I send the Frisbee skimming low over the sand and watch Heather sprint to catch it. I love how she never grew out of trying balls-to-the-wall hard when she wants to win. She vaults over the legs of a sunbather and catches the disc by just the tips of her fingers, then turns to grin and wave it over her head so I can see her victory. I slow-clap mockingly, then beckon with two fingers back my way.
“Send that sucker back before I’m too old to catch it!” I call.
She whips off a throw so fast I’d need NASA to track its path. I start running early, and still make it knee-deep in the surf before the frisbee’s arc finally comes low enough for me to grab it.
“Damn,” I mutter, huffing and puffing as I wade back out of the ocean. “Not bad for barely old enough to drink.”
I check my return throw when I see that Heather’s talking to somebody. Even in the quieter offseason like right now, Young Girl + Beach = Boys Incoming, and I haven’t made any of her suitors cry since last month. I feel like I might be losing my touch. So I jog across the sand to join them, even though the two people currently talking to her are both female. Three girls are just more of a lure for the testosterone-drunk surfers around here.
Heather glances back and grins as I approach. “Thought you were going to have to swim for that one, Logan.”
“Clearly you underestimate my speed and agility.”
Heather scoffs, unimpressed.
Her dark-haired friend coos, “You were so fast, Logan.”
“Have we met?” I say it more to insult her if we have been introduced, than out of any genuine curiosity.
“No,” the other girl answers for both of them. “But Heather’s told us all about you.” She touches my arm, her hand baby-oil greasy as it slides down my bicep. “I hear you do a lot of charity work.”
I give her my best son-of-a-movie-star smile. “I do, actually. My foundation is doing very important work with marginalized populations.”
Bimbo #2 takes a step closer, her eyes wide and the baby oil giving a little squelch between her palm and my arm. Heather steps between us and slants the girl a warning look. She ignores Heather and steps to the side so she can still bat her eyelashes at me.
“Really? That’s so woke of you.”
“I like to think so. We think it’s important to provide a second chance for pedophiles. Our social media outreach is aimed at reducing the stigma attached to sex crime convictions and we act as advocates for reinsertion—”
Heather socks me in the stomach and the rest of my speech whooshes out. “I get why you act like a jerk to girls sometimes, but don’t do it to my friends, Logan.”
“Sorry, kid.” I turn to Baby Oil Girl. “The pedophiles were just a joke. I do run a real nonprofit, though.”
“Aww, that’s so generous and sweet…” And now the brunette is back in the game, and leaning so close her cleavage is about to make landfall on my chest. Jesus. I was going to try to be good for Heather, but I’m not going to put in the effort until she makes better friends.
“Yeah, it’s called Puppy Punters. We cover the medical bills of people who hurt themselves kicking puppies. We see a lot of leg injuries, broken toes and such, but with proper physical therapy the recovery rates have been amazing. Why, some of our clients have been able to move on to kicking full-sized dogs—”
Heather shoves me. “Logan! Stop it. Go sit with Veronica if you can’t behave.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I toss her the Frisbee. “Let me know when I’m allowed out of time out.”
Sorry, she mouths at me behind her friend’s backs, so I know I’m not really in trouble. I shrug and saunter toward the other side of the beach. Veronica’s over there reading a stack of papers so tall it looks like it belongs on the desk of a federal appeals judge, not next to a knockout blonde wearing a bikini that’s going to be starring in my dreams for the next week.
I drop onto my half of her beach blanket. “Please protect me, Mars Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
She peeks at me over her huge sunglasses. “Poor baby. Heather’s friends sexually harassing you?”
“It’s like they don’t even realize they’re barely old enough to eat solid food.”
She pats my abs sympathetically. “You’re a billionaire now, sweetie. If you want to fit in with your peers, you’re gonna have to learn to start liking younger women.”
I lay my head in her lap and wrap my arms around her waist, snuggling my face against the silky skin of her belly. “Can I learn tomorrow? I find your wrinkles comforting. Something about the smell of Ben Gay in the morning just gets me going.”
“Judging by how quickly you got up this morning, I’m gonna say it’s just the smell of oxygen that’s doing it.”
“Oxygen, marshmallows, and Promises…” I nestle a kiss into her belly button and sit back up. “Whatcha reading? War and Peace, the extended director’s cut?”
“How about the room rental records for the last decade at the Camelot?”
“So, a little light, fun beach reading.”
“Are you kidding? This is basically the PI tabloids. Who’s doing who, where those baby bumps came from, who my next thirty infidelity clients are going to be… Wanna know who your dentist was doing back in 2012?”
“I most certainly do not.”
