Within the hour, they had a contact and had prepared the groundwork. By the time Bella was ready to pick up Zoe, they’d secured a plan to book half a dozen Victoria crowned pigeons for a total of eight hours. They’d be delivered and secured, and Bella was already working on getting some large gilded cages to hold them. At the end of the reception, the zoo handler would take them back.
Victory crashed through him, spiking an adrenaline rush. Bella laughed in delight, and they high-fived, basking in the glow of rising to the challenge to deliver Adele the perfect wedding.
He opened the door. “Supposedly, the birds make this amazing sound, too. The guests will love this type of touch.”
“Much better than a parrot yelling ‘Polly wants a cracker,’” she said. “I better get Zoe. Great job.”
She shifted her feet, as if wanting to say something else but suddenly shy. He took the plunge and spoke. “Do you think we can talk later? Or tomorrow? I’d like to spend a bit of time together.”
He held his breath until she slowly nodded. “Yeah. I think that’s a good idea.”
“Why don’t you see what works and text me? I can come over after Zoe goes to bed or meet you in the morning for coffee? Anything you want.”
“I have an early-morning appointment, and Zoe has the dance tomorrow night, so I’m not sure.”
“I can wait.”
“I’ll text.” Her smile was sudden and sweet and full of something he’d never seen before—anticipation. “Bye.”
She left and he watched her disappear around the corner, like the poor damn chump he knew he was. But God, he didn’t care. For the first time, he had hope, and that was just about everything.
The next day was full of appointments and a bridal-shower luncheon that had taken all his energy. Bella had also been busy, so he figured maybe they’d be able to talk over the weekend. Right now, the only thing he could focus on was collapsing on the couch, opening a beer, and getting ahead of some work.
Yeah, the beach bachelor’s life was real glamorous.
He’d just changed into sweats and an ancient T-shirt when his phone buzzed. He glanced at the screen and saw Carter’s name. “What’s up?”
A litany of coughing came over the line. He frowned at the phone. “Man, do you need a doctor or meds? You sound awful.”
“Yeah, I feel awful. Came on late yesterday and been going downhill. You gotta do me a huge favor.”
“What do you need?”
“Tonight’s Zoe’s dance. I’m supposed to pick her up at seven p.m. to take her to the school. You have to go in my place.”
He stared at the phone in shock. “Wait, you want me to go? Did you call Bella and tell her about the change in plans?”
“No time. I waited to the last minute to see if I could get out of bed, but I can’t. Avery has the Myers wedding tonight.”
That’s right, and Pierce was with her, so he wouldn’t be able to fill in for Carter. He glanced at the time. “That’s half an hour away! I’m in sweats.”
“So change. I’ll text Bella—just get your ass over there and save mine.”
Gabe held back a groan since he didn’t want to waste any more time. “Fine. Get better.”
He clicked off and headed upstairs. He needed to focus. It was important to Zoe to have someone she cared about by her side at her first real dance.
He intended to bring it.
“Mama, where’s Uncle Carter?”
She checked the time. “He should be here any minute, sweetie. You look beautiful.”
Her daughter beamed with pride and twirled again, showing off the cute sweater dress Gabe had given her. She’d matched it with the fake UGG boots with pink fur and loaded up her arms with pink sparkly bangles. Bella had braided her hair and interspersed a pink ribbon with a tiny fringe at the end. She looked fashionable and adorable, and her mother’s heart swelled and wept, realizing this was one of so many moments she wouldn’t have a father to share with.
But Bella was here. And Carter was family. It would all be okay.
The bell rang.
Zoe squealed and opened the door.
“Gabe? What are you doing here?”
Bella stared in shock at the gorgeous man framed in her doorway. He was dressed in a sharp black suit, with a light-pink shirt and bold pink tie. His dark hair was slicked back, emphasizing his high brows, cut cheekbones, and chiseled jaw. Those dark eyes sparkled as he bowed in front of them and held something out in his hand. It was a wrist corsage with tiny roses the color of ballerina shoes. “My lady. Our chariot awaits for our big date.”
“But I thought Uncle Carter was taking me.”
