“Did you just come into my house without knocking again?” Taylor asked, grabbing back the bottle and refilling her own glass. She wore jeans with rips at the knee and a minuscule black halter top. Her pink hair was messy and gave her a bit of a rocker look. Paint dotted her clothes and smeared her hands. In her spare time, Avery’s sister practiced art and loved creating bold, intense paintings on canvas meant to challenge the onlooker. “What if I’d been getting laid?”
Avery froze. “Wait—are you in a relationship you haven’t told me about?”
She rolled her eyes. “News flash, babe. You don’t need to be in a relationship to sleep with someone. I don’t have your hang-ups.”
Avery shot her sister a look. “Fine, I’m sorry, I keep forgetting you demand privacy. Where’s Bella?”
“Probably putting Zoe down for bed. What’s got you all stressed out, oh mighty leader? Haven’t seen you this riled up since the best man puked all over the groom right before the Hoffman ceremony.”
The memory hit and still had the power to put her in a bad mood. “I’d put out a puke bucket because I knew he’d gotten drunk the night before, but he didn’t even use it!”
Taylor grinned. “It all worked out. Switch out a new shirt, a bit of seltzer on the pants and jacket, some Febreze, and he was good to go. Who’s the guy pissing you off now?”
“Carter Ross.” Avery slid her butt onto the trendy barstool Taylor liked, then wondered if she needed to squeeze in more time at the gym. Her rear seemed to have an overabundance of flesh compared to a week ago. Was it all those chocolate croissants? “He’s been torturing me this entire summer, making stupid bets about whose picks Ally would choose, and I’m done. Can you take care of him, please?”
Taylor considered her and took a sip of wine. “No.”
“Why not?” she whined. “I’ll take over one of your clients—we’ll do a switch.”
“Ally’s your best friend, you took this on last minute, and now you have to deal with the consequences.”
She shook her head. “Why are you such a bitch?”
Taylor grinned. “I work hard at it.”
The inner door banged open, and Bella strode in. “Is there wine?” she hissed frantically. With her golden hair pulled back in a ponytail, yoga pants, and a white T-shirt that said JUST BREATHE, she seemed to glow from the inside, a natural beauty Avery had always envied.
“I didn’t hear a knock,” Taylor said between clenched teeth. “Honestly, Bella, do you want my poor niece scarred for life? I could’ve been rolling around on the couch out here.”
“Oh my God, are you in a secret relationship? Who are you seeing?”
Taylor groaned. “You are both hopeless. Wine’s over there.”
Bella filled her glass and took the third stool by the granite island. Avery noticed that her butt fit perfectly on the tiny cushion. Figured. “Wedding season is killing me. Zoe is full of energy and running me ragged. And my vibrator finally broke, so now I need to find a new one.”
“That’s what I call a bleachable moment,” Avery said.
Taylor looked serious. “There’s a few new ones on the market since 2010.”
“You’re a real comedian. All I need is for it to be small, mighty, and quiet.”
“Underachiever,” Taylor muttered.
Avery couldn’t help but laugh. “You guys are bonkers.”
“Even worse? We’re celibate,” Bella said glumly, taking a sip of wine. “How do you meet someone when your entire day revolves around committed men?”
“Hey, what about Carter?” Taylor suggested. “Avery’s looking to get rid of him because he’s driving her crazy. Why don’t you spend some time with him doing the rest of the wedding appointments? He’s great with Zoe, he’s cute, and he’s single.”
A stab of jealousy lanced through Avery. Gripping the glass with a too-fierce hold, she tried not to glare daggers at her sister for suggesting it.
Bella tilted her head in consideration. “What’s his deal, Avery?”
Avery cleared her throat. “Trust me, you don’t want to get involved with him. He’s pushy and opinionated. I doubt you’d be a good match.”
Bella crossed her long, graceful legs. “Hmm, he seemed really nice when we met him. At first, I thought you two would be cute together, but I could tell you weren’t into him. He’s here for the rest of the summer? What does he do? Is he definitely single? Zoe really liked him.”
