Authors: Nicole Helm
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #AcM
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.
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.
* * *
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.
his mind whispered.
. 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.
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, 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
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
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.
* * *
and Grace was still fuming. Kyle had 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
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
chorus take over.
Except, even as the
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.
* * *
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.