Their friendship had been the reason that love had bloomed in the first place. It was the foundation of everything and could never be ruined. Now that he’d made his decision about his career and moving to Paris, there were no other complications.
It was time to chase their dreams together.
His plan was solid. He’d keep his studio to have a home base and spend a few months a year in Cape May, then travel the rest of the time. He’d exhibit his work and freelance. His savings were padded nicely, and money was no longer a problem. He’d been living simply for a long time.
Of course, it also depended on what Taylor wanted to do, but they could easily make it work. She could keep her place downstairs from Bella, and they’d visit whenever possible between her painting classes and shows. Maybe they’d end up going to Milan, where he could steep himself in the rich history—a place where a million stories breathed, ready to be told.
The future lay before him in all its dazzling possibility. Most of all, he’d finally be able to say the words that had been bottled up for too long, because he was no longer afraid.
He heard the door open and left the balcony to greet her. “How did things go?” he asked. “Tell me everything.”
When she turned, he immediately sensed that something was wrong. There was a stiffness in her shoulders and a distance in her golden-brown eyes that made his gut clench. He tried to remain calm, waiting to hear her next words. “It went great. Luis is excited about setting up another show in six months. He wants me to stay here and work, take some lessons, boost up my business contacts. It’ll be a lot of work, but I got everything I ever wanted.”
His throat tightened. He was so damn happy for her. “Good for you, Taylz. I always knew this would happen. Now, tell me, what’s making you sad?”
She jerked at the direct question. Pierce knew going on the offense was the best way to plow down her defenses. “I’m not sad. Just . . . overwhelmed. It’s all wonderful news, but it will take endless work and effort. I’m only going to be able to fly back for Avery’s wedding, then come straight back.”
He nodded. “Everyone understands. The beginning is sometimes the hardest, to be able to launch something big. Plus, Paris is a wonderful place for you to work. You’ve wanted to travel and steep yourself in the culture. I think everything Luis has been offering you is perfect. Don’t you?”
This time, she looked him in the eye. His breath caught at the raw fragility he spotted in her gaze and realized there was something bigger he was missing. “Yes. It is perfect. For me, Pierce. Not you.”
He kept his voice mild. “How do you know? I haven’t told you my plans yet.”
“I didn’t want this to happen to us,” she suddenly whispered, pressing her hand to her mouth. “But we can’t keep pretending nothing’s changed.”
“I don’t want to pretend, either,” he said with a smile.
Her eyes were wide and pleading. “Then can we just agree we went too far and try to get back to the way it was? You return to Cape May. I stay in Paris. We take a break from . . . this. Get our bearings. Then, when we see each other again, we have our normal friendship back. Right?”
The words sounded terrible in his ears, an awful truth she was spinning in order to push him away. His jaw clenched, and he tried to calm the rising panic that told him she’d already made up her mind. “Wrong. I don’t care about our original agreement, and neither do you. Because we’re more than friends, Taylz. Don’t deny it. I’m in lo—”
“No,” she practically screamed, shaking her head. “Please don’t say it.”
He stared at her in shock, speechless.
Her voice broke. “If you say it, we can’t take it back. Listen to me, Pierce. You are the most important person in my life. And I will never forget this time in Paris together, ever. But we can’t go forward like this. I need to focus on my work, with no distractions. And you need to be real with yourself and what you want in life. I will never be the right woman for you long-term. I can’t pretend to be her, and then tear both of us apart when it’s too late. Don’t you see? If we walk away now, we can salvage us!”
He staggered back and tried to sort through her speech. My God, she didn’t want to deny as much as she wanted to ignore. Pretend the summer and Paris were just temporary, magical chapters in their story, never to be repeated or spoken of. Did she really believe he could ever look at her and not crave her naked beneath him while he buried himself in her tight, wet heat over and over? Was she imagining polite chitchat when she introduced him to her new lover, thinking he wouldn’t want to tear him apart and bury his body?
He had to make her see. Somehow.
“There’s no way to salvage what we once were,” he said quietly. “You know that. But we can move forward in a different way. Won’t you even let me tell you what I truly want, instead of not trusting me to know? I want—”
“I sold the painting.”
He stopped, trying to understand what she meant. “What painting?”
She lifted her chin, stared directly into his eyes, and said the words that changed everything. “The painting I promised to keep for you. I sold it.”
The trembling happened deep inside his core and radiated outward. The ground underneath his feet shifted. He was the same physically, but inside, something had broken, ripping apart the last segments of hope he’d clung to with a passionate intensity. He asked the only question he could. “Why?”
Pain flickered over her face, then a terrifying sort of resolve. “For money. I’m truly sorry, Pierce. I didn’t do it to hurt you, but I had to choose. And I choose my work. I choose this life, a brand-new one, not the one I left behind.” She paused and closed the final door. “Not the life I had with you.”
Agony shredded through him, but he took it stoically, wondering when the numbness would come. Later. Definitely later. Maybe he’d never be able to feel anything again after this. It would be a good thing.
“I understand.” His voice came from far away, as if he were in another dimension. “My flight leaves tonight. I’d better go now. Check out of my hotel, get there early.”
She didn’t say anything. Her arms wrapped around herself as if seeking comfort.
He got his camera bag and tripod, not caring if he left anything else behind.