Elaine walked away from the table where Travis and Weston were sitting, clutching the coffee pot to keep it from shaking. Why was she so jumpy this morning? She’d nearly dumped a plate of food on Anders from the Feed ’n Seed. And when she’d tried to apologize, she realized she didn’t even know his last name.
Prairie was funny that way. Everyone was on a first name basis. Anders’ Feed ’n Seed. Emmaline’s Dress Shop. Dottie’s Diner. A sign of true friendship, of intimacy, was when you knew someone well enough they told you their last name. And she was a nobody. Hardly memorable except to a select few women Dottie had introduced her to since she’d started at the diner.
The shining exception to that unspoken rule was Travis Kincaid. Everyone worshipped Travis Kincaid. The man practically walked on water. And who could blame people for thinking that? He was the perfect police chief. Big. Strong. Imposing.
But he had kind eyes behind the aviators he always wore. She’d seen them. And she’d learned enough in her short time on earth that she knew people’s eyes never lied. You could sum up a man in less time than it took to snap your fingers – just by looking him in the eyes. And the first time she’d looked Travis in the eyes, she couldn’t look away. There was pain in his eyes, for sure. And way too much brooding. How could there not be after what Prairie had experienced? And rumor had it he was a former Navy SEAL. So he must have experienced the horrors of war, too. In spite of that, when he wasn’t brooding and preoccupied, looking like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, his eyes radiated confidence. Kindness.
The man had a devastating smile, too. It had only been directed her way a few times in the last two years, but oh, my. She’d turned to a puddle on the spot. In fact, she’d been surprised her clothes hadn’t started smoking.
She let out a small sigh as she replaced the coffee pot on the portable warmer Dottie had set up to the side of the food truck. Travis Kincaid was so far out of her league it wasn’t even funny. She had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting someone like Travis to notice her, let alone want to be with her. “Stop it, girl,” she muttered to herself. “You have too many problems as it is.” Romance would only make it worse. Especially with a cop. A relationship with a lawman would invite scrutiny where she didn’t want it.
A table piled with the remains of several eaters’ meals caught her attention. The trash cans were only steps from the tables, but she insisted on bussing the dishes herself. It made her feel useful. Dottie should’ve let her go along with the line cook in the days following the tornado. But she had to have a job, and Dottie insisted she stay on. She stacked the disposable plates, taking care that nothing spilled on her shirt. Turning, she nearly slammed into the object of her late-night fantasies.
“Let me.” His voice had entirely too much s*x appeal, and it fuzzed her brain as she stood rooted to the spot. Large, strong hands took the trash from her, but he didn’t move, and neither did she. Elaine dragged her eyes up over his massive chest, made more so by the bulletproof vest that was part of his daily attire. She’d rarely seen him out of uniform. But those few occasions had fueled her imagination to fill in the blanks. The man was a wall of muscle.
She continued her upward perusal over his strong jaw, to his full mouth, which at the moment held a shadow of a smile, landing on his hazel eyes alight with an intensity that snagged her breath in the back of her throat. She couldn’t look away.
He turned, breaking whatever hung delicately suspended between them, and walked the dishes through the cluster of tables to the trash. But instead of moving on like she expected, he swiveled and caught her eye again, holding her gaze like a tractor beam as he crossed back to her. A tingle started across her shoulders and skittered in waves down through her body to settle in an ache at her core. She clenched her thighs, trying to contain the sensation. When she opened her mouth to speak, nothing came out.
Sure, she’d had a crush on him since he walked into Dottie’s on her first day nearly two years ago. But since the tornado, she’d been giddy and jittery around him like she’d drunk too much coffee. She’d made such a fool of herself that afternoon, collapsing into him, hysterical with relief that Dax was safe. His arms had come around her, sure and strong. Comforting. As if he truly cared about her.
But today, something was different. She’d felt it as soon as she’d brushed against him while pouring his coffee. She couldn’t put her finger on it, at least not yet. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that she’d sensed Travis’s eyes on her everywhere she moved this morning. Tracking her like a cat watches its prey before it pounces. It made her heart pound in ways it never had before. Not from fear, but from… anticipation.
“Thanks,” she stuttered when her voice decided to function.
“Happy to help.”
