His friend shot him a disgusted look. “As if. We’re babysitting. Get inside, it’s cold.”
He stepped over the threshold and barely held back a girlie scream.
Carter’s place had exploded. There were crayons, papers, and coloring books thrown on the floor. A pile of fancy princess gowns, shoes, and purses lay by the sectional. Zoe and Meg were perched at the dining room table with endless teacups, saucers, plates, and a big teapot that looked like the Mad Hatter. They wore matching pink princess hats.
“Gabe’s here!” Zoe shrieked, running over and hugging his legs. “Now our tea party can be complete!”
Meg merrily waved to him. “Hi, Gabe! Would you like strumpets or scones?”
Carter coughed. “I think it’s called crumpets, honey.”
Gabe hugged Zoe, waved to Meg, and sidelined Carter. “You suck. You said we were hanging tonight, not babysitting.”
“We’ll do both. Bella’s out with Daisy—they needed a wild women’s night. Blow off some steam. Figured I’d do them both a favor.”
Gabe jerked back. Bella was out with Daisy? Not that he cared she went out—he wasn’t like that—but she hadn’t even bothered to text him. The doubtful voice inside grew a bit louder. More and more, he was beginning to feel like an extra bonus in her life—not part of her life.
He pushed the disturbing thoughts away and nodded. “Ah, well, that was nice of you, but I didn’t volunteer.”
“Nobody likes a whiner, man.”
“It’s time for our tea party!” Zoe yelled, pulling him over to the table. “Meg, can you get Gabe a hat?”
He was offered a shiny yellow hat with a veil. “Can I just hold it?”
“You have to put it on, silly,” Zoe said. “Now let’s sit and have our snacks. Uncle Carter, can we have the pink cupcakes yet?”
“Did you finish all your chicken fingers?”
“Yes,” they both called out in unison.
Carter shrugged. “Then go for it. Let’s pause our tea party for a few minutes, girls. Gabe wants to have some wings and a beer, and then we’ll commence after you eat your dessert. Deal?”
They attacked the small white box, and Gabe shuddered, following him into the kitchen. “Where’d they get all that stuff? Did they bring it over?”
“They brought over the clothes and hats. I’d found the tea set and some games at the toy store, so we keep it in storage for when Zoe comes over. Came in handy.”
Gabe shook his head and took the beer. “You got a lot of layers. Like an onion.”
“Yeah, well, don’t go getting emotional on me. What’s been up with you? Haven’t seen much of you since the Dr. Seuss wedding. Things good?”
He delayed his response by taking a slug of beer. He wanted to tell Carter the truth. He could use some solid advice, or at least another male opinion. But he didn’t want Bella to feel uncomfortable, either. “Things are a bit . . . complicated.”
Carter arched a brow. “Sit. Have a wing. Tell me everything.”
He sat and grabbed one. The burn lit up his mouth, and he coughed. “So good.”
“I know, I got extrahot. It’s got to do with a woman, right? It always is. Are you finally seeing someone you’re into?”
“Yeah, I am. The problem is I’m supposed to keep us a secret for a while until we get adjusted to the idea of being in a relationship.”
He blinked. “Why? She married?”
“A politician? Breaking up with a current boyfriend?”
“Then why the hell are you keeping it a secret?”
“I told you—she wants time to get used to it. If I say who it is, you can’t tell Avery.”
Carter groaned. “You kidding? I can’t keep secrets from her—you know this.”
“Just for a few days. We’re probably going to make an announcement soon.”
“Then we must know her. Avery doesn’t gossip, so if you don’t want her to know, it’s because . . .” He stared at him. “Holy shit. It’s Bella.”
“Shhh! Zoe’s here,” he hissed.
“Sorry, you just took me by surprise.” Carter leaned in and punched his shoulder, a big-ass grin on his face. “Damn, you finally took our advice and told her how you feel? I’m so happy for you. I’ve always thought you two would be perfect together.”
Gabe relaxed, warmth infusing him at his friend’s enthusiasm. “Thanks. We’ve grown closer while planning the wedding, and that night, well, let’s just say we had a heart-to-heart talk. I heard you had my back, letting her know all those rumors about me weren’t real. Appreciate it.”
