Early this morning, Grace finished my transformation and stood back, admiring her handy work. “I’m giving up the Inn business and chasing my hidden talent of cutting hair. Damn, I’m good. Have you always looked like a 1920s socialite back from war and ready to reconcile with his sweetheart? Because you do now.”
I couldn’t stop touching my freshly shaved neck. I understood cats and their perpetual need to be rubbed. Not only did it feel amazing and soft, but it was strangely soothing. It was nice that I didn’t need to continuously move my bangs out of my eyes.
I laughed. “If all that’s true, I guess you’re a witch. I’ve never been that interesting.” I stood from the little stool in her bathroom. The ghost of me walked in front of the mirror. I tried to focus on my face and my hair, now short and choppy on top. I tried to relish in the fact that the bags underneath my eyes were gone.
However, I couldn’t look away from the bite, hidden away by perfectly cleaned gauze. All I could think about was the bite underneath the soft cotton as if I could trap all my horror and nightmares there. My eyes clouded and from Grace’s silence, she must have noticed. I gathered myself and tore my eyes away to meet hers.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Anytime,” she said and our exchange of sad smiles was interrupted by Jess. He froze by the door, wearing another one of Liam’s old T-shirts underneath a plaid thermal. Life sparked behind his eyes and he cracked a crooked smile.
“Hey,” he crooned, swaying into the bathroom. “Have you seen my mate?” He bent down slightly to my eye-line, using the salute hand gesture to measure our heights. “He’s about yea high. Very cute,” he said, using the tips of his fingers to stroke my arm as I just shook my head at him. “But he’s a lot more scraggly and smellier than you.”
“He sounds nice,” I pinched his side and he grinned wider, twisting out of my clutches. “You should find him.”
He grabbed my wrist and pulled me closer, pressing a kiss to my head. He took a deep breath of me as if taking his first breath of fresh air in an eternity. After that, Jess reintroduced me to the house. I apologized to Liam for threatening him, but he just laughed it off.
He said, “It was the politest way I’ve ever been threatened.”
He busied himself, frying bacon and eggs. Today, the special was pancakes. All pancakes were made to order, blueberry, strawberry, chocolate chip, Nutella, banana, eggnog, even lemon poppy seed pancakes and the signature Dearest pancakes made from cinnamon, buttermilk and the town’s staple: apples. Everything was covered in warm butter to powdered sugar. The use of maple syrup was up to the discretion of the customer.
Dominic was at Liam’s side barely giving me the time of day, but Ryan was breathless talking so fast. He continuously whisked together more and more batter. “That haircut turned out really nice, you look so much younger than I thought, but honestly, it’s really great to see you awake. It’s been pretty tense here-” Ryan blinked wildly, blushing to his ears. “I mean, um it wasn’t that bad. We all knew you were gonna pull through. Jess was just really tense-”
“Red,” Dominic leaned over the counter with a stack of chocolate chip pancakes, covered in gram-cracker bits and mini marshmallows. “Shut up and take this to table five. You,” he finally snapped a glare at me. “What do you want? Get your order in.”
“I’m fine,” I said. They were busy, and I didn’t want to bother them when they were in the middle of a rush. I had already noticed a bowl of fruit, stacking my claim over one of the bananas.
Jess gave me a look, climbing onto the bar stool in front of the island. He rolled up his sleeves and questioned me. “You’re not hungry? Because I’m gonna get pancakes.”
“I’ll just have a bite of yours.” I sat beside him, but my stomach betrayed me. It gurgled louder than a roar and everyone turned. “Um, I’ll just have whatever is easiest.”
Liam cocked his head, his eyebrows hitching. He nodded. “You’re gonna get an everything pancake. Hold tight.” They got back to work as Ryan fluttered in and out with orders, leaving me wishing I could help them. Jess hopped up and started helping with the final touches, while pouring everyone coffee. I sipped mine slowly.
“D-drew!” Mia shouted, barreling into the room with Grace following close behind. She held Emily in her arms and sat her in a highchair. Mia reached for Jess with a little whine. “I wanna talk to Drew.”
