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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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“O-okay.”

“Yeah, I need to get back, too,” Leah said. “I’m supposed to meet with Jacob at one about this new place in Council Bluffs.”

“Yes, I’m a part of that meeting, too.”

“You are?”

“Kyle’s sending me to act as referee. Or, as he put it, so you and Jacob don’t kill each other.”

The women offered waves and a chorus of byes and Grace was left in the wake, shell-shocked and not at all able to process everything. She might be selling a bunch of paintings. She might be making friends.

Grace smiled. And then she flopped back onto her bed and laughed. Fear could take that and shove it down its throat.

CHAPTER SEVEN

G
RACE
SAT
IN
the middle of her room, paintings sprawled around her, trying to make some selections and come up with a price list. To send to a customer. Who might want to buy more than one painting.

She was giddy and terrified and it twisted up into a ball of complete and utter inability to do anything except alternate between staring at the paintings and staring at the notepad balanced on her knee.

She wasn’t sure why this was different from putting her paintings up on Etsy, she only knew it
was.

The knock at her door made her jump; the three precise raps made her grin. “Come in,” she called, pushing herself into a standing position and starting to pile up the canvases so there was at least a path on the floor.

When the door opened, Kyle stood there, as expected, but Jacob was right behind him. Not quite what she’d had in mind.

“Uh, what is this? Some kind of intervention?”

“We need to talk.”

They looked so grim and serious, her stomach dropped. Whatever it was wouldn’t be pleasant. Were they kicking her out? She couldn’t imagine why they would, but if they were... Crap.

“I have to go on a business trip,” Jacob said, sounding as though he were announcing a death in the family.

Grace waited for the serious thing, but they both looked at her expectantly as if she was supposed to have some kind of response. “Um, okay?”

“We’ve been working toward this deal for six months now. We can’t put it off. Now, I’d go myself, but they need the contractor.”

Grace blinked at Kyle. She was missing some important key to this conversation, but they seemed to think she should understand what any of this meant. She didn’t. “Okay?”

“With Jacob gone for a few business days, the likelihood of you being in the house alone increases. I have meetings off-site occasionally, and while some of them can be rescheduled, some of them are pretty well set in stone.”

“Do you think the Abesso guys could come here?” Jacob said, turning to Kyle.

Kyle frowned, now facing Jacob as though she weren’t in the room or part of this bizarre conversation at all. “But I wouldn’t be able to see the stock.”

“Good point. Maybe—”

“Okay, what the hell are you two chattering about and what does any of this have to do with me?”

They shared a quizzical look.

“I won’t be here. So we need to figure out what to do with you. Who will take care of you.”

What to
do
with her? Take
care
of her. She could damn well take care of herself. She’d made sure of that. It might still scare the hell out of her, but she wasn’t a child to be looked after. Maybe she had little setbacks like the stupid incident at the gym, but she’d dealt.

With Kyle’s help.

Grace squeezed her eyes shut. Okay, maybe she didn’t have it as together as she wanted, but she was working on it. Regardless, it was her problem and her burden to bear. Not Jacob’s, not her family’s and most certainly not Kyle’s.

“It’s important that someone’s looking after you,” Kyle added, as if that helped the situation.

It didn’t. She hadn’t spent the past seven years working on herself so her baby brother had to look after her. She hadn’t taken up temporary residence here to make anyone’s life more complicated. She might not feel comfortable being alone yet knowing Barry was free, but being babysat? That was what she was trying to get away from.

“I do not need looking after,” Grace said, trying to remain calm. Trying to keep her emotions under control. She took a deep breath and forced a smile. “I appreciate the concern.”

Kyle and Jacob exchanged frowns.

“Go on your business trip, Jacob. I don’t know why we’re even discussing this. It’s not different from when you were dating Candy and weren’t ever here.”

“But that was different, and the reason I broke up with Candy was so I could...” He clamped his mouth shut.

Right. Apparently it was because of her. Fantastic.

Kyle took a step forward as if to stand between her and Jacob, but when he spoke, it was to Jacob, not to her. “Your parents have backed off. Perhaps...”

“I think they need more time. They’re backing off because
I’m
here. If she was alone, they’d harp all over again.”

Grace’s stomach cramped. In other words, nothing would ever be normal. A hard realization she didn’t have the stomach for right now.

