She had no time to puzzle out the question. Bowls were plunked down on the table, glasses filled, and they all took their places. The men immediately grabbed for the Texas toast, announcing it was their favorite. Taylor muttered something under her breath about clueless men and how bread should be the accent of a meal, and Avery tried hard not to laugh.
“How did the wedding go, Carter?” Taylor asked. “Avery must’ve been busy since she never let us know.”
She shot her sister a glare.
“It was amazing. My family couldn’t stop talking about it, and we gave out a ton of your business cards.”
“Nice,” Gabe said. “I’m almost ready to take on my own clients, so we’ll be able to increase our list.”
Avery sighed. “I’m excited for the business, but how will I ever find another assistant even close to your capabilities? It’ll be impossible.”
“Maybe Gabe should stay on as an assistant until we’re comfortable with our growth,” Bella suggested. “It may be smarter to delay his promotion until next season.”
An uncomfortable silence fell. Gabe stiffened and Avery glanced at Bella. But her sister seemed clueless to the dig, acting as if it didn’t matter what position he owned at Sunshine Bridal. Avery bit her lip. Gabe had worked hard the past few years to prove he’d be able to handle a full roster. Bella’s casual dismissal of his skills was bound to sting.
Taylor shook her head. “I disagree. Gabe is ready, so we’ll just have to find another amazing assistant for Avery. Hey, Carter, you in the market for a new job?”
He gave a mock shudder. “No, thanks. She’s a slave driver. I slept for two days straight after I crawled out of the Bankses’ wedding.”
“I’m a perfectionist,” Avery said defensively.
Gabe snorted. “The first month, I almost quit. Figured she’d be my very own Miranda Priestly and drive me to madness.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Are you kidding?”
“Nope. Taylor told me that charts and checklists were my new best friend. She was right. I think you have to be detail-obsessed to succeed in the wedding-planning business.”
“But you also need creativity,” Pierce added. “Plus the ability to flow with sudden change.”
Bella nodded. “All true. Balance is the key. Do you enjoy your job, Carter?”
He nodded. “I do. When I started working with the government, I received some special clearance projects that kept my interest. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling a bit stagnant. It may be time to move on to a new challenge.”
Avery’s interest piqued. “What type of new challenge?”
His gaze drilled into hers. “Something that excites me again,” he said. “I’m tired of playing it safe. Aren’t you?”
A shiver worked down her spine. “Yes,” she whispered, caught up in the moment.
A brief silence settled at the table, but she was helpless to break the spell. He was right. She shouldn’t have tried to run away after their nights spent together. They had little time left, and damned if she wasn’t about to seize every precious second. He smiled at her, as if sensing her thoughts, and a giddy pleasure bubbled up in her veins.
“Maybe it’s time we all do something that scares us,” Gabe said seriously. “What do you think, Bella?” His direct question snagged Avery’s attention, but it was her sister’s response that had her holding her breath.
“I already did,” Bella said calmly.
Everyone stared at her, waiting for more.
“I’ve eaten half a bowl of this horrific spaghetti even though it scared the heck out of me. Sorry, T, but next time, we’re ordering a pizza.”
Laughter broke out. Taylor shot her a disgusted look but pushed the bowl aside with a sigh. “Fine. Dial up Louie’s. This sucks.”
Zoe gasped. “Aunt TT, sucks is a very bad word. And I love the pasghetti! It’s the best I ever tasted!”
Taylor bent over and gave her niece a noisy kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, honey. You’re the only one who gets dessert at this table.”
The pizza was delivered, and everyone indulged. Carter swore it was the best he’d ever had, including New York. He’d just taken an extra-large bite when Taylor called out his name.
“Pierce told me you bought my painting.” Her tone was defensive.
Avery cocked her head, surprised. Her sister hadn’t told her anything about that. He’d bought her work? “You did?” she asked him.
He swiped his napkin over his mouth, seemingly unconcerned. “That’s right. I liked it.”
