Gabby spent Saturday evening working on her latest novel. As Taylor got older, it became harder and harder to write. It was easy when her daughter was little, but once Taylor started crawling and walking around things had become a little more challenging. The other day Taylor had run up to Gabby’s laptop and tried to read over her shoulder. Granted, Taylor couldn’t read all that much yet, but that wouldn’t be the case in a few years. That meant Gabby had to wait until her daughter went to bed in order to find time to write. Or, now that Jax was back, for the weekends she was with him.

On Sunday morning, Gabby spent some time tidying up the house before heading over to her mom’s. Her sister, Grace, was meeting her there and the three of them were going Christmas shopping. Gabby still had quite a few things to get and time was running out. Christmas was only three weeks away.

Grace’s car was already parked out front when Gabby pulled up to her mother’s house. Her sister had changed a lot in the last two months since she’d met Alexander. She was getting out more, for one thing. Gabby no longer had to bribe Grace to go shopping. In fact, this outing had been her sister’s idea.

The muffled voices of her mother and sister greeted Gabby as soon as she walked through the door, and she followed the sound to the back of the house. “I’ve been doing some research online, trying to find something I think I can pull off.”

“What exactly are you trying to pull off?” Gabby asked her sister as she strolled into the room. Her mom was sitting on the bed, putting on her shoes, and Grace was leaning against the far wall, her arms crossed.

Caroline Lewis finished tying her shoe and hurried across the room to give her oldest daughter a hug. “We didn’t hear you come in.”

Gabby returned her mother’s embrace before raising her eyebrow at her sister, letting her know she was still waiting on an answer to her question.

“I want to make a big Italian dinner for Alexander. It’s his first Christmas since being discharged and I want it to be special.”

“What about your boss?”

Grace looked confused. “Beth?”

“She’s good at cooking, right?”

“Beth’s more of a baker,” Grace said. “I think her fiancé does most of the cooking.”

“Well, there you go. Ask him.”

“I can’t ask Drew.” The aghast look on her sister’s face was almost comical.

“Why not?” Gabby asked.

Grace opened her mouth, and then closed it again before responding. “I don’t know. I’d just feel awkward about it, I guess.”

“Well, if you want to cook a nice meal for your man you’re gonna have to get over it.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “That’s easy for you to say.”

“It’s not a bad idea, Grace,” their mother said, getting in on the conversation for the first time.

Sighing, Grace picked her coat up off the bed and draped it over her arm. “I’ll think about it, okay?”

Gabby didn’t get a chance to respond before her mother went into herding mode. “Let me get my coat and we can get out of here. I’m starving and I still have a lot of shopping to do.”

Three hours later Gabby and Grace were weaving through racks of clothes. Their mom had made a beeline for the bathrooms as soon as they’d entered the store, and so far she’d been MIA.

“Is Alexander all moved in yet?” Gabby asked as she held up a shirt for inspection.

The sides of her sister’s mouth turned up slightly in a girlish smile Gabby hadn’t seen in a long time, not since Grace found out her husband wasn’t coming home from the war. “He was going to bring a couple more boxes over today and that should be it.”

“If that smile of yours is any indication, I’m guessing the whole living together thing is going well?”

Grace glanced up at Gabby, and then away. “Yeah.”

“Well, I’m happy for you. You deserve it.”

Her sister bit her lower lip and averted her gaze to a dress on the rack next to her. “What about you? How are things between you and Jax? I mean . . . have you two . . .”

Gabby knew what her sister was asking. “No. I haven’t slept with him again.” When Grace remained quiet, Gabby knew she had to say something else. She hadn’t meant to make it sound as if Grace shouldn’t have asked. Gabby had confided in her sister about it, after all. “It’s made things between us more complicated. As if they weren’t already complicated enough before.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I have no idea.” That was the crux of the issue. What her heart and body wanted weren’t in line with what her mind knew she should do. But this wasn’t the time to get into all the complexities of her relationship, or lack thereof, with Jax. Gabby could see their mom heading toward them and knew she needed to end the conversation. “I’ll figure something out.”

“Sorry I took so long,” their mother said. “I ran into Maggie as I was coming out of the bathroom. You remember Maggie, right? Her husband, Bret, used to work with your dad.”

“How’s she doing?” Grace asked.

“He retired last month and they’re moving to Arizona in the spring to be close to their grandchildren.” As quickly as she’d started the conversation, their mother switched gears. “Speaking of, I saw the cutest pair of shoes. I want to see if you girls like them. I think they’ll look adorable with the outfit I got for Taylor.”

With a new objective set, Gabby placed the shirt she’d been looking at back on the rack and they all headed over to the kids’ shoe section.

By the time they called it a day and arrived back at their mom’s house, Gabby’s feet and legs felt as if they were about ready to fall off. They’d hit twelve stores in less than five hours. It had been a long time since she’d been on her feet for that long. The good news was that she was officially done with her Christmas shopping. Now all she had to do was drag it home and wrap it all. The thought brought a new sense of dread.

