Marked by Midnight (Midnight Breed #11.5) - Page 4
“You’ve been with Ozzy for a while, then.”
“Yeah, I have.”
When she didn’t volunteer anything more, Mathias studied her, looking for cracks in her tough exterior. “He seems very protective of you. Does he know about your mark--and what that makes you?”
“He knows everything about me.”
“He cares for you.”
She nodded. “He does. And I care for him too.” She looked at him in silence for a long moment, as if debating how much of herself she needed to reveal in order to satisfy his curiosity. When she finally spoke, her voice was softer than ever. “Not that it’s any of your business, but Oz is family to me. Eddie too. They’re the only true family I’ve got.”
Mathias sensed it was the most honest thing she’d told him all night.
“Look,” she said abruptly, “if you want to talk, then talk. But make it quick. My last client of the night is due in any minute now.” She thought for a moment, and her fine black brows furrowed. “He’s late, in fact.”
Mathias knew good and well the guy wasn’t going to show anytime tonight. He shrugged. “So, I’ll stay until he arrives.”
“No, you won’t,” she said. “I’m still on the clock, and I’ve got plenty of work to do before I close up. You’ve got ten minutes.”
“Are you this unaccommodating with all of your clients?”
She leveled an impatient look on him. “You’re not my client.”
“And if I was?”
She laughed. A real laugh, unrestrained and genuine.
“Why is that funny?”
“You’re hardly the type to want a tattoo.”
He shrugged. “It will be my first.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” she said, her blue eyes lit with humor.
Mathias liked her eyes. He liked her laugh, and he had the fleeting awareness that he was enjoying her company more than he ought to. “What would you suggest?”
She cocked her head at him. “You don’t even know what you want?”
“It doesn’t matter. Surprise me.”
“Surprise you?” Her pretty face scrunched up, incredulous. “It’s permanent, you know.”
“So, come up with something I won’t regret for the next hundred years.”
The ghost of a smile played along the curve of her mouth. Damn, she had a fantastic mouth. Mathias’s groin tightened as he watched her chew her lip in contemplation. “Anything I want? Anywhere I decide to put it?”
Her choice of words only made his desire flare even hotter. “Anything. Anywhere. I’m in your hands completely.”
He held her sky blue eyes, knowing full well that there were secrets in their pale depths. Dark secrets that he was still determined to uncover.
“Can I trust you, Nova?”
She stared at him for a long moment. “I guess you’ll have to wait to find out. Take off your shirt.”
Had she lost her bloody mind?
She must have, because that was the only explanation for how she’d found herself perched on her stool a couple of hours later, putting the finishing touches on a freehand tattoo she’d inked onto Mathias Rowan’s back.
His powerfully muscled, utterly distracting back.
Nova hadn’t wanted to notice how firm and strong he felt under her gloved fingertips. She hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the warmth of his naked skin, or the beauty of his Breed dermaglyphs--elaborate skin markings that made all of her work pale by comparison.
She could have gone with a smaller design, placed somewhere less intimate, less time-consuming. God knew, she would have, if she’d been thinking clearly at all.
But talking with him had put an image in her head that wouldn’t let go. When he took off his shirt and she saw the twin flourishes of glyphs on his shoulder blades, she knew she’d found the perfect placement.
And she had to admit, she took more than a little satisfaction in the thought of inking the tattoo on the persistent male’s spine, instead of somewhere with fewer nerve endings just under the skin.
Given how long the work had taken, she was also thankful that she hadn’t spent the whole time under his intense, unsettling gaze. Lying face-down, comfortably relaxed on the reclined work chair, made him almost seem like any other client.
Not that she’d ever had one of the Breed under her iron.
And not that any of the human clientele coming in and out of Ozzy’s over the years had ever made her so keenly aware of herself as a woman the way Mathias Rowan did.
She had learned a long time ago how monstrous his kind could be. Even the ones you trusted the most.
Especially them, because they held the power to hurt you the deepest. To violate everything you believed in, everything you were.
To destroy you.
“Anything wrong, Nova?” Mathias’s deep voice drew her out of the dark spiral of her thoughts. “You didn’t fall asleep at the wheel back there, did you?”
“No. Just wrapping up.”
She tried to sound casual, cool. But her throat was dry and her hands were trembling.
She didn’t like to trek back to her past. It was something she deliberately avoided, wounds that had scarred over but still had the power to shred her apart if she stopped to recall them.
Just the thought of what she had endured put a knot of cold terror in her belly. Bile burned in the back of her throat, her ears filled with the sounds of a young girl’s screams.
“I’m almost finished,” she murmured, willing the tremor out of her fingers as she placed the tattoo machine over Mathias’s skin again. She completed the last of the coloring, subtle shadow and shading to bring realism to the piece.
When it was done, she blotted the design clean, then began dressing it. Mathias’s Breed skin was already healing on its own, but she still stripped off her gloves and reached for ointment and bandages.
As she applied the first one, he lifted his head, bulky shoulders rising off the table. “Aren’t you going to let me see it before you cover it up?”
She pushed him back down. “I thought you wanted to be surprised.”
He exhaled a low chuckle. “Probably not one of my more prudent decisions, all things considered.”
“It was a first.” She put the last couple of bandages over the fresh ink, carefully patting them into place. “If you ask me, only an idiot or a lunatic would let an unknown artist go freestyle on them for two full hours.”
He grunted. “So, which one do you think I am?”
Nova smiled in spite of herself. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“Maybe I’m just an excellent judge of character.” With that, he rose all the way up and pivoted around to a seated position on the edge of the chair.
