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A first kiss...
BORN IN TEXAS #11: Kissable Hero
It’s time for me to go.
Kenzie stared drearily at the pair of shiny silver hard-cover suitcases she’d dragged out from the closet, wondering why she wasn’t happier about the thought of finally being able to return to New York. The suitcases were unzipped and lying open on the side of the bed where she’d slept for the past three-and-a-half months…the same side of the bed where she’d also sometimes lain awake at night, wondering if she was going to be stuck in the small cattle town of Hereford, Texas forever.
It was too small of a place for her. Too quiet. Or had been, right up until her abduction by a criminal medical research lab team called Paragon…and her subsequent rescue by a smoking hot ag pilot and farmer.
Gosh, but her stay in this town sure was ending on a high note! It was ending, though. The sooner she accepted that fact, the easier it would be.
Her brother, Cade, didn’t need her sticking around the farm like a third wheel now that he and his wife were back together. And Kenzie certainly hadn’t gone out of her way to nurture a close relationship with her sister-in-law. Quite the opposite. She’d been hard on Nelle. Distrustful, even. In Kenzie’s defense, she’d been under the mistaken impression that Nelle had willingly left her husband. Assuming it had only been made to look that way by a group of heinous criminals wasn’t the next thing that normally leaped into someone’s mind — at least, not until Kenzie had been abducted by that same group.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done by then. Kenzie had spent so long blaming Nelle for breaking her brother’s heart that the two of them would probably never be friends.
It was yet another reason why Kenzie needed to head back to New York — the sooner, the better.
With a gusty sigh, she opened the drawer to the antique oak dresser against the wall and lifted out a whole stack of blue jeans. Setting them inside the nearest suitcase, she trudged back to the dresser for the next load. The weather was beautiful outside, perfect for a road trip. It was as good a day as any to pack, say her goodbyes, and hit the road. She could grab a late lunch or early dinner in Oklahoma City.
Lifting her stack of plaid shirts, she froze. She stared for a moment at the white sealed envelope lying beneath her clothing, her heart racing with trepidation. Who had placed it there, and why?
“Oh, no!” The first possibility that popped into her mind made her wince. Though she’d never seen either note with her own eyes, she’d heard stories about the goodbye letters that the Paragon operatives had written on both her behalf and Nelle’s behalf — trying to make it look to their loved ones like they’d left town because they’d wanted to. She could only presume that both letters were in the hands of the police now.
“It’s over,” she promised herself, squeezing her eyelids shut to block out the sight of the white envelope sitting in her drawer. The Paragon operatives had been arrested. She’d watched it happen with her own eyes. So, whoever had placed the envelope in her drawer was most likely in jail now awaiting trial. They couldn’t hurt her anymore.
Holding onto that thought like a lifeline, she opened her eyes and peered inside her drawer again. It was empty!
She blinked in surprise, wondering where the white envelope had gone, not to mention the rest of her clothing. Rushing to the bed, fully intending to toss her plaid shirts inside the suitcase, she stopped short to discover it was full to overflowing with neatly stacked clothes.
The plaid shirts in her arms slid from her nerveless fingers and dropped with a whispery whoosh of fabric to the floor.
“Oh, my lands!” What’s happening to me? She had no memory of packing her suitcase — no memory whatsoever of making that many trips across the room to empty out her top dresser drawer. Tasting panic, she dug through her suitcase, tossing shirts and pants aside as she frenziedly searched for the missing white envelope.
Who’d written it? Where was it? And, even more importantly, what did it say?
A knock on her bedroom door made her jolt in alarm. Spinning toward it, she smoothed her sweaty hands down the legs of her jeans. “Who’s there?” she asked nervously.
“It’s Cade. Everything okay in there?” Her brother sounded worried.
Relief surged through her, making her knees weak. “Of course! Why wouldn’t I be?”
“No particular reason. Nelle and I were just wondering why you missed dinner.”
Dinner! Kenzie whipped her cell phone from the back pocket of her jeans to stare at the screen. It was past seven o’clock.
Oh, no! She stared at the bedroom door in growing alarm, wondering why she had no memory of the last six or seven hours of her day.
“I, ah…I’m so sorry. Guess time got away from me.” Gulping at the chaos she’d made of her room, she stuffed her phone back in her pocket before bending to retrieve a few shirts lying at her feet. Folding them, she set them carefully back inside her suitcase.
“Well, if you get hungry, Nelle set aside a plate of leftovers for you.”
“Thanks!” Kenzie’s gaze narrowed on the door as she pondered why her sister-in-law was being so nice to her. Who knew? Maybe she was simply trying to impress her husband. None of it really mattered, though, since Nelle was leaving town. She’d be out of their hair soon enough.
Which didn’t explain why Cade was still lingering outside her door. “Is that all?” she asked impatiently.
“Actually, no.” There was a sigh in his voice. “Nash called and said he was supposed to take you out for a movie or something this evening. Problem is…he’s having trouble reaching you.”
