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Surely To The Sea

Chapter Text

Grace sat across from Jillian and Scott, her hands folded primly in her lap and a bag of her things sitting beside her guitar case. The rest of her belongings had already been moved to a storage unit until she could figure out how to get them back to the states. What had been left--her toothbrush and hairbrush, clothes that had been in the dryer, and a couple cookbooks they had found in the kitchen--was packed in the homemade market bag and ready to go with her when she left for the last time.

“You have been such a joy to us, and truly part of our family,” Jillian was saying, her perfectly pressed white shirt stretched across her belly.

Grace knew Jillian wasn’t due for three months but she had taken leave of her marketing job already, in preparation for the baby and making the switch to stay at home mom.

“And Thomas is really going to miss you,” Scott added, his hands folded in his lap. He sat beside his wife on one of two couches in the small sitting room.

Thomas. Sweet seven-year-old Thomas, whom Grace had helped raise. As nanny for the Gebhart’s, Grace had been involved with nearly every aspect of their family life since Thomas was weaned at four months old and Jillian had gone back to work. Saying goodbye to him, and to his parents, was harder than Grace ever imagined it would be.

Truth be told, she hadn’t ever really imagined it. She’d assumed, as had the Gebhart’s, that Jillian would continue working indefinitely, and that Grace would be absorbed into their family until Thomas and any child they had after was old enough to not need a nanny. What had started as a decade and a half long job had now been cut short just shy of eight years.

It’s not that she blamed them. Jillian had worked hard as a marketing executive, and Grace knew people’s priorities changed. Now that Jillian and Scott had worked up a savings and were financially prepared to grow their family, they found that what appealed to both of them was having Jillian home with their children, and not working late at a desk job for a major London marketing firm, as she had been doing for the last fifteen years.

The problem--not theirs, but Grace’s--was that Grace was now twenty-seven and the only thing on her resume was Nanny and an ice cream scooping job she’d had through high school. She couldn’t exactly put on a professional resume that she had babysat under the table for four years as a teenager and had kept up on her first aid classes because of that. It might have helped her get this job with the Gebhart’s, but it wouldn’t help her in the outside world.

“I’m going to miss him as well, but he’ll do great as a big brother,” she said, swallowing past the lump in her throat that was threatening to choke off her air supply.

Jillian herself had tears in her eyes that matched Grace’s, and Scott was pressing his lips together in that emotional way men tended to do when they wanted to be sympathetic but weren’t as emotional as their female counterparts.

Jillian began to cry in earnest, which only made Grace do the same. They stood and embraced at the end of the table, Scott standing to add in his fatherly pats on Grace’s shoulder.

“We’ll keep in touch, send you pictures, and don’t forget to Skype Thomas any time. He’s going to miss you and your music. I don’t know how we’ll ever get him to go to sleep now.” Jillian held her hand as they walked towards the front door. Scott stopped to get Grace’s bag and guitar, while she carried her own purse. “That employment agency you signed up with has a glowing review from us, so if you don’t get a job right away, we'll know it’s because the other families are morons and don’t know a good thing when they see one,” Scott joked, breaking some of the tension.

Grace smiled through her tears, giving him a polite one-armed hug before being wrapped up in another of Jillian’s strong embraces.

They said a final goodbye and Grace got into the waiting taxi.

This wasn’t how she envisioned her life going, but being the primary caregiver of a young boy for years had taught her to expect the unexpected. This was a roadblock, and despite feeling weepy and sad, there was part of her that knew this could be an adventure, and that she should be glad to have this opportunity while she was still young.

As the taxi sped down the road to bring her to the hotel she would be staying in while she looked for employment, Grace looked out the window and wiped her eyes, smiling.

Chin up , she reminded herself. Things can only look up from here.

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...Four years later...

“You should take the job,” Becca said, her voice slightly echoing in the large shower as she squeegeed the tile walls. They were smooth, a black marble that Grace was certain was authentic.

“I don’t know.”

The mirror now clean, Grace moved onto the double sink, the long counter stretching nearly the length of the room.

Surely people didn’t need this kind of opulence. She was happy being paid to clean it, but wouldn’t necessarily want to own it. Excessive wealth didn’t sit well with her, not after the last four years of dealing with the owners of the multi million dollar mansions her agency hired out personnel for. Grace’s position was often multi-layered--sometimes nanny for rich kids, sometimes personal chef for young socialites, most often housekeeper for people who had long ago forgotten what it meant to do for themselves what they shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for someone else to do.

It annoyed her, but at the same time it put food on her table.

“You know you want to. Scotland--can you imagine?

As a matter of fact, Grace could. At one point she had imagined herself to be an international employee, jetting around the world to different locations as nanny to the rich and famous. Or simply settling down with another nice family like the Gebhart’s, in a beautiful country like Spain or Norway or yes, even Scotland.

But that was years ago, before the recession that had made her employment agency release hundreds of employees. Grace had done what she could to make herself indispensable, knowing not many of her fellow maids had the skill set she had to offer.

“Yes,” she said, catching sight of herself in the mirror as she rubbed cleaner over the surface of the counter. “But it’s on a yacht--”

“A dream come true for you,” replied Becca, laughing a bit harshly.

It wasn’t Grace’s fault that she was often offered more lucrative jobs and unique positions than Becca, but that didn’t stop her from feeling slightly guilty about it. Becca was great at what she did, and nice and honest and hard working to boot. But what she was good at was cleaning. She couldn’t cook, couldn’t deal with kids, and didn’t have the patience that Grace did.

“A dream come true? How could spending long lonely days on a yacht be a dream come true? It sounds lonely, and like there wouldn’t be much to do.”

Becca pshh-ed her dramatically from inside the shower, knowing it would make Grace laugh.

“But the pay is comparable to what you’re getting now, is it not? And wouldn’t working two hours for that pay be better than working eight? Think of how much time you would have for music, cooking, exploring the countryside!”

“Geez, Becca,” she said, eyeing her friend in the mirror as she laughed. “Make it sound like I wouldn’t be a complete idiot to turn down the job, won’t ya?”

She was certain if anyone walked in on the two maids in matching black uniforms laughing and giggling as they were, that they would probably be written up. Thank goodness the owners were away.

“But seriously, you just want an excuse to come visit me.”

Grace pushed a stray hair out of her face with her forearm before she went back to scrubbing, wondering how it had escaped from her severe high bun.

Becca laughed again, turning towards Grace with her hands on her hips.

“You’re damned straight I do! I want to get out of California every once in a while. And I can’t think of anywhere better than Scotland!”

Through more giggles and conversation they worked, passing away the afternoon as they went from room to room. It was always nice when the two of them were placed on jobs like this together, because they got along so well. Grace liked the company, even though she felt she worked fairly well by herself.

As they moved to the large living room Becca remained on one side, humming to herself, and Grace stood on the other, wiping down the large windows, she had a moment to think on the job offer Becca had referred to.

A week ago, word had come into the employee break room that a new long term job had been posted in Scotland. Since Grace’s residential hospitality services company was world renown for the quality of its staff and their record for catering to the upper classes, not all jobs were worthy of mention. But to have one come in from Scotland, on a yacht where the owner’s presence was sporadic, was a job many of the other employees wished to be chosen for.

But Grace was one of only a handful who were asked to come meet with their regional supervisor, and the first to be offered the position. If she didn’t take it in the next forty-eight hours it would be passed to the next eligible candidate.

At thirty-one she felt that it might be time to do something for herself--she just had to decide what exactly that would be. She had some extra money the Gebhart’s had given her as a bonus set aside, and hadn’t decided on what to use it for yet. She had chosen the day they’d given it to her not to squander it on anything like shopping or a house. She had too much wanderlust in her blood for that at the time. But she also wasn’t interested in college or paying for her own way travelling the world, like they had suggested.

So it sat in her savings account, earning her a meager interest rate until she could figure out what to do with it. Someday she would spend it, or else it would all be dumped into some type of long term investment.

The thought of taking a job in Scotland did appeal to her, she wasn’t going to lie about that. But it wasn’t the kind of job she wanted. It wasn’t a family with young children, nor one in a house large enough where she would have her own room. This was a day job in which she would be required to find suitable lodging, although the company would pay her rent and give her a stipend for food and expenses. There were no kids, only a single owner. And it was a yacht , not a house.

The thought of working on a yacht was interesting, and if she really thought hard about it, it seemed like an adventure. It just wasn’t the perfect job for her.

“Well? What do you think?”

Becca had come around, gathering up her cleaning supplies as they wrapped up at the house for the day. Grace piled her supplies into her bucket and walked with her friend towards the front door, locking it as they exited.

“I don’t know,” she replied, shrugging when Becca looked at her. “I’m just not excited about it.”

They put their things in the back of the company vehicle and climbed in. As Becca put the car in gear and pulled around the circle in front of the house, she turned towards the long driveway and headed out.

“Well, best think about it fast because they’re not going to give you forever to decide.” She shot Grace a wry look as she drove up to the automatic gate that would let them out. “And we don’t want any of the other girls getting such a gravy job, you know?” she said with a wink, and she turned back to the road, while they both laughed.

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As it turned out, deciding to take the job was easier than she had thought. Once home that night, Grace had looked around and decided there wasn’t a single thing she would miss if she packed up and moved to Scotland.

She had her guitar and her photo album of her time with the Gebhart’s, including the empty pages she was still slowly filling with photos of Thomas as they sent them to her.

Tomorrow morning she decided she would call them and tell them of her decision. It would mean for the first time in four years she had a chance of visiting their family and meeting their three year old, Lynn, in person.

A quick perusal of her small apartment showed a kitchen in desperate need of renovation, a bathroom that held nothing special, a bedroom devoid of personal effects, and a living room that had become her only sanctuary in her dull little world.

She had a comfortable chair in which she could sit and play her guitar, her music stand, and a small bookshelf where she kept the fiction and cookbooks she regularly cycled out at the local literacy council. In her kitchen she had a nice set of pans because she loved to cook, and a few more cookbooks. But there was nothing else--no pets, family spread out all over the US, and only really Becca, who was a great person to work with but not exactly best friend material.

Maybe Scotland was just the next step. Maybe this job on the yacht was going to be what propelled her into the life she had always dreamed of--that of a mother, wife, homemaker. The role she had been practicing for since she was a young girl on her first babysitting job.

She was thirty-one. Her dreams were going to slip through her fingers if she didn’t take initiative.

Before bed that night she sat down at her laptop and shot off an email to her boss.

Please inform me of the next step. I will begin to research lodging, and can be ready to leave in one week. Thank you for this opportunity!

When she sent it, she had a smile on her face.

By the following evening she had a small apartment booked for six months a mile from the harbor where the yacht was docked. For the summer she would walk back and forth to the marina, and would deal with winter when it came. She also had printed out instructions from her agency on international travel, verified that her passport was up to date since she had last travelled with the company, and had tucked away all materials provided by the owner of the boat. She would read that on the plane.

Her ticket was booked by an agent within the company, and she wasn’t looking forward to the thirteen hour flight with a two hour layover in Dublin, but the closer she got to the departure date, the more excited she became about seeing Scotland. She did research, explored Google Earth maps of the area, and familiarized herself with landmarks marking the route from her apartment to the harbor. She wrote an email to her parents, with whom she wasn’t very close, notifying them of her plans, and paid the early termination fee on the lease for her apartment in Los Angeles.

Then, when the day came for her to leave for the airport, Grace took one last look around the apartment that had been her home for the previous four years.

It was bittersweet to see it go, although not enough to cry over. Always the emotional one, Grace was surprised to find the mounting excitement over this new adventure surpassing the sadness of saying goodbye to this part of her life. But with her guitar hanging over her shoulder and her carry-on bag in hand, she shut the door and locked it before dropping the key in the drop box on the bottom floor.

When she walked out the front door of the building, she never once looked back.

Chapter Text

Rory looked at his phone screen, once again checking in on his yacht. The cleaning lady hadn’t arrived yet, but the company he’d hired had said she would be there either today or tomorrow.

He was anxious to get back to the boat, and had paid extra for her to do a thorough cleaning, although he knew it wouldn’t really need it. It was his bachelor pad, yes, but he wasn’t a slob. A good vacuum of the bedrooms and their minuscule patches of carpet, a mopping of the rest, and wiping down the surfaces that might have a slight layer of dust on them would be all the 45-foot cruising yacht would need.

He still had business to attend to in London but would be watching the yacht from afar. He had the two security cameras that looked at the bow and towards the stern, which was all he needed. If someone disappeared below the camera pointed at the stern he’d know they were inside, and if they were inside and they weren’t his new cleaning lady, then they weren’t supposed to be there and he would call the authorities.

But for now he needed to finish up the publicity tour for the last season of the show he had a role in, and then he’d be able to go home--to the yacht, to the water, to his small corner of the world where he could hole up and not worry about anything. Be it people, work, politics, whatever life threw at him--he could avoid them all there.

And maybe soon he’d go out on the water and stay gone for two or three weeks. It sounded good, being out there, out of range of communication, where no one could bother him.

Yes, it sounded damned good.

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Everything that happened after the plane landed in Edinburgh went by in a blur. Grace collected her suitcase and guitar from the baggage carousel, checked her map for the bus station, and set out on the beginning of her adventure in a foreign country.

Scotland was in many ways very similar to England, but also very different. Merely catching snippets of conversation from passing locals was enough to prove that to her, as quite often she didn’t understand what they were saying. Their accents could be much thicker than that of Londoners, and she suspected they might even be speaking a different language. It would take time, but she hoped to develop the ability to understand. She was certain it would help her get along with others as she passed the time in this beautiful country.

The bus station wasn’t far from the airport, and the drive to Troon began. Grace spent the entire ride staring out the window, feeling much less like the grown woman she was and more like a child, perhaps Thomas’s age--seeing new sights, itching to go explore, and to experience all that Scotland had to offer. Thomas was indeed excited for her, as he had stated in their Skype call last week. He made her promise to send photos of her doing every little thing she could think of--from walking into her apartment for the first time, cooking her first meal, walking to her job, and the sea--he wanted to see if the sea on the Western coast of Scotland was the same as the sea on the Eastern coast of England, where they would sometimes travel on the weekends.

His excitement was encouraged by Jillian and Scott, who were as excited as Grace was to have an opportunity to reconnect. Grace swore on her first vacation she was heading straight for London, and they assured her--Jillian with a tearful smile on the laptop’s screen--that she would always have a bed waiting for her in their home.

The apartment superintendent was there when she arrived, only having to walk two blocks from the bus station with her suitcase and guitar in tow. It hadn’t been the most pleasant walk, with several broken down vehicles on the street and yards that were unkempt. Grace thought back to the description of the neighborhood and wondered at its accuracy--”Up and coming neighborhood close to a school with a community park and shopping center within walking distance.”

Grace thought it should have read, “Borderline slum but the people are nice.”

The man greeting her looked nice enough--younger than she had expected him to be, probably just several years older than her. And he was an American, by the sound of his accent when he called out a greeting as he waited by the open door for her to come up the short walkway.

“Hello!”

Grace smiled and held out her hand, which he shook gently.

“Hello, I’m Grace Harris, from California. It’s nice to meet you!”

“Evan Woods, from Washington,” he said warmly, as though they shared an inside joke. “Pleased to meet you.”

His voice was kind and his smile wide, and he sported short cropped brown hair and a fit physique. Grace chuckled at how his introduction mirrored her own.

“An American--what brings you here? I expected a Scotsman, this being Scotland and all.”

Evan laughed as he took her suitcase from her and followed her into the older building, a bit more ramshackle than what the photos had shown.

Grace decided not to mention it for the time being, surprised that the website had been so misleading. Evan seemed like a nice, honest person, so she followed him up the scuffed wood stairwell to the second floor.

“I came with my girlfriend years ago and here I am, no girlfriend but a country I fell in love with.” His smile was easy as he glanced back at her. “I couldn’t leave, not after growing so fond of it.”

“Is it really that easy?” she asked, happy to be speaking to someone from America but who loved Scotland enough to tell her about it.

“Oh, aye,” he replied, smiling widely when they came to a door at the end of the hallway. He took out a ring with two keys on it and unlocked the door, turning to her before he opened it. “Everything about this country is great--the people, the scenery, the culture, the food. There’s nothing I don’t love about it, especially when I meet other Americans who love it just as much as I do.”

He pushed open the door and Grace smiled. She stepped past him into the apartment and looked around.

“I’m sure I will be one of those Americans,” she murmured, turning to take it all in.

Much like the building and the neighborhood, the apartment itself didn’t live up to her expectations. The website said it was a clean, furnished apartment, complete with some living room furniture and a dining table. It would be up to her to find a bed and dresser, and anything else she might need.

While it was true that the apartment was clean, everything looked like it came out of the 1970s. The carpet was orange . The countertop was olive green, and the fridge, oven, and microwave were all yellow and looked stained with age. The windows were small and looked original from when the building was built.

Probably in the 70s , she thought wryly.

Setting her guitar down in the small living room, Grace spun in a circle to take it all in, dismayed at the dark panelling on the walls. It had looked more of a natural oak color in the photos, but she could see the stain on it was more dark walnut, as though someone had mixed black paint in with the stain. The effect caused dark gray wood that looked as depressing as the winter solstice at the North Pole. Disheartened, she hated it immediately.

But to Evan she turned and smiled, determined not to let this set her back. This was going to be her home for no more than six months, she was sure of it. When that lease was up she would already have a new place lined up, and in the meantime, well… she could buy lamps because she didn’t pay for electricity.

“It’s… cozy,” she said to him, and Evan nodded, looking around as though he was proud of the apartment.

“The building is sound, and this neighborhood might not look like much but it’s been here a long time.”

He left off at that reply and set the key ring on the counter.

“You have my number in case you need anything, and the phone is there on the wall--” he pointed to the black, corded landline phone, “--but you’ll have to call the phone company to get it turned on. Any questions?”

Grace clasped her hands in front of her, doing her best to stay optimistic. This apartment was making it difficult.

“Actually, I’d like to go to the post office to pick up my things in the morning. Could you tell me how to find it?”

Evan replied, keeping that same kind smile plastered to his face.

“I’ll draw you a map.” And out of his pocket he pulled a little notebook and a pen.

From his directions it didn’t sound hard to find the place, about twenty blocks away. But Grace knew she’d have to take a cab, so she also had him show her where a sister bank of her own branch was.

Before he left he stuck his hand out and Grace shook it, but breathed a sigh of relief when he abruptly turned his back and strode for the door, feeling with every step that her life was on a big turntable and it was slowly turning while she remained still. Evan turned, helping her to not spiral out of control into thoughts that said she was over her head. His smile widened.

“It’s good to meet you, Grace Harris.”

“You too, Evan,” but she was glad when she could close and lock the door.

After he left she took out the few snacks she had packed into her suitcase and set them on the counter, belatedly realizing she had no food for either dinner or breakfast in the morning. Maybe she could Google a convenience store somewhere close to walk to in the morning. Then she got to work, unpacking the meager belongings she’d brought except for her clothes, which would have to remain in her suitcase until she found a dresser.

It was actually quicker than she expected to search for, find, and contact a local furniture store about delivering some furniture to her, and she put a twin sized bed and a dresser from their website on her only credit card, to be delivered the next day. They were the two purchases she wanted immediately, but decided anything else could take time so she could find things she really liked.

When she was done she sat down with her laptop at the chair by the window and looked outside, noting the view was simply of the building across the street. She pulled the sheer curtain closed and set about researching the area, including finding out there was a gas station and convenience store about five blocks away in the opposite direction from the harbor.

She would walk there in the morning for breakfast and see what they had, before Evan came to get her. And with that plan in mind she turned off the computer and set it aside.

It had been days since she’d taken out her guitar, and when she did so now she found her fingers were itching to get back on those strings. Singing had always soothed her, and strumming a soft tune was exactly what she was going to need to relax herself so she could get some sleep on the hard couch. Her first night in the new country in her new apartment, and she was already getting antsy about her plans for her future.

Had this been the right decision? She really didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, since Becca was all for her taking the job, she and her parents weren’t close enough to discuss personal things like that, and Jillian and Scott had their little family and likely their own issues to deal with.

Although Jillian would probably sit and talk to her for an hour, Grace didn’t want to bother the busy mom. So she set the guitar on her lap, set her fingers to the strings, and pinched the pick between her fingers.

She had strummed the first chord of To Make You Feel My Love when suddenly there was a thumping on the floor below her. Unaccustomed to living in a building so old, she waited a moment and strummed again. The banging came louder, and she heard the distinct sound of someone yelling something.

She realized her mistake and set the guitar aside. Thin walls, probably lacking in insulation, likely meant her neighbors both beside and below her would be able to hear anything she did.

Not wanting to alienate neighbors she hadn’t even met yet, Grace despondently set the guitar back in the open case and drew her knees up to her chin. That she couldn’t even play her guitar suddenly made her very sad and very homesick. This was supposed to be a happy time, but not everything was turning out the way it was supposed to.

Now disheartened, she rose and readied for bed, pulling on her nightshirt and taking down her hair. She pulled it over her shoulder and brushed it, though it wouldn’t need it--she had brushed it before putting it in the bun she usually wore. Still, she ran the brush from the crown of her head down to the front of her hip and through the ends of her hair, then wove it into a thick braid that she tossed behind her shoulder.

That night she curled up on the couch, using a sweater as a pillow and a jacket for a blanket. But sleep eluded her. Tomorrow, she vowed, things would be better. Tomorrow she would get the rest of her things from the post office and turn this apartment into a home. And she would venture down to the harbor and scope out the yacht on which she would be working.

Yes, tomorrow. Tomorrow would be a great day.

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Rory felt his phone buzz with a notification and saw that someone had tripped his security camera. The screen lit up with the image of a woman with dark hair pulled high into a bun turning a key in the small hatch that led down into the cabin of his yacht.

So that was Ms. Harris. He had read her resume and approved the hiring, happy that someone with as steady an employment history as her would be the one cleaning his yacht and acting as housekeeper. He felt confident that she would have a measure of pride in her work, having been employed by the same company for twelve years.

Grace Harris. He hadn’t gotten much further in her employee profile after reading about her past work experience, but he liked her name. There was a good chance they would eventually meet, but it wasn’t high on his list of priorities. Right now he needed to see if she would keep to his instructions and text him now that she was on the boat. His instructions had been specific--send him a text letting him know she made it onto the boat without any problems.

After a minute two did come through, although he didn’t reply.

00-1-323-555-9489: Made it to the yacht, thank you for the clear instructions! Took a loo around, I’ll be out of here in about three hours.

00-1-323-555-9489: look*

She had corrected her spelling. For some reason that struck him as funny.

He appreciated her promptness, and mentally crossed off the one and only test he’d set out for her. She passed with flying colors.

The meeting with his agent went well, and Rory found himself only worrying about the yacht a little bit. He didn’t know Ms. Harris, after all, and she was in there alone with his belongings. But it was his sanctuary, his safe place, and there was a person in there when he was not.

As comfortable as he was with the idea of someone cleaning his yacht and taking care of his personal effects, he was not comfortable with her being in there while he was not there. He had not anticipated this. Having little choice other than to text her and tell her to get out, he shut his phone off and concentrated on the meeting. There were scripts to go over, papers to sign, and a schedule to form for the next year. And right now he needed to focus on convincing his agent he needed at least two months of doing absolutely nothing now that filming for the next season wouldn’t begin for nearly a year.

With his work cut out for him, he pushed all thoughts of the yacht out of his mind and put on his bargaining hat.

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Grace set her phone down and took her jacket off. Beside the hatch she found a small closet where she could store her things while she was working.

After hanging her jacket on a hanger in the small space, she moved the bottom of a man’s jacket out of the way so she could put her purse on the raised bottom surface. At the same time she saw how the bottom of her jacket was several inches higher than the bottom of the man’s, and hers fell to her upper thigh on her.

Shutting the door, she wondered at the size of the man. That looked like a normal jacket, only much larger than any she had seen before.

Putting it out of her mind, she got to work. She found the cleaning supplies where he had said they would be, in another closet beside the decently sized bathroom. She decided to start at one end and work her way to the other.

Dusting the light fixtures and upper surfaces, she found cubbies where various boat manuals were stored, some dry food goods over the kitchen, and linens for the bedrooms. She went back through with a wet rag and cleaned anything that needed to be cleaned and some that didn’t, just so she could say she did the most thorough job she could.

She repeated the process with the middle of the boat--the oven top, the sink, the dining table, getting to know the boat since it would be her place of employment for at least the next six months. She found the fridge appallingly low on food, despite knowing the owner wouldn’t be back probably for a few days. The freezer as well was low, and it made her wonder what he ate until she found the loaf of moldy bread in a cabinet with peanut butter.

A confirmed bachelor then, she mused, tossing the bread into the large garbage bag she would keep her soiled paper towels in. She made a mental note to replace the bread with the small stipend he gave her for expenses.

There were two small empty bedrooms on one end of the yacht, though the master bedroom was quite obviously occupied. There were dirty clothes in a pile on the floor, which Grace picked up quickly and deposited in a small hamper resting on a shelf. Then she stripped all the beds and added the sheets to the hamper, folding the blankets to remain on the beds until they could be made again.

Finally she vacuumed the bedrooms and mopped the rest of the floor, dumping the water down the drain in the shower as instructed.

When she was done and it was time to bring the laundry to the laundromat, she instead sat on one of the benches at the dinette and breathed deeply.

It always felt good to look around and know she did a good job. It was one of the things that had been most rewarding while working for the Gebhart’s. She could look at the dinner she had made, she could see the clean floors and organized toys, and the perfect sleeping boy who always took a nap exactly when she told him to. There was pride in her work, yes, but she was humble enough to not brag about it. She knew she was good, and this yacht was no different. Her cleaning had been thorough, and she hoped the owner would be able to tell.

He hadn’t specifically instructed her to wash the laundry but she knew the harbor sported a laundromat just up on the shore, so she took her purse and coat out of the closet, and with the basket on her hip, left the yacht while locking the hatch behind her. Then she headed up towards the big building on the other side of the docks.

Chapter Text

To Make You Feel My Love

“Stop looking at your phone.”

Mitch was looking at him with an exasperated expression, but Rory didn't care. His security cameras showed the woman locking the hatch behind her and taking the laundry basket off the yacht. He was about to question what she had hidden in the basket when he recognized the sheets from the beds in the two small bedrooms.

“Fucking hell,” he muttered. He had never told her to do the laundry. He hoped she wasn’t robbing him, and now needed to watch his phone like a hawk to make sure she returned with his hamper.

“Rory, pay attention. What are you doing, anyway?”

He looked up at his agent and shook his head.

“Hired a new cleaning lady for the new yacht and she’s already changing the fucking sheets. They’re brand new.”

He looked back down at his phone but knew he wouldn’t see her. He manually shut off the cameras and reset them to pick up movement.

“You’re spying on your cleaning lady?” The septuagenarian laughed harshly, his voice sounding more and more like he needed to quit smoking. “That’s a new low.”

His attempt at humor fell flat as Rory sat back in the comfortable chair across the desk.

“I’ve never met her, and she now has keys to my yacht. Of course I’m fucking watching her.”

Unfazed by Rory’s language, Mitch shuffled some forms in front of him, attempting to get their meeting back on track. It was nearly ten o’clock in the morning in downtown Glasgow and Rory was getting hungry. He had plans to head to lunch at the small restaurant down the street where he and Mitch sometimes held their meetings, but knew he wouldn’t be able to eat now.

Irritated, he wanted to get back to the yacht to make sure she hadn’t done anything. It had been a stupid fucking idea to hire someone sight unseen, and from a personnel company no less. He wasn’t going to have a minute’s rest until he finished the meeting and returned to Troon.

Turning his attention back to Mitch, they resumed their talks but Rory’s mind wandered the entire time. The woman looked young, probably too young to be a mature employee although he hadn’t gotten a clear look at her face. And she was already doing something not specified in the instructions he’d printed out for her. That didn’t bode well for her longevity of employment.

It was just before noon when he and Mitch finally concluded their business and he set out for his rented SUV where it was parked in the parking garage. His phone buzzed and he watched as the cleaning woman returned with a basket of folded laundry and a shopping bag hanging off her arm. She paused at the hatch, set the basket aside, and unlocked the door. Then she entered with the hamper and closed the hatch behind her.

It didn’t mean anything. As Rory drove towards Troon he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel of the large vehicle, anxious to see what damage had been done to his home.

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Beds made, all surfaces clean, small load of laundry folded and stacked on the master bedroom’s mattress, and a fresh loaf of bread in the cabinet where the moldy one had been, Grace surveyed her work. The owner wasn’t due back until later in the evening, so along with the bread she had taken the liberty of purchasing a package of sandwich meat and a couple small bottles on condiments for the fridge. She hoped he would appreciate the extra effort she put into making the yacht welcoming.

A pad of paper that lay on the navigation table served her well for the note she left for him, explaining the food in the fridge, letting him know he could leave his shopping list for her or text it to her and she would always be prompt in purchasing whatever he needed. She also pointed out the bread in the cabinet, and that she would only be purchasing cleaning supplies as needed so wouldn’t need the entire space beneath the sink. It was conspicuously empty, as though he thought she would be packing it with her supplies.

Finally, before leaving she turned off all the lights and put the laundry hamper back on the shelf.

A final inspection left her feeling proud once again of her work, and she locked the hatch behind her before heading back to the pier, where a taxi would be waiting to take her to the post office and then back to her apartment.

Despite the rough night she’d had, knowing she had done an exemplary job of cleaning the yacht felt like a good way to jump into her job. On the cab ride to the post office she mulled over her other responsibilities.

Personal shopping wasn’t a normal job requirement, but as long as he stuck to basics and always reimbursed her for her purchases, she didn’t mind the rewards points racking up on her credit card. Laundry was not specified but she wanted him to know she didn’t mind. And judging by the kitchen setup of the yacht compared to her kitchen in the apartment, she wouldn’t have minded at all if he requested cooking services as well.

Perhaps in time , she thought, if the job worked out and he liked her work.

Much of her duties would be worked out in time, though for now cleaning was the only one set in stone. But what Becca had said was true--this job paid for a couple hours a day what a normal full time job earned. So as far as duties, he had some wiggle room as far as what he required of her. She wouldn’t be giving him the reins for all of her time, but she had spent enough time on the yacht today to know she would much rather spend her time there than at her retro apartment.

