Norah O'Malley has been alone for a long time. It's been ten years since her father and four brothers shipped her off to be raised by her aunt. Seven months since she's seen the guy who got her pregnant--who still doesn't know. And it's two weeks since she came home to Chicago and discovered none of her family wants to talk--or listen.
She never expected to walk into a tattoo shop seven months pregnant and get her socks knocked off by instant attraction. She can't even see her socks. But Kai Ellis is big and gruff and sexy as hell, and if he has a past, well, so does she. Even more, Kai knows how to listen so that Norah feels just a little less alone . . .
All the chemistry in the world can't help Norah make her decisions. And no sizzle of desire will make Kai believe in happy endings. But a little time with someone who understands might just change everything . . .
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Under Your Skin
By SHANNYN SCHROEDER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Shannyn Schroeder
All rights reserved.
Norah O'Malley woke like she had every day for the past two weeks: lying in her brother's bed, in her father's house, rubbing her pregnant belly like it was a Magic 8 Ball that held some mystical answers for her fucked up life. Her bladder was full to bursting, another perpetual condition these days. Struggling to sit up, she shifted to get to the bathroom. This was not how she expected her life to look at twenty-two.
After taking care of business, she studied herself in the mirror. Did she look different? Of course from the chest down her body was no longer hers and hadn't been for some time. Her face looked the same though. Right? She pressed closer to the mirror, propping her belly on the sink. What would Avery see if they met today?
Her older brother Jimmy had been pressuring her since she came home weeks ago to call Avery and tell him she was pregnant. She knew she had to and it had been crappy of her to keep this from him, but she knew Avery. He'd want to take care of her. He was that kind of guy. She could definitely appreciate such nobility in the hero of a book or movie, but in real life, choices like this sucked.
She wasn't sure she was ready to be a mom. Old stirrings of Catholic guilt hit her — years of parochial school had that effect — but she couldn't imagine trapping them when they weren't ready. She shuffled back to bed and sat on the edge. Every time she thought about Avery, her stomach fluttered. Her short time with him had been magical. She'd never felt so loved by any other boyfriend she'd had. Part of her wanted him to be with her through this. A huge part.
Another part was afraid of disrupting his life. She'd dodged his calls all summer, not knowing what to say. He was looking for summer fun, but fun ended for her at the sight of two pink lines.
And now she was afraid of her brothers' reactions. They didn't handle news of her pregnancy well. They would threaten to go after Avery again. If nothing else, she needed to protect him until she figured out what she wanted.
The baby kicked her now-empty bladder and elbowed her ribs. Must be breakfast time. She crept downstairs hoping to avoid running into her brothers, especially Tommy. Tommy was nearest in age to her and they'd always been close growing up, even after Jimmy had shipped her off to live with Aunt Bridget in Boston. Tommy had come to visit her often and called her a few times each week. They had always been more friends than siblings.
She'd expected Jimmy, Kevin, and Sean to blow up when they found out she was pregnant. Telling them over the phone probably would've been better than just showing up on their doorstep six months pregnant. But Tommy was supposed to be on her side. He'd raged the night she came home and the anger had been at a slow burn since.
He barely spoke to her. His first and only question was always: Who is he?
Avery didn't deserve to be on the receiving end of that wrath. The guy had done nothing wrong.
In the kitchen, she poured herself a bowl of cereal and grabbed the last yogurt. As she sat to eat, the basement door opened and Tommy strode in.
"Good morning." She tried for a cheerful tone.
"You offering a name yet?"
"Are you promising not to go after him?"
"Then you have your answer."
He turned from the refrigerator and slammed the orange juice carton on the table in front of her. "Why are you protecting him?"
"Because he did nothing wrong. We did this together, and he doesn't even know I'm pregnant." Maybe an explanation would help. She owed him that, and Jimmy had handled it pretty well. She kicked a chair out next to her.
He gripped the back of the chair but didn't sit.
