Wanted: One Mummy
Cathy Gillen Thacker

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Caroline rocked back on her heels and angled her chin at him. “That’s typical for golden retrievers her age, isn’t it? Most don’t mature until they are three years old.”

Glad to find Caroline so knowledgeable, Jack nodded. “The vet says that we’ve got another year to go before Bounder gets her natural inquisitiveness under control. Although she is pretty well behaved most of the time now.”

“See?” Caroline lifted her hands, palms up. “Life is looking up.”

Jack’s natural wariness kicked in. “Is it? Maddie still wants a mommy. Now.”

Caroline studied him beneath the fringe of her lashes. “And what do you want?” she asked softly.

Jack shrugged. That was easy. “The kind of close and loving marriage my parents had, and the ability to work as a team, no matter how difficult life gets.”

SO JACK WAS A ROMANTIC at heart, after all, Caroline thought. He just wouldn’t acknowledge it. Which made her wonder … “I guess you didn’t have that kind of closeness with your ex-wife.”

Jack gestured. “We were a great team, while we were together. The problem was …” Jack hesitated.

For a moment Caroline thought he wasn’t going to finish.

“As much as she tried, in the end Vanessa couldn’t love me as much as she thought she should.”

His voice was calm, matter-of-fact, but Caroline sensed a wealth of pain behind those words. She reached out to touch his hand. “I’m sorry,” she said, just as quietly, looking deep into his eyes. “I know what it is to be betrayed by someone close to you. It’s incredibly demoralizing.” It left you reluctant to try love again.

Jack leaned against her BMW. He searched her face. “What happened to you?”

Deciding it might be cathartic to talk about this with Jack, Caroline took the perch next to him. “I was working for an exclusive hotel as an event planner. I was up for a big promotion and I really wanted it.” She closed her eyes briefly, remembering that awful time in her life, then turned to look at Jack. “My fiancé concluded I wouldn’t have enough time for us if I got it, so he went behind my back and had drinks with my boss and told him that we were planning to start a family shortly after we married, and were even thinking of pushing up our wedding date. Needless to say,” Caroline concluded, bitterness welling up inside her, “that man-to-man talk cost me the increase in pay and responsibility. When I found out why I lost out on the professional advancement, I confronted my fiancé.”

Jack’s lips compressed. He looked as discontented as she felt. “Was your ex apologetic?”

Caroline blew out a gusty breath, shook her head. She traced the paisley pattern on her cotton skirt. “On the contrary. Roark didn’t see it as a betrayal. He felt justified in his actions, said he was only thinking of us, and our happiness.” Caroline threw up her hands in disgust. “That was it for me. I broke off our engagement and asked Roark to move out of the apartment. I quit my job and started my own wedding planning business. So in the end—” she finished with a shrug “—it turned out to be a good thing.”

Aware she had just given Jack quite a chunk of her life story while she still knew very little about him, she asked in turn, “What about you?” What happened to break your heart?

“I fell in love with a beautiful woman who seemed ideal for me in every way. We married and bought a home and had Maddie, and just when everything should have been perfect, Vanessa told me that although she hadn’t actually done anything about it, she had never gotten over Cody, her first husband.”

Caroline could barely fathom such disloyalty. The hands in her lap stilled. “You must have been devastated.”

Jack’s mouth took on a rueful curve. He turned his glance to the stars shimmering overhead. “Among other things,” he said quietly.

Caroline resisted the romance of the spring evening. “And you never had a clue Vanessa was on the rebound?”

Jack shook his head, his gaze trained on some distant point. “I thought Cody’s lack of drive and ambition had killed their marriage, that she was tired of living hand to mouth, of always wondering if they would have enough money to pay the rent.”

“Whereas you …” Caroline guessed.

“Worked all the time, at that point, and was rarely if ever off the job. But—” Jack drew in a deep breath, exhaled “—Vanessa was okay with that. In fact—” Jack gestured inanely “—she did everything she could to support and encourage me in that regard.”

Except love him, Caroline thought, her heart breaking for Jack. He deserved so much better. They all did. Unable to help herself, she reached over and covered his hand with her own. “Did you love her?”

Jack turned his palm, so their fingers were intertwined. He admitted circumspectly, “I loved who I thought she was … my dream woman.”

Aware her heart was racing, Caroline removed her hand from his, sat back, still struggling to understand. “But she wasn’t.”

“Neither Cody nor Vanessa could meet each other’s needs that first time around. As a result, their marriage failed. Wanting a different result in her second marriage, Vanessa was determined to meet all of my needs, even if she had to do so disingenuously. And it worked. I was deliriously happy. She was the one who was miserable. She had everything she had ever wanted, financially, but her whole life felt like a lie. She thought having a baby might change that, give her life more meaning, but it didn’t.”

“So Vanessa asked you for a divorce.”

“Yes. Shortly after we separated, Vanessa got back together with Cody. This time they were wise enough to be able to make it work. The one thing that stood in their way was the baby she’d had with me. Cody didn’t like the reminder she’d been with another man. Nor did she. So, for all our sakes, she gave me full custody of Maddie.”

It sounded reasonable. And unbearably cruel, Caroline thought, splaying a hand over her chest. “And Vanessa’s never seen Maddie since?”

“No. Although, for the record, I’ve encouraged Vanessa to come and visit or stay in touch in some fashion because I think some contact would be better for Maddie than complete abandonment, but Vanessa thinks otherwise. She and Cody have gone on to have two children of their own, and Vanessa doesn’t want to mix her two families.”

“But you still expect Maddie and Vanessa to meet one day.”

Jack nodded. “I think curiosity will demand it at some point, which is why I continue to lay it out as an option. Although it won’t be until Maddie is old enough to understand and handle it.”

“I’m sorry,” Caroline said finally, her heart going out to him. “You and Maddie deserve so much better.”

“So do you,” Jack retorted.

Caroline rose gracefully to her feet, turned to face Jack, who was still leaning on her BMW. “I guess that’s just life, though. Everyone has bad things happen to them. It doesn’t mean we have to give up on our dreams. So if you’re interested in getting back out there on the dating scene …”

He held up a palm. “Uh, no.”

“Don’t trust you’ll get it right this time?”

“Do you?” Jack countered, standing, too.

Caroline wasn’t used to being put on the defensive by clients. Usually, all people who were getting married wanted to do was talk about themselves, their families, the celebration itself and their hopes for their future, which was fine by her. It meant she didn’t have to concentrate on herself, either. “I don’t really think about it much,” Caroline confessed. Not since she had concluded she had lost out on what could very well be her one chance to have the love of her life. Why? Because ultimately she and Roark hadn’t been compatible. And shared values were a key ingredient to any successful relationship.

“Which means you’re not actively looking for romance, either,” Jack teased with an audacious grin.

Caroline ignored the sudden jump in her pulse, and the fact it would be all too easy to fall in bed with Jack. “Or sex,” Caroline pointed out with an arch look that reminded him of the inappropriateness of their earlier embrace.

“Which is a shame,” Jack continued with a lusty look meant to provoke. “Since you’re an awfully good kisser.”

Wishing she had met Jack some other time, some other way, Caroline bantered back with utter practicality. “So are you. It doesn’t mean we should take that to mean anything other than what it does.”

He stepped closer. “Which is what exactly?”

His nearness sent another thrill soaring through her. “Pure and simple? We have chemistry. But again, that doesn’t mean we should indulge in it.”

Jack lifted a skeptical brow.

With a sigh, Caroline continued explaining. “I love extra-dark chocolate.”

“Good to know,” Jack replied, smiling.

“If I ate it as much as I’d like to eat it, I’d weigh a ton.”
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