Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(4)

by Meghan March

I pushed open the door of Voodoo Ink at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon. I’d spent the morning hung over and pathetic, with one thought from the night before bothering the shit out of me—there was no way that girl was as stunning as I’d remembered. I mean, I had on beer goggles, tequila goggles, Hurricane goggles, and every other kind of goggles out there. But my curiosity had gotten the better of me. It was a thread of my drunken compulsion from the night before that my brain wouldn’t let go of. I had to know.

Just like last night, the bell dinged and a cool rush of air conditioning hit me as I stepped inside. The place was deserted, and, even sober, it was still creepy looking. A glance at the door told me they’d just opened and would stay open until 2 AM. I couldn’t figure out how the rule about not tattooing drunks gave them enough customers to stay open that late. Not my business or my problem. A woman with chin-length blond and pink hair, wearing a ‘50s style pink and orange polka dot dress, was sitting at the counter.

No Lee.

And yes, I remembered her name, even after the last two bars we hit.

“Hey, handsome. How can I help you?”

I looked around, but I didn’t see anyone else. Disappointing, but it’d been worth a shot. I glanced down at my faded tattoo. Might as well make the trip a useful one.

“Con mentioned something about doing touch-ups for veterans.” I held out my forearm where the trident and anchor I’d gotten shortly after graduation from the Naval Academy were now a dull gray.

The woman flipped open the appointment book on the counter and then extended a hand with orange-tipped nails. “I’m Delilah, and I’d be happy to do that for you. Thank you for your service.” I shook her hand and followed her to one of the small rooms where she pushed aside the black curtain. “I’m the only one here right now,” she explained. “We may get interrupted with walk-ins, but you picked a good time, because things don’t usually pick up until later.”

I almost asked about Lee, but held my tongue.

Delilah’s eyes narrowed at my silence. “Don’t think that means I won’t fuck you up if you try to make a move on me. You don’t have the kind of equipment I like.”

I held back a smile at her serious expression. “Duly noted, ma’am.”

She got to work.

Just over an hour later, I was pretty fucking happy with the touched-up tattoo. It looked better than it had when I’d originally gotten it. I’d shot the shit with Delilah, and she’d drawn up another tattoo for me. One that I’d been thinking about getting for years, but had never made time to actually do it. It was a memorial. A list of dates I knew by heart and the call signs of the brothers I’d lost. Simple script. Nothing fancy. But long overdue. I was pulling my T-shirt off so she could place the transfer paper on my left shoulder blade when I heard a door shutting and what sounded like nails clicking on the linoleum floor. And then I heard her voice.

“Sorry I’m late, Delilah! Huck chased after one of the horse-drawn carriages and yanked me off my bike. I ripped my damn jeans, and I need the freaking first aid kit.”

Delilah jumped into action, but I remained in place.

“Oh sweetie, look at your knee. And your hands. Ouch. Clean yourself up. I’ve got this covered. Just doing a walk-in.” Delilah’s voice lowered. “And if I were into guys … let me tell you…”

Someone snorted. “As many times as I’ve heard you say that … don’t you think you might be bi-curious?”

My attention was wrenched away from their conversation when the clicking nails materialized in the doorway of the tiny room as a massive fucking dog. His black and brown swirled fur was short, thick, and dense. He stared me down with giant, dark brown eyes.

“Huck! C’mere, baby. Get outta there.” Lee’s voice was a smoky alto and sexy as hell.

She peeked a head into the room. “Sorry—” She jerked back. “It’s you.”

I couldn’t help the smirk that tugged at the corners of my mouth. I wasn’t just a faceless customer. Good to know.

“And it’s you. Lee, right?”

She nodded slowly. “Charlie, actually. Con’s the only one who calls me Lee.”

I held out my hand. “Simon.”

She reached out to reciprocate the gesture, but I saw the angry red scrapes on the base of her palm, and turned her small hand over in mine. “You should probably take care of that.”

She scrunched her nose. “I know. But it’s going to hurt like hell when I pour that stinging stuff on it. I’m trying to psych myself up first.” She looked down at the dog that had moved to place himself directly between us. “And I need to get Huck into the back room. I don’t like to let him wander. He scares the shit out of customers.”

“Since he’s roughly the size of a pony, I can see why.” The dog was eyeballing me as I held his mistress’s hand in mine. “Is he going to rip me to pieces for touching you?”

She smiled down at the furry giant. “If he thought you were a threat, probably. If he knew you, maybe not. But I don’t know you, so I’m not introducing you to my dog. For all I know, you could be some creepy stalker.” She eyed me up and down, and it occurred to me that I was shirtless. And she was studying the tattoo over my left pectoral muscle … and the rest of my chest … and my abs … before she dragged her gaze back up to my face. If I knew anything about women, which was debatable for any man, I would’ve said she looked interested.

I released her hand and flipped over my forearm. “Came back for my touch up. And Delilah’s going to hook me up with another.”

“She does great work. I’m sure you’ll be pleased.” Charlie inhaled and let out a long breath. “I guess I better go clean myself up. Come on, Huck.”

She turned away, and the dog followed close on her heels.

Well, I had my answer.

She was every bit as gorgeous as I remembered.

I pulled the giant first aid kit out from under the sink in the employee bathroom. I hadn’t lied to the guy. Simon. I really didn’t want to pour that shit on my hands and knee. It would hurt like hell, and Juanita wasn’t here to blow on it and lessen the sting like she had when I was a kid. Dammit. Two days in a row. But I couldn’t push the thought of Juanita aside. I missed her. I kept up with her life as best I could with my infrequent stops at the public library. There, at least, my searches and internet browsing couldn’t be tracked back to me. But since the library wasn’t Huck-friendly, and I pretty much took him everywhere, I didn’t get to keep as close of tabs on her as I would have liked. Huck’s presence had deterred a close call about six months ago, and after that he’d become sort of a security blanket. Without him, I might have … I shivered, remembering the scrape of the brick across my cheek as some tweaker asshole had shoved me up against the public restroom at the NOLA City Bark—the off-leash dog park downtown.