Noah had no argument with Kit’s suggestion. If this was what he could do to help his friend, then it was what he’d do. “PDA?” he suggested, figuring he could pull something like he had at the concert, closeness that wouldn’t make either one of them uncomfortable.
Kit twisted her lips. “No, let’s go be cute together.”
“I don’t do cute.” He shuddered. “Don’t start expecting me to buy you soft toys or other sweet shit.” But since she really wanted a teddy bear, he’d get it for her. It’d be kind of adorable to see Kit go all soft and happy over a cuddly toy.
“So romantic.” The words were dry enough to parch the desert. “That’s why it’s going to be catnip to the paparazzi. ‘Noah St. John Tamed’—I can just see the headlines.”
He pretended to gag. “I never knew I was signing on for fiendish and painful torture.”
Laughter from the passenger seat. “You come up with an idea then. I’ve never consciously played the media this hard before.”
“We get caught making out in a car.”
“In broad daylight? I don’t think anyone will buy that from me.” A pause, her next words soft and nearly soundless. “And if we’re going to have a first kiss, I want it to be private.”
Noah stopped breathing for a second. He didn’t know how to kiss. Having anyone’s face close to his, it was too personal, too much an invasion. When he fucked women, he took them over. A kiss though, it would bring them into him too, leave a mark. He preferred distance. Maybe that was fucked-up, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a minor detail.
“Your turn,” he said, his gut all tense. “No PDA, no cute, no making out.”
“I could get caught standing with my hand over my belly,” Kit said with a gleeful laugh. “That would be so much fun, except people might take me seriously and there goes Redemption.”
Noah didn’t laugh. “You want kids?”
“Yes.” A pause. “I know you don’t, but I really do.”
“Before, what I said, I was just thinking of some poor kid stuck with me for a dad.” He’d have screwed that up royally. “With you, it’d be different.” He already knew Kit would rock the motherhood thing, and when he was with her, he was a better man. If they ever got to the point where they could do the kid thing, she’d teach him how to be a good father, and he’d listen—he never wanted his kid to hate him like he hated Robert St. John.
“Yes, well, we can talk about all that later.” Kit’s voice was odd, but then she snapped her fingers. “I have it. Let’s go to Disneyland. You don’t have to be cute—the location is cute all by itself.”
“Rock stars don’t do Disneyland—gotta think of the brand, Katie.” He took her light punch on the arm with a grin. “We go to Six Flags and ride the fucking roller coasters.”
“Only lunatics ride things that make them scream in terror.”
He got her on a roller coaster. She screamed like a banshee and threatened to murder him when he laughed. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders once they got off, he pressed a kiss to her temple and bought her cotton candy. “That should sweeten you up.”
“My hair must be a mess.”
It looked like she’d just tumbled out of bed. Not liking the idea of anyone else thinking that, he took off his cap and snugged it on her head before stealing some of the sticky sweet stuff she was picking off in little tufts.
“This is evil,” she said, eating another tuft. “Macho Steve will kill me tomorrow.”
“We could just go for an extra run,” he said at the name of her personal trainer. “Or another roller coaster ride.”
Elbowing him, she pointed at a ride to their left. “Who would be insane enough to go on that? Listen to the screams.”
He looked at her, smiled. Narrowing her eyes, she tried to back away. He held her in a pretend stranglehold as he led her to the line. Later, after they’d survived the ride, he bought her a small blue teddy bear with a missing ear, as if it had been torn off in a scuffle. It was sitting forlornly at the back of a shelf like someone had shoved it back there until they had time to clear him away.
Noah knew he should buy Kit an undamaged, pristine bear, but he bought the bear with the missing ear. “I couldn’t leave the little guy.”
Kit’s face threatened to crumple. “Noah.”
Wrapping her in his arms to hide her from the world, he couldn’t stop his stupid grin. “Shit, did I just do cute?”
A jerky nod. “He’s adorable. I love him.” Then, to his surprise, she hid the bear back in the gift bag rather than holding it so the photographers would see it as they walked out.
It meant too much, he realized in staggered shock. Meant enough to protect. A bear with a missing ear and slightly dirty fur, imperfect and ragged… just like the man who’d bought him.
