Ally came to consciousness shortly before eight o’clock and the memory that Jack was there, sleeping in her spare bedroom, catapulted her mind into wakefulness. There was no way she was going back to sleep. With a sigh, she swung her legs out of bed and sat there.
Although she worked at home now, she disciplined herself to rise at seven-thirty every morning and stuck to a schedule as much as she could. But on weekends she allowed herself the luxury of staying in bed as long as she wanted and only worked if she felt a burning need to get stuff down. When things were going well with her writing, she just wanted to keep going and never stop. Too bad that hadn’t happened recently. Lately, she’d rather scrub her toilets than sit in front of that computer.
She loved sleeping in. Loved snuggling into the covers, inhaling the familiar warm scent of them, stretching her limbs against their silky softness, letting her mind wander wherever it wanted to.
But today…Jack was there. She slowly shook her head as she stood and walked into her bathroom to have a shower. It was unbelievable.
She pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, leaving her feet bare. When she opened her door and stepped into the hallway, her eyes shot straight to the door of Jack’s room, still closed. Probably burnt out after traveling halfway around the world, not to mention all the emotional exhaustion of finding out he had a daughter.
She couldn’t imagine what that would be like. He must be completely thunderstruck. What had Brittany been thinking? But then, again, maybe Brittany had done him a favor. What would Jack’s life have been like had he known about the baby? He would have married Brittany. He likely wouldn’t have been able to go to college, probably would have gotten a job at the Garden City Sun, taking pictures of 4H events and little league games. He’d have been miserable without the excitement and adrenaline rush of getting those risky but revealing shots. Everyone always knew he was destined for great things with his incredible talent and adventurous streak.
In her small, bright kitchen she started a pot of coffee, plunged some bread into the toaster, then went to find her newspaper. Outside, she shivered in the damp morning air. The cement of her front doorstep chilled her bare toes. The rhythmic whoosh of the neighbor’s sprinkler watering his lush lawn had her frowning at the brown patch of grass in front of her building. Ah, well.
Back in the kitchen when she heard movement upstairs she tensed, then forced herself to relax. It was Jack, for God’s sake. The person in the world she should be most comfortable with. Except...everything was different. He was different.
His footsteps thunked down the stairs a few minutes later and she turned to him as he entered the kitchen. Her heart gave a little extra beat. She still couldn’t get over how he’d changed. He was a man.
She almost laughed at the thought. He’d always been a man. But now he was...a man. Big and dark, clear blue eyes compelling in his tanned face, the experiences he’d had gave him a mature, guarded look that was intensely masculine and...sexual. That intense, moody side of him she’d sometimes seen in high school seemed closer to the surface, and it was...disturbing.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling and trying to keep her voice from shaking. “Want some coffee?”
“Oh, yeah, I need coffee.”
She jumped off her stool to get a mug for him. She handed it to him and he poured the coffee.
“Um...you need milk.”
He shook his head. “Nah. I’ve gotten used to it black. Black and really strong.”
“I have toast. Or blueberry muffins.” She leaned on the counter as he lifted the steaming cup to his lips, nicely shaped, firm but full. She dragged her gaze away from them. “And juice.”
“Toast is fine. I’m starving.”
She reached for the bread, but he waved her aside. “I can make it,” he said. “You finish yours. You got peanut butter?” “Sure.”
“God, I missed peanut butter.” He took the jar from her, opened it and sniffed it. “Oh, yeah.”
Something so simple gave him so much pleasure, and reminded her how long he’d been gone. “I’d love to hear about the places you’ve been. Sometime.”
“Be careful. I could talk for hours.”
He devoured the first two pieces of toast, popped two more into the toaster, then another two. She watched him finish off the loaf of bread with astonishment. “I guess I forgot how much you like to eat,” she told him faintly.
“I’ll buy you another loaf of bread.”
She looked at him and saw the glint in his eye.
“Damn right you will.”
They both grinned. And just like that, things were easy again.
With a feeling of buoyancy, Ally got up to slide their plates into the dishwasher and refill their coffee mugs. “Did you sleep okay?” she asked.
