Second First Kiss
Kat Rhodes’s sister had disappeared off the planet. One minute she was there and the next she was gone. A never ending theme in Kat’s life, it seemed.
She refreshed her Find My Friends app, but Tessa’s dot had mysteriously disappeared an hour ago, which meant she was not at the library prepping for her STAS and likely up to trouble. The kind of trouble Kat had once invented.
Those days were long behind her, or so she thought, until she became the keeper of a teenager. She wasn’t Tessa’s legal guardian, but she was working on it. Which was why she was at Sunrise Falls—the stomping grounds for underaged partiers in Sierra Vista—instead of at work, spying on her sister’s extracurricular activities. Activities that she likely included keg stands and hooking up.
“I’m so going to get fired,” she mumbled to herself.
This was the third time she’d had to leave work in the middle of a shift to adult. Karma was definitely paying her back for all the grey hairs she gave her dad when she’d been Tessa’s age. Unfortunately, Karma wasn’t paying her a salary—a problem since Kat desperately needed money. Between college loans and paying off the back property taxes on her dad’s house, she was so in the red, her life was always in emergency mode, like the constant flashing of the exit sign during a plane crash.
Grab the parachute and escape while you can.
Only she couldn’t escape. She and Tessa were working on building trust. Another theme in Kat’s life.
Trust was harder for Kat than love. And she wanted to trust her sister, she really did, but recent history hadn’t afforded Tessa that privilege. Five years ago, when Kat had walked away from her dream college to home from college to help care for her sister, Tessa had been a sweet, rule-following, people-pleaser who was more into boy bands than bad boys. Then she’d grown boobs and attracted the interest of town bad boy, TJ Locke, and things rapidly changed. All those people-pleasing tendencies had transferred from her family to her crush.
Checking to make sure there were no bears or coyotes in the near vicinity—Kat hated bears—she hopped out of Betty Davis, her grandpa’s 1967 yellow dodge dart, which looked like a banana on wheels. Grabbing the bolt cutters from the backseat, she approached the metal gate which was blocking her entrance to the park’s grounds and had a chain wrapped around it, securing it shut. Screwed to the center of the imposing gate was a big, official looking sign stating:
Federal Forest Park rules:
- Open from dusk to dawn
Um, that won’t work. It was nearly eight-thirty and Kat was going into that parking lot.
- No alcohol
Based on the thumping base in the distance that rule was broken by about a hundred underaged teens.
- No pets
Kat looked at Tiny Dancer, her miniature pony who had attachment issues and thought she was a lawn mower. “One bleat out of you and your name will be glue.”
Kat studied the rest of the rules and nearly rolled her eyes when she realized there were twelve. Including but not limited to: No fires, hunting, camping, littering, or unauthorizes groups over twenty.
Geeze, they might have well listed: No fun.
- No unauthorized motor vehicles during off hours.
That was going to be a problem since she wasn’t about to hike it a quarter of a mile through the woods in the pitch black. Even the moon was working against her—a thin slice about as bright as a single Christmas tree light. Then again, just like she knew how to handle herself—a necessity when you grow up the poor kid in town, with a bipolar mom—she also knew the importance of self-reliance.
She gave one last look at the sign, and the bolded: All violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and shrugged off the warning. Sometimes bending a little rule, or twelve, was the right thing to do. And catching her sister in the act was the right thing to do. Too much was at stake for Tessa to be out partying on a school night.
“Buckle up,” she told Tiny Dancer, “Things are about to get interesting.” Gripping the bolt cutters, she was ready to slice through the metal when she realized someone else had broken rule one, since the chain was in fact already cut.
“I guess we’re only violating the Entry part in this impromptu B&E.”
Kat unwound the chain, letting the heavy metal clank against the steel gate and pushed it open. Hopping in Betty, she drove over the storm grate and pulled around the bend, where she found a parking lot full of cars. Enough to account for Sierra Vista High’s entire football, basketball, and cheerleading teams.
She was going to kill Tessa.
With an exhausted breath, she drove off the pavement and onto the gravel shoulder, inching up as far as she could get to the base of the trail, blocking any and all exits. She wasn’t about to miss her sister’s escape.
Turning off the engine she pulled out her phone.
Kat: How’s studying going? You figure out the answer to E=MC2
Tessa: . . .
Then the dots disappeared while her sister was likely concocting yet another lie.
Tessa: No, but I’m learning how to conjugate “My sister’s annoying” in French.
