“Uh, Travis?” The sweet feminine voice that had haunted his dreams for months spoke as a coffee pot entered his line of sight. “Did you want some more coffee?”
He swung his gaze in the direction of her voice, finding Elaine Ryder’s big blue eyes staring at him with a hint of concern. It never stopped surprising him. How one morning she’d suddenly stopped avoiding his gaze and began meeting his eyes. As if, after two years, he’d finally passed some kind of muster.
It still rendered him stupid.
He grunted in reply to her offer of coffee, holding out his paper cup, missing the one Dottie used to hold for him at the diner, missing the diner. But it was gone. Demolished along with half the town in six minutes of devastation wrought by an EF4 tornado. All they had now was a food truck and a handful of picnic tables set up across the street from the rubble that used to be Dottie’s Diner.
Elaine reached to steady his hand as she poured, a new part of their daily ritual thanks to the tornado, and one he wouldn’t complain about. Or the zing that snaked up his arm and spiraled down to his c**k. Every. Single. Time.
Across from him, his deputy chief and closest friend, Weston Tucker, made a disapproving noise in the back of his throat as soon as she left. “Real smooth, dickhead. No wonder you don’t get anywhere with the ladies. Usually, when you like someone, you engage them in conversation. Not growl at them.”
“You know I don’t date women in town,” he gritted out. How many times had they been over this?
“Or anyone, because of your damned rules.” Weston held up a finger. “Because there’s the age requirement,” he ticked off on another finger. “And how could I forget the education clause, and the no-sleeping-in rule?” He held up another hand. “Shall I go on? No one divorced or with kids, no one in the military or at work. And you practically have to break down a door to assure yourself it’s really locked. Maybe getting laid would help you lighten up. It would at least fix your crappy attitude.”
“My attitude is just fine,” he snapped.
Weston laughed, a rich belly laugh that rang across the crowded picnic tables. “Keep telling yourself that, Chief. Keep telling yourself that.” His face turned serious. “You about bit Elaine’s head off. You may be inept with the ladies, but you’re usually not an asshole. What gives?”
How could he explain? Even to his best friend? Travis contemplated the dark liquid in his cup, as the memory of his latest bad dream shuddered through him. “It’s nothing.”
“Let me guess. You overslept again?” Weston’s face softened briefly. “What was it this time? Up all night thinking about Elaine?” he teased gently.
“If only. More like pulling Warren out of the rubble, except it’s not his face I see, it’s my brother’s. Or McCall. Or Hamm.”
“When was the last time you talked to someone?”
Travis shrugged. He’d done plenty of time on a couch, and as far as he was concerned there came a point when it was just a crutch for crybabies.
“I know someone good.” Weston signaled Elaine for a refill.
“I’ll let you know.” Travis took a big gulp of the still hot coffee, trying not to wince as it scalded his throat going down. It was stupid, he knew. Weak. He wanted to feel her hand against his again. His coffee consumption had quadrupled since the tornado. But he couldn’t help it. He craved her gentle touch. The innocence of it. That fleeting contact did more to ground him than any of the rules he’d imposed on himself in the years since he’d left his SEAL unit.
“Don’t be an asshole this time,” Weston spoke low, eyes crinkling with mirth. “Use your words, big guy.”
Travis took the opportunity to peruse her as she stood over Weston’s cup and poured. She was on the short side, no more than five-five. Slender, but with enough curves to make his mouth water. He’d only ever seen her in what she wore right now – black Converse, slim fitting jeans, and a Dottie’s Diner tee. She had three. A black one, a pink one, and his favorite because it brought out the blue in her eyes, the blue one she wore today. Even though it was slightly baggy, it didn’t disguise her high, perky breasts or cover up the luscious curve of her a*s. An a*s he longed to cup as he pulled her close.
Weston cleared his throat, and Travis dragged his eyes to the sound. Weston rolled his eyes and smirked, then mouthed the word dumbass. Travis straightened and flicked a glance at Elaine.
Pink splashed across her cheeks. Something he’d love if he hadn’t been caught staring, because it made her eyes sparkle. And was that the barest hint of a smile? She rounded the table and opened her hand, silently asking for his cup. “Thanks, Elaine.” He f****d his voice into a normal register as he handed over his cup, embracing the zing that traveled up from his fingers when her hand brushed his.
“How’s Dax doing?” Weston asked, finally rescuing him.
A look of worry crossed Elaine’s face. She shrugged and gripped the coffee pot a little tighter. “As good as can be expected, I guess.”
Her voice was so soft and sweet. It slid over Travis and enveloped him like a warm blanket.
“Where’s he right now?”
Leave it to Weston to keep the conversation going. Weston was right. He needed to do a better job of talking with her. It was his job, for chrissakes. But at least where Elaine was concerned, Weston had appointed himself the unofficial public relations officer.
