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Rattled

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Rattled

A Baxter Boys Novella

Jane Charles

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Kelsey

Alex

Kelsey

Alex

Kelsey

Alex

Kelsey

Alex

Kelsey

Alex

Kelsey

Alex

More

Excerpt – STILL RATTLED

About Jane Charles

Jane Charles’s New Adult Romance

Jane Charles’s Historical Romance

Copyright © 2015 by Jane Charles

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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h1<. Dedication

For all mothers everywhere.

The ones who scolded and hugged, had many sleepless nights, bandaged knees, sent them off to school, watched them graduate, and beyond.

For the mothers whose child was taken from them far too soon. Whether they were an infant, a toddler, teen, or adult, I can’t begin to understand your pain.

For the mothers faced with the decision of keeping their child or giving them up for someone else to love. A heart-wrenching decision, and too personal for anyone to judge.

And for the mothers who have opened their hearts and taken those children in,even though the DNA will never match, you still gave love because you had it to give.

And for our mothers, because we wouldn’t be here without their love and devotion.

I shake out my hands, take a deep breath, but continue pacing in the green room. Why am I so nervous? This is all I’ve thought about for over a year. I’ve saved every penny and existed on ramen noodles just so I could get this done. And it has to be today. And it has to be here. The Reeds are and have some of the best tattoo artists around and I can’t just trust this to anyone.

I’m not alone in here. There are others, all waiting to see a tattoo artist, but I’m not really paying attention to them. I’m too anxious to just sit and make idle chitchat with a stranger.

I planned ahead and made the appointment weeks ago, but instead of getting on the schedule, I was asked if I’d be interested in letting one of the artists being auditioned for the show do my tat. At first, I rejected the option. This was an important tattoo and I didn’t want it fucked up by an amateur. But then I went back and watched the previous shows. The Reeds don’t just let anyone walk in off the streets and start tattooing, or even audition. The artists are vetted way before they are trusted to apply ink. So after thinking about it further, and knowing the price is half of what I’d saved for the occasion, I called back and asked if I could still participate.

It’s probably better that I didn’t get one of the Reed brothers anyway. I’ve watched since their show first aired and if I came face to face with any one of them I’d probably go all fan girl and humiliate myself. Today is going to be hard enough.

It’s already hard.

I clutch the worn manila envelope close to my chest. Everything that’s important to me is in here. It’s with me always. If it’s not in my big purse, it’s in my backpack. It goes everywhere I go, and what I want is in there.

My stomach churns and I take a deep breath. I just hope to hell that whoever I get assigned to doesn’t fuck this up.

I’ve checked my station five times. I have everything I could possibly need for a tat. All I can do now is wait for the skin to get here.

I just hope she’s clear in what she wants, and that she’s not difficult to please. I’ve done tats that are perfect, yet sometimes customers are just never happy, and others have remorse. But for the most part, everyone has been happy with my work, often returning and referring customers. I need one of those today. This is too important and I don’t need a bitch or an asshat showing up, being a pain in the ass.

I need to land a spot on the show. I need to work for the Reeds.

I’m good at what I do. Damn good. But they’re better. Nobody is as good as they are, and anyone who gets an opportunity to work with the Reeds will only get better.

Once I’m on the show, I’ll have a regular paying job and I’ll be creating art. In time, I’ll have name recognition and will be able to do what I really want.

The door starts to open and I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans. “Your skin is here, Mr. Dosek,” says one of the producers.

A young woman steps through the door. Her dark head is down and she’s clutching a wrinkled and stained manila envelope to her chest. The door closes and she slowly looks up.

Her brown eyes meet mine and widen. “What the fuck?” she says by way of greeting.

I glance around. There is a cameraman watching my every move and recording everything I say. Is this some kind of joke? Are the Reeds really auditioning me or is this about to turn into a bad episode of “What Would You Do?”

I shake the stupid thought from my head. How could the Reeds, their producers, or anyone know of my connection to Kelsey Fry? I haven’t seen her in five years. Not since I graduated from Baxter Academy of Arts.

“Hi Kelsey, how have you been?”

“Are you really the artist?”

I hold out my hands palms up and smile. “Yep.”

She turns to the door. “Well, I want someone else.”

If she walks out now, it’s a fail. Immediate crash and burn. Besides being a great tattoo artist, people skills and customer service are also at the top of the list to get hired. I won’t get another chance if she leaves. I’ll be shown the door. “Please?” I hate to beg, but I will. “Don’t go. This is too important to me.”

Kelsey slowly turns, her mouth open and dark eyes wide. “Too important to you?” she asks with indignation. “This,” she thrusts out the envelope, “is too important to me, and you are the last person I want doing my ink.”

I can’t really blame her. I was a fucking dick to her back then. I hated her for what she’d done and a part of me still holds a lot of resentment for her actions. But I have to set it all aside. Make it right, at least until the tat is done. My future depends on it.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” she yells.

I take a deep breath. “Listen, I was seventeen. I had a chip on my shoulder. I was an ass and I treated you like shit.”

“You got that right.”

“It was also a long time ago.”

“Not that long.” She snorts and then narrows her eyes on me. “And I’m supposed to believe you’ve changed? That you’re no longer a dickwad?”

I chuckle. “I’m pretty sure I can still be that, but not in here. Not with you, and never, ever when I’m doing a tat.”

“I still don’t want you touching me.” She takes a step back and I rush forward.

“Listen, I swear that it will be the best tat you’ve ever had. It will be perfect and exactly what you want. Please, don’t walk out. You won’t get another artist and I’ll get booted.”

She frowns, biting her bottom lip. “I can’t just switch with someone? Others are waiting in the room. I’ll just ask one of them to trade.”

“If I lose a customer, I’m out.”

“I can explain—”

“It won’t matter.” I step closer. “Please, Kelsey, I need this. It’s a chance for a break and I could really use one.”

Her brown eyes study me as she bites her bottom lip again. It seems like forever before she says anything. “Do you promise not to give me any shit for what I want, or why?”

I hold up my hands like I’m surrendering. “I swear I won’t.”

“I mean it, because you aren’t going to like what I want, and I’ll be damned if I have to listen to your opinions on the matter again.”

My gut tightens. What the hell does she want? We’ve only disagreed once, when I yelled at her for being a selfish stupid bitch. We never talked again after that. Just glares in classrooms and on campus. Thankfully, we didn’t have that many classes together because I was a year older and our art concentration was different. “I swear. I have no opinions or thoughts in this room except for what the customer wants. There are some things I’m morally against, but it isn’t my skin.”

“Would you turn someone away if they wanted something you are [_morally _]against?”

“I have twice before.”

“Then I might as well head for the door now because you’ve made your opinions of my choices very clear.”

“Wait!” I have to stop her before she’s gone. “I’m sure whatever you want doesn’t come close to my moral compass code.”

She snorts. “Really? I’m not so sure.”

“Unless you want a swastika, I’m sure there is nothing you can suggest that I’d find offensive.”

She turns, a look of disgust on her face. “God no! Do people really get those?”

I shrug. “I’ve seen them. I just don’t do them.”

She tilts her head and studies me. “Anything else on your list I should know about?”

“Nope, that’s pretty much it—or any hate symbol, for that matter.”

She’s nodding, studying me, back to biting her bottom lip. “Are you any good?”

“Would I be here if I wasn’t?” I grin.

She doesn’t return it. “Your ego has never been in question. Are you any good? Because this is important.”

I’m not going to win her over with apologies. “I am good. One of the best. And trust me, this is just as important to me.”

Again she studies me, and it’s almost like I can see her battling with a decision behind those dark brown eyes. Slowly she holds the envelope out to me. “You better not fuck it up, and you better not give me any shit.”

I assume there’s a picture of whatever she wants on her body in the envelope. I reach out for it. Her hands are shaking and if I’m honest, so are mine. Seeing her for the first time since high school, and remembering how much I resented her and made her life hell, has me unsettled. I’m afraid karma is about to bite me on the ass.

She lets go before I can grab the envelope and it falls to the ground. A small pink rattle rolls out onto the floor.

She may be anxious about all this, but seeing what just came out of that envelope has me a bit rattled too.

The old anger at what she did surges, but I force it away. She’s a client. I won’t judge her for her decisions or actions. I may have then, but I won’t today. Not in this room. And not when I have so much to lose.

When the tat is done, and I’ve made the show, then I can go back to resenting Kelsey Fry once again.

I reach down and grab the rattle before Alex has a chance to. It’s the only item I have left. Or ever had, for that matter. I had swiped it from her bassinette, placed there by her new parents, before they took her away. And I don’t want [_him _]touching it.

Clutching it tightly in my hand, I stand up and wait for his hateful words, but they don’t come.

