Love & Tattoos
The late afternoon sun warmed his back and a cool Fall breeze blew against the front of his body as he walked toward the deli to pick up his dinner. Small local businesses lined the street in this revitalized area of downtown. A pub that specialized in craft brewed beers, an art supply store with an upstairs gallery, a bookstore that catered to local up and coming authors, a small coffee roaster and homemade dessert shop, among others. Everything in the area was about hands on, handmade, locally created. It wasn’t unique because it was happening all over the country, but it was special. It showed determination and individuality, two things Brax embraced.
The deli, Jamie and Friends, where Brax had called in an order, made the best brisket sandwich he’d ever tasted. They’d perfected it in Jamie’s father’s backyard last summer and it was indeed, perfect. Just thinking about it made his stomach grumble in protest of of how long it was since he’d eaten last. Breakfast. A strawberry pastry and a Red Bull. Not exactly a meal fit for a king.
He rounded the corner, wrapped his hand around the door handle, and that’s when he saw her reflection in the glass. He turned and took a couple of steps. His stomach could wait for a few more minutes.
Her hand tightened around her pencil but when she looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun, her lips parted in a smile. “Hi Brax.”
Did she know he heard the tightness in her voice, that he saw the strain on her face? “Fancy meeting you here,” he remarked casually.
“You said you were going to get coffee and head home.”
“I have coffee.” She pointed to the paper cup to her left on the table. “And after I finish it, I’ll be going home.”
“An answer for everything,” he muttered under his breath. She’d been defensive about her art around him and he was tired of walking on the proverbial eggshells whenever they were around each other. He wasn’t a timid man. He wasn’t nervous around women. He didn’t have to be, but Annie? He’d been trying to find an in with her, trying to get her to smile at him. Just once…
Confusion knit her brow. “What?”
“Nothing.” Brax shook his head. “May I sit?”
Brax pulled the metal and wood chair from under the matching table and sat across from her. “What are you working on?”
“Just doodling.” The answer was evasive at best, something he’d had to get used with her. She quickly closed the notebook and cradled it to her chest in a move Brax didn’t understand. She’d been that way around him for a while now and was starting to piss him the hell off.
Then again, he had to keep reminding himself, in the months she’d been home, she hadn’t quite been herself. “Then why hide them from me?”
She shifted in her seat. “I’m not hiding anything. They’re just not important.”
“Okay.” He’d let the subject drop. For now.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “Do you need me to come back to work?”
“Nah,” he waved the question off. “Just picking up something to eat. Beth is handling things until I get back.”
“Beth,” Annie said softly. “Of course.”
Brax watched her closely. “Yeah.” He wanted to know what she was thinking but even if he asked, she wouldn’t tell him. They’d never been the share everything friends, but things had been easier between them in the past. What the hell had changed?
“Y’all made a good decision to bring her on. She’s amazing with abstracts and the work she can do with writing is amazing. Her calligraphy is unmatched.” Brax nodded in agreement. “Yes, she is.” Beth was a new hire at Love and Tattoos, the tattoo and piercing parlor Brax owned with Annie’s brother, Joe. They’d been business partners for about four years and best friends since college. Brax had the feeling Annie was a little envious of Beth, but he couldn’t put his finger on why she would be. Beth was younger, blonde haired, blue eyed, tall, tall, slender, and a kickass tattoo artist, and Annie was…not.
Annie was so much more than her looks, her body, and her talent as an artist.
Annie was… Everything. Including Joe’s sister. If Brax could have banged his head against the table without drawing attention to himself, he would have.
He fucking knew better than to fall for a friend’s sister.
She picked up her coffee and glanced somewhere over his shoulder, giving Brax a brief moment to indulge the fantasy of licking her throat, from the hollow at the base up to the dimple in her chin.
Her short hair, black and razor edged, framed her round face and sunlight glinted off the rhinestones at the corners and sides of her black rimmed glasses. She had beautiful hazel eyes, more green than brown when she was happy, more gold than green when she wasn’t.
Brax loved looking at her and counted himself lucky that he’d never been caught staring. No one, especially she nor Joe, knew Brax had a thing for her, but it was time he change that. “When is your food supposed to be ready?” She was looking at him again. He blinked slowly and stretched back in his chair to hide the fact he’d been memorizing the way her chest rose and fell as she breathed, the way her faded Nikki Sixx t-shirt stretched across her breasts.
“When I got here,” he replied easily. “I’ll be right back.”
