“Stop,” Bella said with a hand out. “You’re making me feel like I’m sixteen. It’s embarrassing.”
“Tough. That’s what happens when you break a six-year dry spell,” Taylor said.
She grinned. “Well, I wanted to see if you guys wanted to invite the guys to Taco Tuesday dinner. We have no weddings, so I’m hoping everyone’s free. Can you check with Pierce, T? I’d like him to join us, too. You’re talking to him again, right?”
Taylor glared. “For now. I’ll tell him.”
“We’re in,” Avery said.
“Are you going to hold hands at the conference table now?” Avery asked.
This time, Bella battled her red cheeks and reached for the champagne bottle. “Seriously, you both suck.”
They laughed with so much glee, she eventually laughed, too.
“I made unicorn land, Mama,” she said, pointing at the rolling green hills, rainbows, and colorful unicorns romping around. “It’s a place where they eat all the candy they want, and no one is ever mean.”
She tacked it on the refrigerator. “I love it, sweetie. I wish it really existed.”
Zoe munched on a cookie, looking somber. “Oh, but it does. I dream about it a lot. I just need to go find it, like an ’splorer.”
“Explorer. Can I go with you?”
“Of course. We do everything together.”
She dragged in a breath and sat on the stool next to her. A perfect transition she needed to jump on. “And we always will, as long as you want me. Nothing will ever change the love I have for you, no matter who else comes into our lives.”
“Uh-huh.” She finished her cookie. “Can I watch TV?”
“I’d like to talk to you about something first.” Her tummy clenched with nerves, but she kept her face and voice calm. “You like Gabe, right, honey?”
She froze. “What?”
Her daughter smiled with radiance. “I love Gabe! He let me paint his nails and watches movies with us and all sorts of good stuff.”
She laughed. “Oh, good. Because I want to tell you about Mommy and Gabe. We decided we really like each other, too. Even more than just friends. So when a man and a woman really like each other, they may decide to date. Do you know what that is?”
Zoe’s eyes widened. “Oh yes! That’s when you hold hands and go to fun places together, like you and Daddy did before you got married, right?”
Matt’s face drifted in her memory, bringing more joy than pain. “That’s right. So Gabe and I are going to be dating now. That doesn’t change anything with me and you, but it means Gabe may be here more often or join us when we go out, and you may see us hold hands, or he may even be here for breakfast some mornings. How do you feel about that, pumpkin?”
She watched her daughter’s face carefully, but there was only a childish excitement as she clapped her hands. “Can Gabe come with us to Great Adventure on spring break? Mama, you promised I can go on the roller coaster if I’m tall enough and maybe he can even win me a stuffed puppy!”
“I bet Gabe will definitely try,” she said with a smile. “Do you have any questions for me? Anything you want to know? If you ever feel funny about something, you come talk to me. I know Mommy hasn’t dated anyone before, so this is new for all of us.”
Zoe nodded, her blue eyes flickering with a jumble of thoughts. “We’ll always love Daddy, but since he’s in heaven, maybe he sent us Gabe to help take care of us?”
Bella stilled. In that moment, she realized her daughter had an old soul and was able to see things in a light that would be a gift to her in this lifetime. Somehow, even through tragedy, Zoe had flourished. Warmth flowed in her veins, and it was as if Matt was smiling down at them, proud of the daughter they’d made together.
She blinked away the tears and tugged Zoe into her arms for a big hug. “I think you’re absolutely right,” she said.
“Do you think we can get a puppy now? Gabe can help us take care of it!”
She burst into laughter and hugged Zoe tighter.
Gabe walked into the Acme supermarket. He headed to produce, swearing this time it would be a quick trip in and out. He refused to go to the aisle where his weaknesses flared—namely, junk cereals that held the most magical sugary crunch. And forget frozen foods. Each time he failed to walk past a pint of cookies ’n cream ice cream without buying it, the move cost him a minimum of fifty crunches. He needed some stupid fruit.
