Inked by Tracy Lorraine

 

Chapter One

Harlow

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Bailey, my best friend and roommate, asks the second she finds me sitting on the couch with a blanket over my lap, a tub of ice cream in hand and a rum and Coke on the coffee table.

“Err… Friday night in?” I say, my brows drawing together, trying to figure out if I’ve forgotten something. The look on her face and the way she’s standing impatiently with her hands on her hips sure points to that.

She’s just finished a twenty-four-hour shift at The House, caring for her boys, so I was expecting her to take up residence on the other couch with her wine while we caught up with The Bachelor.

“It’s Austin’s birthday,” she says with a roll of her eyes.

“Right.”

“We’re going out. We’re meeting everyone at Rush in…” she pulls her cell from her back pocket and looks at the time, “in like… an hour, so we need to get our shit together.”

Before I have a chance to argue, she’s standing before me and pulling the ice cream from my hand.

“Come on, H. Move that sexy ass and go and find a hot little dress to wear.”

After depositing the tub on the coffee table, she rips the blanket from my lap and attempts to pull me from the couch.

“Really?” I sulk. “Austin won’t care if I’m there or not, I barely know the guy.” We might work for the same company, but it’s not like we spend any actual time together, other than the odd night out.

“I told him you’ll be there.”

“But you didn’t think to tell me,” I mutter, eventually going easy on her and standing.

“I could have sworn I’d mentioned it.”

“When could you? You’ve hardly been home this week.”

She shrugs. “Well, you know now. It’s going to be a great night.”

She ushers me out of the living room—thankfully after I grab my drink. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.

When we get to my room, she allows me to get ready alone, which is a relief. The last thing I need is a Bailey makeover for tonight.

* * *

Smoothing down my silk top, I add a layer of gloss to my lips and slip my feet into my shoes.

Bailey’s still sitting in front of her mirror when I join her in her room thirty minutes later.

“How are you ready al—no, no, no. You can’t wear that,” she says looking at me over her shoulder in the mirror. I look down at my skinny jeans and black blouse.

“Why not? It’s perfectly fine.”

“Yeah, for an afternoon with your aunt.”

Minus the height of my heels, I can’t argue with her.

She spins on her chair, and I get a look at her dress—if it can even be described as such. It’s fire-engine red; I swear I’ve got underwear that covers more skin.

I run my eyes over her, suspicion beginning to stir in my stomach. “I feel like I’m missing something. This isn’t just a night out for Austin’s birthday, is it?”

“His cousin’s coming.”

And now, it all starts to make sense.

“The British one?”

“Yes! I can’t wait to hear him say my name,” she swoons, getting this far-off look in her eye.

I shouldn’t be surprised—she’s been telling me about him for quite a few weeks now and trying to convince Austin to introduce them.

“You mean moan your name,” I mutter.

“Harlow, I’m not some easy piece of ass, you know.”

“Really?” I ask, my brows lifting, my lips curling in amusement.

“Okay, so maybe I am, but only for the right guy.”

“Riiight.”

I watch as she gets up from her seat and walks toward her wardrobe, thankfully pulling her ridiculously short dress down in the process so I don’t have to see her easy ass.

“Now, let’s see what I’ve got.”

“Oh no, B. You’re not getting me in one of your dresses. They barely fit you, they’ll never cover my ass and tits.”

“Have faith, girl. Have faith.”

Sadly, I have very little. I love Bailey, but at times she has questionable taste. Our styles are opposite in every way, not just with how much skin we deem acceptable to expose.

“Yessss…” she squeals, and my stomach drops into my heels. “This will look killer on you.”

She pulls out a scrap of navy fabric and holds it up in front of me with a wide smile on her face.

“B, you won’t catch me dead wearing that.”

“Just try it on. It’s a little big for me.” I don’t see how that’s possible, seeing as it looks like it’s a size zero from this distance, but I keep my mouth shut. “It’ll be perfect. And,” she adds, an idea hitting her, “it might help with that little situation you’re in the middle of.”

