Bella smiled and grabbed the wooden spoon. “Stir evenly and consistently. Do I need to kiss your hand and make it better?”
“Yeah,” he huffed, sticking out the offended thumb.
She laughed and pressed her lips to his burnt skin. “There. All better.”
Pierce groaned. “Do you even own a man card?”
“Hey, I’m trying, okay? I don’t see you doing anything.”
“Pierce, can you cut up the tomatoes?” Taylor called out. “I hate doing them. They get messy and pulpy and confuse me.”
“Was that your only job for this meal?” he teased.
“No! I made the guacamole!”
He frowned. “That doesn’t have tomato in it?”
“Not my kind.”
Avery shook her head and handed over the tomatoes, knife, and a bowl to him. “Taylor, what are you going to do in Paris? You literally don’t know how to make enough food to survive. We’re going to be worried.”
Taylor snorted. “Yeah, poor me. I’m stuck in a city where croissants, cheese, pastries, and wine rule the world. I don’t think I’ll starve.”
“You’re right. Bitch,” Avery said good-naturedly.
“Aunt Avery! You need to put a quarter in the swear jar!” Zoe shrieked, racing in with her two drawings.
Avery winced. “Sorry, honey. Tell Uncle Carter to give you fifty cents.”
Carter quirked his brow. “Why me? You’re the money in this relationship.”
She laughed and kissed him. “You’re right. I forgot you were the pretty one.”
He grunted, but Pierce caught the look of pure love in Carter’s eyes when he gazed at his future wife. Taylor was also watching, and her face softened. Slowly, her gaze swiveled to his, and they stared at one another.
The connection surged and sparked between them. Her golden-brown eyes filled with a need he recognized, and he savored the open expression on her face, letting him know her desire.
An ache settled in his chest. He’d watched Avery and Carter go from cranky enemies to lovers. Then Gabe and Bella struggled to find their way to each other, fighting their own demons to finally accept love. He’d laughed off his friends’ comments about his friendship with Taylor, but when he looked at her right now, he saw someone who was more than his lover. It had sneaked up on him so quietly that he hadn’t seen it coming. But tonight, watching the other two couples in the room, he realized that he and Taylor had something just like theirs: the promise of a true, forever-love relationship.
If only she didn’t have to leave him.
He jerked back and averted his gaze.
“Pierce, what do you think? Which one do you like better?” Zoe asked, spreading out the two pages. One was a princess with a sword, and the other was a dragon breathing pink fire.
He pointed at the princess. “Where’s the knight who saves her?”
Zoe tilted her head and stared at him in confusion. “There’s no knight.”
“Oh. Who kills the dragon?”
She laughed and patted his hand. “The princess, silly. She has her own weapons, and the knight comes later. Gabe said women don’t need men to save them—they can do it themselves. Then the knights come later to take them to dinner!”
“Damn right,” Gabe said, giving Bella a wink.
“Sorry, pumpkin. Get it from Mama. She makes all the money, too.”
Pierce laughed, and they fell into work mode, finishing the food prep and finally getting everything onto the table.
Avery cleared her throat and stood up at the head of the table. “I’d like to make a toast,” she said, her blue eyes serious.
“You don’t have to,” Taylor protested, seeming to sense what was coming.
“Shush, I want to, and you’re just gonna sit there and take it. Lift your glasses, please.”
Pierce held back a laugh at Taylor’s cranky expression, but she obeyed her sister.
“Next week, Taylor will be in Paris at her first art exhibition. We’ve always known she was meant to be a great artist, and finally the world will recognize her talents.”
“Okay, that’s plenty, Avery. Thank you, but—”
“Don’t interrupt,” Avery growled. “Sunshine Bridal will never be the same without her creativity, energy, wit, and general snarkiness. But it’s time for her to follow her dreams, because she helped us achieve ours. Sunshine is stronger and more profitable because of you.” His throat tightened when he glimpsed the sheen of tears in Avery’s and Bella’s eyes. “We love you, we’ll miss you, and we’ll FaceTime you every Taco Tuesday.”
Zoe sniffed. “And I will send you a drawing every week so you won’t be lonely.”
That did it. He watched Taylor’s controlled facade fracture. She blinked rapidly to avoid tears and finally spoke in a husky voice. “Thanks, everyone. I love you, too. And I’m not going away forever, so let’s not make this into a big thing where we all get weepy and sloppy. Cheers.”
They clinked glasses and began eating in silence. A sad gloom hung over the table, the exact thing he knew Taylor didn’t want. It was time to change things up.
Pierce cleared his throat. “Taylz, did you say you made this guacamole?”
She immediately perked up, likely sensing a compliment. “Yep. All by myself. What do you think?”
“I think it’s truly . . .” He trailed off, a big smile on his face as he looked at her. “Awful.”
She blinked. “That’s a lie! I got the recipe from Food Network online! It had forty five-star reviews.”
Avery cocked her head. “It does taste a bit funny. Almost like an Italian flavor rather than Mexican. Did you make any switches in the ingredients?”
“Well, only one. It needed cilantro, but I ran out, so I substituted basil.” She shrugged. “No biggie. They’re both green.”
Everyone stared at her in horror. And then they began to laugh.
The rest of the dinner was spent engaged in their usual teasing manner. Gabe and Pierce occupied Zoe with a fun contest to get her to vote for the most charming man, which Zoe declared was a tie. They feasted on strawberry shortcake that Bella had baked—Taylor’s favorite—and by the time they’d cleaned up, Pierce was happy to see Taylor looking relaxed.