Hey there, all! I can hardly wait to share Talon’s story with you, so I’m going to go ahead and give you a sneak preview! Ready for the first chapter? Technically speaking, it’s the prologue, not the actual fist chapter, but the question still stands. Are you ready? Then here… we… go!
The lively beat of Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” echoed through the lower level of House Of Payne. A couple hundred of Chicago’s finest art aficionados, star athletes and TV personalities dressed in their glittery holiday finest chatted, laughed and hobnobbed amongst the studio’s white modular walls covered in original works of art. From the look of it, the Give and Grab Fine Art Charity Auction was another smashing success for the world-famous tattoo studio.
But that wasn’t the story Zenni Greer was after.
Flashing her press pass at one of the overly muscled security guards, she held her head high and swept in like she was supposed to be there. She should have been invited, damn it. She’d been covering House Of Payne from the time she’d been promoted to the Gossip section at her paper, Chicago Pulse, two years ago. Right from the beginning, she’d been determined to get to the bottom of why this one Chicago-based tattoo studio had become internationally known, when countless other studios never got to be a household name. Hell, she got her own ink done at an amazing little studio down south in Beverley, but nobody outside of that particular neighborhood knew Shamrock Tattoos even existed.
What was it about House Of Payne, and its founder, Sebastian Payne, that made it so unique?
That was the story that needed to be told, and she was the journalist who needed to tell it.
Unfortunately, somehow along the way she’d gotten on the bad side of those who ran the House. She wasn’t sure what she’d done; she’d simply asked what she thought were normal questions whenever House Of Payne held a presser, which seemed to be every other week since the studio tended to suffer a chaos outbreak on a regular basis. But even in those times of chaos, the famous tattoo studio always managed to land on its feet.
Chaos was basically how she viewed House Of Payne—constantly flirting with disaster, only to come out smelling like a rose. That wasn’t natural. There had to be something behind it. Bribes to health inspectors, perhaps? Or maybe there was something behind the whispers she’d heard recently of stolen artwork being used in tattoos without the authorization of the artists—something she was very sensitive about since her own father was a famous artist. There could even be under-the-table payments to celebrities to get their tattoos, and then splash the House Of Payne name all over the place. Paying off celebrities wasn’t illegal, of course. It was just shady.
There had to be something there.
All she had to do was find it.
Once she did, she’d finally get the hell out of Chicago Pulse’s god-awful, terminally shallow Gossip section.
Trying to look like she belonged there and wasn’t at all a bald-faced gatecrasher, Zenni did a quick sweep of the well-heeled crowd. Her heart nearly stopped when she spied Sebastian Payne and his wife, famed 3D artist, Becks, no more than six feet away. Trying to look casual, she stepped behind a tower of flatscreens flashing the pictures of the House’s all-star, award-winning tattooists, and feigned interest.
Max, AKA “Mad Max” won an international award for best spin on retro tattoos.
Angel Taylor-Santiago was the recipient of the Colorist of the Year award from Inked Out magazine.
Mads Daniels was the House’s “Fresh Face” after winning the Best Debut Artist award at InkCon.
Talon Levesque won Best in Show in Chicago’s For the Troops Tattoo-A-Thon.
Good for him.
Taking a chance, Zenni peeked around the flatscreen tower and breathed a sigh of relief. Whew. Sebastian Payne had moved off, his arm around his wife and flanked by a couple teenaged boys who looked like younger versions of himself, and a pair of girls so identical it was hard to believe they hadn’t come from the Overlook Hotel.
Excellent. His family should keep him nice and distracted.
Now all she had to do was fly under the radar of the manager and assistant manager of the place, Scout and Sunny. Honest to God, those two sharp-eyed women had mental telepathy or something. But if she could avoid them, she’d be good to go.
And speaking of going…
Grabbing a champagne glass from a passing server, Zenni pretended to sip at the bubbly as she made her way toward a flight of glass brick and metal stairs leading to the mezzanine level.
