It’s time to start living the life you imagined.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Mommy, do you like my outfit?”
Bella Sunshine-Caldwell finished stacking her daughter’s lunch box, water bottle, and folder into her Fancy Nancy backpack and gave one final time check. Thank God. She despised lateness and usually did well with her organization skills, but the winter months were difficult to get both of them out of bed. Something about the lazy darkness and biting cold made her want to snuggle back under the blankets and beg for five more minutes. She’d even missed her normal morning run, sacrificing exercise for sleep, and still found herself behind. What if they missed the bus? She’d have to drive Zoe to school, and she didn’t want to be late for her appointment.
“You look beautiful,” she said, barely glancing over. Where were her brown boots? How could she keep losing things in such a small space? She rummaged through the cramped closet, dragging one out of the pile of discarded shoes and pulling it on. “Let’s go, pumpkin. Coat on.”
It was the sound of Zoe skipping across the floor that alerted her to trouble. Bella did a few hops to work the tight leather over her calves—was she gaining more weight?—and finally studied her five-year-old daughter, who tugged on her bright-pink jacket.
“Hold it, young lady.” She snapped her tone into disciplinarian mode, shaking her head. “What do you think you’re wearing?”
“My pink dress. You said you liked it.” The defensiveness in her daughter’s squeaky voice pegged her guilt. She knew better, but chose to ignore the rules.
“Zoe, that’s a summer dress. It has no sleeves, and I packed it away. We agreed if it’s in your closet, you can wear it. And you are not allowed to wear white dress shoes in the winter.”
Stubbornness tilted her chin. “I found it on the bottom of my closet in a garbage bag with the shoes, so that counts. I want to look pretty today. We have show-and-tell, and Emma said she’s wearing a pink dress and we could be twins. This is the only pink dress I have.”
Bella reached up into the cloud and grasped for patience. Sometimes the cloud was full, like it had rained overnight and spilled out gifts like humor, positive attitudes, and flexibility. Other times, it was empty and dried up, and the only things it contained were frustration and PMS.
Bella prayed for the gifts.
“Our deal was for clothes hanging up in the closet,” she corrected. “It’s twenty degrees out, and you’ll get sick if you go out like that. Why don’t you wear your pink stretchy pants with the white sweater?”
Zoe’s lower lip trembled. “It has to be a dress! We pinkie promised—please, Mommy!”
Zoe rarely had tantrums. They were more like intense discussions, which allowed Bella to be reasonable when something seemed important. She mentally clicked through various options to solve the problem as quickly and painlessly as possible. “Okay, go put your long-sleeved white shirt on under the dress. I’ll get you some tights, and then you can wear those pink boots I just bought you.”
Zoe’s eyes widened. “You said they were for special ’casions.”
“Well, I declare show-and-tell a special occasion. But from now on, no more sneaking out summer dresses. They stay packed up. Deal?”
“Good. You have to move fast or we’ll miss the bus.”
Zoe rushed back into her room, and Bella hurriedly ripped open a new package of pink tights. When they went on sale, she bought them by the bucketload. With deft motions, she helped re-dress her daughter, grabbed her stuff, and rushed out the door.
Stomping on the accelerator, she got to the end of the road as the bus was beginning to pull away. She honked, practically fell out the car door, and ran out, scissoring her arms wildly in the air. The bus screeched to a stop, and she caught the dirty look the bus driver shot her. “Thank you!” she yelled, giving Zoe a quick kiss and watching her cross the street to board. She waved as the bus pulled away and disappeared.
A sigh spilled from her lips. Just another day in the life of a single mom.
Oh, Matt, I wish you were here.
She listened for a sign like she always did—a whisper in the trees, a honk of a horn, a shiver of cold awareness—anything to feel that he’d heard her and was here, but there was nothing.
Rolling her eyes at her drama, she trudged back to the car and pumped up the heat. Her husband had been taken way too early, but it had been five long years since he passed away, and she’d learned to do things on her own. God knew she’d made plenty of mistakes, but with the help of Bella’s sisters, Zoe was a happy, stable child. Bella had learned after losing Matt to be grateful for all the good, and her daughter was a gift that allowed her to love a piece of Matt for the rest of her life.
