Vice’d – Layne Daniels

Around the shop, they claim I’ve got nerves of steel. A damn good thing at this moment, given that three tiny needles are pulsing into my client’s skin at around six thousand strikes per minute. They dance into the incredibly tender right kneecap of one of my favorite clients. Black ink splatters along the side of the steady line I’m laying down without a hiccup, even as the front windows of the store still rattle from the force of the door being wrenched open. I hear Zander’s immediate fury as he addresses whoever just barged in. Loud bangs while needles are stabbing into skin does not make for quality inkwork as a general rule. Fortunately, I’m the only one with a client scheduled this early on a Tuesday. There’s no danger of anyone else receiving a permanently fucked up tattoo. Still, what kind of careless asshole just slams into a business like this? “Dammit, what the hell are you doing? Man, you can’t be here. This is my job! You’re fucking embarrassing me!” Normally, I’d chide Zander for the swear words he whisper-shouted at the person, who I still couldn’t see thanks to being bent over my client’s leg. But something he said grabbed my attention and kept me silent. Zander’s seventeen, nearly eighteen, and started working at my reception desk over summer break. He’s been my younger brother’s best friend since they were in diapers. He’s also been staying on my couch until he finishes high school, after being kicked out of his father’s house for coming out last spring. My parents and brother had lobbied hard for Zander to come live with them, but he said my brother’s got enough hassle at school for having a gay bestie.

Jake didn’t care, swore he couldn’t care less what any small-minded classmates said, but Zander wouldn’t be swayed. My apartment seemed like the perfect solution. It’s within the school district’s boundaries, and until Zander, I lived there alone, so there were no roommates to worry about. As a twenty-six-year-old business owner, it’s not as if I spend much time there anyway. Plus, I’ve known Zander since he was a toddler, when his mom and mine used to make me babysit the boys, so they could hang out in the kitchen and gossip. When his mom died in a car accident four years ago, his absentee, workaholic father was forced to actually show up a time or two and pay attention to his kid. That was the beginning of the end. While nothing about Zander’s looks or personality would clue in a casual observer to his sexuality, after years of support, acceptance and love in our household, the kid had grown confident enough to start living his truth. And that led to his dad catching wind of his being gay. That ended in a black eye for Zander, and a broken nose for his dad when my father got there. He found my brother, Jake, standing between Zander’s prone form and his dad. My father might be a bookish sort, but he’s got some brawler in him, too. Luckily, Jake had called him as soon as Zander’s dad started screaming about some email he’d gotten from a classmate’s parents, outing Zander. My dad stood guard while Jake and Z packed up as much of Zander’s stuff as they could and loaded it into my dad’s truck. The whole time Mr.

Yates ranted about how Zander was no son of his and blah, blah, blah. Three days later, I had a new roommate and receptionist. Z insists I allow him to help out as a thanks. My shop, Vice and Vow Ink, has been open for six years now, ever since I turned twenty and finished my second year of apprenticing. My parents helped me with a business plan and startup costs, and paying them back by the end of my first year in business had felt amazing. After that, I’d hired two more righteously awesome tattoo artists plus a badass piercer, all females, and it led to our shop being one of the most sought after places for quality artwork in a tri-state area. As for me, Victoria Pascal, Vice to everyone, I’ve gotten to the point where my calendar is booked six months in advance. I pretty much work the hours I choose. It’s not just because Zander lives with me that I’m never home and always in the shop lately. The kid is a great housemate, always cleans up behind himself, and he’s respectful when he has friends over. In nearly six months, I’ve yet to fall ass-first into the toilet in the middle of the night a single time. Which ranks him above the last two males who I’d allowed to sleepover, both of whom had seemed to think leaving up the toilet seat in a woman’s home was no big deal. Relationship-ending disregard, both times, zero regrets. In fact, the girls at the shop and I often joke that the fastest way to decide whether a guy is worth keeping is to peek in the bathroom in the morning once he’s gone. Seat up? Done.

