Tonic, p.1
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       Tonic, p.1

           Staci Hart
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Tonic


  Copyright © 2016 Staci Hart

  All rights reserved.

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  Cover design by Quirky Bird

  Photography by Perrywinkle Photography

  Editing by Love N Books and Rebecca Slemons

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  Hearts and Arrows

  Deer in Headlights (Hearts and Arrows 1)

  Snake in the Grass (Hearts and Arrows 2)

  What the Heart Wants (Hearts and Arrows 2.5 Novella)

  Doe Eyes (Hearts and Arrows 3)

  Fool’s Gold (Hearts and Arrows 3.5 Novella)

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  Hardcore (Erotic Suspense Serials)

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  With a Twist

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  To Kandi Steiner

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  CUP OF TEA

  Joel

  “THIS IS THE WORST IDEA you’ve ever had.”

  Shep glanced over at me, his sidelong smile mocking from behind his dark beard. “I thought you were through being salty?”

  I glared at him. My shirt was too tight — the tie around my collar may as well have been a noose as we stood in our tattoo parlor that night, waiting for some hotshot producers to meet with us. The steaming heat building inside my stiff clothes ratcheted up my irritation degree by degree.

  “I’ll be through being salty when this show is over.”

  “Well, our agent said we could get signed on for years, if we’re lucky.”

  A laugh shot out of me. “Right. Lucky. How are we supposed to work with cameras in our faces and people telling us where to stand and what to say?”

  “It’s reality TV. Telling us what to say would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

  I gave him a look. “You really think they’re not going to give us some kind of objective or script or something?”

  He shrugged, not seeming to mind. But that was my brother. A younger version of me without a care in the world. Not that I minded bearing the brunt of the responsibility. In exchange, he could remain carefree, though in times like these, I wished he’d had an iota of self-preservation.

  “Listen,” he said, his voice a little softer, his smile a little less mocking. “I know you’re not happy about all this, but it’s going to be good for business, not bad. They’re not going to follow you around at all hours, you know? There are rules, man.”

  The look I’d been giving him hadn’t quit. He sighed and rolled his eyes.

  “It’s better than the show going to Hal, isn’t it?”

  The muscles in my face tensed at the sound of his name. Hal, owner of the second biggest parlor on the West Side — the first being mine. Hal, the current husband of my ex-wife. Hal, the burr in my ass that I could never get rid of.

  I shifted, rolling my shoulders to square them as I shifted my gaze to the door. “Fuck Hal.”

  “Exactly,” he said, his tone pleased. He had me. It was how he’d roped me into the situation in the first place.

  When we’d been approached to do a show about our shop, Tonic, by a big network that mostly ran reality TV, I’d immediately said no. There was no question — not a single molecule in my body was on board with putting any part of my business or self out there for the masses to binge on Netflix. But Shep was so on board, he could have driven the train.

  In fact, he did end up driving the train. He spearheaded an effort to convince me, starting with his girlfriend Regina, our piercer. She’d then gotten her two roommates, Veronica and Penny, on board, and they’d spread the excitement through the shop. They didn’t see it as selling out — they all thought it would make them famous, set their careers up for life. I supposed it would, but at what cost? That was my question.

  To my credit, I’d held my ground with only one person on my side — Patrick. He was as interested in exposing his personal life as he was exposing himself to chlamydia. And as outnumbered as I was, I wasn’t going to budge. Shep needed my permission to do it, and I wasn’t going to give it. End of story.

  Until we caught wind that Hal’s shop had been approached too. The last thing I wanted in the entire world, other than being on a reality show, was for Hal to be on one.

  My attention snapped to the door when the ding of the bell chimed, and two pencil skirts walked into the shop. One of the women walked forward, probably near my age, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a friendly smile, though I knew better than to trust it. Laney Preston, I assumed, the creator of the show. She was beautiful, the kind of woman who was way out of my station, rich, powerful. But I could have gotten her into bed with a few words — she was the sort of woman who would only want me for a night or two, never more, which was exactly how I preferred it. I’d had my fill of relationships with Liz.

  But it wasn’t Laney who I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

  The woman at her side was tall and blond, with skin like a porcelain dish brimming with cream. Wide-set, big eyes with icy irises assessed me coolly, dark lashes long. Her nose was pert, just a button, though her lips were wide, just like her eyes. She looked like a doll, a cold, beautiful doll that belonged on a shelf where no man should touch her.

  For some reason, all I could think about was whether or not her skin was cool to the touch like I imagined it would be, like a statue made of marble.

  I tore my eyes away when Laney spoke.

  “Joel Anderson?” she asked, her lips still smiling.

  I offered my hand. “Ms. Preston?”

  “Call me Laney.” She took it and gave it a firm shake. “Nice to finally meet you.”

  “You too,” I lied. I’d been putting the meeting off for weeks.

