All we had to do was make it through the weekend. It should’ve been a breeze. A tattoo convention in Cancún with Toni Valentine, the toughest and sexiest tattoo artist in the world? It was a dream come true.
It was my chance to show her how I’d grown. I came to work for her when I was just some kid from LA and she already had a spread in Maxim and a successful video stream, but over the past three years, we’ve gotten close. And I had plans for us to get even closer.
But now my plans have changed. Now I’ve got to prove myself in a different way—by saving her from one of Mexico’s most brutal cartels.
I’d do anything for Toni, and that includes walking right into the belly of the beast. And I’m not coming back without her.
“Hold onto your dick, brother. You’re about to fall in love.”
My brother’s penchant for theatrics provokes a sharp look from me. “Just show me the damn bike, jackass. I’ve waited two months and it’s killing me.”
Mason grabs hold of the sheet draped over the motorcycle I brought to him back in February. I’d bought the beat-up Harley Davidson Sportster for the price of a tattoo, already knowing at the time who I wanted to give it to.
Behind me Maddox starts a drumroll on the hood of his truck while Mason teases, gently tugging the sheet. My stomach’s in knots, not because I’m afraid the bike is ugly—Mason’s restoration skills are beyond compare—I’m just afraid this whole gift idea may be going a step too far.
But the woman it’s for is worth it. I won’t lie, I’d love it if she saw the bike and immediately took me to bed, but I have no expectations beyond seeing her smile, something she hasn’t done nearly enough of in the time I’ve known her.
I take a deep breath and grit my teeth. My brother is having way too much goddamn fun with this reveal, but he finally yanks the sheet off with a flourish.
“You’re an idiot,” I mutter, but can’t help smiling because the bike is fucking gorgeous. I take a step closer, basking in all her shiny chrome and polished paint. The deep red leather of the seat tempts my touch and doesn’t disappoint when I brush my fingertips across the warm, supple surface. The design on the fuel tank is just how I drew it, candy-apple red with Toni Valentine’s logo carefully hand-painted on either side—a bleeding heart punctured by symmetrical vines sprouting rosebuds along their coiling length. The style is art nouveau with a gothic twist, and it’s all her.
“You sure about this, Sammy? It’s not too late to sell this and find her a subtler gift, you know.” Mason crosses his arms beside me and gives me a look, reminding me how crazy he thinks I am to go to these lengths for a woman who probably thinks of me as a baby brother.
Our older brother, Maddox, steps up to my other side and tuts softly. “He’s not backing down and you know it, Mase.”
“Listen, I know you two think I’m off my fucking rocker, but Toni deserves to have something good happen to her for a change.”
Maddox claps me on the shoulder. “Nobody said any different. We just don’t want your tender little feelings to get hurt, and you are charging full speed ahead down the road to heartbreak with this thing.”
He’s probably right, but I don’t give a fuck if she tears my heart to pieces and stomps on it. Don’t get me wrong, I hope she doesn’t—I hope she finally sees me for the man I am, not the teenager she hired to apprentice at her tattoo studio almost three years ago. Not that I expect a gift like this to change things between us.
“All I want is for her to be happy. And safe. The old bike she’s been driving is falling apart. She needs a new one. Will you help me get this thing loaded onto the truck?”
Mason lowers the bike lift and I shift it into neutral to roll it down the ramp, then push it across the garage and up the other ramp into the bed of the truck I brought up from San Diego. I had to borrow it from my coworker, Vic, to pick up the bike, but I want to have it close when we get back from our trip on Sunday.
“When are you giving it to her?” Mason asks after we wrap the bike in a quilted drop cloth and tie her down for the trip. “Just so we can be prepared for damage control after she rejects you.”
“Who says that’s how this will play out?” I reply, quickly finding my limit to their ribbing.
Mason holds up his hands. “Listen, I know you’ve crushed on Toni since you sprouted pubes, but don’t forget you’re twenty-two. She’s got to be what, thirty by now? That’s an eight-year age difference. Not to mention her history and the baggage she doesn’t even know she has yet. All I’m saying is you have an uphill battle ahead of you if you’re hoping to win her over.”
