The whole week, all Nick had done was walk in, give her “the look” and disappear into his office. He didn’t ask for coffee, tell her to make copies or demand to talk to her. Despite her resolution not to fall under his spell again, she still found herself daydreaming about him at least trying to sweep her off her feet. He’d corner her in the conference room, shut the door and press her against the wall. If she closed her eyes, she could actually feel the length of his body against hers—the way they fit together as effortlessly as they always had. He’d kiss her until she couldn’t breathe. Of course she’d rebuff his advances—in her fantasy, she could just walk away from him.
Reality was different. Would it kill him to at least notice her? She couldn’t even be in the same room with him—for however short a time—without being painfully aware of him. As much as she tried to hate him—and heavens knew she tried—she couldn’t shake the hope that somehow, some way, they’d go back to the way things had been. Despite having a child now, a big part of Tanya still felt like the same girl she’d always been—the girl who loved Nick.
But no. Maybe she’d just guessed wrong about him. This new-improved Nick wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the same-old Tanya. Why would he be? She wasn’t model-perfect, rich or anything else like the women he’d probably spent all his free time with back in the big city.
Maybe this was just how it was going to be, she thought as she boiled the water for the mac ‘n’ cheese. They’d just keep pretending like they’d never been in love. She’d keep Bear’s existence quiet. They’d be like sicas, spirits, passing through each other’s lives. It could work.
This way of thinking lasted until she put Bear down at eight. She read him a story, sang him his bedtime song and rubbed his back until his little eyelids closed. Finally, she thought as she shut the door behind her and sagged against it. Exhausted as she was, she needed at least a half hour of peace and quiet before she went to bed. She trudged down the short hallway that separated the bedroom/bathroom half of the house from the kitchen/living room half, turned the corner and let out a scream.
There, sitting on her couch, was Nick Longhair. His tie and jacket were gone and his shirtsleeves were cuffed, but otherwise, he looked exactly like he had when she’d last seen him this morning. Next to him sat a robin’s egg–blue gift bag.
A jumble of thoughts ran through her head. She was positive she’d locked the door. He looked horribly out of place on her ratty couch. Had he noticed the laundry basket of toys on the other side of the room? Damn it, why did he have to look so good? What was in the bag? She felt like hell and probably looked worse. Which all came out as, “What are you doing here?”
He sat there, giving her that same damned look for what felt like an hour. Did he think she would throw herself at him? If so, he had another think coming. “You look good, Tanya.”
Part of her all but vibrated with the compliment. For a delusional second, she wasn’t a schlumpy mom with mac ‘n’ cheese in her hair, but the crazy-in-love girl Nick had wanted. Oh, how she had missed the way he made her feel. She’d missed being that girl.
The other part of her didn’t like where this was going. If he thought he could just waltz into her house and expect her to fall into his arms only to see him waltz right back out of her life for another two years, he could go to hell. She’d even buy him a handbasket. “What do you want, Nick?”
“I brought you a present,” Nick said, sounding completely unconcerned with her rudeness. He stood and handed the bag to her.
She didn’t want to look. Well, she did, but she was afraid that it would be something weird or stupid and that would further grind her fantasy about Nick’s return into the dust. She was also terrified it might be something really nice, but she wasn’t sure why. “It’s nice to see you didn’t forget about the tradition of bringing gifts.”
“I didn’t forget about a lot of things.”
The way he said it—all serious and intent while he looked as if he’d spent two years wandering in the desert and she was a tall, cool glass of water—sent another spike of heat through her body.
She should not let his good looks and generous gifts and intense gazes get to her. He’d not only ignored her for two years, but he’d also ignored her the entire week. She needed to stay strong and make sure she protected herself and her son from the kind of heartbreak that Nick seemed to specialize in. Nick would leave again, as sure as the sun rose and set, and Tanya would have to pick up the pieces. It was bad enough picking up her own pieces. She didn’t want to have Bear shattered, too.
She would not be seduced. Now she just had to keep telling herself that. “Gosh, you could have fooled me. Why are you really here, Nick?”
A shadow flashed over his face, but it was gone as quick as it had come. “I picked it out for you.”
Her hands were shaking, which was irritating. Why was she so nervous about this? In the space of a second, she found herself wishing she was taller, thinner, smarter and more reserved. But she wasn’t. Except for the extra baby weight, she was exactly the same girl she’d always been. And that girl hadn’t been enough for Nick.
She opened the bag. Inside was a huge bag of Skittles and a pink elephant with a big, blue bow around its neck.
Tanya’s throat closed up as her eyes began to water. She tried blinking, but the tears kept forming.
“It was our first real date, remember?” She was startled to hear Nick’s voice so close to her ear. She was even more startled to feel his hands slip around her waist. He’d sneaked up behind her, damn it, and now he was hugging her. That simple touch was enough to break her. His scent surrounded her. She couldn’t escape it. She couldn’t escape her past with Nick, so she didn’t even try. “Our first real date, because I was able to get a truck. I took you to that county fair and bought you Skittles because they were your favorite and won you a pink elephant shooting that water gun.”
As he spoke, he pulled her back against his chest until the heat from his body was searing the flesh on her back and underneath his hands. No, she hadn’t been imagining that he’d added muscle—she could feel the hard planes of his body crushing against her.
Nick pressed his mouth against her ear. “Remember? How we took the long way home and got lost and pulled over on that dirt road?” His lips brushed over her lobe, sending a shiver through her that she couldn’t have stopped if she’d tried. “Remember how bright the stars were? Remember how beautiful you were? I didn’t forget our first time, Tanya. Tell me you didn’t either.”
