“Let’s sit outside,” she said through the renewed ache in her chest. “It’s so pretty by the stream.” It would also be easier than being shut up in a cabin with a Noah who was acting more and more like the man for whom she’d fallen so hard she was still bruised from it.
Putting down the food, he snapped out the tartan-patterned blanket—dark blue with lines picked out in red and white. Pretty, and one she’d seen before. He’d pulled it from the trunk of his car one day, spread it out in her garden, and lazed in the sun while she finished weeding.
The garden hadn’t been finished then. It was Noah who’d helped her hoe the beds. That day, however, he’d been a complete sloth because he hadn’t slept the previous night. He’d told her it had just been a bad night, and Kit had believed him. It was only later that she’d realized Noah didn’t sleep much at all.
He’d slept in her garden, however, under the shade of the cherry blossom tree that had been one of the first things she’d planted. Giving in to need, she’d watched him. His lashes had been dark against the gold of his skin, his cheekbones defined and his jawline shadowed. There was no question that Noah was incredibly good-looking, but Kit was surrounded by good-looking people on a daily basis, had been since childhood.
It was what lay beneath Noah’s looks that had compelled her: the drive, the passion, the talent, and, she’d believed, the capacity to care. She hadn’t been wrong about the latter. Noah could care, and care deeply, but—
Jerking, she said, “Sorry, thinking about a project I’ve been offered.” It was the first thing that came to mind as an excuse.
Light reflected into the dark gray of Noah’s eyes. “Anything exciting?”
“It’s the same writing and directing team as Last Flight.” Kit went down to the blanket and began to set out the food. Noah had bought croissants, sunflower and linseed rolls, cold cuts and little miniature spreads, as well as fruit.
Holding up an apple, she raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed.”
“You should be.” He folded himself down onto the blanket and emptied the other bag. “Juice, water… and cupcakes for dessert.”
Kit gasped at glimpsing the miniature vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting. “Noah!” She pointed a finger at him. “You know I can eat a whole package of those by myself!” Cheap and prepackaged the cupcakes might be, but she adored them a thousand times more than the expensive gourmet versions.
He moved the cupcakes under her nose. “No more painted-on superhero costume.” A wicked smile. “Or I can eat them all.”
Grabbing the package from him, she went to put it aside, then said to hell with it and opened it. “We need coffee.”
“Give me a couple of minutes.” He got up, jogged into the house, moving with a masculine grace that was addicting to watch.
Stuffing half a cupcake in her mouth, she forced her attention to the stream that sparkled under the sunshine. The water was so clear she could see the pebbles beneath, the grass around the edges lush but not too tall. Since Noah hadn’t been by for a while, the grass itself had to be of a variety that stayed short.
She finished the second half of the cupcake, moaning at the taste. Putting the package aside after taking a second cupcake, she peeled off the wrapper and started to eat that one much more slowly. As she ate, she tried to think of anything but Noah. She failed.
“Coffee, as ordered.”
Looking up, his denim-clad thighs threatening to highjack her attention, she accepted the mug he held out.
“Only instant.” He came down to the blanket with his own mug in hand, close enough that their shoulders would brush with another inch of movement from either one of them. “It’s caffeine though, right?”
“Your generator’s pretty quiet.” She’d heard it start up, but it hadn’t been intrusive.
“I bought it online.” A grin. “Had no idea how to work it—and the instructions were in Swedish.”
Even as Kit laughed, Noah knew he remained on shaky ground. It didn’t matter. Not today, not with her joy sinking into his bones. He’d shit on their friendship once, would slit his fucking wrists before he ever hurt her again—and if it took a lifetime to convince Kit, then it took a lifetime. He was in this for the long haul.
“Play that new Carina song,” Kit said when he pulled out his phone to play something in the background.
He cued it up. “Don’t tell Molly I have this. She changes the channel if Carina ever shows up on TV.”
“Can’t blame her after the way Carina flirted with Fox in that interview. But man, the woman has a voice.”
“Do I get any of those cupcakes?” he asked when she reached for a third one after eating the second one with infinite care. He loved that habit of hers—she’d inhale the first one, then nibble at the rest.