“Was only telling the truth. Gossip like that would trouble Bella. She’s protective of her daughter.”
“Exactly. I think we finally found common ground. I’m ecstatic, don’t get me wrong, but I’m still worried this whole thing will end up like a big illusion.”
Carter frowned. “What do you mean?”
He ate another wing and contemplated how to explain. “I guess I figured we’d be checking in with each other more, about our plans, spending time together, et cetera. I thought she’d be happy to tell her sisters about us. You don’t think she’s having doubts, do you?”
“No reason to. Bella’s not the type to jump in without thought. You’ve been patient and honest with her, and you deserve to be happy. Both of you. Try not to worry about how it unfolds, and just enjoy.”
“You’re right. Thanks. I needed a kick in the ass.”
Two adorable faces peeked into the kitchen. “Are we ready for tea yet?” Zoe asked, smiling prettily.
Gabe shook his head and shot a look at Carter. “Sure. And afterward, Uncle Carter said he wants to play dress-up, and I’ll be the judge to see who looks the prettiest.”
“Yay!” they yelled.
Carter shot him the middle finger, and they went to play tea party.
“How about that guy over there?” Daisy pointed out. “He looks nice.”
Bella laughed, taking another sip of her wine. “What does nice look like? They said Ted Bundy looked nice.”
“Why do you have to be difficult? I mean, he’s nicely dressed, not too young or old, and looks single. Plus, we don’t know him, so maybe he’s new in town. Let’s send him a drink.”
Her jaw dropped. “No! Come on, Daisy, that’s desperate. And I thought we were looking for you, not me. You’re the one who wants to get wild, remember?”
Her friend sighed and sucked on her straw. “Sorry, I was just trying to shake things up. There’s no one good out. They’re all young enough to be my son, and that’s just icky. Should we try somewhere else?”
“We tried the Boiler Room and Carney’s. At least Harry’s makes your favorite cocktail, and they have good appetizers.”
Daisy looked glum. “Sorry to be a bummer. I’m just frustrated. The dating apps are awful, and there’s not a lot to do in the winter. I’ll be better once the tourists and the sun come back. More possibilities. It’s just that I feel trapped lately.”
Bella squeezed her friend’s hand in sympathy. “I get it, babe. It’s hard when you’re a single parent and doing it all on your own. But I promise it will get better, and tonight, you can get drunk and forget your problems.”
Daisy grinned. “You’re right. Cheers.” She clinked her glass and leaned back in her seat. “So tell me about you. How are things with Gabe?”
Bella’s fingers jerked around the glass, and wine sloshed over the rim. She dabbed at it with a napkin, wondering why she felt so awkward telling her best friend the truth. Maybe she just wasn’t used to being involved with a man, so it was still new. “Well, funny you should ask. We’re kind of . . . well, we’re—”
“Oh my God, you bitch! You’re sleeping with him!” Daisy laughed with delight. “About time you got some. How was he? As good as everyone talks about? Tell me every last detail, and don’t leave a thing out.”
Unease settled. She shifted in her seat. “No, you don’t get it. We’re not just sleeping together. We’re dating. Formally. I mean, we’re in a relationship.”
Daisy stared at her in confusion. “Oh. You mean you slept with him but then decided to see where it goes?”
She hated the way Daisy asked the question, like she was surprised Gabe would be more than a one-night stand. “He’s not the man you think. I know everyone talks about how he’s with all these different women, but it’s not like that. He hasn’t really dated anyone seriously in a long time.”
“I know, Bella. That’s why he’s a player. He’s well known not to get involved in any relationships.”
She let out a breath. “I’m trying to explain he’s a good man, and he cares about me, and he has no interest in dating or sleeping with anyone else. Okay? We’re happy together.”
Her friend regarded her thoughtfully for a few moments, then nodded. “I get it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I adore Gabe. It’s just that you haven’t been out in a long time, and I want you to know you don’t have to feel guilty about just having some fun. Sex doesn’t have to mean commitment or ever after. No one will judge you if you slept with him and decide not to pursue a relationship.”