His gaze drilled into hers. For a few heart-stopping moments, he remained still. Then, he pulled her into his lap, cupped her cheeks, and kissed her.
She fell into his arms, and his kiss was like coming home. Clinging hard, she opened her mouth to his thrusting tongue and devoured him whole. Her body wept and sang for joy, as if the last piece of a puzzle had been missing and was finally found.
When he lifted his head, he was smiling. “Bella, I love you. Thank you for trusting me with your heart.”
“Thank you for taking such good care of it.”
As she stared down into his beloved face, she realized that life might not have just one happily-ever-after ending. Maybe there were many more, hidden in plain sight, but you had to pay attention.
Bella closed her eyes, leaned into her strength, and relished the unseen future.
“Gabe, it’s my graduation party!”
He scooped Zoe up and whirled her around while she held tight and laughed hysterically. Her Goldilocks-blonde hair was caught up in a glittery pink bow, and she wore a pink princess gown he’d found in Lynn Arden’s Children Shoppe. “You’re so grown up now, you’ll need to drive yourself to school in first grade!”
“I can’t drive yet!” she said, her face screwed up with childlike humor. “I’m too short!”
Bella grinned and pressed a kiss to his lips. “I will not even think about my daughter driving, thank you very much.”
“Not even in a very cool pink Jeep you can borrow?” he teased, tucking a wayward curl behind her ear.
“Not even then.”
“A real Barbie jeep?” Zoe asked with wide eyes. “Oh, I can’t wait to drive!”
“You will someday, sweetheart,” he said. “Now go round up your friends—it’s almost time for cake.”
Zoe tore off across the room.
Bella crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave a mock glare. “Really? A pink Jeep?”
“The Jeep may distract her from the dog. You can thank me later.” When she cocked her head in question, he led her to the window and pointed out to the front porch. A giant pink Power Wheels Jeep with a pink bow sat out front, charged up and ready to go. “I couldn’t resist. Don’t get mad.”
Her face softened, and she stroked his cheek, her gaze full of his dreams and his future. “I’m not. I just love you.”
“Even if I tell you it has a radio that’s pretty loud?”
She laughed, spinning out of his arms and shaking her head. “Even then. I’ll get the cake out.”
“Love you, too!”
He wondered if this much happiness was legal, then decided he didn’t care. The house was filled with giggling, shrieking little girls, Daisy and Andrew, and the rest of the family. He couldn’t come up with a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, which had been carefully blocked on the calendar so none of them had any events to attend.
He grabbed a refill of seltzer and watched Pierce in action. He’d seamlessly integrated himself into the group of girls, and no one seemed to notice him as he caught candid shots of their interactions and scenes at the party. He moved with a subtle grace, chasing light and shadow, working his way across the room.
Suddenly, he straightened and stilled, his head lifted in the air as if scenting prey. Gabe swiveled his gaze around and saw Taylor.
She was sitting under the window, which streamed in rays of bright sunshine. Her nose stud winked, and her sleek pink hair shimmered, giving off a punch of energy she exuded just by walking into a room. She was laughing at something Avery said, head thrown back, her face open and joyous in a glimpse of emotion usually masked under her trademark sarcastic wit and cynicism.
Curious, he watched Pierce stare at her, then slowly pick up the camera and begin catching the moment. He ducked to his knees and moved his body in a graceful dance, as if chasing something only he could see. The bulb flashed. When he uncurled from the floor, a fierce look flickered over Pierce’s features as he gazed at Taylor.
Gabe walked over and stood beside him. “Wanna take a break? This isn’t a work gig, you know. Have a beer.”
Pierce shot him a grin. “Just wanted to grab the opportunity while it’s here. I’m making a going-away scrapbook for Taylor as a surprise.”
“She’ll love it. It’s gonna be hard on all of us not having her around, huh?”
His friend avoided his gaze and fiddled with the camera. “Yep. But it’s what she’s always wanted. She never planned to stay in Cape May like I did. This was just a side road for her.”
“Sometimes side roads take you to the most interesting places.”
Pierce shot him a look. “What are you now, a philosopher? You fall in love, get the girl, and suddenly you wax poetic?”
Gabe laughed. “Maybe.”
Bella’s voice rang through the air. “Cake time! Come gather at the table!”
Gabe clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s eat cake.”
He walked with his friend to the table, and as they celebrated Zoe’s rise to first grade, Gabe treasured every moment around the people he loved. Bella put a few candles on the cake for Zoe to blow out. “Don’t forget to make a graduation wish,” she said.
Somehow, he’d gotten a happy beginning. The difficult past with his father and the long road to claim Bella’s heart seemed critical to get him to appreciate this exact moment. To be with the woman he loved, part of a family, and finally at peace with his doubts. Everyone deserved love and was worthy of it—he knew that now.
As Zoe closed her eyes to make a wish and blow out the candles, he found himself hoping Pierce would get his, too.