Doomed didn’t begin to describe her predicament.
Frantically, Lauren Simms dug through her purse, grabbed her phone, and took a deep breath at the notification on the screen. One missed call; one voicemail message. Her hands shook. “Please, let this be it.” She begged as she’d never done before. “Please.”
When she’d been sixteen, she would have prayed for a boy to call and ask her on a date. Any boy, as long as he didn’t mind that she was painfully shy, only mildly pretty, and indisputably full-figured. Definitely not a guy magnet.
At twenty-seven, Lauren no longer hoped for everlasting romance and men. Now, she needed cold hard cash. Specifically, a job. After being laid off from her human resources position, she’d sent out hundreds of resumes and snagged a few interviews. During them, those HR professionals had grilled her harder than the Senate did a radical nominee for the Supreme Court.
Not one of those companies had wanted to hire her. She’d been unemployed for nearly six months and was about to run out of benefits, a measly two hundred bucks a week.
That small sum was beginning to seem like a million.
Sweat ran down her neck. Her Honda was warmer than a sauna thanks to the muggy Florida weather. She would have sold her soul to turn on the air conditioner, but that ate up too much gas. Perspiring badly, she held her breath and checked her voicemail.
An automated message came on. “Do you need affordable healthcare and dental insurance?”
She held back an oath, deleted the robocall, and checked her email. The messages were from useless job boards advertising the same crappy positions. None from people who’d interviewed her.
She slumped in her seat. In another few months, she’d blow through her meager severance and tiny 401(k) to make her car, condo, and utility payments that would come due again in a few days. That wasn’t the worst. She had nearly seventy thousand dollars in student loans that she also had to pay on time. Loans she’d eagerly taken out in order to have a solid and practical career in human resources.
No lender had warned Lauren that her company would outsource her job as they had everyone else’s.
She bit her lip and considered her final option. She’d tried to ignore it, tried to ignore him, but it was getting harder and harder every day she didn’t get a job.
The attorney’s letter stuck out of her purse. Its contents taunted her. She’d received the notification weeks ago that she’d come into an inheritance from Frank. Technically, he was her father.
She’d last seen him when she was five, before he’d so cruelly abandoned her.
The car vents blew humid air that ruffled the papers. Lauren had purposely avoided them as she would have done with him, afraid both would rip open a hurtful wound she’d fought long and hard to heal.
However, being in debt and without work hadn’t given her much choice as far as contacting the attorney.
After making her wait five minutes, he’d come on the line. “Your dad left his business to you.”
She couldn’t have been more surprised that Frank owned a company, but even more startling was that he’d actually remembered her. Once her shock drained away, she’d steeled herself for the worst, not wanting to feel anything for him. Not like when she’d been his little girl, and he’d been her whole world. Only he could read her a bedtime story as she liked, making her laugh at the funny voices he used for the fairy-tale characters. There wasn’t anything he didn’t know or couldn’t do. Most importantly, he was as predictable as the sun rising each day…until he wasn’t. There’d been no warning. He simply kissed her good-bye, as he always did when he left for work, and vanished.
In the early days of his disappearance, she’d bolted to the front window upon hearing a car or footsteps, knowing he’d come back. The walkway was always empty. Like most children, she’d blamed herself for his absence, knowing she’d failed him somehow. She hadn’t been a good girl. She’d cried countless tears until she grew old enough to realize she couldn’t have done anything to have convinced him to stay, which made her feel even more powerless and unworthy. At last, she accepted reality for what it was. He’d made his decision concerning her a long time ago. She’d be as brutally indifferent as he’d been.
His disinterest in her had lasted twenty-two years.
She managed her hard-nose attitude for two seconds and then asked the attorney what had happened. “I’m not being nosy. It’s really none of my business. However, I…well…that is…you see, I was wondering… How did he go? You know, pass away. What happened?”
“Heart attack. From what I understand, it was mercifully quick and relatively painless.”
Spoken like someone who hadn’t died.
