“Just one,” she repeated and struggled to push herself out of the fog he’d wrapped her in. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
He gave her a crooked grin, the one that sent her senses swirling in every direction. “More than one’s just fine with me. I probably wasn’t going to stop there anyhow.”
She looked around, anywhere but at him because she would do it if he said it again. She really would. Her gaze snagged on the diner window where three faces pressed out at them. Kale caught her line of vision and sighed. He released her, stepped back, and waved at their audience.
“Get in, it’s cold,” he said and went around the car to start it up.
Gracie got in the car and slammed the door on the wind and tried not to regret what hadn’t happened. Thirty minutes later, she still regretted it. She should have given in. She should have leaned in, pressed her cold lips to his and given.
For his part, Kale didn’t seem too concerned. He whistled, he commented on passing landmarks, he laughed, he talked to Toby. He seemed … happy. So at odds with the man she saw last night that she had to consider her attempt to cheer him up a success. She couldn’t stand the sadness she saw falling over him this morning so she did the only thing she could think of—she made him sing. That, above anything, had to give him some measure of peace. Yeah, she’d been tricky about it and the whole plan could have backfired terribly but when she seized upon the idea in the diner, she ran ahead full-force. She hadn’t experienced that sort of impulsiveness since she started dating Tony. She missed that about herself. She missed being fearless.
Kale made her that way. And maybe it was time to stop resisting all those things that made her feel good.
Tony hadn’t. She knew that now. Three days after leaving him, she realized the poison she put into her life by dating him. She jumped into their relationship knowing they were complete opposites. He was serious, she saw something to laugh about in every situation. He disapproved of her gypsy-like approach to jobs, she couldn’t believe he would tie himself into a career he’d chosen for the money and prestige. Tony had it all. The perfect family, a great job, apartment, life. And she wanted that. So she went after him with some misguided idea that their opposites were actually a good thing.
She cleared her throat.
Kale favored her with a cocky grin. Damn it.
“I’ve been thinking about owing you.”
The car swerved a little and she did a little inner fist pump of victory.
She turned and angled her body toward him. “Yeah. And I think you’re right. I do owe you. So. Whenever you’re ready, so am I.”
“Great,” he said.
“Great?” she sputtered. “Really? That’s all you have to—argh!”
He aimed the car across two lanes of traffic and rumbled to a stop on the gravely shoulder.
“Are you crazy?”
“Yup,” he said and leaned over, wrapped his hand around her neck, and dragged her forward. She closed her eyes a second before his lips touched down. Hard. His fingers pushed up into her hair and he traced her bottom lip with his tongue before slipping it inside her mouth. She opened for him on a sigh, caught up in the heat of his hands and the insistent pull of his mouth.
Much too soon he let her go and settled back in his seat, all sleepy eyes and satisfied man. Crap. God, did she want more.
“Just one?” she asked and hated that her voice squeaked.
He cocked his head in acknowledgement. “All you wanted,” he said and merged back into the sparse traffic.
No, she thought, not all I wanted. Not nearly enough.
The afternoon past quickly as the miles dropped away filled with easy conversation. He told her about funny things that happened to him while doing shows. She told him about her outrageous friend Shelly and her mother’s obsession with Rachel Ray. Kale stopped twice to let Toby pee but Gracie knew it was really for her. She was thankful that he didn’t once comment on her small bladder or groan about the wasted time. As repayment, at their second stop, she scrapped together enough spare change rattling around in the bottom of her purse to get him some more chocolate covered cherries and they shared the box all the way through Missouri.
It was well past seven when they reached the outskirts of Omaha. Gracie managed to go a full seventeen minutes without thinking about kissing Kale but that ended as she faced the hotel clerk on the other side of the desk.
“You only have one room?”
The girl, who couldn’t be more than sixteen, popped her gum. “Uh huh. You want it? I’d get it soon, ‘cuz we’re selling out quick. The Weather Channel is blathering about another ice storm.”
Gracie tapped Kale’s card on the counter, thinking. They could keep going, try to find another hotel. But if the clerk was right, and the winter weather was about to turn foul, they’d be foolish to try it. So they only had one room. So what? She was an adult. She was mature. She could totally handle sleeping in the same room with a guy she’d been thinking about nonstop for three days. Just like she could forget about the kiss he laid on her earlier that still had her tingling in places her mother didn’t like to talk about. Easy peasy.
“Don Smith,” the girl said, reading the card.
“My husband,” Gracie explained, and, out of sight, quickly shoved her wide silver and gold ring from her right hand to her left ring finger.
“Two rooms and you have a husband?” She swiped the card and shook her head. “Whatever.”
