She also knew it was easier said than done.

“Seriously, Nikki. I’ve known you for how many years now? You’re a good woman, and it’s time for you to get some good in return.”

Nikki opened her mouth.

Rosie wasn’t done. “You don’t let any guy get close to you. And poor Calvin? He was a good guy, Nikki. He wasn’t a stray.”

She winced at the mention of her ex-boyfriend.

“He was patient and understanding, but you didn’t love him. You could’ve fallen in love with him, but you didn’t let yourself love him.”

Her gaze lifted to her friend and her dumb throat started to thicken. Rosie was dropping truth bombs like it was D-Day.

“You’re not going to be able to move on, have fun, and maybe find someone until you let all that bullshit go.” Rosie sounded surprisingly sober in that moment. “You were eighteen and blinded by your first love. You made dumb choices because of it. You didn’t murder someone. You didn’t set out to trick him. It happened. It’s over. Stop punishing yourself.”

Her lips lifted in a weak smile. “You’re gonna make me cry.”

“Don’t do that. You’ll ruin your mascara, and then you won’t have any hopes of being a ho tonight.”

Nikki broke out into a loud laugh. “I’m not ho-ing tonight.”

A guy walking past their table glanced over with interest. He stopped.

“You couldn’t afford her,” Rosie said, dismissing him. “Move along.”

“Oh, geez.” Nikki swallowed a giggle. “Thank you. I think I . . . I think I needed to hear all of that.”

“You did.” Leaning over, Rosie kissed her cheek. “You’re too young to live like you’re my age, because I don’t even live like that. Now let’s order a shot.”

Thankfully their night stopped at one shot and didn’t turn into the kind of night where you ended up in the French Quarter, stumbling through what was most definitely not puddles of just water.

The night had been good, though. Nikki truly realized it as she said goodbye to Rosie, who was heading to a friend’s place instead of her apartment on Chartres. She had punished herself long enough for being young, dumb, and in love once upon a time. Not anymore. Starting right now, she was letting it go. All of it.

Hopefully her new motto in life wasn’t fueled by liquid courage.

She’d called for an Uber as she’d walked out of the bar, but as she scanned the street, she didn’t see the green Prius that was supposed to be coming for her. Checking her app, she sighed when she saw the car was still over on Canal, stuck in traffic.

That was going to take fifteen minutes or more for the driver to get to Uptown. Sighing, she curled her arm around her waist as she eyed the benches along the building. Most of them were full of people chatting and smoking.

At least it was a nice night, not raining or too ridiculously hot. She moved to stand by the curb and looked down Freret, spying a huge crowd near where the comedy theater used to be. What were they doing? Probably a street performer or an overdose. One never knew in New Orleans. Tucking her hair back behind her ear, she looked away and tipped her head up. Stars were out, battling against the twinkling lights of the city. When she’d been at Tuscaloosa, she’d missed the sights and sounds of New Orleans.

She started to glance down at her phone, but stopped when a weird sensation skated along the nape of her neck. Turning to the side, she almost expected to find someone walking up behind her, but there was no one there. No one really paying attention to her, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes drilling holes through her back. Not until the green Prius finally showed up. Not until she was back home, safe in bed.

It felt like Nikki had only slept for a few hours when there was a knock on her bedroom door, followed by her father calling her name.

Pushing the covers off her head, she sat up, wincing as the harsh morning sun did a number on her poor eyes and head. “Yeah?” she croaked out, and then groaned. She sounded terrible. “What, Dad?”

“You awake?” he called out.

Uh, now she was. Sitting up, she pushed the rat’s nest of hair out of her face. “Yeah. You can come in.”

The door cracked open and her father stuck his head in. “You have a visitor.”

“What?” She squinted at him and then looked at the clock on her nightstand. It was nine in the morning. No one she knew would be at her house at nine in the morning on a Sunday.

Her dad’s face was strangely blank. “It’s a very odd visitor . . .” He looked over his shoulder. “Come downstairs.”

She watched her dad close the door. “What the hell?”

The air around her didn’t answer, so after a moment of sitting there trying to clear the cobwebs of sleep from her mind, she threw the covers off and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She started toward her bathroom, but decided against it. Whoever was downstairs wouldn’t require brushed hair or a fresh face. And since she was wearing loose flannel bottoms and a cami with a built-in bra, all she grabbed was a lightweight cardigan.

Smothering a yawn, she headed down the narrow hall and staircase. She shuffled into the kitchen, relieved when she smelled coffee.

She was going to need a gallon of that stuff and a handful of aspirins.

Trailing a hand over the worn wallpaper in the cozy dining room, she hung a right and then the kitchen came into view.

Nikki came to a sudden stop.

Was she still drunk from last night? Had she drunk more than she realized? Because that had to be the case.

That was the only option, because there was no way Gabriel de Vincent was sitting in her parents’ kitchen with a smoothie in front of him.

Chapter 11

Gabe could barely keep the smile off his face. It was a struggle, and he ended up pressing his fingers over his mouth, because Nic looked thoroughly confused. He couldn’t blame her for that. And she also looked . . . adorably rumpled. Like she’d just rolled out of a bed and come down here.

Her wide eyes lost the unfocused quality to them. “What’s going on?” Her gaze bounced around the kitchen, landing on where her father stood, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Is Mom okay?”

“Your mom is in bed,” her father answered, turning from the counter. “She’s feeling a little run down, but she’s okay.”

“Okay.” She glanced at Gabe, worry creeping into her face. “Is everything all right on your end?”

That surprised him. After the way he’d been treating her, he couldn’t believe that she would even care if things weren’t okay. “Yeah, they are.”

Her mouth opened, but she didn’t speak, and Gabe found himself staring at her mouth. He didn’t notice how full her lips were. Plump, actually. Or maybe he did notice and just never acknowledged it before.

Probably the latter.

“He says he was in the neighborhood and thought he’d swing by and say hi,” her father answered, tone deadpanned. “Though I can’t imagine why he’d be in our neighborhood at nine on a Sunday morning.”

It wasn’t the greatest reasoning he’d ever come up with. “I was out driving around. Couldn’t sleep and found myself near here.” That part wasn’t exactly a lie, but him being here wasn’t by accident. “I picked up a smoothie. Strawberry.”

Nic stared at him.

Her father cleared his throat as he shuffled over the tile floors in his slippers. “I’ll be upstairs,” he announced, patting Nic on the shoulder. “If you guys need anything.”

Gabe smiled at her father and waited until he disappeared around the corner before he spoke. “You still like smoothies, right?”

She was still gaping at him. “Are you . . . high?”

“What?” he laughed. “No.”

Nic glanced over her shoulder and a moment passed. “Are you sure about that?”

Fighting a grin, he nodded.

“So, you were out driving around and decided to pick up a smoothie and bring it to me?”

“Yes.” He couldn’t stop the grin now. Not with that completely blown-away look on her face. “Is it that hard to believe?”

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