Acknowledgement: My illustrious beta, HollettLA, is, in the common vernacular, "the shiznit." xo
Much to her surprise, Bella spends the start of February falling in love. The month of red cherubic cupid cutouts, of heart-shaped scarlet boxes and explosions of crimson flowers, and all she sees is blue-green eyes and auburn hair, the cream-pink expanse of warm, soft, blood-flushed skin. The fact that it's the shortest month of the year holds no bearing, and she surprises herself with how readily she allows Tyler to gain entry to her heart. Sometimes she wonders if she should feel more wary rather than less, considering how much of her soul – and her pain – she exposed right out of the gate, but despite her intellectual misgivings, she feels uncharacteristically free, as though there's something about having been broken to the depths of her soul that has left behind a kind of reckless optimism, a "been there, done that, couldn't possibly be worse" sort of mentality.
The Manhattan map that had been her atlas in her earliest days in the city has become scrap paper, crushed at the bottom of her bag and unearthed only when she needs to jot something down or discard a wad of chewing gum. She rarely gets lost these days, even in the maze of the Village, and while she still wears her comfortable wardrobe that Kelsey refers to as "hick-chic," she dresses up her jeans and plaid shirts with scarves and hats and lets her roommate drag her to a jeweler to get her ears pierced. Her outward appearance does what her inner persona is doing, becoming a blend of small-town Washington and big-city New York, and she finds that she likes the fusion of the two, and how she's slowly becoming the person she hoped she might be when she blindly accepted her slot at NYU: brave, independent, and unique, without completely abandoning the parts of her past that bring her comfort, remind her of home.
The parts that don't bring her comfort, she's relieved to see, are slowly fading like scars, becoming simple scenery on the road map of her life instead of the once massive, disastrous detours that threatened to derail her every day. She calls Charlie at least once a week and can hear the relief in his voice just as plainly as he can hear the contentment in hers.
She hasn't woken screaming since September.
"Girl, he is cuuuuute," Kelsey murmurs, her dark eyes tracking Tyler's movement across the restaurant as he heads toward the soda fountain for a refill. "I mean, his clothes sort of make him look homeless, and the boy could use a haircut, but still." Bella giggles around the straw of her own soda, watching Tyler as he presses his cup to the Coke spout; when he glances over his shoulder and sees them spying on him, a knowing smirk touches his mouth. "Damn," Kelsey says, returning her gaze to Bella's face. "You go, girl." She leans forward slightly, and Bella flicks a glance to where Tyler is pressing the plastic lid back on his cup before mirroring her posture. "Just remember: hang a bra or something from the doorknob."
Bella frowns. "What?"
"When you guys are getting it on in the room. I don't want to barge in and see a bare, pasty-white ass bumping up and down because you forgot to set the signal."
Clumsy fingers barely catch her soda cup before it tips, and as she rights it, she feels the telltale flush spread through her cheeks. "We're not… I mean, I'm not…" She shakes her head as she peeks beyond her roommate to where Tyler is headed in their direction.
"Not there yet?" Kelsey supplies, and Bella shakes her head again with a little more vigor. "Okay. Well, just…for future reference," Kelsey says simply as she leans back in the booth and Tyler slides back in beside Bella.
"So," Kelsey says to him easily, as if she wasn't just imagining and discussing his bare ass. "What's with the notebook?" She taps a fingertip on the tabletop near the book in question, and Bella notes the flecks of dried paint dotting her skin: tiny little specks of yellow and green and blue that make her think of springtime.
Tyler's eyes flick to the same leather-bound diary that had been sitting at his elbow on his first kind-of date with Bella, the one he'd been writing in as he awaited the girls' arrival. "It's my master plan to take over the universe," he deadpans, and Kelsey nods in mock solemnity.
"And you don't think you should have a cute little padlock or something on it?" she asks, and Tyler's lips twist.
"I'll take it under advisement," he agrees, and glances over at Bella. "Your roommate's kind of a trip," he says, laughter in his voice and eyes.
"Your roommate basically implied you were a kinky bastard the first time I met him and was wearing a flag as a cape," she reminds him, and he grins as he drapes an arm over the back of the bench seat behind her.
"So," he says, opting to ignore this simple truth entirely. "Do you girls want to go out tonight?"
"Go out…where?" Bella asks, shooting a look at Kelsey, who gives no indication either way.
