A/N: Here's my entry for TFN's Inked Contest which won 1st Place Public Vote. Thank you to everyone who voted for Say Yes and for taking the time to read and review all the entries. Thank you to TFN and their contest team for hosting another great contest.
I can't ever thank them both enough, but special thanks to purplec305 for pre-reading and Midnight Cougar for beta-ing. Your suggestions and support keep me going. Thank you. xx
My banner for this story is the first drawing of Nova that Edward does for Bella, but I'll be posting photos of the other tattoos mentioned in my Facebook group, Kay Richard's Bonfire. You'll be able to find them in the Say Yes album and everyone is welcome to join.
I can't post photos of Edward's pubic piercing, because I'm one of those repeat offenders who has had time to carve my name into one of the walls of Facebook's jail since I've been in there repeatedly. But if you are a savvy internet searcher, you can look for Lenny Kravitz's (clears throat) nude pubic piercing photos and you'll know his was the inspiration for Edward's piercing.
For those who are looking for more of Say Yes, I'm making no promises at this point. I'm busy trying to completely write my Babies At the Border Compilation story, For One Night Only, and many of you know I'm focused on editing and posting Behind Closed Doors. How I found time to write this story and Magic Mac LXXXV is beyond me, but here they are. Maybe when I emerge from hibernation this winter, I'll have more of this story, but for now, this is all I've got. I hope you enjoy it, if you didn't get a chance to read it during the contest.
DISCLAIMER: Twilight and its inclusive material is copyright to Stephenie Meyer. Original creation, including but not limited to plot and characters, is copyright to the respective authors of each story. No copyright infringement is intended.
… 9… 10… 11…
I count out another set of twelve, blowing out a labored breath each time as I push the weighted bar toward the ceiling while listening to Emmett's attempt at matchmaking.
"What about Vic at the front desk?" Before I can respond, he holds up his hand to stop my protest. "I know she's more muscular than your typical woman and powers down protein shakes like a fraternity brother on a two for one night. But I see the way she watches you work out. There's definitely something there—an attraction."
"No." I set the bar back on the stand, wiping away the sweat trickling down my arms. "And I think she's going by Victor now—not my type."
Emmett's brows furrow as he follows me to the other side of the gym. "Victor?"
"Yeah." I take my place below the pull-up bar, reaching up and focusing on a set of twelve.
"Okay, scratch that. What about Kate's sister, Tanya? What's going on between the two of you? She stops by the shop to visit and no one misses her attempts at snagging your attention." Emmett sticks out his chest, pushing away his non-existent long hair and batting his eyelashes at me. "Edward…" He adds puckered lips to his breathy voice. "Would you be a dear and come by my place to help me hang a mirror… above my bed?"
I drop to my feet, shaking out my arms. "You idiot. I only fell for that once."
"Was she any good?" He wraps a towel around his shoulders.
I shrug, not one to kiss and tell. "I was curious about the sex swing she mentioned, but when I figured out she was a clinger, I knew not to go there again. Now, I can't shake her."
"That woman wouldn't give up on you, if she saw your wrinkled, senior citizen ass buck naked and mounting your wife of fifty years in the middle of the shop. She would stand there with her saggy tits watching and calling out, 'I'm next.'"
I shudder at the thought of Tanya carrying a torch for that long, but the picture he paints makes me cringe. "Please, stop. That's a horrible image."
"What? Old people have sex, and I have no plans of stopping. You shouldn't either." Emmett looks around the weight room. "What about the girl over by the mirror with the free weights?"
I'm about to turn my head when he lowers his voice. "Don't look."
"How am I supposed to know who you're talking about when you won't let me look?"
"You're about as subtle as an anvil to the head. You have no game."
"I have game," I defend, glancing back toward the mirror where she's standing. "And for the record, she looks too young."
"You always think they're too young."
"That's because I can't deal with their mind games and nonsense when they focus on the most superficial things."
"You're thirty-two, Ed. Are you planning to live alone the rest of your life? Because you have no prospects and it seems like you've given up on dating."
"I like my life. Maybe I haven't met the right woman yet."
"Your life? You have no life. You work out with me. You ride your bike alone on your days off, and you work at the shop—again—with me. While I'm flattered that you can tolerate my company for hours on end, you need more in your life."
"You know I have a cat and sometimes I ride with Garrett. I'm not always alone like you claim."
"That cat chose you." He folds his arms across his chest. "And you're not exactly expanding your circle of friends with Kate's husband, Garrett. He's as much of a loner as you are. Let's talk about the reality of your job. Your clients—mostly women—aren't interested in tattoos. They are all trying to make inroads with you."
"That's not what they say."
"They're lying. If you said yes, any of them would be more than willing to warm your bed or anything else you desired. I've offered my artistic services multiple times, only to be brushed off because they would rather wait for your next available appointment."
"You're just jealous they think I'm the better artist," I taunt, but we both know that isn't true.
"Says the man who comes to me for adding to his own collection of tats."
"You can't blame me. I like your style."
"And I'm proud to have you as a fan, but Ed, you really need to think about where you want to be in the next five years or even ten. The shop's doing good and providing us both with a steady income. We can even support having Kate as a part-time piercer, but you've been on wash, rinse, and repeat these past few years. I see you going through the motions and I want you to be happy."
I'm confused by his sudden interest in my personal happiness, but a new realization takes shape. "This is all because you're dating someone new, isn't it?"
He looks like he's about to burst with excitement now that I've figured it out. "She's so fucking hot, Ed—a lawyer with long blonde hair and legs for days. So smart—probably smarter than you."
Emmett drones on and on as I tune out, cringing at his assessment, because for years I've tried shaking the stigma associated with being "the smart guy."
I graduated from college summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics. My first real job was working as a research physicist for an underground facility in South Dakota, and while I enjoyed probing the depths of our planet, it was the working conditions that made me realize I'm claustrophobic.
I was tucked away far below the surface in a maze of labs and offices when I began to burn out. I knew there had to be more in life than floating from one project to the next.
My co-workers and I would lose track of time working long days and every weekend, never leaving the facility and sleeping on cots in the lab as I sank deeper and deeper into depression.
I hated everything about our nonstop grind, and I needed to make a change or I would be stuck in a dead-end job, attempting to churn out solutions for the world's never-ending, unanswered questions.
I returned to college for my master's degree, which would at least get me back to the Earth's surface, but unfortunately, that plan didn't work out either. It was a struggle to be constantly at odds with my professors, who only wanted me to prioritize their projects over my own studies. I was restless and bored, finding my career path unfulfilling and looking for another way out.
For as long as I could remember, I had been the dutiful son and student doing what was expected of me at every turn, until one night everything changed. I was returning from a visit to my parents' new home in Victoria, and after arriving on the ferry in Port Angeles, I stopped for a drink at a local bar.
The bartender was a large, buff guy whose arms were covered in the most amazing artwork I had ever seen. His three-dimensional sleeves were bright and colorful with comic book characters coming to life over every distinctive curve.
After introductions were made, the conversation between us flowed easily. Emmett was friendly to everyone as he poured beers and mixed cocktails while sharing his struggles with starting his own tattoo business. He knew what he needed to do, but lacked the funds to leave his job at the bar and get things started.
I had never considered getting a tattoo, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. As I listened to his story, I knew my small amount of savings could be put to good use, and by the end of the night, I made a deal with Emmett to invest as partners, if he would teach me everything he knew about the business.
For the first time in years, I was excited about something. The thought of turning the doodling nonsense from the margins of my physics notebooks over the years into my own designs and artwork had me itching to get started.
I returned to Seattle to pack up my apartment and moved to Port Angeles, sleeping on Emmett's couch until we found the perfect location for our new business.
I owe so much to Emmett as he's taken on the role of the brother I never had. When we met, he said solving my issues were easy, guiding me through a plan to shed my "nerdy smart guy" uniform, as he called it.
I let my hair grow to a more stylish length and started keeping the occasional scruff, leaving behind the freshly shaved baby face of my youth. I donated my closet full of crisp, button-down shirts and perfectly pressed khakis, for a new daily uniform of soft, cotton tees, and gently worn jeans.
