Every memory leaves its mark.
All Sophie wants is a tattoo to commemorate her battle with cancer. What she gets is celebrity tattoo artist Declan Ross, the same sexy bad-boy who, once-upon-a-time, used to rock her world.
With his hit television show on hiatus, Declan is back in the Big Easy. A charity event at Midnight Ink, the shop where he got his start, seems like the perfect opportunity to use his celebrity status to publicize a good cause…and just maybe improve his own image in the process. The last thing he’s expecting, or thinks he needs, is a chance meeting with the girl he left behind.
Last time they were together, Declan was the one who was damaged. This time, they’ve both got scars; and those you can’t see are the hardest to cover.
* * * *
“Okay. You’re all set.” Declan smoothed a final piece of tape into place, securing a layer of plastic wrap over the tattoo he’d just finished—his last of the day.
The pretty blonde who was his latest client slowly sat up on the padded table, her T-shirt clasped against her chest. “Thank you,” she said as she gingerly slipped the shirt over her head and then tugged her clothes back into place. “It’s beautiful.”
Declan nodded. “I told you it would be.” He’d designed the tattoo—an abstract, deconstructed peacock—to follow the lines of her body. It flowed along her curves, from shoulder to hip, in a sinuous cascade of perfect, paisley-shaped feathers. “I’m glad you like it.”
It bore only the slightest resemblance to the tattoo she’d thought she was getting when she’d come in today—and a damn good thing too. The pictures she’d sent in as examples of what she was looking to get had been boring and uninteresting and didn’t really work with his style. They were too simple, too small, and would have required entirely too much line work. Plus, she wanted it across her lower back, which was totally the wrong placement for something like this.
Declan took his craft seriously. The watercolor-style tattoos for which he was becoming well known always looked better on a larger canvas. It hadn’t taken much to convince her of that and to make her see the wisdom of letting him give her what he wanted.
Plenty of artists would have been all too happy to give her just another, generic-looking tattoo, but she’d come to him. It would be nice to think she’d come for his eye, his talent, his artistry, for all the experience he brought to the table. In all likelihood, however, what she’d come for the Declan Ross she thought she knew from TV.
Luckily for him, that Declan didn’t do run-of-the-mill ho tags either.
“Now be sure and read over this sheet,” Declan instructed as he handed her the page he’d had printed detailing his personal aftercare suggestions. “It’s got a lot of important information. You’ll want to keep it covered for the first couple of hours, but that’s all. After that, you’ll want to rinse it off, pat it dry and leave it uncovered as much as possible while it’s healing. You’ll also want to stop on your way home and pick up some calendula cream. I know you’ll hear otherwise, but trust me; you really want to steer clear of petroleum-based products, scented-lotions and especially sunscreen.”
“Calendula cream,” she repeated dutifully, as though she had no idea what he was talking about. She probably didn’t.
“Or coconut oil. That’s good too, but I don’t know if you can find organic around here. If not, you’re really better off sticking with the calendula.”
“Okay.” She nodded for a moment, still seated on the edge of the table, gazing at him expectantly, making no move to leave.
Declan clapped his hands together. “Okay. Good. So. Any last questions for me?”
“Yes.” Immediately, she thrust the paper back at him. “Can I get your autograph?”
Declan pretended not to notice the rolled eyes, the faked coughs, the snorts of derisive laughter the other artists tried to muffle. Bastards. They were just jealous because no one was asking for theirs. “Sure thing,” he said as he forced a smile. He grabbed a marker off the closest counter and then paused. “Who should I make it out to?”
“Oh, it’s for me.”
“Make it out to Chrissy.”
“Chrissy. Right.” He hurriedly scrawled his name, added a couple of platitudes, and then handed the paper back to her. “But, seriously, Chrissy, I need you to follow the instructions on this. All right? They’re important.” It really annoyed him when clients failed to care for their tattoos. He did good work, but once someone left his chair, he had no control over what happened. He hated when a good tat got messed up because some dumbass didn’t follow directions. “C’mon.” He held out his hand to help the girl down from the table. “Let me walk you out.”
