Skate Cute Sneak Peek
Keep scrolling for a sneak peek at the first two chapters of Skate Cute!
It doesn’t take an astrophysics PhD to know that space and time can be weird sometimes.
Not that Karissa Lang had that PhD anyway.
Kriss suppressed a sigh as she sat forward, craning her neck sideways to catch a glimpse of the old mural along the highway underpass as it slid by her window. The mural had been vivid only two decades ago, seen by eight-year-old eyes just as bright and hopeful as the small town of Sacreola itself. But now it—and the memory, and the eyes—were all a little faded and jaded. Space and time will do that to you.
Once the mural was out of sight, she leaned back into the passenger seat of her mom’s white Camry and let the sigh loose. The oversized comfort of her university hoodie settled around her like a hug, as if it could sense the disorientation of returning to this fold in spacetime. Every time she visited Sacreola the change of pace always hit her like whiplash, especially after life in the speed-of-light fast lane of Boston.
And especially now. Why would an almost-graduated PhD student and self-claimed “astrochick” stop off for a few months in the middle of nowhere in western Kansas? Why wasn’t she seizing the day, pushing past graduation to secure her tenure-track spot at the next big university on the next crowded coast? What the heck was she doing here now? Kriss had no good answers.
She had plenty of bad ones. All of them too painful to think about at the moment.
“The Kohls is new, but it’s okay. If we have to have a department store move into town, I’m glad it’s Kohls. It’s got the best clearance deals on clothes, and the people are always so happy there…”
Kriss couldn’t resist a small smile as the stream of her mom’s steady conversation babbled past along with the scenery. Main Street rolled by outside her window, along with her elementary school, followed by a string of new condos she didn’t remember from last time.
Everything about Sacreola was always changing, and nothing at all. Most of her old haunts were still stubbornly sticking it out, weathering economic downturns and new department stores with stalwart optimism. The faded magnetic letters on the sign in front of Lucky’s Diner still boasted Tuesday night karaoke. And there was the salon where she and her best friend Emmy had bought their own tubes of hair dye and managed to color their hair together for all of two hours before their moms found out and made them strip it back to normal again.
“I have to swing by the library sometime this afternoon to get ready for the book sale,” her mom was saying. “You could come with me, you know. The Library Friends are all dying to meet you. Marjorie thinks you should give a presentation on your research for the high school kids sometime…”
But Kriss’s attention was lost again, out the window, as the car rolled through the turn onto Glenn Street and north toward her house. There was the cemetery at the corner where her Honors English class had filmed the three witches scene from Macbeth, followed by the police station and the fire department and the sports fields. Beyond the soccer field in the back was that small copse of shade trees where Danny Osborne had sat through one of her eighth grade games just to ask for—and receive—her first kiss ever behind the big oak tree.
“Your friends want to see you too. Emmy said you have to text her when you get settled and she’ll be right over with a hug the size of Kansas, you better believe it.”
Kriss believed it. She grinned at the easy memory of Emmy’s rib-crunching hugs, but her gaze was still caught by the familiar scenery passing by the window. The fire department’s tall garage and low brick buildings moved out of the way…
And there it was. Right where she’d left it, all those years ago. Right where she’d found it, almost every afternoon after school, even those cold winter afternoons that turned into evenings before anyone was ready.
The skating rink.
It wasn’t much, then or now, just an oval of concrete underneath the open sky, hemmed in by a ring of white plastic walls with two metal goals at either end. The walls’ plastic was cracking, the goal netting had all but disappeared, and more than one graffiti artist had taken the deteriorating white walls as an invitation to spontaneous creativity. The rink was a little older, a little wearier, a little worse for the world’s wear.
Of course it was. Kriss swallowed at the sudden dry lump in her throat.
A fence blocked the rink from view, and she twisted back around in her seat to face forward again. But she could still see the rink in her mind’s eye, empty just like it always used to be. Asking no questions, expecting no answers. She could almost taste the exhilaration of spinning around that circle under the wild and open sky.
