That came out louder than she meant it to, because Bear jerked and started thrashing. Nick fell back a step, like he was afraid of the baby. Men, she thought with a snort.
Nick regained his composure. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Did you come here just to insult my honor and mock my son? Because if that’s the only reason you’re here, you can just take your expensive clothes and your short hair anywhere else but here.” Bear jerked in her arms and began rolling his head against her shoulder. He didn’t like it when she yelled.
Nick looked at her for a nerve-racking second before he stood. Then he was closing the distance between them. He stopped just short of touching her or Bear. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Then why are you? Why did you come back?” God, he was driving her mad. He’d always driven her past the point of rational. Why would she have expected that to change?
“Hi, guy. I’m Nick.” He reached over and took one of Bear’s small hands in his. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Bear looked at this strange man for a moment longer before he buried his face back in Tanya’s neck.
“What’s his name?”
“Edward, but everyone calls him Bear.”
“Bear.” He nodded in approval as he placed his hand on the top of Bear’s head and patted. “That’s a good, strong name. It’s nice to meet you, Bear.”
Tanya refused to be pleased that he liked it. She was done pleasing Nick. But she didn’t know what to say next that wouldn’t come out as an accusation or, worse, an insult, so she kept her mouth shut.
A look of peace came over Nick’s face, erasing the hard, lawyerly edge. In that instant, he was the man Tanya had loved with her whole being. He had come back to her—to them. She wanted to love him again. In that instant, she did.
It didn’t last. The peace disappeared and the edges came back, sharper than ever. Nick’s gentle pat suddenly seemed like he was holding on to Bear—with no intent of letting go. “Tell me, Tanya, how old is he?”
Nick would leave again. He would always leave. But she knew that this time, he wouldn’t go alone.
He would take her son.
Nick leaned against the doorway to the bedroom, his gaze fastened on Tanya. God help him, she was a born mother. The way she held that little boy while she sang him an old song about mockingbirds pulled at Nick’s heart in a way that was strange and discomforting. Her voice hung on to each note in the song, filling the room with her quiet power. Somehow, she was even sexier now than before. Maybe it was just those curves, but that wasn’t enough to explain the almost-magnetic attraction he had felt this whole week. That was why he’d kept his distance at work. And with good reason. Right now, he was having trouble keeping his hands off her.
Nick counted backward for the twentieth time that night. He’d come home for his brother Jared’s high school graduation two years ago. No, he remembered—not exactly two years. Twenty-two months. Tanya had been at the party. It had been the first time he’d seen her for almost two years, but she’d been irresistible. He’d assumed she’d moved on while he’d been away, but she’d only had eyes for him.
They’d left the party separately, but he couldn’t get her off his mind. Just like the old days, he’d tapped on her window in the middle of the night. That night had been some of the most intense sex he’d ever had, before or after. No one compared to Tanya. It was just that simple.
That night had been twenty-two months ago.
How old was that baby? Based on his size, Bear couldn’t be much more than eight or nine months old. Not that Nick was an expert in children, but even he knew that smaller meant younger and bigger meant older.
However, that basic fact didn’t mesh well with the fact that the child had gotten out of bed, tried to open a door and settled for banging on it. Again, he was no expert, but Nick was pretty sure that babies didn’t start walking or opening doors until they were a year old, give or take. Nine months of pregnancy plus a thirteen-month-old baby would put Nick firmly into the potential-father category. Nine months of pregnancy plus an eight-month-old baby would rule him out.
How had the fact that Tanya had a baby gotten past him? Even as he asked himself that question, Nick knew the answer.
He didn’t talk to people on the rez anymore. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t talked to anyone but his mother, and she only called every few months to demand money. Being made the youngest junior partner in the history of Sutcliffe, Watkins and Monroe, one of the most prestigious law firms in Chicago, failed to impress Mom. His perfect record in the courtroom was meaningless to her. She could care less that he was the first minority to achieve that accomplishment. All she cared about was how much money he had, and how much she could get him to send her.
Now that he thought about it, Nick did remember getting a couple of messages from Tanya. At the time, he’d assumed she was just having a hard time letting go and moving on. He’d justified not returning her calls as a clean break—for both of them.
Of course, if the break had been that clean, would he be standing here in her little house now? He doubted it.
Had she been calling to tell him about the baby? Or had his mother been telling everyone how he was rolling in dough, and Tanya had merely decided to get her cut?
If the boy was his, then Tanya wouldn’t have let a few misplaced messages keep her from telling him. She would have called and kept calling. She wouldn’t have left him out—that wasn’t the girl he’d known.
