“Damn,” Taylor said.
Bella waved her hand in the air. “I’ll find someone else. Trust me, a man is much more important at this point. I agree with T. You need to spend some time with him and see if there’s anything there other than intense dislike and sexual chemistry.”
“Absolutely not. I refuse to lounge on a beach while you scramble to find a sitter for Zoe. Unless . . .” She trailed off, the plan forming perfectly in her mind. “I have an idea. A way to really test things out.”
“What?” Bella asked.
“I’ll take Zoe with me to the beach. He promised her a few weeks ago, anyway, and this will be a great way to see how he is in a relaxed environment. Stick a man with a preschooler for a few hours in the sun and you see the truth.”
“That’s kind of mean,” Taylor said. “But it may work. Especially if he’s trying to mask the bet as a way to get you alone. Teaches him a lesson and gives you the chance to see things more clearly.”
Bella sighed. “I think you should just skip the beach date and sleep with him.”
Avery laughed. “Sleeping with your best friend’s brother is so . . .”
“Cliché?” Taylor asked.
“Tropey. It screams romance novel and chick-flick movie. Maybe it was just a hot kiss and together we’ll be one hot mess,” she said with a sigh.
“Better to find out now,” Bella said. “I will allow you to borrow my daughter for your wicked plan. Just make sure you tell us everything afterward, and don’t leave out the good stuff.” She finished her wine and stood up. “I gotta get to bed. I’m exhausted.”
“And I have to finish this painting,” Taylor said. “Pierce said he’d hang one in his studio and try to sell it for me.”
Avery paused, studying her sister. Her cheeks were a bit flushed, which was unusual. “Hey, you didn’t tell me you wanted to try selling them. We can put some up in the conference room, too, if you want.”
Her sister shook her head. “Nah, that’s overkill. No one’s going to buy them anyway. Pierce just thought it would look nice behind his desk when he meets clients.”
“That’s nice. And don’t say that about your work. I always told you to try and go commercial or make a website.”
“Agreed,” Bella said. “I’ve always thought you had amazing talent.”
Taylor glared, a normal reaction when she was beginning to feel vulnerable. “Give me a break. Family doesn’t get to have an opinion, because they can’t see clearly. I should’ve never mentioned it.” She stormed out and shut the door behind her.
Bella sighed. “Mom always said she had a nasty temper. She really wants to be an artist, but she won’t admit it.”
“Probably afraid,” Avery said thoughtfully. “At least she felt comfortable enough to give one to Pierce.”
“Well, you know how close those two are. I always wanted a male friend like that. Preferably gay.”
“Remember when you thought Gabe was gay?” Avery asked with a grin. “I’ve never seen him so upset.”
“Well, I didn’t know! I rarely see a male working full-time in the wedding industry, and then he wore those leather pants. I feel terrible about how I judged him. I don’t think he’s ever really forgiven me for that assumption.”
“He never wore those pants again,” she said.
They giggled. Bella shook her head. “Okay, I’m going. Hopefully, you’ll sleep with Carter and give me every dirty detail. I’m tired of having celibate, boring sisters. Even Taylor is all talk and no action.”
Avery stuck out her tongue. “Just make sure to have Zoe ready bright and early Monday morning for our beach trip.”
Her sister gave a thumbs-up, and the door closed. Even though privacy was sometimes a problem in a town like Cape May, Avery loved having her sisters on the same block, and since they shared a house, it was the perfect way to see both in one visit.
She washed and recycled the wine bottle, cleaned her glass, and tidied the counter. Then she headed home to plan for her big date.
When Carter saw the two females tripping over the sand—pushing a large stroller filled with endless towels, buckets, shovels, toys, and an umbrella—he realized he’d been had.
His first date included a preschooler.
God, she was ruthless.
Still, as he walked over to meet them, he couldn’t help his gaze from roving over Avery’s flash of naked leg, or the luscious curves beneath her filmy red cover-up. Her curly hair was pinned up tight, but already the wind tugged a few honey-colored strands free and whipped them at her face. She seemed to be chattering away with her niece, but once Zoe saw him, she squealed and took off running over the sand, throwing a tide of grains at her aunt in a flurry.
