But maybe she’d passed the limit of when her body rebelled. Maybe after this summer, she’d go on a date.
“God, no, he’s not cute,” she said. “He’s a nerd and a bit subhuman in his ability to hide and control all of his emotions. I wish he’d go back to DC and leave me with Ally. Plus, he’s old.”
“Oh, too bad,” Bella said.
Taylor cocked her head. “Gray-hair old?”
Avery shifted in her seat and concentrated on her croissant. “Just old. Now, if you’re done teasing me, can we move on? I need this wedding tight in all aspects. Let’s go over your tasks one more time.”
Her sisters rolled their eyes but followed orders. They knew it was the only way to end the meeting, while Avery knew it was her exact scheduling, distribution of tasks, and ruthless double-checking that made Sunshine Bridal the best.
She intended to keep it that way.
The next day, Avery drove down Beach Avenue and scored a parking space right across from Bagel Time Cafe. She was meeting Ally and Carter to take them to see two vendors for the reception venue. After working her contacts hard, she’d been able to score the appointments and get the date held temporarily. Every weekend in August had long been snatched up, but there’d been a cancellation at one, and a rare open spot at the other, giving her an opportunity to get Ally the perfect place in town. If they didn’t like either of them, she’d have to look farther out of Cape May.
She got out of the car, crossed the street, and popped into the café. The line twisted out the door, but she squeezed her way to the counter and flagged down Christina.
“Hey, Avery, what can I get you?” The girl had a casual ponytail, bright smile, and fresh, dewy skin that screamed YOUNG.
“Tuna salad on a sesame bagel, please. Lettuce and tomato, no sides.”
Christina scratched the order on her pad and stuck the pen behind her ear. “Give me five?”
“Thank you. And just add it to my tab. I’m already receiving death stares.”
Christina laughed. “Beach-rush time. No worries. Locals need to have some perks, right?”
“God, yes. When you get married, I’ll give you a discount.”
“No, thanks. I plan to remain hopelessly, happily single.” Her ponytail bobbed as she disappeared into the kitchen.
Avery headed outside to wait, scrolling through her phone messages and answering emails with lightning-quick fingers. Finally, she looked up, leaned against the building, and took in the familiar sights and sounds of the small beach town she’d grown up in.
Summer was in full swing, and the beach was already packed—a sea of brightly colored umbrellas set up to witness the magnificent waves crashing over the surf. The air was sharp with sea salt and sunscreen. Small shops lined both sides of the street, selling beach gear, ice cream, pizza, and the all-essential fudge. Sandals slapped against concrete, seagulls screeched and dove for leftovers, and bikes rang their tinkly bells as families pedaled down the roads.
Most of the time, living by the ocean was as magical as everyone believed. Other times, getting stuck with a rush of tourists cramming the streets and overtaking the shops and cafés was just frustrating. The locals had to fight for space and ended up retreating to a few spots that were hidden from visitors.
Cape May was a tourist attraction all the way through Christmas, but then everything pretty much shut down until spring. For those few months, a deep hush blanketed the town, and people stayed indoors. Unfortunately, the bridal business was still busy during the break, when careful planning was critical to getting through the wedding season smoothly.
Avery stared longingly at the beach right across the street. When was the last time she’d grabbed a few hours to lie out in the sun or take a swim? Bella took Zoe regularly. Taylor carved out an entire day a week to play—no matter what the schedule. Avery had no right to feel jealous of their free time when she chose to work.
Wasn’t it worth it? Sunshine Bridal had just been announced as one of the top planners for beach weddings on the Knot. They were famous. Overbooked. Brides begged to be taken as clients. She’d gotten everything she ever wanted.
Christina waved her in. She thanked her, grabbed the sandwich, and found an open table next to a group of college-age girls. The girls let out a loud whoop, then burst into hysterical giggles without shame or apology. She smiled, shaking her head, until the image of her running wild and free back in college hit her full force. The heady hit of dancing past midnight, learning new subjects that sparked her creativity, and the endless spill of time spread before her. Even with a full-time class schedule and a part-time job, Avery had felt as if she were discovering herself and blooming in DC. The world was a giant mystery waiting to be deciphered.
