Phail’s newest business, Phabulous, was located in a graceful, yellow Victorian home. Despite the chilly February temperatures, the elegant sign and friendly atmosphere gave Tessa Flores the courage she needed to climb the stairs and open the door.
She hadn’t met the owner of Phabulous yet, but the town was abuzz about their newest member. Zuri Johnson was an aesthetician with multiple specialties. Hair. Nails. Spa treatments.
The one that interested Tessa the most was that Zuri was also a tattoo artist. Tessa had spent so long assuming she could never get the tattoos she wanted, it felt illicit to even walk in the door to keep her first appointment.
A soft chime sounded when Tessa opened the door. The entry opened into a tiny foyer with a staircase off to the side. A pretty sign propped on a desk asked her to wait and told her someone would be with her shortly.
Less than a minute later, a door on the right opened and a tall, gorgeous woman walked through. She carried herself with confidence and her dark curls exploded in a beautiful halo around her head. The woman extended her hand. “Hello. I’m Zuri. And you’re Tessa?”
Tessa smiled and shook her hand. “Yes. Thanks for fitting me in for an appointment.”
Zuri grinned. “My pleasure. It’s exciting to have customers in a new town. I’m glad to meet you. You’re the first one who’s been interested in tattoos so far.”
Zuri grabbed another sign off the desk and opened the door to hang it on the knob. “I’m not able to employ a receptionist yet, so I just lock the door when I’m working with a client. Adds privacy as well as eliminates interruptions. Come on back to the tattoo room and we can chat.”
Tessa followed Zuri through a small hallway to a room in the back of the house. A mix of photographs and designs of tattoos covered two of the walls. “Wow. These are amazing.”
“Thanks. I’ve been doing this for a while now. I’ve been lucky enough to apprentice and work with a lot of amazing people over the last five or six years.”
Tessa moved slowly along the wall, studying the designs. “What did you learn first? The hair, nails, or tattoos?”
“I went to aesthetician school first, then took on the tattoo apprenticeship with the shop that was next door to the beauty salon where I worked.”
Tessa smiled at her. “That sounds like a perfect place for you.”
Zuri’s eyes dimmed but the smile stayed in place. There was a story there—a sad one—but Tessa wouldn’t press. She knew exactly how important it was to keep the past quiet. She still had to remind herself daily that she didn’t need to hide hers anymore.
“What kind of tattoo are you thinking?” Zuri’s question broke into her musings.
Tessa straightened her spine. This wasn’t something she had to hide. It wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. “I have a lot of scarring on my body. To me they always looked like vines. I’d like to add some flowers and leaves to the scars.”
Zuri nodded. “I’m sorry you have the scars.” The words were without pity but filled with empathy.
Then she pointed to a section on the wall that Tessa hadn’t reached yet. “Here are some photos of various work I’ve done integrating tattoos into the scars. Let me open my tablet. I’ve got more photos there.”
The photos were fascinating. So many people had the same idea. While some wanted to cover the scars completely, others wanted to integrate them into some kind of design.
Once again, Tessa found that she wasn’t alone.
Flynn had proven that she would always have a partner, the people of Midnight Lake and the Walkers had shown her she’d always have a family. Now, she wasn’t even alone with her scars and the desire to celebrate the fact that she’d survived.
When she looked up from the tablet, Zuri smiled softly with her. “These are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Like you, they’ve chosen to acknowledge their past and use it to help them move forward with pride to the future.”
Tessa smiled even as she wiped away the tears that wanted to spill out. “That’s exactly it. Thank you.”
Zuri nodded. “What area of your body would you like to start with?”
Tessa patted her thighs. “My legs. They don’t work at a hundred percent anymore and always remind me of my issues. I’d like to look at them and smile.”
Zuri grinned and patted a large chair that looked like a dentist chair, only far more comfortable. “Hop up and let’s get started making you smile.”
Flynn walked into the No Fail Diner and smiled at Ginny. It had been about six weeks since Christmas and he was getting to know the people in the town of Phail a lot better.
Ginny Phail owned the diner and did all the baking. Manuel Ortiz did the cooking. Flynn had been surprised at the excellence of the food. The diner would have been a success anywhere in the world, but he was glad it was in this oddball town.
Ginny waved and pointed to a seat at the counter. The blue and green Scottish decor and the Phail family crest on the wall shouldn’t have blended with the cuisine that slanted heavily toward Mexican food, but in that odd way of small towns, it worked.
