She couldn’t be attracted to Carter Ross. He was everything she didn’t like in a man: rude, arrogant, boring, and her best friend’s pain-in-the-ass brother. Dear Lord, she had to get her dating life back in order or she was going to fall apart.
She gathered all those disturbing, rambling thoughts, balled them up into a tight knot, and shoved them in a lockbox. Then focused on something that made sense.
“You can’t barge into my place of business and get involved with my family,” she said, hands on her hips as she faced him down. “You should have never been watching Zoe. I can’t believe Bella left her with you!”
His gaze flicked over her body with a lazy assessment, as if he were bored by her outburst. “I tried calling and texting first. You chose to ignore me, even though I’m your client just as much as my sister.”
“No, you’re not. You’re just the ManOH.” She practically spat out the words. “Ally’s happy with our current arrangement; I haven’t gotten any complaints from her.”
“Yet. Let me make things crystal clear so there are no longer any misunderstandings.” He sipped his coffee and took his time. “I spoke with Ally before she left and confirmed I’d be involved with every step of this process. I’m her only family, so you’re stuck with me. I will attend every vendor appointment from now on. And if you somehow forget to include me, this time I’ll be sure to jump on the phone and tell Ally you’re cutting me out on purpose. I’ve been kind enough to spare you the discomfort of a confrontation in order to protect my sister, but if it continues, I won’t be as forgiving.”
She gasped. He wouldn’t dare. He’d never deliberately stress out his sister. Would he? Or maybe he’d grab the opportunity to once again prove she was lousy at her job and that he’d been right about her all along. Was he that mean and twisted?
Yeah. He was.
Her quick afternoon at the bakery suddenly took a bad turn. She thought of all the appointments she had lined up the next two weeks for Ally’s wedding and wanted to weep. This was her fault. She’d been so sure he’d just go away if she ignored him. She should have known Carter had too big of an ego to leave her alone. Somehow they’d gotten into a weird competition over Ally’s wedding, and he viewed it as a challenge. Ridiculous.
She needed to regather control and create a plan B. Maybe if she ran him ragged, he’d get tired of the endless choices over minute details. It happened to grooms and FOBs all the time. They’d be enthusiastic about the decor in the beginning, until they needed to view dozens of centerpieces, discussing the benefits and disadvantages of lilies versus roses, white versus pink, and tall vases versus small bowls. Give the men one or two of those appointments and they’d beg off the rest, deciding to trust the bride and the planner, and go play some golf.
Yes, Carter would be the same exact way. Eventually, he’d retreat and she could finish planning this wedding on her own.
“Fine,” she said. “You win. I won’t ditch you anymore.”
“Such lofty standards you have,” he drawled.
She gritted her teeth. “We need to be at the bakery at three. I’ll text my sisters to see when they’re coming back for Zoe. For now, feel free to finish your coffee and relax in the conference room.”
“I feel so pampered.”
His dry wit threatened a laugh from her, but she managed to squash it in time. After a few texts to her sisters, she checked on Zoe and gathered up her stack of folders, slipping it into a sleek black bag with the Sunshine Bridal logo.
After what felt like an eternity, Bella flew through the front door and collapsed on the couch, sweat dampening her forehead. “Oh my God, what a nightmare.”
“What happened? Is everything okay?”
“The sitter got sick, so I had to move some of my appointments, but then I got a crazy text from Samantha at Vera’s. She had a meltdown and refused to come out of the dressing room because the MOG called her fat in a roundabout way.”
Avery covered her mouth with her fingers. “No. You should have called me.”
“You were slammed with appointments this morning, so I didn’t want to bother you.”
Avery shook her head. Her sister hated leaning on anyone for help, determined to handle her own clients. “Next time bother me,” she said.
Bella waved a hand in the air. “It all worked out fine. I rushed over there and managed to get Samantha to let me in the dressing room, coaxed her into a different dress, and when she came out, everyone burst into tears and called her the most beautiful bride in the world. Holy shit.”
“Mama, Aunt TT said you’re gonna get the soap!”
