Authors: Carly Phillips
He’d know soon enough. If it was a headache, he wouldn’t stay long. If it was something else, something related to
, he intended to find out. Either way, he’d come prepared. If he was going to surprise two women, he’d arrive bearing gifts.
He rang the doorbell, grateful this was the last time he’d have to visit Ethan’s to see Kelly, since his brother was coming home tomorrow. But that also meant that when he wanted to see Tess, he’d have to go back to dealing with his oldest sibling and their issues.
The door opened wide, sparing him from that depressing thought, and Rosalita greeted him, eyes narrowed. “I thought Ms. Kelly say she cancel her plans with you tonight.”
“Hello to you too, Rosalita.” He treated the always-wary woman to a smile. “Since Kelly’s not feeling well, I thought I’d surprise her and Tess with dinner. I hope you like Mexican because there’s enough for you too.”
He gestured to the bags at his feet. It had taken a few trips from the car to bring everything to the front door.
“Oh, Mr. Nash. I didn’t know you were a charmer.” Her expression softened.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” he said, feeling ridiculously pleased to have made any inroad with the gruff woman.
“Let me help you.”
Nash took the heavier things and left the bags of food for Rosalita, following her into the house. From upstairs, he heard the sound of loud music blasting from what he assumed was Tess’s room.
“How do you live with that racket?” Nash asked the housekeeper.
“Oh, Miss Tess like her music. But a little lower music now than when she first moved in. Back then the walls shook. Now? Not so bad.” She laughed to herself.
That wasn’t so bad? Nash shuddered at the noise from upstairs.
“Rosalita, are you talking to me?” Kelly called out from another room.
Without warning, the older woman turned to face Nash. “You go surprise her. I’ll put dinner in the kitchen. Miss Kelly was about to order takeout. She told me not to dare cook since I’m supposed to leave early tonight. You’re going to make her very happy.” She nodded to herself, as if she were certain.
Nash liked this new, friendlier side of his brother’s housekeeper. “Why don’t you leave when you’re ready? I’ll be more than happy to clean up around here, since Kelly’s not feeling well.”
“Oh, Miss Kelly, she’s fine. Pacing around the family room and staring at her cell phone a lot, but fine. I’m telling you, you’ll be a nice surprise.”
Feeling fine, huh? Nash had a hunch he wouldn’t be as welcome a surprise as Rosalita thought. Obviously Kelly wasn’t sick—she was avoiding him just as he thought.
“But if you’re sure you don’t mind, I’ll be leaving in a few minutes. I appreciate you helping Miss Kelly. You tell her I’ll be here early tomorrow to make sure the house is spotless for Mr. Ethan and Miss Faith’s homecoming.” With an oblivious smile, Rosalita headed for the kitchen with the bags of food, leaving Nash to surprise Kelly on his own.
Grateful that Tess was upstairs and hoping she’d shut the music off so he’d have warning before she barged in, he walked into the family room and was surprised to see Kelly sitting on the couch, flipping through a magazine. From the way she quickly turned the pages, he could tell she wasn’t really concentrating on anything between the pages. She’d even appeared to have forgotten she’d called out to Rosalita.
“How’s the headache?” he asked as he walked into the room. He had the biggest, heaviest gift, the one for Tess, tucked beneath one arm and was happy to unload everything onto the floor.
“Nash!” Kelly jumped up from the couch. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“That was the point of surprising you.” He made sure Tess’s surprise wasn’t going to topple over before turning to Kelly. “When you said you weren’t feeling well, I thought I’d bring dinner to you.”
No longer distracted by his packages, he took in her appearance. Her hair was up in a high ponytail, her face makeup-free, and her outfit… left him breathless. Even at her most undone, she was breathtaking. She wore a pair of pink low-cut sweats rolled down at the waist, revealing her pale stomach, while her bare feet with matching hot pink toenails peeked out from the bottom of the pants. Her matching T-shirt was as form-fitting as the pants, the word PINK appropriately scrawled across her chest. And she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“All these bags are dinner?” Kelly asked, her gaze on the bags and the obvious painting easel for Tess, while he couldn’t tear his attention away from her.
