She wondered that herself and then she usually stopped thinking about that when she did because it made her wonder if she was being a doormat for her heart.

“But the most inexcusable thing I did was not tell you about William and how I responded when you questioned me about him. I was caught off guard. My defenses went up. That’s no excuse,” he said. “I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? What’s the real reason if it wasn’t because you didn’t think it was my business?”

He looked away, his chest rising with a heavy breath. “Honest? I was embarrassed. Not that I have a son. God no. But that I have a son who is being raised by his grandparents. I have a son that I didn’t know about for five years. A son that I’m still not raising and who’s living a few hours from me. It’s not an easy thing to share.”

“I get that. I really do, but you didn’t know he existed until his grandparents called you. You can’t blame yourself for not being there for him.”

“Are you seriously defending me right now?” He sounded shocked.

“I still think you’re an asshole for how you treated me,” she said, meaning it. “But I’m just telling it how it is. She kept William from you, for whatever reason. That’s not your fault.”

“But I’m not with him now.”

“Because you’re giving his grandparents time to deal with it. Look, I’m not saying you’re handling this perfectly, but you’re doing the best you can in a messed-up situation.”

He was quiet for a long moment. “You know, I’ll never know why she didn’t tell me about him. Like what is so fucked-up about me that she didn’t want me to know I have a son?”

“Don’t do that to yourself.” She scooted forward, ignoring the ache in her ribs. “You’re not perfect and your family is a little weird, but whatever reason she kept him a secret from you is on her, not you.”

When Gabe didn’t continue, she pressed on. “I’ve known you since I was a kid. I know you, Gabe. There isn’t anything that would make me think that you’d be a bad father. That there’d be any reason why I wouldn’t want you in a child’s life.”

“Even if you knew that I helped murder someone?”

Her stomach knotted. “I already know.”

“What?” He paled.

“Sabrina told me when she told me about William. I just didn’t get a chance to bring it up and I thought, well . . .”

“Well what?”

She exhaled roughly. “I know what happened to Emma. Maybe it makes me a bad person, but he got what he deserved. I mean, am I supposed to feel bad for someone who did that?”

He said nothing.

“And I . . .” She drew in a deep breath. “I killed Parker.”

“That’s different. You were defending yourself.”

“And you were defending the woman you loved.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

She met his gaze. “If she decided to keep you out of William’s life because of what happened with her attacker, then that’s her choice. I can’t blame her for it. I can only say what I would do if it were me.”

An intensity filled his stare. “And what would you have done?”

“I would’ve wanted to help you.”

He let out a choked-sounding laugh. “You would.”

“I would,” she insisted. “I hate the fact that I . . . that I killed someone, but I did it to survive, and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I know what happened with that guy isn’t the same, but it sure as hell gives you a new perspective on things.”

Gabe nodded slowly as she watched him. She got it, why he’d kept such a big secret from her. She still didn’t like it. Could she forgive him?

Was he worth forgiving?

In her heart of hearts, she already knew the answer to that question.

One side of his lips kicked up. “You know, I kind of pictured this conversation happening under different circumstances. Maybe a candlelight dinner or after we fucked each other senseless.”

Her stomach twisted in the most pleasant way at the last part.

He pushed away from the railing. “But a wise man that you know fairly well told me that there’s no wrong time to tell someone that you love them.”

Nikki stared at him, unsure if she heard him correctly or not. “What?” she whispered.

His grin turned shy, almost boyish. “I love you, Nic.”

“Since when?” she blurted out.

He laughed, long and deep. “I don’t know. I think maybe it was when you told me to clean my own rooms.”

She drew back. “That’s when?”

“Well, yeah, that and maybe it was the first time you came while saying my name.”

“Maybe you should stop giving examples.”

Laughing, he reached between them, gently cupping her cheeks. “I don’t know the exact moment, but I know it happened. Maybe it was all at once. Maybe it was a slow thing. I don’t know, but what I do know is that it’s real. What I feel for you is not just lust—even though I feel a lot of that, don’t get me wrong. It’s deeper. It’s heavier. It makes me think about things I never thought I would think about again.”

Her heart was thundering in her chest. “Like what?”

His gaze searched hers. “Like moving in together. Maybe getting a pet fish and then we’ll go and adopt one of those dogs you work with. Small steps and then bigger ones. Like going out and finding the biggest, most obnoxious ring that still won’t be big enough to put on your finger. Like starting a family, one with William and you, and maybe another kid or two.”

She sucked in a soft gasp. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, but every instinct was telling her that he was being for real.

“So, yeah, I love you, Nic.” He dragged a thumb along her lip, careful not to hit the still-healing part. “And if you don’t love me anymore, I’m going to spend however long it takes making you fall in love with me again. And I have a lot of time on my hands. I’m a de Vincent. I get what—”

“I love you, you idiot,” she said, laughing as stupid tears filled her eyes. “I mean, if I didn’t I wouldn’t still be here. I didn’t—”

Gabe’s lips met hers, and the kiss was soft and sweet and careful. The kind of kiss she dreamt about when she was younger, because it was a kiss of a man in love. She could tell the difference. Sounded crazy, but it was true.

She gripped his arms, blinking back tears as he lifted his mouth from hers. When she was younger, she’d dreamt of this moment, might’ve even prayed for it a time or two, and the reality was so much more beautiful and raw than she could’ve prepared for. Emotion swirled inside her, messy and bright and consuming.

Her voice shook as she said, “I love you, Gabe.”

“I will never grow tired of hearing you say that. Never.” Gabe then got an arm under her legs and the next thing she knew he was lifting her into his arms, blanket and all. He cradled her to his chest as he carried her inside. “And I’m going to spend the next couple of hours proving just that to you.”

Chapter 36

Nikki had never been more grateful than she was at that very moment that Gabe had stayed the night at her place. It didn’t have anything to do with what happened in her apartment over a month ago. Though Gabe had stayed with her several nights after she returned to her apartment. He’d been with her for what turned out to be her first full night in this apartment.

If she hadn’t loved him then, she would’ve fallen in love that night, when she couldn’t get comfortable in her new place and he was there to distract her. When she woke in the middle of the night, afraid that someone was breaking into her place, he was there to get out of bed, check all the locks and door, and then hold her until she finally fell back asleep.

And that night had rinsed and repeated several nights until the trauma of living through what Parker had tried to do subsided just enough that she’d slept through the night.

The gratefulness didn’t have anything to do with the fact they had to get up somewhat early, because they had to hit the road.

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