On a dark moonless summer night, with only occasional bolts of heat lightning to relieve the blackness, MARK stretched her stiff legs as best as she could while driving the rented moving van. All her worldly possessions were stuffed behind her as she drove the long five hour trip. She turned left onto a gravel road, almost there now, almost to her new home in the country and to her new life in nearby Panama City.
Off in the distance, an orange, yellow, and red glow flickered on the horizon. A fire! Oh no! MARK pulled into the long winding driveway as flames leaped, dancing in the wind, while devouring the old weathered wood barn. She jumped from the van and ran toward the blaze. That barn was supposed to be an animal shelter and headquarters for her new job. MARK felt like she was watching a funeral pyre for her new life. What kind of sign was this for her new beginning?
The fire, hot as the hinges of hell, singed her brown hair as she ran into the choking cloud of billowing black smoke. She collided into what felt like a brick wall and her knees buckled.
"Whoa, little lady." Large gentle hands clasped her shoulders to stop her from falling upon impact, and then guided her back out of the heat.
MARK's heart caught at the sound of the deep, rich baritone voice. His chocolate eyes locked onto her blue ones then widened with surprise. Or was it appreciation? Perhaps the scorching heat was roasting her thinking processes? Something soft squirmed against her chest before she realized his brawny arms were filled with whimpering kittens. He was rescuing the baby animals! Although glistening with sweat and smudged with charcoal, too sooty to distinguish his features, he seemed like a knight in not-quite shimmering armor. "Who are you?" MARK whispered.
"I'm MARK." MARK remembered his manners at the same time as the wiggling weights in arms. "Here." He thrust the bundle of panicky kittens into her arms before brushing a stray lock of brown hair from her lovely oval face. He took a giant step back, away from the temptation of her feminine and athletic form. MARK wondered why no one warned him that she was such a beauty. "You must be MARK, the new vet," he tossed back over his shoulder as he again ran toward the barn to save more animal shelter strays.
MARK settled the newborn kittens on the grass, well away from the blazing barn, as fire engines roared into the driveway. Firemen hollered out directions to each other, working in harmony with hoses to blast water into flames. MARK hauled out the baby kitten's mother, handing it and three more strays to MARK, before dashing back for another rescue.
Professionals that they were, the firemen had the inferno down to a smolder in no time. One of the fire fighters led MARK to a large neighboring ranch house at the end of the lane and told her the owner said for her take care of the rescued animals there.
Although she kept her hands busy by washing the smoky scent from the kittens, her mind zoomed from one worry to another with the speed of a NASCAR race. What would she do now? What about her job at the animal shelter? Now that the barn burned, where would she live if not in the loft? Did God have something personal against her, for her fresh start to begin with disaster? Wasn't it all but a flashing neon sign advertising that she'd made a wrong decision to move here?
Oh no. Would her new veterinarian partner want to rebuild the animal shelter? She'd never spoken with him directly, but had been interviewed by the relocating vet who was to hire a replacement partner. What did the future hold for her?
MARK sighed deeply. Only two hours ago she was giddy with glee, full of positive attitude, and excited at the potential for the new direction she was taking with her life.
Despite the animal shelter in ashes down the lane, again and again, she wondered just WHO precisely was MARK? Where had he come from and would she see him again? He wasn't what she would call handsome, covered head to toe in grime, but there was something about him -- something she liked. Something she hadn't felt for a very long time. Something that happened instantly when their gaze met. Well, MARK conceded, their head-on collision could have knocked her senses out of whack. She'd simply misread their physical impact. Nah. It wasn't chemistry.
She no sooner settled the kittens into a make-shift bed, than she heard the smooth baritone that MARK recalled from earlier. She turned her head toward its source and her mouth went dry. Surely this wasn't MARK? This man was freshly showered, his features no longer smudged and indistinguishable. She inhaled deeply as she detected the pleasant sensation of his pure masculine scent. With his tan coloring, black hair, and chocolate eyes that also held a mixture of humor, wisdom, and kindness, the man before her could give any number of professional male models a run for their money in the fluttering-of-the-female heart department. The smoky voice was saying something, but her heart was thudding too unevenly to hear. This man couldn't possibly be MARK-the-kitten-rescuer, could he?
