“Hi, Elise,” Gabriel said, taking the stuffed fox from Summer and setting it on a nearby counter. The bridge of his nose flushed. Was he embarrassed at being caught with her? He glanced at Summer with a pleading look in his eyes, before turning his attention back to Elise.

Summer felt herself melt a little. He wasn’t embarrassed. He was worried about Elise’s feelings and her feelings, even though she’d been the one to instigate everything.

“I…We…” he began but Summer wasn’t about to let him apologize for something he hadn’t done.

“We didn’t mean to hurt you,” Summer said, taking a step toward Elise. “Sometimes things just happen, and Gabriel and I have a long history.

“How sweet of you to think of me like that.” Elise marched up to Summer. “Do you believe in physical violence?”

Confused, Summer answered honestly, “As a rule, no, but there are times when a situation calls for it.” Like after Patrick Johnson tied her to the bed and took what was owed to him.

“Good.” Elise slapped Summer so hard that her head whipped to one side.

Pain flared out, to her ear and eye socket. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she whimpered, cupping her cheek.

Gabriel was at her side in an instant, gently turning her face and sucking in air through his teeth. “Are you okay?”

All she could do was look at him through a sheen of tears.

“Yeah, I know, seriously dumb question.” He kissed her forehead, and she thought she heard Elise hiss.

“I’ll be fine.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said, then his eyes got all hard. Summer wanted to flinch again, but he fixed his furious gaze on the redhead still standing there. “You broke up with me, not the other way around, and she’s not responsible for our decisions.”

“Yes, I am,” Summer whispered miserably. “You saw us in the park, and that’s why you broke up with him.”

“No,” Elise said, shocking her. “I broke up with him, because it’s one thing to be second to a memory. It’s quite another to have to be second to the real thing.”

“I didn’t make you second,” Gabriel insisted.

Summer backed away, going to the cabinet in the corner to find a purple jar with some ointment to ease the swelling and redness on her cheek. It had to be red and swollen, because it stung like hell.

Elise shook her head. “I wasn’t about to give you a chance, but seeing the two of you… It just pisses me off that I wasted so much time on you.”

“I never looked at it that way.”

“You never had to, women flock to you, you idiot.” Elise huffed. “Men, it’s so easy for you. Get older and you look better. We get older and have to compete with younger women who y’all think look better than us.”

“Gabriel’s not like that,” Summer said, rubbing in the lotion. Immediately, the stinging lessened.

“They’re all like that.” Elise gave Summer a hard look. “I wish I could say sorry and mean it, but I can’t. It felt good, and you deserved it anyway, for all the other relationships you helped destroy.”

Gabriel heard Summer’s sharp intake of breath and almost cursed.

He knew what she was thinking, what Elise had planted in Summer’s brain. Soon, it would take root, and all the weeks of trying to build something new would wither away and die.

“Then you might want to hit the other one then, for my future misdeeds,” Summer snapped, marching from the back of the store to where Elise stood. She tipped up her chin and turned her head to one side. “So very many men and so very little time.”

Forget soon; it was instantaneous. He briefly closed his eyes. “I suggest you leave, Elise, before I call Sheriff Barnes.”

“You’d have me arrested?” Elise looked genuinely horrified.

“If Summer wants to press charges, then yes. You assaulted her, without provocation.” He should know. So many of the teens he worked with had that very wording on their rap sheet. He had it on his.

“I won’t press charges,” Summer said, much to Gabriel’s surprise.

Elise’s mouth flattened as she made a little noise of satisfaction. “I’ll be going.”

Neither he nor Summer bothered to say anything more as Elise marched out of Carolina Dreams. Summer merely waited until his ex has left and then moved to lock the door.

When she turned to face him again, he winced at the bright red handprint. “Do you want some ice for that?”

“No.” She pushed back her shoulders, tipping her nose in the air. “I want a timeframe from you, so I can know when to expect a ring and plan a wedding with a honeymoon. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve—I’ve,” her lips trembled, “had a m-man?”

So they were back to this, once again. Damn Elise for this, and damn him for letting things escalate. “It’s best if you had dinner with my parents, first, so they can get to know you.”

“They already know me by reputation, angel. Everyone does, no matter what you or Jemma Leigh say.” She gave him a brittle smile. “You two want me to think like y’all, like everything is rose-colored glasses and Fourth of July parades, but I’m not buying it. The mark on my face proves nothing has changed in this town.”

Chapter Fourteen

That evening, Gabriel walked the mostly deserted streets of Holland Springs. It was almost ten, and the only shops still open were the local drugstore and movie theater.

Normally he’d be home now, but one of his client’s parents called him, worrying because their son hadn’t come home from school. It had taken him a good two hours, coordinating with local law enforcement officials, to track the teen down, but an anonymous tip had helped, and the fifteen year old was back where he belonged.

Gabriel ran a hand through his hair. Small town or big city made no difference to a teenager looking for trouble. Though Holland Springs was not a big city by any stretch of the imagination, the town had grown over the past few years.

New subdivisions and strip malls had been built, but the downtown, with good planning and financial backing from influential citizens, had remained vibrant, even when the local Wal-Mart had turned into a superstore. Many had proclaimed that expansion as a death knell for local businesses, but as with most things, the rush to judgment and end-of-the-world wailing were all for nothing.

New businesses had cropped up, offering services and items that the Wal-Mart didn’t carry. Honestly, he thought it was pretty hypocritical for people to not want something that the majority, no matter their income, could afford. Where else were they supposed to shop for groceries and clothes?

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