Excerpt: The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole

Good evening, readers! Tonight on the blog I’ve got an excerpt of Chapter One for The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole. If you had the chance to read my review of this book earlier today, you already know how much I loved it.

The Strongest Steel

Second Circles Tattoos

Book One

Scarlett Cole

297 Pages

Release Date: 07/07/2015

PUBLISHER: ST. MARTIN’S PRESS | GENRE: CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE
SERIES: SECOND CIRCLES TATTOOS

25413371Harper Connelly never expected to find herself outside of a tattoo parlor at one in the morning, summoning the nerve to take back her past. She’s determined to forget her old life and is looking for an artist who can tattoo over the scars on her back.

Trent Andrews, local legend and owner of the Second Circle tattoo studio, has his own reasons for specializing in inking over scars. And in spite of her mysterious past and the difficult road ahead, he quickly realizes that Harper is funny, smart, and–under her ridiculously oversized clothing and SPF 100 sunscreen–totally hot. He’s happy to take on the challenge of designing a meaningful and deadly full-back tattoo for her.

But when cryptic messages start appearing on Harper’s phone, strange deliveries arrive at her door, and Second Circle is vandalized, Harper is convinced that her ex-boyfriend has tracked her down, and worse, that he knows about Trent. Running was the only thing that saved her last time, but now that she’s started to put down roots in Miami, she’ll have to decide if she can finally fight back instead.

excerpt

From The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole:

Chapter One

The blue envelope from the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, still sealed, weighed heavily on Harper Connelly’s mind. It sat in her purse, where it had been since she’d collected her mail the day before. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Until she opened the envelope, she could continue to pretend that she was safe. Once her finger slid under the seal, she’d no longer be able to ignore the decisions she’d have to make.

Standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the lights on Collins Avenue to change, she shoved the letter deeper into her purse and watched as the young couple standing across the street from her kissed each other deeply, his hand gently cupping her face as his thumb ran softly across her cheekbone. Harper looked away, trying hard to ignore the empty feeling in her chest. Could she even remember that feeling of first love? It had been so long since she’d experienced those heady moments of wanting to be with another person all the time. Of being unable to stop touching each other, like magnets drawn together.

Finally the light changed, and Harper almost sighed with relief before hiking her bag farther onto her shoulder and crossing the street, not sparing the young couple a second glance. She just had to get through work today without turning into a nervous wreck. Then she could fall apart with the envelope in her bag.

Lost in her own thoughts, she felt someone push into her on the sidewalk. Harper jumped in her own skin. A loud buzzing filled her head, and a cold trickle of fear snaked its way down her spine. Her heart tried to pound its way out of her chest while her shaking hands struggled to hold her purse.

She reeled around. A white-haired gentleman with the tiniest dog that looked like a rat on a leash murmured a distracted apology for nudging her. Willing her heart to slow down, Harper tried to reply in kind, but her mouth was so dry that she couldn’t respond. She prayed the weak smile she gave him sufficed as forgiveness.

It was just an old man and a little dog, she told herself, leaning against the nearest light post and counting each breath in for five, then out for five, trying to slow her racing pulse. Nothing to do with the letter burning a hole through her purse and thoughts. Or a prisoner a thousand miles away. Harper watched his stooped frame continue down the palm tree–lined street until he reached the sandy side road that would take him to the boardwalk that ran the length of Miami Beach.

A cold chill gripped her despite the hazy heat. She still wasn’t used to the weather—somehow she couldn’t believe it after all this time. It would be a good twenty degrees cooler back home. She shivered harder and looked down at her hand, watching her own fingers flare in and out in panic without her permission.

The couple she’d been watching earlier walked by, reaching for each other, entwining their hands.

Harper looked on longingly. That simple intimacy was unthinkable for her. She didn’t need a brush with a stranger to prove it. The sender of the letter had made sure of it. Even after all these years, she couldn’t stand the touch of another human being, not even for a second.

Still shaking, she took a light hoodie from her bag and put it on, desperate for some warmth.

Turning the street corner that led away from the ocean, she pulled her hands inside her sleeves and walked slowly, trying to bring her heart rate down. She tried to focus on the graceful art deco buildings Miami was famous for. Tried to believe that she wouldn’t have to run and leave this beautiful place behind. The stunning façades and interiors were among her favorite things about the ocean-facing city. Paint colors with names like fresh mint, buttercream yellow, and coral pink adorned the stylistic symmetry of the buildings that truly came to life at night when neon lights served as a beacon to revelers. Harper imagined looking out of the classic porthole windows, waiting to see the giant steam ocean liners arrive from far-off places. The extravagant ornamentation and fanciful panels echoed back to a time when the wealthy would sip champagne and dance the Charleston on the rooftop patios.

