Author: L.A. Witt
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Formats: ebook, paperback
Rain rolled off the awning above the front window of Ink Springs. On shitty days like these, Lane and I didn’t even bother putting on the stereo. By the time we turned it up enough to hear it over the weather, it’d be too goddamned loud. So, the soundtrack for the day was thunder, rain, and buzzing tattoo needles, with occasional bits of conversation to fill in the gaps.
Not much buzzing today, though. As a rule, people didn’t casually wander in here during storms, and half of this afternoon’s appointments had called and canceled. Half the other ones probably wouldn’t show up. Which meant two of my favorite things in the whole world: a slow, boring day, and not a lot of money.
I scrubbed my workstation with a wadded, disinfectant-soaked paper towel while Lane sketched, pencil scratching across paper. Good thing he didn’t mind chatting while he was drawing, because he’d probably be all the company I had today.
Lane got up from his chair to stretch, and glanced at the window. “Oh, man. I would not want to be moving on a day like this.”
I looked up from cleaning. “Moving?”
He gestured out the window. Someone was backing a U-Haul into one of the parking spaces in front of the store.
“Aw, damn.” I tossed the paper towel in the wastebasket and stood. “I forgot Robyn was moving out today.”
“She is? Where the hell’s she going?”
“Her girlfriend’s got a house on the other side of town. They’re shackin’ up.” I put on my jacket and started toward the door. “Since we’re dead right now, I’m going to go see if she needs any help.”
“Have fun. Don’t get wet.”
“Yeah, right.” I stepped outside. Right next to the storefront was the doorway to the stairs leading up to my apartment. Up until today, the apartment across the hall from mine had been Robyn’s. As she got out of the U-Haul, landing with a splash in a small puddle, I shouted over the rain, “You’re really moving out? On a day like this?”
“What can I do?” Robyn held her jacket over her head and trotted up to the sidewalk and out of the rain. She lowered her jacket and shook off some of the water. “My lease is up tomorrow, and I can’t change the weather.”
“You sure it’s not a sign from God, telling you to stay here?”
Robyn threw her head back and laughed. “Yeah, right. I believe that about as much as you do.” She gave me a playfully condescending look. “Now, Seth. We’ve been over this, sweetheart. I still love you, but Krissy and I are moving in together.”
I stomped dramatically on the wet pavement. “Fine. Fine. Just abandon me to whatever miscreants move into your apartment.”
She patted my arm. “They’ll fit right in around here, won’t they?”
She giggled. “Am I wrong?”
“Whatever.” Robyn elbowed me hard. “You’re such a brat.”
I laughed. “Anyway, you need any help?”
She shook her head. “There isn’t much left. We’re just down to the big stuff I couldn’t fit into my car. Krissy’s on her way, and she and I can handle that.”
“You don’t need a big strong man to carry the heavy stuff?”
“If I needed a big strong man, I’d come ask you who I should call.”
“Ooh. Ooh. Robyn, I bleed.”
She snickered. Then she plucked a white cat hair off my collar and flicked it away into the wind. “I am going to miss visiting Stanley, though.”
“Well, you can always come see him,” I said. “Door’s always open for Stanley’s buddies.”
“You can’t bring him over for a playdate with Jack and Sunny?”
“Um, no.” I held up my hand and pointed at a couple of scratches. “Cats and car trips? Don’t mix? Remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” She smothered a laugh. “Big tough man getting his butt kicked by a fluffy kitty. That’s so adorable.”
I scratched my jaw with my middle finger.
“Such a gentleman. Anyway, I— Oh! I forgot to mention. Al called last night, and I think someone’s coming to look at the place later this afternoon.”
“Already?” I put a hand over my heart. “Well, I promise you I won’t move on quite as quickly as Al has. I’ll take some time to properly grieve and all that.”
“Aww, you’re such a sweetheart.”
“I’ll make sure to stand outside your new front door and serenade you with Justin Bieber tunes while—”
“Krissy has a twelve-gauge.”
Robyn laughed. “Okay, I should get to work before Krissy gets here and drags me upstairs by the ear.”