Seamlessly, he got to the point. “His life insurance paid for the taxes, staff salaries, and other expenses for the next several months.”
Sounded nice until the time ended. “After that?”
“Uh, well, I suppose with proper management, the business could generate a modest profit.”
Or it could suck her deeper into debt. She’d told the attorney to sell it. Sounding delighted, he detailed his outrageous fee to handle the transaction. Money he’d get whether the sale went through or not.
Lauren was short on hope, not brains. Not liking the odds he’d proposed, she’d told him to forget it and would find a buyer herself. Right after she checked the place out, which her father had named Wicked Brand. A freaking tattoo parlor. What had he been thinking, leaving it to her, Ms. Practicality?
She wasn’t surprised he hadn’t considered the problem it would create for her as to whether she’d want to deal with a failing business, especially one that was so far from what she would ever be interested in. Of course, he hadn’t known that or anything else about her, had he? Even after all these years, that part of dear old Dad hadn’t changed.
Lauren had. She wasn’t a lonely, frightened kid any longer. She was a desperate adult and had to make a fast decision on this. It would be foolish to wait too long. She didn’t know anything about tattoos, much less managing a tattoo shop. Selling it might take a while, and she was running out of time. Especially in her precarious employment situation.
She’d interviewed earlier today. While she had been inside the conference room, answering a barrage of questions about what she’d been doing during her unemployment, three more candidates had shown up, looking self-assured and nearly bored, because they probably still had jobs.
Time to get on with her life and trying to turn it around. She’d managed before and had to hang onto hope, which was all she had left. Too bad it didn’t pay the bills. She left her hot vehicle and wilted at the heat that was worse without the car fan blowing on her. It was only May but already in the mid-eighties with punishing humidity. Dingy clouds blanketed the sky. A few tourists milled about, their complexions ruddy from sunburns or the steamy air.
Lauren double-checked the attorney’s letter for the parlor address. It was only fifteen miles or so from where she’d grown up and lived now. Frank had been so close all this time…yet still so very far away. This area of West Palm Beach was known as Northwood Village, a historic area with hip watering holes, ethnic restaurants, and funky shops. Storefronts boasted neon-colored facades: fuchsia, coral, yellow, and lime green. Bamboo chairs with bright blue and pink cushions invited patrons to take a load off.
An artist had set up her easel on the sidewalk. Sweating worse than a disgraced politician, the woman painted away and smiled at the casually dressed people who passed. A few passersby flicked their attention to Lauren’s navy business suit, white blouse, and sensible heels, which oddly enough made them glance away. In this world of tees, shorts, and flip-flops, it could be they were afraid she was selling religion.
She checked the numbers over the doors and trudged down the surprisingly lovely walkway. Tropical plants and flowers in riotous colors fluttered in the sultry breeze. Lauren slowed at a Jamaican restaurant. Heavenly garlic, beef, and curry chicken scents floated past. Her stomach rumbled.
A departing patron opened the door. Reggae music and laughter poured out.
Those inside for lunch were young. Months ago, she might have gone in there, enjoyed a meal, and had a good time even if it was by herself.
She wouldn’t do that today, tomorrow, or who knew for how long into the future. For the time being, she was counting pennies. She continued on and then stopped abruptly. Across the street stood a detached building painted bright red with black lightning bolts zigzagging across it. Waxy green plants surrounded the structure. A mural of a young woman wearing teeny-tiny cutoffs, a tank top that dipped low in back, and with her glistening raven hair pushed to one side graced the front door. Emblazoned across her shoulders was a tattoo that read Wicked Brand.
A bold sign…but surprisingly unique and artistic.
Lauren didn’t know if Frank had painted that or even if he’d been an artist.
She stepped closer.
A young woman exited the parlor. She looked to be in her late teens, wore an outfit remarkably similar to the young woman in the mural, and had a Barbie doll build. Huge breasts, no hips, impossibly long legs. Her features were lovely and Latina, possibly Cuban, her auburn hair worn in a ponytail. Her youthful skin was tawny, most likely from the sun, and bore no tattoos. Unless the scant clothes she wore hid them.
