Avery cleared her throat. “Okay, let’s go inside. We’ll get a cool drink, I’ll make some phone calls, and we’ll straighten it all out.”
Ms. Papadalle ignored her calm entreaty. Bracing her feet, she threw her shoulders back and announced her ultimatum. “There’s only one way to solve this. Change your date.”
Delilah’s voice broke. “But I can’t. It would ruin everything.”
“Then I’m bringing you all down. This is America. I deserve an equal shot even if I don’t hire a fancy-schmancy wedding planner.”
Delilah’s lower lip shook, and her eyes filled with tears. “But my family already bought airline tickets. They’re nonrefundable.”
“Too bad. I have proof I booked it first.” She shook the receipt wildly in the air like a baby bird trying to fly. “I’m taking the date. Deal with it.” Ms. Papadalle towered over Delilah, face masked in righteous fury.
Before Avery could take a step forward to defuse the tension, comfort her bride, and take control of the situation, Delilah launched herself at the woman. Ms. Papadalle stumbled under the surprise attack and fell back on her ass, landing in a tangled mess of limbs on the sidewalk. Delilah stared in shock, blinking as if she’d come out of a fugue state. She opened her mouth, maybe to apologize, but it was too late.
“I’ll kill you!” Ms. Papadalle sprang up from the ground and came at Delilah with a roar, but instead of running away, Avery’s once-shy, reserved bride let out a matching warrior cry, and they fell into a tangle of fists, hair-pulling, and nail-scratching.
She’d witnessed wicked arguments before, along with many drunken threats she’d always been able to resolve, but never two women in a real catfight. Knowing she had little time and no help, she went with her instincts and dove in.
“Stop it!” she yelled, wishing she had a hose to spray them with water like she’d seen on television with warring dogs. “You’re both making a scene!” She tried inserting herself into the middle, but a flashing nail caught her on the cheek, and then someone hit her in the head and ripped out the clips holding her hair. Gritting her teeth, she used all her strength and managed to push them away from each other with one mighty shove.
Both staggered back, eyes wide as if just realizing what they’d done on a public sidewalk. Avery moved to keep herself in between them, but her heel wobbled in the crack of the sidewalk.
Balance lost, she waved her arms in the air like a crazed chicken, then crashed to the ground. A litany of curse words blasted from her mouth, each one dirtier than the last, as she crawled indelicately to her scraped knees and looked up with a glower.
She registered the matching chagrined expressions on the two women staring down at her, then let her gaze travel past them to the couple framed in the open doorway. Ally took in the scene with a dropped jaw and eyes filled with shock. A man flanked her friend’s side, tall and lean and slightly familiar. His gaze assessed the situation with a flare of mockery and judgment that immediately pissed Avery off.
He turned to Ally. His voice was deep and velvety smooth, but his words cut deep without apology. “Please don’t tell me this is your wedding planner.”
And then she remembered who he was. Carter Ross. Her best friend’s older brother. Dread punched her stomach.
A groan of disgust rose to her lips as she straightened up and regarded the man she’d disliked from the moment they’d met. Carter was rude, arrogant, and always trying to boss them both around. He’d consistently judged her and found her lacking, believing she wasn’t good enough to be friends with Ally. His cool gaze hadn’t changed, even behind those new nerdy black glasses, and it still made her vaguely uncomfortable.
Lips slightly pursed, as if he’d tasted something bad, he shook his head and marched over. “Okay, ladies, fight’s over. Let’s see if we can solve the problem.” Guiding them both firmly under the elbow, he began to direct them inside.
Responding to the magic of his commanding voice, Delilah and Ms. Papadalle quietly climbed the stairs and went through the door. With a furious glare, Avery followed.
Ally took her hand, fussing and asking a million questions, but it was Carter’s gaze that assessed, judged, and gave his final verdict. And once again, she knew he’d found her lacking.
She tried to regain control of the situation, indicating to the women to follow her into the back private room to talk, but he interrupted in his usual domineering manner.
