He was just as cute today as he’d been last night.
It had to be his grin. There was just something about the mischievous curve to his lips and the naughty sparkle in his eyes when he smiled, like he knew he could charm his way out of any trouble.
Not that he was going to charm her. He’d lied to her. Just when she thought she was about to make her first friend since coming to town, he ended up being a cheat, thief, and liar.
Pushing his hand off her mouth, she backed away, scowling. “I can’t believe you. You’re sneaking in somewhere else you don’t belong? Don’t you remember what happened the last time? Your dad got fired.”
“Of course, I remember,” he muttered. “It only happened last night. But that’s why I’m here. Your dad was only able to rightfully fire mine because of that stupid fire. So, I’m going to find out who really started it and get him his job back.”
Kiernan stared at him a moment, waiting for him to grin and tell her he was kidding. When he didn’t—his eyes remained serious—she snorted. “Yeah, right. Bad boys don’t play hero and try to save the day.”
“Bad boy?” Insult clear on his face, he frowned. “What makes you think I’m a bad boy?”
“Gee, let me think.” She tapped her chin and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “You trespassed onto private school property, broke into the boy’s locker room, stole clothes from someone you don’t even know, snuck in a dance, lied and tricked me into thinking you were—”
“OK, OK.” He lifted his hands in surrender. “I get your point. And I’m sorry I lied to you. But come on, girls from expensive private academies don’t talk to guys like me. I didn’t want you to know I was… a nobody.”
The skin around his eyes crinkled, revealing the depth of his regret. The vulnerable expression made her pause, made her want to insist he wasn’t a nobody just because he didn’t attend Tri-Delta.
But he was a liar.
Maybe this sympathy act was just that… another lie.
She folded her arms over her chest, stiffening her resolve against him, reminding herself—twice—she couldn’t trust him. But when she looked at him, his slumped shoulders, begging eyes, and puckered bottom lip made her slip.
Uncertain and confused, she looked away. “Where’s your partner in crime today?”
“Who?” Nick frowned a moment before his face cleared. “Oh, you mean, Vinny?” He shrugged. “He’s grounded.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “And you’re not?”
His grin was rueful. “Well, yeah, but—”
“You snuck out anyway,” she guessed. When he merely looked at her, not denying, she sighed. “You really are a hoodlum, aren’t you?” She couldn’t believe she’d been taken in by such a bad boy. She’d never fallen for a bad boy before.
His eyebrows bunched low as he scowled. “I’ll be anything I have to be to get Dad his job back. Aside from Mom and us kids, this plant is his life. I don’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have his job.”
“So you’re just going to find the arsonist on your own?”
He shrugged. “Unless you want to help.”
She jammed her fists on her hips. “Why should I help you? You lied to me. You made me think we were going to be friends.”
“Kiernan.” He winced. “I’m sorry. I…”
She waited. “You what?”
His shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. I can’t think of anything to say past sorry.”
She snorted and turned away.
He grasped her arm. “Wait. Are you sure you don’t want to help me?” He wiggled his eyebrows. “It might be fun.”
“No way am I doing anything else with you,” she said. “My father would kill me if he caught us within fifty feet of each other.”
His smile dropped dead. “Oh, no. How much trouble did you get into?”
Kiernan wished she could lie and tell him she’d been thrown in the basement, locked up, and grounded until she was thirty. But lying would only stoop her to his deceitful level.
“I didn’t get into any trouble. I got the silent treatment.”
Nick blinked, then scratched his head. “Really? Wow, wish my dad punished that way.”
Sighing, Kiernan rolled her eyes. “He wouldn’t leave me home alone today because of you. Said I had to come with him in case you showed up at the house to bother me.”
He frowned. “Why would I do that? I don’t even know where you live.”
“I don’t know. But what a coincidence it is that you’re here now, bothering me. Don’t you think?”
His scowl intensifying, Nick stepped closer. “Well, sorry to disappoint you, princess. But I’m not here because of you.”
Her mouth snapped shut. Kiernan couldn’t stop the snick of wounded pride that nipped at her stomach. She already knew he was here to get his dad his job back, but, geez. What a way to make a girl feel special.
She must’ve revealed her hurt feelings on her face because his eyes widened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
She held up her hand. “I know what you meant.”
