Jagged misfit pieces clicked into place. She’d been running away. Afraid of getting stuck in a small ocean town, doing the same job for years on end out of responsibility. No wonder she’d embraced DC and all her wildness. He let the silence settle between them, but it was comfortable, as if she’d accepted that he was analyzing her response.
She spoke suddenly. “Ally and I talked about running off and starting our own business.”
He snapped his fingers. “I remember. A bookstore with an attached café, right?”
“Yep. We wanted to serve organic foods, handmade chocolates, and sell primarily romance novels and poetry.”
He groaned. “I almost had a heart attack. You both had no business plan and no money. You also couldn’t cook and had no clue about location. Ally and I got into a big fight over it.”
“Oh, she had a few choice words to use about you,” she said, laughing. “We swore we’d open the business ourselves, become successful, and prove you wrong. We called it the Broken Cupid.”
“Yep. We imagined poetry readings with broody, talented artists filling the spaces. Reading and discussing great literature and drinking the espressos we made at our café.”
“You’re killing me here. Dare I ask what finally destroyed this great vision?”
“I’m not sure. We both got jobs to begin saving, and planned to get a business loan. But then Ally began dating that guy Ben, and got caught up in her romance. I came home for a visit, and my mother begged me to give the bridal business a try before I went back to DC. By the time I spoke with Ally about it, she’d already decided to get her master’s. Soon, we’d completely forgotten about the Broken Cupid and were swept into our adult lives.”
Was that a hint of longing laced in her voice or his imagination? She seemed completely focused and happy with her job, but he’d noticed her crazed schedule and workaholic ways. Was she wishing sometimes for something else? Something . . . bigger? “Do you regret going home and not giving it a shot?”
She seemed to think about the question seriously before answering. “No. Even though I was a different person then, I still believe I was always meant to do this. I get a joy and satisfaction from my job I couldn’t imagine anywhere else. I just regret . . . Never mind.”
He stopped walking and turned. Her gaze lifted and crashed into his. His breath tightened in his chest at the look in those hazel eyes. An intense hunger seemed to spark from a place deep inside him, a place he knew too well. His voice deepened, urging her to spill her truth. “What do you regret, Avery?” he asked.
She took her time, but the words seemed plucked from a memory she rarely visited any longer. “I regret not remembering that girl,” she said softly.
The connection between them surged, peaked. He stumbled back a step, desperately needing the distance. WTF? Why did he suddenly have the desire to yank her into his arms and soothe her? To stroke her hair and tip her chin up and take her mouth to see how she tasted? To soak up her moan and know he was the reason for it? Confusion blasted through him, along with a rising arousal that threw him off-balance.
Oh no, he was so not going there. It was ridiculous and messy and . . . dangerous.
A couple strolled past them, bumping into him and apologizing, and he held up his hand in acknowledgment. When he looked back at Avery, the moment was gone.
And he was glad.
Avery opened the door to the bakery. The scents of sugar, chocolate, and happiness filled the air, and she perked up as she greeted the young girl behind the counter and asked for Maria. She wanted to forget about that strange encounter with Carter, and her sudden, awful urge to close the distance between them and . . .
Well, she didn’t know. And she didn’t want to find out.
Carter browsed past the display cases filled with butter cookies, cupcakes, and various pastries tempting onlookers with swirls of chocolate ganache, fresh whipped cream, and flaky pastry. She caught sight of the last chocolate croissant lying in the tray. It looked lonely. Madison’s Bakery had been all sold out the past few mornings, so she hadn’t had her fix in a while. She licked her lips and promised herself a reward for when the appointment was over.
Maria came out and shook Carter’s hand. She was an older woman with permed brown hair that looked like a helmet, and strong, blunt features. With a stocky build, thick hips, and hands known to whip the best batter in the Cape, she was a master of her craft and well known for her custom wedding cakes.