Her boxes had been delivered on time and after hopping back into the cab, she checked her watch to see she needed to be back at the apartment for the delivery of her bed and dresser. It sparked a bit of relief in her that she would be able to sleep on a real bed tonight, with the sheets and bedding she would find in one of the boxes. She needed to get to the department store which was some distance away in order to pick up the rest of what she would need, but that could wait until tomorrow. Tonight she just needed to get settled into the apartment and figure out how she was going to practice her guitar without bothering her neighbors.

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The first thing Rory noticed when he entered the yacht was the scent of oranges and citrus. He figured it must have been a cleaner she used, but it wasn’t an overpowering scent like PineSol or 409 spray. This scent was softer, as though someone had cleaned with orange juice days before and what was left was the faded, pleasant smell of citrus.

He had to admit as he looked over the interior that she had done a nice job. Everything was clear of dust, from the light fixtures above his head to the handles of the cabinets. The table was clean, the counter, the stove top--all of it. The bathroom was fairly sparkling and she had folded his bath towel and hand towels and arranged them on the racks to look like this was a fancy hotel instead of his yacht.

He checked inside drawers and cabinets but saw nothing missing, but nearly choked on his tongue when he saw the pile of laundry on his bed.

She had washed his clothes, and she had folded them. His boxers were in that pile.

Rory didn’t know if he should laugh or be irritated, so he took his phone out of his pocket and shot her a text regarding this discovery.

Rory: Laundry was unnecessary

To his surprise, she wrote back almost immediately.

00-1-323-555-9489: It wasn’t a problem. I saw them and wanted to wash the sheets anyway, so I threw those in as well.

Rory slid a hand down his face, trying to figure out how to tell her he didn’t like that she had touched his boxers. But before he could respond, another text from her came through.

00-1-323-555-9489: I spent the last seven years helping an infant boy grow into a seven-year-old. I think I can handle folding a man’s boxxers.

00-1-323-555-9489: boxers*

If he had been facing a mirror Rory could have sworn he blushed.

Rory: Please refrain

00-1-323-555-9489: From washing or folding your clothes?

What had he gotten into with this woman?

But before he could text her to stop washing his laundry, he looked over at the pile on the bed, walking over so he could take a closer look. The shirt was folded very professionally, the corners sharp and the lines clean. Even his socks were neatly folded and bundled together. If something could be said for her, her laundry skills were on point.

He put the laundry away and returned to the main cabin before texting her back to check the pad of paper on the table that he had walked by. Her note was written in a pretty cursive, very neat and tidy like her skill at folding clothes.

There is a new loaf of bread in the cabinet, and sandwich meat and condiments in the fridge. Please text me or write out your shopping list and I will make a point to go every couple of days unless you need me to go more often.

Sheets and laundry can be done on a regular basis. The laundromat is close by and I don’t mind the walk. This harbor is lovely!

Thank you again for choosing us for your residential domestic staffing needs. I look forward to working for you!

Grace Harris

Well, shit. If she didn’t just sound so downright pleasant

Rory checked and indeed the old loaf of bread was gone, replaced with a new one identical to the brand and type that had been in there. The nearly empty fridge now had the makings of a decent sandwich should he choose to make one, which he did since he had skipped lunch and was now famished.

Finally he sat at the dinette with his sandwich and plate, laying his phone on the table beside him.

Rory: Carry on. I will be gone each day by nine and will return by five.

But he paused, looking over at the door of the fridge, chewing a large bite of his sandwich. Then he texted her again.

Rory: 2% milk, eggs, bacon, bananas

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Grace looked at the text on her phone, then looked up with a smile to direct the movers into the only bedroom in the apartment. While they pushed and pulled the mattress into where the box spring was already waiting, she texted him back.

Grace: Do you need any of those tonight?

His response came right away.

011-44-141-5555-1789: No

Grace: Okay, I will have these things with me when I come by tomorrow at 10.

011-44-141-5555-1789: Do you have a vehicle

Grace: No, but I’m getting used to the cab system here. It’s not so diffrent from the cabs in America

Grace: different*

011-44-141-5555-1789: I will add a weekly cab stipend to your salary

Grace: That would be lovely, thank you!

She smiled to herself as she tucked her phone into her pocket. At least he was polite. Huge and polite. As the two moving men passed her to get the dresser she had ordered and surreptitiously eyed their pants. She had indeed spent the last seven years with a little boy so she didn’t know much about men’s pants, but she was certain a pair that came up nearly to her breasts when she held them up while the cuffs touched the floor, had to belong to a giant.

She had learned an awful lot about the man when she had washed his clothes, which was the one and only reason why she had felt awkward washing and folding them. For one thing, he liked black. The jeans were black, the t-shirt was black although a bit faded and worn soft, and his socks were black. His boxer briefs were--surprise, surprise--black. But it had been funny to fold them and add them to the black pile.

The movers easily carried in the cheap dresser and she tipped them on their way out. When she finally shut the door, she checked her clock and saw that it was still early enough in the evening that she could get the guitar out.

Seated in the chair by the window, she strummed the first few chords of To Make You Feel My Love and then waited, listening for the banging on the floor below her. When none came and kept at the music, feeling that finally she was able to bring a little bit of home to this new apartment of hers.

The words came easily as well, flowing out her mouth in low, sweet tones that felt more like she was singing a lullaby to herself. Her heart opened, and Grace smiled at the ambiance in her apartment for the first time since she’d arrived.

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A week later the morning dawned bright and sunny, perfect for a walk down to the harbor. Grace wrapped herself in her coat and buried her hands in her pockets against the chill, but as soon as she walked outside she turned her face up to the sun and closed her eyes.

Today was going to be a good day.

She had contacted Jillian about doing a Skype call that afternoon when Thomas got home from school, after she had gone to the store and did her shopping both for the yacht and for her apartment. Talking to them was going to be like icing on the cake of a day that just felt like it had started off on the right track.

Despite only being able to practice her guitar the one day last week, Grace had found other things to fill her time, like cooking. Every time she went to the store for the owner--a Mr. McCann, she had learned from her supervisor when he called to check in--she had picked up a couple things for herself with her own money, in order to not overload herself when she got back to the yacht, knowing she would just have to cart back any of her own groceries at the end of the day.

But those jaunts to the store had filled her fridge and she was back at it, cooking until she hardly had any space left in her freezer.

So today she had taken a little risk and packed a bag of the frozen helpings--tuscan garlic chicken, chili con carne, and some shrimp scampi that she hadn’t wanted to freeze. There were sweet potato noodles in a baggie for the chili and zucchini noodles for the shrimp, along with a bag of freshly made fettuccine noodles with the cooking instructions written on the bag. She was going to see if he’d be amenable to eating the half of her meals that she couldn’t.

It wouldn’t be an issue if she had been able to play her guitar more. But whatever that neighbor’s problem was downstairs, they didn’t want her playing during the day and Grace, being new to the building, wasn’t going to rock the boat over it. If she ever met her neighbors, she wanted them to like her.

So instead of filling her time with music, she filled it with her other hobby, which very likely could eventually make her gain weight.

The walk to the harbor took about twenty minutes and by the time she got there she decided to invest in some large shoulder shopping bags, as her hands hurt after all that time holding the plastic bags. She set them down beside the hatch so she could unlock it, and then made her way down into the belly of the boat.

It felt silly but this place had become her home away from home. It brought her no joy to clean that dark, depressing apartment, especially not when she felt she couldn’t properly make it into her home. Already she had begun looking for a new apartment, at least in a new area of town. Truth be told, she didn’t always feel safe walking through her neighborhood. She was pretty good about not being out after dark, but there had been a couple times where she asked the cab driver to stick around until she had closed the outer apartment building door behind her.

The yacht was wonderful--well lit, lightly stained wood everywhere, comfortable and cozy yet spacious to move around in. It wasn’t a full size cruising yacht that resembled a house on the inside, but more of a very large travel trailer. But it was fancy enough and luxurious enough to make up for the lack of space.

And every time she cleaned that kitchen she itched to cook in it.

Today she satisfied herself with organizing the food she had brought in the freezer and fridge, and then took out her cleaning supplies and got to work. But today, as she had begun to do more and more often, she hummed as she worked.

The acoustics, funnily enough, were perfect inside the yacht. It didn’t make her feel claustrophobic as one might have thought, but she knew her voice filled the space easily although she didn’t hum loudly. And when she sang the lyrics to her favorite songs she could almost imagine the warm honey colored interior belonged to her own yacht.

Someday , she would think to herself, since her dreams had changed since beginning the job on this boat. Someday I’ll own a yacht like this one.

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Rory wasn’t in the mood to deal with anyone’s crap as he parked the rented SUV in the Troon Yacht Haven parking lot. Mitch had just informed him of two events in London that would take him away from Troon for four days. He was supposed to be done with this shit for the season.

He shut the SUV’s door just a bit too hard, and then walked down the path that led to the docks. If he had to spend the next few days gone from the yacht then he wanted to spend this day there sulking about it.

And to make matters worse, his phone was dead and he couldn’t find his fucking car charger.

He had a charger on the yacht and had decided not to worry about it, but it still irritated him. He hadn’t been able to track Ms. Harris’s movements today and would in fact have no idea if she was even on the yacht until he entered it.

As he made his way to the end of the dock towards his yacht he remembered the week he’d spent coming back home to a boat that smelled of oranges. He was beginning to really like the scent, and took it to mean Ms. Harris had been there during the day. Even though she was there every day, just never when he was around, his anxiety levels had shifted slightly now that he was able to take comfort in knowing someone was taking care of his boat while he was away.

It was different from a week ago when he was still uncertain whether she could be trusted. He still felt like he didn't know her at all--because a couple notes and a few texts did not make an acquaintance--but nothing had come up missing and her work was exemplary. He didn’t even mind that she occasionally left some type of food for him in the fridge. Every once in a while not eating out was nice.

When he reached the yacht he didn’t see any signs that she was there. Lights were off, the hatch was locked, and he couldn’t hear any sounds coming from inside. It took just a few moments to enter, locking the hatch behind him, and to hang his jacket in the closet. The interior smelled like oranges and he couldn’t help himself--he smiled. It was just a pleasant fragrance, he was going to have to ask her what she cleaned with when the time came for her to move on.

He glanced inside the fridge out of curiosity and saw a few extra bags, one with a note on it with cooking instructions for the pasta inside. When he did as it said and looked in the freezer, he saw the bags of accompanying entrees, opening one to see what it was.

The scent was heavenly. He was almost tempted to warm it up then and there, with the chicken and cream sauce looking as appetizing as it did.

But first things first, he wanted to get comfortable, and then he could worry about what to eat and how to spend the rest of his day sitting around doing nothing.

He stripped in the big bedroom and stepped into the small bathroom, taking a quick shower just to wash the day off him. Then he stepped out, taking the neatly folded towel off the bar and wrapping it around his hips. It was good enough to throw the food in the microwave so it could cook while he got dressed.

But when he stepped out of the bathroom he stopped short when he saw the woman step down from the hatch stairs.

To say he was startled was an understatement. A thousand thoughts shuffled through his mind in the moment it took for him to realize this was the woman he had been seeing on the security camera all week--dark brown hair in the bun, same pale skin, maroon jacket, with a pile of clothes clutched to her chest.

At first he thought he might have had an intruder, and then perhaps an insane fan, and after that he wondered if he was going to have to protect himself with whatever the hell he could get his hands on before she drew a gun.

But her deer-in-the-headlights look when she turned and the fear that flashed across her delicate features was enough to dispel that last theory.

They stood on opposite sides of the yacht but he immediately noticed how damn beautiful she was. High cheekbones, fuller lips parted in surprise, and eyes that from this distance appeared to be the color of honey. She was petite, a hell of a lot shorter than he, and he suspected beneath that jacket was a body he could easily lift--

--although why he would be thinking such thoughts all of a sudden, he had no idea…

“Ms. Harris,” he choked out, attempting to be cautious and hoping it was indeed her. He was becoming painfully aware that not only was he wet from his shower, but he was naked except for the large towel around his hips. And she was completely clothed but had already ran her eyes down the length of him and then back up, that shocked look not dissipating at all.

She finally closed her lips, though her eyes remained wide as she nodded.

“Grace,” she said, but it came out more as a squeak. Her knuckles were white against the pile of clothes she had crushed to her chest, and he realized he needed to break the tension and extricate both of them from this situation.

So he turned, strode into the bedroom, and slid the sliding door shut firmly behind him.

Chapter Text

Watch Til The Rivers All Run Dry by Don Williams


 

Good god, it was Rory McCann. Grace would have known his face anywhere. Only people who had never heard of Game Of Thrones wouldn’t know who he was. Even without the prosthetic scars and long hair, he looked exactly the same.

And he had only been wearing a towel.

And she was clutching a pile of his clothes to her chest like a madwoman.

Still frozen, Grace turned from the closed bedroom door, behind which he was presumably putting on clothes. Then she sighed heavily and closed her eyes.

First it was looking up to seeing the yacht’s giant owner standing there, which in itself had sent her heart into her throat for several moments. There was no way she could have defended herself against a man his size. No way. She would have been dead. Or worse.

But then she had calmed slightly when she realized he was coming out of the shower, and had figured out this was the owner.

And then… Rory McCann?

No one had ever told her she was working for an actor.

God , he’d been naked.

All this time it was his clothes she had been folding, his bed she’d been making, him who she had packaged up extra food for. Him she was texting, who she was leaving notes for. Goodness, she wished she could tell Becca--but confidentiality was part of the job description, and she didn’t want to risk her job by blabbing to social creature Becca, who would probably “let it slip” within minutes of hanging up the phone.

No, there was no one she could tell, and she vowed not to--not even Jillian. She was a consummate professional. This was going to have to be her secret.

She wondered why her supervisors didn’t say anything about it, and figured it was due to her excellent work record. And it was also possible that they didn’t know--that he had used a pseudonym to preserve his anonymity. If so, he wouldn’t be the first actor who had hired from their agency.

Just a couple minutes after he closed that door, it opened again and this time he was fully dressed--faded blue jeans that looked at least a decade old, and a heather gray shirt that covered all the chest hair she’d gotten a really good look at before.

He was barefoot. She was standing in Rory McCann’s yacht, holding a stack of his clothes, while he stood with hair still wet and no socks on his feet.

Was this actually her life? Because none of this made sense.

“Um… Here.”

Grace abruptly walked forward and shoved the clothes at him, steadfastly refusing to look him in the face. Her own face only came up to his chest--her eyes were probably in line with his nipples--and she blushed. She did not need to be thinking about his nipples.

With as many times as she had watched the first seven seasons of the show, she was fairly familiar with his character but had never really focused on it. She was more into the books than anything, so seeing the real life versions of the characters on the show that she had been reading about for years was more of a novelty. But the enormous differences between Show Sandor and Book Sandor always made him sort of an anomaly in her mind. The scars were different, the age was different, the facial hair was different--Show Sandor was more Rory McCann than A Song Of Ice And Fire, in her opinion.

And Rory McCann just so happened to be an actor on whom she might have had a mild celebrity crush.

But no one wanted to know her opinion about the show and the books, least of all the man himself, so she stepped back and turned, wanting to get out of there as fast as possible. She was up through the hatch and locking it behind her when she came to her senses.

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Rory stood and watched her open the hatch and then close it behind her. He heard her key in the lock but didn’t hear her walk away. Instead she was apparently standing there, likely rethinking her rash decision to abruptly walk out the moment she could have been greeting her employer.

But Rory was still trying to process the woman--how she had shoved this stack of clothes into his arms without thought of what they would look like after she had crushed them to her chest, which was in direct contrast to every time he found a pile of neatly folded clothes on the foot of his bed. And how she refused to look him in the eye after that initial stare of confusion and shock.

Then there was the fact that his clothes smelled like oranges, and he realized it wasn’t her cleaning supplies that smelled like the fruit--it was her .

That realization stirred his blood to temperatures it had no business being stirred to.

He wasn’t going to wait to see what she would do, though, so he turned and put the clothes away in his room and then returned to the main cabin, just in time to see the hatch open and a slender pair of legs descend down the short set of stairs.

He was inordinately pleased that she came back, but he stood just outside the bedroom and waited, unable to prevent his brows from raising in question.

The woman who faced him now looked up from under lowered lashes, looking utterly bashful and embarrassed. It was a struggle not to smile at her, as it usually was with female fans. But he wasn’t sure if she was a fan, or if she knew who he was, or if she had merely realized he was her employer and had just made a ridiculous first impression.

No more ridiculous than his first impression, though. Christ, him in a towel. Could it get any more awkward.

“Grace?” he asked, eyebrows still up. He watched her nod, clasping her hands in front of her.

“Yes,” she tried, but she had to cough before she could speak clearly. “Yes, that’s me. Grace Harris.”

She took a step forward, alternating between looking at his face and at the floor between them. She was pretty much radiating embarrassment, and Rory was having too much fun letting it remain so. He watched her come to a stop just close enough in front of him to reach out a hand to shake.

“Rory McCann,” he said as he took her small hand within his. “You can call me Rory.” Her hand disappeared, but he shook it nonetheless as she nodded again, though he felt reluctant to let go once it was time to.

She took her hand back and stepped backwards, and then stepped back again until she was standing beside the kitchen.

“I apologize for… earlier, Mr. McCann. Rory,” she said, swallowing. She seemed to be having a hard time making eye contact and he was extremely curious about that. She went on, “You just startled me and I hadn’t expected anyone to be here, especially not a man… who was…” He watched her swallow again as her eyes finally lifted to his, and it was as though he could see herself thinking, Stop talking.

Rory’s face relaxed and he nodded, knowing how alarming it must have been. Obviously he wasn’t normally home at this time, but his phone was dead and he hadn’t known she would be here to see him getting out of the shower.

“I should have looked for your note,” he replied with a nod. “Would’ve told me you were gone.”

She smiled briefly, as though he’d tossed her a lifeline.

“Yes, I suppose that would be a signal that I have left for the day.” She was nervous, but he still couldn’t decide if it had anything to do with her recognizing him or if it was because he was her employer and she had just seen him in nothing but a towel.

“Well,” she said as her own eyebrows went up and she looked away. “Since you’re here I guess there’s no reason to leave a note.”

She turned towards the hatch and took a step but turned back suddenly.

“Oh, there’s food in the freezer. I, uh… I cook. Quite a bit, actually. And I have too much at my apartment so I thought you might like some of it. There’s three kinds of noodles in the fridge--fettucini for the Tuscan garlic chicken, zucchini noodles for the shrimp scampi and sweet potato noodles to serve the chili over. And instructions. For all three.” She made it sound like she had to think really hard to get all of her thoughts out of her mouth.

Another step back and she was at the base of the stairs.

“I saw that. Thank you, Ms. Harris,” he replied simply. She froze, looking at him as though he had just said something strange.

“Oh, um. Grace.” Reaching behind her, she groped for and finally found the edge of the wall. “It’s just Grace.” One foot raised to the stairs behind her. “So, uh… my note would have said all that. About the food, I mean. And… You don’t have any allergies, do you?” Rory shook his head. “Good. Good, good. So, everything’s, um… everything’s good. I’ll, uh… I’ll be back tomorrow. Bye--”

She said the farewell as she turned her back and fled out the hatch. Rory waited until she locked it, until he heard her leave the boat, and until he finally heard her hurried footsteps fade away on the dock before he burst out laughing.

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Grace was certain she had never made a bigger fool of herself than she did just then in front of Mr. McCann.

Rory . He had said to call him Rory.

She cringed as she remembered her ridiculous attempts at talking. Sure, there was some celebrity awe there, but there was also seeing her employer fresh out of the shower, seeing Rory McCann fresh out of the shower, coming to the fast realization that he was actually quite handsome without clothes on, and then having to deal with a sudden rise in feminine instincts that inexplicably whispered into her ear, Mate .

What the fuck, body? Get a hold of yourself!

Grace rushed down the dock, grateful for the salty breeze coming in from the ocean and the crisp, fresh air. Maybe it would cool her down and clear her head.

She knew what she needed. A jam session, as Thomas would call it. He probably didn’t even know what he was talking about, but after Grace had called it that once when she had played for him before bedtime, he continued to call it that to this day. But he would have been right--she needed a jam session.

She walked through the neighborhood, spotting a group of young men sitting outside a rather run down apartment and hastened her steps. It was barely past noon but there didn’t seem to be too many people out and about. And with the way they had watched her – a couple even whistling and calling out deeply-accented and horribly objectifying comments – she was tempted to cross the street but didn’t want to make her fear obvious.

She made it home in record time, but found her heart was racing by the time she made it through the outside doors of her building. She firmly pushed them shut behind her and then stepped to the side, out of view of anyone who might have seen her enter, so that she could catch her breath.

Well. That was just a bit scary , she thought.

In just a few minutes she was settled in the apartment, plucking at her guitar strings while softly singing a slow “Til The Rivers All Run Dry.”

Till the rivers all run dry

Till the sun falls from the sky

Till life on earth is through

I'll be needing you

She felt the stress of the day melting away, all thoughts of Rory McCann, unsavory characters, and bumbling social skills fading into the background as she grounded herself in her music.

The sun was coming in her window, lighting the music stand that held no music as she plucked at her strings from memory, the notes flowing from her fingers as she quietly sang the song like a lullaby to herself. It had always been a favorite of hers, and she drew on it now to calm her as she came off the most stressful day she’d had in a long time.

Tomorrow was going to be better. It had to be, because if she had to face Rory wrapped in a towel again she felt as though she might have a nervous breakdown.

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“How’s the new boat?”

Rory looked up from his phone and grunted. He knew Mitch just wanted him to stop looking at his phone, but he couldn’t really help it. He had texted Grace an hour ago letting her know he wouldn’t be back to the yacht until Saturday but she hadn’t responded. It made him wary of her, but also that something might have happened out of her control.

A thousand scenarios were going through his mind--did the boat burn down? Did someone break in? Did she not show up to work today? Did something happen to her? Was she stealing all of his belongings and fleeing the country?

He wasn’t really worried about the last one, but in times of stress his mind would throw the book at him, and this was no different.

No, he was fairly certain Grace Harris was too good to steal from a fly. She’d likely put a drop of juice on the counter to feed the fly, and then trap it so she could release it outside with a full belly.

It’s no different than what she was doing with him. He had tried the Tuscan chicken with the fresh noodles--that, he was fairly certain, she had made from scratch--and had felt full for hours on the rich parmesan sauce, the tender chicken, and the spinach and sun dried tomatoes. One spoonful and he had felt like he had died and gone to Heaven.

But that didn’t stop him from worrying over her now. A woman who could cook wasn’t necessarily impervious to the natural dangers of a boat on the water. Anything could have happened, and he was close to sending her a second text.

His phone had alerted him several times over the course of the previous night about movement, but when he checked his security cameras it just looked to be a minor storm. Still, he worried now that she wasn’t answering him.

“Rory…”

“Hm.”

When Mitch didn’t go on Rory glanced up, seeing the older man fairly glaring at him.

“You’ll be gone for another three days. Are you sure you can handle this? I mean, come on. It’s much newer than your old boat, nothing’s going to go wrong, and you’re worrying for nothing--oh. Oh .”

Mitch’s face split into an absurd, shit eating grin.

“Your boat isn’t the only thing that’s new,” he said, taking a sip of his rum and coke.

Now it was Rory’s turn to glare. Mitch made himself gleefully transparent.

“How do you know,” Rory asked him, “she’s not a short, round seventy year old woman?”

But Mitch just grinned, his yellow teeth looking darker in the subdued lighting.

“Don’t know, mate. Is that your type?”

Rory shook his head and ignored him. His phone still had not vibrated with a text message.

“Are we going to talk about your contract or what? Maybe we could actually discuss business so I can claim these drinks on my taxes.”

Reluctantly, Rory put the phone down beside his plate and finished his food--still not as good as what Grace had given him, he noticed.

He attempted from then on to give Mitch at least half his attention, and thought he was doing a decent job until a half hour later when he heard, “Rory… Rory, man, put down the damned phone.”

But the time had come for Rory to get off his ass and attempt contact with his cleaning lady. Putting his napkin on the table, he stood, mumbling, “Excuse me, Mitch,” before he walked back out towards the foyer to make a call.

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“Hello?”

Grace knew she sounded breathless but she didn’t have a choice. She recognized the number calling and realized she had forgotten to answer his earlier text.

“Grace?”

“Rory! Hey, how’s it going?”

She realized after she said it that she sounded too chipper, but she wasn’t really paying attention. The high winds that had ripped through the harbor last night had left trash and other people’s belongings strewn about the docks and on the decks of various boats, so she had been out helping with the clean up after disentangling a lawn chair from the ropes lining the yacht’s deck.

“Is something wrong?” His voice was calm, but she heard an edge to it. No doubt he thought she had stolen his boat or something.

“Nope, just cleaning up a bit after some high winds. Why? What’s up?” Then she realized, and almost clapped a hand to her forehead as she interrupted whatever it was he was going to say next. “Oh! Your text--I’m so sorry. I forgot to reply.”

“High winds? Is everything okay?”

He sounded cautious and she knew he just wanted a status update on his yacht, but she was busy looking around for bits of trash. They seemed to be everywhere--wrapped around the metal poles holding the rope railing, trapped in every nook and cranny, bits of plastic and paper that she was certain were from the parking lot up by the harbor’s main office building.

“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just--” she stopped to pick up another piece, bracing her feet wide as she stooped to unravel the piece of string from one of the ropes tied to the mast. “I just helped with the clean up effort because it was just crazy around here, and there was a lawn chair on your deck that I was pretty sure wasn’t yours, and your neighbors are very nice, by the way--the elderly couple, I don’t remember their names. Jensen? Johnson? Could have been Jam--”

“Are you okay?”

She stopped short, reaching out for the edge of the canopy frame that, had it had the canopy attached last night, might not be there in the light of day.

“Me?”

“Yes. Are you okay?”

Grace looked around, feeling silly as she did so. Was she looking to see if anyone had just heard Rory ask her if she was okay?

“Yeah, I’m fine. I… I’m fine.” She didn’t know what to say.

“Good,” he said after a moment. It took him long enough for her to take another breath before he said again, “Good.”

They were both silent, Grace not knowing what to say until she saw someone waving at her--Mrs. Johansen.

“Johansen, that’s their name,” she said quietly to herself, then realized she was still holding the phone to her ear. “Um, Mrs. Johansen is waving at me so I should go.”

“Yes.”

Grace scrunched up her face at his reply. It sounded odd.

“I’ll let you know if I see any damage but I think it was just a mess blown around the harbor.”

“Yes, do that. Thank you… Grace.”

Goodness, he sounded like he didn’t know what to say to her.

She hung up and then stared at her phone for a few seconds, thinking that might have been the strangest phone call she’d ever had.

Chapter Text

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" Cover by Us The Duo

"All I Want" Cover by Stevie McCrorie

 

Rory was back in Troon several days later, skipping everything after the airport in favor of driving out to the harbor.

Grace had sent him two images of scratches she’d found--which impressed him, since he knew she really had to look closely to find the areas where the scratches had happened--but none of it was any damage he was going to worry about. He had also gotten a message from Mrs. Johansen saying when he was ready to give up having a maid for a yacht he was rarely at, to please give Grace her contact information because, “She’s such a dear, dear girl.”

Rory was pretty sure Grace was at least thirty, and no girl .

Everything looked okay when he got there, just as the sun was going down past the horizon. The security cameras hadn’t picked up anything but Grace coming and going, sometimes with a hamper, sometimes with big bags of what he hoped was food. He’d eaten the shrimp scampi and zucchini noodles the morning after meeting her, before he had driven to the airport, and wasn’t sure if his brain was tricking him or if he actually found noodles made from a vegetable incredibly tasty when they were covered in garlic shrimp in a butter sauce.

He unlocked the hatch and opened it, finding that once again he was assailed by the scent of oranges and wondered what she did to smell like that. He imagined her rubbing orange peels behind her ears and almost laughed out loud at the image.

Then he actually did laugh out loud when he saw the large plastic bowl of oranges sitting on the counter beside his banana rack.

As he moved around the yacht he found she had altered other things, though none that he minded. His navigation table was tidied, the pens and pencils he used for correspondence and maps sitting in his pen cup rather than strewn about the table. The closet where he put his jacket was organized and smelled fresh, and he found some sort of deodorizer hidden in the back corner.

When he unpacked his suitcase he was surprised to find that his bedroom closet was organized as well, his shoes and boots lined up on the bottom as neatly as she organized everything else. He may have been a bit disturbed to find that she had been in his closet but then again, he never told her not to. And, surprisingly, he found he didn’t really mind.

His medicine cabinet where he stored his razor was also organized, and cleaned of any dust and razor shavings that had escaped the device. The mirror was clean, and the entire bathroom smelled of oranges, as did the smaller head out in the main cabin.

And sure enough, when he looked in the freezer there was no less than two days worth of lunch and dinners stored in neat little sandwich bags, each with instructions attached for the other items that went with them in the fridge. He also found a new half gallon of milk, another pound of bacon, and a massive slice of what appeared to be chocolate cake with chocolate frosting on a plate, but which turned out--since he ate it for dinner--to actually be a slice of Heaven.

The woman was bound to make him fat if she kept doing this.

Vowing to have a talk with her about the food, he washed the plate it was on and set it aside. It was one he didn’t recognize, a putrid green that looked like it belonged on the top shelf of a thrift store in the back, covered in dust. Interesting choice.

But rather than wait, the first thing he did when he sat down on the small couch was to draw up her name on his phone and type out a text to her.

Rory: I’m back

He thought he was going to put the phone down and get ready for bed early, but his phone vibrated right away.

Grace: Did you have a safe trip?

Rory: I did thank you

She didn’t reply then, and he remembered the food thing.

Rory: Thank you for the food

Grace: You’re welcome! Did you like the fude cake?

Grace: Fudge*

The correction made Rory smile for some reason.

Rory: Aye. Too much

Grace: My last client said I made the best chocolate fudge cake he’d ever eaten, and he was an expert on chocolate fudge cake.

It took Rory a minute to realize what she was saying, and when he did he laughed out loud into the empty yacht’s cabin.

Rory: Wasn’t your client a seven year old boy

Grace: Like I said. Expert.

Her wit made him laugh again, but he tried to remain on task. She texted before he could say anything else.

Grace: It was supposed to be dessert

Rory: But it made a good dinner

Grace: That is gluttony, Mr. McCann.

Rory: You are an enabler of gluttony, Ms. Harris

Grace: lol I suppose you’re reight

Grace: right*

There was nothing left to say, so he texted her goodnight, which she returned promptly, even though he sort of felt like continuing the conversation.