Borrowed a razor and left whiskers in the sink? Gone. Glob of toothpaste on the counter and damp towel on the floor? Nope, sorry snookums, forget my number. But yeah, Z isn’t prone to doing any of those things. We even like most of the same TV shows, and having Zander around means more time with my brother, which I dig. Nah, I’m working double time lately because I’m prepping my portfolio for an upcoming secret project, an art installation I’ve been asked to participate in where pictures of my pieces will be printed onto canvases and presented as fine art. Totally out of my wheelhouse but an honor I can’t turn down. Which was why the kneecap I’m hunched over is so important, and why I’m only listening with half an ear to the yelling up front. Until the yelling stops. And in its place, I hear a tiny sniffle. A sniffle? The fuck is that? I look up at my client, a burly dude named Paul whose beard, tattoos, and barrel chest are enough to convince strangers he’s a scary bastard, but whose heart is gentle enough to run a homeless shelter with his wife. At the moment, every bit of Paul’s intimidating glare is focused on the man who stormed in and made Zander yell and…cry? The kid didn’t shed a tear when his dad kicked him out, so at the second sniffle, I lay down my machine and wipe a paper towel doused in witch hazel over the line I’d just laid on Paul’s knee. “Paul, if you’ll excuse me?” I ask quietly, wanting to figure out what’s going on before the massive giant on my table decides to get involved. Softly, Paul grasps my wrist as I tug the black nitrile gloves off. “One minute, Vice. Just one.

Then it’s my turn to sort out that fuckhead who’s making Zander cry.” I lay my hand on his shin and nod as I stand. Turning to the front of the shop where the drama is taking place, I become the focus of the scowling stranger’s attention. “Is this her? The gold digger you ran away from home to shack up with?” The gravelly voice shouldn’t send a shiver of awareness over my skin. Stormy gray eyes narrow in my direction, paired with an arrogant sneer over a firm jaw that has a few days of scruff. Those definitely should not lift the tiny hairs along the back of my neck. My eyes absolutely should not be tracing down his body and taking note of his extremely attractive build, despite the disgusting accusation he’s throwing my way. Gold digger? Shacking up? What in the literal hell is this guy ranting about, and why the hell is he concerned about what Zander did or didn’t do? Looking at the guy, he’s gotta be at least mid-thirties, given the tease of gray hair in the short strands along his temples. Weird that I could spot those, even from this distance, but then, given the need for good lighting in order to produce quality tattoos, the whole shop is pretty brightly lit. Still, he’s definitely too old to be someone Zander would flirt with, even online. And since Paul has been blissfully married to Stephanie, another frequent flier in my chair, for over ten years, I’m pretty sure I’m not looking at his jilted lover. Beyond those two, the shop’s empty except for me, so none of what this guy is railing about makes sense. “Miller, you don’t understand. It’s not like that!” Mortification rings in Zander’s voice, and the way it cracks at the end is something I haven’t heard his deep baritone do since it finished dropping from puberty. I blame that unusual hitch on the delay in processing the actual words spoken.

Miller? That’s the name of Zander’s half brother. A son Mr. Yates had with his first wife, who’s more than twice Z’s age. I’ve never met the guy, but I know he shows up a couple times a year to visit Zander and their dad. If memory serves, the guy is some ultra-rich hotshot type who founded a tech company from an app he developed. None of that explains why he’s here, disrupting my workplace and throwing around accusations that make no sense. Tension arcs throughout the shop. The air shifts as Paul stands at my back. My minute’s up, and I wasted the entire fucking sixty seconds ogling Z’s brother in shock. Eff me. I watch Miller’s chest push forward and his shoulders square up as if he’s ready to go against Paul. As regular clients, both Paul and Stephanie are aware of Zander’s situation and have grown to care about the kid, too. If I don’t get this situation under control, fast, things will go sideways. I’m not in the mood to deal with damage in my shop, so this shit needs to get fixed, now. I’m even less in the mood to deal with whatever damage Miller’s presence is doing to Zander.

He’s always idolized his older brother and disappeared completely for days whenever Miller came to visit. Jake jokes that he needs a backup best friend for when he “loses” Z on those days. From what I can see, while the guy’s for sure smoking hot, he definitely doesn’t deserve anybody’s hero worship. P C H A P T E R 2 Miller eople don’t often surprise me. The moment the brunette in glasses, with a messy bun on top of her head and shaved scalp beneath it, rises to her feet, a knot forms in my chest. I did not see that coming when the angry word vomit about gold digging and preying on kids started spewing from my mouth. If I had seen it coming, seen her coming, I’d like to think I would have held my tongue. If not bitten off the damn thing completely. Because those long, long legs, covered in colorful artwork and hidden only by the briefest of khaki shorts would have stunned my ass silent. That’s to say nothing about the trim waist beneath a perfect, handful-sized pair of tits that has my fingers curling tight enough against my palms I feel the blunt edges of my fingernails digging into the skin. As it is, even the glittering animosity slicing my way, paired with the menacing bruiser who’s lumbered to his feet at her back, have me completely thrown off. I’ve never felt this out of control around a woman. Hell, I never feel this out of control, period, but I can’t seem to stem the tidal wave of garbage coming out of my own mouth. “Zander, call my dad. Paul, sit down and let me handle this.

