Carter arched a brow. “I disagree. I think she’s going to want a cake that’s a bit daring for her big day.”
Irritation coursed through her at his dismissive tone. “But she hates carrots. Why would you think she’d want a carrot cake for her wedding?”
His voice chilled. “Because, as Maria explained, it’s bigger than the actual carrot cake. It’s the Grand Marnier and lavender that will make her forget it’s carrot.”
She snorted. “Sorry, dude, but carrots are carrots, no matter how you mask them. She won’t pick that cake.”
“Did you just call me dude?”
Maria glanced back and forth between them, her face fascinated. “Well, I love a lively debate, but why don’t we just send her samples of both and let her choose? I’ll include our third choice—the chocolate with chili-infused fudge buttercream—and we’ll see what she picks.”
“Fine with me,” Avery said, trying not to sound defensive.
“Thank you, Maria, for your clear thinking. I’m glad my sister will have the very best cake for her wedding.”
The baker beamed with pride. “It’s a pleasure to meet someone who’s not only charming and polite but understands exactly what I do here. Honestly, Avery, why can’t you bring me more clients like Carter? It would make my job so much easier.”
Avery forced a smile. “Oh, he’s a joy, all right.”
Her sarcasm was lost as Maria gathered up the tray and cleaned the table. Carter shot her a glare, and just like that, they were back to their feud.
Carrot, for God’s sake. Like Ally would ever choose it, no matter how good it tasted. She reminded herself it would be a sweet victory when she picked the coconut and orange.
Maria sat down again. “Now, why don’t you show me some of the designs you’d like. What are her colors?”
“Silver and lavender, but we’re doing some black raspberry for contrast. These are some of the pictures I think would work,” Avery said. “I’m looking to pair three squares that resemble gift boxes. We can add these types of elements,” she said, pointing at ropes of pearls in shimmery silver and giant bows spilling down from each tier. “Once we pick her flowers, we can weave them here.”
Carter nodded. “That’s pretty.”
She almost fell off her chair. Finally, he agreed with her. Maybe they’d be out of here soon. “Wonderful.”
“But it’s a bit boring, don’t you think? Predictable?”
Her heart sank. “Most cakes revolve around basic shapes, but we can add any accents you’d like. Did you have something specific in mind?”
“No. Sorry, I’m not an expert. Maria? Any ideas?”
Avery snapped her teeth together and tried not to wince in pain. “I do have these other designs, which combine the square in a diagonal manner, giving it an almost-modern take. Ally mentioned she liked that setup.”
Maria was nodding slowly, her fingers brushing across the glossy designs from the book. “All of these are classic for a reason. They work beautifully with every type of cake. With seventy-five guests, we don’t want it to be lost with too many layers. There is a new technique I’ve been trying out for certain weddings, but I’m not sure about your budget. It’s a bit pricey.”
“There’s no limit on budget,” Carter said. “I’m paying for the cake.”
Maria shot him a look full of affection. “How lovely. Well, there’s a technique called bas-relief. Basically, I carve designs into the actual cake to give it a more architectural feel, but it ends up looking like a sculpture. Here, let me get you some pictures. Be right back.”
The moment she disappeared, Avery leaned in. “What are you doing?” she whispered fiercely. “Are you trying to torture me on purpose?”
“No, I’m trying to get my sister the best cake possible,” he hissed back. “Funny, I thought that was your job.”
“I already spoke with Ally, and she loves the square-box design! You’re mucking up everything just because you’re a control freak.”
“You’re not pushing boundaries,” he said. “You want to do the same stuff for every client. Doesn’t my sister deserve something spectacular?”
Temper washed through her. “How dare you? I’m giving this my all, like I do every wedding. You’re just a judgmental, arrogant prick!”
“Here we go,” Maria sang as she returned to the table, laying a stack of photos down.
The two pulled back and glared at each other from a distance.
