I’m the female heir to LA’s underground empire, which makes love a liability. But there are two men I won’t give up … no matter the cost.
One is my first love, a man my ruthless father had beaten more than a decade ago for daring to touch me. He’s back in town and those feelings have been rekindled with a vengeance.
The other is my bodyguard, a man who would take a bullet for me, and nearly dies trying to do just that.
Daring to bring us together for one explosive night of passion puts all three of our lives on a collision course with one of the most deadly Mexican cartels. For some reason my father’s oldest enemy is after me, and uncovering my family’s dark secrets might be the only way to protect the men I love.
“You ever been in love, Mad Dog?”
I’m mid-tattoo, my machine buzzing in my hand, when Leo asks this question. He’s facedown in my tattoo chair, a pillow clutched in his arms.
The question catches me off guard and I pause, lifting the needle and glancing at his profile. My heart thumps because the first thing I think is that somehow he’s read my mind. Somehow he’s figured out the reason I look forward to our Saturday-night tattoo sessions.
He shifts sideways a fraction and twists his head to look at me. A coiled lock of his crazy black hair falls across his forehead and he expels a breath through his mouth to blow it off. Is now the time to come clean about how I feel? But I rein in the split-second—and suicidal—impulse.
Instead, I let out a grunt and shake my head. “Love is fucking dangerous in this town, man. Why? You have something you need to get off your chest?”
I’ve been doing this job for long enough to know questions like his are usually a prelude to deeper confessions. I don’t really want to know his answer, but our friendship is more important to me than petty jealousy. I can’t have him. He’s straight. I’m not. End of discussion. I should at least let him know that detail—we’ve been friends going on a year now—but I can’t bring myself to confess it without opening the floodgates to deeper shit. Being queer in gangland is bad for your health, so I’ll just sit on my feelings and deal.
He sighs, then buries his face back in the pillow. I get back to the tattoo. “You know this is a no-judgment zone. Tell me about her.”
Whatever he has bottled up inside must be pretty intense because his shoulders tighten up hard as rocks. He gives his head a frustrated jerk, groans, then lets his body relax as he surrenders, and I brace myself to be the recipient of whatever secret he’s finally allowed himself to spill.
“I shouldn’t even fucking look at this girl. Her father’s a goddamn killer. But I can’t not, you know? She’s always there, and so pretty. Half of me wonders if the reason I want her is ’cuz I know I can’t have her. That’s a thing, isn’t it?”
I make a low hum of understanding. “La douleur exquise.”
“I forgot your mom is French. What does it mean?”
“It’s like what you said. ‘Exquisite pain’—because you want it so much it hurts, but not even that hurt will make you stop wanting it. I was hung up on a girl in high school, and when it became crystal clear I couldn’t have her, Mom taught me that phrase.”
Leo snorts into the pillow. “Exquisite pain. Like getting tattoos, huh?”
“Yeah, except you actually get to keep the tattoo.”
He’s silent for a few minutes, and I keep inking his skin, absorbing the irony of that old memory popping up at the exact moment I’m yearning for Leo while he’s feeling the same about some girl.
His tension returns to a point I can’t ignore and I pause again, swiping a damp paper towel over the growing swath of fresh ink on his back. “Whoever she is, she’s got you tied up in some serious knots. Maybe you need to distance yourself from her for a while.”
“Not an option.” He clutches the pillow a little tighter, and his gaze cuts sideways to me. “There’s something you oughta know about me. About who I work for. La Valla is only part of it.”
The gang he belongs to isn’t unfamiliar. In the year since I opened this shop, my clientele has largely consisted of members of La Valla, including Leo Reyes and his older brother, Manny, who are the shot callers for the gang. They were my first clients from the darker side of Los Angeles. They even tried to recruit me to join and become their in-house tattoo artist, but I turned them down. Not that it wasn’t tempting. The offer was sweet, and I’m not above exploring a few moral gray areas to make money, but after a decade in the military, I value my newfound independence too much to sign on for something like that. But if there’s more to his world than ~La Valla~, I definitely want to hear.
