Chapter 1 - Jamie
The subtle buzz of the tattoo gun filled the air as the small machine vibrated comfortably and predictably in my grasp. This was my happy place. This is where I could turn my overly analytical brain off and narrow my focus to the next line I needed to pull, or the depth of shading needed to form a perfect shadow. This is where I could relax and just be a simple twenty-six-year-old girl putting in her time to get a paycheck.
This is where I closed my eyes to my reality and pretended this is a life I could actually lead.
A loud crack jolted me out of my zen state as the front door of The Shop was violently pushed open and two men stumbled into the small reception area. I paused mid-stroke and took stock of the drunken idiots as two more, impossibly large men followed their comrades in. I knew that they were indeed comrades because they were wearing matching outfits. And not in the stupid we are on vacation and all are wearing matching shirts kind of matching, but in the universal bad boy uniform of jeans and leather motorcycle cuts kind of matching.
I immediately knew that these guys were part of The Souls of Silence MC. Even though I had only been in town for just over three months, these guys ran Carefree, Arizona and everyone around here knew it. In fact, our waitress had told us all about The Souls during our very first breakfast here before I even had time to put cream in my coffee. She had told us that The Souls not only owned a third of the businesses in town, but they also policed the streets and upheld their own code of ethics. We had been warned to treat them with the utmost respect and not to cause trouble in this small hamlet of a town. And all of this was said before we even told anyone we were moving here.
The waitress’ warning had piqued my interest and I had done a little circumspect digging on The Souls. And I had found pretty much what you would suspect. A small town outside of Phoenix that was run by an anarchist motorcycle gang that had taken control in the hippy days of the sixties. They ran guns, drugs, and owned several strip clubs and sex toy shops. They had the local LEOs on the payroll and they kept their town safe according to their rules.
It was all very cliche, but I didn’t really have a problem playing by their rules. As long as they didn’t start poking their noses in my businesses, I didn’t see why we couldn’t coexist just fine out here in the middle of nowhere.
That being said, this was the first time that I was in the same room as any of them and I couldn’t help my inclination to look these fine male specimens over while they were otherwise distracted. I pulled my tattoo gun fully away from my client’s skin and straightened to improve my vantage point. You would think that the two stumbling drunk ones would be the most entertaining to watch, but my eyes were drawn to the guy standing closest to the door. He wasn’t the tallest of the group or even the most attractive. In fact, he almost blended into the shadows of the room. It was like he drew darkness to him because that was where he belonged.
What caught my attention was the intense punch of power that pulsed through my system when our eyes met. I had the distinct feeling that he naturally dominated any area or persons that he came in contact with. He already assumed he owned this shop and everyone in it.
My reaction to this was twofold and each part was completely at odds with the other. My body decided to react like a typical woman who is faced with a hot, strong, powerful male specimen, and my inner muscles clenched with need and anticipation. But my mind revolted at the idea of being in the sights of another possessive man and my fight or flight instinct had me raising my chin in challenge.
I didn’t care if my body thought he was sex on a stick, I was owned by no man.
Movement under my hands pulled my attention away from a potentially dangerous stare-off and down to my client who had looked back to see what had caused me to pause my work. He took one look at the newcomers and immediately turned his head back around. He didn’t attempt to look at the bikers again.
Hmm I wonder if it is respect or fear that has this man’s panties in a twist.
By the time that I looked back, Pete was standing with the men and one of the drunk ones was taking off his shirt. Pete was talking to Mr. Powerful softly. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I assumed they were negotiating a tat because Pete soon led drunk asshole number one to his setup.
Pete owned The Shop. When I had approached him asking for a job, he had been more than hesitant to hire someone without any references. But I had been persistent and he had agreed to let me start working with the stupid hour long tats that college kids came in asking for. You know the ones I am talking about, the Chinese symbols, song lyric, or heart with his mom’s name underneath. The stupid tattoos that no artist liked doing, but were the bread and butter of every shop.
