Too Hot to Handle
Since her father's unsolved murder, Cassie Knight has spent over a decade on the road with her mother, memories chasing the fragile woman from town to town...or so Cassie thought. Only after returning to Jupiter Point does she learn something—or someone—all too real triggered their life on the run. Now, with her brother closing in on their father's killer, Cassie's free to pursue her own happiness for the first time. Enter smart, sexy, funny Kevin O'Donnell.
Of course they'll have to keep it light. There's a big off-limits sign on Kevin's heart, and Cassie's ready to hit the road the minute her father's killer is found. She can do light—no problem. But she didn't count on their sizzling chemistry...Holly's suddenly odd behavior...and a killer who's more cunning than the Knight family ever suspected. Too hot to handle? There's only one way to find out.
Release date: April 13, 2018
Print pages: 290
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Too Hot to Handle
Cassie Knight had a theory about small towns—that you could never really leave. No matter how long you were gone, people still treated you as if you’d been there all along. As if the only parts of her life that counted were the sixteen years she’d spent here in Jupiter Point, rather than the twelve she’d been gone. As if she hadn’t grown into adulthood, traveled around the country, and had a million different experiences since she’d driven away in that old Chevy Chevette with her mother sobbing at the wheel.
Take the bartender at Barstow’s Brews, for example. She remembered him perfectly. He used to buy six-packs for her and her friends while they waited outside the grocery store. Gary Knox, still plying liquor, though at least he was doing so legally now. He squinted at her as he uncapped the Belgian beer she’d ordered. “Aren’t you the little sister? Of the Knight brothers? Cathy or Cammie, right?”
Yup, here in Jupiter Point, she was still—and always would be—Cassie Knight, little sister of the notorious Knight Brothers, not the freewheeling, independent woman she’d become since she left.
“Do I know you?” She shoved a twenty across the bar, cocking her head at him. “You don’t look familiar.” She frowned, as if searching her memory. “Nope, not ringing a bell.”
“Aw, come on, babe. You’re breaking my heart. After all I used to do for you back then. First beer? Parking lot outside the Quickie Mart? It’s Gary Knox. You remember me.”
“Right. It’s coming back to me now. Quite the fond memories. The good old days of putting teenagers on the path to perdition.”
“The path to what now?” Gary cupped his ear as if he hadn’t quite heard right. Which would be understandable, since Barstow’s was rocking tonight. Loud laughter, shouts from the direction of the dartboard, the jostle and clink of beer bottles.
“Perdition. You know, that town down the coast.”
He nodded as if he understood and turned away to serve another customer.
Cassie hated herself a little right then. But she had a perfect right to toy with Gary. That first beer in the parking lot had gotten her in big trouble with her father, who’d had a zero-tolerance policy.
Gary was pouring a shot of tequila for a man at the other end of the bar. When Cassie realized who it was, she got another nasty flashback. Brad White. The last time she’d heard anything about Brad, he’d been running for political office. Then he’d been forced to end his campaign because he’d been screwing his underage intern.
What was with guys? Why did they all have to be such jackasses?
She must have mumbled something to that effect out loud, because someone actually answered her question.
“I wouldn’t call it a requirement, more of an optional thing.”
She glanced to her right, at the man who was sliding onto the barstool next to hers. Good Lord. If you could bottle up male charm and sell it by the case, this man would make a fortune. Twinkling deep-green eyes set off by the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen on a man, dark, sexy scruff, a dimple in his cheek. Well-built, nice smile, big working-man’s hands. Black leather jacket, worn jeans.
In a word, hot.
Best of all, she’d never seen him before. He wasn’t one of those ghosts from her past wandering around Jupiter Point.
But still, she was in a mood. The same general mood she’d been in since she got back to Jupiter Point. Slightly crabby with a side of what-am-I-doing-here.
“So you’re saying you have the option of being a jackass and instead of deciding, nah, I think I’ll be a good guy today, you beat your chest and go all in on being a jerk?”
The man’s dimple deepened. “Some of us skip the chest-beating. That’s gotta hurt.”
“Aww. I guess being a jackass comes with side effects.”
He laughed and settled his elbows on the bar. “I’d like to meet the man who did you wrong. I think he tangled with the wrong woman.”
That got a reluctant smile out of her. “This isn’t about me. It’s about the male gender in general. I’m merely going on personal observation.”
“No skin in the game, huh? Never got your heart broken?”
She twirled the stool so she faced him and propped one elbow on the bar. “That’s an awfully personal question, considering we’ve only been talking for about a minute.”
