She really tried not to be so aware of him.
But there was no way for Lissa McIntyre to ignore the man sitting at her counter.
When he'd first walked into the café, she'd been a little unnerved by the sheer size of him. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and wore his leather duster as if he were an outlaw from the Old West, owning every joint he walked into. His dark brown hat was low over his eyes, casting his face into shadows, and he moved as if every muscle in his body was primed and ready to pounce...on her.
She never dated. She was careful not to even look at a man in a way that might make him think an overture would be welcome, especially not when she was working and had a café full of cowboys. Men were trouble dangerous, and a threat to everything that mattered to her, which was a very short list.
And yet, the moment he'd raised his head and looked at her, she'd felt herself falling into the depths of his steely blue eyes. He was pure male, loaded with testosterone. His clothes were old and worn. He was soaking wet. And...God...she couldn't lie. He was insanely, irresistibly sexy. Sensual. Tempting. Every word she would never dare apply to a man had been rushing through her mind for the last hour.
He hadn't said much, except to ask for a refill on his coffee and to thank her each time she refilled his water, but the way he spoke made chills rush down her spine. His voice was deep, almost melodic, filling her with a longing so intense that she wanted to sit down on the stool next to him, prop her chin up on her hands, and ask him to just talk for a while so she could lose herself in the magic of his voice.
Before he'd arrived, she'd been feeling sorry for herself, dreading festival week, and all the chaos and long hours it brought with it. If she didn't need the money, she would shut down for the week and take Bridgette to all the events. Instead, she'd had to pawn her daughter off on her amazing neighbor, Martha Keller, who had become the grandmother that Bridgette would never have. Martha was the one taking Bridgette to all the events of festival week, while Lissa worked. Of course, it would be worth it when her bank account had enough money in it to make it through another slow winter, but on the first night, she always felt cranky, wondering how she'd ended up with this as her life.
But when her counter cowboy had shown up, he'd been a welcome distraction, drawing her out of her negative thinking and into the present. He made her think of a time when she'd thought life was full of opportunity and sunshine, before everything had crashed down around her. Plus, a little eye candy always made a girl's day brighter, right?
The door jangled again, and she grimaced when she saw another group of competitors from the rodeo walk in. She was already at max capacity, and the crowd was getting boisterous and impatient with the slow service. Even if Katie was here, it would have been tough to keep up, but alone? It was impossible, and she knew it. It wouldn't take much for word to get out about the Wildflower Café to the rest of the tourists and competitors. If tonight was a bust, no one would be coming back this week. Fear rippled through her at the thought of losing all that income. She desperately needed a profitable week. Desperately.
"Hey." Her counter cowboy waved at her.
She hurried over to him, grabbing her water pitcher as she went. Sweat was trickling down her spine, but she knew she had to find a way to go even faster. "What's up?"
"You got anyone in the kitchen watching those burgers while you're out here?"
She spun around. "Why? Are they burning?" She couldn't afford to burn them. Her customers had already been waiting too long. "I'll go check--"
He stopped her with a hand on her forearm.
She froze, her belly flipping over. His hand wrapped all the way around her arm easily, but his touch was gentle, so gentle that she knew he wasn't trying to trap her. She could pull away if she wanted...but she didn't want to. "What?"
He gestured at the café. "There's no way you can handle this alone. Want help?"
"Help?" She blinked at him. "Who? You?"
"Yeah. I can cook." He still had his hand on her arm. "I'm too antisocial and bitter to socialize with the public, so I'm not waiting on tables, but I'll flip some burgers."
God, she needed help. There was no way she could manage both the customers and the cooking by herself tonight. A part of her wanted to throw herself over the counter, hug him fiercely, and then put him to work....but there was no way. "I really appreciate the offer, but I don't even know you. I can't have a stranger in my kitchen, but thanks." She started to turn away, but he tightened his grip on her arm.
Her breath caught, and she looked at him. "Yes?"
He hesitated, emotions warring on his face. For a long moment, he said nothing, and she frowned, turning back to face him. "What is it?"
He flexed his jaw, his blue eyes fixed on her face. "You're new to town, right?" he finally said. "You didn't grow up here, did you?"
She blinked at the random question. "I've been here eight years. Why?"
Again, a long moment of silence, as if he were waging some massive internal debate about whether to speak. She leaned forward, her curiosity piqued while she waited.
Finally, he met her gaze. "You know Chase Stockton?" His voice was low, as if he didn't want anyone else to hear.
"Chase?" He was all worked up about Chase? "Of course. He comes in here once a week. He supplies my pies when I don't have time to bake them. Why?" But even as she asked it, his penetrating blue eyes took on new meaning. She'd seen eyes like his before. Exactly like them...on Chase. "You're related to him, aren't you? One of his brothers? Aren't there like nine of you or something?"
His face became shuttered, but he didn't pull away. "Yeah." He said nothing else, waiting, watching her face.
"Oh, wow." Relief rushed through her. Chase was one of the nicest guys she'd ever met. Yes, he was intimidating, but there was a kindness beneath the surface that was true and honorable. He'd helped her out on more than one occasion, and she adored his wife, Mira. She'd met his brothers, Steen and Zane, a couple times, and the loyalty between the brothers was amazing. Everyone in the family was incredibly kind, despite the fact that the men were tall, broad-shouldered, and more than a little intimidating when they walked into a room. "Which brother are you?"
He raised his eyebrows, still watching her warily. "Travis."
"Travis Stockton." She frowned, trying to remember if she'd heard anything about him, but she didn't think she had. No matter. The fact he was Chase's brother was enough, given the level of her desperation right now. "Well, if you're as good a guy as Chase, then I trust you in my kitchen."
Surprise flashed across his face. "Really?"
She hesitated. "Why? Is there something about you I shouldn't trust?"
He paused, looking hard at her. "I'm completely fucked up in a lot of ways," he said, his voice hard, almost warning her. "People in this town don't like me."
She raised her brows at his defensiveness. His face was dark and almost angry, and his fingers had tightened around her arm. Her heart turned over, and she wanted to hug him, because she knew what it felt like to suffer under a town's disdain. It was a brutal, horrible way for a child to grow up, and the scars never went away, no matter how hard one tried. "Well, townspeople suck sometimes."
He blinked. "What?"
She shrugged. "Does the fact that they don't like you mean I can't trust you in my kitchen?"
He stared at her for a long moment, then shook his head once. "No. It doesn't."
Of course it didn't. "Then please, please, please help me out tonight. I'm desperate."
A grin flashed across his face then, a smile that was so genuine that her chest tightened. "I'm on it." He slid off the stool. "Give me the ninety second tour, and then I'll be good."
As he stood up, she realized how tall he really was. He towered over her, taller, wider, and so much stronger than she was. He was gritty and tough, a man who wouldn't stand down from anything. She hesitated for a split second, suddenly nervous. Her kitchen was her sanctuary, her world, the only thing that had saved her eight years ago. Having Travis in there felt dangerous, like she was turning over her foundation to someone she barely knew--
He shoved open the kitchen door and disappeared inside, not waiting for a second invitation.