She jogged down the street. Her low-top sneakers slapped the pavement.
Lauren envied the young woman’s energy and figure. Maybe she’d paid for her boob job by posing for the mural. Those babies couldn’t be real. Upon reaching the front door, Lauren warned herself not to expect too much from the inside. Possibly crappy furniture like you’d find in an auto repair shop, along with biker types: shaved heads, tattoos to spare, low-slung jeans, crude language, and weapons.
She should have let the attorney handle this.
Before she chickened out, she slipped inside and lost her breath as the cold air washed over her. Few things in life felt as nice as the chilly temperature in here. Latin music pumped from the sound system, its beat strong and sensuous, though not loud. More like the volume you’d hear in a high-class restaurant. The black tile floor sparkled with cleanliness, as did everything else, the air bearing a faint cinnamon scent. Three black leather sofas were to the right in the spacious front area. Photos of tattoos hung on the stark white walls, along with various tees and posters for sale. Everything in order and surprisingly nice.
No one was behind the glass-and-chrome front counter displaying ornate belt buckles for sale. Other than her, the place appeared deserted. It was always possible the young woman who’d just left worked here, maybe as the cashier, and had stepped out for her break…without leaving a sign that said she’d be back soon and failing to lock the front door.
Little wonder this place was barely hanging on.
The photos drew Lauren as a train wreck would. She touched her throat. Someone had tattooed a man’s tongue with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The details were incredible and weird yet strangely beautiful.
A woman had her eyelids tattooed with large, cartoon-like irises. Even with her eyes closed, she seemed to stare.
Lauren edged away from that creepy picture and stopped at a tattoo of a monster’s head on a man’s groin. The guy’s amazingly long cock was inked to look like the monster’s tongue. She leaned closer and sucked in a breath. Even his balls had tats on them.
She didn’t want to know how much that must have hurt.
A door shut inside the parlor, and she spun around, surprised to see a guy striding down the hall, his attention on the clipboard he held. Okay, so someone else was here.
She guessed him to be in his early thirties, a mountain of a man, possibly six-three, no fat on his hard body, only smooth, bronze skin and slabs of muscle.
Her mouth watered.
He wore faded jeans and a gray sleeveless tee. His bulging biceps sported tats. The one on his right arm was a band of thorns. The design on his left arm had a tribal look about it, possibly Celtic—a series of thick black swirls that intertwined.
Lauren pressed her toes into her shoes to keep from swaying or edging closer.
His hair was shoulder length, like a pirate’s, and a dark brown color. Those thick, silky locks encouraged her to ease the strands from his gorgeous face. Masculine. Decidedly Latino. Virile to the extreme. Even though it was barely two o’clock, he already had a five o’clock shadow and more testosterone pumping through him than the law should have allowed.
She bet he was uninhibited. Alpha to the core.
And not for her. Guys like him wanted goddesses.
Lauren backed up. Her shoes tapped in time to the Spanish music flowing from the sound system.
He halted and lifted his face, his dark brown eyes meeting hers.
Her bones went soft.
He smiled easily and confidently. “Hey.”
Lauren’s belly fluttered at his deep, rich baritone.
Noting her office wear, he put the clipboard on the front counter and approached, his stride smooth and assured.
His fragrance surrounded her. Something clean and citrusy, reminiscent of summer days, an ocean breeze, and sun baking naked skin.
She locked her knees to keep her balance and tried not to stare at his impressive Adam’s apple, luscious mouth, and full, kissable lips.
He hooked his thumbs in his front pockets. “Did you lose your way?”
With him, any woman would. Not only was he beautiful but intelligence burned in his eyes and reflected in his surprisingly educated speech. “I’m sorry, what?”
He regarded her suit and heels. “Are you looking for another shop?”
Surprise registered on his face. “You’re here for a tat?”