I can’t believe that the artist I’ve been assigned is Alexander Dosek, better known in my mind as Alexander Douche. The bane of my existence at Baxter Academy. All high-and-mighty. Judging me because of a decision I made that didn’t affect him in the least. Reminding me daily, just by a look, that he considered me the lowest form of scum.

Asshole! What the hell did he know about my life and circumstances? How could he possibly understand the decisions I had to make and how they’ve haunted me?

He can’t and will never be able to because he’s a guy.

And now I’m about to let him do my tattoo. If I didn’t need to have it done today, I’d walk. Screw him and his dreams. This isn’t about what he needs but what I need, and if he fucks it up, I’ll never forgive him.

“So, first off, where do you want your art?”

I blink up at him. I may have been planning this for the past few years, but I haven’t decided on a location or exactly what I want it to look like. That’s another reason I came here. The Reeds always know what the customer needs even if they’re unsure of what they want.

“Someplace where nobody will see it.”

He lifts a dark eyebrow and his cobalt eyes study me. He’s cut his hair since school. Black and short. So short that I can practically see his scalp, but his chin is bearded and neatly trimmed, and those blue eyes are watching me. Waiting.

“It’s too personal. It’s for me, and only me,” I insist. “I don’t want to have to explain to anyone who may ask, because it’s my memory and my heartache.”

Alex nods. “Okay, I get that.”

“But I want to be able to see it,” I blurt out. “So not on my ass or anything like that.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he says and leads me over to a table, placing the manila envelope between us. “Is the artwork in there?”

“Kind of,” I answer, and dump the contents on the table. I pick up the cream-colored embossed document and my heart tightens. “This is her birth certificate.” It isn’t the official one that’s filed with the county office, but a keepsake with my baby’s height, weight, date, time, footprints, and handprints. “I was thinking of having her footprint.” I lay it flat on the table so Alex can see it, but I’m reluctant to hand it over. This guy made my life hell and I’m still waiting for him to give me more shit.

“You’re tracing the hand, though,” Alex points out.

I smile. He’s right. My index finger is smoothing over the small palm, like I always do when I look at the certificate. “I can still feel it, sometimes.”

He leans back and studies me, but I don’t see any of the old recriminations as I had in the past. Is he genuinely interested? Has he grown a heart in the past five years, since I last saw him?

“How?” he asks.

“When they laid her on me, right after she was born, Brandy’s hand was right here.” I point to a place between my left boob and breast bone. “Her hand, over my heart.” I can feel my smile growing bigger with the memories of the most awesome experience in my life, and one of the saddest. “Her little arms were crossed, and as one palm rested on my chest, the other hand was turned out, and I remember studying the little lines on her hands and fingers. So perfect.”

“Show me.”

I try and demonstrate, but my hands are five times the size my daughter’s hands were at her birth. I glance up and Alex is watching me, and unlike when we were in high school, the deep blue of his eyes is filled with empathy. Maybe he has grown up.

I begin to relax. “She was curled up against me, her little feet pressing against me right here.” I point to my ribcage, just below my right boob.

“I’m surprised they let you hold her,” Alex finally says after clearing his throat.

“Mrs. Robak didn’t want me to,” I tell him. “She said it would be harder in the end, but I had to hold her at least once.” Mrs. Robak was in charge of Baxter Academy when I was there, and I think she still is.

He nods and grabs a sketch pad and starts drawing.

“I know that Brandy was only a few minutes old, but I needed to explain. I needed to tell her about her father and the reason I couldn’t keep her.”

His jaw tightens and my stomach knots. If he’s going to lecture me again about giving up my baby, I will walk. I can’t deal with his self-righteous opinions right now, and I sure as hell don’t give a damn if it ruins his chances for landing a spot on the show.

“Tell me about the father. You never mentioned him in school.”

“It’s not like you and I ever talked,” I remind him.

Alex winces and his face turns red. Good, he should be embarrassed for the way he treated me.

He sets his pencil aside and looks up. “Tell me your story, Kelsey.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s important.” He settles into a chair and stares at me, and waits for me to start.

She asked for a foot, but that isn’t what she needs. What else don’t I know? The fact that she’s kept her baby’s birth certificate, rattle, and all the other things I haven’t even looked at means that the decision wasn’t as easy for her as I once believed. “As you said, I was a dickwad back then.”

“True.”

“I’m not now. At least I hope not.” My face is getting hot, and I hope it isn’t obvious to whoever is going to watch this how embarrassed I am and what I was like back then. “What roads led you to Bax—” I stop myself. This is being recorded. A cameraman has been walking around and shooting us at different angles, and another person with a clipboard is hanging out by a table with a variety of drinks in a large tub of ice. This could air one day, and I’m not going to be the jerk that outs Baxter Academy of Arts for what it is. “How did you get to my high school?”

Her brown eyes soften, but it isn’t because of the question. I know she caught my near slip and she’s not about to expose Baxter either.

“Start at your birth, or anywhere in between then and the day we met.” I pick up the sketch pad again and write the names from the birth certificate. First “Brandon Lange,” then “Brandy Anne Lange,” and put question marks behind each of the names in case I need to ask more when she’s done.

“Let me think…” She sighs. “My mom was raised in an extremely uptight and religious household. No sinning allowed and punished to the fullest extent. At least that’s what she told me, and I believe her.”

No crosses, I write on my pad.

“She got pregnant when she was sixteen, and her parents kicked her out. She made her way to New York, thinking she’d get a job and a place to live. She ended up with the wrong people.”

This didn’t surprise me. Most runaways don’t end up in good places.

“During a drug deal, she was stabbed and died.”

I glance up at her. “How old were you?”

“Four.” She shrugs. “Child services contacted my grandparents, but they wouldn’t take me in. I was created in sin, and might as well have been the spawn of Satan.”

I snort and shake my head. “Nice Christians.”

“Religious,” she corrects. “Not exactly Christian.”

“Foster care?” It’s a guess, but I can’t imagine where else she would have ended up.

A soft smile comes to her face. “Yeah. I was with a great family for five years. The Wilsons.”

I straighten and look at her. “Wow.” That’s a long time to be with one family when you’re in the system.

“They were great. They’re the ones who taught me how to play the piano.”

“Why didn’t they adopt you?” I draw a piano. I don’t know if it’s going to end up in the tat. I’m still not sure what’s going to be there, but she has a story to tell. One I should have asked her to tell me when we first met.

“They couldn’t afford to. Adoption is expensive. They were only able to keep me and the others for so long because the state paid them, but they weren’t in it for the money. They really did love us and wanted to keep us. But my foster father got a job out-of-state. They couldn’t take me from New York, and they couldn’t decline a good-paying job, so I was sent to another home.”

A photograph has slipped out of the envelope, and I pick it up. It’s Kelsey when she was young—younger than she was when she came to Baxter—with a guy a few years older. “Who is this?”

“Brandon.” A sad smile comes to her lips. “After being in more foster homes than I could count after the Wilsons moved, Brandon and I ended up in the same place. He got there a week or so before me.”

“Brandon” is the name of the father on the birth certificate, so I know there is a lot more to that story.

“I was thirteen and he was fifteen, and too old for this couple.”

Again, I shake my head. I’d been in the system. A lot of families wanted the cute little ones, not the teens, even though we needed a mom and dad just as badly as the two-year-olds.

“They liked them young.” She clears her throat. “As in a sick way.”

My stomach churns. I wish I could pretend that abuse in the system doesn’t happen, but it does. Still, there are a hell of a lot more great families out there, like the Wilsons, willing to take kids in and love them like they are their own. It’s only the bad ones that everyone hears about and taints the system.

“I couldn’t stand to be there, and I tried to talk to my social worker, but she said her hands were tied. So after being there for a couple of months, with no end in sight, I decided to run away. The night I snuck out, I ran into Brandon at the corner. He was running away too. We decided to stick together because it was safer than being alone.”

Well, he didn’t stick with her because when she showed up at Baxter, she was pregnant and he wasn’t anywhere around. “What happened to him?”

Tears fill her eyes. “He’s dead.”

I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I’ve never really told anyone what had happened to me, except Mrs. Robak and a handful of therapists. Six years ago if someone would’ve told me that the first non-psychologist or professional I would choose to open up to would be Alexander Dosek, I would have laughed in their face. Yet here I was, spilling my guts because he asked.

I don’t know what it has to do with getting my baby’s foot tattooed on my body, but he seems genuinely interested.

“For two years we managed well enough. He was tall and looked older than his age, and he told people I was his younger sister so that nobody would mess with me.” What I don’t tell Alex is that by the time I was fifteen and Alex was seventeen, there was nothing brotherly or sisterly about our relationship. “We fell in love, and Brandon vowed we’d be together.”

