“Ew!” She took off, and Avery kept watch while she rinsed her hands, then got distracted by shells littering the shoreline.
“Can I have one?”
Avery looked up. In the glare of the sun, Carter’s eyes crinkled at the corners, and those full lips held a sexy tilt, like he knew she’d been ogling him before but refused to admit it. “Sure.” She handed it over, pretending his half-naked body wasn’t interesting at all.
He bit into the ripe fruit, and a trickle of juice spilled over his chin. Her throat tightened as she imagined licking over the same trail and ending with her lips on his.
“Now that’s a thought I want to know,” he drawled. Amusement danced in his misty-blue eyes.
She ripped her gaze away and rummaged in the cooler for a juice box. “Trust me. You’ll never know.”
He laughed and took another bite. “Nothing like a good challenge to spur a man on.”
“Is that what this is to you—a challenge?” Suddenly, all the twisted feelings inside her leaked into her voice with pure frustration. “Is the sudden flirtation and interest in me boredom? An itch to finish out your vacay with some fun in the sack? Why don’t you tell me what this is really about, Carter?”
He finished his peach, and wiped his hands on a napkin. Then regarded her with an intensity that made her squirm. “None of the above.” His voice came out like sand and gravel, raking across her ears. “But I don’t have all the answers yet. I’m attracted to you. I want to spend more time with you. I want to kiss you again, and touch you in all your secret places and give you pleasure. This is all brand new to me, too. But if none of this interests you, I’ll respect it and back off. Just say the word.”
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. God, it’d be easier to just send him away and get back to her busy, crazy life. But deep inside, she wanted all of it. The idea of exploring this attraction was too appealing to turn down. Maybe it was time to take a chance and see what they could be together.
He waited for her response. Patience and a fierce demand mingled in his gaze, daring her not to lie. Sexual awareness skittered through her.
But she wasn’t ready to admit it. Not yet.
She took the safe route and avoided the question entirely. “You’re very good with Zoe,” she finally said.
She held her breath, wondering if he’d push, but his shoulders relaxed, and he allowed her the space. “I like kids. They’re honest and pure with their intentions. I like the way they look at the world without blinders.”
She tilted her head. “I guess I figured you’d find them messy, emotional, and a bit inconvenient.”
His rich laugh made her belly drop. “Sometimes. But the good outweighs the bad. I love the way all three of you banded together to support Zoe after her dad died. I know his death will always affect her, but she’s a happy, vibrant little girl.”
Her heart softened. He seemed to always be surprising her. “I think we were all lucky to have one another. Just like Ally was lucky to have you.”
Surprise flickered over his face, but before he had a chance to respond, Zoe came rushing back up to the blanket, her little hands full of shells. “Look what I got! Mommy says when I bring home a unique shell, it can go in the garden, but we can’t have any of the sames,” she babbled. “Can you help me find the good ones?”
“Definitely. Here, let me take them so you can eat your peach first. Looks like you got sandy all over again, princess.” He transferred the shells to her pail of water, grabbed a clean towel, and dusted off her fingers. Zoe ignored her Sofia the First beach chair and plopped her tiny butt next to Carter.
Smiling, Avery handed her the peach and juice box, watching while they chatted away and Carter began sifting through the various shells. The warmth and genuine interest on his face told her there was no pretense. He wasn’t trying to show off to get Avery into bed. This was a man who knew how to relate to kids and owned who he was. What a beautiful surprise.
A stirring in her gut rose up and crashed over her like a wave. Her dream of a future husband and father had always been a misty fragment of perfection—a list of black-and-white traits on paper that added up to a man worthy of her. But right now, a longing clawed to the surface, and the only sharp image in her vision was Carter Ross.
Shaken, she buried her thoughts and focused on the moment. It was a beautiful day at the beach, and she rarely got time off. For today, she’d have fun and soak in every ray of sunshine. Gabe was on call for emergencies if Taylor needed him, her phone was switched to silent, and the hours stretched before her like a gift.
Carter seemed to sense her shift of energy. They picked out their shells, Zoe finished her peach, and he stood up. “Ready to jump some waves, ladies?” he asked, extending both of his hands.
