Carter grinned and tousled her golden locks. “Thanks, princess, but I think you should eat mine. I’m really full.”
Those wide blue eyes turned to Avery, full of innocence. “Do you want yours?” she asked sweetly.
Avery shook her head, laughing. “Nope. Why don’t you eat those last two pieces, wash your hands, and come right back?”
“’Kay!” She popped them both into her mouth at once and raced to the fountain.
“Will you let me take you to dinner?” he asked in a low voice. “Or do I need to win another bet?”
She sighed. “No more bets. I’d go to dinner, Carter, but my schedule is insane. I have back-to-back appointments all this week, and a wedding this weekend.”
He nodded, a frown creasing his brow. “Is there a night I can cook for you? You can bring your laptop to my house and do some work, then break for dinner.”
She nibbled on her lower lip in thought, then paused when she caught his hungry stare. Her belly tumbled. Right then, she knew she’d do anything to see him again. In private. “Wednesday. Eight o’clock. Will that work?”
“Yeah. It’s a date.”
“Don’t forget Gabe is meeting you at the tux place tomorrow. And the favors will be done—I’ll bring over a sample Wednesday.”
Zoe appeared by their side, wet from head to toe. “Hi.”
Avery gasped. “How did you get so wet? You were supposed to wash only your hands.”
Zoe gave a little sigh. “There was a bug in my hair, so I wanted to get it out.”
Carter laughed and grabbed a towel from the stroller. “You definitely drowned the bug, along with yourself.” He rubbed her hair dry, chucking under her chin, and she gave him a quick hard hug.
“Can you come back home with me, Carter?”
“Not tonight, princess. But soon. We’ll make another playdate, okay? Right now, Aunt Avery has to take you home.”
“’Kay! Bye!” With another hug, the little girl smiled and skipped ahead of the stroller.
Avery said goodbye, heading back to Bella’s, and wondered how the man had managed to capture both of their hearts in one short day.
She couldn’t wait until Wednesday.
Carter knew the moment he met Gabe that he didn’t like him.
Gabe was young. Well, younger than he was. He strolled into the tux place with a male grace that pissed Carter off. His dark hair was thick and shiny. He was stylishly dressed in a white summer suit that should look ridiculous on anyone but Robert Redford in one of his old-school films. But no, this guy pulled the whole thing off, shaking Carter’s hand with a firm grip, his dark eyes quickly assessing his build and probably finding him lacking. God knew his one lousy hour lifting weights and running on the treadmill was nothing compared to this guy’s bulging biceps. How could he be a wedding planner? He didn’t seem the type.
“Nice to meet you, Carter,” Gabe said, his voice deep and cultured. “I’ve got a few choices I’d like you to try first, if you don’t mind? Avery told me Ally wanted you to have a different tux from the other groomsmen. Are you open to colors?”
“I’ve worn pink before,” Carter said, slightly defensive. The moment he uttered the words, he wanted to groan. Why was he acting like an idiot? Because the thought of this guy working endlessly next to Avery drove him fucking nuts?
Gabe laughed. “Don’t worry, I’d never stick you with pink. But I think lavender would work with the bridesmaid dresses without being overpowering. I have a few shades of gray picked out and various styles, too. Let’s get you suited up.”
He began to walk toward the dressing room with Carter. “Oh, I got this. I’ll just come out and model.”
Gabe’s dark eyes sparked with humor. “Of course. I just wanted to show you which room you have.”
Gabe opened the door to the one on the end. A line of tuxedos was neatly hung up, balanced with various shirts, ties, and two pairs of shoes. “Work from the right to the left. These three styles will accent the rest of the bridal party. I have two shoe sizes in case one runs tight. If you need help with the buttons or cummerbund, let me know.”
“Want something to drink?”
He deepened his voice. “Sure. Whiskey. Straight.”
Gabe pressed his lips together. “Um, I was going to offer water or coffee since it’s ten a.m., but I can probably get you a cocktail if you give me a few minutes.”
Fuck. “No, it was a joke. Sorry. I’m good.”
“Great, I’ll be out here waiting.”
