“Do you want to talk about it?” Pierce finally asked.
“Nah,” Gabe said. “I want to talk about stupid stuff and eat my ice cream.”
“Done,” Carter said. “Did you see the last episode of The Curse of Oak Island? Son of a bitch—I think they may find the treasure.”
Pierce cut a hand in the air. “Nah, it’s fixed. It’s been on too many seasons, and the narrator is always getting excited. I’m afraid it’s a setup.”
Gabe considered it, scooping up a particularly large chunk of cookie. “I think at first they thought they’d find the treasure, but after so many seasons, they’re trying not to look stupid now. Or maybe they just want to live like the characters in National Treasure. I should’ve been an archaeologist rather than a wedding planner. I may have had a better life.”
Carter refilled their glasses. “I don’t think Indiana Jones had it easy. Sure, he got to seduce a bunch of women, but most of them betrayed him. Plus, he had huge issues with his dad.”
“So did I,” Gabe said. “My father was a prick.”
Pierce raised his brow. “No shit? I didn’t realize that. Sorry, man.”
“It’s okay. He was always calling me pretty boy and saying I’d never be successful without using my looks. No matter how hard I tried, he just didn’t like me, let alone love me.”
Carter winced. “That’s harsh. His loss. Not to get mushy, but you’ve become one of my best friends, and I don’t bring people in lightly. As for work? I mean, you’re a good-looking dude, but it’s obvious you have an amazing talent. Otherwise Avery wouldn’t have kept you on so long and promoted you. She even mentioned she wants to offer you partner down the line.”
“That’s good to know.” He took another shot. Hmm. He was starting to like the ice cream and tequila together—it was more complementary than he’d originally thought. “What sucks is that I thought Bella was the woman I was going to marry. I know it sounds pathetic, but the moment I met her, I got this gut instinct like I knew I’d met my future wife. Took us all this time to finally connect, and now it’s gone forever. I’ll have to watch her marry someone else one day who will be a dad to Zoe.” He looked up from his empty bowl. “I’m depressed.”
Pierce poured him another shot. “Sucks. You sure you both can’t work it out? I’ve known Bella a long time, and I’ve never seen her so happy. Taylor said the same thing. It was like a light went on inside her that had been dim. We’d all begun to wonder if she could feel the same way about anyone but Matt.”
The image of her beautiful face floated in his mind. He braced himself for the slap of pain that followed. “It was too much for her,” he finally muttered. “All the crap publicity around me. The gossip. But the bottom line? She’s not able to let go of everything and dig into a relationship with me.” He quickly filled them in on his job interview and their talk in the parking lot.
Both of them winced. “Ouch,” Carter said. “Didn’t know about any of that.”
“I know she was upset, thinking I was going to take that job and leave. But knowing she wouldn’t have even tried to call me and talk? It’s the same thing she did every time she heard a woman’s name brought up. I can’t keep going around like a lost puppy dog in love with her while she struggles to figure stuff out.”
“You’re gonna hate what I have to say, dude,” Pierce finally said. “But this is a classic ‘It’s her, not you’ scenario. Maybe you scared the crap out of her ’cause her last husband died and left. That screwed her up for a while. She may need to figure out if she really wants to take another risk on love.”
“Agreed,” Carter said. “Also, even though you love her, she may not have made you happy. Not if you were always going to deal with her constant doubts about you. You deserve more. I hope you know that.”
The truth of his friends’ words hit him and eased some of the rawness. They were right. As badly as he’d wanted Bella, he couldn’t go back to the person he’d been around his father, chasing someone’s approval and love. It was time to truly let the past go and seize on a future that could make him happy.
“Thanks, guys. Appreciate you trying to get my head right.”
“Will you think about taking that job now?” Pierce asked curiously. “Now that it’s over between you both?”
Gabe had obsessed over the question all week. Signs seemed to point toward building a new life away from Bella and the small town that could be restricting his opportunities. But one morning, as he’d sat by the ocean and pondered his future, picturing himself working and living in a fast-paced environment again, the answer came from deep within. A peace that told him as bad as things were right now, he was already home.
