Bella shook her head and refocused on her bride, Winifred, who had three invitations laid out on the table. It took willpower to study each of them honestly and make a choice. The bride was a bit of a PITA, and every decision was not only lingered upon but obsessed over, accompanied by a painful whining that edged her nerves. Her partner, Sophia, was much more free flowing and relaxed, but had promised Winifred full control of the wedding planning. They made a beautiful couple, but Bella couldn’t help wishing her primary contact were Sophia.
Still, she swore to give the young couple everything they dreamed of, so she relied on her professionalism, smiled, and pointed to the card on the left. “Definitely butter, it’s the perfect shade. Elegant with just a hint of play.”
Winifred nodded slowly, her French-manicured nail tapping against the embossed edge. “I think you’re right. But we need to change the font to this other one and put our names centered in bold so they stand out.”
“Of course. I have it all under control.” Bella stood, desperate to wrap up the meeting, and busied herself with organizing the bulging folders in her bag. “We got a lot done today, Winnie, and are on schedule. I’ll see you at the bakery for cake tasting next week.”
Winnie looked back at the invites. “Are you sure the eggshell isn’t more classic? Do you think I should call Sophia?”
She lowered her voice as if they were conspiring. “The eggshell is classic, but a touch boring. You are unique, which screams butter. And personally, I think Sophia will love to be surprised.”
Winnie puffed up. “Yes, I guess I am unique! And you’re probably right about Sophia, she hates being accosted with too many details. Oh, I’m so glad this is behind me! I’m literally exhausted, and I’m out all the time doing bridal planning.”
Bella tried not to wince since she was doing the majority of the planning but kept her smile. “Just remember I’m here to do anything you need. Let me walk you to your car.”
Winnie chatted nonstop regarding the shoes and whether she should purchase specialized slippers as a backup, keeping her another ten minutes. By the time she pulled away from the curb, Bella wanted to weep with relief.
It had been a week since her talk with Gabe, and every cell in her being missed him. He’d given her the space she needed and hadn’t been in her bed. At the morning meeting, he didn’t treat her with any type of resentment or give her the silent treatment. Instead, he greeted her, smiled, listened to the agenda, offered a few comments, and left. There was no sidelong seething look or open pleasure in his dark eyes any longer. No kiss, or hug, or even a brush of his hand against hers. He was completely professional. Just like his old self, before they’d begun a relationship. He’d given her exactly what she needed in order to decide how to move forward.
She hated every second.
The sun shone brightly in the sky, reminding her of the new spring season and the final death knell of winter. Weekends were booked with various weddings and parties, and new clients had poured in after the Bridal Style article hit the newsstands. She’d been taking on more responsibility, and Avery had finally hired a new assistant to take Gabe’s place, which would help all their workloads. School was nearing an end, and the crazy, chaotic summer neared with the onslaught of tourists, late nights, long hours, and . . . loneliness.
She walked back to the office, her heart heavy. Last summer, she’d watched Avery fall in love with Carter, and Taylor rush headlong into her painting. She’d always felt like the true middle child. Not crazy creative or so passionate about work that it became her main focus. Zoe always tethered her to what was needed and gave her a joy no other person truly could.
She liked the woman she was when she was with him—the woman he saw when he looked at her. Her confidence had grown, and sharing the secret part of her along with her sexuality caused her to blossom. Why was it so hard to embrace this relationship 100 percent? Was she truly fearful of all the outside elements threatening them, or did it go even deeper? Was Gabe right when he said she was just waiting for him to fail so she could back away?
She needed to figure stuff out soon. Though she’d begged for time and insisted on moving slowly, he didn’t deserve to be kept in limbo while she struggled for answers.
Zoe had asked why he hadn’t been over lately, and she’d given work as the easy excuse. But it was obvious her daughter missed his presence, which had become steadier the past month. Bella seemed to hang on the precipice of backing away or leaping in fully with her heart, but the thought of her daughter getting hurt along the way froze her in place. Every decision she made affected both of them. What if the gossip about Gabe didn’t stop, and Zoe took the brunt?
