All his pep talks about moving on were bullshit. Until he knew where Bella’s head and heart were, he couldn’t date another woman.
“If you’re feeling more for Taylor than friendship, maybe you need to take Carter’s advice, too,” Gabe said.
“Just call me Oprah. Or Dr. Phil. Or—aw, hell, who’s the big advice guru this decade?” Carter asked.
“Ellen,” he said. “She’s the only successful talk-show host left.”
Pierce lifted his beer and took a slug. “There’s nothing between us,” he finally said, staring into his glass like it held the future. “We’re just friends. And she’s been unhappy here a long time.”
Gabe looked at Carter, who shrugged. “Okay. So now that we’re all talking about our emotions like a bunch of girls, how about we discuss real stuff?”
“Like what?” Gabe asked.
“My wedding. Avery said she wants Lucy at the ceremony, but all I keep picturing was that other dog pissing on the runner at that wedding last summer.” Lucy was Carter’s Yorkshire terrier, who had given Avery a hard time in the beginning but now adored her. They treated the canine like a pampered only child. “I think she should sit this one out, and we’ll bring her home some wedding cake. What do you guys think?”
Pierce rubbed his face and groaned. “Is this what it’s come to with us? Are we old? Do we all need to get laid?”
Carter snorted. “Speak for yourself.”
“I’m off the clock and refuse to talk about weddings,” Gabe said. “Spring training for the Phillies is coming up. What do you think our chances are?”
After a slight hesitation, they all fell into a safe, manly conversation about America’s favorite pastime. He had another beer, and by the time he got home, he’d made the decision to finally tell Bella his true feelings.
It was possible she’d never imagined him in a romantic way, and maybe the thought of hooking up with a man dubbed “the local stud” horrified her. But if he never asked her, he’d always wonder, and his life would be filled with regret and what-ifs.
It was time to take a risk.
Gabe glanced around at the explosion of papers, folders, photos, and iPads on the table and groaned. “Why Dr. Seuss? No one in history seems to have had a wedding with this theme, which makes it impossible to borrow any good ideas.”
They’d finished the conference call with Adele’s assistant and were still struggling a few hours later. Bella tapped her fingernail against her pursed lips in a steady rhythm, which he tried not to focus on. He needed no distractions today. The first hit of creative juice and adrenaline had worn off. Now he struggled with the cold reality that this was going to be really hard to pull off well. He felt as if they were grasping at random items in the Dr. Seuss world to please Adele, but they had no true idea who she was or what she’d love.
In Taylor’s words, they might be seriously fucked.
“The guest list is stellar,” he said a bit grumpily. “Wall Street tycoons, writers, and philanthropists I’ve only seen in the news. They’ll tear us apart if we screw this up.”
“The real problem is how to avoid a childish birthday-party scenario and make it into a sophisticated wedding,” Bella murmured, her gaze seemingly fixed into the distant future. “I think our scope is too wide. We’re trying to grab ideas from too many books and characters. We need to narrow our focus.”
“You’re right. I’m overwhelmed—I had no idea he had this many books. I love color, but there’s no way we can pull off a rainbow wedding here.”
“Agreed. We need to stick to one theme and pull it all together.”
“Well, the Grinch is out. How about Horton? He seems like a nice sort.”
Bella raised a brow. “Think broader.”
“You said to narrow the field.”
“Not by sticking with elephants. It needs to be something everyone can support,” she whispered, tapping her lip faster. “A lesson wrapped up in fun, but for an adult. Then we layer it through.”
“Alcoholic beverages in bright colors?” he suggested. “Neon blue? Bright yellow? We can have signature cocktails that look fun to drink.”
“Definitely. But what’s the lesson?”
He blinked. “Don’t drink unfun things?”
Her glower was adorable, and he’d realized in the past few hours he enjoyed baiting her a bit. She was zen most of the time, but when he scratched the surface, she had a bit of a bite. Probably the mother within her, which forced her to be a disciplinarian. She had steel underneath.
