Tell you what. I’ll help,” Avery said.
I opened my eyes in mock surprise. “You? Help?”
“Sure. I’d sacrifice anything for you. In fact, I know how all the Dumonts’ money makes you uneasy, so I’ll marry the dashing, rich Ashton Dumont for you.” Avery liked to mix her teases with a dash of jealousy and a pinch of love.
“Such a sacrifice.” I clasped my hands together and shook my head as if amazed at her thoughtfulness. Meanwhile, a frenzy of fluttery, itchy, stinging emotions nibbled at my self-esteem. Every girl in metro Atlanta wanted to land Ashton Dumont. “But are you sure? You haven’t even looked at another man since the boyfriend-who-shall-be-shot-on-sight ran away.”
Avery’s lip, eye, and nose twitched. Was that her I-dare-you face, or it’s-too-soon face? I wasn’t sure, So I went for it’s too soon, and gave her my real sympathetic smile. But I wasn’t sure if to hug it out, or tug each other’s hair to cheer her up.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Ashton’s here,” Avery said in a k-i-s-s-i-n-g tone.
I closed my laptop and faced the door. “Come in.”
Ashton strutted in, soaked in an air of confidence only certain men could pull off. “Hi, gorgeous. I brought you some lunch.” He tossed a gargantuan sandwich from my favorite sub shop on the desk and kissed the top of my head. The tip of my ears warmed.
He patted Avery on the shoulder. “Sorry, didn’t know you’d be here or I would’ve brought some for you, too.”
“Honestly I think you did, this is gigantic.” I held the sandwich up with both hands. “Unless you’re trying to fatten me up so I can’t run away.”
“I have to keep hold of you somehow.” His grin was award winning.
Gravel crunched outside, and a car pulled up. Another band would be setting up soon. I could always hope they’d be good. Someone had to be, eventually. I crossed my fingers.
“She won’t have time to finish it anyway, an afternoon of auditions and all.” Avery pushed out her chest, her lips curving into her cheerleader-on-happy-pills smile. “But no worries. Sisters share.” She snagged the sandwich and ripped into the bag. “Besides, we want our bride to fit into her dress.”
I knew she didn’t mean it, only payback for bringing up her ex. I’d give her this one.
Ashton played with the ends of my hair, toying with it between his fingers. I relaxed into his familiar touch, savoring the contact. “No worries about that. She’s perfect.”
Avery’s eyes lit up like a neon sign flashing “Gotcha.” “Are we all still on for tonight? That whole shindig with your parents and grandparents and kings and queens?”
“Avery.” She was just trying to protect me, but she wasn’t wrong. My minute of bliss shattered into tiny slivers of anxiety and splinters of hope. Hope that his parents wouldn’t judge me. Hope that his grandparents wouldn’t hate me. Hope that his family finally accepted me.
“I think you’re exaggerating,” Ashton said, “but yes, we’ll be eating at the club tonight for the first annual Dumont-Dixon dinner.”
“Wait, you drove forty minutes out of your way to see me when we’re going to be together tonight?” I shook my head.
“Yeah. It gave me thirty more minutes with my other girl.” Ashton tilted his head toward the small window, indicating his new Audi R8 in the parking lot. His graduation present. A present that could’ve paid our bills for a decade.
Avery made a wrap-you-around-her-little-finger gesture. “How a-dork-able.”
His smile for the car could have made me jealous. “Well I think it’s sweet that we’re spending lunch together. Even if my fiancé did have to drive all the way down to Magnolia Corners, the southern-est of southern towns, just to take his mistress for a spin and bring lunch.”
“Dinner. Wait…” Avery rubbed her temples trying to bring back a memory. “Oh, I forgot to give you a message. Aunt Cathy is coming tonight.”
I bolted from my seat, fear of embarrassing family behavior taking my breath and stomping it from my lungs. “What? But the club dinner requires reservations…” Thank the Lord.
Ashton rubbed my arms, an instant, soothing ointment. “She can come with you. No worries.”
“No worries? Are those finals draining your brain cells? We’re talking about the epitome of all country women, Cathy West. She doesn’t know fine dining manners, or how to make sweet small talk. She’s even louder than Avery.”
“Hey,” Avery started to protest, stopped, thought, and nodded. “True.”
“Relax.” Ashton pulled me into his make-everything-right arms. “You’re going to end up in the back kitchen with an apron and fast pass to a mental breakdown if you don’t take a breath.”
My anxiety revved from zero to sixty faster than his new R8. “Your mother is going to faint. No, we have to keep Cathy home, or cancel tonight.”
“It’ll all be okay. I’ll be at your side the entire time. We’ll do this together.”
I rested my head against his chest for a minute, wishing the world would stop pounding against my skull. Two breaths and then I managed to face him and the rest of our drama. “We’re talking about your mother meeting a woman three times more backwoods than me. Remember when she overheard you ask me out at the club when I was waiting tables? She did a southern belle swoon that put Scarlett O’Hara to shame. I’m surprised she didn’t have you carry her to a fainting couch on the spot.”
Ashton kissed my cheek, my neck, my shoulder. “I don’t care if my mother has an issue with your family. Your family is my family. I love you, and I will love your Aunt Cathy. You worry too much.”
“Can you teach me how you do that?” Avery said, reminding me she was still in the room.
“Do what?” he asked.
“Calm Sadie into submission?”
“Tame it, sis.” I gave her a glare. Ashton could talk me into just about anything, a dangerous trait in a man. But Avery was wrong, I had some control around Ashton. Some.
“Relax, Sadie. It’ll be fine.”
I shook my head. “How can you be so calm?”
Ashton swooped me into his arms and dipped me like a tango dancer trying to impress the judges at a competition. “Because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” His Rhett Butler accent was as perfect as his eyes.
I just shook my head and smiled. Maybe he was right.
Avery chuckled. “As I said, a-dork-able.”