*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, frustrated. 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.
From Reed’s smirk 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. Which I don’t think she is. She doesn’t appear to have any ink on her. She 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 that he will, and that she won’t.” Reed held his hand out to Rina to shake. She rolled her icy blue eyes and swatted his hand away. She turned back to me shaking her head. “She’s not worth your time, J.” She turned back to Reed. “Or your money.” Rina gave us each a pointed look before she went out the door.
I looked back at Reed. He was back to smirking at me.
His look. Rina’s words.
I had to see who they were talking about.
I got up, and of course Reed started to chuckle before he turned and followed Rina out front. I put the drawing away for my next client and went to the waiting area.
As soon as I stepped into the waiting area I knew who my newest client was without having to be told.
And Rina was right.
The beauty in front of me didn’t want a tattoo. I didn’t know what the hell she wanted. But it sure as hell wasn’t ink.
She didn’t belong here. Not with her Alice in Wonderland blonde hair, her sapphire-blue eyes, the creamy, unblemished, and inkless skin, or the flowery sundress that stood out in a 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 as I got near, I saw her unique eyes widen. I knew what she was seeing: two full sleeves of tattoos, ear piercings, a lip piercing, frosty eyes that have been compared to winter’s chaos. I knew that’s what made her eyes widen. What made them darken even more and her cheeks flush was everything else she was finally seeing past the tattoos, and the piercings, and the eyes – the dimples that were now carved into my cheeks with my hesitant smile, 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 hesitant 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 her 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 have 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 definitely 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 serious 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 stand material. She wasn’t someone you screwed for a weekend or a month and then got rid of. 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 I wanted to wipe off his goddamn face. The fucker knew what would happen the moment I saw her.
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 would be attracted to her. But he also knew I stayed away from all women who look like her. Always. We’ve been best-friends since we were five. He knew all about Macey. Macey, with her blonde hair and blue eyes. The girl who tore up my heart and nearly killed me.
I loved blue-eyed blondes. Or at least I loved one. But I’ve stayed away from them. All of them. Far away. So what the hell was he trying to pull? He could’ve taken her. But he didn’t. He decided to fuck with me instead.
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.
I looked at Reed again. He really did know. He knew too much. So 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 woman he wants to forget. 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 laugh following in our wake.
“Ow! What was that for?” Reed said loudly before I closed the door. I knew Rina must have done something to him. At least she was looking out for me. While my best-friend just hung me out to dry.
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 this place. Not only that, but I was one of the best tattoo artists in the state. The country. My client list was exclusive. My time was money. I was in high-demand. I had to turn people away all the time; I could have turned her away. I should have. But I didn’t. And now that she was in my sanctuary, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. She was mine. My client.
“Jackson Raines.” I waited for her to take my hand again. And then she did. I felt the zing zip through me. I wasn’t shocked by it. 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. “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.
“Yes.” 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. And sincere. 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 this 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 just 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 my head at her and turned away. Looking into her eyes was making things worse. I needed this over, quick. She was burying herself under my skin. Thoughts of her were clouding my mind. And my fucking judgement. And 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. 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. Whimsical.
“Yes.” Sky sounded determined, confident in her choice.
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.
I needed to know what she wanted inked into her skin – 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. I let her emotions slam into me. I felt my own heighten.
Why was she defiant? What was I missing? What was I feeling?
Her dark blue eyes flashed hot. She was angry. But I knew there was more. It felt like more.
Her words were hard. Bitter. They matched her eyes.
She 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?”
She 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 her right then.
She seemed possessed. Obsessed.
She wanted the words.
She felt them.
*EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FOR SPRING (SEASONS, BOOK TWO)*
I shouldn’t be going to Inked.
He wouldn’t want to see me tonight, not after how we left things. He loved me, he wouldn’t turn me away, but I knew he didn’t want to see me.
I did the one thing he asked me not to do anymore. I gave into his demands. I set him up again, went behind his back, 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.
I needed to see him though. I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed him back as my person, my champion. I needed him in my corner.
I was going to Inked and I was apologizing face-to-face. He deserved it. I broke my promise. And with my actions I broke his heart.
I glanced at my watch and picked up my pace. Stopping at Inked would make me late to dinner, which is why along with my ambush, I shouldn’t be going. I’d be late, and because of it there’d be hell to pay. But I needed to see Reed before I went to meet with the devil. The devil who always collected his dues for giving me life.
I needed to apologize and make everything right, and then I needed Reed to build me up high enough so that there was still some of me remaining when the other man in my life tore me down.
If only I could figure out how to move on, how to stand on my own two feet and fight back, to not cave, not be powerless, I wouldn’t need to run to Reed. But that hasn’t happened yet, so I was going to Inked.
Then I’d be late, and I’d be paying again.
