Roberto was bent over the hood of a car, and when she walked into the shop, he glanced up. He knew immediately that something wasn’t right.
“Brynn, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she lied. “Would you mind holding me for a little bit?” she asked, and her voice cracked.
He didn’t hesitate, didn’t question her, but simply did as she requested. Gently he laid aside his tools and brought her into the wide circle of his arms. “I’m greasy,” be advised with regret, his touch light and tender.
Brynn burrowed deeper, needing his comfort. “I don’t care.”
His arms came fully around her then as he brought her against his solid strength. The hurt and fear, the disappointment and doubt, produced a hard, bitter tightness in her chest, and she clung to him.
“Brynn,” Roberto whispered against her hair, stroking it away from her face, “can you tell me what’s upset you so?”
She shook her head. The dream she’d had for her students seemed to have crumbled at her feet. Suzie had shown such promise, and Brynn had wanted so much for her. An unplanned pregnancy wasn’t the end of the world, but Brynn didn’t want Suzie caught in the trap like so many others. The teenager loved and wanted this child, enough to hide her pregnancy past the time she could have had an abortion. Enough to stand up against the wrath of her family.
As best she could, Brynn swallowed the emotion. “It was just one of those days,” she said, drawing in a quick, stabilizing breath.
“It was more than that.” He led her to a stool next to his work bench, and when she was seated, he paced the floor in front of her. “It’s this neighborhood, isn’t it?” His voice was gruff with anger. “You don’t belong here. I told you that before and you refused to listen.” He continued muttering in Spanish, knowing full well she couldn’t understand him.
“Roberto.” She reached out to him, but he ignored her. “Stop talking like that. Nothing you say is going to convince me to leave.”
He rubbed his hands clean on a pink flannel rag and then burrowed his splayed fingers through his thick hair, leaving deep indentations.
“If I’d known this would upset you, I wouldn’t have come.” Brynn felt bad about that now. “I’m fine, really. There’s nothing you can do except . . .”
“Yes?” he prodded.
She hesitated and held her arms open to him. “Could you please kiss me?” The world felt right when Roberto held her and loved her.
The beginnings of a smile edged up the fringes of his mouth. He walked over to where she sat and captured her upturned face between his callused hands. Her own hands found the curves of his shoulders. He felt stable and strong, and she needed that security. Someone to hold on to while trapped in one of life’s storms.
“Roberto.” His name came as soft as mist across a Scottish moor.
He closed his eyes as if struggling against her. She felt his breath against her face and touched his lip with the pad of her index finger. His mouth was moist and warm.
The simple action was all he seemed to need. Roberto bent forward and claimed her mouth in a long, leisurely kiss. Since the night of the dance, he’d kissed her any number of times. Each episode taught her something more about this man. He’d enthralled her from the first. He felt strongly about his younger brother, accepting responsibility for Emilio’s welfare. At the same time, Roberto cared deeply about the neighborhood, confronting injustice, prejudice, and hatred. Every time she met Father Grady, the priest sang Roberto’s praises. Already she was half in love with him herself.
She knew a part of Roberto wanted her to quit teaching at Manhattan High. He didn’t want her to deal with the squalor and misery he confronted day in and day out. He’d rather she returned to teaching at the prim and proper girls’ school. Yet at the same time, he was learning, just as she was, that they had a good deal in common. The barriers that had kept them apart seemed to shrink a bit more each time they were together.
“I hope you’ll listen to reason this time.” His lips were less than an inch from her own.
Brynn linked her arms around his neck and bounced her mouth against his. “Just being with you makes everything seem better. Thank you.”
His face tightened. “Brynn, for the love of—”
She stopped him cold with a long, lingering kiss. When she regained her voice, she whispered, “I’m falling in love with you, Roberto Alcantara.”
He reacted as if she’d pulled out a gun and fired at him. He groaned and rubbed his hand down his face. “That’s the last thing I wanted to happen.” He edged away from her until his backside collided with the side panel of the car on which he’d been working moments earlier.
“Roberto . . .”
“Don’t you know not to tell a man that?” he asked gruffly. Then he whirled around and walked out of the shop as if she’d deeply insulted him.
* * *
The fever felt as if it were about to take the top of her head off as Jenny struggled out of her clothes and into her pajamas. The fever or the bitter pill of disappointment, she didn’t know which.
Someone knocked against the apartment door.
“Michelle, can you get that?” Jenny called out before she remembered that her roommate was still at the audition with John Peterman and company.
Struggling out of bed, Jenny reached for her robe. She’d never looked or felt worse in her life and was in no mood to deal with a door-to-door salesman.
