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Tonic

By´╝ÜStaci Hart

Joel

“THIS IS THE WORST IDEA you’ve ever had.”

Shep glanced over at me, his sidelong smile mocking from behind his dark beard. “I thought you were through being salty?”

I glared at him. My shirt was too tight — the tie around my collar may as well have been a noose as we stood in our tattoo parlor that night, waiting for some hotshot producers to meet with us. The steaming heat building inside my stiff clothes ratcheted up my irritation degree by degree.

“I’ll be through being salty when this show is over.”

“Well, our agent said we could get signed on for years, if we’re lucky.”

A laugh shot out of me. “Right. Lucky. How are we supposed to work with cameras in our faces and people telling us where to stand and what to say?”

“It’s reality TV. Telling us what to say would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

I gave him a look. “You really think they’re not going to give us some kind of objective or script or something?”

He shrugged, not seeming to mind. But that was my brother. A younger version of me without a care in the world. Not that I minded bearing the brunt of the responsibility. In exchange, he could remain carefree, though in times like these, I wished he’d had an iota of self-preservation.

“Listen,” he said, his voice a little softer, his smile a little less mocking. “I know you’re not happy about all this, but it’s going to be good for business, not bad. They’re not going to follow you around at all hours, you know? There are rules, man.”

The look I’d been giving him hadn’t quit. He sighed and rolled his eyes.

“It’s better than the show going to Hal, isn’t it?”

The muscles in my face tensed at the sound of his name. Hal, owner of the second biggest parlor on the West Side — the first being mine. Hal, the current husband of my ex-wife. Hal, the burr in my ass that I could never get rid of.

I shifted, rolling my shoulders to square them as I shifted my gaze to the door. “Fuck Hal.”

“Exactly,” he said, his tone pleased. He had me. It was how he’d roped me into the situation in the first place.

When we’d been approached to do a show about our shop, Tonic, by a big network that mostly ran reality TV, I’d immediately said no. There was no question — not a single molecule in my body was on board with putting any part of my business or self out there for the masses to binge on Netflix. But Shep was so on board, he could have driven the train.

In fact, he did end up driving the train. He spearheaded an effort to convince me, starting with his girlfriend Regina, our piercer. She’d then gotten her two roommates, Veronica and Penny, on board, and they’d spread the excitement through the shop. They didn’t see it as selling out — they all thought it would make them famous, set their careers up for life. I supposed it would, but at what cost? That was my question.

To my credit, I’d held my ground with only one person on my side — Patrick. He was as interested in exposing his personal life as he was exposing himself to chlamydia. And as outnumbered as I was, I wasn’t going to budge. Shep needed my permission to do it, and I wasn’t going to give it. End of story.

Until we caught wind that Hal’s shop had been approached too. The last thing I wanted in the entire world, other than being on a reality show, was for Hal to be on one.

My attention snapped to the door when the ding of the bell chimed, and two pencil skirts walked into the shop. One of the women walked forward, probably near my age, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a friendly smile, though I knew better than to trust it. Laney Preston, I assumed, the creator of the show. She was beautiful, the kind of woman who was way out of my station, rich, powerful. But I could have gotten her into bed with a few words — she was the sort of woman who would only want me for a night or two, never more, which was exactly how I preferred it. I’d had my fill of relationships with Liz.

But it wasn’t Laney who I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

The woman at her side was tall and blond, with skin like a porcelain dish brimming with cream. Wide-set, big eyes with icy irises assessed me coolly, dark lashes long. Her nose was pert, just a button, though her lips were wide, just like her eyes. She looked like a doll, a cold, beautiful doll that belonged on a shelf where no man should touch her.

For some reason, all I could think about was whether or not her skin was cool to the touch like I imagined it would be, like a statue made of marble.

I tore my eyes away when Laney spoke.

“Joel Anderson?” she asked, her lips still smiling.

I offered my hand. “Ms. Preston?”

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