I had swallowed my complaints and produced a motherfucking masterpiece with every stroke of my tattoo machine. Before long Pete understood that I wasn’t some novice that wanted to try her hand at permanent art. I had a God given talent with needles and ink and Pete had let me start doing some of the bigger jobs about a month ago.
Right now, I was doing a pin-up girl who was dressed in little more than a fireman’s helmet as she slid down a fire pole. I was inking her into the calf of a young fireman who was lying face down on my table and taking the pain like a boss, which was a good thing because pin-up girls had a lot of delicate details and required a certain level of finesse. If my client were to flinch at the wrong time, he could end up with a jacked-up girl that looked like she just went five rounds in the ring.
I pushed my curiosity about The Souls away and refocused on creating a bulletproof outline.
My newly found focus only lasted about fifteen minutes. It seemed that was the amount of time Mr. Drunk Asshole Number Two needed to get bored watching his buddy get inked. Now he was looking for trouble.
“Well aren’t you a fine-looking piece of ass. Why haven’t I seen you around town before?” Mr. Two asked in a voice that was surprisingly clear, suggesting he wasn’t as drunk as I initially assumed. I knew that ignoring this guy could be considered disrespectful and I didn’t want a confrontation with these guys. Plus I really did like my job and didn’t want to get fired.
“I am new to town,” I said without looking up. I was hoping this guy would get the hint that I was busy and leave me the hell alone.
So much for wishful thinking.
“Why the hell would a hottie like you move to a place like this?” I wanted to take offense to his assumption that because I was beautiful that I could get anything or go anywhere that I wanted, but I used my beauty as a finely tuned weapon all the time - it would be hypocritical to complain.
“Who wouldn’t want to move to a place named Carefree?” I asked in my best dumb blonde voice. I was hoping he would think I was playing him, when in actuality I had picked to move here solely on the town’s name. Cain and I really did need some carefree days in our lives.
He seemed to drop the subject and rolled over an extra stool over to sit right next to me and completely invaded my space so that he could look over my shoulder at the in progress pin-up girl. He was so close that I could smell a mixture of leather, engine grease, and tequila. Surprisingly they combined in a subtle way that seemed to calm my fraying nerves.
When me leaned in close enough that his course red-gold beard hair rubbed against my shoulder I knew that he was testing me. He wanted to see what I would do. Would I cower away, mess up the tat, or stand up to him and possibly cross that line of demanded respect. The corners of my lips curled up as I leaned a hair closer to him and continued to lay down flawless lines. I grew up with a twin brother, I knew that to win games like this you needed to not react at all.
It only took a few minutes of me ignoring him before Mr. Two huffed out a large breath and started flipping through a binder that I kept of old tattoos that I had done, a portfolio of sorts.
“Holy shit, these are fucking amazing,” he exclaimed while fingering a photo of a biometric heart I had done last year. I paused to give him a thankful smile and then returned to the fireman, who hasn’t said a word about the obnoxious man distracting his tattoo artist.
As Mr. Two continued to scan through my art I gave him a looking over from my peripheral. He was on the lean side but I could see that he was packed with wiry muscles. So while he lacked the bulk of his friends I would guess that he could still pack quite a punch. He had thick dirty blond hair that showed a glimmer of red in the right light and it flopped around his head. He had a full but well-trimmed beard that he obviously took good care of. The overall outcome was one fucking hot man. I had no doubt that this guy had his pick of the club whores that were a staple in a town like this.
The most notable thing about him was that he was in constant motion. Even when he was just sitting there looking through my binder his head was moving to the background music, his fingers were twitching along the pages, and his left knee was quickly bobbing up and down. My first thought was that his guy was a tweaker, but after a few more minutes of watching him, I decided that wasn’t the case. He took too much care in his appearance and his body to ever willingly poison himself with that crap. No, I think it is just that he was overflowing with energy.
That would also explain why he couldn’t sit still while his buddy got a tat. This guy needed something to engage his attention and my binders weren’t going to do the trick for much longer.
That assumption proved to be correct as minutes later he was up and rifling through the rest of my workstation. He opened up drawers, inspected my other tattoo machines, smelled my ink, and tested out my sketching pencils. I understood that these guys were the big kahunas in town and I was supposed to respect them, but this was getting ridiculous.
