His high school sweetheart returns with a baby…And a devastating secret.
Reese Markowski can’t believe he’s hiring his ex-girlfriend—but to save his program for dogs and at-risk kids, the veteran needs Gabby Hanks. Single mom Gabby’s fierce love for her infant daughter is undeniable, as is the child’s effect on Reese’s wounded heart. Their holiday reunion is a joyful surprise, but nothing prepares Reese for the truth about Gabby’s baby…
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"I'm not working for Reese." Gabby Hanks shook her head as she put the dinner tray she'd prepared beside her grandmother's bed. "No. Uh-uh. No way."
Nana shifted Gabby's nine-month-old daughter, who'd started to fuss, in her arms and clucked her tongue, and little Izzy's frown turned into a smile. One that matched Nana's persuasive smile all too well, despite the seventy-five-year age gap between them. "I'm making you a good offer. A place to stay, free childcare and a job that's right across the backyard. Which would be a real convenience, considering that heap of junk you're driving."
Despite her grandmother's brusque tone, Gabby heard what Nana wasn't saying: she herself needed help, even though she was too proud to ask for it. A bad case of the flu had left her weak and shaky. She shouldn't be alone right now. "We can stay here for a few weeks, until Christmas," Gabby said.
"And you can help Reese until Christmas, or at least interview for a position there," Nana said. "I happen to know he needs seasonal help."
"Nana. Why would an after-school program for at-risk kids need seasonal help?" Gabby pulled a second threadbare blanket over her grandmother's legs and looked anxiously out the window at the low-hanging clouds. The northern-Ohio wind whistled through the old, poorly insulated house.
"Because those kids' needs don't just go away when school lets out for Christmas break," Nana said. "Reese has an overload of boys whose parents work long hours and can't supervise them, so the church board is sponsoring his Christmas Camp." She picked up a piece of toast and bit off a tiny corner. "Thank you for fixing me dinner, honey. It's real good."
"You need to eat more." Her grandmother was way skinnier than she should be, and Gabby's heart constricted with guilt. Yes, she'd had to take a job on the other side of the state to pay her and Izzy's bills, but she should have visited more often.
A moot point now. She'd lost the job because of missing too much work; a single mom didn't have much choice when her baby was sick and she had no friends or relatives in town.
Nana's casual revelation that she wasn't feeling too well and "wouldn't mind a visit" had come as a blessing. Now it looked like the blessing went both ways. "Anyway," Nana said, waving a hand toward the field that adjoined their edge-of-town house, "Reese's main assistant had to leave for a family emergency.
He's in a spot."
"I'm sure there are plenty of applicants." Who wouldn't want to work with the second-most-popular former football player in Bethlehem Springs?
First most popular, now.
"You forget what a small town Bethlehem Springs is," Nana said.
Oh, no she didn't. That was a good part of why she'd left.
Bethlehem Springs had been a wonderful place to grow up, and most people had been kind despite Gabby's shaky family history and thrift-store clothes. She'd had a good life here with Nana. Firm friends, good grades, plenty of opportunities.
But that had all changed after the accident.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and held out her hands for Izzy. "Come on, let me hold you while Nana eats," she said. Gabby repeated her mantra: Izzy's what's important.
I'll take care of you. I'll do right by you.
Izzy was her joy out of sorrow, and she gave Gabby's life purpose and meaning. No, Gabby wouldn't have the caring family she'd dreamed of growing up, or at least, she wouldn't have a man to protect her; her dreams of a white knight had turned to dust. But she'd give Izzy a sense of security. That was paramount.
"It's a real godsend, your being here." Nana dutifully forked up a green bean. "I've been wanting to get to know my great-granddaughter."
Gabby patted her grandmother's thin arm. "I'm so glad we'll get to spend Christmas together."
And one of the first orders of business was to decorate. Normally, by December 1, Nana would have had the entire house decked out in red and green. The fact that there were no Christmas decorations out said it all about how sick her grandmother had been.
The doorbell chimed through the little house. Izzy yowled her indignation at the unfamiliar sound.
Nana set aside her plate and held out her arms for the baby. "Get the door," she said to Gabby, then pulled Izzy to her chest and made soothing noises at her. "It's okay, sweetie. You're okay."
Izzy quieted instantly, and Gabby smiled her thanks before heading toward the front door. Nana truly was a baby whisperer, and it would be wonderful to have her help with Izzy.
Not if the price was working for Reese, however. That, she couldn't tolerate. There was too much history between them, too much pain.
Nana's cat, Pickles — so named because of his sour disposition — sneaked toward the door, barely visible in the front room's dim light.
Gabby was wise to the feline's tricks. "No, you don't," she said, sweeping the cat into her arms. "It's too cold for you to go outside, and you're too old to spend the night out, anyway." As she spoke, she opened the door.
Reese Markowski stood on the porch in the winter twilight, a bag of groceries in one arm.
"Oh ..." Gabby took a step back, sucking in a breath. She hadn't seen Reese for well over a year. His hair was shorter — the military thing — and his shoulders seemed broader.
