Carter finally caught sight of her off to the side, blinking furiously through tears as she watched the happy couple greet well-wishers. The longing on her face caught him like a sucker punch, knocking him slightly off-balance. What scared him the most was the immediate urge to walk over and take her in his arms, claiming her for himself. He imagined uttering his vows. Sliding a ring over her finger. Kissing her as the words I now pronounce you husband and wife drifted in the air.
He jerked back, tearing his gaze from her. What was happening to him? He’d never had a flash like that. Weddings usually caused old anger and pain to stir up inside him, making him shut down in order to control his emotions. Now he was imagining Avery in a white wedding dress, her face aglow as she stared at him and promised to be his.
Panic struck. He shook his head and concentrated on casual chatter with the guests, trying to lock the vision away for good.
But like Pandora’s box, he wondered how long it’d be before he snuck another peek.
The entire wedding was a dream for Avery, as both Ally’s best friend and a wedding planner. She’d never enjoyed a ceremony or reception as much. Her friend was a calm, happy bride, full of joy. The bridesmaids were now like family, and Noelle, Maddie, and Judith consistently tried to drag her away from her duties and get her to dance. The vendors had no issues, and Gabe had cut out early for a rare night off, his presence not even needed.
Every detail they’d incorporated brought a sense of beauty to the event, from the flowers to the tea-towel favors to the stunning cake and special dessert bar. Pierce had outdone himself with the photos. He’d arranged the wedding party on a magnificent staircase under a glittering chandelier, and captured the more natural shots of Jason carrying Ally into the ocean. The endless buffet of specially created tapas rotating throughout the night was a huge hit with the guests, who enjoyed dancing more than a formal sit-down. Knowing Carter had worked on each detail with her made everything more special. It was as if they’d created Ally’s wedding together, the two people who’d loved her forever.
Midnight grew close, and the DJ spun into the Donna Summer classic “Last Dance” while everyone crammed onto the floor for one final celebration. Smiling, Avery headed toward the bridal suite to begin packing up.
A warm hand wrapped around her wrist. She turned and found Carter staring down at her, his pewter eyes gleaming with intensity. “Dance with me, Avery.”
A shudder shook through her. She meant to tell him it wasn’t a good idea with the entire wedding party on the floor, but the words never left her lips. Instead, she allowed him to lead her out and take her in his arms.
The slow strains gave them time to press close together. His breath stirred her cheek. His hands brushed her hips, causing heat to trickle in her blood. The delicious scent of ocean cologne mixed with citrus and expensive whiskey. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he said.
Startled, she widened her eyes. “For what?”
“For giving my sister the wedding of her dreams. For being patient with me. For being you.”
She melted against him, and a sigh skittered from her lips. “You can be so smooth,” she said teasingly. “Who would’ve thought there was such a charmer under all those asshole moves?”
His laugh rumbled from his chest, deep and sexy. “I needed to ensnare you with a challenge. Make you work to find the gold, right?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, that’s awful. Trust me, robot man. Women like a nice guy up front. Better to know that the next time.”
“Don’t need a next time.” He lowered his voice. “Just want to dazzle the woman I’m with.”
Her heart stuttered, and for one endless moment, she was caught up in the heat of his eyes, the promise of his arms holding her close, and the fragility of the promise he’d uttered. But she didn’t have time to dwell or analyze. The slow rhythm built, morphing into the classic blaring dance song as the Queen of Disco belted out the words everyone knew by heart.
With a wink, Carter spun her out of his arms and fell into the steps of a fast dance. With grace and strength and the perfect blend of humor, they threw themselves into the music and enjoyed the final pounding beat. The wedding party surrounded the bride and groom, stomping their feet and pumping their hands in the air, and Avery got caught up in the revelry, enjoying being part of the enthusiastic celebration of love.
It was a good hour before everyone finally left the reception. Sliding off her shoes and throwing them in her oversize bag, Avery headed outside, saying a few goodbyes to the leftover guests, who spoke about moving the party over to the Boiler Room at Congress Hall.
