Worth the Risk (St. James #3)(15)

by Jamie Beck

“Pretty much. I was born in Burlington. My great-grandparents immigrated there from Montreal, but my parents and I moved here when I was about Luc’s age.”

At the mention of parents, it occurred to him he hadn’t seen or heard anything about Mrs. Bouchard. He sat back and stretched his legs, assuming Gabby, like him, had lost her mother too young. “My mom died a few years ago, so I know how tough it is to lose a mother, especially when yours could’ve helped you with Luc, too.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss, Jackson. But my mom’s not dead.” She scrunched her nose. “Not literally, anyway.”

Before he could ask a follow-up question, Luc interrupted, his cheeks glistening with applesauce. “All done, Mama. All done!”

She rewarded his empty plate with applause and kissed his sloppy cheeks. When her tongue licked her lips to test the sweetness, she might as well have been licking Jackson’s neck for the way his entire body hummed in response. “Good boy, Luc. You’re going to be big and strong, like Jackson.”

“Like Dada,” he said, blissfully unaware of the way his mother winced at the mention of the man.

“Mm hmm.” She helped Luc down from his booster, then shot Jackson a quick glance. “Hang on a sec. I’ll get him settled in with a video so he doesn’t destroy the house while we have coffee.”

Once Gabby left the kitchen, Jackson wondered what kind of man would walk away from her—or worse, from his own son. A moron, that’s who. Why’d such a cute, capable girl fall for a moron? Then again, Luc’s dad had probably been young, scared, and unprepared. Jackson knew firsthand that unplanned pregnancies were the quickest way to have the rose-colored glasses stripped away from a relationship.

He stood to make himself useful rather than sit around getting irritated about a guy he didn’t even know. Gathering the dishes, he rinsed everything and had begun to load the dishwasher by the time Gabby returned.

“Oh, please stop! You’re our guest.” She hurried toward him, shooing him away. “You don’t need to do dishes.”

“Surely you know the main rule in the kitchen: the cook doesn’t clean.” Jackson nodded toward the roasting pan. “Gimme that pot. I work magic with a Brillo pad.”

She cracked a smile and then followed his orders.

“I bet you do.” She picked up a clean dish towel. “I’ll dry.”

Gabby leaned her hip against the counter and, with a grin on her face, waited in companionable silence. Rather than shake off the sense of comfort she inspired, he decided to enjoy it.

He plunged the pot into hot water, picturing her standing in this kitchen night after night, feeding and cleaning up after her son and father. Must be exhausting and, at times, lonely. Again he couldn’t help but wonder about Luc’s dad, and whether or not Gabby missed the man, or resented him.

Realizing that he’d only be in town a short while, he decided to pry.

“So, I have to ask, but you don’t have to answer. Is Luc’s dad in the picture?” Jackson kept his eyes on the pan in the sink as he scrubbed, allowing her some privacy despite the probing question.

“He’s around.” A long sigh preceded the tumble of words that spilled out next. “I was only eighteen when I got pregnant. He was twenty-one and wanted no part of fatherhood. When Luc turned one, he started taking an interest, but he’s not what anyone would call an ‘involved’ father.” She shrugged. “Suits me fine, though. The only thing I need from him is his promise not to meddle in how I raise my son. That would make my life harder, and frankly, worry me. For the most part, our informal deal seems to work for him, too, so all’s well that ends well, right?”

Her gentle snicker didn’t fully conceal what Jackson guessed was a deep-rooted sense of disappointment, if not for herself, then for Luc.

He handed Gabby the pot to dry. Although he wouldn’t say he exactly applauded her glee in limiting Luc’s father’s role, he also couldn’t help but respect her fortitude. “I give you a ton of credit. Lots of women in your shoes would’ve made different choices.”

Women like Alison. Once again the frosty memory of her chilling text—the one notifying him she’d aborted their child despite his pleas—traveled so icily through his veins it seared.

Why hadn’t Alison been more like Gabby instead of like Luc’s deadbeat dad? At moments like this, Jackson couldn’t remember why the hell he’d ever thought himself in love with that woman. Maybe Gabby felt the same way about Luc’s dad. Either way, his mood began to wither.

“I thought about giving him up for adoption, but by the end of the pregnancy there really was no other choice for me.” Gabby’s feminine sigh yanked him back from his morbid flashback. “God forbid I be like my mom.”

Having already invaded her privacy about Luc’s dad, he decided not to press her about the “not literally dead” mom, opting instead to wait and watch.

For the briefest moment, her guard went down and the light in her eyes dimmed. He recognized that bleak sense of betrayal, but could think of nothing to do or say to soothe her. After all, his default method of choice—a bottle and a tall glass—hadn’t worked out so well for him.

She set the dry pan on the counter and faced him, head-on, like she seemed to do most everything else. In a moment of sheer envy, he discovered her grit to be more than a little breathtaking.

“She left my dad and me right before my sixteenth birthday. It all started when she got a severe case of shingles, of all things. She had complications—postherpetic neuralgia—and suffered intense nerve pain for months, so her doctor gave her heavy painkillers to help. She got hooked on them, though. When the disease went into remission and the prescription ran out, she found other ways to get the pills in town. Eventually those dealers led her to heroin, which is cheaper. When my dad finally drew a line in the sand, she chose that life over rehab and us. It stinks because a part of me will always wonder why, wonder where she is, wonder if there’ll ever be a day when we might meet again under better circumstances.”

“What would you do if she reached out?” Jackson knew his question had as much to do with his own situation as it did with hers.

“I’m not sure.” Then a frown wrinkled her forehead. “I have good memories from before she got sick. But those last few years were ugly, so when she actually left, I mostly felt relief.” Gabby grimaced. “Am I awful for feeling that way? ’Cause relief was at least equal to grief. I miss what was, but I don’t miss the daily worry. After the shock and sorrow passed, we found peace at home—except for the times I acted out now and then.” She shrugged apologetically.