Authors: Nicole Helm
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #AcM
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
* * *
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.