A shocked silence settled around the room. She realized how rarely she not only spoke up but had an edge of temper to her words. She was falling apart over the silly realization that Gabe was exactly who she’d thought he was. But they couldn’t keep going on like this.
“Gabe, can I talk to you in private, please?”
“Sure.” He turned to Avery. “Can we adjourn the meeting?”
Avery stared at both of them, finally nodding her head. “Yep. Not much to go over today, anyway. I’m here if either of you need to talk.”
“I’m here if you just want to tell me what the hell is going on,” Taylor called out. “Call me!”
Gabe shook his head, and they left the room. “How about we go sit at Harry’s and get some pancakes?”
They walked together without speaking. The wind was high on the boardwalk, whipping in late-February fury, but the air felt cold and clean on her face, giving her an energy boost. A few locals walked their dogs or hurried up and down the street on the way to work with their coffee, steam escaping from open lids. Soon, the crooked sidewalks would be clogged with tourists and the beach open, but in these quiet months of winter, the Cape belonged to them. The ones who made a daily life here, where ocean salt ran in their veins, and the view of an open skyline called to the soul.
Harry’s was quiet, so they grabbed a back booth for privacy. Their server introduced herself as Valerie and immediately lasered in on Gabe. She had curly black hair, almond-shaped dark eyes, and a smile that clearly revealed her interest. They ordered banana pancakes and more coffee, which Valerie raced to pour within seconds. At least they’d be guaranteed good service.
“I’m sorry I was sharp with you,” Bella began, cupping her cold fingers around the hot mug. “What you did for Zoe was special, and I hope I didn’t make you feel like it wasn’t.”
His shoulders relaxed, and some of the tension drained away from his frame. His dark hair was windblown and messy. He sported a bit of stubble that roughened his jaw and hugged those full, kissable lips. He wore jeans and a cable-knit sweater since he only had vendor appointments. He seemed more approachable without his custom suit, and even more devastatingly handsome. Now, it was easier to recognize the automatic melt of her body, the hum of her blood, and the tingle in her skin when she was near him. But it was time she separated attraction from what he was capable of giving.
“Bella, what happened at the dance? We were getting closer. I thought we were going to talk about us, but now you’re back to treating me like a distant stranger.”
The conversation between Amy and Lacey echoed in her mind. But how could she express her discomfort over all the women in town proclaiming him the local stud? She struggled to put her thoughts into words. “I began to get uncomfortable with what was happening between us.”
The food came, and they both took a breath to pour their syrup, slather on butter, and dig into the carb-filled delight. “Why?” he demanded, his gaze intent and filled with banked heat. “Because of me? You? Or the attraction between us?”
She stiffened, her heart smashing against her rib cage in an uneven rhythm. She had to shut this door between them now, even though a part of her mourned that fact. Maybe she’d have regrets. But keeping her family safe was critical. They had years ahead of working closely together.
“All of it,” she said simply. “I’ve thought about what you told me, and I will always treasure those feelings. You’re an incredible man, Gabe. Any woman would be lucky to hold your heart. But we have a business partnership I take seriously. I liked getting to know you better working on this wedding together. And I think you were right when you said I was being too distant beforehand. I tend to do that with people who aren’t family, and it’s time I admit you’re an important part of our lives. Since Matt died, it’s hard for me to open up. I seem to believe everyone is going to leave,” she said with a humorless laugh. “Zoe cares about you. So does Avery and Carter and Taylor. But friends are all we can ever be.”
“Why?” he asked softly. “We’re good together. I’m crazy about Zoe and your family. I’m crazy about you—have been for a very long time. And I know you felt something for me when we kissed. I’m asking, why can’t you give us a chance to see if there’s more?”
Her tummy plunged. Primal need twisted inside her, desperate to get out. Oh, how she ached to say yes and follow the possibilities between them. To be able to freely touch him, set her lips over his, be wrapped in his embrace. That kiss would haunt her forever, but she just couldn’t take the risk that he’d hurt her.
Her sigh was full of longing and endless regret. “Because I don’t want to,” she said. He jerked back at the brutality of her words. “We’re on different paths. I’m a single mom, four years older, settled into a family business and small town. You have no responsibilities and no ties. You have so much still ahead of you.”
Anger carved out his features. “You’re assuming you know what I want without asking me. I’m not a child, I’m a man, and capable of making my own decisions on what type of life I want to lead. I crave a settled relationship. Marriage. A family. A home. You’re wrong—we’re on very similar paths.”
The damning words buzzed in her head. If there’s an itch to be scratched, he’s a guarantee.
“Did you go out with Marlaine this week?” she asked.
He stared at her with confusion. “Marlaine? You mean Vera’s granddaughter?”
“We had coffee last week. She’s visiting for a few weeks and wanted to chat. I think she’s been bored.”
She took a deep breath. “And are you going out with her again?”
He rubbed his head. “Yes, but not like that. She said her friend is engaged, and she wanted to talk to me about Sunshine Bridal. We’re meeting at the Ugly Mug to discuss a few details—that’s it. I’m not interested in Marlaine. I’m not interested in any other woman but you.”
His words contradicted what Amy and Lacey had said. Yes, it could be gossip, but there was so much smoke, there had to be a flame of truth. His reputation as a womanizer was widely known. And even if he was interested in her for now, when would his attention be snagged by someone prettier, shinier, and younger? She’d be left with a broken heart and something even worse.
A heartbroken daughter.
Never again. She refused to go down that road.
“Gabe, I’m asking you to respect my decision. I don’t want anything between us except work and friendship. I hope that’s okay, because it’s important to all of us that there’s no hard feelings.”
He studied her for a while, then jerked back as if he experienced a realization. “You don’t believe me,” he breathed out. “You think I’m sleeping around. Did you hear gossip at the dance? Is that why you suddenly treated me like crap? Because you heard rumors I was going after Marlaine?”
She didn’t answer—couldn’t.
He muttered a curse under his breath. “Holy crap, this is messed up. Nothing I say is going to convince you, is it? Then again, it’s probably easier believing the worst. It gives you a free pass from trying and maybe getting hurt.”
“That’s not fair,” she whispered.
“You’re right, it’s not. But neither is judging me for something I’ve never done. I’m not going to sit here and defend myself. I need a woman who believes in me, who takes the time to know my heart and stands by my side.”
Her throat closed up. Emotion burned her eyes at his raw words that seemed to be ripped from his chest. Oh, how she wanted to get up from the table, wrap her arms around him, and tell him she was wrong. That she wanted to try.
But she didn’t.
Instead, she sat in silence while the buzz of the restaurant played around them.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
He gave a quick nod and looked away. “Yeah, I know.”
“What do we do now?”
He laid down his fork and pushed his plate away. “Finish Adele’s wedding. Keep working together. I hope you’ll let me keep interacting with Zoe. I love that little girl.”
“Of course. We’ll just go back to the way things were. We’ll be friends.” The word stuck like peanut butter on her tongue, but she forced it out.
“I’ll always care about you, Bella. Just want you to know that.”
Her smile wobbled. “Thanks. I better go. I’ll text you later on some outstanding items—we need to go over the specialized cocktail list and make some final decisions.” She stood and pulled on her coat.
Gabe nodded, but he kept his gaze down.
She walked toward the exit, eyes stinging. She paused with her hand on the bar and, for one moment, looked back.
Valerie stood by the table, leaning over in an obvious flirty gesture. Her curls bounced as she nodded at something Gabe said, then laughed. She was in her midtwenties. Fresh faced. Probably single and free with no one to worry about but herself.
She was everything Bella wasn’t.