The arch of his brow said he didn’t believe her.
Avery leaned over with curiosity. “You never told me what you guys were fighting about that time you needed to leave the meeting. What happened?”
“Just a miscommunication regarding the wedding.”
When no one responded, she risked a glance up. They were both staring at her as if they knew there was another story brewing beneath the surface.
Carter gave a chuckle. “Well, damn, there is someone else who can’t lie for shit.”
She gasped. “I’m not lying.”
“You’re not giving us the whole truth, either. Let me just tell you one thing about Gabe. He puts on a good front and pretends nothing bothers him. But he’s got a big heart, and he’s looking for the right woman he can trust with it.”
Shock kept her still. Her future brother-in-law stared at her with an intensity that was rarely directed her way. It seemed as if Gabe had inspired a protective streak in Carter that only made her respect for him level up a notch. His not-so-subtle message was clear.
She’d been making some wrong assumptions. And he knew more about them than she thought.
“He’s a good man,” Avery said quietly. “And he deserves the best. I just wish we could hook him up with someone who wants to get serious.”
“Someone who’ll give him a fair chance,” Carter added. “Pierce and I are working on it.”
She had no time to answer. Taylor and Pierce returned, and Zoe came rushing up for a hug. They fell into a mishmash of chatter as everyone helped with dinner, but the entire time, there seemed to be a space in the room asking to be filled, something missing.
Normally, she would think of Matt, keeping the sorrow buried until she was able to go to her room alone and grieve. But tonight, it was different.
Talking to Gabe about what had happened had leached some of the poison. She reveled in her family’s warmth and care as they fussed over her, and she saw in both her sisters’ eyes how they were thinking about Matt. But for the first time, he wasn’t dominating her thoughts and emotions like so many other years.
For once, the only man she was thinking about was Gabe.
Gabe looked across the table at the woman seated before him. He was having a good time. He’d always enjoyed Devon’s company—they had an easy camaraderie and attraction that was never complicated. It had only grown difficult when he’d decided he wanted more from their relationship, and she had reminded him of their agreement not to get serious. Tonight, though, new beginnings seemed to be in the air, and he was going to be open to each one.
He’d taken her to Iron Pier Craft House, a casual favorite. The place was known for its specialty crafted cocktails during happy hour, sushi, and tapas. The high-topped dining tables looked out over a ceiling-to-floor window with ocean views. It was a perfect place for a first date with an ex. It was busy but not crowded, the line for takeout always long.
They ordered some martinis and started out with some burger bites and spicy shrimp. “Are you still happy running your floral shop?” he asked curiously. “You used to talk about expansion. Maybe working on an island, doing only weddings, remember?”
Her laugh was throaty. “God, yes, I remember. It was also three years ago. I don’t think I gave myself the possibility I’d love what I do so much. I never expected to love running my own business.”
“Well, you have more freedom and control this way. Still, I always envisioned you barefoot on a tropical beach somewhere, with a floral crown on your head.”
She tilted her head, face amused. “A romantic view, I’d say. But I’ve got more business in my blood than you think. If I do run off to that island, it will only be because I sold my shop for a crapload of money and I’m on vacation.”
He nodded, impressed. “That good, huh?”
“That good. I’m always booked, my rent’s low, and I’ve made some contacts that allow me to compete with those snobby boutiques from the city. You know, the kind you snubbed your nose at?” she teased.
“I remember. Good for you, Dev.”
Their gazes met, and she smiled at him. He realized she had changed in many ways since they’d first dated. Her energy seemed more focused. She’d always viewed time as a free-flowing thing but used to hold an edge that was now softened. Gabe remembered her hunger to experiment and push him out of his boundaries, as if competing in a race to do more, or be more. They simply hadn’t matched.
Maybe things had changed.
“What about you? Are you satisfied with your choices?” she asked, her long hair swishing past her bare shoulders. She’d worn a short cotton floral dress and white fringe sandals—her style a bit bohemian but always chic.
