Just One Kiss

justonekiss-wagner-ebook

A first kiss is hard to forget—and Kelsey Brian’s just walked into the bar where she works and isn’t planning to leave anytime soon. It figures. With her last semester of college finally here, Kelsey can’t wait to finish the year smoothly and start a new chapter. She doesn’t need to drive over yet another bump in the road.

Ethan Connelly has spent most of his adult life trying to be accepted by his father, and now he has the chance to make him proud. He’s also just stepped into another chance with the girl who got away. Deciding who matters most to him isn’t an easy choice. If he picks his father, he’ll lose her again—if he picks her, everything he’s worked for will be for nothing.

Can Kelsey learn to trust him, or will Ethan’s secret of why he’s really back in town tear them apart?

**This book contains adult language and adult situations**

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READ ON FOR THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS!

Chapter One

Kelsey

There’s no point in making a plan because somehow it always manages to fall apart.

“I’m sorry, could you please repeat that?” I ask, even though I heard her loud and clear the first time.

Sara Connelly did not just tell me that in less than thirty days she’ll be leaving on some “extended” vacation to finally travel the world — those are the exact words she used. Throw in the fact that she isn’t sure when she’ll be back, she isn’t leaving me in charge of the bar while she’s away, and someone else will be making my schedule, this doesn’t look good for me. I can’t decide whether to be relieved that she isn’t adding to my newfound stress or hurt by her choice, seeing as a huge piece of my plan just went to shit.

“Any particular reason you made this choice?” I ask.

She just shakes her head.

After Sara graduated college at twenty-one—thanks to early college classes she took while still in high school—her father gave her The Bar. Sara hated that name, so she had a reopening and renamed it The Black Alcove. Except everyone refers to it as the BA, which is fitting because it’s been a year since she took over and the entire place is pretty badass.

That also means I’ve been the bar manager for the last year. I know my way around this place better than I do our apartment. I can do anything she can do, and sometimes better. A new boss could and more than likely will ruin my already polished class schedule.

I stop slicing the lime in my hand, set the knife calmly on the bar top in front of me, and focus on her. Sara hasn’t made eye contact with me once since she shared her announcement. She’s not telling me something. She’s sitting on one of the high-top stools at the other side of the bar, planning the next week’s work schedule. She looks up from her papers and her long, blonde curls fall around her guilty face. Big, blue eyes look everywhere but at me before returning to the calendar lying in front of her. She clicks her pen twice before she says anything.

“Come on, Kelsey, this is your final semester of college. Do you really want to be running a bar and going to class?” She glances up. “Besides, we both know you hate working in general, and if I can’t rely on you to show up on time to bartend the 3:00 p.m. shift, there’s no way you can manage this place for a whole a year while I’m gone.”

A whole year! I thought she didn’t know how long she was going to be gone.

I let out a small huff, grabbing the knife and cutting into the green ball in front of me a bit more harshly than I should, all while cursing at how well she knows me. It’s true. I hate being told what to do and when and where I need to be somewhere. I hate working. Correction – I hate working on a schedule someone else has made for me – even if it works around my classes –

and rules are my enemy.

            Yet here I am, about to graduate with a degree in accounting, which has nothing to with writing, my dream job. Writing would let me be anywhere at any time and be happy. Accounting will do nothing but give me a job where I’ll have to work eight to five behind a desk. I’ll probably work harder than I do as a bartender while making half the money. And that says something, because life as a bartender can be pretty intense work. What was I thinking?

Make Daddy proud. Maybe an accounting degree will get him to notice you. That’s what I was thinking.

“I’m only late because I get lost in my studies.” My voice is cheery and exaggerated.

“Ha, yeah okay, studies. I wasn’t aware you were majoring in how to take the longest naps ever,” she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

I give her my best sad face, bottom lip out and all. I can’t help it when I fall asleep from a boring textbook. Hand me a romance novel or some suspense, and I’ll pull an all-nighter.

“But the main reason I’m not leaving you in charge is because you stress easily. I don’t want you becoming too overwhelmed this semester. It’s your last one. Enjoy it.”

That’s sweet of her. But I still think she’s holding back information.

The idea of new management terrifies me. I admit I need someone who can cut me some slack— college isn’t as easy as some people make it look.

“Who is your replacement, and what if they fire me while you’re gone because they don’t know how I work? They don’t know me like you, and they won’t ‘let it slide’ on account of the best friend rule.”

It’s quite simple: We always forgive each other no matter what and we don’t judge each other or do anything that would cause the other to fail in life. Hence, if she fired me, I would fail in helping pay our rent.

“My cousin is coming to take over. I promise I already told him about you and that no matter what happens, he can’t fire you.” She shrugs, continuing to write out the schedule. Just like that. Problem solved. “Those weren’t my exact words, but I run this place, not him. Technically he has to do what I say even if I’m not here. So you can stop having whatever huge mental freak out your having, because it doesn’t look good on you.”

I try not to smile. I was not having a huge freak out. Minor, possibly.

It’s the first week of my final semester of college and everything should be going exactly the way I’ve written in my planner. A day shouldn’t go by without having at least one item checked off. Even if it’s as simple as watering the plants on Friday.

The main focus of my plan is the fact I’m housesitting for my parents for most of the semester, which means I’ll have plenty of alone time to study and pass the last of my dreaded accounting classes. I still can’t believe I left payroll accounting and tax income for the last semester. If I were smart, I would’ve taken them earlier. Scratch that, if I were smart, I would have enrolled in a degree for creative writing and taken a full credit load every semester to finish college earlier. But no, I didn’t do that and now I’m graduating in the fall with a degree that means more to my father than me.

