Gracie stomps out, heels clacking and chestnut hair swishing. Her face is cute even when it's set in a stubborn scowl. But I suspect she wouldn't appreciate that comment right now.
Maybe I should have stepped in. What could I say, though? As she argued with Hayden, it was all I could do to keep my cool. Just the idea of some random Craigslist schlub pawing at her...she hasn't even picked a guy yet, and I already want to punch him.
I shouldn't let my hormones take control like this. I thought I buried my feelings for Gracie a long time ago. We've known each other since we were both kids. When I became a man—and I realized she was becoming a woman—I did my best to shut things down. The only crime worse than messing with your best friend's lover is messing with his sister.
But I guess I haven't moved on as well as I thought. My blood is still boiling at the thought of Gracie in another man's arms. Even if he isn't the least bit dangerous, even if he treats her like the princess she is...fuck no. Unacceptable.
I try to convince myself that I'm just protecting her. Just being a good big brother, like Hayden. He's flipping out about this too, right? I can be worried without it getting weird.
Deep down, though, I know I'm not worried. I'm pissed. A deep, primal kind of pissed. Territorial and jealous. I want to fight off every challenger...and bury myself in her until she screams that she's mine.
Shit, what am I going to do? I glance over at Hayden. He still looks thrown off, angry and skeeved out and a little lost. I can't really blame him. His precious baby sister is all grown up—God, is she ever—and she's just thrown that fact in his face. Nobody wants to think about their siblings rolling in the hay.
“Let me chase after her,” I say. Now that I've had a chance to gather my thoughts, I want to talk to Gracie. And no woman, let alone one as pretty and tiny as Gracie, should walk alone in downtown LA after sunset. “I'll make sure she gets home safe.”
Hayden claps me on the shoulder. “Thanks, man. I'm sure she'll calm down eventually...but she probably doesn't want to see me right now.”
“You just want me to save you from getting bitched out on the phone tomorrow.”
He snorts a little chuckle. “What can I say? She's always liked you better.”
Leaving my half-full beer on the counter, I dart out after Gracie.
Through the wandering crowd, all laughing and chatting and enjoying the autumn crispness, I spot Gracie a little ways up the street from the bar. There's only so fast she can hustle in those heels. Her hips pop from side to side as she speed-walks; my eyes fall to the cute, round ass encased in her tight work slacks. Fuck me running. Earlier, when I'd walked in to see her sitting at the bar with Hayden, I was taken aback by how professional she looked...and how sexy “professional” was on her. I guess anything can be a turn-on when Gracie wears it.
“Gracie, wait,” I call out.
She turns her face away from the night sky and back to me. “What,” she replies flatly. But she stops, waiting for me to catch up with her, and I take that as a good sign.
“Sorry. I kind of...just sat there like a numb-nuts,” I say. “Can we start over?”
“Not if you're trying to change my mind.” Her full lips are still in a resolute pout. “I'm doing this. You and Hayden can't stop me.”
I hold up a hand to show my defeat. “Okay, okay. I won't argue with you. But I am walking you home...it's getting dark.”
She cocks her head, either judging the sincerity in my face or noticing the streetlights blinking on. Finally she nods. “Okay. I'll let you.”
Does she know that my reasons for acting chivalrous aren't totally innocent? She elbows me as she walks by, a playful shove, and I resist the urge to tickle her like I did when she was ten. There's no way that putting my hands on her can end well.
* * *
As we walk to her apartment, we slowly start talking again, the bar blowup forgotten—or at least set aside. I ask her more about her new job. She jokes that I'll be investing in one of her designs someday; I tease back that I don't buy dingbats, and she sticks her tongue out at me. We reach her yellow adobe building all too soon.
Evidently she thinks so, too. Instead of going inside, she lingers on the stoop, fiddling with her keys almost shyly. “You want to come up for a little bit?”
Caught off guard, I ask, “Y-you're not tired?” What a dumb fucking question, Hudson. It's not even nine yet.
She shrugs with a slight smile. “The night kind of got...cut short. We didn't get to finish our drinks.”
She's acting almost sheepish. Does she feel like it's her fault that the party ended early? Even though it was her party in the first place and Hayden was the one acting like a tool. I know I shouldn't accept her invitation—she's still totally off limits, and there's no point in tempting myself with what I can't have. But I don't want to leave her hanging. And to be honest, I can't pass up the chance to spend time with her.
I give in and shrug. “Sure. One drink can't hurt.”
Her smile goes big and bright. She scampers up the stairs, with me trailing after and trying not to stare up at her ass.
Her place is a small, cheerfully cluttered one-bedroom. I've seen enough properties to tell that this one was on the boring side when she first leased it; the furniture is sleek, modern, and lifeless. But Gracie has given everything her own unique touch. Gauzy curtains, jewel-toned throw pillows, a quirky zigzag floor lamp, a spider plant by the window, a seashell on the end table. The effect isn't little-girlish, but feminine and playful. A few Japanese ink paintings of flowers and mountains are squeezed onto the walls between the overflowing bookcases. And their highest shelves are all occupied with children's books that I recognize as my own gifts.
Did she put them up there because she wants to admire them, or because she doesn't read the