Within the walls of his tattoo shop, Dead Ink, Lars hides in plain sight from the past he walked away from. But he still battles every day with the dark urges that drove him from his position as the Grim Reaper. Then Faith Dover appears, seeking his aid, and Lars discovers that he isn’t as hardened as he thought.
On the run from her kidnapper, Faith stumbles into Dead Ink, towing in enough secrets and baggage to weigh down the dead. But Lars isn’t the savior she hopes him to be. Dark and seductive, he might be more dangerous than the people she’s running from.
When he discovers her suspicious ties to a crew of murderers, will he help her or cast her out to the craziness that has overtaken the world? Can Faith win the heart of a soul incapable of trust?
A note from the author: This is a companion romance novel that takes place in the Karma urban fantasy world. It runs parallel to Fated’s timeline. It can be read alone or in addition to the series as the final book.
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Length: 67,000 words
Dead Ink Excerpt
Lars’ hand was steadier than humanly capable as he guided the tattoo gun. It wasn’t a big surprise. After all, he wasn’t human.
He swiped a rag across his client’s skin and then leaned back in his chair as he looked at his masterpiece. The tattoo started between the guy’s shoulder blades and ran down his back, ending above his waist. The intertwining serpents were his creation, and a piece that was inspired by his former occupation as Death, also known as the Grim Reaper.
“How’s it look?” the client asked.
“Shut up.” Lars preferred either complete silence or blaring music while he worked, but never idle chitchat. The constant drone of a human’s voice was akin to a fly buzzing in his ear. He didn’t understand why the majority of humans constantly needed to vocalize every thought that popped into their brains.
It was only he and the client in his shop, since the two other tattoo artists he employed were off today. If you weren’t getting a tattoo, you weren’t allowed in the shop while he was working because, like he’d mentioned, humans never shut the fuck up. If they weren’t talking to themselves they were getting all into his space, oohing and ahhing. He didn’t care what some random asshole off the street thought of his work. Even if it was a chick he was considering having sex with later, and he got plenty of those in here too, he didn’t want to talk while he worked.
“How long do you—”
“I told you. Shut. Up. Speak again and I won’t finish.” Lars knew that wasn’t a problem. The guy would either shut up or he’d knock him upside the head and shut him up.
“Hey, I won’t pay you if—”
“Shut up!” Lars said as he jammed the tattoo gun over a sensitive area of his client’s already battered skin. “I don’t give a shit about the money.”
The guy didn’t say another word. Lars hadn’t been lying either. He didn’t do this for the money. He did it because, for some reason, he felt compelled to.
When he’d first retired, in an unorthodox manner, from the agency that ran the Universe, he thought a tattoo shop would be a good cover for him. There were always fringe sorts hanging around these types of establishments, the kind of people who weren’t looking to blend in with society but to break the norms and live as they wanted. He’d always respected that, and it seemed to be a perfect environment for him to hide in plain sight.
In the beginning, he’d hired some artists to do the work. One day, a hot chick he considered banging wanted him to give her a tattoo. Out of pure boredom, he agreed. He started dabbling, on and off. A year later, he looked up and realized he’d been doing it every day and that when he was tattooing was the only time he felt completely at peace.
When the door opened and disturbed his peace, that early evening, he didn’t bother looking up; he just shouted, “Get out.” He dipped the gun in some more ink and started working on the details of one of the serpent’s scales.
“Are you Lars?” a female asked.
Her voice was high pitched and screamed of estrogen, just the way he liked a woman’s voice to be. He knew exactly what that voice would sound like if he decided to take her to bed, but he was working so he didn’t bother looking up. He’d had too many women to get excited about just one, at least not while he was in the middle of a piece.
“I told you to get out.” She did have a nice voice. He knew she was cute without even looking. “Come back in a couple of hours,” he added as an afterthought, still not bothering to look at her. Even if she wasn’t attractive, he’d bang her from behind. There was usually at least one acceptable angle to be found.
“I can’t.” The sweet voice was edged with determination.
Lars sighed loudly and placed the tattoo gun down on the table by his side, accepting the fact that he’d have to stop working if he wanted to get her out of his hair. He should’ve dead-bolted the door before he started, but he’d been distracted lately.
He stood up, cursing himself for not hiring a shop helper, and refusing to schedule one of the other artists today, so he could delegate this nuisance. He turned, an aggravated sigh escaping as he did, and looked at the unwanted visitor.
He froze. She looked like a wood nymph. Her blonde hair, too thick for her head, was wild and unkempt. Large turquoise eyes peeked out from a dirty face. None of that was why he nearly knocked into the table next to him. Whoever she was, she wasn’t human.
“Get out,” he said, this time to the guy he’d been working on. When his client didn’t move, he nudged him with his knee. “I told you to get out.”
“Huh?” The guy jerked his head up. “Me?”
