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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

Permanent Ink

Copyright © 2017 by Avon Gale and Piper Vaughn

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: Natasha Snow, natashasnowdesigns.com

Editor: May Peterson, maypetersonbooks.com

Layout: L.C. Chase, lcchase.com/design.htm

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ISBN: 978-1-62649-643-9

First edition

August, 2017

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-644-6

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At twenty-three, Poe Montgomery is going nowhere. He still lives in his father’s basement and spends most of his time tagging with his friends. When an arrest lands him in debt, Poe accepts the front desk job at Permanent Ink, the tattoo shop owned by his father’s best friend, Jericho McAslan. Jericho is nearly twice Poe’s age, but with his ink and prematurely graying hair, he quickly takes the starring role in Poe’s hottest fantasies.

Jericho is known for his ability to transform poorly designed tattoos into works of art, but he was once as aimless and misdirected as Poe. Wanting to pay it forward the way someone once did for him, Jericho makes Poe his apprentice and is determined to keep things strictly professional. Easier said than done when Poe makes his interest—and his daddy kink—abundantly clear.

Jericho can’t resist Poe or their intense chemistry for long. But between the age gap, tension with Poe’s father, and Poe’s best friend calling him a sellout, they’ll need to ensure they’re both on the same page before they can rewrite their rocky start into something permanent.

To everyone who believes in second chances.

About Permanent Ink

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Dear Reader

Acknowledgments

Also by Avon Gale

Also by Piper Vaughn

About the Authors

More like this

Poe

“I can’t believe you got arrested!” Landon’s voice boomed in the dim interior of the truck. “How many times have I told you this was gonna happen? Dozens. Yet you still don’t listen. It’s like talking to a wall. Hell, it’s like I’m talking to my-fucking-self.”

I grunted and sank further into the passenger seat. No sense interrupting when my father was on a tear. Not that I had anything in particular to say anyway. I didn’t really understand all the drama. Both he and the cops were acting as if I’d desecrated the Lincoln Memorial, not spray-painted the side of some shitty corporate building downtown. They should thank me for adding a splash of color to an otherwise boring-ass neighborhood. A little bit of graffiti might liven things up for the yuppies and boujee vegan hipsters.

“You think I wanted to spend half the night bailing you out of jail?” Landon asked. “I have to be up for work at five in the goddamn morning. I should’ve left your ass there to rot until I closed up shop.”

Blah, blah, blah. I stifled a yawn behind my fist.

“Fuck, Poe, are you listening?”

“Not really.”

Landon growled, his tattooed fingers tightening on the steering wheel. “Do you think this is a goddamn joke? You’re not fourteen anymore. This is going on your permanent record.”

I tilted my head back against the seat and sighed. “It’s a misdemeanor. Calm down. I didn’t murder anyone.”

“That’s not the point.”

I closed my eyes. Jesus. I’m too tired to deal with this shit right now. “Then what is? Do enlighten me.”

“The point is it’s time for you to grow the fuck up and stop being so irresponsible. You’re twenty-three years old. You know what I was doing when I was your age? Working my ass off to provide for you and your mom.”

I snorted. “Yeah, well, a lot of good that did you. She still ran off when she got tired of playing house. Some beacon of responsibility she was, abandoning her husband and kid.”

Landon went quiet, and even without looking, I could picture his tight-lipped, narrow-eyed disapproval, and the throbbing vein that popped up in the middle of his forehead whenever he got pissed off.

“Your mother isn’t the point either,” Landon said softly. “I stuck around. I raised you. I kept clothes on your back and food in your belly. And I’m still letting your grown ass sleep under my roof and eat my groceries. A little respect would be nice. So would an apology.”

“Sorry,” I grumbled. I knew I’d crossed a line. My father didn’t have to answer the phone when I called at one in the morning. He didn’t have to get me out of jail either. And he was allowing me to live in his house rent-free, which was the only thing that spared me from having to room with five other dudes to afford a janky apartment on my pitiful, gas-station-cashier salary.

“Just ease up with the attitude, okay?” Landon said. “Oh, and don’t think you’re not paying me back that bail money and the lawyer fees and whatever the hell else I end up having to spend. Consider this a loan, and trust me, I will be keeping a tally.”

I opened my eyes and glanced at my father, whose attention was focused on the darkened road. A streetlamp briefly lit the inside of the truck, and in those few seconds of illumination, I could see Landon’s jaw clenched tight through his heavy beard. “Fine. And . . . thanks. I’m sorry for being a dick.”

Landon dipped his head, acknowledging the apology. “I hope you know I’m not trying to be an asshole, kid. But you’re not Peter Pan, and this isn’t Neverland. You need to start getting your shit together, and you won’t be able to do that if you’re out tagging at all hours of the night. Grow up, Poe. I can’t tolerate this behavior forever. One day I’ll hit my limit, and you’ll be out the door.”

I believed the threat in my father’s words. I knew someday he’d reach the end of his rope and give my ungrateful ass the boot. But when I closed my eyes again, all I could think about was the backpack and cannons I’d lost. Premium-quality spray paint confiscated as evidence. Some of the cans belonged to my best friend, Blue. Damn. That was going to piss him off. I’d have to pick up a few more shifts at the gas station to buy replacements.

At least the cops had let me keep my skateboard, and they hadn’t gotten my piece book either. It was filled front to back with ideas for both past and future projects. If that fell into the hands of the police, I’d be well and truly fucked—along with several other members of my crew.

For once my shitty attention span had come in handy.

