Chapter FourKiernan couldn’t stop touching her lips. It was a day after the fact, and she swore she could still feel Nick Farrow’s mouth on hers.
As first kisses went, this one was nothing like what she’d always dreamed her debut smooch would be.
Sure, before her father showed up, Nick had been perfect.
He was cute with dark hair and darker eyes. And his smile. Oh, that smile. Part ornery, part innocent and totally sweet, his grin had hooked her right off. She loved that he was taller than her. So many boys were shorter, making her feel huge and gangly. But when Nick gazed down at her, she felt cute and girly. He was so nice too, putting her instantly at ease. She thought no one could be a better candidate to give her a first kiss.
She touched her lips again. They tingled. As crazy as the circumstances had been, Nick Farrow’s kiss was divine. He hadn't had a lot of time to plant a wet one, but the quick press of his lips, the way he swooped in to touch her cheek, and then that wink afterward; she knew she'd never forget the experience.
Too bad he lied to her, kissed her only to get back at her father, and she never wanted to see him again.
She felt cheated. She had really liked Nick. But it had all been an act.
Slumped in a chair outside Hilton Childer’s office, she folded her arms over her chest and commanded herself to stop thinking about him and his kisses and her embarrasing new parent.
After Nick's dad and friend dragged him away, Kiernan's father grabbed her arm and ushered her home in stony silence. He hadn't spoken to her once. This morning he'd woken her early and told her to get dressed. He had to go into work and speak to the arson investigator working on the case involving the fire at his plant. And she had to come with him.
"I don't trust you home alone; that boy could show up at any moment to harass you."
She'd tried to tell him that was unlikely. But, dad or not, she barely knew Hilton Childler and didn’t have to guts to give her point of view. Besides, it was utterly embarrassing to talk about boys with him.
So, like the obedient daughter she was, she accompanied him to work, where he pointed her to a chair and then went into his office with Mr. Riggs, the investigator.
She wiggled in the cushioned seat, wishing she’d had time for breakfast before he’d hustled her out the door. Her stomach growled; she pressed her hand to the rumbling and tried to remember if she’d seen a vending machine anywhere in the halls.
Childler Steel was an enormous building. There had to be food or beverages somewhere. Watching the door to her dad’s office, she eased to her feet, only to freeze when the leather cushion under her squeaked and groaned. Her rump a foot off the chair, she gaped at the office door, expecting it to fly open any second, and her father to come charging out.
“I thought I told you to sit there and don’t move,” he’d roar.
The door remained shut.
Listening to the muffled murmur of voices on the other side of the thin wall, Kiernan rose fully and backed gingerly toward the opened exit. When she reached the doorway, she slipped out and disappeared around the corner.
The hall was deathly quiet. With the plant closed for the weekend, only a few emergency lights rained down on the tiled floor, showing just enough to make the place look creepy and ominous with shadows looming all around. Kiernan hovered next to the entrance of her father’s outer office, debating whether she should venture down the eerie passageway in search of a water fountain, when she glanced behind her down the other end of the hall and spotted the glow of a pop machine beaming from the dark.
Her shoulders slumped with relief. Grinning, she skipped forward. But her footfalls echoed around her with her first cheerful step. She winced and slowed her stride. The quiet pitter-pat that followed didn’t sound so booming, so she continued with the careful tip-toes.
As she neared the promise of a refreshing drink, Kiernan sniffed out the stale remnants of smoke. Figuring the infamous break room that had been torched was close, she passed the vending machine until she reached an intersection in the hall and glanced both ways until she caught sight of the yellow police tape crisscrossing its way over an open door.
Curiosity urging her on, she turned right and approached. A single soot-coated window inside provided her with enough light to see into the dim interior. Expecting to find nothing but charred-black remains, Kiernan frowned in disappointment when all she spotted was a couple of burnt patches on the tiled floor in front of an oven and refrigerator. The stovetop held most of the damage with two burners destroyed and a black stream running up the wall behind it. A grey smudge of smoke had been left on the ceiling directly above. But nothing looked as bad as her father had made it sound last night when he’d fired Nick’s dad.
Rolling her eyes, she turned away and retraced her steps to the pop machine. She’d just dug enough quarters and dimes from the bottom of her purse when her cell phone rang.
She yelped, losing her grip on the money, not expecting to hear Carrie Underwood start chattering about “him” cheating.
Kiernan wasn’t used to having a cell phone. But her mom had bought it for her the weekend before she left for Seattle. They talked on it together at least once a day.
Still… not a lot a people knew her number beside her mom and a few close friends.
Popping back around the corner so the ring wouldn’t echo back to her father’s office when she slipped the phone from her purse, Kiernan was pleased to see her home number flash across the screen.
She flipped the phone open and pressed it to her ear. “Morning, Mom.”
“Morning, baby cakes. I didn’t wake you, did I?”
The term baby cakes used to annoy her to no end. Now, hearing it, Kiernan only wanted to cry, missing her mom more than ever. She wished she was home so bad.
“Nope. I’m up,” she answered and wandered back to the doorway of the burned break room, her gaze landing on the charred oven and once-white refrigerator that now looked more like a Gateway computer box with door handles.