“No.” That one word was all she was capable of saying. A bag of Skittles and a pink elephant were just enough to bring that night rushing back to her. She remembered being scared and excited and so in love with him.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. A decade had passed since that night, and there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t give to go get lost down that dirt road with him again.
A whump came from the bedroom. Oh, no. Oh, hell. That was the sound of Bear flopping out of bed. As far as Tanya could tell, Nick didn’t know about the boy. It was up to her to keep it that way.
“What was that?” Nick asked, pulling away from her.
“Nothing.” Tanya spun and threw her arms around his neck, holding him in place. “Let me thank you for the present.” Then, against her every better idea, she kissed him.
It wasn’t supposed to be the kind of kiss that took all of her resolve and smashed it to bits. She was just trying to distract him from the sound of Bear jiggling the doorknob. But it didn’t work that way. Nick folded her back into his arms and just like that, the distance between them was gone and all Tanya could think was that Nick had come back for her. When he held her tighter, heat rushed down her back and pooled lower.
Oh, she needed him, in a primeval, instinctive way that had nothing to do with reason or logic and everything to do with the thrill of Nick’s tongue sweeping into her mouth. God, how she’d missed this feeling of being wanted and needed—of being loved. No one had ever loved her like Nick had, and she knew no one ever would. Was it wrong to want this? Was it really wrong to want him?
As the kiss deepened, she almost forgot why she’d kissed him in the first place. Twenty-two long, sexless months pushed her deeper and deeper into his arms until she shook. But then another thump cut through the desire—the sound of Bear banging his tiny fist against the door because he couldn’t work the knob. Nick jerked his head away. “Is there someone else here?” He let go of her and headed toward the bedroom door.
“No—no one else.” Tanya threw herself in Nick’s path. “Just me.” She plastered what she hoped was a sexy smile on her face in an attempt to hide her panic. “I, uh, wish I had a truck. We could go for another ride somewhere.” Anywhere Bear wasn’t.
Nick’s eyes zeroed in on her as Bear took up a steady pounding rhythm. He took another step forward, forcing Tanya to take another step back. “You’re not alone? Are you living with someone?”
The way he said it, like she’d been cheating on some poor, imaginary guy by kissing Nick, was enough to remind Tanya of all the reasons why she shouldn’t fall back in love with Nick under any circumstances, ever again. He wasn’t here because he loved her or trusted her. He was here because she was convenient. “No.”
Bear was now banging on the door with both fists. Tanya could tell because by now, Nick had her pinned against the door. “You’re lying to me.”
“What, that noise? It’s, uh, nothing.” She scrambled to think of something believable. “A dog. I have a dog. With a big tail. Knocks into stuff all the time. What can you do?” She tried to laugh as she put her hands on Nick’s shoulders. “He, uh, jumps. And sheds. We should leave him alone. Don’t want him to mess up your nice pants after all.”
She tried to push him back, and he let her. Then, at the last second, he pivoted, letting her momentum carry her right past him. He caught her arm to keep her from falling over at the same time he turned the knob and pulled open the bedroom door.
Bear stood there, silent tears running a race down his fat cheeks. He took one look at the strange man who held on to his mommy, opened his mouth to scream and didn’t make a sound.
He never did.
Tanya’s heart sank. The jig was up. It was time to face the music. “Dang it, Nick, you scared him.” Tanya jerked out of Nick’s grasp and scooped up her little boy. “Hush, sweetie.” Which was a pointless thing to say, but she said it anyway.
She held Bear and rubbed his back until he stopped flinging his arms around. His head rested on her shoulder and she could tell he was sucking his thumb. She wasn’t sure if he’d gone back to sleep or not until he reached up and laced his chubby fingers into the end of her braid. He was awake. Scooting around Nick, she went to the fridge and got him a sippy cup of water.
While Bear drank, Tanya watched Nick, who was staring at the boy. His mouth hung open as his eyes took it all in. One thing was clear—he hadn’t known she’d had a baby. He didn’t know she’d had his baby.
Maybe she could still keep it that way?
That was just the desperation talking. Now that Nick knew, he wouldn’t rest until he knew everything. How long would it be before he took Bear away from her? How long would it be until he left her all alone again?
While this irrational fear—at least, fear she hoped was irrational—clogged up her throat, she struggled to keep her face calm and blank. Do not panic, she tried to tell herself. Don’t give it away. “Well?” Because he was going to say something, sooner or later. And she didn’t think she could wait on later anymore. She just wanted to get this over with.
“You have a baby?” Nick’s voice wobbled.
Tanya felt a small thrill of victory that she’d managed to outsmart the smartest man in the tribe—for a little while anyway. “Yes.”
Nick shook his head, like he couldn’t trust his eyes. “He’s not mine, is he?”
The question was a punch to the gut. She couldn’t have imagined a lower insult coming out of his mouth. She’d loved Nick Longhair with every bit of her heart and soul since she was in sixth grade and he’d been a freshman in high school. She’d done everything he’d ever asked of her—even going into debt to go to college so he wouldn’t be ashamed of her. She’d planned on spending the rest of her life with him. Never once had she strayed—and this was how he repaid her devotion. By leaving her all alone and then assuming she’d been stepping out on him.
The whole deep-breathing thing wasn’t working so good. “He’s mine. That’s all you need to know.”