Jericho

I was finishing up my last client of the day when one of my artists, Pete, stood in the door and cleared his throat. “Uh. Jer?”

I hated being called Jer. Hated it. “Yeah, Pee?”

He didn’t get it. “Mikey called in again.”

I closed my eyes, pushing the chair back and setting down the tattoo machine. My client, Landon Montgomery, gave me a sympathetic look and a shake of his head. He owned the garage next to my shop, Permanent Ink. He knew all about dealing with staff who had commitment problems. I glowered at the empty desk and said disgustedly, “That’s, what? Sixth time in a month? Fuck that kid. He’s done.”

Pete nodded. “You want me to stick around while you finish up here?”

It was late, almost seven thirty, and I doubted we’d be that busy for the last half hour. Maybe if it were the weekend, but on a Wednesday? Probably not. “I got it. See you later.”

“Cool.” Pete gave a wave and disappeared.

“‘Jer’?”

I glanced at Landon as I picked up my machine. “I know.” I went back to work on his tattoo, which was a cherry-red vintage Mustang and part of an elaborate sleeve we’d been working on for the last four years. Landon had been one of my first clients when I’d opened Permanent Ink, and we’d gotten to be good friends in that time. Enough that he knew to never fucking call me Jer.

“Mikey . . . I thought he was a good one,” Landon said, in reference to my—former—front desk receptionist.

I shrugged, dipping the machine in the red ink and turning his arm a bit to do the shading. “If you count showing up mostly on time for four weeks and not stealing money or trying to give piercings to underage girls for sex after hours as good, yeah.” I was still mad about that. I seemed to have the worst luck when it came to front desk receptionists. “Not too high of a bar, there.”

Landon made a sympathetic noise. “You still got that beer in your fridge? We should have one when you’re done. Hell, I could use one right now.”

“Yeah, I think I have a couple.” I glanced up at him briefly. “What’s up?”

He sighed. “Guess.”

“What’d he do this time?” I went back to shading, preparing myself to hear another story about Landon’s son, Poe. The kid was twenty-three and, according to Landon, both the joy and bane of his existence.

“Motherfucker got arrested for damaging public property last week. Again.” Landon shook his head. His beard swayed gently with the motion. Landon looked exactly like a guy who’d named his son after Edgar Allan Poe should look—graying beard, tattoos, and a never-ending supply of work shirts with his name on them. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with him, Jericho. I really don’t.”

“Where’d he hit this time?”

“Where’d he tag,” Landon corrected me, and I thought he was only being half-sarcastic about that. I knew he hated that Poe got in so much trouble, but he was also impressed with his kid’s talent. “Some building on Sidney.”

My brows rose. “Yeah?” I’d driven past there the other day, on my way home from a concert on nearby Arsenal. “The bells? I saw that, actually. Wasn’t half-bad.” It was a lot better than that. Poe was clearly a gifted artist. But spray-painting other people’s property wasn’t the best way to show it off. “That damn building’s an eyesore.”

Landon snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe if someone else’s kid had gotten picked up tagging it, I wouldn’t be so annoyed. Why’s he keep doing this? If he’d show the same determination to get a better job as he did spray-painting buildings, he’d be out of my goddamn house by now.”

I smiled and finished up with the shading, pushing the chair back and grabbing the squirt bottle of green soap to clean off the blood and plasma from the fresh tattoo, wiping it with a paper towel. “You’d miss him.”

“I motherfucking would not,” Landon muttered. “I just don’t know what else to do.” He glanced at me as I wrapped the tattoo and taped it securely. “Except whine to you and drink a beer.”

I stood up and patted him on the shoulder as I made my way back to the small break room. The two beers were in the bottom, the so-called “crisper” drawer that had never before seen a vegetable and probably never would. Everyone who worked here knew it was my drawer, though, and if there were a few beers in there . . . they better stay there until I decided to drink them.

I carried the beers back and handed one to Landon, then set about cleaning up my area. “I was a punk when I was younger, you know,” I reminded him. I didn’t have kids and had no idea how to relate, but Landon knew my story and how I’d been far from perfect. “I ended up okay.”

“Too bad I don’t know anyone in San Diego,” Landon deadpanned, and I laughed. I’d been sent there to my mom’s sister when I was sixteen for doing stupid shit like vandalism (though admittedly without Poe’s talent and apparently extensive array of materials) and petty theft, but it was when I discovered drugs that my parents reached their breaking point.

Getting out of North County had been helpful, but it wasn’t what had turned me from a future hooligan to a future business owner. That had all been Chris, who’d caught me dealing drugs in front of his store. He’d decided, for whatever reason, that I was worth a blistering lecture and a chance to do something besides inevitably ending up in jail.

Landon drank his beer, still telling me about Poe and his brush with the law. I’d seen the kid around, obviously. But usually when I went over to Landon’s to watch a game or have a few beers, Poe was either working the late shift at the gas station, out with his friends, or down in the basement.

“I have to pay these lawyer fees to keep him out of jail,” Landon continued when I finally finished and sat down with my own beer. I took a long pull, enjoying the satisfying, cold taste after a long day spent tattooing. “Someone better show up with a Maserati that needs the works. Christ.” He made a face, then glanced at his beer. “I wish you had more of these.”

“One’s enough. You just got a tattoo.”

Outside my tattoo room, the front desk phone rang. I glanced at my watch. It was ten after eight, and we were technically closed. It made me think of Mikey, who hopefully knew better than to show up here ever again.

