Moving to Rapid Falls wasn’t my first choice, but things seemed to fall into place, and I needed a way out of Brookdale.
When the medical director at Grace General offered me the open position on their nursing staff, I jumped at it. I immediately put in my resignation at Mercy Health and started packing.
It’s been two weeks, and I’ve been settling into my rental home and my new job. Now it’s time to do something just for me.
I have always wanted to get a tattoo, but Adam was totally against it. He said only degenerates have tattoos, and he would not be married to a degenerate. Now that the divorce is final, it’s time.
My new friend, Haylee, a nurse at Grace General, recommended Howler’s Ink. She said her friends—two brothers—own and operate it. She was going to go with me today, but she got called into work for an extra shift.
It would have been nice to have her go with me, but I’m a big girl and can do this on my own. I’m sure we will have plenty of opportunities to have fun together. Maybe even a girl’s night out.
I push the door open to the shop and love the vibe.
The walls are covered with oversized tattoo art and the wall behind the counter has a wolf’s head superimposed over a full moon. The wolf has black fur and golden eyes that reflect the moonlight. It’s gorgeous.
If this is any sign of the work they do here, I must be in the right place.
“Hi. I’m Nate. Welcome to Howler’s. How can I help you today?”
The man who greets me has an infectious smile, and I can’t help but return it. “Hi. Nice to meet you, Nate. I’m Julia, and I think I want to get a tattoo.” I reach out to shake his hand.
“Do you have any tattoos, or is this your first time?” His whiskey-colored eyes have tiny flecks of green that almost glow as he smiles down at me.
“First time.” I don’t feel the need to go into much detail about why it’s taken me this long in life to jump into skin art, so I just smile back at him.
“Alright, first timer. I can walk you through the process. We need to get an idea of what you want it to look like. Do you have anything in mind?”
“Not exactly. My friend was going to come with me today to help me pick something out, but she ended up having to go to work.” I frown.
Maybe I should wait for another day when Haylee can come with me and help me make a choice.
Nate must see indecision written all over my face because he pushes a book in front of me.
“Here’s my art portfolio. Look and see if anything sparks an idea. I can always draw something free-hand for you if you’d rather start from scratch,” he says.
A man comes out from the back who could be Nate’s twin. When we make eye contact, I see a mischievous glint that sends a chill through me. He locks his eyes on me as he walks a beautiful blond woman to the door.
“Okay, call me!” The woman gives a childish little wave to the man and swishes herself out the door.
Childish? I squeeze my eyes shut. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was jealous. That’s insane. I shake myself and look back at Nate.
“Okay, that’s a great idea. Thank you!” I say and take the book from him when the man who just sent chills down my spine pushes Nate to the side.
“I can take it from here, Nate.”
Nate looks startled by the man. After a moment, he smiles up at him. “Yeah, sure, brother.”
Nate turns to me and says, “Julia, you’ll be in good hands with my brother, Jake. I’ve got to go do something in the back.”
He taps his fist on his brother’s shoulder and walks away, leaving me alone with the most handsome man I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Adam, my ex, is a good-looking guy. But he’s got nothing on Nate’s brother. Good gravy, the Gods smiled down on this one.
“Sorry about that. Nate has something he needs to finish up. I’m happy to help you. I’m Jake, by the way.” His lips edge up in a half smile, and it takes everything in me not to lean into him.
I push my hair away from my face to give myself a moment to gather myself. “Oh. Okay. I’m not even sure I want to do this today. I wish my friend was here to help me.”
This man is going to eat me alive. I need to get a grip on my nerves or high-tail it out of here.
“Maybe I can help you figure out the right design for you. I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” He takes a step closer to the counter. We are just a few inches apart now.
“Julia. I want you to come look through my portfolio and see if there is anything you like. We can talk through some ideas together.”
There is a command in his tone that puts me on alert. It’s not demanding, but more of an expectation. A challenge. I straighten my back.
“Okay, Jake. I came to Rapid Falls for a new start. It’s time to do something just for me.”
His head tilts to the side as he watches me go through the pages of the portfolio. “A new start?” he asks.
I stop looking through the book and reply, “Yeah.” I push my hair behind my ears. “Starting over. New job. New home. A new town.” I tap the book. “And this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
“What stopped you from getting a tattoo before now?” He places his elbow on the counter and rests his jaw in his hand.
His warm eyes rake over me, leaving a trail of tingles to settle on my skin. “My ex,” I blurt out.
Jake’s stormy expression catches me off guard. “And did this ex hurt you?” he growls.
“Um. Physically, no. He never laid a hand on me.” That’s an understatement. He never touched me. Ever. It took me a while to realize he was cheating on me.
“Listen,” I say. “I’m good, really. I am happy to start over and do things my way, leaving my past behind me.”
The electric current running between us has the fine hair on my neck standing on end.
I’m not sure what’s happening between us, but I’m relieved when he huffs. “Sorry, I don’t like to hear when someone has been hurt. It’s my nature to fix problems,” he says.
“Nothing to fix here. Honest.” I paste a small smile onto my face.
He is easygoing, and then instantly put on high alert. Mercurial. Or volatile?
“Right. Good.” He stands up and starts moving through his portfolio. “I have an idea for you. Let me see…here it is.” He thumps his hand on a fiery bird. Orange and red feathers sit on a glowing yellow sun.
“A phoenix?” That’s not a bad idea. I grin at him. “That’s perfect!”
I watch Jake as he slips the copy out of the portfolio book and lays it over my arm. “Where would you like it to go? I think it would look great if we kept it this size. If we go any smaller, we will lose a lot of the detail, but we could make it work on your arm.”
I wasn’t thinking about doing anything this big, but I love the idea of a phoenix rising from the ashes. It symbolizes my new start perfectly. “Well, if we kept it the same size as the picture, where would you suggest?”
“Hmm.” He comes from behind the counter, looks me over, and grins. “What about here?”
He places the image on my thigh, centering it on the outside and wrapping the wings along the front and back. “Right here. It would be beautiful. What do you think?”
My body is having a visceral reaction to Jake’s hands on me. The static electricity bouncing between us sets me off balance.
“Whoa. Hang on there, sweetheart. Are you alright?” The dark timber of his voice is hypnotic.
“Um. Yes. I…I’m fine. Sorry, I lost my footing,” I stammer.
He lets go of my leg and straightens, towering over me. “We can get the outline started today and then it may take two or three appointments to finish. How does that sound?”
My eyes drift to the chiseled lines of his mouth, and I have to remind myself that I am here because I just got out of a terrible marriage.
I have no business lusting over this man because I need some me time. I shake off the trance his lips have me in and finally respond, “Yes. Let’s do this.”
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