“Okay, okay,” Jess pretended to sigh and drag his feet. He let out a huge groan as he scooped her off the ground. Plopping on a stool, he sat her upright in his lap. I haven’t stopped feeling amazed by Mia. Jess only kept two friends and me. Mia would be his first friend since... forever. Maybe since he was her age. Actually, he seemed to fit inside this picture as he laid his cheek on Mia’s fluffy hair and stared at me.
“What’s up?” I smiled at Mia, but I kept getting distracted by Jess’ face.
“Um, um...” Mia licked her lips, seeming to work herself to ask me, “I wanna paint and um, I was wondering if you want to um too?”
Jess leaned over her shoulder and asked, “Are we still watching that movie tonight? Princess Bad-Breath or whatever?”
“Princess Fire Breath!” Mia whined and Jess grinned, making my heart swell. Without thinking, I touched his leg, rubbing my thumb over the soft fabric of his jeans.
“Order up,” Liam announced, sliding over a plate of strawberry pancakes my way. They were fluffy and perfectly brown, sprinkled with a dust of powdered sugar. Butter still slipped over its edges. Ryan rushed back inside with stacks of dirty dishes. Jess hopped up, leaving Mia on her own as he took the full tray.
“I got this,” he stated.
“Really?” Ryan asked as Jess heaved the tray from his fingers. “Oh, thanks Jess.” He darted a look at Dominic’s back and he raised his voice. “That is so thoughtful.”
Dominic mocked the words and Ryan threw a rag at him.
“We can watch the movie and paint at the same time,” Grace spoke up, feeding Emily little handfuls of different berries and yogurt.
“Shit,” Dominic muttered. He reached for a bundle of silverware and handed it to me. “Here, this might help.”
I stared at it in his hand for a moment too long. He had to gesture with them again, until I lifted my heavy hand and took them from him. I held the utensils to my chest, staring at the shiny strawberry covered in syrup. They all chattered and laughed, whirling around the warm kitchen that smelled perfectly sweet and savory.
“Drew?” Jess spoke up from the huge sink. “What’s wrong?”
“Hm?” Grace straightened up. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m-” I said, suddenly realizing I was crying. Droplets crowded the edges of my eyes and they jumped down my cheek whenever I blinked. “I’m sorry. It’s just I...” My chin trembled, desperately wiping my face. “I just never thought I’d be somewhere like this again. It’s so nice. You’re all so nice.” I shook my head and turned to Grace, trying to keep the tears at bay and made myself presentable. “Thank you. Thank you for taking care of Jess.” I couldn’t look at him. It was too embarrassing to say to his face. “It’s so hard for him to belong and yet...”
Jess’ hand slowly covered mine and it was the last straw. That simple touch weighed down my entire being. Tears burned the edges of my eyes and I pressed my chin to my chest. It took everything I had not to start blubbering. Taking a deep breath, I managed to force a smile, “You’ve made a wonderful home.”
Grace walked right over and put her arms around me. She kissed the top of my head and I couldn’t help but sob. I clutched the back of her shirt. They were not tears of sorrow, the kind of sadness that cause physical pain. No. These were tears of relief. All my anxiety shook out of me in tears and shivers. I had been holding back so much of my fear and my sadness, but in this room, I didn’t have any reason to feel either of those things. For the first time in six months, I was safe.
The movie, after an hour had become nothing but pop music noises. Somewhere along the way, my brain just turned off and I was going through every terrible scenario. Eventually, we would get kicked out and we would go back on the run or we would be found by Jacob and he’ll destroy another town and maybe, just to kick dirt in my face, he’ll mark the other side of my neck and I’ll get a horrific new accessory.
Mia sat snug against my side and all three of us were wrapped in a quilt. From what I gathered, Grace and Liam had a private living room on the second floor, connected to their bedroom. It was like the Inn, rustic and warm, but filled with more homemade items. Less things matched, maybe they were gifts or hand-me-downs. It had real hand drawn pictures from the girls and photos of the entire family.
Jess’ hand ran through the hair on the back of my head. My hair curled around his fingers and I crumbled, swooning at the touch like butter melting on freshly toasted bread. He coaxed a smile out of me and all those whirling thoughts faded away.
“Can I help you?” I asked, eyeing him.