One room key and a reminder about continental breakfast later, Gracie was out the door. She climbed in and directed Kale around back of the hotel. They entered the building, bypassed the broken elevator, and climbed two flights of stairs. Gracie reached for her suitcase on the first landing but he merely grunted and kept going, Toby trailing them.
“Down here,” she said, pointing him to the left. They came to the end of the hallway and the one open room. She took out the key. He held out his hand for his key. “Um. No.”
Kale dropped their bags to the floor. “'No’ what?”
She took a deep breath; let it all out in a rush. “They only had one room. And there’s more ice. So we have to share.”
He looked at her, then reached over and plucked the key from her hands, slid it into the lock, and twisted the door handle. “Oh look. A king bed.”
“There’s a couch,” she said weakly as they entered the room.
“Not doing it.”
She hefted her suitcase onto the luggage rack. “What?”
“Not sleeping on the couch,” he said and launched himself onto the bed. He flipped over, scooted up to the head board, and crossed one leg over the other. “You can, but you might get cold. I’m a warm guy. I don’t bite.”
“This is so cliché,” she muttered and went to the bathroom. Really, when did this ever happen except in chick flicks and romance novels? And yeah, the reluctant couple always ended up with that ‘in love’ glow by the morning. Gracie flipped on the bathroom light and took a hard look at herself in the mirror. The skin beneath her eyes was stained a bluish-purple and her hair, scrapped back into a messy bun was limp and slightly greasy.
No one was falling in love with her tonight. She huffed and sat on the closed toilet lid. Maybe she could shower first, she thought, brightening. Send Kale out for some food and duck into the shower so she smelled good for the maybe-he’ll-make-a-move-part. Love wasn’t happening, but if she wanted it too, lust just might.
Only, she didn’t know if she wanted it too.
A knock on the door stopped her cold. God, what if she had been peeing or something? She was so not ready to share a living space with Kale Sims.
“What do you want?”
“Food,” he said with a smile in his voice. “You want to go get it?”
“I was kind of hoping for a shower.”
The was a pause and then, “Me too. Listen. I’ll go out and then shower while you eat. Sound good?”
Twenty minutes later she had her shower and was standing once again in front of the mirror. She slathered on her peppermint lotion and then grabbed for the mascara and dapped a little on. Turning on the hairdryer, she fluffed her bangs and left the rest of her hair in a damp knot the base of her neck. And then she faced her clothes.
That’s when she realized romance had given up on the likes of Gracie Proctor. So she pulled on her flannel pants and oversized t-shirt and climbed onto the bed. Toby jumped up next to her and she wrapped her arm around him and flipped on the TV. And promptly fell asleep.
It was dark when she woke. The lights and TV were off and the only sounds in the room were that of the heater sputtering and the steady in and out breath of the man laying beside her. His arm was slung over her stomach and she lay still, savoring the warmth and weight of him. She squinted at the alarm clock. Five-thirty. She let her eyes drift close, and slipped into the fuzzy place of half-dreams. Kale sighed in his sleep, tightened his arm, and drew her across the bed. She didn’t resist. He was sound asleep and she felt like a thief, stealing this vulnerability from him, but she wouldn’t wake him. Tonight they’d part ways. This morning, she was going to take something for herself.
Excellent idea, she thought, as he nuzzled the curve of her neck. God, he smelled good. The scent of peppermint filled her nostrils and she suppressed a giggle at the thought of him using her lotion. She must have been so tired to not hear him come in, or feel him climb into bed next to her. Relief washed over her. She hadn’t had to make a decision she wasn’t ready for. She wanted something from him, she just didn’t know what. For now, it was this intimacy. Laying in the dark, his body warm and welcoming next to hers, it was the best Christmas present.
Suddenly through the haze of her happiness came the jangle of bells. Kale shot upright.
“What the hell?” he mumbled then flopped back to the bed and groaned. “Your phone.”
She reached across him for the phone and he flipped on the light. Their faces were so close, she could see his two-day beard. Her fingers itched, literally itched, to run down his face but instead she sat back and answered.
“Explain,” her mom barked. “Now.”
Gracie pushed her hair off her face and tugged her t-shirt down. “What?”
“You’re on TV, Gracie. With Kale Sims. In St. Louis. Explain that to me.”
“What?” Kale mouthed.
She flapped him away.
“What channel? What time is it there? Why are you up?”
“That awful TMZ show. They keep showing your pictures. You’re standing outside a diner next to an itty bitty car with his hand on your arm. Where else did he put his hand?”
An absurd laugh bubbled in her throat that came out more like a sputtering cough. Mary or Duke must have snapped the picture. It disappointed her that they would send it to a gossip TV show but then, there had been others in the parking lot. It could have been anyone. What’s done is done, yet she ached for putting Kale in that position.
