She had tried to formulate a plan of action—an emergency blueprint on how to get through this day and the ones to follow. It wouldn’t be easy—but she stood to lose too much if she messed up these next crucial days. She had to weigh the cost of her friendship with Gabe against the fresh anguish she felt every time he treated her with such casual, impersonal affection. Years of the same had taken its toll and after last night, she knew that she couldn’t do this anymore. She couldn’t stand on the sidelines and watch as every leggy blonde who crossed his path snagged his attention while she never warranted a second glance.
And really, why would he look at her? She was good old Bobbi, his surrogate sister, the girl who had tagged along behind him and his friends when he was a boy. The girl who had made a pest of herself and who would never outgrow the condescending nickname Gabe and her brothers had bestowed upon her.
It was after ten before she summoned up the courage to leave her room and make her way down to the pool. Only the De Luccis’ most intimate group of friends remained: the Palmers—Rick, Lisa, Bryce, Bronwyn, and their toddlers—and Max Kinsley, Rosalie De Lucci, Gabe, and Bobbi. Everybody was already gathered beside the pool, either lounging in the sun or splashing about in the water.
Theresa, who was feeding her fourteen-month-old daughter at the patio table, was the first to spot her.
“Bobbi,” she called with a warm smile. “Good morning. How are you feeling?” Bobbi cringed when Theresa’s voice drew everybody else’s attention and a multitude of good-natured salutations came her way. She managed a sickly grin and waved back in everybody’s general direction—almost preternaturally aware of Gabe, who was sitting on one of the loungers wearing nothing but board shorts and a pair of sunglasses. His superb body was bronzed and toned, with not a spare bit of flesh anywhere to be seen; he was lean and fit and perfectly proportioned. A quick glance his way confirmed that he was studying her but she couldn’t tell what he was thinking, not with those mirrored sunglasses hiding his striking eyes from her. He had a proud nose, just slightly too long but it went beautifully with his bluntly defined cheekbones, which in turn slotted into his narrow, craggy face magnificently. All of that, combined with his thin bow-shaped upper lip and the full sensuous curve of his lower lip, made for an unconventionally handsome man. His dark brown hair, glinting with the faintest hints of auburn beneath the morning sun, was always conservatively cut and brushed and lent him a sophisticated air that went well with his reserved personality.
He was her complete opposite in every way, and she knew that he would never belong to her. They were friends who came from similar backgrounds but occupied totally different worlds. As she joined Theresa and Lily at the patio table, she knew that it was time to let the fantasy of any kind of romantic involvement with Gabriel Braddock go—and it broke her heart.
“Are you okay?” Theresa whispered, and knowing that Theresa was asking about more than her physical condition, Bobbi shook her head. She reached for Lily’s chubby little hand and lifted it to her mouth for a kiss, disguising the flash of tears in her eyes.
“Oh Bobbi . . . ,” Theresa murmured, trying to hide the distress on her face. “I’m so sorry.”
Lisa ambled over to the table and grinned at them, but the smile faded immediately when she discerned something was wrong.
“What’s up?” she asked in concern, as she sat down next to Bobbi.
“We can talk about it later. Tomorrow maybe, at our girls’ night?” Theresa said, the mere suggestion telling Bobbi that the other woman was aware of how close to the proverbial edge Bobbi was. They usually had their girls’ nights on a Saturday but rescheduled to Sunday because of the party. Lisa nodded but remained by Bobbi’s side, seeming to sense how much her friend needed the emotional bolstering. She started chatting about the party and her wry observations about some of the guests soon had Theresa in stitches and even coaxed a smile or two from Bobbi.
She tried not to notice that Rosalie De Lucci was in the lounger next to Gabe’s, tried to ignore the way he’d occasionally lean over to say something to the bikini-clad woman, and tried not to cringe when he laughed at something the woman had said. But all the not noticing was taking an emotional toll on her and she excused herself with a bright, completely fake smile about an hour later—saying she needed another nap before lunch. It was obvious that neither Theresa nor her cousin believed her, but they let her go.
Gabe surreptitiously watched Bobbi leave. She hadn’t so much as glanced at him this morning, while it had been all he could do not to openly study her. She had been wearing the tiniest black bikini he’d ever seen. Nothing fancy, just a simple string bikini that sent his blood pressure soaring and made him infinitely grateful that his board shorts were baggy. It clung to her perfect body in all the right places, and he had found himself fantasizing about untying the bows at her shoulders to reveal those sweet, pert breasts to his gaze.
God, so much for hoping things would be back to normal this morning.
She had spent an hour talking to Theresa and Lisa as if everything was perfect in her world, while he felt like his own life had just taken the turn into crazy town. It bothered him that she hadn’t touched the buffet laid out in the chafing dishes on the other side of the pool. She needed to eat and stay hydrated. She hadn’t even had a glass of juice.
His conflicting desires to take care of her or throw her on the nearest flat surface and bury himself in her were confusing to say the least, and he felt like he had lost his mind somewhere between last night and this morning. He slowly became aware of Rosalie De Lucci leaning toward him and recognized that the high note, which had entered her melodic voice, signified a question. He had been so absorbed by his thoughts that he hadn’t heard a word of what she’d been saying.