“Yeah?” My voiced sounded like I had smoked ten cartons of cigarettes all by myself last night.
“Rowdy?” Salem’s voice was concerned and I flinched involuntarily.
“Yeah. What’s up?”
I added milk to the waiting cereal and took a bite.
“Do you know that it’s after noon? Your first appointment has been waiting for thirty minutes.”
“Fuck me.” I tossed the cereal bowl into the sink and rubbed a hand all over my face. “No, I had no idea. Can you reschedule it and give them a discount for the inconvenience. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” I needed to wash the Jäger out of my system and go back to the bar to get my car. It was going to take more than a few minutes but she didn’t need to know that.
“Are you okay?” Again with her concern and my dick twitching in my pants at the sound of her voice.
“I got tanked last night and blacked out on the couch. I’m fine, just a little annoyed at myself.”
“Okay. I’ll handle the client.”
Her tone had switched from worried to slightly disappointed and I felt it deep in my gut. Whatever was going on between the two of us, whatever she was doing to my head, I still needed to keep things professional between us at work. I owed that to the guys, to my clients, and even to Salem.
“Thank you. I’ll contact him as well and apologize, and I’ll have some designs for you to look at Sunday if you want to meet up.”
She made a weird noise and I heard her move the phone to the side to talk to someone in the shop.
“Fine. You can bring them by my place or just e-mail them to me when you have them ready. I need to spend Sunday and Monday at home this week.”
I wanted to ask her why, and immediately thought she wouldn’t be spending those days alone, and then wanted to kick myself because it wasn’t any of my concern. I agreed and she told me she would text me the address.
I hung up and let my head fall forward on my neck. I was a goddamn mess and I needed to get my act together. It didn’t help my state of mind when my gaze landed on the abandoned sketch pad from the night before that the image staring up me was the one I had spent all night trying to run from and trying to drink away.
It was all there . . . her dark eyes, her endless waves of ebony hair, her perfectly sculpted mouth complete with the winking jewel above her lip, her knowing grin. Plus, the knowledge of every secret I had was there in that hastily drawn image. Even in a drunken haze so bad I could barely remember getting home, she was at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t get around having to deal with her and the hurt she had left behind.
I picked the pad up and tossed it on the couch in disgust. This was getting out of control and I really had to do something about it.
I took a shower hot enough to scald and rushed to get out the front door in under twenty minutes. My next appointment was at one thirty and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone else today. I hated that feeling.
Work was a nightmare. I was usually the one giving everyone else a hard time, usually the guy ready with a quick retort. But there was no denying that I looked like hammered dog shit and was acting like a bear with a thorn in its paw, so Rule and Nash were ruthless about it all day long. I took the ribbing good-naturedly and made it through the rest of my clients with no incident. I was hoping Salem would still be there when I arrived, but she had left to go to the LoDo shop not long after calling me, which left me feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied on top of being more hung over than I could ever remember being.
Nash wanted me to go with him to grab something to eat for dinner since Saint was working a late shift in the ER and Rule had taken off to go home already. Rule was always bolting home right after work anymore and I think it bummed Nash out. The two of them were really tight and now, with all the business stuff going on and each of them settling into domesticated bliss, their bro-times were few and far between.
I had to decline because I needed to work on the drawings for the store. I wanted to show Salem I wasn’t really as much of a screw-up as I had appeared to be in the last few days. Nash told me he understood and promised he would have some sketches to me within the next few weeks as well, and left me alone to draw.
I sketched out a pirate ship. I sketched out a mermaid like the one I had put on Rule a few years ago. I sketched out a gypsy and then had to argue with myself not to throw it in the trash when I realized how much the design looked like my drunken doodle from the night before. All the images were bold and graphic. They were old-school tattoos with enough flare to make them appealing to a consumer not in the business. I liked them so much I decided on the spot I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to show Salem. I didn’t care that it was almost eleven o’clock at night or that I might come across as crazy, I texted her and asked her if it was all right if I brought them by tonight. I really could’ve just snapped photos with my phone and sent them to her but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show them to her in person.
I hadn’t felt like this, the rush, the chill of anticipation rushing up and down my spine, since the last time I had created something on paper to show her. I was fourteen and Salem was seventeen. Her dad had refused to let her go to her prom because as usual she had broken one of his endless rules. She was so sad about it, too, because the captain of the football team had asked her. It was going to be her dream date. Instead she had spent the night in her room alternately crying and cussing about her dad. Because I was always hanging around, always at her house instead of my own, I had ended up on her bedroom floor while she cried in bed, trying to make her feel better. Granted I was just a clumsy teenage boy, so there wasn’t much I could do, but when she told me how sad she was that she would never have a picture to keep—a good memory from prom and her high school days—because her father had thwarted her once again, I knew there was one thing I could do.
I knew Salem’s face as well as my own and it took less than five minutes to draw her out and put her in a fancy princess dress that she would never wear in the real world. The captain of the football team was a little trickier. By then I was only on junior varsity, so I knew basically what he looked like, but the only way I could really figure out how to draw him was in a football uniform. So I drew her a prom picture with her looking beautiful and perfect on the arm of a jock with a jersey on and a football helmet under his arm.