She grabbed the remote from the bottom of the bed and clicked on the TV to Fox. “Nowhere else, Mom. I swear.”
Sure enough, a picture of them standing outside the diner was plastered across the screen with the caption, Kale Sims’ New Gal. Freaking great. There was a thump as Kale slapped the pillow over his head.
“Gracie Proctor, I am still waiting for an explanation. Are you with that man right now?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, no longer able to lie. “Yes,” she whispered and pulled the phone away from her ear as her mother yelled her name again. From under the pillow came a muffled laugh. Gracie fell to the side, landing her elbow in his side then squealed when he wrapped his arms around her and flipped her onto her back. He grinned down at her in the light of the flickering TV.
“What are you doing?” her mother screeched. “Is he attacking you?”
His fingers snuck under her shirt. She sucked in a breath and he tickled. She kicked her legs, pressed her arm over her mouth, and tried to buck him off.
“I’m calling nine-one-one right now.”
“Mom,” she gasped. “Don’t. Just don’t.” Her knee connected with his back and he grunted, rolled off. “Seriously. I’m fine. Yes, I am traveling with him but that’s a story for later. I will be home in time for Christmas and I will call you tonight. Promise.”
“I’m worried,” her mom said, panic creeping into her tone. “Let me talk to him.”
At that moment, his phone rang from the depths of his bag. He rolled his eyes at her and went to get it.
“I’m getting off the phone now, Mom. I am absolutely one hundred percent O.K. and I will text you every hour.”
“I don’t like it.”
Gracie forced herself to be patient. She had lied after all. “I know. But it’s fine.” She lowered her voice. “I like him.”
From across the room, she heard the man on the other end of Kale’s phone call. “You’re been caught, kid.”
“I know,” Kale said, shooting her an exasperated look. “We’re moving.”
“Be careful,” her mom warned and Gracie hung up after promising her mother, once again, that she would be fine. She ducked into the bathroom, giving Kale time to finish his call in private. When she came out, he was putting on his shoes, already fully dressed.
“We have to go.” He flicked the TV screen with his finger. “Joe’s on this but we’d better not stay too long.”
He brushed by her into the bathroom and her heart sank because this was all her fault. She pulled on her clothes quickly and managed to wrangle her wild curls into a braid. When he came out, she was waiting.
“I’m really sorry.”
Kale picked up his bag. “For what?”
“This is my fault. I shouldn’t have put you on the spot yesterday. I had no idea they would call the media.”
Those green eyes of his lit with understanding. “You couldn’t have known. We don’t even know it was them.”
“It’s fine. Joe has it under control. And I enjoyed myself—" He pressed a soft kiss to her forehead—“so thanks.”
And with that he turned and left her standing alone in the room. Toby trotted into the hall and they both stood there, staring at her. Gracie shook her head, shouldered her purse and grabbed her suitcase. Out by the car, in a parking lot full of cars but empty of people, they waited for Toby to take care of his business. Snow-swollen clouds rolled and tumbled overhead and the first flakes, the size of quarters, began to fall.
She still felt awful. He didn’t need the added burden of everyone knowing where they were going and why. Maybe the media hadn’t caught onto that yet, but it wouldn’t take long to figure out what or who lay north of Omaha.
Toby ran over, barking, and Kale opened the door for him. The dog scrambled into the back seat and sat, looking at them expectantly.
“It’s just, I know you don’t need any more pressure,” Gracie pushed on, determined to show him how sorry she was. “Isn’t it hard, being ‘on’ all the time?”
The corners of his mouth pulled down while he considered her. “Yeah. But I brought it on myself. I like it. Or did.” He shrugged. “I got some things to figure out.”
“Exactly!” She spun and paced away from him. “So you don’t need me messing things up for you.”
Gracie didn’t want to look at him, desperately afraid of what he would say, so she kept walking. She knew this was temporary—the way they were together. There was easiness there, and attraction. Lord but was there attraction. If she weren’t at such loose ends and if he didn’t have so many demands upon him, would things be different? Would he want to be with her? The questions had no place in her thoughts though because tonight they would go their separate ways. They had too, their lives were too different.
His boots pounded on the pavement as he jogged up next to her. “Stop.”
“Sorry,” she offered a smile but knew it was too weak to be convincing. “Want to go?”
The backs of his fingers were infinitely soft on her cheek.
“There’s only one thing I want.”
Her smile was stronger this time, anticipating whatever witty thing he would say, like vacation or a sausage biscuit. “Breakfast?”
“No. Last night when I came in, you were sound asleep. Your mouth was even open a little.”
A groan escaped her. “Was I snoring?”
The hand on her cheek turned to cup her chin. “No, no snoring. But I looked at you and I realized what I wanted.”
Her heart tripped over itself. “What is it?”