“We can keep the square shape and do two layers, but the wow factor would be in the design. When I carve designs into the cake, it gives it almost like a 3-D effect.” She pointed to a gorgeous cake with intricate leaf carvings popping out from the surface. “I’d stay away from leaves or berries since that’s more of a fall theme, but I can do roses, and then incorporate silver- and lavender-foil designs on the outer edge.”
Avery took one look at the design and knew it was the cake her friend would want. Maria had never mentioned this new technique before. Guilt rippled. Was Carter right? Was she on autopilot, matching her clients with the same ideas instead of looking to be innovative? Was it her fault because she’d never asked Maria before if she had anything new to offer?
“That’s it.” Carter jabbed a finger at the design. “It’s a work of art. You can actually do that?”
Maria laughed. “Yes. It takes a long time, so it’s expensive, but if you have the budget, I can do it.”
“Even with the time constraint?” Avery asked. “Usually, I’d give you months of advance prep. Is this something you can actually deliver on for an August event?”
Maria tilted her head and regarded Carter. “To be honest, this is pushing my schedule to the maximum. Normally, I wouldn’t have even suggested it, but I’d like you to have something special, Carter, because I know you’re appreciative. I’ll be happy to do it.”
Carter reached over and grabbed her hands. “There are no words, Maria. My sister is the only family I have left. This is a true gift.”
Maria patted his hand, eyes filled with emotion, as Avery stared at him with a grudging respect and a growing worry that she’d underestimated her opponent. He’d won over the cake designer, gotten her to commit to an ambitious design on a tight deadline, and come out looking like a hero.
She added her thanks to Maria and gathered up her things. Carter strode to the bakery display. She opened her mouth to ask for the last chocolate croissant to go, but it was too late.
“Maria, can I get that to go?” He tapped the glass pane, targeting the lonely, beautiful pastry. “Those are my ultimate weakness.”
“Of course! Take it, on the house.”
Avery watched as it was wrapped in crisp paper, stuffed in a bag, and handed to Carter.
With a broad grin, he stuck his nose in the bag and sniffed. “Smells delicious. Gotta love a good chocolate croissant, right, Avery?”
That’s when she realized he knew.
He knew she’d wanted that pastry—bad. He knew, and he’d deliberately snatched it, just like he’d overtaken her appointment and shown her they were playing by his rules.
On cue, his gaze crashed into hers. A tiny smile curled his lower lip.
He’d won this set because she’d underestimated him. Again.
But she wouldn’t allow him to win the war. This was just one tiny battle . . .
They walked out of the bakery. “Well, that was fun.” Not. “I need to go back to the office, so I’ll be in touch,” she said.
“Why do you look so cranky?” he asked.
She shot him a look. “Like you don’t know.”
“Seriously, what’d I do?”
She rolled her eyes. “Besides the whole cake thing? You took the last chocolate croissant. On purpose.”
He blinked. “I like them.”
“Me, too. Sometimes the only thing I look forward to at my morning meetings is that damn pastry,” she grumbled.
“You want it?”
He offered it to her, but she rolled her eyes. “No. I wouldn’t enjoy it now.”
A frustrated sigh escaped. “Because you really don’t want to give it to me. It’d be a guilt-eat, and I’m no martyr.”
Those full lips tilted in a half smile. “You really are a puzzle.”
“Just don’t try to solve me and we’ll get along fine.”
His laugh pleased her more than it should. She liked when he relaxed and stopped being so damn robotic. He was more fun and a tiny bit sexy.
As soon as the thought registered, horror slammed through her.
No. He was definitely not sexy. He had taken over the entire cake appointment, disrespected her job, and stolen the last chocolate croissant. He was the devil, a control freak whose goal was to ruin her summer, and she could never forget it.
The mantra played in her head as she marched down the sidewalk ahead of him.
“Want to go to dinner?”
She stared at him like he’d announced he wanted to take her to bed. Ever since they’d left the bakery, she’d gone back to the freeze treatment and just grunted at his occasional efforts at conversation. “No.”