The ones on his biceps fascinated her. They were beyond hot, straight into epic. “Not exactly.”
He nodded. His hair swayed over his broad shoulders. “A piercing?”
“Are you here for a piercing?” He gestured to another wall filled with pictures. His biceps flexed.
Lauren wanted to touch them, feel their strength and heat.
“You can see what we offer in those photos. We also have binders of what we’ve done for past clients to give you an idea of what you might like.”
For someone who prided herself on her no-nonsense professionalism, she was having a hard time not drooling over his freaking arms. What was wrong with her? She knew better than to lust after a guy like him. That path only led to her nursing a humiliating rejection at best and a broken heart at worst. She tore her gaze from his biceps and looked at the photos he was showing her. “Do people really get their tongues tattooed?”
He grinned, showing perfect teeth. “You bet.”
He shrugged good-naturedly. “Why not?”
He wasn’t the least bit uptight. How Lauren envied that. “Have you?”
“Have I what?”
“Had your tongue tattooed? Or are the ones on your arms the only ones you have?”
His smile broadened. He spoke conspiratorially. “I have another, though not on my tongue.”
She hoped he hadn’t inked his balls and cock. His equipment had to be as awesome as the rest of him. No way could anyone improve on nature’s perfection.
He regarded her thoughtfully, his gaze warming her in places she hadn’t thought about in far too long. Easily, he took in her short blond hair, her clothes, and her features, including the small mole near her mouth. There, he lingered. A faint smile touched his lips.
Lauren’s throat and cheeks grew hot. With his approving gaze, too much desire rushed through her, making it difficult to breathe.
He flushed, too. “Let me get those binders so you can look through them.”
“No, don’t. Please. That’s not why I’m here.”
His dark eyebrows lifted. “You’re selling something?” He glanced at her purse and looked around her, possibly for an organization caddy stuffed with her product line.
“Uh no. I’m here to take over.”
He looked lost. “As in what?”
“This place.” She gestured to the parlor. “I own this business and everything in it, including you.”
His eyes widened.
Oh. My. God. Had she really just told him she owned him? If her face heated any more, it would burst into flames. She hadn’t meant to say that last part, and by the look on his face, he was just as surprised as she was. She might be a control freak and a micromanager, but even she knew that no woman owned a hottie like him. When it came to hunks, no woman, not even a wife, had full possession of them. Men like him had too many options, including countless females who wanted carnal attention and were willing to do whatever it took to get it.
Lauren couldn’t blame those ladies. She ached just looking at him. However, it was his easy manner and effortless smile that called to the person she was, lonely and wanting for too long, making her yearn for closeness she’d rarely known. He seemed like a truly decent guy who’d be fun to talk to, work with, get to know. At least in her fantasies.
Remembering why she was here, Lauren pulled herself together. “What I meant is, I’m your boss, at least until I can get rid of this place, which I will. As quickly as possible.” She stuck out her hand. “Lauren Simms, and you’re…”
Dante didn’t say and considered asking her for ID.
She was Frank’s little girl?
He had expected Frank’s daughter to eventually show up and claim her inheritance. However, he hadn’t been prepared for anyone like the woman who stood before him.
She and her dad looked nothing alike, not even within the same family tree or forest. Frank had been short for a man, no more than five-five, and painfully thin even before his heart problems. His hair had been curly and red, his features on the homely side, given his big nose and protruding teeth.
Lauren’s mouth was exceptionally nice. Plush lips tinted a delicate rose and further enhanced by a tiny mole to the side.
Something shifted inside him, and he tried to ignore the pleasant feeling but couldn’t. It nagged and kept building. Her delicate features were sweet and pretty rather than sensual. Her deep blue eyes went really well with her honey-blond hair. Cut shorter than his, a few strands brushed her cheeks.
He wanted to ease them back. Good sense warned him against touching her and coming on too strong.
Lauren’s blush had gone from pink to bright red, which gave her some color. If she lived in Florida, that was a major surprise. She was as pale as a corpse and dressed like a modern-day nun.
