Temptation on Ocean Drive

Page 3

Right now, though, there was only a faint judgment that drove him batshit crazy.

“Is he able to do the rap song they requested? He needs to perform the dance, remember?”

Yeah, he remembered. The bride had requested that Santa surprise the kids with a dance coordinated to DMX’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It had taken him a while to convince Paul it’d be short and painless. It’d helped when they told him they’d pay double. “I checked and he’s been practicing. Said he’s ready to go.”

She still looked doubtful. “Paul is known to enjoy too many cocktails during a celebration,” she pointed out. “Are you sure he can be professional enough at a wedding? Should we hire a backup just in case? The Santa Claus dance is key to the reception, so there can’t be any errors. There are too many children to disappoint.”

Once again, she didn’t trust him to do his job, and it stung. “I understand,” he said tightly. “I believe he can pull this off. I’ll be watching him carefully until his appearance, and I’ve already hired a car to take him directly home after his role. He won’t be hanging out and partying with the guests at the bar.”

She nodded. “Then let’s move on to the next item.”

He wondered if she ever lost her temper. The woman rarely gave in to tantrums, whining, or a bunch of other human emotions that were displayed by her sisters. She flowed like cool water over rocks, luring him to delve deeper to see what lay beneath.

He’d spent the past few years trying to unearth the heart she kept stubbornly locked up from him, yet freely offered to others. The moment his gaze had first met hers, something woke inside him, like a sleeping giant rising from a long slumber, suddenly ravenous to feed. When he’d gripped her hand in his, the electric spark sizzled under his skin, causing him to jerk back—he’d been shocked by his reaction. He expected the same surprise from her as their fingers slid apart and dropped away, but she’d barely given him a second glance. Obviously, he hadn’t made the same first impression.

He’d figured it was just a physical connection that would fade. He’d never experienced a jolt of awareness with a woman before, as if a part of him recognized her. Hell, he didn’t believe in love at first sight when 99 percent of the time it was simple lust. But as the months had passed, his feelings grew each day.

Avery brought a strong sense of leadership to the team, and Taylor the daring, creative wit. Bella was different. Her calm focus and gentle heart seemed to be the piece that held them all together. Her talent for supporting and nurturing a couple’s needs impressed him, and she was no pushover. The woman was able to handle the worst of PITAs—Pain in the Asses—with a firm hand that caused the majority to back down immediately. It was the same expert way she handled Zoe, her arguing sisters, or the daily chaos that inevitably surrounded a thriving business built on customer service.

Initially, he’d believed she was dependent on others because of her quiet demeanor. The joke had been on him. Her ruthless independence bordered on obsession—the woman despised asking for help. She never dated, and never stepped out of her inner circle. She lived in a permanent comfort zone.

Was that another reason why she tried so desperately to avoid him? Did she disapprove of his lifestyle? Believe he was a player when he’d tried many times to show her it wasn’t true? He’d hoped his relationship with her daughter would prove he was a man to be trusted, but she still had issues with him babysitting or trying to help with Zoe.

If it weren’t so messed up, it’d be laughable. Yesterday, he’d picked up Chinese food and found a woman’s phone number stuck to the outside of a fortune cookie. There were a thousand women out there he could date happily, maybe even settle down with or at least have a damn good time with for a while. Why did he have to be stuck on the only woman in the world who barely knew he existed?

Pathetic. Just like Dad used to say.

He shut the voice down from years of long, hard practice. He kept the rest of the meeting brisk and professional, though inside his gut churned. They had a packed event schedule beginning this evening, and the unspoken tension between them had to be dealt with.

She sipped at her coffee, staining the white plastic lid with an imprint of red lips. Her Goldilocks white-blonde hair was pinned up in a casual bun, and she wore black leggings with an oversize fuzzy gray sweater that seemed to swallow up her entire figure in warmth. Her appearance matched her temperament—she preferred an easy, casual style that fit into every situation, whether it be a luncheon, reception, or client appointment. He admired the way she juggled each piece of her life to fit into the whole, excelling at every role: mom, sister, friend, and businesswoman.

