“I heard Summer Holland was back in town,” Isabella said as she stabbed a piece of roast beef with her fork.

Heard his tail. Maybe he should throw his peas at his sister, along with his roll and what was left of his portion of the roast beef.

“Is this true, Gabe?” Gloria asked, her brown eyes missing nothing. She shook her head at the twins, and then instructed Michael to eat the rest of his mashed potatoes.

“Yes, ma’am.” Even if he didn’t suspect his mother already knew, he wouldn’t have lied to her. Not that he shared his private life with anyone. It stayed private—at least, when he could help it.

Gloria glanced at her husband, and then back at Gabriel. “Why is Summer back?”

“She wanted to return the truck she borrowed from me.” Not the whole truth, but it was all he felt comfortable giving at the moment.

“Is she leaving soon?” John asked as he fed Anna, another one of Gabriel’s sisters. She’d been six months old when they’d adopted her from China, and had been born without her hands. Now she was three and insisted on feeding herself most of the time.

“No, she’s planning on staying for good this time. She wants to reconnect with her family.” For a while, Gabriel had blamed himself for Summer’s extended absence. After all, he’d been the one to convince her to let Rose adopt Ivy. If anyone deserved Summer’s anger, it was him. But he’d seen the pain in her eyes, the uncertainty of her situation, and for a moment, she reminded him of the woman who’d given him up.

Given. More like sold to John and Gloria Edwards. Or had tried to sell him. Then again, his mother had been eleven or twelve when she’d given birth to him in a slum. A malnourished boy couldn’t have been anything but a drain to her. Maybe selling him to the two American missionaries had been her gift to him. He’d only wished she’d done it sooner.

He set his glass down beside his plate, tracing the condensation along the rim. For eight years, he’d endured poverty, hunger, and hopelessness. Things he had in common with his adopted brothers and sisters. Only Isabella, his parents’ one biological child, was perfect.

“I saw the two of you eating lunch together in the park,” Isabella said, eyes all wide and innocent. Yeah, his sister was perfectly annoying. But he loved her anyway.

“Oh no, not lunch. That means we’re exactly nothing, Bella,” Gabriel pointed out.

Judah, the newest member of their family, sat in his mother’s lap, looking a little scared and a whole lot overwhelmed. His baby brother had arrived only two months ago from Romania, his little legs bent at odd angles and his fingers permanently curved.

His mother frowned, but kept her comments to herself.

“Where are Ms. Kelly and Ms. Nancy?” he asked, referring to in-home nurses who helped take care of all the special needs children his parents had adopted or fostered.

“They deserved a day off,” his dad said as he balled up his napkin. He stood and began clearing off the table. “Like your mother does.”

“Yes, sir.” Gabriel grabbed his glass and plate.

Paul, the third oldest of the kids, copied him, and they both followed their dad into the kitchen.

John was at the sink, rinsing off his plate. Paul opened the dishwasher and unloaded the dishes. The twins ran in and out of the kitchen, bringing dirty plates and empty bowls with them. Gabriel could hear Isabella trying to coax Judah into sitting with her as Anna started demanding lap time with Gloria.

The three men worked in silence, Paul stopping every so often to rearrange the silverware drawer to his liking. Once the last dish was placed inside the dishwasher and all the clean plates were put away, they headed out to the front porch.

Gabriel and Paul sat in the porch swing, while their dad took his usual place in the rocking chair. It was still sunny outside, but pink and orange streaked the evening sky. The swing creaked as Paul moved his legs back and forth.

“Can’t say I’m happy about this turn of events,” John finally said. The urge to defend Summer was strong, but he remained silent as his dad continued, “But I trust you to do the right thing.”

Gabriel laid an arm along the back of the swing. “As in help her out, but nothing more.”

John nodded. “Your mother’s not happy with you right now.”

His parents knew of their past, so he couldn’t exactly blame them. “So this little man time out here is to voice her concerns?”

“It’s to voice our concerns. Neither of us are telling you to stay away from Summer. You’re a grown man—one who usually makes good decisions. But there’s only so much you can offer a woman like her, and your judgment seems to be skewed when it comes to Summer.”

Gabriel clenched his jaw. The place between his shoulder blades pinched together. “A woman like her?” Wasn’t his dad the man who preached unconditional love and to help out your neighbor? To not judge a person, because you don’t know what they had endured or were still enduring.

“Don’t take a phrase out of context, son,” John warned. “I’m not talking about her reputation; I’m talking about her actions. Actions that have hurt my son.”

Gabriel exhaled, letting the tightness in his shoulders ease up. This he could understand. He didn’t like it, but he could understand his parents’ need to protect him. “I appreciate your concern,” There was that word again, “but things are different. Summer’s different this time.”

The conviction in his voice surprised him. Maybe his heart knew something his brain didn’t. Usually his brain was telling him to stay the hell away from her, to not get involved beyond what she needed.

The last time Gabriel tried to get involved, Summer had burned him so badly that he still had scars. He looked down at his arm, at the scar in the shape of a thumbprint. It looked as though he had been branded. There were two more on his left bicep that resembled fingerprints.

If he had been a man who believed in the supernatural, he would have said that those were Summer’s marks on him. Marks she’d given to him while she was in labor with Ivy, as she clenched his hand and gripped his arm when another contraction had made her cry out.

Those marks, those little reminders of when he tried to be more than just a friend to her, were nothing like the one on his heart. In reality, they were nothing more than burns from welding a motorcycle frame together the morning Summer’s daughter had been born.

Funny how he hadn’t noticed, until that evening. Until he was home—alone and worried out of his mind for her. But it had been made very clear he hadn’t been needed.

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