Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cross Country Christmas Chapters 9 - 11

Here I am wrapping up my short Christmas story. I love this holiday and everything it stands for including family, gifts, sweets, and snow. It's crazy. It's a whirlwind. And it leaves us with a sigh of relief and satisfaction when it's over. I love Gracie and Kale's story leaves you with the same feeling. Happy New Year!


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.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cross Country Christmas Chapter 8


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.

“Past nine.”

“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.

Why else?

“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.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cross Country Christmas Chapter 7

So Christmas snuck up on me way too fast and I didn't get the rest posted. However, here is chapter 7 for your reading enjoyment. Maybe by New Years'?


“Oh. Kale.”

On those two words, his face shut down.

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. Not really.” She reached for him but he backed away from her. “It’s too much.”

He shook his head. “Nothing about you is too much. But I get it. I got too much baggage.”

So do I, she wanted to say but couldn’t force anything past the lump in her throat. He waited a half heartbeat before turning on heel and getting in the car. She followed at a much slower pace. It seemed she was always in need of apologizing to him but this time she couldn’t come up with the words. And maybe it was better this way—the cowards’ way but nothing tried was nothing lost and she really didn’t think she could stand to lose anymore. If she ended it now, she could walk away with the biggest pieces of her heart still intact. She was honest enough to admit that he’d already chipped away at the tender parts left bruised by Tony. The rest belonged to her and she didn’t know if she could give it away. With those depressing thoughts circling, she climbed behind the wheel and pointed the car north.

In Sioux Falls they exchanged places but little else. He didn’t speak and she didn’t know what to say to break the silence. That she hurt him was certain but he could overcome it. Besides which, in less than seven hundred miles, he would have other things to occupy his mind. She’d leave him behind and drive the miles to Seattle, aching inside but knowing she’d done the right thing.

Hadn’t she?

Out her window, the South Dakota hills flew by and the snow, since morning a light drifting, increased until the flakes blew straight across the highway. The interior of the car grew dim and the headlights flicked on. It was just past three-thirty and they had at least four hundred miles to Billings. As the words formed in her head, he said them.

“We’re not going to make it tonight.”

The lump in her throat was still there but she managed to speak around it. “Where will we stop?”

Rapid City.”

That was all he said and the silence pricked at her. Stung in a way she hadn’t expected.

“Do you need to call her?”

He looked at her for the first time since they’d changed drivers. “She doesn’t know I’m coming,” he said, referring to Jessica. “I prefer to keep it that way.”

And have the upper hand, she finished mentally. She could understand that. He was wading into a boxing match and he needed all the power behind the punch that he could get. No distractions. No Gracie.

They hit Rapid City just as the road conditions became unbearable. A virtual white wall of snow greeted their exit from the interstate and Kale slowed the car to a crawl and pulled into the first hotel parking lot they saw.

“Stay here,” he instructed and went to get their rooms.

Snow pelted the windows and Toby lay in the back seat, whining occasionally. She leaned over the seat to comfort him, and herself. Kale was back in moments. He opened her door for her, and using his jacket, shielded her from the worst of the wind. Snow pushed its way into the tops of her boots and snuck under her gloves before they made it to the hotel doors. Toby stayed back in the car, waiting for his escort.

“Here,” Kale said and shoved a keycard at her. “I’ll be up in a minute with Toby and the bags.”

Gracie did her best to shake the snow from her hair and face. She ripped off her gloves and shoved them in her pocket, then caught the elevator to her room. The room was blessedly warm but she kicked up the heat anyway. She’d left the door propped and didn’t turn as Kale shouldered his way into the room, accompanied by the smell of wet dog and a few joyous barks. Instead she went to the window to stare out. There was nothing to see but the swirling of white and the fog of her own breath.

She jumped when his hand came to rest on her shoulder. The movement caused her to spin toward him and he caught her and backed her to the window.

“Where’s your room,” she asked, breathless because he was looking at her with an intention she couldn’t mistake.

