Hidden Ink

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Montgomery Ink Book 4.5

The Montgomery Ink series continues with the long-awaited romance between the café owner next door and the tattoo artist who’s loved her from afar.

Hailey Monroe knows the world isn’t always fair, but she’s picked herself up from the ashes once before and if she needs to, she’ll do it again. It’s been years since she first spotted the tattoo artist with a scowl that made her heart skip a beat, but now she’s finally gained the courage to approach him. Only it won’t be about what their future could bring, but how to finish healing the scars from her past.

Sloane Gordon lived through the worst kinds of hell yet the temptation next door sends him to another level. He’s kept his distance because he knows what kind of man he is versus what kind of man Hailey needs. When she comes to him with a proposition that sends his mind whirling and his soul shattering, he’ll do everything in his power to protect the woman he cares for and the secrets he’s been forced to keep.




Excerpt

Chapter 1

Hailey Monroe bit into her lip, closed her eyes, and moaned. Loudly. Dear gods and goddesses that was…heavenly. Earth shattering. World changing. Orgasm inducing.

That was the best damn cream cheese turtle brownie she’d ever baked in her life.

She may have baked pies, cakes, tortes, cookies, muffins, biscotti, and other kinds of decadence in her past. But right now, with this beautiful, mouthwatering cream cheese turtle brownie in hand, she knew she’d never achieve such greatness again.

At that depressing thought, she ate the last of her treat and frowned.

Seriously? The pinnacle of her success in life, the greatness she had hoped to achieve lay in a brownie.

A brownie sent from heaven, mind you, but a brownie nonetheless.

She quickly wiped up any spare crumbs then went to the sink to wash her hands. It was kind of upsetting that in her twenty-seven years of living, this baking achievement was it for her. Most people would think finding a cure for the common cold, painting something that reaffirmed beauty and life for others, or building homes for the unfortunate would be something that made a pinnacle a pinnacle. Instead, Hailey had dessert. This divine brownie.

It probably didn’t help her thoughts that she kept calling the damn thing heaven-sent and divine. It was just a baked good, one that crumbled when roughly handled, like the rest of them. It would be consumed wholly and forgotten in the next moment, never to be heard from again.

At least Hailey herself was stronger than that. Some days.

She cracked her knuckles, wincing at the pain in her joints—a wonderful side effect of all the drugs and treatments she’d poured into her system over the years—and rolled her neck. Today was a new day, a new adventure. It was the same mantra she repeated to herself every morning.

Hailey owned and operated Taboo, a café and bakery in the middle of downtown Denver. She had prime placement right off the 16th Street Mall and the business district. During prime hours, she had men and women in suits and neatly pressed clothes, begging for coffee and leaving with something sweet and delicious. No one could rightly say no to Hailey and her baked goods if she were really trying.

Her shop catered to more than just those in a hurry on their way to a meeting or working on a very important case. Families came in on late afternoons or on non-school days with children in tow. Her hot cocoa and cookies went quickly when school holidays met cold Denver weather days.

People in all shapes and sizes ventured into her shop, and she loved it. There was never a dull moment. Even when the place was only filled with a customer or two, they were hers. After thinking she’d never see the middle of her twenties, she was now looking at the back end of those years and owned her own business besides. She was a caretaker, a businesswoman, a baker…a survivor.

She pressed her lips together at the last word.

A survivor.

If she kept telling herself that, kept letting the news and random websites tell her more of the same, then one day she might believe it. However, she hated that word and everything that came with it. She’d fought and won, but at what cost?

Hailey shook her head. There was no time for those kinds of thoughts this early February morning. Today, she had to make sure she was at least competing with the chain coffee shops around her—the Mega Starbucks two blocks over on each side of Taboo. Seriously, Denver had a Starbucks on every other corner, and where there wasn’t a Starbucks, there was a Caribou Coffee or something else of the like. It wasn’t as if she’d ever make as much money as them, but she did well. Her goal wasn’t to become a millionaire or turn her small shop into a chain—she just wanted to live.

That’s all she ever wanted to do.

