also writing as
Storm of Secrets
Tiva Nez's side of the kiss...
HEART LAKE #7
Before the van explosion
Tina Nez watched the wiry police chief jump from the rolling van with her nephew in his arms. He seriously reminded her of Spiderman, a strong and fearless superhero — well, in every way except for his mane of black hair and bronze Comanche features.
Adriel Montana did a hard pivot mid-air to ensure he landed first, cushioning Max’s fall. Her relief was immediate and overwhelming. Max is safe. It was all that mattered.
Exhaustion seeped through her as she braced herself in the open driver’s door of the slowing van. She squeezed her eyelids shut, trying to block out her memories of the last several days. It didn’t work. She was probably going to have nightmares for the rest of her life, after being held captive in a remote cabin by two weirdo customers from the restaurant where she worked. She’d gone with them willingly — sort of — after they’d informed her it was the only way she’d ever see Max again.
And now it was over. Whatever they’d planned for her and her nephew had failed, thanks to Adriel showing up in the nick of time.
The smell of gasoline and smoke grew abruptly stronger, making her eyelids snap open in alarm. I have to get out of here. Now! Hoping she hadn’t already waited too long, she jumped.
She was still flying through the air when a sharp sizzling sound met her ears. Then she hit the ground. Hard. Bouncing and skidding along the packed clay and sand, she came to a rest in the ditch beside the wood slat fence. The gravel digging into her cheek stung. Before she could roll over, however, an explosion shook the grass and dirt beneath her.
The ear-splitting sound drained what little energy she had left. For a moment, she couldn’t move. Pictures of her sister and nephew flashed rapidly behind her eyelids. They were replaced with a floating sensation. It reminded her of a high school party, where she and her friends had been draped across inflated inner tubes, bobbing aimlessly with the river current.
Hands on her shoulders stopped the drifting. Long, capable fingers gripped her upper arms and rolled her over.
A soft sigh escaped her as the gravel stopped clawing at her cheek. It still burned a little, which probably meant she was scraped up pretty good.
“Tiva! Answer me,” a man’s voice called frantically.
A delicious shiver worked its way through her as she fought to open her eyes. It took a few tries.
Adriel’s concerned features swam above her face, then slowly came into focus.
Unsure if she was awake or dreaming, she whispered, “Are we alive?”
The intense fear darkening his eyes relaxed into humor. “That’s my current theory.”
His joking tone chased away the worst of the horrors clawing at her mind. She struggled to sit up. “You saved us. I’ll never forget this.”
He didn’t answer, though he helped her sit up.
A blur of plaid fabric and blue jeans flew in her direction and landed in her arms, knocking the breath out of her. “Mom!” Max screamed, burying his face against her neck. He’d always called her that, and no wonder. She was the only mother figure he’d ever known.
Ugh! She knew she was filthy and probably smelled like the dumpster in the parking lot behind the Longhorn Grill. However, she hugged him back so tightly that he wiggled and muttered something about needing to breathe.
“Hey, baby,” she choked, loosening her grip to ruffle his hair.
He giggled and crowed, “Oo, look! A spider!”
She winced as he climbed from her lap, jabbing her in the ribs with one skinny little elbow. In some ways, she welcomed the pain, because it meant she was alive.
Adriel shot her a look of such intense empathy that her heart raced. He was single with no kids of his own, but something told her that he understood what she was feeling. It made him feel like less of a stranger.
Though they’d grown up on the same reservation and attended the same high school, she’d never felt like she actually knew him. They didn’t hang out with the same crowd, and he was a few years older. Not to mention her side hustle back then, of having the stickiest fingers in town. In stark contrast to her criminal activities, he’d graduated and attended the police academy. It was literally his job to put people like her in jail.
“Kids,” he said quietly. He was looking at her strangely, like he was seeing her for the first time — certainly not like a guy preparing to slap her in handcuffs.
“I hear you.” Then she did the unthinkable. She let her guard down and smiled at him. “My nephew is something else.” The moment the words left her, she tasted panic. She hadn’t meant to call Max her nephew in front of him. Everyone on the rez had just assumed he was her son when she’d limped into town with him five years earlier.