“Dinner’s in the kitchen. Rosalita said to tell you she’d put the meal on the table and then she’d be leaving for the night. I promised to clean up… since your head hurts and you’re not up to going out.” He looked her in the eye, daring her to deny she’d lied to get out of seeing him tonight.
“Sorry about that. I had… have a headache.”
“Which is why I brought dinner to you.” He wasn’t about to debate whether or not the headache was real.
“And what’s all this?” She pointed to the various items on the floor.
“This is an easel and art supplies for Tess. It’s collapsible and I thought if she already has one here I could bring this one over to your place. So she could use it when she was there.”
“Oh, Nash. That’s fantastic! She’ll love it.”
He’d prefer it if his sister loved him, but he was resigned to baby steps.
“I also brought something for you.” He bent down and pulled flowers from one of the bags. He was relieved to see he hadn’t mangled them too badly while bringing everything in at once. “I should have called you earlier yesterday.” He held out the long-stemmed roses.
“Pink!” Kelly exclaimed, the excitement in her voice clear. “Thank you,” she said softly.
“My pleasure. So was last night and I wanted you to know that.” His heart beat harder in his chest.
“Same here.” The words seemed pulled from her. She leaned in close and he expected her to kiss him. Instead, she touched her forehead to his and sighed.
He had the distinct sense she wanted to say something else, something important. He held his breath and waited.
And a cell phone rang, destroying the chance and the moment.
She flinched and turned away, heading to the phone she’d left on the sofa. She glanced at the number. “It’s about time,” she muttered before meeting his gaze. “Excuse me a second. I have to take this.”
“It’s about time,” she said into the phone. She walked across the room and through the door leading to Ethan’s private office, preventing him from hearing anything more.
He paced the floor and waited for her to return. He didn’t have to wait long for company.
His sister bounded into the room, stopping short when she saw him. “Oh. It’s you.”
Her usual greeting.
“Rosalita said we had company,” Tess said. “She didn’t say who.”
Nash laughed. “Smart woman.” She got Tess down here without argument.
“I thought Kelly canceled dinner.” Tess, dressed in a similar sweat outfit to Kelly’s, looked young and wary as she studied him.
“She canceled dinner out, so I brought dinner to you.” He drew a deep breath. “I also brought this.” He gestured to the easel, which lay on the floor. “It’s an easel—do you have one?”
Her eyes opened wide as she shook her head from side to side. “I usually just use sketch pads.”
A feeling of accomplishment swept through him. “Well, I also asked the person at the art store to pick out beginner supplies. I think there are things like canvas, paints, brushes…”
“That’s freaking awesome!” She knelt down and began looking through the various bags.
“Tess, how about a thank-you for your brother?” Kelly appeared in the doorway, looking paler than she had minutes before.
Tess glanced up from her excitement, her eyes big and wide. “Thanks, Nash,” she said, the first genuine sentiment she’d given him since they’d met.
Warmth rushed over him. “You’re welcome. I’d say we could set it up after dinner, but I think Ethan and Faith need to tell you where they want it.”
Kelly nodded. “Nash is right. But they’ll be back early tomorrow, so you don’t have too long to wait,” she said, coming up beside Nash.
Tess let out a frustrated groan. “Fine. Then I gotta go video-chat with Michelle and tell her about my new stuff!”
Kelly smiled. “You two are different, but you do like Michelle, don’t you?”
Tess shrugged. “Yeah. She’s quiet but kinda cool in her own way.”
“Go ahead. We’ll eat in about fifteen minutes.” Kelly waved Tess out the door.
She streaked from the room and Kelly turned to Ethan. “Sorry about before.” She raised the phone in her hand.
“Business?” Nash asked her.
She paused then shook her head. “Personal.”
He waited, hoping she’d confide in him, but she remained quiet.
“How’s your head?” he asked.
“Better.” She glanced away and blew out a long breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t have a headache. It’s just that…” She paused. “It’s nothing. I needed time and space to process the other night.”
She obviously wasn’t telling him everything and he was forced to admit her refusal bothered him. Not because she wasn’t entitled to privacy but because his instincts screamed that something was off tonight. Something more than her needing time. From her canceling dinner to how reticent she suddenly was around him.