He sipped his martini and seriously pondered the question. “I’m happy at Sunshine Bridal,” he said. “I feel like I found my niche and enjoy my work. I’m satisfied.”
She arched a brow. “Satisfied is quite a vanilla-type word.”
He chuckled. “Better than gray, I guess.”
“But a cop-out. Not like you.” She studied him for a moment. “You haven’t been in a relationship since us, have you?”
He focused on his plate. Bella’s face swam before him, but he firmly pushed it away. “No.”
“Interesting. You always said you wanted to settle down—that was one of the main points of us breaking it off. Yet all I seem to hear about is your amazing weekend conquests.”
Irritation prickled. “Overrated. Gossip feeds gossip around here. It’s getting old.”
“Ever think about working in Manhattan? Or Atlantic City? A place where you can spread your wings, so to speak?”
Before, he would have shut down the idea immediately. Now, even though the idea of leaving a job he loved with people who’d become family gave him pause, he wondered if he needed to seriously consider it. “Not really. But like you, things have changed, and maybe I’ll be more open to opportunities.”
“I think that’s a good toast, don’t you?” Devon lifted her glass and entangled her wrist around his, leaning in. “To new opportunities.”
Her brown eyes gleamed, and though nothing inside him buzzed in reaction, he knew it would take him some time. Which was perfect, because he wanted to take his next relationship slow and steady. He lifted his glass. “Salud.”
The toast was both a mourning for what would never be and a celebration of a new chapter.
He smiled at Devon and drank.
Taylor groaned, wandering around the house with a pathetic slump to her shoulders. “I’m blocked. I’m going to tank the whole art show. I’ll be stuck at Sunshine Bridal until I’m as old as Vera, dealing with PITAs and overly cute flower girls who can’t follow instructions. I want to die.”
Bella clamped her lips shut to keep from laughing. “Damn, girl, you are in a mood,” she said. “Don’t you have a wedding tomorrow?”
“Then how come you’re not attached to your laptop like Avery and me, double-checking everything to be sure disaster doesn’t befall you?”
Her sister shrugged and dropped onto the couch. She wore slipper socks, faux-leather leggings, and a yellow T-shirt that said I HATE LOVE & WEDDINGS, which had been a joke for Christmas. Unfortunately, it had now become her fave item of clothing. “Because I’m not dorks like you both. I’m a confident woman who knows everything will be fine. Why are you home?”
“I’m going to pick up Zoe soon. She’s playing with Meg, and Daisy said she’d feed them. I have to do a luncheon tomorrow, so I want to get to bed early.”
“Will you go get me dinner, then?” she asked, batting her lashes in an exaggerated gesture. “I’m craving sushi. And tacos.”
She winced. “Bad combo. But sure, I’ll pick it up, just call it in.”
Her sister brightened. “Thanks.”
“What piece are you stuck on?”
A shadow darkened her features. “All of the new ones. I’m a bit concerned I could be one of those artists that create when there’s no deadline or pressure. I keep trying to force the image I have in my head onto the canvas, but it keeps shifting, which pisses me off, so I yell at the bitch in my head who—”
“The bitch in your head?” Bella repeated.
“Yeah, my muse. But then she just shuts up to get even with me, and I get nowhere.” She picked at her thumbnail. “Maybe this isn’t going to work out.”
Bella sat down. It was so rare that Taylor worried about things, it just showed how important this art show was to her. Finally, something mattered, and it was freaking her out. “It’s going to work out,” she said firmly. “But it may not be the path you imagined. I think we like to sketch out these ideas of how our life is going to go, but when it differs, the majority of us don’t know how to handle it. This is the first time you’re learning how to cultivate your art on a schedule. It may not go easy, but you’ll get there, T. On deadline. I know you will.”
“How?” she demanded.
“Because you don’t let yourself fail,” she said simply. “You’re too hotheaded and stubborn, and even if you wait till the last week, you’ll paint night and day and show up with your quota. Did you honestly think you’d just paint a bit each day and stay on a perfect schedule like some robot?”