Authors: Shiloh Walker
Had she lost her
Swallowing, she said, “I don’t know what I want right now, Zach.”
The embarrassment faded as those words hit her square in the chest. It was the absolute truth. She had absolutely no idea what she wanted in life. Well, other than this bizarre urge to jump Zach, and she was positive that stemmed from the fact that she was just suffering from some sort of post-breakup stress.
Panic slammed into her and she started to shake.
“Zach . . . I don’t know what I want.” She tried to pull her foot away. She needed to get up and move.
I have to think. Got to get this planned out. Have to know—
She jerked on her foot again. “Let me go,” she snapped.
“Not happening. All you want to do is get up and start having a meltdown, sugar.” He tugged on her foot and said, “Come here.”
She blinked at him. “What?”
Heaving out a sigh, he reached for her and hauled her into his lap.
She stiffened and shoved against his chest. “Zach, would you—”
“Calm down,” he said easily. He settled her on his lap. She’d spent more than a few nights like this when she’d been falling apart. Either on his lap while she cried after her dad died, or curled up against him after a marathon movie session. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Why it suddenly felt so different, she didn’t know. Unless it was just post-breakup stress. Yeah. Had to be that.
“You’re too wound up about this,” Zach said quietly. He stroked a hand down her back and eased her against his chest.
Wound up. Yes, she was definitely that and there was no denying that she was certainly freaked out about the current chaos of her life, but that wasn’t the
problem. That was what really had her sitting there so rigid and unyielding, despite the fact that she wanted to wilt against him and just . . . be. Just like that.
Except if she didn’t relax, he was going to figure out, fast, that something was up. Then she’d have to lie or something because she couldn’t very well tell him that she was having these crazy thoughts. And great
she was rambling inside her own head.
Get a grip
. She took a slow, deep breath and blew it out. Focusing on the dragon that wrapped around his left bicep, she stared at the scales. Wound up. Yes. She was. But it was hard to say what she was more worked up over, the screwed-up wreck that was her life, or the hot mess that was her body.
But she couldn’t exactly relay that last bit. He’d
the first bit. And it was definitely not helping that she didn’t have a plan. Slowly, she said, “You know how I am, Zach. I just work better with a plan. I’ll figure this out and get my head together and make a plan.”
She lapsed into silence, still staring at the dragon on his arm. The scales were green, done with such incredible detail that it had left her speechless when she saw it for the first time. It hadn’t helped much when she realized he’d been the one who had come up with the original design.
“So this plan. You just need to figure out what you want,” he said, toying with a lock of her hair.
“How am I supposed to figure it out?” she said quietly, forcing herself to focus on what he was saying.
“I dunno. Although if it’s that hard to understand, you could always try just going with the flow for a while. Just live a little.”
“Yeah. Like that’s going to happen.” The heat inside her veins started to spread as she shifted around and her hip bumped against something long, thick, and hard—wonderfully hard, branding itself against her hip.
Oh . . . hell.
Her heart sped up and she thought that maybe, just maybe, she was going to lose her damned mind, but then he shifted and moved her back onto the couch. So casually. So easily.
Like he just adjusted his shirt collar or something.
But instead of adjusting a collar, he leaned forward and grabbed the book from the coffee table.
“Here. I bought you something.”
Her heart thudded, slow and heavy, and her tongue seemed to glue itself to the roof of her mouth and her fingers were all shaky. Not to mention her belly was tight and hot and the butterflies dancing inside her gut were going haywire.
A little dazed, she looked down at the book. It took a minute for the title to make sense. Then it took another minute for her to really get what she was reading. Once she finally did, she looked up at him. “Ah . . . is this a joke?”
Frowning, she stroked a hand down it and murmured, “
Wreck This Journal
“You’re always writing your plans, making your notes in nice, neat, pretty little journals. Maybe you need to take a different approach. Granted, I didn’t realize you were having business plan hang-ups when I saw this, but . . .” He finished with a shrug and reached out, caught a lock of her hair again.
She swallowed and pretended not to notice. “So you bought me a journal that I’m supposed to . . . what?”
“Open it up.”
She frowned and opened it up, scowling when she saw a warning on the second page. “What the . . .”
