Avery and Carter were silent for a while. Her mind raced through the rest of the summer, quickly sorting out what still needed to be decided on. “I think that’s a good idea,” she said firmly. “You’ll only worry if you stay, and I handle most of my clients’ weddings virtually, anyway. Like I said, we’ve decided on the most important things. I’ll put together a spreadsheet, and we’ll do the rest via email, text, FaceTime, whatever works for you. I got this.”
Ally smiled in gratitude and let out a breath. “Thank you. I loved the idea of spending the summer here, but she needs me now. And Jason’s mom is like . . .” She trailed off, emotion choking her throat.
“A second mom,” Carter finished, nodding his head. “I get it. She’s lucky to have you as a future daughter-in-law. I agree with Avery. We can handle the rest of the wedding planning together.”
A slow roaring began in her head. Gripping the edge of the table, she tried to mask the desperation tinged in her voice. “Um, there’s really no reason for Carter to stay, either,” she said, directing her words at Ally. “It’d be a waste of his time when I can speak directly with you about the rest of the details.”
Ally turned to her brother. “She’s right, you know. If I’m leaving, there’s no need for you to spend the summer away from work.”
Carter smiled, lifting up his hands. “I already reassigned the rest of my projects until the end of the summer. Besides, you were right, Ally-Cat. I haven’t had a vacation for years and could use some beach time. I’ll stay here and help Avery. That way, it’ll be like you’re still here. I’ll make sure to involve myself in every detail.”
OH. HELL. NO.
Avery spoke up. Loudly. “I really don’t think that’s—”
“What a great idea!” Ally practically squealed. “Oh, I’m so relieved. This way, Avery will get some extra help, and we can still all do this together, just like I envisioned. I can’t thank you both enough.”
The protests died on her lips. She watched in horror as Carter turned and met her gaze.
Triumph carved out the lines of his face. Smug satisfaction gleamed from pewter eyes. And Avery swore to make him pay.
She was avoiding him.
Carter looked out over his balcony at the crashing waves and analyzed his next move. Since that fateful dinner a week ago, when Ally had announced she needed to leave, it was obvious her wedding planner was not thrilled with his offer to help. Not that he’d termed it as an offer. More like a demand.
She definitely disliked taking orders, even though her entire career revolved around pleasing high-maintenance clients. Unless it was just him she disliked. Quite possible, since the moment they’d seen each other, she seemed determined to piss him off. From her judgy looks and cool disregard, he’d known immediately she wasn’t happy to see him, let alone learn he was Ally’s man of honor. Her attitude set off his usually nonexistent temper, touching deep, dark parts inside that flared to life. Things that contained raw, untamed stuff and something even worse.
A groan escaped his lips and he fisted his hands. One casual touch outside Fins had set his body off like a firecracker. Just a simple brush of skin on skin, the subtle scent of lavender mint drifting to his nostrils, and he was suddenly, horrifyingly hard.
He was fucked-up.
Only he’d become sexually attracted to a woman who drove him batty and personally disliked him. Of course, it could be a fluke. He’d read that anger could warp into arousal, so maybe the challenge of winning each skirmish had gotten his body mis-wired. It was a logical conclusion and the only one he’d accept. Because there was no way he’d get involved with Avery Sunshine.
He glanced with frustration at his phone. The string of texts he’d sent was met with savvy nonanswers created to make him go away.
C: Narrowed down three possible restaurants for rehearsal. Here are the links. Can you make appointments at each and let me know when?
A: Sure. I’ll get back to you. ☺
C: Ally liked these centerpieces (see attachment). When is the floral appointment?
A: Let me check on that. ☺
C: I called this photographer, whose work received high reviews. Would like to meet with him next week. When are you free?
A: I’ll peek at my schedule and let you know. ☺
C: A full week has passed, and I still haven’t heard from you on these important issues. I’ve left you a voice mail on your business phone to contact me ASAP. Please forward me a spreadsheet and updated schedule of all appointments immediately.
