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Authors: Nicole Helm

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #AcM

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BOOK: Too Close to Resist
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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 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.

“I’ll help.”

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.


front of her easel, frowning. Somehow the idea of painting the river below on a sunny day had morphed into something dark and violent.

She’d had another nightmare last night. Was it a nightmare when you were replaying an actual moment in your life? When it was just reliving a night that was supposed to be a simple third date but had turned into the culminating moment of the next seven years?

Grace squeezed her eyes shut. Seven years. This wasn’t supposed to keep happening. At this rate, she’d have to go back to therapy, and she really didn’t want to do that. Therapy had been great for her. It had helped her leave the house again and trust people again. Well, mostly. It had worked.

If she went back, it would be admitting defeat. Barry would win. If she had to have someone help her out of this pit of fear again, seven years were wasted.

She didn’t want to remember, but the dream, the actual memory, crept back into her mind, infiltrated all those defenses she worked so hard at. Even the paintbrush in her hand and desperate pleas of her mind couldn’t shake it away.

You think you can break up with me?

She could still remember, dream or no dream, the exact sound of Barry’s voice when he’d said those words. Cold. Detached. Creepy because he’d been so absolutely incredulous. As if it were so unheard of. He was in disbelief.

And then he’d gotten angry. Quickly. His expression had gone from wide-eyed incredulity to squinty-eyed fury.

You don’t get to break up with me, Grace. I’m in charge here.

The first blow had hit her face before she could even brace for it. It had been so unexpected, so out of the realm of her expectations she couldn’t even flinch away. His fist had just plowed into her face.

Pain and shock and fear. So much damn fear. Maybe she’d held up her arms trying to protect herself. Maybe she’d tried to fight back. The rest was really a blur. His fists. Pain. Crying. Yes, she’d definitely started crying because she didn’t know what to do, or how to stop it.

Then blackness descended. She couldn’t see, she could barely breathe. Every inch of her body was on fire with a sharp, blinding pain. Something connected with her rib cage, sending another shock wave of agony through her body.

Nausea coated her stomach and she could feel the sickness rising, but she couldn’t move her head, couldn’t speak, couldn’t cry. Both in the memory and in the present, she was paralyzed with the fear and pain.

Suddenly the pain left, replaced by a shocking cold nothing.
You’re dead,
her mind said matter-of-factly, and for a moment she was glad. So glad the pain was over. What did it matter if she was dead?

But other people’s voices began to silence her own.
Don’t leave us, Gracie.
Mom’s voice.
We love you, Gracie.
Dad’s voice.
Fight. Fight for it. We need you.
Jacob’s voice.

The pain rushed back, so quickly she couldn’t breathe, but when she did manage a strangled breath the pain was soothed by their words of love. It was what had brought her back, those words. She knew that for sure. And there was a slight comfort in that, but it was a kind of comfort that had her sobbing in the here and now.

She could hear the fear in their voices, and she hated being part of the reason they’d been afraid. Hated that Barry had given them this kind of gut clenching pain that seven years hadn’t erased.

Those years between then and now had not dulled the intensity of the dream/memory, only its frequency. It made sense she’d have it again knowing Barry was free. Free to do whatever he liked. But she hated that they were all living with this again.

She wiped at the tears on her cheeks, looking at the painting, now dark and dreary. She wouldn’t let him have this, too. He had her dreams, her memories, her fear. But not this.

“Leak into my art all you want,” she muttered. “You will not win.” Grace carefully cleaned her brushes and put everything away. She’d break for lunch, call Mom for the daily check-in and come back ready to paint something different. Jacob’s interior decorator and administrative assistant were adopting a baby soon. She’d paint them something bright and cheerful as a gift.

Grace headed down the stairs to the kitchen, but the ebb and flow of conversation stopped her at the bottom. When she peeked around the corner, Kyle and Jacob and a handful of their employees were sitting at the table.

It was odd to feel so out of place. She’d met everyone at the table many times, but it was rarely during business hours. She’d never walked in on what appeared to be a meeting.

And maybe she was too raw, too beaten down by the things that plagued her to force the kind of confidence she didn’t really have.

To face Kyle after he’d been so decent and comforted her. Let her cry on his shoulder. Kyle. Of all people.

Grace looked down at her faded jeans and paint-splattered henley. The group at the table were all dressed in business casual, looking pretty and put together. Leah, the electrician, was wearing jeans and work boots, but even she looked more like a businesswoman than Grace with her hair pulled back into a perfect ponytail and silver hoop earrings.

Grace swallowed down the unwelcome wave of intimidation. Men with big fists and muscles were intimidating. People with college degrees and business savvy and elegant wardrobes were not.

Her feet didn’t listen, because they refused to move.

“Gracie, don’t be shy. We’re just having a working lunch. Come on in and help yourself to whatever.”

Grace tried not to wince at Jacob’s words or Kyle’s brief glance. A glance that seemed to scoff at the idea of
Which was right. She wasn’t shy in the least.

Forced into action, Grace entered the kitchen. “Just going to grab a sandwich, then I’ll go back to my room.”

