“My two favorite people in the world!” Ally said, drawing them in for a hug. “And Lucy, of course. How are you, baby?” She reached out and pressed a kiss on the dog’s nose, then scratched under her chin.
Lucy accepted the petting like a queen allowing her subjects to serve her. Seemed like Carter had found a dog with the same condescending personality. God knew he’d never be able to find a woman to put up with his crap. Lucy was the perfect companion.
Avery forced a smile. “We have two wonderful reception venues to see today. Are we ready?”
“Let’s go,” Carter said.
“Um, don’t you need to take your dog home?”
His voice chilled. “Lucy doesn’t like being left alone for too long. I’m going to bring her with.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea to bring her into a restaurant?”
Ally laughed. “She’s well behaved and stays in her carrier with no fuss. I’m sure she won’t bother us.”
Avery flicked her gaze to the man purse and back to the man, who seemed to silently dare her to make another comment about his accessory bag. Lucy tossed her pink-bowed head, gave a snort, and sank down for a nap.
Avery spun on her heel. “Fine, let’s go. My car’s over here.”
They got into her white SUV and headed out. “This first venue is the Ocean Club. Their SeaSalt restaurant has amazing cuisine, and I think it gives the flavor of elegance combined with the beach fun you may be looking for. They had a last-minute cancellation, so they’re holding it for us for twenty-four hours.”
“What if they didn’t have a cancellation?” Carter asked from the back seat. “Would Ally have no choices at all?”
Her shoulders stiffened, but she kept her voice light. “No, I have another vendor we’ll see next.”
“And if she doesn’t like that one?”
Her fingers gripped tight around the steering wheel. “I’d get creative. This late in the season I have limited choices, but we got lucky.”
“Huh. Didn’t realize luck was a huge part of the wedding-planning business.”
“Stop busting her chops, Carter,” his sister called out. “You have no idea how much stress we’ve put poor Avery under to plan this in three months. Don’t add to it.”
She smiled at her friend, who tossed her a wink. Carter remained blessedly quiet for the rest of the drive. It was nice to see Ally stand up to her older sibling, and Avery enjoyed every moment of the king’s temporary knockdown.
When they arrived at the Ocean Club, she introduced them to Peter, who took them through the space with his usual enthusiasm and charm. She’d built a long-term relationship with multiple vendors in Cape May and loved when one of her favorites was able to work with her. Whenever they had a cancellation, they immediately called Avery because she always had a bride ready to jump on the spot. Personally, this was the reception site she believed would fit her friend’s vision best.
The massive open room where the reception would be held boasted a gorgeous bar; huge windows open to views of the beach; and gleaming, warm, polished wood floors. Her heels tapped as she began to paint a picture of the space to fit Ally and Jason’s needs. “You can definitely go with a smaller space with your number of guests, but this allows endless possibilities for decor and setup without feeling dwarfed. The dance floor could go here, or over there,” she pointed out. “We’d put the tables scattered by those windows so the guests have plenty of breathing room while they watch the sunset over the beach. I’d suggest doing silver tablecloths with black-raspberry accents.”
“I love that,” Ally said. “What about cocktail hour?”
“We can do it outside on the sundeck so you get a nice combination of inside and out. I’d also suggest doing various appetizer stations that are a bit unique, such as martini cakes, a full raw bar, and a special cocktail named for events you and Jason experienced together. The possibilities are endless.”
“I can picture the whole thing.” Ally gave a sigh. “I’m torn on what to do about the main dinner, though.”
“Chef Gordon can customize a menu that works,” she said. “If you didn’t want a sit-down or buffet, we could do a full tasting instead, where he’d make various bites that are served throughout the evening. That would give you more of a party atmosphere if you want to avoid the formalities of a sit-down.”
Ally swung around and grabbed Carter’s hand. “It sounds perfect, but do you think it’s too weird?” she asked. “Do you think Jason’s family would question the lack of a full sit-down dinner?”
