Her Hometown Girl (A Belladonna Ink novel)

Her Hometown Girl by Lorelie Brown
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-646-0
eBook release: 
Sep 4, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-647-7
Print release: 
Sep 4, 2017
Word count: 
65,000
Page count: 
243
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Belladonna Ink universe.

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I had doubts before the Big Day—doesn’t everyone?—but I didn’t expect to find my fiancée banging the caterer’s assistant right before the ceremony. Especially because he’s a guy. And we’re lesbians. The proper sort of Southern Californian lesbians who invest in hedge funds and wear bedazzled wedding dresses and wouldn’t be caught dead in a Subaru.

But then I became a runaway bride, headed straight for Belladonna Ink to get the kind of tattoo I always wanted and my ex always called trashy. She didn’t approve of a lot of things I did. I think maybe she didn’t approve of who I am.

So I’m determined to be as much of myself as I can manage. Dating my tattoo artist? I’m in. Cai is smart, sexy, and mysterious. Exactly what I need for a rebound. She keeps herself guarded, but I understand—I’m holding on to secrets too. The kind of secrets that make a girl want to run home to Mom, even if home is Idaho. Maybe especially then. I just didn’t expect Cai to come with me.

I wonder what it would take to get her to stay forever.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Tansy

It turns out that getting a tattoo hurts. I expected a sting, sure. But getting a flu shot isn’t a big deal—it’s the soreness the next day that actually hurts.

Yeah, getting inked isn’t like that. It’s a thousand wasps attacking my skin as a Hitachi Magic Wand vibrates my toes off my foot.

“You okay?” my tattoo artist asks, but she doesn’t stop what she’s doing. Cai. Her name is Cai. I met her almost two hours ago, when I walked into Belladonna Ink based on Yelp reviews.

“I’m miserable.”

“Do you want me to stop?” I hear the amusement in her voice. She scrubs another lick of fire down the center of my calf. “Just warning you, if you take a break and then get going again, pretty much everyone agrees it hurts worse.”

“Aren’t you a pile of sunshine?”

“Can sunshine pile? Isn’t the expression ‘a ray of sunshine’?”

I smash my cheek against the chair’s support ring thingy. Paper crinkles. “Is this like food service where I shouldn’t tell you how much I hate you because you’ll spit in my soup? If I tell you how I really feel, will you draw a poop emoji on me?”

“No, because you’ll walk around for the rest of your life telling everyone who’ll listen that I drew that shit.”

“This is true.” I blow out a long, shaky breath and am mortified to realize my nose is snotty and I’m holding back tears. Not surprised, but still embarrassed.

It’s been a long day.

It’s been a long, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

I slept in until eight, and that has probably been the best part of my day. Only twelve hours ago, and an entire lifetime. Two hours after that was mostly okay: brunch with my future mother-in-law and my maid of honor and a couple of others. Jody wasn’t with us because she’d wanted to get in a long run before the rich food of the reception. All as expected. Then the makeup artists and hairdressers showed up, and there was still no sign of Jody.

I didn’t start getting anxious until I was staring out the window as the hairdresser swept up my long curls and piled them on my head. Jody wasn’t answering my texts. I wish I could have said it wasn’t like her. I couldn’t. A few stories below, I could see hotel staff was setting up for our event. All the chairs were out already, and a florist swagged satin and arranged white roses. The red carpet had been unrolled across the sand, leading toward the waves.

I was already in my wedding dress.

As soon as my hair was done, I slipped out the back door of the suite, down the hallway, and up two floors to Jody’s room. The door wasn’t closed. Jody’s neon-orange leggings were jammed in the way. I picked them up and push the door open slowly.

I saw every inch of penis plunging into her.

After that, it was all over but the shouting. Well, telling Jody’s family too. At least I didn’t have to tell mine. And naturally Jody bailed, leaving me alone to tell everyone what had happened.

She’s lucky I didn’t tell them all about why it was canceled. So freaking lucky.

I sent the bar staff home, told the florists to deliver everything to a nearby synagogue, and stiffed the caterer. Maybe I’ll feel bad about that tomorrow. Maybe I won’t.

The ginger-pubed baby-faced catering assistant had stiffed Jody plenty, after all.