So she’d compete in her own little way and make sure her shop looked ready for the next holiday. Valentine’s Day. It was almost here. Actually, the clock calendar had just changed to February at midnight. Her decorated cookies and cupcakes would have hearts and pink all over them, and that morning, she’d put out her best festive Valentine’s Day decorations. It wasn’t overboard or cheesy, but just enough pink to remind her of happiness and love—not the pink that became an overbearing reminder in October.

Hell. Twice in one morning. She needed to stop being depressed about the past and look to her future with the same wide-eyed wonder she had as a teenager. Her aching bones and muscles could use the happiness.

Hailey rolled her shoulders back and finished up her morning prep. She’d been at it since four thirty that morning. Baker’s hours were evil, but she didn’t have to wake up as early as others, she knew. Her store opened at six a.m., and it was almost that time now. She had two people who worked for her, but Hailey was the one who did the baking and most of the cooking. The others worked the register and served while they were here. They also helped build the sandwiches or paninis—depending on the special on any given day—and heated the soups. Hailey made sure there was never a dull moment in Taboo.

The door between her shop and the one next door opened, and she pressed a hand to her stomach.

“I smelled coffee,” Callie said as she walked in, her red-streaked black hair looking shiny that morning. In fact, the woman herself glowed. Her ink stood out on pale brown skin, and she smiled as if she had the best news in the world.

Considering Callie was six weeks pregnant, Hailey supposed she did.

“You scared the crap out of me,” Hailey said with a laugh and rubbed her stomach again. She remembered the time when she used to rub the space over her heart if she was nervous or freaked out, but that was a long time ago.

Callie winced and bit into her dark ruby lip. “Sorry about that. I got to Montgomery Ink early to work on a sketch and needed coffee.”

Hailey frowned and went to the coffee pot that she’d turned on only a few moments before. “I’m only giving you decaf. I don’t want your very sexy, silver fox of a husband getting all growly with me. While you might like it when he gets growly with you because you get a spanking and orgasm out of it, I do not.”

Callie pouted. “Fine. Decaf. Maybe I can trick my body into thinking it’s real so I can pep up.”

Hailey raised a brow as Callie bounced from foot to foot. “Honey, if you’re any more pepped, you’ll pep the heck out of Maya and Austin when they get into the shop.”

Callie rolled her eyes before looking around Taboo. “Oh, I love when you decorate for a new season and holiday. You know how to do it so it’s not all crepe paper and hearts dangling from the ceiling.”

Hailey started the pot of decaf and held back a yawn. Maybe she needed some caffeine herself. With a sigh, she poured herself a cup of the regular coffee and set to work adding creamer, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings. It might not be an espresso since she didn’t want to bother making that from scratch just then, but she could still have fun with the toppings.

“I don’t mind the crepe paper and dangling hearts,” Hailey said as she started work on Callie’s decaf. With a little caramel and whipped cream, the sugar would help Callie feel like she was drinking the real thing. Plus, everything Hailey made was all-natural, so there wouldn’t be any extra chemicals messing with the baby.

Callie took the offered cup with a smile. “My precious.”

Hailey rolled her eyes. “Okay, Gollum. Drink up. And take a seat, okay? You’re way too wired this morning, and yet you wanted caffeine. What’s up?”

Callie sat and licked at her whipped cream. “I’m just happy, you know? This time two years ago I was just starting to work for Austin and the rest of the Montgomerys. Austin and Maya took a chance on me. And my sketches. Now I get to tattoo for a living. Plus, my Morgan was my first piece all on my own once Austin promoted me from apprentice to full-time artist. I not only got to ink the best phoenix in the world—because oh my God, have you seen his back? Heck, yeah—but I fell in love with him, too. And he loves me back, even though we’re totally not the same age, and I say totally way too much. Now we’re married and having a baby! It’s unreal.” Callie smiled big, her eyes bright. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve it. Like one day I’ll wake up and everything will be just a dream and I’ll be back working four jobs to pay rent on my ramshackle home. And Morgan won’t be beside me every morning. He’s my everything, and yet he shows me how to be more than that somehow.”

