Nova was mine. She wasn’t my father’s.
Duke couldn’t win. I was trying to envision it, but he couldn’t. The second I met Nate, I knew my father was going to lose. If Nate was a different person, then maybe. Maybe if he’d been an alcoholic. Maybe if he’d been a drug addict. Maybe if he was sleazy or dirty.
Maybe if he’d been Nico, but he wasn’t. He was the opposite of who my sister actually married.
And I knew what Duke wanted to risk. All or nothing. If we had Nova, only we had Nova. There’d be no shared custody. And Nate—I couldn’t risk losing her. I just couldn’t.
“He threatened me, Ric. He said if I fight him, then I’ll lose her for sure.”
My voice was trembling.
“You believe him?”
An image of him as he said those words, staring at me across the top of my car, flashed in my mind again.
He’d been unrelenting in his gaze. I’d been seared from the inside out from those words and the promise behind them.
“Yeah.” I could feel it in my bones. “He’ll never stop fighting for her, and Ric, we don’t have anything to fight him on. Valerie put his name on the birth certificate. The test came back that he’s the father. He was never told he had a daughter. He’s already gone to lawyers. I mean, he had one flown in. It’s one of his best friends.”
“Why do you think she never told him?”
A snort ripped from me. “Who knows. Maybe she was afraid of losing her, too? Because Nico was already in her life by then.”
Sounding surprised, she said, “You’re right. Nico. He was an asshole from day one. You’re totally right.”
“I didn’t know Nico was that bad. I swear I didn’t.”
“No one did. Val hid him.” A pause from her end.
I was just biting back tears. They were threatening to choke me.
“Val never changed her last name. She didn’t take his.”
I took in a deep breath. “Yeah. I never questioned her, figured it took time or something. That should’ve been a flag.”
“Is Nico going to be a problem for Nova?”
“No.” Thank God. “Carl dug up his current case. He’s in for robbery and he said the evidence is bad. Unless he cuts a deal, he should be going to prison for a while. It’s not his first offense.”
I tasted sour on that note, because that’d been another thing Valerie hadn’t told anyone.
“Well, that’s done. He’s gone now, and Nova got Nate. Have you talked to Graham or Calihan about what’s going on?”
Another snort from me, but the heaviness slammed down on my shoulders. That was a whole different battle. “No. They’re angry. They thought Nova would be left to them.”
“I can’t imagine what they’re thinking either. This must be a total slap in the face to them.”
I wasn’t close to them.
There was a year separation between my mom and Guy, her husband at that time. She had had a weekend fling with my dad. I was born, but by that time, she’d gone back to Guy, realizing he was her one true love. She already had Graham a year before me, then Valerie a year after me, and Calihan two years after Val.
“Cal took it the hardest.”
“No one’s reached out since you took Nova?”
“Stephanie has. A few times.”
“Right. Your mom.”
She sighed again. “Want me to come over?”
I looked up at the empty studio and the snow falling outside. “No. I was about to do some dancing, then head in to spend time with Nova.”
“Okay. Well, I’m here for you.”
I could hear she had more to say. “What is it?”
“Quince.” Another sigh from her.
“What? Just say it.”
“You were a principal dancer for three years, and that’s after an entire career of dancing. I know you have money saved.”
She was going there.
I didn’t want her to go there.
I didn’t want to go there.
Please, I was begging her in my head. Not yet. Don’t say it.
“Ricci,” I warned.
I reached out, placing my palm on the floor. I was leaning down, pressing down on my hand.
I didn’t want to hear what she was going to say.
She hurried, her voice rising. “We both know what your father is going to say. It’s what he’s always going to say. Babe—” She broke off, and I could hear her taking a deep breath. “You and me, we don’t always talk about what went down in your childhood, but it wasn’t right. What he did—”
I shoved to my feet. “Don’t, Ricci! Don’t say something you can’t take back.”
My chest was so heavy.
Something was pressing down on it.
My head was starting to spin.
She kept on, sounding almost desperate, “Look, your dad. He’s—he’s cold, Quince. It’s never been anything he’s out and out done, but he always made you feel guilty about having relationships with other people. I got a pass because I was in dance with you and you needed one friend, but how I saw it. Anyone you liked, he’d say one bad thing about them. Then another bad thing. Then another. He planted seeds in your head, and he turned you against people. I know your mom. She’s freaking kick-ass, but it’s like you can’t let yourself love her like a mom. And it’s your dad. It’s all him. It’s like if you love someone else, you can’t love him or something. Whether Nate is in the picture or not, that’ll happen with Nova if you don’t fight him. Leopards don’t change their spots, babe.”
She was crying on her end. I heard her sobs. “This might be a blessing. You never know, just... I just have to say that I'm here for you if you want to move out on your own. You can live here. I know it’s not what you’d be leaving, but it’s better than nothing. And I’d help you with Nova. You’re not alone. Okay? I… you have to hear that. You are not alone. I’m prepared to go the distance with you.”
I almost crumpled.
It was the lion pressing at the gate, wanting to get in.
The gate kept rattling, shaking, trembling. She opened it, and there it was, an ultimatum she wasn’t putting into words. She didn’t need to.