It wasn’t that life on a boat didn’t have its perks, but it certainly did have its downsides. Company was one of them, because when Rory had that rare moment of wanting companionship, he either had to go to a pub looking for it or he had to remain where he was wondering if he had made the right life choices.

Family life in the entertainment industry, as an actor even if not the most popular one, was a tough sell. Failed marriages abounded, children often had multiple homes and dual sets of parents, or no parents at all. The degree of happiness which could be found in relationships while working in this industry was eternally in question. It just wasn’t something he wanted to drag a family into, nor a commitment he wanted to attempt to make to a woman, expecting her to put up with the rigors and cutthroat nature of the business.

Usually the urge passed easily, but over the last week and a half he found he had the urge to give in a little bit more often, but usually shortly after speaking with Grace.

Before he went to bed, he chose to ignore any of the multiple reasons why he went through with a smile and messed up his medicine cabinet, and emptied his pen cup onto his desk.

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Several days later, after Grace had set to rights all the little things in the yacht Rory seemed prone to messing up after she had cleaned them, she left the yacht with her collar drawn up close to her neck. The weather was turning, and she was fairly certain winter was coming.

She was also fairly certain Rory was messing up his medicine cabinet and nav table on purpose, though why, she didn’t know.

Grace was walking home from the harbor when one of the young men whom she steadfastly avoided walked up to the fence of the yard he was in and leaned against it, arms crossed in front of him. She ignored him, but as she walked past on the other side of the street she could feel his eyes travelling over her, and she wished she hadn’t worn a skirt and tights that day.

It was modest--knee length and the tights were more like patterned leggings, made of a thicker material. But she felt exposed with him looking at her the way he did. She pulled together the neck of her jacket and pretended to ignore him until she rounded the last corner that would take her home, where she gave in to the pounding heart sitting high in her throat as she hurried her steps back to the apartment building.

The men were always there in the afternoon, so a couple days later she texted Rory that she would be adjusting her hours if it was all right with him. He did ask why, which she knew was well within his rights. Her schedule had never really been dictated, but she didn’t want to risk overlapping with his time in his home.

Grace: I would feel safer walking home later in the afternoon, that’s all.

Rory: I don’t mind

Rory: Might I ask what’s making you not feel safe?

She had wished he hadn’t, but she wasn’t about to lie to him.

Grace: Some men watch me on my way home, that’s all. I’d rather walk when they’re not outside.

Rory: And you think they won’t be there if you walk later in the day?

Grace: I’m hoping so.

She put her phone down, hoping her new hours wouldn’t interfere with the guitar playing. There seemed to be a very small window before dinnertime where she wasn’t risking the angry banging on her floor by the neighbor below her when she played her guitar.

Today she focused on another song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” singing it slowly so that it sounded more like a song to a lover than an upbeat 1960’s love ballad. It spoke to her mood, feeling a bit lonely as she sat in her dark apartment.

Ain't no mountain high enough

Ain't no valley low enough

Ain't no river wide enough

To keep me from getting to you babe

She imagined the words were being sung to the man whom she would eventually find. She hadn’t spent much time dating, although there had been a handful of boyfriends over the years. None of whom met her high expectations of what a spouse should be. And it seemed as though none of them felt that of her, since there had never been any talk of marriage with any of them.

She finished the song and started another, only to hear the banging sound from below her. Lips firmly pressed together, she just barely refrained from stomping her feet back in reply. Sometimes she wanted to meet that person and ask them what they had against a woman with a decent voice who liked to play the guitar low and soft, turning modern songs into soothing, lilting melodies.

Her phone chose that moment to vibrate with a text message, so she put her guitar back in her case and sat back in the chair.

Rory: How far do you live? You should take a cab

Grace: Cabs are expensive, and it’s a very pleasant walk. It’s only a mile.

Rory: A mile in the winter in Scotland isn’t pleasant

Rory: Nor is walking by wankers

Rory: Use the cab money I give you

He seemed pretty opinionated about it, giving her three reasons why she shouldn’t be walking. Grace narrowed her eyes but smiled, replying.

Grace: Are you saying I’ll still be employed this winter?

Rory: Are you reaching for compliments

Grace laughed out loud, then clapped a hand over her mouth, wary of being too loud with anything knowing the temperment of her neighbor.

Grace: lol No, not that. Confirmation would be nice, though.

Rory: Aye, then you have it

Rory: You’ll be employed this winter by me

Rory: Please use the cab money

Grace: I will in the winter, thank you for offering. That’s very kind.

Rory: And the wankers?

Grace: I carry pepper spray

Rory: Let’s hope it stops them

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Rory stared at his phone, surprised to find he was irritated. He had met the woman once face to face--twice if you counted how she ran from him and then returned a second time to apologize for running. So why would he be so concerned for her welfare?

But he knew why. She was petite and would be no match for a grown man who wished to assault her. Pepper spray or not, it all mattered whether she could get the spray out in time.

And she seemed willing to put herself in that kind of danger for what, the next three months? By the time she reached the harbor in winter she would be an icicle.

But he was mostly concerned for the time she would be spending walking past these men she was already concerned about. He needed to convince her that she should listen to her gut and do something about the situation. Perhaps if she stayed in Scotland she should invest in a car.

She didn’t seem willing to listen to his advice, and he wasn’t yet ready to stop their conversation, so he changed the subject.

Rory: So your schedule will change?

Grace: I think I’ll leave home at about noon and leave the yacht closer to three or four, depending on the work for the day

He ignored the frisson of awareness that jolted through his body at the prospect of running into her again. She was his cleaning lady, for chrissakes. 

Rory: I usually get home between four and five

Grace: Yes, well, shower at 6 then.

Rory couldn’t believe she’d just texted that. He would have bet she was blushing at that moment, but even as he thought it, warned himself away from that line of thinking. Flirting with her was not acceptable. She could be twenty years younger than him, judging by the short perusal of her he’d done the day they met. Plus she was his employee, and he was pretty certain there was something in her job description that barred her from fraternizing with him.

If not, then there should be.

Rory: Yes ma’am

She didn’t respond right away so he stood and made himself a mug of coffee, opening his silverware drawer. He found it perfectly organized not only by type but by size. Big spoons no longer mixed with little spoons, big forks in a different cubby than little forks. All his cooking utensils were tucked to the side, and anything oddly shaped was kept in the space in front of the silverware.

Grace: I’m heading to bed. I have a long day of straightening your medicine cabinet tomorrow...

He laughed as he read her text, taking out a small spoon to stir in a teaspoon of sugar.

Rory: You noticed

Grace: Aye, I did.

Rory: I’m looking at my silverware drawer...

Grace: lol goodnight Rory

Rory: Goodnight Grace

But before he went to bed he switched one group of forks with a group of spoons, just to throw her off.

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Two days later Grace was down on her hands and knees, vacuuming the crevices where wood floor met wood benches. It was an area she hadn’t yet cleaned, and since Rory had a nice, portable vacuum stowed in one of the lower cabinets, she had decided to put it to use and had vacuumed every small spot and crevice she could find.

Under the table was the last one, though, and she wanted to do a thorough job. It seemed like it hadn’t been done before, as she was having to work the tip of the crevice tool into the space before turning it over to vacuum up what she had knocked loose. It was just a bit of dirt packed into the space, mindless work that made it perfect for singing.

She sang while she worked, a Kodaline song she’d been hearing on the radio but of which she preferred the acoustic versions.

When you said your last goodbye

I died a little bit inside

She sat up, hunching her shoulders so she didn’t hit her high bun on the table. The right side beneath the table was done, so she scooted on her knees a little bit at a time until she could reach the back bench of the u-shaped setup.

I lay in tears in bed all night

Alone without you by my side

She worked at it until that portion was done, singing all the while, still loving the way the cabin sounded when it was filled with music, even if it was just her own voice with no musical accompaniment.

But If you loved me

Why’d you leave me

Take my body

Take my body

Moving onto the last side, she backed up and moved around the center pedestal post for easier access, sitting back on her heels as she moved the crevice tool along the edge.

All I want is

All I need is

To find somebody

I'll find somebody like you

She finished the song as she worked, vacuuming around the base of the pedestal to finish up and then sat back to survey her work. The final round of chorus she sang a bit higher, pulling out from beneath the table to close her eyes and lose herself in the music. She imagined the horizon in front of her, maybe a sunset on the ocean, the rocking of the boat more pronounced out on the open water. She thought of looking up to see seagulls, of feeling the breeze on her face and tasting the salt on the air.

Then when she ended the note, she had to do so around the lump in her throat she always got when she sang that song. It sounded so sad, so much longing and yearning--

“Grace,” came a deep man’s voice from inside the cabin, and she screamed.

But when she looked over, her heart hammering the inside of her rib cage, it was to see Rory sitting on one of the higher steps below the hatch, his long legs bent and his feet on the floor of the yacht. She hadn’t even heard him come in.

He held up a hand, as though warding her off in case she wanted to attack him. But he had a faint smile on his face that was probably the only reason why she didn’t collapse into a puddle of tears at being so frightened.

“Rory--what the hell--you scared the crap out of me!” she exclaimed, hand flat on her chest willing her heart to slow.

He merely smiled a bit wider, shrugging. It took a moment for her to remember that the entire time she sang the song, her butt had been sticking out from beneath the table.

“I couldn’t disturb that. You have a really nice--” Oh my god don’t say butt “--voice.”

She was glad he’d said that, although she didn’t want to think about what she would have done if he had.

“Thank you, but… damn. I mean, that was terrifying, Rory!” She stood, trying to smile but turning to sit on the bench so she could rest a moment before putting the vacuum away. She looked over at him, seeing a full blown smile on his face wrinkling his eyes at the corners and she laughed a bit. “Make yourself known next time, will you? Please?”

But then her face fell, and she suddenly became very self conscious. The only person she had ever sang for was Thomas, and occasionally Jillian or Scott. In the four years since her employment with them ended she had kept it to herself, as well as her guitar playing. It was now something she did in private, which was why she felt so comfortable doing it here in the yacht. It was enclosed, and the only neighbors for which she had to be concerned about their opinion of her singing were the waves lapping against the hull.

“Um, I’m sorry, actually. If you prefer me not to sing, I won’t. I--”

“What?” Rory looked at her like she had just told a bad joke, complete with scrunched up nose and wide smile. “Are you kidding me? Nay, Grace, sing--sing away. That was beautiful.”

Then he stood, no longer looking at her as he passed behind her to go to his bedroom. He was shaking his head and chuckling to himself as he pulled his door shut behind him.

“Well, are you sure?” she asked loudly to his door as she stood, coiling the cord around the bottom of the vacuum. “I don’t mind, really. I have neighbors at the apartment who don’t seem to like music, so I don’t get a lot of chances to play--or sing, actually. But I’ve worked around it and can do the same here.” She walked the other direction, tucking the vacuum back under the low cabinet from which she’s retrieved it. As she stood again she heard his door slide open.

“Not at all, not at all,” he assured her. “You have a gift, and it shouldn’t be wasted.”

She nodded, not making eye contact with him. He had changed out of his buttoned up shirt to a faded black polo, though the slacks were the same. But now he had taken off his shoes and wore only socks.

This was odd. She felt their few text conversations had exceeded the familiarity level that their even more limited in-person interactions had, and she wasn’t sure exactly how to act.

But there was that pesky feminine instincts again, and though it puzzled her to find they came out when Rory was indeed fully dressed as well as when he was nearly naked, it downright disturbed her that they came out at all. He was her employer, the man who paid her bills, who gave her cab fair to buy his groceries, whose laundry she washed on a regular basis. It wasn’t right that she was finding herself attracted to him.

But it was there, and as much as she wished to ignore it, she found herself unable to. So she turned her back on him, pretending to wipe down the counter although she had done it just before she’d gotten out the vacuum.

Anything was better than focusing on those warm brown eyes, the long forearms, the sheer size of the man--anything than catering to that voice inside her that whispered, Mate .

Shut up , she hissed silently.

“You play?”

Rory sat at the dinette, relaxed back against the cushion with an ankle crossed over his knee. Sitting like that, with his arm flung back over the edge of the bench beside him, he looked like his reach needed to be categorized as a wingspan.

“Guitar,” she said with a nod, only glancing over at him as she answered. “But my downstairs neighbor bangs on my floor most times while I play, so since moving here I haven’t gotten much practice. I’m considering trying the roof--”

“Practice here,” he interrupted.

Grace looked up, a surprised look on her face.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t. Lugging that thing around? It’s a hard case and heavy. No, the roof will do until I find somewhere else for during the winter.”

Rory shook his head, cupping a hand over his raised knee.

“No, I insist. I’m gone during the day, and there’s plenty of room in one of the spare bedrooms to just store it on the bed.” He rose, sending Grace backwards into the kitchen as he made his way towards her. She didn’t want to be anywhere near him, for reasons she wasn’t yet ready to process or admit.

But he simply passed her, crossing over the threshold to one of the two small rooms at the back of the boat, ducking to go through the door frame. He looked back at her, smiling gently and she wondered how anyone ever denied him anything.

“In here,” he offered, gesturing towards the bed. “And you can either come early and play or stay late and let me hear it.”

He raised his eyebrows at her, looking as though he could see right through her self consciousness to the true talent she knew she possessed. It was unnerving to feel as though she was as transparent as wax paper.

Grace didn’t know what to say. She smiled for a moment and then let her face fall. He was being completely serious?

“I don’t know… I mean, that’s awfully--”

“Nice?”

She did smile then, as he went on.

“Generous? Smart?”

“I was going to say presumptuous,” she chuckled, looking back at the counter as she swept the wet rag from side to side, washing nonexistent dirt.

And yet… it sounded better than she could have imagined. She was already enamored with the yacht and the ambiance inside, and was comfortable enough with it that she knew sitting on the couch with her guitar perched on her lap would not only be comfortable, but it would feel completely natural. She glanced over at the spot now, imagining her sitting there in the empty yacht, singing while she played and not even needing to be conscientious of the volume as she had to be while at the apartment.

Then she imagined Rory sitting at the dinette across from her listening to her, and her heart fluttered nervously.

Should she? Could she?

Would she?

Grace looked back at Rory, who had stepped outside the bedroom to wait for her reply. His arms were now crossed over his chest as he leaned back against the wall. There was no artifice or duplicity in his expression, but she wondered why he would be so amenable to her keeping her guitar on the yacht. It seemed an odd thing for him to offer, given the generous nature of the suggestion.

The lure of unimpeded practice time won out over any and all reservations her heart wanted to conjure, had it done any of that at all in that moment. Once again, the lack of argument from the general location of her gut instincts made her question her sanity on a new level. But she turned to him and answered anyway.

“That would be wonderful, Rory.”

Chapter Text

A month and a half after Rory contacted the personnel agency about hiring a housekeeper, he was wondering if it had been wise.

Grace Harris was becoming a constant presence, and he was beginning to rely on her citrus scent when he came home in the afternoons. But there was also something else that caused him to worry, something other than how he was beginning to think of her as part of the yacht--like an accessory that was beginning to feel as essential as his closet full of clothes.

He was itching to get back out on the water, and had been putting it off because it would mean she would be out of a job for two, maybe three weeks--however long he decided to stay out there.

Plus he was getting tired of spending his days at Mitch’s office and the pub. The urge to flee to the open sea had been clashing with his urge stay away from the yacht, despite how weeks ago he had been allotted the free time to do whatever he wanted.

What he wanted was to stay home, but what he didn’t want was to be crowded by his thoughts of Grace.

There had only been a couple times where she was still there when he got back from Mitch’s office. Soon after he’d invited her to keep her guitar at the yacht it appeared on the bed he’d specified, and that night after she left he opened the case to get a look.

It wasn’t in great shape, and in fact looked quite used. But Grace obviously took care of it, and he knew from personal experience that the sound was as rich and smooth as his much newer one in the storage compartment. He had even been thinking of getting it out to show her he was of a musical nature as well, since she never mentioned it and he suspected she might not even know he was, despite all the evidence on the internet.

Her case, though, seemed to be a reflection of her nature. The outside was covered in stickers. They represented the places she’d been, fun little sayings that perhaps she believed in, and slogans that rang true even for him.

Be Honest, Be Kind, Be True . Yes, Grace seemed to be all of those things.

Carpe Diem . Did she? Seize the day? She seemed the type to do exactly that.

You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. How many frogs had she kissed? And did he have any right to ask that question? Obviously she hadn’t found a prince, or she wouldn’t be spending her free time on his yacht playing her guitar and singing with her beautiful voice.

And boy, what a beautiful voice it was. That day he’d heard her singing and had accidentally scared a scream out of her was one he would remember forever. The haunting quality, the earnestness and emotion he heard in her voice as she vacuumed and sang, and then after she’d finished vacuuming and had ended the song in the otherwise silent yacht, had been mesmerizing. It was all he could do to not lean back against those short stairs and just close his eyes.

Although truthfully, part of his closing his eyes would have been to get them off of her ass. Damn , it had been a long time since he’d seen anything as nice as that. Even without the singing, coming into the yacht while she’d been vacuuming would have been a treat for his eyes.

Physical attraction aside, to think her neighbor wouldn’t want to hear her talent was as ridiculous as her assuming Rory might not want to hear it as well. He had always had an ear for music and played a variety of instruments, but even a child would recognize Grace’s musical prowess and intuition. She had chosen the right moments in that song to add her own inflection, to rise to higher notes and to soften the last syllables of words.

He wasn’t sure where the offer to let her practice on the yacht had come from, but if she was to continue to be his maid and housekeeper, he wasn’t sure that decision was wise, either. It was awkward enough having a single woman on the yacht every day except Sundays, and he had initially felt better about being away during that time. But now he was being drawn more and more into her presence, and her company. The offer of his yacht for practice was great for her, but not so great for him.

She was on his mind when he was gone from the yacht--during meetings with Mitch, while watching the television at the pub, listening to the bad live music they had on weeknights. Not only because she was beautiful with that dark mahogany hair always piled high on her head, and her light brown eyes, but because she was fun and fresh and made him laugh. Everything about her made him hesitate to take that leap and tell her he wanted to leave for a few weeks and--”Please be here when I get back.“

Paid leave? Would she accept that offer?

But then he’d be spending two or three weeks without her. Without her tidying up his intentional messes that were meant to tease her penchant for over-organizing. Without her beguiling orange fragrance that he was certain was reforming his DNA.

Nothing about the sea was orange scented.

To make things even more difficult, Mitch had started asking questions--who was this cleaning lady; did Rory trust her; should Mitch meet her; was she single. Some questions Rory just wasn’t going to answer. But he vowed to be less transparent with his thoughts around Mitch.

Today when Rory had returned to the yacht harbor he found he had just missed her, spotting her walking with her back to him towards an older neighborhood full of rundown buildings in danger of falling apart. It was also a neighborhood that didn’t have a reputation as being safe after dark or completely free of drug users.

And she was walking through it. Every day. Twice. She refused to use his cab fare for personal use until winter hit and it would be a bigger blessing to her.

Stubborn woman. He was going to have to talk to her about what she was doing. Learn her address so that in an emergency he’d be able to come get her, or send police.

Shaking his head, he parked the rented SUV and went down to the yacht. He smiled slightly at the scent of oranges and picked one up off the counter for a snack. Then he sat at the nav desk to go over his emails on the laptop while he attempted not to think of the beautiful cleaning woman with the voice of an angel.

But he hadn’t been sitting for more than a minute when his phone vibrated with an incoming call. He looked at it, seeing that it was Grace, and wondered if she had accidentally dialed his number.

“Hello?”

“Rory, please--call the cops. I don’t know the number and a guy just--he just came out of nowhere and--” she paused but he was already up the hatch and closing it behind him, “--He grabbed me and I had my pepper spray in my hand and I sprayed him and now I’m choking on it but I’m in my building--” she hiccuped. When he realized it was a sob his stride turned into a run down the dock. “Rory, I don’t know what to do--”

“Is he still there?”

She cleared her throat, as though she was trying to stop herself from crying, and barely managed to answer, “No, he’s gone.”

“Stay inside. Is the door locked? Where do you live?”

She gave him her address but he was already pulling out of the parking lot.

“I’m on my way, Grace. Did he hurt you? Are you okay?”

Rory hadn’t realized until he was sitting in the vehicle that his heart was racing, and he had never felt so angry in his entire life. If the man had still been hanging around, there was a good chance he’d be filing assault charges on Rory.

“I’m okay--” another sob, and she coughed to try to cover it but he’d heard it, and it tore at his heart.

“I’m coming, Grace. Just hang on, I’m almost there.”

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Grace’s eyes were burning, and her nose was a little bit on fire, but her throat felt raw from inhaling the vapors. The man really had come out of nowhere--from behind the hedge that fenced in the apartment building’s yard. Grace barely had enough time to drag the pepper spray out of her pocket before he was grabbing for her purse. He’d gotten one good clamp in on her strap before she’d aimed the pepper spray at his face and doused him with it at point blank range.

As soon as he’d run off and she had made it inside the building, she had taken her phone out to call the police but didn’t know how to do that in Scotland. So she’d gone to text Rory and realized her eyes were watering--partially from the pepper spray and partially because she was so frightened by the ordeal--so she couldn’t see her screen to text. So she’d gone with the third option which was to swipe his name, which immediately called him.

With her back to the wall beside the door in what had unofficially become her hiding spot from the wandering eyes of neighborhood men, Grace willed her heart to calm down but it refused, and her hands began to shake as Rory announced he was pulling up. He got off the phone to call the cops and she sagged in relief, closing her eyes and covering them with one hand.

She refused to cry. Tried not to cry. Had tried the whole time she was on the phone with him.

A banging at the door startled her so badly she almost stumbled and fell, but when she saw Rory’s massive body on the other side of the glass she rushed at it, pushing on the handle so it unlocked from the inside.

It was flung open and all she heard was, “Grace--”

“I’m sorry, I just--I didn’t see him, and-- *hiccup* --he grabbed my purse--”

“Hey,” came his rich, soothing voice, and through blurred vision she saw his hands up between them, hovering, wary. He was treating her like a wounded deer, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted him to stay back or wrap her in his arms. It only took a moment for her to make her decision.

She rushed at him.

It was thoughtless of her, but it was exactly what she needed in that moment--arms wrapping around her, his deep voice above her speaking quietly on the phone to what she assumed was the authorities, his fingers cupping over the back of her neck as he held her to his chest.

But the sobs came, and she was powerless to stop them. Against his warm chest she cried, feeling the adrenaline finally seeping out of her system and leaving nothing but panic and fear and the realization that the only thing that saved her from robbery or assault or whatever the man had planned, was the little bottle of pepper spray she kept in her pocket on her way home.

Rory relayed what she’d told him on the phone while rubbing at the back of her neck with strong fingers. Grace clutched at his shirt and held on tightly, feeling that the only thing keeping her from collapsing was his presence and the strong wall of stillness he was presenting.

She heard him hang up the phone and he slid it into his back pocket, then wrapped that arm around her and let her cry until she began to calm. But soon the tears quieted, and she realized she was holding onto her employer as though he was her only lifeline.

Self consciousness also took over, and when Grace stepped back finally and his arms let go of her, she wiped at her eyes, swearing they burned due to the pepper spray when it was actually just her tears. She pulled the sleeve of her jacket across her face and--

Saw that he wasn’t wearing any shoes.

“Rory! You’re in socks!”

But he just shook his head, glancing backwards out the door, probably checking to see if the police had arrived.

“Don’t worry about that,” he murmured, his voice distant as though lost in thought. He turned to her and motioned towards her face, as she furiously tried to blink away tears. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

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Rory wet the royal blue washcloth with cool water and handed it to Grace where she sat on the closed toilet seat. Then he dried his hands on the butter yellow towel. The investigating officer was in the living room waiting for Grace to be in a position to speak to her.

After his heart had calmed and he was certain she was indeed okay, Rory had managed to not completely take over the situation while the police investigated outside. But he finally said something when they wanted Grace to walk around with them and show them where the man was hiding--the woman could barely keep her eyes open, and she needed to rinse them out.

So before they headed back outside they were going to do the interview in the apartment while her eyes and nose calmed, and while she had a cold cup of water. It wasn’t that much better, but Rory knew they were just wanting to do their job.

He was happy she was okay, he really was. But he was also irritated, knowing that this might not have happened had she done what she’d told him she did the one time she had arrived home after dark--asking the cab driver to wait to leave until she was inside the building. Had she done that, had she taken the cab Rory willingly offered, this might have been avoided.

But he wasn’t really angry at her-- couldn’t be angry with her, not after the looks she’d sent him when he walked in. She looked so helpless and lost, so upset with everything, that he’d taken control and gladly offered the comfort she sought in his arms.

And all the while he’d thought about that scent wafting up to his nose, the sweet citrus that constantly clung to her.

“Good news,” said the female police officer as she walked up to the door of the bathroom. “They caught the guy down the road a ways, at a community fountain trying to wash the pepper spray from his face. And with the security cameras on the building across the street, it looks like we might have a good case against him.”

She was so business like, so matter-of-fact, that Rory appreciated her bluntness. Taking care of the situation was what Grace needed in order to be safe.

Even as Rory thought to himself, she’ll never be safe here.

But what was he supposed to do about it? He couldn’t force her to take a cab. He couldn’t just buy her a car, and suspected she wouldn’t drive on her own anyway even if he bought one for himself and loaned it to her. However, he could help her find another apartment. One in a better part of town, still close to the harbor, that wasn’t surrounded by dilapidated buildings and corner drug deals.

Grace was visibly relieved that the man had been found, and she nodded at the officer and thanked her before putting the washcloth back over her eyes. But before she did she had shot Rory an indecipherable look, one that he couldn’t decide the emotions behind.

Was she relieved he had been there? She had to be, judging by the way she had clung to him once he’d arrived. Was she happy he had taken control? Also judging by the lack of talking she had done, he’d say she was pretty appreciative of it, in fact.

Was she expecting a talk from him once the police cleared out and they were left alone once again? He was fairly certain of it.

And he was. She couldn’t stay here. Not when her safety was at stake. The man who attacked her had just illustrated every point about self preservation Rory had ever made to her.

Her eyes were red when she pulled the washcloth away, but she nodded when he asked if she was ready to speak to the officer.

The interview went well, as most of it was done in the living room. Grace just needed to describe the attack, and the attacker, as Rory stood by the window, staring out of it and listening to every word. He did so because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to hide his emotions if he sat beside her on the couch.

But when it came time for Grace to take off her jacket to show the officer where the man grabbed her, he wasn’t able to stay away. His long legs carried him around the back of the couch to the side where he could see a big, red handprint developing on her upper arm. The sight of such violence that had been aimed at Grace made him see red, and not for the first time he imagined his hands around the throat of this unknown attacker.

Grace looked up at him and her eyes widened as the officer crouched down, taking out a camera to photograph the injury. Grace’s gaze connected with him as the camera flash lit up her face intermittently.

Upon seeing what was likely a furious face, she whispered softly, “I’m okay, Rory. Really.”

But her gentle nod did little to calm his nerves and he flattened his lips and walked away, not wanting to hash out details of his plans for her safety in front of the officer.

While the two women concluded their talks he made use of his time looking around the dark apartment, noting the depressingly dark walls, the ancient fixtures, and the secondhand furniture. Beneath her things he could see an apartment in sore need of renovation. But it was Grace’s personal touch that made it somewhat liveable.

A throw over the back of the couch was what he recognized as a scrap afghan, made with every color of yarn imaginable. There was a single pillow on the end opposite her, the fabric pattern a rainbow of colored diamonds all mixed in together. A music stand stood beside the window where he’d just been standing, a book of chord music open to “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” a song even he knew how to play. He’d have to ask her to play it for him sometime, and to sing it as well if she knew the lyrics.

Through the tacky glass-front cabinets he could see what finally drew his eye--small stacks of dinnerware that included several of that ugly puke green she had served him the chocolate cake on. Others were burnt orange, several shades of blue, a couple bowls in cherry red with a pink one thrown into the mix, and a handful of other colors. He could see they also varied in size and shape, so he surmised her collection was one she built herself rather than an intentional multi-colored set. He wasn’t sure what that said about her, but he knew it just fit her somehow.

When Grace and the officer rose to head outside, Rory walked back over to her and offered her the jacket she’d laid out over the arm of the couch beside her. As he lifted it over her shoulders he let his hands graze the roundness through her jacket and felt her tense.

But she didn’t turn, and he ignored the skipped heartbeats as she walked forward and followed the officer out without turning to look at him.

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Grace had agreed to have dinner at the yacht, but she told herself it was because she didn’t want to be alone at the apartment building just yet. She told herself she was doing it because Rory had said she could cook in the yacht, and she was excited to finally try out the kitchen she’d been drooling over since she started the job. She also told herself it was because she didn’t want to think about what happened next, what she was going to do now that all feelings of safety had been ripped away by the man who attacked her.

And it was all true, in part. It was a small sliver of the reason why she watched Rory’s sock covered feet as he closed the door on her side of the SUV; of the reason why she watched him every so often as he drove the mile back to the harbor, his hands clenched on the steering wheel and his jaw set firmly closed.

Something was happening between them but Grace couldn’t put a finger on it. Her heart raced as they walked side by side down the dock but not because she thought about the attack. And her palms were sweaty as he opened the hatch and let her precede him into the brightly lit cabin of the yacht. When he took her coat from her and brushed the back of his fingers over the bruised skin below the cuff of her t-shirt, goosebumps appeared on her skin and she turned from him, hoping that he wouldn’t notice.

There was an invisible force drawing her to him, and somehow the events of the day had not only shortened that tether but strengthened it as well, and she knew she was in danger of falling for him.

But this was just one evening, she told herself. One evening of companionship, on an evening when no one would fault her for being here in his yacht with him--not after what she’d been through. One evening of cooking for him, enjoying his company, and then being driven back to her apartment so she could puzzle out what to do next.

It was a chicken alfredo kind of night, and as Rory sat and answered emails on his laptop with reading glasses perched on his nose, Grace set about spreading out her ingredients and familiarizing herself with the ins and outs of the compact but luxurious kitchen, all the while sending glances in his direction.

She hadn’t been in his presence enough to really look at him, so she did now between preparation steps, even though she already knew he was handsome.

His dark hair was receding but clipped short and combed back, and his beard looked as though at some point he had shaved it completely but had now just let it grow however it wanted to. His nose was fairly straight, above a thick mustache and soft lips. Grace had to remind herself to get back on task because she found she would stand there all day and just look at the man if she was able to.

