Guess the distance hadn’t helped.
He had that ridiculous man purse over his shoulder, and Lucy peeked over the edge to check out the surroundings. His hair was damp and gleamed coal-black in the explosive sunlight. He wore his glasses today, but somehow, ridiculously, they looked sexier than usual. Was it the newly sported stubble? The casual clothes consisting of shorts, a muscle-hugging T-shirt, and canvas boat shoes? Or did he exude a simmering intensity she’d never seen before? Dear God, she was doomed. From now on, she’d think of their relationship in terms of BK and AK.
Before Kiss and After Kiss.
She forced a sunny smile that matched her last name and chirped out a good morning, which came out way too fake. Still, he smiled back, allowing her to keep a healthy distance of space between them.
“Why doesn’t she walk?” she asked.
He frowned, glancing down at his dog. “Why walk when you can ride?”
A laugh escaped. “Can you say spoiled? Hi, Lucy. How are you?” She reached out tentatively, holding her fingers up.
Lucy stuck her head out, sniffed, then disappeared back into her tote.
She’d been dissed. Again. “Guess she doesn’t like me much.”
“Eventually, she will. If you keep trying.” His gaze narrowed on her, and suddenly there was little air in her space. It all got taken up by his big body, glinting blue-gray eyes, and seething male energy.
“R-Right. Well, let’s get inside. Devon is one of the best florists in the Cape, and she squeezed us in. I’m assuming you don’t know much about flowers?”
His grin made her pause. “Oh, I’ve been studying up,” he said casually.
She had no time to panic at his words as a door opened. Devon greeted them in her usual zen manner. She wore denim overalls, a white T-shirt, and old pink sneakers. Her dark hair was braided and fell to her waist. Devon was proud of her hippie mother, who’d birthed her after a hookup at Woodstock, and was the ultimate flower child a generation later. “I have everything set up. Come to the back,” she said in her singsong voice. “I’m thrilled to be working with purple—it’s such a great chakra color to incorporate in a lifelong commitment.”
Avery ignored the look Carter shot her.
Sketches, books, and photos spilled over the contemporary glass desk. The air smelled like lavender and sage. They sat down, and Devon faced them with a smile. “Carter, it’s wonderful to see the man of honor take such an interest. It speaks well of how much you love your sister.”
“Thank you. Do you have sample bouquets for us to look at?”
“No, I rarely have all the flowers I need right here at the store. I’m a visual florist, so I like to sketch out the entire design of the wedding; then I create a floral concept for the bouquets, tables, beach, and anything else she needs.”
Avery turned toward him. “I already spoke with Devon regarding your sister’s color scheme, but Ally is torn between going with tall centerpieces or shorter ones. I advised her to go with the taller ones, since they’ll offer a bit more presence and elegance to the space.”
“Can I see some examples?” he asked.
“Of course. I have a sketchbook, and here are some photographs to give you an idea of what I’ve come up with.” Devon turned the photographs around and tapped a pencil against the first picture. “First off, I’m looking at doing narrow crystal vases and using a blocking effect with water and short-cut blooms. See, this one shows the lower half has water and blooms of purple peony; then glass beads will go on top and separate the top half of the vase. This is where I’ll use various roses, lily of the valley, and hydrangeas for a lush effect, interspersing them with birchwood painted silver. It’s for the wow factor.”
Avery was always humbled by the creative artistry of the vendors she worked with. The idea before her was simply stunning, combining Ally’s bold personality along with classic simplicity. “Will people have trouble looking through the vase to talk?”
Devon smiled. “No, that’s why we do the blooms at the bottom, and water at the eye level. The flowers hit the perfect height, so it’s not intrusive to the table.”
“It’s beautiful,” Carter said slowly. “I think Ally would love it, but I’d like to see the shorter centerpieces for comparison.”
