“Dad,” she called out as she opened the screen door to let the handsome man inside. “Your tenant’s here.”
She glanced back at her white knight. His hair had dried. Messy, sexy hair, like she’d suspected. He was a bit shorter than six feet tall, which meant he still stood several inches taller than her five foot two. The heat of him seemed to brush against her skin when he stepped beside her.
Pressing her lips together, Gabby forced a burst of giddy pleasure back into her lungs to avoid humiliating herself. A second later, she rushed to fill the awkward silence. “So, this is kind of serendipitous.”
“Lucky coincidence?” He grimaced. “Doubtful.”
“Aren’t you the flatterer?”
He grinned then, the same playful grin she’d witnessed earlier that day. The one that turned her knees to jelly. “Nothin’ to do with you. It’s just that Lady Luck hasn’t paid me a visit in a long time.”
The sorrow she’d noticed earlier flickered in his eyes once more. Before she could respond, her father arrived.
“Jackson St. James?” Her father extended his hand.
“Yes, sir.” Jackson’s gaze darted from her dad to her and back before they shook hands. “Excuse my appearance. I got caught in the storm.”
“Actually, Dad, he got caught while trying to help me with my flat tire.” Gabby smiled at Jackson. Jackson St. James. She liked his name—a lot. Masculine yet refined. It suited him, or what she knew of him so far. “Jackson was quite the gentleman. Waited with me until the tow truck came.”
“Thanks for looking out for my little girl.” Her father wrapped his arm around her shoulder and squeezed, smiling. Heat washed through her cheeks at being called a “little girl” in front of Jackson, who looked at least half a dozen years older than her, possibly more. “You’re probably eager to change into something dry. Let me go fetch the key, then Gabby can take you over and show you whatever you need to know.”
Her dad disappeared down the hallway, presumably to go to the junk drawer in the kitchen.
She looked up at Jackson again, her lungs expanding with irrational happiness. The lighter-than-air feeling sharpened her senses. The old hallway seemed to shrink around her. The floorboards beneath her creaked when she shifted her weight to one leg. Even the dining room behind Jackson brightened, as if the sun were fighting hard to illuminate the cloud-covered sky outside. It was as if Jackson’s presence had transformed a mundane moment into one brimming with excited anticipation. “By the way, thanks for today. Once I realized you weren’t a threat, I was glad you were nearby.”
“My pleasure.” Again he smiled, and again it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Luc appeared in the hall and then trotted toward her, arms raised. “Up, Mama.”
Before she leaned down to lift him onto her hip, she noticed Jackson’s brows rise before his eyes softened as they settled on her son.
“Luc, say hi to Jackson. He’s going to live over the garage for several weeks.”
Her shy son laid his head against her shoulder and peered at the stranger with one eye.
Jackson stepped forward and gently tapped Luc’s nose. “Hey, buddy. It’s nice to meet you.” Then his expression tightened. He didn’t look angry, just distant. The air around him turned so heavy its weight pressed on her shoulders.
The sadness she’d seen earlier that day intensified. Had Luc somehow triggered it, or was that her imagination?
When her dad returned with the keys, she tried to hand off Luc. “Stay with Pappy while Mommy takes Jackson to the apartment. I’ll be back soon.”
“No!” Luc clutched her, his fingers digging into her like cat claws.
“Listen to Mommy, Luc.” She pried him off her body and handed him to her dad, at which point he burst into manipulative tears. If she hadn’t been embarrassed by his behavior, she’d have been annoyed. “Come on, peanut, you know crying won’t get you your way.”
“Go on, I’ll deal with him.” Her father shook his head and turned toward the kitchen, speaking to a despondent Luc. “How about we get a snack?”
After flashing an apologetic grin at Jackson, she gestured toward the front door. “Let’s go.”
Jackson’s gaze darted from her to her father’s retreating form and back again, then he opened the screen door and held it for her before following outside. If he had questions about her son, he kept them to himself.
“Let me grab my bag,” he said, dashing toward his Jeep.
Seconds later, he hefted a giant duffle bag over his shoulder and then shadowed her across the driveway to the detached garage.
Gabby had a truckload of questions. Where was he from? Why did he choose Winhall, of all places, to visit? Why was he staying for six weeks? And why did he look so downhearted? Of course, she asked none of them. He didn’t strike her as the kind of guy who’d open up easily, if at all. And certainly not to a nosy landlord.
Still, his comment about being unlucky stuck out. Jackson St. James presented a puzzle, and an alluring one at that. Her humdrum life would be a little more interesting this fall thanks to him, and she intended to take full advantage of a break in the monotony. First she’d need to observe him longer so she could find her way around the heavy curtain he hid behind.
She led him up the outside stairwell and then unlocked the door. Thankfully she’d done a good job cleaning this morning. Still, a guy who kept his car so tidy and could afford to take off for six weeks probably had money and a pretty nice home of his own.
“Hope this will do.” She swung the door open.
Once inside, he dropped his duffle by the door.
As he glanced around the well-worn space, she tried to envision it through his eyes. A queen-size bed with a patchwork quilt peeking out from behind a trifold furniture screen, a fake-leather loveseat and recliner clustered around a vintage coffee table in front of an old television, and a kitchenette along the far wall with a table for two.
Suddenly feeling self-conscious about the apartment’s lack of style, she blurted, “It’s a little dated, but it’s clean and dry. Two things you can’t say about lots of places in Winhall. The bathroom is around that way,” she said, pointing toward the bedroom area, “and everything else is pretty much right here. Vermont’s strict about recycling, so use clear bags for recyclables, and there are special bags for regular trash under the sink. You can toss it all in the bins outside the garage and we’ll take them to the dump on our runs.”