My head ached. A night of piss-poor sleep had turned the mildly irritating into infuriating. Between the droves of freshmen who had been passing through the shop recently and the naïve girl currently in my chair, I’d had it.
I rubbed my temple to ease the dull throb that had developed over the course of the day. Ten more minutes and I’d be done with the design if I could stay focused. I was having difficulty winning the battle, because I was preoccupied. Once I completed the unicorn tattoo, there were no more appointments scheduled and more than an hour before closing. If I was unlucky, I would get stuck with another college brat walk-in who wanted a cartoon character slapped on their skin.
The preferred option was to finish with my client so I could duck across the street to my aunt Cassie’s used bookstore and café. Coffee runs to Serendipity had become my new favorite pastime over the last four weeks, ever since Cassie hired the new girl. She was the reason I was so distractible. I hadn’t seen her lately even with my increase in caffeine consumption, and I was looking to rectify that, stat.
I swiped a damp cloth over the fresh ink. The girl in my chair had been relatively quiet since I started shading in the outline, which was fine. I wasn’t in the mood for idle chitchat. Instead I focused on the hum of the tattoo machines. The sound never bothered me. It soothed, like good music.
It was the superfluous stuff that irked: the inane chatter of teenagers, the nervous tapping of a shoe on the polished hardwood, and on the flat-screen, the loud drone of a newscaster as he spouted off the devastation of the day. The nasal timbre of his voice annoyed the hell out of me. Yet I couldn’t stop listening, drawn in by the desire to know that other people’s lives sucked more than mine.
“Can you turn that down?” I called to Lisa, our resident bookkeeper and piercer.
“Just a minute.” She waved me off but palmed the remote.
The other artists in the shop were also working fixedly on clients. I seemed to be the only one with attention issues. The bell over the door tinkled, saving me from further irritation. Lisa changed the station and heavy rock beats filled the air, the bass vibrating the floor. She turned the volume down to a reasonable level.
Pausing, I glanced over, praying it wasn’t another insipid college girl looking to flirt with deviance. The next client would be mine. Then I’d never get to Serendipity before it closed.
Any potential aggravation evaporated the moment I saw Cassie’s new employee. She clutched a pile of books to her chest like a shield, her long hair windblown around her face. Her eyes darted away when she caught me looking at her.
Her name was Tenley. I didn’t know this because we’d been formally introduced—even though I had spoken to her a few times—but because Cassie imparted the information upon my request. Cassie, fountain of information that she was, also informed me that Tenley came from Arden Hills, Minnesota, and was in a master’s program at Northwestern. She didn’t act like one of those typical Ivy League type snobs, though. She seemed pretty down to earth based on what little she’d said to me. Which, admittedly, wasn’t a whole hell of a lot.
The first time I saw her was almost a month ago. I went over to Serendipity to visit my aunt and buy coffee, which wasn’t unusual. However, the new addition to Cassie’s store was. She was tucked behind the counter with a textbook on deviant behaviors propped in front of her, so only her eyes showed. She was so immersed in what she was reading that she didn’t hear the door chime, signaling my entrance.
I scared her when I asked if Cassie was around as an excuse to get a closer look. Her textbook toppled over and her half-full coffee went down with it, dousing the page in beige liquid. When I offered to help clean it up, she stammered a bunch of nonsense and almost fell off the stool she was sitting on. She was gorgeous, even though her face had turned a vibrant shade of red. Cassie appeared from the back of the store to see what all the commotion was. That put an end to interaction number one.
The next couple of times I went in she was either holed up in the basement sorting through the endless boxes of acquisitions or hidden in the stacks shelving books. Cassie didn’t dissuade me when I went to the philosophy section to see if there was anything of interest there, besides this Tenley girl. I found her sitting cross-legged on the floor with a pile of books at her knee, arranging the volumes alphabetically before she shelved them. I was in love with her organizational skills already.
I made a point of clearing my throat to avoid surprising her this time. It didn’t help. She gasped, her hand fluttering to her throat as she looked up at me. She was stunning; her dark hair almost brushed the floor it was so long, her features were delicate, eyes gray-green, framed with thick lashes. Her nose was perfectly straight, her lips full and pink. It didn’t look like she was wearing makeup.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” I said, because it was true. I was also staring. “I’m Cassie’s nephew, Hayden.”
