TEN YEARS AGO
I stare at her.
I stare at her a lot, actually. An embarrassing amount.
But Rowan doesn’t notice. Hardly acknowledges me, except when she brushes me off and rolls her eyes at my lame attempts to flirt with her. I shouldn’t be trying to flirt with her considering she’s my best friend’s little sister. Riley’s three years older than her, which makes him even more protective. She’s only a year younger than me though.
Tonight’s her eighth grade winter formal dance and since I’m in high school, even if I’m just a freshman, I can’t go to make sure she’s safe around those little pricks who mindlessly stare at her tits and long, tanned legs. I spent the better part of middle school giving them all threatening glares. Even though I told myself it was for Riley’s sake—as his friend—that was mostly a lie, but he has no clue. I did it because none of them deserved her, and I wanted her for myself.
Given that she pays no mind to me, I’ve resorted to making fun of her instead. It’s not the type of attention I was hoping for, but it means for a moment, I have hers even if she’s telling me off or smacking me. It’s the equivalent to a boy chasing a girl on the playground just to pull on her pigtails, but it’s the only way to get her to speak or actually look at me.
Pathetic as hell, I know.
One of these days, I’ll get Rowan Bishop to notice me as more than a nuisance or her brother’s best friend.
“Boys!” their mother screams out the second-story window. River has become a second mom to me considering how long I’ve known the Bishops and how much time I spend on the ranch. “Hurry up! She’s ready to go, and I need to take pics!”
Riley and I jump out of his dad, Alex’s truck and rush toward the house. We’re still dirty from the day’s work, but try and brush ourselves off as we head up the steps to the porch. I help on their family ranch on the weekends and during summers, which I love, and can’t wait until school’s over so I can be here every day.
The front door whips open and we step inside. I wait with bated breath for Rowan’s grand entrance down the staircase. My clothes and hair are a mess, and I’m embarrassed by how much of a disaster I must look, but when Rowan rounds the corner in a bright pink gown, my throat goes dry. Even if I were dressed in my Sunday best, I’d be out of Rowan’s league.
She smiles wide, her adorable dimples peeking through, as she holds onto the railing and walks down. Alex and River wait by the bottom step, pride filling their faces. River’s taking pictures and directs Rowan and Alex for a daddy-daughter photo. Alex is wearing his typical cowboy hat, Wranglers, and work T-shirt.
“Get in the picture, Riley,” River orders, waving him over. She snaps a few more and then I step in.
“You need a family photo,” I tell her, reaching for her phone. “Get in the pic, Mrs. Bishop.”
She hands it over. “Oh, you’re a gem, Adam!” Aside from my own mother and grandmother, River is the only other person who calls me by my real name. Even though I’ve repeatedly told her otherwise to call me Diesel—a nickname I’ve had for as long as I can remember—she insists I’ll always be Adam to her.
“No problem, Mrs. B.”
River stands on one side of Rowan and Riley and Alex stand on the other. I step back then click a few shots. Aside from their different hair color, Rowan looks identical to her mother. Riley has always resembled his dad, even when we were younger, but now that Rowan is growing up, I see her features maturing more into her mom’s.
“One more,” I say, then motion for them to get closer and tell them to smile wider.
Rowan doesn’t look at the camera, rather she flicks her eyes up to mine, and when the corner of her lips tilt up, I imagine that smile is for me. A grin fills my face and my imagination goes wild on how I’d make this night memorable for her if I were her date. I’d make sure her last middle school dance was nothing short of perfection as we danced to her favorite songs, drank punch, and took a quiet walk under the stars.
“Alright, I’m gonna be late!” Rowan lifts the front of her dress, revealing cowboy boots, then walks out of the group. I smirk at her shoes, knowing she’d never wear heels if she had the choice. Hell, I’m surprised she’s even wearing such a big poofy dress. There are times when she’s worn sundresses for church, but never something this fancy. She’s a natural tomboy, born and raised on a ranch, and has always preferred getting dirty over pompoms. She rides horses like it’s second nature and often gives me a run for my money when it comes to getting ranch chores done. It makes me like her even more.
“You sure you don’t want a picture of you shoveling shit in the barn? Your natural habitat?” I tease, knowing it’ll annoy the hell outta her.
“Now, now, Adam. Be nice and watch your language.” River steps forward, grabbing her phone out of my grip, and pats my cheek.