I sold the reliable "mom car" my parents gave me as a college graduation present and bought a motorcycle, much to their displeasure. But I didn't care, as I felt more at ease and content for the first time in my life, making my own decisions, and Emmett was there every step of the way.
To this day, my parents still complain over me dropping out of my master's degree program to draw on people for a living. According to them, I'm wasting my intellectual potential, but I'm happy where I am, with no desire to make any changes.
However, Emmett has a point about one thing—I would like to meet someone.
"So, what do you think?"
"Think?" I wonder; confused at what I've missed.
Emmett huffs. "Aren't you listening?"
"Not closely. I'm talking about our new neighbors—where the old deli used to be. The new owners are converting it into a bakery and Rose is friends with them. She said they plan to stop by the shop later tonight, so we'll have time to meet. One is almost finished with her divorce. I know the timing isn't ideal, but maybe you'll hit it off."
He rolls his eyes, walking backward toward the locker room. "Mark my words, Ed. Love will find you when you least expect it."
"Thank you for your pearls of wisdom, but I'm not holding my breath. Sex is easier. Maybe I should give Tanya another chance. She's not that bad, right?"
Emmett stares as if I've grown a second head. "Desperation doesn't look good on you. Trust me. I will find you the right woman."
I shake my head, discouraged—I haven't found her by now. "Promises, promises."
After our workout at the gym, Emmett and I part ways. I wave off his offer for a ride and do a light jog to cool down before arriving at my apartment above our shop. On my way home, I slow near the old deli and notice the new sign workers are busy installing: Sweet Bee's Bakery.
I hadn't realized it before but the exterior and trim work of the building was recently repainted with a new color scheme, combining warm shades of creams and browns with black accents.
The windows are covered with paper, but a quick glance through the open front door reveals freshly painted blue walls and a busy crew wielding hammers and saws, while yelling over the blaring music coming from inside the shop.
There are two brunettes directing the crew to immediate fixes when a large diesel truck barrels down the street and circles around to the back of the building.
"Truck's here!" someone shouts. "We need someone to go direct Jake where to park so we can unload quickly."
"On it!" one brunette yells, disappearing toward the back of the shop.
"Can we get another fan in here?" the other woman asks, catching my eye and giving me a small wave. She cups her hand near her mouth. "We'll be open in two weeks."
I'm dazed for a moment by her sweet grin, but there's no denying her ruffled appearance. Wayward strands of dark brown hair escape her ponytail while others are matted against her sweaty forehead. She's a natural beauty without makeup as crinkles form at the corners of her dark eyes. Her splattered white T-shirt and blue jeans are a palette of colors used to paint the shop.
I offer my thumbs up as I look over the organized chaos. The carpenter securing trim pieces draws away her attention, while an electrician points toward the kitchen with new questions. I'm almost run over as the men out front finish securing the new sign, so I walk the short distance home.
At the back of my apartment, there's a small balcony overlooking the parking lot behind our building. After a quick shower, and with three hours before we open the shop, I take up residence in a chair with my coffee and Lee Smolin's new book: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution while watching our new neighbors unload appliances.
"Meow." Nova joins me outside, jumping on the balcony railing for a better view.
I reach up rubbing behind her gray ears.
"Hey, Nova. How are you doing, my sweet girl? We're getting new neighbors. Uncle Em says they may come by the shop later tonight."
She purrs at my loving touch as we watch the men struggle to unload a heavy piece of equipment. Once I pull away, returning my attention to my book, it doesn't take long for my gray and white tabby to lose interest and focus on a bird in a nearby tree.
After spending an hour outside soaking up the brief afternoon sun without seeing another glimpse of the brunette from earlier, I return inside to eat and get ready for work.
With my reheated Chinese food and Nova perched at the top of her cat tree, I plop down on the couch and watch an old episode of Naked Science's "Who Built Stonehenge?" on the National Geographic Channel. I easily get lost in the theories, but have time to watch a portion of the next episode "Killer Asteroids" before work. Setting my empty plate aside, I open a nearby sketchbook warming up with a few doodles.
Our night is busy as we juggle our scheduled appointments with a few curious walk-ins who look through our books and schedule time with us for later in the week.
I'm resupplying my station after three hours of work on a robotic full arm tattoo when I hear the ding of the front door opening and the distinctive sounds of giggling.
"Emmy!" A blonde raises her hands above her head in victory. "We found you."
Emmett lights up as four women walk farther into the shop, and he pauses working on a customer's leg tattoo. "Let's take a break, Jasper."
"Sure thing." Jasper grabs his water bottle while looking over our new arrivals appreciatively.
"Hey, Babe." Emmett stands, sharing a brief kiss as she wraps her arm around his shoulders.
"I want you to meet my girls. Girls, this is Emmy. Emmy, these are my girls."
"Em or Emmett is fine," he clarifies, wrapping one arm around her waist while he offers his hand to the others.
"I think you've got the fine part right. Hi, I'm Alice." She smiles, grasping his hand. "Wow, you weren't kidding about his dimples, Rose. Those are dangerous. How do you ever get out of bed when he sleeps over?"
He winks. "Nice to meet you."
"Exactly." Rose plants another kiss on his cheek.
Alice finishes introductions, pointing to the brunette next to her. "This is Angela. She's one of your new neighbors, and so is the Cat Lady by the door. Bella, leave the cat alone and come say hello."
"But she's so sweet, and it's been years since I had a pet. What's your cat's name, Emmett?"
I recognize the woman as the one I saw in the bakery earlier today and watch as she holds my cat against her chest. She strokes Nova's head, causing her to nuzzle under Bella's neck in a display of mutual affection. I wonder if she's the one Emmett was talking about who is in the middle of a divorce.
"It's Ed's cat," Emmett supplies, jarring me from my thoughts when I'm at a loss for words.
At the mention of my name, all eyes shift to where I'm frozen in place as I watch the woman walk closer.
"You're Ed?" she asks.
"Yeah, Edward Cullen." I nod toward the smiling group. "Hey."
"I'm Bella Swan. I'm the Bee in Sweet Bee's Bakery." She holds out her hand. "Nice to meet you. Sorry I couldn't introduce myself earlier, but we were on a time crunch with several of our contractors, and I didn't realize we were neighbors."
Her hand slides comfortably into mine, and I let go reluctantly as not to make things any more awkward than my inability to speak in complete sentences around her.
"And what's your cat's name?" Her dark eyes lock with mine, waiting for an answer.
My throat feels dry, and I struggle to respond. There's a nervous flutter in my chest and I release a deep breath. "Uh… Nova."
Her forehead wrinkles in confusion. "Nova? What kind of name is that?"
"A show. A television show." I run my fingers through my hair nervously. "She's named after a show about science and stuff."
"Like Nova on public television?"
"Yeah." I sigh once she understands what I'm trying to say.
Nova basks in Bella's loving attention, and I'm struggling to contain my own seed of jealousy that's expanding by the minute.
"You should call her SuperNova and give her a cape," she suggests.
The cat responds purring loudly in a way she usually only does for me.
"See, she likes that idea." Bella grins at Nova's approval.
"Would you like to sit?" I wave my hand toward the chair at my station.
"Oh, no. I'm not into tattoos and way too old. And did I mention I hate pain? Well… I hate pain." Her eyes scan the full sleeves on my arms, backpedaling instantly. "But it's a good look on you. Yours are attractive. Yeah… and good. No, great. Jeez. I hope I didn't offend you. This is what you do for a living. Oh, God, I suck. I'm making a horrible first impression. Next thing I know you'll be telling people my cakes are dry and cookies could double as hockey pucks."
"No offence taken." I shake off my nerves at her nervous rambling and relax slightly as my thoughts shift to more professional ones. "How about a temporary tattoo? No charge."
"Uh… are you sure? We're just stopping by to say hello and we're going to a bar down the street to catch some live music tonight."
Feeling more at ease with the possibility of drawing on Bella, I offer a reassuring smile as my nervousness fades away. "My last appointment cancelled this evening and I'm handling walk-ins until closing while Emmett works on Jasper. How about a small one? I know what would be perfect and it won't take long. I'll freehand it."