Her eyes moved from my feet up, pausing at the ink on my arms, taking it in before lifting higher. She unfolded her long, lean legs and used the shelf for support to pull herself up. She flinched as she did so, like she’d been sitting for a long time and had gotten stiff. She was far shorter than me, all soft curves and slight build.
“You own the tattoo shop across the street,” she replied.
“That’s right.” I nodded to the shelves. “I’m looking for The Birth of Tragedy.”
She gave me a curious look and trailed a finger along the spines as she scanned them. “I haven’t seen any Nietzsche lately, but if I find a copy I could bring it to you . . . to Inked Armor, I mean.”
I smiled, liking the idea of her in my shop. “Sure. You could stop by even if you don’t come across a copy.”
“Um . . . I don’t . . . maybe.” Her eyes dropped and she bent to pick up the remaining books on the floor. “I should put these away.” Her hair fanned out as she turned away. The scent of vanilla wafted out as she disappeared around the corner, reminding me of cupcakes. Interaction number two was moderately better than interaction number one. I was intrigued, which was unusual for me. Not a lot held my attention.
It was a while before I ran into Tenley again. This time, when I walked into the store, she heard the chime. She was sitting behind the register. There was a sketchbook flipped open in front of her. Beside her was a stack of books with a plate of cupcakes perched on top. In one hand she held a black Pitt pen. In the other was a cupcake. I had a penchant for that particular dessert item.
I caught her midbite; lips parted, teeth sinking into creamy icing. She let out a little moan of appreciation, a sound I might attribute to a particularly satisfying orgasm. At least that was what my imagination did with the noise. Her eyes, which had been closed in a familiar expression of bliss, popped open at the sound of the door. She hastily set the cupcake down, her hand coming up to shield her mouth as she chewed.
“Sounds like it’s good.”
I grinned as her face went a telling shade of red. Her throat bobbed with a nervous swallow, and she swiped her hand across her mouth, eyes on the counter. I glanced at the open sketchbook. A single feather, rendered in striking detail, covered the page. Fire licked up the side, consuming it, tendrils of smoke drifting up as it floated in the air.
“You’re an artist?”
She flipped the book shut, pulling it closer to her. “They’re just doodles.”
“Pretty detailed doodles if you ask me.”
She stored the sketchbook in a drawer under the counter. Her shoulders curled in and she peeked up at me, the hint of a smile appearing.
“Tenley, can I get a hand?” Cassie called from the back of the store.
“Coming!” Her eyes shifted away. “I still haven’t found your Nietzsche, but I’m keeping a lookout.”
“Thanks for thinking of me.”
“It’s nothing, really. Feel free to help yourself.” She motioned to the plate of cupcakes, then disappeared into the back of the store with a wave.
There was no way I would say no to cupcakes, so I took one and devoured the frosted dessert in three huge bites. It was incredible. I nabbed a Post-it, scribbled a note, and stuck it to the plate.
When it was obvious she wouldn’t be back anytime soon, I cut through Serendipity to get coffees from the adjoining café. I came through the store on my way out, but Cassie was at the desk instead of Tenley. I took another cupcake because they were that good.
That was five days ago; hence my impatience with the client under my needle. It looked like I didn’t need to worry anymore now that the distraction in question was standing in my shop looking anything but comfortable.
Her nervousness gave me ample opportunity to check her out again. She wore a long-sleeved black shirt and dark jeans. Lean lines gave way to the soft curve of her hips and slender legs, which stopped at a pair of ratty purple Chucks, like she couldn’t be bothered to care by the time she got to her shoes. As usual, she was untouched by artifice. I wanted to know if she was hiding anything noteworthy under her clothes. If the way she hovered near the door was any indication of her unease with the environment, she was probably an ink virgin.
“Tenley!” Lisa’s excited greeting captured her attention, giving her somewhere safe to look. “Did Cassie tell you I ordered in new jewelry?”
A genuine smile lit Tenley’s features as she approached the desk where Lisa sat. It bothered me that she could hardly look my way but she was all cheer and pleasantries with Lisa.
