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Life is full of challenges. Mine are varied and multiplied. First, there’s the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. Second is that it’s my own fault I’m in the chair. And third is a drunk girl on a piano. Dancing. Well, it’s more like wiggling with lots of hips and wavy arms. It’s hot as hell and I’ve never seen anything I want to sit and stare at more. Only thing is – she won’t come down.
“Star!” I hiss at her.
She ignores me and spins in a circle, her four-inch heels scratching the surface of the piano. Her sisters, Fin and Lark, are begging her to come down. I don’t know what I can do from my seated position. If I was… well… the way I was before, I’d grab her and carry her out of there. But I’m kind of not able to do that.
“Star!” I whisper fiercely.
The customers at Reeds’, the restaurant owned by former pro football player Sam Reed, are watching her. Some with interest. Some with lustful intent, because she’s fucking beautiful with her face flushed and her dark hair streaming down her back. Some are looking at her with disdain. Some with pity. It’s the pity that makes me look to her sisters. I need to get her down.
“You might want to go and get some help,” her sister, Fin, says.
I nod and roll myself into the kitchen. Sam, the owner of the restaurant, is bent over a plate full of food, making it perfect.
“Um, Sam…” I start.
Sam looks up.
“We have a little problem out here.” A beautiful problem. But still a problem.
“What is it?”
“Um…one of Peck’s sisters is dancing on the piano.” I scratch the end of my nose, because I don’t like the way he’s suddenly staring at me.
Peck, Sam’s wife, waddles her very pregnant self into the dining room, so I follow her, and she stops at the foot of the piano. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks.
Fin shrugs. “We don’t know. She showed up like this.”
“Where’s Wren?” Peck wants to know. I know Wren is Star’s sister. Her biological sister, not an adopted sister like the other three of the members of Fallen from Zero.
Fin shrugs again. “No one has been able to find Wren.”
Sam walks up beside Peck. “What the fuck…?”
“Get her down, Sam,” Peck begs, tugging on his sleeve.
He motions Star forward. “Hey Star,” he says gently. “I have something I need to show you.”
“If it’s your dick,” she replies, “the answer is no, thank you.”
I bite the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. Sam’s face turns red and he heaves a sigh.
Suddenly, he swipes an arm through the air and grabs her leg. She flounders and in my mind’s eye I can see her falling head first into a potted plant. But at the last minute, he adjusts her body so that she falls across his shoulder.
He hitches her fine ass higher and walks to the door. I scramble to wheel myself over to the table where I know Star’s purse is sitting and I grab it, stuff it into my lap, and follow them out the front door.
“Um, Sam…” Peck mutters. She stops and looks down toward her shoes. I seriously doubt she can even see her shoes. But still. There’s a puddle of water at her feet on the sidewalk and she’s clutching her huge belly. Seriously, she looks like she has a basketball under her shirt.
Sam struggles to put Star in a cab and hands some bills to the driver. “Do you want to go with her?” he asks Peck. Apparently he hasn’t noticed the fact that she’s about to have a baby on the sidewalk.
“I don’t think I can,” she mutters.
Sam looks down at her feet and his mouth falls open. “Oh, shit. It’s time?” he cries. He’s frantic all of a sudden, swinging his hand around and swiping his hair back from his forehead like he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
“Go get one of my sisters to go with her.” Peck shoves him toward the restaurant. “And hurry.”
Sam disappears inside.
Star stumbles out of the cab when she realizes what’s going on. The cab takes off, leaving us all on the sidewalk.
“Well, shit,” I mutter.
“I got her,” Peck says. But then she doubles over as a pain wracks her body.
“Oh, fuck!” Star cries. “You’re having a fucking baby!” She cups her hands around her mouth. “I’m going to be the best aunt ever!” she yells. The sound echoes in the nearby alley.
Star starts to jump up and down, and for a second, I just enjoy the sight of her boobs bouncing, because she’s got an amazing rack, but then her ankle gives out.
“I think I just hurt myself,” she says, and her eyes well up with tears. “I think I need to sit down.”
Then she plops that beautiful ass of hers right down in my lap. I lift her up a little so I can get her purse out from under her, since I’m still holding on to it.
“You’re a lump, aren’t you?” I mutter.
“Are you calling me fat?” Her voice rises to a decibel that probably has every dog in the area at alert.
I try to bite back my smile, but it’s really hard. “Only in the best possible way.”
Paul and Sam come outside, and Sam’s still frantic. Thank God he has Paul with him now, because I have my hands and my lap full of Star.
They argue for a minute about what they’re going to do with her.
“You guys should go ahead,” I say. “I’ll get some coffee into Star.” I seriously can’t believe I just said that. She wiggles her ass in my lap, and I wrap my arm around her waist to get her to be still.
“We should take her with us,” Peck says, looking really worried, but Sam cuts her off.
“Josh will sober her up and bring her to the hospital later, right, Josh?”
“Yep.” I am a fucking idiot. I look down and see boob. Oh, holy hell. Her top has come unbuttoned in the most delicious of places. I can see the edge of her pretty lace bra. It’s pink and so is her skin. And her nipple…
I swallow hard and adjust her shirt, buttoning it up to her throat, and I force my hands back down. Paul scowls at me as it’s going on but then he focuses all his attention on Peck and getting her into the car with Sam.
Star giggles “Are you getting a boner?” she asks me.
Apparently, I am. I pick her up and move her over so that more of her leg is on me than ass. “Be still,” I tell her.
“You are, aren’t you? I was worried all your parts didn’t work, but apparently…” She wiggles her eyebrows at me and I have to bite back a chuckle. Star is a whole lot more fun drunk than she is in real life.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t aware that my dick could get hard either. Ever since my accident, nothing has worked the way it used to. But damn if my dick isn’t proving me wrong.
“Josh, are you sure you can take care of Star?” Peck asks me.
My heart expands to about twice its size because Peck is trusting me with one of the most precious things in her life. I know that.
“You can trust me. I’ll take care of her.” There was a time when no one could trust me to do anything. But I got this. I got it. If I say that a million more times, I might convince myself.
Paul stands on the sidewalk and stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I think you might have bitten off more than you can chew.”
Star is currently kissing her way up the side of my neck. It’s kind of sloppy and I can feel her tongue lapping at my skin like a kitten with a bowl of milk. I slide my hand between her tongue and my neck and leave it there long enough for her to sit back. But she doesn’t. She lays her head on my shoulder and snuggles into me.
“You smell good,” she whispers.
So does she. Like wine and warmth and woman. I can almost taste pink cotton candy on my tongue just sniffing her.
Her sisters rush out of the building and stop short when they see her curled into my lap. She has even drawn her knees over the side of my chair. “Oh, shit,” Lark says. She motions toward Star. “Come on, honey,” she says. “Let’s get you home.”
Star grabs my shirt with both fists, holding tightly. “No. I want to stay with him.” She looks up at me and I swear her eyes cross. “What’s your name again?” she asks.
“Josh,” I grunt out.
She lays her head back on my shoulder and says, “I’m staying with Josh.”
“You can’t take her to the hospital like this,” Paul tells them.
Lark heaves a sigh. “What do we do?”
I take a deep breath. “You guys go ahead. I’ll bring her to the hospital later.”
Lark freezes. “Why?”
I shrug and Star’s head bobs on my shoulder like a dashboard dog. “I told Sam and Peck I would.”
“We’re about to be aunts!” Fin screeches. She’s the littlest of the sisters, but she’s also the loudest.
“Go ahead,” Paul says. “Josh has this.”
My gut clenches. Someone is trusting me with something precious. Lots of someones. “I’ll take care of her,” I say again. “And I’ll bring her to the hospital in a couple of hours. Just call me if something happens before we get there.”
This is a first baby. I think they’re supposed to take longer or something like that.
Paul puts the girls in a car and stares at me. Suddenly, he blurts out. “Don’t fuck her.”
I startle and every muscle in my body clenches. “Fuck you,” I bite out.
“You know what they say about guys who just got out of prison,” he says, and I realize he’s joking. Thank God, because I was about to bust his kneecaps. “Insatiable and all that shit. And you got a whole lot of really pretty woman in your lap.”
I did just get out prison, but I don’t fuck drunk chicks. I don’t fuck anybody. “I can restrain myself.”
He nods. “I trust you.” His eyes meet mine. He does. I think he really does.
I turn the chair and roll toward a diner I know is on the next corner. They have coffee. Lots of coffee. But when I look down at Star, she’s sound asleep on my chest, and I swear, this is the closest I have been to another human being in a really long time, particularly one with a vagina, and I don’t want to stop holding her. So, instead of taking her to the diner, I push her seven blocks to my apartment and into the elevator.
My arms are burning like they’re on fire by the time we get there, but it was worth it, because she keeps burrowing closer and closer to me. Her breath tickles the side of my face, and then my ear, and then she tucks her head under my chin.
I open my door and I have to adjust her body to get inside, tucking her into a tiny little space in my lap for a minute. She mumbles, but I can’t make out what she’s saying.
I could sit and hold her like this all night, but I think she’d be more comfortable if she weren’t bundled up in a ball on my lap. I roll her into my bedroom, pull my covers down, and lift her onto my bed. Her high heels are still on her feet, so I unbuckle them and take them off, and then set them gently beside the bed. Her toenails are painted pastel pink and I run my finger across her toe.
She burrows into my pillow. “I’m afraid to sleep alone,” she murmurs. “Monsters and shit.” Her blue eyes meet mine and they’re so full of something I don’t even understand that I stop breathing. She holds out a tentative hand to me, and it’s almost shaking. I give it a quick squeeze, scoot her over a little, and lift myself out of the chair onto the bed, using a special board that’s made just for me. I adjust my legs and lay on my back, so close to the edge of the bed that I’m afraid I might fall off.
She immediately curls into me and puts her head on my shoulder. She wraps her arm around my chest and tucks it under me on the other side. It’s like a hug of epic proportions and my insides start to melt a little. Honestly, I feel like something has cracked inside me and I want to pull her into my heart and let her fill up all the empty space.
I stroke a hand down the length of her hair and she murmurs at me, her lips moving against the skin of my chest.
“What did you say?” My voice is trembling. But so is my body, so that’s not surprise.
“Will you hold me?” she asks. “Do you mind?”
I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. “Shh,” I whisper.
But I remind myself that this is temporary. When she wakes up, she’ll remember where she is and who she’s with, and she probably won’t like it.
I pull the covers over her and stroke her back while her breaths go soft and even. But I don’t sleep. Because I don’t want to miss any of this moment. If I sleep, I’ll wake up and it’ll be over, and that’s the last thing I want. I have been alone for a really long time. And in this moment, I’m not.
On Google Play
My phone buzzes and I ignore it. It’s just one of my sisters.
The guy in the sound booth shoots me a dirty look. I’m working on a track for the new album, because I want to see how some new beats sound mixed with our new single. He hits a button. “Do you need to take a break?” he asks.
I shake my head and keep playing. I play drums for a band, and I don’t have time to stop right now. Anything my sisters have to say can wait until I’m done here.
My phone rumbles again.
“Let’s call it quits, shall we?” he says from the booth.
Sometimes it’s hell having four sisters. And sometimes it’s awesome. Right now I’m annoyed. I pick up my phone but instead of answering it I cram it into my pocket.
I go out into the sound area and sit down next to the recording engineer. “Let me hear it one time, will you?” I tap my drumsticks lightly on the table while I talk.
He mixes it all up, and music comes into the headset he gives me. I like it. I like it a lot. I smile at him and nod.
He smiles back. “It’s better,” he says. “You were right.” He shakes his head.
“Don’t look so happy about it,” I tease. I take the headphones off and lay them on the counter. I swipe a hand down my face.
My phone rings again, just as the door opens. It flies inward, slamming hard against the wall. I jump to my feet when my sister Lark comes sliding into the room.
“Oh, my God, I have been trying to call you for an hour,” she blurts out. She bends at the waist, trying to catch her breath. She stands up, pressing a hand to her side.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I can’t breathe,” she pants. She holds up one finger. “Stairs.” She gulps air.
