THE UNFORGETTABLE DUET
© 2018, BROOKE BLAINE
“IT’S MONDAY, AND you know what that means,” Mike said as he cut off Big Bertha’s engine and looked over at me expectantly.
I patted my pants pocket to make sure I’d shoved my wallet inside before we’d headed out this morning, and when I felt the outline of the trifold, I nodded. “Yep. Extra-bold coffee comin’ up.” As I popped open the passenger-side door, Mike’s hand landed firmly on my arm, halting me before I could get out of the ambulance, and I looked back at him over my shoulder.
“It means don’t be a chickenshit, Ollie, that’s what it means.”
Lifting my eyebrows, I glanced around, searching for whoever it was Mike thought he was talking to, and when he read my quizzical expression, he snorted.
“Yeah, that means you,” he said.
“You callin’ me out?”
“Damn right I am.”
I shook my head. “I’m not a chickenshit, and you know it.”
Mike shrugged and let go of my arm. “Fine. Prove it.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can. You just won’t.”
Yeah, whatever, he had me there. Something always held me back from saying much more than hello to the guy in the fitted chinos and starched collared shirt and tie that I saw most mornings in the coffee aisle at Joe’s Grab ’N Go, and Mike never could resist an opportunity to rib me for it. I never should’ve told him about my crush in the first damn place, but being my best friend as well as my work partner meant we tended to overshare in the time between calls.
“He’s straight, Mike. Leave it alone, huh?”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
I picked up a container of mints and shook a couple into my mouth before tossing it back in the console. “Trust me. I know.”
“You ask him since the last time I saw you?”
Rolling my eyes, I ignored his question and pushed open my door. “You want that coffee or not?”
“Mhmm. The date for you, too.”
“Jesus,” I muttered, slamming the door before he could make any other requests. I could hear him chuckling behind me as he got out to pump the gas. And out of the corner of my eye, a flash of red pulling into a parking spot had my heart beating a bit faster. It was ridiculous that I’d even wonder for a second if I’d see him, since hardly a weekday had gone by in four months when I hadn’t. But that flutter of anticipation still sent a thrill through me, the handful of minutes seeing him every morning the highlight of my day.
That’s it. I need to get my damn life back. Working all these overtime shifts to pick up some extra cash over the holidays—and giving the guys with families some time off—had sent my extracurricular activities into a tailspin. If I didn’t get laid soon, I’d crash and burn. Or, worse, hit on the straight guy.
“Hey, Ollie,” Mike called out, and I paused with my hand on the door to the Grab ’N Go before moving aside to let the woman behind me pass through. When I turned around, a mischievous grin played on his lips as he inserted the gas pump into Big Bertha’s tank and began to hip-thrust.
Oh for the love of—
“And while you’re at it, maybe grab me one of those apple fritters, would ya? And a soda for later?”
So much for New Year’s resolutions, I thought. That had lasted less than a week. Not that I could blame him when it came to the tempting basket of freshly baked goods that sat by Joe’s register every morning—even I had a hard time passing on those. Still, Mike had wanted to lose the twenty pounds that had crept up since Halloween and made me swear I’d keep him in check.
“You sure you wanna do that?” I asked.
Mike looked pointedly over at the red Mazda3 and his smile grew. “Life’s too short to pass on the good stuff, wouldn’t you say?”
That fucker. I shook my head and shot a glare his way, and then I went inside, determined now to buy out the apple fritters and personally stuff ’em down his meddling throat.
“Morning, Oliver,” Joe greeted me from behind the counter where he was ringing up a customer, and I smiled his way before grabbing a handheld basket and heading down the aisle for Mike’s Sprite. I took the third bottle from the front—yeah, I never took the first one of anything—and laid it in the basket as the freezer door slapped shut behind me.
I kept a tight grip on the handle as I took my time walking toward the far aisle, the anticipation building in my gut. Finally, I rounded the corner, and just as he was every day, Bluebird stood in front of the coffee station, refillable mug in hand and somehow looking more gorgeous than I remembered. My memory never did him justice.
I didn’t move as he placed his mug beneath the machine’s spout and hit a button, and I knew exactly what he’d get, the same as every morning: a latte with light foam and three sugars, two creamers.
Today he was dressed in a pair of black slacks, with a white button-down shirt and a midnight-blue tie—always so well put together, from his stylishly tousled dark brown hair, so dark it was almost black, down to his black loafers. A couple of days of stubble covered his usual freshly shaven jaw, and I imagined how it’d feel under my hands as I took either side of his face and pulled him toward mine—
Bluebird’s curse shook me out of my stupor as my feet managed to move again, and as I got closer, I saw that the usual brown liquid coming out of the machine was a cloudy white instead.
He let out a frustrated sigh. “Hey, Joe,” he called out to the owner. “Latte machine’s down.”
