He blinked, having no idea what she was talking about. “You are?”
“I thought maybe you’d ask me to help with your committee.” She flipped her blond hair over her shoulder. “I guess since you never asked me, I’ll have to take matters into my own hands. Let me give you my number. I’ve chaired lots of committees. I could give you some pointers. Maybe over dinner?”
“That’s nice, Farrah, but—” Looking past her, he spotted Tess. Even from this distance, the naked doubt was clear on her face. Just as he was sure that, from where she stood, Farrah’s body language was clear. He doubted people on packed subways stood as close as Farrah was to him. He shuffled back a step. “I appreciate the offer, but my committee’s pretty well staffed. I think they need some help with the science fair, though.”
* * *
AS THE LAST STRAINS OF MUSIC faded softly, thunderous applause filled the high-school auditorium. Tess was so proud. Her girls had all done such a wonderful job today. And, frankly, she was proud of herself, too. Earlier, when she’d glanced across the room and seen Farrah blatantly hitting on Nick... It would have been easy to panic, to tell herself they made a stunning couple, that he should have a chance with Farrah to see if they were well suited.
She’d felt that way for exactly ten seconds. Then she’d realized, Hell with that. He’s mine. Other women had had their chances. If they hadn’t been able to see all the qualities Tess had always known Nick possessed, they didn’t deserve him. She couldn’t wait to dismiss everyone to the cafeteria, where Eden and some of her friends had set up refreshments, so that she could finally talk to Nick alone. But first, there was one last thing to take care of.
She stepped up to the microphone. “Thank you all so much for coming this evening. I know it means a lot to the girls. I also want to thank you for your support of the studio, which comes in many forms. Volunteer hours, bringing your daughters to extra rehearsals the month of recital, and even the simple act of buying raffle tickets so that we can give the gift of dance to even more girls in our community. I know many of you have bought tickets today and are waiting anxiously to find out if you’re a winner. So, without any further ado, I’ll turn this over to Nick Calhoun.”
He came up the side steps of the stage, and Tess tried not to stare. How was it possible that she’d missed him so much in such a short period of time? She backed farther into the shadows, hoping the parents in the audience couldn’t read her hungry expression when she looked at him. Nick stood a few feet in front of her, calling out the names of the winners. Tess realized that in addition to being proud of her students and herself, she was darn proud of him, too. It was difficult to believe that the man making jokes and reading off names was the same boy who’d stammered through childhood, speaking as little as possible and trying not to draw attention to himself.
The total opposite of me. She’d craved the spotlight since she was born. It was funny, how alike they truly were for all their seeming differences. Lost in her thoughts, she wasn’t completely paying attention to Nick’s words as he concluded.
“How about one last round of applause for the woman who made this all possible, Tess Fitzpatrick, the woman I love.”
What? Her heartbeat rocketed. Without making a conscious decision to move, she bolted to his side, keeping her voice to a whisper. “What did you just say?”
He didn’t bother lowering his own voice. “That I love you.”
There were murmurs and a few chuckles in the audience. Tess heard a couple of awwws. She suspected Heather was among them.
Tess cupped her hand over the microphone, ignoring the screeched blare of feedback. “I...” She couldn’t believe he thought this was an appropriate venue to share his feelings, but she was too ecstatic over what he’d said to object.
“Kiss him!” That was definitely Heather.
Nick’s eyes twinkled. “I’m in favor of that suggestion.”
“There are children in the room,” Tess pointed out breathlessly.
He gently lifted her hand from the microphone. “Folks, there are food and drinks in the cafeteria. Go enjoy them.” Then he led Tess backstage.
“Why did you say that?” she whispered, stunned that this once reticent man had publicly proclaimed his feelings for her.
“Because it’s true.” Nick pulled her against him. “And I wanted you to know it, beyond a shadow of a doubt. No one else holds a candle to you. I may have called someone my dream girl, but that’s what it was—a long-ago, insubstantial dream. What I feel for you is reality. In a lot of ways you woke me up. It’s gotten easier to talk to people. I laugh more. Except for when you pushed me away. Don’t do that again.”
“Definitely not,” she promised. She stretched up on her toes to kiss him, stopping at the very last second. “You really love me? Even after I nearly made a mess of this?”
“I love you.” He brushed his thumb over her lower lip. It was amazing how such a slight touch could stoke such powerful desire. “And I never say anything I don’t mean.”
There was suddenly a flurry of motion—Bailey burst through the other side of the curtain, Heather hot on her heels.
“Sorry!” Heather exclaimed. “She got away from me.”
Bailey launched herself in the middle of their embrace for a group hug. “Is Miss Tess going to be my new mommy?”
“Um...” Nick looked sheepish, as if only just realizing the consequences of his public declaration. “Let’s not put Tess on the spot, kiddo. Maybe we should start with an easier question. Contessa, will you be my valentine?”
“Our valentine,” Bailey said.
Tess smiled, so full of emotion it was difficult to speak. “Yes.” Always.
* * * * *
Keep reading for an excerpt from Rancher’s Son by Leigh Duncan!
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Sarah Magarity rose to her tiptoes on the stepladder. The large silver star atop the Christmas tree wobbled when her fingers brushed against it. As she wrestled the heavy ornament from the center post, it tipped, threatening to throw her off balance. For a second, Sarah saw herself lying on
the floor, alone and injured, through the long holiday weekend. Normally hectic on a Thursday afternoon, the Department of Children and Family Services in Fort Pierce, Florida, had slowly emptied once the tech guys shut down the computers for a system-wide upgrade. Now only a tree that smelled more like plastic than pine stood between her and a much-needed two weeks out from under a crushing workload.
Two weeks of white, sandy beaches and a cell phone that didn’t buzz with a new crisis every ten minutes. Two weeks of gathering plants for her growing collection of tropical flowers. Sarah took a deep breath and braced herself against the wall. She could almost smell Hawaiian orchids and plumeria.
Dreaming of ukuleles and fruity concoctions decorated with tiny umbrellas, she whistled a slightly off-key version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Carefully, she toted the star down the ladder. Her foot had barely touched the worn carpet when one of the doors at the main entrance swung open. Sounds of heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 1 blared into the office before the door swished closed. Silence, broken only by the noisy hum of an air conditioner, once more filled the room.
“C’mon, Jimmy.” A voice whined over the warren of empty cubicles. “We hav’ta find someone pronto. It’s late.”
Late for what?
Sarah swallowed a groan. Whoever had arrived at four-thirty on Christmas Eve, they were late, all right. The holiday party for kids in foster care had ended at two.
“Can I help you?” Sarah prayed the curvy brunette rounding the last of the partitions wanted nothing more than grocery money. A couple of ten-dollar gift cards, and not much else, remained in the emergency fund.
“This is Jimmy Parker.” The woman’s plunging neckline dipped perilously low as she placed her hand square on the back of the little boy at her side and shoved. The child stumbled forward. “His mom asked me to drop him off.”