Gabrielle Lewis peeked inside her daughter’s bedroom to check on her. Taylor sat on the floor near her toddler bed, brushing her favorite doll’s hair. It took her a moment to realize anyone else was in the room. “Is’bella likes it when I brush her hair.”
“Looks like you’re doing a great job.”
Taylor grinned. “Can I take her with me to Daddy’s house?”
Plastering a smile on her face, Gabby swallowed the knot in her throat and answered her daughter. “Of course you can.”
“Yay,” Taylor said, rising from her spot on the floor and walking over to her box of toys. She took out several items, sorting them into piles. Gabby was sure there was some sort of logic there, but she couldn’t say what it was.
“I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”
Her daughter didn’t comment as she continued to do whatever it was she was doing with her toys.
Gabby was in the middle of slicing up some carrots when she heard the doorbell ring. Her heart skipped a beat and she almost let the knife slip out of her hands. “Get a grip,” she mumbled to herself.
After placing the knife in the sink, she wiped her hands on a towel and went to get the door even though what she wanted to do was hide under her bed and never come out.
Okay, maybe not the bed. Thinking about a bed and Jax together wasn’t a great idea.
The doorbell sounded again and Gabby knew she had to suck it up and answer the door. She couldn’t leave him standing on her porch all night.
Taking a deep breath, she reached for the knob.
Cool air rushed in from outside, but she barely noticed as she came face-to-face with her daughter’s father. Jax Brooks stood on her front porch, staring back at her, as hot as ever. His dark hair, so much like their daughter’s, looked as if he’d recently run his fingers through it. And even though it was only three in the afternoon she could see the beginnings of his five-o’clock shadow. Her mouth went dry remembering how that stubble felt against her skin as he kissed his way down her body. Without her permission, her gaze drifted to his lips. Lips that had tasted and explored—
She swallowed, trying to push those memories out of her mind, and dragged her gaze up to meet his blue eyes. “Hi.”
They stood there for what felt like several minutes but were probably only a few seconds before he cleared his throat. “Can I come in?”
“Oh. Sorry.” She moved to the side so he could enter.
He wasn’t supposed to affect her like this anymore. She was almost forty, for goodness’ sake.
Okay, maybe not forty. She was thirty-six. But close enough. And definitely not anywhere near the jittery eighteen-year-old she felt like.
She closed the door on the cold December air once he was inside even though keeping it open didn’t seem like an altogether bad idea. Maybe it would lower her body temperature a little.
Gabby couldn’t let her thoughts go down that road again. She needed to put some distance between them. “I’ll go get Taylor. She’s in her room.”
As she started to move away, she felt his fingers wrap around her wrist. His hold wasn’t tight. She could have broken it if she wanted, but a part of her didn’t want to. A part of her wanted to forget that he’d left them for almost three years. But what she wanted didn’t change the facts. She couldn’t trust him to stick around. Something she’d learned the hard way.
Jax didn’t let go and he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. She felt the connection between them everywhere his skin touched hers.
“Mommy, I can’t find—Daddy!” Taylor showed no reluctance as she launched herself across the room toward her father.
The spell broken between them by Taylor’s entrance, Jax released Gabby and bent down to gather Taylor in his arms. “There’s my little pumpkin.”
Taylor giggled. “I’s not a pump-kin, Daddy.”
She shook her head.
“How about a snickerdoodle?”
“Hmm.” He lifted her in his arms. “What about . . . a raspberry?”
A loud squeal filled the room as he blew raspberries on her stomach.
Watching the two interact caused Gabby’s heart to ache. It was obvious Jax loved his daughter, but she’d thought that before. The first time he’d held Taylor in the hospital his face lit up with joy. But that hadn’t kept him from taking off two months later.
Taylor was laughing, enjoying the time with her father. As much as Gabby feared what would happen if he left again, she couldn’t keep her little girl from him. Or him from her. It wouldn’t be right.
“Do you have your overnight bag packed for a weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s?” Jax asked Taylor as her giggling died down. Although Jax had an apartment of his own, he often spent the weekend at his parents’ house whenever he had Taylor for the weekend. Gabby wasn’t sure if this was more for his benefit or his parents’. They’d visited Taylor periodically over the years, even when Jax was gone, but they’d always seemed to keep their distance most of the time. Gabby wondered if they felt guilty about their son taking off, but she’d never asked. Now that he was back, they’d gone out of their way to spend as much time with Taylor as possible.
“Mommy said I could bring Is’bella.”
Jax raised an eyebrow in Gabby’s direction.
“Her Aunt Grace brought her a doll back from Chicago.”
Before Jax could respond, Taylor was wiggling in his arms, letting him know she wanted to get down. He placed her feet on the floor and a second later she was running down the hall toward her bedroom.
He shook his head and chuckled. “She never stops, does she?”