"He wasn't a one-night stand, Tommy. We met over Christmas break and had a great couple of weeks. Then he went back to school. We tried the long-distance thing. He visited a few weekends, but it didn't work. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn't know what to do. He came back to Boston for spring break, and I planned to tell him then. But it felt so good to have him back. I felt good with him and I didn't want to lose that."
Tommy shoved off the chair and rubbed his head. "He's not even a real boyfriend."
She shrugged. "It felt real."
Pushing away from the table, she stood close to Tommy. "When I came home, all I wanted from you was to have you in my corner. I know I fucked up. In so many ways. I miss you."
Tommy's shoulders sagged. Finally she saw the opening she'd been looking for for weeks. He stared at her with worry in his eyes. A welcome change from the anger she'd been seeing.
"I've missed you too, squirt."
She laughed and the motion caused the baby to kick and jump again. "I'm far from being a squirt now."
The corner of his mouth lifted but he didn't fully smile. "See you later."
Then he walked out the back door without even drinking the juice he'd taken from the fridge. Norah sighed. At least she'd made some progress with one of her siblings.
She knew if she could win Tommy over, he'd help with the others. As she finished her breakfast, she developed a plan. Tommy shouldn't be too difficult to crack now that she'd slipped past his defenses.
* * *
Norah spent her morning cleaning the house and making sure her dad took his medication. The stubborn old man never wanted to do what he was supposed to. It was no wonder Jimmy had felt the need to move back home to take care of their dad. Someone had to keep an eye on him or his diabetes would get out of control. Sean and Tommy were pretty useless in that area. They couldn't even remember to put away their hockey gear. How would they remember to make sure Dad regulated his insulin?
Once that was done, she went online to look for a job. She couldn't possibly sit around the house all day with nothing to do. She couldn't enroll in school because she'd have to take time off after having the baby. There had to be someone who'd be willing to hire her at least temporarily. The outlook was pretty dismal, so she closed the laptop and moved on to the next phase in her plan to make Tommy happy. Rice Krispies Treats had always been his favorite, but for whatever reason, he had a mental block when it came to making them himself.
She ran to the store for ingredients and whipped up a batch to take to him at work. Since he was a tattoo artist, he worked strange hours. Sometimes he'd work in the afternoon, other times, he'd be there half the night. She'd overheard him telling Sean he had some touch-ups to do on a tattoo this morning and then he had a long session this afternoon.
She hoped the dessert would be a peace offering.
On the way to the tattoo parlor, she stopped at a drive-through and grabbed some burgers for them. She rubbed her belly and wondered how bad it was to feed the baby fries. The baby really wanted fries. She hadn't craved fries this much since she was fifteen. The only thing she wanted more than fries was lime yogurt. Luckily, the baby didn't require them together. That would just be gross.
She was out of breath from the short walk from the car to the shop because the baby decided to tumble around pressing on who knew what. She walked through the door of Ink Envy gripping the bag of food and plate of treats. On the wall hung frames showing various drawings and photos of tattoos. Looking around, she saw stations, like in a beauty salon, separated by short partitions. Different styles of chairs, none appeared too comfortable.
"Hi, can I help you?" a short, pudgy guy with sleeve tats asked.
"I'm here to see Tommy."
Just then, Tommy came from a back room and caught her eye. "What are you doing here?"
"I came bearing gifts." She set the food on the glass-topped counter.
"What do you want?"
She sighed. Maybe it was too soon. "I want you to not be mad at me anymore. I brought Rice Krispies Treats."
"A bribe? Really?"
She lifted a shoulder. "And burgers. Whatever works."
He dragged a couple of stools to the counter and pointed for her to sit down. The counter was tall enough that when she sat, her stomach was mostly concealed. Knowing Tommy would start with dessert, she slid the plate of treats over.
He peeled back the foil and pulled a square from the pile. "This doesn't change things."
"It changes them a little. You're at least talking to me."
He chewed and swallowed before asking, "What are you gonna do?"