Dante inhaled deeply. Thankfully, she didn’t smell like incense but rather a subtle floral fragrance tinged with musk.
Heat pooled in his groin.
Lauren blinked rapidly and lifted her face, her lips not far from his. For a woman, she was tallish, probably five-seven, five-eight, without her heels.
She stepped back.
He resisted the urge to follow. Wasn’t easy.
Her prim clothes didn’t hide her lush, womanly figure. He’d never been into the skinny women that advertisers coveted. He liked Lauren’s curves and the innocent yet sexy vibes she gave off. Still waters running deep and all that.
His balls tightened. He edged closer.
Her fingertips touched his abs.
Not to stroke him. She was reaching out to shake hands.
Her fingers were soft and moist, a delight to hold. He squeezed them gently.
New color flooded her face and throat. A soft smile touched her lips.
He liked that. “So you’re Frank’s little girl.”
Caution replaced her earlier sweetness. Hurt filled her eyes. “We’re related.” She spoke barely above a whisper. “Or were.”
Her reaction wasn’t a surprise. Frank had told him what had happened long ago. Stuff Dante wasn’t about to bring up now. Not his place. He called himself a fool for bringing attention to her relationship—or lack of one—with her dad.
Her tightly bunched shoulders eased from their protective stance, but she didn’t fully relax. “And you are?”
He’d forgotten to tell her. “Dante Avana. Your dad hired me on as manager, though I do my share of piercings and tats.”
Lauren stared at his left biceps. She got a dreamy look. So did she like the design or his arm?
He puffed up, strangely proud about the possibility of either.
She shifted in place and glanced around, taking in the parlor.
Before their silence grew too uncomfortable, he took command. “Want me to show you everything you own?”
Lauren slanted him a look.
He gave her one right back. She’d be fun to tease and share laughter with. “You know—furniture, equipment, computers, other stuff?”
She got soft and feminine again, then composed herself quickly, like she’d flipped an internal switch.
In his experience, transformations like that generally happened with cops or attorneys. He suspected she might be a lawyer.
She smoothed her suit jacket. “Can I ask you something?”
He hoped it wouldn’t be about her dad, given the history Frank had revealed. “Shoot.”
“Would you be interested in buying this place? I wouldn’t ask, but I really need the money, you know? I, ah…that is…” Her face flamed. “I recently lost my job.”
Dante understood perfectly. He’d had trouble with his last career, which had nearly destroyed his hope in humanity but did lead him to this parlor where there were good times and few hassles. Just what he’d needed and she didn’t want to mess with. He couldn’t blame her since she’d have the most to lose if she stayed and the business went belly up. “At this point, I couldn’t handle the expense.”
“The payments wouldn’t be that bad. I’d make them reasonable.”
“Sorry, I can’t.”
He wondered at her desperation but didn’t ask. Drama was the last thing he needed in his life. But she was Frank’s kid, and he couldn’t help the empathy and tenderness that rushed through him at how hopeless and weary she looked. “Hey. It’ll be all right. Everything will turn out. If you want, I could lend you a couple hundred to help.”
Astonishment flickered across her face. “You’d do that for someone you don’t know?”
It was only money. A truth Dante had learned a few years back when everything had changed for him, and he realized there were more important things in life than chasing wealth. “We’re family here. You own the place. That is, if you are who you claim to be. Should I ask for identification?”
Lauren gave him a cool look that didn’t quite come off. “Ask all you want. You’re not seeing my driver’s license.” Clearly she was on to his teasing and giving it right back.
“Picture’s that bad, huh?” He winked.
Her cheeks colored even more. “Maybe.” She cleared her throat. “Do you mind if I look around by myself? Can you show me where the books are?”
Her fragrance enveloped him. His blood thickened. “I’ll show you whatever you want.”
Female interest flashed in her eyes, her financial worries forgotten for the moment. Dante couldn’t have been happier. He wanted Lauren to feel at home here, not only because he and Frank had been close but because she seemed so alone.
