Her sister frowned, considering. “I guess not.”
“I know not. If your muse mirrors you, she’s going to make things interesting. Hey, why don’t we hang out, and you can take some time off? Let your inner artist stew a bit.”
“I don’t wanna watch rom-com movies or Disney,” she warned.
“We can play a board game.”
“Poker? With real money?”
Bella sighed. “Fine.”
“Cool.” Her sister’s phone rang. A hip-hop song that had been customized for Pierce screamed out with a bunch of lyrics. She watched as Taylor glanced at the screen, declined the call, and threw it back on the couch.
Bella’s jaw dropped. “Did you just not answer a call from Pierce?”
A funny look crossed her face. “We got into a thing. No big deal. Just think we need to cool off.”
“You guys never fight.”
“We don’t when he’s not an asshole.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you want to talk about whatever happened with you and Gabe at the meeting last week?”
Bella got up. “I’ll get the food.”
She drove to Iron Pier and wondered if Pierce had finally found out Taylor was moving away soon. They’d been close for so many years, Bella always wondered if they’d ever thought of crossing the line to be more than friends. But her sister kept declaring nothing had ever happened between them, and nothing ever would. She would have taken Taylor’s word if it hadn’t been for the way Pierce looked at her when he thought no one was watching. Or how Taylor sought him out in a crisis, sometimes over Avery and Bella.
But it was complicated. Kind of like her and Gabe. If they’d decided to pursue a relationship, that is.
Which she’d rejected.
This past week had been different. Gabe was different. They worked side by side, tightened up all the last-minute details, and spoke easily to each other. He’d checked in once to make sure she was okay, then let it go. But all she could think about was the tender way he’d comforted her when she cried. For so long, she’d barricaded herself within her loneliness, thinking it was strength, but his words had allowed her to finally open up.
She’d hoped their connection from that night would remain, but his gaze stayed shadowed and his aura distant. His words repeated over and over in her head like a mantra, slowly driving her crazy.
I don’t belong here with you.
Why did his statement cause so much pain? It was as if a hammer had struck and drove away her very breath. Was it awful to admit she missed the way he’d been around her? She kept thinking about their road trip, and the way they had laughed and eaten Sno Balls and how he’d talked about his father. She wished she’d asked more, listened harder. She’d wasted so much time keeping him at arm’s length, afraid he was someone she couldn’t trust. Why had she been so hard on him?
To protect your family, the inner voice whispered. Remember? The same reason you told him you could never have a romantic relationship.
She parallel parked at the curb and sighed. The assurance she had done the right thing didn’t seem to fit as well any longer, and she didn’t know why. But she’d made her decision, and there was nothing else left to do.
She grabbed her purse and headed up the stairs. It was a lively night, with a decent crowd, and she had to wait in line for her order. “Be right with you, Bella,” Sean said. “We’re a bit behind. Want to grab a drink at the bar? Laura’s working.”
“Sure, thanks.” She walked to the bar and slid into the last seat on the end.
Laura flashed her a grin and headed over. She had a blonde crew cut, large hoop earrings, and gorgeous ink scrawled down her arms. She always wore a black tank top, no matter what the season. “Good to see you, Bella. How’s things at Sunshine?”
“Busy, which is good. Can’t wait till the end of this winter, though.”
Laura made a face. “Me, too. I keep picturing me at the Lobster House, drink in my hand, sun on my face, crappy weather behind us.”
“We’re on countdown. Ya gotta believe.”
She winked. “Sure do. What’ll you have?”
“Just a seltzer with lemon, please. Waiting on some takeout.” They chatted for a while, until Laura slipped to the far end of the bar. Bella checked her phone, then sat quietly, taking in the low chatter around her. Her gaze swung to the beach, perfectly silhouetted against the glass windows, and then she frowned, seeing someone familiar.
Her heart sped up, and she leaned closer, squinting. He was with a brunette, and he was smiling. She stood up from the stool to get a better peek, then almost gasped.
