(A/N): And with that, my first real romance story is complete! Thank you so much to everyone who has read along and reached out to me over this story. Although I can’t help but be a little underwhelmed by how this turned out, it’s the first step toward something great.
Life went back to normal for Vince. Which meant it returned to being a dreary and slow drudge. His nights didn’t have a whole lot more to offer than the days, and slowly he stopped going to the library more and more.
There was no point— the place went from being the place where he worked best to the place where he worked worst. It didn’t matter if he changed tables or floors, he saw Lenore everywhere there. The library wasn’t a comfortable place anymore.
Vince went out with Tim and his friends more. It didn’t matter that he really wasn’t that close with any of them, just being out and about made him feel more human. He liked talking to someone, and even if Lenore was gone, he didn’t want to completely give it up.
His life didn’t change as much as it maybe should have. It made him wonder if he had ever absolutely believed Lenore. It felt like a part of him had always expected the rug to be yanked out from beneath him again. Good times had a habit of ending.
The worst part, though, by far— was how he felt about Lenore. He should have hated her. Or at the least been angry. He should have stopped liking her.
But he had known she was distant when he started chasing her. She had never given him any promises. She had been guarded, and when he had made it though her guard, she ran. He couldn’t blame her for that.
As the days turned to weeks, he realized that he just missed her. He realized that if anything, his feelings got more intense. That’s the part that he hated. He had barely known her. But he had understood her. And he missed that.
“You need closure.”
Vince gave Tim a succinct glance of no shit Sherlock and went back to “studying“ with glazed eyes. They were driving to see Tim’s friends again at the coffee shop. When they got there, he could forget everything for a few hours, but car rides were awful at distracting him from himself.
Tim wasn’t put off. “I’m serious. You need to find her, even if she doesn’t have anything to say.”
“I don’t even know her last name,” Vince said, “I don’t have any way to find her.”
“No phone number? Email?”
Vince just shook his head.
The other man scoffed. “That’s really not normal, Vee.”
He didn’t have the will to roll his eyes at the nickname. “I didn’t want to push.”
“She made sure not to give you anything that would make it hard to walk away from you,” Tim said, “Not only did she disappear on you, but she knew how to be ready for it.”
“What’s your point?”
Tim moved both hands onto the steering wheel and sighed. “Maybe this is for the best. You’ll meet someone else.”
“Sure,” Vince mumbled, directing his attention to the cars out his window.
It took three weeks for him to feel comfortable enough going back to the library. He was only in his second year of college— couldn’t avoid it forever.
Vince made the transition back into the library easier than he expected. It felt better to go back to the dark stacks, to stop going out with Tim and his friends. There wasn’t anything to worry about at the library.
He ended every night planning to not go back again, but by the time the sun dipped below the horizon, those plans ended up abandoned. It was just too easy to accept being alone. Going back into his little bubble felt like the most painless option.
A part of him knew it wasn’t the most healthy way forward but sinking back into the old habits happened mostly without him noticing.
Things went back to normal. Vince spent his nights hunched over a table (but not the same table) as he studied and read and did his best to keep himself busy. He dozed off after midnight everyday without the coffee Lenore had been bringing him.
Which was why he was sure he was dreaming when he woke up to the smell of the same burnt coffee from the break room that he used to have every night. Vince blearily made out the mug sitting on the table in front of him. He stared at it, unconvinced that he was really awake, before a voice startled him into reality.
“Hey there,” it said, and Vince turned to face it with a shiver of deja-vu.
The month apart hadn’t changed Lenore at all. She watched him with unreadable eyes; her posture tense as she took a seat a few chairs away. “I had to ask Elizabeth where you were.”
Vince caught himself following the sway of her hair and the purse of her lips. Even after she had disappeared on him, he couldn’t forget how beautiful she was. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah. It has,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “Do you hate me?”
He wasn’t surprised to find out that he didn’t. Hating someone took a lot of energy, and he had never had any to spare. “No, I don’t,” he sighed, cupping his hands around the hot cup. “I understand. I was asking a lot and it wasn’t for you. It’s alright.”
She tugged at her sleeves. “That’s not what happened. I tried to find you, to let you know, but things happened too fast, and I had to go home.”
