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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead-is entirely coincidental. Taken by the Outlaw copyright @ 2016 by Carmen Faye. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.

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CHAPTER 1 Aurora Working in a library is the best kind of a job a writer can ask for. It's always quiet, I'm surrounded by books - their adventures and mysteries and fantasies all wrapped up in the smells that hang between the pages - and it's hardly ever busy, which means I can put all that inspiration to good use. I studied a degree in Language and Literature and I added Teaching by extending a year. A lot of my classmates had all gone on to become copy editors, linguists, people who believed their titles made them. I ended up in Branciforte Library in the triangle park in Santa Cruz. Of course, this place has internet access and wireless and printing options but that wasn't what drew me. Sometimes I turned my back to all the modern technology and pretended it was still 1950 when the word 'library' was still what it defined and books were the key to life and the escape from it. "How are things going, Aurora?" Catherine's voice snapped me back to reality. "Quiet, as usual, but I'm on top of things," I smiled. Catherine - never Kate - was one of those women who always looked immaculate. She only ate salad to maintain her waistline, wore two piece suits and went for a manicure at two o'clock every last Wednesday of the month during business hours. She didn't belong in a library - I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd never cracked a book in her life. Her hair was an auburn this time with too much red in it - her hair dresser had probably convinced her it was all the rage now - and her lips were a shade redder than the hair was willing to tolerate. "Of course, you're on top of it," she said with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I can always count on you." I smiled back at her and liked to think I managed to make it more genuine than hers. I wasn't loyal because of Catherine. I was loyal because I loved my job. Catherine turned and teetered back to her office on her high heels. I watched her until the door closed behind her and the blinds turned so no one could see what she was

doing in there. I liked to think she dropped her perfect mask and a failure showed its face. I minimized the window with the book lists and opened up my manuscript. I was the perfect nerd. Behind the scenes, when no one was looking at the shy librarian, I was working on a book I dreamed would one day make the big screen. Of course, it was all wishful thinking, but it was a fantasy I could lose myself in, day in day out. My book was about a murder, a mystery, a man who was worth dying for. Thrillers were hard to write but I was sure I could do it. I'd read enough in my life. I'd titled it The Coroner's Wife and I was stuck with the climax. This was where everything was supposed to come together. Instead, my main character, Maya, was cornered in a morgue with a gun pointed at her head and only dead bodies as witnesses and I had no way out for her. Go figure. Writer's block was a bitch. It had been a quiet day, it was almost closing time, and I still hadn't come up with any kind of resolution for Maya's dilemma. There were times in my life where I asked myself What Would Maya do? I imagined how she would react. Maya was everything I wasn't, after all. Sexy, seductive, clever, hard to get, and good with a gun. Her intuition was beyond comparison. Her flaws were that of a woman who searched for love and found a murderer instead - trust, loyalty. I couldn't ask Maya what she would do next because I didn't know. That meant Maya wouldn't know, and if I didn't think of something soon the only thing Maya would know was a premature ending to her story. I sighed and rubbed my face with my hands. The door to Catherine's office opened again and she popped her head out. "Leanne can't make it to her shift tonight. Are you all right to fill in?" I nodded. Why not? I didn't have anything to go home to and I could work on my climax some more. Overtime never hurt, either. "You're a star." She disappeared back inside.

"One day I will be," I muttered in response. I read over the action scene again. It felt tacky. I stuck my hands into my hair. I wanted to make it big one day but if my writing looked like this? I groaned. The sun was starting to set and I got up to switch on the library lights. We were open until eleven. After eight very few people came in unless it was raining and then it was only to wait out the weather. This was the best time for me. I sat down again, huddled in the yellow dim light of the library, surrounded by books and my imagination. It was perfect. I started typing. I felt the cold metal of the gun against Maya's head, the shivers that ran down her spine. I could taste her heart in her throat. She'd been running after this guy for weeks and she knew what he was capable of, but having a gun to your head felt like nothing she'd been able to anticipate. Her mind had gone blank, perfect for a do-or-die situation. Not. I took a deep breath and I wasn't in the warm library anymore but in the cold morgue with the drawers of human bodies all around me, the autopsy bodies solidifying under their plastic sheets. There was a scalpel to the side of the autopsy worktop I hadn't seen before. If Maya could just reach out and curl her fingers around it before her brains were blown out maybe she could slice her way out of it. The killer cocked his gun. The library door swung open with a bang and I jumped in my seat, snapped back to reality. My heart hammered in my throat and I swallowed hard, trying to steady myself. I was in a library, not a morgue. I was a librarian, not a mystery solver. God, I'd nearly died of fright. He didn't look like he belonged in a library at all. He wore a sleeveless jean jacket that showed off a spectacular display of inked skin and pants that looked a lot like leather. He had metal studs on shit-kicker boots and a look on his face that said 'don't fuck with me.’ He glanced at me before walking past and disappearing between the shelves. I wondered if I had to keep an eye on him – if he would try to torch the place or something. Libraries don’t have security cameras all over the place. Maybe it wasn't a bad idea to invest in something like that. I listened for a moment but didn't hear anything suspicious - like the sound of wood splintering or the horrific crackle of burning paper - so I carried on with my writing. Maya's fingers had, by some miracle, curled around the scalpel. It was thinner than

she'd thought, smaller, but it would have to do. There wasn't time to think, to breathe. She sliced the scalpel through the air, catching the shooter's neck. Blood spurted out in a fountain of despair and he clutched his neck with one hand. The scalpel was way too small to have done any real damage but it had bought Maya time and she ran, taking the first turn she could find, getting lost in a subsection of drawers, all filled with corpses. The gun fired and a bullet whizzed past her head, ricocheting off the metal doors and flying in the opposite direction she dove. "Excuse me." His voice made me jump. He stood in front of the counter with a book. His eyes were dark and dreamy and his hair was messy. It was a dark brown matching the turmoilblack of his eyes. I let my eyes slide down to his arms. Under all those tattoos there was a hell of a lot of muscle, and it wasn't show-muscle, either. He looked like he could bench press a car. Or save a heroine in distress when she was lying, panting on the floor of a morgue, narrowly escaping death... He really was good to look at. I realized I was staring and glued my eyes to his face. His mouth was curled up in a half-smile, his eyes knowing. Shit. He knew what I was thinking. And he looked like he liked it. Or maybe like he was used to it. I was willing to bet he got that kind of attention all the time. "I want to check this book out, please." He put the book down on the counter. I picked it up. It was a Motorcycle Repair book from a section that was so outdated it was ridiculous. "Are you sure this is what you want?" I asked. He leaned on the counter, the muscles in his shoulders rippling under the skin. "Do you think there's something else I'd like more?" His eyes flashed and his tone suggested he wasn't talking about a book at all. I fought a blush and turned my head to the computer so my hair would cover my face. "This isn't exactly our latest stuff. Maybe you'd like to check in with a magazine subscription for something more up to date.

He grinned. "This is fine, thanks." I shrugged. "Do you have your library card?" He shook his head and looked at me expectantly like I was supposed to make that little error go away. "In the future, you need to bring it with you. We can't let books go when we don't scan the code." "But you'll make an exception for me, right?" He asked it like he knew I would say yes. It made me want to say no, just to prove him wrong, but I'd already suggested I would let it slide. "Name?" "Hunter Ajax." I glanced at him. "That's backward." He shrugged. "Tell my mom that." It sounded like he should rather be called Ajax Hunter. Although the 'hunter' part seemed fitting. I typed it in and his profile came up. "Well, what do you know? You exist." He chuckled. "A lot of girls would be very unhappy if it turned out I didn't." I flipped my hair over my shoulder. "You know, guys who love themselves too much aren't attractive."

He shrugged like he didn't care. I was willing to bet there were enough women out there who were willing to love a man like him in a heartbeat. There was something magnetic about him. Thank God I had a brain or I would fall for his ridiculous charm, too. I scanned the book and a box popped up. I frowned and shook my head. "I'm sorry, you've got outstanding fines. I can't let you take that out of here until you pay them." He took out his wallet and opened it. "I don't have cash on me." I shrugged. "I'm sorry. You'll have to come back when you do. Bring your library card while you're at it." He narrowed his eyes. "Are you always such a pain in the ass?" Something inside me hardened. "Only when customers are assholes." He flashed another one of those half-cocked grins at me that made me feel unbalanced. "If you'd like me to keep it for you until tomorrow I can do that." See, who said I couldn't be nice? The door to Catherine's office opened and she stepped out. She had her phone in her hand. "Are you okay to lock up, Aurora?" she asked without locking up. She took two steps toward us before she looked up. Her eyes fell on Hunter and her phone was forgotten. She looked him up and down, making no effort to hide her ogling, and smiled in a way I'd never seen her smile before. "Well, it's nice to see that other members of our community are joining the library." "He's already a member," I said, irritated. She was smiling like a teenager. If her hair weren’t so short she would have flipped or sucked on it like those girls do in front of the middle school.

"Knowledge is power," Hunter said and flashed the same grin he'd used on me a minute ago at Catherine. I swear she melted right through her panties. "I'm sure there are other things that are just as powerful." She actually fluttered fluttered​ - her eyelashes. Seriously? Was that flirting? A line that didn't make sense and googly eyes? Hunter glanced at me and smirked. He turned his attention back to Catherine. "Unfortunately, it's not happening for me tonight." He did the best rendition of a pout I'd ever seen on a biker. "Why is that?" Catherine frowned at me. "He has outstanding fines." Catherine rolled her eyes. "Come on, Aurora. This isn't necessary." She smiled at Hunter again. "We can waive them for you." Hunter smiled broadly. "That's so kind of you. A compassionate woman is so sexy." Catherine blushed and looked at me. "It was five DVDs, all two weeks late." It was a hell of a fine for a library. "No one will know. Mister..." "Ajax." She smiled. "Mr. Ajax won't tell if we drop the fines. Come now, Aurora, don't be such a prude." She just called me a prude in front of Annoyingly-Handsome. I stifled a groan, fought the urge to roll my eyes and clicked the button that said the fines were paid. Of course, the computer would have no way of knowing it wasn't paid. It wasn't a cash register. "Thank you so much," Hunter said to Catherine in a syrupy tone. Syrupy. On a biker. It sounded terrible but he made it look good. I had to remember that - maybe I could

work it into my book somehow. "It's nothing," Catherine said. She was gushing all over him. It made me sick. I liked to think I was down to earth. I knew where I belonged in life, I was under no illusion about my looks and I wasn't about to indulge anyone else in a fantasy about theirs. I was also not hard-up for a lay. Catherine, on the other hand, was guilty of all of the above, especially the latter if her reaction was anything to go by. "Will that be all?" I asked, scanning the book. He nodded. "I'll be sure to have it back on time." "Oh, don't worry," I said, mocking Catherine's flippant tone. "We'll just waive the fines again for you when you're late." Catherine glared at me before smiling at Hunter again. He nodded at me and smiled. I looked away. I wasn't interested. Especially not now that I'd seen manipulation at its best. I had no time for people who used their looks to get somewhere in life. "I have to get to a meeting. Will you escort me out?" Catherine made her eyes big and batted her eyelashes again. Hunter hesitated for a moment, that smile frozen in place as if he really wanted to say no. Of course, with all his charm he'd poured out a moment earlier, it wasn't like he could say no now. Karma was such a bitch. He nodded. Catherine smiled and turned toward the door. He looked at me. I deliberately looked away. Hunter turned and followed Catherine to the door, his swagger just a little less energetic than before. Good. I hoped Catherine made his life miserable for as long as he spent time in her company. I turned back to my manuscript and paged back through it until I found the scene with the love interest that Maya would end up with once she was divorced from her murderer husband. Right now Jerry was a lawyer, the scatter-brained type with the scruffy suit and the skew tie and the ability to come up with genius resolutions in the face of adversity. I edited his sections, changing his character a little. He was still a lawyer, but instead of being scatterbrained he was witty and quick, charming, clothed in leather and driving all over the show on a Harley.

He was attractive but he didn't seem to think so, he liked Maya because she was so down to earth, not because of her mind, and he had ways of getting answers and saving the day that didn't fit in an ordinary novel. I read over it again. Jerry was a lot more interesting now, except his name didn't fit, either. Now he seemed more like a Butch or a Duke or a Jack. I looked at the door where Hunter and Catherine had disappeared. Or an Asshole. I couldn't see them through the partial glass of the doors with the lights on inside and the darkness outside. Just as well - I wasn't in the mood to see my boss sucking face with the idiot biker who thought he had everything coming to him because he knew how to smile in a way that made woman rethink the purpose of their existence.

CHAPTER 2 Hunter I escorted the manager outside. She kept trying to flirt with me, fluttering her eyelashes and twirling her hair and swinging her hips this way and that and nothing about her was attractive. She was practically throwing herself at me and I wasn't going for it. No guy went for the woman who was that easy to get. We like to work for it and if we don’t have to we wonder who else had gotten in there. "Thank you again for getting me out of those fines," I said to her when we reached her car. "Oh, it's nothing. I'm the boss around here so I call the shots." She said it with a voice that was supposed to be seductive, but it was just annoying. I opened the car door for her, hoping it would make her get in. She slid into the driver seat and looked at me, an invitation to come with her. Not happening. I smiled and closed the door. She looked disappointed through the window but that wasn't my problem. Life was full of disappointments and I wasn't about to walk down the road where I was the one who ended up disappointed. She started the car and drove away, finally. I pulled out my box of cigarettes, pinched one between my lips and lit up. I sucked in the smoke, ignoring the vile taste that never went away and turned to look at the library. I'll admit it, biker boys and books don't go together. The fact that I'd set foot in a library at all was something people thought was strange, but I'd stopped caring what people thought ages ago. I wasn't the first biker in my gang to go to a library. We had our reasons. When my smoke was done I threw the butt on the ground and stubbed it out with my toe. I started my bike and it growled into the quiet night. It was almost closing time for the library and I contemplated waiting until the blonde came out but I decided against it. I had things to do with my time. The girl behind the counter had been cute. Cute but a pain in the ass. She didn't fall for my charm even though I knew she noticed and she treated me like any other

customer. Women didn't usually react to me that way. Which meant she was hot as hell in my books. There is nothing more attractive than a woman who is hard to get. And this was a bonus after her looks. That boss of hers...meh. She was okay. She could be sexy, and I didn't doubt she would be eager to perform in the sack, but who wanted a woman who threw herself at you? We could take whatever we wanted. We wanted someone who made that impossible for us. Like Aurora. Just the name gave me shivers. It was an exotic name, something that would fit into the mysteries I loved. Like figuring what a woman was all about when she really wasn't interested in me, finding ways I could make her interested. I would have to wait for that, if it was going to happen at all. Aurora was a tough one to get to. I could tell, already. She thought I was attractive, sure, but she wasn't going to just fall for my looks. A woman with even half a brain was attractive. Sex was great but a good conversation trumped that every time. I had been to the library a couple of times to check out books for the kids and I'd never seen her there. Strange. She didn't seem like she was new. Maybe it had always been bad timing. I was going to see if I could change that, if for no other reason than to get on her nerves. She was hot when she was irritated. What could I say? I was full of shit. She was even someone who might fit into the gang if she ever decided to dip her toe into my kind of waters. I was the leader of the motorbike gang and I worked hard to stay there. I was a badass son of a bitch who would do whatever it took to stay in power and my men not only respected me but they feared me. It was a good combination to have and a very big responsibility to have. There were almost fifty of us, a very big group, and all those lives were in my hands. Just because we were badass bikers with bad histories and worse pasts didn't mean we couldn’t be good people. We did everything we could to fix what we'd fucked up a long time ago and we were doing well. There were gangs that laughed at us, rivals that thought we'd become pussies, but we didn't really care about that. It took one bout in

jail to realize your life was going down the gutter and you had to do something to fix it. Every single one of us has had a really bad wake up call in some way or another. Yes, it was a paradox. Yes, we were strange. Yes, we wanted to break a bottle over someone's head when they laughed at us and asked us how long we'd been searching for our manhood. But I liked being a biker who looked for shit and stirred up trouble. I liked being the boss everyone looked up to. I liked my leather and my tattoos and my bike that was the pride of my life. I also liked books and silence and doing the right thing, too. If being a bleeding heart made me a loser then maybe I was the biggest one out there. I cared for the right things and, for the rest of it, I was still a biker. Being able to get women to eat from the palm of my hand was the most thrilling. My gang looked up to me but they had their free will and they did it because they wanted to. They followed me because I did things that earned their respect and their fear. It was a give and take situation. With women, it was all about getting them to respond without offering anything in return. It was power at my fingertips. In this case, I had lost. I'd gotten those fines canceled, which had been great. It wasn't like I didn't have the money to pay them, but getting out of something was a small victory and it was addictive. Still, I hadn't gotten what I really wanted. Which was a) the damn repair book that that little librarian was now keeping for me, and b) that little librarian eating out of the palm of my hand. Which brought me back to the fact that she was the one that ran circles through my mind now. Not the easy-to-get manager who would fall into bed with me in a heartbeat, but the lady behind the counter who looked like she had all types of standards and maybe I didn't exactly fit the bill. That was what got me. Having to fight for something. Having to look for ways to make it work and having a chance of failing. That was what intrigued me about mysteries and that was what got me about her. Aurora. I was going to see her again. Thursday night seemed to be one of her shifts. Mental note. I would swing by this time more often then.

She'd been so angry that I'd been able to get her boss to reverse the fines. Maybe it was the principle of the thing. I didn't think at all that it was because she might be jealous. She didn't look like the jealous type, especially not if the guy wanted the attention he was getting. She seemed like she was better than that. My phone vibrated in my pocket and I pulled it out at a red traffic light. It was a number that linked to a messaging system. Hunter Ajax, your wallet has been found at Branciforte Library, 230 Gault street. Please arrange for it to be picked up. The message was very impersonal but I was willing to bet she'd sent it. She was the only one left. I looked at the time. It was almost seven. I had things I needed to do, places I needed to be, but I wanted to see her again. I made a U-turn and drove all the way back to the library. When I got there it was just after seven and the doors were locked when I pushed against it. The light inside was still on and I saw her through the glass sitting behind the counter. She was typing, her eyes locked on the screen and a look on her face suggested she were somewhere else. I knocked on the door and she looked up. When she saw me she tapped her wrist where a watch should have been, and carried on typing. I looked at the time. It was after seven. The library closed at seven. Dammit. I knocked on the door again. She ignored me. Ignored. She carried on typing like I wasn't there. I rattled the door and knocked again, getting irritated. She was doing this on purpose. I'd been right about her: she was a pain in the ass. I banged both fists down on the wooden part of the door before turning away. I walked down the few steps and sat down. I was going to wait right here until she came out. She wouldn't be in there forever; it was past closing time already and I knew she had a home to go to. Screw the gang and our meeting. I was going to wait for her to come out. I took out another smoke and lit up. I had a box to get through she could take all night. I would be here.

It took her a good half hour to finally decide it was time to leave. The door clicked open behind me and a moment later it closed again. I stood up and turned to watch her. She was a slight thing. Her back was to me and blonde hair hung over her back and shoulders and it looked silver in the moonlight. I followed her body down. Her waist was narrow and her ass was really something to look at. She turned and froze. "You shouldn't be alone this time of night. There are all sorts of creeps out there." Her face was a mixture of fear and surprise for a moment before it melted away and she looked vaguely irritated instead. Great, she wasn't scared of me. I wasn't sure if I liked her courage or if I was annoyed by the fact that she was possibly the only human being in the world who didn't find me remotely charming. "Are you going to sit on the steps until opening time?" Her voice was neutral, her face was neutral, and still I had the feeling she was mocking me. Her eyes shimmered in the night. What color were they? Blue? Green? I hadn't paid enough attention when we were in the light and suddenly I wished I had. "I'm here for my wallet." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, we're closed now and it's inside in the office. You'll have to come back when we're open to get it." I was a little irritated but her indifference and her calm were fascinating. "You have keys. Why don't you just run in there and grab it for me?" She smiled at me and it was beautiful. She was beautiful. Judging by the way she carried herself and the way she talked she wasn't aware of it. Her lips were perfect not too full but plump enough to kiss and nibble on. Her eyes were big and round and full of what I'd thought was naïveté but I might have been wrong. She didn't seem naïve at all when she spoke to me. "I'm sorry. The alarm is set now." She wasn't going to budge on this, was she? Of course, it wouldn't have been impossible for her to go in there. She was just planning on being difficult. Punishment

for earlier, I was guessing. "What do I need to do to get that wallet?" I was willing to seduce her. Wine her, dine her, recline her. She tipped her head slightly to the side and it only added to her beauty. "I'm sure I just explained it. Come back in the morning." I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Are you always this difficult?" She shrugged. "I'm not difficult. I'm just doing my job. It would have been great if I could wiggle my way out of it with a nice line to my boss the way you had but I don't think I'm her type." She said everything with a straight face like we were having a normal conversation, but I knew she was messing with me. She was making me pay in other ways now that the fines were gone. And I liked it. I liked her having at it, making me pay. There was something very erotic about being at the mercy of a woman like this. She was sex on a stick and she didn't even know it. I was willing to bet she didn't know what she was doing to me. "I'm sure if we phoned your manager we could clear this up right away," I said. Her face closed. "If you want to phone her at this hour and ask her to come bring out your wallet, you be my guest." There was nothing humorous about that statement. I'd pushed it too far. I felt like an idiot, rubbing someone else's attraction in her face. "I just want my wallet." I wasn't going to apologize. Aurora shrugged. "I can imagine how frustrating it must be to lose a wallet." She walked around me, down the steps and into the parking lot. It was empty aside from my bike. She walked to the street and looked left and right, looking for a taxi. I jogged toward her. "Let me give you a ride home."

She glanced at me. "No thank you." Just like that? "Come on. It's late. Let me spare you the cab fee." She smiled at me sweetly. "That's not necessary, thank you. I have my wallet." Was that a joke? Was she playing with me again? She waved at a taxi and when it stopped in front of her she opened the car door. "We open at eleven and I'm on duty again in the morning. I'll be sure to have your wallet ready for pickup. If you wait until noon before you come in you'll be able to catch Catherine. I'm sure she'll be happy to see you." She climbed into the car and closed the door. I watched her give the driver an address I wished I could hear and the car pulled off. I watched it until the taillights disappeared around a turn before I turned around and walked to my bike. Dammit, that woman was something else. She was a like a dog that was cute and cuddly and bit the shit out of your hand if you came too close. She was feisty and beautiful and I wanted to see her again. I was going to come back here in the morning. I was going to be there the moment they opened and I was going to be out of here again before Catherine came back. I had no intention of seeing her again. It was Aurora I was after. I pictured her in my mind's eye. Blonde hair. Eyes that were the color of gems, I just didn't know which ones yet, a curvy body and absolute ignorance about how sexy she was. That was the thing that got me the most about her. She was sexy - she moved with fluid grace when she walked, she had a regal posture and her hair was like a golden veil around her shoulders - and she had no idea how stunning she was. She didn't come across vain or airy or anything I usually saw in women. She was completely and utterly herself. And she didn't fawn over me either, which just made her all the more attractive.

I was definitely going to see her again, even if it meant I might run into her boss again who was as regular and average a woman as they came. My phone beeped. I was very late for a meeting and the boys would be getting itchy. We tried to walk the straight and narrow - every single one of the gang was someone who had gotten out of a life that wasn't worth living. Still, there was always the chance that one of us might be picked up for something that still hung around in our past and we needed to check in with each other regularly.

CHAPTER 3 Aurora I was part of a writing group. It was something we'd started up ages ago. We were a handful of women who critiqued each other's writing and we set deadlines that we had to stick to. It was easier keeping to a writing schedule when we had someone to answer to. Otherwise, we would sit and think about our novel and rewrite and daydream about the pages we'd already written without ever finishing the book. When we had to show each other what progress we'd made, it actually pushed us to make any progress at all. We were all busy. At least, they were all busy. They all had corporate type jobs. We had a lawyer, a schoolteacher, an office manager, a Personal Assistant, and the owner of a set of chain stores downtown. I was the only one with a job that didn't really count as a job and more time to write than the others. We were meeting at eight and I was almost late. I rang Meredith's doorbell, the last to arrive. When she opened the door she was still dressed in a two-piece suit, looking fresh and ready to take on the world even though the day had been long and hot. I wore jeans and sneakers and a tank top with a light jacket over it. Talk about contrast. "I'm glad you could make it," she said and gave me a hug. Her auburn hair was set in a French roll and sprayed into submission. It wasn't going anywhere but she still touched it lightly at the back to make sure stray hairs hadn't escaped. "Everyone else is already here." Of course, they were. I walked into Meredith's house. The place was neat and smelled like cleaning products. She had a full-time maid because she was too busy with her job running all those chain stores. When I walked into the living room, the rest of them were there, too. Joan, the Lawyer, looked pristine in a dark suit with a crisp white blouse and earrings that matched. She had her manuscript on her lap and looked at me expectantly. They all looked like they were ready to take over the world. Sonya the PA with frizzy brown hair, Lauren the teacher with a dull braid down her back, Margot the office manager with the boy-cut hair that suited the sharp point of her chin. They all looked like they could do another day at the office. I was the only

one who felt like I looked worn out. I was the only one looking like I needed to go to bed. The only thing I had in common with these girls was the fact that I wrote, too. Otherwise, they were in the fast lane and I was still getting my act together. They were fast-paced ladies and I was an artist. Sometimes I told Meredith I thought I needed to quit the group because I just didn't fit in. She always argued with me that I was a writer and they were all writers and there was no difference. That it didn't matter. Meredith was one to talk. She was the only one of us who had actually published a book. It was a Fantasy under a pen name called Tangerine Sky and she made an all right amount in royalties. She was the only one of us who could really call herself a writer. I had the feeling it was only because of her that everyone else put up with me, too. "Evening, ladies," I said and sat down. They all pulled out their manuscripts. I swallowed. I didn't have any new pages to show. We started with Sonya reading what she'd written. Her writing was fast-paced. Her action scenes were stunning, her emotional ones were left wanting. We all said as much in the nicest way possible. Her story progression was jerky but at least there was a progression in the first place. Meredith was next and her writing as spectacular, as always. It was another fantasy, a world with druids and elves and a lost love. She was publish-worthy - again - but she rolled her eyes when we all said it. "The point of this group is positive criticism, ladies. Not just...positive." We all laughed. What was there to say about Meredith's work? We moved on. Joan had written a sex scene that had made us all uncomfortable hearing it out loud. When she looked up we were all shifting in our seats and not making eye contact. "It's what sells at the moment," she defended. "We know. It's just not exactly appropriate, is it?" Meredith wasn't scared to speak her

mind. Joan shrugged. "It's what I wrote. You wanted to know, didn't you?" "Is Gerald not satisfying you anymore?" We all laughed and Joan shot Lauren a dirty look. "Let's move on." Meredith was quiet and in control. She looked at me. I swallowed and looked down at the manuscript I'd printed out to bring here. "I don't have any new pages." They all looked at me with faces that were obviously trying to hide the disappointment. They all had nine to five jobs that took all their time and they still managed to get pages done. I worked in a library a couple of times a week and I didn't have anything at all. "I was thinking of editing the love interest, though." I looked them each in the eye. "I met someone really interesting tonight who I thought might work as a substitute for the guy I'd been using until now." "Was he hot?" coming from Joan. I smiled and nodded. "He's such an asshole, though." "Those are the most interesting characters, though," Lauren said. "What happened?" I breathed in and went back in my mind's eye. The memory was confused with where I'd been when I'd been working on my climax scene. The cold metallic smell in the air, the body lockers that were all full - none of that had been real. But Hunter Ajax had been real when he'd walked in and that had been a very intense contrast to the cold I was experiencing my writing. He wasn't just devilishly good looking; he also oozed warmth and charm like you read about. "He was a badass biker complete with leather and tattoos and that look where you get the feeling he's undressing you with his eyes." I shivered at the thought and hoped the ladies didn't notice.

"What did he do that made him an asshole?" Meredith was leaning forward in her chair, everyone else's stories forgotten. "He had fines for bringing DVDs in late and he got Catherine to reverse them by turning on the charm. She practically drooled all over him. I swear if he snapped his fingers she would have orgasmed for him on the spot." They giggled. "I think he sounds like a great substitute for your boring lawyer type." This from Joan, who had been offended that I'd made my love interest a lawyer and hadn't made him a demigod, too. "This guy will cause a lot of problems for my main character, though. She's married, remember? And he's really not the type to respect something like that. He thinks he's god's gift to mankind and I think most women are on board with that summary." "Just not you." I couldn't tell if Sonya thought it a disappointment or not. If anyone had a poker face it was her. I shrugged. "I don't think it's attractive throwing yourself at a man." The girls all nodded. "Are you going to see him again?" Meredith's question was careful but I knew what she was getting at. This was not about the character but the real life man. "He is coming to the library just after opening time tomorrow to pick up the wallet he forgot there tonight when he was getting all twisted up in Catherine's panties." "So you'll be able to study him then to base your character on," Joan smiled. "Any sex scenes in your book?" I shook my head and laughed, trying not to show the blush that had my cheeks glowing bright red. "I'm not going to sleep with him for the sake of writing the hottest

sex scene." Joan shrugged. "Hey, nothing wrong with research, right?" Sonya nudged her before looking at her watch. "Ladies, I need to go. I have a conference call with someone in Paris." We hadn't done everyone's manuscripts yet. "How about we meet Saturday night at eight? Does that work for everyone?" Meredith looked around the circle and when everyone nodded she clapped her hands on her thighs. "Right, then, ladies. Thank you for coming." They girls all got up and dispersed, leaving the house one by one until it was just me who was left. Meredith smiled at me and walked to the kitchen with empty cups of coffee. I grabbed the last two and followed her. "So, you want to tell me more about this guy you met?" She said it the way my mom would have said it. I shook my head. "There's really nothing more to tell. He came back after he left because I let him know his wallet was still there." "What happened?" "Nothing. I made him sit outside because it was past closing time and then refused to go back in and get the wallet when it was time for me to go home." Meredith turned to me. "You like him." "I don't! This was just because he'd messed with Catherine's head, making her think he was so interested so he could get out of those fines. He really doesn't care about her no matter how hard she was throwing herself at him." Meredith rinsed the cups under hot water before packing them into the dishwasher. "Sounds to me like you're jealous."

"I'm not!" It was the second forceful denial. It was starting to sound like I was interested. I really wasn't. I mean: he was hot. He was drop dead gorgeous, in fact. I hadn't seen a man who looked like that in real life, ever, and it had been genuine. The problem was that he knew how good looking he was and a man like that was insufferable. Besides, I couldn't stand a man who insisted every woman melts into a pile of goo at his feet. "I'm only seeing him again so he can get his wallet, and then that will be the end of it. He has a library card. If I see him again other than that it will be to check out a book or return it. Probably late." Meredith shook her hands before drying them on a washcloth and leaned her hip against the counter. "This is all very good of you to say, but I know you better than that, remember? I'm your friend." I rolled my eyes. "Which is the only reason I'm still in this damn club. You know I don't fit in." "Yeah, but you have the most interesting stories. Come on, you can't tell me you didn't notice how they were hanging on your every word in there." "Because I was talking about a man that was sexy. Joan eats that stuff up." "I knew you thought he was sexy." She had me in a corner again. She was too clever for this. Maybe it would have been better if she were the lawyer and not Joan. Meredith was a force to be reckoned with. I always felt stupid when I was next to her even though she insisted my kind of intelligence was just different from hers. "I have to get out of here. I want to see if I can still write a little tonight." "You're fine getting home, or would you like me to drop you off?" "I'm fine, thanks." I wasn't going to let her drive me around like she was my mom just

because it was easier and cheaper to not use my car. "I'm coming past you in the morning, though. Drive with me then." I agreed. If it wasn't out of her way I didn't mind. ----------------I woke up and got dressed, ready for Meredith to pick me up. She looked crisp and fresh and I knew she'd had a whole morning behind her by the time I got into her SUV. She drove right past the library on her way to work and it saved me a few dollars when she did. "Thanks." We got into her SUV and drove the short distance from her house to the Branciforte Library. "He's not here yet," I said absently. "Are you waiting for him?" I looked at her. Her face was straight with no emotion but her eyes were laughing at me. I shook my head but I couldn't help smiling. "It's for research, you know?" "Right." I shook my head and leaned over to hug her. "I'll see you tomorrow. Do you want to go out for drinks or something afterward?" She nodded. "Sounds good. I'll talk to you later." I got out of the SUV and waved at her before she pulled off. The library parking lot was empty. I walked up to the door and unlocked it, disabling the alarm and walking

to the counter. I started up the computer and put my manuscript on the counter. I put my phone on top of it and sat down in the chair where I spent most of my day. I had to train at home because I sat down all day, but I didn't stick to it enough to justify it and the chocolate I ate. Thank God I had a fast metabolism, which meant I hardly picked up weight even when I ate badly. I glanced at the clock. It was almost eleven. The library was officially open. I walked to Catherine's office and found the wallet in the drawer where I'd left it last night. I put it in a drawer behind the counter instead and looked at the door that led outside.

CHAPTER 4 Hunter I stopped at the library at five minutes past eleven. I had a slight headache - I'd hardly slept last night. The meeting had only finished at half past twelve and we'd talking until three in the morning before going home. I'd been up at five again because I kept getting calls from an unknown number and someone on the other side of the line not saying anything. It didn't scare me but I had the idea that someone was after me or the boys and I had to make sure they were okay. I'd let Shane know something was up. In the Club, he was my right-hand man, a huge badass bastard who didn't take no for an answer and would protect me and my boys with his life. I rubbed my hand over my face before I got off my bike. I'd put on a fresh set of leather pants and a black jean jacket that had the sleeves ripped out and it looked like someone had shot pointed studs into it with a shotgun. It was all over the place without a pattern. Yes, I'd dressed up especially for Aurora. I wanted to look good for her, even though I was pretty sure she wouldn't be interested. It made me want to win her over that much more. I wanted the only girl, possibly in the whole world, who didn't want me. It was a thrill. I couldn't remember when last I'd gone through this much effort for a woman. Definitely not for that bitch of an ex of mine. Raina had been a pain in the ass and I hadn't bothered with her long before we'd ended our relationship. It was the crazy that had done it for me, though. She'd lost her plot very early on in our relationship - if she'd had it at all, to begin with - and I'd lost interest because no one could deal with someone as unstable as she was. That was a relationship I definitely didn't miss. The only thought I ever gave her was one that was tainted with a hell of a lot of relief. I liked to use her as a bar to measure other women against. The more different they were from Raina, the better. It was cruel in a way but she didn't know and the girls didn't have to, either. Every man had a past they didn't necessarily want others to know about.

I climbed the steps up to the library and my eyes fell on her. She sat at the computer, staring at it with a far off look on her face. She wasn't here; she was in some distant country, wherever her daydreams were taking her. It gave me a moment to just look at her without seeming like I was staring. She turned her head to me when I was halfway to the counter and her face changed. That open, dreamy look disappeared and her face closed. It was disappointing to lose that look on her face and to be the one that caused it. "You're back." Her tone was almost hostile. "I'm here for my wallet." Blue eyes. I knew now. And not just the boring blue, either. Electric blue. Cerulean blue. Stare-into-her-eyes-forever blue. She nodded and opened a drawer. She pulled it out and put it on the counter. I pocketed in and leaned my elbows on the counter, looking for something - anything that would let me talk to her just a little longer. My eyes fell on the wad of pages next to her. It was typed out neatly and it looked like a book of sorts. I frowned. "What's that?" She glanced down at the pages. "None of your business." She was feisty. I loved it. I wanted to see more of it. It was better than her being so closed off. I reached over the counter and grabbed it, pulling it away before she could react. Her face was a mixture of surprise and horror. The only reason I'd been able to grab it was because she hadn't expected I would do that. Most of the time I could get things like that - the element of surprise was my friend all the way through. "Give that back!" she cried and shot out of her chair, trying to grab it out of my hands over the counter but I took a step back and she was stuck. "Is this a book?"

"Please, don't." She sounded a little pleading, but not enough to win out over my curiosity. I read the introduction paragraph. I know you. We've been here before. No surprises. A settled score. I know the darkness. From inside. A reckless rage. A poisoned pride." I got shivers. These were song lyrics. White Buffalo, if I was correct. She'd come around the counter and her hand reached for the manuscript. I didn't want her to have it back. I wanted to read more. I wanted to know more. What was this story? Who was this woman? I understood her stare at the screen now. She was a writer - she had to be. I'd witnessed art in its raw form when I'd seen her like that. "Give it back." A command, not a question. It made me want to keep it that much more. I didn't like it when people told me what to do. What was more, I didn't want to give this up before reading it. "No." She looked surprised. Didn't men often tell her no? I looked her up and down. She wore jeans and sneakers but, good God, jeans and sneakers had never looked this damn good. "Excuse me?" "I'm not going to give it back. I want to read it." "You can't." "Why not?" She took a deep breath. "Because it's mine and it's not done yet. I don't want you to." It was a classic I-don't-think-my-work-is-good scenario that happened to every artist. I was no artist but I knew people who were - some of the kids at the club, for instance - and they always hated their own work.

This manuscript was really good. I'd only read the opening image but it had me hooked. I wanted more. "I want to use my wallet and take you out to breakfast." It was out there. I was asking her out to spend time with me. I wanted to know her mind, who she was on the inside. She had suddenly become the most intriguing thing in the world. "I don't think so. Who do you think you are?" I shrugged. She tried to reach for the manuscript again. I moved it behind my back and she followed it, putting her body right up against mine. Her breasts pushed against my chest and I noticed them. Supple but firm. Real. Her breath caught in her throat and she jumped back, putting distance between us. Pity. Although her morals were good to see, too. There was nothing special about a girl that was willing to get physical so quickly. Sure, I did do one night stands - my sex life wouldn't exist if there weren't women out there who threw themselves at me, whose legs fell open if I just looked at them right, but that didn't mean I respected them. On the contrary, I didn't want anything to do with them after we slept together. "You can't just take my manuscript. That's stealing. It's personal property." I nodded. I was being shameless about it. "Come out to breakfast with me." She shook her head. "I can't. I have to work. I can take a lunch break, though, but I want my manuscript first." I had the feeling she was going to reject me the moment I gave her script back to her so I shook my head. "You can get it when you come to lunch with me." "You're going to blackmail me with my own manuscript?" "I don't like to call it blackmail. It's just plain old manipulation." She rolled her eyes. "Right, because that makes it so much better."

I smiled. Her sarcasm, her dry humor, I wanted more. "If you don't show up I'm going to take it to someone who can make something of it and do it all under my own name." "That's a lawsuit, asshole." I loved it when she spoke to me like that, her words dripping with menace and her calling me an asshole. I was so attracted to her it was crazy. I looked at her mouth, her lips pursed into a determined line and I wanted to kiss her. I wasn't going to, though. I was going to go slow with her, do it right. "Come on, just come to lunch with me. There's a place just around the corner on Soquel Avenue. It's called The Crepe Place and they're open now. Meet me there for lunch then you can get your manuscript back." She looked at me and I could see her mind working, going over the options she had. I knew I was making it impossible for her and, yes, I was being an asshole. But I wanted to spend more time with her and if it was up to her that was just not going to happen. I had a bargaining chip now and I wanted her to bite onto the bait I was dangling before her nose. She crossed her arms over her chest and it pushed her breasts together a little through her tank top. She was stunning. I forced my eyes to her face, not wanting to scare her away by looking like a pervert on top of everything. "Fine," she finally said. "I'll meet you there at two." "Do you know where it is?" She nodded. "I go there now and then. I'll meet you at two." Someone came in through the door with a stack of books. She glared at me. "I have to work now. It would be great if you could just go away." Hostile. Ouch. But I deserved it. "I'll see you at two." "Yeah." She plastered a smile on her face and it was impossible to know that she'd

been angry with me just a moment before "Mrs. Phelps, it's great to see you again. Let me sort that out for you." She took the books from a middle-aged lady and took it to the counter. The woman asked Aurora how she was and how her story was coming along. When she did Aurora shot me a dirty look. "Oh, you know how it is. Always some kind of hiccup." She meant me. I knew it. I smiled and left the library, feeling like I'd just won the lottery. So what if I'd cheated? I sat on my bike outside the library with the wad of pages. I hadn't gone in to get the book I'd been after last night when I'd gone in and seen her there. Motorcycle Repair didn't seem nearly as important as the mystery of Aurora. I laughed at how much double meaning was embedded in that thought and started my bike. I drove the short distance to Water Street, parked my bike on the pavement and followed the footpath along Branciforte Creek. I sat down under a tree, lit up a smoke and started reading. There was no one in the morgue. The night was eerie and it felt like all the bodies were going to rise and attack me. I didn't believe in zombies but I believed in fear. I heard a click, the smallest sound but it was enough to tell me someone was here. I wasn't alone. Usually, those words are a relief but in a morgue where everyone else is supposed to be dead, the idea terrified me. There were going to be no human resurrection tonight, but if I weren’t careful there would another dead body. I hid between the shelves of body lockers. I shivered. The raw concrete floor, the metal drawers around me, the idea that this night may very well be my last had a way of draining every bit of warmth and life that I could cling onto. The moonlight glinted off the black barrel of a shotgun. I ran. I had no intention of dying tonight. I hoped to God the fates agreed. I found a gurney with a body on it. Post-autopsy. I gagged as I pushed it off. It fell on the floor with a dull thud. I got on the gurney and pulled the white sheet over me, hoping to God that the dead body would stay dead, that this live body would stay alive, that the guy with the shotgun was dumb enough to think I was already dead. Footsteps came closer and I held my breath. Dead bodies didn't breathe. It wasn't that much of a problem; terror sat on my chest like an anvil and I was barely breathing, anyway.

*** Maya Rivers was a good wife in a cut and paste life with a husband who took his job seriously. Carl was the overseer at a morgue during daylight hours, making sure the bodies coming in were labeled and put on ice. He came home at six on the dot every evening and they ate supper at seven. Maya made sure the house was clean for her husband. She decorated it with plants and flowers and all things colorful that made life just a little less dull when he was away from the office. When he was away she made an effort to make herself look good. She had her nails and her hair done at a salon once a month, went to the gym three times a week and jogged through the neighborhood the rest of the time. All her friends told her what a lucky girl she was, and when she was with them she agreed and believed it. It was only at night when the lights were off and Carl got out of bed next to her that she felt her fairytale life wasn't as dreamy as she thought it was. The first time it happened she thought it was a work emergency and she'd written if off as such when he'd left the house between two and four in the morning, dressed in his work clothes. The next three times she did the same, trying to think nothing of it and almost convincing herself that it was fine. She didn't even mention it to her friends. When it started happening every night she got worried. She didn't ask him about it. It seemed like something he would deny. The fact that she felt that way about it made her worry, too. If she knew he was hiding something but she was too nervous to ask him about it, they had problems. Carl had an office at home where he kept some paperwork. He didn't like her going in there, and when she did she only vacuumed and wiped down the desk before leaving again, leaving his papers untouched. Today, the moment he left the house, she tiptoed to the office on stocking feet. She was quiet, even though she was alone. She was scared of what she was going to find, even more so of what she wasn't going to find.

She started with the bottom drawer on the right-hand side. Letters from an old work colleague. She read them one by one. He mentioned nothing of his work to his friend. She also noted that he didn't mention anything about her, but that shouldn't matter. The fact that it did was something she pushed away. The other drawers had documents in them. Bank statements that showed nothing, the deed to the house, their marriage certificate. Applications for the loan they were repaying. The papers for the new car he'd gotten himself a year ago. Nothing strange, in other words. She went through all the drawers and found nothing until she lifted a book in the last drawer and found a file she'd never seen before. She opened it and sat down in Carl's chair. Bank statements from a bank they didn't bank with for a card she knew nothing about. Telephone statements for a number she didn't know. A ring with a strange sign on it that she'd never seen before. A bunch of letters with loopy handwriting on them. A woman? She opened the first letter. Her fingers trembled when she did. She moved to the bottom of the letter. It was signed 'Love, A.' with a heart next to it. Maya's heart stopped. Was he cheating on her? The doorbell rang, shocking through her, ripping her back to reality. She felt like she'd been caught in the act. She shoved all the papers and letters back into the file and returned it to the drawer under the book. In her room, she stepped into kitten heels and looked in the mirror. Perfectly put together besides the haunted look in her eyes. She practiced a smile before walking to the door. She kept that smile plastered on her face and opened the door. A man stood on the other side. He wore a brown suit with a mustard tie. He was handsome in a way that suggested he wasn't sure what to do with it.

"Mrs. Rivers?" Maya nodded. "I'm Jerry Coswald, your husband's lawyer." She’d never heard of this man in her life. She wasn't aware they had a lawyer. "Yes?" "I was instructed that if your husband disappeared I was to collect a document from the home." "Disappeared?" The lawyer was too calm about this. "Yes, ma'am. Do you have the document for me?" "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about." He frowned slightly. "That's strange. You are Angelique Rivers, aren't you? Blood drained from Maya's face and for a moment the world went black. I closed the manuscript and leaned back. Holy shit. This was more of a mystery than anything I'd ever read or studied before. And Aurora had thought of it all. This just made me that much more determined to read it all and to get to know the woman that had written it. I opened it again and carried on reading, not caring about the time and all the other things I was supposed to be doing before I met her for lunch at twelve. I still had time. I could do it later. Much later. I was the boss, right?

CHAPTER 5 Aurora It was impossible to concentrate. I had my book open in front of me and I was trying to write, but I knew Hunter had the printed out manuscript and it was driving me crazy. The only person I'd shown my work to at all were the ladies at the book club, and that was only because those were the rules. They showed their raw side and, in return, I did the same. It was different when the drop dead gorgeous biker I was thinking of using as a character was reading my stuff and judging me by it. Every writer poured parts of her soul out onto the paper. We used our past and experiences. We didn't write them exactly but we liked to use them as inspiration. People who didn't write didn't understand that. There was a lot of mystery and murder and betrayal and lies and confusion in my book. I didn't want Hunter to think any of that was part of me. God, I shouldn't have cared what he thought about me at all. That had been easy when I'd been able to hide the sides of me I wasn't willing to show the public. It was different now that he was reading my work. I could see it like my diary - not the content but the fact that this was as much a key to my soul as anything. And the truth was even though I didn't care what he thought about me, I would have liked it if he thought something nice about me, at least. I wouldn't die without it but it really wouldn't have hurt, either. It was a slow morning at the library. When my mind was this troubled I needed a lot of work to come in so I could distract myself. There was nothing. I'd already packed all the books back that had been checked in. I'd organized the entire biography section and I'd issued two new cards. And it was only twelve-thirty. Catherine came into the library looking chipper. I glanced at her. "Good morning, Aurora," she said in a sing-song voice. "I got the notification that you sent a message concerning a wallet?" Of course, Catherine automatically got all messages sent on the bulk line.

I nodded. "And has Mr. Ajax been back to retrieve it?" She tried to make it sound like a normal question but there was hope in her eyes. I nodded again. "First thing this morning." She looked slightly disappointed but forced a smile. "That's good. I'm glad you're so on top of things." We both knew this wasn't about me at all, but whatever. I smiled at her, one that was completely fake, and she disappeared into her office. No doubt she wanted to see him again. I knew for a fact she wanted to do more than just see him. And here I was, about to go to lunch with him. Wasn't that just great. Of course, I wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been for the fact that he'd stolen my manuscript, but, of course, that was beside the point. It was still an hour and a half until I could go and get my work back. An hour and a half until I could see how much of my dignity was stripped away after he told me what he thought of my book. Finally, the time came for me to go to lunch. I popped my head into Catherine's office. "I'm taking lunch now. I'll be back in an hour." She nodded without looking up at me. She would man the front desk if it came down to it. I walked out through the front door and to The Crepe Place. It was only two blocks or so, easy to reach by foot. The front door had an awning over it that said The Crepe Place and I opened it. Friendly faces greeted me when I walked in. "Hello, Aurora." Jimmy was a waiter I saw every time I went there for lunch. He had floppy hair that fell over a geeky face and glasses that were the only reason his hair wasn’t permanently in his eyes. "Table for one or are you just grabbing a takeaway?" "Actually, I'm meeting someone." He looked around.

I followed his gaze and saw Hunter sitting at a table in the back. "There he is, thanks." Jimmy's face fell and he nodded. I walked through the tables. The Crepe Place was a homey kind of place you could take your whole family. The walls were all wood, one of them covered with pictures. The bar at the back had a whole counter with alcohol on the back. This was the kind of place for anyone and everyone. I walked to the table where Hunter sat reading my manuscript. My stomach flipped a little. I really didn't like it when other people saw my work. It really wasn't anywhere near good enough. He looked up when I stopped in front of the wooden table and smiled when he saw me. He smelled like cigarette smoke but I hadn't actually seen him smoke - maybe he was one of those guys who wouldn't do it in front of a lady. Imagine if men still had manners like that. "I knew you would come." "You didn't really give me a choice, did you?" "You always have a choice." I snorted. "Right. I'm going to let you hold onto that." I held out my hand. "I'm here now, just like you wanted. You can give it back. That was our bargain." He blinked at me, not making a move to hand anything to me. It was irritating. My fingers were itching. I needed that manuscript back. "What happens in the end?" I looked at him with a slight frown. "What?" I reached over the table and put my hand on the manuscript. I slowly slid it toward me. He didn't make a move to stop me. Thank God. I pulled the manuscript slowly across the table until it was right in front of me, and then I could relax. It had been horrible having it in someone else's possession. "I don't know what happens in the end yet." He frowned. "You don't have some kind of plan?"

I shook my head. "This might be where my writer's block comes from. I don't have a set plan. I have an idea where I want it to lead but I don't know what the characters are going to do until they do it." "Right now she's stuck with a gun against her head." I nodded. I hadn't printed out the bit with the scalpel yet; I wanted to do some major editing. "Let's hope she gets out of it alive. It would suck ending the story there." He pulled a face. "You're really a good writer." "God, don't say that." Jimmy arrived with two menus. He put one down in front of each of us. "What can I get you to drink?" "Just water, please, Jim," I smiled up at him. He nodded and looked at Hunter. He looked slightly irritated but whatever. "Coffee, please." Jimmy scribbled something down. "I'll come back once you decided what you're eating." He turned away. "Friend of yours?" I shrugged. "If you pay attention to the people around you, you'll find there are a lot of friends to be had." Hunter raised his eyebrows. "That's not how it works in my world, sweetheart." "Well, your world must be a very lonely place." He thought about that for a moment and his face changed, emotion flickering across it

too fast for me to read. "I want to know how it ends, though. Will you let me read the ending?" I folded my arms over my chest. Jimmy came back with the coffee and water. I watched Hunter stir in sugar and milk. "I didn't realize I had a choice in the matter." He sighed. "You didn't before because I know you probably hate your own work. Also, I wanted to see you again and you were probably going to say no. It was a double whammy. But now that you know I think it's a great book and I want to read more maybe you'll let me." The girls at the writing club didn't do a lot of complimenting. We pulled each other's writing apart on technicalities. It was one of the reasons why it worked so well. No one else had read my stuff, which meant no one else had ever commented on my writing. I hated it but that was just me. "Do you really think it's that good?" "Really." I narrowed my eyes at him. He wasn't joking. His face was serious, his eyes sincere if that was something that was possible at all. I put my hands flat on the table and stared at them for a moment. I didn't want to sound like I was fishing for compliments but I wanted to know what he thought. Precisely. "What did you like about it?" I looked up at him after I asked the questions. He smiled at me and it was genuine, lighting up his face and going all the way to his eyes. "The way you set up the mystery is great. Kept me hooked all the way through. And your style is easy to read. Conversational. I love books like that." "You read often?" It was a very educated comment.

He shrugged. "I've read a couple of books." "Only a couple?" Somehow I didn't believe him. He talked like an avid reader, not like a biker who was next to illiterate. He shrugged. "I love your main character. She's feisty and strong, but unassuming. She sounds like she could be a stunning person to hang out with. A lot like you." I felt myself blushing and couldn't help but smile. I'd come here expecting him to be an asshole, thinking he would probably say something offensive. I knew he was charming. I hadn't expected to respond to it. He made me feel warm inside. When I looked at him again he was smiling, too. He knew he'd gotten me. I wanted to get annoyed about it but I let it go. So he was charming. So it had worked. It was once. It was all right. "What else did you think?" He looked at the manuscript in front of me as if he could picture the pages again. Before he could answer me I asked another question. "Did you read the entire thing?" He nodded. That was some damn fast reading. It confirmed to me that he didn't just read 'now and then' like he'd said. This man read a lot more. A sexy biker with tattoos all over his arms and the side of his neck and leather all over the place that read a lot. I could understand why he was trying to deny it. "It wasn't finished," he said like that was some kind of excuse for him to have read almost two hundred pages in one sitting. "And the main character is well developed but I don't like the male lead character. That little lawyer. She needs someone stronger and more confident." "Like who?" He leaned back and flashed me a skew grin. "Like a biker." Of course. I rolled my eyes but smiled. "Because a biker is the best type of guy, right?"

"If your life needs some spice and you're way too good for what you do, yes." I wasn't so sure we were still talking about my main character. It felt a little like he was maybe referring to me. "Will you let me read more when I come to the library to check out my books?" He looked at me with puppy dog eyes that should have looked stupid on a biker but that he managed to pull off. "You still have fines to pay. You can't check anything out until they're paid." "Come on, your boss made sure they went away." I shook my head. "She made sure I made them go away. And it's not like I'm just going to let this slide. It's the principle of the thing." He grinned at me again, making me feel like I was going to falter. "Why did you have such a big fine of children's DVDs - of all things - in the first place?" He shrugged. "Isn't what I check out supposed to be personal?" "Isn't someone's manuscript supposed to be personal?" He nodded at me. "TouchĂŠ." I folded my arms over my chest again. "How about I tell you if you come out with me." "What?" He was trying to force me to do things all the time. "Isn't this getting a little old?" He shrugged. Maybe it wasn't getting old for him. Maybe this kind of thing worked for him all the time. The problem was that it had worked even with me, but I had to get my manuscript.

"If this is how you go about getting girls I'm surprised you're so popular. Manipulation isn't attractive on a man." "Yeah, you say things like that all the time. Manipulation isn't attractive, a man who loves himself too much isn't you have a list you're working through?" I shook my head. "Just standards." He made an O with his mouth and shook his head. "You're something, you know that?" I shrugged, fighting another blush. "Of course, you're the master and commander of words, so it makes sense that you can put me back in place with them so easily." I was blushing again, dammit. "Are you always this generous with compliments, Hunter, or is it just with me because you're pretty sure I don't like you?" He grinned. "What? You don't like me?" I couldn't help but smile. He was really attractive, funny, and his confidence just added to it. The fact was that I did like him, but I didn't want him to know that. I didn't want him to think he could do all of this and think it would work to make me see him. Even though it already did. "Come out to dinner with me. Let me take you on a real date." "For information, right? Because nothing here is for free." He grinned and nodded. "To know why I had five DVDs on my name. Children's DVDs." I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He wasn't going to let this one go. And I didn't want to let it go either. I really did want to know. There was something about this guy that was just completely different from what he seemed to be when I first met him. He read he had comments on writing that were quite well informed, and he had

secrets like Children's DVDs that didn't add up. And I was a sucker for mysteries. This was the biggest mystery I'd ever seen. "I thought you were interested in Catherine," I said, trying to steer the conversation away from the obvious answer I was about to give. I needed a reason not to be interested in him, and knowing he'd been with other women was enough to kill my attraction to him. He shook his head. "Honestly? That was just because I wanted to get out of those fines. I can, so I did." "So you didn't take her home with you? You two left the library together." "God, no." His answer was so quick and so strong I was willing to believe him, but he carried on. "I know I'm a fast worker but there wouldn't exactly have been time to go to my place, have at it, and get back to pick up my wallet - just after closing time." He emphasized the last bit. I had to admit I'd been a pain in the ass there. I would do it again, too, if it came down to it. "So, you just used her?" He sighed. "Do you want me to say yes? Because I'll say it. I used her shamelessly to get out of a couple of dollars for a fine. Are you happy now?" I was happy and unhappy. Happy that he'd admitted to what he'd done, unhappy that he hadn't taken her home so I could use it to get rid of the obvious attraction between us that was starting to build more and more. I didn't like dating because I always ended up disappointed, learning that the man was just a man and not someone who would save me. Not someone who would let me save him in return. This was blowing up in my face because he was the perfect mix between badass and great and I was starting to really want to go out on a date with him. I took a deep breath and blew it out in a loud sigh.

"Fine." "Every time you agree to something you make it sound like I'm forcing you." I narrowed my eyes. "You are." That wasn't entirely true. This time, he'd left me little choice, but I didn't have to see him to find out why he liked children's DVDs. I could say no, walk away and never see him again. The truth was, this time, I didn't want to walk away. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to go out on this date with him, and if the information he was holding ransom was the way that was going to happen without him thinking I really was interested, so be it. He shrugged. "I'll pick you up after work." "I need to go home and change into something better than this." He looked at my clothes like he hadn't noticed it before - which I was sure was a total act. He was a man and I'd seen him looking at my breasts earlier. "Okay. I'll pick you up from your place. At eight." He gestured to the manuscript. "Can I keep that, though? Just a little longer?" "That's pushing it." "Come on, let me read it again and give you some real feedback." I narrowed my eyes at him. I wanted real feedback. I wanted his opinion. It shouldn't have mattered to me but it was starting to. "Fine," I said again but it didn't sound nearly as sarcastic or hostile as it had before.

CHAPTER 6 Hunter Lunch for Aurora was just an hour. She ordered a toasted sandwich when we agreed to go on another date. I ordered food, too, and finished it after she left. That waiter with the long hair kept glaring at me like I was doing something wrong just by sitting down with her. I didn't blame him, though. Aurora seemed to be unaware of how much male attention she generated. I was very aware of how many men looked at her when she walked past them. And I understood why, too. She was a hell of a good-looking woman. I wanted her, every part of her. Not just her brilliant mind but her smoking hot body. And I didn't want to just have it for one night, either. I wanted her to get to the point where she gave it to me and then I wanted her to do that every night. God, I shouldn't be thinking like this. I wasn't interested in dating and Aurora's heart was the last thing I wanted to break. My life wasn't the kind of life for someone like her, anyway. She was stunning and I was a scumbag. I seduced girls and used my charm to get what I wanted and I was in some bad shit before I'd decided to straighten myself out. Why would someone like her be with someone like me? I left the restaurant after paying the check and got onto my bike. I drove past the library, looking at the door, hoping to see her through it, but the door didn't exactly face the road and I knew I was just acting like a teenager with a crush. Me. A crush. I carried on driving, my bike roaring, making a statement wherever I went. I was heading to the club. It was a rundown bar on the outskirts of town where we always met up. The Desert Huns was a group of men who had been on the wrong side of the law for a very long time. A lot of us were happy we were out of trouble now but we still had to be careful and when temptation came knocking it was hard not to answer. I parked the bike in a long row of other bikes and walked into the bar. The place was dim and musty, stale smoke hanging in the air, the permanent smell du jour. The boys were scattered across the room, sitting around the tables, in booths, and at the bar.