One of her gloves slips down her wrist, and that’s when I realize how serious this is. Lark never takes her gloves off. She never lets anyone see her hands or arms. Ever. For a long time, I thought she was just a germ freak—until I learned the truth. But the fact that she just let her glove slip tells me a lot. “Did someone die?” I ask.
She nods. But then she shakes her head. Then she nods again.
“Oh, my God!” I cover my mouth with my hand. “Who?”
“Sam Reed,” she pants out.
My heart lurches. My stomach dips and blackness crowds the corners of my vision.
“Emily just called to say he was in a really bad accident. They’re all on their way back from the beach to go to the hospital.”
I sink into a chair. “And he died?” How could he? We have unfinished business.
She waves a hand through the air. “No, no, not yet.”
I jump up. “Then why the hell did you tell me he was dead?”
“At the time, I was trying to breathe!” she yells back. “It’s not my fault you misunderstood!”
The door flies open again and another of my sisters runs into the room. Finally. Someone who can make sense of it.
“Emily just called again,” Wren says. “They just got to the hospital and Sam is in surgery.” Wren might be a mess on the outside, but she’s got it together on the inside. Thank God.
I jab my drumsticks into my back pocket and start for the door.
“Where are you going?” Wren calls to my back.
I don’t wait for her. I hail a cab and get in it, my heart beating about a mile a minute. Sam’s in the hospital. In surgery. I left things at a bad place the last time I saw him. A really bad place. I can’t stand the idea of him being injured and possibly dying without knowing how I truly feel about him.
The cab stops at the Emergency Room doors, and I get out. I go to the desk, and they tell me where the waiting room is for surgery, and I go in that direction. “Are you one of them?” the lady at reception asks me.
I lift my brow at her, because I can’t get my thoughts together enough to talk.
“There are a lot of them here for him.” I look blankly at her. “His family.”
Oh, yeah. There are a lot of Reeds, and all of them in one place can be a little intimidating. Lots of big, blond, tatted-up men. Like a buffet of testosterone and hotness, wrapped in pretty ink.
I stop in the doorway of the waiting area. I can hear the low murmur of male voices and stick my head into the room. The Reed brothers are all over the place, not to mention their wives. I find Emily and motion toward her. She waves me into the room.
I sit down beside her and she takes my hand. How bad is it? I ask her in sign language. Emily’s husband, Logan, is deaf, so the whole family signs. Thank God these people speak my language. Because if I opened my mouth right now, one big long stutter would come out, and nothing else.
Pretty bad, she replies.
She shrugs and shakes her head. He left the beach right after the wedding to go home. He had to get to practice. He’d already missed way too much training time. And on the way from the airport to his house, he was in an accident.
Can I do anything?
“Pray,” Paul says from behind her.
Well, there’s that. I nod. Anything else?
She shakes her head.
Pete is sitting across the room with his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. Reagan rubs his back and talks softly into his ear. He nods, albeit reluctantly, and kisses her quickly, pulling her against him for a hug. She falls into his arms, like she’s meant to be there.
Is it okay if I stay for a little while? I ask.
Emily squeezes my hand. “Of course.”
There’s a commotion in the hallway and my four sisters come into the room. They’re on their tiptoes almost, trying to be quiet. Emily gives them the story, and they sit down beside one another on the floor and lean against the wall.
The Reeds take people in like they’re family. Anyone. The only requirement is that you have a pulse. And if you don’t have a heart, they’ll give you theirs. So my sisters and I already feel a connection here, but I can’t help but think that we should leave and give them some privacy.
“Where are the kids?” Lark asks.
“With a sitter,” Friday says.
“All of them?”
There are a lot of Reed kids too. Paul and Friday have two—three if you count Jacob. And Matt and Sky have four little ones plus Seth. Emily and Logan have one.
Matt sniggers. “You say it like we have our own circus.”
“Well, if the shoe fits,” Lark says.
Pete holds up a finger. “That would be shoes—plural. Lots of circus animals.”
Do you want us to go and take care of the kids? I ask. We’d be happy to.
Sky, Matt’s wife, shakes her head. “We’re going to go home as soon as we find out what’s happening. He’s going to be fine. I’m certain.” She squeezes my hand.
Ten bucks says the wives might go home, but the brothers won’t. Or at least not all of them.
A man in green scrubs walks into the room. “Reed family?” he asks.
“Here,” they all say at once. The doctor looks around the room and shakes his head.
“Immediate family?” he asks.
“Here,” they all say at once again.
“Get on with it,” Paul barks.
“Your brother is a very lucky man,” the doctor says as he pulls his glasses from his face and brushes a finger over the bridge of his nose. “He broke his tibia—one of the bones in the lower leg—in the crash, and has a pretty bad head laceration. We stitched him up, set the leg, put him in a cast, and we’re going to need to keep him at least overnight.”
“Why?” Pete asks.
“The team physician wants us to keep an eye on him.”
So they know who he is. And what he does.
“How did the team know?”
The doctor shrugs. “I called them.” He glares at us. “He plays pro ball.” He says it like it’s the Holy Grail. “They’re sending the team physician to evaluate him in the morning.”
The door bursts open, and a couple of men and a few women walk into the room. They’re loud and noisy and they’re extremely disrespectful.
“Will he still be able to play?” one of them asks.
The doctor shakes his head. “He’s going to be on the bench for a while. It’s a damn shame, too.”
Paul swipes a hand down his face and takes a deep breath.
“Some players come back from an injury like this,” the doctor says helpfully.
Oh, hell, there’s a chance he might not play again?
“Can we see him?” Pete asks.
“One at a time,” the doctor says with a nod.
“Which way?” Pete barks. The doctor points.
Pete takes Reagan’s hand and drags her down the hallway. “Only one!” the doctor calls.
“We are only one,” Pete yells back, but he doesn’t stop.
“Matt, you should go next,” Paul says. “You have kids to get back home to.”
Matt nods, but he says, “So do you.”
“I’m going to hang out for a while anyway.”
“You know Pete’s not going to go home tonight,” Matt says.
Paul nods. “I know.”
Pete and Sam are twins. They have a bond.
The doctor shakes hands with Paul and leaves the room. The people who came in last swarm Paul, asking questions. It turns out they’re from the team. And the girls are cheerleaders.
“Only family can visit,” Paul warns.
“We know,” one of the girls says. “We heard about the accident and just wanted to come and check on him. We won’t stay long.”
I sit down beside my sisters. “Y-you should go h-home,” I say to them quietly. I talk to my sisters. I always have. My stutter isn’t as bad when I talk to them. Not as bad as it is with anyone else.
“We’ll wait,” Lark says. She leans the back of her head against the wall, and tilts it so that she can look at me. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “He’s going to be fine,” she says.
I take a breath.
I sit quietly as his brothers come and go. Pete and Reagan come out, and Matt and Sky go in. And the cycle continues until everyone has had a visit. Pete kisses Reagan goodbye. It looks like he’s going to spend the night after all. “This is a pretty sucky wedding night,” he tells her.
“You’ll make up for it later,” she teases him. He hugs her, and then walks her and the rest of them out to waiting cabs.
When Pete comes back, I stand up and wipe off the butt of my pants. I should go home. I can do nothing for anyone here.
Pete motions toward the hallway. “Come on,” he says. He doesn’t want the team members or the cheerleaders to see me. I sneak to the doorway and follow him down the hall. The smell of disinfectant tickles my nose.
When we get to Sam’s room, he’s sitting up, but his eyes are closed.
I don’t want to wake him, I sign.
He smiles. “You’re the only one he asked for.”
My heart thuds. He asked for me?
He nods. “He’s a little fucked up.” He grins. “Okay, a lot fucked up.”
I walk into the room and sit down in the chair beside the bed. Sam’s hand lies outside the covers, so I take it in mine. I can see the veins in his hand, stark against his too-pale skin, and I move his IV line over so I don’t bump it.
Sam’s hand suddenly squeezes mine. I look up and find him smiling at me. It’s a goofy grin, and I’m so damn happy to see it that tears fill my eyes.
“Don’t cry, cupcake,” he says softly.
His eyes are barely open, and they shaved part of his head.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I whisper. I tap my thumb on the bedrail, so I can talk without stuttering.
“It’ll take more than a semi truck with a drunk driver to take me out, cupcake.” He laughs, but then he clutches his head. “That hurt,” he murmurs.
“Can I do anything for you?” Tap. Tap.
“Just stay for a little while.”
I scoot my chair closer.
“Where’s Pete?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” Tap. Tap.
“He got married today. And I fucked his honeymoon all up.”
“He doesn’t seem to mind.” Tap. Tap.
He whispers fiercely, “He’s s’posed to be getting laid!”
I laugh. I can’t help it. “He’d rather be here.”
“If I had a choice between having newly-wed, wall-banging, awesomely good sex and hanging out with me, I wouldn’t pick me. I’d be at home fucking Reagan.” His face turns a little green. “Well, I wouldn’t fuck Reagan, because that would be gross. But Pete should be home fucking Reagan.”
His words are slurred and I can tell they’ve given him pain meds. But he still makes me laugh.
“Hey cupcake!” he says, like he just had a great idea. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too,” I say.
“I thought you were ready to kick me to the curb.”
I was. But when I found out he was hurt, it nearly gutted me. “Would if I could,” I say.
“Do you think you could fall in love with me, cupcake?” he blurts out.
I’m startled. I know he’s medicated, so I shouldn’t put any stock into his words, but I can’t help it. “You should get some rest,” I say. Tap. Tap.
“So, that would be a no.” He whistles. Then he scrunches up his face when it makes his head hurt. “I’m in trouble,” he whispers quietly.
He squeezes my hand. “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, cupcake,” he says. “I just wish you could love me back.”
“You’ve had a lot of pain meds,” I say.
Suddenly, he grabs the neck of my shirt and jerks me so that I fall over his chest. His lips are right next to mine. “Listen to me,” he says.
“Okay,” I whisper.
“I don’t have much going for me, but I know what love feels like.”
“It just is, cupcake. You don’t get to pick who you fall in love with. And God knows, if my head could pick, it wouldn’t be you.”
I push back to get off his chest, because I’m offended. But he holds me tight.
“You’re not easy to love, because you can’t love me back. But you might one day. I’ll wait. But you got to start taking my calls.” He cups the back of my head and brings my face toward his. A cough from the doorway startles us apart. I stand up and pull my shirt down where he rucked it up.
“Visiting hours are over,” a nurse says.
“She’s not a visitor,” he says. She comes and inserts a needle into his IV, and his eyes close. He doesn’t open them when he says, “She’s going to marry me one day. She just doesn’t know it yet.” His head falls to the side and he starts to softly snore. His hand goes slack around mine.
I pull back, my heart skipping like mad.
“They say some of the most ridiculous things when they’re medicated.” The nurse shakes her head. “He probably won’t remember any of this tomorrow.”
Pete comes into the room. “Everything okay?” he asks. He looks from Sam to me and back.
“Just gave him some pain meds,” the nurse says.
I’m going to go, I sign to him. I turn back when I get to the door. Will you call if anything goes…wrong?
He nods. “I’m going to go get some coffee while he’s asleep.”
I go to the public bathroom and sink back against the wall. He was medicated. He didn’t mean any of that. Did he? He couldn’t have. I stand there until my heart stops feeling like it’s going to jump out of my chest. I need to go and tell him that I do have feelings for him. What if something goes wrong during the night and I can’t tell him tomorrow? I need for him to know.
I go back to his room and stop in the doorway. Sitting beside his bed is a girl. She’s holding his hand and talking to him. He smiles at her and says, “I’m serious. I’m going to marry you.”
My heart jolts. He may as well have stabbed me with a knife.
I turn and leave. I don’t run into Pete, and my sisters are waiting for me.
“What happened?” Lark asks when we get in the cab.
I wipe a tear from my cheek as it snakes a warm path down my face. “N-nothing.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“And?” Wren chirps.
“A-and the ch-cheerleader is in with him now.”
“Oh,” Wren says.
“Yeah,” I say.
I’m an idiot.
When I was twelve, I went for months thinking I was dead. Everyone in my household ignored me. That was per my mother. “If she won’t speak, don’t speak to her,” she’d said. What she didn’t understand was that I wanted to speak. I wanted to speak with a desperation unlike any other. I wanted to unburden my mind. I wanted to talk.
