Next installment in Cross Country Christmas - Gracie and Kale trade some confessions. Don't forget to scroll down to catch chapters 1-3.
Gracie swallowed slowly. The dumplings sat like rocks in her stomach. She didn’t blink though and took a calming drink of Coke.
“How sure are you?” she asked in a fairly good impression of a person with her wits about her. Little did he know they were scattered across the table like confetti.
He shrugged. “Ninety percent.”
The Coke can was slick in her hand. “What’re you going to do?”
Kale pushed his hamburger away. “I don’t know. But if he’s mine, I want him.”
“Will she just give him up?”
Toby whined and pressed his nose to Kale’s knee. Kale tore off some of his hamburger and gave it to the dog. Toby’s tail beat against the table leg in joyous rapture.
“We need to get him real food,” Kale said and Gracie held her breath, unsure of whether he would return to the doozie just he winged her way.
When he didn’t say anything more, she ducked her head and ate her food, although it was cold now and everything tasted like sawdust. She’d been feeling bad for herself when he left. Here she was, at Christmastime, in a lousy hotel in the middle of Tennessee instead of at home, decorating her real tree with Tony. O.K., so he hated decorating and usually turned off her Christmas playlist halfway through but at least she had someone. At least she could tell herself that she was loved during the holidays. That was over now, though, and although she was pushing back at it, something like relief flooded through her veins, hyping her up, making her … happy.
Now Kale’s problems cut across her own, laying her out flat with his honesty and pain. She looked at him, staring morosely at his food and thought about what she could do to help him.
“My boyfriend is having an affair.”
Kale’s dark head jerked up and his eyes widened.
“Tony.” Gracie took a bite of potatoes, swallowed, and said, “Yup. Caught him two days ago rolling around the living room floor with his law partner.” Gracie paused to let the memory wash over her. She’d kept it at bay for over forty-eight hours and now, once the words where out, she couldn’t hold it back anymore.
Kale stood, came around the table and crouched in front of her. “Are you all right?”
Gracie put both hands over her mouth to smother the laughter but it was no use. She snorted around her fingers and Kale reached up to pull them away.
“Laugh,” he instructed. “Just laugh.”
She did. For several minutes the laughter rolled through her and Kale sat there the whole time, smiling at her. When the laughter subsided to giggles and then a few random hiccups, he still didn’t move. Gracie closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see him so close because she was really afraid she was going to do something stupid. Like kiss him. To take her mind off that delicious possibility, she settled instead on Tony and his new girl.
“She cracked his Christmas present.”
“I bought him a new putter because he’d been bitching for months about his game and she cracked it.”
Kale’s lip twitched from side to side. “Er. How?”
“She was um … using it. To you know. Well, you know right?”
His hands came up to grasp her shoulders when she would have continued. “I think I get it.”
He didn’t pull his hands away but instead squeezed gently. One hand came up to rub across her cheek. “You O.K.?”
Gracie hesitated over his hand and her answer, both equally important. “I will be.”
“Good.” He raised his eyebrows, dropped his hands. “Confession time over?”
When he stood, she couldn’t help the soft sigh that escaped her. She really liked having him so close. Scary thought. Because when they got to Billings, she’d drop him off and never see him again. It was, of course, exactly what she should want to do but somewhere between Atlanta and here, she’d developed a bit of a crush. So inconvenient. He was famous for heaven’s sake!
Together they cleared the table. Kale took the trash out of the room so it wouldn’t stink of cold potatoes then stuck his head in once more.
“Up by seven? We should be able to make it to Omaha if we get going early.”
Gracie tossed away the remote she’d been messing with. “I’ll set my alarm.”
For five-thirty. No way was she driving all day in a car with Mr. Gorgeous without a shower and full-on beauty regimen. Luckily she’d elected to bring her flatiron when throwing her stuff together while Tony watched from the bedroom door. He didn’t stop her from leaving. That had said it all. She may not want him anymore but he stopped wanting her first.
Her shoulders collapsed under that thought and Kale pushed into the room once more.
“I thought you said you were fine.”
She waved him away when he would have come closer and raked both hands through her hair. She slumped to the bed.
“I did too but I haven’t let myself think about it, you know? You just keep on pushing it away so you can keep going and the minute you let your guard down and bam, it hits you. So.” She shrugged. “It just hit me. I left him flat and I don’t even give a damn. I just wonder when that happened.”
“When I stopped caring if he was in my life or not.”
Kale sat on the bed next to her and patted the mattress when Toby gave him a doleful look. The dog jumped between them and curled into a circle.
“What are you doing to do now?”
Gracie ran an idle hand over Toby’s soft fur. “Start over. New Year’s is coming up. Time for new beginnings and all that crap.”