“Yeah, Adam.” Rowan huffs and crosses her arms over her chest, making my eyes lower, which was a really bad thing to do. The movement pushes her tits up, and I immediately dart my gaze away. “Perhaps you should go back into your natural habitat, in the mud, with the pigs.”
Riley howls, cracking up so hard, I’m worried he’ll piss himself. This is an on-going thing in the Bishop house. Me teasing Rowan, her throwing it right back, and Riley laughing at my expense.
“You ready to go, princess?” Alex asks, digging his keys out of his pocket.
“You sure you don’t want me to take her?” Riley interjects. “I’m her big brother after all and way cooler than you.”
“Excuse me?” Alex nudges Riley in the arm, a playful grin on his face. “I managed to land your mother, didn’t I? I smooth-talked her into moving to Texas, after all. She had it bad.”
“According to my math—” Rowan chimes in. “—and my sources, Mom was knocked up with Riley and came back to tell you, which means y’all had sex before marriage.”
My cheeks heat at Rowan’s bold words, but honestly, I’d expect nothing less from her.
“Rowan Rose Bishop!” River scolds. “Who told you that?”
“Grandma,” she reveals. “Like it’s a secret? Riley was born after your wedding date. The real wedding date.”
“So Riley’s a bastard. What else is new?” I tease.
“Language, Adam.” River gives me a firm look, which makes me laugh considering the conversation then River turns toward Riley. “We’re taking Rowan to the dance, but I need you to pick her up at midnight. I’m trusting you to be there on time.”
It’s Saturday night and knowing Riley as well as I do, he’s not gonna like this.
“Ma, what? Why do I have to pick up the little rugrat?”
“Because your so cool. Also, your father and I are going to bed early so we can all get up for church in the morning,” she says pointedly. “I expect you to be there tomorrow, too.”
Riley groans with an eye roll, which causes me to chuckle.
“Yes, ma’am,” he begrudgingly mutters.
“Good boy.” She sweetly pats his head like he’s a five year old.
The three of them leave, and I’m anxious the moment Rowan’s out of sight. “Thank God, they’re gone. Let’s go drink in the barn!” Riley shouts, pushing me toward his room. “I’m gonna shower first though.”
“Did you suffer a blow to the head?” I ask as he follows me down the hallway. “You have to pick Rowan up in four hours.”
“So, you shouldn’t be drinkin’ if you plan on driving, smartass.”
“I’ll be fiiiiiine. Quit worryin’, pretty boy.” He slaps my shoulder. “You can be my DD.”
He knows damn well I don’t have my license, but that hasn’t stopped me from driving his drunk ass around before. I drive around the ranch sometimes, and I’ve had to take him home from partying in town a couple times, but never with Rowan in the truck.
Over three hours later and Riley’s shit-faced. I tried to slow him down, but he invited a few friends to the barn we hang out in after hours. He downed six beers and four shots of bourbon like there were no consequences.
“Dude, you’re supposed to pick up Rowan in less than an hour. You need to start chugging water,” I tell him. My last beer was over an hour ago, and I only had two total.
“Stop being a pussy. We have an hour,” Riley slurs.
I check my watch. By the time I manage to get him into the backseat and drive into town, it’ll be close to midnight. The last thing I want is to keep Rowan waiting around by herself or worse, with those little dicks from her class.
“Say goodbye, we’re going.” I stand and tower over him. Riley might be muscular from working on the ranch, but I’ve got a good four inches on him and fifty pounds. Grabbing his arm, I lift him to his wobbly feet. “You’re gonna be puking your fuckin’ guts out.”
“I’ll be just fine, Dad,” he mocks and the other guys laugh. If he wasn’t my best friend and a decent human—sober—I’d leave his ass out here for his parents to find him in the mornin’.
By the time I drive into the school’s parking lot, there’s fifteen minutes to spare before the dance ends. Riley’s passed out in the backseat, so I leave the truck running and hop out. I notice parents are starting to arrive and are waiting outside for their kids. Me on the other hand am going inside to make sure Rowan’s doing okay.
I spot her under the disco ball dancing with a bunch of girls. There’s a smile on her face, but it seems forced. Her cousin Mackenzie is in their group of friends and ten minutes later, the DJ announces it’s the final slow song. He then tells the guys to find their sweetheart and one approaches their circle, but grabs Kenzie’s hand. She grins wide and the two of them walk away. I watch Rowan’s fake smile drop as do her eyes then she walks off to the side, wrapping her arms around her waist.
