“I think I need to refresh my memory though,” Jinx giggles.

Max ignores her and gestures toward his walled-off section. I walk in and sit in a chair that looks like it belongs in a dentist office. His area is very neat, almost OCD clean, with everything lined up evenly and all labels facing outward. It looks as if there are about five other guys in this shop and all of their areas clearly show their personalities. Pictures and drawings cover their walls, along with various metal band music posters. But Max’s area is a blank canvas. There are no personal belongings in sight, only the tools he needs to do his job.

“Do you have something in mind or do you need time to search through the look books?” he asks.

I pull out a piece of paper and hand it to him. “These are the words I want. I’ll leave it up to you how they’re written.”

He reads over the quote and asks, “Damn, Jim Morrison? I like you even more now.” He flashes me a smile, which showcases two dimples that are way too adorable to be on such a masculine face.

“The only thing I can thankfully say I got from my father was his good taste in music.”

He nods his head in apparent understanding. “Where were you thinking of getting it?” I point to the right side of my rib cage and he smiles in agreement. “Perfect choice, babe. My favorite place to mark a girl up.”

It takes him some time to draw up the stencil perfectly and on paper it looks beautiful. I have to take my bra off, but he lets me keep my shirt on because it’s loose fitting and I can just push it up. After thoroughly sanitizing the area, he transfers the script onto my skin.

“Stand up and check it out in the mirror.”

With my left hand, I continue to hold my shirt up and lift my right arm to view what he’s done so far. I’m mesmerized by the way the curls on each letter flow into the next one, almost resembling a beautiful love letter. I could stare at it for hours. I can’t wait to have it permanently etched into my skin.

He lays the chair down flat and gently drapes my right arm over my head. I stick ear buds from my iPod in and flick through my albums for the perfect, relaxing mix. Before I can hit play, he taps me on the hand and I look at him to let him know that I can still hear him.

“The first few lines are pretty close to...your chest,” he says, almost nervously. “I’ll have to pull some areas tight and lean on you a bit at some point. I swear I’m not feeling you up though!” He raises his hands in genuine innocence and in this moment, I feel completely comfortable with his abilities and professionalism.

“Don’t worry about me, just do what you need to do,” I say, trying to make him feel more at ease.

“Alright then, let’s do this,” he says, while pulling on black latex gloves. “It’s gonna hurt at first, but usually it fades to a dull ache after a few minutes. Everyone is different.”

I shrug my shoulders, push play, and close my eyes. Throughout my years growing up, I’ve taught myself how to anticipate pain. When you know it’s coming, you can prepare yourself and refocus your thoughts elsewhere. I’m an expert at this, thanks to my dad.

The second the vibrating needle hits my skin, I love it. This is a good type of pain, the kind I can control, and it slowly becomes a pleasant feeling. I know what true pain is and this isn’t it. The humming noise of the machine can be heard over my music and it relaxes me, even more so than the massage chair from the pedicure.

I make it through one whole album when Max taps my side to let me know he needs to grab some more supplies, but that he’ll be right back. At this point, I hope I can lie in this chair all day. Tattoo to your heart’s content, Max.

My workout was exactly what I needed. I was surprised to see that Lane attends the same boxing gym as I do. It was cool to spar with him a few rounds. He’s crazy-ass good though and he got some good hits in on me. I’ll definitely need to learn a few pointers from him.

As I’m heading out, I notice Max’s brand-new pair of gloves lying outside of the ring. His can easily be identified by the tattoo-like drawings on the leather. The right one, in particular, has a pretty ferocious-looking tiger that extends all the way to where his knuckles would be.

Since his shop is right across the street, I decide to run them over to him. I try to sneak past Jinx as I enter the shop, but she spots me before I can get two steps in the door. Her face lights up as she calls out my name.

“He’s with a client. I can help you though,” she says in a low voice. A few more rounds of ‘heys’ call out from some of the guys in the shop and I nod my head to all of them. Max walks out of his workspace, so I excuse myself from Jinx’s predatory gaze.

“Hey man, you left these in the gym.” He continues walking toward the storage room, so I follow behind.

“Shit, thanks. That’s my new pair. It took me forever to draw that damn tiger.”

He smirks while grabbing some ink from the shelves. “Dude, you have to check out this chick I’m working on right now.” He sucks his lip in between his teeth and whistles. “I think I just found my wife.”

“Wow, proposing already? That’s fast, even for you.” He jabs me in the side at my quip. “She covered in tats or something?”

“The exact opposite! Virgin skin. I’m totally poppin’ her cherry. Get this though, she’s completely enjoying it. It’s like it turns her on. She hasn’t flinched at all, and when the needle touches her skin, she gets this almost serene-like look on her face.”

“Damn, that does sound like your kinda girl,” I reply.

“Walk over there and check her out. She’s f**king gorgeous.”

“I think I’m good, man. I got my own girl.”

“What? When did that go down? Ah, forget it, you still need to see my future wife. She’s got legs for days, and I know how you enjoy a good pair of legs.” He pulls me across the shop floor and just to appease him, I peer over the wall at the girl lying flat on her back with her eyes closed and music blasting through her earphones.

“What the fuck?” I say, a bit too loud.

“Nu-uh, back your predatory ass up. I don’t like that look on your face. I already called dibs. You have your own girl, remember?” he quickly says, while walking into his area. Audrey doesn’t budge from her relaxed state, and she still hasn’t opened her eyes to see her audience.

“Back off, Max. That’s my girl!” I point at her. His eyes widen and he looks back and forth between Audrey and me.

“Does she have a necklace on?” I ask.

“Noooo,” he whines. “This is my dream girl and you got her first?”