“Only when she’s asleep.”
Jax stood in the center of her living room looking as relaxed as ever, while her insides felt as if she’d ridden one too many roller-coasters. How could he be so composed when she was such a mess inside?
“That reminds me,” he said, “my parents want to take Taylor to a children’s museum in Kansas City. They want to leave Friday and make a weekend of it.”
“You’re okay with it?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
He ran his fingers through his hair in a nervous gesture, hinting for the first time that he might not be as calm as he appeared. “I just wanted to make sure. I have to work next Friday, so I can’t go and I didn’t know if you already had plans—”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“It’ll give me some time to catch up on my writing.”
He nodded. “Thanks.”
Since he’d been back, Jax had been ultra-polite. With one exception. Last month she’d gone to pick Taylor up from his place, something she’d done several times before, but their daughter had fallen asleep before she’d arrived. Gabby should have listened to her instincts that night, scooped her daughter up, and headed home immediately. Instead, she’d let him corner her in the hallway and kiss her.
That night she did what she’d promised herself she’d never do again: let a guy get past her defenses. And the worst part was that it was the same guy who had crushed her heart the first time around.
They stood in awkward silence for several minutes before Gabby went in search of Taylor. The sooner she got Jax out of her house the better. She didn’t trust herself around him.
“I’m hungry,” Taylor whined as they reentered the living room with her coat, her backpack of clothes, and her new doll.
Jax took the backpack from Gabby and knelt down so he could zip up Taylor’s coat. “Think you can wait until we get to Grandma’s? I’m sure she’ll have something you can snack on.”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to see when we get there.”
She scrunched up her little face, considering this, and nodded. “’Kay.”
He smiled at his daughter, and then up at Gabby. “Say goodbye to your mom so we can get going.”
Taylor shoved her doll against her father’s chest, wanting him to take it, then turned to wrap her arms around Gabby’s legs. “Bye, Mommy.”
Gabby ran her hand over her daughter’s hair, hugged her against her body, and then lifted her up. “You be good for Daddy, okay?”
“I will, Mommy.”
She gave Taylor a kiss and handed her off to Jax. Saying goodbye was always the worst part even though Gabby knew she’d see her daughter again in a little over twenty-four hours.
“I’ll bring her back tomorrow before dinner.”
Gabby held the door open and watched as they left, not caring how cold the air was outside. She blew a kiss to her daughter as they drove away, trying to ignore the conflicting emotions she felt toward the man who, once upon a time, she thought would be her forever.
Jackson Brooks tucked Taylor into bed before making his way down the hall to his parents’ kitchen. His mom was standing at the sink, doing dishes, and his dad was sitting at the table, shoveling down another piece of cake. Jax went to the cabinet next to the sink and removed a glass.
“Taylor asleep?” his mom asked.
“Not yet.” Jax strolled to the refrigerator for some water. Whoever invented the ice and water contraptions on the front of refrigerators was a genius as far as he was concerned. “When I left she was talking to her new doll.”
“She’s getting so big. I can’t believe she’s going to be four in a few months.”
“You still can’t believe this one”—his dad picked up his fork and pointed it in Jax’s direction as he responded to his wife’s comment—“is old enough to have a kid of his own.”
His mom let the water out of the sink and rinsed the suds from her hands. “That’s true. It’s hard to believe he’ll be thirty-eight in March. I still remember the day we brought him home from the hospital.”
Jax leaned back in his chair, sipping on his water. How the conversation started varied, but it always ended up in the same place.
“You know, Taylor could use a little brother or sister. I’d love to have a house full of grandchildren.”
“It’s not that simple, Mom.”
“Sure it is. I know you’re still in love with Gabby.”
“Kathy, leave the boy alone.”
“But he loves the girl. Don’t tell me you don’t see it.” His mother stood with her hands on her hips as she addressed his father.
“Of course I do, but it’s none of our business.” He cut her off before she got a chance to get going again. “He has to do it in his own time. You can’t rush him.”
His mother huffed. “Fine. I just don’t understand why things can’t go back to the way they were before. You two were so in love.”
“Mom, I walked out and left them for three years. That isn’t something Gabby is likely to forget anytime soon.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She narrowed her eyes and sent him a look that used to send him running for cover as a kid. “Jackson Theodore Brooks, tell me you’ve told that poor girl why you disappeared for three years.”
Jax arose from the table, downed the rest of his water, and took his glass to the sink. “There hasn’t been a good time.”
A look of horror crossed his mother’s face. “Hasn’t bee—”
His father placed a hand on his mother’s arm. “Let it go, Kathy. He’ll tell her when the time is right.”
“I didn’t say I agreed with you, son, but you’re an adult. It’s your decision.” His father stood to put his empty plate in the sink. “Even if I think it’s a bad one.”