“Again?” Joe scratched his jaw and then said, “Sorry about that, Reid. I’ll get someone out to fix it today.”
“No problem,” Reid replied, dumping out the hot water from his mug into the tray, and hello, I finally had a name to go with the face: Reid. How was it I’d gone so long without knowing?
I pulled out a couple of large disposable cups from the rack and reached for the coffee pot at the same time as Reid, our fingers brushing each other ever so slightly before we both jerked back. His touch shot through me like an electric jolt to my heart, and the surprise that lit his eyes told me I wasn’t the only one affected.
“Sorry,” he said, and then cleared his throat. “Damn static.”
That wasn’t static, I thought, but I wasn’t about to enlighten him, so instead I gestured to the almost empty coffee pot. “No problem. Go for it.”
“Oh…uh…” He glanced at how little was left and shook his head. “That’s okay. You were first.”
“Nah, go ahead. Something tells me you need it more than I do.”
“You sure?” Reid asked, his forehead creased like he didn’t want to impose, but I wouldn’t have minded him taking the last of the coffee every day, so long as those dark chocolate eyes of his stayed on me.
“I insist,” I said, and then leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “Besides, I know where Joe keeps the spares. I’ll just make another pot.”
A grateful smile lifted his lips. “Thanks.” Then he poured himself a full mug of coffee and scratched his jaw as he said, “Ever have one of those mornings?”
“All the time.”
Reid looked up at me, and then his eyes shifted down to my name and title patched in on my uniform. Oliver McFadden. Paramedic. “Yeah, of course you do. Paramedic, huh? I don’t know how you do it.”
“Helps that we can filter caffeine through IVs for a quicker hit on bad days.”
He laughed as he ripped open three sugar packets and dumped them into his drink. “I think I’m in the wrong field.”
“What is it you do?”
“I teach music education at Castle Hill.”
“Middle schoolers?” I whistled. “I think I’ll stick with my job.”
“I wouldn’t blame you some days. They’re mostly a good group, but man, there’s a few whose mission is to run off the new teachers.”
“And you’re one of the new ones?”
“Four months running.” He tossed the empty packets into the trash and then held his hand out to me. “I’m Reid, by the way.”
I stared at his hand for a couple of heartbeats before taking it in mine. His long fingers were cool to the touch, unlike my perpetually hot ones. It could be negative fifty outside, and my hands would still be warm. “Ollie,” I said, and then shook my head slightly. “Well, Oliver, but everyone calls me Ollie.”
“Ollie,” Reid repeated, still shaking my hand. “I’ve never met an Ollie before.”
“Mom was a big fan of Laurel and Hardy. I’m just glad she didn’t go with Stan.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized that was an unnecessary reference because he probably had no idea who the hell Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were, but Reid surprised the hell out of me by laughing.
“Your mom has good taste. I used to watch their stuff at my nan’s,” he said, and then let go of my hand.
I missed the contact immediately.
Before I could respond, Joe’s gnarled fingers clamped down on my arm as he hobbled in between us and hit the side of the latte machine with his cane.
“I don’t think it’ll respond to a beat-down, Joe,” Reid said, as he stirred two creamers into his coffee.
“Worked once before. By George, I’ll do it again.”
As Joe whacked at the machine, Reid shook his head at the stubborn man. Then he capped his mug and smiled at me. “Thanks again, Ollie. I owe you one.”
“Anytime,” I said, and meant it. “Hope your morning improves.”
“I’m counting on it. Bye, Joe. I’ll leave the money on the counter.”
Joe grumbled what sounded like a goodbye and kept fiddling with the latte machine as I rinsed out the coffee pot and started up a fresh brew.
Two steaming mugs and a bag full of apple fritters later and I was climbing back into Big Bertha, still reeling from my run-in with Reid. It was so unlike me to moon over a guy, for fuck’s sake, but there was something about him that had caught my attention from day one and never let go. Today’s encounter had only served to pique my curiosity. I’d always thought him older, maybe mid- to late twenties, but he said he’d only been at Castle Hill for four months. Maybe that meant he was fresh out of college? Or could be he’d relocated from somewhere. Definitely somewhere still in the South, since he seemed to have the manner of someone who’d grown up with parents who drilled in the Yes, sirs and No, thank you, ma’ams so telling of this part of the country, though his accent didn’t betray much of a twang.
“That has got to be the biggest, dumbest grin I’ve ever seen on your ugly mug,” Mike said, staring at me like I’d grown two heads. “Did you finally do it? Did you ask him out?”
I tossed the bag of fritters and soda into Mike’s lap. “Feel free to choke on those.”
“Ahh, I’m gonna take that as a yes, then. He shoot you down?”
After setting the coffees in the console, I fastened my seatbelt and waited for Mike to get the hint we needed to get moving.
“The hell, man?” he said. “You gonna leave me hangin’?”