“Yes,” Lars said, never losing eye contact with the woman standing just a couple of feet inside his shop.
“But my tattoo?”
He hated when grown men whined. “I’ll call you. Now get out.”
The client scrambled to his feet and Lars shoved the guy’s shirt at his chest, nearly bulldozing him out the door and causing his unwanted visitor to jump out of their way.
He slammed the door shut and clicked the deadbolt into place.
Faith wrapped her arms around herself as she watched Lars move about the room, lowering the shades and securing the place until they were truly alone. No one passing by the shop for an evening stroll would know anyone was in here.
Or come to her aid if things went badly.
He turned back to her and her feet started shuffling away. She thought about the list of threats she’d taken from Malokin’s desk. Lars and Dead Ink had been the first name on the list and the easiest to get to. When you didn’t have a car, or a dime to your name, location trumped all. But now, standing here, looking at who Lars was, she wondered if she should’ve taken another few minutes to assess her options.
He was a large man, and even though the grey t-shirt he wore wasn’t skin tight, as he moved about the room she could make out the heavily corded muscles beneath. If he decided to turn his strength on her it would be a knockout in round one.
But it wasn’t just his size, his long black hair or the tattoos running up his arms that peeked out above the neck of the t-shirt that made her eyes shoot to the now locked door. It was what she couldn’t see that frightened her most. She felt an energy about him, with his nearly-black eyes locked on her, and she fought back a shiver.
There was a hunger about him. She didn’t know what he craved but she could sense it, as if he weren’t complete. The way his gaze was appraising her, like he was now, made her wonder if it was something he thought she could satiate.
She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d expected Lars to be like. Just because he was an enemy of Malokin’s, one of the crazy psychopaths who’d abducted her, didn’t mean he would be an ally of hers or that he’d be the opposite, a sweet and kind man. But she’d hardly been thinking logically in the last week, let alone in the five minutes she’d had to make her decision before she’d dashed out of that hotel room the first opportunity she’d had.
He stopped moving and settled into a spot several feet in front of her, between her and the front door. Feet spread, arms loose at his sides, he looked as if she’d need a bulldozer to move him out of her way. She turned her head, looking to see if there was a back exit if need be.
“You came to me. You aren’t leaving without telling me who you are,” he said, in response to her darting eyes, taking another step closer.
She didn’t move again. If she ran now, she feared she’d be tackled on the way to a door she’d never make it out of there.
“I’ll leave whenever I’m ready to,” she said.
“Sure,” he mocked. A short exhale of breath with a slight noise that might have been the beginning of laughter showed he didn’t believe that was possible.
She let it go, knowing her mouth had run ahead of her brain like it occasionally did. It would be idiotic to push this situation into an unnecessary conflict. She needed his help. She had to keep that paramount in her mind and be nice, even if it killed her.
“Who are you?” he asked again, impatience leaking into his tone and transforming his posture into something slightly more threatening.
She’d made a choice to come here. Time to hope it was the right one, because she didn’t think there’d be any do overs.
“I don’t know,” Faith answered and realized as bizarre as it sounded, it was true. She’d known who she was a week ago but not anymore. If she looked up her full name, Faith Dover, on the web, she was fairly certain she’d find an obituary for someone who bore no resemblance to the person she looked like now.
“You better come up with something better than that. Usually when I meet people who aren’t human, and I don’t know them, I kill them. Take the opportunity I’m giving you to explain before I get tired of waiting.”
He took another step forward until he was only a foot away, and a tremor ran through her that she hoped he didn’t notice. He was definitely impatient. She had a feeling he wasn’t the type to naturally run long on that attribute anyway. She’d never been easily intimidated but dying seemed to have unsettled her composure a bit.
Maybe she should’ve gone to the second name on the list, someone named Fate, but this place had been closer. She had to believe that the five miles between this location and the next address didn’t mean the difference between life and… Could you even kill a dead girl?
She watched as he stood in front of her and realized that, good or bad, the choice was out of her hands, for now anyway. She was here, and her second and third choices were no longer available. Might as well lay it all out on the table. And come to think of it, she had already died once this week and come out of that intact. If he did kill her, maybe she’d just keep coming back?
“I really don’t know anymore. I can tell you who I used to be.” She watched his face, waiting to see what reaction he would have. There was none.
“Keep talking.” He didn’t retreat or continue forward, the only movement was to cross his arms, showing off the striated muscles of his forearms. The gesture worked against physics and somehow made him look larger.
She thought of how to explain all that had happened, not sure how to tell him the chaotic events that had occurred. He was going to think she was insane. What if she told him and he called someone from the loony bin to come and get her?
She did a mental shake of her head as she appraised him. No. Chain her up in a basement? Maybe. Call the cops or an ambulance? She’d bet no on that one.
“Talk.” He leaned forward as he said it. If she didn’t start giving him what he wanted, he’d be on top of her soon.