And he had no smile for her now.
The cat screeched in her arms and she realized she was squeezing him. "Come in," she said to Reese, but the words came out in a croak, and she cleared her throat and repeated them, holding on to the struggling cat. She stepped back farther, the cat providing a convenient barrier.
Reese stepped inside and shut the door behind him, and she let the cat escape, watched it stalk off behind the couch. She'd rather look anywhere than at Reese's eyes.
"I didn't know you were here," he said stiffly. "I was at the store. Brought your grandmother a few things."
"I can take them. Thank you." Although that would involve stepping closer to the man she'd once loved with all her now broken heart.
"I'll put them in the kitchen. Heavy bag." He walked past her without a second glance.
Clearly he felt at home in Nana's house. How long had he been helping out her grandmother this way?
And then realization came crashing in: he'd find out about Izzy.
She couldn't bear that, couldn't bear his questions, whether spoken or unspoken. She needed time to figure out how to present the facts of the case, how to frame the reality that she'd had a baby less than nine months after he'd left for the service. She hurried after him. "Thanks. Nana's sleeping. I'll take care of these from here."
"I usually put them away for her." He'd set the bag down on the counter and was shifting cans into a cupboard.
"It's not necessary."
"I can do it." His voice was sharp. "I still have one good hand."
Only then did she notice he was using only one hand for unloading the groceries. She couldn't see his other hand beneath his jacket.
"Did something ... happen?" she asked.
"IED explosion. Amputated below the elbow." He used his left hand to flap the other jacket sleeve back and forth briefly before going back to shelving groceries. The sleeve was empty.
She sucked in a breath and searched his face, taking in his tight jaw, the way his brows drew together. So that was why he hadn't finished his tour of duty. "I didn't know."
"There's a lot you don't know."
"But you were going to be a carpenter. Can you still ..." She trailed off.
He shook his head. "Not the way I wanted to."
Pain wrapped around her stomach and squeezed. All his dreams. All that talent. Automatically, her eyes went to the cherrywood display case he'd made her, still in a place of honor on Nana's kitchen wall, holding her high school treasures — a trophy from a cheer-leading competition, a silly clay figurine she'd made in art class, a photo of her and Nana on graduation day, Gabby's cap knocked askew, both of them laughing.
The case was beautiful, a work of fine craftsmanship that many men twice Reese's age couldn't have produced.
When she turned back toward him, he was looking at the display case, too. His lips tightened. "Don't waste your pity on me. See to your grandmother. She's not doing so well." He turned on his heel and strode out of the house, letting the door slam shut behind him.
Gabby wrapped her arms around her middle and stared after him, her heart twisting with so many emotions she didn't know how to begin to process them.
Reese had lost part of his arm serving his country.
He could no longer do the thing he loved best.
Nana was sicker than she seemed.
Also, even before learning about Izzy, Reese seemed to hate her.
* * *
The next morning, Reese walked into the rehabbed barn that housed his program for at-risk kids, still trying to recover from the encounter with Gabby.
He'd made a fool of himself, not that it mattered. Acting touchy and defensive about his amputation. Implying she'd been a bad granddaughter. Showing his hurt feelings about what she'd done to him.
You'd think he was one of the at-risk kids in his own program, lashing out and blaming others.
He guessed he had the right to blame Gabby, since she'd lied about her feelings and cheated on him in a very public way. But he'd thought he'd overcome that, what with all that had happened since then.
Nope. Seeing her had brought out every immature desire to retaliate that he'd had when he'd first seen his cousin's social media post, arm slung around Gabby. "My new girl," it had said.
In his grim barracks in Afghanistan, Reese had ripped down his photo of her, discarded the letter he'd been writing, blocked her on everything.
He didn't need to go back to that time when his hope had overcome his good sense. He needed to focus on the Rescue Haven program and forget about his old dreams of love and family.
"I'm here," called a strident voice out in the barn. "Just in time for the little rebels. Want me to feed and water them?"
He went to the door. "Hey, Tammy," he said to the woman who occasionally filled in for his assistant. "Thanks for coming in on short notice. Why don't you let them hang around and see to the dogs for half an hour and then settle them down with a snack? This interview I'm doing shouldn't take long." Gabby's grandmother had been mysterious about this candidate but had insisted the person had stellar qualifications.
An uneasy possibility occurred to him. Nana wouldn't have ... No. She wouldn't be that insensitive.
Or maybe she would, because walking through the barn door was none other than Gabby herself.
He couldn't school his face in time. All the hurt, anger and disbelief must have shown, right along with the intense attraction he still felt.
She stopped walking toward him as if repelled by his powerful emotions.
He didn't need Tammy to see this interaction and spread it all over town. "My office is in here," he said gruffly. He turned and walked inside, almost hoping she wouldn't come along.
Only when he sat down behind his big, messy metal desk did he see that Gabby had followed him, but she stood in the doorway as if she wasn't sure she dared to enter. "Nana didn't tell you it was me, did she." It wasn't a question but a statement.