Shaking off her somber thoughts, she headed toward Sunshine Bridal to meet with her coworker Gabe. Her two sisters were away for a few days, so she and Gabe were in charge of the Royal wedding, and she needed to be sharp, not mooning for a life with her late husband she’d never have. Eloise Royal demanded a postholiday celebration to rival the gaudiest Christmas imaginable, and Bella needed to impress. Her oldest sister, Avery, had been the driving force behind their family’s successful wedding-planning business, but now that she was getting married and taking some well-deserved vacation time, Bella intended to step up and take over more of that role.
If only she didn’t need to work with Gabe.
Why was she the only one suspicious of his intentions? He’d been a full-time assistant for years, mostly working with Avery, but lately, he’d been pushing for a bigger stake in the company. Just last month, everyone had agreed to give him a promotion so he could take on his own clients. Bella knew he deserved it—he was well respected by vendors and clients, and he worked hard—but part of her was a bit resentful because he wasn’t family. Bottom line: she didn’t trust him not to bail one day. Maybe try and open up his own business elsewhere and become their competition—which would break her sisters’ hearts and Zoe’s. Her daughter was crazy about him. Hell, there wasn’t a woman on the planet who wasn’t crazy about the man, which made Bella even more leery.
She made her way through the streets of Cape May, the usually vibrant New Jersey beach town mostly shut down for the winter. Holiday lights were still strung happily around trees and lampposts, illuminating the colorful bed-and-breakfast cottages throughout town. The water was a simmering gray monster, moody under the low-slung clouds, but a few residents still braved the boardwalk for their regular breakfast and morning run.
She pulled up to the familiar yellow-and-pink scrolled sign announcing SUNSHINE BRIDAL and gathered her stuff. Of course Gabe was already there. The man was as much a workaholic as Avery. She hurried up the stairs and headed straight to the conference room, following the scent of strong coffee.
“Morning.” The deep, velvety voice drifted in the air like smoke, caressing her ears. “I picked you up coffee and a yogurt parfait.”
She studiously ignored the sexy pitch of his tone and wondered why some men got all the sex appeal. Was it a gift from God at birth? Did he zap his fingers at certain males and bestow all the traits to make women drop to their knees? Even worse? Gabe was nice. He was always thoughtful and willing to do what was necessary to make everyone happy. At first, she’d believed it was part of him being a good assistant, but over the years she’d learned it was just his personality. He was a bit of a caretaker.
Bella tucked away the thought and deliberately chose the seat across the table so there was plenty of distance. “Thanks. I was running a bit behind today.” She focused on getting her laptop out and set up, giving her a few moments to put up the usual barriers before risking a full stare.
“I hope you didn’t rush,” he said, sounding concerned. She imagined a frown between those strong brows, his carved, defined lips pursed a bit in thought. “No reason we couldn’t have started a half hour later. How’s Miss Zoe?”
She shook her head with a sigh. “Insistent on wearing a sleeveless pink dress to school today.”
His laugh was rich and filled the air with life. “Ah, was it show-and-tell?”
She jerked her head up too soon. Her gaze crashed into his, and those dark eyes pulled her in tight, the sooty depths flaring with a focused intent that threw her off. “How’d you know?”
“She’s got a thing about dressing up for big occasions. How’d you win the argument?”
“The art of compromise—the foundation of my existence. I let her wear her brand-new pink boots, and she allowed me to winterize her dress. I can’t believe I forgot to get her a pink winter dress for Christmas. Purple and red won’t cut it.”
“She got everything she wanted on her list and more. You gave her an amazing holiday.”
She nodded, accepting the praise that meant more than he could imagine. She was always trying to make up for Zoe not having a father, especially around important holidays. Though she tried to remind herself her daughter had an extended family that gave her all the security she needed. “Thanks.” Her next words were uttered grudgingly. “She’s still crazy about that American Doll you gave her. The others have been neglected, but she plays with yours all the time.”