We were so young then, but we didn’t feel like it. Much of our innocence had been stripped from us when we were children, though I was still a virgin until Brandon. A lot of kids in the system or on the streets aren’t so lucky.

I wait for Alex to make a derogatory comment about my professions of love at fifteen, but he says nothing and just keeps sketching. I wish I could see what it is, but he’s holding the sketch pad at an angle away from me.

“After a few years of sleeping in shelters, or anywhere we could find, Brandon got a job in a convenience store working third shift, and I worked as a waitress in an all-night diner. Neither place asked questions and we scraped by enough to rent a room by the week. At least we weren’t sleeping on the streets and could shower on a regular basis.”

I smile to myself. “We were happy. And things were good in comparison to the first two years. We both worked all night, and during the day we’d sleep and read.”

“Read?”

“Yeah. Brandon insisted that we’d never get anywhere in life if we didn’t educate ourselves. He planned on saving for school. When I was old enough we were going to get our GEDs and enroll in college.” I shake my head. “It was silly, I’m sure, because we would have never had that kind of money, but it was a dream.”

“What did you read?” Alex asks while he keeps sketching. His questions make me feel like I’m back with my therapist again.

“Anything and everything. Brandon would go through the garbage every day and bring home magazines and books, whatever he could find.” I chuckle as I remember his favorite save. “One day he came home more excited than I had seen him in a long time, and he had this big fat book. ‘It’s a dictionary, Kels,’ he said. ‘Now we can look up any words we don’t understand.’ The place where he’d found the book—which I later found out was an old school that was closing down—had also tossed out an entire set of encyclopedias that were printed sometime in the 1970s, but he hauled all of them to the apartment and we took turns reading them from A to Z.”

Alex waves a tissue in front of my face. “Here.” His eyes are kind. Much kinder than they ever were in school. I take it and wipe my nose, and the back of my hand brushes against wetness. I didn’t even realize I was crying.

“Things were going good. At least, as good as they could for two juvenile runaways. And then it happened.” I have to look away from Brandon and the camera. For a minute I forgot it was there and I hope this doesn’t make it on the air. Telling Alex this story is one thing. The entire world? Well that’s an entirely different matter.

“What happened?” he prods.

I swallow past the lump in my throat. I don’t want to tell him, but maybe after I do he’ll understand. Not that I care one way or the other if I have Alexander Douche-Dosek’s approval or not, but maybe he will learn not to judge without full knowledge of the situation.

“I was on my way home from the diner and was bringing Brandon a piece of pie to get him through the rest of his shift…when I heard the gunshots. As I came around the corner, two guys wearing ski masks were running out of the place where Brandon worked. When I got to him he was lying on his back, blood everywhere, but he was alert. I held his hand as his life slipped away. Before he was gone he told me that I was the one beautiful thing in his life and that he loved me.”

Alex pushes the box of tissues toward me. I pull one from the box. “Thanks.”

“Take your time,” he says gently.

One of the crew places a glass of water on the table and then disappears behind the camera. I swallow and try to gain control of my emotions.

“The cops soon learned who I really was and my age. I was such a fucking mess. I’d been with Brandon for over two years. He was my family. Hell, he was my world.” I wipe my eyes again. My heart aches as if it happened just yesterday. “They sent me to children’s services again, but this time I wasn’t afraid to tell them anything and explained in no uncertain terms why Brandon and I ran away. They had me see psychologists, therapists, and put me in a home with other delinquents, even though I’d never broken a single law. That’s where I met Mr. Smythe. He just observed, all the time, but not in a creepy way. He was trying to figure me out, because after I told them why I ran away, I refused to talk about Brandon or anything. Then, someone donated an old piano to the home I was in. I couldn’t stop playing it to the point that I was banned from the piano from ten at night until eight in the morning.”

“I do remember you played beautifully.”

Alex’s words shock me and I look up at him. He isn’t mocking me.

“I used to listen, when I was painting. In the summer, when the windows were open, music would flow from your building into the art building and I always knew when you were at the piano.”

My face heats. I’d had no idea, not that it mattered. He’d still treated me like shit.

So why the fuck am I telling him all this?

“That explains why you ended up at my school.” His smile is lopsided.

“Mr. Smythe had me do a bunch of testing and my academics were good so I got admitted.”

“Well, you had read an entire set of encyclopedias.”

I shouldn’t laugh, but I do. “Yeah, and a lot of books. Brandon was right about that. You can’t go anywhere without some education.”

“What did Brandon think of the baby?” Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but I want to know. It’s not just the moms who abandon their kids that I hate, but the dads too. The ones who disappear after knocking a woman up and leaving her to raise the kids alone without any kind of support. They are lower than scum.

“He didn’t know. Hell, I didn’t know. When I got to the school, they did a physical and all the normal testing and that’s when I found out.”

How could she not know? I know that there are stories about women delivering babies, never knowing they’re pregnant, but I don’t buy it. How the hell can’t they know? Then again, I am a guy. Maybe there is more to it than a missed period.

“I figure I got pregnant shortly before Brandon was killed. After that, everything was so fucked up, I didn’t even notice my periods had stopped.”

That does make sense. It had to have been pretty traumatic watching the guy you love die and then being tossed back into the system and moved around.

“Five months along and I didn’t have a clue.”

“You gave it up.” Shit, I didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but I can’t help it. If she loved this Brandon as much as she said, then she’d have fought tooth and nail to keep his baby.

Her dark eyes harden. “It wasn’t an easy decision!” she yells.

“Then tell me.” My tone is calmer but I need for her to explain to my why she gave up her child. She would have never told me back in school, even if I would have asked.

“If I had kept the baby, I couldn’t remain at the school. They didn’t have a nursery. If I left the school, I would have been back in the system.”

“You would have still had your daughter,” I point out, the old judgmental self coming to the surface. I can’t help it though. She abandoned her kid.

“I’d be raising her in a group home, if that. If a social worker didn’t think I was doing a good enough job, then they’d take her away from me and then what? She’s in the system, I’m in the system, and I wouldn’t be able to protect her.”

“So you decided to do what was best for you and give the baby away.”

Kelsey stands, knocking her chair back. “I did what was best for my baby. Not for me,” she yells.

She’s glaring at me.

Shit, a camera is on us and I just fucking blew it. So much for customer service.

I quickly begin to apologize. “I’m sorry—”

“Save it,” she bites out and starts gathering up her documents.

I can’t let her leave. Not now. I may be able to make it up on some of the customer service, or maybe not, but if Kelsey walks out that door, I am fucking screwed. “No, really, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t judge, but it’s just a sore spot with me.”

“What? Moms giving their kids up for adoption?”

I meet her eyes, but I can’t tell her, or confess anything. I’m too angry. “Yeah. Something like that.”

“I really was trying to do the best for my daughter,” she says with a little less anger.

“How?” I really do want to know how being raised by someone who is not a blood relation is good when that decision is for purely selfish reasons.

“Well, first of all, I didn’t just give her to anyone.”

“How do you know?” If she’s going to give me a fairytale story, I’m not sure I’ll be able to contain my anger.

“I picked them.”

“What?” How is that possible?

“Mrs. Robak took me to an adoption attorney. I went through all kinds of files on couples who wanted a child. When I narrowed it down to half a dozen or so, I got to meet them. I went to their homes, had dinner and got to know them.”

“How did you narrow it down?” I ask cautiously and I hope to hell it isn’t for some frivolous reason.

“Jobs, location, school, lack of criminal record, health and ages.”

Okay, not so frivolous.

“A couple that I met didn’t give me a good vibe.”

“Huh?”

“Vibe,” she tries to explain. “Brandon and I were on the street for too long. You just get a feel for people even without talking to them, sometimes. If my gut got a vibe, they were crossed off the list.”

One of the crew members comes forward and straightens her chair and then disappears. Kelsey sits and I try not to blow out a sigh of relief.

“The third family I met was perfect, but I didn’t settle on them until I met the last three.”

I’m nodding and my anger at her is kind of dying away.

“They were perfect and already had three children, which they had adopted from overseas.”

“Where?”

“Africa, China, and Colombia.” She smiles. “They wanted their own United Nations, I guess, but decided to adopt from within the States because we have a lot of kids needing families, too.”

“Do you get to see her?”

The smile slips from Kelsey’s face. “No. It’s closed. They have all of my information and my daughter will know she’s adopted, but I can’t contact her, ever. I agreed to that to avoid confusion. When she is older, her parents will tell her about me and then it will be up to her if she wants to meet me or not.”

Tears are in her eyes again. “That must have been hard.”

“It was, but what the hell could I give her? An uncertain life? A life on the streets? Danger? With them, she’s protected and loved. She’ll have anything her heart desires. Ten times more than I could ever give her.” Kelsey looks me in the eye. “I wasn’t selfish in giving her up. Selfish would have been keeping her, then losing her to the system. There are great families out there, but there are also some really bad ones and I couldn’t risk that happening to her. This was the only way I could think of that would protect her.”