My tears leak into the paper lining of the face rest, making it translucent.

“Why so much lace?” Cai asks.

I wonder if she senses the changes in my body, even through her machine and latex gloves.

The design we agreed on circles the top of my calf with an intricately lined lace pattern gathered around a cluster of pink and purple tulips.

“I was in a wedding dress a few hours ago.”

Cai’s surprise is in her hesitation. The needle lifts. “Oh yeah?”

It’s that asking-but-not-asking thing that people do when they want to hear gossip but aren’t sure if you want to share. “Beautiful dress. Heavy satin with swags and just the right amount of Swarovski crystals.”

“Do you count those in individual crystals or in square inches covered?”

I crane my neck so I can look over my shoulder at her. I don’t see snark in her expression.

Her eyes are dark enough to make them a little unreadable. She has gunmetal gray shadow swiped over crease-free lids, but it doesn’t look like she spends a lot of time on makeup. Her mouth is held in a soft smile. If she’s mocking me, she’s hiding it well.

“I don’t know. It had them here.” I wave a hand over my torso. “Like a belt. But the thing is, I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I wanted boho lace. Gobs of lace and something that only went to my calves. Something that’s actually appropriate for a beach wedding.”

“Is that where it’s going to be? The wedding?” She asks so casually.

This is going to be my future for a while, and I can’t help but imagine everyone tiptoeing around me. Not much is going to be point-blank like this, though. I don’t have that many close friends.

“That’s where it was supposed to be. Two hours ago.” I lift my wrist and check my watch, ignoring all the flashing alerts from social media. “No, wait, three hours ago.”

“Holy shit.” She raises the tattoo machine again and stares at me. Our gazes catch. Her mouth is open a little. The line of her bottom teeth is a perfect curve except for one crooked canine on the left. It tips inward as if it’s trying to hide in her mouth. “I thought . . . I thought you had the dress on today for, like, a fitting.”

“Nope.”

“Dude.”

“Yeah.” I blink back sudden tears. They go away almost as easily as they appeared.

I wait for her to keep going. Ask what happened. Why I’m not on my way to the Big Sur honeymoon that’s bought and paid for. Where my bride is—unless she’s reading me wrong and is wondering if I lost a groom. Air gathers in my lungs, and I can’t tell if I want to talk or if I want to scream. Maybe I want to wail like a baby.

“Why were you wearing a dress you hated?”

Well, there’s an option I wasn’t expecting. It’s enough to shake me sideways. I use my held breath to hiss through my teeth when she drops her gaze to my leg and goes back to work. “Jody’s mom—Jody is, was my fiancée—Marta, paid for my dress and Jody’s tux. She wanted us to match styles. Fabrics. Plus she likes bling.”

“But you’re not a fan.”

I shake my head, then realize she might not be looking at any part of me other than my calf. At least, I kind of hope she’s not. Concentration is a good thing. Since this is going on me permanently and all. “I’m about as anti-bling as possible. But I did it. Wore it. I figured it was a little thing so everyone would be happy.”

“Everyone but you.”

“That’s the problem.” One of the problems. My crushing neuroses, my fear of abandonment, my poor communication skills, and everything else that made me ripe for Jody’s particular style of manipulation. That’s a pretty big part of the problem too. Plus the aforementioned caterer banging. Problem. Yeah.

“Did you leave her at the altar? Please tell me you did. That would be badass.”

I have a sudden, explicit memory of the gray-haired woman who passed us in the hallway at the exact moment Jody screamed she “wouldn’t have to act out” if I were “more understanding.” I cried and told her I understood perfectly how penises work. Not exactly what I’d call badass. That woman held her fluffy golden puppy closer to her chest and hustled three rooms down.

“Not quite the altar. We weren’t going to have one anyway. The beach-wedding thing. An archway covered in flowers.”

“Sounds beautiful.”

“The flowers had crystals on them.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“We are poop free.” I laugh because my only other option is to start sobbing. “Jody and her mom wrapped the stems in crystals and glued drops to petals. I mean, they didn’t do it themselves. They got the florist to do it and paid plenty.”

“Aren’t flowers pretty enough?”

