I wrote this piece over a year ago in support of Stand Up for Katalina. If you participated then I apologize, as it won't be new to you. However, I felt this was a good opportunity to share this and thank the fandom for your support over the years. This is a special community and I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.
Mariahajile and Alex; thank you for helping me pretty this up. I couldn't have done it without you. Bornonhalloween thank you for the beautiful banner!
In memory of Katalina and the incredible people who touch our lives, leaving behind a mark that cannot be erased.
Memories in Ink
I looked out into the sea of proud faces and found my mother, hands clasped in her lap, a small smile gracing her lips. Behind the pleased façade, an aura of sadness draped around her, making her shoulders sag. Her smile faltered as I caught her gaze. Beside her, my younger sister texted away, oblivious to my mother's conflicted pain. What should have been a joyous occasion was tainted by the absence of my father. His death had rocked us all. My mother suffered the most, his sudden departure from this world sending hers into upheaval. Today, as I walked across the stage and accepted my diploma, I felt the loss acutely. He was my staunchest supporter, the one person whose wisdom I sought at each fork in the road. Without him on this day, I felt unbalanced.
Afterward, we went for a quiet dinner at dad's favorite restaurant. Mom tried to keep it together, but the wounds were too fresh. Only three months had passed, and the trip down memory lane wasn't manageable for her. As the only son, I adopted the role of caretaker, stepping into the shoes of the man I had revered. I drove them home while mom sniffled beside me and my sister huffed from the back seat. The click-click-clicking of her incessant texting grated on my nerves. I had to remind myself she was young and struggling to cope, just like the rest of us.
That night, while my fellow graduates celebrated the beginning of life beyond the protective shield of university classes, I sat on the living room couch with my weeping mother and pored over dad's art portfolio. How my priorities had changed in a few short months. We paused at each page and she would tell me a story, painting a more detailed picture of the man I called my father. I missed him. I missed our candid conversations about life and what the future might bring during our morning runs. I felt cheated out of the opportunity to know him beyond these years of personal screw-ups and learning from mistakes. At twenty-five, there lay before me a road untraveled, but I felt lost without the guidance I had taken for granted.
"He would have been so proud of you," she said quietly, fingers drifting over the lines that created an image of her own face. It was so intricate in detail, it looked like a photograph.
"I miss him terribly."
I didn't tell her it would be okay or that it would get better. I didn't tell her anything. Nor did she try to placate me with insincere words of reassurance. Instead, I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and we grieved together, me for the father I had lost, her for the future that had disappeared.
3 MONTHS LATER
I shelved the still warm plate and grabbed another from the dish rack. The dishwasher had broken yesterday, and mom hadn't known what to do. I called in the repairman. It was one of those simple things dad would have taken care of in the past, but now he wasn't here to do it. Instead, I stopped by a couple of times a week, had dinner, mowed the lawn, and took care of the essentials. It was the new normal.
"Are you sure you want to put the house on the market?" I asked.
My mother sighed. "No, but I don't think I can live here anymore."
"How's Alice feel about it?"
"She told me I was a selfish bitch and locked herself in her room." Her voice hitched, and her eyes welled with tears. That explained my mother's transparent excuse about Alice being under the weather when she refused to eat dinner with us.
She grabbed the counter, taking a deep breath to compose herself. It troubled me, how tight a leash she had on her emotions these days.
"You want me to talk to her?"
"You could try. I doubt you'll get very far, though. She's like your father that way; thick headed." She smiled faintly, her eyes far away, lost in a memory.
"Give Allie some time. She'll come around." She would, I was certain. I'd talk to her, and hopefully, she would see reason. The house was too big for the two of them, and I couldn't move back in. I didn't want to suffocate in the memories. I changed the subject, concerned the topic would cause more stress than it would alleviate.
"You know dad's sketchbooks?"
"Hm. What about them?" She was distant now, closed off and shut down. These times were the hardest, when she was present but not.
"Do you think I could borrow a few? I'll bring them back, but there are some sketches I'd like to make copies of."
She wrung out the cloth and pulled the stopper from the drain, watching the water swirl and funnel until the sink was empty. "Of course, dear. You can keep them, though. Your father would have wanted you to have those."
"Thanks, mom." I pulled her into a tight hug, wishing I could do something to ease the ache left behind from his loss.
"Why don't we go find the ones you want, then?" She gave me a firm squeeze. The strength in her embrace was a contradiction to her fragile emotional state. She was a hollowed out version of the mother I once knew. I hoped time would heal her and bring her back. I worried it wouldn't.
