Last night she had sex with a guy she didn't even know.
It wasn't the first time. It wouldn't be the last. She didn't know why she continued to do it. She guessed it was because she didn't care enough. She inhaled, burning her lungs with chemicals and nicotine as she stared at the angry red tip of the cigarette. The smoke wafted up toward her face, stinging her nostrils and eyes. She let it. She couldn't remember his name or his face. All she could really remember was the smell of alcohol and sweat, the way she felt sickened by him yet continued to let him touch her—all the things she wished she could forget. She tried to burn the memory of the stranger from her skin with a hot shower, but all that did was scorch her skin.
Reese felt dirty and used—she felt like she deserved to feel that way.
Putting the stub of cigarette out on the sole of her black Converse, she climbed through the window and into the living room of the apartment. It was a small room with white walls, tan carpet, bare walls, and a mismatched couch and recliner. She didn't have a lot of belongings and nothing in the place really coordinated, but at least it was clean.
She got ready for work, changing from her cotton shorts and tank top into a tight black shirt and dark stretchy jeans. A quick stop in the bathroom had her brown eyes lined in black and her short blond hair a purposeful mess around her face. Grabbing her cigarettes and keys, she locked the place up and walked across the street to the tattoo shop she worked at.
Leo glanced up from his sketchpad as she entered the shop. “Rough night?” he asked in his deep voice.
Except for the impressive tattoos covering his body, Reese's boss was pretty average in appearance. His voice, on the other hand, was exceptional. It was like butter with a hint of a purr in it, the masculine timbre sexy and dark. It caused shivers to break out on her skin whenever he used it, which, sadly, wasn't that often. There were times when she zoned out just listening to him talk, although the most he ever did was when he was explaining something work related to her.
She also had fantasies about him using his mouth and voice on her in creative ways. Not that that would ever happen between them. She more or less offered to sleep with him a few months ago and he declined by completely ignoring her. The week following that was loud—mostly from her slamming things around and snapping at everyone, including costumers. She almost lost her job. Leo's exact words were: “Quit with your fucking attitude or get out.” She got rid of her attitude.
“What can I say, I like it rough,” she said mockingly, checking the appointment book. The afternoon was full. Good for Leo, bad for her non-productive lazy ass.
His pencil went flying and he stalked from the room, her eyes lifting just as he turned a corner and disappeared. She smirked, knowing his bad-ass exterior hid an uncommon chivalrous soul that frowned upon demeaning talk and behavior, especially about and toward women, no matter if she was talking about herself or someone else. Apparently he was one of those guys who loved his mother. She shouldn't continue to tease him, but it was too easy. The fact that he could fire her ass at any time seemed to get lost in the mix of it all. Picking on him made her feel better about him finding her undesirable, because why else would he have said no?
No one said no.
Reese retrieved the black coal pencil from under one of the four chairs in the waiting area across the room from the front desk, carefully setting it beside his partial sketch. Her body froze as she took it in, feeling a pinching in her chest as she gazed at the indescribable beauty created by a man's hand. It was a bird, the outline of it bold and black, the feathers lifelike, the eyes holding intelligence. It looked on the verge of flight, strong and unafraid. She swallowed thickly and moved away, looking up and crashing gazes with Leo from where he stood by the doorway.
“It's...” She cleared her throat and showed him her back as she walked toward the bar stool she habitually perched on for the duration of her work day. “It's amazing.” Her face heated up at her admission. Reese and compliments didn't usually work well together. As in, she didn't give them. Keeping her eyes on the scrawled names of the schedule, she asked, “Who's it for?”
“Not you,” he replied as he sat at his desk. The matter-of-fact tone of his voice was grating in ways she couldn't even explain to herself.
She glared at his lowered head for a good thirty seconds before sighing and checking the phone messages. Her evil eye was wasted when he wouldn't even look at her. That was another thing about Leo—he never looked at her for long. If Reese was a less confident woman, she would have serious self-esteem issues working with him. But she knew she was attractive to the opposite sex, even if not to the rare male that was him. There was no shortage of men wanting her.
That was Reese Ward: The girl all the boys wanted and none loved.
