“What?” I whispered.
His throat worked before he spoke. “My grandfather—his name is Job.” His full lips twitched into a brief grin. “I know that’s a weird name. My family is Romani. You probably know us by the other term. Gypsy. Though most of us don’t like that term. At all.”
Wow, my guess that he had a Hispanic background was way off target. He was an actual Romani? For some bizarre reason, I was absolutely fascinated by this, probably because I’d never knowingly met one. There were some Romani who lived near Martinsburg, according to one of those reality shows on TV, but I’d never seen them. However, this really wasn’t the time for me to ask a hundred questions about his heritage and come across sounding completely ignorant.
“And before you ask, my family has been settled in this area for years. I went to public school and I didn’t grow up in a caravan of RVs,” he continued, his dark brows knitting. “I know there are a lot of stereotypes about our culture, but most of them aren’t true or they’ve been completely romanticized.”
Now I felt entirely stupid for thinking what I did, but I never thought less of Gypsies—er, Romani—or anything like that. “I’m part Cuban,” I told him.”
He looked at me, his brows raised.
“Well, my grandfather grew up in Cuba. He made it to the U.S. when he was a teenager,” I told him, shrugging a shoulder. “Anyway, just thought I’d . . . throw that out there.”
The smile that formed on his lips was small, but genuine. “Good to know.” He paused. “My grandfather has been very ill, and there’s no one . . . left nearby to take care of him, so I do. I live with him so someone can be with him during most of the day. There’s an in-home care nurse who stays with him in the evenings to give me a break and also when I’m at work.”
I was floored as I listened to Nick. I didn’t have a clue about any of this, but something Reece had said the night I’d been at his place came back to me. It was his response to Nick saying that he had a lot of time on his hands. Reece had called bullshit on that, and now I knew why.
“He has Alzheimer’s,” Nick explained.
Oh no. My heart squeezed with pained sympathy.
“It’s been pretty severe this last year or so, but it hasn’t always been that way. There were weeks when no one would even know anything was wrong. You know? He’d just have moments of confusion. Like he’d sometimes repeat something he’d said about an hour earlier and then he would show up with his shirt buttoned incorrectly—little things. And then it changed, but that’s the way the disease is. It progresses, and he has these episodes when I need to be there for him. He gets pretty stressed when he doesn’t recognize the nurse. Hell, most of the time he doesn’t recognize me.”
I closed my eyes.
“But he’s usually comfortable around me. Maybe it’s something inherent in him that knows I’m blood. The docs don’t think that’s the case, but whatever.” Nick let out a tired breath. “But when he’s stressed, it takes a lot to calm him down. Sometimes he can get . . . violent. He doesn’t mean to. I think he’s just so confused and afraid. Anyway, he’ll throw things, and while the nurse is patient and understanding, I don’t feel right leaving her to deal with it. And Monday, I’d left my phone in my car, and I honestly didn’t even think about it until that night, and by then . . .”
He’d been too stressed out to really worry about my text. God, I wanted to bitch-slap myself across the face, and the only reason I didn’t was because of the feeling of pride rushing through me. Nick was . . . wow, he really was the puzzle I couldn’t figure out. Whatever conception I had of him was sorely off base. Taking care of his ailing grandfather was something a lot of people wouldn’t do. Being a caregiver, even when you had professional help, wasn’t a walk in the park. At times I knew it could be as stressful as being stricken with the disease. The fact that at twenty-six, and for how many years, Nick had been taking care of his grandfather, blew my mind.
Changed the way I viewed him.
I was proud of Nick.
Reaching over, I placed my hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry, Nick.”
His gaze dropped to where my hand rested. “I didn’t tell you so that you’d pity me.”
“I know.” I swallowed against the sudden knot in my throat. “I don’t pity you. I just feel bad that you and your grandfather have to go through this. I don’t have any personal experience with it, but I know how hard Alzheimer’s can be. I’m . . . I’m proud of you.”
Nick’s surprised gaze flew to my face. He didn’t speak.
“A lot of people would’ve placed him in a facility. You didn’t.”
“It might get to that point,” he said, voice low.
I squeezed his arm. “And if it does, it won’t be because you didn’t care enough for him. I think you know that.”
His gaze collided and held mine. “Yeah.”
Something occurred to me. “Is that why you bartend? You mentioned having a degree, but is it because bartending allows you to virtually pick your own hours?”
“Partly.” Nick leaned back against the couch, causing my hand to slide to his. I left it there.
“Is he doing better now?” I asked.
Nick nodded. “For now.”
Pressing my lips together, I drew my hand back. “I am sorry you have to go through this.”
He didn’t respond right away. “How are you feeling? Still nauseous?”
The change of subject was understandable. “It hasn’t been too bad. I learned that I could take antacid meds if it gets too bad and it might help. All and all, I feel kind of normal.” I scrunched my nose. “Well, I might be a wee bit more emotional than normal.”
Nick grinned. “Nah.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Nice hair.” His hand snaked out and tugged on the edge of one of my braids.
I smacked his hand away and grumbled, “Whatever.”
“It’s cute.” His gaze was bright and soft. “You’re like Pippi Longstocking.”
I squinted. “How in the hell do you know about Pippi Longstocking? That’s from, like, decades ago.”
“I know things. Important things.” He smiled. “Besides, you’re like the grown-up, sexy version of Pippi Longstocking.”
My brows rose. “Oh. Wow.”
“But I like the sweater better,” he added, his gaze dropping.
“I think you like the fact you can see some skin better,” I corrected.
“You got me there.” Sucking his lower lip between his teeth, he sat forward. “Can I do something?”
I arched a brow. “Uh, sure?”
Nick twisted so he was facing me, and when his hand moved toward my stomach, I realized I probably should’ve asked him what he wanted to do before I gave him permission. A second later the palm of his hand landed on my stomach.
Sucking in a sharp breath, I straightened. My eyes widened. His hand was large, nearly covering the width of my stomach, and his palm was warm. I felt the touch all the way to my spine.
He leaned in, so close that I felt his breath against my cheek. “I know I can’t feel anything yet, but I just wanted to put my hand there.”