“What happened?” he asked, not really expecting her to answer.
But she did. “My grandfather died. I had to go to the funeral.”
“I’m—“ he swallowed, a tidal wave of guilt scrambling his head. “I’m sorry.”
She smiled at him sadly. “It’s okay. He was sick for a long time.”
They held each other’s gaze for a moment, remembering the last time they had looked at each other like that. His thoughts wandered back to where they were supposed to be. “But you were gone for a month.”
Lenore shifted in her chair. “I was only gone for a week. But when I came back… I got scared. We were just about to have something really good. I was afraid that it was already ruined more than me coming back could fix.”
“Then why’d you come back now?”
“Because you deserved to know,” she said. “And I wanted to see you again.”
He chewed on his lip. “I don’t… I don’t really know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said, getting back to her feet. There was a pained line to her lips. “I ducked out of everything at the worst time and broke this. I’m here to say goodbye.”
She stared at him distantly, and it took him a moment to realize that she was waiting for him to say goodbye. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth. “Goodbye.”
And that was it. Lenore turned and walked away. The darkness of the library gently pulled her out of his vision until—
“Wait,” he said, then shot to his feet and shouted out after her, “Wait!”
He never had been good at letting things go.
She came back with a guarded expression. Braced for him to say something she wouldn’t like to hear. “What is it?”
“What do you think of me?” he asked, nearly breathless under the heavy beat of his heart in his ears. “Right now?”
It wasn’t what she was expecting. The enormous library was suddenly small— holding just him and her. The couple meters between them were inches.
“I like you,” she breathed, crossing her arms like she could hide the vulnerability in her words. “Even more than I did last time I saw you. I missed you.”
“Then maybe we shouldn’t give this up,” he said. “Maybe this is still worth trying.”
She didn’t look convinced. “Or maybe we’ve been given more than enough reasons to stop this.”
There was this near painful need to touch her curling its way around his ribs, but he crushed it beneath a sigh. “How often do two people who barely know each other like each other more after a month apart?”
Lenore huffed. “A month apart because I got cold feet. This shouldn’t be this hard.”
“We haven’t been trying,” he protested, “we keep doing things and giving each other time to talk ourselves out of it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
He took a step forward. “You like me, I like you. It’s that easy. Why are you so scared of this?”
She retreated a step. “Because I want this too much. You’re… you’re everything I want but I can’t have.”
Vince offered out his hands, palms up. “But I’m right here. I’m yours. Can’t we at least try?”
Lenore faltered. “I… I don’t know.”
He moved closer to her, and this time she didn’t back away, letting him take one of her hands between his. “Doesn’t this feel right to you, too?”
She looked into his eyes with something that he hadn’t seen before. Her grip tightened on his hands. “Yeah. It does.”
His heart skipped a beat in his chest, and he threw his arms around her, pulling her against him in the way he had wanted to for a month.
“I still don’t understand why you like me,” she said into his shirt.
“You’re the one who loves mysteries,” he said, running his fingers through her hair like he had wanted to do all month (maybe he had never quite stopped thinking about her).
“Corny dork,” she scoffed.
“Beautiful,” he said, softer.
Lenore abruptly pulled herself out of his arms. He got one moment to worry before she kissed him.
It was like dying. That was the only way he could describe the shock that shot through him. It was the only way he could describe how alive he felt in that moment. Like life had just been an overly long build up to that moment.
His back hit the bookshelf behind him with enough force to hurt, but he barely even noticed. She kissed him like she was afraid he would evaporate any moment. Her whole body pinned him to the shelf— her hips against his, chest to chest, lips to lips.
It was like kissing a wildfire. Her mouth was hot and harsh, her fingers were tight and tangled in his hair, her whole body was desperately trying to pull him in closer and closer. It was a month apart and weeks of stolen glances and lingering touches.
All he could do was let himself be consumed.
When she finally pulled away for a chance to catch her breath, he pulled her back in even though he was just as breathless. He kissed up her neck, tasting skin and sweat and shampoo. She melted into him; her warm breath tickled his ear.
And then he bit her ear lobe. Then her neck. The place where her jaw faded into her neck. Her hands tightened in his hair. “Vince…”
He pulled back before the kiss could run away any more than it already had.
