“We do in terms of actual events, but I use the time for planning the spring and summer weddings. There’s really no downtime to discuss details, and planning is always a good year ahead. And of course, there’s the occasional surprise wedding thrown in that I take on, like Ally’s.”
He’d figured she had all winter off to relax and recharge before taking on wedding season. It seemed he was wrong. His interest peaked. “What about holidays?”
She shot him a look. “Are you kidding? We always have multiple Christmas weddings to deal with, plus New Year’s Eve. Then we get into Valentine’s Day, and I have the month of March to scramble for spring, which starts in April.”
“Have you thought about hiring more staff?”
“Of course, but it’s harder than you think to get a qualified worker who wants to live in Cape May year-round. We get students and interns and part-timers, but my sisters and I are the only ones capable of truly handling the big clients. Gabe has been wonderful, though. He’ll be promoted soon.”
“Gabe?” Annoyance stirred. “Who’s he?”
“My assistant, but he’s ready to get his own clients. He’s charming, patient, and women adore him.”
Was that her idea of a perfect guy? Sounded boring and trite to him. Most men like that were hiding some nasty stuff underneath such a shiny exterior. “I see. Is he married?”
She laughed and waved her hand in the air. “Gabe? God, no. He’s like Jake Gyllenhaal—gorgeous but a longtime bachelor. I doubt there’s a woman out there who can tame him. He hates commitment.”
Carter picked through this new knowledge and found himself a bit pissed off at this perfect assistant of hers. Maybe they were sleeping together. Which was fine. It wasn’t as if he was looking for anything with Avery.
“How long have you been working together?”
“A few years. He’s been an integral part of the team, so it’s nice to see him succeed. We spend so much time together; it will be strange not being with him on a daily basis, though.”
The thought of her with some hot playboy charmer assisting her did something strange to his insides. They got all twisted and burned like acid. Maybe he needed some damn TUMS. “Sounds like you’re real close.”
She shot him a look, and he realized he’d emphasized his last word. “Yes. We are. Like I am with all my employees.”
Her voice told him he was walking on the edge, and though he’d like to know for sure if they were sleeping together, there was no way he was going to ask. That meant no more talking about Gabe and his Gyllenhaal-like charm. He shifted back to his original topic. “Seems a shame you live in a beach town but rarely use it. What about your niece? Do you take time off to be with her?”
Her face softened. He liked the transition and wondered what it’d be like to stare into those eyes when they were all misty and needy. Imagined her chin tilted up as she waited for a kiss, lips parted and welcoming. She’d make a man feel like a fucking superhero. “Zoe is my only distraction from work,” she said. “Bella has a part-time nanny to help, but all of us put Zoe as a priority. So yes, if she wants to go to the beach, or the ice-cream store, or the library, I carve out the time.”
“What about Zoe’s father?”
A ragged sigh filled the air. “He died when Zoe was only six months old. Car crash. He was coming home from a business trip and got hit by a drunk driver.”
He muttered a curse. “I’m so sorry, Avery. That must’ve been a bad time for your family.”
“It was. I didn’t know if Bella would get through it. Took her months to just get out of bed. Matt was her childhood sweetheart—they grew up together and got married right out of college.” She shook her head as if the painful memories clung. “But she’s strong, and eventually, she came back to all of us. We’re lucky to have one another.”
“Did that factor into your decision to stay here and not pursue the Broken Cupid?”
She nodded. “Once I got home, I realized how much I enjoyed being back. Then Zoe was born, and I couldn’t imagine leaving her. By the time we lost Matt, I knew my life was here, with my sisters.”
“Family is everything,” he said simply.
She glanced over, and a charge of energy buzzed between them. This time, it was more than just physical—it was an understanding that they’d both experienced losses and used family bonds to battle through. He respected her choice. Many would have remained selfish and pursued their own interests, but he’d learned from his own tragedy that there was more to life than thinking of oneself. Ally had been worth the price of growing up fast, and he regretted nothing.
But he’d never pay such a price again. The cost of loving someone that much, and that intensely, was a choice he’d long ago decided not to pursue.
Love wasn’t always kind. Sometimes it tore you apart and broke every fragment of the heart. Bella had experienced it firsthand. So had his father, who’d chosen to be weak instead of strong when his wife died.
Carter would never allow himself to experience that type of pain again.
Her question startled him. He gripped the steering wheel and refocused. “Yeah, sorry. Daydreaming.”
She smiled. “About getting me to the beach? Dream on, because you’re going to lose.”
“Ah, so you are taking on the bet?”
She shrugged. “Why not? I know I’m going to win. What do I get when you lose?”
“What do you want?”
She tilted her head, considering. The heavy weight of her curls slid down over her shoulder, which was partially bared by the flimsy top. Her smooth, golden skin looked soft and touchable. “You get a full beach day.”
He frowned. “Thought that was my prize.”
Her smile was slow and triumphant. “With Zoe. You spend the whole day with her and take her to the beach.”
“Doesn’t seem so bad. I like kids.”
She looked startled. “You do?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I? Besides, I promised I’d hang with her at the beach. Works for me.” He almost laughed at her dejected expression. “Sorry to disappoint you. I can pretend it’s a horrible punishment.”
“I’m not disappointed, I’m surprised. Most men consider spending hours with a five-year-old torturous. I figured you didn’t mean it when you promised her.”
He pulled into the restaurant lot, parked, and cut the engine. Turning to face her, he made sure her gaze locked on his. “I never break a promise, Avery,” he said, the words as resolute as the vow he’d made years ago. “To anyone.”
Those hazel eyes widened, and he heard the small gulp of air as she sucked in her breath. For endless seconds, they stared at one another. Carter fought the impulse to lean over and kiss her. He imagined she’d taste like the spiced wedding cake he’d sampled—a bit of sweet, a bit of savory, and a whole lot of sass. The silence stretched. His muscles tightened. He moved an inch. One more.
Then pulled back. Shook his head. No way was he going to muck up his sister’s wedding by getting involved with the planner, who happened to be her best friend.
It was best to remember that.
“Let’s go eat,” he said.
He turned and got out of the car.
What the hell had just happened?
Avery sipped her wine and tried to relax. The restaurant was packed, but they’d scored a table on the porch, overlooking the sprawl of sandy beach and ocean. Golden lights glowed in the darkness, battling against the bright shine of endless stars stretched out in the sky. The entire aura reeked of romance and first dates, and here she was with a bag full of wedding work and a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach from their conversation in the car.
For just a moment, she’d experienced intense attraction. When Carter spoke his vow about keeping a promise, the implacable truth and determination shone from his carved features, sizzled from those misty blue-gray eyes, left free from his usual glasses. Within his words laced a passion that seemed hidden under the surface, and for a few precious seconds, she’d connected with that part of him.
And she’d wanted him to kiss her.
She took a big gulp of wine and fumbled with the bag. Better to focus on work. Her fingers closed on a thick folder, but his deep voice made her freeze. “Later. Why don’t we order and enjoy our wine first?”
Reluctantly, she tucked the bag away and tried to avoid the low flicker of candlelight, soft violin music piping in from the speakers, and the sensual wash of breeze caressing her body. She cleared her throat. “I’m still shocked you got us a table tonight.”
“Your name is important around here.”
She rotated her wineglass in her hand. “Wait—what? You used my name for the reservation?”
His grin was filled with male satisfaction. “Of course. I told them we were dining tonight so I can try out their menu for a possible rehearsal dinner. They squeezed us right in.”
Oh, he’d played her well with this one. Implied he had magically snagged a reservation on his charm when he’d just lied and used her name. “You’re unbelievable.”