ETHAN IS A cheap bastard.
Fact in point, I have repeatedly offered to personally assist him with the renovations of his old house, and yet he keeps saying no. He says he has a budget. A plan. A schedule.
Did I mention a budget?
Since he hates to spend money, he hasn’t been in a huge hurry to update or fix anything. And after more than three years, the majority of repairs are still left undone. Of course the one thing he did take care of is converting the old gas heater to a new electric one.
The power had been flickering on and off before going out completely thirty minutes ago, and leaving this old house with a brutal chill.
Thank fuck the wood-burning fireplace is roaring in front of the three of us, and keeping us warm. It’s eight o’clock at night and Max is out cold.
When Max and I decided to have a campout, I had set up three piles of blankets and pillows in the shape of a triangle, so no one was stuck in the middle. Max’s words, not mine. Anyway, it’s a good thing I set up camp because it looks like until the power goes back on, we’ll all be sleeping here on the living room floor.
Lying back on the pillow with my hands behind my head, I glance down to see Tess’s messy bun moving on top of her head. The same way she was wearing her hair when I saw her naked mere hours ago. Something I wouldn’t mind seeing again, sometime very soon by the way. “You awake?” I whisper.
She twists onto her side to look up at me. “I am.”
My voice is low. “Listen. I want you to know I’m sorry about earlier. I honestly had no idea you were taking a bath.”
The flush on her cheeks could be from the fire, but I highly doubt it. “It’s not a big deal. I saw you naked, now you’ve seen me.”
Trying not to remember how turned on I was by the sight of her and her beautiful backside that I know I shouldn’t have been staring at in the mirror, I make light of her comment. “Yeah, I guess that makes us even.”
She laughs that soft laugh that does something to my gut I can’t explain. “Well, not quite.”
Speechless, I give her a quizzical look wondering if she busted me for the sideways glances in the mirror when I thought I was being so sly.
“Don’t you remember?” she asks, “You mooned me at Ethan and Fiona’s barbeque last year.”
Okay, time to fess up. “About that. I know you think I was mooning you because I heard you call me a jerk, but it honestly had nothing to do with you.”
“Right,” she scuffs.
“It wasn’t you I was mooning. I swear.”
Confusion clouds her features.
“It’s true. You just happened to walk outside right after Jace dared me to flash your Andy.”
Tess flops onto her stomach and rises on her elbows. Her oversized button-down shirt gapes open and I wonder if it belonged to him. The thought provokes the oddest feeling of jealousy in me.
“You know his name is Ansel,” she remarks with a sigh, “and I told you, he’s not mine anymore. But all that aside, why would Jace dare you to do that?”
With my neck straining to look at her, and the top swells of her tiny breasts all I can see, I decide to avoid temptation and reposition myself. Moving beside her, facing the same direction as she is, I prop myself up on one elbow and look into her brown eyes. “Truth?”
She mimics my pose and stares back. “Always.”
“Jace was drunk and he swore the dude had a thing for me. He wanted me to test it out.”
Tess moves the palm that was resting on her outer thigh to the open neck of her shirt, and says, “Wait. What? Why would you think that?”
“Who knows? It was dumb. We were drunk and just being stupid.”
“Ansel might have had a wandering eye, but I can assure you it was for women only.”
My body tenses from the hurt I see in her eyes. “Did he cheat on you? Is that why you two broke up?”
She nods. Sadness seems to grip her and I can tell she knows it shows on her face when she sucks in a deep breath.
“I shouldn’t have asked. It’s not my business.”
I’m surprised when she plunges forward. “It’s okay. Yes, that’s what happened. He cheated on me.”
“I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?”
“There’s not much to say. I caught him one night in the kitchen of our restaurant with a liquor sales rep after hours. Once I opened my eyes, I discovered he’d been screwing other women right under my nose for years. Probably the entire time we were together.”
A low growl escapes my throat because I want to fucking kill him. This girl is honest, smart, sexy, funny—the whole package, and that douchebag has the nerve to treat her like shit. What a goddamned asshole.
“At first I felt like a fool. I mean, I should have known. Right?”
I shrug. “Not if you weren’t looking.”
Her laugh is bitter. “That’s just it, I wasn’t. I was working. I thought he was too. We were trying to make the restaurant a success. I never thought to worry about someone else. I honestly believed what we had was enough for him.”
I clench my hand into a fist, trying to fight the anger I feel for the dick that hurt Tess. “It should have been.”
Tess dives into more detail, telling me about how her and Ansel met right after her parents died. That she was vulnerable and alone, and he was there. It was what she needed at the time. Once she tells me about the ups and downs of their long-term relationship, she returns to their breakup. “At first, he tried to convince me that his predilection for other women was poor judgment on his part, and that he was sorry. That what we had was enough. He actually wanted me to give him another chance.”
“Fucker,” I mutter.
She smiles but it doesn’t show in her eyes. “Right. I mean he was my boyfriend and he was supposed to love me. What he had been doing wasn’t love.”
“What did you tell him?” I ask.
“What else could I say other than we were over? Even if my feelings for him hadn’t changed, I could never trust him again.”
I push a stray piece of hair from her eyes. “Good for you.”
She sighs unhappily. “Well, not really. I not only lost him, but the restaurant too. So look where my trust issues got me?”
I glance around and grin. “It got you back to Chicago, and here, with me. That isn’t so bad.”
This time she laughs a real laugh. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”
It takes a few moments to decide how to answer her, but then I decide to tell Tess the truth—to tell her all about my mother. How the woman had grown up in Las Vegas, was on her own since she was sixteen, married some guy at seventeen, but divorced him soon after for reasons she never told my father. She then moved to Chicago and met my father. Out of the blue, some twelve years later, a guy claiming to be her ex-husband shows up at our doorstep and the next day she disappears from our life, never to return. We haven’t heard from her since, then again, we never went looking. After twenty minutes I think I’ve told her more about myself than I’ve told anyone at one time—ever.
Tess lays her head on her pillow and tugs her blanket up a little higher. “Nick, I’m really sorry that happened to you, but you can’t put a wall around yourself because of it.”
With a yawn, I lay my own head on my pillow. “I didn’t build a wall around myself,” I reassure her before closing my eyes.
It went up all by itself.