He turns a little farther so he can look me in the eyes. I meet his gaze but say nothing. I don’t know what he’s about to tell me—it’ll probably be less of a shock to me than he thinks—but he will always have my full attention when he wants it.
“Manny and I work for Arturo Flores. La Valla answers to him.”
A trickle of cold dread washes down my spine. It’s impossible to play off my reaction, and Leo gives me a rueful smile.
“Yeah, so if you want to just show me out, I understand.”
I take a breath and force my clenched jaw to relax. I shake my head and motion for him to roll back over so we can get back to work. “How long?”
He settles his cheek against the pillow, one eye still on me as if he worries I might bolt at any second. “Five years. We’re his enforcers under Gustavo, his lieutenant. But several years back, he started hiring me and Manny as bodyguards for his daughter sometimes too. Turns out, there were people trying to get to him through her. Someone tried to kidnap her one night, so it’s good we were there.”
I’m fairly certain I know where this is going, and my head is spinning from the revelation. Memory flashes of a pretty, hazel-eyed girl, her face one that’s been etched on my mind since I was sixteen. La douleur exquise indeed.
“Is she okay?” I ask before I can stop myself. But I’m no stranger to how closely Flores protects what’s his. If Leo had failed to keep Arturo’s daughter safe, he wouldn’t be here to tell me this story right now.
He laughs. “Yeah, she was fine. I wasn’t. Not after seeing her take down the bastard who was after her before Manny or I could even get to him. She knows how to handle a pistol better than I do.”
“She’s her father’s daughter.” Somehow it’s easy to picture Celeste pulling a trigger and putting a bullet through someone’s skull.
“I’m crazy to want her, I know. Men who get close to her tend to disappear. But it’s my goddamn job. And what’s worse is that Manny’s with her best friend, Toni, now. It’s serious between the two of them, so all bets are off on me ever getting any breathing room. Your fucking needles are easier to handle.”
I latch on to that new detail, grateful for an excuse to change the subject finally. “Toni, as in Toni Valentine, right?” I don’t even care that it’d be a stretch for an average person to know of Celeste’s connection to the celebrity tattoo artist from San Diego. I’m intrigued, but even more grateful for the diversion so I can focus on my work for a change.
It works, thank fuck, and Leo relaxes as he dives into stories about his brother’s pursuit of the gorgeous artist who has risen in prominence in my world over the past few years. I have deep respect for the place Toni has carved for herself in the tattooing community, but it’s my younger brother, Sam, who’s the true fan.
After another hour of tattooing, a chime sounds from one of Leo’s pockets. His broad shoulders twitch beneath my needles and I sit back, eyeing him in irritation. “If you need a break, just say so. You’d think Papa Flores himself was about to walk through my door.”
He lifts up and fishes into his pocket to look at his phone, then puts it back. He turns his head, his mane of black curls a halo around his face. His dark eyes squint, and his lips twist in a grimace I doubt has anything to do with the tattoo. “You have no idea how close you are, man. Gustavo’s at the club tonight. That text was a warning from Benny that the fucker’s headed this way now. He’s such a fucking glory hog.”
“Shit,” I growl, my pulse picking up. Gustavo is the same thug who took a set of brass knuckles to my face more than a decade ago to teach me a lesson, and I’m not exactly keen on seeing him again.
I block out the boisterous voices approaching my shop outside and motion for Leo to lie flat, as if all that bothers me is the interruption. Getting this thing finished is the only goal I have for the evening, though I’d hoped for a quiet night.
I swipe a damp paper towel over his skin, unwilling to lose focus. I have the man at my mercy rarely enough as it is.
He flexes his shoulders once before relaxing. An elaborate lion spans his back, clinging to him by its claws. Its tail curls down past his hip and ends at the top of one ass cheek. The details are rendered in geometric shapes rather than smoother shading. It’s probably the most intricate tattoo I’ve ever done, and it’s going to be a masterpiece once it’s complete.
It’s my turn to be too tense to focus now that I know who’s about to visit my shop. I routinely ask the most dangerous men in LA to strip for me, then photograph them to hang on my wall. So I shouldn’t flinch when one is about to pop in. I have armor now after spending four consecutive tours in Afghanistan. I came home with a medal and an abundance of scars to show for it. Yet where is that armor now?
