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By Marie Rochelle


Handsome tattoo artist, Griffin Bell had been focused only on one thing since buying Inked from his best friend, Dante Braden. He wanted to beat his biggest competitor, Lexington Brand at the upcoming tattoo competition. He wasn’t about to get distracted by anything or anyone until Ceanna Gibson walked through the front doors of Inked looking for a job.

Ceanna Gibson knew there was only one tattoo shop that was worthy of her talents with a tattoo machine…Inked and Griffin Bell in Los Angeles, California. She packed up her bags and moved there in hopes of making it big. However one thing happened she never expected…Griffin. She hated him on the spot and wouldn’t work for him if he came begging on his hands and knees.

Can Griffin make Ceanna see they are meant to be together before his enemy finds a way to snatch up the woman he loves?



Chapter One

“Griffin, I can’t believe you’re still planning on entering Inkedin the Tattoo Expo this year,” a voice taunted. “I mean, why would you want to humiliate yourself again in front of your friends? Pins and Needles has kicked Inked’s ass for the last two years.

“Why don’t you just sit this one out for once? Here’s a suggestion, try again when you’ve hired more talented tattoo artists. Honestly, with all of these defeats you aren’t making things better for yourself. Everyone knows I’m the best and you are nothing but a loser. I believe the only year this tattoo shop actually won the trophy was when your buddy Dante still owned it.

“Dante smartened up and tucked in his tail, running away when he heard I was coming. He took his sorry ass across town and opened his bar, but as much as you try to follow in his prize-winning footsteps you can’t cut it running this place without him. How could you when he was the most talented artist working here? Why don’t you just sell Inkedor close the doors for good? I might even offer you something for this place. I’ve been thinking about opening up another studio and this would be the perfect location.”

Griffin Bell glared at the man standing directly in front of the receptionist desk. “Lexington, why don’t you keep your fucking opinions to yourself? I don’t recall asking for them,” he snapped. “You aren’t wanted here, so get the hell out of my shop. This is private property and you are trespassing.”

“Have I hit a nerve?” Lexington questioned. “The truth is usually a hard pill to swallow, but you need to be told and I’m more than happy to do it.”

“I’m busy. So why don’t you get the hell out of my place before I show your sorry ass to the door?” Griffin warned in a low voice. “And I can promise you won’t like the way I do it, either.”

Holding up his hands, Lexington Wade took a step away from him with that familiar, sickening smirk on his face. Griffin hated that stupid look more than he cared to admit. It pushed all of his buttons.

“Don’t get upset with me, because you know I’m telling you what your so-called friends are afraid to say,” he flung back. “Pins and Needles’base is already twenty times better than your money pit here. I’ve the numerous awards to prove it. They are displayed inside a case at my shop. Do you want to see all of them? You’re more than welcome to come by my successful business and see how many times you have failed at getting one.”

“Get out,” Griffin shouted. “I’m not going to warn you again.”

“Be man enough to admit you aren’t as good as me and then you can move on,” Lexington snickered, blatantly ignoring Griffin’s several warnings. “I’ve heard there will be a face painting booth this year at the competition. Why don’t you and your buddy Caleb volunteer to work there? I mean, both of you are pitiful when it comes to doing tattoos. At least you can spend your day doing something fun for the children.”

Jumping up, Griffin continued glowering at his top tattooing rival. He despised the bastard with every fiber of his being, but he couldn’t ignore the guy. Lexington was constantly in his face bragging about all of his accomplishments.

Lexington opened his tattoo shop in Los Angeles almost three years ago and had taken most of Griffin’s top-paying customers right from underneath him. He couldn’t lie—Inkedhad suffered when Dante left and opened up his bar a few blocks away, but it hadn’t gotten so bad that Griffin thought about throwing in the towel. At least, not yet, and if he had anything to do about it Inked would be here for several more years.

He couldn’t seem to find good tattoo artists to compete against the asshole annoying him. Of course, Lexington loved shoving his many victories down his throat, but this time would be different. He was going to win this year’s competition by a landslide. All he had to do was think of a way to do it without giving this jerk any hints.

“Damn, I thought you were the toughest one out of the trio,” Lexington mocked, “but it seems I have gotten under your thin skin pretty fast. I guess that’s why you always choke during all of the important competitions.”

“You don’t know what the hell you are talking about. Lexington, you have never made me choke doing anything,” Griffin flung back.

“Actually, I did hear before I moved out here that Dante was the one with the most talent. I thought people were lying, but now I can see they weren’t.”

“Get the hell out of my shop, you son of a bitch.” Storming around the desk, Griffin stopped directly in front of Lexington. He and the other guys had hated this bastard ever since they first laid eyes on him.