Zoe bounded up and grabbed at his fingers. “Yes! But not too far, because the water tastes yucky.”
“I’ll keep you safe. Avery? Ready to jump?”
She froze. The words stirred in the hot air with a much deeper meaning. His gaze dared her to join them. Her hesitation was brief, but enough to show her next actions weren’t done on impulse.
She stood up and took his other hand.
Their gazes locked. His grip tightened with a searing warmth and security that made her soul sigh. His slow smile made her heart swell, and she smiled back, a lighthearted happiness flowing through her body.
“Let’s go,” she said.
They ran down, hand in hand, to the shore.
The next hours passed in a joyous blur. At first, the shock of the freezing water hitting her bare skin stole her breath and her nerve. Carter and Zoe called out encouraging words, and eventually her body adjusted to the frigid temperature, and she waded in to her waist. The classic game of jumping waves brought her back to her childhood days with her sisters, when every weekend was spent in the water until their skin pruned and they shivered with cold. Then they’d wrap themselves up in towels and sit together, watching the vast expanse of beach where ocean met sky.
Carter kept Zoe high in his arms, careful to watch every incoming wave for intensity so the little girl never got a mouthful of water or sand. Her hands wrapped around his neck, and she squealed in delight. Emotion hit Avery while she watched them together, wishing Bella could find a man for her and Zoe to love, and wondering if Carter had snuck up to snatch all the secret parts in her heart she didn’t realize she had.
Too soon, the hour grew late, and they began to pack up. They rinsed the toys, shook out sandy towels, and piled up the stroller. The trudge back was slow, but they were all smiling as they reached the burning concrete and put on their sandals.
“Let’s wash our feet, honey,” she told Zoe, guiding her toward the showers.
They cleaned up and started heading toward the car. “Aunt Avery! Can I get the free fudge and say hi to Lenny?”
She turned, waving at the young teen working his summer job by handing out free fudge in front of the Fudge Kitchen. “Sure, we’ll wait here. Don’t take too much.”
“I won’t.” She raced off, and Lenny leaned down to chat with her, his gloved hand picking out a few choice pieces.
Avery shook her head. “She’s got most of the town charmed.”
“I’m not surprised. The Sunshine girls are hard to resist.”
He stood close. He’d propped his sunglasses on his head, revealing those gorgeous blue-gray eyes that called to her like a rising mystical storm. His nose was burned. Grains of sand clung to his cheeks. Stubble hugged his jaw. He’d shrugged on his T-shirt, which clung to his damp skin and outlined his broad shoulders and chest. He smelled of ocean salt, peaches, and man.
The words popped out of her mouth. “I had a good time.”
“Even with Zoe?”
“Especially with Zoe. I like seeing her with you. Your face lights up when you look at her. I keep wondering what it’d be like if you looked at me like that.”
Her breath caught. His voice seared like a brand. “You’re doing it again,” she said.
His hand slowly reached out. He stroked her curls back, and she wondered briefly how bad she looked. Crazy ocean hair, sweaty face, and sand-encrusted skin. But his fingers were gentle when he stroked her cheek, and his eyes burned so bright, with a need that called to her primitive soul. “Doing what?”
“Making me confused. When you talk like that, it makes me . . .”
His thumb stroked over her lips. “Makes you what, Avery?”
She shuddered. “Want.”
He muttered a low curse. His face tightened, and he leaned in so close, his breath grazed her in a caress. “Me, too.”
And then he was kissing her, the lightest brush of his lips sliding over hers, as fragile as a butterfly’s wings. His fingers cupped her cheeks, and his mouth sipped at hers with a delicacy that contradicted the bolt of raw hunger rushing through her in a demand for more. She rose up on tiptoes, but he was already stepping back, staring down at her with a male need that ripped a moan from her lips.
The pounding of Zoe’s footsteps clamored in her ears. The ground shifted underneath her as she tried to refocus.
“I had three, Aunt Avery, but they were little, and look—I brought back some for you!” Zoe stuck out her hand, which held two tiny pieces of fudge. Smushed.