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Summer knew what had to be done. Deep in her heart, where hope had blossomed but the roots had never taken hold. Her daughter was happy, healthy, and loved. She refused to take that from Ivy.

Mommy.

She ran faster, tree branches smacking her in the face and arms. Scraping and bruising her skin. Still she ran, until she came to the infernal spring that had started it all. That had cursed them all, with its supposed abilities.

Falling to her knees, she ripped at the plants and flowers, at anything her hands could grasp. It didn’t matter she was ripping her nails to the quick. It didn’t matter that rain poured down from the sky, soaking her to the bone.

All along, she’d known that taking Ivy back was the absolute wrong thing to do, but had used it as an excuse to come back here.

Which didn’t say much about her. Actually, it said a lot. It said she was selfish and unappreciative of the people who’d helped her in her life. It said that she was forever unfit to be anyone’s mother.

Gabriel had known it all along, yet he’d tried to help her see the truth.

A scream tore from her, until it scraped her throat raw. She fell on her side, sobbing as she pressed down on her abdomen. At the part of her body that had carried Ivy. She was nothing more than a uterus. Nothing more than the woman who’d labored for hours. Scared and helpless, with no one, not even her family, at her side.

The only person who’d been there for her was Gabriel, but he wasn’t family. He was just the boy she used to love. A man who’d apologized. A man who she’d begun to fall for again, and not just because he’d been there for her during her pregnancy.

Naturally, he had been the only person she could think to call. He had been the one who’d driven her to the hospital and had stayed by her side. He’d been the one saying that he’d be there for her and the baby, in whatever way she needed.

His hand was always in hers, his presence comforting, despite the pain and terror. Through it all he’d stayed, even as she screamed at him to go away—though her heart had pleaded with him to stay. To ignore her stupid, ugly mouth.

She had hated being so vulnerable and dependent upon him. Still she had clung to him like a vine on the thick trunk of a strong tree.

So calm he’d been when the doctor told her Ivy was turned the wrong way, that she’d need an emergency caesarean. Her pain-filled mind had heard him tell the nurse that he’d be responsible for the bill, to just help her. To do whatever they could for her.

Summer peered at Gabriel through slitted eyes. Worry lined his handsome face around his eyes and mouth. While they waited for the doctor, he knelt by her hospital bed and prayed.

Wave after painful wave of contractions washed over her, making her body run hot, and then cold. She kicked the sheets off and fumbled for something, anything to help her.

“Here, sweetheart.” Gabriel pressed ice chips to her lips, and she swallowed them. A slew of nurses entered the room, maneuvering him out the way as they helped her to a wheelchair.

She hunched over when another contraction hit. “Gabriel,” she gasped, reaching for his hand.

“Want me to come with you?”

“You can’t,” one of the nurses informed him, and then turned to Summer. “We have to go.”

She began to struggle to get out of the chair, desperate for his comfort and strength. “Not without him.”

Gabriel knelt before her, his large hands covering hers as he stared into her eyes. “Everything will be fine. I’ll be waiting for you.”

But it wasn’t his face she saw when she came to, teeth chattering and strangely empty. “My baby.” The nurse had told Summer the baby would be brought to her after she had time to recover from surgery. But Summer wanted her now.

Azalea smoothed back the hair on Summer’s forehead and smiled. “How do you feel?”

Too exhausted to be shocked by Azalea’s sudden and unwelcome appearance, she asked, “Wh-where’s G-Gabriel?” Dear God, she was cold. So cold her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. “He s-s-said he’d b-be here.” She tried to rise, but Azalea put a firm hand on her shoulder.

Azalea tsked. “Sugar, it’s like I’ve always told you, the only thing you can count on a man doing is never being there when you need him.” She pulled the covers up. “Now, about the baby’s daddy. Is he planning on coming up here and taking care of y’all?”

Summer stared up into violet colored eyes, hating the woman who’d abandoned her and her little sisters. “He’s d-dead.”

“I hope you don’t expect me to…” The frown that marred her mother’s perfect face eased into a smile. “Well, there are death benefits and pensions. All sorts of things a woman needs to survive. They owe you.”

They owed her nothing. And she would get nothing, since she and Darius hadn’t been married. He’d just been a nice guy who’d treated her like she was worth something. A nice guy who hadn’t deserved to die in a war.

Maybe that was his punishment for being with a Holland. With her. She mentally brushed away the melancholy thoughts that threatened to overwhelm her. “N-nothing’s f-for us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Give that baby a paternity test and—”

“Get out,” Summer said through tightly clenched teeth.

Florescent lights flickered in the room, a loud buzzing turned into an even louder pop.

“Don’t get all riled up.” Her mother sniffed. “It’s not healthy, but you never listened to me. Just like you didn’t listen to me when it came to that preacher’s boy. He couldn’t be bothered to stay. Something about not being able to handle the pressure.”

“I don’t believe you,” Summer said through gritted teeth.

A nurse came into the room, saying something to Azalea as she left. She took Summer’s temperature and checked the small sutures. “You’ll be able to see your baby in a little while.” A cool hand patted her shoulder. “Picked out a name yet?”

Summer nodded, her arms aching to hold her. “Ivy.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“Wh-where’s G-gabriel?”

The nurse’s brow furrowed. “I was told that he needed to leave, that you only wanted family.”

Azalea’s doing—it had to be. But why had he listened? “Oh, yeah.”

“I’ll be back in an hour to check on you.”

The door clicked closed, making the room seem empty. The emptiness grew, until it reached every toe and finger. Until the longing to hold Ivy was overshadowed by it. All she wanted to do was sleep. To feel nothing ever again.

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