Valentine's Day - Book cover

Valentine's Day

Ophelia Bell

2: Chapter 2


“Tell me again why you’re here and not in Mad Dog’s tattoo chair right now.” I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but I need Leo to come clean. He drove all the way to San Diego to get a tattoo his boyfriend could’ve inked on him in half an hour.

“I knew you missed me, that’s all. Besides, I don’t think Mad Dog would agree to do it if I asked.”

“Well, it is tantamount to having his name tattooed on your ass.” I eye the stenciled design I’m about to etch into with my needles. It’s a wolf’s head inspired by the sleeve that covers Maddox Santos’ left arm. He could’ve gone to Mad Dog’s own artist too, a woman in Santa Monica named Zarya, known for her talents at covering scars. She’s covered a few of mine, so I know how good she is. Either one would’ve been a shorter drive than coming to me.

It also isn’t going on his ass, but on his pelvis in a bare patch of skin he shaved just above his dick. The snake tattoo above it is my work, as is a good thirty percent of the ink on the rest of his body. It’s been a few years since I had the pleasure, but snuggling up to Leo’s privates is not my idea of a good time, especially when I suspect I know his ulterior motive for visiting.

“Why do you think I’m putting it there?” he asks, giving me a wicked grin.

“Jesus, Leo. I know you’re in love, but I don’t need the visual. You’re like a brother. Also, I need you to promise that you’ll never make me get this close to your package again, got it?”

“Don’t you and Celeste trade notes about your conquests? I figured you’d already know all the dirty details.”

I snort and hit the small pedal on the floor. My tattoo machine buzzes to life. I press the needles to his skin and Leo hisses once before settling down. My hand tingles with the vibration of the machine and I grit my teeth against the need to set the needle against my own skin and bear down until pain floods my body. I need to keep myself talking to combat the urge.

“We haven’t traded notes since we were in high school. Besides, all I’d be able to share is the longevity of various brands of batteries. Energizer all the way, baby.”

He braces his hands behind his head and looks down, watching me work. His sweats are shoved halfway off his hips with a towel tucked into the elastic at the front, and it’s impossible to ignore that the man is packing. It’s also impossible not to accidentally bump his dick with my arm no matter how hard I try. The appendage in question twitches under the towel and I glare at him.

“It’s not you,” he says. “Just a reflex.”

“You pop a boner while I’m working and I’m sending you home with a half-finished dog on your junk. How about you pick an unsexy subject for us to talk about?”

He tilts his head back and takes a deep breath. “How’s baby Santos working out so far? Mad said he got promoted a while back.”

My eyebrows twitch at his choice of topic and I’m forced to school my features. I wouldn’t exactly call Sam Santos unsexy, but I am not about to admit that to Leo. The shift in topic at least distracts us both from other involuntary urges.

“You realize it’s been almost two years since he started taking paid gigs, right? He also might be the best thing that’s ever happened to this studio. God knows I needed someone to pick up the slack when he started his apprenticeship.”

“Where is the golden boy, anyway?” he asks, glancing around the empty shop. Leo’s my last customer of the day, and since he’s one of my best friends, I already threw the bolt on the front door and turned off the “Open” sign.

“He had business in LA today. Family stuff.” I shrug and swipe excess ink off his tattoo. “I’m thinking of offering him a partnership.”

I drop the last part casually, but my stomach turns a flip when I say it. Not because I’m worried what Leo will think of the idea, but every time my desire for a partner enters my mind, Sam’s is the face I picture first, and it always gives me a weirdly inappropriate thrill. In fact, it’s all but a done deal; I’ve already talked to the other guys who work at Tendrils, Mako and Vic, and they both gave their blessings. I just need to officially make the offer.

“Are you serious?” Leo asks, his tone less incredulous than merely to the point.

I frown. “Yeah, why?”

“Because Mad’s been talking about the same thing. He’s just waiting for the right moment to make the offer. So if you’re serious about it, don’t waste any time. The boy’s in high demand.”

