The Hot Ink anthology has been out for just a few weeks. Have you read it? Want to get a little peek at Bound Memories, Bayou Bound 4?
Renee LeBlanc unhooked her passenger side seatbelt from around the pet carrier, careful to keep her hands far away from the slots, lest sharp, feline claws rake her flesh. Peaches was normally a very sweet natured boy, except when his insulin levels got out of whack and then he might as well be the mini furry incarnation of the Devil himself.
“I know, I know, you don’t feel good,” she whispered to the cat as she hauled the carrier out of her car and bumped the door with her hip. “If you hadn’t bitten me when I tried to give you your last dose, this wouldn’t have happened. I’ve told you over and over and over again, I’m sorry you bit me. It was an accident.”
She was beyond caring if people gave her weird looks for the constant chatter with a cat. If someone had told her at twenty when Peaches was scooped out of a trashcan behind the tattoo parlor where she was apprenticing that she’d be a thirty-something cat lady, she’d have flipped them off and told them to go fuck themselves. She was going to be the greatest female tattoo artist ever.
My, how her aspirations had changed.
These days, she just wanted to give Peaches his insulin on time, keep the pantry stocked with enough food to get her through a few days and never run out of art supplies. To say priorities had shifted was an understatement.
“Here, let me get that.” A man sitting on the bench in front of the little animal clinic stood and reached past her for the door.
That voice was awfully familiar…
“Thanks.” She sighed and glanced at her momentary champion.
And just kept staring.
Six feet tall, wide shoulders, a trucker hat perched at a jaunty angle, hair shorn short, and a thick, reddish-brown beard obscured the lower half of his face; the beard made his bright gray eyes stand out from all that face fuzz. The rest of him she could fill in from hours of watching Tattoo King, a tattoo artist reality show she’d never admit to being hooked on, but this last season had her on pins and needles.
Because he was on it.
She shivered and her body reacted as if she hadn’t missed a day without him.
Peaches growled, as if to say, I’m here too, dumbass.
Maybe Renee added the dumbass part. Peaches had always seemed to know it was Kit who dug into the garbage to pull him out, though Renee had insisted they find out where the pitiful meowing was coming from. She tamped down on her wayward desire and swallowed hard.
“What are you doing here?” When she’d last seen of him on the show, he’d been given a chintzy gold crown, the prize money of a hundred thousand dollars and he claimed he was on his way to Disneyland. Shouldn’t he be spinning in a teacup instead of here? In Baton Rouge. Holding the door open for her.
“Mick said this was where I’d probably run into you.”
His voice was deeper, more manly. God, it was better in person. She was completely guilty of looping his asides from the show just to close her eyes and listen to him. How pathetic was she?
Right. His Uncle Mick. That was a whole can of worms she wanted no part in.
Peaches hissed at a dog sitting next to the door, reminding her why she was there—the standing appointment every week to get Peaches’ next batch of insulin and a blood sugar test.
“I’ve got to see the vet. I’m out on my lunch hour.” She side-stepped into the clinic, unable to tear her gaze from him. He’d grown up, and damn if he didn’t look better in person than he did on TV.
“Should I wait out here, or can I come in?”
How did she answer that? Her heart squeezed and the years melted away, taking her back to the day she’d come home from a girls’ trip to New Orleans. Her artist, the one she’d apprenticed to at Lucky Tiger Tattoo, had told her in as few words as possible that Kit had a chance to go to L.A., and not just apprentice, he was going to start tattooing. He’d left without even a goodbye.
“Renee, good you’re here. Come on back and we’ll get Peaches taken care of.” Dr. Joe Barnes rested his hand on her shoulder, breaking the spell of Kit’s gaze.
“That’s great.” She’d made this trip so many times she didn’t even have to ask where to go. They always had patient room one waiting and ready.