Oh. Frowning, she stared at her phone again and discovered that she’d missed no less than three calls from Nash. “Um, thanks. Guess I was so busy packing that I didn’t hear the phone.
“Packing!” The door handle abruptly twisted, and the door to her room swung open.
“Cade!” She stared at him, aghast. “You could’ve at least knocked.” Though they were siblings, it had been years since he’d walked in on her like that.
“I could’ve, but I didn’t.” He jutted his square jaw stubbornly at her. “Pardon me for bypassing protocol where the wellbeing of my own sister is concerned. If you want to blame someone, blame Paragon.” He surveyed the clothes she’d flung around the room, looking troubled. “Care to tell me what’s really going on in here? Starting with why you’re packing to leave so soon, considering how we just got you back?”
She shrugged sheepishly. “I’ve already overstayed my welcome.”
“That’s a load of bull, and you know it.” He fisted his hands on his jean-clad hips. “Which still doesn’t explain the mess in here. What’s going on, Kenzie?” He shook his head at the state of her room. “You’re normally such a neat freak.”
Shooting him a sad smile, she confessed softly, “I lost something.” She didn’t dare tell him that the missing item was a sealed white envelope whose contents she’d never gotten around to reading before it had disappeared.
“Okay.” He stepped farther into the room. “Want some help looking for it?”
“No.” She eyed his tall, rangy frame with affection, knowing he’d never allow her to leave town if she told him the truth about what was really going on. About how she seemed to be missing patches of time in her life — both her short stint in captivity and the last several hours of today. Gliding his way, she placed her hands on his broad shoulders and gave him a gentle shove toward the door. “What I want you to do is go spend some quality time with that lovely Scottish bride you waited so long to get back.”
“I will.” He glared down at her. “Sounds like I’m about to have her all to myself, seeing as how you’re preparing to skip town.”
“I’m not skipping.” She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m driving my Corvette. And you can cut the whole this-is-so-sudden act. I’ve already been in town far longer than I planned to. Green Island Hills wants me back on my job like yesterday. They’re about to start designing two more golf courses, and they’re asking me to run point on both projects. It’s my chance to get back into the game, Cade.”
His auburn eyebrows remained wrinkled in a ferocious scowl. “It sounds like a great opportunity, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been through a lot lately. Are you sure you’re ready to bite off such a big challenge?”
“I’m ready.” I have to be! She quelled a shiver of foreboding, convinced that this was her one big chance at getting back to some version of normal.
“Why am I not convinced?” her brother demanded.
“Probably because you’re my brother and a sheriff, to boot.” She smiled warmly at him. “It’s your job to worry about me. I get it. But I’m okay. Really.” Her phone buzzed with an incoming message that she actually heard this time. Grateful for the interruption, she dug her phone from her pocket to stare at the screen.
It was Nash again. You are one hard woman to pin down! On my way there now to pick you up for dinner, ready or not. While she was smiling at his text message, the distant sound of a helicopter motor rumbled and grew louder as it approached the farm.
“Oh, my goodness! Really?” She dashed to her bedroom window to peer outside at the darkening skies. Sure enough, a chopper flew into view, headlights winking a welcome. It slowly descended into the front yard. Spinning around on a chuckle of delight, she announced gleefully, “I guess I won’t be eating those leftovers, after all.”
Shaking his head, Cade stepped around her to stride to the window. “That’s one loco cowboy. Got to hand it to him, though. He sure seems to know how to handle my stubborn sister.”
“Whatever!” The thought of seeing Nash one more time before leaving town was, well, pretty wonderful. Her melancholy from earlier quickly faded as she dashed into the bathroom to power her nose and freshen up her lip gloss. Peeking her head around the corner, she snapped, “Get out, so I can change!”
He held up his hands in mock surrender as he backed toward the door. “Getting out.” His grin told her that he was actually pretty happy for her. He liked Nash. He’d made that clear enough in previous conversations.
So did she. It was way too bad they hadn’t met sooner. She pouted at her reflection in the mirror, knowing that the two of them would probably have dated if that had been the case. Three months of time we could’ve spent together. What a waste! But it couldn’t be helped. The absolute latest she could hit the road and still make it to New York in time to start the golf course projects was tomorrow morning. She and Nash would simply have to make the most of the short time they had left.
Flying somewhere together in the Anderson Ranch chopper was certainly a promising start to their last evening together. Returning to her room, she swiped a sleeveless denim dress from her suitcase and paired it with a gold cardigan in case it got cold before their return. It was the perfect compliment to her strawberry blonde hair. Then she stepped into her favorite brown leather cowgirl boots.
Nelle and Cade were waiting for her on the front porch like some stinking old married couple, instead of the newlyweds they were. Cade nodded at her outfit in approval. “You look nice, dear.”
“Really, Dad?” She wrinkled her nose at his fatherly comment.
He shot her an innocent grin from his end of the porch swing. “Hope you kids have fun!” His arm was slung around Nelle’s slender shoulders. Both were in jeans and t-shirts. Nelle was barefoot.
