Hot Ink – Chapter Three, Part Two

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It had taken every iota of self control, but he managed to keep from staring at her amazing tits, which were shown off to perfection in a tight black v-neck T-shirt with a picture of a tattooed Marilyn Monroe on it. He needed a beer after seeing that.

Her apartment had the same layout as his with the open concept living room slash dining room leading to the kitchen on one side, a small balcony straight ahead that let in the day’s last rays of sun and a bedroom on the other side. From the black suede couch to the red leather chairs, everything was pin neat, perfectly organized and followed the same black, red and white color scheme—until he looked toward the bedroom. The door was open, revealing a sliver of an emerald green comforter and electric blue sheets still twisted from last night. The T-shirt he’d seen her in last night lay crumpled on the floor. 

She sauntered back in, drawing his attention from her bedroom to her long, lean legs that seemed to go on forever. His dick twitched. God, this woman was going to wear out his zippers.

He took the beer she offered with a nodded thank you and sat down on the couch, resting his arm across the back. She hesitated for a moment before taking up residence in one of the two red leather chairs, tucking her legs up under her.

“Okay,” he said. “Bring me up to speed with what’s going on.”

Penny chewed her bottom lip and sighed. “When you got your tattoo, did you bring in a picture of what you wanted or did you just pick something from the flash?”

Obviously, this was not going to be a just the facts retelling. He settled back against the couch, knowing better than to try to push a story out of someone before they were ready to tell. It was interrogation 101. 

“What’s flash?” he asked.

“The pieces of paper showing a bunch of different designs. Most studios have them tacked to a wall or collected in books.”

He thought back to the small tattoo studio in Vegas where he’d gotten the thunderbolt tattoo after getting the call from the Miami Thunder coach that they wanted him to come on down for training camp. The bolt on his shoulder was one of six options shown on a white piece of paper hanging on the wall. “The flash.”

“You’re like most impulse tattooers. Those clients can be bread and butter for some studios, but they’re not the work that really lets an artist show their creativity and skill. For that you want a custom client, someone who is looking for something that is unique and feeds into their vision.” She took a sip from her bottle. “With customized designs I’ll usually meet with the client at least twice before we even begin to ink. During the first visits, the client and I come up with a design and refine it before we’re ready to go. Those designs are never repeated on another client.”

Things began to click into place. No doubt those kinds of tattoos cost a lot more than the one picked from a book. People who paid that kind of cash for a one of a kind wouldn’t be too pleased to see it on some frat boy who got tatted up after a kegger.

“But these custom designs are showing up all over Miami,” he said.

Penny nodded. “Pretty much. I’ve spotted five myself and that’s not including your friend at the pool.”

“Where do you keep the drawings of your designs after you’re done?” Whoever the thief was had to have access to it or be glued to Penny’s side at the studio. 

“Sometimes I frame them along with a photo of the client and hang it in the studio.”

There went that theory. Anyone who walked into Daring Ink was on the suspect list. Sawyer rubbed the back of his head like he could force another angle through his thick skull. 

“However,” she continued. “Most of the time they go into my portfolio.”

Now that narrowed the field.

“Where do you keep it?” he asked.

She took a sip of her beer and then set it down on a coaster on the coffee table before snagging another coster from the stack and putting it under his beer. “I used to keep it at the studio but it comes home with me every night since the thefts started.”

Every crime needed three things: means, opportunity and motive. The means and opportunity to do it made sense, but the motive totally eluded him. “Why would someone steal the designs, what’s in it for them?”

The vein in her temple went from double time to triple time. “It’s a way for an apprentice make a name for themselves before they’re really ready.”

“Have you talked about it to anyone at your studio?”

“No.” She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “At first I wasn’t sure and then I didn’t want to tip my hand. With something like this, I need to catch who ever it with my portfolio in their hand.”

“Why wouldn’t they just take a photo and show the customer the artwork on their phone?”