“Here,” he said and kissed her.

Yes, her tired, lust filled brain whispered. Oh yes.

He lifted her arms around his neck and circled her back. One hand slipped beneath her shirt and came to rest beneath the waistband of her jeans. She pushed herself harder into the kiss, letting her mouth roam over his without conscious thought. He tore his lips away to trail wetly over her neck and down to the line of her sweater. Gracie leaned away long enough to pull her sweater and tank over her head. He murmured her name against her skin and angled them toward the bed. They tumbled down together and as Kale reared up to push her hair off her face, she knew what she wanted. She’d been lying to herself this whole time. It wouldn’t be easy to let him go. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. She only wanted one thing. Him.

His lips met hers once more and she arched up to him, giving everything she had.

Hours later, she didn’t know exactly what time because one of them had kicked the clock to the floor, Kale lifted his head and cocked an eyebrow at her.


“I love snow,” she said and he laughed. The richness of the sound caused tears to spring to her eyes. God, how she would miss him. He rolled from her and she used the edge of the sheet to wipe away the wetness before he could see.

Kale sat on the edge of the bed. “I don’t want to wake up.”

Because she could, Gracie ran a hand down his strong back. “Wake up?”

“It’s a dream,” he said, sending her a beautiful smile. “This time with you is like a dream.”

Gracie crawled to her knees and wrapped her arms around him while her heart melted into a useless puddle. That’s it, I’m a goner.

“We have a few more hours,” she said into his ear. Outside the blizzard raged and Gracie Proctor fell in love.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cross Country Christmas Chapter 6


“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.

They weren’t.

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.”

“Mom, no!”

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?”


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cross Country Christmas Chapter 5


When he knocked on her door the next morning, Kale had two coffees in his hand and sugar packets stuffed in his pockets. It was six-thirty and she was probably going to be mad at him. He didn’t care. He wanted out of this town.

He heard her light feet padding toward the door and, head wrapped in a towel, she peeked around the edge.

“You’re ready?” Using his hip, he nudged the door further open and stuck her coffee into the opening. “Thought this would get you moving.”

Instead of taking it, she opened the door. “Put it on the table. I have to blow my hair dry.”

A smooth blush spread across her face, and she wouldn’t look at him but he didn’t mind because that way he could look at her legs peeking out from the hot pink robe she wore. White snowflakes and green Christmas trees covered the robe, clashing horribly with her bright hair. Strands of it escaped the towel and lay against her white neck.

“So you really love Christmas, huh?” he said, mostly to cover up the fact that he’d been staring at her again. He switched his gaze to her toes and laughed. “Nice socks.”

She wiggled her fuzzy purple feet. “I don’t like to walk on motel floors barefooted. You’re early.”

“I just want to get going.”

With her back to him, she waved about the hairdryer. “Take Toby out, would you? He’s gotta pee.”

Outside, the dog did his business quickly and set about investigating a group of decorative bushes. Kale drank his coffee and waited for both Toby and Gracie. Omaha was within their sights if they could only get going this morning. Yesterday, he’d been dreading rolling into Billings. Today, though he still dreaded confronting Jessica, it was the only thing he wanted to do. Take that bull by the horns and move on. Fast.

He couldn’t help but think of what Gracie had said last night. So if he’s yours just take care of him. She couldn’t know how deep that remark struck him. She couldn’t know that he always took care of the people who mattered to him.

Twenty minutes later she came hustling down the outside stairs, copper hair flaming in the morning sun.

“I’ll drive,” she said and snatched the keys from his hand, leaving him to load their luggage. Toby hopped into the car with a happy bark and Kale climbed in after. Gracie cranked the car and the heat. She punched the radio button to off when it blared to life.

“Headache,” she said by way of explanation and eased onto the road.

They stopped at a McDonald’s for a to-go breakfast. Kale pulled apart a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit and fed it to Toby.

“What are we going to do about him?”

Kale dusted off his hands and held them up for the dog to see. “Who? Toby?”