Nash hated secrets because they reminded him of how duped he’d felt when Annie had asked for a divorce. He hadn’t seen it coming because she’d never told him she was unhappy. Just like he hadn’t known Ethan would leave town the minute he walked out of jail.
So, yeah, he disliked surprises and things left unsaid.
But he was sick and tired of being the most cynical Barron brother. He’d gone into this thing with Kelly determined to enjoy it for whatever it was. So, despite the nagging gut feeling that something more was bothering her, he was too involved to walk away now.
Nash was shocked at the pleasant dinner he shared
with Kelly and Tess. His sister was actually nice to him. He hated to think he’d bought her off and rather believed he was making progress in letting her see she could like being around him. Either way, he enjoyed the feeling of being around family in a peaceful setting.
Kelly and Tess told stories about growing up in the city, lighter tales about Kelly’s habit of burning breakfast, including toast, and how Tess once snuck a kitten home and tried to keep it a secret from everyone.
Kelly’s cheeks flushed pink at the memories, her laughter so real and genuine it made his heart ache in some strange way.
was what he’d missed out on after his parents died, the warmth, the feeling of belonging.
“Nash, did you have a pet growing up?” Tess innocently asked.
Kelly’s eyes opened wide, obviously sensing the potential for disaster.
“I did actually. A mutt named Lucifer.”
Tess wrinkled her nose. “Why Lucifer?”
Nash grinned. “Because he was the devil dog. Always knocking over the neighbors’ garbage and digging up their rosebushes.” He shook his head at the memory. He hadn’t thought of Lucifer in years.
“What happened to him?” Tess asked.
Nash’s breath caught in his throat. “I don’t know.” Hence the reason he hadn’t thought of Lucifer in years. Hadn’t let himself.
“Huh? How is that possible?” Tess pushed.
“Tess, let it go,” Kelly said quietly.
“No, it’s fine.” It had to be if he didn’t want to shut Tess out and find himself back at the starting line. “You know how our father—my parents—died?”
Tess looked at him, wide-eyed, and nodded. For once her smart mouth was silent.
“And you know Ethan left town.” He swallowed the bile that rose to his throat.
Again, Tess nodded.
Beside him, Nash was aware of Kelly’s silent support as she waited to hear the end.
“Well, Dare and I went to live in separate foster homes.”
“I’m not sure. I think he went to the local pound.” Nash pinched the bridge of his nose.
He didn’t have the heart to tell her the dog who’d slept at the end of his bed and licked his face had probably been put down. The place he’d gone to was what people today called a kill shelter. For that Nash blamed himself. He hadn’t asked the Rossmans to take Lucifer in. Nash hadn’t had the nerve to ask for more than they’d already given him, a roof over his head and food to eat. Especially when they hadn’t taken his brother.
“That sucks,” Tess said at last.
Neither he nor Kelly reprimanded her for her choice of words.
They finished their meal in silence, Lucifer’s story pretty much killing everyone’s appetite.
Kelly rose and started clearing the table and Nash helped, Tess pitching in without being asked. Though they were all more somber, the comfortable atmosphere remained and soon they were back to giving each other a hard time and laughing.
“Can we have a welcome-home party for Ethan and Faith?” Tess asked just as Nash had tied up the garbage. He should have known the peace was too good to last, and every last nerve in his body tightened at the mention of his brother’s return.
“I think that’s a great idea!” Kelly said, shooting Nash an apologetic look. “Why don’t you go upstairs and start a list of what we’ll need and I can pick it up tomorrow morning.”
“Cool!” Tess darted for the door, suddenly turning. “Nash?”
“Yeah?” he asked, surprised.
“Thanks for my art stuff.”
He smiled. “You’re welcome.”
“You’ll come to Ethan and Faith’s party, right?” She hung on to the molding along the doorframe, waiting for an answer.
Like she’d given him a choice? “Yeah. I’ll be here.”
She treated him to her biggest, most genuine smile, making his sacrifice almost worthwhile.
“Go make the list,” he said gruffly. Who knew her approval could make him so happy.
“ ’Kay. Oh, one more thing?”
He braced himself for heaven knew what. “Yeah?”
“I’m sorry about your dog.” And then she was gone, disappearing from view, her footsteps pounding farther and farther away.
He turned to Kelly. “Where should I put this?” He held up the trash bag.
