Gabrielle Jaeger, Nursing Unit Manager of All Saints Western General's Emergency Ward, drifted listlessly around the house. She had been disturbed to find out that her ex-boyfriend Steve Taylor had been just about to propose before they had broken up for the first time – before he had cheated on her in a drunken stupor with her best friend. Her best friend! Even though Gabrielle had managed to forgive him enough to reconcile with him briefly, the pain of it had never quite gone away. She and Steve had settled into an unease friendship since breaking up for a second time, and often she found herself wondering what could have been.
And then today she had found out that he had been planning on proposing before she had found out about his affair with Ashley. She didn't know what to make of that. If she had known it before she had found out, she would have said yes in a heartbeat. Now, she didn't know what to think. Deep down, she knew she didn't really trust him, and what kind of marriage could there be without trust? But at the same time, she and Steve had once had something very special and she couldn't help but wonder what could have been.
"Alright, what's up with you?" her friend, colleague and house-mate Jack Quade asked her irritably after she had wandered aimlessly around the house one too many times for his liking. She was bugging him something chronic. Something was clearly on her mind, and he was trying to respect her privacy and not pry, but she was making it hard when she was wandering around looking like her dog had died. He was very fond of Gabrielle and didn't like seeing him upset. Besides, he had a feeling it had something to do with Steve Taylor. He would never understand what she saw in him. Actually, if his step-mother was anything to go by, he understood exactly what she saw in him – he would just never understand why an otherwise intelligent, attractive woman would be so hung up on such a jerk.
"Nothing," Gabrielle said shortly. The two men didn't get along at the best of times, and Gabrielle didn't want to give Jack any more ammunition by telling him that Steve had once cheated on her. It wasn't like Jack was such a golden boy when it came to women, anyway; he had gone off the rails late last years and slept around indiscriminately, including one of her nurses, Rachel, who he had humiliated the next day by not speaking to her and caused her to quit. It had taken Gabrielle a long time to learn to trust Jack again – actually, sometimes she was surprised that she did trust him so much – but she was still unwilling to give him that kind of ammunition. Besides, it made her sad to think about the past and what could have been.
Jack looked at her disbelievingly. "You're such a poor liar, farmgirl," he said. 'Farmgirl' was his name for her that, as far as she could tell, he used when referring to something about her that he found charmingly quaint. Like being a poor liar. She supposed she should be complimented, but she wasn't in the mood for his insights right now. "You can fess up now or I can get you drunk and you can fess up then," he said. Gabrielle glowered at him; she didn't find talking about getting drunk to be all that amusing, although of course Jack wasn't to know the extent of Steve's drinking problem. "C'mon, you've been moping all day. You'll feel better if you talk about it. God knows, you can't feel any worse."
"I overheard what he said before, about not going through with a proposal," she blurted out.
Jack had the decency to look abashed, although in all fairness, he wasn't the one who had said it – Steve had. "Ah, sorry," he said. "I didn't know whether to tell you or not," he admitted.
"Wait – you knew he was talking about me?" Gabrielle asked.
"He's said a few things that made me think you guys go way back," Jack admitted. Actually, he had gotten the impression that Steve had said them to make a point that Gabrielle was 'his' turf – or at least more his than Jack's. It was just one more reason for him to not like Steve, in Jack's opinion. He had recognised Steve for exactly what he was – an alcoholic womaniser not unlike Jack's own father. He had thought about telling Gabrielle that Steve had been going around talking about their history, but had decided it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. "I just assumed that he was talking about you."
"Really? What did he say?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously. Steve and Jack didn't like each other; there was only one reason Gabrielle could think of that would make Steve talk to Jack about something as private as their romantic history, and that was that he was jealous. "He wanted you to stay away from me!" she said indignantly. Bloody hell, she was so sick of Steve's attitude towards Jack. He had no right to be jealous or insecure because he had well and truly forfeited any claim he had to her. And it didn't help that there were moments when she was with Jack and they had a terrific camaraderie and she couldn't deny that he was a very attractive man. Certainly she had a better camaraderie with Jack than Steve, and he wasn't so much older than her either; it had to be natural that sometimes her thoughts wandered... but that was dangerous turf, given Jack's reputation, and she found it best to focus her thoughts on being angry at Steve. "The cheek of that man! He – does not – get to cheat on me and walk out on me and then have the nerve to warn other guys off me!" Jack sat there in casual silence, waiting for her to calm down. "Wait – you already knew?" she asked.
"I figured it was something like that. He reminds me of my dad. He's an alcoholic who'll make a move on anything in a skirt – including Charlotte."