“Here we are!”
Kriss pushed her thoughts of the rink aside for a moment as the tires crunched on the gravel of a familiar driveway. Then the simple two-story house loomed in front of them, and she bent forward in her seat to take in the sky-blue siding and navy shutters and white trim underneath the black roof.
There was the wrap-around porch with the swinging loveseat her mother had purchased years ago from a neighbor’s estate sale. Above it was Kriss’s own bedroom window, open to the afternoon’s warmth, with the sheer blue curtains drifting in the late summer breeze. There past the porch was the huge oak tree, the one whose longsuffering arms had cradled a treehouse and a rope swing and bird nests and too many hopes and dreams and secrets to count.
The car rolled to a stop at the end of the driveway, and time stood still. The engine shuddered off and the familiar silence fell, broken only by birdsong and distant traffic and the twangs of the cooling metal under the hood. She shook herself out of her sentimental stupor and reached for the door handle—
Her mom’s warm hand closed on her left arm. Kriss glanced back in surprise to catch her mom’s classic “she’s-all-grown-up” gaze, the one where her eyes go all misty and her mouth’s corners tuck themselves tight into an almost-smile and her nostrils flare a bit with a shaky breath of too much emotion at once. Kriss knew those hazel eyes well enough from her own mirror, and those high cheekbones framed by waves of hair a few shades darker than her own honey brown. But she’d always been told she had her dad’s nose, and obviously the pucker in his chin, and plenty of his extra inches in her legs to lend Kriss a height her mother had never reached.
“Welcome home, honey.” Her mom’s voice was somehow softer and rougher at the same time.
She grinned and leaned sideways to fall into her mom’s tight hug. “Thanks, Mom.” Then she pulled herself free and angled her legs out of the car door, shutting it behind her.
“Hey,” her mom called as Kriss sprang up the porch steps. “You’re going to leave that suitcase in the trunk and hope your old mom drags it upstairs for you?”
“Sorry.” She winced. The suitcase was heavy. She still had sore muscles after dragging the thing on its broken rolly wheels all around too many airports. “I’ll get it later,” she promised, spinning back around again as the sound of her mom’s chuckle followed her through the screen door.
The smell was the same; the fridge magnets were the same; that 80s era carpet was still green. But that was all Kriss stopped to take in before she was a teenager again, dashing up the stairs to her room. In thirty seconds she was on her knees inside the closet, pawing past old prom dresses and through boxes of boots she had never managed to wear as often as she’d thought she would when she bought them…
There. Her thumb brushed a rubber wheel, and then she felt the cold metal of an axle against her knuckle. She grabbed the wheel and tugged until the whole thing came free of the closet’s mess. Then the other one followed from right underneath it, and her two skates clattered onto the wood floor at her feet.
For a long second, Kriss did nothing but stare at them. Black boots with rainbow laces, pink and black wheels all in a line, scuffed from so many hours of solo skating after school, battered by all those tricks that didn’t quite work out as planned. The plastic had every right to be in shambles by now, but somehow it wasn’t. The wheels spun underneath her thumb, satisfyingly free of grit despite the closet’s dusty corner. The bearings still had it together, at least. Her legs, on the other hand…
Only one way to find out.
Another quick rummage in the dark produced the helmet her mother had always forced her to wear, the white one with the turquoise swirly pattern around the brim, the plastic faded and cracking a little with age. Kriss gave it a wry grin, marveling at her own newfound appreciation for her prefrontal cortex. Thank God for mothers to keep underdeveloped brains alive long enough to appreciate their efforts.
She tucked the helmet under one arm and scooped up the skates under the other, then trotted back down the stairs again.
Her mother was in the kitchen. She tossed a grin over her shoulder at the noise of Kriss’s descent, then her eyebrows lifted at the sight of the skates and the helmet. “Oh wow, your rollerblades. I didn’t even know those were still up there—”
“I’m going to the rink,” Kriss announced breathlessly, already heading for the door. “I’ll be back for supper, I promise. When does Dad get home?”
