He couldn’t help his gaze from lingering on the curve of her ass as she stalked in front of him, her heels clicking fast over the uneven sidewalk in her desperate need to be ahead. In the fashionable pencil skirt, her hips swayed, and her lush buttocks were framed by the tight black fabric.
When had he begun thinking of her as sexy? She’d always been this annoying female hellion he wanted to keep in check around his sister. But these last few encounters, he’d felt a physical connection between them he’d never noticed before. Was it just the anger? Or something more?
He didn’t intend to back down easily. He had a need to explore this strange dynamic a bit more. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t like you.”
He grinned at her stark honesty. “You owe me dinner,” he reminded her. “Unless you renege on all your bets.”
That statement made her stop in her tracks. Her head jerked around, and she glared at him with an intense loathing he found kind of hot. What did they say about anger and passion being closely linked? Was it possible she felt the same odd connection but refused to acknowledge it?
“You are a horrible person. Are you seriously going to force me to take you to dinner? How about I give you my credit card and I just pay for it? You’re probably used to dining by yourself.”
He cocked his head and allowed her remark to sink in. “That was kind of mean.”
She muttered something under her breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted. Why don’t I make reservations at Peter Shields for tonight?”
“I’m sure they’re booked,” she said between gritted teeth. “Besides, I have to work.”
“Till what time?”
“When are your usual days off, then?”
She rolled her eyes as if he was ignorant. “None. I rarely take a day or evening off—there’s no time.”
He frowned at that. He worked a heavy schedule, too, but enjoyed unwinding with a book or a long walk with Lucy in the evenings. “Fine, let’s combine work with dinner. I’ll pick you up at eight. We can go over booking the bachelorette party.”
“You’re not listening. I have a big wedding this weekend, and I need to make sure every detail is covered. Besides, I should speak with Ally’s bridesmaids before solidifying any plans.”
“I already did. They decided to let me be in charge of the whole thing. They want to be surprised, so they gave me carte blanche on the whole thing. Isn’t that great?”
The look on her face almost made him laugh. She was so obviously not pleased with their decision. Those too-wide eyes filled with hot anger, and her mouth pressed into a tight line. Funny, he’d never noticed her lips made a plump bow, almost like a gift, painted in crimson red. The sudden image of those lips opening under his crashed through his brain, and his body stirred.
“I can only imagine how you got them to agree,” she said. “Are you really going to bust up your sister’s last chance to cut loose? Why don’t you gracefully bow out and let me handle it? The women really want to have fun.”
He shot her a hurt look. “I’m fun. I have some great ideas I wanted to run by you. And if you want to guarantee Ally will have a good time, you need to help me plan it.”
She blew out a breath. “Fine, but after this, the slate is wiped clean. Just so you know, you’ll never get a reservation, and I’m not free until eight thirty.”
“I’ll handle it. Pick you up later. I better get back to Lucy.” He strode away before she had time to change her mind.
The rest of the day flew by. A quick call secured dinner reservations. He took Lucy for a walk, read a few chapters of his book on the deck, and analyzed a proposal for his next project. By the time he’d showered and changed, he was ready for good food and some feisty conversation.
He whistled while he drove to Avery’s house and parked. Glancing at his GPS, he confirmed the address. Of course she’d live in a cottage straight out of a Disney fairy tale. It was girlie and quirky, from the mismatched stone and bright-yellow door to the heavy ivy threading up and down the walls. The gate squeaked as he walked to the front porch, where a variety of endless, fascinating junk littered the space: watering cans, potted plants in various colors and sizes, statues of frogs and fairies, and mismatched wicker furniture with brightly colored pillows. The sound of multiple wind chimes caught the light breeze and lifted a wash of tinkling to his ears. It was as if spells could be cast in this small cottage close to the beach, and he wondered why a part of him sighed with pleasure at the happy, freestyle surroundings.
His whole life had been built on organization and planning. He’d needed to know exactly what to put on the table for meals. He’d needed to know how to budget for bills, get Ally to her various clubs or sleepovers, make sure she did well in school, and fit in work, all while keeping a low profile. He’d refused to have his sister be pegged as the one with no parents, so he had become both to save her from ever feeling she was different. A lofty goal—one he’d failed at multiple times. But after each mess-up, he’d tried harder. Looking at Avery’s home reminded him of being playful again, with no thought to how a house of cards can crash with just one soft, misplaced tap.
He shook off his musings and pressed the doorbell.
Avery opened the door. Her chin was tilted, as if ready to meet an opponent rather than her dinner companion. His gaze swept over her casual jeans, flowy white top, and low-heeled sandals. She’d let her hair go free, and the natural curls sprang around her head with cheerful abandon. Other than a touch of color on her lips, her face held little makeup. A large canvas bag was thrown over her shoulder.
“Hi,” she said.
He reached over, snagged the bag, and put it on his own shoulder. “Hi.”
“I can carry my own bag, you know.”
“My mother would scream from the grave if I allowed such a thing. I promised to open doors, pay for dinners, and help with oversized bags.”
“It’s a different time. Us womenfolk can take care of ourselves.”
“I know, but I do it to honor her. She believed it was about respect.”
Avery pursed her lips, seeming to consider his statement. “That’s actually nice.”
“Thanks. Your house is purple.”
She rolled her eyes, and the quick truce ended. “I happen to like purple. I bet your house is still gray. And the interior is black and white—all neutrals. Little color. And very tidy.”
Other than Ally’s room, he’d put little thought into the house after their parents were gone. There was no need. It was just a space needed to accomplish his goal to raise Ally in a safe environment, and the less stuff the better.
“Yep, still the same. Do you still have the habit of leaving glasses half-full of water everywhere like the little girl from the movie Signs?”
Annoyance flickered over her face. “Of course not.”
He grinned, pegging her in the lie. “At least you’ll be prepared for an alien attack.”
She ignored him, slamming the front door and marching past to his car. “Where are we going?”
She slid into the passenger seat, and he climbed into the car, pulling smoothly away from the curb.
“Wait, how did you get a reservation? Even weekdays, it’s impossible in the summer, especially last minute,” she said.
He shrugged. “I had no problem.” Especially after he’d used her name and basically told the hostess it was a business appointment so Avery could impress a client. That had secured him a table in record time.
“Hmm, must’ve gotten lucky. I just spoke with Ally a few hours ago. Told her the cake samples are on the way, and to let us know when she makes her choice.”
He knew he should let the whole thing go, but the words popped out of his mouth. “Care to make another bet?”
She snorted. “Like what?”
“If she picks my cake, you come to the beach with me.”
Her mouth dropped open. “That’s the stupidest bet I ever heard. First of all, I have no time to go to the beach, and if I did, I wouldn’t want to hang out with you.”
“I’m going to begin thinking you don’t like me by such harsh comments.”
She shook her head, a laugh ripping from her chest. “And I think you just want to make these bets to get a rise out of me.”
He did. Like right now, her cheeks were flushed, and the air conditioner was blowing over her gauzy top, lifting the skimpy material up to bare a nice flash of her midriff. Her scent had already permeated the car—teasing and seductive in its light floral with a hint of spice. He liked the idea of hanging out on the beach with her. Imagined kicking back on a blanket and trading barbs under the hot sun, a wash of icy ocean water over their toes. Not that he’d admit it. She’d either punch him in the face or run away.
“Actually, I’ve been concerned with something you’ve said a few times,” he said. “When was the last time you took a day off?”
“Hmm. Maybe last year? Oh, wait, I got really sick last winter, and I missed a whole weekend.”
“Sick days don’t count. How can people get married every weekend all through the year? I figured you’d have plenty of downtime in the winter.”