Tattoo artist Seth Wheeler thinks he’s struck gold when Darren Romero rents the apartment across the hall. The new guy is gorgeous, witty, and single, plus he’s just the right blend of bold and flirtatious. Perfect.
Except then Darren reveals that he moved to Tucker Springs to take a job as the youth pastor at the New Light Church. Seth is not only an atheist, but was thrown out by his ultra-religious family when he came out. He tends to avoid believers, not out of judgment but out of self-preservation.
But Darren doesn’t give up easily, and he steadily chips away at Seth’s defenses. Darren is everything Seth wants in a man . . . except for that one massive detail he just can’t overlook. Is Darren’s religion the real problem, or is it just a convenient smoke screen to keep him from facing deeper fears? It’s either see the light, or risk pushing Darren away forever.
Rain rolled off the awning above the front window of Ink Springs. On shitty days like these, Lane and I didn’t even bother putting on the stereo. By the time we turned it up enough to hear it over the weather, it’d be too goddamned loud. So, the soundtrack for the day was thunder, rain, and buzzing tattoo needles, with occasional bits of conversation to fill in the gaps.
Not much buzzing today, though. As a rule, people didn’t casually wander in here during storms, and half of this afternoon’s appointments had called and canceled. Half the other ones probably wouldn’t show up. Which meant two of my favorite things in the whole world: a slow, boring day, and not a lot of money. Fucking yay.
I scrubbed my workstation with a wadded, disinfectant-soaked paper towel while Lane sketched, pencil scratching across paper. Good thing he didn’t mind chatting while he was drawing, because he’d probably be all the company I had today.
Lane got up from his chair to stretch, and glanced at the window. “Oh, man. I would not want to be moving on a day like this.”
I looked up from cleaning. “Moving?”
He gestured out the window. Someone was backing a U-Haul into one of the parking spaces in front of the store.
“Aw, damn.” I tossed the paper towel in the wastebasket and stood. “I forgot Robyn was moving out today.”
“She is? Where the hell’s she going?”
“Her girlfriend’s got a house on the other side of town. They’re shackin’ up.” I put on my jacket and started toward the door. “Since we’re dead right now, I’m going to go see if she needs any help.”
“Have fun. Don’t get wet.”
“Yeah, right.” I stepped outside. Right next to the storefront was the doorway to the stairs leading up to my apartment. Up until today, the apartment across the hall from mine had been Robyn’s. As she got out of the U-Haul, landing with a splash in a small puddle, I shouted over the rain, “You’re really moving out? On a day like this?”
“What can I do?” Robyn held her jacket over her head and trotted up to the sidewalk and out of the rain. She lowered her jacket and shook off some of the water. “My lease is up tomorrow, and I can’t change the weather.”
“You sure it’s not a sign from God, telling you to stay here?”
Robyn threw her head back and laughed. “Yeah, right. I believe that about as much as you do.” She gave me a playfully condescending look. “Now, Seth. We’ve been over this, sweetheart. I still love you, but Krissy and I are moving in together.”
I stomped dramatically on the wet pavement. “Fine. Fine. Just abandon me to whatever miscreants move into your apartment.”
She patted my arm. “They’ll fit right in around here, won’t they?”
She giggled. “Am I wrong?”
“Whatever.” Robyn elbowed me hard. “You’re such a brat.”
I laughed. “Anyway, you need any help?”
She shook her head. “There isn’t much left. We’re just down to the big stuff I couldn’t fit into my car. Krissy’s on her way, and she and I can handle that.”
“You don’t need a big strong man to carry the heavy stuff?”
“If I needed a big strong man, I’d come ask you who I should call.”
“Ooh. Ooh. Robyn, I bleed.”
She snickered. Then she plucked a white cat hair off my collar and flicked it away into the wind. “I am going to miss visiting Stanley, though.”
“Well, you can always come see him,” I said. “Door’s always open for Stanley’s buddies.”
“You can’t bring him over for a playdate with Jack and Sunny?”
“Um, no.” I held up my hand and pointed at a couple of scratches. “Cats and car trips? Don’t mix? Remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” She smothered a laugh. “Big tough man getting his butt kicked by a fluffy kitty. That’s so adorable.”
I scratched my jaw with my middle finger.
“Such a gentleman. Anyway, I— Oh! I forgot to mention. Al called last night, and I think someone’s coming to look at the place later this afternoon.”
“Already?” I put a hand over my heart. “Well, I promise you I won’t move on quite as quickly as Al has. I’ll take some time to properly grieve and all that.”
“Aww, you’re such a sweetheart.”
“I’ll make sure to stand outside your new front door and serenade you with Justin Bieber tunes while—”
“Krissy has a twelve-gauge.”
