But she’d walked away, and he didn’t blame her. He wasn’t what she wanted. A woman who embarked on relationships with the goal of marriage and white picket fences didn’t belong with a man like him. He’d made that vow long ago, when he saw how love destroyed and ripped apart his own family.
Yet . . .
She haunted him. When Gabe called, he’d been caught between the raw need to see her, and the fear he wouldn’t be able to watch her leave again. Gabe had been trying to do him a favor by allowing him a peek into her world. Carter was damn grateful. Gaining a front seat to watch her in action was a gift, even though being close to her was slow torture.
He stood in the back of the room and chugged water. The cake was done, and the bulk of the party was behind them. The alcohol and music had done their job well. Dancers crowded the floor, throwing up hands and stomping feet to a classic disco song that made Carter wince. Still, watching the families and friends make sentimental toasts, share first dances, and cheer on the new couple affected him more than he’d imagined. For the first time seeing a wedding close-up, he began to understand why Avery would find it important.
“Hey, you the new assistant?”
Carter turned. The photographer—Pierce—checked him out with a frank assessment that made him instantly tense. Was he another of Avery’s admirers? Or like Gabe, was he just part of her day-to-day world at Sunshine Bridal? “Hell no. I’d get fired within the week.” He put out his hand. “Carter Ross. We haven’t met, but Avery’s planning a wedding for my sister, Ally. Been wanting to stop by and introduce myself.”
Pierce shook his hand. “Yeah, I remember now. I’m doing Ally’s wedding in two weeks. Sorry for assuming you were a new hire. I’m burnt, been a long day.”
“No problem. It was actually nice to see you in action today. I know my sister will be in good hands.”
“Thanks.” Pierce rolled his neck and groaned. “Nice save with the dog debacle, by the way.”
Carter grinned. “Credit for that goes to Avery’s quick thinking.”
“She always has something in her pocket. She’s got a better save record than a major-league relief pitcher. What happened to Gabe?”
“Got sick. He called me to see if I could help out.”
Curiosity sparked in the man’s pale-green eyes, but he just nodded. He wore his dark hair long and tied back at the nape of his neck. He was built stocky and solid, but moved with grace and speed with a camera in his hand. “You must know Avery well, then. She doesn’t trust many people to work a wedding, even as an assistant.”
Pleasure speared through him. He liked the idea of her trusting him. “How long have you been working with her?” he asked.
“I grew up with her sister Taylor. Been part of the Sunshine family forever. Seemed natural to work for them as their primary photographer after college. Are you here till the wedding?”
He relaxed, sensing no interest in Avery from Pierce other than as a friend and business partner. “I rented a house until Labor Day. Gave myself some vacation time after the wedding before I get back to DC.”
“Nice. Well, I better get back to work. Listen, why don’t you stop by my office this week? I’m free late afternoons. I know your sister wasn’t able to see my portfolio personally, so I’d be happy to go through them with you and answer any questions. We can grab a beer afterward.”
“Thanks, I will.”
After Pierce walked away, Carter decided to go look for Avery in case she needed him. The reception was being held at Congress Hall, a pale yellow-and-white building that sprawled out on endless acreage. The hotel boasted rich dark woods, expensive antiques, and an old-world elegance that made it perfect for celebrations.
He searched the reception hall and headed down the stairs, where the loud music faded. He was just about to turn the corner when a faint sob rose to his ears. Alert, he backtracked and found the flower girl curled up on one of the chairs. If he remembered correctly, her name was Brianna. Knees up, her pretty face streaked with tears, she gulped and wiped at her cheeks when she spotted him.
His heart stopped. “Sweetheart, are you okay? Do you need me to find someone for you? Your mom or dad?”
She shook her head hard. The floral crown had long ago been disheveled and now lay drunkenly to the side. Her hair was tangled and her shoes were kicked off, and her dress held a streak of chocolate from the cake. “No. Mommy and Daddy are dancing with Aunt Selena. And I don’t wanna talk about it.”
He knelt down in front of her. “Okay. Your name is Brianna, right?”
