Zoe nodded. “Right.”
Bella swallowed back the lump in her throat. Pride resonated through her. It was finally going to be Taylor’s turn to shine. “This is the best news. When’s the show? How many pieces does he need?”
“The show is in September, and he wants five more canvases. No matter what happens, I have the opportunity to expand my audience. He’s well known internationally, and mentioned if there’s demand for my work, I can stay in Paris and work from there. I never thought it was a possibility since I’m not classically trained.”
“You always had a raw talent,” she said. “And you’ve been painting for years, learning on your own, self-taught. I’m so damn proud of you.”
“Thanks.” Her happiness seemed to fade a notch. “This means my time is officially up.”
Avery sighed. “You’re leaving Sunshine Bridal.”
Taylor nodded. “I’d stay till the end of the year, but it depends on the show. I may need to leave earlier, so we may need to plan a September exit.”
Bella’s heart shredded at the idea of losing her baby sister, but she also knew Taylor needed to go. “We understand, babe. It’s not a surprise—and God knows it’s overdue.”
“Wait. Aunt TT, where are you going?” Zoe asked with an edge of panic.
Taylor leaned over the table, stretching her arms out to grasp her niece’s small hands. “I’m going to travel for a while, sweetheart. I want to see some of the world out there, and when you grow up, you may want to, also. But I won’t be gone forever. You’re my family—I will always come back to you.”
Zoe blinked. “Is Uncle Pierce going with you, too?”
Taylor jerked back. “Um, no. He’s going to stay here with you, just like Uncle Carter and Gabe.”
“What if I don’t know the right way to mix my colors? I forget a lot, and you’re the only one who knows.”
Taylor smiled, her brown eyes filled with emotion. “You text or FaceTime me. I will always make sure you get the perfect color. Deal?”
“Deal.” She turned hopefully to Bella. “Mama, can we get a dog once Aunt TT leaves? I think we’ll be too lonely, so we need something to make us happy.”
Bella shared a glance with her sisters and burst into laughter.
Taylor grumbled. “Dude, I’m not even gone yet and you’re replacing me with a canine.”
Bella winked. “Hmm, not a bad idea. I was thinking of turning your place into a yoga studio.”
“Oh, can I keep some of my storage here?” Avery cut in. “There’s never enough space.”
“Okay, Abbott and Costello. Real funny.”
Amid the bittersweet sentiment, Bella was once again reminded of the beauty within the power of family. For her, it was enough. As long as she and Zoe had this, they didn’t need anything else.
Her mind flashed to a picture of Gabe’s face, his dark eyes gleaming with a banked emotion she didn’t understand, his words echoing in her mind like a mantra.
“I’ve always been listening. And I’ve always been here, waiting until you needed me.”
He meant as a friend, of course. There was nothing else between them except for a growing respect for his professional skill.
Funny, his words caused a deep longing to uncurl from within, but it had been so long since she’d been with a man, she chalked it up to loneliness.
It couldn’t be anything else.
“I can’t believe we scored a face-to-face meeting with Adele,” Bella said. “I’ve never met such a hands-off bride. Are we sure her assistant isn’t getting married instead?”
Gabe cupped her elbow and guided her over the high, uneven curb just as a bright-yellow taxicab roared past them, inches away. “I know. We need to use our time wisely.”
He’d found a thirty-minute hole in Adele’s nonstop schedule, and her assistant suggested a pub she liked that was a few minutes away from a previous appointment. He was used to dealing directly with brides and grooms who demanded a hands-on approach, refusing to delegate such details to an assistant. But Adele had been happy to relinquish her power, too busy to even pop on a quick conference call. It was a bit disarming to plan a wedding without direct client approval.
On the other hand, he was enjoying the limitless freedom to create and brainstorm an entire wedding. With Bella.
“When’s our appointment at Housing Works?” she asked.
“Not till two p.m., so we should have plenty of time. Watch the puddle.”
Her leather boot landed safely a few inches to the left. It was a cold day in Manhattan, with brisk winds and dirty snow edging the sidewalks.
