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When Tess Newhart threw open her apartment door, Nick Jamieson was standing there—tall, dark, successful and suspiciously happy to see her, his pleasantly blunt face a nice human contrast to his perfectly tailored suit. She stared at him warily, fighting down the ridiculous jolt of relief and happiness and lust that welled up in her just because he was back.
Then he threw his arms wide to hug her.
"Tess!" he said, beaming at her. "You look great!"
Tess looked down at her sagging, bleach-splotched sweatshirt and faded blue sweatpants, the hems shrunk to midcalf on her long legs. So much for relief, happiness and lust. She rolled her eyes at him, all her suspicions confirmed. "Right." She slammed the door in his face and shot home both dead bolts.
"Aw, come on, Tess," Nick called through the door. "It's been a month. Actually it's been a month, a week and two days, but who's counting? All right, I'm counting. I miss you. I keep calling but you won't call me back. Is that fair? I think we should talk about this."
"I don't," Tess said firmly to the door, but her face was uncertain as she ran her fingers through her short red curls. If Nick hadn't had such a large streak of calculating rat running through him, he would have been just what she needed at the moment, instead of the last thing she needed. But there was that streak of rat, and if he was at her door being charming it was because he wanted something. And the something probably wasn't her. It was something to do with money, promotion, status or all of the above. She shook her head, newly determined, and turned back to cross the threadbare gray carpeting to her chair and her conversation.
"Who's the wise guy? Your landlord?" Gina DeCosta sprawled on Tess's lumpy couch, a symphony in black: her unruly black hair falling into her eyes, her small body lost in a huge black T-shirt, and her legs wrapped in black leggings as tight as Ace bandages. She stretched out those legs tentatively and winced.
"Worse." Tess flopped down into her decrepit armchair, which groaned under her weight, and slung her long legs over the side. "You know, every time I think my life has hit bottom, somebody lowers the bottom."
Nick pounded on the door. "Come on, Tess. Open up."
"Who is that guy?" Gina said.
"Nick, but I don't want to talk about it," Tess said, forestalling Gina before she could leap into the breach. "Between him and my landlord, I may never open that door again." Tess patted her lap, and a huge black cat jumped into her arms, reclaiming the territory she'd lost when Tess had gone to answer the door. "Sorry, Angela," Tess murmured to the cat.
"Tess?" Nick called. "Come on. Let's be adult about this. Or you can be adult and I'll fake it. Tess?"
Gina frowned at the door. "Why are you ducking Nick?"
"Well," Tess said, and thought for a minute. "It's like this." She stood up, dumping the cat off her lap again. "I answered the door and he said—" she flung her arms wide and beamed a toothpaste smile at Gina "—Tess, you look great!"
Gina looked at Tess's sweats. "Uh-oh."
"Exactly." Tess flopped back into her chair. "You know, every time I see Nick, my mind looks at him and says, 'Yes, he's fun, but he's also a power-hungry rat, so stay away from him,' and then my body looks at him and says, 'Hello, gorgeous, come to Mama.'" She shook her head. "I have to have a long talk with my body."
Gina looked at the sweats again. "I don't think it's gonna listen to you. If you dressed me like that, I wouldn't listen to you."
"Forget the clothes," Tess said. "You're starting to sound like Nick."
"Okay. New topic. Why are you waiting for your landlord?"
"I reported him to the housing commission." Tess smiled, visibly cheered up by the thought.
"Well, that was unfriendly," Gina said. "What did he do?"
"It's what he didn't do." Tess shifted in her chair as she warmed to the story of her landlord's crimes. "Three apartments in this building have been vandalized in the past two months, and Ray won't even fix the lock on the hall door. Anybody can walk in here. Somebody had to do something." She grinned at Gina. "And, I thought, who better than me?"
"Tess?" Nick called again. "It's not safe out here. If I get mugged because you're playing hard to get, you'll never forgive yourself."
Both women turned to look at the door, and then Gina looked at Tess. Tess shrugged.
"Okay," Gina said, abandoning the subject of Nick. "So you did something. That's no big surprise. I'm just amazed you did something as calm as reporting him."
