“A guy like me,” he repeated again. “Grace, I’m trying like hell to follow you but…”
She looked at him and blinked, as if she didn’t understand how he wasn’t catching the obvious. “We’re so different,” she said. “You’ve got your life in gear, all planned out. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying to know but…” She trailed off and looked at him again, as if expecting him to nod in agreement.
But he was still clueless. “If you think my life is working on some plan that I’ve set out,” he said, “you haven’t been paying attention. Nothing is how I planned it. And as for mixing well, I think we mix pretty fucking well.”
“Yes, but isn’t that just sex?”
“Not yet,” he said with grim amusement. “But not for lack of chemistry. And there’s no ‘just sex’ about it.”
She stared up at him, apparently speechless. There weren’t crickets out tonight, but if there had been, they’d be chirping Beethoven about now. That’s when it came to him like a smack upside the back of the head. “Who was the guy?” he asked.
“The one who screwed you over, the one with some big, grand plan, I’m guessing. A plan that didn’t work out in your favor. Was he a doctor?”
Grace drew an audible breath to speak and then shook her head. “That obvious?”
“No,” he said. “Or I’d have caught on a lot sooner. And you’d think I would have since I was once burned by a big, grand plan too.”
She sighed. “Bryce Howard the third.”
“Sounds like a dick already.”
She choked out a laugh that spoke more of remembered misery than humor. “He’s a friend of the family. His parents are well-known and respected biomedical engineers, on the pioneer front of cardiovascular research.”
“Never heard of them.”
“We always knew we’d end up together,” she said. “It was sort of expected, actually.”
“Expected? Didn’t anyone realize it’s the twenty-first century?”
“It wasn’t like that,” she said quietly. “I liked Bryce.”
And then Josh really got it. Christ, he was slow on the uptake. “You loved him.”
“Yes.” She let out a shaky breath. “I did. I loved him until the day after our engagement, when he came home and told me to pack because we were moving to England for his job, which was a six-year study grant. It was a great opportunity, but…”
“You didn’t like being told what your life would look like for the next six years,” he guessed.
She shook her head. “And you know what the really sad thing was? If he’d so much as asked, or even gave a thought to me and my job, I’d have junked it all to go with him.”
“So what happened?”
“He left the next day,” she said. “And shortly after, my job vanished when the economy dived.”
“You could have looked him up,” he said. “Gone to him then.”
“Thought about it,” she admitted. “But by then I was seeing someone else.”
“Yes, but a bank guy this time,” she said. “Stone Cameron. He lost his job the same day I lost mine, only he’d invested in property instead of stocks. He had a house in Australia. He went there to go surf out the economy problems.”
“He ask you to go with?”
“Nope.” She shook her head. “This time, I wasn’t in the plans at all.”
Josh was starting to get the whole picture now, and he didn’t like it much. “So your parents had big life plans for you. Bryce had big life plans for you. Stone just had big plans. And no one ever asked you your plans.”
“No,” she said softly. “And I realize I didn’t actually have my own plans, but I’d have liked to be asked.”
He nodded. He could understand that.
“So I’m just saying, you don’t have to feel a responsibility to me just because we…sort of had sex.” She let out a low laugh that was far more natural now. “Twice. I’m still okay with this being…”
Her gaze met his, clear and utterly unfathomable. “Yes.”
“You think I’d feel a responsibility to you because of good sex,” he said slowly.
“Well, it was better than good,” she said. “But yes. I think you’re exactly the type to feel a responsibility for those who cross your path. You’re a rescuer.”
Okay, so now on top of assuming he only wanted her out of some sense of responsibility, she’d also lumped him into the same category with all the other mistakes she felt she’d made. And hell if that didn’t piss him off. She didn’t want him to care. He got that, loud and clear. He didn’t want to care either.
But he did. “Look, Grace, no matter what you call this thing between us—fun, a pain in the ass, nothing at all—it doesn’t matter. Just don’t judge me by the assholes in your past. I deserve more than that, but more importantly, you deserve more than that.”
She stared up at him, then slowly nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She turned back to the guesthouse, and he grimaced.