The light ocean breeze blew her long, dark brown hair across her face. She plunged her hand into her purse, carefully avoiding touching the envelope, and retrieved one of the many elastic bands swimming around at the bottom. Quickly, she swept her mass of thick layers up into a messy bun at the base of her neck as she approached the small shop where she worked.

José, her boss, had already rolled out the brown awning over the patio area of the coffee shop that bore his name. The early morning rush was about to begin.

Drea, the assistant manager, sat on one of the tables, the sun reflecting off natural gold highlights that graced her layered brown hair. They were both twenty-seven, but with her tanned skin and petite frame, a contrast to Harper’s own athletic figure, she looked younger.

Relief flooded through her, the very sight of her best friend helping her panic subside.

“Morning, honey,” she said, hoping Drea wouldn’t notice how breathless she sounded.

Hazel eyes squinted in her direction. “Morning, Harp.” She tilted her head curiously. “You okay?” Since the day they’d met, this girl had just gotten her. Private as Harper was, Drea still had managed to gently bulldoze her way into Harper’s life and had made it clear that only an eviction notice would get her out.

“Fine, fine.” She brushed the question away. “You’re here before me?” Harper asked, trying to distract her. “Did I get the shifts wrong?”

“No, it’s me. I’m early. My aunt gave me a ride over this morning, since my car doesn’t get out of the shop until this afternoon.”

“Ready for another day in espresso heaven?” Harper nodded her chin in the direction of the main door.

Drea sighed. “Quit and go spend the day in the Keys?” she whispered.

“I heard that, Drea,” José bellowed from inside as he turned the lock to let them in. “You,” he shouted, pointing at Drea, “can quit. Her . . . not so much!”

Both girls laughed as they walked in and headed toward the break room to put away their purses.

“I’m feeling the love, José,” Drea muttered.

“I heard that too.” José laughed, his voice softening.

José’s had been a fixture in South Beach for nearly fifty years. The original José still came to the store religiously for his coffee every day, though he’d long turned the reins over to his son, José Junior.

The long, thin store was more than just a coffee shop. It was comfort food wrapped up in soft cream walls and light woodwork. José was busy loading the long counter with the freshly made pastries. Traditional Cuban pastelitos were lined up next to classic croissants and cinnamon rolls. A black apron tied tightly around her waist, Drea started stacking the healthy salads and sandwiches into the coolers.

Harper leaned over the counter to turn on the espresso machines, blenders, and coffeemakers that flanked the left wall. She pulled out the tray of empty metal jugs for steaming milk and set them up next to the coffee station.

Hours later, once the lunchtime crowd had started to thin out, she began the process of cleaning up the tables before the afternoon business would again pick up.

“But doesn’t it just mean that she had blood on her hands?” she heard someone say. Wiping a tabletop on autopilot, Harper glanced at the teenage girls sitting at the next table.

“She says, ‘Out, damned spot,’ but I don’t think she actually had blood on her hands. I don’t think she actually killed someone.”

Harper paused. Macbeth. Act 5, if she wasn’t mistaken. The hallucinations of the manipulative Lady Macbeth, it was one of her favorites. She wanted to help the girls, but schoolbooks and notes were another reminder of things she swore she’d left in the past long ago. That life was gone. Harper thought about the blue envelope sitting in her employee locker in the back of the shop. She could no longer ignore the letter, regardless of how much easier life would be if she never opened the damn thing. For the second time that day, her chest tightened. It was better to know. After a quick glance around to make sure no one else needed her, she slipped into the back room and ripped the envelope open, wishing that the past could really stay buried.

***

“What the hell did you make me drink last night, Cuj?”

The coffee scalded Trent’s tongue as he took a sip and leaned back against the front window of Second Circle. Straight-up black as he liked it and strong enough to stand a spoon in, but nowhere near enough to take the edge off the five-alarm bell ringing in his head.

“Some weird-shit martini those girls were drinking. They wanted us to toast your birthday one more time. I told you they were trouble.”

“I didn’t hear any complaining when that blonde had her hand down your pants.”

Cujo rubbed his hand over his bald head and then fingered the bar in his eyebrow, grinning smugly.

“Man, she was freaky. How was the redhead?”

“Curved in all the right places and a yoga teacher,” Trent said. Cujo barked out a laugh. Trent looked down at his scuffed-up boot resting on the window ledge and made a mental note to take care of the sill’s chipped paintwork.

