“Mr. Monson.” The waiter nodded his head briefly to us.
Nate reached, taking my hand in his.
My pulse kick-started at the contact. I knew I should pull away, but when he laced our fingers, that died down. I couldn’t.
I didn’t want to stop touching him.
I only wanted more.
The inside of Keela was a fairy botanical garden. Trees. Lights. Actual birds. They had a whole fountain and a small river that ran through the restaurant as well. The sounds of trickling water soothed me as if somehow reaffirming the romantic notions I was starting to get regarding Nate.
I needed to remember his full name. It gave me a degree of separation.
That stung a little bit.
Valerie’s baby daddy.
There was a full knot forming.
Valerie. He had a relationship with Valerie, my half-sister, not me.
I was here because of Valerie.
I was an interloper. I was the outsider.
I almost stumbled when those thoughts hit me at full blast, reminding me that I was only here because of a piece of paper. Valerie gave me Nova, which must’ve been on a whim. It had to be.
I didn’t deserve to be here.
I didn’t deserve to even have Nova, to even be in Nova’s life.
I gritted my teeth, a selfish wave riding through me, firming my spine almost literally.
I did deserve to be here. I did deserve to have Nova in my life, and if the only reason was because of Valerie’s whim, then so be it. I was too selfish to step back.
I needed Nova, not the other way around.
Nova would be loved by anyone, possibly everyone, but I needed her. Me.
She was saving me. I wasn’t saving her.
Was that a fair thing to do to a little girl? Use her to save me? Give me purpose?
Dancing had been my purpose, but if I was being honest, dancing had been my escape from Duke. Always had been. It was the one thing he allowed me to keep in my life, and I persevered. I went to the top.
Then Nova came, and the world had meaning for the first time. Dancing had been my path until Nova happened.
“You look like you’re having deep thoughts.”
We’d arrived at our private alcove. We had the corner of the river running around us, trees blocking our view from others in the restaurant, but I could hear the glasses and silverware scraping over the plates. It was slight, but there. The murmur of conversation was almost soothing as well.
I shook my thoughts clear. It wouldn’t change a thing anyway. “I’m fine.”
I gave him a small smile as the waiter held my chair for me.
Water was already on the table for us, and our server disappeared. He’d be bringing bread and wine when he returned. Or she. They usually had a full team taking care of the tables.
“You like Keela?”
Despite my heavy thoughts, I did relax, the feeling that this place always gave me. Or how I remembered it from the few times I’d been here. “I do. I think the last time I was here was the night I danced in Seattle’s Nutcracker. I came here with my father and my agent.” I had to laugh. “My agent dropped me when he found out I was quitting dancing to raise Nova.”
“Then he’s a shitty agent. You can get a better one.”
He sounded so sure, and he was looking at me as if he believed what he said because it was the most sensible thing in the world. I almost had to laugh at that, too.
I realigned the cloth napkin on my lap before raising my face. “That world doesn’t work like that. You get what you get. Sometimes you have to shut up and take what’s dished to you.”
He raised an eyebrow with a smooth chuckle. “No offense, but that’s bullshit. You’re talking like I don’t know the world of agents.” He leaned forward, dropping his tone, but his eyes took on a whole smoldering effect. “I think you’re forgetting who my best friend and brother-in-law are.”
I had forgotten.
“I feel a little foolish.”
“If you want a better agent who will work with you through your life transitions, I can put some feelers out. I have a feeling you’ll be snatched up within hours, so heed my advice? Pick who you want. Put a list together of a few options, and we can strategize on how to make that happen.”
“I got my last agent through my father.”
His mouth flattened. “I’m not surprised by that. I more wonder who he didn’t pick for you.”
“You think there were others interested in representing me?”
He gave me another look. “I’m willing to bet money there were.”
I…I’d never thought of it that way, but deep down, I knew he was right. Again.
A surge of anger flooded me, and I had to grab my chair’s armrests. My fingers dug in.
My father had totally and completely done that to me. I even had others approach me. They asked for a phone call, handed me their card, and what had I done? Nothing.
Because I went with who my father wanted.
And I never considered the other options. They’d barely registered in my head.
A slight gurgle rippled up my throat. “Ever feel like you’ve been on a train all your life, and you’ve been staring out the same window the whole time because that side has trees and forests and they are familiar, but something happens to draw your attention away, and you get a glimpse of the other side of the train, and you realize you could’ve been watching the ocean instead? That was a whole long sentence, but while you love trees, you might’ve seen some whales? Or dolphins? Or just cute seals.”
He glanced around us. “I don’t know. I’m preferable to the trees right about now.”
I grinned, a sudden ball of tension expelling from me. It left an imprint inside, one that was lined with sadness.
I’d missed so much, and I was just starting to realize it.
Bread and some wine were brought over. We gave our orders not long after, but I was distracted. I didn’t remember what I ordered. I pointed and said, “I’ll take this, thank you.” As soon as he had gone, there was a pulse between Nate and me.
He was watching me, waiting.
I had more to say, but I needed to say it in my own time. He was unnervingly able to read me, so I’m sure he also knew that, too.
I took a sip of my water, passing on the wine. “Ever been around someone who was emotionally manipulative? Or maybe it’s mentally manipulative?”