“The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” he lashed back. “I mean, it’s way past time you realize how worthless you are when it comes to doing ink. Just come to grips with your faults now and drop out of the upcoming competition before you get laughed out of town. God, who do you even have to enter in as top artist?”

“Don’t worry about who I have or don’t have,” Griffin said. “All you need to do is get ready for when the judges hand me and Caleb the top trophy this year instead of you.”

“Yeah right,” Lexington laughed. “Do you think I’m stupid? Caleb is trying to stay forever young and is far from it. Besides, he’s too busy sleeping with everyone in town to care about his craft anymore. Didn’t I say just a few minutes ago that Dante realized this place was a sinking ship and left? Hey, I heard he got married to some little Orphan Annie last year to feel important. How is that going for him?”

“Enough,” he hollered, grabbing Lexington by the front of his shirt. “Keep talking about my friends and I’ll physically toss your ass out of Inked instead of allowing you to walk out on your own. You better be glad Dante isn’t here to hear you talking about his pregnant wife. He would kick your sorry ass faster than me.”

Knocking his hand away, Lexington shoved him. “I would like to see you try it. I can kick your worthless ass any day of the week without breaking a sweat. You can’t tattoo worth shit, so I’m pretty sure that you can’t fight worth a damn, either.”

“How about we find out how well I can fight?” He lunged for Lexington, only to be stopped by a hand wrapping around his arm.

“Stop it now!” At the sound of the voice, Griffin stopped suddenly in his tracks. Glancing over his shoulder, he glared at Caleb. His best friend was standing behind him, a dark, angry expression etched across his face.

 “What the fuck is going on here?” Caleb demanded. “Damn, if I hadn’t come through the back door the two of you would be tearing each other apart along with everything in this place.”

Griffin jerked his arm away, then faced Caleb. “Mr. Wade decided to come here and boast about how he has beaten us at the tattoo competitions. I got tired of hearing his mouth and was about to shut it permanently. Yet, you decided to step in and stop me.”

“Don’t you dare move,” Caleb warned, brushing past him and taking his place in front of Lexington’s face. “You have overstayed your welcome. I think your employees and customers are missing you at Pins and Needles. Why don’t you leave and find your way back there?”

Standing to the side, Griffin watched Lexington size up Caleb as his brows drew together in an angry frown. Both men might be the same height, but Caleb’s body had more bulk on his frame from his former days as a personal trainer.

“Why would I listen to a loser like you?” Lexington demanded hotly. “You’ve no right to tell me anything with the way you have screwed up your life.”

“I’ll show you who’s a damn loser,” Caleb snapped, making an abrupt move towards Lexington.

Hearing the sudden anger in his friend’s voice, Griffin pulled Caleb back. He couldn’t have a fight break out at Inked. He had to get the situation back under control.

“Caleb, don’t let this bastard push your buttons. He gets off on seeing any of us pissed off. His day isn’t going to be made until he sees one of us taken away in handcuffs. Don’t let it be you. He isn’t worth getting fingerprints and a mug shot on file.”

“Fine, I’ll let it go,” Caleb said, holding up his hands and taking a step back. He shot Lexington a warning look. “If he doesn’t leave, however, I might change my mind.”

Snickering, Lexington glanced at Caleb then back over at him. “God, you two are such wimps. I’m out of here. I need to think about my prize-winning tattoo so I can kick Inked’s ass for a third time in a row.”

Griffin breathed a sigh of relief when Lexington spun on his heel and walked out the front door, leaving him alone with Caleb. “Shit, I hate that guy,” he said, watching as their mutual enemy stormed past the front window to his car. “I swear, if he comes in here again I might not be so nice to him.”

Caleb’s mouth spread into a thin line. “I know where you’re coming from. I hated him on sight as well, but you can’t let him continue to get under your skin. Lexington only does it to get a reaction out of you, because he knows you have a very short fuse.”

He took a deep breath and ran his hand along the back of his neck. God, Caleb was right. “Dante warned me about the same thing, but it’s hard for me not to want to punch him in the face. He’s begging to get hit.”

In spite of the situation, Caleb chuckled. “Lexington does make you want to give him a black eye, but you can’t. So, why don’t we talk about something else? Have you found that female tattoo artist yet? I know you were trying to find information about her on the Internet.”

For five months, Griffin searched every tattoo site where new and upcoming artists posted their work for recognition, but he wasn’t able to find one single drawing by her. More than once, he had kicked himself for allowing probably one of the most gifted black female tattoo artists to get away from him because of his attitude. He needed Ceanna Gibson to beat Lexington at this year’s competition.

