Christmas Nights (A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel) - J.h. Croix - darmowy ebook
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A steamy, full-length, standalone holiday romance with a guaranteed HEA from USA Today Bestselling Author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Sometimes it takes more courage to love than to be alone.When Janie Stevens gets fished out of the icy ocean after a boating accident, she doesn’t expect to fall for the man who saves her. Travis Wilkes, the man in question, is all kinds of man—firefighter, emergency responder and pure, rugged masculinity. She’s completely unprepared for the burning, yearning craving he kindles.Travis is the quintessential sexy outdoorsman and much too busy for love. He’s been honed by a life on the edge in Alaska and not much rattles him. When he yanks Janie out of the freezing waters of picturesque Kachemak Bay, he takes one look into her eyes and can’t stop thinking about her. A man who doesn’t blink in the face of danger finds himself nearly brought to his knees by a woman.Janie has her reasons for being committed to a life that doesn’t include romance. To say she has trust issues is a bit of an understatement. With the sparks flying between Janie and Travis burning too hot for them to ignore, they discover there may be much more than passion binding them together. Steamy nights, snowy days and Christmas just might convince Travis and Janie that love is possible.*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.

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Christmas Nights

A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel

J.H. Croix

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Epilogue

Excerpt: Christmas on the Last Frontier by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved

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Acknowledgments

About the Author

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 153955824X

ISBN 13: 9781539558248

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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Chapter 1

The water enveloped her in its icy embrace. Janie Stevens felt the shock of it through every cell in her body. Fear raced through her as quickly as the cold surrounded her. Frantic, she kicked and struggled to swim to the surface, yet she felt instantly weighted down and weak. The rough current pulled at her, its power much greater than hers. Through the water, she could hear the muffled commotion around her. All she could think was she had to get to the surface and make sure Stella was safe. She kept struggling to gain momentum, getting weaker with every second. She was running out of oxygen, her lungs burning to breathe. She wanted to cry out, but she couldn’t even take a breath.

Suddenly, a strong hand curled around her arm and yanked her up roughly. She gulped in air, swallowing salty ocean water along with her first breath. Coughing and sputtering, she opened her eyes and found herself staring into a pair of ocean blue eyes. A man she vaguely recognized was saying something, but she couldn’t hear anything he said. All she cared about was finding out if her daughter was safe. She looked around frantically and saw the steel gray ocean roiled with choppy waves. Several boats were visible in the distance and bouncing in the rough waters. Her eyes landed on the boat she’d been in—it was listing badly to one side. “Stella, where’s Stella?” she asked, struggling in the man’s grip as he tugged her into a bright red heavy-duty raft.

“Stella’s fine. She didn’t fall overboard,” the man said, gesturing behind them to the boats rocking in the waves.

Janie sat up and started to crawl back out of the boat. Not thinking clearly, she was determined to get to Stella. The man grabbed her arm and held tight. “Janie, hold still. See that boat there,” he paused to point to another boat. “They’re coming over to pick us up. Stella is safe, so don’t put yourself in danger again by trying to swim to her. If you’re not already hypothermic, you’re damn close.”

The fear pounding through her eased, but just barely. The combination of adrenaline, exhaustion and being colder than she’d ever been in her life muddled her thinking. She huddled in the raft and waited, shivering so hard, her teeth chattered. Time passed in a strange mix of fast and slow as she drifted in and out of awareness. Some indeterminate amount of time later, Janie woke up in a hospital bed. She started to get up immediately, kicking the covers back and spinning sideways.

“Mom! Stop! You’re about to rip the IV out of your arm.”

Janie froze and glanced toward the sound of her daughter’s voice. Stella stood up from a chair in the corner. Her dark brown eyes were wide and concerned. She set a book down on the table beside the chair and walked to the bed. “Lay down and rest. You’re stuck here for the night. The doctor already checked you in,” Stella said with a half grin. At seventeen, Stella enjoyed bossing Janie around when she could.

Janie looked at Stella, intense relief coursing through her. The last thing she remembered was being terrified Stella might be in the same icy water she’d fallen into. They’d taken a late autumn trip across the bay for a last hike of the season. Kachemak Bay was beautiful in all seasons, but autumn was Stella’s favorite time of year. Ever since Janie had adopted Stella three years ago, they went hiking spring, summer and autumn on the far side of Kachemak Bay. Diamond Creek, Alaska was situated on one side of the picturesque bay with several smaller communities on the other. This morning, they’d joined a group of various others crossing the bay by boat. On the way home, Stella had asked if she could ride in a different boat with some friends. Thinking nothing of it, Janie said yes.

