My Cowboy Valentine - Page 31

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“Not really.”

She arched a brow, her lips twitching. “And do I seem incapable of making decisions for myself?”

He chuckled. “Not at all.”

“Then it would be pretty dumb for you to order for me,” she chided lightly. “I’m not sure how that myth got started, that it’s macho for a man to pick out what the little lady will have. It’s more effective—and sometimes downright sexy—to ask a woman what she likes.”

His gaze locked with hers. “Are we still talking about dinner?”

“Um...” Tess was grateful that the waiter returned with her glass of wine, interrupting conversation.

After they’d both ordered, Nick asked, “So, what do you like? In a guy, I mean. What do you want in a relationship?”

His question caught her off guard.

“C’mon,” he coaxed. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about my love life. It’s only fair that I ask about yours, right?”

She couldn’t fault his logic. Stalling, she sipped her wine. “It’s not like groceries. I haven’t made a list.”

“So make one now,” he invited. “You have to have some idea. If ever there was a woman who knew her own mind...”

What was she looking for in a man? Draining her glass, she pondered some of the couples she knew. She skipped over her parents’ own unbalanced marriage, where her mother announced decisions as if they were royal decrees and her father mostly kept his head down and tried to stay clear of any female drama. Tess wanted a true partnership, like some of her friends had found.

Sam Travis looked at Lorelei as if she were the most gorgeous woman alive, which was close to true; she had to at least be in the top twenty. Newlyweds Zane and Heather Winchester, who’d each learned from failed first marriages, shared a deep bond, an understanding that would lead outsiders to assume they’d been together for decades. Then there was Tess’s sister. In addition to synchronized life goals, Regina and her choreographer husband were an exquisitely matched set. Seeing them together made Tess think of priceless bookends, but they were so unerringly dignified that she secretly found them a bit creepy. Did they ever laugh together?

“Someone I can have fun with,” she said decisively. “But a good listener, too, someone who can be playful but intuit when it’s time to take what I’m saying seriously. A man who makes my toes curl whenever we...kiss. Someone who believes I’m worth the trouble of pursuing.” She recalled men she’d seen court her sister. Tess wasn’t the type to play hard to get—she either liked a guy or she didn’t—but it would be nice to know he thought her worth proving himself.

“Oh, and he has to be good with kids, obviously.” She bit the inside of her lip, wishing she could take back the words. Did they sound like a come-on, given that Nick was absolutely wonderful with his daughter? “I—I’ve always wanted children. When Regina got married, I hoped I’d soon have nieces and nephews to spoil, but she’s adamant about waiting. She doesn’t want motherhood to interfere with her dancing career.”

Nick swirled his drink around, not meeting her eyes. “Speaking of kids...I should apologize about what Bailey said the other day. About you being her new mother?”

Mortification stung her cheeks. “No apology necessary.” She didn’t want to sit through a mutual affirmation of there being nothing romantic between her and Nick. Knowing he didn’t see her “that way” was fine; trying to smile across the table as he voiced it aloud would be humiliating.

The waiter appeared with their salads. “Anyone want grated cheese? Freshly ground pepper? Another glass of wine, ma’am?”

“Yes, please.”

Blessedly, once the waiter had bustled off, Nick didn’t resume the topic of Bailey and her impulsive announcement. Instead, he returned to the subject of Tess’s list.

“You have a good handle on relationships,” he said admiringly. “Some people have unreasonable expectations—they look for perfection and are doomed to be unhappy. Other people are just grateful for any tenderness and settle for less than they deserve. You won’t do that.”

“I won’t?” She certainly had no intentions of doing so, but she was nonplussed by the ringing conviction in his voice.

“Hell, no. You’re direct and brave enough to follow your heart.” He frowned, glancing toward the table where Farrah sat.

Was he wishing he’d had the gumption to ask her out before now? Was he realizing that, if he had, he could even now be seated across from the woman he’d dreamed of going out with for more than a decade, instead of getting advice from a busybody who hadn’t even been in a relationship since...

Her mind blanked as she tried to calculate how long it had been. Lord, was that depressing.

Midway through her second glass of wine, Tess began to feel slightly less depressed. How bad could her social life be if she was sitting here with one of the hottest guys in town, a man who kept nodding at her as if her every word was a pearl? A pleasant buzz stole through her, subtly blurring her thoughts until they were like an alluring watercolor.

She was enjoying her delicious steak and once again feeling her buoyant self when Nick asked suddenly, “What makes a great kiss, one that would curl your toes?”

“I— What now?”

“Your hypothetical criteria was that he be an incredible...kisser.” Nick’s slight pause and smirk made it clear he knew her thoughts had gone further than that, even if she’d only given him the PG version.

Knowing how easily she blushed, Tess tried very hard not to dwell on what qualities made a man an incredible lover—and tried equally hard not to wonder just how many of those qualities Nick Calhoun possessed. “Um, some things aren’t easily captured in words,” she demurred.

Mischief glimmered in his eyes. “Are you saying it would be easier to demonstrate than to explain?”

She froze, the idea of him kissing her all too vivid.

“Don’t worry, I was teasing,” he assured her. “That would go above and beyond the cal

l of duty.”

“Not like it would be a hardship,” she muttered.

He learned forward in his chair, the earlier humor in his gaze replaced by a more predatory gleam. “Are you saying you’d want me to kiss you?”

“It’s crossed my mind.” The errant words were out before she could censor herself—not that she’d ever employed much of a verbal filter. “Ignore me. I’m on my second glass of wine.”

He shook a finger at her. “You never say anything you don’t mean. Isn’t that your mantra?”

She could flirt with him, tell herself it was in the name of “coaching” him. Farrah could look over at any moment and see the two of them smiling together, Nick showing a seductive side of himself. But the idea of playacting the truth scraped Tess raw. She felt exposed and queasy.

“I think the smart thing for me to do is shut up,” she said firmly. “Radio silence.”

“An impulse I can understand, but aren’t we supposed to be practicing the art of conversation?”

“Think of this as a disaster drill,” she instructed. “What if you’re on a date and the discussion goes south? Do you have a contingency plan?”

He considered her challenge, then startled her by scooting his chair back. Standing, he extended one hand toward her.

“What are you doing?”

“This is my plan B.” He tilted his head toward the live band and small dance floor through the archway. “I figure we can let the music do the talking for us. Dance with me.”

“But...” She’d been aiming for strategic retreat, a little distance between them. Sliding into his embrace was not what she had in mind. “We haven’t finished dinner yet.”

He signaled to the waiter, summarizing the situation in quick pantomime. “Our plates will be safe for five minutes. C’mon, you’re the best dancer in town. Are you really going to leave me hanging here? People are watching.” He gave her a lopsided smile that was somehow both cocky and lovable. It was the smile Kevin had been attempting his entire life yet never quite capturing. “What will it do to my reputation if everyone sees you reject me? All your hard work reinventing me, undone.”


Tags: Jane Porter Romance
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