They thought it was a joke. And they loved it.
Gabe spun on his heel for the climax and, with a hearty whoop, slid across the stage on his knees.
The crowd roared.
He took his bow, blowing kisses and throwing out some Ho ho hos, then smoothly transitioned into pulling out presents from his bag and calling out names. He distributed the gifts to the now-enthusiastic audience and finally made his exit.
Her knees almost buckled in relief.
Eloise raced over to her, beaming. “That was amazing!” she squealed. “How did you know changing the number up would be so successful?”
“I’m glad you trusted us to know when we feel something will work better,” she lied smoothly. “With the age of your crowd, Gabe and I decided to go vintage and comedic. I’m so happy you enjoyed it.”
Eloise shook her head. “You two are a dream team. Instead of hiring a Santa, he took it on himself to make sure it was done right. Thank you, Bella. Everything tonight has been just . . . perfect.”
Bella’s heart squeezed, and she said a quick prayer of gratitude that this disaster had flipped to a good outcome. “You and your husband deserve perfect.”
She watched Eloise flit back onto the dance floor. Gabe’s voice purred in her earpiece, like a high-performance sports car sparking to life. “Getting Paul home now. Back in fifteen.”
The rest of the evening went smoothly, and after the cake cutting and custom dessert bar, the happy couple began their official last dance. By the time all the guests had left, her body ached and she wondered if she’d ever have enough energy to coordinate another wedding.
“Right now, I don’t know if I’d give my right arm for a cold crab cake or a shot of tequila.”
Her lip twitched and she turned toward Gabe. He’d stripped off his jacket and tossed it over a chair as he stopped behind her. Weariness carved out his features, and he arched his back until he got a satisfying crack.
She leaned against the wall and flexed her foot. “Crab cake, definitely,” she said.
“Agreed. Let’s go to the kitchen and grab something to eat before we head home.”
She hesitated. Whenever she completed a wedding with her sisters, they retreated to the war room back at the office so Avery could go over all the high and low points. If Bella was working solo, she usually pulled something indulgent together in her own kitchen—either grilled cheese or an omelet. She’d never been alone with Gabe after an event before.
“Oh, I’m really not that hungry.” Her stomach let out a loud growl, announcing her lie.
He arched a brow. “Really? You dislike me so much you can’t even eat some leftover wedding food with me? Or are you still pissed about me screwing up with Paul?”
Shock barreled through her. “I don’t dislike you, and I’m not pissed. That was a mistake anyone could have made. I just usually make myself something to eat when I get home.”
He nodded and scratched his head. “I get it. But just this once, will you sit with me? I’m buzzing too high. Avery and I usually talk a bit to give me some time to come down.”
She understood what it was like. People who worked late nights sometimes had screwed-up sleeping schedules due to the adrenaline. And even though being alone with him made her uneasy, she needed some food and downtime before she’d be able to sleep. “Of course.”
They headed to the kitchen and spoke to the staff they knew well. Before long, they’d gotten plates with salad, seafood risotto, and grilled veggies. Gabe came back with two cold beers, and they sat in a small corner in the back on wooden stools.
“So are we going to get it over with?” he asked, tipping back his bottle.
She watched the strong column of his throat work, then tore her gaze away. “What?”
He snorted. “My dancing, of course. I told you I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The thought of his wild movements on stage hit her, and a giggle escaped. “I thought we were dead,” she admitted. “But at least you finally did something, even if it was a strange mating dance for extinct birds.”
He shook his head. “I froze up there. But then I looked at you and caught the panic on your face, so I knew I had to step it up.”
“You saw me?”
“Yep. And you’re always unflappable, so when you looked like you were about to vomit, I knew the wedding was at stake.”
