Authors: Elaine Overton
The strength of a Grizzly,
and the heart of a Teddy.
ail to the Chief!”
Andrea Chenault sat quietly with a smile frozen on her face. She sat beside her fiancÃ©, Calvin Brown, more lovingly known by his friends as Big Cal, and listened in wooden silence as he was saluted and cheered on his recent promotion to Firehouse Chief.
In the midst of the lively celebration, Andrea's mind was swirling with doubt and turmoil regarding the future of her engagement.
Feeling Cal's eyes dart across her face, she took a sip of soda, studying the pretty design on the side of the Dixie paper cup to avoid making eye contact as Dwight Johnston, their friend and Cal's fellow fireman, continued his toast.
What Cal's engine team members saw as nothing more than the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and commitment, Andrea saw as an omen of bad things to come.
Dwight lifted his paper cup in salute. “It couldn't have happened to a better man. Here's to Big Cal!”
Cheerful affirmatives came from the men and women crowded around the table in the small firehouse kitchen. Andrea could only hope that no one noticed that the one person who should've been happiest for Cal was unable to muster even a fraction of enthusiasm.
Others rose and offered their own congratulations, many recounting events in which Cal had proven his heroism, and there was also the occasional funny story until eventually their celebration dinner evolved into an impromptu roast.
Andrea tried not to watch the clock, but she was really uncertain as to how much more of the incessant merriment she could take. Consciously, she toyed with the engagement ring on her finger, twisting it back and forth as her mind ran away with the possibilities. A large, warm hand covered hers and stopped the motion of the ring. She looked up into Cal's concerned brown eyes.
he silently pleaded, and Andrea just shook her head in answer, hoping he would not push.
“Speech! Speech!” the crowd cried for some words from their new leader.
With one more look in Andrea's general direction, Cal slowly unbent his large frame from the table, and Andrea felt the same tinkling sensation in the pit of her stomach that she felt every time she took in his exceptional form.
At six feet, four inches, Calvin Brown was a three hundred-pound slab of solid granite, covered in a top layer of milk chocolate skin. Although he'd been a fireman his entire adult life, he was often mistaken as a professional body builder by strangers. His perfectly sculpted body was the product of years of weight lifting and various training programs. He took great pride in his ability to lift twice his own weight.
Although Cal was a large man, his size was not what made him unique. It was the strength and brawn that could be felt in the slightest handshake, and yet, despite his size, he moved with the agility of a dancer. And had an innately gentle nature that told you that his strength would never be misused.
He tapped the side of his paper cup with a plastic spoon in a dramatic gesture to gain everyone's attention, and the room quieted down.
“I know many of you may be wondering if this promotion will change me in any way,” he began with a solemn expression. “I would just like to state for the record that now that I am your chief, I am still the Big Cal you've always known and loved.”
Cal continued his speech, despite the laughter in the background. “Now, I know some of you may be bitterâ¦” the group laughed again, “but believe me, the forces that be picked the best man or woman for the job and you'll just have to get over it.”
Ignoring the playful hoots and boos, Cal smiled graciously, exposing one his few physical imperfections, the two front teeth that slightly overlapped his bottom ones.
Instead of finding it unattractive, Andrea had loved his bucktoothed smile from the moment she saw it. She always thought it gave his face a boyish appeal.
He cleared his throat loudly to be heard over the laughter and noise. “As I was saying, this promotion will not change the man I am.” He paused thoughtfully. “But, in regards to work assignments, I would like to add that I
open to flattery, and
The group roared in laughter.
Andrea's eyes scanned the room seeing nothing but smiling faces filled with genuine admiration and respect. She knew in their own way, these people loved him as much as she did. And yet, collectively, she couldn't help but see them as the enemy. Her primary point of contention as far as she could see was that the thing they loved and admired most about him was the one thing Andrea wished she could change.
Unable to stand it any longer, Andrea whispered in Cal's ear that she was going to the bathroom. She quickly hurried out of the room, never knowing Cal's eyes followed her until she disappeared through the doorway.
Once outside in the hallway, she leaned her back against the wall and took a deep breath. She never realized how exhausting holding a fake smile for hours could be. She heard someone ask Cal if she was okay, but she could not make out Cal's murmured response through the thick wall. Taking another deep breath, she started down the hall, hoping that a splash of water on her face would help hold back the tears that now seemed to threaten her constantly.
A few minutes later, as she stood at the sink patting her face dry, she silently scolded the woman in the mirror.
This is the happiest day of his life and you are going to ruin it for him. Pull yourself together!
She glanced down at the small diamond ring on her finger, and her hand went to it instinctively as she remembered just how many times over the past week she'd taken it off and put it back on.
