“Oh, no!” She clutched a hand to her throat. “Mine wasn’t tea. It was potion.”
He wasn’t sure if she meant the magical variety or if she’d mistaken the word for poison, so he simply waited, ever-ready to play along.
“The ninjas must be trying to get me again!” She reached beneath the small table to pull out a long cardboard tube that had once held a roll of paper towels. “Here’s your sword, Daddy! Fight off those ninjas.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” He wasn’t sure the naval terminology was strictly logical for a ninja-infested tea party, but his daughter beamed encouragingly, adopting the pirate theme and running with it.
“If you capture all the ninjas, Teddy can make them walk the plank.”
“We have a plank?” he inquired. “Since when?”
Bailey hopped onto her bed, extending a pillow over the floor. “This is the plank. But now...everything is...” She gurgled dramatically. “Going black.” She fell straight backward, shooting her legs up into the air.
Nick went to her side and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “I am so glad you’re my daughter. I bet other little girls’ tea parties aren’t half as exciting.”
“I’m glad you’re my daddy.” She hugged him. “Because you love me so much you even let me stay up late.”
“Nice try, Bay, but you have school tomorrow. Time to brush your teeth.”
She huffed out her breath in disappointment and trudged toward the bathroom. His strong-willed, highly inventive daughter reminded him of Tess Fitzpatrick and her out-of-the-blue proposal yesterday. It was easy to imagine Bailey growing up to be like the pretty dance teacher, outrageous enough to accost people with unsolicited advice.
Outrageous, but good-hearted.
When he’d been a kid, often too embarrassed to speak to anyone, Tess would say hi to him on the playground, asking if he wanted to swing with her or play catch. She’d been happy to babble and monopolize conversation, so he had little reason to worry about his own articulation.
But was he grateful enough for past kindnesses to let her play matchmaker? What exactly was she envisioning—that she’d stand off to the side texting him suggested dialogue like some kind of modern-day Cyrano? He shuddered.
He didn’t want any games or forced awkwardness. And if that meant Farrah never saw him as anything other than Wyatt Calhoun’s younger brother... His lip curled. Actually, the idea of Farrah never seeing him for himself sucked.
By the time Bailey returned to the room, she’d regained the bounce in her step.
“Am I still the best daddy even though I’m making you go to bed?” Nick teased.
She nodded, yawning. “I have the best daddy. But Cousin Amber has the best mommy. I want a mommy, too.”
“You have a mother, Bay. And she loves you very much.” The words were like sawdust in his mouth. Would it be so difficult for Marla to call her daughter once in a while? Maybe send a freaking card? “She just doesn’t live here.”
The gray eyes Bailey had inherited from him took on a steely determination. “Suzie in my class has two moms. Her old mom moved away, but then her dad got married. Suzie got to carry flowers in the wedding and wear a dress like a princess. Now she has a new mom who lives at her house. Why don’t you do that?”
So many reasons, kid. “It’s getting late.” He gave a melodramatically exaggerated yawn that made her giggle. “How about we discuss this in the morning?”
Nick made sure her night-light was turned on, said bedtime prayer with her, then wandered back to the kitchen. Bailey had come home from dance class Friday with the February newsletter, and he’d stuck it to the refrigerator with a magnet. As always, Tess had included a note at the bottom with her cell number, urging parents to phone her if they ever had any questions or concerns. He scowled at the digits printed on the paper. Was he really considering calling her?
What about the philosophy of relationships developing naturally? The idea that he’d meet a woman someday and that events would unfold artlessly sounded good. But that strategy had gotten him nowhere in the past four years. He pulled the newsletter off the fridge and sighed.
Time to consider a new strategy.
Standing in the middle of his kitchen, Nick dialed quickly, knowing that if he hesitated, he’d talk himself out of this.
“Hello?” Tess caught him off guard by answering midway through the first ring. A person practically had to be psychic to answer the phone that fast.
“Oh. Hi. This is Nick.” Not sure how to proceed, he added, “Calhoun.”
She chuckled softly. “I knew which Nick.”
“Well, it is a pretty common name.”
“True. But you’re the only Nick I was waiting to hear from.”
“You were really that confident I’d call?” Because he was still surprised by his own actions.
“I have the innate ability to wear people down. But this is actually sooner than I anticipated. I thought it would require further stalking.”
Her completely unrepentant tone tugged a half grin from him. However unorthodox Tess might be, she was likable.
“So expecting my call wasn’t why you pounced on the phone, then?”
“No, that was a maid-of-honor thing,” Tess said. “Lorelei and I have been playing phone tag all night. I’d barely hung up from leaving her a voice mail when it rang again. I assumed it was her. I’m glad it’s you.”
“That makes one of us,” he grumbled. Aware of how ungrateful he sounded, he added, “It’s embarrassing to ask for help in this area.”
“You didn’t ask, I offered.”
“Even worse.” He reached into the fridge and pulled out a beer. But instead of opening the can, he held it to his temple. He’d been fighting a headache since his daughter’s announcement that Suzie had a new mommy. “That means it was obvious that I needed help. I must be missing some Calhoun gene. My brothers have never asked anyone for dating advice.”
“Last I checked, neither of your brothers is in a happy, stable relationship, either.”
Huh. He hadn’t really thought of it that way, but she was right. Kevin drifted aimlessly from one woman to the next while Wyatt seemed stuck in a destructive on-again, off-again cycle with a professional barrel racer.
“What changed your mind?” Tess prompted.
“My kid. I was hoping, since we’re surrounded by family, including my mom, who bakes birthday cakes and braids hair for ballet recitals, that Bailey didn’t feel like there was a big mother-shaped hole in her life. But I was kidding myself. She wants me to remarry. There was talk of being a flower girl and wearing a fancy dress.” Thanks a lot, Suzie, you troublemaker.
“Not that I would propose to anyone on the whim of a six-year-old,” he added wryly. “But maybe I should be more open to possibilities.”
“Possibilities like Farrah Landon?” she said knowingly.
He laughed. “That’s aiming pretty high. I decided at fourteen she was my dream girl—and haven’t managed to speak to her coherently since.” He was surprised to have admitted that. But what could he possibly say to Tess to make the situation any more awkward than it already was? Which, in a way, was liberating.
“Ironic that Bay wants a mom,” he said. “The cliché is every girl wants a pony—”
“Not every little girl!”
“—and I could give her a herd of ponies. A mom, on the other hand...” He belatedly registe
red her adamant tone. “You don’t like horses?”
“I like them just fine. From a distance.”
“I didn’t think anything intimidated the Brash and Fearless Tess Fitzpatrick.”
“It’s not like I’m phobic or anything,” she said, trying too hard to sound casual about it. “I just don’t have much practice on horseback.”