Authors: Nicole Helm
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #AcM
* * *
on Jacob’s bed, painting her fingernails a bright purple. She was not thinking about Barry. She was not thinking about losing it at the gym. And she definitely wasn’t thinking about Kyle being understanding and nice. About how he was more complex, more kind, more fascinating than she’d ever given him credit for.
Instead she was thinking about how she was going to wring Jacob’s neck for ditching her again so she’d felt compelled to go to the gym with Kyle. Maybe he’d thought she’d have Mom for company, and maybe at the time she’d been happy he was giving her lots and lots of space, but still. He was a grown-ass man, and would it kill him to stand up to his girlfriend?
So a little payback was in order. Step one: fill his room with nail polish fumes.
Grace studied her purple nails and smiled. Mission accomplished. Step two: wait for him to get home and poke and prod him over being such a wimp when it came to women.
Jacob opened the door and immediately scowled when he saw the nail polish bottle. “Okay, what did I do this time?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Ditch me every night this week ring any bells?”
He threw his keys and wallet onto the nightstand. “First, I thought you wanted space. Second, I know.” Jacob sighed and kicked off his shoes. “I suck.”
Grace frowned. It wasn’t like him to give in to her so easily. “What’s up with you?”
“You and Kyle will be happy to know that I broke up with Candy.” Since she was sprawled across his bed, he took a seat on the floor, leaning his back against the wall.
Part of her did an inward jig, but putting on her big-sister hat, she remained outwardly neutral. “It’s not like you to do the breaking up.”
He tapped his fingers on his knee, frowned at the floor. “Even I can be forced into breaking up with someone when there’s an ultimatum involved.”
“What was the ultimatum?”
Jacob closed his eyes, bounced his head against the wall. “Idiotic.”
“Ah, so it was about me.”
He opened one eye and studied her. “Self-absorbed much?”
Grace only had to lift an eyebrow to have him deflating.
“Okay, maybe partially about you, and me wanting to stick around the house more than take her out.”
“I know I should keep my mouth shut—”
“But you’re not going to.”
“She was awful.” Not nearly good enough for her brother. He had a bad habit of being unable to do anything alone. She couldn’t remember a time since high school when Jacob had gone more than a few weeks without a girlfriend. “She wasn’t even nice.”
“You’re right.” Jacob nodded solemnly. “I don’t know. I just...” He shook his head. “It’s not fun being alone.”
“You’re not alone.”
“You know what I mean.” He gave her a pointed look. “We seem to have opposite fears.”
She folded her arms across her chest and flopped back on his bed. “It’s not fear. I like being alone.”
“You like not taking a risk.”
She shrugged and stared hard at the ceiling. “So what?”
“So Barry was one guy.”
Grace knew that. Intellectually. But the intellectual part didn’t always win. She’d grown up with Barry, had known his family; going out with him should have been safe and easy.
But it hadn’t been, and the fear that it could happen again meant even the prospect of a date made her break out in hives. The prospect of something new left her feeling like an insecure teenager.
Knowing it was so damn stupid didn’t change how she felt, though.
She wondered how much Kyle dated. His trauma had stemmed from his family, but in all the years she’d known him, she couldn’t bring to mind any women in his life. Maybe the mention of a date, but never a girlfriend.
Maybe he was gay. She smiled a little, thinking of the moment in the kitchen when he’d been awfully close, and just as affected as her. No, she didn’t think that was it.
And wasn’t it interesting that when she thought of that moment and Kyle, she didn’t get that sick, nervous feeling over the prospect of something new?
“Do you know what happened to Kyle?” That wasn’t what she’d meant to ask, but, well, why not ask?
Jacob pressed his lips together, his tell. Lying had never been his strong suit. “What do you mean?”
“When we were kids. I mean, I guess everyone in Carvelle knew his parents were into drugs and stuff, but what happened to him? What makes him...the way he is? Spill it.”
“I don’t know much, Grace. Kyle’s not big on sharing. Why?”
She shrugged. “I just don’t get him.” And the fact that she
to get him wasn’t something she wanted to analyze.
“Give it time. He warms up after a while. You get kicked around most your life, being a little standoffish is how you cope.”
“How come nobody ever got him out of there?”
Jacob sighed, got up and then pushed her legs to the side so he could plop onto the bed next to her. “I don’t know. Bad stuff happens. You know that better than anyone.”
Yeah, she did. Maybe it would be best to leave it at that, but Grace didn’t really have that kind of self-control.