The next piece that makes my life so easy right now is working for Sara at the Black Alcove Bar. She’s my best friend and my boss. It has its perks, such as my free-flowing schedule to work around homework and class. This bartending shift is defiantly a key player that’s holding me and my perfected plan together. All my friends work here and it feels like home. We’re a team that wants to succeed, and we do everything we can to help each other whether it’s at work or not.

Another piece keeping me happy: the fact my cheating ex-boyfriend lives on the other side of town. And thank god for that because I throw up just a little in mouth every time I lay eyes on him. All summer he’s been finding reasons to “bump” into me. He feels like he needs to explain himself, but I understood the girl underneath him just fine. I’m ready for space to focus on me and what I want. To finish college and find a job writing before I find one in accounting.

The last and best part of my plans, there’s still one more month to enjoy weekends sunbathing at the lake. In all honesty, I probably won’t make it out there, but knowing I have the option is nice.

That’s the plan. Plain and simple with no room for errors. Those details might not be the ones written down, but they are engraved inside my head and they aren’t going anywhere. This final five months of college should be something I look forward to with a positive attitude. It’s the time in my life when everything is finally coming together. I should be shouting and celebrating.

Unfortunately at this moment, I’m anything but positive.

“Well, maybe I can teach him to do what I say, too.” We laugh at my joke even though a part of me really isn’t joking. “Which cousin is it?” I ask, leaning my hip against the bar and glancing at the cooler behind me.

It should have been stocked last night, but Sara and Logan were closing. This is the third time in two weeks she’s asked me to come in and help open after the two of them shut the place down. After her announcement, I’m starting to think it’s her way of getting in some extra friend time. Either that, or she and Logan aren’t actually working when they’re together. I’m going with option B, but if I say that out loud, they will both deny it.

“Umm, Ethan,” she says.

Ethan.

I freeze, resting my forearms against the counter.

“He was the cousin who used to stay with us over the summers. The same cousin you dumped a bucket of paint on when my dad was redoing the floor in this place.” She pauses to look down. “I’m so glad he decided to go with the whole tie-dye floor thing. It gives this place some color.”

I smirk. I only dumped the paint because Ethan was trying to remind me about our so- called “kiss.” We got lucky when Sara’s dad actually liked the mess I made. He went out and bought buckets of assorted colors, letting us kids go wild coating the cement floor. I aimed for Ethan with every bucket I touched.

“Anyway, his dad and my dad are brothers, so he’s used to the whole owning your own business thing. Plus, he just got a business degree and wants to add this to his experience,” she continues. “He’s only a year older than us; you have to remember him.”

Oh, I remember him. How could I forget? Still to this day no one knows what happened, not even Sara. I should have known geeks were the worst.

“You know he had that stupid mushroom haircut thing going on and glasses.” Sara laughs, but then the giggles fade and she stares off at something behind me. I follow her gaze to find nothing important, and when I look back at her she’s again focused on her papers. “That’s the one problem with this plan. I haven’t seen him in years. I hate to be shallow, but I can’t have a nerd running this place. We have a reputation to uphold and he could ruin it.”

She glances up. “Come on, Kelsey, you have to remember him.”

Oh right, she’s refreshing my memory. I give my head a slight nod as I pretend to remember.

“Yeah, he was the one who was always following us around. I bet we could still make him wait on us hand and foot.” We both begin to laugh again but are quickly cut off.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen this time.”

I jump at the deep voice that echoes inside the empty bar. In the doorway stands the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Tall, dark, and handsome doesn’t even begin to describe him. Is that…Ethan?

Sara hops off the stool with a giant smile on her face and quickly rushes to give him a hug. The veins that appear in his toned arms as he gives her a tight squeeze send a flutter through my entire stomach. Holy crap, he’s huge. This is not the nerdy boy I remember. His body looks so firm and sexy.

When Sara lets go of him, she turns to me. Her movement grabs my attention, snapping my eyes to hers before he can catch me checking him out.

“Kelsey, you remember Ethan,” she says, and I can tell she’s happy with her decision to leave him in charge. Looks like her bar’s reputation is going to survive. “I was just telling Kelsey how you’re going to take over for me while I’m gone,” she says to Ethan. Although I don’t think he heard her. His eyes are focused solely on me.

Ethan takes a step forward in his black shirt and blue jeans, and I watch him cautiously until he’s standing in front of me. My fingers grip tighter onto the counter, trying to keep myself standing. He’s even more gorgeous now than he was before.

His green eyes are bright against his short, black hair, and when he smiles, I know instantly that I don’t stand a chance at holding my damn plan into place. Not that I ever did. He extends his hand to me, but I just stand there. I don’t move. I don’t do anything. Not even blink.

He lets out a deep chuckle, and my heart races so fast and loud, I swear he can hear it. “You haven’t changed a bit.” He raises an eyebrow, never taking his gaze off mine. “Still keeping quiet, I see.”

I swallow and then break our eye contact. Holy crap. When I look up again, Ethan is glancing over to Sara, who’s standing next to him, leaning against the counter.

“Is she this quiet with the customers too?” he jokes. I think.

“No, she isn’t,” Sara says then looks at me with both eyebrows raised. She’s trying to tell me something. She tilts her head toward Ethan and her eyes grow even bigger as they flicker toward Ethan and back to me.

I return my attention to Ethan and open my mouth.

Crap. What am I supposed to say? Think, Kelsey, think. Either speak or close your mouth. You haven’t spoken to him since that unfortunate summer. It was just one kiss, nothing to get worked up about. Don’t embarrass yourself.

