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Authors: Elle Kennedy

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Series

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BOOK: One Night of Trouble
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His wrists still bore the damage from their latest round between the sheets—Brett’s knots had chafed the hell out of him. AJ hoped his friends wouldn’t pay too close attention to his hands. They’d probably be stunned if they knew what kind of kink he’d just participated in.

“Sorry, it slipped my mind,” he apologized. “You guys haven’t been waiting long, have you?”

“Naah, just ten minutes or so,” Gage answered.

Reed’s blue eyes twinkled as he pocketed his phone. “So what’s her name?”

AJ tensed as two identical smirks appeared on his friends’ faces, but he decided to play dumb. “What’s whose name?”

Gage snickered. “You’re really gonna deny it?”

“We
know
you had a visitor the other night,” Reed chimed in. “Jerry told us. Ergo, you’re busted.”

Damn. AJ should have known Jerry would blab. Sin’s employees gossiped more than a group of teenage girls.

“A friend stopped by to say hello. It was no big deal.”

“A friend,” Reed echoed. “Uh-huh. Suuuuure.”

The two men exchanged knowing looks. “He’s lying to us,” Gage said thoughtfully. “Why do you think that is?”

Reed pursed his lips. “Maybe she’s got crazy scars on her face or something?”

“Naah, you know he’s not obsessed with looks. Maybe he’s in love with her?” Gage suggested.

“Fuck, of course.” Reed nodded fervently. “But it’s still so new and shiny he doesn’t want to share yet. Wants to bask in the glow in private for a while longer. Makes sense.”

“Perfect sense,” Gage agreed.

AJ flopped down in his chair. “I’m not in love with anyone, and stop talking about me like I’m not in the room.” He picked up the inventory sheets on the desktop. “Are we doing this or what?”

To his relief, his friends quit needling him and shuffled their own papers.

He wasn’t sure why he’d deflected their questions, but he didn’t feel entirely comfortable telling them about Brett. It didn’t help that Reed and Gage happened to be dating women who liked to poke their noses into AJ’s life. Darcy’s nosiness made sense—they’d dated, after all, and AJ knew she desperately wanted him to find the kind of happiness she’d found with Reed. But Gage’s girlfriend Skyler was just as dogged in her matchmaking efforts. She’d already tried setting him up with both her roommates, and after he’d shot her down, she’d proceeded to make a list of everyone she’d gone to college with in an attempt to push a love connection on him.

Well, he didn’t need help finding dates, and he certainly didn’t need Darcy and Skyler latching on to Brett the way they’d latched on to each other. If he introduced them to her, they’d welcome her into the girlfriend fold in a heartbeat. And then, knowing Darcy and Skyler, they’d remain friends with her after she and AJ parted ways, and he’d be forced to see Brett all the time.

Though
forced
was probably the wrong word. Truth was, he was surprised by how much fun he had with the woman. She was strong and outspoken, she made him laugh, she challenged him…

Hell, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t looking for a relationship. If circumstances had been different, he’d totally consider turning their temporary arrangement into something more permanent.

But he couldn’t. His family situation was too delicate at the moment, and God knew he’d caused his parents enough grief over the years. He’d valiantly tried to be the son they needed him to be, until he’d veered off course and started making one selfish decision after the other. With his mom still recovering from her heart attack, he couldn’t afford to be selfish again. His dad would skin him alive if he caused her even a moment’s stress.

As amazing as Brett was, his folks would never approve of her. Tattoos and bad-girl clothing aside, she was also younger than him, and focused on her career rather than getting married and popping out babies. His next relationship needed to be with a woman who was ready to settle down, a woman who could help him give his parents the grandchildren they craved.

After the choices he’d made in the past, he at least owed them that.

“He’s not listening to us.”

Gage’s dry voice lured him back to the meeting in progress.

“Shit. Sorry,” AJ muttered. “My head’s all over the place tonight.”

“I wonder why,” Reed said mockingly.

“Love does that to a man,” Gage piped up.

He stifled a sigh. “So this new supplier,” he prompted, shooting them a pointed look. “What’s his deal again?”

His friends yet again took pity on him and got back to business. Reed began to outline his plan to start stocking the bar with higher-end liquor, exhibiting a savvy business sense that AJ still found jarring. Growing up, Reed had been a troublemaker with a capital
T
, which was why AJ’s parents had forbidden him from spending time with him. But AJ had stood his ground and continued to see the guy. There’d been something very freeing about Reed’s lust for life and give-them-hell attitude.

