My Cowboy Valentine - Page 34

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Nick rolled his eyes. “Now it’s siblings, too? Last I heard, the wish list stopped with being a flower girl and having a new mommy come live with us.”

“I thought Miss Tess was gonna help you find someone to be my mommy,” Bailey piped up. “But I still think it should be her! She said you were, tractive?”

“Attractive,” Nick said. Definitely time to change the subject. “So what did you do this evening, kiddo?”

She beamed. “Grandad and I saw a poisonous snake out by the pond and Uncle Wyatt said maybe next time he helps babysit, he’ll teach me to shoot a rifle.”

“Like hel—” At the piercing look from his mother, Nick quickly amended his word choice. “Heck. You’re not old enough for that.”

Venomous snakes and guns? Bailey definitely needed more feminine influence in her life. It was becoming easier and easier to adjust to the idea of someday remarrying. Perhaps because he’d met someone he could see himself falling in love with.

* * *

“THIS IS AWFUL.” TESS LAY sprawled across the sofa in the main room of the B and B, an arm thrown over her eyes. Although there were two couples checked in to the establishment, they were currently on a trail ride with Sam. Tess and Lorelei had the place to themselves, leaving Tess free to vent about her wanton behavior the previous night. “Can you believe I made out with him?”

“I’m not seeing the problem.” Lorelei sat in a nearby chair, feet tucked beneath her while Oberon the cat stalked in circles around her, still deciding whether he would deign to let her cuddle him. “You kissed the hot cowboy. Yippee, I say. Did I mention you’re entitled to a ‘plus one’ at the wedding?”

Tess glared from beneath her arm. “Many times.” She sat suddenly, swinging her legs to the floor. “You’re forgetting his long-running interest in Farrah Landon.”

“Yet he wasn’t kissing her.”

“Well, no. She wasn’t the one convenient. She wasn’t the one standing in front of him, undressing him with her eyes. If she had been...” Would he have kissed Farrah with the same passion he’d shown Tess? Would he have bothered to stop if it had been Farrah in his arms, or would the two of them have made love through the night—the way Tess had dreamed of once she’d finally fallen into a fitful sleep?

Tess sighed. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer of coffee if it still stands.”

When she’d first arrived at the B and B, Lorelei had volunteered to get her a beverage and a breakfast pastry; Tess had felt too miserable to enjoy either. Instead, she’d flung herself onto the couch and into her recriminations. But given her lack of rest, if she didn’t get some caffeine in her system soon, she could become a hazard to herself and others.

The two women went to the kitchen, Oberon following them in case there were treats to be had.

Lorelei poured two steaming mugs. “Okay, Nick liked Farrah at some point. They were never a couple, though. He is allowed to change his mind and develop feelings for someone else.” She leaned across the counter and lightly bopped Tess on the head. “This means you.”

“Over her already? He seems...steadier than that. He’s not his brother, chasing after a different woman every week. He can commit. Nick’s the only one among them who’s been married.” And speaking of his marriage... The confession he’d made about his feelings for Marla plagued her.

“I know he wouldn’t appreciate my talking about him,” Tess began, dumping sugar in her coffee. “But you’re one of my best friends and if I can’t discuss—”

“My lips are sealed. Tell me anything you want, and it’ll go no further,” Lorelei promised.

“You mean like when you told Heather I was trying to fix him up with Farrah?”

Lorelei winced. “Okay, that was unfortunate. But I really thought she knew. From here on out, no more mistakes like that.”

“He confided to me that one of the reasons he proposed to his ex was because he was so comfortable with her.”

“Makes sense. You certainly wouldn’t want to marry someone who makes you uncomfortable on a daily basis.”

“Yeah, but... When Sam walks into a room, there’s that zing between the two of you. Your first thought is not that he’s as comfortable as a broken-in pair of sneakers. To some degree, Nick found her safe and convenient. What if he’s ducking his feelings for Farrah because they aren’t so safe?” Taking the easy way out, as it were.

“And what about you?” Lorelei reproached softly. “Did you come here hoping I’d talk you out of a discomfiting emotional risk? No one gets it more than me, how unpleasant it can be to make yourself vulnerable. But trust me, the rewards of loving and letting yourself be loved back...” She trailed off, fiddling with her engagement ring. Her expression as she contemplated life with Sam was more eloquent than any words she could have used.