“I’d pay to see—”
“Fuck you.” She nodded toward my shop. “Get back to work, you slacker.”
“All right, all right. But drop by the shop once in a while, will you? Let me know you’re still alive?”
“I will.” She hugged me tight. “Take care of yourself, sweetie.”
Robyn went upstairs to finish moving her things out of the soon-to-be vacant apartment, and I went back into my shop feeling just a little bummed out. Neighbors came and neighbors went, but after a string of really obnoxious ones, Robyn had been a refreshing change. We’d been good friends since about a week after she moved in.
We’d stay in touch, of course—it wasn’t like Robyn was leaving the country or anything. It was her replacement who worried me. Much as I didn’t believe in karma or any of that superstitious bullshit, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the price for having a cool neighbor for the past three years was living across from a fucking psycho for the next three.
We shall see.
The U-Haul left, and the afternoon went on, getting progressively grayer and nastier by the hour. Fortunately, some bored and adventurous college students came in for ankle tattoos, which meant we had both cash flow and something to do. By five, I’d almost forgotten about impending Neighborgeddon, and was lost in inking a flowery design across a whimpering blonde girl’s foot.
“Breathe, hon. The worst is almost over, I promise.” I pressed the needle as carefully as I could over the bony spot I was working on. “It’s always worst right on the bone.”
“Oh, God . . .” She groaned.
I lifted the needle off her skin. “You all right?”
She nodded. “Just didn’t think it would hurt this much.”
Behind me, the front door opened, and I caught the last part of my landlord’s sentence: “. . . can meet Seth.
He lives in the apartment across the hall from the one you’re interested in, and he owns this shop.”
Over my shoulder, I said, “Be right with you, Al.”
“Take your time, son.”
I took my foot off the pedal and, as the needle’s buzzing subsided, looked at the mirror above my workstation. This gave me a discreet vantage point from which to catch a glimpse of my potential new neigh—
I’d joked with my buddy Michael for the last couple of weeks about all the different kinds of nightmarish neighbors who might take Robyn’s place. Drunks who’d come home from benders and puke on the shared stairs. Horndogs who didn’t realize how thin the walls were. Moochers. Serial killers. Drummers with insomnia.
But what had I not considered? The worst possible kind of neighbor.
Smoking hot eye candy.
With a goddamned boyfriend.
I didn’t know which one was the neighbor, which one was the boyfriend, or if they were both moving in.
Didn’t matter, because they were both fucking hot.
Especially the slightly shorter one. They were both ridiculously fuckable. Like, “Don’t even bother buying me a drink, I don’t care what your name is, just drop trou and let’s go” fuckable. But that second one, the one who was currently craning his neck to check out some of the art along the top of the wall, needed to spend some serious time bent over my bed. Even from here, his smile alone was enough that all that breathing and blood-flow bullshit was suddenly not happening the way it was supposed to. Intense, dark eyes. A short, perfectly trimmed beard framing his lips. Sharp cheekbones and jaw. If he had half a brain and a sense of humor, I was a dead man.
A cute twink with a devilish grin could turn me into putty, but this kind of guy? The fit, laid-back type who was effortlessly sexy even in a parka and with wind-messed, rain-dampened hair? Kryptonite-tipped arrow in my goddamned Achilles heel. Fuck.
I turned to my client. “Would you excuse me for just a second?”
She exhaled. “I could use a break for a few minutes anyway.”
I smiled. “It won’t take long, I promise.”
While she rested her head against the chair and took some slow, deep breaths, I set the gun aside and peeled off my gloves. Then I headed toward the front of my shop to say hello to my landlord and the hotness that I hoped was moving in next door. Maybe I couldn’t touch, but I could sure as hell take in the eye candy.
“Ah, here he is,” Al said.
As the three men faced me, I extended my hand and even managed to choke out my name. “Seth Wheeler.”
The shorter one looked me right in the goddamned eye as he shook my hand. “Darren Romero.” Then he let me go and added, “This is my brother, Chris.”
Brother? Well. That changed everything, didn’t it?
As I shook hands with Chris, Darren gestured around the shop. “So you’re an artist.”
