“I couldn’t hate you,” she replied quickly, and the pink in her cheeks increased. “I mean, I don’t hate you.”

“Good.” Relief settled into his muscles, easing the tension around his neck. Maybe he’d be able to sleep past four a.m. now.

“But yeah, you’ve been a dick,” she added.

Gabe arched a brow as he looked away. His gaze was snagged by the nail polish on her toes. It was a teal-blue color. “I know. But I’m not going to be a dick anymore. Not when I want us to be friends.”

“Friends?” she squeaked like a little toy. Cute.

“Friends,” he repeated.

There was a good chance all of this was some kind of hallucination and maybe, just maybe, she and Rosie hadn’t stopped at one shot last night and now she was having imaginary conversations with Gabe.

That made more sense than him actually being at her house, with a smoothie, asking to be friends with her.

Gabe glanced over at her, sucking his lower lip between his teeth. “Do you want to be friends? If not, this convo is probably going to get really awkward.”

Her stupid-ass heart took over and she opened her mouth to scream yes, they could be friends, but she stopped herself.

Could they be friends?

Better yet, could she be friends with him, after everything? Did she want to be? After deciding last night that she had this new motto in life? Wait. What was that motto? She couldn’t remember, but she was sure it didn’t include being friends with Gabe.

“Nic?” His gaze searched her face.

“How?” she blurted out. “And I’m not talking about what happened between us. How can we be friends? You’re a de Vincent. My parents are your house staff.”

The corners of his lips turned down. “So? That has never been a problem before.”

“Well, I was also an annoying little girl that you felt bad for.”

His frown increased. “I didn’t feel bad for you.”

She snorted. “Whatever. What I’m trying to say is that we have nothing in common anymore.” She lifted the smoothie. “I know how to swim now, Gabe.”

“I don’t care if you don’t need me for swimming lessons.” He reached over, taking the smoothie from her. Her mouth dropped open.

He took her smoothie!

There was still at least two good slurps left. Ugh.

“And I think we have a lot in common,” he continued.

“Like what?”

“We both know how to take a plain block of wood and turn it into something amazing.”

Not anymore, but Nikki didn’t say that.

“And well, we both can legally drink now,” he quipped.

Her brows lifted. “That’s literally the best you can come up with?”

He grinned as he lifted the smoothie. “I was kidding.”

She was struck speechless as he folded those wonderful lips over the straw and finished off her drink—using the straw she’d just been drinking out of.

Okay.

Friends did that. They shared drinks and stuff.

But why were her lady bits suddenly very much awake?

She ignored those idiotic parts of her. “I work for your family now, Gabe. Your brother is my employer.”

He snorted. “If that was truly the case, you wouldn’t have mouthed off at me and told me to clean my own rooms.”

“Well, you should be cleaning your own apartment. I mean, come on. You aren’t that busy that you can’t clean up after yourself or actually serve your own ass food.”

A deep laugh rumbled out of him, and her chest seized at the sound. That laugh. Damn it. “See,” he said, leaning over and placing the empty smoothie on the nearby iron bistro-style table. “If you truly thought of yourself as an employee, those words would never come out of your mouth. You’d think them, but you wouldn’t say them.”

“Whatever,” she muttered, keeping her arms tight to her sides, so she wasn’t accidentally touching him.

“And by the way, I normally don’t have my dinners served.”

“What?” Her head swung toward him.

He was close, so close that she could see those faint lines around his eyes that hadn’t been there four years ago. “I usually get my own food unless it’s some kind of special occasion. I’ve never allowed your parents to serve me.”

“You had me serving you!” she exclaimed. “You had me getting you so much water I worried you had a kidney infection.”

Gabe let out another loud laugh. “I was being a dick.”

“Yes, you were!” Without thinking, she slapped his arm hard enough that her palm actually stung.

“Hey.” He was still chuckling. “Now you’re hitting me, so you’re just proving my point.”

Her eyes narrowed and then she asked probably the most important question. “Why do you want to be friends with me? I mean, I appreciate you apologizing and clearing the air. Trust me. You will never understand how much that—” Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. She wasn’t going to let him see how much that did mean. “I needed that, but we could just be . . . cool with one another. You know, not be mean to each other. We don’t have to be friends.”

His gaze found its way back to hers. “But what if that’s what I want?”

A tremor danced between her shoulder blades. Their gazes collided again and held. “Why?” she whispered. “Why would you want that?”

His gaze dropped and for a stuttered heartbeat, she thought he was looking at her mouth, but that made no sense whatsoever. Then his gaze was fastened to hers again. “Honest?”

“Honest.”

“I . . . I don’t know,” he said, and his lashes lowered. “I just know what I want.”

Nikki really had no response to that.

That half grin returned. “And you might as well agree to it.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a de Vincent,” he said. “And we always get what we want.”

She stared at him, unsure of what to make of any of what he was saying. “Is that so?”

“So.”

Her lips twitched as she looked away. She honestly didn’t know what to say to him. Wasn’t it just last night when she was saying to Rosie that she wanted things to go back to the way they were before that night? Gabe was offering that to her, but how he’d treated her since she’d been back had hurt and Gabe wasn’t the same guy she remembered. Neither was—crap! She shot out of the swing. “What time is it?”

“Don’t know.” He leaned back, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket. “It’s almost ten—”

“Damn it. I’m going to be late.”

“Late for what? It’s Sunday.”

“I know what day it is.” She hurried toward the back door. “I have to go.”

“Nic.” Gabe rose.

She yanked open the storm door. “We’ll have to pick up this conversation later.”

Or maybe never.

Never sounded good.

“What are you doing?” Nikki demanded as she drew up short, her car keys in one hand and purse in the other.

Gabe blocked her access to the driver’s door of her car. He was leaning against it actually, his arms folded across his chest, ankles crossed. He had donned a pair of silver aviator-style sunglasses, and as much as she hated to admit it, he looked good in them.

Real good.

A little under an hour had passed since she’d left Gabe on the back porch, having just enough time to shower, halfway blow-dry her hair, and pull it up in a bun. She’d figured he’d left, and honestly, she didn’t even have time to think about their conversation.

“Waiting,” he answered. “For you.”

Stepping around a little garden gnome her mom had by the sidewalk, she walked over to him. “I really don’t have time. I’m going to—”

“The shelter to walk the dogs,” he cut in. “I know. Your mother told me while I visited her.”

Nikki hadn’t even seen her mom this morning and Gabe had? Something was wrong with that. “Then you know I have to go.”

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