Worth the Risk (St. James #3)(8)

by Jamie Beck

“It’s great, thanks.” He looked at her expectantly, and when she didn’t speak, he asked, “Your dad had promised Wi-Fi. Is there a password?”

“Yes. GGguest. GG for Gabby’s Gardens, in case that helps you remember it.” She held out the keys. “I’m Gabby, by the way.”

His hand grazed hers when he took them, sending a shock of heat up her arm.

“I know your name. It’s all over your truck.” When he winked, that heat raced straight to her face.

“Oh, I guess you’re right.” Their gazes locked for a second or two longer than expected, which shot another warm rush through her limbs, making her insides gooier than the center of a roasted marshmallow.

The golden streaks in his amber eyes now lit with something other than sorrow. She hoped she’d put that flicker there and provided a temporary break from whatever had him troubled.

Tongue-tied again, she practically stammered, “I should probably let you get settled, and I’m dying to get out of these wet clothes.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she’d chosen a phrase that didn’t sound like a come-on. Her reckless subconscious had probably taken over and said it on purpose.

His gaze smoldered again and she almost compounded her mistake by suggesting his luck was about to change, but then he glanced away. “Good plan. I’m sure I’ll see you around later.”

And that was that. She’d leave without answers to any of her questions. Berating herself for caring one little iota, she nodded. “Have a good rest of your day.”

She let herself out and trotted down the metal staircase. As she crossed the driveway, she turned to look back at the windows above the garage. They’d had short-term renters before. People who’d come and gone without attracting her notice. Clearly, Jackson was different.

Who was he, and why did it matter? The haunted look in his eyes should be enough of a warning. Life with her mom had introduced her to that kind of empty gaze, a look she supposed everyone who ever lived in a small rural town knew in one form or another.

Still, fate had thrown her and Jackson together twice. And despite the hint of unhappiness simmering behind his eyes, she couldn’t escape the sort of momentous feeling he inspired. Anticipation bloomed in her fallow heart like the fragile shoots of winter aconite breaking through freshly thawed soil.

Then, laughing to—or at—herself, she turned and went inside, back to reality. Whatever did or didn’t happen between her and Jackson, six weeks from now he’d leave, like everyone else, and never look back.

CHAPTER THREE

Listening to the rhythmic crunch beneath his feet as he ran along the tree-lined road, Jackson pushed aside the cramps that reminded him how long it had been since he’d actually exercised. Building and remodeling jobs kept him trim. But aerobically, he had some serious catching up to do.

At first he’d lumbered, unable to move at anything faster than a slow jog, until old habits had kicked in and his body responded with its reliable agility and strength.

His sweat-coated skin didn’t reek of whiskey—a change he reluctantly acknowledged. With each breath he inhaled invigorating, earthy aromas like tree molds, loamy soil, pine. The recent sunrise hadn’t yet burned off the fog that pillowed around him as he ran back toward his temporary home.

No traffic, no cell phone. Only the sounds of his steady footfall and the sparrows’ early-morning whistling, punctured occasionally by the drumming of a woodpecker. At his current pace, he’d enjoy another twenty minutes or so of peace and solitude as little clouds of breath puffed from his mouth like smoke rings.

Although he wrestled to pin his thoughts on the beauty around him, they kept wandering to the appointment he’d scheduled at eight o’clock.

He could cancel.

It’s not like he’d promised his family he’d talk to a shrink while he chillaxed in Vermont. He’d agreed to address their concerns, but he hadn’t forfeited the right to make decisions for himself about how to do that. Still, he’d mentioned it to David yesterday, and he didn’t want this journey to be wasted.

Whatever mistakes he made, whatever promises he broke, he needed to own.

The final minutes of his run consisted of a quarter-mile uphill climb. His breathing had grown heavy, lungs burning, as he rounded the corner where the Bouchards’ wooded driveway came into view.

Yesterday he’d been too tired and waterlogged to pay much attention to the house. This morning, however, the early-morning sun—diffused by remnants of fog—bathed the aging, farmhouse-style home in a dreamy light. A good thing considering the fact that, when one looked closely, everything about the place was worn.

He slowed to a walk and studied the scene. Vermont’s dank weather demanded a ton of maintenance if a homeowner wanted to prevent disrepair. Patches of rotted wood marred the beauty of the front porch. Both the house and garage needed a new coat of stain, too. Yet the aging home had the potential to be a knockout, especially if the Bouchards would upgrade to modern farmhouse windows and choose a deep green stain instead of the more traditional red.

The idea of transforming the home got Jackson’s creative juices flowing.

His gaze swept across the yard. The landscaping had been better maintained. Interesting groupings of small boulders, shrubbery, and mums carpeted the area surrounding the house. A fieldstone-and-grass walkway led from the gravel driveway to the front steps, enhancing the storybook setting.

He visualized what other flowering plants must bloom in spring and summer, but were now pruned and protected. Then he imagined Gabby kneeling at the edge of the bed, digging her hands into the soil, her cute little rear end hovering a foot or so above her heels.

That image got his juices flowing, too, albeit in a completely improper way.

On his way to the garage, activity in the side yard caught his attention. Luc’s little squeal of delight penetrated the air as he dashed around on wobbly legs. Gabby had set a mug of coffee up on a fence post while she bent over to inspect something in her vegetable garden. Nearly a perfect replica of his little fantasy.

Luc stopped and noticed Jackson watching them.

“Mama!” He clutched a little toy close to his chest with one hand and pointed at Jackson with the other.

She glanced over her shoulder. Smiling at him as if he were a friend rather than a new acquaintance, she called out, “Good morning.”