“Hmm.” She counted the remaining cupcakes with an ostentatious concentration that made him want to kiss her.
Fuck. He could not be having those thoughts about Kit.
“Well, since you were smart enough to get a twelve-pack,” she said, her tone serious, “I suppose I can spare a couple.”
Ripping off the wrapper after she handed him one, he ate the whole thing in a single bite. “Cheapest gift I ever bought.” He tried to stare at the stream, but it was impossible not to look at her when her absence had been a hole inside him nothing could fill.
“So cheap yet so delish.” Licking at the frosting, she picked up her coffee and took a cautious sip. “Not bad for something that’s been in the cottage for so long.”
“Makes you wonder what chemicals are in it, doesn’t it?” He took a second cupcake. “Just like I wonder what’s in these cupcakes—you know they don’t expire for months, right?”
“I don’t care. Not when they taste this good.” Fourth cupcake finished, she rested by drinking more coffee. “So, the tour was successful?”
“Yeah, it was good.” Schoolboy Choir had sold out shows across the country, added extra dates. “Glad to be home though.”
Hands cupped around her coffee mug, Kit said, “You have any specific plans for the new album, or are you just going to jam and figure it out?”
“We want to stretch ourselves.” It was time to go back to their roots, dig for the music that made their souls burn.
Frowning in concentration, Kit turned her body toward him. “A change in direction?”
“No, just… growing.” It was the one way in which Noah could grow. Music had always been his freedom, perhaps because he’d found it afterward. There was no taint to it. “Did you know Fox and I started to learn music together?”
Pure delight in Kit’s smile. “At boarding school?”
“Yeah. It was the one class in which we always behaved. Mr. Denison was convinced the other teachers were making up lies about us being troublemakers.” He chuckled. “We send him tickets to our concerts when we pass through Houston—that’s where he lives now—and damn if he doesn’t always attend.”
Sitting cross-legged on the picnic blanket, Kit peeled the wrapper off a cupcake and gave it to him before taking one for herself. “He must be proud of you.”
“I think he is.” Far prouder than either one of Noah’s parents. “Last time he came backstage, he brought his wife and told her how Fox and I were the only two students he’d had who wanted to learn to read music so much that we used to haunt his office.”
“You didn’t meet Abe and David till later, right? When you were thirteen? I think I remember David saying something like that once.”
Noah nodded. “Yep.” Unlike Fox and Noah, David and Abe had families who loved them. They hadn’t been shipped off and forgotten… or hidden.
In Abe’s family, boarding school was a proud tradition; his folks had come to see him every visitation weekend, had taken him home each vacation.
David’s folks hadn’t been able to visit that often—Alicia and Vicente Rivera hadn’t had the funds for it. But David had received the best care packages, full of home-baked goodies, a letter, and articles his family had clipped for him from neighborhood papers. Those care packages had grown bigger after the four of them became friends, Mrs. Rivera including enough for Noah, Abe, and Fox as well.
She’d even written them all.
If Noah’d had a choice, he’d have gone home with Abe or David come vacation time. Either one of his friends’ families would’ve opened their doors to him and Fox. But he hadn’t had a choice. Noah’s father couldn’t stand to look at him, but he wasn’t about to be accused of neglect. So Noah had to go home.
The only thing that had made it bearable was having Fox with him—his friend would’ve rather gone to David’s or Abe’s too, but he’d always said he wanted to go home with Noah.
Noah would never forget that act of loyalty.
“Did you like boarding school?” Kit’s husky voice cut through the memories.
“It was better than home.” Kit knew he had a dysfunctional relationship with his mother and father. “That was how I thought of it at first, but after a while, yeah, I did enjoy it. Mostly because of the friendships.” Quite frankly, he wouldn’t have made it the first month, much less the first year, without Fox.
His need would’ve made him feel unequal in the friendship, except that Fox had needed a friend just as badly for different reasons. If Noah had parents who, in public, acted as if he mattered, all the while ignoring him in private, Fox’s mother had flat-out abandoned him for her shiny new family.
So they’d become one another’s family, brothers not by blood but by choice.