"The Village Idiot. They're doing a Valentine's Day…thing. I can get you in."
"I know the guy at the door." He hesitates before adding, "And the bartender."
Sharing a look with Kelsey, who arches her eyebrows in the universal "I'm in if you're in," Bella nods, even as a fleeting memory of too many daiquiris and the subsequent embarrassment hits her. "Okay," she says finally. "Sounds like fun."
"I'm in," Kelsey adds, looping the strap of her purse over her shoulder as she grabs her soda cup and starts scooting toward the end of the bench seat. "But now I have a class to get to. Bell, I'll see you at the room. Tyler…a pleasure."
Tyler nods. "Nice to meet you," he replies as Kelsey stands and half-waves as she heads for the exit. He tilts his head and gazes down at Bella. "Really, though. She's a trip."
"Again, I refer you back to the wonder that is Aidan."
Tyler laughs. "Point taken." He lifts his cup to his mouth and slurps before lowering it and gazing at the mammoth burrito she's still working on. "Okay, don't take this the wrong way, but…is it okay if I switch to the other side of the booth? I always bust people who sit on the same side and then stare out at…nothing."
Bella laughs, picking up a tortilla chip from her basket and dunking it in the salsa cup near her elbow. "Agreed. I mean, it's cool that they like each other and everything, but…y'know. Weird."
Grinning, he slides out of the booth and back in on the other side. "I knew I liked you for a reason."
"Terrific. I'll be sure to add it to my personal ad: 'Dismissive of same-side booth-sitting.'"
He laughs, and she takes a bite of her burrito. "Well, that's great and all, but I'm sort of hoping you've pulled your ad for the time being."
She feels the familiar pleasure warming her from within. "Done," she says around her mouthful, and he's still smiling as he lifts his straw to his lips.
"Fantastic." They sit, him slurping his soda and her finishing her lunch, and just as the silence is beginning to feel mildly awkward instead of comfortable, Tyler leans forward slightly, resting his elbows on the tabletop and fiddling with his straw. "So my, uh…mother wants to meet you."
"What?" She's sure she doesn't make a particularly attractive picture in that moment, chewed-up burrito undoubtedly visible in her half-open mouth.
"Caroline asked about you, and my mother overheard, and now she's on a mission to meet 'the famous Bella.'" He looks embarrassed. "You really don't have to."
She can't tell from his rather obvious discomfort if he wants her to and doesn't want her to feel pressured, or if he doesn't want her to at all. She picks at the foil wrapped around her burrito. "When?"
"Whenever," he replies, pushing down the little bumps on the top of his lid that no one ever seems to use. Cola. Diet. Other.
"Is that…do you want me to?"
He looks up at her, eyebrows raised. "What?"
"Is that…would that be weird for you? I don't want you to feel pressured or anything."
He grins, and Bella's not sure what it is about this boy's smile that can reduce her this: a quivering, nervous, besotted puddle of a girl. "I want you to," he says simply, and she matches his smile.
He takes a slurp from his cup. "Okay, then."
Hours later, once she's done with her classes, showered, and dressed in her best guess as to what constitutes "bar-appropriate" attire, she's just fastening a necklace around her neck when the door to the room crashes open and Kelsey stands on the threshold, eyes bright and smile brighter. "Okay, don't be mad."
Bella frowns. "Huh?"
"Remember that totally cute guy from downstairs that I pointed out to you a few weeks ago?"
"He just asked me to go to a movie with him. Are you going to think I'm totally lame if I ditch out on the bar thing with you and Tyler?"
"Definitely not," she replies, even though she's mildly skeptical of a guy who waits until Valentine's Day afternoon to ask a girl out for Valentine's Day night.
"You're awesome," Kelsey beams, grabbing her in a quick hug before pulling back. "Now, quick, before you go: help me decide what to wear."
Bella's eyebrow hitches. "Seriously? You're asking me?"
Almost reflexively, Kelsey glances down between them before her eyes lift and find Bella's. "Okay, I don't want you to get too ahead of yourself, but your look has been upgraded by leaps and bounds since last fall."
Kelsey nods. "Really. Girl…you look…hot. And not even skanky, 'look-at-my-ta-tas-hangin'-out' hot. Like, 'I'm-serious-and-studious-but-sexy-as-hell' hot. That's gotta be right up book-boy's alley."
