He stopped and stared, awed and lost in the details of the nursery, the strands of gold in the woman’s tumbling red hair, her freckles and the rosy glow of the toddler’s fat cheeks.
“She’s good, isn’t she?” Miss Personality, who was now standing at a workstation on the other side of the studio, putting items into one of the cardboard boxes, favored him with the beginnings of a smile.
He meandered, studying another collection of paintings, some leaning and some hanging on the walls. These were explosions of glowing color representing all kinds of things, as though Talia had painted an item, deconstructed it and put it back together using shapes, slashes and swirls that were infinitely more interesting than the original.
A field of flowers. A forest. A barn. Seashells.
And then, on another wall, a different collection that was as dark and forbidding as the others were warm and vivid. These paintings didn’t seem to represent anything other than all the ways that colors could come together and form…night. Despair. The complete absence of light.
He stared while dread crawled up his spine with prickly feet.
The change was extraordinary, as though he’d been inside a rainbow, blinked and discovered that he’d been sucked into the malevolent heart of a black hole. It seemed impossible that the same person could have produced all these different moods. Why would she paint such heartbreak? What had happened to her? He hated the idea of Talia occupying such a dismal place, even temporarily, and even if only in her imagination.
“What happened here?” he asked the woman, pointing to a dark painting that probably had a title like Tornado in Hell or Hope Screams Bloody Murder. “I don’t get why these are so different—”
Without warning, the door banged open again and a woman swept into the room, bringing the energy of ten people with her.
His heart also clanged to a stop.
“I think we should work on the acrylics next, Glo,” the woman announced in the whiskey-smooth voice that’d been haunting his thoughts for as long as he could remember. “I won’t be needing them for a while— Oh, who’s this?”
Jesus. His brain emptied out, leaving him paralyzed and dumb.
Talia—there she finally was.
She went utterly still, as undone by the moment as he was.
Their gazes locked and held, and her gray eyes slowly went wide with astonishment. A flush crept over her light brown cheeks, making her look feverish, and her lush berry mouth dropped open in a gape.
Moving like a sleepwalker, she edged closer to study him better, and her fragrance teased his nose. She wore a feminine cocktail of something fruity, and he was surprised to find that forgotten detail about her now so electrifying.
And her bracelets…
Those silver bangles he’d teased her about, a thousand or so of them on her left arm, clinked gently as she walked. He felt such a rush of swelling joy it was as though his entire life had been nothing more than a prelude to this moment.
He stared, gathering up all of her quirks and features so he’d never forget anything about her ever again.
She was shorter and thinner than he’d remembered, her cheeks sharper, and she had that same collection of silver earrings marching up her lobes. Her long, summery dress was flowered and left her toned arms bare, and a quick downward glance revealed flat sandals, toe rings and white nail polish at the tips of her pretty feet.
Her hair, which had been black with springy haywire curls, was straight and pixie-short now, and—holy shit—blue. Not blue-black, either, but the electric-blue of a stove’s gas flame. He wasn’t a fan of rainbow colors when it came to hair, but the effect on her was oddly appropriate.
She was more beautiful than the images he’d hoarded in his memory bank.
“Tony?” she breathed.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly, reaching for her.
“Oh, my God.”
They came together hard and fast, and then, for the first time ever, she was in his arms, and he couldn’t hold her tight enough.
Tony lifted her until only her toes grazed the floor, marveling at the perfect fit, the warmth and solidity of her, and the silky slide of the dress over her supple body. Her skin was a delicious combination of satin and velvet, and he buried his face in the sweet hollow between her neck and shoulder and inhaled, desperate to experience her with all of his senses.