Authors: Stephanie Rowe
Tags: #Ever After#1
“Okay, Katie.” Clare took her daughter’s hand to pry her off Griffin and give him some space. “Give Griffin a chance to get acclimated.”
“Acclimated?” Katie’s eyes widened. “Are you our new boarder? Seriously?”
Griffin glanced at Clare, and his eyebrows went up. Giving her one last chance to back out? Her heart softened toward him. Would she really relegate her daughter’s savior to living with rats? No chance. “Yes, Katie, Griffin’s our new renter. Just for a few days—”
“That’s awesome!” Katie beamed at them both. “Mom, you are the coolest ever! He’s so much better than that old lady who smelled like mothballs and spent hours in the bathroom.”
Clare laughed, relieved by her daughter’s enthusiastic response, glad to know this wasn’t going to wind up being yet another battle between them. “Yes, well, Patty was very nice and once I started washing her clothes, she smelled better.”
Griffin gave her a speculative look. “Does that mean you’ll be washing mine?”
Clare had a sudden vision of his undergarments in her wash. Men’s underwear mixed in with hers? “Um, that’s a little personal, I think.”
He grinned, mischief sparking in his eyes. “You washed Patty’s.”
“She was a woman,” Clare said, mortified by the sensation of her cheeks heating up. Was she actually blushing at the idea of washing Griffin’s underwear? “It’s different with a man.”
“Oh, get over it, Mom,” Katie snorted. “He’s just a guy. Jeremy leaves his underwear in my laundry all the time. I don’t have a problem washing his shorts.”
Clare looked sharply at her daughter, sudden chills running down her spine. “Why on earth is Jeremy’s underwear in your laundry hamper? How come his clothes come off at our house?” Dear Lord, she was going to pass out. “You’re fifteen!” Only three years younger than Clare had been when she became a widowed mom. It couldn’t happen to Katie, not her daughter, not becoming a mother at age eighteen.
“Jeremy runs over here sometimes before we go out. He changes out of his running clothes after he gets here.” Katie shrugged. “Not a big deal mom. We’re just friends.”
“Naked friends are not allowed! There will be no more naked men in this house,” Clare said, her palms breaking out into a sweat. “None!”
Her daughter and Griffin looked at each other, and then back at her. Griffin was grinning and so was her deviant daughter, already co-conspirators against her. “And what?” Katie asked. “Griffin and Jeremy are just supposed to shower with their bathing suits on?”
“Well, not Griffin,” Clare stuttered, then her face heated up
at Griffin’s wicked smile, and her daughter’s burst of laughter. “I mean, because he’s going to live here! But no boys, and not in your room—”
Griffin set his hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, Clare. I won’t get naked if you don’t want me to.”
“Jeremy will,” Katie said. “I can’t stop him. Boys just like to be naked and—”
“Enough!” Clare glared at them both. “You both are going to eat lentil soup and liver tonight.” She pointed at her daughter, her hand trembling, but she had to know. She had to understand the truth and face it. “Have you ever kissed Jeremy?” She’d given that boy full reign of her house and her daughter for years, assuming that they were just friends. But nakedness? “Have you?”
Katie giggled. “You’re so uptight, Mom. If you let someone kiss you, maybe you’d realize it isn’t such a big deal.”
Clare couldn’t bring herself to look at Griffin’s response to that remark, and a cold dread beat at her as she faced her daughter, preparing to ask the question she’d been fearing since Katie was born. “Katie, are you having sex with Jeremy?” Her heart stuttered and a sharp pain ricocheted through her chest.
Please God, let the answer be no.
“I won’t judge you, but I need to know—”
“Mom!” Katie looked appalled at the question, sending a stricken glance over to Griffin to see if he was listening. “I’m not having sex with him, or any other guy! Jeremy is always in the bathroom, alone, when he’s changing. I haven’t seen him naked since we were about five! Okay?”
Clare let out her breath. She knew her daughter well enough to know she was telling the truth. Her body began to shake with relief, and her legs suddenly felt weak. “Okay.” It was okay. Her daughter wasn’t about to get pregnant. It was still okay.
Griffin raised his brows at her. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, fine, just an overactive imagination.” Clare shook out her hands and took a deep breath.
Katie grinned, her eyes radiating with excitement. “But Jeremy did kiss me last night when we thought we were going to die,” she sang. “It was pretty cute.”