Kat: You’ll have to teach me that one. I imagine it will come in handy. What time will you be home?
Tessa: Don’t worry MOM. I’ll be home by curfew.
Kat: Good. I got off early so we should get home around the same time.
Which was in twenty minutes. More than enough time to get home from the library but booking it all the way from Sunrise Falls? Never going to happen. It would take her ten minutes alone to hike through the dense forest after dark sober.
Kat hoped to God her sister was sober.
Tessa: You don’t have to do that. I have my key.
Kat: And I have a headache. See you in twenty.
Kat waited a whole three minutes for a response—not even a single blinking dot—before sliding her phone in her pocket with a sigh. This was going to be a fun night. Not. She didn’t like playing the heavy or pulling on the Hall Monitor hat, but if she was going to prove to the court that she could provide a safe and loving environment for Tessa, then she’d wear however many hats as it took.
Kat rolled down the window and let the fresh spring air wash over her. She smelled of curly fried and malt beer. She felt like she’d been run over by a snowplow. This second job as a bartender was going to kill her. After pulling her nine-to-five at the county as an IT specialist—which was more of a glorified DMV clerk—she worked the closing shift at Bigfoot’s Brews three nights a week. Man, would her peers at MIT laugh their asses off if they could see her now.
Bigfoot’s was a bar and grill located inside the largest ski lodge in the area and a hot gathering spot for tourists and locals alike. It was this stunning combo of rustic-luxe and cabin chic with vaulted wood ceilings, pounded copper tabletops, and floor to ceiling windows that soak in the mountainess views—which was currently showcasing the evergreen ridges with white capped peaks dusted in residual snow from the long winter.
Kat felt like she’d had a long winter as well—one that started when her dad lost his job as a lumberjack and had to reinvent himself as a cross-country truck driver. That had been five years and a few abandoned dreams ago. But family meant everything to Kat, so she’d do whatever it took to keep her small family together—even if that meant getting custody of Tessa over her father.
Not that Abe was a bad father, he was just unavailable. Literally. As in gone for months on end while on long-hauls.
He wasn’t a bad dad; he just didn’t excel in the parenting department. Never had. He was more interested in being the “cool” dad rather than being a “solid” dad, who his daughters could count on. When Kat was Tessa’s age, she’d had no curfew, no boundaries, no guiding hand, and absolutely no rules. She’d run wild and made mistakes—big mistakes that almost cost her MIT.
Big mistakes that had big consequences. Painful consequences.
But she was done with mistakes. For Tessa, she was going to turn in her Bad Girl crown for PTA tiara. On the outside, working at a bar might not look like a responsible job, but she made more money in three nights of tips than she did forty hours a week at the county.
A rational person would quit the day-grind for a few more nights a week at the bar, but the bar didn’t provide benefits—like health insurance. And if Kat were going to gain custody of Tessa she needed to at least appear as if she had this whole adulting thing down. Adulting wasn’t really her thing, but she was trying. For her sister she’d always try.
Good thing she was a master of deception.
Kat had been pretending since she was a kid. Pretending to be happy, pretending her home life wasn’t unstable, pretending people’s judgements didn’t hurt. Especially pretending that she had her shit together. Truth was, she didn’t know how things would play out from day to day—let alone how to raise a brooding, trouble-seeking teen. And that scared her.
“Let’s see how she talks her way out of this one,” Kat said.
Kat rested her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. She wasn’t lying about the headache. It was the equivalent of the thumping bass in a Snoop Dog song.
Boom. Boom. Boom, it went. Right behind her eyes.
As if sensing her discomfort, Tiny Dancer wiggled himself out from his seatbelt and stuck his head between the front seats, giving her ear a little nibble.
“If you want a nibble, you’d better buy me dinner first.”
“I get off at eleven.”
Kat didn’t bother opening her eyes. She’d recognize that voice anywhere.
Nolan Carmichael. Her neighbor, nemesis, and everyone’s favorite federal officer. Everyone, that was, except Kat. He might be the sexiest man in Sierra Vista, but he was inflexible, closed off and straitlaced. He was so ridged he made the mountains look smooth. Plus, guys like him never messed with chaos and Kat’s life was chaos personified. And people like Nolan never changed their stripes.
Not that she wanted him to. Unlike the rest of the female population in their small mountain town, she had zero interest in Ranger Tightass.
Then why did you kiss him? her inner bad girl asked.
Because it was a dare and I never turn down a dare.
