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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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Grace pushed to her feet. “The sun is setting. We should go.”

“Grace.”

She didn’t like the pity in his tone so she started collecting her trash and doing what she could to avoid eye contact. It was pointless. Pointless to bring this up or rehash that a couple of years had derailed her life completely.

She liked her life, derails and all. Well enough anyway. No use having regrets about things that couldn’t be changed.

His hand rested on her shoulder, but she brushed it off, feeling a little too raw to deal with sympathetic Kyle. “It’s not a big deal. I like my life.”

“But you could have more.”

“Maybe I don’t want more. Is that so wrong?”

His hand slid down her sleeve until his fingertips brushed her bare forearm. “No. Not for some people, but you’re...”

“I’m what, Kyle?” She prepared for him to say something negative. All the things he really thought about her even if he found her attractive. She was too wild, too loud, too honest, too inappropriate.

“You’re smart. Lively. Bright. Fun. And a very good artist. You could do...anything.”

She stared up at him, so shocked by his nice words she didn’t know what to say at first. His fingertips hovered on her arm, as if he was caught between the desire to touch her and the need to run away.

“I like my life. I sell paintings online enough to pay for more supplies, and I have a job and a house and a great family. If Barry would stay in jail, I’d love my life. But I don’t need more.” It made her smile a little that it was true. She had pangs of what she’d missed, but going to college didn’t appeal to her now. “I like living in Bluff City and painting. I admit, I could do without going back to Cabby’s, and my parents’ compulsive worrying, but otherwise I do what I like to do.”

“Then that’s what you should do.”

Grace let out a sigh and sank back onto the blanket. Her parents were always hinting that she should do more. Not necessarily go to college, but something more than work at a gas station.

Then Kyle,
Kyle,
of all damn people just stood there being supportive. She rubbed her forehead. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“I apologize.”

He stayed standing and she stayed sitting. She knew they should head back, but she didn’t want to move. She didn’t want to think. She just wanted to go back to an uncomplicated life.

Except when was that?

“Kelly hasn’t stopped talking about your paintings. You know, you could probably make some money off it. Targeting our clients. Working with Kelly. She likes your stuff. It’s something to think about, instead of going back to Cabby’s. I mean, I’d think you could probably make minimum wage off your paintings. That’s all you make there, isn’t it?”

It was baffling that he was standing there giving her career advice in the middle of a bluff. That he wouldn’t talk about kissing her, but the course of her life? Sure. Why not? “Who are you?”

He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “I wish I knew.” Kyle sank next to her. Not touching, but closer than he had been.

She wished she knew how to soothe him. He seemed so troubled, but only he could find his way out of trouble. She’d learned that lesson herself. Only she could choose not to be bitter. Only she could choose to keep moving forward. And one of these days she’d figure out how to choose not to be afraid anymore.

She put her hand over his, and when he didn’t withdraw, her lips curved into a small smile. They sat there holding hands in the fading day as if this was normal, as if this could be normal. Even knowing it couldn’t, Grace wanted to lean over and kiss him and pretend. Just for a little while.

But...

“Kyle, I’m not going to throw myself at you again.”

He let out a breath, withdrew his hand. “Okay.”

“So if you could throw yourself at me, that’d be great.”

A stilted chuckle expelled from his mouth. “I...I can’t do that. This has already gone too far. Whatever it is. I can’t. It would be a mistake.”

“Because of Jacob?”

“Because of me.”

“Because I’m unsuitable.” That wasn’t a question because she knew that’s what he thought. She didn’t fit his ordered, mannered, businessy life.

“Because I can’t possibly be what you’d deserve to have.” He stood and began to fold up the blanket despite the fact that she was still sitting on it. “We really need to go or it will be dark before we finish the hike back.”

Finally, she rolled off, got to her feet. She had no idea how to respond. In one way it was a pity that he’d think so little of himself. But it was also super irritating. If she was honest with herself, though, she wanted to scoop him up and fix all those broken pieces inside him.

She knew she couldn’t, but that didn’t change the fact that she wanted to.

