“Yes.” Then she nodded for extra emphasis. “Yes, it is.”

His gut clenched at her honest response and his grin faded. “I wanted to talk to you.”

Nic stood extremely still and after a long moment he half expected her to ask him to leave. If she did, it was about to get awkward, because he wasn’t leaving until they talked.

But then she gathered the edges of the thin gray sweater and tugged it around her waist. “We can go out back. It’s probably still cool outside.”

“It is.” Rising from the chair, he picked up the smoothie and walked around the table. “Not much has changed here.”

She looked at him warily. “No, it hasn’t.” She stepped out into a hall lined with photos of her, all through the ages.

“I like it.”

“Really?” she said dryly.

“Yeah, it’s cozy. It’s . . . real.” He checked out the photos as she made her way toward the back door. One caught his attention. It was a senior portrait by the looks of it. The wide, proud smile on her pixieish face wasn’t one he’d seen in a while. “You can tell a family actually lives here.”

Nic looked over her shoulder at him, but didn’t respond. He was speaking the truth, though. He’d only been once before, and that had been a brief trip, but it smelled the same to him. Like apple pie. His family home, on the other hand, smelled like disinfectant and fresh linen. Always. And there were no pictures. No smiling faces. Not out where anyone could see them.

When Gabe was younger and with Emma, he always thought this was what he’d have eventually with her. A house smaller than the de Vincent compound, one that was warmer and full of photos of them on vacations and eventually framed pictures of their children, chronicling every important moment.

He didn’t get that.

He wasn’t ever going to get that.

Nic opened the door and stepped out onto a small patio that fed into a narrow courtyard. Overhead, an ivy-covered awning cast a thick shadow over the old iron chairs and the wooden swing, blocking out the morning sun.

The smoothie was starting to make his fingers wet. “Do you want this?”

She glanced down at it and then snatched it out of his hands like he was going to take it back from her. “Thank you,” she muttered, clutching the plastic container and backing up to the swing. She sat down. “Pretty sure my father doesn’t believe you were out there, just driving around aimlessly.”

He watched her for a moment and then sat in one of the old chairs across from her. “Do you remember the last time I was here?”

Not answering him, she took a sip of the smoothie from the straw.

“You were sixteen and you got drunk at your friend’s house.”

“I wasn’t drunk,” she grumbled after a moment. “I was buzzing.”

He struggled to keep his lips from kicking up into a smile. “You were drunk, Nic. If I remember correctly, it was the first time you ever really drank. You called me because you and your friend got into a fight and you wanted to go home, but you didn’t want to wake up your parents.” He paused. “You called me, and I came.”

Several strands of hair had fallen forward, shielding her face as she continued to drink the smoothie. Damn. Her hair had gotten a lot longer.

“You puked in my car,” he added.

Nic stopped slurping.

“And then you cried, because you were afraid I’d be mad at you.” And he had been mad. Not that she’d vomited in his Porsche, but because she’d been drinking that much in the first place.

She lifted her head. “Is there any reason why you’re talking about this?”

He wasn’t sure himself, so he lifted a shoulder. “I brought you home. Your dad was up. Thought he was going to lock you up for life after that.”

Nic went back to attacking her smoothie.

“There were a lot of times like that. You called. I came. I didn’t even think about how that would look to outsiders. Fully grown man answering the beck and call of a teenage girl who wasn’t related to him. Looking back, that should’ve raised some red flags.”

“You thought of me as a sister,” she muttered around the straw. “You weren’t being a pervert.”

“True.” He watched the slight breeze play with her hair.

“Why are you here? It can’t be for this—this walk down memory lane. You came to talk about something else.”

There was a lot they needed to talk about.

This conversation could’ve waited, but Gabe didn’t wait on things he knew he needed to do. He’d wanted to search her down last night, but it had been late, and by the looks of it, Nikki wouldn’t have been in any condition to have a serious conversation.

Which made him very, very curious about what the hell she’d been doing last night. “You look a little hungover.”

She peeked up through lashes he didn’t remember being quite as thick before. “A little.”

His eyes narrowed and he found himself liking the idea of her drinking now just as much as he did when she was younger. “What were you doing?”

She lowered the smoothie, which seemed like a great feat considering half of it was already gone. “I met up with some friends at Cure.”

“Nice place.” A lot of the younger locals went there. “Get in late?”

“Not really.” Her brows were furrowed together, like she was trying to figure out the purpose behind what he was saying. “Why are you here, Gabe?”

Her attitude didn’t bother him. Just like it hadn’t bothered him when she told him to clean his own rooms. It had done something else entirely. It was doing something else now.

He leaned forward in the chair. “You had a crush on me.”

“Gabe—”

“Just hear me out, okay? I’m not here to make you feel like shit, and I get that you probably think I am. I’ve given you no reason to believe otherwise, but I’m not. I just want to . . . talk.”

The look of suspicion eased only slightly from her face. “Then talk.”

He bit back a grin. “You had a crush on me, and I knew you did. I thought it was harmless.”

Nic visibly stiffened.

“And that night, when you came to me?” His voice dropped low. “When I let you inside, it wasn’t like I forgot that you had those feelings. I shouldn’t have let you in. I’m going to take responsibility for that. I wasn’t so drunk that I forgot who you were.”

She lowered the smoothie to her lap.

“I know we’ve both said things about that night, but I haven’t said what really needed to be said,” he continued, trying not to notice how a pink flush was creeping across her cheeks. “I was drunk, but I wasn’t so drunk that I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Her lips parted in a sharp inhale that was lost in the breeze.

He drew in a deep breath. “I was drunk enough to not care.”

Nic blinked slowly. “Then why . . . why did you . . . ?”

“Not tell you that before? I don’t know. I was a dick about it. No excuse.”

Her brow snapped again and she looked like she was about to say something, but changed her mind.

“We both made mistakes that night. It wasn’t just you. I want you to know that,” he said, meaning it. “I need you to know that. It’s important . . . to me.”

Nic’s throat worked on a swallow as she looked away. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I . . . I hated myself for that night.”

There was a twisting motion in his chest and he was moving before he even knew what he was doing. He crossed the distance between them and sat down on the swing beside her, relieved that the old thing didn’t come crashing down when her wide-eyed gaze collided with his again.

“Stop,” he said as quietly as she spoke. “Stop hating yourself. We both did wrong. It’s over. It’s in the past.”

“But . . . you hate me—”

“No, I don’t.” As fucked-up as it was, part of him wished he did, because then all of this mess would be easier to deal with. “I don’t hate you, Nic. And I hope you don’t hate me. Not that I’d blame you if you did. I’ve been a fucking dick to you and I’m sorry for that.”

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