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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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Wasn’t that interesting. Not that he wasn’t interested, but that it didn’t—couldn’t—matter if he was. Grace smiled. She liked that.

She crossed the room, keeping her eyes on his. It was so obvious he wanted to back away, but the challenge in her eyes kept him in place. He even tilted his chin up, challenging her back.

Some of that challenge died away when she got close enough to touch, and she would have kept on going until they were touching, but his hands clamped on her shoulders. He held her there, at arm’s length, but he didn’t put her back a step.

Since Grace couldn’t think of anything pithy to say, she didn’t say anything. She kept her gaze level on his, but when his eyes drifted to her mouth, her whole stomach flipped. A shiver of excitement skittered over her skin.

“I wish you wouldn’t push this.”

But she wanted to push. It was something far more appealing than dealing with the fact that she hadn’t gotten over all her fears in seven long-ass years. Far more appealing than dealing with her brother thinking he had the right to play puppeteer in her life just because she hadn’t totally recovered from her trauma.

“I’m not pushing anything. If you don’t feel anything for me, walk away.”

He didn’t. Indecision played all over his face. From what she knew about Kyle, she imagined there was quite the internal war going on inside that all-too-active brain of his, but she could wait it out.

She knew what his lips would feel like on hers, but just the faintest of touches. She had a vague sense of what he would taste like, but their kiss from a few days ago had been so brief, so totally on her that it had really just been a teaser, an appetizer.

And now she was really interested in the main course.

His hands smoothed down her arms and she thought he was going to let her go, walk away as she’d suggested, but his hands stayed on her elbows, his eyes still on her mouth.

She took the final step to him so they were standing hip to hip, chest to chest. She could hear and see him swallow, but when she tilted her head up, he brushed his mouth across hers. Tentative at first, much like the other night, but when she put her hands on his hips, inching just a bit closer, his mouth pressed to hers firmly.

Everything in her brain fizzled to a stop. When his hands traveled back up her arms, stopped at her neck and pulled closer, her stomach flipped again. And again. The skin on her neck, under the heat of his palms, tightened into goose bumps.

A jittering heat Grace hadn’t felt in a long time began to center itself, and when Kyle’s tongue traced her bottom lip, she opened her mouth eagerly, deepening the kiss, deepening the shivery feeling along every place their bodies came into contact.

She’d wanted more than the little playful brush of mouths from a few nights back, and boy, oh, boy was she getting it. She nipped at his lip, arched against him. Oh, yeah, this was definitely more.

She wasn’t sure what had changed, what had made Kyle inevitably come to his annoying senses, but he pulled away. Grace sighed at the look of utter horror on his face. Way to ruin a moment.

He cleared his throat, dropped his hands as if she were suddenly too hot to touch. Hell, by the heated response of her body, maybe she was.

“Grace.” He shook his head, raked an unsteady hand over his short hair. “This is more complicated than just...”

She had no interest in hearing his excuses or his apologies right now, so she sidestepped him and gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder.

“This whole ‘Jacob being gone for three days’ thing might have its advantages.” She grinned, but because she wasn’t feeling as flirty and light as she wanted to, she sauntered past him, not waiting for his response. She needed space, and she wouldn’t get it in the place she’d just kissed him.

Been kissed
by
him.

Despite the state of everything, when she heard Kyle mutter an oath behind her, she chuckled. Oh, she was getting in over her head, but it was awfully fun.

* * *

K
YLE
STOOD
FROZEN
in Grace’s room. His gaze was trained on one of her paintings, but he didn’t really see it.

He saw Grace.

He’d kissed her. Really kissed her. That had to rank pretty high in the list of mistakes he’d made in his life.

He could try to convince himself she’d goaded him into it, and in a way, she had. But she hadn’t kissed him first and she hadn’t forced his hand. He’d simply kissed her. Of his own accord.

He forced himself to move out of her room, away from the smell of paint and sunshine. In his office, he tried to focus on his computer, but he thought about the kiss.

The kind of kiss one didn’t just forget. The kind of kiss that kept a man up at night wondering what was next.

“Nothing is next. Nothing.”

“Who are you talking to?”

Kyle jumped what felt like a foot. “Uh, just...thinking aloud.” He cleared his throat, swiveled away from Jacob so he could avoid eye contact.

“Where’s Grace?”

“She, uh, went downstairs. I think. I mean, I assume.”

“You smooth things over with her?”

Kyle swallowed. “Um. Yes.” He kept staring at his computer and could only hope Jacob wasn’t reading him like a pathetic open book.

“Maybe we can postpone the trip?”

Yes. That was exactly what they should do. Postpone it until Grace was no longer a houseguest and there was no possibility that he’d be alone in a house with her.