  She smiled like she knew before looking over the shop. “I’m sorry we haven’t been by personally before now. This space is beautiful. You’ve done a great job with it — it’s going to film brilliantly. Is there somewhere we can sit?”

  I nodded and gestured to our waiting area and the antique Victorian couches and chairs that stood there.

  Laney chose the blood-red velvet couch, and the china doll sat next to her with an unreadable expression on her face, though her big eyes scanned the room like she was taking stock of her surroundings. She reached into an attaché and pulled out a folder, placing it in her boss’ hand.

  “I’d like you to meet our executive producer and the show runner, Annika Belousov, my right hand. We’ll all be working closely, hopefully in more comfortable clothes than we’re meeting in tonight.”

  Shep chuckled. My eyes were on Annika, who smiled, if you could call it that. Really, it was just a twitch of one corner of her lips by a millimeter, chased by a spark in her eyes as they met mine. Something about it sent my pulse racing, and a flush bloomed on her cheeks. She was as affected by me as I was by her.

  It was then that I realized that her mirth was equal parts attraction and judgment. I got the impression that she thought little of us, yet her eyes scanned my arms, which were covered in tattoos, in a way I wouldn’t call completely unimpressed. I wondered if she had a single mark on her perfect skin
and imagined taking my needle to it, making a mark I could leave there forever.

  The thought sent a rush of heat through me. Her hair was pulled into a strict bun, her skirt tight around her hips and waspish waist, everything about her severe and beautiful. I wondered what it would look like when she smiled, when she was free and happy, if she ever was. There was something more to her, but I couldn’t figure out what. And I wanted to know.

  I then decided two things.

  One: My new mission in life was to make her laugh.

  Two: I’d crack her open if it was the last thing I did.

  Laney opened the folder and set it on the table, leaning over her crossed knees to sort through the papers.

  “We wanted to go over some of our plans for modifying the space for the show, as well as discuss the layout for the episodes. Annika?”

  Annika sat even straighter, if that were possible, making eye contact with me. “If you have a look over this, you’ll find the details of the construction proposal. Cameras will be added to several points in the store, as well as some ancillary lighting. We may need to rearrange the booths to …” She kept talking, but I wasn’t really listening anymore.

  Her voice was low and a little raspy, the contrast to her perfect, pristine outward impression catching me off guard. I expected a cold voice to match the rest of her, but it wasn’t — it was burning embers and crackling wood.

  I swallowed the thought of that voice whispering my name, and then I smiled, leaned back in my chair, folded my arms across my chest, and pretended I didn’t have a single worry in the world.

  She stopped mid-sentence, and the temperature dropped as she threw down the iron curtain, any trace of warmth she had disappearing in a snap. “Is something amusing, Mr. Anderson?”

  I shrugged. “Not particularly.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “Once you sign these papers, we’ll have permission to come in here and modify your store. You should take it seriously.”

  Laney gave her a look, but Annika didn’t falter.

  “I don’t take much seriously, if I can help it.”

  I got the sense that if we weren’t in a business meeting, she would have rolled her eyes. Her back was ramrod straight as she directed her eyes to one of the sheets on the table and went on with her presentation. I watched her fingers, long and white as she pointed to diagrams and told us about the changes. Shep watched me, amused.

  I smirked at him.

  Annika went on, going over everything with a detached tone to her voice, though I could hear the tightness in the undercurrent of her words. She pushed the papers toward us when she was finished and leaned back, turning to Laney, never chancing a look at me.

  The knowledge that she was avoiding eye contact was like spurs in my side. I kept my gaze on her, willing her to look at me so I could burn a hole through her.

  Something about her made me feel reckless, more reckless than usual. I’d never really had trouble convincing women to spend a little time with me, but climbing over the wall of ice she’d thrown between us was a challenge I was game for. I could press her out of curiosity with one of two outcomes. She’d leave the show and take the whole thing with her, or she wouldn’t. And if she didn’t, maybe there was a chance that I could get catch a better glimpse of whatever I’d seen in her.

  Shep cleared his throat, and I looked over to find both Laney and Shep staring at me expectantly. Annika’s eyes were still on Laney.

  I smirked again, not even a little ashamed of myself. “Sorry. It’s chilly in here, don’t you think?”

  Shep tried to cover a laugh with a cough and said, “I dunno, man. Feels a little steamy to me.”

  I laughed. “That’s just your monkey suit talking.”

  Laney’s lips pursed once, suppressing a smile. “I was just asking whether everything looks good to you or if you need some time?”

  My eyes were on Annika again, and I didn’t know just why I found the whole thing so amusing. But I did. “Everything looks good to me. Real good.”