Three of them were behind the bar, handing out beers to the rest of them. They were a sight to behold. All of them bulged with muscle, there was more inked skin than there was clean and the amount of leather was almost obscene. But these guys were my family. There wasn't one man I wouldn't take a bullet for and not one who wouldn't take a bullet for me. These were the guys who had my back. I would put my life in their hands without even thinking about it. They were tattoo artists, bouncers, bodyguards, auto repairmen, anything that was rough and needed a lot of muscle. Chatter hung in the air and they talked and smoked and laughed. When they saw I was there the talk quieted down until the only sounds were that of the three men behind the bar pouring drinks. Shane brought me a beer and I sipped the foam. "Thanks," I said when I swallowed a cold sip. Shane looked uptight. His muscles were hard, flexed. He looked uncomfortable. I looked around the pub. More of the boys seemed unsure in the dim light as if something had happened. "What's wrong?" I asked. I needed to know why my men were in a bad place. If anyone fucked with them they fucked with me. "This was delivered this morning." Shane held out an envelope that was addressed to the pub. It had our gang name on the front, as well. It was someone who knew who we were. The envelope was already torn open and I took out the note. Your time is coming to a close. That was it. Nothing more. I turned the note around and back again. "You don't know where this came from at all?" Shane shook his head. We'd been on the straight and narrow - as much as we could manage, at least - for a long time. We used to have wars against rival gangs and men who ended up in jail for

doing bad things - we had fights that left men broken or dead. That was all over. We'd had peace with rival clubs for years. I couldn't think of any of the other guys who would want to off us or get us out of the way as a gang. "We'll take care of this. We're going to come out the other side." The men nodded. They still looked unsure but I knew they trusted me, and when I said I was going to make this go away, I meant it. They had a right to trust me and I was going to deliver. "I want you boys to be careful the next couple of days. Stay in touch with each other. Make sure you're always contacting someone; make sure we know where everyone is. If something's up, let us know so we can help. We're not going to let this get us down and we have nothing whoever sent this can use against us." There were murmurs among the men. They knew I was right. We were going to be just fine. I turned away from the men and they carried on drinking and talking. Shane walked with me. "If there are more threats I want you to come to me first before you tell the rest of them. And I want you to try to find out where this came from." "How am I going to do that?" I shook my head. "I don't know. If this next one gets delivered, see if you can track who did it and who they're doing it for. It will no doubt be an innocent but any kind of lead at this point will be great." Shane nodded again. "I'll do what I can." "I want someone at the club at all times. And not alone. Not even you - make sure that when someone's here there are two or three people here with them." Shane nodded. They all had jobs but I was sure they could organize something. Some of them worked nighttime and had days off. We would be fine.

I had no idea how something like could have happened. I wasn't sure why someone would want to threaten us at all. This was out of the blue and with nothing behind it. We hadn't done anything worth threatening for years. God, and now I was thinking of bringing Aurora into a life like this. She was right not wanting to get involved with me, even if her reasons were different than mine. My life wasn't safe, even when I wanted it to be. I was going to see her again tonight but I was going to make sure nothing happened to her. She wasn't going to get involved with this, no matter how involved she was with me. I hoped she would be more involved than she was now, but I would keep her safe. I already had almost fifty lives in my care. Another one would just be part of the job. I looked at the men from where I was standing. They were all good people. They had bad pasts, yes, but they were good people who made an honest living now. Some of them had families now, too. A wife, children, girlfriends. They had people who cared about them, people they cared about. I couldn't let anything happen to them. I wouldn't. I pulled out my phone and looked at the screen. Nothing from Aurora. I'd half-hoped there would be. A thank you for lunch? Of course, I was seeing her tonight so there was no reason for her to contact me now. She'd already given me her address before leaving so I knew where to pick her up. Really, there was no reason for her to send me any kind of message. Still, I couldn't get her off my mind and I wasn't sure I wanted to. It was nice thinking about her. It had been nice seeing her. I was looking forward to seeing her again. I turned and walked to the office. We'd been using the club for so long we'd moved everything here so it was all in one place. The office really more belonged to Shane than to me but as long as I was in the building I had first dibs. It was a perk of being the leader, but, to be honest, the office really belonged to Shane more than anyone else. He knew every single piece of paper on the desk and the shelf to the side no matter the chaos. If I was the leader he was like the manager - someone with every single member's number on his call list, someone with all the extra numbers we needed, like next of kin.

I pushed the door open and nearly had a heart attack. Raina was draped over the desk - on top of all the papers - like it was the start of a porn shoot. She wore a dress that was tight enough to push all her assets together until it was obscene and so short it really left nothing to the imagination. I closed the door. Heaven forbid one of the others would see Raina here. I'd already done us a bad reputation because of this crazy bitch. I didn't need them to doubt me now, not at a time like this. "What the fuck are you doing here?" She sat up, arching her back, pushing her breasts out. She wasn't wearing a bra if her nipple stand was anything to go by. Maybe once upon a time that would have turned me on but I was honestly not impressed. "Is that way to greet a long lost lover?" I snorted. "Lost is the only word we want to focus on here. That, and get. As in Get Lost." She frowned. "Your jokes haven't gotten any funnier." "And I'm not any happier to see you than the last time I told you to get the fuck out of my life." She hopped off the table and walked toward me on heels that were so high it was impossible to balance on them. How she did it was beyond me. It made her hips swing when she walked toward me and her whole body was on display. It was the way she liked it. Once upon a time it was the way I liked it, too. Thank God I'd done up some standards in the meantime. Someone like Aurora was so much classier than this bitch. "I'm going to ask you again. What are you doing here?" She circled me like a vulture, dragging a hand over my chest, around my shoulders and up to my neck as she came all the way around to the front again. "Come on, Hunter. You can't tell me you're not at least a little happy to see me."

She leaned in really close so I could smell the mixture of smoke and peppermint on her breath. It made me want to light one up, but it was because seeing her was stressful, not because the smell of smoke had a chain reaction. "I missed you, baby," she said when I didn't respond to her. Her seduction meant nothing and her words fell on deaf ears. It was irritating her but she was trying to lay it on thick. Her words were syrupy sweet - nauseatingly so. "I don't have time for this right now," I said. I stepped away from her so her sexiness and attempted seduction looked stupid in the middle of the room. Her face changed. "What happened to the good old days?" I looked at her with the hardest face I knew how to pull. "You fucked it up." Her face changed again - anger crept in, replacing the sweet innocence she'd been throwing at me. This was more like the Raina I knew. As unstable as she was, I trusted this face more because I knew it wouldn't end well. When she was all sweet and nice and looked vulnerable it was harder because I hated it when women cried and I didn't know what her intentions were. At least when she was being a bitch I knew whatever followed would be unpleasant. "Why are you being a dick to me?" I sighed. "Because we broke up, Raina, and it wasn't a nice breakup. We can't be friends. We can't even be acquaintances. We agreed we wouldn't see each other again." She nodded. "I said that before I knew how hard it would be without you." That pleading innocence was back. She had mood swings like day and night. "You need to get out of here." She shook her head and her pissed off side was back. "Don't be like this, Hunter. It's not like I'm asking you to have sex with me." She smiled. "Although, I can guarantee it would be great if we did. But I just want to spend some time with you, catch up. You know?"

I shook my head. "I'm really not interested." "That's not what you said just before we broke up." I rolled my eyes. I'd gone through the whole break-up sex routine, the one where we did it for old times' sake. I'd thought back then it would be funny, a last 'fuck you.' Literally. Boy, had that blown up in my face. "I'm not the same man I was then." I'd been involved in a lot of bad things when I'd been with Raina. "Yeah, I can tell." The comment went with a look up and down my body like I was found wanting. It irritated me and I wanted to get back at her. "I have a date tonight that I need to get ready for and I really don't want to rock up there in a bad mood just because I saw you." She narrowed her eyes at me. "You don't date." I shrugged. "How do you know?" "Because you never dated before me, and after you went back to one night stands. Those never mean anything but a date?" I looked at her, pinning her with an I-don't-give-a-shit look. "I'm going on a date tonight and I really would love it if you left the club. I don't want you here and I can tell you now none of the others want you here either." "Don't break my heart, Hunter." "I can't if you don't have one." I folded my arms over my chest and glared at her. Leaving the room would have been perfect now but I had no idea what she would do if I were gone. Either she would make a scene, running after me and embarrassing me in front of my men. Or she would stay here and torch the place, potentially burning everything to the ground. Or something else ridiculously unpredictable. I didn't want to leave her alone. She looked like she was going to cry. Please don't, I willed. I would only feel bad

and, honestly, Raina didn't deserve a shred of sympathy. Her expression changed from crying to something hard and expressionless, a look I knew very well. She was at a place now where she could do anything if she stayed there. It was scary as hell but I didn't show fear. People like Raina could smell fear. Her face changed again and this time, it was pure rage. Better than the blank expression but just as unpredictable. The biggest threat was over, though. "I'm going to make sure you'll never forget me," she said. She picked up a paperweight from the desk and threw it through the window. The glass broke, the sound skipping around us. She stormed out of the office and down the corridor that led down the back door. She wasn't planning on letting the rest of the men see her, not now that she'd lost this little battle. Thank God for that, too. Shane appeared in the doorway. "Was that who I think it was?" I nodded and looked at the window. "Well," he said, coming to stand next to me. "Minimal damage, then, considering." I nodded.

CHAPTER 7 Aurora "Can you finish early?" I asked Meredith when I phoned her just after lunch. "I need to go shopping and I really need your advice." "What do you need to go shopping for?" I hesitated for just a second but, of course, I wasn't going to keep a secret from my best friend. "I'm going on a date with biker guy tonight and I have nothing to wear." "Oh, my God." I nodded even though she couldn't see me. "I worked overtime last night so I can take off earlier. Come with me? You know I haven't done this in so long." She was silent for a while and I imagined her checking her watch or her schedule or something. "I'll pick you up at four." She hung up. I put the library phone down and took a deep breath. I couldn't believe I'd agreed to go on a date with Hunter when we'd had lunch. Actually, I could believe it, but I didn't usually do things like this. I'd had my fair share of boyfriends, of course. There was always someone interested. It just never lasted long. They never seemed to understand me. I could never relate to them, and, in the end, it often turned into something toxic or something detrimental to either or both parties. It just didn't work. This...this was different. Hunter was the type of guy I'd never looked at before. He was a badass, a drop-dead gorgeous one at that, and he didn't look like he took any shit. In fact, he looked like he caused it. But besides that, he liked reading books. He liked reading my book. That was worth something. I was a writer, and maybe he would understand at least a bit of me. I wasn't expecting someone to understand me completely; I was reasonable, at least. I always felt awkward in relationships because I knew I was always trying too hard to

be someone I wasn't. I always tried to be like the other girls, the ones who had jobs that were worth mentioning and bodies worth looking at and jokes worth telling. I didn't have any of that. I didn't care that Hunter knew that, either. I'd shown him my snappy side, my irritated side, my wordy side, and he'd still wanted to see me again. Or at least, he'd wanted to get me to quiz him about his life. Which was fine by me. I didn't mind getting to know more about him. In fact, I wanted it. Meredith stopped in front of the library at four on the dot and I was ready to go. I'd begged off from Catherine and made sure Will was in there to take my place so she had no reason to argue with me. Will was the type of guy who looked like he was always high and he was fine with anything as long as he didn't have to think about it. "What do you have in mind?" she asked the moment I was in the car. "Where is he taking you?" I shook my head and put on my seatbelt. "I have no idea. That's why I need your help." She drove us to the closest mall and we parked and got out. "Your best bet is a dress, I think. You can dress it up with heels and a shimmering shawl or dress it down with flats and a jacket. Hair up or down. Makeup light or dark." I nodded. "That sounds like it could work." We walked into the first store and Meredith picked out dresses for me to wear. I went into the changing rooms and came out, modeling them for her one by one. She was unhappy with most of them. "Come on," I said after the fifth one. "Surely I can't look bad in all of them?" Meredith shook her head. "You look great. I'm trying to decide which one will make him wonder what you look like when you're out of it." "Meredith! This isn't what it's about."

She shrugged. "It never hurts to be prepared." I shook my head and laughed. I knew I'd decided on the right person to help me with this. We finally settled on a very slinky little black dress that was made of a thin fabric that clung to my body. It set of my blonde hair and blue eyes and when I wore it I felt like a supermodel. "What are you going to do with hair and makeup?" Meredith asked in the car. "I was thinking something smoky? And I don't know...I'll leave my hair down because I wear it up all the time at work. That's all he's seen." Meredith stopped in front of my apartment so I could go up and get ready. I'd told her how it had come about that we were going on a date. "You know, there are other ways to create a character for a book. You don't have to sleep with them to write about them." I blushed and nudged her. "I'm not planning on sleeping with him. Remember? This is about just getting to know him." "Right. The DVDs. You just keep telling yourself that." I rolled my eyes at her, smiled and leaned over to hug her. I got the bag with my new dress and matching shoes out of the foot well and closed the car door behind me. I waved at Meredith as she pulled off and went inside to get ready. I showered and shaved. Everything. I knew I'd told Meredith I wasn't planning on having sex with him, but if it came down to it I wasn't so sure I would say no, and I wanted to know that I felt up to it - beautiful and well groomed - if it did come down to it. It never hurt to be prepared. I blow dried my hair and ran a brush through it until it gleamed like silk. Some hair spray and gel wax on the tips and it looked a little messy and wild, just the way I liked it. It looked like I'd been up to no good and hadn't bothered to fix my hair afterward. It looked sexy, even if I had to say so myself.

I decided against stockings because my legs were so smooth I loved touching it myself, even, and I pulled on the dress. When I looked in the mirror it looked even better than it had in the shop. What was up with dressing room mirrors? If they tinted the mirrors a little and changed the lighting so it didn't show every blemish and flaw, I would be a lot more inclined to buy more clothes. I would feel better about my body when I walked out there and I wouldn't feel like it was a waste of my time and money. When I was in my dress, I put on makeup. A smoky eye and a very red lip. I looked in the mirror. I was nervous the red lips would make me look like a hooker but it didn't. In fact, it looked really nice. I was really excited to see Hunter. I wanted to tell myself to calm down, to let it go and take the evening as it came. I didn't want to blow it up too much and then by the time I got there I was disappointed. The fact was, though, I was more excited about just spending time with Hunter than I'd been about sleeping with any of the guys in my past. That was saying something. He was already so far in. "Just take it slow, though," I told myself in the mirror. I barely knew the guy. It didn't have to go very fast. It didn't have to go fast at all. It would be better for me to take the time to get to know him. But that was what this evening was all about, right? To find out about the DVDs. Why would a biker like him - someone who looked like he would be more comfortable in a fist fight than in a nursery - take out five children's DVDs and keep them that long? Did he have children? God, I hoped not. Of course, I didn't doubt he'd been with a lot of women. With his charm and Catherine's eagerness to please him as a small taste of what this man was all about, I was pretty sure he'd slept with hundreds of women. There was a very real possibility that he'd misplaced a child or two. Still, that would be disappointing, something that detracted from how sexy he was. I loved children, but I didn't want to get involved with someone who had a couple of them. I was only twenty-four. I didn't need that kind of drama. What else could it be? Maybe he was a bleeding heart, the type who volunteered at children's homes and kept them busy with DVDs. Or maybe he was part of the Big Brothers of America where people fostered a kid for a day a week or something like

that. I shook my head at myself, finishing up. I glanced at the clock. He would arrive in a couple of minutes. I was looking for all sorts of answers, the clue to all sorts of mysteries, but the best idea would be to ask him straight up and have him answer me. If, of course, he wasn't going to use the information against me again and ask for another date. Which, of course, I wouldn't be able to refuse, because it was him. My phone rang at eight exactly and I answered. "I'm so sorry to do this to you, sweetheart," his voice came over the speaker and my heart sank. "Something came up and I'm not going to make it to your apartment. Will you do be the biggest favor and meet me there?" "You're not canceling on me?" "Not even if the world depended on it." Relief washed through me. I'd expected him to cancel on me. "Where must I meet you?" He gave me an address. "I'll see you soon." He hung up. I looked at the address I'd scribbled down. I grabbed a handbag, decided on heels instead of flats considering I couldn't ask him, and walked down to the road. I flagged a taxi and gave him the address. The place was at the edge of town in an area I'd never been. The restaurant was classy and a seating hostess took me straight to a table when I mentioned Hunter's name. He was already at the table, looking suave in a suit and tie. I hadn't seen him in anything other than jeans or leather and I had to admit he looked really good. The suit was dark, which made his eyes seem like bottomless pools of black, and his hair was actually combed to the side. If I'd passed him in the street looking like that I wouldn't have recognized him. He smiled at me when I sat down and I smiled back, already blushing. The look he gave me was exactly the look Meredith had suggested he would give me, given what I was wearing.

"Thank you for meeting me," he said. "Thanks for not standing me up."

CHAPTER 8 Hunter When the seating hostess brought her to the table she looked like a blonde bombshell. She was stunning. She wore a black dress that made her look fantastic, emphasizing her curvy body in ways I could never have pictured when she'd worn her jeans earlier. That dress screamed for me to ogle her and I obliged. An erection punched into my zipper and I shifted, glad I had the table to hide my body's spontaneous reaction behind. She looked the part for the kind of place this was, too. She wore heels that made her legs look long and sexy. Her hair was loose and over her shoulders in beautiful waves of blonde that made me want to run my hands through it. She sat down, all elegance and grace, and looked at me through dark eyes that made the blue look that much more striking. "I would never stand you up." And that was the God-honest truth. Someone like Aurora was way too special and I had the feeling that being allowed to be out with her with a privilege that few people got. "You look beautiful," I said to her when she sat down. Her cheeks turned bright red and she looked down with a shy smile. It was impossible to think someone as attractive as she was didn't know the impact she made on men. "You look really nice, too." She looked at my suit and tie. I felt completely uncomfortable in clothes that felt like it didn't represent me at all, but Aurora wasn't the kind of person who deserved me meeting her in the same leather I wore for everything else. I had the manuscript she'd let me keep and a thick red pen that I'd bought at a stationary store earlier. I wanted to go through it with her. "What's that?" she asked. "This is my opinion." I held up the pen. She pulled a face. "It looks harsh."

I smiled. "It really isn't. Constructive, maybe, but not harsh." She shrugged. A waitress named Dina came to the table all smiles. She swung her hips and flipped her hair before glaring at Aurora. "What can I get you to drink?" she asked. She didn't look at Aurora again. "I'll have the usual," I said. "And for the lady, your cocktail of the day." Dina nodded and disappeared again. "A friend of yours?" she asked, mimicking the words I'd used on her with the waiter at The Crepe Place. I grinned. She was too quick for me. "I ah...I own the place." Her eyes widened in surprise. She hadn't expected that one. "What?" I shrugged. "Business is going well. I own a few things here and there. I have to admit it didn't start out with honest money, but it is now, and that's all that counts." She looked around in the place and I imagined her seeing it in a different light. "It's really nice. Wow. Having something like this to your name has got to be the kind of stability every human being wants in life." I shrugged. "Having a lot of stuff is great but I don't see that as riches. I think it's important to have someone to share it with." "Isn't that the most clichĂŠ outlook on life?" I laughed. It really was. I sounded like one of those billionaires in movies that would never be happy because they let go of true love. "It is, but it's true." The drinks arrived. I thanked Dina. She smiled at me and took out a notepad. "What can I get you to eat?" I ordered for us both the way a gentleman should for a lady. I let her choose from the

menu. To my delight, she chose steak and not some fluffy salad. "You're a woman after my own heart," I said after we'd placed our order. "Girls are usually so concerned about their weight." "Oh, God. I should probably be, but I love food. My metabolism has been kind to me." I shook my head. "You really don't have to worry about your weight. You're stunning inside and out." She blushed again. I was going to keep complimenting her all night so I could just see her blush. It was the most beautiful thing to see a woman who still took compliments like that and turned it into a gift to me. Most women expected flattery and it did nothing for them in the end. "Okay, let's take the plunge," she said and nodded toward the manuscript. "You have all sorts of criticism. That pen is making me nervous." I opened the first page. "You really don't have to be." She folded her arms on the table and leaned forward, ready to hear what I had to say. I wondered if she knew how good it made her cleavage look. Maybe she had done it on purpose, but I doubted it. "First of all, your characterization is brilliant. The way you build these people up and give them life is something very few people manage in books." She smiled. "Thank you." "Your dialogue is great, too. It's something special. You write the way you talk." "How is that?" "Witty and quick." She shook her head. "When you said positive criticism I thought there would be more criticism than positive."

I laughed. "I'm getting to that. The good things first." She nodded, sipping her cocktail. It was a blue mix of something that looked like it might be potent. I sipped my three fingers of Whiskey on the rocks. It wasn't my favorite but in a place like this it seemed silly to order a Corona so this was my usual for this restaurant. It was a little like all the faces I put up for different people in different areas of my life. "Your action scenes are fast-paced, which is good, but you don't plan them, do you?" She shook her head and I nodded. "I can tell. If you write with a plan you might be able to fix that and not write yourself into a corner." She groaned. "You're not the first person to tell me that. The ladies at the writing club I belong to all tell me the same thing. I guess now that an outsider has mentioned it, too, it must be true." I leaned back. "You're part of a writing club?" She nodded. "We meet once or twice a week, depending on how busy everyone is, and then we read our new pages to each other and discuss how it fits in with the rest of the book and how we can make it better. They're great ladies and brilliant writers and the discussions are really good. They agree that the male lead needs to be a biker." I raised my eyebrows at her. "You talked about me?" "I...well, yes, I just...I needed to. You know, Jerry needs work." She was cute when she stuttered like that, finding an answer to a question she hadn't expected. She'd talked herself into a corner the same way she wrote herself into a corner now and then. The fact that she'd spoken about me to her friends just made me feel like something special. "I like that you mentioned me to your friends." She shrugged. "I told them you were an asshole."

I laughed, unable to help my surprise. "You think that of me?" She nodded. "You're managing to redeem yourself - it's not as bad as it was before." I couldn't believe she was saying that, but it was true and I knew it. The insult stung a little but the fact that was willing to be honest with me trumped that. "What else?" I looked at the manuscript again. "You can work on your voice a little if you don't mind me saying. Your characters all sound the same. Like you. Just try to give them different voices." She nodded. "Noted." I scratched my head, forgetting I'd slicked my hair down. I flattened it again and got irritated with the oil on my hand. I really wanted a smoke but I wasn't going to smoke in front of Aurora. That would be rude. "Other than that, I really just think that your commitment is commendable." "That's a big word for a biker." I shook my head, smiling. Sometimes she jabbed me with little insults, almost like we were play-fighting. In a way, we were. "Sorry." I smiled. "Don't be. It is a big word for a biker. I know a lot of my men who won't be able to understand what you're saying, and I mean that in the nicest way possible with no disrespect to them. I'm just not your average biker." "I have to agree with you on that." It was when she followed up her jabs with compliments like that, on the fly and so quick I wouldn't notice if I weren't paying attention, that made it all worthwhile. "The discipline it takes to write a book is insane," I carried on. "And you wrote over

two hundred pages already. Not only is that amazing because you made the story work for two hundred pages, all in a row, but you stuck to it. I know a lot of people who would just give up." "It sounds a lot like your criticism has gone over into flattery," she said. And it was true, it did. But there was a side of her I really admired, not as a man looking at a woman but as one lover of literature to another. "You spend a lot of time in books, don't you?" Her question was about a side of me I didn't often show, but I'd shown her so much of that side lately it wouldn't really make a different if I lied to her. "Yes, I do. For different reasons, but the literature side isn't commonly known. You should feel honored." "Oh, I do." The food finally came and we were quiet while Dina and another waitress put our plates in front of us. The food smelled great. I ordered another whiskey and got another cocktail for Aurora. "Thanks, Dina," I said before the waitress disappeared again. "Oh, she has a name." The comment suggested she wanted to know why I was referring to the waitress by name if there was a backstory. "My past with her is completely professional. She works for me. I call her by her first name. It's very simple." Aurora looked at the food on her plate, nodding. "I don't mean to sound like a jealous woman," she said. "What you do with other women is your business." I shook my head, looking at her even though she wasn't willing to make eye contact. "What I do with other women is my business, but the one thing you should realize is that you're not like the other women, and no matter what happened with them, they can never compare."

She looked up at me, her eyes a deep blue like the ocean. "Isn't a bit soon to be able to say something like that?" I shook my head. "The fact that it is this soon and I know it already should tell you how different you are from them, and how much I noticed." She looked like she wasn't sure what to make of that comment. Instead of answering me she cut a perfect square of her steak and put it in her mouth, chewing. After she swallowed she looked at me. "This food is really good. You should let your chef know." We ate in silence for a while, the manuscript and the sudden serious talk was forgotten for a while. "You still haven't told me anything about yourself. You know every inch of me and I know nothing of you." I frowned. "I don't know anything about you, either. Other than that you're a writer, of course." She nodded and swallowed the bite she was chewing. "You're right, but you read my book. That gives you some kind of insight into my soul that I don't have of you." I had to agree, she was right. I didn't know her well but I felt like I could relate to her on a lot of different levels because I'd read her work. I felt closer to her somehow, and she hadn't had that privilege with me. "I don't have a book you can read that lets you know who I am, but you can ask me anything you want and I'll tell you truthfully." She narrowed her eyes at me. "That's a very dangerous statement to make." It really was. "That should be a testament to how much I trust you right now." A smile played across her lips and it made me want to kiss her. Really badly. "You really shouldn't." Her smile was sexy as hell.

That erection from earlier returned and I tried to tell myself to behave. It didn't work as well this time. The whiskey had relaxed me and I was starting to look at her body more than her face. Judging by how easily her smile came now and how she talked more and more I was guessing she felt the alcohol, too. "Come on, give it a shot." She thought for a moment. "You said that your businesses - plural? - were started with dishonest money. What were you doing?" I winced. "Cutting right to the chase, huh?" Why had I told her I would answer anything? There were sides of my life I didn't want her to know about. Aurora was a goddess and I wanted to look like a god to her for as long as I could. I didn't want her to be disappointed in me so early in the game. Still, a promise was a promise. I took a deep breath. "Have you heard of one-percenters?" She shook her head. "Okay. It's said that ninety-nine percent of biker gangs are law-abiding citizens that just like to get together to ride together. There is that one percent, though. Those bikers are outlaws and they do all sorts of things that aren't right, like trafficking or smuggling drugs or other criminal activities. The Desert Huns - my gang - weren't always as good as we are now. We've changed a lot of things." I watched her closely, hoping I could tell by her face when her opinion of me changed. I couldn't tell at all. Her face was an expressionless mask and she just nodded, listening to me speak. "What did you used to do?" I looked around. Admitting something like our past and letting the information finds its way to the wrong ears was dangerous for everyone, not just me. The restaurant was quiet with diners all around us paying attention only to their own company. "We smuggled drugs. We moved product every night with people on the lookout for

police. We were the middle man between one buyer and another and we took a cut of the money." She raised her eyebrows. "Enabling, then." I nodded. It could be said that that was what we did. "Did you ever use?" I shook my head. "I'd seen too many people in my life get fucked up - sorry, messed up - completely from taking drugs. I will never get into that, and if any of my men do I will beat them until they're right back on the straight and narrow." Her face softened despite my violent reaction and my accidental swearing. "You care about them a lot." "Can you tell?" "It really shows." After everything I told her, that was what she took away from it? I was really starting to like this girl. "What else do you want to know?" She looked around the restaurant, sipping her cocktail and thinking. "You mentioned that riches mean nothing when you don't have someone to share it with." Oh boy, here we go. "You didn't have anyone special in your life?" I shook my head. I didn't really want to talk about Raina, but maybe it would be good for Aurora to know about my psycho ex, just in case she made an appearance. "I had someone in my life while I was walking on the wrong side of the law. She was there before I hit it big before I bought into all the businesses. I thought we could build an empire together, you know? It's always so much more special when you've worked for it together." She chewed slowly while I talked, listening. "That didn't last?" she asked after

swallowing. I shook my head. "She changed. She's crazy, and I don't mean that in a joking way. She's just not the kind of person who can accept the life I've chosen. She wasn't interested in straightening out and now that I have all this, she wants a cut without being willing to give up her ways for it." Aurora frowned. "It sounds like she's still in the picture." I'd talked myself into a corner. It was this damn alcohol. I shrugged, trying to look like it didn't matter. "She's trying to be, but I won't let her. She's nothing to me anymore. She should never have been. I was young and stupid. I'm creeping closer to thirty now and I understand the value of life a lot more than I did before. We all make mistakes when we're young. Sometimes they just come back to haunt us." She nodded and took carried on eating. I was nervous about the silence, scared that it meant she thought differently now. When she looked up at me again her eyes were bright. "You know, you still haven't told me why you had children's DVDs under your name for that fine." She was smiling at me again and all the nerves about her changing her mind about me melted away. I didn't know how she did it, but she was able to look past my horrible past and the things that made me sound terrible and still see me as a person. There was something incredibly sexy about that. "Are you done eating?" I asked when she put the knife and fork together on the plate. She nodded. I held out my hand to her across the table. "Will you come to the back with me?" She didn't hesitate before she took my hand. We got up and I led her to a door that led to the VIP area.

CHAPTER 9 Aurora The moment we passed through the door we were in some kind of VIP room. It had deep red walls and carpets to match so it looked like we were inside the chamber of a heart. Low black couches and coffee tables were scattered in groups across the floor and there were two bars to the side had black marble tops and the whole place seemed a whole lot more intense than the general dining area outside. Hunter locked the door. Why did a door to the VIP room even have a lock on it? This was where things were going to go from warm to hellishly hot, but I wasn't going to fight it. I'd had enough alcohol that I didn't feel shy around Hunter and the way he moved in his suit when he came closer to me after closing the door gave me thoughts about what might be under his clothes. He stood right in front of me and I could feel his body heat. His eyes were on mine and they were dark and drowning deep. I could tumble into them forever. I knew on some level that this was the alcohol talking. I didn't care. It could talk all night long if it wanted to. My nipples hardened against the strapless black bra I was wearing under my dress and I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. Hunter brought his hand up to my hair and ran his fingers through it, playing with a strand. His hand brushed against my neck when he did and it sent shivers down my spine. He didn't wait. He leaned in and pressed his lips against mine. If I wanted to stop it I wouldn't have had time to, but I really didn't want to stop him. His lips were warm and full, perfect lips for kissing, and they tasted vaguely like the whiskey he'd been drinking. Whiskey and smoke even though he hadn't had a smoke since I'd arrived at the restaurant. I didn't know why, but there was something ridiculously attractive about the taste of alcohol on Hunter's lips. It was almost like there was more at play than just his emotions. It made me feel like he might be rawer. Like me. I leaned into Hunter and the kissing grew more urgent. His hand came up and he cupped my cheek, making my face feel delicate. His tongue was in my mouth, circling mine, tasting me. He knew exactly what he was doing. He stepped closer than he

already was, pushing his body against mine completely. I felt his lust against my hip, a long, hard shaft. I shuddered. He slid his other hand over my shoulder, down my arm, and to my hand. His fingers intertwined with mine for a moment before he let go and moved it to my hip. His hand slid over my ass, the back of my thigh and back up again, over my back and into my hair. The whole motion made me feel sexy and beautiful and it pulled my body even tighter against his. My breasts pushed up against his chest and I gasped into his mouth. My body pulsed, heat flooding through my body, pooling between my legs, responding to the kissing, his body so taut against mine, the hardness in his pants. His hand slipped around from my cheek underneath my hair onto my neck. I put my arms around his neck, melding us together. I pushed my hands under his suit jacket and he stopped just long enough to shrug out of it. The shirt he wore was a crisp white. I pulled off the tie and undid the front button so I could push my hands into his collar onto his bare skin. His breathing changed, getting harder and more erratic. "Tell me to stop," he mumbled against my mouth. "Hmm?" "Tell me to stop. If you don't tell me now I'm going to take you." I moaned against his mouth, my body reacting to his words. "Don't stop," I whispered. That was what did it. It changed from something relatively gentle to being completely wild. He looked for the zipper on my dress and yanked it down when he found it. He peeled the dress off me until I stood in front of him in my black strapless bra and matching panties. He took a moment to look at my body, ogling like a boy before he pulled me closer again and started kissing me. He kissed down my neck, over my collarbone and onto the soft skin of my chest. His hands were behind my back and in a flash he had my bra unclipped and it fell to the floor without much help. The cool air made my nipples tighten even more, and the next moment Hunter had his mouth over one nipple, sucking and nibbling gently.

I tipped my head back and gasped, getting lost in the sensation of his mouth turning on every other part of my body, awakening the side of me that had been dormant for far too long. I realized at some point he was still dressed and reached for his buckle. I fumbled with it, trying to get it undone. After a while of fiddling, I pulled back. "Can you just do this, please?" I had wanted it to be romantic but jealous wives invented buckles so mistresses went through hell and I hated them. Hunter chuckled and took care of his own buckle. I undid his pants and pulled them down when he did. He stepped out of them. His sex strained against his jocks, pushing out toward me. I undid his buttons and returned the favor of mouth on skin, kissing a hot trail down his smooth chest and stomach. He got rid of the shirt. I curled my fingers around the jocks' elastic and pulled them away and down. He sprung free and, good God, he was a sight to behold. Thick and hard, his balls heavy underneath his shaft the tip glistening with precum. I knelt down and opened my mouth, taking him inside of me. He moaned and pushed his hands into my hair, urging me to keep doing what I was doing. I moved up and down, swirling my tongue around him, licking the tip and moving back down, mimicking the motions of sex. I felt him harden in my mouth as I pushed in and pulled out. After a while he pulled back and took my hand, pulling me up. "You're driving me crazy," he said in a hoarse voice. My body was on fire. Sucking him off had gotten me so wet I could feel it in my panties and I wanted attention. Hunter seemed to know that without my say so. He pulled the panties down and pushed his fingers into me. I cried out. "God, you're so wet," he mumbled in my ear. His one arm was around my back, holding me up. The other was between my legs, fingers probing, sliding, returning to probing. I gasped, feeling the orgasm build inside of me. He didn't stop and I didn't pull away the way he had. The orgasm slowly coursed through me the way a cup was filled with hot water. I moaned, leaning into

Hunter's body. He held me up with his arm. Good thing, too, because my legs had stopped working. He moved back and forth over my clitoris, faster and harder, until I moaned. My back arched involuntarily, pushing into him even harder, and then the orgasm washed through me, making me curl into him. It reached all the way to my legs, making my body numb. I gasped and held my breath, riding it out. Hunter moved his fingers slowly against me now, making it that much more intense. When the orgasm subsided I collapsed against his chest, panting. "You're so fucking hot," he whispered in my ear. He guided me to a couch. When my calves hit the side I let him lower me down onto my back. He crawled over me and my thighs fell open, ready for him. He positioned himself between them, his sex pressing at my entrance and I gasped. I lifted my hips slightly, giving myself to him. He looked at me, his eyes dark and stormy, pupils dilated, lips parted slightly. When he pushed into me I moaned until he was in all the way to the hilt. My body stretched and yielded, trying to get used to his size. When he was sure I was comfortable he started moving and the friction was almost orgasmic straight away. I cried out as he pushed into me, my body rocking on the couch. He leaned on his arms, hands on either side of my head and it made his shoulders bunch up and the muscles ripple under his skin. I was already sensitive from the first orgasm and his pumping in and out of me took me to a new level of bliss. I felt a second orgasm building, hotter, wilder than the first one. I didn't realize how close I was until it shattered me out of nowhere and I came hard, crying out. Hunter was smiling at me when I finally opened my eyes. My hands were wrapped around his shoulders, nails digging into his skin. "Sorry," I said, loosening my grip. He shook his head. "Don't be." His face took on a look of concentration and he started pumping into me again, moving faster than before, pushing in harder. I cried out, the friction that much more intense. His strokes shortened and he picked up a speed that seemed primal. He jerked and released inside of me, grunting through gritted teeth. His face was a mixture of strain and ecstasy, and then it was all over and he balanced over me, gasping,

breathing hard. He backed up and pulled out of me, sitting on the couch, not caring about the mess. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my legs. "That was fucking fantastic." He didn't apologize for swearing. I didn't want him to. We sat together like that for a moment before he leaned toward me and kissed me. I smiled when he pulled away. I got off the couch and walked around it to where my dress lay forgotten on the floor. Hunter watched me all the way. I didn't feel shy about my body the way I usually did when a man watched me. In fact, I felt incredibly sexy. I started putting on my underwear and then wiggled into the dress. I didn't put my heels on. Instead I picked up Hunter's underwear and shirt and took it to him. "I would have loved to see you in my shirt after sex," he said. I nodded. "And I would love to wear it, but you'll have to take me somewhere private for that to happen." "Like my place?" I smiled and nodded. He pulled me toward him so I was on his lap and kissed me, long and sensual. "Should we get back out there?" I asked, nodding to the door that led to the restaurant. Hunter shook his head. "This is my place, remember? I can take as long as I want to." I nodded. Right. The big boss himself. His phone beeped in his jacket pocket. I got off his lap. "I'll get it for you." I walked to the jacket and fished for the phone.

"No, don't sweetheart." I took the phone out and in the process my thumb slid over the screen, unlocking it. The message was right on the home screen. When am I seeing you again, baby? This afternoon was much too short. Blood drained from my face and I suddenly felt cold. I swallowed and felt sick to my stomach. I walked to Hunter and held out the phone to him without looking at him. He took it from me and glanced at the screen. "God dammit." "Is this why you couldn't come pick me up?" I asked. My voice sounded small. I wanted t sound angry but I felt like I was coming undone at the seams. "Because you were with someone else?" "It's not like that, sweetheart. It's--" "Don't call me that. How many women do you call sweetheart? God, I don't want to know. Fuck, I was such an idiot thinking I was something special to you, that I was any different from the others. I should have known what a pig you were." I walked to my shoes and picked them. Hunter had gotten into his underwear and walked to me, hand outstretched. I stepped back. "Don't touch me." He pulled his hand back, his face closed. "Just let me explain." He sounded calm. Too calm. "Explain what, that you told me all of that because I was special. That this happened because you actually care?" I pressed my hands into my hair, the heel of one shoe digging into my temple. "I'm such an idiot." "Aurora, please." "Don't, Hunter," I said, stepping away from him. "You're an asshole. I knew you were

when I met you. I was an idiot to think you were anything else as I got to know you at least, I thought I did. Was anything you told me real?" I looked around the VIP area. Was this place really his? It had to be if we were allowed to be alone in here. "I'm not lying to you. Please just hear me out." He put a hand on my arm. I yanked it away and walked to the door. He couldn't follow me out into the dining area - he was still in his underwear, his suit scattered in pieces across the VIP lounge. I was such a stupid woman. Of course a guy like Hunter would have a million women after him and he would be stringing them along. I'd been so damn desperate for someone to love me. I'd let him wine me and dine and fucking recline me. And now? Now I was the butt of the joke. He could carve me out as another notch on his bedpost. I was the fool here. He'd probably already forgotten my name. I stormed outside and hailed a taxi. Tears were already streaming down my cheeks. I would get over this, I told myself. I would survive. I got into the cab and sobbed before I managed to get my address out to the driver. He pulled off and drove away. I looked out of the back window. Just before the taxi turned into another road Hunter came running out on his socks, shirt untucked, wearing only his pants. He was waving and calling. I wasn't going to stop.

CHAPTER 10 Hunter That was hands down the worst timing ever. I'd had situations where the most inconvenient thing happened at a time where it really could have stayed, but this was a lot worse than anything I'd ever had before. My cock was still throbbing with Aurora's body and the orgasm I'd had; my body still ached for hers and she was gone. Not only was she gone, she was furious with me. Why had Raina messaged me now? She knew I wasn't interested. Of course, she also knew I was on a date. I had mentioned that to her. I had forgotten that she had the ability to use any single piece of information and use it to her advantage or, rather, to my disadvantage. Of course, she couldn't have known Aurora would actually read my message. Maybe she hadn't thought it would sabotage my night, even if she secretly hoped it would. Still, I was fucking pissed at her. She had effectively ruined the one good thing that had happened to me lately, and I wasn't talking about the sex - although, that had been fantastic in its own right. When Aurora took off through the restaurant where she knew I couldn't follow, I'd had to get dressed as fast as I can. I'd pulled on my pants and a shirt I half-buttoned in the run before leaving it like that. I was decent. The rest didn't matter. I ran through the restaurant on bare feet. The diners all looked at me. The picture was frozen, no one was talking, all eyes were on me. I didn't care. I ran to the front, past the seating hostess and out the front door. I was just in time to see Aurora get in a cab and slam the door shut. I shouted after her but she wouldn't stop now. I saw her turn around in the back seat and look at me through the rear window until the cab turned. Her eyes were in the shadows and I couldn't tell what was in them. That was possibly what killed me the most. I felt eyes burn into my back and I turned around. I expected a crowd had followed me out, but there was nothing. No one was outside, looking at me like I was crazy. Still, someone was out here. I looked around, forcing my eyes to adapt to the dark, tried to make out figures in the shadows.

This wasn't just a restaurant and a business that brought in money. The VIP area was a place where we conducted business from time to time. It was a second headquarters for when we needed to talk to people who were classier than our dump of a clubhouse. It was for when we needed to put on a face of money and snobbery. It meant there were people hanging around here, too, scoping out the place the same way they watched the club from time to time. I wouldn't have been surprised if someone like that had been watching me now, but I didn't care. Unless whoever it was physically attacked me I wasn't going to make a fuss. And if it did turn into an attack...well, I was in a terrible mood and I would draw blood and think nothing of it. This was not the time to fuck with me. When I looked up at the restaurant my chest hurt like I'd run a very long time and I was finished. I rubbed my sternum, trying to relearn how to breathe. I looked down and realized I'd mismatched the few shirt buttons I'd managed to get done before I'd left it. I must have been a sight. No wonder the diners had all been staring. I didn't go in through the main entrance again. I'd had enough eyes ogling me. I didn't need a repeat, especially now that I wasn't in pursuit and I was that much more aware of everyone and everything around me. I walked around the restaurant and walked through the back door that led through the delivery area and then into the kitchen. The staff all stopped when I walked in and looked at me. "Carry on," I said. They obeyed. They worked for me, after all, and they knew who I was. Every face turned back to whatever dish they were preparing and I pushed my way into the VIP area. I looked at the couch where we'd just had sex and sighed. I had to get the boys together soon and talk to them about our next steps after that threat. I had to make sure they were okay. Maybe we could even abandon the Club for a little while and get everyone together here until the drama died down. They were my first priority. It was just hard to focus on business now that Aurora had run away from me. Despair trued into anger. Who the hell did she think she was, anyway? She hadn't even given me a chance to explain. I would have done that much for her. She couldn't just run

out of here, expecting me to fall at her feet and beg for her forgiveness, without giving me any kind of a chance. I poured myself a drink - two fingers of whiskey in a crystal tumbler. I took one sip and it tasted vile on my tongue after her tongue had been in my mouth. The alcohol was less than satisfying. For a moment I saw red and I threw the glass across the room. The crystal shattering against the far wall brought me back to reality. I was just so damn angry. Angry that my life wasn't what Aurora's was. Angry that Raina was such a bitch. Angry that my boys were in trouble now. Angry, angry, angry. I was just so fucking angry. I sat down opposite our sex couch and pushed my hands into my hair, mussing it up like it usually was. The door to the kitchen opened and Dina walked in. She looked unsure. "Are you alright?" I looked up at her. Big dark eyes, curly hair, hourglass hips. Everything a man would want in a woman, and I'd had her. We were friends now. We'd had one or two onenight stands before. I was the kind of man who could get any woman I wanted almost - and usually I did. But I wanted Aurora. Was it always a fact that men would go after the one woman they couldn't have? "I'm fine." She hesitated. "I heard glass breaking." I nodded. "I had an accident." I pointed at the wall where a splatter of whiskey darkened the paint. Dina looked and nodded. "I'll get one of the staff to clean it up." "Thank you." She looked around the VIP area, noting the clothes still lying on the floor. My blazer and tie. Socks. Shoes. I couldn't read her face. She'd glared at Aurora earlier like a jealous lover. No, her face was an expressionless mask. Could girls have sex and not care the way men sometimes could? I hoped so. I'd had sex with too many for them

all to be hurt. If I thought about it too much I would feel bad and I didn't need that kind of guilt in my life on top of everything else. And in Aurora's case I wished it weren’t possible. I wanted her to have some sort of feeling for me after that. I wanted her to want to come back to me, even if she was mad, because sex made her feel something for me she just couldn't ignore. I didn't want her to have the ability to just walk away like it had been a run of the mill kind of thing. "Where's your date?" Her voice pulled me out of the spiral of thoughts that was threatening to consume me. The damn alcohol from earlier was still in my system - enough to make me feel edgy and needy but not enough to drown out the raw emotions. I looked at Dina. I don't know what my face showed but she flinched. "I need you to call all the staff together in here as soon as the last customer leaves." It wasn't an answer. She looked at me, waiting for me to say more. When I didn't she nodded and walked away. Before she disappeared into the kitchen she looked at me over her shoulder. I looked at the shards of glass on the floor where it had shattered and wished I hadn't done that. I had lost control for a moment. The days that used to happen were behind me for the most part. I wanted to keep it that way. Besides, having that drink sounded like a plan. Although, if I poured myself another one I might just end up doing the same and I wasn't in the mood for a repeat of failure. The staff filtered into the VIP area just after twelve. The last diner had finally left. They came in one by one and stood in a bunch in front of me, none of them saying a word. I sat on the couch, my elbows on my knees, watching them. I'd put on my socks and shoes, buttoned my shirt right and pulled on my blazer. I looked like a leader again. "Thanks for coming," I said when they were all present. In the end it was a choice for them. They worked at my restaurant because I'd given them jobs but they were all my people. I'd handpicked them and trained them and they were like an extension of my gang. They weren't just employees. If my gang was family, the people in front of me

were the extended family. "I want you to keep your eyes and ears open for anything strange going on. We're picking up hints of trouble on the other side of town and the last thing I want is for any of you to end up in a pickle because of your association with me." They nodded. I looked each one of them in the eye. "If anything happens, let me know. I'd rather get you guys out of here as quickly as possible instead of risking an injury or worse." They nodded again. In their eyes I saw loyalty. They were going to stick with me even if things got tough - just like they had before - because that was how we did things. Because I had done exactly that for each of them at least once. I dismissed them. Dina was the last to leave. "Let me know if you need anything." I nodded. I wouldn't, of course. I wouldn't lean on her - something like that would lead her on. But it was sweet of her to offer. When I was alone in the VIP area I hoisted myself up off the couch and exited through the back door again. I hadn't come to the restaurant with my bike - I didn't want the wind to ruin my suit - so I flagged a cab and went home. The apartment was quiet and empty. Usually I preferred the peace and quiet. Tonight I would have liked Aurora to come home with me after we were done at the restaurant. I shook my head and closed the door behind me. I stripped off my clothes and left them in a trail to my bed. I slipped naked under the sheets and lay back, feeling the tension of the day ease out of my muscles bit by bit. I picked up my phone. One in the morning. Would I ever get a full eight hours? I pulled up Aurora's number and sent her a text. I didn't care how much she thought I was a selfish two-faced asshole, I was going to demand she listen to an explanation. I asked her to meet me and added the address. I switched off my phone and turned my face to the window before I closed my eyes.

CHAPTER 11 Aurora I got home at ten and felt like a nobody who had been examined and found wanting. I couldn't believe I'd fallen for Hunter's charm. I should have known he was an asshole. I'd seen as much when he'd come to my library and gotten all cocky before shamelessly charming his way into Catherine’s panties. I was willing to bet she would have dropped them for him right there if he'd asked. He'd told me that nothing had happened with Catherine. I'd believed him then. Was I right to? Of course, his logic had made sense. He hadn't had the time to get down and dirty with her, even if they did a quickie. I'd personally felt what he was capable of, and Hunter would never be satisfied with a quickie. God, maybe he would. What did I really know about him? Only that he was a charmer, he had a string of women after him because of it, and he liked to read. Oh, and he was fantastic in bed. I went to my room and got out of the dress and heels I'd worn. I didn't want to be in them anymore. I didn't ever want to look at them again. I wanted to burn them. Melodramatic? Yes. But I felt used and dirty and angry and...every thought back to what had happened between us left me gasping, aching for more. I shook the thought off and pulled on pajama pants and a tank top. I pulled my hair into a ponytail and phoned Meredith. "Can you come over?" "Are you back from your date already? How was it?" I groaned and rolled my eyes. "Honestly? It was great. And he's a dick." Meredith was quiet for a moment. "I'll be right over." I hung up and filled the kettle and switched it on. I set out two cups. After a moment of thinking I switched off the kettle again before it had boiled, put the two cups away and retrieved two wine glasses instead. God knew I needed a drink and a shoulder to cry on. She arrived ten minutes later and I opened the door. Even in jeans and a blouse she

looked put together and professional. She had a bottle of wine with her. "You read my mind," I told her and took it from her, walking to the kitchen. She followed me. "So, great and a dick, huh?" "You have no idea." I poured the wine, handed her a glass and sipped mine. It was dessert wine, sweet and delicious as it slid down my throat. I read the label on the bottle. It was diet conscious wine. Less sugar. More alcohol. Just the way I liked it. Meredith gestured with her head toward my lounge and we walked to the couches. "Where did he take you?" she asked when we sat down and I told her. I explained about him meeting me there instead of picking me up, of how stunning the place was, of Dina, of the food and then the sex. And then the text. Meredith listened intently, gasping in all the right places. "You don't think that it was just a mistake?" she asked when I was done. "What, the sex?" She chuckled. "No. That's for you to decide, anyway. I meant the message that came through." "Ugh." I rolled my eyes and filled up the wine glass that had run empty. Meredith held her glass out as well even though it wasn't empty yet. "Haven't you ever had a message from a guy that wasn't on par with what you felt for him?" I thought back to my lame ass boyfriends. It had happened once or twice, I had to admit. I didn't feel like giving him some kind of grace, though. "He met me there instead of picking me up, Merr. What if he came from someone else's house? And that waitress hated me. Hated. And then that afterward? You have to admit it looks bad." Meredith nodded and looked into her wine glass. "It does...but it could also be a coincidence, you know? He could have had a meeting. And if he's anything as hot as you say he is, I would be glaring, too, if he was with someone else. And the text..."

I shook my head. "I don't know. It feels like it's a lot of credit to a guy who really is a pain in the ass." Meredith laughed. I downed my wine, feeling like an idiot. The truth was that the alcohol was making me feel mellow and I was starting to think maybe I'd overreacted a little. Maybe Meredith was right, but that would mean that my reaction when I'd run out on him was completely unnecessary and that made me feel like I looked stupid. "I'm so jealous," Meredith said after a while. "Of what?" "Your life right now." I snorted. "Come on. You have the life everyone would give an arm to have. Chain stores and a house kitted with all the latest and that image." She shook her head. "It's a nice life but where's the adventure, the passion? You just had that in the best way, even if you disagree. And you can write it into your book, too." "My book?" My head felt nice and light, a bit fuzzy, a little like all the events of the evening were wrapped in cotton wool now and they didn't sting so much. "That's what you were doing this for, right? Research for you character." Meredith's eyes were laughing at me. That was what I'd told her, I remembered. I shrugged. "So I thought maybe it could be something. You know?" Meredith nodded and didn't tell me 'I told you so.' "Write what you need to write, but give the guy another shot, okay?" She glanced at her watch. "It's late. I need to get home. I'm going to suffer tomorrow with this wine and I have a meeting at eight." "On a weekend?" She got up and stretched. "Business never stops. Be a writer instead of going corporate. You'll retain your soul."

I got up and hugged her. "Thanks for listening." "Oh, honey, if your stories sound like that? Any time." She smiled at me and left. When I closed the door behind her I turned and leaned my back against it. My vision swam just a little and my head spun from the wine. I'd had way too much to drink, and I was starting to think maybe I'd been a bit harsh about the whole thing, like Meredith had said. Still, I wasn't going to grovel. I wasn't the groveling type. Instead I sat down in front of my laptop and opened it, finding my manuscript in the Cloud where I'd saved it at the library and opened it up. I read the parts I'd rewritten. Not bad. I wanted to incorporate more of Hunter into my book. I wanted his character to be bigger. I didn't think about the implication that my desire to do so meant I wanted it in real life. I was angry with him. He was a twofaced son of a bitch who had used me and abused me and I was lucky to have gotten out before he had the power to really hurt me. I told myself over and over again that I meant it, too. My fingers were slow on the keys because of the wine - I was slurring as I typed - but the story itself flowed well. Alcohol lowers inhibition, which, by definition, means the truth comes out. In the world of a writer that was a life without writer's block. I'd written about five pages when I stopped and leaned back. I had to look up what I'd written before the rewrites. The manuscript had been printed for the book club and I used it to compare the first draft to my changes. When I'd gone to the bedroom to find it and couldn't, I realized Hunter still had it. I'd left it in the restaurant. The idea had been to take it after sex. Dammit. I would have to see him again to get it back, and I knew what was going to happen if I did - more attraction. Now that we'd slept together I wanted to know more of him. I wanted to give him more of me. Of course, that was the wine talking. The wine and Meredith's advice that I wasn't going to take. When I woke up in the morning, sober again, I would know what I really thought and felt and I wouldn't be easily influenced. I saved my work, switched off the laptop and climbed into bed. When I closed my

eyes, my head spun and I tried visualize everything in the room in my mind's eye to stop the spinning. It didn't work but I didn't lie awake for long enough for it to annoy me. When I woke up, light fell through a crack in the curtain. The moment I opened my eyes it pierced into my temples. I sat up, clutching my head. I'd been an idiot for drinking that much. A whole bottle of wine equaled a whole bottle of headache. And I had work today. Wasn't that just fantastic. I looked at the clock on my nightstand and swore. I had to be at work in ten minutes. Shit. I got into the shower and tried to clean up as fast as I could. I was aware of the fact that anything Hunter had left behind was running down the drain now. I got out of the shower, tried to comb my hair even though my hangover headache hurt like a bitch and pulled on jeans and a t-shirt with sneakers. No socks. I grabbed my phone. One new message. It was from Hunter. He wanted me to meet him and there was an address, too. That wasn't happening, obviously. I wasn't going to go meet him after what he'd done. I ran out the apartment and caught a cab to the library. I was three minutes late record time - but Catherine always came much, much later. What she didn't know wouldn't kill her. I unlocked the door, started the computer and collapsed on the desk, feeling like death warmed up. The day at the library was slow, which left way too much time for me to think. I tried to write but the screen light hurt my head even more. There were only two people checking in books and I wasn't in the mood to shelve the ones that had been returned the day before. I kept glancing at the clock. Hunter asked me to meet him at four, which was when I was done with my shift. The time crept closer and closer still, and I was getting frustrated because I had to make a decision. Was I going to go? Or not?

I had to get that manuscript back. I needed it. I didn't want it in the hands of someone I couldn't trust. I didn't want to see Hunter. I wasn't sure what had happened between us anymore - the combination of advice from a friend, alcohol and the real event had blurred everything in my mind until I wasn't sure where I stood. Maybe seeing him would help me. Maybe it would set things straight for me and set my mind at ease so I didn't have to worry. Yes, that was it. I would see that he was still an asshole, which would prove my actions were right. And I would get my manuscript back. That was it; that was what I was going to do.

CHAPTER 12 Hunter The Boys and Girls Club was in a quiet neighborhood. At least, it was quiet until the Desert Huns arrived with their growling motorcycles. The moment we pulled in, every bit of peace was lost. We loved spending time with the children and they were clearly happy to see us. There were kids of all ages and Maggie, the woman in charge, just shook her head and smiled when I walked up to her. She had curly brown hair that grayed at the roots and wrinkles that fanned out in spider webs around her eyes. "I had to answer questions about when you were arriving all morning. I tried to keep them busy with movies but nothing worked." "They're going to love today's lesson. One of our boys is sacrificing his bike so we can take it apart and learn all about maintenance." Maggie hugged me. "You're doing wonderful things for the children." We looked over at where the kids were saying hi to the few Huns I'd brought with me. They ran around between the bikes, squealing and laughing. Hyper active through excitement. "Alright, boys and girls, let's settle down," I called and walked back to the group. "We're going to divide you into groups and the each of us is taking a group and we're going to do different things with the bikes." The kids cheered. The men were all smiling. It wasn't often that you saw badass bikers with their leathers and their studs light up like this, and these were all children. We'd been taking care of the kids for almost four years now and in the time we'd been doing it I'd noticed what a difference it had made. So few people understood the value of time to a child. I'd learned it the hard way. I didn't have parents. They'd died when I was very young and my brother Kyle had raised me. He'd had to work to make money for us to survive. He was never there to keep me out of trouble, and I repaid him by getting into every kind of trouble there was. When I looked back on my life there were things I would have done differently.

I wanted these kids to understand that in life there were choices, no matter how hard your circumstances. And that you could have fun at the same time. We divided the kids up in groups of five and each of us took a group into our care, making five groups and twenty-five kids in total. I handed out the books I'd picked up from the library and opened the one I was going to go through today. I was going to try to explain how an engine worked and why it was so important to keep your bike relatively clean. There were boys and girls in my group but everyone was equally excited and interested. I checked my wristwatch. Half an hour to go before Aurora arrived. I wasn't sure if she would come - she hadn't replied to my message and I was scared she would just stand me up. The truth was, though, I wanted her to see this. I wanted her to understand I wasn't just some asshole who took advantage of people wherever I could. I liked to think I was a nice guy. If someone had taken the time to do this with me things would have been different for me. Kyle wouldn't have had to sacrifice his teenage years to be a grownup and look after me, to be the adult and bail me out every time I caused shit so the state didn't take me away. I didn't understand the weight of it then. I did now, but it was way too late. "What's this?" the little girl Kiara asked. I turned and looked. She was digging in my bag and pointed to Aurora manuscript. "That's a story my friend wrote." Kiara eyed the manuscript. "That's a long story." I nodded. "She's a good storyteller. Maybe just now you'll get to meet her, but I don't know if she's coming yet. She has work." "What does she do?" A boy with hair so light it looked silver asked. His name was Nathan or Norman or something. "She works at the library. She let us have these books so we can use them to learn."

