“So I am the one who has to make all the changes? That hardly seems fair,” he declared.

“What changes? I haven’t asked you to change a single thing about yourself for me!” She was outraged that he’d implied as much.

“Of course you have,” he dissented. “Expecting me to not care about the appearance of the woman by my side goes against everything I believe in. I like order and you know that. I like everything to be neat and in its place. Where would I slot you in, if your role in my life changed? And don’t get me wrong, Bobbi, I want your role in my life to change. I want to give us a real chance . . . but we have to come to some sort of compromise here.”

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“And by compromise you mean I change my hair, my clothes, my way of life just for the honor of what exactly? Being your girlfriend? Your mistress? And you, of course, would compromise by . . . ?” She left him to fill in the blank but he remained silent, and she snorted in bitter amusement. “I suppose your great compromise would be getting to tolerate a less than perfect bit of arm candy for the couple of months it’ll take you to work me out of your system. And when it does end, you go trotting on your merry way to pick your next conquest in your search to find a woman perfect enough to be Mrs. Gabriel Andrew Braddock and I go back to my shop feeling publicly humiliated for not being good enough to snag the great Gabriel Braddock.”

“That’s not how it would be.” He didn’t sound very convincing at all. “I think we have a real chance at something special, it just took me a while to see it. I want us to be together and I want us to go into a relationship with hope for a future together rather than the expectation of failure.”

“Do you love me?” she asked, and despite the gloom, she could see that he was visibly startled by the question.

“Of course I love you,” he blurted, sounding offended by the question.

“Okay, allow me to rephrase the question. Are you in love with me?”

“That’s hardly a fair question, Bobbi,” he retorted. “You know that your confession that night threw me. You can’t expect me to return your feelings just because you actually happened to verbalize them to me. It’s not something that can be switched on just like that. What I’m asking is that you give me the chance to fall in love with you.”

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“And while you’re busy deciding if I’m someone you can fall in love with, I’m just supposed to put my feelings on hold? What sort of timeline are you looking at? Will a month or two be enough for you to figure out whether I could be worthy of your love? Six months? A year? And what if—after all that time—you didn’t fall in love with me? Do you think it’s fair that I risk even more heartbreak?”

“That’s a lot of questions that I just don’t have the answers to,” he confessed. “I don’t know how it’ll work, I’ve never found myself in this position before. You’re so damned important to me and I’m terrified of losing you.”

“Then give me a chance to get over this thing we had and we can go back to being friends,” she said after a very long moment. “That way everybody’s a winner.”

“I don’t want that,” he snapped, losing patience. “I want more than that.”

“I’m not prepared to give you more. I won’t change who I am for you, Gabe. I just won’t, and if I’m really as important to you as you claim, you wouldn’t want me to.”

“I don’t want you to change . . .” He seemed to be speaking through clenched teeth. “I just want you to wear a damned dress on occasion, go to a bloody hairdresser, have your nails done. You’re a woman, for God’s sake. These things aren’t hardships.”

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“They are to me!”

“You seem to be equating a visit to the salon with selling your soul to the devil.” He threw his hands up in despair, and she stared back at him with equal misery. He didn’t seem to understand that she was afraid that in the middle of all this makeover crap, he would fall in love with someone who simply didn’t exist, a Bobbi of his own invention. The prospect scared the hell out of her. If that happened she would be trapped playing a role for the rest of her life. She couldn’t do it, not even for Gabe.

“I think you should leave,” she said tiredly. “This isn’t achieving anything.”

“I’m not giving up,” he warned.

“Just stop the Campaign of Crazy with the flowers, please. You’re driving everybody nuts. I can’t be held responsible if my father or the guys at the shop hunt you down and force feed you roses.”

He chuckled in response to that quip.

“I really do miss you,” he said. “Not just in my bed . . . I miss you in my life. Please come back to me.”

“Please just go, Gabe,” she softly commanded, hardening her heart against the quiet plea.

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He got up and wavered for so long that she feared he would come over and kiss her. He did take one hesitant step forward before abruptly turning on his heel and leaving.

Bobbi fought the impulse to run after him and surrender to his terms. It was the way she had always lived her life. She had gone from girl desperate to please and impress her father and big brothers to a woman futilely focused on trying to please just this one man, and she had to fight against the instinct to give him exactly what he asked for, even if it was detrimental to her own heart and sanity.

It took everything she had and then some, but she managed to fight against her instinct and emerge triumphant.

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