Pain slashed through him, hard and fast and sharp, but he kept a smile pasted on his face. “It will. But she’s been talking about this since college. It’s what she’s always wanted.”
Their dinners came, and they dug into crab-cake sandwiches. Pierce dumped slaw on his, handing his tomato to Gabe, and they settled into easier dialogue based on sports, work, and good-natured ribbing.
“Bella was revved up tonight,” Gabe said. “I feel bad for Taylor having to face their intense questions.”
“Avery, too. She’s like a drill sergeant.”
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Gabe asked curiously. “You don’t think they’re all analyzing their sex lives with us, do you?”
Carter shuddered. “Never.”
“They’re probably talking about emotions,” Pierce said dismissively. “I guarantee they’d never discuss sex with each other.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Gabe said. “It’s not like they’d rank us in bed or anything. That would be too weird, especially since I’d win.”
“Sure, Piglet, you go on believing that,” Carter said.
Gabe glared. “Have either of you ever been named Beach Bachelor? I didn’t think so.”
“You’re officially retired now,” Pierce said with a grin. “Why don’t we just call it even?”
Gabe reluctantly agreed, and they finished their food.
Pierce thought of Taylor and her sisters’ inquisition and hoped she’d been able to manage as well as he had, even though his friends’ comments now stuck in his head like a mantra, pushing him to question everything he’d believed.
But it didn’t matter. The stage was set, and he refused to change the rules now.
Even if his heart wanted to protest.
It was done.
Taylor put down her brush with trembling hands. Her body was slick with sweat from the broken central air and the final, brutal push to complete her last painting. She pushed her hair from her face and stepped back, surprised to find one word pop into her mind to describe it.
She picked at her thumbnail and pondered the result. The past several days’ worth of work had finally paid off. She could have sworn the features of the mysterious man would have been revealed in the last painting, but his face was still in shadow. The woman’s face was completely clear, an odd combination of features that seemed not to fit—pointy chin, slashed cheekbones, and jet-black, fine, straight hair falling past her shoulders.
The woman was nude. Her high, small breasts and gently curving stomach were touched in silhouette. Her head was turned toward the onlooker instead of the man, as if to admit her weakness in love. Her eyes were dark brown, too wide, and filled with a begging humility that made Taylor squirm with discomfort. She was embarrassed for the woman. Upset that the female who’d haunted her dreams had stripped all her strength away to get on her knees to beg for the love of a man who might not return it. Taylor didn’t understand how she could have transferred such raw emotion when, inside, she knew she’d never allow that type of vulnerability in her own life.
The background was a bedlam of broken flowers in a rich palette that immediately arrested attention. The vibrant colors saturated the canvas, almost blinding to the eye. Where before the settings had been dark, stormy, and bleak, this was an explosion of joy, madness, and raw passion.
Nothing she’d painted made sense to her, but on an instinctual level, she knew it was good. Very good. Somehow, she’d tapped into an emotion that had overtaken her consciousness, and that was where good art came from for her.
Her nerves jumpy with too much caffeine and the culmination of endless work, she cleaned her brushes and set her workroom back in order. After a shower, she got into real clothes and decided to treat herself to lunch and a walk by the beach. She craved sun, people, and noise in order to banish the tangle of feelings that simmered beneath her surface. Time to get back to the confident, badass attitude she was comfortable with.
She headed to Harry’s and sat at the bar, sipping her favorite cocktail, the orange crush. The spread of beach and ocean made the perfect view from the upper deck, and she relaxed for a few minutes, listening to the mindless chatter around her.
“Taylor! Girl, I haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been hiding?”
She turned and smiled at the waitress, Kimmie. “In my workroom, barely seeing the sun.”
Kimmie laughed. “Yeah, I can see that from your lily-white skin! You look like a tourist. What can I get you?”
“Salad with grilled shrimp, please. How’s school?”
Kimmie was a part-time finance student. Her pretty features, gorgeous braided hair, and rockin’ figure paired with a brain that solved complicated equations and pegged a stock report better than a Wall Street executive could. Taylor knew Kimmie would be filthy rich one day, and Taylor intended to invest all her money with her once she got her official license.
Kimmie blew out a breath. “Hard. Last night, I had a dream that a bunch of numbers came to life and beat the crap out of me. It feels like I’ll be doing this forever.”
“You only have one year left, and then you can finally live the life you dreamed.”
She shot her a grateful smile. “Yeah, I gotta concentrate on the end result and try not to hate the journey so much. When do you leave for Paris?”
“And you’ll be back for Avery’s wedding?”
“Definitely. Then I’ll head back and either stay in Paris or do some traveling.”
Kimmie whistled. “Nice. About time you got out of here. Oh, hey, that means Pierce will be a hot commodity! I already have a girlfriend I’d love to set him up with.”
She frowned with confusion. “Huh?”
“Pierce. You know, your best friend who’s attached to your hip?” Kimmie laughed and shifted her weight. “Girl, no one else has a chance with you around. The last two women he hooked up with couldn’t compete and gave up. I bet the day you fly out, he’ll get hit up big-time.”
“I don’t understand. Pierce and I are just friends. We’ve always dated other people with no problem.”
Kimmie arched a brow. “Says you, but the whole town knows how it really is. Hey, I think it’s awesome you guys are so close. But a woman who’s serious doesn’t want to come in second to the best friend—you know? Anyway, this’ll be perfect. You’ll end up with some hot French guy, and I’ll take care of our local man for you. Crap, I gotta get your order in—sorry! It was great to catch up.”