Her inner bad girl called bullshit. And it was a bullshit excuse. The dare had been a fun game of Buckle Up, where the dare-ee had to take off the belt of the man who walked through the door next—with her teeth. To her dismay, Nolan happened to walk through that door. Wanting to see him squirm she’d challenged him, and just like her, Nolan couldn’t pass up a challenged. Kat had whipped that belt off in under fifteen seconds, then—in a moment of sheer insanity—she planted one on him.
They’d been circling each other ever since. For months she given herself permission to admire from afar, but she’d never allowed herself to act on it. Until she did and one awkward kiss—well, she couldn’t really call it a kiss, it was more of an impromptu brush of the lips with zero warning and zero time to rally. But he’d still managed to create a spark brighter than fireworks on the Fourth of July. Which was why Kat had been avoiding him.
She didn’t have the time or the bandwidth to do anything more than casual. In fact, ever since she’d come home from Boston to help take care of Tessa she’d sworn off relationships. Not that she’d ever really had one. Kat wasn’t really the “bring home to mom type”—something she’d accepted over the years—so she’d become a one-night-stand champion. A discrete one-night champion.
With their mom suffering from a chronic case of Dead-Beat syndrome, and their dad being a cross-country truck driver, he’d missed birthdays, Christmas, and showing up for Tessa’s aren’t-teacher conference.Tessa was falling through the cracks, and Kat was determined to catch her—only Abe wasn’t into signing over custody. He thought it made him look like a bad father.
And that mean Tessa really only had Kat as a role model. The irony wasn’t lost on er—or the rest of the town.
Things got really bad when Abe got injured on the job and fell behind on, well, everything. It took him two years of physical therapy to heal, but he had to find another career. To this day, Kat never understood how, out of all the possible career choices, a father of an eleven-year-old could pick a job that put thousands of miles between him and his family. Maybe if he had a partner who stayed at home.
Then again, he did. Kat. He asked Kat to walk away from the future possibilities Boston represented to come home to help out with Tessa when he got injured that help became eventually became a fulltime job, until Kat found her dream of finishing college was no longer an option.
“You’ll have to get off on your own. I don’t accept nibbles from men who kiss like corpses,” she said referring to that kiss three months ago.
“Is that your way of asking for a second round? Because I promise you, one kiss and you’ll be begging me to use my tongue—and not just on your mouth.”
A tiny trill of anticipation flickered in her belly. A demoralizing feeling. And something that would never happen again.
She finally turned her head to acknowledge Nolan’s presence and her tongue turned to dust. Instead of his department issued uniform, he was in faded jeans that were soft in all the right places, a red and black flannel that was waging war with his biceps—and losing—and a black ballcap turned backward. He looked like Thor and Paul Bunyan had a lovechild.
He was bending over slightly, his hands resting on the hood of her car, his face so close she could make out every dark hair of his scruff.
“What are you even doing here?” she asked, working hard to keep her gaze from landing on his lips. Either he was a mind reader or she had a very bad poker face, because he smiled this annoying, You’re totally thinking about round two smile.
“I should ask you the same.”
She closed her eyes again and rested her head on the seatback, feigning boredom. “I plead the fifth.”
“That only works in a court of law.”
“Well, you always walk around flashing your big badge and pistol like you’re the judge, jury, and executioner, so forgive me if I got confused.” She waved a dismissive hand.
“You’ve been checking out my big badge and pistol, Trouble?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, Ranger Tightass. You prance around like a peacock with cuffs. It’s impossible to miss.”
She felt him move closer, now resting his forearms on the sill of her window. “First my pistol, and now my cuffs. Is that your way of asking what I’m doing when my shift ends?”
She straightened and leveled him with a look. “While you’re clearly finding this amusing, I’ve got a job to do, so if you’ll kindly screw off.”
“I have a job to do, too. Like writing you up for trespassing after dark.”
She shrugged as if unconcerned, when inside she was nervous. She couldn’t afford a ticket. She could barely afford her streaming channels. “I’d just throw it back in your face.”
He smiled. “Then, I’d have to write you up for littering.”
Tiny Dancer took that moment to let his presence be known with a loud neigh. Nolan lifted a brow. He and Tiny Dancer went way back. All the way back to the day that Tiny Dancer decided to sharpen his teeth on Nolan’s new truck, then drop doodie on Nolan’s boot.
“Before you bring up the fact that he isn’t leashed, know he hasn’t stepped foot out of this car.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“It is when you’re sitting in a secluded area in the middle of the night, alone.” He said it as if he were genuinely concerned for her safety.