As long as she stayed down on the first floor where the charity event was happening, she could plausibly explain why she was there—she’d been sent by her paper to cover a social event, because that was what reporters from the Gossip section did. True, she hadn’t been on the list of members of the media invited to cover the event, but her presence wasn’t that alarming. She could even get a nice, gossipy story out of who was attending the auction, who put in bids for what pieces of art, and how much the event ultimately raised for a charity championing the plight of the homeless.
She could do that.
She could head upstairs and see what she could find snooping around in places the public had been banned from entering.
Playing it safe, or possibly finding something that would get her the hell out of the paper’s stupid society section.
There probably should have been better security at the stairs, Zenni thought as she zipped up to the second level. Looking at it from that perspective, it was practically their fault she wandered up there so easily.
As she reached the open space of the mezzanine level, she again pretended to sip at her champagne. Ugh. Generally speaking, she wasn’t a huge fan of any type of wine, though a good, earthy ale was something she enjoyed. Being a pop culture reporter for the Gossip section meant hitting all the swankiest soirees the Windy City had to offer, which sounded kickass at first. But after about a month of loud parties, cheap champagne and an endless parade of shallow people trying to out-glam everyone else in the room, she’d had her fill of it. Unfortunately, the job hadn’t had its fill of her, but that was okay. She knew how the ladder to success worked in the world of journalism. She had to pay her dues on her climb up, so that meant lots of pretending to drink champagne while keeping a sharp eye out for the story that would push her into the ranks of a true journalist.
Maybe tonight would be the night she found her story.
There were only a few partygoers up on the second level, probably because all the action was downstairs. A set of important-looking double doors loomed directly in front of her, but as she approached she spied a sign taped to the door.
Private. Do Not Enter.
Undeterred, she reached out and tried the handle.
Would now be a good time to see if she had any talent for picking locks?
She tried another door off to the right of those impressive double doors, tucked away in its own alcove and plastered with that same sign to stay out. That door was also locked. She was just about to give up when she saw caution tape draped in a dramatic X across the entrance of what she surmised were the tattooing booths.
Another Keep Out place.
Only this time the barrier was tape instead of a locked door.
She clicked her tongue as she stared at the tape. What was so important about keeping people out of tattooing booths? What could possibly be so sensitive that they had to warn the public away?
Putting up a big X of caution tape like that was just begging for trouble.
With a quick glance around, she set her champagne glass on the mezzanine railing and casually made her way toward the caution tape blocking the entrance of a wide hall created by frosted-glass booths. A light was placed above the door of each booth. All of them were dark, and she imagined that those lights were lit whenever the booths were occupied. Above the mouth of the hallway glowed a neon sign written in bold script.
From pain, beauty is born.
Considering the art she’d had tattooed on her own body, she could attest to that.
Private. DO NOT ENTER.
Zenni stared at the handwritten paper that had been torn out of a spiral notebook and stuck to the caution tape.
All caps meant yelling.
But since she’d come this far, it wouldn’t hurt to take a teensy peek.
When it came to height, Mother Nature had shortchanged her by a lot, so she barely had to duck when she moved past the boundary and into forbidden territory. Idly she hummed along with the music playing overhead, now Brian Setzer’s rowdy version of “Jingle Bells” as she dipped into a random booth, praying it was empty. If someone was there, she would be so totally busted…
An empty, neatly ordered booth greeted her. Square in shape, the area was big enough to comfortably hold a tattoo table, a steel workbench, a rolling tray table and a wheeled padded chair. Closer inspection of the chair revealed that it was actually a seat from what looked to be an army-style Jeep.
The army theme was also apparent in the rest of the booth’s décor, from a green and yellow US Army Military Police Corp flag with two crossed pistols, to several framed photos of soldiers, some of whom were injured, some who were gathered around a battered Humvee, and all dressed in brown khakis in some far-off rocky terrain. Aside from the collection of photos, a massive poster, displaying every patch and insignia of the US military, hung front and center on the wall facing the door. The workbench was immediately to her right, and in addition to holding all the usual tattooing equipment one would expect to see, there was also a shadowbox displaying some sort of military medal, with the words “Heroic and Meritorious Service in a Combat Zone” engraved on a small metal plaque.