“Pay attention to me.” He said, his voice so low I thought I was falling through a rabbit hole. His head rested on his arm, staring at me. He never had a problem looking me in the eye, which must be difficult because I couldn’t stare back, so I looked everywhere else. My heart pounded, my face growing hot.
“Mia is here,” I whispered. “We can’t.”
Jess nodded for a moment, then hopped up. He threw the quilt off his legs. I straightened up, waiting for his extra head to sprout. He scooped Mia off the couch, leaving a cold spot on my side. He cradled her in his arms as a precious breakable thing. Something about the rough and rugged Jess Castellano sweetly holding a child was one of the hottest things I had ever seen. My knees even shook. If anyone from home saw him right now, they wouldn’t believe it. My grandma might even pass out.
He walked outside the door with her and I panicked, running out into the hall after him. He slipped through a door that I assumed was Mia’s and quickly came right out. As if presenting a gift, he opened his arms and I laughed, walking towards him. “What are you doing?”
“Hold on, hold on,” Jess insisted and hurried to me. He held my arms and moved me a few steps back. “Let’s have a do-over.”
He turned, and I moved towards him out of habit, out of my unconscious need to be near him at all times. I laughed again, but he whipped around and grabbed me again. He backed me to the end of the hall, insisting, “Stay there. Just hold on.”
Practically jogging, he made it to the other end. He stood with his back to me, shaking out his limbs. “Okay,” he hyped himself up and I thought about pinching myself just to keep me in this spot, just like he asked, even if I wanted to fling myself at him. The anticipation bubbled up inside me.
Jess turned around, pretending to be surprised with his eyes wide and his arms out. “Drew? Oh my god, you’re awake. I can’t believe it.” He walked towards me, finally and I shook my head. Sometimes, his presence felt like a dream, but the world has done me too much wrong for him not to be my consolation prize. I deserved a love like Jess. He made me happy and I was going to make sure I returned that unbelievable favor.
“What are you doing?” I asked again.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” He smirked, raising his arms higher and walking faster. “Now run into my arms.”
By the time I started walking too, he was already there. Jess was always there when I needed him. He draped an arm around my waist, pressing our bodies together and I wrapped around his neck, kissing him. I tilted my head, giving him all the room he needed to make my knees turn to jelly. His rough hand sneaked up my shirt. Just his fingertips tickled my spine and I shivered.
He used his free arm to sweep me off the floor. I leaned into him. His mouth was so warm, and his taste slipped down into my belly and filled me with a sunshine beyond a perfect summer day. I grabbed handfuls of his hair, bringing him closer. I had always wanted to know what we’d do when we were finally given the chance to touch, to be together. I had dreams of making my mark on Jess Castellano, the kind of dreams that ruined my bed sheets.
Jess whispered, “Hold onto me.”
“Mm, hm,” I nodded, crossed my arms around his neck and quickly went back to kissing him. I took a deep breath between opening his mouth with mine. He wrapped an arm around my waist, picking me just slightly off the floor. In one swift motion, he opened the door, swept me inside and my back hit the wood. He pulled my arms off from around his neck and yanked my sweater right off, distressing my hair.
I reached for his face, but he grabbed me by the wrist and raised them above my head. His head nuzzled against my neck. He kissed my sensitive skin, dragging those lips down the center of my throat as a moaned escaped. Spreading my legs, his knees pressed up against my tight jeans and I shuddered. My skin was littered with an army of goosebumps. Grabbing a handful of his shoulders, my back arched and I squirmed as his warm fingers tweaked my hard nipple. He knew all my buttons, gravitated towards them and every touch made the butterflies in my chest go wild.
He nipped at my collar bone and I couldn’t take it anymore. I pulled at his sweater, dragging it up his back. He laughed, a little stuck and I was more than happy to free him. He tossed it across the room without a thought, knocking another lamp over. A nervous laugh flew out of my mouth and Jess made a guilty face.
“Shut up, shut up,” he insisted, pressing a finger to his smiling lips as he approached me again.
He kissed me again, between our giggling. Our chests touched and I loved the way his skin felt against mine, the softness of his skin, his warmth and yet, the sturdiness of his build. I dragged my hands up and down his arms, rubbing the back of his neck and dragging a few fingers down his back. I appreciated this body like the work of art it was and thanking the moon Goddess to give me such a generous gift. I must have done something really right in my past life.
