Bella gasped. Met Gabe’s stare. And nodded.
“Add one package of those to the bill, sir,” Gabe said.
They climbed back in the car like kids, ripping open their stash and settling back into the drive. Oh, she was going to pay for this indulgence, but the moment the sweet, sugary cake coated in marshmallow and coconut hit her tongue, she moaned. “So good.”
“It’s been years since I’ve had one of these,” he muttered. “I should’ve gotten the damn Mountain Dew.”
“Water is healthier,” she pointed out.
“Oh, wait, are you one of those people who order a Big Mac, fries, and a Diet Coke?” he asked suspiciously.
“Well, yeah. There is such a thing as overdoing it. Speaking of which, we have our appointment with Maria tomorrow about the cake and desserts.”
“How’d you match up Big Macs and soda with Maria?” he asked.
“Overindulging. Cake and Dr. Seuss desserts. You with me?”
“Yeah, I’m back. Sugar overload. Hand me the Combos, I need some balance on my palate.”
She poured out a few into his palm. “I may need to leave a little early to get Zoe to dance, but we should know by then if she’s going to take the job.”
“Too bad Carter couldn’t ask. Maria loves him.”
Maria had done Carter’s sister’s wedding cake and had been charmed by his intent to pick a challenging, unique design that would dazzle Ally. She’d ended up creating a masterpiece using a 3D effect with silver-foil roses, impressing Carter. The two had become fast friends, and Carter frequently stopped at Madison’s Bakery during the day to steal a chocolate croissant and talk shop.
“Maria adores you, too. We’ll pull some ideas together that will tempt her to want to take on the challenge.” She opened up the Funyuns and breathed in the sharp tang of onion and garlic. The moment her teeth crunched down, nostalgia swept over her. It had never been the cotton candy that tempted her—always the salt.
“You look so happy right now,” he said, his voice warm. “You should let yourself indulge more.”
“Trust me, indulging in Funyuns is not the answer to self-care.” She shot him a grin. “But I wouldn’t say no to an occasional spa date or evening off.”
“How long have you been raising Zoe alone?” he asked quietly.
Usually, she’d pull back and distance herself from any personal questions. But the atmosphere was relaxed, and in this moment, she just felt like sharing. “Five and a half years. Matt died when she was three months old. Drunk driver hit him.”
“Was it local?”
“No, he was coming home from a business trip in Pennsylvania. I know it sounds awful, but everyone became obsessed with the lawsuit. How much money we’d get. Kept saying I deserved every penny to raise Zoe.”
“Money doesn’t replace life, but I can see how they felt you deserved compensation.”
“The driver died, too. One bad decision to drive after leaving a party, and two people lost their lives. I wasn’t about to pursue his family for a lawsuit when we’d all lost so much. I tried hating him for a while, but I couldn’t. I remember getting in a car with my friend when I was seventeen, knowing we were tipsy but feeling invincible. Later on, I realized how lucky we’d both gotten to not get into an accident or hurt anyone. The night Matt died, no one got lucky.”
“Emotions aren’t logical. You had every right to hate.”
She shook her head, caught half in the past. “Oh, how I wished I could hate back then. Instead, I fell apart. Became so numb nothing could touch me, not even Zoe.”
Suddenly, her cold hand was wrapped in warmth and a gentle strength that eased the tightness in her chest. “I’m so sorry, Bella, for what you and Zoe went through. But you’re here now, and when I watch you with Zoe, and what you manage to give her every day, I’m humbled.”
His words shattered through the chipped walls and tore down her defenses. She held his hand tight, closing her eyes against the rush of raw emotion that touched her deep down in her soul. The truth rang out in his voice and soothed the broken edges. The gesture meant more than he’d ever know, soothing the need of a mother to know she was enough for her child.
For the first time since Matt died, it was like a man saw her. And God, it felt good. Better than a compliment about her looks or talent or cleverness.
Slowly, she uncurled her fingers from his and pressed back against the window. The air in the car seemed to thicken with tension, both emotional and sensual. The feel of his skin against hers had burned an imprint into her palm.