Adriel’s gaze sharpened curiously. “Your nephew?”
She stared stupidly at him for a few seconds, scrambling for a way to fix her mistake. “Did I say that?” She forced a chuckle as she lifted a hand to her temple. “I must have hit my head pretty hard.”
He rocked back on his heels, looking dusty and scrumptious at the same time in his police jacket, which he was wearing inside out.
It was a detail she noted out of sheer habit. She was accustomed to scanning her surroundings to assess the current threat level. It was something she’d been doing her entire life.
“Tiva.” He shook his head slightly as he extended a hand to assist her to her feet. “I’m the police. You’re safe with me.”
She scowled at him. It was an odd claim for him to make, considering what they’d just gone through together. For a moment, she forgot he was a policeman. In a burst of anger, she snapped, “Safe, Adriel? We almost got blown up.”
His lips twisted wryly as the wail of sirens met their ears. They grew louder. He jerked his dark head toward the woods, making his mane of hair swing to one side. “Let’s ah…head this way.” Without waiting for her answer, he jogged to the side of the road to scoop up Max, who protested loudly about the necessity of leaving his spider friend behind.
Tiva silently followed him as he sprinted across the road and plunged into the woods. It made no sense that he was heading away from the sirens, instead of toward them. But she wasn’t complaining. As a general rule, she preferred to avoid the police.
Yet here she was, half-walking and half-jogging alongside a man in uniform — at times, so close that their arms bumped.
When a wave of dizziness made her stumble, he reached out to steady her by holding her elbow. “Tiva, I need you to tell me what happened.”
She knew without asking that he was referring to her recent captivity, but it was something she had no interest in discussing. She’d learned a long time ago that the things she left unsaid couldn’t be used against her in a court of law. It was the number one rule among thieves. Don’t talk unless you have to, and play dumb when you do.
“It’s all a little fuzzy,” she muttered, falling back on her injuries as an excuse.
He shot her an exasperated look. “Listen, the Feds are going to have questions.”
She tossed her ponytail defiantly over her shoulder. “It’s not my first brush with the law.” Oh, sheesh! It must be her exhaustion talking, because it was a foolish thing to say to a policeman.
He snorted and changed the subject as he led her around a fallen log. “Aiyanna’s been worried sick about you.”
Whatever. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. If he was trying to make her feel guilty, it wasn’t working. “Why? Because she fired me?”
“Cut it out,” he growled. “Everyone knows you quit your job. For some reason, she blames herself for that. Said something about failing to be a better friend. Anyhow, she begged me to find you and bring you back.”
Tiva’s insides melted. It was easier to be a smart aleck when someone was being gruff with her. It was much harder when they were being nice. She wished he’d stop. Summoning a little sarcasm, she drawled, “And here I am. Looks like you get to be the big hero and drag me back by my hair.”
Adriel’s black eyebrows furrowed thunderously. “I’m not trying to be a hero. I just want to help you.” He shook his head in warning. “The guys who strong-armed you into planting drugs at her restaurant are going to come back for you.”
The fight seeped out of her at the realization that he knew exactly what she’d done. He didn’t seem angry about it, though he should have been. Her actions had gotten his sister arrested. Since he was acting so chill about it, Aiyanna must not have had much trouble proving her innocence. Thankfully. Tiva had never meant to hurt her boss. The two creepy cowboys from Corpus Christi had made her do it. The same two bozos who’d kidnapped her nephew from the babysitter's backyard…
A violent shiver worked its way through her. “I can take care of myself, Adriel.” There was something distinctly intimate about being on a first-name basis with him, though she shoved the thought out of her mind. He was the law, and she was the lawbreaker. They would never be friends.
“No,” he retorted in a hard voice. “You can’t.” He danced a few steps in front of her and pivoted to block her path. “You needed me back there in the van.”
Oh, my lands, yes! She had no idea the van was about to explode. If it wasn’t for him, she and her nephew would have most likely been inside the vehicle when it happened. However, she couldn’t afford to give him the satisfaction of breaking down into grateful tears. Straightening her spine, she mocked, “Aw, are you feeling under-appreciated right now, Police Chief Montana?”
