Her face was seriously going to burn right off, because that was also true. She’d done just about everything to garner Gabe’s undivided attention. Sometimes it had worked. Usually it hadn’t.
“And those swimming lessons?” he continued, much to her horror. This was not a walk down memory lane she wanted to stroll on. She hadn’t even worked up the nerve to look at the pool yet. “They weren’t that bad when you had the body of an underdeveloped boy.”
Oh my God!
“But the older you got, the skimpier your bathing suits became.” His face was still completely devoid of emotion. “We all saw it whether we wanted to or not. Even though we shouldn’t have.”
Suddenly she was that sixteen-year-old girl again, wanting to drown herself in the pool. “I was just a teenager, Devlin.”
“And you’re just—what? Twenty-two now?” He’d guessed right. “Not exactly that much older. You’re still just a girl, but one who is actually of legal age now.”
Folding her arms across her chest to stop herself from throwing the rag in his face, she took several deep breaths before she trusted herself not to curse. “I am not a teenage girl pining after an older guy any longer. Trust me.”
She stared at him for several moments, unsure of how to even proceed with this. “I don’t know what you want me to say then.” And she really didn’t. “I didn’t come here for Gabe. I came home to help my parents. If being here is going to be such a huge problem, then you need to hire someone else. I’m sure my father will understand.”
Devlin was quiet for a moment. “You know . . . how things work here. You know what is expected.”
“I do.” She wished her face would stop flaming and that this conversation was already over.
The eldest de Vincent watched her intently. “The last thing my brother needs right now is another complication.”
Another complication? What? Her stomach dropped. “What does that mean? Is something wrong with him?”
That was apparently the wrong thing to ask, because his eyes narrowed. She didn’t regret asking the question. While she felt like an utter fool whenever she thought about Gabe and seeing him again was not something she was looking forward to, she still cared for him.
How could she not?
Gabe was completely off-limits, always was and always would be, but they’d been . . . friends once. Even with the age difference, he’d respected her. He’d been kind to her, and he used to bring her smoothies, surprising her with different flavors. Some he’d made himself. Others he picked up from her favorite shop when he was coming back from the city and knew she was there. He’d been there for her, more than once.
But she’d ruined all of that, so Devlin really had no reason to be worried that she had any plans that concerned Gabe. He was not going to welcome her with open arms, and Nikki was going to do everything in her power to avoid him as much as humanly possible.
“I hope we have an understanding,” Devlin said without answering her question.
He hadn’t backed off. “Good to know.”
Nikki nodded slowly, hoping beyond hope this awkward-as-hell conversation was over and she could retreat somewhere for a few moments to repeatedly punch herself in the lady bits for past crimes.
“Dev,” a voice called from the hall. “Where in the hell are you?”
Her heart stopped in her chest when she heard the voice. No. Oh, sweet baby Jesus, no.
“Speak of the devil,” Devlin muttered under his breath. His gaze lifted to the ceiling while Nikki was close to hyperventilating and maybe even passing out. “Gabe. I didn’t know you were coming home today.”
“Change of plans.” The voice neared.
Nikki looked around wildly for a place to hide. Would dive-bombing under the raised couch that no one ever sat in look strange? Yes. Yes, it would, but she was not ready to see Gabe.
Not after this conversation.
But it was too late.
There was nowhere to hide, and Devlin was turning around. She couldn’t see the doorway because of how broad Devlin was, but she squeezed her eyes shut nonetheless.
I can do this.
It’s no big deal.
I’m not a teenage girl anymore.
Her pep talk wasn’t helping her very much.
“What are you doing in here?” Gabe asked, and God, his voice sounded just like she remembered. Deep. Smooth. Lightly accented. “Oh, you have company.” A shocked-sounding laugh came from him. “Sorry to intrude.”
She almost laughed at the idea that she and Devlin could be together, but she managed to squelch it because it would probably sound a bit crazed.
“Yes, I do have company.” Devlin stepped to the side. She didn’t see him, because she still had her eyes closed, but she’d felt Devlin move.
And then, “Holy shit.”
Nikki’s eyes flew open, and she immediately wished they hadn’t, because now she saw him.
It had been forever since she even allowed herself to look at a photo of him. Maybe she should’ve done that, because then she might not simultaneously feel like jumping on him like a rabid monkey and running away from this room.
She couldn’t look away from him.
God, Gabe was . . . he was beautiful in this raw, masculine way. He was as she remembered, but somehow he was more. If anything, he seemed taller and his shoulders broader, his biceps and forearms defined in a way they hadn’t been before.
Age had treated him well. Gabe was thirty-two now, and the only sign was the faint smile lines around the corners of those stunning sea-moss eyes. His cheekbones were classic de Vincent, high and angular as was the blade of the nose and that lush, lush mouth.
Oh man, he was still wearing his hair long. The deep brown, almost black hair just brushed his shoulders. A faint stubble shadowed the strong curve of his jaw as if he hadn’t shaved in a day or two. He was dressed much more casually than his brother, wearing a dark pair of jeans and a pale-blue cotton shirt that was loosely tucked in the front. And he was barefoot.
Her lips twitched into a small smile.
Gabe was always barefoot.
“Nic?” He stepped around a chair, staring at her like . . . well, like he wasn’t even sure it was really her.
While Gabe mostly looked the same, Nikki had changed in the last four years. Gone was the eighteen-year-old girl who’d fled from him in tears.
He stopped a few feet from her, still staring at her like she was a figment of his imagination. His gaze swept from the now-messy knot of hair at the top of her head, all the way down to her llama-print Vans. The way he checked her out was nothing like his brother’s earlier perusal. Not when she could practically feel his gaze getting hung up on her now-much-rounder hips and fuller breasts. A sweet, unwanted, and unexpected flush swept through her.
Bad Nikki. Bad. Bad.
He could stare at her in the way she’d always wanted him and it meant nothing now. All he was to her now was a silly teenage crush. That was all.
So she had to pull it together.
She lifted an empty hand and gave an awkward finger wave once his eyes met hers again. “Hey.”
“Hey?” he repeated, blinking slowly and showing off ridiculously long lashes.
Nikki swallowed hard and tried again. “Hi?”
Beside her, Devlin sighed loudly.
“Is something wrong?” Gabe’s gaze bounced between his brother and her. “Did something happen to Livie?”
Nikki slowly turned to Devlin. He hadn’t told Gabe? What in the hell? “I’m filling in for Mom while she’s getting treatment. You didn’t . . . ?”
It was obvious in the way Gabe stared at her that he had no idea, and Nikki had no clue why Devlin would’ve left him out on that pretty important update.
“No.” Gabe’s tone was short. “I wasn’t told.”
This was beyond awkward. She peeked at Gabe. Unease stirred in the pit of her stomach as she quickly looked away. He was still staring at her.
“I believe that Nikki has a lot of work to get done,” Devlin interjected smoothly.
Grasping onto the cue to make her exit like it was the last life jacket on the Titanic, she got her legs moving and kept her gaze fixed on the doorway. But as she walked past him, she couldn’t help herself. It was like she had no control over her eyeballs.