A/N: Okay, this is going to be longer than originally intended because I actually found a coherent storyline. (MINA. I see that smirk from here, damn you). I hope you enjoy!
Zafrina Ibori was an incredible woman. Bella was trying hard to keep her mask of professionalism up when, really, she was fangirling inside. When Eric had handed her the interview, she'd been so excited she'd jumped into his arms.
The woman was an incredible artist and philanthropist who'd had a diverse and interesting career. At sixty-three, she was being honored with a lifetime achievement award—an honor which she joked about resenting. "Are they under the impression I'm done? That, at sixty-three, I am incapable of producing my most famous work?"
She was easier to interview than Bella expected; friendly and open as they talked over coffee. If it wasn't for the recorder glowing green between them, Bella could have believed she was merely out with a friend.
This, being able to meet people like Zafrina, get to know even a small piece of them, was one of the millions of reasons Bella loved her job.
She sighed, glancing through her notes. "Let me see here. I think we're about done," she said, trying to keep the pang of disappointment out of her voice. She could have talked to Zafrina forever, but the interview had to end sometime.
Zafrina tilted her head, giving Bella a knowing look. "Oh, really? Aren't you forgetting a question?"
Bella shuffled through her notes again, hoping that she hadn't forgotten a recent event. "I'm sure I forgot a lot of questions," she said with a small laugh, hoping she didn't sound too nervous. "I'm sure I could write a whole series of books on your life if I got to ask you every question I have. A single article is almost an injustice."
"Oh, I like you." Zafrina chuckled and fixed her with a soft smile. "You're not going to ask about my lovelife? You don't want to see my tattoos?"
It was, as the current journalistic climate went, a valid question. Zafrina was among the rare artists in the public eye. Beyond that, throughout her life, she'd been linked with a number of high-profile people and celebrities, including one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors at the time. Though that particular relationship had ended almost two decades before, Bella knew for a fact Zafrina still got questions about it.
She pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth, considering her words carefully. Her opinions about celebrity culture and what the public thought they deserved from complete strangers—particularly women—were loud and vehement. She wanted to remain composed and professional. "While I would, of course, welcome any personal anecdotes you want to share, I find those kinds of personal questions invasive and rude. Maybe if I was your good friend, your relationships would be some of my business, but we're not."
Zafrina sat back in her chair, considering Bella for a long moment before she broke out in a grin. "Stunning, isn't it? Our obsession with these tattoos. As an artist, it's my instinct to embrace the beauty of the idea. These tattoos are proof we've loved, and under any circumstance, I think the essence of love is seeing the wonder of another person. Love is the most intensely personal concept—a magical connection with another human being.
"However, our tendency as a society is to make it something crass. Really, what does love mean? Some of us fall in and out of love with the wind. There should be nothing wrong with that, yet those people wear their tattoos like scarlet letters. We, as a society, fall all over ourselves trying to judge the way we love."
Bella nodded enthusiastically. "And it's not just limited to the ever-present tattoo-watch. I'm sure you're aware, I've seen countless articles on the jewelry you wear—the possible significance of certain pieces you wear repeatedly. That's crazy."
Zafrina threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, yes. I'm very aware." She leaned forward over the table, cradling her cup of coffee between her hands. "However, the tattoos take precedence. They're proof positive of love, whatever anyone thinks that means. Do you know, I've had people try to lift my shirt, my skirt, looking for my tattoos?"
Bella shook her head. "That's terrible."
"Yes. Whenever I was with someone new, that was the one question. Do I have their tattoo? As though the tattoo makes my relationship with that person more valid, important, or real. It's my life. I assure you, all my relationships are real."
Zafrina leaned in again, her eyes intent on Bella. "You want the answer to the most asked question I get? Yes, absolutely, I have his tattoo."
Bella's heart skipped a beat in spite of herself. As much as she honestly and truly believed Zafrina's personal life and relationships were none of her business, she was also aware that what the woman had given her was big news. She was talking about her most famous relationship. She'd just given Bella the answer to the question everyone who gave a single damn about celebrities wanted to know, and judging by the mischievous look in her eyes, she knew exactly what she'd done.
She laughed and put her hand over Bella's. "It's okay. I'm telling you, because I want to. Most reporters—they want the dirt, the story that sells. The fact I will always be more known for my relationships than my body of work is something I've grudgingly accepted. Perhaps I'm getting naive in my old age, but I think you're honest in your aims. I think you get it. You will never know me. Behind closed doors, I may be the most horrendous person on the planet. I might berate my husband. I might kick my dog. You would never know.