“Yeah.” She hunched into herself, just a little. “You paid for him, so he should be yours.”

Kale looked into the dog’s doleful brown eyes, then back at Gracie’s flat ones.

“You’re used to being disappointed?”

She jerked. “No. I mean. Well. No.”

“So, that’s a yes.”

The breath she pushed out could’ve rolled a tumbleweed across Oklahoma. “Yes, O.K.? Happy?”

No, he sure wasn’t. “Toby’s yours. I bought him for you.”

Gracie took her gaze off the road long enough to shoot him a hopeful look. “Really?”

“Yup. Listen, you have to fight more, you know? If you want things, fight for them.”

“That’s not me.”

Because it was all he could think about doing, he reached across, slipped his hand under her hair, and cupped her warm neck. “You were a fighter in that parking lot when it came to Toby. You were in the airport.”

“I was mad then.” Her voice was small, tired.

“You were last night when you laid me out flat about the boy.”

Her skin retracted under his hand in a little flinch. “About that. I’m really sorry. It wasn’t my place. I don’t know you, I don’t know your life. I don’t know--”

He squeezed gently to get her to shut up. “It’s fine. I needed to hear it.”

Kale pulled his hand away and settled back into his seat. He took a deep breath. “How much do you know about me?”

He sensed more than saw her gaze.

“Amazing amounts of stuff,” she said. “You’re everywhere.”

Didn’t he know it. And wasn’t he damn tired of it. What would everyone think if he were to do the most selfish thing he could think of and just quit? He pushed the thought aside. Something to chew on later.

“You know my aunt and uncle raised me?”

She shot him a look. “Did you like them?”

That was Gracie, cutting right to the point and asking the questions no one else thought to ask.

“Sometimes,” he answered honestly. “They were good to me because they had to be and most days that was enough.”

“What about the days when it wasn’t?”

“I had music.” He smiled when he thought about it. “And my cousin Charlie.”

“Oh.” Her voice was soft in the closed confines of the car. “He died, right?”

His throat closed up but he forced out the words. “Car accident. Years and years ago now but sometimes it’s like yesterday.”

He’d met Jessica a week after Charlie died. Within two months he twined his life around hers, looking for a way to belong to someone. She’d been good for him for that brief period of time but their relationship soon turned toxic.

“That was the last time I saw my aunt and uncle, at the funeral. They didn’t have much to say to me. I was supposed to be driving that night but I stayed behind at an after party for the album launch. I don’t think they mean to blame me but sometimes you can’t control how you feel.” Because it was Gracie and he could say anything to her, he let the bitterness seep into his voice. “I was always the blister on my uncle’s heel.”

She cleared her throat. “How did you come to live with them?”

With the help of Joe, Kale worked hard to keep his childhood out of the public spotlight. It hadn’t been easy but he owed his aunt and uncle that much. They were private people and hated the cameras surrounding the church at Charlie’s funeral. He fought hard to protect them, even if they didn’t know it.

“It was Christmas,” he began in a deep James Earl Jones voice, causing her to giggle. “I was three. My parents went out shopping and, they never came back.”

The laugh stopped abruptly. “They died?”

“Nope. They were just kids themselves and decided being saddled me was too much responsibility. So off they went into the sunset.” He paused. “Or maybe they went East, no sunset. Either way, they left me with my dad’s brother. Who had more kids than he could feed. He wasn’t happy about it. And my aunt was too worn out to even care. What was one more mouth?”

The words sat heavily between them and he held his breath, wondering what she would say. He hadn’t meant to dump it all on her. The last time he told someone his sad country song story, it hadn’t turned out so well. Jessica listened patiently to his story and then started formulating ways they could use the material in a made-for-TV movie.

Her hand snuck through the space between them and she twined her fingers in his. “Charlie made it O.K. for you, though.”

The warmth of her fingers spiraled through him, pushing away the cold he’d felt since leaving her last night.

