Here With You (A Laurel Heights Novel)
Author:Kate Perry

Chapter One



Normally when Nicole, Marley, and Valentine went to Grounds for Thought, they sat at the round table in the window and drank coffee. But this wasn't a normal evening. Tonight, Nicole sat on the counter and swung her feet while she drank champagne.

Tonight was Valentine's wedding reception.

Nicole surveyed the scene with her expert eye. Everything was perfect, from Valentine's dress to the way they looked at each other. Joyous. The bride glowed and the groom looked besotted. At least that was the way his expression would have been described in the historical romances Nicole loved to read.

Romantic.

She sighed. She loved romance.

When she was a little girl, she demanded that her parents read her the stories where the prince swept the girl off her feet. She loved pink and roses and chocolate.

As an adult, her tastes had refined. Instead of roses, she preferred tulips. Red was her color now, and chocolate...

Well, she still loved chocolate.

She'd also found a passion for lingerie. So much so that she'd quit her job as an office manager and gone to work at Romantic Notions in Laurel Heights. She'd been there for over half a year, and she was still going strong. She'd never stayed at any job for that long.

She loved her job. She sold more than expensive scraps of lace and silk—she sold romance. She helped women turn dreams into reality.

She sold Happily Ever After.

Everyone deserved Happily Ever After.

She looked forward to her own. She didn't doubt that she'd get one, she just didn't know what it'd look like. Or who would be involved. She'd just broken up with her boyfriend—not that it was a loss. Sure, she was sad, but he hadn't been right for her in the long run.

Finding the right person was key. Marriage was forever. She understood the logical arguments: people changed and you couldn't predict if you'd be with someone for all your lives.

Whatever.

She didn't buy those arguments. If you loved someone enough to marry him, you worked at it and fixed your problems—you didn't bale at adversity. Marriage was sacred. Her mom and dad were testament to it. Valentine and Ethan, too.

One day, she vowed, as she watched all the love and happiness before her.

One day she'd find the right person. Someone who was on her side and encouraged her to be more. Someone who'd have her back no matter what. A best friend who excited her mentally and physically.

She'd had a best friend once who'd been like that. They'd only been friends, but she'd often wondered if they couldn't be more one day.

Until he'd left to pursue becoming a musician and never talked to her again.

Not that she wanted to think about Griffin Chase. Today was a day of happiness, and remembering Grif never made her happy.

"You look sad," the man standing next to her said. "Or like you're gonna punch someone out."

She looked at Bull. She'd just met him that evening; he was a good friend of Valentine's new husband. He was a mountain of a man with muscles on top of muscles, a bald head, a UV tattoo of a dandelion along the side of his face, and a heart of gold. Nicole had liked him instantly. They'd only known each other for, literally, minutes, and he already felt like a brother.

"I'd rather dance." Smiling, she hopped off the counter. "Want to?"

"Let's get down." He set his drink aside and held out his hand. "But don't get ideas about me. You're cute and all, but I'm not your type."

"You know my type?" she asked with a grin as he led her to the dance area.

"Yeah. Younger and prettier than me." He nodded to the front door. "Like that dude who just walked in."

She looked at who he pointed out, and then she tripped. He was wearing a cowboy hat low on his forehead and sunglasses despite the late hour, but she recognized him despite the disguise.

Based on the way the party around them quieted, other people did, too. Not surprising—his music had blown up. Griffin Chase was a household name and had a face everyone knew. He'd always wanted to hit it big. She wasn't surprised at how successful he'd become. His music was emotion transformed into sound, unique and all his own even in its widespread appeal. Add his voice to the mix and he was destined to be a star.

"You okay?" Bull steadied her. "I know I have two left feet, but even I've never knocked over a girl before I started dancing with her."

"No, I'm fine," she said, watching her former best friend, who'd been M.I.A. for nearly a decade, zero in on her. He sauntered with deceptive laziness. There'd never been anything lazy about him—he always had a purpose. She just wondered why that purpose brought him here.

Bull scowled. "You know that dude?"

"I used to." At one time she knew him better than anyone. They used to hang out in her backyard, sharing their hopes and dreams, talking about all the places they were going to go one day. Places he'd gone without her.

Griffin Chase stopped in front of her and took his sunglasses off. The stormy gray eyes that women all over the world swooned over were aimed right at her. "Hello, Nicole."

Nicole stood face-to-face with the man she thought she'd never see again. He looked familiar and like a stranger all at once, like the urban cowboy the media labeled him: jeans, boots, and an untucked shirt under a dark jacket. A leather necklace disappeared into the vee of his collar.

His face was harder, the soft edges of adolescence gone. His stance was casual, with his hands in his pockets, but he vibrated with energy. Grif looked both like the boy she'd known and the rock star she occasionally saw on magazine covers in the grocery store.

He looked hot, actually. He'd always been attractive, but now there was an intensity about him that made you think about sweaty nights and tangled sheets.