CHAPTER NINE

B
REATHING
THE
SAME
air as Grace McKnight was like being shot with truth serum. Kyle didn’t like it one bit.

Telling her about his friendship with Jacob had seemed innocuous at the time, but hell if it was. Now he felt raw. Exposed. As though she’d taken that little tidbit and crawled inside him, seeing all the other tidbits of his life. Things he didn’t want anyone to see, let alone her.

He wasn’t right for her. He didn’t get why she didn’t see that, but more so, he didn’t get why he’d
told
her that. He shouldn’t be telling her anything or talking about their attraction or that kiss or who was throwing who at whom.

Kyle paced his small office. Three long strides one way, three back. He was supposed to feel centered here, but he didn’t. He couldn’t focus on anything other than Grace’s being just down the hall. Wanting some part of him.
Him.

She made him want to talk, to rehash, to share, and if he gave in, he’d never be able to look at her without seeing pity in her eyes, maybe even fear. As much as he’d been a victim, he’d also been a participant. He wasn’t an innocent bystander like Grace.

He’d held a gun to his father’s head. Every time he’d seen his father since, the incident had ended in a fistfight. Kyle knew his father was the only one who could bring out that lack of control in him, but he’d never want Grace to witness that, to see that in him.

They might have both dealt with violence, but they were not the same. He could not let himself believe they were the same.

But the pull grew stronger. He could hear music drifting from her room, the smell of paint melding with it.

What would be the harm?

He’d fought to be honorable. What made him different from his parents, his upbringing, was this code of ethics he’d honed ruthlessly for himself. That code did not allow for dragging Grace into the bleak recesses of his memory. Into the pieces of himself that could still be manipulated into being someone he hated.

And if he kept this up, he’d show everything to her. Then what? She wouldn’t want to be under the same roof with him. She’d be frightened of what he was capable of considering her own violent past. Or worse, she’d want to help, to fix, to shed her light on his dark. It was such an irresistible idea, except for one little problem.

It was fiction.

Light never conquered dark.

A sudden banging interrupted his depressing inner monologue. It was too close to be someone at the door, so Kyle moved down the hall toward the sound. Toward Grace’s room.

She had her door open, so he peeked inside. She was standing on a mishmashed stack of things. Books, boxes, her suitcase. Of course she was. Grace was Grace and therefore couldn’t be bothered to get a ladder like a normal person.

She was pounding a nail into the wall. Once she was satisfied with that, she pulled a canvas off the dresser next to her and balanced it on the nail.

Go,
his mind instructed. But he was too busy studying the painting she’d hung. It wasn’t her usual. The two paintings Jacob had hung around the house were bright and cheerful. A river on a spring day; a tulip just a few days from full bloom. Pretty pastels. This painting didn’t match. Though there was a field dotted with purple blooms, the sky was gray and bleak. Clouds slashed across the top of the canvas, and the purple of the flowers was muted.

“Let me guess. Usually you measure the exact dimensions of the room and work up some sort of geometric equation to determine the best possible placement.” Grace turned to face him. Though her words spoke of irritation, she was smiling at him.

He would not smile in return. “No.” Although measuring didn’t sound as crazy as she seemed to think. “Kelly handles the decorations around here. I defer to her judgment.”

Grace rolled her eyes.

He looked back at the painting. It was very well done and it suited the room, but something about it coming from Grace made him feel...

Well, that was the problem, wasn’t it? She was always making him feel. So why on earth had he walked down that stupid hallway?

“I know it’s kind of dark. Moody. But the rest of the room is so cheerful I thought this would be a good contrast. I tied in the decor with the field of violets, but I thought people might be more inclined to study it if the sky was stormy, you know? Something you wouldn’t expect. I can take it down if you don’t like it. It’s just, Jacob said I could hang my stuff here and—”

“It’s perfect.”

She blinked at him. “Really?”

“It suits the room. Like you said, a layer of interest. You’re very good, you know. It’ll need a frame, I think.”

She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

He didn’t like that she was shocked into silence just because he’d said something nice. He didn’t want to be a bad person. He just wanted to fade into the background. “I can give compliments, you know. When they’re warranted.”