Sighing, he shook his head. “No, I haven’t had any luck finding her. I’ve used all of my Internet tricks and nothing worked. I think I’m screwed. I’m just hoping that asshole doesn’t find out about Ceanna before I can snatch her up.

“He has already stolen two of our best guys in the last eighteen months. I can’t let him win again. Ceanna is my best shot at getting that trophy this year. Do you want him shoving another statue in our faces?”

“Of course I don’t,” Caleb replied quickly. “But getting into a fistfight with him isn’t going to help our cause, either. We need to use our heads to beat this guy. He loves using dirty mind tricks against us and we always fall for it. This year we need to outthink him, it’s probably the only way for us to win.”

Griffin sighed. He hated he couldn’t punch his rival in the face, but he didn’t want to end up in jail for assault because Lexington would press charges against him without thinking twice about it.

“Okay, I’ll keep my temper in check, but we both know that Inked doesn’t have the artists Lexington has working for him at Pins and Needles. Hell, he stole Keelan from us two weeks after he started. If we can’t keep our artists from bailing on us, how the hell do you expect us to win anything? Damn, I’m getting tired of all of this shit. How about you tell me what’s going on with you? I need to get my mind off all of this,” Griffin said, changing the subject as he brushed past Caleb.

Going over to his work station, he started getting it set up for his next client coming in a few minutes. Inked wasn’t bringing in the high-end customers it used to a year ago, but he wasn’t giving up on getting his business back to the level it used to be, when Dante was still the owner and main tattoo artist.

Grabbing a chair away from another station, Caleb pulled it up and took a seat across from him. He straddled it, folding his arms on the back, and leaned forward. “Honestly, I’ve been staying at home more than you know. I’m not into the bar scene like I used to be. You can only party with all of the hot chicks for so long before it starts getting redundant.

“I saw Dante out with Amara the other day and he looks so damn happy. He isn’t the same guy who used to work sixteen hours a day at Inked with us. He has this silly grin on his stupid face now,” Caleb complained. “I just don’t get it. What’s so damn good about being married?”

Griffin checked his needles, making sure they were clean before he laid them to the side, and then got his paints together. Today, after an appointment with a regular, he was meeting with a new client, a professional MMA fighter who wanted a black panther on the back of his upper shoulder. The money he was getting paid from this would help fatten up his bank account. Even the extra money Dante tossed his way from his bartender job at the club was barely keeping his head above water lately.

“Dante fell in love with Amara. I think it started from the moment he caught her trying to steal his food during that rainstorm. She wrapped her small hand around a piece of his heart and never let it go. I think they are the perfect balance for each other. We both know Dante had the hardest time getting over his feelings for Keira when she and Jim got back together.”

Caleb nodded his head in agreement. “I know. I remember how he acted during that time. I had never seen him so down before,” he admitted. “Are you jealous because you’re still single?”

Griffin glanced up from his tools. He stared at his friend for a few seconds. “I wouldn’t admit to being jealous. But, it would be nice to have someone in my corner like Dante does with his wife. She’s totally in love with him and doesn’t see any other man but Dante. I can’t lie. I do miss being in a committed relationship.”

“Do you have time for a girlfriend?” Caleb asked him. “I mean, your focus has been directed towards Inked for so long. Can you truly divide your time up between here and building a relationship?”

He shrugged. “You’re right. I do split my time between working here and helping out at Dante’s Way. I don’t have time to breathe. I wish I had an extra day in the week to spend with a woman but I can’t seem to find it.”

His friend chuckled at him. “I’m pretty sure if a hot chick walked through Inked’s front door right now, you would find a way to spend time with her. Have you forgotten how long we have been friends?

“I know you and you haven’t been in a good relationship in over three years. It’s way past time for you to get a woman. Hell, if you’re rusty and need some help, I can introduce you to some of my ex-girlfriend’s best friends. I know of at least three women who would love to go out with you. For some odd reason, they actually think you are good looking,” Caleb joked.

Griffin wasn’t about to go out with any woman who had been within touching distance of Caleb. His best friend wasn’t the best judge of character when it came to the women he dated.

“Thanks, but no thanks. I can find my own woman. Besides, I don’t think we are into the same type of women,” he replied.

Leaning forward in chair, Caleb scowled at him. “What’s wrong with the women I’ve dated? Every one of them has been hotter than hell. You’ve seen them. All of them could be in Maxim,” he defended. “When did you get so picky when it comes to dating? I thought you loved a good body and pretty face.”

He couldn’t deny what Caleb was saying. His best friend was right because, months ago, he would have jumped at dating any woman Caleb knew. They were all head turners, but he had grown up since meeting all of Dante’s married friends. Hayward and his friends were married to beautiful and intelligent women.