Man, this is so not what I was expecting. She really loved this Brandon and she loved her daughter. Kelsey didn’t deserve the shit I gave her, and I’m sick about the way I treated her.

I glance up at the clock. We’ve been in here over an hour and I haven’t even started the tat yet. There’s no time limit. The Reeds want a good tat for a good reason, not a rush job that will leave the customer unsatisfied. I get that and I’m really glad I took the time to ask. And if there is a time limit that I’m not aware of, hopefully they’ll understand and give me some slack on it. But from what I know of them, and after they hear Kelsey’s story, they’ll get why this is taking so long. I just wish I could delete the parts about me being an ass.

There’s still other stuff on the table. How many more layers are there to discover about Kelsey?

I pick up a sheet of music. “What’s this?”

Brahms’ Lullaby. I used to sing it to Brandy before she was born, and play it on the piano for her. I guess I hoped that she’d maybe remember hearing it when she was still in me and it would make her happy.” She bites her lip and looks down. “Silly, I know.”

“No,” I say. “It’s not.” This is handwritten music, but I know the song. Who doesn’t? “Why are there hearts for note heads?”

She shrugs and smiles. “Just something I wanted to do.” Her eyes fill with tears again. “I loved her so much and there was so little I could do to show her.” Her hand slides across the sheet of music. “But whenever I hear the song, I’ll always think of Brandy.”

“Is ‘Brandy’ for her dad, Brandon?”

“Yeah.”

“What about Anne, her middle name?”

This time Kelsey grins at me. “Anne of Green Gables, of course. It was my favorite book and it’s about an orphan who went to live on a farm and had an amazing life. I hope my Brandy has one too.”

“Did the new parents keep the name?” I scribble out the question marks behind Brandon and Brandy’s names.

“I have no idea what name they gave my little girl. But she’ll always be Brandy to me.”

My throat tightens, but I’m not about to cry in front of her or the camera. Clearing my throat, I stand and grab the documents off the table. “I just need to get this scanned so I can do that tat, if that’s okay.”

She nods and I practically run from the room, only to stop in the hall and try to catch my breath.

Shit. I am such a fucking asshole. Then and now. Why didn’t I see the pain she was in?

Because I was too blinded by my own bitterness to see anything else.

Wow! I didn’t expect to tell him so much, though his being an ass isn’t such a big surprise. But he wasn’t nearly the ass I expected when I walked in here. I think there were even tears in his eyes when he left.

I know it’s not possible. Guys like Alex don’t cry. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have many emotions, other than those only his ego will allow.

Should I stay and let him do that tat? What if he’s still pissed and screws it up?

I glance over at the camera. The cameraman is back at the table with the guy holding the clipboard. They are drinking coffee and eating donuts. It’s weird having them here, but for the most part when I was talking directly to Alex, I forgot they were here.

Alex won’t screw up the tattoo. This is too important to him. He’s an artist. He was in school, and he’s got to be good to have made it this far. He won’t fuck me over because if he does, he’ll lose his shot at being on the show. Though if he does make it, I’m not so sure I want to keep watching it.

No, that’s a lie. I’ll keep watching it. It’s the Reeds, the best eye candy on television. Yep, it’s a good thing one of them isn’t doing this tat. I’d be too tongue-tied to utter my name, let alone describe how I want my baby’s footprint for my tattoo.

I don’t know what’s taking Alex so long. I reach to take a drink of my water, but it’s empty. “Could I have more water, please?” I ask the guys in the back.

They bring me a fresh cup, but don’t say anything.

I look down at the rattle in my hand. It’s all I have right now. Alex took everything else. Why? All he needed was the footprint.

A few moments later he comes back, handing me the envelope. I quickly check to make sure everything is back in there where it should be, and not ruined. He’s carrying sheets that I assume he’s going to use for tracing.

“You want it where only you can see it, right?”

“Yeah.”

“We can do your hip, which I’d rather not, and you said the ass was out.”

“If I have to…”

“But I’d rather put it beneath or on your breast.”

I glance back over at the camera. I’m not showing my boob to the world, if this makes it that far.

“You’ve seen the show. They filter out anything that isn’t PG.”

“Still, you’ll see my boob.” I look over at the crew. “They’ll see my boob. I’m not really comfortable with that.”

He opens a drawer and pulls out two things that look like bandages. “Put these over your nipples.”

I glance back at the crew again, not sure I want to expose myself like this.

“Listen, I’ll turn my back, they will too, and they’ll shut off the camera until you are set. And I’ll keep what I’m not working on covered. Does that work for you?”

If I don’t agree, he’ll put it on my arm, or stomach, or some other place the world can see. And I don’t really want it on my hip. If I wear the wrong cut of pants or shorts, it might be seen, and this is for me and nobody else. “Okay.”

Alex looks at the crew. “Guys, can we have a sec?”

One lowers the camera and then they both turn around. “When you are done, just lie back and put this over you.” He hands me a towel and turns away.

I pull my shirt over my head and unhook my bra. My hands are shaking and I quickly lie down and cover myself. It doesn’t matter that something’s covering me. I still feel exposed.

All I hear is some movement and clothing shuffling. “Okay,” she finally says. I turn. She’s on the table, wearing nothing but her jeans and a towel.

“I’m going to warn you, this may still be seen if you wear a swimsuit or a really low-cut top.”

“I don’t wear bikinis, and the only skin I show, besides my legs and arms, is sometimes my belly. But that’s rare. I’m kind of modest.”

I chuckle. “I got that when you wanted everyone to turn their backs.” Hell, I’ve had girls wanting to strip naked when it wasn’t necessary. This is the first girl who has tried to remain as covered as she could possibly be. I like it, and she’s given me more skin to work with if she’s as modest as she claims.

“Can I see what you are going to do?”

I meet her eyes. “No.”

Kelsey practically comes off the table, holding the towel against her breasts. “Why not?”

I tilt my head. “Will you trust me?”

She narrows her eyes.

“Let me surprise you. Please?”

“I want the feet, remember.”

I bite back a grin. “I know you do. But that’s not all that you need.”

“What do you mean?”

I gently push her back. “Please, just trust me.”

Kelsey is practically glaring at me.

“I’m sorry for being an ass. I’m so fucking sorry for the way I treated you in school. Please, let me make it up to you and give you the tat you deserve. The one you need to have.”

She’s got to let me do this. I know exactly what I want to do, but I’m afraid if I tell her what it is, she’ll reject it. She just wants feet, but she needs more.

“Okay,” she finally says. “But don’t fuck it up.”

I laugh. “I promise, I won’t.”

“I’ll cut off your balls if you do.”

This makes me smile. I have no doubt that’s exactly what she’d do. “What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue.”

“Brandon’s?”

“Green.”

“Any colors you hate?”

“Yellow!”

“Okay, easy enough, let’s get started.” I start on the ribcage, just below the right boob, and for the moment she’s completely covered.

“I thought you said the boob.”

“I’m not there yet.”

She sighs. As I start, she takes deep breaths and slowly blows them out. There isn’t much meat, if any, between the skin and the ribs, so I know this isn’t exactly comfortable for her, but Kelsey hasn’t complained and she’s barely twitched, thank God.

“So, how did you end up at [_my _]high school?”

The term my isn’t what stops me. We all call Baxter my school. It’s how I answer the question, or if I can answer, that makes me pause.

“I told you my story, you have to tell me yours.”

“Are you still in school, or are you done?”

Kelsey blows out a sigh. “I’m in my senior year. I’m getting a degree in music and education. I teach piano and voice on the side to earn cash.” She lifts her head up.

“Lie back down.”

“You know all you need to know about me. Your turn.”

Shit. She’s right. After everything she’s told me, how can I not tell her the ugliness in my life?

“I graduated last May with a double major in Fine Arts and English. I like doing tats and I’m damn good at it.”

“So you’ve told me,” she says with a dry tone.

“I still want to publish graphic novels and comics, but that business is hard to break into. Maybe someday, but right now, I really like creating art on bodies.” It isn’t really a lie. I do like this work, but I’d be happier working for Dark Horse, Marvel, or DC Comics.

“You haven’t answered the question.”

Well, that’s a little harder to answer. “I ended up there, like you. Lots of foster care, and a therapist noticed me drawing one day and the next thing I know, I’m a student at Bax…my high school.”

“That’s a bit glossed over.” Kelsey snorts. “What about your mom and dad?”

“Don’t have any.”

“Ever? What, the system found you in a cabbage patch?”

“Nope. Fire station.”