I just couldn’t.
So I moved around the house, prepared my own meals, got myself on the bus and off, took care of my own laundry, and I spent most of my time in my room, since no one was going to talk to me anyway.
I thought I was dead. Because why else would they not speak to me? Why would they punish me like they did for something I couldn’t control? I must have died and someone forgot to tell me. I was a ghostly specter of myself.
My mother and her boyfriend spent more time away from home than in the small apartment my mom and I shared. He kept a place across town, and it became easier for her to stay there rather than come home. I didn’t mind. I was a ghost walking around alone anyway, right? I spent my nights alone and was grateful for the silence. Because it would still be silent even if she were here.
But then there was a problem one day at school, and I ended up in the emergency room and then had my appendix out. It took them four days to find my mother, and suddenly someone cared if I lived or died.
Her name was Mrs. Derricks, and she was the school counselor. She brought me into her office and changed my life that day, and every day since.
The door slamming behind me jerks me from my thoughts of Mrs. Derricks.
Why aren’t you dressed? I ask Lark in sign language as she drops her things on the couch and flops down.
“Dressed for what?” she asks, blowing out a breath.
For the funeral.
Her brow furrows. “What funeral?”
My hands fly wildly. Mrs. Derricks’ funeral!
“Oh, crap,” she says. She jumps up. “Totally forgot. Give me five minutes to change.”
I text Wren and Star to see where they are, but just as I hit send, they come through the door. They couldn’t be more opposite. They’re sisters, born one year apart. And while they look alike, they couldn’t be more different.
“You need to tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.
Wren looks down. “Why?”
“Because you’ll trip over it.”
“Who cares,” Wren tosses back.
Star has her shirt tucked into a pair of nice pants, her creases all perfect and sharp. Wren, on the other hand, is wearing jeans and a T-shirt I think she stole from Emilio when we stayed over with him and Marta at their house for Christmas. It’s four sizes too big for her and hangs down almost to her knees.
Emilio Vasquez isn’t our real dad. He’s the man who “sprung us from jail” as he calls it. In reality, it was a group home, but he’s pretty accurate. He and his wife Marta couldn’t have kids, so they decided to use their millions to better the life of a child. And they ended up with five of us, all at once.
Emilio is a former rock and roll star who hung up his microphone when drugs and drinking destroyed his band. Marta is a former groupie he fell in love with, or that’s at least how he tells it. She smacks the back of his head every time he calls her a groupie. She’s a tiny little Latina fireball.
To us, they’re our parents. They’re the family we weren’t born with, but were lucky enough to grow into.
“I can’t find black gloves!” Lark calls from her room.
“Why do you need black gloves?” Wren yells back.
“For the funeral!” Lark bellows.
“Oh, shit.” Wren streaks to her room with Star right behind her. They forgot too, apparently.
Five minutes later, they all come out dressed in dark colors. Wren looks like a slouch, but a respectable slouch. Star looks like she could be walking a runway.
“Tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.
“Why?” Wren asks.
Do we really have to do this every day? When we lived with Emilio and Marta, their solid presences kept the fighting down. But now that we’re on our own, my sisters snipe at one another like verbal fencing is their favorite pastime.
I tap my finger on the counter, because when I tap, I can speak without a stammer. “Has anyone seen Fin?” I ask.
Star shakes her head and squats down to tie Wren’s shoe.
“Can’t stand it, can you?” Wren taunts.
“Shut up,” Star grumbles. She pulls a brush from the tidy little purse she has hanging over her arm and goes toward Wren with it. Wren backs up and blocks her.
“You are not brushing my hair,” Wren says.
“Somebody needs to,” Star says. She holds the brush out and raises her brow.
Wren turns to the mirror, licks the palm of her hand, and slicks her hair down by dragging her wet hand through her pink-and-blue locks.
“That is so gross,” Star says.
I shake my head and motion for everyone to go. We’ll just have to leave Fin. If I wait any longer, I’m going to be late for the funeral, and I simply can’t have that. Mrs. Derricks saved my life. She’s the reason I’m still alive. And now she’s gone. Tears burn my nose and I sniffle.
“Are you all right?” Wren asks quietly as we walk toward the car waiting out front. Our driver gets out and holds the door for us, and we all slide in.
Fine, I sign, holding my five fingers out in front of my chest. All of my sisters know sign language. It was the only way I could talk for a long time. Until Emilio put a pair of drumsticks in my hand one day and I realized I had a voice.
Suddenly, there’s a squeal of brakes as a red four-door coupe slams to a stop in the street. The car jumps the curb and lands with one wheel on the sidewalk.
“Sorry I’m late!” Fin yells as she jumps out of the car and runs toward us. She’s already dressed, so she just gets into the car. “Were you going to leave without me?” she asks with a huff, settling her black skirt around her as she scoots in the car.
Finch is her name, but we call her Fin. She’s perpetually late. Always. For everything.
“Yes,” we all say at the same time. We have learned through the years that if we wait for Fin, we’ll be waiting forever.
She grumbles something to herself. Then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a brand new pair of gloves. She tosses them to Lark and grins. “Thought you might need those,” she says.
“That’s why you were late?” Lark asks.
Fin nods, looking down her nose at all of us. “I went to get you black gloves. So sue me.”
“You suck so bad,” Lark mumbles. She turns away from everyone and pulls her gloves off, and pulls the new ones on. Lark never goes without gloves. Ever. These go all the way up to her elbows and the tips of the fingers are cut out. “Where did you get these?” she asks. “They’re comfy.”
“At that new shop on Main.”
Lark spins her hand in front of her. “Did they have more colors?”
“Only about a bazillion.”
“Nice.” Lark smiles. She looks at us. “We’ll have to forgive her for being late. She was doing a good deed.”
“If we have to,” Wren grumbles.
Fin flips her the bird.
The car stops in front of the church, and we all get out. We have a security team of two and they’ll be with us. Hopefully no one will recognize us, but you never can tell how people are going to react.
Marta and Emilio find us inside the church and come to sit with us. They kiss each of us on the forehead and ask how we’re doing. The two of them together—it’s like looking at newlyweds all the time. They’re so in love with one another that it hurts.
The service starts, and I feel tears prick my eyes and my nose starts to run. Emilio pushes a handkerchief into my hand. I wipe my eyes and try to keep it together. But Mrs. Derricks saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be if she hadn’t found out about me and made it her mission to help me. I certainly wouldn’t have four sisters and two wonderful parents, that’s for sure.
The church is bursting at the seams with people, and right before the service is over, we hear the whispers among the crowd. They know who we are, which means there’s a good chance we’ll get mobbed when we leave here. The security guards keep us close, flanking us on each end as we walk out the door. But when we get outside, there’s an even bigger crowd.
Someone inside the church must have alerted social media that Fallen from Zero was in the building, because there’s suddenly a mob of teenagers who are blocking the door.
“Oh, shit,” Emilio says.
Shit is right. This is awful. We try to speak, say hello, and sign some autographs, but suddenly someone jerks my hair.
“I got some!” I hear a female voice yell as she lifts a lock of my hair, which she just jerked from my head. I press on the offended spot. That hurts like crazy. My sisters start to run when they realize that this crowd is out for blood. I run too. Hell, I already lost a lock of hair. I don’t want to lose my clothes. Yes, that does happen.
We’re almost to the car when someone’s shoe sticks out and trips me. I hit the concrete hard, so hard that my forehead smashes into the sidewalk. Holy hell, that hurts. Someone steps on my wrist, and I scream.
But suddenly the crowd parts, and I see five really big men with tattoos holding back the offenders. “Back the fuck up!” one of them barks at the overzealous fans. I hold my wrist, because it’s throbbing like crazy, and roll over onto my back.
“I got you, cupcake,” Sam Reed says as he pulls me up off the ground. He moves me around like I’m light as a feather, getting me quickly to my feet.
“Th-thanks,” I murmur. Then I realize he just heard me stutter.
“I want to be your knight in shining armor, swoop you up, and carry you the rest of the way, but…” He looks down at the crutches he dropped.
I’d like to see you try, I think. But I don’t say it out loud.
His brother picks up his crutches and hands them back to him. Sam looks like he’s in pain. “You okay, Sam?” Matt asks. Matt is the one with the long hair and the kind smile.
“I’m okay,” Sam says. “Get her in the car, would you?” He jams his crutches under his arms and walks with us, and Matt holds my elbow.
Matt scowls at Sam. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Well, I couldn’t just let them walk all over her.”
“Um-hmm,” he hums. “I think the four of us had it covered, but whatever.”
Sam winces as he maneuvers his crutches. You okay? I ask. Since Sam can sign, talking with him has always been so easy.
“Fine.” He winces again, though, and I can tell he’s hurting. His eyes suddenly jerk up to meet mine and he says quietly, “This wasn’t how I’d planned on seeing you again, cupcake.” He reaches out and touches the side of my face. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
I hadn’t planned on seeing him again at all. Ever. Not after the way we ended things.
“Can I call you?” he asks.
Best if you don’t, I sign.
He looks everywhere but at my face for a second. But then his blue eyes meet mine. “Why not?” he asks softly. He stares into my face.
I don’t answer. I see that the car door is open and I get in, still holding my wrist. The driver closes the door, and I fall back against the seat.
Emilio and Marta ended up in our car, and I’m glad of it. “M-melio,” I say. I try to move my wrist and gasp as pain shoots up my arm.
“What?” Emilio asks. He sits forward.
“I th-think I h-h-hurt my wr-wrist,” I finally get out.
He tells the driver to take us to the hospital.
I lay my head back and look out the back window. I can see Sam Reed standing in the street watching the car until it’s out of sight. He’s standing apart from his brothers and their wives, all by himself.
“I’m glad those boys were there,” Emilio says. “I’ll have to buy them a beer to say thank you.”
Marta clucks her tongue. “They’re going to get swamped themselves, if they don’t get out of there.” The Reeds are local celebrities, ever since their reality TV show started.
I touch the top of my head where I lost a lock of hair.
Marta leans forward and pulls my head down gently so she can look at it. “I think you’ll be okay,” she says. She pats my hair down flat. She leans close to my ear. “At least your head and your hand will. Not so sure about your heart.”
She turns to look back at Sam, but he’s a speck in the distance now, and that’s how he needs to stay.
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I’ve heard that the best way to get over one man is to get under another. With that said, I doubt this is what the speaker had in mind. A hand squeezes mine tightly. It was pretty stupid of me to allow them to be in the room with me for this part because I’m feeling terribly exposed, despite the fact that my lower half is draped with a sheet. There’s just something about having my legs up in stirrups and the top of a woman’s head visible between my thighs that makes this all awkward.
It should be beautiful, and really, it is. It’s just…odd.
I have Cody on my left and Garrett on my right. They lean toward one another to kiss over my head, and Garrett uses his free hand to wipe a tear from Cody’s cheek.
The doctor looks up from her perch down below. “You doing okay up there?” she asks.
I squeeze my eyes shut. “Fine,” I say.
Garrett leans down and kisses my temple, his lips lingering there. “Thank you for doing this,” he whispers vehemently, and emotion swells within me.
“Thanks for letting me do this,” I say back. I tip my face up, and he presses a soft kiss to my lips. There’s no passion in this kiss whatsoever. There’s only emotion and gratitude and a type of affection like I’ve never known.
Cody squeezes my shoulder. These guys make the cutest couple. They have been together for about twelve years, and after three failed adoptions, they wanted more than anything to have a kid. They didn’t even ask me. I volunteered to be their surrogate. I’m healthy, I’m young, I’m in love with the type of love they have for one another, and I wanted to give them their own baby.
We used a donor egg and a mishmash of their sperm. The donor egg is so I could stay as far removed from the situation as possible. The mishmash is so they won’t know who the father is. They’ll both be fathers. All I know is that I don’t want to be a mom. But I’m willing to let the little guy cook in my uterus for nine months or so. Then I will gladly hand him over to these wonderful men, and they will be able to raise their own child.
I wince as the doctor cranks the speculum down and pulls it from my vagina. She lifts my feet from the stirrups and rolls her chair back. “Friday,” she says. That’s my name. Friday. Like the day of the week. It’s not the name on my birth certificate, but it fits me better than that old relic of my former life ever did. “In about ten days, I want you to come in for a blood test.”
