“He’s not my uncle.”

“But he is dead.”

Summer blinked at him. “How… are you kidding? Please tell me you’re not kidding.” She felt light in the head. This was something that had come between them for years. His belief that she had started sleeping with Patrick to get back at him, and when he learned the truth, she’d made him pay for years by allowing the men and women around here to talk about her, to spread rumors and lies. It was only fitting since Gabriel had believed them, without getting her side first.

By the time he had come to her for her side of the story, she’d been so hurt and furious that she refused to have anything to do with him. She’d refused his calls, his visits… everything until he had asked her to prom and she’d told him to drop dead.

He’d taken Zoe Ambrose instead, but Summer wasn’t mad at her. She still wasn’t mad at her. She wouldn’t have been even if Zoe and Gabriel had gotten married and had beautiful children. It wasn’t Zoe’s fault, and none of the Ambroses had ever treated her or her sisters like second-class citizens.

Come to think of it, there had been many times, Leah Ambrose, the matriarch of the family, had come to Strawberry Grove with some extra food that was about to spoil, or so she claimed.

But that extra food always ended up being fresh, home-cooked meals. Azalea had taken it all, like Leah Ambrose owed her, but the baby, Skye, had always hugged the other woman in thanks. Summer and Rose would stand silently, watching from the porch and wishing a hole would swallow them up.

Funny how little memories like that sneaked up on a person when they were feeling most vulnerable. But right now, she didn’t want memories of Patrick Johnson. She wanted all the gory details of his death.

Gabriel crossed the room and sat down beside her. “He was caught raping a twelve year old. Her dad blew his head off.”

“Good,” she said, refusing to look at him. “Don’t you dare say vengeance only belongs to the—”

“I would have castrated him,” Gabriel said softly. “I blame myself for not doing it years ago.”

Tears clogged her throat. “But you would have gone to jail.”

“Sweetheart, I did go to jail for assaulting Patrick.” Her gaze flew to his as he continued. “I stayed locked up for six weeks, and then had a years’ worth of probation.” He picked up one of her hands, lacing his fingers through it. His wedding ring caught her eye, a sign of his commitment to her, though he’d been committed to her since they were children. “Why else do you think those kids listen to me?”

“I never knew,” she said. He’d done all that after he’d found out what Patrick had done, and hadn’t bothered to tell her? “If I had, I would have—”

“Gone to jail for stealing his car and taking his money?” Gabriel gave her a sad smile. “Justice doesn’t always work the way we want it.”

“I didn’t steal it,” she gulped. “His dad gave it to me, so I’d be quiet. He said if I didn’t take it and be quiet, then he’d…he’d bring Skye to his son. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Get out of here, girl,” Patrick, Senior had shouted at her, shoving her from behind.

She limped to the mustang, the pain between her thighs excruciating. One eye was swollen and her lip was busted, but she was alive.

“I’m trying,” she managed to snap.

“Don’t you tell no one either. You tell, then so do I.” He took her by the arm, and began dragging her to the car. “Ain’t no one going to believe the daughter of a whore, who raised nothing but baby whores.”

Now that, Summer believed. “Why are you helping me, then?”

“That boy couldn’t help himself. You tempted him, but when he tied you up and you started screaming for help… Well, that’s different. You at least get to have say.”

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his logic.

He opened the car door and shoved her inside. Pain shot through her, making black dots dance in front of her eyes. “I’ll be keeping my ear out. If I hear so much as a peep, I’ll get that sister of yours, the redheaded one, and let Patrick play with her.”

Helpless fury rose. Summer might not be able to save any other girls from what she went through, but she could at least keep her sisters safe. “You touch her or Rose, and I’ll burn your house to the ground with Patrick in it.”

He paled a little, and then shut the door. “Just remember what I said.”

“As long as you remember what I promised.”

He nodded and she drove away.

She didn’t come back for almost a year, but she had to check on her sisters to make sure they were safe. However, when she came back, Azalea was gone and everyone looked to her to be the new town whore—after all, every small town had one. Only the newest one of Holland Springs had never had consensual sex with any of the men there. She never touched a single one of them. Ever.

Gabriel wrapped his arms around her, taking her out of her head—thank God. “If I could have saved you, I would have.”

“I’m not some fragile doll,” she lied, leaning into him and letting his warmth fill her. “I won’t break.”

“Never thought you to be a doll, but you are fragile, just not in ways you think you should be.” He kissed the top of her head. “And we all have our breaking points.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“Do you promise to be honest?” He gave her a come-on-this-is-me look. “How many men do you think I’ve been with?”

He didn’t hesitate when he answered, “It doesn’t matter to me.”

“But I let you think I’ve—”

“Remember our conversation about mathematical impossibilities?” he asked, one dark brow raised.

She blushed, actually blushed, over the memory. “I seem to recall the one about chemistry and biology getting us all hot and bothered.”

He grinned, and then his expression turned serious. “One day, if you still feel the need to tell me how many or how few men you’ve been with, I’m all ears. But for now, I want you to keep it to yourself, because you need to know in my eyes you have always been worthy of everything good in this life.”

Gabriel watched her face as his words sank in. Maybe, just maybe, she would let his words process this time.

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