She smiled up at him, too close. The rational, closed-off part of his mind told him to step away, make a polite excuse and go find some work to bury himself in. Unfortunately, there was this new side of his brain. One that hopped the walls he’d spent years erecting and told him to touch her. Just one little touch couldn’t hurt.

He could touch and take and be and not show her the bad parts. There could be two Kyles, and she only had to see the one who followed the code. The one who was good and decent because everything depended on it.

Ten years he’d spent building this person, making himself into someone good. Maybe not full of personality or charm, but good. He followed all the rules. Didn’t he deserve a reward? Something that made it all worth it?

Kyle cleared his throat, hoping to dislodge the voice that lied. “I didn’t come here to...”

Her smile widened. Something unbidden worked its way through his chest. It wasn’t all sexual, either. That was where Grace was dangerous. He wasn’t just attracted to her―he liked her. Liked the way he felt when he was with her, even when she was driving him up the wall.

“Didn’t come here to what?”

“Well.” Not an easy or safe way to answer that one. So he should make his excuses and leave. Any minute now.

“You know, you’d make a great subject to paint.” She stepped closer. The part of his brain that usually told him to back away was eerily silent.

“I would?”

“I don’t do a lot of living subjects, but let me see.” She reached out and grasped his chin, turned his head to the right then left. “Hmm.” She was close. Closer than need be. The protests of his rational brain so quiet he could barely hear them.

“You’re doing this on purpose.” God help him, it wasn’t consternation so much as hope in his tone.

She grinned, trailed one fingertip over the line of his chin. “And what purpose do you think I’m aiming for?”

The smile. The challenge. Synapses in his brain stopped firing. Instead of moving away, he stepped closer. The voice inside his head that had kept him from getting entangled in anything he couldn’t control for ten years grew quieter and quieter, until there was only silence.

The silence was amazing.

So he brushed the tips of his fingers across the curve of her jaw. That was amazing, too. “Grace.” He wasn’t sure what it was he was trying to tell her. That this couldn’t possibly be a good idea. That he didn’t care if it wasn’t.

“Mmm?”

His movements were bolder and more confident than he felt, fingers brushing the hair off her shoulder, cupping the soft curve of her neck, slowly pulling her closer until their bodies touched. Until their mouths touched.

He wasn’t sure he’d ever kissed someone who was smiling before. The upward curve of her mouth felt foreign and light. Something fragile and special. He sank into it. The new, light feeling. A bright warmth unique to Grace. Her arms moved around his neck and he flattened his hands against her back, holding her close. Her tongue dipped into the corner of his mouth, the soft skin of her palms anchored on the back of his neck.

Her lips brushed lightly across his, and then she laughed, a quiet, comforting sound.

“Is something funny?”

Her fingertips danced across the sides of his neck, sending goose bumps down his spine. “
Funny
isn’t the right word.” She nipped at his jaw, pressing herself against him so that it was hard to concentrate on anything beyond her warmth and soft body against his. “It’s just...” She sighed, her hands traveling down to rest on his chest. “You try to pretend that you’re boring and standoffish and cold, but every time you kiss me, well, it’s anything but.”

“I see.” He didn’t. At all, but his hands were still on her back, and he lowered his mouth to the spot behind her ear. She shivered against him. It didn’t matter if he understood. Only this mattered.

She laughed again. “You’re not going to change your mind, then?”

“No.” The word escaped before he had a chance to weigh it, to contort it into something bland and controlled.

“Good.” She entwined a hand with one of his and led him toward the bed.

He swallowed as his stomach jumped. As he followed. A whisper of the voice of reason managed to break through.
Wrong,
it hissed.
Not for you.
Grace pulled him onto her bed so they knelt knee to knee on the twisted comforter.

A new, louder voice echoed in his brain, drowning out the chorus of wrong. This voice shouted
right.
Everything felt right. He smoothed his hands down her sides, then under her shirt, feeling the soft, smooth skin of her abdomen.