Brax took a deep breath as he walked into the deli. He had to get himself under control. Joe was out of town at a tattoo convention and it was the first time since Annie had come home that Joe wouldn’t be hanging around. This weekend was his chance to make a move, to draw Annie out, to stake his claim.
“Hey Brax.” Jamie greeted him with grin.
“Hey man. How’s it going?”
Jamie was the oldest of the managers of the deli, getting his master’s degree in economics. His father owned the small restaurant and had turned the day to day running of it over to Jamie and his three closest friends. It had been a risky decision but one that had taught the four young men about running a business and the experiment had worked out well. They were open late, fitting the young urban, artsy crowd as well as the college students from the nearby state university.
“I can’t complain,” Jamie responded. “You?”
“Good to hear. You call in an order?”
“Yep. Brisket and a potato salad.”
Jamie nodded and turned his back for a moment. He flipped through tickets stapled to paper bags on a pass thru, found Brax’s and put it on the front counter. “Drink?”
“Sure thing. Saw you out front talking to Joe’s sister, Annie, right?”
“Yeah.” Brax handed over a ten, put his change in the box by the register for tips, and picked up his order.
“You ask her out yet?” At Brax’s wide eyed looked, Jamie laughed. “Oh come on, man. We all know you’ve got a hard on for her.”
“We all?” That made Brax a little nervous. “Even Joe?”
“Well hell no, not him. If he knew, I’m not so sure you’d still be walking around on two legs.”
Brax believed that to be true. Annie was off limits to any and all of Joe’s friends, especially Brax, and Brax would do well to heed that rule.
Then again, he’d never been one to follow the rules all that closely. “I guess I’ll have to keep him the dark for a little while longer then.” Brax held up the food and drink. “Thanks for these. Probably see you tomorrow for more.”
Jamie grinned. “Anytime.”
Annie was starting to stand when he walked back to the table. “Where’re you headed?”
“Oh, I…” She fidgeted nervously for a second before pulling herself together again. “I’m going home now. You know, fulfilling the second part of my earlier statement.”
“I see.” Brax set his food down and resumed his seat. He slouched casually in the chair, and looked up at Annie. He kept his gaze trained on her face instead of taking in the curve of her hips in her faded jeans. He couldn’t deny that he was feeling a little more bold with his actions, his desires with Joe several hundred miles away. “You could stay a little longer.”
“I should go.” She sounded unsure and that gave Brax hope.
“Why? We’re friends, aren’t we Annie?”
She jerked her head sharply in his direction, a startled expression on her face. “Of course we are.”
“Then why do you avoid being alone with me?” he asked, knowing her denial would swiftly follow.
“I don’t do that.”
“Then sit back down.” He heard the challenge in his voice, the tightness, but he wasn’t going to apologize for it. He’d just wait for her to decide. She glanced around, everywhere except at him, until she had nothing else to focus on. She sighed, let her bag drop to the table, and she plopped back into her chair. He smiled. “Thank you.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and though it was a childish antic, he was charmed by it, by the playfulness she tried so hard to keep from him. “I don’t avoid you,” she said again.
“Okay. You don’t avoid me,” he conceded. “But you are jumpy around me. Why?”
She rolled her eyes. “I am not. And if I am, why does it matter? Where are you getting all this?”
He wasn’t fazed by her peevishness. She was like a top spinning, the circles growing smaller and tighter with each revolution. She was either going to spin out of control or be wound so tight she’d never be able to unravel. “You,” he said matter-of-factly. “It matters because we’re friends, because we work together. Take your pick of reasons, but where I get it, is you.”
“Then you don’t know me very well,” she countered.
Their gazes finally connected. She fidgeted under the perusal, but Brax wouldn’t let go of the contact. “Don’t I?”
She blinked. “Apparently not. I don’t treat you any different than I treat anyone else.”
“Is that so?”
She snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes, that’s so.”
“We’ve known each other for a long time, Annie.” Brax paused and tapped his finger on the table. “I think I know you very well.”
“I dare say,” he continued, “It’s possible that I know you better than you know yourself right now.”
“How could you? I’m not even sure I know me anymore.”
His heart went out to her and he struggled not to reach for her, but he kept tapping on the table instead.“I know.”
“How do you know? How can you know?” She closed her eyes and shook her head. When she opened them again, he couldn’t read them, couldn’t tell what she was thinking. At least her next words clued him in. “Look. I’m sorry if you think I’m jumpy around you and that I avoid you. I’ll admit I don’t know what to say sometimes or what to do. I… Jesus, Brax.”
