“It’s okay, babe. Tell me.”
She did. She went over the stuff with Devon, the PTO, what Zoe had heard about Gabe, how she’d intercepted the call from Endless Vows, and what he’d told her outside the bar. When she was finished, she felt a bit lighter inside and had to remind herself it was important for her to lean on the people she loved.
“I see where Gabe is coming from,” Taylor said slowly. “But I’m more interested in you. Do you love him?”
For so long, she’d avoided the question even from herself. But now she just spoke from her heart. “Yes. He fills me up, T. It’s so much more than sex, though that’s beyond perfection. It’s the way he listens to me and makes me feel good about myself. How he treats Zoe and seems to want to be part of our family. It all snuck up on me, and when he confessed his real feelings, I finally experienced all these emotions I thought I’d shut down after Matt. But I kept having so many doubts. I was sure he was going to leave and take that job, and now I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.”
“Why was it so easy to believe everyone else except Gabe?”
Startled, she stared at her sister. “I don’t know, it all seemed to fit.”
Taylor nodded thoughtfully. “It’s interesting, you seem to make choices based on everyone else’s opinions. I remember you told me once you worried about being judged if you went out too much because you were a single mom.”
“That could have happened!”
“Yep. But does it really matter, if that would make you happy? I think you stopped asking what you wanted, because you always worry about everybody else. Aren’t you tired of trying to please everyone except yourself?”
The memory of her conversation with Gabe during their car trip slammed through her. He’d asked if she was happy in Cape May and at Sunshine Bridal. Instead of answering yes, she’d given him all the excuses of why she was stuck.
“But maybe instead of feeling trapped in a life, you should choose to make it what you want.”
Is that what she’d been doing? Making choices based on other people’s opinions? “I’m so confused,” she murmured.
“What are you really afraid of, Bella?”
She buried her face in her hands. “Not being enough for him. What if I gave him everything I had, along with my daughter, and he gets bored or interested in someone else, and we’re left behind?”
“Or what if he dies like Matt did?”
She flinched, staring at her sister with betrayal. “How can you say something like that?” she hissed, anger shaking through her. “Why do you have to be so cruel?”
“I’m not. I’m just stating the facts. Matt was the love of your life, and he was killed. No one will ever know what type of pain you went through—it’s something you can only experience and get to the other side to really understand. You’re full of excuses about Gabe’s reputation and how you’re desperate to protect your daughter in case he leaves for bigger and better things. But I think it’s time you admit, at least to yourself, you’re really afraid Gabe can be taken away at any time and you won’t be able to handle it again.”
Shock barreled through her. Hot denials rose to her lips, then died. She took her sister’s words and flipped them over in her mind, pulling their meaning and how she felt about the accusation apart.
Then realized Taylor was right.
Losing Matt had almost broken her. Zoe was the fragile thread that kept her sane and pushing forward. The idea of going through that type of pain if Gabe either walked away or was taken in a tragedy haunted her. She’d never be able to do it twice. Wasn’t it almost easier to take the pain now and avoid a love that deep? A love that could wreck her very world and tear her soul apart?
She’d become a woman afraid of trusting her heart and afraid of making her own choices, and God, she was so tired of questioning herself, worried that she might never be enough for Gabe. Her emotions crashed down and exploded from her. Tears leaked from her eyes, and her body shook as she bowed her head and wept. Taylor came over and pulled her into a tight, hard hug. Her sister let her cry for a while, not saying a word, and when she was done, she took both her hands and squeezed.
“Listen to me, Bella. This is important. You have to stop settling for half a life out of stupid fear and decide to grasp what you want, even if it scares the shit out of you. Love is awful. But will the unknown ever stop you from loving Zoe, or me, or Avery, or Mom and Dad?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Exactly. Gabe is the same way, but this time, you get to choose, which is more powerful. You will never be the same person you were before you lost your husband. No one expects you to. But don’t you dare hide behind excuses about gossip and age and a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t matter. I’ve seen the way that man looks at you—like you’re his damn sun, moon, and stars. Are you going to give that up for what-ifs?”
It was like the fog lifted, and she suddenly saw things the way Taylor did. The way she’d stacked her barriers to keep him out, rationalizing her excuses so they made perfect sense. Dear God, what had she done?
Had she lost him for good?
“You’re right,” she whispered. “What am I going to do, T? Should I try to talk to him? At this point, I don’t know if he’ll believe me.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. I mean, Avery would tell you conversation and communication is key. I’d tell you use sex to apologize and make him forget. But something’s telling me you need to make a statement in a big way for him to truly believe you’re all in.”
Suddenly, she heard Avery’s voice floating up the stairs.
“In here!” they both screamed together.
Avery walked in, looking at the explosion of stuff strewn around. “What’s going on? Spring-cleaning? Oh, cool boots—can I have them?”
Taylor snickered. “I knew you’d take them.”
Avery stuck out her tongue and flopped on the bed with them. She studied Bella’s face with a worried frown. “Have you been crying? Did Taylor say something to piss you off?”
“I’m always the one to blame around here,” Taylor grumbled.
Bella swiped at her eyes. “We were just talking about stuff.”
“Okay, I’ve been meaning to ask you about what’s going on, but I didn’t want to pry. But I think it’s time you open up. Oh, BTW, that stupid article in Exit Zero is running soon. I tried to help Gabe kill the story, but Michelle is claiming it’s news.” She shook her head with annoyance. “It’s ridiculous—I told her it was bad for business, but she insisted all news is good PR. Hey, wanna go out for dinner? Where’s Zoe?”
“Playing in her room,” Taylor said. “I’m getting laid. But Bella and Zoe are going out to eat later.”
“Good. Now, what’s wrong. Can I help with something?”
And just like that, the lightbulb went on.
A big statement.
Beach Bachelor of the Year.
A way to prove she was all in.
“Oh my God, I know!” Bella said, scrambling off the bed. “Can you watch Zoe? I have to go into town real quick and do something. T—can you let her know what’s going on?”
Avery gasped. “Wait! Taylor knows and I don’t? What’s that about?”
Taylor tossed her a smug look. “Maybe Bella and I are tighter than you know. Maybe she comes to me for all the advice now. What do you think of that, Miss Smarty Pants?”
“Don’t fight!” Bella called out. “I’ll be back!”
She had a man to claim.
Bella twisted her fingers and looked at the calendar.
Tomorrow, she’d know.
Nerves gathered in her belly, but they were entangled with a sense of satisfaction. For the past few days, she’d been journaling and really looking at her life from a fresh viewpoint. More and more, she realized how many times she’d been passive in a way to feel in control. Funny how losing Gabe had finally led to her greatest lesson of all.
Control was simply an illusion. No one knew what would happen in the future. It was today that was important. And she realized it was up to her to make the changes she wanted.
Taking a deep breath, she picked up the phone and dialed Daisy’s number. Her friend immediately picked up. “Hey, girl. How are things?”
“Good. How about you? How’s Andrew?”
Her friend actually giggled. “Really good. We’re going out again this weekend. He’s such a nice guy, Bella! But I’m taking it real slow and just enjoying his company. No talk about what it is or trying to analyze things. That always gets me in trouble.”
“Ditto. I’m so happy for you. Listen, I wanted to talk to you about something important. Do you have a minute?”
“Sure. Hit me with it.”
“It’s about Gabe.”
“Oooh, are you guys back together? Friends with benefits? Or did he do something to piss you off, which means I’ll have to break his kneecaps or hire someone?”
“No, none of that. But I’ve noticed when we were dating, I wasn’t really truthful with you, or myself. And even worse? I let other people guide me on what to think. Especially you.”