She didn’t wear a wedding ring. He suspected she wasn’t dating anyone special, either, given how she blushed at his attention. The way a woman would who wasn’t used to that from a man. At least one who worked in a tattoo parlor. “Before you go over the books, you probably should meet the staff. So they understand why you’re here and what you’re doing.”
Lauren glanced at the front door. “The young woman who left a few minutes ago, she works here?”
“If you’re talking about Jasmina, then yeah. Started here eight months ago. She answers the phone, books appointments, takes payments, runs out and gets our lunches, stuff like that. She’s picking up takeout now.”
“She’s gorgeous. Is she the girl in the mural on the front door?”
Dante smiled. “The same. You like it?”
“Oh yeah. Did my—” Lauren’s easy demeanor switched off, replaced by a guarded business air. “Did Frank do it, or is that your work?”
When she’d said Frank’s name, sadness rang in her voice. Dante pretended not to notice. “Neither of us. Your dad could ink simple designs, same as me. Van Gogh’s our resident artist.”
She looked confused. “Seriously? That’s his—or her—real name?”
“His.” Dante lowered his voice. “At least that’s the name he goes by. Trained to be a painter like his namesake. Couldn’t sell enough of his stuff to pay rent and eat, so he’s inking here until he gets his break. By the way, if you call him Cory, he’ll cry.”
Lauren laughed softly. “Yeah, sure.”
“See for yourself.” Dante cupped his hands to his mouth and let loose. “Hey, Van Gogh. Can you come up front? Someone wants to see your best work.”
Squeaking noises, the kind a chair makes, sounded from the back. “In the binders or on me?” He shouted as Dante had.
Lauren leaned in. “What’s he talking about?”
“You’ll see. Don’t close your eyes.”
She looked at the photo of the guy who’d gotten his nuts and cock inked.
“Don’t worry.” Dante rocked on his heels. “Van Gogh will be decent. For the most part.”
Reluctantly, she faced the hall and waited.
Van Gogh shuffled down it, naked to the waist. He was a scrawny kid who’d just turned twenty-two, had shaved his head, and wore a scraggly goatee.
Dante suspected Lauren didn’t notice Van Gogh’s facial hair or bald noggin.
She gaped at his tats.
Van Gogh’s narrow chest looked as if he’d ripped the skin away to show his heart, ribs, and guts beneath. Gunshot wound designs decorated his arms. Bright red blood seemed to seep from the holes. The art in glorious 3-D, amazingly realistic.
Lauren made a pained sound. “Oh my God.”
Van Gogh exchanged a glance with Dante. “She gonna be okay?”
“I’m fine.” She touched the ribs and heart etched on his chest, then dropped her hand quickly. “You actually tattooed yourself? Using both hands?”
“I’m ambidextrous. As long as I have a mirror, I’m good.”
“I’d say better than good.” She made a face at the tats on his arms. “What you’ve done is freaking amazing. It’s so gory and real.”
“Oh yeah?” Van Gogh looked almost pleased. “Thanks. You want something like this on you?”
Lauren stepped back. “Absolutely not.”
Dante held back a grin.
Van Gogh looked bewildered and spoke to Dante. “Why’s she here?”
“She’s Frank’s kid. Owns this place and everything in it, including you and me. Right, Lauren?”
She arched one pale eyebrow.
Dante smiled at how cute she looked.
Lauren’s features softened, and her eyes sparkled.
His pulse picked up.
She nervously fingered her buttons—none was undone—and spoke to Van Gogh. “What Dante meant is I’m your boss until I get rid of this place. Which I will. As soon as I can.”
Van Gogh blinked. “You mean selling it to someone?”
“Or shutting it down and liquidating its assets.”
Van Gogh’s complexion went paler than hers.
Dante’s smile had already faded. Apparently, Lauren wasn’t as soft as he’d thought.
Big changes were coming, and they didn’t look good.