When I gave it to her she stopped crying instantly. She laughed and laughed. At first I thought she was laughing at me and then she had launched herself off the bed and tackle-hugged me to the floor. She told me it was way better than any prom picture could ever be and I still remembered feeling so proud of myself for cheering her up.
I also remembered Poppy sticking her head in the room to see what the ruckus was all about and giving both of us a disapproving look when she saw Salem sprawled all across the top of me. I hadn’t cared even though Poppy was the one I was supposed to be in love with. I wanted to make Salem happy. She was always going out of her way to make me feel like I belonged, like I mattered; I wouldn’t be judged for returning the favor.
The place Salem rented was right in the heart of Capitol Hill and not too far from the Marked or where Nash lived. She was just a few streets up and over. I found her name on the call box and buzzed her to let me in. She didn’t answer the first time and I wondered again if she was alone. When I buzzed the second time I laid on the button until the noise annoyed me and I had to jump back when she suddenly appeared at the security door. She pushed the heavy door open and I had to step to the side as an energetic black bundle of fur and fluff darted past me. Salem went racing after the puppy and I was left there staring after both of them like an idiot.
She was hollering “Jimbo! Get over here, Jimbo!” and the black Lab puppy was happily ignoring her as it pranced around from yard to yard.
Salem had her long hair tied up on top of her head, a pair of black glasses covering her dark eyes, and she was wearing the same shorts she had on from the other night when we had gotten up close and personal at the shop. Only tonight she had on a white tank top that clung to every curve she had and it was pretty obvious she wasn’t wearing a bra.
I had to admit the more she stripped out of her fancy outfits and perfectly made up face, the more I was drawn to her. This Salem reminded me of the girl that had given me hope, the other Salem made my dick hard and had my head spinning, and I was irrevocably drawn to both of them.
The dog made a beeline for me and I bent down to scoop his fuzzy little body up. His tongue darted out to slime all over my face and his tiny tail whipped back and forth. Salem dashed up to the front of the apartment complex and took a minute to bend over at the waist to catch her breath.
“Stupid dog.” The dark fur ball turned at the sound of her voice and tried to escape my hold to get at his pretty owner.
“You got a puppy?” I handed him over to her and she tucked him into her chest as the dog attacked her face with his love.
“Yeah. I’ve never really stayed anywhere long enough to get attached to a pet. My neighbor mentioned that her boyfriend was trying to get rid of a surprise litter of puppies, and once I saw his dopey face I couldn’t resist.”
She headed for the door and looked at me over her shoulder. “He’s why I have to be home over the weekend. He isn’t awesome at being alone for too long yet.”
I lifted an eyebrow and followed her into the building. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sway of her rounded backside or the long length of her bare legs.
The name was funny and fit the big, goofy pup.
“Yeah, Jimbo. Why not?”
Why not indeed? She walked into the apartment, set the dog down, and turned to look at me. I saw myself reflected in the lenses of her glasses as she watched me carefully.
“This really couldn’t have waited until the weekend, Rowdy?”
Her feet were bare and I noticed her toenails were painted a deep, rich red. Even dressed down and covered in dog slobber, she just had something about her that called to deep parts of me. She sighed and walked into her kitchen when I didn’t answer right away. She offered me a damp paper towel and I used it wipe the dog drool off as she did the same.
The only way we were going to be able to work together, to get past the roadblock of the past, was if I was completely honest with her. I finally had to tell her how entwined in the memories I had of her—both good and bad—I still was.
I told her in a husky tone shaded by the past, “I was excited to show them to you. They made me feel like I used to back in the day. I loved drawing stuff for you to look at. No one else ever gave a shit about it, but you always loved it—told me to stick with it if I enjoyed it. I don’t think I would be any kind of artist today if it wasn’t for you, Salem.” I lifted an eyebrow at her as she crossed her arms over her ample chest. “Thank you.”
“Oh, Rowdy.” She shook her head. “It was all you. You were always great. It’s so sad you didn’t have an army of people to tell you that every single day when you were little.”
“No. I just had you.” I walked over so that I was directly across from her with only the counter of the kitchen between us. “I feel like you and the past have been chasing me down ever since you walked into that shop, Salem.” She didn’t answer me but I noticed a little pink work its way into her dusky cheeks. “What are you going to do if I decide to let you catch me?”
I was fast, but she was right, off the field I did tend to stumble here and there, but for the first time in a long time I felt like I just might have found my footing, and with it, I suddenly wanted to walk right up to her.
WHAT WAS I GOING TO DO when I caught him? That was easy. Strip him bare—both physically and emotionally, and then I was never going to let him go. I didn’t think he was ready for me to be that honest, though, so I told him, “I’m going to find out why you’re running from me.” I tilted my head to side and asked him point-blank, “Are you still in love with my sister, Rowdy? I need to know that story.”