Frustration flickered. He felt as if he’d been circling around the answer but kept getting blocked. He was spending more time in his darkroom, trying to work out the type of photography he really wanted to explore.
He needed to believe he’d get there if he was patient.
Right now, the only thing that truly satisfied him was the time he spent with Taylor. And she’d be leaving at the end of the summer, so he needed to get himself together and figure it all out.
“Get some good shots?”
The raspy voice startled him. He jerked around, squinting into the shadows, and found an elderly woman sitting alone on one of the benches in the garden. She wore a long black dress, and the shimmery threads of the fabric danced in the moonlight.
He smiled, walked down the steps, and stood beside her. “I did. I’m Pierce Powers. You’re Marcus’s grandmother, right?”
“Yes, I am. Been secretly watching you. I don’t like too many photographers. A lot of them are pushy. So focused on doing their job that they forget they’ve been invited to be part of a family for a night.”
He nodded, liking her insight. “I hope I haven’t disappointed, ma’am.”
“You haven’t. Call me Joss. I may be ninety-one years old, but I still hate being called ma’am.”
“It’s nice to formally meet you, Joss. Taylor and I agree: this wedding has been one of our favorites to work. Marcus and Jose are special.”
“That they are. Harder and harder nowadays to make a marriage last, but they’ve learned how to compromise, which gives them a head start. Not like my stubborn-ass daughter, who almost refused to change her dress.” Joss shook her head and spit out a dry laugh. “Who the hell cares? I kept telling her: no one’s looking at you anyway. Not with an extravagant gay wedding and Cher as a guest.”
Pierce pressed his lips together, delighted at her candor. Taylor had told him about the near-disaster of battling mothers. “You’re right. But I’m sure you’ve learned a lot of those life lessons from experience.” He tilted his head with curiosity. “A part of me always wondered if you stopped worrying about silly things at a certain age. It must be special to see things from that type of perspective. To be clearer about who you are.”
He expected her to share some nuggets of wisdom he could use for the future. Or to act grateful for the respectful way he spoke. Instead, she gave an irritated snort and poked her finger in the air. “Why do young people always ask ridiculous questions about old age, like we know the secret to life and just refuse to share it? Let me tell you, boy, growing old is no picnic. You watch your friends and family die. Your body fails you. People treat you like a five-year-old and push you aside. Do you want to know the truth, or hear some fantasy tale? ’Cause what I got to say won’t fit in a Hallmark card.”
Her words struck him. He was reminded of how every person was judged—by their skin, gender identity, education, past, experiences, and age.
Not wanting to keep looking down at her, Pierce knelt beside her, his camera balanced in his grip. “I didn’t mean to offend. And everything you described sounds annoying as hell. I think I was curious about how you look at love now. If it’s changed.”
Her face relaxed. She gave a cackle and slapped her knee. Her dress floated up, then settled. “A much better question. Love is always changing, isn’t it? We get older and more set in our ways. It gets harder to compromise. I was with my husband for forty-two years. It was a good life, but not what you’d expect. We stayed together not as much out of love, but out of respect. Devotion. Commitment.”
He hummed under his breath, considering her answer.
Her voice sharpened. “Sound boring to you?”
Chagrined by her response, Pierce admitted he’d been expecting a more magical answer. “A little.”
“Good. The harder emotions are what make life happen. Not the passion and stars—that’ll drift away after a few good fights and sacrifices. But the friendship? Yeah, that’s the heart of it. Because every day my husband came in that door from work, I was happy to see him. You show up for each other, even when it’s not fun anymore. Make any sense?”
He slowly nodded. “It does. I never really thought of it like that.”
She shook her head. “Young people don’t. You’re looking for the sex and to feel good in the moment. Sex is good, but someone who really sees you? Really likes you even with your crap? You want that, boy.”
Yes. He did. His thoughts flashed to Taylor, but he quickly pushed them away. Things with her seemed too tangled to think about right now. “Do you have regrets?”
“Hell yes. I’m not gonna quote some Maya Angelou poem and say I wore purple and ate the ice cream and claimed bravely not to regret anything. I regret a whole bunch of stuff. Stuff I’m keeping to myself and not willing to share with a stranger—that’s between me and God. But I’m glad to have them. If I didn’t have any, it’d mean I played it too safe. I’d rather be in it and lose spectacularly than win by default.”
Her words sliced through him, probing dark corners and hidden caverns he’d cut off in response to fear. Fear to push, or want too much, or risk, only to be rejected and hurt. But in this perfect moment, Joss was allowing him to truly see what it was to be human.
He cleared his throat. “Can I ask you one last question?”
“Can I take your picture?”
She paused for a moment, then studied him with a sharp, razorlike focus.
Had he overstepped? She’d said she didn’t trust photographers, so she might shut him down. He hoped not—taking her picture felt extremely important to remember this moment.
Finally, she gave a slow, almost regal nod. “Yes. You may.”
Relief cut through him. “Thank you. I just need a few moments.”
He got to work, tweaking the settings and lens adjustment until he found the perfect angle. Pierce took a few shots, capturing the silhouette of the flowers and mansion in the background, the poised stillness of Joss, and the layers of emotion and secrets hidden in her dark eyes. She was a beautiful contradiction and complication of a woman closer to the end of her journey, and Pierce felt humbled to be able to immortalize her presence.
“I can send you a copy,” he said, straightening up. He reached in his pocket for a release form and pen. “Would you allow me to use it in my collections?”