Second Circle Tattoos was his baby and his pride, the by-product of a misspent youth salvaged by his mentor, Jimmy “Junior” Silver. It had been a long journey to the store’s current location on one of the up-and-coming streets in Miami. Years of apprenticing before going out alone—years he and Cujo had spent in a crappy studio before biting the bullet and investing in this place. The team he’d built had a solid rep, with people coming from out of town to see them, and the craziness of his calendar reminded him daily that people liked his work.

Knocking back a long draw on the coffee, Trent caught sight of an incredible brunette, classically beautiful, making her way down the sidewalk on the other side of the road.

Cujo let out a long, quiet whistle. “That is one mighty fine-looking distraction.”

Trent stared, grateful he’d pulled out his shades to enjoy his coffee break. Shit, what was she wearing? A staid button-down shirt that appeared two sizes too big, paired with saggy khaki shorts that seemed to have lost their will to live. Take away the ugly clothes, though, and you

were left with a seriously rocking body. He was such a sucker for the athletic type, toned but still curvy. Likely a foot shorter than his own six foot six, but with legs that went on forever. Her skin was porcelain white, and hell yeah, as a tattoo artist, he would bet from a hundred yards away that she was a tattoo virgin, the very best kind of canvas.

She wore her thick, dark brown hair in a messy updo, revealing a beautiful neck and that soft spot, just behind a girl’s ear, that he always loved so much.

As she got closer, he could see she was holding a pastry box from the coffee shop down the street.

“Those for me, darlin’?” he shouted across the street, breaking out the smile that chicks seemed to go for. He heard Cujo laugh to his left but stayed focused on the woman. She looked confused for a moment before she realized he was calling out to her. Damn. A slow, shy smile—and then there was that simple flush of her skin. Such a turn-on. Holy shit.

He waited with bated breath for her to say something in return, but she kept walking.

Disappointed, he could only imagine just how beautiful those pink cheeks would be if he wrapped her in his arms in the soft sheets of his bed, all that delicious warmth curved around him.

***

Harper inhaled deeply and shook her head. She crossed streets until she hit the boardwalk and the steps to the soft white sand. It was after six and the beach was starting to empty, parents dragging tired and cranky children back to their waterfront hotels. The tall palms swayed rhythmically in the cool early May breeze. The sun was starting to descend over the dark blue water, frosting the rippling surface with sparkles.

He had spoken to her. Trent Andrews. To her. The tall, shaggy-haired tattoo god had called out to her, and she’d scuttled off like a church mouse. Once upon a time, she’d have had the confidence to come up with something more original than just a smile.

He probably assumed she knew who he was. Which, of course, she did. Heck, everyone in Miami knew who he was—not only was he one of the most talented tattoo artists out there, but he was a local celebrity of a sort in Miami. She’d seen pictures of the work he was able to do covering up scars—and it was beautiful. So beautiful, she’d been dreaming of what her own back would look like. He could fix it for her, she knew it, and if she was going to get past, well, her past, she was going to need a pretty spectacular cover-up artist.

She did the mental math. Between what she had brought with her when she’d moved to Miami and what she had been able to scrimp and save over the last four years, she hoped she had enough money to cover it. She could always stretch out the appointments if she had to.

Without thinking, she reached around to touch the base of her back. It was an automatic, self-protective instinct. Not that it could change anything now any more than it could have four years ago when the knife had cut into her.

With a design in mind and a tattoo artist selected, the question wasn’t whether she wanted to get a tattoo. That part was easy. But could Trent make what was already on her back disappear? And could she force herself to lie there and let him?

***

Shit, it was still cool at night. Trent pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over the top of his baseball hat. So what if he looked more thug and less upstanding citizen? It would keep people out of his path, getting him to his bed sooner.

He took one last look around the studio, and turned off the main lights, leaving the design on the huge front window illuminated by a couple of can lights in the ceiling. The alarm panel beeped as he keyed in the code before turning to leave.

One o’clock in the morning in a city that was still wide awake. A cacophony of sound roared around him. Pulsating beats from the hotels, bars, and nightclubs that peppered the strip reverberated through the air. Drivers revved their engines as they cruised up and down the street, seeking attention.

The lock was temperamental and he jiggled the key with a finesse born of necessity until it turned.

“Can you tattoo over extensive scars?”

A soft voice, thoroughly unexpected, came from behind him. He looked over his shoulder, his fingers still on the key. In the shadows of the giant palm tree that dominated the sidewalk, a lone figure stood. She stepped toward him.