“Just leave it. I’ll take care of it later. Nash—” She stepped toward him.
“We really don’t need to rehash it,” he said.
She walked up to him and ran a soft hand down his cheek. “That’s your problem, you know. You don’t need to talk, you don’t need to share, you just need to do… for others.” Her hand lingered on his face. “What about you?”
“I’m fine.” But a muscle twitched in his jaw, making his words a lie. “Okay, how about this? You tell me what’s really behind you canceling our dinner tonight and I’ll talk all you want about my dog, my past, even my brother.”
She dropped her hand. “I told you. I had a headache.”
“And that phone call?”
“I told you it was personal.”
“As in you don’t want to discuss it?” he asked pointedly.
She let out a frustrated breath. “I get your point.”
“But I don’t have to like it,” she muttered, her pout making him want to kiss those lips.
“Me neither.” He wanted to make that point clear.
She was the one holding back. His past—hell, his present—was out there for her to know. And like he thought before, secrets made him uneasy. “Listen, I should get going. With that headache, you should get some sleep.”
He wouldn’t stand here and banter with her when in reality her withdrawal since last night was making him mad. He turned to go when she reached out and touched his arm.
Heat seared his skin. He spun around and without thinking backed her against the counter, bracing his hands on the cold granite. “You make me crazy.”
One minute he wanted to throttle her, walk away without looking back, the next he couldn’t keep his hands off her, needing to taste her and knowing even that wouldn’t be enough.
She licked her lips and he was even more turned on. But his sister was upstairs and the sting of her canceling was still strong.
“Just so you know…” His hips bracketed hers, his erection pressing into her belly, his need for her strong.
“When you move back into your apartment and we can be alone? We have unfinished business, you and I.”
“This kind of business?” She rolled her hips against his and swallowed a moan.
If sex was what she wanted, sex was what he’d give her. He didn’t know why she was playing hot and cold, canceling and withholding one minute, dropping her wariness around him the next. It could be something as simple as the fact that relationships scared her. He didn’t know. And that bothered him.
So he’d do the one thing he’d planned to do from the start—guard his heart. Because the one thing she clearly didn’t want to give him was the truth.
Kelly walked Nash to the door, her body still tingling from his teasing in the kitchen. They weren’t finished. He’d made that clear and despite herself, she was glad. She enjoyed him too much to let things go after one night. She loved watching him grow closer to Tess, and he needed someone to help him through his conflicting feelings for Ethan and his past. Kelly wanted to be there for him. She wanted to be with him while she could.
As for Ryan, he’d claimed he had his ex-wife under control. He hadn’t known about the private investigator but he’d get her to call the man off. Kelly knew he believed what he told her, but she was smart enough to be cautious and wary. In the meantime, she had a life to build, and for now she wanted Nash to be part of it.
Kelly and Tess hit Target early the next morning. The
family room, which Faith had tastefully decorated in taupeand cream with beautiful abstract paintings on the walls, was now accessorized with WELCOME HOME balloons and purple and black streamers. Though the teenager no longer sported purple in her hair, her favorite colors hadn’t changed. And that was okay with Kelly, since her attitude had.
Not only was the family all together on Sunday afternoon, including Nash, Dare, Tess, and Kelly, but Tess had included Faith’s best friend, Kate, a pretty woman with auburn hair, and to Kelly’s surprise, Faith’s mother, Lanie.
When Kelly had asked Tess why she wanted the older woman there, Tess had met Kelly’s gaze and said simply, “Because she’s Faith’s mother.”
So much expressed in that simple statement,
So, though Kelly had avoided Faith’s shop the other day, she’d welcomed Lanie Harrington a few minutes before Faith and Ethan returned. To Kelly’s surprise, Faith’s mother was more pleasant than she’d been at the wedding. More sober too, which probably helped. Faith and Ethan arrived a short time later, completely surprised and overwhelmed by the welcome-home party. Looking tanned and happy, the couple radiated marital bliss.
And Kelly found her gaze drifting across the room to Nash, his mood decidedly different from the happy couple’s and so much different from the last few times Kelly had seen him. The night they’d spent together had been intense and special, and last night had ended up being sweet and pleasant. Now he greeted his brother and Faith with a tense smile and an attempt at civility, but his mood radiated tension and strain.