One thing he hated was tardiness. Time is money, and there’s nothing more important to him than money and everything that comes with it.
Especially the power.
I’d be the one who set the tone for dinner by being late, and that was never supposed to happen. I’d get the disapproving glare after 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 over and over.
It’d be the disgust and disdain for a few moments, but then his mask would slip back into place and the performance would begin.
He’d 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 blindingly 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.
He’d wait until we were alone before he’d 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 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 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. And that’s all that mattered.
It’s what I paid for the most.
I wish I could ignore him and 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 and still kept trying to. I was the valedictorian of my graduating class in high school, graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League college, obtained my master’s degree in a field that he wanted, 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 let myself think it’s because I’m 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’d 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—since they ruined his life, destroyed his dreams, and killed any chance of 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 function that is put on to impress others in the high society where my parents reign as king and queen—says it even more: Fuck you and every single thing you care about.
But my dad still thinks that my brother will be his to mold and pass things down to. All you needed to do is put him in a suit, 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 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.
I was waiting for him to finally see me. To see that I was all that he had. All that he needed. I was the one who showed up and dressed the part. I was the one 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. Again. After he asked me not to. After I promised. After I was powerless and caved.
My brother 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. And I would be paying even more soon. I would get even more of my father’s spewed venom. Cold shoulder. His turned back.
The last two in private of course.
But I needed to see my brother. It couldn’t wait any longer. I couldn’t wait any longer. I knew what would be happening tonight. My father talked about it all week. Plans of a merger. But not merely a corporate one. A familial one.
Used as a bargaining chip.
I guess he did see me in a certain way after all. I guess I did have some value.
And I still wanted this man’s approval?
Only a few more steps—and a face-to-face heartfelt apology—and I’d be getting a genuine hug I 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 only had a few more steps.
And that’s when I heard it.
Raised voices. Thuds. Groans.
The sounds were coming from the alley 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 knew I should get my brother or one of the other guys at Inked before I went to see what was going on, that I should call the police, but instead of walking by, getting help, I stood frozen in the mouth of the alley watching a man getting beaten.
I quickly closed my eyes. This couldn’t be real. I opened them again. It was real. And I knew immediately that if the guys surrounding the man 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 pulled him up off the ground and put him on his knees. The man slumped forward, but he wasn’t like that for long. One of the men pulled out a gun from the waistband of his jeans, pressed it against the battered man’s forehead and pushed his head roughly back. 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 initially.
But I wrong.
I could see the fight 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’ve gotten their pound of flesh and more, but they were not getting his pride or his fear. I could see that in his eyes. I could see that in the portion of his mouth that wasn’t split open—the portion that was twisted into a sneer. He sneered at them. He sneered at death.
He might’ve been on his knees, and I might’ve thought he wasn’t fighting, but he was. He was fighting. In his own way.
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, 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 would not do that to him.
I couldn’t stand frozen anymore in the shadows with my hand covering my mouth and useless tears stinging my eyes. I couldn’t be that helpless person.
I moved my hand, blinked back my tears, and took a few steps forward. And froze again. Not because they heard me. But because he did. His eyes met mine for a split-second, and in that split-second he gazed at me and 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 his eyes met mine, I knew that it wouldn’t 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 cruelty, 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 another 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 guys surrounding the bloodied man looked my way, 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 injury and grabbed the other man’s arm and twisted him and the gun away from me.
They all swung and kicked 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 right beside my head—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 and back towards the fighting. I didn’t understand what was happening, what I was seeing. 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, busted lip, bloodied knuckles and face, various cuts of all shapes and sizes, scrapes on his arms and 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. He was taking on everyone at once, and I was standing there frozen, getting shot at, not helping or running for help.
But then again, it didn’t look like the man needed any help. He 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 crack that was a mirror to the sound that the man’s head made when it bounced off the concrete after the man who should’ve never been able to get up—let alone single-handedly take down all of the men who had just beaten him bloody, stabbed him brutally, and brought him to his knees—landed a punch that might’ve 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 were cowards without their pipes, knives and guns. And the man who should’ve 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.
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 skin, my scuffed shoes, ruined purse, or the blood I knew I’d be getting all over me. I reached out and put my arm around his waist—trying to take some of his weight and help with some of his pain—while my other arm reached 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 moved my thumb to connect the call when his hand reached out and stopped me. “What are you doing?”
His voice was like the ground I was kneeling on. Gravelly. Gritty. Hard.
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. So, what was the alternative?
“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, tried to kill me and him, and he also might be dead. What did he think I was doing? He was also hurt, he needed help, we needed protection.
“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 reasons it should’ve been in the first place. Not wanting to call the cops could only mean one thing.
“I am a cop.”
Not at all what I was thinking.