“First, it’s seven and a half years. Her thirtieth birthday is next Tuesday—you already know this bike is her birthday present. And don’t you think I’m painfully aware of the challenge?” I stare at him, then at Maddox who wanders over to listen. “You think I’m not playing the long game here? I’ve been working with her for three years now. I know a couple of her dark secrets already. Not many men can say that. I know things about her she doesn’t even know herself. She talks to me. She trusts me. It’s time I let her know I’m an option.”
“Sammy, it’s the secrets we worry about,” Maddox says. “She finds out you know something as life-defining as who her real father is and didn’t tell her, there’s no coming back from that. I don’t care how many crazy gifts you give her.”
“Well you assholes didn’t exactly give me a goddamn choice, did you?” I glare at them both and am mildly gratified by Mad’s wince, but Mason only glares back harder.
“It’s too dangerous for her to know the truth yet,” he says.
Maddox purses his lips, but doesn’t say anything. I narrow my eyes, trying to gauge whether that expression means he agrees or not.
Mad’s the bigger—and arguably scarier—of my three older brothers, but Mason’s been more of a hard-ass ever since he came back from the dead a few months ago. After believing he’d been murdered, I’m happy as hell that he turned out to be alive, but to say the experience changed him would be an understatement. The fun, irreverent J.J. I grew up idolizing came back with a new name, as well as an entirely new outlook on life. He’s turned into a responsible dad on the verge of marrying a doctor.
The funny thing is he feels like the dad our own father should have been. You’d think that Maddox, as the oldest, would have filled that role after Dad died, but I guess he’s too much of a softie at heart. Mason’s the one who always puts his foot down when the family needs something and he needs the rest of us to step up. He’s also the only one of us who is actually a father.
I don’t like arguing with him, not because I’m afraid he’ll hit me—those old fears disappeared the day a pair of Marines showed up at my door to let me know Dad was dead—but because he’s almost always right.
This is one situation where I definitely don’t agree with him, though.
“I think it’s too dangerous for her to not know the truth. I’m telling her this weekend while we’re at Mayan Mayhem. Then hopefully after we get back from the convention, she’ll have cooled down and her birthday present will heal the rest of the damage.”
I grit my teeth, eyeing Maddox and waiting for him to react to the mini-bomb I just dropped. He’s been to this particular tattoo convention before, so he’ll know where it is. His nostrils flare and he drops his hands to his sides.
“Fucking hell, are you out of your goddamned mind, Sam?”
“Language!” Mason snaps. “I don’t need Zoe’s vocabulary to be any more colorful than it already is. What’s he talking about?” Mason shoots Mad a confused look. “What’s Mayan Mayhem?”
“It’s a tattoo and music festival. In Cancún, the last place Toni—or Sam—needs to be.”
Mason cuts himself off mid-curse, casting a sideways glance at the playpen in the corner of the garage where my toddler niece, Zoe, sits playing with a set of brightly colored plush blocks.
“No, brother. Just no. You know better than to head right into the viper’s nest.”
“Amador doesn’t even know who she is. I’ve scoured the intel you shared so I know it backwards and forwards. He won’t touch her unless he knows she’s Papá Flores’ daughter, which he doesn’t.” I look at Maddox. “Does Celeste even know she has another sister?”
Maddox sighs and shakes his head. “She only knows about Elle. Papá Flores hasn’t shared that particular detail with her because he’s afraid she’ll be pissed he had an affair while her mother was still alive. But Toni’s mom doesn’t want to tell any more than Flores does. Elena knows there will be a time for it, and it isn’t now.
“Please think about this hard, baby brother. Toni isn’t the only one whose world will be turned upside-down when she finds out. We may know all these secrets, but that doesn’t mean they’re ours to tell. And you can bet Amador knows her connection to the Flores family even if he doesn’t know how deep it goes. She and Celeste have been best friends since they were babies. He knows everything there is to know about Celeste already.”
“So you’re just okay with lying to the woman you love about something that life-altering? Jesus Christ, Mad. Don’t you think there’s a limit?”
He takes a deep breath and shoots a look at Mason, who says, “There’s no limit to the steps we’ll take to protect our family. Even steps they might not like. It’s not going to last forever. When Amador’s gone it’ll be safe to talk about it, but it’s up to Arturo and Elena, not us. Until then, it’s just better if Toni stays in the dark. That way there’s less risk of Amador finding out. And it’s better if you stay the heck away from Cancún.”