Tears filled Callie’s eyes and Hailey quickly handed over a few napkins. Her heart ached for some reason when it should have been only happy for the other woman. She and Callie were close in age, yet they had gone down such different paths that some days Hailey felt years older. The two of them and Miranda—Austin and Maya’s youngest sister—were the youngest of the crew that hung out together. The Montgomerys and their circle ranged in age from mid-twenties to early forties, and most days, the age differences didn’t matter. Hell, Morgan was in his forties and having a baby with Callie.

Age was just a number.

It was the heart and experience of a person that made things work.

Hailey didn’t have her soul mate, didn’t have that person who would help her find the better Hailey. She only had herself and her drive to keep going. That had to count for something. And she would not be jealous of Callie.

Just because Callie had met the man she was meant to be with and the man actually felt the same way about it didn’t mean that Hailey wouldn’t.

Of course, Hailey felt like she had already met that man, but that was neither here nor there. That man didn’t want her so it was all water under the bridge anyway. What mattered at the moment was Callie and her tears, not whatever the hell was going on in Hailey’s head.

Hailey pushed thoughts of sexy tattooed men who didn’t want her out of her mind and went around the counter to put her arms around Callie.

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I’m happy,” Callie hiccupped. “Oh, God. I’m only in my first trimester and the hormones are getting me. How is that possible? I thought the tears and mood swings came in the third trimester and then right after the baby came.”

Hailey kissed the top of Callie’s dark hair and sighed. “I think it depends on the person. I’ve never been pregnant before so I don’t know. You can ask Sierra or Meghan, though.” Sierra was Austin’s wife and Meghan was his sister. The two women were also part of Hailey’s and Callie’s inner circle. “They’ve been through all of this before. Meghan twice in fact. And who knows, with the way she and Luc are trying, she could get pregnant any day now and only be a couple months behind you.”

“That would be nice,” Callie said as she sniffed. The other woman wiped her face with the extra napkins Hailey had handed her and sighed. “This is crazy. I came in here because I love you and because, hello, coffee, and now I’m all weepy.”

“Welcome to being pregnant.” Hailey may not have firsthand experience with pregnancy, but the treatments she’d had in the past caused similar hormonal fluctuations. One minute she’d be happy, smiling away, the next, sobbing uncontrollably before moving on to a rage she’d never felt before. The drugs might technically be out of her system, but if she wasn’t careful, sometimes, she still went through those mood swings.

Hailey had kept her previous diagnosis and past hidden, so she couldn’t tell Callie any of that. She didn’t know why she hadn’t spoken of it before. Well, she knew a little bit. Once someone said the word cancer, she would be stuck with the label for the rest of her life.

She wouldn’t be Hailey, the woman with the platinum-blonde bob and red lips.

She wouldn’t be Hailey, café owner and businesswoman.

She wouldn’t be Hailey, the woman with secrets who had a connection to the sexy man next door, which no one spoke of but everyone knew existed.

She would become Hailey, breast cancer survivor.

Hailey, not whole.

Hailey, not fully a woman.

She mentally slapped herself. It had been how long, and she was still feeling this way? It had been years since the surgeries, the treatments. She was cancer free. Enough time had passed that she was cancer free, not just in remission.

Hailey wasn’t the same woman she was before, but in all honesty, who was the same person they were at age twenty?

She needed to push that aside and worry about Callie right then. One day soon, she would tell the girls about her cancer. She hadn’t known them when she was sick, but keeping secrets like this wore on her. Plus, she wanted to make sure the girls were taking care of themselves. She’d been young when she was diagnosed, way too young for that type of illness, and yet she’d had to go through everything that came with it. She didn’t want her friends to face the same things she had.

No one deserved that.

“I’m happy,” Callie said again, this time her eyes clear of tears. “And Morgan is going to freak when he finds out that I cried today. Because even if you don’t say anything. He’ll know. He’s just that good.”

Hailey kissed her friend’s cheek and let out a laugh. “It’s because he loves you.”

