She shook her head and laughed. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, sweetheart,” she joked. “We don’t have time in our schedule to plan three whole weddings!”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Avery said.
When Bella’s gaze swung around to meet his, it was obvious she expected him to share in her humor.
His heart dropped.
The idea of marrying him made her laugh. He almost wished she’d reacted in shock rather than a complete disregard for any type of permanent future between them. His insides stilled and numbed him in a clumsy attempt to ward off the pain while he forced himself to smile back, pretending to agree with her.
She didn’t seem to notice his world had just exploded, and nudged Zoe’s arm. “Why don’t you finish that last bite so you can have ice cream?”
“Yay! Is it cookies ’n cream? That’s my favorite, just like Gabe.”
“Yes, it is. You’re like two peas in a pod,” Bella said. The words were lighthearted, but the damage had been done.
He swore he wouldn’t humiliate himself at this table, even as his father’s mocking laugh echoed in his head like a ghost, reminding him he’d always been unworthy. He pushed the hurt and the memory down hard, locking it away. “We just have the best taste, don’t we, Zoe?” he asked with a wink.
“Yes!” She gave a wink back, which came out exaggerated, and everyone laughed.
The topic was swept away, and they spent the rest of dinner and dessert with light chatter. One by one, everyone left, until Bella went to tuck Zoe in, and Gabe finished up the dishes.
He tried to chill, but her reaction kept rolling around in his head like a stuck slot machine. He knew she was wary about marriage after what had happened with Matt, but was it specifically him or her past that caused such strong emotion? He’d told her that he’d take anything from her he could get. And he would. Every night Bella wanted him in her bed was a gift and an opportunity to cement the bond between them. She claimed they were in a relationship. But in her mind, was this always going to be short term, destined to fade out on her behalf? Was she still concerned about his age or his past, not believing he could be a good father and husband?
He pushed away the panic and reminded himself she just needed time. Time to be with him and allow her trust to blossom.
When she came back in, he’d just closed the dishwasher. She slipped her arms around his waist and leaned against him with a sigh. “Do you know that for women, real porn is a man who cleans up?”
He chuckled, savoring her light floral scent and the lithe length of her body. “Hmm, so you’re saying if I meet you naked with an apron around me, it’ll turn you on?”
“I’d devour you,” she whispered, pulling his head down for a long kiss. “Are you staying?”
He paused. His brain told him it’d be better to go home tonight. Sit with his feelings and rebuild his defenses. Maybe she’d miss him.
But his big head wasn’t going anywhere.
“Yes, if you want me to.”
“I do.” She cupped his cheeks and met his gaze head-on. “And I want you stay tomorrow for breakfast. To be here when Zoe wakes up.”
He pressed his forehead to hers, accepting the offer. It was another tiny step toward him, and he’d savor each one. “I’d like that. But right now, all I can think about is porn.”
She laughed softly, her hands dropping to his ass, squeezing tight. “What do you have in mind?”
“Me. You. And some seriously dirty . . .”
He nipped at her bottom lip. “Exercise. I’ll need to bathe you afterward. I’ve been dreaming of getting you in the tub with nothing but a bunch of bubbles between us.”
She shuddered and he took full advantage, backing her up step by step into the bedroom. “Dirty exercise is good. We’ll work off the ice cream.”
“And next time I’ll bring over my iron and G-string. Get you real hot and bothered.”
She smiled up at him with joy. “I’m crazy about you, Gabe. I haven’t been this happy in a long time.”
“Me, either. Now get into that bedroom and make my fantasies come true.”
He shut the door behind them, satisfied she’d given him as much as she could for now.
Gabe scrolled through his exploding in-box. Since the Bridal Style article had hit, Sunshine had been inundated with new clients. Unfortunately, a bunch of them were just curious to meet him, and some of his initial consultations had turned into awkward come-ons and brides bringing their best friends to meet the hot wedding planner.
