Oh, this was bad. Frustration nipped at her nerves. What was it about Gabe that had every woman so desperate to pigeonhole him? “I hear what you’re saying, but I’m telling you it’s more than sex. There are real feelings between us. He’s good for me, and for Zoe, and we’re moving forward. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t gossip about him, especially to the other moms.”
Daisy gasped. “Of course not! I’m thrilled you’re happy! Hell, if anyone can change a man, you can. I trust you know what you’re doing—you are the least-impulsive person I know. We good?”
“Yeah, we’re good.” Bella smiled, ignoring her doubt that Daisy was as happy as she pretended.
The bartender dropped two fresh drinks on the table. “Ladies, those gentlemen are sending you these drinks.” He motioned behind them. “Enjoy.”
They shared a surprised glance and twisted their heads to look behind. Two men in jeans and casual button-down shirts sat at the bar. One was blond, one was dark haired, and they both looked reasonably attractive. Bella raised her hand in a thank-you, but Daisy immediately waved them over. The guys gathered their drinks and got up.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
“Oh, come on, let’s have some fun! I can finally get my flirt on. Just be my wing woman.”
Bella sighed. Guess she had no choice. She pasted on a smile as the two men reached them, a little disappointed she wouldn’t just get to hang out with her friend. But this was for Daisy.
It was going to be a long night.
Hours later, Bella got out of the Uber and escorted Daisy to Carter’s door. Her friend was a bit tipsy, but it was nothing that would limit her ability to care for Meg that night. She rang the bell, and he answered.
“Have fun?” he asked. She narrowed her gaze and wondered if she’d knocked on the right door. The man she thought she knew was sporting bright-blue eye shadow and two perfect dots of rouge on each cheek. “What’s the matter? You guys drunk?”
She shared a glance with Daisy, and they burst into giggles. “No, but are you? Why are you wearing makeup?”
“Ah, crap, I forgot.” He rubbed at his face. “They seemed to have smuggled in a cosmetic kit and decided to practice their skills. I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to allow them to apply makeup on me. Tell that to Avery, okay?”
Her heart melted. She stepped inside and placed a big kiss on his cheek. “I love you, Carter. I’m so lucky you’re part of my family.”
He jerked back in obvious surprise, then relaxed. “Welcome. Come in. The two terrors are asleep.”
When they entered, the scene struck her full force.
Gabe was on the couch, his arm tucked around Zoe. A blanket covered her, and her pink princess hat tilted drunkenly on her head as she slept with her mouth half-open. They were surrounded by dolls and sparkly jewelry. As he lifted his hand to give her a jaunty wave, she noticed his nails were painted hot pink.
Her ovaries melted right then. Watching him cuddle her daughter, secure in a night of babysitting, made her realize how special the man was. Suddenly, her entire body lit up, and images of her future flashed before her.
Gabe holding Zoe on his shoulders as they walked in the park.
Making pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning.
Backing her up against the refrigerator as he kissed her with passion.
Gabe holding a newborn baby, staring down with pure love.
She jumped like an electrical shock hit her. What the hell was that?
Daisy walked over to Meg, who was curled up on the other side of the couch, snuggled with a matching pillow and blanket. “Guys, you are amazing. I can’t thank you enough. She wasn’t any trouble?”
Gabe smiled. “They were angels. We got them a bit sugared up with cupcakes, though, so I think that’s why they crashed.”
Bella stared at the gorgeous, sexy man sprawled on the couch, his sock-clad feet propped on the table. Her heart expanded in her chest, and a shiver coursed through her. She wanted to say so many things to him, but her words and emotions lodged tight in her throat. “Your nails are pink.”
He winced and lifted them up. “Yeah, they wanted to practice makeup, so Carter and I played rock, paper, scissors to see who got nails and who got the face.”
“You cheated,” Carter said.
Daisy laughed. “Well, let me get her home so you can salvage the rest of your evening.”