I nod. “Hey,” I say, wiggling my fingers and cringing at the pitch of my voice. “How’s it going?”

Sara erupts into a fit of laughter I’ve never heard before, and I can feel my cheeks as they begin to blush. I look away the moment I feel the tears trying to fight their way forward. Ohmygod! Ohmygod! Ohmygod! So much for not embarrassing myself. How high did my voice seriously just go?

I stare at the countertop, pretending to be deeply distracted by a divot in the wood. I trace my finger over it and silently hope they’ll leave soon, when Ethan’s calming voice grabs my attention.

“Things are going good, just got to town. The wind here is annoying as hell, but I can get used to it,” he says with a half grin. He winks at me then turns to Sara, who is staring at us with a satisfied smile on her face.

“Do you want go over my responsibilities out here or in your office?’ he asks, getting right to the point of his visit.

“I’ll meet you in there.” She points her office.

“Cool,” he says. “I’ll see you around, Kelsey.”

Ethan flashes a heart-stopping smile my way before he turns for Sara’s office and disappears.

The moment he’s out of sight, my breathing returns, and it feels like I just finished running a marathon.

“You are totally into him,” she says, pointing behind her with her thumb and walking backward toward her office. “You were blushing a deep red just now. I can’t believe I’m going to miss everything. Now, get out of here, and thanks again. I don’t know why I get so on edge about the way Logan cleans at night. I promise one day I won’t call you in to help last minute.”

I don’t respond to her while she laughs since my mind is still processing the fact Ethan is back and is going to be my new temporary boss.

After she closes the door, I let out a long breath before grabbing my purse from under the counter and marching out the door, straight to my car.

I round the corner from the bar and wave to Mrs. Mulligan, who’s walking into the diner next to the BA. She waves back then stops to watch as I get closer to my car. She’s nearing her eighties, which means she’s starting to become very nosey. Something my mom warned me about—and she should know. As Mrs. Mulligan’s neighbor, Mom has put up with more than a few surprise visits.

I pull the keys from my purse but pause mid-step when I see the large silver and shiny Toyota Tundra parked next to my tiny, white Ford Focus. The truck still has new plates and makes my car look like it’s owned by a homeless person. God, even his truck is gorgeous.

I’m so totally screwed. I shouldn’t be stunned into silence or struck in awe by Ethan or any other man. Men suck. Always have and always will.

 

Ethan

            This is going to be one hell of a year.

            I sit in one of the old torn chairs in front of Sara’s desk, resting my hands behind my head as I wait for her. The chair squeaks when it leans back, and it goes far enough to make me think it’s going to tip over. I sit up straight and pull my thoughts together.

            I’m here to manage this place while Sara is away as a favor to my uncle, but mostly to get my father off my back. I’m not like him or my brothers. I can’t manipulate people to get things I don’t deserve. Like this bar, for example. If it weren’t for the fact I’m sick of my father telling me how ungrateful I am and a pathetic man, I wouldn’t be here secretly helping him sabotage his way into owning this place. Most normal guys my age would tell their dads to “fuck off,” but not me. Family is important, and as shitty as they are some days, they’re the only family I have. And that reason alone is why I’m here.

            My mindset walking into this was “get in, get out in less than two weeks.” Sara needs someone for almost a year, but the sooner my dad is happy, the sooner I don’t have to listen to him anymore. But now, I might take a little longer. I wasn’t expecting to walk in and find a certain slender and still beautiful brunette standing behind the counter.

           Kelsey Brian.

            One look from her and I forgot everything.

All she did was stand behind the counter, staring at me, and I already know there’s no way I’m going to stop thinking about her. Hell, I don’t think I ever have. Those big, golden eyes practically undressing me the minute I walked in the door. Her full, pink lips falling slightly apart as I walked closer. She smelled like Red Hots, the cinnamon candy, and my body had responded immediately.

            I never could forget that girl. I wanted her so badly every summer I came here, to Wind Valley. That last time I was here, I had to beg my father to let me go. I had to have one last chance with her. When she found me during Sara’s barbeque and pulled me to a hidden spot, I knew this was it. I was going to get exactly what I wanted. I was finally going to kiss her.

            Then I ruined it.

            My cell buzzes in my pocket. I pull it out to see a text from my father.

 

            DON’T LET ME DOWN

 

            I read the message twice, remembering the last thing he said to me before I came here. You better turn that heart to stone before you give the Connelly name a poor reputation. My father’s words are branded into my brain.

            Fuck. As much as I hate it, I better repeat that every day. Kelsey’s hot, but getting my dad off my back is more important right now than any woman.

            Sara closes the door behind her and sits on the other side of her large desk. She doesn’t say anything as she sorts through the papers in front of her, probably trying to find the one she needs. There are papers covering every inch of the wooden surface, and my need to always have things in order is trying to push its way out. I stand quickly and move to a bookshelf, picking up random pictures to keep my hands busy before I start to clean off her desk for her.

            “Is everything okay?” she asks.

            “Mmm hmm, everything’s good.” I glance down at her surroundings. Fuck, this office is a mess.

            Sara smiles before finally clearing off a spot and setting a stack of papers on the open area. “These are for you. I need you to fill them out before we get started,” she instructs, gesturing to the stack. “Thanks again for helping out. Our fathers couldn’t have picked a better time to make up.”

            They haven’t actually made up, but she doesn’t need to know that. It is all an act my father put on to get me into this spot. Deep down, I know my father should be mad at my grandfather for leaving everything to Sara’s father, but without my grandpa here to defend himself, my dad is taking it out on my uncle. And he’s doing that by sending me here to find a few account numbers that he can use.

