It was only a tattoo. A cute, colorful little design that would be on her skin, oh, forever, and no one would see it unless she wanted them to. Yet Candace Andrews sat in her car staring up at the neon sign of the tattoo parlor as if it were some harbinger of doom.
It’s not that big a deal, she told herself. Everyone I know has at least one.
“I think you’re insane.”
Well, almost everyone. Candace’s best friend sat beside her, her features washed in the orangey hues of early twilight. Even that didn’t soften Macy’s disdainful expression.
“You’ve absolutely gone mental.”
Candace waved her to silence and popped open her car door. Macy’s anxiety always seemed to give her a firmer sense of control. “You’re the one who said I need to celebrate.”
“Yeah, celebrate, not take complete leave of your senses. Your parents will kill you. Hell, your parents will kill me.”
“They won’t see it.”
Macy grabbed her arm before Candace could make a move to exit her car into the mild, late April evening air. “Where do you plan on getting it? Don’t tattoo your butt, Candace.”
“I won’t! And it’s not as if I’m going to run off and join a biker gang because of one patch of ink on my skin. I swear, sometimes I think you’re on Daddy’s payroll.” Wrenching her arm from her friend’s grasp, she got out and bent down to peer at Macy’s stricken face. “Now, are you coming, or are you going to sit out here and pout?”
Trying to suppress her trembling as Macy grumbled her way out of the car, Candace let her gaze crawl over the ultra-modern exterior of Dermamania. She’d never been here before, even though she knew the owner. He was her cousin’s ex-boyfriend, and he was working tonight. His truck was parked in the shadows around the side of the building, its color a blue so dark it was a shade away from black. If he hadn’t been here, then her birthday wish would’ve been put off for another day. Brian was the guy to go to in town if you wanted ink.
God, she couldn’t stop shaking. But she was here and she couldn’t back out now. She wasn’t a huge fan of needles, especially if they were going anywhere near her skin. Whether it was the thought of pain that had her pulse fluttering or the thought of seeing Brian, she didn’t know. When he was dating Michelle, Candace’s heart had hit the pit of her stomach on more than one occasion under the cool appraisal of those dark blue eyes. He was the very definition of off-limits, but that didn’t dampen the effect he had on her.
“I’m not watching,” Macy informed her as they approached the entrance.
“I’m not asking you to.”
“You have one half of a wine cooler on your birthday and this is what happens?”
“Oh, shut up. That was hours ago.”
Inside, it seemed someone had cranked the air conditioning up to levels more appropriate for the dead of summer rather than mid-spring. Three tattooists glanced up from the clients they were working on without interrupting their stream of chatter. Candace naturally zoned in on the one girl who appeared to be in a bit of distress while getting a butterfly colored on her inner ankle. Her face looked pained, her teeth gnawing her bottom lip.
Candace swallowed thickly, trying to buoy her flagging courage. She’d been prepared to run straight to Brian’s side, but he wasn’t anywhere in sight.
“What can I do for you ladies?” the guy tattooing the butterfly asked, barely looking up from his work. He was bald with a pointy goatee and a large plug in the earlobe Candace could see from her angle.
“Is Brian here?”
“He is, but he’s not, know what I’m sayin’?”
The guy still didn’t look up from filling in the butterfly wing with hot pink. It was going to be really pretty when he was done, and she felt a jolt of excitement despite her jitters.
“He’s not seeing clients tonight.”
And just like that, her heart sank. It had taken every ounce of courage she’d mustered to walk in here, and there wouldn’t be any left to work with later on. This was a one-shot deal. “Oh. Well, I know him, I mean, do you think I could talk to him for a second?”
Mr. Goatee shrugged and turned his head toward the rear of the building. “Hey, B! Some people here to see you.” He went back to coloring without giving Candace or Macy—who had stood frozen during their exchange, her eyes darting around fearfully—any further notice.
