She shifted in her chair. Usually, she told her sisters everything because nothing interesting happened in her personal life. But lately, she’d been close-lipped, afraid to tell them about the real feelings she was developing. She wondered how much she should share, and then realized it was too late.
They’d scented vulnerability.
“Did you sleep with him?” Taylor demanded, the diamond in her nose winking outrageously. “I swear to God, Avery, if you slept with him and kept it from us, I’m gonna be pissed.”
Avery gasped. “Are you kidding? You were the one who said to start knocking and give you privacy.”
“That’s different. I’ll happily share all my sex stories with either of you. I just don’t want you actually seeing it.”
Bella laughed. “Good to know, T.”
“I didn’t sleep with him,” Avery said stiffly. “We just . . . kissed.”
“Did you have an orgasm?” Bella asked.
She dropped her face into her hands and groaned. “Oh my God, we’re not teenagers anymore, guys! I refuse to talk about this with you.”
“Aww, babe, you did have an orgasm!” Taylor said proudly. “Good for you.”
“Are you going to see him again, or was it a onetime thing?” Bella asked.
All the ragged emotions hit her at once, and she was suddenly fighting tears.
Her sisters sensed her shift in mood, and in moments, they were crowded around her. “Did he hurt you?” Taylor asked. “I’ll fuck him up good if he did.”
She sniffed and tried to laugh. “No. I’m just stupid and fell for him.”
“But that’s a good thing,” Bella said, stroking her hair in a motherly fashion. “You deserve to have a relationship and be happy. What’s the problem?”
“He doesn’t believe in love. Or marriage. He won’t tell me why, but he’s so damn stubborn about not wanting to commit to one person for the rest of his life. And I’m not asking him to put a ring on my finger after a few weeks—but I need to know I won’t get hurt!”
Bella clucked her tongue. “That is surprising because he’s so wonderful with Zoe. And he raised Ally. Was he divorced before or something?”
Avery shook her head. “No. Maybe he got hurt in the past? I don’t know. I told him I can’t get involved when there’s no possibility of a future together.”
She looked at Taylor. “‘Why?’” she repeated. “Because it makes no sense. I’m already falling for him. We’ll have some type of long-distance relationship, I’ll want more, and he’ll end up breaking my heart. There’s no happy ending here.”
Taylor frowned. “Well, that’s a lousy way to look at life,” she said. “Are you telling me you say no to anything that doesn’t guarantee a happily ever after? ’Cause that’s just lame.”
Avery stared at her sister, temper snapping. “Thanks for the support, T. Of course you wouldn’t understand why I shouldn’t explore a relationship with someone who’ll end up walking away.”
She shrugged. Her sister didn’t even seem bothered by the jab. “Maybe he won’t. Maybe he needs time to see if you’re the woman he can take the leap for. I’m disappointed in you, babe. You quit before you even got to play.”
“Um, T? Maybe you should back off a little,” Bella suggested, likely seeing the look of fury on Avery’s face.
How dare she make her decision seem careless? Avery jumped to her feet and faced Taylor. “Oh yeah? When was the last time you took a chance on anything?” she challenged. “We may not say it, but we all know you just use guys for sex to keep from getting involved. You pretend you’re this worldly woman with no cares, but you lock yourself up tighter than any of us. What are you scared of, T?”
Bella took a step back, her blue eyes wide with shock. “Guys? Can we slow it down here? Take a breath? I think—”
“At least I don’t bury myself in work and pretend I’m satisfied,” Taylor shot back. “You spend your life planning and living for others, but one day you’ll wake up and realize you let every opportunity pass you by. I’m stuck in this stupid small town for another year because of my promise, but damned if I’m not getting out and going after my own happiness the moment I can.”
Bella stiffened. The usual light in her blue eyes turned flat and cold. “Are you saying you got stuck here because Matt died? I never asked you to stay and give up your dreams for me. And I won’t be your damn scapegoat. Maybe we don’t need you here for another year, Taylor,” she said.