“He’s not exactly a kid anymore, you know.” I shake my head and laugh. “The last time Vic talked down to Sam, he got an earful. They still rib him once in a while about being the youngest artist here, but he’s earned everyone’s respect.”

“Well, Sam has more talent in his pinky finger than both those knuckleheads put together. What’s stopping you?”

“Nothing, really. Just picking the right time. I’m taking him to Mayan Mayhem this weekend. I want to see how he does. It’ll be incentive to kick ass, maybe win a contest or two and get our name—his name—out there to the masses. I have a feeling he’ll go above and beyond but I don’t want him to think I’m just handing this to him, you know?”

“I take it it’s cool if I tell Mad Dog that his brother’s off the market?”

I smile and nod, the fluttering in my stomach picking up at his choice of words. “Yeah, I think it’s a safe bet he’ll say yes.” Before I return my attention to the tattoo, I catch a more serious look in Leo’s eyes. “What is it?”

“Mayan Mayhem, huh? Of all the tattoo conventions you could choose, you pick that one. Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

I bite the inside of my mouth and dig in with the needles again. “Jesus, have you and Sam been talking? You know he tried to talk me out of going a couple months ago?”

I nearly gave in. My anxiety is through the roof over this trip, which will be my first in more than three years. And when I’m in this state, some really bad habits start to rear their ugly heads. Tattooing is supposed to be an outlet, even if I do them on myself. The logic is that when my energy is channeled creatively, it puts a positive spin on the pain and my focus shifts to the finished product rather than the act itself. I’ve managed to sabotage its usefulness as a coping mechanism lately, though.

“Celeste and I worry about you, babe. It’s been over three years since Manny died. I don’t see you making an effort to move on. This sounds like a dangerous direction.”

“Well, I beg to differ. It makes perfect sense to go to the last event Manny and I attended. I want to move on, Leo. Business is suffering because I can’t bring myself to go to these things. To be around that much crazy revelry because of how much he loved that shit.” Because the craving to give into the darkness is worse than ever and isn’t fading no matter how many hours I spend on my therapist’s couch.

“So you think choosing his favorite event was a good idea?”

“Yes!” I sit back and stare at him, then sigh and shake my head, trying to dispel the uncomfortable knot in my chest. I absently rub my free wrist on my knee, and the burst of pain that spikes through me makes me wince. I almost forgot about the tattoo I inked there late last night in a fit of compulsion to still my anxiety. It worked, but only for a little while.

My eyes prick with tears. “Fuck, Leo. I’m tired of missing him. I’m lonely all the fucking time. I still feel like I’m just going through the motions every day—I know something has to give. I thought going to this thing would kill two birds with one stone . . .”

I trail off, instantly regretting what I just said because it reminds me of the day Manny died. Not that Leo hears me, because his jaw is clenched and he’s staring at my wrist.

He reaches out and takes my hand. I try to pull back, but he holds tighter, yanking my hand close and tugging down the edge of my black nitrile glove to reveal the blood-tinged bandage covering my wrist.

“It’s nothing. Just some fresh ink.”

Leo’s eyes fill with pain and pity. “You can’t keep doing this to yourself, Toni. You know it’s a slippery slope.”

“Hey, at least it looks pretty, right?” I give a weak shrug, but the shame of my strange addiction just makes me want to feel the pain again. My need for tattoos goes a little beyond someone like Leo’s, whose interest in them is merely cosmetic—a way to express himself, even if it’s just to the two people who might get close enough to see some of his latest ink.

He narrows his eyes and peels the bandage away, then stares at the design, nostrils flaring. I bite my lip, waiting for his verdict. My gaze drops to the pendant hanging in front of Leo’s bare chest, right over his tattoo of an anatomical heart. The pendant is an exploded bullet on a chain, the same one that blasted through Manny’s chest, only to lodge itself in Leo’s shoulder. If the two of them hadn’t been there in the path of that bullet, my best friend Celeste would’ve died. Leo’s older brother, the love of my life, did die.

