“Ah, well, where would be the fun in growing up?”
That induced her to silence again, and he got back to work. It lingered for a while this time, filling the air thickly, and he didn’t know why it bothered him so much now. Usually he was pretty content to keep the chatter to a minimum, but with her…
“Are you okay?” he blurted, and though he wasn’t talking about the pain of the needle, she would probably take it that way.
“I guess what I mean is…why the phoenix?”
“I’m rising from the ashes.”
“Right.” He couldn’t muster the courage to be nosy enough to ask what ashes she was rising from. It was obviously about her failed relationship, but that was her story to tell.
And then she surprised him. “I was supposed to get married in March.”
“It didn’t happen.”
“Sorry about that.” Sorry that it hurt her. Not sorry that she wasn’t with some prick who didn’t deserve her. “That sucks.”
“Better that I should find out he wasn’t into it before the wedding rather than after, I suppose.”
“Good way of looking at it.”
Bitterness twisted in her words. “I just wish I hadn’t found out at the wedding.”
On that note, he had to stop for a second and shake his head. “Son of a bitch.”
“I mean, why? Why let it get that far? Obviously, this wasn’t something he realized ten minutes before he was supposed to meet me at the altar. He had to know this well in advance.”
“What was his excuse?”
“It wasn’t what he wanted. That’s all I got. He denied there being anyone else. He actually said if we could keep going on as we were without getting married, he’d be happy. Well, to hell with that.”
“Yeah, f**k that. I hear you.”
“Sure, let’s go on living the way you want to live, doing what you want to do. Never mind what I want,” she all but snarled, as if she were talking to her ex-fiancé right now.
Oh man, he probably should have heeded Brian’s warning and not opened this can of worms. Or even encouraged its opening. “Like you said, at least you found out beforehand.”
“It’s hard to focus on that sometimes. I just want to know why I had to find out at all. Why this had to happen. It was so humiliating.” She fell silent for a long, pain-filled moment, and when she spoke again, he could barely hear her. “So humiliating.”
He wanted to touch her somewhere, to comfort her. But he couldn’t, not without being highly inappropriate. Glancing toward the open door, he rolled his chair around to her head. She raised it slightly to look at him, her eyes wet and, goddamn, so bright, sparkling like precious emeralds.
“I think you’re doing a good thing,” he told her. “This is therapeutic for a lot of people, you know. The pain is cathartic. So I’ll shut the door if you want, and you can cry, or cuss him or scream, do whatever. I’m cool with any of it. And we’ll get this done, and it’ll be this beautiful testament to some very harsh shit you went through only to come out stronger on the other side.” He gave her a small smile. “I’ll even shut the f**k up from here on out.”
She shook her head. “No. Keep talking to me.”
“I can do that too. Take a deep breath.”
Smiling, she did as he instructed, inhaling deeply and letting some of the tension ease out with her breath. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s keep going.”
“All right.” He wheeled back into place, rolling his head on his shoulders in an attempt to ease some of his own tension. A woman near tears had that effect on him, but this one was even stronger than most. He eyed his work critically, thinking the soft blue lines on her skin just invited fingers to trail along them. But not his. Before he got started again, he shut the door as he’d promised, hoping the move wouldn’t bring Brian sniffing around again. Brian and Gabriella might give each other shit, but Ian had the distinct impression Brian might throttle anyone within reach who upset his sister. He’d mentioned how Evan, his brother, had physically hauled him away from the guy who jilted her. For that, Ian wanted to buy Brian a beer, and really it was unfortunate Evan had intervened so soon. Surely he would’ve liked to see at least a few punches get thrown. Ian certainly would have.
They chatted on as he worked. Nothing too deep, nothing too emotional. She didn’t cry or cuss or scream, but she’d loosened up, and he liked her that way. He really liked her a f**king lot, more than he should.
Once they were done, he explained aftercare and walked her back up front where they set up her next appointment. She gave him a hell of a tip, even though he wanted to tell her to keep it. He’d nearly caused her to have an emotional breakdown with his prying, and he felt bad about it. Maybe she’d needed it, though.
After she’d walked out the door, he watched her through the windows as she crossed the street to her car. No barely leashed anger in her steps anymore. No, she almost seemed to float along now. She’d even had pleasant words for Brian before she’d left.
“You’re a brave man,” Brian said from beside him. Ian turned, not having realized he’d walked up. “Thanks for taking one for the team.”
He chuckled. “What are you talking about? She’s not that bad.”
“No, no, it’s not that she’s bad, necessarily.”
“Well, then, what?”
“High strung. Perfectionist.”
Oh yeah. That he could see. He could also see that she seemed much more relaxed now, after getting her ink, having her emotional moment. Maybe after talking with him?
Nah. No way. He wouldn’t even let his mind go there.