That reminded me. I glanced at Landon, thinking about what he’d said about Poe. “So, you know how I need a new front desk receptionist?”

Landon gave me a droll look. “I wasn’t asking for a job, man, but thanks.”

“Not for you, dumbass. Poe.” I should be so lucky to have Landon working in my shop. He knew what the word responsibility meant and had a fierce work ethic. Mikey had a problem counting the drawer, had never figured out how to load the paper in the credit card machine, and a horrible habit of saying things were “wicked” even though he’d grown up in Chesterfield.

Landon narrowed his eyes at me. “You seriously want to hire my son after I told you he got arrested? Again?”

“He doesn’t think he’s an amateur piercer, does he?”

Landon shook his head, but he didn’t smile at my joke. “Jericho, I— That’s nice of you, but I can’t ask you to do that. Fuck, if Poe—if Poe fucked up . . .”

“Then Poe fucks up,” I said bluntly. “It’s not you. We’re cool.” I took a swig of my beer. “As long as you don’t peel that tat and tell me it faded in a week.”

“Still.” Landon stood, flexing his arm a little. He tapped his fingers on the bandage until he saw me glaring at him, then dropped his hand. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Here’s the thing,” I said, slowly. “The reason I got my shit together was because someone gave my criminal ass some direction. Your kid might be a punk—hey, like father like son, right?—but he’s definitely got talent.” And at least he wasn’t mixed up dealing drugs like I’d been in my own misspent youth. I didn’t think Landon would put up with that for a hot minute.

“In defacing public property?” Landon’s brows drew together.

“Art,” I said, though I knew Landon was being cranky on purpose. “Maybe he’d like to learn how to actually put it to good use. And make money doing it, instead of a police record.”

Landon crossed his arms. “You’re not giving Poe a tattoo machine,” he said flatly.

“Not right away.” I picked up mine. It was wiped clean, ready for the morning. I studied it, all shining chrome and gleaming black metal. This simple thing had given me a new path in life, and if I could do the same thing for someone else, especially the son of my best friend . . .

“But if he showed up and worked the desk until I found someone who won’t no-show me, and if he proved himself, I’d be willing to give him a shot at an apprenticeship. Maybe it’d keep him out of trouble.”

Landon didn’t say anything for a long moment. “That’s— Dude, that’s pretty goddamn nice of you to offer.” He sounded a little wary, and I didn’t blame him. Landon and I had both learned the hard way that things that sounded too good to be true usually were.

“Like I said, man. Tattooing got me on the straight and narrow, so.” I cleared my throat at his snort of laughter. “Figure of speech, that’s all. Maybe I could help Poe out.”

“I bet you could, but my problem is . . . I don’t know about Poe. He’s my son and I love him, and I know he inherited his mother’s ADHD, but he’s also not that trustworthy. And you’re my best friend, dude. I don’t want to lose my sweet tattoo discount because my kid’s more interested in misdemeanors than a job.” Landon wasn’t looking at me, and I knew it was more than that. He was worried somehow that he’d have to step in for his son over his best friend, and he didn’t want to be put in that position.

Besides, he paid me for the tats. In cash.

I was starting to think I should drop this. Landon knew his son way better than I did, after all, and if he thought it was a terrible idea . . . then it probably was. But I couldn’t help remembering Chris, with his no-nonsense gruff voice that sounded like he was perpetually hoarse, his liberal use of the word fuck, and how he never wore anything but tie-dyed shirts. He’d done more for me than just about anyone, and I’d probably been as big of a prick as Poe. A little younger, maybe, but I’d held my own. “It’s fine if you say no, Landon. Your tattoo discount is safe, believe me. How many times have you fixed my truck?”

“You need new brakes,” Landon said, automatically, like he couldn’t help himself. “And it’s not that I don’t appreciate it. Believe me, I do. I don’t want to fuck you over because my kid can’t be responsible.”

Finishing my beer, I took Landon’s empty bottle and carried them back to the recycling bin. “I’ve got things in hand,” I assured Landon. “I’m already functioning without a responsible front desk receptionist, and I have been since Becca left. And, believe me, if he’s not cutting it as an apprentice, he’s finished. I won’t go easy on him, but I will give him a chance.”

That was all I’d needed, but I couldn’t say whether or not the same would be true for Poe.

Landon was quiet as I finished turning off lights, making sure things were clean, and emptying the trash my goddamn slacker employees had forgotten about as usual. I didn’t mind cleaning up the shop—not that I wanted to tell them that, obviously—because it gave me such a sense of pride to know that this place was mine. I ran my hand over the counter at the front desk and smiled.

“If you’re sure,” Landon said, hesitantly. “I’ll ask him. I—I really appreciate it.” Landon’s voice went soft. “He’s a good kid. Underneath it all. I think he’s aimless. And that he needs to move out of my house.”

I gestured for Landon to go outside so I could lock up. “I’m not sure I can get him to move out, but maybe I can give him some direction. Talk to him about it, and send him over to see me if he’s interested.” I didn’t mind giving the kid a chance, but I wasn’t going to chase him down or anything. “I’m pretty much always here.”

I had no idea if I’d see Poe Montgomery in the near future, but he had about two days before I advertised the front desk job. After that, there wasn’t much I could do.

Poe

The thud of my father’s footsteps on the basement stairs gave me enough time to shove my markers and piece book under a pillow before Landon appeared in the doorway to my bedroom. He paused on the threshold, tall and imposing in his mechanic coveralls, and stared contemplatively into the room while stroking his thick beard with a big, grease-stained hand.

