Three dots appeared. I’m at your front door.
Belle gasped and looked down. Old yoga pants, bare feet, and a faded T-shirt. Hair in a scrunchie. No bra. No makeup.
She forced herself to take a breath. It was about work, and there was no need to try and impress him. Better for him to realize she wasn’t the sexy sort, lounging around in panties and a crop top. She was an unglamorous, messy, tired, single mom.
She responded before she changed her mind. Putting Zoe to bed. Come in.
She grabbed a fleece hoodie and slipped it over her T-shirt to take care of the no-bra situation but left the rest as is. Unlocking the door, she stepped back as he filled the space with clean, cold air, spice, and the heady scent of man.
“Thanks. Sorry about barging in, but it couldn’t wait,” he said in that deep, sexy voice. He dumped a plastic bag on the chair and shrugged out of his wool jacket. His off-the-clock outfit consisted of worn jeans that cupped his ass and a long-sleeve black Henley that brought out the depths of his eyes. His chiseled jaw sported a bit of stubble. His hair was windblown and mussed, like a woman had run her fingers multiple times through the thick strands.
Damn him. His sex appeal was beginning to mess with her head a bit. He made her feel juvenile, and she hated every second of her body’s reaction.
“No problem,” she said, shutting the door and walking as far away from him as possible. She tugged the hoodie down farther. “What’s up?”
His gaze flicked over her. “Want me to wait till you get Zoe down?”
On cue, her daughter screeched Gabe’s name and flew into his arms. Bella’s throat tightened with emotion as she watched them interact with an easy affection that had only grown with time.
“What’s up, buttercup?” he asked.
“Mama and I are gonna watch Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island this weekend. It’s really scary, though.”
He gave a shudder. “What’s on the island? Vampires? Witches? Ghosts?”
She giggled. “Zombies, silly. Wanna watch it with us? We’ll make popcorn.”
“Hmm, sounds good, but let me check if I’m working, okay? Hey, I heard you didn’t have any winter dresses to wear for show-and-tell. What’d you do?”
Her face pulled into a sad, adorable expression. “I have no pink ones. I tried to wear my summer dress, but Mama said no, but then she let me wear my cool pink boots. Wanna see?”
“Maybe later, I know you have bedtime. But I brought you something. Wanna see?”
He set her down and handed her the bag.
Zoe carefully reached in and pulled out a bright-pink sweater dress with a high neck and flowers stitched down the side. “Oh my gosh, look, Mama! A pink dress I can wear in the winter!”
Raw emotion slammed through Bella. Even though she’d only made a short comment about that crazy morning, he had gone out and bought Zoe a dress because he cared for her. Dammit, why did he have to be so nice to her daughter? It only made it harder for her to keep a safe distance from him.
Her voice came out rough. “It’s beautiful. What do you say to Gabe?”
Zoe hugged him. “Thank you so much, Gabe, I love it! Can I try it on?” She began jumping up and down.
Gabe easily cut in. “In the morning. I have to talk to your mom about work stuff, and you need your sleep.”
She looked at the dress longingly but gave a sigh. “Okay. I’m going to wear it tomorrow. Can you tuck me in?”
Bella hesitated. It was rare he was around Zoe at bedtime, so she’d never had the opportunity to ask him before.
Gabe looked at her. His expression was patient, waiting for her decision, but it was the gleam of longing in his eyes that she couldn’t deny.
“Of course. But no reading tonight. Straight to bed.” She kissed her daughter and watched the pair head up together.
The moment they disappeared, she turned away. An emptiness yawned inside—vast and deep—and lately, she didn’t know how to deal with it. Having Gabe in her house, with her daughter, only reminded her of all the things she’d once had with Matt and ached to experience again. It had been so long since she’d had male companionship, someone she could trust and love and laugh with. Would it always remain like this? Was she destined to be alone forever?
Low voices echoed down the stairs. She took the time to gather herself back together, along with her strength. Gabe was an important part of her daughter’s life. It wasn’t fair to punish Zoe for her slowly softening feelings for her coworker. Zoe had already been robbed of too many things. Somehow Bella needed to be more comfortable with them having a good relationship while she kept her distance. But the same questions haunted her.