"I don't know. I think about it all the time. I know I need to tell the father. And I will. Soon. Until then, I want to settle in and restart my life. I spent the morning looking for a job. I don't suppose you know of anything?" She munched on her fries while they talked.
"No one's gonna hire you. You're a liability."
Norah rolled her eyes. Tommy wasn't saying anything she didn't already know.
"Maybe you should take it easy for a while."
"That'll make me crazy. I can't sit at home with Dad all day."
"Come on, you know you like pricking him with a needle."
She laughed louder than she'd intended, but he was right. She did enjoy it a little. But laughing with Tommy was the best feeling she'd had in a long time.
* * *
Kai Ellis came from the back room to the musical sound of female laughter. The girl sitting across from Tommy at the front counter had an awesome rack spilling out of her tank top and her tits jiggled as she laughed.
"Hey," he called, "I told you no girls while you're on the clock. Get busy on your own time."
Tommy dropped the food in his hand. "Gross, man. This is my sister."
She wiggled her fingers. Then she pointed. To Tommy, she said, "Let's ask your friend here, I'm sure he's made mistakes in his life."
"Boss." Kai crossed his arms. He had no intention of answering questions about his mistakes, but it annoyed him that she jumped to the conclusion that he'd made them. Part of the reason for opening his own business was so he would never have to answer to anyone about his past again.
"I'm his boss."
She continued on as if he hadn't spoken. "It's normal for people to make mistakes, right? Even if they're huge mistakes, you still learn from them. Life lessons and shit."
He knew all about making life-altering mistakes, but he still wasn't about to discuss them. Addressing Tommy, he said, "Girlfriend or not, she needs to go."
Her eyes popped wide and she slid from the stool. Tommy laid a hand on her arm. "It's fine." He twisted on the stool. "Kai, this is my sister, Norah. She just moved back to town."
Norah stepped around Tommy with her hand extended. Her belly stuck out full with a baby. He'd forgotten about Tommy bitching about his pregnant sister.
When he didn't move, she dropped her hand. "Sorry. I thought I'd catch Tommy before his client came in. I brought him lunch and dessert." She turned and picked up a plate from the counter. "Want a Rice Krispies Treat?"
Her smile was friendly as she spoke, but her light blue eyes filled with mischief. Like she was offering up more than marshmallows and cereal. It was a good thing that belly was between them. He stayed rooted to his spot. Then his phone rang. Again. He'd ignored Jaleesa all morning, but if he planned to get any work done, he'd have to deal with her.
With his phone in hand, he spun and walked back out the way he came. "Yeah."
"It's about time. I've been calling you all morning."
"Mom's surgery went fine. She came through with flying colors."
He'd figured as much. It was just her knee. "Good to know."
"Are you coming to the hospital today?"
He walked until he hit the back door of the shop and stood in the alley. "I don't know. Depends on how busy I get."
"Kai, it's not like this was some surprise. We scheduled it. You could make sure you're free. You're choosing not to."
His sister's sigh whistled in his ear. "We need to talk about where Mom will go when she's released from the hospital. She'll only be here a few days."
"I thought you were looking into a rehab facility."
"I tried, but it made her upset. She thinks we're going to dump her off and leave her for good."
"So explain to her that's not the case. She knows she won't be able to get around your house. It's not like she lost her mind."
"She's feeling vulnerable and she's worried about being alone."
"I don't know what you want from me, Jaleesa."
"Maybe she could stay with you."
"I have stairs in my house."
"Five, Kai. Five measly steps to get up to your door. Everything else is on one floor. You have the space."
What she really meant was that he could make the space for his mom to move in. He didn't want to. His house was set up exactly as he wanted. He would have to move all of his workout equipment somewhere, probably to the basement or the garage. He had no furniture for her. No bed or anything. He didn't have guests and he liked it that way.
"I can't take care of Mom. I don't know what to do with her."
"And I do? You figure it out, Kai. That's what you do for family."
"I have a business to run and I keep long hours."