She couldn’t have known the clouds rolling in would rapidly kick up the wind and lead to a rough ride. Even then, she hadn’t been worried. Born and raised in Diamond Creek, Janie was thoroughly accustomed to harsh weather. She still didn’t know exactly what happened, but something had gone wrong with the boat she was riding in. Next thing she’d known, they’d been bailing water out of the boat, but hadn’t been able to keep up. In what felt like seconds, the boat had started to sink. She remembered trying to grab onto the railing, but missed and splashed into the icy waters.

There was no safe time of year for a dip in the ocean in Alaska. Even at the height of summer, the ocean temperature didn’t top sixty degrees Fahrenheit. In late October, the water was maybe forty degrees. Cold enough to lead to hypothermia within minutes. Janie looked over at Stella and sighed. She wasn’t much for resting and certainly didn’t enjoy feeling at the mercy of the doctor. Now that her almost drowning was over and there was no doubt Stella was safe, she would have to wait out the night in the hospital whether she wanted to, or not. She looked over at Stella who was watching her with a gleam in her eyes. Between her dark brown hair and eyes, Stella had the natural coloring for the look she preferred—an outdoorsy look with a hint of goth. At the moment, she had on her latest pair of chunky black glasses to go with her black painted nails. She wore a flannel shirt over a t-shirt and leggings paired with hiking boots. She eschewed makeup and certainly didn’t need any with her creamy complexion, rosy cheeks and dark hair.

“I bet you’re itching to jump out of bed and leave,” Stella said with a slow grin.

Janie swung her legs back onto the bed, tugged the covers over her and threw a faux glare at Stella. She wasn’t about to admit it, but she did feel tired and sore. “I’m fine. If I wanted to leave, I could. But, if the doctor thinks I need to stay, far be it from me to argue.”

Stella’s grin faded. “Dr. Marshall said you had hypothermia and wanted you here all night until your temperature was stable. I guess it was below ninety-three degrees and that’s like a big deal. Are you warm now?”

Janie took in Stella’s words and the worry in her voice and mentally scanned her body. She didn’t feel warm, but she wasn’t cold either. “I think I’m fine. How long have I been asleep?”

Stella shrugged. “I dunno. After Travis got you out of the water, they took you back on a different boat. By the time I got to the harbor, they’d already taken you away in an ambulance. They wouldn’t let me switch boats because they had to rush everyone in who’d fallen in the water.” She paused and took a gulping breath. “I was really scared when you fell in.”

For Stella to say anything about being scared was huge. Stella was a sweet girl, but she’d been through a lot before she landed with Janie and carried herself with a wall of reserve. Janie knew if she commented on it, Stella would get quiet. So she let her heart absorb the small victory and reached over to squeeze Stella’s hand resting on the edge of the bed. “I’m fine, just fine.”

Stella gave her hand a return squeeze and tugged it free to twirl a lock of her hair around it, one of her preferred nervous habits. “Well, good. You’re not allowed to fight with Dr. Marshall about leaving early though, okay?”

Janie rolled her eyes and leaned her head back. “Fine. Is everyone else okay?”

Stella nodded swiftly. “Oh yeah. A few other people fell in the water when you did, but everyone got fished out.”

There was a soft knock at the door. Stella called out for whomever it was to come in. When the door swung open, Travis Wilkes stepped through. Janie suddenly realized the bright blue eyes she’d noticed when she was being pulled out of the water belonged to him.

He glanced between Stella and Janie. “Okay if I come in?”

Stella grinned. “I just said to come in.”

Travis returned her smile. “That you did.”

He strode toward the bed, and Janie felt suddenly self-conscious. Travis was a classic, rugged and handsome outdoorsman. He walked with the confidence with which he did everything. He was tall and nothing but muscle. On top of it all, he was an emergency responder, firefighter, save-everyone-who-needs-help kind of guy. She knew him in passing, but not well. He moved to Diamond Creek maybe five years prior and stirred all kinds of talk among the single women around town for a bit. In a small community like Diamond Creek, anyone new in town who wasn’t a tourist might as well have a neon sign above them. With his brown hair gilded with gold, his blue eyes, and his strong, chiseled features, well, he was definitely easy on the eyes. He reached the side of the bed, his eyes coasting over her.