He wondered if she got tired of being everything to everybody.

The laptop clicked shut. “Good, we seem to have everything covered. I’ll meet you at the Grand Hotel at three p.m. Text me if I need to pick up anything.”

“Did you hire another nanny?” he asked. Bella had used a part-time caretaker to help with school pickups or late-evening weddings, but the woman ended up having twin granddaughters and had recently moved down south to be with her own daughter.

“Not yet.”

“Then who’s watching Zoe?”

Her gaze snapped to his, and her cornflower eyes seemed to whirl with a bunch of emotions before clearing. He would have given anything to know her real thoughts, or what made her suddenly hesitant, turning away as if she was afraid he’d see too much. “She’s sleeping over at Daisy’s house tonight. I appreciate your concern, but I have it covered.”

Frustration simmered. In her stubbornness to always take care of things herself, she refused to even consider the ways he could help out. But every time he offered to babysit, she politely declined. It was past time he confronted her about it. “Yeah, I don’t think you do.”

“Do what?”

He gave her a level stare. “Appreciate my concern. I’m not questioning you as a mother, Bella. I’m just trying to help. As part of this team, I thought I got to care about Zoe, too.”

She gave a slight jerk as the words hit. The tiny crack in her armor pleased him, but he didn’t want to punish her. Maybe it was past time he gave up on this ridiculous hope she’d wake up one morning and finally have feelings for him. It was depressing as hell.

“Of course you can care about Zoe. She’s always been crazy about you. I just don’t think your job should include checking on who’s babysitting her. It’s not like you’re family.”

The direct hit and hiss of pain finally cleared his head. Bella would never let him in, either to her heart or her inner circle. He’d always be an outsider, and no matter of time or effort was going to change that.

He nodded, ducking his head quickly to clear up his space so she wouldn’t spot the hurt. “I get it. I’ll mind my own business from now on.”

“Gabe, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“I know what you mean.” He forced a smile, finally acknowledging he was half in love with a woman who’d never feel the same. It was time for him to stop torturing them both. “We’re good. I’ll see you tonight, and we’ll kill it. No worries.”

From now on, he needed to focus on his career at Sunshine Bridal and follow her rules. He couldn’t fight for something she didn’t want in the first place.

He headed out quickly, and she didn’t try to stop him.

The Grand Hotel held an impressive ballroom that boasted 360-degree windows in order to view the beach. The usual classic wedding theme of beach, sand, and sun had been replaced by a winter wonderland, combining the bride’s slight obsession with Christmas with just enough elegance.

The ballroom was decorated with hundreds of twinkling white lights twisted around frosted twigs, zigzagging throughout the rooms and dripping from the ceiling. Mistletoe, mini pine trees, and poinsettias filled the tables and empty spaces. A giant evergreen decked out with decorations and tinsel was the main draw, and huge boxes of gaily wrapped presents were crowded underneath. Fake snow floated down and burst over the dance floor in timed intervals. Bella had to admit, it was one of her masterpieces, completely transporting guests back to the magic of the holidays.

As she checked in with the staff to make sure everything was running smoothly, she watched the groom lead the bride into a faulty yet enthusiastic spin on the dance floor. Their joyous laughter rivaled the soaring music of holiday carols and reminded her of why she loved her job.

She’d certainly never planned to work at Sunshine Bridal. None of her sisters had, but each of them had been forced to pick up the reins in different ways, especially once their parents retired. Her vision of life had always been simple—revolving around her childhood sweetheart and his dreams, rather than hers.

Matt had been working his way up the ladder at an investment firm, and she’d planned to happily settle down and be a stay-at-home mom. When she got pregnant with Zoe, they’d excitedly planned to have at least three more, both craving a big family. With his eye on yet another promotion, she’d never worried about them financially. Hell, she’d never worried about them emotionally, either. They’d been as madly in love after twelve years together as the first day. So when a drunk driver took his life, she’d had no road map for how to take care of herself, let alone a baby.

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