His face pulled into mock sadness. “Uncle Carter got sick with a bad cold and had to stay in bed. But I jumped at the chance to be your escort for your first ball. Is that acceptable for you, my lady?”
A torrent of giggles escaped. “Yes! I’m sad Uncle Carter is sick, but I’m glad you’re here! And look what I’m wearing!”
He put a hand to his heart. “You look so beautiful—just like a real princess. I can’t wait to dance with you and step on your feet.”
More giggles. “Mama said you’re supposed to try not to step on feet when you dance, plus you’d hurt. You’re too big.”
“Oh, then you can step on my feet. Are we ready?”
“Yes, I just need my coat!” Zoe flew by Bella to grab it.
A mess of emotions twisted inside her. He leaned in, and she caught the smooth sweep of his jawline. She tried not to gulp in a big sniff from the delicious scent of his cologne. “I’m sorry, Bella. Carter called me and asked if I could fill in. I hope that’s okay? He texted you, right?”
She shook her head. “No, I was just surprised. Didn’t you have plans tonight?”
His smile was both masculine and sweet. “Nothing I couldn’t break. I’m glad he asked me. Are you coming with us?”
“I’m on the refreshment committee, so I’ll meet you there shortly—have to pick up the cupcakes.”
Zoe hurried out the door. “Bye, Mama.”
“Bye, honey. See you guys later. Have fun.”
He reached out and grasped Zoe’s hand. The two of them began chatting as he led her down the steps and into the back of his car, where he helped clip her into the booster seat he always kept available for her. Then, with an almost awkward wave, he got in the car and drove away.
Bella leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.
Damn. Why was this happening to her? She’d been thinking about him nonstop since that kiss. She was doing her best to sort through her feelings with a rational analysis and be able to talk frankly about what she wanted.
She still didn’t know. There were so many reasons to let him down gently and explain why a relationship would never work. It would be best to keep a solid work partnership paired with a newly burgeoning friendship and not cross the line where things could get . . . messy.
But now he was with Zoe at her first dance.
He’d shown up, with his usual enthusiasm, and he wasn’t even family.
Yeah. Things were already getting complicated.
She grabbed her coat and headed out the door. For now, she needed to concentrate on the night ahead. It didn’t take her long to grab the cupcakes from Pretty Tasty Cupcake Boutique—all nut-free and delicious—and head to the school. The brick building was decorated with endless red hearts and Cupids, and she made her way into the cafeteria, which had been transformed for the dance.
The decor was simple but effective: Lots of red and pink balloons, with brightly colored tablecloths and disco lights flashing on the makeshift dance floor. Tables crammed with festive desserts and a giant punch bowl. Bella greeted a few of the moms she knew and began setting out the pink frosted cupcakes with sparkles. “If I see another heart or Cupid, I’m gonna vomit,” said a feminine voice behind her.
Bella laughed and turned, giving her friend a hug. “Agreed. Think they’d notice if we grab some punch and spike it?”
Daisy held up a bronze thermos and put her finger to her lips. “Brought my own. Rosé all day, baby.”
“You are so bad. That’s why I love you.”
Daisy Draper was a single mom to Zoe’s best friend, Meg. She’d lost her husband in Afghanistan to a roadside bomb when Meg was just two years old. With their shared experiences in grief, they’d gotten close and had become each other’s backups when needed. Daisy’s work as an online journalist allowed her the flexibility to raise her daughter since she worked mostly from home, but Bella had watched Meg many times during Daisy’s research trips or late-night meetings.
Their friendship had continued to grow over years of playdates, school parties, holiday shows, and the famous PTO meetings. Bella had spent many an evening on her friend’s couch, lamenting about their single-mother status. With her short, sleek copper-colored bob; lean figure; and big brown eyes, Daisy had been sought out for many dates, but they all came up lacking. It was hard to find a guy who wanted to date a single mom, someone who couldn’t go out for spontaneous dinners or romantic weekends away. Relationships were hard enough without any extra issues, though Bella and Daisy would never consider their children anything but a gift. Still, it made the idea of dating Gabe even more worrisome. Would he really enjoy her routine lifestyle or consistently coming in second to the needs of her daughter?