“You gonna hang me on your wall up there when this is finished?” Leo asks when I shake off the fear as best I can and settle back down, pressing the needles to his skin.
“Maybe if you ever let me finish this damn thing,” I mutter. His crazy hair obscures the side of his face, but I catch his mouth curving into a smile. He’d like that, egotistical bastard that he is, but I don’t think I’ll hang photos of him for the world to see. I might just keep this one to myself. Of all the subjects who might grace the walls of my shop, Leo Reyes is the one I want most to bare his body for me.
The noises from outside the shop grow louder. My stomach clenches, and I take a deep breath to tamp down the rising agitation. I don’t like crowds as a rule, but even if they come in, my actual studio space is walled off from the windows that look out onto Wilshire Boulevard.
Saturday nights on Wilshire are never peaceful. At least half a dozen different nightclubs and dive bars surround me within a mile radius, and despite my policy of not tattooing inebriated knuckleheads, they still gravitate to my doorstep.
Tonight, the bell over my door jingles and my spine prickles with tension. Loud howls carry through from outside. Soon the space is filled with Spanglish smack talk, though there’s less cursing than usual. If I had to guess from the voices, there are at least half a dozen people crowding in.
A knock sounds on the wall just outside the room we’re in, and Sam peeks through the bat-wing doors. “Hey, bro, you’ve got another client.” He looks agitated, and I narrow my eyes at him. His big gray eyes belie an innocence the eighteen-year-old lost years ago under our father’s fists.
I shake my head, opting to behave as if it’s business as usual and the right hand of LA’s most notorious crime lord didn’t just walk through my doors. “No fucking way there’s a man out there sober enough to sit tonight. Read them the rules and tell them to come back tomorrow, Sammy.”
“I think you should tell him yourself,” Sam says. “He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who takes no for an answer. But it’s not him I’m talking about. There’s a woman. Someone I think you know.”
Leo rolls onto his side. “Did you say there’s a woman with him? Curvy girl with big, pretty eyes?” Sam nods, and Leo curses. “That dick just came to fuck with me. Let me handle him.” His face turns grim, and he slips off the chair. He reaches for his shirt, and I stop him.
“We’re not done tonight, Leo. What happened to powering through?”
“I’m not leaving. He is.”
Shirt in hand, he strides through the doors, and I strip off my gloves and follow. Based on the hard set to Leo’s jaw and the way his knuckles turn white around his shirt, I’m about to witness a fight. I’ve never seen him this pissed and have a suspicion it’s less about Gustavo than whoever he brought with him.
When I round the corner, the posse of gangbangers is right where I expected them. Leo is eye to eye with a polished, forty-something man in a designer suit standing at the counter. Leo’s pointing in the man’s face, yelling in Spanish so vehemently my brain can’t translate fast enough. All I manage to pick up is what a reckless asshole Leo thinks the man is for bringing this mysterious woman into my shop.
I almost don’t recognize Gustavo Delgado. He’s aged well since the last time I saw him, but the shine on his cufflinks can’t disguise the rough edges underneath. A small pachuco cross on his left hand gives him away as another gangbanger, even if his clothing has elevated him to a stature not many men like him ever achieve. Gustavo is the man who carries out the will of his master with the brutal efficiency of a trained attack dog. His eyes are black and intense, and when I appear, he whistles sharply. The other men go silent, and a few of them slip back outside and disappear.
The real shock is the sight of the curvy goddess who stands a few feet away, staring daggers into Gustavo’s back.
Her gaze shifts to Leo, pausing long enough that I don't miss the way her expression softens and she almost smiles. Then she looks at me, the smile disappears, and her hazel eyes go wide. Her lips form my name without a sound. Still, I hear her voice in my head, and I mouth her name too: Celeste.
Gustavo sneers at Leo, turns, and grabs Celeste by the arm, yanking her toward the door. A split second later the room erupts into chaos as Leo lunges at Gustavo, fists flying.