Bull shifted next to her. "Hey, you're—"

"Bull, this is Griffin Chase." She pressed herself against her new friend's arm, mostly for support, but she didn't mind the frown it caused Grif.

"I'll be damned." A wide smile split Bull's face. "I loved your last album, man. I worked out to it every day for a couple months."

Grif shook the man's outstretched hand. "You're Kelly Torres, right? I saw you fight in Vegas last year."

"Which match?"

"Against the Cheetah."

"That wasn't a match, that was a mauling. Cheetah didn't stand a chance against me," Bull said modestly. "I've got one coming up with Georgie Boy Rocklin this summer. That's a worthy one to see. Let me know. I can hook you up."

Nicole rolled her eyes. "Sorry for breaking up the mutual admiration society, but what are you doing here, Grif?"

He returned his gaze to hers. "I need to talk to you."

"Now?" She looked around at the celebration happening. More than a few people were staring at them and whispering.

He looked around, too. "I'm sorry my timing isn't great, but we both know it'd have been awkward regardless."

An understatement. She hadn't seen him since right after high school ended. "Because it's been nine years."

He had the grace to wince. "I know and it’s completely my fault. You're entitled to rant at me, if you want."

Sighing, she shook her head. "I don't want to rant at you. I just don't understand why you're here."

"You kiddies should take this private." Bull kissed her cheek and patted her butt. "Play nice with him, or he'll immortalize you as a witch in his next song."

"Thanks for the warning." She patted his butt in return. "Rain-check on the dance?"

"You betchya." He winked at her and rejoined the crowd.

Nicole faced Grif, her stomach jittery. The way he watched her was unnerving. It wasn't her best friend's gaze—it was the direct stare of a man who wanted something from her.

Not that they'd ever been like that. Why her mind was going there, she had no idea.

"Shall we?" He motioned to the door.

Nicole led the way, brushing by him quickly, aware of the muffled thud of his boots following close behind. She stepped into the doorway to the left, away from any prying eyes in Grounds for Thought, and faced her past.

"This is weird." She wrapped her arms around herself, to protect herself from Grif as much as the evening wind. The flirty dress that had seemed perfect for the wedding didn't offer any protection from the chill air.

He took his jacket off and offered it her. "I'd been meaning to come see you for a while, actually."

She stared at the beat-up leather.

When she didn't make a move to take it, he draped it around her shoulders. It was warm from his body and somehow more intimate than it should have been. It smelled spicy, nothing like the sun-scented boy who'd been her friend.

Grif leaned against the stucco wall, the intensity of his gaze belying his laid-back posture. "The timing never seemed right. So much time passed, and I knew I didn't deserve your friendship, much less have the right to intrude on your life."

"But you're here now," she pointed out.

He exhaled deeply. "I need your help."

She nodded. He'd said as much earlier. It made sense that he'd come back because he needed something from her, but it didn't hurt any less. "I'm not sure what I can help you with. Don't you have a team of people who help you with things?"

"Yes, but only you have what I need."

How many times had she laid in bed at night and wished for a man to say that to her, just like that, with a voice full of dark desire?

But it was Grif. How much could he really want her, if he couldn't bring himself to even call her once in all this time? "How would you know? You haven't seen me in years."

"My family gives me updates." He smiled apologetically. "My parents still live next door to yours. You know how your mom and dad love to rave about you."

They did. Usually she thought it was so cute, but in this case she wished they'd kept their mouths shut.

"It's cute," Grif said, as if reading her mind. "But they've always adored you."

She curled into herself, confused—not sure what to think or feel. "Not that this catching up isn't nice, but I'm still wondering why you're here."

"I want to live with you."

Her mouth fell open. "Excuse me?"

"Just for a couple weeks."

"A couple weeks?" She goggled at him, waiting for him to say he was just kidding. But he stood there calmly watching her. She shook her head. "Is someone feeding you crack?"

"I know I have no right to ask this, but I need a quiet place to work on my next album. I have some songs done, but I don't have a solid piece to anchor the whole thing together."

"Don't you rock stars have a place you go to work in peace? Some island in the Caribbean or something?"

"Yes, but I need you."

Every night, millions of women dreamt of Griffin Chase standing before them, looking them in the eye, and saying he needed them. Probably tens of millions.

But not her. She folded her arms across her body. "Kind of like you've needed me all these years?"

"I deserve that." He nodded.

"Oh, you deserve way more than that." She glared at him. "You left me. We had all sorts of plans to travel together, and you left. I understand you were pursuing your dreams, but you could have sent an email every now and then. Or, heck, even a text."

"I know—"

"You don't know." She knocked his shoulder with her hand. "You were my best friend. We were together every day for years, and then you disappeared. How is that cool?"

"It's not." He took her hand and secured it against his heart.

She refused to be distracted—or excited by his touch. He was just holding her hand, she told herself. He didn't have his hand down her pants.

Which was not something she was going to think about.

He moved closer, so she felt the force of his gray eyes. "I was a selfish jerk, Nicole."

