Thank God Avery and Taylor had stepped in to take over the business, and her sisters had slowly allowed her time to heal before bringing her on board. Since she needed a job, the business had been a lifesaver. But lately, Bella realized besides being good at her job, she also found that planning weddings satisfied something in her soul. Watching her work help give a newlywed couple a happy beginning reminded her of all the good things in life.
It also reminded her there was hope for some people. Being a part of a love story soothed a raw piece inside her she’d lost since the accident.
A child dressed in a bright-red dress tore past her, and Bella shook her head. It was always more challenging when children were invited to a reception. She and Gabe had come up with a fun list of activities throughout the evening to keep them entertained, but so far most of them were dancing and seemed to be having a good time.
She glanced at her watch. Almost time for the Santa surprise.
Her gaze scanned the room and snagged on Gabe. She studied his lean, pantherlike body clad in an elegant black suit, reluctantly admitting he was a perfect male specimen. He was chatting with a bunch of women at the bar, but even from this distance she spotted the invisible armor he wore while he worked. He handled guests with a deft expertise that balanced the sharp lines of friendly competence while deflecting overfriendly gestures. As he spoke, pointing across the room to answer some type of question, he’d already retreated a step back, keeping that essential one foot of space between him and the clients.
Guilt pricked. She’d hurt him today. Dammit, she hadn’t meant the words the way they came out. But being in that conference room alone with him, those dark eyes probing her gaze, she’d been desperate to push him away and keep her sacred space. She wasn’t comfortable blurring the lines of personal and work. She needed to keep them clear.
She’d apologize later. Preferably over a text message after this wedding weekend was behind them.
He pivoted on one heel and walked across the room toward her. The suit fabric seemed to bend to his will, emphasizing cut muscles and stretching across broad shoulders. One rebellious curl spilled over his forehead, practically begging for a woman’s fingers to smooth it back. From the crowd who watched him hungrily from the bar, Bella figured he’d have enough volunteers.
He reached her and cocked his head. “You okay? You look like you could use a drink of water.”
She heard her sister Taylor’s voice gleefully sing in her head: Yeah, a tall cool one. Like him.
“I’m fine.” Sometimes his sheer physicality affected her like any other woman, but she always mastered it quickly. She cleared her throat and refocused. “Is Paul ready? We need to get this done before the cake.”
“Going to get him now. I situated him in the back room with a pitcher of water and snacks. We’re good.” He winked, his trademark gesture.
Irritation shot through her. Was he always performing for a crowd, or did he ever allow himself to be offstage? “I’ll let Eloise know and signal the DJ.”
Eloise had taken off her white fur stole and detached the collar from her dress so she could dance comfortably. She clapped her hands with glee, her scarlet nails flashing. “Let’s get the children gathered up, Bella. I’m so excited about the dance—the kids are going to love it!”
Bella smiled with a confidence she still didn’t feel. For some reason, she had that strange flutter in her gut that told her something was going to go wrong. So far, the instinct of disaster had led her to three previous wedding-nightmare scenarios, and she didn’t want another one tonight. Probably another reason why she’d been on Gabe’s case to double-check everything. “Our Santa will dazzle them.”
The moment the vow left her lips, her ear speaker beeped. “Code red, code red. I need you in here, Bella.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll be right back. We can situate the children over there.”
It took her only a few seconds to find Gabe in the small back room where he was holding Paul. Literally.
And it took only a few seconds to realize Santa was drunk.
Paul lay flat on the floor, his padded belly sticking up in the air, snoring through his white beard. She glanced over and saw the pitcher of water, a glass, some half-empty plates of various snacks, and a silver flask that had rolled under the chair.
“How bad?” she asked, kneeling to study the man’s slack face.
Gabe shook his head. “Bad. He must’ve had the flask hidden—I didn’t think to look. It was filled with vodka. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. Last time I checked on him, he was fine.”
“Can we sober him up and delay the Santa bit?”
Gabe muttered a curse. “Doubt it. Also, I’m afraid to risk him breathing on those kids.”