“Toby lost a tooth tonight,” she said quietly over her shoulder. “He was excited and tried to wait up for the Tooth Fairy, but he didn’t make it. She arrived the minute after he’d conked out.”
He slid his hand into his pocket. “Thanks. How much—”
“You’re paying me a thousand bucks a week.” She faced him again. “I think I can cover it. I can cover a lot of stuff, actually. Except at the end of the day, I’m still just the babysitter. And he’s still just an adorable, motherless five-year-old. Who also deserves better.” With that last zinger, she let herself into the guesthouse and shut the door quietly.
He stood there for a moment, then nodded. Point for each, which meant it was a draw. Which didn’t explain why he felt she’d lanced him alive.
Inside he found Toby deeply asleep, wrapped around both Tank and the lightsaber. The Berenstain Bears book was there, too, with the mama bear front and prominent.
Josh ignored the pain in his chest, the one that said he was still failing the people in his life, and gently pulled the lightsaber from Toby’s slack grip. Next, he eyed the dog.
Tank opened one eye and gave a look that said, Don’t even try, pal.
Josh gave up and covered them both.
Tank licked his hand.
Josh bent over Toby and kissed his temple. His son smelled like peanut butter and soap, which he took as a good sign. So was the way the kid smiled in his sleep. A smile with a gaping hole in the front.
“Love you,” Josh whispered, the words a heavy weight on his chest.
Toby rolled away, pulling Tank under one arm and the Berenstain Bears book under the other, sighing softly in his sleep. “Arf,” he whispered.
The next morning, Grace climbed back onto the modeling pedestal in Lucille’s gallery. Today she was artfully draped in a sheet, supposedly like a Grecian goddess, though she suspected she looked more like she was going to a toga party.
“I wouldn’t mind being twenty years younger, like you, Grace,” Mrs. Gregory said conversationally. “Back to when my boobs were as good as yours.”
“You mean fifty years,” Lucille murmured.
“It’s just that I’m tired of hoisting my boobs into a bra every morning.” Mrs. Gregory pointed to Grace’s breasts. “You don’t have to hoist anything. Those babies are standing up on their own.”
“That’s because it’s cold in here,” Grace said in her own defense. She was counting down the last twenty minutes of class as she held her pose. After this, she was picking up Anna from PT, and then she had a few more calls to return to applying nannies. She was determined to find the best possible person for Toby. And Tank. And Anna, even though the twenty-one-year-old would deny needing anything from anyone.
Grace could admit that she also wanted the best possible person to take care of Josh. Which was silly. Very silly. Obviously, the man was more than capable of taking care of himself, not to mention everyone around him. He’d proven that managing more than the average human should ever have to between his practice, the ER, Toby, Anna…the loss of his parents.
Sure, he was very used to taking care of people, and it was an extremely appealing part of the man. But maybe he just needed to know it was okay to be on the other side of the fence occasionally.
“Time,” Lucille called out to her students, and Grace relaxed. She jumped down off the pedestal and dropped the sheet, revealing the short, strapless sundress she wore beneath. Grabbing her cardigan and purse, she headed to the door. “Gotta go.”
“Hold on, dear,” Lucille said, and handed her a check and a bottle of wine.
“Oh,” Grace said. “Thank you, but I’m not much of a drinker—”
“Check out the label.”
It was a color pencil sketch of the Lucky Harbor pier at night, lit up with strings of white lights that glowed out over the water beneath a full moon. Grace had seen the original. The Chocoholics had celebrated Amy’s sale of the drawing to the winery a month ago. When she recognized it, pride filled her. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
“Keep it,” Lucille told her. “Maybe you’ll have use for it on a date over a nice romantic dinner with the doctor.”
“We’re not dating—” She broke off at Lucille’s smile and shook her head. “Listen, I know you’re like the gossip guru in town, but there’s no gossip here.”
Lucille smiled. “Are you sure?”
“Very,” Grace said firmly, ignoring the little ping inside her. Maybe if she’d stop giving Josh reasons not to fall for her… “I’m just watching Toby and Tank. Helping Josh out, is all.”