“Well, believe it, because I am. Have you slept with anyone else?”

Nikki gaped at him. “I am not answering that question.”

One side of his lips kicked up. “And why not?”

“You seriously don’t know why?” Popping forward in her seat, she gripped the edge of the table. “Okay. I’m done talking about me. Let’s talk about you.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Whatever happened between you and that chick you dated when you were in college? The one you were in love with?” She watched him pull back, satisfied and annoyed. “What was her name? Emma?”

His expression hardened. “We’re not talking about that.”

The annoyance was now outweighing the satisfaction of putting him in his place. “Well, now you know how it feels to be on the receiving end of those kinds of questions.”

“It’s different.”

“Really?” She cocked her head to the side. “How so?”

“Because I loved her and you didn’t love this guy.”

Nikki sucked in a sharp breath. There. He said what she always suspected about the girl he dated in college. He had loved her. And because she was a grade-A idiot, she asked, “Do you still love her?”

Gabe looked away, his shoulders tense. A heartbeat passed, and something . . . something inside of Nikki, near the vicinity of her useless heart, cracked a little, and that was insane, because it proved that he still held a place there.

“I will always love her.”

The lunch had fallen apart after that.

Neither of them really said much of anything and the walk back was about as fucking awkward as a damn monkey trying to fuck a football.

Gabe couldn’t believe she brought up Emma.

Hell, his brothers knew better than to go there. Well, except Lucian, but he knew when to shut the hell up about her.

But Nic?

She’d flat out asked him the one question that not even Lucian had the balls to ask. She may not know his whole history with Emma, but Nic was observant. She saw enough to know that was a no-go with him.

And fuck him if he hadn’t answered it honestly.

What he said was true. A part of him would always love Emma and that fact ate at him—had been eating at him for years.

Unable to sit and work like he planned, he left Nic at the workshop, got in his car, and drove. Without realizing it, he found himself pulling into Metairie Cemetery. Parking alongside the manicured green lawns, he climbed out and started walking, making his way past the famous pyramid as a light breeze stirred the trees above, sending leaves floating to the ground.

He wasn’t alone.

People strolled past him. Some were tourists. Others were there visiting tombs of their loved ones. Cemeteries were a big deal in New Orleans. They were old, but even the newer ones were busy. There were always people dying, always people grieving. A lot of money was spent on the dead.

Gabe cut between a row of tombs. Up ahead, he saw the tall mausoleum, guarded by not one but two weeping angels.

Back in the day, the de Vincents used the crypt that was on the back of the property, nearer the swamp. He wasn’t sure why the family started burying people at Metairie. Probably because the family crypt on their property couldn’t keep up with all the deaths.

This was where his grandmother was buried, along with several aunts and uncles. The man that raised him, the man he always believed was his father, was here, along with his mother.

And after Madeline, his sister, had died, for real this time, she had been interred privately. An endeavor that had cost Dev a lot of money to keep quiet.

Madeline would’ve killed him—killed all of them—but she was still family. Fucked-up family, but family nonetheless. She hadn’t been placed next to their mother.

Hell no.

Gabe stepped to the side and sat down on the bench. Squinting in the sunlight, he reached inside his pocket and pulled out his phone. Scrolling through his contacts, he hit Call and lifted the phone to his ear.

Samuel Rothchild answered on the third ring, and like always, the man was as blunt as a fingernail. “You said you’d give us three months. You’re just now coming up on a month.”

Felt longer than that. “I’m not going back on the promise I made you.”

There was a beat of silence. “Then why are you calling, Gabriel?”

His jaw hardened as he closed his eyes. “I wanted to check and see how everyone is doing.”

“Everyone is fine,” was the clipped response.

Gabe sighed. “I know you don’t like me and I know you’re worried about what I’m going to do. I get that. But I have a right to make this phone call. I have the right to a lot more, Samuel.”

“Five years, Gabriel.”

“Yeah, five years of me not having a single clue.” Irritation filled his tone as he opened his eyes. “You can’t forget that. You can’t put that on me. If I’d known, I’d have been there five years ago.”

There was another pause of silence. “I know. That’s what scares us.”

Jaw working, he shook his head as he lifted his gaze to the clouds slowly drifting across the sky. “How is he?”

There was a heavy sigh. “He’s doing good. Has a bit of a cold, but nothing serious.”

Gabe’s hand tightened on his phone. “Shit. You’re sure it’s just a cold?”

“Just a cold.” Samuel’s voice softened a bit. “He was asking about you. Wanted to know when you were coming back.”

That was a damn sucker punch to his chest. “And what did you tell him?”

“I told him you had business to attend to, but you would be back,” he replied. “Didn’t lie to him.”

“Thank you.” There was so much he wanted to say, but pressure clamped down on his chest, shutting off those words, leaving the only thing he could say. “Take care of my son, Samuel.”

Chapter 17

Gabe knew she was probably expecting things to be awkward between them after their lunch, and he couldn’t blame her, especially how it ended, but when he saw her on Monday, he made it a point to not act like a jackass.

Seemed to work, because even though she was a little stiff around him at first, she loosened up and relaxed.

The smoothie and chocolate chip cookie he brought her probably helped smooth things over.

And when she mentioned that she was thinking about going to the workshop in the evening, after work, he’d been . . . interested in hearing that. With a busy afternoon, he wasn’t able to get to the shop himself until after dinner. It conveniently worked out.

So there they sat Tuesday evening, working almost side by side as the traffic from outside hummed in the background.

Gabe had new orders to work on. One being a wine rack to match a cabinet he’d done for the governor a few years back. While that was a smaller piece, it required more time due to the design. He’d cut the frame yesterday and pieced it together.

“How’s your mother doing?” he asked, realizing he hadn’t asked about her in a bit.

Nic looked up from where she sat cross-legged on the floor instead of at the desk. He kind of liked that about her. “She’s doing okay, but . . .” She drew in a deep breath as she stared down at the bead she was working on. “She’s really worn out. The treatment is taking a lot out of her.”

Concern for the woman who was basically a second mom to him rose. “She’s a really strong woman, though.”

“I know, but I don’t think it matters how strong anyone is.” She bit down on her lower lip. “Her white cell count dropped and they had to give her a booster shot before they could continue with the chemo.”

“Did the shot work?”

She nodded. “Yeah, it did.”

He could see the worry etched into her face, and he wanted to ease some of her concern, but he knew that all he had for her were words. “She’ll be okay.”

Nic peeked up again. “You think so?”

“I do.” Well, he hoped so. He really fucking did.

A smile appeared, and damn, she went from gorgeous to mind-numbingly beautiful in a nanosecond. Nothing about her in that moment reminded him of the Nic who grew up following him around.

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