There was so much to lose.
But there was more to win. The conversation with Carter and Pierce reminded him if he didn’t try, he’d never know if he had a real shot with her.
He was tired of playing it safe. Yes, things were easier as casual friends, but what if he could make Bella happy? What if they were meant to be together and he’d been wasting all this time? His heart already belonged to her, and the idea of spending another year afraid to admit his feelings, living like a monk, made his gut clench.
If he could use planning Adele’s wedding to build a solid connection, he might be able to man up and ask her to take a chance on him. He’d noticed a softening this past week toward him. Spending time with her was key.
But it was still too soon, so he decided to lighten the mood. “And you finally do need me,” he added with a teasing wink. “I’m crucial to dazzling New York society with the wonders of Seussland. Hey, how about we have Sneetch greeters at the doors? They can have big bellies and one will wear a star—the other won’t. It can be a subtle dig at the have and have-nots, right?”
She groaned, and the heaviness in the air drifted away. “That’s truly awful.”
“I’ll work on it.”
He called in the lunch order and tried not to hope too hard.
“How’s Adele’s wedding going?” Avery asked.
They were gathered in Taylor’s part of the house for dinner. They tried to schedule regular family dinners twice per week, but lately Taylor and Avery had been traveling, so they’d been missing each other. Bella was looking forward to a chill night with her sisters.
“We got a handle on it,” she said, expertly stirring multiple pans of sizzling vegetables and seasoned chicken. “Can you get the toppings?”
“Sure.” Avery set up a makeshift assembly line and began dumping shredded cheese, lettuce, and chopped tomatoes into bowls. “Did you decide on any details yet?”
“We’re going with a Lorax theme.”
Avery nodded, but Bella noticed the obvious frown. Her sister was a true type-A personality who thrived on details. And though her intentions were always good, she loved to offer suggestions. What made it even more frustrating was that her older sister was usually right. “Lorax is great to pull from. Is that Adele’s favorite Dr. Seuss book?”
Taylor took out the wine, filled three glasses, then poured milk for Zoe. “Can we please not talk about work tonight? Did anyone see the new Bachelor pick? Talk about yumminess.”
Bella added another dash of garlic to the peppers and onions, then removed the pan of chicken from the burner. Damn, why hadn’t she thought to ask Adele what her favorite Dr. Seuss book was? Her sister would have gotten that detail.
She tried not to sound defensive. “I don’t know. But we have enough feedback to know The Lorax will be perfect.” She refused to second-guess herself now. Besides, Gabe had been just as enthusiastic, and she trusted his instincts.
“If you include Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, you can focus on travel, and there’s tons to pull from. Maybe even more than The Lorax.”
Bella tried not to slam down the pan, reminding herself Avery was only trying to help. “We’re mimicking the Truffula plants in our decor. We’re going to use birch trees and place settings with recyclable materials. It’s going to be fresh yet focused.”
She cocked her head. “What does that mean?”
Avery waved her hand in the air. “Nothing. You’ll do great—Gabe is amazing to work with and has so many ideas.”
“Meaning I don’t?”
“Of course not. Why are you getting so weird? Do you have your period?”
Bella gasped. “That’s something a guy would ask! Shame on you. Maybe I’m just tired of being questioned on my own projects.”
Avery’s mouth fell open. “I’m not questioning you! I know you were worried about taking so much on, so I wanted to help. I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed and alone in this, that’s all.”
Avery’s concern only caused more irritation. It made no sense, but sometimes Bella was resentful of her older sister’s unfailing confidence and belief that she could do anything she set her mind to. She hated that Avery would think of her as the sister who always needed extra help.
The awful words popped out of her mouth before she could tame them. “Don’t worry, Avery. I can handle things on my own. I won’t embarrass the family.”
“What kind of crap is that? I—”
Taylor cleared her throat. “Did you see that Jason Momoa has a new movie out and he’s naked in it?”
They both turned at once. “Totally naked?” Avery asked after a brief pause. “Full frontal? Or just the butt?”
