It was time to prove it.
She picked up a coffee at Madison’s Bakery and headed to Vera’s Bridal to meet for an initial consultation with her September bride. Dress shopping was her favorite part of wedding planning. They had the first slot of the day, so she’d have plenty of time to help Stephanie, who was only twenty-two, marrying her first love, and happily pregnant. When Bella arrived, her future bride was with her mother and MOH—maid of honor—chatting with Vera.
They hugged in welcome, and Bella spent some time going over specific possibilities based on her love of old-fashioned lace. They served Stephanie sparkling cider and the others mimosas, then began the try-ons. After three dresses, everyone was still torn and had not found the magic one.
Vera took Bella briefly aside. “She’s focused on lace, but it’s difficult to tailor with a growing belly. I think we need an intervention.”
Bella’s brain clicked through other pictures the bride had seemed to favor. “What about lace as a main accent rather than the whole dress?”
Vera nodded regally. “Yes, I have a new Mori Lee that could work, but it may be over budget.”
Bella grabbed her tablet and brought up a dress she’d found on Pinterest that reminded her of Stephanie’s style. “Do you have this one?”
“Yes, I’ll pull both.”
Vera went back to the racks, and Bella walked over to her bride. “We have two other dresses we think you’ll love,” she said smoothly. “You’ll be six months at the time of the wedding, so we want a fabric that will easily accommodate your new curves.”
“You mean my big belly,” Stephanie said with a laugh, her hand resting on her still-flat abdomen. “That makes sense. I’m open to ideas as long as I get my long-ass train and style I love.”
The MOH shook her head in amusement. “At least it’s not a shotgun wedding. You were technically engaged before you got preggers.”
“Hey, that should be our motto,” Stephanie said. “‘Not a shotgun wedding—we really are in love!’ What do you think, Mom?”
Her mom groaned. “Awful. Your father told me he was terrified for you both the first time Adam picked you up for prom. Remember how you swore in fourth grade you’d go with him to the prom in a limo one day? For years, your father said it was a sweet little crush that would disappear. He’s still in shock he’s gonna be a grandfather.”
Bella smiled. “You were smitten with each other that young?” she asked. “It really is a true love story.”
The MOH leaned forward eagerly. “Steph and Adam fell in love in elementary school, started dating in high school, and continued through college. It was as if they were always meant to be together. Meanwhile, I’m still dating jerks and kissing toads. Some girls get all the luck.”
Stephanie giggled and waved her hand in the air. “Don’t be silly, your match is out there.”
“Hope so. Still, I believe we only get one shot at that type of love you guys have,” the MOH said.
The mother nodded. “Agreed. Your father is sometimes a pain in the ass, but thirty years later, he’s the only one I want to wake up to.”
A tirade of memories assaulted Bella’s vision, crushing her lungs and making her stumble back a step.
Meeting his gaze for the first time in algebra class and going weak kneed at his smile.
The first time they made love in the twin-bed dorm room, clinging to his broad shoulders as she whispered in his ear that she loved him, and he whispered it right back without hesitation.
Holding hands at graduation.
Looking downward, him on bent knee, his brown hair gleaming in the sunlight as the diamond ring he held sparkled into a thousand prisms of radiance.
Walking down the aisle in a white dress, gaze trained on his with every step forward.
Tangled in his arms late at night, talking about their dreams, the baby, and the beautiful, big life they planned together.
The day she learned it was all gone, and her one true love was never coming back.
Vera appeared with two dresses. “Let’s get you back in the changing room. I think we may have a winner.” Her gaze narrowed on Bella, who fought to remain calm as needles of pain jabbed her insides. “Are you okay?”
She forced a smile. “Yes, just going to grab some water. Be right back.”
She raced for the back room, where Vera kept a small fridge stocked with water, juices, and champagne for the guests. Opening up the bottle, she chugged the icy water and prayed for sanity. It was happening again. The slow breakdown of her body and mind that would send her to bed, weak and heartsick, the depression rolling over her in waves she was barely able to fight.
It’d been a long time since she’d fallen apart, but she remembered every broken moment like it was yesterday.