I glanced over at Pete’s station and saw him working diligently on Mr. Drunk Asshole Number One while Mr. Powerful leaned against the wall next to the other older guy. Both Mr. Powerful and Old Guy had their attention trained on me and the circus that Number Two was turning my station into. They wanted to see how this would play out. Maybe this was a kind of test. A test of what, I didn’t know and I didn’t fucking care anymore. Grown men didn’t just get to act like this.
When Mr. Two went to stick his finger in the open ink cap I was using for the pin-up girl I reached out and slapped his hand. He clearly wasn’t expecting it and jerked his hand back as if I had burned him with boiling hot acid. Quick as a wink while he was getting his wits back together I slipped my hand into one of my work drawers and grabbed my golden dragon. Mr. Two was now looking at me with a defiant challenge in his eye and I could feel three different gazes drilling into me.
They were not happy and wanted to put me in my place after my small show of temper.
Mr. Two, I really needed to give him a better name, gave me a wicked smile and slowly reached over to the same ink cap as before. His message was clear; if he wanted to fuck with my ink then I better let him fuck with my ink or there would be trouble.
When his hand was about two inches away I reached out and pushed one side of the golden dragon’s mouth onto his index finger and I felt it click into place. This time he didn’t flinch back and gave me a quizzical look before raising his hand to inspect the thing I had just attached to his finger. It was a golden figurine with jade and emerald inlays that depicted a two-headed dragon. Each dragon had an open mouth that would clasp onto anything that was poked into its maw.
It was a fancy Chinese finger trap.
Mr. Two took a few moments to study it before grabbing the middle of the figurine and pulling. When it didn’t easily come off of his finger he pulled harder until I was half afraid that he was going to dislocate his finger. However, instead of getting pissed off that I had just attached something to his hand, he inspected the dragons again and slowly put his other pointer finger into the other dragon’s mouth. As the second mouth clicked into place I couldn’t help the small victorious smile that graced my lips.
I watched him struggle to pull his fingers out for a good two minutes until he finally looked up at me and demanded, “Get this fucking thing off my fingers.” He looked ten kinds of adorable with his fingers trapped in a child’s toy that I decided from now on I was going to call him Handsome Devil - or HD or short.
I gave him a sincere smile and reached to take a hold of the golden dragons, causing him to lean forward into his chair. I then cupped his cheek with my hand and used my thumb to stroke the side of his face. After a moment he leaned into my touch like a kitten that was starved for attention. Considering that he was one of the kings of this town and looked like a redneck version of a male model - this reaction didn’t make much sense. I let him snuggle into my hand for a little while before I gripped his chin so that he was forced to look me in the eye.
“HD, I am permanently marking this dude’s skin and all of your exploring is very distracting,” I said in my best disappointed school teacher voice. “If you keep it up I am bound to make his pin-up girl look like some kind of transvestite who had a drunk plastic surgeon, so I am going to have to ask you to please stop.”
I added the please because every word out of my mouth was being analyzed by the other Souls and my boss. Hopefully, they heard my attempt at respect.
HD’s brow furrowed in thought so I continued before he decided that he didn’t like being scolded. “Your fingers are currently trapped in a Chinese finger trap. As you can see, brute strength isn’t the answer here, unless you want to rip off one of your fingers. It is a puzzle and all of the clues you need are within the dragon.” His eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning and I let out a silent sigh of relief.
“What do I get if I get out of your little trap?” HD asked in a flirty tone. I could tell he wanted me to sweeten the deal and expected me to fall all over him like every other girl in this town did, but that just wasn’t going to happen.
I pulled my hand away from his face and turned my attention back to my client before stating in a dry tone, “You get the use of your fingers back.”
When I put my hand on the fireman’s calf to return to work, he was as hard as a rock under my hand. So it was fear that kept the people in this town in check. Did this dude really think that The Souls would take their anger out on him for my smart mouth? I gave him a squeeze that I hoped was reassuring and started the shading around the pin-up girl’s face.