He shook his head, straightening papers on his desk as he tried to compose himself.
Nana had set him up, telling him she had the perfect candidate to fill the job he so desperately needed to fill.
But Gabby had known whom she'd be working for, obviously. "Why'd you come?" he asked her. "I wouldn't think you'd want to work for me."
She was still standing in the doorway, gripping the edge of the frame, eyes wide and vulnerable. "Um, I really need a job while I'm in town. Nana said you were hiring and wanted to talk to me. Obviously, she was wrong. I'll go."
She half turned, and only then did he realize she'd dressed up; beneath her heavy parka, she was wearing nice blue pants and a white shirt, boots with a little heel. Her normally wild hair was tamed back into a bun.
She wanted the job. She was trying.
Since she'd made an effort, he should at least talk to her. A courtesy interview. It would be good for him, get him used to the fact that Gabby might be around for a few weeks. "Wait a minute," he said, and pulled out a chair for her. "Have a seat. We might as well see this through for Nana's sake."
She looked at him for a moment, shook her head. "Don't patronize me," she said, her voice low. "If you aren't going to consider me, I'll leave."
He didn't answer that because he didn't know how. "The kids are a handful," he said instead. "I need someone to work with them."
"You know I was working on a degree in education before ..." She trailed off.
Before what? he wondered, but didn't ask. He'd admired her interest in teaching, her determination to get a college degree; it was part of why he hadn't pushed to get married or even engaged right after high school. He'd known that was the right thing to do when she'd been so happy about her studies the summer after her freshman year, during the friendly get-togethers that they'd kept nonromantic by mutual agreement.
After her sophomore year, when he'd been getting ready to go overseas, he'd had more trouble holding his feelings in check. He'd asked her for a commitment and she'd agreed.
And then he'd left, and everything had changed.
Shouts, barks and the sounds of a scuffle came from the barn. "Reese!" Tammy called. "Help!"
Reese was up and jogging past Gabby before Tammy finished speaking. "Be right back," he called over his shoulder.
In the middle of the barn, two of his more complicated charges were squared off and circling, both faces twisted in anger. The problem was, David was tiny, and Wolf, as he liked to be called, was huge. Between them sat a Doberman, looking back and forth while they shouted at each other.
"I can't handle these kids," Tammy said. "If nobody has raised them right ..."
And that was exactly why he didn't want to hire Tammy in a permanent capacity. She had such a negative attitude toward the kids.
He waded in, putting a hand on Wolf's shoulder because he was the big one, holding up his other arm to keep David back.
"Get that thing away from me!" David reared back from Reese's hook-hand prosthetic.
Reese couldn't help the flush that came up his face. He was getting used to the amputation, a little bit, but to a kid it had to be pretty horrific.
"Dude, he's, like, a war hero, shut up!" one of the other boys said, and that made Reese flush even more.
"What's wrong with you — aren't you an American?" More boys chimed in and a couple of them advanced on David. This was why Reese needed an assistant; Wolf was straining toward David now, too, and it took most of Reese's strength to hold him back.
Tammy stood, back pressed against the side of the barn, arms crossed protectively over herself. No help there.
"Okay, everyone." Gabby's brisk, matter-of-fact tone stopped the boys whose arms were raised to attack David. "Pretty sure Reese is going to give you some hard homework if you get into a fight. Break it up."
She was five-two and couldn't have weighed much more than one hundred pounds, but she had calm authority in her voice, and she walked right in between David and the other boys.
Even Wolf stopped pushing at Reese and tilted his head to one side, watching her.
"Anybody willing to give me a tour of the facilities?" she asked. "I'd like to see the dogs."
There was a moment's silence. Gabby maintained eye contact with first one boy, then another, until she'd worked her way around the hostile circle without saying another word.
All of a sudden, several of the boys volunteered to show her around, and the rest of them trooped along, leaving Reese free to settle Wolf on one side of the barn and David on the other. He found out what the dispute had been about and gave them both chores.
Then he watched morosely as Gabby talked and laughed with the boys, seeming completely comfortable as she knelt to look at each dog, asked questions and really listened to the answers.
Tammy pulled herself together and set out breakfast rolls, fruit and juice at the long table at one end of the barn, and that drew all of the boys to focus. She turned on the inspirational podcast they always listened to as they ate, and Reese gestured Gabby back into his office.
It didn't seem right to be angry about what she'd done, now that his cousin was gone. It was just that seeing her had brought back all the memories of what he'd hoped for, back when he'd been young and naive, thinking the world was basically a good place and that things would get better once he was grown up and free from his aunt and uncle's house.
"Nice kids," she said, her hand on the back of the chair in front of his desk. "But I assume you don't want me to work for you."
"You were good with the boys," he said.
"I like kids." She shrugged. "Plus, I get what it's like to be the one who gets in trouble."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Secret Christmas Child"
Copyright © 2019 Lee Tobin McClain.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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