“Oh no! Bad dreams?”
“She says no and that she’s just excited to start her day.” Bella laughed. “The last thing I need to give her is additional sugar, though. But I’m glad I don’t have to wait to see the new wedding dresses. Next spring is already upon us.”
“Don’t even mention it. Oh, what gorgeous flowers—did Gabe send them to you?”
Startled, she stared at her sister. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
She waved a hand in the air. “Oh, he sent some to me, too, and probably Taylor. He’s a sweetie. Aww, even Zoe got a bouquet! I swear, that man’s a prince. Everything still going good with Adele’s wedding?”
The trickle of disappointment caught her off guard. Seemed her whole family had received flowers and not just her. Which was great. She was happy Gabe treated everyone with such care. She gave her sister a bright smile. “We’ve been making wonderful progress. I’m enjoying working with him.”
Avery clapped her hands together. “I knew you guys would make a good team! You seem to think alike, too. I think you have more in common than you originally believed.”
“Yeah.” She hesitated, thinking over their heart-to-heart chat in the car. “Um, Avery, do you know much about Gabe’s past, with his dad and stuff? After we met with Adele, we started talking about our childhoods, and I was really surprised by some of his stories.”
Her sister arched a brow and shot her a searching look. “He rarely talks about his parents. I just know his dad was an asshole and made him feel unworthy. His mom didn’t seem to help much, either, so he had it tough.”
“I know how close you both are, so I wondered how much you knew.”
“He only told me the basics, so I’m glad he opened up to you.” Avery tilted her head, regarding her thoughtfully. “There’s a lot more under the surface if you take the time to really know him.”
Bella nodded and hurriedly changed the subject. Her sister wouldn’t stop probing if she got suspicious, and Bella wasn’t ready to tell anyone about these burgeoning feelings for Gabe. It was too . . . new. “Well, thanks again for the gifts—you better get going.”
She kissed Avery goodbye and shut the door, then stared back at the gorgeous flowers in full view across the room.
The flowers were a kind gesture from a coworker. Nothing more. Nothing less. She needed to stop analyzing things.
Dragging in a breath, she got back to work.
Gabe glanced at his watch and slowed to a crawl on Main Street. Ugh, Valentine’s Day brought everyone out, even a flock of tourists who wanted to spend a romantic weekend getaway at one of the popular bed-and-breakfasts. Red-and-white lights twinkled merrily on the streets, and cars were packed into the row of various restaurants offering specials. He’d stopped for a slice at Louie’s, where he’d been propositioned by the new girl working there, then had to politely reply to a dozen texts from women offering to give him a special V-Day present tonight.
All he craved were his sweats, a beer, and a bingeworthy series on Prime. But he’d promised Pierce he’d stop by Taylor’s and get some equipment she had borrowed that he needed for his next gig. He was stuck in Atlantic City for a big wedding and couldn’t get there in time.
He hadn’t seen Bella today, but she’d texted him a polite thank-you for the flowers. His mind flashed to the conversation with Pierce and Carter. Gabe still hadn’t told Bella how he felt, but when they’d been alone together recently, it hadn’t felt like the right time to say anything. Their car trip had been a good opportunity to open up and let her see more of himself. Maybe moving forward, he’d just be open and sense the right time. Maybe he’d just know. After all, he’d never planned to share his difficulties with his father, but the conversation had flowed naturally and built another level of connection.
He eased to the curb and walked to Taylor’s door. She answered with her usual scowl, dressed in pajama shorts and a faded Imagine Dragons T-shirt. “You didn’t have to send me flowers,” she said grumpily. “I hate V Day.”
He laughed. “I know. But there’s no way I’m ignoring all the women I work with and appreciate. Did you like the color, at least?”
She motioned him in with a sigh. “Yeah, that was pretty cool. How’d you get Devon to do black roses?”
“Seems there’s a lot of morbidity around this holiday I didn’t know about. She almost sold out. You have that stuff for me?”
“Right here. Want a beer before you go?”
“Oh, I just picked up—”
The adjoining door burst open, and Zoe came tearing through. “Aunt TT! Wanna watch Charlie Brown Valentine’s with us?” she screamed.
