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Too Sweet: Chapter 3


THE BELL CHIMES WHEN I PUSH THE DOOR OPEN. I’m early. My appointment’s still fifteen minutes away, but I don’t want to loiter in the street.

A distinct smell of green soap hangs in the air, and the black-painted walls are covered in chalk drawings and mirrors. My heels click against the dark, hardwood floor as I take a few steps further inside.

A tall, blonde woman in black rims stands behind the counter, tapping the screen of her iPad with a stylus. She peers up, blue eyes sparkling with amusement as she gives me a slow once-over. “Do you have an appointment?”

I come closer, clutching my small bag in both hands. “Yes. I’m booked in at six o’clock.”

She checks me out again, tapping the screen. “Toby!” she yells over her shoulder. “Your six o’clock is here!”

A vintage room divider separates the entryway from the rest of the studio, blocking the view, but footsteps reach my ears seconds before the artist approaches. His arms and neck are covered in mismatched colorful pictures that somehow work great together.

“Hey, Mia,” he says, wearing a subtle smirk.

I narrow my eyes, racking my brain for clues. He looks familiar, but it takes me a moment to place him. He’s the first—and only—guy my sister cried over when he snuck out of our house last year and never called.

Aisha nearly always cuts them loose after one night, but it was a different story with Toby. They spent two weeks traveling Mexico together after they met in a club and randomly decided to take a road trip. All was well until they came back, and Toby left Aisha’s bed before she woke up.

“Hi, I didn’t realize you’re a tattoo artist. Sorry I’m early.”

“Nah, it’s alright.” He takes the iPad and runs his eyes over the screen. “Right, it says here you’re supplying the design. Come on, you can tell me what we’re doing.”

I follow him behind the room divider, further into the large space filled with big mirrors and white chairs like those you find at a gynecologist’s but with more moving parts.

A young guy lies back in one, utterly relaxed, while the artist inks his pecs. His eyes land on my face for a moment but don’t stay there long before they drop to my boobs. Not that he can see much. Every inch of my cleavage is inside my dress.

Toby directs me to the left, where a glass coffee table is tucked between two leather couches.

“You want a coffee?” he asks. “Latte?”

“Yes, please.”

“Yo, Knox!” he yells toward the back, where a guy I’ve seen at college mops the floor. “Black coffee and a latte.”

“Coming right up, boss.”

I pull out a folded piece of paper, handing it over to Toby. It’s a simple tattoo, the letter Q with the symbol for Spades from a pack of cards underneath. “This is what I want.”

He glances at the page, scratching his chin, his eyes flicking between me and the design. “Alright… how about you tell me the story behind this ink.”

“It’s Queen of Spades,” I explain like it’s not obvious. “I play Bridge. Spades is the strongest suit, and people I play with took to calling me the Queen of Spades.”

“Bridge?” Toby cocks an eyebrow, fighting a smile. “You want this because of a card game?”

“Yes. Is something wrong with that?”

Knox approaches, balancing two cups and a sugar bowl on a small tray. He carefully places the latte in front of me then does the same with Toby’s black coffee.

“I bet you don’t know the street meaning of this.” Toby rests his elbows on his knees, putting one sugar in his cup. “If it’s tattooed on a white girl, it means she’s got a sexual preference for black men.”

“Oh,” I mouth. There goes my tattoo idea. My stomach sinks, and pulse hammers faster. Why didn’t I check this online? It’d take one Google search. “I didn’t know that.”

The overdoor bell chimes, and heavy footsteps thump into the room.

“I don’t care what you put on your skin. You just don’t strike me as someone who’d advertise things like that on her body.”

I shake my head again, covering the froth in my latte with two spoons of sugar. Weekly Bridge sessions became a part of my life last year. Thanks to the people I play with, my life has become fuller. Easier.


A familiar voice reaches my ears, and I flinch, startled by his presence. Too bad I’m holding coffee. My hand twitches and half of the cup spills over my legs.

“Shit,” Toby huffs, reaching to the closest station for a roll of paper towels. “Knox, get the first aid kit.”

“That’s not necessary.” I set the cup aside, my cheeks burning hotter than my thigh. “It’s just a surface burn.” I pat dry my dress, chancing a glance over my shoulder. Nico stands a few feet away in a pair of navy trousers and a white t-shirt, holding a box with takeout food in his hand. “Hi.”

“Hi,” he echoes. It’s such a short, sweet word, yet it doesn’t sound pleasant on his lips. More like a fired bullet. “Skittish much?”

Not usually, but his presence turns me into a ball of nerves. “Sorry, I was miles away.”

He sits beside me, the rich scent of his cologne pungent in the air, targeting my nose and doing weird things to my belly. He hands the box to Toby and his hand jerks toward my skirt like he wants to lift it higher.

I flinch again, unable to stop myself, and scoot as far as the two-seater sofa allows. Hayes brothers come in varying degrees of funny, caring, and confident with a sprinkle of arrogance, but something about Nico has a contradictory effect on my mind and body.

The powerful aura surrounding him makes me want to stand to attention, shouting sir, yes, sir, but at the same time, I imagine crawling onto his lap and hiding my face in the crook of his tattooed neck.

“Are you done?” The coldness in his voice balances just above freezing, tinged with husky anger that sends chills down my spine. “I want to check how bad it is.”

On instinct, I angle my body the other way.

As if that’ll save me…

Despite the fight or flight response urging me to flee, my insides turn hot when you’re gorgeous resonates through my head. I’ve recalled those words too many times. I’ve recalled his broad shoulders, dark hair, and low, rough voice even more.

“Thank you,” I say, clasping my damp skirt to make sure he can’t yank it up and check the burn on my thigh, but at the same time, I defy my instincts, meeting his searing gaze. “It’s not that bad.”

