*EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FOR WINTER (SEASONS, BOOK ONE)*
“Jax, you got time to fit someone in? Just a quick script. Few minutes tops.”
No, I didn’t have any goddamn time.
“I already said you’d do it.”
You have got to be fucking kidding me!
I looked away from the drawing I was doing for a client. Reed was standing by the door. Smirking. I didn’t like it. He wasn’t the one who scheduled people in, Rina did, and she didn’t come back here for a reason. She didn’t think the person or the ink was worth my time. One look at him and I knew he was fucking with me and I didn’t have the time or the patience.
“I told him not to bother you.” Rina came up behind Reed and elbowed him out of her way. “She could have someone else do her ink if she’s serious. I don’t think she is. She doesn’t appear to have any ink on her. Doesn’t look the type. Too prim and proper.”
Rina turned away from me and looked at Reed. “Hundred bucks says if he takes her into his room she bolts within two minutes of sitting in his chair.”
“Two hundred says he will and she won’t.” Reed held out his hand for Rina to shake but she swatted it away rolling her icy blue eyes at him before turning them on me.
“She’s not worth your time, J.” She turned back to Reed. “Or your money.”
Rina gave us a pointed look before she went out the door. I did the same to Reed when I turned to look back at him, but he didn’t give a shit. He was back to smirking.
His look. Rina’s words.
I had to see who they were talking about.
As soon as I got up, Reed started chuckling before he turned and followed Rina out the door. He was a dick. But it didn’t stop me from following him.
I stepped into the waiting area and knew who my newest client was without having to be told.
Because Rina was right.
The beauty in front of me wasn’t the type. She didn’t belong here. Not with her shiny blonde hair and sapphire-blue eyes, her creamy, unblemished, and inkless skin, or her flowery sundress that stood out in the sea of blacks and grays, rips and holes.
This angel was in the wrong place. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. But she was here. And for now she was mine.
I made my way towards her and saw her unique eyes widen. I knew what she was seeing: two full-sleeves of tattoos, ear-piercings, a lip-piercing, and frosty eyes that have been compared to winter’s chaos. I knew that’s what made her eyes wide and round, but what made them flicker and flare and her cheeks flush was everything else she was finally seeing past the tattoos, piercings, and the eyes. The dimples that were now carved into my cheeks with my upturned lips, the messy hair that conjured sex and a woman’s hands running through it and gripping on, the black tee that hugged my muscles and showcased my ink, the faded jeans that were worn and frayed in all the right places and cupped and showcased the even better ones.
My welcoming smile turned into a full-blown grin as her blush deepened.
I knew none of this was a good idea. But she sure was gorgeous with some heat in her cheeks. A burn that was because of me.
“Can I help you?” I asked when I was standing toe-to-toe with her. I knew my voice was a bit too gritty, too sensual, but my thoughts were fucking wicked. She was breathtaking up close. She might’ve been the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some beauties. But if I wasn’t sure about that, there was definitely one thing I was sure of. I knew I was right. She was definitely in the wrong place. She didn’t belong here. Just like she didn’t belong in my head where visions of her naked and under me were starting to take center stage.
I needed to find out how determined she was and either give her the tattoo she wanted or get her the hell out. It’s been no more than five minutes and she was already having an effect on me. And not in a good way. She wasn’t one-night material. She wasn’t someone you screwed for a long weekend and then got rid of. She wasn’t someone meant for friends-with-benefits-and-no-fucking-strings. She was the forever-kind of girl. And I had no room in my life for that.
“I need a tattoo.” The beauty tilted her head up to look at me as she spoke. She was definitely small. But she wasn’t small in all the right places. No, in those places she was fucking perfect.
And I knew I needed to cut off that train of thought quick. It’s already led me too far down a path I didn’t want to go. I looked away from her, but quickly looked back after my eyes landed on Reed and his smirk that I wanted to wipe off his goddamn face. The fucker knew what would happen the moment I saw her.