He wasn’t moving. She heated under his intense scrutiny, n*****s pulling tight. “Is something wrong?” Dread momentarily refocused her thoughts, tightening her throat as her hopes sank like a rock. That must be it. Travis didn’t make small talk. He must know. Maybe Dottie had let it slip. Well, if he did, he did. She couldn’t change her past, and while she might be ashamed of who she was when she was younger, she wasn’t ashamed of who she was now. At least not much.
His staring unnerved her. Was this some kind of ninja mind trick to get her to start singing like a canary? Her skin itched as a riot of feelings warred for supremacy inside her. Worry might be there, just below the surface, but it was eclipsed by an equally primal and physical response. The light in his eyes made her want things that were not for her. “Travis?”
She swore she saw him shake himself.
“Hope stopped me this morning and mentioned that you and Dax haven’t been out to their stables yet.”
The Hansens had been so kind to her since the tornado, paying special attention to Dax even though it was their uncle who died keeping her son safe. She was indebted to them for life. She had no intention of taking further advantage.
She shook her head and shrugged, moving to clear another table. Travis followed. She glanced his direction but avoided his eyes. “I’m already the town charity case. I just can’t.”
He made a scoffing noise in the back of his throat.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone’s kindness.” Especially Dottie’s. She’d be lost without the woman. Or worse. Even though the diner job on its own wasn’t enough to make ends meet. With the library and her second job gone in the tornado too, she’d have to muddle through while the town rebuilt. “I have to stand on my own two feet.”
Travis took another pile of plates from her hands and waited patiently while she collected the rest of the trash from the table, then followed her to the barrel. “You’ve been standing on your own two feet plenty. You ever think people might worry about you?”
“Ha.” She hadn’t meant for the bitter laugh to escape, but it had.
Travis’s hand came down on her shoulder, and he spun her to face him, his other hand coming down opposite. That wasn’t a thrill rocketing down her spine. Nope. She made the mistake of looking up, only to be pinned by his eyes doing their ninja mind trick thing again.
“What gives, Elaine? Why won’t you go?”
Bitterness rose through her, lodging in the back of her throat. “You don’t get it, do you? You think it’s pride, or-or guilt, or-or… I don’t know, something else. How about I don’t own a car? I don’t even know how to drive. And even if I had a bike, or Dax had one, I’d never bring a bike within fifty feet of Highway 30. Not with no shoulder and too many construction trucks on it these days.”
There. Let him chew on that.
He wanted to know what it was? Poverty. Plain and simple. And the humiliation that accompanied it. She shut her eyes, willing away the hot pricks that poked at her eyelids. She scrimped and scratched, and she couldn’t even get her son a bike, let alone the latest Transformer he always seemed to be begging for. And phones, tablets, or laptops? Forget it. She’d been studying for her GED at the library, and now that dream was destroyed, too. Just once, she wanted to be the one to get her son something nice, take him someplace nice.
“I’ll take you.”
“You?” Her stomach pitched.
Travis made an exaggerated effort of looking first left, then right. Turning around, before throwing her one of those devastating smiles. “I don’t see anyone else.”
The word Yes sprang up, ready to burst from the back of her throat, but she reined it in, shaking her head. “That’s very kind of you, but you don’t need to do that.”
Her libido protested mightily.
God, she’d give anything to spend an hour with him when neither of them was on the clock. But, no. Saying yes was a bad, bad, bad idea. Besides, women like her didn’t get to have men like Travis. Kind. Fair. Trustworthy.
“It’s no problem at all. More importantly, I think it will be good for Dax.”
Of course. For a split second she’d allowed herself to think he might be asking because he was interested in her. She ignored the little ache that lodged at the bottom of her chest. Of course, he was asking for Dax. Just like a good, upstanding cop. And that was sweet, really. Dax worshipped Travis. He was the only other adult besides herself and Dottie that Dax would talk to right now. So it went without saying that Travis would naturally take an interest in Dax.
But that still didn’t mean she could take advantage of the Hansens’ offer. “You probably don’t have a car seat. Dax is still in a booster seat.”
Travis seemed unfazed. “Not a problem.”
“He’s never ridden a horse before.”
“Also not a problem. Hope thinks it will help him.”
Temptation won out. And curiosity. If Hope thought horses could help her son get back to being the rambunctious, curious, funny kid he’d been before the tornado, she’d give it a try. “I do worry about him.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.”
“I’m so sorry, but I work tomorrow.”
“I’ll work it out with Dottie.”
Travis held up a finger. “No buts. I’ll see you at nine.”