He held up his hands in surrender. “Sorry, I’m just thinking of something different for Ally. She’s extremely social, and I think she’d like to get dressed up, use one of her endless pairs of fancy shoes, and go dancing.”
“Once again, I think your maleness is interfering with your ability to know what women want,” she said sweetly. “I doubt her dream bachelorette party includes squeezing into Spanx.”
“Do I want to know what that is? Sounds like a weapon.”
“More like a needed torture device. So what would your pick be, then, if you seem to know it all?”
She frowned and shook her head. “No, that’s party central. Gambling, clubbing, concerts. Definitely not what Ally requested.”
“When does she ever have the chance to let loose and have some fun? She should have a weekend with some excitement and edge. That’s what I want for her.”
“But she won’t like it.”
She blew out a breath and ticked off the points on her fingers. “Because they want a spa! Wine and food and girl talk. Not club music, high heels and short skirts, and socializing with strangers.”
He grinned. “That’s exactly what Ally needs.”
“I’m sorry, Carter, but I’m vetoing your choice.”
His expression morphed into mule stubbornness. “You can’t veto me on this. I’m the man of honor, and I get to plan the bachelorette party. We’re doing AC.”
“And I’m telling you, if you insist on this course, you’ll disappoint your sister.”
“Care to make another bet?”
Her jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me? Is this a game to you? Because I’ve made a living organizing events like this to allow a bride and groom to experience the perfect wedding. You’re a damn hacker who spends most of his time with his dog!”
He ignored her outburst and grinned. “You’re just scared I’ll win again.”
She flung up her hands. “Oh my God, you are impossible. If you do this, I’m out. I refuse to help plan something she didn’t specifically request.”
“Fine, I’ll do it myself. And I guarantee she’ll love it.”
She shook with frustration. “Oh, I’ll take that bet. Because I guarantee she won’t.”
“I mean it, Carter. You tell her I had nothing to do with this one. I refuse to get blamed when her friends find out instead of massages and hot tubs, they’re getting sloppy drunks and blistered feet.”
“I’ll tell her. Will be easier when I take all the credit.”
She huffed like the Big Bad Wolf and grabbed all the papers, shoving them back in her bag. “At least I can check this off my to-do list.”
The waiter dropped the bill in front of Carter, and she quickly grabbed it. “I got this,” she declared, whipping out her American Express. “It was a bet,” she confessed to the waiter. “I had to buy him dinner.”
Carter grinned. “I made an excellent choice.”
“You certainly did, sir,” the waiter said, shooting them an odd glance before quickly disappearing.
“I think this place will be perfect for the rehearsal dinner, don’t you?” he asked, taking a last sip of his cappuccino. “Why don’t you go ahead and book it?”
She couldn’t help the evil smile that broke out. “This restaurant isn’t available. They’re fully booked, but I spoke with Ally and we decided on Aleathea’s. I already emailed her the tasting menu we finalized, hired a piano player for ambience, and created a custom cupcake bar for dessert.”
She almost laughed at his shocked expression.
“You did all of that already? Without letting me know? I chose this place tonight to try out the menu before we confirmed.”
She shrugged. “We were lucky to have any openings at this late date, but once again, I was able to pull some strings and get Aleathea’s. You’ll love it. I’ll send you the menu.”
The waiter dropped off the receipt. “I hope you’ll join us again soon. It was a pleasure.”
Carter placed his napkin on his plate. “Thanks. And compliments to the chef on his balls. Not that I got to have many.”
Nate cocked his head, not understanding.
“She busted them all before I even got a chance.” Carter got up from the table. “Ready to go?”
Damn him. He’d made her laugh again, which made it harder to hold on to her annoyance. Shaking her head, she followed him to the car. The evening had definitely been surprising. He’d been a more engaging dinner companion than she expected. Who would’ve imagined there was a sense of humor hidden behind the robot mask? She was beginning to think Carter Ross held more layers than she’d originally given him credit for.
She waited for him to turn onto her road, but he kept driving straight and parked on Beach Avenue. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Thought after such a big dinner we’d take a walk on the beach.”
“Oh, we can’t. The beach is closed.”
He regarded her in amusement. “I’m sure that’s never stopped you before.”
“You think I’m a hardened criminal because I was in jail for a few hours over ten years ago? Seriously?”
He grinned and got out of the car. He came around, opened her door, and waited. “I think you’re a woman who appreciates the occasional rule-breaking. It’s a beautiful night full of stars. Let’s have some fun.”
She climbed out. “I’ll walk with you, but not on the beach. There are signs posted everywhere.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and matched his pace to hers. “Don’t disappoint me, Avery. We’re not teens looking to vandalize. I’m sure no one would pay attention to a lone couple enjoying an evening stroll.”
She snorted. “You don’t live here. If I got busted, that’s all I’d hear in this town.”
“The beach is heavily patrolled at this hour?” he asked.
She hesitated. “Well, no. But why take a chance?”
“Because sometimes doing something you shouldn’t feels good.”
His husky words whispered across her ears, like an intimate kiss. A shiver shook through her. She never broke rules. Not anymore. Her sisters teased her about how much she’d changed over the years, becoming good old reliable Avery. It was easier to make everything about the business and not about herself. Longing rose up inside, and the voice she’d quieted years ago broke its silence. She used to live big, love hard, and break more rules than she should. That’s the girl Carter remembered. The woman who stood beside him had changed. The daily grind of routines and the passing of time had eroded that raw edge that always burned inside her. It never bothered her because she didn’t think of it.
“I’m different now,” she said defensively. “You’re thinking of a college girl who had nothing to lose. I grew up. I would’ve thought you’d be glad I’m not trying to drag your sister into any of our shenanigans or go skinny-dipping in the ocean after midnight.”
“Hmm, never said anything about skinny-dipping, but that could be fun, too.”
She shot him a look. “Now I know you’re just messing with me. I think we should go back to the car.” She turned but his hand shot out to grab her wrist.
Her skin tingled at the contact, and her heart did a crazy leap.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make fun of you. It’s just—” He stopped, and his fingers squeezed gently, his thumb pressing into her palm. “I know I disapproved of your friendship with my sister in college because I thought you were a bit wild. But you were good for her. I know that now.” His misty eyes gleamed in the shadows, and she was transfixed by the intense heat and emotion glimmering in their depths. “She needed lighthearted fun. See, I thought I needed to be the parents, and to me, that meant discipline. Responsibility. Making sure she was on the right path. I didn’t understand I could do both, because I was just too damn young and in over my head.”
She nodded, touched by the naked vulnerability on his face. “I understand. You made the hard choices for her, and it all worked out in the end.”
“But I lost a part of myself through it, too. That part that skipped over being a rebellious, selfish teenager to find my own dreams. I have no regrets, and I’m not whining about it, but sometimes, like tonight, I want to do something silly and crazy for me. I guess I was just trying to drag you into it. Stupid, right?”
Her axis shifted as a piece of the puzzle snapped into place. Suddenly, his words made sense. He hadn’t chosen his role. The death of his parents had forced it on him, and instead of rebelling or not accepting responsibility, he’d quietly stepped in to take care of Ally. He wasn’t allowed to be the crazy older brother any longer, who allowed her to stay up late, or hid her drinking at a party, or hung out with her boyfriends. No, he’d chosen to be someone else—a man who was capable of raising a ten-year-old girl in the best way possible.
Maybe Carter Ross had a wilder soul than she originally believed. He’d just never had the opportunity to show it.