It took only a moment to recognize her—the girl from this afternoon. Wow. She’d changed clothes, tucked her clearly tight body into skinny jeans and an ivory top that looked like it was made out of, well, clouds or something. Her hair was down now, lying in soft curls on her

shoulders, accentuating the most perfectly smooth skin he’d ever seen. Her arms were pulled tightly against her.

Trent paused with the key in the lock, never taking his eyes off her. “Depends on what kind of scar. How deep, how big, where, et cetera?”

She stared at the pavement like the cigarette butt by her foot was the most fascinating thing ever. Her hands clenched into fists and just as quickly she released them, over and over, as if wanting to do something but not knowing what.

“Are we talking about for you or someone else?”

The fingers were still twitching. She lifted her chin. The look in her eyes, which were an incredible shade of green, like sea glass, told him she was scared shitless.

“Me,” she said quietly.

He was exhausted. And the whole thing felt weird. He should just tell her to come back tomorrow—or better still, call and book an appointment. But if he turned her away now, she wouldn’t come back. He knew it for sure—he felt it. She needed something, and it would kill him not to know what he might have been able to do for her.

“Want to come in and let me take a look? The place is closed, so no one else will be around . . . if you’re cool with that . . . I’m a good guy, I promise.”

Why was she even here at one in the morning, alone and looking terrified? And not the I’m-scared-of-needles-will-it-hurt variety of terror. Girls nearly always came in with someone. Friends. Boyfriends. Same way they always went to the bathroom in pairs. Why wasn’t anybody with her? He had a bad feeling this wasn’t going to be your everyday scar.

“I’m Trent.”

“Harper.”

“Well, Harper,” he said, opening the door he’d just closed, “welcome to Second Circle.”

***

“Don’t want anyone thinking we’re still open,” he said, locking the door behind them after he turned off the alarm. He walked over to the curved counter, but instead of going behind it like she expected, he perched himself on the edge.

Try as she might, Harper had been unable to sleep, restless from the letter and seeing Trent earlier. One minute she’d been wide awake, staring at the ceiling in bed. The next she was standing in an empty studio with a man she didn’t know, unable to recall the details of the bus ride and walk she’d taken to get there.

She’d believed in signs once, trusted her gut implicitly to guide her. Maybe it was time to go back to that instead of overthinking every little issue.

The silence grew between them, and the cramp in her hand was driving her insane. The flicking of her fingers was her “stress response,” according to one of her many psycho-babbling therapists—and man, it hurt when they started to cramp. She shook her left hand and squeezed it with her right to ease the pain.

“I like your place.” An underwhelming statement really. Even in the half-light, it looked more like a gallery than a tattoo parlor. The heavily varnished dark wood floor contrasted with the brilliant white walls. All kinds of art hung on them, from vintage posters of pinup girls to dark gothic pencil drawings. There were two flat-screen televisions, their black expanse a jarring contrast to the color and vibrancy of the artwork that surrounded them.

“Thank you. I do too.”

Harper could feel Trent’s eyes on her as she walked around the room, slowly drawing her hand along walls and across countertops to ground her in the space.

“I Googled you,” Harper said, turning to face him.

“Learn anything interesting?”

“You’re one of the best there is.”

He revealed two striking dimples as he smiled. He took off his baseball cap and pulled his hoodie over his head in the weird way guys did, dragging it by the hood over his back. He pulled up his T-shirt with the move, revealing a tight stomach with a rich bank of abs. The Internet rumors about that ripped body were accurate. Quickly rectifying the situation, he pulled his shirt down, smoothing his unruly dark hair before putting his baseball cap on back to front. His eyes were insanely dark, closer to black than brown. He looked at her, his brows furrowed.

“Well, sweetheart, I could have told you that. What else?”

“You’re really good at tattooing over scars.”

A brief frown passed across his face as he rubbed his stubble with one hand before playing with the placement of his hat again.

“I’d like to think I’m really good at everything.” His words oozed confidence, but his self-deprecating laugh stopped them from sounding arrogant. “Hey, a question for you, darlin’, and I’m not asking to rush you. We going to continue this getting-to-know-you—in which case I’ll order in a pizza, because I’m starving—or are you ready to tell me what you’re here for?”

***

She froze. Like totally shut down. Man, she’d been starting to relax. Shit, he’d nearly gotten her to crack a smile with his I’m-great-at-everything comment (which was only eighty percent accurate . . . he only sucked at things that didn’t matter).

She stood motionless in the middle of the studio. He wasn’t even sure she was still breathing. Everything stopped except her fingers, still frantically flicking in and out to a rapid pulse.

