“A woman’s irritation doesn’t scare me much,” he said. “I’ve got three sisters. I grew up in the House of Estrogen.” He shrugged a broad, bare shoulder. “I’m good at inspiring whole new levels of irritation.”
She couldn’t imagine that to be true. He was easygoing and laid-back, and he had a way about him that inspired confidence. Or at least the sense that with him around, everything was going to be okay.
“How about you?” he asked. “You have family around who are a pain in your ass, too?”
She nearly let out a laugh, but it’d have been a manic one so she kept it to herself. Besides, his statement had been made with a small, affectionate smile. He clearly loved his family, pain in the ass or no. Explaining her situation would be like trying to describe life on Mars. Easier to simplify. “No,” she said. “No family around at all.”
Which, for a big, fat lie, was pretty much also the truth.
His smile vanished, and she looked away before she could catch any sort of sympathy in his gaze. She didn’t want that. She didn’t deserve that.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That sucks.”
Look at that, she needed to give herself a pedicure. Her pale purple toenails—complete with a few randomly placed white daisies—were peeking out from the blanket, and were chipped. The silver ring on her left second toe sparkled, though. Her agent had given it to her on her fifteenth birthday, only one year before Not Again, Hailey! had been canceled and everyone in Olivia’s—Sharlyn’s—life had deserted her. She pulled the blanket in tighter, suddenly feeling very naked. “You mentioned some spare clothes?”
“Yep.” Cole poured hot water from a pan into a mug. “How do you take your tea?”
He smiled approvingly and bent low to a cabinet, coming up with a bottle of brandy. He doctored up her tea and brought it to her. “Hang tight.” He vanished through a door and came back a moment later. “Try these,” he said, dumping some clothing in her lap.
He still wore only the towel wrapped low on his hips. He had to be cold, but was seeing to her well-being first with the tea and clothing. It’d been a long time since anyone had catered to her needs before their own. A really long time. And even then it’d been because something was expected of her.
Not Cole. Not appearing to expect a damn thing, he hunkered down before her, hands on the bench on either side of her hips as he looked at her—not at her body, but right into her eyes. “Can you move your limbs now?” he asked. “Or are you still stiff with cold?”
She stared at him as she felt her hardened heart roll over in her chest and expose its tender underbelly, shocked at the way her throat tightened so that she couldn’t speak.
If she lost it now, she told herself, she’d…make herself run every morning for a week.
She hated to run. She put it just behind a root canal in the list of things she hated. A root canal without drugs.
But her body apparently didn’t care, because along with the tight throat her eyes burned. Well, crap.
She did her best to give Cole a reassuring I’m-peachy-perfect-all-is-well smile, but she had to settle for baring her teeth because she was an inch from breaking down and she had no idea why. Oh, wait, it was because a man had just put her well-being before his own. That’s how pathetic she was. She attempted another I’m-peachy smile, just for practice.
Clearly not buying what she was selling, Cole put a hand to her foot, gently squeezing as if testing her skin temperature. “Better,” he said, and pulled a pair of thick socks from the pile of clothes he’d handed her. While she stared at him crouched at her side, he bent his head to the task and put the socks on her feet for her.
As he slid the socks up her calves, she had a moment of panic.
Had she shaved her legs? And when? Two days ago, yes? No? God, please yes.
“Unfortunately,” he said, clueless to her internal debate, “my spare clothing stash doesn’t extend to a pair of really hot boots like the ones you were wearing, so we’re going to have to improvise.” He lifted a pair of running shoes for her inspection. “Best I can do.”
“No, they’re great, thank you,” she said, but she had to take a girl moment to mourn the boots. They’d been with her since her Hollywood days. She’d gotten them from her favorite set dresser, and once upon a time they’d meant the world to her. But that world no longer existed for her, and she was nothing if not pragmatic. She refused to waste any real time grieving something as ridiculously sentimental as a pair of boots.
Most likely not holding a boot funeral in his mind, Cole rose lithely, his entire body moving upward through her line of sight like a really great movie. Wide shoulders. Hard chest. And then mouthwatering abs that made her own stomach quiver a little bit.
Or a lot.
Now the towel was almost indecently low on his hips, and she stared at those cut muscles on his sides. She had no idea what they were actually called. “Muscles that make women stupid”?
At his soft laugh, her gaze jerked up to his face. “I’m just worried about your shoulder.”
“Is that why you were staring at my abs?”
“Uh—” She broke off when he snorted and before she could come up with an excuse, he vanished into the other room again. Probably to give her privacy to dress. Standing up, she was happy to put that awkward, embarrassing moment behind her, and happier still to find that her limbs were indeed working again. She dropped the blankets and considered her options. A pair of sweat bottoms that were about a foot too long for her, and no underwear. Shrugging, she slid the sweats on.