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The phone buzzed from his desk. “Bennett,” Holly’s voice chirped through the intercom. “Your last appointment’s here.” He cradled me in his arms. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

I followed Bennett’s care instructions to the letter the next couple of days. Don’t wear tight clothing, keep the tattoo moist using over-the-counter medicine, and expose it to air as much as possible.

The heart had scabbed over and was healing nicely. I couldn’t stop admiring it every chance I got, and even allowed Mrs. Jackson a peek at work.

She continued to recover from her latest ministroke and was becoming more animated every day.

“Girl, I’m proud of you. That boy is going to have some fun with you and that tattoo.”

“Mrs. Jackson, you’re making me blush.”

“Stop playing. You don’t blush. You just can’t wait to get home to him tonight.”

It was true. Bennett had kept in touch with me from home the last couple of days. They’d had a family meeting, Henry and his mother had made up, and he was willing to stick around and raise his girls.

Until the next big fight. His mom was as much a work in progress as mine. Mom had been different on the phone with me since the restraining order ordeal. She was more honest, less critical, and maybe even a bit scared of getting involved with another guy like Tim. But that didn’t stop her from trolling the bars every weekend.

I encouraged her to change all the locks in case Tim still had a spare key, and she agreed to call a locksmith before the hearing next week. She even agreed to sign up for a local self-defense class. But I had a feeling she wouldn’t follow through with it. Baby steps.

Bennett had gotten home that morning while I was at work and said he’d be stopping over at my apartment after his last tattoo appointment to check on his handiwork. I had a pharmacology test to study for, so I brought my textbook to work to get a head start during my lunch. Waiting for him now felt like that first time I saw him. Butterflies were battering the sides out of my stomach, and I was nervous I’d say or do the wrong thing to mess it all up again.

But when I let him inside, all of my nervousness flowed out of me and was replaced by excitement.

He was stunning and sexy, and I knew I wanted him in my life.

I just hoped he felt the same way.

“God, I missed you,” he said, his gaze caressing me with such tenderness.

I focused on the curve of his jaw, the angle of his cheekbones, and the devotion stirring behind his russet eyes. There was apprehension hidden there as well and that only made me want him more.

This boy had gathered the pieces of my heart that had been scattered in the wind and tucked them in the safe pocket of his hand. And now it was time to treat his heart with the same gentleness.

“Avery, I want . . .” He closed the distance between us. “I need to touch you.”

He cupped my cheeks and brought his lips to mine. His kiss was slow, hesitant, delicious.

And wholly intoxicating.

When I opened my eyes, he brushed a stray hair from my cheek and gazed at me in adoration. My hands tangled in his curls, and I drew his mouth toward me again. The feel of my tongue stroking hungrily against his made him hum with desire.

His hands became more insistent as he tugged my hair out of its ponytail and trailed his thumbs along my neck, making me shiver to my very core.

His fingers explored my waist and back before finally landing on the buttons of my shirt. One by one he unfastened them as his lips whispered against my collarbone and the top of my br**sts. He peeled my shirt from my shoulders, along with my bra straps, and then licked and nipped the tender skin there.

After removing my bra, he swirled his tongue around my hardened peak while I clutched at fistfuls of his shirt. When he moved to my other breast, he bit down lightly, and my knees buckled beneath me.

He grabbed my waist and pulled me to him. “I’ve got you, baby.”

His lips found mine, and he moved us backward into my bedroom. “I need to check on my masterpiece.” When he nudged me back on the bed, my fever for him continued to build, ready to consume me.

He pulled my leggings down to my knees and then slid them off my legs. I reached for him to remove his shirt, and he lifted it over his head. I marveled at his smooth chest and tight stomach.

He gently shifted my underwear down my hips, and then pulled back for a look at his handiwork.

“Damn, that’s sexy.”

He reached for my hands, tugging them above my head, and lacing them through his fingers. Then he kissed me again, this time long and deep. His desire was like an undercurrent humming through him and transferring to me.