He heard her inhale deeply as she looked back toward the door. She reminded him of the mustang on his grandparents’ ranch in Wyoming, edgy and ready to bolt. With a deep breath, she finally squared her shoulders and returned her gaze to his.

“I want to know if you can tattoo over some scarring on my back,” she said quietly.

“To decide that, I’d have to see it.”

He could sense her indecision. He remained seated on the counter, worried that the slightest movement on his part would send her running.

“This is so fucking hard,” she mumbled.

She slowly reached under the hem of her blouse, lifting it off to reveal a white bikini top. Wow. She really was stunning. Her body was a work of art, and under different circumstances he’d take a while longer to admire it. He didn’t usually react this way to clients—he prided himself on being a professional. But hell, he was only human.

Thinking about her body felt doubly wrong, though, given the vibe she was giving off. He needed to recite the alphabet backward or something, or she was going to see his appreciation too clearly.

Her perfect white teeth bit down on her lower lip.

“Can you tattoo over this?” She turned her back to him.

Holy hell. Though in the dimness he could only just make out the scars of different sizes and depths marring her back, his stomach lurched. He flicked on the light by the cash register, pulled a pair of gloves from the box next to it, and dropped down from the counter to stand behind her.

Shaking slightly, she pulled her shirt to her front, clutching it tightly to her chest. He looked at the red raised areas that had clearly been stitched and the silvery scars that had been left to heal on their own.

What. The. Fuck. Was that writing? He could swear it spelled something. Someone had carved words into Harper’s back. Someone had deliberately taken a knife to her skin.

It all made sense. Her nervousness and agitation. Her need to stay and her need to get out of there quickly. The need to move on and the need to hide.

Normally he’d reach out and feel the scars, gauging the depth of the scar tissue under the skin. If he did, though, she’d run. He could see it in the way she stood on the balls of her feet, shoulders tightly coiled. He leaned in as close as he could to study them, gauge whether the scars were mature enough to tattoo over.

There in the scars, were the words “My Bitch.”

Who could do this to another person? To her?

He could only imagine how hard it must be for her to just stand there in his studio. Her courage blew him away, and he knew he would find a way to cover up the horror for her.

But did she have any idea what this was going to take? It would be months of work and hours of sometimes-painful tattooing, the kind that brought even the toughest of men to their knees.

She’d come to him. Trusted him to fix this for her. He would get her through it. Somehow.

***

Silence was not good.

It was obvious that Trent was just as repulsed as everyone else who had ever seen it. For a brief moment, she was transported back to the trial, the abject look of horror on the jurors’ faces as they’d looked at photographs of her injuries. She hadn’t shown her back to a single person since.

“This was a bad idea,” she murmured, trying to pull on her blouse as fast as she could. She needed to get out of there.

“Wait.” Trent grabbed for her arm to stop her, quickly releasing it when she flinched. “Shit, sweetheart, that was some curveball you just threw at me. Of all the things I was expecting, that was definitely not it. It’s not like anything I’ve seen. I’m not sure anything I can come up with is appropriate for this.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she snapped, anxious to get out before the tears she was holding back spilled over and she humiliated herself more. If there was nothing “appropriate” he could do for her, then for the sake of her sanity, she needed to go as quickly as possible.

Harper tugged her shirt down and made for the door. Crap. He’d beaten her to it. She felt trapped, a feeling that was too familiar. Too painful. She needed air. Needed to get to the safety of her apartment where she could breathe again.

“Please move,” she whispered through gritted teeth, willing herself under control.

“Not until I’ve done what you asked me to do. I’m not going to touch you unless you agree to it, but I’m not letting you run out of here like this.”

Harper shook her head, starting to feel faint. Her breaths came in short bursts.

“There’s no need for me to stay.” She heard her voice waver, betraying just how close to the surface her emotions were running. “You already said you couldn’t come up with anything appropriate for this, so please just let me leave.”

Words, darlin’. Appropriate words. I couldn’t come up with anything to say to you that felt right. There’s plenty I can do.”

Her breathing slowed as she tried to stave off the panic attack threatening to consume her. She stared at the floor.

“Let’s sit you down before you pass out and I have to carry you. There’s a hydraulic bed in a room in the back. I can get you some water and take a better look at what I’d be working with.”

His words were practical, his tone soothing.

“If I walk away, you gonna bolt on me?”

Still staring down, she noticed he hadn’t fastened his black biker boots properly. His jeans were frayed at the hem. She slowly shook her head, humiliation keeping her from looking up into his eyes.

***

What did you say to someone who had gone through something so traumatic? What did you do? It wasn’t like he had any professional training—just years of listening to people’s stories using the tattoo process as therapy. No tattoo was going to make this go away for Harper.

