Almost every table needed bussed and cleaned since tonight’s florentine and triple berry crepes were a favorite, so I pulled my hair back into a ponytail and slid my promise ring off and put it into my pocket. Industrial strength chemical cleaners and scorching hot water weren’t exactly jewelry friendly.
I was about to turn on the radio and get down to cleaning business when my phone rang. I was more disappointed than relieved when I saw it wasn’t Cole’s number. His calls had stopped coming in that morning, and even though I hadn’t answered a single one, I missed them. For those few seconds, I knew Cole was thinking about me.
“Hey, Dad,” I answered, carting the first batch of dishes back to the dishwasher.
“Hi, sweetheart. How was the night?”
“Crazy busy. Not an empty table all night.” Like the queen of multi-tasking I was, I propped the phone up on top of the dishwasher and started loading a tray of dirty dishes. I was eager to get out of there. I hadn’t had a night off yet that summer and I’d managed to convince dad to give me the whole weekend off. I didn’t have plans, but that was kind of my favorite way to spend a day or weekend off. If I didn’t have plans, I could do whatever I felt like when I woke up in the morning.
“Those florentine crepes are a crowd pleaser, that’s for sure. Breakfast and lunch was hopping today, too,” he said, sounding more tired than normal. “I’m heading to bed early tonight, Elle, so would you just wake me up and let me know when you get home? I think I’m catching that summer bug going around.”
“Yeah. Sure,” I said, trying to remember a time Dad hadn’t been waiting up for me when I’d come home from work. I couldn’t recall a time.
“Oh, and about this weekend,”—I started to grimace, already anticipating what was coming—“with the big baseball games going on and all the hotels being booked, I’m sure I underestimated the number of wait staff we’ll need Saturday and Sunday night. I talked to Logan earlier and he said you two didn’t have any set plans, so you’d be able to work,” he continued as I felt my grimace work into a scowl. “I just wanted to let you know about the change in plans.”
“Sounds like you and Logan have got it all worked out,” I said, purposefully sounding overly sweet because I knew if I let my tone convey how I felt right now, Dad would wonder if I’d been lobotomized.
“Thanks so much, sweetheart,” he said, clueless to my emotions. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
After saying goodbye, the line went quiet. I stared at my phone for a few seconds, contemplating when I’d let Dad and Logan start mapping out my life. I knew it wasn’t done maliciously, but somewhere along the way, I’d handed them the reins.
Cole was right. If I didn’t take control of my life, someone or someones would.
Right now, that was all I could think about. The electives Logan had chosen for me in school when I’d hmm’d and haw’d, the Jeep dad had picked out for me when I couldn’t decide, the earl grey tea Logan ordered for me every time we went out to breakfast when I couldn’t decide on drip coffee or a cappuccino. The darn promise ring tucked into my pocket he’d went out and purchased the same day I told him I needed some time to think about our future.
I’d become a backseat driver to my life years ago and I’d had enough. Dad’s and Logan’s intentions might have been good, but I was done with being steamrolled over at every turn.
At least for tonight I was.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. The anger was more self-directed than anything, but it was a powerful motivator. I had the diner clean in record time.
After turning off the lights, I locked the place up. I was halfway across the parking lot before I noticed the old Land Cruiser beside my Jeep, complete with the smiling face I’d been thinking about all week.
“Don’t you know a young woman shouldn’t walk into a dark parking lot alone at night?”
I really wished I would have freshened up before rushing out of the diner tonight, but it was dark and Cole was far enough away maybe he wouldn’t smell the odd mix of tarragon and apple on my clothes. “Since crime doesn’t really happen here, unless you count a sketchy guy harassing a young woman in a parking lot, I think I’m going to live to see another day.”
“Just because something’s never happened doesn’t mean it never will,” he said, watching me with that intentional look. That look that said he both had me totally figured out and barely figured out. “You want to be ready for it when it does.”
Stopping a few feet in front of him, I kept my expression in check. It was hard. Especially with the way he looked tonight. Like sex, seduction, and sin had decided to get it on and Cole Carson was the result. His dark hair was still damp from what I guessed was the shower, but what I liked to imagine was another round of skinny dipping, and his skin had darkened a couple of shades in the summer heat, making his eyes almost glow. Worn jeans and a dark tee that hugged his chest and arms topped off the triple S lovechild.
I told myself to breathe before replying.
“Was some veiled, cryptic message in that warning?” Good. I sounded relatively unphased by the deity that was Cole Carson.
“Sorry. Subtlety isn’t my strong suit. At least it isn’t anymore.”
I tried to ignore the way his gaze wandered over me, almost so imperceptibly I could have imagined it.
“What? You calling me every day and stalking me at work isn’t subtle?” I teased.
