“THANKS AGAIN FOR doing this.” Grace McKnight sat in the passenger side of her brother’s truck and tried not to feel like a coward or a failure.
She wasn’t succeeding.
“Happy to do it.”
Grace fidgeted in her seat. Jacob’s good-natured acceptance of her proposal didn’t make this any easier. Nothing about Barry’s getting out of jail had made life easier. Nothing.
Seven years after he’d beaten her into a three-day coma, Barry was still influencing her life. No matter how Grace tried, she couldn’t find another alternative.
Going to live with her brother currently felt like the only option. Not only because of Barry and what he might do to the woman who’d testified against him, but also because living within walking distance of her parents was driving her insane, or at least turning her back into the jumpy weakling she’d been directly following her incident.
She couldn’t go back to being that person. So a little buffer from her parents was necessary, no matter how much it felt like running away.
Barry hadn’t even been released before Mom and Dad started hovering. Dropping in multiple times a day at the gas station where she worked—even when they should have been at work themselves. Bringing her dinner or breakfast at her tiny house a few streets over from theirs. Filling in every second of her life with false cheer and barely contained worry.
Grace couldn’t blame them, but she also couldn’t handle it. It was hard enough living with the fear that Barry would try to seek some kind of revenge. Her parents’ constant checking up and fake smiles, buying her alarms and talking to county deputies behind her back left her ready to head back to therapy.
She’d worked too hard and come too far to go back to being that woman who hid from everyone and everything.
So she’d stay with Jacob for a month or two, let her parents see that everything was all right. Give them some time to calm down and relax. If she lived with Jacob, they wouldn’t hover as much. Jacob had a security alarm, a roommate. Grace would be safe, constantly surrounded by Jacob or Kyle. They would believe she was safe and looked after. They wouldn’t be by her side constantly.
A few weeks and her parents would see that Barry’s being out of jail changed nothing. She could convince them. Had to. Because if she convinced them, she’d be that much closer to convincing herself.
And then maybe things could go back to normal.
Grace moved her gaze to her tattoo. A Native American morning star, it symbolized strength and courage. A nod to Grandma Davenport, the strongest woman Grace had ever known.
Symbols had strength. Grace had to believe they’d give her some. Even when this felt cowardly. Even when it felt as if she was giving up, she had to let that symbol give her some comfort.
She was doing what she had to do. For herself. For her parents. For the life she deserved. It wasn’t running away if it saved her sanity or kept her parents from worrying themselves into an early grave. Was it?
Grace took a deep breath and let it out, watching the small town of Carvelle fade away into cornfields and then into the larger town of Bluff City.
Grace preferred Carvelle’s small-town charm, and the ability to survive without a car because everything was within walking distance, but Bluff City had its moments. The Mississippi snaked below the town, calm and lazy. The sun was shining and even some of the deserted brick buildings along the riverfront looked pretty instead of dilapidated or flood worn.
Or maybe that was just her appreciation for the damaged and neglected.
Jacob’s house/office was an old Victorian nestled in the bluffs. Grace smiled as they approached the big building with curving edges and diamond windows. Five years had transformed it from a deserted, decaying eyesore to a shining white vision of the past. With the bluff to the side and the river beneath, it was downright gorgeous and a testament to the success of MC Restorations.
Her baby brother had built a business he loved. She tried not to let that be a source of bitterness for her. Sure, she spent forty hours a week cashiering at a gas station, but she also spent the rest of her free time happily painting. On occasion, she sold a piece, too.
She wasn’t an abysmal failure, and she wouldn’t let herself wallow in thinking she was.
Jacob pulled into the lot out back, and with the reality of the situation sitting in front of her, Grace tensed. Living with her brother was one thing; invading his business territory was another. Because Jacob didn’t live or work in this house alone.
“You never did tell me how you got Kyle to agree to this.” Jacob’s business partner and roommate, Kyle Clark, wasn’t her biggest fan. To put it mildly.
“He’s a decent guy, Grace. I know you two rub each other the wrong way, but he wasn’t going to say no to this.”
Grace stepped out of the car and looked up at the house that would be her home while she searched for some semblance of normal.
Yes, she and Kyle rubbed each other the wrong way. He was all repressed, cold impassiveness and she was, well, a normal human being with feelings. Feelings she expressed verbally and through her art.
She had no problem with people who were different from her, but Kyle was bound and determined to look down his nose at her and her choices. It never failed to rub her the wrong way.
Jacob gave her a nudge. “Come on. Let’s get you settled.”
It was cold enough to warrant wearing a coat, but Grace decided to tough it out without one. She hefted her bag onto her shoulder and pushed Jacob away from trying to carry her suitcase and painting-supply case.
They walked in the back entrance, which had once been meant for servants. The thought made Grace smile. She definitely belonged in the servants’ quarters.
“Oh, do me a favor, don’t tell Kyle about your gun. Not sure how well that one will go over.”
She patted her bag. “Keep ol’ Betsy on the down-low. Got it.” Not a problem. She didn’t go around announcing to the world that she could barely stand the thought of leaving her house unarmed. It wasn’t something she was proud of. Fear lived and breathed inside of her, but shame and determination kept it buried.
Grace followed Jacob up the back stairs to the room he’d earmarked for her.
He stopped at the top of the stairs. “I had Kelly come in and do the interior design for your room.”
“I told you not to do that.”
He shrugged, pushing the door open. “The more rooms we have to show what we can do, the better. I just rearranged the order a bit.”
“I’m sure Kyle loved that.” The minute Grace stepped into the room, she forgot all about Kyle and his OCD tendencies. “Jacob, this is gorgeous.” It was a tiny room—Grace had insisted on that. Not to mention its location had been the most practical choice in staying out of Jacob’s and Kyle’s hair. Their offices were on the other end of the long hallway.
Even if the room was tiny, it was absolutely perfect. She had a big window that overlooked the river. The light would be excellent to spend her mornings painting. The view was inspiring. Yeah, this was a little better than spending eight hours at Cabby’s, then going home and painting by unnatural light in the basement of her little house.
Not that she’d had time to paint with her parents’ constant hovering.
Grace took in the rest of the room. She’d expected the fuss and frills of the Victorian era, but it wasn’t like that at all. The walls were a deep green with a gleaming white trim. The full-size bed was covered in a floral-print bedspread, but the little violets were so tiny and pale lavender, it didn’t overwhelm the room. A small dresser stood in the corner with a ceramic lamp, delicately painted with more violets to match the bedspread. A lavender vase held a clutch of pink roses.
“I know it’s a little girlie with the flowers, but Kelly said an artist could appreciate a little girlie. Even you.”
Grace dumped her bags near the closet and grinned. No, she’d never been much of a girlie girl, but this was too pretty to resist. She was already planning out the colors she’d use to watercolor a hillside of violets to match the room.
“It’s perfect. Perfect.” She gave Jacob an impulsive squeeze. Leave it to her brother to make sure she wouldn’t want to leave anytime soon.
“I even had Kelly leave the walls bare so we could put up something you paint here. Artwork inspired by the room itself. Clients will eat that up.”
Grace was speechless and a little misty. She’d learned a lot in the past seven years, mainly how to protect herself, but she’d also learned firsthand that her little brother was one hell of a man when he wanted to be.