The kids suddenly all crowded around me asking me questions about 'my friend.' This was going to be interesting when Aurora finally arrived. If she was going to. "I think it's time for some sandwiches," Maggie called and the kids all ran away. I let out a breath of relief. They were stunning children but they were a handful. And I only dealt with them once a week. I had a lot of respect for Maggie who held down the fort with only two assistants. "I'll bring you boys sandwiches, too," she said and smiled. She disappeared into the facility and a short while later appeared again with a plastic tub with sandwiches. We sat down and ate. Five big bikers, rough, tough and ready to give you a go for your money, eating sandwiches like school kids during break time. The sandwiches were good, though. Peanut butter and jelly, cheese and ham, cottage cheese and cucumber, the kind of sandwiches Kyle used to make for me, and I imagined my mom making for him when he was younger, too. God, I missed him. I had taken life with him for granted. I guess everyone does that you don't know what you have until it's gone. I just hadn't thought I would lose Kyle so soon in the game. My dad had left the Desert Huns and the clubhouse to us. Kyle had taken over in a time when the gang wasn't on the straight and narrow and there were a lot of thing going on behind the scenes. Club violence was serious with rival gangs thinking nothing of jumping each other or having a shootout. Kyle was walking home from the club once, leaving the bike there so he would look decent when he picked me up from school. We usually walked home together. He hadn't come that day. I'd been waiting on the steps, waiting and waiting, until someone else had appeared around the corner. It had been Shane, the only guy I still knew from those days. His eyes had been red and when he'd wiped his face with his sleeve his hand had been trembling. "Where's Kyle?" I'd demanded but my legs had already gone numb. I knew the answer. Only later I learned it was because he'd been walking that he hadn't been able to get away from them, and as the leader of the Desert Huns they'd been too happy to get rid of him. They'd left him behind a dumpster for his friends to find and Shane

was the one who had come across his body when he'd tracked his cellphone after he didn't answer. I'd lost a brother that day but Shane had lost his other half. Those two had been so tight it had been impossible to get them apart. Shane had taken me under his wing, made sure I didn't get into more trouble because of the anger that had boiled up since Kyle's death. Shane had taken the place of a brother, a parent, a best friend for me. I looked at Shane where he was leaning back on his elbow, chewing on a cucumber sandwich. "Don't they usually make these for funerals?" I chuckled. "Who's this friend of yours the kids were going on about?" I took a bite of my sandwich before I'd swallowed to buy myself time to think. When I'd chewed and swallowed, the boys were still looking at me, waiting for an answer, I had to say something. "She works at the library where I checked out the books." Shane whistled. "Hunter got himself a librarian." The others hooted and catcalled, saying things like it sounded like a personal porno. That pissed me off. "It's not like that." They fell quiet, maybe hearing then tone in my voice. "She's different than the rest of them." Shane cleared his throat. "I'm assuming she's more than just a friend, then." I groaned. "I don't know. She's upset with me." "Why?"

"Raina got involved." Shane whistled low. "You tell her what she's like?" I shook my head. "I didn't have a chance." A taxi pulled up and Aurora got out of it. "Speak of the devil," I said and got up. The guys all turned around and looked. "Hot damn," Shane said under his breath. I walked away from them. Aurora was guarded. She turned her cheek when I wanted to kiss her and made eye contact only for a moment. "Thank you for coming," I said. "So, the Boys and Girls Club, huh?" I nodded. "It's community service." She raised her eyebrow at me, looking at me for the first time. "For what crime?" I shrugged. "Robbery." Might as well be honest about it. She looked me up and down like she was seeing me in a different light. I didn't like it but I wasn't going to lie to her. "When?" Shane got up and came closer to us. "Five years ago." Aurora frowned at him. "He's still doing community service for a crime he committed five years ago?" Shane looked at me and back at her with meaning in his eyes but I couldn't tell what he was trying to convey. "No, he did his time then. He stayed on for another four and a half years. We all did."

Aurora looked at me again and this time there was admiration in her eyes. "That's pretty impressive." I shrugged. "I love the kids. And I feel like this gives meaning to my life. We all have to do something that makes it worthwhile, right?" Aurora nodded. I wanted to take her into my arms. I wanted to kiss her properly. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for what had happened last night with the message and I wanted to tell her that Raina was a psycho bitch who would do anything to ruin my life. I couldn't tell her, though. Not now, not with the boys around. The door flew about and all the children streamed out. Here we go. They crowded Aurora. They kept on calling her “Hunter's friend� and asked so many questions it was impossible to hear anything. Aurora laughed and looked at me. "I'm assuming you told them I was coming." "It slipped out." Aurora turned her attention back to the children and crouched down so that she hit them at eye level. "Did he tell you what I do?" "You're a storyteller!" someone shouted. She laughed. "I guess you could say that." "Miss Aurora here is going to tell you all a story," I said. She looked at me, surprised. Her eyes were angry, but she smiled and looked back at the children. "I don't know if I can if any of you are still hungry. Has everyone had enough to eat?" They answered her with a shout and I realized she knew exactly what she was doing with children. I wasn't sure why she was so good with them but it made her that much more attractive, and she was already a stunner. The kids cheered and clapped. Aurora straightened herself up and looked at me, a

thanks-a-lot look in her eyes but she kept her smile firmly in place. Maggie brought out a chair and Aurora sat down. The kids all sat on the ground around her, creating a half-circle that fanned out. We stood behind them. The men watched Aurora as intently as the kids did and it made me smile. She was mesmerizing to all ages. "This is the girl, huh?" Shane stood next to me, arms folded just like mine was. I nodded. "Well done." I glanced at him and saw he was sincere. He smiled at me. The fact that he approved, that he liked what I'd done, made me feel good. If I couldn't make Kyle proud I wanted to make Shane proud, and lately that had been working since I'd helped the boys turn around and turned my own life around, as well.

CHAPTER 13 Aurora Imagine my surprise when the cab pulled up to the address and it was the Boys and Girls Club. I hadn't for a moment considered that Hunter might want to meet me here. I hadn't thought he was the kind of person to set foot in places like this. I'd thought the children's DVDs would be for his niece or nephew or something. And I'd even been skeptical about that part. Five big bikers lay on the grass eating sandwiches like school children when I got out of the car and Hunter was the first to come to me. He smiled at me like he was genuinely happy to see me. I was still upset but something inside me melted a little when he did. I pushed it away. I didn't want to feel this way about him until I knew what I was feeling and I knew where I stood with him. Right now it felt like I was just another woman to him, a notch on his bedpost. I noticed other things, too. Motorcycles - five of them - placed strategically on the law and equipment, too. Things like spanners and wrenches and oilcans. Judging by the grease on the boys' arms they'd been working on their bikes. There were books on the lawn, too. Some open, some closed, all on motorcycle maintenance, and all from my branch. So this was what he'd been doing. The revelation was a kind one. It made me see him in a different light. I still didn't think much of his ways of getting out of fines but somehow the fact that he'd gotten fines in the first place was a lot more forgivable now that I saw he didn't just leave everything lying around. He was using them. The door flew open and a horde of children of all ages ran out. A lot of them had grease on their arms and clothes, too, and it wasn't hard to put two and two together and realize these five badass bikers were teaching children something that could benefit them. I looked at Hunter and saw someone completely different. I didn't have time to think about it for very long. The children crowded around me, tugging on my clothes, all talking at once.

"You're Hunter's friend." "He said you were coming." "Do you want a sandwich?" "Are you his girlfriend?" There were so many questions and I could avoid answering most of them, including the one about me being Hunter's girlfriend. I wasn't right to make a decision on that one yet. I was getting pulled in different directions - the contrast between last night and today was crazy. "Miss Aurora is going to tell you all a story," Hunter said and for a moment I was back to my anger. Who was he to volunteer my services? But then the kids looked at me with such expectant faces and such joy that I couldn't say no to them. I could say no to Hunter, and maybe later I would, but I wouldn't say no to them. I smiled at them and made sure they were all eating. The caregiver brought out a chair and I sat down, and like one organism the kids all sat down and looked at me with bright eyes, chins on their hands or hands in their laps. They were adorable. I could see why anyone would want to come back here and spend more time with them - even if being with them had only been community service at first. "Does anyone know the story about the Three Billy Goats Gruff?" Some of the kids shouted yes. Others looked around like they should have known but didn't. "Well, you've got the story all wrong. And if you haven't heard it before, you'll hear the true version right from the start." I glanced at Hunter. He stood with his arms folded, watching me with a smile. Another biker stood next to him with the same stance and they seemed like brothers although they didn't look the same. "Right. Well, once upon a time in a far away land there were three goats. They all had the same name. Gruff. The first Billy Goat Gruff was the smallest of the three with a tiny squeaky voice. The second Billy Goat Gruff was a little bigger and his voice was a little louder and a little stronger, too. The third Billy Goat Gruff was much bigger with a big scary voice and curly horns that made everyone scared of him. The three

goats were best friends. One day the three Billy Goats Gruff decided to go up the mountain to have some delicious grass that would fill them up for the entire winter. The first Billy Goat Gruff, the littlest one, went first. Trip, trap, trip, trap, his hooves went on the bridge. Now, under the bridge there lived a big, nasty troll named Hunter." The kids squealed with laughter. When I looked at Hunter he pulled a face but he was smiling. "Hunger the troll was selfish. He wanted to eat all the goats and refused them to go up to the pasture to have their grass. 'Who's tripping on my bridge?' he called. The littlest Billy Goat Gruff answered him in a tiny voice, 'it's only me, the first Billy Goat Gruff.' 'You can't cross my bridge,' Troll Hunter said." Hunter walked to the front of the group, standing next to my chair. "You can't cross my bridge," he said in a bellowing voice. "I'm going to eat you." I smiled. The kids laughed and pointed. "'Oh, no. You can't eat me, I'm too little,' the first Billy goat Gruff said in a trembling voice. 'I still need to fatten up. Wait for the second Billy Goat Gruff. He's bigger.' The little Billy Goat Gruff crossed the bridge safely and went on to the pastures where he could eat enough for winter. The second Billy Goat Gruff arrived and started crossing the bridge. Trip, Trap, Trip, Trap." "Who's tripping on my bridge?" Hunter bellowed next to me and I jumped a little. The kids all shouted together, "The second goat!"

"That's right It's me, the second Billy Goat Gruff,' said the goat. 'I'm going to the meadow to eat grass for winter." "You can't cross my bridge," Hunter said in a loud voice. This time I expected it and it didn't startle me. "I'm going to gobble you up." "'Oh, no. You can't eat me. I'm not nearly big enough,' the second Billy Goat Gruff said in a voice that was a little deeper than the first Billy Goat Gruff's voice. 'Wait for the third Billy Goat. He's much bigger than I am. I still need to get fat.'" "Fine," Hunter huffed. "The third Billy Goat Gruff came over the bridge," I carried on. "Trip, Trap, Trip, Trap." "Who's tripping on my bridge?" Hunter was really into it now. "It's me, the third Billy Goat Gruff and I'm going to the pasture to eat.' His voice was strong and loud and fearsome." "Oh no you don't. I'm going to gobble you up," Troll Hunter said. "The third Billy Goat Gruff wasn't scared because he was big enough. He bleated loudly and his voice was like thunder. 'You're not going to eat me. If you try I'm going to poke your eyes with my horns and I'm going to crush you with my hooves.'� "I'd like to see you try." "The troll came out of his lair under the bridge and tried to eat the third Billy Goat Gruff, but just as he'd promised, the third Billy Goat Gruff poked the troll in the eyes with his horns." Hunter clutched his eyes and stumbled around. The kids were hysterical laughing at it. "He trampled the troll with his hooves and the troll fell down the mountainside and into a ditch where he couldn't reach any goats to eat them anymore. For all his meanness, all the troll had left now was pain."

Hunter had rolled onto the floor and played dead. He peeked at me with one eye. I wondered if he caught the double meaning to my story. When he sat up the kids all clapped their little hands and smiled and I had to admit that entertaining them and making them smile really was a great feeling. Hunter got up and dusted himself. "Do you guys think I'm a bad troll?" Hunter asked. "Yes!" The kids cried in unison. Hunter feigned offense and they laughed. The other bikers were laughing, too. The one that had been standing next to Hunter with the serious eyes looked at me as if he was trying to size me up. I wasn't sure what his deal was. I had the feeling he was measuring me to see if I was found wanting. I wished I knew. "Isn't she amazing?" Hunter asked, putting an arm around my waist. "She is your girlfriend!" One of the boys shouted. Hunter laughed and nodded. I stepped away from him and smiled but I felt uncomfortable. I still didn't know how I felt about everything that had happened. We still needed to talk. I didn't want to be seen as his girlfriend without us talking about what happened, without him even asking me officially. Sure, they were just kids, but his friends were here, too. Call me old-fashioned but I wanted it done the right way. The caregiver came out and called the kids in for a movie. The bikers started clearing their bikes and equipment and I helped, closing the books and stacking them in a pile by the door. When everything was packed away Hunter walked toward me. "Thanks for doing this. The kids loved the story." He leaned forward and pressed his lips against mine. The kiss was unexpected and I was still angry but I didn't push him away right away the way I should have. He still had that seriously magnetic pull to him that made me want to kiss him back and keep kissing him until there was no kissing left to do.

I managed to break the kiss after a moment. I raised my eyebrows at him. "It was a pleasure doing it for them, but you didn't really give me much choice." "I wanted to surprise you." I nodded. "You did. I was very impressed when the address brought me here. I was less impressed with you volunteering me for something, volunteering a relationship status that's not necessarily true." Hunter frowned for just a second before smiling again, the kind of smile that made me melt all the way into my shoes. Stop it, I willed without saying anything out loud. At this rate he was going to woo me right back into his bed without talking about anything at all, and that wouldn't do. "I'd like to talk about last night," I said. Hunter nodded. "Let's do it over dinner." I shook my head. "You're not going to get me like that again. Did you think I was just going to have dinner with you, a repeat of last night without us fixing this?" He shook his head. "I would love to have a repeat of last night, but I really just want to spend time with you." His face was open and sincere, none of the arrogance and charm I knew he could use on me. I would accept it. "If you want to spend time with me you're going to have to come to the library. I have to go back. I have the evening shift tonight." Hunter nodded. "I'll follow you there. I have nowhere else to go after this and those books need to be returned." He cocked half a smile. "Before I get a fine." I rolled my eyes but couldn't help smiling. "Let me call a cab. You can follow me there." He nodded and walked to his bike while I dialed a car to come pick me up. He waited with me, sitting on his bike. The others all said their goodbyes with claps on his shoulder and manly handshakes and drove off with a roar. I frowned, looking

after them. "You didn't introduce me to them." He looked at me, grinning. "I didn't think you wanted to be introduced to them. I thought you wanted to talk about where we stand first." I shook my head, irritated. He was right, I was falling around a little bit, but if the same thing happened and it was me and Meredith I would have introduced her to him and vice versa. "I'll introduce you to them when the time is right, but the boys are all a little rough around the edges. Just give it time." I shrugged. I wasn't sure what that meant but the fact that he was asking for time in our relationship - or whatever it was - made me feel like we were on the same page about something, at least. We were going to give it time and see how it went. That was what I got out of it and it made me happy. The car pulled up and I got in. I waved at Hunter through the window and gave the driver the library address. When we pulled off I heard the growl of Hunter's motorbike behind us. I looked out the window at the passing scenery. My life had been drab and dull for so long, this adventure with Hunter in the picture was a thrill. I was still skeptical and unsure about him, but this was already a hell of a lot better than what I'd had before. I'd had some guys in my life but most of those relationships had either been awkward or very one-sided. Whatever this was with Hunter - given that what happened last night had just been a mistake - was already so much better than before. At some point along the way I realized I didn't hear the motorbike anymore. I looked over my shoulder out of the back window. He wasn't behind us and he wasn't a number of cars back, either. I thought about the call before we'd gone to the restaurant and the fact that he'd asked me to meet him there. That, combined with the message he'd gotten and my theory that he might have been with someone else before he met me surfaced again and I was suddenly pissed all over again. Who the hell did he think he was? He asked me to meet him on my time, but I couldn't ask the same with him. He told me to come and when he did I had to come as

if I was summoned, but in return he did whatever he wanted and he kept me waiting until after he was done with whatever he felt like doing. This was bullshit. Why the hell did I always end up with losers? Did I have some kind of sign on my back asking people to take advantage of me and discard my feelings as a human being? I huffed, folding my arms over my chest and glaring at any pedestrian we passed. There was no way I was going to be give Hunter the time of day anymore. He was going to bring to books to the library tonight - after he was done with whatever he was so busy doing he couldn't accompany me to the library like he'd said he would and then I was going to treat him like any other customer and not someone more than that, something special. I definitely wasn't going to treat him like the person I thought he could be in my life. No, no one messed with Aurora that way. I was pissed off and tired of being messed around. I was good at being alone. I had books and writing and the few people I dared call friends. I didn't need some asshole to fill in the gaps only to break my heart later. Or sooner, given how quickly I fell for Hunter. Of course, my falling for him had just been because of his charm. Maybe it had felt like some kind of feat to win him over, take him away from Catherine. I had just been fooling myself, obviously. The only person playing this game the right way was Hunter. The rest of us were being played and he got away with it with a cocky grin and drowning deep eyes that made me forget about all my resolutions when it came down to it. The car pulled up in front of the library and I paid the driver. I got out and walked up the steps. A new lady was behind the counter and she smiled at me when I walked in. "You're just on time," she said and hurried out the door. Well, that was my shift, then. Another lonely night where I was going to have way too much time on my hands to think about the son of a bitch that had the nerve to mess me around. Hunter. What an appropriate name.

CHAPTER 14 Hunter Just following her back to work seemed so empty. I wanted her to realize how much she was worth and how much I appreciated what she'd done today. Those children had eaten her story up - even though there was symbolism of me being a selfish ass in it with her making me the troll - and I wanted her to understand how special she was. Halfway to the library, driving behind her, I decided to do a detour. I turned off and drove to a flower shop. I knew the owner - her husband was in my gang and whenever I bought I went there to support them. "Hello, Hunter," Sabrina said when I walked into the shop. "Sabrina, beautiful as ever." He held out my hands and then hugged her. "I'm here to bring you some business." She nodded and looked around. "Well, you can see what I have here. What do you have in mind?" I looked around, too. Roses, tulips, daisies, lilies, you name it, Sabrina had it all. "It's for a special lady and I want to buy as much of it as I can carry on my bike. She's at work now. I want to surprise her. She might or might not be upset with me." Sabrina put her hands on her hips like a mother would do. "Upset? With you?" She smiled teasingly. "I can't imagine why a woman would be upset with you." I laughed and shook my head. "Is she a friend or a lover?" I hesitated. She was a lot more than just a friend but a lover wasn't the right word for Aurora. The fact was that the more I thought about it, the more I wanted her to be a more than a lover, too. "That complicated?" Sabrina asked. "Or that serious?"

I looked at her and she nodded, knowing. "I would suggest all red roses, then. They're for love, you know." "And if it's not love yet?" She eyed me. "Do you want it to be?" I would never had admitted something like this to any of the boys, not even Shane in so many words, but Sabrina was a woman. She knew what our lives were like, she knew me, and she would understand. "I really do." She smiled. "I'll start loading them into your saddle bags and let you know how much it comes to." I smiled at her. "You're a saint, Sabrina." She moved in and out of the shop, choosing flowers from buckets, disregarding ones that looked a little limp. She walked in and out about six times before she came in, wiping her hands on her apron. "That's it. I don't think you'd be able to do any more unless you're holding one in your teeth." I grinned, thinking about it. That would make a statement but I shook my head. "I think this should do." I paid her with my card. When I went to my bike I laughed. There were flowers everywhere. My mean bike had red roses spilling out of every possible bag and it looked like Valentine's day and Highway to Hell had collided. I got onto the bike, started it up and drove back to the library. I drove a lot slower so I didn't damage the flowers. When I parked in front of the library I took out the flowers and bunched them in my arms. Thorns stuck into my skin and I swore under my breath but I was going to do this. I walked through the door. An old lady was just on her way out and she ogled me like I'd escaped from the circus. Maybe I really looked like it. A biker with a bunch of roses could easily be classified as a clown.

I could just see Aurora over all the roses. She looked up at me and she looked pissed. Her blue eyes were dark and dangerous and she wore her don't-fuck-with-me face. When she saw me, though, she burst out laughing. The sound of her laughter was beautiful and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. "What are you doing?" she asked, her hand over her mouth so the words were a little muffled. "I'm bringing you flowers." I put them all on the counter and rubbed my bare arms. There were red splotches everywhere the roses had scratched me. Aurora extended a hand to the flowers and touched them. "They're beautiful." The office door opened and Catherine stepped out of her office. When she saw me her face changed and she looked genuinely happy to see me. Oh boy. She looked at the roses and her face fell, and then she looked at Aurora, smiling, and anger replaced everything else. "What the hell is going on here?" She marched toward us and I caught a glimpse of the woman Aurora reported to, not the one that had waived my fines. "I brought Aurora some flowers," I said. She glared at me. She turned to Aurora and put her hands on her hips. It was so different from what Sabrina had done in the shop not half an hour ago. "You're really starting to slip, Aurora. You were always such a good employee but lately you're really messing up. First, you're late to open the library this evening and then this? This is not personal time; this is your workplace. If you carry on this trend I'm going to have to give you a written warning. I should do it right now, in fact." Whoa. She was going a bit mental. Was this her being a normal pain in the ass or was she jealous? I was willing to bet I was staring into the face of the green monster. "I've been doing everything the way I should. There are no complaints," Aurora said calmly. I had the idea this happened more often, judging by her reaction.

"It's bad enough you write on my time." "Please, Catherine," I started but she talked right over me. "You better make sure this mess is cleaned up before another card holder comes in. This is not a dating club; this is a library. "I'll help her clear it up," I said. Catherine ignored me. She really was being a bitch. "I'm going home. If you don't pick up your socks, you and I are going to sit down and have a chat about your future at the library. Your review is coming up. It would be best if you kept that in mind." She turned on her heel and marched out the door. I looked at Aurora, eyebrows raised. "That was intense." Aurora sighed. "She has her moments. She's the queen of this little world." "The Queen of Hearts?" I asked. She smiled and touched her neck. "Off with my head." She helped me bundle up all the roses again and we put them back in my saddlebags. I promised I would take them to her home for her a bit later so Miss Bitch wouldn't get her panties up in a twist again. More customers came in. Some checked out books after deciding. One of them asked Aurora about a book and she disappeared between the shelves to help the gentleman. I leaned against the counter, looking over all the papers that were in the in and out trays. How she worked here day in day out was beyond me. I would be bored to death. Then again, she had her worlds to escape to, writing every day. That was something I could see would be interesting. If I had the time and patience, if my life had been different, something like that would appeal to me. Of course, it was a lot sexier that Aurora was the writer who worked in a library and was completely unassuming. She had no idea what effect she had on me, even when she was scanning books. She came back to her desk. I watched her walk, watched her hips sway from side to

side and I had to readjust my pants. I knew she'd forgiven me after she'd accepted my roses, but that didn't mean that doing it in the public library would be any good. Although...I looked around. There were storage rooms in place like these, right? "What are you thinking about?" Aurora asked. I looked at her without saying anything. After a moment she smiled, understanding, and her cheeks colored. I was halfway there. Now, if only it was something she wanted...she turned her attention back to the book she was busy with on the system. I watched her intently. She bit her bottom lip - the telltale sign of a lot of women that they liked the idea that man was thinking about them naked and maybe they were thinking about it, too. Maybe finding a storage room would go down much better than I thought. It was a busy night with yet another person coming in and asking her help. I read some more papers, trying to entertain myself. I found one that was a sign-up sheet for the computer lab. I read over the names, bored. The last name caught my attention. Raina. There was only one woman in town I knew of with that name. I looked for Aurora amongst the shelves and saw her, busy in deep conversation with the woman that had asked assistance. I walked toward the computer lab but I didn't go inside. If Raina really was there... instead, I stood to the side where I could see all the users behind their computers but they couldn't see me. They were all with their backs toward me. It wasn't hard to know her, though, even from behind. Her ponytail had an arrogant curl at the bottom and she sat up straight as if she was pressing her boobs out just in case someone was watching. I groaned inwardly. Had she been following me? I was pretty sure of it. She wouldn't set foot in a library. You had to have brains for that. No, I was wrong. Raina had brains - I hadn't ever met a cunning bitch like her. But she wasn't intellectual as much as she was streetwise. This was definitely something a lot more serious, something I needed to take note of. I needed to talk to the boys about this. Raina was trouble in any and every way.

I my way back to the counter where Aurora was scanning books and organizing them according to the numbers on the back. She looked up and smiled when I approached her. "Wandering around? I hope you're not looking for trouble. Or were you just checking if we'd expanded our series on motorcycle repair." I chuckled. Oh, the sarcastic humor she used on me sometimes. It was so cute. "I was just looking at your facilities. You have a lot of separate rooms around here." She nodded. "We offer a lot of different services." She looked at me seductively, which made me think she might have caught on to my double meanings and she was playing along. A shiver traveled down my spine. God, I hoped that was the case. I was getting all worked up and I needed her to be on the same level. I wanted a release and I wanted it from her. No other woman came close to Aurora now. It was a blessing and a curse that I knew her. "I have to put these boxes in storage," Aurora said, picking up a box of books that looked heavy. "Let me get that for you." I stepped up and put the muscle I always worked on so hard to good use. I followed her to the storage room. She unlocked a door and flicked on a light. There were boxes stacked against one wall and a table against the other with nothing on it but a lamp without a globe. I put the box where she pointed. After I did, I stepped toward the door and locked it. "What are you doing?" Aurora asked. There was a smile in her voice. I turned to her, stepped in right up close and kissed her. I hooked my fingers into the belt of her pants and pulled it down. "Hunter! I have to get back to the front."

I didn't listen to her. I kneeled in front of her and put my mouth over her sex, licking her. She gasped and trembled under my hands on her hips. "We shouldn't be doing this," she said with a breathy voice but she made no move to stop me. I took this as a sign that she wanted more. Thank God she was on the same level as me. I kept at it, licking up and down, flicking my tongue over her clit and then lollipopping her with a flat tongue before paying attention to her clit again. She leaned back onto the table, lifted one leg and pushed her hands into my hair, pulling me even closer to her. I worked her into a frenzy. I could tell by the way she tugged at my hair, pulling my face in to her and releasing in a rhythm that reminded me of sex. I locked my mouth onto her clit and sucked gently, just hard enough for her to cry out but not to cause pain. Her hips starting bucking, pushing her up against my face but I carried on. She orgasmed quietly, making small whimpering sounds but nothing more. Her body shuddered under my hands, her hands locked into fists around my hair and for a moment she didn't breathe, her mouth stretched into an 'O' of pleasure. Then she gasped, released me, and lowered her leg. I let her go. "Sorry," she said, breathing hard. "I didn't mean to pull your hair." I smiled. "Don't be." I wiped my mouth with my sleeve. I could still taste her. "Let me return the favor?" She asked it as a question but she didn't give me time to answer. Not that it would have been a no. She kneeled in front of me and unbuckled my pants, pulling down the zipper. I pulled my pants down just underneath my ass so my cock could be free and she took it into her mouth. Her eyes were locked on mine and she was a sight to behold with those blue eyes looking up at me and her lips stretched around the thickness of my lust for her. She pumped her head up and down the length of me for a while, massaging my balls with her hand. This was absolute heaven but I didn't want to finish like this. I wanted to release deep inside of her, not in her mouth. I gently pushed her back and she

released me. I pulled her up, kissed her, and then spun her around. She squealed a little when I held one hand on her hip and pushed her down over the table with the other. Her ass was presented to me beautifully with her bent over like that and the view was enough to release my load all over her ass, but I wasn't going to do that. Self-control was the name of the game. I spanked her lightly and when she yelped I laughed. She looked at me over her shoulder, her eyes naughty, her lips curled in a tight smile. "You're full of shit." I nodded. "I am." I pushed into her just as I said it so her response was an erotic sigh, not something cheeky. She felt fantastic from behind. The first time we'd had sex it was all sensual and beautiful and I'd taken care of her emotions, too. This was different. I pushed into her all the way and she braced herself on the table, her fingers curling around the edges. I started pumping in and out of her, going harder and faster. She held her mouth closed, moaning through her nose to dampen the sound and leaned her chest on the table. The table started moving back bit by bit as I did her. Hard. This was raw. This was wild. This was fucking. I hammered into her over and over again, and at some point I thought she was having another orgasm but I wasn't sure. Her insides were already tight, clamped down on my cock, and her voice was muffled to keep quiet. Her cries sounded the same but her body shivered and her knuckles went white for a short while. I didn't let up. I didn't slow down. I wanted to release inside of her and I was going to keep going until that happened. At some point I felt it. My balls starting contracting and I felt myself elongate, filling her up even more. Her cries changed, which suggested I was going in even deeper. I looked at her ass, at where my cock disappeared and reappeared between her ass cheeks and that was enough to send me over the edge. She was so fucking hot I couldn't deal with it anymore. My body jerked and I leaned forward a bit. I squeezed my eyes closed and felt her body swallow mine, burying myself as deep inside of her as I could where I deposited everything I had to offer. She moaned some more and then the orgasm was over and I

was starting to go limp. I pulled out of her and my cock glistened with our sex. I reached for my pants and zipped it up. Aurora peeled herself from the table, murmuring something, working on her own pants. She leaned against the table when we were both decent. "Holy shit, Hunter," she said. I nodded. It really had been fucking fantastic. I pulled her closer and kissed her. Properly. So she knew it wasn't just sex to me. She was a lot more than that. When I broke the kiss she smiled at me and the expression on her face was soft and loving. "I really have to get back now," she said in a husky voice. "If Catherine finds out..." "She'll be jealous I didn't take her into the storage room and give you hell." Aurora smiled and nodded, unlocking the door. We both walked out as if nothing had happened. The front desk was as we'd left it with no angry people waiting to be served. I held out my hand over the counter and Aurora took it. I pulled her hand to my mouth and kissed her knuckles. "I have to get going. I'll drop off your flowers at your apartment. I really want to see you later." She nodded and smiled. "I'd like that. Why don't you come fetch me at closing time?" I nodded. Hell yeah. "And bring my manuscript, will you? Otherwise I'm going to have to report it stolen." She looked dead serious but her eyes laughed at me. "I will." I turned and walked out of the library, fighting the urge to look back and see her face one more time.

CHAPTER 15 Aurora The rest of the night was pretty damn dull after Hunter left the library. I sat behind the counter, trying to focus on writing another chapter and failing miserably. My body was still throbbing in places where Hunter had been and my panties were wet. I wasn't sure it was because of what had already happened or because I was anticipating what would happen later. Sure, I'd been pissed at him when his phone had gone off with that message but it was all over now. He really had made a huge effort so show how much he felt for me and the truth was that it didn't just feel like a fling, even though I'd barely known him for a week. Sometimes you meet people and it just works and you can't help the rollercoaster ride that follows because it’s meant to be. It's the same as how it never feels right with some people no matter how many years you try. I started typing a rendition of our sex. It was a combination between the sex we'd had the first time and the sex we'd had now, and it was explicit. I'd never written something like this and I felt dirty and naughty while doing it. But it helped me. It worked me up and calmed me down as a sort of release all at the same time. And I pictured me and Hunter doing all sorts of things that I wrote about and that just made it all that much more intense. My book wasn't an erotic book and I would never leave this chapter in there, but they say writers use their work as an outlet of their own experiences and I hadn't once found it to be otherwise. Doing the sex scene between Maya and her newfound biker love made the time tick by a hell of a lot faster than it had been before. Maybe this was something to remember for those future days that could get so damn long. Boy, the girls would absolutely freak out if I read this to them. Maybe it would be worth it, just to see their reaction. I was lost in my idea of how it would go down when I realized a woman was staring at me. She stood just a few feet away from the counter like she'd been waiting for me but didn't want to be close enough to impose.

"Can I help you?" She nodded. "Do you have any books on relationship advice?" I pointed to the shelf with the how-to books. "If we have any, they’ll be there." She smiled at me and there was something creepy about it. It didn't reach her eyes - it was something plastered on her face and those eyes were cold and hard. "You see, I'm having problems with my ex-boyfriend and I need something big to bring the house down." The way she said 'bring the house down' didn't sound like she was using it as a metaphor. "Uhm..." What could I say to that? No don't? Or, sure, I get it? She was being weird. "How many hunters do you think are out there?" I narrowed my eyes at her. "What?" "I think it's hunting season. Don't you?" I shook my head slowly from side to side. This woman was batshit crazy. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" She pulled a face at me that looked a lot like she was baring her teeth at me. A smile gone very, very wrong. "No, thank you. I think I need to clean up this mess myself." She kissed her palm and blew the kiss at me before turning and walking away. Her hips swayed from side to side like she intended for everyone who looked at her to stare. Her ponytail bobbed in an annoying way before she left the library. I picked up the clipboard with the computer lab names on them. She'd been the last one to fill it in. Raina. Unique name. And a unique personality, apparently, something that was better to stay away from. There were some really fucked up people in this world.

The whole question about hunting season and if there were a lot of hunters around made me wonder if there was more to what she was saying. Of course, if there weren’t it would just mean she was really off her rocker. If it did, it meant she was one of the girls who had been with Hunter before. Unless I was blowing it completely out of proportion, now. Maybe I had to ask Hunter about it when he came to pick me up. When my shift ended, he was already waiting for me, sitting on his bike. I locked up and skipped toward him, kissing him when I reached him. "I missed you," he said. "It's only been three hours." He shrugged. I smiled and got on the back of the bike, but not before he gave me a helmet. "Safety first." "Hypocrite." He never wore a helmet. Still, I took it and put it on. The bike purred underneath me and I could feel it all to way to my core when he pulled off. There was something very sensual about the feeling of straddling that much power. I could see the appeal. The air was cold where it crept in under the helmet and whipped around my jacket that didn't do much to keep out the cold of the night. Hunter took a road that led toward the waterside. We drove along a secluded road that ran along a ragged beach for a long time. I reached my hand around him and pushed it against his crotch. I started rubbing. He looked around at me for a moment but didn't say anything or make a move to stop me, so I carried on. I felt him harden through the rough jean material and kept at it. At this rate nothing spectacular was going to happen but it was just going to keep him on the edge. That was where I liked him. He'd been on the edge at the library and look at what had happened there - sex in the storage room at my work place. It had been hot as hell.

I wanted more of that. I wanted more of him. He drove the bike like he was one with it. I had never been on the back of a bike before but I didn't feel scared. My arms were wrapped around him and I knew he would never let anything happen to me. How had he gotten here? He had to have a lot going on in his past for him to end up where he was now. Community service that led to the Boys and Girls Club, the leader of a biker gang and from what I saw his men seemed to respect him. I knew there was more to him, more danger and more chaos. I wanted to know him. It didn't scare me off. I had the feeling it would make me respect him more. We pulled into a small road that led from the main road and Hunter parked the bike on a fat concrete slab that seemed to have been poured especially for that reason. He took my hand and together we walked farther down until we were on the edge of the beach. We stopped to take off our shoes and then we walked, hand in hand, shoes in our free hands and our toes in the sand. The sand was cold with the absence of sunlight. The sound of the waves breaking on the sand over and over again was like a soothing lullaby and the moon was out and almost full. "This is beautiful," I said. "Isn't it a private beach?" Hunter shook his head. "Just secluded, not really for swimming so the tourists stay away. But we're allowed to be here." He sat down on the sand and I joined him. I shivered and he pulled me closer to him, trying to warm me up with his body heat. He turned his face to mine, tipped my chin up with his finger and kissed me. It was a deep and sensual kiss with nothing that had any hint of sex in it. He lay down and pulled me on top of him so I didn't have to be in the sand. We carried on kissing. His hands started roaming over my body and his was hard underneath me, but still it didn't feel like it was about the sex. It was soft and sensual and emotional and he touched me everywhere because he liked me for it and he wanted to let me know. Not because he wanted some.

I hadn't had something like this in ages. If ever. This was completely about me and Hunter. As people. Sure, a lot of it had been about sex, but it was more than that. I was really starting to fall for this guy and not just because he was a good-looking badass. He was the kind of badass that would be good just for me. Wasn't that the biggest compliment in the world? He stopped kissing me for a moment and just looked at me. He brushed away loose strands of hair that had been teased out of my ponytail by the wind and his eyes were drowning deep, bottomless pools of black. He studied my face like he was committing it to memory. "You know, all of this feels natural with you," I said. "What do you mean?" I shrugged. "I don't really do sex the way it is with you. I'm usually awkward and uncomfortable." He smiled. "Honey, it takes a real man to do it right." I shook my head even though I was smiling. "That's not what I meant." The joking face faded away and he was serious again. "I know. I'm glad it's different for you because this is different for me, too. Usually the women in my life are just..." He hesitated. "Bodies?" I finished for him. He nodded as if he wasn't sure I liked it. I said it, though. I understood. He carried on. "With you, it's completely different. I find myself not wanting to be away from you. And that's saying something because usually they're so damn annoying once they start talking I can't get rid of them quick enough." As if he realized how bad it sounded he snapped his mouth shut and looked guilty. I laughed. "You're funny." I kissed him again and he gave in, kissing me back. God, I could do this forever.

CHAPTER 16 Hunter Everything about her was mesmerizing and addictive, which are usually bad things to get into considering my past, but with her it was good and only good. She wasn't only a damn hot body, but she also offered intellectual and stimulating conversation and she never ever let anyone walk over her - even though she was the tiniest thing I'd ever seen. She was the epitome of delicate. Her personality wasn't, though, and even though her body was the kind of thing that would hypnotize any man into doing whatever she wanted him to, it was because of her personality more than her curves that I was more and more attracted to her. She'd stroked my cock - and by extension, my ego - all the way to the beach and by the time we'd sat down on the sand I was so worked up it was almost a sin. But I didn't want her to think this was all about sex. I wanted her to believe I really cared for her as a person, too. So I made out with her for as long as I could. I couldn't keep it up, though. Or should I rather say, I couldn't get it to go down. She was on top of me, her body hot, pressed against mine all the way down and when she made out with me her hips undulated ever so slightly, threatening to push me over the brink. I loved having her this close to me, loved spending this much time with her. When I was with her it was like time stood still and it was spectacular to be caught in a space with her that felt like it was removed from the rest of the world. I had tried all sorts of escapes since Kyle had died, anything and everything that would help me forget. Aurora was better and more effective than any drug, alcohol, club fight or crime I'd ever been involved in. It wasn't something I would be able to explain to her, but instead of being my escape like those things were, she was my savior. She reminded me of the things in life that were worth it, and without ever opening her mouth, reminded me of the things that really weren't. I couldn't keep kissing her and touching her without things going further. My erection throbbed urgently and my breathing had gotten very hard. There was consolation in the fact that her breathing was hard, too, and her kissing got more urgent. She didn't lazily explore my mouth, my body anymore. Instead, it turned to hunger. She wanted me.

God, that was just what I needed to know. I wanted her, too. Badly. I sat up, helping her so she didn't fall into the sand when I did, and looked around. The beach really was deserted and the road was hidden behind trees. Unless someone decided to come for a stroll along the beach from either direction we would be fine. I started unbuckling my pants and pulled down the zipper. I pulled my cock out of my pants. Aurora smiled when she looked down at it and then up at me. She wrapped her fingers around the warm flesh and started moving up and down. It was fantastic. It wasn't what I'd had in mind but she was good with her hands and her warm fingers turned my hunger for sex into roaring lust. I needed to be in her. I only let her pump my cock for a little while before I took her wrist and gently removed her hand. "I need more, sweetheart." Her eyes were deep and dark in the black of night and she smiled. "Let me touch you a bit longer, let me draw it out so that when it happens it's so much better." I wanted to protest. I wanted more of her. I wanted it now. But I let her do what she wanted to do. I closed my eyes and tipped my head back, letting her work her magic. It didn't take very long before my balls tightened and I released all over her hand. The orgasm was quick and intense and my core contracted and release in short jerks before it let go of me and I opened my eyes. She was smiling at me. "I love your face when that happens." I wasn't usually the one to feel self-conscious or bashful but I felt like if there was enough late to see my coloring I might have been blushing. Very manly. Aurora got up. "I'll be right back." She walked to the water and rubbed her hands together, rinsing herself off. I pulled my shirt over my softening manhood and waited for her to come back. I would have to wait a while now before we did anything more, but I was pretty sure with her in my presence I wouldn't have to wait too long. Aurora came back and sat in the sand next to me and crossed her arms over her chest,

huddling against the wind. I put an arm around her. "You often as we've been seeing each other lately, and as many times as we do it, I really don't know you at all." She looked at me. She'd pulled her blonde hair out of the ponytail she usually wore it in and the loose hair hung around her face, blowing over her shoulder in the breeze every now and then. "How did you get involved in the Girls and Boys Club? I know you said it was Community Service but that doesn't every just start there." I nodded. This was where my ugly past was going to come out, but she deserved to know. I wanted her to know everything about me. If she was going to like me, maybe even love me, she needed to know everything about me so I never felt like I tricked her into this. "I wasn't in the best place about five years ago. My brother, Kyle, was killed when I was in high school and ever since then I just couldn't see the point in following the rules and doing the right thing. He was dead and all his rules died with him, that was what it felt like." "I'm so sorry," Aurora said and the way she said it made me believe she really was. "I can't imagine how hard that must have been for your parents." I shook my head. "My parents died when I was much younger. Kyle was the one who raised me, who stopped being a kid and grew up to have a job and take care of me, keep me out of trouble so they wouldn't take me away. Kyle was the only parent I really knew." She pressed her fingers against her lips. "Losing him must have been so hard on you." I nodded. It really had been the worst thing I could ever go through. Nothing since then had hurt as much, which was why I'd done it over and over again. "I was numb. Nothing mattered anymore. Drugs, alcohol, I tried all of it. I got into a lot of crime because of the anger and also because the Desert Huns weren't exactly on the straight and narrow yet. It was easy to get into trouble." "How did you get involved with the bikers?" "We've always been bikers. The Huns belonged to my dad and we inherited them when he died. Kyle was the leader for a long time and that was why he died. He was

killed by some rival gang, I forget who." Aurora frowned. "Gang violence is that bad? Did they catch him?" I shook my head. "If the Huns wanted justice for that crime an investigation would be opened and the police would have to look into the gang, too. That would only mean they ended up in jail alongside the killer. They all had reasons to avoid police, even Shane." I took a deep breath and let the memories take me back to a time that was much, much darker than anything else. "Shane was like a brother to both of us. When Kyle died he sort of took over, and when we decided to turn the Huns around he was right there with me." I sat in silence for a while, trying to deal with the emotions that had made a reappearance for the first time in years. I hadn't spoken about any of this to anyone. Raina and I had been together for a long time and even she didn't know anything, only about the Girls and Boys Club, but she'd thought it was a waste of time and energy. Why was I telling Aurora all of this? I looked at her. She was looking out at the sea and her face was calm and gentle, compassionate. She really cared. Not just about me and what I'd felt, but about everything else, too. About the kids at the club. About people and the dynamic between them. If I weren’t careful I could fall for this woman very hard. If I weren’t falling already‌I had the idea that maybe I was already. I hadn't known her for very long but it didn't take a long time to get to know the core of someone. If the core was good you could spend a lifetime figuring out the rest of them. I reached for Aurora and brushed the hair that blew into her face away. She was beautiful in every way. The kind of face that made me dream about her, but the personality that made me want to wake up to her, too. She looked at me and smiled. She leaned toward me so her face was right u against mine. She kissed me for a moment before she looked into my eyes, her face still so close I could almost see the few tiny freckles on her skin here and there. "Where were we?" she asked, and immediately my erection was back and my body was all about getting more from her. I kissed her, hard and passionate, mashing my lips against hers. I took one breast in

my hand and started massaging it through her clothes. I found her nipple, hard and erect already, and rolled it between my thumb and forefinger. She gasped. I pushed my hand under her shirt, pulled down the cup of her bra and kept going with her nipple until she writhed next to me. I broke the kiss, let go of her and got up, taking her hand and pulling her with me. When we were both standing I undid her pants and pulled them down. She looked around but there was still no one. I touched her between her legs and she was wet and ready. I groaned, lust shooting through me. I wanted to be in her right now. I sat down and pulled her onto me so she was straddling me. My pants were still undone and my sex rose up, reaching for her even before she was close. I let her sit on top of me so the sand wouldn't get in everything - sex on the beach was an activity that required skill - and put my hands on her hips, pulling her closer to me. I found her entrance and pushed into her, pulling her down onto me as I did so. She gasped. Being inside her was enough cause to orgasm again but I already did once and my control was a hell of a lot better now. She started moving back on forth on me, riding me. Her hips undulated. She rolled them back and forth. I felt her hips and her ass under my hands and the sensation she was working all over my cock. Her breasts pushed against my chest and neck and it was erotic even though she was still wearing her shirt. I hadn't wanted to get her completely naked in public and it was cold to boot. I wanted to try this again when we were in the privacy of my home one day, just so I could have her breasts in my face with nothing between us and I could suck and nibble on her nipples. That would be pure ecstasy, I was sure of it. She rocked on me and I pulled her closer and let her go again, helping her with her rhythm. It was slow and rolling at first, like the waves, but soon we picked up pace. Her hips moved faster, her breathing changed and she started moaning a little louder instead of just making breathy noises. The sound of sex turned me on even more. We'd had to be so quiet in the library, but now it was already noisy. The wind and the ocean would drown out anything that wasn't overly loud. She rode me harder and harder. Her hands were in my hair behind my head, grabbing hold of tufts. Her breasts pushed against my neck, bobbing toward my face. Her hips bucked against mine, riding my cock and I felt another orgasm building. It was so

much more intense than before - she fetched it from very deep in my core. She was the first to orgasm. Her body clamped down on me and I felt her muscles contract and release. She pulled my hair, tipped back her head, moaned and cried out and then buried her face into my neck. When she was finally over her orgasm she kissed me. The kiss was hot and wet and sensual. I felt how wet she was all over my cock. I wanted more. More sex, more of her orgasming. I took over, doing the moving for her. I rocked my own hips back and forth, pushing into her, and I pulled her onto me in a rhythm that was even faster with my hands on her hips. She moaned out louder now, in the same rhythm as our sex, her head tipped back and her mouth open. It was hot as hell having her on top of me like this and having her let loose completely. She'd told me she was awkward with sex. I saw nothing of it. She was a natural at this, taking charge sometimes and somehow knowing exactly what would drive me wild. Maybe it was the men she'd been with because this was nothing short of fantastic. Aurora knew exactly what she was doing, and I wanted her to keep doing it for as long as she could. As long as she wanted to. My orgasm was building but I didn't want to release, not yet. I didn't want this to be over. I loved taking her from behind in the library. I wanted that again. I checked if the coast was clear another time and then I lifted her off me. She yelped in surprise. I spun her around and got her on her knees, pushing her forward so she landed with her hands in the sand. I was being a little rough but I wanted her, and judging by how she moaned when I pushed into her again, from behind this time, she enjoyed it a little rough from time to time. At this angle we were still off the sand and I had a perfect view of her voluptuous hips and ass. I put my hands on her hips and started pounding into her. She tipped her head up, arching her back, and I went that much deeper. I pushed into her harder and faster and soon she was crying out again, moaning with every thrust. It started in my balls, and ripped through my body as I released inside of her with an orgasm that was a lot more intense than the first one had been. She moaned when I did. She could feel me inside of her. I wasn't sure if she was orgasming, too. I hoped she was. She cried out and dropped her head like she might be but I wasn't sure.

It didn't matter, though. She was enjoying it and I was having a hell of a time myself. When we were done I slid out of her. She gasped and panted and pulled herself upright. She dusted her hands, stood up and dusted her knees before she found her pants in the sand and shook them out. I pulled my pants up and zipped myself up so I was decent again. She pulled her pants on before she fluffed her hair. "You know," I said, looking at her. She looked at me. Her hair was a windy, sexy mess, her eyes were big and dark and her smile was secretive. "I want to be somewhere we can stay naked afterward and spoon and sleep and then wake up and do it again. I'm tired of having to get dressed all the time. That's one-night stand kind of stuff." Her lips curled into a cheeky smile. "And I'm not a one night stand?" I walked to her and pulled her closer to me. I was dead serious now, all jokes aside. "Sweetheart, you never were." Her face became serious too. She looked at me for a moment and then she kissed me. This kiss wasn't loaded with sex. It was beautiful and sensual and emotional and filled with everything the words 'I love you' might be. I really was starting to fall for her.

CHAPTER 17 Aurora I felt like I was drunk. Everything was surreal. Everything was perfect. Everything was like a dream and I was like a dream and I was scared at some point I was going to wake up. I was starting to fall in love with Hunter. He was everything a girl could ever want. A badass who would be good just for her. A biker who was sexy as hell and knew just how to charm the pants of a woman. A man who was fucking good in bed. Or on table. Or on beach. But he was also kind and caring and he had such a terrible past it was difficult to see how he'd turned out so well. I had a lot of respect for him. A lot of respect, and growing affection. We stood side by side on the beach after we'd had sex. I was dying for a shower but I didn't want this moment to end in case, for some reason, there wouldn't be another one. I needed there to be more of this. I wanted Hunter in my life. He kept reappearing and I liked it. He took my hand and his hands were large and warm and capable. I knew exactly how good he was with them, but when he held my hand now there was nothing about sex. I felt protected with him. I felt like he might fight for me if it came down to it, whether it was physically or emotionally. "We have to head back," he said. "It's getting late and I need to check in with my boys." I nodded. I knew the moment would eventually come to an end. Hand in hand we walked back the way we'd come. When we got to the bike, the tires were both flat. Hunter swore under his breath and kneeled down, inspecting them. "Raina." "What?" He shook his head like he'd spoken his mind out loud. "Someone slashed my tires."

"Who is she?" Hunter looked at me, suspicious. "You know about her?" I shook my head. "I've seen the name." I explained to him what had happened at the library, what she'd said and how crazy she'd sounded. "Her comment about hunting season made me think maybe she knew you. It was too weird not to be related and I am involved with you..." Hunter got up, interlinked his fingers behind his head and walked away stretched out like that for a moment. When he turned and looked at me again his eyes were very serious. "She's an ex-girlfriend. We dated for quite some time but she's crazy and it didn't work out. She didn't agree with what the gang was becoming, what I was becoming. She disappeared off the scene but the day before our first date she came out of nowhere. I think she's causing trouble with the boys somehow." I nodded. That sounded about right with what I'd seen of her. She was really pretty but looks on the outside meant nothing when you were rotten on the inside. "When I broke up with her she threatened to take down the Desert Huns. I hadn't thought much of it then - she was a woman scorned - but I believe now she might be crazy enough to actually do something." "Was she the woman who sent you that message?" I asked, thinking back to that night. Hunter nodded. "I was going to explain." "I know." I understood it now. I really had overreacted, Meredith had been right. Hunter had been faithful and honest from the start and I'd been quick to believe the worst of him. I was going to apologize for that at some point. It didn't seem like the time, now. "Will she be able to destroy you?" I asked. Hunter shrugged and it made me think he wasn't entirely convinced it was impossible. If he thought an ex-girlfriend had the ability to do that, she must have been a lot worse than he was letting it come across. "We received a threat at the club a short while ago, saying our time is up. I made the boys go out in pairs or groups and check

in with each other to make sure everyone is fine. I've arranged for us to start meeting somewhere else, too, just in case." "But you think it will still go wrong?" He didn't nod but he looked at me for long enough that I thought maybe he really was nervous for their safety. "What are you going to do?" I asked. "Whatever it takes." He looked at me and his eyes were so dark and ominous for a moment it was scary. I knew he had the ability to do something just as insane. I didn't want him to get into trouble. "There's something I want you to understand," he said and he was so grave I sat up and listened. It wasn't every day Hunter looked this serious about something. "We all turned our lives around because living on the wrong side of the law is no life. I won't just do something to screw that up, and definitely not to mess up what we have between us now." He paused for a moment. "But I will do anything, anything if it means keeping my boys safe. They're like my family, my blood, and I'm responsible for each and every one of them. I won't lose a life even if it kills me." He said that and I believed him. I had goosebumps on my skin. I could feel his passion when he spoke. Some people used the phrase 'even if it kills me' as a metaphor but I knew Hunter was serious. If it came down to it he would die for those men. It was noble and honorable and all that is good. It terrified me. The fact that Raina had been at the library made me think she was stalking Hunter or me or both. I'd never seen her there before. Of course, when she'd signed up for the computer lab I hadn't really cared about the fact that she was unfamiliar. New people came into town all the time. It got weird when they'd been in town for a very long time and had never set foot in the library until my relationship with Hunter had started. Coincidence? Probably not. "What happens now if I go back to work?" I asked. I didn't want to sound like I was scared out of my mind, but the truth was I was nervous. If she'd threatened to take down the Huns and I was dating the guy she had such a grudge against, I wasn't sure

if I could feel safe. I knew I was probably being a little overboard about this, but it was a fear and I was going to voice it, even if it was just for Hunter to tell me I was being silly and I didn't need to worry. "I would prefer if you didn't go back to work." My stomach turned when he said that. "Am I in danger?" He hesitated before he shook his head. Somehow I didn't believe him. "Do you have any vacation days?" I nodded, unsure what that had to do with anything. Hunter nodded as if confirming something to himself. "I would like you to take them, as many as you have." He dialed on his phone and held it to his ear, speaking before I could ask him why. I felt like it was more than enough of an answer to my question about being in danger so I did the most logical thing to do in this situation. I trusted him. I found my own phone and dialed Catherine's number. I wasn't exactly in her good books but maybe a couple of days away from each other wouldn't be a bad thing. I waited for the phone to ring and it rang for so long I thought it would roll over into voicemail. She picked up on one of the very last rings, though. "I have a uh..." I glanced at Hunter. What was I going to say to her? "Family emergency. I need to take a couple of personal days, if that's okay with you." "This really isn't the best timing, Aurora." Her voice was sharp like she was scolding me. I could imagine what her face looked like. I nodded even though she couldn't see me. "I realize this, and if I could help it I would. These things always happen at the worst of times, don't they?" It was a rhetorical question and I was hoping she would take it and run with it. I wasn't sure how to carry on if she said no. I would have to fight with her and I didn't exactly enjoy conflict. She sighed. " I suppose they don't. How long do you need?"

I glanced at Hunter who was talking into his phone with a very serious tone. "Will a week be too much to ask?" She hesitated for long enough for me to wonder if she was going to tell me I was out of my mind asking so much. I'd never taken any leave, I was sure I had a lot more than a week to my name, but all in one go a week was quite a lot. "Sure. Do what you need to do. But when you come back I expect a change." I nodded again. She still couldn't see me. "Of course. Thank you, Catherine." She hung up without saying goodbye. I looked at my phone and then at Hunter who had already finished up his conversation. "And?" He looked very serious, more serious than I'd ever seen him before. It was thrilling to see him this in charge of everything, and at the same time it was nerve wrecking because I knew there was a reason for it. And there had been a situation like this at least once before if he knew how to handle himself with this much calm. He wasn't freaking out at all. "I got a week." He smiled and pulled me closer, kissing me on the head. "That's my girl." Usually when men said that to me it irritated me. It always felt condescending. The way Hunter said it made me feel like he was impressed with me, and I guess the words rang true. I was his girl, wasn't I? "What are we doing about these tires?" I asked. A bike didn't exactly have a spare, and even if it did a spare tire only catered for one wheel at a time. Two was pushing it, and seeing that two was all we had... "Shane will be here in about five minutes." Shane. The guy Hunter was so close with. He'd been at the Girls and Boys Club, I knew, but I hadn't formally met any of them. I was suddenly a little nervous. I was about to meet one of the most important people in Hunter's life. What if he didn't like

me? What if his opinion mattered? It wasn't five minutes before a car turned onto the concrete square where we were. It had a trailer behind him with another bike. Picking us up apparently wasn't enough; it had to be in style. One of the bikers from the Boys and Girls Club hopped off and he and Hunter shook hands. "Thanks for pulling through." "No sweat, man." He looked at me, nodding. "Shane." "Aurora." He nodded again. Either he knew, or he assumed so. He looked at the bike and whistled through his teeth. "Raina?" He asked it like he was sure of the answer. Hunter didn't answer but it was pretty decided between them. Hunter turned to me. "I want you to go with Shane. He'll make sure you get home safe. I want you to pack a bag for a week and wait for my call. I'm taking you away for a little while." "Where are we going?" He smiled and a little bit of the usual Hunter showed through all the tension and seriousness. "It's a surprise." I tried to smile but I was starting to get nervous. Talking about gang violence, or even writing it, wasn't nearly as intense as living it. I was a writer. I lived vicariously through my characters. As much fun as this adventure was, real life was scary. "I'll take good care of her," Shane said, looking at Hunter with eyes that made a promise without him having to say anything. "I know you will."

Shane took a step back and Hunter closed in, wrapping me up in his arms and kissing me properly. When he let me go I was dizzy. "I'll call you soon, okay? Be safe." Hunter and Shane unloaded the bike and then Hunter set off to take care of business. Shane got into the car and I got into the passenger side.

CHAPTER 18 Hunter This wasn't what I'd imagined for a romantic night with Aurora. It felt like every time I planned to do something with Aurora that was just for us and all romantic, Raina stepped in and managed to mess it up. I was really starting to get irritated with that bitch. The problem was that it was a lot more than just my relationship that she was threatening. The sign up at the library where Aurora worked - fine - that could be seen as her keeping track of my relationship. But slashing my tires? Raina knew how important my bike was to me and she knew my bike, as the leader of the Huns, didn't just signify that I was a biker but that I was a leader. It was my pride and joy. Her little act tonight - and I was pretty damn sure it had been her - was a challenge, a threat, to my men and my club, as well. And I would not stand for that. I trusted Shane to deliver Aurora safely home. He was the one man I trusted with everything I had and I knew he would never in his life let something happen to her. I felt calm about her safety, but I was glad she'd been able to get some time off. Getting away with her wouldn't only help me relax with Raina around, but I couldn't wait to have her all to myself without any interference. I knew exactly where I was going to take her, too. I drove on the bike Shane had brought me. I was headed to the clubhouse. The bike felt foreign underneath my seat. A bike was so much more personal to me than a car; it was the difference between a hooker and a girlfriend, almost. I didn't feel comfortable riding another bike, but it was the quickest way to get to the boys and I needed to make sure they were safe. Before I'd left Aurora with Shane I'd sent out a group broadcast that the guys all needed to head to the clubhouse. It was dangerous having them all together like that, I knew, but I mentioned it and I needed to speak to them. They would watch their backs and look out for each other until I arrived. They were good men, noble men, and the one thing we'd all retained from our criminal days was the habit of sticking together. When I pulled into the club parking lot it looked like they were all present. The lot

was full of bikes but it was quiet inside where usually there was music and laughter and conversation. My stomach turned and I took a deep breath to try to calm myself. The biggest thing I had to show now was courage and calm. In times of hardship the leader couldn't panic in front of his men. I would do that behind closed doors if it came down to it. When I walked into the club everyone looked at me. They were all there, from what I could see. They looked grim, unsure, just as nervous as I felt. I put my hands on my hips and looked at the floor for a moment, not sure what to say. "Raina slashed my tires tonight," I said, staring with facts. There was no point messing around before getting down to businesses. A murmur rippled through the group. They understood just as I did what it meant. The door opened and everyone froze, but it was Shane. We made eye contact and he nodded. Aurora was home safe. "I have news," one of the boys said. "She was seen meeting with Masher." I raised my eyebrows. Masher was the head of a club we used to be rivals with and sine we'd turned a new page they'd seen us as pussies. "She also met with Don," someone else said. "And I heard she set up a meeting with the Turk." The last was from Shane. I frowned. They were all heads of very big gangs, rival gangs. This was not good. "They sound like they're planning on making a move." They all nodded in agreement. This really wasn't good. I thought for a moment. First priority was to get my family safe. Now that included Aurora. "I want you guys to start meeting at the Restaurant from now on," I said. "I got that one after Raina so she won't have tabs on it the way she has on this one and the other clubs might not either. Still, watch your backs." I turned to Shane. "I'm putting you in charge of everything until I'm back." He nodded and pounded his chest twice with his fist. It made a deep sound. I turned

back to my men. "I'm leaving for a couple of days. Raina has taken it a step too far and I'm going to lay low, take care of someone, but I will be in touch and the moment something happens, I'm here." They muttered amongst themselves but I didn't care what they thought. I knew I was a good leader and I knew I would never let anything happen to them. And while I was gone I knew Shane wouldn't let anything happen either. That was all that mattered. I clapped Shane on the shoulder and walked out of the club. I took out my phone before I got on my bike and dialed Aurora's number. I made sure she was okay and that she knew I was coming and drove to her apartment. This was where I was supposed to pick her up the first time. I parked my bike close to the building and climbed the stairs up to the third floor. There were only two doors and hers opened just as I lifted my fist to knock. "I heard your bike," she said. She was out of breath like she'd been packing in hurry. "Are you ready to go?" She nodded and stepped aside so I could walk into the apartment. It was neat and tidy and so much like her, I would have known it was her place even if she wasn't in it. It suited her perfectly. It was so different from my place, which was stark and lifeless with dark colors and clothes on the floor. Mine was a real bachelor pad. Hers was homey. She disappeared into the bedroom and brought out a bag. I took it from her. "I'm nervous," she said. "Don't be. I'll make sure nothing happens to you. She's just a bitch from my past. Every break up has a psycho ex." "I've never had one slash my tires." That was true. I shrugged. "Worse things have happened." Aurora pulled a face. "That wasn't exactly what I needed to hear right now."

