“Of course!” she said hotly. “But I wanted to talk to you first to see exactly how things played out.”
A fist slammed through his gut. The slowly dawning knowledge that she might always doubt him crippled his heart. “Now you know the truth. So my question is, where do we go from here?”
She jerked back, her features stark. “What do you want?”
Her answer told him what he didn’t want to face. He was 100 percent invested in being the man for her and Zoe, but Bella wasn’t there yet. Maybe she’d never be. Or maybe she needed more time, which was fine, unless she’d always planned to keep him at a safe distance. His reputation concerned her. And though he was damn frustrated by Bridal Style magazine, and Exit Zero, and the women coming on to him, those were things he couldn’t control.
Even worse? They might never stop. Would it eventually erode everything good between them because of her constant doubts? Would she ever truly trust him enough to move forward, or was he going to commit to defending every one of his actions on a regular basis, hoping one day she’d finally believe in him?
Dear God, would he be chasing her love his whole damn life, just like he’d done with his father?
The realization crashed over him like a tidal wave. He couldn’t do that to himself again. It had almost destroyed him the first time.
Yet how could he walk away from the woman he loved, without a fight?
He swallowed back the agony and gave her a smile. “Sweetheart, I want to move forward and be here for you and Zoe. I want that more than anything, but this is no longer about what I want. It’s about your feelings toward me. You say you believe me about Devon, and the other women I’ve supposedly been with, but are you just holding back, waiting to see when I’m going to disappoint you? Is this a game I can never win?”
“No.” She reached out, then jerked her hand back. “I don’t know.”
He nodded, knowing he deserved more, or at least the truth. “If the man I am isn’t enough now, it never will be.”
Her head flew up, and her eyes shot blue sparks. “You’re plenty of man for me! Don’t say that about yourself.”
He stared into her beautiful face and gently stroked her cheek. “Maybe you can never feel the same way I do about you. Maybe that’s something I have to face and learn to live with. I’d still like to try, but I’d need to know you not only believe me but trust me with your heart.”
An aching regret lingered in her gaze. “I want to.”
“But you can’t right now because you still have doubts?”
“Not about Devon or the other women. Just about if we could work. I wish we could explore our relationship privately, without being judged or hassled all the time.”
His throat closed up, but he forced out the words. “Out of the spotlight.”
He shook his head slowly. “Not really possible. And not the type of relationship I want. Do you?”
She pulled back. “Why do you need to pressure me right now? Can’t we take our time and figure things out?”
In that moment, he wondered if he should let her go. Wondered if he was strong enough to keep trying to convince her of the man he was, the man he’d hoped she could love. But his heart remained stubborn, and so very hopeful.
He let his hand drop. “Take whatever time you need, Bella. I already know.”
They stared at each other for a while, lost in a tangle of questions, what-ifs, and endless possibilities.
Finally, she stood up. “I better go. I need to think about things.”
He walked her to the door, then dropped a soft kiss on her lips. “Good night. I’m right here if you need me.”
For a moment, he thought she’d break. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, holding him close. He savored her breath and her sweet scent and the silky feel of her hair against his skin.
Then she pulled away and left without another word.
“Thanks for coming in. Been looking forward to meeting you.”
Gabe shook Palmer Matterson’s hand and settled into the lush red-velvet chair. His office was the type of space that a man dreamed of: Ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the skyline of Manhattan. Rich textures of leather, velvet paired with deep mahogany wood, and a big-ass desk that proved whose dick was the biggest right from the start. A full bar took up the corner, framed photographs of his many legendary celebrity weddings were displayed on the walls, and a huge television/audio unit filled one corner.
The man himself was just as impressive. He was only about forty but sported a thick mane of gray hair, with pale-green eyes that seemed startling in his face. His Armani suit was exquisitely cut in a smoky charcoal, paired with an emerald tie. The Rolex on his watch gleamed, and his shoes were Italian, definitely handmade.
Gabe had expected a rich asshole, but he was surprised when they launched into a casual conversation, and he found him not only knowledgeable without ego but with a sharp sense of humor. Slowly, he relaxed, even more curious as to what the man wanted from him.
“Let me tell you why I reached out,” Palmer said directly. His gaze gleamed with intelligence and honest enthusiasm. “When we lost Adele’s wedding, I was disappointed. I immediately began digging to find out why and found the planners who were assigned were treating her like a cookie-cutter celebrity without personal thought or care. This disturbed me, so I looked deeper and found something that was running rampant, like a disease.”
“Complacency. The more planners I spoke with, the more I realized no one was excited about their job. Oh, sure, I still had some gems who’d been promoted along the way, but I realized my employees had lost the fire and needed restructuring. I’ve spent the past few weeks weeding out the deadweight, installing some new classes to ramp up creativity, and am excited about the new direction this company is taking.”
Gabe nodded. “Sounds wonderful. I think if more companies took the time and effort to make hard changes, the market would be much better.”
“Agreed. But you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed. You did that with Adele’s wedding. You reached into corners the average planner can’t even see and made it uniquely personal. That’s why I want you on my team, Gabe.”
“That’s very flattering, but I did have a full partner on Adele’s wedding. Bella Sunshine-Caldwell is one of the owners.”
Delight lit the man’s gaze. “Honest, too, huh? I like that. Yes, we knew from the beginning you were on a team, but I’m not interested in the owner. I’m interested in a top hire who has no family strings or responsibilities that can get in the way. If I hired Ms. Sunshine, I’d always be competing with her family business. You have the best of both worlds—experience, loyalty with a family firm, and a vision with no limit. You’re the one we want.”
Pride cut through him. His father’s voice withered silently in his head. The top agency in New York City wanted him. All his work had paid off, and finally, he had hard evidence of his success. He was at the top of the chain, and he’d done it all on his own. “I appreciate the vote of confidence. But I’m still unsure what you want me to do here. I’m not interested in leaving a thriving business where I work on equal terms with the owners just to take a job to be a cog in the wheel.”
Palmer laughed, resting his hands on his knees. “Agreed. And I don’t need another full-time planner. I’m talking about a management position with your own team to run. I want to offer you full gratis—the ability to pick your people, pick your clients, and run your own schedule.”
His brain flashed over the possibilities. “What type of clientele?”
“Celebrities, billionaires, reality stars, even the power couples who rule New York. It may be a welcome change for you. Small towns seem to keep planners under a microscope, but here, it’s the clients they judge. I’m creating an entire position just for you, Gabe. Now, you’re going to tell me this doesn’t interest you?”
Gabe stared at the man across from him. His heartbeat sped up, and the full implication of this job offer struck hard.
This was an opportunity of a lifetime.
He’d have the ability to create his own world at the helm. A team underneath him, ready to do his bidding and help him carry out his vision. No more small-town gossip. In the city, attractive men were plentiful. He could re-create his life with one word.
“I’ll need more details,” he finally said, keeping a strict poker face.
Palmer grinned. “I figured. Let’s talk.”
An hour later, he headed back to Cape May, his head spinning. If he took the job, he’d be forced to give up Bella and Zoe, and a life he still loved. But what if Bella would never be ready to commit? Already, she’d distanced herself over the ridiculous rumors of Devon. What if he gave up an important work opportunity to chase someone who’d never truly be his? Could he take the risk, or was it time to be real with himself?
The questions battered his head and his heart the entire drive home.
“Bella, I can’t make a decision. Do you think I should go with the vanilla, the eggshell white, or the butter?”