He groaned again, his hand running up my spine to the back of my neck. The muscles there were tight from a long night of work, and as he dug his knuckles in deep, I sighed with pleasure.
“So what’s the problem?”
“You beat Aaron up,” I said softly. “You really hurt him.”
“You could’ve gone to jail as his accomplice. He deserved it.”
“You didn’t know that when you attacked him—that was about you being jealous. That’s fucked up, Painter.”
“Probably,” he admitted. “And I was pissed at you last night, too, but I got over it. It’s true I lost my shit, but it’s also true that I don’t do it very often.”
“You could go back to jail.”
“You could get stabbed by a crazy guy in the ER.”
Pulling away, I frowned up at him. “That’s different. I’m doing something that helps people, remember? You’re . . . running drugs or something. I don’t even know what you do—you won’t tell me.”
His face grew serious.
“Mel, I’m not going to lie to you about who I am,” he said slowly. “I don’t always follow the law, and when my brothers need me, I’m gonna take their backs. But I’m an artist—that’s what I do for a living. I’m not running guns, I’m not selling drugs. I paint fucking pictures, and then I sell them to rich assholes so they can brag about my ‘primitive art’ at their cocktail parties. I’ll take their money with a smile, pay my club dues, and then I’ll always come home to you and Izzy. I love you.”
I closed my eyes, tasting the words. We’d known each other so long, been through so much. He’d always been there, even when he wasn’t. My life had revolved around Painter for six years, from little girl crush to need to hatred to . . . this.
“I love you, too,” I admitted slowly, opening my eyes to take him in.
He cocked his head, studying my face.
“Usually people don’t look so unhappy when they say that for the first time,” he said.
“Usually people get to sleep at some point, but it’s been twenty-four hours,” I replied quietly. “Like I said, I’m too tired to fight, so might as well lay it all out there.”
“Does that mean you’ll tell me this was all some kind of sleep-deprived hallucination at some point?”
I considered the question, then shook my head.
“No, I’ve loved you for a long time. I tried to move on, but I can’t. Still kind of pisses me off, because there’s all kinds of things I don’t like about you . . . but it is what it is.”
“Some guys would be offended by a declaration like that,” Painter said. “But I think I’m gonna count this as a win.”
I gave him a smile, then pulled away, looking around the room. There were cans of paint everywhere, big and small. All different colors.
“Where did this all come from?” I asked, waving my hand toward the mess.
“Oh, I picked them up here and there,” he said, shrugging. “Been planning the mural for a while. Last night I was pissed off, and when I get pissed I usually fight or paint. I already did enough fighting this week.”
“How did you figure out that I was working?”
“Jessica,” he said. “I called her.”
That surprised me. “Jessica hates you.”
“I know,” he said. “She didn’t want to talk to me at first. I may have threatened her a little bit.”
My eyes widened. “Did you hurt her?”
He gave a low laugh, shaking his head.
“Not that kind of threat.”
“What kind of threat?” I asked, eyes wide.
“I threatened to call someone,” he said. “Maybe send him some pictures, that’s all. You don’t want to know—trust me.”
“Is this about all those years ago, when you and Jess—”
“No,” he said firmly, cutting me off. “It’s nothing to worry about. Just let it go—when she’s ready to tell you, she will. Or not. Either way, I used it against her last night, and I don’t regret that at all. I was still pissed with you, by the way—but after a few hours of painting I got over it, and then I was just relieved you weren’t with another guy.”
I studied his face, taking in the high cheekbones, his crystal blue eyes, and pale skin. “We’re really lucky Izzy got my skin. You never tan.”
He laughed again. “You’re punch-drunk.”
I shrugged, then sat down suddenly. Okay, “sat” was probably a stretch—it was more like my legs gave out, but with a controlled landing. Painter lowered himself next to me.
Looking at the cans of paint, I saw a small red one not far away and grabbed it.
“Do you remember that night you taught me how to paint ladybugs?”
“Vividly. One of the best nights of my life.”
“Do you think I could paint one on Izzy’s wall?”
Painter stared at me, assessing. “You know, with anyone else I’d say yes, but I’m kind of scared you’ll give her nightmares. Zombie mutant ladybugs or something. Maybe if we did it together?”
I frowned, but he had a point.
“Okay, show me.”
“Sure,” he said, glancing around. There was a pile of smaller brushes near the wall. He leaned over on his knees to grab one, then sat back down. Prying off the lid, he opened the can and handed me the brush.