“Good choice,” he said. The waitress came by and set their plates on the table. “Ally-Cat, our lunch just got here. Anything else you decided on?”
“I flipped through the floral options and think the bouquets are to die for. And the centerpieces were so different—I loved having a choice.”
“Which one do you prefer?” Avery asked.
Carter leaned in.
“Definitely the tall. It’s unique, and I think it makes a stronger impression.”
“I thought so, too,” Avery said with triumph. “Good choice.”
“Thanks, guys. I cannot believe you’ve been working so hard together for me. I owe you big-time.”
Avery lifted her gaze and locked with his. Electricity rippled through the air, ramping up a sweet sort of tension he was beginning to get used to around her. Even look forward to. She shifted in her seat, and he could practically feel the imprint of her lips over his, the taste of clover and honey coating his tongue. Her cheeks reddened, and a satisfaction surged through him. Good. She was just as aware of him and their connection. He bet she couldn’t get the kiss off her mind, either.
“No worries, that’s what I’m here for,” Avery said. “After all, it’s my job.” Her emphasis on the last word flicked at him in warning. “I’ll take care of all this. Let me know if anything else comes up. The final proof for the favors should be in this week, and I’ll shoot them out to you ASAP.”
They exchanged love and goodbyes, and Avery clicked off.
“I think that went well,” he said.
She shot him a look and concentrated on her plate. For the next few minutes, she ate in silence. He decided not to push and gave her space to settle. He broke off pieces of bread to feed to Lucy, who ate with an aristocratic grace and calm that allowed him to take her everywhere.
“I’m sure you’re quite satisfied with yourself,” she finally said. She nibbled on a watermelon slice, the rest of her plate clean. “I guess you won.”
He forked up a bite of potato salad. “I’m satisfied Ally’s happy with our choices. Don’t you think we both won?”
She narrowed her gaze. “You know what I mean. This little competition between us? You scored on the cake and the bachelorette party.”
“And you successfully picked the centerpieces and the rehearsal dinner. I’d say we’re even.”
She shook her head. “No, I booked the rehearsal dinner without you knowing. Plus, you found her dress. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’ve stopped looking for a fresh perspective for my clients.” She nibbled her bottom lip, seeming defeated.
Guilt hit. Ah, hell.
He cleared his throat. “Well, to be honest, I had a bit of help.” She tilted her head, waiting. “I, uh, spoke to my sister at length before each appointment.”
“Yeah, but I’ve spoken to her, too. You listened better.”
He shifted in his seat. “Actually, we sent pictures back and forth. Did she tell you about her private Pinterest board?”
She squinted in suspicion. “No.”
“That’s where she saves all of her ideas so she won’t forget. I pull a bunch of them, and we go back and forth until we narrow it down.”
The slice of watermelon dropped from her fingers as the dawning knowledge hit. “Wait. Are you telling me this is how you knew about those special flowers and the cake design and the AC thing?”
He winced. “Kind of. I go through her pins and find a common theme, then research a bit. She kept saving these bouquets with vandas, so I lasered in. And she had a bunch of websites with designer dresses, shoes, and trendy clubs, so I figured she really wouldn’t want a spa. I just know my sister. Sometimes what she says out loud isn’t what she really wants.”
He shrugged. “Not really. I just used the information at my disposal to help you out. The bottom line is we made Ally happy.”
She jabbed a finger at him. “You made me think I was beginning to lose my mojo! I should’ve known you couldn’t be this good. For God’s sake, you’re a guy!”
“A smart guy. But I’m glad you know everything now. We can move on with a clean slate.”
Her laugh made him nervous. It wasn’t really filled with genuine humor. “Oh, we’ll be moving on, all right. This little partnership is officially dissolved. We’re done. Everything’s been picked and confirmed, so there’s no need to see each other until the bachelorette party.”
His gut lurched. “I need to meet the photographer this week,” he reminded her.