Tess stared through the kitchen window at the picturesque flower garden, not wanting to face her slim, accomplished, genius-with-numbers friend as she made this admission. “You know what an understudy is, right? The alternate who learns all the steps for those times the show must go on but the real star isn’t able to take the stage? I’ve felt like that so many times, Lor. The perennial bridesmaid, the younger sister who never fully earned her parents’ respect, the dancer who was good enough for corps but never solos. I’m waiting for my chance to shine, to star in my own life. I’ve never let my pride make decisions for me, but I can’t budge on this one principle. I can’t be anyone’s backup plan.”

Tess wasn’t a kid anymore, content to go to prom with her crush because his first choice couldn’t make it. She’d rather never see Nick again than see more of him because he found her easier to talk to and less intimidating than the woman he really wanted.

Chapter Nine

Standing behind the microphone at the front of the school cafeteria, the PTA president clasped her hands in front of her ample boson. “Why, Mr. Calhoun! Thank you for your willingness to help. I thought it would take more wheedling on my part to talk someone into chairing the committee.”

Committee? What? He looked around the room at some of the other parents’ expressions. Amusement and pity were the chief responses; one single mother whose twins had once celebrated their birthday at the Galloping C mimed a phone with her fingers. Call me.

Okay, so, going forward, he now knew to be very careful about standing up at PTA meetings. But the reason he’d bolted to his feet was because he’d spotted Heather Winchester in the hallway, speaking with the music teacher. He knew Heather had helped with costuming the children for the performance that would start once the PTA meeting ended.

He wanted to speak with Heather because she was close friends with Tess Fitzpatrick—the same Tess Fitzpatrick who seemed to be avoiding him. When she’d ushered him out of her house Saturday night, she’d told him to call her later. Ha! It was now Tuesday, and she’d yet to return any of his three messages.

Trying to cause as little disturbance as possible, he sidled to the edge of the cafeteria, then quickly exited the room.

“Mrs. Winchester?” He strode toward Heather.

Her friendly smile didn’t mask the confusion in her gaze; they’d never spoken before and she was clearly surprised at being sought out. “What can I do for you?”

“Nick Calhoun.” He shook her hand. “Our daughters are in the same dance class.”

She nodded slowly. “Yes.”

Now what? He’d been full of conviction when he’d hurried from his

seat, but it wasn’t as if he could demand to know why her friend had stopped speaking to him. He could understand that maybe he’d made a mistake in kissing Tess, but she wasn’t a shrinking violet. He would have assumed she’d simply tell a guy he screwed up and move on from there. He was the one uncomfortable having conversations, not her.

Stalling as he tried to decide on a strategy, he said, “I understand your daughter Josie is one of the best in the class. Will she be doing a solo at next week’s performance?”

At the mention of her daughter, Heather immediately softened, her quizzical expression replaced with maternal pride. “Yes, she is. She’s so excited about it. She loves dance class.”

“My girl’s the same way. And no wonder—they have a great teacher, don’t you think? I wanted to ask you about Tess. She specifically asked me to call her over the weekend, but she hasn’t answered her phone. Have you seen her or talked to her? I’m starting to get a little worried.”

Heather bit her lip, apparently unwilling to divulge whether she’d spoken to Tess. Was she afraid he’d press to know what her friend might have confided? “I’m sure she’s fine. Probably spending extra time in the studio to get ready for the party next week.”

“Probably. But would you do me a favor?” He flashed her the most charming smile he could muster. “If you see her, remind her to call me? Or, I guess I could just stop by the studio to check on her...” He trailed off, pleased with his stroke of ingenuity.

Judging by the way Heather’s eyes had widened, she would no doubt pass along his words. He suspected he would hear from Tess very soon.

* * *

“I THOUGHT THIS GUY HAD difficulty talking to women?” Heather said disbelievingly.

“What guy?” Lean, rugged Zane Winchester strolled into his kitchen, his cowboy hat in hand. His voice was a playful mock growl as he put his arm around his wife’s waist. “Should I be jealous?” After he’d kissed her cheek, he turned to smile at Tess, who was rinsing lettuce at the sink. “Hey, Tess, staying for dinner?”

Heather nodded. “I insisted.”

Tags: Jane Porter Romance