Brian shrugged. “And now, after having that guy dump her like that? She’s kind of going through this…thing. I think it’s an early midlife crisis. She used to hardly ever drink, but now she’ll hit a bar in a heartbeat. Mom said there were a couple of nights that she didn’t come home, so who knows what went on there.”
That disturbed him. He got that she was in pain, and everyone needed to blow off steam, but she had such a bright future. He hoped she wasn’t spiraling so much that she ended up throwing that away.
“And now the clincher,” Brian said, sighing as he turned to go. “She came here.”
Ian wasn’t one to argue with his boss, especially when said boss knew Gabriella infinitely better than he did. But after talking with her, he had a much different viewpoint. He didn’t think her showing up here was about spiraling at all. He thought, just maybe, it was about finally healing.
For the way Gabby’s back burned, she could’ve been dragged shirtless down a gravel-covered road. Wincing with almost every move, she steered into her parents’ winding driveway and hoped she could get past her mother and to her room without being spotted. As she neared the house and saw the silver Lexus parked in the circular drive, she groaned out loud. Not only was she not going to get past her mother, apparently, but she wasn’t going to get past Sylvia Andrews either.
Candace’s mother wasn’t as much of a ray of sunshine as her daughter, and truth be known, Gabriella’s mother didn’t like the woman. But since it appeared their kids were getting married whether Sylvia liked it or not, they were making efforts to get along.
“Ah, that must be her now. Gabriella!” Her mother’s voice called from the living room off the foyer as Gabby let herself in the front door. She wished she could keep going straight ahead and mount the stairs, but dammit, she was caught, so she’d try to get through this as painlessly as possible.
When she entered the room where the two women sat, it didn’t escape her notice that Sylvia slightly lifted a meticulously shaped eyebrow at her appearance. For about the thousandth time, Gabby had just one thought: Poor Candace. She had to grow up with this woman.
“Hi!” Gabby said brightly. Maybe she should perch on the couch across from them in her shorts and—gasp—not cross her legs or something. That would probably give the woman a coronary, though.
“We were just speaking about you,” her mother said. If one were merely judging by appearances, Gianna Ross was the more imposing figure of the two. Intimidatingly beautiful with a rich Italian accent almost forty years in the States had done little to diminish, she commanded attention in any room she occupied. Next to her, Sylvia was almost nondescript, but between the two of them, Sylvia was definitely the shark.
Not that Gianna couldn’t bring down the thunder when she needed to. Brian, more than any of them, could attest to that; she’d actually shipped him off to her relatives in Florence once. Of course, after only a few months, they’d kicked him right back.
“All good, I hope,” Gabby said, emitting a light laugh as fake as any desire to be here that she tried to put forth. She didn’t need to be privy to any “poor, pitiful Gabriella” conversations. She might start screaming.
“Well, of course,” her mother said. Then she and Sylvia looked at each other and seemed to share a moment of silent amusement.
Gabby felt a prickling at the back of her neck. What the hell were they up to? She should have known, though, before her mother even bothered to open her mouth.
“We were just talking,” Gianna began a bit hesitantly, “and…oh, there’s no way to ease into this, I don’t suppose. Sylvia is organizing a retirement party for Phillip, and while we were discussing that, she mentioned that her nephew is coming in from Dallas to attend and—”
Ah-ha. That was where Gabby tuned her out. Jesus, really? She’d just been horrifically dumped three months ago. Like, in the worst way possible. The last thing she needed was to jump back on the relationship train—not that her mother was suggesting that, but even a date would be too much right now.
“—with the two of you living in the same city and everything,” Sylvia finished, having picked up Gianna’s pitch at some point.
“That’s thoughtful, really, but I am not in the market right now,” Gabby said as lightly as she could manage. Before they could launch in on her again, she turned to go…and totally forgot about the partially finished tattoo on her back, where the gauze Ian had placed over it was surely visible around the edges of her tank top.
The twin gasps from the women halted her in her tracks, and she sighed and turned to face them again.
“Gabby, what is that?” her mother all but wailed as Sylvia quickly looked down at her hands, her mouth set in a thin slash. Her tone told her she knew exactly what it was.
“I went to see Brian,” she said with a shrug, trying to suppress the cringe as her skin pulled tight. “Don’t get mad at him, though, because he wouldn’t do it himself.”
Gianna sighed and shook her head sadly. “Your skin is so beautiful, and Brian’s too. Why you want to mar it in such a way—”
“It isn’t marred,” she all but snapped, offended on Ian’s behalf. He’d been so damn nice to her, and his work was breathtaking. She couldn’t wait to have the finished product. It was going to be the most beautiful thing about her skin, in no way a flaw. “Don’t worry, Mom, you won’t have to see it if you don’t want to. I’ll be like Brian. I’ll keep it covered.” For probably the first time, she felt a bit offended on her little brother’s behalf too. He always covered his ink and took out his piercings when he had to be around either of the families—his or Candace’s—just to make them happy. And he never complained.