“Not really.” He shrugged. “Had a lot on my mind. I was kind of wired.”
“No kidding.” Her heart squeezed tightly in her chest. “It’ll be okay, Jack.”
One corner of his mouth deepened. “Sure. I guess I should call Brittany and let her know I’m here.” He looked at his watch, then reached for the cell phone on his belt. He thumbed through his contacts and then pressed the button to dial.
When he’d finished the awkward conversation with Brittany, they’d arranged to meet that afternoon at a Starbucks near her place. Then he tried Carter again, but once again, no luck.
Ally frowned. “I wonder if he’s out of town. He does travel back and forth to San Diego quite a bit.”
“So,” Ally said brightly. “Do you want me to come with you this afternoon?”
* * *
Jack knew he should be strong enough to do it on his own, but damn, he’d wanted her to come. Her calmness soothed him, made him feel like it would all be okay. And it wasn’t like they had any secrets from each other. He didn’t know what Brittany would think of it, but hey, why should he care - this was the woman who’d kept his daughter from him for nine years.
“Yeah, sure,” he’d said gruffly in response to her question. .
Now his gut clenched as he drove, following Ally’s directions to Pasadena. He pulled onto the freeway, accelerated up to the speed of the LA traffic. Sun glinted off speeding chrome and glass surrounding them, and heat shimmered off concrete as he manoeuvred the curves and lane changes. Ally told him which exit to take and soon they pulled into a strip mall parking lot, outside a Starbucks.
The cool air conditioning hit them as they walked in. The hiss and growl of the espresso machine floated over the chatter of the Saturday afternoon crowd and a rich warm coffee aroma scented the air. Brittany sat at a small table in the back.
She looked different. She wore her blonde hair shorter now, and fine lines around her eyes and mouth hinted at fatigue...and nerves.
The whole situation was surreal.
“I hope you don’t mind that Ally came,” he said to Brittany.
She shook her head. “No. That’s fine. It’s nice to see you again, Ally. Do you two want to get coffee?”
When they were all settled at the table, fragrant cups steaming in front of them, Brittany said, “Well. This is awkward.” All three huffed an uncomfortable laugh. “I guess I should start.”
Jack saw Ally smile encouragingly at Brittany. Ally and Brittany had been pretty good friends too.
“Um...where’s Sarah?” Jack asked.
“At home. With a babysitter. I didn’t want to just introduce you two to each other without preparing her. Or you.”
Jack nodded. Some of his tension seeped out of him at the knowledge he didn’t have to deal with that emotional land mine right now.
“I guess I owe you an apology first,” Brittany said slowly, looking down at her coffee. She swallowed, then raised her eyes to Jack’s. “I never told you about Sarah because I knew if I did, you would stay.”
He stared at her. “Oh.”
She continued. “I know you would have done whatever I wanted. You even would have married me if I’d pushed. You had so much talent, everyone knew you were going to do great things. I didn’t want to get in the way of that. And the truth is, I wasn’t ready to get married either. So I told you I’d had a miscarriage.” She looked away. “I came and stayed with my aunt and uncle here in Pasadena.”
“You’re not...married?” He felt Ally’s glance.
Brittany shook her head. “No. I almost got married...a couple of years ago. But...stuff got in the way.” She waved a hand. “Never mind about that right now.”
“Tell me more about Sarah.”
“Well, she’s nine years old. People say she looks like me.”
Jack smiled. “Blonde hair? Blue eyes?”
“Yes.” Pride glowed in her eyes. “And she’s smart, too. She learned how to read before she even started kindergarten and she gets great marks at school. Her teachers love her. She does ballet and gymnastics. Her favorite food is pepperoni pizza.”
Brittany made a face. “Well, she’s almost perfect.”
“So, when do I get to meet her?”
Brittany searched his face. “You really do want to meet her?”
His brows rose. “I wouldn’t have come home if I didn’t want to.”
Relief lightened her features. “That’s good. I know I called you out of the blue, but...”
“Why did you call me now, Britt?”
Extreme Close Up Chapter 5
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