Daisy’s voice sharpened with worry. “Are you mad at me for something?”
“No, babe. I’m mad at myself, but I’m trying to make some changes. You see, I’m in love with Gabe. It’s not his body or his hotness—it’s his heart. I tried to tell you we were in a relationship, but I know you never really believed it, and I never tried to really talk to you about it. I screwed up, Daisy. So bad I lost the one man who can love me the way I was meant to be loved.”
“Back up. I think you need to tell me all of it.”
She did. She shared how their relationship had developed over time, her fears and doubts, and finally gave her friend what she should have from the beginning.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know,” Daisy finally said.
“I know, and that’s on me.”
“So what happens now? Are you going to try to get Gabe back? Can I help?”
She told her friend what she had done, and silence came over the line. “Is it stupid?”
“No, it’s brilliant. And it’s going to be okay, no matter what happens. I really wish I’d known how you were struggling. You’ve always been my best friend, and I want to be here for you, like you are for me.”
“I know. I’m tired of locking up all my problems and keeping them to myself. I’ll try to do better.”
“I’ll try to listen better. And if anyone says a word about Gabe, I’ll shut them up good.”
She laughed, her heart lighter. “Thanks, Daisy. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
She hung up and tried to feel hopeful, even though she knew it might still be too late. Either way, she wasn’t going back to the scared, passive woman who let others dictate her life.
This time, she was going to fight for what she wanted.
Gabe headed down Ocean Drive and tried to get his happy on. He had a bride who was counting on him to bring it big, and he didn’t want to disappoint her. It’d been a rough week, but he was determined to claw his way back to some sort of contentment, even if it took gallons of cookies ’n cream and pints of tequila.
He winced at the memory. Not the best morning after, that’s for sure. They’d all fallen asleep at his house, nursing wicked hangovers and a sugar high. They’d agreed for the night to be just like Fight Club.
No one would hear about it.
He stopped at the Bagel Time Cafe to grab lunch and go over his packed schedule for the weekend. As he got in line, he nodded at a few locals amid the tourists, wondering why they were staring at him and smiling like they knew something he didn’t. When he got to the counter to order his turkey club, Christina leaned forward, her ponytail bobbing with enthusiasm.
“Oh my gosh, Gabe, I saw the piece in Exit Zero. It’s so good!”
Ah, crap. He’d forgotten the magazine had hit stands today. Great, no wonder everyone was staring. Gossip would relaunch, and he’d be ogled and approached for endless dates like the stud he wasn’t. Could his week get any worse?
He forced a smile. “Thanks. I’ll wait over here.”
He stepped to the side, scrolling through his phone, and glanced over. Justin from Louie’s Pizza and Ron from the police department were eating lunch. When he caught their eye, they gave him a thumbs-up, pointing to their copy of Exit Zero.
He was going to lose his shit.
He finally got his lunch and hit his other two meetings, where more people commented on the “great” article and congratulated him with sly winks and grins. He was just deciding to sue the magazine for mental anguish when he ran into Devon.
Yep. Things could get worse.
“Hey, stranger. I read the article. I’m really happy for you,” she said. “Are you still coming tomorrow at three for the Bailey wedding?”
“Yeah. Unless I decide to move and retire to an island where there’s no beach bachelor,” he said a bit grumpily.
Surprise skittered across her face. “Oh, you didn’t like that article? I’m sorry—I thought you were excited about it. It seemed kind of sweet. Not very feminist, I must admit, but even I could forgive the intention.”
He scoffed. “Devon, you know I hate that crap. Why would being declared the local beach stud make me anything but embarrassed? I don’t even want to talk about it. You should throw it away.”
She dug out the magazine from her beach bag, frowning. “Okay, now I’m really confused. You and Bella aren’t together anymore?”
“What does Bella have to do with it?”
She stared at him like he was stupid. “Because she’s the whole focus of the article. Are we talking about the same one?”
She shoved it into his hands, and he glanced down at the glossy pages. The title hit him first, like a sucker punch to the jaw.
