“Pierce,” she whispered, “don’t you see I had no choice? Was I supposed to pretend one day I’d feel differently about getting married and having children and giving you a picture-perfect life in the beach town where we both grew up? I was trying to be a realist.”
He stared at her for a few moments before he spoke. “Did you really believe that? Or were you just terrified about gambling on an uncertain future, preferring to keep what was safe and controlled and orderly—a friendship that had lines and rules and stayed static?”
“It worked for us our whole life!”
“Yes, it did, until it changed and became more. We had the opportunity to embrace a new relationship, but instead you tore it apart. Don’t pretend it was to save me—that’s not fair to either of us. You didn’t let me choose. If you had, you would have learned one thing, Taylor Sunshine.”
He closed the distance between them and tipped her head back, forcing her to meet his gaze. She fell into the blaze of green fire and tried to regain her footing, tried to defend herself from the rip of her heart and the realization she may have been horribly wrong.
“You’re my home—you’ve always been my home. It was never about settling in Cape May or getting married or being a father or having a goddamn white picket fence. It was about feeling like my best self. All I ever wanted or needed was you. Can’t you see that? I was going to move to Paris to be with you. I had big dreams for myself, to study photography and travel and steep myself in a world I wanted, a world I chose. But you refused to let me even say the words. You shut me out completely.”
Her voice broke. “I was trying to protect you.”
He leaned in and spoke deliberately against her mouth. “You weren’t protecting me. You boxed me in and picked out my future based on what you wanted to see.” He paused in the terrible, aching silence. “But the only future I ever dreamed of was with you.”
Then he kissed her. His lips moved over hers in frustration, anger, and finally, passion. Her body exploded under his familiar caress, and she grabbed his shoulders, opening her mouth to the sweet thrust of his tongue, drowning in his muscled heat and musky scent and taste, and for a few glorious moments, there were no barriers between them, only the truth of how they both felt.
He loved her.
Suddenly, he broke the embrace and stepped back. She waited for him to smile or reach out his hand or say he wanted to try again. Instead, he turned and headed for the door.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“Back to the wedding.”
Shock barreled through her. She squirmed with vulnerability and a growing panic. “I thought—I thought we were going to talk. See if we can . . .” She trailed off, waiting for him to finish.
His gravelly voice held a resolution that made her want to drop to her knees and beg, just like the woman in her paintings. “No, Taylor, there’s nothing left to talk about. Saying I love you doesn’t change what happened, or the fact that you’re not ready for this type of change. Not between us. Maybe not with anyone. Like I said, I can’t pretend to be happy going back to friendship when I found so much more. It’s best we keep things the way they are. Take the time and distance to build our own lives apart. I can’t offer you anything else right now.”
Taylor stared at the closed door.
She’d made a terrible mistake. She’d believed their friendship could withstand any type of hurt or abuse, and she’d taken advantage. She’d stripped away his choices and opportunity to show her what they could be together. She’d sold the painting in a final symbol that had destroyed their very foundation. All because of her need to protect . . .
Maybe Pierce was right. Maybe it had never really been about him.
Her mind whirling, she dragged in a breath and gathered her composure. No way was she falling apart at Avery’s wedding. She’d sit and analyze the entire encounter with Pierce later.
For now, she’d let him go.
“No, hold the brush like this, sweetheart. See, if you want looser, lighter lines, you keep your fingers toward the middle of the handle—away from the bristles. Yep, like that.” Taylor watched Zoe create long, sweeping lines of sky, her sweet face furrowed deeply in concentration. “Now, when you do the trees and need finer detail, you hold it here—close up, so you have more control.”
It was as if the light had broken through a thick, soupy mist. Zoe gasped, gazing at her with wide blue eyes. “Yes! That’s it—I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t look right. Thanks, Aunt TT.”
She watched Zoe paint for a while. Her niece had talent. Maybe she should talk to Bella about putting her in private art lessons to give Zoe a head start. Her family hadn’t been able to afford them for her when they were building Sunshine Bridal, but now, with the business booming, they could all afford to give Zoe many more options.
She’d return to Paris tomorrow. She and Pierce had gotten through the rest of the weekend like polite strangers. Taylor had put all her efforts into making sure her sister’s wedding was perfect, and enjoying family she hadn’t seen in too long.
Her phone still remained silent, a reminder of their final break. She’d almost driven over to see him but had stopped herself at the last minute. What would she say? Did she want to take the risk and try to turn a lifelong friendship into a lasting love? Yes, he’d said he didn’t want all those things she believed, but what if they got together, and later, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake?
Or, was it just an excuse, as Pierce had accused? She hadn’t given them a chance to even try to work it out. It had seemed so much easier and cleaner to let him go, but now she was haunted by endless regrets.
“Aunt TT, I don’t want you to go back to Paris. I miss you too much.”
She refocused on her niece. “I miss you, too, Zoe. But I was thinking—maybe you could watch my workroom for me while I’m away? I’ll leave my canvas and paints here, and when you need some quiet time or want to do some painting, you can use it. As long as your mom says it’s okay.”
“Yes, I’d love that! When I’m ready, can I have my big art show with you?”
She laughed. “Of course. I bet you’ll sell out the place.”