She cleared her throat, but he didn’t speak, knowing quiet was a more powerful weapon than speech. Finally, she forced out words. “It’s nice of you to be here for your sister this summer to support her. The good news is you won’t have much to do. I’ll have guided appointments set up, and I know already what Ally’s taste is, so you can just enjoy a beach vacation and leave all this boring wedding planning to us.” Her smile was bright and completely fake.
He cocked his head. “Is that so?”
“Of course. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop, but I want to assure you, I have everything covered.”
He straightened the knot on his tie. Shot his cuffs. Adjusted his glasses. Then peered over the lenses to address her. “I’m sure you think you do. But after that debacle I saw on the street, I beg to differ. My sister’s wedding means everything to her, and I intend to see she gets what she wants. I’m not here for a beach vacation. I’m here to be involved in every single step of planning this wedding. I’ll be going to every appointment, every tasting, and every fitting. I’ll help with the parties, the favors, the flowers, and everything in between. Do we understand each other?”
He pushed back from the table, crossed one ankle over his knee, and waited for her response.
Damn, he was enjoying this.
Maybe this summer would be more interesting than he’d thought.
Avery refused to flinch. Refused to back off from his mocking blue-gray eyes or his smug grin. Oh, he was a bigger ass than she’d remembered—a complete control freak who’d try to muck up her processes and drive her insane just for the fun of it. No way was he about to intimidate her. She was an expert in taming fierce mama bears, overprotective fathers, and zealous bridesmaids. Handling one older brother should be a cakewalk.
Unfortunately, she was still off her game after being completely humiliated by that awful scene he’d witnessed. Even worse? He’d taken charge when she’d floundered, exhibiting a natural command that was part of his DNA. In all her years of dealing with PITAs and planning snafus, she’d never seen such a turnaround from a stern lecture. She’d made a call to Al, the Majesty owner, and found a smaller room at a large discount that satisfied Ms. Pappadelle’s requirements. They’d retreated, chattering away like old friends, leaving her head spinning like those old cartoons with little birdies circling above.
Some cakewalk. Carter had exploited her moment of weakness in order to convince Ally to let him help plan the wedding. Now Avery was stuck with him.
He kept staring, not budging an inch while he waited for her response. The only thing that stopped her from giving him a verbal tongue-lashing was his obvious love for Ally. He’d taken her hand with no pause, his presence a comfort to her friend when she spoke about their mother. It was the only redeeming quality the man had.
Still, she needed to teach him how the game rules worked.
“You like being in charge, don’t you?” she asked, tilting her head to study him.
He smirked. “So do you.”
“When it involves my business and clients, yes. Personally, I think you’re just pissed you’re being forced to listen to me. I have the expertise and knowledge you simply don’t have. It’d be best for all of us moving forward if you stepped back and let me guide Ally without your interference. I promise to take good care of her.”
He gave a deep laugh, and her nerve endings tingled. Bastard.
It was eighty degrees out and the man was dressed in a slim tailored suit like he worked on Wall Street. The charcoal fabric fit him snugly, emphasizing his lean, whipcord length. He radiated a calm intensity that had always thrown her off, even when she was young. Those misty blue-and-gray eyes seemed to hold all the answers, even hidden behind glasses. As if the deeper and longer he stared at her, the more secrets he’d catch. As if he were imagining things she had no access to but wished for a hint.
Back then, the only thing she’d focused on was her irritation with his unfair demands on Ally. No boys, no frat parties, no staying out past curfew. No drinking, no smoking, and no fun. He’d treated Ally like a high school student rather than a college woman, so Avery had made sure to drag her friend on adventures and allow her to experience life.
Now her brother wanted to do the same thing with her wedding.
Too bad there was a new sheriff in town.
He pushed his glasses up his nose and regarded her with disdain. “Taking care of her once ended with my sister in jail. Remember that? When I specifically asked you to promise you’d be home by midnight for her biology test the next day?”
