“If you don’t turn that fucking music down, I’m going to ram this tattoo gun up a place no one on this earth should ever see.”
Austin Montgomery lifted the needle from his client’s arm so he could hold back a rough chuckle. He let his foot slide off the pedal so he could keep his composure. Dear Lord, his sister Maya clearly needed more coffee in her life.
Or for someone to turn down the fucking music in the shop.
“You’re not even working, Maya. Let me have my tunes,” Sloane, another artist, mumbled under his breath. Yeah, he didn’t yell it. Didn’t need to. No one wanted to yell at Austin’s sister. The man might be as big as a house and made of pure muscle, but no one messed with Maya.
Not if they wanted to live.
“I’m sketching, you dumbass,” Maya sniped, even though the smile in her eyes belied her wrath. His sister loved Sloane like a brother. Not that she didn’t have enough brothers and sisters to begin with, but the Montgomerys always had their arms open for strays and spares.
Austin rolled his eyes at the pair’s antics and stood up from his stool, his body aching from being bent over for too long. He refrained from saying that aloud as Maya and Sloane would have a joke for that. He usually preferred to have the other person in bed—or in the kitchen, office, doorway, etc—bent over, but that wasn’t where he would allow his mind to go. As it was, he was too damn old to be sitting in that position for too long, but he wanted to get this sleeve done for his customer.
“Hold on a sec, Rick,” he said to the man in the chair. “Want juice or anything? I’m going to stretch my legs and make sure Maya doesn’t kill Sloane.” He winked as he said it, just in case his client didn’t get the joke.
People could be so touchy when siblings threatened each other with bodily harm even while they smiled as they said it.
“Juice sounds good,” Rick slurred, a sappy smile on his face. “Don’t let Maya kill you.”
Rick blinked his eyes open, the adrenaline running through his system giving him the high that a few patrons got once they were in the chair for a couple hours. To Austin, there was nothing better than having Maya ink his skin—or doing it himself—and letting the needle do its work. He wasn’t a pain junkie, far from it if he was honest with himself, but he liked the adrenaline that led the way into fucking fantastic art. While some people thought bodies were sacred and tattoos only marred them, he knew it differently. Art on canvas, any canvas, could have the potential to be art worth bleeding for. As such, he was particular as to who laid a needle on his skin. He only let Maya ink him when he couldn’t do it himself. Maya was the same way. Whatever she couldn’t do herself, he did.
They were brother and sister, friends, and co-owners of Montgomery Ink.
He and Maya had opened the shop a decade ago when she’d turned twenty. He probably could have opened it a few years earlier since he was eight years older than Maya, but he’d wanted to wait until she was ready. They were joint owners. It had never been his shop while she worked with him. They both had equal say, although with the way Maya spoke, sometimes her voice seemed louder. His deeper one carried just as much weight, even if he didn’t yell as much.
Sure, he wasn’t as loud as Maya, but he got his point across when needed. His voice held control and authority.
He picked up a juice box for Rick from their mini-fridge and turned down the music on his way back. Sloane scowled at him, but the corner of his mouth twitched as if he held back a laugh.
“Thank God one of you has a brain in his head,” Maya mumbled in the now quieter room. She rolled her eyes as both he and Sloane flipped her off then went back to her sketch. Yeah, she could have gotten up to turn the music down herself, but then she couldn’t have vented her excess energy at the two of them. That was just how his sister worked, and there would be no changing that.
He went back to his station situated in the back so he had the corner space, handed Rick his juice, then rubbed his back. Damn, he was getting old. Thirty-eight wasn’t that far up there on the scales, but ever since he’d gotten back from New Orleans, he hadn’t been able to shake the weight of something off of his chest.
He needed to be honest. He’d started feeling this way since before New Orleans. He’d gone down to the city to visit his cousin Shep and try to get out of his funk. He’d broken up with Shannon right before then; however, in reality, it wasn’t as much a breakup as a lack of connection and communication. They hadn’t cared about each other enough to move on to the next level, and as sad as that was, he was fine with it. If he couldn’t get up the energy to pursue a woman beyond a couple of weeks or months of heat, then he knew he was the problem. He just didn’t know the solution. Shannon hadn’t been the first woman who had ended the relationship in that fashion. There’d been Brenda, Sandrine, and another one named Maggie.
