Oh God. She’d gone too far. “I am not,” she whispered.
He nodded. “Yes, you are. It’s eating you alive to know that I’m with Elise, that I haven’t been by Carolina Dreams to see you, and that you were the one to come to me, and not the other way around.”
Summer couldn’t deny the truth, but she also didn’t have to acknowledge it. Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.
Gabriel watched as the roses that had bloomed on her cheeks withered away, leaving nothing but too-pale skin. Maybe he should give her a break, but it had been a slight balm to his damaged ego to know she was jealous. Okay, so, it had been more than a slight balm. It had been a heady rush all the way to his toes and back.
Summer was jealous. Of him.
But hearing her deny it in a voice he hadn’t heard in years…well, it had skewered him straight through the heart. She’d looked…heartbroken. The sun had chosen to hide behind the clouds at that very moment, shadows washing over her beautiful face and lending credence to his theory.
And wasn’t he a big man for getting one last dig in at her?
Summer glared at him, arms crossing. This woman he recognized. The familiar Summer had returned. Nose tilting, face defiant, and attitude at the ready to make everyone uncomfortable. A thousand ugly memories invaded his mind. Daring him, it seemed, to prove her right. That he was the hypocritical, holier than thou, son of a preacher she regularly accused him of being.
Not that she was far off.
Despite apologizing to her, despite helping her whenever she needed it, she hadn’t let up on him. “I wish you and Elise nothing but the best.” Her voice was sharp, breaking into his memories.
“That’s very kind of you.”
Silence reigned as her pretty brown eyes narrowed. “Why was Elise holding the bouquet when I showed up?”
“We stood in for the bride and groom, during the rehearsal.”
“Oh.” She scrunched her nose. “Why?”
“It’s bad luck, remember?” he added. This wasn’t so bad. Maybe they could have a civil conversation.
She fisted a hand on her hip and said, “Isn’t it a sin to believe in luck?”
Not this again. It always came back to this. Her perception of him, his life, his work, and his family. He couldn’t please Summer, not when he’d fallen short of being there for her when it had counted the most. Since then, he tried his damndest to catch her whenever she fell. But as soon as she felt his arms around her, she shoved him away. Or took his money and his truck.
But could he really accuse her of taking something he freely gave?
It didn’t matter, not this time. This time he would remember. This time he wouldn’t let his need to be her knight in shining armor get in the way of his happiness. He could be happy with Elise. She was… He mentally floundered as his brain searched for adjectives to describe a woman like Elise, but all he could come up with was the opposite of Summer.
“Why are you here?” he asked. “Money or a place to stay?” Better to get this out of the way, so he could help her and then she could do what she needed to, and leave. Just like always.
Panic flared in her eyes, and then… hurt? She blinked, and it was gone. “Why does it matter, unless you want me in your bed? I think I could lower my fee for you, for old time’s sake and all.”
And so it began. The verbal sparring that did nothing for him or for her. It only served to widen the gap between them, and no matter what he said, the more time they spent together, the worse it became.
“What are your plans?” he asked, gentling his tone.
“Oh, the usual—seduce every available man in Holland Springs.” That cute nose of hers, one that he used to kiss at every opportunity, tilted up in the air. A big clue she was full of it, or embarrassed. Possibly, she was both.
“When you’re ready to have an adult conversation, I’m here, but until then, be nice to Elise and everyone else.”
“Don’t worry, Elise already warned me away from you,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Like I could convince you to take a walk on the dark side.”
“What do you mean she warned you?” Elise hadn’t said anything about meeting Summer.
“It was nothing, really.” Summer shrugged. “I don’t remember most of the conversation, just the gist of it.”
“Yet here you are,” he murmured.
“I plan to stay here for a really long time. You can’t make me leave this time.”
He’d never wanted her to leave, not matter what she thought, but if he denied it, then they would start yelling at each other, and this night wasn’t about them. It was about Carlos and Shelia, two great friends who deserved a night without drama.
“Have fun tonight.” He turned to walk away, but she stopped him with the lightest of pressure on his arm.
“Want your truck back?” Keys jingled near his ear. “The shocks are shot to hell from all the off-road riding I’ve been doing. But you can fix that. You were always good with your hands, angel.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and pointer finger, he closed his eyes and counted to fifty. It didn’t help. He opened his eyes, then looked down at the hand on his elbow, at the simple silver ring on her pointer finger, and fought to stay calm.
Finally, he managed to say, “Keep it.” Then he gently pulled away, careful not to embarrass her, and walked away.
It didn’t occur to him until he’d sat down beside Elise, that it was the second time in his entire life he’d had the strength to walk away from Summer.
And it cut as deeply as the first.
Gabriel stared at the silver truck sitting in the parking lot. It sat off to the side, under the yard light.
Over the years, he had missed driving it. It had been the first brand new vehicle he’d ever owned, but it wasn’t the vehicle he’d picked Carlos up in. No, his used red truck was parked beside Elise’s sedan. Despite the flashy color, it had nothing on the silver truck. No bells or whistles. Only four-wheel drive, a radio, and working a/c.
He moved closer to the truck, inspecting the body and finding it in nearly perfect condition. Opening the driver’s side, he leaned in to find the interior as pristine as the body and the key stuck halfway in the ignition. Jerking them out, he dropped them in his front pocket and locked the door.
Where was Summer? Concern welled up in his chest, making his collar tight. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt. He had watched her as she disappeared inside the old house, but had lost track of her after that.