“Um, good. Busy.” Feeling incredibly awkward and unsure of how to proceed with Gabe, she clasped her hands together. “Yours?”
“Headed into the city to get a little work done and just got back, which reminds me.” Gabe opened the fridge door, and it was then that Nikki saw the thin layer of wood dust on his jeans. “Swung by D’Juice and picked you up a smoothie.”
Surprise scuttled through her as he pulled out a tall, reddish-orange smoothie. The smoothie yesterday had been shocking and the one today was equally surprising. He’d used to do this all the time back in the day, but it seemed . . . different now.
“Thank you.” She took it, tugging the paper off the top of the straw as she glanced over at Lucian and Julia. Both of them were staring at her and Gabe, but it was the de Vincent’s small, oddly knowing grin that caused her cheeks to flush. “That’s nice of you.”
Gabe lifted a shoulder. “Picked one up for myself. Sucked that down like water, though.”
She smiled as she took a sip, swallowing a moan of pleasure. It was like a mango-strawberry orgasm in her mouth. “Oh, this is so good.”
“Thought you’d like it.” He grinned as he leaned against the counter, crossing his arms. “Then again, pretty sure you’d like anything with strawberries in it.”
The fact he remembered that stunned her. “Just not blueberries. Not a blueberry fan.”
He shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re missing out on with your illogical distaste for blueberries.”
Unable to help herself, she giggled. “They’re gross.”
“Uh-huh. Yet you like raspberries.”
“They are not the same thing though,” she argued. “Blueberries are too tart.”
“But in real life, outside of your taste buds, raspberries are actually more tart than blueberries.”
“Liar,” she said, taking another yummy-filled gulp of the smoothie as she turned to Lucian and Julia. They were still staring at them.
Lucian had plopped his chin on his palm, watching them. “Sooo.” He drew the word out. “Julia is making dinner tonight.”
“Oh.” Nikki stepped away from Gabe, knowing she needed to get back to work. The reminder was stark. She wasn’t one of them. “Yes, I saw that there wasn’t a meal planned for tonight.”
“I love to cook. I don’t get to do it often here, but—” Julia dipped her chin “—when the grumpy cat’s away, the mice will play.”
Nikki laughed, knowing she was referencing Devlin.
“That is one of the big reasons why I can’t wait to move into our place.” Julia elbowed Lucian. “And it’s why it’s taking so long to move in. Kitchen renovations.”
Nikki imagined that Julia would probably end up with an amazing, gorgeous kitchen just based on the way Lucian looked at her. “Where did you guys find a place?”
“Over in the Garden District. The realtor swears it’s not haunted,” Julia added with a grin. “But I’ve resigned myself to the fact that every place around here probably has a ghost or two.”
Shaking his head, Gabe sighed. “You could always have the house blessed first.”
“Can we do that?” Julia looked at Lucian. “Can we—”
“Whatever you want, babe. House blessing. Cleansing. Full exorcism. As long as you’re happy.”
Julia beamed, and there was a twinge in Nikki’s chest, because there wasn’t an ounce of condescension or sarcasm in his tone. He’d meant what he said, no matter how crazy it might sound.
That was love, like, true love, and Nikki had no idea what that felt like to be on the receiving end of. Worst part, if she was being honest with herself, Calvin could’ve been that man for her, if she had let it happen.
“You should join us for dinner,” Lucian announced suddenly, and it took her a second to realize he was talking to her.
What the what?
“I’m making spaghetti—home-cooked spaghetti with meatballs and garlic bread, full of carbs and fat and calories.” Julia patted her stomach. “The best kind.”
That sounded amazing actually, but . . .
Nikki glanced at Gabe. He wanted to be friends and had attempted to go to the shelter with her, but she hesitated. Friends or not, she was still staff and staff never ate dinner with the de Vincents at their table. “I don’t know. I should—”
“You should stay and have dinner with us.” Lucian leaned over, dropping an arm around Julia’s shoulder. “Right, Gabe?”
Gabe nodded from where he stood. “Julia makes amazing spaghetti.”
“Thank you. It sounds delish, but I don’t know.” Nikki fidgeted with the straw. “I don’t think Devlin would be thrilled about me doing the dinner thing—”
“Do any of us look like we give a fuck what Dev thinks?” Gabe asked. “Because we don’t. At all.”
“Not even remotely,” Lucian added.
Julia grinned as she nodded. “I’m not going to say what they’re saying, because Devlin still kind of scares me.”
“Devlin scares everyone,” Nikki murmured.
“Come on.” Gabe faced her. “Join us for dinner. It will be fun.”
“Lots of fun,” Lucian chimed in.
Nikki glanced between the brothers, knowing she should say no, because she wasn’t one of them. She was never really one of them.
“Have dinner with us, Nic.” Gabe reached out, tapping her arm. “Please?”
And it was suddenly like being that little girl again with a huge, undying crush, because she couldn’t say no to Gabe.
Gabe found he was having a hard time not staring at Nic during dinner. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because when she showed up at the beginning, she’d taken her hair down and now looked less like someone who’d spent the day dusting furniture and compiling the week’s grocery shopping list.
Maybe it was because she was holding a wine glass and smiling at Lucian and Julia in a way she hadn’t smiled at him in a long time.
Or maybe it was because when her cheeks got flushed and those big brown eyes started to dance, she was fucking beautiful.
It didn’t matter.
Sitting back with his cheek resting on his palm, he knew he needed to stop staring at her, because he wasn’t exactly being inconspicuous about it.
He didn’t stop.
Gabe couldn’t even blame it on liquor. All he’d been drinking tonight was water and sweetened tea.
“So what made you decide to go into social work?” Julia asked, picking up her glass of red wine. “That has to be a hard job.”
“Can’t be any harder than nursing,” Nic said as she reached for a piece of garlic bread. She hadn’t been watching him. Hell, it was like she barely knew he was there, which he found fucking irritating, because they were friends now.
Gabe noted she hadn’t answered Julia’s question so he opened his big mouth. “Nic has always been a helper.”
Her gaze shot to his from across the round table. Finally.
“A helper?” Lucian slid a long look in his direction.
Gabe ignored it. “Yeah, she’s always wanted to help people.”
Nic blinked slowly and then focused on Julia. “My friend Rosie says I have a savior complex. I don’t think it’s that extreme, but I do want to help people. I know that sounds cheesy—”
“It doesn’t,” Gabe interjected. “The world needs more people like you and Julia and fewer people like us.”
“Agreed,” snickered Lucian around the rim of his wine glass.
Julia put her glass down. “You guys donate a lot of money to charities.”
“Giving money is easy,” Gabe replied. “Giving time isn’t.”
Nic bit down on her lower lip as her lashes swept down.
“So are you done with school or not?” Julia asked.
“I have my bachelor’s and I’m currently deciding if I want to get a master’s or PhD. Kind of going back and forth on it,” Nic answered, breaking a part the piece of garlic bread into little sections, getting crumbs all over her plate. “I could get started and take evening classes.”