That night Jax lay in bed for several hours contemplating what his parents had said. Leaving had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but at the time he’d felt like it was the best option. Now, seeing the hurt on Gabby’s face every time he saw her had him second-guessing his choice.
He was still lying there staring at the celling when he heard his bedroom door being pushed open. Turning his head to look, he saw the silhouette of his daughter framed in the doorway, holding her doll.
Jax sat up in bed. “What are you still doing up?”
She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand. “I looked everywhere but I couldn’t find you.”
“I’m right here.”
Taylor shook her head.
Jax felt as if someone had punched him. He realized she must have been dreaming. “Come here.”
She rushed across the room as fast as her little legs would carry her. He lifted the covers, letting her slide in beside him. Taylor snuggled close.
Wrapping his arms around her, he kissed the top of her head. “You had a nightmare. I’m right here.”
“But I couldn’t find you nowhere. I looked and looked. Even Mommy couldn’t find you.” He could tell by the sound of her voice that she was on the verge of tears.
“I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere,” he said, holding her closer and knowing deep down this was all his fault.
He cradled her against his chest. “I promise.”
A few minutes passed and he thought maybe she’d fallen asleep when he heard her mumble, “Love you, Daddy.”
It broke his heart a little more. “I love you, too, Pumpkin.”
He fell asleep eventually, although he kept waking up. Taylor was a hotbox and she was plastered against him. No matter how he moved, she would shift her weight so her body was flush against his. By the time the sun was shining through the window the next morning, he felt as if he’d slept under an electric blanket that had been turned up to high all night.
Badly in need of some air and a shower, Jax eased his way out from under his daughter. Once he’d thought she’d woken up, but she rolled over and went back to sleep. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Jax grabbed some clean clothes from his overnight bag and headed down the hall to the bathroom. The room hadn’t changed much since he was a kid. There was a new soap dispenser and the shower curtain was different, but most everything else was still the same . . . even the wallpaper.
The water felt good on his overheated skin, but it didn’t wash away the guilt Taylor’s words from last night had left gnawing in his gut. He’d caused that fear in her eyes, whether he’d intended to or not.
After finishing his shower, Jax looked in on Taylor before making his way to the kitchen. His parents were nowhere in sight, but there was a full pot of coffee sitting on the counter waiting for him. He poured himself a cup and reached for the Sunday paper that had been left sitting on the table. No doubt his mother had already been through it looking for coupons.
“Don’t know why you’re bothering to read that. It’s straight up depressing.” His dad strolled into the room and went straight for the coffee. Like father, like son.
“Something to do.” Jax sat down at the table and took a drink of his coffee. “Where’s Mom?”
“She had to run to the store. We’re out of eggs or something.” His dad brought his coffee over to the table and lowered himself into the chair across from Jax. “Taylor still sleeping?”
Jax nodded. “Still out like a light.”
“I noticed she was in your bed this morning.”
“She had a nightmare.”
His father didn’t try to further the conversation, so Jax focused on the newspaper in front of him.
They sat in silence for several minutes before he couldn’t take it anymore. Jax needed a sounding board and his dad was about the only person he could really talk to about this. “Taylor dreamed I had disappeared.”
“I didn’t think she would have been so affected by my absence, given how young she is. I mean she was a baby when I left. She didn’t even remember me when I came back,” Jax said.
His dad shrugged. “I’m not sure that matters. You were gone. In her eyes, you could just as easily not be there again.”
Jax shook his head. “I’m not sure I could do it again. It was hard enough the first time.”
“And yet you did it.”
“You know why I left.”
“I do.” Nate Brooks took a sip of his coffee. “Doesn’t mean I agreed with your decision. It’s like I told you last night. You’re an adult. You have to live with your decisions . . . and their consequences.”
Jax could still recall that fateful day when he’d gotten the call that had changed the course of his life. He’d gone back and forth over what to do before finally coming to a decision. Taylor was only two months old at the time. She and Gabby had been his life, his future, but in an instant, all of his hopes and dreams were being threatened. “I did what I thought was best.”
“For who? You?”
“For Gabby and Taylor,” Jax said.
His father lowered his mug and met Jax’s gaze. “And you don’t think Gabby should have had a say?”
“She would have tried to convince me to stay.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But now you’ll never know, will you?”
Jax didn’t get a chance to respond. The sound of little feet told him they wouldn’t be alone for long, and this wasn’t the type of conversation they could have in front of a three-year-old. It did, however, give him a lot to think about. Had he made the wrong decision back then? Was he making the wrong decision now?
He didn’t know the answer to that. All he knew was at the time he’d done the only thing he felt he could, which was to leave. He hadn’t wanted to be a burden on Gabby. She had their daughter to take care of. She didn’t need to be worrying about him on top of it.
But where did that leave him?
He honestly didn’t know.