She started to open her mouth, but an understanding flared, and she snapped her jaw shut. Was her mom insinuating that Madeline had been with Daniel this whole time? And if she had been, were they like together together?

What in the hell?

They were cousins! Nikki almost spit up her coffee. She’d been right with her earlier assumption. Whatever happened with Madeline had to be utterly dramalicious.

“How was seeing Gabriel again?” her mom asked suddenly.

This time Nikki almost choked on her coffee. “Um, it was okay.”

A knowing look settled into her mom’s face. “Hmm . . .”

Uncomfortable with the change in subject, Nikki shifted in the chair. She had no idea if her parents had known how bad her crush on Gabe had been, but they weren’t blind, and according to Devlin, everyone had seen it. She did know that they had no idea what happened that night before she left for college—Gabe was right about that.

The de Vincents weren’t the only ones in that house capable of murder.

Her parents would’ve straight up killed Gabe and locked her ass away for an eternity if they knew.

It was too damn early for Gabe to be awake, but there he was, eyes open and staring at the damn ceiling.

His temples throbbed.

And his dick was so hard he could hammer a damn nail with it.

Hell.

He’d drunk too much last night, not stopping after he knew Nic left. And he knew exactly when she had left in her older Ford, because he’d been out on the porch when she drove down the winding driveway.

Watching her like some kind of creep.

He didn’t even know why he’d gone out there and watched. No clue. He was going to blame the damn alcohol for that one.

An unwanted grin tugged at his lips as he recalled last night’s dinner. He’d sworn to himself that he wasn’t going down there, but that’s where he found himself.

Fucking scotch.

As expected, Sabrina had acted like a bitch toward Nic, and Gabe knew in his core that Nic was only going to take so much from Sabrina before she did something.

Nic had a recklessness in her that was the size of Lake Pontchartrain. Didn’t he know that? Probably didn’t help that he’d also been messing with her throughout dinner.

He wasn’t even sure why he’d been such an asshole. Actually, that was kind of a lie. He was angry with her and he was—hell, he wasn’t finishing that train wreck of a thought process.

But Nikki had definitely spilled that champagne on purpose.

A hoarse chuckle rumbled out of him as he closed his eyes. Aw Christ, he could still hear Sabrina’s horrified shriek. One would think Nic had punched her or something.

Fucking Nic. What a . . .

There were way too many adjectives to describe her and why was he lying in bed thinking about her? Shit. Lifting his hands, he dragged his palms over his face. She was the last person he needed to be worrying about.

Things between them were clear. He’d told her to stay away from him, and as long as he kept his ass away from her, then it was done. He’d said his piece to her. She’d heard him.

It was time to close that chapter of his fucking life.

Besides, he had a bigger chapter that had barely started. When he left Baton Rouge, he promised he’d give the Rothchilds three months without him coming by. He promised that, and he’d be damned if he’d go back on that even if it felt like a part of him was there.

A part of him actually was there.

He had three months. That would give him time to find a place up there so he could go back and forth, so that he wouldn’t be coming into their lives like a damn wrecking ball.

Three months.

Lowering his arms to the bed, he figured he might as well get the hell up and do something productive. Head to his warehouse in the city. He had work to do.

But he was going to have to take care of his throbbing dick first.

Shoving at the sheets twisted at his hips, he reached down, fisting himself. Closing his eyes, he dragged his hand up and down the thick length. In his mind, the woman was faceless, but she was riding him, and what was between her legs replaced his hand.

He kept that fantasy going. A fine sheen of sweat broke out across his forehead as he stroked himself, faster and harder. Wasn’t long before he felt the familiar coiling at the base of his spine, the tightening in his sac.

“Christ,” he grunted.

His hips punched up as he gripped his cock, squeezing tight. In an instant, the nameless, faceless woman in his mind disappeared, replaced by blondish-brown hair and big, brown doe-eyes. The body was a mystery to him, but before he could stop it, the face pieced together out of the wisps of his consciousness. Tiny nose. Wide, expressive mouth. High cheekbones.

Nic.

A deep moan rumbled out of Gabe. Release powered down his spine, so intense it felt like it was frying the shit out of his nerve endings as it made its way to the head of his cock. He couldn’t even push the image aside. It was too late. Within seconds, it was Nic riding his cock, it was her clenching and dragging him under. He came, his back bowing as he spilled into his hand, onto the sheets in a powerful rush of sensations.

Gabe fell back to the bed, his chest rising and falling heavily. When was the last time he’d jerked off and it felt like that?

Not since he was a goddamn teenager.

At least it was the twenty-two-year-old Nic he was jerking off to and not the eighteen-year-old version. There was that, right?

No.

That wasn’t any better. Not at all.

“Shit,” he growled, heart racing as he let go of his dick and dropped his hand to the sheets. He stared at the ceiling.

This . . . shit; this was going to be a problem.

Fresh flowers arrived Tuesday afternoon, like they had for years. It was something the de Vincents’ mother started and after she’d passed, Nikki’s mother continued the tradition, personally picking out the arrangements.

Ten large bouquets were delivered, all identical. The crisp white lilies were seated among white cushion and bronzed, disbudded chrysanthemums. They were arranged in mercury glass julep vases that belonged to the de Vincents.

Nikki snapped a quick picture and sent it to her mom, knowing she took great pride in the bouquets. Then she went about placing them throughout the designated areas. The flowers were heavy, but the ones downstairs were easy. She carried one to each of the dining rooms and seven more went to various sitting rooms on the main floor.

Only one had to go upstairs, thank God. Her arms were already starting to ache from having to carry the heavy bouquets. Dev liked one in his office, so she took the back staircase and headed upstairs.

She was feeling a little out of shape when her legs started to burn as she reached the second level. Maybe she should run for something other than beignets, because goodness, she felt like she needed to sit down.

Shifting the vase into the nook of her arm, she turned the knob. It didn’t budge. “What the hell?”

Nikki tried it again, but it was locked. She stood there for a moment, as if it would magically unlock or an explanation would come out of the thin air as to why the door was locked.

She even tried it again.

Nothing.

Groaning, she turned and looked up the third flight of stairs. She could try that door and then access the second floor from the outside stairwell. Her gaze dropped to the pretty flowers.

“Ugh.”

Nikki climbed to the third level, and hallelujah, that door was unlocked. She entered the third floor, keeping her gaze on the beams of sunlight streaming through the door at the end of the hall. When she passed the open archway to the right, she didn’t look. That was the hall that led to Gabe’s apartment.

She hurried down the corridor and then out onto the porch. Cradling the vase in both hands again, she kept her gaze glued to the white boards of the floor as she hung a left.

The last time she’d been on this very porch was that night—she cut those thoughts off. Gabe had said his piece. She had said hers. Sort of. Either way, she wasn’t going to think about that anymore.

Nikki reached the top of the stairs and started to step down. A floorboard creaked behind her. Someone was up here? She turned.

Weight slammed into her back, between her shoulder blades. Shoved hard, her foot slipped on the edge of the step. A startled scream punched out of her as she tipped over. There wasn’t enough time to drop the flowers so she could grab the railing. She pitched forward, into the air and then down, over the steep, hard stairs.

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