She hit the punching bag, watching it swing around in a violent arc.
She hit it again and again, this time to the rhythm of the rowdy Missy Elliot song blaring from her stereo's speakers.
She knew how to box...to kick box...and to kick ass. She'd been born knowing. But she'd had to be taught to be a lady. And one of the first things Vic had taught her was how to walk. No...not how to walk...to *glide*. He'd even made it *sound* more graceful than she'd ever been: "gliiiiiide." Graceful. *Ha.*
How someone named Grace could be lacking in it, nobody knew. Nobody had cared either. And it hadn't mattered to her. Not until the Miss United States pageant. The "scholarship program." The operation. The operation that had nearly cost her her job, taught her how to "gliiiiide", given her a set of wacky girlfriends, and made Eric Matthews look at her like she was a woman. All in a little over 48 hours.
*Thwap*. *Thwap*. *Thwap.*
Shampoo, a little waxing, and a push-up bra, all the Gracie Lou Freebush trappings, had finally made her worth her name. And being worth her name had finally made her worthy of Eric. Superficial, suntanned, sexy Eric. Superficial no more. Looking at Vassar girls no more. He'd looked at *her*. He'd come back for *her*.
And he'd believed in her, too.
"You think I'm goooorgeous, you want to kiiiiiisss me," she'd teased him. And then--God, yes--they'd kissed. And he tasted like a thousand exploding pageant crowns...smoke and fire and total combustion.
She could've clutched his shirt and stood there with the sirens going around them and kissed him till the end of the world. But they'd had to come up for air. And they'd had to come back home.
And now she was ugly again.
Alone. Dancing around in her shitkickers and making love to her punching bag while a half-eaten Lean Cuisine dinner and a glass Miss Congeniality award shared coffee table space with three empty bottles of light beer. Her hair, at least, was tamed, and her nails unchewed, but she was back to being good old Grace Hart. Grace Hart who would rather cuff a perp than curl her eyelashes...who would rather slouch around in work-out sweats than strut in pantyhose and a mini.
And where was Eric's belief in her now?
They'd been back two days and he hadn't called.
Sure, she'd seen him at the office. But surrounded by the guys it was hard to have any heart-to-hearts...or any lip-to-lips, for that matter.
McDonald had read them the riot act for acting "like a pair of damn fools"...and then he'd congratulated them on a job well done, for following their instincts. It had been strange to sit next to Eric in those hard-backed chairs...to feel the pull of his skin from just inches away. She'd had to dig her fingertips into the armrests to keep from touching his sleeve...from grabbing his knee. He had such cute knees. And cute legs. And a cute chest. And his neck...he had a great neck. There was this little vein running up and down it that stood out whenever he was tense...or really happy...and it was so kissable...like a trail you could follow into his shirt collar with your tongue.
She moaned, hitting the bag with a rough series of jabs. Her tongue wasn't going to get that chance. She knew that now. She was ugly again, like he'd said she would be, but he wouldn't be taking her out for any casual dinners with the option of post-consumption sex.
And she wanted him to.
She'd been wanting him to for ages...hours...days...maybe even months and years. All that time wrestling with him...feeling him all lean and hard against her...? Working side by side...trading insults? Had it been there, between them, even then? She'd almost it lost it after the Farewell breakfast...after saying good-bye to Cheryl and the others. She'd been thisclose to hauling him into a closet and finding out if the pulse in his neck ran alllll the way down.
It was bullshit that you couldn't miss what you'd never actually experienced. She missed it. She missed it so much she ached.
She could gliiiiide until her feet were raw...but Agent Eric Matthews did *not* think she was gorgeous, did *not* want to kiss her, and certainly did not want to hug her, love her, OR marry her.
The beauty pageant was over. So was the fairy tale.
*Thwap*! *Thwap*! *Thwap*!
He was on his eighth lap and the water in the heated pool was somehow icy cold. He wasn't about to complain. He wondered how many more laps it would take to freeze the ache out of his groin. An ache that, unfortunately, wasn't an after-effect of Gracie's well-placed elbow during the talent competition. This couldn't compare to the bruises and the mild concussion and the dizziness of two days ago, no.
This was straight-up, lust-induced, I'm-having-trouble-walking-'cause-it-throbs-so-bad arousal. And Gracie's elbow wasn't the cause...although it was a cute elbow. He had to give it that much credit. Very cute. Just like the rest of her. Lean, well-muscled, with just the right amount of curves. Vic may have given her help in the tits department for competition purposes, but what was God-given was by no means lacking. And her legs...she had great legs. Nice and long...the same legs that had kicked his feet out from under him on the practice mat a thousand times over the last five years.
Elbows...breasts...legs....*gah*. Okay...what part of Grace Hart wasn't the cause of his problems again? He cut through the pool faster, feeling the water sluice off his skin like a thousand tiny icicles.
He hadn't called her since they'd gotten back from San Antonio. He'd been afraid to. He'd wanted her so badly, so suddenly, it had just flared up between them...and bam! It had all wrapped up so fast...collaring the Morningsides, staring down into her dark, dark brown eyes and feeling her lean into him. If anyone had told him two weeks ago that Grace Hart would be a beauty pageant runner-up, that they'd crack a case together, and he'd be kissing her senseless, he would've laughed in their faces.
But it had all come true.
And her mouth had tasted like soft, wet, silk. All exotic and new and frantic...his for the taking. He knew, instinctively, that she would be the same way in bed. The one place where he could teach *her*, where he could get the best of *her*, where *she* would be the one pinned down and gasping for mercy.
But he hadn't called her.
Sure, he'd seen her at the office when McDonald had called them in. And she'd been wearing one of her shapeless suits with those annoyingly baggy white shirts...but the effect of it had been totally different. It might as well have been naughty bits from Frederick's of Hollywood because he'd been salivating...he'd been rock hard sitting in that chair just inches away from her. It had taken all of his willpower to stare up at his boss with a shit-eating grin and pretend he didn't want to throw "the multi-talented and hotheaded Agent Hart" to the floor, strip her naked, and fuck her silly.
The question was...would she still want him to?
It wasn't just them against the world--at least the pageant world--anymore. It was the 9 to 5 life they'd always led. The one where he was a shallow guy's guy who dated little blond co-eds after work while she licked cookie dough off a spoon and rolled her eyes.
Their fantasy weekend was over.
She wasn't Gracie Lou. He wasn't Eric.
They were agents Hart and Matthews.
People who weren't supposed to get personal...who weren't supposed to claw the clothes off each other's back and discover that self defense wasn't the only marketable talent they shared.
He wanted her.
He wanted her so bad it ached. It interfered with his thought processes...he'd had to re-type his report twice and then go over a third copy with white out. And then he'd tripped while walking down to the water cooler and the guys hadn't let him forget it till he'd peeled out of the parking lot and left them coughing in his Beamer's exhaust.
He'd come straight to the apartment, stripped down, grabbed his towel, and headed for the swimming pool. Laps had always been his default for relaxation. Only, this time, they weren't doing the trick.
This time, all he wanted was Grace.
He'd wanted her at the hotel. To take her that night in the pool in her wet pink evening gown....wrap her legs and all that satin around him and drown.
He'd wanted her on the plane. He'd been thisclose to dragging her into one of the bathrooms and making it into the Mile High Club. Thisclose to yanking her across the aisle and kissing that scared exhilaration off her mouth.
But he froze every time he looked at the phone.
He lost words every time their eyes met--or didn't meet--across the crowded office.
He didn't know where to go from here.
Or maybe he just wasn't brave enough to find out.
May 23, 2001.
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