“How ya feeling?” he asked, a perfectly reasonable question under the circumstances.

Janie looked up at him and a jolt of electricity zipped through her. Men weren’t something she paid much attention to because…well, just because. Hence, that little jolt took her off guard. Not to mention, he looked his usual rugged sexy self, while she was garbed in a voluminous pink polka-dotted hospital gown. She felt self-conscious and frumpy. She could only imagine how she looked after her impromptu dive into the ocean. Her hair felt tangled and messy. She tried to recall if she’d ever been this close to him, save the blurry moments in the ocean when he yanked her out of the water. She’d laughed off the women she knew who had temporarily crushed on him, but she hadn’t spent enough time with him to think much about him. Right now, with his eyes on her and his presence emanating strength, earthy sensuality and pure masculinity, well, she was all abuzz inside. Trying to cling to something that made her feel half-sane, she figured she must be out of it from almost drowning and still not thinking clearly.

Stella cued her into her lack of response to Travis. “Geez, Mom. You could at least tell him how you’re doing. I mean, he saved your life.”

Janie felt the blush race up her neck and cheeks and silently swore. “Oh sorry. I’m a little out of it. I think I’m doing fine. Stella told me Dr. Marshall wants me here for the night to make sure my temperature is back where it needs to be.”

Travis nodded. “Probably a good idea. I checked your temp once we got off the water and you were below ninety-five, which means you were hypothermic. You look much better now.” He reached over and casually rested the back of his hand on her forehead. “Feels about right now. Not a science, but a good guess,” he said with a half-grin.

If she thought she’d felt a jolt before, his brief touch sent a prickle of awareness up her spine. A wash of heat suffused her, and her low belly fluttered when she met his eyes again. She managed a nod. “Well, that’s good.”

Travis looked down into Janie’s eyes, which he couldn’t say he’d ever gotten close enough to see. He supposed they were hazel, but they were simply stunning. A soft green flecked with gold and nutmeg brown. Against her porcelain skin and glossy brown hair, they stood out. Her cheeks were stained pink, making him itch to let his hand slide down her cheek. He couldn’t say why, but ever since he’d pulled her out of the water, she’d been hovering at the edges of his mind. He’d seen her around for years, but knew her only in passing. How he’d missed the fact that she was flat out gorgeous, he didn’t know. This afternoon, during the windy ride back to Diamond Creek, he’d walked her into the small cabin on the boat and wrapped her in blankets. He’d sat with her and the others who were also dripping wet from their dip in the bay. In the course of his life, he’d sat with many people who’d been rescued from one situation or another and he’d never experienced the intense protectiveness he felt for her. Something about her called to him.

Disconcerted, he let his hand drop from her forehead, stepped back and slipped his hands into his pockets. “Well, just wanted to stop in and see how you were doing.”

“Thank you for finding me and getting me out of the water,” she said.

He shrugged. “No problem. Just glad I happened to be there. I was on the water taxi in front of you guys.”

“Do you know what happened to the boat?”

“They’re pretty sure the hull caught the edge of some rocks on the way out of the docks over there. Leak started slow and then once the waves picked up, it tore the hole wide enough to bring water in fast.” His mind spun back to the moment he’d tugged Janie into the raft. The second her eyes locked with his, all he’d known was he had to make sure she was safe. That was his job, but the feeling behind it was more than that, and he didn’t quite know what to make of it.

She nodded slowly. “Thanks again. I don’t remember much other than being dragged over the side of the raft.”

Travis nodded, wrestling with the desire to remain in the room, but thinking it didn’t fit given the low-key nature of their acquaintance. He caught Stella’s eyes. “Make sure she stays warm.” He gave a little wave and forced himself to leave the room.

Chapter 2

“Danny! Sit down. Now,” Janie called, her tone edged with a gentle warning.

Danny Rivers immediately sat down. From the front of her first-grade classroom, Janie could see him practically vibrating in his seat. Danny tested her patience every day, but his saving grace was he was a sweet little boy. He had way too much energy and the classroom was an obstacle course for him. In her years of teaching, Janie had learned that the current world of education, one of testing and more testing, wasn’t for every child. Danny loved to learn, but he was a tactile learner and needed to move around a lot more than she could allow for the most part. It was too distracting to the other kids. She tried to be as creative as she could with children like him, but some days, he just had to sit down and listen. Like today when someone from the fire station was coming to do their yearly talk about fire safety for the kids.