Cody rubs his hands together. He’s so excited that I get all teary again. That could be the hormones they used to get me on a cycle similar to that of the egg donor, but either way, I’m much more emotional than on a normal day. “Ten days until we find out if we’re going have a baby!” Cody squeals.
A grin tugs at my lips as Garrett helps me sit up. I feel a lot better with the gown covering all my girly bits, instead of having my hoo-ha up in the air for everyone to see.
“I can go to work today, right?” I ask.
She nods her head. “The only thing you can’t do is have an orgasm.”
Heat creeps up my cheeks, so I slap my palms against them. “Oh no!” I cry. “What am I going to do without my daily orgasms?”
Garrett holds up two fingers. “Twice on Sundays.”
“Don’t do any heavy lifting or any strenuous exercise. And no warm baths,” the doctor says. She looks at the tattoo on my knee with keen interest. It’s a spider web with a baby rattle in the middle. “Interesting,” she says, more to herself than to me. Hell, she already saw the one on my inner thigh.
I cover my knee with my hand, and she jerks her gaze away. I have tattoos all over my body. I love them, and each one tells a story. I drew most of them, and they all mean something to me. I know people with tattoos have a lot of stigmas attached to them, but I just like art, and I like to wear art on my body. Judge me if you want to, because I don’t care.
“I have to get back to work,” Cody says, and he leans over to kiss Garrett on the lips. Then he kisses my temple and leaves, his smile big and bright.
Garrett hangs out with me while I change clothes behind the curtain. I can hear his feet hitting the side of the exam table he’s sitting on. He’s like a giddy little kid with his feet swinging back and forth. “Where do you have to go when you leave here?” he asks.
“Work,” I say as I pull my dress down over my head. I like vintage clothes, and today is no different than any other day. I wonder how I’m going to be able to pull off the vintage look when my belly is big and round. I am not sure vintage-inspired maternity clothes will be easy to find.
“Don’t you want to take the rest of the day off?” he asks. “We could go shopping. Buy some baby stuff.”
“Tempting,” I say. Honestly, it sounds like hell. “I’ll leave that to you and Cody, if you don’t mind.”
“Fine,” he tosses back harshly, like he’s annoyed, but I know he’s not. “Let me buy you lunch, then. And I’ll walk you back to Reed’s.”
Reed’s is the tattoo parlor where I work. The idea of him walking me there makes me surprisingly joyful. “Will you be sure to kiss me before you leave?” I ask. I grin as I put on my delicate shoes with the tall heels that I love so very much. They match the dress.
“Why?” he asks, instantly suspicious. He jerks the curtain back as I pull my hair from the neck of my dress. He grins. “Which of the Reeds are you hoping to make jealous?” He narrows his eyes at me.
I start to tick them off on my fingers. “Logan is married and has a baby on the way. Pete is with Reagan. Matt is married and knocked up his wife. With twins!”
“So that leaves Sam and Paul.” He appraises me shrewdly.
Kissing Sam would be like kissing my brother. Paul, on the other hand…
“Mmm hmm,” Garrett hums. “It’s the big one, right?”
“He’s not that big,” I mutter to myself.
“Are you kidding?” he shrieks. “He’s fucking huge.” He grins. “I bet the rest of him is just as big.”
Sometimes having a gay man as a really good friend has its advantages. Because a straight man would never wonder how big Paul Reed’s dick is. “I wouldn’t know,” I murmur. His baby mama would, though, because he still sleeps with Kelly. That part makes my gut ache.
“Does he still walk you home at night when the shop closes?” Garrett asks.
I shrug. “One of them does.”
“Does he still try to kiss you?” Garrett sings. He’s like a damn woodland creature with his giddiness. I expect him to break out into song any second.
“That only happened once,” I say. It was the kiss that rocked my world, though. I pick up my purse and step out into the room.
“And?” He makes a rolling motion with his finger as he opens the door for me and we walk through the hallway. He checks us out, pays the bill, and we step into the sunshine.
“And what?” I huff as I put on my sunglasses and pretend like I don’t know what he just asked.
“The man laid one on you and you still have to see him every day, Friday. How’s that going?” He takes my hand in his and threads his fingers through mine as we wait for the subway. The baby doctor’s office is on the good side of town. And Reed’s is not. It’s in the area that I love more than anything.
He gapes at me, his mouth hanging open. “That’s all I get? Fine?” He points to my belly. “You might have my baby in your uterus, and that’s all you’re going to tell me?”
I cover his mouth with my hand. “You don’t get any say over any part of my body except for that baby that may or may not be growing in there.”
“Oh, that was cold,” he says. But I have quite effectively changed the subject.
He talks about nurseries and bottles and clothes and all the things I don’t even want to know about until we get to Reed’s. When we get there, he stops in front of the shop, cups his hands around his eyes, and looks through the glass into the room.
“Yep,” he says with a grin. “It’s showtime!” He takes my hand and opens the door. The grin falls off his face, and he replaces it with a look of aloofness. It’s uncanny how he can do that. He minored in theater many years ago, though, so I guess it makes sense. He’s a teacher now.
I drop my bag behind the desk at the front, which is where I usually work. I design the tattoos, and sometimes I do the actual tattoo part. I’m still learning how to do that, but drawing is my thing. That is where my skills lie—I’m an art major at NYU, after all. Or at least I was until I graduated two weeks ago. Now I’m just a possibly-knocked-up soon-to-be-homeless person. Oh crap. I haven’t told Garrett and Cody about my living situation yet.
Paul looks up from where he’s doing a tattoo on a guy’s shoulder, and he frowns. “Morning,” he says, looking from me to Garrett and back. Garrett swells up in size. Honey, no matter what you do, you will never look as big or as tough as Paul Reed.
“Morning,” I chirp back.
Logan is here, too, and he smiles at me and waves. Logan is deaf but can speak, and we all learned how to sign many years ago. I wave back.
Who’s that? he signs at me and points to Garrett.
I put my hand on Garrett’s shoulder. “Garrett, this is Paul, and the quiet one there is Logan.”
Logan stands up and shakes Garrett’s hand. Paul just grunts.
“Nice to meet you,” Garrett says. He turns to me and tips my face up. He leans down close to my ear and says, “I bet he’s fucking huge.” I laugh and try to turn my face away, but he just holds me there with his thumbs beneath my chin and his fingers splayed toward my ear. Then his lips touch mine.
He’s actually a really good kisser, and I kind of envy Cody a little bit, because if he goes after sex the same way he’s going after this fake kiss, Cody’s getting it pretty good.
The only thing about it…there’s no spark. Not a single one. It’s just warm, wet lips sliding across mine, and a really quick touch of a tongue. I pinch his side, and he laughs against my lips and pulls back. He drags his nose up and down the side of mine.
“Cody is going to love it when I tell him about this.” I stab him in the side with my index finger, and he bends over, trying not to laugh.
“Remember what the doctor said,” he tells me, facing me and speaking quietly. “No orgasms. Not even ones offered by great big studly tattoo artists that make you sweat.” He waves a hand in front of his face like a fan. “He makes me sweat a little bit, too.”
I hear a clatter behind us as Paul throws down his tattoo gun and stalks toward the back of the shop. He pulls the privacy curtain closed behind him.
Logan looks up at me, grins, and just shakes his head.
Garrett kisses my forehead, lingering there for a second. “In ten days, you might be my baby mama,” he says, his body rocking against mine as he chuckles.
I punch his shoulder and point toward the door.
Next time he fake kisses me, I have to remember to tell him not to use tongue. I wipe the back of my hand across my mouth and watch him leave. He waves and blows me a kiss.
Logan throws up a hand to get my attention. You’re playing with fire,he warns. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain. He’s pissed. He must not want Paul to hear him or he would be talking instead of signing.
I wave a breezy hand at him. He’ll have to get over it.
He looks toward the curtain. You should go talk to him.
Because he still has a client out here, and he had to leave because you were sucking face with the other guy.
Crap. Paul walked away with a client in his chair. With a half-finished tat. He has no right to be angry.
Logan’s brow arches, and he shakes his head.
Well, he doesn’t.
Quit being a baby, he signs. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain again. Go talk to him.
I heave a sigh and go to get Paul out of his snit.
I can’t fucking believe she brought that man here. To my shop. Where I work. Hell, it’s where I live.
I lean against the counter and balance myself on my palms. My forehead rests against the upper cabinet, and I force myself to take a deep breath and count to ten. It was all I could do not to jerk him off her and show him the door. With my foot up his ass.
One of my brothers left shit on the counter that should have been put away, so I clean up and slam the cabinet door. That feels a little better, but not much. I can just imagine that douche in the front of the shop. He’s probably got his hand all the way up her shirt by now.
I slam another door.
The curtain rattles behind me, and a breeze tickles the back of my neck as someone walks into the space. “Not now,” I grind out.
“Then when?” she tosses back.
Great. It would be her that came to get me. I knew it was her. No one else makes the hair on my arms stand up or gives me fucking chills. Not to mention that the perfume she wears gets to me before her voice does. It reaches across the room, creeps up my nose, and wraps itself around my heart. I lower my head and grit my teeth. “Go away, Friday,” I say.
“You have a client waiting,” she says, as though I don’t know.
“Then what the fuck are you doing?” she asks.
Friday is the only one who talks to me like that in my shop. She calls me on my shit, and she has since the day she first walked in here. She was eighteen years old, and she had just started at NYU. She walked in looking like she was lost, and I hired her on the spot when she told me what was wrong with the tattoo on the side of my neck. She told me how she would change it and that any good artist would have known that it was placed wrong. She pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a quick sketch of a new design.
“Want a job?” I’d said.
“Yeah,” she’d replied. “But only if you’ll fix that fucking tattoo so I don’t have to look at that monstrosity every fucking day.”
I’d grinned. Hell, the thought of it still makes me grin. Logan had fixed the tattoo that day, and she’d started working for me. That was four years ago. Four fucking years of looking at her beautiful legs and red lips. Every. Single. Day. Four years of watching her and wanting her. Four years of lusting over Friday. Four years with her busting my chops.
“I’ll finish in a minute,” I say. I heave a sigh and drop heavily into a chair. Friday wears me the fuck out.
She puts her hands on her hips and glares at me. “Why?”
“Why what?” I force myself to look at her face instead of her rack. She has the most beautiful rack I have ever seen, and I’ve been looking at it long enough to know.
“Why are you back here instead of out there working?”
Because I couldn’t watch you sucking face with that douche. “I told you, I’m taking a break.” I give her a what-the-fuck look. If I let her think she’s gone mental, I can blame it all on her, right?
“But why?” she asks. She stomps that little foot of hers, and it immediately draws my attention to her feet, and then up her legs, and then… God. I swipe a hand down my face. “Why, Paul?”
“Who’s the douche?” I ask, instead of telling her how I’m feeling.
“What douche?” She still has her hands on her hips.
“The one who had his tongue down your throat.” I glare at her. But she doesn’t back down. She never does.
“His name is Garrett,” she mumbles. She is suddenly really interested in looking at the magnets on the fridge.
“Garrett is a fuckwad. Tell him to keep his dick in his pants the next time he comes in my shop.”
She blows out a breath and raises her finger to point at me, and I can tell she’s about to ream me a new one.
“Weren’t you fucking somebody else last week, Friday?” I blurt out. I want to take it back immediately because it hangs there in the air between us like a bomb about to explode.
“What?” she asks, and her voice goes soft.
“Last week it was a different guy who took you to lunch.” I grumble to myself and get up, pretending to clean the counter.
She thinks it over. “You mean Cody?”
“How many are there?”
She blinks hard. What the fuck? Friday never cries. Ever. I take a step toward her, and she steps back, putting her hand up like she’s going to push the air around me back. “How dare you?” she breathes. A tear falls over her lashes, and she swipes it away and then looks down at the back of her wet hand like she doesn’t know what the fuck a tear is.
“Friday,” I say. I step toward her again. I soften my voice because I have no idea what to do. I have never seen this Friday before. I have only seen the one who can eat my balls for lunch. Hell, she’ll feed my balls to me if I piss her off enough. And make me like it. Four years and I have never seen her shed a tear.
