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Reconciled is coming March 7th! Read Chapter One now!!!

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CHAPTER ONE Lainey Groaning, I hit snooze for the third time and put my pillow over my head. One of my bosses, Sierra, talked me into one more shot of tequila before I left the bar last night, and I swear that did me in. I can’t be mad at her, though, because we had a fun time even though I’m paying for it now. It’s hard for me and the artists I work with to get together after work because we all work staggered shifts. Before my alarm goes off again, I crawl out of bed and drag my hungover ass into the bathroom. I take one look at myself in the mirror and cover my mouth to muffle the scream that slips from my lips. My bleach blonde hair is a rat’s nest, standing up in every which way. Mascara has left black marks around my blue eyes, and my red lips are now smeared across my cheek. I quickly strip out of my clothes and climb into my shower. I wince as the cold water hits me, needing it to help clear the cobwebs from my sluggish brain. Once I feel more awake, I turn the water to hot and begin scrubbing myself clean. Climbing out of the shower, I slip on my black silk robe that’s covered in sugar skulls—a gift from Sierra for my birthday this year. I go through my post-shower regimen: moisturizing, makeup, and then hair. In my bedroom, I slide on ripped-up skinny jeans and a Sugar and Spice, Ink long-sleeve tee that hangs off one shoulder. I’ll admit we have the best merch and can’t keep shirts stocked because everyone wants them. I head out to the kitchen, make some strong coffee, and throw a couple of bread slices into the toaster. I munch on a banana while I wait and let my mind wander. How long has it been since I’ve had a date? How long since I’ve had sex? It’s been about a year since the former and at least two for the latter. God, that’s depressing, but thankfully I’m busy enough that I don’t have too much time to think about it. The girls have all been on me about getting out there and dating, but honestly, I just haven’t met anyone worth my time. Most of the guys I’ve met are either douche bags or boring. It’s fine, though, because I do have a full life—a happy life. Once my toast is done, I slather it in butter and grape jelly and then pour a cup of coffee, adding just a splash of half and half. I’m just swallowing down the last little bite when my cell phone rings. I see it’s my big brother. “Hey, Lance. What’s up?” “Hey you, just checking in with my baby sister since she never calls me.” I can hear him pout through the phone. “Oh, whatever. I call you all the time. You’re just too busy for little old me,” I sass back. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve actually called you for a purpose.” I take a sip of my coffee. “Oh, yeah? What purpose is that? You miss me?” Five years separate us, but we’ve always been close. He’s always been my protector. The one who has supported every dream I’ve ever had. “I always miss my girl, but no, that’s not it. I’ve developed a new cabernet, and I think this could put the vineyard on the map on a much bigger scale. I’ve hired a PR firm to help us with a big launch as well as rebranding the entire Coastal Vineyard line. They’re so sought after that our meeting isn’t for a month, but I want you to fly out and be a part of the creative process. What do you think?” I’m surprised my father handed the reins to my brother, not that my brother isn’t qualified, because he totally is. I’m just shocked that my father stepped down at all. “I don’t know, Lance. Mom and Dad are going to give me shit about having ink and doing tattoos, and I don’t know if I want to hear that same bullshit... again.” They weren’t thrilled when I went to school at Georgia State University for art. Our father is a legacy at Stanford, and I was expected to follow in the Winston family's footsteps, just like Lance did, but I wanted to make my own path. To this day, I’m surprised that they even paid for my school. Of course, if they’d known I was going to become a tattoo artist, they would've said to pay for it myself, which I would’ve done if I had to. They didn’t understand that I needed to be far away from Malibu and him, but... I’m not going there. “You know how they are. They’re stubborn—just like someone else I know. I want you to stay at my place anyway—it’s a fucking oasis. There’s also another reason I need you to come home...” He inhales a deep breath. “I-I’m getting married. I need you there; I need my best girl.” I’m speechless—I had no idea my brother was even dating anyone. “You’re getting married?” My eyes widen at his news. “To whom?” “Congratulations, Lance. I’m so happy for you,” my brother says sarcastically, in a high-pitched voice. I sigh. “You’re right. Congratulations. This must’ve happened quickly .” “It did. We met three months ago. Her name is Noemi, and not only is she fucking beautiful—she’s smart, talented, and has the biggest