Janie scanned her small classroom—fifteen first graders, a hodgepodge of personalities who brought her so much joy. Danny was wiggling madly, but he was staying in his seat, so she took that as a win. “Okay kids! Our visitor today is a fireman, and we need to listen and ask good questions. Can we do that?”

Fifteen heads bobbed up and down. Janie smiled widely. “Awesome! Hold tight while I see if our visitor is here yet.”

She stepped to the classroom doorway and glanced out, only to see Travis Wilkes striding down the hall beside the principal. Her breath hitched, her pulse rocketed, and her hand flew to her chest. Every year, the fire department sent someone here for these talks, but they never knew who it would be. She hadn’t even considered it might be Travis. Oh my God. Stop it. He’s just a man. A really sexy man, but just a man. You’re all weird because he kind of saved your life. It’s like some weird bonding thing. It’ll pass. Her little pep talk didn’t do much good when Travis and Principal Turner reached her.

“Janie, we have Travis Wilkes here today for the fire safety presentations. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind being his guide for the day. I’ve asked one of our subs to sit in with your class after he’s done here,” Principal Turner said with a smile.

Janie knew she didn’t have any choice in the matter. She liked her boss, she really did. Nancy Turner had been a teacher in Diamond Creek for twenty years before she became the principal. She navigated the political waters of running the school, while trying her best to advocate for funding and policies that supported the students and teachers. But right now, Janie really didn’t want to be the gracious host for Travis. He made her pulse run wild and unsettled her inside. Yet, she knew it would seem odd if she tried to avoid it. She normally had no trouble behaving like a polite human, but Travis tongue-tied her. Like now, all she could do was nod. When Nancy’s eyes narrowed, Janie realized she must seem off. With a mental shake, she nodded more firmly. “I’ve met Travis before. Nice to see you again,” she said, catching his eyes, those damn gorgeous blue eyes. “I’d be happy to take him from class to class today.”

“I’d love a guide. I’m solid on fire safety, but can’t say I’ve ever known what to do with more than a few kids at a time,” he said with a wry grin.

Nancy stepped back. “You’re in good hands with Janie. I’ve got a meeting to get to. Thank you both.” She spun on her heel and walked briskly down the hall.

Janie looked up at Travis. The moment his eyes locked with hers, her breath hitched and her pulse, which she’d barely gotten under control after the initial shock of seeing him, lunged again. She took a shaky breath and gestured to the door. “My class is one of the smallest, but you’re starting with fifteen. That’s five times more than a few.”

Travis’s mouth stretched in a slow grin. “I gotta admit, I’m damn glad you’ll be with me. I had visions of kids running circles around me all day.”

His uncertainty somehow eased her own wild anxiety. “How’d you end up doing this if kids make you nervous?” she asked.

“I lost the coin toss,” he said with a shrug.

A laugh bubbled up. His rueful honesty was endearing. When she looked over, Travis’s shoulders were shaking, his eyes glinting with mirth. “Laugh all you want. Little kids are a mystery to me.”

“Come on. We’ll start you off easy.”

Without thinking, she slipped her hand in the crook of his elbow, which she instantly realized was a mistake. She could feel the corded muscles of his arm under her hand. His warmth and strength were like a pulsing power. Her entire body tightened. She knew it would seem strange if she yanked her hand away, so she decided to bluster through the moment. She tugged him through the door into her classroom. Just as they stepped inside, Danny sprung up from his seat. “Watch! I can run to Ms. Stevens’ desk and…”

She released Travis’ arm. “Danny! Back in your seat. We all know you can race to my desk and back super fast.”

Danny froze and spun in her direction. He looked so tempted to finish what he’d set out to do. She could practically see the little wheels turning in his brain. His eyes landed on Travis. “Hey! Are you a firefighter?”

Travis glanced to Janie. While Danny might not have cued in to her warning, Travis did. He kept silent, his lips quirking when she looked to Danny again.

“Danny, of course he’s a firefighter. You already knew that. You have two choices: sit down right now and get to stay for his talk, or take a time out for three minutes in the back.”

Danny scurried to his desk, his brown hair flopping over his forehead when he sat down and wiggled his bottom in place for emphasis.