“When it comes to a customized tattoo, the client wants to see it up close and personal,” she said. “They want to see the kind of detail that just doesn’t come through on the phone. That’s what helped me realize I wasn’t just losing my mind when I started to see people with my work inked on them. I used to leave my portfolio in the office overnight and I’d come in and find it put away somewhere I wouldn’t put it. I put two and two together and came up with a thief.”

“It’s a shitty thing for someone to do, but you’ve already gotten paid for the people who commissioned the tattoos, why not just let it go?”

Face blazing red, she bolted out of her seat, her hands curled into tight fists. “Because that is my art out there, the same as if it was a painting that sold for millions in one of the  Wynwood Art District art gallery. Plus, if one of my clients ever spotted their custom tattoo on someone else my reputation as a tattoo artist running a reputable studio would be trashed. This is who I am. The thief has to be stopped.”

Sawyer considered the case as she paced back and forth in front of the coffee table with its stack of black and red stone coasters. He could understand being pissed off that someone had ripped her off, but judging by the tight jerking motion of her normally smooth walk and how her jaw was clenched tight enough to break a tooth he could tell this was more—it was personal for her in a way that went beyond business or financial considerations. 

He may have signed on for this as a way to win a bet, but seeing her like this ate away at his stomach lining. It just wasn’t right. Become a cop may not have been his A plan, but once he’d made the commitment he was all in. Most days that meant running down drug dealers and tracking human traffickers, but today it meant finding a shithead who thought he could steal from Penny with impunity. 

Now all he needed was a cover to get him in the tattoo studio long enough that he could take a good look at everyone without raising suspicion that Penny was onto the thief. Going in as a new hire wasn’t going to work. He could barely draw stick people. He watched her pace the length of the coffee table as he rolled the problem around in his head, but it was difficult because seeing her hips sway was getting his other head interested.

That was it. The idea was so stupid it was brilliant. “I go in posing as your new boyfriend, scope the joint out, have a couple of chats, narrow down the suspects and we’ll go from there.”

She laughed—laughed—and collapsed next to him on the couch, wiping amusement from her eyes. “That’s not going to work.”

“Why? You already have a boyfriend?” He disliked that idea more than he had a reason to.

“No.” She shook her head, the last bit of sun coming in through the windows turning her hair fiery. “I don’t ever have boyfriends—not any more.”

Now that was enough to pique his interest and make him scoot closer on the couch. “Not at all?”

“Nope.” She crossed her arms and lifted a brow in one of the best non-verbal fuck yous he’d gotten in a long while.

Penny was a riddle. She was a badass tattoo artist who insisted on using coasters. She had a condo-wide commitment to red, black and white with everything in its place—except for her bedroom. She had a bod built for long, sweaty nights but didn’t have boyfriends. Finding the tattoo thief might be the objective, but unravelling the mystery that was the woman sitting next to him was far more interesting. He couldn’t help but pull at the loose strings to see what he’d find.

“What does the whole no boyfriend thing mean for your sex life?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes so hard he was surprised they didn’t fall out of her head. “You’re the perfect example of how you don’t have to date to have sex or are you one of those people who thinks only guys go that route?”

He draped his arm over the back of the couch, letting his fingers brush the soft cotton of her T-shirt. It was the barest of touches, more of a graze than a caress, and still electricity sparked in the air between them. “And you don’t think your employees will think I could change your mind?”

There was no doubt in her gaze. Just a challenge and the skinniest sliver of lust. “Not a chance in hell.”

“Really?” He dipped his head lower, pausing just as his lips were a millimeter from hers. “Why don’t you test me out?”

Pulse pounding in his ears as it raced from his brain to all points south, he waited for a second, gambling that he wasn’t imagining the attraction between them. She didn’t move forward to complete the kiss, but she didn’t back away either. He could wait—sit back and let things get awkward fast—but neither of them were getting away that easy. Penny wasn’t a woman to be pushed, but he’d bet she could be persuaded.

He closed the distance between them, tasting her soft, full lips and the lingering flavor of the honey wheat beer she’d been drinking. Teasing and tempting, he trailed his tongue across the seam of her mouth, urging her to open up for him. With a soft sigh, she did.

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