A group of men dressed in trendy shirts and dark-washed jeans came into the lounge, visibly drunk and loud. They crowded close to Bella and Gabe, cracking offensive jokes, obviously still ready to keep the party going. Bella’s face tightened as one of them began talking about banging the hottie in the club in the bathroom stall, and Gabe stood up. “Come on. Let’s take our drinks and go somewhere quiet. I don’t think we need any more noise tonight.”
“Good idea.” She took her martini, and they passed through the lobby, but there were no good places to sit and talk. “We can go to my room,” she suddenly offered. “I have one of those nice living-room areas that’s comfortable.”
He opened his mouth to decline. It wasn’t a good idea to be alone with her. Not late at night, after a big wedding, when his heart was still raw. But she nibbled on that lower lip, like she was worried he might think something bad, and he found himself nodding.
They rode the elevator up and entered her room. It opened up to a spacious sitting area with two chairs, a couch, a desk, and a big-screen television. She clicked on some lights and sat down on the chair. He picked the couch, giving them space between them. He was surprised to even be invited to her room, but he figured she was confident enough that nothing would happen. Depression threatened, but he pushed it away. At least she wanted to stay friends and allow him to be part of her life. He was glad she trusted him enough for that.
He remembered holding her in his arms. The soft sweetness of her body, the silky tangle of her hair, the light floral scent that cloaked her and flooded his senses. Being able to soothe her pain had been a gift. She’d cracked open and let him see the messy, gooey center behind the glossy surface of the woman she showed the world. That was the woman he was half in love with. But it only made things harder, because she was officially off-limits, and he was moving on.
Yet she’d defended him tonight in front of the reporter.
They still hadn’t talked about the incident.
He found the question rising to his lips and spilling forth. “Why did you make a scene with those women at the reception? You know I could have handled it, right?”
Her shoulders stiffened, but she took her time, sipping her drink before lifting her gaze. He fell deep into those powder-blue eyes and had no desire to resurface. “I know. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
“You didn’t. In fact, I was oddly touched you defended my virtue. I just hope you know I get that a lot with this job, and though it’s uncomfortable, I’ve learned how to deal with it.”
Her chin tilted up, and fire shot from her eyes. “You shouldn’t have to deal with women pawing you or thinking you’re some extra favor for them to play with. Just thinking about what those women said to you gets me so pissed off.”
He jerked back in shock. “Really?”
She gave a feminine growl. “Hell yes. If it was a woman being touched without consent, there’d be a lawsuit. You were on a job. You said no and asked politely for them to back off. The way they were touching you and pretending you were a piece of candy?” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Gabe. I guess I didn’t realize it was so rampant. We need to do something. I wanted to punch that blonde in her face.”
Laughter at her adorable fierceness on his behalf burst out from him. Avery had stood up for him many times, ready to upset the bride or groom on his behalf if he was being mistreated. He’d always appreciated it, but Bella’s reaction seemed oddly personal. “Now that would have made the wedding go viral,” he teased. “Honestly, Bella, it was annoying, but I’m always careful to try not to get into those situations. This time, I got cornered.”
“Now I understand why you keep such a distance between your clients and the wedding guests. Even Latoya made a comment about it.”
“Ah, yes, the reporter. She asked me a bunch of stuff, too. If I had an affair with any of you.”
Her jaw dropped. “What? She actually asked that? This is supposed to be a wedding piece!”
He set his beer on the table and shrugged. “She’s still looking for a good angle. Affairs in the wedding business probably sell magazines. I kept it professional, and she eventually backed off. If she’s Adele’s friend, I’m hoping we’ll get a fair shake.”
“Until she saw me explode on that guest,” Bella said, and groaned. “Still, I don’t care. Maybe next time she’ll think before she feels like attacking some hot guy at a bar.”
He laughed again. A ramped-up Bella was sexy as hell. She was like a protective feline, all hissing and clawing on his behalf. Warmth flooded his body. When was the last time anyone wanted to fight his battles?