Was it easier keeping them both safe from heartbreak?
By the time Gabe came back down, she was calm and the walls around her heart were safely barricaded.
“Sorry again about barging in so late.” He gave her a smile and hooked his thumbs in his jean pockets. “Hope I’m not interrupting your plans.”
A genuine laugh escaped. “Are you kidding? My agenda includes a 20/20 episode while I try to stay up past nine and fight the endless battle of chips versus cookies for a late-night snack I shouldn’t eat.”
“Chips should always win,” he said seriously. “I didn’t know you liked those shows. I’m obsessed—I watch them all. Did you see the one with the woman who supposedly murdered her husband, but they pinned it on her sister because they were having a secret affair?”
She snapped her fingers. “Yes! But the jury didn’t convict, so that poor guy got murdered, and no one paid for it.”
“I still think it was the wife, not the sister. The detective was a bit shoddy—he didn’t seem to care as much as some of the others.”
“Yeah, I agree. If I get murdered, I want one of those all-in type of cops who dedicate the rest of their career to catching the killer.”
He nodded. “Me, too. Of course, you have Taylor and Avery in your corner. They’re scary as shit. They’d find him and do their own justice.”
“You’re right. But Avery would do the same for you.”
The question had teasing undertones but probed just enough to make her turn away. She busied herself with dumping the rest of Zoe’s cups in the sink. “All of us, of course,” she said lightly. “Now, tell me what’s going on.”
He paused, then dove straight in. “We didn’t have a chance to really talk around Avery. I wanted to check in with you about Adele’s wedding. To see if you truly want to do this or if your sister pushed too hard.”
Surprise flickered. The obvious concern in his voice didn’t seem fake. She turned and stared at the gorgeous man before her, then pivoted on her bare foot. “I need wine. Want something?”
“I’ll have the same.”
He followed her into the small kitchen and slid onto the stool by the island. She uncorked a buttery chardonnay, filled two glasses, and leaned her elbows on the counter opposite him. He seemed to be studying her uncertainly, as if he wasn’t sure what she was about to say.
“Are you worried I can’t handle the work like Avery would?” she asked bluntly.
He gave a snort that was somehow endearing. “Hell no. Personally, I think you’re the best match for Adele. I just want to be sure you feel comfortable taking this on. With me. If not, I’m sure Avery can step in.”
Once again, he seemed in tune to her emotions. How did he see so much when she was careful to keep her distance? She figured he’d wanted to do this wedding for the résumé-building experience, but sitting in her kitchen a few feet away, she was suddenly confused about his real intentions. “Is it really just concern for me that brought you here, Gabe?”
“No.” He shrugged, managing to make even that gesture elegant. “I also know Zoe will be affected by your absence and that you worry about her. Sometimes I think it’s easy for all of us to forget how much you juggle being a single mom. You do it so well, we assume that nothing bothers you.”
She reached for her wine with shaking fingers. God, how often she looked in the mirror and wondered if anyone truly saw her. She worked hard to try and keep centered, appreciating every small thing now that she knew about real loss, but sometimes she felt overwhelmed—as if there weren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what needed to be done. She was proud everyone thought she had it all together, especially her sisters, but alone in her room at night, she was plagued by self-doubt. Wondering if she was good enough at her job, or a supportive-enough sister, or the type of mother Zoe deserved.
Right now, she felt seen, without the surface gloss. By Gabe.
A tiny shiver crawled down her spine. She took another healthy sip and tried to regain control. “I appreciate you checking in with me. I already confirmed with Carter and Daisy they could help me out when we’re in Manhattan. I also talked to Zoe to get her approval. It may seem silly to you—”
“It’s not silly, Bella.” His forceful tone resonated with a deep passion that made her tummy dip. Those dark brows lowered in a frown, and that one errant curl fell messily over his forehead. “She’s the most important person in your life—as she should be. Why would I ever question that?”