My Cowboy Valentine - Page 23

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“Didn’t anyone ever tell you harassing your boss about his personal life is bad for job security?”

“All right, all right. I’ll drop it.” Tim relented. “For now.”

* * *

“SPEAK OF THE DEVIL.” Lorelei paused, her chip halfway to the salsa verde. “You know that guy you were telling me about?”

“Nick?” Tess asked.

“Isn’t that him?” Lorelei gestured with her chin toward the hostess podium. “Just walking in now?”

Tess glanced over her shoulder to see Nick Calhoun, once again in his customary jeans, with a handsome guy who looked as if he could be actor Morris Chestnut’s younger brother.

“Huh.” Lorelei swung her gaze back to Tess, her expression surprised. “I never really paid attention before, but Nick is good-looking. Are you sure he even needs help getting a valentine?”

“You should know better than anyone that sometimes people could use a nudge in the right direction.”

“And you are going to be that nudge.”

Tess gave her a beatific smile. “Precisely.” She hoped the hostess would pass their way while leading the men to a table, but the trio went toward the opposite side of the restaurant. Moments later, a waitress brought Tess and Lorelei their food.

At the end of the meal, when Lorelei excused herself to the ladies’ room, Tess decided it was time to act. Her short trip across the restaurant was lengthened by the number of people who called out greetings and wanted to chat with her. Tess had lived here her entire life and had been just as outgoing a child as she was an adult. She knew almost everyone, though she couldn’t recall the name of Nick’s lunch companion.

The man gave her a warm smile as she approached. “Well, hello.”

“Hi,” Tess said. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Nick made the introductions. “Tim Mullins, Tess Fitzpatrick. Tim’s our most recent hire at the Galloping C, but he lives out closer to Luckenbach. Tess is Bailey’s dance teacher. Bay adores her.”

“The feeling’s mutual,” Tess said fondly. “I don’t mean to interrupt y’all’s lunch, but could I steal Nick for a second?”

“Steal away,” Tim said approvingly. “In fact, I just realized I left my cell phone in the truck. I should get it. In case anyone, um, tries to reach me.” With that, he was out of his chair in one fluid movement and headed for the exit.

Tess blinked. “He’s certainly accommodating.”

“He’s a lot of things.” Nick sounded exasperated. He shook it off, returning his gaze to her as she slid into Tim’s vacated seat. “What’s up? Is there something we need to discuss about Bailey? I really am sorry I was late getting her last night. Was she worried I forgot about her?”

“Bailey is a joy to have in class and if she was bothered by your tardiness, she forgave you the minute you came through the door. I actually wanted to”

He leaned back in his chair, looking confused. “Me? Are you recruiting parent volunteers for the Valentine party? Decorations and homemade cookies aren’t really—”

“Nick, we’ve known each other a long time, right?” Not that they were close, but they’d gone to school together, they saw each other on a weekly basis and they always stopped to exchange pleasantries when they encountered each other in town.


“Then I hope you’ll forgive me for being blunt.” Tess had realized early in life that she was never going to be the refined, demure Fitzpatrick sister and had embraced her brashness. “I couldn’t help notice that when you ran into Farrah yesterday—”

“Not you, too!” Nick groaned. “I’ve been getting this from Tim all morning. Apparently I have the world’s worst poker face.”

“Think of it as being expressive and sincere,” Tess suggested. “Qualities women like. In fact, I think any woman would be lucky to go out with you.”

“Thanks, but I’m not sure past experience bears out that opinion.”

“Those experiences are behind you, Nick. It’s a brand-new day! Consider me your guardian angel. Your fairy godmother. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, your much-needed swift kick in the ass.”

Chapter Three

“I beg your pardon?” Nick couldn’t quite wrap his mind around what Tess was saying. She’d always struck him as boisterous, possibly unpredictable, but never mentally unstable. Until now. Normal people didn’t go around offering to be winged, wand-toting guardians for casual acquaintances. She was right that they’d known each other for years, but he couldn’t recall their ever having such a personal conversation. “What brought this on? Did you lose a bet or something?” I swear to God, if my brothers put her up to this...

“It’s almost Valentine’s Day. I’m getting in touch with my inner Cupid. Besides, anyone in town can tell you I’m incapable of minding my own business.”

“Are you seeing anyone? I was under the impression you’re single.”

Her pale cheeks flushed rose. “Not relevant.”

“Why not play Cupid for yourself?”

She surprised him with a sassy grin, already recovered from her nanosecond of embarrassment. “That’s not how it works, genius. Cupid doesn’t shoot himself in the butt with his own arrows. Or, in my case, her arrows. However, if there was someone I was seriously interested in, you can bet I wouldn’t be too shy to let him know.”

“Fair point. You are clearly not the shy type.”

“Whereas you... You just need a few pointers, a hit of confidence, some practice.”

He was almost afraid to ask what kind of practice. “Tess, this is, uh, nice of you.” Damned odd, yet nice in a misguided sort of way. “It’s not necessary, though. I admit, I find Farrah attractive. I always have.” He’d had a huge crush on her for most of high school. He hadn’t thought about her much while away at college, but now that they were both single again... “If a relationship’s meant to be between us, shouldn’t it ha

ppen naturally?”

She made a dismissive pffft sound. “That’s ridiculous. Everything in life that’s worth anything takes work.”

Where the heck was Tim? As long as the man was taking, he could have walked all the way back to the ranch for his cell phone. Nick glanced around, hoping for an excuse to end this conversation quickly without being rude. He spotted the ranch hand at the bar, chatting amiably with the bartender. Traitor.

“Take my dancing,” Tess continued blithely. “Was I born with some natural aptitude and a love for ballet? You betcha. But it still required hours and hours of practice and fine-tuning. And what about the Galloping C? When it comes to breeding the horses you sell, are you telling me you just turn them loose in the pasture and hope for the best?”

He stared, dumbfounded by her comparison. “That’s, uh, not exactly...”

“Right. Of course not.” She waved a hand. “I wasn’t saying you and Farrah are like horses. Look, Nick, I know I’ve caught you off guard. You don’t have to give me an answer right now. But my offer stands. When you decide to take me up on it, call me.”

* * *

THE TINY TWO-BEDROOM house on the edge of the Galloping C property was nearly identical to the bungalows the Calhouns rented to guests. What set Nick’s place apart, what truly made it home for him, were the accumulated pictures and mementos of Bailey’s first six years and the frequent ring of her laughter echoing through the rooms.

Sunday evening found him sitting cross-legged on the floor of his daughter’s bedroom, pretending to sip from a plastic teacup. To his left, Bailey’s favorite teddy bear perched in one of the dainty chairs that matched the plastic table.

“How’s your tea?” he asked his daughter. She brewed the best imaginary pot this side of the Rio Grande.

Tags: Jane Porter Romance