Leaving a dependable job to apprentice as a tattoo artist was a drastic step after surviving breast cancer, but Cassie Whiteaker is nearly five years cancer-free. Nearly. She’s not ready to go out on her own until she clears that all-important hurdle. Also off-limits are relationships and sex—something Cassie is sure she’ll never want again.
Struggling tattoo shop owner MJ Flores doesn’t give a damn what people think, but losing Thorn & Thistle would mean losing everything. When her former mentor’s protégé arrives at her door, MJ hires her out of obligation…at first. Cross-stitching goody-goodies are not her type, but Cassie’s business background might just get the shop back on solid footing. They strike a bargain: Cassie will enact new marketing plans and MJ will teach her to find her inner bitch.
Only when clients request to see Cassie—having learned of the beautiful, compassionate tattoos she creates for survivors and their families—does MJ realize all Cassie has endured. And as Cassie’s fears fade, she finds it harder to keep her admiration for her bad-girl boss from reawakening all she’d feared was lost.
This book is approximately 82,000 words
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One glance at the girl looking around with big eyes and I knew she'd want a butterfly or worse, a Chinese symbol she'd Googled.
I groaned, not bothering to lower the volume. I didn't give a shit if it wasn't polite. It wasn't polite to expect me to do inferior garbage like that.
Heading to the front of the shop, I stretched my arm behind my back until my shoulder cracked. The girl was studying the designs hung on the wall, all drawn by me and the other employees.
She turned and smiled at me. "Hi. I'm ..."
Bending, I snatched a design folder and tossed it on the receptionist's counter. Not that I actually had one of those. Receptionists cost money, money I didn't have. "Here. See if there's anything you like."
While she looked, I propped my elbows on the counter. Close up I could see I'd been wrong. She was a woman not a girl. The pixie haircut and delicate features had tricked me from the distance. Might've got the age wrong, but I wasn't wrong on the type of tattoo.
This pale woman wore a sweater. An honest to god sweater with little pearl buttons.
Ugh. Why couldn't Maya be here? She didn't mind doing the newbies. Hell, she seemed to get a kick out of it. But nope it was just me. The rest of the staff wouldn't be here for another hour when the shop officially opened. Until then I was here trying to squeeze in some more work. Every dollar and minute counted and I didn't have enough of either.
"See anything you like?"
She set down the binder and went to the wall, tilting her head back. "Everything. I've been an admirer for a long time. Your shading technique is like no other."
I drew my gaze from the blue vein running up her neck to the picture of a lion I'd done. I had to give her some points on taste. That was one I showcased in my bio for magazine articles.
"Something like that is a special commission. It takes a while. Plus, something that big is gonna hurt."
Her lips twisted in a weird kind of smile. "I can handle pain." She turned away from the wall and faced me. "But that's not why I'm here."
"To get a custom piece?"
"To get a tattoo."
I pushed away from the counter. "As much fun as it's been chatting, I don't have time for this shit. I got things I could be doing for clients. You know, paying ones."
"No, please wait. I'm sorry. I'm not explaining this well. I'm here because of Zan."
I did an about face, the name of my mentor guaranteed to get my attention. "What about her?"
"I was her apprentice."
Holy shit. This woman who could barely make eye contact, not only wielded a tattoo gun but had worked with Zan — a fucking trailblazer and one of the best artists ever.
She took my stunned silence as some kind of invitation, stepping closer. "She always talked about you with so much pride."
I jerked my chin at her to cover my flinch. "How long were you with her?"
Well shit. In that time I'd only talked to Zan a few times on the phone and maybe stopped into her shop here in Portland once. That's all I had for the woman who'd made me who I was.
"I'm Cassie Whiteaker by the way."
"MJ Flores." I took the hand she held out, not tempering my grip just because her wrist bones looked like they could bust through her skin. "So what do you want with me?"
"Oh. Um." Her gaze darted around the shop again before grazing me. "When Zan got sick and things started to look bad, I promised her I'd come to you to be my mentor."
"No." I took a giant step back.
Apprenticeships were a time suck. You shared all your skills and knowledge in return for some grunt work. As soon as they were done, they could go and open a shop next to you, take the clients that were yours, not theirs. No thank you. The field was crowded enough.
If I ever did decide to strap myself with an apprentice it wouldn't be this woman, Zan's apprentice or not. I could tell we wouldn't mesh well. She looked like she'd piss herself the first time I smashed something.
"Do you even have any tattoos?" burst from my mouth. Yeah, I believe the words I was looking for were "Get out."
"I do." The woman — Cassie — reached up and unbuttoned the first button of her sweater and then moved on to the next one. There was nothing sexy about her movements and yet I stared at each inch of skin revealed. A light gray T-shirt was underneath, lines of a tattoo peeking out of the scoop collar.
For a short woman with generous hips, I would have expected her to have more on top. She pulled one arm free and it actually took me a few seconds to focus on the tattoo on her forearm, not the pale skin.
Stepping closer, I drew her arm to me. "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." The lettering was exceptional and there was a small diamond at the top corner of the words that looked so real it practically shined.