“Should I be worried about this weird thing you and Kyle have going on?”
Grace studied her toes. “What weird thing?”
“Give me a break. You’re sitting here asking about him. Then there’s the staring, the bickering, the very careful not staring. I may be a guy, but I’m not blind.”
Jacob elbowed her calf and she laughed. “You’re a catch, little brother. Stop dating anyone who walks by and maybe you won’t keep ending up alone.”
“She wasn’t that bad. All the time.”
“I wanted to tell her to go to hell every time she pranced around on those fancy heels wrinkling her nose at me.” Grace smiled blandly. “But because I love you, I didn’t.”
“I wanted to punch Kyle in the nose when I caught him staring at your ass.” Jacob smirked. “But because I like both of you, I didn’t.”
“Kyle was staring at my ass?”
“You’re happy about that?” The disgust in his tone delighted her even more.
“It’s flattering. Besides, I do have a very nice ass.” Grace flashed him a grin.
“Gross.” Jacob pushed to his feet. “On that note, I’m going to take a shower and erase this conversation from my mind.”
Grace knew she probably should erase it from her mind, too, but she didn’t want to. Not even a little bit.
chatter booming from the kitchen could only mean one thing. The whole McKnight clan had descended upon the house.
Kyle sighed. They were a loud, gregarious, demonstrative bunch, and he avoided them as much as possible. Mrs. McKnight always,
hugged him. He never knew what to do about it. Mr. McKnight would pat him on the shoulder and tell him the same joke he’d been telling his high school baseball players since the beginning of time. “A man with a wood eye asks a girl with a harelip to dance. She says, ‘Would I? Would I!’ He replies, ‘Harelip! Harelip!’”
Then there was Grace’s music teacher aunt who preferred singing to actual speaking, and a cousin who was always sneaking out for smoke breaks, not always of the tobacco kind. Added to all that noise and touching, the cousin’s four-year-old daughter always insisted on crawling into Kyle’s lap anytime he sat.
Kyle turned in retreat. He would hide away in his office for a bit longer. His grumbling stomach would just have to wait.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Kyle winced and turned to see an all-too-amused Grace standing in the hall between living room and kitchen. “Well, I...”
She shook her head. “Who knew you were such a coward?” She advanced on him, and he would have backed away, but he wasn’t
big of a coward. Her hand latched on to his arm. “We’re all going out to dinner and you have to come.”
“Oh, no, no.” Kyle tried to pull his arm away, but her grip was firm. “I have plans.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Liar. Come on. A dinner with the McKnights is just what you need to lighten up.”
“As I keep telling your brother, I’m plenty light.”
She snorted and kept pulling him toward the noisy kitchen.
And that was how Kyle found himself sandwiched between Jacob and Grace in a large booth at the Bluff City Pizza Hut.
Kyle focused on his off-white plate etched with the knife marks of years of use while Grace’s aunt belted out an aria from some opera she’d recently attended, the four-year-old demanded money to play games and Jacob and his dad told old baseball war stories. Meanwhile, Grace’s cousin kept trying to talk to her about Barry while Grace kept trying to change the subject.
“I saw him at the grocery store yesterday,” Paula was saying in a conspiratorial whisper the whole restaurant could no doubt hear. “He had on this black sleeveless shirt and there was this giant tattoo on his arm. He didn’t have that before, did he?”
Grace fidgeted next to him and her bare arm brushed his. Luckily it was very hard to fantasize about someone whose leg was pressed against his when his other leg was pressed against her brother’s.
“I’m not sure. Do you want me to give Bella some quarters for Pac-Man?”
Paula waved her off. “No, no, no. I’ll get it in a second. Anyway, he bought a twenty-four pack of Natty Light and a carton of Kools and—”
“Grace, did Jacob tell you that a client of ours is interested in buying one of your paintings?”
The entire table went silent. Kyle wasn’t sure if it was because of what he said or because he was talking at all, but at least Paula stopped yapping about Barry.
He kept his attention on his plate, having no desire to see what expression might be on any of their faces. “Jacob hung the painting of the river in the kitchen and a client of ours asked Kelly about it last week. She mentioned you were a local artist and they were very interested.” Kyle took a careful bite of pizza, chewed and, okay, damn it, he looked at her because he couldn’t not.
Her eyes were wide; her mouth hung open a little. “Jacob, is he serious?” But she didn’t look at her brother. Her brown eyes stayed on Kyle’s face.