Grace turned and wrinkled her nose at Kyle standing in the doorway. It was a Saturday, and what was he wearing? Khakis and a button-up shirt. Who did that? If he ever deigned to wear jeans and a T-shirt, he might actually be kind of cute. In that preppy, brooding kind of way.
He’d filled out a bit since high school. Now instead of looking like a beanpole, he looked more as if he could be a marathon runner, lean but all muscle. He kept his blond hair cut very short, and his dark blue eyes always looked at her with the practiced disdain of royalty.
Which was crap because he was from Carvelle just like her and Jacob. Not only that, but he’d grown up in the trailer park while she and Jacob had lived in a small but cozy house in the nicer part of town thanks to two teacher parents.
But Kyle always went on about wine and opera and every pretentious thing under the sun with his clients, as though he was from somewhere cultured and fancy. He seemed to go out of his way to make people think he was something better, shinier and more important than a boy from a trailer park.
Grace wanted to feel sorry for him and what little she knew of his difficult childhood, but Kyle did everything in his power to pretend that his years in Carvelle didn’t exist.
It rankled Grace’s nerves the way he sneered at her choice of clothes, or her tattoo, or the colorful strands of her hair. He seemed on a mission to make her feel like the gum he’d scraped off the bottom of his shoe.
She didn’t deserve that treatment, and she’d never let him believe she did.
But he was agreeing to let her stay at his house. And she knew, mostly when her guidance counselor mother reminded her, that Kyle’s attitude had to stem from some kind of insecurity. So she would try to be nice.
His tone was bland. He sounded like a butler in one of those boring British movies where nothing happens and people just look at each other longingly.
Whatever, Mr. Khaki Pants. “Thank you for letting me stay.” Her gratitude was sincere, even if he wasn’t one of her favorite people.
You’re here. Grace. Welcome. Of course. Could the guy string more than two words together? Grace turned to the window and the pretty view below. It really was best now that he was so tight-lipped, because she had a bad habit of baiting him when he started talking about anything.
He shouldn’t bother her. Grace knew that, but it didn’t change the fact that he did. All that condescension and disapproval. It was human nature to want to be contrary, wasn’t it? She certainly wasn’t going to go the Kyle Clark route and dress and act like some kind of stuffy, repressed robot just because bad things happened.
No. She lived in the moment, for the moment, took everything she could from the moment. Screw rules. If she wanted her hair to be fuchsia, so be it. If she wanted to tattoo her face with an obscene picture, her prerogative. And if Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass frowned upon it, she most certainly did not care.
Grace flipped her hair over her shoulder, hoping he noticed the cascade of color beneath the brown.
Mom’s voice reminded her to play nice, and Grace felt immediately contrite for her inner diatribe. Sore nerve? Ugh. The guy was doing her a favor; she was going to have to cut him some slack. Or just avoid him at all costs. But right now, avoidance wasn’t an option. “It’s a great room. You guys have accomplished a lot.”
Grace rolled her eyes at yet another two-word sentence, but she bit her tongue. No need to get off on the wrong foot her very first day.
Silence settled over the room and Grace sighed. “All right, let’s get this over with.” She could feel the pinned-up tension waving off Kyle and weighing heavily on the small corner room. She could ignore it, or they could all get it out of their systems so the next few weeks went smoothly.
“What?” Jacob and Kyle asked in unison.
“Mr. Stickler over there probably has a list of rules for me while I’m here. Probably wants me to sign a blood oath I’ll follow them, too.”
Jacob looked at Kyle, then the ceiling. Obviously she’d been right.
“It’s okay.” She hopped onto the pretty bed, stretched out. “Lay ’em on me.”
* * *
KYLE FROWNED. HE did have some ground rules for Grace, but even he wasn’t rude enough to bring them up the minute she arrived. Especially when she was staying with them for such…sensitive reasons.
But Grace embodied everything Kyle worked so hard to rise above. No, she didn’t just embody it, she embraced it. She flaunted it. He had a business to run in this house, and her image didn’t match.
And if he kept telling himself that, he could ignore that Grace always put him off-kilter. Always prompted more response out of him than he wanted to give.
“I’m sure you have something to say about my tattoo,” she offered. “You’re always sneering at it.”
He wanted to argue. He didn’t sneer at it, per se. It was just so bright and…visible. That was fine for Grace, it even kind of suited her, but Grace…Grace did not fit the ordered, muted world he wanted.
“Your tattoo is fine, but… Well, it’s an image thing. We routinely have clients taking tours of the house. While your room will be off-limits for the duration of your stay, we may ask you to vacate it for scheduled tours. The kitchen and TV room are within the common areas. It’s likely you’ll be seen. Some people are put off by tattoos.” Which was why no one ever saw his.
She lay back on the bed, resting her head on folded arms. The sleeve on her arm rode up so the tattoo was now almost completely visible. The faded T-shirt she wore had bunched up so that a smooth strip of pale skin was exposed.
Back in high school she’d been more curvy, but ever since her incident, as he preferred to refer to it, she’d changed. She was lean now, her body toned with muscle as if she’d spent a lot of time trying to purposefully bulk up.
Wasn’t that what he’d done after his own…incident?
Kyle focused on the tattoo. “Well?”
“Well, listening to you talk reminds me of Mr. Mallory’s boring science lectures. But I get it. Walk around in long sleeves to hide my off-putting tattoo. Next?”
He scowled. How did she manage to make his perfectly reasonable request sound so ridiculous? “Next…” Kyle paused. She’d started this, but he was coming off looking like the jerk.
And that was why he hated to be around Grace. She always flipped things on their side. He could never control the situation. He’d spent eighteen years in a volatile, uncontrollable environment. He’d fought tooth and nail to get out, to make something of himself enough so that he was in control of his life.
Grace had an easy way of making him feel as though he’d failed.
“If you don’t like my tattoo, I imagine you don’t approve of my hair, either.”
“It is rather colorful.”
“And that’s a problem?”
He tamped down his irritation. For whatever reason, Grace always pulled emotions out of him he usually found easy to repress. No one else in his life could do that even with their best efforts.
Well, except one person, but Kyle refused to acknowledge that little blip.
“Problem is a harsh word. Again, it’s about image. We want our clients to look at this house, at us, and see professionals. Whether it’s right or not, your tattoo, your hair, your clothes will reflect on us. It’s not a professional look.”
“Is this guy serious?” Grace demanded of Jacob.
Jacob fished his phone out of his pocket. “I should call Mom. Tell her I got you settled in.” He stepped out of the room.
“Coward,” Grace muttered. She looked over at him now, her brown eyes assessing and obviously not impressed with the result.
“Bet you never thought you’d be alone in a bedroom with me,” she said after a pause.
“No, I suppose not.” Which wasn’t exactly true. Before he’d left Carvelle determined to never, ever set foot in that hellhole again, he’d had a little thing for Grace. But like most things from his teenage years, Kyle had come to his senses and left it behind.
Grace let out a lengthy sigh. “I get it. You want me to be some business professional clone.”
Kyle doubted it was possible. “Just during business hours.”
She snorted, rolling onto her side and studying him. “Personality isn’t a crime.”
Personality Grace had in spades. She always had, but she’d changed over the past few years. Her personality had expanded, exploded, so that it was so big he felt choked when he was in a room with her.
“No, I suppose not.”
“You could use a shot of it now and then.” She grinned.
