“The main goal of today is to figure out your personal style and how you want it reflected in your wedding. Are you still obsessed with purple and silver?”
Ally laughed. “Guilty as charged. But is that overdone or tacky?”
Avery cocked her head. “It’s a classic combination that’s cool and sophisticated. There’s one important thing you need to remember. I don’t care if you come to me with zebra patterns—if it’s what you want, I will make sure it looks beautiful. That’s my job. Your job is to tell me everything you love and would like to incorporate for your day. Okay?”
Ally beamed. “Yes. Isn’t this exciting, Carter?”
He caught Avery’s gaze. Oh, she was good at this. Dislike shone in her eyes, but it was banked just enough that someone not looking for it wouldn’t notice. But he did. “Extremely. I can’t wait to see what’s next,” he drawled.
Avery’s chin tilted up. She turned in her chair, directing her attention toward Ally, refusing to include him in the discussion. The snub teased a smirk out of him. At least she was amusing.
“Tell me a little about how you see your day unfolding—from ceremony to reception to everything in between?”
His sister gave a sigh. “I really want to say our vows on the beach. I know weather can throw us a curveball, but I’d like to try. I’m imagining the ocean in the background with a beautiful white trellis. Simple, but elegant. Same thing with the reception. I’d love something that makes everyone feel like they’re in a garden, with tons of flowers and stone walkways, and a fabulous dinner. The food is really important. I can’t stand regular wedding fare with the traditional three options. I want something outside the box.”
Avery nodded, her fingers flying over the keyboard. “Got it. Unique cuisine—sit-down or buffet?”
“I guess sit-down, but I don’t want the guests to feel stuck for too many hours while they wait for food. Oh, and I want a DJ, not a band, and none of those traditional things that have been overdone. No bouquet-throwing, or garter toss, or ridiculous themed dances with props.”
“Not even the Macarena?” he teased. “That’s a fan fave.”
His sister grinned. “Not unless you lead the charge, big brother.”
“Right. No Macarena.”
Avery didn’t even bother to look at him. “How many guests do you want to invite?”
“About seventy-five. I love intimate round tables so people can talk. I don’t want those giant ones where no one can hear you speak over the music.”
“Got it. Because of the timing, I’m restricted to certain vendors, but I have a few ideas. There’s this amazing gourmet restaurant with a terrace that may be able to fit that many guests. Would you be willing to cut the list to fifty if you liked the place?”
Ally wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know.”
“Why should she have to make such a sacrifice?” he said. “I’m sure you have enough contacts to give her both—right?”
Ally hit her brother’s shoulder. “Shush. I told you no fighting.”
He threw up his hands in defeat. “I’m not! I’m just asking an important question about her vendor list.”
Avery smiled at his sister, but her voice flicked with ice. “My contacts are substantial, but I like knowing what aspects are flexible since it’s rare to find a venue that is an exact match to all of the bride’s wishes. Wedding planning is quite complicated. It’s totally understandable if you can’t keep up. I can finish with Ally if you’d like to wander around town and get a cup of coffee.”
Amusement flickered again. Damned if she wasn’t trying to get rid of him. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and settled deeper into his chair. “No, thanks. I find this fascinating. I’m learning so much.”
Her smile never slipped. “Good. Now, I’ve always pegged you as daring but elegant. You’ll take risks as long as they don’t run the verge of tacky. Correct?”
“What about Jason? Likes, dislikes, anything I need to avoid?”
“No, he’s totally open.”
“Great. Anything specific you’d like to incorporate for yourself?”
His sister’s face clouded, though a smile touched her lips. “Yes. Before our mother passed, she wrote me a letter. I’d like this quote included someway in my wedding theme.” She reached in her purse and pulled out a piece of paper, carefully smoothing it out and handing it over.
A lump rose in his throat, and the familiar grief shook through him—the undeniable realization that their parents wouldn’t watch Ally walk down the aisle, and the frustration that he had to be both mother and father to her. He was afraid he’d fail on both fronts on the most important day of her life.
Avery read the quote aloud, her voice a mix of smoke and honey, drifting and pouring over his ears. “‘I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.’”
The Elizabeth Barrett Browning quote hit him like a sucker punch. He reached over and squeezed his sister’s hand, trying to impart strength.
“It’s beautiful,” Avery said. “I think I can do something special with this if you give me some time to brainstorm.”
“Thanks. Mom loved poetry. She always said she was a terrible poet, but I loved the stuff she wrote. It made her happy.”
Avery gave her an encouraging nod. “She’ll be part of your day because it’s filled with love. Whenever I see a couple exchange vows, it’s like the air vibrates with the people in their life, all gathering around to bless them. Your mom and dad will see it all. I just know it.”
Carter jerked slightly at the emotional words that should have sounded cheesy and fake. It was probably a canned response she used on all her clients who’d lost their parents. But why did it feel like she was sharing a piece of herself, as if her heart meant every sentiment she uttered? Either she was wicked good at her job or the woman had drunk the Kool-Aid on this lovefest thing.
Sure, he was happy his sister had met the man she wanted to build a life with, but he simply didn’t believe in all the hearts-and-flowers junk that came with the decision to marry. The more someone allowed pumped-up sentiments like poetry and fiction and pretty trappings to affect their relationship, the more danger threatened.
God knew he’d seen it firsthand.
He vowed to protect his sister, so keeping this entire process logical and real was his priority. He wouldn’t allow Avery to fill his sister’s head with unreal expectations, either of her wedding day or her actual married life.
He watched Avery finish typing, take a sip of water, and flip some pages in her big book. “Now, how about the wedding party? Have you picked them yet?”
“Yes, Jason will have his brother as his best man and three friends as groomsmen.” Ally rattled off the names. “Since you’re my wedding planner, I didn’t get to ask you to be in my bridal party.”
“Oh, you’re so sweet,” Avery said. Her face flickered with emotion. “That means a lot to me, but this is even better. I can be involved in everything.”
“True. I’ll be having two friends from Texas as my bridesmaids, Judith and Noelle, and Jason’s sister, Maddie. And of course, Carter will be my man of honor.”
Avery blinked. Slowly, her gaze fastened on him, and a sudden connection seared between them, fiery hot and full of dislike, animosity, and something else—something he refused to delve into or try to name. “Man of honor?” she questioned.
“Yes, that’s okay, right? I read that Ryan Seacrest was the man of honor at his sister’s wedding, and Carter is my only family.”
Avery ripped her gaze away. “No problem,” she said crisply. “I’ll collect everyone’s emails so we can keep the whole wedding party informed of decisions that affect them, and of course, you can FaceTime your brother anytime you’d like his opinion.”
His sister laughed. “Are you kidding? He has video phobia. Thank goodness I convinced him to stay with me the whole summer and help with everything.” Her phone rang and she glanced down. “I’m sorry, do you mind if I step out for a bit? It’s Jason.”
Avery nodded, and Ally walked out, shutting the door behind her.
Thick silence settled over the room. Curiously, Carter watched Avery’s face. She’d managed to school it into a calm expression, pretending the announcement didn’t affect her, but he knew better.
She was pissed.
Those eyes couldn’t lie no matter how hard she tried. Sparks of temper flew at him like jagged pieces of glass, looking to wound. Her features were tight, and her shoulders squared as if ready for battle.
Carter held back a grin. It was kind of fun torturing her a bit. As the bride’s most important person, he was suddenly the one she had to please, which was completely different from their relationship back in DC. No, back then she had loved making fun of him, dragging his sister into dangerous situations in the name of adventure, and encouraging Ally to live big and rebel against her big brother’s strict and unfair rules.