She thought about that. It would have to be Seattle. She didn’t think she could stand it in Atlanta anymore. When she moved out there three years ago with Shelly it was supposed to be the move that mattered. The one that set them up for life. She’d gone with no clear idea of what she would do, where she would live, how she would eat. But darn it, it was an Adventure. And it turned out pretty well for awhile. So she didn’t have a career (and still had no idea of what she wanted to do with her life), but she had a decent job and she met Tony and he seemed like everything she was looking for. There had been a few red flags here and there but if she tucked them carefully out of sight, they didn’t bother her so much. The law partner turned out to be a pretty spectacular sign. Now she had to start over.
The thought of taking that sort of step again—the kind that was like jumping off a cliff—scared her silly. Gracie pulled a little into herself. Kale was sort of life a cliff himself. She felt all … giddy around him, like she did when she and Shelly talked about what fabulous lives they would have. So, he was unsafe. Scary. Thrilling.
To that end, she stood and put some distance between them.
“Sorry to dump my crap on you. You should probably leave before I start talking about my daddy issues.”
She stared at him, waiting for him to jump up at the mention of her dad but he just looked at her, those green eyes filled with kindness and understanding and, damn it, need. How had she missed that before? When she stepped toward him, his eyes brightened and a grin kicked up the corners of his mouth. When she touched his hand, his smile turned positively wolf-like.
Gracie wrapped her fingers around his hand and yanked him up to his feet, surprising them both with her strength. She put a lot of determination behind that tug. They were not going there. No way. She pulled him to the door.
“Don’t want to bore you with those details. So goodnight.”
She pointed to the door.
“What daddy issues?”
She pushed out an upward breath, blowing away her slightly greasy bangs. See, even if she wanted to kiss him she wouldn’t because she smelled like stale car air and her hair was a complete mess. If she ever slept with Mr. Big Shot—her stomach did a little flip on that—she would definitely look better than this. Besides which, she had on her comfy bra. White with red daisies with no underwire, it wasn’t a sex bra. It was a tub-of-mint-chocolate-chip bra.
“I know what you’re thinking.”
No, he didn’t. Did he? Gracie shook her head. “You need to go,” she said and pulled the door wide.
As he passed her, he ran a finger from one shoulder, across her collar bone, to the other shoulder.
“Am I close?”
“I promised my mother I wouldn’t talk to strangers. Go now.”
His full-throated laugh sent tingles dancing down her spine.
“What about your daddy issues?”
The door swung between her hands as she thought about what to tell him. She didn’t really have issues. Just things.
“He died when I was seven. It was right after Christmas. That’s why I love this time of year so much. Might make other people hate it, but Christmas is the last clear memory I have of him.”
“So Tony had good timing for holiday memories.”
That startled a laugh from her. “Sure did. Good thing he can’t compete with my dad.”
The smile he sent her was warm, lacking in the desire that was there earlier, though it still lurked. “Thanks for listening to me about Jessica.” He stepped out into the night. Snow drifted down, landing in his hair.
“You’re welcome,” she said softly. He turned to walk away. “Kale?”
He reached her side in seconds, making her think he hadn’t really forgotten about what they both wanted. But she had something to say. Thinking about her dad, she couldn’t not say it although she was unsure of the reception.
“Every kid should have a dad, you know? So if he’s yours just take care of him.”
She expected him to leave her standing there alone. Wouldn’t blame him if he told her to mind her own damn business. What she didn’t except, what she couldn’t have predicted, was the hurt that plastered across his face.
She knew he would, even before he said the words.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “It wasn’t my place. I’ve no right to make demands or judgments. I just feel for him.”
Then he left her standing alone in the cold.
Gracie returned to her room. Toby opened one eye when she settled herself on the bed and flipped on the TV. It was too quiet in the room, reminding her of all the words that had been said here. God, had they really run the spectrum of pain, betrayal, abandonment, and lust in just under two hours? Not to mention her father. Gracie knocked her head back against the headboard and groaned. Toby whined and belly-crawled to push his head under her hand.
“I am so glad you are here,” she said to the dog and reached over to turn down the volume on the TV. She flipped the channels and settled on Love Actually. The multi-story Christmas movie was just the thing to smooth down her rough and tattered edges. Tomorrow she’d make things right with Kale.
She had just reached her favorite part where Colin Firth went into the pond after Aurelia when the gentle strum of a guitar reached her. Toby perked up his head, stood and leaned against the headboard. Through the walls came “Blue Christmas” in Kale’s husky timbre, reminding her of smoke and whiskey and, argh, sex. Gracie went for the remote and punched up the volume three notches. She made it through the rest of the movie as Kale made it through a catalogue of sad holiday songs. Long after he stopped playing and she switched off the TV, she lay in bed, his voice running through her mind.
The bedside clock switched over to midnight and her tired eyes finally gave up the fight. Perhaps, she thought as she drifted off into the night, just one kiss. To say I’m sorry. Merry Christmas, Gracie.