It was hard to take offense when she was right. He preferred not to have much in the way of personality. It was the best way for people to look at him as an efficient professional without wanting to get to know him better. Getting to know people always led to questions he didn’t want to answer.
“Well, I’ll leave you to settle in.”
She nodded, closed her eyes. “Thanks for agreeing to this, Kyle. Really.”
Kyle swallowed. It had taken some convincing on Jacob’s part to get him to agree, so her thanks only made him feel like an ass. “No problem. I may be lacking in personality, but you’re always welcome.”
She might irritate him to no end, but he knew what it was like to go through trauma. Though he’d managed to keep them at a distance, the McKnights had always offered to help him. He owed the same to Grace. Whether he liked it or not. So he’d agreed to Jacob’s one-month proposal, and hoped like hell that was all it took.
“Don’t be so nice. I won’t know how to act.” She flopped back on the bed and took a deep breath, her chest moving up, drawing his eyes down to the deep V of her T-shirt. Quickly he stepped to the door and moved his eyes to the ceiling.
The last thing he needed to be noticing was his best friend’s sister’s breasts. Even if they were nice breasts. Well, weren’t most breasts pretty nice? Good God, he needed to stop thinking about breasts.
He stepped out of the room before she could do anything else to put him off-balance.
Kyle walked down the long hall to his office. He didn’t believe in wasting days on leisure. There was always something to work on for MC Restorations, and nothing made him more balanced than work.
Jacob was sitting at Kyle’s desk, his battered sneakers resting on the gleaming wood. Kyle tried not to wince.
“So do I get an A plus?”
Jacob chuckled. “I give you a solid B. A for effort, though.”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “Do you mind? I have work to do.”
Jacob swiveled in the chair, planting his feet on the ground instead of Kyle’s desk, thank God, but he didn’t get up. “We’ve talked about this.”
“Yes, we have, and we haven’t come to an agreement. So you keep taking your weekends off and I’ll keep working mine.”
“You need to lighten up, dude. We made it. MC is doing great. We don’t need to bust our asses with the seven-day weeks anymore.”
“I’m light enough to suit me. And I work the amount of days I care to work.”
“Come on. Tonight you should come out with me and Candy. It’ll be fun.”
“As fun as the last time you and Candy invited me out and I got ambushed by squealing Jenny?” As long as Jacob was dating Candy the Dictator, Kyle would be staying far away. He didn’t understand Jacob’s need for constant companionship. Being alone on a Saturday night sounded great to him, especially if Candy and her slew of single friends was the alternative.
Jacob held his hands up. “I had no idea that was Candy’s plan until Jenny showed up. The squealing wasn’t that bad.”
“Every time the waiter brought something.” Kyle imitated the horrible high-pitched squeal and Jacob hid a laugh with a cough. “It was that bad.”
Jacob shook his head, but he was laughing. “You’re too damn picky, man. Besides—”
“I’m not going. Shouldn’t you at least be around on your sister’s first night?”
Jacob frowned, swiveled back and forth in the chair. “Yeah, tell that to Candy. I tried to get Grace to come, too, but she and Candy don’t get along.”
“I can imagine.” Kyle jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Now, if you don’t mind.”
Jacob rolled his eyes. “One of these days, you’re going to have to let up.”
“Well, one of these days is not today.” Kyle slid into the chair Jacob vacated, feeling immediately better. This room, this desk, was indeed his happy place. Some people thought it was sad, but Kyle was perfectly content, so what did other people matter?
“I won’t stay out too late, but keep an eye on Grace for me.”
Kyle scowled. That was definitely not his first choice, but he nodded if only to get Jacob out of his room. He had no doubt Grace could take care of herself.
Jacob left and Kyle booted up his computer. So it would be just him and Grace in the house tonight. Thank God it was a big house and Kyle had plenty of work to keep him occupied.
GRACE COULDN’T FOCUS on painting. She was restless and feeling a little weird about being in someone else’s house, and Mom’s constant texts kept interrupting her. Might as well give up.
She’d visited Jacob’s place plenty of times, knew most of the house as well as her own, but she’d rarely spent the night. And she’d never been in the house knowing Kyle was around without Jacob to act as a buffer.
Grace poked her head out of her room. It shouldn’t matter if Jacob was around or not. Kyle had agreed to let her stay, and even welcomed her, even if that welcome came with a set of rules.
Scowling, Grace tiptoed down the blue runner in the hall. “It’s an image thing,” she mimicked, stepping onto the second-story balcony. Who talked like that? Who thought like that? She didn’t look like some crazed hobo. Tons of people had tattoos, many way more visible than hers, and the colored hair was definitely a trend right now.
Well, maybe not in Bluff City.
Of course, Grace could remember that Kyle’s parents hadn’t dressed nicely and had been considerably inked, and his mother’s hair had definitely not been natural. Even if Grace thought he should be over that connection ten years after they’d all gone their separate ways, maybe she kind of understood why they made him uncomfortable.
Grace took a deep breath of the cool April evening. She didn’t want to think about Kyle anymore.
It wasn’t quite dusk. The street below was narrow and lined with barren trees on either side, their bark rough and hewn from winter. Most of the houses on the street were the same sprawling Victorians as the one she was in, some still in good shape, a few not so much. She found them just as appealing with their vacant windows and fading paint as those MC Restorations had restored to be gleaming nods to the past.
It was a quiet little neighborhood on top of the bluffs, though the river was to the side of the house and she couldn’t see it from here. Grace wondered why someone had designed a porch here. Had it been to watch the horses and buggies below all those years ago? Or perhaps to spy on the neighbors without having to talk to them.
Grace took a deep breath, smiling at the hint of spring she inhaled. Spring was the perfect time of year. Renewal appreciated warmth. She couldn’t wait to see the uninterrupted sloping lawns turn to green, the trees slowly leaf out. The next month would bring a flurry of change.
And once things went back to normal, she would go home to Carvelle, to her little house in the middle of town. Her lawn would be green, too, and likely Mom would put a pot of pansies on her doorstep and plant some impatiens under her crab apple tree.
But…would things go back to normal? Would Barry finally be an unfortunate memory instead of a constant factor? Would her parents be the comforting, enjoyable people they’d been when Barry was in jail, or would she have to develop a more permanent plan? Or would she—
“Enjoy the moment, Grace,” she said into the still around her. Why was it so hard?
A dot of red drew Grace’s attention. Down the road a ways someone was jogging. Grace watched the figure, a man, get closer. Hmm. Not a bad view.
Despite the cool temperatures, there was a ring of sweat around his running shirt. He had broad shoulders and a body obviously―thanks to the skin-tight shirt―full of lean muscle. Loose gym shorts did nothing to hide the powerful legs that must have been used to a hard run. Grace never considered a man’s legs particularly sexy, but watching muscles bunch and brace as his feet hit pavement, then pulled back up, might convince her to change her mind.
Leaning on the railing, Grace continued to enjoy the show and let her mind wander. Maybe he did this every night. Maybe she’d take up running, strike up a conversation. They could stretch each other out. Maybe…
So quickly she tripped over herself, Grace moved away from the railing. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed fervently Kyle hadn’t seen her ogling him. Kyle. Kyle. She knew he was runner skinny, but who knew that meant sexy and lean and yummy?
