His gaze narrowed and he crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Back to being polite coworkers, huh? Did I hit a nerve with that comment?”
She refused to get flustered. “No, I’m just tired.”
“What are you so afraid of, Bella? That if you opened up a little, you may actually realize I can be your friend?”
“We’re friends,” she said stiffly. “For goodness’ sake, you’re part of the team. You come over for dinner. You’re close to my daughter. What else do you want?”
His jaw clenched. His hair was slightly mussed. He’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his dress shirt, giving her a hint of dark chest hair. He was like a classic Pierce Brosnan James Bond—all sleek and sexy. Why was he being so pushy tonight and not respecting her need to keep things professional?
Tension pumped the air between them with something more—something that she didn’t understand and didn’t want to. Her skin prickled in awareness, and his spicy male scent rose to her nostrils. She raised her chin and glared back, annoyed at him for his strange words and intense stare and for challenging the damn status quo that worked so well between them.
“Do you really want to know?” he finally asked.
Her heart banged against her chest. Her mind screamed Code Red. The question held too many unknown factors she didn’t want to analyze. She knew he got frustrated with her refusal to lower her guard, but she needed to protect her family. God knew she seemed to be the only one whose brain didn’t fall to mush in his presence, or believe he walked on water.
It was her fault for agreeing to stay and share a beer with him. She should’ve known it’d send the wrong message and confuse their professional relationship.
Tomorrow, in the bright light of morning, he’d be glad of her dismissal. He had enough women to pick from who eagerly did his bidding. He certainly didn’t need her.
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
He flinched, but recovered nicely. Slowly, he raised his beer in a mocking type of toast. “Then that’s the only answer I need.” He took a sip. “We better get back.”
She jumped up. “Yes. Let’s go.”
They worked together to close the wedding, then went their separate ways. And Bella refused to think of the strange encounter between them or the question that reminded her of Pandora’s box.
Better to keep it closed.
She hadn’t wanted to know.
The sting of Bella’s rejection last night still throbbed like an open wound, but Gabe had no time to steep himself in regret.
He fell automatically into his role as host, working his side of the room in perfect complement to Bella. The postwedding champagne brunch was held at the Mad Batter, where the specialty omelets were perfection. Glittery icicles edged the enclosed porch with strings of white lights, fake snow, and pine-scented candles. Heaters kept the guests warm and merry. Eloise had arrived in a horse-driven carriage, sporting a luxurious red-velvet coat and matching boots, reminding Gabe of a sexy Mrs. Claus. She was an over-the-top bride but no PITA. Gabe had actually taken to her sense of lavish style and her refusal to care what anyone thought of her obsession with Christmas.
He admired a woman who owned her issues.
On cue, Eloise headed toward him with her arm tucked into that of a cute brunette whom he remembered as her close friend. He tugged on his memory vault for the name as they stopped right in front of him.
“I hope you’re enjoying the brunch,” he said with a warm smile.
The bride grabbed his cheeks and pressed a smacking kiss on his lips. “Gabe, you have been amazing,” she said, pointing up at the mistletoe that hung above them. Usually, he had strict standards for space with clients, but the kiss held no heat, just friendly affection. “The wedding and brunch are perfect. I wanted to introduce you to my friend—”
“Jing,” he finished, reaching out to shake her hand.
The woman’s dark eyes widened, and a pleased smile curved her lips. She was a tiny thing, with towering four-inch heels, her body clad in a little black dress with a festive red scarf. Her long sleek hair fell like a waterfall over her shoulders. “I’m honored you remembered,” she said teasingly. “I just wanted to tell you personally how much I enjoyed the wedding.”
“I’m glad. Bella and I know how important it is to look back at a significant memory and have no regrets.”
Her dark brow arched. “Handsome, and with a heart,” she murmured.
Eloise gave a tinkling laugh and waved her hand in the air. “Why don’t you two get to know each other for a bit and I’ll be back?”