Robyn laughed. “Okay, I should get to work before Krissy gets here and drags me upstairs by the ear.”
“I’d pay to see—”
“Fuck you.” She nodded toward my shop. “Get back to work, you slacker.”
“All right, all right. But drop by the shop once in a while, will you? Let me know you’re still alive?”
“I will.” She hugged me tight. “Take care of yourself, sweetie.”
Robyn went upstairs to finish moving her things out of the soon-to-be vacant apartment, and I went back into my shop feeling just a little bummed out. Neighbors came and neighbors went, but after a string of really obnoxious ones, Robyn had been a refreshing change. We’d been good friends since about a week after she moved in.
We’d stay in touch, of course—it wasn’t like Robyn was leaving the country or anything. It was her replacement who worried me. Much as I didn’t believe in karma or any of that superstitious bullshit, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the price for having a cool neighbor for the past three years was living across from a fucking psycho for the next three.
We shall see.
The U-Haul left, and the afternoon went on, getting progressively grayer and nastier by the hour. Fortunately, some bored and adventurous college students came in for ankle tattoos, which meant we had both cash flow and something to do. By five, I’d almost forgotten about impending Neighborgeddon, and was lost in inking a flowery design across a whimpering blonde girl’s foot.
“Breathe, hon. The worst is almost over, I promise.” I pressed the needle as carefully as I could over the bony spot I was working on. “It’s always worst right on the bone.”
“Oh, God . . .” She groaned.
I lifted the needle off her skin. “You all right?”
She nodded. “Just didn’t think it would hurt this much.”
Behind me, the front door opened, and I caught the last part of my landlord’s sentence: “. . . can meet Seth. He lives in the apartment across the hall from the one you’re interested in, and he owns this shop.”
Over my shoulder, I said, “Be right with you, Al.”
“Take your time, son.”
I took my foot off the pedal and, as the needle’s buzzing subsided, looked at the mirror above my workstation. This gave me a discreet vantage point from which to catch a glimpse of my potential new neigh—
I’d joked with my buddy Michael for the last couple of weeks about all the different kinds of nightmarish neighbors who might take Robyn’s place. Drunks who’d come home from benders and puke on the shared stairs. Horndogs who didn’t realize how thin the walls were. Moochers. Serial killers. Drummers with insomnia.
But what had I not considered? The worst possible kind of neighbor.
Smoking hot eye candy.
With a goddamned boyfriend.
I didn’t know which one was the neighbor, which one was the boyfriend, or if they were both moving in. Didn’t matter, because they were both fucking hot.
Especially the slightly shorter one. They were both ridiculously fuckable. Like, “Don’t even bother buying me a drink, I don’t care what your name is, just drop trou and let’s go” fuckable. But that second one, the one who was currently craning his neck to check out some of the art along the top of the wall, needed to spend some serious time bent over my bed. Even from here, his smile alone was enough that all that breathing and blood-flow bullshit was suddenly not happening the way it was supposed to. Intense, dark eyes. A short, perfectly trimmed beard framing his lips. Sharp cheekbones and jaw. If he had half a brain and a sense of humor, I was a dead man.
A cute twink with a devilish grin could turn me into putty, but this kind of guy? The fit, laid-back type who was effortlessly sexy even in a parka and with wind-messed, rain-dampened hair? Kryptonite-tipped arrow in my goddamned Achilles heel. Fuck.
I turned to my client. “Would you excuse me for just a second?”
She exhaled. “I could use a break for a few minutes anyway.”
I smiled. “It won’t take long, I promise.”
While she rested her head against the chair and took some slow, deep breaths, I set the gun aside and peeled off my gloves. Then I headed toward the front of my shop to say hello to my landlord and the hotness that I hoped was moving in next door. Maybe I couldn’t touch, but I could sure as hell take in the eye candy.
“Ah, here he is,” Al said.
As the three men faced me, I extended my hand and even managed to choke out my name. “Seth Wheeler.”
The shorter one looked me right in the goddamned eye as he shook my hand. “Darren Romero.” Then he let me go and added, “This is my brother, Chris.”
Brother? Well. That changed everything, didn’t it?
As I shook hands with Chris, Darren gestured around the shop. “So you’re an artist.”
Chris didn’t make a sound, but as he let go of my hand, a flicker of distaste crossed his expression. A slight curl to his lips, one eyebrow lifting in the slightest, briefest arch. Oh well. Fuck him.
I shrugged. “Artist. Skin defiler.” I glanced at the girl who was still breathing deeply at my workstation. “College student mutilator. Really depends on who you ask.”