“Your classmates must’ve pulled a few interesting stunts,” he said, and, when Kit answered with a wry nod, he asked another question. He wanted to hear her speak, see her smile… fix what he’d deliberately broken.
It had been a strange, oddly wonderful, and terribly painful day. Kit didn’t know quite how to process it, so she just shoved everything aside as she’d been doing since the moment Noah picked her up. Living in the moment was the only way she could deal with this.
“Thanks for the flight,” she said as they headed to the car early that afternoon. “It was beautiful.” No lie there, no need to watch her words.
“Anytime,” Noah answered with a smile before his phone went off. “Give me a sec.” His expression darkened when he saw the name on the screen, his answer a brusque “Yeah?”
Walking on to give him privacy, Kit was nonetheless aware of the curt nature of his conversation. He’d unlocked the SUV using the remote by the time she got to it, so she climbed inside and put the picnic blanket and the detritus of their meal in the back.
His jaw was set in a hard line when he got in, white lines around his mouth. “Did you want to stop anywhere on the way home?” he asked after driving out of the hangar, getting back out to lock it, then sliding into the driver’s seat again.
“No.” Kit knew she should keep her distance, but that wasn’t who she was when it came to people she cared about—and hell, that was the wrong direction to take. She couldn’t care about Noah, not that much. But she did. Despite everything, she did, and it was tearing her apart. “Bad news?”
Blowing out a breath, he turned on the music.
Kit kept her silence though frustration churned inside her. He’d always done this with certain questions. Just ignored them. Back when they’d been close, she’d excused it as him not wanting to talk about things that were too personal. Only later had she realized that she didn’t really know much about Noah beyond his current life. Except for the odd comment about his troubled relationship with his parents, his entire past had been a no-go zone.
As a result, she wasn’t expecting him to speak, was startled when he did.
“It was my father.”
Kit took in his rigid shoulders, the hand gripping the steering wheel with bruising force. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing. I’ve been ordered to show my face at some charity gala they’re sponsoring not this Saturday but the next.”
Kit frowned. “You don’t do anything you don’t want to do, Noah.” Anyone who’d had even limited contact with him knew that.
“Yeah, well, he brought my aunt Margaret into it. Aside from Emily, she’s the only person with an actual heart in my family, and she’s the head of the charity.”
He had mentioned his aunt once when Kit complimented him on a shirt he was wearing. He’d said it was from his aunt—she couldn’t remember why they hadn’t spoken more about it, but then Noah was very good at distracting her, intentionally or not. “So you’ll go?”
His hand tightened further on the steering wheel. “Yeah. Fuck.” Exhaling loudly, he seemed to consciously flex his fingers before curving them around the leather again. “I don’t suppose you want to subject yourself to a couple of hours of social torture?”
“Shit, sorry.” Noah shoved a hand through his hair. “Forget that. No need to ruin your Saturday night too.”
There it was, the out she needed. But she also saw the angry tension in his body, and she remembered the syringe and the motel room and her terror at the thought that she might lose him forever. “I’ll go,” she said before her mind could override her heart. “The idea of rocking a glam gown will motivate me to move during my sessions with Steve.”
Kit liked to eat, but given her profession, that meant she had to stick to a strict exercise regimen—including a two-hour session booked for later today. But even though she’d been known to call her trainer Macho Steve, the Evil Personal Trainer, she generally enjoyed the workouts. “Plus my being snapped at a big event will make my publicist happy.”
Noah’s responding glance was unexpectedly grim. “How about if you get caught being my date? What’s Thea going to say to that?”
She shrugged. “I’ve been photographed with the band so much no one takes any hookup rumors seriously anymore.” That wasn’t quite true, but her PR person could spin it that way.
Thank God Thea had decided to take Kit on as a client. Thea hadn’t really had the time, not with handling Schoolboy Choir and a few legacy clients, but when she saw Kit beginning to drown under the deluge of publicity after Last Flight, she’d stepped in.
“You sure?” Noah returned his attention to the road, his shoulders no longer as stiff, his jawline relaxing. “It won’t be fun.”
Kit’s heart tried to read hopeful, romantic things in Noah’s response to the idea of her company. She shut it down with teeth-clenched will. “That’s what friends are for.”