One kiss does not a romance make... especially when that kiss happened when they were 15. But for Kara Simpson, life is difficult enough trying to keep her business afloat and her wayward brother out of trouble. The last thing she needs is interference from Nate, even if it is well-intended.
Helping Kara is a no-brainer for Nate Cooper. After all, isn't that what townsfolk do? But she's stubborn and proud and it's going to take a whole lot of convincing if he ever wants to find out what a second kiss would be like. And he definitely wants to know.
The second spoonful of crunchy peanut butter was halfway to her mouth when she heard the knock on her door.
Kara Simpson leaned forward over the sink to look out the kitchen window, the forgotten spoon still halfway to her mouth, as she tried to see who had arrived unannounced.
Sometime during her marathon bookkeeping session, the sun had made pretty good progress in going down. The sky still held a weak light; a golden sunset cast over the tops of the trees and reflected off the water near Sentinel Point
The knock came again. This time it was louder.
Damn, she wasn't expecting anyone. Heck, she hadn't had a visitor in months if she didn’t count her brother. And she didn’t, because he only ever showed up when he wanted money.
No one braved the rutted dirt roads and giant potholes of the Point Road at this time of year unless you were visiting someone or looking to cause trouble.
Skirting the room, Kara peered through the curtain beside the door. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the porch light and in the darkness, the most she could make out was a tall figure standing on her porch.
“Damn it.” The oath was muffled by the thick door and followed by the sound of scratching.
“Kara! I know you’re in there. Open up!” There was scratching and a clunk. The voice was definitely not Pete.
Ignoring the stiffening brace on her wrist and the horrendous shot of pain slicing up her arm, Kara pulled her father's old shotgun from its hiding place next to the door and cradled it in the crook of her arm. The gun wavered, the weight of it hard to balance with only one good hand. She seriously doubting she could hold it steady and fire it. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to test the theory.
“What the hell?” This time there was a definite crash from the other side.
Kara hoisted the shotgun up to her shoulder, balancing it with her braced hand just enough to reach out with her good hand for the door handle. She cursed as her sore wrist rapped against the barrel of the gun.
In one, almost swift action, she pulled the door open, letting it swing inward with bang. and used the element of surprise to level the shotgun to her shoulder and aim it at the figure silhouetted on her porch.
"Chrisssssakes, Simpson,” he muttered. “Will you put that damn thing down before you shoot someone!"
It took less than a second for her brain to recognize the deeply irritated tone of Nate Cooper. Not a burglar, just a pain in her butt.
She chose not to lower the gun. Instead, she reached out and flicked on the porch light. A faded yellow circle of light shone down on his unsmiling face as he bent down to pick up a couple of cans that had fallen at his feet.
"What are you doing skulking about on my porch in the dark, Cooper?"
"Skulking? What the Hell? Are we in some sort of British drama?" He raised an eyebrow at the gun still pointed in his direction. "Do you mind putting the gun down while I pick up what I dropped trying to carry this crap up onto your porch in the dark? You really should keep a light on for safety."
For a second, she considered giving in to her lifelong irritation with Nate Cooper and shooting him. It might be worth going to jail just to have him picking buckshot out of his rear. Instead, she let the gun drop and put it back into its spot next to the door.
"I should just shoot you and do us both a favor."
"Nice hospitality you got going there. And just when I come bearing gifts." He held up both hands, filled with large, overflowing, plastic shopping bags. She'd been so set on trying not shoot him she'd missed the bags completely.
"Hospitality is for friends, Coop." She wasn't about to be dissuaded. The man considered himself a legend with the ladies in Serenity Harbor. Other than a quick Seven-Minutes-In-Heaven kiss in Megan Johnson’s closet when they were fifteen, he'd yet to get his charm to work on her.
"Mum sent me out with a goodie bag. She saw you at the grocery store buying beans and peanut butter and figured you were starving."
Kara groaned, her cheeks flaming hot. Nothing was private in Serenity Harbor, or any other place in Maine for that matter. It was the way of life in a small town.
"Thank your mother for me, but tell her I'm not starving. It's a shame she sent you all this way for nothing." She started to push him back out of the doorway and almost succeeded, but he put his big foot in it.
Nate held out the bags again. "At least take the food. You'll hurt her feelings if you don't."
He had a point there. His mother had always been nothing but kind to her. Kara reached out to take the packages and Cooper took advantage of her concession to push past her into the cabin.
