Under Locke by Mariana Zapata

Chapter One

Pins and Needles.

The business sign loomed ahead of me. Ominous. Foreboding.

Crap. Crap. Crap.

I was going to puke.

And it wasn't going to be a pretty puke like when you're a baby and even farting can be considered cute. It was going to be nasty. Nasty, projectile vomiting straight out of a horror movie.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, immediately after throwing up all over the dashboard of my twelve-year-old Ford Focus, I was going to burst into tears. And exactly like my puking, it was going to be nasty. It wasn't going to be classy or snot-less, and I'd probably sound like a wheezing baboon.

The white number on my dashboard clicked to 3:55.

Holy moly.

My stomach churned at the same time nervous tears threatened to well up in my eyes.

What in the hell were you thinking, Iris?

Leaving the only home I'd ever known. Moving to Austin. Staying with Sonny.

Being broke had made me desperate. The knowledge that my bank account was bleeding a slow death had wrung me dry. It'd stripped me of what made me up; pride, perseverance, and apparently, the ability to make good choices.

Because someone who made good choices wouldn't be taking a job from a man like Dex Locke.

3:56 flickered into place on the clock.

With trembling fingers, I took the keys out of the ignition and slipped out of my car. Luckily I'd found a spot in the lot adjacent to the trendy shopping center the business was found in. With its terra cotta roofing and white stonewashed walls, it seemed so at odds with the reputation a biker-owned tattoo shop should have, especially since it was located smack in the middle of a real estate agency and deli.

I mean, shouldn't it be right by a strip club and some massage place that promised a happy ending?

I shouldn't and couldn't complain. I knew that. There wasn't a reason why I should even think about being anything less than grateful that Sonny had found me this job when I'd gone more than six months unemployed. You had no idea what desperation was until there was less than a hundred bucks left in your bank account and no job prospects.

I guess that was the problem with an associate of arts degree in community college. Too educated for minimum wage and not educated enough for a good paying job unless you were lucky.

And lucky, I was not.

Crap luck was why I found myself hustling across the street to Pins and Needles, eyeing the satin black Harley Dyna parked directly in front of the shop. With the exception of the color, the frame was the exact same as Sonny's. A young cousin of the bike my dad had owned once upon a time.

Which was a route I wasn't going to go down. No, siree.

Big, classic bold font illustrated the name of the shop as I came up to the tinted glass door.

I gagged.

God, my mom would be rolling in her grave if she knew what the hell I was doing.

Sonny had called me two hours before, given me an address and told me to be there at four. I'd scraped through my suitcase looking for work clothes and grabbed the first shirt, pants, and cardigan I found that weren’t too wrinkled. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get to the business he was sending me to and getting places late was a huge pet peeve of mine, so I hurried the hell up to get ready. After slumming it for so long, I couldn't help but think his call was kind of a miracle.

Until he threw in Dex's name.

But what other choice did I have? This was why I'd come to Austin.

Now, I wasn’t expecting anything amazing and really, I didn’t need anything great from a job. I'd been perfectly happy answering phones all day and scheduling other people's dream vacations at the cruise line. It was slow but whatever. A very long time ago, I'd told myself that I wouldn't complain about inconsequential things and I wasn't planning on starting now.

I mean, boring and monotonous was safe.

I’d done boring and monotonous since the moment I turned sixteen by working at a real estate agency, then a discount bookstore, followed by sales for a weight loss pill, dog sitting, watching over kids at a daycare center, and filing at a medical practice. I did what I had to do to pay the bills. So as long as I wasn’t prostituting or having to make collection calls, I’d pretty much take whatever I could get.

Only I hadn't anticipated a job with the infamous Dex. A man that I'd heard enough of in ten minutes to know that I wasn't exactly going to be working for the Pope.

Notorious, yes. Bad, yes. Reformed like they made it seem? I doubted it.

We'd thought my dad had been "reformed" and that didn't exactly work out.

Screw it. What was the worse that was going to happen? I'd grown up around a felon. A biker. I'd loved that felon biker for longer than he'd deserved.

My half-brother was a biker but not a felon. And I loved that moron, too.

I knew something much scarier than a big, bad biker with a record. A new job would be nothing in comparison, right?

Right.

"Cajones, Iris," yia-yia would have said in terrible Greek-accented Spanish. So I pushed open that shiny heavy door, ready for whatever was waiting for me on the other side.

What hit me immediately inside was all the natural light in the place. The orange-yellow light streaming in set off the dozens of framed newspaper and magazine articles mounted on the tinted blue wall. One magazine article immediately caught my attention with its glassy, red font proclaiming “Ink of the Year.”

Two black leather love seats were angled against the entrance window with a black lacquered coffee table directly between them. Across from the seating was a flat, very long and modern looking desk that matched the coffee table with a computer in one corner. I’d barely started taking in two tattoo stations directly behind the waiting area when a male voice hollered, “Hold on a sec!"

I looked around as quickly as I could, noticing two more identical stations to the left.

Another article titled "Up and Coming Sensations: Locke and Company,” was framed right in my peripheral vision.

Could I work at a tattoo parlor?

I thought for a second about the only other place I'd gotten an email back from and the cocktail waitress position at the strip club wasn't exactly appealing. I had a friend who had worked in a salon waxing people's private parts. What's been seen cannot be unseen, she'd told me once.

So, yeah. I could. I didn't have a choice.

"You Sonny's girl?" the deep baritone voice asked from down the hall, in time with the low squeaking thud of boots on tile.