Blonde. Blue-eyed. Sweet. Innocent. So unbelievably gorgeous and magnetic that you forgot the innocent and sweet. The warning signs. Everything you’ve stayed away from and why.
Reed knew I stayed away from all women just like her. Always. We’ve been best-friends since we were five. He knew all about Macey and her blonde hair, blue eyes, and wealth of fucking lies. The girl who tore up my heart and nearly killed me. So what the hell was he trying to pull? He could’ve taken her. Or sent her on her way. But he didn’t. He decided to fuck with me instead.
At least Rina knew better. She knew I didn’t deal with blonde, blue-eyed women. I only had to tell her once and that was it. It was a fucked up rule, but I was the owner and what I say goes. For her and everyone else.
But fucking Reed.
I couldn’t turn her away. Not after I saw her, not after I heard her voice, not after I felt what I felt just by standing so close. And definitely not after she’d already been told I’d help her. But I should. Macey Reynolds and what happened nearly destroyed me. This girl … was never getting a chance so none of it should matter.
I looked over at Reed again. Why the hell was he doing this to me? I’d never do this to him and I’ve had the chance. To say her name. To bring her up. The time in his life he fucked up beyond belief and repair. But I haven’t. I let it go like he wanted. But he couldn’t do the same for me and not have me thinking about Macey?
“Let’s go.” I grabbed the woman’s hand and pulled her behind me to my room with Reed’s laughter following in our wake.
Once the door was closed behind us, I turned and looked at – What the hell was her name?
I held out my hand to introduce myself to her. No matter how I felt right now, I was a professional. I owned Inked. Not only that, I had a reputation of being one of the best tattoo artists in the country. My client list was exclusive. I was in high-demand. Which is why I could’ve turned her away. Why I should’ve.
But I didn’t. And now she’s mine.
“Jackson Raines,” I said in a voice that was still a bit too gritty.
I waited for her to take my hand again and when she did I felt the zing zip through me. I wasn’t shocked by it since I felt it before when I pulled her into my room to escape Reed’s bullshit. I expected to feel something; I knew there was going to be something from the moment I laid eyes on her. And there was. Then. Now.
“You can call me Jax.”
She shook my hand and said, “I’m Sky.”
I kind of hated that I loved it. It suited her. Pretty. Unique. Sweet. Sexy. Vast.
“First tattoo, Sky?” Her name sounded perfect in my head, but it didn’t hold a candle to how it sounded rolling off my tongue.
Sky tucked a long strand of her golden hair behind her ear and my gaze was drawn to the trio of holes and the tiny diamonds that winked in each ear. They looked real. Everything about her looked real. Flawless. I couldn’t understand why someone like her wanted to change that.
I loved tattoos. They were my life. My livelihood. My passion. But they weren’t hers. I could see it clear as day.
“Are you sure a tattoo is what you want?” I looked deep into her eyes searching for doubt, hesitation, fear. I didn’t see any of it. Which was baffling to me. It didn’t fit.
“I’m sure, Jax.”
I nearly groaned out loud at the way she said my name. I wanted to hear her say it again. I wanted to hear her scream it in ecstasy.
I wish she never said it at all.
I nodded at her and turned away. Looking into her eyes was making things worse. I needed this over, quick. Sky was burying herself under my skin. Thoughts of her were clouding my mind. And my fucking judgement. The last time that happened I barely got my soul back from the depths of hell. It’s never been the same. And it started out the same way. With a look, a touch, a thought. Back then I was a teenager and knew nothing. Now I know everything. I know what this could lead to. What could happen. And I wanted no part of it.
I got my tools set up and told her to sit. “Script right?”
I was curious about what she’d want. Someone like her, I was thinking a book quote. Maybe some Shakespeare or something like it. Something poetic. Profound. Everlasting.
“Yes.” Sky sounded determined, confident in her choice.
Fine. If this is what she wanted, I’d give it to her. And then I’d get rid of her. I had to.