Oh, crap. She’d just called Kyle sexy. And yummy. She was going to be sick.
Well, it wasn’t her fault he always dressed so formally she had no idea he was actually hot underneath.
Grace hurried back inside. She had to get back to her room as soon as possible. And maybe never come out again.
Of course, the universe wasn’t done screwing with her, because she had to pass the top of the stairway she could hear Kyle walking up. Her brain went through a chorus of oh, craps.
Not knowing what else to do, Grace put her head down and powered past the stairs, determined to do one thing and one thing only: get to her room without falling any deeper into this weird alternate reality she found herself in.
“Grace.” He sounded about as surprised to see her as she was to discover he was freaking hot.
Oh, crap. “Hey.” She turned to face him. Beads of sweat dripped down his face. See? That wasn’t sexy. He huffed in time with the beat coming from the headphones dangling from his neck. Not sexy at all. “Uh, good run?” Oh, God, she was an idiot.
He tugged at the collar of his T-shirt, looking about as uncomfortable as she felt. “Yeah. I… Yes.” He nodded after the fact and kept fidgeting with his shirt collar.
“Great. I was just—” plausible lie, plausible lie, plausible lie “—going downstairs to make myself some dinner. Want anything?”
He shifted from one foot to the other, still holding on to his collar. What was that about?
“I usually just order in.”
Grace waved that idea away, inching past him. He smelled like sweat and Irish Spring. Oh, crap. “I’ll make enough for two. Feel free to help yourself.” Why was her voice so weird and squeaky? And why the hell was she inviting him to spend more time in her presence?
“Sure. I, um, have to run through the shower first.”
Well, now that she screwed herself out of retreating to her room to determine what the hell had short-circuited in her brain to find Mr. Stuffed Shirt attractive, she had to go make herself, and him, some dinner.
Forcing one leg to follow the other, Grace took the first stair. She made the mistake of looking over her shoulder, accidentally making eye contact with Kyle, who was staring after her. She’d never noticed what a deep, pure blue his eyes were, and what the hell was wrong with her?
Grace whipped her head forward and took the stairs as quickly as possible. Distance seemed to be the best method to nip this crazy in the bud.
In the kitchen, Grace took a moment to lean against the wall and take a deep breath. This was weird, definitely, but not fatal by any means. So Kyle turned out to be more than just kind of cute. What did that matter? His personality hadn’t changed.
Bolstered, Grace poked around in the fridge. Not much to work with despite the state-of-the-art appliances and an overall gorgeous interior. Aside from the stainless-steel fridge and stove, the room looked like it came right out of the 1900s. Dishwasher and microwave were hidden inside gleaming white cabinets with distressed brassy handles. Decorative copper pans hung from a pot rack above the oven, and the walls were decorated with antique prints of food. A display cabinet stood along one wall with a handful of old kitchen gadgets and green bottles.
There was a small restored table in the circular end of the kitchen, surrounded on three sides by windows overlooking the side yard and the bluff below.
Grace pulled out eggs and cheese and a green pepper for an omelet. It would be another great place to paint with the almost surrounding windows. She wondered if Mr. High and Mighty would deign to allow her to paint in this room, or would that ruin his precious image, too?
Grace smiled as she mentally patted herself on the back. She was back to thinking about Kyle in the normal way, not the “hey, my brother’s stuffy best friend is surprisingly hot” way.
“I’m sorry we don’t have much in the way of food.”
Grace was startled, but hid it by pulling open a drawer blindly. She’d been in this kitchen quite a few times, but had never cooked in it. The pans had been easy enough to find, but she had yet to discover a spatula.
“I don’t like to cook for one, and Candy’s been keeping your brother busy the past few weeks.”
“I’m surprised you cook at all.” Was that mean? Was she being snippy? Suddenly she couldn’t tell if she was engaging in banter or bitchiness. Not good.
But she was off-kilter. Not only had she never seen him in shorts and a T-shirt during a run, but now he stood in front of her, hair wet from the shower, the smell of shampoo infiltrating her nose, and he was in track pants and a loose long-sleeved T-shirt. He wasn’t even wearing shoes, just perfectly white socks.
It was downright…normal.
Grace opened another drawer at random, focusing on the task at hand. In other words, not think about Kyle as anything more than her brother’s annoying roommate/business partner.
There were pretty little tea towels in this drawer. For a bachelor pad, it was quite the place. Of course, it wasn’t a bachelor pad. It was their business, and no doubt their interior decorator had picked out the dainty towels.
“The drawer right next to the oven.”
Grace looked up to find Kyle practically standing right next to her and only at the last second did she manage to keep herself from jumping away. “Huh?”
He opened the aforementioned drawer and pulled out a spatula. “Isn’t this what you’re looking for?”
“Oh. Right.” She took it from his outstretched hand, being very careful not to accidentally make physical contact. That would just be weird. “Thanks.” Grace avoided eye contact, instead focused on cracking eggs into a bowl.
“We keep a pad of paper in the cabinet over here for a grocery list.”
Forced to look now, Grace turned her head and watched as he opened the cabinet and pointed to the pad of paper hanging on a hook inside of it. “Feel free to add to it.”
“I go Sunday mornings, so if there’s anything you want for this week, you might want to get it down tonight.”
Grace smiled a little at that. Of course he had a set grocery day. The guy was about as anal as they came. But he looked good in the casual outfit, though he didn’t seem any more relaxed than usual.
He looked down at himself. “What?”
Heat stole up her neck so she quickly turned back to her omelet preparation. “What?”
“You’re staring at me.”
“Am not,” she muttered before realizing she sounded like a whiny kid.
“I don’t wear a suit to bed, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
She snickered because he’d actually made a joke at his own expense, but it didn’t last long because thinking about Hot Kyle plus what he wore to bed was bad news.
“Is that on your schedule, too? ‘Wear normal clothes Saturday evening.’” She wouldn’t be surprised. He probably even had a certain day of the week for sex. Oh, crap. Danger! Danger! Do not think about Kyle and sex in the same sentence.
She focused on the knife in her hand and the green pepper that needed slicing and willed every synapse of her brain away from images of Kyle’s powerful legs; flat, lean stomach; serious blue eyes.
She almost squeaked when Kyle stepped behind her. She could hear him breathing as he watched her slice the green pepper. She felt as if she was in a cooking class and he was the teacher analyzing her technique. Which was good. When he was being all judgmental, she had no desire to picture him naked.
* * *
KYLE WATCHED AS Grace haphazardly cut up the green pepper. It took every ounce of control to keep from telling her she was doing it wrong, but knowing Grace she’d just do it even more haphazardly to annoy him if he pointed it out.
Since he’d already run five miles this evening because he couldn’t focus on work thanks to Grace and all her innate Grace-ness, he wasn’t about to let her get under his skin anymore.
She was just so unpredictable. And not the kind of unpredictable he could troubleshoot. He never knew when she was going to scowl at him, poke fun at him or smile brightly at him in a way that made him uncomfortable. A discomfort he’d spent a lot of time ignoring the past few years.
Kyle pulled out a dish towel and stepped toward her to lay it on the counter so she would take the hint and use it instead of wasting another handful of paper towels. You’d think he’d slapped her on the ass the way she flinched.
He stared at the tattoo on her arm, because if he didn’t he might be tempted to look at her ass, and, well, adult Kyle didn’t do such things.
