Page 23

He stormed away, and my breath whooshed right out of me.

He met Rebecca at the opening elevator door and then stepped inside with her.

And still I stood there, his words washing over me like a salve.

I received a text from him the next day. Bennett: Everything’s gone to shit with my family. Mom and Henry got in a fight and he walked out. I’m going home for the weekend.

Just wanted you to know where I’d be.

Me: L I’m sorry. I’m here if you need me. But he must not have needed me. Because I didn’t hear from him again.

Chapter Twenty-Two

By the end of the weekend I’d decided on a plan. I wasn’t sure what was happening with Bennett’s family and whether it meant he’d have to be spending a lot of time there, or even move back home.

But I knew that I wanted to be there for him and fight for him.

What punctuated this truth more than anything was the phone call I received from my mother asking me to go to the hearing with her. She was going to follow through with the restraining order and wanted my support.

If she could start getting her act together, so could I.

I called Raw Ink and scheduled back-to-back consult and tattoo appointments with Bennett. Under a different name. I’d decided on exactly the kind of tattoo I wanted on my hip, and only he could ink it.

And maybe while I was there, he’d actually talk to me.

I fidgeted nervously in the lobby until I heard the deep timbre of his voice in the hallway. When Bennett saw me, he stopped dead in his tracks. He looked around for his scheduled appointment, but I was the only one sitting there.

“So, um, you’re Michael?”

“Yep, Avery Michaels. Pleased to meet you.” I worked to keep my lips in a neat, straight line.

“Your, um, receptionist might have gotten my name wrong.”

A ghost of a lopsided grin splayed across his cheeks, and he looked back at Holly, who was on the phone behind the front desk. “Avery, what are you doing here?”

“I came to get a tattoo, of course.”

We walked to his room in silence, and he closed the door behind us. He sat down at the same table we’d used last month with Ella. He pulled out his sketch pad and was acting the consummate professional, except for his knee jiggling a mile a minute. And I wasn’t much better. I had all but crumpled the rock band flyer I’d picked up in the lobby.

“So.” He kept his eyes on the table. “Where do you want this tattoo?”

“On my hip.”

He inhaled sharply through his nose. “Seriously, Avery? It was only a suggestion that night.”

“One that I liked. A lot.” I tried catching his eye, but he wasn’t going for it. “So will you do it?”

He stole a glance at me. “What kind do you want?”

“Like a lopsided heart that looks like it’s planted in roots. The kind of roots that grow beneath a tree. Thick and gnarly.”

His fingers immediately traveled across the sketch pad. The heart he drew was irregularly shaped and crooked, kind of like all that stuff in the middle of his painting back home. When he started on the roots, he said, “What does it mean?”

“It means that my heart is ready . . . to lay down roots,” I said. “I suppose it’s always been ready. It just needed something . . . to finally believe in.”

He arched an eyebrow at me.

“See, it’s because of a certain beautiful boy who’s recently come into my life.” We shared a long unblinking look that lit all the dark corners of my heart. “He made me feel things. Incredible things. And now I know what I want—what I need—and no matter what happens, I’ll always have him to thank for that.”

He didn’t say anything—just breathed in and out of his mouth, his eyes softening.

So I kept talking. “That’s what Mrs. Jackson calls it, anyway. Laying down roots.” “Mrs. Jackson?” he asked. “You’ve talked to her about . . . that guy?”

“Yeah, a whole bunch. She always knew from the beginning, way before I did, that this boy was changing my life,” I said. “And she’s always spouting off about love and roots and making sure people know how you feel before they leave you . . . for good.”

I sprang from my seat, because my own words haunted me. I checked out the art on his wall to escape his probing eyes. “The tattoo also reminds me of this awesome poem.”

“What poem?”

“That same boy introduced me to modern poetry,” I said, still too chicken to meet his eyes.

“Anyway, I’d been searching the internet the last couple of days and this one poem I found kind of knocked me over the head.”

“How does it go?”

“Well, it’s called ‘Forget Me Not.’” I fastened my eyes on him now, despite my shaking fingers.

“Let’s see. ‘I tried to forget, but you grew roots around my ribcage, and sprouted flowers just below my collarbones.’”

He seemed entranced by the words. So I continued. “‘All day I pluck their petals. But I have not yet ascertained whether you . . . love me or not.’”

He squeezed his eyes closed and shifted in his seat.

Taking a deep breath, he returned to the drawing, his jaw locked tight.

He looked handsome as his fingers skated across the page, trying to capture the essence of what I wanted based on my confession and the words of the poem.

When he finished, I leaned over his shoulder to get a better look. I heard him holding his breath. I took the opportunity to take a whiff of his hair. I missed that smell.

His sketch was stunning, and I was certain it was the one. That he was the one. But he needed to be sure about me, too, and he could only decide that on his own.

“It’s amazing. Perfect.” “Cool,” he said. “Did you want to wait in the lobby for me while I get set up?”

“Can . . . can I wait in here? I won’t bother you.” I just needed to be near him.

He nodded and got busy copying his drawing to transfer paper. I answered e-mails on my phone and looked through his portfolio, all the while thinking about how much I liked being around him again.

“It’s ready,” he said, standing up and moving toward me. “I need to transfer this to your skin now.”

I pulled my jeans over my hips, and then tugged my underwear down, making sure not to expose myself. Although I still felt his gaze press in on me like a wall of heat.

Wearing the lacy red underwear might have been an unfair advantage. But I was desperate to know if he was still affected by me. If the red lacy set reminded him of that one day in the laundry room, when he first started flirting with me.

He knelt in front of me, hands trembling. He sucked in a harsh breath, as if to gather himself, and then set to work rubbing the transfer onto my skin.

