Of course, the three women who did made a beeline straight to him.
He was polite but distant, just like at work. He tried to avoid locals in Cape May—it only made things awkward. Honestly, he was more embarrassed by all the female attention, hating how it put a spotlight on him when he wanted to show Bella he wasn’t like the man society had dubbed him. He’d tried catching her eye many times throughout the evening, but she had avoided his gaze and mostly stayed by Daisy’s side.
“Fun night,” Tony said, smiling at Meg as she leaned against him.
“Agreed. It was nice to see the girls have fun.”
“Zoe’s lucky to have you in her life,” the older man said a bit gruffly. “Daisy and Bella had some hard cards dealt to them. They deserve to have some good male influences. I heard you got a promotion over at Sunshine Bridal.”
He stiffened. He was used to older men like his father thinking his career was odd or flamboyant. How many times had his old man sneered and called him useless when he’d decided to go into wedding planning? He kept his response brief. “Yes.”
Tony nodded. “Good for you. About time there was some male influence in that industry. Must have taken some courage to carve a name for yourself. Congrats.”
Warmth spread through him. He wondered what it would be like to have his father say something like that to him. He smiled at Tony and inclined his head. “Appreciate it. I’m lucky the Sunshine women gave me a chance.”
“Gabe, my feet hurt from dancing. Are we ready to go?” Zoe asked, tugging at his sleeve.
He laughed. “Sure, but I should be the one complaining. Look at these fancy dress shoes,” he pointed out. “They pinch my toes.”
She made a face. “Mine are worser. These pink boots are not good for dancing. I think next time, I’ll get a pair of ruby-red slippers like Dorothy—she walked all the way to the Wizard in those!”
He couldn’t help it. Affection overcame him, and he picked her up to give her a hug. The scent of her strawberry shampoo and the open way she hugged him back were everything. “I’ll keep my eye out for them,” he said. “Let’s go get your mom. Maybe you can sneak in one last cupcake.”
Her eyes lit up, and they crossed the room, where the tables were already being cleared and the surplus was being packed away in organized Tupperware bins. “Need any help?”
Bella jerked as if surprised by his presence, then shot him a weird look. “Uh, no, we’re good. Did you have a good time, sweetheart?” she asked her daughter.
“Oh yes! Even though our feet hurted, we danced a lot and had fun. Can I have one last cupcake?”
“How many did you have tonight?”
“Okay, but you have to promise to go to bed when we get home and not run around the house all sugared up.”
“I promise.” Zoe took the treat and immediately dove into the top, not waiting to unwrap the paper.
Gabe grabbed her some napkins, grinning. “Did the PTO make enough to show up the other schools in the district?” he teased.
Instead of a smile, she narrowed her gaze, studying him for a few moments as if ready to give him a diagnosis. “Hopefully. Thank you for taking her. I’ll bring her home so you can go.”
He frowned, not understanding the cold vibe between them. What had he missed during the two-hour dance? Was she mad he hadn’t come to talk to her? “Sure. Hey, I didn’t come over because none of the men did, and I thought it was some type of unspoken agreement. We stay on our side, you stay on yours. Was I wrong?”
“Hmm? No, we do that so the girls really experience the night with their escorts. Kids tend to run back to their moms, so we try to discourage it.”
Okay, so that wasn’t it. “Did you have a good time?”
She ducked her head and began packing up tins of cakes and brownies. “Sure, these things are all the same. You can take off, you know. I’ll text you over the weekend if anything comes up about the wedding.”
He hesitated, feeling awkward, while she ignored him and deliberately turned to talk to some of the other women.
He tried to think of something to say, but his mind went blank. He slowly turned away, dismissed, and said another goodbye to Zoe. He trudged out of the school cafeteria with his shiny, tight shoes and tie and wondered what he’d done wrong.
“How was the dance?” Avery asked, opening her laptop.
