“I still think it was too expensive.” Watching Zoe’s face light up with delight after she tore open Gabe’s present had caused a slither of unease. Bella was afraid he was becoming too familiar—dropping by out of the blue, showering Zoe with unexpected gifts, weaving his way into the folds of her family with his carefree charm. He was even tight with her future brother-in-law, Carter, and they went out on a regular basis. Bella worried that Gabe would hurt too many people when he eventually decided to leave their small beach town.
He winked. “Nonsense, it was my pleasure. Gotta know what girls want, right?”
Her insides cooled. Oh yes, Gabe Garcia knew exactly what females wanted. He’d been dubbed the Bachelor of the Cape for two years in a row—a designation started by the magazine Exit Zero that spread into the New Jersey blogs and papers. He’d gotten even more publicity when they found out he worked for Sunshine Bridal, and for a while, clients had poured in just to work with Gabe. His escapades with women were famous, and excited gossip swarmed around him on a regular basis. He was their own local Jake Gyllenhaal, with a long line of females begging to end his single status.
Not that she blamed anyone. The man was like walking kryptonite. One look and women wanted to drop their panties.
Gabe nailed the tall, dark, and handsome vibe like no one else. His hair was thick and coal black, with a natural wave that set off his high forehead and bold brows. Inky eyes were framed by thick lashes and highly slashed cheekbones, slanting down to an honest-to-goodness square jaw—with a cleft. That manly jaw seemed to be consistently shadowed with a hint of stubble, giving him an edgy pirate look. With his impeccable clothes, charming smile, and graceful, lean body, the combination was lethal.
Her sister Taylor had pronounced him bangable on sight, but acknowledged she didn’t want him to fall in love with her and ruin their work relationship. Avery was more attracted to his brain and easy ability to dazzle brides and grooms by the dozens and grow their business.
As for Bella, the moment she looked at him, she’d scented danger. He was too much to settle down in a small beach town for long. Eventually he’d be courted to a bigger wedding company and leave them all behind with a casual wave and a sexy wink.
He’d take their business with him, and they’d be forced to deal with the fallout. God knew she was an expert in that territory. She had no desire to visit that place again, so she’d learned to keep her distance and watch for any signs of restlessness. She needed to protect her family.
Over the years, as Avery and Taylor grew closer to Gabe, Bella had made sure to always be polite, nice, but professional. No late-night cocktails after work together or long, serious chats about their hopes and dreams in life.
Oh, he’d tried to close the distance many times, but she’d refused. Even when she caught the flare of hurt in his eyes and the flicker of confusion on his face. After a while, they’d eased into a cordial yet tepid relationship that worked for both of them. It would have been perfect except for one small problem.
Her daughter worshipped Gabe, and he worshipped her right back. They’d fallen into a relationship that frustrated Bella, but there was nothing she could do. Now that he was a full-time wedding planner, there’d be even more contact. She had to make sure the business-only rules between them remained steadfast.
Mostly, it worked out. Bella usually handled the majority of her clients alone, pulling in Taylor when she needed extra help. Gabe had offered his assistance in the past, but she’d always declined, claiming she was able to handle everything. Eventually, he got the hint and stopped asking, and though Avery got frustrated with Bella’s stubbornness, her sister finally conceded, accusing her of too much pride.
Unfortunately, Bella was stuck this whole weekend working the Royal wedding with him, but once Avery and Taylor returned, they’d go back to their normal schedule.
Bella sipped her coffee and began bringing up her files on her laptop. “I’m sure knowing what females want has made you good at your job.”
His look was full of self-mockery. “It’s definitely an asset. Unfortunately, my poor father almost disowned me when he discovered I was putting that type of talent toward helping brides.”
Her curiosity was piqued. Gabe rarely spoke about his parents or past. “He had a problem with it?”
“Thought I was gay. Let’s just say that talk didn’t go well, because even though I wasn’t, it pissed me off he had a problem with it.”
