A quiet acceptance came over her, even though her chest hurt. It was better this way.
For both of them.
She walked out and didn’t look back.
Gabe wondered how losing someone you never had still hurt like a son of a bitch.
He headed to his next appointment to confirm the final floral arrangements and let his mind drift.
Since her brutal confession, he’d spent the last week focused on work and trying to dig Bella out of his heart for good. They had managed to work together on Adele’s wedding, both being careful not to cross over the invisible barrier between them. Every time he weakened, he reminded himself of the things she believed about him. He could have spent time defending himself, proving the rumors false one by one, but he refused. If Bella wanted to believe the gossip that he was sleeping around, there was nothing he could do.
He couldn’t seem to catch a break this week. Even Marlaine wanted to cast him in the gigolo role. He’d kept their appointment for lunch, and when he discovered she had no friend who needed a wedding planner, he made an early exit. Her bold offering to spend her vacation with him to play caused no desire—just disgust. With her, for not believing he had more to give than sex. With him, for not being able to break out of the mold Cape May had made for him.
Avery was consistently pissed at the way the town portrayed his bachelor status, spinning embellished tales of sexual conquests he’d never had. Even worse—most laughed when he tried to debunk the rumors, thinking men should relish such a reputation in all forms.
Not him. Not when it became a barrier to meeting a woman who could be his forever. He’d picked his career because he loved organizing one of the biggest party events of the year, but there was another reason.
He still believed in true love.
His father’s face reared up in his mind, sneering with scorching disgust. You’ll never be a real man. You’re just a pretty boy who relies on his face and body to make your mark. You’re useless.
He tried to silence the voice in his head, reminding himself he was successful. Strong. He’d created a life he loved, and he refused to let rumors and the loss of Bella bring him back to the brink.
He’d worked too hard to get here.
At least he had no regrets. He’d given her all he had, and it wasn’t enough. It was time to accept her final decision and move on. He believed there was a woman out there who was his soul mate.
He just had to find her.
The moment he walked into the floral shop, he relaxed. Devon met him with her usual zen energy, her hip-length dark hair and slow, graceful motions bringing him down a few levels. They both had a thing for flowers, and when he’d first moved into town, they’d fallen into an affair, but it had lasted only a few weeks. She’d made it well known she didn’t do marriage or believe in monogamy. He respected her decision but soon realized their future goals were completely contradictory. They’d easily parted with no drama and remained friends.
“You owe me big-time,” she said, as they made their way toward the back. “I pulled a miracle for this wedding.”
“That’s why we insisted on using you rather than some froufrou city celebrity shop,” he said. “I did a consult with two of them.”
“Not impressed?” she asked, opening her display coolers to pull out some arrangements.
“You know how you go to some of those five-star restaurants, excited to eat? Until you get a grape and piece of leaf on the plate, drizzled with some famous sauce. You leave broke and starving, but you’re afraid to admit to anyone it sucked, so you lie. That’s how these shops were.”
Devon grinned and shook her head. “Well, I’m glad you allowed me to take up the challenge. These are some of the samples I constructed. I’ve been existing in a made-up Lorax land since our consult, and it’s reminding me of when I was continuously high in college. Lovely, whimsical, but a little bit too spacey to live.”
He studied the delicate, gorgeous stalks topped with delicate, puffy blossoms. The colors were magical: a rich lavender, a blush pink, a buttery yellow. They were accented by various blooms that complemented the uniqueness but still held the interesting Dr. Seuss–like shapes the wedding was based on. “What are those?” he asked.
“Hollyhocks with types of allium. I know she loves color, so I think we can do more vibrant shades in her bouquet to pop the dress. The more subtle ones will go well in the centerpieces to offset the table favors. It will look like this.” She laid out a combination of petals of aqua blue, lemon yellow, and hot pink. “I had to dye them to get to the perfect colors. It’s daring and can become garish, but I want to accent with this cream and keep it tight, so it’s more of a pleasant shock. I can tie with this birch twig, then do some bedazzling with a touch of diamonds around the center.”
“Fake ones?” he asked with an arched brow. “Sounds tacky.”
“I can do real ones if you have the budget, but mine are so good you’ll never know.”
“They have the budget, but get me a sample of the fake and see if I can tell. Wait—I have a great idea. Let’s do diamonds in the shape of stars from the Sneetches. Adele will love that extra touch. Is there time?”
“Sure, like I said, it will just cost extra.”
“That’s fine, my budget is generous. It just needs to be—”
“Perfect,” she said with a smile, finishing his thought. “I know. It’s one of my favorite qualities I admire in you. I’m also doing balloon flowers so light and puffy they look like they’ll float away. You can string them up the spiral staircase you showed me so it looks like they’re floating in the room. What do you think?”
“Honestly? I love it. It’s everything we wanted.” He snapped a few pictures to show Bella the final product. “Anything else?”
“We’re all set. How’s things going with you?”
He gave the canned response without even thinking. “Fine.”
She surprised him when she reached out and touched his shoulder. “I don’t believe you.” Her brown eyes gleamed with empathy and something else. “Want to go to dinner and talk about it?”
He blinked, then studied her face. Was she asking him for a date? They’d once joked that one of the saddest things about their breakup was the loss of the garden they’d been working on together. “Did I miss something, Devon?”
Her smile was warm and easy. “No. It’s just that I always enjoy your company, and I miss you. And I’ve been thinking how much fun we had together.”
“Three years ago?”
“Ouch.” But she laughed. Her hand moved lower down his arm. She’d always been a touchy person, enjoying constant physical contact. “Maybe I’ve changed a bit. It has been a while. Or maybe I just want to go out and have a great conversation and connect with you again. Is that wrong?”
No, it wasn’t. In fact, he’d been craving the same thing, desperate to have that with Bella for so long, he didn’t know how to transfer it to another woman. But suddenly, the idea of having dinner with Devon felt like a sign.
Bella was off-limits. He needed to start somewhere and build a life without her in it.
“No, it’s not wrong at all. Maybe it’s exactly what I need, too.” He made his decision. “I’d love to have dinner. How’s Friday night?”
“I finish up on the late side. That okay?”
They wrapped up and walked back into the main lobby. Maybe a date with Devon would give him a whole new perspective.
He decided to grab a slice of pizza from Louie’s for a late lunch, stopping to chat with a few friends, and headed down Beach Avenue. Lost in his thoughts, the crunch of metal hitting metal seemed to mingle with the fury of the waves hitting the sand and the gray misty afternoon, but when he turned his head, he saw the rear-end accident right in front of him. Thank God it didn’t look too bad.
He took out his phone to call 911 for the police, and that’s when he saw the familiar golden hair whipping in the wind. She stumbled away from the car, holding her head, and a low, keening wail seemed to catch in the air and echo in his ears, making his blood curdle in his veins.
He ran the rest of the way over. Yelling her name, he reached her just before she collapsed.
The moment she woke up, Bella knew it was going to be a bad day.
She completed a long run in the misty rain, which made her hair frizz to new heights and popped out one of her contact lenses because she was blinking too much. She managed to complete her exercise routine with blurry eyesight, then got home to wake Zoe and begin her morning ritual. She burned the bacon and had to make a new batch, lost the sneakers Zoe had to wear for gym, then missed the bus by a few seconds. By the time she’d switched to her calming station on XM filled with quiet waterfalls and chirping birds, her nerves were stretched thin.
It’s just another day, she reminded herself. Thinking about it and dwelling on what-ifs would drive her crazy. She was determined to be calm, serene, and at peace with each hour that unfolded.
She was stronger now, far from that woman who’d splintered apart.