When she finally spoke, her words were disappointingly unhelpful. “Do you have a perfect relationship with your older brothers?”
“If you think that’s a valid question, you’re obviously an only child.”
“True. But Tess isn’t. Maybe you should ask her sometime what it was like to grow up in the same house as her stunning, blonde, prima-ballerina sister. That’s all I can give you without betraying a friend. You’ll have to take it from there.”
“Thanks.” He wasn’t sure yet how she’d helped him, but he appreciated the effort.
“You’re welcome.” She grinned. “Now get lost. It’s date night.”
It was the type of Friday night perfect for eating frozen yogurt straight out of the carton and watching a DVD she’d seen so many times she’d memorized all the lines. Wearing a dark green tank top with plaid flannel pajama bottoms, Tess crossed her kitchen, refusing to look at the vase of flowers on the counter. Why had she even brought them home?
She’d tried to avoid taking them from Nick at the studio, glad when Mrs. Showalter had impatiently poked her head into the storage room to ask if Tess had found those registration forms yet. Between Tess helping other parents and Bailey declaring that her stomach was making “funny hungry noises,” Nick had gone peacefully. But he’d left the roses on her desk.
When was the last time a man had brought her flowers? It was difficult not to be moved by the gesture. Maybe you should just go out with him. Of course, if things didn’t work out between them—if he one day realized he’d settled for something comfortable and wanted more—his daughter would be crushed. She’s not the only one.
Tess rubbed her forehead. Behind her eye, there was a stress knot so big she was considering naming it. But she’d cured many a bad mood before with help from The Princess Bride. Grabbing her fro-yo and a spoon, she headed to the living room where Westley and Buttercup awaited. The knock at the door just as she was passing startled her enough that the spoon hit the floor with a metallic clatter.
“I’m not home,” she called, her voice unapologetically cranky.
“Open the door,” Nick said. “It’s me.”
I know it’s you. That’s why I don’t want to open the door! She swung it wide. “Look—”
“This isn’t stalking. It’s a final appeal. Hear me out, and if you want me to go, this will be the last time I darken your doorstep.”
“You can come in,” she said guardedly. “But I am not sharing the cookie-dough yogurt.”
“Tough terms, but I accept.”
As soon as he stepped inside, she had a memory of the last time he’d been here, so vivid it was almost physical. Her body burned at the mental replay of how he’d backed her against the wall and seduced her mouth with a kiss hotter than—
“Tess.” His voice had gone hoarse, and his eyes sparked with desire. “This is ridiculous. If we both want each other so badly—”
“You’re calling me ridiculous? Not a good start, Romeo.”
She retreated into the living room, partly to put down the cold carton in her hand but more to put distance between them. Nick rarely asked out a woman. And when he did, by his own admission, he half hoped they’d say no. So what did it say about him that he was here now, after she’d already pushed him away?
Rather than come any closer, he sat on the edge of her couch. She paced, too edgy to get comfortable in a chair.
“It wasn’t my brothers’ fault that I had a speech impediment,” he said out of the blue. “But they certainly didn’t make it any easier. They picked on me until Dad threatened to tan their hides, but even if they hadn’t been openly mocking, it still would have been difficult. Everything always came so damn easily to them. Junior-rodeo trophies, girlfriends, 4-H ribbons, touchdowns on the football team. Was that how it was with your sister?”
“Regina didn’t play football.”
“I’m opening up to you over here. Can’t you meet me halfway?”
Her fingers curled into fists at her sides. “What do you want me to say, that it sucks being the ugly duckling when your sister’s the boyfriend-stealing swan? Not that he was actually my boyfriend and, technically, he liked her first...”
Thick anger clogged Nick’s mind—not anger at her, but for her. How could she ever have seen herself as “ugly” anything? How could her family have allowed that? And how was he going to trump an insecurity that had been building throughout her life?
“You’ve been lying, Tess, to me and to yourself. You act like, if I don’t go out with Farrah, I’ll always wonder what would have happened. But you’re the one who would wonder. How can you worry that I’d rather be with her when I’m right here, telling you I want to be with you?”