“Don’t be silly.” Susan, MC’s administrative assistant, smiled. “We’re just talking.”

“Yeah. We only call it a working lunch to lure Kyle out of his office,” Leah added, grinning wider when Kyle sent her a disapproving look.

“Yes, well, we were discussing the Martin house, if you forgot. I call that a working lunch.”

“We can take a break,” Jacob replied, patting Kyle on the shoulder. Even Grace knew it was a sign for Kyle to lay off.

It didn’t make her want to stay as it usually did. In the shadow of all of these people—successful people—Grace didn’t feel much like yanking Kyle’s chain.

Grace went to the fridge and made quick work of putting together a sandwich. She opened her mouth to excuse herself, but Jacob requested a Coke. When she brought it to him, he nudged her into the chair next to him.

“Sit. Eat. Relax.”

Before Grace could retort, Kelly leaned closer. “I love your hair.” Kelly touched the ends of a pink strand and Grace gave Kyle a triumphant look. He looked down at his bowl of vegetables.

Was he really sitting there eating a bowl of vegetables for lunch? Of course he was.

“Me, too.” Susan patted her short black bob. “I wish I had the guts to do something different. I want to go platinum blond. Or maybe just shave it all off.”

“You are not shaving your head. Our baby will not have a mother with a shaved head.”

“Speaking of babies, I was thinking about painting something for your nursery, if you like. Have you picked a theme?”

“What a great idea! We haven’t picked a theme yet. I want to do unisex and Susan wants to know the gender first.” Kelly rolled her eyes.

“I guess if they’re talking about hair and babies, that means we have to talk about sports,” Jacob interrupted, leaning back in his chair. “How ’bout them Cubbies.”

Leah booed and tossed a napkin at Jacob.

Instead of Kyle’s joining the conversation, his mouth pressed into a firm line. “I think the business portion of this meal is over,” he said stiffly. “I’ll be in my office should anyone need me.”

Though he didn’t look at her, Grace felt admonished. As though somehow the conversation’s devolving into something besides business was her fault. She looked helplessly at Jacob. “I’m sorry if I ruined your meeting.”

“Don’t be crazy,” Leah said with the wave of a hand. “That’s just Kyle.”

“He has this condition. It’s very serious.” Susan shook her head and clucked her tongue. “The minute anyone starts having fun, his brain starts ticking like a bomb. Too much exposure to normal human interaction will give him an aneurysm.”

Jacob patted her shoulder. “You know how he is, Gracie. Don’t take it personally.”

Right. It wasn’t personal.

It sure as hell felt personal.

* * *

on the door frame of his office, the last person Kyle expected to see standing in the opening was Grace. Especially a frowning Grace.

“Are you busy?”

Yes. Very busy. Very busy trying to stop thinking about you.
When she kept popping up, it was hard to manage. “Well, I—”

“It’ll only take a minute.” Since she didn’t advance farther into the room, he felt safe enough to be gracious and nod.

“I’m sorry if I interrupted your business lunch. It wasn’t my intention.”

The formal words and the detached way she spoke shocked him enough to be rendered momentarily speechless. He opened his mouth and no sound came out.

“I only wanted to get some lunch. Next time, I’ll be sure to avoid anything that might intrude on business. No matter what you think, I’m not here to interfere. So I’m sorry. I don’t want to mess anything up or distract anyone or ruin your—”


“Stop?” Grace walked closer, confusion etched across her face.

“Stop...apologizing.” Kyle shoved out of the chair. When he was sitting, she could stand too close. Standing, he could keep some physical distance.

“But I—”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Kyle was at a loss as to what to do with his hands. He always knew what to do with his hands. They rested stiffly at his sides, but they seemed to have their own mind when Grace was around, so he shoved them into his pockets. “If I gave you the impression you were intruding, I apologize.”

She cocked her head. “If I wasn’t intruding, why did you get all weird? You were sitting and eating lunch until I came along.”

“It’s just...” Kyle cleared his throat. He felt oddly panicked. In the midst of panic, truth could escape. He did his best to lock it up.

“It’s just what?”

“I just...”
Shut up!
his brain screamed.

“You just what?”

Kyle glared at her. “This is nothing new. We have a working lunch. They start talking about...things. Kelly and Susan talk about the surrogate or the baby. Jacob talks about whomever he’s dating at the moment. Leah has something snide to say about Jacob’s woman du jour and I...I leave.”


Kyle swallowed. “Because that’s what I do.” It was bad enough he’d explained that much. If he explained she only made it worse, only made it harder to shut down and back away, chaos would break loose. The kind of chaos that always came with emotion and feelings


Kyle inhaled, trying to find some balance, some clarity. How had something so detached suddenly become about him and his many issues? “No apology is necessary for lunch. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“If you’re trying to make me not want to get to know you, you’re really, really failing.” She gave him a sympathetic pat on the elbow. “Get back to work, Kyle. We’ll talk later.” She grinned, and it felt like a threat.

BOOK: Too Close to Resist
12.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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