They didn’t say anything after it ended— just stared and breathed. Neither of them had expected the fireworks of that kiss, the pieces sliding into place. Neither of them had realized how much they had been waiting for it.
Her hands gently drifted down from his hair. He could feel how warm they were through the fabric of his shirt. Close, but not close enough.
“Are you real?” he murmured, light-headed and more than a little shell-shocked. “This doesn’t feel real.”
She leaned forward and pressed her own line of kisses up his neck, sucking at his skin hard enough to leave little hickeys that were definitely going to be purple by morning. He shivered in a way that wasn’t at all unpleasant. “Don’t I feel real?” she whispered to him.
More than anything he had ever touched. But it felt too perfect, like it would slip through his fingers at any moment. He had spent too much time alone already.
Vince tried to swallow his fear. “For all I know, you burn during the day,” he said half-heartedly.
“Then let’s get out here,” she said, tugging at his hands with a shining excitement in her eyes.
“And go where?” Leaving the library wasn’t even something that had crossed his mind.
Lenore looked a little flushed, even in the dark. “We can go to my place?”
Suddenly he could feel the heat of the kiss burning across his skin again. “Are you sure? We don’t have to—”
“I want to,” she said, getting on her toes to peck his cheek. “You’re right. This isn’t going anywhere with baby steps.”
The idea of going home with her was nearly enough to make him dizzy, but he couldn’t keep the goofy grin from his face. “That sounds perfect.”
The air felt different when they left the library that night. Vince paused at the top of the steps to shut his eyes and breathe it in. For once, facing life without his nose buried in a book or cup of coffee didn’t feel nearly as daunting.
Lenore was watching him when he opened his eyes. She looked different under the warm glow of the streetlights than she did in the black of the library. Less like a specter in the dark and more like something holy. She looked like every sunset he had ever seen at once.
Something about seeing her in that light made him take a step back from the situation. Sure, a leap forward was what he had been wanting the whole time he had known her, but going home with her minutes after seeing her for the first time in a month was a lot.
“I don’t even know your last name,” he said, mostly to himself.
She quirked an eyebrow at him because, sure, that hadn’t stopped him from kissing her. He had still said yes.
“Barnes. I’m Lenore Barnes,” she said, holding out her hand. “Nice to meet you.“
He hesitated before taking it. For all his talk, he had never told her his either. “I’m Vince Fiore.”
Lenore gave him a light kiss. “Now,” she said, “will you come home with me? Or do you want my social security number too?”
She rolled her eyes and slipped her hand into his. “Come on. I think we’ve already waited long enough.”
They descended the steps of the library and started the walk to where her car was parked, hands tightly clasped between them. That little piece of contact felt more reassuring than anything he could say.
Midnight had already come and gone, leaving campus in the surreal hours of the night where minutes went by without sight or sound of another person. Being with Lenore felt uncertain in that space, like the only way he could be sure that it was true was if there were witnesses. He had felt this same creeping hope before. In this same half-light, on nights like this. They had gotten within reach of this before.
Vince took a deep breath and forced the thought from his head. He wasn’t going to let himself talk his way into ruining this. Right now, right here, Lenore was with him, and he had to believe in her. It was a leap of faith. He had to let this be real.
The drive to her apartment was a long, comfortably awkward silence. Vince tried to watch the streetlights and passing cars, but it was hard not to watch Lenore. She had sunk back into her unreadable face as she drove. He was waiting for her to stop and change her mind. It felt a moment away— the truth that this was all too good to be true.
But she didn’t say anything like that. Before he knew it, she was holding the door of her apartment open for him so he could go in.
It wasn’t anything like what he expected. Untidy piles of books and coffee mugs had gathered on every surface in direct competition with neat notebooks and decor. The apartment looked like a classy estate taken over by a dozen cramming college students (which wasn’t too far from the truth). If it weren’t for the fluttering nervousness in his stomach, the sight would’ve been funny. Articulate Lenore was a slob behind closed doors.
She didn’t look embarrassed at all by him seeing the mess, which was every bit on brand for her.