Elaine tilted her head toward the center of the park. “Over at the playground with a few of the boys from his class.”
Pride surged through Travis as he glanced in the direction of the playground. In the early aftermath of the tornado, the community had determined their top priority would be rebuilding the playground so the town’s children would have a safe place to play during clean-up efforts. It had been the perfect project to bring everyone together around a common purpose, becoming a touchstone of inspiration for the long months of recovery that lay ahead.
Say something, dumbass. Anything. He cleared his throat. “Well, ah…” f**k. Why in the hell was he so tongue-tied?
“You’ll have to excuse Travis, here.” Weston smiled reassuringly at Elaine. “He’s a little short on sleep. He’s not usually such a caveman.”
She swung her baby blues to him, scrutinizing him with the same worry he’d seen on her face when he’d reunited her with Dax after the tornado. In spite of his discomfort, something in him growled to life under her attention. Made him sit a little taller.
“Do you prefer tea?” she asked in a rush. “Or water? Sometimes when I’m sleep deprived, coffee just makes it worse.”
Her concern warmed him. And for the first time that day, a genuine smile tilted up the corners of his mouth. “I’m fine, thanks.”
Once she’d moved away, he scowled across the table at Weston, who sat shaking with suppressed laughter. “Smooth,” he chortled. “You’ll have to do a better job talking with the ladies if you’re going to run for county sheriff.”
“No way. We’ve got enough to deal with here. I don’t need to run for sheriff.”
“Have you seen who’s filed?” Weston’s voice filled with disgust.
Travis shook his head. “Don’t care. Williams only had, what, eighteen months left? So long as the new guy follows in his footsteps and stays out of our way, we’ll be fine.”
Weston made a disapproving noise. “This guy’s an asshat. Travis. None of the cops I’ve talked to over in Marion like him.”
“So he’s an asshat. As long as he does his job, who cares?”
Weston leaned forward. “Why not run? You’ve got the pedigree.”
“You do, too.”
“Maybe I want your job.” Weston grinned and stroked the scruff covering his chin.
“Give me a better reason.”
“Fine. Crime’s down since you became chief. Sense of community is up. And you need a new project.”
Weston had him there. He did need something new. He’d been feeling itchy for months, even before the tornado hit. Like it was time to make a shift. Problem was, to what? He was settled here. And while his long-term dream was to get the ranch up and running again, he didn’t have the people or the capital tucked away to do it for a few more years. “I’ll consider it.”
“Hey Travis, you gotta sec?” Hope Sinclaire swung a leg over the bench and took a seat.
“You bet.” Anything to stop talking about this county sheriff business. And get his mind off Elaine.
“I’m worried about Dax Ryder.”
Weren’t they all? The little boy hadn’t been the same since they’d pulled him and Warren Hansen out of the rubble of the tornado. Granted, it hadn’t even been two months, but the kid was obviously traumatized. And Hope’s uncle, Warren, had died protecting him. “Talk to me.”
“We’ve all invited Elaine and Dax out to the ranch to work with the horses, but they haven’t come. I don’t know why. But I thought since you’re one of the only adults Dax seems comfortable with at the moment, maybe you could offer to bring them out?”
Weston spoke up. “That would be a great photo-op for someone running for sheriff.”
“Shut up, Wes. I’m not doing that.”
“The horses or the photo-op?”
Travis shot Weston a warning glare and turned back to Hope. “When?”
“Anytime. I’ve been studying more cases where trauma victims are positively impacted by working with horses. I think it could help him.”
“It helped me when I was in a bad spot a few years ago,” Weston volunteered.
“When was this?” Travis asked, intrigued. Weston hadn’t spoken much about the time before he’d moved to Prairie. In face, Travis had been surprised he’d taken the job offer. Weston hadn’t grown up out west, but he’d taken to the western life like a fish to water.
“Before you called me to come work for you. There’s a program in Montana at the Triple Bar H Ranch called Horses Helping Heroes. You work with horses, training them, and caring for them. But it’s really about giving you coping skills again. A lot of their guys have gone on to be farriers, or guides, or work on ranches.”
“Exactly.” Hope agreed emphatically, her signature strawberry blonde braids swinging behind her. “Horses communicate with you in ways we don’t yet understand. Which is why I think it’s really important we get Dax out to the ranch. I think we can help him.”
“Where you going?”
A glint of challenge entered his eye. “I thought I’d go talk to Elaine. Seeing’s how you’re tongue-tied around her.”
Asshole. “I’ll do it.” Travis swung a leg over the bench and stood, ignoring Weston’s soft chuckle behind him. He could talk to Elaine. He could talk to anyone. She was just like anyone else in town. And it wasn’t like he was asking her on a date. This was to help Dax.