And it would never be with her.
The smart thing would be to break it off now, but then she’d spend her last days being miserable and sad. No, better to go out on a high note and take everything he was willing to give her.
It’d be a hell of a ride.
Slowly, she turned and walked away.
He woke up dying of thirst.
Blinking, he took in his surroundings and realized he’d fallen asleep in Taylor’s living room. A blanket covered him, and the TV droned in the background with low murmurs. Rubbing his head, he sat up and got some water, drinking in big gulps. Damn, why hadn’t she woken him?
He glanced at the clock. Three a.m.
His little nap had turned into a four-hour snooze fest.
Yawning, he headed to her bedroom. The bed was unmade, but she wasn’t there. Taylor subscribed to the theory that it was silly to make a bed each morning when she was just going to sleep in it that night. Shaking his head, he checked the bathroom, but there was only a deep hush blanketing the room, telling him it was empty.
Was she still working?
Frowning, he headed to the workroom. The music started faint, then grew louder, a grindy, sexy hip-hop with a growly voice like Barry White’s. The lights were dimmed, and he walked past endless half-painted easels, containers, boxes, canvases, and various junk until he got into the main space where she painted.
He stopped still and stared.
She wore a tiny lace bra with red bikini underwear. Hair messily pinned up. Barefoot. The heat from the room was sticky—she was having ongoing issues with the central air in this back room, so it had probably crapped out again. Paint stained her fingers and dabs smeared her cheeks. She moved her hips to the music, muttering underneath her breath, attacking the canvas like she was at war and intended to win.
It was at that exact moment he realized their arrangement had backfired.
Taylor was right. Mixing sex and friendship had disastrous consequences. His entire body throbbed with a deep-seated need that transformed the physical and pierced straight through to his heart.
Dear God, he was in love with her.
She stunned him. The painting was still in its raw form, but he could spot the woman caught in the wild midst of vivid, broken blooms, her hands outstretched, knees half-bent in complete surrender to the shadowy figure before her. It was full of misery and pain, but in the lines of her face there was a joy in the abandonment of all she had, a freedom by offering it all, no matter what the consequences. Power beat from every brushstroke, the same power that exuded from the woman who painted it.
His body immediately hardened. He stared at her, his gaze hungrily taking in every inch of bare skin, the thrust of her small breasts, the intense concentration on her sharp features, the lush lip she nibbled on, the calloused hands that held the immense talent she was finally connecting with. She was like a caged bird finally ready to fly free, and Pierce knew he was the last thing holding her back.
He’d let her go. She’d be a big, beautiful light in the art world. She’d travel and have affairs with endless worldly, interesting men. And he’d remain behind, trying to pick up the broken pieces and come to terms with a life without her.
It had always been his fate. He’d been able to bargain for these past few years of having her to himself, but now it was time to pay. He accepted it with grace, refusing to fight for what would eventually kill her. If he begged her to stay with him, to give this relationship a true test, she’d never be able to follow her dream. She’d compromise once again, pretend it was what she wanted, and years later, she’d have regrets and resent him for all of it.
Brutal pain seized him, along with a sense of urgency. Right now, she belonged to him, even though she was still pretending their relationship meant nothing but friendship with an extra physical bonus. But he’d seen the way she looked at him. The boundaries had been crushed, and rules no longer meant anything. So tonight, he’d take what he wanted and burn his memory inside her so deeply that she’d always remember him and this night.
She paused, like prey sensing a predator, and turned to look at him.
Their gazes locked and held. The air thickened, and he noticed the sweat sheening on her skin, the damp strands of hair clinging to her forehead. She was half in this world and half in another, and he’d never seen anything so magnificent in his whole fucking life—this woman who challenged him and fought him and laughed with him. This woman who saw right into his soul and found nothing lacking.
“You were sleeping,” she finally said. Her voice was half-drunk, and she swayed on her feet. He remained silent, and she seemed almost wary, her Bambi eyes wide while she waited for him to do or say something.
Slowly, he crossed the room until he stood before her. Her nostrils flared, and her pupils dilated. The pulse at the base of her throat beat rapidly, and he could almost scent her growing arousal in the sticky heat.
He took the brush out of her hand and placed it on the easel. With deliberate motions, he reached out and unsnapped the front closure of her bra. She sucked in her breath as the material dropped to the floor.
An animal instinct rose within him, pushing him to claim, mate, fuck, possess. Her eyes burned with the same longing, and she arched her back, her hard nipples evidence she was just as turned on as he was.
The music ground out a pulsing beat. He lifted her wrists and pressed his palms to hers, staining himself with the paint still gleaming and dripping from her fingers. When he withdrew, he reached out and cupped her breasts, smearing the paint over her nipples, down her stomach, and to the front of her underwear. A whimper escaped her throat, but she stood still, head tilted back, giving herself to the wild need to mark her beating through his very skin.
He dragged her panties over her hips until she stood completely naked before him. “I want to paint you,” he said, his voice rough with barely restrained lust. “I want to cover your body like my own canvas, and then I want to fuck you with nothing between us.”
Her lips parted. A shudder shook through her. “Yes. I’m on the pill. I’m good.” She smiled wickedly and then added, “Plus, the paints are nontoxic.”
“So am I.” The thought of taking her without a condom made him want to roar in satisfaction. “I don’t know if I can be gentle tonight.” The edge of his control blurred, and for the first time in his life, he felt as if he were more animal than man, and he wanted to dive deep into the pool of desire he’d never experienced before.