Oh, to be loved like that. Unconditionally. To know that someone could see deep inside and know every emotion, and take the time—and care enough—to cradle that feeling…

Hailey was indeed jealous, but it didn’t matter. Callie deserved all of that and more.

All of her friends did.

“He does love me, doesn’t he?” Callie said with a smile. “Okay, now that I’ve gotten coffee out of you and cried on your shoulder, I’m going back to the shop to work like I said I would.” She let out a sigh. “Another reason I’m in here early is that Morgan had a super early appointment. The call was with someone in another time zone. I hate being at home alone. So thank you for being you and letting me ramble. The guys and Maya should be into the shop a bit later. I’ll send them over since those brownies look to die for.”

Hailey grinned. “They are absolutely amazing. I taste-tested one this morning. For business purposes, of course.”

“How you keep your curves looking like a fifties pinup and taste all of your sweets is beyond me.”

Hailey snorted. “It takes a lot of yoga and running to keep me in the shape I am, thank you very much. And you’re like the size of one of my legs, so shut up.”

Callie rolled her eyes then bounced toward Montgomery Ink. Hailey loved the fact that there was a door between the two shops. When Hailey had first opened her shop four years ago, she’d been intimidated by the very broody, bearded, tattooed men next door. And then there was Maya.

The tattoo artist and middle Montgomery girl was a force to be reckoned with—all ink, piercings, and attitude. So, of course, Hailey became friends with her right away. Contrary to her feelings about being next door to people she hadn’t quite understood at first, she fell in love with their connections, attitudes, and sense of family. They were loud when they wanted to be, quiet and respectful at other times. They partied when they felt like it and threw small gatherings other times. They weren’t rough and tough to the point where she ever felt scared to be around them. Others might be assholes and judge the Montgomerys on their ink—and yes, their kink—but Hailey had found her soulmates. Her family.

She didn’t have a family of her own so it was nice to be adopted into theirs, welcomed into their open arms. Though the door between the shops had been there before she bought the place, the Montgomerys hadn’t used it with the prior owner— a prim and proper older woman who had no time for tattoos and ruffians.

Seriously. Her words.

Now the door was never locked, and the Montgomerys and their crew could come in and out of Taboo when they wanted food and caffeine. Hailey went over there often, as well, with trays of goodies and sometimes empty-handed just to see the beautiful artwork.

She was still a blank canvas, but knew she eventually wanted ink of her own.

One day she would be brave enough to ask for it.

It wasn’t the ink she was afraid of, wasn’t the needles. God knew she’d seen enough of those in her life thanks to chemo, radiation, and the countless tests and treatments.

No, it was the person she wanted to do her ink.

While Maya, Austin, and Callie would bend over backward to help her with her tattoo and the nerves that came with it, she didn’t want them to do it. She had someone else in mind.

Someone she was afraid to talk to for fear of what would spill out.

Someone who didn’t care for her as she cared for him.

Hailey’s phone buzzed and she sighed. Today was a day for melancholy thoughts, apparently. She turned off the timer on her phone then went to the front of the café to flip the sign to Open while unlocking the door. Two of her morning regulars, men in business suits, who had the courtesy to get off their phones before they walked into the shop, smiled at her.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said with a smile. “Your usuals?”

“You know it,” one said.

“Of course,” the other one added in.

She smiled widely then went back to her counter to get their drinks and pastries. Soon her help would be there to work the register so she wouldn’t be alone. The crisp morning air had filtered in with the brief opening and closing of the door, and as she worked quickly, she knew today would be a good day.

Any day she could do what she loved would be a better day than the last.

By the time Corrine came in and took over the front station, Hailey was already buzzing with the adrenaline of a morning rush. There was nothing like earning a living doing something she loved. The brownies were a hit, and the first batch she’d set out was soon gone. Normally, she would have saved them for the afternoon crowd so customers would eat her bagels and other morning delights, but she didn’t have the heart to hide them in the back. Nor did she have the will.

She’d have eaten the whole batch and gained all that weight Callie had joked about. Lying on the kitchen floor in a sugar coma wasn’t the best way to run a bakery.

