“But I’m leaving at five a.m. tomorrow, and I won’t be able to see you again before I go.”
Guilt hit her. She opened her mouth to try and explain, but Carter cut in. “Ally-Cat, you won’t be on your honeymoon forever. And Avery already mentioned when the wedding season calms down, she’ll come visit you in Texas. Right?”
Avery nodded. “I’d love that.”
Her friend sniffed. “Okay, only if you promise. I was bummed we couldn’t spend the whole summer together like we planned. I just miss you so damn much!”
Avery went down the length of the table, hugging and kissing everyone and accepting their thanks with gratitude. “Call me when you get back,” she said, holding Ally tight. “And if you remember, text me some pics. I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Avery walked out and headed back to Sunshine Bridal. Better to let Carter have the day and night again with his sister. Better to have a break from being with him. With only two precious weeks left for them to figure out what they both wanted, she suddenly wanted to hide in the only thing that made sense and soothed her shaky confidence.
Avery walked into her sisters’ house and stopped short at the delicious scent of butter and garlic. “What’s going on?” she demanded, dropping her purse on the sectional and heading into the kitchen.
Taylor never cooked—that was Bella’s domain. But here she was, her pink hair curling from the heat of the stove, and a cranky look on her face as she glared. “You didn’t knock,” she accused. “I thought we discussed this.”
“T, you invited me to dinner. Figured that meant you weren’t rolling around naked on the couch with some random dude.” She looked at the dining table, which had the additional section inserted, and seven table settings laid out. “Why are you cooking? Where’s the pizza?”
“I get no support in this family,” she grumbled.
Avery grabbed the bottle of chardonnay and poured herself a full glass. Maybe some alcohol would help. She’d been deliberately avoiding Carter, and her nerves were shot. “Who’d you invite over?”
“Pierce and Gabe. Here, help me with this stupid pot. I burnt myself twice.”
“Why is Taylor cooking?” Bella called out, walking in with Zoe bouncing on her heels.
“Not sure yet,” Avery said, grabbing pot holders and spilling the water through the strainer.
Bella headed for the fridge. She slid out a Capri Sun for Zoe and handed her the lemonade, then went to pour her own glass of wine. “Who’s coming over?”
“Pierce and Gabe.”
“Why do we have to suffer? You can give them your cooking and let us have pizza.”
Taylor gritted her teeth and began madly stirring an oily lemon concoction Avery was afraid to ask about. “You’d think my own sisters wouldn’t be my own betrayers. Go get the bread out of the oven, Bella. I don’t want it to burn.”
“Mommy, why is Aunt TT cooking?” Zoe asked. “I thought it was pizza night.”
“I don’t know, sweetheart, but you like spaghetti.”
“Yay, pasghetti! Cool!”
“Let me help your aunt, and you can watch Mickey Mouse cartoons while we finish, okay?”
Avery finished straining the pasta and took over the bread duty, pulling out a tray of crispy Texas toast. “Looks good. Now, are you going to tell me what’s happening? You hate cooking. How’d you let those two bozos push you into this?”
Taylor tossed her a haughty look and stirred faster. Splashes of burning oil leaped out, and she cursed under her breath, dropping the spoon. “I’m trying to do things out of my comfort zone to get ready for my travels next year. I mentioned taking a French pastry–baking class in Paris, and Gabe started in on how I’ll get kicked out because I burn water, and Pierce agreed with him, so I figured I’d surprise them tonight by cooking and show I have mad skills. After all, I can read and follow a recipe. Any idiot can cook if they want to.”
Avery pressed her lips together to keep from laughing.
Her sister snorted and rubbed her burned hand. “Real funny. Just help me dump this stuff into that pot, and I’ll get more wine, okay?”
Avery peered into the oil mixture. “Um, what is it?”
“The sauce for lemon spaghetti. I’m using Giada’s recipe, but I put my own spin on it.”
The sharp citrus scent made her eyes water, but she covered up her reaction and figured she’d get drunk first. God knew she’d eat anything after two glasses. “Looks great.” She combined the pasta and sauce, found the parmesan cheese, and dumped a healthy portion over it. Cheese can cover up anything, right? “Who else is coming? There’s seven places.”
