Rowdy (Marked Men #5)

by Jay Crownover



I DON’T HAVE A LOT of great memories from my childhood.

There were too many rules. Too many regulations. Too many disapproving looks from my father and not enough support or backbone from my mother.

We lived in Loveless, a tiny Texas town with an achingly accurate name. I was the minister’s daughter, and if that didn’t come with enough inherent expectations, the man who was beloved behind the pulpit but a tyrant in our home heaped them on ever higher. I was meant to be quiet, compliant, and conventional. Problem was . . . that was never me.

When I was nine, I convinced my mom to let me try out for a very exclusive dance team. I longed for something different, something that would make the day-to-day less agonizing. I was so proud, so excited when I made the team, only to have my father tell me dancing like that wasn’t permitted and no daughter of his was going to make a spectacle of herself. He wouldn’t stand for it. It was how everything in my life went, and my mom never seemed willing to take a stand and defy him, even if it meant giving her daughter something she so desperately wanted. Anything that went against my father’s wishes or was deemed inappropriate and shameful got kicked to the curb along with any sense of uniqueness and enjoyment. My parents wanted to squeeze me into a too-small box, painted white and tied with a bow of tradition. Me being me would never be good enough.

It was a situation made even worse by the fact that my younger sister was the apple of my parents’ eye. The perfect golden girl. I loved Poppy with all my heart, too. She was gentle and kind but she was also docile and obedient, ready to jump whenever my father barked an order.

I was never going to be perfect and compliant like my adorable little sister. I had no plans to end up a happy homemaker like my mother. And I sure as hell was never going to fit into the conventional mold of the traditional Mexican woman like my father so desperately wanted me to. So at nine years old, I decided that I would make my own way. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, I just had to be patient.

When the time came, I broke free. I hit the road with exactly the kind of guy my father hated. I was barely eighteen, not really grown, but I had to get out. I had to run . . . I just didn’t see any other way to survive. I fled Loveless, shaking the dust off my boots and never looking back.

I have very few regrets about the choices I made for myself back then. To this day I am a woman that stands by my decisions—good or bad. I’m independent. I’m strong-willed. I’ve made my own way in life, and have, up to this point, been extremely successful at it. There’ve been times when I stumbled. There’ve been times when I lay alone in the dark and wanted to cry. There were quiet moments that snuck up on me that reminded me my parents weren’t the only people I ran from in that tiny Texas town. But overall I tried to accept full accountability for my happiness and well-being and that was the way I liked it.

I still kept in touch with my sister, Poppy. We were close even though she had married a man I wasn’t too fond of a few years ago. She still lived in Loveless. So deep was my hatred for that place and the memories that lived there I couldn’t even bring myself to attend my sister’s nuptials, which had of course taken place under my father’s watchful eyes in his church. I liked to move around, so Poppy would come visit and get a feel for whichever big city I was calling home for the moment. Her visits had become much sparser over the years, and now I could only get in touch with her every so often for a quick chat on the phone.

At first my gypsy ways had landed me in Phoenix and then Reno, all before L.A. had called to me, which had then been quickly followed by New York. I had tried New Orleans on for size and had a blast in Austin for a few years. Most recently I had landed in Vegas, and something about the lights, the noise, the constant flow of people, the way it really felt like a transient town, had stuck. I stayed in the neon jungle for far longer than any of the other places on the list and settled in to a really profitable career that hinged on all those decisions I had made that my parents were so sure were going to doom my future.

I had a great job, a killer apartment, and I was even seeing a guy that was hovering on the edge of something closer to serious than I normally liked, when I got a call out of the blue from Phil Donovan’s son.

Phil Donovan was legendary in my world—a veritable god in the tattoo industry. He was the tattoo guy other tattoo guys wanted to be. He was the artist you wanted to say had worked on you. He was groundbreaking. He was famous. The list to apprentice under him was a hundred million miles long. Phil was a supremely talented man, and according to his son, Nash, he was sick and his odds on pulling through were slim to nonexistent. Nash had inherited Phil’s shop in the heart of downtown Denver and had also been tasked with getting a new tattoo shop up and running in the more trendy Lower Downtown—“LoDo”—part of the city. Phil had thrown my name in the hat for Nash to consider as the shop’s manager.

I had only met the older man once. It was during a convention in Vegas, and I had just wanted to meet the notoriously handsome artist. Well, Phil was indeed a gorgeous example of a rock-and-roller aging well, but he was also charming, polite, and something about his demeanor had spoken to my very wayward soul. We ended up talking for hours and hours. He offered to tattoo me, and there was no way I was going to say no. I spent the next day under his needle and ended up spilling my entire life history under his watchful purple gaze. It was like being absolved of every sin I had ever committed by a very tattooed and cool pope.

When he asked where I was from and I told him “all over,” he had just laughed. When I mentioned I grew up in a very conservative town in Texas called Loveless, I could feel something change in his demeanor. He became more intent, asked a truckload more questions, and by the time the elegant, beautiful, and very traditional Lady of Guadalupe tattoo was done on my calf, I felt like Phil knew me better than I tended to know myself.

We said good-bye and I never really thought much past that encounter other than I had a killer tattoo from Phil Donovan, which totally gave me bragging rights. Nash’s call had taken me off guard, so I was prepared to blow him off. I was sad to hear about Phil and I didn’t really want to leave Vegas. Colorado was cold and had mountains. I had zero use for either of those things. I was getting ready to hang up when Nash told me to look up the shop on the Internet. To check out the artists and their work. He told me that Phil was absolutely sure I would be interested in the job and the move once I did. I shrugged it and him off and hung up, but my curiosity was piqued, so I did indeed pull up the shop on my phone.