Reed also had a good heart, though, and AJ was proud of the mature, responsible man his friend had become. These days Reed was working hard to make Sin a success. So was Gage, who’d been equally rough around the edges when AJ first met him at an MMA bout. But since he’d started dating Skyler, Gage was smiling and laughing a lot more these days.

“We also need to hire a few more bouncers,” Gage was saying. “We can’t get by with one guy manning the door anymore. The line’s getting too long, and the bigger crowds are starting to stir up trouble.”

“Dude, I’m so not complaining that people are lining up to come here,” Reed answered with a grin. “If things keep up this way, we should think about opening another location. Maybe in Portland, or Manhattan.”

“You want to leave Boston?” AJ said in surprise.

“Of course not.” Reed shrugged. “We could hire a manager to run the place. Just something to think about.”

The offhand suggestion reminded AJ of Brett’s current situation, and he hoped for her sake that her father gave her a shot to prove herself. It was plain to see that Jimmy Conlon still viewed Brett as a little girl and not the strong woman she was.

The memory of being tied to Brett’s bed swiftly flashed to mind, and AJ thanked God that his desk concealed the resulting boner that sprang in his pants.

“His eyes are glazing over again. It’s definitely love.”

Once more, he was jolted out of his Brett-centered thoughts. “Jeez,” he grumbled to Reed. “Give it up already.”

Chuckling, his friend stood and tucked his papers under his arm. Gage followed suit, looking equally amused.

“Don’t worry, we’re going.” Reed grinned. “You’ll have all the privacy in the world to jerk off to thoughts of your lady love.”

AJ flipped them his middle finger, but neither man was fazed. They simply left his office in a burst of laughter and another display of gloating, insufferable smirks.

Chapter Nine

Since the club was closed on Mondays, AJ headed to his parents’ place for dinner, armed with a bouquet of white roses for his mom and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s for his dad. He knew they’d appreciate the gesture—his mom loved it when he brought her flowers, and his poor dad was so stressed out playing the part of both bread earner and homemaker that he’d definitely welcome a stiff drink.

As always, when he reached the house, dread and reluctance hardened in his chest like a block of cement.

And as always, the first two emotions triggered an even more unwelcome third.

Guilt.

Bone-crushing guilt.

Christ, he was a selfish bastard. He had parents who adored him and a childhood home oozing with warmth. He should have been thrilled to be there tonight, not steeling himself for the visit.

The path to the door was lined with flowers. Normally his mother tended to the front garden, but the men’s work gloves and massive rubber boots sitting on the porch told him his dad had taken over gardening duty along with everything else. Which only brought another pang of self-reproach. Since his mother’s heart attack, he’d made a point to stop by on the three days of the week that Sin was closed, but that wasn’t enough, damn it. A better son would’ve showed up daily.

He let himself in and kicked off his sneakers. His parents’ voices drifted into the hall from the kitchen. From the sound of it, his mother was arguing that she was strong enough to toss a salad, while his dad kept ordering her to sit her butt down.

AJ had to smile. Although his folks’ marriage had been plagued with unimaginable heartache, it had endured thanks to hard work and the undeniable love they felt for each other.

“AJ!” Karen Walsh broke out in a delighted smile when he wandered into the room.

His mother rose from her chair by the kitchen table and enveloped him in a big hug. She was a tall woman, and although she’d always been slender, she was considerably frailer since the heart attack. Her hair, a short blond bob streaked with silver, tickled AJ’s chin as he gently hugged her back.

“Hey, Mom. How you feeling?”

“Strong as an ox and healthy as a horse,” she declared, before glaring at AJ’s dad. “It’s just too bad your father doesn’t believe me.”

“Sit down, sweetheart,” Tom Walsh said sternly. “If I see you on your feet again, I swear I’ll go outside and rip up all the flowers I planted today.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me.”

AJ watched the ensuing stare-off in amusement. His mom was obsessed with her garden, and sure enough, she was the first to back down. With an exaggerated sigh, she sank back in her chair.

“That’s what I thought.” Tom gave a satisfied nod, then wiped his hands on a pink dishrag and walked over to clap his son on the back. “Right on time, kiddo. Help me set the table.”

They got to setting while Karen chattered on about all the work AJ’s father had done in the backyard over the past week. The smells permeating the air were surprisingly appealing, and when Tom served the meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and roasted carrots he’d prepared, AJ couldn’t hide his surprise.

“Since when do you make anything that’s actually edible?” he asked, grinning at his father.

