They rolled into
Kale pulled into a Days Innand handed Gracie his credit card.
She flipped the card over to look at the name. “Don Smith. Original. Afraid you’ll be recognized?”
That’s exactly what he was afraid of and coming from anyone else, the statement would have annoyed the hell out of him. But Gracie said it with just the right amount of understanding to take out the sting.
“Something like that,” he admitted and watched her sashay into the lobby.
He doubted she knew she walked like that—a little twitch to her butt that would drive any sane man crazy. The dog beater at Rite Aid sure liked the look of her and Kale couldn’t blame him. He’d almost choked when he introduced her as his sister because the things he’d been thinking about her ever since he came up behind her in the Hertz line would make his mama blush.
She wasn’t his usual type and Kale welcomed the change. Lately, his preferences caused him nothing but trouble. Gracie now, Gracie was different. Her long copper-colored hair, pulled back into a complicated tail, smelled like some sort of flower. When she turned around in line and pinned him with a glare, her heart-shaped face, brown eyes, and clear skin delivered a sucker punch to his midsection that he hadn’t yet recovered from. He wouldn’t call it luck, driving cross country with her, but he’d call it something because he wouldn’t be having half as much fun in
Make that no fun.
Kale slammed his head against the head rest. Toby whined.
“Sorry, Bud,” he said.
The dog sent him a reproachful look and settled his nose back on his paws.
Damn it, he did not want to go to
The glass doors to the lobby slid open and Gracie came bouncing out.
And, he mentally added, two thousand miles to figure Gracie out too. He hadn’t expected her, hadn’t expected to feel this way. He found himself doing thing he wouldn’t normally do like turning up the radio because she liked Christmas music, and passing a guy a hundred bucks for a mutt. He’d told Gracie it was only forty but the hundred was insurance that the guy wouldn’t change his mind before they could leave the lot. She wanted to dog and for some insane, unexplainable reason, he wanted to give into this girl’s every whim.
She slid into the car and handed him his card and room key.
“We’re in two-oh-one and two-oh-two.”
Her Kewpie lips pulled to one side. “I had to put down a deposit. But,” she rushed on before he could say anything, “I’m going to pay you back. Seriously. When we get to
He waved her aside although he appreciated the offer. Most people would just assume he’d pick up the tab. “We’ll figure it out.”
Toby leapt from the car the moment Gracie opened his door. She led him over to a patch of brown grass covered in a sprinkling of snow and waited while he did his business. Kale unloaded her suitcase, his duffle bag and guitar. Their rooms had a connecting door and as Kale dropped her suitcase on the bed, he watched her check the lock between them.
“I’m gonna run a bath for Toby,” he said instead of commenting on the door.
She didn’t know him and he didn’t know her. It was logical for her to lock the door yet it still caused him a little discomfort to know she didn’t trust him. Whoa, there cowboy. Definitely not the time to get into trust issues. “Your bath or mine?”
Gracie crouched down in front of the dog and ran her long fingers over his head. “Mine. He can stay with me tonight.”
Kale nodded once and stepped around her and into the small bath area. He turned his baseball hat around and kicked on the water.
She appeared in the doorway. Toby was behind her, looking warily at the tub. Kale didn’t blame him. There had to be a month’s worth of dust and mud covering the pup and the wash wouldn’t be an easy one. Thank the good Lord for a woman who knew how to clean a dog.
“You hungry?” he asked, standing up.
The shrill ring of Bing Crosby’s “Jingle Bells” cut her short. She pulled the phone from the pocket of her jeans.
“Crap. You get Toby in the tub. I’m going to go lie to my mother.” She backed out of the bathroom and flipped open the phone. “I’m fine, Mom. On my way.”
Kale grinned at the dog. “Looks like it’s just you and me, buddy.”
Toby crouched and backed away slowly, his tail between his legs. Kale knew he should go slower with the dog. It was no stretch of the imagination to see what he’d been through, but Kale grew up knowing the best way to get something over with was to just dive in headfirst. So he scooped up the dog, feeling the animals ribs beneath the matted fur, and slung him into the tub. Toby stood up tall, shook hard, lifted his head and howled. Kale dived for him and clamped the dog’s jaw shut.
“Shhh,” he crooned. Toby’s bottomless brown eyes pleaded with him, and Kale let loose. The dog stood still. “Want me to sing?”
The dog blinked. Kale launched into “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” because it was the first thing he thought of. Ten number one hits under his belt and he was singing holiday tunes. That was Gracie’s fault.
“No, Mom,” she said behind him. “Nobody here, just the TV.”
She frowned at him and he kept singing because Toby had sat down and was letting him lather copious amounts of hotel soap into his fur.
“Yeah, it’s Kale Sims on the TV.” She rolled his eyes at him, a rueful smile making its way across her face. “Yup. You sure are a huge fan. Maybe someday you’ll get to meet him.”
Kale reached into the tub, cupped a handful of water and let it fly in her direction. She squealed and backed out the door.