Cassie wiggled her other arm from the sweater, revealing a bird flying free from a cage. Not exactly groundbreaking, but the work was impeccable. Dark purple surrounded the cage, fading into black and grays. I reached out and traced the bird that was stark in comparison to the cage it had just sprung from.
"Nice," I conceded and let go of her arm.
Now that her sweater was off and I was this close, I got a good whiff of something sweet. Not like a bouquet of flowers sweet. This was like cinnamon and sugar. It reminded me of the buñuelos my mom used to make.
Not saying anything, she pulled her shirt to the side, exposing a small phoenix on her neck. I bent to get a closer look and inhaled deeply, that sweet fragrance even stronger, like the heat of her body had warmed it and given it additional spice. The lines and color of an other tattoo farther down snagged my interest. I went to move her shirt to the side, but she stepped back and righted her clothing.
"As you can see I have tattoos."
Well, I'd seen some of them and what I'd seen had been good. That didn't mean jack shit when it came to actually tattooing. Except Zan, damn it. That meant a hell of a lot. "So you've got your license?"
"Yes." She bent down. When she stood up again she held out a folder.
I grabbed it but didn't open it. Fact remained I didn't want or need an apprentice.
As I continued to stare at her, she wrapped her arms around her stomach, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "This is a really nice shop."
For fuck's sake. If she started on the weather, I really would kick her ass out.
"So you're giving tattoos?"
She shook her head, blond wisps of hair falling over her forehead. "Not to customers. I've given them to other employees at the shop and Zan."
And there went the hope she might not be any good at tattoos. Even though Zan had been a damn pioneer, her skin hadn't been covered. Every single tattoo had a meaning behind it. The day I'd been allowed to add to her collection was one of my proudest. Pressing that needle against Zan's skin had made everything shake all the way to my toes.
"I've never been so honored in my life," Cassie said in a hushed tone expected in church.
I got it. I'd never had so much trust placed in me and I'd wanted to live up to it. Still did today. "Yeah, never had such a fucking rush."
We shared a smile that I quickly flattened on my end. Still didn't need an apprentice.
"Was yours the cat o' nine tails?" she asked.
Her smile widened, showing off straight white teeth that only came from braces. Mine were fairly straight, only my bottom front ones crooked. With four kids to feed that was close enough for my parents.
"I thought that looked like your work."
"Good eye." I pushed her book back toward her. "Still not interested in an apprentice. I've got new hires and the shop to run."
Her face sobered. "Yes. I've heard about your ... changes. I think that was one of the reasons Zan made me promise to come to you."
Nice to know my "changes" were making the rounds. Some called them changes. I went with straight up betrayal.
"I could help, take some of the burden off your shoulders. Ordering, front desk help, cleaning."
Usually I had wannabes coming in the door who thought because they were good at art and had watched some show on TV they could become a tattooer. Pissed me the fuck up. Now I had someone begging to be a receptionist or an assistant, not a tattooer. That was either the stupidest pitch or brilliant. It was all the shit I hated doing. Same with my other employees who never failed to bitch when I had them do it.
"I need to finish my apprenticeship and Zan insisted it be you."
Zan. My one fucking weakness.
This woman obviously knew it and was playing it hard.
"Damn it." I flipped open the folder.
Whoa. I whistled at the cherry blossom, its limbs shriveled and the pink petals scattered at the base. A melting stopwatch filled the next page, its numbers sliding from the face. What was supposed to have been a courtesy glance to honor Zan became me poring over every page. How had stuff this dark come out of someone looking so sweet? I spent even longer on the pictures of actual tattoos on skin. I studied the line work, shading and placement.
I glanced up at Cassie who was twisting her hands in front of her. "You're good. Good enough to be on your own."
I flipped to the last page. My stomach jackknifed. I recognized that skin. That wrinkled, rough skin had guarded one of the softest hearts there was. The skin also sported a lighthouse that hadn't been there the last time I'd seen her.
"Well?" I demanded. "Why aren't you?"
"I'm not ready yet. I won't be ready to be a full-time tattooer until May."
Uh, did this little pixie really not know the way things worked? Zan couldn't have been that lax. Apprenticeships didn't have a particular end date. When your mentor thought you were ready, you were ready. Judging from her portfolio, she was ready.
So why the hell wasn't she tattooing? Maybe she choked when it was time to work on clients or freaked them out with her nervousness. There was no way in hell I'd get ink from someone if their smile had the desperate edge hers did. But it wouldn't take long to teach her to get it together. Not four months.
In total Zan had spent five years with me. She'd had a shit load of stuff to work on. The tattooing I'd gotten down. It was the keeping my lips zipped and not starting shit that had taken so long. But Zan had kept with it. She'd stuck by me.
Now this Cassie didn't have that. She'd been tossed out on her own without the best fucking mentor on the planet. I'd been there, left without the person I revered. My dad hadn't died, but to him I might as well have.
Shit. I brought my hand up and caught myself before I put my fingers in my hair. I was using a new gel for my pompadour. I was going to test every minute of the fourteen-hour hold it claimed.
"Ten tomorrow. Be here." I pointed my finger at her. "Not a second late or it's a no. Got it?"
