Taylor faced the blank canvas. The last painting was to be the culmination of the woman’s search. She’d finally be face-to-face with her lover and allow herself to be truly vulnerable, opening her heart for the first and last time. Taylor just didn’t know what the man’s reaction would be. Or if it mattered. If it was the woman’s journey, did it matter if he accepted her love or rejected it? The truth of the offering was the main message. That’s what she needed to get across.
She groaned and stumbled out of her room, rubbing her eyes. A glance at the clock showed late afternoon, but time meant nothing to her anymore. She’d begun at nine a.m. and worked through lunch. Time to fuel up, stretch, and get back to it. She had to use every possible second she had left to finish this last piece.
At least she’d gotten over her awful creative block. After struggling for weeks, her muse had finally broken open and spilled her contents until Taylor felt as if she was channeling endless images onto the canvas, caught in an artistic frenzy. It was wonderful and filled her up from the inside.
Funny thing. It had also coincided with when she’d begun sleeping with Pierce.
An odd coincidence.
As if his ears were burning, her phone vibrated. She picked it up. Finished with Hernandez wedding. Up for pizza?
She hadn’t seen Pierce in three days. They’d both been busy with work and on crazy schedules. Her heart squeezed in anticipation of seeing his face, especially if he brought a pizza box with him. She hurriedly texted back. Hell yes. Get pepperoni.
The thumbs-up emoji flashed.
She looked down at her messy clothes and paint-stained hands and laughed. Some booty call. Most men would run the other way, but Pierce wouldn’t even blink. Another reason he fit so perfectly in her life—he knew she was different from most women and didn’t try to change her. He never had, even back in high school.
She jumped in the shower and thought about their past. She knew it was probably odd that a boy and girl had connected so quickly without romantic intentions. They’d been stuck as lab partners, and Pierce had seemed awkward and shy, a bit nerdy, with his too-long hair, acne, and quiet demeanor. But she’d sensed a goodness in him different from the other boys. It was as if their creative souls recognized each other and decided to protect rather than destroy.
They’d eaten lunch together, gone to prom together, and raised hell together. Everyone thought they were a couple, but that had never bothered them.
So far, the friends-with-benefits arrangement had been working well. Taylor figured she’d go off to Paris, and their relationship could snap back to being strictly friendship. After all, everything else had been easy between them. Maybe that cursed pact wouldn’t affect them. No one suspected they were sleeping together, and they only had a few weeks left to keep the secret.
She put on shorts and a loose tank, and then he was at her door. He’d changed out of his work clothes and wore faded jeans, a white button-down shirt, and loafers. His hair was loose and framed his face.
She took the pizza box and set it on the table, then headed to the refrigerator to grab him a beer. “How was the wedding?” she asked, flipping off the cap and handing it to him.
He took a long swig and nodded gratefully. “Not bad. No issues. Avery was at the top of her game, except when they said their vows—I caught her sobbing.”
Taylor grinned. “Aww, I think she’s picturing her own wedding, since it’s so close.”
“I had to send her to the bathroom because her mascara ran, and she hugged me.”
“How did Nora do?”
“She’s a mini Avery,” he said, shaking his head. “No one can ever replace you, but she’ll fill the position well.”
“Good to know.” Taylor put out paper plates, and they sat at the counter, munching out. “What have you been up to while I’ve been in Frankenstein mode?”
“Taking some pictures and exploring. I took the job with Escape magazine, so I’ve been perusing Cape May for original shots. They need them by next week.”
“Well, you know the island better than anyone.”
“Yeah, they want something different from the usual beach pics, but it’s a good challenge. Met a woman who’s new here. Her name’s Samantha, and she works at the taco place in West Cape May.”
“Did you score a date?” she teased, batting her lashes.
“No, but we exchanged info. She looked lonely.”
He shifted his gaze away, and a shot of anxiety punched through her. Was he interested? If so, Taylor didn’t want to block him from seeking out a relationship that could fit his needs. She ignored the lurch in her gut and asked him directly. “Pierce, if you want to ask her out, just tell me. It’s okay.”
Annoyance skittered across his features before clearing. “I appreciate the permission, but no. It wasn’t like that.”
“I just want you to always be honest with me. I don’t want to hold you back.”
“You’re not. I’ll tell you if there’s someone else I want to fuck. Is that good enough for you?”
She jerked back in shock. “Hey, why are you getting pissy with me? I’m being understanding!”
He got off the stool and turned his back. “I get it, Taylz. You don’t care. This is just a fun, casual thing to pass the time before you leave. No need to drill it in my head again.”
Unease gathered inside her. What was happening? Did he really think she didn’t care about what they were doing together?
Her throat tightened at the idea that he could be hurting from something she’d implied. “Hang on, I think I need to clarify something. When we decided to add sex to the equation, I wanted to be careful about blurring the lines so no one got hurt. I didn’t want to hold you back, because you’ve always said you want a relationship—but I never said I didn’t care. You’re important to me, Pierce. I’m not having sex with you to pass the time. I’m doing it because it not only feels good, it feels right. But who am I to put demands on you when I’m leaving?”
He swore softly, then faced her. “What if I wanted you to make some demands?”
She froze. Searched his gaze for answers while tingles spread through her veins. A pent-up frustration sparked in those pale-green eyes, but she didn’t know what he wanted from her. Her heart pounded in fear. “I don’t know what you mean.”