“Yeah, it’s good.” Carter barely glanced at his appearance. Immediately, Alex began tugging at the fabric with his magic tape measure. “You dating anyone now?”
“Me? Nope. I’m staying focused. Need to convince one special woman to give me a chance. She’s worth the wait, and I better have the decks clear, so when she’s finally ready, I can dazzle her and make her fall for me. Know what I mean?” He winked like Carter was involved in his conspiracy to seduce Avery.
A roaring rose in his ears.
Alex stepped back with a proud expression. “All done.”
“Great! You’re all set. How do you like your new tux?”
Carter blinked, the red mist clearing, and looked into the mirror. The suit was a pale gray with a bold gingham pattern that made him look like a tablecloth. A wide bright-purple cummerbund swallowed his waist. The pants rode up his ass and made him look like a twelve-year-old boy.
What the hell was Gabe thinking? Unless he wanted Carter to look awful at the wedding because he sensed his interest in Avery?
With a low growl, he stepped off the pedestal. “Fuck no, I’m not wearing this clown suit. I’ll take the second one.” He stormed into the dressing room.
Taking his time, he breathed deep and told himself to calm the hell down. He had no right to beat up Gabe’s pretty face because he was interested in a beautiful, intelligent, funny woman. He’d be crazy not to be in love with her.
But he’d be too late. Because Carter was going to make sure he closed that door and locked it tight.
Avery Sunshine was his.
He came out, cutting a glare at Gabe. “What do you need? My credit card?”
The man stared at him for a long time. Then a delighted grin transformed his face. “Damn, you got it bad.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked rudely, barely keeping his shit together.
Gabe threw his head back and laughed. “Come on, dude. It’s close enough to noon now. I’m buying you a beer.”
“Why would I get a beer with you?”
He slapped Carter’s upper arm in a gesture of camaraderie. “Because I’m gonna tell you everything you want to know about Avery and how to dazzle her. We’re just friends, man. She’s not the one for me.” His handsome features shadowed. “I was talking about someone else. A woman who doesn’t even see me as a man, let alone as a future husband.”
The realization dawned. Gabe wasn’t after Avery at all. He frowned. “Why’d you try to hook me up with that butt-ugly tux?”
Gabe shrugged. “Wanted to see if you were worthy of her. Too many guys aren’t strong enough to have their own opinion. They want to please people who don’t even matter, like buying a crappy suit because some guy tells you it’s cool. Avery wouldn’t put up with that. Make sense?”
Slowly, Carter nodded. “Yeah. That’s fucked-up, but it does make sense. I think you do owe me a beer.”
Gabe laughed and they headed out.
Wednesday night, Avery arrived at the rental beach house and took a deep breath. It had been a long time since she’d had a date, let alone had a man cook dinner for her. She’d reminded herself all day it wasn’t a big deal, but the flip-flop of her tummy told her the opposite. Tonight, she’d spend time with Carter by choice, stripped of her previous excuses and denials he was just an annoying ManOH.
Vulnerability hit. She hated being unsure, but she wasn’t about to run away now. Like Taylor and Bella had told her, they needed some time together to see if there was anything between them other than surface attraction.
The porch held two rocking chairs and a wide blue-checkered awning for shade. He’d picked a rental ten blocks from the beach, so the road was a bit quieter and more residential. After a few more moments of psyching herself up, she knocked.
He opened the door, and his pleased smile made her relax. “I’m glad you made it,” he said, ushering her in.
The small cottage was decorated in the usual beachy theme, with lots of bright-white paint, bleached gray floors, and various knickknacks that livened up the rooms. There were wooden signs that screamed “I’D RATHER BE AT THE BEACH,” wicker baskets full of books and magazines, and comfortable furniture in yellow and blue that gave the place a true vacation feel.
“Cute place,” she said.
Lucy trailed in Carter’s wake, tail wagging frantically, and damned if the dog didn’t jerk back in surprise when she saw who’d entered her master’s home. Avery took in her displeased gaze, the tiny nose in the air sniffing with distaste.
The tail fell still.
Great. She had a possessive canine to deal with along with her own confused emotions. Better to make friends than enemies, right?
