He shook his head, trying to figure it out. “It wasn’t a choice. I’d never leave you behind, Ally-Cat. I love you too much.”
“Exactly. Love makes you strong, Carter, not weak. Maybe Dad gave up, maybe it was coincidence—we’ll never know. But if he did choose to give up, I know in my heart and soul you’d never do that.” She touched her finger to the screen. “Love is the ultimate freedom. It pushes you to be the best, challenges your worst, and tests your strength. It gives the most reward because you risk the most. It’s not exotic adventures and distant lands that you’ve been missing. It’s love.”
A shiver shot down his spine. He nodded, his throat tight.
“Do you love Avery?”
The question slammed through him. His sister stared at him with a piercing gaze, still touching the screen. He grabbed for excuses and his normal rationalizations, but a faint whisper rose up inside him that made him still.
He’d known it all along. He just hadn’t wanted to deal with the consequences. But his sister’s words had given him a freedom he’d never had before—the realization that his constant comparisons to his father had been a way to protect himself. All this time, he’d been a coward.
His tat seemed to throb and burn on his skin as a reminder of the boy he’d once been, and the man he’d chosen to grow into. Ally was no longer his responsibility. It was time for him to make a life for himself free from the past.
He just hoped he could do it.
“Yes,” he said. “I love her.”
Ally nodded. “Good. I can only imagine the horrific things you said to her, so you probably have a long way to dig yourself out of the doghouse.”
He winced. “Yeah, it was bad.”
“She’ll give you another chance, but it may take a while. You know what you need to do to get her back, right?”
“Quit my job and move to Cape May?”
She grinned. “It’s a start. But if you want your own happily ever after, you have to go all in, Carter. Do you understand?”
He nodded, throat choked with emotion. “Yeah.”
“Good. Now get to work. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Ally-Cat. Thanks.”
The screen went dark.
His sister was right. He couldn’t fix this overnight, but he could damn well begin the process. Avery deserved more than the man he’d shown her. It was time to show her he had the balls to leap.
He opened up his internet search and began typing.
Avery walked into Sunshine Bridal in a bad mood.
Gabe had called in, citing an emergency, sticking her with a vendor appointment amid all her regular meetings. Bella had disappeared and wasn’t answering her phone for backup, and Taylor had texted that she was in AC for her sacred day off and wished her luck. And to top everything off, Jessie, their receptionist, had called in sick, so she now had to spend the next hour going through messages to make sure they didn’t miss anything important.
She hated today.
Muttering a string of curses, she handled the voice mails first, then printed out Gabe’s worksheet for the Ackerman wedding. Her life was pathetic. This was all she had left to look forward to—planning everyone else’s weddings while she grew into an old maid. She’d met the love of her life, and he hadn’t wanted her.
Morphing into a pool of self-pity, she almost wished Taylor was here to kick her in the ass. Her sisters gave her a full month to grieve the loss, and then she wasn’t allowed to eat a Peace Pie every night. She even had to begin eating kale salads again.
Her life sucked.
She heard the door open and close. Great, if she had to deal with a walk-in, she was going to seriously lose it. Gritting her teeth, she popped her head out of the conference room, praying she wouldn’t have to pretend to be nice.
Her jaw dropped.
Lucy stood in the foyer, glancing back and forth as if trying to figure out what was going on. When her gaze snagged on Avery, her little doggy face lit up, and she began trotting toward her.
Avery dropped to her knees and held her arms out. “Lucy! Sweetheart, what are you doing here?” She hugged and kissed the wriggling bundle of fur, savoring her sweet licks and the sheer comfort of knowing such love. God, she’d missed her so much.
Then her brain gave her a jolt, reminding her if Lucy was here, it also meant Carter was here.
Her body shook. It’d been more than a month since their phone conversation. He’d never called her back. The pain was brutal and swift, and she’d spent endless nights crying with a hopeless longing to beg him to come back. But she refused to be with a man who’d never give his whole heart, no matter how much she loved him. As time passed, she got stronger, but there was still an empty ache in the pit of her stomach that hadn’t gone away.