Pretty soon she was into her groove, and she began humming a song from start to finish, over and over again. She hummed as she made the sauce, as she cooked and cut the chicken, and then as she added it all into the pot at the same time. Then on the side she made a fresh greens salad with a light lemon dressing, with some steamed carrots for more color.

By the time she was done she had been so engrossed in her project that when she turned with two full plates in her hands, smiling at how pretty her work looked, she was caught up short to find Rory turned sideways on the small bench, casually reclined against the back.

He was watching her with an odd look in his eyes.

Chapter Text

“Oh,” Grace said, a nervous smile on her face as she turned to find Rory staring at her. “Hello.”

Then she dropped her eyes to the plates she held, suddenly self-conscious because earlier it had been her staring at him. She rounded the corner past him, putting the plates on two cornering sides of the table.

“Sit,” she said softly, before returning to gather their glasses of water and napkins.

But instead of sitting he stood off to the side, waiting until she was seated at the table against the side of the yacht before he took the seat on the bench beside hers, his back up against the kitchen counter.

“Thank you for dinner, Grace.”

They took their first bites before she answered, waving her hand non committedly at the fare, “It’s nothing, really. And I’m the one who should be thanking you . For coming to my rescue today--in socks, no less.”

Trying to alleviate some of the tension, she smiled at him, happy to see him enjoying the dinner.

But she watched his smile fall, and she realized perhaps it wasn’t the best time to discuss what had happened that day. Her arm was still sore, and she could still see the man’s face, so hateful and violent.

Rory was quiet when he said seriously, “I’ll put the number for the authorities in your phone.” He took another bite of food, chewing and swallowing before poking at the food on his plate. “But I hope you’ll never find yourself in that position again, Grace.”

Ah , she thought. So his thoughts are there, too.

“I have four and a half months left on my lease, and the fee to get out of it is astronomical.” Trying to keep the conversation positive and upbeat, she added, “But I have already been scoping out new places.” She took a drink of water before speaking again, trying to act casual as she attempted to skirt around the attack. “I don't want to stay there any longer than I need to.”

She watched as beside her, Rory dropped the hand that held his fork to the edge of the table.

“You can’t stay there.”

Grace chuckled, shaking her head.

“Well, I’m an adult so I’m pretty sure it’s my decision.”

But something was scratching at her brain that she couldn’t pinpoint, a gut feeling of some sort that she couldn’t nail down. Something was happening with Rory and she needed to be alert to where the conversation was going.

“That’s not what I’m doing, what I mean…” He looked up at her, eyes narrowed with worry. “What I mean to say is, you’re not safe there and continuing to live there only puts you in further danger.”

He sounded sincere, but it was curious as to why he would be so concerned. Not wanting to dwell on it, Grace listed the reasons why she was trapped where she was for the time being.

“For one thing, I don’t have money to burn. And I can’t just pay the fee and afford first, last and deposit on something else. Nor do I have enough money to pay on two places at once.”

She took another drink of water as she watched him swallow his bite of food. He even made swallowing look good.

Realizing her brain was going to run off with that image, she looked down at her plate and ate some more.

“Yes, but there must be something you can do. Grace, next time you may not get the pepper spray out in time. He only bruised you. Imagine what someone could do if--”

She interrupted him now, her irritation rising at what he was saying.

“Don’t you think I’ve thought of that already?” she snapped, and then paused, resting her fork on the edge of her plate. Trying to speak more calmly, she continued, “I know you’re concerned, but you need to let me handle this.”

She scooped up more food, assuming it was the end of the conversation-- wishing it was the end. But he spoke again, and she was more baffled than ever.

“I did, and you were assaulted.” He sounded angry.

“I just wasn’t paying enough attention,” she mumbled, her appetite souring.

“And you will now?”

He said that as though it was the last thing he believed.

Grace chewed the last mouthful of food from her plate and set her fork down in the middle of it.

“Yes,” she said, almost through clenched teeth since she was so done with this conversation. He wasn't making dinner a pleasant experience. “And I’ll keep my pepper spray in my pocket for if it happens again.”

“But it shouldn’t happen again,” he replied, more calmly than before. “That’s what I’m trying to get you to understand.”

“I understand just fine. But you’re also not telling me anything I don’t already know.”

He stood then and took both their plates to the sink, saying from the kitchen, “Then why aren’t you heeding your own advice?”

Why was he picking at this? It felt like beating a dead horse. She was backed into a corner by circumstances and didn’t want to blow such a huge portion of her meager savings, nor the spare money Jillian and Scott had given her, to rent two apartments for four months. It was a ridiculous notion, and she refused to do it.

“Why does this matter so much to you? Why should this be any of your business?” Grace stood next to the dinette, facing Rory who stood beside the kitchen. “I don’t understand any of this, Rory. What to do,” she said, ticking off on her fingers, “Where to go, why you’re so upset--none of this makes sense!”

He stepped closer, and she smelled the scent of him she had smelled earlier when she’d had her face pressed up against his chest as she cried. Man--soap and detergent, but also his skin beneath it all, the musk of him. Her heart rate quickened and she bit the corner of her lip so she didn’t inadvertently part them.

“I was angry today, Grace. That’s why. Why I showed up in my socks, why I handled the police, why I--” He paused, looking away before bringing his gaze back to her arm. “Why I can’t bear to look at those bruises.” She watched his adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “They make me sick to my stomach. What he did to you…”

His expression held so much worry for her, so much concern, and confusion that she was certain matched her own.

She held her hands up at hip level, palms out, and when she spoke it was hushed, as though the question she was about to ask was almost one she thought perhaps she didn’t want answered.

“But why?”

He looked at her, at her eyes, at her arm, at her mouth--her lips parted as she tracked his gaze--and back up to her eyes.

She barely had enough time to gasp before his hands slid over her hair and his mouth descended on hers.

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hat should have felt forbidden, what should have felt wrong and imprudent and unnecessary, actually felt damned good.

Her hair was in that high bun and off her face but all that did was accentuate her neck as she looked up at him, highlighted her high cheekbones and isolate those large, honey brown eyes that looked up at him with such confusion that it stole his breath.

And before he knew it he was kissing her, his hands cradling her head as he bent to press his mouth into hers, and if there was a moment in his life when he thought perhaps he was going to go to hell, that was it. But oh , the trip, the fall, the tumbling down into aroused purgatory--it was magnificent.

It was as though oranges surrounded him, and as he closed his eyes and softened his mouth he heard a small sigh before small hands twined up between them and wrapped around his neck.

She was kissing him back, and Rory thought that perhaps he was in heaven instead of hell, because there had never been anything sweeter than that moment he’d felt her give into the attraction that had simmered between them all evening.

He knew she’d watched him. He knew she had paused while cooking to eye him at the nav table, watching him for reasons unknown to him but ones he thought he could likely guess. And this kiss was perhaps a bit of a test to see if he’d been right.

But more than that it was a complete loss of control on his part, which even as he wrapped his arms around her middle and stood to his full height, bringing her with him, he knew he shouldn’t be doing-- they shouldn’t be doing.

A faint moan escaped her lips and he angled his head to request invitation, tasting her lips with his kisses until she granted him access and he swept inside. She tasted of the salty, savory meal they’d just shared, but mixed with the orange fragrance and she was the best dessert he’d ever had.

Arousal coursed through his body unlike anything he’d ever felt before, and he turned with her in his arms, tucking her bottom over the raised edge of the kitchen counter so he didn’t have to hold her so tightly. In response her legs came around his hips, a hand sliding into his hair as he stepped into her embrace, damning the yacht’s sensible counter design. The raised edge was designs for items to remain on the counter while the yacht rolled on open water, but now it hampered his desire to press himself into the apex of her thighs, to where he knew he’d feel heat and arousal and need.

“Grace,” he said against her lips, but it didn’t seem like she was listening.

She was pulling him down closer, moving her mouth heatedly over his lips and grasping at his hair as though if she were to let go she would fall into some sort of gaping abyss. Rory knew, because he felt the exact same way.

“Grace--”

He broke the kiss, but instead of pulling back to talk, found that his mouth was drawn to the pale skin of her cheek, the line of her jaw, the fuzz at her hairline beneath her ear.

And every mewl of satisfaction she released, every panted breath in his ear, made his cock harden uncomfortably in his jeans.

“Rory-- yes ,” she gasped when he sucked on her neck, knowing he was going to leave a mark but not giving a damn. His hands came around to glide up her sides, his thumbs sweeping over the sides of her breasts beneath her t-shirt.

“Yes?” he breathed, nudging her head back with his nose at her chin while he kissed a path across her neck.

Grace leaned back, one hand gripping the back of his collar and the other clasping his head to her skin, as she lowered, lowered, until the only thing keeping her back from coming into contact with the covered kitchen sink was his arms.

Her heels hooked on the backs of his thighs and pulled him close, but there was nowhere for him to go. He was feasting on the skin he could reach--neck, chin, jaw, returning to her mouth for another bruising assault, her response, wild with desire, that quite obviously matched his own.

He slid a hand up to cup her breast through her shirt and she cried out, arching into his hand in blatant invitation, and she helped him drag her shirt up, as he bent to kiss her stomach and along the ridge of her rib cage. Before long he realized the shaking beneath him was her laughing, and he lifted, darting his tongue out to taste her on his lips as he looked down at a smiling Grace.

“That tickles! How long are you going to make me wait --”

He smiled at her before her head fell back when he dragged her bra up and over her breasts, exposing them to his waiting mouth. Quickly he bent to take a dusky nipple into his mouth and suckled deeply. A glance up showed her elongated throat, her mouth open in a soundless gasp as she wound her fingers into the short hair on the back of his head and somehow found purchase there.

It wasn’t good enough, and he nudged her up with one hand, unhooking her bra and then taking it and her shirt off in one swoop. She lifted her arms to help him and then brought them back around his neck as she sat up, crushing her breasts to his chest but he wanted to see them, to see her in all her glory.

“Christ, Grace--what are you doin’ to me, lass--”

She leaned back when he trailed his mouth down her neck, dipped his tongue briefly into the hollow before going further, further, to take her other breast between his lips. They were small but round, fitting in his palms so nicely, so perfectly. He worked one with his tongue, swirling it around the small bud of her nipple as he squeezed her other breast in his hand. Soft flesh molded to his palm and he switched sides yet again, moving his hips but feeling nothing but the counter’s edge against his erection.

“I need--uh--oh god that feels so good, Rory--” she mumbled, pulling at his shirt and his short hair until his body finally followed his brain’s command and returned to her mouth.

But she was still pulling his shirt up, and when he leaned back he found he had merely to lift his arms and she yanked it off, her eyes widening at the sight of his bare chest. She gasped, and then drew her lip between her teeth, and the sight of her bare from the waist up, splaying her fingers over his chest hair and coursing her palms over his nipples and down his stomach was almost enough to make him feel like a teenager again.

“God, Rory, I just--” Her eyes lifted to his, and he realized she was just as incoherently thinking as he was, and what he saw there matched perfectly the desire causing his own mind to short circuit. “Now?” she pleaded, and she leaned forward to wrap her arms once again around his neck.

He lifted her and tried to walk, taking only a step before he realized the boat rocked enough that he couldn’t concentrate on her naked skin, keeping his legs steady, and kissing her sweet mouth all at the same time. Reluctantly he dragged his mouth away to look over her shoulder, feeling like her bare breasts against his naked chest was one of the most delicious sensations he’d ever felt.

And she was kissing him-- Christ , her mouth was all over--reaching up to kiss his bearded chin, his throat, nipping slightly with her teeth over the pulse point at its base, and over the top of his shoulder, where he had never before knew he had an erogenous zone. But apparently it was so, as his cock jumped every time he felt her teeth slide over his bare skin.

“God, I hope you have condoms,” she hissed, and he was relieved to be able to nod in answer to that question.

He made it through the small doorway to his bedroom with only scraping his back against the jam once, before putting a knee up on the bed and laying down over top of her, her entire body still clinging to him. She was so small and yet so responsive, so god damned arousing, that he thought he might choke on it.

When he pulled away, fighting her arms so that he could come back to stand at the foot of the bed, she rested flat on the bed with her head and shoulders on the pillows, looking up at him like she wanted to devour him.

He returned the look, reaching down to unbutton his jeans.

“Tell me to stop,” he said, but it came out almost as a half dare, half plea; even as his jeans came off, and then his boxers. His erection sprang free, and he watched Grace’s eyes widen before they returned to his.

She shook her head as her hands when to the button of her own jeans.

But Rory was there first, unzipping the zipper and pulling them off her by the ankles, followed by the not-supposed-to-be-sexy heather gray bikinis that he would have preferred dragging off her with his teeth.

He pulled them down her legs as she reached up to undo her hair, first taking the bun out and pulling at a ponytail that just kept going. It shocked him so much that he froze, watching her where she lay as she took out the elastic and ran her fingers over her scalp, releasing what was actually a mass of incredibly long, impossibly beautiful sable hair. When she dropped it on the bed beside her and rested back against the pillows, Rory had to remind himself of what they had just been about to do.

“Fuck me,” he whispered in awe, looking from her hair to her face and back again. He had never seen anything like it before.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she replied with a cheeky smile, rising to her knees and crawling on all fours until she could climb up his body. But when before she was a wanton nymph intent on total seduction, now she kissed him softly, drawing his face down to hers to sweep her tongue through his mouth as he groaned. He was so fucking hard, he thought he might not be able to stand it.

He ran his hands over her temples and back to her hair, down the back of her shoulders, feeling the way her hair slipped against his skin with it’s straight, sleek length. Down, down, past her waist, all the way to the curve of her ass where his fingers finally encountered skin just before making contact with her thigh.

It was magnificent, like a cape meant to arouse him, to drive him mad, with lust just as much as her naked body did.

He just wanted to worship her body, and despite his painful arousal, he knew he’d be content with exploring her body that night--using his mouth on every inch of it, learning it, memorizing it, because surely she was going to disappear into thin air before the morning came and he would find out this had all been an insanely sexy dream.

But she was lowering herself back to the bed, tugging on the back of his neck to get him to follow her up onto it, and when he settled onto the bed beside her she hooked a leg over his hip and drew him down for a sultry, erotic kiss.

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Grace was fairly certain they would learn that night if spontaneous human combustion actually existed, because her body burned with a fever from Rory’s touch.

She had never known anything like it--the urge to have his mouth on her breasts, his hands on her hips, his body in all its hairy glory pressed against hers. Again, she had never known anything like it, but did she ever want to.

But then he’d kissed a path down to her breasts, spent a minute or two there, and then descended further, when she wasn’t sure if she wanted him to continue or if she somehow wanted to wrap her body around his and permanently attach herself so she would never have to part from the man who made her feel so vibrant and alive.

He made an unexpected pit stop at her sides, just above her hip, and dragged his bearded chin of the curve of her hip bone, which had her arching off the bed with how sensitive and ticklish she was there. She yelped in surprise, causing his low, throaty chuckle to do funny things to her stomach, even as he swept over the spot with his tongue. He soothed away the sensation and replaced it with something deeper, something darker and purely sensual, a carnal awareness of that particular spot on her body she knew she would remember for the rest of her natural life.

Then she felt his breath as he settled between her legs, felt him breathing on her so she looked down to find him looking at her hair, skimming his fingers over the thatch of curls almost reverently.

His eyes darted up to hers and she swallowed, painfully self conscious and waiting for any sign that he didn’t like what he saw--or, god help her, smelled.

But all he did was smile slightly, just a quick rising of the corner of his mouth as though what he’d found surprised him.

Then in a voice so quiet she almost didn’t hear him, he whispered, “Gorgeous, Grace.”

She would have blushed had he not lowered his head at that moment to that part of her body.

He was only down there for a couple minutes, but it was enough time for her to become a writhing mess above him on the bed. The man was masterful with his tongue and had her teetering on the edge of release three, then four, and finally five times before he concentrated his efforts on her swollen, sensitive flesh. Grace saw stars as he gentled his movements and let her ride out the storm with one of his hands splayed on her chest. She held onto it, as though it was the only thing preventing her body from shattering into millions of pieces.

With her eyes closed, she heard a drawer opening, the tearing of a wrapper, and then he was stroking her cheek to get her to open her eyes as he settled himself between her legs.

Grace didn’t want to wait, didn’t want to see the intense emotion on Rory’s face as he hovered above her.

She didn’t want to think of feelings and consequences and tomorrow; but rather she wanted to feel and touch and experience him.

So with a nudge with her heels she pulled him close, feeling the weight of him over her and his erection pressed into flesh that was still trembling from her orgasm.

Rory took his time, pushing in slightly and then withdrawing, but Grace felt her heart swelling within her chest, realizing only too late that she should have listened to the middle school advice swirling in her mind about how a woman gives part of her heart to a man when he enters into her body. It felt that way, it looked that way, as his presence and his smell and his kisses wrapped her in a haze of color.

Further and further he stroked, Grace’s hands grasping at his shoulders and his arms, coming up to wrap around his neck when he bent to kiss her. She could feel the muscles beneath his skin--tense and tight, the effort he was using to restrain himself visible in his trembling arms.

When he thrust all the way in and paused, looking at her through darkened eyes, he lowered himself to his elbows and dropped his mouth to her face, pecking chaste kisses on her forehead, nose, a cheek, before sliding his lips back to her mouth. Grace took his tongue between her lips and let it meet hers, feeling a fullness unlike anything she’d ever felt before. And when he raised enough to look at her the expression on his face seemed like that of an explorer who had just made the most mind blowing discovery of the millenium.

He began to move and Grace gasped, her eyes closing as he retreated and then came back, over and over again. His actions were slow and controlled, but she needed more--more passion, more movement, more of him . Sliding her hands as low as they could go, she grasped his hips and urged him on.

Rory picked up the pace, lowering his face beside her ear as she cradled him to her. She slid her hands over his back, attempting to caress and stroke but having to deal with overwhelming sensations that were wreaking havoc on her nerves and her ability to control her body. As he moved swiftly within her, his hips colliding with hers and that delicious rub of his body threatening to send her over the edge once more, he tucked a hand beneath her bottom and tilted her pelvis, causing a change in angle that spearheaded a thousand explosions deep in her womb that had her crying out her release in the small bedroom.

His release soon followed, preceded by the swelling of him inside her that milked her release for all it was worth, and then a strangled moan erupted from his throat as he thrust once, twice into her, his body jerking as he came apart inside her.

Then his body relaxed over hers, and she wrapped an arm around his shoulder and stroked his hair, feeling replete and utterly, wholly sated from his lovemaking, even as doubts crept into her mind.

Chapter Text

“This shouldn’t have happened.”

Grace’s softly spoken words sounded muted in the small, orange-scented bedroom, the enclosed space almost suffocating as Rory laid on his back next to her.

The truth of it was, he agreed with her, so he was glad she sounded so calm about it.

“Aye, Grace.”

He turned his head, seeing her beneath the blanket he had dragged over them when they’d finished. She had it tucked up under her armpits, her fingers laced on top of her breasts as though she was as relaxed as could be.

But he knew differently--mostly because he was still pulled tight as a bowstring, his hands itching to reach for her again.

However, in the aftermath of that explosive lovemaking and the way he had felt she belonged there, beneath him in the cradle of his arms, he knew he was her employer, and she his employee. It either didn’t happen again, or he fired her and prayed she would accept him into her life as a boyfriend instead of an illicit affair. And by the sound of it, she preferred the former.

“Don’t you agree?”

She was looking at him now, her dark hair spread out over the pillow--that glorious mass he wanted to see fall down her back and over his chest as she rode him to a third climax. But no, it wasn’t to be.

“I do agree,” he said, though it wasn’t the entire truth. His heart was screaming at him to tell her option number two was the one he preferred, but fear stopped him.

She could turn him down, and after making that proposition known and having it rejected, Rory could see her leaving anyway.

No, he needed to keep her here. He needed her to remain this ray of citrus sunshine in his life for as long as he could stand to have her here and to not have her here, in a sexual sense of the word.

“It’s unethical,” she whispered, looking so deeply into his eyes that he almost thought she might be looking for something--something that might refute his earlier agreement. Her mouth was reddened from his kisses, her hair a tousled mess, and there at the junction of neck and shoulder he knew there would be a large purple blemish, since when he had latched onto her skin he’d sucked hard enough to mark her as his.

His . That almost sounded like a joke now. She was anything but his.

“I’m your employer,” he murmured, agreeing with her. She nodded, but her eyes dipped to his mouth as he said it and then came back up to his eyes.

“And I like working on your yacht.”

“And I like your music, Grace.”

She nodded again.

“I like making it here, on the boat. It sounds nice.”

It was Rory’s turn to nod, but he smiled as well.

“Yes, but it’s you who makes it sound nice. And I’d like to keep on hearing it, if you’ll stay.”

She didn’t reply, but turned her face to look up at the skylight above the bed. It was dark now, and he realized he didn’t know how long they had been in bed, how long it had taken for him to become so mesmerized by her beauty and her body and her fervor that he’d lost all control over rational thought, and have given himself up to the moment. Ten minutes? An hour? He wasn't sure, but he knew he’d treasure this time with her as an extremely fond memory.

He looked at the straightness of her nose, the gently arching sable brows and full lips that had felt like heaven on his. And there--the mark he’d left was clear to see now that she was facing away from him--was the evidence of their connection, and how volatile it had been.

But it too would fade, as would the high he was coming off of, and he watched her turn to sit on the edge of the bed, the blanket at her side.

He didn’t want to focus on the curve of her waist and the flare of her hips, the dimples at the base of her spine or how despite being pulled over her shoulder to her front, her hair still pooled on the bed beside her thigh. So instead he spoke, his voice soft but leaving out any trace of the passion he’d been so overcome with just a short time ago.

“Would you play for me tonight, Grace?”

He liked saying her name, how it felt rolling off his tongue and how it sounded even to his own ears when said in his Scottish accent.

She turned, just so he could see her cheek but he saw her smile, and he suspected music meant more to her than what she normally told anyone--indicated also by how upset she’d sounded when she had told him her neighbors wouldn’t allow her to practice.

She nodded once and then stood, crouching to retrieve her clothes, disappearing into his bathroom to put them on. He didn’t move as he watched her, seeing her completely nude from behind and feeling a stirring beneath the sheets. But he waited, already knowing she was going to find herself without either bra or shirt and waiting to see what she would do about it. In a perfect world she would walk out of the bathroom without covering herself, but he knew better than to expect it.

What they just shared was over--she had said it and meant it. He had said it and didn’t really mean it, but would agree to preserve the working relationship they already had. And it would continue to be that way in perpetuity because he didn’t want to lose her.

So he rose and pulled on his boxers, then went to find her clothes for her. When he returned to the bedroom with them he knocked gently on the door and waited, hearing her sniff on the other side.

Alarmed, he leaned in close and said her name, “Grace?”

She cleared her throat from behind the door and answered him.

“Yes?”

“I have your shirt and bra, if you’d like them.” Christ , if he made her sad he’d never be able to live with himself. So he chose humor, hoping to make her laugh instead. “If not, I don’t mind you walking around without them.”

A startled laugh sounded from inside the small bathroom and his heart settled a bit, now that he’d accomplished his goal. When her hand slid out the crack in the door he gently put the clothes within her reach so he didn’t touch her.

He pulled on a t-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants, immediately thinking of those gray panties he had just handed her. They hadn’t been fancy, had no lace or bows on them, but to see her wearing them--knowing her pants were off and he had been about to access what was beneath the clothing--had driven him wild. He would always remember those panties.

He went to the kitchen to make some coffee and waited for her to emerge. Once she did he looked over, seeing the exact same Grace who had been on the yacht cooking dinner not too long ago.

Her hair was back up in that severe bun, only now he was aware of why the ball of hair high on the back of her head was so big--her hair was down to her butt. He almost had to shake his head to stop thinking about that mass of dark locks and what a sensual feature it was on her.

Grace sat on the couch and stared at her hands while he poured two cups, and then sat on the opposite side of the couch facing her after handing her her own mug.

“So…” She spoke into her cup, but Rory wasn’t sure what to say from here. A thought was niggling him and he didn't want to acknowledge it, and decided to see where her thoughts were first.

But she took a sip of coffee, only glancing at him when the mug was up to her lips, before dropping both it and her eyes to her lap. Then she spoke again, her tone quiet and almost amused.

“So that was nice.”

Well, it wasn’t what he expected her to say, that was for sure.

He swallowed the coffee he swirled around his tongue and nodded, cautious to see where she was going to take this.

“Aye. It was.”

“But it can’t happen again.”

Ah. So that’s where she was taking it.

“Yes, I understand.”

“It was a fluke.”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that --”

“A fluke, Rory, in that we gave into temptation once and now know not to do it again.” She took another sip of coffee before raising her eyes to his. “If it happens again… I’ll have to quit.” Rory's heart skipped a beat. “And I don’t want to. You know that.”

He nodded, agreeing with her on all counts.

“I don’t want you to quit, either.”

“Good,” she managed, almost smiling. “Glad we’ve settled that.”

They sat in silence for a while, both drinking coffee, quiet in their own thoughts. Rory watched her at times, and she returned the stares when he wasn’t looking. He was having trouble reconciling that they had just made love--he had just licked her most private place, had just had her hands all over him while he thrust his cock into her and brought them both to deliriously good releases--and they both sat still like strangers sharing a coffee. His brain couldn’t wrap itself around this dichotomy, and was sending messages to his cock about how perfect her breasts were, how soft her kisses, how eager her touches.

Fucking hell .

When Rory wasn’t able to take it anymore, he voiced the thought that had been bothering him since they left the bedroom, steeling himself for a negative reply.

“I think you should take one of the spare bedrooms--”

Grace’s head whipped up to meet his gaze, her eyes wide and her lips parted.

“No. Absolutely not, Rory.” She shook her head so vehemently that her shoulders shook as well. “Are you kidding me? After what just happened?”

He nodded, saying, “Yes, I am completely serious. Unless you’re saying you wouldn’t be able to resist…?”

He lifted his brows in question and watched her face change swiftly from shock to affront, though she also looked like she was holding back a smile. Good . She knew he was trying to keep things light between them.

“I would. Oh, I would most definitely,” she said, but he sensed more than a little bit of bravado in her tone.

He smiled at her answer. She had taken the bait.

“So that’s a yes?”

“What?” she asked, her eyes widening again. “You--oh, that was good. That was very good, sir.”

She smirked at him with narrowed eyes, rising to take the empty coffee mugs to the sink. But as he watched, she paused, drawn up short at the end of the counter where she had allowed him to bare herself to him, and he felt himself harden yet again.

He decided self-torture was going to become a habit if she said yes. This was going to be awful in the most pleasing way possible.

Grace moved past the spot, opening the covers on the sinks to set the cups inside. Then she looked up at him, bracing her hands on the counter, her expression serious once again.

“It doesn’t sound like a very good idea, Rory.”

“Why? Because it would remove you from the dangerous situation in which you have already been attacked?” He rose, walking to the edge of the counter where a short time ago he had her breasts in his mouth. “Because you could live here rent free and wait for your lease to end? Because your employer wouldn’t need to know you changed addresses?” He braced his own hand on the counter and leaned forward for emphasis as he said softly, “Because you could play your guitar and sing to your heart's content whenever you wanted?”

She sighed softly, looking up into his eyes, his face, at his lips, before sliding them down his chest to the counter in front of him. Then she looked around at the yacht’s interior, at the space where she would be living--with him--for the next four months.

He added the last thing he knew in order to get her to agree, the very last thing he wanted to offer but the one he knew would convince her to take what he offered.

“I won’t touch you, Grace. Ever. You have my word.” She considered that for a moment, and then gave a small nod in agreement of that term. But he lowered his voice, and he looked her straight in the face so she would know he wasn’t joking about this.

“Not unless you wanted me to.”

Her eyes widened again and then returned to normal, but her tongue came out to wet her lip before she drew it in between her teeth, and he would have given his left arm to read her thoughts at that moment.

She was convinced. Now it was just a matter of waiting for her to voice her acceptance.

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Therein laid Grace’s problem.

She wanted Rory.

What had just transpired between them was… Well, there were just no words to describe it.

If she had expectations of what sex would be like with Rory--and she hadn’t--their lovemaking would have exceeded them all.

And if she was willing to admit to herself that she did very much want him again--because she did--she would recognize that the real danger was now here, in this yacht.

And if she was aware that her resolve where he was concerned was as thin and as fragile as a wet tissue--which it most assuredly was--she would know to turn him down, to retreat to her apartment, and forget she ever met Rory McCann.

He stood before her, close enough to touch yet so unforgivably off limits to her, and she felt that magnetic pull of his man to her woman, his masculinity to her femininity. Never before had she felt more like she had found the missing piece to her puzzle.

But she had already responded once to her body’s enchanted call to mate , and as it had been from the very first woman who ever gave herself to a man, Grace knew when she left this place, whenever that might be, she would be leaving a piece of her heart with him.

There was nothing about him that didn’t appeal to her now, from the way his sparse hair curled at the top of his head to the impossible size of his bare feet that she had now seen without shoes several times. Then there was everything in between--the bulk of him, the way he filled the yacht with his presence, that musky faded cologne smell that emanated off his body, and the way he smiled at her. God , that smile. It obviously had the power to melt her clothes off her body.

There was a large part of her that said she shouldn't move in--well, no, that wasn’t quite right. All the parts of her that called out to him--her heart, her hands, her mouth, her breasts and girly bits and her entire skin as an organ --were so glaringly focused on him that her brain, the voice of reason, was telling her to ignore all of them and to focus on reality.

You will lose your heart , it said. Don’t do it .

But even as she thought those thoughts, her heart was busy rationalizing the move and the acceptance of his offer, listing all the reasons why this man with chocolate brown eyes and the hands of an angel was a worthy roommate.

First and foremost was that it would remove the danger of being assaulted again. She could look at her location and recognize the danger for what it was. Nearly since the day she had moved in she had wondered at the discrepancies between the online listing of the apartment and it’s physical, visible attributes. Not to mention that the listing had glazed over the unsavory neighborhood and the gangs of men who hung out in the middle of the day outside run down apartment buildings between her apartment and the harbor. They were an issue, to be sure.