She turns around and runs into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. I lean my ear against the door and listen, but I can’t hear anything over the sound of the fan. I knock. She doesn’t answer.
“Dammit,” I swear. I lean my forehead against the door.
“Leave her alone,” I hear from behind me.
I turn around because Logan is talking. “I can’t,” I say to him. I knock again, but she doesn’t answer.
“Just leave her the fuck alone,” he says again. He’s pissed, I can tell. “You have a client.” He waves toward my customer like he’s Vanna Fucking White. “Work to do. So, you might want to get to it.”
I heave a sigh and look at my client. “Just a moment,” I say.
“Take your time,” he says with a grin. He’s loving the show, apparently.
I pull my keys from my pocket and fit the key in the lock. I hesitate long enough for Logan to notice.
“You shouldn’t,” he warns.
I know I shouldn’t, but I am.
I turn the key and let myself into the room. I find Friday washing her face.
“What the fuck, Paul!” she cries. She turns back to the mirror and dabs beneath her eyes. She looks at me in the mirror. “Get out.”
I close the door behind me and lean against it. “Why are you crying?”
“I don’t know,” she bites out. But another tear slides down her cheek. “Fucking hormones,” she says as she swipes it away.
All this because she has her period? I know better than to say that out loud. “Oh,” I say instead.
She turns to face me, hitching her hip against the sink. She crosses her arms beneath her breasts, which pushes them up and makes little pillows over the top of that low-cut dress she’s wearing. My God. I look up at her face. She smirks at me. I like a smirking Friday a lot better than one who’s crying because I don’t know what do with tears. Not from her.
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” I blurt out when she just glares at me.
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Fuck me, Friday,” I breathe. I swipe a hand down my face again and growl to myself.
She faces the mirror and starts to put on her lipstick. “I tried to do that and you didn’t want to,” she says. She purses her lips and kisses toward the mirror. The move shoots straight to my dick. “So, you, Mister I Am Jealous, don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t sleep with.” She looks directly into my eyes in the mirror. “So, I can sleep with Garrett. I can sleep with Cody.” She throws up her hands. “Hell, I can sleep with both of them at the same time, if I want.” She glares at me. “And you don’t get to have any say-so about it.” She walks toward me. “You can’t say a word because you didn’t want it.” She gestures toward the front of her body. “You said no to all this, so you don’t get to have an opinion.”
“I didn’t say no,” I mumble.
“You kissed me and then you tried to take it back!” she yells.
Okay, I like Friday yelling. I like it so much more than Friday crying. “I didn’t try to take it back!” I slap my palm against the wall, but she just looks at my hand, smirks, and rolls her eyes. “I just… Never mind.”
“Just what?” she asks.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s over and done with.”
“Yep,” she says, letting her lips pop on the P. “Over. Done.” She dusts her hands together. “So you don’t get to go all Neanderthal when someone else kisses me.”
“I just…” I shake my head. “I had something I needed to take care of.”
“Don’t you mean somebody?” She smirks and shakes her head. “Was it Kelly you had to take care of? Heaven knows Kelly needs to come more than I do.”
Did she just say come? I shake the thoughts away. They’re not going to get me anywhere.
Friday tolerates my daughter’s mother, but I don’t think she’s ever really liked her. “It actually was Kelly I needed to take care of,” I say. I may as well lay all my shit bare. Friday cried, for God’s sake.
She lets out a heavy breath. “You kissed me, and then you went and got some from Kelly?”
Her voice is soft. She’s… What is she? Is she hurt?
“No, I didn’t go and get some from Kelly. I went and broke things off with Kelly.” I take a step forward until I’m towering over her and she has to tip her head back to look at my face. “I had to go and tell her that I kissed you and that you rocked my fucking world.”
She freezes, so I take a chance and put my arm around her, pulling her against me.
“What?” she breathes. She turns her face up to mine.
“I haven’t slept with Kelly since before I kissed you. I don’t want to sleep with Kelly. I have you on my fucking mind, and I can’t get you out. So, I went and broke things off with Kelly. Completely.”
She blinks her brown eyes at me. Blink. Blink.
“Then I came back to see you, but you were pissed. You wouldn’t let me in. You said ‘no fucking way, you stupid son of a bitch.’ And you told me to go home. So, I went. Alone.”
“Kelly and I weren’t dating. We were just friends with benefits. Or parents with benefits. Whatever. Now we’re just Hayley’s parents.”
“I went and told her that we couldn’t do that anymore, and she understood.”
“You told her?” she whispers. “That you…what? What did you tell her?”
“I told her that I can’t stop thinking about you.” I brush her hair back from her forehead. I kissed Friday that one time when I walked her home and she invited me inside, and we both knew what she was offering, but I don’t think I’ve ever just held her in my arms. I like it. She lays her palms flat on my chest, like she needs to steady herself.
“I have a thing for you,” I admit. I wince inwardly because it sounds so lame.
“A big thing.”
Her gaze drops.
“Not that thing.” Although now that she’s looking down at it, it’s ready to rise to attention. Fucking attention whore. I tip her chin up. “But,” I say.
“Then you showed up with that first douche. And then that second douche. And I had just changed my whole life for the possibility of you. But you had moved on. Quickly.” I drag my fingertips up and down her bare arms, and chill bumps rise. She shivers. “So, yeah, I’m mad. Sorry.”
“You don’t sound sorry.”
She laughs, and the sound of it shoots straight to my heart.
“Am I too late?” I ask. I wait, with my heart in my throat.
She steps back from me. “Paul,” she says. Her voice cracks. “I’m so sorry.”
I don’t need to hear any more. I go out and start my machine up and get back to work. I hear her move around in the shop, and I glance up at her every once in a while, but she gets busy with clients, drawing tattoos, and she ignores me. She doesn’t look in my direction. Not even once. Not for the whole rest of the night. And when it’s closing time, Logan volunteers to walk her home. I let him.
Today would be a beautiful day if not for the casket and the three children with wet faces and red eyes sitting beside me on the front pew. The service hasn’t started yet, and people keep wandering up to look at my half sister, Kendra. Some of them whisper soft words to her and reach out to touch her cold hand. I touched it, too. That was the second and last time I would ever touch her. She’s the sister I never got to meet until the day she died.
I startle as the pew shakes. Seth, the oldest of Kendra’s children, jumps to his feet and cries, “Grandpa!”
Grandpa? What? He has a grandpa? I look up and see my very own father. He’s here? Huh? He wraps Seth up in his arms and squeezes him tightly. He sets him back and looks into his eyes. “How are you holding up?” he asks quietly.
Seth’s eyes travel toward the casket. “We’re okay,” he says. He swallows hard. I can hear it from where I’m sitting.
Dad takes Seth’s face in his hands and stares into his eyes. “Everything is going to be fine,” he says. “She’s in a better place.” He looks over Seth’s shoulder toward me. “And you have Skylar now,” he whispers. Seth nods.
A better place? When can I go to a better place? Anywhere would be better than this church where my dad is paying homage to his illegitimate daughter.
Dad walks over to me and kisses my cheek. “How are you, Sky?” he asks. He’s not nearly as friendly with me as he is with the grandchildren I never even knew he had until a few days ago.
“Fine,” I bite out.
Dad sits down and motions toward Kendra’s girls with a crook of his finger. The little one, who is three, scrambles into his lap, and the older one, who is five, leans into his side. He drops an arm around her and holds her close. He knows these kids. He knows them a lot better than he knows me. That chafes at me so badly that it makes me squirm in my seat.
Dad’s brows scrunch together in subtle warning. I stop moving.
I really need to learn that look now that I’m a mom.
Yes. I’m a mom. My dad came to me about a week ago and asked for my help. And bang—instant motherhood.
“Skylar,” Dad says quietly. “I need for you to do something for me.”
I look up from my manicotti and force a grin to my face. I should have known that he wanted something. He never would have invited me to lunch otherwise. “Did you get another speeding ticket?” I ask. I’m a brand-new attorney as of last month.
“No,” he says slowly. He won’t look me in the eye. “It’s about Kendra.”
I drop my fork, and it clatters loudly against my plate. I scramble to catch it and then brace myself with my palms on the table. “What about her?” I ask.
I know who Kendra is. She’s the daughter my dad had with his mistress. I found out a few years ago when my mother went on a drunken bender and unburdened her soul. And burdened mine.
Kendra is the daughter my father loved. Her mother was the woman he loved. It didn’t matter that my father was married to my mother. It didn’t matter that he had three kids with my mother. It didn’t matter that we were the perfect family with the house on the hill and a summer home at the Cape. Our family was only perfect until we found out he had another one. One he actually loved.
He had a whole other life with Kendra’s mother, right up until she died. They shared an apartment together, and they had a daughter. Dad went back and forth between our house and theirs for many years, but he was never really present when he was at ours. My mother was too resentful. So he stayed away more and more. With them.
Then, suddenly, one day he was back. His eyes were rimmed with red, and he retreated to his study with a bottle of Glenlivet. He didn’t come out for days. When he finally emerged, my mom walked around for a week singing, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” Kendra was already an adult at that point, and married.
But I had my father back after that day. I didn’t understand at all how it had come to be. I didn’t know at the time that he had another daughter. Another woman he had loved. Another life. But he did. And now he wanted to talk about her?
“Kendra is dying,” he says. His eyes fill with tears, but he won’t let them spill over. He blinks furiously, his face reddening.
“Oh,” I say. How am I supposed to respond to that? Ding-dong, the witch is dead… “What happened?”
“She has cancer. She found out when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Mellie.” He wipes his eyes with a cloth napkin and motions for a waiter to bring him a drink. “I got her into a really wonderful chemical trial, but she wanted to wait until Mellie was born.” He heaves a sigh. “If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she might have made it. She could have gotten an abortion, but she refused. She waited too long. The cancer is going to win, and she doesn’t have anyone to take the children.”
I can’t breathe. My chest stills, and I feel like I’m going to pass out. Dad shoves a glass of water at me, and I raise it to my lips, sputter into the rim of it, take a sip, swallow, and inhale. I take a deep breath. And I wait. Because there’s more. There’s always more with my dad.
“She has three children. Seth is sixteen. Joey is five. And Mellie is three.” He covers my hand with his and squeezes it. “They don’t have anyone but me. And I can’t take them.” He sits back and rubs the bridge of his nose. “You know how your mother is,” he explains.
Yes, and I know how my mother was betrayed. Yes, I know how my mother found out about his mistress. Yes, I know how my mother hates the ground they all walk on. Sometimes I think she hates me, too. It’s hard to tell. I really don’t think she loves anyone or anything.
He looks me in the eye. “I need for you to help me. They’re your nieces and nephew, no matter what your mother has taught you.”
I am stunned. Absolutely stunned. “You love them,” I say quietly.
He nods. “I do.”
“You love her.” The words fall on the room like cracks of thunder.
I lean back against the chair. “Can I ask you something?”
He nods. It’s a quick jerk, but I see it.
“What did they give you that we couldn’t?” I ask. I don’t even cry. I just ask it. I always wanted to know.
“Your mother made it really hard for me to be a part of our family,” he says. “After she found out—” He raises his hand to stop me when I open my mouth to complain. “Wait,” he says. “Hear me out.”
I nod. I couldn’t talk if I wanted to.
“I loved you and your brother and sister. But I loved Kendra’s mother, too, and I should have divorced your mother and made a clean break.”
“Without us,” I say.
“No, I would have taken you with me if I could. But I couldn’t. Your mother would have ruined me financially, and I could get over that, but she would have gotten custody of you all. And I couldn’t just leave you with all that hatred, without at least trying to be a buffer.” I don’t remember him as a buffer. I know him as that man I never knew. He balls up his fist and squeezes tightly. “That’s why I never left completely. Your mother is more than a bit vindictive, as you know.” He scrubs a hand across his perfect white hair. “Sometimes I think she would have been okay with it if Kendra’s mother was white.”
What? Kendra’s mother’s not white? My father had an affair with a woman of a different race?
“If you do this for me, your mother is going to be very angry at you.”
No shit. She’ll hate me. But I think she already does anyway.