He lowered his face and scratched the back of his neck. When he looked up, he wouldn’t meet her eyes, but glanced down the hall, where his gaze froze.
“Is that the room that burned?” His voice was hushed with a reverent kind of respect.
She nodded. He edged toward it, cautious, like he was approaching a wounded animal in the corner. When he stopped in the doorway, he stared inside a good five seconds before turning back to her, his eyes wide with disbelief and his mouth falling open.
“Is that it?”
He sounded as incredulous as she’d felt when she’d first seen the minimal damage.
Nick pointed into the room as he continued to gape at her. “My dad was fired because of that piddly little mess?”
For some reason she felt defensive at his aggressive question. Kiernan crossed her arms over her chest and gave a shrug. “What? It’s probably thousands of dollars worth of damage. They’ll need to replace the floor wall, and ceiling… not to mention the oven and refrigerator.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Nick said, turning back to stare into the break room. “All that big talk about someone torching Childler Steel and this is all that happened. Looks like someone had an accident on the stove to me, and caught it before things got too bad. This does not look like it’s been torched.”
“Well, it definitely wasn’t an accident,” Kiernan said. “The investigator’s talking to my father right now. I overheard him say something about how an accelerant had been splashed on the stove. Someone started this intentionally. There’s no doubt about that.”
“It wasn’t my dad,” Nick said, sounding confident about his statement as he reached for the yellow “do not cross” tape.
Kiernan’s eyes bugged. “What’re you doing?”
He untacked the top two rungs. “I’m going to look around for clues.”
She snorted. “Like the arson investigator wouldn’t have looked already?”
“Yeah, but what if he missed something?”
Grabbing his arm, she stopped him. “You can’t just go in there. You’ll leave footprints on the sooty floor and ruin what evidence is already there.” Geez, didn’t he watch CSI?
He glanced over his shoulder at her, then faced the room and scowled at the blackened floor. Sighing in defeat, he turned back. “What else did you hear the investigator say?”
She had to look away. “Nothing.”
“They didn’t mention my dad?”
Kiernan bit her lip.
He sighed and took her arm. “Kiernan, please. My dad’s job is at stake.”
She sighed too… in surrender. “He was the one to find the fire and put it out.”
Nick squeezed her arm. She looked up in time to see his eyes light. “See there,” he said. “Doesn’t that tell you he didn’t do it? He put it out. Why would he start it just to put it out again.”
Kiernan winced. He had a point. “But no one saw anyone else go in or come out. A secretary across the hall was sitting at her desk for at least thirty minutes before the fire started. She would’ve seen anyone that came or left the break room. Only your dad went in there.”
“So, the arsonist must’ve gotten in another way,” Nick argued.
They both turned together and peered into the dim room.
“How?” Kiernan asked. “Through that window? Not unless the fire-starter was the size of a five-year-old.” The opening was only about a foot tall and three feet wide.
Gnawing on his lip, Nick scanned the room until his gaze lifted to the ceiling. Eyes lighting, he pointed. “What about that vent up there? He could’ve crawled up and slipped out there.
Studying the large vent located above the refrigerator, Kiernan tapped her chin with her fingers. The idea was fairly ludicrous. “How would he get up there so fast after starting the fire?” she asked. “And wouldn’t that be kind of risky? I mean, if the flames really took off, I don’t think he’d want to be stuck in a hot, old vent above it.”
“Maybe he wasn’t a very smart arsonist. I don’t know. Maybe—hey, what’s that on the other side of the fridge?”
Both leaning over the police tape and squinting to see, Kiernan sucked in a breath just as Nick said, “It’s a step stool. That’s how he got up there. And look at the vent closer. It’s not all the way on. He was in too much a hurry to put it back right when he left. That would also explain the burn marks on the refrigerator. He splashed a few spots on his escape.”
He whirled to Kiernan, his eyes wide and excited. “That’s it. We have to go in there and see if there’s a footprint on top of the refrigerator. If there is—” He paused suddenly and cocked his ear toward the door.
“Someone’s coming,” he hissed, grabbing her wrist and holding on tight.
Kiernan held her breath and listened. When she heard voices approaching—her father and Mr. Rigg’s—she blanched. If her dad caught her with Nick, they’d both be in deep trouble.
“Quick. Hide.” Grabbing his arm, she hauled him around a corner.