By the time he got to her house, the whole gang was already there.
“Gabe is here!” Zoe shouted, racing over and leaping into his arms, trusting he’d catch her. When he did, he held her tight, his heart exploding in his chest at the sheer love he had for this little girl. Staring into her big blue eyes, her tumble of golden flyaway hair around her face, he had the gift of seeing Bella when she was young. Even better were her sharp mind and wit, even at such a young age. He’d never had so much fun conversing with a six-year-old.
He caught Bella’s gaze over her daughter’s head. The barriers had been crushed between them. They connected on a physical plane, but it was the quiet talks afterward, holding her in his arms, that he cherished. The sharing of her daughter, and her family. The way her lips curved into a sweet smile when she caught sight of him.
Maybe he’d always known. Maybe he’d been destined to only love her. Because he did. He loved Bella Sunshine-Caldwell with everything he was.
He just had no idea if she felt the same.
“Aww, he brought flowers,” Pierce teased, clapping him on the shoulder. “Are those for me?”
Zoe giggled. “They’re for Mommy, silly! Gabe and Mommy are dating. Don’t you know that?”
Pierce pretended surprise. “I always thought your mama wanted to date Thor?”
More giggles. “No, she can’t. He’s only on television. And I like Gabe better.”
Gabe tossed her once in the air, then settled her back on the ground. “I’m so glad you’re in my corner, Zoe. These guys are brutal.”
Bella laughed and walked over, pressing a kiss to his lips. “These are beautiful,” she murmured, as he handed her the bouquet. “Thank you.”
“Reminded me of you. Couldn’t resist.”
“Umm, Bella, I need you here STAT,” Taylor called out. “There are four pans here. Some are done, some may burn, and it’s chaos.”
Pierce laughed. “Taylz, how were you the only Sunshine sister not to learn how to cook?”
“Screw you. I haven’t seen you channel any Bobby Flay, either. Your best friend is the pizza-delivery guy.”
“At least I help support the economy. You force Bella to feed you,” he teased.
She flipped her pink hair, saw Zoe had her back turned, and gave him the finger.
Bella shook her head, taking one last sniff of her flowers, then headed to the kitchen. “Coming. Here, put these in water and get the wine poured.”
“That I can do,” Taylor said. “Gabe, you want a Stella?”
Avery and Carter were talking quietly in the corner. He noticed they were looking at her phone, but he didn’t want to interrupt.
“Can I help with the toppings?” Zoe asked.
“Of course,” Bella said. “Your aunt Avery is slacking off. Have Pierce and Gabe help you pour the cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce into bowls.”
Gabe smiled at her enthusiasm and got the impressive row of toppings sorted out. His mouth watered at the smell of sizzling meat, onions, and the spicy taco sauce. He sipped his beer, chatted with Pierce, and finally Avery came over.
“So I have an announcement,” she said, giving him a pointed look. “That reporter you spoke with at Adele’s wedding? She wrote up an article about us in Bridal Style.”
Bella expertly removed two steaming pans and laid them on trivets. “That’s great!” A frown suddenly creased her brow. “Wait a minute, your tone sounds funny. Is it bad?”
Gabe could tell she was worried about the incident at the bar, and he was happy that hadn’t been included in the article. Still, the slant that he was single and available had been highlighted in the article.
“No, it’s good. But they took an angle I’m not pleased about.”
“I saw it,” he said. “Just before I came over, I got a notification and read it.”
Avery tilted her head and studied him. “What did you think?”
He shrugged. “I like the exposure for Sunshine, but I’m not sure you wanted me as the main star.”
She waved a hand in the air. “I don’t care about that, I care about you. I wished it had focused more on your amazing work at the Dr. Seuss wedding and not that beach-bachelor crap you hate.”
“Bad word, Aunt Avery,” Zoe said.
Bella distributed the meal onto a few platters and spoke up. “I didn’t read the article yet, so you guys are driving me crazy. Avery, can you read it out loud?”
