The Playboy's Proposition - Page 9

Pushing past the feeling of loss that never seemed to go away, Bella decided this was a perfect occasion for a cupcake and vanilla latte. She slid into a seat next to the window and took a bite off the top of the cupcake.

Michael had made an impossible offer. Although she had known it would be a longshot for him to give her aunt another chance with the spa business, she’d been certain he wouldn’t solicit her again. Reason number one was that she’d turned him down after the night they’d shared. Reason number two was she couldn’t believe he would still be that interested in her. A man like Michael could have just about any woman he wanted. So why would he want her?

She would be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about the hot night they’d shared. It was branded in her memory, but she’d known it was a mistake the next morning. Her body may have responded to Michael, but she knew her heart still belonged to Stephen. Her heart would always belong to Stephen.

The stress the distance had created had just been too much. Stephen had been unbearably lonely and losing his job had been too much. She remembered the day he’d called her to tell her he hadn’t intended to fall in love with someone else. His voice had broken and she could hear his remorse even from all those miles away. He’d fought it, but he’d told her he’d realized he’d needed someone who needed him as much as he needed her.

So, Bella had not only let her aunt down, she’d also let down the love of her life. A bitter taste filled her mouth. Bella had spent her lifetime determined not to be anything like her undependable mother, a woman who’d dumped her on Charlotte. Her mother had been known for disappearing during difficult times. Bella refused to be that person who couldn’t be counted on, yet in one year, she’d failed to be there for the people she loved most.

Overwhelmed by the disappointment she felt in herself, she closed her eyes for a long moment and took a deep breath. There had to be a way she could still help Aunt Charlotte. Some other way….

“Bella,” a familiar male voice said, and she opened her eyes. Her stomach clenched at the sight of Stephen and a lovely blond woman.

“Stephen,” she said, thinking that he and the woman with him looked like a matched pair. Both had blonde hair, blue eyes. And they glowed with love. A knot of loss tightened in her throat. “It’s good to see you.”

He nodded then glanced at the woman beside him. “Bella, this is Britney Kensington. She is—” He seemed to falter.

The awkwardness seemed to suck the very breath from her lungs, but she was determined not to let it show. “It’s nice to meet you, Britney,” she said.

Britney smiled brightly, and based on her expression, Bella concluded that the woman hadn’t a clue that she and Stephen had been romantically involved. “My pleasure. What Stephen was trying to say was I am his fiancée.” She lifted her left hand to flash a diamond ring.

Bella felt the knife twist inside her. She’d known Stephen had fallen in love, but she hadn’t known he was officially engaged. Somewhere in her heart, a door shut. Although she’d mentally accepted that she’d lost Stephen, there must have been some small part of her that had hoped there was still a chance. This was solid proof that there was no chance for her and Stephen. No chance at all.

Bella cleared her throat. “Your ring is beautiful. Congratulations to both of you.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh my goodness, I’ve lost track of the time. I need to run. It was good seeing you,” she said and pulled on her coat. Grabbing her latte and scooping up the half-eaten cupcake, she dumped them into the trash. She wouldn’t be able to choke down one more bite.

“Bella,” Stephen said, his handsome face creased in concern. “How is your aunt?”

“Growing stronger every day,” she said. “She’s completed her treatment and everything looks good.”

“Please tell her I send my best,” he said.

“Thank you. I’ll do that. Bye now,” she said, and forced her lips into a pleasant smile before she walked out of the coffee shop.

Bella spent the afternoon waitressing at the restaurant. Despite the popularity of the place, the lunch crowd had been light, giving her too much of an opportunity to brood over her aunt’s situation.

After work, she picked up a take-out meal of chicken soup and a club sandwich to take to Charlotte, in hopes of boosting her aunt’s energy level. Walking into the small, cozy home, Bella found Charlotte propped on the sofa with her eyes closed while a game show played on the television.