Taylor began talking, and Bella jumped in now and then to flesh out the problem. Avery nodded, her gaze completely focused, while giraffes moved in and out of the frame from behind.
“You fucked up,” Avery finally said. “You assumed Pierce wouldn’t want you if you didn’t change, but meanwhile, he fell in love with who you are. Babe, I hate to say it, but I bet Pierce was already planning to make some changes for the benefit of his career and your relationship. You just didn’t give him the chance, or a choice, and that can be devastating.”
“I know. How do I fix it? I can’t lose him.”
Bella sighed. “Are you willing to put yourself out there? Tell him you love him and want to make it work? There’s no reason he can’t be in Paris with you while you pursue a relationship.”
“Agreed,” Avery said. “The logistics are doable. But you need to convince him you’re ready to do this with him and apologize.”
Taylor nodded. “I get it. I need to do something big in order to convince him to forgive me and understand I’m really committed now.”
“No problem. I’ll sneak into his house, get naked, and be waiting for him on his bed. Who knows? Maybe I’ll bring some rope with me.”
Her sisters exchanged a pointed look. Bella cleared her throat. “Um, babe, I think that’s not going to be enough. Remember when I was going to lose Gabe, and I decided to use the Beach Bachelor article to show him I was all in?”
“That was big. It was a huge risk for my heart, because it was scary as hell. Do you get it?”
Avery jumped in. “Okay, I know you remember when Carter was a big asshole and broke up with me because he was terrified, right?”
“Well, he used Lucy to bring me a note and said something in the restaurant that was romantic and epic. Think big, like a rom-com. Not erotica.”
She frowned. “But sex is so much easier.”
“For you it is,” Bella said. “But what will show Pierce you’re offering him the most vulnerable part of yourself? Where does your heart really come from? How will he know it’s for real?”
And then she knew. She didn’t like the answer, but she knew. It was where she shared all the things that terrified her—the only safe place in the world she’d found and created for herself.
“I think I know,” she said slowly. The idea took hold. It would take great planning and faith. It would take a leap and expose what she’d been hiding the most from him. And he could reject her anyway. She probably deserved it, the way she’d turned him away, refusing to give him anything.
But for God’s sake, she was no coward. It was time to be real—with herself and him—and she was done with her old bullshit wrapped up in lame excuses.
It was time to bring it.
“Good, then my work is done here. Are you going back to Paris?” Avery asked.
“Yes. I’ll need to do some work there before I’m ready to come back for him. And to be honest, I think he was right about one thing. We both need a little bit of time apart. Some breathing room.”
“Agreed,” Bella said. “Sometimes, space makes people realize nothing is worth losing the person they love.”
They said goodbye to Avery and clicked off.
“Do you need help with anything?” Bella asked.
“No. This is something I need to do on my own. But thanks for being here for me, Bella.”
“Anytime. That’s what sisters are for.”
And though Taylor usually avoided big displays of sappy emotions, this time, she hugged her sister tight.
One Month Later
Pierce looked at his new collection. Satisfaction surged through him. It was a good start to his current theme: the effect of setting on mood. After developing the set of photos of the Eiffel Tower, he’d been struck not only by the glory of the structure itself but by the reaction of the crowds looking on.
He’d shifted his attention and discovered that couples became closer and families bonded, and that the instant of studying something either beautiful or ugly or shocking stripped the civilized surface of a person to expose the real stuff. The treasure. He was on a journey now where he knew what he searched for, and the quality of his work had jumped to a new level.
He shuffled through the pile of discarded prints that weren’t up to the new standard he required, then froze as his hand slid one across the table. He studied her face, noting the light dancing in her golden-brown eyes, the curve of her cheek, the stark pink of her hair against the encroaching night.
Pierce ran a thumb over the purse of her red lips and remembered that perfect day in Paris. The night he’d realized he loved her too much to walk away. This time, the pain tumbled through him a bit slower, a tad duller. It was there every day—a knowledge that the woman who owned his heart and mind was across the world, making her own life away from him.
Just like he’d requested.
He snatched back his hand and turned to look at the empty, mocking space behind his desk. He still hadn’t been able to put another painting up on the wall. Perhaps it was good to be reminded on a daily basis that he needed to stay away from her.
In the past month, he’d worked hard to focus on his career. He liked writing the blog for Escape and found peace in the days spent searching for that one picture that would help him understand things—to connect with humanity and the good parts while struggling with an intense loneliness and grief he feared had become a permanent part of him. But he embraced it all and found he was a bit stronger in himself.
He sighed and began straightening out his desk. It would be hard not to see Taylor for Thanksgiving. She was supposed to arrive Wednesday, and though he always spent the holiday with his parents and the Sunshine family, he’d convinced his parents to stay in Florida this year. He’d fly out and be there for the week. He just couldn’t bear to sit next to her at the dinner table and pretend he was okay.
The bell tinkled.
Muttering a curse under his breath, he called out, “Sorry, I’m closing up!”
Pierce shook his head and trudged to the outer waiting room to get rid of his five-o’clock walk-in on a windy November evening.