There were a lot of details I needed to hammer out with her so I didn’t mess up and ruin her beautiful body for the rest of her life, but there was something I wanted to know first.
What words made her come here when she didn’t seem the type? When I would bet almost anything that this is something she really didn’t want even though she seemed steadfast in her decision.
“What words do you want?”
What was it going to be? What earth-shattering, mind-bending, life-affirming quote would be inked on her skin as a constant reminder of how she was feeling right now for the rest of her life?
I waited, but Sky didn’t answer me. I looked over my shoulder at her, her eyes met mine, defiant.
I turned around to face her and let her emotions slam into me. I felt my own emotions heighten because of her, for her.
Why was she defiant? What was I missing? What was I feeling?
“What words?” I needed to know.
Sky’s dark-blue eyes flashed hot. She was angry. But I knew there was more than just anger. It felt like more.
Her words were hard. Bitter. They matched her eyes that turned the same.
Sky seemed too sweet and innocent to be so jaded and cold. She seemed too young and inexperienced to have felt the depths and the meaning of those words that were uttered with such a complete and heartbreakingly accurate accounting of what a betrayal that emotion can be.
Her words. Her look. Her emotions. I needed to make sure.
“What did you just say?”
Sky tilted her head up, she raised her chin in the air, and she narrowed her eyes.
The angel had a bit of the devil inside of her right then. She seemed possessed. Obsessed.
She wanted the words.
She felt them.
*EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FOR SPRING (SEASONS, BOOK TWO)*
I knew I shouldn’t be going to Inked.
I knew he wouldn’t want to see me tonight, not after how we left things. I knew he loved me, he’d never turn me away, but I knew he didn’t want to see me. And that hurt. But I hurt him. I did the one thing I knew he’d hate me for doing. At least for a little while. He loved me too much to stay mad at me, to hold it against me. He knew why I did it. He knew that after a while I was powerless against him and I caved to his demands. And he demanded it from me one too many times, so I did the one thing I promised myself I wouldn’t do anymore. The one thing I promised him I wouldn’t do anymore. But it was easier for me in that moment to break my promise, even if I regretted it then, even if I loathed myself for it now.
I rationalized that it was easier to be hated by the one person I loved and that loved me more than anything for a little while, then to be hated even more by the other person I loved who despised me and withheld all of his love for me because I wasn’t him. I shouldn’t have set him up, but I did it to gain the others approval even if only for a moment.
That moment passed and I was still paying the price now.
But I needed to see him. I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed him back in my every-day life. I wanted to apologize in person. I had to apologize in person because he wasn’t taking my calls and I refused to tell him it was an emergency when it wasn’t just to get him to speak to me. Plus, he deserved for me to say it to him face-to-face. Because I broke my promise. And with my actions I broke his heart.
I knew stopping at Inked would make me late, which is why along with my ambush, I shouldn’t be going. I would be late and because of it I knew that there would be hell to pay. But I needed to see him before I went to dinner with the devil. The devil who always collected his dues for giving me life.
I needed to talk to him, see him; I needed him to build me up high enough so that there was still some of me remaining when he tore me down.
If only I could figure out how to move on or how to stand on my own two feet for once when comes to him, I wouldn’t need to be going to Inked.
I would still want to see him. But I wouldn’t feel the need to go running to him every single time I felt this way. And the way I felt now – I knew it was going to be so much worse before I got to dinner. Because I was going to be late. And one thing he hated was tardiness.
Time is money. And there’s nothing more important to him than money; money and everything that comes with it.
I would be the one who set the tone for dinner by being late and that was never supposed to happen. Nobody else was supposed to set the tone of anything involving him. Only him.
I’d set the tone, and then I’d pay.
I would get the disapproving look while he pointedly looked down at his thirty-thousand-dollar watch as I walked towards him. Then he’d give me the other look. The look that said I was a disappointment in every way. But I already knew that. I heard it time and again. Then the look would be gone, and the performance would begin.