Ironically, every time Lisa went over to Serendipity to get coffees, Tenley always seemed to be available, based on Lisa’s recent reports. The two of them appeared to have struck up a friendship. It was easy to understand how that might happen.
Lisa’s cotton-candy pink hair and ’50s attire never failed to make an impression. She was like sunshine in human form, with a nose ring, a Monroe piercing, and a half-sleeve. June Cleaver fused with a Suicide Girl. Lisa tended to keep a tight circle, which meant it was difficult for her to escape some of the girls from her past. They weren’t the best influence. Most of them were still immersed in the world of drugs she’d managed to get free from. A new friend couldn’t hurt, and Tenley seemed normal enough, if a little edgy.
Tenley set the books on the counter, the spines facing me. It looked like she found my Nietzsche. I was in for some heavy reading.
“I’m just dropping these off for Hayden.”
Tenley didn’t look at me when she said my name. I wanted her to. Her sultry voice paired with her smokin’ body resulted in immediate discomfort below the waist. It was inconvenient, but unsurprising, considering how attractive I found her, not to mention captivating.
This wasn’t the first time she’d stopped by the shop. Cassie had sent her over the day following the cupcake interaction with a couple of books for me. Unfortunately, I’d been busy with a client in the private tattoo room, so I’d missed her. Now that she was here, in my space, I wanted to talk to her. Maybe get her to throw me one of those smiles she had for Lisa. That was probably asking a bit much, though; I didn’t exactly exude warmth.
“I’ll be done in five if you want to wait,” I told her, hoping she’d take the bait.
Tenley’s eyes settled on my arms, pausing at the exposed ink. She never made it above my mouth. Yup, I still made her nervous. She thumbed over her shoulder. “Cassie’s expecting me back.”
“I’m sure she can live without you for a few minutes.”
Tenley looked across the street. Through the windows I could see Cassie sitting behind the register, bent over what was likely end-of-day paperwork. As if to drive my point home, the neon Closed sign blinked on.
She turned back to Lisa. “I guess I could have a look at the jewelry.”
The answer might not have been directed at me, but I would take it. Lisa linked arms with Tenley and guided her to the piercing room before she could change her mind. I watched them disappear through the doorway and resumed my work.
After Tenley’s last visit I’d gone over to Serendipity to thank her, but she’d already left for the night. Cassie had promised to relay the message. She’d also told me when Tenley worked next. Not that she’d needed to. I’d memorized Tenley’s schedule. I couldn’t fathom Cassie setting the poor girl up with someone like me; I’d eat her for breakfast. At that, I imagined what she might look like naked, spread out on my kitchen table. I liked the idea.
Despite the distractions, I finally finished the design for the girl in my chair. It looked as good as it could for what it was. Once complete, I explained the aftercare process, strongly suggesting she stay out of tanning beds for the next few months. She hadn’t arrived at the artificial shade of Oompa Loompa orange by simply hanging out in Chicago in late September.
As we chatted, I confirmed my original hypothesis; she was a freshman at the University of Chicago, and it was her first time living away from home. She’d even managed to score a fake ID, which she proudly showed me, like she thought I’d be impressed. I didn’t bother to tell her she’d been ripped off, since the card looked like crap. She would find out when she tried to use it. For the past several weeks my client base had been primarily composed of varying versions of the same girl. It was becoming tedious.
College kids tended to be the most deviant at the beginning of the school year, when their freedom was freshest. Nothing screamed nonconformity more than a rose strategically placed on a tit. I rarely turned anyone away, but it crushed my artistic soul a little every time one of those kids picked a design off the wall and asked me to put it on their body.
Chris, one of my partners, managed to finish with his client before I did. He was already at the register checking out the schedule as I rang up my client and sent her on her way. I waited for the ribbing to start. If nothing else, Chris was predictable in his enjoyment of my irritation.
“That one seemed like a load of fun. She flip you her number?”
I didn’t respond. Her number was already in the system, and I would never use it for personal purposes. Beyond her unappealing fakeness, we had one rule in the shop that couldn’t be broken: Don’t fuck clients. Both Chris and I had learned the hard way why it was in poor taste, particularly when we got involved with the same client. Not at the same time, but still.
“We hitting the bar tonight? Or maybe The Dollhouse? I can’t remember the last time you came with me,” Chris said as he flipped the page in the appointment book to check tomorrow’s lineup.
