Gabriel. It was his fault she’d given up Ivy like she had. It was his fault that she allowed him to see her in a weak moment. Otherwise, she would have never let Rose adopt Ivy. She would have found a way to make herself a better mother… to make herself love a child who no longer knew her. A child who looked so much like the man who’d helped her, who’d found her in a diner while she counted tips and how many days were left before she had to pay rent again.
Though she hadn’t loved him, she had liked him and the way he treated her, like she mattered and deserved respect. She’d admired him and the sacrifices he’d made while in the ARMY. When he’d died in a roadside bomb, a piece of her died along with him.
The image of mother and child blurred. Summer blinked, and tears ran down her cheeks.
No matter what, she’d never let herself be that weak again.
The next day, at precisely nine AM, Summer reopened Carolina Dreams. She’d been up since dawn, reacquainting herself with the apothecary shop. Everything was as it should be, neatly labeled, and stored in the back and across the street, according to the second letter Rose had left for her.
Summer glanced around the office, taking in the new desk, new desk chair, new computer, and plethora of family pictures. She ran a finger along the edge of a frame. Ivy, Rose, and Sasha posed in the pictured. Ivy wore a tutu, a bow in her hair, and a sweet smile.
Summer flipped the picture over.
The bells on the door rang, and she walked to the front, standing behind the massive counter made of wood and glass. This would be her battle station, the place where she could draw power and throw containers of shampoo at customers if she had to.
God, she hoped she didn’t have to.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as the first, second, third, and fourth customer walked inside, made their purchase, and left. All with a wave and a smile.
All said things like:
It’s nice to meet you.
I love your store.
This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.
Say hello to Rose.
Tell her we miss her.
For the next three days, the pattern repeated with even more customers, until it felt as though the bells over the door played Carol of the Bells due to all the activity.
By the time three o’clock rolled around on Wednesday, Summer was mentally exhausted, but she couldn’t close until the tall redhead finished shopping. The woman kept giving Summer looks, but for the most part, Summer thought it was merely curiosity and not hostility.
“Could you help me, please?” the woman called out.
Summer moved to the corner of the store, to where the scented lotions and body washes were displayed. “Is there a certain scent that speaks to you?”
The redhead gave her an odd look, her green eyes a touch frosty. “Speaks to me?”
“Have you smelled any of them, and have a particular favorite or two?” Summer asked, trying again. Unlike Rose, she didn’t immediately grab the scent she knew would complement the customer, because she preferred the customer to come to their own conclusions—with a little guidance, of course.
“They all smell nice, but I want to find one that will drive my boyfriend wild.”
Ah, so that was the hesitation. Summer smiled. This was something she loved, though, no one would have believed her. “First things, first. Tell me about him—his favorite dessert, the color of his eyes and hair…his favorite time of day to… kiss you.” All romantic things to know about a lover in Summer’s opinion. At that moment, Gabriel came to mind. Effortlessly, she answered every one of those questions about him.
Favorite dessert, lemon pound cake. The color of his eyes, darkest blue with a ring of black at the center. Hair just as dark, and silky to touch. As for kissing her, he had always said he loved kissing her during the summer sunset, because it was as close as he could get to kissing her at nighttime, without breaking curfew.
“His favorite dessert is lemon pound cake. Dark blue eyes, black hair, and—”
Summer’s hand froze, hovering over a blue bottle. Please don’t let her say at sunset. Please, please, please.
“He doesn’t have a favorite time of day, not that I’ve ever heard. He just kisses me whenever.”
Summer exhaled, and then glanced at her customer. It wasn’t Gabriel. She was silly to think it was, or even to think of him at all.
The redhead blushed and tipped up her chin. Summer felt a bit sorry for her, because she got the impression the woman hated that her boyfriend didn’t have a favorite time of day to kiss her.
Despite what people thought about her, including her sisters, she couldn’t stand to see innocent people in pain or feeling bad about themselves. She knew what it was like.
“I think that’s perfect, really,” Summer said, trying to put her at ease. “His favorite time of day is all day. You’re so lucky to have a man like that...Um, I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Elise Dumas, the not-so-new head librarian.” Elise stuck out her hand, and Summer shook it, and then let go.
“Summer Holland, by the way. I’ve just moved back to Holland Springs.”
“I know who you are, and I want you to stay away from Gabriel,” Elise said firmly.
This time, Summer’s entire body froze. “What?” she managed to croak. Maybe there was another Gabriel in Holland Springs, and Elise didn’t mean the Gabriel Summer knew at all.
“Gabriel Edwards and I are dating. Seriously dating. I would appreciate it if you would stay away from him. Or if you do need his help, go ahead and get it, then leave.”
Red-hot fury boiled inside of Summer, melting all the frozen parts of her. She stepped away from the display and toward the woman beside her. “I didn’t come here for his help.”
“Did you come here for him?”
Yes. “No.” Never, she swore to herself, ignoring the woman inside of her who missed the man who always put her first. Summer barely held on to her temper, although she wasn’t mad at Elise. She was mad at herself, for having such conflicting thoughts over him. Just like always.
“I know I’m not the first woman he ever loved, but I want to be the last one, so I’m begging you, please stay away.” Elise let out a shaky breath. “He’d choose you over me, I know this. So, I’m asking you, woman to woman, to respect our relationship, and stay the hell away.”
Before Summer could say another word, Elise fled the store, leaving Summer standing there. So that was why Gabriel hadn’t been by. He was in love with someone else.