She treaded water and turned toward her niece’s voice. “We’re coming to get you!” she shouted, her voice a bit shaky. Refusing to look at him, she began swimming to shore and tried to ignore the sudden awkwardness.
Just a slipup. Some lingering residue from their night together. Nothing to freak out over.
Yet, she’d almost kissed him. In broad daylight. On a public beach.
They reached Zoe, and the girl’s delighted giggles kept Taylor distracted for a while. They flanked the child as they jumped waves and pointed at dolphins.
Taylor’s skin pruned and her nose burned and still she didn’t get out, too afraid to face what reality would eventually show her.
They were in trouble.
Pierce finished up his ham-and-cheese sandwich and hid under the umbrella. The encounter in the water had shaken him. One moment, they were goofing around and things were normal; the next, he was ready to make love to her right in the ocean.
Brooding, he watched Bella, Taylor, and Zoe build a sandcastle. His gaze ran over Taylor’s tiny black bikini. He appreciated the thrust of her small breasts, the belly ring that gleamed in the sun, and all that endless brown skin on display. The tat of a paintbrush scrolled up her hip. Red dotted the tip, and the gorgeous black scrawl was a work of art in itself. He’d run his tongue over the design the other night, tracing every detail in a quest to memorize each line.
Pierce shifted in his chair and smothered a curse. He’d seen her in that damn bathing suit for two years now, and not once had he needed to hide his erection. He’d always admired her looks and found her one of the most interesting females he’d ever met. No one could ever get bored with Taylor around. But had he lusted and analyzed every curve?
No. Not since that fateful night.
Zoe ran back and forth to get pails of water while the sisters talked. He would have worried they were talking about him, but he knew Taylor guarded her secrets well.
Gabe crunched on potato chips and dropped in the beach chair beside him. “What’s up?”
He shrugged. “Nothing, man. Just enjoying some time off. I’m getting a bit burnt.”
“Then put on sunscreen.”
Pierce laughed. “No, I mean tired. I’m not feeling my work like I used to.”
“Damn, I’m sorry. I guess doing anything over and over can get old, though. Even weddings. What are you thinking about doing?”
He let out a breath and tried to concentrate on the question. “Don’t know. I’m not saying I want to quit my bread and butter forever. Just looking to change things up.”
“You’re really talented, Pierce. I always thought you could do anything you wanted. Would you be interested in heading to the city? Trying to show some of your work?”
“Maybe. I’ve been drawn lately to natural environments and settings. More interesting candids.”
“Is there a market for it?” Gabe asked.
Pierce scratched his head. He’d been poking around doing some research to find the answer to that exact question. “I’m thinking of uploading a bunch of my work to stock-photo sites and see what happens. Maybe visit some local places to display some of my other shots rather than wedding couples.”
“Yeah, we’ll see. I need to focus on a new direction.” He pondered his thoughts for a while, then added, “Either way, I know gold is captured when someone’s not looking for it. I want to be there when it comes up. Make sense?”
Gabe crunched on another chip and nodded seriously. “Nope. But that’s okay, as long as it makes sense to you.”
Pierce chuckled. “If I go that route, I’ll need to stop taking on new clients for Sunshine Bridal. Finish up the summer season and then pull back. It will give me more time to explore options.”
“Of course. We’ll hate losing you, but we understand. Sometimes you gotta make a big change.” Gabe shot him a look. “Coincides with Taylor leaving, huh?”
Pierce tried not to stiffen up but avoided his gaze in case any guilt leaked out. God, all this time he’d defended their friendship and had sworn he wasn’t hot for her, even when Gabe and Carter had pushed. If they found out he’d slept with Taylor, they’d never believe him again. “Yeah, maybe it’s just time for both of us to dive into the next chapter.”
Gabe didn’t respond. Pierce had a sense that his friend wanted to say something else but was holding back. Had he seen them in the water together? Nah, from that distance it would’ve just looked like he’d been roughhousing with her.
He thought of their almost-kiss. He’d been caught off guard, that’s all. His body was still sensitive to her from their physical intimacy the other night. He reminded himself to just chill. Taylor had probably already shrugged it off.
Gabe finally spoke. “Well, I’m here if you need help brainstorming. Personally, I think it’ll be good for you. Broaden your horizons. Meet a hot woman who’s not your best friend. You’re going through a longer dry period than I was, dude.”
Gabe had been crazy over Bella for years and had refused to truly date or sleep with anyone else, holding out hope that she’d one day have feelings for him. Thank God it had worked out, because the poor guy had been knotted up. They’d fought long and hard to get here, but the joy on his friends’ faces now was worth it.
The pang came again, deep and hard. The longing for something more in his life. He was content but wondered about real, down-deep happiness. Was it something he’d ever experience? Maybe it was time he did something about it besides sit on his ass and wait.
He got up from the chair and grabbed his camera bag. “You may be right. Gonna take a walk.”
He headed down the beach and let his mind wander. Before a shoot, he’d do a quick meditation, opening up his senses so he’d be receptive to the world in a way his clients deserved. This time, he did it for himself, taking in his surroundings. As he walked farther down the shore, the crowds disappeared, and it was only sand and sun and surf.
A brief sense of loneliness cut through him. He embraced the feeling, lifted his camera, and began shooting. Random scenes captured his attention, pulling him deeper into the physical world around him. The rough edges of rock and shell tangled together in the wet sand. The loop and dive of a seagull in its own private dance. The way the sun caught the tips of white on a furious wave and threw out endless prisms of light.