No. Fucking. Way.
He cleared his throat. “Ah, Michelle, thanks but no thanks. I’m not interested.”
A heavy pause pulsed over the line. “Gabe, are you kidding? This is an honor—we polled hundreds of people all the way down to Wildwood and Long Beach, and you were number one! This is our biggest issue, and we’ve booked out our ads way in advance. Everyone’s waiting for the announcement!”
His temples began to throb. He could not go through this again. First Bridal Style, now this. He just wanted to be left alone. “Again, thank you, but I’m going to decline. Besides, I’m involved in a relationship, so that negates the whole bachelor thing.”
“You are?” Her shocked tone irritated him. “Well, you’re still not married, so it counts. I’m really disappointed by your reaction here. I guess this means you don’t want to do a photo shoot?”
“Umm, no. Definitely no. But good luck to the new winner. Can’t wait to see who it is.”
“Oh, we’re not picking another winner. We’ll just run the article without your pic. How about a quote?”
His heart sped up. He looked at the phone with a touch of wariness. “Wait—I just said I don’t want to be involved.”
Her laugh reminded him of a tinkly bell he wanted to mute. “Gabe, don’t be silly, we have to run the article! You were chosen whether you like it or not, and it’s the biggest spread to kick off summer. I can use your picture from last time or pull it off the website. No problem.”
“Michelle, listen to me. You know Pierce? Put him down as the new beach bachelor—he’s perfect for the job. I don’t want anything to do with this.”
“Well, Pierce was definitely in the running, but you beat him good.”
He closed his eyes. He was trapped in a nightmare that kept recycling. This would have never happened in a big city like Manhattan or Chicago or LA. Why did he have to settle in a quirky beach city that kept forcing him to be their local celebrity? He wasn’t even rich!
“Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”
“Nope. But if you decide to send me an updated photo with a quote, we don’t go to print till Friday. Thanks, Gabe!” She hung up.
Son of a bitch.
When another buzz came in, every muscle clenched, but he relaxed once he saw it was a text from Bella.
Can I stop by?
Yes, here working. Come save me.
He glanced around, but his place was pristine, as usual. He thought about how messy his living space could get with Bella and Zoe, but it brought a sense of warm anticipation, not worry. He’d begun to realize he enjoyed keeping his stuff organized because there was no one here but him. With people came chaos, but it also brought love. He’d been ready for a long time to experience all those things with Bella.
The tap on the door came a few minutes later. “This is a nice surprise,” he said. “I thought you had a PTO thing.” He went to pull her in for a kiss, but her head ducked and she stepped past him.
“It just finished. I wanted to talk.”
“Good, I’ve had a hell of a day and need the company. Want some wine? Seltzer?”
“Sit down, you look all tense. Did you have a crappy day, too?”
She turned from him and pulled off her jacket. “You could say that.”
“I want to hear about it, but I have to tell you something. I just got a call from Exit Zero magazine. Seems they had one of those ridiculous polls again and named me Beach Bachelor of the year. Can you believe it? I begged Michelle to leave me out of the whole thing, but she refused. Think I can sue?”
She sat down and regarded him from the couch with a strange expression. “Probably not.”
“I probably wouldn’t anyway. But paired with this Bridal Style thing, I’m getting sick of these ridiculous stories like I’m some kind of unicorn here. I tried to throw them Pierce, but she said maybe next year. Then I told her I was involved in a relationship and that should clear me from the list, but basically if I don’t have a ring on my finger, I’m fair game.” He shook his head and flopped down next to her, then continued, “Sorry, sweetheart, I’m sure this isn’t fun for you, either. Add in a crazed, crying bride calling me every ten minutes and a mean-tempered FOB, and I’m ready to go to bed. Preferably with you.” He leaned in with intent. “Do we have time?” he teased. “Or are you due back home?”
She didn’t answer. Just kept looking at him with a polite distance.
A bad feeling crawled through him. It was as if she’d rebuilt the same barriers he’d battled before. The last few weeks of intimacy made him assume they were past such remoteness.
Or had it just been lying in wait?
“Bella, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
A flicker of sadness gleamed in her blue eyes. “Does a part of you like being written up as the local bachelor?” she asked. “I mean, I know you’re protesting, but it wouldn’t be wrong to admit it feels good to have so many women interested in you.”
The bad feeling ratcheted up to borderline panic. He fought the emotion back and knew he needed to remain calm to get to the heart of the matter. “It wouldn’t be wrong, but it would be a lie,” he said carefully. “I feel like I’m missing something important here.”
“I just think you may want to be able to flirt and date who you want without being imprisoned with a single mom who doesn’t go out much. I know it gets boring.” She twisted her fingers together, the telltale nervous gesture he’d come to cherish. He loved knowing all the tiny details that made up her body and mind and emotions, relishing the unveiling of each secret. Now, though, she was shutting down, and he had to find out why.
“Not for me. But I told you this before, and I thought you understood my intentions. I don’t want any other woman, Bella. I want you, and I want Zoe. Period.”
Her hand shook as she reached up and pushed back her hair. He wanted to take her in his arms but knew she needed the space to work through these doubts. “Do you want Devon, too?”
He frowned. “What does Devon have to do with us?”
Anger snapped from her gaze. “A lot, it seems. Especially when you’re giving her flowers and kissing her in public places. I’m not sure what constitutes a relationship with you, but for me, it’s complete monogamy.” A wild laugh escaped her lips. “Honestly, this is my fault—not yours. I knew we were on different paths, but I got caught up in the intensity of it. Of us. I think it’s time we got real with each other.”
Suddenly, he was just as angry as she was. “Let’s back it up. First, I did not give Devon any flowers. I bought one bouquet, and that’s what I brought to you Tuesday night. Second, I told you exactly what happened between Devon and me. We had that one date. When I returned from Adele’s wedding, I left her a message, telling her we needed to talk. She never answered, and we haven’t seen each other since.”
“Except at the supermarket when you kissed her?”
He blew out a breath. “No. I mean, yes, I ran into her at Acme. She asked about the flowers. I told her they were for you and we were serious. She was surprised, said she was happy for me and understood, and gave me a kiss before I could stop it. Then she walked away. There is nothing between Devon and me, Bella. I swear to God.”
She slumped back in the sofa and bowed her head. “I believe you.”
“Good. Monogamy is important to me. You’re important to me. Where did you get this lopsided story from?”
The sigh that left her lips was full of emotion he was suddenly afraid to probe. “Some of the moms at the PTO were telling me that someone they knew saw you and Devon kissing. It didn’t take long to jump to conclusions, especially when they keep constantly telling me you’re not to be trusted for the long term.”
He tamped down the surge of temper. It wouldn’t do any good to freak out over lies and gossip. It never had. He just needed to convince Bella. “It’s not true. I’ve been lonely for a long time,” he said simply, allowing her to see his heart. “I tried many times to see if there were any women who could give me what I was looking for. None came close until you. From the moment we met, it’s only been you.”
She tipped her chin up. Her lower lip trembled. “I feel so many things for you,” she whispered. “But I’m still confused. Worried that this physical chemistry between us may flicker out, and there won’t be enough for you to want to stay.”
He tunneled his fingers through his hair in frustration. “You’re asking for guarantees I keep trying to give you, sweetheart, but you obviously don’t want to believe them.”
She shook her head. “No. I do believe you about Devon.”
“It’s more than Devon. It’s your constant belief that I don’t want this. It’s your reluctance to tell anyone we’re together. When the moms told you about Devon, did you let them know that we’re in a serious relationship?”
“I told them we were dating.”
He nodded. “A casual word. Anything else? Did you come to my defense?”