As far as bedrooms went, mine was nontraditional. There was no actual bed to speak of. I slept on a futon shoved into the gap between my dresser and drafting table. The rest of the space served as a mini indoor skate park, complete with a half-pipe and quarter-pipe I’d built myself. Vivid, sprawling color decorated the walls from ceilings to floor—my evolution from childish stick figure doodles to an Edgar Allan Poe–inspired mural featuring ravens, skulls, and a large cameo-style portrait of the man himself. Aka, the one and only painting of mine to ever actually earn my father’s approval. Not surprising, considering he named me after the guy, a lingering testament to his high school goth days.

Despite the hopper windows I almost always had cracked open, the smell of spray paint lingered faintly. I hadn’t written on the walls in weeks, but the fumes were pretty much saturated into every surface by now. The scent would probably never entirely fade.

When Landon didn’t speak right away, I grabbed my phone and paused the old Sublime album I’d been streaming for background noise. “What’s up?” I asked.

His dark eyes swung toward me. “I have a job offer for you. Or rather, Jericho does.”

“Jericho, as in your friend from the tattoo shop?”

Landon arched his brows. “You know any other Jerichos?”

I sat up on the futon. “What kind of job offer? And why? I don’t remember applying.”

Landon stepped into the room. “You didn’t. I was talking to him about your run-ins with the cops and all the money I’ve already dished out to save your hide. He offered to let you man the front desk, with pay, until he finds a permanent replacement.”

My forehead wrinkled as I frowned. “Why would he do that? He doesn’t even know me.”

Landon sighed. “Well, he knows me, and he’s willing to help us both out. He said he’d consider taking you on as an apprentice in the future, if you do a good job and prove your work ethic.”

“I don’t give a shit about tattoos.” I only had the one—a small raven on my right hip that I’d gotten from a friend’s cousin at a party when I was seventeen and drunk off my ass. It looked like a melted Hershey’s Kiss.

Sighing again, Landon rubbed his temples. He looked weary, older than usual, the line between his eyebrows deep and pronounced. Guilt flashed through me, and I squirmed. I knew the blame for some of the gray peppering his hair rested solely on my shoulders—especially lately.

“I want you to do this, Poe,” he said, “and I don’t want you to fuck it up. Jericho is a good friend, my best friend, and he’s willing to give you a chance to make something of yourself, maybe do something constructive for once in your life.” Landon gestured around the room. “Unless this is your plan—to keep drawing on walls, skateboarding, and getting arrested?”

“Well, yeah, that sort of was my plan, aside from the getting-arrested part.”

Landon gave me a flat, unimpressed look. “If that’s the case, it’s time to rethink your priorities. I’m tired of getting calls from the police station. And last I checked you owe me hundreds of dollars. I haven’t seen a single dime of that money. You’re in no position to be picky.”

He had me there. Part-time cashiering wasn’t exactly lucrative work. At least a tattoo shop would be cooler than a gas station, and it would spare me the idiotic customers who did stupid shit like driving away from the pumps with the fuel nozzle still inserted in their tanks.

“Okay,” I said. “Tell him I’ll do it.”

“I’m not telling him anything. You’ll go in there tomorrow afternoon and tell him yourself. And maybe add a thank-you while you’re at it.”

“Fine.” I bit the word out, and Landon grunted in response.

He turned toward the door. “I’m ordering pizza, if you’re interested.”

“Pepperoni and bacon?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks. Call me when it gets here?”

“Yep.”

As Landon stomped up the stairs, I slumped back onto the futon. Well, that was unexpected. Jericho could keep his apprenticeship, but really, how could I complain about a job pretty much landing in my lap without an ounce of effort on my part? There were few things I hated more than the application and interview process.

My phone buzzed, and I took a moment to shoot a quick reply to Blue, letting him know I’d meet up with him after dinner. I wasn’t one to pass up a free meal.

Withdrawing my book from its hiding place, I flipped back to the page I’d been working on. It was a concept sketch for a collaboration Blue and I would be painting together. We’d be bombing some freight trains tonight, but this . . . this was special, a mural in a heaven spot that would finally get our names—Raven and Azure—some real recognition. If we pulled it off. It was on a rooftop, dangerous and hard to reach, but if we wanted to get up, we needed to take risks.

I touched the face I’d drawn, which would be the stenciled, black-and-white focal point amid an array of shapes and colors.

No guts, no glory.

The next afternoon, a muggy day in mid-August, I strolled into Jericho’s shop, Permanent Ink, a few minutes after twelve. A girl who looked like a 1940s pinup model lounged against the front counter filing her nails. She wore a black dress covered in cherries, and her bright-red hair rivaled the shade of her perfectly applied lipstick. She glanced up at me with complete disinterest and kept working her thumbnail with what looked like a glass file. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m looking for Jericho. Landon told me to come by and see him about the front desk job.”

She jerked her head toward the rear of the shop. “He’s making coffee.”

I took that as permission to escort myself to him, passing several closed doors and darkened rooms along the hallway. One appeared to be the pinup girl’s domain, with pictures of her and a bunch of people who dressed like her plastered collage-style on the walls. I assumed the rest of the rooms were tattoo spaces, but the lights were off in all but one. The place was a lot bigger on the inside than I thought it would be.

When I found Jericho in what must’ve been the break room—the very last open doorway before the emergency exit—he was in the middle of filling a carafe with water from the sink. I rapped on the doorjamb with my knuckles, and he glanced over his shoulder.