Coward.
To postpone the trip would be to risk the job. If they wanted to expand, risking wasn’t an option. “No. No, you should go. I’m sure Grace will be fine. We’ll keep an eye on her.” Which she’d hate to hear him say, but he couldn’t help it.

He did want her to be safe. Him. Alone. Regardless of his relationship to Jacob. He cared about Grace.
Damn it.

Jacob sighed loudly. “Yeah. All right. Thanks for taking care of things, man.”

Kyle nodded, hoping Jacob never had any idea just how he had taken care of things. Or the things he was imagining taking care of.

In one breath he’d promised to take care of her, and in the next he’d thought of what she might feel like underneath him.

He’d kissed her. Touched her. Had tasted her and felt her. Soft. Light. He’d allowed himself a taste of something he could never, ever have.

That kiss was Pandora’s box, only instead of unleashing evil, it unleashed good. An irresistible goodness that someone like him could not be allowed to have. He’d ruin it. Or ruin himself believing he could have it.

Possibly worse, by kissing her, he’d given her a piece of himself, and it couldn’t be taken back. She knew. She saw his weakness, her, and she would push because she was Grace. And it had the potential to unravel everything.
She
had the potential to unravel him.

Not good. Not good at all.

CHAPTER EIGHT

“Y
OU
COULD
GO
stay with Mom and Dad. It’s not too late.”

Kyle fervently wished Grace would go along with Jacob’s last-ditch suggestion, but the grimace on her face dashed that hope.

“The last day I was at my house, I woke up and Mom was sitting at the end of my bed. I know they love me and I know they care, but I also know I, and more important they, need this breathing room.” Grace gave Jacob a little shove to the door. “Go. I’ll take my chances with Kyle.”

Kyle tried not to outwardly react, but his mouth turned into a frown anyway. He had no interest in taking his chances with Grace. He didn’t trust himself here anymore, and distance was the only surefire way to keep from thinking about her.

About that kiss. About the way she tasted, felt. The smell of her shampoo, the flutter of her breath against his mouth, her tongue on his. Kyle scrubbed a hand over his face.

Get a grip.

Jacob cleared his throat, and it was only then Kyle realized Grace and Jacob were staring at him expectantly. Since he’d obviously missed a beat in the conversation while he was busy taking a trip to Crazyville, he managed his best bland smile. “Sorry, I was thinking about an email I have to send to the window company. What did I miss?”

Jacob gave him a weird look. Grace gave him a knowing smile. Kyle tried not to run in retreat.

“I was just saying I’ll be back Friday night. Call if you need anything. Don’t do anything—” he glanced at Grace, then back at Kyle “—stupid.” He grimaced. “I gotta go.” He kissed Grace on the cheek, whispered something in her ear that made her laugh.

And then Kyle and Grace were alone.

Such a bad idea. Kyle gave half a thought to running after Jacob. They could cancel the trip. MC Restorations was doing all right. They didn’t need to expand to the western part of the state.

Kyle sighed. Didn’t need to expand, but damn he wanted to. He gave Grace a wary glance. “Would you be opposed to a trip to the gym?” Who cared what happened last time? Physical release was the only thing he’d found that effectively kept his mind off Grace.

She smiled. The kind of smile someone flashes before they upend your life entirely. Which she was doing a hell of a job at anyway. “I have a better idea.”

“That is highly, highly doubtful.”

Her low, sultry laugh made him want to smile and flee at the same time. But he stood his ground because he was not afraid of Grace.

She took a step toward him. He took a step back.

Okay, yes, he was definitely scared of Grace.

“Let’s go for a hike.”

She blinked up at him innocently. Except he had a hard time believing anything she suggested was innocent. “A hike?”

“Yeah. I’ve been wanting to check out Langly Falls Park for ages, but I haven’t made it over there yet. We can stop and get some sandwiches and eat dinner out there. I’ve spent too much time inside lately. I want to picnic in the middle of a bunch of trees, listen to a creek and pretend the rest of it doesn’t exist.” Her expression dulled momentarily, and then she brightened like the flip of a switch. “I’ll keep my hands to myself,” she said, waggling her fingers at him. “Promise.”

Yes, he could understand that. In the middle of a forest, it was easy to feel like the outside world couldn’t get you. The problem was, while she might keep her promise to keep her hands to herself, he was a little worried about his own resolve.

“All right,” Kyle muttered. What choice did he have anyway? For the next three days, he was in charge of her. She wouldn’t like him thinking of it like that, but if he reminded himself he was responsible for her safety and well-being, maybe he could remember that touching her in any way, shape or form was 100 percent off-limits.