From the corner of my eye, I saw HD bring the golden dragons up to his eye level and start inspecting the intricate carvings. He quickly found the dials for the combination lock on the belly of the beast and turned to give me a breathtaking smile. He was beyond thrilled at this new game I had forced him into. As HD went to work trying to solve the finger puzzle I felt the tension within the room slowly return to normal. The hum of the dual tattoo machines filled the space and I was able to return to my place of zen.
HD finally figured out the alphanumeric code engraved into the dragon’s scales and freed his fingers as I was putting the finishing touches on the pin-up girl. After releasing his fingers HD gave me a triumphant smile and said, “Now that I beat it, do I get to keep it?”
I huffed out a laugh and shook my head. “Not only is the piece made out of fourteen karat gold and real gems, but it also has sentimental value. You are practically the only other person I have let touch it and you almost ripped it apart during the first minute of having it. Of course, you can’t have it.”
HD looked a little shocked and took a closer look at the dragons, now holding them with the reverence that they deserved. “What is a struggling artist like yourself doing with a thing like this?”
If he would have sounded anything but genuinely curious I would have blown him off, but his question wasn’t malicious. He really wanted to know the story behind my treasured figurine.
“It is a family heirloom. My father would lock my fingers into it when I was bugging him at work. It took me months to finally figure out the code to unlock myself. I am impressed you did it in such a short time.” And I was impressed. It would seem that there is more to this handsome devil than meets the eye.
“Your family have many expensive heirlooms that they let children play with?” HD asked with a heavy dose of sarcasm. I looked up and saw the playfulness had dropped away and HD was regarding me with shrewd eyes. I looked him directly in the eye and told him the harsh truth. I could tell that he would accept nothing less from me.
“Not anymore. That was the only one I was able to save after my parents were murdered.” I paused for a second to let that sink in before continuing. “Therefore, I think I am going to hang on to it. It acts as a sort of lucky charm for me.” HD took another long look at the dragons and then placed them gently on my workbench.
I had just finished with the pin-up girl and I was wiping away any lingering ink when HD resumed his place looking over my shoulder. “Danm, chickita that girl is fucking hot. I don’t think I have ever seen a more attractive looking tattoo.” I smiled at his praise. I really did love this stuff.
“See, HD, aren’t you glad I stopped you from messing me up,” I lightly teased him while handing this fireman a mirror to look at the tat from all angels. The fireman looked pleased with the work but remained silent and still refused to look HD in the eye. I felt a presence behind me and glanced over my shoulder to see that Mr. Powerful and Old Guy had both walked over to get a good look at my finished product. Old Guy wolf-whistled and after a minute Mr. Powerful gave me a nod of approval.
Not that I needed his approval but I did admit to myself that the praise felt good coming from him.
The fireman couldn’t get out of the shop quick enough, but he did say a quiet thanks and left me a huge tip, so I assumed he was happy with my work. I went about cleaning up my station and straightening up everything HD had messed up earlier. The three Souls didn’t seem inclined to move out of my space so I moved around them to sterilize all my tools. The whole affair was awkward and I felt analyzed and judged the entire time. I was about to bail when HD broke into the tense silence.
“Why do you keep calling me HD?”
“Well, none of you deemed it necessary to introduce yourself to me, so HD is your new nickname. You’re stuck with it now,” I replied tersely. Had these men ever even heard of manners?
“You mean to tell me that you don’t know who we are?” HD asked, incredulity coloring his words. When I just smiled at him and shook my head he gave me a hard stare and then asked, “What does HD stand for?”
“Handsome Devil,” popped out of my mouth before I could fully analyze the consequences of admitting that I had given him such a moniker. His hard stare transformed into a cocky flirty smile at the speed of light.
He hummed deep in his throat and then said, “We are having a party tonight to celebrate Shorty’s becoming a full brother. You should stop by.” I raised my eyebrows and pointed over to Mr. Drunk Asshole Number One who was still under Pete’s needles.