“Saw you on the roof again. Told you not to do that.”
He also had this annoying way of speaking in half-sentences a lot of the time. Like the effort to add an extra word or two was too exhausting for him to contemplate, or too beneath him. Reese went a whole day speaking that way just to aggravate him back. It was a total fail. He didn't even seem to notice.
"Were you spying on me?"
He ignored that. What a surprise.
“Are you going to kick me out?” She'd asked him this before. The answer was always the same—silence.
The history of Leo and Reese was confusing, as was just about anything that involved the two of them in any way or form. Their acquaintance began about six months ago. She'd just gotten fired from her job as a waitress at the diner next door to his shop. She'd mouthed off to the owner one too many times and that was the day he decided he'd had enough. Leo witnessed the whole embarrassing scene as he stood unlocking his front door. She was jobless, and as of the night before, she was homeless too.
It was all too much and she started crying. That he saw her tears had always been a sore spot for her—people didn't see her cry. It was a rule of hers. He took pity on her, offering her a place to stay with cheap rent, and a job. She was a stranger, nothing to him, and he was willing to give her more than anyone ever had before. She said no at first, but an hour standing in the cold rain eventually changed her mind.
Reese never understood why he did that and she didn't think she ever would. It was obvious he had no patience for her and that he didn't particularly like her either. Why did he help her all those months ago? Why did he continue to put up with her bull shit?
“You know, I'm not hurting anyone by smoking on the roof. Would you prefer I smoked in the apartment?”
“Not smoking at all would be good.”
“Yeah, well, it's not up to you.”
“Who's first?” he asked, not even glancing her way. He had another habit of not acknowledging her snippy comments when he so chose to—or a talent maybe. Being able to not always feel the need to have a comeback was a notable gift. One she, unfortunately, did not have.
“First timer. April Lange. Age nineteen. She wants a flower or some goofy shit on her foot. I told her to get here around twelve to fill out paperwork.”
She decided to pretend to earn her money and started a pot of coffee, moving on to straighten the stack of magazines on the end table between the chairs. Next she turned an alternative rock station on on the stereo, keeping the volume low so it didn't distract Leo's concentration. He immediately got up and changed the station to classical music. It could have been Beethoven—she wasn't sure.
“Angry enough without music encouraging it more,” he told her.
Her first inclination was to tell him to go screw himself, but instead she went with, “And you're boring enough without Bach lulling you and me both to sleep.” She was proud of herself for digging that name up. She hadn't even known she knew of two classical instrumentalists.
“Mozart,” he corrected.
She debated the smartness of saying “biteme” really fast and then stating she thought it was another classical musician's name, but decided against it. Instead Reese did minor cleaning around the white-walled waiting room, the back room he did the actual tattooing in, and then checked the bathroom for supplies and overall cleanliness.
Most of the time she felt like she wasn't really needed around the place. So why did he keep her on as an employee? The million dollar question. Certainly not for her sunny disposition or their really deep, insightful conversations. Mention of a former employee had never been brought up, so she assumed there hadn't ever been one. Of course, it wasn't like he ever really told her anything.
Leo was more than capable of doing all of her duties—the guy was a neat freak worse than she was, and he was painfully orderly. She thought maybe he had a form of O.C.D., but when she mentioned it at one point, the look he'd given her was so lethal she'd never brought it up again. Like, death by eyes alone was possible.
The scent of strong black coffee took over the lemony smell usually lingering in the tattoo shop. She poured Leo a cup, setting it on the windowsill beside his desk. He nodded his thanks, zoned out in the world of creativity. She got herself a cup as well, staying far enough back that she didn't break his concentration, but close enough that she could watch him work. The quick, sure strokes of his tool against the paper, the way his hand formed what his mind told it to, was phenomenal to see in motion—how he could take a blank piece of paper and turn it into something unforgettable. To give life where there wasn't a mere moment before.
Time was lost as she observed. Her eyes stared at his fingers, wondering how they could do what they did, and then in return wondering what they would be like on her body. The way they mastered the pencil made Reese think they could rule and bend, even reconstruct, anything—maybe even her. She felt the quickening of her pulse and turned away. One would think, with the amount of action she got, that she wouldn't have to resort to having illicit visions about her boss.
