The tattoo really did seem to glow. Cara lifted her latte and took a sip, eyeing Ellen’s forearm and the dark, rich inks coloring the intricate design. She leaned closer for a better look, her heart beating inexplicably faster.
Ellen edged her sleeve up farther and sighed as she rotated her arm so they could admire the tattoo from different angles. “See? What did I tell you--un-freaking-believable.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Cara said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. What beautiful work--this guy must have a really steady hand.”
“I know,” Ellen said. “You should go check this shop out. Maybe this could help.”
Cara shrugged, looking down at the table. She knew exactly what Ellen meant. Didn’t mean she felt like talking about it. Ever. “There’s that little problem about me and needles, remember? Not a good thing.” Her needle phobia was well-known. Easy excuse. The fact that she near fainted anytime blood was drawn made her stay in the hospital especially traumatic.
“Come on, who’re you talking to here? I know what’s going on. If you won’t go the plastic surgery route, here’s the next best solution. He’s a flippin’ master tattoo artist. The absolute best I’ve ever seen. And you know what?” Ellen grinned, leaned over the table, and patted Cara’s shoulder. “There’s a bit of paranormality involved--just for you!”
“You mean the whole ‘he doesn’t have an address’ thing?”
“Exactly. No address, no hit on Google. Even if you post something on Yelp or Facebook or whatever, it’s gone the next day. No one knows why. I swear, you just drive into Old Town and somehow you find it. Old brick alleyway. Kind of spooky. And when you get there, you can’t believe you didn’t find it faster.”
The large burn scar on Cara’s shoulder throbbed, a constant reminder of the pain and guilt she carried with her every day since the explosion that had killed her best friend. Maybe Ellen was right--a big, kick-ass tattoo might be just the thing to hide her hideous scar. Dull the memories that still woke her with nightmares.
Maybe she could even get over her fear of needles if a tattoo would lessen some of this emotional pain.
“Do you think a tattoo would really cover this up?”
“I don’t know. I mean, it seems possible,” Ellen said. “Why don’t you give your burn doc a call and see what he thinks?”
“Okay.” Cara smiled a little at Ellen. “I’ll make that call tomorrow. Now give me some clues, girlfriend. If I’m really going to find this mysterious shop, I need some kind of directions. What’s the guy’s name, and what street should I start on?”
“Great!” Ellen leaned over the table and gave Cara a quick hug. “Okay, here’s what you do.” Ellen hesitated, eyeing Cara as if the next part might scare her away. “Now I know this is going to sound kind of weird, but just hear me out, okay?”
Cara nodded. She knew there was some kind of strangeness about finding this shop.
“Drive across the Burnside Bridge,” Ellen said. “Don’t take the bus. You’ll never find it on foot. Turn right as soon as you can. Keep going straight ahead. Feel the wheel under your hand, put your focus out to the streets, and open your mind.” She spoke with obvious care, as if each word was important to understand. “Imagine a small tattoo shop and have faith. You’ll find your way if it’s meant to be. And I bet, in your case, you will definitely find the shop. I mean, if anyone deserves the most beautiful tattoo ever, you do.”
According to the urban legend that had sprung up about the shop, not everyone who searched--even when accompanied by a former client of Old Town Tattoo--could find the place. People said the shop “called you.” If you weren’t called, you never found your way to the door.
Ellen was right about the attraction of something paranormal. Cara was crazy about fantasy and had recently started reading paranormal romance novels, to the huge amusement of her circle of friends. Somehow, the stories of sexy shape-changing wolves and magical fairies eased the long nights when nightmares about the bombing made sleep erratic at best.
“Okay, okay,” Cara said. “Sounds like an adventure.” She tipped her cup and finished her coffee, then stood up to lead the way out of the shop into a light spring drizzle. They both grimaced at the gray weather. Portland springs tended toward the dismal.
Cara gave Ellen a hug. “Thanks, girlfriend. For everything. You know, after... I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“No worries. Just go find that shop. And there’s a bonus, by the way. Something besides the amazing art.” Ellen gave her a mischievous grin and waved over her shoulder as she headed for the bus stop.
Feeling buoyed by her visit with Ellen, Cara set off for her car. A tattoo that could possibly hide her burn. Something beautiful to cover the ugly. Cara’s stomach clenched in need. For what? Relief. A breakthrough. Answers.
