A tinkling laugh rose to his ears. “Sunshine Bridal is the best of the best in Cape May. Avery’s the one doing me a favor by squeezing me into her schedule.”
He couldn’t imagine the girl he’d known running a successful wedding agency. She was too scattered, too intent on pursuing fun at the expense of responsibility. He’d assumed her family had spoiled her rotten, allowing her to waste an expensive education at Georgetown to pursue some fun and experience the novelty of living away from home. Unease settled over him. “Is Jason coming with you, too?”
“No, he has to work, but he’ll fly out for some long weekends. It’ll be exciting to steep myself in wedding details and hang with Avery again. We always have so much fun together.”
“Hmm, yes, you do.”
“You’re worried, aren’t you? Afraid I’m going to get into trouble at some dive bar or get caught skinny-dipping in the ocean?”
“Like the time I had to bail you two out after you were arrested for trespassing at the gardens?”
He could practically see her wince. “Okay, admittedly that was not a good idea. Avery and I just wanted to see what the gardens were like in the moonlight. It was harmless.”
“It was the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But sure, almost having a criminal record is completely harmless. I wonder why I’m concerned you’ll be traipsing around all summer with this woman.”
Her words came out in a harsh whisper, and he was sure she was gritting her teeth. “Stop treating me like a child or I won’t ask you to be my man of honor. Why do you always have to hold this crap over me? I have a respectable job and I’m getting married.”
His heart stilled. “Man of what?”
“Man of honor. I had a nice speech planned before I asked you, but you managed to piss me off once again, so this is the best you’re gonna get. Carter, my overbearing, pain-in-the-ass brother, will you be my man of honor for my wedding?”
He blinked. His throat tightened with emotion. His sister had been his entire world for most of his life. To be asked to stand beside her through her wedding meant everything to him. It took him a few moments before he was able to respond. “I don’t have to wear a dress, do I?”
She laughed. “Not unless you want to. No, your job will be to help me make decisions and just be my emotional rock. Avery will take care of everything else, but I really want your input. Oh, how I’d love for you to spend some time with me this summer. It’s been forever since we hung out. When was the last time you took a vacation?”
Never. Not that it mattered. His job was satisfying, and he’d been able to stop worrying as much these last five years as Ally settled into being an adult and building her own life. “Besides the team-building project at Logan Circle?”
“That wasn’t a vacation. Please tell me you know that.”
“But the scavenger hunt and escape-room activities really helped us bond.”
“Okay, I have an outrageous suggestion: take some time off and spend the summer with me. You never take vacations, and we’d have so much fun!”
He opened his mouth, automatically ready to decline, then shut it. For the first time in a while, he was a bit restless. He loved his job as a hacker, but there was an odd stirring in his gut. Almost as if he were searching for . . . more. He just wasn’t sure what it was.
Spending time with his sister might be the solution. She was his only family, and helping her plan the most important day of her life would be like stepping back into the past, when they were together 24-7. Getting the time off shouldn’t be a problem. He’d accumulated a ton of vacation days, and he’d finish up this latest project by the end of the month.
“Let me see what I can do. Are you sure I wouldn’t be crashing in on your time with Avery?” He knew he was a bit overprotective and overwhelming at times.
“As long as you don’t give me a curfew or limit my alcohol intake, I’d love it.”
“Okay, Ally-Cat, you convinced me. Let’s do it.”
Her squeal made him grin. “This is going to be the best summer of our lives.”
Carter wondered why her words suddenly seemed like a forewarning of something to come. He shook off the odd thought, said goodbye to his sister, and began to make a list to prepare for his time off.
Avery selected a croissant from the platter. The flaky crust and buttery texture showed a perfect bake, and just a hint of chocolate peeked from the sides. She licked her lips and settled at the head of the conference table—a gorgeous mahogany antique that she’d grabbed at an estate sale and repurposed. The standout centerpiece of the room was paired with softer touches: fresh blush roses, lavender-mint soy candles, soft buttercream carpeting, and delicate lace curtains. The walls were adorned with black-and-white photographs of some of their most esteemed weddings, clad in ornate frames that beckoned new clients.
