“Sounds great. Give me an hour to get ready?”
“Perfect. Come on, sweetheart, let’s go try on your new pink bathing suit.”
Taylor watched her niece skip out the door with a jaunty wave and shook her head. That kid had everyone in the family wrapped up tight, and Taylor didn’t even care. Gabe was good for both of them. She knew Bella had been lonely for a long time, and Zoe had been craving a father figure in her life. Zoe adored Pierce and Carter, but having Gabe for a future stepfather was special.
She grabbed her phone and texted Pierce to meet her at the beach. His thumbs-up emoji was perfect. They were finally getting back to normal. Their chat had been reasonable, with no drama or misconceptions. Even though they’d broken the sacred pact, she believed they were strong enough to overcome the curse of the rom-com tragedy by refusing to repeat the mistake.
Friends with benefits never, ever worked.
An hour later, they headed to the beach. Pierce got stopped at the boardwalk by a group of waitstaff from Fins. The man couldn’t walk down the street without people asking him to go out, do a job, or just shoot the breeze. He was a beloved staple in town in a way she’d never been. Oh, she had friends and knew tons of people, especially because the family business had cemented their place here. But after Taylor had left for college, she’d begun to disconnect from the beach town. Almost as if she’d already planned to make a home for herself elsewhere.
Who would’ve believed she’d end up right back where she’d started?
Their feet finally hit the hot sand. The weekends in summer were crowded, but they avoided the bulk of the crowds by picking a spot on the far left, away from the flurry of activity in the center of town. They set up the umbrellas, blankets, and chairs in record time and then walked Zoe down to the water.
Taylor dragged in a deep breath, gazing out at the ocean. Seagulls dove and played in the waves, and big fluffy clouds floated in an azure sky. In the distance, the tips of dolphin fins appeared and disappeared as they frolicked in the surf. The cries of beachgoers rose to her ears as they all followed the dolphins, caught in a moment of simple pleasure and joy that sometimes came too infrequently.
When she left in September, she’d miss the ocean the most. She was raised as a beach girl, and salt water ran in her blood. Tipping her face up to the hot sun, she steeped herself in the present and enjoyed the tickle of cold water nipping at her toes. The roar of the waves washed over her. A smile curved her lips.
All of a sudden, she was ripped from the ground and lifted high in the air. Gasping in shock, she stared at Pierce. A warning growl rose from her throat. “Don’t even think about it.”
He strode into the waves without pause. “No reason to go to the beach if you’re not gonna get wet.”
“Drop me, you bastard, or I’ll make you pay.”
“Fine, I won’t drop you.”
Her rush of relief disappeared as he swung her forward and back, gaining momentum. She shrieked and clung like a sloth, trying to wrap her limbs around him, but he was too strong.
She flew in the air and hit the water.
The icy temperature stole her breath, and she dove under, gritting her teeth, embracing rather than trying to fight the battering wave that took her for a ride.
Pierce’s laugh rang in the air when she surfaced. “Got you good,” he said smugly. “You must’ve been daydreaming. Didn’t even hear me coming.”
She wiped her dripping face and glared. “Now I have to spend my valuable energy plotting revenge. What are you—five years old?”
He dove in and splashed at her. “Don’t be so cranky, Taylz. It’s a beautiful day.”
“Watch out for the jellyfish.”
“What? Where?” He jumped and looked around. He’d gotten stung in high school and said the pain was so bad that he cried in front of everyone. That led to some teasing and ridiculous names, like the “yelly jelly boy.” Stupid, yes, but they’d both taken it seriously and had to get in a few fights to regain his reputation.
A laugh escaped. “Gotcha.”
His annoyed frown made her feel better, but not for long. He attacked from the side and tossed her again. She went for his legs and hit the back of his knees, then jumped on his shoulders. For the next few minutes, they engaged in a knockout water fight like they were kids, until salt burned her eyes and her nose ran and she was gasping for breath.
The whistle of a lifeguard startled her. She looked up, hoping it wasn’t a shark or an accident, then saw the lifeguards pointing directly toward them, shaking their heads. “I think we’re in trouble,” she hissed, hitting him when he tried to toss her again. “Pierce, stop!”
He squinted at the lifeguards and gave a snort. “Is that Mike and Jorge? What a bunch of babies. Are water fights illegal now? How is anyone supposed to have fun?”
She laughed at his sulky expression. “Aww, you can go build a sandcastle instead, yelly jelly boy.”
His gaze sharpened in warning. “You know I hate that name.”
“Sorry, just kidding. Oh, wait, let me fix your hair.” She reached out, scooped up a load of seaweed, and plopped it on his head. “Much better.”
“Don’t let them catch you.” She dove away just in time, and they reengaged. Finally, exhausted, she gave up and wrapped her legs around him, holding on as he treaded water. “I need a break. Drag me back—I’m too tired.”
He hoisted her around, easily capturing her legs under his arms, and pulled her close. His gaze met hers, his lower lip twitching in amusement. Wet hair fell over his forehead and plastered his cheeks. His dark, lush lashes were spiky with water. Her arms automatically wrapped around his bare, slippery shoulders, and his fingers tightened under her thighs.
Red-hot desire slammed into her. Her eyes widened as she tried to process the change from playfulness to raw want.
His gaze dove deep, recognized her arousal, and responded immediately. He grew hard against her thigh, and his head lowered, his damp, sculpted lips inches from hers.
She softened against him, her lips parting with invitation. The memory of his taste and touch weakened her resolve, and suddenly, she didn’t care about anything except how badly she wanted to kiss him.
“Aunt TT! Uncle Pierce! I want to play, too!”
Zoe’s scream broke the spell. He dropped her quickly and jumped back as if burned, then shook his head like he was trying to clear it.