Travis followed Janie to the next classroom of wild children, marveling at her ease with them. She accompanied him to ten classrooms by the end of the day. Danny, the little boy who could barely sit still in her class, remained the most amusing highlight of the day with his antics. He’d asked question upon question, ending with another offer to show Travis how fast he could run to Janie’s desk. Janie adroitly managed all of the children throughout the day with a mixture of warmth and firm guidance.

He was at the end of the last presentation in a second grade class. He’d moved on to questions with Janie calling on various children whose hands flew up.

“You’re up, Nate,” Janie called, gesturing to a little boy who almost matched Danny with his wiggling in his seat.

Nate smiled and looked from Janie to Travis. “How many fires do you put out a week?” he asked.

Travis tapped his index finger on his chin and shrugged. “It’s different every week. Sometimes the fire station goes weeks without responding to an actual fire. Remember, we’re emergency responders too, so we get called to all kinds of emergencies, not just fires.”

Nate nodded solemnly and bit the inside of his cheek. His eyes bounced from Travis to Janie and back again. “Do you like Ms. Stevens?”

His next question startled Travis, both that Nate asked such a question and that he was so prescient. Because the truth was spending a whole day with Janie was testing the limits of his control. It was safe to say Travis liked Janie… a lot. An elementary school was a decidedly not good place to have the hots for anyone, but Travis’s body had been on notice all day around Janie. Her dark hair was pushed back behind a headband with her hazel eyes bright. She was dressed practically in jeans and a button down blouse. Her curvy body filled out her jeans. He had to remind himself to keep his eyes away from the shadowed valley between her generous breasts. By no means were they on display, but there wasn’t much she could do unless she wore a giant bag to hide her lush curves. He felt heat rise within, the whip of lust lashing at him, and tried to ignore it.

He could feel Janie’s gaze on him. He gathered himself and met Nate’s gaze, which held a small gleam. “Of course I like Ms. Stevens. Don’t you?” he countered, aiming for a casual tone in his response.

Nate nodded emphatically. “She was my favorite teacher last year!”

Janie chuckled and arched a brow. “I bet you love Mrs. Davis this year too, right?”

Another emphatic nod from Nate, and Janie promptly called on the last hand held high. Not much later, she walked Travis down the hall. “Do you need to check in with Principal Turner before you go?” she asked.

“Don’t think so. She said she’d be in meetings the rest of the day.”

Janie nodded and kept walking until they reached the main entrance to the school. “Well, you’re done. You’d better get going before the last bell rings. Between the buses and the stampede of kids, you might get trapped.”

She looked up at him when she spoke. He heard her words, but didn’t quite absorb them. All he could think about was what it might be like to kiss her bright pink lips. Her lips were as lush as the rest of her. She had a small dimple in the center of her bottom lip, and he wanted… Holy hell. He wanted all kinds of things, every single one of them absolutely naughty given where they were. He looked down into her hazel eyes and his question surprised him.

“Don’t suppose I could take you out to dinner?”

Her breath hitched, her lips parting just slightly, and her eyes widened. For a few beats, she didn’t speak. She gave her head a little shake. “Um, I…” Another shake of her head. “I suppose…yes.” Her last word came out with force, and she looked startled once she spoke.

He didn’t care to ponder her hesitation at the moment. “Okay, how about tomorrow night?”

“Tomorrow?” Her eyes were still wide and surprise lingered in them.

“For dinner.”

She held still for another long moment before nodding slowly. “Okay. Um, I don’t…” She paused and took a deep breath, a look of resignation passing over her face. “I don’t really date much. Should I give you my number or something? Should I meet you somewhere?”

“How about your give me your number, and I’ll pick you up?”

Her creamy cheeks went pink. “Okay.” She quickly recited her number, which he punched into his phone. He sensed she might back out, so he didn’t want to give her time to do so.

“Okay, I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon.” The bell rang, and he gave a wave. “I’d better run.”

Once he was outside, he jogged down the stairs and to his truck. He turned to look at the entrance and saw Janie standing there, looking out through the glass doors.

Chapter 3

“Stella! Where’s your homework?” Janie called out as she strode through the kitchen.

She heard a door open and close and then footsteps pounding down the stairs. Stella sprinted off the bottom of the stairs and past Janie. “I’m doing it now!” she declared as she skidded to a stop by her backpack sitting on a bench by the kitchen door.