“I’m not in the middle of anything,” I say, swiping the hanger from her because I already know that fighting with her on this is pointless. I may as well just try it on, prove it doesn’t fit, and then hope she’ll allow me to revisit my wardrobe for a dress that will cover what God gave me.

“It’s been what? A year since a guy so much as touched you.”

It’s been almost a year and a half since my last failed attempt at a date, but I refrain from correcting her.

I shimmy my jeans down my legs and carefully pull my blouse off before laying them out over Bailey’s bed. “What?” I ask when she shakes her head at me.

“You know it is okay to sometimes leave clothes in a pile on the floor, right?”

“I’m a neat freak. You could have to deal with a hell of a lot worse than me following you around and tidying up after your messy ass.”

She rolls her eyes and hands me the dress once I’m in only my underwear. Deciding that pulling it up might be the easiest option, I step into the fabric and attempt to drag it over my hips. The material has more stretch than I gave it credit for, because it skims happily over my curves. I pull the straps up my arms and put them into place over my shoulders before looking down.

“Okay, you are so wearing that. Have you seen your ass?”

“Weirdly, no,” I sass, looking over my shoulder at the mirror behind me. I nod, because I can’t deny that the fabric hugs it pretty nicely.

“You gotta lose the bra though.”

“Nope. Not happening.”

Bailey’s hip juts out and she rests her hand on it as she stares at me in a ‘go on, try and argue’ stance.

“There’s enough support in the dress.”

“I’m sure it’ll hold them up just fine, I’m more worried about flashing someone.”

“Making your mission a sure success.”

“I’m not on a mission. I’m perfectly happy as—”

“Nope. You need a man-induced orgasm. End of.”

I know I’ve been a little uptight recently, but it’s not my lack of male attention that’s causing it, and I doubt a night with one will solve the issue.

Bailey must see my shoulders drop, because she walks over and takes my hands in hers. “I know you’re worried about her. I am too. But sitting around the house feeling guilty about not being able to do more isn’t going to help in any way. No matter the results, you still have a life. You may as well at least attempt to enjoy yourself.”

“I guess.” I don’t feel all that enthused, but I know she’s right.

“Now, drink this,” she says, handing my glass back to me. “Then let the girls free, and we’re out of here.”

I tip my glass to my lips and swallow what’s left before doing as I’m told. I’m soon following Bailey out of the house toward the awaiting car. Despite my earlier disinterest, tingles of excitement start to ignite in my belly. I can’t deny that the dress looked good once I turned and got a proper look at myself in the mirror. I also can’t deny that I’m currently showing more boob than I have to anyone outside the bedroom in a lot of years.

Shaking thoughts of my past from my head, I climb in the car as Bailey begins flirting with the driver. Just because I’m dressed up and showing a little skin, it doesn’t mean I’m going back to a time in my life I’d rather forget. I’m just going out for a night of drinking and dancing with my best friend. It’s exactly what I should be doing. I’m young with no ties, a Friday night out for a colleague’s birthday should be a normal thing to do.

Pushing aside my worries, I look at Bailey, who flashes me a wide smile, and I try to relax.

“Tonight’s going to be great. Did I tell you that Rylee managed to secure the VIP section for us thanks to her… connections,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows. I groan as I think of her boss, Rylee and her famous boyfriend.

My heart starts to race. “A-are they going to be there?” I try to ask as casually as I can.

“Please don’t tell me you’re still scared of being in the same building as him?”

“I’m not scared, B,” I argue, although I’m not entirely sure that’s true. “I just always make myself look like an idiot every time I’m anywhere near him. I turn into a fumbling teenager with one glance in his direction.” My cheeks heat at my admission. I don’t need to tell Bailey this—she’s witnessed my mortifying behavior, time and time again when it comes to him. Colton Donavan. My teenage heartthrob, incredible Indy driver, and all-around nice guy. It should be illegal to be that good looking, kind and generous. I was obsessed with him in my former years, thanks to discovering a trashy magazine on the coffee table after school one day with him on the cover. No matter how many years have passed, it seems the second I’m in his vicinity, I return to that time in my life where I had no idea how to control my raging hormones or to keep a leash on my mouth.

“Oh, I know. Why do you think I demanded you come? You’re tonight’s entertainment,” she says with a laugh.