I pace the alley, shaking my head before I turn and stretch out my arms. “This trip is only for a few days. And trust me, I tried to change her mind about it, but we made these plans a year ago. It’s the first convention she felt strong enough to attend since Manny was killed, and God knows the business needs it. I couldn’t exactly talk her out of it without telling her the truth, which fucking killed me. I have to tell her because I ~know~ there’s a risk and I want her to have all the information, but I know her. She wouldn’t change her mind even if she knew.”
I don’t exactly relish the idea of laying this on Toni during our trip, but we’re getting on a plane to Cancún at the crack of dawn and I don’t want her to arrive oblivious to the risk.
But my brothers don’t look convinced, and I fucking hate that I’m starting to agree with them a little. What’s worse is that they don’t say anything else; they just watch me pace as if sensing the indecision they put into my head.
Zoe starts to fuss in her playpen and Mason walks over to retrieve her. He comes back, bouncing the curly-haired cutie gently in his arms. Then there are three sets of eyes staring into me and it doesn’t help that one belongs to a toddler. She has the Santos eyes that drill deep into your soul.
She ruins the effect when she smiles and blurts out “Sam!” in the chirpiest little baby voice followed by a string of nonsensical syllables.
“Well, well, baby girl, listen to you,” Mason says. “Anything else you want to tell your Uncle Sam? Like ‘don’t be an idiot’?”
“Idiot!” she parrots, and I can’t help but laugh. The tension eases inside me, but I’m left with a lump of dread, and I’m not sure whether it’s fear of any potential danger or of simply being rejected by a woman I’ve wanted for almost a decade. My brother wasn’t exaggerating when he said I’ve crushed on Toni since puberty. The day I saw her first online tattooing video when she launched her Tendrils Tattoos channel, I was done for.
I sigh and turn back to the truck, digging into my pocket for the keys. “I need to get on the road before traffic gets bad. I told Toni I’d stop by the studio this evening to help her finish packing up the banners and swag for our booth.”
“Where are you parking the bike until then?” Maddox asks, and I’m relieved he seems to have let the subject drop.
“Elle’s meeting me at the storage lot where she rents a unit so she doesn’t have to haul all her stuff home with her every summer. She starts full-time at Typhon the day after finals, so she’s staying down there this summer while she finishes her internship. We’re talking about getting a place together.”
At least my sister’s on my side about this. She’s followed Toni’s career at least as closely as I have, though without half as much hero worship. Since we’re closer in age, Elle tends to be the one I confide in more than my brothers. That’s not to say she doesn’t have concerns too, but she’s at least less heavy-handed about letting me know.
I check the tie-downs one last time, then return to face my brothers. “We’ll be fine. I’ll be back in time for Zoe’s birthday party on Monday.” It’ll be a crazy week, what with my niece turning one and then Toni’s birthday the day after.
“Who are you kidding, kid? You’ll be hungover,” Maddox ribs me.
Zoe starts to fuss, so Mason steps back to her playpen to pick up her bottle and her binky before strolling back to have the last word. I eye him warily as I answer.
“Elle said she’d drive. Toni wants to come too, so we’re planning to head up straight from the airport when Elle picks us up. This weekend will be nothing but a memory by then, I promise.”
Mason’s jaw twitches. “Not if you tell her the truth. If you do, it’s better if you don’t come. I’m sorry, brother.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I say. I don’t think Toni will react the way they believe, but there’s no point continuing the argument. I just step close and give Zoe a peck on the cheek, glad I got a haircut this morning when she immediately reaches up to grab hold, but winds up tugging on my earlobe instead. Then I give Maddox a hug before climbing into the truck.
As I pull out of the alley and head toward the freeway, I can’t help but envision Toni’s reaction to the truth. My brothers are understandably concerned. If she confronts Arturo or her mother about their affair while we’re at a toddler’s birthday party, there will be too many witnesses for comfort. While she’s brilliant and level-headed as a business owner, she’s also passionate when it comes to justice. Once a client tried to stiff her and she chased him out of the shop and tackled him in the middle of Market Street, with dozens of people looking on.
I love that about her, but my brother’s right—there’s a time and place for news like this, and I can’t let my own desires cloud my judgment. Maybe she’s safer if she doesn’t find out this weekend. Maybe I’m safer if she doesn’t find out from me.