“Depends. You and Lisa coming out?” I called to Jamie, the third partner in our trifecta. Jamie and Lisa had been together since we opened the shop. Where she went, he went.
“Maybe? Ask her when she’s done with Tenley,” Jamie responded as he worked on his client.
If Lisa was in, The Dollhouse wasn’t an option. Lisa wouldn’t be interested in watching strung-out, mostly naked women humping poles. Particularly since many of them were her former colleagues.
But I hated The Dollhouse for other reasons, not the least of which was the people Chris associated with. Damen, the guy we apprenticed under before we opened Inked Armor, hung out there on the regular.
He’d been a colossal prick back then, and nothing had changed since. Ever the entrepreneur, Damen ran a side business, dealing illegal substances. He took advantage of The Dollhouse’s close proximity to his tattoo shop to facilitate his second income. The real kicker was that the manager of The Dollhouse, Sienna, encouraged her dancers to indulge in whatever drugs he had available and happily took a cut of the profits. Aside from my disdain for their moral low ground, I had a long history with Sienna, and she liked to remind me of that every time I ran into her. I hadn’t seen her in more than a year, and I wanted to keep it that way.
“You all right, man?” Chris asked.
I shrugged him off. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just done with freshman season.”
The influx of college kids might have been part of the issue, but they certainly didn’t encompass the whole of my problem. Every time Chris suggested a trip to The Dollhouse, I declined. I didn’t feel like I owed him an explanation, but it was clear he wanted one. I had no desire to get into it, though, with him or anyone else. Further discussions about where to go were thwarted when the door to the piercing room opened and Lisa stepped out, Tenley following close behind.
“What’s the damage?” Chris asked as they approached the counter.
“I’d hardly call it damage.” Lisa stepped to the side, bringing Tenley into view.
Chris let out a low whistle. “Very sexy.”
I wanted to punch him. Which made no sense. Chris flirted with everything that had boobs. It didn’t mean a damn thing, but I still had the irrational urge to lay the beats on him. I slid between Chris and Tenley, cutting off his view to get one of my own. “Let’s have a look.”
Tenley appeared startled by my interest, so I gave her my best nonthreatening smile. She inhaled sharply as I put a finger under her chin. Sliding my thumb along the edge of her jaw, I turned her head to the side. It felt like there was a current buzzing just beneath the surface of her skin. An electric jolt zipped through my veins and headed south, ending right behind my fly. It took all my reserve to block out the barrage of perverse images invading my mind.
While reveling in the intensity of benign contact, I studied the contours of her face. The tiny diamond stud was artfully placed on the right side of her nose. Her full lips were slightly parted, eyes downcast, making her look particularly subdued. The rapid thud of her pulse told me otherwise.
I was being a dick. She was uncomfortable and I was the cause, but I didn’t want to stop touching her. It was fucking weird.
“She picked the one you liked,” Lisa said, elbowing me in the ribs.
It was a not-so-covert way of telling me to back off. I ignored her. I swept Tenley’s hair over her shoulder. It was as soft as her skin and silky as it slipped through my fingers. The kind of hair I’d like to bury my face in or wrap around my hand. I tucked it behind her ear, exposing a ladder of rings traveling the shell. A minor show of rebellion, which denoted a hidden predilection. Interesting. Maybe she was a closet deviant.
She met my curious stare with a timid one. The uncertainty there flared to life and she took a step back, severing our contact. A slight tremor passed through her. If I hadn’t been paying such close attention, I never would have caught it. Tenley brought her fingers to the place mine had been, confusion marring her otherwise flawless features. I’d made an impact. It made her all the more intriguing.
“I should probably get back.”
“Already?” That was a disappointment. I tapped the books sitting in a neat pile on the counter. “Tell Cassie I appreciate her letting you bring these by for me.”
I would personally thank Cassie the next time I saw her and dig for more information on this girl. There was something about her I liked, beyond the fact that she was gorgeous and clearly into steel.
“It’s not a problem.” Tenley edged toward the door and away from me. “What do I owe you?” she asked Lisa.
Before Lisa could reply, I cut in, “Don’t worry about it. This one’s on the house as long as you promise to come by again.”