Her boss, who was an enigma full of closed doors and secrets. Her boss, who was seven years older than her. Her boss, who didn't even like her. Maybe that was the appeal. He was a challenge. She liked challenges. She also apparently liked tattooed men with plain features, sexy voices, and abrupt conversations. Reese was learning new things about herself all the time. Go her on the path of self-discovery. Maybe she could even write a book about it. 'The Screwed Up Musings of a Screw Up.' Catchy.
She was torn from her daydreaming by a steely-eyed look from Leo. She must have been making him nervous. She backed away with her eyebrows and palms raised, turning back to the desk by the door. She sat down on the stool and eyed the clock. Only eight more hours to go until she could escape from the stifling atmosphere of the room with all the drawings on the wall near the door. She was surrounded by beauty made with the hands across the room from her. Leo only did freehand work—his freehand work.
At times she felt like she was sitting in the presence of someone she wasn't worthy enough to and that at any moment he would realize it and finally give her the boot. She even expected it on a daily basis. She came to work thinking, Today will be the day he tells me to go. She didn't understand why it hadn't happened yet. She didn't understand him and she kind of thought that was the point. He didn't want her to.
Loud voices, laughter, cigarette smoke, heat, and music—it all pulsated around her. It felt like the sounds were in her ears, shouting into her brain, the warm temperature of a room with closed windows suffocating and inescapable. She sat in the middle of it all, observing the people around her with the glazed eyes and foggy awareness of someone who should have stopped drinking a long time ago—or never started to begin with.
Her lips were numb. That was the point when she needed to be cut off. But there was no one there to babysit her—not that she would listen if there was—so instead she brought the drink back to her lips, sucked its mix of artificial sweetness and biting liquor through a straw until it was gone, and let her hand fall to her lap, ice sloshing out of the plastic cup and onto her jeans.
She felt so heavy, the weight of remaining even partially upright almost too much. Reese's backside was firmly planted on the floor, but her upper half moved like her limbs were boneless, swaying back and forth. People become disjointed entities with elongated faces, blurry bodies, and too-bright clothing. Their voices took on a maniacal, high timbre, and it was all so aggravatingly loud.
Reese's hand lifted to mess up her short hair that was beginning to fall flat around her ears and neck. Instead she pitched forward, her chin hitting the linoleum, the ice spraying from the cup and onto the floor near her face. She stayed that way, her chest against the floor with her ass in the air. It was surprisingly comfortable. People laughed, ice crunched under shoes, and she began to laugh with them. Maybe she could just sleep there. She didn't think anyone would mind.
“You okay?” a low voice asked by her ear.
She swatted at the annoyance, on the brink of passing out, and a hand wrapped around hers, another under her arms, and hauled her to her feet. “I was fine there,” she mumbled, seeing pieces of clothing through the slits of her eyelids. She couldn't seem to open them completely.
“You were, yeah, but what about everyone trying to walk around and over you?”
“Fuck 'em,” she slurred, dipping forward dangerously fast.
The voice laughed, the hand tightening on her arm to keep her standing. “Need another drink?”
He had to be stupid. Anyone could see she didn't need another drink, even her. She shrugged, only one shoulder cooperating. What was one more drink? “Sure.”
“I was joking.”
“Only assholes joke about drinking,” she informed him. He was shuffling her somewhere and she knew she should probably protest, but she was so tired, and his voice was nice. If he kept talking, she could probably pass out standing up right where she was. Actually, she could probably do that whether he continued to talk in his lyrical voice or not.
“I'm Mick,” he told her as a door opened, cool air rushed over them, and a door closed again. Reese's alcohol-infused brain noted that they must be outside. Even under the influence of spirits, she was quick like that. Also, the cold air gave it away. That, and the water dripping onto her head from above. It was raining—misting, actually.
She fought to open her eyes far enough to take in the man beside her. “Reese,” she supplied, right before she threw up on him.