“So…” her mom drew out. “How’d the dance go last night? Did you boogie with some cute boys? Meet anyone nice? Make any friends?”
Kiernan sighed out a quiet lungful, her shoulders slumping. Since she usually told her mom everything, she wanted to spill all. But she didn’t particularly want to mention the awful end of her evening. Plus, she didn’t want to worry her mom by telling her she was already in trouble with her father.
So, she went weak on the details. “Yeah, I, uh, I danced with someone.”
Her mom sucked in a breath. “You did?” She sounded awed. “Oh, Kiernan. That’s wonderful. What’s his name? Do I know him?”
Picturing her mom wiggling her eyebrows like she always did when she teased, Kiernan grinned. “His name’s Nick.”
As soon as the name left her lips, she frowned. Nick. Lying, cheating, thieving Nick, who’d made her smile… and then dashed all her hopes.
“Nick, hmm? He’s sounds… well, the name Nick could pretty much cover anything? What’s he like?”
“He’s…” Kiernan bit her lip. Her mom sounded so hopeful, she didn’t want to let her down. So, she finished with, “Nice.” At least he had been, right up to the point where the truth had finally come out. “He kissed me,” she finished, hoping that would satisfy her mom.
“He did?!” She let out a happy scream. “Oh, wow. My baby had her first kiss, and I wasn’t there.”
Kiernan snorted. “Geez, Mom. It wasn’t that big a deal.”
She could actually hear her mother’s frame slump with disappointment. “It wasn’t? Was he that bad a kisser then?”
Blushing, Kiernan covered her eyes with her hands. “No, it was a fine kiss,” she muttered, “but… Ugg. New subject please.”
“Fine. Don’t kiss and tell. Just leave me in the dark.” Her mom sighed. “I don’t know how I ever raised such a respectful, modest daughter, but it can be a complete drag sometimes.”
“New subject then,” her mom agreed. “How’s school? You had an English test yesterday, right?”
“Aced it,” Kiernan announced, knowing that would please her mom.
A snort echoed through the phone. “Of course you did.” Her mom was a high school English teacher who taught British Literature and a little grammar. It just wouldn’t do if Kiernan received anything under an A on an English assignment.
It used to irritate Kiernan that she had to uphold such high standards on the subject, but now… now, it made her proud she’d learned so much from her mom.
She clutched the phone in her hand until her knuckles turned white. “I miss you,” she said.
Her mom didn’t reply immediately but when she spoke, her voice was more gruff than usual. “Oh, baby cakes, I miss you too.”
They usually avoided the whole “miss you” subject, because it only brought on homesickness. But Kiernan couldn’t hold back any longer.
She kept the phone planted to her ear as she stared at the burned oven. “I miss Rover and Oregon and my old school. I just want to come home.”
“Oh, honey. Please, don’t.” Her mom sniffed before she blew her nose. “I signed a binding legal agreement with your dad years ago. He won’t let me break it.”
Kiernan hadn’t wanted to make her mom sad, but she ached so much. “Couldn’t I just come visit? Fall Break will be here soon.” She put as much pleading into her voice as she could muster, which was a lot.
“Kiernan, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
All her hopes dropped flat. “Why not?”
Her mom sighed. “I don’t know how to tell you this but…”
Dread crawled up the back of her neck. She clutched her throat and demanded, “What?” thinking up all sorts of atrocities. Was her mom hurt, sick, dying?
“Kiernan—” she paused to sigh again. “I’m moving.”
“You’re… you’re what?” Oxygen rushed from her lungs. Moving? Her mom was leaving their home? But she couldn’t. “Why?”
“I just can’t live here in this big, old house by myself. It hurts too much. I’ve found another job, and I’m moving next week. You should see this place. Boxes everywhere.” She laughed a little. “Took me half an hour to find my toothbrush this morning.”
Kiernan didn’t even crack a smile. “But where are you going? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? What—”
“Kiernan. Please try to understand. There are just too many memories. I can’t…” She choked up for a second. “I can’t live here anymore. Not without you. Now… I love you. I’ll call when I’m settled in the new place.”
When the phone clicked, Kiernan’s body jerked like she’d been shot. “Mom?” she said. “Mom!”
Her own mother had hung up on her. She stared at the dead phone for a second before numbly snapping it closed and slipping it back into her purse.
She couldn’t believe her mom was leaving the only place she’d ever known as home. It felt like she’d just been deserted, abandoned, left alone with a complete stranger who was supposed to be her father but she really didn’t like.
How could her mom do this to her?
“So, our kiss was only fine, huh?”
Gasping at the quiet voice behind her, Kiernan whirled and clutched her purse to her chest.
A shadowed form emerged from the dark until she caught sight of his face.
She gasped again. Surprise quickly turning to anger, her eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here?”
She glanced around, wondering if her dad was going to appear. She’d be in even more trouble if he caught her with Nick Farrow a second time.
Before she could open her mouth again, Nick clamped a hand over her lips. “Shh,” he said. “Please don’t scream.”
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