"Damn it, Coop!" The last thing she needed was him in her home. "You just can't barge into someone's house uninvited." There was just too much of him for such a small space and she wasn’t sure her already stretched nerves could stand it.
"Hey, you accepted the package from my mother and the package came with strict instructions. The first of which was to make sure you’re eating."
He flung open the door of her fridge. "Haven't you ever heard of a vegetable? There's nothing even remotely healthy in here. Certainly not enough of anything to feed a mouse."
She stalked to the fridge right behind him and tried to close it, but he held the door steady.
"Don't you have anything better to do than barge in and look in my fridge? Shouldn't you be out on your ferry?" He ran the ferry service to the many outer islands off Serenity Harbor. Sometimes, he was the only link with the mainland they'd see for days or weeks at a time.
Nate closed the fridge and opened one of the bags he'd dumped on her counter, pulling items from the mess.
"I just hired Sam Perkins. He’s straight out of Maine Maritime and since we’re only making short runs this time of year, Jack volunteered to take him out to get some experience and I get a day off. So, you’re stuck, I'm all yours."
She wanted to sputter at the comment, but she was too busy watching him pull items out of the never ending bags. There were a couple of the clear plastic bags of pre-mixed salad and several containers holding some dark colored liquid.
"Mum sent along some of her pot roast and potatoes and salad to go with it. She included some of her homemade broth in case you want to make a soup out of the leftovers. Oh, and there's blueberry cake in here, also.
His mother was the best cook in Serenity Harbor and her pot roast and blueberry cake was legendary at the church Pot Luck Suppers.
Kara put up her hands in defeat. “You win. I surrender.” She was rewarded by the visibly slacking of his shoulders. For all his bravado, he hadn't been completely sure she wouldn't shoot him.
Somehow that pleased her. Or, it did until he started rummaging around in her cupboards.
“What are you doing? You can't just go through my things. Don't you have someone else to bug?"
He turned to look at her as he pulled a couple of plates from the cupboard. “Told you, I’m on a mission from my mother. You can try all you want to get rid of me, but we both know she can’t be stopped. You might as well sit back and enjoy it. I’ll have it on plates in a minute.”
“Plates? You’re eating with me?”
“Yup, so you might as well relax and enjoy it. Besides, someone has to make sure you actually eat. Besides, I’m starved and my mother packed enough for a small army.” No doubt, his mother had planned it just that way.
Nate kept waiting for Kara to either kick him out, or shoot him. Hell, he hadn’t intended to do any more than drop off the food his mother had foisted on him. But one look at the shotgun she’d aimed at him, he knew he wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d seen her, a couple, three months at most. Like everyone else, he’d gone into hibernation mode this winter, using the time to work on the boat he was building, and doing maintenance on the ferry.
But the long Maine winter had taken a toll on her. There was a definite change, and he could see why his mother was concerned. Kara had never been very big, more the small and mighty type. But now she was reed thin and drop-dead tired with heavy shadows circling those big brown eyes.
Nate opened another cupboard looking for plates and instead found six cans of baked beans lined up neatly on the shelf. Those, along with the package of red hot dogs he’d found in her fridge were a sure sign she’d been living frugally on real Down East fare.
“Sit down, will you? You’re making me edgy with all the hovering.” He could feel her presence from near behind him. If he turned just now they’d be in each other’s arms. From there he could just… Damn.
Nate slammed the cabinet door a little harder than he’d intended and she jumped. She was edgy. He was edgy. It didn’t bode well.
“I’m not going to just go sit still in my own house while you’re messing around in my kitchen.” Her words were challenging, but she did retreat a safe distance away.
The term messing around made him think again about his earlier thoughts so he stifled the groan which he knew would only piss her off.
“I told you. My mother wanted me to make sure you had a hot meal.”
The original orders had been to just deliver the food, but he had no doubt that his conniving, matchmaking, sweet, little mother had other ideas in mind when she’d sent him out here. She’d like nothing better than to see them paired off.
“So, are you gonna tell me how you hurt your wrist?”
He hadn’t really expected her to answer. He had his own ideas about how it happened.
Pulling the top off the container full of roast beef, he stuck it in the microwave, punching the buttons. “Is it going to be in a brace for long?”
“A couple weeks, maybe a month.” She was doing her best to be nice and choosing to retreat rather than continue with their bickering. When had the bickering began? He couldn’t even remember it had been so long ago. It was so ingrained in them both that it probably predated the hot closet kiss.