“Of course.” She shuffled the new papers and placed them down in order. “Here’s the second concept. We use a square base with a silver-encrusted basket-type vase, with a black-raspberry satin ribbon. There’ll be a slight shimmer of sparkle to give it a rich sheen. Then we keep the bouquet tight and neat, and use colors as our statement. Dark purple, lime green, and white looks lovely with the silver base. I’d go with lavender and jade-green roses, white Asiatic lilies, maybe some freesia. These are some combinations.”
Avery watched his intense expression and was slammed back to the night on the beach. He’d been no robot—not even close. Sensuality had dripped from his voice and gleamed in his eyes. When was the last time she’d been kissed with such pent-up hunger and passion, as if she were the most important woman in the world?
“I think Ally would prefer this version,” he said, tapping the glossy image. “The taller ones give off an air of ostentatiousness.”
And just like that, all the warm feelings toward him leeched out. She snapped in annoyance. “‘Ostentatiousness’? It’s classic elegance with a vibrant twist. Sorry, but I disagree with you. I guarantee Ally will prefer the tall ones.”
He lifted his gaze and stared back at her. The chilly, judgy look was back, and it only made her want to take him down a peg. When had he become the wedding expert? Brother or not, he was butting into every decision she’d carefully analyzed and helped select with her vendors. Hours of work, and he bestowed opinions like she was his lowly employee, ready to do his bidding.
Funny, she’d dealt with all sorts of PITAs in every family relation, and always kept her cool. But the longer she spent with Carter, the more she wanted to prove she was right.
His smile mocked her. “And of course, I value your opinion, but I’m quite sure if you send both options to Ally, she’ll choose mine.”
“I don’t think so.”
Devon cleared her throat, her eyes wide with fascination. “How about we move on to the bouquet? We’ll put these two aside for now and secure the bride’s approval a bit later.”
Avery gathered her composure and nodded. “Of course,” she said brightly.
“I’m excited about this arrangement. Our main showpiece will be the lisianthus, which is a beautiful Kyoto-purple color. It’s a bell-shaped flower that looks like this.” Devon showed them a picture of rich violet spilling down in a vinelike flow. “I’d surround them with a white lily of the valley, some roses, and frame the bouquet with some wild greens. The dresses are lavender, correct?”
“Yes,” Avery answered.
“Perfect. We could do a smaller version with the bridesmaids. What do you think?”
Carter tapped his lip. “Do you have any of those in stock so I can see what it might look like?”
“I actually do. Give me a moment and I’ll be right back. I can put together an extremely rough frame for you.” She slid out of her seat and disappeared.
Avery turned with a snarl. Lucy sensed danger for her master and popped out of her carrier, a warning growl on her lips. “Why are you being such a jerk?” Avery hissed. “And keep your guard dog back.”
“She’s just protective, aren’t you, baby?” he crooned, picking her up and cuddling her on his lap. The dog settled, licked his hand, and shot Avery a triumphant look.
“And why am I a jerk? Because I care what Ally’s flowers look like for her wedding?”
She kept her voice to a harsh whisper. “You just want to disagree with me to bust my balls.”
He grinned. “Kind of impossible to do that, isn’t it? I’m just offering an alternate opinion. Do you call all of your clients jerks when they speak up?”
She squirmed in her seat. “No, just you.”
She knew she was being unprofessional, but he was trying to sabotage her choices on purpose. He just wanted to win. “You don’t care about flowers and cake and all this other stuff—I know you don’t.”
“I care about a lot of things you don’t give me credit for,” he growled, leaning in.
She sucked in a breath at the naked gleam of want in his eyes, and suddenly her body was on full alert. The room shimmered with raw energy.
“How come you never returned my texts?”
“There was no reason.”
“Oh, there were plenty of reasons. You just took the coward’s way out.”
“I don’t want to talk about the kiss!”
His expression practically seethed with hunger and heat. “Neither do I. I just want to do it again.”
Her mouth fell open.
Devon sashayed back into the room with a small bouquet. “Here we go! Here’s the lisianthus, and these are some other flowers we can pair them with. What do you think?”
Avery stayed silent as Carter studied the flowers with an intense scrutiny. His features slowly softened, and in that moment, she imagined him picturing his sister walking down the aisle for the first time.