But then, neither was the Tanya who was out for money. She’d never cared about wealth—she’d told him so hundreds of times, back when they were dirt-poor Indians dreaming big. And if she was after the money, wouldn’t she have thrown that baby in his face the moment he’d set foot back on this rez, demanding child support? She hadn’t. She hadn’t said a word. Nothing about her actions reminded him of the girl he used to know.
But then, the woman in front of him wasn’t that girl either. Beyond the appearance of luscious, womanly curves—curves that took every noble intention of his and blew it to hell and back—Tanya didn’t look at him with the same adoration—the same, well, devotion. More than anything, she seemed pissed that he was here.
Nick looked around the tiny house. As houses on the rez went, it was quite nice. The windows were intact, the electricity was hooked up and the plumbing featured running water. The house was a hell of a lot nicer than the trailer he’d grown up in. By that lousy standard, she was doing well for herself. She didn’t need his money. Not desperately anyway.
But compared to the penthouse apartment he’d left behind in Chicago, this place was a dump. No other way to describe it. The house was smaller than his bathroom had been, with just an open kitchen/living room combo—he couldn’t use the term “great” room because it was anything but great—and a single bedroom. With no crib.
He flicked a piece of peeling paint off the doorframe and hoped to hell it wasn’t lead paint. Tanya wasn’t his. Maybe the kid wasn’t his. But he’d cared for her once, and it hurt to see her living in a hellhole like this. Grinding poverty made him defensive.
Tanya turned a slow circle as she rocked that baby to sleep. Her dark eyes flicked over him with brutal efficiency, as if he didn’t live up to her standards. Nick had had enough of that crap in law school. The only standards he lived up to were his own.
Tanya continued to turn until the face of that boy—Bear, Nick corrected himself—was in view. His little eyes were at half-mast, with one thumb in his mouth and the other hand buried in the end of Tanya’s braid. He was cute, as far as babies went. His round face looked so much like Tanya’s, but Nick couldn’t see any of himself in the boy.
Something was wrong with that kid. Wasn’t hard to see that, or to notice Tanya’s hyperdefensiveness. The boy hadn’t whimpered, much less screamed, since Nick had opened that door. Sure, he’d opened his mouth, but no single noise had escaped his body. The only sound had been his banging on the door. That wasn’t natural, Nick knew, and it bothered him. If Bear was going to grow up to be a Lakota man, he had to have a voice. A man needed to be able to make himself heard.
He’d always liked the concept of kids. In the back of his mind, he’d always planned on having a few—three, at least—and having the perfect family life. For a long time, he’d envisioned Tanya beside him at the Thanksgiving table or snuggled up to him as the kids opened present after present on Christmas morning. Just like the Cosbys, only Lakota. True, his life in Chicago had put those plans so far on the back burner that they almost fell off, and he was sure Tanya wasn’t open to the idea. The problem was, none of the women he’d dated in Chicago were the least bit interested in having a big family. But he kept telling himself that as soon as he made partner, he’d slow down and settle in.
Nick knew that he would be a good father—the kind of man who went to his kid’s T-ball games and helped with science fair projects. All the stuff he’d missed out on as a kid. Nick’s own father had been long gone for years. True, Nick had turned out okay—thanks to Bill Cosby—but his little brother Jared hadn’t. Mom said he was getting clean in prison. Jared wasn’t the only member of the tribe who’d gone down that path. Nick knew it would break Tanya’s heart if the same thing happened to Bear. The boy needed a father.
Assuming, of course, Nick was the father. And if he wasn’t, where was the guy? Why wasn’t he here helping out? What kind of jerk knocked up a sweet, smart girl like Tanya Rattling Blanket and then left her high and dry?
The tightness that hit him midchest was as hard as any punch. Love at first sight, part of his brain noted, categorizing this new feeling and comparing it against all previous emotions. He’d never fallen in love at first sight. Lust, sure. He was a man after all. But this was different. He had no idea if Bear was his son or not—probably not—but all the same, he knew he loved the little guy.
Tanya eased off the bed and gave her son one last look before she turned to where Nick was standing. However, she didn’t meet his gaze as she tried to slide past him.
Nick wasn’t having any of that. He took hold of her arm and leaned down to whisper, “What’s wrong with him?” in her ear. The smell of her—now he could tell it was soft baby powder underneath lemons—hit him in the nose and collided with that tight-chest feeling until he was dizzy.
She jerked her head back enough to glare at him, but he saw past the pissed and noted how her lower lip had the slightest of trembles. He wanted nothing more than to kiss that lip until the rest of her was trembling in his arms, but he didn’t. That wasn’t why he’d come here. Although he was having a little trouble remembering his original motives at this exact moment in time.
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