Grace handed her the last of Gabby’s bags and she placed it in the trunk of her car before closing it. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Her sister shifted her weight and Gabby knew something was coming. Probably something she wasn’t going to like.

When Grace continued to hesitate, Gabby sighed. “Just spit it out already.”

“I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but you and Jax need to talk this out.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. We had sex. It was a mistake. End of story.”

“I don’t believe that and neither do you,” Grace said.

“It doesn’t matter.” Gabby walked to the other side of the car and opened the driver’s side door. “I’m not going there again.”

Grace nodded. “I understand. He hurt you.”

“I’m over it.”

“Are you?”

Maybe this new side of her sister wasn’t as great as Gabby first thought. Grace used to let things go. Or maybe that was wishful thinking. Maybe it was more that Gabby really wanted her sister to forget about it. “I have to be. He’s Taylor’s father and she deserves to have him in her life. I won’t deny her that.”

“Okay. I get that you don’t want to talk about it. But if you change your mind, I’m here.”

“Thanks.” Before Grace could come up with another angle of questioning, Gabby said her goodbyes and ducked behind the wheel, waving to her sister as she drove away.

It was close to seven by the time she pulled into her driveway and Jax would be bringing Taylor home soon.

Gabby was placing the last of the shopping bags into the back of her closet when she heard the doorbell ring. She made sure everything was hidden, and then went to answer the door.

The cool outside air rushed into her home, followed quickly by a streak of red that was her daughter, who made a beeline for her bedroom with no more than a “Hi, Mommy” and left the sound of giggles in her wake.

Jax stepped inside, chuckling. “I think maybe she had a bit too much sugar this afternoon.”

Not wanting to keep the door open, Gabby had no choice but to close it, leaving her standing in her living room alone with Jax. “What all did you give her?”

“We made Christmas cookies today and I think she ate more than she made. Luckily Mom had an apron for her to wear or else her clothes would have been covered in cookie dough.” His face lit up as he talked about spending the day with his daughter. It tugged at Gabby’s heart strings, bringing up a bunch of feelings she didn’t want.

“I’m sure she’ll settle down in an hour or so.”

He smiled. “Probably.”

 ***

A lock of Gabby’s blond hair had fallen out of her ponytail, her loose curls tickling the side of her face every time she moved. The urge to brush it back out of the way was strong, but he resisted. Jax knew it wouldn’t stop there. He’d want more. Like he’d wanted more the last time he’d stepped into her personal space to pick a piece of lint from her jacket.

It had been completely innocent, until he’d touched her, felt the heat coming off her body, calling to him. He’d looked into her eyes and in that moment he saw the same need reflected there that he felt deep in his soul. Instinct had taken over and before he knew it she was lying naked beneath him and he was buried inside her.

Gabby tucked the hair behind her ear, drawing his attention back to the present. “Are your parents going to pick her up next weekend or . . .”

“Yeah. Mom was hoping to pick her up from the babysitters so they can beat the Friday rush.”

“I’ll let Emily know.”

There was awkwardness in the air that never used to be there between him and Gabby, and he had no idea how to fix it. After Taylor’s nightmare the night before, he didn’t know if he deserved for it to be fixed. He’d caused his little girl pain. He deserved to suffer. “I should get going.”

A look of relief showed on Gabby’s face and it was like a knife to his heart.

“Mommy, why don’t we have a Twist-mas tree like Grandma and Grandpa?” Taylor walked into the room, dragging her favorite stuffed animal behind her.

“I just haven’t had time to drag everything out of the attic yet.” Gabby ran her hand over the top of their daughter’s hair in a loving gesture. “Maybe we can do it this week before you leave on your trip with Grandma and Grandpa.”

“I can get everything down out of the attic for you if you want,” Jax said.

“That’s okay. I can—”

“Come on, Daddy. I’ll shows you.” Before Gabby could even get her refusal out of her mouth, Taylor took him by the hand and coaxed him to follow her down the hallway.

Jax shrugged as he let his daughter lead him down the hall to where the attic access was in the ceiling. He reached up to pull the rope that would lower the staircase. “I need you to stand back.”

Taylor moved closer to her mother, one arm wrapped around Gabby’s legs.

The fold-up ladder creaked as he lowered it. He looked over his shoulder at Gabby. “Is there still a light up there?”

“Yeah. As soon as you get to the top it’ll be on your left.”

Jax nodded and climbed the steep rung of stairs leading up to the attic.

He’d only been in Gabby’s attic once before. They were fixing up the room that would become Taylor’s nursery. It had been a happy time for both him and Gabby. He’d been so full of nervous excitement that he hadn’t paid much attention to the attic itself or what was up there.