We spent the evening sifting through boxes of dad's old sketchbooks. They were all time-stamped, dating back to before I was born. He had been relentless in his quest to capture beauty in any medium he could master. He'd been an unparalleled art teacher for the local college, and I had envied him his talent with colors. My artistic pursuits fell more into the musical category, but I had chosen to keep that as a hobby rather than make it a career. I excelled at business, and numbers. Sometimes I wondered if I'd made the right choice.
I took a box of sketchbooks home with me, flipping through them until the sun peeked over the horizon. I used Post-it notes to mark the pages I loved most, narrowing down the choices for the art I wanted to use to memorialize my father. We had talked about it months before my graduation from the MBA program at Harvard. We'd even gone as far as researching shops and artists, setting a tentative date for the event. We had planned to commemorate the important marker in the timeline of my life—and his—with tattoos.
He had talked about the design, but I'd never seen anything in his sketchbooks to match his description. I figured he hadn't had the opportunity to flesh out the image in his mind. It wasn't until I looked through the most recent volume of sketches that I found what I was looking for. The design was incomplete, but it was evident it was the piece he had meant for us to wear. The bones of the art existed, but the absence of color made it two dimensional.
Despite its half-finished state, I made a consultation appointment. Dad had noted an artist at a specific shop on the back of the unfinished piece, and I hoped she could do something with the design.
The appointment was scheduled for later in the evening, so I stopped at home first and changed out of my suit, into some casual clothes. The shop was nicer than I expected; the floors were polished hardwood, plush chairs surrounded a coffee table with magazines and custom tattoo albums. I approached the cash desk, running my finger along the steel edge, and peered through the glass top. Inside the casings were rings and barbells of varying sizes and colors. A burly guy with a thick beard and some serious ink covering his arms sat behind the counter. He didn't look very friendly.
"Hi, I have an appointment with Bella."
He nodded and bellowed over his shoulder, "Bella, your eight o'clock is here."
A girl across the room glanced over from her station and called back; "She can't hear you, Emmett. She's in the back doing a piercing."
Emmett gestured to the waiting area. "You can have a seat. She won't be long."
I did as I was told, sitting in one of the chairs facing the interior of the shop. A few minutes later, a guy came out of a room at the back of the shop looking shell-shocked. A woman followed close behind. She was hidden by his broad frame so I didn't get a good look at her until she approached the cash register, slipping between Emmett and the counter. She was beautiful in an eccentric way. Her hair was long, the color of mahogany laced through with bright streaks of poppy red, falling in thick waves around her face. Her eyes were a rich, cinnamon brown, framed with heavy lashes. Dramatic make-up accentuated her features but didn't overwhelm. A silver ring pierced her nose, and a diamond stud decorated the upper right side of her lip. Her t-shirt showed off an intricate and colorful sleeve on her left arm. She looked to be in her mid-twenties at best. She finished with her current customer, passing him a folder of information before she sent him on his way.
"Edward?" she asked, her gaze moving from the computer screen to me.
"Hi." I rose from the chair, suddenly self-conscious. My dad had an innate charisma that made people gravitate to him. I missed his presence and the way his confidence had always given me the jolt of courage I needed. It was absent now. I second guessed myself, feeling out of place. The jeans and the t-shirt that had seemed reasonable now felt too preppy.
She stepped out from behind the cash, her smile open as she approached me. Even with her heels I had almost a foot on her. I took her proffered hand, hyper aware of how warm and soft it felt in mine.
"Looks like you came prepared." She nodded to the sketch book tucked under my arm.
"Can I have a look?" She motioned for me to have a seat and dropped into the chair across from me.
I nervously passed over the sketch book. Being here made my decision to move forward with this tattoo more real. I ran my damp palms over my thighs as she set the book between us and flipped it open. She scanned several pages before she looked up, her gaze inquisitive.
"These are beautiful. Did you have something specific in mind, though?"
I reached across the table and flipped to the page with the half-complete design. "It's just an outline. I think it would work best in color."
She stared at it a good long time, fingering the edge of the page. "This is great. I can definitely work with this. Have you thought about where you want it?"
Dad and I had talked about that before he passed. We'd thrown around ideas, but we'd never settled on an exact location. At the time, I'd figured we didn't have to make any concrete decisions. Now I wished we had.
"Well, it would probably work as a back piece, but then its hidden most of the time. So maybe it would be better as a half-sleeve, upper arm?"
