Truthfully, Tess was grateful not to be at home. As long as she was busy, she had a legitimate excuse for not calling Nick yet. She did plan to call him, truly—she just hadn’t figured out what to say. Also, she rationalized that by not being available, she was taking away his crutch. Maybe he’d work up the gumption to call Farrah instead.
“Well, we’re glad to have you.” Zane snagged a piece of the cucumber his wife had just sliced for the salad. “I know the girls will be thrilled. Josie worships you and ever since you helped Eden with her hair and makeup for the homecoming dance, she definitely thinks you’re cooler than me.”
Heather laughed. “She’s sixteen, and you’re her dad. She thinks pretty much the entire world is cooler than you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Watch it. You’re still under suspicion because you haven’t told me who this mysterious ‘guy’ is and I know all the places you’re most ticklish.” He glanced around as if suddenly realizing how quiet the house was. “Where are the girls?”
“Josie spent the afternoon at the Hollingers’ playing with their daughter. Eden just walked over to bring her home for supper. Go wash up. We’ll be ready to eat in about fifteen minutes.”
Zane grinned. “Is ‘go wash up’ code for ‘get the heck out of the kitchen so Tess and I can talk privately’?”
“You Rangers don’t miss a clue, do you? Now, shoo.”
“I’m going, I’m going.”
Not for the first time, Tess thought how perfect the Winchesters were together. The fact that they’d overcome secrets and difficult odds to find happiness was uplifting. I will find the right man for me. Eventually. And when she did, he wouldn’t be smitten with someone else.
Heather swept all the chopped vegetables from the cutting board into the salad bowl. “I thought he’d never leave! We’ve only got a few minutes before the girls get back, so we have to talk fast. Josie’s got radar ears, so it’s impossible to have a private conversation with her in the house, and if Eden catches on that we’re talking about a boy, she’ll want in on the conversation, too.”
Tess thought of the intense way Nick had kissed her Saturday. “I don’t think ‘boy’ applies.” He was all man. She picked up the conversation from where Zane had interrupted. “So explain to me what happened at this PTA meeting?”
“He cornered me in the hall to ask about you. He was charming and determined, not a shy bone in his body.” Heather gave her a teasing smile. “I think you cured him. But I don’t understand why you haven’t called him. What gives, Fitzpatrick? When I was fighting my feelings for Zane early on, you were constantly nagging me to go ring his doorbell and make a move, lay it all on the line.”
“This is different.”
Heather put her hands on her hips, her expression the same one she used whenever Josie sneaked cookies she wasn’t supposed to have or petted a strange dog without first asking an adult’s permission. “How?”
“Because...it’s my heart on the line,” Tess said weakly. Oh, hell. She sounded pitiful even to herself. “I’ll call him. Tonight after dinner, I promise. Unless I’m here late. That would be rude. He works such long hours at the ranch, and I wouldn’t want to wake Bai—”
“You’ll be leaving early.”
“And to think I believed you were a friend,” Tess groused, crossing the kitchen to pull salad dressing out of the refrigerator.
Heather laughed. “As someone I know frequently says, people often need a nudge in the right direction. Consider yourself officially nudged.”
“Got any pointers on what to say to him?”
“Just be honest. If I’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s the importance of telling the truth, no matter how bad it is.” Her tone turned sympathetic. “And, unless I’m way off base, I’d say you’ve got it pretty bad.”
Tess sighed. “I even like it when he calls me Contessa.”
“But you hate your full name!”
“Not the way Nick says it.” She didn’t hate anything about Nick—except how insecure he suddenly made her feel.
From the moment she’d kissed him, she hadn’t been behaving like herself. It was time to talk, to tell him he’d officially graduated Romance 101 and send him on his way. Then she’d be free to start getting over him.
* * *
WHEN NICK SAW TESS’S NUMBER on his cell phone, he wanted to pump his fist in victory. “It was the threat of my tracking you down in person, wasn’t it?” he gloated.
“Polite people say ‘hello,’” she retorted, sounding miffed. “I might even accept ‘hey’ or, under limited circumstances, ‘whazzzzup?’”
He reached for the remote and muted his television. Tess got his full attention. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
“Very true.” Instead of denying it, she simply owned it. That was his Tess.
“Why?” Hadn’t she missed him at all? He’d been going nuts thinking about her.
“I needed to think—”
“Because I kissed you? Should I apologize for that?”
Her breath hitched, a soft, vulnerable sound. “I needed to think about Operation Cupid.”
“That’s over.” He hadn’t thought about Farrah in days. He could not care less who she went with to the town’s Valentine dance.
“I agree. I think you’re ready—you don’t need me anymore.”
“I do! Not for asking out Farrah—I don’t ev
en want to do that. But because...” Damn it. Now was not the time to get tongue-tied!
“You should ask her to coffee, at the very least, to prove to yourself that you can. Spend a few hours with her, see if there are sparks. You owe it to yourself to find out.” The false cheer in her voice faded as she added softly, “No woman wants to be second choice.”
His free hand tightened into a fist. What could he say? Words bounced around his skull, useless in their disjointed state. In a warped way, she was right. It had taken him longer to notice her, to know her. But now that he had... What would soothe her without sounding like manipulative flattery? What would convince her of his feelings without scaring her off? He still didn’t know if she felt the same way.
* * *
AT THE END OF FRIDAY’S dance class, Tess’s gaze caught on her own reflection in the mirror that ran the length of the studio wall. Jeez. I look like hell. No doubt caused by her lack of sleep lately. On the upside, she was also experiencing a marked lack of appetite, so maybe she really would lose five pounds before Lorelei’s wedding. There you go, a silver lining.
She forced a smile for the girls. “That’s it for today. I’ll see you all next week for our special Valentine’s Day performance!” She doled out hugs, squeezing Bailey with extra affection.
“When are you coming over for ninja tea party?” the little girl asked.
“Um...” When I start dating some hunky fireman who heals my heart and makes it possible for me to be in the same room with your daddy without aching. “Not sure.”
If the universe was kind, Nick wouldn’t be the one to pick up Bailey after class. Some evenings, it was Erin who came to get her granddaughter. Tess was glad when Mrs. Showalter asked for a registration form for the special dance camp Tess would be holding during spring break. It gave Tess a reason to go into the little storage room where the file cabinet sat. Whoever was picking up Bailey could come and go without Tess even noticing at all.