Choosing Her by Jailaa West

Chapter 1

Belle Walters chewed her nail when she walked into Skin Sins. Dammit, where was Marley? Probably in the back with her hot biker. She wasn’t jealous. Hell no, she was living vicariously through her bestie’s life. And if anyone deserved a sexy surprise love life it was Marley. She still remembered when Marley struggled to make it home because she was so sick. Terrifying Belle out of her mind. Wondering if her best friend since kindergarten would make it. But she’d pushed her fears aside and did everything she could do to support her. And now five years later, look at her. Not everybody got a happy ending after such a scary diagnosis. It was a great happy ending. Belle would never have thought, looking at Rogue, that he was the kind of guy to dote on a girl. But he was. True, it meant a lot of their late-night girl dates had ended. But he always welcomed Belle when she came around. Thoughtful enough to leave the room if they needed private time. Never leaving without giving Marley the sweetest kiss and the softest look. When he left, they would press their hands over their hearts and sigh. Then giggle like high schoolers. Careful to keep laughter low so that he wouldn’t know they were making fun of him. But tonight, was their night. He’d promised them, they could have this night. Claiming he didn’t know how he was going to make it without Marley. But that he would try. Saying it was the least he could do after holding her best friend captive for an entire month. She sighed again. She was starting to love the guy almost as much as Marley did. She didn’t usually trust his type. But he was changing her mind about bad boy bikers. Not that she had to worry. No guy like that would ever want her. And she wouldn’t believe him if he did. Gorgeous bad-boys didn’t fall for her. They sensed the school teacher a mile away. And with her thunder thighs, there was no way she would get on a bike and ride around town with him like Marley did.

Stone’s Throw, Michigan buzzed with excitement when the group of tatted-up bikers had settled in the town. Talk of sex trafficking, and drug-running kept the rumor mills going more than the old sawmill ever had. There’d even been a rumor that Brad had stopped in to give them an official law enforcement warning. But if he did, nothing ever came of it other than his new tattoo. After his tat, a lot of people were walking around town with their fresh ink. Even some of the kids in her A.P. lit class had ink. But this was her first time visiting the shop. She’d smelled the testosterone from the sidewalk before she’d entered. Tired of waiting for Marley in her car. She’d gathered up her courage and opened the door. Walking into the shop she’d heard so much about. It was nicer than she’d expected. Reminding her of a fancy beauty salon. The front part of the shop faced the street with a big picture window. Comfy-looking couches, magazines, a big screen tv with a video game system filled the area. Everything to make a person comfortable, if they needed to wait a long time. Even a mini-fridge and coffee maker, yeah this was nice. She should have been waiting in here the whole time. An unattended reception desk, with a computer and appointment book, divided the space. Looking past it, the room went from cozy comfort to pristine professional. Clean white-tiled workstations held shiny equipment and supplies. No wonder they were building a good rep despite their hell-raiser looks.

They still hadn’t noticed her. Some were working, some were talking, or cleaning. Everyone looked busy. She hated interrupting, but… She lifted her hands, but then forced her fingers down and scowled at her nails. Another manicure ruined. She’d hoped that by paying for expensive manicures she would finally stop biting her nails. But she couldn’t help it. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “Hi, I’m looking for Marley.”

Six stares swiveled in her direction as if a zookeeper had walked into the lion’s cage. She’d seen it happen once on a school field trip. The lions were in their outdoor enclosure relaxing on their various rocks. Sunning themselves with lazy adoration. Until the zookeeper walked in. Their heads turning to her, as they got lazily to their feet. Their gold and amber eyes stalking her as she walked in with their meat. She’d thought the woman had to either be crazy as a Betsy bug or braver than a Navy SEAL. She hadn’t been able to decide at the time. But now she was the one entering the enclosure with large predators, and oh yeah, that lady was nuts.

Of course, it was the largest scariest one who spoke first. She zipped her eyes past the bulging muscles, to the silver eyes watching her. His stone visage giving away nothing. His voice was deeper than the ocean when he responded. Nodding his head towards the back. “She’s with Rogue right now. I would say go back there but nobody wants to interrupt them. Nothing you can do when they’re back there going at it, other than wait.”

“Umm, okay.” She felt the heat rise up in her face. What could she say to that? Her best friend was in the back getting it on with her, um, boyfriend. Lover? She didn’t know what to call him. Meanwhile, what was she supposed to do? She started nibbling her nails again. The first round was going to be on Marley. Making her wait and embarrassing her. Oh yeah, not only was the first round on her, but she was getting the appetizers also.

