Rumor Has It

Chapter 1

Kate Evans would’ve sold her soul for a stress-free morning, but either her soul wasn’t worth much or whoever was in charge of granting wishes was taking a nap. With her phone vibrating from incoming texts — which she was doing her best to ignore — she shoved her car into park and ran across the lot and into the convenience store. “Duct tape?” she called out to Meg, the clerk behind the counter.

Meg had pink and purple tie-dyed hair, enough piercings to ensure certain drowning if she ever went swimming, and was in the middle of a heated debate on the latest The Voice knock-out rounds with another customer. But she stabbed a finger in the direction of aisle three.

Kate snatched a roll of duct tape, some twine, and then, because she was also weak, a rack of chocolate mini donuts for later. Halfway to the checkout, a bin of fruit tugged at her good sense so she grabbed an apple. Dumping everything on the counter, she fumbled through her pockets for cash.

Meg rang her up and bagged her order. “You’re not going to murder someone, are you?”

Kate choked out a laugh. “What?”

“Well…” Meg took in Kate’s appearance. “Librarian outfit. Duct tape. Twine. I know you’re the math whiz around here, but it all adds up to a Criminal Minds episode to me.”

Kate was wearing a cardigan, skirt, leggings, and — because she’d been in a hurry and they’d been by the front door – snow boots. She supposed with her glasses and hair piled up on her head she might resemble the second-grade teacher that she was, and okay, maybe the snow boots in May was a little suspect. “You watch too much TV,” Kate said. “It’s going to fry your brain.”

“You know what fries your brain? Not enough sex.” Meg pointed to her phone. “Got that little tidbit right off the internet on my last break.”

“Well then it must be true,” Kate said.

Meg laughed. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Kate laughed along with her, grabbed her change and her bag, and hurried to the door. She was late. As the grease that ran her family’s wheel, she needed to get to her dad’s house to help prepare her little brother Tommy for school, and then coax the Evil Teen into even going to school. The duct tape run wasn’t to facilitate that, or to kill anyone, but to make a camel of all things, part of the drama project Tommy had forgotten to mention was due today.

Kate stepped outside and got slapped around by the wind. The month of May had burst onto the scene like a PMS-ing Mother Nature, leaving the beautiful, rugged Bitterroot Mountains looming high overhead, dusted with last week’s surprise snow. Here on the valley floor there wasn’t snow. Just lots of wet muck.

Spring in Sunshine, Idaho was MIA.

Watching her step on the wet, slippery asphalt, she pulled out her once again vibrating phone just to make sure no one was dying. It was a text from her dad and read: hurry, it’s awake.

It being her sister. The other texts were from Ashley herself, upset because she couldn’t find her cheerleading top, and also did Kate know that Tommy was talking to his invisible friend in the bathroom again?

Kate sighed and closed her eyes for the briefest second, which was all it took for her snow boots to slip. She went down like a sack of cement, her phone flying one way, her bag the other as she hit the ground butt first with teeth-jarring impact.

“Dammit!” She took a second for inventory — no massive injuries. That this was in thanks to not having lost those five pounds of winter brownie blues didn’t make her feel any better. The cold ground seeped into her tights and abraded the bare skin of her palms. Rolling to her hands and knees, she reached for her keys just as a set of denim clad legs came into her field of vision.

The owner of the legs crouched down, easily balancing on the balls of his feet. A hand appeared, her keys centered in the big palm. Tilting her head up, she froze.

Her polite stranger wore a baseball cap low over his eyes, shadowing most of his face and dark hair, but she’d know those gun-metal gray eyes anywhere. And then there was the rest of him. Six foot two and built for trouble in Army cammy cargoes, a black sweatshirt, and his usual badass attitude, the one that tended to have men backing off and women checking for drool, there was no mistaking Griffin Reid, the first guy she’d ever fallen for. Of course she’d been ten at the time…

“That was a pretty spectacular fall,” he said, blocking her from getting up. “Make sure you’re okay.”

Keep your cool, she told herself. Don’t speak, just nod. But her mouth didn’t get the memo. “No worries, a man’s forty-seven percent more likely to die from a fall than a woman.” The minute the words escaped, she bit her tongue, but of course it was too late. When she got nervous, she spouted inane science facts.

And Griffin Reid made her very nervous.

“I’m going to ask you again,” he said, not moving his tall, linebacker’s body nary an inch as he pinned her in place with nothing more than his steady gaze. “Are you okay?”

Actually, no, she wasn’t. Not even close. Her pride was cracked, and quite possibly her butt as well, but that wasn’t what had her sitting there on the ground in stunned shock. “You’re … home.”

He smiled grimly. “I was ordered back by threat of bodily harm if I was late to the wedding.”

He was kidding. No one ordered the tough, stoic, badass Griffin to do anything, except maybe Uncle Sam since he was some secret Army demolitions expert who’d been in Afghanistan for three straight tours. But his sister Holly was getting married this weekend. And if there was anyone more bossy or determined than Griffin, it was his baby sister. Only Holly could get her reticent brother halfway around the world for her vows.