So leaving that apartment for the time being, paying rent on it while living rent-free on Rory’s boat meant she could keep her new bed and dresser at the apartment without worrying about selling them or finding somewhere to store them. Also, her address would remain the same and, if she didn’t tell her employer about this change--which of course she wouldn’t because that would mean her job would no longer be her’s--then they would be none the wiser. After four months had passed and she moved to another apartment she could merely notify them of the address change.

Living on the yacht would also mean playing her guitar and singing whenever she wanted, and that might have been one of the most alluring things about it. Grace had grown tired of playing on eggshells even during the middle of the day, always waiting for that banging from the tenant beneath her telling her to shut down all music and to be silent. Living with Rory meant she could play in comfort, whenever she wanted.

And, she had to admit, the prospect of playing for him was vastly more appealing than hiding her music from him.

Finally there was Rory. Whether on the phone, or texting, or in person, the man was so fun to be around. He was a great conversationalist when he wanted to be, and was an equally satisfying silent companion when they both wished to be silent. He made her laugh and she made him laugh, which in itself felt good. After spending so much time as Thomas’s companion, and then later on flitting from job to job with no real roots to put down, being in Rory’s company felt right--like this was the job she had been waiting for those four years after the Gebhart’s let her go.

Rory was still looking at her, and she took a moment to just look at him, feeling that pull once again. Her body cried out for him, heat rushed to her core and her fingertips tingled with the desire to run her hands over his chest, his shoulders, and lower. She had never touched him-- god , she hadn’t touched the hard length of him when they were together, and figured now she might never get the chance. It startled her that the thought brought the sting of tears, that she was never going to get the chance to return the favor of such intimate sexual satisfaction in the way he had given it to her.

But… there was her heart to consider. And in doing so, she knew which path it was that she now needed to take.

She could use a friend, after all, and that is what Rory was offering--should that be all she wished of him.

Inhaling deeply, Grace smiled shyly up at him, feeling warmth spread through her body as she mentally prepared herself to verbalize her decision. Rory’s face softened, and he straightened, anticipating her answer.

“Rory…” She crossed her arms over her chest, in part to appear in control but more so that she resisted the urge to reach out to him. When she spoke again she could feel her heart pounding within her chest, could feel the vibrations through her breasts and into her arms.

“I accept your offer.”

Chapter Text

Things were awkward between Rory and Grace for the first few days. He could see that she felt out of place, despite voicing several times how nice his yacht was. It took about a week for them to fall into a routine that suited them both.

Rory helped her move her things, which didn’t amount to much, the day after they had sex. True to his word, he didn’t touch her once. He went out of his way, in fact, to not touch her. He had vowed silently to not give her any reason to doubt that this was a good decision.

Grace had her own room and used the small bathroom in the main cabin, although she showered in the only shower, located in Rory’s bathroom, when he was gone during the day. She still completed her housekeeping duties, but now at a more leisurely pace since she was receiving a salary and didn’t have to leave the yacht after a set time.

Rory found her company to be a very nice change from his solitary life, which is something that surprised him greatly. He had assumed the yacht might feel cramped, even a bit unwelcoming, with a second person living on it. But Grace’s footprint was so small, her presence so slight, that rather than wishing for more time alone on the yacht, Rory found himself seeking her presence out more often than not. He encouraged her to not spend most of her time in her bedroom like a normal roommate situation in which the two occupants weren’t very familiar with each other. Instead, he explicitly told her, she could read in the main cabin, be on her computer as he was sometimes, play her guitar, and do whatever she liked. It was small, yes, but she was to treat the yacht like her home.

And, he pointed out, making her blush, he was certain she didn't hang out on that tiny bed he’d seen in her apartment. Not to mention her orange shampoo or bodywash or whatever it was that made her smell like ripe fruit--he wanted to bathe in that scent, but would settle for her leaving it on every surface of the yacht.

Grace also began cooking for them both which at first Rory insisted she not do. But when she explained it was one of her hobbies--and she revealed her collection of favorite cookbooks to prove it--he relented, adding additional money to the grocery stipend and insisting on compensating her for the extra work. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was worth the money, he told her.

Much to his surprise, he did not gain weight with all the food she made. She often used vegetable noodles as beds for savory meats and dishes with heavy sauces, which he learned were all quite delicious. She even taught him how to use the contraption that created the noodles out of vegetables, which he found utterly fascinating. Having almost no interest in cooking, for Grace to show him small things like that sparked an interest in her meal preparation. So much so that he even approached her with recipes he found online, glad that she took them with a visible eagerness to try something new.

By the end of that first week Rory gave up on pretending he wanted to be anywhere other than here, on the yacht with Grace. Mitch would look at him with narrowed eyes, unable to reason this Rory with the one who griped all the time about wanting to be out on the water. The sea still called to him, with its tranquility and serenity, the isolation from society and the spirit of self-reliance. But… Grace was more.

Grace was everything.

It almost wasn’t fair that he’d had a taste of her--both literally and figuratively, that is--and now had to live with her and deny himself that which he wanted more than almost anything.

But indulging in a physical relationship with her paled when he compared it to the friendship that was developing between them. As she came out of her shell around him, Rory’s eyes were opening to a side of her he’d never expected.

She was like a ray of sunshine, from the bright colors in which she dressed to how she sang all the time--not just when she was concentrating on a cleaning activity or in the shower, which he had heard several times and that never failed to bring a smile to his face.

No, she sang while cooking, she sang while playing her guitar, she sang in the morning before she came out of her room and at night when she’d retreated there to ready for bed. Her voice was a delight to listen to--low and sultry at times, high and perfectly pitched at others. She sang soprano so softly and beautifully that to hear her break out in an emotional song sometimes had Rory simply sitting and staring out the window, so caught up in listening to her music that he would forget whatever task he had set out for himself.

Her taste in music was as wide as her range, and she showed him that with her musical choices. But her style was all her own, a soft coffee shop type vocal that paired magnificently with acoustic guitar, and that he could listen to for hours upon hours without complaint.

Soon, one month had passed since she had moved in, and then two, and then three, and it was beginning to seem like things were perfect except for their separate bedrooms. Everything between them was synchronous and smooth, and it seemed as though both felt it could go on forever as such without interruption and neither would complain.

But Rory knew she only had one month left on her lease, which meant one more month on the yacht before she would be moving into a new apartment, and as the days wore on, he began to feel more and more disheartened by it.

Soon thoughts were coming to him about trying to convince Grace to stay--that quitting her job and remaining with him was not only not a horrible idea, but an exciting, fulfilling one as well.

What he wanted was to be with her in every sense of the word. He wanted her in his bed, yes--preferably every night under him, beside him, wrapped around him in sleep--with all that glorious hair to run his hands through. But he also wanted to take things to levels not welcome in their type of friendship. He wanted to buy her gifts, he wanted to compliment her on her appearance further than, “You look nice today.” He wanted to take her out on the water, take her to see the open sea where he just knew her eyes would alight with the same pleasure he felt when a look around the yacht would show nothing but water in all directions.

Rory wanted to be able to sit on the couch together instead of at opposite ends. He wanted to rest his head on her lap while they both read their books, to come up behind her while she cooked and wrap his arms around her, and to kiss her-- god , he wanted to kiss her so badly.

She was thirty-one, he’d learned, and would soon turn thirty-two, and he didn’t think for one moment that the thirteen year gap between their ages was a hindrance to a relationship. He wondered if she would, but in his mind it was negligible.

And he had plans for her birthday--an event Mitch had told him about that Rory initially had wanted to turn down. But he wanted to show Grace a good time, and to have an opportunity to treat her like a queen without having to hide that he was doing it.

So one day he sat down and tapped out an email to Mitch, telling him to procure a second ticket for the charity gala, and that Rory would be bringing his plus-one.

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As she often did, Grace sat on the couch after dinner, having just gotten out of the shower, and brushed her hair.

She knew Rory watched her when she did this, but also felt comfortable enough that she no longer hid it from him. If there was one man on the face of the earth with whom she didn’t mind sharing the sight of her hair, it was him.

Grace would look over at him and more often than not he would go back to his book or his computer, or whatever he happened to be doing. But there were those times when he stared at her and continued to do so even when she turned to see him looking. It was those times that she felt the heat in his gaze as powerfully as if it was his own hands combing the brush through her hair.

He did other things as well, things that sent her heart racing and made her breathing shallow. Like when he came up behind her to see what she was cooking at the stove.

It was always under the guise of investigating, but Grace knew he had ulterior motives. Otherwise, why would he stand so close she could feel his presence, sense the body heat emanating from him? Why would he lean down so she could feel his breath above her ear, and why would his voice dip impossibly low when he asked for a taste?

The man was an incorrigible tease, although he was so inconspicuous about it, so crafty with his methods that it took her until she began to see the odd accompanying smile to realize what he was doing.

Like when she would turn to him with a spoonful of sauce and he wouldn’t step back, but the smile would be in his eyes as she fed him a bite of whatever it was she was cooking, always watching for the dribble on his chin so she could chastise herself for being tempted to lick it off. Or when he would pass her in the confined space of the yacht, and his hand would go to her arm as a caution against accidentally pushing her over. But his hand wouldn’t simply leave her when he passed, but would rather slide down the length of her arm as he walked away.

And it was times like these when she would glance over at him and he would be watching her, and not looking away. An unspoken longing was stretching out between them, one neither was supposed to answer, but that was there nonetheless. Like a golden chain linking them together, and with every day they spent in each other’s company, another link disappeared.

He stared at her now, his reading glasses forgotten in his hand, his book turned over on his raised knee. His face held no artifice; no particular emotion. It was blank, though beneath lowered brows she could see an intensity in his gaze that made her breath catch in her throat.

“Rory,” she heard herself say, and now that she’d begun the thought she found she couldn’t rein in her tongue as it formed the words, “Would you brush my hair?”

His brow relaxed, but she saw the immediate battle play over his features--the knowledge that it wasn’t a good idea, but the fact that there was no way he was going to say no.

He set his things aside as she turned her back, and he rose from the dinette to join her on the couch. Grace closed her eyes and took a deep breath, knowing that this should only feel good in a massage-between-friends sort of way. It should not feel like a lover’s caress.

And as long as she didn’t let on which one of those she felt as he pulled the brush down the crown of her head, they would be alright.

“Start at the bottom,” she said softly, when the brush encountered a tangle halfway down. “Then work your way up.”

He didn’t respond but listened to what she said. Her hair brushed the couch around her seat and she knew it wouldn’t be the easiest task for him to accomplish. But she felt his fingers skim her back as he gathered it into a low ponytail, his fist near the base of her spine, and he brushed out any tangles that were at the bottom. He repeated the process, doing a surprisingly good, thorough job until he reached about halfway up her back. Then he let go, and when his hand smoothed her hair down to the couch she had to hold her breath lest she gasp out loud.

Slowly he stroked the brush, going from side to side in the curtain of her hair--left to right, then moving up a couple inches and going right to left. When he reached her shoulders his fingers once again brushed her neck as he pulled all the hair to the back.

“I have a question for you,” he said softly, his voice rougher than normal.

Grace tensed, her heart tripping over itself as though it had come to an abrupt halt and all her emotions crashed into it from behind.

“Y-yes?” she barely squeaked out.

“I’ve been invited to a charity gala and would like you to go with me. As my plus-one,” he added. She didn’t mind. She would have said no if he had led her to believe he had any designs on her.

“That sounds interesting, but I would need to get a dress. I don’t have anything even remotely close to formal, unless you count a black tank top and black shorts,” she joked. Behind her Rory chuckled his low, husky laugh.

“I wouldn’t mind,” he murmured, and Grace was glad for the moment of humor.

They went over the details while he finished her hair, though even when the knots were all gone he continued to brush it. Grace didn’t mind, since no woman in her right mind, in Grace’s opinion, would turn down a man willing to brush her hair for the pure pleasure of it.

“We can drive into Glasgow this weekend so you can get a dress--I’m buying, by the way.”

“What? No, Rory. I’ll buy my own dress. I can afford it, you pay me quite nicely as a matter of fact.”

What was meant as a joke fell flat between them, and there was silence for a moment before he spoke again and she could hear the smile in his voice.

“Aye, but if I buy it I can have a say in what you get.”

Grace rounded on him, lips parted in mock indignation.

“The nerve,” she said, glaring at him while trying and failing to keep the smile off her face. She snatched the brush from him as she rose, pulling her hair over her shoulder as she went. She was already braiding it by the time she got to the little nightstand beside her bed, and she finished after exchanging the brush for a hair tie.

“Alright,” she said, thinking this could be fun if they managed to keep everything between them tame. “I’ll go, and we can go to Glasgow for a dress, but --” she held up a finger towards him, watching him draw his lip under his teeth as he waited to see what she would say. That expression did funny things to her stomach, and she had to clear her throat before speaking again.

“I’ll pick several dresses and then you can help me pick from those. Deal?”

Rory stared at her face, his smile not at all hidden until it faded as his eyes roamed down her body to her toes and back again.

“Aye,” he almost whispered with a nod. “It’s a deal.”

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And that’s how that Saturday morning Rory found himself seated in an out of the way boutique, in a plush chair likely placed outside the fitting rooms for husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and anyone else who wished to see the lady they had accompanied into the shop trying on gowns.

But he should have known Grace couldn’t completely take it seriously. He should have known she would do what she could to make him laugh, because the first dress was such a hideous shade of vomit green that Rory recoiled at the sight of it.

“Christ, lass, no. ” Grace was smiling, though, her hair piled high on her head in that massive bun of hers so that when she spun and showed him how the dress flared and made it look like an even bigger monstrosity, he could barely focus on it enough to see the sheer panels bordering some sort of ruffled bra.

“Fucking… Grace, what the hell are you doing--”

Her laughter brought him up to standing and he put his hands on his hips, glaring at her even after he realized what she was doing.

“What--don’t you like it?” The smile on her face was so impish, so naughty, that Rory almost laughed out loud. He pointed in the direction of the fitting room and didn’t say a word.

The next one made her look like an enormous purple flower, complete with fluffy, ruffled headpiece. She looked like the Barbie dolls his sister played with as a child, like someone was going to come up behind her and put a clamp on her waist and set her in a window so everyone could ogle at her and exclaim untruthfully how pretty she was.

Grace’s reaction to his shock was nothing short of pure delight, and her peeling laughter followed her all the way back into the fitting room.

Rory sat once again, rubbing a hand down his face as he tried to convince himself this wasn’t fun. But he wasn’t very successful, and he waited anxiously for her to walk out with the next one.

“Oh, Rory --” she exclaimed from behind the wall. “This… this! This one is the winner, absolutely.”

He couldn’t tell if she was joking so he sat forward, waiting to see what this dress was that she was calling a winner. When he caught sight of the cherry red fabric coming around the corner he knew no man would keep his eyes off her all evening.

Then his thought was confirmed when she walked around the corner in a dress so revealing he was already shrugging off his jacket as he stood quickly.

“Grace--what--no, get back in there--”

But she sidestepped him, laughing as she adjusted the two vertical strips of fabric that covered her breasts.

“No, really,” she was saying, stepping to the side so she could tuck and adjust and examine herself in the three floor length mirrors off to the side. She turned to look at the dress with every angle, cocking out her leg so the thigh-high split exposed more flesh than Rory was comfortable looking at. But he turned, making sure there was no one else in the room to see the way the top exposed more of her than he wanted her seen out in public exposing.

“That’s indecent,” he said, and he held up his jacket to block anyone’s view of her except himself. When he stood behind her he watched her pull the fabric over one breast outwards, attempting to stretch the strip so it didn’t show quite so much cleavage.

This was impossible, of course, since the two strips only connected at her waist .

She smoothed her hands down the front of her chest and Rory felt himself harden in his jeans, and it became worse when she repeated the stretching process over her other breast, drawing his gaze to her nipple beneath the soft fabric.

Rory swallowed, and he felt sweat bead on his forehead. When her hands ceased moving atop the fabric he lifted his eyes to meet hers in the mirror, seeing how her honey gold irises had darkened and her lips were parted, her gaze intent on his in the mirror behind her. Then as he stared at her, she drew in a ragged breath, her chest expanding as her nipples hardened beneath the fabric.

He groaned, almost growled, and could do nothing else but lean down so his face was near her temple in the mirror, that citrus scent of hers wafting out of her hair and directly into his raging libido.

“Better get that dress off now, lass, before I tear it off ye.”

Grace swallowed, her throat working as she watched his lips in the mirror, and Rory didn’t bother hiding the frustrated biting of his own lip as he sighed heavily into her hair. God , the image of her in that dress would never leave his mind. Like an imprint, he knew it would remain there forever.

She abruptly turned and walked back behind the fitting room wall, and Rory ran his fingers through his hair, wondering how long he could put up with this torture--not the dress fittings, although they were a torture unto themselves.

No, how much longer could he be this attracted to--crave this much--a woman he couldn’t have?

Chapter Text

Dress after dress, Grace tried on long gowns, short dresses, blues and pinks and greens and reds and blacks. It was becoming apparent that neither she nor Rory were interested in the process anymore. That red dress had ruined it for both of them.

That red dress. Grace had been tempted to tear the gown off herself if Rory had continued looking at her in that way--like he wanted to bend her over a chair. For real .

With a sigh, she pulled on the last one, and stepped out from behind the wall to see Rory reclining in the chair, his head lolled back over the edge of the plush chair. She really liked this dress. It was simple, with a high neck, sleeveless, and fitted down to just above her knees, where it flared into softly falling folds. It might be slightly difficult to walk in but she looked like a princess in the navy blue matte dress. And with it zipped up and her hair now falling down her back, she hid the one detail she was certain Rory would not approve of.

With her back to him, she stood in front of the mirrors and surveyed herself, liking what she saw. She would need a pair of navy high heels to match, which would put her somewhere in the neighborhood of five feet, six inches tall, and perhaps a clutch--silver, to match the earrings she planned on wearing. But everything else was good. She pulled out the tag from under her arm and gasped.

“Well, crap.”

“What?”

She turned, seeing Rory looking at her from where he sat. She smiled gently at him, knowing this process had been wearing on both of them.

“The dress. This one’s nice but it’s too much, even if you say you’re going to pay for it. Let’s pick one of the less expensive ones.”

He rose as she dropped the tag and approached her, reaching out to lift the tag so he could read it. She watched his face but it betrayed nothing, and instead he stepped back to look at her in the gown.

“Grace, you’re stunning.” His voice was honest, his smile kind when he looked back at her eyes. The compliment was so heartfelt, so genuine that she blushed.

“It’s the hair, isn't it?” she joked, giving her head a shake to emphasize the one amazing asset she felt God had given her. But Rory continued to smile as he shook his head.

“Nay,” he said softly, reaching out to draw some of it over her shoulder. “It’s you.”

He took her hand in his and Grace felt her heart rise into her throat. God help her, if Rory kissed her she wouldn’t stop. She would never stop.

But instead of the passionate kiss she imagined, or even a kiss to her hand, he merely leaned forward and brushed his lips across her hairline in the sweetest, chaste, most touching kiss she had ever received.

“This is the dress,” he said, leaning back. Then he smiled wider, good humoredly, bringing them out of the serious moment. “Now, please just pick out a pair of shoes so we can go.”

A pair of shoes, a silver clutch, the gown and a matching wrap later, they were headed out and stopped at a small hole in the wall pub for lunch. Sitting in the back with Rory’s back to the door, they both ordered burgers and chips and ate in relative silence, with the lunchtime rush coming and going as they took their time eating in the secluded corner.

“Thank you again for everything, Rory. The dress, all of it. I’ve had such a fun day today.”

Grace meant every word, and no matter how this thing with Rory ended she wanted him to know how the things he did for her meant the world to her. To have found him, and his friendship, had been the most unexpected pleasure--next to that one mind blowing evening they had spent together, of course. But she tried her best--and often failed--to not think about it.

It was hard, though, even when she was doing something as simple as watching him eat his food. The way his jaw moved, the way his hands wiped his face with his napkin, the way he would look up and find her watching him and give her that crooked smile--it all made her heart go pitter patter.

But then he asked a question that took her mood and flung it far out into the sea.

“Have you been looking for another apartment?”

In truth she had, but she didn’t want to think about it. Her searches had been half ass, and she wasn’t being serious about it. She still had a whole month to go, just two weeks before she had to give her notice to Evan, the building superintendent. She didn’t want to think about where she was going to go when she left Rory’s yacht, because she had found a home away from home in that small space with him.

But she nodded in response, saying, “I have. There are a couple promising ones, ones that if I can afford the deposit and first and last month’s rent will be quite nice. And they’re not far, a couple miles away but in much nicer neighborhoods.”

He grunted, a noncommittal sound that for some reason made her happy to hear it.

“Sounds like you’ve done some research.”

“Some,” she hedged, taking another bite of her food.

“Two miles--are you thinking of also getting a car?”

Grace smiled up at him, trying to make her face look reassuring.

“I’ll think of something.”

They continued to eat in silence, although she told him of her plans to visit her previous employer sometime soon.

“I’ll be gone for three, maybe four days. I haven’t put in for formal vacation time but I figured you and I can talk about it closer to when I would want to go.”

Rory nodded, asking, “The couple in London?”

Grace had told him about them though not at length, so she said, “They were more like family to me than my own family, and I am of course very attached to their son. He is who I Skype with every so often in my room.” And he was very excited to see his Grace, she added mentally, smiling at the thought. It would be so good to see them again, and to see how the baby had grown. Thomas, too, seeing as how he was already close to eleven years old.

“Will you be flying?”

“I will, out of Glasgow and into London, and same on the return flight. They seem to be the cheapest flights available.”

“Let me know when and I’ll drive you and pick you up.” Rory took a pull from his soda but Grace shook her head.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t ask that of you--”

“You didn’t ask, I offered. Would you rather pay for a cab all that way?”

He had her there.

“Well… no.”

His smile could have lit up the room, but she also saw victory on his face. She had to laugh at him, their camaraderie easy and pleasant.

“Then it’s settled. Just let me know when you want to go.”

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It was the night of the gala a week later, and despite Rory’s insistence that he pay for Grace to go to a salon, she had refused and had prepared herself entirely in the yacht’s bigger bathroom. She said she had been doing her own hair and makeup for years--that there really was no need to fork out hundreds of dollars for a professional to spend three hours doing what it would take Grace twenty minutes to do. So Rory had lent her his bedroom since it was bigger than hers, and had taken his clothes into the third, empty bedroom to get dressed for the night.

At one point, when Grace was still in her shorts and t-shirt at the dinette, waiting for her matte navy blue nails to dry, he’d come out of that room in nothing but his slacks, slightly frustrated at how stunning she was going to look tonight and how much he felt he resembled a caveman rather than a date worthy of her.

“I should shave,” he said, walking towards her to ask her opinion.

He was aware that he was shirtless but felt so comfortable with her that it didn’t occur to him that there was anything inappropriate about it until he saw her eyes widen and latch onto his chest.

He scratched at his scruff, trying to cover the fact that he barely held back a smile. Scraping his fingers through the hairs dusting his face and all the way down his neck, he was reminded that he hadn’t trimmed in two weeks, even as he became distracted by watching Grace watch his approach.

Her gaze was focused on his chest as he walked out, which inexplicably brought a thrill to his pulse. He was feeling a bit smug for that one aspect of him she seemed attracted to when she suddenly looked up, expression openly indignant at his suggestion.

“Don’t you dare,” she said vehemently, shaking her head.

Grace’s eyes darted from his eyes to his face to his eyes, to his neck and then back again. She looked shocked that he would even suggest it.

“I like you just the way you are.”

She stood, splaying her fingers as she immediately reached up to rub the flat of her palm on his jaw. Then her expression softened, and the acceptance he saw in her eyes twisted at his heart, telling him she was more special than any other woman he’d ever met. She murmured, “What are you worried about impressing all those stuffy people for, anyways?”

It was more of a statement, but he smiled softly at her vote of confidence, and her compliment, and how he liked looking down at her and seeing her so close to his bare chest.

“I’m not worried about impressing them ,” he admitted before he could stop himself.

Grace looked him in the eyes then, dropping her hand to her side. He watched her lips part, her eyes widen slightly before she adopted a look that spoke more to self deprecating humor than surprise that he had said such a thing.

“What? Me?” She narrowed her eyes and scoffed, adding, “Rory, all you had to do to impress me was to say you liked my cooking.”

Then she laughed nervously and turned, heading into the bedroom before he could call her out on the nervousness in her tone. What he was saying was getting to her, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to venture further up that road. He knew this arrangement wouldn’t last forever--not the living together, since that was going to end, but the no strings, sex-free companionship.

And it couldn’t last because he was going to run out of willpower. It was that simple.

After that happened, he was afraid he was going to push her away which was the last thing he wanted to happen. So at this point, if he wanted her to remain in his life, for the thousandth time he told himself to stay away from her.

He turned away from the bedroom door behind which she was currently changing, trying with all his might to push thoughts of her naked from his mind, to no avail. They tumbled passed all barriers, making him think of her bare chested on his kitchen counter, completely naked laying beneath him on his bed, even that glimpse of her backside when she had retreated into his bathroom to clean up and dress.

And now she would be donning that gown--probably pulling on panties sexier than her gray ones, reaching up to slide the gown over her head and down her body, tugging it over her curves until it fit like a second skin.

Christ , he was going to get hard in his trousers and would end up having a terrible evening.

Resolving to regain control over his attraction to Grace, he pulled on his black button up shirt and buttoned it up to the collar, over which he hastily tied a long black tie without using a mirror. Then he pinched the cuffs together, sliding the buttons home so it clasped him at the wrists.

When he slid into his dress shoes he knew he cut an intimidating figure--six and a half feet tall and built like a damned lumberjack, he should have been a bouncer instead of an actor. Even the nightclub scene would have less drama than filming a hit cable television show.

He had just stood from tying his shoe when the bedroom door opened, though Grace didn’t appear. He heard her doing something and was about to go see what it was when he saw her fingers wrap around the door jam, tipped with navy blue nails. Then she was there, stepping past the barrier to the bedroom and coming out into the main cabin.

Rory took it all in at once, knowing his breath had just been stolen from him with how difficult it was to breathe now.

A free spirit had walked into that bedroom, and what emerged was a vision of feminine grace and audacious sexuality; a woman fully prepared to rip a man’s heart out with simply a look in his direction.

Grace was a vision in the dark dress, with her sable hair falling straight from a center part, some drifting over one shoulder while the rest fell in a sleek waterfall to her hips. She had lined her eyes with just a little bit of dark makeup, and her lips shimmered with a pale peach gloss. When she lifted the edge of the dress to stick out a foot, he saw stiletto heels that would make her legs seem miles long.

“Fucking hell.”

It was all he could manage, watching her hook her sequined wrap over her shoulders and letting the long ends of the triangular shawl lay down the front of the dress to her knees.

To say he was stunned would be akin to saying the earth was just a tiny ball floating in space.

It was everything-- she was everything. The hair, her sinful curves, how the feminine roundness of her hips were accented in that dress by the tapered waist and the heels that screamed Man-eater .

Rory couldn’t help it--he sang the first two lines of chorus so deeply and softly that her shocked expression was the only indication she’d heard him at all--” Oh-oh here she comes; watch out boys, she’ll chew you up…”

“Are you saying I have a beast in my heart?”

She threw her head back and laughed, and suddenly Rory was seeing the same old Grace, his Grace, wrapped in a package that he couldn’t care less about. Because it was her laughter and her smile that had wrapped around his heart and branded it as hers--not whatever fancy package she managed to shove herself into. The dress was nice, the makeup and shawl were novelties, but it was the woman beneath who held all the power in the world in her one small palm.

Tonight, he knew, was going to be a night to remember.

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His tie was crooked. It was the first thing she noticed about him, shortly followed by how handsome a figure he cut wearing all black. And no, she didn’t want him to shave. She loved the scruff, the hair on his neck that led her mind down dirty roads of where she knew that hair led to. It was easy enough to imagine him without that shirt on since she had seen him so just a few minutes before this, but she tamped down the urge to dwell on it. She didn’t need to spend the entire night turned on.

Grace was nervous about so many things tonight--about going to a fancy gala on Rory’s arm, about what he would do when he discovered the back of the dress, and if she was honest, about photographers. She knew she looked nice, and she knew Rory loved her hair so she’d worn it down, completely unadorned. But it was likely they would be photographed tonight and she would be the Mystery Woman that Rory McCann brought to the charity gala.

Not that she minded, really. And her employer wouldn’t care as long as there were no complaints about her behavior from Rory and that it was a friends-only event in which Grace was able to assure them there was nothing between her and Rory. The lie she would tell if questioned about it stuck in her mind even as she was reaching up to adjust his tie.

There was a heat in his eyes but it wasn’t showing itself when he looked at her body, her dress, her hair. It was there now as he looked at her face--her eyes and nose and her lips. Her high heels brought her up closer to his chin so it was easy for her own gaze to wander up the strong column of his neck, over his bearded chin, to lips that she knew could do wonderful things to her body, to her mouth. Dropping her gaze, she finished straightening his tie and moved to step away, but a hand on her shoulder stopped him.

“Thank you, Grace, for coming with me tonight.”

She looked up at him and smiled, laying a hand flat on his chest in reassurance.

“I don’t mind at all. I think this is going to be fun.”

Rory nodded, but his expression wasn’t entirely convincing. He was struggling, and Grace could guess exactly what he was struggling with, because she was struggling with the same thing.

Friends , she reminded herself. They were friends, lived together as friends, and were going to a social event as friends. She told herself to keep that in the forefront of her mind--a theme of the evening, in a way. Friends .

But oh, she wished they were more, especially when he lifted his hand and ran a knuckle down her cheek in a way that wasn’t sexual or carnal at all. It was soft and caring, a loving touch that had her closing her eyes to savor.

“Are you ready?” he asked, prompting her to open her eyes and look up at him. His voice was husky, a deep rasp that held no smile and a healthy measure of longing, in contrast to the touch of his finger. Grace nodded, and waited for Rory to turn and put his jacket on. Then he took her arm and led her up the hatch, where he locked it behind them.

With her heels, they walked slowly down the plank dock, with Grace treading softly so that she didn’t accidentally snap a heel between the boards. Rory held onto her, at one point offering to pick her up but she refused. They were almost to the end when she looked up the walkway and saw a stretch limo waiting for them.

She stopped, her other hand going to her neck in shock.

“Rory, what--I thought you were driving us?”

He looked down at her, looking pleased with her reaction.

“And make you arrive at the gala in a rental?” He looked at her as though the notion was ridiculous. “You deserve this, and I wanted to surprise you.”

