“I try. After all, this was one of the restaurants I mentioned in my texts you never replied to.” He flipped open the menu. “Any suggestions?”
She rolled her eyes at the unsubtle dig. “No. But I heard the fish-eye soup is good.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Sounds awful.”
“Ask the waiter. It’s highly recommended here.”
They took a few minutes to peruse their choices. The waiter glided over, smartly dressed in black, introduced himself as Nate, and began to dive into the specials. His voice was low and cultured, and the list went on for a while. When he finished, Carter spoke up. “I heard your fish-eye soup was excellent. Can you tell me about it?”
The waiter looked confused. “Fish-eye? I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have that on the menu.”
“Is it sold out?”
Avery stifled a giggle.
“No.” The waiter shook his head. “To be honest, we’ve never served that type of soup. Personally, it sounds a bit controversial.”
With a tiny frown, Carter considered the waiter’s words, then shot her a look.
The realization hit him, and his gaze narrowed. “Never mind. It seems I was wrong about the soup. I’ll begin with the lobster salad, please.”
She pressed her lips together, trying not to laugh out loud. The intimate scene from the car drifted away, and things were back the way they should be between them.
“Did you say you had a crab appetizer?” she asked when the waiter turned his attention to her.
“Yes, ma’am. The chef made them special tonight. Crabby balls.”
She coughed. “Crabby . . . balls?”
Nate nodded. “They’re quite delicious. Crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside. Very popular. Our chef is known for his balls.”
Carter glanced at her in disbelief. A giggle rose up. Was she trapped in a Saturday Night Live skit? “Good to know,” she managed. “I think I’ll skip the balls.”
“But, darling, you adore balls! You really should order them,” Carter announced. “Much better than fish eyes, you always say.”
Shocked, she stared at him. His eyes danced with mischief.
The waiter had no clue what was going on, and had probably missed watching a lot of comedy in his years, because he babbled on. “You’ll love them. The balls are fried, but not greasy at all. Firm to the touch. I guarantee they taste amazing.”
The laughter ripped from her chest and exploded from her mouth before she could stop it. Eyes filled with tears, she waved her hand in the air and gasped out the words, “Fine, yes, bring the crabby balls. Thank you.”
“Of course.” He shot them a puzzled look, but his training held. He didn’t comment on her hysterics or the way Carter had his hand over his mouth like he, too, was about to explode. He gathered their menus and pivoted on his shiny heel.
They collapsed into laughter. “He didn’t get it,” Carter said. “Poor bastard.”
“It was better that way.” She took a deep breath, finally calming down. “God, I forgot how fun it is to be silly. I didn’t even know you had it in you, robot man.”
He smiled back. “I’ve got a few surprises, including a sense of humor.”
“I guess I always remember you being so serious all the time.”
He tapped his finger absently against the white tablecloth. “I had to be. I was worried if I wasn’t strict with Ally, she’d get lost.”
“The first time we met, I recognized she knew exactly who she was. She had an inner strength I was drawn to immediately. Reminded me of my sisters,” she said with a grin. “For someone who lost both parents young, it tells me your hard work paid off. Ally simply adores you. Hell, she promised me I’d be her MOH, and look who she replaced me with.”
His mouth twitched in amusement. She had a sudden impulse to drag her fingers over those plump lips to see if they were as soft as they looked. She enjoyed making him laugh. Maybe because it was a rare gift she didn’t see often, so she cherished it when it happened.
“Appreciate that. I still remember when I had to accompany her at a father-daughter dance. She didn’t want to stay home because all her friends were going, so we put on our fancy clothes and showed up at the school gym. There were all these old guys hanging around the punch bowl. I swear, it looked like a scene from The Godfather, and they used a dance to make arrangements on hits.” He took a sip of pinot noir and shook his head. “So I’m there with my poor sister, and these guys are staring at me like they’re ready to throw the punk kid out of the gym. Ally grabs my hand and marches up to them.”