He would stand up in his custom-made suit, move towards me in his Italian leather shoes, he’d give me a hug and kiss on the cheek, hold out my chair and smile while doing so with his blinding white teeth, because appearances were everything. The appearance of a loving family must reign supreme, and it must be done in impeccable clothing and at the finest establishments.
It wouldn’t be until after the waiter took our dinner orders that he would lay into me. Quietly of course. The disparaging comments, the snide remarks. Nothing for him would be off limits. Nothing. His dark eyes that mirrored the color of mine that were just below his waxed eyebrows and under his two-hundred dollar once-a-week haircut would cut me even more than his words. His words would be whispered while his eyes spoke volumes.
I loved him.
But I also hated everything about him.
He hurt me over and over.
Yet I still sought his love, his attention, his approval, his respect.
He’s my father.
But I am not his son.
No matter how much he wishes the new Reed would turn back into the old, it wasn’t happening. He was stuck with me. And only me. And for that I paid the most.
I wish I could ignore my father. Disappear from his life the way my brother had. If I did, I wouldn’t be going home at the end of the night feeling not good enough. I wouldn’t be going home feeling unworthy. I wouldn’t be going home with more hate than love in my heart for him or myself because I never measured up no matter what I did. I was the valedictorian of my graduating class in high-school, I graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League college, I obtained my master’s degree in a field that he wanted, I was a rising star at Sullivan-Flannery, one of the youngest to ever hold my current position, but it wasn’t enough. I was never enough. Sometimes I thought it was because I was a woman. But I knew deep-down, that once again, it was because I wasn’t his son.
My father would never accept that my brother wasn’t coming back into the family fold, that he would never again do my father’s bidding. And it was baffling to me how he could think otherwise. My brother has shunned my parents for years, ever since his senior year of high-school when my parents ruined his life, destroyed his dreams, and killed any chance at the future he wanted more than anything in the entire world.
But that was his story. Not mine.
In a world such as ours where appearances are everything, my brother’s outward appearance says it all for him. And his disappearance from the family – and every family function that is put on to impress others in the high society where my parents reign as king and queen – says it even more:
And every single thing you care about.
But my dad still thinks Reed will be his to mold, to pass things down to. All you need to do is put him in a suit and cover up his tattoos and take out his piercings, like that would somehow change what’s going on inside of him. Like that would cover up the hate that’s in his heart or wipe away the betrayal at the hands of the two people who were supposed to love him the most.
I knew my brother would never be his again.
Just like I knew my father would never allow me to take my brother’s place.
But I was still trying.
Because I was all that he had.
I was the one who showed up and dressed the part; the good little girl who wanted everything but accepted the scraps.
I don’t know why I needed my father’s approval so much. Why I couldn’t just cut the ties.
I just know that I needed it; as much as I needed my brother’s love.
A brother I betrayed by asking him to dinner only to have him meet our father instead.
Reed was furious and caused a scene.
And when all was said and done our father took it out on me.
And I’ve been paying ever since.
I would be paying even more soon. I would get even more of my father’s spewed venom. Disdain. Cold shoulder. His turned back.
The last two in private of course.
But I needed to see Reed. It couldn’t wait any longer. I couldn’t wait any longer. I knew what would be happening tonight. He talked about it all week. Plans of a merger. But not merely a corporate one. A familial one. Me. Used as a bargaining chip.
And yet I still wanted this man’s approval?
Only a few more steps and a face-to-face heartfelt apology and I knew I would be getting that not-fake hug I so desperately needed along with enough love to counteract the hate I knew would come later. Because I didn’t plan on being anyone’s bargaining chip. Not even for my father’s love, approval, or respect would I be that.
I will not be that.
I only had a few more steps.
And that’s when I heard it.
Raised voices. Thuds. Groans.
