I snuggled my backside against warm, hard male and sighed in contentment. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so sated, both physically and emotionally. Emotion had never been a part of my love life. It was nice. I was surprised to discover I liked it. I wanted more. I didn’t know much about Jason, really. I knew he was handsome, smart, exasperating, and very sexy. I knew he was a hero from Louisiana who had a young daughter. I didn’t know his favorite food or what his mama called him. I wanted to know those things, which shocked me. Did I also want him to know all of my secrets? It shocked me even more to realize I did. After so many years of avoiding intimacy like a root canal, I now found myself craving it.
What did I most want to know about this complicated man? His little girl. The answer came easily. I wanted to know about the most important thing in his life. A sharp stab of guilt pierced my heart. How could I want to make this little girl important to me when I couldn’t do that for my own child. I pushed the thought away. I would tell Jason all about her. Sharing her with him would make her a part of our lives, as well.
“Tell me about your daughter,” I whispered, curling myself into him.
“What?” he asked, and I could hear the surprise in his voice.
“Your daughter,” I repeated. “Tell me about her. What’s her name? What’s she like?”
I could feel the thrum in my own body as his chest rumbled with a chuckle.
“Her name is Dalia, and she’s something else. She’s beautiful and sassy, way too smart for her britches. In fact,” he said before kissing the top of my head, “she’s a lot like you.”
“Really?” I was delighted. “Then she is a special little girl.”
“Your right,” he answered, humor replaced by warmth, “she is.”
“Does she see her mother often?” I asked, holding my breath as I waited for an answer.
He was silent for a moment before saying, “Are you hungry? I’m starving. Let’s call downstairs and have something sent up.”
He moved to slide out from under the sheet that covered us.
“Jason, wait,” I said, using my hand to push him back down on the mattress. “It’s after midnight. The restaurant closed hours ago.”
“I really need to get home,” he tried again. “Dalia and Tess will be worried.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “Don’t go. What happened to Dalia’s mother? Did she die?”
His laughter was harsh this time. “You don’t mince words, do you?”
“Not when it’s important.”
Jason’s eyes were hard, glittering with a powerful emotion that could have been hurt or rage. Who or what had scarred this incredible man? I had to know.
“Tell me,” I insisted, caressing his face before placing my lips to his in a desperate effort to ease his pain.
Why? Despair cooled Jason’s warmth like an ice-water bath. Why did she want to dredge up a past that was best left buried beneath the layers of stony denial he had piled upon it? He pulled away from the sweet kiss, stared into her golden eyes.
“I don’t want to talk about her,” he said, but as he spoke the words, he was shaken by the sudden realization that it was a lie. He did want to confide in Jessie.
Damn it all to hell! Wasn’t it bad enough that Rachel had done her best to ruin his daughter’s life? Did she have to ruin his, too? Was every wonderful moment going to be tainted with her memory?
The hot flood began to ebb. Maybe the reason he felt tempted to tell Jessie everything was because that’s what he needed to do in order to exorcise that particular demon from his life. He hadn’t told anyone what had transpired between Rachel and himself, not even Dillon or Tess. And he sure as hell couldn’t tell Dalia. Maybe now was the time to unburden himself, and Jessie was the person strong enough to hear it and not pity him. He couldn’t tolerate pity.
“Jason,” she prompted, her voice just flirting with that familiar sharpness he had grown accustomed to. That decided it for him. He would tell her the whole story and let the chips fall where they may.
“Fine,” he said, sitting up so he could rest his head and shoulders against the headboard. He settled Jessie against him. “But it’s an ugly story.”
“I don’t mind ugly,” she said. “I’ve faced it enough to know it’s what makes us strong.”
God! How to begin? Was there any way to tell this story without Jessie looking at him like a fool? Or worse, like the pathetic loser he had been?
No, he reminded himself, he hadn’t been the loser. He had gained Dalia. Rachel was the one who had lost. That’s what he needed to keep in mind.
“In answer to your question, no, Dalia doesn’t spend any time with her mother.”
“Rachel, Dalia’s mother, wants it that way.”
“Why?” Jessie asked, shock, and a bit of anger, in her voice. More than a bit, actually, and it made Jason smile.
“Because she’s a cold-hearted bitch.”
“But why?” Jessie repeated.
“Why is she a bitch? I think she was born that way.”
“No, why has she cut Dalia out of her life?”
“Because she’s mine,” Jason said with a heavy sigh. “Rachel and I were involved for six months. It was serious on my end, not so much on hers. A rich mark came along and she had no more use for me.”
“That’s terrible,” she said.
“Yeah, well, it gets worse. Fool that I was, I tracked her and her new fiancé down, hoping I could talk her into coming back to me.”
“She laughed in my face. Told me she and her future husband were already expecting a baby and I needed to take myself on back to the bayou where I could, and I quote, ’suck on crawfish and get friendly with the gators.”
