Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(2)

by Meghan March

“You can’t run from this, sweetheart.”

I drew back, loathing releasing her for what might be the last time, and met her kind brown eyes. “I know. But I can try.”

I took a sealed envelope from the pocket of my duffle and held it out. “Could you make sure my mother gets this?”

She gave me a sad smile. I threw myself into her arms one more time. I kissed her papery cheek and blinked back the gathering tears. “Thank you. For … everything.”

She stepped back, and her chapped hands cupped my face. “Charlotte, just because you are your father’s daughter does not make you like him.”

I nodded. Because she would argue with me until the end of time to prove her point. But she was wrong about this one. I was my father’s daughter. His blood. Raised in his image to follow in his footsteps. If he was capable of that kind of evil, what was I capable of? I never wanted to find out. I kissed her cheek one more time and opened the door, leaving behind the only life I’d ever known.

One year later.

New Orleans, Louisiana.

“Getting Mandy’s name tattooed on your ass is the worst fucking idea you’ve ever had. And that’s saying something.” A metallic ding sounded, and a rush of cold air hit me as Nate and I followed Derek into Voodoo Ink, hoping to hell I could talk him out of it. Not only would I be the worst best man in the history of the planet, but Mandy would have my ass. There was no way this wouldn’t end up being my fault.

Flash drawings papered the black walls. Tiny pinpricks of light twinkled in the ceiling, which was swirled with white, red, and black paint. They looked like a million stars in an apocalyptic sky. The place was creepy, but it had a phenomenal reputation.

“She’s gonna fuckin’ love it, man. I know my woman,” Derek said, his words slurring. I shrugged, hoping this place would refuse to tattoo his drunken ass.

A petite woman dressed in skinny jeans and a tight white tank top strolled out from a hallway to stand behind the counter. Her hair hung in waves that stopped midway down her back. The tangles of black were interspersed with sections dyed deep red and purple. Tattoos started at her shoulders and continued down to her wrists. Some were words, others intricate black and gray drawings. Even more were brilliantly colored, swirling designs. She narrowed her eyes, sizing us up. I pictured us from her perspective: three guys, dressed in jeans and partially unbuttoned dress shirts—courtesy of the strippers we’d barely escaped. We probably looked like douchebags. And one of us wanted his ass tattooed. Yeah. Total fucking douchebags.

“What can I do for you, gentlemen?” She tilted her head and watched as Derek stumbled into one of the waiting room chairs. I yanked him back and steadied him.

“I want a tattoo right here.” Derek slapped the right side of his ass. “Of my bride’s name.” The woman tilted her head the other direction.

“What about that seems like a good idea to you?” she asked.

“She’ll fuckin’ love it.”

She pursed her lips. “Doubtful.” She looked at me for the first time. “Bachelor party?”

I nodded, tongue gone thick. Her aqua eyes speared me. I’d never seen eyes that color. Her features were delicate, with high cheekbones and a slightly turned-up nose. Her dark and vibrant hair seemed at odds with her creamy, pale skin. The combination of the hair, eyes, and tattoos was striking, more intoxicating than the dozen or so drinks I’d already consumed. She was the polar opposite of the perfectly coifed and manicured women my parents pushed at me. She was … I couldn’t think of a word that didn’t sound stupid, even in my head.

“I’m afraid we can’t help you. We have a strict ‘no dumb fucking idea’ tattoo policy for drunk people.”

“Come on … don’t be like that,” Derek said.

Nate added, “You’re like two blocks off Bourbon. You gotta tattoo drunk people all the time.”

She pointed to the sign on the wall. It read: NOLA To Do List: 1. Get tattoo. 2. Get wasted.

“We’re sticklers. Come back tomorrow after you’re done puking. If you still want your future wife’s name on your ass, Delilah or Con will be happy to do it. Have a good night.” She faked a smile and nodded to the door. We’d been dismissed.

Derek whined, but followed as Nate led him outside. My feet were rooted to the black-and-white checkered linoleum floor. Even through the haze of alcohol, one thought stuck out: I couldn’t leave without getting her name.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Her narrowed gaze landed on me, and she started to turn away. No. I couldn’t let her leave without finding out her name. It might’ve been a drunken compulsion, but it was a compulsion all the same. I reached across the counter and grabbed her wrist. She froze.

“We have a problem here, Lee?” A tall blond man dressed in a faded Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and ripped jeans, tattooed from neck to wrists, sauntered out of the back room. He stopped next to Lee and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her into him. The gesture was so possessive that even my drunk ass couldn’t miss it. I dropped her wrist.

“No problem. Just wanted to know her name.”

He raised an eyebrow. Under the ink, he was still the punk who’d gotten expelled from our prep school for hot-boxing the athletic director’s office. If I recalled correctly, he’d ended up in military school after that stunt. Constantine Leahy. Well, fuck.

“It’s fine, Con. I’m good. He was just leaving.” A second dismissal. And it blew.

Con looked at me, his eyes not giving anything away. He glanced down to the tattoo on the inside of my forearm. “We touch up work for vets for free. Come on back anytime—before you start tipping ‘em back.” He jerked a chin toward the sign. I stared at his hand curling around her waist. It was too familiar to be an act. They looked like a perfect couple. All ink and fuck you attitudes.

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” I turned and walked away. I told myself it was for the best. She wasn’t for me. But those eyes…

“Was the caveman act really necessary?” I asked Con, my boss, friend, and sometimes fuck buddy, as I stepped out of his hold.

“You can’t tell me he wasn’t trying to pick you up and take you home.”

“Maybe I wanted him to.” Our arrangement was completely open. The only rule: if you were with someone else, you had to get tested before we got together again. Well, I guess it was really my rule for Con. I hadn’t yet needed to get tested, but he regularly went home with other women. I felt no jealousy. I used Con to feel close to someone occasionally, and it didn’t hurt that he was a stellar lay. He was the only guy who’d touched me in more than a casual way since I’d left New York. I shoved the thought of home to the back of my brain. After all, it wasn’t home any more. I’d gone days without thinking about my old life. It was a game I played. How long could I go without remembering? I was getting better at it. Sex, booze, and tattoos helped. Although, I was a little light on the sex portion of the equation lately; it’d been over two months since I’d been with Con.