Read Too Close to Resist Online
Authors: Nicole Helm
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #AcM
“I’m just...worried about the party.” He cleared his throat. “I want you to be safe.”
“I will be.” Her whole brow furrowed, she kept rubbing her palm against his cheek. “It’s a party. Our first date.” She smiled brightly, but he knew it was forced. Saw the determined glint behind it. “It’s going to be a good night. And I know I’ll be safe because once you see the dress I’m wearing, you won’t be able to look anywhere else.”
He took one of her hands, kissed it. He had to remember the plan. What he’d promised himself back at that trailer park the night of Grace’s fire.
He’d bury the bad so deep it would never see daylight. He wasn’t Barry, because he would never, ever hurt Grace. He wouldn’t let the violent, evil part of him win. It wasn’t lying. It was survival.
And he’d always been a survivor.
* * *
her bed in a fluffy robe, trying to will herself to get ready and stop wallowing in self-pity.
But Barry was supposed to be in jail by now, and every lead the police found ended up being a dead end. They couldn’t even determine if he’d left the state or not. All they knew was he was still out there. Somewhere.
She hoped he was dead. She hoped to God he was dead.
But until they knew that for sure, here she was being a burden again. Though Jacob and Susan tried to wave it off as no big deal, Grace knew that because of her, extra precautions were in place for the party tonight.
People had to bring their invitations to get in, which Jacob assured her was just because rich people liked the thrill of feeling exclusive. They’d hired an independent security guard, which Kyle had explained was in case any guests got rowdy.
It was because of her. Because the security system wouldn’t be on the entire time as it usually was.
Their excuses were thoughtful, but she wasn’t an idiot. Kyle’s bizarre statement about protecting her. All this dumb party stuff. She was the reason for their extra work. For their worry, and as sweet as it all was, it made her feel like crap.
A few knocks, her door swung open and Kelly, Susan and Leah streamed into her little room with bags and hangers and laughter and friendship.
“Here comes the getting-ready brigade.”
The heaviness on Grace’s heart lifted just a little. “I didn’t realize there was going to be a brigade.”
“Leah told us you got her to buy a dress. So we’re making her do a grand reveal.”
Leah wrinkled her nose. “I’m not wearing it. I’m protesting.”
Kelly waved her off. “Don’t be stupid. We’ll wrestle you into it if we have to. In fact, we want to see it immediately.”
Susan began to chant “strip” and Grace happily joined in. Self-pity be damned. She was going to have fun tonight. Like she’d told Kyle. This was a party and their first official date, so she was damn well going to enjoy herself no matter what precautions were in place.
Leah huffed, muttered a few choice obscenities, then tossed her dress bag over her shoulder. “I’m going to change in the bathroom.”
Susan booed her as she disappeared, then grinned at Grace. “All right. Let’s see your pick.”
Grace pulled her dress out of the closet and Susan and Kelly dutifully turned around and studied some artwork on the walls as she changed.
Kelly turned and let out a low whistle. “Damn, girl. Are you trying to give Kyle a stroke? I’m not sure he’s ready for this kind of thing. Although he has dropped the cyborg routine rather quickly. Still, this might short-circuit him.”
Grace smoothed a hand over the front of the dress. She could go for a little short-circuiting. Especially after the weird moment this afternoon. She didn’t want worry—his or hers—she just wanted a little fun. It was amazing that a simple change of wardrobe and a few friends could knock self-pity to the curb.
Leah hurried into the room in her red dress with her other clothes bundled up in front of her. The door slammed shut and the whole room fell silent. Kelly’s and Susan’s mouths just dropped.
Leah scowled. “Well, somebody say something, for chrissakes.”
“Holy shit,” Susan said on an exhale. Then she turned her reverent gaze to Grace. “How on earth did you get her to buy that and then wear that?”
Kelly had the same wide-eyed kind of awe on her face. “Grace. Mother of pearl. You must have some voodoo magic. I’ve never even been able to get her to wear a cheapo jersey dress.”
Grace grinned. If anything had ever made her feel like part of the group, this was it. Knowing she’d helped do something Kelly and Susan hadn’t been able to do in however many years of friendship with Leah.
