“No one can promise that,” Pierce said.
“Just be honest with her, but don’t give up. I think you’ll be good for her.”
Satisfaction flowed through him. Knowing these two men approved of him pursuing Avery made him even more determined to try harder. Maybe it was time he pushed himself to give more than he thought he could. Avery was worth it. And after their shared kiss on the boardwalk, the need for her was eating him up like a virus, keeping him from sleep. He thought of her constantly. Could he really manage to walk away? Maybe a long-distance relationship was a possibility.
The bartender refilled their beers, and they ordered nachos to pick on. “You and Taylor seem really happy,” Carter mentioned in between bites. “How long have you been dating?”
Pierce began to choke, and Gabe pounded on his back until he caught his breath. “We’re not a couple. We’ve been friends forever.”
Puzzlement made him cock his head. “Really? You seem so in tune with each other.”
Gabe threw his head back and laughed. “Told ya.”
Pierce glared at him.
Gabe turned to Carter and explained. “Every time they’re together, he gets these moony eyes but swears there’s nothing going on.” He shot Pierce a knowing look. “I don’t know how you can stand being just friends with a woman you’re hot for.”
Pierce jabbed a finger in the air. “You do it every day, man. How’s that working for you?”
Gabe snapped his mouth shut and looked pissed.
Carter glanced back and forth between the two, sensing a challenge sizzling in the air. “Okay, what am I missing?”
“Nothing,” they both said.
“Talk about feeling like the third wheel,” he muttered, taking another sip of beer.
Pierce groaned. “Sorry, man. Let’s just say I’m not willing to mess up the best friendship I ever had with sex. It’s not worth it. As for Gabe, he’s got his own issues working with a woman who doesn’t seem to notice him.”
Carter remembered the words he’d uttered in the tuxedo place. Something about being hot for a woman who didn’t know he was alive. And if it wasn’t Avery or Taylor . . .
“Ah, crap, you’re in love with Bella?” he asked.
Gabe shrugged it off. “Nah, just got a soft spot for her. But she’s got zero attraction for me. Thought I was gay for the entire first year I worked there.”
Carter flicked a glance at the group of women currently eyeing Gabe with obvious interest. “I’m sure you have a lot of women to distract you,” he said. “Avery said you were named most eligible beach bachelor.”
Gabe rubbed his head while Pierce burst into laughter. “So fucking embarrassing,” he muttered.
“Seems like all three of us have some challenges in our love life,” Carter said. He raised his glass in mock salute, and they followed. “Here’s to having each other’s back. To friendship. And the future.”
They clinked glasses, ate nachos, and proceeded to get a little bit drunk.
He’d forgotten how nice it was to have a night out with the guys. He remembered that empty feeling back in DC—the stirring in his gut that told him he wanted more in his life. Funny, he’d had to travel all the way to Cape May to find all the things he’d been searching for: friends and a woman who made his heart light up. He was actually more than content.
For the first time in a very long while, he was happy.
“Are we ready to party?”
Carter tamped down a grin as he watched the group of women clink their champagne glasses together and let out a whoop. The past week had passed by in a rush. Ally had flown in for her big weekend, bringing her three bridesmaids, who were all pumped for Atlantic City. Jason would be in Cape May on Wednesday with his family to help with any last-minute details and settle in, and then the wedding festivities officially kicked off on Friday with the rehearsal dinner.
He’d only communicated with Avery by text, trying to give her what she asked for—distance. He didn’t want to push or upset her the week before his sister’s wedding. Still, the moment she’d gotten into the limo and slid next to him on the cushioned leather seat, his body knotted so tight, Houdini himself couldn’t untie it.
The snug, short black skirt she was wearing almost dropped him to his knees. The royal-blue top dipped to a low V in the front, the clingy fabric emphasizing the lush thrust of her breasts and skimming around her curvy hips. She’d worn her hair down, so the wild curls fell over her shoulders with abandon, practically daring him to wrap his fist in the silky strands and tug her head back. She’d gone with red lips. Her eyes had some type of smoke effect, and when she turned to gaze at him, the hazel depths shattered the last of his fragile defenses. In minutes, he’d have done or promised anything just for permission to touch her.