She looked pleasantly surprised by my suggestion. "With a few alterations, this design would make a great partial-sleeve. I'll need a few days to work on it. Can you come back on Wednesday?"
"Around the same time?"
"That would be perfect."
She made a copy of the sketch and asked if she could keep the book until I returned. My hesitation must have been obvious, because she assured me she would take care of it. I left the shop feeling more at peace than I had in a very long time.
On Wednesday, I rushed home from work and changed into black jeans and an old concert t-shirt. When I showed up early for my appointment, Bella greeted me with the same sincere smile as she had the last time. A gleam of excitement lit up her eyes as she led me to a station at the back of the shop. She pulled out a chair for me and sat down behind the desk.
"So I have a few options for you." She opened a folder and spread out three separate designs, all variations on the same theme, the sketch I'd given her the inspiration.
The first was the entire tree, as it had appeared in the original sketch, but in full color, giving it the dimension it originally lacked. The next two were close-ups of one particular branch; the first done in fall colors, the second in more vibrant tones. We discussed them all, going over the concept and the placement in detail. We talked for well over an hour before settling on option three. Bella thought it would work best as a three-quarter sleeve. Once I made the decision, a wave of calm passed over me, as if my dad were there with me, giving me his approval.
Now that I'd settled on the design, Bella wanted to figure out the exact placement for the tattoo. She led me to one of the rooms at the rear of the shop for privacy.
"I'll need to get to your shoulder." She smiled and gathered up a few things while she waited for me to roll up my sleeve. Or at least I attempted to. Unfortunately, I'd worn the shirt several years ago, before I filled out, so the sleeve didn't roll very well.
"I don't think this is going to work," I muttered, embarrassed.
"You can take your shirt off if it makes it easier," she said, her expression impassive.
I followed her suggestion and I grabbed the hem, yanking it up over my head. She stared at me as I stood in front of the three-way mirror, my upper body reflected from every angle. She had to have seen plenty of half-naked bodies considering her line of work. It wasn't like she was checking me out.
"Maybe we should reconsider a back tatt." Her fingertips brushed back and forth over her lips as she perused my torso.
"I used to row," I said stupidly, as if it mattered.
"It shows." She gave her head a shake and moved closer. "Are you right or left handed?"
"I'm a lefty."
"Then I'm thinking your right arm might be best for the tattoo, unless you have a preference."
Once again, the dull ache in my chest flared. If my dad had been here with me, we would have been able to make these decisions together. While I was glad I was going through with this, it intensified my grief in ways I hadn't expected. "Is there any particular benefit to one over the other?" I asked.
"A sleeve, whether half or full or anywhere in between, can be uncomfortable as it heals. If you do a lot of typing or anything that's repetitive it could be pretty irritating. Especially if the tattoo is on your dominant arm," she paused, giving me time to consider my options. "On the other hand, maybe you'll want another sleeve in the future, so you'd have to endure the pain eventually. It's food for thought, anyway."
I hadn't anticipated wanting another piece after this one, but I couldn't say with absolute certainty I wouldn't. I mulled it over for a couple of minutes. "Let's go with the right are." It seemed like the best choice for now.
"Great, let's get to work." Bella reached into her back pocket and pulled out a black Crayola marker.
She studied my arm, murmuring as she went, checking contours and drawing lines, touching me a lot. It helped keep me from fixating on the absence of my father in this process. As I watched her work, I realized I could see down her shirt, though not a lot. And it wasn't like I was trying to, but she was wearing a button down with the first three open, and I was a man. She had breasts. They were nice. Her cleavage was right there. I was compelled to look, if only for a second or two.
I shifted my attention to the poster on the wall, advertising various genital piercing options. I contemplated getting a Prince Albert. The impending problem in my pants disappeared. The idea of putting a hole in the most sensitive part of my body caused said appendage to remain flaccid in the presence of an attractive woman with nice cleavage. Good to know.
"How long have you been an artist?" I asked, making conversation.
"An artist? Since I could draw. But I've been tattooing for almost five years now. I think I've done somewhere around a hundred pieces, not counting all the single session tattoos," Bella said around the end of the marker clamped between her teeth.
She shrugged and pulled out a measuring tape, recording the circumference of my bicep and then my forearm on a sheet of paper. "It's what I love to do." Once the measurements were double checked, Bella wiped down my arm with a damp cloth, removing most of the marker. She gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Okay, we're all set for now. You can put your shirt back on."
I pulled it over my head. "So, when can we start?"
