I could feel my brain attempting to pound out of my skull as I feigned listening to my ex-wife speak. It had already been a long day and her showing up spur of the moment was doing nothing to change that. At least not in a good way.
“Cal, are you even listening to a word I’m saying?”
I shook my head, my long blondish locks completely covering my face. “Nope. Not particularly.”
“Cal! This is serious!”
“Look, Nat,” I said, scrubbing my hands through my hair and pushing it back over my head. “I don’t care what the fuck the producers say. I’m not running my fucking shop based on ratings.”
“The audience loves Jason…”
“Yeah! And Jason fucked up!” I exclaimed, my voice containing more bite than I intended. This headache was killing me. I took a deep breath and looked into the deep brown eyes that bore into me. “I can’t keep letting Jason’s shit slide, Natalie. It sets a bad example. This is my shop, tv show or not, and I’ll run it how it needs to be run. Jason’s late. He shows up drunk or high or god fucking knows what else and I’m not playing his little fucking game any more. He’s a talented kid. But this is my business, my livelihood. Gia’s future depends on it and I’m not letting some fucking punk ruin that.”
“Jason brings in ratings and fans. They love his antics. We make more money from the show than the shop itself does.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. And stop saying ‘we.’ You hated this shop til you married the producer. I was doing just fine before the network came along. Fuck, if the shop wasn’t doing fine and I didn’t have the clientele I did, they wouldn’t have been interested in the first place…”
“Maybe they’ll find another tattoo shop.”
“Let ‘em, Nat. I really don’t fucking care.”
“Do you not see how good of a deal this is? You can’t just piss off the network, Callum. They’ll pull the plug. And then what?”
“Then I’ll go back to owning a NORMAL tattoo shop, that does amazing work with amazing people and not have cameras follow me around,” I said with a bit of hopefulness.
I wouldn’t care if they cancelled the show. I didn’t become a tattoo artist to be famous. I had one of the biggest and best shops in LA. Our clients were essentially royalty, from the top of the A-list, down to the bottom. People came from across the country to score appointments in my shop. My best friends were in bands and movies and I lived a pretty cushy life considering the way I’d grown up. I had no desire to do this stupid reality show when the option was brought to my attention, but Natalie was one hundred percent onboard. Things at home hadn’t been good. We fought more than we laughed and I knew she was on her way out. Three months into doing the damn show that she so desperately wanted me to do? I found her in bed with one of the camera men. Now she had moved on to one of the producers and since she was my ex-wife, he sent her as messenger more often than not. I was trapped in hell.
“You have a contract, Callum. Three more seasons. Do you really want to breach that?”
“Ya know what, tell Monty the next time he has issues with how I run my business, he can come talk to me himself,” I fumed. I’d had enough. She didn’t care about the shop when I was providing for her. All it did was keep me out of the house too much. Or bring to many too beautiful women into my eyeline, but now… fucking now it was her cash cow. She glared at me. Those chocolate eyes I could once swim in were practically glowing red with disdain. “Where’s Gia?”
“Dance class,” she snapped. “We’re not talking about Gia right now.”
“We’re not talking about anything right now because this has fucking nothing to do with you.” I was damn near growling at this point. “My head is fucking pounding. I just want to go home, Nat. Tell ol’ Monty I’ll call him tomorrow.”
“You can’t just walk out on this, Callum…”
“Why? You walked out on our life. This is nothing.”
Natalie scoffed and set her well manicured hands on her hips. “Is that what this is about? You just being bitter? It’s been THREE YEARS, Callum.”
“And yet, I see you more now than I did then.”
“It’s not my fault you never stopped working.”
“Don’t do that. I was home every night. Maybe not in time for dinner, but I was there. Don’t act like I was some kind of absentee husband because that’s bullshit and you know it.”
“I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“And I’m not having a conversation about MY business with you. So, tell your new fucking husband that if he has something to say to me, to come say it himself.” I winced as I rose from the desk chair that I’d been occupying for most of the day. The shop was closed on Mondays, and I used the day to do bookwork so that I could be left alone. No such luck with the left alone part today.
I’d started tattooing when I was fifteen. One of my mom’s boyfriends, one that actually stuck around for longer than a week, was an artist in Detroit where I grew up. He brought me to work with him one day and it just stuck. I’d go in after school and clean and run errands, whatever he needed just so I could be in the atmosphere. Even after he and my mom split, he continued to teach me. He continued to take care of me even though he wasn’t my father. Lord only knew where that bastard ended up. Len was the closest thing I had to a dad, and a real role model. I still missed him every second of every day and he’d been gone just under three years. I hoped I was making him proud, both as a father and an artist.