She moved about the living room, straightening things and picking up discarded items. She reached over and turned on a light, the brightness shining over the cottage’s outdated furniture and faded coverings. Nothing had changed since her parent’s death. Time had stood still, and so had she.
“The house is in need of some new furniture and stuff.” She sounded almost apologetic and he instantly hated the tone. “I’ve been meaning to get some, but well…” her voice trailed off.
He could guess the rest. Some sort of an excuse for time, but the reality was more like she didn’t have the money. He’d known for a long time that she’d been funding her brother’s mistakes. The kid she’d fought so hard to raise after her parent’s death had turned into a troubled adult. Kara just was just too soft to cut him off.
“Looks fine to me, but then I’m a man. What do I know? I think luxury is a bean bag chair and a bed.” He tried laughing at his own expense to lighten the mood.
“It has nothing to do with being a man,” she said. “You’re just living in the stone age.” She smiled as she insulted him.
He held out a piece of carrot for her to sample and she took it, popping it into her mouth. The smile went all the way through her this time. And all the way through him.
“You’re going to make someone a hell of a good wife someday, Cooper. If you can ever decide on just one woman.”
“What are you talking about? You think I have a harem or something?” What was he asking? The last thing he wanted to talk about with Kara was his love life.
“The general consensus in town is that you’ve made a career out of dating all the eligible women in Serenity Harbor.”
“You forget about Mira Jones. I haven’t dated her.”
She shot him her best drop-dead look, “That’s because Mira’s in her eighties and she wouldn’t have you. She’s very picky.” She grabbed another carrot off the plate and he watched in fascination as she popped it into her mouth.
“I’ve never been on a date with you,” he offered in comparison. Now, that was stupid. Why the hell had he said that? But it was truth, despite their one-time closet kiss, they’d never dated.
She looked startled, but managed to put the sarcastic smile back in place. “You couldn’t handle me, Cooper. Besides, I don’t buy into the whole knight in shining armor thing you have going. You won’t find me falling at your feet.”
The truth of it was right there, somewhere in the middle of her sarcasm.
The microwave dinged and before he could respond and get himself in deeper he just turned back to the counter and began dishing the food onto plates.
No, he was better off not trading verbal spars with Kara. He’d never been some damned knight in shining armor. And it was hardly his job to save her when she acted as if she could barely stand to be in same room with him.
What he should have done was just deliver the food and gone home when he saw there were no lights on in her cottage. It would have been the saner option. But then, when had he ever worried about sanity?
He handed her a plate. “Can you manage it?” Those words earned him a hard stare. He had no doubt she could have managed with both hands in cast. Just to spite him.
He waited until she’d settled herself in the chair with the plate on her lap before he joined her, sitting opposite her on the old couch. The dim light of the computer next to him caught his attention, a spreadsheet open on the screen. “Taking your work home with you I see. How’s business?”
He didn’t hear it so much as feel the soft sigh she let escape.
“Not well, I’m afraid. More of a sinking ship, in fact.” She shook her head. “I’ve got a big order for Roenfield over in Seal Harbor that’s due the middle of next month and I’m trying to get ahead before the season starts, but I’m not much good with this bum hand. I’ve still got some time before he needs them, but with things going the way they are, I’m not sure I’m going to be around to deliver them.”
“How’d you hurt your wrist Kara?”
He could see her weighing her options. Tell the truth and piss him off, or tell a half truth and maybe he’d buy it. “I fell down the porch steps. Doc says it’s just a hairline fracture, not broken. It’ll be healed in a couple of weeks.”
“A couple weeks is a long time when you own your own business. How are you managing the business and the work with one good hand?” He knew full well that something like a fractured wrist wasn’t going to hold her back.
“I’m doing okay. I’m getting by.” But the look on her face left an unsettled pit in his stomach.
“You need to get some help down at the shop. Pete should be helping you.” Her brother had a lot to answer for in his book.
“Let it go, Cooper. I told you I’m managing things.” The hard edge was back in her voice. The niceties were gone along with the small amount of goodwill he’d managed to build up tonight.
“You know, there are plenty of people in town who’d love to help you out.” If he was in it for a penny, he might as well be in for a pound when it came to getting her riled.
Kara got up from the couch abruptly and went and put her dish in the sink. “I said to let it go.” Her voice was quiet, edgy, almost defeated. And it killed him.
He got up and went up to stand beside her as he put his dish in the sink next to hers.
“I guess that’s my cue to leave.” But he didn’t want to.
“I guess it is.”