She’s silent and I continue to work, concentrating on the fine lines of the small feet. I’ve put them exactly where Kelsey said they pushed against her after Brandy was born.

“Is that why you hate me?” she asks quietly.

“I don’t hate you, Kelsey.” It’s easy to talk to her while I’m concentrating on the tat. I don’t want to have to look her in the eye. To see the pain I caused, or feel the shame.

“You sure acted like it. All high-and-mighty about me giving my child up.”

“That’s because my mom got rid of me to make a better life for herself.”

Silence follows but I know better than to hope that this is the end of the conversation.

“She left you at a fire station?”

“Kind of.”

“What do you mean?”

I blow out a sigh and stop for a minute. She’s not going to shut up until I tell her, and I have a tat to do. I can do both; I just wish the camera wasn’t hovering and watching. And listening.

“I don’t know who my dad is, because my mom had lots of boyfriends. One after the other. She was always looking for the next best one. The guy who would help her make something out of herself. She wanted to be an actress. That’s why she was in New York. One day she was going to make it big. At least, that’s what she always told me.”

“Did she make it on the stage eventually?”

“Not in New York,” I grind out. “I was in the way. Each time a new sugar daddy came along I had to hide in my room, or in the closet, or under the bed, until she had them hooked. Then I got an introduction. Most guys hated that she had a kid.”

“I’m sorry.” There’s sympathy in her voice and I try not to let it get to me. I can’t afford to get emotional right now. Not while I’m working.

I reach deep inside and pull up the coldness I’ve learned to surround myself with when I think of my mom. It’s been my security blanket for years and easier to carry than remembering the pain of abandonment.

“She had this guy who said she could make it big, but not with a kid. The last day we were together, even though I didn’t know it was the last day, she kept telling me how much she loved me and that she promised that when she made it big we’d be together all of the time.”

“How old were you?” Kelsey asks quietly.

“Seven.” I clear my throat. “I didn’t know it was her goodbye. The dick she was with had taken me and Mom to play arcade games, to get ice cream, to the park. It was the best day I could ever remember. Mom was telling me she loved me. This guy seemed to like me. All was good.”

“What happened?” she asks, like she’s almost afraid to.

“We stopped at my favorite burger joint. Mom and I rarely ate out because we couldn’t afford it, but that day, the guy was treating us to everything. After I got done eating I went to the bathroom. When I came out, they were gone.”

Kelsey sucks in a breath. I know it’s from shock and nothing I did with the tattoo.

“The waitress said they got up and drove off as soon as I went into the bathroom.”

“What did you do?”

“I went outside and looked for them. I waited and waited for them to come back, and then I started to walk to where I thought home was, but got lost. Then I saw a fire station. Mom always said that if I was in trouble or lost to talk to a police officer or a fireman and they’d help me.”

“You went there?”

“Yep. Walked in and explained. They called the police, who talked to the waitress at the restaurant, and before I knew it, I was put in a temporary home.”

“How did they know who you were? You were so young!”

I have to laugh. “I always carried around my favorite backpack with my favorite toys. That morning Mom had put my birth certificate and social security card in it, along with a letter that basically said that she couldn’t take care of me anymore.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Well, she did say she wanted a better life. One that she couldn’t have as long as she had a kid.”

Kelsey sucks in a breath. “That’s why you hated me.”

“I never hated you. Just resented you because you gave up your kid.”

“But I explained—”

I cut her off. “I know. I get that now. You have no idea how bad I feel.” I glance up and look into her dark eyes. “I really am sorry, Kelsey. I was just so blinded by what my mom did that I thought all women who gave up their kids were doing it for selfish reasons.”

Her face softens and a sad smile comes to her lips. “I’m really sorry, Alex.”

“Me too.” My eyes get blurry and I have to blink away the moisture. Must be from concentrating on the tat so hard, and the poor lighting. “For what she did to me, and for how I treated you.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” I argue. “You didn’t deserve to be treated the way I treated you.” I glance down at the footprint. “And I’m going to do my best to make it up to you. Starting with the best damn tattoo on the planet.”

She says nothing for a long time and I just work, lost in my thoughts, trying to forget about my mom and concentrating on the tattoo. This has to be perfect. Not just so I can land a job, but for Kelsey. She deserves the best.

I get it. His mom dumped him for a better life. I was giving up my kid so I could go to school. At least that’s how he saw it, and I never bothered to explain. Of course, he didn’t ask. Just judged me.

How much pain could have been saved if we’d talked back then? But Alex and I didn’t talk. He glared and I glared back. Instant dislike, both with chips on our shoulders.

Maybe I didn’t really have a chip. I was still struggling with Brandon’s death, the pregnancy, and giving up my daughter. No matter what anyone thinks, it was not an easy decision. I wanted to keep her. I wanted her with me, but at what cost to her? Just because I had a shit life, made better when I got to attend Baxter, didn’t mean my daughter had to have a tough life. There were hundreds of couples out there that would give anything to have a baby. I saw that when I went through file after file after file. To keep Brandy would have been the worst thing I could do for her. Now, she has a chance for stability, safety, and love. The only thing I could have given her was love, and a child needs so much more.

“Did you like college?” It’s too painful to talk about the high school past, but not college.

“Yeah,” he says. “Living like we did in high school prepared me for dorm life.” He laughs. “Though that was the first time I ever had to share a room with someone, luckily he was easy enough to get along with.”

I wish I knew what he is doing, because Alex isn’t under my right boob anymore but at the side of the left, in the center of my chest. Kind of over my heart. That’s an odd place for a foot, especially since that is where I thought he was putting it, on my right side. And he put something on the skin between where I think the foot is and where he’s working now.

How big is he making it? Maybe I should have mentioned I want the footprint to scale, not Big Foot on my chest, but I guess it’s a little late to tell him that now.

I’m trying my best to hold still. I’d heard that sometimes tattoos could be painful, and these are. Not so much that I can’t stand it, but uncomfortable enough. And I’m trying my best not to move, or twitch, but sometimes it’s automatic.

When I’m talking, I’m not so focused on what he’s doing, so I hope he doesn’t mind my talking.

“You didn’t stay in a dorm all the time, did you? I got a house with friends my junior year.”

“I did the same. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to worry about cooking my own meals, though. Laundry, I had that down from high school. Cooking was an entirely different matter.”

“Cooking is fun.” I like trying to make different meals, within a budget of course.

“Well, I have finally graduated from frozen dinners and canned soups.” He smiles up at me. “I’ve moved on to boxed meals. The kind that you cook on the stove.”

“I’m so proud of you.” I laugh.

“I still live with those guys. We just aren’t on campus anymore, though. Our house wasn’t far from a frat house and we couldn’t wait to get away from them.”

“Why?”

“Rich kids, not a care in the world. More money than they knew what to do with. Daddy paying for everything, and partying every weekend, and sometimes during the week. All they had to do was pass their classes to stay in school.”

That would get obnoxious after a while. Not that I didn’t go to parties in college, but some of those houses, all they did was party. And they were loud most of the time.

“My friends and I were all scholarship and financial aid. We had to get good grades to stay in school and get jobs when we graduated. We didn’t have family money to fall back on and we studied our asses off.”

When you come from nothing, like me and Alex, you do work hard and appreciate your chances. I would’ve continued going to high school if I had remained in foster care, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Plus, when you’re moved from house to house, schools often change too and it’s really hard to make friends that way. I’ve got a couple good friends now. One that knew me in high school and ones that I met in college. Even after I graduate, I’ll have those same friends as we start establishing ourselves in the real world. I just hope I don’t screw up. I want to make Baxter proud.

“When the last one of us turned twenty-one, it was a Saturday and we decided to party like the rich kids did.”

“How is that?” I laugh, imagining they had a keg in the corner and half-naked girls walking around.

“Porn and beer.” He’s shaking his head. “We were convinced those guys watched porn every chance they got. Sometimes we’d see and hear it and had to shut our windows.”

“So, was it a fun night?” What is it with guys and porn?

“Not exactly.”

Some tension eased out of me. If Alex had claimed it had been the best night of his life, the respect I’ve gained for him since I walked into this room would disappear.

“It was all supposed to be a joke. Though we had the beer, and the DVD was in the player, we had our books out.”

“It was a Saturday,” I remind him.

“Finals were the following week.”

I’ve had many weekends lost to books because of upcoming exams.

“At first I thought I was imagining the voice…”

He isn’t looking at me, and I’m not sure if he’s changed the subject, or what he’s talking about. “Huh?”

“My mom’s. I heard it a lot, or thought I did, when I was little. It was my imagination, of course. She wasn’t coming back for me, but I could swear I heard her in the living room.”

My stomach tightens and I swallow against the bile, afraid of where this is going.

“So I go in there, and that’s when I see her. On the TV. In the movie. Porn. Not the way any kid wants to see their mother.”