He hadn’t taken more than a few steps before Shep Montgomery looked up from the sleeve he was working on and called out to him, “Hey, Ross.”
“Yeah?” Declan turned his head and warily eyed his former mentor. It’s not like he wasn’t used to it by now, but it was rarely a good sign when someone addressed him by his last name.
“I don’t know what you’ve gotten used to out there in Hollywood, but around here, we still have to clean up after ourselves.”
“Really?” The words were out before Declan could stop himself. “’Cause that’s not how I remember it.”
He cast an involuntary glance around the shop, taking it all in; the brick walls, the stainless steel, the sinks, the counters, the padded black vinyl, the red and black paint, the gaudy gold trim. He loved tattoo shops. He loved everything about them—the smells, the sounds, the artwork on the walls, the funky, edgy vibe they invariably gave off. But he did not especially love cleaning them. And, the way he recalled it, back when he’d first come to work at Midnight Ink—back when the legendary Henry Lee Cairn still owned the shop and Declan was just a fiery-eyed, tattoo artist wannabe and Shep’s lowly apprentice—that’s mostly what he’d done.
Even after he’d progressed to the point where he was allowed to set up his own station and tattoo on his own, without supervision, as low man on the totem pole, he’d still had to clean up after himself and everyone else. Not to mention cover for the receptionist on her days off. Good times—not.
One thing he had absolutely not come back to New Orleans to do was to pick up where he’d left off. He was here to help publicize a good cause. One of the charities that would benefit from the New Year’s Eve tattoo-a-palooza was his own pet cause, the Wounded Warriors Project. His father had been in the military. He’d come back from the first Gulf War with PTSD and killed himself when Declan was just a kid. Whatever Declan could do to help other kids from having to go through what he’d gone through, he’d do it. No questions. Not even when it meant having to put up with a certain amount of crap from his co-workers. His former co-workers.
“Anyway, it’s Oakland, all right? Not Hollywood. And relax. I’m not gone for the day. I’ll take care of it before I leave.”
Shep nodded. “A’ight. See that you do. And don’t leave it too long either.”
On the other hand, there was a limit to how much crap Declan was willing to take. “Oh, yes, sir, Mr. Montgomery. I will jump on that right away.” He flipped him off with a muttered, “And you can jump on this.”
An excited giggle at his shoulder recalled Declan’s attention.
Chrissy looked fascinated. No. Worse. She looked freaking turned on. So this was what she’d come here for, bratty Declan, the artist everyone loved to hate—especially the other artists. Fan-fucking-tastic. He could just imagine her hauling out her cell phone the minute she hit the banquette, getting her girlfriends on the line so she could tell them all how, it was so awesome! Omigod, you guys, it was just like being on an episode of Inked in O-Town!
All the thoughts he’d been entertaining while he’d tattooed her, of asking her if she wanted to meet up with him later for a drink, of inviting her back to his hotel room after that, were forgotten. There was no way he was tapping that.
Still, as his agent never tired of reminding him, giving the audience what they wanted was as big a part of his job now as the actual tattoos. So he flashed her a wink and his trademark smirk, then guided her as quickly as possible toward the front of the shop. Celebrity Declan would just have to suck it up; he’d have to live with not getting laid for one more night.
He supposed he shouldn’t really resent all the crap that came along with his success. He’d known what he was letting himself in for when he signed on to play a jerkified version of himself on television. Or, as his last girlfriend had preferred to put it, someone who was maybe just a little bit more of a jerk on camera than he was in real life. But who cared what she thought? He made good money doing what he did and she sure hadn’t complained when he was spending most of it on her.
Last he heard, Tonya had moved to LA and was dating some kind of football player. So how much sensitivity and self-awareness could she really have been looking for in a guy anyway?
As long as it continued to bring in the Benjamins, he guessed he’d just keep playing himself for as many seasons as they’d let him. Being loud, rude, and obnoxious sure hadn’t hurt his reputation as an artist any—or his bank account, for that matter. These days, he was busier than he’d ever been.