I shook my head, feeling silly. "Come on, let's get out of here." I managed to get her bag onto my bike before I drove to the rental company where I was picking up a car. I wasn't going to drive a hundred miles out of town on a bike that wasn't my own in the middle of the night. When I got there the car was ready for me. I knew enough people that could make something like this happen. "We just need to stop at my place so I can grab some things and then we'll hit the road." I left the bike with the guy who promised to return it to the club where it belonged. We drove the short distance to my apartment and Aurora waited in the lounge for me while I went into the bedroom and threw clothes into a bag. Jeans, muscle shirts, Tshirts, a jacket. Shoes. I wasn't sure what else. Whatever I forgot I could buy in the nearest town. When I came out of the bedroom Aurora was looking at the only photo I had of Kyle. It was against the wall with a black frame, the color of mourning. She looked at me and in her eyes I could see the condolences even though she didn't say anything. I was glad she didn't. I walked to her and without a word I kissed her. I pulled her in for a hug and locked up. When we had everything packed in the car and drove out of town it was well past midnight. "You should get some sleep," I said. "There's a long drive ahead of us." Aurora protested, telling me she wanted to stay awake with me, but her routine was a day one. I was up most nights and I was used to a lack of sleep. By the time the sky colored with the promise of dawn she was asleep next to me. There was something peaceful about her sleeping. She looked younger and even more innocent than when she was awake. It was magical that she was here with me, and as the sun rose, casting it orange rays on her face, I wished we could run away and never come back. The cabin was in the middle of nowhere, in wild country with rolling hills and trees everywhere. A big lake lay in the middle of the basin like the water just never drained there. A cabin was built in the edge of the lake that I used for a safe house now and then. It was private, this part of the forest belonging to the land on which the cabin was built, which meant it belonged to me. It was peaceful. It was quiet. It was exactly what we needed.

Aurora woke up when we parked and looked around. God, she was adorable when she just woke up, half asleep still. "Are we there?" she asked in a husky voice. "We are." I smiled at her before getting out. She got out too, and walked toward the water. I unlocked the cabin door and put our bags in the bedroom. The place was a bit dusty but that was something we could sort out. We just needed groceries and I needed to get the park inspector to connect the electricity. When I walked outside Aurora was on the edge of the water, looking around. She had her arms wrapped around herself. When she heard my approach her she turned around. "This place is beautiful." I nodded. "It's my getaway." "And you brought me here? It seems so personal. So special." I shrugged. "You're so special." She smiled and leaned into me. I kissed her and wrapped my arms around her, drinking in her body heat. The heat and the closeness quickly turned from something comfortable to something spicy again and I looked into her eyes. Here we were alone. We could do whatever we liked for as long as we liked. And when we were done, we could do it all again.

CHAPTER 19 Aurora It was only after Hunter had broken in the cabin, as he called it, that I had a chance to really pay attention to it. We were sweating and naked on the bed when I finally looked around the room. We'd stumbled into the room together, stripping clothes off like it burned us, and we were only focused on each other until now. The whole cabin was made of logs on the outside and on the inside it was all wood. The walls, the floor. The ceiling was normal and there were tiles outside. Two bedrooms, one of which was an office, an open plan kitchen complete with a breakfast nook and a lounge that had a spectacular view over the lake. It was quaint and magical and almost fictional. I didn't think I would have been able to write something this spectacular even if I tried. The furniture looked like it had been passed down from one generation to the next with a floral pattern that dated back to the fifties and a box television that didn't even have cable. That was okay, though, because who wanted to watch television when you were in a place like this. There were hills all around us, rising up a little and trees everywhere so we were secluded without it being stuffy and closed off. The air was crisp and I was sure air pollution was a million miles away. Just like everything else, which included my work at the library, the book club ad everything else. The book club. I hadn't thought about that when I'd left. I was sure I'd missed a meeting. No one had called me, but maybe Meredith had assumed. I ran inside and fetched my phone. Hunter was on the couch typing something on his, looking nervous again. I hoped he wouldn't be tense the whole time we were here, but I had to remind myself we weren't here on vacation. We were here hiding out. Still, it seemed like a great way just to escape. I dialed Meredith's number and after a while she answered. "Where have you been? I tried phoning this morning and it went straight to voicemail. When I stopped at your place to drop you off at work you weren't in."

"I'm sorry," I said, walking out onto the deck that jutted into the lake, slicing into the natural round shape of the water. "I'm out of town for a while." She was quiet for a beat. "And this was something you just decided on last minute?" I sighed and sat down. The water lapped almost onto the deck the lake was that full, and the sound was calming in the same way the ocean was. I liked it here. "I'm with Hunter. He took me to a cabin in the woods." "What? When did this happen?" I smiled. "We just arrived." Meredith made all sorts of sounds that ranged from surprise to horror and back to surprise. "That escalated quickly. The last time we spoke you were telling me how he was a two-faced asshole and now you're on holiday with him?" I stretched out my legs and closed my eyes, feeling the sun on my skin. "You were right about him. It was his crazy ex that messaged him. She's been causing a lot of trouble, being a threat, so we're away for a while." Meredith snorted. "So let me get this straight. You weren't fine with the message that came through and you were ready to write him off, but now your lives are in danger and you think that's fine? You went with him?" Putting it like that it really didn't make sense. "I don't know what to say...I trust him. He's different than the rest of them." I told her about the Girls and Boys Club and how it happened that we ended up on the beach with his tires slashed. I told her about Raina and the library, and I told her about his club and his past that was so bad and he turned out so great despite it. Meredith listened to everything quietly, gasping and commenting in the right places, and when I was done she cleared her throat. "Do you know what I'm getting out of all of this?" I shook my head. "What?"

"That you're falling for this guy." I laughed. "Really? You didn't get that maybe he's honorable and maybe I'm living the adventure I usually read about? Or write about?" "Well, that too." She laughed. "But even though it all sounds very romantic and life threatening and all that, you have to be careful. Are you sure you're safe? The last thing I want if for something to happen to you during this real life fantasy." I looked toward the cabin where Hunter was standing just outside the front door, looking in my direction. I waved and he lifted a hand in a half wave. "He'll look after me. You should see how he is about his men. He's so different than the standard badass biker." "Well, maybe when you get back you'll introduce him to me." I wasn't sure if she was sarcastic or not, but I said I would. I hung up. When I walked to the cabin Hunter looked at my phone. "Who did you call?" "My friend, Meredith. I needed to let her know I wasn't going to our writing meetings for a while so she didn't panic when I didn't rock up." He nodded. I couldn't help but laugh. "You don't have to look so suspicious. She's on our side. Besides, if she alerts the police that I'm missing and the last person I saw was you that might be a problem." Hunter shrugged. "I have something for you." He produced my manuscript. Finally. I shook my head and took it from him. There were pages with notes attached. He'd made an effort to go through it all and comment. It moved me. "This is a good place to write a bit. It's quite and clear and away from the mess of the city. I thought it would inspire you a little."

I turned and looked to the trees and the hills and the water and nodded. "You know what? It does." Of course, I didn't get much writing done at all. It was a novel idea, but I didn't get around to it. It was just Hunter and I in each other's company all the time, and that meant we had a lot of sex. What else were we going to do? It was the first time since we started seeing each other - which, I'll admit, wasn't very long ago - that we had time all to ourselves and we didn't have to worry about being dressed afterward. We could laze around naked in bed all day and then do it again when we felt like it. We slept naked. We swam naked. And we spent a lot of time with each other, on each other, in each other. The bathroom was primitive with just a shower, a toilet and a basin. It didn't matter. We made do. We had sex in every room, multiple times. It sounded obscene. A lot of it wasn't sex, though; it was making love. Somewhere it had gone over from fucking to something more sensual. The first time it happened I was taking a shower. I woke up earlier than usual from a nightmare that Hunter was shot. The sun wasn't in the sky yet, but the black of night had started fading away to give space to the dawn. I stood outside for a while, trying to get the fresh air to snap me out of it, but it was chilly and it was uncomfortable to stay outside. I locked myself back in the house again and decided instead to take shower. The whole bathroom was simple but the showerhead was something Hunter had replaced with one of those water saving massage heads. The shower was luxurious even though the bathroom wasn't. I stepped underneath the hot spray and let the water run down my body. I wanted it to wash away everything I'd dreamed and all the horrid feelings that had come with it. "Are you okay?" Hunter asked a moment later, popping his head into the door. The bathroom was steamed up, as was the glass wall that made up the shower cubicle, and the view of him was blurry. "I didn't mean to wake you." "It's okay. I just wanted to make sure there wasn't something wrong."

I tipped my head back and closed my eyes, speaking through the water. "Just a nightmare." Hunter came into the bathroom and closed the door, keeping all the warmth and steam inside. "Do you want to talk about it?" I shook my head. "Not really. It was about losing you." He was silent for a moment. He pushed open the glass door and stepped into the shower with me. We'd showered before and I liked how he filled up the space so our two bodies were crammed together in the tiny cubicle. He cupped my face in his hands and looked me in the eye. His eyes were dark and serious. The hair around his face started sticking to his skin from the water splashing onto him off me. "I can't tell what the future is going to hold for us, but there's something you need to know. I will make sure that nothing happens to either of us or my men to the best of my ability, and you will never lose me as long as it's in my control." There were so many loopholes I could think of to that statement but I wasn't going to go there. It had just been a nightmare, induced by why we were here, the last couple of days and the thriller I was writing that I'd been thinking about. I'd just scared myself, that was all. I nodded. "I know." Hunter lowered his lips to mine and kissed me. He tasted like the hot water that ran over both our faces. He stepped closer to me and our bodies melded together. I felt his hard sex against my stomach and my body responded as it always did, but this was different. This was sensual, emotional. We kissed for a long time, his hands staying on my face and in my hair. I was the one who reached down and wrapped my fingers around him, sliding up and down his shaft. The kissing changed immediately, like I'd changed channel. It became hotter, more urgent, and his hands started roaming. The hot water streamed over our skins and the air was so filled with steam it felt like we were breathing water. Hunter turned me and pushed me against the wall. The contrast between the cold tiles on my back and the hot water and Hunter's body on the front of my body was huge.

He lifted my leg with his hand so he could position himself between my thighs. He slid slowly into me. He was hard and thick and filled me up and I loved the feel of him inside of me. It felt natural. It felt right. He looked at me and kissed me again, and he interlinked his fingers with mine, holding one hand up against the wall. My other arm was wrapped around his neck, hand on his shoulder. I gasped as he slowly pushed into me and out of me, relishing the sensation, the closeness. The orgasms that followed were soft and serious, like the sex had been. I found that he coaxed out of me often resembled how we did it. Hot and wild, fast and intense, soft and emotional. I orgasmed twice before he finally picked up the pace enough to release inside of me. When he did it felt like he gave a piece of himself to me. "Aurora," he said when it was over and his mouth was buried in my neck. It was the first time he'd used my name in long time; he'd started calling me sweetheart or angel. "Hmm?" "I think I'm falling in love with you." The comment came out of nowhere and I didn't know how to respond. Hunter saved me from that dilemma. He kissed me, and kept kissing me for so long that the window for a reply passed and I wasn't set in a predicament. The truth was, verbalizing it was scary as hell, but I think that I might have felt the same. I was falling in love with him, too. The time I did spend writing I worked on the manuscript, changing my male love interest into someone who resembled Hunter. I worked on the character until every word and every action was on par with what I knew to be real in my life. Maya was my character in this fictional world. I wasn't married or in a world I didn't know wasn't real, but I could relate to her confines, her parameters, the rules she had to live by. I resonated with the concept that everything had to be perfect and still she never fit in. That was how I felt about a lot of thing in my life. A lot of things besides Hunter. The whole thing with him and the club and his ex trying to take them down might have sounded like a new kind of prison - one of fear

and hiding - but the truth was the more time I spent with Hunter, the more he set me free. I worked from the start and every time I rewrote something I left it for a while before rereading it. It felt like everything was different in my life, and because of that, everything was different in my story. Maya Rivers was a good wife in a cut and paste life with a husband that took his job seriously. The rules were there but she saw them as something to abide by than fight against it. She saw it as a way to teach herself how she ought to be. Carl was the overseer at a morgue during daylight hours, making sure the bodies coming in were labeled and put on ice. Sometimes it felt like he put her on ice, as well, like she was just another body he'd made sure was in the right place. He came home at six on the dot every evening and they ate supper at seven. Maya made sure the house was clean for her husband. She decorated it with plants and flowers and all things colorful that made life just a little less dull when he was away from the office. She tried to tell herself this was the way to go, this was how everyone else did it, too. She tried to make peace with the fact that everyone who gave themselves over to a way of life had to die a little in some ways to truly be happy. *** The doorbell rang, shocking through her, ripping her back to reality. She felt like she'd been caught in the act. She shoved all the papers and letters back into the file and returned it to the drawer under the book. In her room, she stepped into kitten heels and looked in the mirror. Perfectly put together besides the haunted look in her eyes. She practiced a smile before walking to the door. She kept that smile plastered on her face and opened the door. A man stood on the other side. He was rugged and wild with an air to him that suggested he was the alpha and he challenged everyone that dared question it. Black hair, eyes like ice, leather clothes that screamed danger. Maya swallowed hard. Had he come for her? "Mrs. Rivers?"

Maya nodded. "I'm Duke Larson. I'm someone hired to come to you when your husband files for a lawyer." "You don't look like a lawyer." She’d never heard of this man in my life. She wasn't aware Carl would file for one. "I'm not." He didn't offer anymore, like Maya was on a need to know basis. She wanted to know. She wanted to know who he was and what he wanted. She wanted to know what he wanted with her. For safety, or course, she told herself. Even when his muscles bulged against his shirt and his leather pants looked so tight around the hips they looked painted on. "How can I help you?" She sounded more in control than she thought. "There are some documents I need to collect from you when Carl Rivers disappeared." Who the hell was this guy? "Disappeared?" He was too calm about this. Maya was torn. Half of her was attracted to this bearer of bad news, to this sin eater. The other half was dizzy with questions. Disappeared. Documents. Too much information bounced around her mind. "You do have the documents, don't you?" "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about." "Don't play games, sweetheart." His voice was rough. A shiver ran down Maya's spine. He cocked and eyebrow and his look made her feel unbalanced. There was something about this man. She needed to avoid him. She was a married woman.

"You're Angelique Rivers, I know you are." Blood drained from Maya's face and for a moment the world went black.

I wasn't a good writer by a long shot, no matter how sweet Hunter was about it. But I felt like here, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature and a man who was starting to fall in love with me, I could do more than before. How did I know that his affections for me were sincere? Every day someone drove up from the city. Every time it was another member of his gang, and every time without fail they would bring me a gift Hunter had asked them to bring along. A book, a bunch of flowers, a necklace, a box of chocolates. Normal, clichĂŠ gifts, but the way he did it made it seem like every gift was unique. After he delivered the gift he would take a walk with the man who arrived. They would disappear into the woods to talk business and sometimes they would stay away for hours. Every time he came back he seemed anxious and nervous but I noticed how hard he tried to keep it all away from me. He was never removed, he was never distant and he always made sure I was taken care of first and foremost. Even when he had to spend a lot of time on the phone. I was starting to learn that Hunter, as badass and arrogant as he seemed, was the kind of person who put everyone else before himself. It was a good quality. It was completely unexpected from a biker.

CHAPTER 20 Hunter It was a good thing I kept Aurora away. Since Raina had slashed my tires Shane had set men on watch around Aurora's place, too, just to be sure she wasn't in any kind of danger once we returned. There was movement around Aurora's apartment every now and then and it was never any of her friends. When approached the person would say they were feeding the cat or watering the plants. Aurora had neither. There was movement around the clubhouse, too. I was glad the men had moved their meetings, but this much movement worried me. Something was going to happen soon. I could feel it building in the air, in the tension the men brought alone when they came out to speak to me, in the undercurrents over the phone. I didn't like war. I didn't like it when there was a chance we could lose someone. I'd been through a lot in my life and I knew how to handle it but that didn't mean I wanted to go through it again. The men thought it best for me to stay away. I felt like I had to be there but I was torn between them and Aurora. I didn't want her back there but I didn't want to leave her here alone. The men were a little unsure about how Kyle died and they didn't want me going the same way. I wasn't sure it would go down like that, either way I wanted to be there for them. When Shane came through I was relieved to see him. He was the one person who could tell me to stay put and I would do it. "I want to be there and help out. I feel like I'm neglecting the boys." Shane shook his head. "I know where you're at, but they're right. You need to be here to watch her." He gestured toward the cabin where Aurora was writing. "They can't find Raina at all. The last she was seen was almost three days ago." I frowned. "That's not good." "We've been asking around but no one knows anything. There are a few of the members at the other clubs that are hiding something - I got some of them to speak a bit - but they're acting dumb. Someone knows where she is but I don't know who and I don't know how to get that information."

I looked over the lake. It was so peaceful out here; it seemed wrong to pollute it with talk of gang wars. But sometimes these were things that couldn't be helped and Raina was asking for trouble. If I wanted things to go anywhere with Aurora, which I really did, I needed this to end once and for all. I wasn't interested in her interfering with the first real relationship in my life. "Are you serious about her?" Shane asked, turning the conversation to Aurora. We both looked at the cabin in silence for a while. I pictured her at the desk, typing on her laptop, her fingers floating over the keys. She was in a different world when she typed and I could watch her concentration, her distant thoughts, her expression, forever. "I am. She's different, Shane. She makes me think that there's a future to be had." "It's been a long time since you felt that way." I nodded. I kept fighting after I lost Kyle because there were people to take care of and a club to fight for, but I had given up on anything real for myself ever again. I'd started living solely for others, and for the first time since then, I was living for myself again. "What do you think of her?" Shane had driven her back to her home and he was a good judge of character. "I think she's a lot stronger and more stable than she thinks. She's deceptively naĂŻve but she knows what's going on. She knows what she's doing. She's the complete opposite of you." I nodded. This was true. "Maybe that's why I like her so much."

CHAPTER 21 Hunter When Shane left it was almost sunset and I'd left Aurora alone for most of the day. Aurora understood I had business to tend to and she knew something wasn't right. She never made me feel like I was neglecting her. I still did. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with her, and the times my men weren't here and I wasn't making phone calls or texting them, I tried to escape it all with Aurora. She was the one thing - the only thing - that could distract me from the life I'd built for myself and the drama that came with it. That was something special. I didn't often find something, in this case someone, that could take me away from everything that had happened and stop me from being terrified it would all happen again. "Is everything okay?" she asked when I stepped into the cabin. She was in the little kitchen making food - pasta of some kind - and it smelled great. My stomach rumbled. "Is there anything you can't do?" I asked her, watching her cook for a moment. She grinned. "You're being overly sweet right now. Stick around long enough and you'll get to know all my shortcomings." I walked to her, put my arms around her waist, kissed her neck. "Everything's okay for now," I answered her earlier question. "A bit of drama but nothing serious has happened yet." "You still think it will." A statement, not a question. I nodded on her shoulder. "If I know Raina, which unfortunately I do all too well, things won't end here. She's not the type to leave something half done. She will push it past the point of completion but she will never leave something before at least seeing it through to the end." Aurora was silent for a moment before she spoke again. "I'm sorry." "For what?"

She turned in my arms so she was facing me and our bodies were pressed against each other. It wasn't always about sex between us. Right now, her body this close, made me feel safe and warm and oddly removed from all the responsibility on my shoulders, all the lives in my care. "I'm sorry you're going through this and there's so little I can do to help." I kissed her. "Don't be. You're doing more than you know." She smiled and turned back to the pasta she was making. I let go of her and poured us each a glass of wine. I was starting to think that this - the quiet life with the woman I was with - was the way to go. I was getting really serious about her. I didn't want this just to be a fling. We were way past the one-night stand point, but I didn't want this to end here. Hell, if I thought about it properly I didn't want it to end, period. It was something that got me thinking. My life had been about survival since my parents died, but Kyle had taken the brunt. When Kyle died everything changed for me and the only person who was going to care for me was me. I'd managed for over ten years now, but the truth was this: slowing down and having time to breathe again was the kind of peace I'd never thought I would know. Aurora made that happen for me. She didn't judge me, she didn't expect me to be someone else, and she gave me a purpose that was positive. I was building something with her, not just repairing damage as I went along. It felt like, for the first time, I was creating something new instead of fighting over and over again for a life that already broken. Maybe it was time to settle down, to stop all this nonsense and do something with my life that was worth living. Worth living with her. I could let someone else take over and use the money that came in to start a family with her. I could be a dad who wasn't caught up in dangerous crimes so I would always be there for my children. The thought of wanting to create a future with someone shocked through my system. I had never thought about settling down with a woman, let alone having children. I'd always thought this world was too disgusting to subject another human life. Aurora was starting to show me there was a lot of beauty in it, too. She dished up for us and we each walked to the couch with a plate of pasta with sauce that smelled fantastic, and a glass of wine. We sat down. The sun had started to set and it cast an orange glow into the room. Her hair looked like it was on fire where the

sun touched it. We ate together. Dusk fell and we sipped our wine, not making a move to switch on the lights. We were huddled together in the dim light, shrouded in darkness and companionship, and I knew I wanted this forever. "Aurora," I said and she looked up, "I think I need to head back in the morning and see what I can do to end this." She frowned but nodded and in that moment it was impossible to tell how grateful I was for her. She didn't fight me on what my men needed. Ever. "Just be careful, okay?" I nodded. "I want to come home to you after it's all over," I said. "I've fallen for you and you've made me realize life is worth so much more than just surviving one day to the next." When I looked at Aurora she smiled. "You know I'll wait for you." "I know, but I don't just want to date you. I want to marry you." She froze and her eyes searched my face like any moment I was going to tell her I was joking. I was dead serious, though, and after a moment she realized it, too. "What?" "I'm asking you to marry me." She shook her head. "Hunter..."

CHAPTER 22 Aurora He'd asked me to marry him. Marriage. This wasn't the same as asking someone out for a date. This was the rest of our lives we were talking about. I was really serious about him already, despite the short amount of time we'd known each other, but marriage was so much more serious. Was he willing to spend the rest of his life with one woman - a woman whose life was about as interesting as the library itself? Was I willing to live with someone who was constantly in danger and had a past that kept coming back to haunt him, literally? His face was full of expectancy when he said it. He hadn't actually asked me to marry him; they were both statements, but this was the Hunter I knew and the Hunter I'd come to love. He did nothing the conventional way. "We hardly know each other," I said. He nodded. "I know. But I know enough about you that I know I want to do this for the rest of my life. You're different than anyone else I've ever been with and I don't want this to end." I shook my head. It was too fast. This was all moving so quickly. It had only been just over two weeks. Who got engaged just after two weeks? What if something was wrong? What if there was a side to him I was yet to find out about, a side I didn't like? "I need some time to think about it," I said. He looked disappointed when I said so, but he nodded. I didn't want him to feel like I was rejecting him but, the truth was, I needed to know this was the right thing for me. This was one thing I couldn't do for him. I needed to do it for myself. I needed to make sure I was doing the right thing for me and my future happiness. We sat in silence in the increasing darkness and it felt like home, even though we were far away from anything I knew. I was sure with Hunter, everything would feel that way. We were really good together. That was when I realized it. That was when I understood that if it felt like home with him now, what were the chances it would stop feeling like this down the line? He was already doing everything people did for each other in important, long-term relationships. He was caring, gentile, he made space for me in his life without sacrificing the other things that were important to him, and he

respected me and my life and my future goals. He respected who I was as a person without trying to change me. Wasn't that what everyone wanted in a relationship? Wasn't that what marriage counselors advised and people pointed out when it was lacking? Sure, it had only been two weeks, but it felt like the foundations were already in place. We had what it took to make it last. "Okay," I said. It was so dark now I could only make out his form on the other end of the couch. "Okay, what?" "Okay, I'll marry you." Stunned silence hung between us for a moment and then he laughed. "When you said you needed time to think I thought you meant like a week or two or something like that. I didn't think we were talking about fifteen minutes." I smiled and shrugged even though he couldn't see me at all. "There wasn't too much to think about. I covered everything I needed to. I'd be happy to marry you." He crawled over the couch toward me and kissed me. The kiss was long and tender and sensual and every other quality that had come to define our relationship. "I do have a few conditions, though." "What?" He sounded suspicious. Was I going to ask him to give up something he loved? "I want all this business with Raina and the club over with before we get married. I don't want her to interfere with our marriage. Once it’s me and you, it's just me and you and no one else." "Done. I'll sort it out and we'll be Raina-free forever." I nodded. "I also want you to be safe. I don't want to have to sit and wonder if you're coming home to me at the end of every night." I was thinking about his parents dying,

his brother, everyone in his life being ripped away. I loved him and I was strong but I wasn't strong enough for that. I wouldn't make it if I had to sit on the edge of my seat waiting for him to walk through the door and one day he just never did. "I understand. I've been thinking about it, too." I kissed him again. "Good. Thank you." "What else?" I shook my head. "No, that's it." "You don't want me to stop riding my bike or something like that?" I laughed. "I met you on that bike, practically. I'm not asking you to change who you are, Hunter. I just want us to make it through." He laughed, too, and it sounded like he was relieved. He kissed me again, and this time he pushed his body up against mine. He was ready for sex, I could feel it in his muscles, in the hardness in his pants, the way he was kissing me. I was ready to celebrate our engagement. It turned from happy and gentle and loving to urgent and heated and sexy. His hands were all over my body, over my clothes and then under it. He massaged my breasts, tweaked my nipples, grinded his hips against mine until I was wet and hungry, a hot mess. I wanted him. I wanted all of him and I wanted it right now. I was still reeling with the decision I’d made, with the choice to spend the rest of my life with him. He was the perfect man – a bad boy who could be nice just for me, someone who could treat me like a princess and still make my life feel like it was a dangerous adventure. I had taken a bit of time – admittedly, not a lot – to think about the prospect of marrying him, and I had found there was absolutely no reason to say no. Nothing at all. Hunter lifted himself off me and I felt his absence acutely. I moaned in protest. He took my hand and pulled me up. We were going to the bedroom. He led me to the

front door, instead. On the little porch he grabbed the two beach towels we’d been using whenever we swam in the lake and walked toward the water, leading me. I followed him, letting me take me. I trusted him no matter what. On the deck that reached into the water, he started undressing me. The night was dark, with a half-moon hanging silver in the sky, reflection on the water that was almost completely quiet, a sea of glass. He pulled my shirt over my head, undid my bra and let it fall onto the wooden deck. He bent down and took each nipple into his mouth, one after the other, sucking me until I was writhing with sexual anticipation. He pulled my pants down, rubbing his hands down my legs in the process and he kissed my ankles one by one when I lifted them. When he straightened up he pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it. He pulled his pants down and his erection was clear in the moonlight. He was as eager as I was. He looked at me and flashed a devilish smile. Then he dove into the water. I watched him go under for a moment and then reappear, hair slick against his head, his head only a profile against the dark water. I dove in, too, unwilling to be naked on the deck without him. The cold water was a shock on my system and I squirmed before I reached the surface. When I came up for air I was gasping. “This is freezing.” He swam to me, laughing, and wrapped his arms around me. His body was hot, the contrast great in the cold water. He moved the both of us toward the deck so one of the beams was behind my back and pressed his body against mine. His body heat flooded me, bringing back the urge for sex. The cold water had done nothing to his raging erection. He was as hard and eager as he had been before jumping in. He kissed me. His tongue was warm even though his lips were cold and he tasted like lake water and Hunter – a taste that belonged only to him. His hand was on my face, sliding down to my neck, my chest, and he massaged my breast under the water. My nipples were tight from the cold and the idea of sex and he pulled and tugged on them, driving me crazy. I lifted my legs, wrapping them around his hips. I pulled him closer to me and his erection was against my thigh and then on my core, searing hot. I moved myself

against him for a while, rubbing him up and down with my sex, making him want it. His one hand braced against the deck’s support beam, the other was on the small of my back, pushing me against him. His head was in my neck, sucking and nibbling on the delicate skin. When he started groaning I knew it was enough playing around. He wanted me and I was well past wanting him inside of me. I lifted slightly and pulled myself down on him, gasping as he pushed into me. No matter how many times we had sex, it would never change, never be something I got used to. Every time we did it, it felt like the first time. Hunter helped me and we used each other and the support beam to move against each other, to pump in and out, to have sex. It was thrilling doing this here, in the lake, naked. The contrast between the cold water and our warm bodies, the hot sex, was erotic. I wasn’t cold at all anymore. Hunter had his hand on my breast again and he rubbed my nipple in circles with his thumb. The sensation was delicious and before long I orgasmed. I jerked against him and grabbed onto him, legs and arms around his body, trusting him to keep me up, my head above water. The water moved away from us in little ripples, created by our movements. Hunter didn’t stop moving when I orgasmed. He slowed down and before I was done he picked up pace again, drawing the orgasm out. It was the best sex we’d had so far, but every time we did it, it felt like that. He didn’t take much longer before he came. He released inside of me and it was hot. When he was done he slipped out of me and kissed me. I felt our fluids in the water around us, warm. “Let’s get back to the cabin, dry up and then we’ll see what happens when we get to the bedroom.” His voice was deep and guttural, the way it got when we had sex, and I loved it. The idea of more of this was thrilling. I nodded and he got out of the water first, now limp, and pulled me out. We toweled off and with the towels wrapped around our bodies, clothes bundled in our arms, we ran back to the cabin.

I frowned. The light was on inside. We had left it off. Hunter was ahead of me. I was relieved he would be the first to run into whoever was there. He would protect me; he would stop at nothing. There were bikes in front of the cabin. His gang members were here, two, by the looks of it. Hunter opened the door and stepped inside with the authority of a real leader despite the fact that he was only wearing a towel. There was no question about who was in charge. I stepped in behind him. Two pairs of eyes fell on me, took in my clothes, or lack thereof, and I felt uncomfortable. They were serious, though, and turned their attention back to Hunter immediately. I walked past them into the bedroom to get dressed. They were talking in the small lounge. I could hear their voices, urgent, serious, but not what they were saying. Something was wrong, I could feel it in the air. They’d come here to fetch him. He was going to go back with them. He’d already said he wanted to do that in the morning. He’d already wanted to go. Maybe it was something he’d already known about. I never asked when it came down to his gang and the business with them. I figured he would tell me if there was something I needed to know, and so far, nothing had come up. I trusted Hunter to do the right thing, to stop it from coming between us. I trusted him with my life. I hadn’t known him for very long and I felt like I was safe with him no matter what, safer than I’d ever felt with some other people. The only problem I had with him was that I didn’t trust him with his own life. I was aware he would sacrifice himself for any of his men if it came down to it and I didn’t want to have to live without him, especially not now since I’d decided I wanted to marry him. I didn’t want to be a widow. I didn’t want Hunter to die. After everything he’d told me about his parents and his brother, I wanted to be sure something like that would never happen with him. Still, I would never ask him to give up that part of himself. That was up to him to lay down if he felt like it was important. I rubbed my hair with a towel and put on a bit of makeup so I didn’t feel so naked. The door flew open and Hunter stormed in, yanking clothes on in a hurry.

“Is everything all right?” He looked worried, anxious. “No.” He didn’t say more and I knew better than to ask. He was in his clothes in less than a minute and stormed out of the room again. I followed, hanging back, trying to stay out of the fray. The other two were upset as well, visibly so. I wondered if it had to do with Hunter and how upset he was or the reason he was so upset in the first place. I knew better than to ask. I didn’t get involved. I had to trust he would fill me in. They looked at each other like something passed between them, communication without words. “I need to get back,” he said before turning to me. “I need you to ride back with Marcus.” The guy I assumed was Marcus nodded. “I’ll take her in the car.” “You come with me,” he pointed to the other guy. He turned to me, kissed me on the mouth and ran out the door. The other biker followed suit and then I was left with Marcus. He was about my height but he seemed a hell of a lot bigger with his muscles and his character filling up the room, making me feel small and insignificant. The sounds of the bikes starting up filled the night and then they were off with a roar. Hunter had taken Marcus’s bike and we were going back in the car. I looked at the door, feeling empty and forgotten. What if this was the last time I would ever see Hunter and that was the last goodbye? “He’ll be back for you,” Marcus said as if he knew what I was thinking. “He’s a tough one and he cares for you. He won’t leave you hanging.” I swallowed hard and nodded. “Do you want to pack your stuff?” Marcus asked. He was using a gentle voice on me, like someone who was trying to soothe a scared animal.

I nodded again and walked back to the room. I packed my bag on autopilot, putting everything in because that was what I was supposed to do. My stomach was a tight knot of nerves. I was scared for Hunter. I didn’t know what was wrong, but considering everything that had been happening I was scared it was a lot bigger than Hunter was making it seem. If Marcus had to take me home, it meant I wasn’t safe here, either. When I was done packing I brought the bag to the front and Marcus took it from me. A gentleman. All these bikers were, apparently. “What about Hunter’s stuff?” Marcus shook his head. “He’ll be back for them. He just wants me to make sure you’re home safe.” I nodded. This was terrifying. If home had been so unsafe I had to hide out here, what could have happened that even the lake wasn’t safe for me anymore? “Are you going to stay with me?” I asked. Marcus nodded. “Hunter asked me to watch over you.” It was a relief that I would be safe but I struggled with the fact that it had come to this, that Hunter might be in a lot more danger than I’d thought.

CHAPTER 23 Hunter They had Shane. He was the one person that was a part of my real family, he’d taken the role of Kyle after they’d killed him. And now he was taken hostage. Not them, I was wrong. Her. Raina. I wasn’t sure how she’d managed, if anyone was street smart it was Shane. He’d taught me everything I knew, and now she had him. She really must have done her homework. It wasn’t easy getting a hold of any of the bikers without creating an immediate, full on war. I was sick with dread. What if she hurt him? What if she killed him? She knew what it would do to me if I lost Shane, too. She knew it would kill me. It would be more satisfying to her to see me suffer through another loss like that than just to kill me. I had to get back home and find him. We drove through the night to get back. I was frantic, my mind running through every option and possibility. When they’d come to tell me something was wrong with Shane, I should have known what it was. I should have known by the looks on their faces the moment I’d walked into the room. I was scared for Aurora, too. Raina was getting her claws in every person I cared for, everyone in my life who meant something to me. I’d asked Marcus to look after her because I didn’t trust she would be safe anywhere without a flesh and blood bodyguard who knew how to fight and how to smell danger, who knew what he was doing. And I needed them close so I could reach them if something went wrong. So I wouldn’t be too far for her and it would be too late. If I lost Shane or Aurora, I might as well be dead. Raina knew all the heads of all the gangs who were against us. We’d worked our asses off to start over but there were those who couldn’t drop a grudge and there were those who said our trying to sort things out for ourselves made us cowards. They could call me whatever the hell they wanted as long as they left my people alone. They wanted a war – they got one. Shane was my man and he was not going to die at their hands. Not unless I died, too, and if I died I was going to take them all with me. I was going to go in there yippee-ki-yay style.

I’d just proposed to Aurora, dammit. I’d just offered her a life where I wanted to be done with all this, where I could live in peace without worrying about everyone and everything. I had been yanked back into this so quickly it was impossible to think how I would be able to make a life for her that was worth living. This needed to end once and for all so I could give her the life she deserved, so I could settle down and relax for a change. So I could get to a point where I forgot about my path and the people in it, where I could stop letting it define who I had become and dictate my actions. I needed to get away from all this shit. By the time we finally reached the clubhouse I had a plan of action. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, how I was going to approach this. First, I needed to make sure Aurora was still okay. I phoned her. “Are you all right?” They were still in the car; they’d left a lot later than I had and they were driving slower, Marcus sticking to the speed limit. “I’m okay. I’m going to see you again, right?” Her voice was riddled with fear. “I’m going to fix this, baby, and then it’ll just be me and you, forever.” “Promise me you’ll come back to me.” Those words broke my heart. I knew what she was thinking about. About Kyle and my parents. I knew how scared she was. I wasn’t going to admit I was scared, too. “I’ll come back to you. I promise. And then we’ll run away and make a life together. “I love you.” The words were filled with emotion, but not the kind I’d wanted. I didn’t want her to say I love you and make it sound like goodbye. “I’m coming back, Aurora.” I needed her to know how serious this was. When I hung up, I walked to the closet in the office at the club and unlocked it. We hadn’t opened it in years, but desperate times called for desperate measures. The back

of the closet was lined with guns, all sorts of semi-automatics, a terrorist’s wet dream. There were grenades, dynamite, handguns and packets of bullets. I looked at the ammo for a while, and then started strapping up. I’d promised Aurora I would be safe and I didn’t want to lie to her, but this was bigger than me. This was about more than just my life, and if it came down to Shane’s life or mine, it would be mine. I wanted him to live. I couldn’t carry on without him. I didn’t want to. But that wasn’t all I was going to do. This wasn’t a suicide mission. I made a call to some contacts who knew what they were doing, asking them to get a hold of certain people. After that I phoned my personal banker. She was up all hours of the night for me sometimes, but I paid her for it. If Raina wanted a war, she was going to get one.

CHAPTER 24 Aurora The drive was awkward. The car was small and the darkness made it seem cozy but we were strangers and the space was too tight. We were two people trapped in a version of intimacy that didn’t suit us, but there was nothing that could be done. I had to get home and Hunter trusted Marcus with my life, which meant, logically, I trusted him, too. “Are you allowed to tell me what this is all about?” I asked. My voice was thin in the darkness between us and Marcus hesitated before he answered. “I wasn’t told not to tell you.” It wasn’t much of an answer but I went with it. “I’m really worried. I can’t just sit here and not go mad, my thoughts are driving me crazy.” He nodded, his face only a profile against the passing scenery. “You and Hunter are close, aren’t you?” When Marcus didn’t tell me anything, the way I needed him to, I cleared my throat. “Here’s the deal. I will tell you the big news about me and Hunter if you tell me what’s going on. Does that seem fair?” He glanced at me. “There’s big news to tell about you and Hunter? Hunter doesn’t do big news with women.” I shrugged. “You don’t have to believe me.” I was hoping he would take the bait, let curiosity get the better of him. I needed him to want this information so I could have mine. He sighed. “You drive a hard bargain.” I shrugged in response. “I can see what Hunter sees in you.” He thought for a moment longer. “Raina took Shane.” I froze. “Shane, the guy he sees as his brother?” Marcus nodded. “So you know about that.” “I do. He told me how serious Shane is to him, that he’s like a brother to him, that he

took Kyle’s place.” The mood in the car dipped, becoming morbid. Kyle’s death was personal to a lot more people than just Hunter. “Kyle was a good guy. He knew how to keep Hunter on the straight and narrow even though Hunter was spinning out of control. When he died, everyone thought we would lose Hunter, too. I had been part of the Huns when Kyle was alive but when he died I left for a while. I needed to clear my head, revise what I was doing with my life. When Hunter turned the whole gang around I joined them again, ready to start fresh. Hunter has been in inspiration, getting over all the loss in his life. It’s thanks to Shane that he made it at all.” I swallowed, an unexpected lump in my throat. “What will Raina do to Shane?” Marcus took a deep breath. “She threatened that if Hunter doesn’t surrender the Desert Huns to her, along with all the assets, she’s going to kill him. She wants Hunter to leave town.” “But the Huns belong to Hunter. He inherited it.” Marcus chuckled without emotion. “You haven’t met Raina and her wrath. She won’t rest until she owns the Huns. Sometimes I think that was the only reason she dated Hunter in the first place. There’s only one person that woman cares about, and that’s herself. She tricked everyone into thinking she had a heart but that’s a big fat lie. All she has is a lifetime of greed.” I shook my head. I knew what it was like to date someone who didn’t fit into your life. Of course, none of my boyfriends had been crazy, but crazy people, maniacs, could happen to anyone. “What is Hunter going to do?” It was Marcus’s turn to shrugged and he gripped the steering wheel just a little tighter. “I don’t know. He hadn’t decided yet when he’d left but I know how his head works. He will know what he’s going to do by now and if know our boy at all, it’s not going to be pretty. Raina is arrogant but you don’t fuck with Hunter and she forgot that.” He glanced at me, looking apologetic in the passing car lights after he swore. I didn’t mind. This was part of Hunter’s world, part of who he was. I embraced it.

I took a deep breath and looked out the window. What if he didn’t come back? But I couldn’t think like that. “Now it’s your turn,” Marcus said. “A deal is a deal.” I smiled. “Hunter and I are engaged.” Marcus looked at me, his eyes narrowed. “Are you fucking…uh...messing with me?” I laughed. “No I’m not messing with you. He asked me earlier tonight.” Marcus was quiet for a while. “You must really have something special,” he finally said. “Hunter doesn’t just get attached to anyone, not with how many people have been ripped away from him.” That made sense, and with Marcus putting it like that I was starting to realize just how special this was. “Do you think it will last? Do you think he’s genuine about it?” Marcus nodded. “Hunter doesn’t just jump into something. When he decides on something as permanent as marriage he’s going into it with his eyes wide open. He’s been burned and he’s loved and lost and he won’t just do it unless he really thinks it’s worth it.” The words were comforting. “He must have thought about it for some time to know that’s what he wants.” Some time? We hadn’t even been together that long. Still, it was good to know Hunter had made that choice and that I was something special to him. It was good to hear someone else say it and not just hear it from him. Now, if only we could get through this mess alive and well, it would be smooth sailing. The drive was a lot longer than it had been when we’d gone to the cabin and I fell asleep. When we pulled into my road, Marcus woke up me and it was morning. We parked in front of the apartment and it felt like a lifetime had passed since I’d last

been here. Marcus got my bag out the back and carried it for me all the way to my door. When I unlocked he insisted he go in first. I stood out in the hallway, heart pounding, wondering what could possibly go wrong. I imagined all sorts of scenarios where bad guys ran out of the place with guns and masks and I stood away from the door just in case. Marcus appeared a moment later, telling me the coast was clear. I felt stupid. My writer’s mind had gone on a rampage again. When we were inside I made us both coffee and put Marcus’s on the coffee table before heading for the room with mine to unpack. I felt uncomfortable with a stranger in my space but I understood that Hunter wanted me safe and I would deal with it for him. Marcus was sweet and caring and taking care of me for Hunter. It meant a lot. I unpacked my bag, drank my coffee alone, and got in the shower. I still had the lake and our sex on me and my hair was a mess having dried funny. When I got out I felt fresh and clean. I walked to the front room where Marcus was watching television – didn’t this guy need any sleep? – and told him he was welcome to some food in the fridge. He said he’d ordered some pizza. Pizza for breakfast? I guess if you haven’t slept, breakfast didn’t mean a thing. I walked back to the room and found my cellphone and called Meredith. “I’m back,” she said. “How was it?” I rolled on to the bed. “Oh, my God. He’s amazing. He’s everything you can imagine in the perfect guy except he’s dangerous, too, in a good way. To other people.” Meredith laughed. “I haven’t heard you this happy in a long time.” “I haven’t been this happy in a long time. Hunter makes me feel like anything is possible, you know?” He made me feel like everything was different, even my current situation. I didn’t say that part, though. I was scared it would sound too cheesy. “When are you joining us again?” Meredith asked. “The girls miss you.”

“I’ll be at the next meeting.” I imagined Marcus sitting in and grinned. “Besides, I have something really big to tell you. To tell all of you.” “What is it?” Someone banged on my front door and I froze. “I have to go,” I said softly. Unless Marcus had buzzed someone up, something was wrong. “Okay, but call me. I want details. You can’t leave me hanging.” I ended off the conversation and walked to the lounge. Marcus was at the door, his hands balled into fists. He looked alert and ready for a fight. He didn’t seem nervous at all. I had more than enough for the two of us. “Did you let the pizza man up?” I whispered. He looked at me and shook his head. I was terrified. “Don’t open it.” The words had barely left my mouth when the door broke open. Whoever was on the other side had kicked it. The burglar chain ripped out of the wall – fat lot of use that was – and someone with a black mask walked into the apartment. Marcus attacked. I screamed.

CHAPTER 25 Hunter I was strapped up and ready to go. I paced up and down the club, all alone now, waiting for something to come through. I knew she had to contact me somehow. She would know by now that I was back in town. I was angry. Rage coursed through my veins, keeping me running even though I hadn’t slept at all. I was edgy, wired, itching for a fight. I needed to get going now. All this adrenaline was going to kill me if I didn’t do something with it. When nothing came through I headed toward my apartment. I couldn’t sit in one place and do nothing. I needed more weapons, something that would see me through this. The men were all at the Restaurant, waiting for orders. I didn’t want more of them in danger. When I got to the apartment I changed my clothes. I got into black leather pants, a black t-shirt. Black leather jacket with studs. When I looked in the mirror I had a flashback to the time Kyle had died. I’d looked in the mirror then and I’d seen what I’m seeing now. I looked manic, but my madness had a purpose. Raina’s madness was like a loose cannon. I strapped all my weapons back onto my body. Guns, grenades, bullets. Dynamite. Raina asked for it, now all hell was going to break loose. It was exactly noon when she finally messaged me. It was unlike her to do things in the day but I got the idea she was getting desperate. Either that, or she was losing the plot completely. I wasn’t sure. The message was simple. Shipyard. Alone. Well, she was going to get me alone. At least, that was what she thought. It was never a good idea to underestimate the enemy. I wasn’t the messed up guy who didn’t know what he was doing or where he was headed anymore, the way I used to be while we were dating. I had purpose now, a goal, dreams. People in my life who were worth it. Aurora. I got on my own bike and drove to the shipyard. The place was busy on a good day. I was willing to bet people had been paid for it to be deserted today. The sun was

scorching hot, beating down on my neck, making me sweat in my leather clothes, but I needed to look intimidating and I needed the jacket to hide what I was packing. The sky was an impossible blue with no clouds in the sky and even the breeze felt hot and stifling. It was ironic that a day like today, when things could go so horrible wrong, the weather would be so damn beautiful. It had been that way with Kyle, too. People never seem to get shot on rainy days. The clouds only roll in afterward, when everything breaks and you feel like it’s going to be a storm for the rest of your life. I rolled my bike in between the containers and skeletons of ships, construction not yet finished. The whole place felt raw and uncomfortable. Tension built around me even before I reached them. The air was thick, the smell of oil and burnt metal riding on the wind. The idling of my bike made snapping sounds into the air, a muffled roar that reflected what I felt. They would hear me coming long before I heard them. Good. I hoped Raina feared me. I doubted she would be alone the way she needed me to be. She was going to go for the bit where I was outnumbered. I knew if I’d brought anyone, Shane would die. I turned a corner and they were all there. A circle of menace. They were all armed. Some of them had semi-automatics on them. I had thought about bringing one but I’d decided against it. It wasn’t so easy to conceal. There were handguns, too, and clubs and chains. It looked like the beginning of a very bad story. I wasn’t going to be scared off by them. I swallowed hard, forced away my fear. Raina was in the middle. She was surrounded by the heads of a lot of gangs. I recognized most of them and I was disappointed this was who they chose to team up with, but they didn’t know her the way I did. Shane was tied up in the middle with a gun to his temple. I glared at Raina who was holding the gun. The others had guns, too, but I wasn’t so worried about them. Raina didn’t have a lot of self-control. I worried she would do something ridiculous. I looked at Shane. He had his poker face on, his eyes like steel, his mouth pursed in a thin line. He was being strong. I looked at him and he looked at me and in that look I tried to push everything I felt for him, that he’d done for me and that I was grateful for. If he died today…I wasn’t going to think like that. I was going to make sure he didn’t die today. We were all walking out of this alive.

“Hello, Raina.” I was being formal, calm. She narrowed her eyes at me. She knew me well enough to know I had something up my sleeve. She must have known I wouldn’t just run in here, opening fire straight away. “It took you long enough to get here.” I shrugged. “I didn’t know we were on a schedule. You message was very vague.” She sneered at me. “You think you’re so funny, don’t you? Well, we’ll see how far this goes. You can’t joke everything away. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices.” I nodded. I had made a hell of a sacrifice letting her into my life, even if I hadn’t known it then. She was a pain in my ass and she never went away. I’d sacrificed peace and quiet. “What do you want?” She laughed and it was an uncomfortable sound, one that could break if she changed in her mood or her mind. “Don’t tell me your precious gang members didn’t tell you?” They’d told me everything, obviously, but I wanted to hear her saying. I shrugged. Raina’s smile drained from her face. My eyes flicked from hers to her finger on the trigger. I needed her to keep in control, to stay calm. I looked at Shane. He still had the same expressionless mask on his face but there were beads of sweat just below his hairline, betraying him, letting me know he was scared. “This is simple, Hunter. I want you to sign the Desert Huns – along with all their assets – over to me. Then I want you to leave town and never come back. If you do that, everybody lives a long and happy life.” There was no way on this earth I was going to let my boys fall into the hands of this psychopath. They wouldn’t even be able to leave the gang if Raina owned it – she would try to hunt each and every one of them down, and I didn’t doubt her abilities to do that. “And if I don’t?” She laughed again. It was increasingly uncomfortable to hear. “It’s easy. If you don’t, I’ll kill him.” She jabbed the gun into Shane’s temple and he squeezed his

eyes shut for a moment. This wasn’t over yet. “You can’t do that,” I said. “I can do whatever I want. If you think this is unfair, how about I kill the both of you if you don’t do what I ask. Let’s make this an offer you can’t possibly refuse.” I was fascinated by the fact that Raina thought the idea of my own death would motivate me more than the death of one of the closest people in my life. Maybe it was because she was inherently selfish and she didn’t care about anyone else but herself. She knew it wasn’t who I was but maybe she didn’t understand it because she just wasn’t wired that way. I dug in my pocket and pulled out a detonator. Raina frowned, her eyes glued to my hand. I unzipped my leather jacket. I’d strapped dynamite to myself, all the sticks neatly in a row with a pack in the middle, wired to all of them. Shane frowned, unsure what I was doing. Raina paled just a little, enough for me to know I’d gotten to her. “This is going to be very simple,” I said. “You’re not going to harm so much as a hair on Shane’s head.” I pressed the detonator with my thumb and the pack on my chest beeped loudly. Raina swallowed. Shane started paling. I wasn’t the kind of guy to fuck around. If Raina wanted to play games, I could play games, too. She hadn’t taken into account that the type of games I played were a hundred times worse than her games. You didn’t stand up against a seasoned war veteran when you were a greenie with a pocket pistol. I knew what I was doing, and when it came down to it, Raina just wasn’t on the same level. “If you kill Shane I’m going to let this button go, and we’ll all die. It’s all or nothing, Raina.” She looked at me, unsure. Was I bluffing? She was hoping I was, but it was a chance she wasn’t willing to take. At least, that was what I was betting on. For a moment everything was tense and I could see the inner struggle on Raina’s face, I could see how she was fighting with herself about what to believe and what not. She laughed, then, and I knew she’d decided I wouldn’t do it. “Don’t be ridiculous,

Hunter. I know you won’t kill Shane, and if that goes off you might take us all with you, but that would include Shane. You don’t have what it takes.” I shook my head. “If I’m dead, too, it won’t matter who’s dead and who’s alive. I won’t know about it, and there’s no way you’re getting ahold of the Huns.” She was still smiling when she shook her head. “You forget what you taught me while we were still together, Hunter. Always have a backup plan. Always prepare in case something goes wrong. Remember?” I had taught her that. It had been during a time when I thought that whatever it was that went wrong wouldn’t involve Raina. I had been stupid to trust her at all, stupid to love her, even if it hadn’t been the way I loved, now. Raina whistled long and low and a moment later a car pulled up. It was big and black with tinted windows and chrome mags on the tires. Whoever owned the car had a hell of a lot of money and I was sure it wasn’t Raina. She had everyone in her pocket these days. Lucky for me, I had contacts. I watched the back door as it slowly opened, wondering who Raina could possibly bring to the party that would change my mind. A big goon of a guy got out of the car first, wearing black suit and shirt with no tie – the standard body guard kind of look. He stepped back and yanked someone out with him. My blood ran cold and for a moment I felt like I was swaying on my feet. Aurora was tied up and gagged, her cheeks wet with tears, her eyes wide with terror. She looked at me, pleading. I trembled with anger. Fire coursed through my veins and I was just about ready to kill Raina, but I had to stick to the plan. I swallowed my hatred for her. “Why are you making me repeat myself?” I asked, turning my attention back to Raina. She frowned, looking at Aurora and then back at me. She was wondering why I was so calm about it all when she had Aurora. She was starting to doubt herself. That was exactly where I wanted her. It took everything I had not to run to Aurora and try too free her, to not put a bullet in Raina’s head straight away. “If you’re not going to let them go I’m going to blow us all up. You have no idea how easy it is for me. If I die, Shane and Aurora come with me. And the rest of you.”

Raina frowned, looking confused. “I’ll kill her, too,” she said, nodding toward Aurora. I had no doubt she was capable of that. I had to keep this up until I could save them all. I had to make sure it was all the right timing, though. I laughed, then, forcing it out and to my delight it sounded about as manic as Raina’s laugh had sounded a short while ago. She was getting more and more unsure of herself. She lowered the gun from Shane’s head and for the first time since I’d arrived I felt like I could breathe. “You’re a lunatic,” Raina said. Her voice was unsteady now. I lifted the hand with the detonator in it. “Last chance.” Raina still didn’t look like she believed me. The others all around her shuffled from side to side, unsure. Raina looked at them. “What, are you all pussies?” Some of them glared at her. If there was ever a carnal rule in life it was to never call a badass with a gun a pussy. “You know I’ll do it.” Raina looked like she wasn’t sure that was what I would do. I had to play it out all the way. I made a big thing of lifting my thumb and bringing it down on the button. The click was louder than any scream could have been and Raina covered her face. Aurora squeezed her eyes shut. Shane held his breath. I knew what was coming and waited for the big bang, then end of all this bullshit.

CHAPTER 26 Aurora Marcus didn’t have much time to react. He jumped into the fray, fighting with all his might, doing the honorable thing and protecting me as Hunter had asked. He managed to fight the guy off for a short while, too. It was a big man, with more weight than speed. He wore a black blazer, black pants, black shirt. It all looked very ominous. The mask on his face was what made him look terrifying. There was nothing I could do to help Marcus. I couldn’t fight. I was frozen with fear and he was fighting his heart out for a woman he didn’t know. For a moment I couldn’t do anything, but slowly the adrenaline faded and I could think clearly again. He was still fighting the guy off, attacking him with quick jabs so the guy had to move his hands to his face to protect himself. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a frying pan from the drying rack where I’d left it before Hunter and I had gone into hiding. I ran back to the lounge where I could still hear them fighting. I yelled at the top of my lungs and stormed the guy, ready to hit him over the head so hard he saw stars. I didn’t make it. He managed to get his hand in his blazer and he pulled out a gun. The whole thing happened in slow motion, and I still couldn’t stop it. There was nothing I could do. He pulled out the gun, shoved it against Marcus’s chest and pulled the trigger. There wasn’t a lot of blood. When Marcus crumpled to the ground red bloomed on his chest and his eyes were glazed over, vacant. I was frozen again, horrified. It was like I was watching the whole thing from somewhere else, looking down on it, uninvolved. The man slowly turned to gun toward me. I was still gripping the frying pan in both hands, holding it in front of me like sword. “Drop it,” he said in a low voice. He didn’t seem freaked out at all about the fact that he’d just killed someone. I threw the pan down. I wasn’t going to walk the same road. I was a coward; I wasn’t planning on fighting back. The pan rolled to the side with a clatter and I lifted my

hands. I stared at Marcus’s body, dead on my floor, and it all started dawning on me. Marcus was dead. The killer was right in front of me, pointing a gun at my face. I swallowed hard. “Don’t shoot me.” He smiled then, his teeth white against the black mask that clung to his face. It was one of those ski masks or whatever you call it, the wool ones. It had to be terribly hot in there. He pulled the mask off. What was the point, then? His face wasn’t much better to look at. He had a scar running from temple to cheek and his eyes were lifeless black holes, as if he did this kind of thing all the time. I didn’t want to know how many people he’d killed in his life. “Let’s get going,” he said. His voice was as empty and unfeeling as his eyes. I listened. I didn’t know where he was taking me but as long as I was alive it didn’t matter. I just couldn’t die, not now that my life was going somewhere. And, God, Hunter would never forgive himself. I knew he would feel like Marcus’s death was also his fault, but if I died he would never ever let himself off the hook for it. The guy in black marched me out of my own door and we walked down the stairs to a big black car. The thing looked like it had escaped from one of those Rap music videos. The inside smelled like pineapple air freshener and smoke. It made me nauseous. As soon as I was sitting in the corner against the other door, huddled against the leather seat, the smell of my fear filled the car, too. He sat opposite me, not saying a word. His gun was in his lap – passive but not packed away. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. He’d just killed Marcus. He was taking me somewhere unknown. I could still die today. We drove for what felt like about half an hour when the car stopped between containers that looked familiar but I couldn’t place them. We just sat there, doing nothing. I couldn’t run on such a high level of adrenaline for so long so I started relaxing. “What are we waiting for?” I asked. “Shut up.” I snapped my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to argue with the guy with the gun.

