“That’s right, but we don’t want to use the word player to describe someone, because it’s hurtful. Adults are allowed to date many people, if they want. But Gabe and I decided we really like each other and want to only be in a relationship with each other. Do you have any questions about Gabe and me?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I love Gabe. I’d like him to be my dad.”
It was the second time Zoe had mentioned Gabe being her father. Before, the idea had been unthinkable. Now, she blinked back the sting of tears and brought her daughter close in a hug. “That makes me happy. But right now, Gabe and I are just dating. And if we did get married, he’d never replace your dad.”
“I know that. It’s good to have a few dads or moms or grandmas or grandpas, right? Then there’s more people to love.”
She pressed a kiss to Zoe’s head and wondered how she’d gotten so lucky. “That’s right. Now let’s hurry up, I don’t want to be late.”
The exchange with Zoe burned in her mind the whole drive to the school. She couldn’t believe the moms were still talking about Gabe. Either way, she was going to have to decide whether or not she took a stand. She refused to be whispered about when she attended the school’s functions or allow Zoe to be manipulated by her classmates who knew nothing. They must’ve found out about her and Gabe, but they had no right to make judgments on her without even asking a question.
She did some deep breathing in the car and calmed down. There was no use going in upset and defensive. She’d be cool and professional, and maybe after the meeting, she’d say her piece to Kelly—Theresa’s mom—about keeping her mouth shut.
She wished Daisy had been able to come, but she’d called and said she had to work late. Bella had promised to not stick her with a crappy job just because she didn’t show. They had each other’s backs like that.
She knew most of the mothers there and greeted Amy and Kelly with polite distance, making sure to sit with some of the nicer moms. Eventually, she relaxed and had fun with the planning. They chose the theme (Disney) and assigned different tasks. Bella came with a spreadsheet handy, and everyone seemed happy for her to take charge along with the president. They finally settled on the date, time, and details.
Andrea, the president, came over afterward to thank her. “I think you’re our biggest asset when it comes to parties,” she said with a laugh. “Has spring wedding season hit yet?”
Bella wrinkled her nose. “Yes, unfortunately, all of us are slammed, and it’ll continue through the summer. Don’t want to complain, though. Business has been booming.”
“Well, of course—everyone saw the article written about Sunshine. So exciting to have one of our local businesses go national. Are you starting to do New York weddings, also?”
“We took on a few.” She didn’t want to name-drop, but signing a local television star who sang on Broadway was big news. After Bridal Style dropped its article, the phone had been ringing off the hook with queries.
Many specifically for Gabe.
“Huge congratulations. Hopefully you won’t be booked up when my son finally decides to marry his girlfriend. They’ve been dating for years, and he’s still not ready.”
“Don’t push him. But when he does pop the question, you call me. I’ll make sure we take good care of him.”
They laughed and Andrea left. Bella packed up her stuff and watched as Amy and Kelly caught sight of her and headed over.
“Hi, Bella. Thanks for helping us out—we loved your ideas,” Amy said with a friendly smile.
Bella smiled back but remained wary. “Welcome. I like doing this stuff.”
“She had to work late, but I signed her up for decorations with me. She’s good at that.”
Kelly nodded. “We heard you were really busy with weddings, especially after that article. It must be nice to finally be recognized for your hard work.”
“It is, even though it’s hard juggling everything.”
“Sure, being a single mom is hard,” Amy said with a sympathetic gleam in her eye. “Speaking of which, Daisy was telling me the news about Gabe. We’re happy for you. You needed a guy in your life. I know it’s been a long time.”
She stiffened, ready to do battle. “I’m glad you brought it up, because I wanted to talk to you both about something that bothered me. Zoe came home today saying Theresa was calling Gabe a player.”
Kelly groaned and covered her eyes. “I’m so sorry! She must have overheard me. I’m really embarrassed.”
Bella shifted her feet, still uneasy. “Apology accepted. I’d just appreciate it if you didn’t talk about us at this point. I’m really happy with how things are going.”
