Lane

Chapter 1

Tattoo Guy

 

“It’s not stalking—it’s getting coffee.” The voice coming from behind me wasn’t as quiet as the speaker probably thought it was, because even though it was low, it was still perfectly clear in the busy coffee shop.

“It’s stalking when you do it just to follow someone.” Where the first voice had been teasing and slightly sarcastic, the second was…sweeter somehow. Even if the words had been boring, I think the difference would’ve drawn my attention.

“It would be stalking if you kept obsessively walking past a store and trying to follow him home.” There was an unsaid duh in the voice that made me want to laugh. But since I seemed to be the object of their not-stalking, I thought it might be inappropriate, or chase them off. Neither of which was the goal at that point.

The second voice still sounded skeptical. “Okay, yeah…that’s really stalking, but I think this counts too.”

“It’s not like we’re here every day. Three times a week isn’t stalking.” There was a confidence in the first voice that made me want to grin. Even if the topic was crazy, he was firmly convinced he was right. While the second one wasn’t putting up much of a fight, I had a feeling that whatever they were doing, it was all the first voice’s idea.

“I’m not sure there’s a weekly limit on stalking sessions. I mean, even if you just do it once a week, I think it still counts.” There was an earnestness and almost innocence about the second voice that made me want to turn around and see who it belonged to.

Which was even stranger than the actual conversation I was overhearing.

Especially since the voice belonged to a man.

“There have to be weekly limits, otherwise if you just ended up at the same grocery store as someone else on a regular basis then you could consider it stalking.” I could almost picture the first voice rolling his eyes. There was no way I would be able to keep a straight face, as funny as they were. But thankfully, they were behind me and wouldn’t be able to tell.

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s the intent that matters.” I had to put down my drink as the second guy spoke, because even though I was trying not to laugh, my hand was still shaking.

The first voice grunted, clearly thinking the second guy was crazy. “Do you want to get your fix of all that tattooed sexiness, or do you want to be a functional adult? You can’t have it both ways.”

A grin broke out across my face. Tattooed sexiness, huh? And I wasn’t sure what stalking had to do with being an adult; the possibility of jail time  probably shouldn’t be a deciding factor of whether to count yourself as an adult.

But did that mean the new guy was too young to date?

The randomness of the question had my grin fading. Why did I even care how old he might be?

“Don’t forget to drink your coffee. If we get back to work and you haven’t had any, they’re going to ask us what we were doing here so long.” The owner of the first voice definitely had more experience with being devious. “Remember the other day, you had to throw out almost an entire mocha.”

The second guy sighed. “But I was distracted. He had that other guy with him, and I couldn’t tell what they were talking about.”

My brain flashed to the meeting he’d watched. I’d been talking with Stan, the owner of the shop I worked at. We’d been talking about the possibility of me buying into the business. It had been an intense discussion, so I could understand how my stalker had gotten distracted and how I’d never noticed.

“And that’s why I told you we had to sit closer. If you want to learn more about him, you’re either going to have to get a tattoo or sit closer. You just picked sitting closer.” The first voice sounded like he thought getting the tattoo was a better idea. Curious.

“Tattoos are permanent. I think he’s hot and sweet, but that’s no reason to have him shoot needles into my body.” Okay, so the second voice wasn’t sold on tattoos yet. Not that I wanted him to get one just because he was curious about me.

Which was still incredibly interesting. I wasn’t sure I’d ever been stalked before, especially by someone who’d even considered getting a tattoo just to get closer to me.

Although the first voice was right, I wasn’t sure I’d call timing our coffee trips to coincide as stalking. The first guy snorted. “I saw you browsing around tattoo options yesterday. Don’t give me that shit. We both know you’ve been thinking about getting one since you first saw the guy.”

“That doesn’t matter. Even if I go in and get one that I absolutely love, I’d think of him every time I saw the tattoo and that would just be terrible. He’s probably a straight guy who’s married to a sexy blonde biker chick who’s the mother of his three children. I’m not delusional, just stalking.”

“It’s okay. We all have to fall for a straight guy at least once. It’s some kind of rule. Especially when it’s someone polite and covered in tattoos.” I couldn’t tell if the first voice was serious or not, but I had a feeling he was just trying to make the second guy feel better.

I wasn’t covered in tattoos. I just had a couple.

“You’re right.” He sounded like it was the worst thing in the world. “I actually have a date with a real person this weekend. One my mother set me up with…some guy from her church, or maybe it was her hairdresser, I don’t remember. We’re supposed to go out to dinner.”

The first guy giggled. “Oh God, that’s going to go bad. There’s no way to tell him what you do without your mother finding out. Is he open-minded?”

What did they do for a living?

If it was illegal, they wouldn’t be talking about it at a coffee shop, right?

The second voice sighed. “There is no way it will stay a secret. I have no idea what I’m going to tell the guy if he starts asking questions. She’s already confused about how I can support myself writing blogs.”