Two seconds later, she put it down.
He laughed and took it away.
She cringed as he opened it wide and cracked the spine on the book. “There,” he said, putting it into her lap. “I took care of that one. I know how you are about breaking spines.”
“That isn’t a journal,” she said, shaking her head. “A journal is where I can write my thoughts. My plan.”
“You can still do that.” He leaned in and flipped through the pages. “Look, there’s room. But there’s also other stuff. You need to quit focusing so much on how you
your life is supposed to go and just let your life
. Live it, sugar. Stop trying to control it.”
* * *
An hour after Zach had left, Abigale found herself laying on her belly, staring at the very odd journal with its badly cracked spine.
Wreck This Journal.
“What do I want?”
An image of Zach flashed through her mind and she pushed the idea out. Maybe it wasn’t
she wanted. Just . . . something. Maybe he was right. Maybe she’d been controlling herself for too long. Stifling herself. It could just be some innate urge to
Although damn it, her body . . . and more . . . kept trying to flash images of Zach at her. Zach with his lazy smile and the way he’d wrap her hair around his finger, the way he’d understood the thing with the journal.
“Stop it,” she muttered. “Zach is a friend. Your friend. Your best friend. Think about the plan, okay?”
Her hand shook a little as she reached for the pen tucked inside her pretty, neat leather journal.
Wreck This Journal
It had some
things inside it. Things like
on the pages. Mail it to herself. Take it in the frigging shower, for crying out loud. She didn’t know if she’d be able to do
of those things, but she was going to try.
And she had a plan in mind now.
Two pages after the spine-cracking instructions, she found a blank page and there, she wrote up at the top:
Wreck this life: My new plan
Her hand started to shake and she had to stop, suck in a deep breath. “Wreck my life. What in the hell . . .”
She almost sat up and closed the silly thing, almost put it away. This was
But even as she thought about it, she made herself remember what Zach had said.
Stop trying to plan her life so much. Start trying to just live.
For her, that was practically anathema. But that was what she needed to do. What she needed to focus on.
“Just write it down, damn it.” Gripping the pen, she wrote a neat little
Stop worrying so much about the future
Okay. The first step. The next idea was easy.
Call Roger and tell him off
Once she had that down, the next few things came in an outright rush.
Flip off the next photographer you see
Get a tattoo
Have a torrid affair with a hot guy
Staring at it, she rubbed her fingers over her lips, reading it through again. And again. Stop worrying. Call Roger. Flip off photographer . . . get a tattoo?
Have an affair
. . . !
Her belly was in knots now, just looking at the list. Completely knotted and twisted and she thought she just might be sick. And when she thought about number five, images of Zach kept dancing through her mind. Part of her was gleefully shrieking,
Yeah, try to convince yourself that you don’t want him
. . .
But it was
. How could she want him?
Another little voice whispered,
how can you not?
He was hot, hot as lightning-hot, and in theory, she
that. It was a little different with somebody you’d known all your life. Hell, the two of them had sat around snickering together when they’d discovered how to find bad porn on the Web back when they were still kids. Zach had
gotten in trouble over that one and he’d never once told his mom that Abby was the one who’d showed it to him.
But it wasn’t
that he was hot. She was a child of Hollywood and she’d grown up around beautiful people. Maybe she didn’t live that life anymore, but she knew how superficial beauty could be. Zach was anything
superficial. He was real. He was kind. He was funny. And under the kindness and the humor, there was an edge to him that had emerged . . . somehow. She didn’t really know when, but sometimes just standing near him, even knowing him as well as she did, it sucked the breath out of her.
she think about it?
But thinking about it and
something about it were two different things. She couldn’t go chasing after her best friend. She’d barely managed to seduce the guy she was engaged to.
With a weak laugh, she rolled over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. Zach was no Roger. Even she could admit that . . . Zach was a hell of a lot more, and she couldn’t even keep
interested in her.
Zach was a friend. A sexy friend. Her
friend, but it was going to stay on a friendly level and she just needed to get this whatever-it-was out of her head. Grabbing the journal again, she opened and read the list through. Nerves pulsed inside her. Could she
this? she wondered.