“If you’re going to continue nagging me, can we at least go to a restaurant? I’m fucking starved.”
“Not like you’re going to listen to me anyway,” Natalie mumbled as she began clicking away on her cell phone. Of course, it was the newest model. Ain’t no way she was with sixty-year-old Monty without all the fringe benefits.
Some days I couldn’t even believe I’d been married to the woman. The second we moved to California she’d become a completely different person from the sweet girl I grew up with. It was sad. Natalie, Len, my mom were the few constants in my life… and now the only one I still had was my mom and she was so high most of the time I’m not sure she even knew who I was. She’d always had a drug problem. She’d been to rehab more times than I could even count and it never stuck. I saw her a couple times a year, bought her a nice house in Detroit, paid all the bills. Even had a nurse on hand to check in on her so she wouldn’t OD and die in her sleep. When I was a kid, her drug of choice was heroin. Now she was more high end: pain pills and booze. She was at least killing herself in style. Len used to tell me that I should let her fall on her face, leave her be, stop taking care of her. But I couldn’t. She was my mother and no matter how messed up my childhood was, I couldn’t just let her go, even when she had no desire to fight for herself.
I shook my head as I pulled my leather jacket from a hook and slipped it on. “So, we’re done here then?”
“God, Callum, why do you have to be so fucking stubborn. Just lift Jason’s suspension. This is a fucking tattoo shop not a high school. People expect you to do drugs and behave like assholes.”
“Not in my house.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Unless it’s your mom, right?”
I spun on her, pure vitriol seeping through my pores. “That’s fucking out of line.”
“Whatever, Cal,” she hoisted her latest designer bag onto her shoulder and dove back into her phone. “I need you to pick up Gia tomorrow.”
“I’m not supposed to have her until Friday.”
“Yeah, well Mont is taking me to Palm Springs, so…”
“Fine, whatever.” More time with my kid would never be something I’d argue. Though, getting a babysitter so I could work would be a bit of a challenge. At least she was in school most of the day. “Go have fun with Monty.”
“I’ll pick her up next week sometime.”
She shrugged her tan shoulders that were slipping out of the oversized white sweater she wore. She was still as gorgeous as ever. Tanned, long black hair and the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. If only she was still as beautiful on the inside…
I just rolled my eyes. “Fine. Call me when you get back to town.”
“Fine. Think about what I said, Callum.”
“I’ll get right on that, Natalie.” She either missed or ignored the mocking tone of my voice as she strode to the front door, clacking away on her four-inch stilettos.
The second she was out the door, some of my headache lifted. The woman made me tense, no matter how much time passed since our end. Despite the fact that I knew it was for the best, it was hard to let go of someone you’d loved for most of your life. And… every time I saw her I got this little inkling of hope that maybe, just MAYBE my Natalie was back. It never happened, but that didn’t stop that little spark from jumping to life every time I saw her. At least I could lock up and go home now.
As I headed to the back to make sure all the bathroom and storeroom lights were off, I heard the bell on the front door ding. “We’re not open!” I called out as I shut off the bathroom light. I should’ve locked the door after Natalie left, but it slipped my mind.
“Not sure you ever said that to me before.”
I froze in place, hand on the light switch and all. There was no way… no fucking way that voice belonged to who I thought it did. No fucking way she’d just pop back in like nothing had ever happened. But it was. I knew it was. I’d know that voice anywhere and it irked me almost as much as Natalie’s. This day had just gone from bad to worse.
I took a deep breath and strode into the main room. Sure enough there she was, the one woman I’d even debated giving my heart to since my divorce. The one woman who all but threw it in my face when she decided to reunite with her ex and move across the goddamn country. Kady Dillon. Fucking Christ, if I could’ve drop dead right at that moment, I would have.
She looked almost exactly as she did when I last saw her a little over a year ago: burgundy red hair in waves down to her shoulders, pale skin littered with various pieces of ink, gauged ears and a nose ring and curves for days that immediately sent my brain spinning into memories of us together. We stared at each other for a moment, her honey colored eyes locked on mine and I felt my breathing grow shallow. “What in the fuck are you doing here?” I asked with a bit of a snarl.
“I was looking for Jase,” she stated, her eyes still not leaving mine. “Take it he’s not here.”
