A pleasant kind of prickling. The long-forgotten kind.
She deemed it a blessing that he didn’t live around here because that way she’d never be disappointed to learn he wasn’t as good as he appeared. She could pretend heroes weren’t only in movies and romance novels. She’d simply enjoy their brief encounter for what it was, nothing more or less.
Yep, just as well she never got his name.
Luc needed a mother who’d put him first, unlike her own pill-popping mom, who’d walked out on her and her dad almost seven years ago. Gabby would be a mom her son could rely upon to care for him, protect him, teach him right from wrong. Not the madcap girl she’d been before her unplanned pregnancy. A girl prone to impulsive behavior. One whose head had been too easily turned by a handsome face.
Mr. White Knight from Connecticut would forever remain nothing more than a nameless fantasy. A fantasy she might have to satisfy in private later that night.
Although thoroughly convinced of how much better off she was that she’d never see him again, a little piece of her heart sank when Manchester Towing arrived.
“Hey, Paul. That didn’t take too long.” She smiled through her window.
“Gabby, didn’t realize I’d find you here.” He glanced at Mr. White Knight, who was picking up his emergency gear from the road. “Who’s that guy?”
“A Good Samaritan.” Gabby smiled, although her chest tightened a tiny bit when he climbed into his car and drove away without any kind of good-bye.
“Let’s get you off the road.” Paul slapped his hand on the sill. “Go jump in my truck while I get this baby hooked up.”
The inside of Paul’s tow truck left a lot to be desired. Two crushed soda cans, an empty Doritos bag, and crumpled receipts lay scattered on the seat. Nothing like the spick-and-span inside of her white knight’s Jeep. Sighing, she set the trash on the floor, then closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the seat.
Before she could stop it, an image of her Good Samaritan’s smile flickered like a favorite scene in an old movie. For once she’d made the smart choice by being wary of the stranger from out of state. Still, her reckless side—the trait she worked hard to bury—beat against her conscience, telling her she might have just missed out on something special.
Jackson shrugged out of his wet jacket and tossed it on the passenger seat before heading into the diner. If the sharp edge of hunger weren’t gnawing on his stomach, he would’ve first stopped to pick up the keys to his apartment and changed into dry clothes.
He pushed through the door and stepped into the old diner. Like a lot of other places in this part of Vermont, it probably hadn’t been renovated since it was built. He stood surrounded by small black-and-white mosaic-tiled flooring, round vinyl stools at the counter, and no shortage of aluminum. The greasy aroma of the griddle invaded his nostrils, too, whetting his appetite.
He sat at the counter.
“Looks like you’ve been through the wringer.” The bottle-redheaded young waitress smiled. She cocked her hip when handing him a menu. A tattoo of blood-red roses on a vine climbed up her forearm. Multiple piercings dotted her ears, and she’d painted her nails dark gray. “How about a beer while you decide what you want? A Bud, or maybe you’d like my favorite, Switchback?”
Ice-cold beer sounded perfect. He looked around, knowing no one here would think twice about a guy ordering a beer with lunch. After the storm he braved today, he deserved one, too. His family would never know. Just one cold beer to take the edge off.
His mouth began watering, but he stopped himself. He’d never been a liar, and he didn’t want to start today. Something sweet always curbed the craving, so he ordered a chocolate milkshake.
The waitress’s heavily lined eyes slightly widened with surprise. “You got it, handsome.”
Some guys envied the regular attention women gave Jackson. Most of the time, he wished to be more invisible. Especially in this case, because he had no interest in hanging out with an obvious party girl. Besides, meaningless flirtations usually made him feel lonelier—emptier—than ever. They made him yearn for the kind of love and family he’d always assumed he’d have by his thirties.
“Thanks.” He scanned the menu, then set it aside and glanced around the diner. An elderly couple sat in a corner booth, two middle-aged moms with toddlers in another. And at the end of the counter sat a scraggly-looking guy about Jackson’s age, drinking the beer Jackson would’ve liked to order.
Someday. Once he’d shown himself and others how they’d overreacted to his drinking.
The waitress pushed a tall, frosty shake in front of him. “Ready to order?”
“Cheddar burger with onion and tomato, and fries.” He smiled and handed her the menu, then returned his brother’s earlier text with a phone call.
“Jackson, how’s the apartment?” David asked.
“Don’t know. Stopped for lunch first.”
“Oh? Did you hit a lot of traffic?”
“Storm slowed me down, and then some girl with a flat needed help.”
A brief pause ensued. Jackson figured David was weighing whether or not to ask more about the girl. “Are you feeling optimistic about this trip? I still wish you’d stuck closer to home or checked into a formal program.”
Jackson suspected his family wanted him where they, or someone else, could keep a close eye on him. He, however, needed privacy to figure out how to finally deal with the fact that both his siblings, among others, had betrayed his trust in one way or another. The thought roughened his voice.
“I need space. Hank and I have a plan to address any business issues he can’t handle. I’ve got my first therapy session tomorrow. I just ordered a milkshake instead of a beer. Any other concerns?”
He heard David exhale. “I know you’re still upset with me about Hong Kong, and the intervention. When you return, I want to resolve everything.”
“How about you let me take one step at a time?”
“Of course,” came David’s quick reply.
For years, Jackson’s friends had confessed to being glad they’d never had to live in the shadow of an older brother like David. David, the star pupil and athlete—a perfect rule follower, adored by teachers, girls, and other parents. But Jackson hadn’t minded that part. He and David had never been in competition. If anything, he’d admired his brother as much as anyone else, and he’d believed David would always have his back.