A rustling at the door woke him. Toby got up to investigate and Kale got out of bed in time to wrangle the bill from the dog’s mouth without too much slobber. The clock on the floor read five a.m. He tiptoed back to the bed, careful not to wake Gracie as he slipped in beside her. She rolled toward him, naked skin warm against his own. He couldn’t resist running his palm down her side and over her hip. She muttered in her sleep and nestled closer. Within seconds she was snoring again, soft little puffs of air and the occasional wheeze. He’d lied when she asked if she snored earlier, sure it would only embarrass her further. Pretty sure she’d be embarrassed when she woke up and remembered some of the things they’d done last night but he wouldn’t let her forget those.
They’d leave this room with a lot of memories. She’d leave him all the same, he knew that when he backed her into the window and kissed her. He wouldn’t force her to stay.
He wouldn’t force someone he loved. Even if it ruined him. She was right. He had too much to handle.
With a force of will, he pushed his mind past the inevitable moment to the one when he had to face Jessica. Somewhere along the way—maybe when he realized he would be alone when Gracie left him—he started to hope the kid was his.
Aidan. That was his name. He’d purposely only thought of Jessica’s son as ‘the kid’ or ‘that boy’. Giving him a name in his thoughts would make him real.
“Aidan,” he whispered into the darkness and faded back to sleep.
The next time he woke, weak sunlight shifted through the crack in the curtain. Gracie lay beside him, propped up on one elbow, her riotous auburn hair curling in waves over her slim shoulders.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “But it’s late.”
Kale rubbed both hands hard over his face.
“Right,” he mumbled and got up, held out his hand. “Let’s shower.”
He thought she would blow him off but instead, her pink lips, the bottom on noticeably swollen, curved into a feline smile. She jumped off the bed and ran for the bathroom. When he stepped inside, steam was curling over the top of the shower. A long arm extended from behind the thin curtain and a finger beckoned.
An hour later they were on the road once more, eating up the miles toward Billings. Her hair was still wet, pulled into a messy knot at the base of her neck. He let his fingers trail idly over the knot and to the smooth skin of her neck.
In the shower, as he held her soap-slicked body to his, he thought about trying to sway her around to staying with him. It wasn’t like him to give up so easily but when she stood in the parking lot yesterday, heartbreak in her eyes, he knew he couldn’t push her. Now, however, he couldn’t think of anything else. Trouble was, he didn’t know what to say to her and the road was moving too fast and the words wouldn’t form right on his tongue. Gracie, for her part, talked cheerfully though her conversation took on a certain strain as they got closer and when the city limits came into view, she fell silent.
He reached across, took her hand. Squeezed and couldn’t say anything. Damn coward that he was.
The neighborhood streets were quiet, snow piled high on either side. Kale guided the car carefully through the slush and slowly into the driveway of a brick ranch house. A Ford Explorer sat in the driveway, with a car seat in the back.
He turned to her.
“I shouldn’t ask but there’s an Applebee’s not far from here. Wait for me?”
Her eyes were luminous in the dim of the car. “I shouldn’t.”
“I know. But I don’t want to say goodbye just yet. I don’t know what I’m going to find in there either so I shouldn’t ask. But I’m asking anyway. Don’t leave me yet.”
She turned away from him and he watched her profile, his breath pressing down in his chest so hard it hurt. Finally, she nodded.
“Two hours. That’s it, Kale.” Her lips twisted into a slight smile. “Give me your hand.” She took out a pen and scrawled a phone number across his palm. “Call me if you aren’t coming.”
He pressed a hard kiss to her lips and got out of the car with his duffle and guitar. He didn’t look back because he knew he wouldn’t be able to walk though Jessica’s front door and face his future if he looked at Gracie. He heard the car rev behind him and the slip then grip of tires. On the stoop he pulled out his cell dialed information. He asked for a cab company and arranged for a car to pick him up in thirty minutes then rang the bell.
The door swung open almost immediately and Jessica stood there, a country queen in knee high boots, tight jeans, and black tank-top in direct violation of the cold.
“Well, wondered when we’d be seeing you.”
“Let me in. It’s cold.”
She pulled the door wide and urged him in with an extravagant wave of her arm. Kale kicked the snow from his boots and entered, taking in the bareness of the home. No tree graced the living room that opened directly from the hall. No garland on the mantle or candles in the windows.
“Festive,” he remarked and walked past her to peer into the kitchen. A highchair stood in one corner but otherwise the house was bare of anything childlike.
“You here for Aidan?” she asked.
“Where is he?”
Her perfect nose, straight and thin, which he paid for, twitched. “Sleeping. Thank Gawd. He’s been wild since he woke up this morning.” She stood back with her hands on her hips. “You look good, Kale. But then, the road never took its toll on you like it did me.”