What the fuck?
As much as I don’t want guys near her, I don’t understand why the hell none of them at least asked her to dance.
I did warn most of them off last year, but that can’t be why now, can it?
After thirty seconds of watching her alone and sad, I can’t stand it. Suddenly I’m halfway across the gym walking toward her.
“Row…” I grab her attention and she looks shocked as hell.
“What are you—”
I tilt my head toward the dance floor. “C’mon. Let’s dance.” Holding out my hand, I nod for her to take it.
When she finally does, I don’t even try to contain my smile. I lead her out into the middle under the sparkling disco ball, then pull her into my chest and wrap my arms around her.
“What are you doing here?” she asks, holding onto my shoulders. She’s too short to place her arms around my neck because of my height. But holding her this way is perfect.
“Your idiot brother is as drunk as a skunk, so I drove us here. Came inside to check on you and didn’t want you to miss out on the last song.”
She licks her lips and swallows. “The boys here don’t like me. They say I’m too much. Too loud. Too—”
“They’re fuckin’ morons,” I interject.
Rowan looks down and shrugs. “Oh well.”
I tilt up her chin and gaze into her gorgeous brown eyes. “Trust me, none of them are good enough for you.”
“You have to say that.” She sighs, her shoulders rising and falling. “You’re my brother’s best friend.”
I retreat. “No I don’t. I’m not your brother.”
She shrugs casually. “Close enough. You pick on me worse than him. Always around. I’m surprised you haven’t tried to pants me in public yet.”
We laugh and it eases the tension. “That’s Riley’s specialty,” I tease, remembering the time he did it to Rowan a few years ago at one of their family’s picnics. She was livid and ended up sucker-punching him between the legs.
“Middle school boys are dumb,” she states.
A smile spreads across my face. “High school ones are too. Don’t forget that.”
I don’t know how I’m gonna contain myself when she’s a freshman next fall. I’ll be a sophomore and we’ll be on opposite sides of the building. But it’ll be better than her being in another school all together. Hopefully, I’ll see her around considering I play football and baseball and she’ll probably tryout for the softball team.
I know everyone in this town and they’re well aware of my family ties with the Bishops. I make sure Rowan and her cousins aren’t messed with especially when Riley isn’t around.
“I love this song,” she says softly.
I know she does. She plays it on repeat in her room. It’s a country pop singer and her most recent release was a ballad. I’ve noticed she likes playing slower songs while she studies and does homework.
“Who’s the singer?” I ask as if I have no clue. She tells me and I nod, pretending it’s brand new information. If she knew how much I watched and obsessed over her, she’d think I was batshit crazy. Hell, I know I am when it comes to her.
I also know Riley would kick my ass if he ever found out. She’s only thirteen, but she’s more mature than most of the girls in high school. Her work ethic is admirable, and I know whatever she chooses to do in life, she’ll give it her all.
As the music begins to fade, I frown at the anticipation of losing her touch. She blinks up at me, a small smile on her lips that are only inches from mine. Forgetting where we are, who we are, I slide my hand up her arm and cup her cheek. I study her expression, waiting to see if she pushes me away, and when she doesn’t, I lean in.
She inhales sharply as my lips softly brush hers. I taste the fruit punch she must’ve drank earlier and before I can deepen the kiss, we’re harshly interrupted when a loud commotion echoes through the gym and we pull apart.
“Fuck,” I mutter under my breath as I see Riley staggering toward the middle where we’re standing. “C’mon, we gotta go.”
I reach for her hand but then think better of it and drop my arm. Riley’s wasted, bumping into tables and students as he nearly falls on his ass.
“What the hell?” I steady him, grabbing his arms. “Why didn’t you stay in the truck?”
“I couldn’t find you,” he stutters loudly. “You left me.”
Everyone around us is staring and when I look at Rowan, her cheeks are beet red. She’s embarrassed as hell and it’s all my fault. If I had waited outside, Riley would’ve never stumbled in here looking for me.
“You were passed out,” I tell him. “I came in to grab Rowan.”
He blinks, looking around me as if he just realized his sister was next to me. “Oh.” He wobbles from side to side, his eyes are in slits as he stares at us.