He sighed, moved her toward something cold and hard—a wall—and told her to sit down. She couldn't believe he wasn't yelling at her. Of course, if he had, she wouldn't have cared. Her throat was raw and tasted of her drink, but with a horrible taint over it. She slid down to the wet grass, and when that wasn't comfortable enough, she let her body fall to the side, the pull of slumber getting too hard to ignore.
“Hey. Don't be passing out on me now.” Gravel crunched under shoes as he walked away. Maybe he was leaving her out there. She didn't mind. It was quiet. “Yeah. She's here. Reese, right? You owe me big time. I just got a shirt full of vomit. Yes.” A sigh. “Why do you make me rat people out? Yes. They were. I'm not sure. First floor. Okay.” At first she thought he was still talking to her, but then she realized he was on a cell phone. The footsteps came back. “Reese.” A hand shook her shoulder. “Let's get you up. Come on.”
“Go away,” she moaned, oblivion tugging at her. She just needed to rest. Just for a little bit. The world was spinning and her stomach was flip-flopping around and she just needed to pass out. She'd get up in a few hours.
“Which floor do you live on?”
She pointed up, rolling onto her back. It was an effort to open her eyes and squint at the sky. Raindrops smacked her face, washing the makeup from it, washing her shame from her. She wondered, if she just stayed out there forever, would she eventually be washed clean of all of her sins? It was a nice thought. She opened her mouth to catch the moisture on her tongue, hoping it would remove some of the nasty taste from her mouth.
“That really doesn't help me out. Come on.” Arms fit under hers and lifted her to her feet. She swayed, fell back against a tall frame, and let her head rest against his shoulder. The fact that she was smashing her back into her own vomit didn't register as quickly as it should, nor did it matter as much as it should. That was why alcohol was nice—it dulled everything.
“Who are you?” The rain was coming down harder now, the sound of it like millions of needles hitting glass. Reese's clothes were soaked and clinging to her. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the downpour.
“I'm Mick, remember?”
“Do you live here?”
“I do. Just moved in last week. I'm on the fourth floor.”
“Why were you at that party?” Her limbs were so loose, too loose to get to work. Mick was holding her up more than she was holding herself up.
“A friend asked me to stop on my way home.”
“Were you looking for me?” They were moving forward, but also side to side with her uncooperative weight throwing them off.
“I owed someone a favor and he made me pay up.” They were at the door to the apartment complex. He somehow managed to get the heavy door open while keeping her on her feet and maneuvered them both in. He was gifted.
“Must have been a big favor.” Her rain-lodged shoes slipped on the floor and she caught herself against the stairwell railing. The white walls and bright lights of the interior were striking and made an ache form behind her eyeballs.
“You have no idea. What floor, Reese?”
She turned her head and blinked her eyes into focus. She noted black hair and kind brown eyes. That caring expression on his face abruptly shut everything up inside her. Nice people didn't exist, not really. The ones who seemed the nicest always wanted something in return, or they were hiding something, or they were pretending to be nice so you didn't realize how truly vile they were until it was too late. Or they were being forced into it because someone was making them—like whoever he'd talked to on the phone. She frowned. Who the hell had he been talking to?
“Who were you talking to on the phone? Who asked you to see if I was at that party and made you babysit me?”
Thin lips pursed. “I'm not supposed to tell you that.”
True, the unhealthy amount of booze she'd consumed—vodka and cranberry juice—had dulled her motor skills and thought process, but it hadn't completely eradicated them. She jerked her arm from his grip and glared at him. There were two of him, so it took a lot of concentration to keep him within her gaze.
Fucking Leo Chavez. He had to be behind this.
He owned the apartment building. This guy just moved in. This guy owed him a favor. Leo was the only one in this whole messed up world who seemed to care about her even the tiniest bit and who would know she was at that party. The little—never mind that nothing about him was actually little—snoop—nor that he really wasn't a snoop—probably overheard her talking about it on the phone with Amber at work earlier. She knew he didn't care about her, not really. She was some kind of possession, some charity case, he had to check up on. He felt obligated, for whatever reason. Maybe she reminded him of someone or something—a younger sister, a cat, who knew.
“So, what, you're his personal spy now?”
“Leo,” she bit out.