            My grandfather’s will said the bar belonged to my uncle. But there’s also a clause that says if the day comes where money is misused in any form, the bar will then transfer to my father. Hence, my dad wants the account numbers to move money that isn’t his into accounts that personally belong to my uncle.

            “That will happen with stubborn old men,” I say instead of the truth, returning to my seat across from her.

            “What’s it been…six or seven years since I last saw you?”

            It’s been seven, but if she can’t remember, neither can I.

            “Yeah, something like that.”

Sara begins organizing her desk a little and I start filling out the paperwork. My mind is on autopilot as I fill in the blanks and I finish in record time. Once I’m done with that, I follow my cousin out of the office. The bar top that Kelsey was standing behind is a large L shape that takes up two walls, but there isn’t anyone standing behind it now.

            “It doesn’t look like much during the day, but when it’s filled with people at night, it’s my favorite place to be.” Sara points to the corner. “We have a stage, but it’s been weeks since there was a band on it. I’m working on a schedule for it now, but I’m waiting for a few phone calls.” She spins, pointing to the corner by the front with the pool tables. “For now we use the jukebox for music.”

            I nod my head as she carries on about a couple more things.

            This place is a lot cooler than I expected it to be. The space is in great shape and looks well taken care of. They don’t have very many tables, but it works because they are more of an “enjoy the beer” place, not an “enjoy the food” place. The walls are blue, but you can hardly tell that with all the banners and neon signs. I’m actually excited that this is where I will hang out. It has a welcoming feel, and it’s easy to see why business is good.

            Sara’s still talking when I glance at her. She moves around at ease with a smile. She doesn’t notice me while she talks, so I survey the rest of the room.

            It’s obvious she and I are the only ones here now. Good. I need to ask her if she needs anything else from me because I have an appointment with the Realtor to pick up the keys for the house I’m leasing. It takes me a minute to realize Sara isn’t talking anymore. She’s watching me when it clicks.

“What’s with the smile?” I ask. She instantly blushes and her posture straightens.

“What smile?”

“The one on your face that screams, ‘I’m up to something.’ You wore that smile a lot when we were kids. I know it better than you think.”

“I’m not up to anything, Ethan,” she says with a straight face then walks behind the bar. Slowly that sneaky smile reappears, and I can tell she’s trying to hide it. For whatever reason, she doesn’t want to tell me and that’s fine. I’m not here to build a relationship. Not with her anyway.

“Thanks again for hiring me.”

“Oh yeah, no problem. It was you or Kelsey, and, well…” She looks up again, still smiling. “She needs a little help with the whole staying-on-schedule thing. I think hiring someone else to be her manager might motivate her to take that next step.”

Ahhh. I’m catching on now. I don’t think having a different manager is going to motivate her. It’s who her new manager is that will motive her. Women—they’re not as sneaky as they think they are. But heck, I’ll play along. If it means more time with Kelsey, I’ll do whatever my cousin wants me to.

Whoa.

Where did that come from? More time with Kelsey is the last thing I need.

“Come back tomorrow at three. You can follow one of the bartenders around for a bit to get the flow of things,” Sara says before a tall man and a woman with firecracker-red hair wearing black shirts with the bar’s logo on them approach from a back room. The guy unlocks the front door and a gray-haired couple walk in. The elderly love arriving to places right at opening. I assume these two will be the only customers for at least another hour.

I nod on my way out, but Sara greets the old couple. She shares a laugh with them and even gives them each a polite hug. She looks happy here, and for a minute I feel guilty. I’m going to be the bad guy and help take it from her.

Right before I step through the exit, I hear her call my name. I turn to see her coming toward me with a smile. She wraps her arms around me, giving me a tight hug then steps away.

Yep, I’m the bad guy already.

 

Chapter Two

Kelsey

For the next five months, my parents will be touring France, Italy, and Germany. They’ve left me in charge of everything they own, and this is night one. I’ve already managed to lock myself out. Go me.

“You’re not seriously going to break in, are you?” Sara asks through the phone.

“What choice do I have, Sara? All my stuff is in their house, and my dad was very clear on his rules. Make sure the sprinkler system comes on each morning till the end of August, dust everything, cleaning includes bathrooms, and don’t drive the cars. That’s just the small list. For all I know, he could have a camera set up to make sure I do as he instructed.”

Without a key, breaking in is the only way to go. He didn’t say don’t break anything or break into anything, but those are probably basic rules. Still, he never actually said it.

“This sucks. I’m gone in less than four weeks, and you’re not even going to be staying in our apartment until I leave. You could come home and crash here for just one more night. Then we can call the locksmith in the morning.”

I shake my head, refusing her offer even though she can’t see me. Sara’s suggestion is good, but it’s not going to work. Not right now. Not when my computer is inside this house and my fingers are itching to get some writing in before I go to bed.

I’m sitting alone in my car in my parents’ driveway. It’s in a new neighborhood just east of town, and they picked a fully beige house. I call it “The Palace of Beige.” Everything is that boring ass color—the house, the trim, the doors. Everything. It has a three-floor layout with five bedrooms, each with their own bath; a movie room; and a four-car garage. They have two kids who no longer live at home and four cars. What a waste of money.

“That defeats the whole purpose of housesitting, Sara.” I move my cellphone to my left ear and hold it in place with my shoulder as I turn off my car. The wind is intense tonight, and my car moves in a wave like motion with each gust. Thankfully, it stopped raining so I can see a little better, but it’s almost midnight and everything is pitch black. Add the fact I forgot to leave the front porch light on and the fact the subdivision has a lot of houses still in the building phase and it makes this whole situation creepy. I’ve watched too many movies of what can go wrong in a construction zone.

