Because he was into self-torture, he took her hand, somewhat awed by how small it felt in his.
He was being a dumbass.
Folding his fingers around hers, he avoided her gaze as he pulled her across the main floor. “So, I thought that since you haven’t decided what to do about school or work, you had some extra time on your hands.”
He stopped in front of the door and turned the handle with his free hand. “And I know you said you weren’t into the same things you were back then, but I think you just might be.”
Pushing open the door, he reached inside and flipped on the light. He tugged on her hand, letting her squeeze past him.
The contact of her smaller body brushing against his fried his senses, but he ignored that as he focused on her face.
And saw the exact moment she understood what she was looking at.
Those pink lips parted on a soft inhale as those big eyes got even bigger. “Gabe . . .”
She twisted toward him, and he smiled at her. “I’ve been keeping the spare pieces of wood over the years, just tossing them in here. Not even sure why.” He frowned, not really wanting to look too closely at the reason for doing so. “Anyway, I asked Richard if you still had a woodcarving kit. He said he didn’t think so.”
He’d cleaned up the room over the weekend and put a little desk in there, one that he’d made himself but never sold. It had the same vine work as the trim at home. On the desk was a black, smooth box sitting next to a lamp he’d dug out of storage.
“I ordered a new kit,” he continued. “And all that wood in the corner is yours if you want it. Actually, this room is yours if you want to use it since I doubt your parents want dust and shavings all over their house again.”
“Are you . . . are you serious?” she whispered.
“Yeah.” He took a breath. “You’re free to use it whenever. Got an extra key and everything.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Blinking rapidly, she turned back to the room. Nic squeezed his hand, and that’s when he realized he was still holding her damn hand.
He let go and folded his arms across his chest. “Well, I’m hoping you’ll say you love it and you’ll make use of it.”
Nic tucked her hands under her chin as her shoulders rose with a deep breath. She stepped into the room and then reached out, touching the kit. A second later she opened it, and then did what she’d done out in the main area. She ran her fingers along the tools.
His damn dick jumped.
“This had to cost a fortune,” she said, her voice filled with wonder. “This isn’t a cheap set.”
He grumbled a nonresponse.
“I love it,” she said, and then she spun on him. “And I’ll make use of it.”
Then the strangest damn thing occurred in that moment. He’d wondered if he made a mistake.
Gabe’s gaze dropped to her mouth.
A second later, she threw herself at him, like she’d done the night she’d learned about his father, like she’d done a hundred times before things went to shit.
He caught her, taking her weight as she threw her arms around him. He hugged her back, praying that she didn’t feel his cock, because shit, that would complicate things.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice muffled and oddly hoarse. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
Gabe kind of thought he did as he dropped his chin and caught the scent of her shampoo. Strawberries. Her and her damn strawberries.
Briefly, he closed his eyes and then he pulled back, letting his hands slip to her arms. Then he held her back. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I love it,” she corrected.
Yeah, he liked hearing that. Liked it too much. And yeah, he was thinking that he made a mistake and he had no idea how badly he was going to regret it later on, but he knew he wouldn’t have changed a damn thing.
“He did what?” Rosie whisper-yelled.
Nikki nodded as she picked at her beignet. It was late Saturday morning and she was with Rosie at the Café du Monde, scarfing down the powdery pieces of perfection. The fact they’d been able to grab a table surprised both of them since the temps had cooled a little.
She’d just filled her friend in on Gabe’s surprise. “Yep. And he even had brand-new saws—a hacksaw and coping saw. I mean, he set me up in my own little shop basically.”
“That’s insane.” Rosie took a bite of a beignet, managing to not get any of the sugar on her, which meant she had to have sold her soul to the devil. “I mean, I didn’t even know you could do that stuff with wood. Why did you never tell me?”
Nikki lifted a shoulder. “I just . . . I think if I talked about it, it would make me want to get back to it, and honestly I didn’t have time in school and it . . .”
“It reminded you of Gabe?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Anyway, I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.”
Rosie picked up her bottle of water. “Are you going to make use of it—of the tools and the shop?”
There was a flutter deep in her chest. Like a nest of butterflies were waking up. “I think so. I mean, he went to all that trouble.”
Oversized sunglasses shielded her eyes, so it was hard to tell what Rosie was thinking. “Are you going to make use of his wood?”
“Of course. He saved—wait.” Nikki picked up her napkin and threw it at her smirking friend. “It isn’t like that.”
Now those butterflies were trying to eat their way out, because she thought of the hug and the way she was sure he’d been staring at her mouth. She shifted in her chair, crossing her legs. “Shut up.”
“Seriously, though? He had a room full of spare wood?” She leaned forward, tipping her nose down. “And he didn’t know why he was saving the wood?”
“That’s what he said.” The butterflies had moved to her stomach.
“You know what I think?” She straightened. “I’m going to tell you. I think he was keeping the spare wood for you.”
The mere idea of Gabe doing that over the years shook her. If it was the case, she didn’t know what to think about that.
She couldn’t think about that.
Because her heart was already swelling to the point it might burst, and that was not a good sign.
Rosie must’ve sensed it, because she said, “You just need to be careful, Nikki.”
“I’m not reading into it.”
“No, I think you do need to read into it.”
She frowned. “I’m not really following you.”
“Look, what he did for you is not something someone who spent the last four years possibly hating you would do.”
“Wow.” She picked up her coffee. “When you put it that way.”
“What he did was a big deal. He had to know that, even if he doesn’t know why you stopped the whole woodworking thing.” Plucking up a napkin, she wiped at her fingers. “So, I think you need to read between the lines.”
Nikki took a breath that went nowhere. “I can’t let myself do that.”
“I’m saying you need to be careful. He is a grown-ass man who is very experienced and you, on the other hand, are not very experienced.”
“Thanks,” she muttered.
“And you guys have this messy past between you. It’s going to be tricky.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I mean, what you’re suggesting—that he could have some kind of motive beyond being friends with me—just seems insane when you said it yourself; he spent four years hating me.”
“Did you ever think that maybe he spent four years hating himself more?” A hot-pink bangle slipped down her arm as she plopped her elbow on the table. “That maybe he wanted you back then and he hated himself for it?”
Nikki opened her mouth.
“You know I have a degree in psychology, right?” Rosie tapped a purple-painted fingernail on her temple. “I know these things.”
Could Gabe have hated himself more? That was more than likely, but not for the reasons Rosie was suggesting. “I think he wanted me when it was happening, because he was drunk at the time.”