Home > The Strongest Steel (Second Circle Tattoos #1)

The Strongest Steel (Second Circle Tattoos #1)
Scarlett Cole

Chapter One

The blue envelope from the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, still sealed, weighed heavily on Harper Connelly’s mind. It sat in her purse, where it had been since she’d collected her mail the day before. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Until she opened the envelope, she could continue to pretend that she was safe. Once her finger slid under the seal, she’d no longer be able to ignore the decisions she’d have to make.

Standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the lights on Collins Avenue to change, she shoved the letter deeper into her purse and watched as the young couple standing across the street from her kissed each other deeply, his hand gently cupping her face as his thumb ran softly across her cheekbone. Harper looked away, trying hard to ignore the empty feeling in her chest. Could she even remember that feeling of first love? It had been so long since she’d experienced those heady moments of wanting to be with another person all the time. Of being unable to stop touching each other, like magnets drawn together.

Finally the light changed, and Harper almost sighed with relief before hiking her bag farther onto her shoulder and crossing the street, not sparing the young couple a second glance. She just had to get through work today without turning into a nervous wreck. Then she could fall apart with the envelope in her bag.

Lost in her own thoughts, she felt someone push into her on the sidewalk. Harper jumped in her own skin. A loud buzzing filled her head, and a cold trickle of fear snaked its way down her spine. Her heart tried to pound its way out of her chest while her shaking hands struggled to hold her purse.

She reeled around. A white-haired gentleman with the tiniest dog that looked like a rat on a leash murmured a distracted apology for nudging her. Willing her heart to slow down, Harper tried to reply in kind, but her mouth was so dry that she couldn’t respond. She prayed the weak smile she gave him sufficed as forgiveness.

It was just an old man and a little dog, she told herself, leaning against the nearest light post and counting each breath in for five, then out for five, trying to slow her racing pulse. Nothing to do with the letter burning a hole through her purse and thoughts. Or a prisoner a thousand miles away. Harper watched his stooped frame continue down the palm tree–lined street until he reached the sandy side road that would take him to the boardwalk that ran the length of Miami Beach.

A cold chill gripped her despite the hazy heat. She still wasn’t used to the weather—somehow she couldn’t believe it after all this time. It would be a good twenty degrees cooler back home. She shivered harder and looked down at her hand, watching her own fingers flare in and out in panic without her permission.

The couple she’d been watching earlier walked by, reaching for each other, entwining their hands.

Harper looked on longingly. That simple intimacy was unthinkable for her. She didn’t need a brush with a stranger to prove it. The sender of the letter had made sure of it. Even after all these years, she couldn’t stand the touch of another human being, not even for a second.

Still shaking, she took a light hoodie from her bag and put it on, desperate for some warmth.

Turning the street corner that led away from the ocean, she pulled her hands inside her sleeves and walked slowly, trying to bring her heart rate down. She tried to focus on the graceful art deco buildings Miami was famous for. Tried to believe that she wouldn’t have to run and leave this beautiful place behind. The stunning façades and interiors were among her favorite things about the ocean-facing city. Paint colors with names like fresh mint, buttercream yellow, and coral pink adorned the stylistic symmetry of the buildings that truly came to life at night when neon lights served as a beacon to revelers. Harper imagined looking out of the classic porthole windows, waiting to see the giant steam ocean liners arrive from far-off places. The extravagant ornamentation and fanciful panels echoed back to a time when the wealthy would sip champagne and dance the Charleston on the rooftop patios.

The light ocean breeze blew her long, dark brown hair across her face. She plunged her hand into her purse, carefully avoiding touching the envelope, and retrieved one of the many elastic bands swimming around at the bottom. Quickly, she swept her mass of thick layers up into a messy bun at the base of her neck as she approached the small shop where she worked.

José, her boss, had already rolled out the brown awning over the patio area of the coffee shop that bore his name. The early morning rush was about to begin.

Drea, the assistant manager, sat on one of the tables, the sun reflecting off natural gold highlights that graced her layered brown hair. They were both twenty-seven, but with her tanned skin and petite frame, a contrast to Harper’s own athletic figure, she looked younger.

Relief flooded through her, the very sight of her best friend helping her panic subside.

“Morning, honey,” she said, hoping Drea wouldn’t notice how breathless she sounded.

Hazel eyes squinted in her direction. “Morning, Harp.” She tilted her head curiously. “You okay?” Since the day they’d met, this girl had just gotten her. Private as Harper was, Drea still had managed to gently bulldoze her way into Harper’s life and had made it clear that only an eviction notice would get her out.

“Fine, fine.” She brushed the question away. “You’re here before me?” Harper asked, trying to distract her. “Did I get the shifts wrong?”

“No, it’s me. I’m early. My aunt gave me a ride over this morning, since my car doesn’t get out of the shop until this afternoon.”

“Ready for another day in espresso heaven?” Harper nodded her chin in the direction of the main door.

Drea sighed. “Quit and go spend the day in the Keys?” she whispered.

“I heard that, Drea,” José bellowed from inside as he turned the lock to let them in. “You,” he shouted, pointing at Drea, “can quit. Her … not so much!”

Both girls laughed as they walked in and headed toward the break room to put away their purses.

“I’m feeling the love, José,” Drea muttered.

“I heard that too.” José laughed, his voice softening.

José’s had been a fixture in South Beach for nearly fifty years. The original José still came to the store religiously for his coffee every day, though he’d long turned the reins over to his son, José Junior.

The long, thin store was more than just a coffee shop. It was comfort food wrapped up in soft cream walls and light woodwork. José was busy loading the long counter with the freshly made pastries. Traditional Cuban pastelitos were lined up next to classic croissants and cinnamon rolls. A black apron tied tightly around her waist, Drea started stacking the healthy salads and sandwiches into the coolers.

Harper leaned over the counter to turn on the espresso machines, blenders, and coffeemakers that flanked the left wall. She pulled out the tray of empty metal jugs for steaming milk and set them up next to the coffee station.

Hours later, once the lunchtime crowd had started to thin out, she began the process of cleaning up the tables before the afternoon business would again pick up.

“But doesn’t it just mean that she had blood on her hands?” she heard someone say. Wiping a tabletop on autopilot, Harper glanced at the teenage girls sitting at the next table.

“She says, ‘Out, damned spot,’ but I don’t think she actually had blood on her hands. I don’t think she actually killed someone.”

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