A sigh escaped her. How could a man have the looks of an Adonis and such heart? No wonder he was able to charm anyone in his path. She had to be extra careful not to slip under his spell. “Because there’s a lot of money at stake for Sunshine Bridal. Plus, this could be an amazing opportunity for your résumé and put you at the next level for your career. Unless we fail.”
“We won’t fail. But it’s only worth it if we both want it.” The word want fell from his lips and ricocheted like a gunshot.
She pushed away the wineglass. Maybe all her future interactions with him needed to be in complete sobriety.
She thought about his statement and the implications. This wedding would test all her skills and stretch her comfort zone. Yes, she wanted to do it for her sisters, and the finances, and even Gabe, but for the first time, she realized how badly she wanted to succeed for herself. Because deep inside, she was still unsure of herself. Wasn’t it time she took a career risk and proved she was worthy of being an owner of Sunshine Bridal?
She spoke firmly. “I’m completely committed to this wedding. Zoe was excited about the Dr. Seuss theme and promised to help.”
“Good. We’d all make a hell of a team.”
Their gazes met and locked. In those inky eyes, something bigger loomed, something that made her insides a bit shaky.
She slid off the stool and turned away, placing her glass in the sink. “When do you want to meet to go over the initial plans?”
“How about Wednesday at ten? Your schedule was free. Does that work?”
He took one last sip and stood. “I better let you get some sleep. See you tomorrow.”
She watched him put his glass in the sink next to hers, then shrug on his coat, the fabric pulling taut to stretch over his broad shoulders. He headed toward the door.
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Thanks for the dress. You didn’t have to do that.”
He gave her a long, lingering look. “I know. I’m just happy you let me.”
She thought about his words for a long time before she headed to bed.
“Three o’clock. You’re being seriously checked out.”
Gabe turned his head just enough to follow the direction of Carter’s voice. Sure enough, there was an extremely attractive brunette stirring the straw in her drink, her gaze boldly meeting his. “She looks familiar.”
“I think it’s Vera’s granddaughter. She’s here for a visit, so you probably saw her around town.” Vera was the owner of the famous bridal dress shop in the Cape.
He broke the gaze, checking to see if anything stirred beneath the belt. Nothing. “I don’t need to be fooling around with anyone related to Vera. She’ll kill me.”
Pierce, the third of his guy crew, shook his head. “She was a prima ballerina in France and openly talks about her famous affairs. She’s probably had more sex this past month than you have in the past year.”
Gabe turned back to the bar and snorted. “Did you have to give me that visual? She’s like in her seventies. Don’t need that in my head.”
“Sorry. I’m just saying she’d probably be open to her granddaughter living her life—she’s not overprotective.”
Carter leaned his elbows on the table and took a long swig of beer. “She’s pretty. Go talk to her.”
Gabe let out a half laugh. “Why are you two suddenly pimping me out?”
Pierce and Carter shared a look. Pierce was the one to speak. “’Cause you’ve been in a mood lately. Ever since you worked that wedding with Bella.”
He jerked back in surprise. He should’ve figured his friends would notice. His emotions had been up and down like a jackhammer. She’d seemed so casual about Jing and his imagined “little black book” that was stuffed to capacity. She probably believed in his damn reputation as a player.
Ever since that stupid beach-bachelor tag, the town had cast him in the role of wicked seducer. He hated how so much seemed to revolve around his looks. Hated being flirted with and treated like he had no brains in his head. Hated the giggles and whispers when he walked into a bar, and the constant stream of women who approached him for some fun, rarely looking for more. It was a catch-22—women automatically thought he wasn’t interested in a relationship, so he attracted the ones who only sought a one-night stand.
His reputation in Cape May was overrated and false, but it didn’t stop the rumors from spreading. Last week, he’d heard he was part of a shocking threesome with a couple from out of town, when in reality, he’d spent his weeknights watching HGTV and working on weddings. For a long time, he’d laughed off the rumors, finding amusement in the gossip, but lately he was only feeling defeated.