Though she was well on her way to recovery, she was still too thin, in Kenzie’s opinion. She studied her sister-in-law, feeling the first tugs of genuine sympathy for what she’d been through. Kenzie was only missing two small snatches of time from her own memories. She couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like for Nelle to return home missing entire months of them.
Nelle caught her gaze and gave her a curious smile. “Just ignore him, and tell Nash we said hi.”
“Thanks. I will.” Kenzie wished there was more time to set things right between her and Nelle, but her looming departure wasn’t going to make that possible. Fluttering a hand at the two of them, she jogged down the porch steps and hurried across the front lawn.
Nash met her just outside the whirling chopper blades and ran with her, half bent over, the rest of the way to the aircraft. Only after he settled a headset over her ears did he start complaining. “You’ve been awfully hard to reach today!”
“I’m sorry.” She pushed away all thoughts of the mysterious white envelope, not wanting it to ruin their last evening together.
“For what?” he demanded, helping her get buckled in.
Waiting until the end of the evening to tell him the truth didn’t feel right. It was bad enough that she’d experienced some sort of mental break-down earlier that had caused her to miss his calls. “I’m leaving town tomorrow, Nash.” She could only hope her announcement didn’t completely ruin their dinner.
His handsome features twisted into bleak lines. “Tomorrow?” He pushed back his Stetson to peer more closely at her. “That’s kind of sudden, isn’t it?”
“It is.” She nodded, feeling sad. “My company wants me back right away to head up the design of two new golf courses.”
“Good for you.” His voice was sincere, though no smile accompanied his words. “Bad for me.”
“I would have called you sooner to tell you, but…” Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember anything about her afternoon.
“So tomorrow, huh?” He reached for her hand, toying with her fingers.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” She squeezed his fingers. “I wish…” She let the words hang between them.
“Me, too.” Without warning, he raised her fingers to his mouth and kissed them. “I’ve been wishing for a lot of things the last few days, but I figured we’d have more time to talk about them. Plus, I was trying to give you time to rest and recover.”
“That’s very sweet of you, Nash.”
“It’s not sweetness, Kenzie. Just ask my brother. He’ll tell you just how salty I can be.”
“It’s because I want to date you.”
“Nash!” She made a face at him. “Believe me, I wish things were different, too. I wish I’d met you sooner, but I didn’t, and now I’m leaving.”
“Doesn’t mean we can’t still date.” His dark eyebrows rose in a challenge.
“You want a long-distance relationship?” Her tone was doubtful.
“Not particularly, but I do want a relationship with you. So, unless I can talk you into staying—”
“I can’t stay, Nash. I’m sorry.” The words came out in a rush. Even if she could, she wouldn’t — not after the white envelope incident this afternoon. Her gut told her that the quickest way to short-circuit anything Paragon had done to her was to get as far from Texas as possible.
“Then a long-distance relationship it is,” he concluded in a firm voice.
“Nash!” She shook her head at him. Dating long-distance was kind of a big deal. “Shouldn’t we talk about this first?”
“Absolutely, darlin’.” He leaned closer, dipping his head over hers. “Kiss me, Kenzie.”
She made a face at him. “By talking, I was referring to using words.”
“Fine. After our first kiss, we can talk about it all you want.”
Our first kiss. She had to admit it had a dreamy sound to it, especially after the kind of afternoon she’d endured. She was more than ready to replace it with something better. Something beautiful. Something good.
Without any further protests, she tipped her face up to his, allowing his mouth to finish its descent on hers.
His lips moved over hers in a wordless promise to adore and cherish her all the way to New York and back again, whenever her next visit might be.
She leaned closer to slide her arms around his rock-solid middle, content to simply soak up his nearness and strength. Something told her that she was going to need to lean on his strength in the coming days. If her mind continued to play tricks on her… If she continued to experience blackout periods… If her family’s enemies were still lurking out there somewhere, plotting their next attempt at stealing her brother’s farm…
Nash raised his head sooner than she wanted, so he could study her through heavy lids. “That felt like a yes to me, Kenzie.”
“Maybe because it was.” She smiled dazedly at him. It had been a truly amazing first kiss. “If I think hard enough, I could probably come up with a dozen or so arguments against the whole long-distance thing, but—”
He stopped her with the brush of a thumb over her lips. “Then don’t think about it. Let’s just enjoy our first dinner after our first kiss.”
On our last night together. As the bittersweetness of the moment washed over her, she slowly nodded.
He raised the chopper back into the skies, and she peered out at the shadowy world below, trying to believe that her return to New York was signaling the beginning of new things. Let it be so, Lord. However, she couldn’t shake the niggling fear that Paragon had already set a new wave of darkness into motion.
Inside of me. Maybe the long-distance part of their relationship wasn’t such a bad thing, after all. Surely, Nash would be safer with her back east than having her and her troubles in town with him.
Or so she hoped.