Bella can feel the flush threatening to steal up her cheeks, but she takes a deep breath and meets her friend's eye. "Thanks." She grins. "You, on the other hand, should definitely let the ta-tas hang out.
Kelsey grins. "Oh, girl, I plan to."
Twenty minutes later, after offering minimal input but giving her approval of her roommate's sexy-yet-understated-with-just-a-hint-of-boob outfit, Bella is at Tyler's, waiting for him to get ready while she furtively surveys his bedroom, which could charitably be called "messy." The bed is unmade, there's a pile of laundry – clean or dirty remains unknown – in a basket in the corner, and his nightstand holds a leaning tower of books. There's another, different nightstand nowhere near his bed also covered with books, and mismatched sheets are draped above each of his windows. There's a short bookshelf between the windows crammed with even more books, and the bed's box spring sits on the floor, the mattress not quite lined up with its edges. It's chaos, but she sort of likes it. Spying the leather-bound book from earlier on the so-called nightstand, she asks, "So…what is with the notebook, anyway?"
He shrugs. "It's just a journal."
"You're a writer?"
His fingers tap out an uneven beat on his thighs while he turns this over in his mind. "I'm still sort of figuring out what I am," he says finally, crossing the room to his closet and rummaging among the hangers.
"Is it private?" she asks, code for Can I read it?
"Sort of." Not an answer either way, but a half-smile teases his lips.
"I'd like to read something you've written," she says softly, recalling the intensity of writing-Tyler: the furrowed brow, lower lip caught between teeth, non-writing hand balling into a fist and releasing before curling up tight again, as if he's freeing secrets from one empty hand into the pen of the other. "Not necessarily out of there," she clarifies. "Just…something."
He shrugs. "Maybe," he allows, and in the past she might have felt like she had pushed too far, asked too much, but one of the best things she's discovering about Tyler is that whatever emotion he's feeling cannot be hidden. It's as if all of his feelings are simmering just beneath his calm surface, and when provoked, the appropriate one will have no trouble bubbling up. She is confident that, if she oversteps, he will let her know, and with that certainty has come an amazing amount of freedom.
She's sitting on his mismatched bed, taupe and gray plaid pillowcases against a black bottom sheet, when her eye falls on the blue ceramic ashtray on his windowsill. "You're a smoker?" she asks, frowning slightly, and he follows her gaze to the glass dish balanced rather precariously on the barely-there sill.
"Not anymore," he says simply, pulling open a dresser drawer and dragging out a clean shirt. "I was. But I promised Caroline I'd stop." He drops the clean shirt on the foot of the bed and reaches for the hem of the one he's wearing. "She already has one dead brother."
With that, he turns away and drags the hem upward and off; Bella's gaze fixes on the smooth contours of his back, the jut of his shoulder blades, the twin indentations just above the waistband of his dark jeans. She watches the muscles shift beneath his skin as he slides his arms into the sleeves of the black button-down, and as she glances past him to the small mirror on the opposite wall, she can see a hint of ink as he begins to button the shirt from the bottom.
"You have a tattoo?" she asks, and she sees him freeze momentarily, a visible tension tightening his shoulders as his hands stop at a button near his belly button.
"Yeah," he says finally, moving up to the next button. But his hands hesitate and his body stills, as if he is contemplating something, and his eyes meet hers in the mirror as if he's contemplating her. After another beat of silence, he turns and crosses the small room slowly, leaving his row of shirt buttons undone, the black scrawl only half-visible from behind the cotton of his shirt.
"Michael," she guesses, though she can only see Mich. Please, don't let it say "Michelle," she thinks fleetingly, stupidly.
"Michael," he confirms, and she reaches out and pinches the fabric of his shirt lapel, drawing it aside and pressing a single fingertip to the middle of the M. They stand there like that, his head bowed over hers like an umbrella, as if he's trying to shelter her from his sadness. She doesn't realize she's tracing that single letter over and over again until his voice, now hoarse, breaks the silence.
"Your hands on me?"
"Awesome. Beyond awesome. But also driving me crazy, and if you keep them there, we're not going to be celebrating Valentine's Day anywhere but in this bedroom."