Besides, she was acting a little strange this evening. Jumpy. Maybe Barry being out of jail was getting to her. He should probably make a point to be nice, and make her feel that she wasn’t alone. He still wasn’t too happy about Jacob’s bailing and leaving the responsibility to him, but Kyle wasn’t selfish enough to not be honorable.
Grace had made the first step in being friendly, offering him some of the dinner she was making. So he would try to follow suit. Even if they were very different, they did have to cohabit for the next month, and Kyle would really prefer a smooth, nonconfrontational thirty days.
And yes, he was counting down.
He collected two plates and silverware and set the table. What could they talk about over dinner? Jacob was about the only thing they had in common, and it seemed strange to discuss him when he wasn’t here.
There was art, of course, but he’d tried that before. She always wanted to discuss the impressionists and modernism. Most of what he knew about art stemmed from his reading on the Renaissance period or still lifes. He’d never been one for the fanciful. “What would you like to drink? I could open a bottle of wine.”
“Uh, I’ll just have milk.”
Milk. Well, a discussion of wine was officially off the table. It occurred to him that they could discuss their shared past. Growing up in Carvelle, high school, but Kyle had made the decision a long time ago not to talk about those things. Then he could pretend his childhood there had never happened. That he wasn’t Kyle Clark of the Rosedale Trailer Park, where his parents were quite famous for all the wrong reasons.
He blinked, realized he was standing in front of the open refrigerator not doing anything. “Of course.” He pulled out the carton of milk and focused on pouring drinks and gathering napkins.
He turned to see what she was commenting on, but she just stood there, pan in hand, staring at the table. Then she laughed.
Kyle frowned, looking at the table himself. What on earth was she laughing at? “What?” he demanded.
She shook her head and stepped over to the table. Still laughing, she put half the omelet, which now resembled scrambled eggs with stuff in it because she’d done it wrong, onto his plate, then the remainder on hers. “You’re just kinda weird, Kyle.”
Irritated and defensive, he locked his jaw tight. He would not lose his temper, or point out that if someone in this kitchen was weird, it was most certainly not him.
“Actually, weird is a bit harsh. Quirky, I guess.”
He stared. “I’m quirky?”
“You know, in a totally anal, rigid kind of way.” She slid into a seat, didn’t bother to put a napkin in her lap before lifting her fork.
“Kind of odd for a guy who grew up in a double-wide.” She shoveled in a bite of food, and though his stomach rumbled after his long, difficult run, he didn’t make a move for the table.
This was one of the many reasons that, despite her unfortunate circumstances, he hadn’t wanted Grace here. Of the very few people in his life who knew a little bit of his childhood, she was the only one who’d yet to take the hint that the topic wasn’t open for discussion and never would be.
“You give them too much credit. It was a single-wide.”
She blinked at him. “Wow. That’s the most I’ve heard you talk about the past since you left Carvelle.”
Irritated the comment had slipped out, Kyle scowled. “And it’s the very most you ever will.” He turned to the stairwell. He would go do some work. Work would calm him down. But before he could take another step, Grace’s voice interrupted him.
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
It was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment, but letting his irritation show only served to increase people’s curiosity. Kyle returned to the table, telling himself to make sure bland Kyle was in fine form tonight. “Yes, of course.”
As he droned on about foreign markets, boring even himself, Grace retrieved a pen and the pad of paper for grocery lists. She shoveled eggs into her mouth and scribbled intently until he was done with his monologue.
She pushed the paper across to him, and he was forced to look into her amused smile for a moment. She was like a tractor beam with that smile, all pretty, cheerful goodness. He could not let that get to him.
He looked down at the paper. It was a drawing, no, a caricature of him. She’d overemphasized his square jaw, drawn little money signs over his head, and in the background was a quick sketch of her with z’s filling a thought bubble above her head.
He didn’t want to smile, didn’t want to find it funny. Hell, it was funny, and the smile won over the impassive expression he’d been working so hard to keep.
“Is that a little glimpse of a sense of humor?” Grace feigned shock. Or maybe it wasn’t so much feigned as exaggerated. He wouldn’t be surprised if she was shocked.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” He lifted a bite of egg to his mouth, trying to tamp down the amusement, the…lightness Grace seemed to infuse the room with.
She was a temporary visitor. This wouldn’t become normal. He wouldn’t let her so effortlessly invade his carefully erected protections.
No smiles, no jokes, no long, alluring legs could make him forget who he was. What he was. His soul was empty, and there was no chance of his risking filling it again.
At least he kept telling himself that, even as he folded up the drawing and put it in his pocket.
* * *
THE VOICES WERE LOUD. So damn loud, but then they always were. Kyle heard the sounds of crashing glass mixed with screams. Darkness morphed into the tiny room of a trailer and screams formed words.
“You stupid slut. Did you think I wouldn’t find out? Who do you think you are, you whore?” A thud pounded against Kyle’s bedroom wall. He closed his eyes, turned his music louder.
“You and your two-inch dick have screwed every willing meth addict in this damn place.” More crashing glass. A scream.
“I’m going to kill you. This time I’m really going to kill you.”
Kyle swallowed down the bile that rose to his throat. How many times had he heard that? Too many to count, but the sound of angry footsteps heading toward where he knew Dad kept at least two guns, loaded, struck real fear through him.
He was sick and wobbly, but he pitched to the door and stepped into the hall. He saw his father, a big, thick tree trunk of a man, weaving this way and that, drunk or high or both. Kyle had seen him this way before, but not with-it enough to have murder in his expression. Until now.
Something glass knocked into his father’s skull, splattering glass and blood everywhere.
“You bitch!” his father howled, turning back to the front of the trailer. Even though blood dripped down his neck, he stalked back to where Kyle knew Mom was waiting.
Not sure who he was trying to save, if anyone, Kyle scrambled for his parents’ bedroom. He fumbled with a drawer, pulled out the gun with his shaking hands.
End it, his mind whispered. End it. Fear was replaced by something steely and steady in his gut. His hands stopped shaking and his feet led him to the living room. There was no shock in seeing his father’s hands around his mother’s neck as her legs flailed and her eyes bulged.
Kyle walked right up to his father and pressed the gun in his back. “Stop.” His voice wasn’t steady, wasn’t even a command, and his father looked over his shoulder at him and the gun with a sneer.
“You wouldn’t shoot me, you pansy-ass piece of shit.” Kyle jumped back as his father’s hands dropped from his mother’s neck and reached for him.
“Try me.” He held the gun steady, trained on his father’s head. He wanted this. He wanted to pull the trigger and end everything once and for all.
The sound of sirens stopped him and the world went black.
When Kyle woke up from the nightmare, he flipped on every light in his room. He sucked in a breath, let it out slowly. As nightmares went, it was tame enough. Nothing more than the truth. Nothing as jarring as when the dreams turned to fiction and he pulled the trigger. Killing his father and feeling immense satisfaction in it.
Kyle swallowed down the nausea rushing up his throat. Even though his legs were weak, he purposefully strode to his office. He flipped on every light there, too.
His hands shook, but he brought the computer to life and began to type a memo to Leah, Jacob’s go-to electrician.
He worked for an hour before he was moderately confident the dream wouldn’t return. Between his five-mile run and the two hours of sleep he’d managed before the dream, surely he’d be exhausted enough to sleep soundly now.