The first voice chuckled low. “What did you tell her?”

“I just started talking about ad revenues and then the different types of income streams you can make from YouTube videos, things like that. After a few minutes, she tuned out and didn’t realize that most of it didn’t make sense. But what was I supposed to do? It’s not like she would understand the truth.” I couldn’t tell if he regretted not being able to tell her or not.

The first voice made an understanding noise. “No, I get it. I’m still dealing with the fallout of my mother finding out I’m gay. She doesn’t need to know that I model lingerie for a living.”

“Yeah, I can’t see my mom appreciating the fact that I look great in a tiny pair of panties. It wasn’t exactly the career she envisioned for me when I was growing up.”

All of a sudden, I knew exactly who was behind me. Well, I knew what company they worked for, just not which guys they were. When renovations had started on the building, everyone in the area had been glad. It’d sat empty for far too long, but when we realized what was going in there, everyone had been curious.

I wasn’t sure what we’d been picturing, but the attractive, laughing guys who basically kept to themselves wasn’t it. Even though we’d been half a block apart for ages, I couldn’t remember being introduced to anyone besides the owner.

Faces flashed through my mind, but I wasn’t sure which men matched the voices. As an artist, I was very visual. I could have probably drawn most of the men who worked there, but now it just seemed ridiculous that I’d never said hello to any of them.

The second voice gave another sigh. “No matter what he reads, tattoo guy would probably have a heart attack too.”

“Yeah, the reading is cute and sexy in a way, but the chances of him being nice, having a good job, gay, and open to the idea that his boyfriend wears panties is astronomical. If it worked out, I’d have to give you ten bucks and send you to buy lottery tickets.”

I wasn’t sure why the reading was cute, but I’d have to admit that I got more than a few phone numbers while I was reading the Harry Potter series. I had an ex-girlfriend who’d always said the combination of brains and tattoos was hot, but I kind of thought that was just for women.

Evidently not.

“Drink faster, we’ve got to be back for that shoot in just a few minutes, or Roman will have me bent over his lap again.”

The second voice giggled. “You’d like that. You egged him on the other day just to make him crazy enough to spank you.”

“That’s not the point. This stuff has an almost virginal feel to it, and I don’t need a red ass to go with it. I think something like that would be better for his website, though, now that I think about it.” His voice drifted off a little, and in my mind, I could almost hear him thinking. “Yeah, that would be great. He could do a whole series from sweet and virginal to well-fucked and exhausted. The pictures would look fabulous.”

Roman was evidently a photographer, but I had a feeling they were more than just colleagues. Especially with the desire that was radiating from his voice. Evidently, he was envisioning a very hands-on photography session.

My fingers inched to pick up my phone, but I had a feeling their site wouldn’t be safe for browsing in public. No matter which site I managed to find. Not that I should be looking, especially since I passed them on the street several times a week. There had to be a rule about seeing someone naked one day and then at the coffee shop the next.

Especially if you weren’t dating.

The first voice started speaking again. “Okay, we’ve got to run. When we get back, I want you to try on that nightie first. I know we talked about you in the corset, but I think I want to see how that sheer little number looks.”

Images flashed through my mind that should’ve been crazy, but somehow weren’t.

“Sure, I like that one. And I know you said the nightgown with the spaghetti straps was too long for my frame, but I think it would look interesting if I was kneeling with all the fabric pooled around me.”

Approving sounds came from the first voice. “Yeah, I like that idea. It would have that combination of submission and innocent sexuality that would look fabulous. I really think you should do some private shoots with Roman. I think the photos would look great.”

There was some embarrassment in the second’s voice when he responded, but not enough to make me think he hated the idea. “I don’t know.”

The first voice must’ve heard the same hesitation that I had, because he immediately pushed back. “He’s not as intense as he was before, especially now that we’re not trying to kill one another.”

The second voice laughed. “Or trying to hide the fact that you wanted to rip each other’s clothes off.”

“Yeah, that too. Okay, I’ll talk to Roman and see what he thinks.” The first voice said it like everything was a done deal, even though the second guy was unsure. “He’s been building up a bigger portfolio, but sometimes it’s hard to find open-minded models for the type of pictures he’s envisioning.”

I couldn’t tell if the photographer did actual artistic photos or if it was some kind of porn site. I wasn’t sure I wanted the second voice to do something in that kind of industry. He’d get eaten alive. I’d met enough people in college who were working their way through school by doing slightly shady things that I had a good idea of what happened in that industry.

And I was going to completely ignore the fact that I was worried about a stranger.

“Okay, I’m done. Let’s go.” The second guy didn’t seem excited to leave. It was strange to think that he’d gone to the shop just to see me.

“So you’ve gotten your sexy fix and your caffeine fix?” The first guy giggled as he teased the second.

I heard the sound of a smack and pictured the sweet guy hitting the arm of the more outrageous one. But the second voice laughed, so he wasn’t too upset. “Eli. You can’t say things like that. At least not that loud. He’s going to hear.”