Dressed in pink Fancy Nancy pajamas, with her blonde curls floating around her shoulders, she reminded him so much of a younger Bella, his heart surged.
She skidded to a stop on bare feet, blue eyes wide with recognition as she realized he was here. “Gabe! Yay—I love my flowers, Gabe, they’re my favorite color pink, and I put the vase in my room and told Meg that I got real live flowers for Valentine’s! What are you doing here?”
Taylor crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave her a look. “Zoe. I told you over and over you need to knock on my door and not burst in.”
“Oops, sorry. Please don’t tell Mama. She’ll be mad.”
“Well, I am mad, and I did hear, and you need to obey the rules, young lady,” Bella said behind her, lifting a brow. “Aunt TT may have visitors, and we don’t want to interrupt.”
“Damn straight,” Taylor muttered. “Naked ones.”
Gabe pressed his lips together to keep from laughing.
“But, Mama, look! It was only Gabe. And I’m sorry, I keep forgetting.”
“Well, try harder or I’ll have to make you eat extra vegetables.”
Zoe gasped in horror and moved close to him as if he were her savior. “That sounds awful.”
“It is. So knock.”
Zoe tugged on his sleeve. “Did you come to visit us?”
He smiled down at her precious face and tugged playfully on a wayward curl. “No, sweetheart. I’m picking up something your aunt had for me, that’s all. But I’m glad you liked the flowers.”
“That was so nice of you,” Bella said, her voice husky. “It made Zoe’s day.”
He shrugged. “Good, because as the only princess in the family, she had to get flowers.”
Zoe’s giggle charmed and mesmerized him just like the boa constrictor from The Jungle Book. “Is Mama the queen?”
“Yes, I think she is.” His gaze lifted and crashed with Bella’s. She seemed startled by the impact, taking a step back.
“What’s Aunt TT, then?”
“Maleficent,” Bella quipped.
Taylor preened. “My fave. At least she’s not boring.”
“Gabe, can you please come upstairs and watch Snoopy with me? Please? Mama made popcorn, and you can have some with us! Is that okay, Mama?”
Bella cleared her throat and fiddled with her hands, a slight flush on her cheeks. “Well, um, yes, but I’m sure Gabe has things to do tonight.”
Yeah, he had pizza and sweats waiting for him at home, but the lure of spending some quiet time with Bella and Zoe was too tempting to pass up. “Actually, that sounds great. I love popcorn, and Snoopy, so it’s a win-win.”
Zoe gave a whoop and danced around. “It’s like a Friday night! I get to stay up late! Are you coming, Aunt TT?”
Taylor grinned and shook her head. “Sorry, I have to do some work in my studio. But have fun.”
“I will!” Zoe grabbed his hand tight and began dragging him toward the door that led to their half of the house. “Come on, Gabe. Mama has it all set up.”
He noticed that Bella had remained quiet, but now the flush of pink colored her whole face. Did his presence disturb her? And if so, was it for a good reason . . . or bad?
They settled onto the comfortable sectional with Zoe in the middle, holding the big bowl of popcorn. She’d made it like the movies—with plenty of salt and butter—and he munched out while chuckling at Snoopy’s antics as the Red Baron. Once again, Charlie Brown screwed up, Lucy teased him mercilessly, and Linus backed his best buddy up.
It was perfect.
A commercial came on, and he savored the scent of strawberry shampoo, the soft flannel of Bella’s pj’s, and the warmth of Zoe’s arm linked with his. Bella had her legs curled up underneath her, her laughing gaze on her daughter. Zoe chattered on about a snow-cone machine she really wanted for next Christmas, and the spark of fierce love in Bella’s soft blue eyes hit him smack in the solar plexus.
Emotion choked through him, raw and real. Right now, right here, he had everything he ever wanted.
Soon, Zoe yawned and climbed onto his lap to finish the cartoon. The Valentine special morphed into a few extra shorts he hadn’t seen since he was young. As the credits rolled, he gave a contented sigh. “That was great, wasn’t it, Zoe?”
He looked down when she didn’t answer. She was asleep.
Gabe smiled, smoothing a few wayward curls from her cheek. “Well, we lost one of the crew. Do you want to take her up and—”