“Avery!” The squeal of her name was accompanied by a big hug full of veil and lace and jewels.
Laughing, Avery embraced her friend. “It was perfect,” Ally said, and sighed. “I can’t tell you how many people have been coming up to me asking for your card. They all said they’ve never seen a wedding so beautiful.”
“Thanks, babe. It was everything I always dreamed for you.”
“We’re heading over to the Boiler Room for a few more drinks. Are you coming?”
She shook her head. “I wish I could, but I’m ready to drop. I’ll see you at the breakfast tomorrow, though.”
“I totally understand. I’m just not ready to have the evening end.”
Avery laughed. “You’re the bride—you need to close down the house for me, okay? Show this beach town how to party.”
Jason drifted up, giving Avery a warm hug and gushing about everything she’d done.
“Well, Carter was a huge help,” she said.
The familiar deep voice cut through the air. “We make a good team.”
Ally hauled him into a group hug. “Damn right you do. Carter, no wimping out on me. You’re coming to party more, right?”
Avery shivered as he met and held her gaze. “Sure, Ally-Cat. We’ll let Avery get her sleep and see her in the morning.”
She nodded, knowing there’d be no visit tonight. She was too damn exhausted, and Carter needed to spend it with his family. Maybe it was for the best. She needed some distance and time to think. His words on the dance floor stirred a longing that scared her. She needed to be careful of giving her heart to a man who had no use for it. Though each night since the bachelorette party they’d grown closer, sharing both their minds and bodies through the late hours, nothing had truly changed.
He was still a man who didn’t believe in love.
She was still a woman who did.
Avery said good night and headed home.
Brunch at the Mad Batter was held on the front porch. The striped awning shaded them from the sun, and a giant table was set up for fifteen guests. Mimosas flowed, and their famous seafood omelets were a big hit, loaded with fresh crabmeat, avocado, and Swiss cheese. The party had gone till 3:00 a.m., but Ally and Jason looked fresh faced and happy, feeding each other with moony eyes and taking the teasing with laughter.
Avery sat next to Carter. Sometimes he’d slide his finger under the table and touch hers. The innocent contact caused her tummy to swirl like a flight of butterflies. She ate and drank, but every inch of her body was aware of his. She ached to touch the rough stubble on his angular jaw, smooth the hair from his forehead, and trace the lush curve of his lips. He wore his glasses today, and the casual jeans and navy-blue T-shirt showed off his lean muscles.
“Carter, are you heading back to DC this week?” Ally asked.
His voice was smooth and heated, like the whiskey he’d drunk last night. “Actually, I extended my rental to Labor Day. It’s been nice taking some time off, so I’m going to enjoy the beach until my next project kicks off.”
Avery stiffened, but he grabbed her hand under the table and squeezed.
Ally looked delighted. “Good for you! I’m so glad you’re giving yourself more downtime. Maybe you can convince Avery to take some time off, too—she’s a proud workaholic like you.”
Avery forced a smile. “Unfortunately, wedding season in Cape May doesn’t allow for much free time.”
“I know, babe. And I hate that I added to your burden with my last-minute wedding. I just want you to have some fun like we did in Atlantic City,” Ally said.
“Your wedding was not a burden,” she said firmly, pointing her fork in the air. “But I’ll make sure to take care of your brother for the next two weeks.” She refused to feel guilt from her declaration, but the grateful way her friend looked at her made her want to tell the truth.
“Thanks,” Ally said. “Jason and I are heading out tomorrow for Turks and Caicos before fall semester starts. I don’t want to have to worry about my brother while I’m lazing on the beach with my new husband.”
Carter shook his head. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Ally-Cat.”
“I know, but you’re a hermit and forget that Lucy isn’t a real human. Avery will make sure you get out, even if it’s just for a meal.”
“A few hours as a married woman and you’re already getting bossy,” he teased.
She stuck out her tongue and everyone laughed.
“Avery, are you coming to the beach with us today?” Ally asked.
“I wish I could, but I need to cover a small evening reception.” She pulled a sad face. “I think I’ve used up all my favors with my sisters.”