A/N: Soooo I suck at fluff. No really. I do. But I got a very sweet request, so I tried. Enjoy!
Bella didn't have any idea why, but this was one of the favorite parts of her day.
Her shop was in a prime location in downtown Fullerton, California. Near Cal State Fullerton University, it was the place to be. The main strip featured a collection of eclectic shops, restaurants, and bars that attracted the college kids like mad. Bella's tattoo parlor wasn't the only one in the six block radius by a long shot, but there was more than enough business to go around.
"I'll be outside, Angela," she called to her second in command.
Angela didn't look up from the customer she was working on. "You got it, boss."
Stopping by her station, Bella slipped her gloves off and chanced a glance in the mirror, feeling ridiculous as she did it. Her hair was held in place, out of her eyes, by a claw clip. Nothing fancy there.
Not that she was trying to impress anybody.
Rolling her eyes at her reflection, Bella headed out the back door of her shop.
The way the Fullerton strip was set up, the backs of all the shops faced the parking lot. Restaurants used it as a second entrance. Bella's was merely a back door with a few chairs outside for her employees to get fresh air. Next door, at a newish wine bar called the Twisted Vine, the backside had been converted to a covered patio. Every evening at twilight, the owner-at least, Bella assumed he was the owner since he'd been the one touring the place when it was still vacant-came around to all the tables to light the candles at the center.
Only a minute after Bella sat down, he came out.
Why watching this handsome stranger gave Bella such a clandestine thrill, she honestly didn't know. By sight, he was everything she wasn't, refined where she was wild, classy where she was slightly naughty. He wore a crisp, white, button-down, long sleeve shirt and black pants with a crease she knew damn well was ironed on. Meanwhile, she favored shirts that showed off as much of her ink as possible, and in Southern California, that was usually a fair amount of skin.
Today, before he got to his usual business of lighting candles, he stopped at the side of one of the tables to fill a glass of wine. From her vantage point, Bella had an excellent view, but she couldn't hear what was being said. She heard the rich cadence of his voice. The low timbre of his chuckle sent a delicious thrill down her spine. It was all ridiculous, but this was her guilty pleasure. She watched him schmooze his patrons, watched as his lips curled up one side of his face.
Then, finally, came Bella's favorite part of the night. He set his wine bottle down and drew a book of matches from his pocket. Bella was fixated on that one small detail. Why matches? Why not one of those long, slim torches that wouldn't have necessitated him picking up each vase to get his hand inside.
Whatever the reason, she was glad he did it. She liked the ceremony of it - the way he struck the match against the side of the table, the spark of fire. She liked the way he tilted his head as he lit the candle, and she liked the way, for split second, the flames cast a glow on his face and his bronze colored hair.
She did love his hair. It was such a contrast to the rest of him. Where he was all neat, clean lines, his hair was a permanent wreck. Maybe that was the appeal, the idea that, somewhere under that conservative facade, there was something more free-spirited about him.
One by one, he lit the candles at each and every table. Bella held her breath and bit the inside of her cheek as he got to the empty table closest to her sitting spot. He lit the candle, but before he set it down, he raised his head and his gaze settled on her. Bella found herself stunned, caught up in the way the fire played off the green of his eyes. His lips curved up in a smirk, and she felt a blush creep up her neck to her cheeks. But oh well. If she'd been caught, she might as well enjoy it. Bella grinned back, pursing her lips in a clear dare, a challenge for him to say something.
Instead, his eyes swept down, over her body so slowly, Bella felt as though he was dragging a zipper down the length of her, leaving her nude and exposed. It wasn't as mortifying as she would have imagined, though she was self-conscious and ever so slightly defensive. What could this stuffed-shirt think of tatted up and pierced girl like her?
More importantly, why did she care? At thirty-two, she was well past the time a school-girl crush would be acceptable. That's all this was- an attraction based a flash of fire and a gorgeous smile. Bella might have looked the part of the wild child, but she was a rational, sensible person with both feet firmly planted in reality.