Why was Jackie dead? Such a sad ending to the last chapter of a life that had increasingly been filled with wrong choices. Jackie had finally been trying to get her act together and had found a job as an accountant, working for a mysterious boss who owned most of the adult video stores in Portland. Then a bomb had blown up the biggest porn warehouse on the West Coast and caught Jackie in the building, murdering her and destroying millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise.
Cara had gotten caught in the terrible explosion when she went to pick up Jackie for their lunch date. The experience left her with a hideous burn scar on her shoulder and arm. Small price to pay for making it out alive.
Almost anything would be better than going on like she had been. And having a bit of a “paranormality” adventure as promised by Ellen sounded intriguing, especially since it might result in the camouflage of her burn. Cara decided to throw logic along with her needle phobia out the window and just go for it. She could use a little fun, on so many levels.
* * * *
The next evening she grabbed her purse and left the house, feeling a bit foolish. Whatever. If she couldn’t find the place, she’d drag Ellen along with her next time. No way did she believe Ellen couldn’t find her way back, despite the growing urban legends. “Old Town, here I come,” she muttered and headed her battered compact car for the Burnside Bridge, crossing the Willamette River to the west side of town. The lazy expanse of the river, murky green in the setting light, wound between Portland’s east and west sides until it met the great Columbia River. Portland’s modest downtown skyline loomed ahead, and the evening traffic on the narrow city streets seemed lighter than usual.
As she drove, she thought about the conversation with her burn doctor. He actually sported a few tattoos of his own and proved very sympathetic to her idea. He had taken a minute to examine her scar and the way it sat on her skin and then had patted her with a fatherly gesture. “I think it will depend on the expertise of the tattoo artist
,” he had said. “It might work, or the ink may have trouble sinking into the skin. But if you can stand the possible discomfort from the needles, and if you don’t faint while he’s using them on you, then I can’t see that it would hurt anything to try
.” Cara had shared a laugh with him at the prospect of volunteering to let needles anywhere near her body.
Cara turned north once she got to the west side and drove slowly into the narrow streets of Old Town Portland. The scene was surprisingly quiet, even for a Sunday evening, giving her a perfect opportunity for slow-car sleuthing. As she traveled, a sense of which direction to go grew stronger. Her hands seemed to direct the wheel without her conscious thought. Interesting. Ellen’s hints of a slight paranormal quality to the search had intrigued her, but this was getting a bit spooky.
Century-old, faded brick buildings lined these streets, some deserted and crumbling while evidence of urban renewal showed in small pockets of construction. Seafood markets, Chinese restaurants, and liquor stores dominated the area. This was the oldest section of Portland, a mix of landmarks and history, shelters and food kitchens. The only people on the street besides her were small lumps of sleeping homeless folk, huddled under tarps and blankets against the brick sides of a social services advocacy office.
She drove on, looking for alleyways. Her stomach knotted in growing unease. This was crazy, right? Nothing weird at all about the fact that directions seemed to be whispering in her head? She’d almost talked herself out of continuing when she rounded a corner on a street she’d been down at least three times already and saw something new.
Slowing to a crawl, she peered at the corner of a narrow alley. Cracked and faded brick lined the street, which was clearly not city maintained. The entire look and feel of the area seemed like a remnant of the nineteenth century, very much as Ellen had described. No businesses here except one, at the far end. A yellowish porch light still shone, casting shadows on sagging wooden steps. Nosing her car into the alley, she peered at the dim sign hanging in the window, making out several Ts and an O. This must be the place.
Her heart rate picked up as she rolled to the alley end and parked in front of the shop. She pushed open the car door, and cool evening air greeted her.
Cara stepped up the creaky stairs of the quiet business. The sign said OLD TOWN TATTOO. Was it open? When Cara hesitated, her shoulder throbbed as if to say, Do something about me
. She turned the brass doorknob and pushed the heavy wooden door slightly open.
She leaned her head in. “Hello?” She heard a crash from the back, like glass breaking. Someone uttered an oath.
“Be right there,” a distracted masculine voice called out.
While she waited, she took a minute to look around. Old-fashioned wallpaper in tiny flowers covered every wall; a faded rose velvet sofa and matching side chairs took up one end of the narrow room, giving the overall ambience of a quaint English parlor. The smells of old wood and smoke permeated the air, yet she couldn’t see any evidence of a fireplace or woodstove. It all seemed so...lovely. Not very Portland hipsterish at all, and certainly nothing indicated this place had anything to do with tattoos. Her curiosity about the whole situation grew even further.
