Read Beneath the Burn Online

Authors: Pam Godwin

Tags: #Romance, #Music, #Adult, #Thriller, #Contemporary

Beneath the Burn (2 page)

He chuckled, and the sound surprised him.

“Sit your happy ass on the table. Got to make a call then we’ll get started.”

She wiggled a phone from her back pocket. Sweet Jesus, she could fill out a pair of jeans. She tapped the screen and pressed it to her ear with a grin. “Hey, gorgeous…Yeah, running late…Umm, an hour…Yep.” A bigger grin. “Overprotective much?…I know…You, too.”

Her endearments penetrated his chest, lifting it in a way he didn’t understand. He stared at his lap and imagined himself on the receiving end of that call. For the first time in years, he felt invigorated with a tingling sense that everything would be okay.

She pocketed the phone and gave him a beaming smile. Fuck him but he’d found a beacon of salvation in this gorgeous girl.

And lost his goddamned mind.

She sidled behind him to her workbench. “What’s your name?”

“Jay.” His voice cracked like a pubescent boy.

Plastic crinkled. Paper ripped. The snap of a rubber band. “And what do you do, Jay?”

“I’m—” He cleared his throat “—in a band.”

“In a band,” she mocked in a deep voice and laughed at herself. “What do you call yourselves?”

A damp cloth touched his shoulder blade. The contact sent a shiver through his body. “
The Burn.

“No shit? You guys sold out Lewey’s Uptown, right? I heard you rocked it hard tonight.”

Big deal. They sold a hundred tickets. After months of rockstarving on the road, they were still unheard of, but the truth didn’t stop her praise from sending a rush of satisfaction through him.
Play it cool.
“Yeah.”

The tattoo machine buzzed once, twice, and fell quiet.

“A big ol’ sheet of black, huh?” Her heel tapping resumed. “I really don’t think you should do this.”

“I’m not paying you to think.” Shit. That was a dick thing to say.

Her laugh filled the room with crescendo. “Don’t be hateful. I’m concerned about my safety. Your fan girls are going to trample me for defacing your perfect body.”

The compliment sifted through him and caressed vulnerable places. “Don’t worry about the fans.” They’d never see his back. No one did. No one but this tight-bodied little artist.

“I love your scars. They inspire me.” She softened her voice. “I’ve never met another person who has experienced pain like—”

A shiver raced over him, and he turned his head. She looked out the window, her eyes unfocused.

“Pain like what?” Hers? Had someone hurt this girl? “Does your boyfriend—”

“No!” She glared at him. “Of course not.”

He turned away, settled by the conviction in her voice, irritated he didn’t have an excuse to kill the boyfriend.

Her minty breath curled over his shoulder. “Done up with the right design, your scars would be a kick ass reminder.”

His spine snapped upright. He didn’t want a fucking reminder.

“You know, a reminder you survived.”

He wished he hadn’t. “You done with this speech?”

“And healed.”

He never healed, not where it mattered. This was a mistake. “We’re done.” He stood to leave.

The sound of an angry hornet halted his forward motion.

She dialed down the machine’s ohms, fidgeted with the rubber band hugging the dual-coils, and patted the table. “Sit down, you big baby.”

The promise of spending fifteen minutes in the spotlight of her magnetic eyes snuffed out his unease with her trying to read him. “Can you keep your opinions to yourself?”

A shrug. The flicker in her icy blues should’ve sent him running. Instead, it wrapped phantom fingers around his stupid lonely heart and tugged him back to the table.

For the next fifteen minutes, the silence of the room was shared only with the vibration of the motor and her occasional humming. Off-key and erratic, most of her melodies were unrecognizable, though the one she frequently returned to sounded a lot like
Punk Rock Girl
by
The Dead Milkmen
.

Yeah, you’re for me, punk rock girl.

Not once did she violate his no-touch rule. He tried not to think about why the stab of the needle was less painful than the touch of a finger. In fact, the discomfort was almost as pleasant as her whimsical tunes. It was exactly what he needed. When fifteen minutes spread to an hour, he held still, wishing time would too.

Her iron clattered on the bench. She flexed and relaxed her hand. “Have a look.” She nodded toward the full length mirror on the wall concealing the front door.

He jerked from the comfortable idleness he’d nestled into. Unease crawled over him, furrowing into his shoulders, tightening the muscles there. He tagged his shirt from the floor and pulled it on. “I’m sure it’s perfect.” Just like her.

“Oooh-kay. I need to bandage it.”

He moved to the door. “Nah, it’s good. I’m going to step out for a smoke.”

The humid night air embraced him, dampening his tobacco and slowing the burn as he puffed. Why was he lingering? He already paid her, and the guys were probably looking for him. He needed to get back. He couldn’t leave.

A few minutes later, she walked out, eyes scanning the street and settling on him.

“Thanks for the ink. It helped.” More than helped. It was the best distraction he’d ever tried. Or maybe it was her. “I underpaid you, but I’ll send you more money when I have it.”

Her mouth fluttered between a frown and a smile, and she locked the deadbolt. “Don’t do that, but if you decide to take a different approach with the ink, you know where to find me.” Her lips settled into a smile. Then she walked away, taking all the air with her.

“Wait.”

She paused, looked over her shoulder, lips still curved heavenward.

“What’s your name?”

Her smile faltered then resurrected into a blinding vision. “Charlee. With two
e
’s.”

Charlee.
His future had a name.

He ground his teeth. She was on her way to see a man.