A fierce frown creased her sister’s brow. Uh-oh. Taylor hated any type of pity, and she’d be enraged if she thought Carter bought her stuff just to be nice. Her voice was fierce. “You paid too much for it. I don’t need any charity.”
“For God’s sake, Taylz, I told you he had no idea you were the artist!” Pierce said with complete frustration. “Did it ever occur to you you’re talented?”
“No. I want Carter to look at me and tell the truth. Why did you buy that painting?”
Carter put down his pizza and calmly stared back at her. Avery held her breath, waiting for his answer.
“Because it was good. Really good. You need some help with blending, and the colors on the edges were a bit too jagged to work with the whole, but overall it was the first painting I’d seen in a long time that made me feel something. I got a deal because you still don’t know your worth, which is cool for me, but I’d advise you not to make that mistake again. I don’t believe in charity when it comes to buying art, and I don’t lie. Ever.”
The table grew silent. Warmth flooded Avery’s veins when she realized this was a man of honor—a man who didn’t believe in pretty lies to make life easier. But, God, he was kind. Her throat tightened with emotion, and she wondered if she could keep on fighting what she really wanted.
Taylor slowly grinned. “Okay. That’s the last clearance buy you’ll get from me, though.”
He nodded and picked up his slice of pizza again. “Good.”
The rest of the evening passed quickly, with hearty slices of pizza, more wine, rich cheesecake, and lots of laughs. Gabe left first, and Carter lingered, allowing her enough time to wrap up, say goodbye to her sisters, and make an excuse to leave with him.
As soon as the door shut, he turned to her. “Are you running away again?” he asked boldly. “Or will you come home with me tonight?”
“I needed some space to think,” she said. “Are you trying to deny me that?”
Intensity shot from him. His jaw clenched. “God, no. I understand completely. I’m just being a selfish bastard because I mourn every hour spent away from you.”
She softened at the stark truth on his face, the tiny gleam of panic in his eye. It had cost him to be honest with his feelings, but she was past thinking or analyzing or wanting space. She wanted him, and it was time to step off the cliff and take the fall, trusting he’d eventually catch her.
Forgoing words, she stepped into his arms, yanked his head down, and kissed him. He groaned, and she opened her mouth to taste and savor, relishing his flavor and scent and feel of his hard body pressed against hers.
When they broke away, his pewter gaze glowed with purpose. “Let’s go.”
She took his hand and followed him to the car.
Carter made love to her for hours. He touched and tasted every sweet inch of her body, spread naked on his bed, reveling in her throaty cries and slick, hot need. When they collapsed together on the tangled sheets, the silence was broken by the faint scratching on the door.
“Poor Lucy,” she groaned, pressing her face into his shoulder. “She hates my guts.”
He laughed. “No, she doesn’t. But when she hears you scream my name, she gets confused. She wants to see what’s going on.”
“I do not want Lucy to see me naked.”
He laughed harder. “You need to make a truce. I want us to be one happy family together, okay?”
She rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. After a few moments, he noticed her silence was different. Troubled.
Leaning over, he turned her chin toward him and looked into her hazel eyes. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?”
He traced the frown lines marring her brow. “Tell me what brought this on. Do I need to give you another orgasm?”
She smiled, but it was weak. Shadows danced in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”
Normally, he’d accept her dismissal, not wanting to stir up worries or problems best left untouched. But with Avery, he wanted her to share her heart, her worries, her feelings. He wanted to steep himself in her body and mind and try to give her the same. “It does to me,” he said quietly.
“How can you not want children? I see the way you are with Zoe, and how you interacted with Brianna at the Bankses’ wedding. Your fierce affection for Lucy. You’re full of love, Carter. What happened for you to stop believing in that?”
The words plowed into him like a sucker punch. All those ugly, messy feelings he’d locked up tight rumbled for freedom, bringing him back to his decision so many years ago, when he’d found his father. The grief and loss on Ally’s face when she had realized both her parents were gone. The struggle to give his sister enough security and love so she’d never find out the truth, and the constant worry he’d never be enough. Children were casualties of love all the time. How could he ever trust himself not to hurt them like his own father had hurt him?