“Envy us for what?” I asked, biting my bagel.
“For just letting loose and going with the flow.”
“Um, obviously you haven’t gotten my latest memo,” I said around a mouthful. “I haven’t been able to let loose and go with anything lately. Not even with Rob.”
“You had an amazing, orgasmic weekend with Bennett, and now he’s ruined other guys for you,”
Ella said. “Don’t even try denying it. See what Hot Boy’s done?”
“Oh, I see it every night when I’m lying in bed alone. Or should I say, feel it.”
“It’s not so bad having the same boy in your bed every night. You should try it some time,” she said, and I scrunched up my nose. “In fact, I’ll have me some Joel tonight. Can’t wait to surprise him with my new tattoo.” “You’ll for sure get some tonight.”
My phone buzzed on the table and I felt that familiar pull in my belly. Bennett: I’m ready for you.
Damn if my heart didn’t leap at those words. And certain other parts of me, too. Me: Are you now?
Bennett: I am. Are you?
Me: Been ready.J See you in five minutes.
“What’s the goofy grin for?”
“I don’t have a goofy grin. C’mon, Bennett’s waiting.”
“I doubt he’s waiting for me.”
“You may not want to admit this, dickhead, but you’re already in deep,” Ella said following me to the door. “You haven’t picked up any other guys since you met Bennett.”
“Then I guess it’s time to change that.” My words sounded about as hollow as my determination.
“Whatever you say, bitch,” she said, swinging around me to push through the exit. “You’re coming to the clambake at the frat house this weekend, right?”
We stepped inside Raw Ink, and receptionist Holly motioned for us to head to the back.
Bennett wore black plastic gloves and was fiddling with his tools as if he were about to perform a sexy experiment. The longing in his eyes upon seeing me told me all I needed to know about whether he still thought about our weekend together.
“Lie back in this seat and get comfortable,” Bennett said. Ella folded herself into a black leather chair that reminded me of something from a dentist’s office. Then he pulled the lever to make a footrest pop up. “There you go.”
After he set up his work area, he picked up the transfer paper. He rubbed a light layer of ointment on her ankle, placed the transfer paper on her skin, and pressed down. I realized again just how intimate this type of procedure could be.
When I got my tattoo, the girl was totally professional. And I expected nothing less from Bennett.
So why were my palms sweaty just watching how his fingers delicately braced my best friend’s leg?
“What do you think?” Bennett asked her once the transfer was complete. This drawing was even better than the sample he’d sketched for us at the table. He had taken more time to make it shine, obviously.
Ella beamed. “I think it’s awesome.”
“Cool,” Bennett said, and then looked at me. “How about you, Ms. Michaels? Do you approve?”
His eyes became hooded, and I crossed my legs in response. “Looks good, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Enough with the formality, you two,” Ella said. “Unless this is some sort of Regency-era sexual fantasy being played out.”
I flipped her off and Ella rolled her eyes. “Now get over here, bitch, I need you.”
Bennett looked down at his tools, his neck splotching red. “You can pull up a chair, Avery.”
Ella practically wrenched my arm from its socket as Bennett raised the tattoo gun. “One word of caution. If you need a break or feel light-headed, give me a warning so I can remove the needle before you bolt out of your chair.”
The look on Ella’s face was now one of sheer terror.
“Oh, Ella. It’ll feel like teeny prick marks, and then you’ll get used to it,” I said. “Squeeze my hand if you need to.”
As Bennett positioned the needle, Ella grabbed onto my hand like she was having f**king contractions or something.
“There we go. It’ll be over before you know it.” Bennett spoke to her in a soothing voice. I bit down on my tongue because my hand was being clutched so tightly my knuckles were turning white.
Ella squirmed initially but held it together after that. She squeezed her eyes shut and tilted her head upward just waiting for all of it to be over.
I enjoyed watching Bennett work—he licked his lips and slanted his head in deep concentration.
His hands were accurate yet tender. He also hummed a tune so low that I couldn’t decipher if it was a made-up song or not. The low vibration from his voice mixing with his soft breaths created a path of goose bumps down the center of my body and a soft tickle between my legs.
“You okay?” Bennett rubbed excess ink from a section of Ella’s skin with a wet paper towel.
“Hanging in there,” she squeaked out. “It feels less painful then it did at the beginning.”
“Good. I finished the outline, so now you can take a breather while I change needles to do the shading. This time will feel different—a little better.”
Ella puffed out a breath and opened her eyes. She let go of my hand and I shook it out. “Shit, you dickhead. Remind me not to be in the room if you ever go into labor.”
Bennett’s back was turned, and I heard him chuckle while he prepped his next set of tools.
When he twisted back around, his gaze bonded to mine like it was the glue holding me together.
“So, have you decided what you’re going to let me ink on you next?”
“Haven’t given it much thought,” I said, trying to tear my eyes away from his hold.
“No? Hmmm, I’ve got some ideas.”
“Listen, you two can grope each other after I’m done,” Ella said. “But right now I need you to finish my tattoo.”
“Knock it off, asshat.” I gave her knee a firm shake.
“There will be no groping,” Bennett said, and came toward her with the needle again.
I watched him work again but tried to tone my breathing down. Our attraction was becoming way too obvious.
“All finished,” he announced several minutes later. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Ella’s eyes glowed with admiration. “It was worth the pain. I love it so much.”
“It looks great, Ella.” I mouthed a thank-you to Bennett, and he winked. “Let me give you our aftercare instruction sheet. Don’t take the directions lightly,” he said, placing ointment and a Band-Aid over the tattoo. “Follow them to the letter. You don’t want to mess around with getting an infection.”
Ella stood on shaky legs, and I helped her get her footing.