And you.” She steps toward the half-wall partition blocking off the reception area of the tattoo shop. “You sit your ass down on the couch over there and wait for my dad to get here.” Her blinding fury is magnificently cold. I’ve never seen anything like it, and a shiver races over my entire being. “Then you two,” she waves around a hand so tiny I don’t see how she can handle a tattoo machine for any length of time, “can sort out what the shit is going on.” It’s been a long time since anyone’s made me feel like a chastised kid. Yet the calm venom in her voice, coupled with her next words in a sweetly dulcet tone, has my cock lengthening down the leg of my slacks, even as a guilty flush heats the back of my neck. “Because this is a business, not a daytime drama set, and your disrespect from the moment you slammed through the door up until these trash accusations you’re throwing around like an ignorant asshole should have you ashamed of yourself.” Yeah, I’m getting there. “You’re lucky Z has talked about you enough that I know who you are, otherwise it’d be the cops being called right now, rather than just my dad. Although once my dad hears how you’ve treated Z, you may find yourself wishing I’d called the cops instead.” How I treated Zander? Not how I’d acted toward her? Beyond my body’s reaction to her, that comment has me stumbling to the couch she’d indicated and sinking down onto it. I’m starting to realize this situation has to be different than our father detailed in the expletive-laced voicemail I’d gotten when I returned to the States. After spending the last half year ironing out the details of a new acquisition in Hong Kong, I’m tired and burned out.

I know I’ve been out of the loop, having been unable to do much more than message Z through social media due to the time difference and Zander’s schedule. When I’d landed, I’d received the voicemail from our father claimed my kid brother is the victim of a trashy older woman, who’s trying to get at the trust money he’ll inherit once he turns twenty. Then he’d ranted that she’d lured him into moving into an apartment to trick him into knocking her up. That got me from the airport concourse into a rental car to drive straight here. I still haven’t called my assistant Samuel to apologize. He was meant to pick me up and drive me home since my truck’s been in storage, but fuck, if I’d had time for all that. I’m unsure exactly what I expected to find when I flung open the door to Vice and Vow Ink, but for damn sure, it wasn’t this. My stomach roils, and I think I might throw up when I hear the quiet hiccup from Zander’s attempts to stop crying. Our age difference, paired with my living across the state near my mom, made forging a relationship with the younger boy difficult. That hasn’t stopped me from trying to bond with him, though if the kicked puppy look Zander aims my way now is any indication, the careful bond I’ve spent years cultivating has taken a major hit. The problem also isn’t the beauty calmly returning to her previous position draped over the leg of the hulking beast who was apparently getting his freaking knee tattooed. I’m no stranger to ink, having nearly my entire back and shoulders done. I still can’t imagine voluntarily signing up for the pain of a kneecap tattoo. It’s kind of a relief that the big guy decided to listen when she told him to let her handle it because I don’t relish getting wiped out in front of my newly discovered beauty. Not before I get the chance to figure out exactly how I’d been tricked so badly by my father and how I can fix the damage I’ve done.

Between the regret I already feel about hurting Zander and the clench of my heart when my cruel words replay in my mind, I know I won’t like what the upcoming conversation holds. I also know however much groveling it takes, I’m gonna do it. My brother and my mom are the most important family members I have left. But the inkedup beauty over there? She’s mine. I know that as sure as I know I’ll grovel for-fuckingever. I haven’t been with a woman in at least eight years. I’ve never had a visceral reaction like the one I’m having right now for this incredible woman whose name I don’t even know. But I feel a truth reverberating in every cell, a truth saying I have to make her mine. I know for damn sure from this instant forward, I’m already hers.


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Updated: 19 June 2021 — 12:25

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