The Purest Hook (Second Circle Tattoos #3) by Scarlett Cole

Chapter One

Had it really been seven years?

Sarah-Jane “Pixie” Travers sat down in the entryway to Second Circle Tattoos, the studio she managed, and ran her fingertips along the gray slate. It was impossible to believe that seven years to the day, the first day of April ironically, she’d been reborn on this floor. Not that she remembered too much of it. Sure, she could still recall how cool the tiles had felt against her itching skin, but she had long-since buried the sensations of nausea, and her concerted effort to forget the shame of suffering uncontrollable tremors had been successful.

Working through the humiliation of throwing up at the feet of the two men who would become her saviours had taken longer. There would never be a way to repay Trent and Cujo, her bosses, for saving her life that day.

She’d been in Miami less than twenty-four hours when muggers had stolen what little money she’d saved to start over. But it was Trent and Cujo’s decision to not call emergency services when they realized that she was in withdrawal that helped her most. Their generosity to find her an outpatient program, and pay for it with what little money they had was what kept her alive.

Pixie breathed deeply, the spring Miami air crisp and fresh. It was her favorite time of year, before the humidity of summer made everything sticky. The tattoo shop would open at ten as usual, but the need to come and take a moment, filled with gratitude for the way her life had changed on that day, was great. And there was inventory that needed doing, which was always easiest when the supplies were tucked away in cupboards where they belonged.

Belonged. Pixie sighed, said thanks to the entryway one more time, and stood. Using the key she’d been given years ago, she let herself into the studio and turned off the alarm. Everything was spotless. All the chairs faced their stations. No ink, tattoo machines, pens, or gloves littered the countertops. The dark wood floor was swept and polished. The bright Miami sunlight poured in through the windows revealing the occasional dust mote, but otherwise it was clinically clean, exactly how she liked it.

Pixie took her role as manager very seriously. She owed the owners, Trent and Cujo, everything. Literally. Without them, it was unlikely she’d have made it to her twenty-third birthday.

She ran her fingers along the woodwork around the door recalling the hours spent stripping years of paint from it. In an attempt to pay Trent and Cujo back for their help after rehab, she’d returned to the studio daily to paint and decorate or run errands for them, like picking up lunch. It kept her mind busy, making it easier to resist the temptation of finding something to take the edge off.

At night, they’d allowed her to sleep in the undecorated office but told her to keep out of sight, not wanting to end up on the wrong side of licensing regulations. Every morning, one of them would bring her breakfast; the other would get her something for dinner later on in the day. Cujo would force her to eat, even when she didn’t feel like it. He told her she had to be related to the fae, given she was so tiny, or a Pixie, given her love of singing, dancing, and, again, her short stature. Pixie had been the nickname that stuck.

In no time she had been ordering stock, dealing with vendors, and organizing the storeroom. When Trent and Cujo offered her the job of operating the front desk, she’d been delighted. And when Lia, one of the tattoo artists they’d hired, offered her a room in her condo for embarrassingly low rent, she’d jumped at the chance.

They’d never pressured her to tell them how she came to be in their doorway that morning, and for that she was eternally grateful. Finding the words to explain what transpired the night she’d fled her mom’s trailer was more than she could bear. Thinking about Arnie, her stepfather, and the things he had asked her to do, still had the power to send her into a panic-stricken spiral. She constantly dreamt about blood-covered hands, even after all this time.

Outside, the street was quiet. Seven in the morning on a Thursday was too early for tourists. It would be hours before the city fully came to life.

Cujo and Trent would be in at ten. It was rare for them to work the exact same hours, although they overlapped often depending on shifts, but on this day of the year, every year, Trent put the three of them on at the same time, even if it meant he had to work fourteen hours straight. One of the things she loved about Trent was his capacity to remember the important things.

The previous evening, Lia had gone to the superrich gated community of Star Island to visit her parents, whom she disliked almost as much as they disliked her. Lia had wanted to ditch them all together and stay home with Pixie, until she found out her brother, a Navy SEAL, would make it home from his latest deployment. Eric, the last of the four tattoo artists, had gone out to L.A. to visit his brother and wasn’t expected back until Saturday.

Pixie placed her purse under the front desk and opened her planner, making a note to buy some navy tulle on her way home. The little girl’s party dress she’d started sewing the previous evening needed a couple of extra layers in the skirt to balance the fairy wings she’d already made. What had started as a hobby was fast becoming a small business, one she hoped to take on full time eventually. A photograph held to the planner with a bulldog clip caught her eye. It was worth the hours of sewing and embroidery when she received a photograph of a grinning little girl wearing one of her dresses.

Pixie plugged in her phone and let the playlist she’d built blast from the speakers. It contained songs from some of the greatest musicals and films. Up first, Idina Menzel. Rent, Wicked, and Frozen, were all on there. Once done, she’d move onto Elaine Paige classics. Evita, Chess, and Sunset Boulevard. It was such a contrast to the usual metal and heavy rock everyone listened to during business hours.

Standing in front of the large studio mirror, she pulled her bobbed purple hair up into a ponytail. It was the first time she’d allowed it to grow since she’d chopped it all off the day after leaving home. She wondered briefly if her mom was still there. Or even alive. Too scared to call home in case she got Arnie, Pixie had no way of knowing what had become of her. But staying clean was more important than chasing the past, and she knew speaking to Arnie would be a trigger.

Pixie decided to start with inks. She pulled all the boxes out of the cupboard, but kept them organized by brand and color. The inside of the cabinet needed a good clean, so she got supplies from the closet and got to work.

A couple of hours, and nearly a full pot of coffee later, Pixie was buzzed, and finished. Inventory was done, workstations were set up for the day, and appointment calendars were printed. Pencil in hand, Pixie sat at the desk, doodling ideas for her latest order. Ladybugs were her favorite party dresses to make, and she tried to make each one different.

The studio phone rang, and Pixie glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was still forty-five minutes before opening.

Voice mail could take it. Pixie sketched the little antennae, but the ringing bothered her.

Unable to ignore it, she picked up the phone.

“You’ve reached Second Circle. How can I help you today?”

“Pix?”

She knew that voice. It was the only one that wrapped around her ribs and squeezed tight. “Hey, Dred.” Dred Zander was a fellow judge with Trent on the reality TV show Inked. He also rocked every metalhead girl on the planet as lead singer of Preload. They’d met on a few occasions. And maybe she’d thought of him a few times in between.