“True.” She mentally ran down her list of contacts, but no one came up as a Santa Savior. Then her gaze fell on Gabe. “Only one option left. Strip him and put on the suit.”
Her words seemed to ricochet across the room like a spray of bullets.
Shock flickered over his carved features. “What? Me?”
“You have a better idea? This is the highlight of the reception, and I’m not about to let them down. Are you?”
He groaned. “Shit.”
She stood up. “Use those extra pillows from the couch for padding. Do you remember any of the dance moves? If not, you’ll just have to freestyle.”
He stared back at her with growing horror, his olive-toned skin blanched of color. “I’m not dancing, Bella. I’ll sing the song. That should be enough.”
“You have to do the dance. Look, don’t worry about being professional. Just make it look entertaining. Let’s go—we’re running out of time. We’ll let Paul sleep it off and get him home after the performance.”
She headed to the door, but his frantic words stopped her short.
“I can’t dance!”
She turned and studied him in confusion. “What are you talking about? You go out to clubs all the time. You’re the damn beach bachelor—you have to know how to dance.”
That perfect square jaw clenched. “I don’t go out all the time, and I never dance at clubs. I hate dancing—all dancing. I can’t do it.”
“I’m sure you can dance; you’re just not used to doing it for a crowd.”
“I can’t,” he said again, his voice slightly strangled.
Her heart began to beat madly. “Gabe, Eloise has been talking about this forever. You have to try!”
He ducked his head and began tugging off Paul’s beard. “Fine. I’ll sing and sway back and forth and hope it will be enough. Let’s do this before I change my mind.”
She left him and spent the next ten minutes corralling stray children, then double-checked that the DJ was ready for the intro. “Gabe, are you ready?” she whispered into her earpiece.
He blew out a hard breath. “Yeah.”
She signaled to the DJ, and the music began to blare. “Go on three.”
Palms damp, heart beating, she waited as the DJ introduced Santa Claus. Gabe strode in with a red bag thrown over his shoulder, waving to the kids as he made his way to the dance floor. Clapping ensued, but Bella noticed most of the older children looked a bit bored, as if Santa at a wedding was lame, and they just wanted the whole episode to be over.
The rap song began, and Gabe dropped his bag. The strains of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” hit the speakers, and Gabe began to sing. He had a good voice, deep and strong, but as the lyrics continued, he just swayed back and forth, nodding his head now and then with no rhythm.
Bella glanced around. The crowd was obviously unimpressed. Eloise was frowning, waiting for the big dance number she’d counted on, and her husband muttered something in her ear.
And then it got worse.
Gabe began to clap, trying to get the audience more involved, but everyone just looked at him with a bit of awkwardness as the classic rap song blasted around them, contradicting the lameness of his performance. Eloise glanced around, her gaze finally latching on to Bella’s, and she put up her hands in question, basically asking what the hell was happening.
Oh, this was bad.
Please, Gabe, she prayed silently. Please do something to save this before it’s too late.
As if he’d heard her mental plea, suddenly, he exploded into a bunch of bizarre dance moves that made no sense. She watched in horror as the graceful, smooth man she knew morphed into a combination of old-school John Travolta with shades of Miley Cyrus twerking. His red velvet suit flashed, and his shiny black boots pounded the floor in a bad Saturday Night Live sketch parody. He moved his hands like a giant wave, snapping his fingers, and suddenly began to salsa, shaking his shoulders and hips like a sick bird trying to die in peace.
Dear God, he was right. He couldn’t dance at all.
A drunk Paul would have been better than this.
She craved to close her eyes and make it stop, but she forced herself to keep watching. How was she going to salvage the rest of the reception? What excuses could she make? Would Eloise blacklist Sunshine Bridal, write bad reviews, and tell everyone she knew that her wedding had been ruined by a crazed, dancing Santa?
As the final quarter of the song mercifully began, she noticed a strange thing. The kids who’d looked bored were clapping and calling out encouraging words. A blur of phone lights blinked furiously as people took photos. Eloise looked delighted, laughing hysterically with her husband, as pockets of onlookers pointed and sang with Gabe.