Straightening my shoulders, I don’t want him to get suspicious so I need to get us out of here fast. “Let’s go.”
I turn Riley around and walk him to the exit, hoping no one gives her shit for this later. Riley picks on his sister regularly, but he’d never intentionally humiliate her in front of her friends. Their family? Absolutely.
“Shotgun!” Riley shouts once we’re outside. How the hell he’s still standing is beyond me. He’s three sheets to the wind and if he doesn’t sit the fuck down, he’s going to vomit all over his truck.
I manage to get him into the passenger seat and Rowan and I walk around to the driver’s side. She gets in the backseat, and I sit behind the wheel. Once I’m buckled in, I glance up at the rearview mirror and see her stunning eyes. We barely kissed, but I felt it all over. The question is if she did too, but now isn’t the time to bring it up.
We’re halfway to the ranch when Riley perks up and looks over at me.
“I know I’m a little drunk…” he begins, slouching. “But did I see you kissing my sister in the gym?”
My eyes round, and I swallow down the panic streaming through my veins. He’s too drunk to really kick my ass at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I won’t pay for it tomorrow.
“Dude, what?” I make a disgusted face in his direction. “You must be more hammered than I thought if you’re seeing me lock lips with your kid sister.”
He leans back against the seat. “I know what I saw,” he grumbles.
“You’re wrong,” I tell him flatly. “You must’ve seen another couple.”
Riley turns just enough to look at his sister. “Rowan?”
“What?” she asks as if she’s annoyed.
“Were you kissing my best friend?”
Without any hesitation, she replies, “Gross, no. He offered to dance with me and that’s it.”
Riley scoffs, not believing her. “Then why was his mouth so close to yours?”
“Do you really think I’d waste my first kiss on him?” she spits out.
That was her first kiss?
“He’s your annoying best friend who follows me like a sad puppy,” she adds. “The last person on Earth I’d ever want to kiss. If his mouth ever touched mine, I’d knee him in the jewels.”
Her words hurt like a thousand needle pricks. If her plan was to convince him it wasn’t real, she’s golden. If it was to hurt me in the process, mission fucking accomplished.
“Damn,” Riley whistles, slapping his knee.
I glance up in the mirror, her eyes narrowed and her jaw tense. What the hell? I denied it to save my friendship, but she went a step further, dragging me through the mud in the process. Did she expect me to tell him? Is she pissed I didn’t?
We stay silent until we pull up to their house. Riley’s passed out against the window, drool sliding down his chin.
“Can you cover for your brother?” I ask Rowan when I open the back door and hold out my hand to help her out. She dismisses it and jumps down. “Tell your parents he’s sleeping over at my house tonight?”
She shrugs then nods. “Alright, fine.”
I shut the door and follow her to the porch. “Rowan, wait.”
She spins around, her face emotionless.
“You know I only denied it so he wouldn’t beat my face in, right?” My eyes plead with her to believe me.
“It doesn’t matter, Adam. I don’t care.”
I flinch at her harsh words. She leaned into me, I know she did, so why is she acting like I’m the biggest inconvenience of her life?
Furrowing my brows, I step closer. “Was that really your first kiss?”
She bursts out laughing, crossing her arms. “Yeah right.”
“What the hell is your problem?” I finally ask.
Before she can respond, the front door swings open. “I thought I heard voices out here.” Alex looks at the two of us, squinting. “Where’s Riley?”
“We’re gonna hang out at my house if that’s alright?” I step away from Rowan. “I’ll make sure he’s at church tomorrow though, sir.”
Alex nods then looks at Rowan, smiling. “Did you have fun at the dance?”
Rowan looks at me before climbing the stairs and nods. “It was fine, Dad. I’m tired though.”
“Okay, kiddo. Let’s get you in and to bed then.”
“Goodnight,” I call out, waving to both of them.
I drive Riley to my house in town and hope I don’t get pulled over in the process. My parents are asleep, so I quietly get him inside and to the couch in my room. The asshole can sleep there for putting me through this shit tonight. Hopefully he’ll forget what he saw between his sister and me.
It seems like Rowan already has so perhaps I should too.
Though there’s really no way I can.
What she doesn’t know is that was my first kiss too, and I’d been waiting for it to be her.
I don’t know what her issue is, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to figure it out.
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