"The first session will take a few hours since the outline is so detailed. Should I assume you'll need a weekend appointment to manage that?"
I nodded and followed her out of the private room. She checked her schedule, frowning as she twirled her hair around her finger. She flipped through the book twice, double checking dates. "I don't have a Saturday appointment available for another three weeks."
"That far away?" I was eager to get started, and the immediacy of the tattoo got lost in the span of time between the planning and the execution.
"Can you wait that long?"
"If I have to." I felt comfortable with Bella, and though I'd only met her twice, I liked being around her. The fact that she was extraordinarily hot was a bonus. Her credentials were the most important factor, and my dad had recommended her. That seemed doubly important now that he was gone.
"I can call if there's a cancellation between now and then."
I gave her my cell number, and she promised to call if a timeslot opened up. I kept my fingers crossed.
The week passed with no phone call. I hadn't really expected one, but I had hoped. On Friday evening I flopped down on the couch and turned on the TV. I was bagged from the week, and I needed to do something mindless. As the newbie at my company, I ended up with a lot of paperwork passed down from those above me. Combined with the private piano lessons I gave in my off hours, it made for long hours. I should give up teaching piano lessons. It wouldn't ever be a viable career, but I enjoyed playing. In many ways, it kept me connected to my artistic side and my father.
I was half-asleep when my phone rang. I scrambled for it, dropped it on the floor, and banged my head on the coffee table in my rush to pick it up. I rubbed my forehead and barked a groggy, irritated greeting.
"Uhhh—hi, may I please speak with Edward?"
"That's me," I replied, trying to place the female voice.
"Oh, hey, it's Bella. I hope I didn't disturb you."
"Not at all," I lied. "What's up?" I checked the time. It wasn't even ten. I was such a party animal.
"I have a cancellation for tomorrow. I know it's short notice, but I thought I'd give you a call anyway." I could hear paper rustling in the background.
"What time?" Not that it mattered. I would take the appointment.
"I'm free until two in the afternoon. We don't usually open until eleven, but if you could be here by ten, it should give me plenty of time to get the outline done."
"Ten it is."
"Great. I'll pencil you in. Thanks for taking the appointment on such short notice."
"Thanks for calling."
There was a pause. She cleared her throat. "My pleasure, Edward. See you tomorrow."
In spite of my exhaustion, I didn't sleep very well, too wound up to find rest. I dreamt of my father. He wanted to tell me something important, but every time I got close enough to hear him, he would fade away, always out of reach. When I woke, I felt his presence more deeply than I had since his passing. It unnerved me as much as it eased me.
I arrived at the shop a full twenty minutes early. No one was there. I walked down the street and picked up two coffees, pilfering a bag of creamers, milk, and sugar since I had no idea what Bella took in hers. I couldn't even be sure she drank coffee. It was the thought that counted.
When I returned, Bella was inside, standing behind the cash desk. I tried the door, but it was locked. She looked up at the sound and smiled. She crossed the shop, ushered me inside and locked the door again. "Hey, sorry about that, but Emmett doesn't get here until after eleven, so it's easier to keep the shop locked so we're not interrupted."
"Gotcha. Thanks again for the appointment and for opening early for me." I handed her a coffee and the bag of condiments.
"Oh God! You're an angel." She rose up on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on my cheek, then rubbed at the spot with her thumb. It came away with a smear of pink that she wiped on her jeans. "Sorry." She gave me a devilish smile that looked far from apologetic.
She popped the lid and dumped three sugars and two creams into the cup, stirring it with the pencil tucked behind her ear. She took a test sip, emptied in one more packet of sugar, stirred again, sipped again. Satisfied, she replaced the lid. "Liquid heaven."
"If you say so. Looks like you don't even like coffee," I teased as she swept up the empty packets of sugar and creamers and deposited them in the garbage.
"I figure if I put in enough sugar the sweetness will rub off on me. Emmett tells me I'm surly in the morning."
"I'm not sure I'd agree with that."
"You've caught me on one of good days."
She winked and surprised me when she hooked her pinkie finger with mine, leading the way to the private room we'd used the week prior. The space was already set up, tattoo machine and ink arranged on a metal tray beside the chair. Various containers and cloths were stacked close by. She chattered away as she pulled her hair into a ponytail and wheeled a stool over.
"You can lose the shirt," she gestured at my button down. "Then you'll need to stand in front of the mirror so we can transfer the stencil."
