Worth the Risk (St. James #3)(9)

by Jamie Beck

Busted, with no clean getaway.

Not that he minded talking to her, exactly. She seemed agreeable and outgoing . . . and too damned cute. Therein lay the problem.

Women were a complication he didn’t need, especially this woman, with her smile that tipped him off his axis, and her toddler in tow.

“Morning.” He waved and found himself crossing the yard to get to her, like his body had flipped the finger at his brain and gone after what it wanted.

She looked so young, but here she stood, raising her child and running her own business. A lot for anyone to accomplish, let alone someone at her tender age. She deserved respect, not lust.

Gabby rose and brushed off her hands before reaching for her coffee mug. Meanwhile, Luc stared at him, wide-eyed and cautious.

To distract himself from ogling Gabby, Jackson crouched down by Luc. “Who’s this?” he asked, pointing toward the brown-and-white stuffed animal currently held hostage in a white-knuckled death grip.

“Bingo.” Luc twisted his torso to keep his dog out of Jackson’s reach.

“Bingo’s a great name. Did you pick it?” Jackson smiled at Luc, whose round, baby-blue eyes resembled his mother’s.

He nodded. Apparently Luc had already learned some economy with words—a male trait Jackson could appreciate. Had Luc’s father taught him? Jackson hadn’t seen a guy other than Jon around the property since he arrived yesterday, but perhaps the man traveled for work.

Then again, Gabby didn’t wear a wedding ring, so maybe she was divorced, or widowed. The thought of her suffering either of those losses slid uncomfortably through his gut, but he shook off the feeling. Maybe she didn’t wear a ring because her hands were always working with dirt and stone. The fact that she lived with her dad, however, suggested Luc’s father wasn’t part of her life.

Enough about Gabby. Jackson returned his attention to Luc.

“Looks like you take good care of Bingo. He’s a lucky dog.” The awkwardness of carrying on a conversation about a pretend dog with a kid he barely knew took hold. Jackson stood and risked a quick glance at Gabby.

She grinned, head tilted, both hands holding her mug, clearly caring not one whit that her hair blew about in a tangled mess of soft brown curls, or that her sweatshirt had some kind of jelly stain on it, or that he’d caught her in her fuzzy pajama pants.

“You’re up and at ’em early.” Faint dimples dented her cheeks. “Getting a healthy start on your day?”

“Trying something new.” His tone sounded teasing, but he knew the words to be a sad truth. He remembered, then, how he must look. Sweaty, grimy, tired.

She fingered her son’s hair once he walked over to clutch her leg.

“Mama has punkins.” Luc’s chin remained tucked despite his direct address to Jackson.

“For Halloween?” Jackson saw at least a dozen orange gourds behind her. “Looks like you have extra for pumpkin pie.”

Luc’s eyes opened wide, clearly having not realized the better use of pumpkins. He pinned Gabby with a pleading gaze. “Pie, too, Mama!”

She chuckled. “Pie with plenty of spice.”

Jackson took advantage of the opportunity to study her little vegetable garden. The vines, heavy with nearly ripe pumpkins, laid on top of a bed of straw. “What’s with the straw?”

“Helps keep weed growth to a minimum, and cuts down on mold and other rot that can happen when pumpkins are on the ground.”

“So Gabby’s Gardens are fruits and veggies?” Good God, was this really the best conversation he could invent when he was trying hard not to flirt? Had he really disengaged so much from anything real that he couldn’t remember how to converse like a normal person?

“No, this here is for personal pleasure.” She flushed then, as those last two words hung suspended between them.

He realized then their mutual attraction. Not good—yet so good. It’d been too long since he’d been genuinely attracted to a woman for more than her looks. Figures it’d happen at the least opportune point of his life. Seemed like the only luck he could ever count on lately was bad luck.

“My business is landscaping. I’d like to be a landscape architect, but that takes a lot of school. I got a bit sidetracked.” She grinned while nodding toward her son. “I piggybacked off my dad’s business and now design and install small residential landscape projects for locals and some of his out-of-town clients.”

Enterprising, determined, outdoorsy. Damn if she didn’t push all his trigger points. He should get away from her and go shower, but his stubborn feet remained rooted to the spot where he stood. “He’s a caretaker, right? Vacation homes?”

“Yes. Between the two of us, we somehow pull off running the two small businesses and raising Luc.”

Jackson stopped himself from asking about Luc’s dad. That question crossed all kinds of personal lines. Instead he pointed to the far end of the garden, where a path cut through the yard and disappeared into the woods. “Where does that lead?”

“To the prettiest pond, complete with lily pads and loons.” She drew another sip of coffee. “It’s probably less than a quarter mile down that path. Too cold to swim now, but you could fish or kayak.”

Luc must’ve mistaken Gabby’s pointing as an invitation, because he tore off toward the path yelling, “I go fish!”

“Luc, get your butt back here now!” She schooled her features in an attempt to look stern.

Jackson stifled a chuckle at how unthreatening her lilting voice sounded when trying to yell, and how ineffectively her baby-doll eyes conveyed irritation. Her whole approach reminded him of Snow White managing Grumpy.

Unsurprisingly, Luc scowled and defiantly took another few steps toward the path. As Jackson predicted, the boy didn’t fear his mom’s temper.

“I mean it, Luc. No fishing today.”

Jackson couldn’t help but contrast her quiet yet firm reprimand to the way he’d recently started chewing out his crew when they screwed up. That thought reminded him of Doug’s lawsuit, which in turn cast a long shadow over his otherwise pleasant morning.

Luc dropped his bottom to the ground and whined his displeasure. Gabby closed her eyes and began counting to herself, her lips silently mouthing one, two, three.

Jackson suspected she had to do that pretty often. Must be exhausting to chase after a toddler, especially doing it more or less on her own. He doubted he had the patience to be a good father these days.