“I was nineteen then! What do you think I’m going to do before her wedding? Get her arrested for drunken misbehavior? Propositioning a stripper? Cheating at cards?”
“All of those are possibilities,” he said dryly. “After all, I just witnessed a bride war on your front steps.”
Those glasses only made him look stodgier and intimidating. Hadn’t he heard of contact lenses?
“It’s simple. I don’t trust you, Avery. I never did. There’s only one person who can take the best care of my sister.” A grim smile rested on his lips. “Me.”
She growled low in her throat, fisted her hands, and almost blasted a tirade at his arrogant declaration, but Ally came back through the door.
“Jason says hello to both of you,” she sang merrily, flopping back in the chair next to her brother. “What’d I miss?”
Carter smiled and draped his arm across the back of her chair. “Not much. Avery was just telling me how happy she was to work with both of us on the wedding. She understands how important me being the man of honor is for you and felt I should be involved in every step of the planning. That’s okay with you, right?”
“Yes! I love that we’re doing this together,” Ally said.
Carter threw Avery a triumphant look, and she smothered a groan. Damn, he was good.
Avery had no choice but to smile back, pretending she was on board. Being older, he had more experience than she did in the business world, honing his slick moves to get a client to do what he wanted. But this wasn’t her first rodeo. She reminded herself she’d handled far worse clients. He might be a challenge, but she’d win eventually. For now, she’d let him believe he’d bested her.
“This is going to be so much fun,” she said, smiling even brighter. “Our three most time-sensitive tasks are booking the venue, getting your dress, and picking out invitations. I contacted Vera’s Bridal, and she can fit you in Wednesday at two.”
“What if Vera doesn’t have what she wants?” Carter asked.
“I doubt Ally will have a problem finding the perfect dress there.” She smiled at her friend. “Vera has an amazing assortment of dresses in various styles you can get right off the rack, and she does all the alterations. As you probably know, extensive changes or delivery issues can be detrimental in wedding planning. We wouldn’t want you to end up without your perfect dress because we ignored the time crunch. You didn’t have your heart set on some glamorous Alexander McQueen from Paris, did you?”
Ally laughed. “God, no. There are a few styles I’d like to try out, but I’m open.”
“Great. We can meet tomorrow at the shop. Here’s the address.” She whipped out a business card and handed it to Ally. “Like I said before, I went through all of the pictures you forwarded and made a list of specific vendors that matched your style and budget. I’ll book an array of appointments throughout the next few weeks.” She lifted a fat binder and placed it in front of them. “Here’s some invitation designs that are in stock and can be sent out quickly. Look them over tonight, if possible, and tell me if you like any tomorrow. The rest will unfold as we move forward.”
Emotion filled her friend’s eyes. “Thanks so much, Avery. You’ve already made this whole thing feel special.”
“That’s what wedding planners are for.” She reached across and held Ally’s hand. “And best friends, of course.”
They stood up and hugged. She caught Carter’s judging look—the same one he used to give her when she came to pick up Ally to go out—and she couldn’t help it. She stuck out her tongue.
He thought she was still a juvenile hell-raiser? Fine. She’d let him believe it, and then dazzle him while he watched her do the job she was born to do. A job she was great at.
When he smothered a laugh, the gleam of humor in those pewter eyes made her pause, but it disappeared so quickly she figured she’d imagined the whole thing.
Carter Ross was hardly human enough to get the joke.
Avery arrived at Vera’s Bridal early. The boutique displayed a stunning pearl-and-lace vintage gown in the window, and already the place was packed, with a small line forming to get in. Thank God Vera always gave her first dibs on last-minute appointments, managing to squeeze her in amid the chaos of endless summer brides clamoring for their dream gowns.
She wove through the line and made her way inside. The racks were jammed with plastic-encased gowns, and the sounds of chattering, excited women filled the air. Three main dressing rooms were set apart with full-size mirrors, a fitting platform, and white fabric-covered chairs clustered around. She checked in at the front desk and waited for Vera.