‘Did I?’ she said, thinking did this man miss nothing? She adopted a sweetly insincere smile and hid behind the truth. ‘Oh, yes, you’ve guessed it. You spoiled me for any other man, Alex.’
Responding to her mockery with a curt, unsmiling, ‘Except for the father of your child,’ he extended a hand to her.
Staring at the hand, not the man she nodded. ‘Oh, yes, there is him.’ And there was Jasmine.
And Jasmine’s father.
Oh, God! She knew the delay with coming clean was not making things better, quite the opposite, in fact. With a sigh she dropped her head into her hands and began to scrub her eyes with the heels of her palms. She felt a surge of despairing disgust as she asked herself where was the woman who never avoided an awkward issue but met it head on?
As she tilted her head to look at him her hair fell back, revealing the beginning of a bruise on her temple. Staring at the discoloration, Alex felt his stomach muscles lurch and tighten with an emotion as strong as his previous anger and totally inexplicable.... Only a madman would feel protective towards this provocative witch with her smart mouth and her combative attitude.
He was not a madman. It was her sanity that was the issue here; her insane behaviour was what he was here to challenge, although the conversation had drifted somewhat. Time to refocus, Alex, he thought.
‘That was a crazy thing you did.’ Also brave; the private concession was made reluctantly. It was hard not to admire this woman’s fearlessness—at least from a distance. For those close to her it must make life hell, he thought grimly. ‘You could have killed yourself....’
He closed his eyes, seeing the scene again and experiencing the same awful sense of helplessness. The memory remained like an icy fist in his chest as he glared at her and spelt out the fact she seemed incapable of grasping. ‘You could be dead.’
‘I can’t die. I have Jasmine,’ she asserted confidently. It was a simple fact. Jasmine would have been without a mother and that couldn’t happen.... It nearly had!
Like a tower of cards her confidence slipped away. Oh, God, he was right. She was a mother—she couldn’t go around leaping in without thinking.
‘I’m a terrible mother!’
Hearing the anguished wail and seeing the tears rolling silently down her cheeks cut through the righteous anger that gripped him like a hot blade through butter. He was unable and unwilling to identify the emotion that tightened in his chest as tenderness, but he dropped back down beside her. His time when he touched her she did not pull away as though he were poison. Instead she leaned into him, melted into him softly, shaking her head on his chest.
One moment he was fighting the urge to throttle her, the next he was fighting an equally primal desire to comfort her. His emotions did one of those three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shifts that seemed to happen around her.
‘You have lived to tell the tale. There is no point in what ifs. So how old is she, your daughter... Jasmine?’ He spoke not out of genuine interest but a need to distract her. At the same time he ran a soothing hand over her wet hair, lifting it off her neck; the texture of her warm, damp skin beneath fascinated him.
‘She’s started school. Well, she had.’
‘She was off a term as she wasn’t well, but she’s having some home tutoring and she’ll soon catch up. She’s smart.’
The audible pride in her muffled response caused his hand to still, though the dark strands of her wet hair remained coiled around his fingers. It was difficult for him to see her as a mother but, he thought to himself, You don’t have the exclusive on family feeling, Alex.
‘She’s better now?’ he asked, giving her time to regain control.
Angel nodded into his chest. ‘I took some time off but this opportunity was too good—’ He felt her stiffen before she pulled away from him. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she regarded him with a defiance that was echoed in her addition. ‘I suppose you don’t think mothers should work?’
She clearly expected his judgement. And why not, Alex? You’ve done little else but judge so far.
Quick to judge and slow to forgive. The words of his mother, a sad observation that he had lived to understand the meaning of but that had meant little to him when she’d spoken them soon after his half-sister had appeared like a disruptive whirlwind in their lives.
‘I know nothing of the pressures of being a mother...or a parent.’ His brow creased as he admitted, ‘I still struggle to think of you as one.’