“I understand if you say no,” he says on a sigh. “But they don’t have anyone else.”
“Where is their father?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Fathers,” he says, enunciating the word. “Seth has a dad who sees him once or twice a year, and the girls’ dad has a new family and not enough time for them.”
“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask. I throw my napkin into my plate. My manicotti is churning in my stomach.
“I want you to go and get them.”
“Did you ask Tim? Or Lydia?” They’re my brother and sister and both are older than me.
He shakes his head. “They have families of their own.”
“And I don’t.” Shit, I don’t have anyone. No one but a boyfriend I almost never see. My mother is a nutcase and my father’s heart lies with another family.
“You’re single. You would be wonderful with them.” He lowers his voice and looks around the room. “You won’t look at them like they’re unwanted, biracial children. You’ll love them. I know you will.” He glares at me. “Will you at least meet them? Please? I know it would be a challenge. You’d have to learn a lot, but Seth is sixteen. He helps to take care of the little ones. Hell, in two years, he can take custody himself. That’s what he wants.”
Dad’s pleading with me.
“I’ve never asked for anything before,” he says.
He’s right. He’s never asked for a good night kiss. Or any of the things fathers want. Well, he probably asked for them from Kendra.
“I’ll go,” I say. They’re just children after all. And children need to be loved. I wasn’t, but I can make it better for Kendra’s kids, can’t I? There’s a tiny little piece of me that wants to make my father proud. To make him love me.
He deflates like a balloon. “Oh, thank God,” he says. He lays a hand on his chest. Then he gets up, lifts me by my elbows, and pulls me to him. I can’t remember ever getting a hug from my father before, and I don’t know what to do with it. He holds me like that, breathing into the hair on the top of my head for a moment. Then he sets me back. His eyes are wet with unshed tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much.”
I nod. I can’t do anything more. I feel like somebody took my insides and shoved them up my throat.
I’m jerked from my memories when someone sits down on my left. I look up and instantly recognize Matthew Reed. He was a friend of Kendra’s from the cancer center. I went to visit, right before Kendra died, and to get the kids. Matt was waiting with her. He stayed with Seth so they could be there when she took her last breath. I took the little ones home; I didn’t think they needed to remember their mom that way.
His blue eyes gaze into mine, and he sticks out a hand to shake. He doesn’t say anything. I look up at him. He’s wearing a blue turtleneck covered up by a black button-down shirt with a pair of really nice trousers. He tugs at the top of the turtleneck, and I get a tiny peek of his tattoos.
“You clean up nicely,” I say. I smile at him because I don’t know what else to do.
“Thanks,” he says quietly. His blond hair is held back with a leather band at the nape of his neck, but a piece falls forward, and he tucks it behind his ear. He has a row of piercings up the shell of his ear, and I count them in my head. I have a suddenly insatiable desire to see his hair hang loose around his face.
He looks down at my black skirt and my white shirt. “So do you.”
I think I was wearing something similar the last time I saw him, but I smile anyway. He squeezes my hand and pulls his fingers from my grasp. I probably shouldn’t have held his hand so long. I’m an idiot. He leans across me and reaches for my dad’s hand. “Mr. Morgan,” he says with a nod. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Dad nods his thanks and grips Matt’s hand tightly, and then swipes a finger under his nose. He goes back to talking to the girls, and they’re snuggling closer and closer to him as he murmurs softly to them.
Matt reaches past my dad and bumps knuckles with Seth. Seth smiles at him, but then the preacher walks to the front of the church, they close the casket—thank God—and the sermon begins.
Matt takes my hand in his again, and I feel tears sting my eyes. I blink up at him, and he smiles softly at me. He squeezes my hand gently and listens to the pastor. But he doesn’t let me go.
“She looks lonely,” Emily says as she elbows me in the side. She’s my brother Logan’s wife and she holds a little piece of my heart. But sometimes I want to elbow her back when she pokes me with her scrawny limbs. “You should go check on her,” she whispers vehemently. She raises her elbow again, and I grab it before she can jab me.
“Fine,” I bite out. I get up, stepping on my four brothers’ feet as I scoot past them. Of course, I’m in the center of the aisle and have to go by all of them. Reagan, Pete’s girl, reaches out and squeezes my hand as I walk by her. I love Reagan, and Emily, too. But Emily is a little more outspoken. Reagan is famous for her tender touches, and Emily is the opposite.
I adjust my suit coat and tug at the turtleneck I borrowed from Logan. He gets free clothes from Emily’s parents, who own Madison Avenue, the upscale clothing company. I feel like a monkey dressed up in a coat and a top hat. Like the ones that dance at carnivals. Dance, monkey, dance.
I drop into the open seat beside Skylar, Kendra’s half sister, and I reach out to shake hands with her. She holds on a second too long, and I don’t mind it. She looks tired. Her dad is sitting beside her, but there may as well be an ocean between them. It’s only a few inches, but even I can feel the divide.
I shake his hand and bump knuckles with Seth. Seth and I were both with his mom when she died. We shared the most difficult moment of his life, and it’s something I will never, ever forget.
I watched Kendra take her last breath and all I could think was how lucky I was that it wasn’t me dying there in that bed. It could have so easily been me. Kendra and I were in the same chemical trial, but I got better and my cancer went into remission. Hers didn’t.
I look down at Skylar. She looks nothing like Kendra. Kendra was biracial, so she had skin the color of sweet coffee, and she wore her hair natural but short. Skylar is light skinned, blond, and blue eyed. She has rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, holding her hair back from her face. It hangs halfway down her back in soft waves.
The preacher starts to speak at the front of the church, and Skylar closes her eyes. She squeezes her hands together in her lap, and I can’t tell what’s going on in her head. I wish I knew.
I reach out and take her hand in mine without even thinking about it. I tuck our twined fingers down on the seat between us, and I give her a gentle squeeze. She looks up at me and blinks slowly, her blue eyes startled. But then they soften and she blinks at me again, and this time she really looks at me. She squeezes my hand back, and I don’t let her go. I hold it until both our palms start to sweat.
I get so wrapped up in the feel of her hand in mine and the soft drone of the preacher, that it startles me when a cough jerks me out of my trance. I look up and see a tall man looking down his nose at me. He nudges my knee. “I think you’re in my spot,” he says.
I look at Skylar, and she is just as shocked as I am. She pulls her hand from mine and wipes it on her skirt. I scoot over, and he settles down beside her. He drops an arm around her shoulders, and she leans over to press her lips to his. It’s a quick kiss, one that makes me wonder how often he does it and if it’s always quite that chaste.
Great, now I’m thinking about how it feels to kiss her. Shit. Where did that come from?
Finally, they roll the casket from the church, and we all follow to the graveside. I am a pallbearer and so are my brothers. My brothers are really good for things like that. I volunteered them when Mr. Morgan called to ask me to do it.
I take the carnation off my lapel, lay it on top of the casket, and go to stand with my brothers behind the crowd.
Emily threads her arm through mine. “Who is the guy?” she asks, nodding toward the man who’s standing with Skylar.
I shrug. “I have no idea.”
“Does she have a boyfriend?” Reagan asks.
My brothers are silent. I wish Logan and Pete would tell their girls to shut it for a few minutes and quit being so nosy. I tap Emily on the tip of her nose, and she scrunches up her face. “Stop being so curious,” I tell her.
I wrap my arm around Reagan and pull her to me. I like it when she goes all soft against me, because when she’s not soft, she’s ready to take my head off with a karate chop. I have been on the wrong end of a startled Reagan before, and I don’t particularly want to go there again.
“You okay?” she asks quietly.
I heave a sigh. “I guess.” I shake my head. “I still can’t believe she’s gone,” I say.
Reagan kisses my cheek and then stops to wipe her thumb across the lipstick she must have left on my skin. She smiles. “I’m glad you got better,” she says quietly.
I squeeze her. “Me, too.”
But shit. I feel guilty. Kendra left behind three children.
I see Skylar walking toward us, and Emily and Reagan step back. The heels of the three-inch-high shoes Skylar’s wearing sink into the earth, and she totters a little because of it. I reach out to help steady her with a hand on her elbow. She stops in front of me.
“Thank you for being there with her,” Skylar says quietly.
“She was my friend,” I explain. I don’t know what else to say.
She looks into my eyes. “Was she in a lot of pain?” she asks. She shakes her head. “I tried to talk to Seth about it, but he pretty much pretends I don’t exist.”
I shove my hands in my pockets. “What do you mean? He’s not giving you a hard time, is he?”
She shakes her head again. “No. He’s perfect. He takes his sisters to day care in the morning and picks them up after school. He feeds them, and he bathes them. He won’t let me do anything. I think I’m just a placeholder.” She blows out a heavy breath.
I scratch my head. I don’t know how to tell her what I want to say.
“What?” she asks, her delicate brow arching.
“Kendra asked him to make it easy for you,” I admit. “When she was dying, she told him some things about how to be a good man. Always open car doors. Carry a handkerchief on dates, because you never know when she’ll cry. Never let her pay for dinner.” I take a deep breath. “And she told him to make it easy for you.”
Her mouth opens like she wants to say something but nothing comes out. She’s speechless. She closes it tightly, pressing her lips together. “What else did she tell him?”
“Just normal stuff about dying,” I tell her. It was soul-wrenching to watch. I’d finally had to leave the room so I wouldn’t upset them both with my sobbing. I missed some things as a result.
“I don’t know what to do with kids,” she says.
“They don’t really need much,” I say. “Just for you to love them.”
“I’m trying,” she says.
I want to lay my hand on the back of her hair and smooth down the length of it. I bet it feels like silk.
“I, um, should have introduced you to my boyfriend,” she says. “Do you want to meet him?”
I shake my head. I see him talking with Mr. Morgan. Skylar’s dad doesn’t look like he’s impressed.
“When you, um, took my hand…” she says. “I should have told you.”
“Why?” I look down at her. She comes up to my shoulder, even in her heels.
“I, um, didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
This time it’s me raising my brows at her. “Why did you think I took your hand?”
Her face colors. “I’m not sure,” she says.
I wrap my hand around her wrist and give her a soft squeeze. “I took your hand because you were trembling,” I say. “That’s all.” She’s trembling now, too, but I let her go.
“Oh,” she breathes.
She has her phone clutched in her free hand so I take it from her and add myself to her address book. “Do me a favor?” I say.
She looks up at me and then back down at the phone.
“Call me if you need anything. Anything at all. I promised their mom.”
“Okay,” she replies. “Thanks for everything.” Her blue eyes meet mine, and I have never seen anyone look quite so lost. But then her eyes narrow as her gaze shoots past me. “Shit,” she suddenly spits out.
“What?” I ask, looking over my shoulder toward the sedan that just pulled up.
“My mother is here,” she says. She squares her shoulders, and I suddenly see a spark that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Can you watch the children for a minute?” she asks.
“Just because,” she says. She grits her teeth and looks up at me. “Promise me. No matter what, don’t let her anywhere near the children.”
What the fuck? I look back at the sedan. The door opens, and an older and much harsher version of Skylar gets out.
“Okay…” I say slowly. Skylar nods her head, steels her spine, and walks toward her mother.
The rigidity of her posture makes me think of my own mother’s the time that Johnny Rickles stuck a “Kick me” note on my back and then watched all the other kids laugh. My mother went ballistic when she saw it. It’s a look that says danger will have to go through her before it gets to the children, and I think I just met Seth, Mellie, and Joey’s mom for the very first time. Her name is Skylar Morgan, and she’s tiny and gorgeous and awesome.
When I first started writing Tall, Tatted and Tempting, I had a definite vision in my head of what Logan Reed looked like. He was tall, shoulders broad enough to fill a doorway, had curly blond hair and he has tattoos from his wrists to his shoulders. But when I went looking for cover art, I couldn’t find anything with enough tattoos!
It took a little work, but I just had my covers remade, and now Logan looks like he did in my head when I wrote the book.
And for those of you who like tatted heroes, here’s what he looks like without the title in the way!
This new look is much closer to how I imagined him. How about you?