She turns toward her friends, but doesn't interrupt when she sees they're busy visiting with Emmett and Jasper. "I suppose, if you're quick."
"Only at this." I wink, feeling more comfortable interacting with her by the minute, as my confidence returns. "Please, have a seat."
While she settles into my chair with Nova on her lap, I grab a variety of fine-tip markers and sit on my rolling stool.
"How about on your left wrist?" I suggest. I'm curious about her marital status and want to see if she's wearing a wedding ring.
"That seems harmless enough." She holds out her wrist, flips it over, and sets it on the armrest.
Not a single ring in sight on her left hand, and I glance at her right finding none there either.
"So, you're out for a night with your friends. Your husband doesn't mind?" I ask, downplaying my interest in her answer while I adjust the lamp and put on my glasses, magnifying the delicate work area.
She groans. "Husband—ugh. It's complicated. We're divorcing, but I'm separated and dating, while he's separated and fucking."
I raise my eyebrows at her explanation. "How long have you been married?"
"How old is my daughter?" she snaps, but regrets her words instantly. "I'm sorry. Twenty-two years. The ending of my marriage is... I put a lot of years into holding it together, only to have it fall apart."
"I'm a good listener." I grasp her arm gently.
"I'll keep that in mind. You're probably better than my therapist and a lot cheaper." She laughs and leans over, watching as I sketch the outline. "Wow, this seems very official."
I grin as her eyes follow my marker. "No needles or permanent ink. It's just some harmless fun."
She nods her head to the beat of the music playing softly. "I like this song."
I pause, listening closely. I didn't select our music this evening. Emmett chose a country music channel at Jasper's prompting.
"Is that the Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood one?" I wonder.
"Yeah, Somethin' Bad. I have a lot in common with their songs these days." Bella chuckles. "Maybe I need a pool boy like in Miranda's Little Red Wagon music video—I guess I need a pool first."
We share easy conversation about their evening so far, and I chuckle at her retelling of the hard time Rose gave their server at dinner when she sent her steak back for a third time.
I ask about the bakery and find out it's part of her new life and starting over in Port Angeles—a concept I know well. Angela is her long-time best friend and now business partner in their new venture.
Bella used to teach British Literature and freshman English at Forks High School with fellow social studies teacher, Alice. But she quit her job when she walked in on her husband, the school's principal, screwing his much younger secretary during lunch hour.
Rose is representing her as they navigate her nasty divorce together. According to Bella, they have been stuck for a while trying to settle on alimony payments and dividing their assets fairly while waiting for their home in Forks to sell.
After about ten minutes of using different colors and light shading, her wrist is home to a very sweet looking cat tattoo with Nova's name underneath. I add some tiny stars and planets for a finishing touch.
"All done." I smile. I've enjoyed getting to know her for this brief visit.
She looks down at her wrist and laughs. "Wow, this is purr-fect. Thank you."
I remove my glasses and set the markers back on the cabinet after turning off my light. "My pleasure. You let me know when you want to make it permanent."
"Always the salesman, huh?" Her grin widens. "Okay, I can see why people say these things are addictive. It's adorable."
My heart flutters with happiness at her approval. "I'm glad you like it. People get tattoos for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they pay tribute to a lost loved one or want to express their creativity. It can also be a fun and spontaneous way of doing something small like yours or a unifying of friends and family when they all get the same one."
"Or when you lose a bet," Emmett adds, overhearing our conversation.
"That was your crazy idea, and I beg of you, don't show them."
"Why? Rose has already seen it and it didn't send her running for the hills."
Rose pokes his chest. "Is he talking about your nipple tattoo?"
I lower my voice. "Bella, cover your eyes or you will be scarred for life."
"I'm a big girl. I can take it."
"Don't say I didn't warn you."
Everyone watches as Emmett removes his T-shirt, revealing his only chest tattoo. "Boom, how about that? Have you ever seen one of these before?"
"Oh my goodness. Is that…?" Alice stares in shock.
"A slice of pizza, yes." Emmett grins proudly.
"I get that part, but one pepperoni…" She reaches out barely touching the area in question.
"Is my nipple," he boasts.
I shake my head. "Emmett thinks this is the best nipple tattoo to exist and forced me to do it."
"Forced you." He scoffs. "That's bullshit. And, of course, it's the best. I designed it. I love pizza, as much as Jasper loves ketchup. Did you see what I'm adding to his leg?"
Jasper twists his calf until they can see the replica of a full-sized bottle of ketchup.
"What in the hell?" Angela leans in to take a closer look.
"So, Edward lost the bet?" Bella wonders.
"Hilarious, Bella. No, Edward did not lose the bet."
"You could have fooled me." She winks with a sneaky grin.
I explain. "It was part of one of his failed business ideas to partner with a pizza joint. I'm just glad it's not on me."
"I was trying to get us free pizza and free advertising too." Emmett huffs.
Alice squints at the lettering. "Does that say Mario's? Like someone's prison bitch?"
"I'm nobody's prison bitch," he defends.
"I bet Rose has an opinion on that." Alice giggles.
"When have I not had an opinion—ever?" Rose dissolves into laughter, high-fiving Alice.
"True," Alice agrees.
"Mario's Pizza by the Slice." I wave a hand at Emmett's chest. "Those were the early days of The Tat Cat."
"Who came up with the name for your shop?" Angela wonders.
"Emmett. When we were considering this space, Nova was a tiny kitten and sort of came with the place. She showed up at our doorstep and her fur markings looked like tattoos. We thought it was a good sign."
"She's a badass cat with her own sleeves. Everybody loves her, but she only allows a select few to be her sleeping pillow." He nods toward Bella, pulling his T-shirt back over his head.
"Well, I'm honored and she's gorgeous." Bella grins while petting Nova who's curled in a ball and asleep on her lap. "I wish I could take her home. She's so sweet."
"Maybe you can come back for a visit," I hint, hoping to see her again.
"Maybe so. You should stop by the bakery and I can introduce you to my daughter, Vanessa. She graduated from college recently and is helping us by working the counter this summer until we can hire additional workers. Maybe the two of you would hit it off."
I slump a little at the suggestion—her short visit to our shop this evening has added to my curiosity about Bella, not her daughter. She said she was dating, but I'm disappointed she wouldn't consider me as an option.
There's always the possibility that I'm not her type and the tattoos are a turn off. But I thought that once I got my nerves under control, our conversation was effortless. I understand she's still dealing with her soon-to-be ex-husband, but my worry is that it's the age difference keeping her from giving me a chance.
"We're doing a soft opening in two weeks to get into the flow of things, then we will do an official grand opening not long after that. I'm positive you and Vanessa will have plenty in common."
Only her mother, if I can help it, but concede to her wishes. If anything, I can learn more about Bella through her daughter. "Sure, I'll stop by and introduce myself."
She brightens at my answer. "Great."
"All right, everyone. We better get going if we're going to catch the band. I think they go on stage at ten. It was nice to meet you Emmett—and Edward." Alice waves, moving toward the door as all but Rose prepare to follow her.
I smile. "You, too. Thanks for stopping by."
"Come on, Rose. Give your man a kiss goodbye and let's go," Angela prompts.
"See you later, Sweet Nova." Nova groans when Bella stands and leaves her sitting on my chair. "And thank you for my temporary tattoo, Edward. How long do you think it will last?"
"A few days. I hope I'll see you again for another soon."
"Tell me, Edward. What are your intentions with my mother?"
I choke on the bite of my burger I'm swallowing as my lunch date with Vanessa takes an unexpected turn. I grab a napkin, covering my mouth until I can clear my throat to speak.
"What do you mean?"
Her blue eyes watch me skeptically. "Oh, please. I'm not dumb, Edward. Mom hasn't stopped talking about you or that cat of yours since visiting your shop. I saw the cat you drew on her wrist. She sent me a photo after you did it and asked what I thought about tattoos."
"Uh…" I fight to keep the overwhelming smile from taking over my face, as I'm stuck on the juicy little tidbit of how Bella has been talking about me nonstop.