The sounds were coming from the alleyway next to Inked. I knew I shouldn’t slow down, I knew I shouldn’t want to see what was happening based upon the sounds I was hearing. I should get Reed or one of the others at Inked before I went to see what was going on, but instead of walking by, getting help, I stood frozen in the middle of the mouth of the alley.
I was a woman alone at night walking down the street. I knew it didn’t matter that I wasn’t in a bad neighborhood. It didn’t matter that this was a section of town that had farmer’s market’s and festivals on the weekends during summer. It didn’t matter that in a few weeks this very block would be running rampant with children in Halloween costumes going in and out of every single shop trick-or-treating with their parents, getting their faces painted, making crafts, getting their pictures drawn by local artists, and more. Crime happened everywhere. Bad things happened to those who deserved it, and it also happened to innocents. Nobody was immune. Life just happened that way. And I knew that better than most.
I also knew I stood out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood dressed as I was at this time of night. But it couldn’t be helped. Just like the man I was now staring at in horror.
I closed my eyes quickly.
This couldn’t be real.
I opened them again.
It was real.
I knew immediately that if the guys surrounding him kept hitting him as they were, he was going to die. They would beat him to death … Or they were going to shoot him. Right in front of me.
I watched as his attackers picked him up off the floor and put him on his knees. The man slumped forward, but he wasn’t like that for long. One of his attackers pulled out a gun from the waistband of his jeans, pressed it up against the bottom of the man’s chin before raising his head, and then he put the gun to the battered man’s forehead.
The man stayed upright on his knees, he wasn’t fighting, he wasn’t begging for his life.
He was surrounded on all sides by the same men who bloodied him, broke him, were seconds away from ending his life, and he was doing nothing.
At least that’s what I thought.
But I wrong.
I could see it in the face that looked back defiantly at the man who was holding a gun to his head.
He wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing everything.
He wasn’t backing down and giving them what they wanted by giving in. He wasn’t begging them in his final moments. He wasn’t giving them whatever remained of his dignity. Even while looking broken, and looking down the barrel of a gun, he didn’t give up, he didn’t plead, he didn’t give them that satisfaction. They might have got their pound of flesh and more, but they were not getting his pride or his fear. I could see that in the one eye that wasn’t swollen. I could see that in the portion of his mouth that wasn’t busted open – the portion that was twisted into a sneer. He sneered at them. He sneered at death.
He might have been on his knees, and I might have thought he wasn’t fighting, but he was. He was fighting. In his own way.
And I was the one who was doing nothing. Nothing to stop them. Nothing to help him.
I know what it’s like to need help and have nobody help you.
I know what it feels like to be moments away from death and have someone nearby who can save you, but they don’t want to, they’re scared, they’d rather save themselves.
They do nothing.
I will not do that to him.
I couldn’t stand frozen anymore in the shadows with my hand covering my mouth so as to not make a sound, and with useless tears stinging my eyes. I couldn’t be that helpless person. I wouldn’t.
I moved my hand, blinked back my tears, and took a step forward.
And then froze again.
Not because they heard me. But because he did.
His one good eye met mine for a split-second. And in that split-second he gazed at me he gave me all the words he did not give to them.
He begged me. He pleaded with me. He gave me his fear.
Do not save me.
Do not let them see you.
But the second after his eye left mine, I knew that it would never happen. I would never run away from him. How could I run away from a man who looked at me like that? While his would-be killers had already beaten him savagely, while they were taunting him with even more pain, while they could put a bullet into his head at any second and end his life, he was looking at me and begging me not for his life but for mine.
He wanted me to stay hidden in the shadows. He wanted me safe and unharmed.
He didn’t want me to watch him die, nor did he want me to try and help him and possibly end up dead too. He wanted me to do nothing except run away. He was bruised, bleeding, broken. He was barely breathing. But he was trying to protect me. He didn’t want me to risk my life to save his, and I didn’t want him to die. Not after that one second, that one heartbeat, that one moment of time that I knew would bind us together for the rest of our lives. No matter how long that time may be.
