Her fingers traced the ink in wonder. Surprise struck her as she fought to make sense of his choice. “I don’t understand,” she finally said. “This seems like a complete contradiction of the life you chose. I always thought you didn’t believe in travel, or impulsive decisions, or having a wanderlust soul. Remember when Ally and I wanted to go to the Bahamas on break? You lost your shit.”
“I didn’t trust either of you would be safe on your own. There were rumors about rich guys drugging girls’ drinks. I kept thinking about Natalee Holloway.”
“Exactly. Yet this is inked on your skin, by choice. What happened, Carter?”
It took a while for him to answer. She sensed the struggle inside him, and her gut clenched in fear. He’d promised to open up to her and give what he could. But would her first request be brushed off with an excuse? Was he really able to share parts of himself with her?
Then he spoke, his voice holding a lifetime of maybes and what-ifs, tearing at her heart. “I was different before my parents died. I’d planned to go away to college and be a big-shot journalist. I wanted to travel and write and explore the world on my terms. I never wanted to go to a local community college, study computer science, and get a stable job. Before my mother got sick, I was just a kid who believed I could have it all. The compass was the symbol of every direction I craved to travel, and having it permanently inked was my Fuck you to everyone who thought I was going through a phase and would end up becoming practical.”
In the silence, she heard the quiet sound of his breath, the faint whir of the air conditioner, the steady click of the bedside clock. The picture became sharp and startlingly clear—the life he’d once believed he’d live versus the one he’d chosen in order to raise Ally.
Jagged emotion tore at her insides, along with a humbleness of the strength of the man wrapped in her arms. God, he was special. And though he swore it wasn’t in him, Avery knew he was wrong.
Carter Ross was meant to love.
But she said none of that. Instead, she pressed her lips to the precious ink, her tongue tracing the graceful curves and angles of the compass. Her hands stroked his back, slipped around his stomach, and squeezed tight.
Slowly, his breathing changed, and his erection pushed into her hands in demand. She touched him everywhere, her teeth sinking into the hard muscle of his shoulder, and with a curse, he turned toward her and pulled her against him.
He kissed her long and deep and hard, laying her back on the mattress. His gaze was wild and hungry, but she spotted the flicker of grief there, ready to be soothed, so she caressed his rough cheeks and gave herself up to him to use and fuck and savor.
But he didn’t. Instead, his hands were achingly tender, his lips gentle and reverent as he worshipped her body and made love to her until the darkness was gone and the hopeful flicker of dawn soaked the Atlantic City skyline.
Carter dragged in a breath and stepped into the room.
The groomsmen were getting ready to head to the beach for the official ceremony. He greeted Jason’s friends and brother, grinning at the flasks lying out on the table. Jason turned and waved them ahead. “Be right there, guys,” he said, glancing over as if he sensed they needed a private moment.
The groomsmen disappeared and left them alone.
“You’re not here to tell me she ran off in a horse and carriage, are you?” Jason asked, dark eyes glinting in humor.
Carter laughed, but his chest felt too tight, as if he couldn’t breathe. Jason stood before him, his elegant black tuxedo emphasizing his lean strength. His hair was slicked back, and his handsome face held an excitement that every man should show on his wedding day.
But it was his eyes that made all the difference. They were full of love and a kindness that Carter’s sister deserved.
Carter thought of his parents and knew how much they would have loved Jason and trusted him with Ally. He wanted to tell his future brother-in-law so many things. That he was getting a woman who was fierce, and beautiful, and true. That he was happy Jason had chosen her to spend the rest of his life with. That he loved the way his entire family had welcomed Ally into their lives with joy. But the importance of the moment overwhelmed him, and the words twisted up and remained stuck and silent.
“I just wanted to tell you congratulations,” he said gruffly. “I’m proud to have you as part of the family.” He clapped his shoulder, smiled, and turned.
He turned back and cocked his head. “Yeah?”