The buildup of frayed nerves took over and she decided to run with the situation as she started babbling it all out, without a thought to what was being said. “I was running an art show in my gallery in Seattle, and I went outside to go get my phone. It was dead, and I wanted to charge it, but I didn’t have a cord in my office because I lent it to a friend the day before, and so I only had a car charger and I hate not having a phone and there was no—”
“I get it. You went outside.” He made a rolling motion with his hand so close to her it caused a few strands of blonde hair to sway. His eyebrows rose slightly. “Then what?”
And here came the ugly part she didn’t like to think of, let alone have to explain to someone. “There was a sharp pain. Someone stabbing me, I think, but I’m not sure because I couldn’t find any wounds and I still can’t, and then I was somewhere else entirely and it wasn’t Seattle anymore, and I didn’t look like me. There was this guy who said I was dead and I had to work for him, and I think I’m having a psychotic break because none of this makes any sense, but he had your name on a list of threats and I made a run for it—”
“What was his name?” His words cut through hers, startling her out of her rambling.
“Who?” Faith didn’t care that he kept cutting her off. She wasn’t sure anything coming out of her mouth was making sense anyway. It didn’t sound plausible to her and she’d just lived through every horrifying second of it. Maybe she should’ve gone to the cops, but if it were true…if she was dead, and all the things that had happened to her were accurate, what would the cops do?
She didn’t look like herself anymore; she had no proof that she was who she said. She’d definitely end up in a psych ward for sure, locked up like a sitting duck for that psycho to come and pluck her up, pretending to be a relative or something. No; Lars, as intimidating as he looked, was still the better choice.
She looked at him with that thought in mind. Boy, she might really be fucked if he was it, though. She had a feeling the odds were really low on him having a Good Samaritan plaque hanging in the back somewhere.
“The one who wanted you to work for him?” His voice was calm as he reminded her that he was still waiting for an answer, and somehow she heard the weight of the question he’d just put to her. She had a feeling he was already suspecting the name she was about to give but she wasn’t sure if it would be a good or bad thing.
She looked around, as if just uttering his name would somehow make it possible for him to find her here, and then decided she’d probably read too many Harry Potter novels. She cleared her throat, trying to get rid of the hitch she knew would be there, and forced the name out anyway. If Harry could do it, so could she! “Malokin.”
She flinched as he suddenly went from almost perfectly still to a movement so fast it blurred. His arms unlocked and his fist slammed into the nearest counter, splitting the wood and dislodging everything upon it in the process and she was glad she hadn’t mentioned the other one who’d wanted her.
Faith nearly tripped in her effort to move farther away from him. He didn’t seem to notice as he let out a string of curses. She backed up until the wall was at her back and prayed to a god she was fairly certain had forsaken her that she hadn’t made a huge mistake. Then she remembered that she was an atheist. Oh yeah, she was screwed for sure.
First his friend Fate dragged him into this mess with Malokin, and now the shit storm was literally spreading into his shop, Dead Ink. Up until this point, even with the gangs on the street and the way the riots were kicking up, he’d managed to maintain some semblance of normality. The world might be going to hell but in his small corner, there was still normal civilization. It might only be a block long but it was enough for him.
His attention swung back to the girl who’d brought the mess inside his shop with her.
She’d marched right in here and dragged Malokin, the most likely cause for this upheaval, right along with her. Malokin was a sadistic bastard who lived for pain and anger and had been eluding him and the guys for years. The only thing they knew about him was that he was somehow the psychical manifestation of anger and had appeared with increasing regularity, right along with the increase of riots and the gangs in the streets.
And now he appeared to be sending care packages to Lars, all wrapped up in the shape of a helpless female with a sweet voice. And how did she get past his wards? Anyone wishing ill upon him or his property shouldn’t have been able to make it beyond the sidewalk. Unless he’d left a loophole? Did he say people wishing him harm or just men? He’d have to redo them now.
Still, she didn’t look like trouble, and you didn’t hang around as long as he did and get lied to easily. Problem was, the read he was getting off of her contradicted everything he knew about Malokin’s tactics so far. He didn’t recruit the innocent types to work for him. She could be here setting a trap.
But she was here so what did he do with her now?
“What’s your name?”
“Faith Dover,” she said and then her eyes drifted off toward the door again. “Or it used to be.”
Her fingers hadn’t stopped toying with a rip in the dirty shirt she was wearing, and she looked like she hadn’t slept in a week. Her pants appeared to have been rolled around in a dirt pile while she was still wearing them, and he thought that might have been a fragment of a dead leaf stuck in her hair. He would’ve thought Malokin would’ve sent her out packaged up a little better. She was definitely attractive but she looked like filet mignon served up on a moldy hamburger bun. Malokin might be a sadistic psychopath but he was a sophisticated and polished one. Nothing about this made any sense.