He held her hand as they walked up the walkway, Grace feeling a lump in her throat as she thought about the sweetness of the gesture. Rory was taking care of her, and had thought about her when she hadn’t done anything special for him. She said as much when she climbed in, sitting on the rear bench as he climbed in and the driver shut the door behind him.

When he sat down beside her he took her hand in his and kissed the back, the short hairs of his mustache tickling the sensitive skin it encountered.

“Nay, Grace, you have. You’re still here, and you’re with me tonight. You make me very happy,” he added, sounding sincere.

Grace didn’t want to admit what his breath on her skin did, so she smiled and took her hand back, adjusting her skirts around her legs while they kept up a steady conversation between them on the way to the venue.

By the time they arrived, with the help of a glass of champagne tucked into a cooler beside the door, Grace was relaxed and excited about being at such a fancy event. Through the tinted windows she could see men in tuxedos and women wearing fur ruffs walking up a long exterior staircase that was banked by footmen ready to aid any attendees.

She had to admit, she was a bit starstruck, but the nervousness was kept at bay and she looked back at Rory excitedly before looking away again.

“I have been to countless events like this one,” he murmured, and she looked back as he lifted her hand to his lips once again. “But I doubt I’ll ever have as much fun as what I will tonight with you.”

Chapter Text

If Rory could name a point in the evening where everything changed between him and Grace, it would be when they passed the coat check and she turned her back to him so he could take her wrap. She had her hair over one shoulder, a sleek cascade of sable shimmering with silver from the lights above them, and as he took the wrap and slid it off her shoulders it gradually exposed her bare upper back, bare middle back… bare lower back…

He only remembered what they were supposed to be doing when a gentleman cleared his throat, prompting Rory with a polite get out of the way grunt.

As he handed Grace’s wrap to the coat check girl, his date for the evening turned and looked at him over her shoulder with those honey eyes, smiling a hesitant smile that immediately set him on edge.

When he guided her out of that line and off to the side of the receiving line where they would be told where to sit, he leaned down and spoke into ear, “You didn’t tell me about that,” knowing she would know exactly what he was talking about.

He wanted to puzzle out her reaction to him seeing it, and he figured it out as soon as she looked up at him again, smile wide but eyes alight with concern.

“Are you upset?”

Yes. No. He had no right to be. Grace was not his, as much as he wanted her to be. But his body said otherwise, and when she stepped close and he slid a hand around her back to palm the curve of her spine, open to the air until where her natural waist started to flare at the curve of her bottom, he leaned down as though to speak into her ear. But he also used the opportunity to close his eyes for a second and try to regain control of his breathing, for the onslaught of emotions that were coursing through his veins.

“I don’t want any other man seeing you like this, Grace,” he admitted, his teeth clenched, opening his eyes to see her face turned towards his, lips parted.

God , he wanted to kiss her so badly. He curled his fingertips, brushing them over the soft skin of her spine and she gasped lightly, curling her lower lip into her mouth.

“You never asked to see the back,” she replied breathlessly, resting a hand on his chest as people moved around them where they were pressed against the wall.

Rory’s blood was raging hotly, with the doe-eyed look she was giving him, the concern for his opinion of the dress, the way her hand rested so delicately over his tie in the center of his chest. And her skin--it burned his palms, both the hand on her back and the other that cupped her close by the elbow.

“Nay,” he admitted. “I didn’t.” Standing taller he looked around, seeing that they were being ignored by everyone around them.

“Do you want to leave?”

Her question surprised him, and he looked back down at her--at her face and her lips, down to the completely covered swells of her breasts knowing there was no bra beneath the dress and how easy it would be to slip those thin straps off her shoulders for access.

Rory shook his head, baffled at how easily she could have him bound to her without trying as he replied, “Aye, I want to leave.”

Grace’s face fell, and so did her eyes, down to his neck as he watched her swallow and nod. The disappointment pulled at him, and he tucked a knuckle beneath her chin to bring her face back up to his.

He bent to whisper into her ear, “But only because that dress is going to drive me insane for the rest of the evening. I’ll not be able to keep my hands off ye.”

His voice was rough, his accent thick as he let his lips brush the shell of her ear, and when a shocked shiver raced through her and made her tremble, Rory groaned next to her face before pulling away.

Wide eyes looked up at him as she replied, “That was not my intent.”

“I know it, lass,” he said quietly, turning her towards the receiving line so they could find their table. “I fucking know it.”

Her skin was magnetic, his hands powerless against finding her back over and over as the evening wore on. He guided her through the throng of people milling about, everyone searching for tables reserved with their names. Even when the crowd was thicker and Rory stepped out in front, he kept his arm around her waist so she was just about cradled beneath his arm, his hand pressed firmly to her lower back. He didn’t mind at all when they had to stop and wait for the crowd in front of them to dissipate before they could continue, sine she would face him and clasp his upper arm, placing her other hand on his chest. She would wait patiently for him to direct them through the crowd, while he forced his hand to not slip below the edge of the dress and down to her butt.

But it was right there , and the urge was strong.

When they sat at their table they both edged their chairs closer together, which wasn’t lost on him. She seemed at ease with him, but anxious about the throng of people whenever her eyes weren’t on him. So he endeavored to have them on him as much as possible, drawing her into conversations about previous events he had attended, the charity for which this gala was being held, and the donation he would make--that he was expected to make--for being invited to attend despite having to pay for the tickets.

All the while he kept his hands on her--his arm on the back of her chair so he could cup her shoulder, sliding his hand beneath her hair where it fell down her back so he could rub the back of her neck with his thumb. And his other hand held hers on his leg, which was aided in feeling completely neutral but the way she looked around and paid his familiar touches no mind.

But her hand on his leg was doing devilish things to him, as was just about everything about her tonight.

The contact between them was only halted when dinner was served, and when they had finished their meals and Grace was sipping at a second glass of champagne, they listened to the keynote speaker while Rory held her hand, tracing light circles in her palm and caressing the soft skin on the back of her hand.

But of course he couldn’t keep his mind off her back, and it invaded his thoughts so much that at the end of the evening he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what the speaker had said if he’d been asked. All he could see in his mind was the wide expanse of exposed skin, the paleness of it and the softness, and how surprisingly feral he felt when he thought of other men looking at her.

The evening was winding down when the speaker finished, but the host returned to the stage to announce the live music would continue and the dance floor opened for entertainment. Rory wasn’t sure he wanted to dance, even in the dark room, but what he did want is the opportunity to put his hands on Grace. So he finished off his champagne and leaned in close to her, watching as she leaned towards him to meet him halfway.

“Would you care to dance?” he asked quietly, hoping he could keep his eyes from straying from her face. He barely restrained from devouring her with his gaze when she looked up at him surprised, but nodding.

None of the music was fast, so it looked perfectly normal for the two of them to slowly sway together on the dance floor amidst the other couples. Rory held her hand in his and slid his palm up to the middle of her back, hidden by her hair as he felt the warmth of her body flowing into his skin.

Grace, for her part, kept her hand politely on his upper arm, maintaining a space between them that was polite in the company they were in. At one point to their left was a couple who appeared to be in their early twenties, while on their right was a man and woman who both appeared to be in their eighties. This was neither the time nor the place for close dancing, although Rory enjoyed it all the same.

He caught sideways glances from men towards Grace and was glad of his height, his glares sending the other men’s eyes skittering away once they saw the menacing look from Rory. At one point Grace laughed, and he looked down to see her watching him, her lips drawn tight into a wide smile.

“What are you doing?” she asked without preamble. She raised one eyebrow and waited for his reply.

It took him a moment to form one, and when he did it made her smile wider.

“You are like a rabbit in a den of wolves, Grace. I’m warning off the competition.”

Her light laughter drifted to his ears and he couldn’t help but smile down at her. She looked so happy, so carefree, he wanted to remember this moment forever.

“And that would make you what? The alpha?”

He huffed a laugh, although she wasn’t wrong.

“Aye, that’s what I feel like.”

“So that would make me…”

She was reaching but still smiling, and Rory wasn’t sure he wanted to indulge in this conversation. She was accurate in her description of him feeling like the alpha, especially in this room full of horny man dogs who all wanted a bite of her. He could see women glancing in her direction, and men watching the way she swayed her hips to the flow of the music.

“Entirely too seductive for your own good,” he finished, sliding his palm up her spine to the back of her neck, his long fingers conforming to the curve of her nape beneath her hair.

“Well, I’m not trying to be,” she said defensively after shivering at his touch, and Rory looked down at her to laugh again.

“Nay, you don’t have to try. You merely have to breathe and you’re the most beautiful woman in this room.”

Her good humor was gone now, replaced by an emotion that seemed to be vexation as she looked away from him, turning her head so she wouldn’t have to stare at his chest. It was a while before she spoke, another song at least in which he moved his hand back down to that dipping curve of her spine.

“What are we doing, Rory,” she murmured. It wasn’t a question, but he didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know, but I know what we’re not doing and…” he paused, leaning down to guarantee only she could hear his next words. “It’s driving me insane, Grace. Seeing you like this, seeing that damned dress--and Christ, that red dress--you turn my brain to mush.”

She glanced at him then, her sad smile almost regretful that things were this way between them.

They danced for a while longer, but he could see Grace’s heart had left for the evening, and she was ready to go. After stopping by the information table to pick up a packet for his donation, he led her back out to the coat check and notified a doorman he wanted their limo sent around.

Then he wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and watched her pull her hair out and let it fall down her back. He would never tire of the sight of her hair.

The ride back to the yacht was quiet, although this time Grace held his hand the entire way. She didn’t say a word, and he suspected she might need the time to think about everything that had happened between them, everything that was happening, and what she wanted out of their immediate future.

The problem was, Rory was certain now that what he wanted was her. And this wasn’t to say he wanted to continue as they had been for the last four months, getting to know each other and living together in a platonic relationship. No, he wanted her--all of her--her time, her heart, her body, her life. He wanted her in his life, a permanent fixture, on his boat as his woman and not his housekeeper. He wanted it all, and yet he still could not have her.

But maybe… Maybe for a time, she could be his. Despite it feeling like he was going to do his best to commandeer her time while she was willing to be with him, only to have the whole thing come down crashing and burning around him in the end, to have her for such a short, sweet time might be better than never having had her at all.

They walked from the limo to the docks, where he reached down and scooped her up into his arms, amidst her protestations.

“Put me down, Rory,” she said, but she was also laughing, her arms scrambling to go around his neck as he cradled her high on his chest. She was so light and perfect and fit in his arms like she belonged there.

“Nay, you might trip,” was his reply, though they both knew she was obviously capable of traversing the dock without doing that.

She was smiling, though, and he only put her down once she was able to cross over to the yacht. But there, in the small space just inside the yacht’s edge, he stopped her from maneuvering around the steering column to the hatch door with a hand to her arm.

“Dance with me,” he said softly, and her good humored smile faded to something more serious--something vastly more aware and wary, curious but cautious.

Rory didn’t do anything but stand there, feeling the chill of the night even through his jacket. He knew she must be cold and he also knew of a solution for that, but first she had to agree to his request.

Grace stood with one hand gripping her shawl together, one hand sliding down to grasp Rory’s hand, but she didn’t come closer. She dropped her clutch to the bench beside her and turned back to regard him with interest, the lights of the harbor illuminating her face and making her light golden eyes appear liquid in the dim light.

She was beautiful--had been the entire evening, but here it was different. Here her beauty was just for him. Her presence, the fragrance of her, the way she could look like a high society princess and still harbor impish delight in her eyes and the scent of oranges in her hair, left him completely mesmerized. It was at that moment that he knew for a fact that he had lost his heart to her, and the awareness dawned over him that he had just less than one month to convince her they belonged together--one month of doing everything within his power that did not include touching her, since he had promised her three months ago to avoid doing just that.

He knew the moment she gave in, because her hand slipped out of his and she stepped into him, her heels bringing her head within easy resting distance of his downturned chin. With her cheek pressed against his chest and his arms wrapped around her, warding off the chilly breeze coming in from the ocean, he began to sway.

It was sweet and perfect, just like everything about her. There was nothing more he wanted to do in that moment than to hold her just so, to feel her breasts crushed against him, to know that beneath the sequined, twinkling fabric of her shawl was that sexy expanse of bare back.

Only one thing could make the moment more perfect, and he voiced it, heedless to how it may have sounded when it came out.

“Sing for me, Grace,” he bid her, and he felt her tense for just a moment before she relaxed into him and shifted her face, rubbing her cheek against the soft satin of his tie.

It was a long moment before she did, and he almost didn’t pick up on the sound coming from beneath him as being her voice. It was a low, sultry hum, the introduction to a song he didn’t recognize.

Then she began to sing, and they both adjusted their swaying to match the beat of the song.

I am not the only traveler

Who has not repaid his debt

I've been searching for a trail to follow again

Take me back to the night we met

She sang softly at first, her voice carrying away on the breeze but somehow surrounding them, the soft vibrato with which she ended her lines causing shivers to run up his spine. In response he felt her hands move, stroking his lower back before her arms tightened around him, squeezing him about his middle.

She raised her voice slightly as she continued singing.

And then I can tell myself

What it is that I'm supposed to do

And then I can tell myself

Not to ride along with you

He realized the song was slow but also sad, tugging at his heart as he realized she had chosen a song that quite possibly shone with her feelings about the two of them. Rory found his own arms tightening, one hand coming up to stroke from the crown of her head down her back, along the silky smoothness of her hair and then returning to repeat the process.

I had all and then most of you

Some and now none of you

Take me back to the night we met

I don't know what I'm supposed to do

Haunted by the ghost of you

Oh, take me back to the night we met

She paused briefly between verses, humming along after clearing her throat and he realized she was overcome with emotion. Still he swayed, still he stroked, still she squeezed, but he felt as though she was singing a song with the intent of breaking both their hearts. The lyrics made him want to drop to his knees, to grasp her by the shoulders and shake her, to tell her, “This is not how it has to be!”

But she started singing again, and he turned to rest his cheek against her crown.

When the night was full of terrors

And your eyes were filled with tears

When you had not touched me yet

Oh, take me back to the night we met

She sniffed, and Rory felt helpless. He knew what she was singing of, knew she referred to the night they had made love. He felt her arms tighten yet again, knew the unspoken words in that action were telling him she was going to miss him, and that she didn’t want to feel as though she needed to regret all the things they had done together. She didn’t want to regret the feelings that had developed between them.

One more time she sang the chorus, and he wanted to tell her, “You do have all of me, you do know what you’re supposed to do--I am not a ghost, Grace.”

But outwardly he was aware there were no words he could use to convince her.

Declarations of his love would fall on deaf ears. Promises of a future would mean nothing if she didn’t feel the same. Pledging his troth to her for better or worse--the idea hadn’t even occurred to him before, but it did now.

Grace was a strong, independent woman. If those thoughts didn’t come from her, he knew with certainty that she would reject all overtures of forever .

He remained firm in his resolve to not alienate her, so when she pulled her face back to look up at him he simply watched her--eyes dipping to his mouth, her tongue wetting her lip, her shaky indrawn breath accompanied by a tear slipping out of those shadowed eyes. In those depths he could see sadness and resignation.

When she reached up to pull his mouth down to hers, he took the permission she granted and released the floodgates of his passion, holding nothing back.

Chapter Text

Grace kissed him because it felt good, because she had such a wonderful evening, and because now she was dealing with reality. And that reality was, Rory was not hers.

He could be as chivalrous as he wanted to be, as gallant and noble and kind, but that wouldn’t make it possible for them to be together. That wouldn’t make him anything other than her employer, nor would it make her anything other than his employee. And she didn’t see a way out of that position, so this was a futile effort.

Knowing what she was doing was just torturing them both, though, wasn’t enough for her to pull away. The squeeze of his arms around her waist and the way his mustache tickled her face as she kissed him kept her locked in this whirlwind of sensation that threatened to crash her over the side of the yacht. She would be swept away, drowned in sexual attraction and mutual satisfaction if she didn’t drag a life preserver over her head and put some space between them.

And yet… just one more kiss--one more touch to his temple that she wasn’t allowed to touch, one more caress at the back of his neck in a way only his girlfriend or wife should be touching him. One more moan escaping her lips as he masterfully toyed with her mouth and tasted her with his tongue.

After all, she could handle a bit of drowning, right? Just a little bit?

She wanted him so badly her heart hurt. Her body was aching with want, her hands tingling where they touched him, and she still knew she could not have him. It wasn’t going to work out in her favor, and it was this last thought that had her pulling away, drawing back in an attempt to break the kiss.

But Rory followed, and the seduction of her mouth with his was too much for her to resist in that moment and she crashed back into him, wrapping her arms around his neck as though she were already drowning and he held the oxygen she needed in order to survive. His growl of conquest sent her nerve endings into overdrive and some distant, faraway thought told her tonight she would be bringing herself to release by herself, in her room, where he would not be allowed.

It was a sobering thought and when she finally pulled away, drawing her mouth apart from his with great reluctance, she prevented him from returning with her fingertips pressed to his lips.

They were both breathing hard, Rory’s chest expanding and contracting swiftly in front of her face. And when he nudged her face up to his she thought he might try to kiss her again, but he merely rested his forehead against hers, taking deep breaths as he closed his eyes.

“You drive me to distraction, Grace,” he ground out against her fingers, and he kissed them, drawing her hand down from his face to press it flat over his heart.

She could feel the pounding from inside his chest and knew if she did the same with his own hand, he would feel her own heart mirroring his.

A gust of wind suddenly flew over the water and rustled lines and rigging all around them, making metal rings clatter and the surface they were standing on sway with the waves. Grace’s hair flew up around them, twisting around Rory’s body as though it was the only part of her brave enough to go for what it wanted.

With that thought in her mind, Grace whispered, “I’m going to get ready for bed,” and she leaned back to watch Rory’s reaction.

He looked as though he was going to say something, but thought better of it. Instead he helped her corral her hair in a ponytail over her shoulder which she held onto as he unlocked the hatch.

Once inside she went directly into her small bedroom and shut the door. She listened for him to move from where he stood just outside, but he didn’t, so she went through the motions of getting ready for bed, as she had said she was going to.

The dress and shawl hung in her small armoire, and her shoes and clutch went into a drawer. She thought about leaving them once she moved out but thought better of it--Rory wouldn’t have anything he could do with them, so she might as well just take them, even though she would likely never have another opportunity to wear them.

Instead, she dressed in a t-shirt and exercise shorts, and brushed her hair out so she could wind it into a loose, high bun. Then she gathered up her toothbrush and toothpaste, and opened the door.

Rory was already in a t-shirt and sweats, sitting on the end of the couch with his ankle propped on his knee. He watched her with a blank expression as she entered the small bathroom to brush her teeth.

They had shared this bedtime routine countless times now, for the last three months. He had seen her in these pajamas, and she had seen him in his outfit so many times that she was almost able to keep her eyes off him when he stretched his arms out and rested them on the back of the couch.

But tonight felt different. Tonight felt like they knew they were attracted to each other, but also that they couldn’t have one another. In an odd sort of way she felt closer to him now, like the knowledge was easier to accept than it had been before. Which is why when she was done she took a chance and waved at the spot next to him.

“May I?”

Rory glanced down at the empty spot and then looked up at her, not quite bringing his face all the way up so his forehead wrinkled in that cute way it did when he was surprised. With a quick nod, he granted her request and she turned to sit beside him, curling her feet beneath her and leaning into his side.

If it surprised him now he didn’t show it, but rather wrapped his arm around her shoulders and tucked her in closer. With her arms curled up near her chest, Grace leaned her head back against his arm and sighed.

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Rory was torn between irritated that she was taking this liberty--with his permission, of course--and wanting to keep her there in his arms forever. Maybe he could trap her there, refuse to let her go. Maybe she would realize in time that here, leaning against his chest, was where she was supposed to be. And maybe tomorrow morning they would find that overnight, pigs had learned how to fly.

This friendship they had, this relationship , was unlike anything he had ever experienced. They had already had sex but hadn’t told each other anything of love. They kissed and danced but weren’t dating, although he was sure neither of them were seeing anyone else.

They lived together for the time being, for the next month at least, but lived in separate bedrooms.

How was he going to explain this to his sister? She was due in for a visit soon, though he wasn’t exactly sure when she was coming by.

“I’m sorry, Rory,” said Grace softly from below him. He angled his face down but could only see her hairline, the ridge of her nose.

Tenderness flooded him for this woman, and he wondered how he was going to survive her leaving even as he was lifting a finger to run down the length of her nose. She was soft everywhere, including there, and he did it again just to make sure he would always remember what it felt like to do that.

“Sorry for…?” He left the question open ended.

Grace inhaled deeply as he dropped his hand to his thigh, but he watched her reach out and take it in hers. She held it and looked at it, rubbing her thumb along the ridges of thick veins just beneath the skin, pushing the hair on the back in the opposite direction in which it naturally grew and then smoothing it back out again. Then she turned his hand over, tracing the lines of his palm as though she, too, wished to remember it.

“For getting so mixed up in all this.”

Her tone was sad, and he didn’t want her to be. He used the hand she had been exploring to weave his fingers through hers, as awkward as that was. She was receptive to it, and they sandwiched his hand upside down between her thigh and her own palm.

“Not all your fault, lass. I’ve played my part as well.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t know--this feels awkward.” She paused, like she was thinking, and she tilted her face up a bit but didn’t look at him. He saw her eyes drifting around the room in front of them, looking at everything from this point of view. “Sitting here now, with you. It feels on one hand like I shouldn’t be here--that I should be in my own apartment, showing up to work tomorrow to clean your floor and wipe down your sinks. And yet this also feels really good, like I found a friend I didn’t expect to find.”

She fell silent again, and this time she took the hand he had wrapped around her and pulled it close, leaning her cheek against his forearm.

“So I guess I just wanted to say… thanks. For everything.”

They remained still for a little while, each lost in their own thoughts. Rory was trying to think of an appropriate response to her gratitude but really had none. He wanted to tell her it was absurd, and that he didn’t need her thanks as long as she got rid of that ridiculous notion that she had to leave. He wanted to tell her she was welcomed to anything she wanted to take from him--be it comfort, his body, his heart.

He didn’t say anything, and after a while she spoke again.

“Would you sing for me, Rory?”

His huffed laugh made her bounce against his chest.

“Aye, so you know about me? About my music”

Grace laughed softly in response, turning to look up at him now. Her eyes were merry and her smile mischievous, but he found her completely endearing.

“I’ve always known,” she admitted, reaching up to draw the backs of her fingers down his bearded cheek. And for christs sakes , Rory wondered if there was any way he could be more in love with the woman.

“Aye,” he said with a dramatic, exaggerated sigh. “I’ll sing for ye.”

Quicker than he expected, she bounced up from the couch and went to retrieve her guitar. When she handed it to him, albeit gently, he looked up at her wryly.

“And play, too?”

She nodded, sitting on the other end of the couch as he adjusted himself, sitting back against the arm rest.

“Spoiled,” he murmured, but he smiled mildly at her, softly, not bothering to hide those feelings coursing through him. The smile she returned was expectant and happy, so he chose a song that reflected what he wished his mood to be at that moment, even if he did have sadness hovering just below the surface.

He began to strum, and Grace pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them, watching his fingers on the frets, the hand holding the pick, and then his face as he began to sing.

Can't you see that it's just rainin'

Ain't no need to go outside

He watched her face, the way she smiled sweetly as he sang the lyrics, wishing he was able to sing them for true--that she would ignore the world outside the yacht’s windows and just stay with him.

Wakin' up too early

Maybe we could sleep in

Make you banana pancakes

Pretend like it's the weekend now

Her smile split into a grin at the mention of banana pancakes, and she nodded as she watched him work the guitar with his hands, making him wonder if perhaps she knew how to make those.

Just maybe

Halaka ukulele mama made a baby

Really don't mind the practice

Cause you're my little lady

Her eyes returned to his at that line, but they didn’t waver. Her smile faded a measure, but was still there when he looked down at the guitar, adjusting it as he played. When he returned his gaze to hers she was still looking at him intently.

Lady lady love me

Cause I love to lay here lazy

We could close the curtains

Pretend like there's no world outside

He wanted to tell her that--to tell her to love him, to ask her to, to beg her to, but as long as he felt she wouldn’t be open-minded to his overtures of emotion, he would keep mum. Until then perhaps he could sing for her what was in his heart, until that day came when she might return the feelings he had for her.

We got everything we need right here

And everything we need is enough

The yacht, though still somewhat new to him, seemed different than what it was when he had originally purchased it.

How could he stay here once she moved out? How could he retain ownership of the craft when she no longer worked for him and moved on? When he would see oranges on the counter and think of her, smell oranges anywhere and think of her? When the towels in the bathroom weren’t straightened by her, when the food he was eating wasn’t made by her, when the company he could rely on turned out to be Mitch instead of her?

Make you banana pancakes

Pretend like it's the weekend now

We could pretend it all the time

Aye, he wanted to pretend all the time. He wanted her there with him so he could pretend the world didn’t exist, that they could sail out to sea and forget all their responsibilities except to each other.

He wanted to watch sunrises with her, to watch sunsets with her in his lap, eating at the dinette together, sleeping in the bigger bed together, doing everything together. She was such a light, such a warm presence, that he felt she would rip off part of his heart and take it with her when she left.

But would she know she had even done it?

He finished the last few chords of the song and handed her back the guitar.

“You play wonderfully, Rory. Have you played all your life?”

They settled into a conversation about their pasts, about their lives and families and experiences. It was a novel experience for Rory, seeing as how he tended to meet superficial women who had one goal in mind. In this case that was one of his goals, but in Grace he sensed a deeper connection, and a need in her heart for this kind of close companionship.

He knew she had grown close to the family for whom she had worked for years, and as she spoke about them now he noted how that woman was as close to Grace as a mother. She still planned on visiting them though they hadn’t nailed down a good time for her to do so.

But once she had been let go and she had worked for several years at various jobs within the larger company, she was offered the position Rory had contacted them about, and he could never thank them enough. His time with her had been some of the best times he’d ever experienced in his entire life.

Like now, for instance. He looked over at her as she spoke, drinking coffee he had made for her as he nursed his own, talking animatedly about her previous young charge, Thomas. The following day they had a Skype date, during the time when Rory was normally gone from the yacht during the day. But Mitch was currently out of town, and Rory had some repairs and check ups he wanted to do on the yacht, getting it ready for when he eventually worked up the balls to tell Grace he wanted to leave for a week or two.

He hadn’t done it yet--hadn’t spoken to her about leaving for open water--but knew ideally she would be going with him. There didn’t seem to be a feasible way to convince her he needed a maid while out there, so he resigned himself to doing without her for the duration of his voyage.

As she yawned and said she needed to go to bed, she looked almost sad. He hoped that somewhere in her heart she was sad that they weren’t going to bed together, but with the smile and small wave she gave him before turning in, he doubted it. There had been times where she seemed as tortured by their mutual attraction as he. But right now it seemed more like she was as unaffected by the kiss they shared on deck as he was affected.

He wished he could reach into her mind and discover the truth, but since that wasn’t possible, he resigned himself to taking matters into his own hands, so to speak, while thinking of her in the other room.

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Grace had just less than a month before she had to move out, and she was steadfastly refusing to indulge in any physical relief tactics that involved thinking about Rory in a sexual nature. She had vowed a week ago, the night of the gala, that that was the last time she would bring herself to release, especially while thinking of him. Which meant she was forced to pine for him silently while they were in the same room together, on almost a daily basis.

For the last week they had alternated between her playing and singing, and him playing and singing. It would have been the perfect existence except that they weren’t together, she wasn’t free to sit on his lap whenever she wanted--like she craved to do every time he was on the couch--and she wasn’t free to voice her growing feelings for him, whatever they were.

She was certain she didn’t love him because that just sounded ridiculous--she barely knew him. She might know how he liked his coffee, that he liked pepper on his eggs and thought it was silly that she folded his boxers, but she didn’t really know him.

Plus she had her job to think of, and how at any moment this one with Rory could fall through and she would need to find employment elsewhere--possibly in another country. Where would she be then?

Desirous of a man who lived a world away, that’s where.

Even so, she would watch him when he plucked at the guitar strings with his head resting against the wall behind him, his eyes closed. She liked the play of muscles in his neck as he spoke, how every once in a while he would smile lightly as though a lyric conjured up a nice memory, or when he would mess up and he would sneer comically at himself as he corrected his fingers.

Then there were the times when she played and she would feel his eyes on her, listening to her sing, watching her play the guitar, and she’d look over to find him staring at her--completely at odds with how she attempted to hide the way she focused on him as he played. He would be staring, forgetting the book on his lap or the computer in front of him, and she would get self conscious about her sound, her music or the way she looked. She felt ridiculous, like a girl whose crush suddenly looked at her.

Another reason why life on the yacht wasn’t perfect was because she felt that every so often Rory would drop a hint--like the stares--that he perhaps wanted more out of her.

He was true to his word and did not touch her. She suspected that he was leaving that up to her--that every time in the past she had broken and was the first to touch him , was when he took the liberty to touch her back to the degree with which she had first done the touching. Like the kiss after the gala--she had perhaps attacked him a bit, and so he attacked her. But then the snuggling on the couch afterwards proved he did no more than the things she did to him--the touching, the stroking, the holding.

Just two nights ago, though, he had been on the couch with his eyes closed and had broken out to her surprise in a Don Williams song, You’re My Best Friend, and although she looked up from her book when he’d sung the lyrics the first time, “You’re my anchor in life’s oceans,” he had his eyes closed and wasn’t looking at her.

Then yesterday he had done the same thing, only this time his back was to her while they were both on the couch, and he was sitting on the edge facing out. He sang Elvis’s Can’t Help Falling In Love .

She had never heard a song sung more sweetly than when he said the line, “Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling so it goes, some things are meant to be,” and Grace was almost positive he was singing about her.

But, that couldn’t be possible--surely Rory wasn’t falling in love with her? She was his employee, and while they had shared some mind-blowing sex and a kiss that should have melted through the bottom of the yacht, that was the extent of their relationship. It was a business arrangement, and her staying on the yacht was an additional arrangement between friends, at best.

“Take my hand, take my whole life too; for I can't help falling in love with you.”

With those lyrics, she stood and left the room. These were not thoughts she was prepared to have, and she needed to get away from him before his music wove spells around her and trapped her in their loveliness.