“Er. Mouse. In the uh, hotel,” she said and closed the door on him. Through the paneling he heard her say, “I thought it was a mouse. No, Mom, I am not going to go down and complain.” And then another pause. “Because I’m in my pajamas!”
He chuckled and turned back to Toby. The water was now almost black and more than a little cold. He drained it, impressed that the dog stayed put, and filled it again, all the while belting out some of his favorite Christmas tunes.
Ten minutes, three songs, and another bath tubful later, Gracie poked her head in the door.
“Is it safe?”
Kale held up his hands. “I won’t splash,” he said because he wanted her to stay. She smelled good. Like peppermints.
“I’m starving,” she said and plunked down on the closed toilet lid. “He looks good.”
Toby laid his head on the tub rim and whined at her.
“Pitiful. He was fine until you came in.”
“That’s because he knows his mama, don’tcha sweetie?” She dipped her hands in the water and helped Kale finishing rinsing. Together they lifted the pup out, and Gracie wrapped several towels around the dripping animal. She slid to the floor, pulled the dog between her outstretched legs and held him tight. “Poor baby,” she murmured. “He didn’t treat you right, did he? But you’re fine now. You’re far, far away from him, and he’s not going to hurt you again. You’re too smart for that.”
Somewhere along the way, she’d stopped talking about the dog. A dull flush crawled up the cheeks. Combined with the wet tendrils of dark red hair sticking to her neck and the patches of damp t-shirt clinging to her skin, she was damn near irresistible. Kale reached out a hand to trace a line down her cheek, remembered the locked door between them, and instead ruffled the dog’s head.
“I’ll get some food,” he managed gruffly and stood. “I saw a Cracker Barrel across the street. That good?”
Head still bent, she nodded. “Chicken and dumplings. Extra side of mashed potatoes.”
She wouldn’t look at him so he let himself out door and jogged across the icy lot. Inside Cracker Barrel, he placed his order quickly then ducked outside, settled into one of the white rocking chairs, and pulled out his cell and dialed his manager’s number.
“Where the hell are you?” Joe barked out after one cut-off ring.
Kale grimaced into the dark lot. “
“How close are you to
“Don’t. I won’t be here by the time it arrives. Leaving in the morning.”
Through the static-y line, Joe heaved a frustrated sigh. If he really knew how close Kale was to the studio, he’d have a heart attack.
“What can I do to convince you to leave this alone? You have to let the PR people take care of it.”
A tight little ball curled in Kale’s chest. The “it” here was a child. His or not, the kid didn’t deserve the hell Jessica was putting them all through. It was his fault, he knew, and so he’d have to fix it.
“I don’t want anyone else involved, Joe. You know how she is, she feeds off this stuff. I go up there alone, deal with her and the kid, and then I’ll be back. Before Christmas.”
There was silence on the line and Kale knew Joe held onto his temper by a thread. In the end, though, Kale was the money machine and so all decisions came up to him. It’d been a long time since he’d bucked heads with his manager. The last time he wound up tied to Jessica and that shit was still ruining his life. He took a deep breath, about to apologize for that when Joe spoke up, a gruff note in his voice.
“Do what you need to do, boy and get back here soon. Take care of it, Kale. You owe that kid.”
“I know,” Kale said. “You’ll keep the press off my back?”
“Do my best. Now you do yours.”
Kale sat in the snowy dark a good while longer after ending the call. There was a good chance the boy was his, much as he hated to admit it. He and Jessica parted ways—as an act and an item over five years ago but almost two years ago he lost his head and saw her a few more times. They might have conceived a child. The timing fit. But he had no way of knowing if he was the only one and since he hadn’t seen a picture of the kid, until he got to Montana, he couldn’t separate fact from fiction. He’d give her that. At least she kept the media away from the boy. Until now.
Two weeks ago she went on the Today Show and announced she was coming out of retirement. She’d taken a break from the road to be a mother to her son but now she was ready to get back out there and she needed the daddy to step up and be man. Be a man. She’d actually used those words right before she looked at the camera and named Kale the father.
His fist closed around the little food beeper and pressed until he heard a slight crack. He loosened his grip and pushed out a breath when it began to flash. He stood, already decided. Hell, he decided the moment Jessica said those fateful words. He’d step up all right and she’d better be ready for a fight. Because there was no way in hell he was walking away from this. If the kid was his, he’d put it right.
Kale paid for the food, dropped a generous tip in the glass bowl on the counter and hurried back to the hotel. He half expected Gracie and the dog to be gone but the Mini was still parked where he left it and so he dashed up the steps and went to banging.
The door swung open under his fist and when she put her hands on her hips and glared at him he wanted to toss aside the food and kiss the disapproval right off her pink lips. The urge set him back on his heels but she didn’t notice because she’d taken the bag of food to the table.
He watched as she unloaded the Styrofoam containers and assorted plastic cutlery. She had two cans of Coke and arranged the whole mess into a semblance of a dinner. Kale took the seat she indicated and waited for her to take the first bite.
The words were out before he thought.
“I think he’s mine.”