“No need. We booked Pierce Powers because he’s the best and was willing to pull a twenty-four-hour shift just to squeeze Ally in. I don’t need you grilling him or whipping out some crazy ideas for the wedding. I’ll take care of it.”
“I thought you were going to help me with AC?”
She smiled so sweetly, he wondered if she’d get a cavity. “No. You wanted that job all for yourself, remember, ManOH?”
“What about the DJ? That’s too important to skip.”
“Already sent Ally a few CDs so she can make her choice.”
“I’ll be happy to make an appointment and send over Gabe. He’s my expert liaison for groomsmen.”
He was running out of excuses. Time to throw her off-balance. “Fine, I won’t bother you about any further wedding activities.”
Surprise flickered in her hazel eyes. “Really?”
“Really.” Her shoulders relaxed, and she took a sip of lemonade. “I want you to go on a date with me.”
She choked and spluttered, grabbing a napkin and pressing it to her lips. “What?”
“A date. I think we should date. I think that kiss proved we have a connection, and we owe it to ourselves to explore it this summer.”
“You are unbelievable. Do you just always state your feelings for the record?”
He blinked. “Sure, isn’t that what women want? For a man to tell her what he wants or thinks or feels? That’s what magazines and television are always groaning about—that men don’t share or explain their needs and intentions.”
This time, a genuine smile curved her lips. He wished he could kiss her again now and ingest all that warmth. “I guess. But, Carter, we don’t even like each other.”
“I like you. Well, I didn’t like you before, but now I do.”
She groaned and rubbed her eyes. “We’re completely different. And I can’t date my best friend’s brother.”
“Why not? We’re all adults here. Ally won’t care.”
“It’ll be too confusing, especially while planning her wedding. Besides, I’m too busy to date anyone.”
“I understand your schedule, and I’m happy to work around it, whether it be a late-night cocktail or a simple lunch. All I know is that I enjoy being around you, and I felt something when we were on that beach together. Something I haven’t felt before. Wouldn’t it be nice to take advantage of the summer and my time here? Unless you didn’t feel anything with our kiss . . .”
Her breath skittered, and a flare of vulnerability shone in her eyes. Relief crashed into him. Thank God. She wasn’t going to lie, which made this a hell of a lot easier.
Her nails tapped against the table in a steady rhythm, as if considering how much to reveal. “The kiss was good,” she finally said.
He grunted. “‘Good’?”
Her eyes half closed. “Fine, great. The kiss was great. But you and me? I don’t know.”
His male ego stung, but he wasn’t about to waste time stewing. “Give me a chance. Hell, maybe we’ll spend more time together and I’ll agree with you. But I’d like a shot. We can start with me collecting on my bet.”
Uh-oh. The softness fled and was replaced by her hard, glittering gaze. “Excuse me?”
He barreled through. “Remember you lost the bet for the cake? You have to spend the day at the beach with me. Won’t that be a great beginning for us?”
Her lips tightened into a thin line. Carter realized he’d made a big mistake when she stood up, grabbed her purse, and glared. “Sure. Blackmailing me by citing a bet to spend time together is a great start. I’ve got back-to-back weddings this entire weekend, so Monday looks like the only option. Why don’t you text me when my punishment begins and how long I need to be there with you? I’m really looking forward to our first date.”
“And how about a special secret tip straight from a woman’s lips?” She leaned in and practically snarled. “Sometimes not saying exactly what you feel is much smarter. Sometimes being a mystery can be a damn good thing.”
Lucy gave her another warning growl, not liking her tone.
Avery shot a glare at the dog, spun on her heel, and marched out.
Ah, shit. He’d done it again.
He’d been an asshole.
Avery flung open the door to her sisters’ house and marched in. “I cannot believe what a jerk he is! I’m done. From now on, if he needs something, you have to handle it.” Huffing in frustration, she opened the refrigerator, grabbed a bottle of chardonnay, and poured herself a glass.