Did any of it matter, though? Bella didn’t seem to care. He was grounded in the work zone. Maybe he had a chance at a promotion to the friend zone, but he wasn’t getting to the next level with her.
Except that one moment in her kitchen last night. When he’d talked about Zoe and how he admired her as a mom, she’d finally seemed completely connected to him. Her focus and attention made his head buzz like he’d guzzled a bottle of champagne, all fuzzy and bubbly with pleasure. If only she had a clue about the power she held. How he ached to feel her hands on his cheek, to smooth back her hair, to hold her in his arms and give her the comfort he knew she sometimes needed but pushed away. He wanted to be that man for her.
But she wouldn’t let him.
“Sorry,” he grumbled. “I’ll just drink my beer, and we’ll talk about sports and keep things simple.”
Carter let out a curse. “Stop being so damn dramatic. Have you told her how you feel yet?”
“Are you crazy? I can’t suddenly announce I’ve been crushing on her for years and ask her to try out a relationship.”
“Sure you can,” Carter said.
Pierce made a rude noise. “Nah, Gabe’s right. Can’t just announce how you feel all the time. It worked for you with Avery, but Bella may freak. She’s been guarded since Matt died and has a kid to protect. She probably thinks Gabe is all wrong for her.”
“Prove you’re not, then,” Carter said simply. “I’ve seen you with Zoe. You’d be an amazing father. Is she afraid you won’t want a serious relationship?”
“Probably. Damn Beach Bachelor thing is killing me. I deliberately stayed away from dating to show her I’m not a player, but it doesn’t matter. She thought I picked up someone at the Royal wedding, but I was just being polite. The gossip is ridiculous. I think everyone likes the idea of me wreaking havoc on the hearts of the innocent here.”
The guys burst out laughing.
“Damn, that was good,” Pierce said, patting him on the back. “Very descriptive.”
A reluctant grin curved his lips. “Screw you. Both of you are useless.”
“I still think you may need to be clear with your intentions,” Carter said. “Tell her how you really feel. Get a ‘Yes, I’m into you, too, and want to give it a try,’ or a ‘No, go away or I’ll scream harassment.’ You can’t keep going on like this, dude.”
“And if she says no, she’s not interested?” he asked.
Pierce drummed his fingers on the bar. “It’ll suck, but you’re wasting too much time going back and forth with her. Maybe Carter’s right. Get a yes-or-no answer, and work from there. If she says no, you start dating other people.”
Carter nodded. “Good plan. Just swipe left, buddy. Or is it right?”
He groaned. “If I do this, I need to find the perfect time. I just can’t declare my feelings across the conference-room table.”
“You’ll find it. After all, Valentine’s Day is coming up. Cupid may help,” Pierce said.
“I hate V Day,” he grumbled.
“So does every other man in America,” Carter agreed. “But if it makes Avery happy, I’m in.”
“Spoken like a true poet,” Pierce teased. “Actually, Taylor despises V Day. Says it’s a holiday constructed for commercialism and to make females feel bad about themselves if they don’t have someone in their life.”
Gabe laughed. “Of course she’d say that. Gonna be a real bitch when she decides to move on.”
Pierce cranked his head around and stared. “Why? Has she said something?”
“Not to me. But she made her intentions pretty damn clear she doesn’t want to do wedding planning much longer.”
Pierce muttered something under his breath, and a frown creased his brow. Taylor had always made her intentions to leave Cape May known, but maybe the upcoming reality was giving Gabe’s friend pause. He suspected Pierce harbored hidden feelings for Taylor but didn’t want to ruin their close-knit bond. They’d grown up together. Moving from friends to lovers was tricky, and many times it just didn’t stick.
Another reason he was worried about pushing Bella. But maybe his friends were right. He’d hinted of his interest and hoped she’d want to hear more, but she’d quickly slammed the door shut. And he’d given her the out. He’d never asked her straight out on a date.