Fighting for everything made fighting for the things that actually mattered get lost in the noise and lose their significance.
I threw everything I owned into my car and once again hit the road. It was the first time I ever left one place headed toward another with a clear destination in mind. Not only the anticipation of facing the one happy thing I held on to from another life, but also the lure of helping to build a tattoo empire, of extending Phil’s legacy out in the world with the next generation of tattoo gods, was exciting, and I loved a good challenge.
When I hit Denver in May I was stunned at how beautiful the place actually was. The city was so clean and the way the Rockies loomed out in the distance really was breathtaking. It had a life to it, a vibe that was different from any other place I had ever been and I instantly felt bad for dismissing it out of hand. When I sucked in a breath it was like I could feel the mountain air doing something to my insides. Or maybe I was just suffocating because of the lack of oxygen. Denver really was a mile above sea level, and for a city girl, trying to breathe at that elevation was proving to be a little tricky.
I found a tiny, furnished apartment. After all I was a master at uprooting my life and bouncing from one place to another. I gave myself a pep talk to convince myself that I wasn’t crazy to move to an entirely new state on a whim and a picture of a pretty boy. I got myself gussied up, did my hair, slicked on some bloodred lipstick, and donned my most killer pair of heels, and went to charm my potential new employer.
My new boss was a babe. So was his business partner. Seriously they should be on a calendar featuring the hot tattooed and pierced men of Denver. They also considered me carefully. Checking out my ink, not in a leering, creeper way, but to see if I could tell the difference between good and bad work. I must have passed inspection because the tiny blonde with the baby and the attitude smiled at me and told them to hire me or else. Mr. Sexy with the flames tattooed on his head, Nash, like I wouldn’t have known who he was from the eyes alone, offered me the job. Of course I accepted.
The guy with the black mohawk and all the swagger made a few sarcastic comments and flashed me a grin that would have made my blood heat if I hadn’t noticed the very obvious wedding ring he was sporting. Those two were trouble. The very best kind, and I told them I knew it was going to be a good time and that I was excited about getting in on this opportunity with them on the ground floor. We were all set to go and I’d told them I was excited to start when I heard his voice.
It was deeper, smoother, but under the baritone was the soft Texas twang I remembered from all those years ago. When his head cleared the top of the stairs I saw his eyes widen, watched them fill with recognition and trepidation. I couldn’t help but smile. Even though he looked less than thrilled to see me, everything about seeing him made me happy, and I knew, just knew I had made the right choice. I moved toward him like there was a force field pulling us together and listened to my heels tap on the wooden floor in time with my heartbeat.
I stopped right in front of him. Even with him hovering a step down below the landing and with me in heels, he was still taller than me. He was broad and strong. He was watching me like I was some kind of apparition.
I was. I was very much a ghost from his past just like he was for me.
I ran a finger over the bridge of his nose, fought the urge to lean forward and press my lips to his slack mouth.
I said his name, his real name, so he could tell it was really me—“Hello, Rowland”—and it made his entire body jerk in response. “You sure did grow up nice.” We stared at each other in silence for a minute and I saw all the color bleed out of his face. He whispered my name back at me in a strangled tone.
He had a massive anchor tattooed on the side of his neck. It looked like it was alive with the way his pulse thundered rapidly under the ink.
I looked back over my shoulder and told the rest of our bewildered audience, “Strike that, it’s going to be a great time. See you guys at work on Monday. E-mail me whatever forms you need me to fill out.”
I made sure my hand brushed across Rowdy’s chest when I walked past him as I made my way down the stairs. I could feel his heart racing, could feel the way he trembled. I’m sure it was more from shock than any kind of appreciation of my feminine charms, but I didn’t care.
For the first time in my entire life I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
THE POOL BALLS CRACKED together with a loud smack and rolled aimlessly across the table. Not a single one, solid or stripe, found its way into a pocket. I leaned heavily on the pool cue I planted on the floor and glared at the table.
“Man, you are off your game.”
In more ways than one. I snorted and looked across the pool table at my best friend, Jet Keller. He wasn’t in town much anymore. He was usually off making up-and-coming bands into stars or busy playing rock star himself. It was a rare night when he was actually home and not attached to his very pretty wife. Normally I would be all over some bro time with Jet, but like he said, I was off.
I reached behind me and grabbed the bottle of Coors Light I had left on the high-top table. Beer normally was the answer to all of life’s problems, but the things that were running around in my mind, the things keeping me up at night, no amount of beer could quiet. I shifted my weight on my feet and watched as Jet sank almost every single one of his shots. I had no idea how he managed to lean over the table and take the shots he did without his pants ripping in half. I kept telling him if he ever wanted to have kids he’d better buy some regular Levi’s; it was a long-running joke between the two of us. I felt bad for the guy’s balls.
I had known Jet for years and was used to his hard-rock style. It fit who he was. It fit his personality. He rocked it onstage and off. It didn’t, however, fit in at the run-down dive bar well off the beaten path I’d dragged him to. I was avoiding the bar closest to the tattoo shop because I had no intention of running into my newest coworker.
