“T, you have to watch Zoe for me. I got an SOS from Samantha, who’s having a panic attack at her bridal fitting. The MOG mentioned she’d gained some weight, and Samantha’s hysterical.”
“You let her do the fitting with the MOG?” Taylor asked, shaking her head. “Dude, bad decision.”
The blonde glared. “Yeah, I know. Here, take her.” She shoved the little girl into her sister’s arms. Zoe tilted her rosy face up, her lips smeared with something that resembled pink frosting. “Hi, Aunt TT! Mama said a bad word.”
“Hi, munchkin. Let’s wash Mama’s mouth out with soap later.” This caused an array of giggles to erupt. “Bella, I can’t watch her! I’m already running late for an appointment, and Avery isn’t here yet.”
“Oh my God, this is so bad.” Bella leaned over and began to drag in deep breaths. “You think I can take her with me?”
“Into a meltdown with a hysterical bride and clueless MOG?”
“I’ll bring her Kindle! Maybe promise her one of those gourmet lollipops if she’s good! I have to get there ASAP, or the whole appointment will blow up and—”
“I can watch her.”
All three females jerked around to stare at Carter.
He regarded the little girl with a smile and hunkered down so he didn’t look so intimidating. “Are you Cinderella, or do you dress like that all the time for school?” he asked.
Another giggle. “It’s summer! There’s no school in summer. And I’m not really Cinderella since she’s a pretend character, but I like to look pretty. Are you getting married?”
“No, my sister is. I’m waiting for your aunt Avery. Do you think you’d be okay to hang with me for a bit until she gets here?”
“Wait—who are you?” Bella demanded, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Carter Ross. I’m Ally’s brother, the man of honor.”
Bella’s face cleared. “Oh yes, Avery told us all about Ally’s wedding. I’m sorry we haven’t met before now. I’m Bella.”
“Nice to meet you. Listen, I know you don’t know me, but I don’t mind watching her until Avery arrives. Here’s my ID.” He slid out his driver’s license and handed his phone over. “You can put my number in your contacts. Does she have her Kindle with her?”
Bella bit her lip. “Yes. Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“I wouldn’t offer if I did. I promise to keep her right here and not move.”
Taylor cocked her head and regarded him with respect. “That’s really cool. I think it’d be okay. Bella?”
“Sweetheart, this is Carter. Do you want to stay with him for a little while? You can’t leave the office, but you can read or play your games.”
Zoe nodded. “Will Carter read Fancy Nancy with me?”
“I love Fancy Nancy,” he said solemnly.
Bella looked back and forth between them, then made her decision. “I owe you big-time,” she said, hurriedly grabbing his phone and exchanging numbers. He noticed she studied his ID carefully, then took a picture of it with her phone. Good. He was glad she was being thorough. She gave Zoe a hug and kiss goodbye, warning her to behave, and then disappeared in a frenzy with Taylor at her side.
The door banged shut behind them.
Carter stared down at his new charge. Her bright-blue eyes studied him with the open curiosity of the very young. “Do you really like Fancy Nancy?” she finally asked suspiciously.
He smothered a laugh. Damn, she was adorable. “I really do. Why don’t you open it up and I’ll read. Want to sit on the couch?”
“Sure.” She scrambled up, fishing her pink Kindle out of her PAW Patrol backpack. He stretched out his legs, crossed his ankles, and hit the button to put the cover in full size.
“I like her outfit, but yours is nicer,” he said, tapping the screen.
“Thanks! Pink is my favorite color, even though I’m mostly wearing blue today.”
“I can tell because you had pink cupcakes today with sprinkles, right?”
Her eyes widened. Her soft voice came out in a hush. “How did you know that?”
His lips twitched. “I have some magic powers, but I don’t like to use them often.”
“Do you have a wand?”
“Nope, I just use my mind. Should we read?”
“Oh yes.” She crossed her legs, rearranged her dress, and leaned her head close to see the pictures. The scent of strawberry shampoo made him smile.