I didn’t know how long we were there for, but it felt like forever. The space in the car seemed to shrink, squeezing me, bringing me closer to my kidnapper. The smell made me sick to my stomach. I was starting to wonder if the smell was trying to cover something else up. Maybe I was just making things worse. My writer’s imagination was just eating this shit up, making it worse than it needed to be. Finally, his phone rang and he held it against his ear, nodding without saying a word. The car started up again and moved forward, slowly, as if we were creeping up on something. I looked out of the tinted window. My kidnapper moved closer and taped my hands together. He gagged me, too, and I felt claustrophobic, unable to move properly, to talk, to escape. I started crying. We rolled along and then the containers fell away and we stopped next to a group of men with guns. They all looked as dangerous as the guy in the car with me. I didn’t want to be here. They shifted a bit and someone tied to a chair came into view. A moment later I realized it was Shane. They had me and they had Shane, the two people Hunter really cared about. Raina was there, too. The woman from the library. Hunter’s ex, the one that was causing all this trouble. She had a gun to Shane’s head. The adrenaline in my system kicked in again and terror hardened in my stomach, making it hard to breathe. This was going to get really ugly, really fast. I barely thought it when I saw Hunter standing on the other side of the group. He had a mean look on his face, a look I had never seen on him before. He wore leather clothes, a menacing outfit, and he had dynamite strapped to his chest. Dynamite. The car door was opened and I was yanked out. I whimpered, scared. Hunter had a button he was clutching onto and I was pretty sure I knew where he was going with this. He was going to blow us all up. He was crazy. I suddenly wasn’t sure who the man was that stood in front of me. This wasn’t the man I loved, the man I’d agreed to marry. This was some maniac with explosives and a crazed look in his eye. This wasn’t Hunter. He shouted something I couldn’t hear, the fear overpowering everything else in my mind, and lifted the button. I watched as his thumb came down on the button and I

ducked my head down. This was the end. This was where my story ended, the happy ending gone, only fear and despair left. I screamed, squeezing my eyes shut. There was no explosion. There was a lot of movement, Raina’s surprised cry, laughter. Laughter? That didn’t make any sense. I looked up and everything had changed. The men all around Raina had their guns hanging at their sides. They were crowded around Hunter, shaking hands with them. Raina looked shocked and furious, like she couldn’t decide which emotion to go with. Hunter looked at me and smiled as if Raina wasn’t even there. It was the kind of smile that would make your heart melt. It washed away all my fear. It would be all right now, I was sure of it. Hunter started walking toward me. He was going to come and save me. He was going to take off this tape and the gag and he was going to wipe my tears away and everything would be better. I knew deep down he wouldn’t have done something crazy like blow everybody up. One of the other guys headed toward Shane and started untying him Raina shouted at him to stop. “I’m still in charge here, asshole!” She sounded panicked. He laughed and shook his head. “Tables have turned, sweetheart.” The way he said sweetheart was like it had a foul taste. Raina picked up on that, too. Her face went red. “You don’t tell me what to do. I tell you what to do. That was our agreement. I’m paying you, for God’s sake!” He shrugged. “Hunter’s paying me more.” Loyalty was all about money? It didn’t make sense. I’d seen different with Hunter and his guys, but maybe that was what made them so special. Raina shook her head and kicked the gun out of the guy’s hand. He looked at her, angry. “You may think you make the rules around here, but I still have a gun.” She pointed it at Shane’s head and everybody froze. I looked at Hunter. He’d gone pale. He believed she would do it. That wasn’t good. I trusted Hunter and I went along

with what he believed. He knew what he was doing. “Don’t do this, Raina.” It was Shane who had started talking. “If you kill me now, you’ll die. They’re all on his side and you know Hunter won’t let it go until he sees you dead for killing me.” Shane was right. If the bond Hunter had with his men was anything to go by, he would never rest until Raina paid for killing one of them. God, if he knew about Marcus… “Maybe you’re not the right person to use as a target, then,” Raina sneered. She turned the gun slowly away from him and for a moment I breathed easy. That moment passed and then I was looking down the barrel of the gun. I couldn’t breathe. I saw my death in that round mouth, the gun that would spit my death at me. Hunter lunged forward. “Don’t!” Raina laughed. “I never thought the day would come where you lose your cool about something. She means more to you than your men, does she? That’s interesting. I thought you weren’t capable of love.” “Just not with you,” Hunter said. Raina’s menacing smile disappeared. Did he have to insult her now? With the gun trained on my face? I was whimpering again no matter how hard I tried not to. Raina seemed to relish in the fact that I was so scared I could barely stand. I had never had gun pointed at me and it was the worst thing I’d ever experienced. Everything was frozen. The gun was on my face. Shane’s face was shock. Hunter’s face was horror. All the other guys had their guns pointed at Raina but I had a feeling it wouldn’t make any difference. She’d lost her mind, after all, and she was angry and jealous of me. I had taken her place in Hunter’s life, after all, and he cared for me in a way I was gathering he never cared for her. She wanted to see me dead and with her heartlessness, her lack of morals and values, her obsession with the Desert Huns, I wasn’t under any illusion that she wouldn’t shoot me. None of the men, not even Hunter, could outrun a bullet.

I closed my eyes and conjured up Hunter’s face the way he looked at me when it was just me and him, when there was nothing in the air but love. I didn’t want to be the horror, the anger, the fear, to be the last thing I saw before I did. I was pretty sure this was the end.

CHAPTER 27 Hunter There was no way I was losing Aurora. There was no way I was losing her to Raina. No fucking way. The moment she moved the gun from Shane to Aurora it felt like I was dying inside. I had never cared for anyone this much in my life, including all the men. Including Kyle. It was something different than I’d ever felt before and I wasn’t going to lose it now just when I’d found it. I cried out and jumped forward without thinking about it. Raina laughed but she looked more upset than amused. “I didn’t think you would ever find someone more important to you than the boys.” The truth was, I hadn’t thought so either. “It’s a pity she has to go so soon.” She was pissed off and jealous. She was upset I hadn’t loved her the way I loved Aurora. It was difficult, though, to love someone who loved herself so much that there wasn’t space for anyone else. Besides, Raina had lost the plot ages ago. I had never wanted to spend the rest of my life with a lunatic. The jealousy was insane, though. I could see her bristle. She almost had a green glow to her. It was awful because she knew exactly what Aurora meant to me now and she had the gun pointed at her. I still had my guns on me – I hadn’t only packed the dynamite. I knew well enough that it was good to be prepared for every contingency with Raina. There was no telling what she would do. Aurora closed her eyes. I could see her giving up, giving in, accepting her death. There was something very strong about a person who had the ability to do that instead of panicking. Aurora was amazing in every way, and the more I got to know her, the more I was reminded of how spectacular she was. This was not the end. I pulled a gun out of my pocket and aimed it at Raina. I closed one eye and then opened it again and pulled the trigger. It had been aimed at her head. At the last moment I’d aimed it at her hand instead. The gun kicked back in my hand and the

shot was loud, ringing in my ears. Aurora cried out around the gag. Raina screamed and the gun fell to the ground with a clatter, pointing at no one in particular. Raina howled on the ground, her bloody hand clutched against her chest. She was damn lucky I hadn’t just killed her. Aurora’s eyes shot open and she sagged to the ground after she realized she wasn’t dead. I ran toward her, holding onto the gun, and caught her. “Hey, it’s okay,” I said, trying to sound as soothing as possible. “Everything’s safe now. You’re safe.” I took the gag out of her mouth and she swallowed twice. A sob racked her chest and she started crying. “It’s okay, I’m here. No one’s going to hurt you.” I glanced up at the guy who had been watching Aurora. He shook his head and surrendered his gun. He put his hands up and stepped away from it. He knew he was outnumbered. I turned my attention back to Aurora and pulled the tape from her wrists. The skin was red after I got it off and she rubbed her wrists. She was crying and I pulled her against my chest, rubbing her shoulder, trying to get her to calm down. “It’s going to be all right.” I looked up at the guys and nodded at one of them who walked over to Shane and started untying him, too. He got out of the chair and walked toward us with a limp. I noticed bruises on his arms. They must have roughed him up a little, careful not to hurt his face. If I’d seen that I would have lost it right there. Raina had known that. “Thanks, man. I owe you.” Shane clapped me on the back. I shook my head. “You don’t owe me a thing. This is what brothers do.” He nodded. Being called my brother was the biggest honor I could bestow on him after Kyle. He looked at Aurora, concerned. She whimpered in my arms but the worst was over. She finally looked up. She took my face between her hands and kissed me. She tasted

like salty tears. “I thought I was going to die.” “I would never let that happen to you.” That was the God-honest truth. She ran her hands through her hair, tried to wipe the tears and the make-up streaks, and took a deep, shuddering breath. “How did you do it?” she asked. I shrugged. “I bought them off. I knew Raina had offered them money, so I went to my banker and I told her to release enough funds so I could pay them more.” Aurora frowned. “You had that much money?” I shrugged. “I didn’t want to tell you what I have. I didn’t want you to date me for my money.” She smiled and it was a wonderful expression. Shane chuckled. “If you don’t have morals, money usually does the trick.” Aurora shook her head. We got up. I held her against me as we turned to face the rest of them. “They’re on our side now right?” I nodded. “They work for me now. At least, for today, anyway.” I thanked them and one by one they dispersed. Shane made a call to the rest of my gang, asking them to meet us at the clubhouse. “Come on,” I said to her. “I want you to officially meet the guys.” I got on my bike and Aurora got on behind me. One of the others, I wasn’t sure who, offered her a helmet. I drove to the club. Shane would ride with one of the gang who would pick him up on the way. Everything was going to be fine. The trip back was like going back in time, in a way. It felt like a million years ago that I was last at the club, in a different lifetime. Now I had Aurora at my side, all my men were safe, Raina was taken care of. I knew the others would run her out of town.

They were on my side now – if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Right? That was what I did. Sort of. I’d really just offered then a price they couldn’t refuse so they’d ended up joining me but that was beside the point. The only thing that mattered was that everyone was safe. Aurora. Shane. My boys. Me. I’d lost a lot of people in my past but those days were over and I wasn’t going to lose any more of them. I also wasn’t going to sacrifice my life to save them. I had Aurora now, and even though my boys were still everything to me, I was going to make sure everyone was safe, and that included me. I was exhilarated. We’d won. I’d managed to beat Raina. I’d managed to get rid of my past. It was a lot more than just facing someone in the flesh. This had been all about facing my demons and I’d managed. I knew I was ready for the new chapter in my life now. I could give Aurora a clean slate. I could offer her the life, the man, she deserved. When we pulled into the lot at the club all the other bikes were there, lined up. Aurora eyed them when she slid off the bike and took off her helmet. “They’re family,” I said to her. She smiled at me and I knew she understood. I wanted her to feel safe around my men, safe in the life that would come with me no matter how hard I tried to change it. I was still me, after all, and there would still be parts of me that would never go away. We stepped into the club and everyone clapped and cheered. I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot. Aurora seemed shy. She stood very close to me, but she was smiling, too. “Do you mind if I go make a call?” she asked. I nodded. “I don’t have a phone on me.” I led her to the office. Raina had draped herself over this very desk just over a week ago. Maybe it was a good idea to christen it with Aurora, just to get rid of all the bad memories. I looked at her, at her body, her face, and I wanted her. I always wanted

her. She smiled at me and in her eyes I could see she knew what I was thinking. “I need to take care of this,” she said firmly. It wasn’t a no; it was a ‘not right now.’ I pointed at the phone on the desk. She could use that to make her calls. I checked the window, made sure everything was safe and secure. I knew we were out of danger now but I was still in protective mode and I’d been way too close to losing her to just be able to relax now that it was all over. I stepped out of the office and closed the door behind me. One of the boys stood in the hallway, looking at me. “I’ll make sure she’s okay,” he said. I clapped him on the back. They were all loyal to the death and they seemed to understand. They really were my family, there for me through thick and thin. Shane walked to me when I joined the others in the bar area. His face was somber, his limp a little more pronounced. “We sent two boys over to Aurora’s apartment to check on Marcus.” His voice was grim and I knew what they’d found before he shook his head with a sad expression. I balled my hand into a fist and punched the wooden wall next to me, making a hole. I’d lost one. I couldn’t save them all. The pain was sharp and intense. Familiar. “He died fighting. There were signs of distress. He died looking after her for you.” I nodded. It was the most noble death I could imagine. We would give him a farewell worthy of his honor and his loyalty. I had to take care of the living now first. “Are you okay?” I asked. Shane nodded and leaned against the wall, his head right next to the hole I’d just punched. “Just a little beat up, but I’ll survive. I’ve had worse.” I nodded. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Me too.” We both chuckled and then we fell silent again. We watched the rest of the gang laughing and talking, some of the others, the ones I’d bought over, in the room, too. “I don’t know how you did it.” I shrugged. “I don’t know, either, to be honest. When I found out she had you I was about to lose my shit all over the show. She’s lucky she’s still alive.” Shane smiled. “I was thinking that. You looked murderous when you arrived.” We stood side by side for a while. It was good to be home, with my people. It was good to be next to Shane, my brother. All this was good. “I asked her to marry me.” Shane gave me a sideways glance. “That’s big.” I nodded. “She’s different than anyone I’ve ever known. I want to be with her. I want to give her the kind of life she deserves. I want to settle down and have the life I deserve.” Shane put his hand on my shoulder and I knew he agreed. He approved. “I always knew you were too good for this life.” We gave each other a half hug before I stepped into the room and called for the attention of my men. “I have some news,” I said.

CHAPTER 28 Aurora The office was normal. The club – aside from all the bikes and the rowdy men – was normal. Everything was so normal it felt watered down after the last two days. Everything had been crazy. From the moment they’d arrived to tell Hunter Raina had Shane, everything had spun out of control. Hell, even the proposal and sex in the lake had been out there. I had the feeling my life with Hunter would always be like that – unpredictable, exciting, different. The office was full of papers and I knew this was the Desert Huns’ home ground. When Hunter left the room I heard him talking to someone and I knew there was someone else at the door, looking after me. Hunter made sure I was safe, no matter what. I ached inside that Marcus had died. It was something special when someone died for you, and I knew he’d done it for Hunter. For me. I had the greatest respect for him. As for Hunter, I felt for him in a way I’d never felt for anyone else. It did something to a girl when a man saved her life. Right there, when Raina had pointed the gun at me and I’d closed my eyes, ready to die, I’d realized exactly how much I loved Hunter. I knew now that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him for sure. It wasn’t just a hasty decision because his proposal had been so out of the blue. And it wasn’t because of the sex, even though he was a wildcat in bed. This went so much deeper than that. This was something special that I didn’t let go. He hadn’t blown himself up. He hadn’t died. He hadn’t done anything to make me feel like he would never be back and I would have to carry on without him. And I felt like if I married him he would keep trying, for me. He would keep fighting to keep me alive and he would keep fighting to stay alive to be with me. It was a wonderful feeling. Warm. Secure. I dialed Meredith’s number. The last time we’d spoken was just before Marcus was shot. She answered in her business voice because she didn’t recognize the number. “It’s me,” I said.

“Aurora? I’m glad you called. You left sounding so rushed and when I tried to phone later you just didn’t answer. Are you okay?” I thought about it. So much had happened. But I was okay. “I’m more than okay, now. I’ll tell you later what happened. It’s a long story. I’m with Hunter now.” “Good.” She sounded like she really approved. “He sounds like he’s good for you.” Oh, she had no idea. “I wanted to talk to you about something important, though. I got a call from June, you remember her, don’t you?” I tried to rack my brain. Meredith had so many contacts it was enough to make anyone’s head spin. “My publisher friend. She came to the book club once.” Right. Bombastic. Frizzy. I remembered her. “I remember.” “She wants to publish your book. You didn’t tell me you sent it to her, you sly thing!” I frowned. “My book?” I hadn’t sent it in at all. I never thought it was good enough. It wasn’t even finished. “She says you have amazing potential. She wants to pair you up with one of the editors, moving forward.” I opened my mouth, not sure what to say, and closed it again without getting anything out. It must have been Hunter. I was pretty sure he was the one who had sent it in. He’d held onto it for so long I’d gotten nervous about it. Maybe that was why he encouraged me to write so much while we were at the lake. “I’m so surprised,” I finally said, finding the words.

“I told you your writing is phenomenal. Maybe now you’ll start believing us when we say you have what it takes to make it as a published author.” The words sounded good. Published author. “I have to go,” I said. “I want to see you, though. Tomorrow? There’s so much to tell you.” “I wouldn’t miss a good gossip session for the world.” We ended the conversation. I put the phone back in its cradle and opened the door. One of Hunter’s men smiled at me. He was big and muscled and rough, just like the rest of them, and I felt totally safe. “He’s about to make an announcement,” he said and walked to the bar area. I followed him. Hunter was in between his men and he looked at home. It was clear to see they adored him, respected him. They were all quiet even though he wasn’t saying anything. They were waiting for him to be their leader. His eyes fell on me and he smiled, stretching out his arm, asking me to join him. I didn’t hesitate. It felt strange stepping into the center of all these strangers but they looked at me with the same regard as they did Hunter and I had the feeling they saw me as the leading lady now. “Aurora and I are getting married.” A ripple of murmur traveled through the crowd. The men were obviously shocked, surprised. It made me feel like I was truly the only one for him, that he hadn’t had many girls that he was serious with before. “I’m also stepping down from my position as leader of the Desert Huns.” Another outbreak of chatter but it seemed like this time they’d expected it. I frowned and looked up at Hunter. “You don’t have to do this.” They all looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues.

“I want to. You deserve this. We deserve this.” Something inside me broke up and warmth flooded my body. Love. Trust. Awe. I was the luckiest girl in the world. After the announcement we walked arm in arm to the bar. Shane was there. He just smiled at me. I felt unsure around him. He was a bit of a dark horse, but I could see how close he and Hunter were. “Who did you phone?” Hunter asked after he poured himself and Shane a beer. I declined a drink. I still felt wobbly on my legs and I was nervous alcohol would make me fall over. “Meredith. I was on the phone with her when they broke into the apartment.” I swallowed. I didn’t have to mention Marcus. Hunter pulled me against him and rubbed my back. I could tell by their faces that they felt the death a lot more acutely, but I’d seen it happen. It would haunt me for months to come. “What did she say?” I smiled at Hunter. “You’ll never guess.” He shrugged but he had a naughty look on his face. “They’re going to publish my manuscript.” “That’s a big deal, isn’t it?” Shane asked. I nodded. “Especially considering I never sent it in.” Shane raised his eyebrows. I looked pointedly at Hunter who just shrugged and took another sip of his beer. Shane laughed. When Hunter put the beer glass down he kissed me on the forehead with cold lips. “I told you, you are a great writer. You shouldn’t hide that kind of

talent from the world.” “Well, I don’t have much of a choice now, do I?” I was smiling while I said it. I was happy. We stood together and talked. The conversation moved toward Shane and how Raina had gotten a hold of him in the first place. “I was heading back from the Restaurant. I’d stopped there to talk to the boys about what we’d discussed at the Lake.” Shane had been at the cabin the night we’d gotten engaged. “Everyone was safe and I was headed home. I didn’t think I needed to be careful going home – everything had been so quiet for a while. I guess that should have been a sign. They’d put spikes on the tarmac and popped both my tires. When I stopped there were ten of them surrounding me.” It sounded horrific. He talked about it so calmly, like it was normal. I didn’t know how he managed to keep his cool, but I knew that these guys went through things like this more often. Maybe they were used to it. Maybe there was some biker class that taught you how to stay calm when you were in a life threatening situation. How to Keep Your Cool 101. “They kept me in some warehouse where someone came around the clock to beat me up.” I winced. Beat him up? Hunter nodded like he knew, but Shane looked fine. “They hurt you?” I didn’t mean to sound as shocked as I did. Shane nodded, glancing at Hunter before he pulled up his shirt. There were bruises all over his ribs and sides. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose. “Sorry,” he said. When I opened my eyes his shirt was back in place and I could imagine I hadn’t seen it in the first place. “Now that I’m leaving the Huns we’ll need someone to take over,” Hunter said, changing topic. Shane nodded. “No one will be you, though. No one can run this place the way you

do.” Hunter shrugged. “I get what you’re saying, and thank you, but the same was true for Kyle. I would never have been able to fill his shoes but somehow, with the help of the rest of you, I managed to make a difference nevertheless.” Shane nodded, not saying anything. I’d heard such great things about Kyle that I wished I could have had the opportunity to meet him. He sounded like he was a wonderful person. It must have run in the family. My mind wandered away from the conversation to my own life and what my future held now that everything was so different. I wasn’t just going to the outsider at the book club, with no husband and no real future. I was engaged and I had a future as a published author. It was going to take me a while to get used to the title. Aurora Trelawney, Published Author. No. Aurora Ajax. Published Author. Yeah, that sounded really nice. With a publishing contract, there was a chance I didn’t even have to go back to the library again. I could just quit, with immediate effect, and still be okay. Hunter had a lot of money. That was becoming abundantly clear – he had a lot more money that he was letting on. Even after I realized he owned the restaurant where we’d had our first date I was still pretty sure I had no idea how loaded he was. That, plus the fact that I was going to be published now meant I could give up my day job. Still, I would go back and work my notice month. I would sit there, engaged, with a ring on my finger and a publishing contract pending and rub it in Catherine’s face that she may be the manager of the place but I was getting somewhere in life. I’d gotten the guy, the happily ever after. I relished the thought of her face when she found out Hunter and I were engaged, that I was going places. The fact that she would just be stuck in her little office, going nowhere. “I’m looking forward to seeing you book in print,” Shane said, pulling me back to the current conversation. He was trying to involve me. Sweet of him. I nodded and smiled. “I still have to get used to the idea. It’s all a bit much to digest, what with the events of the past couple of days and the knowledge that nothing will

ever be the same.” Shane nodded. Hunter smiled. “I’m looking forward to riding on your coattails. Now that you’ll be bringing in the cash it will be nice just to sit back and do nothing for a change.” I pulled a face at Hunter. Shane laughed.

CHAPTER 29 Hunter The time came to do what needed to be done. I could postpone it for as long as I wanted but at the end I knew I was going to do the right thing. I needed to make sure the club was in the right hands, that Aurora had the life she deserved and everyone was happy. Giving up the club was going to be hard, but I was tired of this life, tired of always being on edge. Since I’d met Aurora I’d known I didn’t belong in this life anymore. I would always have my boys’ backs, and I knew they would always have mine, but at the end of the day I didn’t want to be a Hun anymore. At heart I would always be a Desert Hun but it wasn’t ever going to be the same. I knew it would be hard but I had dealt with change before. I was good at it. And unlike all the other disasters that had taken place in my life to force change, this time it was my own choice. There was something very liberating about that. I stepped into the middle of the room and everyone fell silent. That kind of respect and loyalty was something I would always hold dear. I had no doubt that my men were the best kind, with honor and integrity. “My friends. My family. Aurora and I are engaged now and in light of that I am not going to carry on my duty as the leader of the club.” A murmur rippled through the crowd and I smiled. They all knew we were serious but this was far-fetched even for me. “I am going to step down as the leader of the Desert Huns, effective today.” More murmuring. They weren’t happy but I knew they would understand, in light of what had happened earlier. Most of them had families; they all understood. “It had been a great run and no one could have asked for a better group of men to watch their back. You will always be the people that I hold closest to my heart.” It was emotional for a biker but I needed to get it off my chest. “I will always be here for you as I know you will be for me. I’ll only be a phone call away.”

I felt emotional, a lump in my throat, but I swallowed it down. Emotional as it was, I wasn’t going to cry. “We need to decide on a new leader.” I looked around the group. It was going to be one of them and it had to be someone that they all wanted as their new leader. This one wasn’t up to me, but up to them. “Shane!” someone in the back called out. Another one copied it, and after a moment they all joined in and started chanting his name. Shane, Shane, Shane. I looked at him and laughed. “They’ve spoken, brother.” He nodded and walked toward me, leaving Aurora alone at the bar. She looked as emotional as I felt. “Is this what you want?” Shane thought about it in earnest for two seconds and then nodded. “It will be an absolute honor to take up the reins. Some big shoes to fill.” I smiled. It was my father’s and Kyle’s but he was the man for the job. He could do what they had wanted for the place all along. I turned back to the men. “All in favor of Shane as the new leader, say aye.” “Aye!” They shouted as one man. They started stamping their feet and it filled the room like a muted thunder, a biker’s applause. I gave him a hug, clapping him on the back. I walked back to Aurora, letting him address the club as their new leader. “You didn’t have to step down for me.” I pulled her close to me. I understood that she wanted me to live my life and she had no idea how much that meant to me. “Thank you.” I kissed her and smiled.

“Hunter,” Shane called. I looked at him. He beckoned to me. I untangled myself from Aurora and walked up to Shane. “The men want to do one last official duty.” It was like a twenty-one-gun salute, something they wanted to do for me as a farewell. I looked at Aurora. “It would be great if you guys attend our wedding. Next weekend.” Aurora looked shocked. “If that’s what she wants,” I added. I didn’t want to push her into anything. When I walked back to her she shuffled from one foot to the other. “Can we not make it so soon?” she looked unsure about asking. “I haven’t even told anyone in my family or friend circles yet. Hell, I still need to get used to the idea myself. Let’s just take a moment to catch a breath, okay?” I nodded and kissed her on the head. “Anything you need, angel face. We’ll do it the way you want it.” And I meant it. I wanted her to have what she needed and what she liked. I was anxious to be married to her, to start the next chapter in my life. I was the impulsive kind, though, and it was understandable that she didn’t have the same makeup as I did. We had all the time in the world because I wasn’t going anywhere. Leaving the Desert Huns as their leader would make sure of that. There was no danger of me dying now that I’d decided to step down. And Aurora would be safe forever because I would never ever let anyone or anything harm a single hair on her head. We had the rest of our lives to get to where we needed to be. We didn’t have to rush a single thing.

CHAPTER 30 Aurora When we finally left the club it was dark and we were one of the last to leave. The rest of the evening had gone down as a celebration and a farewell combination, with everyone trying to get a word in with Hunter to wish him all the best – even though they were going to see him again – and some of them personally congratulating Shane on being the new leader. I could tell Hunter was emotional and, even though I wouldn’t understand the depth of his sentiment for the club, I could understand why. This was Hunter’s past, his only connection to his parents and his brother. I understood sentimentality. I understood how hard it was to say goodbye. I was on the back of his bike, the wind whipping around me, tugging at my clothes and my hair. It was a thrill to be going that fast and at the same time Hunter was a solid rock for me to hold onto and there was no reason to be afraid. It had been like that all day. Despite the fact that there had been a lot of fear, Hunter had made sure I got through alive and well in the end, and I knew I would continue doing that for the rest of his life, whether it was work stress or fear for my life that we were dealing with. When he finally pulled up in front of his apartment building I looked up. I’d never been here before. The cabin had been the only glimpse into his life I had gotten besides the work side of his life. This was where he existed when everything was calm and quiet. The apartment itself was a typical bachelor pad, the lack of decoration and a homey touch something I’d expected. Still, it was full of Hunter’s character with modern black furniture and a lot of red. Hunter flicked on the lights and I turned and smiled at him. He returned the smile. This was strange all of a sudden. This was the part of my life with him that we were going to have most of the time when we were married, the part between incidents or fights or romantic moments. Even while we were at the lake we were hiding out. Hunter had had a lot on his mind. The tension had still been high and it had been surreal. This was reality. It was starting to hit me, and hard.

Hunter walked toward me and took both my hands in his, interlinking his fingers with mine. His face was soft and gentle, his eye serious. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I nodded. I was okay. I was sure the events would hit me at a later stage – I always took a while to digest something seriously traumatic – but for now I was coping. “It’s been a rough day.” Hunter nodded. “Even in the life of a biker – the life I gave up now – things are never that crazy all the time.” I leaned against him, feeling his body heat and drinking it in. After everything we still had each other, and that mattered a hell of a lot. He wasn’t dead, he hadn’t lost Shane, and I wasn’t dead, either. It was a big one. Hunter rested his chin on my hair. We stood there, holding each other for a moment, just being alive together. I didn’t think it would ever carry that much value for me. Hunter lifted his chin and looked down at me. I looked up at him and he brought his lips down on mine. I let him kiss me. It started slow and gentle, his tongue sliding in between my lips and it was full of emotion and sensuality. His hands were on my face, fingers in my hair, body against mine fully. This was the man I was going to marry. It didn’t feel like some fantasy. At the lake it might have, but after the incident with Raina, after brushing up against death so closely I still shivered with cold, I was fully aware of what it meant and what I was letting myself in for. And I wanted this. I wanted Hunter. I still had to break the news to my friends and family. I knew a lot of them were going to comment on how quick we’d moved from seeing each other to getting engaged. And Hunter wanted the get married the following weekend. There were going to be more comments. It would be impossible to explain to them why – how I felt about him now, after everything had happened. How I’d felt about him even before it had all happened. It wouldn’t matter what they said in the end – I knew what I wanted and what I was going to do. Every time I thought about it, about what they would say, about the sense they would try to speak into me, about the comments about the time frame, I tried to be realistic and ask myself if I was making a mistake. I tried to make sense of what I was doing.

Not once did that hollow feeling in my gut appear that I always took as uncertainty, as doubt, as a reason not to do something. That meant something to me because my gut was something I liked to trust and my gut seemed right on par with Hunter. This was something that could happen. This was something I was excited about. Every girl dreams about getting married one day but Prince Charming’s face is blurry because we don’t know who we’ll end up with. My prince charming’s face was etched at the back of my skull and I knew exactly who was going to walk me down the aisle. Our kissing changed from sensual to something more urgent. Our bodies pressed harder against each other and I was aware of my breasts against his chest, about his erection in his pants. His hips moved against mine, grinding himself slowly against me. His hands were still on my face or in my neck, on my shoulders. I rubbed my hands up and down his back. I pushed it under his shirt and felt his skin – hot and smooth. I loved the feel of him under my fingertips, his warm skin and the ridges of muscle as I moved over his abs. He pushed himself against me in a circular rhythm and the love between as ignited into something more. I wanted him. My body was hot and I ached for him. I could almost feel him between my legs already, but I wanted to slow it down, to make it last long. I didn’t want this to be wild fucking and then going to bed. I wanted this to be about everything I felt for him, everything we were to each other, everything we were going to be to each other for years to come. I curled my fingers and dragged my nails softly over Hunter’s sides, tickling him. His gasped into my mouth, his body jerking slightly and I smiled against his lips. He moved his hands down my back and onto my ass, squeezing my cheeks, pulling me into him, pressing me against him as he grinded. My body got hotter and hotter and I wanted more. When he let me go I moved my hands down to his waistband and unbuckled his belt. I undid the button and undid the zip. The leather pants were so tight around his hips they seemed painted on and they outlined his sex perfectly. He was hard and almost throbbing. I peeled the pants off him. He wasn’t wearing underwear. I imagined it looked stupid to have boxers or jocks under leather pants that tight. His erection sprang free, punching into the cool air. He was thick and eager and the tip glistened with the anticipation of sex.

I left the pants halfway down his ass and wrapped my fingers around him, He was hot and thick in my hand, the veins small ridges under my fingers. I moved up and down, imitating the motions of sex. His breathing changed when I started pumping my hand up and down, slipping over the skin that got wetter and wetter with in lust. I looked him in the eyes. His eyes were dark and drowning deep, his lips slightly parted and he gasped every now and then. I let a smile curl up the corners of my lips before I kneeled down so he was face height. I cupped his balls with one hand and with the other I filled up at the space at the hilt of his cock where it would be hard to reach with my mouth. I took him into my mouth and swirled my tongue around his head. He groaned. When I looked up at him his eyes were closed, head tipped back slightly. His hands moved to my head, his fingers in my hair but he didn’t force me or guide me. He just held onto me. I moved my head back and forth, sliding my mouth over him and moving back again. I took my time, starting slowly. He was salty with precum and sweat and he smelled musty, the smell of a man in the mood for sex. I breathed in deep, the smell riling me up even more the way nature intended. I started moving faster and faster, building up a rhythm. I moved my hand up to meet my lips and back down again when I pulled back, squeezing his balls softly, playing with them to coax him on. I sat on my knees and sucked Hunter off, letting his sex slide in and out of my mouth, letting him feel what was to come. I was going to give him a lot more in a moment than just a hot mouth and the idea of sex. He was getting close, I could tell. He got bigger and harder in my mouth and his balls started to contract ever so slightly. I didn’t want him to release now. I wanted this to drag out so long that by the time it happened it would be spectacular. Spectacular and inside of me. I let him out of my mouth and pumped my hand up two more times before I let him go completely. He moaned in protest but I got up and took him by the hand. I led him to his bedroom, which was more black and red. I let him sit down on the bed. His cock was still out and straining. I got rid of my pants but I kept my panties on. I wasn’t going to give it to him just yet. I pulled my shirt off, too, so I was just in my

underwear. I got onto his lap, straddling him, and started moving up and down against him, rubbing myself against his cock through my panties. It didn’t take long before the material was soaked and slippery. Hunter kissed me and I put my arms around his neck, pulling myself into him so he could feel my breasts. I arched my back and moved my hips and rode him like that, dry humping through our clothes. The kissing, the imitation of sex, was spectacular and it only made me crave it all the more. I knew the same was true for Hunter. His one hand was on the small of my back, helping my grinding on him, pulling me closer to him than I would have been able to push myself. His other hand was on one of my breasts, massaging it, tugging at the nipple through the material. I gasped into his mouth and relished every inch of his skin, his body, against mine.

CHAPTER 31 Hunter Every bit of my body was alive like a current of electricity was running through me. No matter how many times Aurora and I have sex, I would never get used to it. It would still be the biggest thrill I had ever known. She sat on top of my lap, her legs on either side of mine on the bed and she was riding me, driving me even though I wasn’t even inside of her. She’d slowly awakened my body with her hands and then her mouth, pushing me closer and closer to the edge until I was sure I was going to explode. She didn’t want me to do that, obviously, and she knew exactly how to read me. She stopped before I toppled over the edge. She knew how to read me. She knew exactly how to push all my buttons and get me to crave her with every trembling fiber of my being. I couldn’t hold it anymore. She was driving me insane with her smoking hot body on top of me, her grinding up against my cock with her panties on so I couldn’t get inside of her, her breasts almost in my face and her lips on mine, sucking my tongue, nibbling my lips, making me realize I had gone my whole life without understanding what it meant to be a man. This was enough, though. She was pushing me closer and closer to the edge and I needed her under me. Now. I needed to be buried deep inside of her. I needed to make love to her, to show her what she meant to me, to claim every inch of her body as my own again and again, to fuck her. I lifted her up and got up with her legs still around my waist. She yelped into my mouth, the sudden movement unexpected. I carried her across the room and pressed her up against the wall. She cried out again with the cold wall against her back but my mouth was on hers and we were heading into another gear. The love and sensuality and emotions had been fantastic, but I wanted raw sex now. I ground myself against her. My pants were still on my ass, my shoes still on, but I could take care of that later. Right now I wanted her in a bad way. I pinned her between my own body and the wall and showed her what I wanted. My mouth was in her neck, my hand on her breast, the other under her ass to hold her up.

I grinded my hips against hers, pushing into her just a little, as much as the panties would allow. They were in the way. I let her legs down so she could stand and hold her own weight. I slid my hands over her body, up to her breasts, and moved my mouth down to meet them. I pulled the material of the bra cups down and took her nipple into my mouth, nibbling on it, sucking on it. I massaged the other breast with my hand. She gasped and moaned, pushing her breasts toward me, squirming against my body, frantic with lust. This was the way I liked her – eager, wanting, craving me. This was a little bit of her own medicine, I wanted to make her beg for it, but I knew I wouldn’t last for very long. If she held out a split second longer than I wanted her to I was taking her anyway. I slid my arms around her body and she pushed herself away from the wall so I could undo it. I pulled it off and it fell to the floor. Her breasts were fantastic. I would never get bored of them. I paused long enough to get rid of my leather jacket and shirt. I kicked off my shoes, pulled off my pants. The moment I started I wasn’t going to stop to do it. It was better to get rid of it now. Her breathing was erratic, shallow, coming in quick gasps. I knew how turned on she was and I knew it was much the same as my own lust. I kissed my way down her body, nibbling, licking a trail all the way over her breasts, her stomach, her hips and down to the secret between her legs. I kissed her along the line of her panties. The smell of her sex was strong – I could tell she wanted me just by the scent she was throwing off. It was intoxicating and it made something inside of me growl in an animalistic response. Something wild and primal. I started pulling down her panties, moving slowly, kissing and licking all the skin that was exposed. When it was down far enough for me to go for what I was really after I pushed my tongue into her slit and licked her clit. I pulled her panties down to her ankles. She moaned and picked up her one leg, throwing it over my shoulder to give me access. The underwear was forgotten. I licked the length of her, savoring her taste. She shuddered when I ran my tongue over her clit. I licked her with a flat tongue over her lips and I pushed my tongue inside of her. She moaned and gyrated her hips. I pushed two fingers into her while I worked on her clit and she made sounds that told me she was building up toward an

orgasm. I wasn’t planning on holding back the way she had. I latched onto her clit and sucked on it, running my tongue over her and pumping my fingers in and out of her. Her legs trembled and I knew she was going to buckle soon, but I wanted her to orgasm before I took her. “Hunter,” she said in a breathy voice and grabbed handfuls of my her, pulling my face right up against her sex as she orgasmed against my lips. It was fantastic. I looked up at her. Her nipples were tight and erect, her mouth open, her eyes closed. The perfect erotic picture. When the orgasm subsided I let her go and I stood up. He was out of breath, gasping like she’d run a mile. I kissed her on the mouth, my hands on her hips, before I pulled her toward me and spun her around. She cried out, surprised. I pinned her against the wall again, her breasts against the cold plaster and she gasped. I leaned against her, keeping her in place with my chest. I pulled her hips toward me and pushed my cock between her thigh so it rubbed up against her. I wasn’t going to enter her just yet. I wanted her to ask for it. I was driving myself wild, though. I wasn’t sure how much longer I was going to be able to hold out. I moved my cock in and out between her thighs for a small while. “Please, Hunter.” That was enough for me. I wasn’t going to make her ask me twice. I moved her away from the wall, steered her toward the bed and pressed on her back so she was bent over and her ass pointed at me. I held onto her hips. She leaned on the bed with her hands and I entered her. She was hot and wet and the sensation of just being inside of her was enough to nearly make me release my load, but I held on. I started pounding into her. I rubbed one hand up and down her back, hammering my cock into her, taking her from behind. She cried out in rhythm with my fucking and it was hot as hell. I reached around and grabbed hold of one of her breasts, tweaking the nipple, feeling it swing back and forth for a moment before I reached around again and took a handful of hair. I waited for her to tell me if it was too much but she didn’t stop me. I held onto her

hair, careful not to be too rough, and carried on pushing into her, keeping my rhythm. She cried out and I kept pumping until I was close enough that I knew I was going to lose it all over the place if I didn’t make a plan. I wasn’t done, though. I wanted more of her. I didn’t want it to be over. I pulled out of her and let go of her hair. She dropped her head and breathed hard, leaning on her arms. I crawled onto the bed and lay down on my back, looking at her. My cock was slick and shiny with our sex, towering into the air. “Do you want to come show me what you were doing just now?” I asked. I wanted her on top of me again. I wanted her to do that magic with her hips while I was inside of her. She crawled over me, a devilish grin on her face. It was beautiful. She straddled me and kissed me before she lowered herself onto me, moaning when I entered her again. “You’re so big,” she said in a breathy voice, stroking my ego just like she’d stroked my sex earlier. I smiled and put my hands on her hips, urging her to start moving. She complied. She started moving her hips back and forth, her hands on my chest for balance. Her breasts were pushed closer together with her arms on my chest and they looked amazing from that angle. She started moving faster and faster, sitting up so she went deeper. She bucked her hips, sliding me in and out of her and her breasts bobbed and swayed, her nipples hard. Her eyes were on mine. I gripped her hips and urged her to go even faster, still. I wanted a release now. I wanted it to be spectacular. She leaned her hands on the pillow on either side of my head and started bucking her hips for all she was worth, riding me faster and faster. Her breathing became short bursts of air, her clit rubbed against my pubic bone and I knew she was working herself up to another orgasm the same way she was doing for me. I didn’t want to close my eyes. I wanted to see her when she orgasmed. I wanted to look at her when I did. I was getting closer and closer, and so was she. Her breathing became interrupted by moans and cries that were breathless and erotic. She was almost there. I could feel her tightening around me. My balls contracted and the moment she released in a silent scream, her mouth around and open, her eyes closed, I released inside of her. It was

like fireworks. She collapsed on my chest and shuddered and I pumped into her again and again, painting her insides, making her mine. She breathed hard in my ear and I was right there with her, riding it out until we were both delirious. She lay on my chest after the orgasm subsides, her body curled around mine, her face in my neck. Her breathing slowed and her body slowly relaxed, as did mine. I became soft and slipped out of her, but I wrapped my arms around her, wanting her to stay on top of me for as long as she liked. When she finally rolled off she was still right next to me and I pulled her against me. “That was amazing,” she said. “You’re amazing.” She smiled, a soft and tired smile. “I love you.” My heart sang at those words. “I love you, too.” I curled around her holding her close and I waited until her breathing became deeper, the sign she was asleep. I reached for a blanket and pulled it over us, letting myself fall asleep, too. For the first time in… well, ever, I knew I was going to have a great night’s sleep. I knew my future was set and I was happy with where I was headed.

CHAPTER 32 Aurora When I woke up, Hunter was on his stomach splayed out with very little mattress left for me. We were going to have to get used to sharing a bed if we were going to live with each other. I’d never lived with someone and by the looks of things, neither had he. He seemed very comfortable with his own space and how much of it he had. I nudged him and he shifted over without waking up. I smiled. I could work with compromises. I lay on my back, sheets over my chest. I looked up at the ceiling. So much had happened in such a short time I was still trying to wrap my mind around it. Besides the drama and subsequent trauma with Raina, there was also the week at the lake, the proposal and how quickly our relationship had escalated. And then there was the publishing contract I was going to sign. I got out of bed, quietly, and tiptoed to the bathroom. My lips were puffy from Hunter’s kissing and nibbling. My neck was red with beard burn. My eyes were bright and the smile was quick on my lips. I got in the shower and washed Hunter off me. When I was done I wrote a note for Hunter and left the apartment. I caught a cab back home. My door was fixed. When I unlocked, there was no sign of the scuffle or the murder. It was like it had never happened. Hunter’s men must have come during the night and made sure my apartment was ready for me to live in again. I kneeled down just inside the door and put my hand on the carpet where Marcus had died. It didn’t look like anything had happened here, but I would never forget what he’d done for me. It was something very big when someone sacrificed their life for you. I went into the bedroom and picked up the phone I’d forgotten in the drama that had followed after that man had kicked down my door. I dialed Meredith’s number. “Are you busy today?” I asked. “I’m always ready for a coffee,” she answered and we set a time. I got dressed in fresh clothes and put on some makeup to cover the worst of my sex

evidence. Meredith waited for me in front of the café and we walked in together. “It feels like it’s been forever since I last saw you,” I said. “It has been. You were away for a week.” I nodded. It wasn’t just that, though. Everything felt like it was a lifetime away. I was a different person. My life was different now. “So, tell me what’s your big news?” I smiled, feeling anxious and excited, all at the same time. “Hunter and I are engaged.” Meredith looked at me, her face a blank mask. After a moment she blinked and then frowned. “Are you being serious?” I nodded. “He asked me two nights ago.” A waitress appeared and we both ordered coffee. She waited until the waitress left before she carried on. “Are you being serious about this? You haven’t even known the guy a month and you’re already going to marry him?” I shrugged. I knew it sounded crazy. “He’s my other half. He’s the person I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. You know how you meet The One and you just know?” Meredith shook her head. “That only happens in books and movies, Aurora. Not in real life. This isn’t the kind of thing you can just call off when you’re not in the mood anymore. This is marriage we’re talking about.” I nodded. “I know that. But so much has happened.” The coffee came and we stirred in sugar and milk before I started telling her about everything that had happened. About Raina, the threats at the club, the lake and the

Desert Huns arriving with news and gifts. Shane’s kidnapping. The part where I nearly died. When it was all over my coffee was cold and Meredith’s face was one of shock and surprise and emotion. “This is the craziest story I’ve ever heard. If I’d read it in a book I would have said the author was putting too much in the plot outline. This is insane.” I looked down at my coffee. It really was insane. “I think it’s going to work, though. We just fit.” Meredith sipped her second cup of coffee. “If you’re sure…” “Tell me about the book contract,” I said, changing the topic. Meredith phoned her publishing friend and we set a date to meet up. “Hunter wants to get married this weekend,” I said. Meredith froze. “That’s in like, a week.” I nodded. “It’s very soon.” “You’ll have known him for just about a month, then.” I laughed. It was absurd. It was true. “How do you feel about it?” I shrugged. “When he mentioned it I was reluctant but the more I think about it the more I can’t see a reason why not. Everything has been a whirlwind, since the moment we met, and the truth is I want to be with him. We don’t have to wait – what would we be waiting for?” I knew what was on her mind. We would be waiting to get to know each other, to know we weren’t making a mistake. But I didn’t agree. I knew we were doing the right thing. I knew what I wanted. I wanted Hunter.

When I got back to the apartment, he was up, making breakfast. I had packed a bag I’d taken with to stay another night. Hunter smiled when he saw me. “You look great.” I walked up to him and kissed him. He smelled fresh and clean, like he’d showered. He was wearing a white t-shirt and black shorts. I’d never seen him in something that light I had to admit he was dashing no matter what he had on. Or didn’t have on. “I have a surprise for you.” I hopped onto the counter. Hunter turned to me, forgetting about his breakfast for a moment. “Oh?” I nodded. “You’ll have to wait until Saturday, though.” He pulled a face. “Why did you tell me now? I’m going to die of curiosity all week.” I hopped off the counter and pressed my body against his, kissing his shoulder. “I’ll just have to distract you, then.” He glanced at the kitchen counter and then at me with eyes that were full of sex and I knew what was coming.

CHAPTER 33 Hunter The week was strange. I wasn’t the official leader of the Desert Huns anymore but I kept going to the club because I didn’t know what to do with myself. Stepping down was strange. Shane had stepped into the role of leader like he was born to do it. He must have learned a thing or two, being my right-hand man for so long. Of course, he was cut out for the job. I had to find something to do with my time. I could volunteer a lot more at the Boys and Girls Club but that was a Desert Huns’ thing. I had enough money not to have to work. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I didn’t see much of Aurora – she was meeting with publishers and editors and she had her job at the library, too. I left her to it. I didn’t want to bother her too much. She was in a good place and I knew I’d done that for her by sending that book in. It was a very forward thing to do but I knew she didn’t think enough of her own writing and I’d read enough to know it was good enough to publish. By the end of the week I was pretty sure what I wanted to do. I was thinking about starting up a group for young kids who lost their parents or siblings to violence to help them make the right choices and not end up in a mess themselves. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but I wanted to be to them what Shane was to me. I wanted to give them a life back the way Shane had given me my life and I wanted to make a difference. I wanted all my money to go to a good cause. Aurora phoned me Saturday morning and hearing her voice was absolute heaven. “I missed you so much.” I could hear the smile in her voice, too. “I missed you, too. Do you remember I told you to wait for your surprise?” “I haven’t thought of anything else.” I’d been curious as hell the whole week. I’d been trying to guess what it could be but there were sides to Aurora I just didn’t know yet, and her mind was a labyrinth as it was, being a writer.

“Okay, well this is what you need to do. I need you to shower and shave and get into your best suit. I’m going to text you an address and you need to be there at noon. Okay?” I had a feeling where this was headed. “Anything specific you want me to wear?” “Something that makes you look as handsome as you are.” She hung up and I smiled. I didn’t have a suit, obviously, but there was still time for me to run out and get a rental. I found a suit at a good price and when I fitted it, it was like it was made for me. When I got back home Shane and most of the boys were outside my apartment building, also dressed up. “Fancy meeting you here,” Shane said. I laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. The others greeted me on by one and then we got on our bikes. The address that had come through was one I knew very well. The Desert Huns were travelling in style today. They all wore suits and even though we were on our bikes we looked classy. I drove up front with Shane behind me like old times, like I was the leader, because this was their last official duty. When I thought about what was happening, what had lead us to come to this, I felt emotional. The men behind me were a part of me and I was so happy they were there for me like that. We arrived at the Girls and Boys Club, the motorbikes roaring and the kids were all outside, cheering. There were more people there, too, and I knew they’d all arrived just for me. For me and Aurora.

CHAPTER 34 Aurora Everything was perfect. I’d met up with June and we’d talked about my book. There was still a lot to be done – I needed to finish it in the first place and there was a lot of editing to do. I had to meet with a lot of different people. I needed an agent. I needed to refine my research. It felt like writing the book in the first place was the least of my worries. But it was going somewhere and I felt fantastic about it. I had a feeling it would take a long time before the book appeared on the shelves but the publishing house was going to give me a fat advance, and I also had Hunter who had promised to take care of everything so I could take a sabbatical and work on my book. It was perfect. Every day I got to know more of him there were more reasons to love him. I got ready at Meredith’s house. Everyone was there. Everyone I held dear, except my parents. They lived upstate and it wasn’t possible for them to make it, but it wouldn’t have felt right, either. All of this was a passionate whirlwind romance and they were sensible people, the kind that would never do something like this. We were having a hen’s breakfast. The book club ladies were frothing with jealousy and surprise at my adventurous life that was real. I loved having them there even though I’d never felt like I fit in. I told them in detail about all the things we’d been through and what we’d done together. The lake house was a setting we all agreed would be great in my book – the peace and the passion versus the tension and the danger. It was all like a fairytale. Meredith was my maid of honor and my only bridesmaid. I had chosen a lacy empire waist type dress that worked for the weather and the informal venue without losing the bridal feeling. I had found lace ballerina pumps to go with it so I didn’t have to fall around on the grass in high heels. Meredith wore a peach-colored infinity wrap dress that she’d wrapped in an off the shoulder design and she looked regal, as always. Well-manicured and precise, she didn’t look like this whole thing had been jumped on her just a few days ago.

Meredith had arranged a hairdresser and a makeup artist to come to the house. We sat down in turns to have our locks curled and sprayed, eyeshadow painted on, and when we were done a photographer arrived. Between me and Meredith, we’d thought of everything. The whole thing felt like a dream. When I stood in front of the mirror, looking at what the artists all around me had put together, reality hit me. My stomach turned and my heart hammered against my ribs and I was suddenly nervous. A fist of nerves knotted my stomach and I tried to breathe in deep through my nose and out through my mouth. “Are you okay?” Meredith asked me, finding me in the room when I’d been gone for too long. “I just realized what I’m about to do.” I looked at her in the mirror. She came to stand next to me. We looked stunning next to each other. “Do you love him?” I nodded. I really did love him. He was everything to me and it was shocking how quickly that had happened. “And you know he loves you?” That I was more certain about than anything else in the world. He was more sure of his emotions toward me than my emotions toward him. If I thought back to when we’d just met, he had been set on courting me almost right from the start. I didn’t know where it had changed for him from looking for sex to looking for a relationship but I knew this was real. It was real for me, too. It was just scary as hell because, well, marriage was forever. No one could take that shit lightly. “I know you’re going to be just fine, then. If you both love each other and you know this is what you want – if you’re both willing to work on it – you will be perfectly fine. You’re not making a mistake, not in my books. Not if you know where you’re headed together. There have been people that didn’t know each other at all that were happily married for fifty years. Think about all those arranged marriages.”

I nodded. She was right. Of course, she was. Of all the women in my life she was the most down to earth, the most sensible. There was a reason she was my best friend. I was still scared, of course, because I hadn’t even had the time to think about this properly. But I knew it was what I wanted. If I thought about calling it off instead I knew for a fact that that wasn’t going to happen. And that was what kept me going. “We have to get going if you want to be there at noon,” Meredith said. I nodded. This was happening. We’d ordered a limousine and all my friends piled into it. The car was luxurious. I’d never been inside one and it was stunning. We drove to the Girls and Boys Club, the place where I’d decided to make the venue, and I knew that this was a new beginning. They were all there when we pulled up in the car. The kids were all arranged on the ground, sitting cross-legged, twisting around to see us. The Desert Huns were all in suits which was a spectacular sight. Let me tell you, no one cleans up as well as a badass on a bike. Aside from my friends who were all taking their seats as they got out of the car one by one, June, my new publisher, and the editor, agent and PR lady were all there. Catherine stood to the side – I’d invited her, too – and some of the other staff I worked with at the library. And right at the front, next to the priest I’d booked last minute, almost unrecognizable, stood Hunter. He looked like an Adonis in his suit. I climbed out of the car and music played from speakers in the building’s windows. Life is a highway, and I’m going to ride it all night long. It was a song fitting of everything that had happened in our relationship until now. Everyone clapped to the beat while I walked down the make-shift aisle to a very unconventional song. Hunter beamed at me, tears in his eyes. Shane stood next to him looking emotional, as well. When I reached the front he took my hand and kissed it, never taking his eyes off mine.

“You look amazing,” I said. He looked me up and down. “You look fucking fantastic.” “I’m glad you could make it,” I whispered as we turned to the priest. “It would have sucked getting married without you.” “Sugar, we’re never doing anything without the other again.” I smiled and the priest cleared his throat, starting his little sermon. It wasn’t very long before we reached the wedding vows. Hunter turned to me. He took a small piece of paper out of his pocket and folded it open. When he cleared his throat I realized he’d written his vows, too. I wondered when he’d done it, after he’d gotten ready, or had he somehow known? “Aurora Trelawney,” he started, “soon to be Aurora Ajax.” A giggle through the crowd. I glanced at the kids who were glued to the ceremony, taking everything in. “I promise to love you the way I love you now until the day I die. I promise I will endeavor to stay alive until we’re both old, taking my life seriously from this day forth, and I promise to rescue you from any danger, whether it be a papercut or an attempt to kill you. You are the air I breathe, I didn’t know I was drowning until you came along and saved me. I owe my life to you and for that reason I give you my heart. From this day on I will forever be yours.” When he was finished I had tears in my eyes. I tried to blink it away so that it didn’t smudge my makeup. “Hunter Ajax,” I said and my voice wobbled but I gathered strength as I went along. “I promise that you are and will forever be my happy ending. You are the climax in my life story when I didn’t have a set plot until you came along. I promise you will be my hero, my sidekick, my best friend and my love interest from here on out and we will determine the ending of our story together. You were my hero when I was a damsel in distress, and you have made me the leading lady. I will love you and cherish you forever, and give you hell whenever I feel like it because that comes with the territory.” There was another ripple of laughter and then we were pronounced Mr. and Mrs. Ajax

and Hunter was allowed to kiss me. I was his wife. He put his lips on mine and held them there as if he were scared I was going to disappear. When he pulled away again his eyes were dark and deep and I knew he had our wedding night on his mind. I smiled, touched his face. We turned and the rest of the crowd became real to me again. The bubble burst and there were almost eighty people surrounding us where they’d faded while the vows were being said. I waited for that feeling of dread to come, the feeling that I usually got when I made a mistake and it was too late to change it. It never came. This had been the right thing to do from the start and I couldn’t be happier. The reception was simple and informal. We all moved to the other side of the garden where a cake had been bought – nothing fancy – and we cut it together and newlyweds. The kids cheered when we did and cued up for cake the moment we had it cut. We laughed and dished out one by one until they all sat around on the grass stuffing their faces. Their hands were filthy, their smiles full of icing and it was the happiest day of my life. I looked at Hunter who looked at them, too, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we had kids of our own. He was a family man, and we would create a family together. One by one our friends came up to us and congratulated us. Some of them had been skeptical but I knew they were all rooting for us and they were happy we were happy. That was all that mattered. Shane came up to us and clapped Hunter on the arm. “Kyle would be proud,” he said. Hunter’s eyes welled up with tears again and I felt his loss, his regret that his brother wasn’t here to see it and his love for Shane and what the man had put into his life. He hugged Shane. “Thank you. Brother.” They were both emotional. I stepped forward and hugged Shane, too. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for him and the man you’ve made him so I will be happy for the rest of my life. You are forever welcome in our home.” He nodded and smiled at me, not trusting himself to speak.