“Here’s the pub,” she said. “I’m getting an Irish coffee. Don’t judge me.”
He laughed and they stepped inside. The old-fashioned Irish pub had a giant bar, lots of dark wood and brass, and spacious booths. He’d expected to meet their client at a fancy five-star restaurant, but it was a reminder that Adele Butterstein was different from the usual heiress and someone they didn’t know well.
Which made today’s lunch meeting especially important.
Weddings were extremely personal, and so far, they only knew surface information about the bride. He hoped with a face-to-face dialogue, they’d be able to tap into something deeper to give her ceremony and reception something special, beyond the Dr. Seuss drinks and Truffula trees.
They settled in, starting with water, and within five minutes, Adele’s deep, booming voice rang out. “Darlings! It’s so wonderful to see you!”
He grinned at her greeting. It was as if she were surprised to find them here instead of having an arranged meeting. She was dressed in a wraparound dress that emphasized her generous curves, the color a shocking pink. Her red hair was a glaring contrast.
She threw her canary-yellow raincoat on the coatrack and beamed at them from across the table. “I’m starving. Do you know they only give you tiny cucumber sandwiches at fundraisers? And fruit. I asked for a cracker, and they looked at me like I’d shot someone. When were carbs and cheese made the enemies? They did nothing but give women pleasure, and look what we did. Ostracized them.”
Bella laughed. “Agreed. There hasn’t been a bread basket I met I haven’t loved.”
The waitress came over, and they spent a few minutes ordering food, with both Adele and Bella going for an Irish coffee, extra whipped cream.
“Now, I cannot wait to hear all the details. Tell me what we still need to do.”
Gabe kept his smile pinned, but his gut lurched. “I’m assuming your assistant has kept you abreast on everything? She’s been approving things for us.”
“Oh, my, of course! Stacia is a treasure. She sends me all the details, but I mostly skim them. After all, that’s why I have you two working for me—to bring your amazing skill and vision to my wedding, right?”
Bella jumped in. “Exactly. And we’ve loved taking the lead on this. But taking some time to talk in person helps us focus on the details that will make your wedding truly personal. We don’t want to miss anything that’s important to you.”
Adele put her hand to her heart, gaze full of emotion. “And that is why I picked you. That’s just so lovely.” The bread came, and Adele dove in, slathering on the butter and eating with the same type of gusto she seemed to have when attacking other areas of her life. “Darlings, talk to me about the things I’ll love most. Stacia said our theme is The Lorax, and I think it’s divine.”
Gabe shared a look with Bella and dug in. Deftly parrying back and forth, they went over some highlights. “For the food, we’ve arranged an elegant sit-down, but Stacia seemed unsure about the menu. She mentioned your guests prefer a lighter touch, but we have an amazing chef at our disposal and would like to give you an array of food for your taste.”
Her face lit up. “I’m so glad you mentioned it! No boring salmon or chicken or endless salads with beets, no matter how many of my guests pretend to be on a diet. I want to indulge at my wedding. The theme word should be decadent. Cheese, truffle oil, pasta, butter, anything that gives pleasure. Are we doing green eggs and ham?”
Gabe stiffened. “Well, no, but—”
“Thank God!” She laughed. “All of my other planners insisted we put green eggs and ham on the menu. Ridiculous, right? I’m looking to integrate the magic of Dr. Seuss into my wedding, not bash people over the head with overdone ideas. That’s why I’ve loved everything you came up with so far.”
“We’re so glad,” Bella said, obviously relieved. “Now, about favors—”
“Oh yes, let’s give away trees.”
Bella blinked. “Trees?”
“Of course, it goes with the theme. For the cake, I want it to be multilayered and toppled over in true Dr. Seuss form. And we definitely need a dessert bar with Dr. Seuss treats.”
Uneasiness trickled through him. He figured she’d be a challenge, but trees were a tall order for any planner to fill. Literally.
“Can we do a specialty cocktail that smokes? I’ve seen some before, and it reminds me of the mist in a forest. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”