Bella Swan and Angela Weber had been the picture of innocence in the tiny Washington town they'd grown up in. The daughters of the chief-of-police and a reverend respectively, they were goody two shoes through and through until they went off to college in sunny Southern California. They'd found their calling in their penchant for decorating their bodies with metal and ink. They'd bought this shop together.
Sensible or not, when the stranger's eyes finally made it back up to hers, she cocked an eyebrow. For one, two, three tantalizing seconds, their gazes lingered on each other, and then his head jerked in the direction of his diners. He winked at Bella before he turned to address the table who'd called him.
Bella watched him for a few minutes more before the door opened and Angela peered out. "Hey, boss. Got a client on the line for you."
With one last glance over her shoulder, Bella went back inside her shop.
What was going on between Bella and the guy next door, she couldn't really tell. She knew she liked it, bizarre as it was. She didn't even know the guy's name, but maybe that was part of the appeal. The mystery, the way she found herself on tenterhooks, waiting for the moment his gaze would lift from the candlelight.
She shivered every single time. Delicious.
More than once she contemplated whether or not she should say something. For a complete and total stranger, he had a definite presence in her life. Often when she was at home alone, relaxing in the steam of a long, hot bath, she found her thoughts wandering to his crooked grin and the spark in his eyes. During the day, she looked forward to twilight so much, she found herself miffed when a client took that time from her, when the rare day of rain kept them all indoors, or when it was one of his employees who came out to light the candles. How dare he take a day off?
Given how often she thought of him, it seemed almost impolite not to introduce herself. Then again, Mr. Straight and Narrow hadn't left the safety of his gated in space either. She considered going into the wine bar. Her clients raved about the food and, of course, the wine. Maybe she could find out if he was as charming as he seemed to be when he was speaking to a customer, leaning over their shoulders, pointing out something on the menu.
But weeks turned into months, and their strange, silent relationship remained.
As a perpetual singleton, Bella wasn't very fond of Valentine's Day. She'd had the odd date over the years, but she wasn't the type to buy in to the madness regardless. Just another day when the good restaurants were full and there was plenty of candy to be had.
As a business owner, Bella was thrilled. She and every one of her artists were booked solid from open to close. It was a popular day for couples tattoos. Bella was pleased for the most part. The majority of her clients had planned their tattoos carefully-none of the cliche stuff artists hated to work on. She loved when her clients' tastes were unique and meaningful. She especially loved when she could bring a client's concept to life with her own creativity.
Bella was so busy, it felt as though she glanced up one moment to see the sun low in the sky and the next moment it had already set. She quirked her lips in disappointment but figured it was just as well. The stranger was likely just as busy as she was if not more so. A wine bar had to be a popular Valentine's Day destination.
It was well after midnight by the time the last client was gone and her artists were all on their way home. Bella slipped out the back door. She rolled her shoulders as she locked the door. Her every thought was turned to home and a long bath when a low whistle drew her attention. It wasn't a wolf whistle but more of a yoo-hoo. Bella turned her head, shocked to see a figure watching her from the Twisted Vine's otherwise abandoned patio. He was clad in the shadows of the flickering candlelight and the low glow of the heat lamp. He lifted his hand in a jaunty wave, and even in the low light she knew he was grinning his lazy smile.
When had she categorized his smiles?
"Evening, Wild Child."
In true school-girl crush form, Bella's heart skipped a beat. Thankfully, the rest of her was much more practiced at keeping its cool. She shrugged off her exhaustion to saunter over to gate that divided them. "Wild Child? The name of my place?" She did her best to sound as unimpressed as possible.
"Your place?" There was admiration in his tone. "Well, I had to call you something in my head."
She leaned on the mesh metal. "That's the best you could come up with?"
He quirked an eyebrow. "What do you call me?"
At that, she flushed. A grin of delight spread across his face and, momentarily befuddled, Bella told the truth. "Mysterious Stranger."
He pursed his lips, and she could tell he was trying not to laugh. "Ah, well. That does have more of an intriguing ring to it, doesn't it?"
