Noah drove to Kit’s in his Mustang, the top down. The gleaming black convertible had two silver stripes front to back and was even more distinctive a vehicle than Fox’s Aventador.
He saw the TV vans and photographers milling around her gate the instant he hit her street. Kit clearly hadn’t emerged yet because the media had that bored air to them that shouted disappointment. All that changed the instant a blond paparazzo spotted his car.
A lightning strike of camera flashes.
Taking a deep breath, he slowed down instead of blasting through the paps with his horn blaring. They actually allowed him to turn so that his car was in front of Kit’s gate, likely because that gave them a shot of him heading to see her, but then they swarmed.
He braced his arm on the door, a lazy grin on his face that he’d perfected long ago. People didn’t look too deep when they saw that grin, figuring that was who he was. “Lovely morning isn’t it?” he drawled into the microphones thrust at him.
Grins all around.
“Noah!” shouted one TV reporter. “Is it true? You and Kathleen are a couple?”
Smile deepening, he slipped off his sunglasses. “You want to get me in trouble this early in the day, Jessa?” he asked, playing the reporter like a fish on a hook.
“Come on, Noah, give us something.”
“No comment.” He laughed to take the sting out of it, slipped his sunglasses back on. “I might have one after I talk to a certain gorgeous woman, but you have to let me through first.”
They drew back, sensing juicier news to come if they gave him what he wanted. Hoping that news wouldn’t be a black eye, he roared down the drive after Butch opened the gate, the bodyguard’s flinty gaze ensuring no one dared attempt to sneak in behind Noah.
Kit threw open her front door as he brought the convertible to a stop in front of the house. Around the corner and distant from the gate, they had absolute privacy.
Stalking out to meet him as he vaulted out of the car, she put both hands on his chest and shoved. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” Her eyes sparked fire at him. “I saw you on the security cameras! You just turned this ridiculous rumor into an unkillable monster!”
“It had to be done,” he said, standing his ground. “Thea says if we—”
“Thea called you?” She gritted her teeth. “I’m going to fire her. I don’t care if she’s my friend.”
“No, you won’t. Because she’s the best in the business and she’s right.”
Ignoring his words, she stormed back into the house, her jeans-clad legs eating up the ground.
He followed, knowing where she was heading even before she used the kitchen entrance to step out into her garden. Deciding to let her stew in private, he found the green tea he knew she kept in an upper cupboard, brewed it up for her in the little ceramic pot with a metal handle. He was probably fucking it up, but it was the thought that counted right?
Putting the pot and the tiny Japanese-style handleless teacups on a tray, he grabbed a bunch of cookies from her stash and took the tray out to her. She was weeding with bare hands, her jewel-green nails bright against the weeds and her gray T-shirt as old and soft as his black one.
He put the tray on the wooden picnic table and poured her a cup. Taking it to her, he hunkered down by her side and held it out.
“You are not pacifying me with tea.”
Shrugging, he sat down with his legs stretched out in front of him and drank it himself—or tried to. “Ugh. Still just as disgusting.”
“It is not disgusting. It’s the best sencha you can get.” She grabbed the cup from him and took several sips of the hot liquid. “What was that? By the gate?”
“That was me being your friend.”
Putting the cup back in his hand, she continued to weed. “That was you being a troublemaker.” She went to pull something out, seemed to realize it wasn’t a weed, and patted the soil back in place. “Now everyone’s going to expect us to be a couple.”
“They already did.”
“Thea might have been able to defuse that.”
“Not fast enough.” He offered her more tea.
She emptied the cup, then sat on the earth, her eyes no longer on the garden. “You can’t keep it up, Noah.” It was a strained statement. “Playing the adoring boyfriend.”
He’d never had any fucking trouble adoring Kit. “I will. I promise you that.” When she looked away, he continued to speak. “I’ve never promised you anything before, Kit—that’s because when I make a promise, I don’t break it.” And he’d known he couldn’t give her what she needed. Not then. Nothing much had changed. He was still an asshole, but he would protect Kit. That was his motivation, and fuck if he’d mess it up. “I won’t let you down.”
Her gaze was raw with emotion when she finally looked at him again. “I don’t know if I can do it.”
Her pain was like knives plunging into him, slicing through his gut to leave him open and bleeding. “I can’t give you what you need in so many ways,” he said, ripping his heart open for her, “but I can help your career. I can do that. Let me, Kit. Please.” He’d never begged for anything, but he’d crawl on his hands and knees for this small chance at redemption.
Eyes stark, Kit shook her head. “How can I accept that?” A rasped whisper. “How can I use my friend?”
“You’re not using me.” He dared lay one hand against her cheek, his fingers brushing the rich silk of her hair. “I’m offering to help. That’s what friends do, right? Support each other. Let me support you in public. Let me be that guy.” Even if I can never be good enough to be your guy.