heart. I’m so in love with her, Lainey. She’s my soul mate.” The convic- tion in his voice brings tears to my eyes. “Lance,” I whisper. “Of course I’ll be there. I’m so happy for you. I’ve never heard you sound so happy. Email me with the information, and I’ll talk to the girls at the studio and see if they’re okay with me taking a few weeks off.” They’ll say yes; they’re always on me to take a vacation. “Great! Don’t worry about the ticket. I’ll email you the flight information. Just show up at the airport.” My stomach turns a little thinking about going home, but he is probably long gone. H e left for the Navy the summer after graduation—long before I left for Georgia. “I’ll text you as soon as I talk to them and let you know for sure how long I can stay. I love you, big brother, and I’m so happy for you.” “Thanks, sis. I love you, and I’ll talk to you soon.” We disconnect, and I set my phone down. After throwing my shoes on, I gather up my bag, phone, earbuds, and a travel mug full of coffee, then I head to the studio. Sugar and Spice, Ink has grown so much since I began my apprenticeship four years ago. I’ve had people ask why I don’t open a studio of my own, and I tell them all the same thing—I’m part of the Sugar and Spice, Ink family; they treat me like I’m their flesh and blood. Hell, their kids all refer to me as Aunt LaLa. There are six tattoo artists and two piercers. We book out months in advance, and people pay a lot of money for us to tattoo them. We’re the best, and the quality of our work speaks for itself. I park next to Mona’s Range Rover and climb out. We don’t open for another hour, but I wanted the chance to talk to Mona first. I let myself in and lock the door behind me. I find the woman who gave me a chance sitting behind the desk in the office. “Hey, lady,” I say as I sit across from her. Since I’ve worked here, Mona’s had lavender, cham- pagne blonde, purplish gray, and rose gold hair. Now she’s rocking a smoky gray. She smiles up at me. “Hey, don’t you look pretty today?” “Thanks. I’m loving the hair color, by the way. Your hair always looks so healthy; what’s your secret?” Mona shrugs. “I actually only wash my hair two times a week, and I put a hair mask on it.” She looks me over closely. “What’s up? I can tell something’s on your mind.” I laugh. “You’re one of the only people who can read me,” I tell her about my brother and the winery. “I was wondering if I could take three weeks off. I know it’s short notice, and I’ll reschedule all my clients. Maybe I’ll move some up and do them before I go. I don’t know; what do you think?” She leans forward. “Haven’t we been telling you to take some time off? You’re always the one to hold down the fort when we have stuff going on. Take a month if you can afford it. Hell, we’ll cover your rent for a month if you need us to.” “You are amazing, but I promise I’m good. My brother is paying for my flight, and I’ve got savings.” I don’t mention I have a trust fund that my maternal grandparents left me and, honestly, with that alone, I don’t have to work, and if I had them, my children wouldn’t have to work either, but my brother and I have both always had jobs. Until the other girls arrive, I sit with Mona as she fills me in on her kiddos. Iris and Max are both twelve. Mona’s husband adopted Iris when they got married, and although his son has a mother, he still calls Mona Mom because she’s more of a mom than his real one. Then Mona and Joaquin had Daniel, who is three, and Celia is one. “I don’t know how you do it,” I tell her. I’ve always wanted kids, but... Well, not going there. Mona shrugs. “I have an amazing partner.” She gets a goofy grin on her face. “We make a good team.” “You’re lucky,” I say as I get up. “Why don’t you date, Lainey? You don’t talk about your life before you moved to Georgia.” Mona stands

up, coming around her desk. “We love you; you know that, right? You’re the fifth Collins girl.” I can’t stop the tears that leak from my eyes. She pulls me into a hug. “Thank you for saying that.” “Honey, I mean it. You’ve been there for us all. We couldn’t do it without you.” She pulls back but still holds on to me. “Now, work out your schedule and go home. We’ll hold the fort down here.” “I’ll see my clients today, but thank you, Mona. Thanks for everything.” I feel someone come behind me, joining in on the hug; it’s Heidi. “I don’t know why we’re hugging but love you guys.” Heidi squeezes me before backing away. She looks between the two of us. “What’s going on?” “Lainey is finally taking a much-deserved vacation. She’s going home to Malibu,” Mona says as she wraps her arm around my waist. “Well, it’s about time.” I roll my eyes but smile. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I walk to the door and turn to face two of the four women who mean so much to me. “I love you guys.” When that’s out of the way, I head to my worksta- tion to get ready for my day. I look forward to seeing my brother real soon.

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