“Don’t you have an aunt who lives in Ohio or something? Maybe she could visit.”

Grace could honestly not believe what she was hearing. “Uh, hello?”

Two clueless pairs of eyes blinked at her.

“You know I’m right here, right? I didn’t suddenly become invisible. I’m here. Older than both of you, or do I not have the equipment required for your little ‘what to do with Grace’ club?”

“Grace, come on. We’re trying to figure out what to do, to keep you safe.”

“I’m not your problem to solve. Not the crazy wife in the attic you worry over what to do with or who to ship me off to. I’m a person, and I can take care of myself and keep myself safe. Coming here was not about having a bodyguard, it was about getting Mom and Dad to ease up on the worry and because you have a security alarm. I can absolutely take care of myself.” Couldn’t she? She wasn’t even sure, but letting them know that was even worse than being unsure.

“You’re not a problem, Gracie. I just—”

She held up a hand. “Enough. You go do whatever business you have to do. And don’t you dare ask anyone to watch over me like I’m some kind of incapacitated loser. I’ll handle it.”

“You’re overreacting.” Kyle said, his calm, detached way of talking irritating the crap out of her. “This isn’t about you being ‘incapacitated.’ I want...” He stopped himself, cleared his throat. “
We
want you to be safe.”

She blinked at him, but he looked away. He hadn’t said
we.
He’d said
I.
Jacob was giving Kyle a weird look, too, so Grace knew it hadn’t been her imagination. He’d said
he
wanted her to be safe.

And what did that mean?

Jacob shook his head. “Kyle’s right. We want you to be safe.”

“My safety isn’t dependent on you being here or not being here.” It was dependent on the guy who’d beaten her into a coma and who was recently released from prison.

She turned away from them. “I’ll be fine here. You go on your trip. Kyle will go to his meetings. When no one’s here to watch out for the incapacitated loser, the alarm will be on and all will be fine.”

“She’s right,” Kyle said. “Um, not the loser part. The ‘all will be fine’ part.”

“Yeah, and it wouldn’t be hard to schedule it so someone is always here. If you’re at your meeting, Leah or Kelly or Susan or—”

Grace groaned as loud as she could and pointed at the door. “Get out.”

“What?”

“You don’t get it! You just... You’re infuriating. Both of you. Get out. Go plan your little ‘keep Grace on lockdown’ schedule elsewhere.”

Jacob’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it halfway out, glanced at the screen and cursed. “It’s Jeff Stein from Council Bluffs.” He pulled the phone completely into his palm, then frowned at Grace. “We’ll discuss this later.”

“Will we, Dad?”

He opened his mouth, then shut it with a scowl. Swiping his finger across the phone screen, he stepped out of the room.

So she was left with Kyle. He stared at some spot on the wall, hands shoved deep into his pockets. “I apologize if you feel that we were being...insensitive. It wasn’t our intention to make you feel like you didn’t have a say. That’s why we came to you.”

“And discussed it as if I weren’t even there.”

“That wasn’t our intent. I’m sorry if it was our execution.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “Can’t you just say you’re sorry like a normal person?”

“Probably not.”

“I should go home. Coming here was supposed to be...” What? Supposed to be what? Easy? She wanted to laugh. Easy died a long time ago.

She liked it here. Beyond having people around, she liked the old house and the river views and spending her days painting instead of fending off drunk passes from Cabby’s regulars who stopped in to buy their dinner of a twelve pack. She was making friends. She was building this new life, bigger than the insular world she’d been living in for the past seven years.

She looked at her paintings. More than she’d done in the past six months at home. Everything was more here.

It was still scary. It was still hard. But she wouldn’t allow Jacob to make her into his or Kyle’s burden, and she wouldn’t let someone else think it was his responsibility to watch out for her. If Jacob felt that he had to control her life behind the scenes, it was time to get out. Go somewhere else.

Yeah, just keep running, Grace.

Tears threatened because,
God,
she was so tired of this fear she tried desperately to ignore.

“You have a very tight-knit family that cares for one another,” Kyle said in a quiet, even voice, apparently not taking her turned back as a cue to leave.

“Yeah, so?” Since he couldn’t see her face, she quickly brushed away the tears on her eyelashes.

“So perhaps you could give Jacob a break.”