TAKEN! Hands Off My Man, Local Business Owner Claims. The Beach Bachelor Belongs to Me!
There was a big red X over his picture from last year, and next to it was an image of Bella, her gorgeous face staring back at him, smiling like she had a big secret.
His hands shook as he skimmed the article.
It held all the details of their growing relationship. How they had been fighting their attraction at work because they were worried it would ruin their professional relationship. How they had become close friends and finally couldn’t fight their feelings for one another. Her frustration about how women seemed to gossip and claimed to have slept with him. How he was the perfect man, work partner, and male mentor for Zoe. And how she loved him and didn’t want any woman on the Cape or beyond to think he was up for grabs, because he was hers.
He looked up at Devon.
Her mouth went into a little O. “You didn’t know?” she asked.
He shook his head, the ground beneath him suddenly shaky. “I have to go. Mind if I keep this?”
She grinned. “Nope. Go get her, Romeo.”
He took off at a dead run.
Bella walked into the office and wondered how bad the fallout was going to be.
He hadn’t contacted her. The story had hit the stands that morning, and she hadn’t received even a text or a question about whether she was stark raving mad. The wait was slowly killing her nerves, so she decided to do some paperwork in a quiet room rather than be out in town. Already, she’d been approached by endless people, congratulating her as if she’d done something amazing rather than declare her love for a man who deserved everything.
She willed her phone to ring. Then decided silence was golden, especially if he’d changed his mind about his feelings for her. Maybe she’d hurt and denied him too many times for him to forgive. She needed to be ready for that.
She’d just opened her laptop when she heard the door fling open and footsteps pound on the floor. When she looked up, Gabe stood in front of her.
Sweat rolled down his forehead. His face was bright red. His shirt clung to him, outlining his lean muscles. He was panting, as if trying to gulp in air, and she jumped from the chair, worried he was about to collapse in front of her. “Are you okay? Do you need water?”
“Holy crap, it’s like ninety degrees out there,” he gasped, leaning over briefly. “I’m out of shape.”
“What are you doing?”
“Needed to see you. Ran all the way from Beach Avenue.”
Her eyes widened. “Are you kidding me? That’s like fifty blocks—oh my God, sit down.” She raced over, grabbing a bottle of water from the refrigerator and pressing it into his hands. “Drink.”
He did, gulping down the water, then dropping the bottle beside him. “This isn’t the romantic way I wanted things to go down,” he said, still fighting for breath. “I wasn’t supposed to be a half-dead, sweaty mess when I make my big declaration.”
Her heart thundered. She dropped into the seat next to him, scared to ask but more scared not to ask. “Did you read it?”
“Yes. Just now. I was trying to ignore the whole thing and refused to read it, assuming it was the original feature. Then I ran into Devon, and she told me about it.”
“Yeah. Needless to say, I was shocked.”
She bit her lip. “Shocked good? Or shocked bad?”
Suddenly, he turned, and there was no barrier between them. His dark eyes gleamed with a steady warmth and a searching question. “Shocked good. Sweetheart, you sure know how to get a man’s attention. But did you really mean what you said?”
Hope sprouted. With trembling hands, she reached out. “Yes, all of it. Gabe, I’m so sorry. Sorry about the way I treated you and let my own fears drive me to believe others instead of you. I realize so many things now—how afraid I was about everything. Afraid I’d lose you like Matt. Afraid of living a life I wanted in case it clashed with anyone’s judgment or might open me up to another heartbreak. I thought I wanted a safe existence, but I was never really living. Not until you.
“Losing you was losing a part of my heart. You pushed me to be more, want more, and love more. You are a man who deserves a woman who sees your heart and kindness and strength and never doubts you. And though I don’t deserve it, I’m asking you for forgiveness.” She blinked back the sting of tears. “I’m not afraid anymore. I’m ready to stand by your side, fight for you, treasure you, and make you happy. I’m asking for another chance to love you the way you deserve. Because I do love you, Gabe. With everything I am.”