I did as Bella asked and stood still while she prepared my arm. Once the art had been transferred onto my skin, she got down to work. There was a strange comfort in the stinging pain as she passed the tattoo machine over my arm. It seemed to echo the pain inside, giving it room to exist where I usually pushed through it, forcing myself to move on even though sometimes it hurt more to do so. Here, I could allow the physical and the emotional aches to merge.
Bella asked me lots of questions while she worked. It helped distract me when I started to feel overwhelmed. She began with the benign—my job, my education, my hobbies—and slowly spiraled inward, getting more personal.
"So let me get this straight," she said, putting down the tattoo machine to wipe away residual ink. "You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, an MBA from Harvard, and you work for a bunch of—what did you call them—pretentious, blowhard panty-sniffers?" She shook her head when I began to interject. "But you teach piano on the side because you don't want to give it up, and you're an artist? How does one person manage so much talent? And what exactly makes someone a panty-sniffer?"
I cringed at the way it made me sound. "Most of the self-serving jerks I work with would fit into the panty-sniffing category. They're a bunch of old perverts. I'm hoping the quality doesn't rub off by proxy. And I'm not an artist."
"Thanks for clearing that up," Bella chuckled. "And based on the design I'm putting on your arm, I'll kindly disagree with your last statement."
"I didn't draw this." I looked at the art taking shape on my arm. "My dad did."
Bella paused and looked up. "Who's your dad?"
"His name was Charlie. He used to teach art at the local college."
Bella put down the tattoo machine. "You're not talking about Charlie Swan, are you?"
"You knew him?"
"He taught me art history in my first year. He was incredible, so forward thinking. He was the reason I started here. He's not teaching anymore?" She looked disturbed by the idea.
I smiled ruefully. That explained where his recommendation came from. I mentally reviewed our conversations about the tattoos and his insistence that we come to this studio in particular. I wondered if this had been his plan from the beginning, his way of formally introducing us to each other. "He passed away in the spring."
"I'm so sorry. He was an amazing teacher. He must have been a great father." Her sympathy was genuine, as was her shock.
"He was. We planned to get tattoos to celebrate my graduation, but he had a heart attack three months before I finished. He'd always been healthy. It was unexpected."
"That's awful." She swiped gently over my arm with the damp cloth, her other hand coming to rest at the base of my wrist. "It sounds like you were close."
She opened the door and I walked right through, sharing the best parts of him with her, telling his story. In return, Bella told me about who he was as a teacher and how he'd impacted the lives of so many students along the way. He'd been an influential man, his charm and personality touching more than just those closest to him. Instead of memorializing him through ink, I commemorated his life and all the parts of him that lived on through me.
I returned two weeks later for the first of three sessions in which we would fill in the outline with color. The inside of my arm hurt like a bitch. Thankfully she stopped occasionally to give me short breaks while she changed colors. During those sessions, Bella talked about her family. I learned about her childhood, where she'd grown up, what kind of music she liked, her favorite food; little things that fleshed out a person and made them who they were. I liked her beyond her eccentric beauty. I liked the person inside.
At the end of the final session, I stood in front of the mirror, lifting my arm over my head so I could inspect the intricate details of the design. "It's amazing. Thank you."
While there was healing in its completion, I felt like I was losing something special. I had grown accustomed to seeing Bella every week. I would stop in once between our bi-weekly sessions so she could check how things were progressing. During these unnecessary visits, I brought coffee and we would chat in one of the private rooms until her next appointment arrived. Before we left the privacy of the tattoo room, she always hugged me. It was like a fix, getting me through until our lengthy sessions wherein we would have the opportunity to talk for hours.
I stared her profile while she dressed the tattoo.
"It's been a pleasure getting to know you, Edward."
After more than two months of constant connection, I didn't want this to be the end. I'd already experienced loss in the truest sense of the word. I didn't want to do it again when I didn't have to. Her sincerity along with my desire to continue seeing her, in whatever capacity possible, made me stupid. In the aftermath, I would replay the moment over and over, fixated on what I had done wrong and how I could have made it right.
I shoved my hands in my pockets. Rocking back on my heels, I summoned my courage. "There's this band playing in a couple of weeks—"
Panic immediately clouded her expression, and she cut me off before I could even finish the sentence. "I can't."
And just like that, the high of finishing the tattoo evaporated. "Right. Of course."
"You don't have to explain. I shouldn't have mentioned it." I didn't even know if she had a boyfriend. I grabbed my jacket and pulled it on, grimacing as it slid over the new ink.
"It's not that I don't want to," she said softly.