“It was all I could do to convince them not to spray-paint them gold.”

“Spray-painting flowers?”

“It’s a thing. A Pinterest thing.” I run my hands up under my hair. It’s still stiff with product. My scalp burns when I catch and tug strands. “Don’t get me wrong, I had two different Pinterest boards for the wedding, but Jody had ten. Weirdest butch I ever met. Whatever. She had to control everything. It’s probably my fault for letting her.”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Cai looks up and flashes a tight smile at me. “Abusers take what they need, whether you give it or not.”

My skin flashes first ice-cold and then prickles hot. “She’s not an abuser.” Because that would mean I was abused. “She never once hit me or pushed me or really anything like that.”

Cai’s touch is soothing as she uses a paper towel to wipe away blood and ink. “Okay,” she says so gently that I feel like she’s patronizing me. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to make assumptions.”

I think of a hundred small memories and moments at once, and then they’re gone and I breathe again. “Yeah.”

“Here we go,” she says, pouring foaming liquid all over my leg and then wiping it again. “You’re all done.”

“I am?” I’m both stunned and relieved in a blink of time. “Can I see?”

“Sure. Come here.”

She leads me to a full-length mirror at the end of the short hallway of stalls. Some of them have curtains pulled, but in the next-to-last one is a girl with short-short hair getting an old-fashioned anchor on her shoulder. She winks at me.

I scurry away. I’m standing in front of the mirror, staring blankly at my reflection before I realize my shoulders are tight and my chest is locked against air because I’m expecting Cai to snark at me, every word covered in passive-aggressive poison. Like them butch? she’ll ask me.

Except it’s not really Cai I expect to start in on me. It’s Jody who’d say things like that. Who has said things like that when a waitress was a little too friendly. Then she’d told me the waitress was only looking for a good tip and I shouldn’t be so naïve.

I rub my temple. It doesn’t do anything to get at the swirling thoughts in my head.

“Do you like it?” Cai has her arms folded over her chest, leaning back against a half wall papered in textured red. Her button-down is crisp. The suspenders outline the subtle curves of her body. Her long black ponytail lies over the front of her shoulder and brushes her wrist.

She is everything too cool for school. Everyone I wanted to be but never managed. I’m too much of a mess, too hungry for approval and love. The thing is, I can’t remember if I’ve always been like this. Why did I put up with Jody for so long? Something has to be wrong with me.

But the cocked angle of Cai’s head trips my feelings-on-alert trigger. The degree she’s holding her shoulders. She’s anxious. She wants me to like the tattoo she’s inked into my skin.

“It’s gorgeous,” I assure her.

And it is. My badge, my symbol of never giving up on myself again. No matter what it takes. The black lace curls around my skin as if it’s real. The tulips are vibrant and bursting with color. I point my toes and flex my calf, watching it move. From every angle, it’s amazing.

Cai gives me a rundown on caring for it, everything I need to do and not do. I listen carefully, but at the same time there’s a creeping dread slipping in around the edges of my brain.

“Are you okay?” she asks. She touches my forearm.

It’s the first skin-to-skin contact we’ve had. Everything else has had safety barriers between us.

More than that, I think maybe it’s the first time I’ve had skin-to-skin contact that wasn’t Jody in a long time. A very long time. If I didn’t keep myself carefully to myself, life always got so hard. Jody made sure of it. And then all my friends are actually Jody’s friends, and they would never hug me or lean on me. I didn’t think I wanted them to, but the way my body cries out for more must mean I need it. I need someone.

I’m so alone.

“I don’t know if I want to go home,” I blurt out. A different kind of truth but still pretty terrifying to hear coming out of my mouth.

 

Chapter Two

Cai

I can’t take a wounded bird home. I can’t fucking do it. “Do you feel like you won’t be safe?”

I don’t know how I want her to answer. With the truth, of course. With some element of assurance that will let me off the hook too, if I’m honest with myself.

She gives it to me. One of her hands flutters in a no-big-deal flick. “No, it’s fine. It’s just that I’m conflict-avoidant, so that’s what I’m doing. Avoiding conflict.”

It sounds like she’s repeating something she’s said—or heard—a hundred times.

