“What?” Jack stared at her.
Ally bit her lip and peered up at him through her eyelashes. His hands clenched into fists at his side and his jaw tightened.
“Why would you think that?” he demanded. He squinted at her.
“You have a daughter together,” Ally whispered, twisting her fingers around each other. “You cared about her once.”
He gave a harsh laugh. “That was years ago. I was eighteen, for Chrissake.”
“But it’s possible...”
He shook his head, ran a hand through his hair. “No. It’s not possible, Ally. Believe me.”
“Okay. I just thought maybe you’d rather have me out of the way if you two...”
“Is that what you were thinking about earlier? When we left Brittany’s?”
“God. I thought you were pissed off at me for dragging you into this mess.”
Her mouth fell open. “I’m not pissed off! I’m...upset about it. I feel bad for Brittany and how she’s raised a daughter all on her own. It can’t have been easy. And I’m sad about how she kept your daughter from you all these years...but I’m not mad at you. About that, anyway.”
Their eyes met and held. “So it’s okay if I stay longer?” He had no goddamn idea why he was doing this. He should get the hell out of here before he embarrassed himself.
They stood there in front of her home.
“Um...I’ll make dinner. I have some chicken...”
“That’d be good.”
“It’s actually nice to have someone to cook for again,” she said over her shoulder, heading into the condo. “When it’s just me, I don’t bother much. Lean Cuisines and soup.”
“Can I help?”
She turned and looked at him. “Have you learned how to cook in the last five years? Because you sure didn’t know how before.”
He grinned. “No.”
She tried to hold back her smile but couldn’t. “Then you’re not much help.”
“I can do something. I can fetch stuff for you. Set the table.”
Shaking her head, she opened the fridge door and bent over to stick her head inside. The shorts rode up and his hands ached to test the curvy flesh of her ass, to see if it was as firm and soft as he thought.
She backed out and stood up, holding a package of chicken breasts and some bags of produce. He dragged his gaze up. She didn’t seem to have noticed him checking out her ass.
She pulled out a cutting board, started slicing, chopping, mincing. “Can you get me a box of fettuccine from the cupboard over there?”
He helped her fix dinner and then they sat at the counter to eat the awesome pasta, chicken and vegetables in a garlicky-tomato sauce and warm, crusty rolls.
“You’re a good cook, Ally,” Jack said as he polished off the last of the chicken.
“Thanks. I like cooking.”
“I like eating, so we’re a perfect match.”
Once again their eyes met and awareness shimmered between them, and he knew she felt it too. Christ, he was in trouble.
An intense, aching want tightened his body, made him hard. With hands that trembled, he carefully set down his cutlery. Those watchful, see-inside-you, green, gold and brown eyes terrified him. He picked up his glass of water and drank deeply, dragging his eyes away from her. Why the hell hadn’t he gone to a hotel like he’d planned? The food he’d eaten churned in his gut.
He had to get a grip if he was going to stay there. Ally was off limits. It made his chest ache, though, to have come all this way, found her - alone! Not with Carter any more. To find he still wanted her, more than anything in the world. But he still couldn’t have her.
* * *
Ally sat back in her chair, poking at the last of the food on her plate with her fork, stomach tight, appetite gone. Something about the way Jack looked at her, the way his eyes grew hot and dark, the way his face tightened, made him look insanely sexy. It squeezed the breath out of her and made her shiver.
When he finally looked away she sucked in a deep breath. God, last night this had happened, too. What was going on? She pressed a hand to her tummy.
“I’ll do the dishes,” he said, pushing back his chair and standing up. “Since you cooked.”
“Oh, that’s okay.” But he was adamant.
“Just show me where stuff is, and I’ll do it. You go watch TV or whatever you’d usually do on a Sunday night.”
She wandered into the living room and sat on the couch, took a big breath in. And out. This was insane. She could not be having these kinds of thoughts about Jack. For one thing, he was a friend. That’s all. For another thing, he’d think she was nuts. Although she got the impression he felt something, too. But he had enough confusion in his life right now. And, he’d soon be leaving again to go back to some war-torn country to take powerful, gut-wrenching, award-winning photographs. She sighed.
When he came into the room a short time later, she still hadn’t turned the television on, sat staring into space in the evening dimness. He sat on the far end of the couch from her.
She turned to him. “Did you feel like a father? This afternoon, when you met Sarah?” Her fingers played with the cushion she held on her lap.
Jack put his hands behind his head and leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. The short sleeves of his T-shirt rode up and the paler underside of his biceps bulged. Ally’s mouth went dry.
“No,” he finally said. He was quiet again for a moment. “I don’t know what I felt. I thought maybe there’d be some instant connection, some paternal instinct would kick in. But I just felt like I was meeting Brittany’s daughter. Except I was more nervous.”
“You were nervous?”
“Hell, yeah. Like a first date, when you want to make a good impression. Only worse.”
“Oh, Jack.” Her heart squeezed. “She will love you. You two just need to get to know each other.”
He turned his head to look at her. “I guess.” He closed his eyes and pain etched grooves in his face on either side of his mouth. “What a fucking mess.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be here long enough to get to know her. And even if I am...I still have to leave.” Jack’s voice was raw with emotion. “How do I do that, Ally? How do I be a father to her?”
Ally bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she whispered. The ache in her chest intensified. She ached for Brittany, who’d chosen such a difficult path, for Sarah who’d never known her dad, for how she might feel when she did get to know him and he left, and for Jack...especially for Jack, sitting there agonizing over his life.
“So what happens tomorrow?” she asked. “Brittany is going to call you?”
He nodded. “Yup. I guess we’ll talk about how we’re going to handle this. When to tell Sarah.” He sat up and lowered his arms. “Sarah wants a tree house. If Brittany will let me, I might build one for her.”
Ally pictured Jack swinging a hammer. Shirtless, muscles flexing. Whoa. She swallowed, tried to talk. “You know how to build a tree house?” Her throat felt as if she’d swallowed cotton.
He laughed. “I have no clue. But I think I could figure it out.” He stretched his long legs out in front of him, the soft, worn denim outlining the big hard muscles in his thighs. She couldn’t help but notice the bulge behind his fly, and immediately looked away, appalled at herself.
She nodded. “Okay. Well, I’m going up to bed. Good night.” She stood and as she moved by him, he stood, too.
She couldn’t get past him with the couch on one side and the coffee table on the other. She looked up at him uncertainly. He reached a hand out and took hold of her hair, hanging over her shoulder, and dragged his fingers down the length of it. When his fingers got to the ends, he held on, gave a gentle tug that brought her closer. God, she loved having her hair touched. Did he know that?
“Thanks for letting me stay here,” he said softly. “And for your support.” His eyelids went heavy and his wrist rested just against the swell of her breast, still holding her hair. She tried not to breathe, but the urge to inhale deeply and push her breast against him was almost impossible to resist. This close, she could smell the warm, male scent of him. She stood still, paralyzed, hypnotized by his blue, blue eyes. Liquid warmth pooled inside her, low in her belly, and she longed for him to touch her hair again, longed to move forward that scant distance between them and press her body against his.
The light from the television brightened, then dimmed, the sound of the newscast a distant, wordless hum.
Fuzzy-minded, soft-bodied, her eyes went to Jack’s mouth, the allure of it so tempting. She felt her own eyes start to fall shut and she swayed a bit closer, her lips parting.
Extreme Close Up Chapter 11