Nikki glanced over at him, and found that he was still watching. She wasn’t even sure he’d blinked at this point. “It’s good seeing you, Gabe.”

There.

She said it and sounded like she meant it, even though it wasn’t exactly true.

There were only two times in Gabe’s thirty-two years of life that a damn feather could’ve knocked him flat on his ass.

This was one of them.

Gabe still stared at the doorway Nic had walked out of, completely and utterly shocked. “Was that really her?”

Dev made a sound that was a cross between a laugh and a cough. “Little Nikki isn’t so little anymore, is she?”

Little Nikki hadn’t exactly been little the last time he’d seen her, but she hadn’t looked like that.

Holy shit, she didn’t have that ass or those tits the last time he’d seen her.

What the fuck? Did he seriously just think that?

Disgust churned in his gut. He would not—could not think of her tits or ass. Even acknowledge that she now had them aplenty based on how that shirt was stretched across her chest and how those jeans hugged her—

Damn it.

Didn’t matter that she was now in her twenties—barely in her twenties.

But shit, Nic had always been a cute girl. A scrawny and goofy-as-hell cute girl, but she was . . . she was now fucking beautiful.

He almost laughed.

The whole late-bloomer thing whirled around in his head, but it was true. Her face had filled out during her absence, finally matching those big brown eyes and that wide, expressive mouth.

She’d gone from cute to dangerously stunning.

Gabe couldn’t believe she was here. He forced himself to turn to his brother. “Were we unable to hire someone else?”

Because anyone would’ve been a better choice.

Dev arched a brow as he folded his arms. “As you know, we’ve had a problem retaining staff recently.”

That they did.

“And with what has happened here, I couldn’t help but accept when Richard brought up the idea of bringing Nikki in to fill her mother’s spot. She was already coming home. Plus, she knows how to mind her own business and keep quiet.”

Gabe’s jaw tightened. Nic definitely knew how to keep quiet. Lifting a hand, he dragged it through his hair. What in the hell? He honestly had no clue how to proceed with this newest development. Like he needed another damn issue in his life right now.

He’d honestly believed he was never going to see Nic again, at least not up close. Maybe from a distance, because distances were safe.

Shit.

How old was she now?

He quickly did the math in his head. Twenty-two. Her birthday was coming up. November. She’d be twenty-three then. Fuck. What he remembered of twenty-three was a whole lot of partying and screwing. That was a lifetime ago.

The stupidest question surfaced. Did she still make little bracelets and necklaces out of wood? He’d hoped so. The girl had a natural talent.

“Is this going to be a problem?” Dev asked softly.

He frowned, dropping his hand. “No. Why would it be?”

“Good question.”

His gaze narrowed on his older brother. There was no way Dev knew. Dev hadn’t even been home that messed-up weekend, four years ago, when Gabe made the second-biggest damn mistake of his life.

But his brother missed very little.

“You had such a strange, strong reaction to seeing her,” Dev pointed out.

“I was caught off guard.” That was the damn truth. “Wasn’t expecting to see her here. Shit. I thought something happened to Livie.”

Dev watched him quietly for a moment. “I thought you weren’t coming back until Thursday.”

“That was the plan.” Gabe sighed, looking at the doorway again. Hell. “But I decided to cut the trip short.”

“Things aren’t going our way in Baton Rouge?”

Gabe shook his head. As messed up as it was—and God, it was fucking messed up—he wasn’t even thinking about his trip to Baton Rouge now. His mind was nowhere near that place after seeing Nic. “Can’t blame them for it. They did me a favor by calling me in the first place, but they aren’t just going to let me waltz in there after five years.”

“We can make them.”

Gabe’s gaze sharpened. “Hell, no. You’re not stepping in on this, Dev. This is my life. This is my shit to deal with. It has nothing to do with the family.”

“It has everything to do with our family. William is—”

“Don’t.” Gabe met Dev’s gaze as his chest turned cold. “I am handling this the best way I see fit, Devlin. It does not involve you.”

A muscle flexed along Dev’s jaw, a rare show of emotion and for a moment, Gabe didn’t think he was going to let it drop. “Which reminds me,” he said. “As I was leaving Baton Rouge, I ran into Ross Haid.”

A mere glimpse of annoyance flickered across Dev’s face. “Let me guess. He wanted to talk about . . . Father?”

“And the police chief. And why we’re having problems hiring staff.”

“Of course,” Dev murmured. “He’s becoming quite annoying, which means he needs—”

“To be ignored,” Gabe said, holding his brother’s gaze. “He needs to just be ignored. Eventually he’ll move onto something else, Dev. That is all we’re going to do.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say.” A faint smile tipped the corners of his lips, and Gabe was ready to call bullshit on that. “By the way, Sabrina is coming over for dinner tonight.”

Jesus.

Could this day get any more twisted?

Well, he knew he wouldn’t be having dinner here then, because being on a different planet wasn’t a far enough distance between him and Dev’s fiancée. Wait. Something occurred to him. “Will Nic be serving the dinner?”

“Since we don’t have the staff, she will be assuming Mrs. Besson’s duties fully.”

And that meant she’d be serving dinner—serving Sabrina.

Fuck.

Standing in front of the large oven with her hands planted on the window, Nikki peered inside. Her stomach rumbled. The ham and cheese sandwich she’d made for herself before the awkward-to-end-all-awkward conversations with Devlin did nothing to stave off her overeager stomach. Her tiny lunch had been hours ago.

The chicken smelled amazing, like herbs and butter and home-cooked meals. And from what she could see, the skin was crisping perfectly.

God, it made her hungry.

It also reminded her of all the afternoons sitting on one of the nearby stools, watching her mom cook for the de Vincents. Granted, the stools were newer now, a sleek gray design with thick cushions, but being in this kitchen, in this home, made her feel like a kid again.

Nikki was a damn good cook if she said so herself and she had her momma to thank for that. She actually loved cooking, something she never got to do at her dorm room in Tuscaloosa or the small apartment she’d lived in her senior year. So when she did come home for the holidays, she loved getting in the kitchen with her mom and making stuffing, pies, and more.

Except this kitchen was nothing like the kitchen at home. This kitchen was nearly the same size of the entire downstairs of her parents’ house.

She rested her nose against the warm window. Who needed a kitchen this big? The de Vincents. That’s who. Hell, the entire home was ginormous. Three levels and two wings veering off from the main part; there were more bedrooms than Nikki could count and more rooms than anyone would ever have use for.

The de Vincent compound had been remodeled and rebuilt over and over, but it mirrored the style of the days that parts of the South still desperately clutched on to. Each level was accessible from the porches that circled the entire property, and she knew the brothers all had their private quarters and entrances, and they were basically apartments. Those quarters had living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms. Hell, their private rooms were, in fact, bigger than most apartments.

According to her father, Gabe and Dev were in the right wing and Lucian and his girlfriend were in the left wing of the house.

All the other bedrooms in between were empty, as was their mother’s room and their father’s. They had separate rooms, and she guessed none of the brothers wanted to take over those rooms.

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