He glanced across at Brooke’s family home, still nice in a tired way even though the house had sat empty for a while, and compared the two-story house to the rundown apartments in the poor neighborhoods of Denver where he’d grown up. She’d lived a charmed life while he was attending high school by day and working thirty-hour weeks to put food on the table for his mother and sisters. No wonder she seemed like a spoiled princess to him. Like Tara.

Still, he wasn’t complaining. God had blessed him. His hard work had paid off and his mother no longer had to work two or three jobs. She didn’t have to work at all if she didn’t want to.

“Sounds like you had a great family.” A.J. wheeled past, the motor humming. Gabe swept the boy off the vehicle with one arm. “Come on, little man. Gotta go inside for minute.”

“No, Daddy. I play.”

Gabe ignored the expected protest and opened the back entrance, standing aside for Brooke to enter.

She took hold of the door and let him go first, then followed him through the back door into the giant, modern kitchen. “What about your family? Any brothers or sisters?”

“Two sisters, both younger. They live in Denver.”

“Did you torment them when they were small?”

“What do you think?” he smirked.

Brooke laughed, shooting that dimple at him. “Are all big brothers pests?”

“Pests and protectors. It’s in the male chromosome.”

“Oh, I hear that. Zach would tease Vivienne and me until we screamed but if anyone else bothered us, look out!” She grinned. “What about your mother and father? Are they in Denver, too?”

“Mom is. Dad died when I was fourteen.”

She tilted her head. “My dad died when I was a teenager, too. Thirteen.”

“No kidding?” His empathy meter rose. “Losing a father is tough on a kid.”

“He and my uncle were both killed in the same accident.” She gave a slow shake of her head. “The entire town was in shock for a long time. The hardest part came after the shock wore off.”

“Yes. I remember.” Because of the shared grief, he felt a special connection with her beyond the buzz of attraction and the determination to make her A.J.’s nanny. Maybe she wasn’t a spoiled princess after all. She’d had her share of sorrow, just as he had. “My dad was a good man who worked hard but he never made much money. He used to joke that he was worth more dead than alive.”

“He was so wrong.”

“Oh, yes. He was wrong. In more ways than one.” There had been nothing but a pitifully small Social Security check to take the place of his father. “He was on a construction site when a pipe fell. He pushed a coworker out of the way.”

“A real-life hero, Gabe,” she said sincerely. “You can be proud of that.”

He was now, and more than anything he wanted to make his father proud in return, but back then, not so much. “The irony is, he’d taught a Sunday school lesson on the importance of putting others first, of imitating Christ by being willing to lay down your life for others. Most people considered the teaching a metaphor of sorts, I think, but Dad lived what he believed. Me? I was just a kid who wanted my father back.”

“I know.” She leaned against the granite counter, watching A.J. as they talked. “Do you think A.J. will ever yearn for his mother the way we did our fathers?”

“He was really small when she died, but I’ve wondered about that, too. I don’t want him to feel as if he’s missed out on a mother’s love, but—” his eyes followed the happy, playing toddler “—what can I do?”

“Does he spend time with your mother and sisters?”

“When we can work it out. They’d keep him all the time if they could, but I want him with me. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing by moving to Clayton instead of staying in Denver near them.”

“Why not go back to Denver? Send someone else to open the mine.”

Gabe rubbed the center of his chest with the tips of two fingers. “Something in here. Prayer. God. I can’t explain it, but we’re supposed to be in Clayton.” Before she could laugh or ask if he was crazy, Gabe turned away and took three plates and a platter from the cabinets. “Can you make a salad?”

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