Jess kissed me, stepping back and I followed, almost missing his lips. He reached for my sweatpants, fumbling with the strings, only making the knot tighter. His hands tremble the way my heart fluttered. I worked on his belt and his jeans. Somehow my hands went stupid and couldn’t figure out how to undo a button. Without looking, Jess’ legs hit the edge of the coffee table and he yelped, tumbling over and I was the only thing to grab and he ended up yanking me down too. I face-planted right into his chest and I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing.
His face the color of roses, Jess shook his head and covered his face. He was laughing too and I wanted a peek of that embarrassed face so badly. “We’re so dumb,” I told him, straightening my arms out and I was lording over him. I tilted my head and kissed his fingers, making them relax and fall away.
“Sorry,” he grinned. “I guess I’m just a little excited.”
“You’re not the only one,” I whispered.
“For as long as I can remember...” Jess lifted his hand, using the backs of his fingers to caress my cheek. His voice was low, a whisper that could rattles the leaves off the trees. All the baby hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood to attention. Jess’ had that look again, with pillow eyes. “I’ve wanted to hold you. Drew, my sweet Drew. So, yeah I guess I’m nervous. I don’t want to disappoint you.”
“I love you.”
He said it like it was the first time. He said it like it was the first thing that popped into his head. He said it with the kind of smile that softened his entire face. He looked up at me like I was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen and he needed to stare, to take it all in and burn this image into his memory. It brought tears to my eyes. He said it again, “I’m going to love you for my entire life and even after. I’ll come back in the next life and fall in love with you again. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but loving you is the only thing I’ve ever done that was right.”
I slowly lowered, pressing a gentle kiss to his lips. His fingers ran through my hair. I whispered, “I love you too, Jess.” I raised up again, meeting his eyes. I shook my head in total disbelief. “You’ve always said you’re not good enough for me, but I actually know a lot of things about you. I know you make sure I go to sleep first, so you know I’m okay. You used to call my grandmother to ask how I was doing whenever we were fighting. When you think I don’t know you’re staring at me, I do and I can say with complete confidence that I think you’re too good for me. Jess, I love you. I love you...”
His smile spread into a full grin and I had to kiss him like I needed water, like I needed to breathe. He holds my waist, bringing his leg up, brushing the heat growing between my legs. My limbs trembled and Jess flipped me over, burying his head between my neck.
“Jess,” I whispered, “Mark me.”
Jess froze. He perked up, looking more surprised than I expected. He asked, “Really? Are you sure? I don’t want to pressure you.”
“You’re my mate. It’d be crazy if I didn’t want this... Jess, I have to move on. I can’t look in the mirror and think of Jacob every time. Jess...” My voice cracked, and Jess reached for me as if I was falling off a cliff. “Jess, I relive that night every time. I just can’t anymore.”
Jess rose to feet, staying bent over so he just picked me off the floor. He cradled me in his arms like I weighed nothing and laid me on the bed. “I will overwrite every bad memory you have, starting with that mark.”
He kissed me once, before untangling from my arms. I raised a brow, watching him strut towards the bathroom, not that I hated the view of his back or the way his jeans sagged and revealed the waistband of his briefs. A little excited, I slipped off my sweatpants and moved into a few different positions that might make me look the most casual. Jess appeared again, the Inn lotion in his hands. He tossed it on the bed and walked out of his jeans too, his eyes pinned on me with a look of hunger and I was the closest meal.
He marched to the edge of the bed, kneeling into the mattress. He grabbed my ankle, yanking me flat on my back and a laugh flew out of my mouth. A blush warmed my neck, all the way to my ears. This was the most Jess had ever seen of me and the more I became aware of that, the more I flushed.
Jess crawled on top of me, burying his head between my neck. He sucked on the skin there, grazing his teeth across my edges. I trembled, holding tight onto his arms. He bit the corner of my neck. He ravaged my body, biting and nibbling all these places that I didn’t know were so sensitive, but I was trembling mess. He pushed my legs open and I heard the pop of the lotion cap.