Kate had told herself that as Holly’s best friend and maid of honor, she would absolutely not drool over Griffin if he showed up. And she would especially not make a fool of herself.

Too late, on both counts.

Again she attempted to get up but Griffin put a big, tanned, work-roughened hand on her thigh and she felt herself tingle.

Well damn. Meg was right – too little sex fried the brain.

Clearly misunderstanding her body’s response, Griffin squeezed gently as if trying to soothe, which of course had the opposite effect, making things worse. Embarrassed, she tried to pull free, but still effortlessly holding her, Griffin’s steely grey eyes remained steady on hers.

“Take stock first,” he said, voice low but commanding. “What hurts? Let me see.”

Since the only thing that hurt besides her pride was a part of her anatomy that she considered No Man’s Land, hell would freeze over before she’d ‘let him see’. “I’m fine. Really,” she added.

Griffin took her hand and easily hoisted her up, studying her in that assessing way of his. Then he started to turn her around, presumably to get a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view, but she stood firm. “Seriously,” she said, backing away, “I’m good.” And if she wasn’t, if she’d actually broken her butt, she’d die before admitting it so it didn’t matter. Bending to gather up her belongings, she carefully sucked in her grimace of pain.

“I’ve got it,” Griffin said, and scooped up the duct tape and donuts. He looked like maybe he was going to say something about the donuts, but at the odd vibrating noise behind them, he turned. “Your phone’s having a seizure,” he said.

Panicked siblings, no doubt. After all, there was a camel to create out of thin air, and a cheerleading top to locate, and God only knew what disaster her father was coming up with for breakfast.

Griffin offered the cell phone and Kate stared down at it thinking how much easier her day would go if it’d smashed to pieces when it’d hit the ground.

“Want me to step on it a few times?” he asked, sounding amused. “Kick it around?”

Startled that he’d read her so easily, she snatched the phone. When her fingers brushed his, an electric current sang up her arm and went straight to her happy spots without passing Go. Ignoring them, she turned to her fallen purse. Of course the contents had scattered. And of course the things that had fallen out were a tampon and condom.

It was how her day was going.

She began cramming things back into the purse; the phone, the donuts, the duct tape, the condom, and the tampon.

The condom fell back out.

“I’ve got it.” Griffin’s mouth twitched as he tossed it into her purse for her. “Duct tape and a Trojan,” he said. “Big plans for the day?”

“The Trojans built protective walls around their city,” she said. “Like condoms. That’s where the name Trojan comes from.”

His mouth twitched. “Gotta love those Trojans. Do you carry the condom around just to give people a history lesson?”

“No. I—” He was laughing at her. Why was she acting like such an idiot? She was a teacher, a good one who bossed around seven and eight year olds all day long. She was in charge, and she ran her entire world with happy confidence.

Except for this, with Griffin. Except for anything with Griffin.

“Look at you,” he said. “Little Katie Evans, all grown up and carrying condoms.”

“One,” she said. “Only one condom.” It was her emergency, wishful thinking condom. “And I go by Kate now.”

He knew damn well she went by Kate, and had ever since she’d hit her teens. He just enjoyed saying ‘Little Katie Evans’ like it was all one word, as if she was still that silly girl who’d tattled on him for taking frogs to one of his mom’s elegant luncheons, getting him grounded for a month.

Or the girl who, along with his nosy sister Holly, had found his porn stash under his bed at the ranch house and gotten him grounded for two months.

“Kate,” he said as if testing it out on his tongue, and she had no business melting at his voice. None. Her only excuse was that she hadn’t seen him much in the past few years. There’d been a few short visits, a little Facebook interaction, and the occasional Skype conversation if she’d happen to be with Holly when he’d called home. Those had always been with him in uniform on Holly’s computer, looking big, bad and distracted.

He wasn’t in uniform now but she could check off the big, bad, and distracted. The early grey dawn wasn’t doing her any favors, but he could look good under any circumstances. Even with his baseball hat, she could see that his dark hair was growing out of a military short cut, emphasizing his stone eyes and hard jaw covered in a five o’clock shadow. To say that he looked good was like saying the sun might be a tad bit warm at its surface. How she’d forgotten the physical impact he exuded in person was beyond her. He was sold, sexy male to the core.

His gaze took her in as well, her now wind-blown hair and mud spattered leggings stuffed into snow boots – she wasn’t exactly at her best this morning. When he stepped back to go, embarrassment squeezed deep in her gut. “Yeah,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder in the vague direction of her car. “I’ve gotta go too—”

But Grif wasn’t leaving, he was bending over and picking up some change. “From your purse,” he said, and dropped it into her hand.

She looked down at the two quarters and a dime, and then into his face. She’d dreamed of that face. Fantasized about it. “There’s 293 ways to make change for a dollar,” she said before she could bite her tongue. Dammit. She collected bachelor of the sciences degrees. She was smart. She was good at her job. She was happy.

And ridiculously male-challenged…

“Griffin gave a playful tug on an escaped strand of her hair. “You never disappoint,” he said.

And then he was gone.

Lauren Layne