He shut down the computer and turned off the lights, but when he stepped into the hallway he heard a thud come from down the hall. From Grace’s room.
Worry leaped to action, but reasonable Kyle kept it tamped down as he slowly made his way down the hall. Another thump was followed by a crash. Kyle jogged the last few strides and knocked on Grace’s door, his heart beating too fast for comfort. “Grace?”
She mumbled something, there was another thump, and then she opened the door, light from her room pouring into the hallway. She looked disheveled by sleep, her hair a tangled mess, her too-thin tank top’s straps hanging off her shoulders.
“Are you all right?” Since he was doing everything in his power not to look at her bare shoulders or below, he studied her face. She looked pale, and she was shaking. Kyle frowned. “What’s wrong?”
She hugged herself and shook her head. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Sit,” Kyle ordered, pointing to the bed. He noticed her easel was upended and deduced that it had been the source of the crash. He also saw a half-empty water bottle on the floor, picked it up and shoved it at her. “Take a drink.”
Surprisingly, she obeyed by taking a long, loud gulp. Because her damn shirt was practically see-through, he pulled the coverlet tangled at the end of the bed over her shoulders. “What happened?”
“I had a dream. That’s all. It woke me up.” She was still pale, shaking, lost. Since he knew the feeling all too well, he sank onto the bed next to her. Reminding himself it was just a friendly gesture, he put his hand on hers.
“What happened over there?”
“I was trying to get to the light, but I tripped.” She let out a loud shaky breath. “And it hurt like a bitch,” she squeaked, obviously losing the battle with tears.
He’d been there a few times himself. So he patted her hand and let her cry, one part of his brain telling him to comfort her, the other telling him to run away. Instead, he was frozen. Offering half comfort.
When she was breathing almost evenly again she pulled her hand away and mopped up her tears with the backs of her hands. “I guess bad things have a way of sticking with your subconscious.”
As he well knew. What he didn’t know was what to say. Actually, he did know what to say; words of commiseration fumbled through his brain. “Yes, they do.”
“If I wasn’t loud enough to wake Jacob, you must have been awake already. Bad dreams, too?”
She was close and smelled like paint and flowers, and the words fumbling in his brain wanted to get out, but he couldn’t. If he let them out, they would never go away. And she’d know and… Kyle stood abruptly. “I should get back to bed. Early day tomorrow.”
But he couldn’t stop. He had to be alone where he could beat back the words and images and everything else. Where Grace’s pretty face and direct questions didn’t tempt him away from the protections he’d built.
KYLE TRUDGED DOWN the back staircase, the smell of coffee a shining beacon after a terrible night. If he’d gotten three hours of patchy sleep he’d consider himself lucky.
Voices drifted up the stairwell, and when Kyle reached the bottom he found Jacob and Grace sitting at the kitchen table laughing over cereal.
His stomach cramped at the realization that mornings in the McKnight household were likely always like this. Bright, cozy laughter. With last night’s dream still flashing vividly through his mind, it was hard to swallow.
What had mornings been like in the Clark trailer? Overpowered by the stench of alcohol or drugs and vomit or piss. A quiet so deep and lonely, but safe. Blissfully safe.
Without greeting, Kyle walked over to the coffeepot and poured himself a mug. He felt too sick to his stomach to take a sip.
“Hey, man, you okay? Looking a little green.”
Kyle turned, tried to smile, but knew it came out a grimace as he saw two pairs of brown eyes staring at him. He didn’t want to be studied or worried about at the moment. Especially not by two perfect people.
Not that either were perfect perfect, but they seemed that way in the aftereffects of a two-nightmare night. His encounter with Grace had left him primed and ready for nightmare number two, and he’d woken feeling vulnerable.
Kyle refused to do vulnerable.
“Right. I’m fine.” He forced himself to take a sip from his mug. “Just needed a little jolt.” He lifted the mug, attempted another smile.
Grace shook a box of cereal at him. “Going to eat?”
He had no desire to fill his already queasy stomach with sugary cereal to go along with the bitter coffee, but he also didn’t want to appear rude. With a tight smile he retrieved a bowl and his own cereal, sans marshmallows, and took a seat next to Jacob.
“You even eat anal cereal,” Grace said, shaking her head. She was still in pajamas—that too-thin tank top that allowed the white bra underneath to be visible, and way-short shorts that showed off a mile of pale, smooth leg. Kyle focused on pouring the cereal in his bowl.
Jacob snorted. “Anal cereal?”
“Okay, that sounded gross, but you get what I mean. The only person I’ve ever seen eat generic bran flakes is Grandpa. Do you buy them on double-coupon day, too?”
“No.” Her syrupy sweet voice was meant to bait him, and no matter how raw he was feeling this morning, he would not give in to the urge to bite. “You know, on days we run a business here it would be best if you got at least half dressed before leaving your room.” Okay, apparently he was going to bite.
“Not a morning person, then?” She lifted a heaping spoon to her lips, but his eyes were drawn to her pretty much bare leg swinging back and forth while the other was curled under her. Could those things she was wearing really count as shorts?
Kyle concentrated on pouring milk onto his cereal. “I prefer solitude in the morning.”
“It’s true. I usually can’t get a word out of him before ten. Even for business. He’ll just email me a memo.”
Grace rolled her eyes, kept swinging that damn leg. “I bet Kyle sends a lot of memos.”
“Thank God for email, or I’d be drowning in paper.”
It took a lot more effort than it should have to tear his gaze from Grace to Jacob. “So from here on out should I expect the two of you poking fun at me to be my morning greeting?”
Jacob grinned. “It is the McKnight way.”
“Wonderful.” Kyle poked at his cereal. He wasn’t remotely hungry. Nor was his edgy mood from his dream assuaged any by Grace’s and Jacob’s teasing. So he would focus on what would. “The Porters sent pictures this morning. I uploaded them onto the website.”
“You don’t even take Sunday off from talking about work? What about it being the day of rest and all that?”
Kyle gave Grace a bland look. “Time is money. The more time I work, the more money I have to put into this business.”
“Work, money, work, money.” Grace dismissed it with a wave. “Snore.”
“Yes, I’m sure doing your little paintings and calling it art is quite scintillating, but some of us do have to make a living.” He knew the words were too harsh the minute they were vocalized. This was exactly why he preferred to be alone in the morning. Time and quiet to shore up his defenses.
“So is this what I have to look forward all month? You two going at each other?”
“I thought it was the McKnight way.” Kyle rubbed his temple, where a headache was brewing. A perfect addition to the unsettled stomach and gritty-eyed lack of sleep.
Jacob shook his head and made a tsk-tsk sound. “Banter is the McKnight way. We poke fun at your anal-retentiveness. You don’t fight back with an insult. You should make fun of my dating history or Grace’s hair. You know, unimportant stuff.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with my hair?”
Jacob gave his sister a doleful look. “You’ve got a freaking rainbow in there.”
Grace snorted. “It’s called self-expression. At least I don’t look like some low-end catalog model.”
“See.” Jacob grinned at Kyle. “Banter.”
Kyle failed to see the appeal. Or the difference. “Yes, well, like I said, some of us have a business to run.”
“I hope it keeps you warm at night, Kyle.” Grace pushed away from the table. “Or maybe you’re just part robot. A very lifelike C-3PO.” With that parting comment, Grace sashayed out of the kitchen, hips swinging in those foolish tiny shorts.