Gabby’s house wasn’t all that big, but it still took him several minutes to locate the artificial tree and two boxes of Christmas decorations mixed in with several boxes of toys and baby clothes. He couldn’t help but wonder why Gabby was holding on to Taylor’s old clothes. Was she hoping to have another baby one day? Or maybe she was holding on to them for her sister.

As much as it shouldn’t matter what her reasoning for keeping Taylor’s baby clothes was, Jax couldn’t shake it off. He carried the boxes Gabby needed down the ladder and placed them along the wall.

Once everything was down, he folded the ladder back up and made sure the access panel was secure before grabbing one of the boxes from where he’d left it. “Did you want these in the living room?”

“I can get them.”

He met her gaze and held it for a long moment. “I’m here. Let me help.”

She didn’t answer right away, seeming to weigh her options. Finally, she nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

Jax didn’t stay long after putting the boxes in her living room. It was getting late and he knew Gabby would want to start getting Taylor ready for bed. As much as he wanted to stay, he knew he had given up that right when he’d decided to leave them. He had to be content with the fact that he got to see them both on a regular basis.

The ache in his chest grew as he drove away from Gabby and Taylor toward his apartment a few miles away. It wasn’t anything fancy, but that wasn’t why he’d picked it. He’d wanted to be near Gabby and his daughter in case they needed him.

He came through his front door, flipped on the hall light, and dropped his keys on the counter. After spending the last two days with Taylor, his place was really quiet. He grabbed a glass from the cabinet, filled it with water, and strolled into the living room to see what was on television.

After surfing through the channels, he found an old movie he hadn’t seen in a while. It was full of action, which he was hoping would be a good distraction.

An hour later, he realized it wasn’t. His thoughts kept drifting back to Gabby. Well, Gabby and the conversation he’d had that morning with his dad. He knew he needed to tell her where he’d been for the first three years of their daughter’s life—why he’d left—but he had no idea how. And truth be told, he was afraid of how she would react. Gabby was a bit unpredictable, but that was one of the things he loved about her. She was also stubborn, which was how he’d known that if he’d told her back then she would have altered her life to stay by his side and support him. He couldn’t let her do that.

Jax drained the last of the water from his glass, turned off the television, and headed to his bedroom. Stripping out of his clothes, he ambled into the bathroom to take care of business and brush his teeth before climbing into his bed.

As he lay there with his arms folded beneath his head, he thought over his options. If he and Gabby were going to talk they were going to need to do it without Taylor around. This was too important and the subject matter too serious for a three—almost four—year-old to overhear. It already seemed as if his absence had affected her enough. He didn’t want to be the cause of any more nightmares.

With his parents taking Taylor for the weekend, it was the perfect opportunity, but he would need to figure out a way to get Gabby to listen to him. She’d been closed off since he’d returned and even more so since they’d given in to the attraction they still felt for each other. Sweet talking her wasn’t going to get his foot in the door.

But maybe honesty would. Gabby didn’t like it when people beat around the bush. She preferred direct and honest. He could still remember the end of their first date when he’d walked her to the door, hands sweating, trying to figure out whether or not he should kiss her good night, when she’d surprised the hell out of him by asking if he was going to kiss her already.

The challenge in her eyes had pushed his doubts away. He’d closed the distance between them, cupped the side of her face in the palm of his hand, and pressed his lips to hers. Looking back on it, Jax was pretty sure he started falling in love with her that night.

Thinking about their first date and how Gabby had felt pressed against him had his lower half waking up. He groaned and rolled over to bury his face in his pillow. To say he was sexually frustrated was an understatement. Gabby was the only woman he’d slept with since the night of their first date four and a half years ago. The little taste he’d gotten about a month ago hadn’t been enough. Not by a long shot. However, he had no desire to find another woman to satisfy his sexual urges. His body wanted Gabby and so did he.

Jax tried to think of something else, anything else, but it wasn’t working. If he thought about work, it brought back the time when Gabby had showed up at his job after hours in the sexiest librarian outfit he’d ever seen.

He hardened at the memory, and Jax knew what he was going to have to do if he had any hope of getting sleep. He snaked his hand into his boxers and grasped the base of his rock-hard cock. As he had many times during the three years he’d been gone, Jax let his thoughts take over as he stroked himself, imagining it was Gabby touching him.

It didn’t take long for him to feel the surge of energy shoot up his cock. He gasped, calling Gabby’s name as he climaxed. Wishing—hoping—that one day she’d forgive him and it wouldn’t only be memories warming him in his bed.

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Tangled in His Embrace - Chapters 1-2

Chapter 2

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—

“Hello, Gabby.”

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.”

“You’re not?”

She shook her head.

“How about a snickerdoodle?”

“Uh-uh.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“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—”

“It’s fine.”

“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.”

“Cookies?”

“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.”

“Only because—”

“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.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“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.

“Promise?”

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 see.”

“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.