"Really, Bella, it's cool. Forget I said anything." I smiled, but it was forced. "We should settle up." I opened the door of the private room and stepped out into the studio, effectively shutting down the conversation.
I paid for the balance of the tattoo, our once easy conversation stilted by my thoughtlessness.
"Did you want to schedule your touch up appointment now?" She asked, trying to catch my gaze.
I refused to meet hers. "I'll call." I was being cold, but I felt like a loser. I wanted to escape my humiliation.
"You should come back in about four weeks, but you can stop in next week and I'll check on the ink, see how it's healing."
"Did you want me to book you in on Saturday, the usual time?"
"Whatever works for you," I replied, trying to be amicable when I felt anything but.
I left with a heavy feeling in my gut. I wished I could talk to my dad, find out what the whole purpose had been if I was just going to end up losing something else in the end.
I called the shop during off hours and left Bella a message cancelling the Saturday check-in, unable to face her. I spent endless hours ruminating on how it could have gone differently. I'd probably read the signs wrong, our connection had been a figment of my imagination, a projection of what I wanted, not what was real.
She called on Sunday and left a message about rescheduling. There were a lot of pauses, a few stops and starts, like she wanted to say something but didn't. I didn't call back, unable to deal with the rejection. My emotions were too skewed. I was angry at my dad for giving me hope when there wasn't any.
The following week I was in the middle of dinner with my mom and my sister when my phone vibrated in my pocket. I sighed and pulled it out, hoping it wasn't work calling me in early again the next day. I intended to send the call to voicemail, but I didn't recognize the number so I excused myself from the table.
"Hi. Hello." The female voice was familiar, but the bad connection made it hard to hear. I moved around, hoping to clear the static. There was a long pause and then, "Edward?"
"Yeah." I waited, trying to decide if I was right about the caller. I wanted to be.
"Hey." I tried not to sound excited. "I didn't recognize the number."
"I'm calling from my cell."
There was another long, awkward pause, and we both started talking at the same time.
"Sorry, go ahead," I prompted with a nervous laugh.
"Um," Bella hesitated and then asked, "How's the ink? You haven't been in yet."
Of course she was calling about the tattoo. It was ridiculous to think otherwise just because she was calling from her personal phone. "It's good. I've been a little busy with work. I was planning to make an appointment." That was a lie. My ego had been bruised when she shot me down; I hadn't recovered from the blow.
"Okay. That's good to hear. I've got time next weekend if you want to drop by. I can schedule you in for an hour."
"I could do that." I was such a sucker. Despite my humiliation, I was willing to come back for more.
"Great! That wasn't the reason I was calling, though," Bella finished softly.
"There's this band playing tomorrow—" she laughed uneasily. When I didn't respond, because I wasn't sure if she was serious, she rushed on. "I should have said yes. I wanted to say yes. It was stupid of me to say no."
"Is this you asking me on a date?"
"It doesn't have to be a date . . ."
"Do you want it to be a date?" I was done tiptoeing around the issue.
"What made you change your mind?"
"I didn't get to see you last week. I missed your visit."
"Ah. I see."
After a long pause, she said, "You still haven't said yes."
I smiled. "I thought it was implied."
Bella showed up at my apartment two minutes late. I double checked for my wallet, grabbed my jacket, and waited impatiently for the elevator to take me to the lobby. The doors opened to reveal a woman who looked just as nervous as I felt. She was wearing a simple grey dress, black tights, a black leather jacket and motorcycle boots.
"You look gorgeous," I told her, because she did.
"So do you." She appraised me and flashed a mischievous grin. "Ready to go?"
I started toward the visitor's parking lot but she motioned in the other direction, pointing at a motorcycle. I shouldn't have been surprised.
She passed me a helmet. "Do you ride?"
I shook my head. "I've never been on a bike before."
"No worries. Just stay close and lean when I lean."
She got on the bike and I straddled the seat, fitting myself around her. I wasn't about to complain about the necessary physical contact, but it made it pretty hard to stifle the already uncontrollable issue below the belt.
"Ready?" she asked.
"Sure thing." I wasn't sure at all, but I wasn't backing out now.
I wrapped my arms around her waist and held on tight as we wove our way through traffic and sped into the city. The trip downtown was disappointingly short. We arrived at the bar early and found a small table in a private corner where we could order drinks and talk uninterrupted. Conversation was easy, as it had been in the tattoo shop, only minus the constant physical contact. She solved the problem when she began tracing the branch decorating my left forearm with her fingertips.