Darren laughed when Chris rolled his eyes. “Oh, relax.”
Chris glared at him. “You really think living in this part of town, on top of a tattoo shop, is such a good idea?”
The humor instantly vacated Darren’s expression, and he said through his teeth, “We’ll discuss this later.”
The whole shop was suddenly tense. Even the girls who’d started chatting while Lane worked on one of their tattoos fell quiet.
“Anyway.” Darren turned to me again and smiled, and the tension broke.
The girls resumed chattering. The tattoo needle buzzed back to life. Chris scowled and found something other than me or his brother to focus on.
I muffled a cough. “Uh, before I forget, there’s a move-in discount.” I nodded toward the artwork on the wall. “First tattoo is on the house.”
Darren grimaced. “Oh. No. I don’t do needles.”
“Or tattoos,” Chris grumbled.
Darren eyed him. “The needle kinda negates that part.”
Chris started to say something more, but a pointed look from his brother shut him up.
“Well, damn.” I sighed. “That’s usually how I get to know my new neighbors.”
“Is it, now?” Darren asked.
“It gets them in a chair for a conversation, anyway,” I said. “Assuming they can handle the pain.”
Darren shuddered. “I’ll pass, but thanks for the offer. We’ll just have to find another way to get to know each other.”
The boldness of the statement startled me. Probably because I immediately read way too much into it.
I met his eyes, and he grinned, and it was one of those little yeah, I’m flirting right back grins. Read way too much into it, my ass. One eyebrow rose so slightly I was probably the only one in the shop who noticed, but it was more than enough to fuck up my balance. And he was going to be living across the hall from me? Right then and there, I gave it a week before he smiled at me or something and I ended up tripping over my own feet and going down the stairs on my ass.
And we were still staring at each other.
I broke eye contact and cleared my throat. “So are you new to the area? Like, just new to this part of Tucker Springs? Just moved here from another planet?”
Darren shifted his weight and glanced at Chris, but then smiled again—and damn, it seemed forced this time—as he said, “I just moved here from Tulsa.” He gestured at his brother. “He’s been here a few years and suggested it, so here I am.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting you to move into this part of town. Especially . . .” Chris scowled, giving the shop a sweeping look of obvious disapproval. “Are you sure you want to live on top of a place like this?”
“Don’t worry,” I said with a dismissive wave. “The Light District is totally quiet and safe. And as for living above a tattoo shop? All that nonsense you’ve heard about ink fumes bringing gremlins to life and causing buildings to teleport into parallel dimensions? Nothing more than unproven pseudoscience.”
Darren laughed, but his less-than-amused brother said, “I’m more concerned about the people who hang around tattoo shops.”
“Chris.” Darren glared at him. To me, he said, “Sorry. I’m really not concerned about—”
“It’s a tattoo shop in a college town,” Chris growled. “With bars and clubs within vomiting distance.” He pointed out at the street. “That sleazy club I told you about? Lights Out? It’s right up the road.”
“Actually, it’s that way.” I nodded in the other direction. “And it’s not that sleazy.”
Chris grumbled something I didn’t understand. Then, to Darren, “How do you know this neighborhood’s not going to be crawling with drunks and loud people at all hours of the night?”
I gritted my teeth. “Just don’t bring your friends by, and we won’t have to worry about any unsavory riffraff.”
Al glared at me. So did Chris.
Darren just laughed. “I think the neighborhood’s fine. Really.”
His brother scowled again, but shrugged. “Well, you’re the one who has to live here, not me.”
Darren rolled his eyes. “If it gets unbearable, I’ll come stay with you and Mona. Anyway, the neighborhood seems pretty nice. Might be better if management did something about”—he gestured outside—“the precipitation problem, but I suppose I can deal with it.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. A dry sense of humor. I’m a dead man.
Al laughed and clapped Darren’s shoulder. “I’ll put in a request and see what I can work out.” To me, Al said, “Assuming his credit and background checks go through and he doesn’t change his mind, he wants to move in on Thursday. Would you and Lane mind parking behind the building that day?”
“Sure, no problem.” I turned to Darren. “If you need a hand with anything, let me know. Thursdays are pretty quiet around here.”
He smiled, which threw my pulse out of whack again. “Thanks. I should have it under control, but I’ll keep it in mind.”
Al herded Darren and Chris out of the shop, and I’d be damned if Darren didn’t throw me one last glance—and one last holy fuck smile—before they continued out of sight.
I needed to get back to my client and finish her tattoo, but for a moment, I just stared at the empty doorway.
So Darren Romero was my new neighbor.
Hot. Potentially single. Potentially gay.
Maybe Robyn moving out wasn’t so bad after all.