Gunnar turned to face one of the most stunning women he'd ever seen. Dark hair swept up into a bun revealed a long, graceful neck. Her outfit was pretty damn revealing, too. A form fitting leotard molded her curves and tights showcased legs that seemed to go on for miles. He did a quick assessment and figured she was only a few inches shorter than his six feet, and that was in ballet slippers.
She held out an all-too familiar purple duffel. "Tess, you forgot your dance bag."
Tess took it with a shy smile and heaved it over her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Miss Norah."
Mystery solved. So this was the much talked about dance instructor.
"You must be Tess's father." She offered her now empty hand to him. "I'm Norah Pruitt, Tess's teacher and the children's ballet master for this year's Nutcracker."
"Gunnar Rhodes." His big, meaty hand engulfed her smaller, delicate one. So damn soft. It'd been ages since he'd so much as touched anyone of the feminine persuasion with the exception of his mother and daughter, and a pang of guilt stabbed his gut. He wasn't supposed to notice how pale and creamy her skin was, or how warm her hand felt in his. He dropped it like a hot coal and took a step back.
"I couldn't help but overhear your conversation," Norah bubbled on, apparently blissfully unaware of his inner turmoil.
"Couldn't you?" One corner of his mouth curled into a half smile.
"Daddy," Tess stage whispered. "Be nice."
Norah gave her student a reassuring pat on the head, tucking a couple of loose hairs back into her haphazard bun in the process. "I'd really like to see Tess at auditions. She's very talented. And she brings a real joy to her dancing."
Great. The hard sell. How was he supposed to disappoint his daughter now? "She loves taking class here. But like I told Tess, the show is a big commitment. I'm not sure we can manage it."
"Maybe there's some way I can help."
Tess stared up at her teacher with unabashed admiration, a little bit of the sparkle creeping back into her eyes. "Really, Miss Norah?"
Gunnar shot the woman a warning glare that he hoped read "not in front of the k-i-d." No point in getting his daughter's hopes up just to squash them when things fell through.
Norah nodded to show she got his message loud and clear and knelt down to address Tess on her level. "Tell you what. How about your dad and I get together and see if we can't work something out? Say over coffee at Common Grounds tomorrow morning?"
She directed the last sentence at him. He must have looked slightly panicked at the thought of going one-on-one with her because she immediately added in a low voice that he shouldn't have found sexy but did, "For Tess."
Damn. One desperate, pleading female he could handle. But two? He was dead in the water.
"I have a delivery scheduled at ten. But I can meet you earlier."
"How's nine sound?"
Like torture. He wasn't supposed to be attracted to this woman, dammit. Or any woman. Not yet, with the memory of Meredith still fresh, the wounds of losing her still raw. "Sounds like a plan."
"Yippee!" Tess shouted, spinning around on one leg.
Norah applauded. "Lovely pirouette, Tess."
"Brava," Gunnar agreed. "But don't get too excited. Nothing's settled yet."
"Your father's right." Norah's amber eyes, wide with compassion and understanding, met his. "But I'm sure we'll both try our hardest to find a way for you to audition."
"Okay." Tess gave her teacher a hug. "Thanks Miss Norah."
"I'll see you next week." Norah pried the little girl's arms from around her waist, laughing. "Don't forget to practice your tendus."
"I won't. Forget, I mean. I'll practice. I promise." Tess tugged on Gunnar's shirt sleeve. "Come on, Daddy. You said we could get hot chocolate on the way home."
"So I did." So much for being on time for his shift. Hopefully Shawn could cover for him for a few minutes, like Gunnar had done countless times for just about everyone on staff. He pulled out his cell phone to shoot off a quick text and inclined his head at Norah. "Until tomorrow."
"Until tomorrow," she echoed in his wake as Tess dragged him toward the door.
Hopefully before then he'd have figured out how to shut down his hormones and focus on the most important thing in his life. The only that that mattered.