Kit’s throat moved. Not saying a word, she dusted off her hands and got up, went to the table. “Come and drink some tea.”
He took a seat, allowed her to refill his cup. Pouring another one for herself, she sat on the other side of the table. “Harper called ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah?” Not about to drink the tea but holding the cup for its warmth, his own skin chilled, he said, “What did she say?”
“Same thing Thea did. I’m apparently on everyone’s radar all at once. She’s had multiple ‘feeling things out’ calls—no one ready to commit, but people letting her know they’re watching to see how I conduct myself in the spotlight.”
Noah put aside the tea and took a cookie. It was sugar spice and it was delicious. “Pisses you off doesn’t it?”
Renewed fire in her eyes. “Hell yes. I’m a good actress who busts her balls and barely gets a little grudging recognition, but then I go out with a random musician and boom, I’m hot property?”
“You deserved it.” She bit into a cookie, chewed. “Will you humiliate me?”
The quiet question erased the laughter, made his blood go cold. “No,” he said. “Never. I promise you that.”
He knew why she was having trouble believing his promises; he might’ve never said the words out loud when they’d been friends the first time around, but it had been implied. A promise not to hurt. A promise to care. A promise to love.
“Kit.” He wanted to reach for her hand, but she’d curled it into a fist in a silent rejection. “What I did? I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. Never again will I hurt you on purpose. You have my word.”
“The groupies? Can you resist them?”
“I’ve never had a problem resisting them.” He didn’t pick up women because he was attracted to them or because he had a giant ego he needed to massage.
At Kit’s open disbelief, he thrust both hands through his hair. “Whether you want to trust me or not, you have to. There’s no other option unless you want to destroy everything you’ve spent years building.”
Kit knew he was right. It was infuriating, but he was right. She could lose her entire career because the media and the public were fascinated by a relationship that could never be. The idea of starting from close to scratch again, of going through all the rejections and closed doors, it was hard to think about. But just as hard was remembering the pain Noah could so carelessly dish out.
He’d said he wasn’t going to humiliate her, but how could she believe him, given his track record? She couldn’t. All she could do was trust in their friendship. Because one thing she did know about Noah—he didn’t let his friends down. Come concert time, he was always onstage no matter what he’d gotten up to the night before.
“All right,” she whispered. “But only until Redemption is cast. Whether that’s a yes or a no for me, things should have cooled down enough that Thea can finagle a breakup that leaves us both in a good place.”
She kept on speaking before he could reply. “Everyone understands friends to lovers doesn’t always work. As long as you don’t get caught with a woman in the interim, we should be fine.”
Noah’s face was strained, and she had the feeling this was hurting him, but she couldn’t sugarcoat things. False truths would only hurt them both in the end. As it was, she wasn’t sure she could survive pretending he was hers for even a short three or four weeks. It was like being handed the most wonderful gift in the world, only to be told it wasn’t really yours. It was just on loan. You couldn’t touch, couldn’t have. Just pretend.
“Deal,” he said and took a deep breath, then released it. “If we want to keep the media on our side, we have to give them a bite.”
Kit felt her jaw muscles lock but nodded. “Let’s drive out, grab a coffee.”
“I’ve got a better idea. How about I take you to breakfast at Pierre Baudin?”
“I think you have delusions of grandeur,” she said, relieved to be back on a normal footing. “That place is booked up months in advance.” Even though it had only opened six months ago, Chef Pierre Baudin’s cafe and restaurant was quickly becoming “the” place to see and be seen.
Noah’s eyes sparkled. “Watch and learn.” Pulling out his phone, he made a call, said, “Bonjour, mon ami.” A pause. “Fuck you, JP, you know that’s the only French I know.” It was said with the ease of a man who knew the person on the other end wouldn’t take offense. “Yeah, yeah. So, can you fit in my girl and me today?”
The words stabbed at her.
Kit forced herself to breathe past it. She’d have to do that in public, couldn’t afford to betray just how much the charade was hurting her. The media saw everything, and if this was going to work, she had to put on the performance of her life.
“Thanks—and oh yeah, we come with a paparazzi entourage who’ll splash your place everywhere you want it splashed.” Hanging up on a stream of what sounded like curses on his birth, Noah grinned. “And we’re in.”
“Since when do you know temperamental chefs who’ve taken restaurants to the coveted third Michelin star? And what’s with calling him JP?”
“Remember the whole boarding-school-as-networking thing? JP was there—his full name is Jean Pierre Baudin.” He scowled. “Christ, that means my father was right.”
“Ah well.” She patted his hand. “At least he need never know that you networked your way to a table at the hottest place in town.” Getting up, she said, “Let me change.” While Noah could turn up in disreputable jeans and a plain black T-shirt, his feet clad in heavy black boots with more than one scar and scuff, she had to be done up to the nines or the gossip blogs would immediately start printing tut-tutting stories about how it was a shame she’d let herself go.
Life really was unfair.