“Anyway, if I was really going to work, I’d have brought the stack of tax records for the mayor’s ex-mistress that are glaring at me from my office right now.” Her eyes flick away from me, tracking someone crossing the beach in front of us. She says, loudly, “I told you to pack your Valtrex, Baby Bear. You know your herpes always flares up at the beach.”
I shrug. “I think it’s all the sand and sluts that do it.”
“Hey, no slut shaming.”
“Oh, I’m not ashamed of them, I’m just warning them about my herpes.” I roll onto my belly and scoop up a handful of sand, slowly sifting it down over Veronica’s leg. If I get the grains to whisper across just the right spot on her inner thigh, I can watch her get goosebumps. While she watches all the girls walking by, and glares at them if they look at me.
Her jealousy hasn’t gone away in our years of marriage, so much as it’s transformed. She trusts me now, and she’s finally grasped my deep and abiding disinterest in other women. But the other women, she trusts not at all.
“Yes, my delicate apple blossom who is definitely not going to assault any sorority girls on the beach today because Heather is watching?” I give her my most persuasive smile. “I’ll let you assault two next weekend if you’re good today. You know Heather gets enough bad role modeling about jealousy from Mel and Dick.”
She points at me. “I’m going to hold you to that. Double or nothing on sorority girl assaults. But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I was just wondering…has Dad been asking you about Dr. Lev?”
“Maybe a question or seven. You know, here and there.”
She smiles. “Cool. Just checking.”
“Cool?” I’m instantly suspicious. “Last time you brought up your dad’s crush on our therapist, you were distinctly less pleased with the whole thing.”
“I got to know her better.”
I just look at her, and after a minute, she squirms under my scrutiny.
“What? You like her! Why can’t I?”
“Uh, you might like her better but clearly you still don’t know her. She’s not going to so much as glance at your dad if she’s still working with either of us. Doesn’t matter how she’d feel about him if they met in other circumstances.”
Veronica pats my shoulder. “Oh, you sweet summer child.” Her smile is conspiratorial. “My dad taught me the art of the casual run-into-around-town and he’s got the Mars charm. Our therapist has already accidentally spent more time with him than you’d ever imagine. I just wanted to know if his heart eyes were still going strong.”
She stretches out her lovely legs, dislodging all the sand I’ve sifted over them.
“By my count, by the time I’ve run my course in therapy and the forbidden edge comes off it, he’ll have ‘happened to run into her’ at the beach or the grocery store enough times to know if there’s something more there.” She slants a fond look my way. “Sometimes, when there’s a spark, you need a little time to see if it’ll burn out or go full bonfire.”
I frown at her. “Don’t go giving away my therapist, Veronica. Come on, it took me a lot of years to find one I could stand.”
“Pshaw. You’re already down to once a month maintenance sessions, you teacher’s pet, you.”
She scoops up a handful of warm sand and lets it filter through her fingers onto my back. It feels nice against my skin and I quiet, simply enjoying it, and her. I lay the rest of the way down, propping my chin on my folded hands and keeping an eye on Heather and her ridiculous friends.
“They’re both lonely,” Veronica says, “and I wouldn’t mind my dad having a beach house and an ex-Mossad officer with a safe full of guns to watch his back in his golden years.”
“So are you going to therapy because you want to go to therapy, or because you want the forbidden love to stay forbidden and exciting so your dad won’t lose interest too fast?”
She scoffs. “Both. Obviously.”
She gives me a smile so dazzling that for a second I can’t decide if it belongs on an orthodontist’s ad, or a Victoria’s Secret billboard. Probably both. My wife in a bikini could sell anything on earth…except abstinence.
“‘Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.’” She dumps more warm sand on my back.
“Niccolo Machiavelli.” I shake my head slowly, shooting her a look of pure steam through my sunglasses. “Fuck, I love you.”
She tilts her head. “Enough to do me a favor?”
She pulls her knees up to her chest and lays her head on top of them, watching me. “I want you to get a tattoo.”
“I should have expected this would be the eventual result of your bad boy fetish.”
I wonder if she’ll tattoo on the full reproduction of our marriage certificate or if she’ll go with something more subtle. Probably about herpes. I sigh. Maybe if I play my cards right, I can still head this tattoo thing off.
“Sweetheart, at the risk of being accused of a fear of commitment, I think if the beach bunnies were going to be deterred by your claim on me, the wedding ring would have done the trick.”
“Mmm, but would jewelry do it as effectively as a facial tattoo of a zombie vagina?”
I shudder. “You know, I’ve never doubted your ruthlessness, but I think you might actually be getting scarier with age.”
She shifts to sitting cross-legged, facing me more fully as she drops her voice to stay just between us. “Look, I know why you don’t like the idea of tattoos. People seeing what you care about written all over you, fair game for paparazzi and vultures. I get that, and I promise I’m taking it into account.”
