“Yeah, I guess so.”
“And remember, I’ve got one of those moms back home. So I’m pretty used to selfish.”
His fingers patted my knee. It was a light and quick tap but I felt it shoot up my arms and lodge in my chest.
“So, what do you think of your new stepdad?” I held my breath as I waited for his answer. I was hoping Taylor was safe. But somehow I doubted Bennett would leave her vulnerable if she wasn’t.
“I think he’s the most decent guy she’s been with,” he said. “The truth is, he’s the twin’s dad—he came back after all this time.”
“He didn’t know about them. He and my mom had a one-night stand, and she never told him she got pregnant,” he explained, and again, I understood his logic about not sleeping around. It came to me in waves. All of those things added up to Bennett’s self-assigned values and beliefs. “Then they had a chance meeting all these years later.”
“Now that’s crazy pants,” I said. “But I understand crazy.”
His grin lit me up from the inside.
“I think Henry will do right by the girls. It’s Taylor I’m worried about.”
“She’s got to be under a shitload of stress,” I said. “But she also seems smart and responsible.”
“She is. But taking care of a kid and still finishing high school? It’s a hard life.” He sighed. “I offered to take her off my mom’s hands. Told her Taylor could come live with me. But Henry wasn’t having it. He told me to finish college and let him be the man of the house for a change.”
My chest felt lighter hearing that man’s words. “Did you feel relief—hearing that?” He shrugged. “What do you mean?’ “That someone acknowledged all that you’d done. It would have felt better coming from your own mother—but still,” I said. “And now you can concentrate on taking care of yourself.”
He rushed his fingers through his hair. “I know it’s f**ked up, but it’s all I’ve ever known. Besides, it’s nice being needed sometimes.”
“Yep, that’s f**ked up all right.” I pushed his shoulder playfully.
“Hey!” He gave me a sidelong lance, mischief twinkling in his eyes. “I’m a work in progress.”
“Aren’t we all,” I mumbled.
“I just pray my mom doesn’t blow it. She’s got a good man right under her nose—she’s never had that before,” he said. “So I hope she doesn’t try to screw it up and throw it all away.” His words wedged in my throat like a cold, harsh truth, and I had trouble gulping them down.
Raw Ink was located in a little strip mall on Vine Street. Ella had made the appointment a few days ago and begged me to go. I knew she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She honked twice when she picked me up and yelled, “Get in the car, bitch!”
Since our weekend trip, Bennett and I had settled into a new kind of normal. We didn’t spend any more planned time together, but if we happened to run into each other in the building, we’d get takeout and watch a movie, or Sunday afternoon football. He’d suggest players to start for my fantasy football league and I’d argue with his horrible logic and choices.
All of it was purely platonic. At least from the outside.
Still, I was dying to know what that weekend meant to him. It had definitely connected us in a deeper way—despite the crazy sexual tension between us. We were more honest with each other about our families and friends and jobs—just not about what was going on between us.
I should have been thankful for that. Nothing had changed on my end. Except for wanting to jump his bones every two minutes. And it was messing with my head. But I knew he’d never let sex happen between us. And I still respected him for that.
But the craving to be connected to him in an intimate way had become visceral—I felt it dead center in my chest, traveling south to between my legs—almost animalistic, pining over something you knew you’d never have.
The receptionist at the front desk of Raw Ink fit the part, with her purple spiked hair and a feminine sleeve of tattoos up the length of her arm. She checked off Ella’s appointment on her calendar and told us to have a seat. She walked down the hall to the third door on the left and dipped her head inside. “Bennett, your sketch consult is here.”
I heard his throaty voice next. It slid down my spine like warm fingers. “Tell her I’ll be out in few; just finishing up with a client.”
We sat down on the black leather couch and waited. The walls were decorated with graffiti art and alt rock piped through the stereo, loud and menacing. I still had trouble picturing Bennett working here, even though he was a few doors down.
Yet, he was probably in his element here. I could picture his drawings lining these walls.
A couple minutes later, Bennett walked out with his female client. He had on tight jeans, his black Doc Martens boots, with a black, long-sleeved, fitted T-shirt. The girl was fiddling with the bandage on the inside of her wrist, and clear slick ointment glistened along the edges.
“All set,” Bennett said. “Keep it clean and don’t mess with it too much. Follow the instructions on the handout. Holly will check you out.”
“Thanks so much,” she squealed, her eyes roving over him. It occurred to me that Bennett probably got lots of numbers slipped to him after well-placed tats. My cheeks inflamed thinking about his hands hovering above me and then slipping over my skin as he tattooed my stomach or my lower back.
One thing was for certain: Not only did Bennett know how to use those magical lips—he knew how to use his fingers as well.
That boy had skills. So he had to have had some practice. Or he was just a natural.
Bennett scanned the waiting room before his eyes locked on mine. Then they reluctantly glided over to my friend. “You ready, Ella?”
“Yep.” She hopped up. “Okay if Avery comes back, too?”
“No problem,” he said, giving me a sidelong grin. He knew how nervous Ella was about this appointment. My eyes roamed around the room, nervous I’d see Bennett’s boss, Oliver, here. But maybe he’d act cool about seeing me. I was only a one-night stand. One that he’d tried to turn into a date the next night. But I’d turned him down, and we hadn’t been in contact since.
We followed Bennett through the tight hallway lined with framed pictures of tattoos on actual clients. A colorful butterfly on someone’s lower back caught my eye. The smell of antiseptic filled the air, but another odor infiltrated my senses as Bennett moved confidently through the space: coconuts.
“Right in here.” He motioned to a large glass table with four chairs. I noticed a small black desk along the far wall where Bennett’s laptop and iPod were plugged in. The music piping through this room was different—more soothing, less angry. Probably helped his clients relax.