“Yes that’s Shorty, the old guy is Steel, and the ugly one is Rogue.” I smiled that he had called Steel the same thing I had been calling him in my head and then outright started laughing when he called Mr. Powerful the ugly one. I gave each of the men a looking over and saw that their names were stitched into patches on their leather cuts. Under Steel’s name was a patch that declared he was VP while Rogue was the President. I looked to HD and saw that his name was Breaker and that he was something called a Sgt. Arms.
“That would make you Breaker then,” I said while reaching out and running my fingers along his name patch. “What’s a sergeant arms?”
HD puffed out his chest at my touch and looked down at me with a furrowed brow. “You really are new around here. I thought Pete would have clued you in at least a little.”
I glanced over at Pete and saw him give an indigent sigh. Pete and I mostly had a silent relationship. He treasured the peace and quiet within his shop and I tried my best not to disturb that by asking too many questions or attempting small talk. This was the only tattoo shop in town, and I really did love my hobby.
HD lightly grasped my chin and turned my face until I was once again looking up into his eyes. “I think I like you calling me HD. What do you say about the party, pretty girl?”
It didn’t slip my attention that he didn’t answer the question about what a sergeant arms was. And he was right, I didn’t have experience dealing with this type of criminal organization. Which meant I didn’t know the rules and had already pushed my luck enough for one day. Cain would be pissed if I got on the wrong side of the group that ran this town. This was supposed to be his fresh start, a break away from violent drama.
“It is eleven p.m. on a Friday night. Do you really think I don’t already have plans?” I asked HD with a slight scowl. I did have plans, he just didn’t need to know they were with a bubble bath and a large glass of whiskey.
“We throw the best parties in town. And you would be my special guest. Many girls would sell their left tit for this kind of invite.” HD said this with a type of desperate intensity. Like he wanted to make sure I knew what I was turning down here, but he didn’t actually want me to accept his offer. Somehow this was another test. But I didn’t know enough about this situation or these men to know the political move here, so I said screw it and went with what I wanted.
“That’s good to know and thank you for the invite, but I am going to have to pass. You have fun though big guy.” I caught the slight raise of his lips and the crinkle at the corner of his eye. My refusal to go had pleased him for some reason.
Guys were weird.
I moved to place the golden dragon back in my workstation and felt the weight of many heavy gazes on me. I needed to get out of here before I turned into a circus animal or something. Why were they all giving me so much attention? I hadn’t done anything to deserve this level of scrutiny. I had just grabbed my bag and was turning to say goodbye to Pete when HD spoke up once again and I realized that he was the only one that I had talked to all night. Rogue, Steel, and Shorty hadn’t said a single word to me. This town was so weird.
“What about tomorrow? Do you have plans for tomorrow around noon, or can you come to a BBQ?” At his words, everyone within the shop stopped looking at me and instead turned their eyes to HD.
I raised my eyebrows at him, silently asking why a BBQ was such a big deal but he just leveled me with his intense stare and refused to explain this situation. But even without an explanation, I could tell that whatever this was, it was important to him. It was important I come to this lunch.
I finally relented. I had no reason to say no and after three months of not talking to anyone but Cain and Pete I admitted to myself that I could use a little social interaction in my life. “Yeah, a BBQ sounds good. Is it like a potluck thing? Should I bring something?”
HD’s face broke into a Christmas morning smile and I knew instantly that I had made the right decision.
“I wouldn’t say no to cookies,” HD said while bouncing on the balls of his feet. He really couldn’t stay still for long. “It’s at the garage on Main Street, be there around noon.”
And then he spun on his foot and practically skipped out of The Shop. At this point, my eyebrows had almost disappeared into my hairline and I looked in between Rogue and Steel to see if either of them were going to explain what just happened. Rogue was scowling at me so hard I was surprised I didn’t feel it like an actual blow and Steel looked just as lost and curious about the situation as I was.
Not being brave enough to confront Rogue and get a straight answer, I looked over to Pete and gave him a weird salute before walking out of The Shop and praying that I still had a job after all that weirdness.