“Oh my God. What did she say?”
“She told them I was her brother and her guardian, and to be nice to me. Said I didn’t know anyone and asked if they’d have a glass of punch with me while she looked for her friends. I almost fucking died. But you know what? Those guys patted my shoulder, brought me into their group, and handed me some punch. They made me feel accepted, and by the end of the night, I’d made friends. And I needed friends in Ally’s school. It was hard taking care of her when I wasn’t an official parent, especially at my age. It was almost as if everyone else felt they knew what was best for her.”
“How old were you when you were named her official guardian?”
“Nineteen. She was in fifth grade.” A flicker of pain crossed his features, but was quickly hidden. “Too damn young.”
Avery thought of being nineteen, fresh out of high school, and becoming a parent. Even worse, he’d had his own grief to deal with, and no parental support. “So were you,” she said softly.
“I was old enough.”
“I know your mom died of cancer. Ally told me your father died of a heart attack. She said the grief of losing your mom affected his health.”
His muscles stiffened. A shadow passed over him, dark and ravaged and angry. She sucked in her breath at the glimpse of raw emotion and wondered what had caused it. Something bigger than his parents’ death? A secret he refused to share? Curiosity stirred, and she almost pushed, but the waiter came back and set a plate down in the center of the table.
“Crabby balls,” he practically sang in a falsetto. “Enjoy!”
Their gazes met and locked.
She burst into laughter again, and he shook his head, reaching over to stab a ball with his fork. They ate and fell into casual chitchat, catching up and sharing stories about Ally and their highlights of the good old days. By the time dinner was complete and she was sipping a cappuccino, she’d almost completely forgotten about planning Ally’s bachelorette party.
“Time for work,” she announced, pulling out her files. “This afternoon, I spoke with Ally and the bridesmaids to get a feel for what type of trip they wanted. They requested relaxation, beach, and pampering. No big-city trips, and no one wants to deal with additional airfare, so it needs to be drivable.”
“Wait, I told you they’d given me carte blanche on planning this trip.”
She refused to look guilty for doing her job. “Yes, I know, but I thought it would be a good idea to ask what type of getaway they were specifically looking for to make the job easier. And then Ally suggested I could help you since I know more about the area and options.”
He shook his head. Irritation flickered over his features along with a strange type of amusement. “I should have known you’d try to hijack the bachelorette.”
“Just listen, I did a bunch of research. I looked at dates, cross-referenced them with possible outings with the criteria they requested, and came up with this list right here.”
She whipped out the spreadsheet that detailed her data. The final page showed the top three destinations that had evolved from her research. “As you can see here,” she said, pointing to the picture, “Dewey Beach in Delaware is a popular bachelorette destination if she doesn’t want to stay in Cape May. They have a fun place called Bottle & Cork that has eighties cover bands if they want to venture out.”
“What else?” he asked, flipping through the various printouts and glossy brochures.
“The Hamptons. It’s at the tip of Long Island, extremely popular in the summertime. Plenty of spas, shopping, and pampering. I have a contact there who can get them all a summerhouse for the long weekend. It’s an impressive mansion with a pool, hot tub, and it’s secluded. Close to the beach.”
She waited for his reaction. He just nodded, a slight frown creasing his brow. Impatience fluttered through her. Did anything impress him? For once, couldn’t he be enthusiastic and excited about her choices? “The third option is right here. Cape May. I can book spa appointments and get some fabulous rooms at Congress Hall. Think gourmet dinners, vineyard tours, and complete pampering, plus no travel. I just need to confirm she doesn’t want to go someplace new with the girls.”
He continued perusing the paperwork, as if waiting to be dazzled. “That’s it?”
She narrowed her gaze. “Yes, that’s it. I’m not sure what you expected, but I think these spots cover what everyone is looking for.”
“Yes, you’ve done a fine job.”
And just like that, she was back to wanting to strangle him. “That sounded sarcastic to me.”