He blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, you don’t have to tell me your favorite. I already know it—missionary style,” she said with a firm nod. “It’s the only one allowed, right? Guess I’ll have to get used to that.”
“I refuse to be baited by you, not anymore. Need a verbal punching bag—then here I am,” he said flatly. “But not in public. I’m taking you home, where you can make whatever kind of remark you want. However, this changes nothing. We’re going on another date tomorrow, and the next day, until we can have an entire conversation without resorting to our old ways of handling each other.”
Yes, he had to include himself in that last part, because he wasn’t perfect and even if she thought that about him, he knew it wasn’t true, and knew what he was capable of doing. It was only fair to have the same expectations placed upon him as well.
Was that a glimmer of relief in her eyes? Had he calculated correctly for once?
He stood, and held out his hand. For a second, he half-expected her to bite him, but she took his hand, lacing her fingers with his, and allowed him to lead her outside to his truck. Once they were back at Carolina Dreams, he opened the door on her side, and walked her around back to where the truck he’d let her borrow was parked.
“Aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight, angel?” she cooed. “I’m pretty sure I said something ridiculous before we left.”
It hit him then, like a punch to the head. She wasn’t only trying to keep him at arm’s length. “Were you trying to get me to kiss you, sweetheart?”
“Like I have to resort to tricks for that to happen,” she scoffed.
“You didn’t answer.”
She flipped her hair over one shoulder. “Yes, I did, but you didn’t bother to read between the lines.”
He rocked back on his heels, actually enjoying this bit of sparring. “Why don’t you help me out? Sometimes men need a little direction.”
She snorted, actually snorted, and he wanted to kiss her for that, because it made her seem so real and touchable. And his. “I swear, Gabriel, it’s like you’re begging me to say something so you’ll have an excuse to kiss me.”
“What can I say? I love kissing you.”
He waited for her final blow, for her to make a reference to all the men she’d enjoyed kissing, but her gaze skittered away.
“I love kissing you, too,” she murmured.
He kissed her cheek softly. “Thank you.”
“I wasn’t being ridiculous.”
He stroked her satiny skin, right along her jawline. “I know.”
“Oh.” She pressed her lips together, and then dug her keys out of her purse. “I need to go home. Blackbeard needs his beauty sleep.” As if on cue, Blackbeard appeared out of nowhere, rubbing against Gabriel’s legs.
“Do you think he’ll visit us, once you move in with me?” he asked, and panic flared in her eyes.
She shrugged, glancing away from him. “It’s up to him. He does what he wants.”
“Want me to follow you home, to make sure you make it all right?”
“At least let me wait for you to start up the truck and be on your way,” he said. He lived in the opposite direction of Summer, and since he wasn’t a stalker, he needed to make sure she was safe in town.
“Suit yourself.” Pulling out the keys, she unlocked the door and climbed inside. Blackbeard jumped in behind her, and she shut the door.
He waited until she buckled on her seatbelt, locked the door, and adjusted her mirror. Then he waited even longer while she started up the truck’s engine and fiddled with the radio.
“She’s making me wait on purpose,” he said with a shake of his head, but he didn’t get angry. Instead, he patiently waited with a small smile on his face while she came to the conclusion that he really wasn’t going anywhere until after she did, and finally drove away.
“You might think you’re the winner, Summer Jean,” he said to himself as he walked to his truck, “but in the end, we’ll both be happy with the outcome.”
Over the next couple of weeks, much to Summer’s dismay and secret joy, Gabriel kept his promise to take her out every night, until they had a meal without them falling back on old habits.
Only, new habits emerged.
For one, she teased him and he teased her back. If she were honest, she would call it flirting, but she couldn’t be honest with herself right now, because honesty would lead to examining her heart.
There was no telling what she would find there.
Not that she had time to examine anything, because Gabriel had taken over her schedule of nothing but work by actually dating her.
They tasted prize-winning jams and jellies at local fairs named after fruits and small woodland creatures, went tubing at a river festival, and held hands during an outdoor play.
They’d eaten hummus and pita points while listening to a jazz band perform at a park in Wilmington, and had spent one afternoon riding the Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke Island.
He’d also started coming to Carolina Dreams right before closing time, to ask about her day and plan their next great adventure.
It was as though he was trying to fit years of dating, years of what they should have had together, into a matter of days.
“Don’t you want to touch my trophy?” she asked, waving a stuffed fox at him she’d won for having the loudest whistle at the Red Fox Festival.
“The fox says put him out of his misery.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s been properly stuffed.”
“I don’t care what it is, that fox used to be alive. Don’t touch me with it.” He stepped away from her, and she laughed so hard that her stomach began to ache. “I could be allergic for all you know.”
She pretended to consider his words, and then lunged for him. He moved out of her reach at the last minute. “Take it home with you and put in on your mantle like a real man,” she giggled, chasing him around Carolina Dreams. “He’ll watch over you while you sleep.”
“Rather have you glowering at me in my sleep,” he said, laughter rumbling from his chest. The sound made her so happy. He made her happy.
“So the rumor is true.”
Summer and Gabriel simultaneously stopped and turned at the same time.
Elise stood just inside the door, red hair swept up, displaying a dainty earring on each lobe, while wearing a pencil skirt with a form-fitting white blouse that highlighted her curvaceous figure to perfection.