“Hey,” I said.

He nodded at me and returned to his task. “Hey yourself.”

I stepped into the room, shoving my hands into the pockets of my hoodie, and stared appreciatively at the way Jericho’s thin black T-shirt clung to the well-defined muscles of his shoulders. We’d only crossed paths a handful of times during the years he and Landon had been friends, but I’d always thought Jericho was fucking hot. He had to lift weights. His biceps were clearly defined under all the ink, and judging by his ass and thighs, this was not a man who skipped leg day at the gym.

Fuck, I should not be looking.

“Um.” I tore my eyes away from his ass and sucked my lower lip into my mouth, briefly catching the stainless steel hoop that pierced it between my teeth. “My dad told me to come by to see you. Said you need someone to work the front desk.”

“I do.” Jericho poured water into the coffee maker and shoved the carafe into place before jabbing at the power button. He pivoted to face me, arms crossed over his chest. “Are you interested?”

I lifted a shoulder. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Jericho’s dark eyebrows drew down over his hazel eyes. Despite his youthful face, silver liberally threaded his short beard and hair, the close-cropped sides revealing more gray than black. Somehow it intensified his appeal instead of aging him. I knew he couldn’t be much more than forty—younger than Landon for sure—and I loved the fact that he clearly didn’t give a fuck about the gray. He was all natural, not trying to cover it up with that cheesy ass Just For Men shit. “If this is how you talk to your prospective employers, I’m surprised that gas station hired you.”

I started to reply, but Jericho held up a tattooed hand.

“This is how it’s going to be,” he said. “If you show up on time and do your work, you’ll get paid. If you do a good enough job, we can discuss an apprenticeship once I find a decent replacement.”

I tried to protest the apprenticeship thing, but he kept right on talking.

“Don’t steal anything. Don’t be rude to my customers. And don’t think I won’t send your ass packing the second you step out of line with me.” Jericho backed his words with a hard-eyed glare. “I’m giving you a chance because I like your father, and because someone helped me when I was doing my damned best to ruin my life. I’d like to pay it forward, but I won’t tolerate your bullshit. Got me?”

I tipped my chin. “Yeah, I got you.”

“Good.” Jericho grabbed a mug from the dish rack in the sink. “You can start today, if you want. You’ll work the desk from noon to eight Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Four to midnight Friday and Saturday. We have three tattoo artists—me, Pete, and Zeek—but we don’t all keep the same schedule, and Zeek splits his time between here and Chicago. Roxanne is our piercer, and she also covers the desk whenever the receptionist isn’t working. She’ll show you the ropes. But remember clients can only book appointments in person. Also, we usually do consultations from noon to one, so if anyone asks, tell them that’s the best time to come in.”

“Okay.”

“You probably met Roxanne on your way in. Go see her, and she’ll help you sort out your new-hire paperwork.” Jericho turned to the coffee maker, clearly dismissing me.

That was that, then. Apparently, like my father, Jericho didn’t mince words.

I went to find Roxanne.

Jericho

It’d been three weeks since Poe had started, and I wasn’t overly impressed. Granted, he showed up mostly on time and wasn’t overtly rude, but there was this . . . distractedness about him, a disinterest, that drove me fucking batshit.

I didn’t expect him to be so into working the front desk that he showed up early to make us all fucking coffee or whatever. But I did expect that he’d sound a little bit less bored when he had to deal with the customers. Or the other employees. Or me.

This place was my pride and joy, and I knew it wasn’t fair to assume my employees would feel the same way. But I did expect at least some investment in the success of the place from the artists and the piercers, and for the most part, I got it.

The front desk position, though, that was another fucking story.

The thing about it was, most people who took the desk job were people who thought it would be cool to hang out in a tattoo shop all day. Either they were so busy trying to hang with the artists and seem cool as fuck that they forgot they were supposed to be working, or they assumed no one would care if they went outside and smoked every two minutes. The normal job duties—answering the phone, scheduling appointments, filing, all that shit—seemed to fall by the wayside. I didn’t know how I kept hiring people who couldn’t understand that this was a business that required a dependable staff to stay open—and therefore, pay their salary—but I did.

It seemed as if maybe Poe was no different than the others. Granted, he didn’t no-show like that dick Mikey, and as far as I knew, he wasn’t meeting girls after hours and promising piercings for sexual favors. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected anything more. Just because the kid liked art didn’t mean he gave a shit about tattooing. Maybe he was one of those kids who rebelled by not getting tattooed, since his dad was covered in ink and Poe didn’t have a single one—that I could see, anyway.

I’d known Landon for four years, and there wasn’t much I could see of my friend in his son. Maybe there was some physical resemblance around the eyes, and possibly the mouth—it was hard since Poe was clean-shaven and I couldn’t imagine Landon Montgomery without that beard—but he had freckles that I was pretty sure must have come from his mother. His hair was always messy and hanging in his face, and while he didn’t have tattoos, he did have a lip ring.

It looked like a shit-job piercing too. If he didn’t fuck up my desk, I might offer to let Roxanne fix it for him.

It was nearly nine thirty on a Friday night, and things were picking up. We’d be busy until midnight, and maybe be in the shop until one or later if any of the others’ clients ran a little longer. I’d finished up with a girl who’d had me fix a terrible tattoo on her rib cage that was supposed to say Bittersweet Symphony, but was spelled Bitterswett Sympony instead. It’d taken me three sessions to completely get rid of it by turning it into climbing ivy and lush flowers, but it looked cool as hell when I was done. I took a picture, she gave me a hug, and I thought there were tears in her eyes as she examined the finished product in the full-length mirror.