“He did?” Clare couldn’t help but smile at the twinkle on her daughter’s face, remembering that excitement of a first kiss, but at the same time, she felt her heart sinking. Her little girl was too young to be heading down this path. Yes, it was just a kiss, thank heavens, but still. “Do you like him?”
Katie shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ll see.” She glanced over at Griffin, who had been watching the whole exchange with an increasingly furrowed brow. “Can I have Jeremy and Sara over for dinner? Jeremy is dying to see Griffin again, and Sara wants to meet him.”
Oh, right. The last thing Clare needed was for Eppie to hear that she was getting Katie and her friends emotionally invested in a serial killing outsider. “No, I don’t think so. Not tonight.”
Katie ignored her and turned to Griffin, directing her question at him. “Is it okay with you? They’d go crazy if they got to have dinner with you.”
Clare blinked at her daughter’s dismissal of her. “Hello? Who’s the mom here?”
Griffin glanced at Clare, then back at Katie. There was an expression on his face that she couldn’t decipher. There was uncertainty, discomfort, but also a sense of surprised delight. Of what? Her daughter’s adulation? He turned to Katie. “I’d like to get to know Jeremy a little better,” he said. “Bring him over.”
“No!” Clare stepped between them, needing to reclaim her space. Yes, she was pretty sure Griffin wanted to terrify Jeremy into keeping his underwear on anytime he was in her house and she appreciated it, but she could handle it. She
to handle it, because where would she be if she let Griffin fight her battles, and then he left? “Griffin has work to do, and he won’t be sharing dinners with us the way other renters have.”
“Are you serious?” Katie gaped at her. “Why not? What’s wrong with Griffin?”
Other than the fact he made Clare’s entire body melt with desire and all sorts of womanly feelings that she barely even recognized, let alone knew how to deal with? “Nothing, but—”
“You just don’t want a man at our table, do you?” Katie grabbed her cereal bowl in a dramatic display of disgust. “Jeremy thinks you’re frigid, you know. That’s why you never date anyone.”
“What?” Clare gaped at her daughter as Griffin started coughing, doing a pathetic job at hiding his amusement.
“If you are frigid, that’s cool with me, but don’t make Griffin starve because of it.” Katie sighed as she walked past them. “I’m going out.”
Clare didn’t dare even look at Griffin.
Really? “No, you’re staying here today.”
Katie shot Clare a look of bored condescension, as if it was so beneath her to have to educate her mother as to the basics of life. “I’m going to the library to study with Sara. Physics test tomorrow. I can’t pass it without her help.”
“Physics test? And you were going camping?” Clare felt like banging her head against the wall. “What kind of responsible decision is that?”
Katie met her gaze, her eyes steely and rebellious. “I hate physics, and I’d rather fail it and have a fun weekend, than stay in all weekend and pass the test. I don’t want to go to MIT this summer, Mom. I really don’t. I don’t want to spend my summer with a bunch of geeks creating some robot that can sift through sand on Mars. Seriously. “
Clare sighed. “I know you don’t, sweetheart.” She was beginning to suspect she was never going to convince her daughter it was a good idea.
Katie met her gaze, waiting. “So?”
“So, you still have to go.”
“You’re impossible!” Katie groaned with aggravation and stomped out of the room. There was the clank of her bowl being dropped on the counter, and then the quick tempo of her feet as she raced up the creaky old stairs.
Clare sighed, and then she saw Griffin watching her. Assessing her parenting capacities? She didn’t need that. She got enough grief from Eppie. “Not a word,” she said to him, holding up her hand to stave off any comments. “I don’t want to hear it.”
He held up his hands in surrender, his face so innocent she almost laughed. “Since I can’t eat dinner here, I was just wondering where I’m going to get takeout in this town. Got any suggestions?”
“Takeout?” Was she really going to make him order takeout? Clare capitulated at his innocent expression. No, of course she wasn’t. And not just because the rental agreement he’d signed specified that food was included. She didn’t want people messing in her kitchen, and she’d learned long ago that the best way to keep them out was to feed them until they couldn’t bear the thought of even going near her kitchen except at mealtimes.
The truth was that she actually did kind of want a man at her dinner table. Not just a man. This one. This stranger from the outside, with obligations and baggage, a man who didn’t know how to hug a teenage girl, yet somehow managed to cull utter adoration from the same. He got Katie to smile. And that was something she would treasure.