Immediately, she snatches her hand back as heat crawls into her face, but she can't deny the surge of power at his words, at his utter disinterest in pretending he doesn't want her. "Sorry," she mumbles, feeling anything but.
As they approach the hulking character standing at the entrance to the bar, Bella is reminded fleetingly, unexpectedly, of Emmett. Thankfully, the memory is virtually eclipsed by the ball of nerves churning in her stomach, the heavy thudding of her heart.
I'm about to break the law, she thinks, her palm sweating slightly where it is pressed against Tyler's. I'm about to go into a bar and drink underage, and Charlie would have a freaking fit. As they near the entrance, the monster of a man recognizes Tyler, and while he doesn't lose the stony grimace that appears to be as much part of his uniform as the black coat, black pants, black shoes, his eyebrows hitch slightly and he tips his chin in the faintest approximation of a nod.
"Hey, Brick," Tyler greets, and the bouncer does his almost-nod again.
"Hey, man. How's it goin'?"
"Good." They do a sort-of handshake, and Tyler pulls Bella forward slightly, releasing her hand to wrap his arm around her waist. "Brick, this is my girlfriend, Bella. Bella, this is Brick."
This does not look like the kind of man who would welcome a handshake – much less a clammy one – so she simply nods and half-waves. "Hi."
"Hello," he replies, then returns his focus to Tyler, arching an eyebrow in silent question. Tyler gives the barest of head-shakes, and Brick purses his lips slightly before exhaling heavily through his nose. "Valentine's Day," he says. "Enter at your own risk."
Tyler laughs, and Bella feels his hand relax against her hip, downgrading from clutching to rubbing gently. "Thanks, man. I should have brought you a red rose or something."
"You'd have been walking funny after what I'd do with that rose, Hawkins."
Bella joins in the laughter this time, the adrenaline spike from her first potential misdemeanor still thick in her veins. "Ouch," Tyler murmurs, guiding her through the door and into the pulsing, throbbing cavern of the dark club. Heart cutouts hanging from the ceiling are illuminated as shifting lights land on them briefly, and through the crowd, Bella can see that the rainbow row of bottles at the back of the bar is backlit by lights in shades of red, pink, and purple. As they approach the bar, Bella spots Aidan and a girl sitting in two stools near the corner; when she points, he nods and guides her in their direction with a gentle hand at the small of her back. As they approach, Aidan spies them and slides off his stool, offering it to Bella. She thanks him and slips into it, noticing the rose petals scattered atop the bar, which likely looked lovely before people started resting elbows and sweating glasses on them, but which now look sort of sad and crushed.
"What do you want to drink?" Tyler asks into her ear, and just as she had at the party, she shivers at the feel of his warm breath against her skin. She shrugs, embarrassed again at her inexperience, and he smiles down at her, a warm blend of amusement and affection in his eyes. "Daiquiri?" he asks, and she shakes her head. He lowers his head to listen, and she leans in.
"Maybe something less sweet?" she half-yells into his ear, and he pulls back to consider her for a moment before nodding. Glancing over at Aidan and his dark-haired date, who both hold almost-full glasses up to deter him from buying a whole round, he curls his body around her back, leaning one elbow on the bar and attempting to get the bartender's attention. It doesn't take long, and the dark-haired girl slides over to them, smiling at Tyler and eyeballing Bella as she slides a pair of clean cocktail napkins across the bar top, snagging a few rose petals along the way.
"Hey, Hawkins, long time, no see."
Bella thinks he might be blushing, but it's hard to tell in the dim, colored lighting of the bar. "Yeah," she hears him say. "How's it going?"
"Good," the girl replies. "Busy." She glances at Bella once more before propping both arms on the bar to either side of her, leaning forward only barely but enough to give him a peek down the low cut of her tank top. Bella watches Tyler's eyes, which ping-pong down and back up so quickly that she almost misses it. She smirks. Busted. "What can I get you?" the bartender asks, and Tyler's hand comes up to rest on her shoulder. "I'll have a Heineken, and she'll have a Grey Goose and ginger ale."
"Coming right up," she replies, disappearing up the bar to fill the order, and Tyler grins down at Bella.
Crooking her finger to get him to lean in, she says into his ear, "I'm assuming that's not the priest's daughter." When she pulls back, she's pleased to see that the slight flush is undeniable, even through the darkness. He shakes his head and she leans forward again. "Or the cop's daughter." He pulls back and shakes his head again, a faint smile curling his mouth. "Bartender fetish?" she asks, and one eyebrow hitches as he looks down at her, apparently weighing the merits of honesty.