A: Already spoke with your sister. Will let you know if I need you. ☺
No spreadsheet. No tasks, vendor list, or appointment dates. She was shutting him out, and the smiley faces proved it. Her hand had been well played. If he went complaining to his sister, Avery would play dumb and pretend to get upset. It’d also make him look like a ridiculous whiner. She’d been smart to disappear.
It was time to take back control.
He didn’t question why it was important for him to be involved in every step. He trusted Ally to make the right decisions and knew Jason would support her. Weddings had never been on his radar, other than the ceremonial horror of committing yourself to forever. He’d never cared about the actual details, but knowing their mother wasn’t around to offer opinions and guidance to Ally hurt him. He didn’t want his sister to feel as if she were lacking, so he’d be mother, father, and best friend in one shot.
He refused to fail her.
Decision made, he settled Lucy with one of her favorite bones, promising to be back early, and headed out. He’d camp out in Avery’s office until someone had to deal with him, then lodge his complaint about not having his phone calls or text messages returned.
The sun beamed hot on his bare arms, and he enjoyed being out of his restrictive suit, officially on vacation now. Today, he’d donned white board shorts, a blue T-shirt, and leather sandals. Trading in his glasses for a pair of prescription Ray-Bans, he took in the sights and sounds of the busy streets.
No wonder his sister had raved about Cape May. It emanated quirky charm and combined gorgeously restored Victorian homes with old-school beach flavor. It’d managed to avoid the tacky boardwalk filled with rides and overpriced food, offering visitors a clean beach, unique shops, and delicious cafés. Other than a small arcade, the town mostly catered to families rather than teens. Horses and carriages clopped by, taking people on mini tours, and red surreys holding six people pedaling madly mixed in with the cars and foot traffic.
He walked out of the hubbub of town and toward the quieter streets, shielded in shade by massive oak trees that lined the curbs. He passed multiple bed-and-breakfasts painted in Crayola-type color. People relaxed on oversize porches, sipping tea and eating cookies in wicker rockers. Many waved as he strolled by, and he was surprised to find himself smiling and waving back. When he finally reached Sunshine Bridal, his mind was clear and focused.
He walked through the front door and headed directly into the office. A young woman with short pink hair was tapping madly on a laptop, muttering softly under her breath.
“Excuse me? I’m looking for Avery.”
She jerked around. Golden-brown eyes stared back at him with a tinge of angst, as if she wasn’t thrilled at being interrupted. “She’s on an appointment. Not sure when she’ll return. Can I take a message?”
“Maybe you can help me.”
He tried not to grin at her annoyed exhaled breath, which was followed up by a huge fake smile. “Sure. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Carter Ross. Ally’s brother.”
Recognition lit up, and the stressed lines of her face smoothed out. “Oh, thank goodness! I cannot deal with one more grouchy client today. I’m Taylor, Avery’s sister. It’s nice to meet you. We all adore Ally and are so happy for her.”
“Thanks, me, too. Um, I’m having some issues with Avery getting back in touch with me. She doesn’t return my messages, and I’m supposed to be accompanying her on several appointments.”
Taylor frowned. “That’s weird and not like Avery at all. She’s so damn organized, she color-codes her pens. Let me bring up her calendar.” She punched a few keys and stared at the screen. “She should be back within the hour. Are you going with her to the bakery at three?”
He snapped his fingers. “Yes, I am. Could you do me a favor? Does she have any other appointments set up for my sister? I’d love a printout so I don’t miss anything.”
“Of course. I’ll whip this out. Looks like you’ll be in back-to-back appointments all next week, but then things will calm down a bit. I’m glad you got the SeaSalt for the reception. Pulling off a wedding in under three months is a challenge.”
“I’m beginning to see that.”
Taylor handed him the list. “Do you mind waiting here for her unaccompanied? I have to go meet a client.”
He opened his mouth to agree, but was interrupted by a woman rushing in with a child snugly nestled in her arms. Though her hair was long and golden blonde, and her eyes a bright blue, he spotted the similarities in their faces immediately. Definitely the last sister of the crew. Her daughter looked like a tiny miniature, dressed in a Cinderella dress, plastic blue heels, and a tiara perched on her head. He pegged her as about five years old.