“B,” I squeal, swatting her shoulder playfully as she teases me. “I’ve no idea what’s wrong with me.”

“I get it. He’s… captivating.” Her eyes darken as she relives the one moment of her past that she’ll never let me forget. “And his kiss,” she says on a sigh.

“Oh, get over yourself,” I chuckle. “You know full well that you got passed up that night for Rylee and haven’t stood a chance since.”

“I know, and I still stand by the fact that I rocked his world so much that night that he lost his mind a little after. I mean, why wouldn’t he want more of this?” She gestures to herself with a pout.

“No idea, B. No idea.”

“Well, I’m over it.” I laugh; with the number of times she brings it up, I beg to differ, but I’m not going to point it out again. “I’ve got my sights set on a British banger tonight.”

I bark out a laugh. “Do you even know what this guy looks like?”

“Only in my imagination.”

“So he could be an old cockney with a beer belly and a bald head?”

“Yes and no. He’s still in his twenties, so I’d like to think he’s not bald.”

“Still leaves a lot to go wrong, don’t you think?”

“Nah, it’s all good. I can feel it in my blood.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s the wine.”

“Meh, tonight is my night, H. Just you wait and see. I’m gonna snag me a Brit, and I’m not letting this one out of my sight.”

“If you say so,” I whisper, looking out the window and seeing the neon lights of the club coming into view.

After saying the right words in the bouncer’s ear, he stands aside and allows both Bailey and I to enter the club, although not before he gets his fill of her scantily-clad body.

“You offering up sexual favors again, B?”

“Not necessary this time. Come on, stop dawdling, the bar and the Brit are calling.”

She grabs my hand and together we make our way through the crowd and toward the roped-off stairs that lead to the VIP section.

As we move, the loud bass from the music vibrates through me, and even though being here tonight was the last thing I wanted to do after a long week at work, I can’t help a little excitement and the desire to get up on the dancefloor creeping in. It’s been a long time since I’ve let go with my best friend and forgotten about the world for a few hours.

After sweet-talking the second bouncer in as many minutes, we’re climbing the stairs and away from the masses of people.

We’re only three-quarters of the way up when I first see him. My nerves hit me like a sledgehammer and my body starts to tremble. It doesn’t matter how many times I see and talk to him. It doesn’t matter that I hear stories from Rylee about what a ‘normal’ guy he is. To me, he’s still the man I had pinned to my teenage bedroom walls and said goodnight to before falling asleep.

I focus on my feet as I climb the stairs, the gems on the front glinting in the spotlights above and giving me a distraction from the man I’m walking toward.

I’ve got one more step to climb. Thinking I’m safe, I look up, but the second I meet his piercing green eyes, my feet falter. The platform of my shoe connects with the step, and I go tumbling forward.

Closing my eyes, I reach my hand out in the hope that it connects with something to break my inevitably painful collision with the tiled floor. Thankfully the pain never comes. Instead, my hand hits something warm and soft.

Finding my feet, I drag my eyes open to see what stopped me.

The second I see what I used to stop my fall, I gasp in horror and stumble backward into someone else. Large hands grip onto my waist to steady me as I keep my eyes locked on the floor. My cheeks flame so hot I swear they’re going to catch fire any moment.

“Jesus, Harlow, that was some entrance,” Colton says with a laugh as I continue to die a thousand deaths at embarrassing myself once again.

“Are you okay?” A deep, smooth voice washes over me from behind, making me wish the ground would just swallow me up. I nod, but not before I hear the laughter of my best friend behind me.

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” I mutter, looking up but only so I can see which way the bar is so I can get a drink and hopefully wipe this disaster from my memory. “T-thank you,” I whisper to the man behind me who’s still holding me upright, probably thinking my legs don’t work correctly.

“Anytime.” I push to move away, but his voice makes me pause. It’s deep, rough, and his accent is… I don’t have time to try to figure it out. I just need to get away from him and Colton’s green eyes that turn me into a fumbling moron.

