Inked in the Steel City Book 2
Photographing exceptional tattoos for the Hot Ink Tattoo Studio turns into much more than just a job when Karen meets Jed, the sexy-as-sin owner. With attraction sizzling between them, each photo shoot is a labor of love … and a chance to get closer to the man of her increasingly naughty dreams.
Curvy, vivacious Karen is everything Jed would want in a woman, if he wanted one at all. But a relationship seems like too dangerous a gamble for someone who’s loved before and suffered the ultimate loss. So why can’t he resist when he discovers the attraction is mutual? Even if he were willing to risk everything again, Karen’s too young, too full of life to be burdened with someone whose heart bears scars as permanent as the ink in his skin.
When the two finally face what lies between them, the passion is undeniably real, but will the unexpected extinguish the spark of their love, or fan the flames?
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Black was a good color. You couldn’t go wrong with black, right? Jed shoved his shirtsleeves up to his elbows and rolled them so they’d stay in place. He hated when sleeves touched his wrists, so he’d compromised. Usually, he wore a t-shirt, but for tonight, he’d chosen a shirt that actually buttoned up the front.
Because it was Karen’s birthday. It was his birthday too, but that didn’t matter. He glanced at the rearview mirror and made sure there wasn’t anything on his face, like a giant sign reading I wore sleeves for Karen because I think she’s amazing.
Nothing. He grimaced at his reflection and looked away, opening the door.
What the hell was wrong with him? Karen was too innocent, too young, too ambitious – too everything – for someone like him, and he hadn’t been interested in a relationship in years. How old was she turning anyway? He mulled the possibilities over as he exited his Charger, gripping a box he’d wrapped just hours ago.
Ruby’s, Karen’s former place of employment, was packed on a Friday night. The interior was loud, and a little dark. Even over the noise of dozens of diners, he was able to pick out Karen’s voice. “You have to try the strawberry lemonade, Abby,” she said from a corner table.
“Of course it’s alcoholic. And don’t worry – we won’t get stiffed on drinks here. Nate’s working the bar tonight, and he makes them strong.”
Jed arrived at the table just in time to see Karen winking at Abby.
Good God, she looked amazing. Not Abby – Karen. Abby might’ve looked good too, but Karen stole the spotlight so completely that there was no telling. Her blue-green dress stood in alluring contrast to her dark red hair and creamy skin, plenty of which was exposed by the low V-neck. She was leaning toward Abby, jabbing a finger enthusiastically at the drink menu, and the position showcased her ample cleavage like a dream.
“Jed!” Eric called out from one end of the table, where he sat with his arm around Mina. “Happy birthday, man.”
His words unleashed a floodgate. The entire table erupted in a chorus of well-wishes, drowning out the rest of the noise completely for a few seconds. The outburst took him by surprise; when he’d laid eyes on Karen, he’d forgotten that it was his birthday, too.
He strode toward the table, acknowledging their sentiments with a nod, and took the nearest empty seat. It just so happened to be the seat directly across from Karen.
Tyler elbowed Jed in the side. “Already ordered a pitcher of your favorite.”
“Thanks.” Jed’s mouth went momentarily dry as he stared across the table, and not just because Tyler’s statement had him craving beer. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken the seat across from Karen – he couldn’t help staring at her in that dress. He had to look like an idiot. He felt like an idiot.
A rush of hot air and a sizzle came from behind, and a waitress spared him by lowering a platter of battered, spicy-smelling shrimp onto the table in front of him. It was an appetizer platter big enough for the entire group, and she’d barely placed a couple bowls of dipping sauce on the table top before everyone began reaching for the food.
Jed grabbed one of the shrimp and dipped it blindly into a sauce bowl, forcing himself to look at everyone seated around the table as he chewed, not just Karen.
Tyler, James, Abby and Eric – all Hot Ink’s artists were there, plus Mina, one of the studio’s receptionists and Eric’s fiancée. Mina’s little sister Jess was there too, eating shrimp and smiling as she sat in her wheelchair beside a teenaged boy who had to be her boyfriend.
The kid was grinning at Jess with a distinctly dopey, instantly recognizable young love kind of look.
The sight of the two kids smiling at each other and goofing off with a couple of severed shrimp tails sent a pang of searing nostalgia through Jed’s chest. His heart beat slowly but deliberately beneath the buttoned-up front of his shirt, reminding him that it was still stubbornly functioning even after being broken.
He understood the all-or-nothing nature of young love; the memory of it shimmered across the surface of his mind, startlingly vivid for a few fleeting seconds.
He shoved the memories away. He was in the middle of celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday, for fuck’s sake. There was no ring on his finger, though the band he’d once worn had left a permanent mark against his skin, fainter than a tattoo, but just as lasting. This was where the love that had once consumed him had left him.
“It was a disaster,” Abby said, shaking her head, still in conversation with Karen. “Wasn’t it, Jed?” She turned blue eyes on Jed, snapping him out of his self-pity with her unexpected question.
“The cover-up job I finished today. The original tattoo was a disaster, wasn’t it?”
Jed grimaced. “That’s putting it kindly. It was a fucking travesty.” Remembering himself, he glanced toward the kids at the end of the table. Luckily, they were too absorbed in each other’s company to spare any attention for what he was saying.
Abby grinned, and Karen frowned. “See, that’s another thing that scares me about tattoos – there are so many horrible ones out there. What if you went to get something beautiful and it turned out to be an embarrassment?”
“A legitimate artist would make sure you got something that made you happy.” Jed’s gaze was drawn to the creamy skin of Karen’s chest and arms. An unblemished, unmarked canvas – her skin was perfect, and so fair that ink of any color would contrast brilliantly. If she ever decided to be tattooed … what wouldn’t he give to be the one to put the ink in her skin? “And they’d never even consider putting something as pathetic as the trash Abby covered up on someone’s body.”
“Never,” Abby said, raising her eyebrows as she turned wide blue eyes on Karen. “The scratcher who did the original tattoo should be thrown in prison, if you ask me.”
Jed’s lips threatened to quirk into a smile. Abby was generally quiet, but she had her convictions.
“If I ever got a tattoo, I know where I’d go,” Karen said. “Not that I want anyone to come near me with a needle, but if I did…” She met Jed’s gaze for a moment so brief he would’ve doubted it had happened if it hadn’t been for the electricity it sent crackling through his entire body.
Her gaze flickered downward just as the waitress arrived with what looked like the lemonade Karen had been talking about.
Karen gripped her glass, long fingers curling gracefully around the frosted surface, and raised it to her mouth. The plastic straw drifted through a sea of ice to part her lips, and Jed had to look away.
For the better part of an hour, he pretended to be deeply interested in the jokes, beer and food circulating around the table. After way too many shrimp, he devoured the ribs he’d ordered, and they were good, but it was hard to focus on anything when Karen’s presence drove him to constant distraction. The way her hair shone in the low lighting, the way her skin glowed – everything about her drew his eye, and it was hell trying to resist.
Copyright 2013 Ranae Rose
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