Surviving Ice Page 1

Author: K.A. Tucker

Series: Burying Water #4

Genres: New Adult , Romance

ONE

IVY

Ned pauses to stretch his neck and roll his right shoulder once . . . twice . . . before lifting the needle to his customer’s arm again, humming along with Willie Nelson’s twang, a staple in Black Rabbit for as long as I can remember. After all these years, the aging country singer still holds a special spot in my uncle’s heart. He even sports the matching gray braids and red bandanna to prove it.

“You’re getting too old for the big pieces,” I joke, pulling my foot up onto the counter, where my ass is already parked, to tighten the laces of my boot. I finished my last appointment an hour ago and could have left. Should have left, since the CLOSED sign hanging from a hook on the door is dissuading any potential walk-ins. But every once in a while I like to just sit here and watch my mentor work—his hefty frame hunkered down in that same creaky plastic-molded chair. It brings me back to my nine-year-old self, in pigtails and scuffed Mary Janes, trailing my older cousin to the shop so I could draw BIC pen tattoos on burly bikers while they waited for the real thing. It’s within these dingy black walls that I discovered my life’s passion, all before I turned ten. Not many people can say they’ve made that discovery, at any age.

“Too old, my ass,” he grunts. “Make yourself useful and grab me my damn dinner.”

I slide off the counter with a smirk, hitting the button on a cash register that belongs in a museum so I can grab a twenty. “Foot-long again?” The sub shop two blocks away gets at minimum fifty percent of Ned’s weekly food budget.

“Don’t forget the jalapeños.”

“The ones that almost put you in the hospital last time?” At fifty-eight, my uncle still eats like he’s in his twenties, even though his body is showing signs of revolt, his thickening midsection and aging digestive system begging for more exercise and less fatty and spicy food.

“I let the girl apprentice here when she was eighteen, and then she abandoned me as soon as she got her license. I let the girl come back six years later to work out of here without paying a fee to the house. I let the girl sleep under my roof without paying rent . . .” he mutters to no one in particular but loud enough for everyone to hear. “If I wanted grief about my life choices, I woulda gotten hitched again.” There’s a long pause, and then he throws a wink over his shoulder at me, to confirm that he’s joking. That he loves his niece and her smart-ass mouth and her acidic personality, and he’s ecstatic that she decided to come back to San Francisco and work alongside him again. He’d never take a dime of rent money from me, even if I tried to pay.

And I have tried. At two months, when the wanderlust bug hadn’t bitten me yet and I realized that I’d be staying longer than my usual four months. At four months, when I was afraid I was wearing out my welcome and started talking about finding an apartment to rent, and Ned threatened to kick my ass out of Black Rabbit if I did. At six months, when I left five hundred bucks cash on his dresser and came home to a note and the money pinned to my bedroom door with a steak knife, telling me never to bring up the subject of rent ever again. Except he put it in more colorful language.

I’ve been here for seven months now, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I’m feeling no itch to leave. Between working alongside Ned six days a week, hanging out with Dakota, an old friend from high school who moved here from Sisters, Oregon, about a year ago, and hitting the streets at night with a crew of guys who are as into decorating walls as I am, I’m loving San Francisco. This time around, at least.

“I’ll be back.” I turn to leave.

Dylan, the guy sitting in the chair with arms as thick as tree trunks, clears his throat rather obnoxiously. This is his fifth session this month. One of those bulky arms is nearly all covered in Ned’s elaborate ink.

I roll my eyes. He’s clocked four hours in that chair tonight, the first half of them spent muttering in an irritatingly croaky voice about how expensive it is to eat organic. I was ready to stuff a cloth into his mouth at around the two-hour mark just to shut him up. I really don’t want to give him a reason to speak again. “Did you want me to grab you something?” I ask, not hiding the reluctance from my voice.

“Eight-piece sashimi dinner. Extra wasabi,” he says without so much as a “please,” his eyes glued to the matte-black ceiling above. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this guy showed up here flying high as a kite. Ned doesn’t care if his clients are high or tipsy, as long as they don’t stumble in and they circle “no” to being intoxicated on the client paperwork, he figures it’s their ass, should something go wrong. I’m guessing this guy has been smoking weed. He’s too calm to be strung out.

“Try again, and make sure it ends with the word ‘sub.’ ” I’m not going the extra three blocks to the sushi place. I’m nobody’s fucking errand girl.

Tree Trunks dips his head to level me with a flat gaze before focusing on Ned’s brow, furrowed in concentration. “You gonna let her talk to your customers like that?”

“You got an issue, you take it up with her. And good luck, because that girl can handle herself like no one I’ve ever met,” Ned mutters, never one to coddle anybody, even a customer paying well over a grand. He’s been running this shop for thirty years “the right way,” and he’s not about to change for “a bunch of lily-whites ruining a classic culture.” His words, not mine.

The guy eyes the full length of me—from the shaved sides of my hair and my black tank top and leggings, to my full sleeve of colorful ink, which unsettles some people but shouldn’t faze him, seeing as he’s getting his own done—down to my Doc Martens, and decides against whatever he was going to say, though that pinched expression never leaves his face. “Chicken club sub. Grilled. No oil or mayo.”

I could be a real bitch and demand a “please,” but I let it go. “Back in ten,” I call over my shoulder, heading down the narrow hallway to the back door, grabbing my tattoo case on the way, knowing that if I don’t toss it in the trunk of my car now, I’ll probably forget it later.

“Watch how that new kid over there makes my sandwich. He doesn’t know a tomato from his own asshole!” Ned’s shout catches me just before the door clicks shut.

I step out into the crisp evening with my jacket dangling from one arm, and inhale the clean, cool air.

And smile.

I finally know what home feels like.

I let myself in through the back of Black Rabbit with my key exactly twenty-two minutes later with two subs: one with double peppers, one with breaded, deep-fried chicken, extra mayo and a splash of oil.

Ned was right; I had to give the dumbass behind the counter step-by-step instructions, going so far as to point out the vat of jalapeño peppers directly under his nose. He won’t survive a week before Ned revolts. Just the threat of losing Ned’s business will probably get the guy canned.

I’m going to tell my uncle that I think the dumbass is cute, and I’m going to date him. I smile, thinking about how Ned might react to that. I haven’t had a chance to parade a boyfriend through here for his guaranteed disapproval yet. In the seven months I’ve been here, I haven’t found one guy in San Francisco that even I approve of. That’s been the only downfall of this city, so far, and I’m really ready to get out of this dry spell.

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