Jason chuckled. “Told you so. But I thought I loved her. Anyway, I did just as she said and went back home to nurse my broken heart.” His voice turned bitter. “Six months later, I got a call from Rachel informing me that I was a father and I needed to come pick up my bastard or she was going to give her away.”
“Oh my God!” Jessie exclaimed, eyes wide with horror.
“Apparently, she used her pregnancy to get Richey Rich to marry her. At some point, he must have done the math and realized what she was up to. He demanded a paternity test once the baby was born. Lo and behold, he wasn’t the father. Rachel had no interest in raising a child, so she called me.”
“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” Jessie said, “but are you sure . . .”
“Am I sure she’s mine?” Jason finished. “Absolutely. I demanded a test, too, but it only took one look for me to know she was mine. The test just confirmed it.”
“And you haven’t heard from her since?”
“Not a peep. And I want to keep it that way. Dalia doesn’t need someone like that in her life.”
“But surely she’s asked about her mother?”
“Not yet, but she starts school in the fall. I’m sure the questions will come.”
“What will you tell her?”
“The truth. Her mother isn’t well and couldn’t look after her. I won’t keep her from knowing more when she’s older, but that’s enough for now. She doesn’t need to know that her mother was the kind of horrible person who would throw away a child.”
I flinched at that statement. “What her mother did to you is wrong and evil,” I said, “but giving Dalia up was the best thing that could have happened to her, given the circumstances.”
“True,” he answered. “What kind of heartless woman would give up her own child?”
“Not always heartless,” I said softly. “Sometimes it’s because she cares too much.”
Jason looked at me sharply. “If you had a child, you’d understand how impossible that would be.”
“I understand all too well,” I whispered, taking his hand in mine. Now was the time to share my secret. “I understand because I had a child. I was too young and too lost to take care of her. I had to give her up to give her a chance at a good life.”
Jason pulled away, a look of horror on his face. “You have a child?”
“No. I mean, I did,” I said, confused by his reaction. “I was only 18. After everything that happened with my father, I went a little wild. When I found out I was pregnant, there was never a question in my mind about what I had to do. What kind of life could I give her?”
“So, you just passed her on to someone else, like the minor inconvenience she was,” he said with cold, flat eyes.
Rage had me vibrating like a tuning fork. He had no idea what my life had been like, or how hard it had been for me to do the right thing for my daughter.
“How dare you?” I hissed through gritted teeth. “How dare you judge me for giving my child a good life?”
“A good life would have been growing up without knowing someone had tossed her aside,” he said. “I would as soon cut out my own heart as to do that to Dalia! Are all women so selfish, or just the ones I’m unlucky enough to fall for?”
He rose angrily, jerking the sheet free and covering himself. Disgust was evident on his taut face. “Thank God I realized just what kind of person you are before I made a bigger fool of myself than I already have.”
I lay there, too stunned to cover my own nakedness, staring at this man to whom I had just shared my deepest secret, and who hated me for it.
He gathered up his clothes and stomped wordlessly into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
In my head, I knew that his reaction was completely irrational. I knew I had nothing to be ashamed of, that I had done the right thing for everyone, and that he had no reason to be angry over something that was absolutely none of his business. But deep down, there was a part of me that had always felt guilty for abandoning my child. That part of me was certain he was right. What I had done was unforgivable, and I had made a terrible mistake in confessing such an evil act to someone I had hoped would love me. My instincts had been right all along, if you let people in, they use your vulnerabilities against you.
Jason hadn’t even glanced at the bed when he stormed out. His mind was swirling with mad thoughts of how Rachel had come into his life once again, in a different guise. She had manipulated him into falling in love with her once more, and he had been stupid enough to fall for it.
It wasn’t until he pulled up in front of his snug little house that reality crashed down around him. What the hell had happened? He had behaved like a raving lunatic! He was a sensible man, most of the time. He knew that, sometimes, giving a child a loving home meant entrusting it to the care of parents who could provide in ways a birth parent could not. Jessie was nothing like Rachel, but her story had hit too close to home.
He had worried that Rachel would taint everything good in his life, and here was proof positive. Only, it was his fault, not Rachel’s, that he couldn’t let go. He was holding that old hurt in front of his face like a shield, hadn’t been able to see past it.
And still, the devil on his shoulder taunted him. If she could abandon her own child, how easy would it be for her to discard you and Dalia?
He recalled the stark hurt in Jessie’s eyes when he had put on his little freak show, and knew that it hadn’t been easy for her to do what she had. She had made a huge sacrifice to ensure her daughter’s well-being. She had opened up to him about her loss and had been devastated as a result.
Merde! He slammed his fists against the steering wheel. He had no doubt that he had severely damaged what he had been trying to build with Jessie. He had a vision of Dalia and her blocks. She would stack them up so carefully, and then gleefully send them crashing down with a sweep of her arm. He prayed Jessie would allow him to try to rebuild what he had so carelessly destroyed.