It was hard enough seeing her day in and day out at the shop. It was a struggle hour by hour to keep the nine million questions I had from flying out of my mouth. I wanted to know everything, wanted all the answers, but knew even if she had them it wouldn’t make up for the fact she had let me down all those years ago. So I just remained quiet. I kept my trap shut and went out of my way not to look at her, not to talk directly to her, and I sure as shit made sure not to be where I thought she might be outside of work. My avoidance tactics meant the watering hole by the shop was currently off-limits and so was the Bar, the run-down dive owned and operated by a close friend. Those were the only two places that I frequented with my friends and the rest of the gang from the tattoo shop, so it made sense that those would be the places Salem might pop up. Ergo, I dragged Jet’s ass to a place that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since Colorado experienced the gold rush and where every pair of suspicious eyes were on us.
“It’s been a strange few weeks.”
Jet arched a black eyebrow at me and motioned for me to rerack the balls.
“That have anything to do with the babe from Vegas?”
I felt my shoulders tighten involuntarily. “Maybe.”
I took my time getting the colored balls back in the triangle, and when I was done, I stood and leaned on the table with my hands braced on the edge. My tattooed knuckles almost turned white under the pressure. That was the thing with having a tight-knit group of friends that substituted as family. No one’s business was off-limits and everyone wanted to stick their fingers in the mess and try and help.
I narrowed my eyes at him slightly as he ordered us another round of beers from the cocktail waitress that looked like she had been doing this since the womb. “Haggard” didn’t even begin to cover her worn appearance, and it annoyed me. If I wasn’t being such a nut case we could’ve been at the Bar, where Dixie was the cocktail waitress. She was a doll. A redhead with and easygoing attitude and a bright smile. She was also down for spending quality time with me na**d and not expecting anything the next morning, so that made the fact I was getting snarled at by Betty, the Devil’s very own cocktail waitress, even more aggravating.
I snapped at Jet, “What have you heard?”
He grinned at me in the way he had that let me know I was being a dumb-ass. I didn’t get riled up easily. I never saw the point. Things always had a way of figuring themselves out and it was the harder people worked at trying to change the outcome that really made everything a clusterfuck. I firmly believed whatever was meant to happen would happen and there was no way to control the outcome.
He tipped the waitress and took the beers and handed me one.
“Just that she is something else. I heard she can give Cora as good as she gets, that she’s awesome with the customers, that she knows her shit when it comes to managing a tattoo shop and that she’s not just a ten, she’s a ten times ten, and that you’re avoiding her like she came from a leper colony not Sin City.”
Cora Lewis was the business manager for the Marked, the tattoo shop I worked at. She was tiny, mouthy, and the real boss of all of us, and next to Jet she was my closest friend in the world. The fact that she had immediately taken to Salem, had brought her into the fold without even stopping to ask me how I felt about it, bugged me and also made me feel like the odd man out. Everyone seemed to love Salem, couldn’t stop singing her praises and touting about what a lifesaver she had been with the shop expanding into a new location. If you asked anyone else I worked with, she was the saving grace of the Marked.
I wanted her to go back to where she came from and to take all the memories, the feelings that she had tied to her with her. I had worked long and hard to bury most of my pre-Colorado life and I didn’t need a daily reminder that I had loved and lost both Cruz sisters.
“She’s beautiful. She always was.”
Salem Cruz had everything a modern-day pinup girl needed to have in order to be a showstopper. There were the curves she had for days. There were miles of amazing, dark hair that seemed endless and it had a brilliant shot of bright red in the front of it. She had eyes the color of obsidian winged in black liner and a mouth painted in a perfect bloodred pout. Every day she looked like something out of a hot rod magazine. Her style was perfectly designed to be both sassy and sexy in a way that made her almost impossible to ignore. Every day the little ruby Monroe piercing she wore above her lip winked at me and every day I tried not to notice that her tattooed arms were masterfully done and filled with artwork that I envied as a professional and as an artist. I also tried really hard not to remember when she wrapped them around me when I was young and scared all the time as she tried to make me feel better.
“You know her from way back when?”
Jet had no idea how loaded that question was.
“Yeah. I grew up next to her family in Texas. I spent a lot of time at her house when I was just a kid.”
She had looked different then, far more conservative and traditional. Her hair was darker then, but her eyes were still midnight black and mysterious. Her smile was the same and so was the way I could feel my blood thicken when she walked past me or accidently brushed by me. Back then I thought it was wrong. I thought it was terrifying and dangerous to react to a girl that I knew wasn’t for me, but now I knew Salem was irresistible and it was physically impossible not to react to her.
“So what’s with the freeze-out?”
Normally I was charming, affable, and engaging with the opposite sex. I just had a way of talking to them that let me get my way and left everybody happy at the end of the day. With Salem I couldn’t do that. With her I couldn’t find words that weren’t accusation, blame, and downright hateful. I was mad at her for leaving and madder at her for suddenly showing back up.
“She left Loveless when I was fifteen. She packed a bag and took off in the middle of the night with the town’s biggest weed dealer. Her parents were big in the church and her little sister worshiped her, so it was hard on everyone when she disappeared.” I sucked down a heavy swallow of beer and sighed heavily. “It was really hard on me.”