HIs voice was so appealing. Bella rolled her eyes whether at herself or him she didn't know. "Bella Swan."
"Bella Swan. It's my actual name. As opposed to Wild Child."
He stood, but he didn't approach the gate. "You have somewhere to be, Bella Swan?"
"At one in the morning? No, I have no outstanding appointments."
"Well then, Bella. Would you consider doing me the honor of being my Valentine?"
A thrill of electricity went straight down to her toes, and Bella gave a breathless laugh. She had to swallow hard before she spoke. "It's one in the morning… on February Fifteenth. You know that, right?"
He shrugged, unconcerned. "It's still Valentine's Day in Hawaii. Come on, Wild Bella. You shouldn't have to miss out on Valentine's Day because you had to work." He raised his hand palm up and beckoned her with two fingers. "Come hither. I've made a, if I might say so, delicious dinner for two. Why eat alone when there is a beautiful stranger you could get to know?"
"You can cook?" Bella's stomach joined the parts of her that didn't understand why she was still on her side of the gate.
"I know it may have escaped your notice, seeing as I know you've never been in here, but I do own this place, and we are known for both wine and food."
"How do you know I've never been in there?"
"Well, for one, you don't know there's food served here." He winked at her when she rolled her eyes again. "No expectations. I know it's late, but you must be hungry."
Deciding playing it cool was vastly overrated, Bella stepped around to the gate door which he held open for her. When she was in his territory, his grin broadened and he offered his hand. His skin was warm and his grip strong. "I'm Edward Cullen."
Up close, she noticed a few more things. He wasn't wearing his crisp button down but a simple shirt that showed the definition of his chest and a smart looking jacket. And he smelled good. He smelled like spices and rising bread. Her mouth watered, and she had to clear her throat to remember how to speak. "It's nice to finally meet you."
"Yes. Very nice." He squeezed her hand once more before he let her go. He pulled out a seat for her. "Madam?"
Tickled though she was, an inkling of displeasure raced through her. What did she think she was doing with this guy? Everything about him screamed that they weren't on the same wavelength, and yet she felt so drawn to him.
"How do you like your wine?" he asked.
Bella grimaced. "Actually, not a big wine drinker. Everything I've ever tasted is too bitter for me."
He mock gasped. "Gee, I've never heard that before. You like sweet drinks then?"
"Just like me."
"I'm going to bring you a breathtaking Moscato. If you don't like it, well… I have tea and soft drinks too."
He disappeared inside, leaving Bella to wonder just what the hell she thought she was doing. He wasn't gone for long enough for her to answer her own question, but she was so wrapped up in trying, she didn't hear him approach.
He splayed his hand on her shoulder as he leaned over her to place a glass of wine on the table in front of her. His voice was soft and close to her ear as he told her about the Moscato, but Bella hardly heard a word. She was too wrapped up in the way his hand felt against her skin.
She'd seen him do this a thousand times-lean over a customer to speak- but it was different. Typically, he leaned on their chair, and he didn't speak so close to their ears. He was close enough she felt the heat of his breath against her hair.
Suddenly parched, she reached for the wine and took a long drink. "It's delicious," she said, and it was.
He was gone again then but back in a heartbeat, this time with an assortment of fancy cheeses. Her heart sunk even as her mouth watered when he explained the cheese and the side they were paired with. She closed her eyes when he put his hand to her shoulder again. Occasionally, when she treated herself to sliced meat and cheese from the deli, she bought muenster instead of provolone or cheddar. That was as fancy as she ever got, and she wouldn't have known whether it went best with fruit, nuts, or the delectable honey spread that decorated his platter.
Bella didn't have anything in common with this man, and she wondered why that idea disappointed her so much.
Edward sat across from her to eat, chatting easily about the cheese and where it came from. It was all delicious, and Bella enjoyed his obvious enthusiasm. He talked about the nuances of food like she talked about her own work.
"Another?" he offered when she had finished her first glass of wine.
Regardless of the disparity between them, she was having a good time. "Sure."
"The same, or are you feeling a bit adventurous?"
