Now it was her turn to flush. Noah had never made secret his interest in the two of them revisiting their former sexual relationship, but she’d never trust him again with her heart, or Luc’s.
As far as she could tell, he hadn’t changed at all in three years, but she sure had. “Now I’m using it to say good-bye. I’ve got things to do, Noah. See you ’round.”
“Brush me off now, but sooner or later you and I will kiss and make up. After all, we,” he circled his finger amid himself, Luc, and her, “are a family.”
The possessive tone in his voice caught her so off guard, her mind blanked. Apparently mistaking her silence as some kind of consent, Noah winked and walked toward the registers.
When his back was turned, she returned the Oreos to the display and braced for Luc’s disgruntled wail. Her son let one rip, but she pushed the cart down the aisle before Noah turned around to see the cause of the commotion.
Twenty minutes—and, to her chagrin, one bag of orange-and-black Oreos—later, Gabby pulled into the driveway. The day, the run-in with Noah, and the battle she’d valiantly fought and lost with her son had all exhausted her, making her feel much older, if not wiser, than twenty-two.
Dusk had gobbled up the sky, but the shadows of the yard looked different. She blinked several times. In the side yard, beneath a maple tree, she watched Jackson putting away tools beside a swing set.
Luc’s swing set.
Gratitude bubbled up faster than frothy soda in a shaken bottle. Who was this man? She turned off the truck and set her hand to the base of her throat to try to calm her throbbing pulse.
Jackson looked up and waved.
Gabby jumped down from the truck and unfastened Luc from his seat. She held his hand and walked him around the front of the cab. Kneeling down, she pointed toward Jackson. “Hey, Luc, look at what Jackson built.”
Luc’s eyes widened over a giant smile before he took off toward the slide, his little legs nearly tripping over themselves along the way.
“Whoa, buddy. Take your time so you don’t fall.” Jackson chuckled while watching Luc dive-bomb the base of the slide and attempt to scale its surface. With lightning-quick reflexes, Jackson leapt to Luc’s side. “Maybe you should use the steps, Luc.”
Jackson’s grin broadened as Luc scrambled around the swing set while happiness shot out of her son in high-pitched squeals.
Anyone who said Tom Cruise had the world’s greatest smile had never seen Jackson St. James smile. Even his eyes crinkled with joy this time. Positively breathtaking.
Gabby had never had anyone do something so generous for her or her son without expecting payment of one kind or another. Somehow, without asking, she knew Jackson’s gift came without strings.
Such a rare and unexpected thing, like snow in Florida, or finding a four-leaf clover. Lightness stole through her, fizzy and warm, and happy tears welled in her eyes. Without a thought in her head, she walked right over to Jackson and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Thank you!” She pressed her cheek to his chest for a second—long enough to hear his heart stutter—then released him and stepped back, somewhat disoriented.
Even in the dim light, she saw Jackson’s cheeks turn crimson. He rubbed the back of his neck, which revealed his modesty. “My pleasure.”
It occurred to her then that he had no idea how incredible he was—how extraordinary his gift.
“This is honestly the nicest thing anyone has ever done for Luc and me.” She felt her eyes mist again. “How can I repay you?”
“I like to keep busy.” He waved dismissively. “This gave me something to do today.”
Gabby rolled her eyes, laughing. “As if you couldn’t find anything better to do than build this swing set.”
Luc’s sudden cry of pain made them both swivel in his direction. He’d reached the bottom of the slide with too much speed and done a face-plant.
In an instant, Gabby knelt by his side, brushed a blade or two of grass from his forehead, and kissed his boo-boo. “You’re okay, buddy. Now, what do you say to Jackson for this awesome job he did today?”
Luc grasped her shirt and stared up at Jackson through wet eyelashes. “Fank you.”
“Anytime. Maybe tomorrow we can show your mom how high you can go on this swing.” He gave the empty swing a little push and raised his hand about chest high. “Maybe this high?”
Luc nodded. “Higher!”
“Oh, yeah! I knew you were tough.” Jackson then introduced Luc to the fist bump.
Gabby knew she was gaping at Jackson, but how could she help it? Not long ago, Luc’s own father thought himself “the man” because he’d handed him a bag of cookies. Meanwhile, Jackson had built the swing set and seemed comfortable talking to Luc, too.
If she were cynical, Jackson’s grand gesture might raise all kinds of red flags. Thankfully, she wasn’t particularly cynical. At her core, she believed most people were fundamentally good and sincere. In twenty-four hours, Jackson had already proven himself to be both, if not much more.
“If your mom says it’s okay, we’ll see how high you can fly.” He winked at Luc and then hefted his toolbox off the ground. Glancing at Gabby, he said, “Time for a much-needed shower.”
“Jackson.” She reached out to grasp his forearm. “At least join us for dinner. Pork roast, carrots, and homemade applesauce.”
His gaze rested on her hand, which remained on his arm. Apprehension seemed to seize control of his body, tensing his muscles. When their eyes met again, she held her breath until he let loose a sigh and grinned. “That sounds delicious, thanks.”
“See you in an hour. Come right through the kitchen door.”
He nodded without further comment, and then wandered off to his apartment. She watched him go and, when he was out of view, spun around and allowed the satisfied grin she’d been repressing to spread. Though utterly pointless, she held fast to her mad crush. It had been too long since her heart had sung this particular song, and she had no wish to silence it.
Luc had sprawled his belly across a swing with his arms and legs out, pretending to be some kind of airplane.
“Come on, Luc. Let’s go see if Pappy’s home.” When she took his hand, she remembered the groceries she’d abandoned in the truck.
She should probably worry about the fact that Jackson’s presence stirred up the restlessness she’d buried three years ago. Sitting on her impulses had kept life sane these past few years. Sane and boring.