"Yeah. That's all you. Mom has never wanted nor mentioned tattoos ever, and now she has a newfound interest? I'm not buying it."
"People get tattoos all the time."
"Oh, I know, but not my mother. My father would never have allowed her to consider it, let alone her getting one."
Her confusing words leave me wondering, what kind of man would be so controlling of his wife? "That's too bad."
"At least we can agree on that, but she's been under a great deal of scrutiny with the divorce recently. Port Angeles is breathing new life into her and she's making a lot of changes that she would have never considered in the past."
"I think that's understandable."
"It is, but she's also been fussing over our meeting for the past week, ever since I told her we made plans." She waves her hand between us. "I think it's obvious neither one of us is feeling this date, which means you only agreed to appease her. Am I wrong?"
I shift in my seat as I consider her question of my interest. Vanessa and Bella could almost pass as sisters with the only exceptions being their eye color and personalities. Bella is warm and giving with a great sense of humor, while Vanessa is reserved to a point and more than a little intimidating when she speaks her mind. That is why this unexpected conversation at her urging is pushing me to evaluate my budding relationship with Bella and my hopes to move forward.
I gather my thoughts, staring back at Vanessa's unflinching gaze. I want her to understand the sincerity of my intentions. "No. You're not wrong. I like your mother."
"That's what I thought. Look, my father did her dirty and who knows for how long. But I know her and she will forgive him. Maybe not right now because she's still pissed, but she will because he's my father. She'll do that for me as she has her whole life. Did you know she dropped out of college and married a man she didn't love when she found out she was to be a mother?"
I shake my head as I contemplate her words. But nothing about Bella's sacrifice surprises me, as I've gotten to know her through texts and brief conversations since our first meeting.
"They tried to do the right thing or what my father's side of our family told them was the expected thing to do. Grandpa Charlie is a different story. He was against their marriage from the beginning, always saying not to make another mistake by trying to fix the first one, but he's been supportive through the years for my sake."
"Does your mother still have feelings for your father?"
"Not the ones you're thinking. She has no interest in reconciliation other than being able to be in the same room with him and not wanting to wring his neck. But I'll be honest with you; she's been dating and putting herself out there. These men she's seeing; I know their type. They're into her or at least getting her into bed, which is why she hasn't been on many second dates. I hope, Edward… you'll be different."
"If you have reservations about the age difference between us—"
"Have I mentioned your age once since we met? It's not about that. I know you're younger than she is, and that will be something for the two of you to address. I'm protective of her, but I also want her to be happy. She deserves it. I wouldn't care if you were twenty years younger or older as long as her happiness is your priority. Mom has cried enough tears over my father and losing her marriage. Be the reason for her smile every day and we won't have a problem."
"I'll do my best."
"What was your college major?"
"Counseling psychology. I'm considering getting my master's degree in social work, but I'll look for a job when I get back from Europe. I'm taking a year off and leaving after this summer."
"Well, that explains a lot. Your mother will miss you, I'm sure."
"I'll miss her too, but I don't mind hanging around for a few months to help her get everything going. She's been there for me at every turn. My departure would be easier if I knew the right people or person was looking out for her while I'm gone." She raises her eyebrow challengingly.
I nod. I would like to be that person, but who knows if Bella will let me in to find out. Her walls are high, and I haven't figured out how to scale them yet.
I look over our abandoned lunch. "Are we finished here?"
"I think so. I've got a real date this evening, and don't worry, I'll tell Mom that you would be a great friend, but not my type. I'm sure she will be disappointed, since she's trying to figure out how to keep me here, but it should clear the way for you to win her over."
I don't tell Vanessa, but I plan to do just that.
"So, what do you think?" Bella's eyes twinkle in the early evening light, locking the front door behind us on one of my nights off from work, as she begins my personal tour of their renovations.
I finally take my eyes off her and let them wander around the newly remodeled shop. There are no signs of the grungy former deli, which lived in this space for years. "It's amazing. I guess the days of ordering a pastrami on rye are long gone."
"Maybe the rye will live on, but you'd have to buy the whole loaf. Angela loves baking bread. It's her thing, and she claims it's a stress reliever. I'm more into sweets. You know—cookies and cakes."
"It all sounds delicious."
"Good. I have some items for you to taste, or maybe, share with your customers. I've been dropping off samples and meeting our other neighbors. I'm hoping we'll stay busy with custom orders besides plenty of foot traffic."
"We can do that. We're always happy to help a fellow business owner." I smile, turning around to look out the front windows. "Are you considering some small tables and chairs outside?"
"No, I haven't, but that would be an excellent idea. I've been focused on getting the inside clean and operational." She waves toward the ceiling. "Angela says the chandeliers are too much, but it isn't like they're stuffy. I found them in a vintage shop and love the warm, inviting light they give the display room."
"They look perfect and the floors are incredible. I love the black and white tile. It draws your eye into the space."
"Me too, but I think the glass cases will be the death of me. I want them to remain smudge free at all times, and it is almost an impossible task without opening yet." She slides her hand in mine unexpectedly, pulling me past the front display areas. "Come on, I want to show you the kitchen."
"Your customers will be excited to purchase the mouthwatering creations you'll have on display and you should consider smudges as the best compliments." I give her hand a gentle squeeze and do not intend to let go as we walk through the doorway to the kitchen.
"I hope that's true." She shares her excitement, pointing out the biggest mixer I've ever seen. "That one is a dough mixer, but we have smaller, portable ones too."
A wood top worktable doubles as a center island, and my eyes glaze over when she shares the differences in ovens. She opens the stone deck oven they will use for baking artisan breads and waves toward the convection ovens for cakes and cookies.
"I'm losing you, aren't I?"
Her excitement is contagious, but I have trouble taking my eyes off her and focusing on the kitchen. "No, this is awesome." I look over the tall racks filled with fresh baked goods, grabbing a cookie and stuffing it in my mouth before she can object.
Bella grins, waiting in anticipation as I finish the mouthful. "Was it good? It's a new version of my Grandma Swan's chocolate chip cookie recipe."
She's anxious but hopeful while waiting to hear my answer, and at this moment, I can't think of anything better than kissing her nerves away. Because I'm positive, she's sweeter than any cookie, and I can't wait to find out. I drop her hand and advance until she's pressed against the edge of the worktable, lifting her onto the countertop and settling between her legs.
"Edward." She cautions me softly, as her eyes shift from my eyes to my lips.
I lean in and press our mouths together for the first time as my hands squeeze her thighs. She grasps my shoulders while we share tentative kisses, and a sweet moan urges me on as the connection between us builds until she breaks away, gasping for breath.
"You're delicious. Far better than any cookie," I reassure, as a blush spreads across her cheeks.
I peck her soft lips once more, and I'm about to move in for another kiss, when she pulls back and her eyes search mine.
"Wait." She pushes against my chest. "I just want to make sure. You aren't interested in Vanessa? I know she said the two of you would be better off as friends."
"No. I'm not interested in Vanessa." I squeeze her thighs—a little nervous at what I'm about to reveal. "Or anyone else. Only you."
At first, she's stunned at my revelation, but stutters out a response. "I… I-I'm—"
I stop her protests with a more confident kiss this time as my hands slide from her legs to her back, pulling her body against mine. Her hands glide higher past my shoulders, tugging on my hair and tilting my head as her insistent kisses have my heart nearly beating out of my chest.
I've already thought about Bella's concerns and can anticipate her expected objections—the main ones being that she's too old for me or her divorce isn't finalized. I'm positive she has a million reasons we shouldn't be together, but not one is because she isn't attracted to me. And I know it won't be easy, but I plan to win her over... one tattoo at a time.
She shoves her hands against my chest once more, ending the kiss too soon, as her ragged breath fans across my face. "Oh, God. What are we doing? What am I doing?"
"Last time I checked it's called kissing." I grin, kissing her forehead, wanting to prevent her from overthinking this blossoming relationship between us. "But as much as I would like to continue, I think you're overdue for a new temporary tattoo."
"What, here? We can't." Her chest heaves as she attempts to catch her breath, looking around the kitchen.
