She frantically grabbed at her purse so she wouldn’t have to look at him. Her skin pricked with heat. “Want some gum?” she asked, her voice breaking on a high note.
“No, thanks. You too hot? I’ll lower the temp.”
She stuffed a piece of bubble gum in her mouth and chewed. This was the reason working with him was problematic. Besides slowly relaxing more around him, they were beginning to form a tentative bond. Now her body chose this time to rebel?
“Carter told me about the school dance. He’s excited to take Zoe.”
She smacked her gum and reminded herself to focus on his words and not his perfect male body. “So is Zoe. I like that her teacher stressed the dance didn’t necessarily mean dads and moms. She explained families are made up of all roles and sizes.”
“It’s true, most families don’t have a mother and father living in the same household. And who’s to say what love is or should be? Carter is crazy about her.”
“We’re lucky Avery’s marrying him. We’re a bit possessive in our family and don’t like to let too many new people in.”
“Is that why you were wary of me for so long?”
The question stole her breath, and she almost choked on her gum. “I’m careful with new people. We’re a tight-knit family. I needed to be sure you were going to work out.”
“I’m still here. I love Sunshine Bridal, love what I can bring to the business, and think you all are kick-ass businesspeople.”
She warned herself to get off the subject, but she was too tempted. “Yeah, but you’re young. You may not want to settle down forever in a small beach town.”
His brow shot up. “How old do you think I am?”
Her spine stiffened. “Twenty-five?”
Okay, so she’d been two years off, but having been married and borne a child, she felt centuries older. She still had ugly stretch marks that had never gone away. The thought of all those tanned, supple, gorgeous bodies he probably had in his bed seemed to mock her. “Still young. I’m just pointing out you have endless options.”
His silence struck her as a warning rather than a pause. “You seem to be stuck on the word young. My calculations put you at thirty-one, just four years older. An entire future ahead to do what you want. Like me.”
“No, it’s different for me. I’m stuck here. You’re not.”
His lips thinned. “No one is ever stuck, Bella. You have plenty of options if you want to change your life or career.”
“So do you,” she shot back. “Why do you love Cape May so much? You seem comfortable in the city. Don’t you think you’d have more opportunities here than a beach town?”
Seconds ticked by. He seemed to be pondering his answer as if it were important, and when he finally spoke, his voice was like a smooth, velvet ribbon pulled over naked skin. “Trying to get rid of me?”
She tried not to stutter. “No! I’m just curious.”
“I had two jobs in Manhattan before Cape May. And yes, I liked the excitement and fast pace, but I also felt more like a number than a person. I worked with a lot of other planners, and we’d be assigned our next client by a ticket. Like at the deli counter.” He gave a humorless laugh. “I couldn’t bring my own personal style to anything because I was like a factory worker, assisting the top-level planners who rarely accepted my input. That was never what I wanted. With Sunshine, I’m a valued part of the team. Many of our clients are residents who I’ve gotten to know over the years. People know my name. Cape May is special because for the first time in my life, I feel seen.”
His words tumbled through her, breaking apart pieces of the wall she’d guarded around her heart. She had no idea he’d found his past employment lacking. She’d always believed he strode into her beach town on a whim and decided to stay awhile. Hell, she’d been shocked he hadn’t left within the first year, figuring he’d get bored of the limited opportunities. But the way he described her childhood home touched something inside her. He saw the beauty in it.
“I didn’t know.”
“Because I never told you. Sure, if you’re the top dog, New York can be an amazing place to work. But going up the ladder and being recognized is damn hard. All I’m saying is everyone has a choice, Bella.”
She blew out a breath. “But I have a daughter to be responsible for. My parents created this business so their daughters would run it. Taylor will be leaving in September, which puts more pressure on Avery and me. I grew up here. I know how hard it is to get out. Taylor’s been trying for years.”
“I get it. Definitely a lot of responsibility. But answer this question for me: Do you want to leave Cape May? Or Sunshine Bridal?”
She stared at him, her brain clicking madly for the answer. Not the correct answer. Not the easy answer. The one she’d been avoiding—the truth she’d been afraid to unearth in fear of what she’d find. “I don’t know,” she finally said.
Instead of pushing her further, or questioning her lame answer, he nodded. “That’s fair. But maybe instead of feeling trapped in a life, you should choose to make it what you want. Maybe it’s right here with your sisters. Maybe not. But I think you owe it to Zoe to try, don’t you?”
She shook her head. “Children need routine. Stability. Family.”
“Yes, but they need a happy, well-adjusted mother more. Eventually, they’ll end up figuring out you weren’t authentic and not a whole person, and they’ll feel cheated. Believe me, I know, and it’s a hell of a thing to live with.”
Shock jolted through her at his raw honesty and the way he refused to flinch when talking about his past or his ideas. How had she never known how passionate he was under all that smooth surface charm?
Her heart beat madly, and she struggled to gain control over the conversation that was becoming more intimate with each mile. “Do you think we can hit a restroom? I think I need a break.”
He pulled over to a gas station. She took her time in the bathroom, trying to calm herself down. Talking about her dreams and her daughter threw her off-balance. She needed to get this car ride over with and retreat to her home and figure out why she was suddenly reacting like this.
When she walked out, he was in the convenience store with a bunch of stuff in his hands. “What are you doing?”
He shot her a boyish grin. “Car snacks. We still have a ways ahead, and I think we need some old-fashioned junk food. Pick your poison.”
“Oh, Lord no. This stuff is so bad for you.”
“Exactly the point.”
She stared at him with pure horror.
“Oh, come on, live a little. What’s your secret food crush? I bet I can guess.”
She put her hands on her hips and tossed her head. “Oh yeah? I guarantee you’ll lose.”
“Challenge taken. I get three picks.” Right away, he lifted a bag from the hook. “Combos. Just the right amount of cheese with the salt of a pretzel. I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Nope. As if I’d choose such a common car snack. Try again.”
He paced the aisle, frowning, then pointed at the bottom row. “Pringles Sour Cream and Onion. I know you like to eat them at night after Zoe goes to bed.”
Her mouth fell open. “How do you know that?”
He rocked back on his heels with victory. “Taylor came in with them once, and she blamed you for eating the entire can. You denied it, but I saw you were lying.”
“I can’t believe you remembered that.”
“No, you don’t. I do love them, but not on car rides. They are strictly for watching investigative news shows and getting a rise out of my sister.”
“Damn. Okay, I’m going with the Slim Jim. You strike me as a secret Jim lover.”
The giggle burst from her mouth at his ridiculousness. “Wrong again, Sherlock. Ready to be dazzled?”
She leaped to the end of the aisle and snatched up the familiar green-and-yellow package with the worst snack in all history. “Funyuns.”
He blinked. “No. Way.”
She beamed. “Told you you’d lose. And to celebrate my win, I’m getting them.”
“Fine, but I want the Combos and Reese’s peanut butter cups.”
“Oh, wait, we need M&M’s—they’re like the appetizer.”
“Good call.” He dumped the pile of junk on the counter. “What about to drink?”
“I’ll get water.”
“I want lime flavored!” he called out.
Bella grabbed the bottles and bounded back to the register.
The guy behind the counter grinned. “Road trip?”
“Yep.” She watched him ring it all up with a touch of pride.
“Some good selections. Surprised you missed the number-one pick, though.”
“What’s that?” Gabe asked.
He jerked his head toward the display by the door. “Hostess Cakes. Sno Balls, to be exact. I got the pink ones in—they never last.”