His mom fielded the question with a sigh. “Since he gave us food poisoning last week.”

AJ laughed. “Seriously?”

“Oh yes.” Another glower sailed in her husband’s direction. “Which is what happens when you don’t follow my recipes like I
told
you to.”

Tom had the decency to look sheepish. “I learned my lesson, sweetheart. No need to keep lording it over me.”

That got a smile out of her. “It
was
incredibly rewarding seeing you huddled over the toilet bowl like that.” She picked up her knife and fork, then glanced at AJ. “Don’t worry—it’s safe to eat this meal. I made sure to taste everything before you got here.”

As they settled in to eat dinner, AJ’s reluctance faded into a sense of contentment. These were the moments he liked. Listening to his parents’ good-natured bickering, seeing the smiles on their faces. And it could be like that all the time, if he just kept playing his part in this Norman Rockwell-esque family sitcom of theirs.

Except the problem with acting? No show stayed on the air forever.

“So when are you going to sell that dance club and come work with me?”

His father’s barely veiled disapproval was like a slap to the face across the table. As if on cue, AJ’s guard shot up ten feet to shield him from the tense conversation he knew was coming.

“I’m happy where I am,” he said carefully. “You know that.”

“But you’d be so much happier working with your dad,” Karen protested.

Ha. Fat chance. What the hell did he know about selling windows and doors? He’d go insane in a week. No, a
day
.

“The club’s doing well,” AJ added, ignoring his mother’s comment. “Our profits have tripled since we opened our doors.”

“Money’s all well and good, but don’t you want to be in a more respectable line of work?” his father prodded.

Respectable
—his least favorite word in the world.

A frustrated groan climbed up his throat, but he choked it down with a mouthful of mashed potatoes. He refused to get into another argument about Sin.

“I’m happy where I am,” he repeated.

Fortunately, his parents dropped the subject.

And changed it to an even less desirable one.

“Why hasn’t Darcy been coming by lately?” his mother asked.

“I told you. We broke up.” Nearly a year ago, he decided not to remind her.

“I know that, sweetie. But you said you two were still friends. I miss seeing her.” She made a tsking noise with her tongue. “She’s such a sweet girl. Good head on her shoulders.” There was a pause. “She’d make a great mother, you know.”

AJ waited for it…

“But you’re just determined not to give us any grandbabies, aren’t you?”

Her tone had a teasing lilt to it, but AJ wasn’t fooled. Coming so close to death had really freaked his mother out, and she was now on his case more than ever to enter a new phase in his life, the one that involved giving her a daughter-in-law to gossip with and a grandchild to dote on.

“I haven’t found the right woman yet,” he said awkwardly. “But don’t worry, I’ll let you know the moment I do.”

She looked pleased. “Good. Because your father and I aren’t getting any younger.”

The conversation blessedly shifted again, back to his father’s business and all the new clients he’d picked up this past month. After they’d finished eating, AJ helped his dad clear the table, then went to the counter to cut three slices of store-bought apple pie for dessert.

As he handed his parents some pie, he swallowed a lump of despair and tried to maintain a happy-go-lucky demeanor.

But God. It was all so fucking perfect he felt like tearing his hair out. And like clockwork, a familiar itchy sensation pricked at him, the same one that had led him to join Reed’s boxing gym when his friend had announced he was going to fight pro. At first, AJ had pretended he was doing it to keep Reed company. He’d been Reed’s sparring partner and training buddy, and when Reed had convinced him to fight in a few amateur bouts, he’d acted like he’d needed arm-twisting.

But he’d
wanted
to fight. He’d craved the adrenaline rush, the messed-up sense of peace it brought him.

“Did I tell you I ran into Tamara Howard the other day?” his mother spoke up. “You two went to high school together.”

AJ shoveled a massive bite of pie into his mouth in order to delay his response. Tamara had been one of the cheerleaders who’d harassed Brett, and as he remembered that, a vise of possessiveness squeezed his chest.

For some reason, the thought of someone tormenting Brett pissed him off, and he suddenly wished he had the ability to travel back in time so he could stick up for her. But he’d been oblivious back then, sparing no thought to a girl who was three years behind him in school. He’d been too focused on getting a football scholarship.

Another attempt at pleasing his parents, of course. AJ didn’t particularly care for football, not the way his father did.

Or the way Joey had.

And bad idea thinking about Joey, because the memory just achieved the same old result: deep rush of guilt and the overpowering need to atone for his sins.