“He did. He made sure I was always taken care of. And,” he took a deep breath, “he’s the reason I would never leave Jessica’s boy to fend for himself. Charlie was fifteen years older, and even then he was the best father I could ever ask for.” Kale tugged on her fingers so she would look at him. “I won’t do to that boy what was done to me. I won’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kale lifted their joined hands and pressed her knuckles to his mouth. “I know.”

Somewhere along the way it had become right to touch her. He cut his eyes to the left to see if she knew it too. Her soft mouth was pressed into a little line but her eyes crinkled at the corners and then her lips quirked. He let go of her hand, satisfied, and they rode on in silence.

Every once in awhile he felt her gaze on him, but she didn’t make a move toward more conversation. She seemed to sense his need for the quiet and gave without asking. As they drove further north, the sun disappeared behind iron-grey skies and before lunch time, snow began to fall. He watched as her knuckles grew whiter and whiter as she gripped the steering wheel. Before long, traffic started to grow heavier as they reached the suburbs of St. Louis.

He didn’t miss the relief crossing her face when he suggested they stop for lunch. Gracie aimed the car for a small mom and pop diner off a quiet exit. They left a sleeping Toby in the car and ran for the diner door, the wind cutting a wicked path through the parking lot. A bell jingled over the door as they dashed inside.

The long diner, with a bar running down one side and booths on the other, was completely empty save for two old men arguing at the juke box and a waitress reading a worn paperback at the counter. Kale took Gracie’s arm and hustled her to the booth closest to the door while Willie Nelson sang about blue eyes crying in the rain.

The waitress, poufy black hair streaked liberally with gray, hopped down from a barstool and sauntered over. She pulled a pencil from the band of her ponytail and tapped it against her order pad.

“What’ll you have?”

Kale pulled his hat down tight and pointed at Gracie.

“Cheeseburger, extra cheese and potato chips. A Coke too.”

“The same,” Kale said. “And can we get it quick? We have a dog in the car.”

The waitress frowned at them both then leaned on the Formica table to peer out the window.

“Bring him in here,” she said then walked away without a backward glance.

Gracie looked at Kale. “Really?”

He shrugged and took the keys from her. “Why not, right?”

“Food regulations and stuff.”

Kale grinned at her. “Ten bucks says this place has been shut down more than once.”

With that happy thought to keep her occupied, he jogged to the car. Toby watched him coming, his paws on the steering wheel, tongue lolling. He barked once and sprinted for the diner door. His nails scratched on the floor and his paws slipped out from under him but he managed to make it under their table intact.

Kale slipped into his seat and took in Gracie’s smile.


She shrugged and sipped from her Coke the waitress dropped off. “Nothing. Can’t a girl smile?”

He lowered his eyebrows at her. Something was definitely up. “That’s not just a smile. I’ve been stuck in a car with you for almost two days. You don’t smile like that unless you’re being sneaky.”

“Two days is hardly enough time to get to know someone.”

It was true, and yet, he felt as though he’d known her for much longer than that. The bad part? He wanted to know her for much more than the four total days they’d be together. The muscles in his neck tightened up at that. No way did he need more complications. He rolled his head around and directed his attention at the two old guys still at the juke box.

“What’re they fighting about?”

Gracie twisted in her seat to look at them. “They were fighting about whether Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings sang Poncho and Lefty.”

“Willie sang it with Merle Haggard.”

She nodded. “Thought so. Now though, they’re on to something different.”

Before he could ask what, two plates slid across the table followed by a bottle of ketchup. Kale grabbed his rolled up silverware and reached for the ketchup when he noticed the waitress still standing at their table.

She was looking at him. Gracie was looking at her, that smile back on her face.

“You’re Kale Sims.”

He sighed and put down the ketchup. “Yup.”

“Will you sing for us?”

His lunch was going to get so cold. Gracie’s on the other hand, was not. She was already tucking into her cheeseburger like nobody’s business, her brown eyes set on him between bites. She swallowed then pulled a gulp of Coke.