“Probably just after five, but he was going to try to be early today, so watch your phone, and I’ll text you. Oh and Emmy, you were supposed to tell Emmy—”
“I will,” Kriss promised as the screen banged shut behind her.
She tumbled down the front steps, her head flinging back to haul a deep breath of almost-fall air into her lungs, her every nerve alive with forgotten energy. The rink was still there, and still empty. And maybe, just maybe, it hadn’t forgotten her either.
“Wear that helmet!” came her mom’s faint call through the screen.
“I will!” she chuckled, snapping the old plastic of the buckle underneath her chin as she flew along the familiar sidewalk toward freedom.
The break room was already full when Chase Hoffman shouldered his way through the door on Friday morning with his usual load of groceries. Full of the smell of breakfast and coffee, and at least half a crew of firefighters who had obviously had themselves a lot more breakfast and coffee than he had so far. A situation which needed to be resolved ASAP.
He returned a few grins and nods as he crossed the room, taking in the extra hum of excitement in the air. Something was up, although nothing was out of place. Sel and BJ were finishing plates of pancakes and eggs at their usual spots at one end of the long table, and the forty-something Lieutenant Reid was settled in with his favorite mug behind his phone screen at the other end. Luis was stationed at the stove on breakfast duty, scrambling up the morning’s pile of eggs.
“Gorgeous.” Sel was chewing his pancakes with a dreamy look on his face. “So badass. I have never seen anything so hot-damn gorgeous in my whole life.”
“That’s cuz you’re too young to buy yourself a margarita,” BJ teased. He leaned back from his almost empty plate, then ducked the empty milk carton Sel tossed at his head.
“Two months, Beej,” the unlucky twenty-year-old protested. “Then you’re buying me all the damn margaritas.”
Chase stepped to the fridge to slide his breakfast contribution onto the counter—another five dozen eggs stacked carefully and wrapped in plastic. The rest of the groceries followed in their bags, enough to feed an army. Or at least a hungry company of two dozen active firefighters. For a few days.
Sel’s dreamy look was back. “So badass. I didn’t even know you could do that sort of stuff on wheels. That’s like an ice skater thing, that magic spinning shit they do in the Olympics.”
“Ice magic, huh? What, like Frozen?” BJ waved his hand in a mock-magical gesture over his empty plate like he was conjuring snow cones.
“Whatever, that’s what it looked like, right? Dude, you saw it too, she was totally all Elsa with that ‘Let It Go’ shit in the ice palace.”
BJ shrugged with a sly grin. “I’ll take your word for it, bro. Last time I watched Frozen was probably my niece’s five-year-old birthday party.”
Sel let it go with a decidedly un-Elsa-like gesture in BJ’s snickering face.
“You made it! Just in time,” Luis cheered at Chase’s elbow, tugging the massive stack of eggs toward the stove and ripping into the plastic. “I was about to go set up a chicken coop out back, we were that low. You just diverted a major emergency situation.”
Chase smirked at the plate of scrambled eggs beside the stove. “Chicken coop, huh? I bet we could fundraise that. ‘Sponsor a firefighting chicken.’”
“Aww yeah. That’s got potential.”
A second later, Chase glanced up with a cringe at the noise of BJ’s abysmal rendition of Frozen’s famous anthem. “What’s that all about?”
“You didn’t see?” Luis tossed him a glance. “Oh yeah, you were off yesterday. How was the stair climb?”
“Good.” More than good. Epic, as always—although his glutes and calves were still complaining two days later.
“Well, you missed a show.” Luis chuckled. “Some girl was rollerblading out on the rink yesterday afternoon, fancy stuff, nice legwork. Made quite the impression over here.”
“Oh? I bet.” Chase swept the room with a casual grin, trying to ignore that small corner of his memory as it stirred with a surge of adrenaline. “Nice legwork, huh?”
Luis reached an arm up to scratch the back of his dark crew cut. “Yeah, you know, she wasn’t bad. She’s got some moves.”