“Oh, God.”

“At first I was shocked, and then I got sick. I told the guys that I’d had too much to drink and they bought it. I didn’t drink much and they teased me about being a lightweight.”

“What did you do then?”

“I went to my room and tossed my mom’s picture in the trash. I had only the one, and I’d kept it with me, constantly lying to myself that something had to have happened to her and that’s why she didn’t come back. Or that she would be back one day and I would listen to her explanation.”

“I’m sorry.” What else can I say?

“Well, she made it big, apparently. I searched her stage name, if that’s what porn stars call them, on the Internet and she had a lot movies under her belt.” He snorts and I’m pretty sure that pun was intended. “Now she’s a bigwig at one of the production companies making the same kind of movies she starred in for so long.”

“Now that you know where she is, are you going to go see her?”

“Nope. She didn’t want me and I sure as hell don’t want her anymore.”

My heart breaks for him. What kind of mother can abandon her kid and go off to star in adult movies? “Maybe she didn’t mean to end up there, but in other movies, and couldn’t catch a break.”

Alex pauses in what he’s doing and looks up. His cobalt eyes darken with pain. “It doesn’t matter what her intentions were. She left me for a dream of a better life. It wouldn’t matter if she was a porn star or walking the red carpet after starring in a Spielberg film. She left me behind without a second thought. That’s what I’ll never forgive.”

I can’t believe I just told Kelsey the ugly truth. Not even my roommates know that the star of the film they were watching was my mom.

Kelsey doesn’t know that I live with guys that also graduated from Baxter with me. I’m not sure it would make a difference to her, but she might get weird and afraid I’ll tell them about today. It was a private conversation that I wouldn’t share with anyone. Well, besides the world since it’s getting filmed and could air, but I’ll never talk about this day. It’s too private. Too personal.

The guys I went to school with and live with are my family now. Similar histories and we feel damn lucky we ended up at Baxter when we were still teenagers. They’ll just never know that they were watching my mom that night.

I hate thinking about that night and wish I could bleach the image from my brain. I thought I had, until Kelsey and I started talking about the past.

She’s nothing like my mom. I get that now. It’s okay that Kelsey wanted a shot at a better life. But she made sure her daughter had the shot first, and it sounds like she made sure her little girl had the best chance anyone can have after coming into this world.

I sit back and study what I’ve done so far. There isn’t much left to do, but I want to double check names and dates. I’ve already triple checked them, but I’m always overly cautious when it comes to these details. After picking up the birth certificate, I compare the information and stop.

“You picked today on purpose, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” Kelsey clears her throat. “I wanted to get it when she turned five, but I didn’t have enough money.”

“Six years. I can’t believe it’s been that long.”

“A lifetime ago,” she says.

“Yet almost like yesterday.”

Kelsey sighs. “My baby is six today. I know they must be giving her a big party, with a cake and balloons and presents.”

I glance up. There’s a small smile on her face.

“When I walk by the toy stores, sometimes I wander in and go down the aisles, looking at the kinds of things a girl her age would play with. Is she into Barbies? Dolls? Trucks?”

I laugh. “Trucks?”

“Just because she’s a girl doesn’t mean she can’t be into trucks.”

“Maybe she’s learning to play the piano,” I suggest. If she has even an ounce of the talent her mother has, then the child could be a protégé under the right guidance.

Tears fill her eyes. Shit, I should have kept my mouth shut.

“It shouldn’t be much longer.”

“I’m usually not such an emotional mess.” She sniffs.

“It’s okay.”

“Really, I don’t cry that often.”

“Hey, it’s not an easy day for you. You’re entitled to your tears.” I hand her the box of tissues again.

“I don’t think I’ve cried like this since last year.”

“And you probably won’t again until this time next year.”

“Probably,” she says before blowing her nose.

On a whim, I add the time after the date. Does Kelsey know that she turned into a watering pot about the time her baby was born six years ago today?

There’s a clock on the wall across the room. I’d been watching it since I got on the table. It’s silly, I know, and as much as I tried to hold back the tears, they began when the time struck 2:42 pm, the exact time Brandy was born.

I can still feel the tiny hand clutching my finger, and the soft, downy black head of hair, the weight of her head on my left breast, and hear the infant’s cries until they laid her on my chest. And feel the scalding tears roll down my cheeks when they took her away.

I know I did the right thing by giving Brandy up. It’s the only decision I’ve ever made that I had complete confidence in. It was also the most painful. A pain that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

My heart broke when Brandon was killed, but it shattered when they wheeled Brandy out of the delivery room and I knew that I’d never see her again. I think I cried for days after Brandy’s birth. I know that probably isn’t her name now, but she will always be Brandy to me. The one beautiful thing to come from my shitty youth.

She was such a beautiful baby. And she’s probably a beautiful little girl.

And today my heart breaks for Alex. How could his mother just abandon him in a restaurant? Didn’t she watch the news? Wasn’t she aware of how many creeps there are in the world? Something seriously horrible could have happened to him before he even made it to the fire station. And all so she could become a star.

Just like I’ll never get over the pain of giving up Brandy, I’m just as sure that Alex will never get over the pain of being abandoned by his mother.

“What are you going to do after graduation?” he asks, probably to get my mind off of my baby so I’ll stop crying.

“Well, I have a job interview tomorrow, to teach voice and piano.”

“Where at?”

“Baxter Academy of Art.”

He stops and straightens, looking at me. The corner of his mouth quirks in a smile. “Really? I hear it’s a great school.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

Baxter wasn’t just hiring a music teacher for next year. They had about a dozen slots to fill. “You know, they’re looking for new art teachers. There are too many students for just two teachers now.”

“Really?” He continues working as if he isn’t all that interested. “I just might look into that, if I don’t make the cut here.”

“Well, you could always come with me tomorrow and fill out an application while I interview.” I can’t believe I just asked him to come with me. A person shouldn’t take someone along when they go on a job interview. But it’s Baxter, and neither of us are strangers to the school. Plus, maybe having Alex with me will help with my nerves.

“Maybe I will,” he finally says. “Can’t hurt to have something else to go after if this doesn’t work out.” He sits back and is looking me over. Or at least the area where he just did the tat, not that I can see it. “I think it’s done.”

“Can I see it?”

“Yep.” He stands and holds out his hand to help me sit up. I clutch the towel to my breasts, even though I’ve pretty much been on display since he moved to the left side.

A camera man leans in further. “Can you put your arms up so we can get a good shot?”

As the Reeds do need to judge the work, I do as I’m asked.

Another guy takes still shots. “That’s good work, Dosek,” he says.

“When do I get to see it?”

“Right now,” Alex says and helps me from the table. Across the room is a mirror and I start for it. My legs are shaking and I’m not sure if it’s because of nerves or because I was lying on the table so long. My muscles hurt, but I’m pretty sure it’s from being tense the entire time.

Alex follows me over but before I can get close enough, he covers my eyes with this hands. “Move with me.”

I bite my lip and do so, until he stops.

“Ready?”

“…Yes.”

My heartbeat increases as his hands slowly move from my eyes. He’s watching my face in the mirror, not looking at the tattoo. Of course, he’s already seen it.

My eyes drift lower, to the small feet just below my right boob, to the gentle curve of music notes from Brahms’s Lullaby, to Brandy’s delicate hand tattooed over my heart.

My eyes fill with tears and I try to blink them away, but they spill down my cheeks instead. There’s more to see, but I can’t see anything because I’m crying so hard.

Alex rushes back and grabs the box of tissues and brings them over.

“Thanks.” I sniff and wipe my eyes. All of the headnotes on the music are hearts, just like I drew them, and colored blue, green, and pink. Within the music notes is Brandy’s name, her date of birth, and then Brandon’s name circling the final heart, and I start sobbing all over again.

I want to tell Alex how perfect this is, but I can’t even talk. My throat is tight. I’m trying to hold back the sobs, and tears are spilling down my cheeks and onto my breasts. I keep wiping my eyes because I can’t see the tattoo through the tears.

They are both here, with me always.

I clear my throat and try to gain control of myself. I need to stop crying. I want to see the tat.

He hands me more tissues and I wipe my face. That’s when I realize that the curve of the music isn’t random, but an outline of how Brandy had been laid across my chest for those few precious moments I was allowed to hold her.

Does she hate it? Does she love it?

Kelsey is saying nothing, just crying. Uncontrollable crying. I hope it’s because she likes it, but she’s a girl, and you never know.

If she hates it, I’m screwed. I know I took a chance, but she needed more than feet. Yeah, they were important, but not as important as that hand. That’s what she touched and talked about. Does she even remember that she gestured as to how the baby had been laid on her?

I pray I didn’t screw this up. It’s a lot more than she asked for, and in my gut, I know it’s what she needs.