He loved working for Sunshine Bridal, where he was looked upon as family rather than a sales check. The beach had soothed his soul, until sand under his feet became a vital piece of home. He loved dealing with small-town vendors and going into a restaurant where people greeted him with affection. Yes, it was also maddening sometimes, but when he thought of leaving, his heart rebelled. Over the past three years, Cape May had become part of him.
His fingers tightened around the glass. “I should. It’s more money. I’d get to lead my own team. I wouldn’t have to worry about small-town gossip, or be stuck working with a woman I’ll probably always love who doesn’t love me.”
His friends stared at him. “Will you?” Pierce asked again.
He gave a long sigh. “Nah. I’d rather stay here, where I belong.”
Carter punched his arm in male comradery. “Good. ’Cause we’d miss you too much, dude. Who’d be our third? A group needs at least three people, and I don’t like anybody else.”
“Is it okay to say I love you guys?” Gabe asked.
“Only if we’re drinking.”
Carter poured a few more fingers of tequila, and Gabe drank, feeling grateful for good friends.
Bella heard her name, but she was deep into her closet project. She currently had every pair of shoes pulled out, along with every coat, loose scarf, pair of gloves, hat, and dress jacket. They lay in a heap on her bed, sorted into piles of keep, trash, and donate.
“In here!” she called out. Next up were her drawers, then the pantry, and her bathroom vanity would be the finale. She hadn’t spring-cleaned in way too long, and it was time to get the place completely immaculate.
Taylor peeked her head in. “What’s going on?”
“Spring-cleaning,” she said, lifting up a red ankle boot with a large gold buckle. “Do you want these?”
Her sister wrinkled her nose. “Hell no. They’re old and look like they’re from the nineties. I wear combat boots.”
Bella threw it into the donate pile. “What do you need?”
“To talk. Where’s Zoe?”
“Playing in her room. We’re going out for dinner later. Wanna come?”
“Nope, got a date.”
A sliver of jealousy pierced her heart. “Good for you.”
“We’ll probably have amazing, mind-blowing sex later,” she continued. “It feels good to cuddle with a man sometimes, doesn’t it?”
The memory of Gabe surging inside her, gaze locked on hers, fingers interwoven while he took her to orgasm, crashed into her mind. She jerked, rubbing a fist over her eyes in an attempt to ward off the agony. “Sure. Have fun.”
“Miss Gabe, huh?”
She let out a shocked gasp. “You did that on purpose! Why are you needling me? Is that why you’re here—to stick your nose in my business just so you can sleep better at night?”
Taylor sat down on the bed. “Yeah. Tell me everything.”
She glared at her sister. “At least Avery respected my privacy. I told you both it didn’t work out, and we were just taking some time apart to deal with it. No big deal.”
Taylor snorted and crossed her legs, like she was settling in for a good campfire story. “Liar. I gotta admit, you threw me on this one. Usually, you’re the calm one, and sure, you like your privacy, but you’ve never shut us both out like this before. Not since Matt died.”
Bella winced. For months, her sisters had desperately tried to reach her, but she’d shut herself into a deep, dark, silent hole where nothing could touch her. “That was different,” she said stiffly. “This is just a breakup. I’m sure everyone knew it wouldn’t work out anyway. I mean, look at us.”
“I did. Gabe was your perfect match, and I think you screwed it up. I’ve been watching you guys for a while and trying to respect your space, but I can’t let my sister lose the best thing that’s happened to her. God, now I sound all dramatic and crap, like Avery. See what you’re making me do?”
She rolled her eyes at her sister’s words. “Oh, so you’re coming to my rescue? A few relevant insights, and I’ll change my mind and our relationship will be repaired, huh?”
“Hopefully. First up, what initiated the breakup?”
She was tempted to tell her to go away and keep her mess locked up tight, but Taylor seemed to genuinely care, and suddenly the invitation to share her heartache shook through her. A shaky breath escaped her lips. “I screwed up, T.”