He’d made peace with her passing, or so he’d thought until that specific remembrance rolled into the present like a bowling ball, crashing into his thoughts and sending them spinning.
Like Gabby, his mom’s name began with a G, Graciela. Like Gabby, she met the world with a combo of candor and good humor. Like Gabby’s, her mere presence had comforted.
He’d thought he could manage a little crush on a girl he barely knew, but he could not afford to start to see her as someone or something . . . more. More intriguing, more layered, more appealing. Thinking her to be more of anything only proved him to be moronic, given how many of the people he’d believed in had ultimately disappointed him.
If it weren’t for the fact that Gabby looked happy for his company tonight, he’d have bolted to escape his disconcerting feelings. Like a reflex, his discomfort summoned a craving for whiskey.
He glared at the pitcher of lemonade, which wouldn’t numb one damn thing. Nor would it help him come up with something to say to make the whole situation less awkward. Not that she looked the least bit self-conscious. He braced against a wave of envy at her apparent peace of mind.
Collecting himself, he smiled at Gabby when she finally took her seat at the table. After she piled applesauce and carrots onto Luc’s plate, she began meticulously cutting his pork into bite-size pieces. Her fingernails were short and unpolished, but her hands were nonetheless graceful in motion. Jackson found himself oddly captivated watching her with her son. Despite her youth, Gabby had obviously taken to motherhood quite naturally.
She glanced at him, so he masked his thoughts before she took notice. Waving toward the steaming serving dishes, she said, “Don’t wait for me. Help yourself while it’s still hot. I’m used to cold dinners.”
Her offhand complaint held no note of resentment. She must be used to making dozens of such sacrifices for her son each week. Had he honestly been as prepared to be a father as he’d believed back when Alison stole the choice from him?
Niggling questions aside, any remembrance of that loss—and lack of vote—flared like fanned coal embers. Jackson loaded his plate, praying the heavenly scented glaze Gabby had smothered over the roast would divert his thoughts.
The mustard-maple medley did not disappoint.
“Holy he—” he began until he remembered Luc. “Heck, Gabby, this is delicious.”
The compliment earned him one of her half-dimple grins. “Thanks.”
A man could grow dependent on the high from those grins.
Jackson stole a few glimpses of her while she cut her own food and wiped up one of Luc’s applesauce puddles without criticism. Watching her raised a dozen questions, but he kept quiet, apparently still incapable of conversing with a woman he wanted but would not seduce, even if she had dressed up for him.
He suspected she was forming questions of her own as an awkward silence descended.
Luc fixed the problem by kicking his feet and reaching toward the giant bowl of applesauce in the center of the table. “More!”
Gabby slid him a cockeyed stare. “No seconds until you eat your meat, buster.”
Ignoring her, Luc groped, with both hands, in a desperate effort to reach the serving spoon while whining, “More, Mama!”
“I should’ve warned you it wouldn’t be a relaxing meal.” Gabby glanced at Jackson apologetically. Then she speared a bite of pork and engaged Luc in the airplane game. “Zoom zoom. Open wide for Mommy.”
Did any real kid ever fall for that ploy? Luc sure didn’t, but it forced him to stop whining long enough to seal his lips. Jackson couldn’t help but chuckle. Taking pity on Gabby, Jackson leaned toward Luc. “If you don’t want that pork, I’ll take it.”
Without a warning, Jackson swiped a piece from Luc’s plate and popped it in his mouth, licking his fingers for good measure. Both Gabby’s and Luc’s eyes widened. Jackson raised his left arm and made a muscle while looking at Gabby with grave seriousness. “Is it working? I mean, I’m going to win the swinging contest tomorrow, right?”
Gabby caught on quickly. “I think so. If you eat all that pork, you’ll be really strong.”
“That’s what I thought.” Jackson swiped another bite of Luc’s dinner.
Luc scowled and batted his hand down a touch too slowly. “Dat’s mine.”
“Oh, you want it now? ’Cause I really like it.” Jackson slowly reached toward Luc’s plate one last time, but Luc tugged his plastic dish away. Then, with some amount of bravado, his grubby little fingers stuffed a piece of pork into his mouth.
Jackson’s little victory brought a smile to Gabby’s face, which in turn breathed new life into his own lungs. Funny how such a simple moment could do that for him. He winked at her and then met Luc’s wary gaze with an exaggerated look of defeat. “Okay, you win. Guess I’ll have to find some other way to grow big muscles.”
Luc didn’t take his eyes off Jackson as he chewed a second bite of pork while wearing a look of challenge. It took every ounce of control at Jackson’s disposal to suppress the laughter and lightness pushing out from within—a welcome relief from the snug band normally cinching his chest.
“You’ll be a great uncle, Jackson.” Gabby’s quiet declaration shook him as much as it pleased him. Of course, she had no way of knowing his history with Alison, or his reasons for being here in Vermont.
When Vivi and David had questioned whether his drinking might someday hurt their child, even inadvertently, it had taken the fight right out of him. Made him feel about two inches tall, in fact. It was the single most compelling reason why he’d caved to his family’s demands that he “reevaluate” his habits.
Each time he recalled the ambush—er, intervention—it set him on his heels. While he still didn’t believe he’d ever been a drunk, he did recoil each time he remembered the helpless, despondent look in Vivi’s eyes, or the steel audible in her promise to protect her child. The fact that she worried Jackson would turn into a man like her dad had stung.
“Why’d that make you frown?” Gabby stared at him, head tipped in question.
“Was I frowning?” Jackson ate his last scoop of applesauce and decided to turn the tables on being the center of attention. While he hoped one day to recapture the open spirit that used to be second nature, it seemed too fraught with consequence right now. “Have you lived here your whole life?”