June was next in line and Hunter pulled himself together, ready with his charming smile the moment she was in front of us. “So, I’m guessing you’re the inspiration for the biker that’s made its way Aurora’s book.” Hunter shrugged. “I would be flattered if that was the case.” June grinned and Hunter stepped away to talk to one of his men. I stayed with June. “You should think about adding wedding scene to you book,” she said. “It could be interesting, I really like the way you manage to play up normal scenes and fill them with tension.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing for me, June.” She shook her head. “It’s business, honey. You’re going to do a lot for me, too, once that book is published.” She smiled at me and walked on. Hunter returned a moment later, unwilling to be away from me for longer than a second. “So, the Biker’s Bride is going to be great, huh?” I laughed. “It is but we’re still working on titles. They don’t want it to be too cliché. I’ll see what we can come up with. Maybe something along the lines of Bullets and Badassery.” Hunter pulled a face and I laughed. We joined the kids and danced the afternoon away. We left when the sun was starting to set. I still had to get out of my dress and Hunter was starting to look uncomfortable in his suit. We ordered a cab and left to my apartment where I’d left the bag I’d packed for the week away. I’d planned the whole thing in advance. We were going to spend the wedding night at Hunter’s apartment and in the morning we were going on our honeymoon. When we got back we would decide where we would live but I figured staying in Hunter’s place for a while would be great before we bought a place together. I got out of the dress and into jeans and a t-shirt. Hunter stayed in his suit until we got

to his apartment where he got out of it and stayed naked. He draped himself over the bed. I laughed. “What are you doing?” “I’m going to give you your wedding gift now.” I laughed again. He had a massive erection and he looked like one of those male models in the art books. I climbed onto the bed and he pulled me closer to him so I was lying on my back and he was against me, pressing his hard on against my hip bone. “You know, being married to you means I get to sleep with you whenever I want.” I shook my head. “When has that not been the case?” He thought about it. “You’re right.” He kissed me and I gave myself over to him. “So, Mrs. Ajax,” he said and I loved the sound of that. “We are going to have to talk about starting a family.” “How about we get used to being married first.” He kissed me again. “Of course,” he said between kisses. “But we definitely need to start practicing to make babies.” I laughed against his mouth and he slipped his hand underneath my shirt. Lust overcame me. Lust and love and awe for how my life had turned out. “You know I love you, right?” I asked when he broke the kiss again to pull my shirt over my head. He nodded. “I know. I love you too. But you’re in for a wild ride. You have no idea

what you married.” I laughed as he tugged and pulled to get all of my clothes off. I let him take me the way he liked to, starting on top, and then rolling over to let me be on top. Sex with him was great, as always. My life was finally beginning. A month ago I felt like my life was going nowhere. I was someone who didn’t fit in, stuck in a job that was going nowhere, not believing enough in my ability as a writer to go anywhere with it. In only a handful of weeks all that had changed, and now I was here, married, ready for the rest of my life. I had direction and love and a future. A husband. It almost felt too good to be true. Everything, including Hunter. But I knew that it was. I knew what I had, I knew what my life was worth because I’d nearly lost it. This was like a story in one of the books I wrote. If I’d read it in any novel I would have said this kind of happy ending was cliché, too good to be true, the kind of thing that threw readers off. The truth was, though, cliché was perfectly fine by me. THE END


Chapter One The smell, it was the first thing she noticed when she opened the door. When she remembered it, it always seemed to take on a human form, as if its fingers were reaching for her from the dark behind the half-opened front door. Coppery and thick, it ignited every animalistic instinct she had, wiping away her anger and making her want to cower or run. There are few things that actually smell the way they taste and, for Jessica, blood was at the top of the list. It probably would be for the rest of her life. Especially after that night. After the smell came the fear. Unlike anything she’d ever experienced, it pushed rational thought completely out of her mind. As she pushed the door open with her numb hand and stepped into the house, her heart was beating so hard it hurt. The television was on but muted, and empty beer cars and bongs formed a filthy landscape on the coffee table. She had been in this house hundreds of times before and it looked no different than usual. Except for the smell, the smell was so strong it almost seemed to pour from the yawning bedroom door. Silent, eyes wide, legs stiff with adrenaline, Jessica made her way to the bedroom. When she dreamed about this moment later, she willed herself awake with all her power. Her body paralyzed in sleep, she did everything she could to pull her soul out so she didn’t have to live the moment again. Desperately, she pinched herself and pounded her clenched her fist hard against her leg; she tried biting her own hand or forcing her feet to turn in the other direction. It never worked. Every single time, she only woke once she’d had the chance to see what was waiting for her on the mattress, only after she stepped into the sticky pool on the floor, still widening from the drips falling from the girl’s fingers and toes as they hung off the mattress. Dripping like a broken faucet, the blood threatened to make its viscous lava-like way out of the room, destroying everything it touched. As it had destroyed her life. *** Jessica Mitchell woke from her dream as if someone had flipped a switch. She sat up as soon as her eyes popped open, her back perfectly straight and her mouth a tight line. Staring straight ahead, the only indications of the fear she was experiencing were the wide eyes and the rapid rise and fall

between her collarbones. She focused on nothing but felt everything, the light shining through the lace curtains onto her cheeks, the smell of stale cigarettes, the sweat that glued her tank top to her back—it was all so vivid. I’m back, Jessica told herself. I’m back and I’m alive. She spoke aloud, her voice barely a whisper even though she was alone. “I’m back. I’m back. It’s over.” Speaking the words out loud broke her paralysis and her body collapsed into itself as she fell back into the tangled mass of damp sheets she called a bed. She covered her face with her hands and breathed deeply for a few seconds. The blood smell was gone, but it always seemed to follow her out of her dream, nagging at her for those few extra moments just to drive the point home. You did it, the smell told her. You’re to blame. She breathed again, just to ensure it was gone. All she smelled now was her own sweat and whatever fruity soap nonsense her mother stocked the shower with. Lilac and black currant, apricot and almond… something like that. It was calming, no matter what it was. Her heart finally slowing, Jessica sat back up and got out of her bed. She looked frail. Always a small girl, she had waited, anxious to blossom into the tall, wide-hipped women all her friends magically transformed into, but it just didn’t happen. Instead, she got more willowy. Those low-rise jeans her friends wore that clung to their full thighs and curved, tattooed, lower backs looked ridiculous on her. Her body was more suited to a tutu and a pair of pointe shoes. However, Jessica had about as much interest in that nonsense as she did slaving away in a kitchen all day, which is precisely what she had to do now. Her bedside clock told her she was already a half an hour late opening up the café downstairs. “Shit,” she hissed as grabbed her jeans from where they were slung across the baseboard of her bed. She didn’t know why she worried about it, but she hated being late. With balletic grace, she pulled her jeans up and, ignoring her still moist tank top, grabbed a black blouse from the floor and pulled it on. She was still piling her hair into a messy bun as she rushed into the living room. Predictably, her mom was sprawled out on the sofa like a drunk at a bus stop, an ashtray somehow still balanced on her large bust even though it rose up and down precariously with every trumpeting snore. “Kat!” Jessica hollered. Nothing, her mother still snored peacefully, a strap of her brightly dyed red hair blocking out most of her face. There were two bottles of wine on the floor beside her, a bright stream of sunlight exposing the fact that they were both completely empty. Coming close to her, Jessica could see where the wine had stained the dry skin around the inside of her lips, making her look like a zombie. She took the ashtray off her mom’s chest and set it aside. “Mom!” She yelped again. “I’m late! Wake up!” She knew from experience, if she didn’t get her mom up now, she would sleep well into the afternoon. The woman snorted once, then began to cough loudly, the tar from countless packs of cigarettes rattling around in her chest like a broken engine. She struggled upright, pushing her hair out of her face, her eyes still bleary as she tried to focus on her daughter. “What time is it? Jesus, my mouth tastes like shit.” “You mean it tastes like a shit load of cheap wine.” Jessica picked up the bottles and put them on the coffee table among the empty chip bags and dirty plates. “If you’re going to drink that stuff, at least splurge for something decent.”

Kathryn Nebbles groaned and sat up. Her ever-present bracelet collection clinked loudly as she tried to steady herself by gripping the back of the couch. “Is there any left? I don’t think Tylenol is going to do me any justice this morning.” “Nope,” Jessica responded without looking. She paused at the front door to check her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t look much better than her mom this morning. Dark circles under her eyes, chapped lips, tangled hair masquerading as a chic top knot, she might as well have downed two bottles herself last night. As she studied her face, her mom groaned loudly from behind her, “You don’t mind opening up, do you, Jess? I gotta pull myself together a bit.” Of course Jess didn’t mind. She had been opening up for the last couple of months without even being asked. Why would she need any formalities now? Kat was always a heavy drinker, a hold-over from the days when she ran with Jessica’s father and the club. In all other respects she was a lovely woman. Still gorgeous despite the extra sixty or so pounds on her Amazonian frame, she was loved ferociously by anyone she knew. Anyone except for Jess’s step-father, of course. Kat stood up and adjusted her clothes, wrinkled and stale from last night’s binge. “I’ll be down as soon as I freshen up. Here… ” Kat fished the café keys out of the back of her jeans and tossed them to her daughter. “Check the oil before you fire up the fryers. I think they’re due for a change.” “Got it.” Jess bent to pick up the keys where they had dropped and slid to a stop. “You need to work on your aim,” she said, a half smile on her face, “You need to work on your mouth!” her mom sniped with a smile as she moved carefully toward the bathroom. Pausing at the door, she stopped and turned back. “Any dreams last night?” she asked quietly. About to open the door, Jess stopped but didn’t turn. Was it the dark circles that gave her away? What about that haunted look she couldn’t seem to get rid of. She was immediately annoyed at herself. She had done her best to hide how she felt from her mom. She was one of those alpha females that launched themselves feet-first into your life should you give them the opportunity. She had a right to know, though. She’d been there for her. She’d been there for the bruises she sported from Luke’s “tough love.” She’d been there to help clean and stitch her up that night with the nursing skills she’d picked up on the road. She’d been there to wait for Jess to finally speak again. She deserved something at least. Jess looked in the mirror at her mother’s reflection, still holding the doorknob. She looked old, hungover, and worried. “Nope,” she replied, forcing a small smile. “Slept like a baby.” Her mother smiled wearily. “Way to go. Don’t burn the toast.” *** There was something to be said about Kat. High functioning alcoholic or not, she kept a clean place.

As Jess flicked the lights on in the café, they sputtered into life after a moment to illuminate the immaculate diner and kitchen. Fully stocked with vintage equipment, Jess always thought the café and its kitchen looked like something straight out of a movie. Kat had taken over the failing café after her divorce from Ron, Jess’s step-dad. She had poured her divorce settlement into the place, along with additional funds from her brother, renovating the café, but keeping the antique, 1950s vibe of the place. Jess had tried to convince Kat on many occasions to modernize it, at least the kitchen, and to at least add a microwave, but she refused, calling it a landmark and a little piece of history. And it was. Kat’s Café had been the official diner for the Grim Angels for as long as Jess had been alive. Since her father died and Kat retired from the club, Kat had kept herself busy, first running, then owning, the café, ensuring everyone in the Angels had a place to grab something to eat, to talk, to get together, no matter what time of day or night. Growing up, Jess remembered the sound of motorcycles roaring in the distance like thunder and knowing, with a giddy excitement that some kids reserved for grandparents or favorite aunts, that her mother’s friends were back in town. Even in the middle of the night, Jess would wake from a deep sleep and rush down with her mom to open the café. There would be pancakes at three in the morning, buckets of hot coffee, rashers of bacon, hamburgers, and, of course, whiskey. The café had no liquor license, but that never stopped the spirits from flowing liberally. As she grew older, she found herself right at her mother’s side each time, piling onions onto bowls of chili and burning toast as her seemingly endless parade of uncles wrapped her in leathery hugs and slipped her twenties for fun money. If anyone had told her, she would’ve been shocked to hear that these men were criminals. Some of the men who took her into their lap and amused her with dirty jokes, despite Kat’s protests, were murderers. Blood stained hands or not, to little Jessica, they were her family and she loved them all ferociously. To her, they were no more dangerous than she was. Blood. So much blood. Gorgeous black, sticky, blood, and how easy, how easy it was to do… Standing alone in the kitchen, Jess shook her head rapidly. Stop it! It was a dream and now the dream was over. You have a job to do. Without checking the grease, because as far as she was concerned, the older the grease, the better the fries tasted, Jess flicked the two fryers to the on position. With practiced precision, she started the grill and made her way into the dining room. No one was waiting outside, despite the half an hour delay in opening, which wasn’t that surprising. Their clientele, when they had some, kept odd hours. She turned the open sign on and unlocked the front door. All that remained to be made was the coffee and, god knows, by the time she managed to make it downstairs in a couple of hours, her mom would be gagging for a cup. With a deep sigh, she picked up yesterday’s newspaper from where it sat by the cash register and flipped through it. Another day begins. Another day of solitary confinement, trapped in a grease-smelling tower in the middle of nowhere.

Chapter Two “Where’s my little girl?” Jessica’s uncle’s voice was almost as loud as the sound of the hog he rode up on. He was a huge man, almost filling the doorframe, but his smile was even bigger. His perfectly straight teeth were gleaming, almost shark like, and his smile was deceptively lighthearted, though the eyes above that ingratiating smile were something quite different. Jess had seen him at his most ferocious and those same teeth looked as if they could devour you whole under the right circumstances. “Jessica Mitchell!” he roared again as he stepped inside and out of the door. Jess could feel the other customers flinch at the leather-clad giant who was suddenly interrupting their quiet morning. The old man nursing his coffee reached for his wallet and the young couple, who had just arrived, looked nervously out to their car. They had every right to be nervous. Who wouldn’t be? He spotted her behind the counter, and as he strode in the other members of the Grim Angels piled in after him like two dozen black beetles scuttling out from under an overturned rock. Jess hastily slid the coffee pot back into its warmer and rushed to her uncle’s arms. He surrounded her in his arms and squeezed her against him, burying her face into his broad chest. She inhaled deeply, drinking in his smell of fresh air and exhaust. It was an amazing combination that seemed to make the café disappear, if only for a second, as she closed her eyes and imagined this was what freedom smelled like. Immediately the café was filled with laughter and conversations as her uncle’s men and a few old ladies settled themselves in. Legs spread wide in their seat, heavy shoulders filling up the tiny booths —Kat’s café was instantly transformed into a clubhouse. Her uncle pushed her back so he could take a good look at her. “You look tired, Jess,” he said as he cupped her face in his massive hands, causing her to close her eyes again, like a caressed kitten. “I guess I am,” she replied, her eyes still closed. “Still got the dreams?” Jesus, what was with everyone today? Despite her happiness at seeing Uncle Valdemar again, she found herself growing annoyed. She was tired of being defined by that night, protected from what she had done. Even though the other men were becoming progressively louder, her uncle’s voice was quiet, the most soothing thing she’d heard in weeks. Unable to lie to him, those calloused hands that had taken god knows how many lives wrapped gently around her face, she nodded. She opened her eyes and found him staring directly at her. His eyes always looked old. Even when she was a little girl, she remembered those eyes and how they always seemed so... full. Full of anger and sadness and occasionally kindness, it was all swirled into those irises that had seen everything life had to offer over the years. He looked at her now with concern,

and something else she couldn’t make out. Respect, maybe? “Almost every night,” she murmured. “Used to be more, though, so, I can’t complain.” Val Ingersson smiled slightly, those shark teeth peeking out from behind his thin lips. “Yeah, those don’t go away quickly. I still dream about a few of my firsts once and a while. But they do go away. You just have to hang on until they do.” That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Jess’s stomach tightened and, for a moment, she felt helpless, a nightmare far worse than the ones she’d been dealing with for the last half a year. “Fucking hell! Val!” Her mother’s voice, perhaps the only thing loud enough to cut through the growing roar of the bikers, interrupted their conversation. She pushed wide the door to the stairs leading to their apartment and rushed into her brother’s arms. Jess stepped back just in time to avoid being crushed and watched the siblings hug. No hesitation, no self-consciousness, the two big-boned creatures locked onto each other in the kind of hug that comes with years of shared experience. “Where you been? It’s been so long!” Kat asked, pushing herself out of Val’s arms. Laughing, Jess wiped a few tears from her eyes. Maybe someday I will have someone so glad to see me. “Business! Lots of business!” Val replied, holding Kat by the shoulders. “You been on the road all night? You boys look exhausted!” “Hungry, more like it.” Val swung himself onto one of swiveling stools that lined the diner counter. He looked ridiculous, like a whale perched on a mushroom. Jess saw the old man hastily dropping some bills by his coffee cup before he raised himself up shakily and, doing his best not to stare at the gruesome Grim Angels logo on the back of every jacket that surrounded him, made his way toward the door with his head down. She smiled sadly as he left. He was her favorite customer. Almost immediately, the young couple who had, until her uncle’s arrival, been picking through the menu while looking around and admiring the place, rose and followed the man out. “Place is all yours, sweetheart,” Kat said, placing yet another kiss on her brother’s bristly cheek. “Figure out what you want and we’ll get it going for you.” *** It took over an hour for Jess to get everyone’s orders taken and the meals on the grill, her mother circulating and pouring coffee while catching up with the men. All the Angels wanted to talk with her, many of them having known her since she was a baby and her mother was an old lady in the club. There was something different this time, however, and she tried not to notice. Like her uncle, most of the men had a strange mix of respect and sadness in their eyes when they spoke to her. Of course no

one mentioned anything. They were far too experienced for that. Rather, they told her banal things such as how pretty she was, asked her how her summer was, or asked about her mom. They asked her about pretty much everything except what kept her up at night. In all honesty, she was glad for the distraction and the chance to be busy. Once inside the kitchen and in front of the grill, she didn’t have time to think of much of anything except for how much bacon was on Pat’s burger or whether she had enough gravy for the neverending fry orders her mother was throwing at her. Even though it wasn’t much past ten in the morning, she could her hear the clank of beer bottles as Kat made sure all the boys were taken care of. As she began to load plates with the first of the orders from the grill, the normally sedate café was filled with shouts and, best of all, laughter. This is what she needed: sweat on her brow and no secrets. It was only when the last of the men were face down, focusing on their food, that she had a moment to take a break and catch a breath. Leaning against the cooler door, allowing the steel to draw the heat from her body, Jess took a long sip from a pop. The bubbles felt good in her throat and she pressed the icy can against her forehead then her chest. If it were only like this all the time, she would feel so much better. She might even be able to forget, to move on and maybe even get a place of her own. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to enjoy her quiet mind. Underneath the clink of cutlery and the quiet rumble of conversation in the dining room, she heard her mother’s surprised voice. “Jason? You sure?” There was seriousness to Kat’s tone that intrigued her. She had been as bubbly as a flirt at a cocktail party for most of the morning, flitting from table to table as she caught up with friends old enough to be family. Now, however, there was an intensity to her voice that caused Jess to move toward the door in order to better hear. “I mean, this is a big deal. Has the kid earned it?” her mother continued as Jess coasted to a stop just out of sight. “You think I would choose him if he hadn’t?” Val’s voice responded, equally serious and sounding slightly offended. “That boy has been nothing but loyal from the get go. There’s no one in the Angels more dedicated than him. He’s done the work to get here, believe me.” “But is he loyal? I mean look what happened with… ” Jess’s heart skipped a beat, knowing her mother was about to say his name, a name she hadn’t said out loud since that night. Val stopped her before she could. “That was a different situation entirely. We should’ve taken care of that long before what happened, the twisted fucker.” There was emotion in her uncle’s voice that Kat immediately responded to, her voice dropping so low that Jess had to edge closer to the open door to hear. “He had us all fooled, Val. You couldn’t have known. I’m her mother and I didn’t know. He was a smart motherfucker.” “He was a sick motherfucker. That shit will not happen again. I’ll see to that. If it does, I’ll have the

fucker’s head on a pike for all to see.” “She’s doing better, Val.” Jess’s heart was thudding in her chest. Listening in on secrets was never a good idea. She crossed the door to the sink, glancing furtively out of the corner of her eye before stopping out of sight again. The two were practically huddled together at the counter and there were at least eight empty beer bottles lined up in front of them. They might as well been cans of soda like the one in her hand for all the effect they seemed to have had. The two looked like Norse gods, sober-eyed and serious, despite the ketchup stained plates and empties that surrounded them. “She shouldn’t need to do better. She should have never been involved in the first place. I don’t want her part of this ever again. She’s untouchable now. Jason knows that and the men he’s bringing up with him know it, too.” “Jesus, Val! Look at her! She’s young and she’s beautiful. How are you going to keep them off her? We can’t keep her locked up here for life.” There was vulnerability in her mother’s voice that she hadn’t heard before. She was scared. Scared for herself, scared for the lifestyle she had grown up in, scared for Jess’s future, and maybe even a little scared of her brother. Jess listened from her hiding spot as her uncle paused, then she heard the thunk of a bottle hitting the bar. “They know. They all know. Off limits, entirely. If anyone goes near her, I’ll deal with it myself. ” “Well then, those Atlanta boys better behave,” her mother replied softly. “I don’t think we have to worry about that.”

Chapter Three

The day finally completed, her legs aching and her hair reeking of fried food, coffee, beer and sweat, Jess trudged up the narrow steps to the apartment above the café, reveling in her tiredness. She was exhausted, but her mother was still going strong. It had been a long day full of food and drinking, and she could still hear the Grim Angels in the café below, talking over the heads of their passed out brothers, mixed with the dull thump of music from where they blasted their stereos on the deserted street outside. She could feel the heat growing as she made her way up the steps. There wasn’t enough money left after the café had been renovated to also update the included apartment, and when it was this hot, she could really smell how old the place was. She imagined all of Detroit smelled like this, abandoned and forgotten, full of history that no one cared about and the rapidly dwindling promise of a brighter future. Kind of like herself. It felt like every step she climbed was another level of sadness creeping back into her. She hadn’t gone out in over a year, her life nothing more than work and sleep in a continual loop. She turned the key in the lock and found the apartment to be even hotter than the kitchen below. Immediately she moved to the large windows and yanked open the curtains. Like the rest of the place, the windows hadn’t been updated and it took her several minutes of sweaty struggle to unlatch them and get them open, her efforts loosening more wood and paint chips from the slowly rotting frame. The cool dusk air flooded into the room, filling it with the smell of hot pavement and the sounds and exhaust from the bikes below. Jess leaned out and took a deep breath. Underneath her, the remaining Grim Angels milled around their bikes. She was reminded, once again, of beetles, their shoulders rounded in their black leather, industriously building an underground network deal-by-deal and jobby-job. Across the street from the café and all around them were low-rent housing and a few storefronts, long ago abandoned. She had seen a few people come and go from the area, but, in general, it was an empty, desolate place. People had either given up or been kicked out, pushed from their homes by either lack of money or motivation. She had explored those places often, hoping to find something interesting. She had done that a lot before that night at Luke’s place. When the rest of her friends were out getting high and screwing each other’s boyfriends, she used to spend her spare time poking through the many feral homes and businesses that made up her neighborhood and the surrounding city. She was never sure what she was hoping to find, but everything she stumbled across became a treasure. Newspapers, old novels, bottle caps, canned food long ago spoiled, those unintentional time capsules intrigued her. So much. in fact, that she had been in the process of preparing her college entry essays before everything had fallen apart. If she had just followed her heart, things would have turned out so different.

The old abandoned buildings fascinated her, and as she crept through them, she imagined what they must have been like in their heyday. She wanted to study history, to learn about the past, and maybe someday curate a museum. That had been her childhood dream, following in the footsteps of Indiana Jones. Now, however, it seemed so far away and ridiculously, embarrassingly, naïve. She was turning away from the window when she heard her name called out. “Jess!” She stuck her head back out and looked down. The bikers were going back inside, but standing below the window, her round face peering up at her, was her childhood best friend, Angela Zeiss. She had been so busy in the kitchen that she hadn’t noticed she was with them as the club had continued to roll in. In the dusk, her hair looked like a platinum halo, curling down her back in the loose ringlets you only saw on prom queens or well-paid strippers. “Hey! I’m like Romeo. Come down, come down sweet Juliet, you bitch!” Angela laughed, making a goofy romantic pose in the empty street. “I don’t think that was a part of the play!” Jess called down, “I don’t think Romeo called Juliet a bitch. I could be wrong, though.” Angela laughed again, a delightful sound in the growing dark. “Fuck Shakespeare! What did he ever do for me! Why didn’t you come say ‘hi’ in there?” Jessica and Angela had practically grown up together. Both Grim Angels babies, their mothers had been best friends. Devoted old ladies, they had ridden with their husbands until their growing tummies had forced them to settle down, at least for a bit. The two girls had all their shared firsts in common. First cigarettes, first boyfriends, first heartbreaks, first… Jess stopped herself. That was where things changed radically. “There’s a big bonfire party tomorrow for the Angels being back in town! Let’s go hit it up!” Jess cringed at the idea. A party? She had been avoiding them. The idea of facing the people, the music, and the inevitable social interactions and resulting embarrassment was almost too much for her to handle. “Yeah…I’m a little tired.” “Look, bitch,” Angela called, her grin taking the sting out of her words, “we haven’t seen each other in months. You need to get out! Look at you, withering away up there. You look like a fucking stick bug hanging out of that window. It’s the least you can do for ignoring me all day.” “I was busy!” Jess shouted down in mock exasperation. It felt good. “I’m tired!” Angela had a familiar look in her eye. She was not about to give up. She put her hands on her plump hips, the sleeve tattoos that covered both her arms and chest almost neon they were so colorful. They must have been expensive. Apparently her friend was doing all right for herself. “Don’t make me get drunk and stupid without you.”

“I’m—” “I’ll do it, too. You know I will. I’ll do some stupid dance, or end up getting naked, or some shit.” Jess rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. “I’m sure Ed would love that.” Angela had been a devoted, but extravagantly flirty, girlfriend to one of her uncle’s best friends for the last year. He was much older than her and looked so beat up they used to call him road kill behind his back. He was kind, though, and patient – patient enough to put up with the roly-poly little Persian that was Angela. “Oh yeah! I have a boyfriend, don’t I? Oh well, I’m still going to get naked if you don’t stop me.” Looking down at Angela, all plush and lovely, it was hard for Jess to say no. It would be nice to forget for a bit, to be the girl she used to be. At least to try again to be the girl she was supposed to be. Jess took a deep breath as she tried to decide. “All right,” she said. “I’ll do it. I’ll stop you from making a fool of yourself tomorrow night, but that’s it,” she said as she wagged a finger at her friend. Angela’s face lit up and she gyrated her hips for a moment, rubbing her hands behind her head and through her hair, her eyes closed, grunting and moaning loudly, looking like she was deep in a mind twisting orgasm. “Awesome! Fuckin’ right!” she grinned, her show stopping as suddenly as it started. “You’re completely hopeless,” Jess said, wagging her finger again. “You look like your mom when you do that,” Angela teased. “Val’s got some guys coming up from Atlanta and they’re supposed to show up. I do love the way those southern guys sound,” she drawled out, then switched back to her normal voice. “You’ll have fun. I will make sure that happens. Don’t you chicken out.” Jess grinned sheepishly. “I won’t chicken out.” Actually I probably will, but I can’t admit that to Angela. “I’ll come up there and drag your skinny ass down the street if you do. Then won’t you be embarrassed?” “’re scary.” Is that my voice? Jess wondered. There was lightness to it that she barely recognized, and she liked it. The café door below rang and Jess could see the squat form of Angela’s man stumbling onto the sidewalk. Angela squealed and jumped into his arms, immediately planting a deep kiss on him. Jess watched for a while as Ed lifted Angela up and swung her about like a ragdoll. Her heels dangled in the air, her hands buried in his greying hair, becoming oblivious to her old friend. She was lost in her love for this steady, strange, old man.

Would I ever get that? Do I even deserve it anymore? She turned away from the window and made her way to the bathroom, mindfully stuffing her jealousy away in that same dark space she seemed to put everything these days. *** It had been some stupid late night talk show. When she opened the door to Luke’s house, some vacuous celebrity was having an overly animated discussion with the host while the audience clapped and giggled in all the right places. Was the sound even on? It was hard for her to remember anything during the day, but the details were clear in her dreams, and tonight as she walked into the house for her nightly visit, she could hear the canned laughter blaring. The laughter didn’t stop. It didn’t stop when she opened the door to the bedroom. It didn’t stop when she saw the girl’s body. Hysterical laughter, deafening her as she stood at the base of the bed and stared. Whoever she was, she looked like a mannequin, painted with a deep and glossy red from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Her hair was matted with it, her nostrils filled with it. So many cuts and all so deep, the only word for it was mauled. Like a rabid dog filled with inhumane hunger had attacked her, she had been sliced and torn apart. Oh how it must have hurt. Luke had given her pain throughout their relationship, but he had saved this kind of hurt for others. Why? The girl’s eyes stared, shocked but lifeless up to the ceiling, her eyelashes thick with badly applied mascara. Luke always had a thing for eyes. Whoever this nameless girl was, she knew him enough to know that. Canned laughter thundered from the living room, growing louder and louder until it sounded less like hilarity and more like screams. In her dream, the laughter became the shrieks of a tortured woman, screams and constant applause, egging on the pain and congratulating it. Jess’s mind hummed with the sound. She clapped her hand over her ears and her head began to vibrate until she was sure that it was going to burst. She pressed her hands tight, her hands over her ears, trying to block out the sound. But she couldn’t, and the screams of laughter mocked her.

Chapter Four He was careful to ride behind him for the entire trip north so Jason would be the one with all the bugs in his teeth when pulling into Detroit. Smirking to himself, Scott Murphy thoroughly enjoyed each time he saw Jason raise his smallish hands to his eyes to swat something away or, even better, to his mouth to drag something out. He hoped it was a big juicy one every time. A June bug even because those big, hard shelled, bastards hurt. Scott was sure Jason noticed what he was doing. How could he not? He was an intelligent man. After all, as he was sure to remind them at every opportunity that he was the future leader of the mighty Grim Angels. Chosen from the five charters, he was Val’s golden boy, set to inherit the throne. Future despot or not, Scott had been careful to maneuver himself directly behind Jason all the way from Atlanta, using him as a human shield of sorts against the litany of insects that must have be pummeling him from mile one. It wasn’t a perfect solution since he still caught the occasional bug, but it was better than catching every bug. It was a small victory, and a petty one, but Scott just didn’t care. Chances were that Jason didn’t care either. Being the leader was enough to keep him happy. That was just the kind of creepy little ginger he was. Scott liked to think of Jason as the walking embodiment of little man syndrome. He was Napoleon with a southern drawl. He swaggered, he squinted, and he was dramatic in his speech and gestures. He had pretty much every quality you’d expect from a future motorcycle club leader, except for size. He definitely didn’t have size. Jason MacGinnis’ little man complex was never more apparent than it was the night he announced he had been chosen to eventually replace Val. He’d gathered all the key Atlanta players in his basement, leaving a few of his larger cohorts and their salivating pit bulls upstairs to guard the place. In Scott’s experience, that usually meant to play video games and hit the bong while the real business was sorted elsewhere. Looking back, Scott was pretty sure Jason had chosen his spot strategically beneath the naked bulb for its dramatic effect. In the cramped basement, with the heavy scent of weed and black mold in the air, Jason had announced in his most regal voice that he was to moving to Detroit in order to be groomed by Val to become his successor. Scott remembered how he had paused after making the announcement as if expecting a great gasp, a round of applause, or maybe even a triumphant blast of horns. He must have been so disappointed that the only response he received was a few grunts and the sound of video game gunfire from upstairs. As soon as the word were out of his moth, Scott crossed his fingers and began to chant in his head, dear God, please don’t pick me, but he had. Under that stupid swinging bulb, Jason had named his good friend Scott and Wild Card Rick Wilders, as his advisors, saying he had already cleared it with Val and they had both proven themselves to be the best men for the job. They were to saddle up for

Detroit the next week when they were riding up to be introduced to the mother charter. They would have to return, of course, to settle their affairs in Atlanta, but the deal was done and it was just a matter of getting there. Everyone turned to look at the two of them. Scott, his face passive and his arms crossed, just happened to be standing next to Rick, who was grinning like an idiot who had just won a scratch and win. “Right on! Fuckin’ Detroit, here we come!” Rick had said with his typical enthusiasm. Scott ground his teeth as they rumbled through southern Michigan, once again swallowing his annoyance. Right on, indeed. He didn’t want to leave Atlanta. He had settled there, or as much as men like him could settle. He had an apartment, he was starting a bookshelf, and he’d found a few restaurants he enjoyed. Hell, he had even adopted a stray cat. Now as he rode in the growing darkness behind Rick and Jason, he found himself wondering if Rocky, so named because he had obviously seen his share of fights, even missed him. Probably only for the kibble I put out for him every day, the ungrateful bastard. He always had plenty of other companions lining up to spend their evenings with him. However, when they had taken their purses and he had shown them the door, it was Rocky’s purr as he rubbed himself against his leg that had given him the biggest comfort. Or course, if the only thing keeping him in Atlanta was a cat that didn’t even belong to him, maybe it was best he left. *** After what seemed like an eternity as they rolled north through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and, finally, Michigan, they could finally see the sparkling center of the city as they rumbled across the Rogue River on I-75. Scott was in a foul mood. Saddle sore from twelve hours of hard riding, in a city he didn’t want to be in, the city center seemed pathetic in its enthusiasm as it sparkled in the distance. Detroit’s reputation preceded it, but, even so, the outlying suburbs they had ridden past struck him. They were in the better part of town, but they could see empty lots and collapsing houses and buildings. There were hardly any streetlights and it seemed there was nothing but miles of abandoned buildings, interspersed with empty lots, desolate looking parks, and the weary headlights of the occasional car. It looked like an apocalypse and he wanted to be anywhere other than this shithole of a city. A few miles farther on, Jason motioned for them to exit onto Michigan Avenue. Their bikes vibrated and shook along the brick road until they rolled to a stop at a gas station. Scott unbuckled his helmet and slipped it off before dismounting. Sweaty from the ride, his hair flopped down almost to his chin and he pushed it out of his eyes impatiently. “Sweet Jesus, fuck me. Look at this place,” he mumbled as he looked around. For some reason he

thought of that big fat cat again. It seemed to help the lonely gnaw he suddenly felt at the pit of his stomach. Rick laughed wryly as he tipped his bike onto the side stand and walked to the edge of the filling island, where he could see the skyscrapers in the distance, and extending his skinny arms out as if to hug the skyline. “Are you ready for us, Detroit!” he yelled in his best strip club DJ voice. Scott and Jason might have at least laughed at that earlier, but it had been a long ride and even Rick’s jokes became annoying after a while. Still straddling his bike, Jason took a cigarette from a beat up pack in his jacket pocket and lit it, drawing deep to cause the tip to flare bright red. Scott mentally shook his head as he prepared to fill his bike. It was just like Jason to light up before pumping gas. Jason pulled off his helmet, his hair pulled back enough that Scott could see wings of the angel part of his tattoo curling up his neck behind his ears. You could say one thing about the little leprechaun: he was devoted. He was going to make an excellent leader; there was no doubt in his mind. In fact, the man was so enthusiastic that rather than wearing the club logo on the back of his jacket, like the rest of them, he took it upon himself to have the entire thing tattooed on his freckled back. He even had Grim Angels inked across his neck, just to top the whole thing off. Scott had been there when he did it. Irish drunk in truly majestic style, Jason had sat on the tattoo chair like it was his precious bike, like a king upon his royal steed. Eyes bleary but still a magnetic blue, he had clenched his teeth around his smoke as the poor, terrified, tattoo artist did his best not to fuck up. It didn’t help that Jason had threatened to kill him if he did. That definitely didn’t make for a carefree atmosphere. “You better make it perfect, man. The only way that’s coming off is if they skin me alive.” Scott had to look away to hide his smile. The speaking through clenched teeth thing was so over the top that it was like he was following a manual. However, here he was, loyal to the little ginger, and following him to what, from his viewpoint, really did look like the bowels of hell. “Welcome home, gentlemen!” Jason said, exhaling a plume of smoke. “This place isn’t going to know what hit it.” “I’m starving,” Rick grumbled as he turned away from the view and leaned backward to crack his aching back. They had been pushing hard to make Detroit in one day, stopping only when the bike were hungry. The flesh could wait. Out of the three of them, Rick was definitely the tallest. Almost as tall as the infamous Val, but skinny as a twig, he was like a hyperactive, genetically enhanced, puppy. Truly an example of adult ADHD, the only thing that seemed to help him focus was the almost constant cloud of marijuana smoke he surrounded himself with. Scott wasn’t sure he’d even recognize him if he weren’t high. He’d heard stories, though. Horrible ones. Rick wasn’t a man to cross and definitely one to keep on your side. Someone had paid for every scar that man had on his lean body.

“Hungry, hungry, hungry…think there’s anything to eat around here?” “Val’s set us up in his own basement for starters,” Jason said. “We can grab something to eat once we get there. I don’t want to be in this shithole after dark any longer than I have to be.” Scott pulled the nozzle from his bike’s tank and pursed his lips. For someone in a hurry, Jason was taking his own sweet time. He was the only one that had filled his bike and was ready to roll. “Is his place in the bright parts or in fucking hell? This place looks like a something out of a fucking zombie apocalypse movie.” “Aww…what’s wrong, Prada? You miss your old home already?” Rick had wandered back to his own bike and had paused as he lifted the nozzle from the pump. “You worried they won’t have Evian like they do in Atlanta?” Jason barked with laughter as began to fill his own bike, his voice very loud in the silence. “Fuck you, Rick,” Scott growled, making both men laugh harder still. They had been calling him that horrible nickname, Prada, since they rode past a billboard in Cincinnati. Glowing with spotlights and spread wide across the sky, the advertisement featured a male model that could’ve been Scott’s twin. He turned his back to the men, as he tightened the cap on the tank, so they wouldn’t see him blush. He hated that shit. He barely noticed the way he looked. He avoided mirrors out of a complete lack of interest, not because of any confidence issues. It was true he had always received attention from members of the opposite sex. He couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t easy to get a girl. In fact, it was more annoying to him than anything else. He learned a long time ago that he could afford to be choosy, and as a result, he chose to ignore them. There were only so many mindless conversations he could be a part of without swallowing a bullet. Unlike Rick, with his seemingly permanent hard on, Scott could take it or leave it. He was too confident, too self-possessed, to give a shit either way. Still, remembering back to that big glossy black and white billboard, he felt more than a little selfconscious. That was what he looked like? Like some cross between rugged outdoorsman and a matinee idol? It was fucking embarrassing. Of course, he didn’t let on their kidding annoyed him and he would let them have their fun until they got tired of it. He was the master of stonewalling. “Neither, so relax. It’s north of the city, out in the country somewhere. A place called Ray. It doesn’t matter. Wherever it is, we’ll settle in just fine. All we need is a hot bath, a few drinks, and a lady or two as a light refresher.” Jason spoke like he was addressing an army, his voice full of false authority. Scott and Rick exchanged glances. Hopefully he’d settle into this whole authority thing before the two of them had to beat the shit out of him. The mention of ladies seemed to perk Rick up though. He rubbed his hands together in a comic gesture of greed. “I could handle one or two. Three or four. Basically whatever Prada here can rustle up for me.”

“You want me to get your girls for you now, Rick?” Scott glared at him from across the bike. In the lights of the station, Rick’s shaven head glowed a bit like the moon. His manic eyes were shining even brighter now at the mention of women and the thought of fresh pussy. Under one eye was a series of lines, like the ones prisoners used to scratch into the walls for every day they were locked up. For Rick, those were for every man he had killed. There were six. No one asked him about the circumstances, but Scott had been present for three of them. Nothing bonds friends like getting away with murder. Rick’s problem with women, however, stemmed from the fact that if he got drunk enough, he’d end up blabbing about what those lines stood for. Unfortunately, whenever that happened, Rick was generally trying to get laid at the same time, and that was not a good combination. “I ain’t above sloppy seconds. I’m more than willing to take whatever I can get. I’m trading in my food stamps. It’s been a while.” “Yeah, I’ll see what I can do,” Scott mumbled as he swung his leg over his bike and retrieved his helmet from the mirror and began to fasten it, intending to do no such thing. “Big tits, Scott. Remember that, I want one with huge tits. Massive. I got big hands.” Rick stretched his fingers wide to make his point. “Those babies got to fit right in there.” “Right. Got it,” Scott replied as he stood his bike upright, silently urging the other two men to shut up, hurry up, and get back on the road so he didn’t have to listen to their shit anymore. “Don’t forget to get one for yourself while you’re at it. What kind you want?” Rick spoke like they were talking about ice cream flavors, and it made Scott cringe for what seemed like the millionth time since they started the trip. Rick never, ever, shut up, and once he latched onto a subject, he would worry it to death, like a dog gnawing at a bone. Scott had grown up with sisters, a powerhouse of a mother, and no dad to speak of. If he learned anything about living in a house packed with women, it was that it just wasn’t that simple. They weren’t ice cream. They weren’t anything to collect or sample. They were just as fucked up and just as powerful as men were. If not more so. It was the ones who tapped around in high heels while trying to drink away what brain cells they had left that disappointed him. What kind of girl did he want? One who thought for herself. One who didn’t look to him for her happiness. One who couldn’t be bought off with a present or two. One who was working on a book collection of her own. That’s the kind of woman he wanted. “You know what kind of woman I want tonight?” Scott asked, pausing just before thumbing his bike into life. Scott never talked about girls and the two men fell silent, suddenly feeling like they were about to be

privy to some grand realization. Scott smiled crookedly as the men paused in their activity, waiting on his response. He had them hooked, and now he was going to reel them in. “One who can cook a mean burger.� He pressed the starter button, the bass rumble of his Harley coming to life ending the conversation and leaving Jason and Rick with a look of annoyed disappointment.

Chapter Five The note that had accompanied the package lying on the bottom step was written in Angela’s typical, bubbly handwriting. It hadn’t changed since middle school when she had spent more time perfecting how she was going to sign her married name than concentrating on her schoolwork. Now that they were both in their mid-twenties, Angela’s writing was still as unmistakably girly and bouncy as her personality. Taped to the side of a wrinkled plastic shopping bag, the note was more of a command than anything else. Don’t dress like a grandma. Wear this or I’ll kick your ass. Exhausted from another long day in front of a grill, but too curious to wait, Jess ripped open the bag before she even started up the stairs to the apartment. Standing in the short hallway just off the café, her clothes blotched with gravy and grease, she picked through the contents of the bag with unmistakable distaste. There was a short black thing that might have been a top or a skirt, along with a pair of ridiculous patent black stilettos, and a t-shirt that had been artfully torn in all the right places. A perfect outfit should she be looking to swing around on a pole somewhere. “Never,” she said into the silence as she shook her head, but then she smiled. She had to pick at least one piece to wear tonight or Angela really would make her life hell. It was sweet of her, too. Dropping off a party care package was going above and beyond for most friendships, particularly for one that had been on hold for as long as theirs had been. Knowing she’d have to parade around in one of the skimpy pieces didn’t do much for Jess’s nerves, however, and she mounted the stairs with a dull heavy feeling deep in her stomach. Her mother was still downstairs, finishing out the shift while cleaning the place. It was their arrangement: Jess would open and Kat would close. It was just as well. Her mother had always been protective, but never more so than since that night. Now that she had overheard her conversation with Val, Jess was certain her mother would fly into a panic if she knew what her plans were for this evening. Those two didn’t want her involved in the lifestyle and here she was, about to put on a colossal pair of hooker shoes and throw herself right into the middle of it again. It wouldn’t be pretty. Jess turned the key in the lock and opened the door to the apartment. The lights were all out, the windows open, and the window fan working hard to pull the trapped heat out, though the apartment was still stifling. It was almost enough to make her want to retreat to the air-conditioned comfort of the café. Jess wiped at her face and eased the door closed behind her. Why can’t we get an air conditioner? Just a little one, she asked herself again as she moved through the apartment to her room. If she were lucky, she would be showered, presentable, and out of the apartment before her mom finished downstairs. ***

Jess took one last look at herself before leaving. Out of all the embarrassing articles of clothing she had been commanded to wear, she decided on the tiny black skirt. It was far tighter than anything she was used to, and without her constant adjustment, it seemed to want to ride up her ass. In order to balance the appalling shortness of it, she had chosen one of the many oversized black tops she wore on a regular basis. It had a Sabrina neckline and brought out the Audrey Hepburn in her. In fact, with her large dark eyes, long neck and delicate features, she might be mistaken for her in dim light, especially with the way she had pulled her hair into a swingy ponytail, so long it brushed between her shoulder blades as she moved. No heels, though. She opted instead for a pair of simple black flats. Angela might appreciate the pointed toes and tall heel, and while they were stylish and oh-so perfect for a swift kick in the balls if the evening’s events necessitated that kind of activity, they would be impossible on the uneven ground at the bonfire. A trip to the emergency room with a broken ankle would put a real damper on her evening, so the flats were it. Jess sighed. She pulled the skirt down one last time and made her way out to the living room where she scrawled a note, telling Kat she had gone out and would be back in a couple of hours, before moving on toward the door. All she had to do was grab her mother’s car keys and she would be on her way. “Shit,” Jess hissed. The keys weren’t in the bowl beside the door where they were kept, and that meant one thing: they were somewhere on her mother. She fumed a moment, trying to decide what to do, when she spotted her mother’s big leather bag sitting in a chair. Trying to hurry, she went through the contents, digging like a dog looking for a buried bone. She found cigarette packs, lighter, lipstick, an entire bottle of hairspray, receipts, and empty gum wrappers. She held up a box of condoms, staring at them briefly in disbelief, before dropping them back into the purse and digging through the rest of the minutiae, but she found no keys. This was going to make things difficult. She closed the purse and stood, looking around the apartment, trying to spot the wad of puff toys and keys that comprised Kat’s key ring. She was beginning to sweat again, but not entirely from the heat of the apartment. She had the perfect excuse to not go now, should she want to back out. She could spend another evening in the safety of her bedroom, reading or watching Netflix, and remembering. “Fuck it,” she mumbled as she clenched her fists determinately. Not another night plagued by ghosts. Angela was right. She had to climb her way out of the tower, if just for one night. She was still debating with herself when she heard the sound of a familiar car from the open window. She’d recognize that engine anywhere, the wheezy rattle of a dying Toyota. It was her step-dad, come to pay a very well timed visit. As the car stopped with the squeal of worn out brakes, Jess made her decision. She rushed from the apartment and pounded down the steps.

Chapter Six “Wow, honey! Look at you!” Ronald Nebbles looked positively amazed as she burst out into the street. He was just climbing out of his car and seemed to be frozen by the sight of her—one hand on the car door and one foot on the street. Jess was immediately embarrassed. She tugged at her skirt. “What?” she asked, feeling like a defensive twelve year old. “You never do yourself up like this! What’s the occasion?” Ron closed the rusted door of his car, the metallic scream echoing in the empty street. That car was one of the surest ways to tell that he was about as far away from her mother and the Grim Angels’ world as possible. Ron bought a series of rusted out heaps, paying a few hundred dollars for each one, and then driving it until it died. He would then toss it away and buy another to replace it. He could afford better, and did have a nicer car that he kept at home, but he still liked the wrecks that cost him almost nothing to own and drive, and he didn’t have to worry about. No biker would be seen in a vehicle like that, economic sense and deserted street or not. Ron was just not interested in those kinds of things, as he called them. He never had been. When other boys were talking cars and guns, poor Ron had nothing but computer knowledge to share. Her mother had plucked him from a bar in a moment of weakness and basically torn the sweet soul apart for a few years until she got bored with him. Growing up with those two had been like watching a cat play with a wounded bird until it finally bothered to break its neck. That was definitely the most accurate way to describe their ten years of wedded bliss. He was a good father, though, and had tried his best. Unlike her mother, Ron had most definitely made a valiant effort. In fact, he still did. He visited Jess on a regular basis even though the marriage had ended nearly eight years ago, bringing her books to read and taking her to whatever cult movie he was obsessed with at the time. He was still interested in her education, and had taken time to pile college applications on her when she graduated high school with honors. She still had that promising pile of papers in the drawer beside her bed and she suspected she had only to ask and he would gladly pay for her tuition, but that dream had collapsed, like so many other dreams she had been steadily building. Looking at her now, he was obviously shocked and even a little impressed at her beauty. “You look like a movie star,” he said awkwardly, pushing his glasses up and adjusting them as if they were somehow responsible for his stepdaughter’s appearance. Jess made a face. “Oh god, I should change.” “No, no! A classic movie star. Very elegant. Like, like…” he snapped his fingers as his face crinkled, trying to remember. “I can’t think of it right now. Never mind. Can I have a hug?” He stepped away from the dying hatchback and took Jess in his arms briefly. It was an awkward hug,

but most things about Ron were a little awkward. Unlike her Uncle Val and the countless other “uncles” she had hugged in the last couple of days, Ron was soft. He smelled like clean laundry and as he embraced her, he was cuddlier and warmer than most women. He even patted her back, his lower body at a respectful distance from hers. Ron gasped melodramatically. “Don’t tell me you have a date?” He held her away from him to examine her and shook her slightly, “You’re only twenty-five! You’re far too young to start dating boys!” But then he smiled to show he was teasing. Jess flushed. In typical fashion, Kat and the Angels had completely buried that night and had told Ron that Luke had moved on when the relationship hadn’t worked out. Jess knew he would never say anything, but she could tell he was relieved that Luke was out of the picture. “You’ve still got those college applications to think about,” Ron reminded her, continuing his gentle teasing. “You can’t be wasting your time on men!” He was smiling broadly and it was infectious. Those rabbit teeth of his, and that smile, had been the reason Kat had swallowed him up all those years ago. Jess decided to go along with it. Since she didn’t have Kat’s keys, she was going to need a ride in that rust bucket of his. “I do. Shocking, I know. I’m actually off to a party, if you can believe it.” Ron clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Corruptible. Infinitely corruptible. You’ll have a hard time including beer bong specialist on your Oxford application.” “Are you kidding? I heard they look for that kind of thing. I’m writing my admissions letter entirely with emoticons.” Ron laughed and hugged her again. It felt good. He was someone who didn’t know. At least he was one person who wasn’t holding a key to her tower. “I was just coming by to see if you wanted to go catch a triple bill of Woody Allen movies down at the Rialto tonight. They’re closing it down in a few weeks so I thought we could make a night of it. I remember how much you liked that old place. However, if you’re off to actually go live your life, I’ll be flying solo, I suppose. Just me and Annie Hall.” There was a bit of disappointment in Ron’s tone, but not much. Rather, he looked excited for her. It was something Jess wasn’t used to and, for a second, she almost changed her plans. An evening of movies and intelligent conversation was certainly tempting. However, a tug on that too short skirt reminded her of Angela and the pain in the ass she would be if she backed out of their plans. “I’d love to, but you know… ” Jess tossed her artfully created ponytail. “My public awaits… ” Ron looked up and down the street. “Where’s the car?” “It’s in back. Kat’s still cleaning up and I was just on my way to get the keys,” she lied.

Now, finally, Ron’s eyes darkened. “Not upstairs passed out?” “No. Not yet.” Ron sighed and leaned against the car, crossing his arms over his chest. He had always hated her mother’s drinking. Unlike everyone else in the Angels, who accepted alcoholism as easily as any other character trait, Ron had been the only person in her mother’s life who had seen it as the problem it was. When he finally packed his computers and stormed out of the house, it was her constant drinking and unwillingness to confront the problem that pushed him out. Although she was sad to see him drive off that night, when he finally had enough, a part of her had felt relieved. God knows the brilliant little rabbit might have put up with Kat’s abuse for the rest of his life. Her mother’s love of cheap wine might have saved the man from a life of misery. She did miss the air-conditioned house they used to live in, though, and wondered how her life might have been different if she chosen to live with Ron instead of her mother. Ron kicked at the cracked pavement like a little kid. “How often?” Jess hesitated. If she answered honestly, it would open a whole new can of worms. She should be doing something about it. She should be stopping her mother from drinking herself to sleep every night, but she didn’t. Maybe she was just as bad as the other Angels. Maybe she belonged in that life where substance abuse, drug running and murder were the norm. “Just a few nights a week now. Honestly, she’s doing much better.” The lie came easily, and she felt guilty as Ron seemed to eagerly lap that lie up. “Well that’s an improvement, I guess. Can I at least drive you then? We can talk on the way. It’s been a while. I still miss you kiddo.” Jess smiled at his obvious relief. Maybe lying wasn’t all-destructive after all. “Thanks! I can catch a ride home with Angela.” “Angela, what was her name, Zeus? The one you used to hang around with?” “Zeiss. Yeah, that’s her.” “Okay then, climb in the Batmobile. I’ll drop you off a block away, I promise. If you get stuck and need a ride, just give me a call, okay?” Jess smiled. Ron, despite his rabbit-like ways, was a really good guy and she once again felt bad for how Kat had treated him. “Thanks. I will.”

Chapter Seven They were just pulling out of the station when Jason received a text message. They sat, their bikes throbbing, as he pulled his phone from his pocket and pecked away at it a moment. “Change of plans, boys,” he announced. “We’ve been invited to a party.” “Fuckin’ a,” Rick howled, punching at the air with his right fist. “Twelve hours riding a hog, then another four hours riding some new bitches. It doesn’t get much better than that!” Scott sighed but said nothing. He had been looking forward to burgers, beer, bath, and bed, in that order, but now he was going to be forced to enjoy the subtle charms of a biker party. “What kind of party? And where?” Jason was typing furiously at his phone. “Bonfire party. I’m looking up the address now,” he muttered as he swiped and poked at his phone. “Jesus Christ. This is in the middle of town! How the fuck can you have a bonfire party in the middle of town?” Scott held his hand out and Jason passed him the phone. The little red pin was across town, but still very much in the city proper. “Are you sure this is right?” Jason looked at him a moment. “Of course it’s right. How hard can it be? Key the address into Google, the map does the rest.” “I fucking love Detroit!” Rick roared into the night. “Where else can you have a fucking bonfire in the middle of town? These people know how to party!” Scott sighed again and passed the phone back. “Fuck. I fucking hate Detroit already, and I just got here.” Jason and Rick laughed. “Come on! Think of it as a neighborhood renovation project. After we burn down a few buildings, property values will probably go up,” Rick grinned. Despite himself, Scott laughed. “Okay, fine. I’m all about doing my civic duty.” Jason flashed a grin, tucked the phone into his crotch for easy retrieval, and pulled out of the station, heading back the way they came. *** As Scott expected, the party turned out to be about as apocalyptic as it got. All they needed were mutants and zombies. Unlike most bonfire parties, held on beaches or at the riverside, this particular party was between abandoned buildings that had once been an old Packard manufacturing plant. The

ominous buildings surrounded them as they chugged slowly through the ruins, following the glow and the sounds of merry-making. “Mother fuck,” he muttered to himself as they rolled to a stop. The place gave him the creeps, the destruction and decay pressing in all around them. Why in God’s name would anyone choose to live here? As they switched off their bikes, the men and women turned to face them, the bonfire now the only light, burning brightly in a hollowed out car, its metal skeleton glowing cherry red with the flames that licked up and out of the broken windows. As they dismounted, they were met by both old friends and unfamiliar faces, and were quickly ushered to one of the abandoned buildings. Inside, a group of shaven headed tattooed men screamed into microphones and flung their guitars around in one corner while a wall of silver kegs occupied the other. The music was an explosion of sound, tearing through Scott’s head and reverberating up his legs and into his stomach. It certainly wasn’t Alan Jackson. Homesick. That’s what I am. It was as if he had landed on another planet, a cold, grey, world, struggling for life, but poisoned by its own undercurrents of rage and desperation. That’s what it was, desperation. He thought again of that fat black cat and his stupid bookshelf. They made their introductions to the leadership of the Angels, Val welcoming them with a hearty greeting. They were presented with a beer and Jason took up station beside Val, silently claiming his spot as heir apparent. Scott began to slowly pull back, inching toward the door, trying to distance himself from the noise that passed as music and the press of bodies. “What’s your name again?” asked a woman’s voice in his ear. He turned to see a girl at his elbow, looking up at him through obviously very drunk eyes. If they could’ve pointed in other directions they would’ve. She was pretty, her face surrounded by mint green hair shaved bald on one side. The dimples on her smooth cheeks were both pierced, the fake gems glittering in the light from the bare, generator driven, bulbs hanging overhead. Bare bulbs. Always with the bare bulbs. “What?” Although he had heard her, he was too lazy and uninterested to respond. She had that look, though, that he tended to inspire in women and a certain type of men, the look of hunger. “I said, ‘what’s your name?’” She stood on her tiptoes and yelled in his ear. That was totally unnecessary and the blast of her voice in his head annoyed him, causing him to look around for a lifeline. Rick. Perfect. Rick caught his eye across the crowd and with a ridiculous display of head nodding indicated his interest in the zombie princess beside him. It was just the easy out he needed. Without responding, Scott tucked his arm around the waist of the minty girl beside him and started walking her across the room. He’d seen Rick try this move once already tonight and the result was firm slap in the face. As

usual, the girl beside him giggled and wrapped her arm around Scott in turn, ready to give herself to him entirely. Rick looked like he was salivating, one step away from plucking at his goatee lecherously. Scott almost felt sorry for the girl. Almost. “This is my friend Rick,” he said, almost pushing her into his arms. “Rick, this is Minty.” The girl looked back at Scott as he stepped away. She looked disappointed, and he almost felt badly for so unceremoniously dumping her off, but, in all honesty, the chances of her remembering any of this tomorrow were pretty slim. “Hey, Rick!” she slurred, drawing out the first word. In what was a pathetic attempt to show Scott what he was missing, she threw her arms around Rick and slammed her mouth against his. Rick, always the gentleman, flashed Scott a double thumbs up before giving her as good as he got. “How do you like that fucking Prada power?” Scott asked no one as he turned and strode toward the door to get out of what he was certain was one of the rings of hell. Once outside, he immediately began to search for some quiet corner so he pull himself together. Every place he saw, every promising concrete nook or overhang, seemed to be already filled with huddled bodies, sending up columns of sweet-smelling smoke, passing around vials and needles, or engaged in rhythmic movements of hips or heads. Maybe I should just jump back on my bike and get the fuck out of here. I could take off into the night and never to be seen or heard from again. I could start a new life. I could ride home, grab that fucking cat, and ride until I’m somewhere where houses are repaired and grass actually grows. Standing between the towering monuments to failure, the light from the burning car on one side of him and the thump of tuneless music on the other, he was frightened by the idea that he just might. He looked to where his bike was parked and waited. He had felt this urge before, and he knew he would change his mind. He just needed to give himself a few more minutes and that urge to run would pass. It always did. Scowling, he stared at his bike, fighting the urge to ride away forever, waiting for a reason to stay.

Chapter Eight In the sea of dancing fools and slouching addicts, she stepped into the warm glow of the firelight right across from him. Only a few yards away, she stopped just in front of the bikes and became as still as he was. Her hands were at her sides, and she was seemingly lost in her own struggle of waiting for something. It was as if the bobbing bleached hair and shaved heads of the bonfire guests had magically parted like sea foam to create a sudden perfect, eerie clearing. She was the most beautiful woman Scott had ever seen. Of all the women who had launched themselves at him, every woman who had ever followed him home and yowled at his window like an alley cat, she was the most incredible of all. Her face, in the light of the bonfire, reminded him of the girls in the velvet paintings he had grown up with. When he was a little boy, he used to stare as his mother painted them and wonder what could possibly make someone so adorable so very sad. Their impossibly large eyes, their sweet round faces, and soft mouths turned down with such disappointment, it was as if this girl had stepped out of those childhood pictures and presented herself to him. Was her hair black or dark brown? It was inky in the night, like the velvet she must have been painted on, and pulled back into the kind of ponytail that made him want to grab it and drag her back to his cave. “What the fuck?” he mumbled to himself, blinking rapidly as he tried to gather himself. Was this how the rest of them felt? So powerless and gob smacked? Oblivious to everything around him, he took the few steps between them. He needed to get her attention, to talk to her, but about what? What the fuck was he going to say to her? She was from Detroit, a land as foreign to him as fucking Pluto. Her eyes registered nothing. Neither did her face. She simply looked at him, like the tiny porcelain doll she was, patiently waiting for the embarrassing boy in front of her to offer some sort of explanation. Where was the glow of lust that he was so used to seeing on all the others? He hadn’t realized how little he knew about doing this kind of thing by himself. The other girls had always taken care of that and helped him along. He cleared his throat. “They’re burning the car.” Was that my voice? That was my big opener? He could feel sweat growing on his brow under his unwashed hair. His heart leaped a bit in his chest. Jesus, he hadn’t even had a shower and probably smelled of the road. “Can you smell me?” he blurted. Her eyebrows knitted together as she tried to make sense of him. This close to her, she was even more beautiful than from at a distance. Her neck was like a swan, and so white it almost glowed in the halflight. Her legs, smooth and shaped like a ballerina’s, weren’t teetering on top of those ridiculous shoes that almost every other woman at the party had strapped on. She stood, flatfooted before him and, from the look of her, extremely confused. “I can’t smell you,” she said slowly. “All I can smell is the burning car.”