“My name is Carter. It’s my job here to make sure everyone is safe and has a good time at the wedding. But you don’t look happy, which means I failed at my job, and that makes me pretty sad. Are you sure I can’t help?”
A small frown creased her brow. Big blue eyes stared back at him.
He assumed a sad face and patiently waited.
The little girl lifted her head, opened her mouth, and pointed. “I lost my toot.”
He smothered a smile at her mispronunciation. She was so damn cute with the bloody hole in the front. “That’s wonderful news! Now the tooth fairy can come and visit you tonight.”
Her face screwed up, and she began crying again.
Shit. What had he done?
He kept calm, but if she kept crying, he really needed to get her parents. “Sweetheart, what’s the matter? Does your mouth hurt?”
“I can’t find my toot!” she sobbed. “I lost it when it fell out!”
The pieces of the puzzle came together. Trying not to laugh, he cleared his throat. “I see. And you’re afraid the tooth fairy won’t come visit because you have no tooth to put under your pillow?”
She nodded miserably. “And I don’t want to tell Mommy and Daddy I lost it, because I lose things all the time, and sometimes they get mad. But I looked and I looked, and it’s gone forever.”
He nodded. “I understand. But I know for a fact your mom and dad won’t get mad about the tooth. When I was little, the same thing happened to me. I was playing baseball, and when I got home, my tooth was gone but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I cried, too, but then my mom told me all I had to do was write a note and explain it to the tooth fairy.”
Her mouth fell open in fascination. She leaned forward, her watery blue eyes blinking. “A note?”
“Yes. If we explain you lost it, the tooth fairy will still come visit. How about I get some paper and a pen and we write it together?”
“Yes! I know how to write my alphabet and a lot of words, but I may need help with the big, big ones.”
He smiled. “I’m good at big words. Now, let me get you some tissues, and I’ll be right back with paper, okay?”
He grabbed tissues from the bathroom, and asked for a pad and pen from the front-desk attendant. He figured it’d be easier to keep her occupied while her parents enjoyed themselves, and when they were done, he’d explain. He returned quickly, dragged over another chair so they were seated side by side, and gave her the pad. “Ready?”
“Okay, let’s start with ‘Dear Tooth Fairy . . .’”
Where was he?
She’d scoured the main reception area and the bar, but Carter was nowhere to be found. She wanted to let him know he could go home, but so far, he’d disappeared. Had he left already? That didn’t seem like him, though, not without letting her know.
Her heels tapped on the polished floors as she wandered past the reception area, and the sound of his deep voice echoed down a side corridor. She walked around the corner and stopped short.
He was sitting on a chair next to Brianna. The little girl had her feet tucked under her dress, which was now wrinkly and stained. Their heads were bent together, talking softly, and she was staring up at him with complete hero worship. The sweet image seared Avery’s vision and made all her girlie parts tingle. God, he was so good with children.
Avery walked toward them. “Hey, guys. How are you doing?” She’d spent some time over the weekend with Brianna, who was a complete doll.
The girl brightened when she spotted her. “Hi, Avery! Guess what? My toot fell out!” She pulled open her mouth and flashed the gaping hole right in the center.
Avery laughed. “Congratulations! That means the tooth fairy will visit.”
Carter’s lips twitched, his eyes full of affection. “That’s what I told her, but she was a bit upset since she lost the tooth. So we’re writing a letter to the tooth fairy to explain.”
Brianna nodded. “Carter said he did it when he was little, too, and it worked. Want to hear it?”
“I’d love to,” she said.
“Okay. It says, ‘Dear Toot Fairy, my toot fell out at Aunt Selena’s wedding and got lost, so it is not under my pillow. Please understand and leave my money. Thank you. Love, Brianna.’” Her head popped up. “Does that sound good? Carter helped me write it.”
His gaze swiveled to hers. Their eyes locked, and warmth flooded her body, her heart, her mind. He had the power to charm kids, dogs, and anyone else he chose. The man had helped her all night without complaint and respected her work ethic and her business. He’d gotten underneath her skin, revealed her vulnerabilities, and made her body sing. He didn’t believe in romantic love, yet at that moment, Avery knew she was falling in love with the man.