The breathtaking finale to Scarlett Cole's smoldering tattoo series.
When her car breaks down off the side of a lonely highway far from her sunny Miami home, tattoo artist Lia never expected her very own white knight to ride up on the back of a barely street-legal motorcycle...and she never expected to fall for her dark savior. After a string of failed relationships and a bruised heart Lia is not looking for forever, and the hot mechanic, with his sexy scruff and shaggy hair, is simply impossible to resist. He's the perfect candidate for a mind-blowingly-perfect, no-strings-attached one-night stand.
Reid left his life in Chicago far behind him and hasn't been back, but he's never been able to escape the guilt he feels about his own painful role in inviting a monster into his baby sister's life. A monster who almost destroyed her. Being with Lia is an unexpected gift, one he doesn't feel he deserves. As unique and beautiful as the designs she inks, theirtheir one night together has him wanting more than he should. When he surprises her at her tattoo studio, Second Circle Tattoos, in Miami, he's in for a shock—and a fist to the face—when his past and present collide.
With secrets coming to the surface, Reid and Lia are thrown into a world of betray and lies that threatens to pull them under, and the last link to his former life may be the darkest of them all.
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About the Author
Born in England, Scarlett Cole traveled the world, living in Japan and the United States before settling in Canada where she met her own personal hero – all six and a half feet of him. She now lives with her husband and children in Manchester, England where she's at work on her next book. She is the author of The Strongest Steel.
Read an Excerpt
The Darkest Link
By Scarlett Cole
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Scarlett Cole
All rights reserved.
"It isn't your platform we're worried about, Franklin. It's the most solid agenda I've ever seen. True to the roots of the party, it will be well received. It's your family's image that concerns us."
Julianna Carlisle inched closer to the large wooden door, slightly ajar, that stood as guardian to her father's home office. She didn't recognize the speaker's voice. At twenty-nine years of age, she considered herself above eavesdropping, but the gruff mention of her family had caught her attention as she'd silently let herself into her parents' home in the luxury gated community of Star Island, the crown of Miami real estate.
"It's clear that my wife will require some training for the role."
"Training might be too inadequate a word," another voice added. "She's no Barbara Bush, or Nancy Reagan. Heck, even Betty Ford, for all of her more social ideals."
Lia shivered a little. The conversation confirmed her worst fears. Her father had danced on the edge of a full-blown push into politics for most of her life. He was a highly regarded defense attorney with an ego bolstered by his win rate, but it didn't come close to quenching his ambition.
"And then there is your daughter ..." The speaker let the words hang. Lia leaned into the doorway.
For a single heartbeat, Lia waited to hear her father defend her, to tell the asshole to watch what he said. But she knew he wouldn't, just as surely as she'd never remove the tattoos he despised from her skin.
"I'm aware," her father replied, just as she'd expected. "Julianna has always been ... spirited. Believe me, I have every intention of bringing her to heel before my decision to run for governor is made public. We have some time before that has to happen."
Her heart sank. After all these years, she should have been used to the perpetual feeling of parental disapproval. Her grip tightened on the small gift bag she carried.
"Yes and no," the speaker replied. "You need to start lining up your sponsors now while the recent election loss is still raw."
"Believe me, Charles," her father replied crisply. "I know how to manage my family."
"Very well, Carlisle. I will let the donors know. Please confirm when you have things in order," the other person said resolutely.
Beneath her favorite vintage 1950s navy-blue halter-neck dress, her legs shook. Bring her to heel. Lord knew her father had been trying for years. They didn't agree on a single aspect of her life. He hated that she was a tattoo artist most of all. Called tattoos a modern scourge. Every time a public health official set foot in Second Circle Tattoos, the Miami Beach studio where she worked, she was convinced it was her father's doing. He knew all the right people to make her life miserable.
Shoring up her defenses, and taking care not to knock the Lalique Anemones Grand Vase off the small table behind her, she turned and hurried in the direction of the large sunroom at the back of the house that her mother had converted into a huge greenhouse. It would be a billion degrees in there, the late-August Miami sunshine all but baking the glass room where her mom nurtured all kinds of tropical plants. Though Lia joked that they were a replacement for her and her brother, Ben, an active-duty Navy SEAL, in truth her mother had always had a fascination with planting and grafting. Lia had been twelve when she'd realized it was the only place in the house her father didn't visit.
"Mom," she called out from the doorway. Unlike her father, Lia loved the scent and collision of color that clashed brilliantly with the classic taupe-and-white decor in the rest of the house, but the humidity would ruin the victory rolls she'd carefully pinned her hair into, and she wouldn't have time to fix them before she hit the road for the tattoo expo.
"One moment, Julianna." Her mother's melodic voice sounded from the back of the room. She heard the clatter of tools and the hiss of the faucet and then Grace Carlisle appeared. She removed the perfectly fitted lab coat that she preferred to gardening overalls, revealing her usual twinset, a pale mocha this time to match the walls, and pearls. It was as if her mom were two different people. The one in the greenhouse, and the one everywhere else. "How are you?" she asked quietly, bussing the air in the general direction of Lia's cheeks. It was as close to a display of emotion as her mother ever got.