“It’s hard to be subtle when the girl you want to be subtle with won’t take your calls.” He shoved off his Land Cruiser and took a step my way.
Why hadn’t I at least redone my limp, flyaway ponytail?
“So you used to be subtle,” I said, glancing around the parking lot. It was empty. “But not anymore. Not right now.”
He nodded. “Yep. Used to be. But not right now. Not with you.”
He took another step closer, causing me to take one back. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was more scared of him touching me or smelling me.
“What are you doing tonight?” he asked, the low notes gone.
“I worked the dinner shift and closed the restaurant tonight,” I replied, knowing it was some time after ten. Tonight was already over. At least if you were the good girl Elle Montgomery.
“What are you doing right now?” he clarified, moving closer. Now I could smell him and yes, his damp hair was thanks to a shower. He smelled like soap and shampoo. And some other s-word . . .
“I’m going home.”
“It’s a Friday night.”
“It’s late on a Friday night,” I said, side-stepping my way to the Jeep.
Cole reached out and grabbed my wrist. His fingers wound around it gently, heating the skin all the way through. “You’ve got a couple options here, Elle. I can either throw you over my shoulder and kidnap you, or I’ll follow you to your place and hang with you there, or you can stop pretending like you’re not dying to spend a couple hours with me and get in my car.” Cole’s expression was so darn confident I almost wanted to tell him to get lost.
But I didn’t.
“I don’t have long,” I said, checking the time on my phone. “My dad will call an Amber Alert on me if I’m not home by midnight.”
“You’re eighteen and officially out of school. Isn’t it about time your dad eased up a bit?”
Of course it is, was my gut response, but if I gave him that one, Cole would turn that into one big carpe diem conversation I wasn’t in the mood for. I didn’t want to talk about life tonight. I didn’t want to think about it either. I wanted to live it.
“I’m still his little girl,” I said with a shrug.
“Daddy Montgomery sounds strict.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” I replied.
That was a Pandora’s box I didn’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.
“It’s his way of trying to keep me safe, I guess,” I said. “My mom died when I was four in a river kayaking accident, and I think he believes if he puts a short leash on me, he won’t have to worry about losing me like he lost her.”
Cole didn’t even flinch at my words, but I did. I never spoke about my mom or the way she’d died. Why was I now?
That was another Pandora’s box I didn’t want to be on the same planet as.
“So he’s willing to risk your happiness to keep you safe? Or at least as safe as a person can pretend to keep another safe?”
“He doesn’t know I’m not happy,” I said, trying not to let the sadness I felt show. He never asked if I was happy and I never told him I wasn’t. We both assumed what we wanted. “You’re kind of the only one I let in on that little secret.” I smiled sheepishly at Cole, feeling nak*d again.
“Why?” Cole asked his favorite one word question again. “Why haven’t you told him you’re not happy?”
“Because I don’t want to rock the boat,” I said, hoping he’d accept that tip of the iceberg answer and move on.
“Elle,” he said, my name coming out of his mouth in a smooth caress, “you’d better start rocking that boat right now or else your life is going to pass you by before you even get started living it.”
Those words hit me hard. Because they were true. And because they were what I’d been living in fear of for a while. My entire life passing me by while I offered conventional smiles and washed dishes at the sink.
A car whizzed by us on the road in front of the diner. Shaking the dreary thoughts loose for the time being, I squared my shoulders and approached Cole.
This time, when I looked into his eyes, I felt strength instead of the swoon I normally did. “I’m ready to rock that boat whenever you are.”
“WHEN YOU SAID you were planning on taking me on a grand adventure, I didn’t exactly picture this,” I whispered as Cole led me down the dark hall.
“You know what they say. Every great adventure begins and ends at a smokejumper camp,” he replied back in a hushed voice.
I rolled my eyes. “Where is everybody?” I knew enough about the camp to know most of the smokejumpers lived, ate, and slept here, but I’d never actually been inside.
“It’s a Friday night and it was a long winter,” Cole whispered, his eyes gleaming when he glanced back at me. “If they’re not on call, they’re either at a bar or a party looking for a pretty girl with loose morals and looser standards.”
I made a face. It was the same story every year. “Then why are we whispering?” I asked, as we entered a large kitchen and dining area.
Cole paused and turned to face me. “Because I like being able to make you whisper,” he said, examining my mouth like it was something he wanted to taste. “Even if it isn’t in the way I’d prefer to.”
I might have been inexperienced and a prude-by-circumstance, but I didn’t need to have slept with someone to know that look on Cole’s face. The longer I looked at him, the more uncomfortable I became. The more uncomfortable I became, the more confident he became. When I was sure I was either going to slap him or kiss him, he spun around.