I don’t get to give more than the slightest attention to how cute this girl is. She’s a client, and she’s got enough emotional baggage packed up to need two valets. She doesn’t need me creeping on her.

Tansy cried through the second half of the session, so her hazel eyes are red-rimmed and her button nose is pink at the tip. I’m a sick fuck to find her adorable like this, but there it is. I want to hide her away from the world and make sure she never meets an unkind soul again.

Which is exactly the reason I should stay away.

She’s a slip of nothing. Only about five foot at most, which makes her a full six inches shorter than me. If I wore my big boots, the difference would be even more noticeable. I want to cup the back of her head, touch the ginger strands that look like a fuzzy cloud to see if those strands are soft or like twine. If I shelter her from the storm, I might remember what it feels like to be strong.

Instead I do nothing, say nothing, and lead her back to my cubicle. I dress the tattoo in a protective bandage. It’s always strange to know my art is going to get up and walk away into the world, and this time is no different.

“Touch-ups are on the house, always are,” I say, and she nods like a star pupil. “Anything you don’t like, come back and see me.”

“You sound serious.”

“I am.” I reach toward her leg, but I don’t touch her. I circle the air instead, but it doesn’t matter. I still know what her skin feels like. “My goal is for you to be happy with what I made of you for the rest of your life. When you’re eighty-seven and rocking out on the retirement home’s beach trip and someone asks you about it, I want you to give my name with pride.”

“I’m way more of a hot tub girl,” she says with a smile that sneaks its way past her day’s heartbreak. “Or ponds. Or creeks. The ocean is too freaky for me.”

“Me too. There’s no jellyfish in a creek.”

“Exactly.”

But as I’m grinning at her, reminding myself that this girl has more than enough on her plate and that I have no interest in this kind of chick, I hear commotion at the front end of the shop. To be exact, it’s a loud voice with a tyrannical tone that sets my back teeth to grinding. “What is that?”

All the color is gone from Tansy’s face. Her formerly pink cheeks are the pale cold white of porcelain. The curve of her bottom lip is shallow and drawn taut. “That’s Jody.”

As if saying those words has cracked her, she scrambles off my chair and dives for the messenger bag she left hanging on a hook. She fishes out a phone in a pink camo case. “Stupid Find My Phone! I didn’t know she had the password. How long has she had that?”

“You seem kind of freaked out.”

She flashes me a wide-eyed look of panic that’s at odds with what comes out of her mouth. “It’s fine. Jody’s going to be upset, but I practically left her at the altar. She has every right to be emotional. It looks like she was trying to reach me, so she’s probably been worried about me too.”

I . . . have no idea what to do with that. She’s the biggest ball of anxiety I’ve seen since the client who had a phobia of needles and ended up having a panic attack.

Tansy gathers her messenger bag and slings it over her shoulders. The strap rests between her breasts, molding her silk, sleeveless blouse to her figure. She has surprisingly large breasts for such a small frame.

She also has an artery pounding under the delicately thin skin at her temple. When she licks her bottom lip, it barely leaves a sheen, as if her mouth is dry as stone. “Do I pay you directly? Or up front?”

“Front of the house.” I wave toward the general area where I can hear Jody bitching.

“I have every fucking right to be here.” Her voice spikes above the velvet curtains dividing the tattoo benches. “My wife is here.”

“I’m not her wife,” Tansy mutters, but then it’s like she remembers I’m here. She blinks and gives me a great smile that I’ve done nothing to earn. If I didn’t look too closely, I might think nothing was wrong.

I follow her down the narrow, short hall. Jody spots her before she manages to step into the foyer. “Tansy! Where have you been?”

Tansy walks to the counter without looking at her fiancée and hands a credit card to Nayla, who’s working the front desk and register. “I’ve been here. Add thirty percent tip,” she says to Nayla.

“I’ve been worried about you.”

It’s a spooky echo of the words Tansy had said to me moments ago. Goose bumps walk across my shoulders.

Jody is tall and coolly femme. She’s slender enough that there’s a circle of taut skin at the base of her neck between her collarbones that reminds me of Robin Wright.

My crush on Claire Underwood dies a fiery death right then and there.

“Maybe you should have thought about that before humping that guy four hours before our wedding.”

