Gabe eventually made his way over and stood beside her, stiff and quiet.
Andrew approached with Daisy. “Sorry, I don’t think we met?” he asked Gabe, leaning over to shake his hand. “I’m Andrew.”
“Oh, you work with Bella?”
Daisy cocked her head in anticipation, as if she were expecting Bella to jump in and correct him or explain they were dating, but she fell silent after glancing back and forth between them. An awkward silence descended as Andrew waited for the answer.
“Yes,” Gabe finally said.
Bella remained silent, too overwhelmed by the shaky anger inside, bursting to get out. If they were really involved in a relationship, he would’ve told her about the job. He deserved to feel rejected.
Just like her.
Daisy cleared her throat. “Bella, Gabe, Avery, and Taylor all work at Sunshine Bridal. They’re a pretty big deal and even got written up in some big magazines.”
“Cool,” Andrew said.
Bella jerked as she caught the look on Gabe’s face. A twist of pain and betrayal. His lips tightened, and he held his shoulders stiff, as if trying hard not to show how badly her silence had affected him.
Well, what had he expected? Why wouldn’t he tell her the truth? Did she owe him anything at this point?
“Excuse me,” Gabe said politely. He stepped away from the circle, walking across the deck while some more PTO moms drifted over to socialize. Bella tried to concentrate on the lively conversation, but Gabe’s face haunted her.
She needed to find him and talk.
She crossed the room, looking, but didn’t see him. She tapped Avery on the shoulder. “Have you seen Gabe?”
“He just left. Said something came up—everything okay?”
She raced off the boat and through the exit. She caught the sight of his lone figure heading to his car in the lot and called out his name. He waited for her, but when she reached him, his expression stopped her cold.
It was barren. Closed off. The usual light and pleasure in his gaze were now replaced by stone-cold resolution.
“Do you need something?”
She swallowed and hugged herself for warmth. “I’m sorry. I wanted to talk.”
He stared at her for a long time and then shook his head. A humorless laugh escaped his lips. “I’m sorry, too. For not realizing how hard this is for you.”
Her heart slammed against her chest. “It’s not. I was just angry and trying to get back at you.”
The hurt ripped through her. “You lied to me. Endless Vows called. They said you’d interviewed for a position and they hadn’t heard back from you.”
He muttered a curse, then rubbed his head in frustration. “Dammit, I should’ve known they’d call. Palmer’s a smart SOB, and he wanted to make sure my current job knew I’d interviewed.”
A bitter laugh escaped. “Oh, so that’s the only thing you’re worried about? That your dirty little secret got spilled before you could tell us?”
“No. I was going to tell you, but much later. There was no reason to confuse us any further.”
Her jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me? Am I someone you now try to handle to have the least amount of messiness? How dare you do this to my family? My sisters trusted you—if you were so intent on going to some big-time company for money and glory, you could’ve warned us. Don’t you feel you owe us anything?”
“Bella, you don’t understand. I was never looking to leave. I got a call that the CEO wanted to interview me, and yeah, I felt like I owed it to myself to hear what he wanted. But I was never going to take the job. I love my work, and I love Cape May, and I love—” He stopped, his face a hard mask, emotions ruthlessly banked between that icy wall.
He loved her.
The unspoken statement ripped through her. What was happening? She’d been so sure of his intentions.
He cleared his throat and continued, “When did you get the call?”
“And you didn’t think to ask me right away? You waited until we were in a public place to finally show me you’ll never be ready for this relationship?”
She jerked back. “No! How do you think it felt to hear you were pursuing a job that would take you away after all of your declarations? I have a daughter to protect. This isn’t about just me, Gabe. You have the power to hurt Zoe in ways that you’ll never understand.”
His features softened with regret. “I’m sorry. I’d never hurt Zoe, or you, or your family. You mean too much to me. I didn’t want to tell you I’d turned down a job when you were trying to figure things out about us. I thought it would only muddy the issue. The job means nothing to me. The only thing I want, and have ever wanted, is you.”
Her legs shook, and the truth of his words crashed into her. She took a step forward, but he kept speaking. “But you already know that, Bella. You must. I’ve been telling you my feelings from the beginning, waiting for you to catch up. But tonight, I realized I’m not the right man for you—I’ve just been too damn pigheaded to accept it.”
Panic nipped. What was happening? How had everything been suddenly flipped around?
“You’ve been looking for an excuse to pull away since the beginning. First it was Marlaine, then Devon, now the job. It’s the gossip at the PTO and the way this town makes you feel because you’re dating me. It’s how you’d rather be dating someone other than the crowned beach bachelor.” His face broke, and she caught a glimpse of a deep pain that tore her apart. “You need someone you can be proud to be with, and I need a woman who accepts all of me, no matter what the world tells her.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t want another man. And God, yes, I’m proud of you—I just got confused,” she whispered. Tears stung her eyes. “I don’t want to lose you.”
His smile was heartbreakingly sad and final. “We were never each other’s to lose. Not yet. I love you. I will always love you, but I can’t keep doing this.”
“Gabe—” She was breaking apart. She took a step forward, desperate to touch him, but he remained stiff and unyielding.
“Do you know what it feels like to want someone to love you so badly, you’d do anything? Change who you are, make compromises, live on hope even when the reality reminds you you’ll never be enough?”
“I didn’t want to do that to you,” she whispered in horror, wringing her hands together.
“You didn’t. I did that, Bella. By placing unfair expectations on you and not remembering my promise. See, after my father, I swore I wouldn’t settle for anything less than someone who truly saw me—the whole me, good and bad, right and wrong, and all the mess in between. It’s a lot to ask someone, though, and I want so much more than you can give.” He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “I gotta go. I hope you find what you need. We’ll be okay—it’ll be hard for a while, but I care about you, and we’ll find a balance eventually. Right now, though, I need some time alone.”
She watched him leave, frozen in place. Tears ran down her cheeks. Agony tore through her. Yet she didn’t go after him.
She’d managed to hurt the only man who’d begun to heal her and teach her about real happiness.
She’d managed to lose the man she’d fallen in love with.
The knock on the door surprised him. At first, his entire body clenched with anticipation, hoping and dreading to see Bella at his door. If she apologized again and tried to get him back, was he strong enough to say no?
Relief and disappointment merged at seeing his guests. Pierce and Carter stood at the door with a bottle of tequila, a bag of limes, and a gallon of cookies ’n cream ice cream. “You gotta be kidding me,” he said, shaking his head. “What are you doing here?”
“Chicks don’t get to claim the entire market on heartbreak,” Carter said.
“Yeah, dudes feel shit, too. We’re here to help,” Pierce said.
Torn between laughter and the awful threat of sentiment, he went with the former. “Get your asses in here. Who told you?”
They came in and dumped the stuff on the table. Pierce got busy grabbing glasses, and Carter began dishing out ice cream.
“No one,” Pierce said. “But I saw you fly out of the Lobster House looking sick, and no one’s heard from you for the past week.”
Carter dumped some spoons out and dispersed. “Avery said Bella’s working around the clock, taking a bunch of Taylor’s appointments and shutting herself in the house with excuses. It screams of a bad break.”
Pierce cut the limes and dumped them in with the tequila. “Look, you don’t have to tell us anything. We just want you to know we got your back, and if it hurts, get drunk. It’s always better in the morning.”
He gave a strangled laugh but took the liquor. “Something sounds a bit screwy with that statement, but I don’t really care. I think I needed this tonight. Thanks.”
They lifted their glasses silently, inclined their heads, and drained them in one gulp. Then they sat down at the table and dug into their ice cream.