She was so screwed.
Swallowing hard, she tore her gaze away and forced a smile. “It sounds perfect,” she told the little girl. “Now, why don’t we go find your mom and show her the note?”
“Yes!” She jumped up, paper clutched in hand. “Thank you, Carter!”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart. Are you going to share the money you get with me?”
She burst into giggles. “I can’t! You have to lose a toot first!”
He ruffled her hair. “Ah, that’s right.”
Avery took the girl’s hand. “You’ve done an amazing job, Carter,” she said quietly. “I have to wrap a few things up, but you can go home.”
Her nerves tingled at the husky words that sounded like a sexy warning, but she just nodded and got Brianna back to her mother.
The last half hour flew by as the reception hall emptied and she closed out with the vendors. Pierce took off, the band packed up, and the room was finally, blissfully quiet. As usual, the high of the night leaked away and left complete exhaustion.
She’d done it again. The wedding had been successful.
Selena had hugged her and thanked her for a perfect day. Pride rushed through her. Once again, she was reminded of how much she loved her job. Many thought wedding planners were silly—impractical and expensive. She knew different. She knew to the brides and grooms she served, it made all the difference.
She knew she was important.
Groaning, she kicked off her shoes and uncrimped her toes. She grabbed her Tieks from her bag and slipped them on, breathing a sigh of relief. Guzzled half a bottle of water. Then limped toward the exit.
Carter was waiting for her.
God, he was hot. Those blistering pewter eyes staring at her from behind the black-framed glasses, giving him the sexy-nerd look. The sharpness and tight cut of his suit, emphasizing all those lean and yummy muscles. The clean line of his angled jaw and those pillowy lips she dreamed about kissing again.
Silently, he walked toward her, taking her giant bag and transferring it to his shoulder. “You did a hell of a job tonight.”
“So did you.”
They stared at one another. The steamy night air filled with longing and unspoken need. “Will you take a walk with me?”
There were a million reasons to say no: Her defenses were down. She was tired. The high of a successful event brought the usual crash of loneliness and craving for something beautiful for herself. He’d already been honest about his limitations, and a midnight moonlit stroll was not a good idea.
But she said yes anyway.
He put the bag in her car, took her hand, and headed toward the beach. The crash of the ocean became louder and drowned out the last of the wedding revelry at Congress Hall. His fingers were warm in hers, and the full moon cast a shimmery glow, catching the edge of the waves and spinning them to diamond-bright explosions of light. They walked down the pathway adjacent to the beach, past the line of Victorian bed-and-breakfast inns painted in Crayola-type colors, past the late-night crowds having last call at Harry’s Bar, and into the hushed quiet of private residences.
“I cannot believe the dog peed in the church.”
His words broke the silence, and a laugh broke from her lips. “Believe it or not, I’ve seen worse. At least it wasn’t poop.”
“And when the bride couldn’t get the train to button? I watched the whole bridal party try to use safety pins, but nothing would hold it up. What happened?”
“The bustle tore and popped a few buttons, so I had to sew it back together. My mother made sure all of us knew how to sew—and sew well—for any type of emergencies.”
“Impressive. Was that Uncle Bill who fell on the dance floor? Or Uncle Al?”
“Bill. I pegged him for the sloppy drinker at the rehearsal dinner. Thank God he didn’t throw out his back.”
“You know, they say weddings aren’t like the comedies pictured in the movies, but I disagree. They’re worse.”
“At least you’ll be ready for Ally’s wedding and primed to avoid all disasters. ManOH is a serious role.”
“I’m not worried at all.”
She snorted. “Confident much?”
“Yep. Because I have you by my side.”
Her mouth almost fell open, but she kept it locked closed. The simple truth of his statement caused pure pleasure to flood her. “No more fights or bets?”
“I call a truce. You still on board with my plan for AC, or do you really think the women would be better off keeping it quiet?”
It stung, but she told him the truth. In their last phone conversation, Ally had expressed that she was excited about the upcoming bachelorette party and was glad they’d switched it from a spa. “You were right,” she muttered. “Ally deserves a bit of wildness before settling in. I think AC will be great.”
“What was the first part again?”
“I said you were—” She stopped, tamping down a grin as he cocked his head, pretending to listen intently. “I said you were right. Enjoy it now, robot man. It won’t happen again.” The nickname rolled off her tongue with affection now, and no trace of mocking. She’d been wrong about him. He was nothing close to robotic or cold. The memory of his fingers thrusting inside her, slamming her into orgasm, shuddered through her.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No.”
He stopped. Tipped her chin up and studied her face.
Heart stuttering, she stood still, helpless to move.
His voice was a deep rumble of sound, caressing her like fingers trailing lightly over naked skin. “I don’t know how to stay away from you.”
A shiver raced down her spine. “We don’t have a choice. The bachelorette party is next week, and Ally will be back. We’ll be busy, and then after the wedding, you’ll go home to DC.”
The pain of not being able to see his face, touch him, talk with him, crashed through her. But nothing had changed between them. He couldn’t give her what she needed, and she had to protect herself.
“What if I tried?”
She jerked, staring up at him. His face seemed tortured, as if uttering the words had cost him. She pressed her fingers against his lips. “Don’t say it unless you mean it. I’m looking for a man who’s not afraid to love me and take a chance on a future together.”
He reached up and released the pins in her hair, letting the curls tumble free. A moan rose to her lips as he pulled through the strands, his hands strong and soothing on her scalp. “All I know is I’ve never felt like this before. Not with any other woman.”
A terrible hope ignited within, but her fear smothered the flame quickly. What was he promising? A two-week affair? A long-distance relationship? Would she be waiting for him in desperation to call, or spend weekends with her, until he slowly realized he didn’t have enough to give?
Her voice shook as she raised herself on tiptoes. “What do you want?” she demanded.
“You. Damn you, Avery, for making me want.” He gripped her head, and his mouth crashed over hers.
She kissed him back with a touch of violence and need. The dam within her broke, and she pushed her tongue in his mouth and sank her nails into his shoulders, then bit his lower lip. He cursed, reslanted his mouth, and took the kiss deep, forcing her to arch back under the ferocity of leashed male hunger.
They kissed a long time under the ripe full moon, until she finally managed to rip herself out of his embrace. Panting, she gazed at him like an opponent in the ring, ready for another round. “I need to go home.”
He stepped back, his breathing heavy. He nodded. “I’ll walk you back to your car.”
They didn’t speak or hold hands. The aching sexual tension throbbed between them like a mocking taunt, and she knew all she had to do was touch him one time before they both surrendered, damn the consequences.
She opened her door and slid into the front seat.
“I’ll see you this week about the final plans for AC?” he said.
She nodded. The empty ache inside stretched and yearned for more. “Carter?”
She nailed him with her stare. “Figure it out.”
Then she closed the door and drove home.
Avery picked at the healthy parfait in front of her filled with plain Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, and homemade granola. It was definitely good, but nowhere near the ecstasy of a chocolate croissant. But Madison’s had been out, and she knew she should be more like Bella and eat healthier.
“Do we want to discuss anything before Gabe gets here?” she asked, trying to muster some enthusiasm. Her usual energy had been lacking the last few days since her kiss with Carter. She kept checking her phone for a text, and swearing she saw him around every street corner. She fantasized about him showing up at her doorstep and declaring he wanted a full-on relationship with her, then dragging her to bed.
Taylor’s pink hair shimmered in the light streaming from the window. “Yeah, what’s going on with Carter?”
Bella looked up from the laptop, suddenly interested. “You owe us an update. Zoe couldn’t stop talking about her beach day with him, and then Gabe recruits him to help you at the Bankses’ wedding?”