Panic gripped her, hard and tight and she was almost certain that she couldn’t. Didn’t know how and the longer she stared at the list, the harder it got. No. That was it. She couldn’t do this. Reaching for the page, she went to rip it out.
Before she could crumple it in her fist to do so, though, she stopped. Stopped and sat up, staring down at the page while her heart started to race. “What’s so damned hard about any of this?” she whispered.
Zach had a gazillion tattoos and it wasn’t like he’d mind giving her one.
She could handle that.
Telling Roger off? She
to do that and hey, what a way to prove him wrong. He thought she wasn’t being true to herself? Here was just one more way to show him how very wrong he was.
Flipping off a photographer was a bit more than she’d ever thought about doing, but if she started to get hesitant about it, she’d just remember how they
seemed to grab the worst pictures imaginable and then turned around and sold them to the worst gossip rags . . . hey, flipping them off was taking the
Stop worrying would be hard, but she needed to do it.
The last one was the one that made her belly cramp and twist with fear.
She’d never had a fling. Yeah, maybe she’d thought about it a time or two, maybe there had been some really hot guys who had caught her eye, but memories of all those guys her mom had brought home? The thought of just casual sex left a bad taste in her mouth. In all of her life, she had two lovers. That was it.
But if she was going to reach out and grab life . . . why not?
She’d needed a plan.
Now she had one.
“I’m going to do it.” She stroked a finger down the list and stopped by number four. It was going to be the easiest, she figured. Get that done, because once she committed herself to the plan, she would be a lot less likely to back out of it.
Tomorrow, she’d take the first step in checking things off her list. It wasn’t going to be the cohesive life plan her last one had been, but maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
After all, look at where her last plan had landed her.
“You got company.”
Keelie stood in the doorway, watching him with a disgruntled look on her face.
“Why don’t you handle it?” he said, looking back at the bills spread out before him. They might be partners, but she couldn’t do numbers. The one time he’d made her handle the bills for the month, she’d paid two vendors twice and hadn’t paid the water or the electric bill. Since then, he’d handled the paperwork. But he made
do more of the housekeeping shit. He figured it was fair.
“Because Abby doesn’t want to talk to me,” she said with a smirk.
He stood so fast, he knocked over the lukewarm coffee that he’d meant to dump earlier.
“Son of a
!” he snarled, rescuing the bills from the spreading puddle.
“Suave, man. You’re so suave,” she said with a smile. She came over and tugged out the towel she kept tucked in a back pocket, using it to sop up the coffee. “Good thing you already drank most of it.”
“Thanks.” After they’d dealt with the mess, he shot a look at the clock. It was creeping up on nine—almost closing time. This time of year they didn’t get too busy during the week, so he didn’t keep very late hours on weekdays.
He didn’t know why Abby was here, but maybe they could get a bite to eat or something.
“Are you ever going to tell her?”
He glanced up at Keelie. “What?”
A grin twisted her lips and the piercing just above the right corner of her mouth winked in the bright lights of the office. “Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. I know the symptoms of the lovesick.” She shrugged and turned away. “Just wondering if you’re ever going to do anything about it.”
“Ah . . . it’s complicated,” he said softly. Of all the people to see it so clearly, why did it have to be Keelie? She was the one most likely to tell all the wrong people. As in . . .
. “I can’t just go and blurt it out, Keelie. It’s too . . . complicated.”
“So is life, but you’re out here living, aren’t you?”
It’s not that easy
. He could tell her that.
It’s none of your business.
Yeah. That would work, too. But in the end, he didn’t say anything. Didn’t see the point. He knew what he was doing. As much as he’d like to tell Abby how he felt, considering she only saw him as a friend and wasn’t interested in anything else, well, he’d rather at least have her as friend. There was no way he was going to risk losing
much of her.
This way, he could still take care of her, as much as she’d let him.
It sucked and didn’t do anything to fill the hole in his heart, but not having
would leave a bigger hole.
He headed out to the main area of Steel Ink
and found Abby standing in front of the main design wall. Her back was turned and for a second, he let himself just stand there, staring. She’d straightened her hair, that incredible curly mass of hair, and it hung down her back in a smooth, straight banner of deep, dark auburn.