But as Clare heard Katie’s door slam, she grimaced. What was she doing, bringing Griffin into their home? Into their lives? He’d be gone the minute they got used to him. She couldn’t afford to rely on him—
Then she felt his hand on her shoulder. Her body tightened, and she looked up into his intense dark eyes. “What?”
His thumb rubbed softly over her shoulder. “The summer study at MIT is a great program. I went to it when I was fifteen. We worked on computer chips for NASA. Coolest experience I’ve ever had.”
Oh, God, it felt unbelievable to be touched like that. “Are you serious?” She could barely concentrate on his words, she was so startled by the sensation of his hand rubbing her muscles. “You went there?”
He nodded. “Sure did.” He glanced at the stairs, moving his hand slightly so he could rub the base of her neck. “Katie must be very smart to get into that program.”
Clare smiled, unable to hide her pride, even as a part of her began the slow process of melting at the decadently sensual sensation of his fingers against her bare skin. “She is. She works really hard.” Then she sighed, closing her eyes to focus on Griffin’s touch. It had been so long since anyone had touched her like that, and she didn’t want to miss a second of it. “But she’s a little resistant, as you can see.” She tilted her head, giving him more room to work on her neck. The slide of his fingers across her skin was delicious, the kneading of his knuckles was a luxurious sensation that made her want to surrender to his touch and turn herself over to him on every level.
Maybe Astrid was right about the benefits of occasionally letting a man into her life. Because this felt amazing, unreal, magical…words she couldn’t even think of, creating sensations within her that she could barely even fathom. “Would you maybe talk to Katie about MIT? Tell her how much you enjoyed it? I mean, she thinks you’re so cool that maybe she’ll listen and—”
Relief rushed through her, and she opened her eyes, startled to see Griffin watching her intently, as if he were trying to see right into her soul. “Really?”
He nodded as he continued to dig his fingers into the knot in her neck. His offer to help and the soothing allure of his massage eased the tension that had kept her captive for so long. “Of course I will,” he said. “Consider it done.”
A weight began to lift from Clare and she smiled at him, hopelessly lost in the intensity of his gaze. What if he could help Katie see the benefit of MIT and good grades when Clare had been unable to do so? It was worth the risk. “You can eat at my table.”
His hand stilled, and his eyes darkened. “I would like that.”
She swallowed at the sudden heat that flared in her belly. “It’s not personal,” she clarified. “It’s only to help Katie.” And then, she blurted out, “And to prove to my daughter that I don’t have a thing against men.” Oh, no. Had she really said that?
His eyebrows went up, and a wickedly sexy smile curved his mouth. “Clare, there’s no chance in hell I would ever believe you’re frigid.”
Her heart began to race. “No?”
His gaze went to her mouth, and then back to her eyes. “Not with the way you look at me.”
She swallowed, her body vibrating at the intensity of his gaze, and the weight of his hand as he caressed her neck. “How do I look at you?” she whispered, her voice too breathy.
“Exactly how I want you to.” His voice was low, and his hand paused as his gaze dropped to her mouth again, and this time, there was no mistaking the desire that flared in his eyes.
Her stomach jumped, and she felt light-headed. “What does that mean?”
He winked. “Figure it out. I’m going to get my bags.” He squeezed her shoulder and then, without another word, he turned and walked back out the door, leaving her to wish desperately that the extra bedroom was not right next to hers.
And, at the same time, unable to stop thinking about the fact it was.
It was already six o’clock by the time Griffin finally got his gear settled in Clare’s spare room, the afternoon somehow consumed by bringing in firewood, cleaning the mud off his truck, helping Clare unload mulch for her yard, and getting the Wi-Fi going. She hadn’t asked for his help with the chores, and he hadn’t thought to offer, but somehow, he’d ended up doing it.
And he hadn’t really minded. He’d actually enjoyed the day.
He was grinning as he finally strode into his room to get his own things taken care of. The room was old and worn, and there were water marks on the wall that gave credence to Clare’s claim about the deteriorating roof.
But the blue and red plaid quilt appeared to be hand-made, and the birch log lamp beside the bed was topped with a soft, white lampshade that cast a warm light over the room. There was a lake scene hanging over the bed, which he was guessing was the Black Bear Lake that edged up against the south side of town. Faded green curtains treated the windows, and the old dresser had a few dents, but everything was clean, neat and smelled fresh.