Chris didn’t make a sound, but as he let go of my hand, a flicker of distaste crossed his expression. A slight curl to his lips, one eyebrow lifting in the slightest, briefest arch. Oh well. Fuck him.
I shrugged. “Artist. Skin defiler.” I glanced at the girl who was still breathing deeply at my workstation. “College student mutilator. Really depends on who you ask.”
Darren laughed when Chris rolled his eyes. “Oh, relax.”
Chris glared at him. “You really think living in this part of town, on top of a tattoo shop, is such a good idea?”
The humor instantly vacated Darren’s expression, and he said through his teeth, “We’ll discuss this later.”
The whole shop was suddenly tense. Even the girls who’d started chatting while Lane worked on one of their tattoos fell quiet.
“Anyway.” Darren turned to me again and smiled, and the tension broke.
The girls resumed chattering. The tattoo needle buzzed back to life. Chris scowled and found something other than me or his brother to focus on.
I muffled a cough. “Uh, before I forget, there’s a move-in discount.” I nodded toward the artwork on the wall. “First tattoo is on the house.”
Darren grimaced. “Oh. No. I don’t do needles.”
“Or tattoos,” Chris grumbled.
Darren eyed him. “The needle kinda negates that part.”
Chris started to say something more, but a pointed look from his brother shut him up.
“Well, damn.” I sighed. “That’s usually how I get to know my new neighbors.”
“Is it, now?” Darren asked.
“It gets them in a chair for a conversation, anyway,” I said. “Assuming they can handle the pain.”
Darren shuddered. “I’ll pass, but thanks for the offer. We’ll just have to find another way to get to know each other.”
The boldness of the statement startled me. Probably because I immediately read way too much into it.
I met his eyes, and he grinned, and it was one of those little yeah, I’m flirting right back grins. Read way too much into it, my ass. One eyebrow rose so slightly I was probably the only one in the shop who noticed, but it was more than enough to fuck up my balance. And he was going to be living across the hall from me? Right then and there, I gave it a week before he smiled at me or something and I ended up tripping over my own feet and going down the stairs on my ass.
And we were still staring at each other.
I broke eye contact and cleared my throat. “So are you new to the area? Like, just new to this part of Tucker Springs? Just moved here from another planet?”
Darren shifted his weight and glanced at Chris, but then smiled again—and damn, it seemed forced this time—as he said, “I just moved here from Tulsa.” He gestured at his brother. “He’s been here a few years and suggested it, so here I am.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting you to move into this part of town. Especially . . .” Chris scowled, giving the shop a sweeping look of obvious disapproval. “Are you sure you want to live on top of a place like this?”
“Don’t worry,” I said with a dismissive wave. “The Light District is totally quiet and safe. And as for living above a tattoo shop? All that nonsense you’ve heard about ink fumes bringing gremlins to life and causing buildings to teleport into parallel dimensions? Nothing more than unproven pseudoscience.”
Darren laughed, but his less-than-amused brother said, “I’m more concerned about the people who hang around tattoo shops.”
“Chris.” Darren glared at him. To me, he said, “Sorry. I’m really not concerned about—”
“It’s a tattoo shop in a college town,” Chris growled. “With bars and clubs within vomiting distance.” He pointed out at the street. “That sleazy club I told you about? Lights Out? It’s right up the road.”
“Actually, it’s that way.” I nodded in the other direction. “And it’s not that sleazy.”
Chris grumbled something I didn’t understand. Then, to Darren, “How do you know this neighborhood’s not going to be crawling with drunks and loud people at all hours of the night?”
I gritted my teeth. “Just don’t bring your friends by, and we won’t have to worry about any unsavory riffraff.”
Al glared at me. So did Chris.
Darren just laughed. “I think the neighborhood’s fine. Really.”
His brother scowled again, but shrugged. “Well, you’re the one who has to live here, not me.”
Darren rolled his eyes. “If it gets unbearable, I’ll come stay with you and Mona. Anyway, the neighborhood seems pretty nice. Might be better if management did something about”—he gestured outside—“the precipitation problem, but I suppose I can deal with it.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. A dry sense of humor. I’m a dead man.