Vince hovered awkwardly beside the door, shifting his weight from leg to leg. “It’s nice,” he said lamely.
Lenore draped her bag over a chair and asked without looking, “want anything to drink?”
“I learned my lesson last time,” he said. Besides, something made him want to have his wits about him.
“You were barely even tipsy,” she said, reaching out to turn over his hand. The place where he had cut himself on a broken bottle was no more than a thin white line now.
Her touch registered in his head a few moments late like a crack of thunder following lightning. He froze, watching her fingertips gently trace down to his wrist. They had been alone before, but it hadn’t felt like this. Like a step away from the edge of a cliff.
Vince swallowed. “So,” he muttered, “I’ll grab the couch, or…?”
She stepped into his personal space. “If you want to. But I didn’t bring you all this way just to make you sleep on the couch.”
His hands found their place on her waist, his fingers tracing the hem of her sweater. “I know.”
“Then come on,” she said, pulling him toward the open door of her bedroom. “We’ve wasted enough time being scared.”
A leap of faith.
He wrapped his arms around her and lifted her up into the air before she could protest, carrying her into the room and depositing her onto the bed. She pulled him down with her, tangling them of a mess of limbs with him on top and her on bottom.
The only light in the room was the streetlights casting orange lines through the blinds, catching her hair splayed out on the sheets, the eager grin on her lips, her whole body leaned forward to close every inch of space. Their gazes met with a inhale and he bent down to kiss her. She rose into the kiss, eyelids fluttering closed, but he pulled away last second with a shit-eating grin.
“You fucker,” she groaned, dropping her back against the sheets. “Kiss me.”
“Fair’s fair,” he said, ignoring her request and instead nibbling her neck. A gasp escaped her mouth and she arched beneath him. He savored every press of his lips, drawing warm lines of kisses across her skin.
Lenore really wasn’t willing to let him get away with it. One moment he was teasing her on top, the next she had flipped them over. She trapped his wrists against the bed with her hands in the next instant. The way that she looked at him in that moment made his face feel hot.
She wasn’t interested in teasing him at that point. She leaned forward and kissed him like they were running out of time.
Vince suddenly remembered all the times she had touched him before that night. Those times, her touch had been cold against his skin. But now it was like being consumed by an inferno.
Her mouth was a burning match against his, sure and desperate. Her hands unbuttoned his shirt like flames melting ice. Her fingers reached his skin, cupping his jaw, pressing against his chest. Heat lingered wherever she touched him. It was the touch of someone who had spent a long time wanting to do this but not being able to.
Even as she lowered his shirt from his shoulders, the whole room felt hot, like the heat from her skin was enough to warm the whole apartment. It took him awhile to realize that his hands weren’t being held down anymore. They traveled up her thighs with a mind of their own, fingertips slipping beneath the hem of her sweater.
He hesitated there, unsure, but she just wordlessly reached down and helped him pull off her top.
It wasn’t just the lace or seeing her skin that made him stare— it was her tattoos. Somehow it had never occurred to him how far they may have stretched. Instead of stopping at her shoulders, the ribbons of colorful images rode the lines of her shoulders and met over her heart, dipping down in a long trail down her chest. It was one huge, connected image. It must’ve taken a whole day for her to have it done.
Vince leaned forward and kissed her body like it was a holy thing. Soft moans slipped from her mouth and he chased them— kissing and teasing until he knew every place that could unravel her. He touched his lips to the place where her hip bled into her thigh, to her collarbone, over her heart.
Lenore melted against him, her hands tightening in his hair as she pressed her forehead against his. “Kiss me,” she breathed, and this time he did.
A stray ray of light stirred him from sleep. He turned away from it, reaching across the sheets for Lenore. She wasn’t there.
His heart leapt up into his throat. “Lenore?”
There was a soft hand on his shoulder and a tickle of hair against his neck. “I’m here.”
And there she was. Framed in the sunlight coming from the window behind her. She wore his shirt, still unbuttoned from the night before, her hair tousled from sleep. She knelt down beside the bed with a nervous look on her face. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
Vince didn’t say anything right away— lost in the sight of her standing there. After everything, it just felt too good to be true. He reached out to cup her cheek in his hand and she leaned into it, closing her eyes. “You scared me,” he said, rising to kiss her forehead.
