Kiss Me Like This
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It only took her nose a few seconds to zero in on the plate of food on Sean’s desk. She had a vague memory of his telling her he was going to get her something to eat to soak up the tequila. She smiled as she picked up the plate full of crackers and cheese and salami. The food looked a little the worse for wear by this morning, but not bad enough that she’d turn it down when she was this starved.
After that night they’d shared slices of pizza together, salami and sharp cheddar cheese had become two of her new favorite things to eat. She happily sat down on the chair in the corner of his room with the plate on her lap. But for all the grace she’d had to learn as a model, this morning her limbs were getting away from her enough that she accidentally kicked a plastic box beneath a side table. Hard enough that the top slid off and landed on the floor with a thud.
Her gaze flew to Sean, but thankfully, he didn’t so much as stir. Carefully putting the plate on the table, she was bending to pick up the top of the box when she caught sight of its contents.
Dozens of pictures, in both black and white and color, all piled in the box under his table.
And the top picture on the pile was of his mother.
Serena knew she should put the top back on the box. She knew she should get back on the chair and eat the food he’d brought her. She knew she had no right to pry into Sean’s life, especially without his permission. She knew she should wait for him to want to share these pictures with her.
But all the things she knew, and how badly she wanted to know him better, got so blurred inside her head that she couldn’t stop herself from sitting cross-legged on the floor and reaching for the pictures.
Her hands were shaking as she stared at the woman in the photo. Serena recognized Sean’s smile on her face, so easy, so captivating. Because even though his mother was far too thin in the picture, and there was pain behind her eyes, when she smiled into her son’s camera, pure, sweet love shone through.
How many times, Serena wondered, had Sean taken out this picture to stare at it? And how many times had he wished that his mother had survived?
A tear fell unnoticed down her cheek as she carefully laid the photo down and reached into the pile for another. A large family stared back at her, their smiles slightly forced, but beautiful nonetheless. His three brothers were all big and handsome like him. His two sisters were incredibly pretty, the older one more elegant and serious, the younger obviously full of spunk.
But his father...all she could think, as she stared at the photo, was that his father looked broken. As if he simply couldn’t imagine going on without the woman he loved.
Serena hadn’t been able to see anything but the love in his mother’s eyes when she’d looked at that first picture, but as she laid the family photo down on the floor beside it and picked up another photo of the ocean tide on a smooth, sandy beach, she realized just how talented a photographer Sean was. Not, of course, that she was surprised. Everything he did, he did well, from schoolwork, to baseball, to kissing her.
But even though each of the three photos was very different—a candid of his mother, a portrait of his family, and a nature shot—each had a distinct perspective. Technically, they were all excellent, but it was the emotion in every one of them that held her captive.
One picture after another, she learned about the man she’d fallen for. Saw not only how much his mother and his family meant to him, but also how much he saw all around him. He’d joked about taking pictures of bugs as a kid, but now she knew that he saw even the smallest things that most everyone else—including her—never noticed at all. Things the rest of them never even thought to look for. It was just how she felt whenever he looked at her, whenever he called her beautiful, like he saw everything she was trying so hard to keep hidden. Not just from everyone else, but even from herself.
But it was a photo near the bottom of the pile that made her forget not to gasp out loud.
Sean’s mother was sleeping in the picture. She was in a hospital bed, with wires and tubes all over and around her. She was painfully thin and pale. So horribly pale that it was obvious there was nothing more to be done for her. Serena stared at the picture, her heart breaking for him all over again.
“What the hell are you doing?”
She was still holding the picture of his mother in the hospital as she slowly turned to face him. The utter despair on his face almost made her lose her voice. But though she’d totally screwed up and needed to apologize, she first needed him to know how much she cared for him. And that she wanted so badly to help heal his pain.
“I’m so sorry, Sean. Your mother—” She looked down at the heart-wrenching photo in her hand. “—she’s beautiful.”
In a flash, he ripped the photo from her fingers. Roughly, quickly, he gathered them all up and threw them back into the box.
“Careful!” she pleaded as she came to her feet. “Those pictures you took, they’re precious. You shouldn’t ruin them because you’re angry with me.” Despair had turned to fury in his dark eyes as he swung around to face her. Her chest, her stomach, all of her hurt, as she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to look. I swear I didn’t. I accidentally kicked the box and when the cover came off—”
“It sure doesn’t look like a goddamned accident to me, you sitting there with my pictures on the floor all around you.”
He was right. Even though finding the pictures had been an accident, poring through them hadn’t been. “I shouldn’t have looked at them. I know I shouldn’t have, not when you weren’t ready to show them to me.” She wanted to reach out to him, wanted to touch him again, wanted to try to close the huge distance that was growing between them. Especially when she’d never seen him look so anguished. “But I...”
He shifted just out of range of her fingertips. “But what? You thought you’d do it anyway just because you felt like it? Because you’ve always gotten everything you wanted so you figured this was one more thing that should be yours?”
She sucked in a shaky breath even though all the oxygen in the room had been sucked out by her stupid decision to pry into his past, his emotions, the most painful part of his life.