I slipped into the hall behind Bennett, but had stopped to admire a framed tattoo when I felt a pair of arms slide around my hips.
Then Oliver’s low voice. “Hey there, sexy girl—are you back for more?”
I cringed. Bennett whipped around, shock registering over his features.
I pushed Oliver’s hands from my waist. “Hey, Oliver. Just here for moral support. My friend got a tattoo from Bennett.”
“Yeah?” Oliver looked at Ella as she stood before Holly at the front desk. “She hot, too?”
“She’s got a boyfriend,” I said and took a step away. Bennett’s jaw was set so tightly I found it hard to look anywhere but the floor.
Normally, I gave it back good to grabby guys and could tell them where to shove it, but something about Bennett hearing this private conversation made my ears blaze and my stomach ball into a hard fist.
“I know for a fact that you don’t do boyfriends, sexy girl,” Oliver drawled in my ear. “So we can go at it again tonight, if you’re free.”
“Stop, Oliver.” Now smoke was pouring out of my ears. “I’m just here for my friend. Nothing else.”
“Hey, O, you don’t give all our female clients this hard of a time, do you?” Bennett had a tight smile on his face. I could tell he was trying to joke with his boss, but there was a serious underlying tone to his question.
“Of course not, Ben,” Oliver said, straightening up and taking a step back.
“C’mon, Avery,” Bennett said through gritted teeth. “Let’s get your friend checked out.”
Bennett avoided eye contact with me after that. Like he was disappointed by the very idea of me having had a one-night stand with his boss.
Or maybe even disgusted.
And I was ticked. Fuck him. He didn’t have the right to make me feel that way.
When Ella waved as she went out the door and Bennett turned back toward the hallway, I had the feeling this might be our final good-bye.
My phone rang early Saturday morning. Too early. When I saw it was my brother, I immediately went into panic mode. The kid always slept late. “Adam, what’s wrong?”
“It’s Mom.” He sounded breathless. “She didn’t come home last night, which didn’t surprise me— you know, her usual Friday night at the bar. I just figured she went to someone’s place and got laid.”
Hearing my brother talk like that about my mother was normal, but it still bothered the shit out of me. Did other kids have these kinds of f**ked-up conversations about their own parents?
“And?” It had to be something serious for Adam to call me this early.
“Anyway, she came home this morning and tried to hide in her room,” he said. “Avery, she’s one hot mess. She’s got a swollen lip and a black eye.”
“What the hell?” I sat up in bed. “Did she say what happened?”
Adam sighed. “I’m pretty sure I already know.”
“What, Adam?” I reached for my jeans on the floor and pulled them on. “Goddamn it, tell me.”
“I didn’t want to mention it to you before, but she’s been seeing Tim again.”
The blood drained from my face. “What?”
“She asked me not to tell you, and I figured it would go nowhere fast,” he said. “He hasn’t been over more than two or three times. But last night I heard her on the phone, so I knew she was meeting him.”
“That son of a bitch,” I said and smashed my fist into my mattress. “I’m hopping in the shower and driving down right now.”
“Mom will be pissed, but I didn’t know what else to do,” he huffed out. He sounded relieved. “I need you, sis.”
“You did the right thing.”
The hour drive home just made me more furious. Maybe now Mom would finally believe what a sick f**k Tim was and that he was prone to violence. I couldn’t stop my hands from gripping the damn steering wheel so hard that my fingers were beginning to swell from the pressure.
I almost wished I would have killed Tim when I had the chance. But I might be sitting in jail right now if I had. There were no witnesses, and my mom sure as hell didn’t believe me. Tim had been a cop at the time, and the force was a tight-knit group. The only reason Tim finally left my mom is because my ex-boyfriend Gavin’s father was the mayor and my threat against him worked.
But I knew Mom still blamed me to this day for running him off.
When I turned down Maple Drive, I felt that familiar tension in my stomach. I hadn’t been here in months, but just driving through my old neighborhood still had the power to make me feel like an outsider, like I no longer belonged. Hell, I was proud of that fact. But somehow, passing by the city hall and high school stadium reduced me to lost-teenager status again.
I pulled up the busted concrete driveway and parked next to Adam’s brown beater, still going strong after two years. The trees had turned a golden orange and some leaves had already fallen to the lawn.
Adam and I had loved jumping in leaf piles out front while Mom yelled at us to help rake. Most of my good memories involved Adam. Mom was always with one guy or another—some who tried to parent us, others who ignored us completely. I couldn’t even remember half of their names.
But I remembered Tim. He and Mom drank heavily on the weekends, so there was no telling what I’d walk into. Sometimes they were half-dressed and passed out on the couch. Other times, friends were over and they were high as kites from the bong they’d been passing around.
Tim had tried to insert himself into our lives at every turn. He’d won me over for a minute there— I’d actually thought he was sincere. He’d show up to my softball games and piano recitals, dragging my mother with him. But I realized now he had only been grooming me, prepping me for what he’d tried to do to me later. What he’d tried to take from me.
I’d tried shielding Adam from all of Mom’s men, but by the time he reached high school, he knew the deal. He wasn’t naive or dumb. And the biggest surprise of all was that he wasn’t jaded. He was upbeat, social, and hopeful. So when I left for college I was hopeful, too, that he’d finish high school and blaze his own path in life.
Adam came charging out of the house toward me. He was tall, lean, and handsome, but still had a baby face. I hopped out of the car and pulled him into a hug.
“You need a haircut, baby bro.” I ruffled his golden locks. “But I bet the girls like it.”
His cheek lifted in a dimple. “Only one girl could request a haircut, and it’s not you or Mom—you know that.”
I pulled Adam’s shoulder against me and we walked side by side to the front door. He was over six feet, so he had to scrunch down to keep in step. “How’d you get so whipped by a girl, huh?”