“Okay, so what are you going to do? Throw a rock through the window, crawl inside, and then claim someone broke in while you were watching their house? I guarantee they won’t give you the money they offered. In fact, I bet they would make you replace it with your own cash. You should totally rethink whatever plan you have devised in your head.”

Lose out on five grand for five months of housesitting? Easiest money ever. I need it so I can start a career in self-publishing. I could buy a new window and still come out ahead.

“It’s my only option. I’ll call you when I’m inside.”

Sara’s voice raises a few pitches, but I end the call before I can hear what she says. I know she’s right that I should just wait till tomorrow, but writing is way more important than whatever window I’m about to bust.

I open my car door only to have it blown shut by the strong August wind the moment my left leg is out. Ouch! Only this stupid Wyoming wind would stick around for every day of the year. I push the door off my leg and jump out of the car in a hurry to avoid the same mistake. The wind again slams the door shut at the same time I firmly plant my feet into the ground to keep from blowing away. My long, brown hair is blowing in all directions and it’s a battle between Mother Nature and my hand to keep it away from my eyes long enough to walk to the house.

Each step is like pulling a semi-truck behind me as I walk against the wind. I swear it feels like I’m not even moving. Thank goodness I went with blue jeans and a black hoodie tonight. Trying to keep a dress or skirt down in this mess would be pointless.

I finally make it to the front porch, pulling my smartphone from my back pocket to turn on the flashlight. I shine the light around the windows and over the deck in search of a hide-a-key. When I come up short, I catch sight of a curtain blowing freely inside the house. Yes! There must be a window open. I hold the flashlight against the window to pinpoint my next destination. Perfect, I should be able to climb through from the back porch.

I leap off the front steps, not making much distance when the wind pushes me backward. The ball of my foot catches the last step and I fall. I hit the steps just perfectly to pinch the skin on the back of my thigh, and a small scream passes my lips as I roll on the ground, grabbing the tender area and trying not to cry.

You had to remember one thing, Kelsey. The key. This whole mess could have been avoided had you remembered the key.

After allowing myself a minute to scold myself, I push off the ground and head for the back porch. I walk around to the left side of the house and come to a complete, firm stop, not giving the wind a chance to blow me down. What the — when did they do this? A fence. A stupid tall, white, keep-the-burglar-out-of-my-yard wooden fence. Right where I need to be. Okay. I get it. Lesson learned. I will never forget the key, or any key for that matter, ever again.

I force my way to the fence and sigh with relief when my fingers can reach the top. If I jump just a little, I should be able to pull myself over. Finally, someone is on my side.

I extend my arms as straight as I can get them, but they don’t get a good enough grip on the top of the fence when I jump. A few more tries later, it’s still not enough. I bend at the knee and swing my arms behind to give myself the extra oomph I need. The sound of an empty dumpster hitting the pavement startles me, and I quickly turn around.

“Who’s there?” I call out. I can’t see anything; it’s too dark. It was probably just a cat or the wind. Either way, that’s all the motivation I need to get over this fence. This time my effort is just good enough to haul myself over. Or — maybe not. My arms are stuck mid-pull, ready to give out. I should really start working out. This is just stupid. As I hang on the fence, I hear the sound of footsteps on the grass behind me. Instantly I have the strength I need and I pull myself halfway up. All I need to do it swing my legs over and it’s done.

Suddenly, my body goes stiff and I’m pretty sure I’ve stopped breathing.

Someone is touching me.

 

Ethan

After finding every excuse I could to get out of dinner with my cousin – the less time with Kelsey around me, the better – all I wanted to do was get some sleep. Instead, I’m wide awake and irritated with my new neighbors.

I woke up when I heard a car door slamming and a light scream minutes after. This is not the way my first night in my first home should go. I’m no pansy, but it’s a good thing I own guns because if this shit goes down every night, then I damn sure better stay alert. I’ll be ready for whoever wants to break into my house.

I drag myself out of bed and down the stairs to look out the front window. There’s some chick across the street rolling around on the ground in front of my neighbor’s house. When she shifts, I can see that she has a flashlight in her hand. This is not normal behavior for most people.

I watch as she pushes herself up and rounds the house, coming to a stop. I can’t see her face because the wind is out of control, blowing her hair in all directions, and right before she turns toward my house, she pulls the hood of her sweatshirt over her head. She stands there for a minute, looking defeated.

Just when I think this bizarre mini-event is over the girl marches up to the fence, reaches her hand high, and then starts jumping. I don’t know the people in my neighborhood yet, but this isn’t a good sign.

I don’t waste any time as I slip my shoes on and run out the door. I’m wearing only a pair of black gym shorts, and this wind feels like ice against my skin. My goal is to sneak up on her, but after a huge gust of wind comes out of nowhere, I lose balance and bump into the dumpster. Sneaking is no longer an option. I run straight for the intruder and get there just in time.

            She is half over the fence, dangling her upper body on one side and her legs on the other. My side. The legs also come with a very nice ass that’s hard to miss.

I wrap my hands around her ankle and pull her toward me. There’s no way I am letting her over this fence. Nice ass or not.

The eardrum-busting scream that comes out of her mouth is not what I’m expecting. I start to shake my head to get the ringing to stop at the same time she starts yelling. I can’t hear her very well because my ears are still recovering.

“Let me go!” she demands.

“No way! I’m not letting you over this fence,” I shout back.