He knelt down and swung her around, enjoying the high-pitched giggles. She wore a ruffled hot-pink bathing suit, a pink hat, and glittery pink sandals encrusted with jewels. Bangle bracelets filled up a wrist. Amusement skittered through him. “I didn’t know we were supposed to wear our jewels to the beach,” he said, feigning frustration. “I left my tiara at home.”
“You don’t have a tiara,” she said with a toothy grin. “Boys don’t wear those, silly.”
“Oh, then it’s a good thing I didn’t. Wouldn’t want anyone to laugh at me.”
Her face pulled into a serious frown. “That’s bullying, and it’s very bad,” she whispered. “I won’t let anyone do that to you, Carter.”
His heart melted into a pile of goo. “Thanks, princess. But you may have to watch your aunt. Sometimes she can say mean things.”
“I’ll make sure Aunt Avery is nice to you.”
The woman in question rolled her eyes, huffing slightly from pushing the stroller over the sand. He reached around and gently nudged her out of the way to take over. “Already brainwashing her, robot man?” she asked.
“Just looking for a little protection.” He leaned in, out of Zoe’s earshot. “After all, you brought her to be your guardian, right? So you wouldn’t have to be alone with me?”
She sputtered in outrage, and he grinned in delight, pushing the stroller ahead. “Bella needed some help, so I offered to bring Zoe. You promised her, remember?”
“That I did.”
“See, we bang out the bet and the promise in one shot.”
“Not the bang I’d hoped for,” he muttered. He stopped at the wide-open spot he’d picked to settle in for the day and began tugging things from the stroller. Zoe immediately plopped in the sand and started burying her legs, ignoring them.
Avery’s lips pursed into a tiny little O. “What did you say?”
His gaze raked over her slowly, deliberately, and he heard her catch of breath as the attraction between them caught fire and sizzled to life. “A different bang from what I’d hoped,” he repeated slowly. He admired the rosy color in her cheeks as his meaning sank in. “I’m fine having Zoe here today. We’ll have a lot of fun. It’s just going to be more difficult for us.”
She blinked. “Difficult how? Watching her? She’s very good.”
He gave her a lazy grin. “No, stealing another kiss. But don’t worry. I’m a pretty smart guy. I’ll work it out.”
He ignored her gasp, peeled off his shirt, and knelt in front of Zoe. “Race you to the water?”
“Yeah!” She jumped up, grabbing his hand, and they ran past the lifeguard into the waves.
He didn’t have to look back to see the simmering heat in Avery’s hazel eyes, or the frustration emanating from her gorgeous body. The image was clearly outlined in his imagination, so he focused on playing with Zoe and ignoring the woman who was wrecking his peaceful vacation.
He hadn’t experienced this much fun in a long, long time.
Why did the man have to look so hot in a bathing suit?
Avery tried not to gawk at the endless amounts of olive-toned skin, with the perfect sprinkling of hair dusting his chest, arms, legs, and tapering to that silky line that disappeared into his waistband. How were his abs so cut for a man who sat behind a desk? Those biceps and calves were taut and muscled. His ass was tight. But the biggest surprise was when he turned around and displayed the magnificent tattoo on the back of his right shoulder. An intricate compass inked his skin, seemingly with great detail she couldn’t study from this distance.
The compass fascinated her. Not only because she’d never pegged him as a man who’d ever get a tat but also because of his choice of ink. It was a symbol that seemed to contradict the man she thought she knew. She couldn’t stop staring at it, or the way his muscles bunched when he moved, or the sexy sheen of sweat glistening on his bare skin.
Her body was going haywire in the company of a five-year-old.
She was losing her damn mind.
Pulling out a few fresh peaches from her bag, she adjusted her chair in the sand and pushed her sunglasses up her nose. “Want some fruit, sweetie?” she called out.
“Yes!” Zoe barreled over, reaching out with sandy hands.
Avery laughed. “Go wash them in the ocean or your peach will be crunchy.”