“Nick, you said yourself that when you proposed to your wife, you thought it was the right thing to do at the time. Is that how you feel about it now?”
“She gave me Bailey.” He would always be grateful for that. “I don’t regret my marriage.”
“Will you regret cowardice?” she flung at him. “Settling for someone instead of taking a chance with your ‘dream girl’?”
“When I was fourteen! Her cheerleading uniform was probably a strong factor. But I’m not fourteen anymore.”
“Neither am I,” she said stubbornly. “When I was younger, I would have gone along with a guy who’d seen me as a buddy, who was comfortable and had fun with me, and thought that was enough for a relationship. I deserve more.”
His jaw clenched. “People think I’m the one who lacks confidence, but you’re the one about to throw away the chance at something truly special. I thought you were braver.”
A small sob caught in her throat. “Which just proves what I’ve been saying, Nick. You’re wrong about me.”
* * *
ALTHOUGH SHE HAD A STANDING invitation to join her parents for supper on Sunday evenings, Tess usually declined. She wasn’t sure whether her showing up now stemmed from the need to be around people after a miserable Saturday night alone reliving Nick’s words, or if joining her parents was some sort of self-imposed penance for hurting him. He’d mostly looked furious when he stormed out of her house the other night, but, beneath that, she’d glimpsed the wounded expression in his steely gaze.
That had haunted her. If she had the power to hurt him, then he obviously cared for her. The question was, how much?
It had been so tempting to give in to him, but she’d resisted. Shouldn’t she be proud of the discipline it had taken to stand by her decision? The easy thing, the weaker thing, would have been to drag him into her bedroom and let herself pretend that he’d chosen her out of preference, rather than default.
“Contessa! There you are.” Gillian Fitzpatrick leaned in to give her a quick peck on the cheek before ushering her into the pot-roast-scented house. “Why don’t you give your father your coat to hang up? Howard, take the girl’s coat!”
As Tess shrugged out of the jacket, she felt the prickle of her mother’s critical gaze. What now? She didn’t have to wait long to discover the source of Gillian’s dissatisfaction.
“Do you ever use that flatiron I gave you at Christmas?”
“No, I returned it and got an electric ice-cream maker,” Tess said defiantly.
Her mother gasped. “What has gotten into you? I didn’t raise you to be rude.”
Says the woman who usually starts pointing out my flaws within fifteen seconds of my walking throug
h the door. Since Tess couldn’t quite bring herself to apologize sincerely, she simply said, “I didn’t sleep well last night.” Or the past six consecutive nights. “I may not be fit company.” Was it too late to turn around and go home?
Gillian pressed her lips into a thin line. “Let’s just focus on what’s important—family. At least I have one of my daughters here. Lord knows when your sister will be able to visit again! Regina is dancing Giselle to sold-out houses and as soon as that wraps, she’ll have to start rehearsals on Romeo and Juliet.”
“Well, I’m glad you have me as a backup between her visits,” Tess said.
Her mother either missed or chose to overlook the sarcasm. “We should eat before the roast gets cold. Why hasn’t your father come back? It doesn’t take that long to hang up a coat. Howard!”
Tess followed her mother to the back of the house. Growing up, the hallway had been decorated with family photos—the Fitzpatricks’ wedding portrait, the girls’ school pictures. But Gillian Fitzpatrick had redecorated to spotlight a common theme. Silver frames contained large black-and-white prints of Regina; most of them were ballet shots but there were also several of her in her wedding dress. In none of them did her hair have the bad manners to frizz or curl. Tess had sometimes wondered where the other pictures had gone, but she never asked. She wasn’t sure she was ready to hear that her high-school graduation photo now lived in the attic.
The food smelled divine, but by the time they reached the kitchen, Tess had no appetite left. Why, on a day when she needed comfort, had she chosen to come here? Must have confused my family with someone else’s.
Gillian’s heels clicked sharply across the Spanish tile as she carried dishes to the table. “Your father’s sulky because I didn’t make dessert, but I knew you’d appreciate my restraint. How’s the weight loss going for your friend’s wedding?”