up and you gripped my arm so tight I bet you’ve left marks.”
“I’m so sorry—” Adeline started, but was interrupted once again.
“Don’t be. Again, I might’ve thought you were pretty before, but watching you talk about what you love, makes you beautiful.”
Adeline had no comeback for that. None. She could count on one hand the number of people who had ever told her she was pretty. Her sister, Alicia, and her husband, Matt, her parents, and a boy in high school who’d done, and said, everything he could think of to get in her pants.
“I didn’t say that to embarrass you, Adeline,” Dean said in a low, earnest voice. “It’s one hundred percent true. I make it a point to try not to lie to people. For example, if they’re badly hurt in an accident, I let them know, gently, exactly what’s wrong. I’m sorry your boss is a dick. That sucks. He could probably get a lot more out of his employees if he let them do what they were good at rather than trying to be a big man on campus. Have you applied anywhere else? The best time to look for a job is when you
Adeline smiled through her embarrassment. “Now you sound like my sister.”
He smiled back. “She must be really smart.”
Adeline laughed. “She thinks she is. But to answer your question, I just started the job search process. I’m getting my resume together and researching where I think I might like to work.”
“Here in San Antonio though…right?” Dean asked, suddenly looking concerned.
Adeline shrugged. “Probably. My family is here and I’ve never lived anywhere else. I love it. Why?”
He sighed hugely in relief. “Because I’m just getting to know you. It’d suck to find out that we really like each other only to have you accept a job in Seattle or New York or something.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Adeline knew she was blushing. It was crazy, but she liked Dean already, and wanted to know more about him.