Finally, he leans in again and actually presses his lips to the shell of her ear, so that she feels the rumble of his words as well as hears them. "More of a 'She gave me free drinks all night long and I was too hammered to find my own apartment' sort of situation." The words are there behind the words – one-night stand – and yet his utter casualness about them, his relative lack of hesitation to acknowledge having had such an encounter, is like something out of a television show, something so far beyond the realm of her own dating experience that she feels surprised at its sudden appearance in her life.
"Oh," she says, as the bartender – the one-night stand girl – reappears and slides a tumbler and a beer bottle across the bar.
"Tab?" the girl asks, and Tyler nods, fishing his wallet out of his pocket and passing over a credit card. She nods in return and disappears to start the tab, and Tyler's watching Bella as he slides his wallet back into his pocket.
"Guess your days of free drinks are over, huh?"
He grins down at her. "Fine by me." Then, nodding toward her glass, "Try that."
She raises the glass, taking a hesitant sip through the tiny black straw, and is pleasantly surprised by the subtle taste, the lack of burn she'd experienced on her first foray into the wide world of booze. "It's good."
He nods. "That's a smooth vodka, and the soda is a lot less sweet than fruit juice." She takes another sip, and he laughs. "Just go easy. It'll go down pretty smoothly, but it'll still fuck you up." She nods and places the drink back onto the cocktail napkin in front of her, glancing to where Aidan is clearly doing his best flirting with the girl in the stool beside her. Bella feels slightly odd, sitting while Tyler stands beside her, but after a minute she turns slightly in her stool and he grins, reaching down to gently pry her knees apart and stepping into the "V" of space her spread legs make. He's barely even touching her, the denim of her inner thighs barely touching the outsides of his legs while hers hang off the wooden stool, but something about the way he simply reached out and moved her makes her heart beat a quicker rhythm in her chest. He arches one eyebrow as he looks down at her, the faint scar above it just visible in the bar lighting, as if he's checking that this is okay, and she smiles up at him and gives a barely perceptible nod. He matches her smile, running his hands gently up her thighs, not nearly high enough to be inappropriate, but her mouth goes dry and her breathing quickens and her stomach somersaults all the same.
He doesn't move as they down their first drinks, leaning into each other a little more than necessary to trade words, ignoring Aidan and his date and the bartender and everyone else as music thumps and lights flash and the nightlife swirls around them. He makes her laugh, and when she lets her head tip back to really guffaw, he covers her mouth with his, catching her by the best kind of surprise. And even though it's only a half-kiss, given that their mouths are both curled upward in smiles, it might be one of the best she's ever had.
A second round, and she can feel the same buzz she'd felt at the party beginning to hum through her veins, the lights taking on an oddly indistinct quality, her lips number than she'd like them to be if there's going to be more kissing in their future. Draining his bottle and leaning forward to place it on the bar, he leans into her ear again, pressing a kiss to the thin skin of her neck just below her earlobe before murmuring into her ear, "I've gotta take a leak."
She pulls back, laughing again, and she wonders if it's the liquor or just him that she's drunk on. Nodding and still chuckling, she realizes that at some point she's hooked her ankles around his calves; she frees him and he grins down at her, pecking her mouth before turning and jostling his way through the crush of bodies toward the back corner of the bar. "Another round?" the bartender asks, and Bella looks up, half-expecting bitterness or some other jealous-girl emotion to be playing out on the girl's face, but instead her features are open and friendly, an expectant smile on her face.
"Um, sure, I guess," she says, pushing the empties back across the bar. "Thanks."
As the drinks are mixed, she glances over to where Aidan appears to be recounting a circus act or some other remarkably acrobatic story for his date, who seems amused enough. His arms are waving and he's making ridiculous faces, and Bella muses absently that this animated clown seems an unlikely counterpart to her steady, serious Tyler.
Then again, the same could likely be said about her.
A fresh drink reappears before her along with a sweating dark brown bottle, and Bella returns her focus to the bartender, who grins. "On the house. Happy Valentine's Day." She winks and turns away to fill someone else's order, Bella's surprised "thanks" likely falling on deaf ears. She lifts the tiny straw of the tumbler to her lips and takes a sip, knowing as she does that if she finishes this drink, Tyler's going to be carrying her to the subway. She hopes it won't be rude to leave a free drink half-full.