“Why did you decide to come here?” He took a few steps closer to her, closing the distance that had been created when he’d lost his temper, but stopped when he saw her chest rise and fall more rapidly. He didn’t want her terrified to the point she’d hyperventilate. He wanted answers now, not in a half an hour after he’d gone to the trouble of reviving her from a spell of nerves.
“Because I didn’t want to work for him or be near that man and I didn’t know where else to go. You were the closest name on the list I knew I could get to.”
“Closest to where? Where is he?” Lars asked, thinking maybe they’d finally found a lead on the slippery eel’s location. They’d tracked Malokin down many times to always get there just as the dust was settling from his departure.
He could see her struggling to remember and then a thought triggering an action. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and looked at it quickly. “The Breakwaters,” she said as she handed it to him, the name and address of the hotel stamped on top, his shop’s address and his name scribbled in messy handwriting below, as if she’d been in a hurry.
He pocketed the piece of paper. “You’re lying. He hasn’t been at that location for a week.” Lars knew that for certain. He and the guys had busted into the room he’d used four days ago. It was the closest they’d gotten to him thus far.
She looked down at the floor as if she were trying to figure something out. “I guess it was a week ago.” Her eyes glanced over at one of the mirrors hanging on the tattoo shop’s wall that was framed by pictures of people’s tattoos. She raised her hand up and tried to smooth down her disheveled hair some. She certainly looked like she could’ve been roaming around for a week and he started having doubts again.
“What were you doing if you left him a week ago?” he asked. He looked at her as his mind bounced between the possibilities, not feeling comfortable with either verdict.
“I was traveling through the woods to avoid being seen and then I got sick.”
“You weren’t sick. You’re dead. You can’t get sick now, only hurt. When he recruited you, didn’t he bother explaining any of this?” he asked, the contempt leaking out in his voice. Not only was he getting Malokin’s mess but now he had to school her, too?
She stopped fidgeting and straightened. “He might have if I’d stayed longer. And I assure you, I was sick.”
Looked like she had a temper lurking under the nervous act.
“You weren’t sick,” he repeated sternly. “You were transitioning.” And if she was telling the truth, sick was an understatement. He’d seen humans transition. The process looked closer to torture than a case of the flu. It wasn’t pretty, and to have to do it by yourself, all alone out in the elements? He thought back to the wet weather they’d been having but then shook off the feelings of pity. It was probably a bullshit story anyway. Although her appearance made a little more sense if she’d gone through it by herself out there.
“Transitioning?” she asked.
“From mortal to what you are now, one of us.”
“One of you?” she asked.
She looked like she really had no clue. “Don’t change the subject. If he recruited you, why’d you leave?”
“I couldn’t stay there with him. He was doing…” She started shaking her head as if she wanted to mentally rid herself of whatever she’d seen.
“What? He was doing what?”
“He had people, and he was doing horrible things to them. There was nothing I could do for them.”
Her face told him everything he needed. Torture. Nothing surprising there. He’d get more information on that later but let it drop for now. She was a scattered mess as it was. He could get the details after he got the more important information. “How did you get away?”
She looked surprised at the question. “I just left. I guess he figured I wouldn’t.”
He leaned a hand on the counter beside him. “So, you’re telling me you just walked out?”
He turned and took a couple of steps away from her as he digested the whole story. It was so unbelievable that it almost became plausible again. If Malokin had coached her, given her a story to tell him, this one was idiotic or brilliant, because he had no idea what to think anymore.
But he knew she was scared. He could smell it on her, hear it in the fluttering of her rapid heartbeat. At least that part was something he could be confident of. You can’t fake scared. Pheromones didn’t lie. Still, the idea of Malokin going to the bother of recruiting someone and then simply letting them have enough freedom to get up and walk out that easily made his suspicions rise up and stay there.
“Go over there and sit.” He pointed to the free chair he used when he tattooed. She hesitated. He had to give it to her; she had some guts.
He barked out, “Sit,” again, but with a bit more force, and it got her moving. He was scaring her more but a certain amount of fear would be beneficial to his cause now that he had some answers. He’d get cooperation easier.
She sat in the chair he’d told her to but was pretty sure it was because he’d shocked her into action. He barked out, “Don’t move,” in a deeper tone. The last thing he felt like doing today was chasing her through the parking lot.
He dug out his cell phone from his pocket as he kept an eye on her. He walked to the farthest part of the room he could and still keep her in his line of vision. He dialed Fate, the reason he was knee deep involved in any of this shit to begin with.
“Here,” Fate said as he answered the phone.
“I got an unexpected visitor you will be interested in meeting,” Lars said and then continued on to tell him everything he’d found out so far. “I need you and the guys to get over here and figure out what to do with her, because this is not going to be my problem. I want this mess out of my shop by tonight.”