He’d cared for all of them at the time. He wasn’t a complete asshole, but he’d known deep down that they weren’t going to be with him forever, and they thought the same of him. He also knew that it was time to actually find a woman to settle down with. If he wanted a future, a family, he was running out of time.
Going to New Orleans hadn’t worked out in the least considering, at the time, Shep was falling in love with a pretty blonde named Shea. Not that Austin begrudged the man that. Shep had been his best friend growing up, closer to him than his four brothers and three sisters. It’d helped that he and Shep were the same age while the next of his siblings, the twins Storm and Wes, were four years younger.
His parents had taken their time to have eight kids, meaning he was a full fifteen years older than the baby, Miranda, but he hadn’t cared. The eight of them, most of his cousins, and a few strays were as close as ever. He’d helped raise the youngest ones as an older brother but had never felt like he had to. His parents, Marie and Harry, loved each of their kids equally and had put their whole beings into their roles as parents. Every single concert, game, ceremony, or even parent-teacher meeting was attended by at least one of them. On the good days, the ones where Dad could get off work and Mom had the day off from Montgomery Inc., they both would attend. They loved their kids.
He loved being a Montgomery.
The sound of Sloane’s needle buzzing as he sang whatever tune played in his head made Austin grin.
And he fucking loved his shop.
Every bare brick and block of polished wood, every splash of black and hot pink—colors he and Maya had fought on and he’d eventually given in to—made him feel at home. He’d taken the family crest and symbol, the large MI surrounded by a broken floral circle, and used it as their logo. His brothers, Storm and Wes, owned Montgomery Inc., a family construction company that their father had once owned and where their mother had worked at his side before they’d retired. They, too, used the same logo since it meant family to them.
In fact, the MI was tattooed on every single immediate family member—including his parents. His own was on his right forearm tangled in the rest of his sleeve but given a place of meaning. It meant Montgomery Iris—open your eyes, see the beauty, remember who you are. It was only natural to use it for their two respective companies.
Not that the Ink vs Inc. wasn’t confusing as hell, but fuck, they were Montgomerys. They could do whatever they wanted. As long as they were together, they’d get through it.
Montgomery Ink was just as much his home as his house on the ravine. While Shep had gone on to work at Midnight Ink and created another family there, Austin had always wanted to own his shop. Maya growing up to want to do the same thing had only helped.
Montgomery Ink was now a thriving business in downtown Denver right off 16th Street Mall. They were near parking, food, and coffee. There really wasn’t more he needed. The drive in most mornings could suck once he got on I-25, but it was worth it to live out in Arvada. The ’burbs around Denver made it easy to live in one area of the city and work in another. Commutes, though hellish at rush hour, weren’t as bad as some. This way he got the city living when it came to work and play, and the option to hide behind the trees pressed up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains once he got home.
It was the best of both worlds.
At least for him.
Austin got back on his stool and concentrated on Rick’s sleeve for another hour before calling it quits. He needed a break for his lower back, and Rick needed a break from the pain. Not that Rick was feeling much since the man currently looked like he’d just gotten laid—pain freaks, Austin loved them—but he didn’t want to push either of them too far. Also, Plus Rick’s arm had started to swell slightly from all the shading and multiple colors. They’d do another session, the last, hopefully, in a month or so when both of them could work it in their schedules and then finish up.
Austin scowled at the computer at the front of shop, his fingers too big for the damn keys on the prissy computer Maya had demanded they buy.
He’d just deleted Rick’s whole account because he couldn’t find the right button.
“Maya, get your ass over here and fix this. I don’t know what the hell I did.”
Maya lifted one pierced brow as she worked on a lower back tattoo for some teenage girl who didn’t look old enough to get ink in the first place.
“I’m busy, Austin. You’re not an idiot, though evidence at the moment points to the contrary. Fix it yourself. I can’t help it if you have ape hands.”