My gaze jumps to Nayla’s. We both have wide did-you-hear-that eyes. Tansy is still keeping her face tipped away from Jody. The line of her shoulders is so tight that they’re creeping toward her ears as if she’s trying to ward off a blow.

“You know how I feel about publicly airing unpleasantness.” Jody’s voice is calm. Weirdly so. If I’d been caught doing the deed on my wedding day, I think I’d be a hell of a lot more upset. But then, I don’t know their dynamic. Maybe this is the fifth time they’ve been through this dance. All things considered, I’m pretty helpless. This isn’t my fight to pick.

I lean against the glass-and-chrome counter and shove my hands in my pockets. “Thanks for the tip.” Considering the cost of the tat, it’s pretty good money.

“It’s worth every penny,” Tansy says with complete sincerity. She manages to meet my gaze for a second before bouncing away, looking back down at her purse and making an event of putting her card away.

“Oh,” Jody says on a mouthful of sigh. I think she’s just noticed the bandage. “What did you do to yourself, Tansy?”

“It’s my body and I’ve always wanted a tattoo.”

“You’ve never mentioned it to me.”

“You’ve made your disdain for tattoos more than clear.”

Jody rocks back on her heels as if she’s astonished. Her blue chambray button-down is impeccably pressed. Whatever hunting and worrying she’s been doing over Tansy has been quite tidily done. “Just because I think they’re trashy shouldn’t matter. I would never, ever tell you what to do.”

If Tansy believes that, she’s in deeper than I thought. Control drips off this woman in the way she’s trying to be charming and utterly failing at it.

“I’m tired, Jody. I need to rest.”

“Naturally. We’ll go home and talk for a while and then you can sleep.”

“There’s nothing to discuss. I’m done with you.”

“I know. And I know it’s my fault.” When Tansy looks at her, she arranges her mouth into a disappointed frown that wasn’t there a moment ago. “But at the very least we have to figure out how to separate our lives. All the logistics. And I want to tell you how very, very deep I’ve been delving about how terrible I’ve been. How reckless I’ve been in my choices. I’m an awful person, Tansy.”

“You’re not,” she says, and I want to physically throw myself between them. Take Tansy’s shoulders and shake her.

As it is, I can’t keep my mouth shut. “Think maybe you should try throwing an ‘I’m sorry’ in there?”

Tansy’s head whips from Jody to me so fast that a piece of hair catches at her mouth. She shoves it away.

“This isn’t any of your business,” Jody says in a cutting sneer that drags Tansy’s gaze back to her.

“But you didn’t. You didn’t say sorry.” Tansy’s eyes are wide.

“You know how sorry I am.” Jody holds out her hands, palms up. They’re rock steady. “I am filled with regret.”

I lift an eyebrow. “Regret from fucking that dude or from getting caught?” This is kind of fun.

This time Jody appeals straight to Tansy. “This is why we need privacy. Let’s go home. I promise I’ll sleep on the couch.”

My impulse gets the best of me. I push off the counter and lean into the blonde with the haughty attitude. Holier-than-thou shit always gets my back up. “She’s not going anywhere with you.”

“Cai, it’s okay.” Tansy puts her hand in the middle of my back. The touch is feather soft but enough to make me realize how stiff I’ve become. “I have to pack a bag and get my cat. It’ll be fine.”

We’re strangers. I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. There’s a great, vast nothingness between us, and I could throw all the guesses and suppositions in the world in there and not fill it up. I’ve been here before, in a place where not knowing is worse than the truth. “Are you sure?”

But, at the same time, I don’t know what I’m doing. There’s no way I can take this stranger home with me. It’s not even about some amorphous worry that she’ll rob my apartment. It’s about what I’m not capable of—the kind of long-term healing that Tansy desperately needs. I’m running from my own demons, after all.

“I’m positive,” she says, and I decide to let her have her lie.

“Thanks for the tip,” I say again. I shove my hands in the back pockets of my jeans to keep from doing anything stupid. “Don’t forget to come back for the touch-up.” I hear myself making it nonoptional. I hope she realizes what I mean.

“Thanks. For everything.” For a moment I think she’d going to hug me, but then she gives a tight smile to Jody instead. “Let’s go.”