Kit got the phone call as they were driving home from the theme park. Redemption was hers. “Harper’s negotiating the final deal, but she says the terms look okay at first glance,” she said after hanging up, still not sure she hadn’t hallucinated the entire conversation. “I’m going to be one of the leads in an Esra Dali movie.”
“The role was always yours.”
She just wanted to kiss him. He was always so firmly on her side.
Trying to think of a way to distract herself, she said, “Did you get those mugs for the guys?” He’d laughed and said he was buying glittery pink princess mugs for Fox, Abe, and David as gifts. Kit had gone gift hunting herself, buying things for Becca, Molly, and Thea, as well as her cousin’s young children. She’d also added something happy and sweet for Sarah, figuring the other woman needed a smile.
“Yeah,” he said, then groaned. “Shit, I forgot to grab a gift for Emily. The little brat will pout for days if she finds out I got the mugs for the guys and didn’t get her anything.”
Aware he loved the “little brat,” Kit smiled. “I have you covered. I got her a teacup for her collection.”
“You really like her, huh?”
“Of course I do. She’s a sweetheart.” Kit petted the adorable bear sitting in her lap. Trust Noah to get her something so perfect, something he’d chosen specifically for her. “I got you something too.”
“What?” A curious look. “Spill, Devigny.”
Grinning, she reached into the backseat and found the small package. “Shall I open it for you, or do you want to wait till we’re home?”
“I never knew you were such a tease.”
She laughed and opened the package to reveal a glittery pink princess mug stamped with the letter N. “I couldn’t have you feeling left out.”
“Gimme that.” He swiped for it.
“Nuh-uh.” She wrapped it safely back up. “I’m not having you throw it out the window. I want a picture of all four of you drinking from these mugs.”
He grumbled, but she caught that heartbreaking, lopsided smile that made it clear he loved that she’d bought him a gift, and her heart, it went all liquid inside her chest. First what he’d said about children, and now this…
Noah was devastating her defenses one by one.
They celebrated her casting with champagne and a homemade dinner where Kit talked off Noah’s ear about the script, and he just grinned and listened and told her again that the part had always been meant to be hers.
His belief in her was one of the things that had first made her fall so hard for him. She’d grown up being told by the world that she was inferior to her parents—there had been the “fugly” comments of the tabloids while the gossip magazines and bloggers had been more sly, calling her “awkward” and pointing out her ordinary teenage acne as a “brave fight” she was undertaking.
Other people hadn’t been as subtle. As a child, then a teen, she’d overheard more than one guest at her parents’ home say uncomplimentary things.
“You’d never believe the ungainly child was Adreina and Parker’s daughter.”
“I don’t know, maybe she’ll grow into those limbs. If she doesn’t… poor child.”
“Fugly is right.”
The adult Kit understood that those people had been vicious, sharpening their claws on a vulnerable target, but being constantly negatively compared to her parents wore away at a person. She’d never said that aloud to anyone but Noah, wary of appearing the “poor little rich girl.” But he got it. He knew it wasn’t about ego but about identity.
Kit didn’t want to be labeled as Adreina and Parker’s daughter. She wanted to be Kathleen Devigny, who was her own person quite apart from the two larger-than-life people who had created her.
“You are,” Noah had said to her the first time she admitted her frustration. “The world won’t know what hit it when Kathleen Devigny takes it by storm.”
She loved him for that and for his talent and his heart that was bigger than most people knew. He’d never told her, never mentioned it in even a single interview, but she knew he donated a large percentage of his income to charity. The only reason she knew was that she’d been in his hotel room one day when she’d picked up a piece of paper that had fallen to the floor. As she was putting it back on the table by the phone, she’d inadvertently read a few lines—enough to tell her the letter was from his accountant, itemizing donations made on Noah’s behalf. All the ones she’d seen had related to children.
Complex, beautiful, talented man, she thought, her heart hurting. She loved him, but she knew he was broken. Perhaps permanently.
“Let’s go sprawl on the couch and finish off this champagne,” he said after dinner.
Kit nodded because, broken or not, he was hers and she wouldn’t give up on him.
They’d just taken a seat on the sofa, Noah’s arm around Kit’s shoulders, when she got a text from Harper. Her mouth fell open. “Give me the remote.” Grabbing it, she switched channels.
