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She shook her head in answer, sending the scent of flowers washing over him. It wasn’t her usual scent, but he liked it. Hell, he loved it.

Wrapping an arm around her, he whispered, “You look beautiful.”

She glanced up at him, giving an up-close and personal view of her flawless skin. There was a tiny mole, right by her left eye. The beauty mark hadn’t been there when they were younger, and every other time they’d been this close, it was to push the other away.

Well, with the exception of today, but he could give himself a pass for not noticing when he’d been consumed with kissing her. He hadn’t had a thought in his head about anything else but the way she tasted, which was how it should be.

“One more, you two. These are so good!” Jemma Leigh squealed.

Except now, when he wasn’t kissing her, and he was posing for a picture, all he could think about was kissing her again.

“Thank you. You look handsome.” Then she looked at the camera again. Her hair fell forward, obscuring her face, so he couldn’t see if she was smiling as Jemma Leigh took just one more picture.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Yes.” Answering in monosyllables had never been Summer’s style. Usually, she had an accompanying skewering remark. Usually, they wouldn’t be going out on a date.

“I made reservations at Bluebelle. Hope you still like seafood.” He’d decided against taking her to Poor Boy’s tonight, for an after-dinner activity. Besides, he was getting a little old for that honky-tonk bar, and the crowd was getting younger every year.

Jemma Leigh beamed. “Taking my bestie to Palm Island. I approve.”

Summer and Jemma Leigh were best friends? That was…unexpected.

Placing a hand over her heart, Jemma Leigh sighed. “Bluebelle is so romantic. Lots of surprise engagements are on the menu there, or so I heard.”

Summer stiffened beside him. He wasn’t sure why. It had been her idea to get married in the first place. Did she think no one would notice when they got married, or when she sued for custody of Ivy?

Whatever she thought, he’d be there for her, in whatever way he could. In the meantime, he would unequivocally convince her that in order to have a family, she didn’t have to destroy the one she helped create. That she was worthy of love, of a family, and of everything she thought she wasn’t.

He pressed his hand against the small of her back and blinked, slightly startled by how warm and delicate she felt under his palm.

“Have her back at a decent hour, Mr. Edwards,” Jemma Leigh admonished. “A lady is never kept out later than midnight.”

He laughed softly. “Don’t worry.”

“Yeah, I’m not a lady, so Gabriel can keep me out until the c**k crows, but I’m pretty sure the preacher’s son isn’t allowed to be out past the sinning hour.” Summer stepped away from him, and headed to the front door. The bells rang as she went outside.

“Tonight should be fun,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“She doesn’t mean it, you know,” Jemma Leigh said, staring out the window. “It’s just battle armor.”

Yeah, he knew it. He’d always known it, but it was hard for him to keep his temper and be patient with her. “Don’t you think it’s time for her to be at peace?”

Jemma Leigh shrugged. “Sometimes, when you’ve been battling for so long, it’s hard to know when to lay your weapons down and surrender to love.”

Chapter Twelve

Summer rode in silence as Gabriel drove them over the bridge to Palm Island.

The bridge only had one lane, and constantly had traffic backed up, as cars filled with vacationers lined up on opposite sides, waiting for their turn to go. Luck had been with them, and just as they approached, the light turned green.

Summer glanced at Gabriel, then back at the scenery. Possibly, it had been divine intervention.

Palms trees and small sand dunes, with vibrant orange wildflowers growing on them, flanked the road, while houses built on stilts rose above it all. Every now and then, she got a glimpse of the ocean or the Pamlico Sound.

“Have you ever been here before?” Gabriel asked. “I couldn’t remember.”

This was his second attempt to try to get her to engage in conversation. The first time had been on the outskirts of Holland Springs. He’d pointed out new shops and subdivisions that hadn’t been there three years ago, but after she’d only crossed her arms in response, he’d shot her an amused look and turned up the volume on the radio.

For a minute, she considered remaining on the defensive with him, but why should she? He’d agreed to help her, even if it meant a marriage not in name only. Even if it meant that he’d promised to meet and fulfill every want, need, fantasy, and desire a wild child like her could have. Too bad she’d never let him know that just by kissing her, like he had in Carolina Dreams, that he’d already met more than half of them.

Yeah, too bad, but for whom… him, or was it her?

“Once or twice when I was younger. Azalea needed something from one of her friends.” By friends, Summer meant lovers. Her mother had been having an affair with a married man from two towns over, and since Skye had been sick at the time, all of them had been forced to come along. Forced to watch as their mother flirted and preened in front of a man twice her age, while she ignored the three girls that had nothing to do, but wait and stay glued to one another.

But he hadn’t ignored them.

That man had watched them, with a hunger in his eyes that had made Summer’s skin crawl. Thankfully, Azalea had noticed as well, and after hurrying them out of the beach house, with the real excuse of Skye being sick and possibly contagious, she had promised never to take them around him again.

It was the first and only promise she had ever kept.

“We have a lot of catching up to do,” he said, and the thought of him knowing all of her secrets—true or not, scared her so badly that she automatically looked for an exit. “We have a lot of misconceptions about each other, and I’d like to finally clear them up.”

“Or everything about me is entirely true, and there’s nothing to clear up, because what you see is exactly what you get.”

Gabriel pulled the truck into the blacktop parking lot, next to a one-story house that had the look of a seaside cottage. After finding a spot, he put the truck in park and cut the engine. At first, she thought he would ignore her again, but he did the unexpected.

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