She forked up some risotto, and the delicious mix of seafood and carbs sang in her mouth. His words repeated in her mind. Yes, he was right. She rarely let her emotions take hold, especially with work. Usually, she was proud of her ability to take it all in stride and maintain her control, but lately, she was wondering if she’d taken it too far. Everything was so well planned in her life, there was no longer any time or space for impulse. What would it be like to lose control in a safe way? Was that even possible? Or maybe she was destined to keep things exactly as they were to avoid trouble. After all, she needed to provide stability for her daughter. A single mother didn’t pair well with risk. She pushed the odd questions from her head and refocused. “Well, once again, you managed to charm everyone, even in a Santa suit. They thought the whole performance was rigged and on purpose.”
He laughed, and the warm, rich tone caressed her ears. “Damn, did we get lucky. I’m going to start vetting new vendors for next holiday season so we don’t run into this problem again.”
She took a sip of her beer and enjoyed the sluggish warmth in her blood. “Good idea. But I must admit, it was nice seeing a part of you that wasn’t perfect. I didn’t believe you about not knowing how to dance.”
“You think I’m perfect?” he asked with an edge instead of his usual flirtatiousness.
“Let’s just say you seem to have it all together.”
His gaze was a laser that dove deep and lit up her insides. Something gleamed within the dark depths, challenging her to look further. “I’m not perfect, Bella. There are things I don’t have. Things I want so badly I can taste them.”
Confusion swamped her, along with a sudden pulsing heat between her legs. She clenched her thighs to get rid of the sensation and reminded herself this was his MO with every woman. Somehow, all his words morphed into seduction. She was positive he didn’t mean it specifically for her. Gabe just seemed to ooze sensuality naturally.
The question hovered on her lips, then fell out. “Why don’t you go after them?”
“Because it can destroy what I do have, and I’m not brave enough yet.”
She ached to ask more questions and analyze his words, but her instinct screamed danger, so she cleared her throat and refocused the conversation on safer, professional subjects. “Well, Eloise was quite pleased and said her cousin has been looking for a planner and is going to contact us. The Santa debacle ended up working out fine.”
Frustration carved out the lines of his face, as if he wasn’t ready to go back to talking about work. He took another swig of beer, and thankfully, followed her lead. “I’m sorry if I let you down. You warned me about Paul, and I thought I had it covered.”
She sighed. “Giving Paul a body search to look for hidden alcohol isn’t in the job description. I heard he was going through a rough time with his wife leaving him, so he probably succumbed to the postholiday blues.” She shrugged. “Plus, I get these weird feelings when something bad is going to happen at a wedding. I should have realized ignoring it is never a good idea.”
“You seem to have an instinct for this job. A sixth sense. Did you always want to work in the family business?”
Her mind flashed over the past. All the dreams she’d had for a future that was never meant to exist. “No. I was only focused on being a wife and mother. It wasn’t until later that I realized how lucky I was to have a place to step into. This job may not have been my original calling, but I’ve made it mine. Does that make sense?”
He smiled. “Yeah, it does. It’s one of your many talents.” When she frowned, he continued, “I noticed a long time ago that you don’t wait for opportunities or answers—you make them. Or find them. Maybe it’s part of being a single mom, because you have to rely on yourself all the time to give your daughter what’s needed.”
The words shocked her, but even more so was the pride gleaming in his eyes while he gazed at her. Where had that come from?
A sense of shame washed over her. He was wrong. She’d always been reactive in her life—not proactive. It was just the image she presented, the surface of what she hid from the world. How badly she’d craved to have Avery’s leadership skills, or Taylor’s creative talent. Instead of a badass, she was the weak one. The one who needed protecting and being taken care of because she was always worried she’d never be enough for Zoe. It was as if when Matt died, he’d taken all her confidence and the core of who she was with him.
God, how she hated it. But she didn’t know how to change, or where to start.
Suddenly, he frowned. “What’s the matter?”
He was more in tune with her than she imagined, as if he sensed every flicker of her mood before she did. She forced a smile, refusing to let him in any further. “Nothing. I appreciate the compliment, though.” She glanced at her watch. “It’s late. Probably time to call it a night.”