Her phone buzzed. Daisy’s number flashed on the screen, and she picked it up. “Hey, how are you?”
“Good. Guess what?”
“I have a date!” Daisy screeched. “With the guy from the bar. We’re going to dinner Friday night.”
She grinned, her mood lightening for her friend. “That’s great! Do you need me to watch Meg?”
“Nope, already taken care of. My dad wants to take her for a sleepover, so he’s picking her up after school. I’m so excited, Bella. I need to go out and get new underwear and Spanx.”
She laughed. “Planning on getting to third base already?” she teased.
“Not sure, but if all goes well, some heavy petting is definitely on the schedule. I’ll see you at the Lobster House beforehand, right?”
“Oh no, is the kickoff tomorrow?” she asked. It had become tradition to gather for a massive cocktail hour when the weather began getting nice. Most of the town had made it an annual event; everyone would stop by for drinks and to officially close the end of winter. She’d totally forgotten about it.
“Yes, and don’t even think of getting out of it. I need you for moral support before my date.”
“Okay, I’ll be there. Zoe has a pizza party, so I can swing by and pick her up afterward.”
“Perfect. How’s everything going? Still hot and heavy with Gabe?”
She hesitated. She hadn’t confronted her friend since the PTO disaster, and after her discussion with Gabe, she’d decided to keep things quiet until she made a decision. “We’re sorting some things out,” she said carefully. “But I’m okay.”
Her friend sighed. “Oh, Bella, I hope he didn’t screw with you ’cause I’ll kill him myself. Was it the Devon thing?”
She jerked as if slapped. “No, that was all false. Is everyone still talking about it?”
“Kind of. I wasn’t sure what to believe, though. Listen, I gotta get back to work, but I’ll call you tonight so we can talk. I’m here for you.”
“Thanks.” She hung up with heavy trepidation. Her love life was being talked about and dissected by everyone, and she hated it. Would it always be like this? And if so, was she strong enough not to care in order to have Gabe?
She pushed the questions out of her mind and focused on work. Jessica, the receptionist, seemed to be overwhelmed today, juggling nonstop ringing phones and enough walk-ins to throw her usual organization off-kilter. Bella popped her head out. “Jess, did you eat yet?”
The young redhead shook her head. “No time. Man, that article really pumped up business!”
She laughed. “It’s a good and bad thing. You’re doing great—why don’t you put the voice mail on and head out? I’ll be here if any emergencies pop up.”
She gave a relieved sigh. “Thanks, Bella, I just need some fresh air.”
“Shoo, I got this.”
The girl grabbed her purse, jumped up, and took a few steps when the phone began shrieking.
“Go,” Bella said with a wave.
The door slammed.
She grinned and scooped up the phone. “Sunshine Bridal.”
A cultured feminine voice came on the line. “Can I speak with Gabe Garcia, please?”
“I’m sorry, he’s not here. Can I take a message?”
“Yes, thank you. This is Melody at Endless Vows Bridal calling to check in. We had an interview with him last Wednesday and wanted to touch base. We’re hoping he’s decided to take the position.”
Ice trickled down her spine. She tried desperately to sound calm and professional. “Of course. Let me take your number, and I’ll have him get right back to you.”
“Wonderful. And you can tell him not to worry about references at this point.”
“I’ll do that.”
She jotted down Melody’s name and number, her fingers trembling around the pencil. When she hung up, her entire body locked up, as if trying to defend against an intruder. All her secret fears and suspicions burst forth in a tsunami of emotion.
He was going to leave.
Just like she’d always believed.
She stumbled back into the conference room, the receptionist desk forgotten. Wringing her fingers, she wondered if Avery suspected or if anyone knew. Had he told Carter or Pierce? Had he been planning to look for another job the whole time, or had she pushed him away?
He’d promised to give her time. Promised he cared about her and Zoe and had no intention of leaving. God, what if she’d taken too long to make her decision, and he figured he’d cut his losses?