“Are you worried about me, Ranger?”
“Yes,” he said and there was a quality to his voice that caused a warm bubble to start in her belly and slowly rise into her chest. When was the last time someone had been worried about her? She couldn’t remember. “Camping out here isn’t just illegal it’s a stupid idea.”
And the moment had passed.
“Sorry, Mr. Fun Police, you aren’t even in uniform, so I don’t have to listen to you drone on about rules and bylaws.”
“I’m always in uniform.” A truer statement had never been said. He was uptight no matter what he wore. He was also sexy as hell. “And when I found the gate open, I thought I’d investigate.’
“It was already open when I got here.” He looked at the bolt cutters on the passenger seat and lifted a brow. “Hand to God, someone got here before me.” She did a sweeping pass with her hand to highlight the dozens of cars in the parking lot. “It could have been any of them.”
“Yet, you ignored the no trespassing sign anyway and drove off road.”
“I was just checking to make sure people weren’t up to shady business. You should be thanking me, not harassing me.”
At that precise moment a belt of loud laughter ricocheted off the mountains surrounding them and filtered through the pines. He straightened and turned toward the trail leading to, what Kat knew, was a raging party.
Just great. Here she was trying to catch Tessa in the act, and a lawman was there to pay witness. Tessa better be sober or there would be words. Lots and lots of words.
She opened the door and stepped outside. A little shiver chased the hairs on the back of her neck—that had nothing to do with how good he filled out a pair of jeans. Even though spring had come, winter was still holding on, bringing low temperatures and cutting winds.
She leaned back against the car. “What are you even doing here?”
“I can’t talk about an ongoing investigation,” he said and she gave a dramatic eye roll for his benefit. “So why don’t you head on out before I call the tow truck?”
“No can do, Ranger,” she said knowing full well that he was an officer for the US Forest Service officer, who was usually armed to the teeth and took down bad guys who did bad things on federal land. “I’m in the middle of a stakeout and I can’t turn back now.”
“Boyfriend?” he asked.
His eyes softened with understanding and something too close to empathy for her liking. It wasn’t a secret that Tessa was staging a rebellion against the world. And Kat couldn’t blame her.
Abe drove big rigs to help pay the bills, and took on as many hauls as he could get to chip in, but Kat wondered what would hurt Tessa more, losing the family home or losing the last few precious years with her dad before she heads off to college and, according to her sister, never steps foot back in Sierra Vista.
“If she’s at the party I will get her home safely,” Nolan said. “I promise. But you staying here isn’t an option.”
There was a strange urgency to his voice that she didn’t understand. “And I promised to kick my sister’s ass if she snuck out again, so my promise trumps yours.” She held her head high. “I’m not leaving here without Tessa.”
Nolan studied her for a long moment, and she wasn’t sure what he was thinking but she didn’t like it. “Well, I hope she gets here before the tow truck.”
She pushed off the car and walked right into his space, craning her neck so she could meet his gaze—which was dialed to amused.
“Seriously? I’m parked in a sea of cars and you’re harassing me?” She poked him in the chest and her finger bounced back. The man was built like a Viking—imposing, indestructible and so sexy one might call him irresistible.
“They’re next.” A chant of “Chug. Chug. Chug.” filled the night sky and Kat let out a defeated breath. “Is your sister at the party?”
Kat’s shoulders drooped with exhaustion. “She’s supposed to be at the library, but her Find My Friends dot mysteriously vanished. Which means she’s up to no good.”
“How did you know to come here?”
“This is exactly where I’d be if I were trouble.”
He chuckled. “IF?”
She crossed her arms defiantly. “I’ve actually grown up.” Some. And not by choice.
He looked her up and down, pausing in specific places—places that began to tingle. Treacherous tingles.
“Trust me, I know,” he said quietly and those tingles went from treacherous to straight out traitors. “Every time you take out the garbage in those itty bitty pajama bottoms I’m reminded of just how much you’ve grown up.”
She gasped and looked him in the eye. “We hate each other.”
“Hate is a strong word.”
“Loath. Dislike. Detest. Irritate. Annoy. Abhor.” His smile hitched higher with every word. “I give Tiny Dancer a treat when she poops in your yard. I steal your tomatoes in the summer. I reported you to the Community Board last month because your sequoia dropped pine needles on my property. I blow my leaves onto your lawn in the fall and shovel snow on your side of the easement in the winter.”
“That’s an awful lot of effort for someone you loath, dislike, detest, irritate and annoy.”
