Vera gave her a warm smile. “It’s okay not to know. This is your first trip, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Why don’t we reschedule for Friday so you can take some time to think? I have two more dresses I can have overnighted to me for you to try.”
Carter unrolled his long frame from the chair. “Ally-Cat, just hang out for a few. I want you to try on a dress for me, okay?”
His sister laughed. “Are you looking for a new career or something?”
“Sure, maybe I’ll partner up with Avery.” He winked. “Be right back.”
He strode out toward the main salon with the racks as if he knew exactly how to shop for a wedding dress. As if he could tell fit, design, and what Ally would like from viewing it behind a thick plastic wrap. Vera chatted with Ally, trying to see if there was another style she’d like to try on Friday, and before long, Carter came trudging back with one dress.
“How about giving this one a go?”
Avery stared at it and almost burst into laughter. Vera looked thoughtful as she picked up the dress and began clucking under her tongue. “How interesting,” she murmured.
His sister cleared her throat. “Um, Carter, it’s not even white,” she said worriedly.
“I know, but you always said white washed your skin out. Will you try it?”
Ally’s face softened. “Of course. Be right back.” She trudged back into the fitting room with Vera by her side.
Avery shook her head. “You’re so arrogant, you didn’t even pick out a backup?”
One shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “I saw that one and had a gut feeling. You term it arrogance. I term it confidence.”
“It has none of the things she wants. It’s lace, it’s tight. She’s gonna hate it.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he asked.
She squirmed under his probing gaze and tossed her head. Why did she get a weird tingly feeling when he did that? It freaked her out. “No. I want Ally to find her dress no matter who wins,” she corrected. “I just don’t think that’s the one.”
She gave a humph and turned away from him. She swore she’d be nice when Ally came out, no matter how bad it looked. She swore she’d even be a graceful winner and not lord it over him. But all her vows died the instant she saw her friend.
My God, she is beautiful.
Her throat tightened at the way the cream lace hugged Ally’s body, emphasizing the swell of her breasts and the curve of her hips, then fell into an elegant full train that swept behind her. The lace was exquisite, done in a vanilla cream that made her skin glow and her hair catch fire. Tiny capped sleeves were positioned a tad off the shoulder, and the neckline was square, giving her a shape and silhouette the dresses before had only covered up. She looked regal and elegant and unique. It was a dress not everyone could wear, but it was made for Ally.
Avery’s voice broke. “Oh, babe. I have no words.”
This time, her friend’s smile was full of excitement, and her eyes shone with a joy that hadn’t been there before. “I can’t believe it. I actually look good in this, and the lace is so . . .” She drifted off in a dreamy haze, her fingers skimming down her hips, a bubbly laugh spilling from her lips. “I feel like a bride. What do you think, Carter?”
Avery swiveled her head, already prepared for his smug victory.
Her heart stopped.
He looked at his sister with a naked adoration and pride that made a wave of longing crash through her. In disbelief, she watched as a slow smile curved those full lips, lighting up his face and making her tummy tumble around and drop. “It’s perfect,” he said gruffly. “You found your dress.”
“I found my dress,” she whispered, eyes filling up with tears. “I found my dress!”
Avery laughed, closing the distance to squeeze her hands in shared excitement. “You found your dress!” she cried out, and they laughed and jumped up and down, not caring that they looked silly or might be causing a scene.
Vera chuckled at their antics, finally ushering Ally back to undress.
Silence stretched between Avery and Carter. Now that the high of her friend finding her dress faded, she realized it meant Carter had won the challenge. Even worse? He’d proved an untrained nonprofessional could waltz into a bridal store and find the one perfect gown after the expensive wedding planner had failed.
Avery had failed.
Heat gathered within her and bloomed outward. Her skin felt hot, and the sting of loss was almost painful with humiliation. First the fiasco in front of her business, and now her failure over the dress. Defeat mocked her, but she was too damn stubborn to give up so easily. She’d take this loss with grace, and make sure to dazzle him in the next round. After all, there were a million more details he wasn’t ready for.