"Well, hey there," comes a voice from behind her, and Bella glances over her shoulder to see a tall, dark-haired guy cradling a bottle of beer and eyeballing her with purpose.
"Hi," she says simply, turning back to her drink and angling her body ever-so-slightly more toward where Aidan is engrossed in conversation with his date.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he asks, and Bella holds up her glass without turning around.
"Got one. Thanks."
She knows nothing of bar etiquette, or alcohol protocol, but she knows what a guy buying a girl a drink means, and she has no interest in encouraging him. A rather muscular forearm appears on the gleaming black bar beside her own arm, and she turns her head to see that the guy has nudged his way between her and the next stool down, leaning against the bar and invading her personal space. She meets his eye, and is reminded fleetingly of Jacob and Sam and all of the Quileute boys who went from awkward adolescents to hulking, muscular man-children overnight. While his complexion isn't the same, the dark eyes, dark hair, bulky stature are familiar and, in this moment, more intimidating than any werewolf ever was.
"One drink," he says, entirely undeterred, and as she's opening her mouth to decline again, he reaches out and runs a fingertip along the back of her hand. Just as she snatches her hand away, a voice washes over his shoulder.
"Back the fuck up." The guy doesn't straighten, doesn't remove his arm from the bar top, doesn't give any indication that he's heard Tyler's voice apart from a bored and slightly amused glance over his shoulder.
"I said, back the fuck up," Tyler spits, hot fury in his eyes, which look dark in the dim lighting of the bar. Barely suppressed rage is evident in his tone, his face, the curl of his fists by his sides, the rigid tension of his shoulders.
"Who the hell are you?"
"I'm her boyfriend."
The guy seems to find as much satisfaction in goading Tyler almost as he did in leering at Bella, and he turns back to her, leaning in even closer. "This kid?" he murmurs, as if they're sharing an inside joke, and Bella can taste liquor on his breath and see the haze of alcohol in his eyes for a moment before he's suddenly hurtling backward, his dress shirt pulled tight against his chest where Tyler has grabbed two fistfuls of it at the back and yanked him away. As soon as he's out of her space, Tyler shoves him aside, and he crashes into a cluster of three girls, sending glasses and ice cubes and sprays of booze falling to the floor. He rights himself and lunges for Tyler, who grabs him by the biceps as they turn in half-circles, bumping into other patrons as Aidan hops around them, attempting unsuccessfully to either join in the fray or break it up. Suddenly, Brick is thundering through the bar with a speed and agility Bella would have thought impossible given his sheer size, and he wraps his enormous arms around the other guy's upper arms, bear-hugging him from behind.
"Break it up!" he barks, and Tyler straightens, his shirt crooked on his frame and his eyes flashing. His cheeks are flushed and his chest heaves with each breath as he glares at the guy still struggling against Brick's hold.
"All right," he yelps. "Let me go."
"You're both out of here," Brick announces, unbanding his arms and pushing the guy toward the other bouncer who has just appeared behind him.
Tyler smoothes his hands over the front of his shirt before stepping closer to Bella, covering her hand with his and running his thumb over the back of it, as if he's wiping the idiot's unwelcome touch from her skin. He opens his mouth to say something when Brick's hand clamps down on his shoulder. "Let's go."
Half-turning, Tyler's barely-quelled anger flares again. "Listen, that asshole—"
Brick holds up a hand, cutting him off. "I know. Look, man, I get it, okay? We're cool. But you need to split because you and I both know that if any more shit does down, Ramey's gonna call the cops, and your girl will be in some serious shit."
As if it's the first time he remembers that Bella isn't twenty-one, the fire of fury in Tyler's eyes seems to dim slightly, and he swallows. "Right. Yeah. Okay. Sorry, man."
"No sweat," Brick says, clapping a beefy hand on Tyler's shoulder. "Just…go take your lady home and enjoy the rest of your night."
Tyler nods, and once Aidan assures him that he'll settle the tab, he leads Bella out to the curb. They hail a cab – too wired, too keyed up to descend underground, to stand on platforms, to wait – and as the cab flies along streets and weaves its way around brake lights, that intense focus suddenly lights on her as Tyler runs his hands over her face, her shoulders, her arms. "Are you okay?"
