On second thought, how much harm could come from chasing a little short-term thrill?
Jackson crossed the yard unsettled about why, exactly, he’d accepted Gabby’s dinner invitation. Could be that he hadn’t enjoyed a home-cooked meal in months. Or that Gabby and Luc’s gratitude had restored a fraction of his rusty sense of well-being. Or it could be that he simply didn’t know what else to do with himself for the next several hours.
Admitting that last part made him cringe and wonder when he’d become that aimless guy. Swallowed pride tasted more caustic than cheap Scotch, which he’d still settle for right about now. His mouth watered in response to the easy option of lying on his sofa with a neat glass—or more—of whiskey to chase away stress, resentment, loneliness, and pretty much every other discomfort.
Contrary to others’ opinions, he didn’t disapprove of numbness as a coping mechanism. What was so wrong with dulling the bruising ache of life’s sucker punches? Numbness helped a man heal. He’d just been slow to mend.
No matter what his family or others thought, booze had merely been his choice, not his vice. Besides, it seemed pretty hypocritical for society to pop Xanax and Oxy like Smarties while sanctimoniously looking down on a man who appreciated the benefits of bourbon.
The chilly bite of a crisp fall breeze sank its teeth into Jackson’s shoulders. Some of the trees retained a handful of leaves, which rustled overhead. Twilight transformed dull gray tree bark into silver coats of armor, creating an army of soldiers to protect the Bouchards’ home.
Funny how vivid everything now looked, sounded, tasted.
During recent weeks his senses had reawakened somewhat painfully, like the prickling, itchy twinges freezing hands suffer when plunged into warm water. Maybe that explained why the hairs on his body stood, uncomfortably, in a state of constant awareness. Why he kept questioning every small decision. Why anxiety tickled its way up his neck like a centipede.
Jackson trotted up the two steps to the back door. He blew a warm breath on his knuckles before knocking.
Jon greeted him with a pleasant smile. “Come on in.”
“Thank you, sir.” A sweet-and-savory aroma wafted toward him when he entered the kitchen, which had been slightly overheated by the ancient-looking oven. The scent invaded his nostrils, its homey essence gliding through his body like a gentle caress, loosening his bunched muscles. “Smells awesome.”
Jon closed the door. “Gabby cooked up her maple-mustard glazed pork. You’re in for a treat.”
“I appreciate the hospitality.”
“I ought to be thanking you.” Jon slapped Jackson’s shoulder. “One look at all that unmarked lumber made me run in the opposite direction. How’d you build it so fast?”
“Experience.” Jackson unzipped his fleece. He looked toward the hallway when he heard footsteps approaching. Gabby appeared in the doorway with Luc in tow.
She’d cleaned up a bit since he’d last seen her. Old jeans exchanged for leggings and a cozy sweater, mussed hair combed into long, loose curls, gloss smeared on petal-pink lips.
Doubtful she dressed like that just for dinner with her dad. Jackson covered a surge of pure male satisfaction with a modest grin.
“Hey, Jackson.” She lifted Luc into his booster seat. “Hope you brought your appetite.”
Her cheery face shone like an evening sun, tinting her cheeks with peaches and pinks. He needed to stop thinking about her fresh-faced prettiness, yet his mind couldn’t think of much else whenever he looked at her.
Jackson forced his thoughts back to the conversation and patted his stomach. “Always.”
“Have a seat,” Jon said, gesturing toward one of the wooden chairs gathered around a small oak table.
While the Bouchards went about setting out a pitcher of lemonade and ladling fresh applesauce into a communal bowl, Jackson took advantage of the opportunity to study the kitchen, which hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. Dark wood-laminate cabinetry, mustard-colored Formica, vinyl flooring. The bones of the roughly two hundred square feet of space were good, though, needing only cosmetic upgrades.
The substitution of a large picture window above the sink and a French door to the backyard would immediately brighten the room. His mind immediately envisioned the walls outfitted with reclaimed wood cabinetry, accent beams on the ceiling, a slate floor, and stainless steel appliances.
“So where’d you get experience with swing sets?” Jon asked while taking the seat to Jackson’s left. “Do you have kids?”
“No kids, although in about six or so months I’ll be an uncle for the first time.” Jackson grinned at the image of a pregnant Vivi, which made him happy despite also being a reminder of the chance at fatherhood that had been taken from him. He pushed that anger aside and looked at Jon. “I’m a general contractor—focusing on residential projects. That play set was no big deal, I promise. But I’ll still cash in on this dinner.”
The bleating of the house phone interrupted their conversation. Gabby set the pork roast on a cutting board before answering.
“It’s for you, Dad.” She handed her father the phone and then quickly sliced the roast and spooned roasted carrots into another bowl while her father spoke to whomever had called. Jackson caught himself admiring her multitasking efficiency.
Jon hung up the phone and sighed. “The burglar alarm went off at one of the vacation homes I manage. Got to meet up with the cops to check it out.”
“I’ll set your plate in the oven.” Gabby removed his plate from the table.
“Thanks.” Jon looked at Jackson, shrugging. “Guess we’ll finish our conversation some other time.” Then he snatched his car keys off a hook by the door and disappeared into the darkness.
“Pappy!” Luc bellowed as he banged a tiny, rubber-handled fork against the table.
“Settle down, Luc.” Gabby hastened to shut the door, rubbing her arms with her hands for warmth. “It’s already so cold this early in October. We could see frost soon.”
“Probably,” Jackson replied, watching her cross back to the stove. She moved fluidly but with purpose, unruffled by disruptions. Made her appear more mature than he suspected was true. “Need help?”
“No, this is all set. You relax.” She then went about setting all the food on the table while humming, which drew on memories of his mother in the kitchen.