“Don’t forget, abhor,” he said, lowering his voice to intimate levels “I’m surprised you haven’t started pulling my pigtails.”
“We’re at war. I’m not wooing you,” she said but he didn’t look convinced. “Is there tension between us? Sure. We’re both attractive people so there might be a tiny bit of chemistry.” That was the understatement of the year. When they were together the air crackled. Then he’d open his mouth and say something that brought out his uptightness and she’d be reminded that he saw the world in black and white and she’d learned to survive in the gray. “But we aren’t going there.”
“I know,” he stated with so much certainty she wanted to knee him in the nuts. She was the one to shut things down, but for some reason hearing him agree made her stomach pinch.
“Then why are you watching me take out the trash?”
He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “Hard not to when you do it every time I leave for a shift. Like clockwork,” he said. “Almost as if you want me to watch.” He reached out and ran the pad of his thumb down her jawline. “Do you want me to watch, Trouble?”
Did she? She never used to wear her silky pjs until Nolan moved next door. But that was just a coincidence, right? It had to be.
Oh right, she remembered now. When her best friend passed last year, Kat inherited Zoe’s entire wardrobe, including an impressive collection of itty-bitty pajamas. Silk wasn’t really Kat’s jam, she preferred steel-toed, but wearing Zoe’s clothes was like getting a little piece of her friend back. It just so happened that Zoe’s passing coincided with Nolan becoming her newly single, and apparently nosy, neighbor.
“What a total guy thing to say. I know this will probably blow your mind, but it’s not all about you, Nolan. Did you ever think that maybe I wear them for me? Or maybe I had an overnight guest, and I wore them for him.”
Nolan’s nostrils flared and his mouth went into a tight, unhappy line. Perhaps he’s the one who wants to pull her pigtail.
“Maybe.” He casually lifted one massive shoulder and let it fall. “Maybe not.”
She threw her hands in the air. “Oh my god. Next are you going to mansplain the nonverbal signals around wearing pajamas in the morning?”
“I could. How about tomorrow morning over coffee?” he said.
Kat would rather drink from a gas station toilet than share her morning coffee with Nolan. She opened her mouth to tell him exactly that, but nothing came out. She cleared her throat and tried again and only a strangled breath escaped, turning to mist in the chilled air. Not that Kat was chilly. Oh no, her body was reacting as if she were a nuclear plant in the middle of a meltdown.
He stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Cat got your tongue, Kat?”
“Clever. Did you come up with that all on your own?”
“I have others I can share with you while I make you my famous frittata.”
She couldn’t tell if she was being serious or just yanking her chain. The bigger mystery was, did she want him to be serious?
Kat loved men. The breadth of their shoulders, the smell of testosterone, their rough and capable hands. Nolan had all of those in spades, but they drove each other crazy—and not in a good way. He was also an officer of the law and her grumpy neighbor. Not to mention, her best friend’s soon to be brother-in-law. So when her joke of a kiss a few months back sparked something deeper she’d turned tail. And he knew it.
“What happened to “I know.””
Before he could answer a shrill ring cut through the night, but neither of them moved. It was as if she were stuck in some kind of hormone-charged standoff with her sexy and insufferable neighbor. Without breaking eye contact, she pulled her phone out and answered.
“Hello?” she said
“Kat?” a guilt-filled voice came through the phone.
It was Tessa. Who would rather die than actually talk on the phone. Who was supposed to be home in ten minutes and hadn’t appeared from the woods. Who Kat was supposed to be focusing on instead of sparing with her sexy and insufferable neighbor.
“If you’re calling to extend your curfew, the answer is a big, fat, hells-to-the-no.”
She could hear Tessa take in a big gulp of air. “I know you’re going to be mad at me. So mad. But you promised that if I ever needed you that you’d pick me up, no questions asked. Are you going to keep your promise?”
Kat’s smile vanished and as if sensing that something was off, Nolan’s posture went from competitive to protective. “Always,” she said.
“Can you come get me? I’m at Sunrise Falls.”
“I’m already here. At the base of the trail.”
There was a long pause where she was certain Tessa was doing some quick math that equated to Caught Red Handed.
“Okay, I’ll be there in a few—”
A loud pop blasted simultaneously through the phone and the blackness of night. A sound so violent it felt as if the ground beneath Kat’s feet vibrated. So terrifying her heart stopped mid-beat.
“Was that a gunshot?” she asked, but Nolan was already on the move. Weapon drawn, protect and serve in full effect, he disappeared into the night.