“Of course you are. That man is a machine,” Amy said with a laugh.
“I really didn’t mean to judge you,” Kelly said. “I just hope you don’t get attached. He’s the perfect transition guy for you. But sometimes those men have this magical thing over us that keeps us from realizing the truth.”
“You mean the magical penis?” Amy asked.
Kelly jabbed her finger in the air. “Yes, that!”
Their laughter was like mean pokes, hitting her in all the sensitive areas of her body. “What are you talking about?” she whispered harshly, trying to keep her voice low. “Gabe and I are dating, not having some cheap fling. I thought Daisy told you.”
Amy blinked, looking genuinely confused. “She said you hooked up, not that you’re seriously dating.”
Her stomach lurched. Had Daisy really kept that information from them? And if so, why? “Well, I don’t know why she said that.”
“Oh God,” Kelly said, looking chastised. “Seriously, Bella, we just assumed you’d never try and settle down with a guy like Gabe. You have a daughter, and you lost your husband, and Gabe is just . . .”
“Just what?” she asked tightly.
Amy sighed. “Just not long term. I mean, he was kissing Devon in the supermarket last week! That’s why Kelly was calling him a player.”
Bella stood her ground, trying not to grit her teeth. She refused to be goaded into some type of gossipy drama that centered around lies. “Devon? I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that never happened. And I find it offensive for you to be spreading rumors about him like that. It’s not fair to either of us.”
Kelly and Amy shared an uncomfortable look. “Amy’s right,” Kelly said. “You can go ahead and ask Christina from Bagel Time Cafe. She was at the Acme supermarket, and Gabe handed Devon a bouquet of flowers, then she gave him a full kiss on the lips. I swear to God, I’m not lying. She saw it with her own eyes.”
The ground shifted, but she held strong. A bouquet of flowers? Could it be possible he was stringing both of them along and bought them both flowers? No, Gabe wasn’t like that. But the doubts had drilled into her brain and wouldn’t quiet.
“Well, I’m sorry, I just don’t believe it. Listen, I have to go.”
“Sure, we’re sorry. But hon, I gotta be honest. You’re way too good for a man like that. He’ll only end up breaking your heart,” Amy said.
She didn’t answer. She walked slowly away with her shoulders squared and back straight, pretending she wasn’t dissolving inside. She drove home carefully, ignoring the nip of panic at her nerves.
She had to find out what the hell was going on.
Gabe fished out his turkey club for dinner and settled down with his laptop. He’d had back-to-back appointments all day for the Alperson wedding next weekend, and he was beginning to worry. The FOG was flying in from Colorado, and a snowstorm was ready to hit right around the day he was supposed to fly out. He’d gone back and forth with the bride, who was seriously starting to lose it, and managed to get him an earlier flight out.
Gabe had felt like a fucking superhero. But had he gotten the deserved gratitude and high fives? Nope.
The FOG told him he refused to leave early due to some big business meetings. So now he was dealing with a hysterical bride, a pissy FOG, a frustrated groom, and a ticket that wasn’t going to be used.
Wasn’t he supposed to just plan weddings? How’d he get roped into making sure entire families kept his clients calm? It sure as hell wasn’t in his job description, but then again, it’s what made Sunshine the best. It wasn’t just about the details—it was the entire experience. He was a support system.
He thought about having a beer, then settled on seltzer. When the phone rang again, he almost didn’t look, not able to deal with another call from the bride where he did nothing but soothe her rantings. Lord, wasn’t that what her fiancé was for?
Good, it wasn’t her. He picked up. “Hello?”
“Gabe? It’s Michelle from Exit Zero magazine. How are you?”
Ah, the famous glossy that had made his life a living hell two years ago. “I’m good. Say, if this is about the advertising, Avery’s in charge of that.”
“No, actually, I have great news. You’ve just been picked as the Sexiest Beach Bachelor for the June issue!”