His expression returned to the deadpan look she was more accustomed to getting from police officers. “I just want to help you,” he repeated.
“I said no thanks.” Maybe she was imagining it, but his baritone rang with so much sincerity that it shook her. She didn’t know why he was being so nice to her. She’d done horrible things. Lots of horrible things. She wasn’t a good person. They both knew that.
And yet… The kindness in him was pounding like a hammer at all her carefully built defenses. For reasons she didn’t understand, he wasn’t angry with her. She was pretty sure he didn’t hate her, either.
Quite the opposite. She’d been around long enough to know when a man was interested.
In her. As a woman.
The discovery rocked her even farther off her defenses. No good man had ever talked to her like that before. Or looked at her that way. Longing slammed into her — the need to be seen and understood, to be wanted and cherished. It was the impossible kind of stuff she’d daydreamed about for years, but never thought it would happen to someone like her.
Without thinking, she stepped forward — filthy clothing and all — to stretch to her tiptoes. “Here. This should square us up.” She touched her lips to his.
He didn’t pull away.
Oh, wow! What have I done? She stumbled back a step, staring in confusion at him, half-expecting him to produce a set of handcuffs and slap them on her.
“Ugh! Gross!” Max squealed, climbing down from Adriel’s arms. He jogged a few feet away from them, waving his hand beneath his nose.
Adriel didn’t exactly smile, because his hard mouth didn’t quirk upward. However, his dark gaze burned into hers. “I happen to feel differently than he does about what just happened.” He reached up to ever-so-gently pinch her chin, looking like he wanted to kiss her again.
Her insides felt as unstable as a volcano preparing to erupt. “Careful, Police Chief Montana.” She tried to sound light and teasing but wasn’t sure she succeeded. “I’m in your custody,” she reminded shakily.
“Technically, I’m off duty.” His voice was low and husky as he swooped in to claim her mouth again.
By now, her knees were so weak, she had no choice but to cling to his neck to hold herself up.
Again, he seemed to understand. His arms came around her, anchoring her solidly against his chest as he deepened the kiss.
His hunger was laced with so much tenderness that it made her want to laugh and weep at the same time.
What is happening to me? To us? The idea that a lowly thief was being kissed senseless by a smoking hot police chief was so ludicrous, that she had to wonder all over again if she was dreaming.
Maybe she was still lying back there on the side of the highway next to the pasture fence. Or maybe she’d never made it out of the van, after all.
She tested those theories the moment he raised his head. “In case you’re wondering,” she informed him loftily, “the answer is still no. I still don’t want your help or anyone else’s.”
His gaze darkened.
The bottom fell out of her stomach at the realization that she’d finally made him angry, which didn’t feel like something that would happen in a dream.
“You may not want it, but you most definitely need it.” Though his voice was chilly, he hitched her closer for emphasis. “You’re my people, Tiva, and we look after our own.”
His people? Her lips parted on a gasp of wonder and no small amount of fear. No, she wasn’t dreaming. She really had just kissed a police officer, which meant she was in a whole truck load of trouble.
Not the legal kind, per se, though she might be in that, too.
She was far more worried about the messier kind that involved feelings and emotional strings she couldn’t afford to indulge in. She’d made it too far already. Too much was at stake.
Even so, there was nothing she wanted more than to remain in his embrace, soaking up his warmth and strength. She’d lied when she said she didn’t feel safe. Never in her life had anyone so thoroughly demonstrated how much they cared about her well-being. She never wanted to leave his arms again.
But she had to. For her sister. For Max.
She had no choice. No, that wasn’t true. She had choices, alright, just not any good ones.
No, that wasn’t true, either. Adriel Montana was good — way, way, way too good for her, which made him especially dangerous.
Fighting to regain her composure, she lifted her chin. “That hasn’t been my experience.” She was blushing so hard that she could feel the heat steaming off her cheeks. “For all I know, you just want another kiss.”
“Yeah.” The look he gave her did nothing to slow her runaway heartbeat. “There’s that, too.”
Yeah. She was in a truckload of trouble. Semi-truck sized.