Read an Excerpt
“Did you hear me, Sophie? I’m getting my new tattoo today and I want you to come with me.”
Sophie pulled in a breath, trying to concentrate on her friend’s words over the sharp buzz of desire running through her system. Tattoo. That word, the mere idea, had always had this effect on her. And once more, she hated that she wasn’t ever brave enough to indulge her secret yearning.
She shifted her weight, the old wood floor of Crystal’s apartment creaking beneath her. “Sorry, Crystal. I was . . . thinking about something. Why isn’t Boone going with you?”
“He had a last-minute gig come up, a studio job, so he packed his drumsticks and took off. Anyway, he spent the night last night, and if he came with me he’d want to stay again. If I let him stay too often, he’ll begin to think he owns me. You know how I hate that.”
Sophie rolled her eyes and laughed.
“I don’t want to go alone, Sophie; say you’ll come with me.” Crystal turned around on the old, wobbly piano bench that sat in front of her baby grand, where she’d been playing and singing when Sophie had knocked on her door. “Hey, you’re not afraid, are you? I know the whole tattoo thing freaks some people out.”
“No, I’m not afraid. I mean, I guess I am, but it’s be- cause . . .”
Sophie stopped herself. How much to tell? She’d only known Crystal for three months, since she’d moved into the apartment upstairs. She certainly couldn’t tell her new friend that she had such an intense attraction to the idea of tattoos, of being tattooed, that it bordered on obsession. That even thinking about it caused her entire body to surge with an unexplainable, searing lust.
She looked out through the French doors behind Crystal’s piano, through the paned glass with its peeling white paint, to the small enclosed courtyard with its overgrown greenery, the profusion of flowers whose perfume fought against the smell of mold and decaying plaster in the air.
This place was like something out of a dingy, perverse dream: old pink stucco that was literally falling down at the corners, every window graced with the intricate black ironwork New Orleans French Quarter architecture was famous for, the wide-plank wood floors countless generations had walked over before her. Sophie had loved the place immediately. And she and Crystal had taken to each other right away, too. But she had to pay attention to what Crystal was saying.
“Because why, Sophie?” Her friend’s exotic, turquoise eyes were trained on her.
Sophie shrugged, trying to dispel the knot forming in her stomach. Trying to make this all less important. “I’ve always had a sort of fascination with tattoos,” she admitted. “I’ve always wanted to get one. You have no idea how badly.”
“Then why don’t you? I don’t get it.”
“God, Crystal, I can’t!”
“Why not? You’re a writer, Sophie. It’s not like you have to clock in at an office, wear a suit every day. Or, God forbid, panty hose. And with the stuff you write, all those ghosts and vampires, people probably expect you to be a little eccentric anyway. So, why not?”
Yes, why not, indeed? She tugged on her dark, waist-length brown hair, twisting a strand around her fingers. Maybe because the rules her strict Italian-Catholic parents had ingrained into her ran far too deep for her to ever completely escape? Maybe because, despite the fact that she’d escaped their house, she could never quite get away from what they’d taught her about who she was, and what she should be.
She hated that no matter how far she’d run—and she’d spent most of her life since the age of eighteen running, all over the country—they still had a hold on her. She’d never managed to shake the sound of their voices in her head.
Why can’t you be more like your brother?
Maybe because her brother, that uptight, sanctimonious snob, was a priest.
Crystal snapped her fingers in front of Sophie’s face. “Hey, where are you?”
“Sorry.” Sophie shook her head. “This tattoo thing is . . . an issue for me. A huge issue, if you want to know the truth.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Crystal flipped one of her thick, dark braids over her shoulder and leaned back, resting her elbow on the keys of the piano, and a small clash of chords sounded. “I think you should do it. You obviously want to. And if something is holding you back, then maybe the only way to ever face down that issue is just to go for it.”
“You’re probably right.”
Just the idea was sending tremors over her skin, making her warm all over. She could never tell Crystal the real reason why she was so afraid of being tattooed: She was afraid she would love it too much.