Bella avoided Gabe’s gaze and focused on the stack of notes in front of her. He’d texted her multiple times over the weekend, but she’d only responded to the ones regarding work. She hadn’t been ready to answer anything on the personal front, still simmering. If he’d actually had a date with Marlaine the same week he kissed her, she’d been completely wrong about him.
She kept her voice cool and calm, refusing to show she was upset. “Great. Zoe had a wonderful time.”
“Carter really appreciates you stepping in last minute,” Avery said to him. “He was sick most of the weekend.”
Gabe gave a curt nod. “Glad he’s feeling better.”
Bella noticed Avery biting her lip and glancing back and forth between them. The tension in the room ran tight and thick. “Okay. Did I miss something? You’re both acting weird. Is the wedding finally giving you a breakdown?”
Taylor came in, pink hair swinging, a bounce in her step. Everyone watched as she slid into her seat, propped her knees up on the opposite chair, and sipped her coffee. Her nose ring flashed in the light. “Hey.”
“Where’s your stuff?” Avery asked.
“Why do you look happy?” Bella asked.
Taylor shrugged. “I had a good weekend. I can take notes on my phone—I have a light week before the madness of spring comes. Any other questions?”
“I guess we’re ready to start. Let’s make this a great morning, people!” Avery announced with her usual enthusiasm. “Why don’t you give us an update on Dr. Seuss?”
Bella waited for Gabe to take the lead, but he remained silent. “Go ahead,” she said, motioning for him to start.
His voice was ice-cold. “Maybe you should be the one to say. Because it seems to me I’ve been completely in the dark. I don’t know what’s going on.”
She flinched but refused to back down. She’d been completely professional this whole weekend with their communications. It was his fault if he expected her to be all warm and fuzzy after finding out he was steadily seducing all the women in Cape May while pretending she was the only one who interested him. “Fine. We have two weeks left and remain on point. Good communications with all vendors. Cake, desserts, and favors done. Gabe is handling all the family’s reservations at hotels and various activities. I’m finalizing the menu and place settings. DJ, bartender, photographer, and justice of the peace all confirmed. Are you still watching Zoe for me that weekend? I’ll be gone Friday night and not home till late Saturday.”
“Yes, no problem,” Avery said. “Have you been able to agree on the right way to present this wedding to the press?”
“We’re in agreement,” Gabe said curtly.
Taylor whistled. “Man, you guys are pissed at each other. What’s up?”
Bella sucked in a breath, and her gaze swung to his. Male temper and frustration simmered in his dark eyes. He slouched in his chair, moodily tapping his index finger against the edge of the table, regarding her in silence.
“Nothing,” she finally said, pursing her lips in disapproval over his reaction. He was acting like a brat just because she wasn’t all sweet and chatty with him. “Just a miscommunication. We’ll address it later in private.”
“Good. I’ve been asking you to tell me all weekend.”
“We don’t need to have lengthy conversations every half hour like we’re dating,” she hissed, her temper fraying.
His laugh held no humor. “Dating, huh? How about you treat me like a human being first, and then we’ll move on to dating?”
“You’re being overdramatic.”
“And you’re being cold for no damn reason.”
“Oh, trust me, there’s plenty of reasons.”
“Which you won’t tell me. Talk about a miscommunication.”
“Hold up.” Avery threw out her hands. “I’m kind of freaking out right now. You two are my calm ones—no temper, no fighting, no egos, remember? You need to get on the same page, or we’ll never get through high season.”
“I don’t have an ego,” Taylor pointed out.
Avery snorted. “Sure, remember when you sulked because we didn’t use your idea to bring in a tattoo artist for the Lowry bachelorette party?”
“Oh yeah! Well, I just hate when brilliant ideas get wasted. They were all on board.”
“Right. Getting a group of drunk women to get permanent ink is a smart idea. Can you imagine the fallout?”
“Whatever,” Taylor muttered. “You never take risks.”
Suddenly, Bella couldn’t stand it. “Can we talk about this another time, please? I have a ton of appointments to get to and need to wrap up this meeting.”