Avery opened her bag and removed a stack of designs. She already had a basic idea of what her friend wanted, so today was about narrowing to specifics and taste. Carter sat across from her, lounging with ease in the small chair that barely held his length. Her glance touched on his muscled thighs, then quickly jumped away. His presence was becoming more than a nuisance. He was beginning to edge right into the distraction phase—a deadly place for a coordinator who had to juggle a thousand details.
She cleared her throat and focused. Time to implement her plan and show him tasting endless cakes and launching into an analysis of each one wasn’t fun. He was definitely the no-nonsense type. The one to see a shirt on the rack and buy it without checking for something he might like better. Hopefully, this would be their last appointment together before he cried surrender.
Maria came back with a tray of samples and bottles of water. “It’s always nice working with the bride’s family when I can’t be with the bride directly. I hope you’ve brought your appetite.”
Carter winked. “I made sure not to eat breakfast or lunch due to your reputation.”
A laugh tinkled from the older woman, and Avery tried not to gag at his obvious flattery. “There’s eight samples here, which will give you both a spectrum of flavors and combinations. I’ve included some classic, my most popular, and a few designer types, as I like to call it.”
“Sounds great. There are a few things Ally doesn’t like, so that may help us limit the options,” he said.
Maria nodded. “Yes, Avery already gave me a list, which is why we’re staying away from red velvet, cherries, and any type of banana flavors.”
Carter grunted, as if bestowing a point. He really didn’t think highly of her if he believed she wouldn’t know her best friend’s likes and dislikes after years of hanging out together.
“Let’s start with a twist on the basic. We have a vanilla butter cake, paired with caramel buttercream. Instead of the usual frosting, this one has a torched meringue to really intensify the flavors.”
Avery and Carter reached for the same fork at the same time. Their fingers brushed, and Avery jerked back, not wanting to experience any skin-on-skin contact. Hell no. She refused to feel any type of attraction to her friend’s overbearing older brother. It was too damn weird.
She grasped the other fork and popped the bite into her mouth. The gorgeous moist cake and subtle sweetness of caramel was soothing and pleasant on her tongue. She half closed her eyes, concentrating on the entire experience while she funneled Ally’s particular tastes mentally.
Carter turned toward Maria. “I apologize.”
The older woman frowned. “For what?”
“I questioned Avery’s decision to deal with only one bakery. I thought we needed a broader amount of choices, but obviously I was wrong. This is truly amazing.”
Maria smiled, pleasure sparkling in her brown eyes. “Thank you. That was the nicest apology I ever received.”
Avery held back a groan. Another female bites the dust.
Maria narrowed her focus to Carter, enthusiastically explaining each sample and engaging in a lively discussion of baking compared to creative art.
“How did you come up with the idea of including lavender in the buttercream? It’s subtle, but the lingering floral wakes up my mouth.”
“Yes! That’s exactly what I wanted. What do you think of it with the carrot cake?” Maria asked excitedly.
“Love it. But you know what’s true brilliance? Pairing both with a Grand Marnier cream-cheese filling. If someone told me those flavors would work, I would’ve never believed them.”
Maria leaned over the table, putting their heads close together. “We must break the barriers of the mind and concentrate on taste as essence. Even though the brain tries to anticipate what you will be eating, twisting the classics with surprising elements allows the taste buds to explode.”
Avery cleared her throat. “Um, Maria, I really think the coconut with the orange buttercream should be in the top three. It’s a beautiful combination.”
Maria nodded. “Excellent choice. Do you agree, Carter? After all, she’s your sister. You know her best.”
Avery firmed her jaw to keep it from falling open. Son of a bitch. He was doing it again. Pouring on hidden charm she’d never seen before—maybe because he’d never bothered to show her. The master baker was practically blooming under his attention and had cut Avery off from the consultation.
“Yes, we definitely should send her a sample, but personally, I think she’s going to go with the carrot and lavender. It’s unique.”
“I agree, it’s wonderful, but carrot isn’t her favorite cake. She never orders it in a restaurant. I think she’ll prefer a classic with a subtle twist,” Avery said.