Yes, he was.

As I heard the men start to leave, I went back to focusing on the book in my hands, even though I’d been on the same page for nearly ten minutes. They shuffled around and I pictured them clearing off the table.

When they finally passed me, one guy was busy focusing on the floor, making a concerted effort not to look in my direction. The other guy clearly wasn’t worried about my noticing him. Not that there ever would’ve been a chance of that.

The skintight jeans were nearly painted on his lean frame and the black T-shirt with the brightly colored unicorn on the front that said unicorns and caffeine make everything better would have stood out anywhere.

But just to make sure I didn’t miss him, he gave me a wink and then glanced toward the guy who’d just stepped out the door. “See you on Friday, sexy.”

I was still sitting there looking at the door long after they’d left. It was a little bit like the calm after a storm had passed through. But a little voice in the back of my head said it was more like the eye of a hurricane. A peaceful calm before the rest of the storm.

I wasn’t sure if I was frightened or intrigued.

I gave up on reading and finishing my now cold coffee, and headed back to the shop. I kept replaying the conversation over and over in my head. The first guy had clearly known I could hear him, but my stalker hadn’t realized it. I’d thought he was mid-twenties when he was walking out, but he either had to be younger than that or a lot more innocent than his job suggested he should be.

His job…that was something else entirely.

The way he talked about the lingerie made it seem like it wasn’t just a job to pay the bills…he liked it. Had he been wearing something like that in the coffee shop? Had his plain jeans and T-shirt been covering up something a lot more interesting than boxers?

And I should not have been picturing a stranger in panties or lingerie. Man or woman.

I just couldn’t help it, though.

The walk to the shop didn’t take nearly as long as I needed it to. Normally, I liked walking into the shop. It wasn’t just a job but a place where my creativity came to life. Pictures weren’t merely on paper here…they left almost alive. Today, however, my brain was somewhere else entirely…down the street at a photo shoot, if I was honest with myself.

The bell on the door chimed as I walked in, and Stan looked up from the back table where he was hunched over some paperwork. The walls were decorated with photos of tattoos and drawings I’d done. With almost surgical-level cleanliness the place could have seemed stark, but I loved it.

“I’ll make you a partner today if you figure out these forms.” Stan’s bark was worse than his bite, but he had a love-hate relationship with the business. He loved tattoos and owning his own place, but he hated the paperwork and anything to do with the accounting.

“No deal. I’m an art major, remember?” I wasn’t even going to pretend to understand the books. “If you want me to write you an essay on the merits of art in schools or to draw you a new tattoo design, I’m your guy. That’s about it, though.”

Stan barked out a laugh and shook his head. “I’m good, thanks.”

Stan wasn’t much on formal education. Having at least a few business classes would have made everything easier, though. “I keep telling you—”

He scoffed and went back to his paperwork. “Don’t even say it. I’m not hiring someone or taking those stupid classes.”

“Okay.” His stubbornness was the only reason I hadn’t taken him up on his offer to be a partner. As much as I loved the shop, I wasn’t going to constantly fight with him about the paperwork.

“You’re late coming back. You still reading that book?”

“Yes.” I had more interesting things to focus on than my book though. “I’m not late. I’m on time.”

“Wasting time.”

Laughing, I shook my head. “I’m not going to argue about that again. Besides, I was listening to a stalker, not reading.”

Setting my book down at my station, I started checking to make sure everything was ready for my next customer.

“What?”

Grinning, I turned back to him. “Evidently, I’ve got myself an admirer. Not so secret anymore, though. He works at that lingerie company up the street.”

Stan shook his head disbelievingly. “Only you could pick up a lingerie-wearing guy as a stalker.”

Shrugging, I tried not to take offense, not that I was sure exactly what he meant, but knowing Stan it was something I’d regret hearing. He wasn’t exactly homophobic, but he’d never come across as the most accepting kind of guy. “I didn’t pick anyone up. I just overheard a conversation.”

I didn’t know what I was expecting, but he just scoffed and went back to his papers. “Don’t piss where you eat. No matter who it is, that’s too close if he turns out to be nuts. You artsy types aren’t known for picking the sanest people to fall for. You especially.”

“Hey, I haven’t dated in ages.”

“Yeah, but that last one was a doozy. The screamer who was so clingy? A guy who takes off his clothes for a living can’t be that possessive.”

Choking on my laughter, I had to take a minute to catch my breath. “I’m not sure I’d describe his job that way.”

Stan gave me a look like I was insane. “You seen that site?”

“No.” I wasn’t nosy by nature.

Turning back to his papers, Stan snorted. “Then you can’t say anything.”

I wasn’t sure if he was subtly daring me to check out the site or not, but I had a feeling I was going to be browsing the internet later. Not that I was sure why. I’d always thought I was straight. Open-minded, maybe, but straight…at least until a cute little stalker had shown up.

 

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