For what seemed like the thousandth time, Gracie twisted in her seat as the cold blasted in from the opened door. Instead of Kale, a group of teenagers hustled in, giggling, bringing in a fresh wave of snow. Gracie turned back to her Coke and nachos and looked at her watch.
One hour, seven minutes. That’s how long she’d been sitting here, like a total fool, waiting for Kale Sims to come walking in with some grand plan that would somehow allow them to be together. She should be in her car, headed west into Bozeman for the night. Instead she was giving herself whiplash looking at the door.
“Should have sat on the other side,” she muttered but she’d chosen to sit with her back to the door, telling herself that she wouldn’t wait on pins and needles for him to show up. She’d just order food and if he wasn’t there by the time she finished, well, she’d leave. But now her nachos were almost completely picked over and even though she was stuffed she ordered dessert just to give him a little bit more time. Fool that she was.
The chocolate cake arrived along with a sharp intake of breath from the waitress. Kale stood to one side and the girl was staring at him like he was the chocolate. Gracie couldn’t blame her, but damn it, today he was hers so she took the cake from the waitress.
“Not who you think he is, honey,” she growled and shooed the girl away.
Kale grinned at her. “No free food for you.”
“Nope,” she said and dug into the cake to hide her eyes.
His smile was off. Forced. She didn’t want to hear what he had to say so she said it first. “Where will you go with him?”
“Aidan. That’s his name. And to my home in Nashville.”
“Aidan,” she muttered, testing the name on her tongue. “I bet he’s adorable.”
Kale shrugged. “When he’s sleeping. That’s how I saw him. Jessica didn’t put up a fight.”
“But you didn’t expect one.”
There was a heaviness to his tone that she couldn’t ignore so she pushed away her cake and reached for his hand. He gave it to her.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “You have someone who’s going to love you no matter what. You don’t know what a gift that is. So you gotta take it, Kale. Even if it means giving up other things.”
He swallowed hard. “It’s crazy how hard this is. I just met you.”
“And I’m a mess,” she said to make it easier. “You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”
Kale pushed out a heavy breath. “I sure am glad I tried to take your car.”
“Me too,” she murmured around the breaking of her heart. It hurt so bad she was sure everyone in the restaurant must have heard it. The crack of glass echoed through her mind. “What will you do now?”
Kale sat back in the booth and crossed his arms. “I hired Wanda, Aidan’s nanny, to fly with us to Nashville. Joe is getting the house ready. After that.” His whole body shrugged with the weight of it all. “After that he and I will take it one day at a time.”
There it was. The thing she’d be anticipating. He and I. She pushed away her cake and signaled for the waitress.
“I know you’ll be fine. I should get on the road. I want to make Bozeman tonight.”
He reached for his wallet but she shook her head. “No. We’re here now, you don’t have to pay for anything.”
Kale hesitated, looked her hard in the face, and nodded. “Sure. Will you be all right?”
“’Course I will,” she answered, quicker than she should have. She drew a deep breath, intent on convincing him that he wasn’t leaving something broken behind. “I spoke to my mom earlier. She’s excited that I’ll be home by Christmas Eve.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “She want to murder me?”
“No. Meet you, yes. Interrogate you, yes. Murder you? Nah, she’ll just ask you to sing.”
There was no laugh like she intended. Only a small sigh. “Maybe one day,” he said but his voice was scratchy, devoid of any real conviction.
The waitress slid the check across to Gracie and winked at Kale. He didn’t look at her once, focusing on Gracie instead. She shivered under his gaze, reminded that she wouldn’t see him like this ever again. He helped her into her coat and took her hand. Toby barked joyously from the driver’s seat. She’d used the automatic start to keep him warm while she waited for Kale and now a stream of hot air blasted her as she opened the door. Toby jumped to the ground and Kale bent down to rub vigorous hands over the pup.
“Bye, boy. Be good for your mama.”
Toby spared him a few tail wags then took off for a set of bushes. Kale stood, dusted his hands. She stuck one of hers out and he laughed at her and pulled her close.
“Bye Gracie,” he whispered against her ear, stirring the hair at her temple. She clutched at the wool of his coat, certain she would die if he didn’t kiss her one more time. His lips met hers, hard and desperate at first, then slowing to a gentle caress, and a slide of tongue across her bottom lip. Enough, she thought, and stepped back. She couldn’t stand it any longer. He needed to go before she started begging. Before she forgot all the reasons they couldn’t be together.
Kale rubbed his thumb across her lips and then jogged across the lot to a waiting cab. He opened the back door, stared at her. She lifted her chin and her hand and he climbed in. She called Toby to her, swallowed back the tears, and let the dog into the passenger seat. She got in, put the key in the ignition and waited for the cab to leave the lot. Then she pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and sobbed.