“Blue Force?” Noah groaned as the iconic theme music came on. “I watched Dancing with the Stars. I should get to choose today.”
“I’m on it.” She snuggled close to his side. “It was taped three years ago, just before the series was put into temporary deep freeze—Harper just found out a few minutes ago that this is my episode.”
“Why the fuck would Harper put you on this piece of—” Clearly catching her warning glance, he smiled. “I must’ve been thinking of another show. This is pure genius.”
She made a disbelieving noise but stayed against him. “This was before Last Flight. I was still on Primrose Avenue and trying to break out into serious drama. These guys gave me a shot, so don’t you ever mock the show.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He ran his fingers over her shoulder. “What’re you playing?”
“A murdering junkie.” She grinned at the open disbelief on his face. “Wait till you see me—you won’t recognize me.”
Ten minutes into the show and there she was, lying in a dirty bed in a crack den, her face scarred by the pockmarks junkies created by digging into their skin, her hair matted and greasy. Her teeth, too, were yellow and cracked.
“Why would they spend all that time making a gorgeous woman look like a hard-core addict?” Noah muttered. “Why not just hire an actual junkie?”
“Watch, it’s a good episode.” It charted the descent of an Ivy League educated heiress into drug addiction and murder. “I get to be glamorous in some of the other shots, but I think I did my best work in the crack-den scenes.”
Noah watched quietly with her, and she could tell that despite his disdain for the show, he’d become hooked on the plot. Content and happy, she wasn’t prepared for him to suddenly jerk to his feet. Unbalanced, she braced one hand against the sofa cushion. “Noah?”
“I can’t watch this crap anymore,” he said and strode out.
Kit stared after him. She knew she should be hurt, but she was just confused. Sure, Blue Force was a spinoff of a spinoff, but it wasn’t trying to be anything but what it was—a quick police procedural that acted as brain candy after dinner. The writing was smart, plus the anchor cast had great chemistry. And it wasn’t as if Noah was a snob with this kind of stuff—she’d seen DVDs of action movies at his house, many of them far more cheesy than Blue Force.
Shrugging and deciding he was just in a mood for some reason, she returned her attention to the show but couldn’t focus, becoming more and more frustrated as the minutes passed. What was wrong with Noah, and why wouldn’t he talk to her?
Unable to let it go, she switched off the TV, then went looking for him. He was in the garden, beer in hand as he sat on the weathered wooden bench by the outdoor table. From the two other bottles lined up on the table, he’d started as soon as he left her. “Planning on getting blind drunk tonight?”
Looking up at her furious question, he laughed, but the sound held little humor. “This barely qualifies as alcohol.” He put the half-full third bottle on the table and got up. “What I’d like to do is get drunk on you.”
Frowning, she held her position just outside the doorway, not about to allow Noah St. John to intimidate her. “You’re drunk,” she said, putting a hand on his chest and pushing when he came too close.
“No, I’m not.” He backed her up against the house, placed his hands palms-down on either side of her shoulders. “You don’t hate the taste of beer, do you, Kit?”
He kissed her.
Her parched, starving nerve endings shrieked to life. She’d dreamed of Noah’s touch for so long, and now he was finally, finally, touching her. He tasted of the crisp bite of beer and of Noah. Just Noah.
She had no defenses, no shields, no way to protect herself.
Fingers curling into his T-shirt, she rose toward him. He deepened the kiss, thrusting his tongue into her mouth as he fisted a hand tight in her hair… and a hint of reason infiltrated her mind. This was all too sudden, too fast, too aggressive.
Lashes flicking up, she saw his eyes on her face. Flat. Remote. He wasn’t involved, she realized, her pleasure turning into this ugly coldness that made her feel dirty inside. He was kissing her, but he wasn’t the least bit involved. She could’ve been a mannequin for all he cared.
Tearing away from him, she wiped the back of her hand over her mouth. “Why would you do that?” she whispered, her entire body shaking. “Why would you hurt me that way?”
His eyes glittered. “You seemed to be having a good time.”
She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth a second time, bleeding inside. Enough, she thought. Enough.
He’d fucked another woman in front of her and she’d managed to forgive him, had given him another chance, but she wasn’t a self-flagellating doormat. “Get out,” she said quietly.