"I'll be here." She'd almost made it to the door before she came back and grabbed her portfolio, cheeks bright pink. "You won't regret this."
"You're proud of this?"
I dropped my gaze from MJ's brown eyes drilling into me to my drawing. I'd thought it was good, one of my best. But if she had to ask, it must mean it wasn't.
And now she was impatient with me. The churning in my gut intensified. In the three days I'd been at Thorn & Thistle she'd had two moods with me — impatient and angry. The worst, by far, were the times I'd caught her looking at me with her lip curled.
"This is the best you can do?" She shook my sketch in front of my face.
What could I have done to make her like it? Was it the colors? The line work? If I admitted that yes, that was my best, how much angrier would she get?
"I ... I ... I don't think you should do newspaper ads anymore."
Her expression questioned my sanity. "What?"
Yes — what? Had I thought blurting out my opinion would impress her? Not working. Definitely not working. A drop of sweat trailed down my back to gather with the others. Nothing I did impressed her. Not cleaning the bathrooms. Not reorganizing the front desk.
I needed something. Anything. With each hour I could practically see her regret growing for taking me on.
I licked my lips and tried to find my voice, which now, when I wanted it, had gone hiding. "I overheard you talk about revenue and I don't think you should do another newspaper ad. It isn't helping."
Slowly, so very slowly, she lowered my sketch. Her eyes never left me, not even a split-second reprieve from her severe stare. "Are you listening in to my conversations now?"
Oh god. What had I done? I was not going to admit that yes, I listened every opportunity I got. It was all part of my quest to win her over. Something she said might give me insight on how to do that.
There were few benefits to being quiet, but one was how often people forgot I even existed and talked around me.
"I want to help," I said, hoping we could gloss over the fact that I'd been eavesdropping, since it was to her benefit. Beneficial eavesdropping, I'd make it a thing. "I've asked each new client what's brought them in and only one person told me the ad. Three days, one person. The ad was three hundred dollars, but the person's tattoo was only one hundred and twenty. You lost money."
MJ folded her arms over her chest. "Are you a tattooer or a secretary?"
"I don't believe in labels. I'm a lot of things."
Her eyes widened and then her lips started to curve upward.
I'd done it. I'd gotten her to smile. What a smile it was. She didn't go all out. But the curving of what I now realized where surprisingly full lips was enough to soften the edges, to draw my eye to the lines at the side of her mouth instead of the deep grooves in her forehead when she frowned at me.
"Is that right?" She shook her head, her smile disappearing as fast as it'd come. "Three hundred fucking dollars."
Relief pushed out the tension. If she liked that one, I had plenty more. I reached for the little notebook I always kept with me. Before it could even clear my pocket, MJ was lifting my sketch and waving it in my face.
"We were talking about this piece of shit. You were telling me if this was ..."
"Hey, I need to talk to you," Jamie, the most senior artist, said, coming to stand by me.
She was already my favorite because she showed me the least hostility. With her perfect timing now, she cemented she'd be getting the best berries from the fruit tray I brought tomorrow.
"What?" MJ snapped.
"We got four more reviews this week."
I took a step back even though MJ's murderous expression wasn't directed at me. If it had I was pretty sure I'd need a defibrillator.
MJ snatched Jamie's phone.
"Don't break it."
"It's not your phone I want to break." MJ glared at the screen. "'Got a tattoo there that looks like my kindergartner's drawing. No wait, he's better.'"
As MJ continued to scroll down and read, I got out my phone and tried to find the site MJ was reading from.
Shop has really gone downhill.
Heard under new management. They suck.
Think all the good artists are gone.
I was so uncomfortable in there I left.
Wow. The one stars had exploded since the last time I'd checked. Once Zan told me that she thought MJ should be my mentor, I'd researched the shop. The truth was that I'd been keeping tabs on MJ's career before that. I'd always been in awe of her talent, while at the same time, it was women like her who had kept me from tattooing. I saw how tough and commanding they were and knew I didn't belong in that club. Until Zan showed me different. From Zan I'd learned that tattoo artists could be anyone. There was room for everyone.
I clicked on the reviews for the two newest team members. They had less experience and their work showed it. But most of the bad reviews, if they listed a specific artist, focused on MJ, Jamie and Vivian, the other senior team member. It made no sense. Their work was unparalleled.
None of these reviewers had left a picture of the tattoos that were supposedly so bad. Nor did any of them have a picture or any identifying information. In fact, for most of them the review of the shop was their only one.
"You guys are being targeted."
Jamie nodded at me before looking back at MJ. "Yeah, we are."
It didn't take a genius to know who was doing the targeting. Months ago MJ's business partner, Heidi, had left the shop, taking half the staff with her. Rumors were there'd been no notice and it'd been far from amicable.
"Fuck them." MJ glared at the screen and then carefully handed Jamie's phone back like she didn't trust herself not to throw it after all. She blew out a breath and tilted her neck from one side to the other until it cracked. "Ugh. Anything else?"
Wait. Else? They needed to focus on this.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "New Ink On Life"
Copyright © 2019 Jennie Davids.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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