Avery watched her sister’s face fall into pure joy as she picked up Zoe and gave her a snuggle. Her vibrating tension calmed. Honestly, Bella rarely got worked up over a client disaster. Avery wondered if she was feeling a bit overwhelmed and made a mental note to try and check in with her more. “You’re right, no dessert for me tonight. Did you have fun with Carter?”
“Oh yes, we read Fancy Nancy and talked about cake.”
“Perfect.” Her sister’s eyes sparked with mischief. “Did Aunt Avery have fun with Carter?”
Avery sucked in a breath and glared. “Not funny,” she muttered. “Why on earth would you leave her with him? I told you he was difficult and a PITA.”
“And here I thought you were beginning to like me. Why am I thinking, in this case, a PITA isn’t the term used for a sandwich?”
Avery closed her eyes in horror. The man was always lurking or stalking or eavesdropping. Anyone else would have stayed in the damn conference room, but here he was again, prowling around and getting in her business.
Bella actually laughed. “’Cause it’s not, but if I tell you, I’ll need to invest in more soap. Thanks again for helping me out.”
“Carter, I like you lots. Why don’t you like him, Aunt Avery?” Zoe asked.
Her heart stuttered at the adorable face staring back at her with a worried look. Even at five, Zoe was kind to everyone and hated when any child was left out. Swallowing back her frustration, she gave her niece a smile. “I like Carter just fine.”
“Oh, good. He’s not getting married, Mama. You think he can be my dad?”
Besides being kind, Zoe was also brutally truthful about not having a father.
Avery waited for the shocked look on Carter’s face and the endless questions, but he surprised her by taking the announcement with ease. “How about we be friends? I’m staying in Cape May the whole summer. If it’s okay with your mom, we can spend more time together. Unless you think I’m too old.” He pulled a face and Zoe laughed.
The tension in the room dissipated, and her sister managed a grateful smile. “Sounds good to me. What do you think, Zoe?” Bella asked.
“I can take you to the beach and show you how to build castles,” the little girl announced.
“Well, I better get this little munchkin home. I’ll call you later, Avery. Thanks again, Carter.” Bella disappeared with her daughter and left them alone.
The air shifted, and the sudden silence pressed down upon them.
Avery dared a glance from under her lashes. He was staring at her hard, as if trying to figure something out. For some reason, the intense blue of his eyes mixed with the clean scent of his skin made her a tiny bit woozy. He smelled like soap and man and ocean-salt breeze. This close, she noticed that the scruff hugging his chiseled jaw emphasized the full curve of his bottom lip.
“What’s PITA mean, Avery?” His voice deepened, silky and low with a touch of gravel.
A shiver shook through her. She wrapped her arms in front of her chest and tipped her chin up. He still towered over her. “Pain in the Ass.”
She waited for the sarcasm, but he surprised her again by laughing. “Of course it does.”
“Are we ready for the cake tasting?” he asked.
She blinked like she’d been taken off guard. “Oh. Yes. Let’s go.” Grabbing her stuff, she led him out and toward her car. “It’s a few blocks—do you want to walk or ride?”
“I don’t mind the walk as long as you don’t.” He glanced at her teetering strappy sandals. “How do you even navigate the sidewalks in those? It’s like someone who was permanently off-balance paved them.”
She smiled. “It’s always been that way here. You get used to it.”
He plucked her heavy bag from her shoulder and transferred it to his, ignoring her protests. “Was growing up in a beach town as idyllic as it sounds?”
“Pretty much. The locals are close-knit and take care of one another through winter. The tourists can drive us nuts, but they also bring in the business we all need. My family has been here through two generations, so the ocean is part of our blood.”
She’d rarely talked about her family’s business or beach home years ago. Curiosity stirred. “Why did you go to college in DC?” he asked. “It’s a contradiction to how you grew up.”
She tilted her head and gave him a knowing glance. “That’s exactly why. I wanted a city where I could be in the middle of it all. I craved fast-paced, loud, dirty, surrounded by passionate people proclaiming their opinions. My parents fought me, but I was eighteen, and all I wanted was to be different. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to my childhood home and run the family business.”