“Ally wouldn’t be the woman she is today without you.” He reached out and grasped his arm, his fingers squeezing tight. Jason’s gaze met his, head-on. “You gave up so much for her. You taught her everything a parent should have, and she never lost that joy and zest for life that made me fall in love with her the moment I saw her in that crappy sports bar.” He gave a half laugh, raw with emotion. “So thank you for accepting me as her husband. I swear to God, I’ll never let you down. Either of you.”
Carter’s eyes stung, and he stepped forward and gave him a quick, hard hug. “Thank you. Now, I’m going to get your bride, and we’ll meet you at the altar.”
Jason nodded, not able to talk, and Carter left the room knowing his sister was about to get her happily-ever-after ending.
He made his way down the short hallway. The bridesmaids were giggling and chattering, beginning to line up outside as Avery snapped them to attention. He entered the second room and stopped short when he saw the sight before him.
His sister’s voice wobbled. “Carter?”
She gulped a breath, her eyes huge in her face. “I’m getting married.”
Emotion struck him hard. He gazed at her, dressed in full glory, and his throat tightened. She was stunningly beautiful. The cream lace of the gown skimmed her figure, and the endless yards of veil fell behind her in a splendorous trail. Her hair was twisted up into a spill of elegant curls, and her face glowed. Diamonds winked at her throat and ears, giving her an air of royalty. She was almost to his height with the sky-high, crystal-encrusted shoes, and damned if his fingers didn’t shake when he took her hand in his for the last time before she became Jason’s wife.
“Mom and Dad would be so proud,” he said, shaking his head. “First, Mom would bawl and Dad would try to comfort her, and then he’d start crying and it’d be up to me to fix the whole mess.”
His sister laughed, eyes shining with unshed tears. “Yeah, I can picture it, too. And Dad would make me dance to that ridiculous song that’s so sweet, it gives me a cavity.”
“‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ A classic. Can’t go wrong with Sinatra.”
“But it’s so overdone! Remember how he used to play it loud and make me step on his feet to try and teach me to dance?”
“And then he’d begin waltzing with Mom and tell us the story of how they met for the billionth time.”
The memories flickered before him. All of them laughing together and teasing as his parents moved gracefully around the small kitchen. A bittersweet longing pricked. “I remember.”
She sighed. “Yeah, Dad was more sensitive than Mom. I always wondered if that heart attack was just his sadness over not being able to picture a life without Mom in it. Like he’d decided to give up. I loved him so much, but he was never—”
“Strong,” he finished, tilting his head and studying her. Something shifted and broke inside him, almost as if he sensed that within Ally’s words lay the answer, but Avery peeked around the corner and smiled.
He met his sister’s gaze and smiled at her. “Come on, gorgeous. Jason’s waiting for you.”
He escorted her outside and toward the beach. The day was hot and clear, with a light ocean breeze that kept it from being faint-worthy. A gazebo threaded with flowers was framed against the ocean, and the officiant stood behind a white pillar, his black book clutched in his hand. Avery had set up a runner pinned down by various giant stone shells. He watched the wedding party walk down the aisle, flanked by white chairs filled with friends and family, all beaming and murmuring at the sheer beauty of the event.
When everyone had reached their places, the music piping in through speakers changed to the traditional “Wedding March.” Ally squeezed his arm, and he stared into her beloved face, memorizing the moment. Then he began walking her toward Jason.
His future brother-in-law beamed down at his bride. Lifting her veil, Carter pressed a kiss to her cheek, then took her hand and placed it in Jason’s.
As Carter stepped back into line, Jason gave him a nod, the serious intensity of his face bestowing the recognition of what Carter had done for both of them. The kindness of the gesture gave him both comfort and pride.
The ceremony was brief. Applause broke out when they were declared husband and wife, and the crowd whooped when they kissed.
As they filed back off the beach, he looked for Avery, knowing she’d be in the background, ready to step in to solve any crisis. The woman amazed him on a constant basis. Ever since the night of the bachelorette party, their relationship had changed. Barriers had been ripped away, and an easy intimacy now flowed between them. Their days were packed with endless details for Ally’s wedding, but at night, she snuck to his house and spent the hours wrapped in his arms till dawn, making love until they collapsed together in exhaustion.