“Who did most of the work bringing Adele’s Dr. Seuss theme to life?”
“It was equal,” she said. “Each of our full-time planners brings a distinct personality and touch to a wedding, but Gabe and I were able to meld our ideas to execute the perfect vision. It’s another thing we’re proud of at Sunshine. We all help each other out, so you get the power of a full team.”
“You haven’t had any runaway brides once they worked with Gabe, have you?” Latoya asked, a wicked twinkle in her eye. “I could see how it could happen. He’s so charming.”
Coldness trickled down her spine. Her voice reflected the chill when she spoke. “No, that has never happened and never will. Gabe is a complete professional, just like all of us employed at Sunshine. He treats clients with care and compassion, as we all should. I also think it’s a discriminatory question. Would you ask a woman that?”
The reporter didn’t flinch, just treated her to a level gaze. “Probably not, but no question is off the table.”
She nodded and remained calm. She’d said her truth but didn’t want to piss off Latoya, either. “Understood. My answer stands.”
“Noted.” Latoya asked a few other basic questions, then clicked off her phone. “Thanks so much. I’ll email you if we decide to run a piece.”
She offered her hand and they shook. “A pleasure. Our main concern is always the clients. We just wanted Adele to have the perfect wedding.”
“Looks like she did.” Latoya grinned and disappeared into the throng of people.
Bella subtly glanced at her watch. Thank goodness. The night was almost over, and she was ready to crash. Half an hour left to avoid a disaster and retire this wedding into the books.
Needing more water, she headed to the bar where standard cocktails would be and caught sight of Gabe. He stood with his back to her, broad shoulders thrown back in an almost defensive posture. As she got closer, she saw a pretty blonde in a tight snow-white dress pressing against him. Diamonds dripped from her neck and ears and wrists like icing. Her hands were stretched out in front of her, palms running up and down his chest.
Horror mounted at the intimate position, but then she realized Gabe was trapped between the bar and a chair, effectively cornered.
The blonde’s head tilted up. It looked as if they were about to kiss. “I thought it was your job to give me the favor I wanted,” she was saying, her speech a bit slurred.
He gave a small laugh, then grasped her hands to push her gently back. “Ah, and you did get a favor that’s quite special. It’s on your table. Didn’t you like it?”
“Not as much as I like you.”
Suddenly, another woman joined them, obviously the blonde’s friend. She sidled up, her hip touching the blonde, completing the threesome. “Who’d you pick up, Kelly? How do you always manage to find the hottest men at these things?”
“Ladies, I’m going to need to check on Adele, if you’ll excuse me.”
Gabe tried again to get himself loose, but the women refused to move.
“This one’s mine,” the blonde declared, running a hand over his biceps and squeezing. “He’s my favor for the night.”
The friend joined in on the action and put her hand on Gabe. “I want one, too.”
“Get your own.”
“You can share.”
Bella closed the distance, grabbed the blonde by the arm, and firmly jerked her away. “Excuse me, I need to talk with my associate.”
The blonde gasped. “You shoved me! Who the hell are you, anyway? We were just getting to know each other.”
Gabe stepped out of his corner and back into safe, open space. “Sorry, we have a crisis to take care of. Our apologies.”
He began to move away, but Bella stood her ground, shooting the women a cold glare. “Next time, make sure your physical advances are wanted by the other party.”
“Hey, you can’t talk to us like that!” the friend declared. “We’ll get your ass fired, bitch.”
Bella gave them a tight smile. “Since the wedding is over, we’re past that. But I think if I explained to Adele that the staff was being accosted while trying to remain polite, she’ll be on our side. Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
Without waiting for a response, she stalked off with Gabe at her side. Then noticed Latoya watching the entire exchange with open interest.
She’d defended him.
The thought spun in Gabe’s mind as they walked inside the hotel and headed to the elevators. There were two ways he usually reacted after a wedding: either he was exhausted and craved to crash in bed to catch up on sleep, or he was jacked up and ready to party. As he stared at the silver doors, he realized it would be a long time before he was calm enough to settle in. Ah, well, maybe there was something decent on television.