“Shop is closed on Mondays. You know that,” I fired back. And she did. She used to work here. She absolutely knew that her brother would not be here.
“He wasn’t at his place so I thought I’d give it a shot.”
“Well, you missed. Even if it wasn’t Monday, Jason wouldn’t be here anyway,” I stated, busying myself organizing papers on the desk that I had already organized. I couldn’t look at her anymore. I couldn’t look into those eyes and not lose what little was left of my mind.
Kady was one the most talented tattoo artists I had ever met. She’d worked with me at Skin since the day it opened almost ten years ago. She was nineteen when she started, I was twenty-three and married to the woman of my dreams. Or so I thought at the time. We essentially grew up together, by the time I was twenty five, I bought the shop and took over completely and she was my right hand. Natalie had always wondered if there was more than a friendship going on, but there wasn’t. We were just tight. She understood me in a way even the woman I had been with since I was a teenager didn’t. She was my best friend. I hired her brother simply because she asked. When things had fallen apart with Natalie, she was there every step of the way, holding my hand, both literally and figuratively.
A year after Nat left and the divorce was finalized, things shifted. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t always found her insanely attractive, but I was a faithful man. I had a lot of vices and a lot of what most would probably consider bad qualities, but being a cheater was never one of them. One night we got absolutely obliterated at some random party she’d thrown, and it sent my world into a tailspin. We slept together for the first and what we said would be the last time. But it wasn’t. It happened basically any time the two of us were in the same room and had more than two drinks. I was by no means interested in a relationship and neither was she, considering she went back and forth with her rock star boyfriend Greg more than the weather changed. So, we settled on friends with benefits. Looking back, it was probably the dumbest thing I could’ve agreed to. I already knew I cared about her more than some random lay, but I convinced myself that we could do it and it would be fine. And it was fine. Fine until she decided to give Greg chance number three hundred and seventeen and walked out on the shop, California, and me entirely.
“Why wouldn’t he be here?” she asked, eyes narrowed.
“I suspended him this morning.”
“Don’t even think about it. He’s shown up high and late every day for the last fucking month, so don’t even think of playing the Big Sister card right now because I honestly couldn’t give a fuck about how you feel.”
She looked at me as if I’d just slapped her. “Wow. When did you become so fun to talk to?”
“Maybe when my best friend fucking took off without a word.”
“I can’t do this right now,” I stated, pushing my long hair back over my shoulders. “I’m trying to go home, not rehash shit with someone who couldn’t even bother saying goodbye.”
“Cal, I couldn’t. It was too hard. We’ve always been best friends but…”
“We’re not fucking friends.”
Once again, she stared at me like I was a stranger. And maybe I was. I definitely wasn’t the same man she’d left behind. She nodded slightly and I watched as she swallowed hard. “Do you know where Jase might be?”
“A crack den? I don’t fucking know.” Her jaw tightened and her honey yellow eyes suddenly burned slightly red. Jase wasn’t in a crack den. I knew better than that, but maybe I was being petty and trying to piss her off. When we were young, we had bonded over our parents’ similar drug problems and it was pretty obvious I was trying to use that against her. I stared back hard, momentarily, but then I felt guilty and sighed. “If he’s not at home, he’s probably at Tinner’s or Fi’s, but I don’t have any idea where she lives.”
She obviously had no intention of continuing the conversation as she turned for the door and my eyes landed on that perfect heart-shaped ass buried beneath the tight denim. Fuck, it was like my brain didn’t care that she broke my fucking heart.
She glanced over her shoulder at me. “Hm?”
She took a deep breath, her eyes locked on mine. “If I had to guess, somewhere in Canada on tour. Can’t say I memorized his schedule before I left.”
“Left him or left New York?”
“Does it matter?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
“Then why are you asking?”
“Call it morbid curiosity.”
She cleared her throat and sighed. “Him. Things… only got worse. It was time to walk away for good… before I couldn’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What do you care?” she asked with a snotty tone. “We’re not fucking friends, remember?”
“What did he do?”
“Don’t worry about it, Callum. It’s not your problem,” she stated before she walked out the door and into the dimly lit street.
I watched as she lit up a cigarette and climbed into a white Jeep right outside the building. And then I watched as she started it up and peeled off down the street. There was a part of me that wanted to go after her and apologize for acting like I had. There was another part of me that wanted to go after her and tell her that I never wanted to see her again. But now that I knew she was back, I knew that wasn’t true. But I’d be goddamned if I let her in again. I’d be goddamned if I let anyone in again.