Devon. He was with Devon, and they were definitely on a date. She watched in slow motion as they encircled their wrists together, holding martini glasses up, heads bent close together. They sipped from their drinks, laughing as he spilled some over the edge. Devon grabbed a napkin and wiped it up, her hand reaching out to pat his arm, as if she were already familiar with his touch.
Nausea lurched in her gut. They’d dated before. When he first came to work, she remembered he had gotten involved with Devon rather quickly, and they were together for a short time before breaking up. He was never seen in a steady relationship again, and gossip peaked now and then that they were sometimes casual lovers when they weren’t seeing anyone else. Bella hadn’t heard Devon’s name mentioned by anyone recently, though, so she’d chalked it up to rumors.
But maybe not.
The image of them in bed together slammed through her brain. Her hand jerked, and her soda sloshed onto the bar.
“Bella! Your food’s ready!”
Her name echoed loudly in the air. She ducked down on instinct, not wanting him to see her and think she was spying, or following him, or doing uncool . . . stuff. She shoved cash at Sean. “Give this to Laura,” she whispered, handing him a five-dollar bill and grabbing the bags. “I gotta go.”
“Sure, sweetheart, have a great night.”
She raced down the stairs, refusing to look back, and didn’t feel safe until she was almost home. Shock raced through her, along with a terrible ache—the type of ache when you lose something you really, really wanted.
Gabe had moved on, just like she had wanted. Yes, it felt quick—a bit of a sting—but if he was waiting for almost three years to tell her his feelings, then it must’ve seemed as if he’d wasted enough time. Maybe Devon was really meant to be his match after all. Maybe he’d get the happy ending he’d always wanted.
She picked up Zoe. Ate the delicious food while she snuggled with her daughter and sister. Played a few games of rousing poker and watched Zoe beat her aunt for the very first time. Then went to bed.
She had everything she needed. She’d made her choice and had no right to regret or ponder if she’d made a terrible mistake. No right to wonder if she had left something behind that was more than an attraction, too afraid to allow it to grow, just in case.
Her life was steady. Her daughter was happy. Wasn’t it better to protect what she had rather than take a risk on someone who could hurt them?
She tried to go to sleep with that reassurance, but she dreamed about the kiss and the lure of possibilities.
They’d done it.
It was a Dr. Seuss paradise.
Bella worked the room, triple-checking every last detail before the ceremony began. The reporters spilled over the sidewalk outside, bulbs flashing, a few interlopers desperately trying to sneak into the bookstore to be part of the treasured few able to see the quirkiest wedding of the year.
To keep reporters from seeing her dress beforehand, they’d wrapped a huge velvet cloak around Adele and escorted her inside the bookshop and upstairs until her big entrance. Gabe had dubbed the whole thing “very Lady Gaga,” and spent a few moments charming the press by dropping juicy hints of what was to come without giving anything away.
The crowd seemed sedate and curious, their necks craning around to take in the surroundings as they took their seats. The bookstore had been transformed into Seussland, a fantasy ground where Truffula trees popped from corners, and floral balloons drifted from the ceiling and dripped from the staircase. Giant gilded golden cages held the amazing Victoria crowned pigeons, who were paired in twos, and hung in places where guests could see but not touch. They made a wonderful whooping sound that delighted the crowd and reminded Bella of a Dr. Seuss character. Hundreds of white lights twisted around funky birch-like accents, including signs pointing to different corners of the room where guests could enjoy various pictures of the couple paired with Dr. Seuss quotes.
Gabe’s voice rumbled sexily in her ear. “Ready for the main show. Bride ready?”
“Going up to check now. Guests seated.”
“Good. Press is contained, and I’m ready with the groom on your call.”
She pasted on a professional smile and climbed the circular stairs. Adele was surrounded by her sister and two cousins, who fussed and tugged at her dress. She stepped smoothly in front of them to give the bride space. “If you ladies will take your seats, we’re about to begin.”
They shot her matching sulky looks as they left. After they disappeared, Adele turned to her. “They want me to die so they’ll have my money,” she said with a sigh. “My sister married a deadbeat who took most of her fortune, and she spent the balance in record time. My cousins are useless and haven’t done one nice thing for me ever. Now they pretend to be my best friend.”