He moved slowly, afraid that sudden movements might spook her and send her running for the door. If he could just get her to the back room and get her comfortable, he was sure he could talk her through this.

“Follow me back here. You don’t like anything we do, you just tell me to stop and I’ll back away immediately. Okay?”

His heart broke for her a little as she wrapped her arms around herself and looked up at him for the first time since she’d bolted for the door. She briefly met his eyes, and he felt it like a punch to the solar plexus. He had the passing thought that those remarkable eyes needed to be sparkling with happiness, love—hell, even lust—not clouded over with fear.

There was the slightest nod of the head. Okay then. Relief washed through him.

Pushing open the door, he was grateful to see the room was spotless. Not for the first time, he sent a mental thank you to Pixie for her diligence.

He turned the lights on to full, thinking it might make her feel safer. “Hop up on here.” He patted the black leather tattooing bed as Harper followed him in. “I’m just going to get you a bottle of water, and then we’ll take a look at this.” In the kitchen area he leaned his forehead for a moment on the cool exterior of the fridge. He struggled to control his fury at whoever had done this to her, the desire to punch a wall burning through him.

He opened her water for her when he returned, as her hands were shaking. She took a small sip.

“Okay, Harper. Here’s what we need to happen. You’ll need to take off your shirt again, sweetheart, and either give it to me to hang on the hook by the door or keep hold of it yourself. Whichever makes you feel most comfortable.

“I’ll go scar by scar, look over each one, and tell you which will or won’t tattoo well. You can pretty much tattoo on anything, but how the ink spreads and how it looks on the scar tissue is less predictable than it is on unscarred tissue. It’s harder to guarantee what it’s going to look like when it’s done.”

The cupboard at the back of the room contained gloves and he grabbed a pair before returning to stop in front of Harper. “When I’ve had a good look, I can let you know where the challenges might be and you can let me know what you want to do. You think we can do that?”

“I’ll try. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?”

“You’re quoting Kelly Clarkson?”

“No, Nietzsche,” Harper replied with a quiet laugh. “Wouldn’t have pegged you as a Kelly fan.”

“Never. And if you ever mention this conversation, I’ll deny all knowledge of it.”

Finally, the making of a smile.

Trent studied her as she removed her shirt for the second time. Any inappropriate thoughts that might have crossed his mind disappeared the moment he saw the extent of her injuries. His hands were chilled, and for the first time in years, he wondered whether they were going to be too cold. The gloves made a snapping sound as he pulled them on.

“You want me to take the shirt?”

“No,” she said quickly, pulling it to her chest. “I’ll just keep it . . . er . . . here.”

He repositioned the lights so they were shining straight onto her back, the scars more startling in relief. Trent pursed his lips and blew out a soft breath. Her shoulders shook as she gripped her shirt to her chest like a security blanket.

He took a step back, walked around to the front of the bed, and straddled a wheeled stool.

Harper looked at him with fear and steely determination. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees.

“I want you to touch my arm. Nothing creepy or weird. Just touch me.”

“What for? I mean, why would you want me to do that?”

“When I touched you out there earlier, you flinched. I’m thinking if you could get used to touching me first, my touching you wouldn’t feel quite so strange.”

Harper’s perfectly white teeth indented her soft pink lip.

He put his arm on the bed, the inner side facing toward her. Holding still, he waited patiently.

Tentatively, Harper lifted her left hand, her fingers twitching again like she was running her fingers down the keys of a piano in sequence. Seconds ticked by. Hell, he could wait all night if that’s what she needed. She exhaled slowly as she lowered her blouse and moved her arm toward him. She brushed her fingertips lightly along his skin, starting with the inside of his wrist, stroking the inked drops of blood where the corner of a tattooed cross appeared to dig into his skin.

Studying the ink she touched, seeing it in a new light as she continued her way to his elbow, reminded him again of just how incredible an artist Junior had been.

Her touch was like a breath of air whispering against him. He watched the very tip of her index finger brush over the tightly packed ink, the gentle pressure sending shivers down his spine. Her shaking fingertips were as cold as marble.

“It’s beautiful. Will you explain it to me?”

Trent studied her face as she continued to touch him. All flawless complexion and high cheekbones, long dark eyelashes curling softly outward. “Sure. You familiar with the Divine Comedy?”

“The band?”

Trent smiled. “No, all my tattoos are from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Some people say Dante’s Inferno but that’s not totally accurate. It’s three chapters. Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.”

“So this is . . . ?” Harper paused.

“Heaven.” His left arm showed Hell and his back showed Purgatory.