Avery dropped the oversize spoon, and it clattered to the floor. “What?” she screeched, staring with her mouth open like a guppy. “You invited Carter?”
Her sister shot her a smug, mean look. “Yep. I thought he’d enjoy a home-cooked meal with Ally off on her honeymoon. And since you don’t tell me jack shit about whether or not you slept together, I figured I’d find out myself.”
Bella shouted, “Language, please!”
Avery breathed deep and reached out to strangle Taylor. “You’re dead.”
The bell rang.
Her youngest sister grinned. “Better answer it. Your lover is here.”
Cheeks hot, she stomped to the door and flung it open. Gabe, Pierce, and Carter stood in the doorway with matching grins. “Rumor has it there’s free food here,” Gabe said, stepping around her and walking in. “Holy shit, back it up, Carter. Taylor’s cooking. Let’s go out and grab some pizzas and beer and stay alive.”
Taylor mouthed jackass so Zoe wouldn’t hear, and the men laughed.
“Come on in,” Avery said, her gaze roving hungrily over Carter. He wore soft khakis, an aqua-green button-down shirt, and white canvas boat shoes. No glasses. Jaw clean-shaven. He held a bouquet of sunflowers. God, she wanted to crawl all over him like an ant at a picnic.
“This is for Taylor,” he said in his deep whiskey-like voice. “She invited me to dinner.”
Avery winced. She hadn’t returned any of his texts since leaving him at breakfast. It had been easier to be a coward. “Sorry, I was really busy.”
His sharp gaze dove deep, assessing. “We’ll talk later.”
A shiver bumped down her spine at the sensual warning. He walked past her, greeting everyone and diving right in to see if he could help.
“I have everything under control,” Taylor said in a blatant lie. “What beautiful flowers. Thank you, Carter.”
Gabe not so quietly coughed “suck-up” behind a hand with a smile, while Pierce went straight into the kitchen and began sniffing around the pots and pans. “Why does it smell funky?”
Taylor slapped his hands away. “Don’t distract me. I’m still mad at you.”
“Well, this is some kind of revenge you got planned, Taylz.” He grinned and pressed a quick kiss to her cheek. “I brought a cheesecake for dessert.”
Gabe gaped at Pierce. “Dude! You need to tell me if we’re supposed to bring stuff.” He looked at Carter. “You, too, Judas.”
Taylor stared down Pierce, who was still grinning at her. “Is it the turtle one?”
“Yep, so there’s incentive to keep me alive at least until dessert or you get nothing.”
Zoe jumped up from the television and ran toward them, stopping short. “Gabe and Carter and Pierce! You know each other?”
Gabe laughed, scooping her up high in his arms with an easy familiarity. He was like a mixture of father figure and older brother to Zoe. “’Course we know each other! I got him a cool tux and bought him some chocolate milk. Then Pierce took our picture.”
She giggled. “I love chocolate milk.”
“I love it more,” Carter said solemnly. Gabe tossed her over, and Carter carefully lifted her up, a grin curving his lips. “How was your day?”
Zoe crinkled her nose and thought hard. “Good. I did coloring, and cleaned my room so Mama wouldn’t get mad, and ate a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with milk, but not chocolate milk, because we ran out of Hershey’s syrup. Oh, and I played outside on my bike.”
“Sounds like a perfect day,” Carter said.
Gabe turned to him. “Hmm, I went skydiving, had tea with the queen of England, and ate frog-leg sandwiches. What’d you do, Carter?”
“I rode a purple kangaroo and had chocolate cake for lunch.”
Zoe’s eyes widened. “You got to have cake for lunch?”
They all burst into laughter. Bella plucked her from Carter’s arms and patted her on the head. “TV off and get in your chair. Dinner’s ready.”
Zoe ran off, and Bella turned to Carter. “You’re amazing with children. What a fabulous father you’re going to make someday.”
Avery watched emotion flicker over Carter’s face, but it was Gabe’s that threw her off. Raw frustration and a touch of anger glinted in his dark eyes as he watched Bella finish serving in the kitchen. She glanced back and forth between them, wondering what was going on. Gabe was part of the family. Was he jealous that Bella was giving Carter kudos instead of him? But he knew Zoe adored him.