"I'm good," Lia replied, resisting the urge to straighten her skirt or remove a mutinous piece of imaginary lint under her mother's scrutiny. In her head, all the criticisms she'd heard growing up were on replay. "Only strippers wear platform shoes, dear." "The difference between décolleté and décolletage is a couple of inches and your pride." "Vintage is still secondhand."
But that was before her mother had become a shell of who she used to be. Before she'd stopped leaving the house to do all the things she used to love. And most definitely before she'd required medication to function.
Lia handed her mother the gift bag. "Happy birthday, Mom."
Her mom's hand fluttered to her chest, and raw surprise sparkled in her eyes. "You remembered," she whispered.
Lia thought back to Granny Emmeline's words the night before she died. "I remember who your mother was before she met my son. Promise me you'll keep reaching for her, Lia, because she's trapped inside herself."
Carefully, Grace slid the gift out of the vibrant orange gift bag and unwrapped the bright cerise-colored tissue. The sun hit the crystal butterfly at exactly the right moment, sending rainbows sparkling all over the bland, white kitchen walls.
"I thought you could hang it in there," Lia said, tilting her chin in the direction of the sunroom.
Grace passed her fingers over it gently. "It's beautiful, Lia. You never forget. Thank you." Tears glittered in her mom's eyes, and at moments like this, Lia understood the wisdom in Granny Emmeline's words.
"Did Daddy remember?" Lia asked even though she already knew the answer.
Her mom shook her head sadly. "He's been very busy this past week and has another television segment next week that he is preparing for. I'm sure he'll remember eventually."
Lia hated the way her mom excused his behavior. There were old photographs of the two of them dotted around the house that gave the illusion they'd loved each other once. Arms wrapped around each other, giant smiles on their faces, but somewhere along the line her father had stopped, leaving her mother desperate for the smallest hint of affection.
"Grace," her father bellowed from the hallway. "Where is Julianna? I see that awful car of hers in the driveway."
Lia recognized the tone, the one that said he was about to lay down the law, and her stomach tightened.
Her mom dropped the butterfly back into the bag, and pulled open a kitchen drawer, hiding it inside. "You'd better go," her mom whispered, the light gone from her eyes as she ushered her gently toward the garden. She swiped a finger under her eyes before air kissing Lia again. "The Herald found out he advocated for the end of the death penalty while in law school and now he's furious."
"I love you, Mom," Lia whispered as she hurried through the french doors. Her mother hadn't said she loved her, too. She never did. But it didn't stop Lia from hoping that one day she would.
She hurried around the side of the house at a jog, careful not to damage the heels of her shoes in the gravel, and slipped into her car. Quickly, she attempted to start the engine.
"Come on, Cherry," she encouraged, using the pet name for her car.
It coughed and complained before finally roaring to life. Cursing the sound, she tried to think back to when she'd last had her baby serviced. Probably too long ago.
Lia pulled out of the driveway, taking a final look in the rearview mirror just in time to see her father jogging down the front steps, waving furiously to get her attention. He'd be angry with her for not stopping, and her heart was pounding, but Lia found it difficult to care.
Now there was nothing between her and Orlando other than a couple hundred miles on Florida's Turnpike. Cujo, one of the tattoo artists she worked with, had once told her she had a heavy foot when it came to the accelerator of her bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury, and as the needle nudged closer and closer to ninety, she wondered how her father would react if she was pulled over. It was almost worth getting a ticket for, just to annoy him.
Her sat-nav said three and a half hours, but she planned to nail it in three, then go visit a little vintage clothes shop she loved to have a celebratory spend. Most people wouldn't consider being asked to give a presentation at the tattoo expo in Orlando as something worth celebrating, but to her, it was a big fricking deal. Because it meant progress in her career. Finally.
Her boss, Trent Andrews, was co-host of a tattooing reality TV show called Inked, and they'd recently filmed an episode at their own studio, resulting in exposure for all of them. Being asked to be guest speaker at one of the events was a huge honor, and while she was slightly terrified at the thought of speaking in front of so many people, Lia had been excited for weeks.
But no matter how hard she tried, it was impossible to stop thinking about the conversation she'd overheard. Who were those people? And how exactly did her father plan to bring her into line?
Not that she would ever allow that to happen.
After two hours, the traffic jam on the highway was sapping her soul, as were her thoughts. There was no indication the cars would clear anytime soon, so Lia weighed her options. She could sit in smog and lose her mind, or she could take a detour that was longer than her original plans but at least would be scenic. Choosing the latter, she pulled off the Turnpike, and took Hutchinson Island north. The crystal blue water sparkled as though diamonds danced on the surface, and a warm breeze blew through the windows. At times like this, Lia wished she'd bought the convertible instead of the hard-top, but the moment she'd watched Stephen King's movie Christine, she'd been hooked on the idea of one day owning her own Plymouth. What did she care if the car was possessed? It was red and white and vintage, and she'd wanted it badly. Plus, her father hated it, which was another point in its favor.