“Yes, but it’s been such a fun conversation. I feel we can skip all the preliminaries and go straight to the main point.” Did he have a trace of an accent, some kind of vague drawl? She liked listening to him, she realized. His voice was teasing and resonant. His whole manner drew her in, despite her bad mood.
She took a sip of her beer. “Which is?”
“Why you’re sitting at the best brew pub in the sweetest little town on the West Coast, looking like you’d rather be anywhere else.” He gave her an encouraging smile. “Seems like there’s gotta be something I can say to lift your spirits.”
“Sure. How about this. ‘You look like you’d rather drink your beer in peace, so I’ll let you be now. Carry on.’”
He tilted his head, acknowledging her point with a rueful laugh. “Fair enough. You got me. Just because I’m enjoying the conversation doesn’t mean it’s mutual. Enjoy your drink. I’ll be right over there, not beating my chest.” The stool next to his had just opened up, so he slid over to it.
Gary finally made it over to the newcomer and took his order. Cassie overheard something about beer and a basket of nachos with extra jalapeños.
She loved jalapeños.
And honestly, she hated drinking alone. And her brothers were late.
And he was so, so cute.
She slid over onto the stool the stranger had just vacated. “Can you make that two baskets of nachos with extra jalapeños?” she asked Gary.
The cute stranger looked over at her in surprise. “I get a second chance, huh? What did it? My charm? My nice-guy attitude? Lack of chest-beating?”
“Your good taste in bar snacks. No one else seems to appreciate jalapeños the way I do.”
He shook his head sadly. “What is wrong with people? Just can’t take the heat, can they?”
“Right?” She grinned at him. “I’m Cassie.”
“Kevin.” He clicked his bottle against hers. “Welcome back.”
They both took a sip from their beer bottles. Cassie checked in with her inner bad-guy radar system. She wasn’t a big drinker or bar-hopper. But she’d had a huge responsibility thrust upon her at an early age, and she often needed a break. Since the age of sixteen, she’d been her troubled mother’s…what…guardian? Caretaker? Something like that. Indulging in a drink at the nearest, dingiest bar was a guaranteed way to relieve the stress. She never had more than one drink, which she nursed slowly all evening. The point wasn’t to get drunk. It was to exist in the company of other people who’d known tough times.
That was why she always avoided pick-up spots; why she’d chosen Barstow’s Brews instead of the upscale Orbit Lounge.
In time, she’d developed a surefire warning system when it came to her fellow bar customers. She could tell when someone was going to be trouble. She knew within a few seconds if she should switch seats or leave altogether. On the other hand, if someone was going to be good company, tell entertaining stories that would offer relief from her day, she could figure that out pretty quickly too.
Definitely in the good-company category. None of her early warning alerts were going off. She liked sitting next to him and got zero sense of anything uncomfortable or awkward. The only alarm bell going off was the one that said, “dangerously attractive, proceed with caution.”
“So, Kevin, are you from around here?”
“Nope, just moved to town recently. How about you?”
“Cassie’s got Jupiter Point blood running through her veins,” said Gary, as he dropped off their nachos.
“Please don’t talk about my blood,” she told him. “My blood is none of your business. And where are our extra jalapeños?”
“Oops. It’s not my fault; no one ever asks for that.” Gary hurried away.
Kevin was watching her with one corner of his mouth twitching upwards. “Old friend of yours?”
“Old something.” She took a quick sip of her drink, then decided there was no harm in elaborating. “This is my life right now. Every time I turn around, I see someone I used to know and don’t particularly want to know again.”
He tilted his bottle to his lips. “I think I’m getting the picture. Big plus for me that I’m not a local.”
“Yes, that might be your main selling point.” She laughed a little. “That sounds mean. It’s not as if you’re trying to sell me on something. We’re just sitting next to each other eating nachos.”
“Well, personally, I plan to wait for the jalapeños. But you’re right. We’re just contemporaneously drinking beers in each other’s vicinity. Nothing more.”
“It means in the same time frame.”
“Are you an English teacher?”
He laughed. “Nope. I just like words. Always have. I mean, think about it. Have you ever opened the dictionary and looked at everything that’s in there? So many words you never heard of. Why not? They exist. They mean something. Why don’t we use them?”
She realized that she was leaning closer to watch him talk and pulled herself back. “Probably because no one would understand what you’re saying.”
“And that’s the sad part, right there. You’d think that with all the high-tech ways people have to communicate, we’d all understand each other better. It’s kind of the opposite though.”