You may or may not have seen it, but I mentioned a note I got from a reader the other day on Facebook and what she had to say was how happy she was to see a book with a hero and heroine who aren’t perfect. I haven’t said any of this in the book description or the release notes, but my hero, Logan, is deaf. And my heroine, Emily, is dyslexic. I specifically didn’t add that to the description, mainly because I wanted to see how people reacted to them. The response has been overwhelming. But my 18 year old son had the most insightful comment to me yesterday, when I asked him why people are finding my hero and heroine so easy to relate to. His response —
“We all have something about us that isn’t perfect. Some of us wear it on the outside and some on the inside, but it’s in all of us. So, I think that’s why people are enjoying this story. You don’t have to be deaf or dyslexic to relate. You just have to be human.”
The dedication of this book goes like this —
I guess I should consider JT trained, huh?
I’m sharing details today! Here’s the back cover copy for the book.
If you missed it, here’s Chapter One:
I don’t know her name, but she looks familiar to me. She’s a tight package in a short skirt that makes me imagine the curves under her plump little ass. That skirt is made to draw attention, and she has all of mine. I’m so hard I can’t get up from behind the table where I’m drawing a tat for a client on paper. I reach down and adjust my junk, the metallic scrape of the zipper against my dick not nearly enough to calm my raging hard on. I shouldn’t have gone commando today. I hope Paul did some laundry this morning.
Her nipples are hard beneath the ribbed shirt she’s wearing, and she pulls her sleeve back to show me something. But I can’t take my eyes from her tits long enough to look at them. She shoves her wrist toward my face, and I have to jerk my eyes away. Shit. She caught me. I would tell her I’m a guy, I can’t help it. Or at least I would if I could talk.
I see her mouth move out of the corner of my eye. She’s talking to me. Or at least she’s mouthing something at me. No one really talks to me since I can’t hear. I haven’t heard a word since I was thirteen years old. She’s talking again. When I don’t answer, she looks at my oldest brother Paul, who rolls his eyes and smacks the center of his head with his fist.
“Stop looking at her tits, dumbass.” He says the words as he signs them and her face flushes. But there’ s a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth at the same time.
I roll my eyes and sign back. Shut up. She’s fucking beautiful.
He translates for her. I would groan aloud, but I don’t. No sound has left my throat since I lost my hearing. Well, I talked for a while after that. But not for long. Not after a boy on the playground said I sounded like a frog. Now I don’t talk at all. It’s better that way. “He says you’re beautiful,” he tells her. “That’s why he was ogling your tits like a 12 year old.”
I flip him off and he laughs, holding out his hands like he’s surrendering to the cops. “What?” he asks, still signing. But she can hear him. “If you’re going to be rude and sign around her, I’m going to tell her what you say.”
Like I have another choice besides signing. You never heard of a secret code between brothers? I sign.
“You start whispering secrets in my ear, dickhead, and I’ll knock your head off your shoulders.”
You can try, asswipe.
He laughs. “He’s talking all romantic to me,” he tells her. “Something about kissing his ass.” She’s grinning now. The smile hits me hard enough I’d be on my knees, if I wasn’t stuck behind that table. She brushes a strand of jet black hair back from her face, tucking it along with a lock of light blue behind her ear.
I watch her open her mouth to start to speak. But she looks over at my brother instead. “He can read lips?” she asks.
“Depends on how much he likes you,” my brother says with a shrug. “Or how ornery he’s feeling that day.” He raises his brows at me, and then his gaze travels toward the tabletop. Shit. He saw me adjust my junk. “I’d say he likes you a lot.”
This time, she closes her eyes tightly, wincing as she smiles. She doesn’t say anything. But then she looks directly at me, and says, “I want a tattoo.” She points toward the front of the store. She’s still talking, but I can’t see her lips move if she’s not looking at me. I want to follow her face, jump up so I can watch those cherry red lips move as she speaks to me. To me. God knows she’s speaking to me. But I don’t. I force myself to keep my seat. She looks back at me as she finishes talking and her lips form an O. “Sorry,” she says. “You didn’t catch any of that, did you?” She heaves a sigh and says, “The girl up front said to see you for a tattoo.”
I look over at my brother who just finished a tat and isn’t working on anything at the moment. I look toward the front of the store where our girl Friday – really, that’s her name – laughs and signs “You’re welcome.”
I scratch my head and grin. Friday set me up. She does it all the time. And sometimes it works out well. She sends all the hot girls to me. And the not so hot girls. And the girls who want to sleep with the deaf guy because they heard he’s amazing in the sack. I’m the guy they don’t have to talk to. I’m the guy they don’t have to pretend with, because I wouldn’t know what they’re saying regardless.
If this girl is just there to sleep with me, we can skip all the tattoo nonsense.
“Don’t even think about it,” my brother says. “She wants a tat. That’s all.”
How do you know what she wants?
I just know, he signs. This time he doesn’t speak the words. Don’t try to lay this one.
I hold my hands up in question asking him why. “She’s not from around here,” he says, but he signs not our kind.
Oh, I get it. She’s from the other side of the tracks. I don’t mind. She might be rich, but she would still love what I can do for her. I reach for her hand and squeeze it gently so she’ll look at me. I flip her hand over and point to her wrist. My fingers play across the iridescent blue veins beneath her tender skin, and I draw a circle with the tip of my finger asking her Here?
Her mouth falls open. Goose bumps rise along her arm. Hell, yeah, I’m good at this.
I stand up and touch the side of her neck and she brushes my hand away, shaking her head. Her lips are pressed tightly together.
I look directly at her boobs and lick my lips. Then I reach out and drag one finger down the slope of her breast. Here? I mouth.
I don’t even see it coming. Her tiny fist slams into my nose. I’ve had girls slap me before, but I’ve never had one punch me in the face. Fuck, that hurt. The wet, coppery taste of blood slides over my lips, and I reach up to wipe it away. My nose is gushing. Paul thrusts a towel in my hands and tilts my head back.
Fuck, that still hurts. He presses the bridge of my nose, and I can’t see his mouth or his hands over the bunched up towel, so I have no idea if he’s talking to me. Or if he’s just laughing his ass off. He lifts the towel but blood trickles down over my lips again. I see her standing there for a brief second, her fists clenched at her sides as she watches me suffer.
Shit, that hurts.
Then she turns on the heels of her black boots and walks away. I want to call out to her to get her to stay. I would say I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t call her back to me. I start to rise, but Paul shoves me back into the chair. Sit down, he signs. I think it might be broken.
I see a piece of paper on the floor and it’s crumped. I take the towel from Paul and press it to my nose, pointing to the piece of paper. He picks it up and looks at it. “Did she drop this?” he asks.
I nod. It’s damp from her sweaty palms. I unfold it and look down. It’s an intricate design, and you have to look hard to find the hidden pictures. I see a guitar, the strings broken and sticking out at odd angles. And at the end of the strings are small blossoms. I turn the picture, looking over the towel I’m still holding to my nose with one hand. Paul replaces it with a clean one. My nose is still bleeding. Son of a bitch. I look closer at the blossoms. They’re not blossoms at all. They’re teeny tiny shackles. Like handcuffs, but more medieval. Most people would see the beauty of that drawing. But I see pain. I see things she probably wouldn’t want anyone to see.
Shit. I fucked up. Now I want more than anything to know what this tat means. It’s obviously more than just a pretty drawing. Just like she might be more than just a pretty face. Or she might not be. She might be a bitch with a mean right hook who will eat my balls for lunch if I look at her the wrong way.
I spin the drawing in my hands and look around the shop. It’s late and no one is waiting. I punch Paul in the shoulder and point to the drawing. Then I point to the inside of my own wrist. It’s the only place on my whole arm that’s not tatted up already. I have full sleeves because my brothers have been practicing on me since long before it was legal to do so.
“No,” Paul signs with first two fingers and his thumb, slapping them together. “You’ve lost your mind if you think I’m going to put that on you.”
He walks toward the front of the store and sits down beside Friday. He’s been trying to get in her pants since she started there. It’s too bad she has a girlfriend.
I get out my supplies. I’ve done more intricate tats on myself. I can do this one.
He stalks back to the back of the shop, where I’m setting up. “I’ll run it,” he says. “You’re going to do it anyway.”
I hold up one finger. One change?
What do you want to change? He looks down at the design and his brow arches as he takes in the shapes and the colors and the handcuffs and the guitar and the prickly thorns. And I wonder if he also sees her misery. That’s some heavy shit, he signs. He never speaks when it’s just me and him. I’m kind of glad. It’s like we speak the same language when we’re alone.
I nod, and I start prepping my arm with alcohol as he gloves up.
It has been two days since I punched that asshole in the tattoo shop and my hand still hurts. I’ve been busking in the subway tunnel by Central Park, and it’s somewhat more difficult to play my guitar when my hand feels like it does. But this tunnel is one of my favorite spots, because the kids stop to listen to me. They like the music, and it makes them smile. Smiling is something left over from my old life. I don’t get to do it much, and I enjoy it even less. But I like it when the kids look up at me with all that innocence and they grin. There’s so much promise in their faces. It reminds me of how I used to be, way back when.
I’m considering singing today. I don’t do it every time. But I am seriously low on funds. The more sound I make, the more change I’ll get to take home with me. Home is a relative term. Home is wherever I find to sleep that night.
I’m sitting on the cold cement floor of the tunnel, back a ways from the rush of feet, with my guitar case open in front of me. In it, there are some quarters, and a little old lady stopped a few minutes ago and tossed in a fiver while I played “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Old ladies usually like that one. They haven’t seen troubled waters.
I’m wearing my school girl outfit, because I get more attention from men when I wear it. It’s a short plaid skirt, and a black ribbed short sleeve top that fits me like a second skin. Ladies don’t seem to mind it. And men love it. I sure got a lot of attention from that asshole two days ago. He was hot, I had to admit. He had shoulders broad enough to fill a doorway, and a head full of sandy blond curls. He towered over me when he stood up from behind that table, at least a head and shoulders taller than me. Tattoos filled up all the empty space that used to be his forearms, and it was kind of hot. He had lips painted on his left arm, and I wanted to ask him what those were. Were they to remember someone? A first kiss, maybe? Or did they mean something the way the tattoo I wanted did?
I dropped my tattoo design as I ran out of the shop, which pisses me off. I thought I had it clutched in my hand and when I’d stopped to take a breath, it was gone. I almost expected the asshole to follow me. But he was still bleeding when I left him.
I shake out the pain in my hand again. A towheaded boy stops in front of me, his hand full of pennies. He is a regular, and his mother stopped to pray over me once, so I switch my song to “Jesus Loves Me.” Jesus doesn’t. If He did, He wouldn’t have made me like I am. He would have made me normal. The boy’s mother sings along with my tunes and the boy dips his face into her thigh, hugging it tightly as she sings. When the song is over, he drops his handful of pennies into my guitar case, the thud of each one hitting the felt quiet as a whisper.
I never say thank you or talk to the kids. I don’t talk to the adults unless they ask me something specific. I just play my music. Sometimes I sing, but I really don’t like to draw that much attention to myself. Except today, I need to draw attention to myself. I had saved up $300, which would pay for a place to sleep and that tattoo I thought I needed, but someone stole it while I was asleep at the shelter last night. I’d made the mistake of falling asleep with it in my pocket, instead of tucking it in my bra. When I woke up, it was gone. I don’t know why they didn’t take my guitar. Probably because I was sleeping with it in my arms, clutched to me like a mother with her child.
I wish I’d gotten the tattoo yesterday. It was a useless expense, but it was my nineteenth birthday, and it’s been a long time since anyone has done anything for me. So, I was giving it to myself. And trying to free myself in the process. Who was I kidding? I’ll never be free.
This city is hard. It’s mean. It’s nothing like where I came from. But now it’s home. I like the noise of the city, the bustle of the people. I like the different ethnicities. I’d never seen so many skin colors, eye shapes, and body types as I did when I got here.
A girl reaches her chubby hand to touch my strings, and I smile and intercept her hand by taking it in mine, instead. Her hands are soft, and a little damp from where her first finger was shoved in her mouth just a minute ago. I toy with her fingers while I make an O with my mouth.
Her mother smacks her hand away with a sharp, cracking blow to her forearm, and her eyes immediately fill with tears. You didn’t have to do that, I think. She didn’t mean any harm. But the mother drags the crying child with her toward the subway and picks her up when she doesn’t move quickly enough.