“This might become a problem, Drew,” Jess said in a low rasp. “You taste way too good.” He slowly slipped one finger inside me and I took a deep shuddering breath that shook my core. Jess left bruises and marks all over my body and I was laid out like a half-melted Popsicle, sucked on and turning to goo. I became so sensitive, even a breeze brushing my skin covered me in tingles.
“Jess,” I begged him, grabbing a handful of his hair as he nipped on the skin inside my thigh. My back arched. I was dripping, harder than a rock and it was shocking I hadn’t exploded. Jess kept me right at the very edge, making me crazy. His fingers slipped in and out, when he found the spot that struck my body with electricity.
My eyes watering, I peered down at Jess with his brash grin. There was a damn twinkle in his eye and I tugged his hair, tilting his head. I told him, breathlessly, “Jess, get over here.”
“Yes, sir,” he snickered crawled between my legs. I pulled him into a deep kiss, missing on the way over. Our bodies were already slick with sweat and the press of his hot body against mine made me tingle from the inside out. I wrapped my arms around him, our appendages sliding against each other. Between kissing, I demanded, “Stop making me wait.”
He dragged his teeth down my bottom lip and I groaned, his fingers exploring the inner workings of my body. He plunged inside me and I dug my nails into his shoulders. “Jess,” I said, warningly and he kissed me again.
“Are you sure? I could do this all night,” Jess smirked.
“If you do that, there’s not going to be anything left of me. I’m ready,” I assured him, smoothing the worry wrinkling his brow. I wanted him here, in this moment completely. The world could stay outside. The danger couldn’t enter our locked room. There was only us here.
Jess lifted himself, straightening his arm beside me. I rubbed the length of his arm, kissing his wrist and nuzzling his hot skin. His touch was like drops of pebbles into a puddle, sensations of pleasure rippling across my body. I was brought back to a promise from a long time ago.
Jess once said, “I’m going to be the one taking care of you...”
My mate, my Jess thrusted slowly and as the warmth spilled into my body, my mouth gaped wider and wider. I gripped his arms, my back arching. Jess caressed the side of my face. His voice was unrecognizable, quiet and unsure. He asked, “Are you alright?”
I opened my eyes and saw the golden hazel flecks back inside Jess’ eyes and my heart swelled so big, it threatened to pop. I cradled his face, kissing him slow and soft. I smiled against his soft mouth and shuddered as he finally moved. “I’m more than alright,” I whispered.
I pushed against Jess’ chest and he wrapped an arm around my back. He had a look of confusion as he raised me up. I wrapped my arms around Jess’ neck. I buried my head against his and dropped all my weight into his arms. I trusted him with everything I was and especially my heart. I moved for us and Jess let out a hot breath across my neck.
We moved to a slow rhythm, grabbing and pulling at each other. My world opened up and I got a taste of the good life. I threw my head back in a gasp, my body quaking. It was like sparks fizzled and jumped off my skin, breaking and crackling the air until even that was electric. Jess kept a perfect, careful hold on me. He’d never let me fall. I cradled his beautiful face raking through the scruff across his jaw. I kissed his mouth open, so I could drink myself drunk off Jess. Jess found that spot inside again that made my body jump and I cried out, flung forward. He terrorized that spot, slamming into it. Delirious, I dragged my mouth to the closest spot on Jess’ skin, his neck and then his ear, even getting pieces of his hair in my mouth.
“Jess,” I called his name as all the sensations stirring inside me threatened to crash in a head-on collision. Jess kissed my neck, kissing over the mark put there without my consent, erasing the ugliness there and leaving something precious and beautiful. Jess’ teeth sunk into my skin and unlike before, this mark strengthened the edges of my being. My mind was muddled, intoxicated by the ecstasy burning away all my other senses. I just knew euphoria.
I couldn’t stomp trembling. Even my bones resonated. I came across Jess’ chest as he released inside of me. While the fresh mark on my neck burned sweetly, the other had a more vicious kind of pain that made the light blot out of my vision. I tightened up, bearing the ache and bit my lip to keep from crying out. The pain faded along with my grasp on consciousness. I totally relax, melting against Jess shoulder and slipped away into sleep.
The last thing I remember was Jess laying me back on the bed and kissing my forehead. I think I went to sleep with a smile on my face.