She had enjoyed the luxury of the hot bath at first, laying back and breathing the perfumed air. She’d found some shampoo and washed the salt and grime from her tangle of hair, but then she’d caught sight of her reflection in the mirror and even though it was foggy from the steam she could see the black marks that started on her shoulders. She tried to rub and then scratch at the ink with her hands but she made no impression and in any case she couldn’t reach most of it. She grew more and more frustrated, and then angry, and finally she picked up the bottle of bath oil and flung it across the room with a cry, following it shortly afterwards with the shampoo.
It was at that moment that Joseph burst in, thinking she was being attacked. Instead, he saw her sitting in the bath with her back to him, knees pulled up to her chest.
“I can’t get it off, I can’t reach,” she wailed and finally gave in to tears.
Joseph stood rooted to the spot. He hadn’t meant to intrude on her like that but he’d heard the crash and acted on instinct. He saw the raw red skin on her shoulder where she must have been scratching at the black ink, and he told himself that although she was in the bath, he couldn’t actually see anything: the water was deep and bubbly and she was facing away from him. He took a deep breath.
“Let me,” he said.
Laura sniffed, then nodded, then lay her head on her knees, her arms wrapped around her legs, only her back exposed. Joseph took the smallest towel from the pile that sat on the shelf and knelt beside the bath. He dipped the end of the towel into the water and began to wash her.
The ink had left a strong stain on her skin, but gradually it started to fade under his careful touch. Gently he rubbed her back with the cloth, working in sections, until he had done all he could. The message was still visible, but very faint, and it would soon disappear completely. He took up water in the towel and then squeezed it out to rinse her skin. He watched the droplets run down her spine and then did it again, and again, and he knew he was no longer washing her. She gave a shudder which broke the spell and he stood up abruptly.
“Get out now, or you’ll get cold,” he said, and reaching back to the shelf again he took down a large white bath sheet.
Still facing away from him Laura slowly stood up and stepped out of the bath. Joseph wrapped the towel around her and she swayed unsteadily. So this is what weak at the knees feels like she thought vaguely as she leaned back against him. Her heart was thumping as he gently eased her long hair out from where it was caught in the towel.
With his hand in her hair, Joseph felt like he was having an out of body experience as he lowered his head to her bare shoulder where he could see the pulse beating under her skin. He breathed in deeply against her neck as he told himself it was just for a minute, that he would let her go any second. But then, before he could break away, she turned around in his arms.
As she turned to him Laura could hardly breathe, it had never felt like this with the map guy. And then she lifted her head and they were kissing at last.
Joseph ignored the voice of reason in his head, telling him not to be so reckless. He picked her up in his arms and in a few strides he was out of the bathroom and beside the bed, and then they were on the bed, still locked in an urgent embrace.
His hands and mouth burned across her skin and Laura wanted it, wanted more.
Soon Joseph was fighting for control, and when finally he touched her, and she pressed herself against him with a soft cry, he knew he was losing the fight. He forced himself to pull away.
Laura’s eyes flew open. The towel was on the floor, along with Joseph’s shirt, and her hands appeared to be fumbling with buttons of his jeans. She snatched them away and blushed, suddenly shy, as he propped himself up on one elbow and looked at her. Then he said her name, his voice hoarse with strain.
She looked up at him and steadily met his unwavering gaze.
“If you want me to stop, you need to say now.”
In reply Laura said nothing. She brushed her fingers across his mouth and pulled him back to her. And he didn’t stop, and he didn’t stop, and they didn’t stop.