Anger. Pride. Helplessness. Grief.
He pressed the phone back to his ear. “Ally, slow down,” he commanded. “What are you talking about? Who do you think you’re marrying?”
A frustrated hiss echoed over the line. “Are you serious? I’m marrying Jason, you idiot!”
His mind flashed on the image of a tall, slender man with dark hair and blue eyes that gazed at his sister with affection. Yes, Carter had met him a few times and actually liked him. The guy was the head of some big marketing firm, and he didn’t act like an asshole even though he was rich. But they hadn’t been dating long. Why get married so fast? Unless . . .
His heart rate sped up again.
“Ally-Cat, you can tell me the truth. Are you pregnant?”
A laugh burst out, and he almost fell out of the chair in relief. “Oh my God, you are so dramatic. No, I’m not pregnant. We’re doing this the traditional way. Maybe you’ll do it one day, too, if you ever decide to go out on an actual date. With a human, not canine.”
He relaxed in the worn leather chair, which squeaked a bit too loudly. He mentally added fixing it to his to-do list. “Lucy would take offense. And just because I don’t talk about my love life doesn’t mean I don’t have one.”
“Is your right foot shaking?” she asked, a smile in her voice.
He looked down and immediately stilled his twitching foot. “You’re changing the subject. Jason never called me to ask for permission to marry you.”
“I’m over thirty. I think we’re past that stage, don’t you?” she asked softly.
The image of his sister’s face floated in his mind. She’d always been bigger than life, as full of temper and vitality as her shock of red hair. Her brown eyes held dreams of glory but were always so kind. She’d always been the type to pull lost mutts to his doorstep, invite lonely kids to dinner, and forgive everyone before they deserved it. He’d tried to protect her from the known scum, but it was hard getting respect as her brother, even though he’d been more of a father than sibling to her after their parents died when she was only ten years old.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to keep tabs on her anymore or scare any assholes away since she’d moved to Texas. He made a mental note to call his private detective to get a check on Jason and make sure there weren’t any past zombies hidden in his closet. “Bring me up to speed. How long have you two been dating?”
“Barely enough time to know if he leaves the cap off the toothpaste.”
“He does, and I don’t care. Not like you, who threatened me with sticky notes in the bathroom.”
He winced. Not one of his better moves, but Carter found that being thorough was quite helpful in the majority of life, as opposed to Ally, who claimed she did her best work within chaos. He shuddered at the thought. “Fine, but there are bigger issues to consider. Does he gamble? Flirt with other women? Leave a bad tip at restaurants? Obsess with those ridiculous phone apps or social-media networks? I don’t want you to get caught off guard, because hiring a hit man to kill him isn’t as easy as the movies make it seem.”
“I know him.” Her familiar tone took on a misty longing and dancing joy.
Damn. She was in love. It had finally happened, and he wasn’t around to share her happiness or be close to support her. Guilt rippled across his nerve endings.
“He’s a good man, Carter. I think I knew the moment we met. I got those crazy butterflies, and when we shook hands, it was like the world faded out for a moment. My whole being shuddered. I just knew.”
This time, he was grateful they weren’t face-to-face. He couldn’t hide the cynicism regarding such fanciful ideas as instant love or finding one’s soul mate. Statistically, it didn’t even properly calculate as decent odds. People liked to wrap up attraction in pretty packages to sell movies, TV shows, or book ideas, especially for women. But he loved his sister, and if she was happy believing unicorns flew when their gazes met, he wasn’t about to contradict her. “I’m glad. But what if—”
“Carter.” She cut him off. The sudden silence jangled with raw emotion and a longing he could feel even with the miles between them. “Please be happy for me. It’s . . . important.”
He swallowed past the lump in his throat. Ah, hell. Did he have a choice? His baby sister was going to get married, and damned if he’d be the one to make her unhappy or ruin her moment. “I am happy for you. I’m just being a bit of a dick because I’m not there to hear the news in person. I miss you, Ally-Cat.”
“Miss you, too,” she said. “If you’d do FaceTime, I could show you the ring.”
He grinned. “You know I hate being on camera. Text me. Is it the size of Texas?”