Al laughed and clapped Darren’s shoulder. “I’ll put in a request and see what I can work out.” To me, Al said, “Assuming his credit and background checks go through and he doesn’t change his mind, he wants to move in on Thursday. Would you and Lane mind parking behind the building that day?”
“Sure, no problem.” I turned to Darren. “If you need a hand with anything, let me know. Thursdays are pretty quiet around here.”
He smiled, which threw my pulse out of whack again. “Thanks. I should have it under control, but I’ll keep it in mind.”
Al herded Darren and Chris out of the shop, and I’d be damned if Darren didn’t throw me one last glance—and one last holy fuck smile—before they continued out of sight.
I needed to get back to my client and finish her tattoo, but for a moment, I just stared at the empty doorway.
So Darren Romero was my new neighbor.
Hot. Potentially single. Potentially gay.
Maybe Robyn moving out wasn’t so bad after all.
As predicted, Darren moved in on Thursday. At least it stopped raining shortly before noon. Otherwise Chris would have had one more reason to glower and grumble when I came out to see if they needed a hand. Good thing Darren was the one moving in. Chris and I might’ve come to blows before the first day was out. Or he and a piece of furniture might have taken an unfortunate tumble down the stairs. This neighborhood didn’t need another negative jackass. That was my job, damn it.
Chris’s brother, however, was welcome to stay as long as he wanted.
Fortunately, I had plenty to distract me while that gorgeous piece of temptation moved in upstairs. Unlike most Thursdays, today was one appointment after another, all the way up until seven o’clock.
As the door banged shut behind my last client for the day, I closed my appointment book. Another day down, and a pretty damn productive one.
Lane had already gone home, so I cleaned up my workstation, locked up the shop, and headed outside for the horribly strenuous thirty-foot commute to my apartment.
I was reaching for the door to the stairwell when it opened. And just like that, I was face-to-face with Darren. He didn’t look much different from earlier, though his damp hair was casually arranged, so he must’ve just had a shower. Still, his presence struck me like it had the first time, and there went my heartbeat and brain waves.
“Oh.” He stopped. “Didn’t realize you were off work already.”
“Already?” I checked my watch, pretending my pulse hadn’t just jumped. “It’s quarter to eight.”
“Aren’t tattoo shops usually open late?”
“Yeah, on the weekends. Thursdays are . . . eh.”
“Gotcha. So, um.” He tucked his hands in his pockets and rolled his shoulders. “I’m still learning my way around this place. Anywhere you can recommend for a beer?”
How about my place? “All kinds of restaurants down that way.” I gestured past him, toward the Light District’s Town Square. “Just depends on what kind of atmosphere you’re into.”
“Something quiet is good,” he said.
“I’d try Jack’s. Just opened recently, and it’s not one of those loud sports bar types.”
“I think I’ll give that one a try, then. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
He started to go, but paused. “Do you, um, want to join me?”
I coughed to keep from choking on my own breath. “I—really?”
Darren shrugged. “Hey, I’m new in town. I’m all for any opportunity not to eat alone.”
“So you’re just using me for company until you make friends.” I sighed and shook my head. “I’m touched, Darren. I really am.”
He laughed. “Have to start somewhere.”
“True, I guess you do.” I put my keys in my pocket. “Sure. Let’s go.”
We started down the sidewalk. The only evidence of this morning’s torrential downpour was the odd puddle, and the evening was cool but hardly unpleasant. Not a bad night for a stroll with the newest hot guy in Tucker Springs. As long as I managed to keep my feet under me, I was golden.
“So this seems like a nice neighborhood so far,” he said after a while.
“Your brother didn’t seem to think so.”
Darren laughed softly, if a little halfheartedly. “He’s just protective. You know how older brothers are.”
The comment smacked me in the chest, but I didn’t let it show. He couldn’t have known.
I forced a smile. “Yeah, I know how they are.”
“Sorry if he was a bit, um, abrasive the other day. And today.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I sidestepped a small puddle. “But tell him you can pass the move-in discount on to him if he wants some free ink.”
“Sure.” I paused. “Can’t promise I won’t take a few liberties with his design of choice, but . . .”
Darren laughed with a little more enthusiasm this time.
