He cocked his head. “You seem a bit high strung. I thought you were supposed to be the calm in the storm for all involved in the wedding. Isn’t that your job?”
“My job is to protect the bride at all times, even if it’s from her brother. Here she comes. Do better this time.”
Ally came out in the second A-line gown, but this one had a bigger, more elaborate train, and the bodice was encrusted with pearls. Once again, the style complemented her figure. “Okay, here’s dress number two. What do you think?”
“Gorgeous,” Avery said, walking around to see it from all sides.
“It’s quite picturesque.”
Ah, hell. She was going to kill him.
Thankfully, Ally didn’t seem to notice the odd word, because she was looking in the mirror, studying her reflection with intense concentration.
“Do you like this one better, sweets?” Avery asked.
“I love this one, too.”
“As much as the last?” Vera prodded.
“Yes, I think so. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re really nice.”
Avery shared a look with Vera. “We don’t want you to feel ‘nice.’ We want you to feel like the hottest bride on the planet.”
Her friend laughed, spinning around one more time. “Maybe we can try another style I like to get a comparison? That may help narrow me down.”
“Absolutely,” Vera said. “Let’s get you back in the dressing room.”
The moment they left, Avery stomped over to Carter’s chair. “I cannot believe you said that.”
He looked bored. “What now? I gave a different response. Listen, I’ll know when it’s the dress, and so will she. I’m not about to mimic a cheerleader for the next twenty dresses she may parade out in.”
“Oh, I see. We wouldn’t want you to waste any real emotion by faking some enthusiasm. What if you run out of the surplus you stored up for the winter? You may not even be able to smile for a month.”
He arched a brow. “Do you do yoga?”
“I heard it’s good for hidden anger issues and stress. It also helps to keep you looking young.”
She smiled. “Guess that means you don’t practice, either. Aren’t you forty-five by now?”
He gave a tiny jerk, but she caught it and her smile widened. “I just turned forty.”
“Really? Huh, I thought you were fifteen years older than us.”
“Eight.” His answer was clipped and touched with temper. “Only eight.”
“Of course. My bad.”
She barely had time to savor the victory when Ally reappeared. This time, she’d gone for a full-out ball gown. The billowing skirt, endless beading, and off-the-shoulder bodice made her look like the redheaded princess from Brave in all her glory.
“Oh, Ally, you look stunning,” Avery breathed. “Is there any gown you don’t look good in?”
Ally laughed a bit nervously, tugging at the material. “I know, I feel like I dropped off a wedding cake. It’s like a work of art. What do you think, Carter?”
Avery held her breath.
He waited one beat, then two. “I think it’s superb.” His voice held no excited inflection, a complete contradiction to his words.
Again, Ally didn’t seem to care, either used to her brother or too caught up in her own opinion. “I love this dress. Like, really love it. I think Jason would, too.”
Vera did her spiel, buying Ally more time to make up her mind, but it was obvious she didn’t love it enough to stop trying on more dresses. And so, they continued.
She tried on every A-line, every ball gown, and every strapless dress they were able to find. They tried one of the designer gowns Vera had snatched from Paris. They tried expensive, middle of the road, and downright simple. Ally loved every dress she put on, complimenting the fit and the designer, but never getting any closer to calling it the one.
And that’s when Avery began to panic.
Vera had already spent more than the allocated time for the appointment and gave her a look that told her she might need to bring in the closure strategy. Avery nodded, crossing her fingers that it’d work.
“Darling, you seemed to like the third gown the most. Why don’t you slip back into that, and we’ll do a little embellishing so you can get an idea of what it’d be like on your wedding day? Sound good?” Vera asked.
Her friend agreed and headed back to the dressing room.
Avery began to pace the lush white carpet and decided one last glass of bubbly wouldn’t hurt. They’d find the dress. She’d worked with the pickiest brides and was always able to find them a match. Ally loved every one. This wouldn’t be too hard of a sell.
“She doesn’t like any of those dresses, you know.”
She whirled around and faced her verbal torturer. “You’re draining all the magical, positive energy from this entire experience,” she hissed. “Can’t you just try and believe?”
That caused him to treat her to half a smile. The man would be so much more approachable if he’d just loosen up a bit and show his teeth.
“Please tell me you don’t believe in that crap,” he said.
“I do. It’s powerful stuff, and I think you’re blocking Ally’s ability to connect with her perfect dress.”
His smile broadened. Slowly, he set down his glass and stretched out his legs. She spotted his plain black dress socks. Had he ever worn such a loud color? Gotten crazy drunk? Broken the rules in the pursuit of fun? Or had he just been born old and boring? Ally had only told her he worked in computers, had been an early recruit in DC, and was her legal guardian—who took the job seriously.
“I hate to tell you this, but you haven’t been picking out the right dresses for her,” he said.
Her jaw dropped. “We’ve tried various styles, and they all look amazing. She’s just scared to make a commitment. Many brides are like that.”
He shook his head. The crisp strands of his hair gleamed a deep blue-black, emphasizing his heavy brows and olive-toned skin. He looked nothing like Ally, with her bright hair and freckles. From the pictures her friend had shown her, Carter resembled their father, and Ally their mother.
“Ally is pretending to know what she wants because she’s afraid the real type of dress she’d like to try wouldn’t look good on her.”
Amusement cut through her. Oh, he thought he was a professional now, huh? Figured he could pick his sister a wedding dress after two hours of watching her and Vera empty the inventory. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and regarded him with pursed lips. “I see. Let me guess. You know what type of dress she really wants.”
A laugh escaped her. “If you knew, why didn’t you share this important information with us?”
He shrugged. “I wanted to see if you’d impress me.” He paused. “You didn’t.”
Shock battled with the thirst for justice. She couldn’t let such an insult go by without challenging him. “Care to make a bet?” she drawled.
He leaned in, seemingly intrigued. “What kind?”
“I’ll give you two shots. If Vera’s sleight of hand doesn’t work, you go and pick out two dresses you think Ally will like. If she picks one as the dress, you win.”
“What do I get?”
She shot him a look. “Really? How about your sister’s happiness.”
“And you buy me dinner.”
Avery stared in astonishment. “You want to take me to dinner?”
“No, I want you to buy me dinner. There’s a big difference.”
Her cheeks burned. Oh, he was a monster. Able to humiliate her with his cutting, casual words and bored demeanor. “What if I win?”
“Besides my sister’s happiness? How about I keep my many opinions to myself?”
She perked up. “Really? You’d stop complaining and second-guessing me and following us around with that lemon face?”
He grunted. “I don’t have a lemon face.”
“Yeah, you do. You remind me of Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live. Wah-waaah!”
Now he looked irritated. “You’re being ridiculous. I’ll take the bet.”
Ally came back out, but this time she had all the extras to make her look like a real bride. Vera had swept up her hair and secured it with a headpiece and veil that trailed behind her in sheer lacy glory. Tiny pearls were clipped to her ears. A shimmery necklace accentuated the low bodice.
Avery sighed. “You’re stunning,” she said. “What do you think?”
“Oh, I feel beautiful,” she said with a smile. “I love the veil, and I think this is definitely my favorite out of all of them. Carter?”
“Dazzling,” he said.
“What do you think, sweets? Is this the one?” Avery asked.
Ally hesitated. Stared into the mirror. Opened her mouth. “I don’t know.”
The statement held a tad of desperation, and suddenly, Avery felt horrible. Had she been pushing her friend in the wrong direction? Pressured her to pick too soon? With the tight time schedule, it was vital to find a dress this week, but she didn’t want Ally not to love and adore it. That was primary.