Confusion swamped her. What was going on here? She’d never had these feelings toward Gabe. And why did his affection seem tinged with more than casual friendship?
She cleared her throat and tried to clear her head. “Thanks,” she finally managed. “Hey, what’s a car ride without music? Got anything good?”
A few beats passed. She held her breath, hoping he’d take her lead and lighten the subject. Their conversation had become too intimate. She wasn’t ready to confront her burgeoning physical attraction to him, let alone the safety she suddenly felt confessing secrets.
“Sure. Depends on your mood. We can go modern with Lizzo, country with Jake Owen, or old-school Jimmy Buffett.”
She popped another ring in her mouth and chewed, determined to put them back on track. “I say crank up ‘Margaritaville.’”
He did. They spent the next few hours singing out loud, telling bad jokes, and eating the rest of the snacks.
By the time he pulled up to her house, her stomach was protesting loudly. “I shouldn’t have finished the whole bag,” she moaned, crawling out the door.
“Do you have any TUMS inside? I can drop some off.”
She shook her head. “I have a five-year-old—my medicine cabinet is stocked. Thanks for driving and for the snacks and for—”
Their gazes met and locked. Something surged between them, hot and needy, and she took a step back on the pavement for safety.
“Thank you for a perfect day. See you tomorrow.”
She didn’t respond. Just shut the door and went inside the house, where her real life was waiting.
Bella stared at the flowers on her kitchen table and wondered when things had changed.
It had been a week since their car ride from Manhattan, and each day they seemed to grow closer. Where there was once a fine-tuned tension and distance, now a lighthearted energy flowed between them. Gabe made her laugh. He brought a focused creativity and work ethic to every part of the planning process, and she began to realize she enjoyed working with him as a partner more than working solo. But it was the other changes that startled her.
She’d begun to stare at him when he wasn’t looking, her gaze stuck on the fine tightness of his ass or graceful stride. She looked forward to lunchtime, when they’d take a break and eat together, chatting about various subjects that highlighted his sharp intelligence. Knowing the truth about his past made her see him in a different light. He was a man who’d transformed his pain into a life of his choosing. The type of man she admired.
Along with many women in Cape May.
Bella suspected he had no lack of female companionship, but she was still surprised by the consistent invitations whenever they were out together. He was hit on by a customer in the deli line, a new cashier at Acme Market, and the sister of a client who’d come in to see Taylor. She watched as he conversed politely with each woman yet kept a distance that clearly showed his disinterest. He was able to let them down with so much charm, it looked like they didn’t even mind.
He’d turned rejection into an art form.
But why hadn’t he taken their numbers? Because she was around and it made him uncomfortable? She’d begun to wonder about the women he did date. He never spoke about them at work. Did he like keeping his love life a secret so he could have more freedom?
Yet he’d mentioned how he wanted a relationship. Someone to love. It was completely contradictory to everything she’d heard or believed about him.
Bella reached out, her fingers brushing a delicate petal. He’d sent pink teacup roses for Zoe with a funny card. Her chest tightened when she read it, knowing how excited her daughter would be when she returned home from school.
The bouquet he’d sent Bella was something she would have picked out personally. How had he known what flowers she loved? The Stargazer lilies were creamy white, with a burst of hot pink in the center, their pointed petals both interesting and elegant. They were surrounded by crimson roses, which only emphasized the shocking beauty of the lilies.
She couldn’t stop staring at them.
The knock at the door broke the odd spell. Avery walked in with a large bag and a big smile. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she greeted. “I’m on my way to Peter Shields for the Gonzalez wedding but wanted to drop this by. Chocolate for Zoe, chocolate for you, and the new bridal catalog from Vera. You’ll need a few hours—she’s outdone herself.”
She shook her head and hugged Avery. “You didn’t have to do that! I think I’ll hide Zoe’s chocolate for a while, though. She’s been waking up at three a.m. the past few nights and can’t go back to sleep. I’ve been existing on four-hour sleep the last two days.”