“Hey, do you want to get a drink in the bar?” Bella asked.
Surprised, he turned his head to gaze at her. She looked hesitant, shifting her weight back and forth, as if afraid he’d say no.
He smiled. “I was thinking the same thing. Sounds good.”
The bar was modern, with sleek black-and-red touches, and half-empty at the late hour. They picked a low red couch with plump pillows and accent tables on the sides. The lighting was dim, and low lanterns illuminated the lounge, casting her in shadow. A guy dressed in a suit with a fancy glass jar sat at a piano, playing familiar tunes.
The waitress came over. “Drinks?”
“Yes, please. One Stella. And . . . ?” He looked over at Bella.
“Extra-dirty martini. Tito’s vodka. Straight up, chilled. Shaken, not stirred. Extra olives, please, preferably stuffed with blue cheese.”
The waitress drifted off, and Gabe stared at Bella.
“What?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen you drink anything stronger than wine, yet you ordered like we’re in a James Bond movie.”
She shrugged, then tucked one leg underneath her. “I love a good martini for the right occasion, but they have to be perfect.”
“Are you a high-maintenance person masked as low maintenance?”
A laugh escaped her lips. He savored the sound like an expensive aged bourbon. “I don’t think so. Or maybe I am. Maybe I pretend to be calm and zen to escape the fact I really am a control freak.”
“I think we all have those tendencies.”
“What about you? You seem pretty chill most of the time.”
He winced. “I am, but I don’t like anyone messing with my stuff.”
She cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
“Probably an only-child thing, I don’t know. That’s why I never hired a cleaner. I like to have my things in a certain place, and if they’re moved, I get upset.”
Her lip quirked up, and her blue eyes filled with amusement. “Oh, you are going to need to explain more. This image is not fitting with the Gabe I know.”
“Forget it. The drinks are here.”
The waitress set them on the table. Bella sipped hers and declared it perfect, and he leaned back to enjoy his beer. “I’m not going to leave you alone until you tell me the rest,” she finally said, pushing the stirrer in tiny circles. “Get it over with.”
He groaned. “Fine, but don’t tell Avery or Taylor. They like to pull the occasional prank, and I don’t feel like being the recipient.”
“Well, I like to alphabetize things. DVDs, books, et cetera.”
“That’s not too bad.”
“And the pantry is coordinated into sections so it’s easier to find things.”
A frown furrowed her brow. “Interesting. Each shelf?”
“Yes, they’re color coordinated. And I have canisters that are labeled.”
“Okay. That’s a bit intense.”
“Maybe, but I never lose time looking for something.”
“Interesting. What about your closet?”
He winced. “They’re hung according to categories. Dress, casual, summer, winter, et cetera.”
“Do you leave things out on the counter? Table?”
A shudder shook through him, so he took a sip of beer. “Hell no. There’s a place for everything.”
“This is more hard-core than I originally thought. Funny, I never noticed it at work. I mean, I know you like your charts like Avery, but it never seemed outrageous.” She contemplated her drink. “What happens if you have a visitor over and she drops stuff on the floor?”
“I rarely have visitors.”
“But if you do?”
He hesitated, imagining her in his room. Clothes lying in a tangle on the carpet, bra thrown carelessly over the chair, heels kicked off and left without a thought. He lived like a monk, used to his single status and his ability to never need to compromise. The yearning for more crashed over him and churned his gut. He’d happily change to have someone he cared about in his life, interwoven in his daily routine, bringing a chaos that was messy but joyous.
His answer came out rough. “I’d forgive her.”
A thread of tension tightened between them. God, he shouldn’t have said anything. He should be imagining Devon in the room. Their date had gone well, and they’d left each other with a hug and a lingering hope for maybe more. At least, that’s what he’d wanted to feel.