Bella spoke up. “Carter, can I borrow your car to take Daisy home? I can pick it up tomorrow—we took an Uber here. I’m good to drive.”
“I’ll take you,” Gabe said. “I’m leaving anyway, and the two boosters will fit in my car.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course.” He extricated himself from Zoe’s arms, put on his shoes and jacket, and lifted her up in his arms, still wrapped in the blanket. “Daisy, you got Meg?”
“Yep, all set.”
They said goodbye to Carter, set up the car seats, and headed to Daisy’s house. The girls roused briefly, then fell right back to sleep.
“How was your night?” Gabe asked.
“We had fun,” she said. “Hit a few bars, but not much was going on.”
“Except at Harry’s!” Daisy announced. “We met two hot guys!”
Uh-oh. She watched Gabe stiffen, but his voice was calm. “Good for you. Locals or out-of-towners?”
Daisy jumped to answer. “They’re on a business trip from New York and decided to stay a few nights here. I really liked them. I got the blond, and Bella took the dark-haired one. She always had a weakness for brunets.”
“Hmm, interesting. I had no idea.”
Bella rubbed her temples and tried to salvage the awkward exchange. “I was just Daisy’s wing woman,” she said firmly. “But the guy asked her out, and they exchanged numbers.”
“You got a number, too, Bella,” she said teasingly. “He liked you. And he’s a high school teacher. Divorced. Midforties. Perfect for her.”
“Daisy,” she hissed, “I told you I wasn’t interested.”
“No, you didn’t, you said—” She trailed off, slapping her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God! I’m sorry, Gabe, I forgot. Bella said you two were seeing each other. I’m so stupid. And kind of drunk. Don’t pay me any attention; she wanted nothing to do with that guy.”
Bella wanted to drop her head in her hands. Now it sounded like Daisy felt guilty and was trying to cover for her. He’d sat with Carter, babysitting her daughter, and found out she’d been clubbing with strange men. She owed him an explanation.
“Totally okay,” he said casually. “I’m surprised she told you in the first place. I think Bella enjoys keeping a juicy secret.”
Silence fell, but thankfully, they reached Daisy’s house. “Thanks for the ride. I’m sorry for my big mouth.”
“It’s okay,” Bella said. “Need help?”
“Nope, we’re good. Call you tomorrow.”
She got out, and Gabe waited until she was safely inside. Then pulled away.
She waited for the inquisition, but he kept silent.
Which was worse. Much worse.
“How did you end up getting stuck babysitting?” she finally asked, trying to feel him out.
“I got home late, and Carter called to ask me to come over. Bribed me with wings and beer. Didn’t tell me we were also having a tea party.”
She winced. “I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”
“I had fun.” He turned and gave her an intense stare. “I teased Carter about roping me into a nightmare, but I happen to love Zoe, and spending time with her was a pleasure. Even if my nails are now pink.”
“Can I explain about tonight?”
“Sweetheart, I know you didn’t pick up a guy at a bar. I’m sure Daisy wanted to cut loose, and you were just there to support her. I’ve been a wingman many a time. We do what we must.”
Relief coursed through her. Each time she was with him, he captured more and more of her heart. He was a man she could really lean on, who was confident in them both not to play silly games. “I’m glad you understand. I told Daisy we were together, but I think I caught her by surprise.”
“I’m sure you did.” He paused, tapping his finger against the steering wheel. “How did she react?”
The thought of Daisy’s disbelief and laughter bothered her, but there was no way she was sharing that with Gabe. “Fine.”
He shot her a look and shook his head. “Why do I get the impression you’re not telling me the whole story?”
She scrambled to cover. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a man. Daisy’s not used to it, so she was just a little wary, that’s all.”
“Well, as your friend, she should be. I’m okay with that, Bella. It’s just . . .” He trailed off.
“I just want to be sure you’re still excited about us. That you actually want to tell your friends and family.” He paused, and the brief silence around them felt like the deep hush before a storm. “That you just don’t want this to be about sex.”