He wondered if she did it on purpose, the skimpy clothes, the hip sway. Just another level of torture to go along with her “banter.” Oh, hello, Kyle, not only am I wild and unpredictable, but look at my perfectly toned ass. I know you’d like to get your hands on it.
“Kyle, do me a favor.” Jacob clamped a hand on his shoulder, scattering Kyle’s less-than-honorable thoughts. Jacob squeezed. Hard. “Don’t look at my sister’s ass.”
Heat flashed up Kyle’s face as he tried to argue with Jacob’s retreating back. “I wasn’t—”
But Jacob had already taken to the stairs, and unfortunately, the argument would have been a lie.
Damn it, he had been staring at Grace’s ass.
* * *
TEN HOURS LATER and Grace was still fuming. Kyle had the nerve, the nerve, to call her painting “little.” To roll his eyes at what she loved, what she slaved over, her passion. Because he was so much smarter with his business and money and blah, blah, blah.
She’d show him where he could shove his time-is-money speech.
Grace sat on the second-story balcony cross-legged, watching the street below. At first she’d forgotten about the insult, but then Jacob had left and Kyle had informed her he was going for his evening run and he’d set the security alarm.
Being alone in the big house had led to thinking about Barry. Had he gone back to Carvelle? Did he hold a grudge against the woman who’d testified against him?
Grace shuddered. That was when she’d begun to focus on Kyle’s insults, on exacting revenge. Because it was way better than thoughts of Barry. Every once in a while a smidgen of conscience would poke through, reminding her Kyle wasn’t 100-percent jerk. He’d come to her room after her bad dream to check on her, even offered a weird kind of comfort.
But if she let herself be rational, she started thinking about Barry. So here she was, waiting for Kyle to come back. He’d already been gone twice as long as the night before. Where the hell was he? She was good and ready to show him just how childish she could be.
Her phone buzzed. She looked down at the text display, relieved it was Jacob, not Mom or Dad. Will you call me around ten and demand I come home? Grace rolled her eyes. Jacob needed to grow a pair when it came to his less-than-charming dictator of a girlfriend.
Balls. Get some. When he only texted back a curse, she smiled. At least there were some ways her little brother still needed her.
Grace checked the time. She’d been waiting for forty-five minutes now, and neither parent had texted. One day and things were already different. Maybe it was a sign she should just let it go. Prove her point in some less silly way, just be happy this little plan of getting out of Carvelle was working. She stood for one more scan of the street and grinned.
There he was, in the distance. She purposefully focused on the two buckets she had on the patio table. Watching him run could be…distracting, and she wasn’t going to be distracted.
She picked up one bucket of lemonade, and when he was close enough, she put her plan into action.
Right as he looked up, she upended the contents of the bucket over the balcony. He tried to move out of the way, but surprise allowed most of the contents to hit their target. When he didn’t move, instead just stood there holding his arms out as liquid dripped off, she upended the other.
“Damn it, Grace. This is not funny.” He shook his fist at her, which made him look even more ridiculous, and she doubled over in laughter.
“By the way,” she said, struggling to stop laughing enough to speak, “it’s not water.”
When he dropped a very loud F-bomb, Grace laughed even harder.
He peeled off the wet shirt, cursing impressively for a repressed suit. But her humor was short-lived when the chorus of oh, craps returned. Because she hadn’t exactly expected him to take off his shirt and give her a firsthand view of the hard plane of his chest or the slight ridges of his abs.
And his shoulders without a stupid polo or button-up were quite impressive, and that tattoo? Well, that was—
Wait a second.
“You have a tattoo!”
He quickly flung his wet T-shirt over his shoulder, hiding the black mark of ink before she had a chance to make out what it was. “No.”
“I saw it!”
“No, you didn’t.” She opened her mouth to argue, but he was stomping away. Delighted with herself for finding out Mr. Stuffy had a wild side, Grace scurried into the house, determined to find him before he could put his shirt back on.
Kyle had a tattoo. The very thought made her giggle. She bounded down the stairs, hoping that the design was something hugely embarrassing. A butterfly. Fairy wings. A unicorn. Oh, the possibilities of her imagination were endless.
All the crap he’d given her about her tattoo and he had one. It was too great. She laughed again, unable to stop herself.
She managed to get to the bottom of the stairs just as he stepped into the house. The shirt was still draped over his shoulder.
“You have a tattoo,” she repeated, poking a finger at him. “I saw it.” She tried to reach for the T-shirt to pull it off his shoulder, but he was too fast and stepped away. “Come on. Let me see it. After all the crap you’ve given me about mine, I deserve to see what yours is.”
“The difference is I don’t flaunt mine.” He turned his back to her, tried to exit on that line, but she grabbed his shirt in the nick of time, starting a tug-of-war with him. He won, but had to turn in order to do so. When he faced her, his eyes were blazing angry, his scowl wedged so deep, grooves appeared around his mouth.
A smart woman would back off. He was livid. It was the principle of the thing as much as it was fascination in making Mr. Reserved and Stoic lose his cool. “Don’t be such a baby about it.” She tried to snatch the shirt again.
His hands clamped around her wrists. “Knock it off,” he growled through clenched teeth.
It probably said something wrong about her that his authoritative directive and his big hands around her wrists caused a slow, tingling sensation of awareness to flow over her skin.
“I just want to see it.” She blinked up at him as he stepped close enough to her that their knees were touching. She could smell the lemonade on him, feel the sticky sugar of it on his hands. If she leaned just a few centimeters forward, her breasts would brush his wet, sticky chest. The tingling of awareness went deeper now, became more of a longing.
“It was a stupid mistake I made a long time ago. Forget it.” His voice was low and strained, as if it was with great effort he spoke at all.
His eyes, that dark, intense blue, held her gaze. She was tempted, so damn tempted, to close the little distance between them. The weirdest thing though was, from the way his eyes held hers, the way his jaw clenched tight as if he was holding back, she had a feeling he was just as tempted.
It was hard to catch a full breath with her heart beating so damn fast, and when she spoke it came out breathless. “Are you thinking about making another stupid mistake?”
He didn’t speak or move for a full thirty seconds. She knew, because she was counting. It was the only thing that kept her from imagining what it might be like to let him touch her, press his mouth to hers.
His hands gentled on her wrists, and then he let them go. He exhaled loudly. “I don’t make stupid mistakes anymore,” he said flatly.
Grace swallowed, all too afraid regret was the feeling washing through her instead of relief. She took a deep breath, determined her parting comment would be flippant. He didn’t need to know she would have been more than willing to go at it on the floor with him.
“Too bad.” She flashed him a saucy smile and then flounced out of the kitchen. But when she made it to her room, she collapsed onto her bed and let the oh, crap chorus take over.
Except, even as the oh, craps rattled around in her mind, she found herself smiling. It might be kind of fun to poke at this weird attraction. It would be downright fascinating to see how Kyle responded.
When her phone buzzed, she didn’t even care that it was Mom.
* * *
KYLE KEPT HIS entire body tense as he walked through the house and up the front staircase. He had to focus on the anger, the fury, or he might be all too tempted to follow Grace up the back staircase.