By the time she reached Seattle, Gracie had most of her tears under control. She drove fast, despite the weather, and in silence, despites it’s oppressiveness. Toby rode with his head on her knee, slobbering her with doggie love.
At home, her mom wrapped her in a hug that smelled like sugar cookies and snow, and didn’t ask any questions. Her sister and brother-in-law weren’t so subtle, drilling her for information about the infamous Kale Sims and asked whether he drove like an idiot. She managed to laugh her way through most of the answers.
She made it through Christmas too. Smiled, laughed at dinner, squealed in delight at the present opening. True happiness filled her heart as she watched her twin two-year-old niece and nephew dance to Tickle Me Elmo. She even let herself think about Kale’s little boy, Aidan, and hope that Kale was able to give him a nice Christmas. She talked cheerfully about her plans to relocate to Seattle and find a job that meant something to her. They discussed Tony, the inevitable breakup chat with her mom over milk and fudge. And Toby, of course, was adored by all.
At night, though, she collapsed from the sheer exhaustion of keeping up such an act. As soon as she could, she would make her excuses and retreat to the room of her girlhood. Dolly Parton’s Hard Candy Christmas showed up most on her iPod and Gracie took comfort in the words days after Christmas passed. Her sister and family went home and Gracie let herself mope. She knew she was being entirely childish, slobbing about like some love-sick fool but she knew the truth. She was a love-sick fool.
The day before New Year’s Eve, Dolly hadn’t lost her appeal and Gracie lay on her bed watching The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas when her mom knocked.
“Grace, baby, there’s a man at the door for you.”
Her poor, pitiful heart leapt but settled quickly. He couldn’t come for her. Still, her curiosity was irrevocably pricked so she got up and went into the hall.
“Who is it?”
“Gracie, comb your hair! Have you even showered today?”
Shame caused her to squeeze her eyes shut. “Erm. No.”
“Wish you had now, huh?” her mom said and led her to the bathroom. She pushed some cucumber body spray and a brush at Gracie. “Here, try this.”
Gracie met her mom’s sparkling eyes in the mirror. “I love you, mom.”
“I know. And I love you too which is why I haven’t asked you what really happened between you and Kale. I’m not asking now,” she said quickly, holding up a hand to forestall Gracie’s protests. “But you can’t tell me nothing did because that’s his manager sitting out there in our living room.”
The brush hit a nasty tangle and she yanked hard then yelped when it wouldn’t give. Her mom sighed, took the brush from her, and with a few efficient strokes, pulled the auburn hair back in a neat ponytail.
“I can’t tell you what to do, sweetie. But I do know that you use to be someone who grabbed life with both hands. I haven’t seen that side of you in a long, long time. I miss that girl, Gracie. If this Kale helps you find her again, don’t let him go.” The hands that had cared for Gracie all her life, lay over her shoulders with a slight squeeze. “Both hands, baby.”
In the living room, a man with overly long legs and a red button up shirt jabbered away on his cell phone. He caught sight of Gracie and muttered into the phone then hung up.
“So, you’re the one that has my boy tied up in knots.”
Gracie sank to the arm of the couch. “I think the feeling is mutual,” she managed.
“S’what I thought.” He stood, and she realized that despite his long legs, he was really very short. Standing next to her, they came head to head and she was seated. He reached into his back pocket and withdrew a plane ticket.
“You gotta fix him, Miss Proctor.”
“Fix him,” she echoed faintly, taking the packet. She flipped open the ticket. Only one. No return flight. And it left tomorrow morning.
Kale’s manager stooped to look her in the eye. “I’m Joe,” he said and extended his hand. She took it, noting the calluses on the tips of his fingers. “And I’m asking you to help me. He’s trying for his boy’s sake but I’ve never seen him this messed up. Even Jessie didn’t do this to him even though she tried.”
She jerked back. “I didn’t try anything!”
Joe held up his hands. “’Course you didn’t. Not what I meant. Oh.” He reached into his front pocket and withdrew a check. She recognized the handwriting as her own. “This here’s for you. We ain’t taking it. He said if anything, he owes you.”
With trembling fingers she took the check she’d written out and sent on Christmas Eve back from Joe. The paper crinkled in her hands. “For what?”
“I’ll let him tell you. Just, go to him.”
Her mom piped up from the doorway. “Shower first.”
Gracie looked from Joe to her mom, then Toby in the corner. The ticket in her hand felt warm, real.