“You’re quite the philosopher, huh?”
“Philosopher, from the Greek words for lover and wisdom.” He winked at her. “At least I got half of that covered.”
She shook a scolding finger at him. “I’m not even going to ask which half. Because this is not a flirtation, just so you know. I’m setting the record straight right from the start.”
“Got it. No flirtation, just nachos and philosophy. Right up my alley.”
He seemed completely unfazed by her rejection of flirting. She tried not to be irked by his lack of interest. It made things easier, after all. Back when she and her mother had moved around so much, she’d avoided deep attachments because of the inevitable breakups. She always made it clear from the start that things weren’t going to last long. But now that she was back in Jupiter Point, she didn’t have the built-in excuse of a gypsy lifestyle anymore.
Gary arrived with a large bowl overflowing with sliced jalapeños. “On the house. Eat up,” he smirked.
Cassie leaned over the bowl and sniffed. With so many hot peppers piled together, the fumes made her eyes water.
“Too hot to handle, huh?” Kevin teased.
“Is that a dare?” Cassie popped a slice of pepper in her mouth and chewed happily. “Remind me to tell you about the time my brothers dared me to drink from a bottle of Tabasco sauce. They meant one swallow, but I went ahead and downed half the bottle.”
“I can beat that.” Kevin dropped a stack of five jalapeños in his mouth. “When I was in the Air Force, I got third-degree burns on my tongue from a curry I ate in Thailand.”
“Air Force?” Cassie stiffened. Her brother Ben used to be in the Air Force too, but there had to be thousands of people in that category. Before she could ask if he happened to know Ben, someone jostled her elbow, nearly causing her to knock over her drink. “Hey, watch it there.”
“Sorry about th—” The woman turned—and froze when she saw Cassie. “Cassie?”
Cassie felt all the blood drain out of her face. Deirdre Sullivan had made her life a living hell for the last six months that she’d lived in Jupiter Point. She’d stolen the boy Cassie was in love with, mocked her behind her back, spread rumors about her.
Deirdre was one of the reasons she’d wanted to leave Jupiter Point. Of course, it figured Cassie would run into her just when she was starting to relax. And she couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak. Because all that humiliation came rushing back full force.
“I heard you were moving back,” Deirdre said. Her shining chestnut hair was shorter, with flirty layers, but her eyes were just as big and blue as ever. She still had a tough-girl, rebel edge to her.
Cassie finally managed to make her mouth work. “Moving is overstating it.”
Deirdre’s gaze traveled past Cassie to Kevin—who Cassie had forgotten about in the shock of seeing the worst of all the ghosts from her past. “Well, even so, welcome back. Looks like things are going great for you.”
Cassie gritted her teeth. Going great? She’d spent the past twelve years babysitting her mother, and now was back to help her brothers find the man who had killed their father. By what crazy definition did that count as “going great”?
Then she realized what Deirdre must be talking about.
Kevin. The handsome stranger. Who’d just moved to town and therefore was unfamiliar to Deirdre.
Cassie leaned back until she made contact with Kevin, his hard chest warm against her shoulder blades. “Oh yes, things have been amazing. Really incredible. This is Kevin, by the way. Kevin, darling, this is Deirdre.”
She was putting complete faith in Kevin’s quick-wittedness. Would he come through? Would he want to come through? Just to emphasize the point, she put a hand on his knee. The feel of hard muscles under denim sent a thrill through her.
“Nice to meet you, Deirdre.” Kevin offered her a handshake, which meant he had to lean past Cassie in the process. The little hairs on Cassie’s skin rose up in response. He smelled really, really good. There was a clean, spicy aftershave involved, and then a hint of motor oil, which happened to be one of Cassie’s favorite smells. “Cassie’s told me so much about—” She twitched a little, enough to let him know he was on the wrong track, that she and Deirdre were not friends. Seamlessly, he switched gears. “Jupiter Point. It’s a pleasure to finally see it.”
“It’s a nice little town, great place to grow up, right Cassie?” Deirdre smiled at her a little ruefully.
Cassie stared in disbelief. Didn’t Deirdre remember all the crap she’d pulled, how she’d tormented her?
“That’s, uh…one way to put it,” she muttered.
Deirdre pulled a little face. Apology? Regret? None of the above? “Things changed a lot after you left. Maybe we can have lunch sometime and catch up.”