With his smile and the eagerness in his eyes, he was impossible to resist. He must have made money hand over foot this way. "Surprise me."
He was gone for only a minute before he came back. He took the seat closest to her as he set two fresh glasses in front of her. "This is my favorite wine. It is a red, but keep an open mind. If you don't like it, I'll drink it for you." He winked, and Bella felt the corners of her mouth lift in response. He poured a bit in the glass in front of him and an even smaller amount in her glass. He leaned forward, doing that thing she'd seen in movies where he swirled the wine around in the glass. When he spoke, his voice was a low rumble, as though he was whispering a secret. "This is a malbec, which a lot of people can't handle because it's got a touch of bitterness. But once you get past that, there's a smoky spice to it that will roll around on your tongue and slide right down your throat with an insanely smooth finish."
Eyes frozen on his, Bella felt a shiver run through her. His voice when he spoke like that, with passion of flavors that rolled down your throat, was liquid sex. She felt lightheaded, and she swayed closer to him.
Edward frowned, breaking the heat of the moment. He set the glass down and brushed her arm with his fingertips, rekindling it again. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. You're freezing."
Bella blinked. The inconsistent feel to the atmosphere around them left her befuddled, as though she'd already had a little too much wine. She looked down to where his fingertips rested on her arm and noticed her skin was covered in gooseflesh. They had little to do with the cold, but he was right. Despite the heat lamp, she was freezing in her sleeveless shirt. It had been a good choice for working in a busy shop all day, but in the middle of the night in February, it was less than ideal, even in Southern California.
His hand slipped from her, and he stood, shrugging out of his jacket. He held it out for her to slide into, but Bella was distracted. As she stood, she reached out to touch his arms and, more importantly, the ink that stained his skin.
He had tattoos. A lot of them. They were beautifully done, too.
When she raised her eyes she was startled to find him so close. She hadn't realized she'd stepped right into his personal space. There she was standing with her hands on his arms and her face scant inches from his. His nearness was dizzying, and though she knew touching him like this wasn't the least bit appropriate, she couldn't seem to convince herself to step back. "You're inked," she said on a breath.
He grinned and he draped his jacket over her shoulders. His hands slipped down to her waist. "Surprised?"
"Well, yeah. You're just so… I don't know. Military corners."
He hummed, and she noticed the way his eye lingered on her lips. "It's a business decision. The socialites of Orange County feel like a wine bar should be more refined than any of the other bars around here."
Emboldened by the fact he wasn't pulling away, Bella ran her fingers up his arms, delighting in the way he shivered at her touch. She pushed up the sleeves of his shirt to take in the designs in full.
She could tell the intricate pattern that wound around his arm flowed to his chest. She felt a thrill of anticipation, as though she knew someday there were more presents to unwrap, more to be seen.
She swallowed around the thick knot of desire in her throat. "No piercings though."
His grin turned wicked. He tilted his head down and looked up from under his lashes. "Oh, Bella. I am pierced."
Electricity raced down her spine. She wasn't cold anymore. Far from it, her skin was alive with energy. Bella pressed up onto her tiptoes to claim his lips as her own. His jacket fell to the floor as she lifted her arms to wrap them around his neck. His arms tightened around her, and he returned her kisses with equal fervor. She could taste the honey from the cheese on his tongue.
When they parted neither of them seemed inclined to move out of the other's embrace. They panted, breaths mingling, and Edward smacked his lips. "I, um…" Bella was pleased he seemed just as wonderfully disoriented as she was. "Food. I made. To eat."
Instead of letting him go, she kissed him again. That was the limit of what she could ask of her self-control, to keep their kisses on the border of going too far. She wasn't ready to let go of him yet, and he seemed to be on the same page. His hands snaked upward, his grip more possessive as he pressed her closer.
She shivered again, the cold finally becoming too much to ignore despite the fire stoked in her blood. Edward raised his hand to cup her cheek, his expression tender and his eyes dilated with desire. "Come inside?"
They went inside the restaurant, and she let him go long enough for him to retrieve the feast he'd prepared. He looked sheepish. "I didn't know what you'd like, so there's a bit of everything."