Gabe held back a sigh. Another matchmaking attempt by another bride. He was becoming an expert at deftly avoiding handpicked women for him he’d never see again. Still, he knew it was important to be polite. “Do you live in New York near Eloise?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’m actually in Philly. I own a restaurant there.”
He cocked his head, impressed. “What’s the name?”
“Fins. It’s mostly seafood, but we play with a lot of vegan recipes. It’s a miracle I got to take a weekend off for the wedding.”
“Hey, I’ve worked in restaurants before, and it’s a hell of a gig. Hard work, and not many can handle the hours. How long have you had it?”
“Going on my fourth year and making a profit, so it’s all good.” Her stare deepened, and she took a casual step closer. “I’m in town for another two days before I head back home. I’d love to see you again. Grab a coffee. Chat?”
He hesitated. She was close by, had a great career, and seemed like his type.
His ears tuned to the sound of warm laughter. On cue, his gut twisted with longing. Someone had made her laugh. He mourned the fact he hadn’t been the one to do it, and his next words came out instinctively. “I’d love to, but my schedule is jam-packed with events the rest of the week. I’m really sorry.”
She eased back, smile still in place. “I understand. Do you happen to have a card?”
He pulled out his business card from his suit pocket. She plucked a pen from her clutch and scribbled on the back. “Call me if you change your mind. Or if your schedule opens up.” She handed it to him, her fingers curling intimately around his.
He smiled. “Got it.”
He watched her walk away and tucked the card back in place.
Great. Another possible love interest thrown away because of his obsession with Bella.
His heart still yearned to spill all his private secrets. To release all the pent-up emotion he’d been stuffing for the past few years and deal with the fallout. To stare into those gorgeous blue eyes and declare he wanted so much more from her than a casual business-colleague relationship.
Of course, odds were high she’d be shocked and walk away. God knew Bella had never showed him any interest before. The occasional glimpses of sexual attraction were brief and strictly physical. She wasn’t interested in the man he was. Hadn’t he been told his entire life that women fell for him based on his appearance? It wasn’t ego—just fact.
After all, his father had repeated it like a mantra.
He turned to go check on the table, then stopped when he caught Bella’s familiar scent. The light floral teased his nostrils, making him crazed to explore every inch of her skin. Her black pants and turtleneck sweater shouldn’t be so sexy. Of course, the woman owned some killer curves, and those white-blonde tendrils of hair clung to her nape, begging for a man’s lips to press against the sensitive skin. The tall cream boots emphasized the sleek length of her calves. She was the perfect package, yet she was completely unaware of her effect on men. Including him.
She gave him a dazzling smile for the benefit of the guests, contradicting her whispered words. “Uncle Arthur is beginning to get a bit overzealous with his political discussion. We need a distraction.”
“I’m not doing another dance,” he quipped. Humor danced in her blue eyes, and he couldn’t help the rush of pride. He loved making her laugh.
“You’d never be able to duplicate such success. How about a toast? Should I grab the MOB?”
He glanced at the mother-in-law, used to deciphering the acronyms to describe each role, and shook his head. “No, definitely the FOB. He likes to talk.”
“Good idea. I’ll make sure the staff pours everyone a mimosa.”
They split up, and soon the father of the bride was in his element, and all talk of politics had faded from the group.
Too bad they rarely worked together. Other than the benefit of enjoying her company, she was just as good as Avery during an event—sharp eyed, quick to make a decision, and able to smooth over any bumps with an easy smile and calm demeanor.
As the witching hour of one p.m. neared, when Eloise and her prince would be whisked off for their honeymoon, a large woman with bright-red hair in a flashy yellow dress marched toward him. He didn’t recognize her from last night, so she wasn’t within the bride’s or groom’s immediate family tree.
She jabbed a finger in the air at him. “You! You planned this wedding for Eloise, correct?”
Uh-oh. He flashed a grin that hid the sinking feeling in his stomach. He was really not in the mood to hear complaints or fix any big issues when he was twenty-seven minutes away from freedom. “Yes. My name is Gabe, and I work with Sunshine Bridal. I hope you enjoyed everything?”