Janie continued past the stairs to the laundry room. Her home was a cozy Cape style home. She purchased it before she adopted Stella, but she’d always had an extra bedroom because she’d been a foster parent for several years before Stella landed with her. She liked her house because the downstairs was more open than most Cape homes. The staircase was centered in the middle of the downstairs with the kitchen and dining room on one side and a living room on the other. The area connecting the garage to the home held a bathroom and laundry room. There were no walls separating the rooms with the staircase serving as a natural divider. Tall windows were along every wall and offered a view of Kachemak Bay from the hillside where the home was situated above downtown Diamond Creek.

Stella had been placed with Janie in foster care on a rainy winter night. She’d been removed from her father’s care not long after her mother died of an accidental heroin overdose. Before she’d been placed in foster care, Stella’s parents had been well known to child protection. There had been years of reports about drug abuse and the condition of the home. After Stella’s mother died, her father didn’t lift a finger to change things and drifted in and out of jail. He didn’t fight Stella’s removal and never once showed up in court for the hearings. Janie had taken one look at Stella with her guarded brown eyes and felt her heart crack open—all she wanted was to make sure Stella knew she deserved to be loved. At first, Stella was a bit like a cactus—prickly and bristly. She’d slowly warmed up. When Stella’s state social worker asked Janie if she’d be willing to adopt Stella, there had been absolutely no hesitation for Janie. She loved Stella through and through, and wanted nothing more than to make sure Stella knew family was what you made it. It took Stella months to decide she wanted to be adopted. Without her therapist there to help her walk through it, Janie wasn’t sure Stella could have allowed herself to believe anyone could love her.

Janie pulled the laundry out of the washer and tossed it in the dryer before returning to the kitchen. Stella was leaning over the counter, her feet hooked around the legs of a stool as she carefully completed math problems. The deal with homework was it had to be done by five in the evening. Janie had quickly discovered Stella needed clear expectations to get anything done. The first six months or so, she’d fought against any expectation because she’d never had them. Yet, now she generally went along with them. Janie didn’t nag, but expected Stella’s completed homework to be in a folder at the end of the counter. If it wasn’t there, Janie checked with Stella.

Janie gave Stella’s shoulder a squeeze as she stepped past her to the stove where she put a teakettle on to boil. While Stella quietly completed her homework, Janie prepped a quick dinner of salmon pie, a favorite of Stella’s. While she cooked, Janie’s mind wandered to Travis. Well, if she was being honest, she’d had a hard time not thinking about him after spending most of the day with him. Watching him graciously field inquisitive, random, and occasionally silly questions from kids all day long had only endeared him to her. Aside from the fact he was a quintessential rugged, sexy guy, he was kind and patient even when he sometimes looked as if he wanted to run and hide. She had no idea what to do about the fact she’d agreed to have dinner with him. She hadn’t been on a date in years. She tried to remember the last date she’d had and kept coming up blank.

She didn’t tend to think about men because it made her think too much about her own past. With a mental shake, she focused her attention on pinching the edges of the pastry around the small pies. Half of her wanted to back out of dinner with Travis, while the other half of her was all but stomping its feet at that idea. It’s about damn time you went on a date. You can’t keep letting the past hold you back. Not all men are bad. She physically shook her head, trying to shove those thoughts away. A problem she hadn’t considered was what to tell Stella. Conveniently, tomorrow night was piano recital practice for Stella, and she was already planning to spend the night at a friend’s house afterwards. Janie could easily have her dinner date and never bother to mention it to Stella. Yet, Janie didn’t want to avoid what should be an open topic.

She slid the salmon pies into the oven and set the timer. Stella put her pencil down and slipped her homework into its folder. “Guess I don’t need to bother leaving this here since you saw me do it, huh?” Stella asked with a grin.

“Nah. Go ahead and put it in your backpack.”

Stella quickly stuffed the folder in her backpack and returned to her stool, spinning in a slow circle on it. “Parker wants to take me to the Christmas Dance. I told him I didn’t know because it’s not like he’s my boyfriend or anything. We’re just friends.”

Stella was referring to Parker Schmidt, a friend who was in the high school band with her. Stella played piano and Parker played drums. He’d befriended Stella at school before she found her place in the small circle of friends she had. Janie had met Parker and his parents many times and trusted him. Her guess was Parker liked Stella as more than a friend, but Stella took skittish to great lengths, hardly able to believe someone could like her that way. So, they were technically friends.