Crystal leaned forward and put a hand on Sophie’s arm. “Look, why don’t you just come with me and see? This artist is a friend of Boone’s. I’ve seen some of his work and he’s really good. It can’t hurt to sit and watch me, right?”
“I suppose not.” She took in another breath as her pulse fluttered with excitement. Crystal was right; there was no harm in watching. And to be that close to the process, to see it happen . . . irresistible. “When is your appointment?”
Crystal glanced at her watch. “In about twenty minutes. The shop is just down on Canal Street, but we should get going. I let Boone take my car, so we’ll have to walk.”
Her heart skittered in her chest. “Now?”
“Yes, now.” Crystal laughed as she stood up. “Come on, Sophie. I don’t want to be late.”
They walked down their little street that was really nothing more than a cobblestone alley, onto Dauphine and turned right, headed toward Canal Street. The air was damp and close around them, but Sophie liked it, enjoyed the feel of it soft on her skin.
They passed the crumbling buildings, the lovely old architecture a beautiful combination of French, Spanish and Caribbean influences. Sophie loved the look of the French Quarter: the colors, even the decay caused by the constant heaviness of the tropical air. Many of these places were literally falling apart at the seams. Small piles of plaster lay at the corners of the buildings, the red brick underneath showing through. No one bothered to clean it up. And everywhere vines clung to the walls, climbed the iron balconies, trailed across the tiled roofs, in brilliant shades of green in between the flowers. New Orleans was pure magic to her. Dark magic, to be sure. The first place she’d found that felt like home.
Crystal took her hand as they walked, humming a tune.
“Is that a new song?” Sophie asked her.
“Yeah, Boone and I were working on it late last night. Sex always inspires me.”
“What?” Crystal turned to her, smiling, a wicked gleam in the tilt of her blue eyes. The sooty black eyeliner she always wore made them stand out against her pale complexion. “What could possibly be more inspirational than sex? That feel of skin against skin, that buildup, and then—”
“Okay! That’s more than I need to know about your sex life.” Sophie shook her head. “Tell me about the tattoo you want to get.”
“Well, you’ve seen the little Cheshire cat on my ankle. He’s cute, and I love him, but I wanted something more meaningful this time. So I went to talk to Tristan Batiste—he’s the artist—and he helped me figure out the design. It’ll be two koi fish, arched around each other like a yin-yang symbol, with their fins sort of fanning out. And they’ll be in black and white, which is Tristan’s specialty. I love the idea of the image being all about contrast. It seems symbolic of the yin yang. Opposites, you know?”
“Yes, light and dark. Balance.”
Crystal swung their clasped hands as they walked, turning left down Canal Street. They passed colorful cafés, funky used-clothing stores, antiques shops. And everywhere, people lined the sidewalks. It was mostly locals here, the wealthy old New Orleans gentry as well as the more bohemian younger crowd.
“Here it is.” Crystal stopped in front of a storefront with a blue neon sign in the window that spelled out “Beneath the Skin.” The glass was painted in classic Japanese style: tsunami waves; cranes flying against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains; warrior gods with frightening faces, brandishing swords.
“Wow. This is beautiful.” Sophie reached out to lay her fingertips against the cool glass. “Did he do all this?”
“Tristan? Yeah. He owns the shop. Come on, wait until you see what he can do on skin.”
On skin. Yes . . .
Just thinking about it made her shiver with anticipation. She followed Crystal into the shop.
Inside, the cool air washed over her, raising goose flesh on her skin for a moment before her body adjusted. Music played, a hard-driving rock song. Godsmack, she thought. She looked around curiously. She’d never actually been inside a tattoo parlor before. The first thing she noticed was the enormous carved desk to her right, a beautiful Asian piece. A tall, skinny man with fully tattooed arms stood behind it, bent over an appointment book.
Crystal approached him. “Hi. I’m here to see Tristan.”
“Sure. I’ll get him.”
He came around the desk and disappeared behind a heavy gold velvet curtain. Sophie and Crystal sat on a wooden bench against one wall to wait.
Sophie’s heart was pounding as though she were the one about to be tattooed. She glanced at Crystal, who was humming her new song again, as calm as though she were there to get a massage.