She was speaking! He smiled broadly. Would she notice that? That smile had always been a dealcincher. She looked around him to stare at the flames as they leapt for the sky. “Not really a bonfire, is it? It’s more like something you would see in Mad Max or Terminator.” His smile turned genuine with her observation and before he could think about it, he offered his hand. “Scott. Scott Murphy.” Without hesitating, she took his hand and shook it, a slight smile curling her lips. Although her bones felt small in his hand, her grip was firm and surprisingly strong. “You’re blushing,” she said. “Are you okay?” “What? Oh! Yes. Fine. It’s just…well, don’t take this the wrong way, but you are the first beautiful thing I have seen since I arr—” “OMG! Jessica, you’re so pretty! Who are you?” a woman’s voice gushed from behind him, a familiar phrase uttered with a familiar enthusiasm, breaking their quiet connection and cutting him off. The girl’s friend, a platinum pudding covered in tattoos, stepped from behind him to stop at her side. Just as drunk as the rest of them, she looked at Scott with unabashed admiration. “Who’s your new friend, Jess? Oh my God.” She reached out and pushed Scott lightly in the chest. “You’re are so gorgeous!” she slurred, her syntax mangled by liquor. In his smitten state, the chubby girl’s push caught him off guard and he had to take a half-step back to catch his balance. The swan instinctively reached out to stop him falling, that warm, tiny hand of hers wrapping around his wrist to steady him. He would have gladly fallen time and again if she would reach down to pick him up. Her friend burst into cackling laughter and oozed in close, apologizing. “I almost knocked you over! I’m so sorry!” She reached up and started petting his face, “He’s so pretty, Jess. Isn’t he pretty? Do you like him?” Jess, now blushing just as much as Scott, pushed her drunk friend’s hands off his face. “Yeah, okay. His name is Shaun. Stop harassing him.” “It’s Scott, actually,” he mumbled, grateful that Jess was prying her friend off of him. Jess looked embarrassed and flashed him a small smile. “Scott, sorry.” She transferred her attention back to her sloppy drunk friend. “Do you need to sit down?” So much bigger than her, the other girl wrapped herself around Jess, her ring-coated hands traveling all over her face and body. “You’re so pretty, too,” she cooed into Jess’s face before looking back at him. “Hey! The two of you

should have babies. You’re both so gorgeous, think of how pretty they would be! Pretty, pretty, babies!” The woman began to laugh at her own joke before turning, stumbling in her inebriated state and ridiculous boots, her size threatening to drag Jess down with her. “Whoa, hang on there!” Scott gasped as he quickly stepped in and caught the woman under the arms to steady her. “Thank you,” she gasped as she became steady on her feet again. “Are you Jason’s friend? I can tell you’re not from here. You must be one of the guys from Atlanta? I just love the way you talk. You sound so sexy. Southern boys… is it true what they say?” Scott had no idea what she was talking about, so he ignored the question. “Yeah, that’s me. Southern fried… look, we need to get you sitting down before you fall down, okay?” Jess looked at him gratefully. “Scott, meet Angela,” she said softly. That tiny skirt of hers had ridden up, exposing a bit more length of lean thigh. He couldn’t help but look. She immediately she blushed even deeper and tugged it down. Oh god… this girl is going to kill me. Angela leaned back against Scott, pressing her head against his chest and raising her face to the night sky. He heard a far off rumble of thunder just as a few drops of rain started to fall on them, dropping onto Angela’s face like as she grinned at him moronically. “I’m so fucking high!” Angela shouted, drawing out the last word and breaking down again in an obnoxious peal of giggles. “Okay… ” Jess said, glad for the distraction. “Let’s go, honey. It’s starting to rain.” She swung one of her friend’s arms around her shoulder while Scott held up the other side, taking most of the Angela’s weight as she slouched between the two of them. The first few drops were the herald of a coming rain, and as they began to maneuver her into the nearest building, the drops began to fall faster. As they hurried her along, her legs became wobbly and she dragged her heels. “Fucking boots!” Angela hollered as she stumbled and kicked debris out of the way. “You’re smart, wearing those grandma shoes.” Angela turned to look at Scott as she got her feet under her again. “I told her not to dress like a grandma, you know. She always dresses like a fucking old lady.” Scott and Jess made eye contact again. She damn sure didn’t look like a grandma tonight, he thought as he struggled to pull his eyes away. “I do not!” Jess protested “Do fucking, too!” Angela stated firmly as they pulled up under an overhang. It wasn’t raining hard, but the crowd between the buildings began to seek shelter just as they had.

Scott and Jess slowly eased Angela’s arms off their shoulders. She wavered a moment as she lost their support, but then steadied. She looked around, then flopped down onto the dirty concrete floor and began to pull her boots off. “Fucking boots. I’ve been falling in them all night,” she said as she yanked one boot, then another off, stood, and hurled them into the darkness before Scott could stop her. “You’re going to step on—” he began, worried that without her shoes, Angela would cut her feet on the trash lying about. He was beginning to move in the direction she had thrown them, intending to go get the boots for her to put back on, when the problem resolved itself. Above the muffled roar of the crowd and the thumping beat of the band, a male’s voice roared in their direction. “What the fuck, man!” A large, bearded man emerged from the darkness, roaring toward them like a furious boar. In one hand he dragged a scrawny girl behind him who was holding her forehead where blood streamed from between her fingers. Instinctively, the crowd formed a circle around what promised to be an unfolding drama. Years of experience kicked in and Scott immediately stood to his full height and stepped forward to put Jess and Angela behind him. Jess could almost feel him change as he stepped from beside her. It was if he had transformed to stone. Even his face had altered. Anything soft and warm beneath those dreamy features disappeared in an instant and he became nothing more than an intimidating mask. “Who fucking threw this boot? Who’s fucking boot is this?” he demanded, shaking the boot in their faces. “Take it easy, man,” Scott said, putting his hands up, trying to defuse the situation. “It was an accident. She’s drunk and didn’t realize what she was doing.” “Stupid bitches!” the scrawny woman beside him spat as she looked at Jess and Angela’s feet. She pulled her hand away from her head and looked at it. It was covered in blood. “That one. The fat one. She fucking threw it right at me.” She pointed toward Angela with her bloody hand, flicking it to send a spray of hot red across Angela and Jess’s faces. Jess gasped, falling back as she felt the wetness dapple her forehead. The smell. Please don’t let it be the smell. She frantically rubbed her forehead and she brought her hand down to see. In the flickering light of the fire she could see her fingers were smeared with blood. She gasped as her knees went weak. Don’t pass out, she begged herself. Please don’t pass out. “You fucking bitch!” Angela screamed, suddenly full drunken, drug-fueled, rage. She blew past Scott in a surprisingly fast rush and barreled into the bleeding woman. Angela outweighed the other woman by fifty pounds or more, and her rush carried them through the circle of men and women and out into the rain before they tumbled to the ground.

Frozen with panic, Jess was carried with the crowd as it reformed around the two women, tearing at each other, kicking and screaming as they rolled in the filth that littered the ground. The junkie clawed at Angela’s face, causing her childhood friend to rear back with a scream, her hands coming up to face. She fell back, and rolled away, but bounced to her feet with surprising speed and grace, before charging in and catching the other woman as she was still rising. Grabbing her by her shirt, Angela pulled on her hard, tearing the woman’s shirt as she swung her around in a fast arc. The woman went down in a tumbling roll as Angela stood panting and bleeding, holding a remnant of the woman’s shirt. The bearded man moved to step in, but his woman pushed him back. “No!” the woman screamed, tearing off the rest of her shirt and exposing her small breast. “She’s mine! You game, sweetheart? You and me. Last one standing? Come on!” “Angela! No!” Jess cried, but Angela ignored her. “You and me, bitch! Last one standing. I’m going to kick your scrawny ass for what you did!”

Chapter Nine Jess gripped Scott’s arm, her panic causing her to look for any savior. “Scott! Do something!” she begged over the approving roar of the crowd. Scott ground his teeth. He hated this shit, but there was nothing he could do. Not yet. “I can’t. They have to settle this.” Jess turned to watch the two women crash into one another again, their hands wrapping in each other’s hair as they grunted and shrieked. Angela was bigger, and stronger, but the other woman fought dirty, scratching and biting, making Angela scream in rage and pain. With a scream of defiance, Angela tore the woman’s hand from her hair and flung her away. As she stumbled back, the other woman grabbed Angela’s shirt as she fell, popping buttons, and dragging her down with her. Again they were on the ground, kicking and snarling, each trying to gain the advantage as the crowd cheered them on. Her shirt torn, Angela’s ample breasts popped free of their restraint as they struggled, and the other woman twisted one painfully as Angela tried to toss her off. With another cry of pain, Angela ripped the woman’s hand away from her injured tit before wrapping her own hand around the woman’s head and jerked it rapidly down as she quickly raised her head, Angela’s forehead connecting solidly with the woman’s nose. The thin woman shrieked in pain as her nose exploded in blood and Jess felt sick and lightheaded as the blood streamed over Angela, the rain not quite hard enough to wash it away as the two women fought. Scott knew it was about over, most of the fight going out of the woman after Angela’s head butt. Even though the junkie tried to rally by grabbing at Angela’s breasts again, Angela pulled her tight, like a lover, locking her head under her arm, and rolled them over until she was on top. “Fuck with me, bitch!” Angela snarled as she rose up, sitting on the woman’s stomach. She drove a hard right into the woman’s face, then another, and another, then another, her hand turning from white to bright red. To Jess it had seemed like hours had passed since the two women had locked up, but she was barely wet from the rain. “Stay here, out of the way,” Scott said as he moved in and effortlessly hauled Angela from her prey. She hadn’t noticed before, she hadn’t seen much but his eyes from the moment he stood in front of her, but his jacket…it had the Grim Angels’ colors on the back. He really was one of them. Like Angela has said, he was an Atlanta boy, forbidden to her by the keepers of the tower. Pulling Angela off the woman by an arm, he noticed her boar-like boyfriend was advancing on them from the other side of the circle, his face a mask of fury. Without a hitch in his motion, Scott reached under his jacket and pulled his weapon, a Glock 43 9mm, from the small of his back and pointed it at

the head of the approaching man. “You don’t want to do that, pal. You heard the ladies. They called it,” Scott said quietly, his voice loud in the sudden silence caused by the appearance of his gun. The bearded man stopped short, raised his hands immediately, and began to slowly step back. “Yeah. You’re right. They called it. Hey, it’s a party, man. You don’t have to do that.” Obviously, she wasn’t the only one who had noticed that jacket. Or the way his authority, wherever it came from, had brought the entire night to a complete halt. In the rain, one arm on her drunken, bloodied, best friend’s arm, and his other stretched out with the practiced calm of a professional, Jess felt time stop. She forgot the blood on her face and on her hand. She forgot everything but the way the light from that stupid burning car practically made love to him. Even if she never saw him again, she knew this moment would always be with her. But she would see him. She had to. Slowly, time started moving again. “Are you sure I don’t?” Scott’s voice was low, calm and deadly, and everyone knew the bearded man was one muscle twitch away from a body bag. “Totally sure, dude. It was an accident, right? She threw a shoe. Big deal.” “Stupid bitch, mess with me!” Angela cried, trying to lunge at the woman again, feeling cocky, completely oblivious to her cuts, blood, exposed breasts, and torn skirt. “Shut up!” Scott snarled, giving her a hard jerk. “You started this shit!” She heard the authority ring in his voice and nodded meekly. “Yeah. Sorry. It was an accident,” she murmured looking down. “Sorry.” The crowd was completely silent. Some stared at his jacket, some stared at his pistol, but most watched his eyes. Jess could swear some of them looked disappointed when he nodded and slid his weapon back into its place at the back of his belt. As soon as the gun disappeared, the crowd slowly came to life again. There were catcalls and cautious laughter as the audience dissipated. Still standing where he had left her, becoming wet now as the rain began to increase, Jess watched as two of Angela’s other friends broke from the group to take her off Scott’s hands. He shoved her harshly toward them, and they waved at her to indicate they were taking care of it, but she hardly noticed. She hardly noticed anything except the way that all too familiar graphic on the back of Scott’s jacket seemed to leer at her. He turned his attention back to her. Without a single glance back at the bearded man as he moved to kneel by his woman, wiping at her face as she sat on the dirty concrete, he took three steps quick to where she stood. She was suddenly very nervous. Her instinct told her to back off, to turn and run. That utterly dead look was still in his eyes as he approached, as if the nervous guy who was worried whether he smelled a few minutes ago had retreated somewhere deep inside. She knew all about retreating deep inside. Run! Get away! her mind cried, but she stood her ground,

unwilling, unable to run. Without a pause, he took her face in his hands, just as Val had done a few days before. His long fingers stroked the rain and blood from her eyes and forehead. “You okay?” he asked softly. She was speechless. His face was only inches from hers, water dripping from him as the rain continued to increase in intensity. She wanted to nod, to speak, but the rest of the world had come to a screeching halt again, and she was frozen like a fly in amber. Suddenly, powerfully, the urge to kiss him seemed to strike her out of nowhere. That scowling mouth, a straight line of concern, was only a motion away from hers. She couldn’t. She didn’t, but oh how she wanted to. Finally the world began to move again and she nodded. “Yes. Fine now.” “Jessica, right? Are you hurt? You don’t look so good.” She nodded again, her voice difficult to find. She stained for it and finally found it again. “No. I’m okay. Just…” she trailed off. How could she explain? Scott looked behind him. Angela was putting herself together. She was going to be sore as hell tomorrow, and probably needed a tetanus shot from rolling around on the ground, but she would be fine. A hell of a lot better than her opponent would be, that was for sure. He turned his attention back to Jess. “She’ll be okay.” Was that her shaking? The adrenaline was starting to subside and Jess felt a familiar trembling begin from the depth of her. She nodded again, blinking as the rain ran into her eyes. “You’re soaked. Let’s get you out of here. I mean...” He paused and for the first time since he had pulled his pistol, she could see some life return to his eyes. “I mean, do you want to get out of here?” The thought of escape shattered the night’s hold on her and she nodded. “Yes. Please.” Scott smiled at the desperate sound in her voice. Now he had his excuse to get the fuck away from here. He turned back to the man as he helped his woman to her feet. “Give me your jacket,” he said, his tone making it clear it wasn’t a request. The man’s face wrinkled. “What?” “I said give me your jacket. I’ll get it back to you.” The man began to hastily strip out of the nylon windbreaker. “Yeah! Sure, man! No problem!” “Thanks,” Scott said as he took the jacket. “Who do you know in the Angels?” “Umm…” the man began but paused.

“You know where Kat’s Café is?” Jess asked, trying to rescue the man. “Wyoming and Grand River?” “I can find it.” “You can get it back there,” she said as she took the jacket from Scott. She didn’t feel right taking the man’s clothes, but she didn’t want to undermine Scott either, so she just played along. She slipped the jacket on. It hung on her like a tent, but within moments she began to warm. He wrapped an arm around her waist and began to direct her toward the bikes. “Why did you take his jacket?” “You were shivering.” “Yes, but…” “Look, you didn’t have anything to do with what happened. That bitch flicking blood into your face was uncalled for. That kind of shit can get you arrested, or killed. She’s the reason you’re wet. Between her beat down and his attitude adjustment, maybe they will think twice about doing something stupid again.” “I’m sorry that happened. Angela… she’s…” “A pain in the ass?” he asked with a smirk. Jess snickered. “Sometimes. But she’s a good friend.” “A real scrapper, too. I think she could take some guys I know.” He chuckled and shook his head. To his mind, women weren’t supposed to be brawlers. “Yeah. She can be. She doesn’t take any crap off of anyone. Never has.” “Yeah. I can see that.” They stopped before his bike. “I guess you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of new around here.” He looked at his watch dramatically. “I’ve been in Detroit all of two hours and I have already had to break up a catfight and…” he let his voice trail off. “And what?” “And I’ve found the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” Jess’s cold vanished in an instant as she burned in embarrassment. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so she did a little of both. “Where can we go?” he asked, straddling his bike and standing it upright before offering a hand over

his shoulder to usher her onto the back. Hesitantly, Jess straddled the bike, doing her utmost to keep that Band-Aid of a skirt from giving away any spoilers. She hadn’t been on a bike in almost a year now, not since before that night. Feeling the weight of the machine beneath her and wet leather against her bare thighs cause an illicit thrill to increase her shaking. She wanted this. Good god, I even missed this. She scooted in tight, feeling his warmth even through his jacket as she slid her hands underneath and around his waist. He was hard, solid, and she could feel the muscles working under the skin as he handed his helmet back to her. She was glad to have him between her legs just so she didn’t have to fuss with her skirt any more, but she also wanted him there for a completely different reason. As she adjusted helmet, she tried to think of somewhere to take him. Home? Definitely not. Why hello there, you beautiful man. Would you like to meet my soon to be blind-drunk mother who will be passed out on a couch later? How do you like my home, an apartment that hadn’t been cleaned since we moved in five years ago? She gave her head a small shake as she worked the strap. That definitely wasn’t going work! She thought furiously. She didn’t want to go any bars, not soaking wet, freezing, and with this damn skirt trying to ride up her ass. There was one spot, though. One spot that only she knew about. As the bike rumbled to life, her graceful legs involuntarily pressed into his. Her heat ignited at the feel of his rough denim against her freezing inner thighs. Well, that takes care of the shaking, she thought. He turned back to her, speaking over one of those incredibly distracting shoulders of his. “You ever ridden on a bike before?” Jess tried unsuccessfully to hide a smirk. “Just ride. I’ll show you where to go.”

Chapter Ten When it happened, this is the first place I went. I couldn’t go home. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t imagine bringing any of what I did into my mother’s life, to the Angels. Obviously I knew it was going to get back to them within a matter of hours, and I had seen the kind of punishment they dealt out for less. I was a ghost. I was nothing. I was the rolling credits on a life that I had completely destroyed. “My god, is this it? Holy shit, look at this place!” Jess snapped back from her thoughts as soon as he spoke. Was I talking out loud to him? Did I actually whisper all that in his ear? Obviously she hadn’t or he wouldn’t be allowing her to press herself up to him like she was as they eased to a stop in front of the house. She must be more exhausted than she thought. The vibration of the bike beneath her and the warmth of his body against hers as they rode through the summer rain must have lulled her into some sort of trance, her memories playing out like a movie. She had to be more careful. As soon as they got inside and out of the rain, her head would clear, she was sure of it. “This is it,” she murmured, the words breathed into his ear. “I can’t believe that no one has bought and restored this place. It would be worth a fortune.” He cut the engine and craned his neck almost all the way back as he took in the sheer size of the mansion. “Nobody owns it?” He shook his head in disbelief. People would be standing in lines around the block to buy a house like this in Atlanta. “Somebody probably does, but it belongs to the ghosts now,” Jess said, enjoying his awe. There were hundreds of homes like this in Detroit. Amazing examples of opulence from when the city was the pride of the nation. People with more money and style than forethought came tumbling into town and built their dream homes from the ground up. When this house was built it had been one of the most impressive homes in the city. Now it resembled something from the campy horror films she and Ron had enjoyed together when she growing up. Half of it was being eaten away by encroaching vines and brush, and the other half was simply falling into disrepair. For anyone but Jess, it was a tricky place to maneuver. She, however, knew all of its secrets, and it knew all of hers. The rain began to pick up again and the ivy leaves, lush and green, started to tremble with the weight of the downpour. In the dark, they looked like a massive swarm of bats, sucking the life right out of the building.

“You’re sure it’s safe? The place looks like it is about to fall in.” Jess snickered. “Just follow my lead. I’ve been in there dozens of times.” “Let’s get inside then,” Scott said, restarting the bike and maneuvering it up the curb and closer to the front door. “Were getting soaked out here.” He parked his bike and she slid off, waiting while he eased the bike onto the stand and made sure it wouldn’t tumble to the ground. Jesus, what a dark little fairy tale this is turning out to be, she thought. She took his hand and was surprised when he didn’t let go. Rather, he allowed her to lead him up to the cracked stone steps to the massive double front door. “Do you have a key?” he asked, pushing his wet hair out of his eyes. Jess thought for a second he sounded a bit nervous. She smiled to herself. This is how slasher movies started. He didn’t know her any more about her than she knew about him, and although she could hear her mother and Val’s collective voices screaming in the back of her head for her to stop, she ignored them completely. “Watch and learn,” she replied with a grin. Leaning against the right door, she pushed her hips into the spot beside the lock and then gave it a firm hip check. There was a loud bang and Jess stepped back for dramatic effect as the scarred oak door swung open with a creak. She was pleased when Scott laughed, pleased not only because of what she did, but because of that understated chuckle of his, more of a tiger growl than a laugh. “I’m impressed,” he said. “Truly a woman with talented hips.” She giggled and without thinking, took his hand and led him inside. If he played his cards right, he might find out what else I can do with my hips. “Just you wait.” Walking into the dark, she could hear Scott catch his breath beside her. She had to admit it was still an impressive sight. They stood in an enormous entry, the oak paneling and black marble floors dustcoated and scarred, but it was impossible to hide the opulence of the place. Before them, as if inviting the two to journey up, was a broad staircase of the same icy black stone that covered the floor. Back in its heyday, it must’ve been magnificent. Scott looked around dramatically as if looking for something. “Why do I feel like I just stepped into a slasher movie?” Jess giggled in delight again, enjoying that he was thinking the same thing she was. “This house was built in 1887 for James Scott. He created the Scott Foundation. The style is Victorian, or maybe Richardson Romanesque. Can imagine this place, back when it was new?” Scott looked at her, impressed that she seemed to know so much about the house, recalling facts with ease. “You seem to know a lot about it.”

She looked down and smiled. “Yeah. I love these old places. I used to explore them when I was younger. I would give a lot to see this place restored to its former glory.” He looked around again, taking in the place. It was no doubt impressive, but to restore it would probably cost millions. He looked up, watching the rain dribbling in through the holes in the ceiling and puddling on the marble with splatter. He let his hand slip out of hers as he moved, transfixed by the place, stepping over debris and dodging drips. He walked past the rotting sofas, piled with beer cans from a party long ago, and ran his hand along the peeled wallpaper. There were dark spots where pictures had once hung, now replaced by gang tags and amateur graffiti, but in the pale light from the city he could just make out the pattern. He was awestruck that a home such as this could be sitting, abandoned and forlorn, in the middle of the city. Even Detroit. Jess nervously waited for him to say something. Would he demand they leave? Would this decrepit castle be enough to send him packing? He stopped at the foot of the stair, staring up them. Even in the dark, Jess could see a broad smile across his face when he turned and her smile joined his in relief. “This is quite the clubhouse you’ve got here. We used to hang out in barns where I grew up, but you hung out in a castle,” he said, his voice loud and full in the empty room. He looked back up the stairs and stepped up onto the first tread. “I want to see it all.”

Chapter Eleven She left her room for last. Out of every crumbling part of the house she took Scott through, steering him around the weak points in the floor, it was the one room that had the most emotional impact for her. She hadn’t been back since the night her mom had appeared above her, shining a flashlight into her face and filling the empty house with her wailing. Her mother told her later she had been missing for three days, but, to Jess, it had only seemed like hours. Indulging her love of history, Ron had taken her by this house many times when she was growing up. She had always planned on living in it one day. If they had bothered to tell Ron she was missing, he probably would’ve found her right away. As it was, Kat and Val had exhausted all possible spots before remembering her obsession with this place. When the bright light of Kat’s flashlight had exploded into the room and into her eyes, it was like being shaken awake from a deep sleep. It was only then that she noticed the blood that seemed to cover her from head to toe, dried in spots and still moist in others. She hadn’t even noticed the injury that would take seven stitches to close and more than a month to heal. Had she even gotten off the bed? She had tried to piece together those missing days many times, but she never got much further than a few memories of the house. She could tell you how many pigeons had cooed to her from the broken rafters, and the exact pattern of the wallpaper she had stared at, but beyond that, she was lost. Now, one year later, she stood outside the door and hesitated. By opening it and taking Scott inside, she was exposing herself to him. I’m putting it all at risk. Why do I feel like I have to tell him? Why do I want to so badly? Is it because he is a Grim Angels? Is that why I want to let him in? He had walked, slowly and with a quiet reverence, throughout the entire mansion, stepping where she told him to step, never questioning her authority. Through every burned out room and every dark hallway, from the flooded basement to the attic, he had held her hand and let her lead him as she told him about the place. She had met him only two hours before, but for some reason felt like she owed him her story. “What’s behind door number one?” He had been staring at her, watching her as she chewed on her lower lip, her hand hovering above the tarnished doorknob. Open it and everything will come rushing out. Open it and he’ll know. That’s ridiculous, Jess thought. He’ll only know what I tell him, and by the jacket that he wears, he wouldn’t be best choice for a confidante. He was connected to what she had done, whether he knew it or not. In fact, she was the reason he was here. “How long have you been with the Grim Angels?” she asked, speaking before she knew what she was going to say. He looked taken aback at her sudden switch in tone, and she immediately regretted the question.

“Ever since I was a kid. Ten years or so. You know about them?” Jess stared into his eyes as if judging him. He found himself unable to think about much with those massive, velvet-painting eyes, pinning him where he stood. “You could say that.” “You don’t like bikers? Afraid I’m the big bad wolf?” he asked, his tone carrying a bit of worry, nervousness even. Normally a girl couldn’t wait to leap onto bike and piss off her parents. But this one, she was different. He tried to be charming but it was lost on her. She was still staring at him like she was in the middle of making some crucial decision. “I have a lot of experience with big bad wolves.” She turned the knob to the room and swung the door open before letting go of his hand and walking slowly into the room. It looked like every other room they had been in that night, but there was something in the way she moved that told him there was something more here. The walls were covered in elaborate antique wallpaper, some of it peeling in waterfalls, some of it torn off in chunks. The city light shone through two massive windows and down from a sizeable hole in the roof, cutting into the darkness like a spotlight. The only real difference Scott could see was a sizable bed against the far wall. Whoever had done the looting over the years seemed to have missed it. And no wonder. By the size of it, it would take at least four men bigger than him to even shuffle it across the floor. As if in a trance, Jess moved to it. She ran her hands over the elaborately carved footboard, tracing the design with her fingertips before dragging her fingers along the moldy mattress. She stopped near the middle of the bed, her hand hovering over dark stain. “What the fuck happened here?” Scott asked, moving to her side, stepping around the dripping rain. It looked like a bloodstain, and a big one. It was an old stain, however, the kind of dark and crusted maroon that signaled that more than a few months had gone by. Jess looked up suddenly at the hole in the roof. “They’re still here,” she whispered. Despite himself, Scott was starting to get a little creeped out. Between the decrepit old mansion, blood-stained beds, the far off rumble of distant thunder and the haunted look on this girl’s face, he could feel the hair standing up on the back of his neck. Any other time he would’ve branded this evening as some weird Scooby Doo shit and called it a night. But he couldn’t let it go, not tonight. “Who?” he asked, involuntarily checking to make sure his weapon was still at his back. “The pigeons. Can you hear them? Listen… ” He could. Their gentle bubbling murmurs came from the hole in the roof, almost lost in the constant tapping of the rain on the floorboards.

Jess smiled softly “It’s been a year and they’re still here.” “What happened in here, Jessica?” She looked at him again and he could tell that somewhere between opening the door and hearing the birds, she had made a decision. Without breaking eye contact, she slipped the jacket from her shoulders and dropped it onto the mattress where it almost covered the stain. She took both of his hands and silently pressed them to her neck, wrapping them around her thin throat. The touch of her skin sent a shock through him and before he could think about it, he pulled her toward him. Inches apart, he could feel her breathing rapidly, soft against his own lips. Every part of him wanted to kiss her, to be inside of her, to touch every inch of that incredible, lithe body, and to understand every part of her. Gently, he kissed her lower lip. Still holding her throat and jaw, he could feel her heart beat, thumping surprisingly strong against his hands. He deepened the kiss, reveling in the feel of those full lips against his. She returned the kiss, tentatively touching his tongue with hers, her mouth opening wet and warm against his. The house and room fell away around them, everything disappearing except for the kiss. Feeling her tongue against his sent heat roaring through his body. Starting at the back of his head and radiating downward, a wave of lust unlike anything he’d felt before almost made him dizzy. So this is what it was like. She took his hands from where they still held her and moved them down to her breasts. Despite himself, despite the countless other breasts he had fondled in his lifetime, he found himself gasping into her open mouth. He cupped one, full and firm beneath the still moist fabric of her shirt, and gently squeezed. She pressed herself against him harder, returning every fevered kiss he gave, gripping the back of his head to keep herself from falling to the floor and taking him with her. She could feel him growing harder against her stomach, his erection pushing against the button fly on his jeans. She wanted to touch it so badly, feel it thick and warm in her hand. She wanted to tear those jeans open, tug them down over his hips and feel him in every way imaginable. She moved her hand from the tangled wetness of his hair and slid it down over his chest, tracing the solid contours of his pecs, his ribs, and each individual muscle that fluttered in his stomach as she moved her hand lower. When she got to his belt, he let out a low moan. “Oh Jesus, Jessica.” “Jess…” she whispered before taking his lips again. The sound of his voice, ragged with arousal, sent a knee-weakening throb to her clit. She felt herself moistening, throbbing deep inside with every artful swirl his tongue made around hers. She wanted to devour him. She wanted to fill her mouth with the taste of his salty skin. He had slipped his hand under her shirt and traced the lace of her bra where it lay against the roundness of her breast before pushing it back, exposing her nipple. Already hard with her arousal, it grew even more so against the warmth of his palm. Unable to control himself any longer, Scott

suddenly picked her up and tossed her onto the jacket. This girl…what was it about her? Her eyes bright with arousal, her cheeks rosy like some kind of erotic Snow White, there was nothing he wanted more than to bury himself as deep inside her as he could. He wanted to plunge into her, drive the length of himself through her and fuck the mystery right out of her. The skirt she had fiddled with so much earlier had bunched up and the sight of her deep red panties blinded him with lust. He found himself uttering words that he had never spoken to any woman before her. “You are so fucking beautiful. So beautiful,” he whispered as he crawled over the bed and on top of her like some kind of jungle cat, parting her legs and swooping himself between them in one movement. She kissed him again, slamming her mouth against his ferociously, her need consuming her like a wildfire. His cock ached against the denim of his jeans and he ground himself into her. She began to rotate her hips instinctively, the beautiful arc of her hipbones pressing into him. If she kept that up, he knew he’d come in pants like a teenager. He broke off the kiss and lifted himself up on his elbows to get a good look at her. He needed to slow down. Something about the idea of this ever ending was making him nervous. He’d had too many one-night stands and quickies in his life. He had to know. “I want to see you again,” he murmured, staring into her eyes, trying to read what he saw there. Once again, he seemed to have no control of what he said around this woman. That made two things he’d never said to a woman in less than ten minutes. Jess’s eyes widened before she smiled. “Like a date?” “Yes, like a date. I want to know about you. Buy you a soda, a beer, I don’t know. Make love to you somewhere where there isn’t a blood stain.” The look in Jess’s eyes changed the instant the words were out, the warmth replaced with the same darkness he had seen before they entered the room. “Oh my god!” she whispered. “You’re right! Oh my god! I shouldn’t even be here! Can you…” She pushed at him furiously and then practically jumped out of the bed. She yanked her skirt down and nervously tied her hair back where it had fallen out. “Okay, no date. That’s fine,” Scott whispered frantically, trying to repair whatever damage he had done. “What did I say? What’s wrong?” She wouldn’t even look at him. “We should go. It’s late.” “I don’t want to go, Jess. What is going on?” He stood up and tried to pull her toward him but she stepped back. “I’m not who you think I am, Scott. I’m connected.” “Connected? Connected to what?” What could she possibly be connected to that would be a cause for

such drama? “To the Grim Angels, the same as you are.” “What? Are you dating someone? Are you someone’s old lady? Is that it?” She rolled her eyes and nearly stomped her foot in impatience. “’s not that.” She sighed and looked up at his lovely face. “I’m part of the family. Look, can we just go? I need to get home.” She turned away, her head down. Scott reached out and took her by the shoulders, and gently turned her to face him. Her arms crossed, she did her best to avoid his intense gaze, but he gently tipped her face up until she had to meet his eyes. “So what? I’m a part of it, too. Why does that make a difference?” Scott was surprised to see Jess’s eyes reddening and filling with tears. She looked so vulnerable and felt small under his hands. “I did something, Scott. I did something that caused a lot of trouble.” He couldn’t help but smile. “Who hasn’t?” She wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath, “I…want to tell you. I probably need to, but not tonight. Please.” She kissed him again, soft and sweet. He could feel himself becoming aroused again, his heart and his mind racing, but he wasn’t sure he could take any more of this confusion. “Okay, but…” “Please, just take me home.”

Chapter Twelve “Never too early for the good stuff,” Val said and then breathed cigarette smoke out of his nostrils like a dragon. “Beats the shit out of milk and cereal. You want ice?” he asked after he tipped the bourbon bottle and filled the three glasses he had lined up in front of him, sliding the farthest one over to Scott. “I’m good. Jason might, though.” “Fuck you.” Jason laughed and downed his drink in a single gulp, his throat widening as the liquor slid down effortlessly. He slammed his glass down. “Captain Crunch can go fuck himself!” “Fuckin’ right.” Val added, looking pleased as he laughed at Jason’s blustery humor. He had been that way since they showed up at his door two days ago. As Jason had said, Val had opened his doors to the three of them with extravagant hospitality. From the outside, you wouldn’t take his home to be anything other than a hobby farm on the outskirts of Detroit, a little south of Ray Township. There was a barn even, all coloring book red and white with actual cows and chickens. Scott had been woken up by those chickens, as well as enjoying them at the large meals Val’s old lady was more than happy to stuff them with. Everything was big in this home. Despite the rustic exterior, Val had filled his house with exactly the kind of toys you’d expect an overgrown child, with a lot of money and power, to collect. There were 3D televisions, leather armchairs with massage functions, wall sized aquariums, glowing Coke machines packed with beer, and a basement equipped with a Japanese sauna and retro video game machines. It was a playground, a shining, perfect, example of exactly how powerful this man really was. The three of them were sitting around the, no doubt highly expensive, antique Formica table in Val’s kitchen. Still messy and smelling of last night’s fried chicken buffet, the kitchen was filled with the sound of Val’s countless dogs and children screaming and howling at each other from the living room. Val put his cigarette down and leaned back in his chair to better yell down the hallway. “Keep it down in there!” he bellowed, though there was a smile on his face as he did. There were a few giggles and the sound of thumping feet as the kids ran upstairs. Val shrugged and picked up his smoke again. “Family…” He watched Scott nurse his bourbon through a cloud of smoke. “Not a day drinker, are you kid?” “Too much chicken last night.” Not to mention it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. Scott swallowed the last of the liquor under the boss’s watchful eye. Val paused as if determining whether to accept his answer or not. “Maisie makes a wicked hen, all right.” He turned his attention to Jason, all flame hair and enthusiasm, across from him. “Let’s get

some shit sorted out, kids. First things first… ” He leaned forward and filled their glasses again. “You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Luke’s series of fuck ups. He went over my head. Got involved in something real ugly that I didn’t approve of.” He paused again and Scott kept his face carefully neutral. Jesus, does every boss go for the dramatic pauses? “We can’t let that happen again. No girls. ” He punctuated his statement by pointing aggressive at them. “We do drugs, we do fucking guns, but we don’t do girls. That was Luke’s mistake.” “Girls…like hookers?” Jason asked. Val looked at Jason with annoyance. “No, Girl Scouts. Of course fucking hookers. What the hell do you guys do in Atlanta?” Val downed his drink without a flinch. “You see, Luke had an entire side business going on without my knowledge. He took some of my men, and a lot of my influence, and was keeping a joint for himself in the city. He was doing some sick shit, too.” Jason and Scott exchanged glances across the table. Val rubbed his beard vigorously as if trying to shake unwanted images from of his mind. “He roughed girls up, cut a few up. Killed a few, too, but not until he had played with them for a bit. Eventually decided it…uh…” he took a deep drag from his cigarette, picking it up from where it had been spiraling smoke from the ashtray. “Decided it would be fun to try his tricks out on regular girls, ones who didn’t get paid for it. Ones who didn’t deserve it.” “So you offed him?” Jason asked with his typical tact. Val rubbed his beard even harder. No matter how hard he screwed his face up, Scott could make out a strong emotion in his face. There was a sticky story here. Val was silent for a while, the room quiet except for the tapping of his finger against the sparkling white tabletop. Jason and Scott looked at each other again, unsure what was expected from them. Not knowing how to break the silence, they waited for Val to speak again. Val finally cleared his throat. “Someone did it for us.” He looked at them both, his eyes steady and ferocious. “And that won’t happen again. You guys behave yourself, learn how we do business up here, work hard, and you’ll own this fucking town. Get out of line and I’ll retire you with my own hands. Get it?” Jason leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest for effect. “We don’t get out of line and we don’t fuck up. You have my word.” Val nodded slowly and turned to Scott. “What about you? Do I have your word?” Scott spoke without hesitation. “Absolutely.”

Val slapped his massive hand down. It was all Scott could do to keep himself from jumping in his chair. He hadn’t slept very much lately and it was starting to show. Ever since he dropped Jess off, and watched her disappear into her apartment, he hadn’t been able to think of much of anything else. For all he knew, she had unhinged him. Twice in as many days he’d ridden down the almost deserted street just to pass her house. He hadn’t brought himself to park across the street and stalk her quite yet, but he was getting pretty close. “Let’s head outside and you can check out my collection. There’s some gorgeous old ladies out there waiting for you guys to take them for a spin,” Val said, crushing out his cigarette as he rose. *** After a couple more drinks, and an hour of listening to Val detail the history of his impressive bike collection, Scott was itching to get away. The man owned everything, and everything was in ideal condition, restored, mastered, and just salivating for him to pay attention to. For Scott, that got old pretty damn quick. As powerful as Val obviously was, ass kissing bored him. Watching Jason do it was only amusing for so long, then it was a matter of him trying to control his general air of annoyance for the rest of the visit. Just nod your head, smile, and look amazed, he told himself. By the time they left the climate-controlled garage and made their way back to where their own bikes were parked, it was almost noon. Jason had worked his ass off to impress Val and, as a result, was more than half drunk, his arm wrapped around Scott’s shoulders. “It’s going to be good, Scott. This is going to work out for us just fine. You see the kind of shit that guy has? That’s going to be ours, man. ” “I’m pleased as punch,” Scott murmured, fishing his keys out of his back pocket. Just what he needed, more false enthusiasm and rah, rah, rah. Jason stopped him. “You better be. We don’t have a choice but to be. You get that, don’t you?” “Yeah, sure. I get it.” “We step out of line and we’ll end up like that Luke asshole dude. I don’t know what they did to him, but one minute he was the top of the heap, and the next.” He snapped his fingers. “Gone. And from what I heard it wasn’t pretty. You get that? We need to play by the rules. This is top shelf business here, Scott.” Scott found himself starting to get annoyed at the drunken little ginger that was suddenly up in his face. “What are you talking about?” he scowled. “I always play by the rules.” “That girl you took off with the other night? She’s out of the lines, brother. Far out.” Scott stopped in his tracks. “How the hell… ”

“It’s no big mystery fuck-face. You pulled your gun out. Everyone saw it and everyone saw you leave. She’s Val’s niece, Scott. Surprise! Get it? She’s fucking Grim Angels’ royalty. You gotta keep it in your pants and stay the hell away from her or you’ll fuck everything up for us.” Scott’s stomach dropped. That’s what she meant by connected. Connected was an understatement. Grimacing, he started moving again. “What’s the deal? Nobody thinks I’m good enough for her? That’s bullshit. I just got here.” “It’s not you, Prada. It’s Val. He doesn’t want her involved in anything. He wants her completely out of the picture. White picket fence, lawyer husband, that kind of thing. That was one of the first things that giant fucker told me.” If it were possible, Scott’s stomach clenched even more. He didn’t like being told what to do most of the time anyway, but this, being told that incredible girl was off limits? Maybe loyalty to the Grim Angels wasn’t worth the trouble. He had to steady his voice when he spoke. “She’s related. How the fuck is he going to protect her from anything? She’s a part of this.” He stopped walking again and gestured to the pastoral landscape and all its high-end bells and whistles. Jason stopped walking and doubled back to where Scott stood, his arms limp at his sides in disbelief. Jason came up close to him, his voice low. “I didn’t want to say anything at the table, I couldn’t. Val would lose his shit. But it doesn’t take long to get the real dirt around here. I didn’t get the whole story, but that girl was tied up with Luke and something happened. Something bad.” He raised both hands up in typically dramatic plea for innocence. “That’s all I got. That’s all I could get.” Jason watched his friend’s face freeze over. He knew that expression. The light went out behind Scott’s eyes as he strode toward his bike. “Aw fuck…” Jason hissed. He took off after him, taking him by the arm, but Scott shook him off and mounted his bike. “She’s a mess of trouble, Scott! Stay the hell away from her!” Scott shot Jason a final withering look before starting the bike, spinning it around, and bellowing off down the gravel path, sending up a cloud of dust and gravel in his wake. Jason had the terrible feeling he was going to be leaving a lot worse in his wake by the time this was over. Chapter Thirteen Jess looked around the empty café. It wasn’t busy. Was it ever busy when the Angels weren’t around? She had been so naïve when she was younger, believing that somehow the two or three customers they had all day was enough to keep her mother’s business afloat. Now she knew differently. It wasn’t the burgers that kept the café going. She pushed her hair behind her ear and continued filling the sugar dispensers. She had a bowl of rice beside her that she plucked grains from to place in the shakers as she worked. It was a banal task, but then she was locked in a life of banal tasks, probably indefinitely. And whose fault was that?

“Thanks for the coffee.” The one customer she had all morning waved at her as he left, setting the bell ringing as he walked outside. An ancient old man who lived somewhere in the neighborhood had come in and counted his coins out on the counter with his shaking hands. He barely had enough for toast, but Jess had set him up with a full breakfast and coffee. She smiled. He was the only regular, stopping in once or twice a week. It was sad, but kind of sweet, that he actually believed the three dollars he had given her was enough to cover the whole meal. Her mother would never miss it, and the food would spoil if it weren’t cooked, so what was the harm? Now that the old man had left, she abandoned her sugar duties and went to pick up the dirty dishes, happy to have something else to do with her day. It was hard for her to think of anything else but Scott since that night, and spending her days in a dead little café in the middle of nowhere didn’t help much. At the most inopportune moments she would remember the taste of him so clearly that it was as if he was still kissing her. She could feel him grinding against her and see the twist of his mouth. More than once she had to stop herself from racing out into the street to hunt him down, wanting to tell him everything and see if he stayed. Anything to stop the circle of obsession she was caught in. Scott, with the too pretty face and long fingers. Scott, the one she wasn’t allowed to have. Scott, with the history of doing bad things. But how bad? Could it be any worse than hers? She took the egg-smeared plate into the kitchen to wash it. That was at least the next few minutes taken care of. Maybe now, focusing on the plate, she could have a break from rehearsing her speech to him should she ever see him again. Sighing, she started the water and was about to rinse the plate when she heard the jangling bell on the door again. She wiped her wet hands on her apron. “Wow. Two customers in an hour,” she mumbled. Maybe a big rush would hit out of nowhere and really give her some distraction. She swung open the door into the dining room and her heart stopped. Scott stood in the center of the room. Her Scott. More electric than she remembered, he filled up her mother’s café more than a lunch rush ever could. Her first instinct was to rush at him and throw herself at him, straddle him in one of the booths and scream her secrets into his mouth. Her second was to fix her hair. Awkwardly she pulled her hair up and twisted it to form a messy bun, trying to still her shaking hands. “I’ll get you a coffee.” It was all she could think to say. If she kept moving then maybe he wouldn’t notice the effect he had on her. She fumbled with the porcelain cup and saucer, the too loud clink filling the empty restaurant. “You’re Val Ingersson’s niece,” he said. She froze, her hand still reaching for the coffee pot. This was it then. She searched her head for her well planned and rehearsed speech, but came up blank. “I told you I was connected,” she said finally. She poured his coffee as she tried to start breathing again, and brought it to him. It sat on the counter between them, untouched, a black circle in a stained white mug. “What did you do Jessica… Jess? I’m sorry, but you need to tell me. What kind of trouble did you get into?”

She was shocked to hear the emotion in his voice as he stood there, his eyes searching hers. “Did that… that Luke, did he hurt you?” Jess took a deep breath. Scott’s question knocked a hole open in her and she was going to fill it. When she spoke, she was strangely calm. In her dreams she had screamed it, howled it into the sky. Actually saying the words, however, saying them so someone else could hear them, was entirely different. How could she explain it? The adrenaline, the pain, the fact that she did it and her only punishment was having to keep it a secret. She snorted. One of the benefits of being a part of the Grim Angels. “I killed him,” she said. He said nothing. What did she expect him to say anyway? Good for you? You horrible bitch? You despicable murderer? Instead, Scott eased himself onto a counter stool and pulled the cup of coffee toward him. Carefully and methodically he poured sugar into it. Jess coughed nervously. She raised her hand to her mouth but put it down again when she saw how badly she shook. “I went to his house and I killed him.” “Got any cream?” he asked. Numbly, Jess passed him a bowl of creamers and watched as he dumped one, then a second, into his coffee, the cream spreading out in the black. He took a spoon and stirred, then sipped. “Why?" “I knew he was cheating on me. Not that I cared. He wasn’t good to me but everyone expected me to… Never mind. It was like dating a celebrity. I tried to tell people about him, but no one believed me. Luke… ” Jess hadn’t said his name in a year and it caught in her throat, making her feel like choking. “I didn’t know about the prostitutes, but I should’ve. All I knew was he was…” She paused, trying to find a word for it. “Seeing other girls. Girls I knew wanted to be a part of the Angels. Girls who would do anything. Things I wouldn’t do.” She saw Scott stiffen. He wouldn’t look at her. “Things like what?” “Things that hurt.” The words fell between them, as real and as solid as that cup of coffee. Scott nodded. She could tell he was working hard to maintain a neutral expression. She could see it in the way his mouth twitched between sips of coffee. “I…” Jess stopped. Suddenly far from calm, she felt as if her stomach were going to crawl its way up into her throat to stop her talking, to strangle her where she stood. “I followed him to one of the girl’s houses. She was younger than me. I didn’t even know her name.” Her voice cracked. “I stood outside, getting madder and madder that he was fucking some other chick. I finally decided to catch them and confront him. The door wasn’t locked. By the time I got there, it was too late. I found her in the bedroom. He’d…torn her apart. Really, torn her apart.”

She felt tears start to slip down her cheeks but she didn’t brush them away. She didn’t look at Scott, she didn’t move, she had to finish the story. She had to drag all those gruesome images into the light. She had to remember how good that knife had felt in her hand when she had finally got ahold of it. She laid her hand, the same one she had used to kill him, on the counter to steady herself and was surprised when he reached out and laid his hand on top. “How did you do it?” She looked up and found him staring at her, clear eyed. Obviously he’d had conversations like this before. Why was she shocked? Of course he had. “He came back in the room. He was nude and still covered in her blood. I think he was fucking her as he killed her. He still had the knife with him. I tried to run, but he cut me when I tried to get past him. I didn’t even feel it. I didn’t feel anything. He was going to kill me and I was trying to get away. I managed to push him off me when he slipped on… slipped in her blood. He dropped the knife when he fell. I grabbed it and I killed him. I killed him, Scott! I don’t know how many times I stabbed him, but when I left the house I just ran.” The tears were streaming now, her chest hitching. Scott let go of her hand and pushed the coffee out of the way before he crawled up on her mother’s precious counter and over to where she stood. He wrapped her in his arms, enfolding her in creaking leather and the sweet smell of his skin. Tears streaming down her face, she gripped him like a lifeline, shoulders shaking as she was racked with sobs. She had never told anyone what had happened. Oh, they knew, but they had to piece it together, but getting it out in the open was like a great weight was lifted from her shoulders. He held her, letting her cry as she clung to him. No one should have to witness something like that. He was amazed at the strength in her slender body that she could carry that weight. No wonder she had nearly flipped out when the girl flicked blood onto her, and he suddenly felt more charitable toward Angela. He tipped her head back just enough that he could kiss the top of her head, breathing her in deep, like a tonic, holding her until her sobs began to quiet. “Was it hard?” he asked. “Was it hard to do?” She shook her head against him, sniffling. It hadn’t been hard. In fact, it had been easy. Too easy. “When they deserve it, it never is,” he murmured, resting his cheek on her head. He had been working with the Grim Angels for years. They had become his family, his friends, his entire life. But now, with this woman in his arms, he was suddenly willing to throw it all away. Ten years of loyalty for three days with Jess. Was he insane? He didn’t love her, but she spoke to him in a way no other woman ever had. Possibly like no other ever will. She pulled back, her face puffy with emotion. “They don’t want me to be with you. They don’t want me to have anything to do with the Angels. They know what I did. Uncle Val covered it up for me, but they’ll kill you if they know you were here.”

Scott smiled and kissed her, her lips salty from her tears. “People have been trying to do that for years. Hasn’t worked so far.” “You know them, Scott. You know what they can do.” “Yeah, and I’ve done most of it for them. I’m going to be the right hand of the fucking king, Jess. I can make this work.” Every single inch of her wanted to believe it was true, but every inch of her also knew how the world worked. He didn’t know Uncle Val like she did. He had no idea what he was capable of. “Can we get out of here?” he asked, looking around at the empty booths and tables. Kat hadn’t been home in a couple days. She was probably off on a tear, hooked up with some swinging dick that caught her fancy. She had been doing that quite a bit lately, a true sign she had gone on another one of her binges, drinking away the life she had, sort of, created for herself and her daughter after her divorce from Ron. She didn’t care anymore. This ruse of a café could burn to the ground for all she cared. If she shut the place down for a few hours, what difference would that make? She could take him upstairs and they could talk. However, feeling those arms still around her made talking the absolute last thing on her mind. She pulled back with a sniff, wiping at her eyes. “Let me lock up. We live upstairs. We can go there.”

Chapter Fourteen Scott watched as Jess locked the front door and turned the neon open sign off. He knew she had just opened up to him and peeled off her scab. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to approach her with reverence. He should sit and listen to her, ask her questions, draw her out and make sure she was okay. He knew himself better than that, though, and he steeled himself for the battle with baser self to come. She motioned to the door marked private next to the kitchen and he wordlessly followed her. Don’t touch her, he told himself. Not yet. As they walked up the steps, he remembered how her hair had smelled, like apples and honey. Did her hair always smell like that? He watched the white dress kicking out and billowing slightly around her thighs, watched her ass move beneath the fabric, and knew that stopping himself was going to require iron-like control. He was hungry for her. He had been hungry for her since that night in the fucking Scooby Doo mansion. He had never felt this way about any woman. He was always in control, always had the upper hand, and yet this lovely creature made him feel weak and helpless. She looked back over her shoulder as they walked up and smiled. Her color was still up from crying, making her look even more seductive. Or was it just her crying? Jesus, I’m in so much trouble. I have to know. As they reached the landing, he slid his hand along her ass, a soft stroke that could be passed off as an innocent touch, though he began to stiffen from the thought of what might be. She gasped at his touch and froze, then pressed back, pushing her ass into his crotch. Now it was his turn to gasp. It was stifling, but the sweat that began to drip down his back wasn’t entirely from the stairwell’s heat. He wound that long, black, hair into his fist and gently pulled her head to the side. Her neck exposed, he could see the rapid thump of her heartbeat as her heat poured off her. He began to kiss her neck, gently biting a tiny trail from her collarbone to behind her ear. When he got there, she spun herself around and covered his mouth with hers. They fell back into the wall on the cramped landing, tongues intertwined and hands grabbing in sudden urgency. She had lost herself. She didn’t care about anything except for having this man. His strong hands grabbed her ass and lifted her, allowing her to wrap her legs around his waist as he pressed her into the wall. Breathless, she bit his lip, catching it between her teeth. She would fuck him right here in the stairwell if she had to… “Get that door open,” he growled, that tiger-like voice once again sending need roaring through her. She lowered her legs and scrambled with the key to open the door. As soon as the lock turned, he

flung the door open, crowding her into the room and back in his arms. Their mouths locked onto each other as they fumbled like teenagers with their clothes. First his jacket dropped to the floor, then his shirt. As his lips worked over her neck, Jess had to admire him. She had hints of how he was built from the ride behind him that night, but now, in the warm afternoon light, he was mesmerizing. He was a predator, a natural weapon, all sculpted muscle without the bulk she was used to in other bikers. She pulled back, trying to get control of herself. Oh, she was going to fuck him all right, and fuck him stupid, but she wanted to slow down and savor the banquet she had before her. But the way he looked at her as she pulled back, his hooded eyes piercingly intense through his shaggy bangs, made her quiver inside. She had never been looked at like that before, with that animal like hunger, and she liked it. When Jess backed off, he thought it was going to be a repeat of the last time they started down this road, but the way she looked at him made his manhood ache. She was glowing, her skin alight with the heat of the room and the heat from inside. “Take your dress off,” he ordered. All of his prior, careful, reserve was gone. He commanded her, he would own her, and she would let him. When she scrambled to raise it, he grabbed her hand to still it. “Slowly,” he amended, as he continued to peer through a curtain of hair. The room was incredibly hot and she could feel the sweat beginning to trickle down between her breasts, the heat making her feel as if she might pass out, her legs shaking with the force of her desire. She dropped the hem, then once again took it into her hands and slowly lifted it. “Stop!” Scott ordered. “Stop right there.” Her dress held up to her waist, Jess stood still as he knelt in front of her, her hips in his hands. It was hard to not move as he ran his hands from her hips around to cup her ass, and then traced the narrow bikini straps of her panties from the back to the front, taking in every detail of her. For a moment she was embarrassed and almost pulled away. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered as if he had read her thoughts. “I want to see it all, all of you.” Still crouched in front of her, he gently raised the fabric further and kissed the flat of her stomach. Feeling his lips so close to her womanhood made her whimper. Scott smiled. “That’s exactly what I want.” She could stand it no more. With another almost-silent whimper of anticipation, she pulled her dress up and over her head, dropping it into the ever-increasing pile of clothes on the floor. Running her hand through his hair, she pulled him back to her again and tried to push him lower. He kissed her, running his tongue in and around her navel, but then he began kissing his way slowly up her body.

He loved the smell of her arousal and the salty taste of her skin. He kissed and licked his way slowly upwards, forcing himself up against her downward push, smiling as his lips and tongue danced over her skin. Her soft gasps and slow squirms were making him throb, his cock feeling bigger and harder than he could ever remember. He hoped she was up for a good long ride, because he couldn’t get enough of her. As his tongue slid along the edge of her bra, his tongue working its way under the fabric, she shuddered, not in orgasm, but in pleasure so intense that she couldn’t stay still. Never had it been like this. Never had a man given her so much and asked for so little. She tugged hard upwards, and finally he came to her. She took his lips for her own, tongue wrapped around tongue, panting like animals as they squeezed and grabbed at each other—ravenous for more. He reached around and undid her bra with a practiced twist and pulled it away. She didn’t want to release him, but she needed to feel him against her breasts, so she let go just long enough to allow the straps to slip free of her arms. Tossing her bra away, he cupped both of her full breasts in his hands. “My God,” he murmured almost in awe. “My God, Jess.” “I’m sure you’ve seen tons. Mine can’t be that special… ” she breathed, inordinately pleased with his reaction despite her words, watching him as he gently squeezed and kneaded them. He looked amazed and completely overtaken. “I’ve never seen yours. I’ve got to...” He knelt his head and took one of her erect nipples between his lips. Pleasure blossomed out from her breast as he began to suck, flicking his tongue against her until it seemed like it would burst. She gripped his hair, feeling the long strands between her fingers as he suckled. It was like there was an electric current from her breasts to her pussy—every nip and pull he took made her clit roar with arousal. She had heard of women that could orgasm from having her nipples sucked, but she didn’t believe it possible…until now. He stood up suddenly and, with a seemingly effortless movement, picked her up into his arms. “Where?” “Down the hall, to the right,” she gasped, kissing his neck, clinging to him like a limpet, not wanting to be apart from him for even a second. He strode into the open door of her bedroom and they tumbled into the pile of unmade sheets on her bed. He knelt above her, taking a few seconds to memorize her where she lay, dressed only in her purple panties. The gold sun made her pale skin glow, tiny beads of sweat poised to slide down those incredible breasts making her more alluring still. They were so large for someone her size. He wanted to see them bounce and sway, and he wanted to be the one to make them. Staring at her with those lazy, hooded, eyes he undid his belt buckle with the same authority he had tossed her on the bed.

Tearing open his button fly, he yanked his jeans down to his knees. Jess purred, despite herself, and reached for his penis when it popped out, finally freed from its denim prison. Now it was her turn to be impressed. “Oh… ” she breathed. He sported the largest member she had ever seen outside of a porn flick. She took it in hand and caressed it, his cock so velvety and smooth where it rose from his sculpted hips. As her hand closed around him, he groaned involuntarily, his hips twitching. Jess smiled. So this is how she could control this dark-souled man, and control him she would. She had never had an uncut man before, and as she slowly stroked his erection, she liked the feeling of the baby soft skin sliding easily over the rock hard core of him. With her other hand, she caressed the solid muscles of his stomach before moving behind to the subtle curve of his ass, dragging her nails along his cheeks and lightly across his balls. He groaned again, louder this time as he shuddered, his cock reaching out to her with every slow stroke of her hand. She couldn’t help herself any longer. She dipped her head and gently licked the tip. He gripped her head, his hands lost in the masses of black hair that had tumbled loose, encouraging her, but not trying to force her. Exhilarated, Jess swept her tongue around the head, feeling the hot contours and ridges, and savoring the salty taste of him. She watched him as he let her tongue explore him, his mouth loose, his face flushed. It was time to go deeper, to drive him mad with pleasure. Her lips encased him farther and she drove his length deep into her throat. Eyes closed she felt the tip of his cock bump against the back of her throat but continued, letting her saliva coat him and her lips guide him deeper. She had done this many times, but never had she enjoyed it as much as she did now. “Oh, no, no, no,” he growled breathlessly. Using her hair, he gently pulled her head back and pushed her down onto the bed. She looked up, afraid she had done something wrong, but he smiled at her and she felt her pussy tighten. “In the south, ladies come first, little girl. I want to see you squirm.” Jess laughed breathlessly as Scott turned and removed his boots, then pants, as she pressed herself into his back, reaching around and stroking him. They were sweating profusely now, but she found the feel of his sweat slickened skin more erotic still. Pants off, he pushed her roughly back, then held her down as he moved over her, his smile promising great pleasure. She expected him to take her, but he began to slide down her body, kissing and teasing, working his way to between her legs, a trail of pleasure from her breasts to the gentle rise of her pussy. Still staring at her, he slowly pulled the fabric of her panties, moist to the point of being soaking, aside. With one of his long fingers, he parted her and with excruciating slowness, pushed his finger inside. She gasped, her back arching as pleasure twisted her. It had been over a year, but even before, it had never been like this. In the past she had been used to take pleasure, receiving a measure in return, but now, in her overheated bedroom, she was being given pleasure in full measure. The heat and pressure that had been building between her legs increased with each slow penetration, her pussy gripping his finger with vice-like strength.