Avery held her breath and prayed Carter would be supportive, even if he disagreed. He frowned, as if seriously considering it, and nodded. “No. If the food is good and plentiful, I don’t think they’ll care how it’s served. What if you do a formal gourmet rehearsal dinner? That way, you get both, but it’s more intimate with just us, the wedding party, and Jason’s immediate family.”
Damn him. She’d been about to suggest the same idea, but opening her mouth now would make her look petty and juvenile.
She kept smiling as Ally clapped her hands. “Yes! I love that idea!”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment. Lucy popped her head up from the bag to lick his hand, and he smiled and patted her head with pure affection.
Oh, how she disliked this man.
After a productive appointment, Avery took them to their second option. The restaurant was gorgeous and intimate, with a fine menu and old-world feel. It marked all of Ally’s boxes, but Avery sensed the SeaSalt had captivated her friend. In the end, the decision was easy.
“I love the SeaSalt,” Ally said as they walked out of their second appointment. “I know Jason would feel the most comfortable there. He doesn’t like being boxed in, so having all that extra room available with the views sold it for me.”
“It’s a great choice,” Avery said, giving Ally a tight hug. “I’ll call Peter and get it booked. I also ordered the invitations you picked, so our top three critical tasks are officially done. The rest will just be fun.”
For Ally, that is.
The endless tasks to keep Ally’s wedding on track were overwhelming, but there was no way she was giving her friend a hint of the stress to bring it all together.
“Let’s celebrate,” Ally said. “Can we grab a cocktail or dinner? My treat.”
“My treat,” Carter corrected, offering a rare smile.
Avery glanced at her watch and sighed. “I’m sorry, sweets, but I’m working all night long. I have a conference call at six and a huge wedding this upcoming weekend. I’ll be swamped for the next three days.”
“But you have to eat!” Ally said. “Just one drink and a salad? Look, we can head right into Fins. You’ll be out in an hour tops and be fortified for the night.”
She hesitated, but the pleading look on her friend’s face got her. “Okay, one hour. But I’m not sure if Fins allows dogs.”
Carter dismissed this with an elegant wave of his hand. “Lucy is a certified therapy dog. It’s fine,” he said.
“You’re kidding. What’s your diagnosis?”
He didn’t look at her, just forged ahead with those long, measured strides. “Anxiety.”
Avery stumbled on her heel, and he reached out to steady her with superhero speed. His fingers burned into her upper arm, and she gasped at the contact on her bare skin.
What the hell was that about? Her arm tingled, and heat shimmered in her core. She’d never had such a reaction to a man’s touch. Is that what loathing felt like?
“You don’t have anxiety,” she said, refusing to analyze her strange response.
“How would you know?”
She snorted. “’Cause you’re like a robot.”
Ally burst into laughter. “Priceless. You know my brother too well. Lucy’s actually the one with anxiety when she’s away from him for too long. She’s also supersmart, so he pulled some strings, got her certified, and now gets to take her everywhere.”
He paused before the entrance and slipped a tiny jacket over Lucy’s body that signified her as a therapy dog. Unbelievable.
“That’s illegal,” Avery said. And surprising. She never would have imagined Carter breaking any rules—he was always respectful of authority.
“Yes, it is. And I’m sure you’ve never broken the law before.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, wait, you’ve been to jail. Guess you can’t judge.”
Ally punched him lightly in the arm. “Are you ever going to get over that tiny mishap?”
“No. When you have to bail someone you love out of prison at three a.m., come talk to me. Then we’ll be even.”
Avery and Ally rolled their eyes and entered Fins.
They were seated immediately on the back patio. The scorching heat was fading as the sun drifted downward, and a light breeze teased and tugged at Avery’s hair, pulling some strands free. She ordered a vodka and seltzer, oysters, and a side salad, and allowed her body to relax into the chair.
“I’ll be right back. I want to hit the restroom and call Jason to let him know where we booked,” Ally said. Her hair gleamed bright red and bounced as she left, and Avery smiled at the open, beautiful joy reflected on her friend’s face.