Wow, she thought, reaching for the box. Now there was a story. If there was a real, honest-to-goodness war hero under the roof of House Of—
“What the fuck are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to b—” The rest of her automatic mea culpa ended in a hiss when her arm was wrenched behind her back to the point where she could scratch her own shoulder blade. Before she could do anything more than yelp in surprised pain, she found herself plastered face-first against the outside of the booth, the frosted glass cold against her stinging hot cheek.
“Holy crap, stop, stop, stop,” she squealed between grunts of pain. Ignoring her, the person who’d wrenched her arm behind her back—clearly a hulk of a man, going by the deep voice and the strength of the grip holding her in place—took his free hand and frisked her in a quick but thorough search. Holy shit. “For God’s sake, what are you doing?”
“Making sure you’re not boosting shit that doesn’t belong to you. Did you take anything? Answer now.”
“Boost…? Geez, no of course not,” Zenni said, horrified. “I’m no thief—”
“I’ll be the judge of that. What else did you touch? All the booths have been sterilized, which is why they’re off-fucking-limits. What else did you contaminate?”
Oops. Well, that explained why the tattooing booths were cordoned off. “Nothing. Look, I’m with the press, okay?” She tried looking around at the person, only to cry out when the armlock intensified and her shoulder spasmed with a cramp. “I swear, I’m a member of the press, from Chicago Pulse, covering the event downstairs.”
“Which is, as you say, downstairs.”
Okay, fair point. “I-I will be covering it, once I get down there…”
“You say you’re a member of the press?”
Thank God, she was getting through to him at last. The shoulder cramp had reached screaming levels, making it hard to breathe, much less think. “Yes. My press badge is in my right front pocket. Ask your fellow security guards downstairs, they checked my credentials and let me in—”
“What do you mean, they checked your credentials? Didn’t you have an invitation? Members of the press who were invited to cover this charity event tonight were all given invitations.”
Crap. “Yeah, well, I didn’t have one of those.”
“Uh-huh. If you’re a reporter, you should be able to read, right?”
What in the world? “Of course I can read.”
“Prove it. What does that sign say?” His free hand cupped the back of her head none too gently and jerked it around hard enough to make something pop in her neck. All at once she was fiercely grateful she kept her pale hair in a hyper-short pixie cut. She had the horrifying feeling the brute who’d captured her would have gleefully yanked on any hair he could have gotten a firm grip on. “Answer now, or I swear to God I’ll find ways of making you answer.”
He meant it. He actually fucking meant it.
Genuine fear rippled through her for the first time, the kind of fear that was wrapped around the core need to survive. She couldn’t move. She was helpless. At his mercy. This big, scary man didn’t mind that he was hurting her. Maybe he was even getting off on it.
But the main thing was that she couldn’t… fucking… move.
Did anyone know she was up here? Alone, with this monster?
If she screamed, would anyone even hear her over the party downstairs?
Her mouth had gone so dry she had to lick her lips to unglue them. “It says ‘private. Do not enter.’”
“Yet here you are. You must think rules don’t apply to you—” Abruptly he let go of her head, and half a second later she felt a tug on the pocket she’d indicated. “Zenobia Greer. Zenobia, huh? Too bad you’re named after a queen. A bottom-feeding, nosy-as-shit reporter like you is nowhere near deserving of such a kickass name.”
Great. An educated monster who enjoyed manhandling women while passing judgment. Just what the world needed. “Look, I’m sorry, I swear. Please, just let my arm—”
“Sorry? Nah. Not good enough.” Before she knew it, he spun her around and pushed her up against the wall. The relief of her arm being released was almost immediately swamped by a new wave of alarm as the man used the foot of height he had on her to loom over her like a nightmare. “You’re going to tell me exactly who you are, and what you’re doing nosing around in here. Tell me what you’re looking for.”
Staggered, she stared up into a face that would have made angels weep. Black curling hair in need of a trim tumbled over a scowling, square forehead. Winged brows shadowed eyes the color of a stormy sea—not gray or blue, but somewhere in between. Scruff that could have been labeled an actual beard framed a grimly held mouth. Everything about his face was grim. Grim and scary.
And suddenly familiar.