Toward the end of the block, we slowed down beside the rainbow-festooned Pride shop. Flags, banners, posters, books; the place had it all. Darren scanned the colorful merchandise in the window as we walked past.
“They have places like that in Tulsa?” I asked.
“Not in my neighborhood,” he said with what I thought was a hint of bitterness.
“You, um, you do know this is the gay part of Tucker Springs, right?”
“I do.” He looked at me as we kept walking. “That’s why I moved here.”
“Oh. All right.” So he was gay. Detail confirmed, target acquired. “Carry on, then.”
“So what do you do around Tucker Springs?” he asked. “When you’re not tattooing people?”
“Well, a buddy of mine and I know the biking trails by heart. You into mountain biking?”
“Mountains?” He threw me a sidelong glance. “I’m from Oklahoma. I get a bloody nose stepping onto a curb.”
I laughed, not sure if it was his sense of humor or just those eyes that made my heart go crazy again. “The second-floor apartment must be hell, then.”
“It’s an adjustment, let me tell you. It’ll be easier once my oxygen tanks get here, though.”
Goddamn, he was quick. I liked.
I cleared my throat. “Okay, things to do in Tucker Springs that won’t give you altitude sickness. There are some pretty good clubs around, especially here in the Light District. Buddy of mine owns Lights Out.” I gestured over my shoulder in the general direction of Jason’s club.
“Isn’t that the one Chris was talking about? The sleazy one?”
I waved a hand. “What would a straight guy know about a gay night club?”
“Oh, yeah. Good point. So it’s . . . a good one?”
“Probably the best on the singles scene.”
“Good to know. Though clubs aren’t generally my scene,” he said. “Too loud, too . . . just not my scene.”
“Understandable.” But he hadn’t mentioned that he was spoken for.
Jack’s wasn’t crowded, and the hostess quickly seated us by a window in the lounge area. We both ordered the local microbrew on tap, and then browsed the small menu in search of something edible. I’d been grazing all day long, though, and Darren wasn’t particularly hungry, so we settled on drinks.
“So, how long have you been in Tucker Springs?” he asked.
“Since college. About twelve years, now, I guess.”
“What’d you study? Art major?”
“No, I was actually majoring in music theory. Planned to teach, but . . . I never finished. Dropped out my junior year.” I took a long drink, as if that could begin to rinse the bitterness out of my mouth. “What about you? What brings you to Tucker Springs?”
The single word gave me pause. Maybe I was imagining it, but something about his tone reminded me of the bitterness I’d just tried to wash off my own tongue.
Before I could ask, Darren cleared his throat. “I’d been in the plains too long, anyway, and needed a change of scenery. Thought the mountains would be a nice switch.”
He smiled. “So far, so good.”
“Good. I think you’ll like it here.” And you certainly won’t hear me complain about you being here. I took a quick drink. “Even if you don’t like it right away, though, the place does grow on you after a while.”
“I’ll keep that in mind if I start questioning my decision to come here.” He slowly swirled his glass, watching the remaining beer slosh inside. “So, the hiking is decent out here? Once I get used to the elevation, I mean?”
“The hiking is amazing. And some of the trails are fairly tame for wimpy lowlanders like you.”
Darren threw me a playful glare. “Well, I wouldn’t want to wind up on top of a hill and not be able to get back down, would I?”
I smirked. “Yeah, well, Search and Rescue only comes out if you’re above three thousand feet. Anything lower than that, you’re on your own.”
He nodded sagely. “I’ll keep that in mind. Maybe if I go exploring out there, I should take you along as a guide.”
Oh, yes. Please do. “I’m always happy to show a newbie around the trails. You ever want to go, just give me a holler.”
“I’ll do that.” He smiled, then sipped his beer. “So you mentioned the singles scene earlier. How is it in this town?”
I shrugged. “Not as big as it would be in Denver or someplace like that, but there’s plenty of single guys on the prowl around here.”
“You one of those guys?”
My throat tightened. “Are you asking if I’m single?”
He put his mostly empty glass down and looked me in the eye. “In a roundabout way, yes.”
“I am.” I reached for my beer. “And you?”