“If you need a place to wait,” a sexy voice called from the back of the shop. The first guy’s voice was deep. But something about the second guy. His voice shimmied down the length of her spine. Evoking a primordial response, eliciting goosebumps. She loved shifter romance books and it’s like she was in one. The voice making her body respond as if he was her fated mate. Okay Belle, you’ve been reading one too many of those books. Shake it off. She strained her neck around the Goliath in front of her to get a glimpse of the face behind the voice. The voice called to her and her whole body responded. “You can come over here and sit on my chair. Or forget the chair and settle down on my lap.” His words powered down the weird reaction. And she shook her head. Another immature ass with creepy one-liners. She handled high school boys and their trash lines all day. And nine-to-five was more than enough. She would never deal with that immature crap outside of school hours. What did he look like anyway? She strained her neck a little harder. Who was it? Not that it would have made a difference. Marley had told her a little bit about some of the guys. But she wouldn’t have been able to identify them from their voice.

“Ignore Rebel. We have a nice waiting section over there.” The Goliath pointed to the carpeted area in front of the reception desk.

Rebel made his way between the chairs and the other tattoo artists towards her. Wiping his hands on a shop towel before wrapping it around his neck. His slow saunter stalking her like a beast in a zoo. She wiped her sweaty hands on the side of her jeans. If she had a piece of meat she would throw it at him to distract him and run for help. But he was looking at her as if she was the meat. “You don’t wanna sit there, sugar.” He was close enough now to smell his heady aroma. Damn, he was fine. Like movie star fine. Marley had shared that most of the guys came from a rough background. And they’d conducted some shady activities. But then something happened and they’d decided to go straight. They’d moved to Stone’s Throw and opened up a tattoo shop. Marley hadn’t shared the details with her. She might not have the details. She pulled her lip into her mouth and gave it a quick nip. He groaned. Okay, what was that about? “Damn baby you’re killing me.”

Goliath’s voice rang out making her jump. How has she forgotten about him? Oh yeah, because of the hot guy standing in front of her swamping her senses with his sex appeal. And heaven help her, she was drowning in it. She knew better. Knew he was feeding her his well-practiced lines. But she was still drowning, unable to catch her breath. Damn, he was good. “Cut it out, Rebel.” Goliath commanded. “You heard her say she’s a friend of Marley’s.”

Rebel grinned and winked. “Well you know what they say, any friend of hers is a friend of mine. You wanna be my friend, sugar?”

She tried to catch Goliath’s eyes again. There had to be some explanation why Rebel was coming on to her. He was coming on to her right? His eyes started at the top of her head, inspecting her more thoroughly than an MRI. She’d gone with Marley to the doctor and waited as the radiation tech explained the MRI’s procedure. Marley was in for a whole-body scan. The machine would start at the top of her head and track every inch of her body. Sending its beams to measure and examine her body. And damn if that wasn’t what he was doing. The MRI tech had worn a special apron to protect herself from the radiation’s penetrating assessment. And where could she get an apron like that right now? His eyes repeated the scan. She pressed down on the balls of her feet. A trick she’d perfected to hide first-day jitters from her students. Move on pretty boy I know you’re not interested. The longer he was looking, was giving her hope. Now she would spend the rest of the night trying to remind her silly heart he’d only been playing some twisted game. Ugh, so not how she wanted the evening to go. And she wasn’t hating on herself. Those days were over too. She knew who she was and wasn’t. She was a little on the thick side, but when she stripped in front of her bathroom mirror she looked good. She looked like Marilyn Monroe or Pearl Bailey, pin-up, pretty. It wasn’t her fault, times had changed and people wanted tree twigs instead of trunks. If she’d been born seventy years earlier, she’d be beating men off with a stick. She wasn’t knock-down gorgeous, but when she pulled her hair up and glossed her lips, she looked a passable okay. Good enough to catch the eye of a passable okay guy.

His gaze scanned over her generous hips again. Damn dude, nothing special, move on. But when his eyes traced back up to hers, they gleamed. The heat in them reminding her of how Rogue looked at Marley. Rogue insisted he’d fallen for Marley the first time he saw her. This guy was playing games. She’d met his kind often enough as a student in high school. The in-crowd, good-looking, top-shelf, crowd. The ones that had pushed her into the sides of lockers as they strolled down the hallway. Not because they were being cruel. But because she was invisible to them. And that was the cruelest thing of all. “What do you say, sugar love, you wanna be my friend?”

Ugh. She didn’t even know him, and she hated him. Marley said they were all good guys, but this dude was a jerk. She rolled her eyes. She’s been out of high school for 10 years. And she’d been over pretty boy assholes for just as long. She gave him her heavy squint. Grabbed his gorgeous ebony eyes with her no-nonsense teacher glare. Enunciating each word, so even an idiot would get it. “Not. At. All.” The silence in the shop dropped like a nuclear bomb. One silent zing before it exploded like a mushroom cloud into laughter. And damn if he didn’t look just as good when his face turned beet red.