Never doubt that art can change your fucking life. Or that you should use a goddamn spell-check program before you let someone near you with a fucking tattoo machine.

My client left, happy and bandaged, and I went into the break room to take a few moments before my next appointment, who was running late. I managed to scarf down the rest of my Jimmy John’s sandwich, drink some water, and answer a few emails before realizing how late my next client was. Frowning, I went out front into the reception area. Poe was lounging in the chair, long-limbs spread out and his attention on the computer. He was clicking through what looked to be photographs of graffiti. I cleared my throat, and instead of clicking off the non-work-related material like any sensible person when their boss was looming over their shoulder, Poe just glanced up at me.

“Hey.”

“Can you give my appointment a call and see if they’re running late? It’s ten fifteen.”

“Oh.” Poe nodded toward the lobby area, where a girl was playing on her phone and stealing looks up at us. “That’s her. Sorry. I forgot to tell you she was here.”

“Great.” I glanced at the messy desk for the paperwork that I somehow knew wouldn’t be where it should be. If it was even filled out. “You can stick around until we’re done, then.”

For the first time, Poe looked at me with something more than boredom. It was irritation. “Sure.” He was obviously trying to sound like he didn’t care, but I could tell he probably had plans. Which, seeing as how we closed late on the weekends, he shouldn’t. No one needed to go out after one in the morning unless they were up to no fucking good.

“Paperwork?”

“Oh, uh.” Poe shifted around and grabbed a clipboard. Instead of handing it to me, he said, “Hey, Kristen? I forgot you needed to fill this out.”

Kristen got up and headed to the counter, reaching out for the clipboard. I neatly intercepted it. “You can fill it out in the chair,” I said, feeling bad that she’d probably been here well before her appointment. “Give your ID to Poe so he can photocopy it, and we’ll get started.”

Kristen’s tattoo was also a fix, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult. It was a Chinese character that she’d thought meant something like “live life to the fullest” but had found out from her college roommate—a native speaker—meant nothing of the sort. I was curious what it really did mean, but when I asked, she blushed and said it was “basically nonsense.”

Like I said. Don’t let anyone at you with a tattoo machine if you don’t know what the fuck you’re putting on your body.

Kristen’s tattoo was fairly easy to cover up, and it took me very little time to change it from her nonsense Chinese into a fox and send her on her merry way. Pete was getting into a very loud argument with his client—a regular—about Doctor Who of all things. I had to shake my head. Pete had a TARDIS tattoo on his back. He was intense about Doctor Who, and I knew better than to try to get involved in that conversation.

Roxanne had left after giving a guy a nipple piercing and then waiting patiently for him to stop throwing up before he decided not to do the other one. I heard Poe talking in the lobby, and wondered if there was another client he’d forgotten to tell anyone about.

“Yeah, yeah, I gotcha,” Poe was saying, as I rounded the corner and stood out of his sightline. He was on the phone—the work phone, praise be to whoever the patron saint of unmotivated millennials was—and I could see him writing something on a pad of paper. “That would look pretty cool, but I gotta tell you, a lot of people come in here and they don’t realize that, like, if they want the tattoo not to look like shit, it’s gotta be bigger than they think they want.”

My eyebrows rose, though if you spent two days in a tattoo shop, you’d learn that. “I didn’t think it would be that big,” was about as common as “I didn’t think it would be that expensive.”

“I mean, if you’re wanting to do a skull like that, you could probably do something a little smaller if you don’t mind it being more stylized.”

That was when I realized that Poe wasn’t writing—he was drawing, and nodding along while he was talking. “Yeah, when do you want to come in? I can show you.” A pause. “Consults are usually from noon to one, but it depends on who you’re wanting to get in with. Jericho’s booked until, like, the end of time.” Another pause. “Oh, uh, no, I’m not— I just work the desk. I don’t do tattoos or anything. I can leave a drawing so you can see it, but you want to talk to an actual artist about getting it done.”

I waited out of sight until Poe finished scheduling the client, then walked around the corner. Some of my earlier irritation at him had faded. “‘The end of time’?”

Poe’s expression was a little sheepish. “Dude, seriously, your books are, like, stupid full. You must be good.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and didn’t respond to that. “What did she want?” I assumed it’d been a girl on the phone. Something about the way his voice sounded. Interested. Engaged.

“He,” said Poe. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Uh. He wanted a skull but, like, here?” He held up his hand and showed the spot between his thumb and index finger. “It sounded like he wanted a sugar skull, with all this detail. So I suggested something more stylized.”

I glanced down at the desk, and he was trying to hide the pad with the drawing he’d made from me. I wondered why. “Show me.”

Part of me expected him to argue, but maybe the tone of my voice—which clearly suggested he not do that—convinced him otherwise. For the first time, he seemed almost nervous as he pushed the paper over at me.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering drawing, but it was a nice rendition of a stylized skull that would fit in the specified area and not end up a hot mess. “Not bad, kid.”

I thought he almost—almost—smiled. I noticed there were other sketches on the paper too. There was a fox, similar to the one I’d given Kristen. And a lightning rod, which was the tattoo Pete was giving his wrong-about-Doctor-Who client.

Poe noticed me inspecting his other drawings and flushed. “I heard you guys with the clients. I . . . you know.” He shrugged, his muscles tight.

