They stared at one another in shocked silence. The movie clicked off, and the television went to a blank screen. The room was quiet and hushed. “I don’t like your taste in movies,” he finally stated.
“I don’t like yours.”
He nodded slowly. “Duly noted. How do we get past this serious test in our brand-new relationship?”
Her lips quirked. Damn him. He was sexy and funny and nerdy, and she was crazy about him. She stretched, making sure her loose T-shirt fell off her shoulder and flashed a half-naked breast. His gaze became attached to her bare skin, and he licked his lips. “We can make up in bed. That was a horrible fight,” she said.
“I agree. Awful. It’s time for make-up sex.”
Very slowly, she smiled; carefully extricated herself from Lucy, who gave a slight jerk, then settled back into sleep; and stripped her shirt off. “Let’s go, robot man.”
He plucked her off the couch and carried her into the bedroom.
Avery hoped all their fights would end just like that.
Three more days.
Carter dropped his phone on the table and rubbed his head. It was official. He’d just been sent a new project, and they wanted him at a meeting Tuesday morning.
His time in Cape May was officially up.
Chest tight, he scooped up Lucy and headed outside. The sun was high and bright, and the street was quiet other than the occasional passerby or bicycle. He slid into the oversize rocker on the porch, put his feet up on the rail, and settled Lucy in his lap.
He’d never thought he was a beach-town type of person, but Cape May had subtly weaved itself into his heart. He loved the small-town charm, reminding him he worked too much indoors and had forgotten what it was like to be closer to nature. The ocean soothed him, and he enjoyed taking morning runs on the boardwalk with Pierce. He’d made friends with some business owners and was greeted by name at Madison’s Bakery and Louie’s Pizza. He had a regular lunch and beer date with Gabe and Pierce at Ugly Mug, and had been able to take Zoe to the beach one more time.
He didn’t want to leave Cape May.
He didn’t want to leave Avery.
He stroked Lucy’s belly, and tried to take comfort in her warmth. He’d known this day would come. He couldn’t stay here forever—he’d made a life for himself back in DC. But he didn’t want to end the relationship with Avery. These past two weeks together proved she was special.
She loved him.
God, she was sweet. And passionate. And giving. Everything he’d always dreamed of in a woman, and he still wasn’t able to say the words back. Each time he tried, panic rose up and wiped out his voice. Maybe he’d never be able to say them.
Maybe his father had ruined him.
He squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. He needed more time. Tonight, he’d tell her he wanted a long-distance relationship. He’d commit to regular visits, texts, phone—hell, he’d happily do FaceTime. September and October were still busy for weddings, but they’d be able to spend more time together in November. He’d take his laptop with him and work from here on long weekends. He had no interest in other women. Avery was the only one he wanted. She had to know that, and be happy with the next step moving forward.
His breath eased as he reminded himself the arrangement could work for both of them. It made sense.
He’d explain tonight, and everything would work out fine.
She was losing him.
Avery stared at the man she loved across the table and knew her time was officially up.
His new job began on Tuesday. He’d laid out his plans for a long-distance relationship, even sliding over a color-coded calendar where they could both keep track of their available times. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The relief on his face was almost tangible. He’d be able to ink her into the spaces and open slots of his life, yet keep a safe-enough distance to avoid the day-to-day messiness of a true relationship.
She looked at the charts and listened to his well-rehearsed speech and felt her heart slowly break into pieces. What had she expected? That he’d declare his love and announce he’d move to Cape May? Things like that only happened in the movies and novels. Real life was hard and meant compromise, like organized spreadsheets and phone sex. Why did she have a sinking sense she’d lose him for good once he left?
“Sweetheart? You look upset. What do you think of my ideas?”
She forced a smile. “It seems you worked it all out. I’ll download my wedding schedule into the spreadsheet and we’ll sync it. I’ve always wanted to go back and visit the capital.”
He nodded with enthusiasm. “Exactly. We’ll make this work for both of us. We don’t have to lose anything.”