What the heck was Deirdre up to? Based on their past history, Cassie didn’t trust her for a second. Hell would freeze over and she’d be ice skating with the devil before she shared a meal with Deirdre. “Oh, well, I’m going to be pretty busy, but we’ll see.”
Deirdre actually looked disappointed. “Working with your brothers?”
“They want me to, but I’ll probably pass on that. I’m used to fending for myself.”
“You always were a tough cookie. You got lucky, Kevin…” She drew it out as a question.
He put a warm hand on the curve of Cassie’s neck, where it met her shoulder. It rested lightly there, as if sending her a message. Relax. We got this. You’re all right. Normally, she wouldn’t be too crazy about a strange man putting his hand on her neck. But this felt good. Comforting.
“And are you two—” Deirdre glanced from one to the other of them.
“Absolutely,” Kevin said before she could finish the sentence.
“Oh yes.” Cassie nodded. “Definitely.”
Deirdre looked confused, probably because she hadn’t actually asked a question. “That’s cool. Honestly, you look really happy together. That’s great. It’s kind of a load off my mind, Cassie.”
What Cassie wouldn’t give to throat punch her right now. Why was it her job to relieve Deirdre’s guilty conscience? But now that she’d started down this path, she had to play it to the hilt. “Yup, it’s amazing how great sex can completely transform your life.” She reached up and touched Kevin’s jaw, her fingers passing lightly across the grain of his scruff.
On the back of her neck, his thumb made a slow, leisurely circle. “Oh come on, Cassie,” he murmured. “Sure, sex is important, but don’t forget the romance. That’s the real key,” he told Deirdre. “Those romantic gestures, mutual respect and adoration, always having each other’s backs, that’s what makes it work, you know?”
Deirdre sighed, as if his words had completely hypnotized her. “Wow. Where did you find him, Cassie?”
On a barstool at Barstow’s about ten minutes ago… “I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”
“When it’s right, it’s right,” Kevin added. That thumb was driving her crazy. But she didn’t move for fear he would stop. It just felt so good. “Doesn’t take long once you find the right one.”
“Well, you have no idea how lucky you are,” said Deirdre. “I’m genuinely happy for you.”
Cassie scrutinized her face, but saw nothing other than an honest smile. Weird. Deirdre had never wished her well in the past.
“So, what do you do?” Deirdre looked from one to the other again, somewhat wistfully. Cassie couldn’t tell if she meant her or Kevin, and in her own case, it was a complicated question. She’d had many jobs over the years, most of them unskilled. But recently she’d completed her training to become a licensed auto mechanic. That was the job she was the most proud of, so why not show it off?
“I’m a mechanic,” she said, at the same time that Kevin said the exact same words. She must have imagined it. “Mechanic,” she repeated.
“Airplane mechanic,” he said at the same time.
“You’re both mechanics? Well, isn’t that a romance for the ages? I’d love to hear the story behind that.”
Cassie turned around to stare at Kevin, completely forgetting about their half-assed charade. “Wait, wha—?”
Eyes gleaming, either with warning or amusement, he put his finger on her lips.
For a moment she stared at him, taking in all kinds of new details. The laugh lines fanning from his eyes, the slight shadows under them, the bump in his nose where it might have gotten broken.
Then a ghost of a wink brought her back to the mission. Get Deirdre off her back.
She turned back to face her old nemesis and nestled herself against the big warm body behind her. “It’s definitely quite a story. You probably wouldn’t believe it if we told it, but that’s all ancient history now. Good running into you, Deirdre. Maybe we’ll see you around.”
In a dismissive move, she turned back toward Kevin just as his arm came around her. Hopefully Deirdre would get the message that they wanted to be alone.
He bent his head and whispered in her ear. “She’s not leaving yet. Looks like she still has something to say.”
What the heck? What would it take to get rid of the woman?
Time for extreme measures.
She slid her hands up Kevin’s chest and tilted her head. With her back now entirely turned toward Deirdre, she mouthed a message to him. Kiss me?
His eyes widened as he took in her meaning. He wouldn’t mind, would he? Kissing a strange woman wouldn’t be a chore, would it? He’d spoken to her first, after all.
Unless he was married. She hadn’t noticed a wedding ring. But he could have a girlfriend. Or be gay.
Yeah, this was stupid. She could handle this on her own. She could face Deirdre without a human crutch.
Just as Kevin was moving in for the kiss, his sexy, stubble-framed lips hovering above hers, she spun her stool around. “Sorry about that, Deirdre. We get a little carried away with the PDAs sometimes, you know how it is. I’ll call you about lunch.”
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