“Talon Levesque,” she whispered, stunned that the person who’d caught her hadn’t been a member of a crack security team after all, but rather one of the tattooists. Damn, the man certainly knew what he was about when it came to frisking a person.
His expression went from menacing to explosively violent. “That’s it. I’m throwing your trespassing ass out of here myself, and I’m going to love every fucking second of it. That’ll teach you to target me.”
“What? No, I saw your picture downstairs, on one of the monitors,” she blurted as he clamped a bear-sized hand around her upper arm and frog-marched her toward the stairs. “I swear, that’s how I know your name, so there’s no need to be alarmed. And I always try to tell the truth, so you know you can trust me on this. I’m not some weird stalker, or whatever it is you’re thinking. I’m not targeting you.”
“Pull the other one, lady,” he snarled, dragging her down the stairs in full view of all the glittering luminaries of Chicago. It would have been humiliating beyond words if she hadn’t been so caught up in trying not to trip on the stairs and break her neck. “I don’t know what you want from me, but I can guarantee you’re going to get nothing but my boot in your ass for your efforts. You can quote me, if that helps.”
“Talon?” A smart-looking woman in winter white and short, dark hair with platinum tips met them at the base of the stairs. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting rid of a gatecrasher who deserves to be thrown through the nearest goddamn window. Honest to Christ, Sunny, who the hell gatecrashes a fucking charity event for the homeless? I don’t think you can get any lower than that.”
Shit, shit, shit… “My name is Zenni Greer, and I’m a journalist. Your name is Sunny, right? We met briefly at your first press conference here at House Of Payne—”
“Talon, let go of the journalist, or I’ll deck you.” It was amazing how the woman, Sunny, managed to push those dangerous words through a sweet, clenched-teeth smile. “Better yet, I’ll get Scout. How’s that for scary?”
That seemed to actually give her violent-eyed captor pause. “Zenobia Greer doesn’t have an invite. She snuck in here on her press pass, then went upstairs where she knows she’s not supposed to be. It’d serve her right if we called the cops and pressed charges. At the very least we should give a hard shot at trying to ruin her career.”
Oh, dear God, no. “Look, I’m truly sorry, I know I went out of bounds, but I didn’t mean any harm. I swear I’ll never return to House Of Payne, if that’s what you want to hear, okay?”
Sunny put a smartphone to her ear, murmured something, then tilted her head toward the front of the building. “Talon, just hand her over to security and let them do their job. And do it quietly, please. No crazy scene, got it? Oh, and you’re needed on the showroom floor, so wrap this up quickly, yeah?”
The crazy didn’t leave her captor’s furious sea-colored eyes. “If the security team had done their fucking job, this pint-sized pain in the ass wouldn’t have gotten through in the first place. No way am I handing her off to them. I’ll take care of her myself.”
“Not through the window,” Sunny called after him, sounding alarmed.
“Fine,” he muttered under his breath and headed for the revolving door. As they approached and Zenni thought he might let up on her, she tried pulling away from him to go through the door under her own power.
Thank God, this nightmare was almost over…
“Where do you think you’re going? I didn’t give you permission to move, did I?” His hands tightened on her. She gasped as her feet suddenly left the ground, then the wind left her lungs in a whoosh when his shoulder hit her stomach in a none-too-gentle fireman’s lift.
So much for taking care of her quietly and not making a scene.
A handful of seconds later he tossed her—tossed her!—through the air. She had a jumbled vision of speeding toward the heavy revolving door, and automatically put up her hands to stop herself from smashing face-first into the wood, brass and glass. Sharp pain shot through her pinky as it bent backwards with the impact, and with genuine terror she looked back at the monster of a man even as she scrambled to find her feet.
“Don’t forget,” he growled, reaching out to spin the door with a brutish, muscled arm tattooed with Polynesian-styled tattoos, “don’t you ever fucking darken the door of House Of Payne again, you got that? If you do, you’ll have to deal with me, and I fucking hate journalists.”
Ta-da! There it is, the opening to HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! *crosses fingers*
Be sure to keep a lookout for further updates as we get closer to TALON’s release on Monday, August 16th. Thanks for reading, friends! xoxo