Frustration simmered at a low burn. Usually, he took this crap in stride, but lately the small-town vibe that had charmed him the past few years seemed like a noose around his neck. Hopefully, things would settle back down, and he could do what he did best without being judged on his damn looks.
He stopped at the urgent flagged message from Endless Vows Bridal Agency. It was one of the NYC-based agencies Adele had fired for being too big-time, but their reputation was stellar. Celebrities used them, and they were known in the industry as being the Holy Grail.
Curious, he skimmed the email, then started again at the beginning.
They wanted him to interview.
Surprise spiked through him. The agency had a strict policy of not hiring anyone without a minimum of five years’ experience in big-budget weddings. Would he even qualify?
He glanced at his watch. He had half an hour before he needed to head out. He’d never been interested in being another number in a big company full of egos—that had driven him to Cape May for the small-town feel—but he’d be crazy not to call and see what they really wanted. On impulse, he quickly dialed the number, asked for Melody, then introduced himself.
“Gabe, we’re thrilled you called back,” she said with genuine enthusiasm. “You did Adele Butterstein’s wedding, and we were stunned by the turnout.”
“Thank you,” he said politely. “Weren’t you originally booked as her planner?”
Her laugh held a touch of self-derision. “Indeed, we were, and we screwed up royally. But our mistake could end up being our best asset. We’d love to invite you in to interview with Palmer Matterson. He thinks you’re a fresh vision in this industry and wants the opportunity to pitch you.”
He stared at the phone. Palmer was the actual owner of Endless Vows, which meant he wasn’t going through a random HR interview. He knew the agency put out constant feelers to recruit, but this seemed different. “What exactly is he interested in?” he asked. “I’ll be honest, I’m happy at Sunshine Bridal and wasn’t looking to relocate at this time.”
“We understand. He’d just love a chance to talk and see if he can interest you in a rare opportunity. He was quite impressed by the article in Bridal Style and all you have to offer. Can you come in this Wednesday?”
This was nuts. He had no plans to leave Cape May or his job. But he’d worked his ass off for so long to get to this point. How could he say no? He owed it to himself to meet with Palmer and see what he wanted.
“Excellent! One p.m., at our office. I’ll email you the specifics. We look forward to meeting you.”
He clicked off. Guilt pricked his conscience. Should he tell Avery? Bella? Or would that just put everyone in a needless tailspin, freaking out Bella when things were good between them?
After all his dreams and hard work, he was being recognized by one of the top agencies in the industry. They wanted him. Those doubts that still lingered from all the years of his father’s taunting suddenly quieted. Maybe this was an opportunity he’d be foolish to give up.
No. Better to keep it quiet for now.
Bella grabbed a water bottle and checked the clock. She needed to get to the school for the PTO planning session, and dinner had run late. “Sweetheart, I need to drop you downstairs at Aunt TT’s, okay? I have to run to your school for an hour.”
“Is it for my year-end graduation party?” Zoe asked excitedly.
She smiled. “Yep. I cannot believe in just over two months, you’ll be out of kindergarten. How did you get so big so fast?”
“Don’t know. Is it gonna be a great party?”
“Well, of course, I’m the best party planner ever, right?”
Her daughter giggled, and everything lit up inside her like Christmas. “That’s right.”
“Good. Let’s go.” Bella took her hand and guided her down the stairs.
“Mama, what’s a player mean?”
Bella froze, turning toward her daughter. Zoe didn’t even look at her; she was focused on gathering the bunch of Barbie dolls she was taking with her, like the question was just an afterthought. “Where did you hear that, honey?”
“Well, when Gabe picked me up from the bus yesterday, my friend Theresa said her mom said Gabe is a player. I told her you were dating, and she said the word again and that her mom would never date a player. What does it mean?”
Anger unfurled, but she kept her face calm. “A player is someone who doesn’t date just one person but dates a whole bunch of people.”
“So Gabe’s not a player ’cause he just dates you?”