When the band came on we abandoned the table to get closer to the stage. Bella took my hand and led me around the perimeter of the crowd, slipping between bodies until she had a good view of the band. I stood behind her, protecting her from the slightly aggressive masses, not that she needed it. She was all fire and attitude, shouting out the lyrics she knew by heart. Watching her was like observing distilled freedom.
She stayed close, wrapping my arm around her waist and threading her fingers through mine. The curve of her ass rested just below my near constant erection as she swayed to the beat. It brought to mind activities I wanted to engage in when there was more privacy and fewer clothes involved.
Bella spun around, her hand sliding up my chest. Her palm connected with the back of my neck and she gave a gentle tug. I leaned down until her lips were at my ear.
"I can feel that, you know," she shouted, her voice raspy.
"That." Her palm connected with the front of my jeans, right where my hard-on strained against the fly.
I kept my eyes locked on hers, seeing the challenge in them.
I shrugged and lowered my head further until my lips were at her ear. "You're sexy. I react accordingly."
I brushed my lips across her cheek as I straightened, but her fingernails dug into the back of my neck and she turned her face to mine, lips touching. There was no soft preamble to the intensity of the kiss that followed, all teeth and tongues and want. I had no idea how long we kissed like that, but by the time we came up for air, we were much farther away from the stage and the song had changed.
She stared up at me, hands on my chest, both of us breathing heavy. "I've wanted to do that for weeks," she said on a labored exhale.
I grinned. "You don't say."
She pulled me in for another kiss. We didn't pay much attention to the band after that.
When the set ended, the crowd dispersed, many heading to the bar for fresh drinks. Bella ran into a few friends and she introduced me to them, but she was distracted and her eyes kept darting to the exit. After a few minutes of polite conversation, she laced her fingers through mine and told them she had to work in the morning. I tried not to be disappointed. As far as first dates went, this one had been stellar.
We stepped out into the cool night air, the damp heat of the bar dissipating. Bella dropped my hand and pulled her jacket out of her bag, tugging it on. "Sorry about that. I hope you don't mind that we left."
"That's fine," I said, concealing my discontent with a smile. "I get that you have to work tomorrow."
Bella laughed. "I don't start until one. As much as I like my friends, I want you to myself tonight."
"Oh." My disappointment vanished.
We stopped at her bike and she turned, uncertain. "Do you want to go home?"
"Are there other options?" I asked. I didn't want the date to end, especially now that I knew we had left for selfish reasons on her part.
"We could go back to my place, instead."
"Whatever you prefer." I replied, giving the choice back to her.
"Do you have a roommate?"
"No. It's just me."
She smiled and shoved the helmet into my chest. "Your place it is."
Bella slung her leg over the seat and donned her own helmet, checking over her shoulder while I secured mine. The second it was on, she revved the engine and we took off. This time, I appreciated the short trip.
The elevator ride was quiet. I wanted to say something to ease the tension, but I couldn't think of a damn thing that didn't have to do with getting her naked. I wasn't expecting sex. We could have a drink, talk, make out. I planned it out in my head as we ascended, rubbing my thumb over the back of her hand.
The elevator dinged and I led her down the hall, fumbling around in my pocket for the keys. Once inside, I shed my jacket and took Bella's from her, hanging them up.
"Can I get you a drink?" I asked, trying to be polite.
We stared at each other for a few long seconds. More than two months of pent up mutual desire exploded like fireworks. Bella launched herself at me, shoving me against the wall. Her tongue pushed past my lips, searching, the wet warmth a compliment to her fierceness.
I cradled her face in my palms, my touch gentle in contrast to the way she gripped my hair. Dropping one hand to circle her waist, I drew her against me and backed us down the hall. My goal was to reach the couch.
"I want to see your bedroom." She bit my bottom lip, the sting pleasurable.
"Are you sure you don't want a drink?" I teased, sliding my hand under her shirt, hot skin meeting my cold palm.
She sucked in a breath. "Very sure. Maybe later. Right now, I'd rather have you."
We stumbled awkwardly down the hallway, neither one of us willing to stop kissing. We got there eventually, and by the time we arrived, I was already shirtless. Bella dragged me toward the bed, which I'd had the foresight to make this evening before she picked me up. And I'd left the bedside lamp on. Just in case.
She climbed up on the edge, parting her legs so I could stand between them. Some of the ferocity left her then, her fingertips drifting along the waistband of my pants as she looked up at me, expectant. I stroked her cheek and sank down between her thighs. Her dress was the next item of clothing to go.