The knock came a second time, sharp and impatient.
Grumbling under her breath, she tied the sash loosely around her waist and then unlatched the door lock without checking the peephole first. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”
The words left her mouth and collided with a solid male chest. Jenny frowned and slowly looked up.
If she hadn’t been feeling lightheaded earlier, she felt that way now.
“Trey,” she whispered, so shocked there was no sound in her voice. He stood bold as life directly in front of her, all six feet four of him. With his Stetson adding another couple of inches to his height, he made for an intimidating figure.
Another woman might have fainted then and there, but by this point Jenny had endured so much that another shock barely fazed her.
“I’ve been sick.”
“It certainly looks that way. Can I come inside?”
She nodded, too numb and too confused to find an excuse to refuse him. Not that she wanted to. He was a hundred times more compelling than she remembered. A hundred times more devastating. He didn’t seem to realize that in New York a man this good-looking generally appeared in fashion magazines.
“You should be in bed,” he commented as he walked inside the tiny apartment. He glanced around, and his gaze narrowed as if to say he found it impossible to understand why anyone would choose to live in a place this small. A man who rode the wide-open range would have to feel claustrophobic in New York City, Jenny reflected.
Despite her shock at seeing him, she maintained her wits. It would serve him right if she told him that she had been in bed and had been forced out of it in order to answer the door.
“What are you doing in town?” she asked. She gestured toward the sofa.
Gingerly he sat on the edge of the thin cushion and held on to his cowboy hat with both hands between his parted knees. “What am I doing in New York?” he said. “What else would someone like me come to this crazy town for? I came to see you, Jenny Lancaster.”
“See me?” Now that the excitement had started to fade, Jenny felt the dread take over.
“You wrote and said you wouldn’t be home for Christmas, remember? I thought about that, then decided if you wouldn’t come to me, there was no option but for me to visit you.”
She lowered her head, and her hair, stringy and damp from the snow, fell forward. “I can’t go home, Trey, I just can’t.” The dread was replaced with a heavy sadness.
He didn’t say anything for several tense minutes. “Your parents were terribly disappointed.”
The pain tightened her chest. “I know.”
“I was disappointed, too.”
Slowly she lifted her gaze until their eyes met and held. A woman could get lost and wish never to be found in eyes that dark. Funny she’d never noticed that when she was growing up.
He continued to hold her look for several breathless moments. “I’ve missed you, Jenny.”
She bit into her lower lip.
Trey had never been a man for a lot of words. And the years apart hadn’t improved the situation, Jenny noticed. He rotated the brim of his hat in his hands.
“When you first left Custer I thought you’d come to New York and get this singing and dancing craze out of your head. Then when you became so successful, it seemed this was your destiny. But I always counted on seeing you again.”
She couldn’t bear to listen to him repeat the lies she’d fed her family and friends. She bent forward and buried her face in her hands.
“Jenny?” he asked gently, his tender concern ripping at her heart. “Do you need a doctor?”
She shook her head. What she really needed was a priest. Someone who could absolve her from the guilt. Someone who could help her repair the damage she’d done to herself and her family. Someone to show her what to do now.
He moved from the sofa and knelt on the thin carpet in front of her. As though he weren’t sure what to do next, he placed his hand on her back. “Jenny, are you crying?”
She didn’t answer him, although there wasn’t any use trying to hide it.
He hesitated, stood, and then reached down and gathered her in his arms. Then, as if she weighed next to nothing, he lifted her from the chair. One moment she was doubled over, struggling to hold back the giant sobs, and the next thing she knew she was being carried.
“Trey, what are you doing?” she demanded.
“Taking care of you.” He sat back down on the sofa, holding her in his lap, his arms around her. “I never was much good at dealing with a woman’s tears. Holding you just seemed the right thing to do.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. For the longest time he did nothing but hold her, and she did nothing but let him.
“Tell me about Charlie,” she begged, wanting to hear everything he could say about her family. Her brother wrote the least of anyone.
Trey chuckled and rubbed his hand down the side of his lean jaw. “I suspect you’ve heard he’s sweet on Mary Lou.”
Jenny’s head came off Trey’s chest. “Mary Lou Perkins?” That seemed impossible. First off, Mary Lou had been engaged to Brad Harper when Jenny had left Custer. Then she’d learned that the wedding had been called off at the last minute—word was Brad had gotten cold feet. But Jenny had assumed that the two would eventually marry.
Trey grinned. “Charlie’s right sweet on her, and after three years Brad may just have lost his girl.”
“It serves Brad Harper right. He had his chance,” she said, siding with her brother.