She groaned and dropped her face in her hands. Lucy jumped on the couch and began licking her, thinking it was a great game. She fought her off, holding back giggles at the doggy kisses. “Isn’t there any damn privacy in this town? It was a minor accident, Carter. I’m fine. The car is fine. There’s no need for you to be here.”
He shrugged off his jacket. “Well, I’m staying because Avery is on her way. But I’ll text her now. Can I say you didn’t suspect I knew anything?”
Gabe shook his head. “Pathetic.”
Carter gave him the finger and began texting.
Within minutes, the door flung open, and Taylor marched in, her pink hair tousled from the wind, a scary frown resting on her face. “Bella! Holy shit, are you okay? Christina from Bagel Time said she saw an accident outside the window, and it was you, but I left my damn phone in the car and didn’t see it until now. What happened?”
This was unbelievable. Gabe caught her look across the room and shook his head. Ah, the pleasures of living in a small town where nothing remained secret. “T, I’m fine. I got rear-ended, but there’s no damage.”
“Did you get checked for whiplash? What about a concussion?”
Gabe took over. “She refused to go to the hospital—says she feels fine. There’s no bumps, and her neck’s not stiff. I think we just need to watch her carefully.”
Her usually stoic sister looked freaked out and stood before her like she wanted to hug her but refused to be overdramatic. “Okay. Let me text Pierce and tell him he doesn’t have to rush over. I thought he could get here faster.”
“You texted Pierce?” Bella shrieked.
“Well, Carter is here!” she snapped back. “I didn’t know what was going on. How did Carter know?”
“Ron called Avery,” Carter said. “Do you have any snacks? I missed lunch.”
Bella pointed to the cabinet. “Trail mix, chocolate-chip cookies, and plenty of fruit.”
“Why didn’t Ron call me?” Taylor asked. “Am I the least important sister or something?”
Carter shrugged. “I guess.”
Avery and Pierce raced through the door at the same time. “Bella, what happened? I freaked when I got that call—why didn’t you call me?” Avery demanded. She sat down on the couch next to her and pulled her in for a tight hug. “Are you hurt?”
Caught between humor and frustration, she chose humor. “I’m fine. For the fourth time, it was minor, there’s nothing wrong with me, and you all didn’t have to leave your jobs to come rushing over here.”
Pierce headed into the kitchen. “I hated my client consultation anyway, so I was glad when T told me to leave. Are those chocolate chip?”
“Yeah, Toll House,” Carter said, handing him the platter.
“Why didn’t Ron call me first?” Taylor demanded, jabbing her finger at Avery. “I should be just as respected in this town as you.”
Avery rolled her eyes. “You dated Ron in high school for one weekend, broke up with him, and asked his friend out. He’s still resentful. He’ll never call you first.”
“You were cruel, Taylz,” Pierce said between mouthfuls of cookie. “A real bitch.”
“Hmm, I forgot that. Makes sense. I feel better.”
Bella looked at the clock. “I have to get Zoe from the bus.”
“I’ll get her,” Taylor said. “Come on, Pierce, come with me.”
“Bring the cookies with you. We’ll eat in the car, and Zoe gets her snack.”
Carter snatched one of the last ones before Pierce took them. Bella watched them go, knowing there was no way she’d win the argument. Her family was worried about her. Usually, she’d internalize that type of care and believe it was because she couldn’t handle stress, but now she looked at it from a fresh viewpoint. She’d lost her husband, but her sisters had lost their brother-in-law. They had experienced the pain of her loss, and she knew they approached this day with grief, also. Maybe the way they hovered and fussed wasn’t a sign of her weakness.
Maybe it was just a way to show they loved her.
After all, she was the peacemaker of the family. They came to her to solve arguments, and when they were seeking advice or confessing their secrets. Why shouldn’t they be able to nurture her during a tough time? An accident on the anniversary of Matt’s death had caused her to collapse. Her family wanted to be there for her, and trying to pretend she was strong all the time was exhausting.