“Avery, I have this overwhelming need . . . to be inside of you.” I melted into the covers, my body becoming liquid. “Will you let me?”

I knew what he was asking without him saying the exact words.

He wanted me to be his first. He was giving me his body.

I was desperate to feel him inside of me. I wanted him so badly it ached.

But part of me still worried whether I’d be able to be everything he needed me to be. Everything good enough for him.

“God, Bennett.” My voice was shaky, my breathing shallow. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, baby,” he whispered. “I want you. I want you to be mine.”

I yanked his head down in a frantic kiss, trying to convey everything I was feeling in that moment.

He was putting his faith in me, and I wanted to cherish it. Nurture it. Worship it. I leaned back as he unbuttoned his jeans and slipped out of them, along with his boxers. He was naked before me and I couldn’t help but appreciate the view. His sturdy shoulders and his strapping arms were contrasted by his delicate hipbones that led down to all that was divinely him.

He grabbed hold of my ankles and tugged them gently to the edge of the bed. Then he positioned himself over me. I gasped as he flicked his tongue along the length of my torso and dipped below my navel, careful not to touch my tattoo, which would still be tender for a few more days.

I tried reaching out my hand to touch his chest, but he backed away.

“No,” he said. “You. All of you. Your creamy skin, you perfect br**sts, your taste, your smell. Your heart.”

Then his hands were on my knees, nudging them apart, and his gaze fastened on the area between my legs. He swept kisses along the inside of my thighs and watched as my breaths grew desperate.

His tongue dipped down and tasted me, and I moaned and tensed beneath his mouth.

He softly parted me with his thumbs and swept his tongue over me, and then inside of me, as I whimpered and squirmed, practically coming unglued.

My back arched off the bed as I reached for him, begging him with my eyes.

I wanted him inside of me right that very instant.

But it needed to be on his terms, not mine.

He looked at me with such need, such want, and such affection. I knew what this meant to him. He had told me that he was waiting for love, and though he hadn’t uttered those precise words his eyes conveyed everything.

I was bursting with emotion for him, and I hoped it was reflected in my eyes as well.

“Avery, I didn’t exactly plan this. Do you have a condom?”

I motioned to my bedside table, almost embarrassed that I was so prepared.

He removed the foil wrapper and then fumbled with the condom. I took it from his fingers, unrolled it, and pulled it over his taut skin. He was so hard and ready, trembling with need. I slid my body up the bed to my pillows, reaching for his hand, asking him to join me.

His crawled up to me and then crushed his lips into mine. “I want you so damn bad,” he growled.

He positioned himself between my legs, and I was panting from anticipation.

His eyes pressed into mine with a silent question.

He was asking my permission—making sure I wanted this, too.

“Yes, please,” I moaned. “All of you. Only you.”

And then he urged his tip inside of me, and I shuddered against the feel of it. He kept his eyes locked on mine as he pushed in deeper and deeper, filling me completely. His mouth fell open in heavy breaths. “Jesus, Avery, you feel f**king incredible.”

I was overcome with the emotion of him being nestled inside me. It felt different than anything I’d ever experienced, and my eyes became glassy and full from the pure wonder of it.

It may have been his first time. But in a way, it was my first time, too.

He rocked his hips gently against me, sliding almost all the way out and then driving himself back in. “Fuck, baby, I’m so deep.”

The feeling was indescribable, and a familiar tension pulsed low in my belly.

I wrapped my legs around his waist and rocked against him in a slow and seductive rhythm. He leaned down and claimed my mouth in a profound and meaningful kiss.

“You’re so warm, Avery. God, so warm.”

His thumb came up and found my sweet spot, and he drove me to my breaking point.

I came with a violent shudder all around him.

He became still, relishing the feel of me tightening and pulsing against him, complete and utter awe in his eyes.

“Oh God, Avery.” He thrust himself back inside, the tempo controlled and deliberate. “You . . . I . . .

Jesus, this is unbelievable.”

