As time moved closer to class dismissal, more parents and guardians filed into the studio. Despite the increased buzz of noise and activity, Tess heard most of Farrah’s follow-up call to her friend, confirming a girls’ night at a locally owned beer-and-burger joint that featured pool tables and darts. It was like the universe was giving Tess a sign. She’d planned to nudge Nick and Farrah together at the Valentine’s performance—maybe pairing them up to help with the lights or set out refreshments together—and this was a golden opportunity for her to lay some groundwork.
Impatience simmered inside her, but she knew she couldn’t call Nick from the studio. She needed to wait until lunch, when she could dial his cell phone from the privacy of her car. He didn’t know it yet, but he was taking her out tonight.
* * *
THE SIGHT OF TESS’S NAME and number had Nick smiling as he stripped off his work gloves to answer the touch-screen phone. “Hello?” He leaned against the section of fence he’d just finished repairing, glad neither of his brothers were here to catch him grinning like an idiot.
“It’s time to implement Phase Two!”
“Of what, your plan for world domination?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. My plan to take over the world is already well past the second stage. I’m talking about your courtship of one Ms. Farrah Landon.”
Right. He should have guessed that immediately. After all, the only phone conversations he and Tess had ever shared stemmed from his interest in Farrah. “Dare I ask what Phase Two entails?”
“You remember when you told me asking a woman to go out with you isn’t as difficult as sustaining conversation through the whole date? You proved yourself capable of casual chatting at the mall. That was like an animated short. Now it’s time for the full-length film—dinner with a woman. Specifically, me.”
Before he had a chance to process her unexpected declaration, she added, “I happen to know where Farrah will be tonight.”
“Oh, Lord. Are you stalking her? I’m having unsettling mental images of you shadowing her to her car and digging through her trash for clues.”
“Okay, first, ew. And second, maybe you should watch more nature documentaries and fewer police procedurals. I’m not stalking anyone!” Indignation sharpened her tone. “She was broadcasting a private conversation in public. I’ve never seen her when she didn’t have that phone in hand. Honestly, she’s probably one of those women who even takes calls in the— Sorry. Not the point.”
“I get why a practice dinner might be a good idea. But why does it matter where Farrah is?”
“Because one way for a woman to notice a man is attractive is to see him attracting someone else.”
“We’re trying to make her jealous?”
“Not exactly. It’s more like... Say you walk by a horse in a stable. It doesn’t really catch your attention. It’s a perfectly fine horse, but nothing about it jumps out at you on first glance. But later, you see someone riding the same horse and realize how much spirit and grace it has. Suddenly, you’re intrigued. I know it’s short notice, but can you find a sitter for Bailey tonight?”
“Almost definitely.” He didn’t think his mom had plans but, given her frequent hints about his dating life or lack thereof, he suspected she’d rearrange her entire social calendar if necessary.
“Wonderful. Pick me up at seven. Wear one of your new shirts.”
He grinned, already looking forward to the evening. “You’re very bossy, Contessa.”
“Try to think of it as an endearing quirk.”
* * *
“WOW.” HEATHER WINCHESTER stood on Tess’s front porch, beaming. “You look incredible.”
“Um...did I say something wrong?”
“I feel like I’m trying too hard.” Tess reached out to take the box of altered ballet costumes from her friend. Heather’s full-time job was at an art gallery, but she did steady side business as a seamstress. “I don’t want to look too nice.”
“Oh.” Heather followed her inside. “Then you missed the mark, because you’ve never been more beautiful.”
“Some help you are,” Tess groused. “If you really loved me, you’d tell me I look mediocre at best.”
“No can do. Given our past, I promised Zane—and myself—that I’d never lie again. Not even little white lies.”
Tess had never been completely clear on the details but she knew that when Heather had first met her Texas Ranger husband, she’d had to deceive him about who she was to protect her daughter Josie from some unsavory people. “You want a glass of wine while I go change?” Again.
“Tempting. I can’t stay long, though. How about half a glass?”
“Perfect. I’ll drink the other half.”
Tess’s kitchen was tiny, but the sunlight spilling through the large picture window created an airy illusion of space. She pulled down two blue-stemmed wineglasses and retrieved a mellow pinot grigio from the fridge, leaving her friend to pour while she darted back to her room and swapped the deceptively simple black dress for a dark denim skirt and turquoise peasant blouse.
She hurried back into the kitchen, the tile floor cool against the soles of her feet. “Better?” she demanded. “By which I mean, worse?”
Heather leaned back in her chair, considering. “The blouse is a great color for you and the skirt shows off legs honed by years of ballet. I think you’re just gonna have to accept that you’re gorgeous. You could try another outfit, but it’s not really the clothes. There’s something...” She stared hard at Tess’s face. “Who’s the mystery guy who put that sparkle in your eyes, the one you’re hoping to impress without being too obvious?”
“No guy!” Tess took the seat opposite her friend. “Well, technically, there is a guy, but not like you’re suggesting. I’m having dinner with Nick Calhoun to discuss a...project we’re working on.”
Tess nearly spilled her wine. “How’d you know?” Nick was a private person. If he thought other people were gossiping about their arrangement...
ei mentioned it. But only because you and I are so close! The way she brought it up, I think she assumed you’d already told me. After all, I know firsthand what a matchmaker you are.”
“I didn’t do a thing to introduce you to Zane,” Tess said, temporarily diverted. “I didn’t have to—you were living right next door to him!”
“True, but you pushed me to give him a chance every darn time you talked to me.”
“And now you’re happily married.” Tess raised her glass in a salute to the happy couple. “I am great at figuring out who people belong with.”
“If you say so.”
Tess bristled. “When have I ever been wrong?”
“Maybe you’re not, but... Never mind. You’ve lived here your entire life, and it’s only been a year for me. I don’t know Farrah very well. I wouldn’t have an impression of her at all except that her youngest was in class with Josie at the beginning of the year. Then they hired that new teacher and shuffled some—”
“What is your impression? Of Farrah?”
Heather bit her lip. “She’s very flashy. Take that two-door sports car she drives. It’s sleek and sexy but when I see her in the carpool line, it just seems impractical. You should have seen her older daughter trying to climb out of the backseat with her science-fair project. Not that you have to drive a minivan to be a good mom! I don’t think she’s evil or anything.”
“It’s okay,” Tess said. “I asked for your opinion, remember?”
A moment later, Heather continued. “Her clothes are all name brand. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she lives in the most expensive subdivision in town. Isn’t Nick more subdued? I guess I just have trouble imagining her being drawn to him. Seems like she’d be instinctively attracted to the ‘hot’ brother.”