Carter rubbed his head and told himself to get it together. Why was he intimidated? The guy was just a worker bee. Good-looking, yes. But if he was interested in Avery, wouldn’t he have made his move already?
He needed to find out.
He got himself into the first tux, hoping he’d hate it. Unfortunately, the style was nice—a bit conservative, with a narrowed jacket and tighter pants, but longer in the back, with some flair. The smoke gray accented the lavender shirt. He exited while Gabe assessed with a sharp gaze.
“Good cut. Fits your body shape perfectly. You like the colors?”
“It’s okay,” he said grudgingly.
“Alex, can you come here and take some measurements for me?” Gabe called out.
An older man with spectacles and gray hair walked over with a tape measure in hand. “Hello, Mr. Ross, I’m the owner, Alex. This style suits you.”
“Is it acceptable if I take measurements?”
He waved his permission, his gaze studying his competition. Carter cleared his throat. “How long have you been working at Sunshine Bridal?” he asked casually.
Gabe tapped his lips in deep thought, walking in a circle. “Oh, a good three years now.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s an exciting career.”
“I’m finding that out lately. Been shadowing Avery a bit for my sister’s wedding.”
The man smiled, flashing the whitest, straightest teeth he’d ever seen. “Avery’s the best. I learned the whole business under her direction.”
Carter’s muscles tightened. Alex frowned, snapping the tape and remeasuring as his body jerked. “Sorry,” he coughed out. “Avery does seem supportive. Do you work with Bella and Taylor, too?”
Gabe seemed to have no idea he was being grilled. He clucked under his tongue at something with the pant line, and got into a dialogue with Alex regarding brands and each one’s tendency to run a different size. “I help out everyone, but I work mainly with Avery. I’m her right-hand man. Her ride-or-die, you could say.”
His smug grin ripped at Carter’s temper. “Seems like you’re close friends.”
“Very close. Can you try on the next one for me? I want to get a comparison so you can make an informed choice.”
“Sure.” He got off the pedestal and changed into the second monkey suit while irritation scratched at his nerve endings. Was Gabe insinuating he was more than friends with Avery? Was he disrespecting her? He had to get more information. Pump him, then kill the bastard if he said anything lurid.
He stepped back out and resumed his place in front of the mirrors. The two men poked and clucked like mother hens rather than men hanging out without a group of women directing them. Damn, they took their jobs seriously. Still, he had to admit the second suit was even nicer. A lighter gray, breathable fabric paired with a deep-purple shirt that seemed to complement his color and emphasized the muscles he did own. The shawl collar had a deeper silver tone for contrast.
“Hmm, I like this better. What do you think?” Gabe asked.
“Me, too. More comfortable.”
“Can you turn to the right?” Gabe asked, fussing with the jacket. “Shoulders back, please.”
He did as directed. “Close business partnerships can sometimes get personal. Has that happened with you?”
A deep laugh sounded out. “Let’s just say my advances were ignored . . .”
Carter’s muscles eased. “She wasn’t interested?”
“Not yet. But you never know what will happen in the future. Okay, let’s try the last one. Not many men can pull it off, but I’d like to see it on you.”
He went back into the dressing room and tried not to lose it. What did that comment mean? That he was still hoping to date Avery? Maybe the asshole was trying to seduce her, using the closeness of work as an excuse. He tugged on the final tux and realized his chest was tight with the effort of not punching Gabe and telling him to leave his woman alone.
What the hell was happening to him?
He wasn’t the jealous type. There’d never been anything or anyone he was terrified of losing, except Ally and Lucy. No one had ever gotten that close. He’d only spent a few casual weeks with Avery. How could a connection be formed so quickly? And why did he feel in his very soul that she was meant to be with him?
By the time he reached the pedestal, his head throbbed with confusion and an overabundance of testosterone.
Gabe stood beside him in the mirror, grinning proudly. “Wow, man, you pull this one off well. Looking sharp. I tell you, not too many can wear the gingham gray, but you have the confidence to do it. You’ll make a hell of a statement, my friend. Thoughts?”