For the past fifteen years, Kale had spent New Year’s Eve living it up in bars and private parties. The noise and mess had been unbelievable. The champagne, Jack Daniel’s, and Coors flowed unendingly until he woke up the next morning with a splitting headache, a strong need for a shower, and in some cases, kick some girl out of his bed. Or get out of hers.
This New Year’s, it was all different. There was still noise, still mess, still the desire for a shot of Jameson, and the smell was unbelievable. The only thing missing was a girl. Well, one girl in particular but that hope was long dead. He stared down at the kicking, giggling monster and held his breath.
“Dude,” he spat, drawing away the diaper. “What is that color?”
Aidan gurgled at him. “Da. Da. DAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”
“Yeah, yeah. When are you going to bed?”
He glanced at the clock. Just gone six. The days following Christmas, Aidan slept pretty well, though Kale couldn’t say the same for him. Aidan curled up every night at seven in his favorite blanket and snored until morning. Kale watched movies, tried to write music, tossed away books, banged his head. But he didn’t sleep. He looked like Hell, felt worse, and really wanted Aidan in bed so he could get drunk. Fast. Passing out sounded like a good idea. Obliviousness had its benefit. The kid would be up early but he’d dealt with a hangover before. He hadn’t dealt with the hollowness in his chest. It freaking hurt.
He powdered the soft baby skin, rubbed on some A and D, and snapped up the flannel pajamas. A pacifier, a bottle, and a blanket later, the boy laid his head on his daddy’s shoulder and made little baby sounds. Kale sat back in his leather recliner and sighed. This was his favorite part of the day. After the nanny he hired had gone, the bathing done, he and his boy cuddling in the living room. Only here, in the small space of a half hour before Aidan went to bed, was Kale able to let his tried brain and bruised heart fade away into the softness of a baby’s love.
The intercom buzzed, shattering his peace. Aidan jerked his head up and blinked wide, sleepy blue eyes.
“That’s Joe. Don’t let him give me a Bailey’s,” he said sternly to Aidan. The baby smiled around his green pacifier. “I can handle any sort of liquor but Bailey’s knocks me on my as—butt faster than lightening.”
Kale reached behind him and pressed the speaker on the wall. “What Joe?”
Through the speaker, he heard the hitch of an indrawn breath. He smiled at Aidan then turned back to the intercom.
“You drunk, buddy?”
The voice traveled over him in a hard shiver. He transferred Aidan to the other arm and twisted out of the deep recliner.
“Gracie. What are you--” he took a deep breath. “What are you doing here?”
There was a sniff and he cringed, knowing he’d spoken harsher than he intended. It was only that he’d dreamed about this so many times that he wasn’t sure if it were real or not. He opened his mouth to apologize to his fragile girl when her snapping tones came through the speaker.
“Freezing my butt off. It’s snowing, did you know that? Let me in.”
His fingers fumbled with the button that opened the gates. Aidan put his head back on Kale’s shoulder and he went to the door. He wanted to run down the drive to meet her but he couldn’t take Aidan out in the cold. Instead he stood at his front door and watched her march up his brick driveway. Her red hair was covered by a gray knit cap with a flower pinned to one side. Her long legs ate up the space between them and soon she was running, her bag dropped to the ground and she took the steps two at a time, halting when only the glass separated them.
He reached out, turned the knob and then she was there, her arms going around him and Aidan. She only had eyes for his boy.
“He’s beautiful,” she breathed.
Aidan regarded her with wide eyes then reached out a tiny finger for the flower on her hat. He took out his pacifier and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said gravely.
Aidan smiled, revealing two top teeth. He continued to play with the flower and Gracie turned to Kale.
“Joe came to see me.”
“What did he say?” Kale croaked. She was warm up against him but still, he wasn’t sure if she was really there or not.
“He said you were a mess. I think he was just trying to be nice. I wasn’t at my best these past few days. I think I smelled when I met him.” Her eyes crinkled with laughter. “Are you a mess?”
“Well.” She stood on tiptoe, pressed her warm lips to his and he knew it wasn’t a dream. “I’m here now and unless you tell me to leave, I’m determined.”
“To what?” he asked, dazed. Thrown off balance. In a fog. She was here.
“To grab you with both hands. I love you.”
His heart, the one that felt so heavy all week, expanded in his chest.
She reached up, cupped his cheek. “Do you love me too?” she asked, her voice soft, confident.
The truth spilled from him like the bursting of a dam. “Yes. I love you.”
“Oh.” Gracie sighed. “Good. Because you’re the best Christmas present I’ve ever received and I wouldn’t know how to return you.”
Their breath mingled together as she slid closer. Aidan let out a baby squeal of delight as he finally clutched the flower. Kale kissed her, looking forward to a very happy New Year.