Feeling his fingers on my skin made all my blood pool to the area between my legs.

He was meticulous and precise and finally stood to grab the hand mirror. “How does it look?”

When I saw it on my hip, I felt a winging in my chest. Like the tattoo represented everything special to me, Mrs. Jackson included. Bennett’s fingers created this magic that would now become a permanent part of me. “I love it.”

“Great. Let’s get started,” he said, moving away. “Since it’s going on your hip, I need you to lie here.”

He walked to the black padded table against the wall, and I followed. Hopping up, I settled in. I stared at the ceiling while he fiddled with his instruments and dye.

“You sure you’re ready for this? The hip is a sensitive area of the body, so it’ll feel slightly different than the one behind your ear.”

“I’ll be okay. I’m in good hands.”

He wheeled the stool closer, and I tried to concentrate on the music piping through his iPod. It was soft and rhythmic, and I breathed in deep and meaningful breaths to calm my jangling nerves.

For the next hour I’d be at Bennett’s mercy. Once the stinging precision of the needle began its journey, I’d be stationary and helpless. Fear gripped my stomach, and I almost shot up and raced out of the room.

But I squashed it down. This was the same fear that had immobilized me for the better part of four years, and it was time to work through it. This was Bennett, the man I wanted in my life. The man I had fallen hard for.

He made me feel safe and protected. Being with him hadn’t made me disappear or became anything less. Maybe we could fold into each other’s lives without compromising who we were.

I’d just have to trust that. Trust him. And get him to trust me.

I felt my shoulders unraveling, the tension evaporating, calm flowing through me. He wouldn’t hurt me. In fact, he was good at taking care of me. And because of him, I’d become a different version of myself. A better version of myself.

I studied his lips, his skin, his hair, the way his eyes were intense and focused.

“Avery, you’re going to have to stop that.” He was looking down, loading the machine with a needle.

“Stop what?”

“Looking at me like that.”

“Are you saying, Mr. Reynolds, that you haven’t had chicks all hot for you in here?” A smile quirked my lips. “Especially when you’re about to touch an intimate place on their body?”

“Usually, there’s terror in their eyes,” he said, finally meeting my gaze. “But yes, once or twice that’s happened. But those times didn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“Because, Avery, they weren’t you.”

I inhaled a lungful of air. “Bennett—” “Let’s just get through this, okay? I need to be professional here.” His eyes were so dark they were almost black. “I’m giving you a tattoo. I’m not thinking about how I want to trace my mouth over every damn part of your body, including your lips. Nope, never even crossed my mind. So, let’s get started.”

He fired up the machine, and it blotted out the moan I stifled in the back of my throat. We were silent after that. I was intent on staring at the ceiling while he concentrated on his design.

When his fingers braced my lower belly, I nearly whimpered, but bit down on my lip instead. I hoped he didn’t notice how my ni**les hardened at his touch.

His face hovered over my navel as he pulled my skin taut. I could smell him. Coconut, sun, and beach.

Then the needle went in. It stung, and my hand fisted the edge of the table. But the burn was familiar, and I knew I’d become adjusted to the cadence of the machine soon enough.

“So, what’s happening at home, Bennett?”

“My mom’s a wreck. She’s realizing what a f**kup she’s been. But I told her the only way to get Henry back is to prove she’s made some changes.”

I couldn’t help thinking his words were a message for me, too.

“I think Henry’s willing to try again,” Bennett said. “But he needs to know she’s serious.”

Again, a double message.

“She needs to start holding up her end of the relationship. Show him that she wants him and . . .

loves him.”

“You know, Bennett, when you lose something you didn’t even realize you needed in your life, it’s a hard lesson,” I said, both for his mother and for me. “There’s regret and sorrow. All you want is that person back so you can show them how you feel.”

The needle had stopped moving, and Bennett’s eyes were latched on to mine, so penetrating and full of need that it felt more intimate than having his lips on me.

He wiped away excess ink with a wet paper towel. “I’m finished with the outline. The shading shouldn’t take long.” His voice was raspy and gruff, sending a shiver through me.

Suddenly, I wanted to lie there for two hours more. I liked having him call the shots, be in control.

I’d been holding on to all the pieces of myself with a death grip for so long that to release some of them was liberating.

“Anyway, I’m heading home right after my shift tonight,” he said. “Taylor needs my help, and Henry’s coming by—we’re going to have, like, a family meeting.”

“Will you be staying there?” I tried not to sound disappointed about him not being around. Even when he wasn’t talking to me this past week, at least I had still known he was there—somewhere.

“I’m not sure. At least overnight, since I’m not scheduled tomorrow.”

When he finished, he helped me off the table and retrieved the mirror.

His artwork gripped my heart so forcefully that it leapt out of my chest and fell to his feet. Begged him to hold her. Keep her. Take the largest piece of her.

My skin pebbled with goose bumps, and my eyes watered. I was so thankful he’d created this masterpiece on my skin. No matter what happened, I’d always be grateful.

“Hey,” he said, his hands reaching for my shoulders. “Why are you crying?”

“Because you created exactly what I wanted. It’s beautiful.” I sniffled, leaning my forehead against his shoulder. “And even if you decide you . . . you don’t want me, I’ll always have this . . . this masterpiece you created for me.”

“Avery, look at me.” He pushed his fingers through my hair. “I was hurt. I don’t ever want to be some joke. I want to be real. For this to be real. For both of us.”

“It’s more real than anything’s been in my whole life.”

“That’s all I needed to hear.” His fingers traced my jawline, and his kiss was soft and fluttery against my lips.

I closed my eyes and reveled in it.