Kyle had spent the past ten years denying himself many an impulse. Grace was a larger challenge than avoiding an argument or indulging in too much to drink, but that didn’t mean he was going to crack. Kyle was very used to not getting what the impulsive part of his brain wanted.

And let’s face it, this wasn’t so much about what his brain wanted.

“We can even go skinny-dipping if you want.”

“Grace.”

She laughed and patted him on the shoulder as she passed. “What? I was only suggesting it for exercise. Go change. We’ve only got a couple hours before it’s dark.”

Kyle did as he was instructed because it was easier. If he went along with things, was his usual bland self, everything would be fine. Grace was too colorful to find him interesting, especially if he amped up the boring businessman routine instead of that of the guy who’d experienced a similar trauma. The guy who understood, who felt compelled to commiserate, comfort, protect.

If he shut that guy up, everything would be fine. He could talk about the cost efficiency versus aesthetic appeal when it came to restoring houses, or he could discuss profit margins and growth plans, or even the anniversary party MC was planning for next week.

If he talked about all the little details that made even Jacob’s eyes glaze over, everything would be fine.

He could handle being alone with Grace McKnight for three days. Sure he could.

* * *

G
RACE

S
THIGHS
SCREAMED
in protest as they reached the summit of the bluff. She wanted to whine and beg Kyle to stop so they could eat, but she’d let him pick the trail and she’d be damned if she was going to look like some weakling.

She was in shape. Just not nearly as good of shape as she thought, or as good of shape as Kyle.

Speaking of Kyle’s shape...

He was a few yards ahead of her, wearing cargo shorts and a plain blue T-shirt. Casual Kyle. Woodsy Kyle.

She was beginning to realize all versions of Kyle were pretty hot. Especially now that she’d been pressed against him. Now even Mr. Businessman Kyle was mouthwatering because she knew what it was like to be kissed by him.

She huffed out another breath. The exertion of the hike up the bluff had worked in keeping her from thinking about that kiss for a good twenty minutes.

Hallelujah. Because hot and bothered really wasn’t working for her. She’d been very, very careful about dating since Barry. Okay, she pretty much hadn’t dated since Barry. Nothing more than a cup of coffee. But in the tiny town of Carvelle, there hadn’t been any men to lust after, so she hadn’t really missed being with someone.

Flirting with someone.

Kissing someone.

For basic self-preservation, she was not going to let herself go any further with that train of thought.

Finally, about five minutes after Kyle did, she reached the summit. In a few weeks, the river below would be hard to see through the leafy trees, but right now with just the buds of green decorating each branch, she could see the churning brown water.

One hundred percent worth the climb. A barge moved its slow pace through the murky water. Across the way, bluffs lined the river. An old fishing boat bobbed on the shore opposite them.

“A bit of a haul, but all in all worth it,” Kyle said.

Grace was just a pinch comforted to note his breathing wasn’t totally even. The hike hadn’t been a piece of cake for him, either.

“Ready to eat?”

Grace nodded, not wanting to show him just how out of breath she was. He dropped the backpack he’d worn and pulled out the blanket she’d packed, the food. Kyle being Kyle, he set up everything with meticulous precision while Grace did her best to even out her breathing.

She took a seat on the blanket, cross-legged, facing the river. A slight breeze worked its way through the budding foliage. It smelled like spring and cooled the sweat at her temples.

White clouds puffed overhead, birds sang to each other, squirrels and other little animals scurried in the trees she and Kyle had just hiked through.

It was exactly what she needed. The perfect moment. Kyle handed her the wrapped sandwich and Grace smiled. Even the almost-perfect companion. Who would have thought that spending time with Kyle was actually kind of enjoyable?

She was comfortable around him. She liked goading him. She really liked kissing him. This was what normal people did when they were attracted to someone. It was practically a date. Maybe it was time to dig a little deeper into Kyle.

Grace unwrapped her sandwich, bit into it and studied Kyle’s profile as he carefully chewed a bite. “Can I ask you a question?”

“It’s doubtful I’ll answer it.”

She smiled at that. “Why didn’t you leave?” Grace thought of her old friends. They’d been smart and ambitious, like Kyle. But they came home to visit at Christmas with their new families. Kyle never stepped foot into Carvelle despite being twenty minutes away.

“Leave?”

“You never go back to Carvelle, not even for Jacob’s birthday dinner or the Fourth of July, but you live twenty minutes away. Why not leave altogether? I mean, there are probably a million towns you could have started a business in. Away from Carvelle. Outside of Iowa.”

Kyle stared at her for a very long time. She was learning that waiting him out usually yielded results of some kind. If she pushed, he shut down. Withdrew behind that impassive, robot-like exterior. But sometimes, she supposed when he thought the topic was safe enough to discuss, he’d humor her. After a long, smoldering stare anyway.