"Well, I thought about organizing a candlelight-vigil protest march," Tess said, starting to grin again. "I thought all the tenants could light candles and march on Ray's condominium, but this place is such a firetrap I knew we'd never make it to the front door alive, so then I thought about using Bic lighters, instead, but that made me think of Stanley across the hall."
"You've never seen Stanley?" Tess's grin widened. "Stanley always wears the same T-shirt and it doesn't cover his tummy, and Stanley's tummy is not attractive. In fact…" Tess's face took on a faraway look. "In fact, Stanley's stomach is the only one I've ever seen with a five-o'clock shadow." She frowned at Gina. "Do you suppose he shaves it?"
Gina made a face. "That's gross."
"I think so, too, which is why I couldn't picture Stanley with a Bic. A torch, yes. A Bic, no." Tess smiled again. "But then I thought, why not give Stanley a pitchfork and put him at the head of the march?" She stopped to visualize it. "You know, there's a lot of Quasimodo in Stanley."
"Come on, Tess, cut me a break here," Nick called. "I came back to apologize. Doesn't that count for something?"
Gina raised an inquiring eyebrow at Tess, but Tess shook her head, so Gina returned to Stanley and the pitchfork. "I don't think Quasimodo had a pitchfork," she said. "He didn't in the movie."
"Anyway, I finally had to get serious before somebody around here got hurt," Tess said. "So I acted like an adult and filed the report."
"Good choice," Gina said. "Getting arrested for pitchforking Stanley would probably have been bad for your career."
"Well, actually my career is sort of dead right now." Tess slumped down in her chair. "I wasn't going to tell you since this is your first night back from the tour and I was looking forward to one night without trauma, but… I lost my job."
"Oh, no." Gina sat up, her face bleak with sympathy and concern. "What happened?"
"Don't panic," Tess said from the depths of her chair. "I have a plan."
"Sure you do," Gina said. "What happened?"
"Funding cuts. The education governor we elected decided that supporting private-tutoring foundations wasn't educational. So now the Foundation is going to have to only use volunteers. Eventually the whole place may go."
"Tess, I'm really sorry," Gina said. "Really. I know how much those kids meant to you."
"Hey." Tess straightened and glared at Gina with mock severity. "I'm not finished yet. The kids aren't leaving. And neither am I. I just have to find a job to pay my bills that gives me my afternoons free so I can still volunteer there." She grinned. "I saw Pretty Woman the other night on TV, and Julia Roberts was having such a good time being objectified by Richard Gere that I seriously thought about taking up hooking, but then I thought, thirty-six is a little old to hit the streets."
Nick knocked again. "Tess? You want me to grovel? I'll grovel. I've got a great grovel. You've never seen my grovel—you left before I could show it to you. Come on, Tess, let me in."
Gina jerked her head toward the door. "If you're thinking about swapping your bod for money, go answer the door. He's still loaded, right?"
Tess nodded. "I haven't checked lately, but knowing Nick and his affinity for money, he's still loaded."
"Marry him," Gina said.
"No," Tess said.
"Well, to begin with, he hasn't asked me," Tess answered. "Andhe's a Republican lawyer, so my mother would disown me. And then—" Tess frowned "—I always thought it would be a good idea to marry somebody who wouldn't try to pick up the maid of honor at the reception. Call me crazy but—"
"Since that would be me, you got no worries. Marry him."
"You don't know Nick," Tess said. "He could seduce Mother Teresa." She cocked her head toward the door and listened for a moment. "And it doesn't seem to be an option anymore. I think he got tired and left." She tried hard not to be disappointed. After all, she'd had no intention of opening the door anyway.
Still, it wasn't like Nick to give up that fast, dangerous hallway or not. He must not have missed her that much, after all.
Nick leanedagainst the wall outside Tess's door and analyzed the situation. Pounding was obviously not getting him anyplace, and his charm was bombing, too, which was a new experience for him. What the hell was wrong here? Maybe she was still mad, but she couldn't be that mad. Not Tess. Tess erupted all over the place and then forgot about it. She'd never sulked in her life. So there was something else keeping her from falling at his feet. Nick grinned at the thought. Okay, she'd never fallen at his feet. But she'd never slammed a door in his face, either.
She was upset about something.
