“God, it’s all here, isn’t it?” Sam murmured, tucking her hands around her stomach and rocking back on her bare feet. “We came from a farm with a forest and marshland. We got to eat from the land and get in touch with nature. Then, a few miles away, we’re standing at the edge of the world—where ocean meets sky.”
He jerked back, studying her profile. “I guess I never thought of it like that.”
“Cape May is an extraordinary place,” she said, turning dark, serious eyes on him. “No wonder you never left.”
He shifted his feet, suddenly unsure. As much as he loved his home, lately he’d been wondering if his path was leading elsewhere. It wasn’t about leaving because Taylor was—it was about connecting to a part of himself that had been too complacent to admit he needed a change. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m missing out,” he said wryly. “I never questioned my desire to stay here and build my own photography business. So many things have kept me stationary, but maybe I need to branch out more.”
She nodded. “I’ve lived in the city my whole life. As much as I appreciated the sheer amount of opportunities I had, from the museums to restaurants to the arts, I always felt out of place. Crowds intimidated me. I craved a quieter setting to think and be me without being swept up constantly in the rat race—bigger, better, faster, now.”
“Yeah, I can only imagine how that can burn you out.” He tilted his head with curiosity. “What made you pick Cape May?”
She looked out at the ocean with a tiny smile. “I got on the Garden State Parkway and drove to the end. When I hit Exit Zero, I stopped. Found a place to rent. Got a job. Took one suitcase with me. I wanted to start new.”
“Were you running from something?”
“No. But maybe I was running toward something. To figure out more about myself, you know?”
Watching Sam today reminded him of the things he’d been missing. The excitement and light of discovery in her eyes as she looked upon his childhood home made him want to experience it himself. It was time to cast his net wider and flourish in new ways. He’d played it safe for too long.
The sun sank. The ocean roared. The gulls screeched and swooped low. The dying light caught the tips of the foamy waves and glistened like fragmented jewels. In that moment, he realized that questioning where he belonged was integral to growth and change. But even if his photography led him away, he’d always come back to Cape May.
She cranked her head around. “For what?”
“For helping me see things I couldn’t.”
She raised her hand with a grin. “Back atcha.”
Laughing, he high-fived her, then rubbed his palm from the sting. “Damn, you city girls got some power.”
“Don’t forget it.”
They watched the sunset, and then he drove her home, thinking about what he wanted his future to look like. He went directly to his studio and spent the evening caught up in his darkroom. Drunk on the chemical smell that was like pages to a book junkie, he fell into the experience of watching people and moments come alive before his eyes, a secret voyeur and treasure hunter looking for gold. As the pictures developed, he realized for the first time in a very long while that he was excited again about his work.
Several days later, Pierce stared at the various portraits he’d picked for the Escape collection.
Samantha gripping the worn ropes, feet high in the air, ponytail thrown back behind her as she reached for the stars, a delighted smile curving her lips.
A couple caught up with each other with quiet wonder while the sun sinks over the horizon at Higbee Beach.
Marcus’s grandmother sitting on a bench, large eyes staring back at the camera without fear or apology—strong and proud—the darkness just a kiss of shadow shrouding her figure.
Zoe amid the vivid colored blooms in front of Avery’s magical purple cottage, head bent, eyes closed, as she smelled a bunch of wildflowers, her pink dress billowing around her like a ball gown.
Yes. These were the ones that called to his soul. Parts of life that blended and blurred lines of emotion against the backdrop of nature.
Fierce satisfaction thrummed in his veins. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to go and explore more. The world cracked open with limitless ideas and opportunities, and he laughed out loud, freeing his burst of emotion.
“Never drink or laugh alone,” Taylor drawled behind him. Her sandals flip-flopped against the floor as she made her way beside him. “You sound like a madman. What’s going on?”
He turned with a grin and pointed to the photos laid out in a neat line. “Look.”
She did. He watched her face greedily, both for pleasure and to catalog her reaction. He loved the hungry way she looked at his work. She always got him, needing no words, and a sharp ache hit him when he thought of not having her in his studio on a regular basis.
“These are extraordinary,” she breathed, shaking her head. “Pierce, you’re on a whole new level here.”
Pleasure washed through him. “I feel it, too. This is for the Escape collection I’m sending over today. If David likes them, I may get more freelance work.”
“I’m so damn proud of you,” she said, her voice husky.
A shock of energy sizzled between them, and for a few seconds, he craved her naked body under his hands, his mouth on hers, his dick buried so deep inside her that she’d never question if he belonged there. The past week, they’d made love even more passionately, never skipping a day, using her departure as a sign to be greedy with one another.
The burning need for her was happening more often now, this knowledge that an innocent bargain had turned dangerous. Real feelings beat beneath the smooth surface, ready to break through. A tremble shook him, and he stepped back at the sheer intensity of it. So did she.
Taylor cleared her throat. “Wanted to invite you to Taco Tuesday tonight. Our celebration dinner before I leave.”
“I’ll be there. You have everything set?”
She shrugged, but he caught the worry lines on her face. “Yes. The paintings have been shipped, and I’m almost done packing.”
“You never showed me the final painting.”
Her cheeks turned a shade of pink he rarely saw. “I know. It kind of poured out of me and was a bit raw, so instead of second-guessing myself, I just packed it all up and sent it.”