Back when they’d been entertaining the world as Kate and Nate, her hair had been a brighter shade of red. She’d been around fourteen when it had started to darken and the studio hotshots hadn’t liked it. Since
hadn’t liked it, her bitch of a mother hadn’t, either.
Which meant she’d been forced to deal with having her hair dyed, keeping it that carroty shade for the next two years. Then they’d gotten the word that the show was being cancelled.
It had been one of the worst days of his life—at the time.
But he knew it had been one of the best days of hers. Right up until she realized what it meant to her mother.
Because he couldn’t think about Blanche without wanting to spit nails, he made himself cut that line of thought off. “Hey, sugar,” he drawled, watching as she spun around.
The flippy little skirt she had on sent his blood pressure soaring somewhere into the stratosphere and he could feel the oxygen in his brain dwindling away. The nervous smile on her face caught his attention and even as he found himself thinking,
Fuck, she’s beautiful
, he narrowed his eyes and speculated just what in the hell she was up to.
She felt them. He knew that.
But she didn’t
She glanced down and he followed her gaze, saw that she had the journal he’d picked up for her. “Did you bring that here to beat me up with it or something?”
She laughed. “Well, there is something about an unexpected action . . .” Then she shrugged. “Nah. I actually figured out a plan. It’s a weird one, but I’m here to ask you to help me do one of the things on the list.”
“Okay . . .” He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and waited.
“I want a tattoo.”
Zach closed his eyes. Reaching up, he rubbed his right ear and then said, “You want what?”
“A tattoo.” She wiggled the book . “I wrote it down and everything. I did it last night and I’ve thought about it all day and I’m sure I want to do it, so stop looking at me like I’ve lost my mind, okay?”
“You wrote a plan that includes getting a tattoo,” he said slowly. His mind was churning at the very idea of it and his blood was boiling. Putting his hands on her . . .
focus on the issue at hand, Barnes!
“And you want me to do it.”
“Well . . .” She grinned at him and the dimple in her chin winked at him. “The tattoo part is in the plan. And who else would I ask? You’re my best friend, right?”
He pressed the heel of his hand to his eye. “You sure about this, sugar?”
“Yes.” She tapped the book against her leg, looking around. “Ah . . . does that mean you’ll do it?”
“Like I’d let anybody else,” he muttered. “Do you know what you want?”
She shrugged. “I hadn’t really thought it through
far. I was kind of thinking you could help me figure it out.”
He shoved a hand through his hair and glanced around. The parlor was empty. “When did you want to do this?” He could take some time to think up some designs for her. Take some time to get a grip and—
So much for taking time to get a grip
* * *
Bent over the table, she watched as he sketched out
another image. Keelie had left, locking up the front door and lowering the blinds. Zach seemed completely focused on the task at hand. “You got any idea where you want to put this?” he asked.
“Ah . . . well, I was thinking that I’d rather have one that doesn’t really show. It’s for me, not anybody else.” She scooted back from the desk and went over to the design wall, studying some of the pictures. The back of her shoulder seemed innocuous enough, but this was something she was doing for herself. Not to show off and she wanted it personal. Completely personal. She saw one woman’s picture—the woman was pretty damn clearly showing off—she was sexy as hell, Abigale had to admit, but did she really have to have her jeans open like that?
Although one thing was clear. She wasn’t about to have him doing it on her hip like
. She’d have to all but pull up her skirt. Considering the way she was having trouble thinking clearly around him just now . . . ? Yeah. Not happening. “I guess my lower back.”
Glancing down at her skirt, she frowned and turned around to find Zach staring at her. His gaze dropped back down to the sketchbook in front of him. “Will this skirt work okay for this?”
“Yeah. You’re fine. You wanna take a look at any of these?”
She crossed the floor to study the designs and frowned. They all looked so . . . simple.
“Well . . . they’re pretty, but . . .” She glanced at the vivid color on his arms, the intricate detail, and then back at the sketches. “Aren’t they kind of plain?”
“Sugar, you’ve never had a tattoo before. Trust me. You want simple. They hurt. And the more intricate it gets, the longer it takes.”