He begged and he pleaded but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Because I would be saving him. I just needed to figure out how. And fast.
I took another step towards him … and then all hell broke loose.
As soon as I took a step forward out of the shadows and deeper into the alley, I kicked a can I didn’t even realize was in front of me. I froze for a third time, but I was the only one who did.
The bad guys turned my way with their fists, pipes, and knives. While their leader with the gun swung around and pointed it at me.
And the guy on his knees? The one who I thought needed saving? He popped up like he suffered not one cut or bruise and grabbed the other man’s arm and twisted him and the gun away from me.
They punched and grappled; they were going at it like it was a fight to the death. And as the gun went off in the melee, a bullet pinging off the brick wall right beside my head – and it did ping – I realized that is exactly what it was. A fight to the death.
There was another ping next to my head – not a loud bang like you hear on television, it was a ping. A ping almost ended my life. Twice.
I looked away from the side of the building that the bullets lodged into and back towards the fighting; I didn’t understand what was happening, what I was seeing. I didn’t understand any of it. The man who I thought was moments away from being beaten or shot to death – who looked to be all but down and out with his black eye, his busted lip, his bloodied knuckles and face, his torn shirt that revealed an array of colors already forming and various cuts of all shapes and sizes, scrapes on his arms, his knees, and what looked like a stab wound in his thigh that was bleeding profusely – he was punching, kicking, throwing and slamming with his fists, his feet, his whole body.
And I was standing there frozen, getting shot at, not hiding in the shadows, and not running for help.
But then again, the man didn’t need any help.
The man grabbed for the gun that went tumbling to the ground when he bent the bad guy’s arm back – an arm that made a sickening crack. A mirror to the sound that the man’s head made when it cracked off the concrete after the man who should have never been able to get up – let alone single-handedly take down all of the men who had just beat him bloody, stabbed him brutally, and brought him to his knees – landed a punch that might have just ended his would-be killer’s life.
The man who shot at me twice and who orchestrated a deadly beating wasn’t moving. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. And the others? His friends? They ran away. They didn’t try to help him, they didn’t try and fight to finish what they started. They were cowards without their pipes, their knives, and their guns.
And the man who should have been dead? The one who may or may not have been trying to protect me just now after I kicked a can and nearly got myself killed? The one who I thought was going to be okay because of what he just did – even while bloodied, and broken, and barely able to breathe?
He collapsed to his knees in front of me.
And once again I didn’t think about what I was doing. Or how much my actions could change the course of my life. And maybe his. All I knew as I finally raced to help him was that I needed to help. I had to.
I fell to my knees in front of the man who had just saved my life, not caring about the dirty ground digging into my knees, my torn pantyhose, scuffed shoes, ruined purse, or the blood I knew I would be getting all over my coat.
I reached out to the man and put my arm around his waist trying to take some of his weight, help with some of his pain, while my other arm reached down into my purse and pulled out my phone. I had to call for help. I had to save him like he saved me.
I had just pressed 9 and then the 1 when his hand reached out and stopped me.
“What are you doing?” His voice was like the hard gravel I was kneeling on. It sent chills up my spine.
I didn’t want to look too closely at the reason his voice gave me chills. Because he didn’t frighten me. That wasn’t why. So, what was the alternative? And what the hell did he mean?
“I’m calling the police. You just got attacked. Those other guys could come back.” Not to mention the guy a few feet behind us shot at me twice and tried to kill me. And he also might be dead. What did he think I was doing? He was also hurt. He needed help. We needed protection. Best case scenario was he only knocked one of his attackers out and the others were gone for good. Worst case was the others could come back with more men, more guns. At any second.
“No. No cops.” At his words, his tone, and the way in which he tried to grab my phone out of my hand, the chills down my spine spread all throughout my body. And this time it was for the reason it should have been in the first place.
Not wanting to call the cops could only mean one thing.
“I am a cop.”
Not what I was thinking.