Shaking his head at his mental scoldings, he grabbed a few bananas, red apples, and a bag of almonds, which would give him some healthy options. His schedule was sometimes so crammed, a quick snack was crucial, and he’d been lax lately.
Of course, he’d been getting some extra exercise. It’d been so long since he’d had sex, his appetite was up, along with his libido.
The thought of Bella floated in his mind, and he had to stifle a grin. Now that her sisters and Zoe knew, he’d been able to relax. He’d been off base about Bella wanting to hide their relationship. Avery and Taylor had teased them about their secret liaisons at the last meeting but then quickly settled into work mode. He’d sensed no strange tension, and knowing they fully approved only added to his relief.
He headed toward the cashier, then spotted the bright blooms of various bouquets at the front. Hesitating, he pulled one out. The center flower was a bright-blue happy daisy and reminded him of Bella. The hell with it. He was already so far gone, why not just bring her some flowers for Taco Tuesday?
He grabbed them and spun around.
“Well, hi there, stranger.” Devon smiled up at him, her gaze curiously taking in the bouquet.
Guilt pricked. Dammit, he’d called her after Adele’s wedding and left her a message that they should talk, but she’d never reached back out. He’d been secretly relieved, hoping maybe she’d changed her mind about them and wanted an out. But he still felt he owed her an explanation, even though the date had been open ended with no promises. “Hi, Devon. How are you?”
“Good. Just picking up some dinner. Haven’t seen you in a while. How did the Dr. Seuss wedding go?”
“It was a big hit, and the flowers were one of the highlights. I’m really sorry I haven’t called again. I got busy, and distracted, and—”
“Fell for someone?” she asked teasingly. “I’m assuming that’s why we never got to the second date?”
He reached out and touched her arm. “Did you get my message?”
“Yeah, but it was full of serious meaning and a tad of guilt. I figured someone else had stepped in.”
He nodded. “Bella and I began dating.”
She blinked, obviously startled. “Bella? Wow, I didn’t see that coming. But I’m happy for you. Though I may wonder for a long time what I gave up.”
Her words stung a bit, and though he hoped she wasn’t hurt, he sensed Devon really was pleased for him. She had an energy that was open and giving, and didn’t hold grudges. It was one of the things he’d fallen for initially. “Thanks, Devon.”
She surprised him by standing on her tiptoes and pressing a kiss fully on his mouth. “She’ll love the flowers. See you around.” Then she walked away.
He paid and headed for his car. Heading home, he showered, changed, then packed up the flowers and a bottle of wine for Bella. When his email pinged, he checked it quickly, then froze.
Latoya had emailed him the link to the article that was running in next month’s Bridal Style magazine.
He opened it, quickly scanned, then went back to the beginning. As he read, the discomfort grew until it was a low buzzing settling low in his gut. The title alone made him want to wince in sheer humiliation.
A Man for All Seasons: The Hottest Wedding Planner Is Making a Splash in Cape May and Beyond. Here’s Why.
It was accompanied by a full picture of him dressed in a black suit, his chin tucked in, gaze staring at the camera as if he were a male model posing rather than doing his damn job. It got worse as the reporter detailed some of his clients, then cited that awful Beach Bachelor thing that still wouldn’t die. Sunshine Bridal was listed, of course, and there were some beautiful pics of Adele’s wedding, showcasing the details that had made it unique. But it felt more like a showcase for him—the attractive single male who worked in a female-dominated business and had all the traits a future bride would find titillating. Something to brag about to her friends while they ogled him and whispered behind his back.
It didn’t feel like praise for his work. More like praise for the way he looked.
You’ll always rely on that pretty face and body to get you by, the voice sneered. You’ve never been a real man. Never will.
Gabe closed out of the article and shoved his phone in his pocket. He’d talk to everyone tonight and see what they thought. Sure, it was publicity, and it certainly wasn’t bad for Sunshine Bridal. He was just getting damn tired of being tossed around as the fun subject in town when he just wanted to concentrate on two things: Bella and work.