"What you may admire me for is my work. That's all you know, because that's all you have proof of. I think you understand that, so I don't mind telling you that yes, I have his tattoo. Which means, yes, my love for him was true, despite the fact that, yes, I broke his heart. You will never know what our relationship was, what he was behind closed doors. It's easy for us to imagine these celebrities as people without flaws, but that's not the case. Which isn't to say he is a horrible person. He very much is not. There's a reason I loved him, after all. But that reason, love itself, is not magical. The proof of that love is part of me, written on my skin, and I'm not sorry for it. Nor will I apologize for the fact loving him was not enough to promise a happy life."
"Yes. I understand that, believe me," Bella said. "I grew up with a mother who didn't fall in love that often, but it happened a few times. Still, once, she fell in love with an abusive man. And after that, she knew herself well enough to know she wasn't the type to settle down. Yet, she still fell in love."
"Imagine that. She's still capable of love even though she has no interest in permanence. And I'd be willing to bet plenty of people find something wrong in that."
Bella snorted. "Oh, of course. Though, as it turned out, my mother wasn't the perfect example of someone who could find love without commitment. She's been happily married for a long while now."
"To a person I assume she not only loved, but fit her lifestyle."
Zafrina smiled and nodded. "You know why this is, in my opinion? It is because we get caught up in the magic and mysticism of those tattoos—of love. And what people miss is love is not all you need, it's also not the most important thing you need. At least, not that kind of love; the kind the tattoos represent. The 'in love' kind of love.
"Which isn't to say love ain't grand. Oh, the story of, the glory of love." Zafrina laughed wryly. "It is a beautiful and devastating thing, isn't it? The up and down. The extreme joy, always coupled with the fact these people—these flawed, perfectly imperfect people—have the power to hurt us in soul-wrenching ways. Love is everything that people say it is. A roller coaster. The highest of highs. The lows so horrid that, for hours, or days, or years, you entertain the thought death just might be preferable.
"Darling, who has time for that?" Zafrina laughed again, this time more boisterous. "I love being in love. I do. It's fantastic, but it's also consuming and exhausting. I lose sight of so much else when I'm in love, and I have more important things to do. There's much more I want to accomplish. Would you like to know another terrible secret of mine?"
"If I said no, you'd know I was lying," Bella said with a smirk.
"Ha. Yes. Here's my secret. My husband? The only one of my lovers who I've promised to love, honor, and cherish until love parts us? I don't have his tattoo and he doesn't have mine."
Bella blinked, stunned.
Zafrina laughed. "I know. Difficult to conceive of, isn't it? Oh, I do love him, and he loves me. But it's this steady, quiet love. Friendship and companionship. It's true, I don't get the high, the adrenaline of being in love, but I prefer that. I spread my passion across many things, and I'm no less happy for it. In fact, there is often more peace in my life than there has been when I was madly in love. My marriage is so very happy and warm. Our lives match, and that makes me happier than any one of the tattoos I'll carry to my grave."
For a long, quiet handful of moments, neither woman spoke. Bella sipped her lukewarm coffee, processing Zafrina's words and wisdom. Surely she should have some kind of follow up, but she wasn't as quick on her feet as she normally would have been.
Zafrina patted her hand. "Well, my dear. You have all my secrets now. Don't you have to get back to your office?"
"Oh, yes." Bella cleared her throat, getting her head back in the game. "Listen, I can't tell you what an honor it's been to speak with you. I'm honored that you'd be so open and honest. Don't worry. I'll keep your privacy."
"My dear, you'll do no such thing," Zafrina said, her tone stern but her eyes twinkling. "I gave this interview of my own free will, and I am well aware of every word I've spoken. Use them."
"But...that's your business. Your personal business," Bella said, utterly shocked. "You've never spoken about your personal relationships."
The woman shrugged. "As we've spoken about, no matter what I accomplish, the general public will always be more concerned with whose tattoos I have and what they think that means in terms of how they can judge me. One of the benefits of being my age is that, to use one of my favorite expressions of your generation, I have so very few fucks to give. I'm not ashamed of who I am, who I've loved, who I haven't loved, and the mistakes I've made along the way. We've all made mistakes. We've all caused heartbreak and hurt the people we've loved. Every one of us. I've learned. I've grown. I like the person I am."
Her smile gentled as she looked at Bella. "I'm not unaware of what will happen if you publish what I've told you. You are a very young woman, Bella. And talented. Oh, yes," she said, nodding at the look on Bella's face. "I've read some of your work. I won't talk to reporters unless I've read their work. Eric knew that. I learned a long time ago that talent exists in abundance, though. It's perseverance, skill, and plain luck that actually puts people ahead in their careers.