She pulled it off once more, enclosed it in her small fisted hand. “I'm not this strong,” she whispered, imagining the day her telephone would ring and there would be a composed, very professional voice at the other end informing her of their regretâ¦
She turned and leaned her back against the sink. As a nurse, Andrea had seen more death than most people saw in a lifetime, and many of those were lives that seemed to be snuffed out before their time.
She'd stood over the body of more than one firefighter as the line on the ventilator went flat, and found it far too easy to imagine Cal as the firefighter on the table.
“I'm not strong enough to be a fireman's wife.” But despite her words, she found herself sliding the little ring back onto her finger. She only hoped she could hide her dismay long enough to get through the afternoon.
She checked her appearance in the mirror before she opened the door and found herself facing an expanse of black T-shirt stretched across a wide, muscular chest.
Closing her eyes, Andrea breathed in his familiar scent of soap and Speed Stick deodorant. Cal almost never wore cologne, and Andrea found that she preferred it that way. His own natural scent was enough of an aphrodisiac by itself.
“What's wrong?” Cal's deep baritone voice was softened by his concern.
Her eyes went up and up until they settled on soft brown eyes filled with concern. She tried to force a smile, but when she felt the tears welling up, she quickly looked away.
“Don't lie to me.” His tone never changed, but there was something very threatening in the words themselves. “You look like you're about to cry.”
She shook her head fervently. “No, I'm okay. We better get back to the groupâthey're going to wonder where the guest of honor disappeared to.” She moved to go around him, and he easily blocked her path.
“They can wait.” Using his index finger, he lifted her chin, and although she managed to keep her eyes downcast, the tiny drop of water that fell on her cheek betrayed her.
She heard his sharp gasp right before he pulled her into a rough embrace. “Baby, why are you crying? Tell me.”
She eagerly wrapped her arms around his rock-hard midsection and held on with all her might. Not yet ready to share the truthâ¦that she was seriously considering giving him back his ring because she could not bear to be his widow.
Holding him in her arms proved to be too much. Faced with the possibility of having to let him go, the water began coursing down her face.
“Andrea, you're going to have to tell me, I can't read your mind. What's got you so upset?”
She pressed her face against his shirt and tried to stifle the flood of tears. She wasn't ready to say the words. Not yetâ¦
The loud, buzzing sound that signaled an emergency call reverberated throughout the firehouse, and without hesitation Cal set Andrea away from him. With one quick peck on her forehead, he whispered the words “You know what to do.” And then he was gone.
Andrea stood in the deserted hallway, listening to the quiet firehouse come to life around her. Cal was right. After a year of being his girlfriend and fiancÃ©e, Andrea did know what to do.
He'd trained her in civilian procedure and protocol during an emergency as well as he trained his engine team to respond. They even ran through the occasional drill.
Andrea knew everything she needed to know to be a fireman's wifeâ¦except how to stop the uncontrollable shaking she felt take over her body every time the firehouse alarm rang. She turned and hurried back along the hall, trying to focus on the task assigned to her, and not the danger Cal was rushing into.
Once the corridor was quiet, the man crouching in the shadows stepped out from his hiding place. Jeff Collins looked in both directions before heading down the back stairway toward the soon departing engine truck.
Nothing would appear more suspicious than for him to not be on the truck when it pulled away from the firehouse. For a moment, he'd been extremely worried, wondering if the woman would stand there until it was too late, but finally she'd moved off down the hall.
When Cal got up and left the table, Jeff Collins had followed, curious to see what would transpire between the couple. His lips tightened as he remembered the sadness in Andrea's eyes as Cal was praised and toasted. Jeff was no happier to see Cal get the promotion than Andrea.
His fist balled at his side as he remembered how close he'd come to being the one toasted and praised. It just wasn't fair. He and Cal had been equals since entering the firefighter academy fifteen years ago, both at the tender age of nineteen. They'd both had distinguished careers. So, why, when it came time to pass out the promotions, was Cal the only man to get one?
Over the past five years, Jeff Collins had maneuvered his way through the ranks, manipulating and cajoling his way up the professional ladder, only to have the prize stolen out from under him in the eleventh hour. Calvin Brown had
A promotion, a beautiful fiancÃ©eâ¦it just wasn't fair. He slipped on his turn-out gear and swung up into the truck just as the garage door began lifting.
“Where the hell have you been?” Cal's voice boomed, drowning out even the sound of the horn warning.
Jeff fought to hide his anger, and swallowed hard. “Sorry, got hung up.”
“Don't let it happen again.” Cal slammed the front wall to signal the driver that everyone was aboard. “Let's go.”
Without further warning, the truck began to pull forward, maneuvering its way through the traffic that had come to a complete halt.
Jeff focused on the view of the city flying by, while Cal conversed with Dwight. At times like this, it took everything in him to hide the growing hatred he felt for the man he'd once considered a friend.