Holding back a giggle, I played along, “No! He didn’t! Jackson would never say those evil words…tell me it isn’t so!”

Emma busted out laughing and I joined in, sobering shortly after when she asked if I was coming down to the shop.

I sighed. “I really can’t Emma. I don’t want to leave Grady here alone in the house because Allie didn’t drop his crate off.”

She quickly waved away my excuse when she said, “Just bring him with you. Call when you get here and I’ll just run him home. I have to go let DJ out anyway, and pick up lunch for the guys so it all works out. Just get here and fix him!”

“Fine,” I said begrudgingly.

We hung up and I gathered all of Grady’s things, piling both of us into the car and heading downtown to Skin Deep, dread building in the pit of my stomach with every mile.

Chapter 8

Fifteen minutes later, Emma was gone, taking the wiggling little puppy from me with a jaunty wave and a casual, ‘Good luck,’ thrown over her shoulder as she left without a backwards glance.

The dread was still hanging heavy in my belly, and I had to force myself to walk into the shop, flinching when the first face I saw darkened in a scowl immediately.

“Hey.” It came out timid but not shaky, thank God. He jerked his head at me in acknowledgement but didn’t speak.

On a sigh, I crossed the floor to the counter where he was sitting. “Can we talk for a minute, Brandon? Please?”

He shrugged his shoulder at me and waved a hand as if to say, ‘go ahead.’

“Look. I’m sorry about this morning, but there’s just things…I just don’t…I have scars.”

It took me a second to get it out, but after a faltering start, the words tripped off my tongue and dropped like a bomb into the silence stretched out between us. I squeezed my eyes tightly closed, not wanting to see his face, not even breathing as I waited for his response.

When the silence continued unbroken, I cracked one eye open and peeked at him. He was sitting, stunned, on the stool on the opposite side of the counter. In the distance, I heard the faint buzz of a tattoo machine start up, but he still didn’t move.

“Brandon,” I started.

He stopped me. “I don’t care about any scars, Chloe.” His words were low, but sharp, like a velvet wrapped razor. “I meant what I said. You’re beautiful to me, just the way you are. I can’t…he hurt you…that bad? He hurt you worse than you were when you showed up here?”

I just stared at him, unable to form the words for a response. I finally settled on saying, “I really don’t want to get into it here, okay? I’m not really ready to talk about it, Brandon. There’s so much that I’ve kept to myself and I…you just have to give me time.” A small, incredulous laugh escaped my lips on a breath. “I don’t even know what we’re doing! Are we having a thing? Are we an item, is it a fling, are you going to change your mind again tomorrow?”

He blew out a frustrated, ragged breath and answered, “I told you last night that you needed to tell me if you didn’t want to cross that line, Chloe. But we crossed that line and there’s no going back, damnit!” He slapped his hand down on the counter and then shrugged sharply. “I don’t know what to call this, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I slept with my brother’s best friend’s little sister, who also happens to be one of my closest friends, too. But I can’t deny that something has changed between us and I’m still not sure I want it to! You make me feel things that I’m not supposed to feel, at least not with you, and it’s driving me insane!”

My breath came in sharply, the pain immediate and piercing as his words echoed in the suddenly deafening silence of the studio. I stood, frozen and silent, eyes wide and blinking as I stared at Brandon in shock.

A throat clearing behind Brandon drew my gaze and I flinched when I saw Luke, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. “Uh…maybe this conversation should be done somewhere else?” He looked pained as he said the words and he was clearly uncomfortable.

That spurred me to action. I nodded once at him, ignored Brandon, and spun on my heel, practically running for my car. I got in, started it up, and peeled out of the parking lot, intent on nothing more than putting as much distance between myself, Skin Deep, and the gorgeous men inside it as possible.

I drove on autopilot, having no destination in mind, no plan in mind, nothing. I just knew I didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to go anywhere near anyone I knew. I found myself crossing the Ohio river into Kentucky, but still kept going until I saw the water tower proudly stating, ‘Florence Y’all’, and took the nearest exit, pulling into the first gas station I saw.

I sat there for a minute and then, taking a moment to be a little bit responsible, checked my gas gauge to see if I should fill up while I was stopped. Noticing that I was at almost a quarter of a tank, I filled up my tank, and then went inside and grabbed a couple bottles of water, a couple candy bars, and a Slim Jim.

Getting back in my car, I headed back to the interstate, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the ramp for 75 North, which would take me back to Ohio. Instead, I stayed off the highway and turned into the parking lot of a hotel.

Half an hour later found me safely ensconced in a room, curtains drawn, sitting against the headboard in the dim bedside lamplight. I’d finally turned my phone off, unwilling to hear it ring or chime with another text one more time. It’d been going off since I’d left the shop, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

No, I was having a pity party for myself. One where I called myself a dumbass about a million times over for even thinking that things could be different with Brandon. For falling in love so recklessly after just one fucking kiss. If I was being honest with myself, I could admit that there’d always been that little part of me in the very, way back, teeny, tiny corner of my mind that had appreciated him as the fine ass male specimen he was…but I’d never had the urge to act on it. Until that drunken night when I let my lips get me in trouble.

And where did it land me? Running away like a scared little bitch because someone said something that hurt.

I thumped my head back against the headboard in disgust at myself. I was probably overreacting a little, but damnit, it hurt! It hurt to hear him say that he wasn’t sure he even wanted things to change and one thing I never thought Brandon would be was wishy-washy. He ran hot and cold and changed his mind more than a whore dropped her panties and it was driving me nuts.

Yeah, I get the fact that he was probably just as confused as I was about this whole thing, but Jesus! I wasn’t the only one in the bed last night, and he specifically said he didn’t want to fight it anymore. So what the hell gives, man?

I closed my eyes against the tears of pain and frustration welling up, not bothering to wipe them away as I cried myself to sleep, alone in a hotel room in Kentucky.

“Are you okay, honey?”

What? I squeezed my eyes shut tighter, confused by the sweet, caring tone of his voice. He sounded like the old Greg…the one I fell in love with. My head felt like it was about to explode and grogginess permeated every inch of it, making me aware that I must have passed out. Again.

Suddenly, blazing pain shot through my cheek as Greg’s hand connected with the already bruised skin. “Open your eyes, bitch! You watch everything and I’ll untie you and let you make us some dinner. You close them, just once, and you’ll fucking regret it. I promise. So open up!”

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