Chelsea sat quietly at her wobbly table, watching the hunters at this strange haunt. Their clothes made her want to laugh. The last five months in the Dakotas had ground cattle-drive chic into her wardrobe, and these people were pure urban working class. It was all baggy denim and hoodies as far as the eye could see. Her fringed leather duster and matching black Stetson stood out to say the least.
Still, the haunt was a haunt, cheap booze and people looking for help hunting a monster. Two fights had been put down since she walked in, and another seemed to be brewing. Her chair squeaked and scratched at the wood floor. Dim lights created deep shadows around the pool table.
The only familiar person in the bar towered over her, two beer bottles in hand. Rick was a laurel wreath away from a Greek statue. Tall, broad, classically handsome, with golden hair and gray eyes, he was also sweet and kind. And perhaps the deadliest hunter she had ever met. Taken all together, the man seemed almost unreal, or divine. “Here’s that beer I owe you, since you won’t take gas money.”
She accepted the bottle with a smile. “I like driving, and all this did was remind me of how much I love South Dakota. I can’t wait to get back. See it all again, for the first time.”
Rick chuckled and sipped his beer. He fiddled with the label for a while, clearly trying to think of something to say.
Chelsea let him. She had no real place to be. The prairie would be there when she was ready to go back. For now, she wanted to be here, saying goodbye to Rick.
Finally, he seemed to work out what he wanted. “Stay tonight, at least. There’s a room here at the haunt that I reserved. You wouldn’t let me take a shift at the wheel. It’s been two days straight on the road. Crash here, and head out fresh in the morning.”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “That was almost a smooth invite.”
A blush crept up his face. “You… I…” He gave a helpless laugh and rubbed at his hair. “Rebound. You’re on the rebound. I just didn’t want you driving tonight if you didn’t have to.”
The oblique mention of Keegan hurt, but not as much as Rick thought. “Rebound? Maybe. I guess. Keegan and I were finite. I knew that going in. We’re good, even now.” She pulled out her phone showed him a text message. “He’s much happier in New Mexico. Warmer and more sunshine.” Her throat stayed clear, and no tears pricked her eyes. She missed him. And she knew he’d come back if she needed him.
And if he called right now and asked, I’d drink some coffee and hit the road.
A smile drifted across her face, and she took a long drink.
Rick matched her, eyes screwed shut. “I’m… really at a loss for words here. But I swear, I wasn’t trying t-to—”
She cut him off with a laugh. “It’s cool. I was yanking your chain.” She had been, mostly. Some part of her really did want hike Mount Rick. The rest of her dreaded the idea. “Can Bentley stay here, too?”
He nodded, quick and silent, obviously grateful for the subject change. “Yeah, Jonesie said it was cool.”
“Awesome.” She drained her beer. “Then I’m going to get him out of the car and into the warmth.”
To her amused surprised, Rick upended his own bottle. “I’ll get my bag out of the trunk.”
The frigid air shocked away the beer’s buzz. It hadn’t been this cold when they went in. A thread of anxiety wormed through her, but the overhead light revealed a giant cocoon of blankets, with Bentley warm at the center.
The huge mutt extracted himself neatly, and danced around her, butting her hand gently for pets, then explored the parking lot.
The room Rick had reserved was exactly that, a room. The bed was a mere mattress on the floor, and two folding chairs at a card table rounded out the furnishings. The bathroom was functional, but clean, and so small Chelsea felt caged while she peed.
When she emerged, Bentley had made himself comfortable on the bed, but Rick was gone. Immediately bored, Chelsea looked in her bag for her phone. It was her old sketch pad that caught her eye, though. She rarely picked up a pen or pencil these days, preferring photography. Still, the itch was back.
She glanced at Bentley, paws in the air, and the lines flowed. When Rick showed up with chicken wings and a six pack, she almost didn’t put the pad down.
They ate quickly, devouring the deep-fried, greasy goodness. Chelsea didn’t have much to say though, and neither did Rick. His gray eyes seemed blank and inward.
“Earth to Rick?” The question startled her as much as him. She hadn’t thought to say anything.
He looked at his feet. “I have a lot on my mind.”
“Yeah, I noticed.” She couldn’t help smiling. “So why are you here?”
He shook his head, still not looking up. “Family business.”
She knew he came from a monster hunting family, and that he was running from them. That was all she knew about him. “Must be important since you don’t like your family.”
He sniffed. “Very important.” A tear slipped off his chin.
She didn’t plan or think, she just acted. On her feet, before another tear could drop, she pressed his face into her stomach, just below her breasts. “I’m sorry this hurts.”
He froze for a moment. His hands hesitated on her ribs, then twitched and pulled her close. The big man’s great, wracking sobs nearly knocked her over. She clung to him though, her own throat closing in sympathy.
A watery chuckle caught her attention moments before Bentley nosed his way between them to rest his head on Rick’s knee with a whine.
Smiling, Chelsea shoved the mutt aside so she could settle herself in Rick’s lap.
His face reversed direction, bringing back the worry wrinkle between his eyes. “Um—”
“Shut up. It’s fine.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “Sometimes, you just need someone to care, and that’s all I’m doing.”
Once more, hesitant hands touched her softly before pulling her close. She tucked herself under his chin.
He sighed. “Thank you.” A deep chuckle rumbled in his chest. “Though, for the record, I wish I was in a better place, right now. I might regret this later.”
“I already regret you not being in a better place.” She laughed with him. “But I spent the last year in a bad place, so no judgment here.”
They sat in silence for a while, then Rick rose to his feet, easily carrying Chelsea with him to the bed. They pushed Bentley to the foot, and then looked at each other in more awkward silence.
Chelsea shrugged, took off her boots, and laid down with a pat for Rick. He joined her shortly, though minus his shirt. She rolled over and sprawled out on him. Warm skin greeted her. Velvet softness over hard muscle. There was no hesitation this time when he wrapped his arms around her. She lay there, breathing with him, listening to the soft sounds of Bentley settling down to sleep.
She closed her eyes. “By the way, you give great hugs.”
“Thank you.” Rick’s warm, amused tone gave her some heart. He’d be okay some day.
“Seriously,” she sighed, “this is better than therapy.”
She fell asleep as he chuckled.
If you’re wondering what Rick gets up to next, check out Uncommon Animals.
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