“Oh.” Well, technically she
it wasn’t going to feel good. But having it pointed out to her made some of the nerves inside her flare to life.
A warm hand brushed down her arm and she turned her head, found Zach watching her closely. “You know, this isn’t anything you have to do,” he said quietly.
“Yes, it is. I want to.” Tearing her gaze away from his, she looked at the designs. One in particular had caught her eye the second he’d drawn it. Simple or not, it was lovely. The stylized dragonfly made her smile. It was pretty, fantastical, and silly.
“I think that one is just about perfect,” she said, tapping it with her finger.
“Okay.” He checked the clock. “I need some time to get this ready. Don’t suppose you feel like ordering us in some pizza or something, do you? You can put a movie in while I do this.”
“Sure.” She tugged her phone out and then glanced at him as he pushed back from the desk. “I . . . ah, well, I didn’t know it was any more complicated than you just doing it.”
A grin tugged at his lips. “Well, if you had the design in mind already or brought one with you, we could move a little quicker. But yeah, it takes a little while.” He gestured down the hall. “The number for the best local pizza place is hanging on the fridge in the break room if you want to use them, or we can use Rosatti’s.”
* * *
Once she left the room, Zach dropped his head
down on his desk and groaned. He had to do this. He knew he did. And he wasn’t going to deny a very huge part of him
to do this—wanted it so bad, his hands were shaking from it, but how in the hell was he supposed to handle this without losing his damn mind?
“By doing your damn job.” She came here because she wanted some ink. So that was what he was going to do.
As he pushed back from the desk, he kicked the chair she’d dragged over and her purse fell. The journal slid out as he scooped up the purse. He went to dump them both back on the chair, but found himself flipping through the journal. She hadn’t done much of anything.
But then he stopped.
One page held her neat writing.
She’d titled it. That was typical Abby, although it made him a little nervous.
Wreck this life
. What the hell . . .
But the first few goals had him smiling. Tell off Roger. Cool. Flip off the photographers? He’d been telling her to do that for years. Stop worrying so much. Wonderful.
The tattoo . . . yes. She was serious.
But the last one had the blood draining out of his head.
. . .
Snapping it closed, he dumped the book on top of her purse and shot upright. Have a fucking affair?
What the hell?
Thunder crashed inside his head. At least it felt that way, although more than likely, he was having a stroke or something. His feet seemed to get in the way as he turned around and started for the door. They needed to talk.
Abby had just broken things off with that prick she’d been engaged to. She was upset and feeling a little lost, needed to do something crazy. He could understand that, he thought. And while he was completely on board with her learning to live a little, the idea of her having a fucking affair with some guy who wouldn’t give a damn about her made him want to chew glass and break things. Lots of things.
Still, that journal was her personal property and he hadn’t had any right to go rooting through it. He hadn’t expected to find anything like
and how could he explain that he’d read it? He couldn’t lie to her. But did he tell her that she needed to think this through?
Following the sound of her voice, he stopped in the doorway and made himself close his eyes while she finished placing the order.
Breathe, man. Gotta breathe. Gotta think. Gotta be calm
First he had to explain just how he’d managed to see it in the journal. He hadn’t exactly been prying . . . well, he had, but he was her best friend and he was nosy, and she knew that, and . . .
Feeling the weight of her gaze, he lifted his lashes, not looking directly at her. Not yet.
But Abby wasn’t looking at his face.
She was eyeing his arms. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she tugged on the soft curve and he almost went to his knees at the sight. A second later, she glanced away, but then she looked back.
The thunder that had been crashing inside his head grew louder and louder.
Have a torrid affair.
Damn it, if she was dead set on
idea, she could have an affair with
, he decided.
Even as the idea slammed into him, he tried to brush it aside. He’d kept what he felt wrapped up and buried deep for years. Spilling it now?
Just wondering if you’re ever going to do anything about it.
It’s complicated . . .
Hell. He was lecturing Abby about living life and letting go, and here he was, afraid to grab
The woman he wanted like he wanted his next breath was standing
and he was afraid to even make a move.
She turned away as he stood there, still wrestling with the very thought of it, need burning in him and twisting him into tight, hungry knots. Damn it.
. He needed to do this—