Everything was delicious. They sat side by side on one of the big couches at the back of the room. He kept his arm around the back of the couch so his fingertips skimmed her neck and shoulders. In between bites they shared stories of themselves. His family and how he came to own a wine bar in California. She told him about growing up sheltered and the ups and downs of finding herself in her twenties.
Her ink was her life story written on her skin.
"You liked the wine," Edward said as he poured her a third glass of it.
She hummed. She was pleasantly tipsy and warm. Her legs were thrown over his lap. "I'm getting used to it."
He pretended to sigh as he drew his hand up the underside of her calf. "You're hogging it all. I hardly got a sip, and this is the last bottle I have."
Teasing him, Bella took a big drink. She pulled herself up and when she spoke, her words fell against his lips. "Want a taste?"
His breath stuttered before he put his mouth to hers. Their kisses were languid. His tongue stroked hers, lapping in a rhythm like waves on the sand. His taste was like nothing else Bella had ever experienced. It was food and wine and something she just couldn't get enough of.
After a minute of this, he groaned and pulled back. He sighed as he pressed a flurry of kisses about her face. "I should get you home," he said though his words were murmured as he brushed his lips over her cheeks.
She ran the tip of her nose along his. "Is that what you want."
He lifted his head. "No." His hand traveled up her leg to the underside of her thigh. His lips trailed up to her ear. "I want you. My God, you have no idea how much." He pushed the hem of her shirt up and brushed his fingertips over the ink he found there. He hummed his approval, as if he'd known all along it was there. "There are more, aren't there?"
"Yes." She wanted him to taste them all. The idea made her gasp, and her tone was thin as she ran her fingers over his ink-clad arm. "You?"
She swallowed hard. "And your piercings?"
He took her hand and pressed it against his chest. She could feel the ring there. "That's not the only one."
Rather than swallow her moan, Bella drowned it in his mouth. He groaned as he leaned into her, pushing her back on the couch. His body was a welcome weight on her, and she ran her hands through his hair, down his back.
Again he groaned. "Bella. It's late."
"Early," she argued, kissing him again.
"We're perfect strangers." His fingers pressed into her side as he kissed her back.
His hips bucked against her, pinning her down. "You've been drinking."
"So have you."
"I haven't, actually."
Bella pulled back. He cupped her cheek and ran his thumb over her lips, his expression cautious. "You are… intoxicating enough on your own. I wanted a clear head because I have no idea what I'm doing with you. You have no idea, Bella… how often I thought of you when I didn't know you."
She panted, not knowing what to say, and he sighed again. He sat up, pulling her with him.
"Um," she said, trying to find her right mind again. He was right. The wine didn't help. "Okay. But you have to answer one question."
"Why do you use matches to light your candles?" It was such a stupid question, but it was the only thing she could think of to distract herself from his nearness, from wanting to push. He was right, after all. They were strangers, and she was more sensible than this. Usually. "I mean, it just seems like it's more of a pain in the ass that way instead of using one of those torch things."
He laughed and ran a hand through his hair. After a second, he took the box of matches out of his pocket. Snapping one off, he held it up. "I like this part." He struck the match against the table and smiled in satisfaction as it ignited. "I like the sound and the flare."
Watching the fire light his face up close for the first time, Bella grinned. "I like it too."
His eyes met hers, and it was all she could do not to pull him back on top of her. He ducked his head after a moment, and Bella found it a little easier to breathe. He cleared his throat, a slightly nervous expression coming over his face. "Hey, Bella. It wouldn't be Valentine's Day-"
"It isn't Valentine's Day."
"-without the classic cliches." He lit another match and held it up between them. "I think we're a hot match."
She groaned and covered her grin with her hands. "You're lucky you're hot. And a good cook. And a good guy."
Smiling, he leaned in and kissed her sweetly. "Come on. I can drive you home."
A/N: I have a smut shot in mind for this! Just didn't get to it on time for V-Day.
Will you all be my Valentine?