“I watched him leave and had a bad feeling. Decided to follow for a while and make sure he was going home. Had to dump Finance Girl.”
“I’m sorry, Pierce. I appreciate it, though. Thank you.”
He ruffled her hair and slung his arm around her. His familiar scent enveloped her—a mix of clove from his cologne and freshly washed cotton from his T-shirt. For a few moments, the disaster of the evening faded, and she treasured a simple walk with her best friend, the man who’d followed her to make sure she was safe. The man who’d punched a guy who could have hurt her.
Maybe she was becoming so picky with men lately because no one would ever live up to Pierce.
The thought teased her mind before she firmly pushed it away. Pierce was like a brother. He was better than a lover because he’d be hers forever, instead of someone with a time stamp, waiting to end in disaster. Sex changed everything. That was the main reason they’d agreed to never, ever get tangled up in that mess and ruin an ideal relationship.
Thank God they were better than that.
Taylor tried to be cool as her future brother-in-law studied the five paintings hanging up in her workroom. She’d sworn she’d take the criticism like a professional and not get depressed. After all, she wasn’t classically trained, and this was her first attempt at putting a body of work together.
Thanks to Carter’s contacts with many international bigwigs from his hacking career in Washington, DC, she was set to show her work in a Parisian gallery, along with two other brand-new artists. It was an introductory show that would give her exposure to the international art scene and potentially provide financial backing to help her build her new career. Taylor had to keep reminding herself that even with a personal contact, if her art sucked, Luis would have politely sent her away when she’d shown him her samples. He owned popular galleries in Paris, Milan, and Switzerland and had a talent for discovering and launching the careers of new artists. Luis would have never taken her on if he hadn’t thought he could sell her work. She had no time for impostor syndrome or doubting herself. If she did, she’d lose her golden opportunity.
She refused to let that happen.
“Well?” she finally said, picking at her thumbnail. “Just be honest. Give it to me straight.”
Carter turned toward her. His dark hair was neatly brushed, and his blue-gray eyes were serious. He wore cream shorts, a short-sleeve linen shirt, and canvas shoes. His wardrobe was conservative, practical, and subtle, just like his personality. He held a tiny Yorkshire terrier named Lucy in the crook of his arm. Lucy regarded Taylor with solemn judgment. The dog’s pink, glittery collar and matching bow were a testament to how much Carter adored her. It had taken Lucy a while to warm up to Avery, but now the two of them were tight.
Taylor? Not so much.
She motioned toward Lucy. “Um, should she be in my workroom? What if she pees?”
A deep frown crossed Carter’s brow. “Lucy would never urinate where it wasn’t proper,” he said with a touch of irritation.
She pressed her lips together. “Sorry. Go ahead, tell me what you think.”
He refocused and spoke in a slow, thoughtful tone. “This first set is exquisite. I love the way you’ve shown this woman’s development over the series, giving us a bit of intrigue and investment. It makes me want to see her progression. The angles are sharp, and you’ve used color in a way I haven’t really seen before. The blues and greens are so vivid, it almost jars the viewer when you pair it with the muted shades of the woman.”
She nodded, glad he recognized her technique. “Do you remember the movie Schindler’s List?”
“Of course, it’s a classic.”
“I loved how Spielberg used the little girl dressed in red throughout the movie. Everything was black and white but her—she was the only spot of color. I tried to incorporate the same type of technique with this canvas. I wanted to play with making the character fall into nothingness while her environment takes over.” She gave a self-conscious laugh. “At least, that was my intention. I know art can’t have a narrator ready to explain, so I don’t know if it’s good or bad.”
“It’s good, Taylor, very good. You have a way of making me care about this woman. It’s like she’s embroiled in a series of heartbreaks and pain that’s going toward . . .” He paused, tapping his finger against his chin as he studied the paintings again. “Not happiness. I wonder if she can get there. Maybe self-peace?”
Relief flooded through her. Oh God, he understood! Her subconscious had been obsessed with a woman who haunted her dreams. She saw her everywhere—on the cliffs, on the beach, on the road, in the kitchen. But there was pain and brokenness and a restlessness that made Taylor wonder if she could ever find peace. She hoped the last paintings would reveal some type of closure to the woman’s journey, but Taylor had no idea how they would turn out. She never knew until she began painting.
Pierce had spent the entire time in the background, quietly reflective. She waited for him to speak, but he just kept gazing at her work, his expression hard to read. He owned one painting from the series that she’d painted a while ago and then had given to him for his office. Unease trickled. Did he not like them? She figured he’d be the most vocal, since he was usually so supportive.
She refused to prod, turning her attention back to Carter. “What about the other two?”
Taylor stiffened. Her gaze swept over the last ones she’d been working on. Dammit, she’d sensed something was off, and now Carter had confirmed it. “Yeah, that’s why I wanted you to look at them before I moved on. Do you know what it is?”
“Emotion,” Pierce said suddenly.
She tilted her head and stared in surprise. “Really? These two were focusing on heartbreak. I figured I’d nailed that part.”
The paintings were a dual set in black and white. In the first canvas, the woman was dressed in an evening gown, her silhouette in the doorway while she watched from across the room as a man and woman danced. The inside of the ballroom was in color, and the background faded to shadow. In the second, she was framed in the bedroom watching the couple make love. A silent, pained voyeur, frozen in time.
Carter made a noise in the back of his throat. “Interesting assessment. Technically, it’s a visual feast. But there’s something on her face that doesn’t resonate with the rest. Her expression is . . . lacking.”