“Let’s get down to business, Ella.” Bennett sounded much more formal than I’d ever heard him.
“What did you have in mind?”
Ella bit her lip. “I’m pretty sure I know what I want, but I’d like to see some of your work first—do you have any samples?”
“Of course.” He reached down to the ground for a thick white binder and placed it in front of her.
“Here’s my portfolio.”
“Don’t even roll your eyes at me, dickhead,” Ella hissed. “I’m just making sure.”
I shook my head and snickered. “Dude, I haven’t said a word.”
Ella opened the book and started paging through. I tried looking with her, but Bennett’s gaze pressed into me like a weight, and I couldn’t look away, or take a decent breath for that matter. He seemed different here in his element—more confident, sure of himself—and I’ll admit it unnerved me.
I wore my hair in a low ponytail and I could tell he was trying to get a good view of the tattoo behind my ear. I absently glided the stray pieces of my hair behind my ears. I looked down at the book every time Ella pointed something out, but Bennett’s eyes were like a magnet. I had trouble glancing anywhere else.
The way Bennett gazed at me was so different from other guys—it wasn’t vulgar or offensive, just plain hot. Blistering. And it only made me want him more.
“These are amazing, Bennett,” Ella said after another five minutes. “Thanks.” Bennett’s cheeks grooved into a shy grin. “So, did it help you decide?”
She flipped to the page bookmarked by her thumb. It showed a small dragonfly, an image I knew she had been considering, and had hoped to find in Bennett’s work. She pointed to it. “This one. Except, can I get different colors shaded in?”
“Of course. You need to make it what you want,” he said. His voice was smooth and confident, different than he’d been when he’d first kissed me and that night at the hotel when I’d gone to him in the shower. I liked this confident side of Bennett. He’d been this way with his family, too. “So, why a dragonfly? What does it mean to you?”
“Um . . .” Ella stumbled over his question, possibly unsure of answering him. Maybe she thought her reasoning was lame, but I knew it wasn’t. It was meaningful and powerful.
Bennett cleared his throat. “When a client’s about to get something permanently inked on their skin, they should ask themselves an important question.”
“What’s that?” Ella asked.
“‘Am I getting this because I like dragonflies this year, or is this symbolic—does it have a deeper meaning?’” Bennett said, digging out a drawing pad and pencils. “Because tastes change. And I’m telling you this because you seem nervous about it.”
Ella’s shoulders relaxed and she took a deep breath.
“It does mean something to you, Ella,” I said, nudging her along. Ella’s brother died when we were in high school, and understandably, she was devastated. We all were. Ella said when they were kids, they loved weekends at their grandmother’s cottage, where they’d swim and fish and try to capture dragonflies that raced across the lake—along with every other bug under the sun. On the day of Christopher’s funeral, Ella swore up and down that a dragonfly flew by her at the cemetery.
“Hey, it’s really none of my business. You don’t have to explain anything to me,” Bennett said, low and gentle. “I was just trying to help—to give you more confidence.”
“It . . . it reminds me of my brother—he died a couple of years ago.” Bennett’s eyes softened.
“Goddamn, I’m sorry, Ella,” he said, his voice strained. “The dragonfly is a nice idea if it’s a tribute to your brother. Do you feel better about your decision?”
“Yes, I do,” she said. “And thank you.”
Bennett nodded as he drew on his sketch pad. His hand moved fast and steady as a dragonfly began taking shape. After seeing his other drawings, I knew this one was small potatoes for him. He could probably do it in his sleep.
“Where did you want the tattoo to go?”
“I was thinking above my ankle,” Ella said, wringing her hands. “What do you think, Avery?”
“Sounds perfect,” I said, suddenly glad I’d decided to come with her. Not that she would’ve given me the choice. “And you can cover it up if you need to.”
“What colors do you want me to shade in?” Bennett asked, his fingers roaming over the colored pencils next to him.
“Blues and greens,” she said, her eyebrows arching upward in excitement.
He chose two colors, and then swirls of cobalt blue and sea green came alive on the page.
“Something like this?”
Ella squealed. “I love it.”
“If you want to wait out there, or grab some coffee and come back, I can draw this up on transfer paper,” he said. “We can have it done and over with today.”
“Today?” Ella suddenly looked nervous again.
“Perfect.” I stood up and pulled Ella with me. “Enough deliberating. Bite the damn bullet already.”
Bennett smiled. “Give me some time and I’ll come get you.”
“We’ll go across the street and make her eat something,” I said. “Text me when you’re ready.”
Bennett reached for his phone when it occurred to both of us that we didn’t have each other’s cell numbers. I guess it was unnecessary when you lived in the same building. I punched my number into his keypad and handed it back to him. “See you soon.”
Ella and I walked to the bagel shop across the street, where we ordered coffees and sandwiches.
Ella only nibbled on a few crumbs, she was so nervous.
“It’s small, and it’ll be over with before you know it,” I said, trying to reassure her. “It’s going to look so cool. And you’ll be happy you finally got it.”
My cell buzzed with a message. My stomach clenched with the anticipation of Bennett texting me.
I looked at my phone and saw it was Rachel. Rachel: Did she do it?
Me: She’s about to.
Rachel: Tell the bitch I said good luck.
Me: Will do.
“Rachel says good luck,” I said. I left off the bitch part. It was such a common term of endearment connecting the three of us, Ella probably added it in her own head automatically.
“If Rachel were here, I bet she’d have no qualms about getting that huge tattoo on her back that she’s always talked about,” Ella said, snorting. “God, I envy you guys some times.”