“Well, I wasn’t going to mention it until the client made an appointment to see your stuff, but yeah. According to Kelly they were really excited about it.”
“Gracie! Isn’t that wonderful.”
The cacophony of a McKnight dinner returned, but everyone was too busy talking about Grace and painting to bring up Barry again.
Luckily, Kyle wasn’t forced to talk after that, but somehow on the drive home he found himself in Jacob’s truck. Just him and Jacob. Kyle got the uncomfortable feeling they were about to have a discussion.
“So,” Jacob began conversationally. “I saw what you did there.”
Kyle shrugged, focused on the passenger window. “What where?”
“The painting thing.”
Kyle shrugged again. He had no desire to be called out on this. “It was news. I shared it.”
“Yeah, at the picture-perfect time to shut up Paula rambling on and on about Barry. I’m supposed to believe that’s just coincidence?”
Kyle didn’t know what to say. He wanted to forget about the whole thing and not have this conversation. “She seemed uncomfortable, so I changed the subject. I don’t see why this warrants a discussion of any kind.”
“I don’t know. I think it does. The thing is, we’re friends. Have been for a long-ass time. I like you, Kyle.”
“Is this where you warn me to keep my hands off your sister?” He was already doing everything in his power.
“Actually, no.” Jacob pulled the truck into the drive, stopped the truck. “Whatever weird thing you and Grace have going on is none of my business and, what’s more, I don’t want it to be. I’m just saying this. I like you, Kyle. That’s why we’re friends.”
Jacob got out of the truck, but it took Kyle a few minutes to follow. He didn’t get it. It was more approval than warning, and that was the absolute last thing he wanted.
Another car approached and Grace hopped out, waving and blowing kisses at her parents. Kyle mustered up a smile and waved at the happy McKnights as they drove off again.
Grace approached him, grinning from ear to ear. “Hi.”
She didn’t offer anything else, and since he was afraid of anything she might have to say, he walked inside. Of course, Grace followed.
“That was quite the little stunt you pulled at dinner,” she finally said.
Kyle shrugged. Apparently that was becoming his default response to her and Jacob. Pretty soon his shoulders would be strong enough to carry bricks from all this damn shrugging. “No stunt.”
“You shut Paula up real quick and, God, I needed that. I think you’re my knight in shining armor.”
“That is the absolute last thing I am, Grace.” Just the thought of it had his stomach pitching. He’d barely saved himself; how could he be counted on to save anyone else?
Her smile softened into something sad. “I wish you’d give yourself more credit.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but she touched his shoulder. It shut up everything but the beating of his heart.
“I think I get the true north thing now,” she said, tracing the spot where his tattoo was under his shirt. “You always try to do the right thing, even when you don’t want to.” She brushed her lips against his, just as casual as you please, and then grinned. “That’s pretty damn attractive.” She sauntered away, giving him a little wave. “’Night, Kyle.”
* * *
Idiotic, really. Grace meeting with Kelly to discuss selling some of her artwork wasn’t important enough to spend an hour agonizing over what to wear. Kelly was just being nice because Grace was her boss’s sister.
Maybe a client did voice some interest in one of Grace’s paintings, but this wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t a thing to get nervous or excited about. It was a blip. A sale. Just as random and inconsequential as any of her Etsy sales.
Grace chewed her lip and surveyed the contents of her suitcase spread across her bed yet again.
“You can keep staring,” she muttered to the empty room. “Nothing is magically going to appear.” With a curse, Grace shimmied into her only pair of jeans not stained with paint and a bright orange sweater that wasn’t worn threadbare.
She might not look überprofessional, but she was an artist, not some financial guru or banking exec.
Grace jumped at the knock on her door. She checked her watch. Still a quarter to. She wasn’t running late. Maybe it was Kyle coming to tell her this was all a joke. When Grace opened the door, Kelly, Susan and Leah stood there all smiling. Grace tried to smile back, but there was something about this successful trio of women that always made her normal ease with people she knew disappear.
“I know the meeting isn’t for another fifteen minutes, but I got done with my appointment early. Mind if we come in and take a look at your stuff?”
“Oh.” Grace looked back at the clothes strewn everywhere. “I was going to bring a few pieces down. It’s a mess in here. Bad lighting.”
“Not a problem.” Kelly brushed past her. “We can pick a few things to take down to the kitchen, then.”
is her middle name. Nothing will shock Kelly.” Susan smiled, poking her head in the doorway. “Leah and I want to see, too, if that’s okay? I looked at your Etsy shop. You have some great stuff.”