“For far too long, yes.”
“Is that right?”
He nodded. “Kind of took a break there for a while. Had some—” His expression darkened briefly, his eyes losing focus. Then he shook himself back to life. “You know how it is. Life gets in the way, and the next thing you know, it’s been forever since you’ve been out with someone.”
I nodded. “Oh, yeah. I know how that goes.” I raised my glass in a mock toast. “My last boyfriend and I split, God . . .” I paused, adding up the dates in my head. “Shit, it’s been almost four years now.”
“Wow, really?” Darren shook his head. “Hasn’t been that long for me. I’ve only been out of the game for two.”
“Well, I didn’t say I’d been out of the game for four years.” I grinned at him over the top of my glass. “Just said it’s been four years since I’ve had a boyfriend.”
“Ah, I see.” He returned the grin, and then drained his glass. “You want another?”
“I could go for one more.” I started to stand, but Darren put up a hand.
“This one’s on me,” he said.
He nodded and got up. “Same thing?” He gestured at my glass. “The pale ale?”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks.”
He smiled. “Be right back.”
I watched him go, and holy perfect body, Batman. His jeans weren’t quite painted on, but they didn’t leave much to the imagination. If they looked that good from this angle, then I needed to find something to hold my attention when he came back, or I’d be indulging my curiosity about how well they fit in the front.
Seth. Dude. What the fuck?
I shook my head and shifted my gaze out the window. It was too dark to see the mountains, but oh well. I focused on them anyway. Totally didn’t watch Darren’s reflection or anything. At all. Not even once. Especially not when he leaned over the bar. Or cocked his hip just a little.
I rubbed my eyes. Okay, so he’d thrown me off-balance when he’d come into my tattoo shop the other day, and even now just watching him made me dizzy, but he was too perfect. There had to be something wrong with him, and now I caught myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. That one quirk, that one trait or something, that landed him very firmly in the friend zone. Or even the neighbor zone. Something heinous enough to disqualify him from my not-terribly-exclusive “fuck once and call it a day” zone.
So far? No dice. This guy checked all the boxes. Hot as all fuck. Dry sense of humor. Intelligent. Direct. Presumably employed, if his job had moved him out here. I didn’t believe in bullshit like love at first sight, but the dial in my head had conspicuously turned from I’d fuck you to I could see myself dating you. Which would include fucking, so it’s all good.
You’ve known him for an hour, idiot.
That other shoe could still drop. There was still time. It had taken my ex a solid year to reveal his rampant douchebaggery, so there was most certainly still time for Darren to prove he was way too good to be true.
“One pale ale,” he said, drawing me out of my thoughts and back into his presence. He put the glass on the table before he sat across from me and wrapped his hand around his own drink.
“So, you mentioned before that work brought you out here,” I said, trying to tread lightly and gauge his reactions since this didn’t seem to be his favorite topic. “What is it that you do?”
Darren took a long swallow of beer. Then he set his glass down. “I’m a minister.”
He laughed. “A minister.” He gestured outside. “Just started working for the New Light Church down the street.”
“Oh.” I took a drink. A long one. “Well, um, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m an . . .”
I blinked. “How did you know?”
Darren smiled. “God told me.”
“Oh yeah?” I smirked. “What else did he tell you about me?”
“Well, that you’d be interesting enough to be good company for a couple of beers.” He raised his glass. “I’d say He was right.”
I eyed him. “Okay, seriously. How did you know?”
He threw his head back and laughed. “The ‘Professional Skeptic’ sticker on your truck kind of gave it away.”
“Oh. Yeah. I suppose it would, wouldn’t it?” I gnawed the inside of my lip. “So you already knew about that before you asked me to come out here tonight.”
“No.” He shook his head. “While the bartender was getting our beers, I ran back to where you were parked and checked your bumper for incriminating stickers.”
“Smartass,” I muttered into my beer. I rolled a sip around on my tongue for a moment, then swallowed it. “Funny. Most people in your . . . profession aren’t too keen on having beers with guys like me.”
He traced the rim of his glass with his middle finger. “Well, you might find that I’m not like a lot of people in my profession.”