It wasn’t. It really wasn’t. “But I need to.” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I am sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am.”

Nothing about him softened. Not that she expected her apology to do so. “Do you even know how bad things could’ve gone?”

“I—”

“No,” he said, and Nikki quieted. “You didn’t give me a chance to say shit to you. Not in four years. Not when I tried to call you. Not when I tried to make sure you weren’t fucking hurt. You disappeared when you left for college. Dropped off the face of the planet and never came back.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” she asked. “Because I am pretty sure at one point that morning that you never wanted to see ‘my fucking face’ again.” A knot expanded at the back of her throat. It still hurt to even think about how he had looked at her, how utterly disgusted he’d been. “I remember you saying that.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“I also remember you telling me I dis—”

“I remember that,” he bit out.

“Then why are you asking me this? It’s not like you really wanted to talk to me or something,” she shot back, getting angry. She knew what she’d done was wrong, beyond wrong, but the anger was still building in her. Had he really expected her to answer those calls? After what he’d said to her? After he’d seen how devastated she’d been? There’d been no way she could’ve talked to him. She’d been embarrassed. Humiliated. And most importantly, her heart shattered into a million, stupid little pieces.

“But now you’re back,” he said. “Strolling back into my life like nothing happened.”

“I wasn’t exactly acting like nothing happened nor was I strolling anywhere—”

“Do you realize what could’ve happened to me if anyone ever found out?”

She gasped as her eyes shot wide. “I was eighteen, Gabe. Not a minor—”

“That doesn’t matter. You were still a fucking kid—”

“I was not a kid. I was eighteen.”

He barked out a harsh laugh. “Yeah, eighteen ain’t an adult, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart.

God.

Her chest cracked. He used to call her that and it actually sounded like a nice endearment. Not so much now.

It struck her then. Coming back here was a mistake. Nikki would do anything for her parents, but this . . . this wasn’t going to work.

And Gabe was on a roll. “If our roles were reversed and you were as drunk as I was, what do you think would’ve happened? If I had come to you when you were drunk off your ass and taken advantage of you?”

Tears of shame and regret crawled up her throat. That horrible sinking feeling threatened to drag her under.

Honest to God, she’d known he’d been drinking but she’d never seen Gabe seriously drunk. He wasn’t like Lucian back then. She’d figured that he’d had a few beers. That was all. She didn’t even realize until that following morning that he’d been so drunk he’d barely known what he was doing or who he was doing. But she’d realized that pretty damn quickly before he even woke up fully that morning.

Because he’d rolled over, curled his arm around her waist, and tugged her against his chest, holding her like he couldn’t even bear the thought of her getting out of the bed. And those brief seconds had been wonderful. Then he called her Emma, blowing up every stupid dream she had.

“I didn’t think you were that drunk,” she whispered.

His eyes widened with disbelief. “So you honestly thought that I’d want to screw an eighteen-year-old girl? A girl who was practically a sister to me? A girl who was ten years younger than me?”

Those tears were threatening to reach her eyes. She looked away, pressing her lips together as she shook her head. She would not cry. Damn it, she would not fucking cry.

“Christ,” he growled. “What in the hell did you think of me?”

Nikki was so not going to answer that question.

He cursed under his breath. “If your parents had found out what happened, it would’ve killed me. Literally and figuratively. Besides the fact your mother would’ve poisoned my dinner and your father would’ve fed me to the alligators, I respect the hell out of them.”

“I know,” she whispered. “I thought . . .”

“What were you thinking, Nic? I got that you had a crush on me, but seriously? Do you know—” He drew in a breath that sounded like he was striving for patience and not doing too well at it. “Do you know how much shit I gave myself for allowing that to happen between us?”

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said, meeting his gaze again. “It was all mine.”

Gabe was quiet for so long Nikki thought he might’ve lost his ability to speak. “What were you thinking?” he demanded again.

“I don’t know what I was thinking. It wasn’t like I planned to do that. I was eighteen and I was dumb and in—” She cut herself off.

No way in hell was she admitting that she’d been in love with him. That when she realized he’d been drunk and thought he was with someone else, it had broken her in ways she couldn’t even describe.

“Look, I am sorry. Trust me. I know what I did was wrong and I am sorry that you gave yourself a hard time over it. You were not at fault and you didn’t hurt me.”

Gabe finally, finally looked away.

She lifted her shoulders. “I’m not the same person.”

“No shit,” he muttered, and she had no idea what that meant.

Nikki continued. “I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m here for my parents and that’s all. I’ll only be working here until my mother can come back and then you won’t have to deal with me again.”

His head whipped back to her. “That’s good to hear, because I need you to understand one very important thing.”

She was all ears.

“I don’t want anything to do with you and I want you to stay the hell away from me.”

Gabe was well on his way to getting shit-faced.

Something he’d been doing far too often of late, but then again, his entire world had been thrown up in the air a few months ago in multiple different ways, and now a part of a past he wished he couldn’t remember was currently downstairs, preparing dinner for Dev and that . . . fiancée of his.

He downed the rest of the forty-year-old Macallan scotch. The burn was barely noticeable as he placed the short glass on the bar. Lucian was a bourbon man, but Gabe loved that smart bite that scotch gave at the end.

Walking through the living area of his apartment, he opened the French doors and stepped out onto the porch. Immediately his shirt started to stick to his skin. Late September and it still felt like the weather was circling one of the rings of hell.

He’d been really hard on Nic.

The little idiot had deserved it, but damn, he’d been . . . harsh. Rubbing at his chest, he stared out over the grounds—at the pool down below. He’d seen the way her eyes turned glassy when he’d said what he said.

And he’d meant everything he’d said.

He had to.

The last thing he needed right now was Nic following him around, making him feel like he was a hero just for breathing the air around her.

But damn, he hadn’t been all that honest with her or himself, now had he? His gut twisted as he closed his eyes.

Most of that night was a damn blur. Being drunk off his ass had not been an exaggeration, but he remembered. . . .

Opening his eyes, he turned and looked at the doors he’d just come through. Yeah, he remembered some of it.

He remembered being shocked to see Nic there at night, staring at him through these very doors. He’d had no idea what that imp had been up to. With her, it could’ve been anyone’s guess. He’d let her in, because it was Nic, and she was funny as hell most of the time. And even though he’d known she had a major crush on him, she’d been harmless.

It hadn’t even been the first time she’d showed up while he’d been in his apartment. She’d knocked on these doors when fucking Danny Chrisley made fun of her the first day of her sophomore year and she’d been in tears. She’d waited out in the hallway for him when she’d been upset about not having a date to homecoming. She’d even let herself in once, waiting for him because, as she’d claimed, his father was going to yell at her for making noise.

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