By the time Jake had showered and dressed in the western cut tuxedo for the wedding, he felt he finally had all his emotions back under firm control. Once he'd gotten past the initial shock of seeing Gabby again, all grown up now, he'd been able to get a better perspective on the situation and seeing it through his sister's eyes had helped him a lot.
She's changed a lot, Leigh had said. Humph, that was an understatement, at least as far as her physical appearance went! Heat crawled up his neck as he recalled the way he'd hungrily raked his gaze over her womanly curves until he'd realized just who was standing before him on his front step. Good Lord, she'd grown into a fine looking woman! He'd been on the verge of a lowly murmured, sexy one-liner, which he probably would have flubbed terribly considering his lack of experience with such things, when her somewhat familiar features had tumbled together in his brain, like pieces of an old puzzle. When he'd finally recognized her, he'd felt like someone had just thrown a bucket of ice-cold water over his head.
She may have changed physically, he thought grimly, but he seriously doubted that her personality had changed much. She was probably still the bossy, spoiled, bratty little troublemaker he'd disliked from the very beginning. But he supposed he could tolerate her for one day, since it was Leigh's wedding day; at least Gabby's womanly curves and angelic face would make it a little easier to look on her, even if her personality did turn out to be as acerbic as he was sure it would.
Jake grimaced as he straightened his cuff links and glanced at the clock on his bedside table. It was still pretty early, at least another half hour before the girls--women, he corrected himself--would be likely to be ready. With a sigh, he left his room and went into the living room, thinking to channel surf until they were ready to go.
He soon discovered that the little girl who had arrived with Gabby had beaten him to the TV, and was already absorbed in one of his sister's Disney movies. He smiled kindly at her when she looked up at him with wide, fearful eyes, as if she'd been caught doing something she shouldn't have.
"Mind if I join you, kiddo?" he asked lightly, wondering at the haunted look in her young eyes. What had this child been through in her brief life to cause that look?
She studied him in silence for a few moments before finally lifting one bony shoulder and scooting down the sofa a few inches so he could sit down beside her.
"Much obliged," he said as he took the offered seat, stretching his long legs out before him.
She was studying him now with some curiosity in her gaze, her eyes mostly focused on his tuxedo.
Finally, after a long while as if working up courage, she softly inquired, "Is that a penguin suit?"
The laugh escaped Jake before he could stop it and her eyes widened at the sudden burst of sound. He chuckled again at her look of surprise and gently patted her knee.
"Yes, it is, sweetheart," he answered around another laugh. "At least that's what I've always called the darn things."
She smiled shyly at him then.
Jake couldn't resist tussling her unruly, reddish-brown curls, completely unaware that he was undoing the arrangement Gabby had only just recently completed.
"I'm Jake," he said with genuine friendliness, thrusting out his hand to her. "What's your name?"
"C-Carrie," she stammered.
"Well, Carrie, it's sure nice to meet you. Will you save me a dance at the reception?"
Her small hand lingered in his big one, engulfed by it. "Okay," she agreed shyly.
"Thanks!" He winked at her, then turned his attention to the television, noticing how shy she seemed to be getting as he continued to show her more attention. She sure was a cute little thing, he thought, wondering what circumstances had led Gabby to wind up a single mother when she was supposed to have grown up to marry a wealthy husband so she could lazily hobnob in society for the rest of her days.
Maybe there was some merit after all to his sister's claim that Gabby had changed...