  Laney full-on smiled that time and pulled out some more papers. “Perfect. I’ll need to have all of your employees sign these updated contracts, as well as you and Shep. This is the final version with all of the requests that your lawyer made, including the negotiated payment and reimbursement for any damages and modifications to the shop. I convinced my bosses to do the history and cultural segments you asked for, too, which you’ll find in the episode packets. They love the angle of learning about the subculture — it’s something we haven’t seen before. They were also on board with hiring a new composer, as so not to have the—” she glanced at one of the papers in her hand, “Cheesy TLC bullshit soundtrack, as you called it.”

  I smiled and sat up in my seat. I had a list of demands in order for me to participate in the farce, and Laney had pulled through. Part of me had hoped they wouldn’t so I could refuse, but at least if I had to do the damned show, it would be on my own terms.

  She smiled back and shuffled through more papers. “We also have copies of all of the permits in here for your files, in case your landlord or the city needs to see them, but you can always direct any inquiries like that to us.”

  I nodded.

  “We appreciate you meeting with us, Joel. Your brother told us that you weren’t overly enthusiastic about the show, but I’m glad you came around. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how we do things. It’s not all fake drama and cat fights — we leave that to Survivor and The Bachelor. And if there’s ever an issue, you can always come to Annika or me. We’re here to ensure that things run smoothly — we’re problem solvers. So if anything crops up that you’re unhappy about, let us try to help fix it. Okay?”

  I nodded again, uncomfortable with her hitting me in a soft spot, calling me on my fears so openly.

  “Great. I just told our lead engineer that I’d take a couple of shots of the office and back room for him, some things he didn’t get when he was here last week. Could one of you show me the way?”

  Shep stood up as I opened my mouth to answer.

  “Yeah, come on. It’s just back this way,” he said.

  Laney stood and smiled at me like she knew what I was thinking, which was nearly full-blown giddiness at the prospect of being alone with Annika. I wanted to see her squirm. I’d see her squirm if it killed me.

  Shep turned his back to the women and winked at me as he passed.

  Annika recrossed her legs as they walked away — her long legs, the same creamy white as the rest of her — and brushed the backs of her fingers against her skirt with a flick before leaning forward to pick up the papers, stacking them with a click against the table.

  She still wouldn’t look at me.

  “So, we’ll be working closely, it would seem,” I said.

  “It would seem.” The words were tight.

  A smile played at my lips. “Does something about me offend you, Ms. Belousov?”

  She shifted, turning her nose up, her eyes toward the window — my eyes followed the line of her jaw, which was somehow both hard and soft. “Not at all.”

  I chuckled. “You’re a terrible liar. Has anyone ever told you that?”

  Her eyes finally snapped to mine, and I tried to melt her panties off with my mind. A flush rose in her cheeks. “What is it with you?” she asked, surprising me with her directness.

  I shrugged. “Not quite sure what you mean.”

  “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s not polite to stare?”

  “Sure, but when I see a stone-cold fox such as yourself, I find it hard not to look.”

  She laughed, but the sound held no humor, and her eyes were hard and mocking on mine. “Yeah, I get it. I’m just the pretty face, right? Why wouldn’t I want to be sexualized by strangers? Did you have any cat-calls on hand for me? Maybe it’s one I haven’t heard before.”

  One eyebrow climbed. “Touché.”

  She shook her head, her eyes hard on mine. “You’re basically a walking cliché. Funny that you
don’t see women treating men like meat.”

  I chuffed. “Wait until you’ve spent a few days in the shop, sweetheart.”

  Her anger flared, her flush deepening.“Don’t call me sweetheart, asshole.”

  “Don’t call me asshole, princess.”

  She glared. I smiled.

  I put my hands up in surrender, finding her presumptions amusing, imagining the look on her face when she realized exactly how wrong she was. “Listen, I’m sorry, but in fairness, I’m not the one playing ice queen.”

  “No. You’re playing the rogue, aren’t you?”

  I bobbled my head. “I don’t really play the rogue. It’s just my natural state. Drove my mother nuts.”

  “I’d have to agree with her.”

  “So you’re admitting I drive you nuts? This has to be a new record for me. What’s it been, fifteen minutes?”

  She glanced at her watch. “Twelve.” The word was flat and humorless, but I laughed nonetheless.

  “I like you,” I said. “Can’t figure out exactly why.”

  A ghost of a smile, suppressed and gone in a millisecond. “That makes one of us.”

  “Well, I, for one, am looking forward to working with you, Annika.”

  “Ms. Belousov is preferred, thanks.”

  The words were brusque, and I wondered if she was already trying to figure out how to get out of the job. In that exact moment, I hoped she couldn’t. I hoped she’d be stuck to me like static cling.

  I leaned forward, finding myself close to her, close enough to smell her perfume, a hint of something floral and familiar, but I couldn’t place it. What I could have done was gotten drunk off it.

  “Well, Ms. Belousov, maybe I can change your mind.”

  She turned her cool eyes on me, and I found them burning like I’d hoped, though it was veiled. I found their heat all the same. “I very seriously doubt that, Mr. Anderson.”

 

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