Avery turned toward Carter, and the question popped out of her mouth. “Has she always been this happy?”
He regarded her with his usual serious expression. “She was born happy. My parents always said she had a gift of seeing the bigger picture in the world. Made it easy for her to forgive. Made it easy for her to fail because she always concentrated on the wins. She was like a light in the household.”
His words struck her hard, said so matter-of-factly about his sister. “What about you?”
He cocked his head. “What about me?”
“If she was the light, what were you?”
His stormy ultramarine gaze crashed into hers. Her chest tightened, and fire zipped through her. “The realist. What else would I be?”
The waiter interrupted, dropping their drinks and appetizers on the table, then gliding off. The serious mood broke, and her breath finally reached her lungs.
Losing their parents at such a young age must have affected both of them, but Ally was always open about her grief, and grateful to her brother for raising her. After their mother had died of cancer, their father passed shortly afterward of a heart attack. Ally said Carter rarely spoke about their father’s death, as if the tragedy of losing both parents within a few short months was too much for him to process. Curiosity stirred. Avery wished she could ask Carter many questions, but they didn’t have that type of relationship.
He fed a few pieces of bread to Lucy, who remained quiet, her head cocked and tilted up in a mix of need and adoration. “How’d you end up getting Lucy?” she asked, forking up an oyster and enjoying the mild, sweet taste mixed with a touch of salt on her tongue. It was so fresh, she skipped the cocktail sauce and enjoyed it with only a drizzle of lemon. “Breeder, pet store, or shelter?”
He swirled his ruby-red pinot noir, then took a sip. “I was away at a work conference and walking to my hotel. I saw a man with Lucy on a leash. She barked, and he kicked her hard. Knocked her against a tree. I called out, but he didn’t hear me. Lucy got up, and you know what she did? Looked straight at that asshole and let out another loud bark. It pretty much screamed Fuck you. And then he kicked her again.”
“Oh my God, why are there such cruel people in the world?” She stared at Lucy with a new respect. “What did you do?”
“I went over and began telling him how my daughter had been begging for a Yorkie forever, but we couldn’t find one at the shelter. I kissed his ass and offered him three hundred bucks for the dog right then.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t beat the crap out of him.”
He shook his head. “Then he wouldn’t have given me the dog. Even if I accused him of animal abuse, it’s pretty hard to get it to stick. Lucy would’ve been right back with him. My goal was to get her away from him, permanently.”
“So he accepted your offer?”
A smile touched his lips. “Not until he negotiated to five hundred dollars. As soon as he took my money, I picked her up and snuck her into the hotel. I ordered us room service, named her Lucy, and she slept in the bed with me that night. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
Emotion roared over her in choppy waves. The way he looked after Ally and Lucy told her there was more depth than what he showed. Why was she intrigued to learn more about that part of him?
“From Peanuts. I like the way she’s always pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. She’s feisty and never apologizes. It was perfect for her.”
Avery grinned. “Yeah, I guess it is. She’s a little bit mean, though.”
“Not if she finds you worthy.”
Lucy took that exact moment to gaze across the table at her, curl her lips back, and show her teeth in warning. When Carter looked back down at her, she nosed his hand with sweetness and affection.
A combination of respect and irritation mingled at the dog’s obvious dislike for her. It seemed she was quite possessive of her man.
What a bitch.
He took a bite of his crab cake. “Well, now that we booked the reception venue, you can relax. I can handle the rest with Ally if you just want to give us your preferred contacts.”
“What do you mean I ‘can relax’? There’s still a long list of things to accomplish in a short amount of time.”
“I’m sure, but as you stated before, the rest are minor details. We can do the flowers, cake, rehearsal dinner, and favors on our own. That will open up more time for you to devote to your other brides.”
The patronizing, smug smile was back, and her heart sank. He had no respect for her job or what was involved. Probably thought she was a glorified secretary, running around to confirm a bride’s choices.
She dabbed her mouth with her napkin and tried for patience. “I know it may seem you have the bulk behind you, but there are millions of details that crop up that I handle.”
She steeled her shoulders. “Like coordinating over a dozen vendors’ schedules so everything arrives the way we ordered and on time. Like being the main contact in case anything upsets your sister or she has any questions, rather than floundering about and trying to figure out who to call. It’s not just choosing cake and flowers, Carter. It’s photos, videos, ceremony, transportation, rehearsal dinner, makeup, hair, musicians, caterer, and hotels for the family to stay at. This isn’t about visiting a few vendors.”
“Understood. If your assistant can give me a list, I’ll handle it. I’ll be finished with my project this week, and I can devote the rest of the summer to dealing with these details. Honestly, it’s not a problem.”
Slowly, the horror of his true intention unfolded. Her fork dropped and clattered to her plate. Lucy jumped and peered over the edge of her carrier to see what was going on. “You don’t want me to plan Ally’s wedding,” she said, the shock still barreling through her. “You still don’t think I can handle it.”
The coldness was back. Like a turtle crawling back into his shell, he surrounded himself with an icy distance and disapproval. “I’m only trying to take care of my sister.”
“So am I. As her damn wedding planner. You may think you know everything, but you have no idea what’s involved with a wedding. Do twenty-four hours in my shoes and you’d be in full retreat, crying like a little baby.”
His gaze narrowed. “I doubt it.”
“I don’t. Just because you got lucky with a dress and one lousy suggestion for the rehearsal dinner doesn’t mean diddly-squat.”
“Diddly-squat, huh? You’re quite the linguist.”
Her voice shook. “You’re quite the control freak.”
His jaw locked. “Once again, your penchant for drama is not a good look. If you’re losing it now, how will you deal with the multiple crises you keep telling me happen at a wedding?”
She tried desperately to remind herself he was a client—the ManOH—and she couldn’t lose her temper for Ally’s sake. She dropped her voice to a harsh whisper. “I’m giving you a free pass today for your sister’s sake, but be warned, robot man. You want a war? You’re on the wrong battlefield, because I have the home advantage. And I’ve never lost a skirmish.”
He sat back, staring at her with renewed interest. “Robot man, huh?” he finally said. “Interesting. Threats using war metaphors aren’t very original, though, but I appreciate the visual effect. I’m more of a bottom-line person, so I’ll get to the point. You’re not getting rid of me, Avery. I’m going to be in this every step of the way until my sister walks down the aisle. You can either accept it gracefully or keep having these little tantrums, which is only wasting a good amount of energy you can put into planning the perfect wedding. I’d advise the former.”
She shook with the effort of not launching across the table and throttling him. He was unlike any ManOH she’d ever dealt with—worse than awful MOBs and PITA brides. He was all of them encompassed in one giant nightmare she couldn’t get rid of.
And he’d be here the entire summer. In her face.
All the goodwill from their initial conversation drained away, and she was left with one goal in mind: destroy him without ruining Ally’s wedding.
On cue, her friend came back, but her face didn’t reflect the happiness of a bride who’d just booked her reception venue. She slid into the chair, pocketed her phone, and faced them with a worried look. “I just got terrible news. Jason’s mother broke her leg.”
“Oh no, is she all right?” Avery asked, reaching out to squeeze her hand.
“Yes, she’s home now in a cast, but she needs round-the-clock care for the next few weeks until she’s able to get around on crutches. Jason can’t get the time off because of the wedding and honeymoon, and his brother just had a new baby. Maddie started a new job in California, so she can’t help, either. It’s a mess.”
“Can you hire a nurse to stay with her?” Carter suggested.
“We were discussing it, but honestly? She hates dealing with strangers in her house due to anxiety. Jason and I were talking, and we think the best solution is for me to go back home and stay with her until the wedding.”