She threw her hands up. “He’s a de Vincent!”
Gabe moved into her space, his voice dropping low. “And you know I’m nothing like Dev.”
“This has nothing to do with you or Devlin.” Frustration pricked at her skin. What in the hell? “Let me get back on topic here. I’m not interested in anything to do with Parker, but if I was, that’s none of your business, Gabe.”
“Is that so?” A ghost of a smile curled at his mouth.
“Yes.” She glared at him. “But contrary to what you think, I don’t go around throwing myself at guys, so—”
“Really?” he replied dryly. “That hasn’t been my experience.”
Nikki jerked back as if she’d been slapped. The anger twisted into something ugly deep inside her, causing her chest to squeeze. What Gabe was saying cut into her.
“You think that because—” She sucked in a breath, stepping away from Gabe. “You think that because of what I did when I was eighteen? You honestly think I throw myself at guys?”
He didn’t respond, but a shadow crossed his face. Looked like regret for a moment, but then his striking features smoothed out. She’d have to be crazy if she really thought he felt bad for saying that.
Nikki shook her head, her throat thickening. “I’ve spent the last four years regretting that night, thinking I’d scraped the bottom of that big old barrel of regret, but I was wrong. Because I haven’t regretted it more than I do right now.”
That shadow was back. “Nic—”
“I get it. You think the worst of me. I understand that, but I was eighteen and I made a mistake that I’ve been paying for in ways you have no fucking idea. I am not that same girl.” Her voice shook. “But you don’t know that. You don’t know me at all.”
As embarrassing as it was to acknowledge, Nikki went home that night and cried like she was that very same girl she’d told Gabe she wasn’t, and that pissed her off. Why did his super-wrong assumption hurt that badly?
The answer, the only answer, terrified her.
Because it had to mean that a stupid, asinine part of her still cared about what he thought and how he felt—cared beyond the superficial level, and that was unacceptable.
Nikki was over him—over her silly infatuation. That’s what she kept telling herself over the weekend and when she arrived at the de Vincent compound the following Monday. And when thoughts of Gabe crept unwanted into her head, she got her shit straight, right then and there, focusing on more important things.
Like what the hell was she going to do after this?
As highly as she thought of her parents’ jobs here, this was not what she wanted from life. While she walked all the poor doggies at the shelter on Sunday, she went over her options in nauseating detail. Having not made up her mind yet about continuing on in her education to get a master’s or doctorate in social work or going straight to work, she only knew one thing. That no matter what, she wanted to stay close to home.
The health scare with her mother showed her that time with her parents was running out. As much as she hated to admit it, even when her mom got better—and she would get better—the years weren’t stretched out in front of her like they used to be.
So Nikki was staying local no matter what.
Either way, she needed to find a cheap and safe place to live. What little money she had saved up from the part-time job working in the campus bookstore wasn’t going to get her very far, but she was getting a paycheck from the de Vincents, which made her feel weird. Her parents refused to allow her to hand over the whole paycheck. She knew they needed the money with everything going on, so after a whole lot of arguing, she was pocketing half and giving the rest to them.
And that felt right, because she was nowhere near as good at running the de Vincent household as her mom was.
Something she was sure Devlin was thinking every time he saw her.
First thing she needed to do was to find a place. Then she would decide what to do in terms of her career, and maybe she’d find someone to . . . distract her. Hadn’t exactly worked well in college, but she’d decided that she hadn’t fully committed herself to being with someone.
She’d dated Calvin most of her junior and senior year. Even taken him home one Mardi Gras to meet her parents. He’d been a really good guy, but she hadn’t . . . yeah, she hadn’t really been there, and he’d sensed that. Calvin had eventually given up on her.
No more of that nonsense.
She was going to go on a date—no, dates, and she wouldn’t compare how she used to feel toward Gabe to how she felt about every man she met since then.
There would be no more of that.
Focusing on her actual life and what to do with it helped her not fall down that rabbit hole known as Gabe. Operation Avoid Him at All Costs, OAHAC for short, was working.
Mainly because he hadn’t showed up for dinner since last Thursday and whenever she saw him in the halls or heard his voice, she engaged ninja stealth mode and darted into whatever room was nearby.
A few times she wasn’t successful.
Now was about to become one of them, because she could hear him talking on the phone as she just finished stacking fresh towels outside the sauna.
They had a sauna.
Whipping toward the open door, she wished she’d thought about locking it behind her. She looked over her shoulder. Could she hide in the sauna? Okay, that was excessive. She felt like she did when she was younger, stuck in the pool in her ugly one-piece bathing suit, too embarrassed and awkward to even move.
What was it about this house that made her feel like she’d taken one giant leap backward when it came to personal growth?
“Yeah, I’ll have the frame finished up by the beginning of next weekend,” he was saying, and there was a pause while Nikki seriously considered throwing open the nearby window and crawling out of it.
The air hitched in Nikki’s throat. His laugh. It had been so long since she had heard that sound. It was deep and infectious, and tugged at the corners of her lips. It made her think of lazy summer afternoons when she’d do something stupid just to hear his laugh.
Nikki hadn’t heard that laugh in years.
“The freight charge is going to be the least of his worries.” He was getting closer.
“Damn,” she muttered as she realized she was completely trapped if he came in here.
A second later, Gabe was in the doorway, and her heart stopped in her chest and then restarted, pounding way too fast.
Gabe was shirtless.
Code red! Code red!
Her brain screamed as her greedy, gluttonous eyes took in every bare inch of his skin. Not like she hadn’t seen him shirtless before. She’d seen him hundreds of times without a shirt and she had seen him naked. This wasn’t anything new, but it had been a long time and her memories hadn’t done him justice.
Nikki shouldn’t look, but she couldn’t even help herself. The nylon pants he wore hung indecently low, showing off those drool-worthy indents on either side of his hips. His stomach was ripped. She knew he had that wickedly defined six pack because the man worked out religiously. There was a faint line of hair that trailed from his navel, down his lower stomach, disappearing under the nylon pants. Her heart skipped a beat as she forced her gaze up over the smooth skin of his pecs and the broad width of his shoulders. Earbuds hung from a cord around his neck. He had his hair pulled back into a small bun that was oddly and ridiculously attractive to her.
Only a handful of seconds had passed from the moment Gabe walked into the gym, and she knew the exact moment he realized she was there, standing petrified by the rack of towels.
His gaze connected with hers, and the grin slipped off his face. “Hey, I’ve got to go.”
Didn’t seem like he waited for a response, because a heartbeat later he was lowering the phone. Her heart was currently lodged somewhere in her throat.
Almost a week had passed since they’d last spoken.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked.
“I was putting fresh towels away.”
“Sort of looks like you’re just standing there, frozen like a statue.”
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