After some more snuggles, she noticed a paper tied to Lucy’s collar. She pulled out the rolled-up note and opened it.
Please meet me at the Merion Inn in 15 minutes. I’ll be waiting for you at the bar.
PS: Please bring Lucy with you.
She hissed out a breath and grabbed for patience. How dare he? By giving her Lucy, he forced her to his terms. It would serve him right if she just took Lucy home with her and ignored his note. Her schedule was already packed, and she didn’t have time to play games.
What was he doing in Cape May?
Anger warred with despair. Did he want to apologize? Try again? Or just clear the slate for his sister’s sake? The questions haunted her, but she had little time to think. Exactly what he’d counted on—no time to call her sisters for advice or make a quick disappearance.
Fine. If he wanted to make nice, she’d do the same. She’d be cold, distant, and polite. She’d pretend she’d moved on. Anything to make him go away.
She checked her hair and makeup for vanity only, then scooped up Lucy. The Merion Inn was within walking distance, and the dog’s pink leash had been attached to her collar. Though it was a gorgeous fall day, she refused to be charmed by the cooler air, the flight of crisp leaves, or the calming sound of the ocean waves.
When she reached the Merion Inn, she walked inside. It was an odd time between lunch and dinner, and the place was empty. With the gorgeous floral Victorian wallpaper, mahogany wood, and rich tapestry carpet, the restaurant gave off an old-world, elegant charm that was a favorite for guests. A beautiful piano gleamed with high polish, empty for now.
Carter was sitting at the bar, nursing a whiskey, his elegant fingers skimming the edge of the crystal-cut glass. Hank, the bartender, nodded to her and left his station, probably sensing something big was going down.
Carter’s gaze delved into hers.
Trembling, she took a step back under the intensity of those stormy blue-gray eyes. The last time she’d stared at him, his gaze had been passionate but remote. Today, a raw flare of emotion glimmered in its depths, carved out his features.
He looked tired. Lines bracketed his eyes and mouth. He’d grown a bit of a beard, giving him an edgy, sexy look that stole her breath. No glasses. His outfit consisted of jeans, a gray pullover, and leather loafers. Her body wept to touch him just once, but she kept her distance.
Lucy wriggled in a mad dash to be reunited with her owner, so Avery was forced to cross the room and stand near him. He picked the dog up, kissing her and calming her down, then slipped her into his carry bag.
“Thank you for coming.” His voice was smooth whiskey and rough gravel.
She curled her hands into fists to keep from reaching out. “You didn’t give me much of a choice unless I wanted to be a dog-napper.”
A smile touched his lips. He was staring at her so hungrily, it reminded her of how it’d been over the summer. Pain blew the thought away, like poking a sore tooth. “I was afraid to give you too much of a choice after how we left things.”
A weary sigh shook from her. “Is that why you’re here? To make things nice? You don’t have to, Carter. I’m not mad, I’m truly not. We tried.”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
He turned on the stool and placed his hands on his knees. His face held the resolute lines of a man on a mission. And, God, the sexual tension burned and simmered between them, trying to knock her off-balance. Damn him and his guilt. She needed to get out of here.
“It’s simple, really,” he said. “I’m so damn sorry. You gave everything and I gave nothing. You were brave and I was a coward. When you tried to tell me, to reach out and ask why, I treated you like shit. Because I was messed up. Mixed up. Scared crapless. Pick one.”
Her throat tightened, and her voice came out choked. “I get it. You told me why, and I thought I could just fix it by pushing you. Apology accepted. I swear, you can go home now and know I’m okay and I understand.” She turned on her heel, desperate to leave, but his next words stopped her.
“I am home.”
“What do you mean?”
He waited until she turned and faced him again. “I talked to my sister. Told her everything, and she gave me a come-to-Jesus moment. I’ve been protecting a life I don’t even want anymore. So I made some changes. I sold my place and quit my job. I’m in therapy, so I can learn some tools to make sure I don’t slip into my old ways.”