"Sure, why not?" I raise my brow in challenge. "I only need a marker. If you have one?" I give her the opportunity to either keep going or send me home.
Her indecision fades quickly and a small smirk tugs at her lips once she decides. "Okay. There's one out on the front counter."
My heart soars with her willingness to proceed, and there's no way I can keep my victorious expression concealed. "I'll get it. Wait here."
When I return with the marker, Bella is still sitting where I left her tracing her fingertips lightly along her lips. She stops when she sees me and gives me a hesitant smile.
She rests her hands behind her on the table, pushing out her chest and drawing my eyes directly toward the area. I'm instantly picturing her with a lot less clothing.
"What are you thinking today?" Bella asks innocently.
I know she isn't ready for the truth—that I would love to draw on her more intimate areas. But I curb that line of thinking, focusing on what I suspect she can handle.
"You'll see." I grab a nearby chair, sitting in front of her, cupping her ankle and removing her sandal.
My thumb rubs along the arch of her foot as she lets out a moan.
"Holy cow. That feels so good." She gasps, leaning back farther until she's flat on the worktable while I massage her foot. "I see why you use a reclining chair. I'm just going to stay here while you draw."
"Fine by me." I chuckle, setting her foot on my knee, and sketch a popular design with a few tweaks just for her. "The lighting back here is great."
"Yeah, plenty of task lighting, so my old eyes can see what I'm creating."
I let her "old" comment go, knowing it may take a while for her to see herself as I do, and distract her with a new question. "What's your favorite thing you make for the bakery?"
"Hmm, that's a tough question." She's quiet as the marker glides over her skin until finally coming up with an answer. "If I had to pick one thing, it would be decorated cakes. Some days, I'm all about the cake and fillings—you know, flavor combinations. Other days, I'm in love with my buttercream creations. They taste the best and so much better than working with fondant. Have you ever had a fondant cake?"
"I can't say I have."
"Well, they're beautiful, and you can really get creative with that medium, but the taste is just different. I've used some of the best fondant brands and tried making my own, but everyone always wants the buttercream and cake hiding beneath."
"I love making flowers too. I've never been a gifted gardener, but buttercream flowers I can do."
My grin widens as I sketch the petals, hoping she'll love this tattoo as much as the cat one, even though this tattoo is about symbolism with a deeper meaning of where she's at in life.
"I can't believe my dream is finally coming true. Our soft opening is in two days and we have tons of baking to do. Angela and I have worked so hard trying to get here. We've scraped every extra nickel together and got as many small business loans as our credit will allow. If only I could get the Forks house to sell, my share would give us some breathing room with this place. I would love to be finished dividing assets and no longer having to deal with my ex for anything other than our daughter, which at her age, is minimal. We don't have a custody agreement to hash out, so I don't understand all the delays."
"Is there any chance he's dragging out your divorce on purpose?"
"I don't know. Mike has been a pain in my ass ever since I walked in on—never mind. Let's just say... he's a pain in my ass and leave it at that. What did I ever see in him?"
"I'm sure your life together was different once upon a time."
"Oh, Edward. My marriage was no fairy tale."
"A love for my daughter, but that was it. In the beginning, we tried to do what everyone said was the right thing, but…" She releases a deep sigh, contemplating her next words. "Are you sure you want to hear this?"
"Only if you're comfortable sharing."
"We met in high school, and he was the guy who never stopped asking me out. We were friends, but he was a popular sports guy and not really my type.
"After graduation, we went to the same college and were both majoring in education. I wanted to be an English teacher, but he was on track for administration. A year later, we saw each other at a party of a mutual friend and hit it off, as we hadn't in the past. He was funny and attentive, and when he asked me out, I accepted.
"After about four months of dating, I found out I was late-late. But when I told him, I realized something was off about his reaction. He wasn't surprised, as I thought he would be. It was as if he already knew, which was odd. I mean, we had been together, but we used protection."
Or she thought they did. I have a hunch he either tampered with the condoms or used some other means to get the girl who eluded him for years, pregnant, tying them together for life.
"It didn't change the reality of our situation and Mike was thrilled."
I'll bet he was—what a manipulative bastard. I don't voice my concerns, but when Vanessa mentioned her father did her mother wrong, I don't think it was because she realized how deceptive he is or has been for their entire relationship.
"Unfortunately, his parents were not happy about our situation, but especially, that I was a part of the equation. They were adamant we marry and not bring disgrace to their family name, which is hilarious and quite ironic, considering how our marriage has ended because of him.
"Anyway, Forks is a small town and the Newtons are prominent members of the community. Before we could figure out our next steps, they were sharing with everyone the news that their son was in love and engaged to his high school sweetheart."
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and after hearing this news, I'm more confident than ever he's the one delaying their divorce.
"My dad was livid when he heard the gossip being passed around was centered on his only daughter. I wasn't in love with Mike, and everyone knew, but not to bring any shame to them, I agreed to a wedding and marriage for the sake of my unborn child."
"Before you found out you were pregnant, how was your relationship with Mike?"
She shrugs. "I don't know. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either."
"Were you considering ending it?"
"My girlfriends were always trying to set me up with other guys—especially Angela, who never liked Mike. Maybe she said something, and he overheard us, but it doesn't matter because here we are twenty-two years later trying to disconnect our lives from one another."
Or one of you is. I give her foot a little squeeze. "All done. It's not dry, but should be soon."
She sits up, pulling her foot closer to see the new drawing. "Wow. What an unusual symbol. What does it mean?"
"The unalome is found in a variety of cultures, but the meaning is still the same: representing our spiritual journey to enlightenment and rebirth. I love this symbol and have one myself." I point it out on my right arm. "It reminds us that our path in life isn't always straight, perfect, or even in the 'right' direction. Our lives are filled with lessons to be learned and suffering along the way. The flower is a lotus, which thrives in the most impossible situations, defying logic and reason."
Bella gasps. "That's me."
"You like it?"
"Like it… I love it."
"Good." I'm more excited than I should be about us having the same tattoo. Even though hers is temporary, maybe one day it won't be.
"How do you do this?"
"Do what?" I ask, recapping the marker.
"Keep finding the most amazing ways to show me what you do. You're an incredible artist, Edward."
"I'm enjoying getting to know you."
Her smile drops a little. "I've got a lot of baggage and the bakery is taking all of my waking hours."
"Lucky for you, I work out all the time. I can handle your bags and more. As for time, I can lend a hand around here on my days off, and I don't mind you telling me what to do."
Her smile fades completely at my offer, and she returns her attention to her foot. "Do you think it's dry enough for my sandal?"
"Yeah." I slide it back in place. "How about we grab some dinner? You should eat something other than sugar."
"Uh… thank you for asking, but I have plans this evening."
"Yeah… a date."
For as much as my heart was soaring earlier with the handholding and kisses, it plummets with disappointment at her words.
"Oh, well… are you done for the evening? I can walk you out to your car," I offer, hoping I'm not being dismissed.
"I am, but he's picking me up here."
There's no way I'll ever be able to swallow around the expanding lump in my throat as she keeps delivering the hits directly to my heart.
"He's an accountant and financial planner. Whether or not it works out between us, maybe he can help with the bakery. He said he would love to look and see what we've done."
I'll bet he would.
"Do you and Emmett have someone to handle the business side of things?"
I don't think I've ever been more jealous of any man in my life than the one who will spend this evening with her.
I shake my head, attempting to control my emotions and curb my jealousy, but it's a losing battle. "No. Emmett has a business degree and handles our books."
I need to get out of here before he shows up.
"I should get going. Everything looks great, Bella. Thanks for showing me around. Congratulations to you and Angela." I nod and walk toward the doorway of the kitchen.
"Thanks, Edward," Bella says, following closely behind me. "Will you be by for the soft opening?"
I pause before I get to the front door and stare up at the ceiling, releasing a frustrated groan.
"Edward?" Bella waits for my answer.
I turn around and walk back to where she's standing next to the counter.
"Did I say something—?"
"If I asked you out on a date, would you accept? Would you say yes?"
"You?" She stares at me, puzzled by my question.
"Yes, me. What's wrong with me, Bella?"
