“Nick is the hot Calhoun brother!”
At Tess’s fervent tone, Heather’s eyebrows shot up.
Tess could feel her cheeks blazing. “You know how protective I get of my friends,” she mumbled.
“Uh-huh.” Heather rose, her expression amused. “I should be going. One last piece of unsolicited advice on your appearance tonight?”
“Wear some of that kiss-proof lipstick that won’t smear. Just in case.”
Even though Tess had suggested Nick wear some of his new clothes, she must have subconsciously been expecting a pair of his regular jeans and a Western shirt with a small Galloping C logo above the pocket. Because the sight of him in black slacks, a tightly woven hunter-green shirt and lightweight leather jacket was staggering. Clean shaven and with his hair recently cut, he was like an alternate version of himself. Everything she’d found desirable about him was still there but now combined with a new air of sophistication, mystery.
Tess swallowed, her greeting forgotten.
At her silence, Nick’s smile faded. “Am I late? Early?”
“You’re perfect. Um, right on time.”
His voice lowered, taking on a husky familiarity. “You look fantastic.”
Their eyes met, and Tess struggled to find a response. Speechlessness was not typically a problem for her. By the time common sense kicked in and she realized the logical reply was “thank you,” too many moments had passed, rendering the answer awkward. Crud. Would he think her rude now, unappreciative of the compliment? She was supposed to be encouraging him! Busy second-guessing herself, she didn’t quite register his question until he repeated it.
“Ready to go?” he asked for the second time.
Lord. Two minutes into the evening and she was already wishing for a do-over. Was this how Nick often felt, uncertain of what to say and how others might react to him? It was an awful sensation, something that squirmed in her abdomen as if she’d swallowed a bucket of live tadpoles.
“I am definitely ready to get out of here,” she said. Having him stand on her front porch was too intimate somehow, as if she might invite him in at any moment. Once they were at the pool hall, she’d regain her equilibrium.
She used her key to lock the dead bolt, trying not to notice how close he was standing. But it was impossible to ignore the warmth from his body, the smell of his skin, something indefinable and entirely Nick beneath the manufactured fragrances of soap and shampoo. Tess inhaled deeply. Then, deciding it was tacky to be sniffing her date, she spun on the heel of her sandal and marched toward his truck.
He followed, reaching to open the door for her at the exact moment she gripped the handle. His hand was strong and callused over hers. A tingling warmth coursed through her, and her mouth went dry.
“Doesn’t a gentleman get the door for his date?” he asked softly.
“Absolutely.” She flashed him a bright smile, making an effort to relax. “So far, A-plus on your test run. Phase Two, all systems go.”
He grinned. “I feel like we need a code name.”
By the time he rounded the truck to get in on the driver’s side, she’d regained her composure. “Operation Cupid?” she suggested. “Count yourself lucky the only arrows we’ll be using are metaphorical. My limited experience with archery was pure disaster. I’m pretty sure there’s a picture of me in the administrative offices of Camp Falcon Rock, Most Failed Camper Ever to Pass Through.”
“Would this be the same camp of your much-lamented riding experiences?”
“Falcon Rock’s the official name. To me, it’ll always be a little piece of Hell on Earth. I didn’t want to go in the first place, but my parents insisted. They were trying to get my mind off—” She stopped abruptly.
Tess was by no means an introvert, nor was she shy about expressing her opinion—whether asked for or not. But she never discussed this with anyone. She’d never figured out a way to talk about it that didn’t make her sound self-pitying or resentful of her sister.
Braking for the stop sign at the top of her street, Nick slid her a questioning glance. “My parents used to force me into activities in an effort to ‘get me out of my shell.’ I doubt your folks had to worry about that.”
“No, my being sentenced to camp was an attempt to distract me from ballet. My sister and I had both auditioned for a prestigious summer company. Regina got into her age class. I didn’t.” She tried to sound nonchalant about ancient history, completely unbothered that her sister had gone on to a successful career in Tess’s chosen field. “I’d been psyching myself up for months. Being accepted into that company would have been like Christmas and my birthday and Mardi Gras all rolled into one. Regina only decided to try out at the last minute, after she and her boyfriend broke up, freeing up a lot of her time.”
Nick made a sympathetic noise. After a moment, he offered, “Siblings can be real jackasses, can’t they?”
His observation startled a laugh from her. “I refuse to answer that on the grounds it may incriminate me.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I love my brothers. But it was difficult being the ‘runt of the litter.’ The youngest, the one with the speech impairment, the one who came last in school. With every teacher I ever had, I felt as if I were either trying to live up to Wyatt’s reputation or live down Kevin’s. He was more of a troublemaker, although he was always able to talk himself out of the worst scrapes. I don’t think he’s been at a loss for words a day in his life. Can I admit something awful?”
“Oh, please do.”
“I think proposing to Marla was even more exciting because I knew neither of my brothers had ever popped the question. Obviously, that’s not the driving reason I wanted to marry her, but it was an added rush. I was doing something first, succeeding in an area they hadn’t. Of course, then she left me,” he added ruefully, “which restored the natural order of the universe. Or, at least, the Calhoun family.”
“What exactly happened between the two of you?” Tess probably shouldn’t pry, but when had she ever let that stop her?
He considered his words carefully. “Marla grew up poor in an Oklahoma trailer park. She got to college on scholarships and worked multiple part-time jobs so that she could live with some style. Much as she was infatuated with the idea of my family’s ranch and that we owned so much land, she tired of the reality pretty quickly. She was cut out more for country clubs than country living. Her leaving made me wonder...”
If he should have done something differently? “You can’t blame yourself for her choices,” Tess said. Granted, she didn’t know what kind of husband Nick had been, but she felt as if she knew enough about him as a person and a father to make an educated guess.
“That’s not what I meant, but thanks.”
He was about to make the last turn before they reached their destination, and Tess sensed he’d be less forthcoming with personal details once they were surrounded by a crowd. This was her best opportunity for learning more about Nick and his ex-wife. Not that she cared much about the woman she’d only seen a couple of times in passing, but she definitely cared about Nick Calhoun. Far more than she’d realized.
“What did you mean?” she blurted. “What did you wonder after the divorce?”
“I wonder if I ever should have married her in the first place.” He sighed. “If she was truly The One, I probably should have missed her more once she was gone. I would have been fai
thful, would have honored my vows. But did I really love her enough to justify a lifelong commitment? We met first day on campus, when neither of us knew anyone yet. We were neighbors and ended up with classes together. There was a certain degree of convenience to our relationship. No, that sounds cold. I did care about her, very much.”
“You were comfortable with her,” Tess translated.
He nodded. “I felt at ease around her. For me, that was a big deal. But if I was so in love with her, shouldn’t it have been harder to get over her? I rarely even think about her, except to wish she made more effort to contact Bay. I was angry she abandoned us, but never really grief-stricken. Does that make me shallow?”
“It makes you someone who married young and is functioning as best you can as a single dad. I don’t see any crime in that.”
“Thanks.” He eased the truck into a parking spot, then shot her a look of pure gratitude. “You’re a really good friend, you know that?”
“Yeah.” A wave of irrational gloom washed over her. “I know.”
* * *
NICK SEEMED ENDEARINGLY nervous once they’d been shown to a booth by the hostess, almost as if this were a real date. Or, perhaps, Tess realized as the waiter wrote down their drink choices, his nerves were caused by Farrah Landon. She sat with a friend at a table on the far side of the dining room.
After the waiter had left to get their beverages, Nick scanned the menu. “Should I try to order for both of us?”
“Do you have any idea what I want?”