Austin flipped her off then took a sip of his Coke, wishing he had something stronger considering he hated paperwork. “I was fine with the old keyboard and the PC, Maya. You’re the one who wanted to go with the Mac because it looked pretty.”
“Fuck you, Austin. I wanted a Mac because I like the software.”
Austin snorted while trying to figure out how to find Rick’s file. He was pretty sure it was a lost cause at this point. “You hate the software as much as I do. You hit the damn red X and close out files more than I do. Everything’s in the wrong place, and the keyboard is way too fucking dainty.”
“I’m going to go with Austin on this one,” Sloane added in, his beefy hands in the air.
“See? I’m not alone.”
Maya let out a breath. “We can get another keyboard for you and Gigantor’s hands, but we need to keep the Mac.”
“And why is that?” he demanded.
“Because we just spent a whole lot of money on it, and once it goes, we can get another PC. Fuck the idea that everything can be all in one. I can’t figure it out either.” She held up a hand. “And don’t even think about breaking it. I’ll know, Austin. I always know.”
Austin held back a grin. He wouldn’t be surprised if the computer met with an earlier than expected unfortunate fate now that Maya had relented.
Right then, however, that idea didn’t help. He needed to find Rick’s file.
“Callie!” Austin yelled over the buzz of needles and soft music Maya had allowed them to play.
“What?” His apprentice came out of the break room, a sketchbook in one hand and a smirk on her face. She’d dyed her hair again so it had black and red highlights. It looked good on her, but honestly, he never knew what color she’d have next. “Break something on the computer again with those big man hands?”
“Shut up, minion,” he teased. Callie was an up-and-coming artist, and if she kept on the track she was on, he and Maya knew she’d be getting her own chair at Montgomery Ink soon. Not that he’d tell Callie that, though. He liked keeping her on her toes. She reminded him of his little sister Miranda so much that he couldn’t help but treat her as such.
She pushed him out of the way and groaned. “Did you have to press every button as you rampaged through the operating system?”
Austin could have sworn he felt his cheeks heat, but since he had a thick enough beard, he knew no one would have been able to tell.
He hated feeling as if he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to use a computer. He wasn’t an idiot. He just didn’t know this computer. And it bugged the shit out of him.
After a couple of keystrokes and a click of the mouse, Callie stepped back with a smug smile on her face. “Okay, boss, you’re all ready to go, and Rick’s file is back where it should be. What else do you need from me?”
He bopped her on the head, messing up her red and black hair he knew she spent an hour on every morning with a flat iron. He couldn’t help it.
“Go clean a toilet or something.”
Callie rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go sketch. And you’re welcome.”
“Thanks for fixing the damn thing. And really, go clean the bathroom.”
“Not gonna do it,” she sang as she skipped to the break room.
“You really have no control over your apprentice,” Sloane commented from his station.
Because he didn’t want that type of control with her. Well, hell, his mind kept going to that dark place every few minutes it seemed.
“Shut up, asshole.”
“I see your vocabulary hasn’t changed much,” Shannon purred from the doorway.
He closed his eyes and prayed for patience. Okay, maybe he’d lied to himself when he said it was mutual and easy to break up with her. The damn woman kept showing up. He didn’t think she wanted him, but she didn’t want him to forget her either.
He did not understand women.
Especially this one.
“What do you want, Shannon?” he bit out, needing that drink now more than ever.
She sauntered over to him and scraped her long, red nail down his chest. He’d liked that once. Now, not even a little. They were decent together when they’d dated, but he’d had to hide most of himself from her. She’d never tasted the edge of his flogger or felt his hand on her ass when she’d been bent over his lap. That hadn’t been what she wanted, and Austin was into the kind of kink that meant he wanted what he wanted when he wanted. It didn’t mean he wanted it every time.
Not that Shannon would ever understand that.
“Oh, baby, you know what I want.”
He barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. As he took a step back, he saw the gleam in her eyes and decided to head it off at the pass. He was in no mood to play her games, or whatever she wanted to do that night. He wanted to go home, drink a beer, and forget this oddly annoying day.
“If you don’t want ink, then I don’t know what you’re doing here, Shannon. We’re done.” He tried to say it quietly, but his voice was deep, and it carried.