That wasn't good. He liked Tess, and the thought of her being unhappy bothered him. He spared a fleeting thought of concern for her and then returned to his own problem.
She wasn't upset with him. She hadn't slammed the door on him right away, so it was something else. Probably one of her lame ducks in trouble. And when he'd tried that dumb line about her looking great—when she actually looked like hell—she'd gotten exasperated and slammed the door. All right, so he deserved the door. Now all he had to do was get the door open again, give her a little sympathy, and he'd be in.
If he waited half an hour and then knocked again, she might open it, thinking he'd gone away.
And if he had flowers or candy or something… No. Not for Tess. Tess would not be impressed with generic peace offerings. He thought about the problem for another minute and then left, surveying the gloomy hall with contempt as he went.
"I think you shoulda let him in," Gina said. "Rich lawyers don't grow on trees." She flexed her right leg cautiously. "Hey, you got any muscle rub? My calves are killing me."
"I don't have time to toy with Nick right now. I have to work on my plan." Tess rose and walked the few steps across her tiny apartment to her bathroom, stepping over several sloppy stacks of books, a pile of mismatched socks, a bundle of partly graded essays and a half-finished poster that said I Read Banned Books. She kept talking as she went, and her voice rose and fell as she went out of and came back into the room. "I have a chance at a teaching job, but I don't know if I can get it. I'm not really qualified for it, and it would be working with a bunch of rich kids, so they'd probably think I was an alien, but the money is good and the hours are great."
She handed Gina the tube of muscle cream and dropped back into her chair.
Gina squirted the cream onto her fingers. "Go for it. It beats starving." She winced as she rubbed the cream into her calf.
Tess sat up, her job problems forgotten. "Are you all right? I thought this was just your usual dancer's cramp."
"No, I'm not all right," Gina said. "I'm thirty-five. I'm not snapping back like I used to." She rubbed her calves again, frowning at the ache. "I'm starting to really hate the pain. I never liked it, but now I'm starting to hate it."
Tess wasn't sure what to say. "How can I help?"
Gina laughed. "You can't. It's age."
"Don't be ridiculous," Tess began, but Gina waved her into silence.
"Honey, I'm the Grandma Moses of the chorus line."
"Don't be ridiculous," Tess said again. "You work all the time. You're never out of a job. How many dancers can say that?"
"I'm never out of a job because I always show up, I'm never sick, I never screw up, and I never leave the show in New Jersey to get married." Gina stretched out her legs, the pain reflected in her face easing a little. "But that's not gonna carry me forever." She shrugged. "'Course, neither will my legs." She stared at them as if they were something she'd picked up on sale and now regretted. "I don't think I ever want to do another plié again."
"You're joking." Tess fell silent for half a second and then regrouped. "What do you want to do?"
"I want to get married," Gina said.
Tess sank back into her chair. "Married? This is new."
"Not really. I always wanted to get married," Gina said wistfully. "I just wanted a career first." She smiled a little. "Big career I got. Now I want some peace and quiet. Some security." She looked at Tess, suddenly vulnerable. "You know, some love. I never found anybody on the road, which is no big surprise when I think about it. But now I'm ready. I want a house and kids and the whole bit."
"Is this because you never got out of the chorus?" Tess said. "Because think about all the people who never got in…"
"I never wanted out of the chorus." Gina flexed her legs again and winced. "I never wanted to be a star. I never wanted all that attention. I just wanted to be part of the show. And that's what I want now. I don't need some big, important guy. I just want to find a nice, unimportant guy and be part of his show."
"As a feminist, I should probably say something here," Tess said. "But I won't, because it's your life."
"Thanks," Gina said. "I appreciate that."
"I know some nice guys from the Foundation," Tess said. "Of course they're out of work now, but they're…"
Gina shook her head. "I can do this on my own, Tess. Forget about fixing my life." She shot another look around the apartment. "You got your own to fix first, anyway."
"Me? I'm not ready to get married. I never even think about it." Tess looked around the apartment, too. "Well, I hardly ever think about it."
Gina's eyebrows shot up. "Hardly?"
"Well, every now and then I have these fantasies where I wear an apron and say, 'Hi, honey, how was your day?' to somebody gorgeous who immediately makes love to me on the kitchen table."