He studies me for a moment like he’s trying to read my mind, his features pinched, a muscle feathering his jaw. “Fine. What are you getting done?”

Toby interjects with a short, awkward laugh. “Nothing now, right?”

I’m about to agree when an idea pops into my head. It’s not what I wanted, but it’s close enough and still marks the time I spend playing Bridge. “Is there anything wrong with Queen of Hearts?”

“No, that’s cool. You want that?”

“Yes.” I touch the outer side of my wrist. “Here.”

“Queen of Hearts?” Nico asks, summoning my attention just as Knox approaches with another black coffee for him. “The card suit?”

“Yeah, she plays Bridge,” Toby answers for me, pushing his food aside. “Didn’t you say over the phone that you need to head back to the office?”

“Plans change,” Nico clips, pinning Toby with a pointed stare. “I’m done for the day.”

“Why didn’t you grab something to eat?”

“I ate.”

Toby cocks an eyebrow but loses the stare battle and shrugs, looking back at me. “You got any tattoos? Do you know how this will go?”

“I’ve got a few. I’m aware of the process.”

“Okay, let’s get this done. It won’t take long.” He gets up, gesturing for me to follow. “You want black or red ink?”

I sit on the white torture chair, glancing away from the mirror. “Red, please.”

“How are you with pain? Should I fetch the anesthetic?”

“No, don’t worry. I won’t cry.”

He smirks, hauling a small stool closer, then positions my wrist on the arm support. “How’s your sister?”

“She’s okay. Partying like always.”

“I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“She lived in London for a few months but didn’t like it and moved back two weeks ago. She’s organizing a girls’ night out tonight. You’ll find her in Q if you missed her.”

“What a coincidence.” He glances at Nico, clearly amused. “That’s where we’re going tonight. You need to meet her, man. I don’t know another girl who can party like Aisha.”

“I know her. She’s not my favorite person.”

The first sharp prickle of the needle assaults my nerve endings, but I’m too busy with my thoughts to feel pain, however mild. My sister is a nymphomaniac. Self-proclaimed, but I bet the doctors would agree.

The mere thought of Nico knowing her turns my stomach. Has he snuck out of our house after making her scream in the bedroom adjacent to mine?

He makes my heart race for two different reasons, and I’m not sure which is stronger: lust or unease.

I wince, what Toby misinterprets for pain.

“Five minutes, and I’m done,” he assures.

“Cody asked you last week if you’re okay to go back on stage,” Nico says, the sharpness of his voice softening with every word. “Are you a dancer?”

“Um, no. I sometimes work with the DJ who played at the party. Your brothers like the covers we record, so they asked me to sing a few songs.”

He falls silent, staring into my eyes with the intensity of a diving hawk. “Piano, vocals… What else?”

“Piano is my passion. Singing is just for fun.” With my free hand, I find the corner of my dress, twisting the fabric between my fingers. “I write songs, and thanks to Six, I meet people from the industry.”

“Do you have time later? I want to show you something.”

God, how can an invitation sound like a threat?

The thought of being alone with him makes me feverish, stressed, and snug at the same time. Whenever he looks at me, my legs want to run, while my ovaries would prefer to crawl out of my body and stroke him.

“Sorry, but I have plans.”

“Next time,” he replies, glancing at my wrist, and for once, I read him with ease when his eyes widen a little. “You good?”

“She’s fine,” Toby supplies, positioning a small towel under my wrist to catch the excess blood. “You know the anesthetic’s not an injection, right? It’s a cream, Mia. Next time, ask for it instead of taking pain meds before your appointment,” he chuckles.

Pain meds are not the reason I’m bleeding so much from a tiny tattoo, but considering four artists turned me down in the past when I explained I might bleed excessively, I don’t correct Toby.

Three minutes later, he’s done. He disinfects the new ink, then covers it with aftercare cream. It’s perfect. Small, but not too small, the letter and heart symmetrical, even though he didn’t use a stencil.

“Thank you. And thank you for explaining the meaning of the other one.” I grab gauze from my bag, make a quick dressing, and hold my hand vertically to discourage bleeding.

“Yeah, no worries. Take care, Mia. Don’t wear bracelets until it’s healed.”

My eyes cut to Nico, another awkward wave on the go before I can stop myself. “Bye.”

“I’m going, too. I’ll walk you out.”

“Where are you going?” Toby frowns, opening the takeout box. “You just fucking got here. Sit down.”

Nico doesn’t explain, just pats Toby’s shoulder, then grabs his keys from the coffee table while I move to pay for the tattoo.

“Where’s your car?” He looks up and down the street once we leave the studio.

“I can’t drive.” A glint of surprise flickers across his face and I realize it sounds like I’m too young to drive. “I mean, I’m a terrible driver. Five minutes into my first lesson, I crashed the instructor’s car. I never took the wheel again.”

The lights on a green Mercedes parked by the curb flash twice. “Get in. I’ll take you wherever you need to be.”

“It’s nice of you to offer, but I’ll take a cab.”

His features pinch, annihilating the softness that was there a second ago. “I won’t hurt you, Mia. You know that, right?”

I’m not a great judge of character, but I’m not paranoid enough to think my friend’s brother—the mayor’s son and grandson to the loveliest eighty-year-old woman I ever met—could hurt me.


“Then get in.”

I shake my head again. “The cab is fine, thank you.” I rock on my heels, and when he doesn’t reply, I add bye before my heels click-clack against the pavement as I walk away, calming down with each step away from Nico.

“I’ll see you in Q,” he says behind me.

“You won’t.”

I’m not invited to hang out with my sister. The difference in age, worldview, style, and character has been taking a toll on us for years.

“Bye,” I say again before sliding into the backseat of a cab.


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