The Marked had a stellar reputation. The ratings were out of this world and the portfolios of the work its artists were producing were breathtaking. But it wasn’t until I flipped over to the individual artists’ pages that my entire world and my future went from Vegas to Denver in the span of a heartbeat.

There on the tiny screen of my phone was the one solid and always good memory I did have from my youth. The one thing that I had held in a warm fuzzy place no matter where I was or how I was feeling. There looking back at me was the grown-up version of the blue-eyed boy who was the one person in my entire life to ever make me feel accepted. The only person who had ever made me feel like it was okay just to be me and that being me was actually a pretty great thing.

Rowland St. James . . . Rowdy. The boy next door who was so sweet, so wide-eyed, so afraid of being sent back into the system, so afraid of being alone.

The first time Poppy dragged him over to the yard to play with us I remembered watching him struggle to figure out how to have fun, how to loosen up and have a good time. He was so little, with such big, sad eyes, my heart squeezed for him. Every little kid should know how to play, should want to roll around in the dirt and cause a ruckus, and it seemed like every little kid did, except for Rowdy.

I think I felt so bad for him because I knew exactly how he felt. I was barely a teenager, and even then I didn’t want to think about how going inside with scraped knees or ripped clothes would go over with my tyrant of a father. I would get yelled at, I would be punished, I would have all my privileges—the few I had—revoked, and all the fun in the world wasn’t worth the repercussions it caused, so I typically resigned myself to sitting on the sidelines and watching everyone else enjoy themselves. Only, once Rowdy was part of the picture, I no longer had to sit there alone.

That was how I first found out how artistically gifted he was. Drawing on paper was clean and tidy, it was normally boring, and there was no possible way I could get in trouble or end up grounded for playing tick-tack-toe or hangman. Little had I known that handing a few sheets of plain drawing paper and a few colored pencils to Rowdy was going to unlock artistic potential that would blow me away. Even at ten he had been able to craft images and landscapes that looked real enough they deserved to be framed and hung on a wall somewhere. The boy was skilled, and it was the first time I ever saw him really smile. He loved to draw, loved to sketch and mess around with paint, so whenever we ended up cast off to the side, that was what we did together. Draw and doodle. I sucked at it, but I loved that it made him so happy.

Even with our age gap and obvious differences, Rowdy just understood what it was like to want more and be more than we were currently stuck with. He was a kindred spirit, and he made my heart smile when my day-to-day was so dreary and desolate. We were two kids just trying to make do in households that didn’t really want us or understand us. We might have been on the outside looking in at our own families and our own lives, but at least we could stand outside together. He was quite simply the best friend I ever had—he still was. Sometimes, though, I wondered if he was content to be on the fringe with me, okay with his nose pressed against the glass just because he was another person in my life who was blinded by Poppy’s perceived perfection. We watched everything move around us, never feeling included or wanted, but he never took his eyes off of my little sister.

I had always known that Poppy was the Cruz sister for him, but somehow I forgot that in my last moments in Loveless. Just as the Belvedere was about to peel out of my parents’ driveway, I caught sight of his brilliant sky-blue eyes in the rearview mirror. I jumped out of the car, and in that split second something changed from kinship and our deeper bond of not belonging changed into something else. I saw him as older, saw him as so much more than a confused teenage boy. He was only fifteen, too young to have so much loss and despair in his heartbreaking gaze. Too young to suddenly look so grown-up and like something else. In that half of a heartbeat he became desirable and forbidden to my suddenly thundering heart. Neither one of us was ready for the other; at eighteen I didn’t have a clue how drastic my actions were going to be or how long the effects would last, but I had to kiss him good-bye, had to let him know that he mattered in so many different ways even though I was leaving and never coming back.

Only now, thanks to serendipity and Phil Donovan, Rowdy was staring back at me, all grown-up and gorgeous. He was still blond, still smiling in a way that made my heart trip, but he was bigger, badder, and those blue eyes now had to compete for attention with a riot of ink covering most of his visible skin. It was like staring at everything that I suddenly wanted in the center of a crystal ball telling me that was what my future was supposed to look like.

Without even taking a second to think, I called Nash back and accepted the job. I think he said something about interviewing, but I could hardly hear him through the blood rushing between my ears. Sure I would have more details to figure out before I packed up and left, but I had a new destination and a clear goal in mind. I wanted to see if it was still there, the synchronicity we had, the undeniable connection and pull that had made us work together so well when we were too young and too lost to know what to do with it.

It took a minute to cut ties with the current shop I was working at, mostly because they had just signed a deal to do some kind of tattoo reality show and I think having me at the front desk was one of the big selling points. I also had to break it off with Mr. I Want More and head to New York for a photo shoot I had booked for a tattoo magazine. As each day passed I got more and more anxious. I wanted to be in Colorado, wanted to lay my eyes on the grown-up version of Rowdy. I was dying to see what the years had done to him besides make him undeniably sexy. He had always had the best personality. Affable and laid-back even though his life had been anything but a bed of roses. I always admired him. I envied the way he seemed to just roll with whatever landed in his lap. I was the exact opposite. I made everything into a battle, a fight for survival, and it was exhausting.