“But it wasn’t just the—”
Lisa cut her off. “It’s cool. We can work it out next time. I’ll stop by Serendipity tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Tenley nodded, her face fiery as she looked anywhere but at me.
That sucked. Apparently I’d overstepped my boundaries more than usual. She said a hasty good-bye and rushed out of the shop, almost tripping on the curb when she crossed the street. We all stood there, staring at the door after she left. Well, I stood there staring at the door while everyone else stared at me.
Lisa was the first one to break the silence. She punched me in the shoulder.
“Ow. What was that for?”
“Are you serious? What the hell is wrong with you?”
I gave her my best bewildered look. I probably came off a little too . . . me. But Tenley was hot and I found her intriguing. Maybe it was because she seemed so damn uncomfortable around me and completely at ease with Chris and Lisa. Maybe it was the hint of rebellion hidden beneath that hair. I still planned to corner her again and attempt a real conversation. One that consisted of more than a couple of sentences.
“Dude. You have a problem.” Chris scoffed and hid a grin with his fist. I wanted to knock it off his face.
“What’s the deal?” I asked, looking back and forth between him and Lisa. I understood I might have breached the whole personal space continuum, but other than that I couldn’t see a horrific social faux pas.
Chris pointed at my crotch and snickered. I looked down. Huh. My brain wasn’t the only part of me that found Tenley enthralling. I seriously hoped she hadn’t noticed, because my shirt didn’t come close to camouflaging the issue.
“That’s just disturbing.” Lisa covered her eyes with her hands. “You need to get a handle on yourself.”
“It’s probably better if I wait until I get home.” The masturbation joke wasn’t appropriate, but I was deflecting.
Lisa ignored my attempt at juvenile humor. “She wants a tattoo, you know.”
“Oh? Where? What kind of design?” Chris was way too interested.
I pointed a finger right in his face. “You’re not touching her. So don’t even think about it.”
My territorialism was unwarranted. We took clients based on our skill sets. Chris specialized in lettering and tribal art, Jamie had a talent for portrait pieces, and I ran the gamut from dark and sinister to light and feminine. Whatever body art Tenley wanted could fit any one of our strengths.
“Have you seen the design?” I asked.
“No. But I almost convinced her to bring it by so you could have a look. Then you ruined it when you got all up in her space and tried to dry hump her.”
“I didn’t try to dry hump her.”
“You would have if there hadn’t been witnesses present.”
It was hard to argue, given my current issue. “I wasn’t intentionally a dick.”
“I’ll see Tenley tomorrow and do damage control. If I can get her to agree to bring the design over, you have to promise you’ll keep your hands to yourself.”
“You do realize that won’t be possible if I’m putting ink on her, right?”
“So am I.”
Lisa shook her head. “I don’t know why I even bother with you. It’s like herding a cat.”
I laughed. She wasn’t wrong. When it came to walking the line, I didn’t have much patience. People stuck to social codes because they worried about what other people might think. I didn’t give a shit. Mostly. There were a select few whose opinions impacted my decisions. Aunt Cassie’s was one, and Lisa’s was another. For that reason I would try to be on my best behavior where Tenley was concerned, but I couldn’t guarantee I’d be successful.
From her dark hair sweeping below her waist to her soft, sexy curves, Tenley Page intrigues tattoo artist Hayden Stryker in a way no one else ever has…especially when she asks him to ink a gorgeous, intricate design on her back. Yet for all her beauty, there is something darkly tragic and damaged about Tenley that Hayden is everything.
Covered in ink and steel, Hayden is everything Tenley has never dared to want, awakening a desire to explore more than the art adorning his stunning body. Trapped by a past that leaves her screaming from nightmares, Tenley sees Hayden as the perfect escape. Although he has secrets too, if they both keep themselves guarded perhaps their intense physical connection will remain only that.
But nothing, not even passion, can keep them safe from their pasts…
Read an Excerpt
Articles About This Book
Posted on XOXO After Dark
Posted by Marla Daniels
Helena Hunting is a debut author whose books,Clipped Wings andInked Armor, follow the tumultuous touch-and-go relationship of Hayden and Tenley. These two people desperately want to love and be loved in return, but can they put aside their...