“I’m not going anywhere, Vince. Don’t worry.”
He spoke against her skin. “If you’re going to be keeping me around, you’re going to have to get used to me worrying about you.”
“I think I could bear getting used to it,” she smiled. “So you still really want to do this?”
He sat up and swung his legs out of the bed. “Of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
A distant look reached her eyes, but all she did was nudge his shoulder. “Move over. Stop hogging the bed.”
It was a little hard for him not to stare as she climbed back into bed beside him. The night before, it had been absolutely unthinkable to him that he would end up half-dressed in Lenore’s apartment with her beside him. But now, things almost felt easy as he laid back on the pillow and stretched out an arm to pull her close with. She rested her head on his chest like she had been doing it for years. It all felt so simple now.
“I’ve been wrong about this before,” Lenore said suddenly.
Vince laid back a little higher on his pillow so that he could see her face. She was staring out the window beyond the bed with a look in her eyes that told him she was a thousand miles away. “Wrong about what?” he asked her.
She waved her hand in a vague circle. “This. Being with someone. Trusting them.”
He reached down to rest a hand on top of her head, and when she didn’t protest, he started running his fingers through her hair, working out the knots left from sleep. “Is that why you didn’t come back?”
“I think so,” she sighed, leaning back into his touch. “But I couldn’t just let this go, you know?”
“You were ready to walk away again last night.” If he hadn’t stopped her…
Lenore pinched his side and he jumped. “That’s because I just thought I was being selfish. I didn’t know you still thought that way about me.”
“There’s no way I could ever think anything else of you,” Vince said. He hesitated halfway through working out a tangle in her hair. “You’re not an easy person to forget.”
“I wish that were true.”
He tugged on a strand of her hair. “Whoever forgot you was making a mistake.”
She sat up suddenly, bracing her arms on either side of him so that she could bring her face close to his. He didn’t feel as nervous when she did this anymore. Now he just took her in. Cinnamon and vanilla.
“I can tell you want to ask about my tattoos,” she said, an intense line in her brow that screamed that she didn’t want to talk about this, even if she was willing to.
All he could do to that was blink. She really could see right through him.
He had been curious about the tattoos as soon as she had shown them to him, but after she spent weeks hiding them, it didn’t feel right to press. And now, it hardly seemed to matter. The night before had been more than just them sleeping together. They were together officially. Finally over the line they had been toeing for so long.
“If you’re willing to talk about it,” he said, “I just assumed there was a reason you felt uncomfortable about them.”
“There is.” She crossed her arms on his chest. “The last time I got this close to someone, it didn’t go well. He told me that he wasn’t going to leave me, promised we’d be together, said we’d get married. Everything I wanted to hear.”
Lenore spoke quietly, but she was still so close to his face that he could feel her words against his skin. “What happened?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“He left me. For someone he barely knew. I don’t know how long they’d been talking, but I guess it doesn’t matter.” She was looking at a place somewhere directly through him rather than at him.
Vince didn’t say “I’m sorry”. At that moment it just didn’t feel like enough. All he did was put his hand over hers and listened.
“And I just felt dirty. Like I had been used up and thrown away. It didn’t feel like I owned my feelings or my body. I couldn’t believe in either. So I got these tattoos. Because I chose them and he never saw them. It was my body again.”
She hesitated, like she was afraid to continue. He kissed the bridge of her nose and brought a brief smile to her face just to remind her he was there.
“But I can’t do that again,” she said finally. “I can’t believe in something with everything I have and then lose it because you get tired of me. I can’t survive that again.”
He knew she was probably stronger than she realized. She, as far as he knew her, felt like someone who could face the whole world on her own. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. And he knew that he would never hurt her. She had crystallized into something irreplaceable in his chest. But that wasn’t what she needed to hear either.
“No promises I can’t keep,” he said, offering her a pinky.
She locked it with her own. “Thank you.”
Lenore still looked like something from a better world. The light streaming from the window behind her framed her like the sun was stitched into her skin. Her eyes sparkled like the stars had taken refuge there when daybreak came. She was something beyond him.
But when she kissed him, Vince knew this was real.