Chase grunted, stowing another surge. Just a random skater. Move along, nothing to see here. Some things should remember that they’re supposed to be forgotten. He focused on the task of getting a mug and pouring a cup of coffee.
“She’s spoken for, though,” Luis noted sourly. “You should’ve heard Schott last night, bragging that his ‘old girlfriend’s back.’ Probably a load of the usual B.S. but apparently he knows her and called dibs.”
Bull Schott indeed. Chase clamped his jaw shut as the list of things he was deliberately not remembering started to lengthen. Of course Tyler Schott would elbow himself to the front of that particular line, as always. Park his flag on every new mountain, take a damn selfie and move on. The dog equivalent of spraying each hydrant on the block. God, what a mental image.
“So, who is this new ice queen?” he asked the others as he slid in next to BJ at the table.
“Dunno yet.” Sel shrugged, stabbing a forkful of eggs. “Yet,” he re-emphasized, wagging the fork in the air.
“Schott called her ‘Leggy Lang,’” BJ added helpfully. “Said she went to his high school.”
Chase forced down his too-big swallow of coffee with all the tact he could muster. Damn, that was hot. But his stomach clenched like someone had dropped it in ice water. A decade-old bucket of ice water.
“He said her parents live just around the corner from the station,” BJ rambled on. “Didn’t say her first name, but he’s right about the legs bit.”
“Aha!” Sel crowed. “See? I’m not the only one.”
BJ rolled his eyes. “Some of us already got a girlfriend, remember? But I’m not gonna work out with my eyes shut. You don’t want me staring out the windows, you’re gonna have to move the machines.”
Both heads turned in his direction before Chase realized he was the one who had blurted out the name. Crap. He steeled his face under a mask of casual disinterest and shrugged. “Kriss Lang. It’s… short for Karissa. I think. She went to my high school.” He dropped his attention to the next swig of coffee as the heat crept up the back of his neck.
He stole a glance up again. Sel was savoring the name like he wanted a new tattoo, but BJ’s eyebrows were tugging into a knot as the pieces fit together in his head.
“Wait,” he drawled in sudden suspicion. “Did you go to school with Schott?”
Chase’s jaw re-clenched. “Yeah.”
BJ processed his answer with a slow nod.
“What?” Chase demanded.
“Nothing. Just… explains a few things.”
“Like what?” The warmth spread farther along his T-shirt’s collar.
BJ opened his mouth, but he didn’t get a chance to explain as Tyler himself blazed into the break room.
“Oh goody, a spot at the kiddie table,” he sang out, scooping up a plate and pancakes before depositing them and his own lanky self right next to Chase. “Wassup?”
Chase kept his jaw locked shut as the heat level ratcheted up to uncomfortable. He was twenty-damn-six years old… But it was Tyler’s favorite joke, calling him a “kid” whenever he got the chance, playing up the year-and-a-half difference between their two ages. Seventeen months, rather. And Tyler had only started at the station one month before Chase, ten years ago now. Ten long years.
BJ’s glance swung between the two of them.
“Mostly kiddie table. No offense, lieutenant.” Tyler jerked a nod at Reid, who arched an eyebrow. “Hey. I am not late.” He tossed a hand through his black hair to sweep it off his forehead and blasted the lieutenant with a winning smile.
Reid grunted. “Eat fast.”
“When am I ever not fast?”
Aaaand we’re done here. Chase pushed his own chair abruptly back from the table, ignoring BJ’s look as he spun away. He dumped a few pancakes and eggs onto a plate before heading through the door into the apparatus bay in hopes of finding some peace and quiet.
And maybe his appetite. His stomach was still a tight mess of adrenaline and anger. One short conversation over breakfast should not have the power to rearrange his insides. No matter who the talk was about, no matter how fancy the legwork. No matter if that particular name—and crass nickname—had languished in the corner of his mind for too many years. Waiting to jump out of the wings and surprise the crap out of him, apparently.
Kriss Lang was back.
And Tyler Schott was on the blood trail.