She stiffened, refusing to feel guilty. She’d promised to help run the family business until they were on a solid foundation, but her goals had never included wedding planning. Now that Sunshine Bridal was booming, she was off to pursue her own dreams soon. It was finally her turn. “Trying to make me feel bad?” she asked sharply. “You think I should stay?”
The muscle in his jaw ticked, a telltale sign he was annoyed. “No. I’m trying to tell you how much you’re valued here. That you’ve made a difference.”
She softened and reached across the table to squeeze his hand. His fingers wrapped around hers, and the familiar strength and weight of his grip washed through her. Pierce had always been her safety in the storm of her usual unruly emotions, and the only man who’d ever been able to put up with her. “Sorry. It’s just that . . .” She trailed off, not sure how to express her thoughts.
He cocked his head. “What?”
“Ever since I booked that art show in Paris, you’ve been acting weird. I can’t put my finger on it. Are you mad at me?”
He jerked back. “No, of course not. You need to live your life. I just found it interesting I was the last to find out.”
Taylor caught the slight bitterness in his tone only because she’d been listening to every nuance of his husky voice since high school. Regret washed over her. He was right. When she’d made the decision, she’d told her family and Gabe—her coworker and Bella’s boyfriend—but not Pierce. Hell, she’d tried to tell him, but each time she’d thought about bringing it up, her stomach lurched and she made up an excuse to delay. “I apologized for that. Don’t take it personal.”
Pierce lifted a brow. “It was personal. I had to hear from my friends that you were leaving—I felt stupid. Don’t try to pretend it was nothing.”
This time, she bowed her head and spoke from her heart. “You’re right. I freaked out. It was easier to tell everyone else because I could still pretend it wasn’t real.” She threw her shoulders back and faced him, her gaze locking with his. “I’m really sorry, Pierce. You’ve always been my person. I figured once you knew, I’d have to deal with the reality of completing a series of paintings for other people to judge. I got scared.”
He let out a breath, and the firm set of his mouth relaxed. He reached out and touched her cheek, somehow knowing the contact would ease the awful vulnerability she tried desperately to avoid. It was another reason he was so important to her. He sensed exactly how to deal with all her moods and accepted her as is, wholeheartedly. “I get it. And I forgive you.”
“How’s the work going? How many pieces do you have left to do?”
“Too many.” She ate more pretzels, savoring the salt. “I only have eight weeks left to get three more paintings completed. But the worst part? I’m not even sure what I have is good enough. Something seems lacking.”
He gave a snort. “You always say that. The first few you showed me were amazing. When can I see the rest?”
She hesitated. Finally being able to show her work to an audience was a dream, but the reality was terrifying, especially if she failed. Usually, Pierce was the only one she allowed to see her paintings, which had always been intensely personal. When she confronted a blank canvas, she came alive, and all those messy emotions that got her in trouble in life became valuable. But these new projects were going to be seen by industry experts and strangers. They had to be better than her previous work, which had developed from a beloved hobby. They had to be good enough to launch her into the esteemed world of art.
Would Pierce be able to tell her the truth if they sucked? He might be too close to see the missing elements, and fake praise could be detrimental. “I don’t know.”
Taylor sighed. “Because I’m afraid you’ll be too soft on me. You may not be objective enough.”
Instead of protesting, he seemed to think seriously about her statement, then nodded. “I hear you. I’ve always been honest with you, though, Taylz. And this is business. I promise to tell you my true opinion, if you’re brave enough to let me see. I mean, I’m no art critic, just a layperson. In fact, I think you should let Carter see them, too. He has experience with the art world and what’s considered good. Plus, he got you the gig.”
She shook off the doubt and finished her beer. “Yeah, you’re right. This week, then. What are your plans?”
“I have appointments every day but Wednesday. Then weddings both days this weekend. Sometimes, I hate summer.”
“Me, too. Hey, why don’t we play hooky on Wednesday? We can go to the beach.”
“Don’t you need to paint?”
She stuck out her tongue. “We’ll only stay for a few hours. We haven’t hung out in a while.”
“Because you always have a date.” His mild tone contradicted his judgy eyes.
A strange discomfort flitted through her, which only pissed her off. “Just because you’ve been a monk doesn’t mean I need to be a nun. What’s up with you lately? I haven’t seen you with anyone in weeks. Are you experimenting with a dry June?”
“Very clever. Nah, I’m just focused on work lately. Thinking about doing something different.”
She raised her brow. “Really? You never mentioned this. Are you getting tired of photographing weddings?”
Suddenly, his gaze locked with hers. A weird sensation of falling washed over her before it quickly passed and she was steady again. “It’s time for me to make some changes, too.”
Curiosity stirred. Pierce was a man who loved his routines and stability. Making any type of change was a big deal for him. “Like what?”
“I’m not sure yet. But I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”
She nodded, tipping her beer bottle in a mock toast before drinking. They sat in companionable silence for a bit while she studied him, wondering what had recently changed. It wasn’t as if he was distant, but there was an assessment in his searing green eyes when he looked at her that hadn’t been there before. As if he was trying to figure her out.
The thought made her inwardly wince. She wasn’t big on opening up. Pierce was the only man in her life who knew the real her—the bad and the good—and she never felt judged. So what was he trying to get from her when she’d already given him everything? Or was the fact that she was finally leaving their hometown causing some aftershocks? The idea of not seeing him every day was unthinkable. He was a thread interwoven in the fabric of her life.