Worth the Risk (St. James #3)(6)

by Jamie Beck

Maybe Jackson had become overly paranoid this year, but something about Noah’s tone sounded a little bit like a warning. Missy’s gaze followed Noah until he left the diner, then she leaned her hip against the counter and brazenly checked Jackson out. “So, you here alone?”

Jackson managed a friendly smile, although he wanted to escape before she said something that would make them both uncomfortable.

“Yes, and I’m looking forward to a little solitude.” Jackson opted for a quick exit, so he stood and threw twenty bucks on the counter. “Keep the change, Missy.”

His damp clothes chafed his skin with each step. So far nothing about this day had gone smoothly. As soon as he picked up his keys, he’d take a hot shower and change. He fired up the engine and headed back to Winhall to find his landlord, Jon Bouchard, and check out the carriage house apartment he’d rented above the man’s garage.

Three hundred dollars later, Gabby finally pulled her truck in behind the home she and her son shared with her father. At least the rain had finally stopped and her dress had dried from sopping to damp.

She gathered her notebook from the front seat and strode toward the back door, passing by her pumpkin patch. Pumpkins weren’t easy to grow in Vermont, but she’d promised Luc she’d grow some for Halloween. A quick perusal indicated she’d have not only one for him, but also a dozen or so to sell in a couple of weeks.

The little garden reminded her of her summer visits with her grandmother in Burlington, when they’d spent endless hours together gardening. Under her tutelage, her preteen self had taken pride in her first crops of cucumbers and lettuce, tomatoes and carrots. Her grandmother had also taught her about horticulture, and the two of them had worked together around her grandmother’s house, planning and planting flowerbeds. Gabby had taken those lessons and tested things here at her own house, as if making it look pretty on the outside could somehow fix what had been broken inside. Epic fail there.

Still, gardening gave Gabby a much-needed sense of control and peace at a time when her life had been in constant upheaval. In high school, she’d joined the local gardening club and learned even more about design. She’d spent some of her summer days working with her dad in the yards of the homes he maintained. His clients always praised her ingenuity and creativity. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she’d have gone to college and studied to become a landscape architect. But she wouldn’t dwell on that old dream. Now she made do just fine with the skills and resources she already had.

When she entered the house through the kitchen door, she heard her father, Jon, call out, “Gabby, that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry I’m late. Flat tire.” She plucked a banana from the fruit bowl and meandered to the living room. Luc sat on the floor playing with old Tonka trucks she’d bought at a yard sale. She bent over and kissed his head before doing the same to her dad. “Luc give you any trouble?”

Silly question. What toddler didn’t fuss and throw tantrums? He might’ve just turned three, but his “terrible twos” behavior lingered. Her dad’s helpless shrug told her everything she’d already guessed.

“At least he took a short nap.” When he rose from his chair his knees cracked, evidencing his age. At only fifty-three, he looked fit and trim, but his sandy hair also had hints of gray. She’d always thought him handsome, and felt guilty that he’d never met anyone new to love, probably because of her and Luc. She and her dad had both ended up in a situation that made finding love tricky, if not impossible. “Good gracious, girl. You got drenched.”

“I know.” Gabby picked at her dress, thinking back on her highway interlude with the handsome stranger. “I’ve got to change.”

“What’s got you smiling?” He cocked his head, crow’s feet crinkling at the corners of his bright blue eyes.

“Was I smiling?” How embarrassing. She and her dad were close, but she wouldn’t confess the little daydream she’d just had about the Good Samaritan. After three years filled with obligations and an utter lack of romance, the idea of a little fling with someone like him held a lot of appeal. Sadly, daydreams were all she’d have. Then again, unlike reality, daydreams never disappointed.

Her dad didn’t seem to notice her evasive answer, because he prattled on. “Our tenant should arrive any minute. You remembered to clean the garage apartment this morning, didn’t you?”

“Of course.” Her dad still hadn’t noticed how responsible she’d become, apparently intent on viewing her as the hapless screwup who got pregnant. Couldn’t really blame him, though. Responsibility hadn’t factored into most of her choices before Luc came along. At least Dad never rubbed that in her face. So until she could stand on her own two feet with Luc, she’d have to tolerate being treated like a child herself.

“Good.” He folded his arms and fixed the “father knows best” expression on his face. “The extra couple grand will come in handy with the cost of Luc’s nursery school.”

“Too bad I need some of the rent to pay for the new tire I just bought.” Gabby broke off part of her banana and handed it to her son. Would she always view Luc as a child, she wondered absently. “On the upside, the Clarks emailed asking me to redo their backyard in the spring.”

“That’s terrific!” His proud smile took the sting out of his earlier parental condescension.

The doorbell rang, interrupting their conversation. Gabby wrinkled her nose, knowing her warm shower and change of clothing would need to wait a few minutes longer.

“I’ll get it.” Gabby hastened through the front hall and opened the door, then she almost fainted. Her heart lodged itself smack in the middle of her throat, so it took a second for her to force any words. “You?”

Her Good Samaritan’s eyes widened before he frowned. He stepped back to glance at the address on the porch and then at his phone.

Finally, he held up his hands, half stunned, half laughing. “I swear, I’m not stalking you.”

Her lips quirked before she could stop herself. “So you say.”

“Seriously. I’m looking for Jon Bouchard. Is this the wrong address?”

He’s our tenant? She wished the thunderstorm would return so he couldn’t hear her heart galloping right out of her chest.