The tattoo on my wrist is a photo-realistic image of that very bullet, designed from a blown-up photo I took of Leo a few weeks ago when I was in a much happier frame of mind. It’s nestled among the petals of a rose, which matches a number of other small roses tattooed around my wrists and forearms. Each one represents a moment in time when my life got away from me and I couldn’t cope without the sting of the needles to bring me back to myself, to remind myself I can feel, that I can create something beautiful out of pain.

I lift my gaze to his and some of my own anguish is reflected in his dark eyes. My throat is too tight to speak and I set down my tattoo machine, pull off my gloves, and roll back on my stool.

“I need a minute,” I force out before standing and slipping into the small bathroom at the rear of the studio.

He wears the bullet for the very same reason I gave myself this tattoo, but I’m kidding myself if I think there wasn’t much, much more to my need to etch it into my skin last night.

Manny and I were together five years before he was killed. I was happy, ready to settle down. Maybe even have kids with him, despite knowing how wrapped up he was in Arturo Flores’ business. Celeste’s father is a force of nature, but someone worthy of respect. If Mom trusts him enough to let my twin brothers work for him, even after what happened to Dad, then I have no reason not to trust him too.

Celeste and my mom and brothers know better than to discuss Arturo’s business in detail around me, even though Celeste insists that on the surface he looks like no more than an antiquities broker. I don’t care how benign Papá Flores seems on the surface—the man Papá trusted most, who Manny took direct orders from, was corrupt enough to drag five of the people I love most into a situation that could’ve gotten them all killed, not just the one whose loss utterly broke me.

I blamed Flores for Manny’s death until Celeste explained it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with his lieutenant, Gustavo Delgado, betraying him to the leader of a Mexican drug cartel. I don’t know much more than that. When I graduated from high school I made my choice to stay out of their business, but evidently growing up that close to it had already done some damage. The fact that Dad died because he worked for Flores probably has a lot to do with it.

At least this is what my therapist believes. I latched onto tattoos as a teen merely to cover the scars I’d already given myself. So they became a path to healing, to turning my old cutting marks into something beautiful. The act of covering those old scars was cathartic, and I didn’t cut myself for years afterward. I didn’t need to; I got as big a rush out of giving the tattoos as I did out of getting them, and it paid off.

Once my online body art channel became popular, I moved to San Diego and opened Tendrils, then buried myself in building a legitimate business, which came with an unexpected spot in the limelight. Fame was scary, but also distracting. My craving for pain all but disappeared, and the only tattoos I got were given to me by other people.

But for the past three years, nothing has come close to breaking through the pain of my grief. In my desperation to fend off a complete breakdown, I started tattooing myself again. Mostly I go over the old designs on my wrists so the damage is disguised, but last night’s was the first new ink I’ve given myself in a very long time, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do it to feel something other than grief and anxiety.

I force myself to focus on the mirror over the sink and look into my own haunted eyes, red-rimmed from unshed tears that no amount of dark eye makeup can obscure. My skin seems starkly pale against the bright colors and dark ink of my older tattoos, a symmetrical pattern of lacy, art-nouveau style vines that wind up my arms and across my shoulders in a scrollwork of rose-peppered coils. There’s an empty span of skin on my breastbone, a spot I saved to commemorate my relationship with Manny once we got married, but now it’s just a reminder of the hole he left behind.

Leo and Celeste had each other to get them through the ordeal, then later they had Maddox too. I stayed out of their way at the beginning, because God knew all three of them needed each other more than they’d have admitted. Sometimes I wish I’d asked for more, though, because if I had, maybe they’d stop looking at me with all that pity that I saw in Leo’s eyes tonight. Maybe I’d be better equipped to deal with this upcoming event, and I don’t just mean the tattoo convention.

It’s been almost nine years since Manny and I first became a couple. It was mine and Celeste’s joint twenty-first birthday party, since our birthdays are less than three weeks apart, and her pair of personal bodyguards were in attendance. The Reyes brothers took their job seriously, but that didn’t stop me from noticing Manny Reyes, or him from noticing me. We didn’t hook up, though; he was far too professional for that. All I got was a birthday kiss and a very formal request for a date on his night off.