She winced inwardly. She’d been guilty of thinking the same thing when he was first hired, but it hadn’t bothered her. It had been a good six months before his female exploits became legendary. “What about your mom?”
“She had no opinion of her own. Whatever my father said was law. Don’t get me wrong—he wasn’t abusive. He just wasn’t . . . warm.”
She picked her words carefully. “I think it’s sad that even in this day and age, people want to pigeonhole others. I think there should be more men in this business, and it’s ridiculous certain careers are discouraged because of someone’s gender.”
“Agreed. But you all took a chance on me, and here I am, freshly promoted.” He shot her a dazzling smile. “I think painful things in the past can be valuable lessons for the future. Do you feel that way?”
The thoughtful question and genuine interest in his gaze warned her they’d gone too far. Opening up his past was an invitation to deepen their relationship—an expert trick in forging intimacy she wasn’t interested in.
She gave a bland smile and focused on the screen in front of her. “Sure. Listen, we have tons of work to get through. Shall we start?”
The air thickened. As her fingers clicked over the keys, she silently held her breath, then heard him take the seat across from her.
“Of course,” he clipped out. “I’m sure you want to get through this weekend as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
She tried not to wince at the double entendre of his words but refused to feel guilt. They had a job to do, and allowing herself to be vulnerable to his good looks and charm wasn’t good for Sunshine Bridal. The less time they spent together, the better. Having her sisters under his spell was plenty. Someone in the family had to look out for their business interests and be practical.
So she didn’t react to his words. She just got to work.
She was doing it again.
Gabe tried to ignore the spurt of frustration ready to explode like a shaken-up can of soda once freed. He’d hoped working with Bella on this wedding would give them time to build some camaraderie. He’d been working for Sunshine Bridal now for three years, and he wasn’t any closer to breaking down her walls than he’d been when they were first introduced and shook hands.
Why the hell didn’t she like him?
Switching to autopilot, he began going down the multiple checklists for the upcoming weekend, his brain going over and over their exchange. She’d actually asked him a personal question. Usually, she stuck to general greetings, work, or talk about the weather. But he’d been too eager, believing she was actually interested after inquiring about his mom.
Avery usually ran the morning meetings and always started them with enthusiasm, positivity, and genuine questions on everyone’s mental state. Maybe this was Bella’s way of trying to stay focused while her sisters were out of town. Except he was now full-time with his own clients, and she was still treating him like an afterthought.
Politely, of course. Bella was never rude or wanted to hurt feelings. Too bad every time she dismissed him, another piece of his heart crumbled off and blew away like dust.
“Gabe? Did you take care of the flowers?”
He shook his head and reminded himself there was a huge postholiday wedding to pull off. His plan to impress Bella so she was dazzled by his expertise was already failing. “Yes, we’ll have the garland, mistletoe, and pine trees decorated and ready for both the ceremony and reception.”
“Good. I confirmed with the sleigh driver, and he’ll be out front to take Eloise from the hotel to the reception.”
His lips twitched. “We actually have horse-drawn carriages in Cape May, yet she insisted on a sleigh. Do you know how long it took to find one of those?”
He enjoyed watching her face relax into laughter. “I know. There’s been no snow, so they had to pay extra to mount wheels, or they would’ve been scraping the roadways with that awful sound the entire way.”
He shuddered. “Never been a nails-on-the-chalkboard type.”
“Me, either. What about the Santa Claus? Is Frank confirmed and set up with the toys we delivered?”
He winced. “Frank broke his leg last week and had to cancel. I had a hell of a time trying to find a replacement. Seems most Santas retire after the holiday until next year or the Salvation Army calls.”
A crease furrowed her brow. “Who’d we get?”
“Paul Traipse finally agreed to step in.”
Her face didn’t register disapproval—she was too much of a professional to allow emotion to show—but he caught the flare in her china-blue eyes. He’d spent too much time imagining what those eyes would look like drugged with passion, chin tilted up, pupils dilated, staring at him. Only him.