She continued slowly stroking his arm, her soft fingers sending tremors throughout his body as she crossed the Roman numeral XII. He’d been so excited to show it to Cujo after he’d gotten it done. Cujo’d loved it right up to the point where Trent told him all about the twelve souls who illuminate the world intellectually. Then he’d just laughed and called him a pompous ass.

“Beatrice leads Dante through nine celestial spheres, starting with the Moon for the Inconstant here.” He pointed to the rosary wrapped around his wrist with its cross bound in barbed wire. “Souls who abandon their faith. It goes all the way up my arm to the ninth, Primum Mobile, the home of the angels.” He pointed to the top of his bicep. “My shoulder is the final destination. Empyrean, where God lives.”

He lifted his arm and let her trace the letters that wrapped around it just above his elbow. Junior had spent forever getting the midnight-blue text with stars through it perfect, cursing Dante for describing the “pattern of lights” in such detail. Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram.

“‘Love Justice, ye that judge the earth,’” she said, surprising him.

“You know Dante?”

Harper dropped her head to focus back on his tattoos. “It’s a popular quote, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t sure. “It’s the sixth celestial sphere. Jupiter, home of the Rulers.”

Her fingers continued their slow, teasing slide across the fixed stars of faith, hope, and love.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Man, those eyes were something else. She lifted them from his arm to his face.

“Are you going to be okay if I touch you now?” He felt the absence of her fingers the moment they left his skin.

Harper pursed her lips. “I honestly don’t know. I think so. Just go slow, okay? I haven’t let anybody see or touch my back in years. Just having you standing behind me is a huge deal.”

What an amazing responsibility for her to trust him with. He was honored.

Trent stood and pushed the stool back to the corner. “Trust me. I’ve got you.”

***

Harper’s head was spinning and it wasn’t all fear. Touching another human in a small but incredibly intimate way had left her breathless.

Trent’s strong arms, incredible patience, and gentle manner had done more than simply help ease her. Underneath the usual sense of panic and fear, he had managed to stir up feelings in her body that had been buried, dormant for years.

The flip in her stomach was a mix of discomfort and relief. The part of her that yearned for another’s touch wasn’t completely broken. Like the person who felt the draw of the ocean but couldn’t swim, she felt the pull of another but didn’t know how to respond and stay safe.

“How are you doing, Harper?” Trent hadn’t touched her yet, but he was standing right behind her. She could feel his warm breath on her skin.

“A bit light-headed, to be honest.”

“Put your head down between your knees. It’s either the presence of my greatness—which happens all the time, so don’t feel bad—or the adrenaline. Take some slow, deep breaths. What you’re doing tonight is a huge step.”

She did as he said. His scuffed black boots disappeared from her line of sight and reappeared a minute later.

“Please don’t pass out and fall off the bed—my insurance doesn’t cover dental. I’ve got a cold cloth for the back of your neck. I’m just going to move your hair and put it there, okay?”

“Sure.” It was slightly easier to be touched this time, his fingers brushing the back of her neck so gently before he placed the cool cloth down.

“Better?” he asked as he stroked her hair. His touch—it was actually soothing. “It sometimes takes a minute.”

“It’s a little better. Thanks.”

Trent went back around the bed. His hands moved systematically from her neck down her back, stopping here and there.

She knew the bigger scars. The first line of the letter M. The straight line down the letter B. The line that underscored “Bitch.” The strokes made with the most anger had caused the most damage.

Her emotions threatened to take her over, swallowing her whole. Embarrassment that she had put herself into such a position. Anger that she had allowed another person to damage her like this. Frustration that she’d believed the police would keep her safe. Relief that the scars were the only things Trent could see—and that he didn’t know everything else that had happened that horrific night. And something altogether different as his gloved hands continued to touch her skin reverently. She focused on counting her breaths, reaching ten this time before starting all over again.

“Okay, Harper. We’re done.” She heard the snap of the gloves as he took them off.

Trent took a moment to remove the now-warm cloth from the back of her neck, dispatching it and his gloves into the stainless steel trash can.

She pulled her shirt swiftly over her head, taking refuge in it.

Trent walked around the bed to her and pulled the stool back over.

“There’s good news and good news. Which do you want first?”

“The good news, I guess.” She sounded uncertain, which was a lot better than sounding scared.

“There’s plenty we can do to hide this.”

“What’s the other good news?” Harper asked.

“That I want to do it.”

***

“Tattooing is simple. Needle inserts ink wherever tattoo artist places needle. However, if there is anything different about the skin, the ink will not land the same. Most of your fine, silver scars I can tattoo over and pretty safely say that the ink will deposit the way we’d need it to.”