“I appreciate it, though I’m surprised you thought I needed help.”
“Why?” she demanded.
He paused, then let the truth out. “Because from our last conversation, I figured you assumed all female attention was wanted. If I’m sleeping around, that blonde would have been a perfect weekend fling.”
She flinched. Set down her half-drunk martini. Then dragged in a breath. “I made a mistake, Gabe,” she said softly. “I did what I accuse others of doing in town: assume all gossip is real. I had a talk with Carter.”
He tried not to sound bitter. “Ah, so Carter had to defend me.”
“No, I was just mentioning how you may have had a date when you said no to dinner, and he said it’s been a long time for you. I told them about what was said with Marlaine, and he set me straight. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”
Relief and a sense of justice settled, but it changed nothing. “I’m glad you realize I wasn’t trying to sneak a relationship with you in amidst my multiple affairs,” he said dryly. “But I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I guess not.” Her voice held a touch of regret, but he refused to go there. “You’re dating now, though?”
He stiffened. Then regarded her with a frown. “Why do you ask?”
She shrugged. “I saw you at Iron Pier with Devon. I was going to pick up food.”
Suddenly, the air sparked with a simmering energy. She was fishing, and it’d be best to close up the topic and head back to his room. Keep things safe. He was moving on and couldn’t deal with this constant push/pull of his emotions any longer.
He kept to the truth. “It’s been a long time since I wanted to date, Bella. Now that you made your choice, I decided to open myself back up. So, yeah, I had a date with Devon. Maybe we’ll go out again.”
She nodded. Her fingers twisted in her lap, making her look heartbreakingly fragile. “That’s good. You guys dated before, right?”
“We did, when I first got into town. But I’m sure you don’t want to discuss my personal life. We agreed it’d be best to keep things professional.”
She flinched, and he regretted his sharp tone. God, the want for her was still there, tearing at his insides, and he couldn’t pretend to be cool enough to talk about his possible future lovers with her. Not at this point. Probably not ever.
“You’re right,” she said softly. “It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot since then, and realized I may have . . . well, I may have . . .” She trailed off, staring down at her trembling fingers.
His muscles tightened, as if he were a predator who’d just scented danger. Or prey. “May have what?”
She kept her gaze on her lap. “May have made a mistake.”
Her words hit like a sucker punch. His lungs lost air, and it took a moment to realize she was on the verge of telling him something big. Something that could change everything.
His head told him to get out of the room before it was too late. He’d made a promise not to chase her any longer, to move on and find a life for himself.
His heart screamed for him to stay.
Following his instinct, he got up and knelt at the side of her chair. The air between them thickened and pulsed with unspoken want. He studied her profile—the graceful curve of her neck, the natural pout to her lips, the patrician nose as proud as she was. Her hands were now clasped together, the long, tapered fingers with peach-tipped nails seemingly delicate, but he knew the strength hidden beneath. At first sight, Bella Sunshine-Caldwell was a willowy, blonde Goldilocks figure, a woman who reflected a quiet, peaceful aura—a serenely smiling single mother and professional businesswoman who never went off course.
But it was the woman who had sobbed in his arms and told of her broken heart that was the most real. The woman who had fiercely protected him from a stranger’s advances and refused to back down. The woman who shyly stared down at her hands, afraid to look at him and admit the truth they’d both been fighting.
“Bella, you need to look at me.”
Slowly, her chin tipped up. He captured her gaze, holding it while he delved deep and saw the raw hunger in her blue-ocean depths, the naked want carved out in her features. He sucked in a breath, stunned at the intensity of emotion he found there.
His voice deepened. “I need to know: Why do you think you made a mistake?”
This time, she didn’t hesitate. “Because I convinced myself you couldn’t be the man I wanted. It was easier to push you away, believe the gossip, keep things the same between us. I got scared.”