Through the open window to the kitchen, Manuel held up a hand showing Flynn had five minutes to wait for the order to be ready. Ginny slid a coffee cup in front of him and filled it. Then she took the box he’d brought in with him.
Tansy had created a hot box with multiple slots. Like a cooler, but better. There was enough room for a dozen takeout orders without using any plastic. Each section came with its own covered plate or bowl. Manuel would fill it and then close it all up. No waste, no plastic, and perfectly cooked food that would stay warm all the way back to Midnight Lake.
It was a far better system than any restaurant he’d encountered in his travels around the country. Sam was after Tansy to patent the box and sell it, but she wasn’t interested in that because she was already onto the next project. The woman needed a team of assistants to keep up with her. Not only would she make more money for herself and her projects, but she could help the world in an even wider way than she was doing now.
Once the food was ready, Flynn put the box in his new electric car and drove a couple of blocks. He parked outside of a small Victorian house just off the main street of Phail, which was Phail Avenue of course. Instead of changing the weird name for their town, these people leaned into it. Hard. Even the new salon had chosen the appropriate name of Phabulous.
Everything about this town and its people made him smile. His parents and brothers were planning a visit up to Vermont in a couple of weeks and he couldn’t wait for them to come. They were going to love everything about this town that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Just as much as they loved Tessa.
His parents had understood her from that first visit to the ranch in high school. Tessa hadn’t said a word, but his parents had known she needed love even back then. His mom had baked her pies. His dad had teased her in that gentle way of his and had called her all those flower names.
She’d blossomed under their care and attention. He wanted them to come up to see how she was flourishing here. How they both were.
As if his thoughts had conjured her, the door to the house opened and Tessa stepped out, her smile so big he wondered it didn’t spread right off her face.
That smile drew him and he popped out of his car and moved to meet her. Her grin widened as she threw her arms around him. “I did it.”
He swung her around in a circle and squeezed. “I’m so proud of you. How does it feel?”
She pressed a smacking kiss to his lips. “So good. I can’t wait to show you.”
“I hope it’s somewhere sexy.”
She laughed and hugged him again. “Upper thigh, but it’s covered with a bandage for twenty-four hours. I’ve got instructions to care for it. And I’ve got another appointment for more. Zuri suggested going slowly to make sure I know what I really want.”
Flynn squeezed her again and simply held on. “Tell me what you chose.”
“This first one is a beautiful yellow rose.”
His heart swelled. “For your mom. That’s perfect. A yellow rose of Texas for Rosa.”
She nodded into his chest and he kissed her hair. She had so few good memories of childhood, and not even one of her mom. The picture her grandfather had given her sat on the dresser in their room and she pressed her fingers to it every night. Knowing at least one family member had loved her had to be an incredible relief.
He never wanted her to feel unloved and insecure again. And he knew exactly how to make that happen.
Wearing only a long t-shirt and her underwear, Tessa stepped into the dry tub and sat on the edge. This was her second tattoo, so she knew the drill. She’d memorized Zuri’s lists of instructions and the tattoo for her mom was bright and glorious. This one would be as well.
A soft knock at the open door had her looking over her shoulder. Flynn, of course.
He leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed over his chest, and a smile on his face. Everything inside her lightened as it did whenever he appeared.
“Mind if I join you?”
“You want to see me take off a bandage?”
He nodded and waggled his eyebrows. “I like seeing you take things off.”
She laughed. “Come on in.”
He made her laugh again when he took off his socks and rolled up his jeans, then took a seat beside her on the edge of the tub.
He ran his fingers softly over the bandage that rested on her thigh. “You finally going to tell me what this tattoo is? I’ve guessed pretty much all the flowers I know.”
Her heart stuttered against her chest. She hoped he would like the design. She’d been so sure when she’d shown Zuri her sketches, but now she wondered if she’d overstepped.
What if he thought she was pushing him faster and further than he wanted to go?
No. He loved her. She knew that.
His hand moved from her thigh to her jawline. “Hey. What is it? What’s wrong?”
She shrugged off the doubts. “Nothing.”
“If you’re having regrets, you can undo things at some point. I think anyway. We’ll find out.”
She looked up into his worried eyes. Love shone through the worry and shored up her nerve. “I have absolutely no regrets. Not even a little bit. This one is going to always be my favorite.”
A quick tug and the bandage was off. It was perfect. Exactly what she’d imagined.
“Tessa.” Flynn’s growl was soft and full of emotion.