Beneath the grey cotton, she wore a pale blue satin bra, the edges trimmed with dark blue lace. Pretty, delicate, sensual; the embodiment of her sexuality in the form of lingerie. I leaned in, running my nose along the lace edge, breathing her in. I smoothed my hands up her sides, my thumbs brushing back and forth along the underside of her breasts, close but not touching. A soft sigh left her as I reached behind and unclasped the hooks. The satin came free and I discarded it, my gaze trained on her face.
"Stop teasing and put your mouth on me," she whispered.
I kissed the swell, taking my time to reach the taut nipple. I sucked it into my mouth, swirling with my tongue before I grazed it ever so gently with my teeth. That elicited the response I wanted. She gasped and arched, drawing me closer.
Lifting my head, I found her mouth with mine. She moved backward on the bed until her head hit the pillows, and I settled between her thighs. I forged a trail down her body with my mouth, taking the time to admire the artwork that decorated her ribs, trailing over her hip to disappear under the waistband of her tights. She lifted her hips in silent ascent and I removed them, leaving her panties in place. Bella had other ideas. She discarded the blue satin, leaving her naked and glorious.
The artwork that accentuated her beauty no longer held my attention as I ran my hands from the outside of her calves to her knees. Moving my palms inward, I smoothed along her inner thighs, following the same path with my lips. Holding her gaze, I kissed my way over her soft, supple skin, until I reached the place I wanted to put my mouth. The glint of steel nestled there made me pause. I brushed over it with a knuckle, the barbell sliding with the movement. Bella's sharp inhale evoked my curiosity. Her fingers slid into my hair, gripping gently as I continued to sweep the pad of my thumb over the tiny steel ball, applying the barest amount of pressure. Her fingers tightened and her hips came up off the bed, seeking more than I was giving.
"You're driving me crazy," she groaned as I kissed the juncture of her thigh.
"What's that saying? What goes around . . . ."
I replaced my thumb with my tongue. I didn't stop until she came.
"Come here," she demanded, half-sitting to meet me as I shifted up her body. She kissed me, groaning in frustration as she fought with the button of my jeans. She wrestled with the zipper, and together, we managed to get them off. She palmed my erection, stroking with one hand while she held onto the back of my neck with the other.
"We don't have to—" I began.
"I want you." The emotions she'd kept in check over the past months swimming to the surface. I hadn't misread anything.
I reached blindly for the nightstand drawer, pulled it open and grabbed a foil square, thankful I'd had the foresight to be prepared. I covered her hand with mine, moving it away as I ripped open the packet and rolled the condom on. Spreading her thighs with my hips, I held myself above her. I shifted forward; my erection nestled against the soft, warm heat. We both stilled, time suspended, our labored breaths the only sound in the room. And then I pushed inside.
We stayed close, my chest to hers, Bella's legs wrapped tightly around my waist. Her hands moved over my shoulders and across my back, and she pressed down when she reached my ass, trying to get me to go deeper, harder, faster. When I didn't, she bit my shoulder.
"Why are you such a tease?" She slapped my ass and I pushed up on my arms, laughing.
"You know what they say about payback." I circled my hips, eliciting a low moan from her.
"Payback for what?" She unhooked one of her legs from around my waist and her calf moved up along my ribs, her hands splayed out on my chest.
"For making me think you didn't want this." I hooked my arm under her knee and pressed forward again, giving her what she wanted.
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes fluttered closed as I went deeper and thrust harder but kept up the same slow pace.
The light banter was replaced with serious intensity. "I want to see you," I whispered, brushing my lips over hers.
Her gaze met mine, and in it was both an apology and a longing that echoed my own. She rested her palm against my cheek, her thumb swept along the corner of my mouth. I knew then that this was different, that it was what I had been searching for. The physical act wasn't just about the desire for release, but the desire for the ultimate connection; where body and mind and soul fused and twined, becoming inseparable. We moved with and against each other, seeking pleasure, wanting to heighten each other's. I kissed her when I came.
Afterward, in the peace of unconstrained silence, I lay with her tucked into my side, her head on my chest. She traced the lines of ink she'd put on my arm while I held her, wondering how my father had known.
I understood now this had always been his intention, that the tattoo had been a vehicle for a much larger plan. He had seen something in Bella that would complement me; a partner I could walk through life with. While she could never fill the hole his loss had left behind, the gift of her presence in my life helped to temper the ache. I could create a new space for her in my heart, one that would be hers alone.
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