“Oh my God, Harlow. That was classic,” Bailey howls beside me as I wait for the bartender to notice me. “I mean, Colton’s used to women falling at his feet, but using his cock to save yourself from breaking your nose on the floor? That was fucking—”

“Enough,” I bark. “This is all your fault.” Turning to her, I narrow my eyes in the hope it’ll shut her up.

“Me?” she asks, innocently pointing to herself.

“Yes. I should be on the sofa right now with my second tub of ice cream and watching others falling in love on some shitty reality TV show.”

“Oh yeah, that sounds like a winning way to spend your Friday night, H. I’ll call you a cab right now to return to your evening of fun.”

“Really?” I ask hopefully, missing her sarcasm.

“No. Harlow. No. You embarrassed yourself, so what? Colton doesn’t care, so neither should you.” She waves and the bartender comes right over—of course he fucking does. One look at her and he’s like putty in her hand. Me? He barely even saw me standing here. Rolling my eyes at myself, I listen as Bailey orders us four shots of tequila.

“Tequila?” My lip curls in disgust.

“Yes, hopefully it’ll give your confidence a boost and loosen you up a little.”

“Here’s hoping,” I mutter, more to myself than her as I pick up the first one and knock it back before immediately going for the second. The alcohol burns my throat, but it’s only seconds before it starts warming my belly. Maybe it will have the effect Bailey intended.

“Oh, the birthday boy’s here. Let’s go and wish him a happy birthday.” I look over to where Bailey’s focus is and see both Rylee and Colton standing before Austin.

“It’s okay, you go. I’ll order some more drinks.”

“He’s just a guy, H. You can talk to him like any other.”

“I know. And I will talk to him… them. I just… I need another drink first. I can only embarrass myself so much every hour.”

Shaking her head at me, she takes off across the room, her heels clicking against the black polished tiles and her mile-long, tanned legs eating up the space. I don’t need to look around to know she’s got the attention of at least a handful of men as she moves. Bailey has this aura surrounding her, one that turns all attention on her. Something that I most definitely don’t possess. I’m just the best friend who makes an idiot of herself as often as possible and only helps to make Bailey look so much more desirable.

Blowing out a long breath, I turn back to the bar, only to find that the bartender has once again vanished to serve someone else. Sitting myself up on a stool, I watch as he gets farther and farther away from me before turning to play on his cell.

Fantastic.

Thinking that I’ll just order a cab home, I turn to slide from the stool but come to a stop when I find a guy standing before me. One side of his mouth curls up in an unsure smile.

“Hey, how are you doing?”

His deep voice is immediately recognizable. My eyes drop to his hands that are tucked into the pockets of his pants, but as I do that, I feel the warmth of one of them against my waist from not so long ago.

“Oh yeah. I’m sorry about that. I’m a bit of an id…” My eyes run up exposed forearms that are covered in ink. I find the rolled fabric of his white shirt and my mouth waters when I discover his muscular biceps beneath. It’s open one button too many at the neck, showing even more art, but it’s when I find his light blue eyes that it feels like my world tilts slightly.

His lopsided grin turns into a megawatt smile, exposing perfectly straight white teeth beneath, and my entire body sighs.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

It takes me a few moments to register that he’s said anything, but once I do, I tilt my head to the side and look at him once more.

“Y-you’re the Brit?”

That lopsided smile returns, but this time a dimple pops up in his cheek.

“What gave me away?” I bite down on my bottom lip and his eyes drop to focus on it. “It’s Corey. And you are?”

“H-Harlow.”

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Harlow. Shall we?” he asks, gesturing toward the bar before lifting his hand to call the bartender over.

Ignoring the vacant stool beside me, he chooses instead to stand next to me. Just close enough that his warmth heats my side and his scent fills my nose. This guy knows what he’s doing. It should be a turn off, but I can’t help but fall for his charm. Maybe Bailey was right. I bite down on my bottom lip as I attempt to remember what it feels like to be touched by a man.

Bailey’s going to kill you for talking to him first,I think as I look up at him once more, my cheeks burning with my previous thoughts. When I glance over my shoulder, I see she’s still preoccupied with Austin and a few of the other counselors from The House along with Rylee and Colton. That’s enough to tell me that I’m not heading over there anytime soon.