Gabrielle's eyes went wide. "You're kidding me."
"Stupid woman's own fault. I told her she didn't want to meet him, I told her not to let go of my hand, let alone get out of my sight, and she didn't listen."
"I didn't mean that, but – really?" she asked, interest piqued. Jack nodded. "Wow, I had no idea. Is that – is that why you don't get along with him?"
Jack shrugged. "That's a large part of it," he admitted. "I wasn't in a very good frame of mind when we first met and we got off on the wrong foot. But yeah, he reminds me of my dad. He didn't give a shit about anyone but himself. If you want to play around, then play around, but you shouldn't commit to someone and still think it's OK to hit on anything in a skirt."
She couldn't help but smirk at that. "Famous last words, coming from you," she teased.
"I've never cheated in my life," Jack said. "Least not if you don't count Charlotte. I've seen what it does to people. My step-mother wasn't a very nice woman, but she didn't deserve what dad put her through. I never want to put someone through that. And you're a way nicer person then Stella. So no, I don't particularly like Steve."
"Sorry, I didn't know."
"It's not something I advertise. But I mean it, Gabs. You deserve better than him and there's no point in moping and wondering what could have been. He's a jerk and you can do way better."
She laughed at that. "Not in Widgee I can't," she said. "You don't get it, Jack. You're this great-looking guy who's really intelligent from the biggest city in the country. You could have your pick of women. I'm not exactly model material. No-one's ever wanted me other than Steve."
"Why do you do that to yourself?" he asked. She looked confused as if he was asking her why she breathed. "Put yourself down like that? It's the least attractive thing you could possibly do. I love hanging out with you. You're smart and you make me laugh, which is way better than looking like a model."
"Yeah?" she asked irritably, because while she appreciated that Jack was trying to cheer her up, she didn't appreciate his condescension. He was right, she was smart; smart enough to know that he was full of crap in trying to convince her that smart and funny was way better than looking like a model. "Then how come while you were seducing my staff you didn't look at me twice?"
Jack stared at her. "You're shitting me, right?" he asked incredulously. "I looked at you twice plenty of times. I just made sure you didn't notice. Don't you remember when you first started at the ED, what you said to me?" She shook her head; she had said a lot of things to a lot of people while trying to assert herself as a strong, capable leader despite her youth. "You told me you had heard all about me and if I so much as lay a finger on you, you'd have me up on sexual assault charges so fast I'd get whiplash. Surely you remember? I bitched about it for weeks. Got no sympathy, too."
"With your reputation?" she asked shortly. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
He poked his tongue out at her playfully. "But I looked at you plenty of times," he reassured her. "In fact..." he reached out to her and slid his hand across her cheek in a gentle, lover-like motion. He chewed on his bottom lip, trying to read what she wanted from him. "You're strong and smart and that gives you this – glow," he said awkwardly. "I'm sorry, I'm not expressing myself very well."
She felt her heart flip at the awkwardly-worded but clearly sincere compliment. "You're expressing yourself fine," she said. Whatever passing thoughts she'd had about Jack, she had never seriously thought that he might reciprocate them – might find her attractive, might have feelings for her. "Jack – " she said tentatively, willing him to kiss her.
He saw the look in her eyes and it was unmistakable – and yet strangely knew for him. He had been with plenty of women, kissed even more, but few of them because they had wanted him for himself and not just a pretty face with excellent prospects. He kissed her as gently as he could manage, given that he was as nervous and excited as he had been when he was sixteen.
She tasted like strawberry lip balm and it was a taste he would forever associate with her. "Gabrielle," he whispered, pulling away from her briefly to say her name. "Gabrielle."
She responded by digging her fingers into the back of his neck with surprising strength and kissing him back with surprising force – and he liked it. He pushed her down onto the couch so he was on top of her. "Beautiful," he whispered, following a penchant for repeating himself. "Beautiful." He kissed her until he could feel her pulling away and gasping for air and he realised she didn't know how to breathe properly and kiss at the same time. "Man, I have so much to teach you," he teased gently.
"Steve wasn't – " she began to say crossly.
"Yeah, I'm getting the point that Steve wasn't good at a lot of things," Jack said understandably. "But you know what? I am, and I am going to have a hell of a lot of fun teaching you. Now, breathe, or I'll have to kiss you in other places."
"Really?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes glittering at the prospect.
Jack laughed, recognising a woman who had just discovered that sex and kissing and everything that came with it could be fun and not just something to put up with so your boyfriend could get his rocks off. "Saucy minx," he said huskily, and obligingly started kissing her in other places.