Their walk out the door is a dance. Jody’s fingers at the small of her back. Tansy stepping away. Jody tries for her shoulder instead, and then they’re out of sight.

I stare at the closed door longer than I want to admit.

 

Chapter Three

Tansy

Breaking apart a couple takes even more work than I expected. Finding Jody in bed with that guy had almost felt like a relief. At last. Here it was. The thing I could point to and explain why a relationship that should have been so right was pure misery.

She was cheating all along. Of course I must have realized on some level.

Jody spends hours explaining how lost and pressured she’d felt. She’d crumpled under my expectations.

I didn’t know it was so much to ask her to support me and love me.

She keeps me up until 3 a.m. before she finally admits that we have to sleep sometime.

When I try to remind her about her promise to sleep on the couch, she acts like she never said anything like that. My memory is failing me under all this stress. Maybe I’m wrong.

“I’ll sleep on the couch, then.”

“You won’t get any real rest.” She’s standing in the bathroom we’ve shared for eighteen months. One of her fists rests on the edge of the raised sink bowl. “You’ll toss and turn.”

“I’ll be fine.” My eyes are so bleary, it hurts to blink.

“Here, take a Xanax at least.” She grabs the bottle from the medicine cabinet and shakes one into her palm.

“Those are yours.”

“And I’m sleeping in the bed, where I’ll sleep like a log.”

Sleep like a log when we’re less than twelve hours away from what should have been our wedding. I can’t understand her.

“Fine,” I tell her. I take the pill and toss it back. I’m going to sleep either way so it doesn’t really matter.

I hold the small, stuffed bear that’s been with me since my childhood in Idaho and shuffle to the pale-gray sectional. The blanket from the back of the couch is thin but warm when I nestle into it. Tears burn my cheeks. I hold down the sobs that I could make, because I don’t want Jody to come back. I want space. I want to breathe. I’m not sure I’ll ever breathe right again. When I think the combination of my silence and snotty nose will choke me, I roll over so that my face is buried in the throw pillows.

And, the thing is, I don’t think I’m crying over my relationship. I want to be free. I want myself back. I cry because I can—because it’s not my job anymore to be the calm, rational person that Jody always demanded.

It hurts to realize again that I’m human. With human feelings that have been hidden for so long I’m not sure if it’s best to wipe my eyes as I cry or if that will make things worse. I’ve forgotten how to cry.

I drop into sleep like a pebble into a well.

I jerk out of sleep gasping.

“No, no, it’s okay,” a familiar voice says. Jody.

I wipe a hand across my eyes. My sight won’t clear. I think it’s the crying that’s left my eyes swollen. Or maybe the pill. “Jody, we have to sleep.”

“I couldn’t.”

“What time is it?”

“Five.”

Two hours after she finally let me go to sleep. I can’t think. I am fog. “I have to sleep.”

“You can’t leave me.”

“I don’t want to be with you anymore.” It’s my clarion call. The one thing I kept saying over and over last night, between the explanations, between her justification.

“I don’t know what I’ll do.” She’s sitting on the edge of the couch, her hip pinning my ribs in. She takes my hand, wrapping her fingers around mine. “If you go . . . I might as well be dead. Maybe I will be.”

I don’t say anything, which could seem awful to some people, but I know from the other times that there’s no right answer. If I act like I don’t care despite the adrenaline surging down my useless stick limbs, she’ll flip to rage. If I take her veiled threats seriously, we’d end up with her mocking me for needing safe spaces and too much sensitivity training.

My mouth feels like it’s been wiped down with cotton wadding, so dry I can barely swallow.

“You won’t leave me.” Jody pets my hair back. “We’re good together. Everyone says so.”

I rub my tongue over my lips. It’s hard to line up words. “I want to go.” I can’t think past the basics.

“You don’t.”

“I do.”

“After everything I’ve done for you. Everything I’ve given you?” There’s a light on in the bedroom, just enough to let me see the shape of Jody’s face but not her eyes. I don’t trust her if I can’t see her eyes. She’s cold like a Russian saint and just as hard. Her grip on my hand tightens. My bones grind together.

“You’re hurting me.”

