Authors: Ranae Rose
Inked in the Steel City Book 2
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This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are products of the author’s imagination and are in no way real. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Ranae Rose
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Karen walked into the Hot Ink Tattoo Studio clutching a manila envelope over her speeding heart.
. One of the photos inside bent, and she swore softly as she pulled the envelope away from her body, desperately trying to smooth it back out. If she’d damaged the photos…
Well, if she’d damaged the photos, she’d just have to print out new ones and come back a second time. She fought a manic grin at the thought, struggling to control her expression as the door fell shut behind her, sealing out the waning heat of a summer evening in Pittsburgh.
“Hey, Karen.” Mina beamed from behind the counter where a cash register rested on top of a glass display case showing off body jewelry.
“Hey.” Karen’s voice came out a lot less breezy than she’d intended, and for a second, a spark of amusement seemed to gleam in Mina’s dark eyes.
God, was she really that obvious? There were mirrors in all five of the half-booths that lined the shop’s walls, and she purposely avoided looking at any of them. Her fair skin was always quick to show a blush, and if her cheeks were as red as they felt, she didn’t want to know.
“Jed’s in the back,” Mina called as Karen made her way down the aisle between booths.
“I figured,” Karen said, cringing inwardly. If she hadn’t looked ridiculously excited to see him when she’d walked in with flaming cheeks and a goofy smile, she’d ruined that by making a beeline toward the back of the shop without waiting for Mina to direct her. She’d just been so eager to escape Mina’s knowing gaze – sometimes, having a best friend who worked at the place her crush owned did
seem like an advantage.
. The envelope protested again as she raised a fist to knock on the closed door Jed was definitely behind. She couldn’t help being aware of her heartbeat – it was pounding so loudly in her ears that it almost drowned out the not-so-distant buzzing of a tattoo machine – as her knuckles hit wood.
“Come on in.” Jed’s voice was so deep that it reverberated somewhere in her core – a place she tried hard not to think about as she turned the doorknob and stepped into the combined office and storage space Jed sometimes worked in when he wasn’t tattooing or consulting with a client.
“Karen.” Jed looked up from the desk that took up one corner, his dark eyes a little wider than usual as he placed large hands on its surface and rose.
He looked surprised, which wasn’t exactly shocking – she’d sent him an e-mail telling him she was headed to Hot Ink, but that had been a whopping twenty minutes ago, and she’d high-tailed it to the studio, unable to resist the lure of showing him her latest work in person. She’d more or less memorized his work hours – a completely natural result of having done so much work for his business, of course.
As she stood before his desk, her gaze was drawn to him like a magnet to iron.
He was tall. About 6’3” if Karen’s estimation was correct, and she was a pretty good judge of height – a consequence of being a 5’10” tall woman. Some guys were shorter than her, and most weren’t much taller. But Jed … she noticed every last one of the several inches in their height difference, and his muscular frame made him seem even bigger.
“I brought you those photos.” She lifted the manila envelope and held it between them like it could shield her from the sexiness that radiated from the owner of the Hot Ink Tattoo Studio. The photos were feeble protection against his short but not too-short, almost-black hair and the dark stubble that shadowed his jaw. His dark eyes met hers, and she stood frozen. Some idiotic nervous instinct urged her to hop back and forth, or at least shift her weight from foot to foot, but she stifled the urge.
“McGinnis’ back piece?” Jed rounded the desk and practically pried the envelope from her suddenly stiff fingers.
He took it from her, and with a crackle and a flash of script, it was in his hands.
– she’d written his name across the envelope, as if she could possibly forget who it was meant for. It had taken all her willpower not to dot the ‘I’ in Torino with a heart, or to scrawl her own name next to it.
“Yeah,” she said breathlessly. “I finished going through the images a little early last night, and there were some that turned out so well I couldn’t resist making prints. And well, I thought you might like to look at them in person instead of on a computer screen.”
“This is great,” Jed said, sliding the stack of prints out of the envelope. “I was only expecting an e-mail, but this is even better.”
“Hope you like them.” Her voice came out higher than it should have, sort of like she’d just inhaled a lungful of helium. Her face warmed, but luckily, Jed had his head bent over the photos, which he shuffled through slowly, holding the prints gingerly between large fingers, studying each one.
Karen’s heart thumped against her ribs like an unhappily-confined animal against steel bars. This was exactly the reason why she’d come to the studio in person. When Jed looked at her work, it was like he was in his own little world – a world that revolved around his passion and hers, which were tattooing and photography, respectively. He handled the amazing ink work and she photographed it in the most flattering way she knew how; in a way, it was like they worked together to create something beautiful.
Maybe the thought was a little cheesy, but she liked – no, loved – anything that involved her and Jed collaborating
“These are amazing.” Jed carefully slipped a photo to the bottom of the stack, raising his gaze briefly to meet her eyes before poring over the next one. “As usual.”
“Thank you.” She resisted the urge to fan herself with the empty envelope as she studied him studying her work. With the exception of his ridiculously handsome face and his neck, Jed was covered in tattoos. There was even ink on his hands, dark and vibrant over the bulges of bones and sinew beneath the surface. It all added to his appeal. He was tall, dark and handsome in a bad-boy sort of way that made her head spin so fast she tripped a little and bumped her thigh on the corner of the nearby desk.
