Taylor rolled her eyes. “Gabe complains, but he loves the drama. He’s the worst gossiper I know.”
Pierce snorted and shot her a look. “Taylz, you couldn’t keep a secret for a million bucks.”
She gasped. “Screw you! I didn’t tell your mom you skipped school for a whole damn week in eleventh grade, did I?”
“No, but you told Ron, which was worse. He snitched to everyone, and I got busted. Remember?”
“Whatever. Go ahead and rewrite history if it makes you feel better.”
Pierce laughed, and they shared a look of such understanding and intimacy, Carter figured they’d been fooling around in the office before he came in. It seemed Avery’s sister had found her match.
Taylor turned to face Carter. “Hey, I heard you kicked ass at the Bankses’ wedding. You made Avery really happy.” Her words held a deeper meaning, especially paired with the intense stare she gave him, as if trying to tell him something important.
His chest tightened. Had Avery confessed what was happening between them to her sister? And even more important, had she shared her real feelings? Taylor didn’t look pissed at him, so maybe it was her way of saying she approved.
And why the hell did he care?
Because her sisters were family, and he wanted them to like him.
“Okay, I’m outta here,” she announced, hitching her tiny leather purse over her shoulder. She shut the door behind her, and the room immediately lost some of its vitality.
Pierce clapped his hands together. “Okay, want to see the office and a few portfolios before we head out?”
“Sure. This is a great place you have.”
“Thanks. It used to be a marketplace, then a bike shop, but nothing could make it. I figured even though it’s a bit off the beaten path, the space would be worth it.”
They walked down a hall and entered a room with a large desk and red leather chair, a mishmash of photography equipment, and shelves filled with more pictures on canvas. A corner bookcase held an array of books and magazines and various wooden signs with quotes. The chandelier was a cool concoction of metal and silver lanterns stacked in different sizes, adding an artistic twist. But it was the painting behind the desk that mesmerized him immediately.
The ocean was a moody, stormy gray with waves hurling high above the surf. A lone girl sat on the beach, arms curled around her knees, her profile shaded as she stared into the water and faced the violence of the storm. Wet blonde hair tumbled down her back. Her face reflected a calm and aching loneliness that was only emphasized by the roar of nature ready to devour her whole.
It wasn’t a piece of work he’d hang in his office when consulting with clients. It was a bit jarring, and had nothing to do with showing off the expanse of the man’s work, but Carter hadn’t seen anything like it before. The combination of raw emotion and graceful, sweeping lines made him confused. Made him think.
He jerked his head toward it. “Did you paint that?”
The man glanced behind him and laughed. “Hell no. Taylor did. She paints as a hobby, and I’ve been bugging her to get some of her work out into the shops to sell. She kept refusing but finally let me display this one. Amazing, right?”
Carter loved art, especially the type that evoked a reaction. Books and art were the only safe places he allowed himself to feel things without worry of a fallout. “I’m impressed. You know, I have a few friends in DC who collect art and love to discover new artists. Maybe I can speak to Taylor and see if she’s interested.”
Pierce dug out a thick binder and flipped through the pages. “That’s really nice, but she’d never go for it. She’d think it’s charity. I’ve never known anyone else with so much stubborn pride. She’s a real pain in the ass.” He uttered the words with pure affection.
Carter sat down opposite the desk and gazed at it thoughtfully. “I get it. Artists are temperamental. Is the painting for sale?”
Pierce looked up, surprised. “You really want to buy it?”
“Yeah. I’ve been poking around the art shops here, and there’s a lot of nice stuff but nothing extraordinary. I’d love to have this hanging in my home.”
The man’s green eyes filled with pride. “Then it’s yours. A hundred bucks.”
He blinked. “A hundred?”
“Oh, sorry, you want it for seventy-five?”
He groaned and shook his head. “That’s worth at least $500. Maybe more. You need to speak to her about pricing properly or she’ll be wasting her time. I’ll take it for $250. If she’s only expecting a hundred and gets five, she’ll just think you’re bullshitting her.”