“You want me to get a tattoo?”
I consider this. Veronica’s always been territorial, and I get why. I find it a little hot, and secretly, I kind of enjoy the process of reassuring her that she’s the only one I want. But a tattoo? That’s almost certainly unhealthy. But I already know neither of us are going to tattle to our therapist, because the thing is? I just don’t care.
I sigh. “Tasteful ankle butterfly, here I come.”
“Is that a yes?”
“What do you think?” I kiss her forehead, and then lay back on the blanket, cocking one arm up behind my head. Her gaze flickers to my abs before it comes back to my face, and even with her sunglasses on, I can see how her expression has softened. “Wanna tell me why it’s so important to you?”
“You’ll understand when you see it.”
Once she’s talked me into her evil tattoo plan, I don’t hear another thing about it for three weeks. After that, she picks me up with a smile perky enough to make me deeply suspicious, and chirps, “Who’s a bad boy that’s ready for their tattoo?”
I lean my head back against the headrest of her passenger seat and deeply regret most of the life choices that have brought me to this moment.
She drives me most of the way to LA before we get to the shop she’s picked out—no doubt researched to within an inch of its insurance carrier—and it seems clean enough. Though in this situation, truly, an infection is the least of my worries.
She signs us in and small talks us all the way into a back room with a hipster-looking artist who’s wearing a beanie in eighty-five degree weather, and trendy glasses I strongly suspect are not necessary for his visual acuity. He asks where I want the tattoo.
I turn to Veronica and raise an eyebrow. “Well, do I need to strip, sugar britches?”
“Just pull your pants down a little.”
I turn back to the artist. “She always says it’s going to be only a little this time. And every time…”
“Keep it up, snarky, and I’ll have him pull your jockstrap down a little too.”
I shiver. “She’s so kinky.”
“Up on the table, and don’t give me any lip, or I’ll show you kinky.”
I vault up onto the padded table and lounge back with both hands linked casually behind my head. “Keep talking like that and he’s going to have quite the oversized canvas to work with.”
“I’m not shooting for a dick tattoo.” She looks to the artist. “You know I didn’t mean his dick, right?”
The artist shrugs, his eyes darting back and forth between us. “Hey, I just work here.”
I wave to my lower half with a gesture of invitation. “You’re driving this ship, darling. Help me assume the position.” Veronica unbuttons my shorts, rolls me up onto my side, and tugs them down slightly. My heart gives a weird bolt as more of my skin gets exposed. Fuck, I didn’t think I was nervous.
“I’m getting your name on my ass, aren’t I?”
She pinches my butt. “You should be so lucky.”
“I should. Though to be fair, I haven’t been very good this year.”
She nails me with a serious look. “Yes, you have. The best.”
My heart gives another, bigger start. She doesn’t usually compliment me in front of other people. That’s too revealing for my wife, and her bomb shelter of a heart. Does that mean she’s being nice to make it up to me for whatever horrible tattoo she has planned, or is she being nice because she has a sweet tattoo planned and she’s feeling sentimental?
She scrutinizes my lower abs, brushing a hand over my hipbone and pushing my shorts even further down on the side. She indicates the line just above my hip that points down toward my fly. “Just outside that cut of muscle, kind of angled so it won’t show, even if his swim trunks were wet and hanging low. Close enough up front that he can see it, though.”
“Got it. You want to see my book, or do you already know what you want?” he asks me.
I shrug and Veronica gives him a slip of paper. “You see the dots? The dots need to be placed exactly as I have them.”
“Yeah, I see the dots but um, are you sure this is what he wants?” The artist starts to turn the piece of paper toward me, and Veronica stops him.
“Nope, that’s not part of our deal.”
“Look, ma’am, for consent reasons, I need to know for sure that he’s willing to—”
“I am,” I interrupt. “Whatever the lady wants, wherever she wants to put it.” I give him my most charming smile. “That’s what I always say.”
The artist looks at her. Back to me.
“Dude, I get it. She’s hot. But I got to to tell you from experience. Tattoos are forever and most of the time, chicks aren’t.”
“This one is.” It’s all I want to say, but just to make sure we’ve fully covered consent, I tell them both, “It’s okay. I don’t need to see it. Just wake me when it’s over.”
I lay my head down on my arm and close my eyes, relaxing.
“It’s going to hurt. You know that, right?” Veronica says.
I snort, and don’t bother to open my eyes.
The artist finishes the piece, cleans and bandages it, and I don’t peel back the tape for the whole drive home. Once our garage door is rumbling closed behind Veronica’s car, I finally look over at her.
“Want to tell me why we had to go to LA to get that done?”