She placed her laptop bag down and knelt, putting out her hand in a gesture of goodwill. “Hi, Lucy. How are you, girl?”
The Yorkie took a step forward. Her nose twitched. Her pink bow flopped to the side of her head.
Then the dog backed up, stuck her ass in the air, and walked away.
Carter frowned. “Lucy, that wasn’t nice. Honestly, I don’t know why she’s so cold to you. Are you sure you like dogs? She’s very sensitive to emotion.”
Avery stood up, practically snapping in defense. “I told you—I love dogs! She thinks I’m competition for your attention.”
He waved a hand in the air and laughed. “That’s ridiculous. Lucy knows I’d never choose anyone over her.”
She choked out a gasp. “Gee, thanks.”
He must’ve realized what he’d said, and shook his head. “Sorry, that came out all wrong. I just meant I made a commitment to her, and I take that seriously. I’m not one to give up on someone I love for anything.”
Heat surged through her at the simplicity of his statement. This was a man who had no problem with love. How had she missed such tenderness and ferocity behind his cool, distant surface? How had she been so very wrong about him?
Having no clue he’d just blown up her world, he faced her with a smile. “Do you want a glass of wine? I can delay dinner if you want to work first.”
“Thanks, white, please. I actually got a lot accomplished today, but I need a good half an hour to clean up some tasks for this weekend.”
“Of course. You can work at the table over there while I finish cooking. I’ll bring your wine over.”
Uneasiness flowed. Some hot date. Work seemed to cram up every moment of her life. She couldn’t even enjoy a nice dinner during wedding season. Why would he want her here if she couldn’t focus her attention? She bit her lip, suddenly questioning this whole ridiculous idea. “I’m really sorry. I’m sure this isn’t your idea of a fun date—you cook while I work. Are you sure you want me here?”
He regarded her from across the high granite countertop, hands on hips. Those gorgeous dusky blue-gray eyes sparked. “Actually, this will be one of the nicest dates for me. I’m a homebody, and I enjoy cooking. I understand your workload, Avery. I respect the hell out of a business owner who does what she needs to do to be successful, and you never have to apologize for that. Not with me.”
The tension eased and she smiled. “Thanks. Then I’ll bang out the rest of this work so we can enjoy the meal.”
He winked. “Bang away.”
She set up her laptop, pulling up various spreadsheets and checklists for the Bankses’ wedding. In minutes, she was swept away in a tide of endless details and the quest to make the event flawless. She murmured a thanks when Carter brought her wine, enjoying the cool fruity taste of sauvignon blanc on her tongue. She tapped out texts to her upcoming bride, combed through final schedules with vendors and made sure they had what they needed, and confirmed all reservations for the upcoming weekend festivities. The wine was gone when she finally surfaced, satisfied she’d gotten ahead on any issues ready to sidetrack her tomorrow. Slowly, she stretched and turned toward Carter.
He was humming under his breath as he moved around the small kitchen. The rich scents of lemon, basil, and garlic filled the air, along with the pleasant sounds of sizzling oil and bubbling water, but it was Carter Ross himself that held her transfixed attention.
God, he was gorgeous. How had she ever overlooked the earthy sexiness of the man? He wore faded jeans that cupped his taut ass and showcased the lean length of his legs. A white short-sleeve shirt was unbuttoned at the neck, giving her a tantalizing glimpse of his chiseled chest covered with dark hair. His bare feet moved soundlessly over the floors as he checked and stirred pots and pans, relaxed and at ease with his task.
Her heart fluttered like a schoolgirl’s. She’d never had a man cook for her before. All her dates consisted of formal dinners or the occasional movie, and rarely led back to cocktails at home. She’d never craved that type of intimacy before—happy with the crumbs of romance and the occasional making-out session. He was beginning to stir up all sorts of longings in the short time he’d been here. If he wanted to take her to bed tonight, would she let him?
The thoughts whirled in her head as she packed up her laptop, grabbed her glass, and headed into the kitchen. “All set,” she said lightly, sliding onto one of the cushioned chairs. “Can I help? It smells amazing.”