This was like no other consult he had ever given. Sure, he’d tattooed over hundreds of scars. Burns. Bike accidents. But nothing quite like this. This was going to take some serious time and patience on both of their parts.

“Some of the bigger scars—and I’d say there are three that fall into this category—might be less predictable. So you have two options with those: either the design just has shading there with no hard outline detail, or we work around the scars completely and allow them to show.

With everything else covered, they won’t mean anything anymore. They’ll just look like abstract marks.”

Trent took a moment to let that sink in. Without thinking, he reached up and held both of her twitching hands in his, stilling the frantic movement of her cold fingers with his palms. She didn’t pull away immediately, which he took as a sign of progress. The shaking calmed as he continued to hold onto her.

“You’re really quiet, sweetheart. Are you staying with me?” He wanted to pull her close and wrap his arms around her. It was fucked up for sure, but it felt right that she was with him.

“I’m sorry. It’s just . . .” She looked at him and he could see her eyes shining with tears. “I’ve wanted to do this for so many years and was scared you were going to say no.”

“I’m not going to say no. Not yet. Unless you want some dumb-ass Tweety Bird tattoo.” She let out a small laugh, just as he’d hoped. “But I do need to know what you were thinking. See if it works with what you have going on back there. The scars won’t totally disappear, but the tattoo will certainly trick the eye.”

“I don’t have anything too concrete,” she said, “because I want it to work with the scars and I didn’t know what you could do. But I want it to echo my mantra: The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire. Steel, a knife, did this to me, but somehow I survived and will get through it. I was imagining the words in a strong script and some sort of sword being formed in flames. I hoped the flames could cover up the majority of my back. Oh, and I know swords can be kind of butch looking, but I want it to be feminine.”

“Great theme. Strong and powerful. I’m assuming color, then.”

“Yes. I . . .” Harper paused, biting her lip and looking back to the floor.

He let go of one of her hands. He touched her chin—he couldn’t resist—he wanted to look at her, needed to see her. She flinched at the contact, and he pulled his hand away.

“You what?” he asked, mentally kicking himself for scaring her.

Her voice wobbled, and he knew tears were a moment away. “I want it to be so amazing that no one even tries to figure out what the scars are.”

Trent reached over the counter and grabbed a tissue box, putting it next to her. A full-back piece, his favorite kind of tattoo. Nothing too concrete from the client, meaning he could just let his creative juices flow. That was the sweet spot where he did his best work.

“It just so happens that amazing tattoos are my specialty, so no worries there. But a full-back piece is going to take quite the commitment on your part. I can go as long as you can, but creativity starts to get stifled after four or five hours. I’d suggest three- to four-hour blocks. Maybe less to begin with. Just being on the bed is going to be tough for you at first. How quickly do you want it done?”

Holy shit. Her smile was breathtaking. Slightly teary, but beautiful. It took over her entire face. Her eyes seemed closer to emerald now, and they sparkled. He watched as she quietly collected herself. She straightened her shoulders, shook her head until her hair fell down her back as she blew out a long breath.

“Is yesterday too soon?”

Laughing, he took hold of her hands again, trying not to take it personally when she flinched. “If only. This may take up to five or six sessions, depending on how long you can lie on the bed, and we’ll have to space them out, ideally, to every couple of weeks. You’ll need enough time between sessions to heal. Why don’t I draw something up for you over the next day or so? I’ll do up some design options and a rough price for you. Can you come in to take a look at it on say, Thursday, and then we’ll figure out where to go from there?”

“Yes. I don’t know what to say. Thank you seems so inadequate.”

“Wait until it’s done, Harper. You can thank me later. But you’re going to hate me to start with.”


So, what did you guys think? Do you already love Trent as much as I do?


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authorbio

Scarlett Cole is a contemporary romantic suspense / contemporary romance author (represented by Beth Phelan at The Bent Agency). Her debut novel, THE STRONGEST STEEL, book one in the Second Circle Tattoos series, will be published by St. Martin’s Press on 07/07/15.

When Scarlett isn’t writing, she spends her time reading, hoarding mason jars, and working out to off-set an epic sour candy habit.

Having travelled the world for work and fun, Scarlett is a citizen of both Britain and Canada. A true city-dweller, she considers Toronto and Manchester home and likes to set her books in vibrant locations such as Miami and Los Angeles.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads


Special thank you to St. Martin’s Press publicity department and author Scarlett Cole for allowing me to post this excerpt today, and for the review copy as well. It’s a fabulous debut book and I’m grateful I was allowed an ARC to read and review it.

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