“Love you, T!” She flushed the toilet, bounced out of the stall, washed her hands, and disappeared.
Taylor limped to the faucet, washed her own hands, and tried to blot the excess sweat from her face. By the time she got back out to the reception, the DJ was in full force, and the dance floor was packed.
Zoe grabbed her hand and dragged her out, and Taylor laughed, allowing herself to get lost in the moment of happiness with her family. Eventually, a slow song broke out, and she lifted her niece up in her arms, swinging her gently around while Zoe laughed hysterically. Bella and Gabe drifted by, and Zoe joined them in a tight circle while they danced together as a new family, making Taylor’s throat tighten.
She turned to ease off the floor and came face-to-face with Pierce, who was dancing with his mom. Wreathed in smiles, Catherine Powers greeted her in delight, then insisted she needed a break, forcing them to dance together.
In the past, they danced like they did everything else—effortlessly. They knew each other’s bodies and movements, the songs they both liked and disliked, the way Taylor liked to try to lead, resulting in Pierce’s insistence she follow since he was the man, which made her want to lead even more.
This time, they held each other at a distance, their hands stiff, their gazes averted. Tension seeped between them along with something else, something much more dangerous, as the low embers of sexual chemistry stirred. In moments, her body had a will of its own, softening against him in full invitation. A curse drifted to her ear. He shifted his weight, and she knew in that moment, he was just as turned on as she was.
With a resolute gaze, he seemed about to release her and run, so the words fell desperately from her lips, a last-ditch attempt to keep him with her for a little longer. “I heard you got two big jobs,” she said. “A monthly blog and a feature? What’s that all about?”
His shoulders relaxed slightly. “Yeah, Escape liked the last spread I did, so they hired me for a monthly column. The blog will combine photographs with my personal thoughts on the places I’m exploring. We’ll see how it goes. If it’s successful and I like it, I can do more. And then I booked a feature with the Traveler magazine website.”
His words caused a burst of surprise. “Have you stopped doing wedding photography completely?”
“For now. I have a few I previously booked, but I made arrangements with Jackie from Shore Photography to transfer my client list. I’ll be officially free by the end of the year.”
Free. All this time, she’d believed he’d wanted to stay exactly where he was. Yes, he’d mentioned he wanted to travel more to expand his creative vision, but was he actually committing to a whole new lifestyle? He’d never said anything to her about dumping his entire business.
An odd resentment stirred. She’d given him up so he could get married and have kids like he always said he wanted. What was going on?
“I guess I’m confused,” she finally said. “Are you saying you’re leaving Cape May, or that you’re doing more weekend and day trips to new places for the magazine features? I mean, you can’t be thinking about giving up your studio, right?”
His face was set in stone. “I’ll keep my home and studio here for now, but I’ll be traveling extensively, probably for weeks or months, depending on the location and if I feel it’s right. For the first time, I have a clean slate to explore and follow my creativity.”
She shook her head. “But you always wanted to settle down in Cape May and get married, raise a family. You never talked about craving travel or being gone for months on end.”
His gaze narrowed. “What does it matter?”
“Because that was always my dream! I’m the one who wanted to get out—you wanted to stay. God, Pierce, it’s one of the reasons we couldn’t continue after Paris.”
He stopped dancing, staring at her with a mix of anger and disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious. Unless it’s Samantha? Is she going with you? Is she the new me in this scenario? I guess I’m trying to figure out why you don’t want to continue our friendship when you seem to be quite happy with the way things turned out anyway.”
He breathed out in a long rush of air and dropped his hands, taking a step back. “Samantha is just a friend.”
“Funny, that’s exactly how we started out.”
His jaw clenched, and his eyes burned bright, like jade fire.
His voice came out like a whip’s lash. “Since I don’t want to cause a scene at your sister’s wedding, you’d better follow me right now, where we can get a few things straight.”
“Fine.” She marched after him, threading through the crowd, and locked them in the private wedding-party room, where it was quiet and they wouldn’t be interrupted. Simmering with multiple raw emotions, she embraced the only one she ever felt truly comfortable with when challenged.
She spun around and jabbed her finger in the air. “I don’t understand why you’re punishing me when this entire time you planned to be this new free spirit, jetting around the world.”
“And I didn’t know your new talent is rewriting history,” he said. “You made the choice to send me away. Hell, I tried to have a conversation about our options, but you didn’t want to hear it.”
“Because I wasn’t about to ruin your future!” she said with a touch of bitterness. “You always said we wanted different things, and I didn’t want to be selfish.”
She flinched. The word was flung at her like a bullet. “No, you lied to me. Why didn’t you tell me in Paris that you planned to leave Cape May?”
“You never gave me a chance. You sold the painting and locked the door behind us without ever asking me. Do you know how badly I wanted to tell you how I really felt? What I craved from our relationship? The words I’d been swallowing back for weeks because I was terrified I’d spook you?” The surge of fury had tempered into a bleak resolution, and it made fear curl through her. “Did you actually believe we’d go back to our old dynamics, being best buds, without any consequences? Because I can’t do it, Taylz. I can’t pretend I don’t love you when I do.”
The breath left her lungs in a whoosh. The words should have been celebrated—the final admission they’d both tried to deny but knew as truth—yet the man who stood before her was like stone, his face carved into a blank slate.