She didn’t understand how he could make it sound so ambivalent, not recriminating or disdainful, simply a suggestion. Like what to eat for dinner. “You do realize I am older than both of you. That penis between your legs doesn’t magically make you the protector of all female kind.”

“No, but perhaps it gives us an illusion of such.”

She turned and blinked at him. “Was that a joke?”

“Perhaps.” He was even almost kind of smiling. Just a hint of what a full-blown smile might look like on Kyle.

She laughed. What else was there to do? Kyle was joking with her. Kyle. Joking. With her. Almost smiling. Had anything more bizarre happened than this?

“As much as you want to pretend you’re here to give your parents a break, I think we both know that’s not altogether true.” His tone was level, grave and very quiet. No one could have heard him if they weren’t inside her room. The words made something in her chest hitch, so she looked out the window to the river below.

But Kyle did something she hadn’t expected at all. He stepped next to her. So close their shoulders were almost touching. “If you were well and truly in control of this, you wouldn’t be afraid to be alone. No one could possibly blame you for being afraid.”

“It’s not about...that.” Sad, but admitting it in words she was afraid she felt like a failure, and even if Kyle knew the truth, she didn’t want to vocalize it. “I could be alone if I had to.”

Kyle’s silence egged her on. “I could. I’ll have to be eventually, you know.” She swallowed at the thump of fear in her throat. “It’s not about being afraid or not being afraid. It’s about being treated like a child. Like I’m not smart enough or strong enough or—”

“No one thinks that.” His eyes met hers for the first time. A serious, determined blue. Her heart shivered in response.

“Deciding what to do with me without even asking while I’m standing
right there
says otherwise.”

“Point taken.” Something she couldn’t read flashed in his expression and he looked down at his hands. “Jacob wants to protect you because he cares about you. That need to protect isn’t trying to diminish your intelligence or strength.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You care about me? You want to protect me?”

He straightened, stepped away from the window and her, and completely ignored the question. “Do I need to apologize further? Because I’d really like to get back to work.”

Grace turned and studied Kyle’s impassive face. He’d said it, hadn’t he?
I want you to be safe.
He’d fixed it, but too late for it not to mean something. “I’m beginning to think you like having me around.”

His expression went dark, tense. “If I had my way, you would have never been here in the first place.”

Grace lifted her chin. If he wanted to take a shot at her, so be it. “And why didn’t you want me here, Kyle? Because I ruin your perfect life of order with all my silly questions and poor wardrobe?”

“It’s not about you. Per se.”

Grace laughed bitterly. “Per se.” She should go. Open her mouth and say she’d be back in Carvelle by bedtime, but she didn’t want to. Damn it. And Kyle did have a point. No matter how threatened she felt by their machinations, Jacob didn’t mean to belittle her in the process. It was just the dumb way men’s minds worked.

Except Jacob was her brother. The protecting made sense. Half the time Kyle acted as though he couldn’t even tolerate her. “Can I ask you something?”

“I have a feeling I’m not going to like the question.”

“Probably not.” Grace studied him, standing near the far wall, as separate from her as he could get and still be in the room. He was all pressed and polished in khakis and a button-down shirt. Spick-and-span Kyle. Mr. Businessman. Only Mr. Businessman looked a little scared and a lot wary.

“You know I like you. I’ve made it pretty clear I’m attracted to you, and sometimes I think we’re on the same page. But you’re hard to figure, and maybe I’m reading into things. So what’s the deal?”

He swallowed, visibly, audibly, but his gaze met hers, very seriously. “Grace, we shouldn’t.”

Grace took a few test steps toward him and he very subtly backed away. She might not be totally sure and strong when it came to being alone and independent. Yet. But she wasn’t going to be shy and retiring and wait around for an answer to magically appear when it came to her and Kyle.

There was something there. Something that didn’t scare her.
He
wanted her to be safe. Hell if she wasn’t going to take that opportunity when it was given to her. “We shouldn’t what? Be honest?”

“Shouldn’t...discuss this.”

“Why not? I’m a little over the whole ‘tiptoeing around it’ thing, and I think we’ve established I’d like to be part of the decision-making when it comes to my life.”

His chest expanded and he let out a loud breath. “It doesn’t matter what I feel. It can’t.”

BOOK: Too Close to Resist
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