She finished the last in a tone so soft he barely heard her. “I know who you are, even if you don’t, and it’s time someone reminded you.”
“You think you’re the someone to do it?”
“This should be good.” She waved a hand in his direction. “I’m listening.”
Brax smirked. He was a cocky son of a bitch and confidence had never been his issue. It had made him good in his brief career as a lawyer, and it made him even better in his current one as a business owner. Joe was the artistic vision; Brax was the practical rein holder. It worked for them as partners. But it was time for Brax to let his own creative side out and finally get through to Annie. On all levels. “No faith in me, huh, Annie?” He rubbed at his chest. “I’m so hurt.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure you’re devastated. If there’s nothing else…” She left the words hanging, as though daring him to add to what he’d already said.
“There’s plenty else. What if I can prove I know you as well as I say I do? What if I can prove that who you were before you worked in a buttoned up corporate firm is still who you are?”
“Before that I was a kid,” she commented.
“You weren’t, but the sarcasm is duly noted,” Brax disagreed. ”Young, yes. Kid, no. Young with a wild, expressive side. Creative, emotional, and sometimes completely obsessive-compulsive. Especially when it came to your art.”
“How do you know any of that? We weren’t around each other that much.”
She was right, of course. When she was in high school, he and Joe were away at college. He’d go home with Joe for holidays and such, since Brax’s own family wasn’t much for traditional gatherings. That’s when he’d met Annie. That’s when he’d fallen for a girl he shouldn’t want, not if he valued his friendship with her brother.
Brax unwrapped his straw and bit at the edges of the plastic before punching it through the lid of his cup. He took a sip of tea. The cold sweetness flowing down his throat was a welcome contrast to the heated flush of his skin. “I was around you enough and there was always Joe. He talked about you all the time when we were in college, your artwork, the contests and awards you’d win for it, the trouble you got into from time to time. He concerned about you, but was so proud of you, so in awe of you. Given that, I didn’t have to be around to know you.”
“Yeah well, things change. People change.”
“Nah. Not the core of who they are. That place you are right now? That place inside you where you feel lost? I’ve been there and I’ve come back from there. If I can, you can.”
Annie shook her head. “It’s not the same, Brax.” Her voice shook with the conviction of her belief. “You left your corporate job voluntarily. You were ready. I wasn’t. I liked my life, my friends, my job.”
“I don’t believe you. If you loved it so much, why didn’t you try to find another agency? You could have found employment. You might have had to move to a different city or state, but Joe said you didn’t even try. He told you to come home and you did.”
“This is ridiculous. That has nothing to do with anything.”
“Sure it does.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Annie huffed out a breath and picked up her bag. “I’m leaving.”
“Running away? I never pictured you to be a coward.”
“I’m going to my place. That’s all. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Brax shrugged, letting her run. “All right.”
“All right.” Annie repeated the words and nodded. When he said nothing more, she groaned and turned, walked to the edge of the sidewalk, and pressed the crosswalk button. He followed the sway of her ass beneath her clothes, her ramrod straight back with his gaze. It wasn’t but a few seconds later that she spun around. “Dammit, Brax.” She stalked back to her chair. “What do you want from me?”
“A lot. I want you to let go and be yourself again.” He hesitated, waited for her to say something, to counter him, but when she remained silent, he added the rest of his desire, quietly. “I want you.”
Available as an ebook:
A few years ago, Brax traded in his suit and law degree for part ownership in his best friend’s tattoo parlor, Love and Tattoos. He hasn’t looked back. Inked from head to toe, full of business smarts, and an affinity for classical music and hard sex, he’s got life right where he wants it.
Until the woman he can’t stop craving comes home. She’s full of luscious curves, looks a little unsure of herself, and has taken to acting a little odd around him. Brax can’t help but wonder why.
The corporate advertising firm in Philadelphia that Annie buttoned up her carefree personality for has laid her off. Now, back in North Carolina, she’s trying to find her sparks again. Her career is changing direction, her sex life is nearly dead, and the one thing worth having in the midst of it all is supposedly off limits.
Brax’s cockiness and Annie’s own desire to for the tattoo artist, dares her to believe he might know her better than she thinks he does. And when he promises that he can help her find what’s missing in her life, she agrees to his little after-hours game.
The challenge he lays out comes with a few strings, the suggestion of stripping, confessions, and the temptation of ink. But, they’ve never been that close, so how could she possibly lose?
Publisher: Lissa Matthews
Genre: Erotic, Contemporary Romance
Length: 92 pages
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