AEDHAN SWORE AT the small disaster in his kitchen. Glass and irreplaceable indigo ink were strewn all over the floor. The devil take it--how could anyone have found him so unguarded? Leaving the mess, he strode to the front, still cursing under his breath. He had no doubt the wards had been powered; there should not have been any human capable of getting past them. So who the hell was in his shop?
He stopped short at the sight of his intruder. Female. Tall with long, long legs. Straight red hair and...freckles. Goddess. Freckles
. The most delightful sprinkling of freckles he had ever seen covered her lovely face. His kind had never been graced with freckles.
“Hello,” he said, grinning in unexpected delight. He held out his hand. “Excuse the delay. Welcome to Old Town Tattoo.”
She raised startled blue eyes. “If you’re not open I can come back later.”
“No...no, we’re open.” He didn’t mention he usually closed early on Sundays. She’d made it through the front door, so apparently his work continued. A surge of adrenaline rocketed up his spine, synapses waking, urging him to the ink. The shop had issued an invitation, or she wouldn’t be here. Taranis and Alwen’s newest trick? The gods of Draca were known for their capriciousness.
His surprise guest seemed anxious, edgy. And hurting. From what, he had no idea. Ah, a puzzle. How his gods loved puzzles.
“Come in.” He gestured her to the overstuffed couch against the wall. “How did you find me?” He mentally kicked himself for asking the question. She could not understand the significance of his inquiry.
“Good question. You know you’re not listed anywhere--like at all? Even Google didn’t have a single link.”
He grinned again. Google--she had googled him. He couldn’t help feeling a certain thrill, Google being one of his favorite discoveries about this strange human world. However, he had no need to explain why humans couldn’t find his shop by conventional means.
“My friend told me about you,” Cara said. “She didn’t have your address either, but you were so highly recommended I thought I’d give it a shot.” She licked her pale pink lips in a nervous gesture.
Aedhan watched in fascination as the tip of her tongue touched her lips, and something tightened in his groin.
She had the classic porcelain skin of a redhead, but the similarity to his family of redheads ended there. Her pale blue eyes shone with a subtle fae quality, her facial skin an almost luminous pale that spoke of hidden pain.
The sense of cosmic forces at work rocked him again. She had found him, when the spell of invitation he put out every night had long since grown cold. This had never happened before.
His brother self--his twin nature--snapped awake in Aedhan’s consciousness. “Keep her here.”
The command whispering under his skin matched his own inclination. “Find out more.”
He sniffed; a delicate, spicy scent enticed him, tinged with her palpable unease. Intriguing. Nothing happened anymore the gods didn’t have a hand in. Aedhan had learned this the hard way during the past six months.
“Would you like to see some designs?” Aedhan said, reaching for his business manners. “I have several binders you can look at.”
“No, thanks. I brought my own.”
Out of courtesy he gave the scrap of paper she handed him a quick glance, then returned it to her. In the end all his clients received the design he, or rather, the powers
chose for them anyway. He just let them think they’d picked it themselves. The spell dictated his hands and inspired the images he laid. Aedhan, along with his clients, simply followed along. “If you don’t mind, I need to do a little cleanup. Then I’ll show you to the procedure room. Can you wait a few minutes?”
“Yeah, sure. No problem.” Cara shrugged, although she seemed poised to run. He realized he didn’t want her to leave.
“What’s your name?” He stalled, wanting reassurance she wouldn’t bolt the second he left the room.
“Cara. And yours?” She lifted her pale blue eyes to his, and he caught his breath. Such need shone; his attention sharpened even further.
They were exchanging niceties like two regular people meeting. How surreal. “I’m Aedhan,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He tore himself away and headed to the kitchen. He cleaned up his mess and then pulled together a new sterilized kit.
He could hardly wait to get his hands on her. Sanctioned touch--thank the gods! He was only allowed skin-on-skin contact with women during the tattoo process. His sex life had dried to dust, held captive by the mission rules of celibacy as laid down by his sister, Nareen. Nareen, who had cast the entire spell, insisted in no uncertain terms that he refrain from intimate contact with the women of this world--at least until he accomplished what he’d been sent here to do. She knew him too well, he thought ruefully. His reputation on Dracan the past year in particular had been well earned.