The morning passed by quickly, and soon, Hailey found herself in a slight lull. After talking to Corrine, she made a tray of pastries and to-go cups of coffee—each one individualized for someone special. She wasn’t sure exactly who was working today over at Montgomery Ink, but she knew at least the main people would be there, and she was familiar with their drink of choice. Even if she made extra, nothing would go to waste. Austin and Maya would make sure of that.

Hailey made her way through the door and held back a sigh at the sound of needles buzzing and the deep voices of those speaking. She loved Montgomery Ink. It was part of her home.

“Caffeine! I want to have your babies. Can I have your babies, sexy momma?” Maya asked as she cradled her coffee and cheese pastry.

Hailey snorted. “Are you talking to me or the coffee?”

Maya blinked up at her, the ring in her brow glittering under the lights. “Yes.”

Hailey just shook her head and handed off a drink to Austin, who bussed a kiss on her cheek. His beard tickled her, and once again, she wanted to bow down at Sierra’s feet in jealousy. Seriously, the man was hot. All the Montgomerys were.

Soon she found herself with only one drink on her tray along with a single cherry and cream cheese pastry.

His favorite.

Behind Maya’s work area sat another station.

Sloane Gordon’s.

All six-foot-four, two hundred something pounds of muscle covered in ink, his light brown skin accented perfectly by the designs. The man was sex. All sex. Sloane had shaved his head years ago. She was convinced he kept it shaved just to turn her on. He kept his beard trimmed, but that and the bald head apparently jump-started a new kink in her.

Who knew?

He was a decade older than Hailey, and though he didn’t speak of it, she knew he’d been through war, battle, and heartbreak.

And she loved him.

Only he didn’t see her. He never took a step toward her. He also looked as if he were ready to growl at her presence most of the time.

Much like he did now.

“Thought you’d forgotten me,” he said, his voice low and gruff.

She shook her head then raised her chin. “No, I have yours here.” After she had handed him his drink and pastry, careful not to brush her fingers along his, she glanced down at his client, who was in the middle of getting his back done.

While Sloane looked dangerous and battle worn, this guy looked gentler, but not soft in the slightest. His hair was longer on top and flopped down over his forehead and into his eyes, but the sides had been clipped short. He had a short beard and a smile that looked as if it came easily. His green eyes sparkled, and Hailey could only smile back.

“Hello there,” he drawled.

Oh, my. A southern accent—just a hint of drawl but not too much. If she hadn’t been in the presence of the one man her body and soul had chosen for her, she might have gone weak in the knees at the sound of it.

“Hi,” she said back, well aware that Sloane was staring daggers at her.

“What’s your name?” the stranger asked. “I’m Brody.”

“Hi, Brody. I’m Hailey. I own Taboo next door.”

His smile widened, showing a bit of dimple. “I’ve walked by there a few times, but now I know I need to go inside.”

She shook her head on a laugh. “I see. You scent my baked goods and now you’ll come inside.”

“It wasn’t your baked goods that made me want to step inside.”

What was she doing? Flirting with another man in front of Sloane like this? And why did she care? He wasn’t hers. He never would be. She would never have Sloane Gordon in her life beyond a few curt words and grunts of thanks. She was young, healthy, and alive. She should be able to flirt whenever she wanted.

Determined not to look at Sloane, or notice how quiet it had gotten within Montgomery Ink, she tilted her head and put her hand on her hip.

“Really?” she asked.

“Really. How about I come over after I get this done and have a bit of sugar to keep me going?”

She laughed, throwing her head back. “Oh, honey, that was a terrible line, but you are welcome to come over. I’ll give you a bit of…sugar.” She winked then turned toward the door, adding a little sway to her hips as she left.

She might not be able to have the man she wanted, but she could still be free.

She wasn’t the same woman she’d been before the cancer destroyed her body and soul, but she was still Hailey Monroe.

Strong.

Alive.

And annoyingly single.

Maybe it was time to do something about that. Sloane or no Sloane.