Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(3)

by Meghan March

“Yeah, right. He wasn’t exactly your type.”

“Really?” I pointed at the door. “Did you see the same guy I did? Because he was every woman’s type.” Tall, broad shouldered, with dark hair styled in that artfully messy way, a little stubble on his jaw, and flashing hazel eyes. The military ink on the inside of his corded forearm was pretty hot too.

“A little straight-edge for you, Lee. Trust me. Plus, you shouldn’t even be thinking about leaving here with some guy you just met. I thought you were smarter than that.” Con frowned down at me.

I winced, feeling guilty, and knowing he was right. In my quest to lie as little as possible about my past, I let people assume whatever they wanted about my motives for keeping a low profile. Con’s assumption: I was running from an abusive boyfriend. Some days I wished that was the truth, and then I wanted to kick my own ass for feeling sorry for myself and thinking my messed up situation was anywhere near as bad as a battered woman’s. Besides, I didn’t deserve pity. Even from myself.

I looked at the clock. “You care if I head out? I’m working an early shift tomorrow.”

He smoothed my hair back from my face. “You work too damn hard. I wish you’d just let me…” His statement trailed off when I looked away. It was a conversation we’d had too many times to count. “Get your mutt, and get out of here, Lee.” Con was the only person who called me Lee. He claimed I was too sexy to call by a guy’s name. Whatever. Thankfully, given what he assumed to be my situation, he paid me under the table and had never asked to see my ID. So I’d let him call me whatever the hell he wanted.

I grinned. “Thanks, boss.” I whistled shrilly, and he clamped his hands over his ears.

“Jesus, fuck. Was that necessary?”

“That’s for cock-blocking me.”

Con rolled his eyes as my brindle mutt trotted out of the back room. His head came up past the counter, and he stood thirty inches tall at his haunches. Huck and I had arrived in New Orleans on the same day one year earlier, or so I’d been told. I’d met him on my third day in the Crescent City. He was the newest resident of the Humane Society of New Orleans, and I was their newest volunteer. I took one look at the thirty pounds of roly-poly bear-cub-looking pup and begged Harriet, my honorary grandmother and landlord, if she’d allow a pet. She’d agreed. When I’d learned that he’d been found floating down the Mississippi on a pile of plywood and old tires, I’d realized that he was my very own Huckleberry Finn. Fast forward one year, and another 130 pounds, and Huck and I were inseparable. The best I could figure, he was a cross between an English Mastiff and a Great Dane. I wasn’t sure what other combination would produce such a monster. He was my baby, my guardian, and an irreplaceable part of the new family I’d built. Unfortunately, my volunteering had been curtailed by my crazy work schedule.

Con smacked my ass, and Huck growled softly. “Stow it, mutt. I let you sleep on my goddamn couch.” Con held out a hand, and Huck head-butted it. I wondered if Con had been someone Huck didn’t know, whether he might have lost that hand. It was a theory I didn’t want to test.

“Get out of here then, girl. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Con leaned down and brushed a kiss across my temple.

I snagged my bag from the break room and headed out the back door. I unchained my pale blue Schwinn and hooked a leash to Huck’s collar. He tolerated the indignity for appearance—and leash law’s—sake. Given the thick Friday night crowd, I opted to walk my bike instead of ride. Jimmy, my favorite hot dog vendor, was set up on the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis. He grinned and waved his tongs as I slipped through the mass of people.

“You want the usual, Ms. Charlie?”

“Yes, sir. One with everything and one plain.”

He handed me one hotdog wrapped and the other one unwrapped. Huck sat at my feet, licking his chops; he knew how this worked. He downed his in two head-jerking bites.

I shook my head. “Someday you’ll learn to savor your food, I swear.” I looked up at Jimmy. “Have a good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“It’s a date, Ms. Charlie. To be sure, it’s a date.”

I pushed my bike, and the drunken revelers parted like the Red Sea. It was a common occurrence when traveling with Huck. His rangy stride was pure king of the beasts, and he looked mean as fuck, so no one bothered us.

A half-mile later I dug out my keys and unlocked the narrow wrought iron gate that blocked off the passage leading to my secret garden oasis. Okay, Harriet’s secret garden oasis, but she let me use it. Locking the gate behind me, I unclipped Huck’s leash, and he trotted over to his designated grassy section. After he’d taken care of business, we ascended the wrought iron spiral staircase that led to my 500 square foot apartment. It had hardwood floors, a space that could loosely be called a kitchen, an itty-bitty bathroom, and skylights dotting the ceiling throughout. It might be tiny and humble, but it was mine. Well, again, it was Harriet’s, but she leased it to me. The woman was my very own fairy godmother. She was the grandmother of my crazy best friend from college. The one who my mother begged me not to befriend because she had tattoos, and even worse, she was a Democrat. Lena Zwiers was actually more of a socialist, but I didn’t tell my mother that. After college, she’d opted for a stint in the Peace Corps and was now living in Madagascar. Beyond being a fantastic—though long distance—friend, Lena had begged Harriet to let me rent the place. So when I showed up, fresh off the Greyhound from Atlanta, with my newly black hair still reeking of cheap dye, she’d taken me in with open arms. I paid fair rent, but Harriet treated me like more than a tenant. A shrewd businesswoman who owned several shops in the Quarter, Harriet preferred to spend her time painting and traveling the country showing off her art. She’d farmed out management of the shops to trusted employees, one of whom had agreed to hire me—despite the fact that Harriet was my landlord. Which was the reason I had an early shift tomorrow morning at the Dirty Dog, a vintage clothing and novelty shop. I looked at the clock and sighed. It’d be another night of too little sleep.

I scrubbed the heavy black eyeliner from around my lids and slathered on face cream before curling up in my bed. I reached out a hand to ruffle Huck’s fur where he slept on the rug. With my other hand, I traced the ink on my arm revealed by the dim glow from the skylight. With each line the needle buzzed into my skin, I was another step removed from my former life. The tattoos had become more than camouflage to hide the girl I’d once been; they were a declaration that I was never going back. I’d permanently marked myself to ensure that I could never again fit into the life I’d previously led. The life I’d run from rather than face every day as my father’s daughter. Rather than face constant questioning by the FBI and the chance that the Department of Justice would eventually decide that despite the truth I’d spoken on the stand, I was somehow culpable for my father’s crimes. I could freely admit it had been cowardly to run, but at least by running I gave myself a shot at having some sort of future. A future where my every breath wouldn’t be scrutinized and dissected. Each tat was a conscious, deliberate choice to move toward the new me. I’d taken the tiny spark that had always burned to rebel against my mother’s directives as she groomed me into a perfect society princess, and I’d fanned the flames. The irony of it was, even though I had assumed a false identity, I was finally discovering the real me. All it took was ripping off the blinders I’d worn for twenty-two years.