Pierce grinned. “Sold. And hey, if you want to pay me double for my services, I won’t fight you. I don’t have a pride problem like she does.”
Carter laughed, and leaned over to study the sample pictures. “That’s why I have a wedding planner—to get the most bang for my buck. But I will buy you a beer.”
It didn’t take them long to go through the portfolio and target various shots his sister would probably love to incorporate in her album. He texted a bunch to Ally and told her he’d call her later. He loved the sophistication of Pierce’s work—his photographs weren’t the usual kitschy, overdone wedding keepsakes but were pieces of art.
Pierce locked up the studio, and they walked toward the Beach Shack. Even though it was early, party stragglers ready to start their evenings were already scattered by the outdoor tiki bar. Music came from a small band playing reggae, and people danced in the sandpit to the island-type music. He loved the casual atmosphere. Oversize picnic tables held big groups, and thick burgers were served on Frisbees. Various activities had been laid out for patrons to amuse themselves with, such as mini-golf, boccie ball, and giant-size wooden puzzles. Brightly colored Adirondack chairs were set up around the band and firepit, where people relaxed and sipped frozen cocktails.
They found three open barstools at the end of the tiki bar and didn’t have to wait long for Gabe. Still dressed in a sleek summer suit, this time a comfortable cream linen, he greeted them and immediately shrugged out of his jacket. “Dudes, I had a shit day. I need a strong IPA, preferably in IV form.”
Pierce raised his hand and ordered three beers. “What disaster befell you today, my friend?” he asked.
“I got harassed by the MOH at a bridal luncheon. She had too much champagne punch and tried to drag me in the bathroom to get laid.”
Carter let out a short laugh. “Does that happen often?”
Gabe gave him a sour look. “Yep. Sometimes it’s unfortunate. I’m not interested in hookups with clients. Plus, my body is sacred. She kept pinching my ass.”
Pierce cleared his throat, and Carter could tell the man was trying really hard to look sympathetic. “That sucks, man. What’d you do?”
“My usual bit. Made excuses, avoided her, and flirted with Tony to make her think I’m gay.”
“Who’s Tony?” Carter asked.
“The waiter at Mad Batter. He’s gay and has a crush on Gabe, so he probably didn’t mind,” Pierce explained.
Gabe snatched his drink the moment it was set down in front of him and guzzled a quarter of the beer. He let out a sigh. “I’m tired of being treated like the community stripper by some of these clients. I’m up for this promotion, and I don’t want anything to screw it up.”
Carter frowned. “Why don’t you just tell Avery? She’ll understand and help you work it out.”
He shook his head. “No, I want to deal with this on my own. I need to learn how to handle the handsy clients, so this was a good test. I’m just fucking tired of it.”
The amusement faded as Carter looked at his new friend. Society still had a hard time deeming men who got hit on as a problem, figuring they’d be happy to bang anyone or anything. But for Gabe in a professional environment, it must be hard to consistently convince so many women that he followed a strict code of conduct and took his job seriously. “I’m sorry, man. Beer’s on me tonight.”
“Cool, thanks.” He settled, seeming to shake off his bad mood, and grinned. “So tell me what’s going on, my dudes. Carter, you have your sister’s bachelorette party this weekend, right?”
“Yep. I’m in charge of five wild women let loose in AC. Should be fun.”
“How are you and Avery doing?” Gabe asked curiously.
Pierce narrowed his gaze. “Wait. You guys are together?”
He hesitated, not sure how much to say, especially since both men were close to the sisters. “No. Well, kind of. I’m crazy about her, but I’m only here for the summer. I’d like to spend more time with her and figure it out.”
Pierce nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Avery works so hard and could use some fun. God knows she hasn’t even dated anyone in the past year.”
“She’s definitely into you,” Gabe said. “And you helping out at the Bankses’ wedding? That was huge. It’s obvious how much you respect what she does, and that means a lot to her.”
“I just don’t want to hurt her.” Frustration laced his voice. “She’s looking for a happy ending, and I can’t promise her that right now.”