Even if she went back to Carvelle and Cabby’s and her old life when this whole Barry debacle was over, she’d still have friends. And Kyle. And this life full of people not only who mattered to her, but to whom she mattered.
Leah fidgeted, pulling the hem of the dress down. “I don’t wear this kind of crap because I look stupid.”
“You look great,” Susan said with the wave of a hand. “Freaking amazing. And if half the guys at the party are drooling all over you, you’d better buy Grace a nice thank-you present.” Susan shook her head. “How did you do it, Grace?”
Grace shrugged. “It probably helped that my house had just burned down. A lot of sympathy points.” There. She’d even kind of made a joke about the fire. Barry could play the bogeyman in all her dreams from here to eternity, but he wasn’t winning everything.
* * *
, physically checking off all of the to-dos as Jacob verbally listed them. Guests would be arriving any minute, and it seemed everything was in place.
The party had not been his idea, but it made good business sense, so he’d gone along with it. The house looked great and the potential for a few more houses on their schedule was large.
Besides, surviving as a business for five years was an accomplishment to be celebrated. He sighed. If only this kind of celebration didn’t leave his shoulders stiff and his nerves twitching.
“The security guy’s here?”
Kyle nodded. “He’s going to watch the back of the house. Henry will be on front-of-the-house duty. Your parents are on Grace duty the first hour, then Leah, then me, then you.”
Jacob scratched a hand through his hair. “All right. We should be good, then.”
Female laughter on the stairs grabbed both men’s attention. Kelly and Leah walked down first, Susan and Grace right behind.
“Christ,” Jacob muttered, and then his jaw just kind of hung down. Kyle followed his gaze. Well, Leah certainly looked different, but the way Jacob stared at her made Kyle wary.
“I wouldn’t suggest looking at Leah that way.”
“Huh?” Jacob huffed out a breath. “I’m not looking at her any certain way.” He crossed his arms over his chest, but his eyes didn’t leave Leah and her red dress. In Kyle’s mind, only bad things could come of that.
But Jacob was keeping out of his business with Grace, so Kyle would keep his mouth shut.
Speaking of Grace... She was walking behind Kelly so he couldn’t really get a good view until the group of women reached the bottom of the stairs and scattered.
And then just about everything in the room disappeared. Except Grace.
She walked up to him, all skin and black dress. Dark and sexy with a very self-satisfied smile. “Hi,” she offered.
It took a considerable effort to move any muscle in this face enough to work out a response. “Hi,” he finally managed.
here,” Jacob muttered. “Could you maybe save those kind of looks for... I don’t know. Not around me?”
Grace made a shooing motion with her hands. “Then go away.”
Jacob grunted, but then he disappeared.
“I hate to fish for compliments, but do you think I look okay? I mean, I know I look good, but do I look like I’ll fit in with the party? I don’t want to stick out.”
It amazed him she could possibly have any doubts about how perfect she looked. Room empty or full of clients, she looked exactly like she belonged.
“If you stick out, it’s only because you’ll be the most beautiful woman in the room.”
Her lips curved into a smile, something a little shy that curled into his heart and got lodged there, making him completely forget about everything else.
Until Mrs. Martin’s voice interrupted the peace of the room. “Grace, darling, don’t you look lovely! Have you finished our painting yet?”
Grace was swept away, and more and more people swept in. Congratulations were offered, food was circulated, music was soft in the background.
Despite being engaged in multiple conversations with clients and suppliers, Kyle’s eyes never left Grace. And more often than not, her eyes remained on him.
He could do this thing. He could live this life. Once he found a way to defuse the bomb that was his father, everything would be fine.
* * *
the main room, freshly armed with a few more business cards. It hadn’t been that hard to hand them out, really. Mrs. Martin had introduced her around the party as though she’d personally discovered her. When she handed her card to a few people later in the evening, she didn’t even feel weird or pushy about it.
She stopped at the entrance, her old friend unease settling through her limbs.