TATTOO GUY WAS gorgeous. She remembered Ellen’s laughing comment about a “bonus.” This must be what she had meant. Her friends went on and on about the tattoo, but about him, the one who designed it, not a word. Cara tried to quiet her absurdly racing heart. She gazed out the parlor window, past the sign with the faded lettering, while her mind whirled. The strength of her instant attraction kind of rocked her. Tall, buff, and eccentrically handsome didn’t even begin to cover it. One look at his crazy-colored tangerine hair, long and thick on his shoulders, gave her the first jolt, and then when his emerald green eyes met hers with such a knowing look--as if he was seeing something...more
. Wow. Cara took a deep breath. Nerves that had been clamoring since she got out of the car zinged again. She mentally shook herself. She could do this.
He strode back into the room and smiled at her. She already loved his smile. He glowed with such cheery reassurance she found herself relaxing. A little.
“All set,” he said. “Come on back.”
She followed him down a long hall to a doorway on the left, admiring the rear view of her charming host. Faded jeans hugged an extremely nice ass. He ushered her in and invited her to sit in a large, cushioned chair next to a stainless steel table.
“What do you charge?” Cara asked, realizing she’d forgotten that part.
“Well, prices range depending on the time needed and complexity of the design. Usually around seventy-five an hour? How does that sound?”
“Really?” That seemed incredibly cheap.
“Why? Do you think it’s too much?” He looked anxious, as if afraid he’d lose her business with such a price.
“No! Actually, seventy-five is great.”
“Good,” Aedhan said. “So where would you like your tattoo?”
“Well.” Cara hesitated. “Here. On my shoulder.” She pulled up the short sleeve of her thin cotton blouse, revealing what she very seldom showed anyone.
“Ah.” Aedhan flashed a look of understanding. “Cover-up.”
Cara relaxed a bit more. He didn’t even twitch at the view of her angry red scar, burned into her skin with ridged and jagged lines. More remnants wrapped over her shoulder and trailed a few inches down her lower left chest.
“Can you tattoo over the burn marks? I was worried perhaps the ink wouldn’t take or something like that. I did talk to my doctor first. He seemed to think it would be worth trying at least.”
He leaned closer to get a better look. “Can I feel?” He raised his head, his gaze polite and nonjudgmental.
“Ah, yeah. Sure.” Wait, what was she saying? Cara moved as if to pull her arm away when he stopped her with a gentle touch.
Aedhan traced her scar with his index finger. His touch felt cool and impersonal, yet a subtle tingling rode under his fingertip as it moved along the outline of her burn. No one besides medical personnel had ever touched her there. He is touching my scar.
“I agree with your doctor. I have some special techniques that may work very well for this situation. And here’s a great idea for a design,” he said, straightening and dropping his hand. “Check this out.”
Her shoulder throbbed--not in pain, but with a startling sort of pleasure. He grabbed a sheet of paper from a stack on the ink tray.
He began sketching, his long fingers grasping the pencil and moving across the scrap of paper with smooth, swift grace. A design rapidly appeared, shaped in the rough outline of a shoulder.
Beautiful. Celtic inspired--always one of her favorite designs, what with her Irish ancestry and redheaded genetics and all.
“Nice,” she said, immediately abandoning her own idea. “I love it. What kinds of colors, do you think?”
“Hmmm.” Aedhan glanced at the rows of small plastic bottles, each filled with vibrant liquids, on a shelf over his workstation. “Purples and blues and emerald greens seem to be coming to me. How does that sound to you?”
“Great. My favorite colors.” How did he know just what was right for her?
“Well, then. Okay if I get started? I’m going to trace the outline in black first, then fill in with the colors.”
Cara gulped. Hard part coming up. Needles. “Uh, I should tell you...I’m a bit nervous around needles. Get a little faint-headed sometimes. You know what I mean?”
Aedhan turned from the tray and looked at her. His green eyes glittered in understanding. “I get that, but no problem here. I promise you will enjoy this if you relax and trust me.”
Cara took a breath and let it out. She’d enjoy
it? A sense of anticipation nudged her stomach.
He was about to put hands and needles on her skin. On her burn.
She nodded. “Okay. Give it your best shot.”