Sweat beaded her brow. She fought off the panic and tried to slow down her heartbeat. Bending over, she placed her hands on her knees and focused on one breath at a time until she slowly calmed. She kept her daughter’s face firmly in her mind, and eventually, she stood tall again.
Grabbing a tissue, she blotted quickly at her face, finished the water, and went back to her clients.
The sight of Stephanie standing on the pedestal made her gasp. She was clad in a gorgeous satin dress with lace lining the deep-V back, then spilling into a long, intricate train. The bride’s face said it all. Tears shimmered in her eyes, and her mom was openly weeping.
“It’s beautiful,” Stephanie whispered in reverence. “This wasn’t even on my hit list.”
Bella’s throat closed up. Knowing all the amazing moments ahead for her young bride stirred the hornet’s nest but also reminded her how fierce love could be, how she had once been the one clad in white, wildly in love and believing in happily ever after. Being part of Stephanie’s love story soothed the rawness. It was as if she got to experience dozens of redos and keep a piece of her heart filled with hope.
“If we were on that TV show, I’d make you say the words,” Bella finally said.
Everyone laughed. “You can thank Bella for having me pull this one,” Vera said without any ego. “She seems to sense what a bride needs in a dress. I wish she’d quit and come work solely for me.”
Bella tried to deny the praise, but Stephanie suddenly walked over and hugged her tight. “Thank you for helping me plan the perfect wedding,” she said.
“Oh my goodness, you’re going to make me cry,” Bella said after stepping out of the embrace. “Remember, it’s my job. I’m just happy you make it so easy and joyful.”
Vera clapped her hands brusquely. “We’ve found the dress, ladies. Now, let’s talk veils and accessories.”
Bella left Vera’s Bridal later, finished up her second appointment with the New York photographer for Adele’s wedding, then headed back to the office for some conference calls and paperwork. She tapped her fingers against the steering wheel, thinking about the past week. Gabe had made it easy to slide back into their old routine. He’d erected his own walls, so when they were together, he was pleasant yet guarded. She was grateful, but a strange grief settled over her when they were together now. Everything had changed. He didn’t look at her with the warmth and longing she was used to. His tone held no teasing or intimacy. He treated her exactly how she’d treated him, and she hated it. The growing bond of friendship and the promise of more was finally gone.
At her request.
She reminded herself she had a daughter to protect, and she wasn’t in a place in her life to welcome dating games. Besides, there was no way he’d want to settle long term in Cape May as a wedding planner for someone else’s family business. Eventually, he’d leave, and it was better to cut off any growing emotions now rather than later. Much better to protect her heart and daughter before she became more involved.
She’d done the right thing. The only thing.
The afternoon was still misty and cold. The ocean roared as she drove up Beach Avenue and slowed at the red light, pumping the brakes gently in case of ice. She listened to Taylor Swift on XM to rev up some energy, thinking about the locked drawer she’d finally open tonight, after Zoe fell asleep, alone in her bed. For a little time, she’d allow herself to steep in the memories and his image, and when midnight struck, it’d be over for another year.
The deafening crash seemed to hit her ears before the momentum threw her body forward. Her forehead jerked against the steering wheel, while her spine folded like a rag doll. Her car skidded a few inches, past the white line that guided the crosswalk, and then there was a strange silence.
Her ears roared. She sat there for a moment, blinking, trying to focus on her surroundings, then began to climb out of the car on shaky legs.
She stared at the crumpled bumper as the cold wind hit her face. She rubbed her forehead, which had banged the steering wheel, then touched her neck to see if it was sore. A woman jumped out of the car behind her, fingers mashed to her mouth, saying something over and over that sounded like “Are you hurt?” and “I’m sorry,” but it was like she was underwater; the words had a low droning noise to them.
It struck her that she’d had an accident six years after Matt had died, on the same exact day. If it had been serious, she could have been rushed to the hospital and died, just like her husband. She could have left Zoe all alone, reneging on the promise to never leave that she’d made while Bella cried herself to sleep so many nights after the accident.