“Did your dad drive up to take Meg to the dance?” she asked, finishing up with the cupcakes and wiping off the leftover frosting with a napkin.
Daisy nodded. “Yeah, he’s so sweet. He’s going to stay overnight so he doesn’t have to make the trip back in the dark. His night vision sucks.”
Bella smiled. “I love that she’s going with her Pop Pop; it’s so special. Carter got sick, so he couldn’t make it.”
“Oh no! Who’s with Zoe? I haven’t seen her come in yet.”
Her friend gasped. “Gabe took her? Oh my Lord, wait till a text leaks out he’s here. I guarantee the attendance will double by all the moms who refused to volunteer.”
As busy as they were, they both tried to do their part to keep active in the school community. But they’d both taken a stand against baking—they bought the cookies and cupcakes for parties and dances. It was their sort of compromise to not become one of those over-the-top PTO moms and get all judgy toward working moms who just didn’t have the time.
Bella knew being supportive of all mothering styles was important. She didn’t know why society still emphasized tearing other women down, but as much as she liked to joke with Daisy, they’d learned not to assume anything by the surface. Too many times, there was rot beneath a sunny, seemingly perfect family. After losing their husbands, they both had said forgiveness and nonjudgment came easier, and they tried not to engage in gossip.
Most of the time it worked, but small beach towns were riddled with juicy tidbits. Sometimes it was hard to resist.
Suddenly, her gaze caught on the subject of their discussion. Standing next to Meg’s granddad was Gabe, who was dancing to some pop song the girls were singing aloud to. He did one of those canned disco moves, swaying his hips back and forth while he laughed with the girls. The lights spun on his coal-black hair, and he threw his head back, smiling, his teeth gleaming white, and the familiar shudder gripped her body like a fever, squeezing it with sheer longing.
“Holy. Crap.” Daisy looked from her back to the dance floor with shock.
Bella shook her head and tried to clear it. “What’s the matter?”
“You’re into him.”
She stared back at her friend with a touch of panic. “Who?”
Her friend jabbed a cherry-red nail in the air. “Gabe. I just caught the way you looked at him. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
She hesitated only a moment. She wasn’t ready to confide in Daisy yet, especially since she didn’t know if it was just a brief attraction or something more. She forced a laugh. “Gabe’s one of my business partners, I would never get involved with him.”
“That’s a valid excuse, but you evaded my real question. Who cares if it’s inappropriate? Are you hot for him?”
“Shhh!” She glared, then grabbed the travel mug and took a sip. The liquid slid down her throat with ease and gave her fake courage to lie. “You’re being ridiculous. I mean, of course he’s hot, I’m not dead. But there’s nothing between us.”
Daisy crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Still not an answer. Why are you so freaked out? It’s normal to lust after a man. I’m just surprised because I’ve never seen that look on your face before, and you’ve been working with him for a while. Are you an item?”
She looked around to make sure no one was listening and leaned in. “Daisy, please let’s not talk about this. We’re not an item. He was nice enough to step in when Carter got sick because he’s both a family friend and coworker. Okay? Can we move on?”
Her friend gave her a beaming grin. “Sure. Did you sleep with him yet?”
She let out a frustrated breath. “Forget it. I’m going to talk to Amy.”
“Good luck. She’s still selling tickets for her Brownies club, and I’m tired of getting pitched constantly.”
Bella marched over to the other table, where Amy and a bunch of PTO moms had gathered to chat and comment on the dance. Most of the males congregated on the other side of the room, while the moms manned the various snack and raffle tables. The girls giggled and drifted from the dance floor to their dates before settling back into their own tight-knit circle of friends.
She smiled, recognizing the old-fashioned separation of males and females even today. Still, she thought the dance was good for the girls. Her father had always been an important influence in her life, and she wanted Zoe to both respect and love the men in hers. It was also good for the men to experience a school event and see the children in their element.
Bella bought another ticket from Amy for the Brownies, cursing Daisy under her breath, then focused on the new topic of conversation burning past her ears.