Yet he was here and making an attempt, all for Tess.
Suddenly Kelly realized she was in over her head with this man. Each time Nash revealed a piece of his past, and with every sweet gesture he made for his sister, Kelly understood how much it cost him and she lost a little piece of her heart to him every time. She
to protect what was left, but he made her care, chipping away at her reserve.
Which was why she now found herself walking toward
“Did I thank you for holding down the fort while I was gone?” Ethan waylaid her, treating her to a grateful smile.
Kelly smiled at the oldest Barron brother. Ethan was broader than Nash, with chocolate eyes and jet-black hair, where Nash was lighter with blue eyes. Though Ethan had reformed his bad-boy ways, she still saw the twinkle of mischief in his gaze and knew many women would fall under his spell like Faith had. But Kelly still preferred the middle, more somber Barron brother.
“Kelly?” Ethan called her name, unaware she was running a direct comparison between him and his sibling.
She shook her head and laughed. “Sorry. I was distracted.”
“I see that.” Ethan’s gaze drifted toward Nash, indicating he knew just where her mind had been, and Kelly struggled not to blush.
Nash, meanwhile, watched them from hooded, unreadable eyes.
Kelly rubbed her damp hands together and focused on Ethan. “Yes, you thanked me for holding down the fort and there’s no need. It was my pleasure, though this is hardly some small fort.” She swept her arm around the large area, which was one of many big rooms in the mansion.
Ethan laughed. “Well, you’re welcome here anytime. You know that.”
“Thanks. Tess and I really needed the time together, you know?”
He inclined his head. “Glad my honeymoon came at a good time for us all. Speaking of Tess, what’s going on?”
Kelly shook her head. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I think she’s having a tough time with some of the kids in school and one teacher in particular.” She summed up the parent-teacher conference and Ms. Bernard’s attitude and the reasons behind it. “I think Tess wants to go back to public school, and before you say anything, yes, I understand the different element of kids she’d be exposed to and the chance we’d be taking of her falling back in with the wrong crowd. But I also think we’re taking an equal chance of her acting out if we don’t acknowledge her feelings.”
Ethan’s face reflected a complete understanding of the situation. “Let me get settled back home, talk to her, talk to the teacher, see what’s really going on. We’ll revisit this again, okay?” He reached out and touched her shoulder, clearly wanting her to know she had a say in the final decision.
Kelly nodded, grateful. “Sounds good. Now, how was your honeymoon?”
A broad grin spread across his face.
“That good, huh? Well, spare me the details,” she said, laughing.
“Don’t worry, I will.” He looked over at Faith, an expression of wonder crossing his features, as if he couldn’t believe
been lucky enough to end up with
Like Nash, Ethan tended to underestimate himself and his worth to those around him. Kelly wondered if the two men realized how similar they actually were and whether they’d ever get close enough to find out.
Before she focused on Nash, she had something else she wanted to talk to Ethan about. “There’s one more thing I wanted to ask you.”
Kelly drew a deep breath. “Any luck finding our mother?” she asked of Leah Moss, her and Tess’s runaway parent.
Ethan had promised to put a private investigator on her trail so they could both formalize custody and rights over Tess and her welfare.
Kelly had tried not to think too much about her mother. She told herself she’d grown used to not having one, but the truth was more complicated than that. Leah was the most selfish person Kelly had ever known, the one Kelly did her best not to emulate. It was better to put her mother out of her mind, but ever since Tess had made that comment about inviting Lanie Harrington today just because she was Faith’s mother, Kelly wondered if Leah’s absence weighed on Tess more than they knew. She explained as much to Ethan now, hoping he’d understand this was a sensitive issue for their teenage sister.
Ethan listened to the story and frowned. “There was no news before I left, but I’ll follow up first thing in the morning. I want to find Leah, but I’m not giving Tess up,” he said, adamant in tone.
Kelly swallowed hard. “I agree. But don’t worry. I don’t see my mother wanting her,” she whispered sadly, though Tess stood across the room in no danger of hearing. They were words that should never have to be uttered about any mother and child. The sad fact was, Leah hadn’t cared any more about Kelly and her life than she had about Tess.