She motioned with her free hand, "More."

"A complete dog."

"Try harder."

His brow furrowed in thought. "Brown, foamy pond scum?"

She shrugged. "That's closer, I guess."

"The worse part is that I knew what a mistake I was making." He rubbed her palm with his thumb. "I missed you, Nicole. I just got caught up in work."

"You aren't helping your case." Bothered by his touch in a way that confused her, she retracted her hand but immediately regretted it.

"I lost sense of everything that was grounding in my life," he said quietly, ignoring her sarcasm.

"And now you want to be grounded again."

"No, I want to remember why I loved music so much." He looked away. "I've been thinking about quitting."

"What? Music has always been your life. Always."

"It's not making me happy anymore."

Of all the things she'd expect to come out of his mouth, those words weren't even on the list.

But it was something she understood. How many jobs had she started because she thought they'd been perfect only to find out they weren't what she wanted either? Too many to count. "Then change what you do," she suggested.

He shook his head. "I'm not like you."

The way he said it didn't sound like a compliment. "What does that mean?"

"Well, you've always jumped from one thing to the next."

"You say that like it's bad. I like to try new things." Her parents always told her she was smart and talented—she'd find her calling. She impatiently wondered when, but she didn't need someone like Grif pointing out her deficiencies. "Why do you have to write another album? I assume you have enough money to live on an island, drinking from coconuts, for the rest of your life."

"I can't just quit. People count on me. I employ people, and if I don't produce they're out of a job and paycheck."

"You can't be responsible for the world."

"I'm not responsible for the world. I'm just responsible for my corner of it. I'm responsible for my manager, who spends a fortune each month to ensure that his special needs daughter has every tool available to learn and grow. I'm responsible for the musicians who play with me, who work hard to scrape together a living for families while still being true to their calling. I'm responsible to every person who writes me, to thank me for helping them get through a difficult time in their lives with my music. This is beyond me, Nicole."

She gaped at him, shocked at the passion in his voice. In his eyes there was a maturity she'd never seen, and his words weighed heavily with sincerity.

When had she ever felt that sort of passion or drive? Never. Part of her felt bad for all the weight on his shoulders; part of her envied him. "Okay, I understand that you need help to revive your creative juices, but I don't understand why you have to live with me."

"Accessibility."

She didn't think she wanted to be that accessible to him.

"And I need to be away from questions and prying eyes. I need privacy to regain balance. I'm tired, Nic." Grif lifted the hat and ran a hand over his hair. "I need a quiet place away from all the noise my life generates. I need to remember why I loved music in the first place."

His frustration was written all over his face. He looked so lost, her heart broke for him. But how was she going to help him find the path back to his calling when she couldn't do that for herself? She'd been trying to find her own way—unsuccessfully—for so long.

Only he watched her with complete faith and trust that was both humbling and seductive. She liked the idea of being needed, especially by Griffin Chase.

It was a big responsibility. He wanted to live with her. She looked at how he'd filled out and grown up and knew having him crash at her apartment would be an experiment in masochism.

That was never happening.

Except she couldn't turn him away. It didn't matter that he'd been a jerk over the past few years. At one time she'd loved him more than anyone, and she couldn't turn her back on that.

She exhaled. "Okay, I'll help you."

He looked as shocked as she felt.

She cleared her throat. "So let's just get this straight. I help you rediscover your love for music—"

"And find inspiration for a title song for my album," he added.

"Okay." Piece of cake, right? "And then you'll go away again."

"Yes."

She didn't like that he agreed so quickly. It was inevitable, but he didn't have to sound so eager about it. "I have to check with my roommate, but it should be okay for you to crash on our couch for a few days. Come over tomorrow. But it's only temporary, and if Susan objects you're gone."

"You're an angel, Nic." He stepped forward and lowered his head to hers.

His mouth was on hers.

Grif was kissing her.

Her eyes wide open, she stared at him as his lips brushed gently over hers. Then she realized he watched her too, and she closed her eyes really quickly.

Which made the kiss worse, because it made her feel every slow, coaxing nibble.

It was delicious. It was everything a kiss should have been—warm, a little lip, a little tongue. Moist. Making her want more.

It freaked her out. She'd never felt anything like it, and she'd never expected to from Grif. He wasn't touching her and she could feel it all through her body.

When he finally ended the kiss, she wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or sad. Heart pounding, she tried to get herself under control. She bit her lip, trying to get rid of the imprint he'd left. She wanted to set her boundaries and tell him it wouldn't happen again, but she couldn't bring herself to say it.

Puzzled but not wanting to ponder it, she asked, "What was that?"

"We had to seal the deal," he said.

"A handshake is good for most people."

He put his sunglasses back on. "We aren't most people, Nic. See you tomorrow."

She watched him swagger away, his stride easy and loose, looking like a hero who'd ridden into town on a white steed.

But he wasn't a hero—certainly not hers.

She touched her lips, still feeling the sting of his kiss. What had she just got herself into?