It kind of happened in slow motion. Turning around. Coming face to face with him.

~ * ~ *

It should be said that the first—and only—time I saw Dex Locke had been the week before at Mayhem.

Sonny had dragged me to the bar by sheer manipulation. I'd just gotten to Austin not even two hours before.

And it probably didn't help that I'd just kind of... dropped in.

It'd been a last minute trip. Up until the moment I turned in the keys to my apartment, I hadn't been sure what exactly I was doing. Not that there were many options. I could either drive to Sonny's place in Texas or go up and crash on Lanie's couch in Cleveland. After living with Lanie for a year and knowing that I'd be staying with her and her parents, going to Sonny's hadn't really seemed like much of a decision.

It was inevitable.

But then again, Mom and Dad had kept me on the east coast for a reason. A reason I was clearly dumping into the garbage and possibly setting on fire.

"It'll be fun," he'd said at first.

"A lot of people remember you when you were a kid," he'd kept going, knowing I was a sucker for him.

Sonny wanted to make a point because he kept babbling. "Just because you lived in Florida doesn't mean you weren't born into this."

Like a fool, and because I loved Will and I loved Sonny just as much, even if he wasn't my full-blooded brother, I fell for it. We'd dragged ourselves to Mayhem so he could welcome me into my estranged family.

During the drive, all I thought of was my mom. It was a blessing she wasn't around to strangle me with her bare hands, smiling throughout the process of her choking the life out of me.

Surprisingly, it'd been fine.

Mayhem was smoky and smelled faintly of piss and not so faintly of beer. The place was old, with stained bars and scuffed hardwood floors that had seen better decades. Pool tables were set up on the far side of the bar that smelled like... yep, that was pot. I was pretty sure—only about ninety-nine percent sure—smoking was illegal inside but I definitely wasn't going to complain to the abundance of tattooed and leather-vested men that mobbed the floor.

Like a proud peacock, Sonny had walked me around the floor, through crowds of people that bordered on inebriation and did the splits on the ridiculous. Loud, outgoing, boisterous, young, old, hairy, not-so-hairy, tattooed, not-so-burly. The factors that made up the WMC members varied across the spectrum.

Having been steered toward a stool in the middle of the bar, Sonny and his very blonde, very flirtatious, very bearded friend, Trip, flanked me.

It was a little weird, I guess. Growing up, it'd just been Will and me. Being the oldest, I'd always been the one watching out for my younger brother; the person to threaten to rip organs out of orifices if he wasn't left alone. I'd been the protector. The one who cleaned his butt when he was too little to do it himself without smearing more poop than he actually wiped.

So having Sonny around, worrying about his friends getting too close or giving me looks that he didn't like, was strangely nice.

I'd barely been sitting there a minute, an entire, lonely, miniscule minute in a bar that had been so heavily smoked in over the years that the scent seeped from the wood like sweat on a professional athlete. A bar that was owned by a group of people that my parents hadn't wanted to raise me around. A total of sixty seconds before the noisy crowd burst into loud jeers right by the door.

Trip had groaned, shooting Sonny a side glance, shaking his head like whatever was going on was old news. "Somebody's on his damn rag."

“Quit being all dramatic, he’s not always PMSing.” He cut me a glance. “No offense.”

I held up my hands and shrugged. “Eh.” I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I didn’t turn into a moody zombie on my period.

Trip rolled his eyes at my brother’s comment. “I”m just sayin’, Son, you’d figure he’d have his shit together by now. Don’t they teach better tips than counting to ten in those classes he had to take?” he snickered, glancing over my shoulder. “Dumbass.”

My inner nosey hooker perked up at all the clues they were dropping. Anger management classes? “What happened?” I asked in a conspiratorial whisper.

“It’s cool, Ris.” Sonny shot Trip an aggravated look. “He got in trouble for assault a long time ago. He’s fine now.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.” It wasn’t like whatever man they were referring to had ‘Anger Issues’ tattooed on his forehead. I hadn’t even seen him yet.

“Dex.”

I blinked at Trip’s explanation.

“Locke?” he offered like that would mean something to me. It didn’t.

Sonny grabbed the top of my head and shook it. “Don’t worry about it, kid. I’m sure I’ll introduce you sooner or later.”

At that time I thought to myself that it wasn’t like I really cared whether or not I met someone that was constantly pissed off.

~ * ~ *

Shoulders and chest.

The guy was somehow all elegant trapezius muscles and pectorals when I first saw him up close. A tight, black v-neck stretched over broad shoulders, barely hiding two bold tattoo sleeves that ran up from the wrist and disappeared underneath the fitted shirt.

That alone made me go a little brain dead though I should have known better than to let my hormones run rampant. I’d never really had much of an opinion on whether I thought tattoos were that much of a deal breaker when ogling a guy but…from the heat that had flamed up my neck, I was a fan. A big, season ticket holding fan.

I kept looking at him while he closed the distance between us, a portfolio shoved under one long, muscular arm that drew my attention to the inches of colorful red skin the cut of his shirt showed tattooed on his chest. I'd been too far away at Mayhem to see more than just splotches of heavy color on his skin.

Holy crap.

I should have been glad the cap had hidden his facial features at the bar, so I had time to take in the magnificence that was his tattooed upper body without the added distraction of a face that made my ovaries scream glory hallelujah. His wide shoulders and thickly veined forearms were more than enough to make a girl stare. Because his face… Jesus, shit. Jesus. Shit.

I was going to ask Santa for his good identical twin for Christmas.

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