Heat seeped under her skin. Uneasiness stirred. Was Bella seriously interested in him? She hadn’t dated in so long, closed off to the idea of moving on from Matt, but five years had passed now. She deserved to find some happiness. Was Avery being too quick to discourage her sister because of her own opinions? Could Carter be a match?
Hell no, the inner voice inside whispered with an edge of nasty. Because he’s yours.
The image of their searing kiss burned hot and bright. She shook her head, trying to clear it. “He’s a hacker. He’s here for the rest of the summer, and then he’ll head back to DC. He’s definitely single.”
They waited for more, but she had nothing further to give. The idea of Bella and Carter together danced in her brain. Of course he’d fall for her. Bella was one of the most beautiful people she knew, inside and out. They could get married, and he’d be a stepfather to Zoe, and Avery would have to deal with the secret of their kiss and these ridiculous feelings hidden deep inside. Maybe one day she’d explode, and she and Bella would have a huge fight and never speak again. All because she’d allowed Bella to date Carter.
“Dude, what’s up with you?” Taylor asked, narrowing her gaze. “You look sick.”
“I just don’t think Bella dating Carter is a good idea,” Avery said.
Her sisters studied her for a while in silence. She arranged her face into a pleasant mask, waiting for the subject to change, and then everything exploded.
“Holy shit, you’re into him!” Taylor yelled. “You’ve got the hots for Carter!”
“Do not!” she shouted back instantly. “You’re being stupid!”
Bella laughed. “Oh my God, T is right. You like him and that’s why you’re acting all weird.”
“No wonder you’re so mad at him,” Taylor said. She turned to Bella. “Before you came in, she was droning on about what a jerk he was, and how she doesn’t want to work with him anymore. It was the first time she’s ever asked to switch a client.”
Bella nodded. “Yep, proof. Now, tell us everything. Don’t leave out any details.”
She blew out a frustrated breath. “There’s nothing to tell. I’m just . . . confused. I don’t think I like him, but then after we had that dinner at Peter Shields, we—”
“Wait, he took you to dinner?” Taylor asked. “Why didn’t we know that?”
“Because we’re all running ragged with work, and I didn’t mention it in our morning meetings. Plus, I paid because I lost a bet, so it wasn’t a date.”
“What bet?” Bella demanded.
“Remember when he picked Ally’s dress? He told me if she chose his option, I had to treat him to dinner.”
Her sisters shared a meaningful look. “Oh yeah, he’s definitely interested,” Bella said.
“So, after dinner, he suggested we walk on the beach and—”
“It’s illegal to walk the beach after nine,” Bella interrupted.
“I know.” She tamped down a groan. “We snuck under the chains.”
Taylor’s jaw dropped. “You? The ultimate rule follower? I can’t believe it. That’s the craziest thing you’ve done since you moved back home.”
She glared. “Can I finish my story, please?”
“Sorry,” Taylor said.
“We snuck on the beach, and before I knew it, we were kissing.”
“But you said you didn’t like him,” Taylor pointed out.
“I didn’t think I did, but there’s this intense chemistry between us. Freaks me out. And when he lets his guard down, he’s different and sort of sweet and I want to get close and comfort him.”
“So romantic,” Bella said with a sigh. “How does he kiss?”
“Really, really good. Who knows what would’ve happened if Ron didn’t break it up?”
“No way,” Taylor breathed. “You got busted by Ron?”
“Yep.” She told the rest of the story, all the way up to yesterday, when they’d made the beach date. “Now I’m supposed to go to the beach with him, but I have the Mitchell wedding and a million things to do, so I’ll probably end up canceling.”
Avery looked over at Taylor, whose face was set in the serious lines that showed she was not playing.
“You’re going. This man actually interests you, and even better? He challenges you, Avery. I’ll switch my day off and cover for you Monday.”
Bella chewed on her lip. “Uh-oh. I need some help with Zoe on Monday. I was going to ask if you could watch her just for a few hours, T.”