She shouldered into the room and set the carrier on the table. Her knees gave way and she sat in the chair. Dr. Barnes would be in any second. Her body shook and the trunk of toxic emotions she’d shut away popped open, spewing forth all the bitterness and hurt the tattoo industry had heaped on her. If she could write a letter to her younger self, she’d tell her to get away from that world. Things had changed, but back then, women just weren’t welcome, and without Kit to shield her from the harassment, she’d broken.
“Renee?” Dr. Barnes knelt by her chair, his hand on her knee. It was kind of weird calling him Dr. Barnes when she’d hung out with him and her twin brother all those years ago. Back then he’d just been Joe.
“Sorry.” She rubbed her temple, and mustered a smile.
“It’s okay. Something wrong? How’s Mick?”
“Mick is comfortable, which is about all we can ask for.”
“Who was that outside? He’s been hanging out there for the last hour. I just didn’t have time to go see who he is. Flea season.” Joe rolled his eyes.
“Kit Carson,” she muttered.
Joe’s brows drew down into a line. She wasn’t even sure if he would remember Kit. By the time she’d begun her apprenticeship, Joe had been off to college while her brother did…Lord only knew what. But there’d been vacations and holidays where Joe had been home.
“He’s the one who left without saying goodbye?”
She stared at Joe for a moment.
One side of his mouth hitched up. “You talk a lot.”
“Guilty.” She cringed. There was no denying she’d let herself stay hung up on Kit for many years. The one who got away. Or left in a hurry. Not that they’d ever put a name to what they had, because she’d insisted it needed to be casual. The last thing she needed was to give the artists more ammo to use against her. Had she guarded her heart too well? Or not well enough?
Joe sat in the seat next to her. “What does he want?”
“Not sure, but I doubt he’s here to play doorman.” She had a sinking feeling it had something to do with his Uncle Mick. The old detective had turned over a new leaf, shocking as it was, and then went and got cancer.
“Do you want to see him? I could tell him to leave.”
Renee considered it, but shook her head. Whatever Kit had to say to her, she wanted to hear it out. Maybe finally close that door of regret and move on with her life. She finally had things going in the right direction for herself. Patching things up with Kit would be a good thing. And maybe there was still a bit of the goofy boy she’d fallen in love with inside the man. She didn’t expect that love to be rekindled. They were different people now.
“Well, let’s see how Peaches is doing this week.” Joe stood up and approached the carrier sitting on the exam table.
“He’s cranky. I missed this morning’s insulin dose because he bit me.” She lifted her right arm and pointed to the spot. It was hard to make out the teeth marks through all the tattoos encasing her arms, but they were there.
“Oh yeah. He got you good. Will that ruin the tattoo at all?”
“Probably a little.” She shrugged. Once she’d taken pride in her tattoos, who’d done them and what they meant. These days she just wanted to get through the grocery store without some whackadoodle grabbing her clothes and rearranging them for a better look.
Joe let the conversation drop. With other patients he’d keep up a running dialogue to ensure they and their pet were comfortable. She was in here so often they didn’t need the pretense. The weekly exam only took a couple of minutes. They had it down to an art, though most weeks Peaches made it easier by sprawling on the exam table, not a care in the world while Joe did his thing. Even aggravated, Peaches merely swished his tail and laid his ears back at the worst of it.
As a kitten, Peaches would swipe at her, then look to Kit for some sort of approval. She’d laughed about it then, while Kit just rolled his eyes. Over time Peaches had worn Kit down until he accepted partial ownership of the cat. Then, Kit had left them both. The same old ache throbbed in her chest. First loves, they never got easier, did they?
“Well, he’s finally at a healthy weight, so that’s good. Is he cleaning up that new food?” Joe asked.
Renee was beyond wanting to be angry with Kit. He’d had a great opportunity to get away from his messed up family and do what he wanted to do. Given the same chance, she’d have made exactly the same choice he had. She relaxed into her seat and watched Joe wrap up the appointment.
Seeing Kit wouldn’t destroy her, but it wasn’t going to be the meeting of her dreams. She was too old for that sort of thing, anyway.