“How could you be so cruel?” She pouted.
“Oh, for the love of God,” Maya sneered. “Go home, little girl. You and Austin are through, and I’m pretty sure it was mutual. Oh, and you’re not getting any ink here. You’re not getting Austin’s hands on you this way, and there’s no way in hell I’m putting my art on you. Not if you keep coming back to bug the man you didn’t really date in the first place.”
“Bi—” Shannon cut herself off as Austin glared. Nobody called his sister a bitch. Nobody.
“Goodbye, Shannon.” Jesus, he was too old for this shit.
“Fine. I see how it is. Whatever. You were only an okay lay anyway.” She shook her ass as she left, bumping into a woman in a linen skirt and blouse.
The woman, whose long honey-brown hair hung in waves down to her breasts, raised a brow. “I see your business has an…interesting clientele.”
Austin clenched his jaw. Seriously the wrong thing to say after Shannon.
“If you’ve got a problem, you can head on right back to where you came from, Legs,” he bit out, his voice harsher than he’d intended.
She stiffened then raised her chin, a clear sense of disdain radiating off of her.
Oh yes, he knew who this was, legs and all. Ms. Elder. He hadn’t caught a first name. Hadn’t wanted to. She had to be in her late twenties, maybe, and owned the soon-to-be-opened boutique across the street. He’d seen her strut around in her too-tall heels and short skirts but hadn’t been formally introduced.
Not that he wanted an introduction.
She was too damn stuffy and ritzy for his taste. Not only her store but the woman herself. The look of disdain on her face made him want to show her the door and never let her back in.
He knew what he looked like. Longish dark brown hair, thick beard, muscles covered in ink with a hint of more ink coming out of his shirt. He looked like a felon to some people who didn’t know the difference, though he’d never seen the inside of a jail cell in his life. But he knew people like Ms. Elder. They judged people like him. And that one eyebrow pissed him the fuck off.
He didn’t want this woman’s boutique across the street from him. He’d liked it when it was an old record store. People didn’t glare at his store that way. Now he had to walk past the mannequins with the rich clothes and tiny lacy scraps of things if he wanted a fucking coffee from the shop next door.
Damn it, this woman pissed him off, and he had no idea why.
“Nice to meet you too. Callie!” he shouted, his eyes still on Ms. Elder as if he couldn’t pull his gaze from her. Her green eyes never left his either, and the uncomfortable feeling in his gut wouldn’t go away.
Callie ran up beside him and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Callie. How can I help you?”
Ms. Elder blinked once. Twice. “I think I made a mistake,” she whispered.
Fuck. Now he felt like a heel. He didn’t know what it was with this woman, but he couldn’t help but act like an ass. She hadn’t even done anything but lift an eyebrow at him, and he’d already set out to hate her.
Callie shook her head then reached for Ms. Elder’s elbow. “I’m sure you haven’t. Ignore the growly, bearded man over there. He needs more caffeine. And his ex was just in here; that alone would make anyone want to jump off the Royal Gorge. So, tell me, how can I help you? Oh! And what’s your name?”
Ms. Elder followed Callie to the sitting area with leather couches and portfolios spread over the coffee table and then sat down.
“I’m Sierra, and I want a tattoo.” She looked over her shoulder and glared at Austin. “Or, at least, I thought I did.”
Austin held back a wince when she turned her attention from him and cursed himself. Well, fuck. He needed to learn not to put his foot in his mouth, but damn it, how was he supposed to know she wanted a tattoo? For all he knew, she wanted to come in there and look down on the place. That was his own prejudice coming into play. He needed to make it up to her. After all, they were neighbors now. However, from the cross look on her face and the feeling in the room, he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to make it up to her today. He’d let Callie help her out to start with, and then he’d make sure he was the one who laid ink on her skin.
After all, it was the least he could do. Besides, his hands all of a sudden—or not so suddenly if he really thought about it—wanted to touch that delicate skin of hers and find out her secrets.
Austin cursed. He wouldn’t let his thoughts go down that path. She’d break under his care, under his needs. Sure, Sierra Elder might be hot, but she wasn’t the woman for him.
If he knew anything, he knew that for sure.