Without warning Kelsey turns and throws her arms around me, hugging me close.

“Thank you so much.” She barely gets the words out before she is sobbing again.

Her tears are soaking into my shirt and getting on my chest, but I don’t care. I wrap my arms around her and let her sob against me.

She likes it, and that’s all that matters. I rub my hands down her soft, naked back, not sure if I’m trying to calm or comfort. All I know is that she’s half-naked pressed against me and crying her heart out and I’m perfectly content to hold her until she has her emotions under control.

Tears fill my eyes but I blink them away. I’m not the mushy type, yet she’s moved me several times since she stepped into the room. I bury my face in her hair so the camera doesn’t see that I’m turning into a mess too. I take deep breaths trying to regain control, and the lavender scent of her shampoo fills my head, calming me.

I’ve done a lot of tats since I started, but this is the one I’m most proud of. Not that it was huge, colorful, or amazing—because in comparison to some of my other work, it’s rather simple. But it’s what was right for Kelsey, and I don’t think I’ll ever be as proud of anything else I may do as I am at this very moment.

She pulls back and looks up at me with a watery smile. “It’s perfect. So perfect. Thank you so much.”

More tears spill down her cheeks and I hand her another tissue. “Thank you,” I say. “For allowing me the honor of doing your tattoo, for sharing yourself with me, and for listening to me.”

She smiles up and our eyes meet. The past and old resentment fade away, and something shifts inside. I’m free. The hatred I felt for my mother is gone, because she no longer matters. The resentment I once felt for Kelsey has vanished, because she’s a true mom. Her kid came first, and still does, and I want to get to know the girl I should have gotten to know six years ago.

“Here, let’s get this bandaged. I’ll give you instructions on how to care for it over the next few weeks.”

Kelsey follows me back to the table and I cover the tat so it can heal.

“So, when will you know if you make the show?” she asks.

“Don’t know.” I shrug. “The Reeds need to watch the footage and look at the photos before they make a decision.”

She nods as she pulls her shirt over her head. “What are you doing after this?”

“Nothing. Just wait and see if they call.”

Kelsey hops off the table. “Why don’t we get a cup of coffee?”

She’s biting her bottom lip again. Something she does when she’s nervous.

“Sure. I just need to clean up the station.”

“We got that, Mr. Dosek,” one of the guys at the back says. “Go enjoy yourself.”

“I never leave my stations a mess.” I start to get the sanitizer.

“We got this,” another one says and nods toward Kelsey. “Go spend some time with her. It was a rough day.”

“You sure?” I don’t want to be screwed and lose my shot because I didn’t clean up.

“Don’t worry.” The guy is practically pushing me to the door.

“Okay. Thanks.”

I follow Kelsey out of the building, and we stop on the sidewalk outside. She looks up toward the sky, a huge smile on her face. “I’ve kept this envelope with me because I was afraid I’d forget. It’s the only pieces of them I have left.” She turns to me, still smiling. “But now I’ll have them with me always, right here.” She places a hand over her heart. “Thank you.”

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h1<. More


bq. Dear Readers,

Thank you for reading RATTLED. For more of Alex and Kelsey’s story, watch for STILL RATTLED, available in August, 2016.

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RECOMMEND IT – If you enjoyed this book, please recommend it to them for reading and let them know that there is more of the Rattled Series to come, and soon.

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h1<. Excerpt – STILL RATTLED

Still Rattled: Rattled #2 – Baxter Boys Series ~ Rattled

Copyright © 2016 by Jane Charles

***

Alex “Douche” Dosek isn’t really a douche, or at least not anymore, and I should probably stop thinking about him that way. I get why he resented me. He didn’t have the whole story, and after his mother shit on him the way she did, of course he’d think I was just as heartless because I had abandoned my baby.

But, now he gets it. If he didn’t, Alex wouldn’t have given me the most perfect tattoo.

It’s exactly what I needed, from the little foot that I thought I wanted, to the little handprint over my heart that I hadn’t even considered. The manila envelope still holds those precious items: her birth certificate, sheet music from Brahms’ Lullaby and the pink rattle I snatched from the bassinet. I’ve always had these with me, but now that everything, with the exception of the rattle and the only picture I have of Brandon, is permanently on my midriff, just below my boobs, I’m not as worried about losing the documents. I’ll still keep them close though, in the pink box on the top shelf of my closet with the letters I’ve written to Brandy. But nobody can take the art from my body. Brandy and Brandon will be with me always.

Shit! My eyes are tearing up again and everything in front of me is starting to blur. After sobbing inside of Reed’s, you’d think I’d be done by now.

“Coffee?” Alex pulls his gloves on as he steps outside in to the cold.

“Coffee!” I blink and quickly wipe away a few stray tears. I’m drained and really just want a nap, but it’s kind of nice spending time with someone I don’t have to guard myself around. Not so much protecting my feelings and heart and that type of stuff, but not having to watch what I say, or slip about Baxter, or mention I was once pregnant and lived on the streets. Those things are what people judge you by. Alex already knows the ugly. Far more ugly about my past than anyone else, with the exception of people at Baxter, like Mrs. Robak and a handful of therapists.

“There’s a diner a few blocks down,” he says and we head in that direction, keeping our heads down against the cold November wind. My hands are shoved in my coat pocket because I lost my gloves on campus two days ago. At least I have a warm, though not exactly fashionable, scarf around my neck, and I duck my chin inside.

I can’t believe that Alex did my tattoo. He’s lucky I didn’t walk right out when I found what artist had been assigned to me. Or, that’s what I thought then. I’m the lucky one. I don’t think anyone else could have done what he did. They would have given me the foot I asked for and left it at that.

Alex stops and I look up and into the long windows. I like diners, but they usually aren’t this busy, with people sitting at every table and the counter. How good could their hamburgers, fries and milkshakes be? “They must have good food,” I mumble as we step inside. The heat from the bodies, kitchen and furnace engulfs me. I’ll be sweating in my coat if I don’t get it off me soon.

“How long?” Alex asks.

The waitress in her mid-fifties with mousey brown hair streaked with silver gives him a disbelieving look. “It’s Thanksgiving. I’ve got about fifteen people ahead of you.” Then I notice the sign. Thanksgiving Special. Turkey and the fixings $3.99. I glance around again. I’d bet what remains of my savings that ninety percent of the people enjoying their meal are homeless or barely have two nickels to rub together. I so don’t want to take a table, or even a seat at the counter from someone who needs a cheap meal far more than me. And, $3.99 is way cheap for a meal in New York. A young couple, who look like they haven’t slept in days are in a back booth with two small children. Worn and dirty backpacks are on the floor beside them.

All of the plates in the diner are filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans and a roll. The works. There are also pumpkin pies lined up on the counter, waiting to be served for dessert. My mouth waters. I’ve practically existed on ramen to save money for the tat, make rent and pay for luxuries like internet. I wouldn’t even be paying for that if I didn’t need it for research and emails with professors.

“We see Santa after this?” the little girl asked with excitement. She couldn’t be older than four or five.

The parents share a look and my heart breaks in that instant from the pain in the mother’s eyes. I’ve seen many families like them. They can barely feed their kids, let alone give them a magical Christmas, and every kid deserves a visit from Santa.

No, I don’t have money to spare, but I did save a lot by risking my tattoo on someone auditioning and not insisting on having a Reed do my tat. Pulling my wallet out of my bag I look at the bills, then take a deep breath and take out fifty dollars, leaving me with $200 from what I’d saved up, then I fish out an envelope and shove the money inside.

“You keep envelopes in your bag?” Alex asks.

“I write a lot of letters.” He doesn’t need to know who those letters are written to, or why.

On the inside flap I write “For Santa shopping”.

When the waitress comes by, I ask her to give it to the family in the back booth.

Alex pulls me back outside.

“What’s wrong?”

“I forgot that it’s Thanksgiving.”

Actually, I had to. Today was about my daughter turning six and getting a tattoo. “If you have someplace to be, no big deal. We can catch up later.”

He shoves his hands in his front pockets and blows out a breath. It’s white in the cold air. “What are you doing for dinner?”

I shrug. Maybe I’ll splurge and open a can of tuna.

Turning, I glance back at the window and to the booth where the family is sitting. I want to make sure they get the envelope and that the waitress doesn’t pocket it. It’s not that I don’t trust the waitress specifically. I just don’t trust a lot of people to do the right thing.

The mother is holding it, a hand is over her mouth and then she wipes a tear before giving it to her husband. He opens it and a small smile forms before he covers his wife’s hand with his own.

I did need that money, but they need it a hell of a lot more and for once, I’m glad I acted spontaneously.

“Roommates got stuff planned?”

I blink up at Alex.

