His smile was warm and gave her all the tingles. Had she really called him robot man? She’d been so wrong. “No, it’s under control. Will be ready in a few minutes. Did you get all your work done?”
She propped up her elbows on the counter. “Yes. Taylor and Bella have other events booked, so it’s just me and Gabe handling this wedding. Besides a large wedding party, demanding MOB, and anal groom, I need to make sure nothing gets overlooked.”
He stirred the asparagus, which looked nice and crisp, just the way she liked it. “MOB is Mother of the Bride, right? Do you use acronyms for all your clients?”
“Pretty much. It’s our shorthand for all those long titles,” she said as he refilled her wineglass. “MOBs can be a nightmare, even more so than the bride. For instance, this one undercut the bride’s choices on everything, and made her doubt her instincts. As the planner, it’s my job to protect the bride and encourage her to keep her vision alive while dealing with stubborn relatives who believe they can do it better.”
“And the anal groom?”
She took a sip. “The groom insists his dog be the ring bearer.”
His lip quirked. She had the urge to run her fingers over his mouth to see if his lips were as soft as she remembered. “Doesn’t sound too weird. Plenty of people have their dogs involved in weddings.”
“Yes, but the ceremony isn’t outside or at the beach. It’s in a church where we needed to get special permission to bring the dog in. I’ve also heard the dog misbehaves, which makes this a challenge. Of course, I’ll try to gauge how bad it will be at the rehearsal dinner. The groom promised to practice with Gus so he’s not nervous.”
“Yep. Plus, the groom demanded a gluten- and nut-free cake.”
“Well, people have allergies.”
She sighed. “But no one he knows at the wedding has any allergies. He just wants to be prepared. He also insisted no roses be used anywhere in the ceremony or reception because it’s bad luck. I guess his ex-wife used roses everywhere, and he believes it’d be a curse to his new marriage.”
Carter lifted a brow. “I think anal is the wrong word.”
She laughed. “Well, at least I’ll have Gabe with me. I forgot to ask you about the tuxedo appointment. Did it go well?”
Something danced in his eyes, but he turned quickly so she couldn’t study him further. “Yep. Found a good tux.”
“And Gabe? Did you both get along?”
“Better than I imagined.”
She sighed with relief. “I’m so glad. Gabe is simply amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
He turned and pinned her with his gaze. Heat flared between them. “He said the same thing about you.” She sensed more to the story, but he smiled and said nothing more.
“Oh, I forgot to show you the favors we settled on. Want to see?” she asked.
She shot him a suspicious look. “You’re not going to suggest an alternative and then challenge me to another bet, are you?”
He held his hands up. “Promise. No judgment or helpful comments.”
She muttered an assent and grabbed the wrapped item from her bag. Carefully removing the fabric from the plastic-wrap protector, she withdrew the tea towel.
Carter frowned. “A shirt?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course not. Unfold it.”
He smoothed out the fabric and stared at it. Avery hoped he saw what she did. The tea towel was silver gray, soft to the touch, and had an Elizabeth Barrett Browning quote embroidered in calligraphy:
I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
Underneath were Ally’s and Jason’s names with the wedding date.
He stared at it for a while.
“You don’t like it?” She tried not to show disappointment. “Before you begin going off in a new direction, your sister approved them, and they’re already paid for. Nonrefundable.”
He looked up and smiled. “It’s beautiful.”
Relief cut through her. “Thank God. Ally really wanted to use the quote on something that wouldn’t be thrown away, and everyone loves a tea towel. I had no idea your parents were such romantics,” she teased. “Did they both love poetry? I never asked Ally about the true meaning behind the poem.”
His jaw tightened. “My parents were like lovesick schoolkids. Crazy about each other. They’d met in college in an English class, so their love for words bonded them. Dad would read poetry to her late at night. That was Mom’s favorite quote. When Dad got in trouble, he’d find ways to use it as a reminder that he loved her.”
The thought of such devotion shook her to the core. “You were lucky to have them,” she said quietly, sensing his tension. “They showed you and Ally what’s possible.”
He turned, jerking the pan from the stove and turning off the heat. His shoulders tensed into a straight line. “I learned many things from my parents’ relationship,” he said with a touch of bitterness. “But I’m glad the quote makes Ally happy. She should have something to remember them by during the wedding.”
She frowned, feeling as if she’d stepped over a personal boundary he let no one cross. Was it the pain of losing them that caused the edge in his voice? Or something she didn’t know? Something deeper?
When he faced her again, the smile was back, and his face had softened. “Dinner’s ready.”
She helped him serve, and they began to eat. She practically moaned with pleasure at each perfect bite. The roasted chicken was tender and juicy. The asparagus, slightly burned and garlicky. The baked potato was filled with butter and chives, with firm skin and a soft center. He’d even made dinner rolls with shiny, buttery tops that leaked steam when broken open.
“This is amazing,” she finally managed to say between bites. “You’re not a cook. You’re a chef.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
She laughed and watched him share his food with Lucy with a separate fork. Her little face tipped up, big brown eyes filled with pleading he seemed unable to resist. She ate like an aristocrat, sliding the food carefully from the fork and chewing slowly, sighing in happiness and waiting for the next morsel. “You spoil her.”
“I pamper her,” he corrected. He turned and tilted his head, studying Avery’s face with his searing gaze. “I enjoy pampering my women.”
His husky voice made goose bumps pepper her skin. Her belly tumbled, thinking of all the dark meanings in his words and how badly she wanted them. “Are there many?”
“Women,” she said lightly. “Women in your past who you’ve pampered.”
His grin told her the question amused him. “Not many. Like you, I’m very involved with my work. My main focus has always been raising and providing stability for Ally. My relationships have been short and far between.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
He paused, placing his fork down on the plate with intention. The clink vibrated in the air. Avery didn’t know why his response was so important. His face grew shadowed. She sucked in her breath at the naked pain she spotted, before the barrier quickly slammed down and his gaze cleared. “No. I don’t believe in love.”
Shock filled her. She blinked, staring into his face. “How can you not believe in love? You adore your sister. Lucy. Certainly there are others you love.”
His expression turned grim. “I should have clarified. I know love exists, and you’re right, I love many people in my life. Friends, family. But I choose not to fall in love and get married. To give myself over to another with the expectation she alone will make me happy and fulfilled. I believe you can have a healthy, happy relationship without the trappings and expectations of romantic love or marriage. Personally, I think it’s dangerous pushing couples to believe in that all-consuming emotion poets and artists and filmmakers write about.”
The room spun as she tried desperately to piece together his words and get the full picture. Impossible. She’d seen the range of emotions within him. How could he choose not to believe? “But your sister is getting married. You’re going to stand beside her as the man of honor and watch her commit to an institution you don’t even believe in?”
He nodded. “I am, because that’s her choice. I don’t have the right to put my beliefs on her, but I’ve seen firsthand how love can ruin lives. It can tear people apart and break them so hard, they can’t be put back together.”
She shook her head and gripped the edge of the table. The evening had been so hopeful, and with his words, she found her hopes shredded in tatters. “What type of life do you expect to lead without the hope of love or marriage?” she whispered.
His voice was gentle, but firm. “An honest one. It doesn’t mean I can’t experience things such as passion and romance and beauty. I just choose not to follow a road that I don’t believe in.” He leaned in and took her hands, clasping them in his warm, strong grip. “Is this a make or break for you, Avery? Would you be able to open yourself up to a man without the promise of marriage and happily ever after? Can you grasp the moment and steep yourself in it without trying to define what we feel for each other? I can offer you so many other things.”