Taylor shook her head. “No, I didn’t mean it like that. I wanted to be here with you and Zoe. It’s Mom and Dad who trapped me into this promise, not wanting the business to fail.”
“Because I couldn’t work for so long,” Bella said flatly. “It was my fault. I wasn’t strong enough. I’ve never been strong enough—not like you two.”
Avery felt her sister’s pain like a punch in her stomach. “That’s not true, Bella,” she said quietly. “You are stronger than any woman I know. You chose to raise Zoe with joy and gave yourself time to heal. How could we possibly blame you for any of that?”
The fight drained out of her sister. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice came out faint. “Sometimes I just don’t know if I’m doing anything right. I try to be my best self every day, but I constantly question myself. I never feel confident like you both.”
“Are you kidding? We all question ourselves. That’s part of being human. Don’t ever apologize for that,” Avery said. They surrounded Bella and hugged her tight, and then Avery started crying, and Taylor patted her back hard in her own form of comfort.
When Gabe came through the door, he stopped short at the cry-fest in front of him. “Are you guys okay?” he asked.
They broke apart, sniffling, and Avery grabbed a tissue. “Yeah, we’re fine. We needed a cleanse.”
He wrinkled his nose. “We really need another guy around here,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t be expected to deal with this on my own.”
Taylor laughed. “That’s what you get when you’re late.”
“Are you feeling better?” Bella asked.
For a moment, his gaze flared, and Avery studied the expression on her assistant’s face. He always acted a bit different around Bella. He didn’t joke with her in the same way, or throw his arm around her with affection. In fact, he usually kept his distance and acted more professional. She’d figured it was because he thought Bella was more fragile and sensitive than the rest.
“Yes, thank you. The virus passed. Must’ve been a twenty-four-hour thing.” He walked over to his usual chair, then stopped. “Almost forgot. This was on the porch for you, Avery.”
She opened the small white bag and withdrew a perfect chocolate croissant. Freshly baked, with crisp crust and a chocolate drizzle. Her mouth watered, and suddenly her mood skyrocketed. “Who is this from?”
Gabe shrugged. “Not sure.”
“Wait, there’s a note.” She pulled out a square piece of paper and read it. Then burst out laughing.
Guilt is optional. —C
Her sisters shared a knowing look. “Remember what I said, babe,” Taylor said. “Someone has to take a chance. It might as well be you.”
“Aww, come on, what’s that cryptic message mean? I’m part of this group, too,” Gabe complained.
“We were just having a discussion about our periods. Want in?” Taylor asked.
“You’re such a bitch,” Gabe muttered.
“Thanks,” her sister said brightly.
Avery dropped back in her chair, pushed her parfait away, and took a bite of her pastry.
Then thought about her sister’s words all day long.
Carter walked into Pierce’s photography studio and admired the space. It looked like an old loft that had been converted and gave off an artistic, comfortable feel. Light poured in from various windows, and wood beams crisscrossed the ceilings. The walls were painted stark white and filled with pictures of all sizes. Right away, Carter saw the man had talent. They weren’t the normal cookie-cutter photos one expected from a wedding, but instead had fresh angles and ways of capturing the couple and wedding party that made one want to study the shot closer. Ranging from vivid color to misty black and white, the collage showed the broad range of Pierce’s vision.
Avery was right again. There was no need to question her decision to book him as Ally’s photographer, especially after seeing the man in action at the Bankses’ wedding.
“Hey, Carter, good to see you again,” Pierce said, walking over to shake his hand. “You recover yet?”
He grinned. “Barely. Working a wedding is not for the faint of heart.”
Taylor came walking out from the hall, her pink hair slicked back, wearing a sleeveless black dress that hugged her trim frame and hit above the knee. Her nose ring winked, and she smiled in welcome. “Hi, Carter. Heard you were having a boys’ lunch.”
“I invited Gabe to hang with us, too,” Pierce explained. “He heard we were grabbing a beer and said he needs a shot of testosterone. He works with too many women.”