After ten years, Nick Ballard returns to his hometown to stake his claim on the heart of Kate Matthews. But claiming her heart is the easy part. Winning her forgiveness is another matter altogether.
“Nick.” She nodded a stiff greeting. “It’s good that you’re here for Mrs. Min.” She smiled at the lady, knowing her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I’m going to warm the cobbler, Mrs. Minerva. It’s gotten cold.”
“Oh no, don’t you worry with that,” said Mrs. Min, the sly old fox. “I’ll get it. Lissy can help me. We’ll heat the other one, too.” She was already up, grabbing Lissy by the arm. “It’s in your refrigerator, isn’t it?” she asked Kate. “Have you any more of the ice cream?”
“Mrs. Min, I can—”
“You can take a nice walk with Nick,” she said straightforwardly. “He’s come a long way and needs a younger face than mine to accompany him while he stretches his legs. Besides, at my age, I’d never keep up with that stride of his. Now go on.”
The woman moved quickly for someone in her seventies, dragging Lissy along before Kate could murmur a protest.
“Won’t do you any good to argue,” Nick said. “You know how she is once she’s set her mind to a thing.”
“You really don’t need me to walk with you. I don’t think you’ve been gone so long that you’ve forgotten your way around.”
She didn’t give him time to argue before walking off, whatever brief second of triumphant dismissal that turned out to be. It did her no good to try to outpace him. Nick was at her heels in a moment, slipping his arm beneath her elbow, his stride so fluid it was difficult to keep up with him.
His touch sent tingly waves of heat skittering up her arm and heat to her cheeks. Nick hadn’t touched her since the day on Miller’s dock when they were teenagers—when she’d had such a crush on him she thought surely she’d die if he knew, was certain he saw it in her eyes especially that day at the dock when he’d toyed with her feelings.
But that was then. Nick was no longer a boy. He was a man—definitely a man. Tall and muscularly lean and hot enough to melt any woman’s heart with just a look of those dark eyes. That’s why, when they stopped under the limbs of a massive oak tree and he looked down at her, she averted her eyes. Nick still had command of her heart. She suspected he knew it and she was sure it was why he dismissed their friendship those years ago and never sought to take it up again.
“You know, Nick, it’s really good of you to abide by your grandmother’s wish for us to walk together. And now that we have…well, I’m sure there are others here you’d rather talk to than me.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said lazily. “I think I’m enjoying prodding the gossips. I bet there’s not a Ballard or Minerva who’s not cupping their ears trying to hear what we’re saying to each other.”
Sudden anger flooded her face. When she shot him a scathing look, she was snared by his intense gaze. It took her breath and she realized he was standing far too close to her. She felt his potent male strength. Oh, he was definitely a man now, one who seemed to be sizing up his prey.
She barely managed to whisper, “What are you doing, Nick?”
“Kate, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…about you…that day on the bayou—”
“Of course you have, I saw the painting.” Kate heard the edge in her voice. “Though I don’t know why you want to dredge it up. It was a long time ago. On my part forgotten.” The last was a blatant lie.
Nick reached and stroked her hair as he had that day when it was wet and stringing across her cheek.
“You should go talk with your grandmother.” She spoke in controlled tones, concealing the feelings he stirred inside. “You’ve barely spoken to her since you arrived.”
“Actually,” he said his voice sounding thick, “I spoke with her last night.”
A conspiracy! She knew it. “H-how long have you been in town? Your grandmother said she was surprised to see you.”
“Surprised to see me here at the reunion, yes. I almost didn’t come. I came in last night and Grandmother and I had a nice long talk.”
He had to be persuaded to come. Well there went any inkling of her Cinderella fantasy that he came to find her.
“Well now that you’re here, Nick, don’t let me monopolize all your time. I’m sure others are just dying to get a moment with you.” Indeed there was a commotion approaching behind them. “You’ve made quite a splash in the local papers recently.” Especially the painting of the two of them on Miller’s dock. Nick Ballard, former commercial artist, had painted a scene depicting the moment before he’d given Kate her first kiss, and now that moment was famous among New York’s finest art connoisseurs. She’d meant never to remember it again and she was more than a little angry he’d stirred it up. She tried to push past him, but he caught her arm.
“Kate, I came here to talk to you.”