He’d gotten lucky.
When she finally gathered her composure, she faced him head-on. “Congratulations,” she said. “Well done.”
“Thank you. I’m glad she’s so happy.”
Tension vibrated in the air, but it had a strange twist of awareness. They were standing close. She studied the perfect square of his jaw, cleanly shaven and smooth. She noticed his cologne was subtle but carried a hint of the salty ocean breeze, one of her favorite scents. His intense gaze was trained on hers, and it was getting harder to draw breath into her lungs. The ground vibrated slightly underneath.
What the hell was going on here?
“Avery?” he whispered. His dark, husky tone soothed her ears.
Her heart pounded, and her voice came out rough, jagged. “Yes?”
A smile touched his lips.
She stared helplessly back, afraid of what he was about to say, excited about what he was about to say.
“I heard that Peter Shields Inn is excellent. Let me know when your next open evening is. I’m flexible.” Then he turned on his extremely polished heel and disappeared.
She blinked, slowly coming to her senses. Dinner. She was paying for his dinner, and he wanted to go to a five-star restaurant. Not for her company. No—in order to keep humiliating and reminding her he’d won on her turf.
It was time for war.
Avery walked into the conference room, grabbed a chocolate croissant, and slammed into her chair. She flipped open her planner, muttering under her breath, and tried to get her head clear for the jam-packed day ahead. “Where’s Gabe?” she demanded.
“Covering the bridesmaid brunch at Mad Batter,” Taylor said. “Remember?”
No, she’d forgotten, which wasn’t like her. Trying to change her mood, she indulged in an extra-large bite of the flaky pastry and looked up. “What do we have going on?”
Bella and Taylor shared a look. “Um, what happened to your normal, happy ‘Good morning, ladies—let’s make it a great day!’? Is everything okay?” Bella asked.
She waved a hand in the air. “Whatever.”
Taylor rubbed her hands together and leaned in. “Oh, I have to know what’s going on. Did a PITA finally get to you? Did you lose a client? Did the two crazy catfighting brides come back with a new beef? Tell us every detail.”
Avery sighed. She’d told her sisters about the double-booked reception debacle, but instead of praising her for solving the problem, they kept chattering about how awesome Carter had responded to the crisis. Ridiculous. They had no idea he was truly a liability. “I had Ally’s dress appointment yesterday.”
“I love dress shopping,” Bella said dreamily. “I swear it’s magic when a bride finds her fit. Did Vera pick out something wonderful?”
Avery took another bite of her croissant, and fortified with the sweet, creamy filling, she managed to tell the rest of the story. How Ally had liked but not loved any of the dresses she and Vera had picked. How Carter had ended up finding the dress. “Now, why don’t we get started? We’re all set for the Johns’ wedding this weekend, but I need all hands on deck, especially with the threat of rain. How about—”
“Wait a minute. How did Carter find the dress?” Taylor interrupted.
She glared. “Because he’s pushy. He made some silly declaration he knew exactly what Ally wanted, hit the racks, and got lucky. It’s not worth discussing. At least Ally’s happy and found her dress. That’s what truly matters.”
Her sisters stared at her. Then burst into laughter.
“What’s so damn funny?” she demanded.
Taylor shook her pink hair and let out a half snort. “You must’ve been so pissed! You hate when people intrude. Remember that MOH who kept dragging in dresses she liked for the bride to try on, and you got her deliberately drunk so you could get rid of her?”
Avery tilted her chin and narrowed her gaze. “What’s our motto? ‘Protect the bride at all costs.’ I simply had no choice. And I was not pissed.”
“Liar,” Taylor sang.
“Leave her alone, T,” Bella said, but her blue eyes danced with humor. “Is Carter cute? Maybe he can be your summer assistant.”
That awful prickle of heat skated down her spine. It was probably her body’s way of reminding her it had been almost a year since she’d hooked up with a man. She’d been too busy and hadn’t needed any distractions. Work fulfilled her. Why go looking for trouble?