“Damn straight! And you better believe I don’t plan on leaving her alone with you a second longer.” I gaze at the work he’s done so far. “Especially since you’re practically working right on my girl’s chest. Cop a feel and lose a finger. Got me?”

He grumbles and walks to the sink to wash his hands. After he slides new gloves on and sits back down beside her, I pull up a chair on her opposite side. Her milky white skin is now stamped with fresh ink and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it looks pretty damn hot. But on the other hand, I loved her smooth, untouched skin. Mostly, I think it bothers me that she came here by herself.

Before Max begins, I grab her hand and kiss her knuckles lightly. Her whole body locks up and she immediately sits up ramrod straight.

I continue holding her hand while she looks at Max, who has his hands in the air in surrender. “Wasn’t me! I sure as hell wish it was, but it wasn’t me, babe.”

With my empty hand, I reach out and swat at him, “Hey, she’s not your babe, jackass.”

“Jace?” She finally turns to look at where our hands are entwined together. I slowly lay her down while Max prepares the machine. I don’t want her accidently flashing him with her shirt up like it is.

When she’s flat on her back, I take out her ear bud and whisper directly into her ear, “You have me now. No more doing this kind of stuff by yourself, ‘kay? You’re not alone. I want to be there for everything.”

Tears well up in her eyes and she says, “How did you know I was here?”

“I came to see this douchebag. Max has done all my work that I’ve gotten in California. He’s also my friend, but that’s questionable now that I’ve heard how he feels about you.” Her cheeks turn a nice shade of pink, and I kiss her lips lightly while squeezing her hand.

“Carry on, Maxi-pad.” I gesture for him to resume.

“Asshole,” he grumbles. I can sympathize with him, really I can. I know what it’s like to learn that Audrey isn’t actually going to be yours, but now she is mine, and he can just get over his little case of puppy love.

When he starts up the machine and touches it to her skin, I instantly see what he had been talking about. She does get an almost tranquil look on her face. Her music is blaring again and she’s off in another world, giving me the opportunity to freely stare at her, uninterrupted. I’ve seen this look on her face after we’ve both satisfied each other for hours and we lay side-by-side, just trying to catch our breaths.

Sitting here, staring at her satiated face is beginning to be a major turn-on. I mean, how could it not? I know how to put that look on her face, and I damn sure want to know what she’s thinking right now. It’s f**king hard though, because I know Max is sitting directly across from me seeing that same face, and probably feeling the same damn rush of hormones that I am.

When he wipes off an area of her skin, I watch his eyes quickly glance up at her.

“Stop looking at her face. I know what you see,” I growl.

He turns his head and laughs into the crook of his arm. “Dude, it’s kind of hard not to. Especially now that you’ve just confirmed that what I’m seeing is her ‘I’ve just been f**ked real good’ face.” He smiles to himself and gets back to work. I’d punch him right now, if I didn’t think it would mess up Audrey’s tattoo. I’ll tune him up in the ring next time we’re in the gym though.

“I’ll take care of you later,” I warn.

“It’ll be f**king worth it,” he whispers back with a laugh.

After the longest thirty minutes of my life, he finally finishes without eliciting even a flinch from Audrey. She probably handled that better than I do. This whole time, I’ve been staring at her face and haven’t stopped to read the script across her ribs. Max pats her hand to signal he’s finished. Her eyes blink open and readjust to the light. She begins to sit up, so I rush to hold her shirt against her chest.

She smiles and says, “I’ve got it.”

I follow her to the mirror and check out the work he did. I’ve got to hand it to Max, he knocked it out of the park again. His art looks badass on her skin, yet also very feminine and sexy. I kneel down in front of her so I can look at it up close. My finger trails the outside of the tender letters without actually touching the ink as I take in what I see.

“Expose yourself to your deepest

fear; after that, fear has no power,

and the fear of freedom shrinks

and vanishes. You are free.”

After thinking about what this means for her, I lean in and kiss a slow circle around the perimeter.

I look up into her eyes and ask, “What is your deepest fear?”

“Being alone,” she whispers back. “I didn’t realize how alone I used to be until I met Lane, and then I didn’t fully accept it until I found you again. I’ve finally freed myself from that fear. I don’t ever want to go back, but I know I can survive it.” I lean in and kiss her side one more time before standing up and looking down at her beautiful face. I grasp her face on both sides and speak to her, hoping it reaches the deepest part of her.

“Never again, baby. I never want you to feel alone again,” I express, and she stands on her toes to capture my mouth.

A groaning noise comes from behind us. “Dammit, knock it off. Doesn’t anyone care that I’m heartbroken over here?” Max grumbles. He crooks his finger, signaling for Audrey to come over to him. He slathers on some ointment and covers the tattooed area. “If this as**ole f**ks up, please come find me. I’m ready to propose to you, run away with you, let you have my babies, kneel down and kiss your feet daily, babe.”

It takes me about two point five seconds to reach him and then only another millisecond before I smack him upside the back of his head.

“Thanks again for the tattoo, Max. It’s amazing. Better than I ever imagined,” Audrey compliments.

After going back and forth with one another at the counter over who is going to pay for the tattoo, she finally wins and swipes her card.

“You two know each other?” Jinx asks, looking bewildered by our exchange.

“Yup,” I reply vaguely, not wanting to get into this with her right now.

Audrey gives me a confused expression and elaborates, “I guess he’s my boyfriend...although he still hasn’t taken me out on a date yet.” Her smile widens and I can tell she’s excited about tonight. Jinx’s surprise is written all over her face as she gapes at me and I inwardly cringe. Without a word, she hands Audrey her receipt and we head out the door.