First there was sex, and then came death. I just had no idea that the two were so tangled together until everything fell apart so spectacularly. I was at work at The Coffee Cave on Saturday night trying to ignore thoughts of the sex I couldn’t have—and consequently craved even more than the drugs that I used to need more than my next gasp of air.
I’d been off the poison for going on five months and away from my ex, Tommy, for the same time. The difference was that I still slipped up on the sex-with-Tommy front. It was stupid, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the way we were without words or clothes between us. Neither was Tommy. If we had let go of the lingering threads of our two-year relationship, I’d be all over the beautiful tattoo artist who was smiling at me as I started a fresh pot of his favorite coffee.
Adam was the fantasy, the man I pictured when I allowed myself to dream of the happily ever after I’d never get. I settled for calling him my friend, and being the eager recipient of his smiles and confidences.
“You know I’ll drink whatever you have brewed,” Adam said, his deep blue eyes crinkling at the corners .
“And you know you’re happy that I make the coffee you actually prefer.” I grinned at him. I wasn’t flirting. I tried my damnedest not to do that with him. I was pretty sure that I was the only woman in Rio Verde who tried not to flirt with him.
Adam Bradbery was six feet of taut muscle and gorgeous ink. With his smoothly-shaved head and five o’clock shadow, he was the kind of guy who had nothing but bad habits, but he was actually a bit of a food purist. He made me want to give up more of my lingering bad habits. I’d already given up cocaine because of the conversations we’d had.
Adam flashed me another perfect smile and said, “Thanks. I do prefer the organic Kona. Shade grown, toxin free. It’s better for you.”
“Uh huh. I’ve heard the speeches a few times already, Adam. Toxins are bad; organic is good.” I smiled at him though. I didn’t mind his speeches even a little. I didn’t mind anything about Adam. He was my ideal for what I wanted if I ever had a normal relationship: strong, smart, healthy, and sexy.
His was the kind of build that made women sigh and men pause. Adam looked intimidating even in his most gentle moods. He had the sheer size that often meant that he didn’t need to raise a fist to stop a fight. He had no fat anywhere on him. Adam was all muscle, and his spa-perfect skin was liberally decorated with tattoos. Even out in the desert sun, his art still looked crisp. The man knew how to take care of his body, and it showed. He was a bit intense about his health. No drugs. No cigarettes. He lived on an organic diet. He was also committed to meditation and a rigorous work-out schedule of boxing, weightlifting, and running. Somehow, Adam managed to be bad-ass and supremely healthy all at once. He drank a little, but his only true vice was indulging in naked relationships with far too many of the ink bunnies who loitered in his path. Sex was Adam’s one big weakness. It was easy to see why. Looking at him for longer than a minute was enough to make me consider taking a turn in his line of all-too-willing partners.
Unfortunately, Adam was also Tommy’s cousin, so Adam and I were firmly in the friend zone. There were perks to being his friend, of course. We had conversations, lunches, shared a drink after work most weeks. Being the only girl in his life that was around for more than a night was the biggest perk. I knew that the rest of the girls were fleeting, but I was a part of his life—and it would stay that way as long as we didn’t fall into bed.
I still looked. A lot. Whenever I had an excuse, like right now, I let my gaze roam where my hands and lips couldn’t. I dreamed of him, and I fantasized about what life would be like if I wasn’t such a mess and he was willing to do commitments. That was all it could be: dreams and fantasies.
As I tried to keep my thoughts from my expression, Adam repeated his regular question of late: “When are you coming by Sinners to finish the piece?”
I shrugged as I stacked clean mugs on the counter. I glanced around the shop at the two drunk girls who seemed to be having a heated conversation in a low voice, the customers studying or staring at their laptops, and my co-worker Cass who was staring at Dillon, the hot musician singing to the motley crowd. There were no distractions to save me from the conversation.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get my tattoo done, but I had my reasons for putting it off. “Not sure,” I muttered.
“I’ll be at The Tiger tonight if you want to look at your schedule with me,” he offered.
I nodded, glancing again at one of the drunk girls who looked like she was going to spew at any minute. Cass was glaring at the girls as if willpower alone would prevent vomit. The only thing keeping her from getting rude was the way Dillon’s voice kept distracting her. He was like that: the voice of either an angel or a devil.
“I don’t know,” I told Adam, who was standing with his hands on the counter and his gaze on me.
The truth was that I wasn’t sure I could handle seeing him tonight, especially at the local dive bar. He never picked up his fling of the moment in front of me anymore, but sometimes I thought that only made it harder to remind myself that he was off limits. My eyes traced over the light gleam of sweat of his tattooed biceps and the way the torn black t-shirt clung to his chest and abs. Every inch of his body was so lickably gorgeous that it was hard not to sigh. Adam was built to be sighed over. The shaved head, bright blue eyes, and sculpted muscles combined to make him damn near irresistible. I had resisted though. Even though I was single again, I resisted. He was a friend when I’d been in desperate need of a shoulder, even bringing me soup when I was sick and alone one weekend. Despite his revolving bedroom door, Adam was definitely one of the good guys.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. I’d seen him throw down in more than a couple fights. Being a tattooist sometimes meant dealing with an unsavory crowd. Being Tommy’s cousin often meant dealing with a bad element. Adam handled the worst of them like an off-duty MMA fighter . . . which made him risky in a whole different way for me. I liked men who could handle themselves in a brawl. Hell, I liked everything about him.
