But then he’d let her down. All over a lie, that turned into a rumor, which spread like wildfire… and he’d done nothing to stomp it out, until it was too late, because the smallest part of him had believed it could be true. That, in truth, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
He’d been the worst sort of snob, the worst sort of hypocrite, to believe some guy’s lie. It didn’t matter that he had apologized. Summer had never forgiven him, and would always make him pay. Until he thought they’d finally broken through all that. Until he thought they’d finally be together. He had wanted to be the father of the child that wasn’t his. He had wanted to be Summer’s husband, her lover, and best friend. He thought she had wanted the same.
Then she’d shoved him away again. For no reason at all.
He almost slammed on the brakes, but somehow, he kept going, staring at her retreating form in the rearview mirror.
It was a damn good thing traffic was light.
Her hips swayed in barely there cutoffs, tan legs as long as anything. The blood is his veins thrummed. Involuntarily, his grip on Elise’s hand tightened.
Elise. Elise. The woman who sat so innocently beside him, singing and enjoying his company, while he salivated over another woman’s legs and hips. She deserved better than this, better than him, with his messed-up, tightly twisted history of dropping everything to help the girl who used to own his heart.
Now he knew what was wrong with him—Summer Holland.
And knowing was power. He would use that knowledge and get over her by taking this final step with Elise. Never mind that he was ditching his own long-held beliefs to prove a point. Never mind that he wouldn’t be thinking of Elise at all when he kissed her again.
He wanted to bang his head against the steering wheel to clear it, but instead he drove on, silently urging the already light traffic to become nonexistent. After another ten minutes of driving, he pulled into her driveway instead of his.
“Change of plans?” she asked, slipping her hand from his as he parked the truck.
“She’s very beautiful, just like everyone says.”
“Excuse me?” he managed to ask, turning to Elise.
He searched Elise’s face. There was no judgment in her expression, just a sort of gentle understanding, which only served to make him feel even worse.
“She’s not why I changed my mind.”
“But she is a part of it.”
Running his hand through his hair, he groaned. “Yes, no… Honestly, she’s all in my head right now, because the only time she comes around is when she needs something.”
“And you always rescue her.”
“Guess you’ve been warned about that, huh?”
“I wouldn’t call it a warning, more like a be prepared type of thing.” Elise gave him a small smile. “Zoe Romanov told me that if I wanted to be with you, then I needed to accept your need to help others, especially one person in particular.”
Shame and guilt washed over him. She’d known, the entire time he tried to spare her feelings by kissing her. God only knew what she thought about him making the first move.
“How long ago did Zoe tell you this?”
“When things started getting serious, or at least, I assumed we were serious.” A large frown invaded her small smile and won. “I assumed too much apparently.”
He wanted to groan again. Their date had gone from good to bad to really ugly in a matter in minutes. “You didn’t assume anything. We’re a couple.”
“But will you think of me when Summer needs your help, or when she asks you to drop everything for her?”
Technically, Summer never had to ask him. He simply gave and she always took, but splitting hairs didn’t seem to be the best course to take. “I give you my word that you will always come first, and if you ever don’t, then call me out on it and give me the opportunity to rectify it.”
He meant it, every single word. Elise was good for him. She’d be good for any man, with her intelligence, looks, and disposition. Who wouldn’t want her in their life?
The leather seat creaked a little as she moved closer to him. “You get one chance, Gabriel. That might sound a little harsh, but from what I know and what I’ve been told—one is probably too many.” With that, she kissed him on the cheek, got out of the truck, and went inside her house.
Summer Holland had sworn she’d never step foot in Holland Springs again, but here she was, standing in the front yard of the house she’d grown up in. A house that not even three years ago, she’d burned to the ground, in the hopes of saving her sister.
Strawberry Grove looked mostly the same, only the rebuilt mansion no longer sagged in the front, shutters were firmly nailed beside windows, and the paint wasn’t peeling. The aura of decay was completely gone. It looked bright, cheery, and…homey.
Most likely, this was how Strawberry Grove had looked when it was first built, before the Civil War, by her great-great-great-great grandmother’s lover. Or if the family lore were to be believed, by a man who had actually convinced Poppy Holland to marry him while abandoning his own last name.
Actually, that would be two men in the history of all the notorious Holland women. Well, three if she counted her sister’s husband—the same man Summer’s daughter called Daddy.
The sound of tires crunching over gravel made her turn around just in time to see a hot-pink truck come to a stop. A tall blonde with a winning smile got out, waving at Summer like she was happy to see her.
It struck Summer as odd, painful, and sweet all at once. Growing up, no one outside of her family in Holland Springs had ever been happy to see her.
Except for one, a voice in her head reminded her.
“Hey you! It’s me, Jemma Leigh. Rose said you’d be by today,” Jemma Leigh called out as she teetered on high heels. She carefully made her way to Summer, with a stack of papers clutched tight in one hand. “I have a key for you, though Rose said you wouldn’t need it.”
Rose was correct. A locked door had never kept Summer out of any building. “How thoughtful.”
Jemma Leigh stopped short, searching Summer’s face. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No,” Summer lied, tossing her hair over one shoulder. Jemma Leigh had always been kind to her, even in school. Once Jemma Leigh had given Summer her own lunch when Summer had forgotten hers, and had no money to purchase one. Another time, she’d complimented Summer on a dress she’d worn to school, for the first day of ninth grade. It had been one of her mother’s and ill fitting.