But that didn’t stop him from worrying. It was his nature to worry and protect.

Gabriel stepped inside the room, and his sister slipped out, but not before patting him reassuringly on the back. Summer met him halfway, smoothing down her dress as she walked.

Isabella was like that, always helping others, while giving no thought to her own well-being, and that’s exactly why she’d been used by her ex-fiancé. Isabella was too naïve for her own good, but one day he knew she’d meet the right man, and be happy with her personal life again.

“Too many people, huh?” He kissed the top of her head. “We can go, if you like. Mom and Dad would understand. It’s a madhouse tonight. I’ll order some pizza, pick up a case of your favorite beer, and we can watch a movie at my place.”

“Do you usually have dates over to your place?” she asked.

“What would you think of me if I said no?” he asked.

She started to reply, but his mother’s voice came floating down the hall, calling his name.

“Gabriel, bring that pretty date of yours outside so your father and I can meet her.”

Panic registered on Summer’s face. “They’ll love you,” he said, and then bit the side of his lip, making his dimples play in his cheeks. “Okay, so my mom might not love you right now, because she and Elise’s mom had become best friends, and were set on us marrying. But I promise no one will be unkind to you.”

Summer glanced up at the ceiling. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” she muttered and then fixed her gaze on him. “I’ve faced worse than a mother who wanted her son to marry a woman worthy of him.”

Worthy of him? “Summer,” he began, but she stopped him with a sad smile.

“Gabriel, it’s the truth. Everyone will think it, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise.”

He touched his forehead to hers. “When are you going to learn that I don’t care what other people think?”

She pulled away from him, stepping back, and shaking her head. “And when are you going to learn that you do?”

Crossing her arms over her chest, she walked out of the room.

Chapter Seventeen

It could be worse, Gabriel thought.

Gloria smiled at Summer as she passed her the salad greens, but it didn’t quite meet his mother’s eyes.

“Thank you,” Summer said, before serving a portion on her plate. She passed the bowl to Isabella, adding some dressing and starting to eat.

Everyone looked at Summer, and Gabriel reached under the table and grabbed Summer’s knee. Startled, she dropped the fork and looked up at him, cheeks turning red at an alarming rate as she realized everyone else was staring. “Is something the matter?”

Irene giggled. “We haven’t said the blessing.”

“No Grace. No food,” Paul intoned.

“Angels are weeping,” one of the twins’ friends said.

“Hush,” Isabella glared at the preteen.

Yeah, he should have waited until Sunday, but he was about to go out of his mind. However, he couldn’t just get engaged and show up at his parents’ house, with a woman they’d known only by reputation. Most likely, their extremely short engagement would raise some eyebrows, and make more than one old biddy measure Summer’s waist with her eyes for the next nine months.

Yet another obstacle they would have to overcome together.

“Oh.” She looked as though she wanted to crawl under the table and hide.

Gabriel caught her eye, picked up a roll, and took a huge bite out of it. “Whoops,” he said with a wink. The grateful, yet surprised look she gave him made him want to jump up from the table and take her in his arms. He didn’t doubt that very few people had ever tried to make things easier on her.

“Sometimes, I forget too,” his dad said. “The meals Gloria prepares are that good.”

Summer’s gaze flew to his dad’s face, and his mother positively beamed at the compliment.

“We don’t correct our guests,” his mother said to the girl beside her. “Apologize to Summer. We want her to feel welcome and come back again.”

“Sorry,” the preteen said.

“It’s okay,” Summer said, ducking her head. “I should have asked first.”

“Nonsense,” his mother said. “We should have told you, like good hosts.”

Summer’s head came up, and the color of her cheeks stopped flaming. One of the twins’ friends spilled a glass of milk, and everyone, it seemed, jumped up and started talking all at once again.

Gabriel turned to his mother. “Thank you.”

“I may not be happy with what happened with Elise, but I can’t help but think that the plan I had for you wasn’t the one you were meant to follow,” his mother said just soft enough so her voice wouldn’t carry. “You have nothing to worry about. I’ll get over myself, and love that girl, just as you do. We all will.”

He gave his mother a grateful look. “Thank you.”

She patted his arm. “It’s what a mother is supposed to do.”

After blessing the food, everyone ate, including Summer. He watched as she and Isabella carried on a conversation at levels too low for him to hear, but he didn’t care. It eased his mind to see the two of them get along.

Summer caught him staring at her, from across the table. She smiled, and he couldn’t help but smile back.

Having her here, in the house he’d grown up in, was like a teenage boy’s dream come true. All he needed to do later was kiss her in his bedroom, and then his life would be complete. His smile grew bigger at his ridiculous thoughts.

Summer wrinkled her nose, her head tilting to one side as if to say, What are you thinking?

Later that evening, after the dishes had been done and the kids were either in bed or watching a movie, Gabriel and his dad sat on the front porch, in their usual spots. Inside, he could hear his mother and sister’s laughter, with Summer’s chiming in every so often.

She needed to laugh more. Laughter was good for the soul. Hearing Summer laugh was good for his soul.

“I plan on asking Summer to marry me.”

“A little unexpected,” his dad said. “But it’s not good for a man to be alone.”

“I plan on asking her next week.”

“Have you spoken with her parents?”

Gabriel twisted his lips a little. “You know as well as I do that Summer’s mother skipped town a long time ago, and no one knows who her dad is.”

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