He was beginning to see a woman’s outer beauty didn’t matter as much as her inner beauty. So, until he ran into the one woman who would fit perfectly into his growing needs, he would take a break from dating and focus all of his attention on running Inked.

“You’re right,” Griffin admitted. “I used to be that guy and I wasn’t pleased with that person all of the time. Now it’s time for me to take another look at everything around me and change. I think you should do it, too.”

Caleb shot up from the chair so fast that it almost hit the floor. “Hell, I’m not old enough to be going through a midlife crisis. Because I stopped going to the club every night doesn’t mean I’m looking to find a woman and get married. It isn’t in the cards for me. I’m still very happy living as I do. I swear, first Dante falls in love with Amara. We barely see him now unless it deals with the business. I can see you’re looking for someone, too. God, I swear, I’m happy if the two of you want to change, but leave me alone. I’m not thinking about building a family. I’m not interested in changing how I am.”

Hearing Caleb reminisce so fondly about their past made Griffin realize how fortunate he was that he wanted to change. Working brilliant tattoos was his love now and he wasn’t about to ruin it for anything in the world. Sadly, Caleb was still searching for something meaningful he lost a very long time ago. Griffin thought his friend should have never walked away from Zeniya after she told him she was pregnant. If he had only worked things out with her, he could be raising his son today instead of going around in circles in search of nothing and trying to find what he needed in the bottom of a liquor bottle.

“Have you ever tried getting in touch with Zeniya about your son?” Griffin asked. “Why didn’t you apologize to Zeniya for cheating on her? I mean, both of you could have come to an understanding at least for him. How old is he now?”

Reaching behind him, Caleb picked up the chair and retook his seat. “I’m not going to talk about Zeniya. What’s in my past will stay there. I can’t change what happened between us, so don’t bring it up again.”

Griffin heard the pain in Caleb’s voice, but he wasn’t going to press the issue. Caleb had his own demons to deal with before he could move forward, but he thought his friend was making a huge mistake by not trying to find his ex-girlfriend. They looked so good together in the few photographs shown to him. From the way he’d talked about her, Zeniya had brought out the best in Caleb and all of that left when he walked away from her and his baby.

“Alright, I’ll leave it alone,” he said, then glanced up at the clock. His client would be arriving soon. “I need to finish getting ready anyway. Roger will be here in about ten minutes. How about we meet up later at the bar later and we can finish this conversation there? Dante is having a Guys’ Night and that means a special on beer and hot wings.”

Griffin hoped Caleb agreed to his suggestion. He already knew the answer before the words left his friend’s mouth, but he decided to ask Caleb anyway. Neither one of them had been around each other much lately since that one time Caleb showed up atInked hung over and Dante, still working at Inked, had to take over his clients for the entire day. He loved Caleb like a brother, but his buddy had to get his shit together.

Caleb groaned low in his throat. “I can’t tonight. I already have plans with Eva. If I cancel on her again, I’m not going to get another opportunity with her. If she hadn’t come in the top five at the Miss America pageant, I wouldn’t deal with her nasty attitude, but she’s fine as hell and I’m not about to dump her.”

“Fine, but you will be missing a lot of fun. I know you aren’t even going to think about joining us,” he said, watching as Caleb grinned at him.

The chime of the bell above the door drew their attention towards the front entrance. “He’s here,” Griffin said, getting up from his chair. “This is going to be a six-hour tattoo, so I’ll be here most of the day since another person is coming in after this.”

“Well, I’ll see you later,” Caleb said, walking with him towards the entrance of the shop.

“Please just stay out trouble,” he warned. “Dante and I can’t be getting you out of any more disagreements or fights with guys because you were flirting with their girlfriends.”

Slapping him on the back, Caleb chuckled. “I learned my lesson when I got into a fight with that ex-bouncer.”

Griffin watched as Caleb walked past his customer and continued on out the door. He didn’t believe half of what his buddy just told him. Caleb’s love life was a revolving door when it came to the women who shared his bed. They never stayed around long enough for him to even remember their last names.

Looking away from the front door, Griffin made eye contact with his regular client, Roger Daughterly, who was standing over at the side. “Good morning, Roger. Are you ready to get started on the jaguar you wanted on your back?” he asked, pushing thoughts of Caleb to the back of his mind.

“Yes, I’m ready,” Roger answered, shaking his hand. “I’ve wanted this piece for a while and I know you are the best artist to have it done by. I love the other two tattoos that you have done for me. They are amazing.”

“Great. I’m thrilled my talent keeps you coming back. Let’s head over to my work area,” Griffin replied, leading Roger over to his work station. He hoped Roger loved what he did and then gave him another good reference, since Inked needed all the new customers it could get.