I jumped and took a startled breath, sending a small piece of mint rapidly to the back of my throat. I coughed, not quite choking, but not quite breathing right at that second. My embarrassment of T.J. catching me saying what I said just added insult to injury.

T.J. pounding me on my back wasn’t helping matters any, either, nor was the fact that my sister had jumped off her stool and had my arm in her hands, raising it up in the air and flapping it wildly, yelling, “Lift your arm above your head! Breathe!”

I could feel my face flaming as I noticed that everyone waiting in the lobby was on their feet, eyes riveted to the drama unfolding behind the counter.

“Okay! Enough!” I hollered once my coughing fit had stopped, my voice hoarse from the combination of coughing, being beaten half-to-death, and embarrassment.

T.J. immediately ceased pounding, his hand still resting on my back, and Emma froze, my arm still suspended mid-air, her fingers clenched around it like a vise, so, of course, that’s exactly the tableau that was laid out before Luke and Brandon when they walked up front from their studios.

“Why am I not surprised?” I heard Luke mutter, just as Brandon asked, laughingly, “What the hell is going on out here?”

T.J. patted my back, gently this time, thank you God, as he quietly asked, “You good?”

I nodded and jerked my arm away from Emma, scowling at her.

“Hey, Mom always did it to us and all the grandbabies…” she mumbled, shrugging.

I snorted and shook my head as exasperated laughter bubbled from my lips. “Good Lord, there’s never a dull moment around this damn family,” I sighed, sliding off the stool. I waved my hand toward the lobby, calling, “I’m fine, everything’s good, someone will be with you shortly,” urging them to ignore me again. Most of them (laughing, of course) sat back down, or turned their attention back to whatever they were doing previously while they waited.

That left me with the attention of the said hot-ass tattoo artists and my sister, who, traitor that she is, gleefully filled Luke and Brandon in on why I was choking and hacking all over their counter.

“She choked on a mint when T.J. heard her calling you all hot-ass tattoo artists.”

Luke’s lips twitched and, shaking his head, he turned away without saying a word, heading back to his studio.

Brandon’s mouth opened and shut a few times before he pressed his lips tightly together, I’m assuming to hold back the (naturally) smart-assed and (most definitely) inappropriate comments sitting on his tongue. He finally settled on a wink and a shit-eating grin as he, too, made his way back down the hall to his own studio.

T.J., however, didn’t move. Nor did he even try to contain the mirth plastered across his face, now that I wasn’t in danger of choking to death. “What’s up? Where’s Ian?” he asked me.

“He’s still at work, trying to finish up a job. He’ll be here when he’s done, if I’m not a home before then. I came in to see if any of you had time to squeeze me in for a tattoo, but,” I glanced around the lobby again. “You guys are pretty busy.”

“I’ll get you, if you don’t mind waiting a little bit.” He turned to Emma. “Chase Ledford’s design is done. Will you call and get him scheduled?”

She nodded and then handed him the signed consent form and info sheet for his next client. “These are mostly walk-ins for piercings,” she said, motioning to the room. “That guy, that girl, and that guy,” she said, pointing quickly, “are here to see about tattoos.”

Before T.J. could say anything, Emma continued. “Just looking, picking out of the books, probably just flash, in and out, will wait.”

T.J. grunted, apparently because he understood what she’d just said. I didn’t, but who asked me?

He called his next client back with him and disappeared with a quick smile and a ‘wait here’ motion to me.

Emma swiveled on her stool once more. “Alright, give. You don’t just show up here out of the blue for a tattoo on a whim.”

I shrugged. “Yes, I do. I told you that when I came in and you asked what I was doing here. Did you forget already? Remember, the whole conversation about shorts and the weather and…are you getting senile?”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Don’t deflect. Just answer the question. I’m so sorry I didn’t ask it as soon as you walked in the door, but we got a little sidetracked in conversation and coughing fits, remember? Now spill!”

I gave her a wide-eyed look. “Seriously, Emma, I just came in to get another tattoo.” I paused, smiling. “And Ian is working, Chloe is helping her mom with something, and I was bored.”

Looking at me suspiciously, she responded, “You sure that’s it?”

“Oh my God! Yes, Emma!”

She cocked her head and raised her shoulder, giving me a haughty-raised brow look as she dead-panned, “Okay, fine. Whatever.”

After that, we both giggled and the conversation turned to tattoos and wedding plans. I helped her answer the phone and handed the guys paperwork as they worked through the waiting clients. There was only one left when Ian sauntered in the door, looking dirty, disheveled, exhausted, but still so sexy he took my breath away.

I sighed, not even realizing I was doing it, until my sister laughed at me and nudged me with her elbow.

“I remember those days,” she said, dreamily, staring off into space. “When just the sight of your man takes your breath away and then makes you wanna run to him and tear his clothes off and make hot monkey love to him sixteen ways to Sunday.”

Ian stopped in front of me, his lips twitching with laughter as he mouthed, ‘Hot monkey love?’ to me silently.

I pursed my lips and nodded my head solemnly, mouthing back, ‘Yep. So hot. So monkey-ey.’

He couldn’t contain his chuckle any longer and let it out, his mouth stretching into a full grin.

Emma jerked her head to the side and looked at Ian. “You laughing at me, Ian?”

“Nope. I would never, dear sister-in-law-to-be,” he said cheekily. “But I might need to get some pointers from your husband on how to make hot monkey love sixteen ways to Sunday.”

Emma’s cheeks flushed and she muttered, “Asshole,” under her breath, making Ian laugh even more.

He turned back to me. “You get your tattoo, yet?”

“No. They were pretty slammed when I got here, but T.J. said he’d do it if I waited. You wanna go home and get cleaned up? Wait for me there?”

He shook his head. “Nah. I’ll wait with you. Unless you’re trying to get rid of me, already?”

“Nope. Not a chance in hell, buddy. You’re stuck for life,” I told him, tipping my head back and puckering my lips at him, wordlessly asking for a kiss.

He moved behind the counter and pecked my lips quickly. “I’m all hot, dirty, and sweaty. You don’t want me too close until I get cleaned up.”

“Mmmm…you make that sound so sexy…” I waggled my eyebrows at him, earning another shake of his head.

Emma snorted, then commented, “Hot and sweaty? Leah and I just had this conversation. It’s like negative two outside, so how can you be hot and sweaty?”

Ian (with a straight face, might I add) said, “Emma, it’s thirty-nine, not negative two. And some of us actually do manual labor that makes us hot and sweaty, even in the cold. You know, unlike others who sit in nice warm buildings all day…” He winked at Emma when she sputtered in mock-outrage, and the two went back and forth for a bit, bantering good-naturedly, as usual.

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