As if the car knew she was having remorse for not getting a convertible, it started to shudder and a strange knocking noise came from under the hood. Lia pressed her foot to the gas, but the car continued to slow.
"Oh, no, Cherry," she said, stroking the dashboard in an act of desperation. "Don't stop now. No. No."
But the car ignored her. Putting on her warning lights, Lia pulled over to the side of the road.
"Perfect fucking timing," she muttered. "You couldn't have done this in the underground parking lot of the condo, or at the gas station?"
Lia stepped outside, kicked the tire, which hurt her toe more than the car, and popped the hood. Not that she had the first clue as to what she was doing. But it was what people seemed to do when cars broke down, the universal symbol for Help me, please. Maybe some passerby would take pity on her.
Perhaps she should start walking back toward the buildings she'd passed a few minutes earlier. She looked down at her shoes and huffed out a breath. Usually she loved her blue-and-white Mary Janes with the bright red daisies as buttons, but right now, they were the least practical footwear she could imagine. Ruining them by walking down the gritty and sandy highway was not an option. Lia reached into the car for her phone to call her roadside recovery company. She pulled the card from her purse, studying it for a phone number.
"Goddammit," she cried, pinching the bridge of her nose. How on earth had she let the renewal slip by last month? Perhaps her brother, Ben, was right when he joked that he got all the serious and she got all the impulsive. Taking a deep breath, she cricked her neck from left to right. Now she needed to find a local garage or towing company. She tugged at the knot in her scarf and pulled it off before dropping it onto the passenger seat through the window.
"Cherry, sweetheart," she said, patting the roof of the car. "I love you dearly, but keep this shit up and I'll put you through a goddamn car crusher."
There wasn't even a stupid palm tree she could stand under for shade, just a whole bunch of low-lying green shrubs separating her from the sand. Furiously, she pulled out a red-and-white polka-dotted umbrella from her trunk. There was no way she was going to make it to the vintage shop now. She opened the umbrella up, and slammed the trunk down.
Leaning back against the car, Lia sighed and began to search for local roadside assistance on her phone, but was immediately disturbed by the roar of an exceedingly loud motorcycle. She lifted the umbrella a little to admire the bike. The rider glanced her way. In spite of the soaring temperatures, the helmet and leather did nothing to hide the fact that he was a guy. In a heartbeat he was gone — which was a crying shame because a guy with shoulders that broad and that kind of ass should be illegal.
Bikers did it for her, no question. She just couldn't put her finger on why. Maybe it was the mystique of the visor, or the smell of gasoline and leather. Big hands capable of revving the accelerator had always made her tummy flutter. Then again, perhaps she'd just read too many motorbike-club romances containing characters with names like Deuce or Horse.
She shivered at the thought. What she really should be praying for was a pickup truck, and a big guy in denim overalls called Butch or Axel who knew his way around a Plymouth.
"Focus," Lia snapped to herself. She had commitments, and it was time to figure out logistics.
But that biker. Damn.
Lia smiled at the direction of her thoughts. It really had been too long since she'd last gotten laid.
* * *
Reid Kennedy cranked the accelerator on his custom-made supercharged bike, built fractionally within the limits of street-legal. Business was done for the day, or almost as good as. He'd left Shaun and Jason wrapping up an exhaust replacement at Kenny's, his garage — part repair shop, part custom bike business. One had kept the lights on while he built up a reputation for the other. One was his job, the other, his passion.
Tyrell Banks was on his mind. The nine-year-old boy was a mechanic in the making for sure. Like some of the other young boys Reid mentored through a program at the local community center in Fort Pierce, Tyrell brought to the shop a sense of curiosity that was contagious. But the split lip he'd sported the previous evening kept making its way into Reid's thoughts. And the explanation Tyrell had given him was highly plausible. Every young boy had fallen off his bike at some point. Had Tyrell not had fingermarks on his arm two days earlier and a bruise beneath his eye the week before, Reid might have been convinced.
He let the throttle loose and picked up speed, allowing the noise of the bike and the air rushing around his helmet to drown out the compelling need to go over to Tyrell's father's place and challenge him. He'd talk to Donyell, the social worker attached to the boys' club, and sound her out, try to fix things legally. How could he be an example to these boys if he just jumped in with both feet without thinking? That was what had gotten him into his own mess, part of the reason he was over twelve hundred miles away from his family without any contact. These days he tried to suppress the urge to charge headfirst into problems and tried to think about all the possible outcomes first. It still didn't feel natural, though, even after nearly six years of trying to be a better man.
Excerpted from The Darkest Link by Scarlett Cole. Copyright © 2016 Scarlett Cole. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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