"If this is about those kisses earlier… I-I don't know what to say. You're sweet, Edward, and I understand we were both kind of caught up in the moment, but you shouldn't want someone like me."
"Someone like you? What's that supposed to mean? And why in the hell wouldn't I want you? You're honest and creative. Kind and thoughtful. Intelligent and beautiful. You are, without a doubt, the sexiest woman I've ever met. Of course, I want someone like you. Why the fuck not me?" I hold out my open arms, worried she would rather have the man I used to be, or at least what I used to look like.
Bella sways slightly, stunned by my words, as her eyes drop to the floor.
I wait for a response that never comes. I hope I haven't said too much, but my gut tells me I've fucked up whatever this precarious relationship is between us.
"I have to go." I drop my arms, huffing in frustration, and exit the bakery before I say anything else.
I don't leave for the shop, my apartment, or even the gym. I walk around the building to the back parking lot, needing to ride.
And right now, there's nothing better than the open road to help me get my head together after that dreadful conversation.
I throw my leg over the seat, firing up my motorcycle, and strap on my helmet.
I shake my head, wishing I had kept my mouth shut, as I ease out of my parking spot and merge into the evening traffic of Front Street.
I know she felt something with those kisses we shared earlier; I just don't understand why she won't give me a chance to prove I'm worthy of her.
"What kind of douchey motherfucker takes up three goddamn parking spots?" Emmett complains loudly until he realizes I have a customer in my chair. "Oh, damn. I apologize for my language, ma'am."
She chuckles. "No worries. It sounds like you've described the owner perfectly."
"Edward, did you see that Cadillac Escalade out back?" He jabs his thumb toward our back door.
I haven't seen him this upset in a long time, but parking behind our building is a premium, and meant for employees and residents only. "No, it must have arrived after I opened."
"Well, I'm calling to have it towed. I'm not going to put up with that kind of bullshit. I couldn't find a parking spot and I hate, absolutely hate, being late for anything, but especially work."
I return my attention back to my customer, changing colors and patting her on the shoulder. "Still doing okay?"
"I'm good." She smiles up at me before closing her eyes once again.
It's impossible not to overhear Emmett's call as he paces in front of our shop windows. "Hey, Sam. Yeah, I've got a vehicle for you over here behind our shop."
He pauses briefly before continuing. "Are you ready? Yeah, I have it. Washington license plate XLRGPKG."
Emmett laughs. "No, I'm not kidding you. That's what it says. It's a tricked out black Cadillac Escalade. Some douche is attempting to embrace the thug life. You can't miss it. Okay… thanks. See you soon."
He ends his call, pocketing his phone. "I've never seen that vehicle before, and I can't imagine who owns it. We know everyone who parks back there, and there are normally plenty of spots."
As his curiosity takes over, an uneasy feeling causes my stomach to churn, and I consider an actual motherfucker I haven't met, but his reputation precedes him. "Was Bella's car still in the lot?"
"Yeah." Emmett shrugs. "I guess she's closing tonight. Man, did you try the brownies she brought by the other day? Those were incredible. My mouth is watering just thinking about them. We need to get to the gym more often the way she's feeding us."
"Mmm." I hum my agreement, but know I've been more than a little grumpy. I think she's been avoiding me since my visit to the bakery last week.
Emmett's pointed out the dip in my mood recently, but he hasn't figured out why, and I'm not going to spell it out for him.
He walks back outside to meet Sam, as I finish the red shading of the shirt on a Winnie the Pooh tattoo I've been working on this evening for a woman who lost her young daughter last year. One of my favorite parts is the white ink I use for the pappus or white puffy part of the dandelion as the seed blows away. The woman is in tears when I reveal the completed design, sharing with me how her daughter loved Winnie the Pooh and had one she carried around daily for most of her young years.
"Edward, I can't thank you enough. Now, I'm the one carrying around that damn bear." She laughs through her tears, grabbing another tissue from the box. "It turned out better than I could have ever imagined."
I smile at her kind words, removing my gloves and dropping them in the trash. "I'm glad you're happy with it. Can I get you another bottle of water?"
"No, I'm fine. I need to get home before my husband worries."
As I bid her farewell, I have worries of my own about Bella, wondering if the king of all assholes is paying her an unexpected visit. Unfortunately, I can't go down to the bakery and check on her, even if I wanted to, with my next appointment arriving soon, but part of me wonders if my concern for her is even welcome at this point.
No. It probably isn't, and I think the next move between us needs to come from her. I don't want to take any choices away from her, since I know that has happened in the past. She knows what I want, and if she thinks that I was out of line last week, then that's her problem.
No, I know it's my problem, but I don't know how to fix it. Maybe I should try to apologize for pushing her toward something when she isn't ready yet. But if she's never loved Mike or has any feelings, then I don't understand what's the problem. Plus, she's dating. So, I don't see why—
It's that fucker—the accountant.
Fuck. I should have stuck around and scared him off.
The ding of the front door reminds me that I have a job to do, and I smile at the familiar face. "Hey, Vic-tor." It will take some getting used to the name change. "Have a seat in my chair."
"Can I get you anything before we begin?"
"No, I'm okay—a little nervous. I'm in good hands, right?"
"The best. I'll be right with you. I need to grab your file and go over the colors we picked, then we'll be ready to start on the outline of your feather."
Emmett returns victorious ten minutes later. "We have three newly open parking spots out back, and I moved my car to a closer spot. Hey, Vic."
Victor nods. "Hey, Emmett."
"Is my first appointment here yet?"
"Good. I need to get ready."
With Emmett focused on a new task, I'm humming to the music playing in the background while I'm working, when Victor's eyes open and a slow smirk grows across his face.
"I never would have guessed you to be a country music fan."
"Trust me; I wish I wasn't. It reminds me of the woman I wish I were dating. Pathetic, right?"
"Not pathetic. Kind of sweet."
"Would you like for me to change the station?" I offer.
"No, it's fine."
"If you don't mind my asking, why aren't you dating?"
"I don't know."
"That can't be true. You must have some idea."
"I have a lot of ideas, but none of them mean a damn thing since she's no longer talking to me."
"What did you do?"
"In a nutshell… said too much. She's going through a divorce, but she told me she was dating. So, I thought I stood a chance, but it seems I'm not her type of guy. The latest guy is an accountant. I have nothing against accountants, but what's the attraction? So he can add and subtract."
"Maybe he has a big dick."
"God, I don't even want to think about that or her with him for that reason."
"Speak for yourself." Victor smiles. "I've been thinking about them a lot lately."
"And you should. You have a lot of changes in your future. How are the hormones going?"
"I'm feeling more like who I should have been all along. Can you see my new stubble?"
I look over his jaw. "It's a strawberry blond."
"Yeah, my hair was like that when I was little, then it became more red and darkened as I got older."
"I can see some darker red in there too."
"My doctor won't do the first surgery for another ten months because he requests that all his patients live in their preferred gender role for a considerable length of time—at least a year."
"Sounds reasonable. Have you looked through our surgery books?"
"We have some great before and after pictures, you should consider. Emmett is one of the best for cover-ups, but especially scars."
"Okay, it doesn't hurt to look, right?"
"So, back to the woman you aren't dating. She likes the accountant?"
"I don't know, but I haven't heard from her in a while, and my gut says, the accountant is probably an appropriate age."
"Ohhhh… so, you're too young?"
I nod, changing my position. Then, I continue with the outline, working in comfortable silence until Victor speaks again.
"What about fear?"
"She thinks you'll leave her for someone younger. That's what she fears."
"But, I wouldn't."
"You can't promise her that."
"I can try."
"What happened with her husband?"
"That's what I thought. Give her some time."
"It's all I have to give at this point."
Emmett's phone vibrates on the counter between our stations with an incoming call.
"No, it doesn't sound familiar."
"Okay, thanks for letting me know."
He ends his call and looks over in my direction. "Ed, do you know a Michael Newton?"
"Michael Newton. That's the owner of the Escalade I had towed. He showed up at Sam's, pissed, but got his vehicle back."