Chapter Text

With her ticket to London purchased for tomorrow, notice sent to Evan about the apartment, and one found almost exactly two miles away, Rory offered to accompany Grace and to drive them there so she could see it. At first she declined, but he seemed so willing to go that she felt it would be nice to have a second opinion, and someone who knew more about housing costs in Scotland than she did.

Rory was tense on the drive over and they didn’t talk, except for him to ask some questions about the apartment – did it have good water, was it in a good neighborhood, were there any hoodrats hanging out on corners ready to assault unsuspecting women.

Actually, he sounded kind of snippy when questioning her, which caught her off guard.

“Is something wrong?” she asked quietly, looking over at him from the passenger seat. He was staring ahead at the road, navigating the short drive from the right side of the SUV.

He glanced at her and then back at the road, his expression betraying nothing besides the sharp shake of his head.

“Are you able to give your deposit today?”

An odd question, but she answered truthfully nonetheless.

“No, I’d rather do a bank transfer or get a cashier’s check for that. Why?”

He shook his head, but she thought she saw some of the tension leaving his body at her answer.

“No reason,” he said softly, and was quiet for the rest of the ride.

The apartment turned out to be quite nice, in a neighborhood that looked as though it would almost be safe enough to leave her doors unlocked. They parked at the curb and waited for a woman with a double jogging stroller and what looked like twins to pass by, waving hello as she passed, before they walked up the walkway and to the front door of the building.

It was miles above the other apartment already, with a manicured lawn out front and flower beds up along the building. The man who greeted them was older but well dressed, and he directed Rory and Grace up the stairs to the second landing, giving her the key so she unlocked the door, but following them up.

“What do ye think of th’ building so far, young lady?” he asked, his accent thicker than Rory’s but still easy to understand. Grace smiled back at him as she unlocked the door, answering honestly.

“It’s a beautiful location, and the neighborhood seems nice. We passed a mom on the way in out jogging.”

They stepped into a small entryway as he answered, “Oh, aye, that’d be Mrs. Morris, just down the street. Them twins o’ hers are nearly a year now – lovely kids.”

He stepped inside and closed the door as Rory and Grace looked around from where they stood.

“Can’t say this apartment is conducive to families, mind ye, but depending on how many kids ye be wanting, it could work.”

He walked past them with that strange comment and showed her the kitchen, which had newer appliances but outdated everything else. He informed them the appliances had been upgraded but that the whole apartment was due for a renovation, which was why the rent was low.

“Come see the master bedroom.”

Grace glanced up at Rory as the man walked through a doorway, noting the unhappy look in his eyes. She didn’t understand it. The apartment was much nicer than the other one, and in an obviously safer neighborhood. She didn’t know what there was to not like about it.

She followed the older gentleman nevertheless, hearing Rory come up behind her in the small bedroom.

“Tis small, but again the rent is very reasonable.” He turned to look Rory up and down, raising bushy eyebrows as he continued, “Might be you’ll need an extra large bed for this one.”

He laughed at his own joke as he started for the door.

“Oh, no – we’re not together, sir,” Grace corrected him quickly, nervously sending a glance in Rory’s direction. He seemed irritated, but she didn’t know at what.

He made no move to correct the man, though nor did he smile, leading her to wonder why he had come in the first place if he was just going to be in a bad mood. She would rather he had stayed back at the yacht or gone and did something on his own, if he was just planning on being a sourpuss during the apartment showing.

The man showed them the rest of the place, pointing out the good sized bathroom and finishing with the view of a park where according to him, lots of families played with their kids. Again she pointed out that she and Rory were not a couple but the way the man looked back at her – a silly little grin on his face and humor in his eyes – told her for some reason he didn’t believe her.

When the tour ended he gave her a packet to fill out if she was interested, and to turn it in by the end of the following week, as that was when he would be making his decision. He still had several couples – again, she corrected him – who wished to see the apartment and he would like to get someone in there by month’s end.

It wasn’t until she had thanked him and her and Rory were back in his rented SUV that she finally turned to him.

“What is your problem?”

His lips were pressed firmly together as he threw the car into gear and drove off, having at least the common sense to not peel out and leave rubber marks on the asphalt.

“It’s nothing, Grace. The apartment is nice.”

“Then why the attitude? Why didn’t you give me any feedback? Help me ask questions? I thought that’s why you were there .”

She sat back against the seat, slipping on her seat belt before clasping her hands in her lap. But what she wanted to do was cross her arms over her chest and give him as good as he gave.

He didn’t answer for a minute, but when he did his tone was flat, emotionless.

“It’s a nice apartment, Grace. Will you also be buying a car?”

She deflated a bit, although she should have expected his offer to pay for cab fare to and from her home wouldn’t last. She decided not to let any disappointment show, and she shrugged as she looked out the window.

“I haven’t decided yet. I might get a… bike.”

In her peripheral vision she saw him look at her before turning back to the road.

“A bike,” he repeated.

Grace nodded, thinking that a bike would serve her well during the months it was warm enough to ride it. There were still a couple of those left, but during the winter she would have to think about what to do. Perhaps a short term lease, as she wouldn’t be putting many miles on it.

Rory mumbled something, and she caught his obstinate tone, glancing at him to see his lips pressed firmly together again, eyes on the road.

“What was that?” she asked, not sure if she wanted to know.

He looked at her, then at the road, and then at her and back to the road again.

“I said I don’t see why you need to get an apartment, anyways.”

He didn’t look at her again, but Grace stared at him.

So that’s what is bothering him. He doesn’t want me to move out.

She looked ahead at the road, feeling her irritation with him melt away, to be replaced by sadness. All day she had tried to be excited about finding a nice apartment, and Rory wasn’t looking forward to her moving away from the yacht. He was attached to her, she knew, but much in the same way she was attached to him. And the attachment wasn’t healthy, nor was it ethical as long as she needed her job.

A sadness washed over her, sadness for both of them.

“I can’t stay,” she said softly, looking out the window. “It’s just… too hard,” she admitted, and she didn’t bother to look at him.

She was certain he knew of her attraction to him, and she obviously knew of his for her. It was time for them to face the fact that at some point they would make love again if they remained in each other’s company.

“It’s not too hard,” he said, but his voice lacked conviction.

“We kissed a week ago,” she reasoned. “Living in such close quarters isn’t conducive to an employee, employer relationship.”

He was silent for a time, and she thought he was mulling over, perhaps agreeing with, what she had said. After all, it was the complete truth. Their mutual attraction would spell the ruination of the friendship they had built up, and she needed her distance to maintain that rapport. Grace didn’t want to lose Rory – they had spent five months building this up, and to see it crumble because they couldn’t control themselves would be heartbreaking.

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Rory wanted to argue. He wanted to tell her he didn’t want an employer, employee relationship. He wanted to tell her she was fired, that she should quit, that he didn’t want to pay her to be on the yacht anymore because he wanted her to want to be there of her own volition, and not because her position dictated she be there.

But she wasn’t going to listen. She was stubborn; adamant that they needed to be apart, and he was panicking. He didn’t want to admit it even to himself, but the closer it got to her leaving after this month was up, the more he struggled with his feelings for her.

He loved her, there was no doubt about it. He could fairly easily admit it to himself now.

But she was resolved to move off the yacht and find her own place.

He should never have moved her onto the yacht. He knew that. His heart wouldn’t have claimed her, his mind wouldn’t have chosen her to fixate on, and they both could have moved on with their lives as her employer and his employee.

And yet, even as he thought those thoughts, he wondered if they were true. He wondered if he would have developed this strong attraction to her – fallen in love with her – even if she hadn’t lived on the yacht. He suspected that the answer to that would have been yes – that his body would have found hers, and his heart would have found hers, and his mind would have chosen her regardless of how much time they spent together.

They drove in silence after that, Rory having decided that Grace just needed to think he agreed with her, for the sake of no arguing. But he did want to argue – he wanted to declare his love, to hold her down and kiss her until she gave into the connection between them. And it was that thought that drove him to his bedroom once they were inside the yacht, closing the door behind him.

Throughout the day he heard her moving around, sometimes sitting out in the main cabin where she got out her guitar to pluck away at some songs. Her chords sounded jumbled, mixed up, as though she couldn’t concentrate, and she eventually put it away.

She made dinner for them and they ate in silence except for Rory thanking her for the meal. Then they both went to bed early, not spending their usual time together.

In the morning he went outside to sit on the deck while she used his shower and finished packing. Then he helped her load her bag into the SUV and they drove with the music on all the way into Glasgow.

The airport was busy and he pulled up to the curb next to Departures. Grace got out of the car and waited while he pulled her bag out of the back seat, then stood on the curb, hands clasped in front of her, as they stood facing one another.

“So, I’ll be back in a week.”

Rory nodded. He had her itinerary, and would be at the airport on the specified day to pick her up and bring her back to the yacht.

“Look, Rory…” Grace looked down at her feet and then back up, her expression fraught with disconcertion. “I think this is going to be a good week, a good – a good time away.”

He nodded, but looked out above her head at the people passing by. He knew he should keep his head down, not let people know he was there. It was only a matter of time before someone recognized him, and right now he wouldn’t turn away a fan, but he wasn’t exactly in the mood to be accosted by one, either.

“I’m going to take the yacht out to open water, but I’ll be here in a week to bring you back.”

She nodded and he finally looked down at her. He wanted to hug her but instead he took a step back, and then another.

“Have a safe trip, Grace,” he said, emotionless as he turned his back and walked around to the driver’s side of the SUV. As he drove away she stood at the curb, watching him.

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The trip to London turned out to be a nice break from the stress Grace had been under for the last few months. Seeing Jillian and Scott and the kids – being able to meet little Dawn and to finally hug Thomas again after all these years was wonderful. He had grown so much that he was as tall as her, which wasn’t hard to accomplish. But he teased her now about it, at the same time she gently berated him for not telling her he had grown so much when they spoke over Skype.

They set her up in a guest bedroom and kept her busy during the day, which was easy because Jillian was now a stay at home mom. But from what Grace could see, she flourished in that role.

It wasn’t until five days had passed that Jillian sat her down after the kids and Scott had gone to bed, and settled them both with cups of tea. She turned to Grace and level a look that said they were about to have a conversation that might not be altogether pleasant.

“So, are you going to tell me what’s been going on? There’s something you’re not telling us when you talk about your job and your employer, but I can see it’s bothering you.”

She reached a hand out to cover Grace’s and gave it an affectionate pat.

Being ten years older than Grace, she was old enough to feel like a mother figure but young enough that Grace knew she was also a friend for life. She felt a little bad about not confiding in Jillian before this, but knew her friend would be open to hearing about her issues anytime Grace was comfortable talking about them.

And as it turned out, she was comfortable now. Jillian sat quietly while Grace told her of the new job, and of the yacht, how nice it was, how working there had fueled her desire to someday have one of her own. She told her friend of the apartment, the assault, and then how somehow feelings had gotten mixed up between her and her employer and how they had had sex.

Then she had to speak over Jillian’s gasp when she said her employer had asked her to move onto the yacht, but that he promised he would not touch her.

Grace was certain Jillian’s mother hen feathers were ruffled at that, but the woman was slightly mollified when Grace explained that not only had her employer promised not to touch her again, but that he had kept to his word – except for the gala. She did tell Jillian about the blue dress and how all evening it had felt like she was teasing him, and how the evening ended in a private dance and a kiss Grace had initiated.

“And then we cuddled on the couch. Also my idea,” she pointed out, not wanting to paint Rory in a bad light at all.

She went on to tell her about the previous week and how it had culminated in the tense visit to another apartment, and Jillian’s face split into a smile when Grace told her about her employer’s demeanor on that day.

“It sounds like someone has feelings for his employee,” said Jillian with a smile, but Grace nodded sadly.

“I think I agree.”

“And that’s a bad thing, why? A man who owns his own yacht, a woman who loves said yacht, and who quite obviously – ” she leaned over and nudged Grace’s shoulder, “ – returns the man’s feelings? What’s stopping you, Grace?”

Taking another drink of tea, Grace set it on the table in front of her and reclined against the couch.

“It’s my job. He’s my employer.” She ticked off reasons on her fingers. “We’ve already had sex. He’s also fourteen years older than me. And I’m an American citizen and he’s Scottish.”

“Okay,” Jillian said gently, “But you’re not telling me you don’t love him.”

Grace’s face shot up to her friends, realizing for the first time that that wasn’t something she had thought of before.

“But… I’m not. That’s not – I haven’t felt…”

Her stammering was making her look really bad, but the suggestion had caught her off guard. She wasn’t in love with Rory. That was absurd.

“Maybe you are, and you just don’t realize it.”

Jillian was smiling over the edge of her cup, but Grace was staring off into space, shaking her head.

“No, it’s not possible.” She looked back at the other woman, saying, “I would have known. We’ve spent a lot of time together, but Rory isn’t the type to just fall in love with someone like me.”

“Rory, hm? That’s a cute name.” Jillian was still smiling when she asked, “So, does your employer have a last name?”

Grace swallowed. She didn’t know why this felt embarrassing, but she was embarrassed to reveal to Jillian who her employer was.

“McCann,” she squeaked, knowing full well Jillian had stayed up later with her watching Game Of Thrones on plenty of nights while Grace had worked for them.

Jillian’s smile remained frozen in place as she sat for a moment, obviously digesting what Grace was saying.

“Rory McCann?” she asked, making it sound like her teeth were clenched together. Her smile was sort of silly since her eyes were registering shock that didn’t jive with the width of her smile. But then the smile faded, and Jillian was left with an open mouthed confusion as Grace spoke.

“The one and only,” she said simply, her eyes on Jillian’s. Then she shrugged. She didn’t know what else to say. Was Rory in love with her? Her mind was still focused on what Jillian had said earlier. Did Rory have feelings for her?

“The Hound?”

Grace nodded, thinking of Rory singing, “Shall I stay? Would it be a sin, if I can't help falling in love with you.”

Her heart flipped inside her chest as she stared unseeing at the coffee table in front of her.

“The six and a half foot tall Scottish actor who lives on a boat and who is notoriously reclusive? That Rory McCann?”

Grace nodded again. “Like a river flows surely to the sea.” And she had – flowed right to the sea where she had found him.

“Grace, why on earth didn’t you tell me?”

“Confidentiality,” she whispered slowly, then looked back at her friend. “Jillian, I… I think you’re right.”

Jillian sputtered, shaking her head as she, too, looked at the empty space in front of them.

Rory’s voice played in Grace’s mind, “ Take my hand, take my whole life too; for I can't help falling in love with you.”

She told Jillian of all the things Rory had done during their time together. How he stood close to her while she cooked, would let his hand drift over her skin in passing though not in a sexual way – ”Yeah, right,” Jillian responded sarcastically – and how he had opened his yacht to her when she didn’t have a safe place to stay. She told Jillian of the companionable silences they sat in, of her singing and playing for Rory and of him singing and playing for her.

Then she told Jillian of that last day where they had quietly argued over the apartment, and how Rory seemed in a bad mood up until the point she had watched him drive away from the airport.

“I think… I think Rory’s in love with me,” she said, shocked, looking back at Jillian.

Chapter Text

Sally-Gay McCann was waving goodbye from the open window of her rental as she drove away from Rory, towards the home she kept on the other side of town. She was set to leave the day after for Ireland, where her next job was. Rory had had a good couple of days to reconnect with her, but she promised to come back to visit to meet the woman with the orange perfume.

She claimed to be able to smell it but it hadn’t sat well with Rory that by day two of Grace’s trip to London, the fragrance had faded, until today where he could barely smell it unless he went into the room she had been sleeping in.

That’s where Sally had found him when she’d woken – sitting on Grace’s bed holding her pillow to his face. He wasn’t an overly emotional man, but he had spilled his heart to his sister that morning and told her everything about Grace – from the reason why they had come together, to the fateful night they had made love, to that soulfully deep kiss after the gala and the hurt he felt at the prospect of her moving out. It had taken a third party – Sally – to point out the solution to their problems.

Rory needed to speak up. That was the most important thing Sally had said. He needed to tell Grace of his feelings for her, and he needed to tell her that she was free to still work, but that she wouldn’t be working for him because he wanted her to live with him on the boat, to accept his love and be with him in a true sense. Boyfriend and girlfriend, whatever it was they wanted to call it. But under no circumstances could they go on living as they had while Grace was on Rory’s payroll.

He just needed the right time to talk to her about it, and that was tonight after dinner, when she had had some time to relax and become reacquainted with the yacht she told him she liked so much.

And he could not mention the apartment issue, Sally told him. If Grace was focused on moving out and it was a sore subject, than he was to absolutely keep his mouth shut on that issue, since having her in his life would be better than him chasing her away and not having her around at all.

He drove to the airport in Glasgow and circled the lot a few times before deciding to park in short term parking and just go in and get her. There was part of him that was excited to see her, but another part of him that knew he needed to keep the first part in check. He still didn’t believe she was going to go for his plan, but he had to present it to her anyway in hopes that she would make this dream come true. He would live out his life as an old, miserly bachelor for certain if he didn’t take this risk.

Only two people came up to him while he was waiting, asking him if he would take photos with them. He always made time for fans, although he was a bit anxious to know he was at the airport waiting for Grace. Pictures done, he resumed his watch for Grace as passengers began their descent down the escalator and stairs.

It wasn’t but two minutes later that she came into view, carrying her suitcase as she walked down the steps. She was a beautiful as ever – all that hair confined to the bun on the back of her head, this time dressed in a long skirt and sleeveless top that showed off her slender arms. His breath caught in his throat as he recalled the conclusions Sally had helped him come to over the last couple of days.

“Hello,” she said as she walked up to him. He looked for a smile but she didn’t show one. Rather, she seemed to be studying him as she looked over his features.

“Did you have a good trip?” He reached for her suitcase but didn’t touch her, wary of this odd mood she appeared to be in. She nodded in return as they began walking.

“And you? Did you take the yacht out on the water?”

He answered yes, that he had, but he didn’t add that it had been cut short by the arrival of his sister.

“It was good. She handled nicely on the water and I’m impressed.”

“Had you not been out before?” she asked, curious. Rory shook his head.

“No, she was still fairly new to me when you began working aboard her.”

Grace seemed puzzled at that, saying, “You never told me.”

Rory smiled down at her, unfazed by her lack of a good mood.

“There’s a lot I haven't told you.”

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Rory was in a curious mood. He seemed… happy. But, cautiously happy. As though he was happy to have her back but still perhaps a bit sad that her leaving was inevitable.

He told her about sailing the boat, which made her slightly jealous that she was likely never going to get a chance to do that. “Surely to the sea,” she silently said to herself, feeling her mood dim at the reminder of the song lyrics. Her river didn’t take her to the sea, that was certain.

She told him about seeing Jillian’s kids and of Scott and Jillian themselves; how great it was to see her second family and her vow that she would see them again soon. She told him she didn’t miss London as much as she thought she would, but that it was the Gebhart’s who drew her back to the city. But now that she was back in Scotland, she felt she could take a deep breath without fear of smog infiltrating her lungs.

And the yacht – it was good to be back. Bittersweet, of course, but she knew in two weeks she would be moving out of that room and back to the distant employee/employer relationship her and Rory needed to have.

That didn’t stop her from aching for the feel of his hand in hers, his hands on her back, her body, his mouth on hers – she rushed into her room to avoid him so that she didn’t give into the temptation to throw herself at him. After informing him that she would make dinner in an hour, she sat down on the bed to mull over the plans for the next two weeks.

Yes, she would remain in this room but she had already sent her application back in to the man who was renting out the nice apartment towards the other side of the small town. He had informed her he would be choosing between her and one other couple, so she would be hearing back from him in a few days.

Then after that she could find a bike, and then she would worry about what to do when the weather was too cold for her to ride. The leasing a car idea seemed more and more promising.

Before dinner she opened her door and didn’t see Rory anywhere. He must have been outside, because she heard someone walking around up on the deck and those heavy footfalls could only belong to the giant of a man. She set out some pans to use for dinner, took inventory of what was in the fridge, and went into the small bathroom she used to wash her hands.

It was when she was turning towards the towel hanging on the small ring in the wall that she happened to glance towards her feet.

There in the corner by the vanity was a pair of small black panties, lacey ones by the looks of it. Grace was stunned into motionless, and she stared at them for several minutes in shock before coming back to herself. When she backed out of the bathroom, eyes on the panties, she realized she was shaking.

There had been a woman in here while she was gone.

Rory had had a woman in here. And she had obviously stayed long enough to have her panties off at some point.

Grace felt the breath leave her lungs and not return for several heartbeats, and she backed up around the corner until the panties were out of sight, all the way into her room where she sat heavily on the foot of the bed.

Panties. Rory had a woman here. Grace’s bed was probably still warm when Rory had invited a woman on the yacht, and the woman had been naked .

Grace wanted to vomit. She wanted to cry. To yell. She wanted to ignore them and cook dinner. But all she could seem to do was sit on the bed frozen in shock at the emotions coursing through her body.

They weren’t together – she and Rory. They weren’t an item by any definition of the word, and yet her heart hurt .

Neither had they ever made any promises to each other, short of Rory saying he wouldn’t touch her if she moved into the yacht. And this was a promise he had kept, until she was the one who had made the move and kissed him. So no, there were no promises – but then why did this feel like a betrayal?

She was Rory’s employee, and he was her employer, but still, this hurt .

Grace put her hand over her heart and bowed her head, willing the painful squeeze of heartache to fade. But when it wouldn’t, and she watched a tear fall to the busy flower print of her skirt, she rose in confusion, one goal in mind.

The cab company said they would be there in twenty minutes and would wait for her up at the parking lot. They would take her back to her old apartment, and she would remain there until the other apartment opened or until she had to move into an inn because her lease was up.

As though in a trance, she scooped everything she had unpacked back into her bags and laid them on her bed. Then she went out to the kitchen and put away the pans she had gotten out to make dinner.

She was just dragging out her last suitcase to the kitchen floor when Rory opened the hatch and she saw his feet come down the small stairs.

“Hey, I was thinking – Grace, what are ye doing?”

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs but she couldn’t look at him. If she did, she might cry and that wasn’t how she wanted this to go. She was still his employee, and she needed to be professional.

“I’m sorry, Rory, I can’t do this. I’m going to go, and I’ll finish out the contract the company has with you and will help you find someone else.”

She kept her voice even as she went back into her room, double checking for anything she might have missed.

“What do you mean,” he asked, following her to the doorway. “I don’t understand – ”

“This just isn’t working out,” she replied lamely. She had to move past him now to add a book to her bag that she had forgotten, and her heart clenched as she smelled him, his body just inches from hers as she passed.

“Why?” Grace didn’t answer him, so he stepped closer to where she was bending over her bag. “Because we kissed? Because we made love?” His voice was becoming strained, and she sensed his upset keenly. “Don’t I get an explanation?”

“No – it’s not just that, Rory – ”

“Then why?”

She could hear it then. Panic. It reached through her fog and grasped hold of the part of her mind that thought this whole situation was exceedingly bizarre. She rounded on him now, eyes finally connecting with his.

“This was never going to work out, Rory. We can’t – we’re just… We are two wrong people trying to make this work.”

As she spoke his face contorted from panic to confusion, and his voice was quiet when he replied.

“What do you mean? What are you talking about? I pay ye to clean the yacht – what’s so complicated about that?”

Grace narrowed her eyes when she looked at him, and she spoke before turning away to check the main cabin for her things, “Don’t pretend to be stupid, Rory.”

He followed her, putting a hand on her arm to still her but she pulled away quickly, knowing she could very well break if he touched her.

“Then help me,” he said softly. “Grace, tell me why you can’t stay. Even if you have to move, why can’t you continue coming here?” He paused, raking his fingers over his head and through his short hair. “What happened in London?”

“Nothing happened,” she replied. She leaned her guitar up against the dinette and looked around. “I had a great time. But this is my job, and… it’s complicated.”

“Then uncomplicate it for me!”

But Grace knew if she did, she might reveal too much – her confusion over her feelings for him, the panties, the way it hurt her still to think about them there, on the bathroom floor. She thought she might cry if she didn’t get out of the yacht soon, knowing the cab was probably almost there.

“You… and me… I just can’t be here anymore, Rory. Not with – not with our – attraction.”

He stepped around her so she had to look at him, and he waited until her eyes were on his before he spoke again.

“Then stop fighting it, Grace.”

He stepped towards her but she stepped back, and held a hand up to stop him from coming any closer. Her grip on reality was tenuous at best, and if he touched her she would slide into the fairytale world where they could be together and all her dreams came true. But she needed to protect herself, to use her self preservation tactics that would ensure she got out of this alive, if not wholly unscathed.

“I can’t!” she cried, shaking her head as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Not when… when… I just can’t, Rory. I can’t entangle my – ” she almost said heart , “myself like that with someone who has access to – ...”

She ended her thought, not even wanting to voice it aloud. But Rory pushed her, taking a step towards her once again. But she had her back to the wall separating the stairs and the doorway to her bedroom, and had nowhere to go.

“Access to what?”

Grace felt irritated that he was making her say it out loud, so she said too loudly, “Women!”

He looked as though he was about to throw his hands up, but when she said that his expression changed to incredulity.

“What do other women have to do with what we could have – ” he waved a hand between them both, “ – What we do have?”

Grace sagged, her shoulders falling.

“We don’t have anything, Rory.”

He growled in return, “Like hell we don’t,” leaning down so his face was slightly close to hers.

“I am your employee.”

“But you don’t have to be – ”

“I like my job!”

“So keep it! Just don’t work for me!”

He wanted her to stay, obviously, and not in an employee capacity. But what did he expect her to do? Stay here, be his weekend fling whenever he wanted someone and watch him parade women in front of her? Did he so soon forget that he had a woman in here just this last week?

Grace’s head was starting to pound, and she felt the time come when she needed to be blunt. She slid beside him and went into the small bathroom to their side. Then with two fingers she pinches the waistline of the panties and picked them up before coming out to toss them against his chest. He caught them, and stared at them for a moment, then looked between her and the panties a couple times.

“What are these?”

But Grace was done reasoning with him. Her heart was already tearing into two, and she needed to get out of the yacht before her emotions suffocated her. She needed distance, needed space, so she could work this out and mourn… mourn… whatever the hell it was her subconscious was saying she would be leaving when she walked off that boat.

“You’re a man, Rory. I’m pretty sure you know what those are.” Then she began by dragging one suitcase up the stair to the deck as Rory got his phone out of his pocket.

“Grace, stop.”

She heard him speak but ignored him. She was done, and she was going to surely take the day off tomorrow. Time was needed to recharge and think about her future.

She went back down the stairs and his phone was gone, although he was still holding the panties, similar to how she had held them, with just his fingers pinching the waistband. Irritable she thought, “Why wouldn’t he want to touch the woman those came off of…” But even to her the thought sounded bitter.

We weren’t together , she thought again. I have no right to be upset. So why am I? She didn’t want to make her head pound anymore than it already was –

“Is this why you’re leaving?” She looked up from grabbing her second suitcase, done with the situation and wanting distance. But Rory spoke again, stepping closer again with those damned panties dangling in front of him. “These? You’re leaving – you’re mad – because of these?”

Yes, she was! She could admit that now, now that she had heard someone say it out loud, because she hadn’t been about to say it.

“Yes, I’m angry,” she muttered, pulling the suitcase back towards the stairs.

“But… Why are you mad, Grace?”

“Why does it matter?” A wisp of hair had escaped her bun in her efforts to wrestle the suitcases out of the yacht, and she brushed it back, trying to hold her skirt up and get the second suitcase out of the yacht.

“It matters,” he said softly, but she didn’t look at him. Not until she had gotten the second suitcase up and onto the deck, and had returned to the cabin of the yacht.

“No, it doesn’t matter, Rory. None of it matters. It doesn’t matter because – because it just doesn’t. I have no claim over you,” and then she realized exactly how that sounded, and she thought she might cry from the revelation it handed her, “and you have no claim over me. So this is it. This is over. Consider my resignation tended.”

“But it’s not over,” he said, his voice still soft. Grace heard a, “What the heck?” in her mind at his tone, not understanding why he was speaking to her that way, looking at her now almost kindly.

“Aye, it is,” she said, thinking that if she switched to his words maybe he would leave her alone. She wanted to get out of there – out of the yacht, out of the space where he had romanced another woman, out of the yacht in which she had gotten a glimpse of what a truly blessed life could be.

“No, Grace. Why did these make you so mad?”

He held up the panties again and Grace glared at him. Was he really that sick? She hadn’t pegged him for one to toy with a woman’s emotions, but that certainly felt like what he was doing now.

“I’m just surprised,” she lied. “I’m surprised that you hardly waited at all for me to be gone before you had a woman in here.”

She threw up her own hands now in frustration, looking up at him. She faced him fully, looking directly into his face, upset that she thought she detected the corner of his mouth rising before he let it fall again. The thought that he could find any humor in this truly pissed her off.

“We had just kissed, Rory. A week before I left. Do women mean so little to you that you can switch between them so easily?”

“But you and I are not together,” he pointed out, and it just irritated her further. It irritated her that she knew now why it irritated her.

“No, we most certainly are not. Which is why I’m leaving. Feel free to invite women on board whenever you want. I won’t be here.”

She turned, slung her guitar over her shoulder and grabbed her purse from the counter. She didn’t bother to look around anymore. If she forgot anything, he could just keep it. She had all of her panties in her suitcase.

“Grace – ” he sounded closer, and with one foot on the bottom stair she turned, seeing that he had stepped closer. He no longer held the panties in his hand. They were on the floor beside where he had been standing.

He waited until she looked up into his eyes to speak again.

“You love me.”

It wasn’t an accusation, nor a plea. It wasn’t anything that would rouse a strong reaction from her, nor did she think it was meant to. In fact, she wasn’t exactly sure why he said it.

But with a heavy heart, she inhaled deeply and exhaled, knowing this might be the last time she ever laid eyes on Rory McCann. But she couldn't bring herself to lie to him again, and when she spoke she felt the need to smile sadly up at him, as though now they shared her secret.

“That’s irrelevant.”

The flash in his eyes was there when she looked away, and when she climbed the stairs to the deck, she didn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Grace was close to tears. It sucked. It just really, really sucked. She wasn’t even sure what she was upset about more – that Rory seemed completely unrepentant about having had another woman on the yacht while she was gone, or that it had taken a ridiculous non-cheating episode for her to realize the depth of her feelings for him. Because he hadn’t – cheated, that is. There was nothing between them, so this didn’t even count as infidelity.

And yet, knowing now that she loved him, and knowing that he knew she loved him, it felt like the same thing.

