Worth the Risk (St. James #3)(11)

by Jamie Beck

He reversed course and went to fetch it from the back of the Jeep. A man in his business never traveled far without a basic set of tools at the ready. He scanned the yard, wondering where Gabby would prefer to locate the swings. He only saw two viable options in terms of sizable plots of flat ground, and one seemed too close to the garden.

Although it might be better to wait and clear it with her or her father first, having a purpose for his day seemed critical. Plus, the surprise element of his plan excited him. Worst-case scenario, he’d disassemble the swing set and reassemble it elsewhere if Gabby didn’t approve of his choice. Not like he didn’t have time.

Gabby unbuckled Luc from his car seat and plopped him in the grocery cart seat before slamming the door shut. Once they entered the store, she fumbled through her purse, searching for the grocery list.

Naturally, Luc began reaching for every bright-colored, plastic gizmo within what he considered to be his reach.

“No, Luc. Mommy’s in a hurry. We have to go home and cook dinner.” And clean dishes, bathe you, read you a story, tuck you into bed, and then maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll get ten minutes to myself before I collapse into bed.

They passed by an end-cap display unit filled with Halloween Oreos. Luc’s little legs began kicking, catching her once in the gut. “Mama, cookies. I want cookies.”

His cherub face turned bright red with the strain of his yearning, making her feel guilty for saying, “No, buddy. Not today.”

“Aw, come on, Gabs. Give my boy some cookies.” Noah’s smooth-talking voice took her by surprise, which she covered before turning around to face him. How like Noah to turn up when least expected, or wanted, and undermine her authority.

“Hello.” Beneath a polite smile, she buried the hurt, anger, and flat-out irritation seeing him inspired. I wouldn’t have Luc without him. She reminded herself of that blessing each and every time she saw Noah, which had kept her from punching him square in the face that first year after he’d left her.

It must work well, because he seemed fairly oblivious to the fact that she had any negative personal feelings about him whatsoever. He still tried to charm her at every opportunity. Like now, she thought, as he leaned in and kissed her cheek.

“Dada!” Luc reached toward Noah.

“Hey, Luc.” He high-fived his son, but didn’t kiss or hug him despite having not seen him for fifteen days—not that she was counting. Then again, Noah’s affection had always been reserved for the ladies.

“Why can’t Luc have any cookies?” Noah asked.

“Because they’re loaded with artificial food coloring that isn’t good for him or his brain.” Then she frowned. “You’d see the effect it has on him if you paid better attention.”

Noah shot her a sharp look of disapproval. “Don’t start, Gabs. I know I was pretty shitty that first year, but I’m getting better. He knows I’m his daddy.”

“Barely,” she mumbled. She could go on for hours about the many ways that Noah had failed both her and Luc, as a man and a father. But she wouldn’t. Not now, and certainly not here in the middle of the grocery store.

“That’ll change.” Noah spoke with certainty, like always, but she didn’t believe him. She’d learned the hard way not to count on him in any way that mattered.

She looked at him, standing there in his police uniform with his hands on his hips. Dashing. Still as handsome as he was that summer they’d spent making love as often as and wherever they could. Two fools.

When she’d told him about the pregnancy, he suggested an abortion. She’d refused but, afraid of losing him, she’d countered with the compromise of giving the baby up for adoption.

Noah had stuck around until her belly started growing. Then things got too real. Or maybe granny panties and a baby bump didn’t turn him on. All she knew for sure was that he gave her the heave-ho and moved on to Linda Wallace for a few months, and then others after that.

By the time Luc was born, she’d gotten over Noah and fallen in love with someone worthy—her son. With her dad’s help, she’d kept Luc and never once regretted the decision.

Eventually Noah did begin to take some interest in their son, although it often seemed as unreliable as his interest in any one woman. Luckily, Noah had never once demanded any kind of shared custody, most likely because he didn’t want to be responsible for paying child support. Gabby never asked for a dime because she didn’t want to share custody. Honestly, she couldn’t think of anything she’d like less than having to deal with Noah on a more regular basis.

So now she and Noah did a polite dance in front of their son. She’d never keep Luc from knowing his father, but she worried about her son forming an attachment. Noah didn’t do commitment with anyone, so it would only be a matter of time before Luc’s heart would get trashed by his father just like hers had been stomped on by her mother.

Some people simply aren’t meant to be parents. Woe to the children of those folks, because that kind of rejection reverberates over and over, like an echo in a canyon. Gabby planned to protect her son from ever experiencing the pain of being crushed by someone he trusted.

“Hey, pal, whatcha gonna be for Halloween?” Noah asked Luc as he lifted a bag of Oreos from the display and tossed it in her cart, eliciting a rapturous clap from their son.

Luc raised both hands overhead and spread his little fingers wide. “Cookie Monstore!”

“Huh?” Noah’s dissatisfied expression deflated Luc’s enthusiasm. “How about a cop, or football player, or a superhero?”

“Silly Daddy.” Gabby elbowed Noah out of the way. “Cookie Monster is an awesome costume.” And then under her breath, she added to him, “And a warm one.”

“Sooner or later he’s got to give up stuffed animals and learn to be a man, Gabs,” Noah said quietly. At least he hadn’t made that pronouncement loud enough to inflict further damage on his son’s little ego.

She bit back a quip about Noah needing to learn that lesson himself. “Maybe next year you’d prefer to buy his costume and take him around town for candy?”

He flushed, which she knew he would, just as she knew he’d be evasive and never commit to that plan—certainly not this far in advance, at any rate.

As predicted, he quirked his killer smile. “I still miss that pointed tongue of yours, Gabs . . . and all the things it used to do to me.”