Finders Keepers Excerpt

PROLOGUE

The pain from the needle on her raised skin was excruciating, yet not nearly as painful as the cause of the scar in the first place.

“Sorry, hon. I know it hurts.” Nico, her tattoo artist, added ink to the already tender skin. “It’ll be over soon,” she added, nodding her head in determination.

Jayla nodded, her breath catching in her throat as the tattoo gun drifted over a particularly raw area. “Mother fucker,” she hissed, gritting her teeth. Turning her head into the padded table, her hands balled into fists, her nails digging into her palms, trying to focus her mind away from the pain.

“I know, I know, I’m so sorry. If it helps, this part of the scar is nearly camouflaged entirely by this stripe. Choosing a tiger was a great idea.”

“Then it’s worth it,” Jayla answered, working to regulate her breathing.

She turned again, her eyes catching the glances Nico snuck between her side and her face. Taking a breath, she answered the unasked question. “Stab wound. Courtesy of my asshole ex.”

“What a scumbag.”

The laugh escaping Jayla’s mouth wasn’t a pleasant sound. “You have no idea.”

Closing her eyes, Jayla again attempted to block out the pain. What she couldn’t block out were the flood of memories. Images of the rope burns around her wrists from being tied to a concrete beam in the basement, of trying to walk on her severely swollen ankles from being thrown down the stairs. Flashes of other hard-to-forget memories, like the dog bowl she was given to eat from and the — literal — pot to piss in.

She bit the inner corner of her cheek as the needle continued to move over her skin. It was a technique she had mastered, required to keep from crying out as his hands repeatedly slapped her across the face, when his boot hit her legs, her ribcage.

For a while, he was careful not to leave a mark where anyone could see, but as time went on, he stopped caring. Her face was rarely without a bruise — not that he’d let her out of the house, anyway. The one time she did try to run away, he’d found her in less than three hours. Her punishment? A three-day stint in a chastity belt. He refused to unlock her, even to allow her to use the restroom.

The small taste of freedom, fleeting as it had been, had reminded her that she was more than just his property. She knew it was only a matter of time before she escaped again. For good.

As the tattoo gun glided over the large scar on her side, she took a breath. Surprisingly, the stab wound was one of the least painful punishments he’d inflicted on her. Although, by that point, perhaps she was too numb to care.

The look in his eyes, the cruel smirk on his face, the careless goodbye he bade her before plunging the knife into her side, leaving only the handle sticking out of her skin — the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on her. His attempt to kill me saved my life.

Regardless of this current knowledge, it didn’t stop her anxiety from rearing its ugly head. The number of flashbacks had waned in the past years, yet the horrific images, physical recollections, could seemingly appear out of nowhere.

Especially at times like these, when she was forced to confront her past.

Her breathing hitched, her chest tightening at the memory of the growing pool of her blood on the kitchen floor, the scarlet thickness of it on her fingertips. Jayla cleared her throat, attempting to stop the crushing constriction of it.

Breathe, Jayla. Not real. Just a memory.

Inhaling slowly, she held the breath, trying to regulate her heart rate. Her carotid artery throbbed — the tell-tale pulsing of blood the final sign before the oncoming panic attack. Not here. Not now, she begged herself, exhaling raggedly, struggling to maintain control. The images refused to stop flashing across her memory, as a movie reel having spun out of control. White floor … crimson blood … the glimmering hint of metal…

Squeezing her eyes tightly, she focused instead on the realness of the needles digging into her skin. The pain, this time, grounding her. If she could feel pain, she was here — in the present moment, not stuck in the loop of her past memories. With seconds to spare, she pulled from the list of coping skills her therapist had taught her.

Five. Five sounds: Tattoo gun. Cars on the street. Music. Nico’s gum popping. Customers talking.

Four. Four sights….

It took a few moments, but she warded off the full-blown panic attack. This time, at least. There were plenty of instances when the memories had left her struggling for breath and curled up in her closet.

“All right, babe,” Nico spoke, drawing out the last word as her hand wiped at her skin. “Take a peek,” she said with a smile.

Standing, Jayla stretched, groaning at the burning of her tender skin. Shaking out her head and arms, she walked to the full-length mirror. Staring at her body, at the new design caressing her skin, a smile creeped across her face. Turning to see the entire piece, tears formed in her eyes.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, choking on the words. For the first time in a very long time, she was thankful for her taller frame. It had given the artist more canvas to complete her masterpiece.

“Not as beautiful as you, hon, but close enough.”

Is this really me?

The tattoo covered a sizable portion of her left side: a full-bodied tiger stalking its prey. The fierce cat’s head and shoulders hovered near her hip and its powerful striped torso stretched up along the curves of her body, the tail curling gently up to her left breast.

Nico’s design turned out better than Jayla could ever have imagined, capturing the realism of its face — the features both delicate and sharp. She could picture this very scene in the wild, just a moment before the large beast pounced. The bright oranges, whites, and blacks of the tiger, combined with the variegated jungle grass looked like a photograph superimposed on her skin.

But, Nico’s true magic shone through the bright yellow-green eyes that stared at her in the mirror, piercing into her very soul. It was as if it was telling her everything would be all right. She would be all right.

Her fingertips trailed over the delicate pink and yellow flowers woven into the background. Jasmine. The last small reminder of my old self.

“It fits you,” Nico commented, watching Jayla through the mirror.

Jayla’s gaze rose to Nico’s in the reflection. “He’ll be my constant reminder of how strong I am.”

Jeffrey’s face — her traitorous ex — flashed through her mind. In the mirror, her features changed. Eyes narrowing, fingers curling into fists, all her muscles tightening at the reminders of how he treated her.

Back then, and with her father’s help, she’d secured a new name and a new identity. But he’d warned her not to get too complacent. To stay mobile and to trust her instincts.

Instinct taught her how to fight, to do what she needed to survive. Never again would she allow a man to control her. To hold her down. To tie her up.

Never again would she submit to a man.

Never. Again.