Her body goes stiff and the screaming stops. I think I hear her whisper the word “no,” but I’m not sure. If she’s trying to talk me into letting her go, it’s not working. I use this moment to tug on her legs, attempting to pull her back over. Instantly she starts resisting, giving it her all as she tries to wiggle her way out of my grip.

“Just jump back down and we…”

            Fuck!

            The stinging pain of her foot making solid contact with my face distracts me and I lose my balance, again. My hand loosens its grip, and as I stumble backward, I grab her ankle to keep myself from falling. It doesn’t work and we both fall to the ground.

            I grunt when she lands on top of my stomach, making it hard to breathe. She pulls herself together, quickly rolling off me and scrambling to her feet, but I’m faster. I grab her foot and yank her back until she is under me. With my legs on either side of her, my arms are straight as I hold her arms tightly against her sides to keep her pinned to the ground. She wiggles hard trying to escape.

            “Don’t touch me!” she hollers and continues to attempt yanking her arms out of my grip while trying to sit up.

“Yeah, no, that’s not going to happen. You can’t just go breaking into someone’s house and get away with it.”

Her body goes lifeless under my hands and she takes a sharp breath. When she opens her eyes to face me, I almost let go. The wind has blown her hair out of her face, giving me a perfect view of bright, gold eyes piercing me with a heated glare. Her creamy white skin glows in the darkness, rendering me speechless.

Kelsey.

For a moment neither of us says anything. Maybe she wasn’t breaking in after all. Someone this beautiful can’t be that crazy. Can she? Sara definitely would have told me if her best friend has a few screws loose.

            The stunned moment is interrupted when I hear the sound of sirens approaching. Just awesome. Someone called the cops. Kelsey uses the distraction and shoves me off of her, quickly rising to her feet.

            “You called the police on me? Seriously? This night just keeps getting better,” she snaps.

            “I didn’t call the cops. I had it handled,” I spit back at her.

            She takes a step toward me, dramatically placing her hands on her hips.

            “Oh you had IT handled, huh?” Her eyes roam over my face. Where is the quiet, innocent girl I saw earlier today? I guess the silent streak is over. As her eyes meet mine, they look so cold I can’t help but take a step back. “Yeah,” she says with a laugh, “your face is covered in blood. You had IT handled real well.”

            Blood. Really?

            I reach up to my face and sure enough, when I touch my nose, there’s blood everywhere.

            “You kicked me in the face,” I growl, defending myself.

            “You deserved it,” she says, jabbing her finger into my chest.

As the sirens are getting louder, she begins to look around frantically, turning to sprint away only to be cut off when a police car pulls up in front of the house.

The cop gets out of the car, walks to the front of his vehicle, and stops. He’s tall and in better shape than I would think a cop his age should be. Definitely not someone I want to mess with, and that says something since I work out every day.

The cop stands with his hands on his hips and begins to shake his head.

“Kelsey Brian,” he says, and a smile appears on his face. “It’s been too long since I last saw you.”

        As if the night weren’t weird already, the fact Kelsey is on a first-name basis with a cop just made everything about her more interesting.

 

Kelsey

            Never say things could be worse. The moment you think it, it happens.

            Like right now, my cheating ex-boyfriend’s father, who also happens to be a cop, is standing in front of me, waiting to arrest me no doubt.

            “Mr. Maron.” I roll my eyes and cross my arms. I shouldn’t be rude, but this cannot be happening right now. I want to get inside my car and leave this awful situation. It’s cold out, and now I’m going to have to suffer this stupid wind even longer. My urge to write is officially gone.

            He nails me with his judgmental glare, and I look everywhere but directly at him. His presence is pushing all the wrong buttons as he stands there looking well groomed with his ocean-clear blue eyes, blonde hair, and sharp facial features that are an exact match to his son’s. Makes me sick.

            The story of Tyler and me went way beyond any clichéd story of walking in on your boyfriend and catching him cheating red-handed. He was on the couch, lying naked on top of someone. I heard a moan, and my gasping caught their attention. That’s when another chick – also naked – came walking out of our bathroom, asking Tyler where his other box of condoms was because they were all out.

            “Um, sir?” Ethan speaks up somewhere behind me. I don’t move as my eyes narrow and peek sideways until I can see him. He’s still here. I can’t tell if I’m excited or mad that the dark- haired god who arrived earlier today is back in the middle of the night. Attacking me like some crazed lunatic.

            I watch as Ethan runs a hand through his hair and lets out a breath. What’s he doing here anyway? And where is his shirt? I take a quick glance and swallow hard. Never mind. The shirt can stay gone.

            His eyes don’t look cold anymore—just the opposite, almost as if he feels sorry for me. How can someone show so many emotions with just their eyes? They have that added extra sparkle to them that you only read about in books. I smile at him and his face quickly falls to confusion.

            Wait.

            I’m pissed at this guy. I’m still standing here only because of him. I give Ethan another dirty look that quickly fades when he starts to laugh. Damn it. If I don’t get my thoughts in check, he will never take me seriously at work.

            “Young man, it’s probably best you head home. This doesn’t concern you.”

            He can’t be serious.

            “It sure as hell concerns him.” I shift my body and point at the culprit. “He attacked me while I was trying to get inside. You should be arresting him, not sending him home.”

            “Attack you? I was saving these people,” – he points to The Palace of Beige – “the hassle of dealing with a robbery when they get home,” Ethan says.

            Mr. Maron steps off the road and into the grass to approach us. He releases a small laugh.

            “What happened here? Who robbed who?” he asks, confused.