This was different from the war room, since they brought all prospective clients here for meetings. Avery had learned that showcasing a ruthless business purpose paired with appealing to all five senses was a winning combination in the wedding business.
She flipped open her planner and laptop, then glanced around the room. Her sisters were all seated and ready for the meeting, along with Gabe, her full-time assistant and right-hand man. “Good morning, ladies and gentleman! Let’s make this a great day! Bella, do you want to start?”
Her sister’s calm energy blanketed the room. Avery didn’t know if it was being a mother or the tragic past of losing her husband, but she was continually impressed by Bella’s ability to keep focused in any crazy situation. It was like she owned a yogi’s heart, though she’d never taken up the practice, preferring to run on the boardwalk every morning before Zoe awoke.
“I have the Cameron wedding this upcoming weekend, and everything is on schedule. We discovered there are two nut allergies, so we changed out the cake. The family descends on the Chalfonte Hotel on Thursday, so I’ll need all hands on deck. The MOG offered to treat the wedding party to a spa treatment on Friday, and the FOB requested jet skiing.”
Avery winced. “Well, the mother of the groom will earn points, but you couldn’t talk the father of the bride into a safe golf outing instead?”
“Nope,” Bella said. “He was insistent, but I spoke with Ralph at the marina, and they’ll send a guide to make sure no one goes daredevil in the water.”
Taylor snorted into her coffee cup. “Let’s just hope they fare better than the Sullivans. I still think that ranks as one of our worst weddings.”
Avery lifted a brow. “Really? What about the Cruz ceremony during Hurricane Sandy?” The bride’s veil had been ripped off by the wind, the reception flooded, and a bridesmaid got hit in the face with part of the trellis. Thank God for their liability clause or they’d be bankrupt.
Gabe put down his latte, no doubt doctored with a double shot of espresso, and cut in. “Sorry, boss, but Taylor is right. The Sullivan FOG ended up stealing a Jet Ski and crashing it, remember? Broke his leg and couldn’t walk his daughter down the aisle. I never took him for a wild one, but he got on that thing when nobody was looking, jumped the roped-off area, and headed for the wild blue ocean beyond. Ralph thought he’d drowned by the time he caught up to him.”
“True,” Avery said. She popped the rest of the croissant in her mouth and tamped down the urge to have one more. She loved morning breakfast meetings with pastries.
“And the bride was a crier,” Taylor added.
“I hate the criers,” Bella said. “Everything takes so much longer when you have to calm them down.”
Gabe shrugged. “I don’t mind the weepy ones. Most of them are easy to handle, especially compared to the divas.”
“I don’t think there’s a woman you can’t handle,” Avery teased. Gabe embraced all things bridal and owned it. He was charming with the ladies, best friends with the guys, and adept at sewing up loose ends that could end up biting them in the ass. The entire town of Cape May was madly in love with him, as evidenced by his being named Bachelor of the Cape for two years in a row in Exit Zero magazine.
Avery scratched a note into her calendar. “Okay, we’ll keep a tight watch on the FOB. Let us know if you need any backup. T?”
Taylor casually glanced at her purple glitter Passion Planner and tapped her matching purple nail. “I just have the afternoon tea service on Sunday for a bridal party, but next weekend is Elsa’s bachelorette party in Wildwood.”
Avery stared. “Wildwood?”
Taylor gave a snort of laughter. “Yep. The bride wants an old-fashioned boardwalk experience with fast food, cotton candy, and rides. It’ll be easy, but you know Jersey girls can get a bit wild. Anyone care to jump in and help?”
Avery and Bella both shook their heads. “I think you got this one,” Avery said, hoping her sister didn’t insist. Taylor was the best with bachelorette parties, entertainment, social media, and intimidating the hell out of wayward grooms and bitchy maids of honor. Still, they had instituted a rule of always having a backup in case of emergencies. “Gabe, would you mind being on call in case T needs an extra chaperone?”