“You okay?” Jed asked, abandoning his perusal of the photos and shooting her a look full of concern.
“Fine,” she breathed, resisting the urge to search for a nearby rock to hide under. Most people didn’t trip while standing still. She was not most people.
She was so accident prone that she’d actually invented a few vivid fantasies that involved her tripping and Jed conveniently scooping her up, her knight in tattooed armor to the rescue… Thinking about those daydreams while standing right in front of him made her wish she could wipe her brain’s memory clean just in case Jed developed the ability to read minds.
“Are these the final images?” Jed asked, holding one aloft.
“Yes. I mean, unless there’s something you don’t like about them? I could always pop them into Photoshop and—”
“No,” he interrupted, “they’re perfect. It’s just that you’re usually so adamant about editing images before you’ll let me use them. I can never find anything I don’t like about them, but I’ve gotten to know you well enough to realize that your standards are higher than mine.” He grinned at her in a way he probably thought was good-natured. In reality, it made her feel in danger of melting from the inside out.
“I’ve already put those images through the editing process. Your client has great skin – I didn’t have to touch up much. I just brightened the colors and cleaned up the background a little.” Jed kept looking at her, and she knew she’d said all that needed to be said, but the words just kept coming. “Hardly any work at all, really, and
, they’re ready to go.”
She was naturally chatty and she knew it, but when she was around Jed, sometimes she spoke just because the idea of silence made her nervous. Afterward, she almost always regretted it.
He still held her gaze captive. His eyes were so dark that his gaze always seemed intense when he turned it on her directly. “They look great. Thanks again for photographing McGuiness for me. I’m going to add these images to my online portfolio and the studio’s main page as soon as I get them in an e-mail from you.”
“Great. But it wasn’t hard to photograph, really – you did such an amazing job with that tattoo that it was easy to take a flattering picture.” The back piece Jed had done for McGinnis featured a ship sailing at full mast, riding waves that reflected the vibrant colors of a setting sun. It was amazing – so amazing she could almost see the waves moving and the sunlight shining on the water’s choppy surface when she looked at the pictures.
“Thanks.” He held her gaze for another moment before finally lowering his eyes and sliding the photos back into the envelope. “Do you need these back?”
“No, you can keep them. I can always print out more if I need them.”
“Yeah.” Her excuse for lingering in Jed’s office had evaporated like a drop of water in a hot frying pan, but her legs didn’t listen when she willed them to move. “So uh, just let me know whenever you have another spectacular project you want me to photograph, okay?”
She didn’t have any other sessions lined up for Hot Ink at the time, but she’d already photographed well over a dozen Hot Ink clients, plus the photo shoot with Mina and Eric that had started it all. Jed had been using some of the photographs in advertisements for the studio and on its website. Sometimes, when one of his clients had an especially unique or elaborate tattoo done, Jed offered them a Hot Ink gift certificate and free photo prints in exchange for posing for Karen.
The shoots were easy and fun – the unique and beautiful ink Jed gave his clients kept things fresh, made sure Karen had something different to photograph each time. And best of all, doing semi-frequent photo sessions on behalf of the studio meant she was often in contact with Jed – via e-mail, phone and all the in-person visits she could muster up some semblance of an excuse to make.
“I will,” he said, nodding. “Got a client coming in in a couple weeks for another back piece. If it turns out like I think it will, I’d love to have some professional shots of it for my portfolio.”
“No problem.” The soft lash of her own ponytail against the back of her neck alerted her to the fact that she was nodding too eagerly. Purposely stilling her bobbing head, she looked directly into Jed’s eyes. “Just let me know when the tattoo’s ready to be photographed – I can always find room in my schedule for Hot Ink clients.” After all, the first photo shoot she’d done for Hot Ink six months ago had been what had really launched her full-time photography career.
“About that,” Jed said, frowning. “I know your schedule has really picked up lately. I feel bad about taking up so much of your time when you’re so in demand.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Karen didn’t even try to restrain her movements as she shook her head, the end of her ponytail whipping her jaw. “The tattoo shoots don’t take long, honestly. I go into the shoot knowing exactly what I want to focus on, and I’ve picked up some tips and tricks on how to showcase tattoos.”
“At least let me pay you more. I know you’re shooting for Hot Ink at a much lower rate than you charge your other clients – I looked at your website.”
Karen’s heart did a funny little flip-flop maneuver at the thought of Jed browsing her website, taking in all the little details of her work – sort of like how she browsed Hot Ink’s website, frequently stopping by Jed’s personal page to stare at his portrait.
“No way. The rate stays as it is. I owe you a lot, Jed – that photo shoot I did for Hot Ink’s display windows and ads got me a lot of attention and gave me the confidence to quit waitressing and pursue my photography full-time. I’d still be hefting around platters of ribs and beer and waiting for a big break if it wasn’t for you.”
Jed smiled, flashing a half-grin that showed a little tooth and nearly stopped Karen’s heart. “You’re too kind. I feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”
“You’re not – I’ve actually been earning more since quitting my old job. I’m fine.” The admission sparked an internal glow. She
making more money as a full-time photographer than she’d been making as a full-time waitress and part-time photographer. That had been the case for months, but when she really thought about it, it still seemed a little surreal.