Carter read the book, using his funny voices like he used to do when Ally was little, and got lost in the moment. Kids were good for that. And dogs. It was too bad he wasn’t keen on having a child alone—after raising Ally with no support, he knew how difficult being a single parent was. That’s why he believed in a two-parent household if at all possible. He had no desire to get married, though, or engage in a serious, committed relationship. Therefore, kids weren’t in the picture for him.
A sudden flicker of regret cut deep at the thought, but he pushed the feeling away and concentrated on the story. He rarely allowed any messy emotions to throw him off-balance. There was no point, so it was much easier to push them away until they disappeared.
They’d gotten to book three in the series when the door flung open and Avery rushed in. She threw her purse on the table, kicked off her heels, and began tearing through a huge pile of thick folders stuffed with papers and mismatched fabrics. He looked down at Zoe, who was grinning at the fact her aunt hadn’t spotted them on the couch.
“Hi, Aunt Avery!” she shouted.
“Holy crap!” The files flew from her hands and scattered on the floor. “Wh-What’s going on?”
Zoe gave a deep sigh. “She says bad words, too, but I can’t say ’em ’cause I’m too little. Aunt TT says when I’m old, I can say all the bad words.”
“At least seven,” he said, nodding.
“What’s going on?” Avery demanded again, this time much louder. She stared at them in shock. “Carter, why are you here? Zoe, where’s your mom?”
“Your sisters had to both run out, so I told them I’d watch Zoe until you got back. It’s lucky I stopped in, since I would have missed the appointment at the bakery.”
The surge of pink in her cheeks confirmed her attempt at treachery. “How did you know about that?”
“Taylor looked up your schedule. She was kind enough to give me a printout so I can be aware of any future appointments. I’ll be honest, I expected more organization and follow-up from my sister’s wedding planner.”
She winced. “It’s not a big deal. I intended to overnight a few samples she can taste with Jason and make her final decision.”
“Ah, but what samples? What if you give her the wrong three choices because I wasn’t there, telling you what she likes and doesn’t like?”
“Can I have cake, too?” the little girl chimed in. “I like chocolate and vanilla and pink cupcakes with rainbows.”
“I think we should all have cake. It’s been a disappointing day.”
Avery looked like she was going to scream, but Zoe reached over and patted his hand. “At least we got to read Fancy Nancy.”
“That was my highlight.” Oh, how he adored a precocious child. They made life so much more interesting. Bella and her husband were blessed to have her. “Is your aunt always so riled up?”
Zoe wrinkled her nose. “She runs around a lot.”
Avery groaned and walked over to the couch. “Hey, munchkin,” she said, “how about I put on PAW Patrol in the other room?”
“Yes!” The little girl shot up, and he knew he’d been replaced by the lure of cartoon puppies. Not a bad choice. “Thanks for reading with me, Carter. Can we eat cake later?”
“Yes, it’s a date. Wait. Are you old enough to date?”
She gave another charming giggle. “No, silly, but we can be friends.”
“Awesome. Catch ya later.”
She bounced out of the room, holding Avery’s hand. Carter got up from the couch and stretched, then spotted the Keurig coffee station. He could use a shot of caffeine for what lay ahead. He had a gut feeling Avery was going to make her disapproval of his visit loudly known.
Might as well get ready for the show.
He whistled and made himself a fresh mug.
When she stomped back in the room, he was perched halfway on the desk, drinking coffee. With his hip cocked out and legs casually crossed, it took her a moment to regather her forces.
He looked . . . different.
The suit was gone and replaced with shorts that showed off lean muscled legs and olive-toned skin. His T-shirt was a dark blue, stretching tight over an impressive broad chest and making his eyes appear less gray and more cerulean, adding a depth that threw her off. His usual shaven jaw now held a shadow of dark stubble. The glasses were gone, and a pair of trendy black sunglasses was perched on top of his head. He should’ve looked less intimidating, but awareness skated over her nerve endings, causing a vibration in her core that puzzled her. What was it about him that made her body buzz? Was it just dislike she was mistakenly dubbing as physical attraction?