He felt her gaze probing, but he kept his attention on the road. He didn’t want her pity, but sharing such a core part of his past with her felt right. Wasn’t this what he’d been longing for? To be able to get beneath the surface with Bella and show her who he truly was—even the rough parts?
“Children don’t realize what’s good or bad because they don’t know any differently. It was when I visited my friends’ houses and saw how their parents treated each other and their kids that I realized my home life was screwed up. As soon as I was able, I got out of that house. Left them both behind and chose to follow the type of life I wanted.”
“Like the Dr. Seuss quote,” she murmured.
He laughed. “Yes, exactly.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I grew up with sisters I was close to, and my parents taught us early about how to love. You had no siblings or other family?”
“No, I was an only. My father had two brothers, but one was in jail, and the other wandered off somewhere and never got in touch. Mom has a sister in California I saw once.”
“You must have been lonely.”
The words held a thread of understanding and an invitation to know more. She rarely asked him personal questions, so he gave her it all freely. “I was, but I found solace in beautiful things. While everyone was obsessed with Snapchat and Insta, I became a Pinterest junkie. First it was nature and animals. Then I became fascinated by high culture—beautiful people in glamorous clothes, traveling the world. I wanted that type of life, but I didn’t know how to get it. One day, I was in the park. The weather was warm—it was early spring—and I watched a bride and groom and their wedding party get out of a limo and begin taking pictures all over the grounds. It was like watching a fairy tale of happily ever after. The white dress, the way the groom looked at the bride. Their friends and family happy and smiling. They were drinking champagne and doing all these poses in front of the camera, and I remembered thinking how badly I wanted to be a part of it. To share in that one perfect day—to be part of a memory that was good and pure and beautiful.”
He gave a half laugh, embarrassed at his emotion. “Anyway, that’s how I became obsessed with weddings. I studied endless pictures online. I loved the perfection of it all, from the cake to the flowers—anything seemed possible. And it was wrapped up in this thing called love. What could be better? So I began researching careers in the wedding industry and decided I’d try to be an event planner.”
“And your father didn’t approve?”
He laughed with no humor. “Hell no. I shamed him. That was a woman’s job—not a man’s. Dad did manual labor. He respected work that paid by using your hands. But I was lucky—I scored a job in the food industry, made a ton of money, and moved out. I worked nonstop, went to community college for my degree, and finally scored a job as an event planner. Eventually, I found my way to Cape May.”
“I have an idea it wasn’t as easy as you describe.” Her voice was soft and melodic, the car snug and warm, giving them a protective armor from the bitter cold outside.
“I’m satisfied with where I am now. It was all worth it.”
“Satisfied, but not happy?”
He had never been truly happy—the type of happy that comes from love and sharing a life with somebody. The endless women from before he’d met Bella were flickering images that had not been able to touch his heart, no matter how hard he tried. But when he met Bella’s gaze for the very first time, his soul had seemed to recognize hers. It was as if he’d found his missing half.
But she wouldn’t want to hear that type of truth from him.
“Let’s just say it’s good to have goals.” He deftly parallel parked into the tight space just down the block from the bookshop and cut the engine. “We’re here.”
She nodded, seemingly lost in her thoughts for a while. Then she got out of the car.
She’d been wrong about him.
All through their lunch meeting, she’d been distracted by the revelations he wasn’t the man she thought. It was easy to assign a past to someone who was continually charming and easy-going, with classic good looks to match. She’d figured he’d been the golden child—prom king and endlessly popular. Many attractive white males with his type of personality had an easier path than others. But the one he painted came with heartache, and the career he’d pursued put him in a role that was easy to make fun of.
I found solace in beautiful things . . .
His words haunted her. She’d wanted to stay in the car, in their cocoon, and learn more about the boy who’d turned into a man who treated her daughter with such love and care. A man who took each wedding he planned seriously, digging deep to find what the couple needed from the ceremony. What else would she find beneath that playboy surface?
“Bella? What do you think if we crisscross the lights through here?” he asked, pointing to the expanse of ceiling in the main aisle at Housing Works. “We can wrap around that column. Maybe do birch decor above the shelves?”
She refocused. “Yes, that would look good. I’d like to use smaller, more intimate tables laid out in here,” she said, walking into the adjacent room. The space was a bit cramped for the number of guests, but she loved the energy of the place, and the air was scented with paper and dreams. It seemed to fit Adele’s vision. They just needed to make sure every detail was unique and personal, as she had requested.
Van, the coordinator for weddings at the bookstore, took them to the spiral staircase. “Many brides come down here for the official ceremony, which we can set up there. I’d advise no large floral arrangements or gadgets since that will take up too much of the room.”
“Yes, that’s perfect,” she said, tapping her lip as she studied the setup, imagining the final product on D-Day. “We’ll bring in our own bar and set up high tables for the cocktail hour. We’ll be using your caterer and finalizing the menu next week.”
He nodded. “That makes things easier—Shelley does excellent work and knows the space well. You know we don’t have Dr. Seuss books here, right?”
Gabe grinned. “No worries, we’ll be bringing them in for the setup.”
She turned to Gabe. “Each table can feature a theme from a different book. We can do quote cards—”
“Incorporate the actual book into each centerpiece—”
“And do seeds for the favors because—”
“They grow into trees!” he finished.
Van looked back and forth at them. “You work well together. I can’t tell you how many screaming matches I’ve had to deal with from wedding planners. They’re worse than the brides.”
Satisfaction unfurled. She was used to working by herself, with occasional help from her sisters, but she’d been enjoying both Gabe’s company and the way he approached his wedding planning. They had similar styles, and there was a respect when he listened to her that wasn’t fake. Lord knew she’d met enough males in the industry who liked to mansplain or talk over her ideas.
Gabe was different.
They coordinated the rest of the critical details, and when they left the venue, she was confident in how they’d decorate the space. Glancing at her watch, she looked at the clogged traffic and groaned. “Getting home’s going to be a nightmare. Do you want me to drive back?”
“No, I’m good. Who’s with Zoe?”
“Taylor. They’ll order a pizza, so I won’t have to worry about dinner. You?”
He shot her an amused look. “Me, myself, and I? No plans. I have a bachelorette party Friday night I need to tighten up. They’re a bit of a wild crowd, so I want to be prepared.”
“The Bailey wedding?” She shuddered. “How’d you get stuck with that mess? She’s such a PITA. I thought Avery was in charge of that one.”
“I wanted to give her a night off. I don’t have a fiancée I want to spend time with.” He tugged off his jacket and laid it on the back seat. With slow, graceful motions, he rolled up his crisp white shirtsleeves, exposing muscled, sinewy arms.
Her gaze roved hungrily over the olive-toned skin, wondering what it would feel like under the sweep of her fingers. Wondering what his body would look like unclothed.
He loosened the knot of his sleek silver tie, working it back and forth until he was satisfied he had enough room. Then he climbed in the car, started the ignition, and curled tapered fingers around the steering wheel. His hips shimmied back and forth as he adjusted for comfort before leaning back in the seat.
A shudder ripped through her.
The spicy scent of cloves clung to him. She imagined pressing her lips to his rough cheek, her fingers caressing the chiseled line of his jaw, lingering over the softness of his mouth, turning his head around so he’d be able to kiss her deep and hard and thorough.
Her breath squeezed her lungs, and she hurriedly flipped off the vent to stop the rush of heat. She was already wet between her thighs. Where had that come from? Sure, she’d always recognized he was an attractive, virile male, but she’d never fantasized about him like that before. She needed to get her act together. See what happened from too many years of celibacy? She was definitely using her vibrator tonight to take the edge off.