My thirtieth birthday is less than a week away—another milestone, and one I always imagined I’d share with all three of them. Yet here I am, a single business owner struggling to maintain some illusion of the celebrity status that got me where I am today. Sometimes I think I should just sell the whole business outright, but Sam is the only person I trust to do it justice, and I don’t think he has the resources to take over completely.

The sound of conversation out in the studio draws me out of my sullen thoughts. Sam’s back from his errand in LA. I close my eyes and listen, calmed and comforted by his voice.

I took a risk on him, offering him an apprenticeship right out of high school. He was nineteen at the time—evidently he’d been held back after failing junior year, which boggles my mind. He’s proven himself to be pretty fucking brilliant when he applies himself, not just as an artist, but he just seems to know things and is constantly sharing fascinating tidbits with the rest of the artists or clients who come in for work. When it comes to the studio and the business itself, all I have to do is ask him to look up anything related to tax law, accounting, or local regulations and he comes back with a dissertation on it the following day.

He was a few months into his apprenticeship before he revealed he has a photographic memory. I get the impression that he doesn’t like to talk about it, so I don’t bring it up. I have a feeling he’s ashamed that he wasted his talent in high school and is desperate to make up for it now.

But even though there are two older artists sharing space in my shop, neither Vic nor Mako offer me the same sense of safety. Sam always has my back. When he first started working for me, I thought he might be harboring a bit of hero worship, but the more I got to know him, the more that impression faded. He’s just a good guy who cares deeply about the people close to him. I see it every time his sister Elle comes to visit. Having him around has been the most effective balm to my sanity.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. Hearing his easy banter with Leo right now manages to wash away the last remnants of the painful memories that threatened to throw me off the deep end.

A knock sounds at the door and my eyes fly open.

“Toni, you okay? Leo said you were upset.”

I blink and turn to stare at the door. “I’m okay. I’ll be right out.” I take another deep breath before quickly washing my hands, then opening the door.

Sam stands just beyond the threshold, his face etched deep with concern, his big frame a bulwark between me and the rest of the world. Something about his sheer physicality calms me even more and I find it easy to smile.

“Is there anything I can do?” he asks more gently. “There’s still time to skip the trip. Let Vic and Mako hold down the fort in Cancún.”

Something in his voice sounds almost hopeful, but it’s probably just concern. This boy is confoundingly sweet and tender toward me. He always has been.

“Are you kidding? I’m not letting those numbskulls represent me at one of the biggest events of the year.”

He crosses his arms and his expression turns serious. “Why didn’t you tell me you had history there? Leo told me what it means to you.”

I peek past him to the tattoo chair where Leo’s still reclining, a towel draped across his lap. He gives me a helpless shrug. I hope he didn’t tell Sam all the shameful details.

“That’s nobody’s business but mine, okay?” I take a step in an attempt to brush past him, but he stops me with a gentle grip on my shoulder. I’m only wearing a tank top and his touch is warm and firm, his fingers soft against my bare skin.

An unexpected spike of longing drives deep into my gut—lower, even. I’m so unprepared for it I take a step back out of his reach, forcing my face into a mask. Hopefully neither man saw the crack in my composure. It’s one thing for them to see me fall apart over Manny’s memory—that’s old news—but reacting to Sam’s touch this way . . . Jesus, I must be really hard-up.

“Toni, you don’t have to shut me out. You can talk to me.”

“It’s not that,” I say, avoiding his gaze and slipping past him, careful not to come into contact, but painfully aware of how amazing he smells, all warm wood and spice with just a tang of exhaust residue from his long drive. Manny used to smell like that when he would drive down from LA to see me. It’s all I can do not to stop and bury my face against his chest, begging him to hold me. I need tonight to be done so I can get away from both men’s worried stares. “I appreciate the concern, but this is just something personal I have to deal with on my own.”

Leo’s eyebrows shoot up and our eyes meet when I take my seat on my stool again and reach for a fresh pair of gloves. I give him a death glare, silently daring him to make a peep about what I’m leaving out, or—God forbid—about anything he might’ve sensed pass between me and Sam. Leo knows me too well for his own good.

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