I arched my brow in his direction, and when I didn’t say anything, he gave a grunt and started up the rig.
“One of these days, Ollie,” he grumbled, pulling out of the gas station. “You know all my personal shit. See if I spill my guts anymore.”
“You wouldn’t know what to do if you couldn’t talk about Deb twenty-four seven.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault I scored a good one. Just letting everyone know what they’re missing out on.” As Mike slowed down behind traffic, he glanced over at me and waggled his black eyebrows.
“Make sure to do us a favor and hand out barf bags the next time you get started.” I nodded at the bag of pastries in his lap. “And don’t tell Deb I’m doin’ a horrible job of keeping you accountable.”
“Nah, she likes my love handles.”
He laughed and tore into the bag of fritters with one hand, while keeping his other on the wheel. When he’d made me swear last week that I’d keep him on track while he “cut the crap,” I’d thought he was nuts. Even with an extra twenty pounds on his strong six-foot build, Mike was as attractive as ever. Black, close-cropped curls, a permanent tan, and dimples that only seemed to have deepened the past few months.
The hot ones are always straight. At least they are in Floyd Hills, Georgia, I thought, my mind drifting back to the man I always made sure to run into during the workweek. And yeah, I got that straight vibe from Reid too, though even he couldn’t deny the spark that had ignited when our hands had brushed against each other. That wasn’t enough to hang any hope on, though, much as I wanted to.
“His name’s Reid,” I said, breaking up the quiet in the cab, and when Mike’s head jerked in my direction, a fritter half shoved in his mouth, I was unable to keep the smirk off my face anymore. “Teaches music at the middle school.”
As I casually sipped my coffee, Mike’s jaw practically hit the ground. “No shit.” A horn sounded from behind us, and Mike stepped on the gas, shaking his head. “About damn time. What else did you talk about?”
“Nothing. Joe came over to give the coffee machine a concussion, and that was the end of that.”
“Dammit, Joe. Way to cock-block.”
“Nah, he didn’t know.”
“Well, you have an opening now,” Mike said, winking at me. “And that was only a pun if you want it to be.”
“Oh, Jesus. I’ve done it now.”
“Created a monster who uses puns against me.”
Mike laughed as I flipped on the radio to drown out any other comments his sugar high wanted to lob out, but when Bing Crosby began to croon about a winter wonderland, Mike groaned and jabbed at the buttons to change the channel.
“I can’t believe they’re still blasting Christmas music in January. Didn’t they get the memo that Santa Claus already came to town, and all he brought me was a damn snow blower? When the hell am I gonna use a snow blower around here? I think my in-laws called in a favor.”
Chuckling, I brought my coffee up to my lips and blew softly, while Mike continued to flip through the stations until a country song began to play. He started to sing along, something about naming babies and dogs, which would normally have me eye-rolling him to death. But since his mouth was now otherwise occupied and he wasn’t digging for more information out of me, I didn’t bother putting up a fight to change the channel. Let him belt out “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” for all I cared. Until a call came in, my mind would be preoccupied by…other things.
A quick tone alert came through the radio, and I punched the music off as a call came through from dispatch.
“Unit 110, please respond Code 3 to the intersection of Mercer and Thomas on a multi-vehicle accident with injuries. Fire responding for possible extrication.”
I picked up the receiver. “Ten-four, Unit 110 en route. ETA less than two minutes,” I said, as Mike dropped the plastic bag on the ground at my feet and flipped on the lights and siren.
“Not how I’d want my day starting out,” he said, cutting through an intersection to make a left on Mercer.
“Saddle up,” I said. “I have a feeling it’s gonna be a long one.”
Traffic going east was already beginning to back up, the roads congested at the height of morning rush hour. Now with the accident up ahead and the cars unable to move to the side, Mike had to pull us into the suicide lane to get by. From the opposite direction, a backup unit, along with two police cars and a fire truck, veered toward the intersection, though it looked like we’d get there first.
I could see the smoke rising up ahead, and as we got closer, it seemed to be coming from beneath the hood of a black four-by-four truck that had smashed into a—
“Oh shit… Ollie…” Mike’s voice trailed off as we both caught sight of the crushed passenger side of the car that had been T-boned. The crumpled car had been no match for the bigger vehicle; it looked like they’d skidded into the middle of the intersection during impact. The car’s hood punched up at an awkward angle with the truck half inside, and broken glass littered the road.
I’d seen the sight so many times before, but never had the breath left my lungs in a rush, never had a faint ringing sound filled my ears, and never had a wild sense of panic seized my chest like it did right then.
Because the mangled car, the one I was responding to, was none other than Reid’s bright red Mazda3.
The Unforgettable Duet must be read in order, beginning with Forget Me Not.
Ollie & Reid’s journey continues in book two, Remember Me When.