Yet he smiled slowly at her gaping mouth and that rich deep tone rumbled, "You okay, MARK?"
Wow! Swallowing hard, she forced her gaze away from his chocolate one before her face could betray her thoughts. He looked like a modern-day gladiator with broad shoulders, corded neck, and perfectly sculpted face. When she dared another glance, he stared at her for a moment. From the twitching at the corner of his mouth, MARK guessed he was trying to hold back a laugh. She wasn't sure if she wanted to slap him or kiss him now. Instead, she cleared her throat. Twice. "I'm fine thanks."
MARK leaned his back against the wall and stuck his hands in his belt loops, regarding her with that same lazy, sexy smile. Disturbed, MARK looked away.
MARK held out one large hand. "I'm MARK JOHNSON by the way." When her much smaller hand gripped his in a handshake, MARK attempted to regulate his breathing. He'd prayed for God to make the way clear, to make the path obvious in the direction MARK should take his life. Now this woman was fresh-out of places to live until the barn was reconstructed. How did you invite a gorgeous woman you've just met to spend the night without making it sound like a pick-up line? "Welcome to Panama City, MARK."
She snorted ineloquently. "Yeah sure. I arrive just in time for heat lightning to strike and start an inferno. Some omen, huh?"
MARK tried to catch his breath, reminding himself of why he couldn't let himself like her. Or touch her athletic body. Yet he couldn't release the smooth ivory hand in his. Her touch was affecting him like being struck with a white-hot bolt of heat lightning. "Hmm. Start an inferno is right."
He reluctantly released her hand when she tugged. She nibbled on her bottom lip as her blue eyes narrowed on him. Her honey-sweet voice seemed to pick up a little spice when she asked, "How was it that you were there at the fire so quickly?
"I live here."
She swallowed hard, then practically squeaked her realization. "YOU." It wasn't a question. For the first time, MARK wondered if the attraction went both ways. She didn't sound necessarily pleased about it. In fact, her next statement sounded more like an accusation. "YOU are my new partner!"
MARK nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Dr. MARK JOHNSON D.V.M. at your service." When she all but growled her frustration, he added, "Don't worry. We'll rebuild."
She tossed her hands in the air before hitching a thumb back toward the lane. "I can't exactly live in that moving van while the shelter is under construction."
MARK took a step toward her and closed the gap. He watched her breathing speed up. "You can live with me until then. There's lots of rooms to choose from. I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship."
She shook her head, flipping brown hair back over her shoulder, then tipped her stubborn chin in the air. "That's partnership, mister. Not relationship."
"Yes," MARK agreed. "That too. It takes an equal partnership for any relationship to work. After you interviewed for the job, the vet you're replacing told me you're sweet, big-hearted, and a good doctor. He failed, however, to mention how beautiful you are."
She grumbled, "He failed to mention my future partner could double for a male model if he needed a change of employment." She whipped her eyes off his form-fitting t-shirt.
MARK shook his head. Oh yes, this would be interesting. She was definitely interested in him whether she wished it so or not. God had definitely handed MARK a blessing when He sent MARK. The animal shelter burning down was like a flashing neon sign for MARK's life, sending MARK into more than his business, sending her into his home as well. God was looking out for MARK, too. She just didn't realize it yet.
MARK motioned toward the hallway. "Pick a room, any room, for your stay. Then I'll help you carry in your suitcases so you can shower away the smoke and soot from the fire. In the morning, I'll help you unload the moving van." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "Welcome home, Dr. MARK JOHNSON."
With that, MARK spun around and practically stomped toward the hallway.
MARK smiled after her. Feisty. Dang but if he didn't like that about her too.