“You’re hurting me,” she echoes, pinching my fingers tighter.

Tears well in my scratchy, swollen eyes. “Please.”

“Always with the tears. I’m not hurting you. I love you.”

Aren’t these my bones? She pushes my hair away from my face and kisses me. I don’t kiss her back, but I don’t pull away either. She’ll only get more upset with me. Her hold on my hand loosens at last. It’s only when she pushes my shoulders down that I realize I’ve been trying to curl up and get away. I am away. I’m floating even though I’m lying flat.

Gyoza meows from somewhere else in the apartment. I think she must be on her perch in the dining room. He likes the window overlooking the pool.

I guess Jody is still kissing me. She’s flat on me. Her thighs straddle my thigh and she rubs. She buries her face against my cleavage, and the irony almost kills me. My breast are sensitive. During tough times, I had to beg her to touch me there. Told her how much more eager for sex I’d be.

She does it now. Not then.

I stare at the ceiling. My hands are flush against the couch cushions. For a second I think the fabric’s damp, and then I realize that my palms are sweaty.

She cups my breast, her hand beneath my V-neck shirt. The individual brands of her fingertips are made of sandpaper.

Any minute now, she’ll notice that I’m not here. I’m not with her. I’m so far away that each long, slow blink moves me back and forth across galaxies.

She grips my shoulder tightly. I make a noise like a whimper. I guess it hurts. She intertwines my fingers with hers and pushes them down her cotton shorts. She’s wet. I try to pull my hand away, but she doesn’t let go.

In a little bit, she’s done.

With a gasp that’s nearly a cry, she collapses on me. Her knees push between mine. Her head rests on my chest.

Outside a car door slams shut. The downstairs neighbors are home. I hold my breath and wonder when Jody will get off me. How much space is in the universe. There are molecules between her and me. I wish there were more.

I wish I hadn’t taken that pill.

“You see?” Jody touches a single, wet finger to my sternum and pets a sticky path to the neckline of my T-shirt. “We’ll work this out.”

“I’m going away,” I promise, and then sleep swallows me.

 

Chapter Four

Cai

I pretty much thought that I wasn’t going to see her again, so it’s probably a good thing that she’s looking at a framed picture when I step into the waiting area. It gives me a chance to get a good look at her. Take everything in.

It’s the riotous pile of her curls that draws my attention first. The sun is sliding sideways through the front window and the orange glow of sunset has made her a halo. She lifts both hands and shoves her fingers into the mass to give it a shake. She pulls back out the way she went in rather than stroke through to the ends.

Six weeks is a long time and also kind of a blink. She’s exactly the same, this person I’ve seen once, and yet I think there’s something wrong with her. Her oversized shirt is blue plaid that almost manages to hide the gray pallor of her skin. There are purple shadows at the inner corners of her eyes.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” I tell her.

She jumps even though she’s come to the shop looking for me. “You thought your work was that good? I wouldn’t need a touch-up?”

“No.” I push my hands into the pockets of my shorts. “I knew if you stayed with that woman, you would eventually pretend you’d never even seen a tattoo machine. Much less sat for one.”

“Whoa. Why are you being so mean?” It’s a little fucked up, but the shadows under her eyes make their hazel-brown color even richer. Her lashes are pale and short.

And all this is me trying to distract myself from my truth. I like her vulnerability way more than I should. “I don’t know.”

“If I hadn’t already, I wouldn’t be getting ink from you. This is not good customer service.” Her jaw is sharply square and even more so when she clenches.

“Yeah, I know.” I rub the back of my neck. I have my hair in a high ponytail today, which works with my tank top. Skylar would give me crap about looking sloppy if it weren’t for the shorts being leather. “It’s been a tough couple days. I shouldn’t have said that. Come on back and we’ll take a look at you.”

As she follows me to my station, I can practically feel annoyance radiating from her like heat.

“Not that it’s your business, but I did leave her. I packed my stuff the next day.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” Not platitudes. Not a polite lie. For some reason I really do feel weight lift off my shoulders. “Got your own place now?”

“Kind of. I’m pretty lucky; one of my students’ parents is letting me use an apartment they own. I’m still looking for something permanent though. It’s all so freaking expensive.”