“Los Angeles is lousy with celebrities, and I was in that shop earlier this week, grilling the shit out of that guy to make sure he’d keep quiet about the celebrity he was putting a tattoo on.” Veronica pops open her door and leads the way into the house.
“And what celebrity was that?”
“Cole Steele, reality star turned porn star turned priest.” She turns around, walking backwards into the kitchen as she grins. “Wanna see your Instagram? Maybe the gossip site posts about you. Or oooh, your hit YouTube video? We owe Mac a puppy for that edit, especially since she has no idea why I’m making you a fake celebrity persona. The video has just enough of your face to recognize you if they’ve seen you, and not enough that anybody would know you if they stumbled across it.”
I guess that explains why she needed three weeks of prep before we went to the tattoo studio. “You’re terrifying, you know that?”
“Best place to hide a secret is in plain sight. That guy’s going to blabbing all over LA about having tattooed the one and only Cole Steele in a secret placement only his girlfriend knows about. Kind of a romantic story for Mr. Steele, actually. Should be good publicity.”
I catch her by the waist, my throat getting a little scratchy at the creative lengths she’s gone to in order to protect my privacy.
“I love you for your brain.”
“Aww, but what about my rockin’ bod?”
I sigh gustily. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, Veronica. Even when what a man has to do happens to be his hot wife.”
But when I bend to kiss her, she evades me. “Are you stalling because you’re afraid to see what I just permanently inked on your body?”
“Nope. I’m stalling until you’re ready to show me what you permanently inked on my body.”
“Okay…” She looks down, and for a second I worry that she’s even more nervous than I’d thought. Then she drops my pants. I start to laugh, and then she whips off the bandage, too. “Ta-da!”
I really have no clue what she picked, but when I look down, I have to blink twice. It’s nothing close, not to any of my many guesses.
Her face falls. “You hate it.”
I catch her in my arms and hug her tight enough to leave a bruise. “You did this for me?”
“It’s a pickle, so you always have a safe word.”
I nod without speaking because I understood as soon as I saw it, but I let her tell me what she meant anyway, because I want—ferociously, selfishly—to hear her say it herself.
“No matter what’s going on, no matter how bad it is, you can call safe word and we’ll have a time out and I’ll be there for you. Doesn’t matter how mad I am or how crazy things might be. It’s my promise.” She hugs me a little tighter. “Did you see the dots?”
I frown. “Uh, maybe?”
She pulls back and points. It’s so camouflage that it takes me a long minute to spot it, and then it all comes together and I shake my head in awe, because my wife? Is fucking brilliant. Only she would know a declaration this public and this permanent would mean something to me. It’s a reminder that can’t be taken away, but it’s tattooed under my clothes in layers of code so no one can ever glimpse my secrets by accident.
Of the dots that make up the texture of the pickle, the darkest ones spell out Loved in script. Upside down, so the message is clearly oriented for my eyes and no one else’s.
“Even when I’m not the best at telling you,” she says in a small voice, “I always feel it, and I always want you to know.”
“Fuck, Veronica,” I finally manage to get out, and then I’m laughing, hoarse and scratchy and hugging her all over again with my shorts around my ankles. “That’s almost enough to forgive you for tattooing a phallic object dangerously close to my ass.”
“Shut up, you love it.” She’s grinning now and trying to swat at me but I’m holding her too close.
“I do love it. I love it more than anything you’ve ever given me.”
“I don’t know,” she teases. “You liked that ring pretty well.”
I step back and kick my shorts off, toss the shirt, too. Start tugging her toward the bedroom, because I know myself pretty well and I’ve only got about two minutes before she needs to be naked or somebody’s buttons are going to get hurt. “Yeah, but I’ve always been worried that someday you’d ask for the ring back. You can’t take this back.”
“I won’t take either back. That’s the point. You’re not the kind of love a girl can shake off, Logan Mars. Believe me, I tried.”
I tickle her sides as I walk backward, grinning. “You didn’t try that hard.”
“Yes, I did!” she squeals, swatting at my hands. “Okay, okay you got me. I tried to quit you and I had to come back for the hair braiding. Tried every stylist with a Q in California and they were all garbage.”
“Whatever.” I nibble on her neck. “You came back because nobody does anal like I do.”
“Oh my god, LOGAN!” She huffs out a breath. “Graphic.”
“It’s true.” I pull off her shirt and she melts down against me.
“It’s a little true.”
I pop her bra clasp and toss the bra off the side of the bed.
“Nobody does any of it like you do.” Her breath comes out softly after she admits it, and she slides a hand up my cheek. “Guess I’m just going to have to keep you.”
I roll her over so she’s safe beneath me, and lean down with my eyes intent on the love of my life. “Best news I’ve ever heard.”