“Yeah…what’s she up to?” AJ asked, injecting as much interest in his tone as he could muster.

“She got divorced not too long ago.” His mother looked far more delighted than the news warranted. “She has two little girls. She brought her youngest with her to the store—the most adorable baby I’ve ever seen! Big blue eyes, curly blond hair, cherub cheeks.”

“Damn cute baby,” his dad agreed.

“She told me to say hello to you. She also gave me her phone number,” Karen hedged, a meaningful note ringing in her voice. “I think you should give her a call.”

AJ uttered an inward curse.

“I know it might be daunting to date a woman who already has kids, but I think you’d make a wonderful stepfather.”

Fuckin’ hell. He wasn’t married and popping out kids like they wanted, so now they were going to saddle him with a ready-made family?

AJ jammed the rest of his pie in his mouth and chewed as fast as humanly possible, then scraped back his chair and picked up his plate. “Tamara and I didn’t have much in common back then,” he mumbled. “But sure, maybe I’ll give her a call.”

Ten minutes later, he left his parents’ house with anguish in his heart and the phone number of a woman he didn’t care about in his pocket.


“There.” Brett dabbed the excess ink from her client’s butt. “All done.”

“How does it look?” the burly man demanded. “Did you do the shading like I asked?”

“See for yourself.” She waited for him to heave his huge body out of her chair, then led him to the full-length mirror against the far wall. She swiped a hand mirror from the counter and held it up behind him, angling it so he had a clear view of his bare ass.

Lou whooped loudly when he saw her handiwork. Two words, done in intricate calligraphy and underlined with barbed wire, just like she’d sketched for him the day before.

Thanks to Brett, the man’s chubby, slightly hairy butt officially boasted two words: FUCK YOU.

Yep. The joy of being a tattoo artist. Some of the custom designs Brett had created over the years still boggled her mind, but she’d accepted that the tattoo business was a crazy one. People wanted what they wanted, and she gave it to them without question, judgment, or teasing. If a dude wanted to get the words
fuck you
inked on his ass cheek, who was she to deny him?

Still, she much preferred the clients who showed up with a general idea and then gave her permission to let her creativity soar. Most of the time, they were thrilled by the final design and didn’t request a single change. Other times, she had to redraw it dozens of times before the client found what they’d been looking for.

Lou, however, was easy to please. All of his tattoos were various lines of text, and he always tipped handsomely, which she appreciated.

“That’ll teach Cindy to tell me I have a fat ass,” he crowed. “Now I won’t even have to answer her. She’ll know exactly what I think of her bullshit criticism when she sees this.” Lou slapped his ink-free butt cheek before striding off to get his pants.

“Hey, no, you don’t,” Brett chided when he tried to get dressed. “You know the drill. Lay back down.”

“Aw, come on, I don’t need the bandage.”

“House rules, bud. We don’t let anyone leave without it.”

She’d barely finished her sentence when the bell rang in the main room. Crap. Lou was her last client of the night, and it was already five past nine. Since AJ didn’t work Mondays, they’d agreed to meet at her place at nine thirty, and she was dying to finish work so she could see him.

Without leaving her station, she gave a hasty shout toward the curtain. “I’ll be right with you.”

Rob had already left for the night, and though normally she felt comfortable closing up shop alone, her shoulders stiffened when she heard footsteps approaching the curtain.

It opened a slit, and her body relaxed when she found herself staring into a pair of familiar green eyes “Hey. It’s me,” AJ said softly. “Just didn’t want you to think it was a client. I’ll wait out here.”

He quickly disappeared, but his presence had already sent her pulse galloping. She wasn’t sure why he’d come, but she definitely wasn’t complaining. If anything, she was even more eager to get rid of Lou now.

She carefully attached the bandage to the man’s backside and waited for him to stand up so she could shoot him a stern glare. “Keep it covered for three hours, make sure you use the ointment I gave you last time, and try not to sit down for the first couple days.”

“I work in a toll booth, Tinkerbell. How the hell do you expect me not to sit down?”

Tinkerbell. It seemed like every client had their own nickname for her, most of which had to do with her size. She liked AJ’s nickname the best, though.
Angel
. Lord, just thinking about the way he drawled out the word made her tremble.

“Just keep off it when you can,” she said with a sigh. “Give it time to heal.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Lou slipped into his pants, then reached for his wallet. He’d already paid her upfront for his tattoo, but now he pressed another wad of bills into her hand. “For you,” he said gruffly.

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