She made a quiet moaning sound, digging her fingers into his shoulders, pulling him closer. He began to lift her shirt, but the jarring sound of a phone stopped him midmovement.

Grace kissed his chin. “I’m going to ignore it.”

Kyle slowly let go of the bottom of her shirt, moved his hands to her hips, studied her flushed face. “You should get it. It’s late. It might be an emergency.”

“It’s not that late.” The ringing stopped. Nothing else stood between this moment and the next. But when he leaned down to kiss her again, the phone on the nightstand trilled once again.

Grace caught her lip between her teeth.

“Get it. I’ll...wait.” There would be no turning back now. No running away. Wrong or right didn’t really matter; everything felt inevitable.

Grace moved out of his grasp and reached over to the nightstand. She frowned at the display. “It is a little late for Mom to be calling, but it’s probably nothing.” She hit a button. “Mom? Is everything—”

The frown deepened, her face paled and any inevitability of him and Grace vanished. Here was the sign from the universe.

“I’m coming. No. I am. Just... I’ll be there. It’s my house. I’ll be there.” She pulled the phone away from her ear, and though her eyes moved to him he didn’t think she actually saw him. “I need to borrow your car, I think. Yes. That’s what I need to do.”

There were a lot of terrible things he was capable of, but ignoring her obvious emergency when she was so pale and shaken was not one of them. “What’s wrong?”

She swallowed, holding the phone in her hands. Shock and horror and confusion all wrapped up on her pretty face. “My house is on fire.”

Kyle stepped away. The voice of reason back, hissing at him. He’d let down his walls, and this was what happened. Destruction.

Kyle shook his head. Stupid. Foolish thought. He was separate from this. Inconsequential to it. Something in his dark, beleaguered soul laughed, but he ignored it. He wasn’t important. What was important was Grace. She moved without ever completing an action. Her hands shook. He had to find the control he’d lost somewhere on the walk from his office to her room.

“Is everyone all right?”

“As far as I know. The house is empty. I’m not sure about the neighbors. Mom didn’t mention it. I have to get there. I have to...” She took some halting steps, turned around.

Kyle swallowed down the fear and traded it in for the ruthless, cold control he had to employ to do what needed to be done. Ten years later and he was going to have to return to Carvelle.

* * *

“I
HAVE
TO
GO
.
My house. All of my things.” The idea that she was losing everything and she wasn’t even there was too painful to wrap her mind around. She moved to grab her purse. Stopped halfway, turned to find her shoes. Nothing made sense.

“I’ll drive you.” Kyle picked her purse off the nightstand, handed it to her in quick slashing movements.

She blinked up at him. “But Carvelle.” Even with her brain not functioning, she knew Kyle didn’t go to Carvelle. He couldn’t take her.

“You’re in no condition to drive.” His eyes were flat, his words terse. “I’ll drop you off with your parents.”

“Kyle, you don’t have to—”

“Get your shoes.” He stiffly walked past her. Kyle from two minutes ago was gone. And who would she be in twenty minutes in the face of her house? On fire. Everything she held dear that had been too big or silly to bring. Gone.

Her life. Family heirlooms. Her work. Every piece of art she’d never sold or given away. The perfect kindle for a blaze that had her always composed mother sobbing on the phone.

Grace squeezed her eyes shut, braced her body against the shaking wanting to spread. She pulled shoes from the closet, not even bothering to check if they matched. Walking downstairs was a Herculean effort.

Kyle was waiting, and when she finally reached the bottom of the stairs, he wordlessly stepped out the door. She followed, not sure how her muscles were moving when she could barely form a rational thought.

But somehow she was in Kyle’s car, and it was driving down the highway, the night growing darker the farther they got from Bluff City.

He turned the car into Carvelle. She looked out over her hometown. Too many lights on for this late in the tiny town. Too many people walking the sidewalks at dark. This wasn’t right. Maybe it was a dream.

“Where’s your house?”

His voice seemed as foreign as the man who’d been kissing her not all that long ago, but that moment was lost. Maybe that was the real dream.

BOOK: Too Close to Resist
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