The smoldering stare was growing on her.

“Did your brother ever tell you how we got to be friends?”

Grace shook her head and chewed her sandwich. She’d never spent too much time thinking about how easygoing, cheerful Jacob had begun a friendship with taciturn, stuffy Kyle. Jacob got along with everyone, but now it did strike her odd that Kyle had let someone in. To be friends. Partners.

Kyle leaned back on his elbows, looked out at the river. “Freshman year we were in this business elective together and our teacher had us do a project where you had to develop your own business. Marketing, accounting, advertising, the whole bit. She assigned us partners and Jacob was mine.”

Grace chewed her sandwich and watched as Kyle’s usually bland expression lightened into a smile. Since he never spoke about his past, it was interesting to see him relive what seemed like a pleasant memory.

“He never treated me differently, you know. A lot of kids did. The kids from town versus the trailer park kids. Jacob didn’t care. He didn’t roll his eyes at his friends when he was partnered with me. He just started talking a mile a minute about an idea he had. For a renovation business.”

Grace grinned. “He started talking about it when he was, like, ten and they had to tear down Grandpa and Grandma Davenport’s house. He’s been obsessed ever since, I guess.”

Kyle nodded, squinting into the setting sun. “He made it seem real, this stupid high school project. Plausible. For the first time in my life I entertained the thought of escaping Carvelle. Of being...something.”

Grace held her breath. It was the most Kyle had ever willingly revealed to her about himself and she wanted him to keep going. She wanted to see all the climbs and falls he’d made to become this puzzle of a man before her.

“He invited me places. I went. He kept talking about this idea, about how we could be partners. I’d never dreamed of trusting anyone enough to be partners, but Jacob is...”

“Infinitely trustworthy.”

“Exactly. He was my way out. So when he decided to go to U of I, and I got a scholarship, I went, too. I promised myself I’d never set foot in Carvelle again, and I won’t. But when he wanted to stay close to your parents, I stayed, too. Would I prefer to be elsewhere? Sure. But Bluff City’s grown on me, and it’s a better option than going it on my own.”

Grace inched a little closer. Just enough so he wouldn’t notice. She wanted to touch him, something innocent. A connection of skin to cement the connection of sharing, but he’d back away.

So instead, she went with what would throw him off rather than with what might shut him down. “Are you leading up to telling me you’re in love with my brother?”

He let out a surprised laugh, tried to frown over at her and failed. “Are you really operating under the assumption I’m gay? I’m pretty sure gay men don’t kiss women the way I kissed you.”

Grace raised an eyebrow, grinned. “Oh, are we going to talk about that?”

Shut down in three...two...one... “No.”

“Too bad.”

“While we’re asking questions...” He purposefully put more space between them. The big coward. “Why didn’t you go to art school or college or something?”

Because the question poked at an old insecurity and because the boy from the trailer park had a college degree and she didn’t, Grace bristled. “Too good to share a kiss with someone who didn’t go to college?”

Kyle shook his head. “Fine. I won’t ask questions.”

Grace poked at the rocky ground next to her. Mainly, Grace had rolled with the punches life was wont to throw. She’d dealt pretty well, she thought, but sometimes remembering made her bitter. It was the number-one thing she didn’t want to be. Bitterness made you give up.

But was what she was doing—living in neutral—any better?

Grace sighed. “I was supposed to go to Lake Forest. I had a partial scholarship, more than enough loans but...” She squinted over the river. “Mom got sick. She, uh, had breast cancer.”

Grace didn’t bother to look a Kyle. She knew what she would see on his face. Shock. Because the only three people who knew that little tidbit were Mom, Dad and her.

“Jacob doesn’t know. He was sixteen and Mom didn’t want to upset him. Us, actually. I wasn’t supposed to know. She was determined to beat it, didn’t want her students to know... So it was this big cover-up thing.”

Grace rubbed her forehead. Was she making sense? It didn’t feel like it. Those four years still didn’t make sense to her.

“I overheard her and Dad talking about not telling, and then I decided I would put off going to school for a year. I’d stay home and help out. Mom was pissed, but I just told her I’d tell everyone if she made a fuss.”

“Grace.”

“What? She beat it.” Hadn’t made it less scary at the time, but Mom had been determined and Dad had been a rock and Jacob had only been moderately suspicious. “Anyway, Jacob went off to school and they were paying Mom’s medical bills. You know there’s stuff her insurance wouldn’t cover? So stupid. But anyway, everything felt too late and then Barry and...I don’t know. It all seemed pointless.”

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