I quickly looked down at a burn mark on the counter before my staring was too obvious. I wished my hair wasn’t all pulled back in a braid. It was harder to hide my face without my hair to use as a shield. I wasn’t going to ruin our friendship—or Adam’s relationship with Tommy—by thinking about Adam’s perfect mouth or his obscenely muscular body. Okay, I wasn’t going to ruin it by letting him know I thought about it. I couldn’t really stop thinking about him, not entirely. I’d tried.
“As soon as I can,” I said. “I promise. I want to get my tattoo finished. I just can’t right now.”
I didn’t tell him why. I knew he thought it was about money, and I let him think that. It wasn’t like I had much money to spare. I would for this, but that wasn’t the real problem. The tattoo I’d started in January—a series of cherry blossoms and branches that spanned my right side and would eventually stretch under my right breast and ease along my hip—was something I’d wanted for years, but we’d reached the part of the piece that was on my chest, and I couldn’t handle being stretched out topless on Adam’s table while his beautiful hands held me in place. It was difficult enough when he was working on my side and back. The one session we’d had where he’d started the outline on my chest had sent me running out the door.
Friends. Friends was good. Friends meant I couldn’t allow myself the tremors I felt when his eyes and hands were all about me.
A banging noise in the back drew my attention. I didn’t even want to ask who was having sex in the bathroom again. I knew we were a bit of a dive, but really? Sex in the coffee shop bathroom? It was vulgar.
“We can work something out, Sasha,” Adam suggested, once more pulling my attention to him.
“Not right now.” I loved the way he said my real name. No one else used it. Everyone had started calling me Sugar since I took up with Tommy a couple years ago. He had introduced me as Sugar Sweet when I met people, and they mostly figured it was what I wanted to be called. So, Sugar became my name. It was even what I called myself. Adam refused to use it. To him, and him alone, I was still Sasha.
He gave me a strange look that I couldn’t read. On someone else, I’d have said it was jealousy, but Adam and I weren’t like that. We were friends.
“Are you back with Tommy?” he asked.
I shook my head. My New Year’s Resolution this year was to get my shit together. Tommy wasn’t willing to do the same, so we split up. Most of the time we even stayed split up. Not all the time though. Staying clear of drugs was easier than staying away from Tommy.
“I’m not with anyone,” I told Adam. I met his eyes as I added, “I’m not back on the shit either. Five months.”
Adam nodded. “Just asking. I know it’s hard, and you’ve been doing great.” He paused and gave me a proud look. “You’re strong enough to do anything you want, Sash. Tommy’s good people, but you don’t need mixed up in the shit he sells.”
I caught Cass watching us then. She was always quick to suggest I should work out my issues with Tommy by overdosing on the lusciousness that was Adam. She didn’t understand that I didn’t want to throw Adam’s friendship away over a few days of sex, and even if I did want to, I couldn’t see Adam doing that to Tommy. Seeing Cass made all of my arguments to her rise up in my mind. It helped.
“I’ll call you soon. Promise,” I told Adam.
He paid for his coffee—black, no sugar or cream, nothing fancy other than the beans themselves—and then dropped a ten-dollar bill onto the counter. Before he turned away he added, “You don’t have to avoid me because you’re too stubborn to let me do your art on credit, you know?”
“Sinners Ink doesn’t accept credit,” I reminded him.
“The shop doesn’t, but I would for you, Sasha.” He looked at me with the same smoldering gaze that made all the ink bunnies drop to their knees if he gave them half a chance.
“I don’t need credit.”
“The option’s on the table if you change your mind. If you aren’t coming by for art, we can still grab a drink or whatever.”
“I’m sure you’ve been busy, and I don’t want to get in the way of your social life,” I said. He was a great friend, and I didn’t want to screw it up by hanging around all the time like I was one of the ink groupies or the girl who chases away all his hook-ups.
“You’re never in the way,” he said. He shook his head, turned, and left.
I watched him go, wishing things were different. He was beautiful, sweet, and covered with the kind of tattoos that made clothing seem like a crime. For as long as I’d known him, he was also with a different girl every week, and he wouldn’t poach Tommy’s territory even if I ever admitted that I wanted poached. There was no way anything could happen with Adam. Not now. Not ever. Neither of us was looking for a relationship. He screwed ink bunnies, and I still made late night visits to Tommy more often than I should. I just needed to keep some space while I got my head around the fact that he was off limits. Our last few tattoo sessions had made that detail absurdly hard to remember. The man was gifted with his hands even when he was just doing his job. It was embarrassing how close I’d come to whimpering simply by being tattooed by him.