was her husband sat at the old picnic table. Gabrielle had assumed Derek’s ex wouldn’t be here. She was wrong. Obviously.

Her discomfort level increased, but she pushed herself forward. For Holly’s sake.

Something cold nudged her leg and Gabrielle glanced down to see Fred, wearing a party hat, pressing his nose into her calf.

“Hey, old man. You really are a sport, aren’t you?” she asked him, bending down to scratch beneath his ears.

“Gabrielle!” Holly shouted her name and came running toward her, a happy bundle of energy.

Gabrielle rose to greet her. “Hey there! Happy birthday.” She held out the gift that she’d spent a long time choosing. “I hope you like it.”

“I’ll love it.” She accepted the gift and placed it beside the others on a table beside her. “I’m just glad you’re here. Once you said you’d come to my party, I knew you weren’t holding the fact that my dad’s such a dork against me.”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“Who are you calling a dork, dork?” Derek strode over, looking handsome as ever. He was tanned and relaxed and the light green of his T-shirt brought out the hue in his eyes. She’d missed him like crazy and her heart pounded hard in her chest.

“Holly!” Marlene called. “I need to talk to you.”

The young girl glanced at her mother and stepfather. “Coming!” She turned back to Gabrielle. “I’ll be back in a second,” she said, then ran to the picnic table, leaving Derek and Gabrielle alone.

She drew a deep breath and met Derek’s gaze. “Hi,” Gabrielle said to him.

“Hi, yourself.” His gaze traveled over her, head to toe. “You’re looking good,” he murmured, nodding in appreciation.

She glanced down at the strappy dress she’d never admit she’d bought just for seeing him today and smiled. “Thank you.”

“It was nice of you to come for Holly. I know she was worried you’d change your mind.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I wouldn’t do that to her.”

“I know you wouldn’t,” he said, his voice deep and husky. Warm and inviting. Understanding.

She shivered beneath the sun.

“Derek, the barbecue won’t light!” Hank called out to him.

“I have to help him if we’re going to eat. Make yourself at home.”

Make yourself at home.

She wondered if he knew how deep his words sliced. She’d done that once. And though he hadn’t promised her anything, she hadn’t realized until she’d had to pack up and leave immediately after the fire, how much she’d counted on changing his mind about them.

She swallowed past the lump in her throat and headed to a cooler that held cans of soda. She filled a cup with ice, then poured herself a cold drink before settling into a chair overlooking the back of the old barn.

“Mind if I join you?”

Gabrielle glanced up at Marlene, who’d walked up to her. “Of course not,” she said warily.

Their last meeting hadn’t exactly been warm and friendly. And considering the other woman had threatened to use Gabrielle as a means to pry Holly away from her father, Gabrielle worried about what the other woman wanted now. But it couldn’t hurt to find out.

“I owe you an apology,” Marlene said, taking Gabrielle off guard. “I wasn’t all that pleasant the first time we met.”

“It’s okay.” Gabrielle shrugged casually. “I’m really not one to hold a grudge.”

Marlene smiled. “I’m glad. Because my daughter adores you and I’d like it if you’d give me another chance.”

Gabrielle wasn’t sure where this sudden peace offering was coming from, but she owed it to Holly to be civil with her mother. Besides, after today they wouldn’t be seeing each other all that often.

Gabrielle swerved in her seat so she could face Marlene. “You have a wonderful child, so I have to assume you’re a good person, too.”

“Thank you. I think she’s special.”

Their gazes drifted to Holly, holding court among a circle of her friends.

“I didn’t think she knew that many people in town,” Gabrielle said.

“She doesn’t. John and I brought her closest friends with us for the weekend to celebrate Holly’s birthday.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Aah, that explains the big group.”

An awkward silence followed, punctuated by occasional giggles and girlish screams across the way.

“I wanted to hate you,” Marlene said at last.

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, startled by the other woman’s blunt words. “Excuse me?”

Marlene tucked her short hair behind one ear. “I wanted to hate you. Maybe I needed to, because for all the years I was married, you still had the one thing I wanted.”

Gabrielle shook her head, confused. “I really don’t understand.”

“You had his heart. His love. The one thing I desperately wanted, belonged to you.”

Gabrielle opened her mouth, then closed it again, struggling to find the right words. “I was alone, trying to find a life and a world that could make me happy. But…you had him. And you had his child. All the things I wanted but could never have,” Gabrielle said, admitting the painful truth out loud.

“I guess neither one of us had the whole package,” Marlene murmured.

Gabrielle nodded in agreement. Her throat grew thick and her eyes damp. She turned away to compose herself before glancing back at Marlene. “But you have that now?” she asked.

The other woman nodded. Her fingers went to the diamond ring and matching wedding band. “I’m very lucky. I think I forgot that for a minute. The night you walked into the house beside Derek, all the wonderful things in my life flew out the window and I went back in time.” She shook her head, her cheeks pink. “Anyway, I just wanted to apologize. I appreciate you letting me explain.”

“Thanks. I wish you all the best.” Gabrielle rose from her seat. She suddenly needed to be alone for a few minutes to pull herself together.

Marlene’s words had brought up emotions Gabrielle wasn’t ready to handle. She might have had Derek’s love, but it didn’t mean anything. It never had. He wasn’t hers. He never would be.

She headed for the street, hoping Holly wouldn’t notice. She’d just take a short ride, blast some music, open the top of the convertible and clear her mind. Once she could breathe without wanting to cry, she’d come back and celebrate.

She reached the car when she heard Derek calling her name. God, not now, she thought, yanking open the door.

“Gabrielle, wait.”

He caught up to her before she could shut herself inside. “Where are you going? You just got here and we haven’t even had a chance to light the candles yet.”

She leaned against the open door for support. “I’ll be back. I just need a few minutes alone.”

“Why? What did Marlene say to upset you?” he asked, his voice dark. “I saw you two talking. If she said anything-”

“She didn’t upset me. She apologized for how she acted the first time we met. She’s lovely. Now, can I just go get some fresh air? I’ll come back for Holly’s cake, I promise.”

He put his hand on the top of the window. “Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”

Gabrielle exploded. “You’re wrong. Inviting me here was wrong. Hearing Marlene tell me how much she resented me because I had your heart-that’s wrong.” All the frustration she’d never vented at him came pouring out now. Frustration that he’d made her leave him again when they had so much to fight for. “Because really, Derek, what good has me having your heart ever done?” she asked, half yelling at him, half crying.

She turned to duck inside her car, but he pulled her back, turning her around and sealing her lips with his.

She fought him at first, not wanting to succumb, not wanting to feel the love he aroused so easily, only to have him take it away from her again. But he was relentless, kissing her until her lips softened, until she melted against

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