            “He attack—”

            “She was break—”

            Oh, Ethan did not just cut me off. I glare at him and practically growl when Mr. Maron cuts us both off.

            “Whoa now,” he says and holds his arms out at his sides, warning us to keep our distance. Probably a good idea at this point, since I’m so angry I’m sure they can see the flames shooting from my eyes. Mr. Maron looks at me. “Kelsey, why are you here?”

            Dang right, he should ask me first.

            “I’m housesitting and forgot my key. I left the back window open and was making my way to it when this guy attacked me.” I cross my arms again and with a smirk I give Ethan a look that tells him this is over. He shouldn’t even try to argue his way out of it. Ethan raises an eyebrow that clearly accepts the challenge. My smirk vanishes and my breathing picks up.

            Mr. Maron nods his head, pulling a small notebook from his back pocket and removing the pen from the collar of his shirt.

            “Alright, what’s your name, son, and why are you here?” His voice sounds sterner this time.

            “Ethan Connelly, and I live in that house.” He sounds annoyed as he points to the dark green, not beige, house directly across the street. He lives there? “Some weird noises woke me up, and when I looked out the window, I saw this chick trying to climb this fence. I assumed she was breaking in.”

            First I’m an it and now I’m some chick?

            I give a sarcastic laugh and roll my eyes. My name must have just slipped his mind.

            Mr. Maron shakes his head, releasing an aggravated breath.

            “Next time, call the police. You can go home now. I can handle things from here.”

            The thought of being left alone with my ex’s father worries me. He will ask questions and I’ll stay quiet, just like I always do. We were practically family, and now it hurts too much to talk to him. For a brief moment I consider asking Ethan to stay. I open my mouth but he takes a step toward his house, giving me a winning grin. My body shudders. Cocky guys are so unattractive. Never mind that idea; I don’t need him. At the same time Ethan steps off the sidewalk, I turn for my car.

            “Wait a minute, Kelsey. We still need to talk.”

            Of course we do. Things can never be easy. My shoulders slump forward as I impatiently wait for a man who was practically my father-in-law to continue.

            “It’s been awhile since I saw you last.” He pauses. “You know you’re always welcome in our home, Kelsey. If you ever want or need to talk…Emily and I are always here.” His voice is so gentle, and I know he means every word.

            I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself before the waterworks start. For three years this man was more of a father to me than my own. Yes, it’s wrong of me to shut them out, but things are different now and I don’t want to be the crazy ex-girlfriend who still hangs out with her ex-boyfriend’s family. It doesn’t matter that Tyler is the one who invites me over half the time. Says he still wants to be friends because I am and will always be his best friend, but I don’t think I’m strong enough for that. I can’t trust myself to look at him and not miss what we had. What I had. A best friend I could tell anything to, who I thought I could trust to always be honest.

            “I’m fine,” I say, forcing the words out of my mouth. It’s been long enough I shouldn’t let it affect me anymore.

            He doesn’t say anything as he comes up behind me. He gives me a quick shoulder hug and then continues to the porch. He stops at the top of the steps, looking around. If he can find the hide-a-key for me, maybe I’ll talk.

I watch as he shines his flashlight around – a real one, searching every crack, corner, and flowerpot. At the door, he reaches for the knob, turns it slowly, and the door opens. My mouth drops open when he looks back at me with an “are you kidding me?” look that I choose not to respond to. I march right past him and shut the door once I’m inside. Thank goodness he didn’t find the hide-a-key.

 

Chapter Three

Kelsey

The clock next to my bed finally hits 7:00 a.m.. I toss the covers and slowly pull myself from the guest room’s king-size bed. Sleeping was difficult last night. I dozed off fast, but my mind wasted no time dreaming of Ethan and the way he looked in just a pair of shorts. That’s a lie. My mind dreamt more of what his body looked like without those shorts. His entire body looked so firm that if I ever bump into him, I might break something. I woke up after an hour, sweating and blushing at how real the dream felt. Then, I fell back to sleep and the process repeated itself over and over.

I pull a pair of sweats over my black Spandex, grab a hoodie, and lace my shoes. Running is the best way for me to gain a clear mind, and god knows I need to clear the shit out of it right now. I tie my hair up and don’t waste any time getting out the door. Since Ethan is successfully taking up every available inch of headspace, today’s run won’t be anything short of an hour.

***

I return to my parents’ house, shedding myself of my hoodie and sweats, leaving myself in only my Spandex and a sports bra to cool down. I stroll into the kitchen to fix myself a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast. Every Tuesday and Thursday I have my payroll class at nine in the morning and a creative writing class at one. I couldn’t care less about payroll, but I want to be 100 percent focused on creative writing.

I still have my headphones on as I pour myself a cup of coffee, so when my cellphone rings, it changes the song blaring music into my ears. I pull on the cord like my headphones are on fire.

“Hello,” I greet, quickly holding my phone a tiny way from my ears until they’ve stopped buzzing.

“Kelsey, what took you so long to answer and why do you sound out of breath? Is everything okay with the house?”

It should come as a surprise that my father would relate my shortness of breath to the house, not my life, being in danger, but it doesn’t. I‘m almost positive my father never wanted a daughter. Once I got my first bra, he never attempted to have a relationship with me, and he’s always favored my little brother. They are so close it’s disgusting. Sometimes I forget he’s our father and not one of my brother’s immature friends.

It still stuns me that my father is even letting me housesit for them. He could have hired someone, but my father trusts no one. In fact, I’m sure I wasn’t his first pick and my mother had to convince him to let me do this. Then again, my brother doesn’t live in Wind Valley, so Dad doesn’t really have an option.

“Hello, Kelsey, are you there?”

