Luis had set up a dinner for them at a crowded café, where they sipped champagne, ate fish in a lemon-dill sauce, and talked about the art world and their individual experiences. They were all relatively new artists: one from Paris and one from London. Each had a niche that was unique, so there was no duplication of each other’s work.
By the time Taylor got to bed, she fell asleep exhausted from the day. With the time change, anticipation, and general busyness, she didn’t have time to touch base back home, other than a brief “I got here safely” text. She thought about Pierce a lot, but each time she’d wanted to reach out, something else had come up in her schedule. Besides, she reminded herself, he was now her friend, not her lover. It was best to transition back and not act like she had to check in.
Even though she wanted to.
Each of her paintings had been unpacked and tested endlessly in various display patterns and frames until they’d agreed on what looked best. Taylor learned a lot those next few days about the power of display and marketing, and the best ways to sell. The costs were exorbitant and made her choke the first time she saw them—it was definitely more than that first $250 she’d collected from Carter—but Luis told her the higher, the better. No one appreciated a bargain in art, especially when they were trying to position her as a high-quality artist.
When she finally stood and saw her paintings lined up on the giant wall, her signature scrawled at the bottom-right corner, a premonition rolled through her, almost as if she’d seen this exact scene in a dream. A mix of emotions tumbled through her. It was really happening. In two more days, this room would be filled with people drinking wine and judging her art. She’d be as naked as the woman in the portrait, begging them to love her.
A shudder racked her body. Panic licked at her nerves, but she fought it back, refusing to break now. She was strong, and even if her work was rejected, she had to honestly admit it had been the best she could do.
That would have to be enough.
When she got back to her room, she quickly FaceTimed her sisters, apologizing for the delay. She showed off her studio apartment with its amazing view and chattered about Paris, even though she hadn’t been able to do major sightseeing yet other than the Eiffel Tower. She ached to walk the streets and get lost, let her muse take over, and simply surrender to Paris.
When she hung up, loneliness reared up inside, making her want to call Pierce. Her finger paused on the button. Should she, or shouldn’t she? Maybe after the art show? He’d planned to fly out to see his parents this week, so he must be in Florida already. She didn’t want to interrupt him, even though she knew Catherine and Carl would love to hear from her, too.
She was wrestling back and forth with her decision when suddenly her phone shook with a video call.
It was Pierce.
Smiling in relief, she hit “Accept.”
“Hey, I was just thinking about calling you,” she said, her gaze hungrily roving over his familiar face.
“That’s why my ears were burning,” he drawled. “I figured you were slammed this week and had no time. Am I interrupting you?”
“No! I’ve just been so tired after running around. There’s so much stuff I didn’t know about. Setting up the display took one whole day. Then they changed their minds on the framing and wanted a few more details cleaned up—it’s been endless. But Paris is beautiful.”
“I bet. Did you see anything good yet?”
“Just the tower. No time for anything else. Are you in Florida?”
“Yeah, you’re visiting your parents, right?”
“Oh, right, yep. I’m at their house right now.”
“Why don’t you put them on real quick? I’d love to say hello.”
Pierce hesitated, looking behind him. “Um, they’re not here right now. They . . . went out.”
“Oh, okay. Tell them I said hello.”
“I will. Tell me everything so far.”
She sat back on her sofa bed and told him every detail since she’d stepped off the plane. He listened with his usual intensity, his gaze slightly narrowing, and he occasionally jumped in to clarify or ask a question. The loneliness that had struck before his call faded away under his gravelly voice and calm demeanor.
Finally, she wound down, breathless. “Sorry, that was a lot.”
“No, it wasn’t.” He hesitated, staring intently into the phone. “I wish I could be there.”
His words should have struck her as friendly, but instead, they seeped with intimacy. Need surged up like a tsunami, and she half closed her eyes, struggling not to tell him to jump on a plane and get here right now. “I wish you could, too,” she finally said. “Have you taken any good pictures this week?”
“Some. I was in Delaware for a day, then Ocean City. Caught one with a little boy covered in blue cotton candy. His parents were scolding him, and he had this expensive-type short set on with a matching hat—looked like he should be on the tennis court instead of the beach. Anyway, the mother was fussing, the father was pissed, and the boy had this expression of pure magic on his face, like he’d just eaten the best thing ever created.”
She smiled, picturing that exact moment. “Did the mom freak when you took the picture?”
“Yep. Then I explained it was for a magazine of candid photos—not posed—and she signed the release for me.”
“Oh, good. You sound happy.”
“Getting there more and more with each day.”
They fell into silence, staring at one another, the words unspoken and lying between them lifelessly.
Taylor cleared her throat. “I’d better go. Call you after the show.”
“Sleep well, Taylz.” He clicked off.
She got ready for bed, pulled the sheet up to her chin, and wondered why the conversation hadn’t made her happy. Had she been looking for something more? Had he been spending his extra time with Sam? She’d wanted him to say he missed her. A lot. That Cape May wasn’t the same without her. But for God’s sake, she’d only been gone a week! She didn’t want to turn into a clingy female, moping over a man to want her.
No, she had to get used to the idea that their sexual relationship was over. They were friends who’d see each other at Avery’s wedding, drink and party together, and go their separate ways. No reason to keep torturing herself over things that weren’t meant to be.