She could say one thing for Brian’s employees: they were intent upon their work. As she took a seat in the waiting area near the door with Macy following her every move, she was impressed with the neat, shiny appearance of the place. The walls weren’t papered with flash like in some of the places she’d seen, but with abstract art and posters of rock bands and Kat Von D. A music video played on a couple of plasma screens, one at each end of the room. Because some of Brian’s taste for the darker stuff had rubbed off on her while he was dating Michelle, she recognized it as Nine Inch Nails’ “Deep”.
“This is…different,” Macy muttered, her gaze on one of the screens. She was more accustomed to Toby Keith.
“Yeah, this is a good one.”
“Didn’t realize you were into them.”
“I got into a lot of different bands because of Brian. He would let me borrow CDs.”
“Well. Learn something new every day.”
Candace shrugged. “If I broadcast the fact that I like rock music, even some heavy metal, you and my family would be convinced I was worshiping the devil or something.”
“Oh, I would not.” Macy’s voice pitched lower. “Michelle dated the guy. No one said anything about her.”
“Are you kidding?” Candace whispered as loud as she dared. She was pretty sure the sultry beat of the music, the buzzing needles and the jokes flying fast and furious drowned out their conversation. “It drove her parents insane. And mine, even. She liked Brian a lot, but she never really got into his scene.”
All the parental units would have been ecstatic over Michelle dating someone from Brian’s family if she’d only chosen the right brother. Candace had always thought it a cruel trick of fate on all of them that Brian had been stuck in the middle of an affluent family who expected the children to become doctors or lawyers. Among his siblings—his brother Evan the lawyer and his sister Gabby, who would soon start med school—he stuck out like a zebra among sheep, and by all accounts, he seemed to like it that way.
“Somebody better be dead or dying…”
She’d been so caught up in her thoughts that she missed his emergence from the door behind the counter, but that deep voice slid down her spine like caressing hands. Whether it was gentle or teasing or harsh, it always seemed to flow over her skin, manifesting itself in skitters of gooseflesh.
He froze mid-step when he saw her. It might have been wishful thinking, but she could’ve sworn his face lit up. “Or just sitting there looking pretty,” he finished with a heart-stopping grin.
She lost her breath. It had been months. Six, to be exact. Much too long to go without feasting her eyes on the only real object of desire she’d ever had. But she wasn’t here for that. At least, that’s what she had to keep telling herself.
Given that smile, she could sympathize with Michelle’s heartbreak over losing him soon after their trip to Hawaii for Evan’s wedding. The details of their demise were fuzzy, but it didn’t matter. Candace would weep oceans to lose a guy with a smile like that. It was infectious, and she was on her feet and crossing the room toward him almost before she realized it.
Brian folded his arms on the countertop as she approached. “Hey, sunshine. What brings you out?”
Whatever the reason he often called her that, it made her giggly as a teenager. “Guess.”
Brian’s gaze flickered over to Macy, who had somehow mustered the courage to follow her to the counter. His smile intensified. “Bringing your friend in for a tongue ring.”
Candace laughed as Macy blanched and stepped back in horror. She grabbed the other girl’s arm before she could bolt for the door. “God, no. She’s a weenie.” And so am I, truth be known. Why in the world was she acting so tough? One touch of the needle might cause her to dissolve in hysterics.
“And you?” Brian asked, one dark eyebrow raised.
“I was kind of hoping for a tattoo.”
“There’s no ‘kind of’ to it, girl. You get it or you don’t.”
“I know that.” She tried to keep her gaze from straying to his arms resting on the counter. He was wearing a form-fitting black shirt with sleeves so long they almost covered his hands, but she knew that underneath it, the flesh of both his arms was a riot of color from his shoulders to his wrists.
Pity that it was all hidden from her sight now. She thought his sleeves were beautiful, and always struggled not to stare…actually, on second thought, maybe it was best he was covered. After going so long without seeing him, she might have very well embarrassed herself. How often had she fantasized about running her fingertips along all those lines and patterns and hues, deciphering all the meandering shapes, exploring the statements he’d found profound enough to mark on his skin for all time…?