Well, he didn’t want to think about “and then.” He wanted to think about what kind of idiot made two buckets of lemonade and doused some unsuspecting victim with it. He wanted to think about why his best friend’s sister was such a royal pain in the ass and why that was suddenly his problem.
He managed to think all of that. At least until he stepped into the shower and the warm spray began to soothe the tense muscles. The smell of lemonade dissipated, but the smell of Grace did not.
Damn it, he didn’t want to know what she smelled like. Something sweet and light and intoxicating. Kyle rested his hands on the cool tile of the shower wall, let his head hang. The anger washed away with the lemonade, leaving something that might have been pleasant if it weren’t so unnerving.
Calmed and relaxed by the warm water pounding into his back, the moment played over for him. When they’d stood there, so close his breath had fluttered the hair around her face, she’d looked at him as if…as if she felt some inkling of that same jolt. As if he wasn’t her brother’s stuffy, boring roommate.
He liked that look way too much. Kyle wrenched the water to cold for a few minutes, then stepped frigid and shivering into the bathroom. Grace was off-limits for a lot of reasons. She was his best friend’s sister. She was the antithesis of everything he looked for and respected in a woman. And no matter how often he forgot it when she was poking at him, there was a very serious reason she was here.
A reason he was all too familiar with. How many times had his father been released from jail, leaving Kyle with the sick fear he might show up and ruin this amazing life he’d worked his ass off for? How many times had Dad gotten close to doing just that?
Too many. When a man was constantly getting locked up for petty drug charges, releases were quick and inevitable. The only reassuring part was that dear old Dad always wound up back in jail. It was the one thing Kyle could depend on. It just sucked to be dragged into a knock-down, drag-out fight every damn time.
Kyle stepped out of the bathroom, realizing with a sigh that he’d tracked a mess through the house. So intent on distancing himself from Grace and her melted-chocolate eyes he’d completely forgotten he’d been covered in sugary liquid.
Well, good. It would give him something to concentrate on that wasn’t his father or Grace or the strange way life gave him an insight into what she might be feeling.
Kyle began to clean the drips, following a trail from his bathroom, down the hall and stairs. When he reached the kitchen, he stumbled a bit. Grace was already there, mopping up where he’d dripped by the door.
Kyle cleared his throat. “I was going to do that.”
She bobbled the mop. “Oh.” She turned around, blinked a few times. “Well, I did kind of make the mess.”
They stood in awkward silence on opposite sides of the kitchen. Kyle wished he could muster up some of the anger he’d felt earlier. Mainly he just felt tired and confused.
He washed off the rag he’d been using. Crouched on his heels, he began to wipe the splotches of lemonade off the tile. Somehow, they managed to meet in the middle where there was a rather big puddle. Because that was where they’d stood way too close and talked about mistakes.
Which he wasn’t making anymore. Had to remember that.
Grace rested her head on clasped hands at the top of the mop, studying him. “Can’t you at least tell me what it is?”
She had a knack for taking a completely benign moment and making it either infuriating or the other thing. The other thing he didn’t want to think about. “No.”
“Is it that bad? I mean, I’d think if it was something really stupid you could have gotten it removed by now.”
“It’s not bad. It’s just none of your business.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t be so interested if you weren’t being so weird about it.”
“I’m not being—” Kyle stopped himself. She wasn’t going to let this go, and what did it matter? What did it really matter if Grace knew? Kyle studied the woman in front of him. She represented everything he didn’t want. Chaos. Letting her in on his own chaos drew her closer, and the closer she got, the harder she’d be to push away. The harder the chaos would be to control.
But she would be a thorn in his side either way, because she wasn’t going to give up on this until she knew. Grace didn’t give up on anything, even when she should.
She tapped an index finger against her elbow. Her nails were painted a bright, blinding orange.
“I imagine you got your tattoo to stand out?”
She frowned at his assessment. “If I wanted to stand out I’d get one on my neck or get a sleeve of them. I got mine because— Nope. No way, you’re not turning this around on me. You’re going to tell me one way or another.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re pushy and obnoxious?”
She grinned, her pretty face brightening with humor. “I live for those kind of compliments.”
Kyle let out a breath. “It’s a compass.”
Grace furrowed her brow. “A compass? Like north, east, west, south?”
“Why a compass?”
He wasn’t going into this. Not with her. “I don’t know. I was sixteen with a fake ID. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it.” Liar.
“Of course you did.” She shook her head so the tips of her rainbow-colored hair bounced out from under the layer of brown. “If you didn’t care what it was, you would have gotten something stupid like barbed wire around your arm or Bugs Bunny on your calf. But you got a compass on your shoulder. It means something.”
Kyle leaned back against the countertop, gripped it with his hands. He should walk away. He sure as hell shouldn’t tell her why he’d gotten it. Why he kept it. It was none of her business and he was all too afraid it would be another notch in the already too-long “things we have in common” list.
“Let me see it,” she demanded, pushing the bucket of water and mop to the edge of the kitchen. She leaned the mop against the wall, ignoring the little puddle she’d made when water sloshed over the side.
When she started walking toward him, he held out a hand. “Stop right there.”
“Just let me see it.” She batted her eyes. “Pretty please.”
It took every ounce of effort not to smile at her. “Go to hell.”
She snorted. “I’m beginning to think you’re not as stuffy as you pretend.”
Any threat of a smile vanished. “Yes, I am.”
She cocked her head. “If you don’t show it to me, it’s going to be my mission to see it. Which means I might have to jump in on you when you’re in the shower.” She waggled her eyebrows and grinned as though she might even enjoy it.
Either he was going to have to show her or things were going to get strange, and at the moment showing her a small piece of himself seemed much better than delving into that strange.
Doing his best to scowl, Kyle pulled the collar of his shirt over his shoulder so the tattoo was visible. “There. Happy? Can you leave me alone now?”
She most certainly didn’t leave him alone. Instead, she touched the tattoo lightly, with just the tip of her index finger, but he felt the force of that touch everywhere. A punch of awareness that had no business being associated with someone like Grace.
“I like it.”
“Fantastic.” His voice lacked the biting edge of sarcasm he was going for.
She traced the outline of the intersecting lines and he was painfully aware the simplest, most innocent touch from Grace was giving him an erection. Since he was no longer sixteen, it pissed him off. “Do you mind?”
“So why the compass?” She finally withdrew her hand, and his heated skin managed to cool enough that he could think rationally.
“What do you care, Grace?”
Her eyes met his, soulful and honest. “I don’t know. I think there’s more to you than you let on. You were nice to me last night. I think…” She tilted her head. “I think there might actually be someone I’d like to get to know under all that surface stuff.”
He swallowed down the jolt of emotion. It was because she was curious, because it was a mystery, things Grace never let go. It had nothing to do with him. Surface or under the surface. People didn’t care about him enough to get to know him. That was how he preferred it. Life wasn’t messy that way.
“Just give me one reason why you chose a compass and I’ll stop annoying you.” She poked him in the stomach, a friendly jab. Certainly not a lover’s caress. His dick didn’t seem to know the difference.
If he told her, she’d go away, and right now he wanted that more than his next breath. “To remind me to follow true north.”
She frowned. “What does that mean?”
“You asked for one reason. That was it. Good night, Grace.” He turned and walked out of the kitchen, using every ounce of control not to break into a run. Grace was requiring a lot of self-control on his part.