For a moment, she stared at him, then jerked her hand away and swatted him. “I know that! Do you think I don’t know that? Just how flawed do you think my judgment is? Just because I didn’t know what was happening to her back then… It was a long time ago, and I’ve learned buckets about people since then. I know who to trust and who not to. I just never dreamed I couldn’t trust my own—”
Pressing her fist to her mouth, she shoved her chair back, stood and escaped to the kitchen with the dishes.
Sam stared after her. Talking about what Mila’s parents had done to her had been even harder for Jessica than he’d realized. Like Mila had said, he could read, talk and learn. He could imagine himself in a situation and think he knew what it was really like, but truth was, all he could do was imagine. Empathize. But he couldn’t know.
Jessica knew. She’d been struggling deep inside all day with knowing and doing and escaping.
Listening to the pad of Poppy’s feet as she wandered to the kitchen looking for a treat, Sam headed that way, too.
Jessica was slicing something in a square pan. She shoveled a huge piece of it onto a plate and pushed it into his hands. “Fruit cocktail cake,” she said, her voice thick with unshed tears. “It’s the reason God invented fruit cocktail. Whipped cream’s in the refrigerator, vanilla ice cream in the freezer. You’ll have to share with the baby if you have ice cream.”
Ignoring Poppy’s thumping tail at the mention of ice cream, he set the saucer aside, leaned against the counter and studied her. “You never talk about it, do you?”
She scooped out two smaller pieces, then covered the rest with foil. “I prefer to pretend it never happened.”
“Does Mila talk about it?”
“Not with me. We should. And she’s willing. It’s me who’s failed. But she’s seen…talked to… There’s someone…”
Mila came into the room, her bare feet making no sound. “She’s trying to say I’ve seen a psychologist ever since I came to live with her without giving away too much of my right to patient privacy.” She set her cell on the counter, then slid her arm around Jessica’s waist and smiled at her, a sweet and amazingly serene smile given what she’d been through the past few weeks.
The past weeks? Hell, the first eleven years of her life. Sam didn’t think he would ever forget the emptiness in her voice that morning when she’d said, “They found parts of bodies. That was all.”
Her mother and father had died right in front of her, and she’d talked about body parts without a shred of sadness. Dear God, what had they done to make her care so little about their deaths? Did he want to know? Could he handle knowing?
If she needed to tell him, damn right he could handle it. If his knowing made it easier for her to bear, he would listen to every tiny detail. If he could take her burden and she could be free… His heart was strong. He was strong.
But maybe not as strong as she was. She’d been through hell, and she was gentle, kind, loving and compassionate. Awkward with people? Preferred solitude over a social life? When the people who were supposed to love you the most hurt you the worst, who wouldn’t find peace with a garden and a dog and four walls?
Mila hugged Jessica before her small hand pushed Sam out of the way to open the freezer and get the ice cream. He was so lost, because even that brief touch made him want to pull her close and never let go.
“You didn’t fail, Gramma. You saved my life. You gave me a home. You loved me. You found Dr. Fleischer for me. You gave me Poppy. And you make the best fruit cocktail cake in the world. You’re my superhero.”
“Wow.” Sam joined her in trying to lighten the moment. “She sets high standards. If I want to be your hero, too, I’m gonna have to work hard, aren’t I?” He hadn’t saved her life or given her a home, though he had one he could offer. He hadn’t found a psychologist for her or a puppy who needed her exactly as much as she’d needed to be needed, and he couldn’t bake any kind of cake that didn’t come out of a box.
But he loved her. That counted for something, didn’t it?