“Of course we can do this,” Gabe said calmly. “Don’t you think this is our moment?”
Bella’s breath deflated from her lungs. Gabe’s confidence practically shimmered from his aura, in complete contradiction to the unease flooding her body. “What about Zoe?” she asked.
“We’d all have to help out,” Avery said. “Carter will love being able to spend more time with her.”
Gabe nodded. “It’s temporary, but we can pull it off if we all work together. Like a family.”
She took a step back, suddenly overwhelmed. Gabe was slowly integrating himself into their day-to-day world, but slinging the word family around felt dangerous. He was a full-time employee—not a partner. Maybe he wanted to take on this wedding in order to boost his résumé? It’d be the perfect wedding to gain him more exposure, especially if it took place in New York City. Not to mention the fact that they’d be stuck together for endless hours, working side by side. There was a certain amount of intimacy that would be forced upon them, especially with the time constraint. Did she really want to take this on, knowing how much time they’d spend together?
Most troubling of all, she’d be dependent on others for her daughter’s care. She’d always been careful not to take on too much at work so she could balance being a single mother with the responsibilities of a family business. But this was too much. Cramming in months of preparation in a few weeks. Holding a wedding beyond the safe confines of Cape May, with vendors and people she didn’t know. It was a recipe for failure.
Hadn’t she had enough of that in her life without reaching for more?
“I’m sorry, guys. I’m not comfortable with this. I’m going to have to say no.”
Silence fell. She waited for recriminations and resentment, but when Gabe captured her gaze, she only saw a gentle urging and confidence. “I know it’s a lot to take on,” he said. “But you can do this, Bella. We can make this wedding special, and I think you’re the perfect person for it.”
“I agree,” Avery said mildly. She glanced back and forth between them. “Gabe, do you mind if I speak to my sister alone?”
“Sure. Just call me when you’re ready.” He walked out of the conference room with his usual graceful, long-legged stride.
Bella crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I’m not changing my mind.”
“Duly noted.” Her sister studied her face with bold curiosity. “How did it really go with you two and the Royal wedding? Did something bad happen?”
The memory of Gabe’s piercing dark eyes and demanding question slammed through her. Do you really want to know what I want?
A shiver shot down her spine. She cleared her throat. “No, it was fine. He’s a hard worker.”
“Yes, he is. I recently realized you rarely work together. In fact, I began realizing how capably you manage to avoid Gabe. And then I got to asking myself why.”
She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Everyone loves him, except you. Many times, I’ve noticed you seem to deliberately ignore him. I was hoping working on the Royal wedding together would help you bond, but if you’re uncomfortable, we can work out a different arrangement for Adele’s wedding.”
Bella half turned around to gather her thoughts. She’d never voiced her real opinion to her sisters. When Avery brought up a possible promotion for Gabe, she’d been a bit reluctant since she was afraid everyone would become dependent on him, especially if he decided to leave. But his work deserved recognition, so she’d immediately backed down.
“I’m fine working with Gabe,” she finally said. “I have no problem with him personally, and I think he’s an amazing wedding planner. But I’m concerned he’s not cut out for small-town beach living. Not for long.”
Avery tapped her lip, seemingly analyzing her words. “So you think he’s going to leave? Steal our clients?”
“I honestly don’t know. I worry that he’s going to leave eventually for a bigger opportunity, and I don’t want everyone shocked when the fallout happens. Plus, do you see how the entire female population follows him like the Pied Piper? He picked up a woman at the Royal wedding like it was nothing—and he didn’t even seem excited about it! He’s too used to getting his own way, all the time. That can be dangerous.”
She waited for the hot denials from her sister. They’d formed a tight team working together, and Gabe had become a close friend along the way. But Avery let out a loud laugh and shook her head. “I love it. You think Gabe’s dangerous.”
Bella sighed with impatience. “You know what I mean! I’m trying to be truthful here.”
“I wonder if you are,” she murmured under her breath, pacing the room. “Listen, babe, I understand you’re nervous about getting Zoe the care she needs while taking on a last-minute critical wedding. But now that I know you’re comfortable working with Gabe, I think you need to do this for yourself, and the company.”
“You’ll be better at it,” she said. “Why don’t you take my place?”
“Because Adele specifically asked for you and Gabe. Your work on the Royal wedding is what closed the deal. Bella, don’t you realize how talented you are? This business wouldn’t be half as successful without you. I think it’s time you grab this opportunity to be creative and think big and show how really fabulous you are. I know it will be hard, but I promise we’ll be there for you and Zoe.”
Bella took a deep breath, considering her sister’s words. She was needed. And wanted. How could she say no to something that was this important to Avery? She’d be able to bring in a financial buffer for the business, and maybe prove to herself she could do this job just as well as her sisters. Wasn’t it time to challenge herself and step out of her usual safe boundaries? Yes, the question that spilled from Gabe’s sensual lips still haunted her, but she’d just be her usual focused self, and soon they’d both forget about the incident.
Avery narrowed her gaze, suddenly intent. “And as for Gabe, I think you’re wrong. But I’m not about to try and argue with you or change your opinion. That will have to come from you.”
The words had a strange foreboding, and a shiver raced down her spine. “This is important to you?” she asked softly.
Avery smiled, crossing the room and squeezing her hands. “I think it’s important for all of us. Will you do it?”
Bella knew in that moment she had no choice. “Yes.”
“Then let’s get Gabe in here so you can get to work.”
“Mama, can I stay up a bit longer?”
Bella took in her daughter’s big puppy-dog eyes and tried not to laugh. Zoe was snuggled under the blankets on the couch, watching TV.
“Nope. You have a spelling test tomorrow and need all your brain cells sharp. Why? What’s on?”
Zoe sighed with deep mourning. “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island.”
“Oh, that’s my favorite! But it’s spooky. Have you seen it before?”
“No, but my friend Zane said it’s really scary and that I’d love it. He wants to be a zombie for Halloween. What should I be?”
“Well, we have a while before we need to decide. Tell you what—how about we record it and watch it together this weekend?”
Bella set up the recording and Zoe scrambled out of her blanket fort.
“Go brush your teeth and I’ll come tuck you in.”
“Mama, can we get a dog? You said when it’s something important to both of us, we can discuss it, and I don’t think it’s fair you just say no all the time.”
A mix of humor and tiredness washed over her. Zoe loved to ask a million questions and delve into deep subjects right before bed.
She began straightening up, folding blankets and throwing away the leftover cups her daughter left behind in a constant trail. “No, we can’t get a dog, because it’s too much responsibility for me right now, but yes, we can discuss big things together.”
“I’m big now. I can take care of it.” She heard the water running in the background. “It can sleep with me.”
“You’re forgetting all the hard stuff I’ll be stuck with. Like walking the dog at five thirty in the morning, or late at night, or cleaning up all the poop.”
In between brushing, her daughter’s mumbles floated down the hall. “Aunt TT can help since she lives with us.”
That idea made Bella hoot with laughter. She shared a two-family home with her sister to save on the mortgage, but Taylor was fierce with her privacy, and had made it well known she wouldn’t be sharing her space with anything covered in fur. “Aunt TT prefers fish over dogs.”
“Ugh, fish are boring!”
As Zoe went on to back up her case for a dog they’d never get, Bella heard her phone buzz. She picked it up from the table and read the text from Gabe.
Can we talk? In person?
Her nerves tingled. She stared at the phone, torn, but Gabe never reached out to her with an emergency. She texted back. When?