But he didn’t. His thumb kept up that slow glide. “Yes, you do. You’re just too afraid to admit it.”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she cried, jerking her head back. “Least of all you, and what you want.”
Gabriel stepped closer. “But you are. You’re afraid to think that you’re worth loving, you think that your past is your present and future. But I’m here to tell you that it’s not. I don’t love you despite your past. I just love you, as you are, as you were, and as you will be. You’re my heart, Summer Edwards.”
Fury and self-loathing bubbled in the pit of her stomach. Why wouldn’t he call her out on the selfishness that had carved its way inside of her?
“Everyone thinks I’m cheating on you with Jeremy Stratford.”
He shrugged. “Who cares what everyone thinks?”
“If I believed the rumors, would I be begging you to stay?”
She frowned. “I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t be here, but it doesn’t matter because you’re not that woman. You never were. She never existed.”
Why did he have to say such beautiful things? “I’m still leaving.”
“Please stay. For me.”
His words hung in the air, tantalizing and shimmering with temptation. This wasn’t good. Nothing good ever came of them trying to be a couple. “No.” One last desperate try. “I can’t.”
He leaned in, his lips dangerously close to hers. She searched his face. His five o’clock shadow had already made its appearance, then his cheek dimpled. “Stay.”
Wetting her lips, she made the mistake of blinking. The gentle brush of his mouth on hers had her gasping for air.
“You’d be miserable.”
“Stay.” He brushed her lips again, and she trembled. Her eyes were wide open, his closed.
“I’m the town whore, and you’re the idiot who married her.”
“Utter nonsense.” Another kiss, light as a butterfly perched on asters. “Stay.”
Centuries must have passed while he kissed her. While he whispered ‘stay’ against her mouth. While nothing but his lips and words touched her.
She breathed him in. His kiss. His plea.
His tongue glided across her bottom lip.
“No.” She wrenched herself away, grabbed her bag, and ran to the silver truck, and not the VW Bug. Hands shaking, she wrenched open the door and climbed inside, but for some reason, she couldn’t put the key in the ignition.
Gabriel appeared on his front porch, his face drawn tight. She stared at him, biting her lip so hard that she tasted blood.
He moved to the steps.
Her hand went to the door to pull it shut, but she couldn’t do that either.
“I’m sorry for failing you, Summer,” he said. “I’m sorry for not being there for you, for expecting you to change when you were perfect as God made you. I failed us, and I’m so damned sorry.”
Tears began to fall. “Stop it,” she whispered.
“I love you, Summer. If you need me to tell you a thousand times a day, I will.”
Bewildered, she shook her head. “Why? Why do you love me so much?”
“I just do.” He ran a hand through his hair again. “I’ve loved you from the start.”
“But you can’t love me,” she said, “not after everything, not after…” She almost choked on the words before saying them. “Not after all I’ve put you through.”
“Grow old with me, right here in this house.” He kissed her forehead. “Have lots of babies with me. Every day, I’ll pick flowers for you to wear in your hair, and together, we’ll watch the kids.”
“Stop it,” she said, but her resolve was weakening. She wanted to stay. Not only was she tired of running, she wanted to be with him. Forever.
He laced their fingers together and helped her out of the truck. “Make this the moment you decided to show those no-good busy bodies that you are here to stay, with me. Always and forever. You don’t have to do this alone, not anymore, and not ever again.”
The last of her walls came tumbling down. Taking a deep breath, she looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’ll stay.”
His blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “You won’t regret it, sweetheart,” he swore.
Then he swept her up in his arms and carried her back into their home.
Gabriel squeezed Summer’s hand as they stood on the front porch of Strawberry Grove. She’d stayed. With him.
He still couldn’t believe that particular blessing. It had been almost a week since he carried Summer back inside and made love to her, with promises for the future still fresh in their minds.
“You can do this,” he whispered.
“I love you, angel.”
A grin kicked up the corners of his mouth.
The door swung open just as she raised her hand to knock.
A genuine smile lit her sister’s face. “Summer!” Rose began to embrace her, but her husband appeared, holding Ivy, and Rose let her arms fall to her sides.
“Hang on a minute.” He glared at Summer. “State your business.”
“Sasha, don’t get in the middle of this,” Rose warned, but she stepped back anyway.
Alexander rolled his eyes. No one but Rose called the man Sasha. “Never mind. The town’s do-gooder is here. All is well with the world.”
Ivy wriggled out of his embrace. “Mommy, I want to go play with her.” She pointed at Summer.
Everyone seemed to freeze and breathe at once, except for the little girl. She regarded Summer thoughtfully while Blackbeard rubbed against her legs.
“You’re in a lot of pictures around here,” Ivy said.
Summer smiled, but her hand tightened around Gabriel’s. “That’s because I’m your…your Aunt Summer.”
“You’re more than just my auntie.” Ivy held out her hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
Summer’s gaze flew to Rose and Alexander. “Can I?”
Rose bit her bottom lip and nodded, her pale blue eyes tearing. “Of course you can. Ivy knows who you are.”
“She does?” Summer slipped her hand into Ivy’s, and a bittersweet expression bloomed on her face. “Why?”
Alexander cupped Rose’s shoulders, his eyes kind for once. “Because it was the right thing to do.”