Good lord, it was distracting to watch him move. He was muscular and long-limbed, powerful arms and thick shoulders framing a sculpted chest and ripped abdomen.
Mathias leaned forward slightly, elbows braced on his knees. The look he gave her sent her pulse skittering in her veins. “Maybe we both need to trust each other a little bit here, Nova. What do you say?”
Those penetrating eyes she had avoided all the while she was working on him now bore into her with the intensity of twin lasers. Heat seared her, and she couldn’t dismiss it as anything other than what it was.
How long since she’d felt any of that? God, had she ever--really ever--felt such an immediate, undeniable pull toward a man?
She didn’t dare let it take hold of her now.
Not with him.
It would be a mistake she couldn’t undo.
Letting herself get close to one of the warriors from the Order--particularly one whose investigation had brought him to her doorstep in the first place--was a mistake she refused to make.
Pivoting away from him, she began cleaning up her station. “You’ll want to remove the bandages after a couple of hours. I can give you some ointment to use for the next few days, but the way your kind heals, I doubt you’ll need it.”
“My kind,” he murmured from behind her.
She shot him an arch glance over her shoulder. “I don’t suppose I have to remind you to stay out of the sun.”
He was staring at her, and he didn’t look pleased. “You’re dismissing me. Always so eager to get rid of me. I have to wonder why that is.”
She shrugged. “You asked for a tattoo and I gave you one. So, unless there’s anything else--”
“There is, Nova.” He held her in a piercing, narrowed stare. “What are you afraid I’m going to find out? You and I both know the man who came in here last night didn’t leave the way you explained it to me.”
Anxious now, she pushed her hands into her pockets and faced the Breed warrior. “If you want to accuse me of something, do it.”
He exhaled a sharp breath. “I’m not ready to say you had something to do with his death, but I know you’re not telling me the truth. What do you know about the others?”
Confusion bled into her dread. “What others?”
“The six other men pulled out of the Thames in the past week, Nova.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And she didn’t. But he wasn’t baiting her, that much she knew, just from the unflinching seriousness of his expression. “Why would you think I know anything about anyone else?”
“Because all of the men--including the one who came here last night--had a similar mark on the backs of their right hands.” He took out his comm unit and brought a photo up on the display. “This tattoo, Nova.”
She didn’t want to look, but there was no avoiding it. Glancing down, she saw the heavy black shape of a tattoo she recognized instantly. “It looks like a beetle. A scarab.”
“Yes,” Mathias said grimly. “Ever seen it before?”
She shook her head, preferring his suspicious gaze over the sight of the dead man’s washed-out skin and its ugly mark. “I told you earlier tonight, in my line of work, it’s best not to pay too close attention to what people have on them.”
He made a dubious sound in the back of his throat. “I know what you told me. I also know there were six unidentified bodies chilling in the morgue with bullets in their heads before we pulled up their friend tonight. If you can shed some light on where they came from, or who they are--”
“I can’t,” she blurted.
Too fast, because his shrewd gaze went a bit colder then.
“I trusted you tonight, Nova,” he said after her silence stretched out between them. “I want you to know that you can trust me too.”
She scoffed and went back to straightening her station. “Is that what this was about--some kind of exercise to win my trust? You don’t have enough time or skin for that, vampire.”
He moved so fast, she wasn’t even aware he was on his feet before his strong hands took hold of her shoulders.
Gently--so tenderly, it shocked her--he turned her around to face him. His pale green eyes flashed with sparks of amber as his temper spiked. “If I wanted to force you into coming clean with me about anything, I have far more effective methods than letting you scrape me with needles and ink for the past two hours.”
She let her chin lift, defiance surging through her, almost as powerful as the sheer panic that gripped her at his threat. But he’d never see her fear. She’d give that to no one ever again. “I’m not afraid of anything you can do to me. Believe me, it’s already been done.”
She’d run too far, worked too hard to start over. She’d left all of the pain and horror behind her, refusing to let the demons she’d barely escaped ever have the chance to catch up to her again.
But they had.
They’d caught up to her last night, when a drunken thug wandered into the shop and threatened to tear open the vault of awful secrets she’d carried inside her for most of her life.
And she had to remember that someone like Mathias Rowan could smash that door open in ways no other man could. For all she knew, he could be playing her now, trying to make her trust him only so he could betray her when it served him.
If he found out the truth, he could send her back to that place. Back to the monster who had taken so much from her--everything, in fact.
Nova would die before she let herself fall back into her tormentor’s hands.
She would kill before she let that happen.
The body retrieved from the river last night was proof enough of that.
“Christ,” Mathias murmured softly, as if sensing the burden she carried. “Who was it that hurt you? Tell me, and I’ll make them pay.”
He reached out to her, his blunt fingertips lightly grazing her cheek. She pulled away at once. “I think you should leave now, Mathias.”
He didn’t speak for a long moment. Didn’t move.
Then he blew out a rough curse. “Yes, it will be for the best if I go now.”
He moved away from her and put his shirt back on. As he dressed, Nova walked to the shop’s front door and opened it. If he didn’t leave soon, she wasn’t sure she could trust herself to let him go.
He crossed the room, pausing in front of her. His sensual mouth was tense, amber light still glowing in irises.
He wanted her, possibly as much as he wanted the truth.
The knowledge should have terrified her. Instead it left her heart pounding frantically in her breast, all the air in the room charged with a current of anticipation. Of heated understanding.
When Mathias spoke, his deep voice was thick, little more than a growl of sound. “What do I owe you for your work?”