“Look at me.” I waited for him to do it, and took a bit of pleasure in the way his eyes finally darted to mine, like he couldn’t help but do what I said. Good. It made me a lot happier when people did that, especially when I was in charge of them.

That gave me a thought I definitely didn’t need to be having—either at work, or about my best friend’s punk-ass son. But Poe’s sulky mouth, the way he was staring up at me . . . sue me, I was gay, he was hot, and I bet my dick would shut him up nice and—

The fuck, man? Landon’s kid. Keep your brain out of your pants.

“So, that apprenticeship thing,” I said. “You into the idea?”

Poe immediately went on the defensive. “I was bored and I like drawing.”

Was this fucking kid for real? “Listen, Poe, I know you like art. I’ve seen your shit. It ain’t half-bad.”

All trace of disinterest fled from Poe’s expression. His eyes flashed at me, full mouth tightening in the first display of real emotion I’d seen from him. That wasn’t irritation, at any rate. “I’m a good fucking artist, dude.”

“Artists have discipline, kid,” I said, and I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but I knew that saying it would get his back up, and I preferred that to the weary I’m too good for this bullshit he’d been dishing up for the last three weeks. “You want to do more than answer the phone around here, see if maybe you can get some of those designs on actual people?”

He shrugged. “I guess.”

Jesus, what the fuck? “I’m only gonna ask once, kid.”

I thought the nickname wasn’t helping, but when he stopped acting like a kid, I’d stop calling him that. I did actually like his given name. It made sense why he tagged all his graffiti with a skull and a raven. “I mean, if you’re happy working the desk job, great. You can stay the receptionist. But if you want to maybe do something that isn’t answering phones and doodling . . .”

He glanced at me, clearly not sure what to say. I glowered at him and said sharply, “Stop trying to act like you’re a petulant high school student and answer me like a fucking grown-up.”

I could tell he wasn’t used to people speaking to him that way—people who weren’t his father, that is.

“Yeah,” he said defensively, chin tilting. “I’d definitely like a job where I wasn’t fucking bored to death.”

What a punk. I had to stop myself from smiling. “Here’s the deal. I’ll advertise for this position, and when I get someone, you train them. Then you’re with me. I’ll teach you everything I know, show you how to get licensed with the state, and serve as your supervisor.”

“Why?” Poe’s eyes narrowed. “What the fuck would you do that for? I’m not an idiot, dude. I know I’m, like, not your favorite person.”

“It’s not about you being my favorite person,” I said, leaning back against the wall. “It’s about exactly what I told you when you first showed up. I’m giving you a shot. You want it or not?”

“Is this because I’m so great at answering the phone?” Poe asked. Before I could answer, he added, “Or because I’m shit at it?”

I laughed before I could stop myself, and shook my head. “Last chance.”

“Okay.” Poe appeared momentarily uncertain. I liked that look a lot better than the petulant-brat one. “What if, I mean, what if I suck at it?”

“You won’t,” I assured him.

“How do you know? Lots of people can draw. Doesn’t mean they’ll be any good at doing what you do. Maybe I’ll fuck it all up.”

I smiled at him. A real smile. “I won’t let you.”

He didn’t seem convinced, but that was fine. “I mean . . . I can’t really . . . I don’t have the money. Not with paying my dad back and everything.” Guilt flashed across his face, and that made me think better of him. At least he knew he was being a pain by racking up legal debt for his dad.

“I’ll talk to your dad,” I promised. “And it means doing exactly what I fucking tell you, when I fucking tell you to do it. It means you work the desk—on time, motherfucker, five minutes late is still late—until I get someone in here. Then you show up, you watch, you learn, and you keep your mouth shut unless you’ve got a question. You don’t show up at work with paint on your fingers,” I said pointedly. “Yes, I noticed. Don’t get drunk, don’t get arrested, and don’t piss me off. Think you can handle it?”

“Maybe . . . That last one might be hard.” Poe gave me what I thought was the first actual smile I’d ever seen on his face. “You’re kinda easy to piss off, dude.”

I smiled right back at him. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, kid. Believe me. Now let’s get this place closed up.”

Poe

In late September, a few weeks after he offered me the apprenticeship, Jericho finally hired someone competent to work the front desk.

Her name was Harriet. Cat-eye specs perched on her cute snub nose, framing vivid blue eyes. She kept her ginger hair swept back into a severe, no-nonsense bun, her face free of makeup, and wore no perfume that I could detect.

She looked like an uptight, pencil-pushing nerd—until we sat down so I could train her on the phones and scheduling system, and she shed her stuffy olive-green cardigan to reveal toned arms covered in ink from shoulder to wrist. Both sleeves were book-themed—one dedicated to Terry Pratchett, the other to Neil Gaiman, with a rendition of the character Dream taking up the bulk of her upper arm, encircled by the quote, I will show you terror in a handful of dust.

“Whoa.” I sized up her tattoos and the tight muscle underneath. “You’re kinda ripped, aren’t you?”

Harriet didn’t take her gaze off the computer screen. “I spend a lot of time at Upper Limits. It’s a rock climbing gym.”

“It shows.” I couldn’t quite keep the appreciation from my voice. “How about you flex a little for me?”

Harriet turned her head and tipped her chin down so she could pin me with a stare over the frames of her glasses. “How about you dial back your clumsy flirting attempts before I tell Jericho you’re harassing me?”

I held up my hands and pushed my chair back a few inches. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I was playing around. Seriously. No disrespect intended.”