When had she lost that excitement? Sure, she adored most aspects of her job, but if she kept up her constant schedule, would she eventually burn out?
She finished her bagel, popped a breath mint, and pushed the endless questions aside. She had appointments throughout the evening, and then the three-day weekend would begin, full of back-to-back activities for the Johns’ wedding.
Right now, she had no time for doubts.
Kind of ironic.
She headed down the sidewalk toward Congress Hall, where she was supposed to meet Ally and Carter. The sprawling, elegant, sunny-yellow hotel had been transformed years ago from a horror house and was now one of the top-rated venues for weddings and receptions in Cape May.
As she approached the sign, she squinted in the light, trying to focus. Was that Carter? He was dressed in his usual suit—at least today he was sporting cream linen pants, a white shirt, and a casual jacket—but he was carrying something in a bag. Something that . . . moved.
A very tiny dog.
Avery blinked a few times, but the image still registered. He had a large square bag with a strap slung over his shoulder. The material was durable soft leather in a cognac color. A small head peeked out from the top, and Avery saw it was a Yorkie. A bright-pink bow twisted a few locks of hair on top of her head, flopping back and forth as she moved. Her features were tiny, her nose a twitchy black dot surrounded by long strands of gray, black, and brown fur. Her collar was sterling silver and blinked madly in the sunlight, emphasizing a few glitzy charms that dangled.
The Yorkie stared back at her, a touch of arrogance in her face as she seemed to check out her new visitor. When Avery finally managed to tear her gaze away from the dog, she noticed that Carter was looking at her with the same arrogance.
“Ally should be here any moment.”
“What is that?” she asked, pointing to his bag.
“A dog. What’s the problem? Are you afraid of dogs?” His voice was rich, deep, and full of arrogance and demand.
The touch of sarcasm flicked at her nerves and brought her back to her college days, when he’d always spoken down to her. She changed course and decided to annoy him back. “Is that a man’s purse?”
He flinched. The glee of kicking him off-balance was like a sweet wave of adrenaline. “No. It’s an oversized briefcase with a detachable strap.”
She smirked. “Looks like a man purse to me. And your dog? She’s so . . . delicate.”
That lush lower lip curled. “Her name is Lucy.”
“How sweet. I love how her pink bow is so . . . feminine.”
His gaze narrowed with a touch of danger. A sizzle shot through her at the spark in those blue-gray eyes. Why did sparring with him bring such a rush of excitement? “You disappoint me, Avery.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Dog discrimination and profiling. I bet you go the other way when you see a pit bull, too, assuming it’s aggressive and dangerous.”
Her jaw dropped. “I do not! I love dogs—all dogs! I don’t discriminate.”
He peered over his glasses, lips tight with disapproval. “You are making assumptions that as a male, I should have a big, burly type of dog. But I happen to like Yorkshire terriers. They’re refined, highly skilled mouse hunters, and fierce of heart. And Ally bought her the bow, which happens to be pink. Would you like to make fun of me now?”
Her cheeks burned. Damn him. He was always twisting her words! “I’m not making fun of you,” she said stiffly. “I was only making an observation.”
“Do you have a dog?”
“No. But only because I’m too busy with work. I have no time to take care of one. I’m a huge animal lover.” She decided to prove it, reaching over to pet Lucy. “Hey, sweetie, how are you?” she crooned.
Lucy bared her tiny, sharp teeth and growled.
She jerked her hand back.
“Small doesn’t necessarily mean delicate. She’s extremely picky about who she allows to touch her. After she gets to know you, you may offer your hand, palm up, and allow her to learn your scent.”
Irritation flowed through her. He was such a know-it-all. “Hmm, you’re a big dog expert, too? Just like with wedding planning?” she practically sneered.
He cocked his head and studied her. Lucy copied his exact image, so it was like staring in duplicate. “No, it’s quite difficult to be a dog expert.”
She sucked in her breath at the jab, got ready to give him hell, and was interrupted by her best friend.