“I’m saying I’d give anyone in need the clothes off my back.” He uncrossed his arms. “Including you.” Especially her. Always her. No matter how much it hurt when she threw it back in his face.

“I don’t want your pity or your charity. I don’t need anything from anyone, especially you.”

White-hot fury rose, but he remained calm. He had to, or he’d lose control of the situation. “I just need to know why you’re here. I know what you said, but honey, you’ve never stayed longer than a year at a time, since you turned eighteen.”

If he had a time limit, he could stay away from her. Keep his personal life going—one that didn’t involve the woman standing in front of him. The woman with pretty, dark eyes and pale, blond hair. The woman who’d clawed his heart out at every turn, yet he kept offering it up on a platter.

A frown pulled down the corners of his mouth.

“Why do you care?” She leaned forward, placing a hand on his cheek. “Afraid I’ll steal you away from Elise?”

Yes. Only it wouldn’t be stealing. More than likely, he’d go with her, willingly. Some things never changed, but he could. “You know what—I don’t care. Stay as long as you like. Do whatever you like. You don’t need my permission, and you’re not that damn irresistible.” Turning, he marched away from her.

Summer’s eyes grew wide. Oh God, no. His disapproval she could handle. His infuriatingly calm manner she could handle. But an indifferent Gabriel? The one who’d been ignoring her all week… “Wait.”

Still, he strode away.

“Gabriel, please.”

That made him stop.

She ran to him, and then around to face him.

A cool night breeze whispered through the pine trees. The sound of crickets chirping and the steady rattling of locust blended to create a symphony so soothing that Summer almost forgot where she was. Almost.

In a loose tie, button-down shirt, and khaki pants, Gabriel was her fantasy come to life. Not that she’d ever let him in on it. No, she preferred to let him think that her type rode into town on a Harley and out of it, with her on the back.

He gazed at her, expectation on his face. But what could she say—don’t leave me? Please keep caring about me, because you’re the only one in the entire world who does?

Maybe she needed to be truthful for once. Maybe she needed to quit saying the most outrageous and hurtful things to him.

Taking a leap of faith, she said, “I’m sorry.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard what I said.” No way would she repeat herself. It was bad enough she’d apologized in the first place. It was bad enough that she was lowering her defenses.

“I forgive you.” Simple, but powerful words.

“The reason why I’m here is because I miss my family. I’d like to be a part of one again.” Growing up with a mother like Azalea, a woman who came and went as frequently as the tides, Summer had always dreamed of a home. Of family meals at a table set for four. A husband that would come in the door with a kiss for her, while he tried to navigate the room with two rugrats stuck to his legs.

After dinner, this fictional man would ask about her day while they did the dishes. Then they’d make love… in a bed with a mattress made of down feathers.

Yeah, she was all kinds of screwed up for her deepest, most guarded, secrets to be so traditionally boring.

“Nothing wrong with that at all. I’m happy you want to reconnect with Rose and Ivy.” Taking her hand, he said, “Let me drive you the rest of the way home.”

“Okay.” But she pulled her hand away.

His dark brows drew together, but he didn’t say anything, merely started walking to the edge of the woods. She followed him.

The moon might be as bright as day in the field, but the forest was another matter altogether, so she stayed close. Close enough to touch him. Tempting her to slide her arm through that triangular gap between his elbow and lean body.

If she was really honest, she was even more tempted to slide her hands all over him, to learn the hard planes and new muscles that hadn’t been there when they were teenagers, or even four years ago, when he would have held her hand while they walked. Back when he looked at her like she’d hung the Corn Planting Moon in the sky.

Now Elise would be the one who hung the moon for Gabriel.

Stopping at the edge of the highway, she glanced at him. Gabriel stood, phone in his hand and his thumbs moving. “Carlos is on his way.”

There was a tiny prick at her heart, but she breathed through the pain. Besides, it was ridiculous to think he would want spend more time with her. She never made it easy for anyone to be around her, not even her sisters. Turning away, she eyed the silver truck idling in the middle of the road.

“Taking your truck?”

“That’s the plan.”

Beams of light made her eyes squint. She put up a hand to shade them.

“Gabriel, let’s go! We don’t have all night,” a man called out.

“Yeah, can’t have Carlos out too late, or Shelia won’t be able to display his nuts in her trophy case tomorrow morning.”

“Watch it, Noah. There’s a lady present,” Gabriel laughed, and then looked at her. “Sorry about the language.”

For some reason, the thought of him classifying her as a lady gave her pleasure, maybe even a little pride. “I’ve heard worse.”

He stepped closer to her, brushing the strand of hair that kept falling in her face. “Doesn’t matter. You deserve to be treated with respect.”

A thrill ran through her body. Hugging him seemed exactly the right thing to do, but she gave him her brightest smile instead. “Have fun, angel. Don’t forget to tip your stripper in singles.” Then she turned, but a warm hand on her arm guided her in the opposite direction.

“Truck’s this way, sweetheart. I told you I’d drive you home, but Carlos showed up before I could. ” Another thrill at his touch, at his endearment. She was losing her ever-loving mind. This was Gabriel: he was like this to everyone.

Opening the door, he waited for her to climb inside. She stared at him, then the truck, and then back at him. Her brows were practically a part of her hairline. “But—but I thought y’all were taking your truck.”

“We are.” He grinned and pointed to the red truck a few feet in front of them. “What do you think I’ve been driving all this time?”

Speechless, she climbed in the cab and let him shut the door behind her. As the interior lights dimmed, she mouthed a ‘thank you’ to him. His grin widened before he jogged to his waiting friends. She could hear them laughing and calling each other names as he jumped inside.

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