Janie looked over at Stella who was still spinning her stool slowly. “Dances like that are more fun with friends anyway. If you’re asking me if you should go with him, I say yes. You’ll have fun.”

Stella stopped spinning and twirled a purple lock of hair around her finger. Janie had helped her dye it with streaks of purple last night. Stella chewed on bottom lip and stared at Janie. “I’ve never been to a dance like that. What if it’s all weird?”

Janie angled her head to the side and shrugged. “Hard to know what it’ll be like unless you go. If you go with Parker, you’ll probably have fun. Are any of your other friends going?”

Stella nodded, still twirling her hair. “Uh huh. I’ll think about it.”

Janie bit back a grin. If Stella was willing to think about it, that meant she wanted to go. “Okay. If you decide to go, don’t forget to tell me when it is.”

Stella grinned and nodded. “Got it.”

Janie took a breath and shifted gears. “Speaking of things like this, I, uh, might be going on a dinner date.” She managed to get the words out without sounding as foolish as she felt.

Stella dropped her hand from her hair, her eyes widening. “Really? Mom, you should totally go. You never date. Who is it?”

Stella’s excited response startled Janie. “You think I should go? I’m not even sure if…”

“Of course you should go! My friends always ask how come you’re not with anyone. You’re pretty and nice and all that. So who is it?”

Janie fought the flush spreading up her cheeks. “Okay, I wasn’t sure how you might feel about it. You come first, so thinking about dating means thinking about how it fits into our lives.”

Stella waved her hand dismissively. “Fine, fine. It’s just a date. Who is it?” she asked, leaning over the counter.

“It’s Travis Wilkes,” Janie finally said.

Stella’s eyes widened and a slow grin spread across her face. “I knew it! When he came to see you in the hospital, it was so obvious he thought your were cute.”

Janie rolled her eyes, although her mind was spinning with Stella’s casual comment. “Whatever. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know. I’m still not sure about it.”

Stella returned the eye roll with emphasis. “Whatever. Maybe you need to go talk to a therapist. You made me go forever. It shouldn’t be such a thing to decide if you’re going out to dinner with someone. Travis is nice, he’s totally hot and he saved your life,” Stella declared with another spin on her stool.

Janie laughed, but she turned away, swallowing against the tightness in her chest. Stella’s casual observation that it shouldn’t be a thing was right on point. Except Stella didn’t know Janie’s past. The little buzz of excitement she felt fizzled slightly at the thought. Janie busied herself getting plates out and pouring water for each of them, filling the time until the oven buzzer went off.

Travis took a gulp of coffee and sighed. He leaned his hips against the counter in the break room at the fire station and glanced at the clock. It was barely past eight in the morning, and the crew had just finished dealing with a residential fire on the outskirts of town. Unsurprisingly, the fire had started in the kitchen after a busy mother forgot to turn a burner off. Aside from a badly damaged kitchen, no one was hurt, which was a win as far as Travis was concerned.

“Hey there.”

Travis glanced up at the sound of Sylvia Cunningham’s voice. “Hey Sylvia! Thanks for getting a fresh pot of coffee ready,” he said with a lift of his paper coffee cup.

Sylvia stepped into the break room, her eyes scanning over Travis. “You don’t look any worse for wear. How’d it go?”

“Fire’s out and no one’s injured.”

Sylvia grinned. “Well, we can be glad the daily emergency is already out of the way.”

Sylvia was the administrative assistant at the police and fire station. Her husband had been the police chief for years, but he’d retired after a back injury. Sylvia stayed on and essentially ran the station for all intents and purposes. She was the official mother hen for the entire police force and fire crew. She was steady as a rock, warm and kind. She declared she had no intention of retiring until she couldn’t work anymore. Her looks matched her personality with her round figure, twinkling blue eyes and graying hair.

Travis chuckled at her comment. “You’re right. Guess we’ve had our daily emergency already.” He took another long swallow of coffee. “Damn good coffee. Just what I needed. I meant to snag some earlier, but the call came in while I was driving here, so I’m low on caffeine at the moment.”

Sylvia winked. “Drink up. I’m headed back up front. Tell the guys I’m ordering pizza for everyone for lunch.”

“Thanks Sylvia!” Travis called as she walked briskly out of the room and down the hall.