An unfamiliar pressure ballooned in his chest and boiled the blood in his veins. He locked his knees, forced himself to remain where he was. He knew where she worked. He would square his shit. Then he would come back and win her. “Charlee what?”

She shook her head. “Charlee of Kilroy Tattoo.”

His anguish over letting her walk away was overpowered by his determination to make her his future.

Purpose girded his spine, gave him strength. “Catch you later, Charlee of Kilroy.”

2

Why the hell did she give him her real name? Charlee practiced her alias daily, owned it for a year.

The tattoo was another stupid move. In the short session, she’d only started the outline, but the finished design would’ve been an unerring compliment to his masculine beauty. And exactly what he did not want.

An hour’s worth of anxiety had whooshed out of her when he didn’t check her work, and she wanted to get the hell away from him before he did.

Oh, he would catch her later. In a courtroom when he sued her ass for willful negligence. A problem she would’ve avoided if she’d turned him away to begin with. That was her first mistake. She never allowed a stranger in her shop after hours. She had been in St. Louis a year, the longest she’d stayed in one town, and she’d grown too comfortable with her business, with Noah. It was making her sloppy.

She’d always been good at reading people, and there was something identifiable about Jay. The perpetual dread that troubled his dark eyes reflected her own.

His eyes seared the spot between her shoulder blades, so she picked up her pace. She wouldn’t look back. In her four years of running, always looking over her shoulder, there wasn’t a single day she hadn’t thought about the shackles, the servitude, and the beatings. But she thought of those things in past tense. Freedom was forward, and Noah was waiting.

She approached the corner of the building. Her rusted out Gremlin sat alone in the lot. She chose that lot for the lighting. Enclosed on three sides by tall buildings, there were no shadows. No hiding places.

Keys in her right hand, she slipped her left inside her bag and gripped the Bodyguard 380, finger beside the trigger. One more scan of the street, and she ran to the car, circled it, checked the locks, and swept the interior. All clear.

Safe inside and on the road, she allowed herself a calming breath and dialed Noah.

“Hey, you.” Warmth flushed his voice.

Since the bars were shutting their doors for the night, the traffic closed in on all sides. She up shifted, building speed. “Hey. On my way. Still at the station?”

“Yep.”

“See you in five.”

“Don’t speed. Safety first, sweetheart.”

“Always.” She opened the messenger bag on her lap, the strap tugging at her shoulder, and tucked the phone inside. Dozens of headlights bobbed in the rearview mirror. She couldn’t distinguish one pair from another. Were any of them following her?

Did paranoia award safety? She wasn’t paranoid. She was aware.

The police station emerged up ahead. The bleached brick facade glowed under high-powered flood lights. She slid her rust-bucket to the curb and tucked it between two police cruisers.

The rear and side mirrors reflected the well-lit terrace, the empty visitor lot, and more police cruisers. No loiterers. She hurried to the entryway and paused inside the protection of the alcove, staring at the door.

Noah would propose again. He’d become predictable in his resolve, and her defenses were thinning.

When she’d met him a year earlier, the excuses flowed easily.

The relationship’s too new. I’m too young. There’s no rush.
And the time-honored
, It’s not you, it’s me.

The proposals didn’t stop until she suggested he let her go and move on. His broody silence lasted two days.

She should’ve run when she met him, but his occupation ensnared her, soothing her need for protection. Their year together hadn’t been easy. He coaxed and wooed and devoted himself to earning her trust, and she let him. Must have been her bullheaded stand against victimhood. But she held that final wall in place for his own safety and kept their recent engagement debates trivial and remote.

Spend the rest of your life with me.

Don’t need a court document for that.

Honor me by wearing this ring.

I’m allergic to jewelry.

Be my wife.

Not tonight, honey. I have a headache.

That morning, she was ready with her next retort. He sat her at the counter with a box of her favorite cereal and kissed her thoroughly. Then he walked out the door and drove away.

Stunned by his proposal-deficient retreat, she poured her cereal. A note tumbled out.

Dance with me at our wedding.

The longing that had been simmering inside her had burst, showering her oatmeal squares in tears. She was wrong, wrong, wrong for him. The stain inside her was deeply embedded. She couldn’t scrub it off. If she accepted his proposal, it would taint him, too.

Dammit, Noah.
Snapping back to the present, she turned the door handle and armed herself with the ugly truth. Marrying him was an expensive dream. If Roy found her—or worse, he found her married—the cost would be dear.

The station door swung open. Officer Blaire looked up from the screen on his cell phone. He tugged at the duty belt constricting his ample gut—that which followed his wife’s good cooking—and stepped aside to let her through.

She smiled. “Good evening, Blaire.”

The big guy’s grin puffed his cheeks. Then, without warning, he dropped to his knees.

Shit.
She reached for him. “Are you okay?” Was he having a heart attack?

He slapped a beefy hand over his heart. “Marry me.”

Her shoulders shot to her ears. “What?”

His grin stretched wider. “Marry me.”

What was he up to? Must’ve been a joke. She rolled her eyes. “I’ll never make a fresh peach cobbler like your wife’s.”

His knees popped as he heaved to his feet. “Damn right.” He turned to leave, flicking a finger over his shoulder. “Night, Sarah.”

Sarah
. Her alias. “Night, Blaire.”

The squeak of rubber soles echoed down the hall. Officer Downing sprinted toward her and slid the last few tiles on his knees, panting. “Will you marry me?”

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