She would never have expected him to react the way he did. It seemed like to him he had done nothing wrong, and yet to her it felt as though he had done everything wrong. She hadn’t led him on, had never accepted his offers of more, nor had she expected anything from him, really. But this – they had kissed a week ago. They had kissed the day of the gala.

They had kissed . And he had invited another woman onto the yacht, a woman who had obviously disrobed, during the small window of time in which Grace was due to be gone from the yacht.

Whatever happened to loyalty? To chivalry?

She was conveniently able to ignore how ridiculous she felt at asking herself those questions, and focused instead on dragging her suitcases down the dock and up to the parking lot.

She was at the bottom of the ramp leading down to the docks when she encountered a woman heading in her direction. Grace stepped out of the way but should have known that, with as nice as the locals were here, this woman who said hello with a Scottish accent would stop and ask her if she needed aid.

“Are ye heading up there? Need help?” she asked, looking down at Grace. She wasn’t above average height for a woman, but most women were taller than Grace.

With a thankful nod, Grace said, “Yes, actually, that would be wonderful.”

With her hands wrapped around one suitcase handle and the woman dragging the other behind her, they made their way up the ramp as the woman spoke softly to her.

“Moving out, eh? You have your whole life in these bags,” she joked. Grace released a mirthless laugh but agreed.

“Just about. I have some more in an apartment down the street but I have a cab coming to take me and my things there.”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the woman said. Her dark hair curled about her face and she looked perfectly nice as she offered, “I can drive ye there. How far is it?”

Grace smiled slightly, figuring she had her trusty pepper spray in her pocket. She wouldn’t hesitate to use it on a woman if she must.

“Almost exactly a mile.”

When she told the woman the name of the building she made a face, showing Grace exactly what she thought of the area with the way she wrinkled her nose and faked a gagging sound.

It was enough to make Grace laugh, and she responded, “I know, I know – but I rented sight unseen from America and the website didn’t exactly tell the truth in all things.”

They loaded the suitcases and Grace’s guitar into the back seat of a small compact, and then climbed into the front seat.

“My name is Sally,” the woman said, holding out her hand to shake. Grace did, feeling slightly more at ease.

“Grace,” she said softly, feeling better now that she could take out her phone and cancel the unexpected expense of a cab ride.

When she turned her phone screen off and tucked it back into her purse, Sally smiled.

“Grace, hm? You wouldn’t by any chance be th’ American Grace who works for Rory, are ye?”

The look she sent Grace wasn’t unfriendly or like she was digging for information, but merely kind and curious. Though her words made Grace curious as well.

When Sally saw her hesitate she smiled, waving a hand dismissively in Grace’s direction.

“Sorry, I should have said first that I’m his sister. Sally-Gay McCann. I’m glad to meet you, Grace.” She smiled again as she pulled up to the curb in front of the apartment building. “I have heard a lot about you.”

With that odd statement she climbed out of the car, waiting for Grace to follow before she came around to open the rear passenger door.

“You have?”

Grace couldn’t help herself. Finding out she had just gotten a ride from Rory’s sister was an absurd coincidence, but now she was curious what Rory had said about her.

“Oh, aye. Here, take this.”

Sally handed her the first bag before hauling out the guitar, which Grace strapped to her back. Then when the second suitcase was out, Sally shut and locked the car and followed Grace up to the landing.

“He says ye work for a staffing company? Said something about ye cleaning his yacht but moving in when ye found out what a shithole this place was – pardon my language.”

Grace had to laugh at the accurate description, unlocking the door and letting both of them in.

“That’s alright, because it is a shithole. But yes, I was assaulted outside by a drunk and Rory offered to let me move into a room on his yacht for the duration of my lease here. It was very kind of him,” even though he used her first absence to get laid. Asshole , she thought, though immediately felt bad. Again she had to remind herself that they were not together, and what Rory did on his own time was his business.

“He says ye do a fine job, and that he wouldn’t mind keeping ye on for the foreseeable future.”

They reached the second floor and Grace’s smile slid from her face. She kept her back to Sally as she unlocked her door so the woman couldn’t see her change of expression.

“Yes, well, I have notified him that I’m no longer available and will be moving on. Today, in fact. Over the last four years I haven’t really stayed in one place for long.”

That was the truth, though, so she didn’t feel bad about saying it. But she felt bad about – just, everything else. She was going to miss Rory, as ridiculous as it sounded.

“That’s too bad,” said Sally from behind her as they entered the apartment. “He spoke so highly of ye, and he didn’t mention ye leaving anytime soon.”

Grace shut the door behind her, and they wheeled the suitcases into the living room, then stood facing one another. Grace could see it now – the family resemblance. Sally had the same softly rounded features and warm brown eyes that Rory did.

“It was a spur of the moment decision. I was supposed to get a new apartment soon, but I might just get a hotel room for a few days when this lease is up and then move on from there. The staffing company I work for has jobs all over the world, and it might be fun to see what they have available in another country.”

Sally looked at her as though she didn’t quite believe what Grace was saying, but was kind enough to not say it out loud.

“That’s too bad,” she murmured, looking around at the apartment as though she was thinking about something. Her gaze landed on the guitar still on Grace’s back and she gestured to it. “You play?”

Grace smiled, though she wondered why Sally was still there.

“I do, since I was a kid. You? Do you share Rory’s musical talent?”

Sally laughed, and the friendly tone of Sally’s voice made Grace suddenly ask her if she would like some tea. At Sally’s acceptance, she bid her unexpected houseguest to sit while she made it.

“I share the talent, aye, but not the desire to play. Rory has always been the social butterfly in the family,” she said with a laugh, “Wanting to play for everyone, sharing music with the world. I preferred more technical prospects, and devoted myself to my job. But I think my job is as fulfilling to me as music is to him.”

The kettle on to boil, Grace sat on the chair while Sally took the couch, and they made small talk, conversation turning from Rory to living and growing up in Scotland, and what it was like for Grace to grow up in America. Soon the tea was made and Grace realized Sally was not only friendly and a good conversationalist, but someone with whom Grace felt she could be completely at ease with.

Which was why when conversation returned to Rory, she now felt comfortable speaking a bit more about her abrupt departure.

“So a few days ago Rory made it sound like you were getting along well enough that he expected you to stay on for quite some time.”

Grace nodded, sipping her tea.

“That’s right, but it just wasn’t going to work out.”

Sally set down her mug and looked straight at Grace when she spoke.

“He made it sound like he had feelings for you.”

Grace’s eyes shot up to Sally’s, but Rory’s sister was merely looking at her as though her mind was open to whatever Grace had to say about that. Feeling that she could be honest about this woman who teased her brother even when he was not around, and especially since she was leaving soon and would definitely never see either Sally or Rory again, she was honest with his sister.

“He does,” she nodded slowly, sadly, “But it doesn’t matter now. He – we had a difference of opinion, and it would just be best for both of us if I left.”

Sally leaned forward, putting her elbows on her knees and clasping her hands together.

“He seemed to think you have feelings for him as well.”

Grace laughed harshly, wondering why he and his sister would have spoken of such things.

“Yes, well, I’ll tell you what I told him about that – it’s irrelevant. Rory and I… He just wasn’t quite the man I thought he was. I mean,” she looked down at her cup before speaking again, reminding herself it was his sister to whom she was speaking, “He’s a great guy. Nice and funny and charming.” She swallowed, regretting rehashing this story as it brought a fresh wave of emotion to her. “Something happened and can’t be undone and… this is just for the best.”

Sally picked up her mug and drank the little bit of tea that was left. Then she focused a look at Grace that she was certain the woman had used on Rory when they were kids to get him to tell her the truth about something, like she was about to reveal something that would change the course of Grace’s life irrevocably.

“Grace.” Just her name, but Sally smiled gently, reaching for her phone. “I was Rory’s houseguest this past week. He texted me a little bit ago and told me something – told me ye were leaving and that he didn’t want ye to go.”

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Rory had never panicked so much in his life as he had since meeting Grace. He worried now that Sally wouldn’t help him, or that she would try and it would backfire on them both. Lord knows he talked enough about Grace during Sally’s visit that his sister knew the depth of his feelings for Grace.

When Grace was still on the yacht preparing to leave, he had known exactly who to turn to, to help rectify the situation – the owner of the damned panties. And when Grace had brought her suitcases up to the deck he had shot off a quick text to Sally explaining that she needed to come tell Grace the panties were hers, and to make sure Grace didn’t leave Scotland before she spoke with Rory.

But that had been almost an hour ago. An hour after Grace had admitted out loud that she loved him.

He wanted to go get her, to throw her over his shoulder and haul her back to the yacht himself.

But waiting there for her was going to scramble his brain so he left the yacht, walking up towards the parking lot as he thought about how his afternoon might go.

Grace could decide he wasn’t worth her time and would leave anyway, no matter what effort Sally put into keeping her here. He wouldn’t understand, nor would he agree with her decision, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. She could also come by to listen to him without any intention of staying, and that could possibly be the worst case scenario – seeing her one last time before she hightailed it out of Scotland. It sounded like a nightmare come to life.

Rory paced along the low wooden fence that separated the parking lot from the embankment beside the docks, walking along the short path that led down to the main building that housed the harbor’s restaurant. He looked inside, seeing the early birds who were getting dinner in before the rush of people began at six, wondering if he would ever have a chance to dine there with Grace.

He wanted to do everything with her – hug her and kiss her and not be afraid to touch her. He wanted to laugh with her, live with her, play music and sing with her. And if there was anything she wished to do in the world, he would do it with her – it didn’t matter if she wanted to move to another country or take up residence in downtown Edinburgh. For her, he would do anything.

He turned to head back towards the parking lot just as a familiar car drove in. Hastening his steps, he tucked his hands into his pockets as he saw Grace with her head turned away from him, looking over at Sally who was in the driver’s seat.

She had her hair in a bun but his fingers itched to take it down, to see it fanned out on his pillow behind her head. Her neck was pale inside the car but he knew from first hand experience how soft it was. And as he got closer he could see the movement of her jaw, noted that she and Sally were talking, so he propped himself on the fence a short distance from the car and waited, knowing he was in full line of sight of his sister.

Sally. Always ready to save the day when someone needed her. He needed to write himself a note to send her a massive thank you card and a bottle of wine before the week was up, regardless of the outcome.

The ladies spoke in the car for a minute longer before he saw Sally finally point out Grace’s window. She turned, and when she saw him he saw so many emotions cross over her face that he couldn’t pick a standout.

She said something to Sally, glanced back at his sister briefly and then opened the door to the car. But Rory remained where he was, unsure how this was going to go.

Although he had a pretty good idea when Sally put the car in gear and backed out of the spot, pointing to her own eyes and then at him in a “I’m watching you” gesture.

Grace was as beautiful as she had been that morning – hair in that massive bun on the back of her head, soft looking shirt ruffling with the breeze and her long skirt wrapping around her legs. She came to a stop several feet in front of him, her hands toying with the strap of her purse.

“Hello,” she said quietly, looking him in the eyes.

Rory didn’t know what to say other than, “Hello,” so he did, and then he smiled at her. Even he was feeling this was an awkward moment, since she had completely rejected him that afternoon on the basis that she assumed he had had a woman on the yacht while Grace had been in London – a false basis, but one he couldn’t hold an ounce of resentment for. He knew what it had looked like, and he hadn’t done anything to convince her otherwise.

“So, um… I need to apologize, Rory.” She took a step forward hesitantly, toeing the ground between them as she looked down at the tip of her shoe peeking out from beneath the long hem of her skirt. Without looking up she continued, “I must have looked like a fool today – ”

“No,” he interrupted softly, drawing her gaze. “Not a fool.” He smiled again, knowing he spoke the truth. “Not a fool at all. You were simply protecting yourself.”

“When I didn’t need to, in fact.”

He nodded in agreement, and then she nodded and looked out across the harbor. The air swirled around them, salty and crisp as a gull cried overhead. He watched how it stirred up wisps of hair around her face, making her look so innocent, so lovely.

Rory waited for her to speak, not sure if he could say anything original other than begging her to quit her job and move into his bedroom, to accept his love and return it in kind. He couldn’t trust his own voice to not betray the emotion he was keeping carefully in check, so he remained silent.

After a time she turned back to him and her expression was sad. It alarme him, and she spoke before he could come to any conclusions.

“Rory, I thought… I mean, you know what I thought.” She threw up her hands briefly, shrugging. “And… I know I don’t have any right – didn’t have any right, to be offended by it.” Her eyebrows raised and her mouth pinched together as she admitted, “And I still don’t, really.” He thought she looked adorable.

She took another step closer, almost a conversational step so that he knew her words were serious. She was almost within reach, but he kept his hands firmly ensconced within the pockets of his jeans. She wasn’t done speaking, and he wasn’t going to interrupt her by hauling her against him and kissing her senseless, as he wanted so very badly to do.

“We have known each other for six months now, sort of – ” she smiled, probably remembering that the beginning of their work relationship consisted of text messages and seeing him in nothing but a towel. “And have been living together – on the same yacht at least – for almost four. And in that time I’ve gotten to know you.” Her gaze met his again and she shook her head, tone disbelieving as she continued, “I know you, Rory. I know you’re kind to a fault, you’re funny, you’re generous – I mean, you let me stay on your yacht, gave me cab fare,” then she chuckled, “And you even let me sing and play as much as I wanted. You were the perfect roommate, really.”

Rory had to smile at that, because he felt the same about her.

“I did it because you’re a good cook.” Her smile slipped just a hint before she burst out laughing, and the sound was better music than she had ever played for him.

“Well, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy someone who enjoyed my cooking as much as you do.” Then she sobered somewhat, and her smile faded to a sorrowful, regretful expression.

“I know you,” she said again, then she paused. He watched the play of tendons in her throat as she swallowed, noted the fingers that ceased moving on her purse strap. He felt his stomach tighten, and inside his closed mouth he clenched his teeth together, willing his face to remain straight.

“I know you, Rory, and I love you… Too – I love you, too – since now I know you love me.”

Another step forward and she was almost within touching distance, and then her feet brought her yet another step closer.

“All this time I should have seen it, should have paid attention to it, and I suppose I would have – ” she shrugged again, “ – if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in maintaining my job. My career – it’s been my life for the last eleven years, and I think I was scared to just see it go.”

One more step brought her to stand between his feet, braced as they were away from his body, spread apart. He could smell her, and the scent was heavenly – oranges and Grace. Grace and oranges.

Then she raised a hand and her fingertips brushed the center of his shirt, her touch like the most powerful magnet and he nearly lost his control as it sent tendrils of electricity outwards from his sternum. Her hand dropped away but then returned, this time she pressed her palm to his chest, in line with hers since he was seated lower on the fence, and she smiled nervously as she looked from the spot up to his face and back again.

“But I found something better.” Her gaze lifted to his, and she stepped closer, so that one more step and she would have nowhere to go. But she left that space between them and curled her hand into the front of his shirt, resting the back of her fingers just below his collar bone. “If… you’ll have me? Because what’s better than anything in the world is your heart.” She swallowed again, and he watched her look down to his mouth and back again, her voice strong but her gaze uncertain.

“You have my heart, Rory, if you want it. And you have my love, if you want it. Because… I’m so sorry…”

Rory looked into her face, knowing that standing within his space was the answer to every dream he ever had – someone to share music with, to share a bed with, food with, a life with, and to share that yacht that had seemed too big for him alone.

He began to slide his hands out of his pockets and paused, watching her indrawn breath as she anticipated him touching her. Then he slowed, bringing his hands to her hips and nudging her closer and closer until her arms had nowhere to go but around his neck. And she was smiling now, as was he – great big smiles of hope and love and happiness as he leaned in and pressed his mouth to hers.

Grace kissed him back as though she were coming home, as though her whole life she had been waiting for this very moment, and he could feel all of it in her hands on his head and shoulders, her heartbeat through her chest, the way her body molded itself to his in a way that spoke to the perfection in their connection.

Oranges – all he could smell was oranges, and all he could taste was her, and all he could feel was the pounding of his heart through his veins in every inch of his body.

“Will you?” she breathed against his mouth, angling her face to soothe his lower lip with her tongue, drawing it into her mouth as she kissed him sweetly.

“Will I what?” he asked, forgetting what it was she was talking about.

She laughed softly against him, moving her mouth to the corner of his lips, his cheek, his ear, where she whispered, “Will you have me, Rory? All of me?”

The low growl that rumbled forth from his chest as he pulled her hips firmly against his lower body elicited from her a husky laugh in response, as he showed her the evidence of his desire.

“All of you,” he whispered back, seeking out her mouth once again and claiming it for his own, “And then some.”

And he kissed her in such a way that left no doubts as to how much he wanted her heart, mind, body and soul.

Chapter Text

By the time he pulled the hatch closed behind him he was already reaching for her, whispering words he wouldn’t be able to recall later but that he knew spoke of his love for her and his adoration of her.

He was still reeling from how close he had come to losing her, still keeping at the back of his mind that he had never owed his sister more than he did today.

But it all took a back seat to the pull of her hands as she kicked off her shoes and pulled him down to kiss her.

Her lips were desperate now, and he felt the same way – felt that all those months ago when they made love, they had proven to each other how fireworks would explode with their lovemaking, and he was itching to get right down to the finale.

He wanted to do this right, though. He wanted to love her and cherish her, to show her all she had come to mean to him over the last few months.

So when she began lifting his shirt hem and pulling at the waistband of his jeans, he stepped back from her and watched the most adorable frustrated pout spread over her reddened lips. When he lifted his shirt up and over his head he watched her tongue come out to wet her lip, but he set the shirt on the dinette bench and waited.

Immediately she lifted her own shirt over her head, bringing a few hair pins with it so her ponytail came tumbling over her shoulder.

At the sight of her light pink satin bra Rory nearly lost his resolve, but he slowed his hands as he unhooked his belt and his pants, sliding them down his hips and off his feet while never breaking eye contact with her.

Grace smiled brightly at him, and she did the same with her skirt, it joining the pile of clothes on the bench.

Socks were next, but when Rory was left with only his boxers, Grace continued – removing her hair tie to let the glorious umber mass cascade over the backs of her shoulders as she stepped towards him. Next came her bra, which joined the pile of clothing, and she walked into his arms.

It was probably a good thing that she pressed her body against his and removed her nakedness from his sight, as he was reaching the end of his tenuous grip on his control. Going slow was pleasing to the eye, and pleasing to the soul, yes, but what he really wanted – what he did just then – was lift her into his arms and carry her into the bedroom.

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Grace’s entire body was humming with the realization that Rory was hers – good and truly hers, and she had no reservations about it whatsoever.

She had thought she might miss the prospect of having a job, but the more she thought about escaping to the sea with this big Scotsman, the more she fancied herself deserving of some downtime.

Downtime, that is, as long as Rory didn’t have her in his bed. That was uptime , surely. The thought made her smile, and though he didn’t know her thoughts, he smiled back as he crawled over her, naked now, to rest beside her on the bed.

“I love you,” he murmured against her lips, before trailing his mouth to her neck, her bare shoulder and lower to her breast. He said it again around her nipple as he took it into his mouth, loving it as surely as his words did, with his tongue. His hand roamed her body, feeling the tautness of her stomach, the gentle hill of bone at her hip, and grazing over the thin fabric of her cotton panties in a way she was certain was meant to just tease her to climax.

“Rory,” she hissed when his hand drifted over the swell of flesh between her legs, tilting her hips in a fashion that she hoped spoke of her need for him.

His answering growl as he pulled her flesh into his mouth said he was feeling the same, as did the hardness pressed into her thigh at her side.

“I need you.”

Her breast left his mouth as he withdrew his head, though when she expected him to give her what she wanted, he simply moved to the other breast, feeling the brush of his erection as he settled between her legs.

It was like worship, what his hands and body and mouth were doing to her skin, the way the hairs dusting his chest brushed against her stomach, how his strong hands slid up her chest, her throat, and into her hair. She knew he liked it, and there was nothing in her that desired to every have it up around him again.

When he rose to kiss her, at the same time he pressed himself into her and she gasped, though his kiss was short and ended with him drawing her lower lip between his teeth. The scrape as he released her left her grasping at his shoulders as he lowered himself down the bed, drawing her panties as he went. She lifted her hips to aid him, and found his face was the next thing that came between her legs, her breath hitching in her throat as she realized just a heartbeat later what he was going to be doing.

What was the name of that couple again, who lived next door? Yes, the Johansen’s. Grace was certain they would come knocking and ask what Rory was doing to her to get her to cry out like he was.

Her hands grasped the sheet, her head twisted and turned on the pillows and she called Rory’s name like a plea, like a demand, at times breathless and at others loud and clear, until she was covered in a slick of sweat from the torturous ministrations he delivered to her with his lips and tongue.

“You… devil,” she gasped when he rose, and Grace pulled him to her with her hands wrapped around the back of his neck, noting that he, too, had a sheen of sweat over his body.

He was tightly holding onto his control, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before this drawn out lovemaking would turn into torture for him so she hooked her leg around his thigh and pulled him towards her as he captured her mouth yet again with his.

She would never tire of kissing him, she was certain.

Nor would she ever tire of hearing him tell her he loved her, which he did at least once every minute as he slid on a condom and drove himself into her, robbing her of all breath and rational thought.

“Rory,” she said, and realized it almost sounded like a sob. But it had been so long , so long that she had dreamt of this that she expected never to happen again, this coming together that she knew would feel like two hearts melding into one. “I – ” she swallowed, feeling the girth of him filling her, stretching her, making her his . “I need you,” she whispered, and he began to move.

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Her hands were all over him – his neck and shoulders, down his back to his butt where she squeezed when he withdrew, as though she couldn’t bare the thought of him leaving her.

The feeling was mutual. If there was a way to remain buried deep within her until they died, he would do it – so much did she feel like home .

His nose was full of her scent – oranges and woman and desire – and the way her heavily lidded eyes were looking up at him…

That term “ as though he hung the moon” was given new meaning then, because that’s how she was looking at him. Her eyes were speaking the same words of love her lips were saying, over and over, even as her hands came up to glide over his forehead, his cheeks, his lips. She slid them down to grip his neck, down his shoulders to his upper arms and back again, as he felt her squeezing him deep inside her body.

It was only when her mouth hung open and her neck arched, her eyes sliding nearly closed and her breath turning rapid, that he finally dropped his head to her shoulder and picked up his speed. With an arm behind her shoulders and one at her hip holding her steady, he thrust deeply into her warmth, feeling the quiverings around his cock as her climax built.

Her incoherent mumbling mixed with overwhelmed mewls of pleasure, but he began to make out individual words even as his own thoughts scrambled and scattered. When at last he felt her tumbling into her orgasm, her stuttered, “I – love you!” took him into the same realm and he felt himself swell within her a moment before stars collided and the universe exploded, his climax ripping a cry from his throat as his last few thrusts milked the sensations and caused both their bodies to tremble and shudder. Her arms were tight around him, her thighs sandwiching his hips, and together they rode out the storm until he began to feel her pressing kisses to his hair, his ear, anywhere she could reach.

“That,” he mumbled into her shoulder, feeling just barely strong enough to not collapse against her, “Was…” But he didn’t know what to say. Whatever it was, she was saying it with her hands as her fingertips stroked over his back, up and down his spine as she inhaled deeply and sighed the softest, most pleasantly satisfied sigh he had ever heard.

“Aye,” was her replied whisper, and then he felt a tremor ripple through her body.

Fearing it was tears that made her shiver, he pulled back enough to see her open her eyes and focus on him. There were no tears, though – only her poor attempt at holding back a smile as she bit her lower lip between her teeth.

“What are you laughing about,” he asked incredulously, unable to stop himself from dropping gentle, loving kisses to her chin, the corner of her lips, the tip of her nose. He would leave those kisses over every inch of her body before the week was through, he vowed it to himself.

With a tiny shake of her head she released her lip, smiling widely as she traced a finger down his temple to the scruff on his cheek. Then she traced over the lines in his forehead, down the ridge of his nose, and further – down the divot in his upper lip to the seam of his mouth.

“I’m just… happy,” she said, lifting her eyes to his – so close he could see the flecks of gold and mahogany radiating outward in her irises. Sable lashes blinked and she looked from his eyes to his lips and then back again. “Happier,” she explained softly, “Than I ever thought imaginable.”

“Aye,” he readily agreed, pressing a soft kiss to her lips as he closed his eyes.

But he stayed there, and soon his mouth was moving over her lips and she was responding beneath him, her tongue reaching out to gently tangle with his in a gentle kiss that spoke of all the emotions he had swirling inside him.

When he pulled back he was surprised to see a sadness sweep over her features, and he cupped her face, kissing her briefly and saying he would be right back as he rose to dispose of the condom. Then he was back, and he slid into the bed beside her and pulled her to him so that her cheek pillowed just beneath his collarbone.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Grace,” he prompted, one hand sliding up to her shoulder and then down to the roundness of her bottom. He repeated the gesture over and over, wishing to soothe away whatever was worrying her.

“I just… I should have known. I should have known that you loved me, and I was so blinded by being set in my ways that I missed all the signs.”

Rory had to chuckle, because he completely agreed with her.

“I had tried to be obvious about it.”

He was gratified to hear her laugh as well, her face turning into his chest to press her lips into his hair covered skin.

And because it was true, he added, “I gave you clues as often as I could – ”

“I know, I know,” but he could feel her smiling, could see the roundness of her cheek before she turned her eyes up to him. Her smile faded again and she shook her head.  “I knew, though, and I almost lost you. When you sang those songs – god , Rory, I knew .”

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Grace watched as he smiled, loving how his eyes soothed her, how his hands comforted her with gentle touches.

“I was just too stubborn to realize what I had with you, that my job is secondary to my feelings for you. And I let all that crap cloud my vision when I saw those damned panties – ”

Rory chuckled, saying quietly, “I’m sorry too, Grace – for not correcting you when I should have.” He sighed, looking down at her with such love in his eyes that Grace felt her knees would have weakened for sure, had she been standing.

She smiled too, now, as he added, “And this was all Sally’s fault. If she hadn’t forgotten the fucking panties – ”

“Hush,” Grace admonished him, truly smiling now. “Your sister is an angel.”

“Are we talking about the same woman? Name’s Sally, goes by Pain In My Arse – ”

Grace laughed outright then, loud and carefree as she slid her hand up to interrupt his facetious tirade. With fingers to his lips she quieted him, and in return he kissed the pads of her fingers.

“Kiss me,” she demanded softly, wanting to think of other things aside from how close she had come to losing him. Rory obliged, drawing her up to his mouth. Grace found that the kiss that should have been tame and sensual suddenly – of its own accord though she was certain the fact that Rory was beneath her had something to do with it – turned wild and passionate, her own emotions welling up within her and coming out in the way she started to paw at his limbs, grasped at his torso, and tasted his lips. His fingers grappled for purchase on her waist and hips, his breathing quickened, and the soft moan of desire that escaped his lips did more for her desire than she anticipated it would.

“Fuck me, Grace, do you realize how long I’ve wanted you?”

The shake of her head was quick, and when his hand slid down to cup her bottom against him she shifted so that she was straddling him, the blankets falling when she sat up. She watched his eyes roaming hungrily over her naked breasts, over her belly and the part of her that was pressed into his growing erection. Rocking her hips, she rubbed against him in a way that made his breath hiss through his teeth.

“You’ve been on my mind every day, every night,” she admitted with a gasp, feeling the burning building up within her torso. 

“I never would have brought a woman on board, Grace – not like what you think.” He swallowed, and when she lifted a hand to his face he turned into it, kissing her palm. “I’ve loved you for too long,” he admitted softly.

“Oh, Rory,” she breathed, rocking again, shifting her hips so that he moved against her in the exact right spot. “I was too blind to know I had fallen in love with you, but you knew, didn’t you?” He smiled, and then he smiled wider when her own grin said he didn’t have to say anything.

Her mock outrage made him laugh, and he pressed a hand to her soft stomach before sliding it up to her bare breast. She knew she finally had time to love his body and to allow him to love hers, as much as she loved his heart.

“Let me love you,” she demanded in a whisper, watching him look at her body, reaching down to feel the evidence of his desire between them. “Love me,” she whispered again, and she lowered to kiss him, bracing her hands against his chest as she rolled her pelvis over the length of him, feeling the pressure mountain even though he wasn’t inside her yet.

“Aye, Grace,” was all he said before she retrieved another condom.

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That night she rode him, as well as the next night, and the night after that. There wasn’t a night that they didn’t come together in that manner, or in some position or another, to show their love for each other. Rory was deliriously in love, and when he left a week later for Glasgow and for a meeting with Mitch – a meeting in which he would be telling his agent he was going off-grid for two or three weeks – he regretted not bringing her with him the instant he closed the hatch behind him. But he had another errand that he needed to do and she couldn’t be around for when he did it.

Looking back in the empty vehicle he double checked that he would have enough room for another man, a woman, and two kids. Their flight landed in four hours, and Rory was due there to pick them up to spend the week before he took Grace and they left civilization behind for a while.

Today Grace would be calling the company she had worked for and informing them that she was giving her two week notice. It was something they agreed upon, since she would be living on the boat and had already been quite outspoken over her love of taking care of it – and him.

He was only a mile from the harbor on his way to the city when the SUV read aloud his first text from her.

“I miss you already.”

The somewhat male robotic voice made it sound funny, but Rory waited to see if he would receive another one. She knew he was driving and wouldn’t text her back, so when another text came through five minutes later he wasn’t surprised.

“Call me when you get there.”

Then another one just a couple minutes later.

“Pick up some whipped cream on your way home. I have plans.”

Rory put on his four-way flashers and pulled over to the side of the road. In an instant he had his phone in his hand and was listening to the ringing for barely seconds before she picked up.

“Hey – ” she said, sounding breathless.

“Hey,” was his reply, and then he chuckled. “Tell me how to turn the damned Bluetooth off in this car. You’re going to drive me insane with your texts.”

Her laughter was music to his ears, and then she began singing softly, and he smiled as he rested back against the headrest.

 

You're just too good to be true

I can't take my eyes off you

“Grace,” he groaned, but he knew she’d just hear the smile in his voice. Indeed she must have, because she chuckled and kept singing.

 

You'd be like heaven to touch

I wanna hold you so much

“I’ll never make it to Glasgow at this rate.”

 

At long last love has arrived

And I thank God I'm alive

“You’re killing me, woman.”

 

You're just too good to be true

Can't take my eyes off you

“Fuck it. Mitch can wait.”