Heart bruised, feeling extremely vulnerable, she asked the only question she needed answered: “Do you want this to work, Carter? Because I understand if it’s too much. We’d agreed only to the summer. Are you sure you’re willing to try and take on a long-distance relationship and its challenges?”
He leaned over and laid his hands on her knees. Those misty blue-gray eyes flared with hot emotion and a fierce command. “I’m not letting either of us walk away from this. You’re too damn important to me and can never be termed a summer affair.” His voice broke, and she sensed his need to tell her more, but his gaze dropped. “You changed my life.”
The naked truth in his words gave her hope. It was more than he’d given her before, and she needed to be patient. They’d bonded after he confessed the secret about his father. She understood how the experience had changed him. Maybe having control would have the opposite effect. Maybe he’d realize what they could be together, and distance would make them closer. Praying she was right, she reached for him. “Then we’ll make it work.”
Her fingers skimmed his soft lips, loving his smile. And then he carried her to the bedroom and made all the doubts go away, for a little while.
The day Carter left, the sky didn’t weep, she didn’t get a sick gut instinct she’d never see him again, and it was a regular workday.
His car was packed. The rental house was locked up. Lucy was loaded up in her carrier case. And Avery stood on the porch, wondering how to express so much feeling into a few words of goodbye.
“We’re on for September twenty-first,” he said firmly. “It’ll give me plenty of time to get a handle on the new project, and then spend a long weekend with you.”
“Sounds like a plan. Text me when you arrive safe.”
She smiled and caressed his rough cheek. “Yes, call. If I don’t answer, I’ll call back when I get a break. The wedding will run late.”
His phone blared and he glanced down. “Can you give me a sec? It’s work.”
He handed her Lucy’s carrier and walked a few feet away, engaging in deep conversation.
She sighed and took a seat. Propping the carrier on her lap, she gazed down at Lucy. “You probably don’t believe it, but I’m going to miss you, girl. Take care of him for me, okay?”
Tears stung her eyes, so she lifted her gaze and stared out at the ocean, reminding herself they’d work it out. People engaged in long-distance relationships all the time. It was common in today’s age with technology to help out, and there was no reason to act dramatic or weepy. She needed to show him she believed in them.
The warm lick of a tongue on her palm startled her. Looking down, she watched Lucy bestow tiny doggy kisses, as if sensing her distress.
Avery gulped and smiled, patting her tiny head. “Thank you, girl. I needed that.”
“Sorry, I’m all set. Ready, Luce?” He picked up the carrier and placed her in the passenger seat. Then turned.
“I love you,” she said.
He ran a knuckle over her cheek, his eyes whispering what he couldn’t yet say. Then he kissed her long and deep, bending her backward and devouring her mouth, giving his body entirely in a final, blistering embrace.
He pulled back. Raked his gaze one last time over her face. Then got in the car and drove away.
Avery wondered why she was already grieving the end.
Three weeks later, her sisters stormed into her house in a forceful invasion. Avery had been on the couch, watching TV, and devouring an entire chocolate-explosion Peace Pie. “What’s the matter?” she demanded. “Did you even knock?”
Taylor snorted and dropped into the oversize chair. “No need. Carter isn’t here this weekend, and you’ve been like a hermit these past few weeks. Something’s up, you’re not talking, and we’re here to get the dirt. Spill.”
She blinked. “Are you nuts? I’m fine. There’s nothing to tell.”
Bella shook her head and gracefully took a seat next to her. “We’ve never seen you like this before. You’re like a wedding demon come to life, buzzing from event to event and working all hours. If you’re not working, you’re sitting at home, watching TV and eating. It’s not like you.”
“You said I should take more downtime,” she pointed out. She popped the last piece of ice-cream sandwich into her mouth. “I’m doing what you said.”
“We meant to go to the beach and play with Zoe and travel. To have fun. Not to be miserable. You’re going against your normally cheerful nature. It’s painful,” Taylor accused. “For all of us.”