“I think he’s with Zoe.”
She turned at the sound of her daughter’s name to see Lacey standing next to Amy—two moms who were a bit too enthusiastic over the PTO for Bella’s taste. They also adored gossip and liked to dissect who was dating whom.
Lacey’s dark eyes narrowed with greedy intent. “We’re talking about Gabe. No one knew he’d be here tonight. He came with you?”
Bella stiffened but kept her voice calm. “He had to replace Carter since he got sick. Why?”
Lacey and Amy shared a smug look. “Nothing,” Lacey said with a slight shrug. “It’s just that I haven’t seen him in a while. Vera’s granddaughter, Marlaine, is in town for a few weeks and spotted him at Carney’s. Seems she’s found her boy toy for her vacation.”
Amy giggled, her gaze voraciously roving over the man across the room. “Lucky girl. You know, he’s known to pull all-nighters—and I’m not talking about work.”
Nausea lurched in her belly. Her skin grew hot and clammy, but she forced herself to remain casual. “He hooked up with Marlaine? When?”
“This past week. They’re going out again soon. How did the three of you manage to resist the temptation, Bella? Or did you?” Lacey asked with a lascivious gleam in her eye.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we all assumed he was sleeping with Avery. Is that why you and Taylor kept your distance? Or is he fair game now that she’s marrying Carter?”
Horror washed over her. Talking about Gabe like he was a piece of meat being passed around made her ill. “Avery never slept with Gabe,” she said stiffly. “I think you’re being unfair to him. In fact, I don’t think he’s had a date in a while.” She added that last comment in the hopes of shutting down the whole conversation.
Amy and Lacey laughed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, but really, Bella, are you serious? He’s banged every woman in the Cape, and he’s working his way into Atlantic City now. Can you blame him? He’s gorgeous, single, charming, and has money. Maybe he keeps his personal life to himself since you work together?”
Amy nodded. “That would make sense. I’m sure the three of you don’t need to hear about his conquests at your regular conference meetings, right?”
Her thoughts whirled in her head, their comments painting a bold picture of Gabe she didn’t want to think about it. She watched him lead Zoe into a few spins and pretend to fall over. A few of Zoe’s friends surrounded him, giggling hysterically.
Lacey sighed. “My goodness, look at him. He can even charm them young. He’s so sweet with Zoe. If he wasn’t such a player, I’d be desperate to go after him myself, but Lord knows I need a responsible man in my life. I’ve had enough of cheaters.” Her words took on a hard edge. Her last husband had left her for an affair with a woman years younger, and it still seemed to burn.
“Agreed. At least Marlaine will have fun,” Amy said. “And it’s nice to know if there’s an itch to be scratched, he’s a guarantee.”
The floor seemed to tilt underneath her. Desperate to get away, she gave a fake smile. “Better get back to Daisy. I see a line by the cupcakes.”
With every step back to the table, she cursed herself for the endless doubts. Was Gabe trying to play her, too? She’d always known about his reputation, but knowing he’d set up an actual date with Marlaine made her feel foolish. How many women did he regularly sleep with? He’d acted as if he wanted to know her better and be a bigger part of her life. Said he’d been waiting for her for three whole years. Why? So he could finally sleep with a woman he hadn’t conquered yet?
But the things he’d said to her seemed so real.
Shame burned through her. Yes, she was attracted to him. Yes, she loved how he was with her daughter. But this was too much to deal with. She had Zoe to look after, and she wasn’t about to let Gabe become part of their intimate life only to leave when he got a better offer. But if he was still sleeping around while he professed to be crazy for her, what did that really say?
She couldn’t handle these types of games. Better to lock the door on any possibilities between them before it was too late.
She had too much to lose.
By the end of the dance, Gabe was tired but happy. Zoe and her friends had had a good time. He’d hooked up with Tony, Daisy’s dad, and a few other fathers to keep the girls happy and conversation at an easy level. He noticed the moms stayed on the other side of the room, running the various activities and snack tables, except for a few brave stragglers who crossed the invisible line.