“Roommates? Plans?” His blue eyes bore into mine as if saying Earth to Kelsey.

“No, they went home.” Each invited me along but I had the excuse of the job interview tomorrow. They thought it odd that I’d interview on a day when schools are closed, but I explained that Baxter was working with my schedule. Nobody else needs to know that Baxter doesn’t celebrate holidays. Any holiday, and tomorrow is just another Friday for them.

My roommates don’t know about the tat either, and probably never will. They don’t even know all of my past. Just that I’m an orphan and went to an art academy. It’s good enough for them, and thankfully, they don’t pry. Besides, I’d been to their homes and never felt comfortable. Families gathered around the table, being nice to each other because it’s a holiday, trying desperately to make me feel welcome, like one of them. Feigning interest in my school and future plans. It’s like being dropped into a foreign country where you don’t know the language and you’re without a translator. The job interview was my perfect out.

Alex grins and grabs my hand. “Come home with me.”

I pull back. “That’s okay. I’ve got stuff to do.”

“You can’t be alone on Thanksgiving, Kelsey.”

“I don’t exactly want to be with strangers, Alex.”

His grin grows large. “But, they aren’t. Not really.”

I narrow my eyes on him. Was he just trying to get me back to his place? He’s got to know that we may have started repairing a once burned bridge, but I sure as hell am not starting anything or getting involved with anyone at this point in my life.

“Come on.” He pulls me toward the subway. “Great meal, great guys. You won’t be sorry.”

I anchor my feet so he can’t pull me any further. “Alex, we haven’t seen each other in almost five years, and we were never friends.”

His head drops, and he turns around, facing me. “Yeah, I know.”

“Just go on home. I’ll go home, and maybe we’ll get coffee some other time.” I pull on my hand, but he’s not letting go. Normally this would send off alarms in my head and my gut, but it’s not.

His blue eyes study mine. “Come with me Kelsey.”

“Why?” What can this matter to him?

“I fucked up. I should have gotten to know you, and because I was a stupid ass with a chip on my shoulder, I didn’t.”

“It’s no big deal.” Though it was. At least back then, and the reason I hated him. But it’s not so much anymore. Not after today.

“It is to me.” He grabs my other hand so that he’s now holding both, like he doesn’t want me to get away or something. “Come back to my place, enjoy an awesome Thanksgiving meal, and we’ll talk.”

His phone dings and he lets go of one hand to pull it from his jeans pocket. After reading the screen, he grins at me and turns the phone so I can see. “See what awaits.”

There’s a photo of a turkey, or what I think is a turkey, mostly wrapped in foil. Beside it on the counter are bowls and all kinds of pots on the stove in the background. [_Thirty minutes and counting. Browning, carving then eating, _]the text read.

Damn. He’s offering turkey and all the fixings. My stomach grumbles. I don’t even have turkey-flavored ramen. Actually, I’m not sure if they even have that flavor, but if they did, I don’t have it. I know exactly what’s in my allotted cupboard back at the apartment. A can of coffee, half a loaf of bread, 3 cans of spaghetti, 2 cans of tuna and two packages of chicken-flavored ramen.

Then again, I did save money by letting Alex do my tat instead of insisting and waiting for one of the Reed Brothers to be available, but that didn’t mean I needed to go out and spend it. Besides, I just handed over fifty to a family in need. “I’ll just go home. Enjoy your meal.”

Alex types something into his phone and then shoves it in his pocket. “Nope. You’re coming with me.” This time he hooks his arm with mine and pulls me to the stairs leading down to the subway.

I try and jerk it away, but he has a tight grip. Not that he’s hurting me or anything. Just being pushy. Or make that pulley since he is practically dragging me along behind him.

“I saw that look in your eye when you saw that turkey. You want it, even if you don’t want to admit it.”

Of course I want it. I’d love to sit down to a real meal for a change, but that doesn’t mean I should. Alex is still practically a stranger. What if he’s all weird and shit like that? He doesn’t strike me as dangerous, though. I’m not getting that vibe that usually warns me when someone’s a creep, but we don’t know each other. Not really.

He stops at the turnstile and gets out his metro card and scans it. “You won’t be sorry.”

I pull my card from my pocket and scan it, before following Alex down another flight of stairs to the platform. “I’m already sorry.”

We get there just as the train pulls in.

“Perfect timing.”

We wait for the passengers to exit before getting on. There are no empty seats, and barely enough room to stand. I didn’t think the subway would be this busy on a holiday. “Where do you live?”

“Brooklyn.” Alex answers as he grabs the pole for balance.

I do the same. I’ve lost my balance before, and the last thing I want to do is end up on some stranger’s lap.

“We’re renting a townhouse.”

“How many live there?”

“Six.” He shrugs and I gape at him. I’ve been in a number of brownstones and townhouses that were once gorgeous but were now broken up into apartments. One on top of the other, similar to the four bedroom I share with my roommates. Some were roomy and some, not so much. But six guys in one apartment? “That has to be crowded as hell.”

He frowns and then his blue eyes lighten just before he laughs. “We don’t rent an apartment, we rent the entire townhouse.”

Holy crap. I didn’t know tattooing paid so well. Those places cost a fortune.

He’s shaking his head. “It’s not what you think. It was a family home but got to be too much for the older couple who owns it. They moved to a smaller apartment. [_He _]wanted to cut it up for apartments and even started to in the attic. He planned an apartment for each floor like a lot of owners have done. Make it into an income property.”

I hate how so many early twentieth century buildings are cut up like the one I live in. Such beautiful architecture destroyed for the purpose of making as much money as possible.

“The wife is completely against the idea and wants the place to keep its original charm. The rent was already cheap because of the condition of the place, but we talked the couple down because two of my roommates also work construction. In exchange for cheap rent, we’ve fixed the roof, plumbing and electrical, but there’s still a ton of work to do. We got the important stuff done, the rest is mostly cosmetic.”

Sounds like a great deal. If I knew how to operate a power tool, I’d try to find something like that. But, since I can’t even hammer in a nail, I’m stuck in an expensive shoebox close to campus.

“Each month we give him the receipts and an estimate on what a contractor would have charged, and he adjusts the rent. We don’t know what we are paying from one month to the next, but it’s the best deal in town, and he’s happy to have people living there who aren’t just keeping the place up, but making it better. It’s cheaper for him in the long run to have it done this way instead of hiring a firm to gut the place.”

“So, who do you live with? You said they weren’t strangers, but we don’t exactly have the same circle of friends.”

Alex chuckles and shakes his head. “You’ll see.”


h1<. About Jane Charles

Jane Charles is a USA Today Bestselling author who has lived in the Midwest her entire life. As a child she would more likely be found outside with a baseball than a book in her hand. In fact, Jane hated reading until she was sixteen. Out of boredom on a long road trip she borrowed her older sister’s historical romance and fell in love. Eventually she penned one of the many stories that were always in her head and discovered her passion for writing. Jane is an author of both historical and contemporary and blames being a Gemini on why she can’t pick one over the other.

Connect With Jane

  • @JaneACharles
  • JaneCharlesAuthor

www.JaneCharlesAuthor.com

[email protected]

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h1<. Jane Charles’s New Adult Romance

Baxter Boys

Rattled: Rattled #1 (Baxter Boys Series ~ Rattled)

Still Rattled: Rattled #2 (Baxter Boys Series ~ Rattled)

The Rattle Box: Rattled #3 (Baxter Boys Series ~ Rattled)

***

Baxter Academy

Valentine Wishes: The Legacy #1 (Baxter Academy Series ~ The Legacy)

Colors of You: The Academy #1 (Baxter Academy Series ~ The Academy)

Shadows of Memory: The Academy #2 (Baxter Academy Series ~ The Academy)

Casting Doubt: The Academy #3 (Baxter Academy Series ~ The Academy)

Between the Lines: The Academy #4 (Baxter Academy Series ~ The Academy)

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h1<. Jane Charles’s Historical Romance

The Tenacious Trents

Compromised For Christmas

Landing a Laird

A Misguided Lord

A Perfect Gentlemen

Devil in Her Dreams

A Lass For Christmas

A Reluctant Rake

Lady Revealed

Lady Disguised

Lady Concealed

A Tenacious Trent’s Wedding

Lady Admired

Wiggon’s School For Elegant Young Ladies

To Walk in the Sun

Ghosts From the Past

A Gentleman’s Guide to Once Upon a Time

His Impetuous Debutante

His Contrary Bride

His Not So Sensible Miss

His Christmas Match

Muses

Her Muse, Lord Patrick

Her Muse, Her Magic

One More Haunted Evening


Rattled

  • ISBN: 9781370003761
  • Author: Jane Charles
  • Published: 2016-08-05 16:20:15
  • Words: 15673
Rattled Rattled