“Yeah, let’s sit down, get settled, and hear it,” Taylor said.
They put everything on the table, got in their chairs, and loaded up their plates. Bella got Zoe situated with a hard and soft taco, a few beans, and red peppers. They ate and listened as Avery read the whole article, then passed her phone around so everyone could look at the photographs.
He watched Bella’s reaction, noting her tight lips and stiffened shoulders. Dammit, did she think he’d answered Latoya’s questions by trying to grab the spotlight? It was more of a piece on him than Sunshine Bridal, and if he were an owner, he’d be a bit pissed.
Finally, she spoke. “Once again, they’re making you the angle as a male wedding planner. Pisses me off. If it was reversed, readers would call out the discrimination.”
“Agreed,” Taylor said. “I don’t like that, either. I do like the pics of the wedding, and how they mentioned our clientele and how we bring something special to the business.”
“They hardly mentioned Bella,” he said. “We did that wedding together, but they made it sound like I did it alone.”
Bella gave a snort. “I couldn’t care less about that—we’re all a team here, so if one gets press, we all do. I just want to know how you feel about it, because I can call her up and demand she pull it. Threaten her with a lawsuit.”
Avery nodded. “Definitely. We’ll all back you up on this, Gabe. How do you feel about the article?”
He stared at the women around the table. A deep sense of relief and gratitude washed over him. They knew he hadn’t tried to slant the article his way. And they were willing to fight for him if he felt the article wasn’t fair, even if it gave the business an amazing amount of PR.
They weren’t treating him like a regular employee.
They were treating him like family.
He reached out and squeezed Bella’s hand. “Thanks for the support. I agree, I’m not happy with the way they slanted this whole thing, but as long as you’re okay, I think we should let it run. Brides are still going to see that we pulled off the wedding of Adele’s dreams. I think it’s going to open up an entire segment of business for more top-rated clients. And then we can decide who we want to take on.”
“You sure?” Avery asked.
Pierce rolled his eyes. “Still don’t know what the big deal is. Hell, I’ll pose in bikini briefs if it will triple my clientele.”
Everyone laughed. “You would,” Gabe told his friend. “Maybe I’ll officially hand over my title of Beach Bachelor to you.”
“I know the Bachelor!” Zoe piped up. “Mama and Aunt TT watch it together! But they say I can’t watch ’cause it’s too adult.”
Bella winced. Taylor suddenly looked focused on her meal.
“Hmm, not quite feminist, is it?” Pierce teased. “Giving out a rose based on sex appeal and evening gowns? I’m shocked.”
Avery threw up her hands. “I’ve never watched it, but they’re addicted. Once, I was calling them in an emergency, and they refused to pick up their phones!”
Bella cleared her throat. “It’s brain candy,” she explained. “I don’t really care about the outcome. I read on my Kindle while it’s on.”
Gabe laughed, loving her pink cheeks and the crap way she lied. “Sure, sweetheart. We believe you.”
“What does bachelor mean?” Zoe asked.
Bella handed her a glass of milk. “It means someone who’s single,” she said.
“I like married better,” she said with an adorable frown. “And no one is single at the table anymore!”
Bella cocked her head. “Yes, we are, honey. No one is married here.”
Zoe puffed up her chest and beamed. “They will be. Aunt Avery is marrying Uncle Carter, and I’m going to be the flower girl. I’ve been practicing. Mama will marry Gabe, and I’ll have a new daddy, and Aunt TT will marry Pierce ’cause they’re bestest friends and love each other!”
It was Taylor who laughed first. “Everyone gets our own happily ever after, huh?” she asked teasingly, reaching over and tugging on a wayward golden curl. “I feel like I’m a series installment in a romance novel,” she said. “But I’m tired of being last, so my story would have to be told first.”
Avery nudged Carter. “She’s always bitched about being last, but if she’s the youngest, her story would be third. We’d be first,” she said with a wink.
Gabe blocked out everyone but Bella, focused on her reaction to Zoe’s announcement.