“Bigger, and badder, and more sparkles than I ever imagined.”
His grin widened. Ally cared little for surface trappings, but she did have a weakness for things that glittered. “Tell me the details. Are you having a long engagement? Party? Is the date set yet? Shall I fly out soon?”
“Actually, we’re getting married this August.”
He fell silent, frowning. “Wait, I thought it took at least a year to plan a wedding. Are you sure you’re not forgetting to tell me something?”
“I’m sure. And yes, usually a big wedding takes time to plan, but we don’t want to wait. We’re in love, and I always dreamed of an outdoor summer wedding by the beach. I put in a call to Avery, and she agreed to take me on, even though it’s only four months to do everything.”
The name triggered a faded memory. “Avery?”
“Avery Sunshine, my best friend from college. Don’t you remember? She practically lived with us one semester when she had problems with her roommate. Please don’t tell me forty is affecting your memory,” she teased.
“Brat. Of course I remember.” Avery Sunshine. How could he forget his sister’s partner in crime? He’d worried so much when Ally began to run a bit wild in college, expressing her inner badass and late-teen angst. When she had brought Avery home one evening to hang out and introduced them, he’d hoped the girl would be the calming influence his sister needed.
He’d been wrong.
Instead, she was the fire that lit the match and made his sister burn. Suddenly, the double As (the ridiculous nickname they’d dubbed themselves) were sneaking alcohol, running around with boys, and turning into social partygoers. Sure, he’d expected some trouble in college—it was part of a ritual he’d read about and studied up on before sending his sister off to Georgetown University. But not at the level where grades were sacrificed.
When she’d brought home a C in biology, he did what needed to be done: He installed a curfew. Insisted on meeting every boy she wanted to date. And did his best to keep Avery Sunshine away from his home.
Her image danced in his mind. She reminded him of Tigger. Wild honey curls that sprang in every direction, bouncing over her shoulders as she zipped around with boundless energy. Flashing quick limbs and a mischievous grin. Stunning hazel eyes that seemed too large in her small face. A scattering of freckles over a pert nose that used to wrinkle whenever she was forced to talk to him.
Yeah, it was instant dislike on both of their parts.
In a crazy way, he’d almost felt like she was competing with him for Ally’s attention, determined to be her favorite. Ridiculous.
He’d tried explaining how important grades were, how they needed to keep their reputations spotless for future jobs and relationships, but she’d just tip up her head like she smelled something bad and pretend to listen.
Once, he’d overheard her call him old. His temper had hit until reality slammed him full force: she was right. He’d been the oldest twenty-six-year-old on the planet. But she still pissed him off.
Carter shook off his thoughts and refocused. “I didn’t think you two spoke anymore. You graduated a decade ago.”
“We’ve always kept in touch. I even went to see her in Cape May once for the weekend. Oh, Carter, you’d love it there. The beach is gorgeous, and there’s these Victorian inns that line the street. Quaint shops and five-star restaurants. It’s magical.”
He rarely got to see the beach. Growing up and working in DC, there wasn’t time or money for vacations, let alone an ocean getaway in New Jersey. “Sounds beautiful. But what does Avery have to do with your wedding?”
“She’s a wedding planner. She runs a business with her two sisters, and I’ve decided that’s where I want to get married. Can you picture an oceanfront ceremony paired with a glamorous reception? Jason loved the idea.”
He struggled to keep up with all the sudden plans. “I’m surprised you don’t want to get married in Texas.”
“I’ve only been here a year, and it’s not yet home. Jason’s family is scattered, so there was nothing holding us back from having a destination wedding. Even better, I’ve decided as soon as the semester ends, I’m heading to Cape May. Since we don’t have much time, and there’s endless decisions to be made, I rented a house for the summer!”
Ally worked as a professor of economics. When she’d graduated with her PhD, Carter realized all the work and sacrifice to give his sister the type of life she deserved had been worth it. “Ally-Cat, I’m so happy you can take a break, but you shouldn’t be stressed planning a wedding. I can pay for any planner you want—the best of the best. It’s sweet you want to give the business to Avery, but this is too important.”