He shrugged. “You’re not doing too bad, Jess.”
The living room held several plush leather couches and a flat screen TV. A small toy box sat in one corner, the lid slightly askew. Kale went over to it and pushed aside the top. A couple Little People and a few Tonka trucks littered the bottom but nothing more.
“He ever get bored here, Jess? Seems to me a kid takes a bit more entertaining.”
Her shrug was graceful and, since he knew she spent countless hours with a body language coach, also practiced. Still, if he weren’t him, he’d fall for it.
“I was hoping you were going to show. I got a flight to New York on Christmas Eve and I was going to have to leave him with Wanda. The nanny.”
The fake shiver she affected echoed in reality within Kale. He knew Wanda had to be a good provider because Jessica only got the best of everything but that still meant Aidan would spend Christmas alone. He was only a year old so most people would argue that he wouldn’t know the difference and could be they were right but Kale had spent too many parentless Christmases not to know the effect it had on a lonely child.
Anger at Jessica’s selfishness roiled through him though he managed to keep his tone even. He couldn’t risk provoking her, showing his hand, and losing Aidan.
“You got him packed?”
Her perfectly red lips stretched into her first real smile since she opened the door. “You know me so well, Kale Sims. Maybe you and me should join up again. Come to New York with me. Unless you’re hooked up with that redhead I saw on T.V. She with you?”
“No,” he bit off. “And I won’t come with you. Be smart, Jessie.”
She spent a moment pouting then shrugged again. “You change your mind, you know where to find me.”
“Always,” he muttered and followed her into a back bedroom. Here, he found evidence of a child. The walls were painted a light blue and fluffy white clouds floating across the ceiling. Aidan’s name was spelled out in stuffed letters across one wall while the opposite held a changing table stocked full of diapers, powders, lotions, and cloths. Kale fought a wave of dizziness as he surveyed the bags and boxes piled in one corner. He knew nothing, nothing, about kids.
Jessica laughed softly and crept across the room. “It’s more than you think,” she whispered and gestured to the luggage.
He ignored her and approached the mahogany crib. The baby lay on his stomach, arms stretched far about his head and mouth open. Black hair curled in all directions. Tear tracks stained his red cheeks and he sniffled softly, nuzzled his nose into the blanket. Kale’s heart dropped to his stomach and he swallowed hard. All his doubts, all his mistakes, flew away in an instant.
He reached out, smoothed the hair away from Aidan’s forehead. Mine, he thought and vowed to care for his son at any cost. Even if it meant losing something he just found. He thought about Gracie, sitting in a booth at a chain restaurant and the fullness of his heart deflated a little. She would understand. Hell, she already understood, but it didn’t make it any easier. He couldn’t ask her to take this all on, not when her own life was in such limbo. He was glad now that he hadn’t said anything to her before, that he hadn’t been able to find the words and make her promises. Because now he couldn’t fulfill them.
“I’ll come back for him,” he whispered.
Jessica let go of some of the bags she’d been holding. “I don’t have time, Kale. My flight leaves at five tomorrow morning.”
“Tonight,” he grated out, finally letting go of some of his patience. “I have to make arrangements.”
Like get a car. Call Joe to get the house ready. Break Gracie’s heart.
“Fine,” she huffed.
Kale allowed himself one more touch of the baby soft cheek then followed Jessica out.
“I’m taking him for good,” he said once they were in the hall. “I don’t want you coming around, bleating about joint custody. You walk away from him today, you walk away forever.”
Something passed across her face, a flinch, but then she raised her chin, hard determination sparking in her eyes. “I don’t want him. And I won’t be here when you get back either,” throwing the words at him like ammunition. “Wanda will cuz I got things to do. You good with that, Kale? You good with not seeing me again?”
“I’m going to get papers, Jess,” he said in answer. “I’m sending them to your agent. You’re going to sign them.”
She shifted tactics in an instant. Sidled closer to him, lowered her voice to a purr. “What about your needs? Your career? What about you, Kale?”
He stuffed his hat on his head. “It’s not about me anymore. Shouldn’t be about you but it is, so I’m taking him. I’m raising him. He’s mine.”
Outside a car horn blared.
Jessica peeked around him, her eyes hard again in the face of his dismissal.. “Always one foot out the door, huh? You haven’t changed a bit.”
Kale pulled open the door, letting in a cold blast of snow and wind. Jessica rubbed at her arms.
“Take care, Jess.”
Her response was lost in the slamming of the door. He was on the phone before he reached the cab. “Applebee’s on Main Street,” he said to the cabbie over the ringing on the other end. When Joe picked up, he said, “He’s mine, Joe. We have things to do.”