“Momoa has a new movie out?” Bella asked.
Taylor grinned. “Nope, I just needed a distraction for you psychos. Enough about weddings and Dr. Seuss—I refuse to ruin Taco Tuesday. I’m hungry and ready to eat. Plus, I have some news and want to be the main focus of attention.”
Bella shared a glance with Avery and settled down. God knew she didn’t want to fight, and her insides were all tangled up with a bunch of messy emotions she needed to sort out. She’d do a long meditation tonight, and maybe a good night’s sleep would settle her back. Lately, all her zen calm had been deserting her. She needed to figure out why.
“Fine with me,” she said. “Can you get Zoe?”
Taylor nodded and went to get her while Bella transferred the food onto platters and put out the warmed fajitas. A tug on her hair made her turn.
“I’m sorry about the period comment,” Avery muttered. “I’m getting stressed about planning my own wedding. Isn’t that stupid?”
Bella sighed. “No, sweetie, it’s not. It’s perfectly acceptable, and I’m just being overly sensitive lately. How about we all get together and do a planning session? We do it for our clients—why shouldn’t we do it for you?”
Avery sniffed. “Thanks. I think that’s perfect. But can we leave Carter out of it? He did so good with helping plan his sister’s wedding, he now thinks he’s an expert. He’s driving me nuts sending me all these new ideas, and my vendors keep calling me to go over his suggestions. I think I created a monster.”
Bella bit back a laugh and squeezed her sister’s shoulder. “We’ll take him down a peg. Let’s eat some tacos and hear Taylor’s news.”
Zoe raced in on Taylor’s heels. “Tacos!” she squealed. “I don’t want any peppers or mushrooms or onions or zucchs.”
“That’s zucchini, and you have to pick at least one veggie.”
Her daughter made a face and slid into the chair. “Fine. Red peppers.”
They dug into their tacos with gusto while Zoe chatted about her day in school. “There’s going to be two dances at school for Valentine’s Day. I can wear my new pink dress, Mama!”
She smiled. “Yes, you can. There’s two this year?”
“Uh-huh. The first one is for mommies and boys, and the second one is for girls and their daddies. But Mrs. Wooley says it doesn’t have to be a real mom or dad that goes. She said there can be friends or aunts or uncles or two mommies and two daddies. She says families are made up of all sorts of people, so I want to go with Uncle Carter.”
Her heart squeezed in both pain and gratitude. She hated that Matt wasn’t here to experience the magic of his beautiful daughter, but knowing Avery was marrying a wonderful man who could bring a strong male presence to the family was a gift.
“Oh, honey, Uncle Carter will love that! He’s going to be really excited. Make sure you text me the date, Bella.”
Taylor finished her last taco and wiped her mouth. “Well, I don’t know how I’m going to top a V-Day dance, but it’s time to announce my news. I have been officially invited to participate in an art show.”
Bella gasped. Taylor had always wanted to travel and study art abroad, but she’d been pulled into the family business after Matt died, and then their parents had retired. She’d committed to working another two years in order to make the business strong before moving on. Bella knew what a sacrifice her sister had made to stay. Taylor had never wanted to settle in the small beach town and craved a bigger, more glamorous lifestyle. Her painting had always been a passion that she termed more of a hobby, but in the past year, Bella had seen her spend more time in her studio. Carter had bought her first painting last summer and introduced her to a few contacts.
“Are you kidding me?” Avery asked, clapping her hands. “T, that’s amazing! Tell us all the details.”
“Well, Carter hooked me up with a big art dealer who takes on brand-new artists. He saw some of my work, and wants me to join in for an introductory exhibit in Paris.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “He’s interested in fresh perspectives and thinks my work has the edge he’s been looking for.”
“Paris?” Avery gasped. “This is amazing news.”
“Wow, Aunt TT, you’re gonna be famous!” Zoe announced.
“Doubtful, babe. But it doesn’t matter as long as I try my best, right?”