"I suspect he's Bella's ex-husband. She has only mentioned his name is Mike, but she goes by Swan and I don't know her daughter's last name."
"Fuck. I hope I didn't stir up some shit."
"Because he'll take it out on Bella." I finish out loud what we're both thinking.
"Damn. I need to call Rose." He finds her number and waits for her to answer. "Hey, Babe. I know this is kind of a random question, but did Bella change her last name?"
"What was it before?" He pauses, listening to her response and nods in my direction. "Then, I better tell you everything because I may have fucked things up a little."
"Do you see that?" Emmett stares out our front window. "Almost every night this week that asshole has been parked out there along the street. Sometimes it's closer to the bakery and other times it's right across from our shop."
"At least he's parking legally and not out back. What's he doing?"
"Just sitting in his vehicle, watching Bee's." Emmett shakes his head. "He obviously needs to learn to let it go."
"Yeah, I agree." I huff. "Anyway, who is my next appointment with for this evening? I only see the initials 'BS', but you have blocked out the rest of my evening. Is it a consultation or did you already do it? Where's the file?"
I shuffle through the stack of new clients to find the matching one when the bell over our front door dings and in walks Bella grinning from ear-to-ear.
She's stopped before she can get to the desk where I'm standing by Nova who has materialized from out of nowhere and is rubbing against her legs lovingly.
"Hey, Bella." Emmett grins when he sees she's holding a tray full of cookies. "Are those for me?"
"Maybe you'll learn to share one day."
"It's good to know you are so open-minded. Thank you." He winks at me. "And you're welcome. It looks like your next appointment is here."
BS… Bella Swan.
He takes the cookie tray, removes the plastic wrap, and sets it on a table near his station.
"You're my appointment?" I eye her skeptically, but damn, she looks good.
Bella's dressed in skin-tight blue jeans and a white, button-up shirt, which is sheer, making it easy for me to see a black bra underneath. She has her hair down, dark brown waves spilling over her shoulders, but it's the mischievous grin that disarms me immediately.
"I was wondering how you would feel about an off-site consultation this evening," she requests, watching me with her beautiful, brown eyes.
"Off-site?" I hesitate. It isn't something I do normally unless my drawing on her foot in the kitchen of her bakery counts.
"Maybe you could pack up your markers and Nova and come over to my house. I can make us dinner and we can celebrate. The Forks house sold, which means the craziness of my drawn-out divorce is close to ending."
"Con-grash-ulay-shuns, Be-wa," Emmett offers around a mouth full of cookies.
"Dinner? Are you sure?" I don't want to get my hopes up, but I'm getting my hopes up that she's finally giving us the green light.
"Yes, I can take Nova in my car and you can follow on your bike." Her smile falls slightly. "Unless you don't want her to come along. I thought you were a package deal."
"I suppose we are."
"Or we can ride together."
I'm half-tempted to check the calendar because this feels like Christmas morning.
Of course, I want to ride together.
I'm not sure she understands what she's implying with her invitation, because this sounds exactly like a date to me. "So, I just want to be clear. You're asking me over to your house? Like on a date?"
"Yes… unless you aren't hungry or interested."
She has no idea how hungry I am, and I'm not about to miss this opportunity to better understand her change of heart. "I'm interested. Let me grab a few things because it sounds like you're up for a new temporary tattoo."
"Yes, I am. Vanessa has plans this evening and is staying with a friend." That means we'll be alone.
I look over at Emmett who is sitting in his chair, watching this all go down and looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.
"How about I meet you out back?" I point behind me, because I want some clarity from Emmett before I leave.
"Does Nova have a carrier?"
"She does, but I hope with you along she won't think we're going to the vet. I'll grab it and meet you at your car."
Bella lifts on her toes, leaving a kiss on my cheek. "Is it okay if I take Nova with me?"
"Okay, we'll see you soon. Bye, Emmett."
"Have a good night."
"I think I will."
With the ding of the bell and the closing of the front door, Bella is on her way back toward the bakery.
With my cat.
And waiting for me.
"Holy fucking shit, Emmett." I shake my head as I grab a small bag from the desk and walk toward my station. "You knew."
"Better pack some condoms, Son." He releases a hearty laugh.
"Asshole. It's too soon for that." I grab my glasses and every color of marker I can find in the drawers of my cabinet.
"Never hurts to be prepared, and yeah, I knew. The accountant didn't get past one date, but it's been funny watching you mope around here the past week. I've got faith you'll last longer than one home-cooked meal."
"And the house selling?"
"Rose said it's a huge relief off Bella's shoulders, and they've also worked out an alimony agreement."
"I hope Bella didn't give in to get rid of him."
"And if she did?"
My shoulders sag that he's taking advantage of her once again.
"Edward, she's ready to move on and put it all behind her. It will take time for her ex to accept that he's no longer a part of her life, but he only has himself to blame for how it all worked out. The good news is that it looks like you could be part of the new picture. Don't forget, she's been busy with the bakery too. You know how time-consuming it is getting a new business off the ground. I suggest you make the most of your time together this evening. You're both needed back on the job tomorrow."
"Okay. I'll see you then." I race upstairs, grabbing Nova's carrier, as my mind considers all the possibilities of how this evening will go.
Let's hope I don't fuck it up again because I'm determined not to be like her ex or any of the men she's been dating. I promised Vanessa and myself that it would be different, if she ever gave us a chance, and it looks like it's finally happening.
"I'm stuffed. Everything was delicious. You're an amazing cook and baker." It's a rare, rain-free evening, and dinner with Bella has been nothing short of spectacular as we sit at the table on her deck while Nova balances on the railing nearby.
"Would you like another glass of wine?"
My first thought is to reply with, If you're interested in getting me drunk and having your wicked way with me, then I'm game, but settle for something that won't leave her ready to take me home. "If you're having one."
"Do you want to go inside? It's getting a little cool this evening."
"Sure." She hasn't figured it out yet, but I'll agree to just about anything at this point.
Nova slips inside as soon as Bella opens the sliding glass door and makes herself at home, as if this is where she's always lived.
"I may not get my cat back after this visit," I joke, as Nova disappears around the corner.
"I'm glad she likes it here and I hope you do too."
I help Bella clear the table of our dishes and follow closely behind as we drop everything off in the kitchen. I grasp her hand, pulling her into the living room, and take a seat on the middle of the couch, guiding Bella to straddle my lap.
"Are you ready for some new artwork?" I wonder as I consider locations, specifically her chest that is at my eye level.
She tilts my chin upward and places a lingering kiss on my lips. "Absolutely—what do you have in mind?"
I'm not going to fall for that one because what I'm thinking involves condoms, which I've left at home for a reason. "Would you be willing to let me draw on some of your more private areas?"
My hands rest at her waist, but my thumbs can reach the area below her breasts, and I stroke the area there slowly. "Maybe something on your chest or ribs. Wherever you're comfortable with me touching."
"If I take off my shirt, does that mean you will too?"
I will sit here naked, if she asks.
"Okay, you first."
I reach for the hem of my T-shirt, pulling it off in one quick swoop. With my chest exposed, Bella's fingers trace around my pierced nipples, flicking each one and eliciting a moan from deep in my chest. She smiles at my response and continues along the lines of my tattoos, exploring the swirls of ink, but asking no questions, pausing at an open spot.
"Can I add something?"
"Sure." I reach around her body and pluck the black marker from the table. Offering it to her, her lips reconnect with mine as we share long, slow kisses, until she moves lower, nibbling along my jaw and neck.
My cock has had a mind of its own ever since Nova and I got in the car with her. With her in this position, he's ready to smash through the zipper of my jeans to get her attention.
I groan, letting my head fall backward against the cushion and my eyes close as her tongue traces a path to my chest where she leaves a kiss on the open space and writes something quickly.
"You know, I have some edible markers I use at the bakery. Maybe we should try those some time."
I open my eyes, catching her smirk and agree. "I'm game."
"There… all done." She leans back, admiring her work.
"What did you draw?"
"I wrote something. Look."
I tilt my head, reading the printed words out loud. "Bella was here."
"What do you think?"
"It's very… bathroom wall-ish," I tease.