Grace didn’t know what else to do but smile and nod. It wasn’t really her room and, hell, what was the worst that could happen? They’d all think she was crazy?
“Susan, look at this.”
“Oh, I was going to show you these.” Grace pointed to the stack of finished canvases she had stacked against the wall. Rivers and flowers and fruit. Kelly was studying what Grace had labeled her nightmare paintings. Dark, brooding. Some were even abstracts, a real departure for her.
But Susan and Leah oohed and aahed over a stormy river scene. It was slashes of grays and blacks. Muted greens, violent streaks of textured blue.
“This would look fantastic in our living room.”
“It is great, but don’t we have enough art in our living room?” Susan offered Grace an apologetic look. “I love it, Grace, but Kelly seriously has an art-buying addiction.”
“Please don’t...apologize,” Grace returned lamely. She was having a hard time breathing normally while they studied her work. It was the same feeling she’d had a few nights ago when Kyle had looked at her paintings.
Uncomfortable. There was no rush of maybe getting a sale. There was only...fear. God, she was so tired of that feeling she’d shoot it if she could.
Kelly started going through the stack Grace had chosen purposefully for the interested client. She held her breath as Kelly made clucking noises with her tongue.
“I wish I had a creative bone in my body,” Leah said, looking from the family picture Grace had on the nightstand to a painting of violets. “I love my job, but sometimes it’d be nice to do something not so...mathy.”
“I write,” Susan added. “But I wish I could do something like this. More visual.”
Coming from women who intimidated her, the praise, the envy, it helped put Grace at ease. Maybe they weren’t all so different. Maybe she wasn’t somehow on a separate plane.
“I think the two river paintings over there will be great for the Martin house. Maybe even the apples. Actually, most of your still-life pieces could be quite usable.”
“I—” It was far more than Grace expected, and Kelly seemed shrewd enough about what she wanted for Grace to believe that maybe, just maybe, this was about talent and not her last name.
“Seriously, why didn’t Jacob think of this before?” Leah demanded. “I swear he has his head shoved so far up his ass it’s a wonder he doesn’t walk into walls.” Leah winced a smile. “Sorry, Grace.”
Grace waved her off. “I love him and he’s amazing, but he does occasionally have his head up his ass.”
“Regardless of whose head is up whose ass, I’ll need prices for these pieces before I can show the options to Mrs. Martin. You’ll want to sign them, and then we can make a big deal out of you being a local.” Kelly tapped a finger to her chin. “Do you have a business card?”
“Um, yeah. I think. Let me check.” Grace remembered she’d put a few business cards in her purse last time she’d gone to Iowa City. She pulled open her purse, began to riffle through the contents.
Leah whistled. “Sweet Glock. Can I see it?”
Grace looked at the gun in her purse. “Um. Okay.” She pulled it out of the holster and handed it to Leah. It was almost as personal as letting them look at her art. Even though the gun itself didn’t mean anything to her, their knowing she had it opened up a piece of her. The piece she didn’t like at all.
“You decorated it,” Susan said, joining Leah in the study.
“Well, I...” She had taken some liberties and given it a little paint makeover, just to make it feel less like what it was and more like what she wanted it to be. Painted with the same design as her tattoo, she could pretend it was a symbol, not a shield to hide behind.
“Can you do that to mine?” Leah asked.
“You have to join our book club.”
Kelly groaned from the other side of the bed.
“Those two idiots pretend they have a book club and go out to Shades gun range every Thursday night.”
Grace looked at Kelly, then back to the two women admiring her gun. She could recognize when she was being invited into a social group. It was rare these days, but she could still recognize it.
Part of her was hesitant. It was still hard to trust people outside of her family. Even the friends she’d known since kindergarten had kind of faded away since Barry. They’d all gotten out of Carvelle, and no one seemed to know how to talk to her after she’d recovered.
Or maybe she’d stopped knowing how to talk to them. Letting those long-distance friendships fade had been easier than trying to bridge the gap of way different lives. Of the elephant in the room of her traumatic event’s silencing easy banter.
It was still hard to open up to new experiences because all of that fear ruled her. Grace’s hands clenched into fists. “That sounds great. Count me in.”
Kelly groaned again. “Well, I’m going to go back to work. Get me a list of prices you want for those pieces. Even better, an email with prices and pictures of each that I can forward on to Mrs. Martin. She’ll still want to see them in person, but we can maybe whittle it down, determine how many, et cetera.”