Nothing about her reminded him of Emma.
He really had no idea where that thought came from, but that’s what made its way through his head.
Nic went back to work on her bead, and companionable silence fell between them as they worked. It had never been like that with anyone. Not even Lucian who often joined him. His brother wasn’t quiet for more than a few minutes at a time, but Nic . . . well, she knew what it was like to get lost in the hum of a saw or the nick of a blade. That was rare.
Could he see himself sitting here with—
He cut himself off and then . . . and then he forced himself to finish that question. Could he see himself sitting here with Emma like this?
Not at all.
Emma was quiet, but it came from an inherent nervousness more than anything else. She liked to mull over everything she’d do or say, so she’d been prone to long stretches of silence. Not the companionable kind like this. Gabe knew that when Emma was quiet, it meant she was thinking hard about something and working up the nerve to discuss it. He used to think that was cute about her. Except toward the end—toward the end it just pissed him off, because he knew she was thinking a lot of shit that had to do with him instead of talking to him.
But with Nic? He knew she was lost in what she was doing at the moment. Whatever was going on in her head was going in and out. She wasn’t over there plotting out an entire conversation that she might get around to bringing up a week from now.
So, yeah, he couldn’t see himself sitting here with Emma, even when things had been good between them.
Gabe had no idea what the hell that meant, but he felt like an ass for how he shut down the conversation about Emma with Nic.
Normally he wouldn’t care. He didn’t talk about Emma, but with Nic, it felt different, wrong not to somehow. Maybe it was because he and Nic shared something as messed up as he’d once shared with Emma.
For the first time in his life, he felt the urge to talk about Emma—to talk to someone about her.
He lowered the rack he was working on. “When we went to lunch, you brought up Emma.”
Nic looked up and the centers of her cheeks flushed. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. It was—”
“Don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong. That was all me being an ass. Not you.”
She lowered her hands, but didn’t say anything as she stared at him from where she sat.
He drew in a deep breath, his gaze falling to his now-empty hands. “Do you remember Emma? She came home with me one Christmas. You were there one of those days.”
“I remember,” she said after a long moment. “She was really nice.”
“Yeah.” Gabe nodded slowly. “She was. Sometimes too nice. Like you.”
“I don’t think you’d believe I’m ‘too nice’ if you knew what I was thinking about people half the time.”
A wry grin tugged at his mouth. “You’re still nice. Just like Emma. She was . . . she was a good person. To the heart. Anyone who met her couldn’t have a bad thing to say about her. Lucian thought the world of her. Even Dev liked her.”
“Why did you guys break up?” Nic asked. “I mean, it was obvious when you guys were dating, you were in love with her.”
That was a loaded question, one with an answer that he didn’t want resting on Nic’s shoulders. “During our senior year, there was a party. I wasn’t there. Can’t even remember why I didn’t go, but . . . Emma got hurt.”
“What do you mean . . . she got hurt?”
He looked over at her as his hands closed into fists. “A guy she was friends with didn’t understand the word no.”
“Oh, God,” she whispered, blanching.
Helpless anger rose in him as he looked away. “She didn’t want to go to the police. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with that decision but I respected her choice. That was her right and I supported it while trying to get her to go to the police, but—” he shook his head “—I confronted him. Things happened, and our relationship fell apart after that.”
He hadn’t heard Nic move, but he sensed that she was closer, and when he looked up, she was now sitting down on the dusty floor beside him. Those doe-eyes were heavy and somber. “I cannot even imagine what she was going through,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
Gabe’s gaze flickered over her face. “I couldn’t either. I tried, and I think—no, I know I made things worse when I did try.”
Her head tilted to the side as she placed a hand on his arm. “There’s not a manual for how to handle these kinds of things, Gabe. You can’t be too hard on yourself.”
He laughed, but it was harsh and brittle. If she only knew what he and his brothers had done, she would be singing another tune. Hell, she wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him let alone touching him.
“So, that’s why you guys broke up?” She squeezed his arm, and the touch, well, it was supposed to be comforting but it sent mixed sensations through him.
Clearing this throat, he nodded. “We did. Fucking killed me. I loved her, but she needed space and I think I did, too. In the back of my head, I always figured we’d come back together. I mean, when you love someone and they love you, things just find a way to work, right?”
“Right,” she whispered, pulling her hand away as she settled on her knees.
He dragged a hand over his head, loosening the strands he had pulled back. “About five years ago, I was at this charity event. Didn’t even want to go, but Lucian connived me into it.” A faint smile crossed his lips. “And there she was. Years later, there she was.”
The best and the worst thing, he supposed. “We got caught up, you know? Talked and ended up spending the whole weekend together, but she had her own life in Baton Rouge and I had mine.”
Something flickered across her face. “Baton Rouge?”
“Yeah, anyway. That was it.” He rose, picking up one of his tools and walking it over to the table. “We had a weekend, and I never heard from her again. Tried calling her, but she didn’t answer. Obviously, she didn’t want me back in her life. That was a bitter fucking pill to swallow, because that weekend proved that I still loved her.” He tossed the tool on the table. “And then my phone rang three months ago.”
Nic was quiet, so quiet that he turned to her. She wasn’t watching him, but staring into the space he’d been sitting in. She was so incredibly still.
“It wasn’t her,” he said. Her head turned and her eyes met his. “It was her father. Emma had been in a car accident and it was bad. She was in a coma and they . . . they thought I should know.”
Nic placed her hand to her mouth.
“I went up there. She was in the hospital, in that bed, and it didn’t even look like her.” His stomach filled with acid. “As I sat beside her, while she was in the damn bed, all I could think about was everything I never told her. I thought about how I’d made things worse when she was at her most vulnerable. I sat there hating myself and . . . fuck, hating her for never returning my call, because there weren’t going to be any more chances.”
Truth was, he’d already known that before he’d gotten that call. Could they have gotten back together? Who knew, but it was unlikely. Not when he learned about the secret she’d been keeping from him.
Some things could be forgiven.
Some things couldn’t.
“She was in a coma when I got there, and . . .” He exhaled roughly, rubbing at the center of his chest with the palm of his hand. “There was no brain activity. So many tests were done. None of them gave a glimmer of good news or hope. She was gone, and her parents were left with the decision to pull her off life support. They did it about a week after I went up there.”
Then he said the two words he hadn’t spoken in these months. The words that haunted him, because of everything that had been left unsaid between them—because of those five years between now and the last time he saw her, because of what he did that drove them apart. “Emma’s dead.”
Nikki sat in her parents’ living room, watching the steady rise and fall of her mother’s chest. Her mother had been asleep on the couch when she got home, and her father hadn’t had the heart to wake her up. He was now shuffling around in the kitchen, doing Lord knows what. The house was comfortable, but her mother was bundled up under several soft blankets.