Instead, he’d forced a smile and thought of nuns with puppies to keep his erection under control. Dear God, this was going to be a long weekend.
“Carter, what are you drinking? You better drink up—you’re part of this bridal party, too,” Ally said, her voice already a bit pitched from the shots done in the car. But her face glowed with an excited animation that confirmed he’d planned the right trip. She was wearing a black cocktail dress and high heels and had a tiara perched on her head. She’d refused to wear banners or signs saying “Bride to Be,” and he’d agreed with her decision. There was a line between having fun and being tacky.
He threw up his hands. “I’m drinking. Just not champagne. I need my masculine whiskey.”
The women laughed. Judith patted his arm with affection. She was his sister’s colleague and a professor of medieval history. Her long blonde hair was caught up in an elaborate twist, and she wore a glittery silver top like a disco ball that blinded him every time he looked at her. “I may join you. I like those Moscow mules. You think they have them here?”
“I’m sure they do. Ready to hit the casino for a bit, ladies?”
Another whoop and he guided them into the heart of the Borgata. Multiple tables of craps, roulette, and blackjack were set up amid blaring and pinging slot machines in full diversity. From The Walking Dead, Superman, Sex and the City, and Wheel of Fortune, the choices were endless in ways to lose money. Most of them were more interested in the slots than the tables, so he figured he’d let everyone roam and herd them before their dinner reservations at Bobby Flay’s.
Ally took off, arms hooked with Judith and Jason’s sister, Maddie, giggling like a schoolgirl. Noelle was another close friend Ally had met in Texas, who was proudly single and began chatting up a guy sitting at the Family Guy slot machine. With her red hair and bright-red dress, she was the one who’d begged for strippers.
Yep. He’d need to keep a close eye on her.
“Do you need any help checking reservations?”
Heart battering his chest, he turned at the silky voice he heard every night in his dreams. Head tilted, Avery regarded him with wary fascination, as if she were trying to figure something out that remained a puzzle.
Figure it out.
Her words echoed in his head like a constant chant. But he’d sworn not to do anything this weekend to push or make her uncomfortable. He’d concentrate on giving his sister the best party weekend, and deal with the rest later.
“You’re off the clock, remember?” he said, shaking his head. “No wedding planner. You’re Ally’s best friend and need to cut loose. I’ve got it under control.”
Those teeth reached and nibbled on her defined lower lip. His dick wept. “Honestly, it’s no trouble if something goes awry. I can help. Oh, and make sure the chef knows to present the seafood tower with the special light display—it really makes the presentation pop. Were you able to secure the private booth at Premier? VIP service is great, but I find confirming in case of miscommunication is helpful and—”
“Avery.” He rested his hands on her shoulders, and she stopped. “I have it covered. I promise.”
She let out a breath.
He released her shoulders, his palms itching to slide under the lace and touch bare skin.
“Sorry.” She shifted her weight, as if not ready to leave yet. “I forgot to ask you: Who’s watching Lucy?”
She stared at him in shock. “My Gabe?”
His voice was a low growl of sound. “I hope he’s not your Gabe. I hope he’s our good buddy Gabe.”
Her lips twitched at his obvious jealousy.
He wondered why this woman caused him to revert to a primitive caveman.
“I just didn’t realize you two had gotten so close over one tux appointment,” she said.
He shrugged. “We had a beer and nachos. He likes my dog. I think that’s good enough for a decent friendship, don’t you?”
She laughed, and the sound pumped the room with joy.
The words popped out of his mouth before he could stop them. “God, I love your laugh. It makes me feel so . . .” He trailed off. No need to embarrass himself further.
She stepped closer and tilted her head. Those hazel eyes urged him on. “So what?”
He locked his gaze with hers and told the truth. “Alive.”