“Mary—that’s her,” she said, pointing to their waitress, “is a huge fan. So is her husband, Duke.”

The two older men ambled toward their table.

“Duke,” one of the guys said and stuck out his meaty hand. “Nice to meet ‘cha. This here is Sammy.”

Sammy, a skinny man in coveralls nodded and blushed. “Pleasure. You’re singing for us?”

“Mary said the tab’s on her if you will,” Gracie said between bites. “I told her there’d be about a fifty-fifty chance of you saying yes.”

Kale swallowed back a laugh. He thought about facing her down in the Hertz parking lot, trying to be charming so she’d let him ride along. What had he said? That he pulled the being famous part about fifty percent of the time. Yeah, she sure remembered that. Her eyes, so flat and dreary this morning, twinkled at him over the ketchup bottle. Daring him. So, he did what he had to do. Turning to Mary, Duke, and Sammy he gave them his best camera smile.

“What do you want to hear?”

Gracie answered first, a laugh behind her voice. “I told them that you really like Blue Christmas. I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking about it.”

The look she sent him reminded him of the thin hotel walls, and he winced. That had been a moment of weakness. He’d been feeling sorry for himself and more than a little lonely. But sitting here in the diner with Gracie and Toby, he caught a little bit of a happy Christmas spirit.

“I need to get my guitar.”

“Oh no need,” Duke said, backing away from the table. “I got mine in the kitchen. Be back in a jiffy, Mr. Sims.”

A jiffy was all it took. Faster than he could blink, Duke was back with a beat up guitar, dragging two stools along with him. He sat them side by side and patted one for Kale. Leaving his cold burger behind, Kale hopped up next to Duke.

The opening cords rang out across the diner.

“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you …” Kale sang and watched Gracie.

She’d turned in the booth, food forgotten. Her face shone softly in the harsh diner light, a tiny curve to her lips as Duke picked across the strings. The second time around everyone joined in. Duke’s old voice, smoky with age and wisdom, grated across the words in a pleasing sound. Kale watched Mary’s black eyes light with laughter as she looked at her husband. He wondered what it would be like to have someone look at him like that.

Gracie’s soft voice caught his attention and she winked at him as the song came to a close. Duke’s fingers strung out the last note and the diner fell into silence. Sammy burst into applause.

“More!” he called but Kale shook his head and left the stool to join Gracie in the booth.

“Your turn,” he called out to Duke. “This girl here loves Christmas music. Play her a good one while we eat.”

Mary laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder and leaned down to whisper in his ear. Duke grinned. “Gotcha, honey,” he said and adjusted a few strings. Mary took the seat Kale vacated.

Her clear tones floated across the diner, full and rich. “I really can’t stay,” she sang, launching into Baby It’s Cold Outside.

Kale finished his cold burger while the husband and wife team ran a repertoire of love songs, holiday and otherwise. When they finished their food, Kale reached for his wallet but Mary waved him away.

“You gave my husband the biggest thrill of his life, Mr. Sims. That’s all the payment I need.”

Kale pumped Duke’s hand while Gracie collected her purse and Toby.

“I’m so glad you asked, Mary,” Gracie whispered. “You settled something between us.” She looked over at Kale, caught him listening, and fluttered her fingers at him.

Outside, he followed Gracie to the car. He opened the passenger door for her and grasped her arm when she would have slid in.

“Nice trick,” he said. “Had to prove something, huh?”

Her eyes widened innocently. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He had to grin at that one. “I give it fifty-fifty that you don’t know, Gracie.”

She gave him her imp smile. The happy one she used on him in the diner. “You told me to be a fighter.”

“I didn’t tell you to fight dirty with me.”

“Are you mad?”


“Want me to apologize?”

“Nope.” Kale said again and shook his head. “You just owe me.”

Pale pink lips parted slightly and her tongue darted out to wet them. “What do you want?”

Kale tightened his fingers and drew her closer. “Just a kiss, Gracie. Just one.”