His finger traced the design. The Walker Ranch’s emblem was at the heart of it. A stylized W inside a horseshoe. Zuri had added a heart in the background and incorporated the letter F into the heart. Flowering vines weaved in and out in a way that brought it all together. She’d taken the jumble of ideas in Tessa’s head and created the perfect design.
Flynn repeated her name in that same reverent tone and then looked up at her. His eyes glittered and he put his hand beneath her hair and drew her toward him. The kiss was soft and sweet. He rested his forehead on hers and said her name again.
Then he hopped out of the tub and out of the bathroom.
Before silly doubts could settle, he was back, smiling. He hopped back into the tub, but didn’t sit on the edge. Instead, he knelt on one knee and extended a small box to her.
He grinned. “I was trying to find the right time. Figure out a romantic setting. Find some way to sweep you off your feet.” He looked down at the tattoo. “But you did it first. You’ve swept me off my feet, Tessa.”
She opened her mouth to respond but he took her hand. “I love you so much. You’re strong and beautiful and amazing. For years I was so angry because I didn’t get a chance with you. But we got it. We got our second chance. And you’ve chosen to honor me and my family in the most incredible way. I don’t want to wait another minute. Will you marry me?”
Tears had filled her eyes as he spoke. Her heart overflowed with love for this man. “Yes. I love you with everything I am, Flynn. I’d love to marry you.”
And then they were kissing and laughing and he was wiping her tears.
He lifted the ring box and held it to her. “If you don’t like it, we can exchange it. I wanted to find something special, but we can get something different if it’s not something you like.”
He flipped open the lid and Tessa gasped. “Oh, Flynn, it’s stunning.” Her voice trembled as much as her finger when she lifted it.
Diamonds were clustered in the shape of a rose. Vines of gold surrounded tiny emeralds on the sides, acting as leaves for the flower. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
He slid the ring onto her finger and then lifted it to his lips to kiss first it, then her fingers. “I love you, Tessa.”
“Prove it, cowboy.”
With a laugh, he used a washcloth to clean her new tattoo then he covered it with the prescribed ointment.
He cupped her face and kissed her again. “Ready?”
“With you? For absolutely anything.”
He stood, hoisting her over his shoulder and stepped out of the tub while she laughed.
“Now, that’s what I like to hear.”
And he moved them into the bedroom.
Flynn laid Tessa gently on the bed. This woman owned his heart and her tattoo proved he owned hers. He knelt on the bed beside her and lifted her long t-shirt up to check it out again.
His family’s ranch symbol, his own initial, a heart and flowering vines all blended together. “This completely blows me away, Tessa. I can’t believe you chose this.” His voice choked up and he swallowed hard.
Tessa took his hand. “I love you. I love your family. When I was struggling with all the injuries and surgeries, it was you who helped me get through. I relived that day out on your ranch over and over again. Those were the happiest memories I had and they proved to me that there was more good in the world than evil.”
Her eyes sparkled with tears, but her face was full of joy and love. He started to speak, but she squeezed his hand and kept talking. “I wanted so desperately to be part of a family. To be part of your family, actually.”
That made him grin. “So I’m lucky neither Beau or Morgan found you first?”
She laughed and rose up to kiss him lightly. “Not a chance. I’d been falling in love with you for months already. You have always been at the core of every good memory I have. You’re at the core of all my hopes and all my dreams.”
God. This woman. His heart swelled until he thought it might just burst out of his chest.
He wasn’t the most eloquent of men. At heart, he was a simple rancher. Instead of trying to find the words, he kissed her with every emotion bubbling through him then leaned back to speak. “I love you, Tessa. And I’m going to kiss every last inch of you.”
Her laughter quickly turned to soft purrs and moans of pleasure as he tasted her. The new tattoo was covered with the ointment, but he kissed around the area and promised to spend a whole lot of time there over the years. Because they had years ahead of them. Decades. A lifetime.
A lifetime to make up for the time they’d lost. Time that had been stolen from them both, but especially from her.
When Flynn slipped inside her, they both groaned softly. They locked eyes and moved in sync, slowly building the emotions and the desire.
Tessa reached up one hand to cup his jaw. “Together.”
He nodded and picked up the pace, moving to stroke her at the angle that made her lose her mind. Their breathing quickened but neither closed their eyes. He was grinning when he felt her body start to shiver. Then he brought his lips to hers and sent them both over the edge.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this bonus scene to the Small Town Heroes (Midnight Security) Romantic Suspense series!
The next book in the series, Built Of Illusions, spotlights Josie and Nico.