“The market is rough lately. I’m sure you’ll find somewhere soon.”

“Tell me about it. I could go back to school for as much as some places are charging.” She tosses a small tote onto my extra chair. “And it’s not like I enjoyed college that much the first time around.”

“I enjoyed it too much. So much that I dropped out.” I pat the big, padded tattoo throne. “Up you go.”

“I have to admit, I thought about it like a dozen or a hundred times or so.” She gives me a slightly embarrassed look from under her brows. “It was Jody who got me through. Not the academic stuff, I was fine with that. I was so lonely. I’m from Idaho, and the adjustment to Cal State Fullerton was overwhelming.”

“And Jody rescued you?”

“We lived in the same hall. She . . .” Tansy trails off, looking past me into her memories. Then her mouth twists into a wry smile. “She set herself up as my rescuer, told me no one would ever understand me the way she did, and they wouldn’t want me anyway. I shouldn’t keep romanticizing her. So say the self-help books.”

“Self-help books talk a good line.” I like the way she smells today, like fresh flowers and rain. “It’s a hell of a lot harder to live. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be nearly as screwed up as I am. Maybe I’d even settle down with a nice woman and a Subaru and a couple mastiffs.”

“A Subaru and dogs?” She laughs. “You’ve read the Lesbian Bible one too many times. You don’t have to live the stereotype, you know.”

“I’m actually bi,” I say in mock-seriousness. “Throws the gaydar off every time.”

“No, I mean, yeah, I thought you were gay of some sort, but that was mostly wish fulfillment because I thought maybe you were flirting with me last time I was here. Before Jody showed up at—” She breaks off abruptly, clamping her mouth shut. She goes so red that the apples of her cheeks circle round to white while the rest of her is scalding. “Sorry. Rambling. I know it’s annoying.”

“No, it isn’t.” I grasp her upper arm. She’s shaking, and hard. “It’s cute.”

“You don’t have to lie.”

“I’m not.”

She’s looking down at her lap, where her hands are locked together. Her shaking subsides before she manages to look up at me. “Honest?”

“Cross my heart.”

She takes a long, slow breath that lifts and lowers her shoulders. “Thank you.”

Her bravery is so in my face that it’s startling. I rub the arm I’m holding, keeping the move as brisk and reassuring as I can manage. I don’t do relationships well. Connection is difficult—but it’s exactly what this girl needs, which means I’m exactly who should stay away from her. “Lay down and let me see your leg.”

She’s facedown practically before I can blink. I fight the urge to call her a good girl, and settle for patting her shoulder. She’s like petting a baby duck or a puppy. Makes me want to nuzzle her.

“Mostly it’s perfect,” she says, and for a minute I think she’s poking around inside my head and telling me this temptation is okay. Except of course she’s talking about her tattoo. “I didn’t heal well on the left and now there’s some light bits?”

“I see what you mean.” I lay a finger on about an inch of lighter gray among the black. “Right here.”

“Yeah. Can you fix it?”

“Totally. You head to the front again, and I’ll get everything sanitized. Let you know when I’m ready for you.”

“Awesome,” she squeaks and then she does this amazingly, mind-numbingly sexy/cute butt wiggle.

I deserve a Nobel fucking Anti-Sex Prize for not gripping that soft bubble with both hands and squeezing tight. “Right,” I manage to choke out. I clear my throat and repeat myself. “Right. Off with you.”

“I’m really happy. I was freaked out that I’d done something wrong and it wouldn’t be fixable and it’s so beautiful. I would be so mad at myself if it was ruined.” She seems to recognize that she’s doing that rambling thing, because her fingers lift to her mouth and she blushes again. It’s not as fierce as last time.

I still want to kiss her, and that could not be a more terrible idea. I’m too hard for her, too cold. Far too cold.

I send her off to wait and rabbit through all the sterilization that will keep both her and me safe. The whole time, I turn the possibilities over and over in my mind. Six weeks since an aborted wedding probably isn’t long enough for her to be over her terrible-sounding ex, but maybe that’s okay. I’m not exactly looking for forever anyway. A drink and some flirting and seeing what possibly happens from there . . . It’s not out of the realm of things that could come true.