“I don’t know the circumstances of what caused such a public scenario, but I do know one thing.” He paused, his gaze weighing heavily on them. “Your husbands-to-be would be mortified by your behavior. Nothing is worth losing your dignity and kindness. I hope you’ll both apologize to the other and work it out.”
Avery almost closed her eyes in horror. How dare he talk to them like wayward children? She opened her mouth to apologize, but the two future brides ducked their heads in shame and began to babble.
“You’re right, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I lost my temper over something like this—”
“This wedding has made me insane. I’m doing things I’ve never done before—”
“So childish, please forgive me—”
They began madly exchanging apologies, gripping each other’s hands, and Carter nodded in approval.
WTF? Why were they apologizing to him? She was the one who fell on her ass and tried to help them! And did he always have to be so condescending?
Desperate to get them away from him, Avery interrupted in a loud, chirpy voice. “If you can both head to the room on the right and take a seat, I promise it will all work out. I’ll take care of everything.”
Still murmuring apologies, the women disappeared into the back private room.
She dragged in a breath and tried to register calm. Then directed her words to her friend. “I’m so sorry, Ally. If you wait in the conference room, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Of course! Not a problem, take your time.”
She began to turn, relieved her friend was so easygoing, until Carter’s voice stopped her cold.
“Still getting yourself into catfights?” he asked, brow arched in mockery.
His remark made her want to howl in rage and frustration. The memory of that night hit full force. Drunk in a college bar, a group of catty girls had begun taunting Ally, and she hadn’t been able to curb her impulse to defend her best friend. Avery had jumped at them, fists flying. Carter had been the one to pick them up and talk the group of girls out of pressing any charges. God, she still remembered sitting in the back seat while he lectured her on reckless behavior, growing up, and acting responsibly.
Her ears burned as humiliation leaked through her. Again. “I’ve got this handled,” she shot back, glaring up at him even with her four-inch heels.
“Sure.” His voice and look registered skepticism. “But hurry it up. You’re already late for our appointment, and I can’t afford to have a delay in my itinerary.”
She despised Carter Ross.
Carter studied the woman across the gleaming conference table. She’d restored her hair back into a neat little bun, reapplied lipstick, and exuded a calm, confident air that contradicted the fierce wildcat persona he’d seen outside minutes ago.
At first glance, Avery hadn’t changed at all. Her physical attributes were the same—from her curly honey-blonde hair and too-wide hazel eyes to her small build. Her curves had turned killer, especially emphasized in the tight pencil skirt and fire engine–red top, or maybe it was simply that he’d never noticed before because she’d been so young back then. Yes, she’d grown up well.
Not that it mattered.
A brawl on the porch of her business establishment was career suicide in his mind. He’d immediately decided to talk Ally out of using Avery’s services, no matter how many five-star reviews her business boasted.
But now, it was as if he were staring at a different woman. Fat folders surrounded Avery, all color coded and marked with various headers. A detailed calendar of events that needed to be completed was brought up on her laptop, counting down to D-Day, a red heart marking the date of the wedding. The conference room was beautifully decorated, and they’d been served sparkling water with lemon along with petits fours on delicate china while they waited. She’d apologized for the public display, excused herself for fifteen more minutes, and returned in professional mode. She had an air of confidence that hadn’t been there when she’d attended Georgetown, as if she’d finally settled into herself. The way she spoke with authority and walked with her shoulders back, posture strong. He assumed the two women had either left or killed each other, but when Avery entered the conference room, she acted like nothing had ever happened.
Still, he didn’t trust anyone who couldn’t handle her clients. He’d just seen proof that if things went wonky during his sister’s wedding, Avery wouldn’t be up to the task.
He’d tried to tell Ally this, but she was adamant it wouldn’t be an issue for them and was intent on using Avery. She also warned him about giving Avery a hard time. His sister wasn’t about to budge, determined to give her friend the business. Fine. Carter would have to make sure things were taken care of. Just like he always did.