All night, she’d had to fight this feeling. This old niggling worry that even if no one looked at her funny, she didn’t belong. With her parents gone already and the rest of MC mingling throughout the crowd, Grace felt like little more than a believable fake among faces of the real thing.
These people talked about vacation homes, the stock market, restaurants she’d never even dreamed of going to. They commented on the wine, the fancy food Grace had wrinkled her nose at for being too fussy and weird.
She might look the part, she might have handed over business cards with ease, but she was an impostor, and it was an exhausting disguise.
Grace searched the room for some hiding place or dark corner. Any space that might allow her to fade into the background and wallow in her insecurities without putting them on display.
“Thank God you’re back.” Leah grabbed her arm and hung on for dear life. “You don’t leave my side until Handsy McGee over there leaves.”
Grace glanced over to where Leah gestured. A middle-aged man was staring at Leah all too fervently.
“Who is it?”
“He works at Abesso Lighting. Apparently now that he knows I have a decent rack, thanks to this idiotic dress, he’s all over me.” Leah shuddered.
“Let’s go sit,” Grace instructed, nodding toward the love seat in the far corner. Very few people were in that area, and with Leah by her side she could pretend that she wasn’t feeling out of place.
“Drinks first.” Leah dragged her to the hired bartender and asked for two glasses of the sweetest wine he had, and then led the way back to the love seat. “Much better. I do love to people watch.”
Grace looked out over the groups of people. Even sitting next to Leah, the unease continued. It was a little like high school, being self-conscious and being so sure people noticed that unease, though they likely didn’t.
“What’s up with you? You’re all mopey for a girl who’s been disgustingly happy all week. Kyle screw things up again? He’s probably going to do that a lot, but give him a break. He’s not like your brother. Girls aren’t a revolving door for him.”
“No, it’s not about Kyle.” Grace sighed, fiddling with the stem of her glass. “I don’t really belong here.”
“Who does?” Leah surveyed the crowd of people. “You think I do? Remember just how much it took to get me into this dress? This is all your brother’s realm, and Kelly and Susan. The rest of us put up with it because we have to.”
“Kyle fits right in.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “Kyle is an excellent actor, I’ll give him that, but he doesn’t like this stuff any more than we do. This is the first event we’ve had where I’ve seen him genuinely smile. And that smile is always for you, Grace.”
Grace fidgeted, not sure what to say or how to explain that this was separate from Kyle.
“You know, our second year we threw a New Year’s Eve party. A lot like this, but on a smaller scale. Just trying to impress some people. You know what Kyle did?”
“He filled drinks, he checked food trays, he went and got brochures if someone asked. He did whatever he could to not be involved, all while acting like he was. So look at him tonight.”
He was talking with Kelly and a couple Grace didn’t know. He looked...relaxed, she decided. And then she realized despite the fact that he talked to those people, his eyes kept venturing back to her.
“I think it’s pretty amazing. That you can effect that kind of change in someone. Impressive, really. Not everyone has that ability. In fact, I’d venture to say most people don’t.”
Grace didn’t know what to say. On one hand, yes, Kyle had changed in the past few weeks. He’d opened up a little. She knew that had to do with her, even if she didn’t know how. Maybe it wasn’t so much her as it was someone simply seeing the man beneath his mask. Maybe anyone could have done it.
Or maybe not. Maybe the commonality of violence in their pasts was what had broken down those walls and barriers. So maybe it was her.
Not that she’d broken down all his walls. There were still things that caused him to shut down or back away. But she’d done more than anyone, including Jacob, in ten years.
“There’s that smug lovey-dovey look,” Leah said, slapping her on the shoulder. “Oops, he’s coming over. I’ll make myself scarce.”
“Leah, you don’t have to—”
But she was already jumping off the couch, and in no time at all Kyle took her place. “Everything okay?”
Grace nodded. “Just a little partied out. Maybe hungry. Everything has some weird soft cheese on it.”
Instead of looking insulted or condescending, he pulled a granola bar out of an inner pocket of his suit jacket. “That’s why I carry these.”
Of course, it was one of his healthy fruit-and-nut bars, but it was still better than stinky cheese and wine.