She’d died by accident, internal bleeding from “punishments.” The rest of the trailer compound that was New Eden had gone up in flames as the FBI investigation was closing in.
Everything Grace had told us was probably great for Gus’s original plot line. It didn’t leave a lot of room for meet-cutes and HEAs. But that was sort of the point. Tonight’s research had been for me, to take my brain down the trails that led to the kind of book I was supposed to be writing.
I couldn’t understand how people did this. How Gus could bear to follow such dark paths just for the sake of a story. How he could keep asking questions when all I’d wanted all night was to grab Grace and hold her tight, apologize for what the world had taken from her, find some way—any way—to make the loss one ounce lighter.
“Have to stop for gas,” Gus said, and pulled off the highway to a deserted Shell station. There was nothing but parched fields for miles in every direction.
I got out of the car to stretch my legs while Gus pumped the gas. Night had cooled the air, but not much. “This one of your murder spots?” I asked, walking around the car to him.
“I refuse to answer that on the grounds that you might try to take it from me.”
“Solid grounds,” I answered. After a moment, I couldn’t hold the question in any longer. “Doesn’t it bother you? Having to live in someone else’s tragedy? Five years. That’s a long time to put yourself in that place.”
Gus tucked the nozzle back into the pump, all his focus on twisting the gas cap closed. “Everybody’s got shit, January. Sometimes, thinking about someone else’s is almost a relief.”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “Let me have it.”
Gus’s eyebrows lifted and his Sexy, Evil mouth went slack. “What?”
I folded my arms and pressed my hip into the driver’s side door. I was tired of being the most delicate person in the room. The girl drunk on purse-wine, the one trying not to tremble as someone else poured their pain out on a high-top in a crummy bar. “Let’s hear this mysterious shit of yours. See if it gives me an effective break from mine.” And now Grace’s, which weighed just as heavily on my chest.
Gus’s liquidy dark eyes slid down my face. “Nah,” he said finally, and moved toward the door, but I stayed leaning against it. “You’re in my way,” he said.
He reached for the door handle, and I slid sideways to block it. His hand connected with my waist instead, and a spark of heat shot through me.
“Even more in my way,” he said, in a low voice that made it sound more like I dare you to stay there.
My cheeks itched. His hand was still hanging against my hip like he’d forgotten it was there, but his finger twitched, and I knew he hadn’t.
“You just took me on the world’s most depressing date,” I said. “The least you could do is tell me a single thing about yourself, and why all this New Eden stuff matters to you.”
His brow lifted in amusement and his eyes flickered in that bonfire-lit way. “Wasn’t a date.”
Somehow, he managed to make it sound filthy.
“Right, you don’t date,” I said. “Why is that? Part of your dark, mysterious past?”
His Sexy, Evil mouth tightened. “What do I get?”
He stepped a little closer, and I became hyperaware of every molecule of space between us. I hadn’t been this close to a man since Jacques. Jacques had smelled like high-end cologne by Commodity; Gus smelled smoky and sweet, like nag champa incense mixed with a salty beach. Jacques had blue eyes that twinkled over me like a summer breeze through chimes. Gus’s dark gaze bored into me like a corkscrew: What do I get?
“Lively conversation?” My voice came out unfamiliarly low.
He gave a slight shake of his head. “Tell me why you moved here, and I’ll tell you one thing about my dark, mysterious past.”
I considered the offer. The reward, I decided, was worth the cost. “My dad died. He left me his beach house.”
The truth, if not all of it.
For the second time, an unfamiliar expression fluttered—sympathy? Disappointment, maybe?—across his face too fast for me to parse out its meaning. “Now your turn,” I prompted.
“Fine,” he said, voice scratchy, “one thing.”
Gus leaned in toward me and dropped his mouth beside my ear conspiratorially, his hot breath pulling goose bumps up the side of my neck. His eyes flashed sideways across my face, and his other hand touched my hip so lightly it could’ve been a breeze. The heat in my hips spread toward my center, curling around my thighs like kudzu.
It was crazy that I remembered that night in college so vividly that I knew he’d touched me just like this. That first touch when we met on the dance floor, featherlight and melting-point hot, careful, intentional.
I realized I was holding my breath, and when I forced myself to breathe, the rise and fall of my chest was ridiculous, the stuff of Regency-era erotica.
How was he doing this to me? Again?
After the night we’d had tonight, this feeling, this hunger in me shouldn’t have been possible. After the year I’d had, I hadn’t thought it was anymore.
“I lied,” he whispered against my ear. “I have read your books.”
His hands tightened on my waist and he spun me away from the car, opened the door, and got in, leaving me gasping at the sudden cold of the parking lot.
The Not Date
I SPENT FAR TOO much of my Saturday trying to choose a perfect destination for Gus’s first Adventure in Romance. Even though I’d been suffering from chronic writer’s block, I was still an expert in my field, and my list of possible settings for his introduction to meet-cutes and Happily Ever Afters was endless.
I’d pounded out another thousand words first thing in the morning, but since then I’d been pacing and Googling, trying to choose the perfect place. When I still couldn’t make up my mind, I’d driven myself to the farmer’s market in town and walked the sunny aisle between the stands, searching for inspiration. I picked through buckets of cut flowers, longing for the days when I could afford a bundle of daisies for the kitchen, calla lilies for the nightstand in the bedroom. Of course, that had been back when Jacques and I were sharing an apartment. When you were renting in New York by yourself, there wasn’t much money for things that smelled good for a week, then died in front of you.
At the booth of a local farm, I filled my bag with plump tomatoes, orange and red, along with some basil and mint, cucumbers, and a head of fresh butter lettuce. If I couldn’t pick something to do with Gus tonight, maybe we’d cook dinner.
My stomach grumbled at the thought of a good meal. I wasn’t big on cooking myself—it took too much time I never felt like I had—but there was definitely something romantic about pouring two glasses of red wine and moving around a clean kitchen, chopping and rinsing, stirring and sampling tastes from a wooden spoon. Jacques had loved to cook—I could follow a recipe okay, but he preferred a more intuitive, cook-all-night approach, and kitchen intuition and food-patience were both things I sorely lacked.
I paid for my veggies and pushed my sunglasses up as I entered the enclosed part of the market in search of some chicken or steak and fell back into brainstorming.