            “Yes, I am, sorry. I went for a run and just got back,” No worries, Dad, your precious house is just fine.

            “Good. You haven’t had any problems, have you? Mrs. Mulligan next door called your mother last night and said there was a disturbance.”

            I roll my eyes and prop my hip against the marble counter to stare out the back kitchen window at Mrs. Mulligan’s small blue and white house. She’s outside in her gardening clothes but peeking over her back fence right into my parents’ kitchen. She smiles and waves. I will have to talk to her later.

            “It was nothing, Dad, I promise.” I look at my feet and take a deep breath. “Is Mom there?” I ask and he grunts through the phone. He doesn’t answer me, but soon enough my mother’s calming voice is on the line. My parents are the perfect example of opposites attract.

            “Hi, honey,” she greets me in her soft tone, and my body relaxes completely. “How is your morning going? Have you had any classes yet?”

            “My first one is today at….” I walk over to the table and open my backpack, which is sitting on one of the chairs, and pull out my schedule. I know it by heart, but I feel the need to read it one more time, and I glance at the clock and then do a double take. My first class starts in twenty minutes! My run couldn’t have been that long.

            “I’m sorry, Mom, I have to go. I’m running late. I love you, have fun!” I tell her and hang up the phone. I swing my backpack over my shoulder and grab my keys off the table before running out the door.

 

Ethan

Normally, I don’t wake up until I hear my alarm beeping, but today is different. Today, the unfortunate sound of someone’s car straining to start wakes me. By the sounds of it, I won’t be falling back to sleep anytime soon. Any other day I would be fine with it, but I’m already in a bad mood from a night that made it difficult to sleep. Mainly because I can’t stop thinking about Kelsey. The cop knew her by name, which is never a good sign and it makes me wonder what she’s been up to. And partially because my face feels like it was hit by a bus and it won’t stop throbbing.

My phone rings at the same time I roll off my bed. I grab it off the nightstand and the name Max Connelly is flashing across the screen. My father.

“Hello,” I answer as I wander into the bathroom. I tried to clean up the bloody mess on my face as best I could before I went to bed, but the pain then was a good sign it’s not going to look good now. When I spot my reflection in the mirror, I’m not the least bit surprised. She got me good. My nose is swollen, as are the two black eyes on either side.

“How did the first day go?” my father asks, getting right to business.

“It was brief, but tonight I will go back to train with one of the bartenders.” There’s no point in making small talk with Max Connelly. The man is all business. By participating in this plan of his, I’ve got more attention from him in the last two weeks than I have since I was born.

“Training?” He laughs. “Need I remind you that our family owns this bar, Ethan? If you do not feel you’re capable of doing what I’ve asked from you, I will replace you with one of your brothers who can.” His voice is firm and I know he will keep his word if I fail.

“I will do exactly what I need to get this done, sir. You have my word,” I tell him as I run a small towel under warm water and gently wipe away the dried blood.

“Good. I’ll be expecting a twenty-four hour update until I’m confident with leaving you there. Best of luck today, son,” he says and the line goes dead. What a way to start my day. And I know for a fact he isn’t really wishing me luck.

My head drops forward when I hear the persistent noise of the still-dead car that is inexorable from my bathroom window. Doesn’t this person get the hint? Your car isn’t going to start, so just give up already.

I don’t want to turn into that nosey neighbor, but damn, this neighborhood is noisy. I toss the towel into the sink, and once again I’m heading down the stairs to see who’s making such a racket.

I open the blinds completely this time. The weather is clear, the sky is blue, and the sun is shining.

I hear the noise again and quickly find the source. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Kelsey.   

I don’t bother pulling on a pair of shoes this time. It will only take me a couple seconds to offer my help. Nothing I can’t do in a pair of gym shorts. I jog lightly across the street and slow to walk up the driver’s side of her car. I notice her phone sitting on the ground by her door and kneel down to pick it up. Unfortunately for me, Kelsey chooses this exact moment to get out of her car. By the force of the metal against my forehead, it’s obvious she is taking her frustration out on the door.

“Oh my god!” she gasps, covering her mouth with her hand. “I’m so sorry I didn’t see you there.”

I stand, slowly extending my hand that holds her phone. I’m rubbing my head with my other hand when she comes into view clearly. And fuck. What is she wearing? Or better yet—what isn’t she wearing? Kelsey’s standing less than an arm’s length away from me in nothing but a tiny pair of black shorts and a sports bra. My hand falls quickly as I shift my stance. These shorts don’t leave much to the imagination.

Still covering her mouth, Kelsey’s eyes grow wider and start to glaze over. She moves her hand from her mouth and reaches toward me but quickly pulls back.

“I’m so…so…I hope you’re okay.” She takes a deep breath then looks away.

“I’m fine.” It comes out a bit more harsh than planned. But if I don’t know any better, this girl is slowly trying to kill me. It’s always the good-looking ones, isn’t it?

Kelsey’s look of remorse quickly fades, turning into the same heated glare from last night. She crosses her arms and cocks her head.

“Is there a reason you’re standing in my driveway?”

Her driveway? I thought she was housesitting.

“I came over here to offer you my assistance.” I nod toward her car. “It sounds like you need help starting your car. And for as much as I would love to watch you stand out here half naked, you’re disturbing the whole neighborhood. I’ll go get my truck and give you a jump.” I take a step around her.

I honestly think explaining to her why I’m here will help her not look so panicked, but instead, I get a dramatic gasp before she takes off to hide inside. I shake my head as I wander back across the street for some jumper cables. This is going to be one hard woman to figure out.

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