"At least think about it. We can probably hire someone to fill in when you're not around so she's not alone, but she'll feel secure in your house."
"Why can't we hire someone to help at your house?"
"Maybe we can convert some space to make it work."
"My whole family isn't losing our living room so you don't have to man up."
He shook his head, not wanting to lose this argument. "We'll talk about this later. I have to go."
"Try to stop by the hospital. It'll make her happy."
"Yeah." He clicked off and stared at the brick building across from him. He was tempted to throw his phone to hear the satisfying crack of plastic against the wall. Instead, he inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. The air he sucked in was rank with the smell of rotting garbage. Tomorrow was pickup day and the heat did no favors for the Chinese restaurant on the corner.
The sun beat against his skin, searing it. Five minutes of quiet without thinking about his mom at the hospital. Anything was better than the damn hospital. Leaning against the back door, with his eyes closed, he allowed the sun to sink into him.
The door thumped against him and he stepped away. So much for his five minutes. Tommy stuck his head out. "Your appointment's here."
Tommy eyed him up and down, but said nothing.
"You're wound a little tight today. Everything okay?"
Kai grabbed the door and swung it wide to go back in the shop. "Your sister gone?"
"Yeah, but she left the Rice Krispies Treats if you want one."
"I'm not six, so no thanks."
"You don't know what you're missing."
As he walked to the front, an image of Norah's jiggling tits gave him some idea what he was missing. She was cute, but knocked up. He definitely didn't need to think about her tits. His client, Marcus, waited on the battered leather couch having a conversation with Puck, another of Kai's artists. Puck was chewing a Rice Krispies Treat.
Kai raised his hand in greeting and then ducked into his office to grab the artwork. Marcus stood at the counter waiting.
"Here's the art." Kai slid the sheet in front of him.
"Looks great," Marcus said, nodding.
"Good. Pay Tommy here and I'll go set up." He handed Tommy the invoice and returned to his station. He made the thermal of the design — an eagle flying with the American flag — and set up his ink.
In here, with the buzz of the machine and the color of the art, he didn't have to think about anything else. He didn't have to worry about his mom or fighting with his sister. The art was everything.
* * *
Norah stared at her laundry basket full of clothes. She had no space to call her own. When she'd come home, she more or less commandeered Jimmy's room, which was almost a full apartment in the attic. Growing up, it had been the boys' bedrooms, but Jimmy remodeled so he could have a living room, bedroom, and bath. Little had he known that Tommy and Sean would both move back home. They lived in the basement. Kevin was the only one who left and stayed gone.
She'd been here for weeks, but it was still Jimmy's room and it wasn't fair for her to take it over.
Two quick knocks sounded at the door before Jimmy stuck his head in. "Hey."
"Hi. I was just thinking about you."
"Yeah?" He came into the room.
"I have no idea what Dad filled my old bedroom with downstairs. I tried looking through it, but he yelled that I need to keep my hands off his stuff."
Jimmy rubbed a hand over his head. "I don't really know what's in there either. I forget that room exists."
"I told you before that I'd move in there so you can have your room back. But you gotta do something about Dad."
"You can stay here. I don't think I'll be needing the space much longer."
Norah's eyes widened. "What do you mean?"
Where the hell was Jimmy going? She'd just come home. She wasn't ready for him to leave her life again. She'd been counting on him being there.
He sat on the edge of the bed. "I was planning on talking to all of you guys at once, but since you're the only one home, I'll start with you." He patted the spot beside him.
She sat and a sinking feeling gripped her. The last time Jimmy spoke with her like this, he'd told her he was joining the army and she was being shipped off to Aunt Bridget's.
"Moira and I are serious. I've asked her to buy a house with me and move in together."
"What? You like just started dating. Isn't that rushing it a bit?" He was leaving, just like she feared. The one guy she needed in her life to lean on and he was leaving.
Excerpted from Under Your Skin by SHANNYN SCHROEDER. Copyright © 2016 Shannyn Schroeder. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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