Watching him get his release was a thing of pure beauty. His lips open, his eyes unfocused, his chest shuddering from pleasure.

He collapsed on top of me, raining warm kisses on my lips, my jaw, and my neck.

“You’re f**king beautiful,” he whispered against my ear.

I tightened my grasp around his neck.

“Don’t move. Not yet,” I mumbled. “I want to feel you just like this.”

We laid that way until our breaths slowed and our limbs were less fluid.

Before he fell asleep that night, Bennett mumbled my name over and over. I felt my heart unfurling, smoothing out, blossoming—into an unblemished kind of love.

Chapter Twenty-Four

I woke in Bennett’s arms the next morning, and it just felt right. Making love to him had been sensual, emotional, and incredible.

When my alarm blared, we immediately jumped into hurry mode. We each had an early class and work. Then Bennett had a night out with his coworkers.

He flew out the door with a kiss and the promise of texting me later. I thought of nothing else all day long. Just the feel of his skin against mine, and how different my orgasm had felt than it had those other times.

I wanted to ask him how his first time had been, but I didn’t want to embarrass him or make him feel juvenile. All I could go on was the way his eyes had searched mine and the noises that had tumbled out of his beautiful mouth.

Though I was certain how I felt about Bennett, I hadn’t said it that night.

And neither had he. But maybe I’d be brave enough to say it sometime soon.

Mrs. Jackson noticed the change in me right away, and I blushed the entire time she asked about Bennett. “You be sure to cherish that boy, you hear me?”

Her vitals were erratic that day, and even as I encouraged her to eat more from her tray than just the chicken broth, I squashed down the feeling that another stroke was imminent.

I was exhausted by bedtime and fell straight into my sheets. Just as I was drifting off, I received a text from Bennett. I knew he was at a local bar with his coworkers, and my heart leapt at seeing his message flash across the screen.

Bennett: How was the rest of your day?

Me: Exhausting. Already in bed.

Bennett: Mmm . . . sleep sounds good. Our night is just getting started.

Me: You can text on your way home if you want. Have fun with your friends.

Bennett: I’ll let you sleep and bother you tomorrow instead. Good night, baby.

I stared at the screen and tried to read between the lines. All day long, I had gotten the distinct impression that Bennett was holding himself back. All of his texts had fallen just short of mushy.

Like he didn’t want me to feel smothered just because he had given himself to me.

Like he didn’t want me to run away.

Little did he know, I wasn’t about to go anywhere.

And I planned on showing him that—tomorrow.

*** The following day at work, I stood at the nurses’ station, finishing my note on Mrs. Jackson—about how she was flushed and restless all day; even her husband had commented on it just ten minutes ago—when security buzzed me from the lobby.

“Ms. Michaels, there’s a package here for you,” Robert said. “It’s signed for and sitting on the counter. Come down when you’re free.”

A package? Usually packages for the unit came filled with medical equipment, but this one sounded personal. I headed down, curiosity getting the best of me. When I rounded the corner I saw it, along with Robert’s giant grin. It was a large bouquet of flowers.

Robert handed them to me. “Someone must be smitten with you, Ms. Michaels.” My cheeks burned as I walked my package to a nearby table in the visitors’ section, unable to wait any longer. The bouquet was a mixture of red, orange, and pink Gerbera daisies. The colors were striking and lush, and they were easily one of my favorite flowers.

Right away I noticed that one of the flowers had lost nearly all of its petals—only one clung on for dear life. There was a note attached to the stem.

I removed the note and carefully unfolded it, noticing Bennett’s initial at the bottom before scanning back up to read it.


Yes, I do. No question about it.

A smile burst from my lips. I knew without question that Bennett was referring to the ‘Forget Me Not’ poem that I’d recited to him before he gave me my tattoo. “I have not yet ascertained whether me or not.”

He was telling me in his own way that he loved me. My heart leapt straight out of my chest, performed a classic dive-bomb, and ran the half mile back home to find him.