Bella sighed. If they were all here, she’d do what gave her peace and what she was good at. “Enough with the snacks,” she announced. “Since everyone is here, why don’t I whip up an early dinner?”
Carter raised a brow. “Sounds good to me. Avery?”
Her sister hugged her again. “Perfect. I like that we’ll all be together tonight.”
Bella rose from the couch and snapped into parental mode. “I have some steaks in the freezer, and we can do baked potatoes with some roasted veggies.”
“Oh, with that special marinade you make?” Carter asked.
“Definitely. Gabe, you’re staying, right?”
She turned to look at him. He’d been quiet, and there was an aura of stillness around him, like he was observing the scene from a distance. His smile was lopsided and heartbreaking. “Thanks, but I have to go.”
Carter waved his hand in the air. “You don’t want to miss steak, man. Can’t you reschedule the appointment or work later tonight after dinner?”
Gabe shook his head. “Sorry, I can’t.”
Avery frowned. “I thought you had a free evening—just paperwork.”
“Something else came up. But I appreciate the offer. Have fun.” He gave a half-hearted wave and headed to the door.
Bella stopped him before he left. Tilting her chin up, she stared into those sooty eyes. “I’d really like you to stay,” she said quietly.
He reached out to touch her hair, then jerked back as if he remembered he had no right to touch her. “Thank you, Bella. But I don’t belong here with you. Everyone you really need is right here. Don’t be afraid to let them in.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Make sure you rest.” He closed the door behind him.
She backed away, her heart twisting in her chest. The loss of his presence slammed through her, and she took a moment to collect herself before facing her sister.
“What’s up with him?” Carter asked. “Not like Gabe to give up a free dinner.”
“I’m not sure,” Avery murmured. “I’m not around him as much since he got his own client base, but he’s been acting a bit off. Bella, is there something going on with him? Is his schedule too much but he’s afraid to say anything? What do you think?”
Her throat closed up. The image assaulted her vision. Tucked against his hard, muscled chest; matching breath to breath; his spicy male scent rising to her nostrils. She’d felt the burn of his skin through the thin material of his shirt, reveled in the way his fingers pulled through her hair, pushing it back from her forehead. Being in his arms was like finding something she’d been searching for and hadn’t known existed. A reminder of all the good things she’d believed she’d never find again.
She ducked her head and hurried into the kitchen to prep. “He seems fine. I’ve seen no issues in his schedule, and we’ve got a handle on Adele’s wedding. Maybe it’s personal.”
“What do you mean?” Carter asked.
She took out the steaks and a bag of potatoes. “Well, you know how busy his dating life is. He’s seeing Marlaine—Vera’s granddaughter—and I heard a few women at the school talking about his active social calendar. Maybe he’s just tired.”
Avery shared a glance with Carter. “Is he seeing Marlaine?” she asked him.
“No. Marlaine had him in her sights, of course. The poor guy never gets left alone. She tried to come up with this phony excuse of a wedding to see him, but she just wanted a fun time while she was on vacation.”
Bella looked up, surprised. “So they never dated?”
Carter shook his head. “Nah, Gabe is looking for a relationship, not a weekend fling. Unfortunately, every woman he tries to date seems to think he’s the Cape’s mascot for fun. The poor guy got so frustrated, he stopped dating. He hasn’t hooked up with anyone in months.” A frown creased his brow. “I figured you’d know that, Bella. Thought you were spending more time with him planning this wedding.”
Bella jerked back at her future brother-in-law’s judging stare. “Um, we never really talked about his personal life. I just heard he’s with a different woman every weekend.”
Carter snorted. “They must be imaginary. Gabe, unfortunately, is part monk. Pierce and I are pushing him to get on a dating app that’s geared toward relationships.” His gaze narrowed. “Why would you believe small-town gossip anyway? That’s not like you. Have you ever asked him?”
Her cheeks burned. She grabbed the potato scrubber and began cleaning. “No. We focus on work.”