"Fine. I'm not an original tattoo artist like some people. I need more time to think of something better. Maybe you would like a cupcake or something. Why don't you show me how it's done?" She holds out the marker, but I'm interested in picking the perfect spot first.
I reach up and unbutton her shirt, pushing it open and sliding it off her shoulders until she's only in her black bra. My mouth waters at the thought of unhooking it and wrapping my lips around the nipples I can see straining against the lacy fabric.
"Should I remove my bra?" Her breathing speeds up—both of us affected by her shirtless.
"Not if you want me to focus on drawing." I accept the marker she's holding, removing the cap.
"Do you want your glasses?" she asks.
She squirms under my perusal of her unmarked skin. "Okay, should I stay on your lap?"
"For now. I think I'll add one here." I trace a fingertip along her collarbone until I lean forward, placing a soft kiss on her shoulder, and draw a tiny heart in the same spot.
She looks over her new ink and smiles. "Oh, Edward. It's sweet and simple. I like it. Do you plan to cover me in kisses and little hearts this evening?"
I grin at the idea. "I can keep going until every inch is covered."
"That's a lot of kisses."
"And hearts." I wiggle my eyebrows suggestively. "I'm up for the challenge."
"I'm sure you are—all that youthful stamina. How about something else?"
"Hmmm, where to next?" My fingertip traces a path along the side of her chest, barely touching the luscious curve there until coming to a sexy spot along her ribs. "These can be very painful to have inked, but a word or short phrase is tolerable. I have one for you. I'll take my glasses now, if you can reach them."
Bella turns from the spot on my lap, handing me the case. "Here you go. Do you want any other colors?"
"No. I'll stick with black. Can you stay on your knees? It will make it a little easier to reach or you can lie on your side."
"I think I can hold this position for a while." She steadies herself, bracing her hands on my shoulders as she adjusts her legs. "What are the least painful areas?"
"Everyone is different, but generally, the shoulder and outer arm are easier while more muscular or fatty areas like your ass and calves are good spots too."
"You like my fatty spots?"
Our eyes lock at her question, and without falter, I imagine my lips kissing all her spots, knowing I can't wait to locate my favorites. "Yes, I'm drawn to every inch of you."
Happy with my answer, she continues with her questions. "What about inside the wrist?"
"It's the most painful."
"Did yours hurt?"
"Yes, the pain feels similar to being continually scratched by a cat. I don't like to work for longer than three hours at a time on someone. But when you're having a large piece completed, I know meditation can help. There are studies that show it can be more powerful for pain relief than morphine. Some of my customers will sit silently for hours while others prefer to carry on a conversation while I work. It's important to be relaxed and stress free before you begin. There—this one is finished. You probably need a mirror to see it or I can take a photo, if you wish."
"A photo is fine. Let me grab my phone." She stretches, retrieving it from the table.
I snap a quick picture, handing it back to her. "Here you go."
"You're radiating it tonight."
"I feel lighter today, like the gray clouds that have been following me for years are finally lifting. I love your handwriting too."
"I'm glad." I recap the marker, tossing it on the table and encouraging her to settle lower into the spot, straddling my lap. "Are you still comfortable in this position?"
"Yes." She shuts off her phone, tossing it to the side.
"God, I love that word, but especially when it comes from you. I can't help my curiosity, though—what changed your mind about me? Or us?"
"I wouldn't say that my mind was changed necessarily. I've been attracted to you since we met, but when you kissed me at the bakery, it was… I don't even know how to describe it. I felt more in those kisses with you than I had with anyone in my entire life, and it scared the hell out of me. I don't want my… uh… past to taint you. I'm leaving a very toxic and controlling situation."
"Well, I'm a big fan of the here…" I tap on my lips wanting more. "…and now."
"Mmm." Bella crushes her lips with mine, moaning, as her hands weave through my hair, tilting my head at her will.
Our tongues tangle as my hands roam the silky skin across her back, pressing her against my bare chest. Her hips grind against my hardened cock that's straining for release.
She gasps, pulling away from my mouth as I kiss the edge of her jaw and down her neck. My tongue reaches out trailing along her chest, as I hook a finger in one strap, tugging it lower until her breast spills from her bra.
"Oh Edward, your mouth feels so good. Don't stop," she begs, speeding up the movements of her hips, guiding my mouth to her nipple while my fingers expose her other breast. "I'm close."
"Not a chance, but I want to feel you." I switch sides, lavishing my attention on the other nipple while I tug open the button of her jeans and lower the zipper.
I can't wait to feel her softness and push my fingers past the waistband of her underwear, moving lower until I find the spot, begging for my touch.
"Yes. Oh, God, yes." She chants as my fingers slide back and forth between her legs easily.
Her nipple falls from my mouth as I watch her grind against my hand, and I slip two fingers inside.
Bella widens her legs, riding my hand with a new determination. I'm in awe of her beauty as she throws back her head in ecstasy while clutching my shoulders and screaming my name. "Edward!"
Her hips still and her body shakes while my fingers slow their movements, coating them in her release.
"You're so fucking beautiful, Bella." I ease my hand from between her legs, opening my pants and taking out my cock.
"What… are you pierced?" She pants, leaning back on my lap and watching as I stroke myself with the hand that was between her legs moments ago.
"Yes. It's a pubic piercing. Maybe one day, you'll get to experience it." I moan at the thought of her riding me, and my hand speeds up while she watches.
"Yeah, it would add to your pleasure. Not mine." I explain the hoop at the base of my cock Kate added two years ago. Not everyone is a good candidate for this piercing, but so far mine is one of the successful ones. The hoop is about the size of a quarter and can shift into any position adding to a woman's pleasure.
"Now, I'm curious." She gives me a small smile, changing positions and kneeling in front of me as she wraps her hand around mine while we jack my cock together.
"Good." I remove my hand, but she keeps going.
Bella watches me carefully, as I force my eyes to stay open, wanting to burn this image in my brain forever.
I nod, feeling the pressure building. "Oh, yeah. I can't resist you much longer."
I growl through my release as she directs my come to land on her chest, giving me a view I'll never forget.
"Bella…" I gasp as my head falls back against the couch and she continues until there is nothing left, and I soften in her hand. "Holy…"
She grins up at me, triumphant at her control over my body. "Good?"
"Not, good. Great." I hand her my shirt to clean off her chest.
She shakes her head. "Save your shirt. I'll go use a washcloth in the bathroom."
"Okay," I agree, as I tuck myself back inside my jeans, watching her disappear down the hallway.
It isn't long before she returns. "Do you want to lie down?"
I readjust my position to find I'm longer than her couch, but open my arms welcoming her to climb on top of my body and settle on my chest. Her fingers trace the edges of my ink in comfortable silence, and I place a kiss on her forehead as my fingers follow back and forth along her spine.
Neither of us utters a word as we bask in the pleasure of our shared orgasms, until I can't contain my happiness at being here with her. "Fuck, that was good."
She chuckles, moving higher until she can reach my lips, kissing them briefly. "Too soon?"
"Not for me."
"Okay. Me either. Just so you know, I don't give handjobs on the first date." Her lips move to my jaw and brush against the stubble. "But everything is different with you and I have a difficult time holding back."
I smile, brushing her hair away from her beautiful face, repeating her words from earlier. "Then don't."
"Why is it so easy with you? I just want to kiss you everywhere."
My eyes close as her lips move along my chest. "I'll let you."
"It's like I can't get enough. You're addictive." Her tongue reaches out, toying with my nipple ring, causing me to groan as my cock twitches with new life.
"It must be the tattoos," I tease. But I hope she wants something besides mutual gratification, because for the first time in my life, I can see sharing this whole thing with her.
"It's more than that. It's you, Edward." She looks up at me, smiling widely as she lifts her foot in the air and touches the spot where I'd drawn the unalome on her at the bakery. "I'm thinking it's time for something more permanent."
"Yes. I know exactly what I want."
My heart overflows with joy at her words and the possibilities for our future. I know it's too soon for making any promises, but I'm ready and willing to say yes, for whatever she has in mind, and I can't wait to find out where that takes us.