Jackson worked to maintain an unruffled expression in the wake of her emotional outpouring, but inside his stomach twisted like a screw. Had David, Vivi, Cat, and Hank all felt a sense of relief in his absence?
Had he gotten so absorbed in his own pain that he really hadn’t recognized he might be causing theirs? “So you don’t want to see her?”
After a pronounced pause, Gabby sighed, gazing off at some distant point while she spoke. “Normally I believe in second chances, but in this case, I’m not sure. It’s not worth considering, since it’ll never happen.” A note of sadness rang in that last remark. “The most important thing the whole experience taught me is that I have to be a mom Luc can always be proud of. One he can count on. I won’t let him be hurt by someone he should be able to trust. Not even if that person’s his own father.”
Gabby’s gaze returned to him. “You’re pale. Have I horrified you with my seedy family history?”
Pale? That was better than blood red, which was what he would’ve guessed given his spike in body temperature. A beat of misplaced anger surfaced thanks to the unwanted mirror she’d thrust at him. But she had no idea of his life or his secrets, so she hadn’t known how her feelings about her mother’s behavior would affect him.
Gabby’s baby blues filled with concern, which chased away his irritation. God, he admired her strength and sincerity. So resilient, which reminded him a bit of Vivi. Well, minus the quirks and the fact that he didn’t—in any way—think of Gabby like a sister.
Somehow the fierce little warrior in front of him remained chipper and compassionate despite being abandoned, getting pregnant by a dickhead, and living her whole life in this tiny town. Tar-thick shame stiffened him as he contrasted his relative weakness against the strength of this wisp of a woman.
“No. It’s not you.” He cleared his throat. “It’s me.”
“Oh?” Her brows furrowed. “So someone close to you battles addiction, too?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He twisted his neck, scanning everything in the room but her, unable to remember why he’d thought for one second opening this door had been a brave move. His shirt clung to his skin thanks to a sudden trickle of perspiration.
“Cryptic.” A resigned grin flickered, but she didn’t press.
Suddenly infuriated with himself for being comparatively spineless and dishonest, he met her gaze in an endeavor to deserve her respect. Too bad the truth would probably shatter her opinion of him.
“According to my family, I’m the screwup. I’m on this ‘hiatus’ because they ambushed me—told me to change my drinking habits if I wanted to be part of my niece or nephew’s life.” He watched her jaw drop open and then, with some chagrin, said, “Told ya you wouldn’t think our meeting ‘serendipitous’ for long.”
Gabby’s mind blanked upon hearing his unexpected confession. A confession that explained the occasional melancholy she’d witnessed behind his smiles.
She floundered for the right words while reconciling this news with the man who’d kept her safe in the storm, who’d kindly built Luc’s play set, who’d burst into her mundane existence and unknowingly stirred hope for something more from life—something better—that she’d previously all but surrendered.
How could this man be anything like her mother?
The unwelcome insight cast him in smoky light, making her distrust her instincts. For a day he’d shimmered like an oasis in the desert, and apparently that had been exactly what he was. A fantasy—the swift, sudden loss of which hit her hard.
Of course, unlike her mother, Jackson had chosen his family over addiction. He’d chosen to try to change for their sakes. And he’d been honest with her despite knowing how she might view him in light of her own past.
Sensing he didn’t often open himself up that way, she shouldn’t take it lightly.
“For what it’s worth, you seem to be handling it very well.” She stood uncharacteristically still, hearing nothing but the low murmur coming from the television in the other room.
“I’ve only been here twenty-four hours—or three strong cravings, depending on how I keep track.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Time will tell.”
Little by little the warm, playful Jackson who’d tricked her son into eating pork withdrew behind a hard shell. Head slightly bowed, gaze darting around the room to avoid hers, a frown wrestling for control of his face.
She knew exactly how sickening it felt to expose an unflattering self-truth. How he must feel standing before her now—vulnerable—braced for judgment and disappointment. Precisely how she’d felt when forced to announce her accidental pregnancy.
So while she couldn’t pretend enthusiasm or nonchalance, she would take care not to treat it, or him, with scorn. “And in that twenty-four hours, you’ve twice proven yourself to be a caring, generous guy. A guy who also, obviously, loves his family enough to make changes. All in all, I’d bet on you.”
She noticed the corners of his mouth twitch upward for an instant, but then they settled back into a grim line.
“Listen, if it’s okay with you, I’m going to skip coffee tonight.” He let his arms fall to his sides.
Just then her father bustled through the kitchen door. “Wind’s picking up out there. Think a storm is coming.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m heading out before it starts.” Jackson nodded at her father, a polite smile replacing his formerly serious mien. “Hopefully your ‘emergency’ was a nonevent.”
“Nothing was missing, but the back slider was unlocked. I’m thinking some local kids know the house is empty and tried to sneak inside to drink or whatnot, then took off when the alarm went off.” Jon shook his head. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. People are forever making bad choices when it comes to booze and sex.”
Gabby glanced at the floor, knowing her father had spoken without thinking. He hadn’t meant to insult her. But given her own history, and everything she and Jackson had just discussed, the comment sucked the air out of the room.
Her dad seemed oblivious to the layers of tension as he crossed to the oven to retrieve his plate. He dipped his finger in the glaze and licked it, then slid an enthusiastic look at Jackson. “Good stuff, right?”