And he found it sexy as hell.
Suddenly, she froze, cranking her head around to gaze at him with a fierce intent. “The Lorax.”
He flipped through the images on the iPad screen and quickly zoomed in on the book cover. “Yeah, I remember this. Save the trees, right?”
A radiant glow beamed from her face. “Recycling. Saving the environment. Truffula trees!”
“Truffles, like chocolate?”
“No.” She excitedly tapped on the keyboard and began pulling pics from a folder. She slid over a mock-up print of fluffy vibrant-colored flowers with long stalks. They looked like cotton candy stuck at the end of a stick. “These are Truffula trees. We can find flowers that resemble them and use a nature theme throughout the entire reception. Adele wants to celebrate the world of Dr. Seuss, so let’s step into the one he created in The Lorax. It can be both whimsical and elegant. I think this will work, Gabe.”
He went to the stack of hardcover books she’d brought over from Zoe’s bookshelf and took out The Lorax. As he thumbed through the pages, he got her vision, and it was like a zap of lightning finally reignited his tired brain cells. The possibilities suddenly seemed reasonable and plentiful. “It’s brilliant,” he finally said, slamming his fist on the table with victory. “I see exactly where you’re going with this. Do you think we can get Maria to do the cake?”
Maria was the master baker of the Cape and their first choice for all weddings, which meant she was double-booked most of the time. Fortunately, the woman adored a good challenge, and a Dr. Seuss cake would be the one to make her consider. Especially with a sky-high budget. “We’ll go and beg today if we can grab an appointment. Did you talk to Pierce about doing the photography?”
“Yeah, unfortunately he has another job booked. We’ll have to find someone else.”
“We’re starting with a blank slate here, so let’s go through the vendors we want to work with. We can transport the cake and flowers, but we’ll need a caterer close to the venue. What’s her bridesmaid-dress colors?”
He practically beamed with excitement. “There are none! It’s just her and the groom.”
Her excited grin hit him in his solar plexus. He loved sharing the thrill of planning a wedding with her. For the past few years, she’d refused to work with him, always insisting she didn’t need the extra help or preferring Taylor or Avery to step in. Being able to get to know her on this level was a gift. “Oh, thank God. I was terrified we’d need to deal with neon colors and patterns.”
He clicked on an image and expanded to full screen. “Here’s the layout of the bookstore. We’re dealing with a lot of mahogany wood, shelving, and columns, but if we brought in the tree element, we could accent the natural decor rather than trying to mask it.”
“Yes, we can focus on the books as a main element instead of an afterthought.”
He nodded. “Birch would work. It’s light enough for contrast, has interesting texture and form, plus, it pairs beautifully with white lights.”
Her face scrunched a little in thought. Some strands of white-blonde hair escaped her topknot and lay against her cheeks. “We use all recycled materials—from the place settings to the favors. Set it all against the natural beauty of the environment with—”
“Color for pop,” he finished. “I think we finally have our theme.”
“Let’s get on the phone with our vendors and start mocking up designs,” she said.
“I’ll order in. Grilled chicken Caesar salad with unsweetened iced tea?”
For a moment, her blue eyes locked on him, an odd intensity radiating from her figure. “Yes, thanks.”
He cocked his head. “You didn’t think I knew what you wanted?”
She shifted in her chair but didn’t break the gaze. “I guess not. We’ve never been as close as you and my sisters.” An awkward shrug moved her shoulders. “Sorry. I only meant—”
“I know what you meant,” he said softly. He studied her face. The graceful curve of her cheek, the lush pink of her lips, the startling blue of her eyes framed by thick lashes, the heart-shaped mole on her jutted chin. “I’ve always been listening. And I’ve always been here, waiting until you needed me.”
She jerked back, but the tiny flare of awareness in her eyes told him there might be more. Maybe she was finally allowing him a peek inside a place that had been locked up tight.
Perhaps working together on this wedding was a way to get close and finally confess his real feelings. The thought caused cold sweat to prickle from his brow.