Harriet rolled her eyes. “Get back over here and show me how to get to that screen where I can add notes again.”

I rolled closer and indicated the button she was looking for. “Right there.”

“Thanks.” She clicked, inspected the screen, and I walked her through a few steps before she cleared her throat and said, “You’re not my type, FYI. No offense, but don’t waste your time trying to win me over. I’m not into guys, and I won’t date anyone under thirty.”

I grinned at her. “Something we have in common, then. Well, the older part, at least.” I did a quick scan of the waiting area and saw a pair of women engrossed in a conversation. They weren’t paying any attention to us. Still, I lowered my voice when I added, “I’m equal opportunity.”

Harriet arched a red brow. “You’re bi?” she murmured. “Or pansexual?”

“Bi. But, I mean, I’m attracted to all kinds of people, on or off the binary, y’know? I do like them older, though.”

Harriet nodded. “I’m a card-carrying lesbian. Kissed my first girl at eleven and never looked back. I told Jericho during my interview because I didn’t want it to be a problem if my girlfriend stops in sometimes.”

Curious, I scooted my chair closer to hers. “What did he say?” I asked in an undertone.

Harriet lifted a shoulder. “He said he doesn’t discriminate and left it at that.”

The phone rang before either of us could say anything else.

Harriet reached for the handset. “I’ll get it.”

She snatched up the phone and spouted off a cheerful, much more professional-sounding greeting than my half-grunted “Permanent Ink” whenever I answered. It hadn’t been an hour and she already seemed to have a handle on things. Then again, it wasn’t overly complicated. Just boring.

As she spoke to the customer, I idly considered her. Harriet was cute—really cute—but even if she weren’t gay, I hadn’t been lying when I told her I was playing around, not flirting. She had maybe a year or two on me, and I almost never dated people my age. I loved sexy, confident cougars who knew exactly what they wanted in bed and weren’t afraid to ask me to do it, and rough older men who fucked me hard and ordered me to call them “Daddy.” Nothing made my dick perk up like a big, beefy dude who could manhandle me into any position he wanted. Or a woman like the fiftysomething fem domme I subbed for from time to time. She got off on shoving various vibrating plugs up my ass, tying me to her bedposts, gagging me, and riding my cock as many times as I could get it up—which was a lot. She’d milk my prostate too, making me come for what felt like hours.

Damn. I was chubbing up from only the memory of her many talents. I might have to call her soon.

What could I say? I fucking loved being used. It turned me on like nothing else.

I tamped those thoughts down before my semi became a full-fledged erection. The last thing I needed was for Jericho to catch me sporting wood next to his newly hired receptionist. I couldn’t exactly explain it wasn’t about Harriet but Sylvia, the lady who occasionally beat my ass raw with her riding crop while making me say, “Please, ma’am, another,” between each rough whack.

Fuck. I shouldn’t be thinking about that either. Focus, Poe. Focus.

Harriet finished the call and turned to face me. “Can you check this over, make sure I did it right? The guy wanted me to reschedule his appointment with Pete.”

“Sure.” I turned my attention back to training her—where it belonged. “Yep, that’s perfect. Look at you. You’re an old pro already. Here, let me show you what we do with the paperwork.”

For the first week of my apprenticeship, I was pretty much an unpaid gofer for the artists in the shop. I cleaned stations. I tossed trash. I washed the dishes and wiped counters in the break room. I swept the floors. I kept the bathroom spotless.

It irritated the shit out of me. I’d already been doing some of those things as the receptionist, but at least then I’d been getting paid for it. Now that I was officially Jericho’s apprentice, I was working my balls off for free. Somehow he’d convinced Landon to cover my living expenses while I did my time as his lackey—which, hell yeah, I appreciated—but I hadn’t signed up to be the damn janitor.

“When will I get to start practicing?” I asked Jericho the second week.

Jericho snorted without looking up from the design he was working on. “When I’m ready to let you.”

“This is bullshit! How am I supposed to learn anything by cleaning up your garbage?”

Jericho raised his head and gave me a look so cold it made my nipples tighten. “You’ll pay your dues like everyone else. You’re not special. The sooner you learn that, the better.”

If we were engaged in a staring contest, I would’ve lost. I dropped my gaze and went back to emptying the trash bin. I knew I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t much of anything at all. Even in the graffiti community, I was still relatively unknown. No need to reiterate the point.

“Your father made it clear when he agreed to fund your apprenticeship—one screwup and all bets are off,” Jericho said. “Unless you want to go back to that gas station, leave your attitude at the door. Got it, kid?”

I glanced up, but Jericho had already gone back to his drawing. “Yeah, I got it.”

Honestly, I didn’t have much room to complain. My father was essentially sponsoring my apprenticeship. Granted, it probably had more to do with Jericho’s powers of persuasion than any real confidence in my abilities, but still. He’d shown enough faith in me to give me the opportunity. I couldn’t afford to screw it up before I even found out whether or not I could be successful at tattooing. I owed it to both Landon and myself to try.

It went on like that for a few more days. Cleaning and restocking between observing Jericho as he did tattoos.

Then one afternoon, a woman named Valerie came in. She was red-eyed and clutching a picture of a toddler in her fist.

Jericho escorted her to his studio space with me trailing awkwardly behind.

“This is my apprentice, Poe,” he told her. “Do you mind if he observes?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s fine.”

“Take a seat.” Jericho sat on his work stool and rolled it closer to the tattoo chair. “Poe, will you close the door?”

I did and stood with my back against it.


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