"So, today is your lucky day. You've said all the right things, and made an old woman believe you're exactly what journalism needs in these days of sensationalism and judgment. You have the talent to tell my story the way I want it told. So, tell it. We need more voices like yours in this industry.
"Best of luck, Bella. May your career be as long and wonderful as mine."
"Well, it's done," Bella said.
Edward, who had been sitting across from her, his feet propped up on her desk as he thumbed through an architecture journal, stood instantly. He went around to her side of the desk. He took her hand, guiding her to her feet, and sat down in her chair. He pulled her back down onto his lap and reached for her mouse, scrolling to the top of the article.
As he read, Bella rested her head on his shoulder, breathing in the smell of him. She was, as always, nervous. Of course, she wanted him to enjoy her article, and there was always that question—wondering if she'd gotten it right. But beyond that, she also loved this part.
Whenever she had a deadline she had to meet that kept her in the office late, Edward tended to drift over. He never bothered her, sitting across from her and doing his own thing until she finished. Bella always found his presence soothing, but it was this part she loved.
She loved the way he was always eager to be the first person to read her work. She loved coming down from the adrenaline of writing by lounging in his arms like this. She loved how he kept one hand on the mouse while the other strummed her back. She loved that she could feel the vibration of his grunts and chuckles as he read.
Bella loved this man with an intensity that rocked her every time.
"This is great, Bella," Edward said when he was done. He kissed her forehead. "Really, honestly stupendous. I didn't know much about Zafrina going into this article, but you've made her seem so fascinating."
"She is fascinating," Bella said. "Easily one of the top twenty women of all time that I look up to."
"Your passion shows through." His fingers curled in her hair as he spoke, and his smile was adoring when he looked at her. "You have a gift, love. The way you make me see the essence of a person or of a situation—I love that about your work."
Warmth spread through Bella, and she tilted her head up, inviting his kiss. He obliged, cupping her cheek as he kissed her soft and slow. "I'm so proud of you," he said, the words rumbling against his lips. "This is going to be a great thing."
"Yeah," Bella said, ducking her head and looking away.
Bella grimaced. "I know this was what Zafrina wanted, but I hate the fact this might just make my name." She pressed her lips together, fighting dissatisfaction. "Not all the other things in the article. Not her art—the way she's able to capture the souls of people and cities. Not her work—what she's done for people in need. No one will care about all that. I'm going to be the reporter who got Zafrina Ibori to open up about her tattoos."
"Hmm." Edward ran the tip of his nose along her cheekbone. "I imagine it's as frustrating as Zafrina feels. What she said about the fact she will always be more well known for breaking a famous actor's heart than she will be for what she gave to the world. Her art. Her charity." He pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth. "Yet, her work is obviously appreciated. She's getting this award. There are plenty of people like you who appreciate the good she's done, the beauty she's brought. Your article will help others find her, too. And, more importantly to me, it will help people find you.
"So, maybe you will be most known for being that reporter who got Zafrina to spill a decades old secret. What matters is the people who will see more. The ones who will remember everything else you said about Zafrina. The ones who will be as impressed as I am at the way you bring a person to life. Take the chance, Bella. You deserve it, whether you got it how you expected or not."
Bella smiled and looped her arms around his neck. "You really think it's a good article?"
"One of your best. Tied for first place with that story you did about the guy who got stuck in the Easter bunny suit."
She giggled and smacked his chest. He caught her hand and kissed her.
"Now come on," he said, his voice gone low and gravelly. "Send the damn thing to your editor so I can get you out of here. I want to fuck you before you decide a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist shouldn't be seen with the likes of me."
"You're ridiculous," she said, getting to her feet.
He stood, wrapping an arm around her waist. "What does that make you for falling in love with me?"
She sighed. "A nincompoop," she quipped, leaning over to send the article and shut down her computer.
In the early hours of the morning, well after Edward had fallen asleep, one arm thrown haphazardly around her bare midriff, Bella lay awake. She couldn't stop thinking about everything Zafrina had said about love—the in-love kind of love. The stuff tattoos were made of.
Consuming, Zafrina had said. I lose sight of so much else when I'm in love, and I have more important things to do.
Bella looked over at Edward. She ran her fingers through his hair, filled as she always was with warmth, tenderness, and passion. Consumed with love. Good god, she understood Zafrina's sentiment. So much of her life was wrapped up in this beautiful man.
Given how much of her passion, her desires and wants, lay elsewhere, Bella couldn't help but worry. After all, the women she admired most—Zafrina and Edward's ex-wife Tanya among them—tended to put love second. What did that say about her?
What did that say about her future with this wonderful man?
A/N: How we doing out there, kids?
Don't worry too much. This isn't an angst story.