Mick raised an eyebrow at that. “Look, he just asked me to see if you were okay and that if you weren't, to help you home. That's all. Clearly, you were not.”
“Clearly, you need to get the fuck away from me. If he wants to play babysitter to me, he can get his ass over here and do it himself.” What was she more pissed about? That he'd had someone check up on her, or that the person checking up on her wasn't him? She stomped up the stairs, her breath coming out in short gasps as she forced her body up to the third floor.
Once there, she leaned against the door as she unlocked it, falling onto her knees as the door gave way beneath her weight, and went about kicking off her wet, vomit-ridden clothing. She threw them in the direction of the laundry room, which was actually a closet with a washer and dryer inside. She didn't bother with light switches, stumbling through the living room and veering to the right. The lights of the bathroom blinded her, so she closed her eyes on them, finding the shower through touch alone. She sat on the tub ledge, her head resting against the shower stall as she turned the water on.
Body washed and teeth brushed, she sat on the couch in the dark, her cell phone in her hands. She'd taken a handful of pain pills and chugged three glasses of water, so whatever dehydration and ensuing headache felt the need to form could think again. The phone screen was resting on the number of the tattoo shop, where all calls were forwarded to Leo's cell phone after hours. If she called him, she'd blow up at him. If she called him, she'd probably lose her job for real. If she called him, it meant she cared in some way about his actions tonight. If she called him, she couldn't let the numbness descend and she desperately craved it right now. She scrolled past his name and ended on another.
Reese sent a text and within twenty minutes she was wrapped within the arms of a man. Talking wasn't wanted nor necessary. Any details of his life before this moment and after this moment made no difference to now, or to her. In the dark his mouth loved her while his body punished her, and then the reverse was done. She clenched her eyes shut when the fingers touching her morphed into another's; lean-boned and gifted. She bit his shoulder when she couldn't evade the pale gray eyes with their reprimand. He growled low in his chest as his body formed to hers, taking and taking.
Tears trickled from her eyes when one pair of eyes changed to another, and the hands became another set entirely. The hands that hurt the most. The eyes she could never fully run away from. Her chest filled with pain, but her body overrode it with pleasure. She became wild, moved faster against him—anything to escape her mind where the memories lived. On and on it went, until she was lost in the sensations, until she lost herself.
When it was over, he didn't ask to stay and she didn't ask him to. He left and she was once again alone. She cried into her pillow, hating herself, but hating him more—the one who was supposed to protect her and instead hurt her in ways she had never recovered from; ways she didn't think she ever would be able to recover from. Bloodshot eyes greeted her in the mirror when she finally forced herself to her feet and into the bathroom to shower and brush her teeth again. She pulled on a shirt and shorts and crawled out the living room window to smoke a cigarette. The roof was slippery and her butt was wet within seconds, but she barely noticed. She let the cold and rain seep into her, staring at the building across the street.
The building was the color of sand and rectangular in shape, nothing overly noteworthy about it. She felt like she was watching it from a greater distance than she was—that it was some mirage of security that she could never really reach. Rain pelted its top and slid down its walls, making it glisten in the dark, alight in the night as though even dusk could not fully extinguish its bright beacon. She didn't get her fascination with it. It was just a building. There was no life to it, no heartbeat, no words, nothing to make it appealing in any way.
A lone light shone in the studio apartment above the shop. She'd never been in his living quarters, but she imagined that was the room where Leo slept each night. She wondered if he was still awake. She wondered if Mick had told him what a bitch she was and that Leo owed him for hauling her drunk ass out of that party. She wondered if he was watching her, at this very moment.
He didn't know it, but the reason she was out there so much was because looking at the stone structure centered her. It wasn't to smoke her cigarettes. It wasn't to irritate him by blatantly disregarding his wishes. It was to keep a piece of her grounded when she feared all of her was drifting away like leaves in the wind.
The cigarette was turning soggy between her fingers. She inhaled a final puff and listened to it sizzle as she touched it to the wet roof. She threw the butt in the kitchen waste basket and grabbed a blanket from the closet near the bathroom. Her bed smelled like the man she'd let into it and she couldn't sleep there again until she'd washed the sheets and blankets.