"For…getting into it with that dickhead. I shouldn't have done that."
"You think I'm going to be mad at you for standing up for me?"
"My father says I'm too quick-tempered and volatile for my own good."
"I'm not your father."
Finally, a small smile. "Good thing, too, because he's really not my type." His hand trails down over her arm and finds her hand on the cracked black leather seat between them; when he intertwines their fingers, he squeezes them nearly hard enough to make her wince. She's spent so much time thinking of herself as breakable, as fragile – and being treated as such – that it is this one, simple thing that brings her to the rather jarring realization that everything about Tyler makes her feel stronger than she is, rather than the opposite. She doesn't realize she's staring at him until he frowns slightly in the fast-moving slip of passing streetlights. "What?"
"Nothing," she murmurs, dropping her gaze to their joined hands, when really, what she should have said was "Everything."
The taxi spits them out at the curb in front of his building, and it isn't until the cab has disappeared into the still-buzzing New York night that he turns to her, eyes slightly wide. "I'm sorry. I didn't…I just gave him my address. I wasn't thinking."
"It's okay," she says, and she can see the doubt and the hesitation warring with the relief and a faint trace of anticipation in his expressive blue-green eyes. She slips her hand back into his, and this time, she's the one squeezing. Without a word, he holds the door open and leads them up the stairs; the apartment is eerily quiet, lit in the sodium-yellow half-light of the city that filters in through the curtainless windows. They stand in the archway between living room and kitchen, Tyler watching her carefully and Bella feeling suddenly a little bit reckless, as if the ferocity that had been seeping from him on the ride home has bled into her.
"Can I stay?" she asks finally, feeling as though she's standing on the edge of a cliff – and she's been on the edge of a cliff before, and why is this scarier?
"Please," he says, nothing more, and even though she doesn't know if it's just a reply or if he's asking her for more, she sheds her coat like old skin. He does the same before stepping into the bubble of her space and unwinding her scarf from around her neck, dropping it to the floor beside them. As he lowers his head, she rises to her toes, and when his mouth covers hers, she's treated to another realization: Tyler burns. He burns like fire in the places she became accustomed to ice, and somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she remembers the lines of a poem: Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire.
As he licks a line of flame along her bottom lip, she wants nothing more than to feel him burn against her, hot and fiery, rage and passion and everything else that seems to light him from the inside out, ablaze with blistering intensity. As if he's read her mind – or, at least, as if he's feeling the same way she is – he trip-guides her backward through the apartment and into his room, half-falling atop her as they collapse on his mismatched bed sheets, and his hands trace heat along previously uncharted parts of her, up her side and up her thigh and up her stomach and up, up, up until she feels as though she could fly. She lets him peel layers from her skin, sweater and shirt and tank and jeans and socks, and with each layer she should be getting colder, but it's the opposite, her skin heating by degrees with every inch she bares.
Between ridding her of layers, he slips out of his own until they are pressed together with the barest of scraps between them, and he breathes into her neck, "Do you want me to get a condom?" She tenses, and he feels it in the sudden clench of her stomach beneath his, the tightening of her grip on his shoulders. "It's okay," he says immediately, lowering his mouth to her neck. "It's okay," he murmurs into her skin, resuming his kisses, the fire only barely banked.
"I want to," she whispers into the darkness, and he pulls back slightly to look into her face, his eyes soft.
"It's okay," he says again. "Not tonight." He doesn't push, doesn't elaborate, simply presses his mouth to hers and then licks fire along the tendon of her neck. "Can I touch you?"
"Yes," she whispers without hesitation, relief and arousal a heavy mixture in her stomach, desire a blaze somewhere lower. "Please."
Warm fingers find even hotter flesh and she bucks up into his touch, a small gasp falling from her lips as he whispers touches over the most intimate part of her. Later, after she falls apart and he falls apart and the flames reduce to embers, she falls asleep to a lullaby she's never heard: the slow, steady, beautiful thud of a heartbeat.
A/N: Thank you so much to the lovely person or persons who nominated this story in the "Fic of the Week" poll over at The Lemonade Stand. I'm honored to be included with some truly amazing stories; if you're so inclined, hop on over to TLS and check out the poll: .