I draw a small crowd between subway arrivals, and one man yells out, “Do you take requests?”
I nod, and keep on smiling, playing with all I’m worth. He calls out, “I think you should suck my dick, then.” One of his buddies punches him in the shoulder and he laughs.
College kid. His mama never taught him any manners. I let my eyes roam over the crowd and no one corrects him. So, I start to play All the Wishing in the World by Matt Monroe. The irony is lost on the jock, and they walk away as the train pulls in behind them.
The platform fills with new people getting off the train, so I switch to some more familiar tunes. Money drops into my case, and I see a dollar float down. I nod and smile as the person walks by, but she’s not looking at me.
A big pair of scuffed work boots steps up beside my case. I look at them for a minute, and then up over the worn jeans and the blue T shirt that’s stretched across broad shoulders. And then I’m looking into the same sky blue eyes as the other day. My pic stumbles across the strings. I wince. His eyes narrow at me, but he can’t hear my mistake, can he? His head tilts to the side, and I turn my body to face the other direction.
My butt is freezing and my legs are aching from sitting on the cold floor for so long. But I don’t have anywhere else to go. My three weeks at the shelter were up yesterday. So, I have to find somewhere new to sleep tonight. I look down into my case. There’s enough there for dinner. But not for anything else. So, I keep playing.
Those boots move over so that he’s standing in front of me. I scoot to the side, and look everywhere but at him. But then he drops down beside me, his legs crossed criss-cross-applesauce style in front of me. He has tape across the bridge of his nose and that makes me feel competent for some reason. There are very few things in my life that I can control, and someone touching my body is one of them. I say when. I say where. I say with who. Just like in Pretty Woman. Only Stucky would never get to backhand me. I’d take him out first.
He leans on one butt cheek so he can pull out his wallet, and he throws in a twenty. He doesn’t say anything, but he points to my guitar and raises his brows. I don’t know what he wants, and he can’t tell me, so I just look at him. I don’t want to acknowledge his presence. But he’s sitting with his knee an inch from mine.
When I don’t respond, he puts a hand on my guitar. He points to me and strums at the air like he’s playing a guitar. I realize I’ve stopped playing. But he did put a twenty in my case, so I suppose I owe him. I start to play “I’m Just a Gigolo” by Van Halen. I love that tune. And love playing it. After a minute, his brows draw together and he points to his lips.
I shake my head because I don’t know what he’s asking. Either he wants me to kiss him, or I have something on my face. I swipe the back of my hand across my lips. Not that. And the other isn’t going to happen.
He shakes his head quickly and retrieves a small erase board from his backpack.
Sing, he writes.
I have to concentrate really hard to read it, and there are too many distractions here in the tunnel, so I don’t want him to write anymore. I just shake my head. I don’t want to encourage him to keep writing. I read the words sing, but I can’t read everything. Or anything, sometimes.
He holds his hand up to his mouth and spreads his fingers like someone throwing up. I draw my head back. But I keep on playing.
Why does he want me to sing? He can’t hear it. But I start to sing softly, anyway. He smiles and nods. And then he laughs when he sees the words of the song on my lips. He shakes his head and motions for me to continue.
I forgot he can read lips. I can talk to him, but he can’t talk back. I play all the way to the end of the song, and some people have now stopped to listen. Maybe I should sing every time.
He writes something on the board. But I flip it over and lay it on the concrete. I don’t want to talk to him. I wish he would go away.
His brows furrow and he throws up his hands, but not in an I’m going to knock you out sort of way. In a what am I going to do with you way. He motions for me to keep playing. His fingers rest on my guitar, like he’s feeling the vibrations of it. But what he’s concentrating on most is my mouth. It’s almost unnerving.
A cop stops beside us and clears his throat. I scramble to gather my money and drop it in my pocket. I’ve made about thirty two dollars. That’s more than the nickel I had when I started. I pack up my guitar, and Blue Eyes scowls. He looks kind of like someone just took his favorite toy.
He starts to scribble on the board and holds it up, but I’m already walking away.
He follows after me, tugging on my arm. I have all my worldly possessions in a canvas bag over my right shoulder, and my guitar case in my left hand, so when he tugs me, it almost topples me over. But he steadies me, slides the bag off my shoulder in one quick move and puts it on his own. I hold fiercely to it, and he pries my fingers off the strap with a grimace. What the heck?
“Give me my bag,” I say, and I plant my feet. I’m ready to hit him again if that’s what it takes. But he smiles, shakes his head and starts to walk away. I follow him, but getting him to stop is like stopping a boulder from rolling downhill once it gets started.
He keeps walking with me hanging on to his arm like I’m a Velcro monkey. But then he stops, and he walks into a diner in the middle of the city. I follow him, and he slides into a booth, putting my bag on the bench on the inside, beside him. He motions to the other side of the bench. He wants me to sit? I punched him in the nose two days ago and now he wants to have a meal with me? Maybe he just wants his $20 back. I reach in my pocket and pull it out, feeling its loss as I slap it down on the table. He presses his lips together and hands it back to me, pointing again to the seat opposite him.
The smell of the grill hits me and I realize I haven’t eaten today. Not once. My stomach growls out loud. Thank God he can’t hear it. He motions toward the bench again, and takes my guitar from my hand, sliding it under the table.
I sit down and he looks at the menu. He passes one to me and I shake my head. He raises a brow at me. The waitress stops and says, “What can I get you?”
He points to the menu, and she nods. “You got it, Logan,” she says, with a wink. He grins back at her. His name is Logan?
“Who’s your friend?” she asks of him.
She eyes the bandages across his nose. “What happened?” she asks.
He points to me, and punches a fist toward his face, but he’s grinning when he does it. She laughs. I don’t think she believes it.
“What can I get for you?” she asks me.
“What’s good?” I reply.
“Everything.” She cracks her gum when she’s talking to me. She didn’t do that when she talked to Logan.
“What did you get?” I ask Logan. He looks up at the waitress and bats those thick lashes that veil his blue eyes.
“Burger and fries,” she tells me.
Thank God. “I’ll have the same.” I point to him. “And he’s buying.” I smile at her. She doesn’t look amused. “And a root beer,” I add at the last minute.
He holds up two fingers when I say root beer. She nods and scribbles it down.
“Separate checks?” she asks Logan.
He points a finger at his chest, and she nods as she walks away.
“They know you here?” I ask.
He nods. Silence would be an easy thing to get used to with this guy, I think.
The waitress returns with two root beers, two straws and a bowl of chips and salsa. “On the house,” she says as she plops them down.
I dive for them like I’ve never seen food before. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if I ate yesterday, either. Sometimes it’s like that. I get so busy surviving that I forget to eat. Or I can’t afford it.
“How’s your brother doing?” the waitress asks quietly.
He scribbles something on the board and shows it to her.
“Chemo can be tough,” she says. “Tell him we’re praying for him, will you?” she asks. He nods and she squeezes his shoulder before she walks away.
“Your brother has cancer?” I ask, none too gently. I don’t realize it until the words hang there in the air. His face scrunches up and he nods.
“Is he going to be all right?” I ask. I stop eating and watch his face.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Is it the brother I met? A the tattoo parlor?”
He shakes his head.
“How many brothers do you have?”
He holds up 4 fingers.
“Older? Or younger?”
He raises his hand above his head and shows me two fingers. Then lowers it like someone is shorter than he is and makes two fingers.
“Two older and two younger?” I ask.
I wish I could ask him more questions.
He writes something on the board and I sigh heavily and throw my head back in defeat. This part of it is torturous. I would rather have someone pull my teeth with a pair of pliers than I would read. But his brother has freaking cancer. The least I can do is try.
I look down at it and the words blur for me. I try to unscramble them, but it’s too hard. I shove the board back toward him.
He narrows his eyes at me and scrubs the board clean. He writes one word and turns it around.
You, it says. He points to me.
I point to myself. “Me?”
He nods and swipes the board clean. He writes another word and shows it to me.
“Can’t,” I say.
He nods and writes another word. He’s spacing the letters far enough apart that they’re not jumbled together in my head. But it’s still hard.
My lips falter over the last word, but I say, “Read.” Then I realize that I just told him I can’t read. “I can read!” I protest.
He writes another word. “Well.”
He knows I can read. Air escapes me in a big, gratified rush. “I can read,” I repeat. “I can’t read well, but…” I let my words trail off.
He nods quickly, like he’s telling me he understands. He points to me and then at the board, moving two fingers over it like a pair of eyes, and the he gives me a thumbs up.
My heart is beating so fast it’s hard to breathe. I read the damn words, didn’t I? “At least I can talk!” I say. I want to take the words back as soon as they leave my lips. But it’s too late. I slap a hand over my lips when his face falls. He shakes his head, bites his lip and gets up. “I’m sorry,” I say. I am. I really am. He walks away, but he doesn’t take his backpack with him.
While he’s gone, a man approaches the table. He’s a handsome black man with tall, natural hair. Everyone calls him Bone, but I don’t know what his real name is. “Who’s the chump, Kit?” he asks.
“None of your business,” I say, taking a sip of my root beer. I fill my mouth up with a chip, and hope he goes away before Logan comes back. And I hope deep inside that Logan will come back so I can apologize.
Logan slides back into the booth. He looks up at Bone and doesn’t acknowledge him. He just looks at him.
“You got a place to sleep tonight, Kit?” Bone asks.
“Yeah,” I reply. “I’m fine.”
“I could use a girl like you,” Bone says.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” It doesn’t pay to piss Bone off. He walks away.
“You all right?” I ask Logan.
He nods, brushing his curls from his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. And I mean it. I really do.
He nods again.
“It’s not your fault you can’t talk. And…” My voice falls off. I’ve never talked to anyone about this. “It’s not my fault I can’t read well.”
“I’m not stupid,” I rush to say.
He nods again, and waves his hands to shut me up. He places a finger to his lips like he wants me to shush.
“Ok,” I grumble.
He writes on the board and I groan, visibly folding. I hate to do it, but I can’t take it. “I should go,” I say. I reach for my bag.
He takes the board and puts it in his backpack. He gets it, I think. I’d rather play twenty questions than I would try to read those words.
He opens his mouth and I hear a noise. He stops, grits his teeth, and then a sound like a murmur in a cavern comes out of his mouth.
“You can talk?” I ask. He put me through reading when he can talk?
He shakes his head and bites his lips together. I shush and wait. “Maybe,” he says. It comes out quiet, and soft, and his consonants are as soft as his vowels. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
I draw a cross over my heart, which is swelling with something I don’t understand.
“What’s your name?” he asks. He signs while he says it. It’s halting and he has to stop between words, like when I’m reading.
“People call me Kit,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “But what’s your name?” he asks again.
I shake my head. “No.”
He nods again. The waitress brings the burgers and he nods and smiles at her. She squeezes his shoulder again.
When she’s gone, I ask him, “Why are you talking to me?”
“I want to.” He heaves a sigh, and starts to eat his burger.
“You don’t talk to anyone else?”
He shakes his head.
He shakes his head again.
We eat in silence. I was hungrier than I thought, and I clear my plate. He doesn’t say anything else. But he eats his food and pushes his plate to the edge of the table. He puts mine on the top of it, and looks for the waitress over his shoulder. I’m almost sorry the meal is over. We shared a companionable silence for more than a half hour. I kind of like it.
He gets the waitress’s attention and holds up two fingers. He’s asking for two checks. I should have known. I pull my money from my pocket. He closes his hand on mine and shakes his head. The waitress appears with two huge pieces of apple pie. I haven’t had apple pie since I left home. Tears prick at the backs of my lashes and I don’t know how to stop them. “Damn it,” I say to myself.
He reaches over and wipes beneath my eyes with the pads of his thumbs. “It’s just pie,” he says.
I nod, because I can’t talk past the lump in my throat.
Chapter Two can be found here.
And the lovely cover!
Have you ever wondered what goes into the making of a romance novel cover? Sourcebooks (my publisher) shared a video of the models as they posed for some new covers, including my next book, which will be out in June.
And if you didn’t see the making of the cover for A LADY AND HER MAGIC, you can find that one here, too!