She tried to sleep.
She dreamed of Pierce.
Pierce stood outside the brightly lit Parisian gallery and stared at the window. Nerves nipped at his gut. What if this was a huge mistake? What if she didn’t want him here?
He’d just gotten off the plane a few hours ago, then showered and changed at his hotel. He’d grabbed a bite to eat at a patisserie—and almost died when he tasted the buttery, crisp bread—and had taken a cab over. Now here he was, frozen at the entrance, half-tempted to go back to his hotel and call Taylor first to see if this was okay.
The line to get in had been long and snaked down the street. The people were well dressed and seemed elegant, probably all out for a weekend evening to enjoy some art and a nice dinner. He imagined Taylor in there, making nice with strangers, trying to pretend each opinion of her work didn’t matter—that ripping out her heart and soul to put on display was no problem.
This past week, he’d been haunted with an instinct to be by her side. He knew Taylor would never ask for support—she was too stubborn to admit some things weren’t meant to be faced alone.
Pierce straightened up. Enough of being a coward. He was going in as her friend, not her lover. As long as he remembered that, he’d be fine.
He strode through the door, nodding politely at the hostess, and then took a glass of champagne. The gallery was large, with giant walls sectioning off the different parts where each display stood. He meandered for a while, taking in the work of one of the other artists while he searched for Taylor. There were metallic sculptures made of interesting wire, scrap metals, and what looked to be car parts. The guy had a British accent and was deep in conversation with a patron.
Pierce slid by and found himself facing two murals—one of angels and one of demons. They reminded him of the age-old Sistine Chapel, a tangle of hundreds of figures gathered in a black, burnt forest where a tiny fire still flickered. The sheer sense of doom punched him immediately in the gut. The other painting was a complete contradiction, one of light and goodness, with angels singing and playing in a giant garden. He took a while to study the intricacies and noticed that the Parisian artist had an impressive crowd.
Pierce rounded the corner, impatient to get to Taylor, and stopped dead in his tracks. She stood a few feet ahead. A glass of champagne dangled from her hand. Her pink hair was slicked back and subdued. She wore a long, slinky black dress that emphasized her thin frame and natural grace.
A couple spoke to her, obviously fascinated by her work, pointing toward the paintings as if asking various questions. Her nose stud winked in the light. Her laugh was warm and rich, caressing his ears like thick velvet. He was struck in that exact moment by how well she fit within this gallery, an artist with every right to display her work in Paris. Pride rushed through him, and he took the time to turn and study her display.
It was magnificent. The paintings had been done in a series that built on the first. The woman on the cliff developed from a wispy, shadowy figure into the full light for the final reveal. The man, too, began in distant, barely there brushstrokes, then slowly revealed himself to the world and the woman who loved him. The settings were stark and brutal—the cliffs; the moody, roaring ocean; the desert; a balcony in a lonely, abandoned house. With each painting, the man grew closer to the woman, and when Pierce reached the final piece—the one Taylor had shipped before he could see it—he held his breath with anticipation.
He jerked back. The vivid, crushed blooms of endless roses attacked his vision—the bold, screaming mix of colors a complete contradiction to the previous settings. He stared at the painting, transfixed. The woman knelt on her knees, naked, one hand outstretched to her faceless lover, who stood before her, his face still in shadow. This woman had taken the ultimate risk, but an onlooker would never know if it was enough—if she was enough for him. There was no happy ending guaranteed to anyone. In its brutal humanity, Taylor’s painting was simply brilliant.
“Pierce?” Her voice broke on his name.
He turned to her and smiled, trying to ignore his rapidly beating heart. Would she be upset he’d come? He swore he’d handle whatever reaction she threw at him. If she asked him to leave, he would. His breath got stuck in his lungs.
But her face reflected sheer joy and delight. She held nothing back, running the few steps over and flinging herself into his arms.
He caught her and held tight. Her musky scent drifted to his nostrils and made him drunk. He savored the few precious moments as his body pressed to hers, cradling each familiar curve, his hand stroking her bare back where the dress dipped low.
“What are you doing here?” she breathed out, her eyes wide.
“I didn’t want you to be alone,” he said simply. He got ready to explain that it had nothing to do with her not being able to handle herself, knowing Taylor would go nuts if she believed he thought her weak or needy.
A smile curved her lips. “This has been the scariest, craziest, most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me, and this morning, I realized I had no one to share it with. I’m so glad you’re here.”
Relief surged through him. “Me, too,” he said. He cupped her cheek, entranced by her face. God, he’d missed her more than he thought possible. She’d changed so much these past few months. Admitting her need for him without holding back showed him another layer of her surface being peeled back.
God, he was in so much trouble.
“Wait! You were supposed to be at your parents’.”
“I told them you were a big-time artist in Paris, and they agreed I’d be nuts if I didn’t come here rather than sit in Florida for early-bird specials and rounds of senior golf.”
She laughed. “Good.” She jerked her head toward the wall. “What do you think?”
“I look at these paintings and wonder how you have such a lion’s heart in such a petite body, because only a warrior could be this brave and true to paint these.”
She blinked, and her golden-brown eyes filled with a fierce emotion that seemed different from before. Not just gratitude or friendship or happiness. No, like her work, it was bigger and more real, but then she turned from him, and the moment to dig deeper was gone. “Thank you. That means more to me than selling them to a bunch of random people who don’t know me.”
“They do now. One look at your work, and they’ll know. That’s the beauty of it, Taylz.” A touch of sadness flicked his voice. “You’re going to be a star.”