As the time passed, he headed toward the lighthouse, caught up in the search for something simple yet extraordinary. The way nature could reflect a human’s emotions fascinated him. He’d just never given himself permission to engage in the chase before.
When he finally surfaced, he realized how late it was. He slid his phone out of his pocket and saw Taylor’s text.
You okay? Bailed on us? Heading back home. I have your cooler and camera bags.
He typed quickly back. Lost track of time. See you soon.
He didn’t want her to think he’d run away after their encounter. He’d stop by and make sure she knew he was cool.
He trudged back over the sand, thinking about his new direction with his photographs. He’d forgotten how opening himself up to creativity allowed him to get in touch with new emotions—even uncomfortable ones. It was similar to how Taylor experienced her painting by allowing herself to show things on the canvas she’d usually shy away from. Too bad she believed there was only one way to succeed with her art.
Get away from Cape May.
Away from him.
The thought of her desperation to leave secretly stung. Sure, he understood she’d been born with a wanderlust not many could relate to, but he was practically family. Her ride or die. Her damn person.
Was it wrong to be a bit hurt that she kept ragging on the small town they’d grown up in together, terming it a prison? Did that mean he was, too?
And once she left, how would it be for him? Carter had Avery. Gabe had Bella. Taco Tuesdays with them would be uneven now—he’d be the odd man out. He had tons of other friends in town he could hang with, but most were either happily married or still into major partying. The previous women he’d been dating had faded in his memory, not worthy of leaving his couch for.
He seemed to be stuck in the middle.
When Taylor flew back from her new, glamorous lifestyle, would she suddenly find him lacking?
Too many things seemed to be changing all at once. Pierce didn’t want their relationship to be one of them.
His brain fully accepted the statement as truth, but his gut twisted as if he’d uttered a lie.
Pierce ignored them both.
Taylor returned from the beach and headed straight to the workroom.
Still clad in her bikini, with messy hair and sand in her toes, she stood barefoot in front of the canvas and began to paint. The images swirled around her, clawing to get out, as if her previous block had finally allowed not only a trickle, but a river of ideas to flow.
She chased the faceless woman who consistently haunted her, desperate for her not to disappear again before her muse got what she needed. The background emerged in shadow. The woman reached up from the depths of the ocean, stuck underwater, a silent scream as she lifted her hands to the sky. Another pair of hands broke the surface, reaching out to her.
At first, Taylor thought the woman was trapped and desperate for rescue, but as the pieces came together, she realized she wanted to be there and had chosen her watery grave.
She was screaming against the rescue.
Shaken, not realizing what the hell these images meant, she painted enough to gather the direction and the raw emotion of the piece. As she slowed down, she felt another presence behind her.
Pierce closed the distance between them, standing an inch away. The back of her neck prickled. She smelled the sting of salt water, sweat, and his unique male scent that had always comforted her. But not now. She felt too far away from comfort right now, and she didn’t know what to do about it. All she could think about was how good he’d felt pressed up against her, how right it had seemed to just kiss him, as if they already belonged together.
Insane. She was going insane.
“That looks deep.” His gravelly voice stroked her ears.
She threw her brush down and wiped the paint off her fingers with a cloth. “I got some crap in my psyche to work out, I guess.”
“I didn’t want to disturb you. Just wanted you to know I wasn’t bailing.”
She shrugged and finally faced him. His gaze probed hers. “I know. Gabe said you took your camera. Get anything good?”
“No, but I will. I think I’m going to stop taking on new clients.”
She tilted her head in surprise. The easy way he’d said it told her he’d been thinking about this for a while. “What are you gonna do?”
Now he shrugged. “Explore more opportunities. I have a few contacts at some vacation magazines. It may be nice to freelance.”
The air heightened; the easy camaraderie they usually had ramped up to another level she didn’t want but couldn’t change.
Taylor cleared her throat. “Well, I’d better get to work.”
“We’re just gonna forget about what happened in the water, right?”
She jerked at his direct question. God, what was the answer in all this? It wasn’t like she wanted to avoid him. She just wanted this chemistry thing to die a natural death and not bother them again. Yet, she couldn’t stop looking at his bare muscled arms, or get rid of the sudden impulse to press her mouth against his skin and savor his taste. His presence seemed so much more overpowering than it usually did, as if he ate up the space and breath between them, drawing her in.
She was used to short affairs and one-night stands. She had no experience dealing with relationships that touched her heart, because Pierce was the only man she allowed close. Because he was her friend.
Not her lover.
“I think we should.” Taylor forced a laugh. “Let’s call it a tiny mistake.”
“Probably a lingering effect of Friday night.”
“Exactly! Leftover stuff. We didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, we didn’t mean it.” His voice was soft and intimate. Those hooded green eyes suddenly seemed intense and sexy, challenging her to call out whatever this thing was between them. “Even if we did, it would never be as good as that first time.”
Her mouth dried up at the idea of one more time. Her fingers curled into fists. “Definitely not. That night was a fluke. We’d probably end up laughing our asses off. Remember when you kissed me in high school and bumped your nose against my chin?”
“Yeah. Got a bloody nose. Real romantic.”
“We’re a disaster as a couple in that way.” Did she sound desperate? Why was her entire body pulsing with expectation, as if their words were a delicious sort of foreplay? “I probably wouldn’t even have an orgasm.”