“Is that good?” he whispered slowly, watching her eyes as they rolled up into her head. “You want another?” Unable to speak, she nodded, gripping his wrist, afraid he would stop. He smiled, enjoying her reactions as he slipped another finger deep inside, expanding her farther. She began to coo softly, her hips rising up to meet every push he made. When her moisture began to drip from her and down his hand, he finally leaned forward and gently touched his tongue to her swollen clit. She immediately cried out, her hands gripping the tangled sheets they lay upon as he flicked her swollen clit back and forth, matching the speed of his fingers to his tongue. She started to grind against his face, her back arching and her soft cries increasing. Faster still, he twisted his fingers in and out of her clamped, soaking, pussy, driving her over the edge. “Oh god, oh god, oh fuck, Scott.” She had started out soft, but her mewing had turned to a frantic cry, her back arched and her breasts rocking with her approaching orgasm. He could feel her start to come from deep within, her contractions starting to grip his fingers where he pressed them inside of her. He couldn’t take it anymore, his cock throbbed painfully against his stomach and the bed, practically begging to be buried as deep in that sopping pussy as he could get. He sat up abruptly, took his now massive erection in his hand and slammed himself into her. Her eyes, closed as her orgasm began, flew open and she involuntarily cried out. He was so much bigger than anyone she’d had before, and feeling him pound into her only drove her pleasure higher. She clenched his arms as she burned in erotic fire, from the top of her head to the tips of her curled toes, her orgasm thundering through her. With every thrust Scott made, her muscles clenched and released, clenched and released in heavy waves. “Fuck… Fuck… Jessica… oh fuck… ” he grunted, trying to hold against his approaching orgasm. He shook his head, trying to deny his body what it desperately sought, sweat flying from his hair in a spray. He began to thrust harder, faster, sweat rolling down is back, pooling at the curve of his ass, dripping off his face and chest. He shook his head again, trying to find that place he could go to last for hours, but that section of his mind had hung out a Closed sign. He could feel his balls tightening up, drawing up tight up against the base of him as his own orgasm bore down on him. He began to snarl, his lips curling back in a feral sneer. Watching her come underneath him, covered in sweat, her tight little pussy seizing around him, her magnificent tits rolling with every thrust, he couldn’t stop himself. Then he remembered. He had gotten so carried away; he hadn’t used protection. With a roar, he pulled out a spare moment before his ejaculate shot out in powerful ropes across her still twitching

stomach. His legs shaking, his strong hand pumped his cock desperately, his orgasm shredding him, until he felt like it would never end. She had flipped a switch this girl; she had woken something up inside of him. With a great heaving gasp, he collapsed back on top of her, smearing his essence between them as he slowly pumped his hips, sliding his cock between them and unable to stop as he buried his face in her shoulder. He breathed in the sweet scent of her shampoo, his mouth filling with her hair where it tangled around the two of them. After a moment, he rolled off of her with groan, flopping onto the bed beside her. She rolled over and kissed him fully, sweetly, her breath still rasping from the force of her orgasm. “We need to do that again,” she whispered into his mouth. He smiled lazily. “Later. I need at least a week to recover.” “I don’t think I can wait that long.”

Chapter Fifteen She wasn’t sure when they had fallen asleep, but it came as quickly and deeply, despite the heat, as if they had been drugged. Certainly more of a faint than a sleep, her mind had moved so rapidly into darkness that when the pounding woke her up she had no idea where she was. The room had grown dark with only the streetlight to give any indication of where she was. An urgent pounding filled the house and her heart raced in her chest. Something was coming. Something big. Jess looked around desperately trying to get her bearings. Was she at the mansion? Was everything that had happened just part of a fevered dream and she was still there, covered in the blood of her victim? Was she at Angela’s house? With her mother? What was that knocking, so fierce and demanding? When she looked down and saw Scott, one arm over his eyes, sleeping through the noise, it all came back. Her heart finally start to slow down and her breathing calmed. Seeing him there, stretched out across the bed was like waking up to the perfect gift on Christmas morning. It brought a sense of wonder to her, despite the pounding that filled the apartment. Scott groaned and squirmed as he awoke, blinking into the darkness as he tried to get his bearings. “What the fuck is that?” “I think someone’s at the door.” She had finally placed the noise as the banging of the door at the bottom of the step that opened onto the street, and was digging for something to put on. Whoever it was, he or she was in a hell of a hurry. “What time is it?" Scott asked as he sat up and tried to blink himself awake. “Scott! Scott!” The sound of his name being yelled in a familiar voice set him to action. With the rapidity of a man who was used to being woken up by drama, he grabbed his jeans from the floor and pulled his weapon from the holster that was still attached. “Who is it?” Jess asked, her eyes wide. She was pulling her own clothes on as she headed for the door. “It’s Rick. What the hell is he doing here?” He pulled his jeans on then made his way after Jess, his weapon at low ready. He tried to pass Jess where she stood in the doorway to the landing. “Scott, wait…what does he want?” “Don’t know. Stay up here,” he commanded as he stepping into the dark stairwell. “Not a chance,” she mumbled and pushed past him and down the stairs. “Jess, Goddmanit!” Scott snarled after her, his bare feet thumping on the steps as he banged down

them behind her. Jess flung open the door to the street. “What do you want?” she demanded. Scott arrived a moment later to find Rick pacing on the street outside. He was tugging at his goatee, which was never a good sign in his experience. He was pale and jitterier than usual and without the constant glint of humor he used like a shield. “What the fuck, man?” Scott asked, the night air feeling cool on his bare chest after the heat of the apartment. “You gotta get out of here, Scott. Val’s on his way over.” He nodded at Jess, the slightest scowl on his face. “Shit is going down, bro. They are out for you, dude.” Jess felt her stomach drop. They were coming to lock her back up in her tower. “How?” she asked. “Jason,” Scott said softly. He ran his hand through his hair and begun to pace. “Fucking, kiss ass, Jason. That fucking creepy little ginger Irish wop. Trying to secure his spot by throwing me under the fucking bus.” Panic was starting to build in Jess. She had seen Val when he was furious. He was unstoppable. He descended on his enemies like a thunderstorm, a giant wall of rage that burned family homes to the ground, a howling demon that buried men to their necks and let the animals finish them off. He was lawless in his anger and devoid of anything even slightly resembling humanity. “Fuck it,” Scott snarled. “Let him come.” Jess’s panic increased. That dead look she had seen in Scott’s eyes a few nights ago at the bonfire was back, the soft part of him that had held her as she cried long gone. She thought for a second that she was lucky to have even seen it at all. “No.” She laid a hand of Scott’s chest. Despite his blank expression, she could feel his heart beating rapidly. “We’ve got to get out of here.” “No, we don’t.” Scott’s voice was flat and defiant. He looked right through Jess, right through Rick, right through anything that stood in his way. Uncle Val, Jess thought, he looks like uncle Val. “I don’t owe that guy anything. I’d like to see what he has to say. See what kind of impressive toys he brings to the party.” “No, you don’t, man,” Rick spoke up, his voice high pitched with alarm. “He’s bringing a pack with him and they’re looking for your head, man. I swear it. I managed to sneak out so I could come give you a head’s up. I’ve put myself at risk, man. I’m a dead man if he finds me here, too. You have got to get the fuck out of here, pronto.”

“I’m not backing off. I haven’t done anything wrong, so why would I?” Jess turned to him, placing her hands on his face so that he had to meet her eyes. She needed to find that special man inside of him again. Drag it out of him before it was too late. In spite of himself and his mounting rage, Scott softened. In the deep blue evening, she was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen. He knew at that moment ] she could make him do anything she wanted, and he wouldn’t care, because he would do anything for her. “You don’t have to back off, Scott,” she said, her black, velvet-painting eyes locked on to his. “And I’ll never ask you to. I will never ask you to back off. But we’ve got to get out of here. Just for a while. He’ll cool off and then we can deal with it. But it’s time to go. We need to lay low, just for a bit, and then we can deal with this. I’ll be right there with you when we do, I promise.” Numbly he stared at her. The world could’ve burned around him and he wouldn’t care. She was a goddess in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. She was an ivory figurine with blood on her hands. She was going to make him make so many mistakes and, yet, he didn’t care. “Go get some stuff,” he said at last. He sensed both Rick and Jess’s relief at his decision. Jess immediately turned and raced up the stairs and into the apartment. Scott turned to Rick who was looking at him, wide eyed with honest concern and relief. “You need to go,” Scott said, then nodded his head. “Thanks.” Rick smiled. “Never thought I’d see the day when Prada risked his ass for pussy.” Scott walked to Rick, positioning himself inches away from the guy’s face, looking past that ridiculous face tattoo into the eyes of man he’d known for almost a decade. “I never thought I’d see the day that Jason would sell me out. This ain’t over. Not by a long shot.” He heard Jess slam the door behind him and lock it. She handed him the rest of his clothes, a small duffle in her other hand. He smiled as he finished dressing. She was smart. She packed just what they needed for a couple of days, keeping the pack small enough to strap to a bike. “Thank you,” she said to Rick, offering him a shy smile. Rick shrugged. “You damn well better be worth it,” he grunted. *** They rode through the night, the Harley singing the song of freedom. They rode away from the desolate suburban streets, away from the greasy stink of the café, and away from the sound of her mother snoring on the couch. Every mile they rolled was another mile away from empty bottles and ivory towers. They rode past the burned out buildings and collapsing dream homes. They rode under graffiti pocked overpasses and past clusters of men doing deals.

Her hair streaming out behind her, her legs and arms wrapped around Scott, Jess felt no fear. For the first time since that night at the girl’s house, she felt whole. She didn’t love Scott, but there was something about him that was healing her. She felt safe in his presence, safe like she never had. She could sense he would never hurt her, and he would protect her from being hurt. And that was enough, for now. She smiled and laid her head against his back. The fact that he could take her to places she had never been in the bedroom didn’t hurt anything either. Holding him, the throbbing of the bike beneath her, she felt free. Given time, maybe they could build something together, no matter what was waiting for them when they stopped. And something would be. Baying at their heels like a pack rabid dogs, her mother and uncle wouldn’t stop. Their fury, built from broken promises, betrayal, and blood, would stalk them until they were stopped. As the world burned around her, a vengeful giant on their tail, she knew only one thing for certain: so long as they were together, they would survive.

Chapter Sixteen Jessica Mitchell moved in her sleep, grunting and snuffling as she wormed herself in a little tighter, throwing an arm and leg possessively over her bedmate. Scott Murphy smiled in the dim light as he glanced at the clock, grimaced at the time, and then tightened his embrace around her willow-like shoulders. They had gone to bed almost three hours ago, and though Jessica had gone to sleep almost immediately, he hadn’t. His mind was still spinning, winding in ever-tighter circles as his thoughts raced, thinking over what had happened. They had dashed out of the apartment Jess shared with her mother with little more than the clothes on their backs, so they were sleeping in the nude. Not a bad thing to his mind, but the circumstances left a little to be desired. You don’t have a lot of time to think about packing when the leader of the Grim Angels, Valdemar Ingersson, came calling. Not when he had blood in his eyes and not if you valued your life. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. In Detroit less than a week and he was already in deep shit with his club. He hadn’t wanted to leave his home in Atlanta, and he hadn’t wanted to come to Detroit as the right-hand man of the future leader of the club. Jason MacGinnis, President of the Atlanta chapter of the Grim Angels, had been tapped as the new President of the mother chapter in Detroit, and he wanted Scott with him. Scott had, reluctantly, agreed and followed Jason and Rick to Detroit. As the head of the Detroit chapter, Jason was going to be the nominal head of all one hundred twenty-eight chapters scattered across the country, something that had him practically salivating. The Grim Angels weren’t as big as the biggest clubs, but they were growing fast. He had come to Detroit out of loyalty, but once there, his world had been turned upside down and inside out. On the day of his arrival he had met Jess at a party and been gob smacked into oblivion. He had always had his pick of women, women that most men would kill for, and though many were undeniably beautiful, they were mere playthings. Their vacant smiles and even more vacant eyes left him cold. But Jess, she was different. Though she was beautiful, and stunningly so, there was so much more to her. He could see a keen intellect behind her gaze, her eyes lacking that dullness he found so off-putting. And though she was heart-stoppingly gorgeous, she had a certain modesty about her that made his blood roar. In short, she was everything he dreamed of in a woman, and more. Beautiful, smart, and sweetly modest was a trifecta of unprecedented rareness, but, beyond that, she had an inner strength that amazed him. She was truly extraordinary and he was determined to make her his. What he didn’t know, not until it was too late and he had been smitten with her, was that she was the niece of Val Ingersson. The Val Ingersson. Val Ingersson, President of the mother chapter of the Grim Angels. The same Val Ingersson that had declared his niece off-limits to every member of the club. Scott stared at the ceiling of the motel. Thank God for Rick, he thought. Had he not shown up and

warned us the Grim Angels were riding for us, I would have been caught bare ass naked in her bed, maybe even balls deep inside of her. He didn’t understand the problem with Jess seeing a member of the club. Yes, that asshole Luke had fucked over the club and hurt Jess at the same time, but he would never do anything like that. He just needed time to prove it. They had ridden away from her apartment only minutes ahead of the baying hounds on their tail. He had wanted to leave the Angels, ride back to Atlanta, pack his shit, and move on, but Jess had insisted they stay. Detroit was her home and she didn’t want to leave it until there was no other choice. She was certain that after her uncle had a chance to calm down she could reason with him. Besides, with charters scattered all across the United States, there was no place they could hide that the Grim Angels wouldn’t, eventually, find them. Better to stay and make their stand in Detroit and prove to her uncle, and the rest of the club, that they had done nothing wrong. Scott wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but her logic made a certain amount of sense. Running only damns them as knowing they are guilty. So they had decided to stay close and give her a chance to convince her uncle to back off. He smiled. When they had finally stopped, after two hours of being on the move, she had a couple of messages on her cell and he had listened in as she played them. Val didn’t seem to be in much of a mood for reasoning and her friend Angela had begged her to call. His own message, from Jason, he didn’t even bother listening to. Jason’s nose was stuck so far up Val’s butt that if Val were to fart it would come out of Jason’s ass. He would never trust Jason again and he didn’t give a shit what he had to say. He hadn’t known Jess was off limits until Jason had told him, and Jason could have kept that information to himself and give him time to reason with Val. But, instead, Jason had sold him out, using him as leverage to pander to Val. Jess moved, muttering in her sleep, and he looked at her until she became quiet again. His thoughts continued to darken as he thought about Jason and the treachery that wouldn’t be forgiven or forgotten. Let the little ginger try to sell out another brother for gain after he breaks his jaw. He would be eating soup through a straw for months after he got done with him, and if Jess got hurt during any of this, he would kill him. “No!” Jessica’s shout in the quiet room made him jump, tearing his thoughts away from vile retribution. She moved again, squirming, her breathing becoming shallow and fast as she moaned softly then muttered something unintelligible. “Shhh…” he whispered. It had been barely eight hours since he learned her secret, but he knew instinctively she was dreaming of the night she found the woman Luke, her lover at the time, had killed and mauled. He had then tried to kill her and she had killed him with his own knife, stabbing him repeatedly as they fought to the death on the floor, probably in the pool of the woman’s blood.

She began to thrash, pushing against him and whimpering. He let her go, afraid that, in her dream, his embrace would become Luke’s grasping arms as they struggled. He didn’t know exactly how she had killed him, only that she had gotten the knife from him when he fell, but he wanted to take no chances. “Jess…wake up. Wake up,” he murmured, trying to bring her around without scaring her. He gave her a gentle sake, then softly touched her face. Jess issued a blood curdling scream and set bolt upright in bed, panting, with her eyes wide and staring. As soon as his heart started beating again, Scott sat up beside her but did not touch her. “Jess…you okay? Jessica?” he whispered, feeling completely helpless. Slowly her face turned to his, her eyes still wide, her chest heaving in great gasps, but then she seemed to come out of it and her face scrunched as she fell into his arms. He held her as she began to sob then slowly laid back in the bed, pulling her down with him as she clung to him. She made little noise as she cried, but he could feel her pain and terror as she shook and gasped. Finally she began to still, her sobs quieting, but he continued to hold her, saying nothing, giving her strength through simple touch. “What can I do?” he asked, his voice so quiet it was almost lost in the murmur of the air conditioner. “Hold me,” she whispered, sniffing again as she adjusted her position so that she could be held closer, tighter. “Tighter,” she begged softly, needing to feel his strong arms, needing to know he was there to help her fight her dreams. He pulled her onto his chest before his arms cinched down, almost crushing the air from her lungs, but it was what she wanted, what she needed. Held tight, she felt a measure of safety and peace come over her. She wasn’t sure why his embrace comforted her, one hand on her head, the other around her back, but it did and that was all that mattered. They lay together for some minutes, and though his embrace loosened slightly, he continued to hold her tight, wrapping her in the protective warmth of his embrace. She could feel his arms beginning to quiver with effort but his embrace relaxed no further and it touched her that he would give so much effort for her. She pushed up against him, his embrace suddenly loosening as she rose, slid up his body, and brought her lips to his. His kiss was sweet, gentle, but the hunger from earlier was still there. She wanted him. She wanted him to fuck that terrible night out of her, to burn away the memories of blood and death with pleasure, and then replace them with something greater. The kiss began to deepen and she felt him stiffen against her leg. She glanced at the clock, the numerals blood red and bright in the darkness. No! Not blood, her mind rebelled, the color of roses, the color of love and passion. There were still almost four hours until sunrise, but she couldn’t return to sleep. Not now. He had pulled her out of the dream before she saw the girl’s body, and she wanted to keep it that way. She had slept, deep and dreamless, after he had made love to her in her apartment, and she wanted to do so again. “Make love to me, Scott,” she whispered, touching his face softly. “Make love to me and never stop.”

Were it any other woman he would be fucking himself to nirvana without a second thought, but he hesitated at her request. He wanted her; he wanted her desperately, but she was vulnerable and he didn’t want to hurt her. “Are you sure?” “Yes. I need you to make me feel alive, Scott. I, I can’t do it alone. Please, Scott, help me live again.”

Chapter Seventeen Scott looked in Jessica’s eyes, the redness and puffiness from her crying visible even in the dim light leaking around the bathroom door, but she had never looked more beautiful. They hadn’t made love after settling into the motel, too strung out from their mad dash into the night, but that was hours ago. If the Grim Angels knew where they were, they would have been here already. He brought his hands up, cupping her face gently, giving her time to change her mind, but her eyes drifted closed as her mouth opened slightly in invitation. He pulled her slowly to him and she came, willingly, offering her full, soft, lips as a sample of the pleasures to come. He took her lips, slowly, almost lovingly, sucking gently on her bottom lip, and she felt herself become wet with anticipation. She’d had other lovers, but none affected her like Scott. His touch seemed electric, burning away her fear and doubt and leaving her pure and alive. She wanted, needed, that feeling tonight. She wanted the blazing heat of their passion to burn the memories of that bloody night from her and leave her hollow, ready to be filled again. In her apartment she had been desperate for him, her passions roaring through her like wildfire. But now, away from her stuffy and dilapidated apartment, away from the prison she had allowed her mother to lock her into, she wanted to slow herself down, to have Scott make love to her and not just fuck her headlong into orgasm. He felt her relax into the kiss, the tension suddenly pouring out as if he had pulled the plug on some drain. He had taken her harshly before, pounding himself into her, overcome by a lust he couldn’t control. But this time he intended to take his time, to savor every inch of her skin, to kiss and caress her until he drove her mad with pleasure. She felt his lips pull into a smile as they sampled each other’s lips. “What?” His smile broadened, just before he broke from her lips and began a slow trek under her jaw to her ear. “I’m going to fuck you good, slow and easy, for the rest of the night,” he whispered, his lips never still. She nearly shivered in anticipation, delighting that he was already reading her so well. She held his lips to her neck, his lips and tongue an intense source of pleasure that made her skin prickle in response. She had to say something, anything, but she couldn’t pull her thoughts away from imagining the feeling him between her legs with his manhood deep inside of her as they moved together, two becoming one. “Bring it,” she finally gasped, forcing herself away from him before rolling off him onto the bed and offering her arms in invitation. He hovered over her on knees and elbows, staring into those enormous brown eyes, eyes that seemed to draw him in. A man could drown in those eyes, he said to himself as he lowered himself to her,

taking her lips again. I can’t stand it! her mind cried as he began to once again kiss down her jaw, along her neck and across her shoulder. She reached for him, needing to touch him, to give him pleasure as she received it, and took his cock into her hand. Again she delighted in feeling the soft skin of his member sliding over the steel like hardness underneath as she stroked and caressed. One hand on the back of his head, the long strands feeling incredibly erotic between her fingers, she guided his lips and tongue. She longed to feel the warm wetness of his mouth on her breasts, but he wouldn’t be rushed, her heat rising with every slow lick and kiss. He could feel her pushing on his head, trying to drive him lower, but sometimes the journey was the reward, and he was enjoying this journey too much to be rushed. He moved slowly, kissing his way ever lower, his tongue dancing over her skin as he breathed deep, inhaling her scent. She smelled of vanilla and woman, a heady bouquet that made his pleasure centers flair with lightening like intensity. “You better stop doing that,” he murmured as he swirled a tongue around her nipple. “What?” she whispered, still slowly caressing his manhood. “You know what,” he replied as he quickly moved to taste her lips once more. Their kiss was deep, slow, and incredibly erotic, their tongues engaged in a slow dance, her hand pulling him into the kiss as she continued to massage him, her hips rocking in time with her stokes. “Fuck…” he gasped as their lips parted, hanging tight to his control, sucking and kissing, moving down between her breasts, pulling his cock from her grip as he slowly moved lower. Jessica moaned softly as he slowed his descent, kissing her stomach with such tender passion that she couldn’t stay quiet or still. She rocked her hips, thrusting against his chest, the pressure of each thrust causing a wave of need to pour over her. After a seeming eternity of his kisses on her stomach he turned in the bed, moving to lie alongside of her. She felt a sudden rush of heat and began to move with him, sliding down and moving over him, placing her knees to either side of his head as she covered his beautiful body with her own. She wanted to gasp, to moan, to scream out her desire as his arms snaked around her hips and drew her womanhood down tight against his lips. Needing to make a sound, any sound, she began to coo and purr as she licked and teased him, trying to drive him as mad as he was driving her, his cock pulsing in her hand with every beat of his heart. As she took him into her hot, wet, mouth he pulled her tighter to his face, trying to focus on pleasing her as her tongue touched and slithered around him. He started out softly, the flicks of his tongue and the caress of his lips fleeting touches, but as she increased the intensity of her fellation, he began to press her harder, his tongue probing deeper and harder as his lips grasped and tugged. With a sudden downward plunge, she took his entire length into her mouth, holding him there as his soft groan echoed in the room.

Scott’s low, deep, sexy rumble ignited her, making her flair with erotic fire. She had sucked Luke’s cock many times, but his roughness had diminished her pleasure. She liked a good hard fuck as much as the next girl, but he often went too far, hurting her, holding his cock deep in her mouth until she gagged and had to fight free. But Scott, pleasuring her as she pleasured him, asking for nothing more than what she willingly gave, sent her soaring. Rather than sucking him off because it was expected, she found herself doing it because she wanted to, so she pressed, driving herself beyond her limits, wanting to give him more, ever more, pleasure. He had many women in his past pleasure him with their mouths, some with great skill and enthusiasm, but never had one brought him so quickly to the edge of orgasm. He groaned again, breathing hard as he fought his approaching orgasm, his tongue slithered into all her secret places or lapped at her as a cat with cream, her nectar the sweetest he had tasted. He was going to come, and hard, but he wanted to hold out as long as possible, to draw this moment out forever. His groan was her undoing. With a soft gasp her orgasm took her, warming her, making her feel alive in ways she hadn’t felt in years, perhaps ever. She held him in her mouth, her tongue making laps around his knob as she allowed the pleasure to wash over her in great cleansing waves. Then it was gone and she exhaled, luxuriating in the receding warmth as her orgasm drained out of her. His tongue still felt fantastic but he was no longer whipping her into a froth of desire. While she recovered, she was going to make him come so fucking hard…and then they were going to fuck their brains out. He backed off slightly on the intensity of his cunnilingus as Jess relaxed out of her orgasm, giving her a chance to breathe and recover. As the rigidness left her muscles, she attacked his cock with renewed vigor, her hand and mouth working together to twist him up with pleasure. “Easy…easy…” he begged softly. “You’re going to make me come.” Hearing him beg made her blood surge in excitement. Rather than slowing, she increased her efforts, trying to drive him over the edge. She took him deep again, taking him deeper than any man before him. She couldn’t suppress her gag but for a moment, but it was long enough that Scott’s hiss of pleasure as he hips slowly rose sent her excitement skittering off in a new direction. “I’m going to come, Jess, baby. I can’t hold it,” he grunted. He wanted to attack her pussy again, but he was beyond being able to focus on anything except her mouth around his cock, her lips embracing him tightly and the soft, gentle, scrape of her teeth. She pulled him from her mouth and stoked him hard and fast, her hand almost a blur on his salivaslickened cock. After a moment she realized he wasn’t as close as she thought so she popped the head back into her mouth and gave it a good working over with her tongue. “Jess! Stop! I can’t—” She barely got him out of her mouth before he erupted, his essence striking her on her breasts. She began to coo again as she milked him, working every drop from him as she brushed his cock against her skin, his twitches, bucks, gasps and barks the single sexiest thing she had ever experienced.

“Ooh… look at the mess you made,” she purred, still rubbing his cock against her, using his own semen as lubricant. With a great exhale, his orgasm left him, though Jess slapping him against her tits, or whatever she was doing down there, was still sending waves of pleasure screaming through him. He should be done, his cock on its way to becoming shriveled and useless, but he ached with his need for her. He tossed her off of him with another of the sexy tiger growls he did, the sound making her pussy clinch in need. They scrambled in the bed, aligning themselves, when he shoved her hard back into the bed, his eyes intense as he stared at her. She gave her head a small twitch, daring him to try to tame her. His lips found her, his kiss torrid in its intensity, their hands tangling in each other’s hair to prevent the other’s escape. When he finally broke the kiss, Jess was all but panting in desire. What is it about him? she asked herself. He reached to the side table and removed a condom from the package. He had made a mistake yesterday that he wouldn’t this morning, and he was looking forward to coming while inside of her. Jess smile as Scott reached for the small package of condoms they had bought. Yesterday she has been so hot for him she hadn’t even thought of protection until he pulled out and came on her stomach. That was another difference between Scott and her other lovers. They would have just come inside her, and if she got pregnant, that was her problem. That was why she made sure she was on the pill, though she hadn’t bothered to refill her prescription since… She shook her head to drive away the thoughts and then took the condom from his fingers and sheathed his sword. Tomorrow, I go back on the pill. This screwing around with a condom sucks! “You ready to get fucked?” he growled softly, bringing his lips close to hers. His words struck her like lightening, and she smiled back. “Are you?” By way of answer he pulled back and she opened herself to him, but rather than driving in deep he took her hips and effortlessly flipped her to her stomach and drove her head and breasts to the bed before he entered her slowly, causing her to nearly swoon at the feeling of his passage. He entered her and then paused, enjoying the hot tightness of her around him. He felt out of control, wanting to pound into her furiously until he came, his thoughts of slow, easy lovemaking burning away in the heat of passion. “Hard,” she murmured, looking back over her shoulder him. Those incredible eyes of hers, partially closed, looked over her shoulder and meeting his, her expression a cross between hard fucking sex goddess and sweet innocence, a look he would have sworn impossible were he not staring at it. He could deny her nothing, especially when it was what he wanted anyway. He changed his position, planting a foot on one side of her hips, his knee on the

other. He began to move, slowly at first, but then exploded into motion. Jess grunted as Scott slammed his hips into her ass, that beautiful cock of his hitting her just right. He was like an over-revved machine, taking her with a fury she had never experienced, his thrusts driving her forward on the bed. She leaned back into him to hold her position, her eyes closed, her mouth open in a silent scream of ecstasy. As suddenly as he started, he stopped, and she gasped in disappointment that it was over so quickly. Before she could react, she felt him pull out, adjust his position, then enter her again, his angle of thrust changed and now truly hitting her just right. He bent over her back, pulling her up onto her hands and into his chest, one big hand going softly around her throat, his other arm around shoulders. He held her tight, careful to not hurt her, squatting behind her while driving into her with as much speed and power as he could. His legs burned from the sustained effort, but he couldn’t stop, not with Jess snarling and panting under him as they fucked like animals, both so lost in their lust that cogent thought was impossible. Scott’s roar as he plunged into her on last time, holding himself deep as he panted and kissed her neck savagely, pushed her over the edge. With a grunting gasp of her own she began to quiver, her legs and arms becoming weak as her climax ravaged her. With a gasp she collapsed to the bed, his weight falling on her driving him incredibly deep, the thrust renewing and extending her rapture. He tumbled off of her with a gasp, his pulling out sending electric-like tingles radiating out from his still hard cock. “Fuck…” he gasped as he lay on the bed panting. He was spent from the two hard climaxes in—he looked at the bedside clock—thirty minutes. Jess crawled into his arms, draping herself lazily across his chest, her breasts pressing into him, her lips softly caressing his own. They kissed, slowly, gently, their tongues wrapping in an embrace, loosening, then twisting together again, taking their time, basking in the glow of passion spent. After many long minutes she had finally taken her fill from his lips and she slid her hand slowly down his sculptured torso to taking his semi-erect penis in her hand. “Ready to go again?” she whispered as she began to kiss down his chest. As her lips reached his manhood, covering him in soft kisses, he felt himself begin to harden. He had never been able to go three times in such quick succession before, but as he wrapped his hands in her hair, his eyes drifting closed in pleasure, he realized he was, indeed, ready to go again. Very ready.

Chapter Eighteen Jessica rolled over and slapped at her alarm. Goddamnit! Let Kat open this morning! Finally the chirr of her phone penetrated her sleep-fogged mind and she realized where she was. She pulled her phone to her, the charging cord dragging a pen and paper onto the floor before snapping tight. She brusquely unplugged the phone and dropped the cord. “’lo?” she mumbled. “Jess? It’s Momma! Are you okay?” “What?” “I just talked to Val! He said you had run off with one of those Atlanta boys! Are you okay?” “Yeah, Mom. I’m okay. Why are you calling?” “Why am I calling?” Kat squeaked from the phone. “You run off in the middle of the night with someone you hardly know, and you want to know why I’m calling? Where are you?” Jessica rubbed at her face, trying to collect her thoughts and come awake. “What time is it?” “It’s almost eight. Where are you? You need to come home, baby.” “I’m in a motel, with Scott.” “Jess, listen to me. You need to come home, okay?” “Why? So Uncle Val can kill him?” Scott snuffled and moved in his sleep, but didn’t wake, and she snuggled in a little closer, smiling as his arm surrounded her again. “Jess, listen to me. This is bad, okay? You shouldn’t have run off like you did. Come home now and we can work this out.” “And Uncle Val?” “I’ll handle Val. Just tell me you’re okay.” “I’m fine, Mom. I’m not kidnapped or anything. I left with Scott because I wanted to. In fact, when I heard Uncle Val was coming, I had to convince him to take me away. He wanted to stay.” “Why did you do that? Why didn’t you stay?”

“I heard you and Val talking. I heard how you wanted me out of the club life. You were going to keep me locked in the café for the rest of my life. Well fuck that, Mom. I’m a grown woman.” Kat was quiet for a long time, but Jess waited her out. “We just want what’s best for you.” “Scott is what’s best for me! I’ve been lying to you, Mom. The dreams, I’ve been having them every night. They’ve never stopped. But with Scott…I don’t have them so much anymore. For the first time since…that night…I didn’t have the dream, Mom. I need this. I need him.” “Okay, okay. I understand. But Jess, you hardly know him! You can’t…” “Can’t what, Mom? Can’t fuck him? Can’t want to be with him? Where have you been the last couple of days? You get to have a life but I don’t? Is that what you’re telling me?” “No! You know better than that!” Kat responded. “But…Jess, I’m glad the dreams have stopped, even for one night. I am! But to throw your life away like this!” “Throw away my life, how? What life?” Scott moved again as she got louder, her mother’s attitude really pissing her off. He opened his eyes and looked at her in confusion. “I was a fucking short order cook! Is that the life you want for me?” she continued, no longer trying to be quiet since he was awake. “Jess! Just come home! We can work this out!” “No! Not until Val calls off the dogs!” “He will! I promise! Just come home!” “Not until I hear it from him.” She punched the cancel button savagely then dropped the phone on the bed. “Who was that?” Scott asked softly. “My mother.” “We should go back.” “We can’t go back! Not until I know Val isn’t going to do something to you.” She was seething inside that her own mother was trying to drag her back to the place she so desperately wanted to leave. “I told you, a lot of people have tried. None have succeeded.” She rolled over to face him and placed her head on his chest, the warmth of his body a perfect contrast to the coolness of the room. She caressed his chest and shoulder a moment as he slowly

stroked her back, his touch calming her. “But against the whole club?” Scott snickered. “Okay. Not good odds. But what’s with all this shit. I don’t understand why they want you out of the club. How does what you did, or what happened to you, have anything to do with the Angels?” “It doesn’t, not really. But, well, Uncle Val kind of looked after Mom and me after my dad died.” “What happened?” “He and Val were best friends. They joined the Grim Angels at the same time and they rose through the ranks together. Then, about twenty years ago, they went out to clean up a problem. One of their dealers was skimming.” “I hate the fucking drugs,” Scott spat. “More trouble than they’re worth in my opinion. We should stick to the guns or, better yet, get out of the underground all together.” “Yeah. Dad thought so, too, or so I hear from some of the old-timers. Anyway, they rode up to his house, and as they were getting off their bikes, the guy drove right through the garage door. Missed Val, but ran over my dad. He got hung under the truck and was dragged a long ways. He never had a chance.” “Holy shit!” “Yeah.” “I’m really sorry, Jess.” “It’s okay. It was a long time ago and I don’t really remember him, but after that Mom had to go to work. The Angels helped her out, made sure she had what she needed, and the café sort of became their unofficial headquarters. After her divorce from Ron, my step-dad, she bought the place and renovated it.” “Jesus. All that, then this Luke business, too.” He looked at her solemnly a moment before gently tugging her lips to his. “No wonder you have bad dreams. Was your step-dad good to you?” “The best. He still comes around sometimes. He’s a programmer for some company in Canada. Makes good money, but not really into the life, you know? Mom should have never married him and he deserved better than the way she treated him. Sometimes I wonder how it would have been if I had stayed with him when they divorced. Then…it wouldn’t have happened,” she said, not wanting to speak of it. “But I love the life. I love the bikes, and the parties.” She paused and smiled at him again before kissing him softly. “Bikers…I really love those.” “Yes you did, especially last night. I thought you were going to kill me. But fuck, what a way to go.”

She smiled but didn’t say anything as she placed her head back on his chest, listening to the strong, slow, thudding of his heart. They had gone twice last night, the second time a slow and easy marathon that lasted for hours as they made love in every position they could imagine. She had come three times more before he had grunted out his third orgasm of the night. After they collapsed in a heap, sweaty and exhausted, she had fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep. That’s the key to a good night’s sleep. Get fucked senseless by Scott first! “What do you do?” she asked after a moment of silence. “For the club?” “For the club and in real life.” “I’m an enforcer for the club.” “I figured that when you pulled your gun on that guy the other night. How many?” “More than I want to admit. Three with Rick, the other guy that came up from Atlanta with me, the one who warned us Val was coming. Four more on my own.” “Did they deserve it?” she asked, calling back his words to her. “Not all of them, no. Those are the ones that make me wonder about what I’m doing with my life.” “It’s part of the life.” “Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes you just have to explain things in a way someone can understand.” She smiled. No wonder Scott looked like a predator. He was. “You do that, too?” “Yes.” “How many of those?” Scott woofed out a soft laugh. “More than I can easily count. Remember what I said about drugs being more trouble than they’re worth?” “Ever get hurt?” “A few times, but If I don’t like the odds, I get backup first. Being stupid is a quick way to get dead.” “What about real life?” “It’s boring.”

“I can use boring.” He smiled. “I work for PPG as a rep. I travel around Atlanta, helping body shops that are having problems. Well, I did.” She looked up at him. “Body shops? You mean like where they fix wrecked cars?” “Yep. If they want to file a claim against PPG for a paint failure, I investigate to make sure the surface was properly prepped, that sort of thing. I teach them how to use our new products and make suggestion on which products might work better for them. Stuff like that. I told you it was boring. But it keeps me out of an office and gives me a lot of freedom for…other stuff.” They were quiet a moment, enjoying each other’s company. “What are we going to do?” he finally asked. “We can’t run forever.” “I know.” “We should go back. I’m not afraid of Val, and I have a score to settle with Jason, the little prick.” “I know. But you don’t know Val. He doesn’t—” “No, but I know his type,” Scott interrupted. “I can handle him.” “But the rest of the club?” “Look, Jess, we have to get this shit sorted. If we can’t, then we can decide what to do. Do they have parley up here?” “A what?” “Parley. It means to talk without one side or the other trying something stupid. Kind of like a temporary truce. That’s how we deal with shit like this back home. If you can’t sort it out in a parley, then it gets real. But most of the time, shit can get settled and I don’t have to pay another visit in a more official capacity.” “Oh,” she grunted. “You’re pretty damn smart for a biker.” Scott smiled. “Believe it or not, I only need ten more credits to complete my Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering.” She sat up so fast her hair fell across her face. “You’re shitting me! Why did you quit?” He shrugged and grinned. “Just lost interest. I was in the Angels and, at the time, that seemed more important.”

“How old are you?” “Twenty-eight. How old are you?” “Jesus, you’re an old fart!” Scott snickered. “Does that mean I’m robbing the cradle?” “Twenty-five. But I like older men.” “That’s good. I hope I can keep up.” “You did okay yesterday. And this morning.” She was moving to take his lips to see if he was ready to prove is mettle again when her phone began to ring. “Val,” she said after looking at the screen. She pushed the button to put it on speaker. “Hello?” “Jessica, goddamnit! Where the fuck are you? You get your ass home right—” She pushed the button ending the call and grinned at Scott as she held the phone in her hand. “You’re just pissing him off,” Scott deadpanned. “Probably.” When her phone rang again her grin widened and she pushed the speaker button again. “Hello?” “Goddamnit, Jessic—” Val roared from the phone before she could push the button. It took longer this time, and when the phone rang, she didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” “Jessica!” Val’s voice came over the phone. “Don’t hang up!” Her thumb hovered over the button, but didn’t press it. “Then don’t talk to me like that.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was just worried, that’s all. Where are you?” “Whose phone are you calling from?” “Jason’s. Mine broke.” “You mean you threw it?” “Are you safe? Where are you?” Val asked, ignoring the question. “I’m safe. I’m with Scott.”

“Did he…?” “No he didn’t. I left with him because I wanted to.” “I want you to come home.” “Okay. What about Scott?” “I’ll deal with him.” “For what? What did he do that was so bad? Ask me out? Protect me from some thug at your party? What?” “You shouldn’t have been at that party.” “Yeah, I know. I should be at the café, stuck in the kitchen.” Val was quiet for a moment. “Okay, maybe I overreacted. But I don’t know this Scott Murphy from Audie Murphy. You should have come to me first and not just run off.” “You didn’t give me much of a chance, now did you?” Jessica snapped, her frustration growing again. Everyone wants to run my life for me, I’m sick of it, and I’m not going to take it anymore! “Hell, I had only met him twice. But no, here you come, riding up with a bunch of Angels threatening to kill him. Yeah, you really gave me a chance.” Val paused a moment. “How did you know about that?” “Doesn’t matter. I’m not going to rat out an Angel like Jason did.” Val was quiet for a moment. “Okay. You’re right. But that’s behind us now. Just come in. We’ll figure something out.” “Parley?” “What? What the fuck is a parley?” Jessica grinned at Scott. “I guess not,” she said to him before returning her attention to the phone. “Ask Jason. He knows.”

Chapter Nineteen “You ready for this?” Scott asked as his hog vibrated between his and Jessica’s legs. They had agreed to meet with Val, and Val alone, to try to work out a compromise. “Let’s just do this,” she replied, her voice hard and full of determination. He smiled as he eased the bike farther into the parking lot of the Farmers Restaurant before stopping and allowing her to dismount. As she removed her helmet he swung a leg over the bike and stood, scanning the area, his eyes narrow and hard, as he looked for signs of other Grim Angels. “Look okay?” she asked, noticing how he became still except for his eyes. “I don’t see anything.” “If you get spooked, give the signal and we’re out of here.” “No. We’re okay,” he said taking her by the waist and steering her toward the door. Not only did he want his hand on her for the pleasure of touching her, he wanted her close in case shit started going down. He opened the door and stepped in first, then held the door for her. He removed his sunglasses and scanned the dining room until he spotted Val and Jason, sitting in a booth, not far from the kitchen. He didn’t like being so far from the door, but the place was packed and there were no other tables. He gave his head a nod and started her walking toward the two men. “I thought we were meeting alone,” Scott said as they stopped at the table. “I brought Jason because he knows the rules of these parleys,” Val growled, like a dog protecting his turf. Scott thought a moment then gave Jess a soft push toward the booth before sliding in beside her as she scooted across. “Say what you have to say.” “I think we got off on the wrong foot,” Val began. “I know Jason told you Jess was off limits, but that didn’t come from me. He is in line to be president, but he’s not president yet. So, I’m willing to overlook it, this time. But it stops here, and it stops now.” Jessica’s eyes narrowed. “It…what?” “This…relationship, whatever you call it, with Scott.” Before he could answer, Jess spoke. “You’re telling me who and I can and cannot date now?”

“I’m telling you that you are not part of the life anymore. After that, it’s your own business.” “And if I don’t want to give up the life?” “You don’t have any choice.” “Val,” Scott began. “What’s your beef with me? What have I done that has pissed you off?” Val dragged his eyes from Jessica and focused on him. “It not you, boy. It’s who you are. I want her out of the life. You willing to turn in your colors for her?” “Maybe.” “Bullshit,” Jason said. “You never gave two shits about a woman before. Why now?” Scott pierced Jason with a glare. “That is none of your fucking business.” He turned his attention back to Val. “The Angels have been good to me, but the club doesn’t run my life. I’m not like Jason. I have a life outside the club. I do my job, and I do it well, but what I do on my own time is my business and mine alone. If you can’t accept that, then maybe it’s time for me to turn in my colors. But you didn’t answer the question. What is wrong with me? Is an Angel not good enough to date your niece? Do you think so little of the men you lead? If you do, that’s another reason it’s time for me to turn in my colors.” Val sat blinking at Scott a moment. Nobody had ever questioned his authority before. “Listen, you little shit. I don’t know who you think you are, but what I say fucking goes!” he snarled quietly, driving a thick finger onto the tabletop. “I don’t have to justify a fucking thing to you, got it?” Scott met Val’s eyes. “What I get is you think you run not only the club, but the brothers. But I got news for you: you don’t run me. You got that?” “You’re not leaving here with her,” Val rumbled, his voice so low the cups on the table nearly vibrated. “That’s up to her. If she wants to leave with me, then she will. If she wants to stay, she can. But it’s her choice, not yours.” “Scott,” Jason began. “Shut up!” Val stared at Jess. “What’s it going to be? You going to make this easy or difficult?” Jess chewed her bottom lip a moment. She looked at Scott and saw the same deadness in his eyes as he stared at Val that she saw the night of the party. He wouldn’t back down; she could see that. “If I choose to stay, will you let me?”

Scott felt his heart sink, knowing if she stayed he would never be able to touch her again. “If that is your choice, yes. But make sure you are staying for the right reason,” he replied. His eyes never left Val’s as he watched for signs of a double cross or impending violence. Jess nodded. Scott would let her go if she chose to, unlike Luke, who had threatened her if she were ever to leave him. She nodded as she made up her mind. “I’m leaving with him.” “Difficult it is, then,” Val said softly as he raised a hand over his shoulder and made a gesture as if calling someone forward. Nine men in black leather stepped out of the kitchen, but before they made two steps, Scott’s weapon was pointed at Val’s forehead. “Scott! What the fuck?” Jason yelped. Jason’s soft shout of surprise was enough to make people look in their direction and then scramble for safety with much commotion and noise at the sight of the gun, but through it all, the gun never wavered. The nine men stopped in their tracks, unsure of what to do. “You motherfucker,” Scott snarled at Val. “You can’t make anything simple, can you? Have you no honor? This was a parley; we could have worked this out. But instead of trying to do what is right, you had to play the heavy. So you tell me, Val, how difficult do you want to make this?” “You can’t kill us all,” Val said. His voice never cracked, but he had gone pale. “No, but I can kill you and your fucking sidekick. That’s two I owe you, you stupid Mick,” Scott said, his eyes never leaving Val. “Next time I see you, you and I will have a score to settle. Jess and I are leaving now. So the question is, are you going to make this easy or difficult?” “You just signed your death warrant, Murphy,” Val said slowly. “Then I have nothing to lose by killing you, do I?” Jess sat, stunned into silent stillness. Here was a man who was willing to lay his life down for her, to give his life to rescue her from her prison without bars. “Scott…” she murmured, not sure what she wanted to say. “What’s it going to be Val? You want to go out in a blaze of glory or are you going to let us walk out?” Val raised his voice so everyone in the now silent restaurant could hear. “You can leave. But this isn’t over.” “No. I’m sure it isn’t,” Scott said as he began to slide out, Jess scooting out right behind him. He nudged her behind him, his Glock still pointed at Val’s head, putting his body between her and danger.

An Angel took a step forward and Scott’s gun popped up, pointed at him briefly, and then returned to Val, all in the space of two seconds. “Don’t be stupid or your president is going to get a nine right between the eyes.” “Let him go!” Val barked. “Out the way we came in,” Scott said quietly. “Don’t run and stay close to me. Watch the crowd for a hero.” They began to move backwards. “We’re leaving. Nobody do anything stupid and nobody gets hurt,” he said loudly, backing away from the table, his weapon still trained on Val as he watched for another gun or other dangers. When they reached the door, the silent, wide-eyed crowd watching them, he dropped his gun to low ready. “Run! To the bike. Can you start it?” “Key,” she said holding her hand out. “Right jacket pocket.” She fished the keys out and banged out through the door. “This is almost over. Everyone just stay calm,” he said to the crowd. The moment he heard the Harley rumble to life he backed out of the door and sprinted toward the bike, tucking the gun into the holster in his back as he ran. Jess was standing at the bike, helmet on and ready to mount up the moment he stood the bike upright. With speed born from practice he mounted the bike, stood it up and kicked the side-stand up. He felt the bike settle as Jess climbed aboard just as he banged the bike into gear. With a firm twist of his right hand, he gassed the bike out of the parking lot, roaring away into traffic.

Chapter Twenty “That fucking Jason,” Scott sneered into the wind as they bellowed away from the restaurant. He had been watching his mirrors, but it didn’t appear the Angels were giving chase. They probably didn’t want to press him and have him lay the bike down with Jess aboard. But that didn’t mean they weren’t following at a distance or in a car he wouldn’t recognize. “You think he sold us out again?” Jess shouted into his ear. “Count on it! That little prick will do anything to secure his position. He knew I would come to the parley. I was stupid to think I could trust him.” “Maybe he didn’t have a choice.” “He had a choice. Both hands on the table, fingers interlaced, with the thumbs pointed up is a warning. If Val didn’t know about the parley, he wouldn’t have known about that. I looked and Jason didn’t have his hands on the table, the fuck. He tried to spring a trap on us. They came ready for trouble. Otherwise, why were there so many brothers there?” Jess thought it over and had to admit it didn’t look good. “But we got away. That’s all that matters. Would you have shot Val?” “If that is what it took to get you out of there, yes.” “Maybe I should go back.” “Only if you want to. Listen to me, Jess. I heard what you said to your mother. If you want to go back, that’s fine. I won’t try to stop you. But make sure you are going back because you want to. I can take care of myself.” “We should run. Just you and me. We can get away from Detroit. Go somewhere where the Angels won’t find us.” “Where would that be? You said last night there is no place and Val would never give up. Well, if he wouldn’t stop last night, he sure as hell won’t stop now – not after I pulled a gun on him. We’re committed now. I’ll turn in my colors and see if we can walk away, but if not, we are going to have to stand and fight.” Jess was quiet as her chest began to tighten. She was going to lose her family. “Let me talk to Mom. Maybe she can reason with him. But if that doesn’t work, I’ll follow your lead.” Scott had noticed a battered old Ford pickup that seemed to be following a little too tenaciously for

his comfort. “Hang on!” he barked as he whacked the throttle open and the big bike surged away. There wasn’t enough traffic on the interstate to lose the car so he kept the throttle pinned open until braking hard and diving off an exit ramp at the last minute. Jess held on tight, terrified the way Scott made the hog leap ahead. She looked behind her, trying to see what had spooked him, but saw nothing. She grit her teeth, her eyes tightly closed as they blew through a red light at the bottom of the exit ramp, barely slowing, the Harley banging and scraping through the turn on the edge of control. They made three more turns in quick succession and then pulled into a laundromat parking lot, the bike throbbing and shaking as they sat idling behind a row of cars. “What?” she asked as soon as she could breathe again. Scott sat quietly, watching, but the truck never appeared. “Maybe nothing,” he finally said. “I thought someone was tailing us.” “How could you tell?” “I couldn’t, for sure.” He waited a moment more and then relaxed. “It was probably nothing. I’m just jumpy, that’s all.” “You should be,” she replied solemnly. “You don’t know what Val is capable of.” Scott put the bike into gear and eased out on the clutch. “He doesn’t know what I’m capable of, either.” *** “Oh my God! Jess! Are you okay? Where are you?” Angela asked in way of answer to Jess’s call. “I’m with Scott.” “Jess, are you okay? The whole club is looking for you two!” “Yeah, I know. I need a favor.” “Of course! Anything!” “I need some clothes from my apartment. We left with almost nothing. Can you get them for me?” “Sure! But how am I supposed to get them to you?” “We can meet somewhere. Maybe our old hideout?” “The drug store?”

“That’s the place.” “Yeah, I can do it. But, Jess, how am I going to explain this to your mother? It’s not like I can tell her I’m borrowing them to wear. You can’t pour a gallon girl into a quart size pair of pants, you know.” Jess smiled. Angela was five inches shorter and fifty pounds heavier than she was. “Just go early in the morning when Kat will either be passed out or so hung over she won’t care what you are doing. You know where the key is hidden. Just grab some underwear, pants, and shirts. Nothing fancy. Call me when you get them.” “Okay. I’ll try.” There was a pause and Jess could sense Angela was thinking. “Jess, what’s going on? First Val said Scott kidnapped you. Then he said you had some kind of breakdown and were leaving Detroit. Then, when you didn’t return my call…Jessica, tell me what’s going on.” Jess could hear the concern in her friend’s voice. “It’s complicated.” “I’ve got all night.” Jess looked around the small motel room. Scott had left for food and she had decided to take the opportunity to call Angela. “Val and Kat don’t want me in the life anymore.” “Oh. Why? Is it because of…what happened?” “Yeah. But there’s more.” Angela sighed. “There always is. What?” “I…told Scott everything.” “Everything?” “Everything. Things I have never told anyone else.” “Why him? You just met him!” “I know! I don’t understand it. But at the party, the way he tried to defuse the situation with your shoes, then when he couldn’t, the way he took charge.” “Not my finest hour. I’m sorry, Jess. I wish I had never made you go to that party.” “No! You don’t understand. He touched me, somehow. There is something about him, something I can’t put my finger on. I took him to the old Scott mansion, where they found me.” “You took him there? You said you were never going back there!”

“I know. But I did. And I took him into the room where I stayed. And something happened. I had to have him.” “You fucked him there?” Angela squawked. “No. But I was going to. Every other man I have been with would have taken me right there. Scott, he wanted me, I could tell, but he was holding back. It was like he was concerned about me or something, like he was thinking about the future and not just the right now.” “So you didn’t fuck him?” Jess could hear the confusion in Angela’s voice. “No. Having him ask to see me again even before we were even undressed, it kind of snapped me out of it. But I couldn’t forget how he made me feel, like I was important, like I mattered. Like there was more to me than my tits and ass.” “Oh my god! Are you saying you’re in love? Jesus, Jess, you seriously need to get laid!” Jess laughed. “No! And I don’t think he is either. But he made me feel…special. Special in a way I have never really felt before.” “So you decided to throw everything away and run off with your future husband?” “No! You’re such a bitch!” “I am, aren’t I?” Angela giggled. “So have you fucked him or haven’t you? I have to believe you have or you wouldn’t still be there. So come on, spill it. What’s he like? Is he hung like a horse?” “He’s the perfect size. Big enough, but not so big to hurt. And he knows how to use it, too. We just finished fucking our brains out when we found out Val was coming for us.” “Wait? You fucked before you ran off?” “Yes. Yesterday afternoon, at home.” “Now it’s beginning to make sense. Jesus, he must have really curled your toes!” Jess sighed in exasperation. “He did. But it’s more than that. It’s…something more than sex. Not love exactly, but something. It’s like a connection. It’s like he gets me. I can’t explain it.” “Do you get him?” Angela teased. Jess grinned. “Yes. There is something about him, something I’ve never felt before.” “It wouldn’t be that he is the most fucking gorgeous man to ever walk the earth, would it? How about

that Georgia drawl? Goddamn! I heard one of the others talking and just listening to them made my panties wet. Sounds like what I heard about southern guys is true.” “What’s that?” “That they are all hung like bulls and they know how to treat a lady right, both in and out of the sack.” Jess couldn’t help but giggle. “That’s Scott alright.” “Okay. I guess I can see why you ran off. But seriously, you need to come home, Jess. If the club catches you, it is going to go hard on you and Scott. You know the code.” “I know, but so does Scott. He didn’t back down today.” “Back down?” Angela asked. “Yeah. Val wanted to bring me in and I didn’t want to go. Scott pulled a gun on him and stood off nine other Angels.” “Holy shit! Are you serious?” “Completely.” “Jess, this is bad some bad juju. You’ve got to come in. Talk to your mom. She can talk to Val. But you know Val won’t let this stand. You know that!” “I know. That’s why I need the clothes. It may be a while before I can come back home. I don’t have much money, and I can’t ask Scott to pay for my clothes.” There was a long pause before Angela spoke again. “Jess, I’m worried about you, okay? This shit is getting out of hand.” “I know! But I don’t know what else to do. I have to play this out, Angela. I can’t go back to the way it was. I can’t! I have to see this through or I’ll die. It’s not about Scott, not completely. It’s about me. I need something more than burgers and fries. I can’t live like that anymore!” Angela was quiet a moment. “I understand. I’ll do what I can. And, Jess…” “What?” “I’m proud of you. I thought I had lost you forever,” Angela said softly. Jess heard Angela’s voice break and though she fought it, she couldn’t stop the tears and began to sob softly. “I thought I had lost myself.”

Angela sniffed and laughed wetly. “I take it back. Dragging your skinny ass to that party was the best thing I ever did.” Jess wiped her own eyes. “Yes. I think it probably was.” “You call me if you need anything, understand?” “Thank you, Angela. You’re a good friend.” “Yes I am. So if you get tired of Scott, I get first dibs, agreed? I’ll show him what a real woman can do.” Jess barked out a laugh, the thought of Angela with her hands on her hips, shaking her ass as she spoke, clearing away the tears. “First dibs, promise. I have to go. The food is here.” “Okay. Have something long and hard later for dessert for me, okay?” Angela purred into her ear. Jess giggled at her friend’s lunacy. “Count on it.” “Who was that?” Scott asked as Jess tossed her phone into the bed and he sat a sack with grease spots on the side on the table. “Angela.” “What did she want?” “I asked her to get me some clothes from the apartment.” “You didn’t tell her where we are, did you?” Jess grinned at the slight panic in Scott’s voice. “No, of course not. We are going to meet at our supersecret, girls only, club house.” He began to pull the tacos from the bag. “Where’s that?” “If I told you where it is, it wouldn’t be super-secret would it?” “No. I guess not. But if you don’t tell me, how are you going to get there? I’m the only one with wheels.” Jess made dramatic thinking sounds for a moment, then bit into her taco and chewed slowly before swallowing and washing it down with a swig of beer. “Okay. You have me there. I will have to swear you to secrecy, though. There is a ritual that you have to perform before I can tell.” “Oh? Hand on heart, promise not to tell? Something like that?”

“We’ll do it later tonight, after we go to bed.” “I think I’m liking this ritual better already.” “You should,” she purred. “But it’s not your hand on my heart I want.” “No? What do you want, then?” Jess smiled, thoroughly enjoying the verbal fencing. “I think you’ll figure it out.” Scott smiled. Yes, I think I can, he thought.

Chapter Twenty-One

“Jesus,” Scott murmured the next morning as he switched of the throbbing Harley. “This was your clubhouse?” He stared at the dilapidated storefront of peeling paint and broken windows. Last night, Jess had elicited his promise to not tell anyone about the super-secret clubhouse location, breaking down his playful resistance using the most pleasant tortures imaginable. When he found out what she planned, he protested that it was too much of a risk and he would buy her new clothes, but she was insistent. She didn’t want him spending money on her clothes when she knew she could trust Angela. Two hours ago her phone had pulled her from another blessedly dreamless sleep and Angela reported she had the clothes. Now they just had to wait on Angela to arrive. “What? You don’t like it?” Jess teased. “To be honest, I don’t know what to think. Detroit is so…strange…compared to Atlanta. We have our bad parts of town, but nothing like this.” “I know. I wish I could have lived here in the fifties and sixties, before the city began to decline. Or even earlier. It must have been fantastic to be here when the city was thriving.” She looked at the dying city around her. “This makes me so sad.” “Why do you stay?” “It’s my home. I grew up here. I keep hoping something will change and the city will begin to recover. There are so many treasures here: Michigan Central Station, the James Scott mansion we were in, the Book Tower…all abandoned.” She looked at her toe as she scuffed a clump of weeds growing in the cracked sidewalk. “I hoped that, someday, I would be able to help with the preservation of the city’s history.” There was something in her voice, a longing that touched him. “Why can’t you?” She sniffed as her lips pulling into sad crooked smile while still looking at her shoe. “Water under the bridge.”

“Why?” “So much has happened, Scott. It’s, I don’t know, too late to start school now.” “That’s bullshit and you know it. You can do anything thing you set your mind to. Look at what you have survived already. Compared to that, school is a piece of cake.” He tapped her on the scar from the cut Luke had given her. It was clean stitch work, the scar barely visible on her shoulder blade, the slight imperfection making the rest of her even more beautiful. “That which does not kill you makes you stronger. You are the strongest woman, maybe the strongest person, I know.” Jess smiled but didn’t look up. “You think so?” “No. I know so. Jess, you just need to believe in yourself again. Once you do, there will be no stopping you…because the only thing stopping you now is you.” She looked up and met his gaze, his eyes holding hers, allowing her to read his belief in her. “Thank you for saying that.” “It’s easy to say because it’s the truth. You’re amazing. And as soon as you realize that, God help anyone who gets in your way.” Her smile broadened. “You’re going to get laid tonight; you don’t have to keep selling me.” Scott didn’t smile, keeping his face serious. “I’m not selling you, Jess. I’m telling you the truth. I’m telling you something you haven’t been told enough.” She had to struggle mightily to not cry at his words, her face growing hot as she sucked on her lips while she tried to gather herself. She wasn’t sure why his words hit her so hard, but they had. It was as if he could peer into her soul, read her, and know just what to say. His fiery passion and gentle, encouraging, words were slowly filling the emptiness she felt inside. With each drop, she felt more alive, more vibrant, more like she felt before her life began to go wrong. She was beginning to feel happiness again, a feeling she had been missing for so long she had almost forgotten what it felt like.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I think you’re pretty amazing yourself.” “Aw, shucks, Ma’am,” Scott said, putting his hands in his pockets and acting embarrassed as he laid on the drawl. “I ain’t nothin’ special.” Jess giggled as Scott shuffled his feet and twisted back and forth in a perfect imitation of an embarrassed little boy. But damn! I see what Angela means by the way the southern guys talk! Jess pulled her phone from her pocket and glanced at the time. “She’s late, as usual. While we wait, you want to go inside? I’d like to see if our stuff is still in there.” “Stuff? What stuff? How long has it been since you have been here?” Scott asked. Jess thought a moment. “About ten years, I guess. I can’t remember everything we had in there. I remember Angela brought some pictures her sister took while fucking her boyfriend. We used to look at those and wonder what that was like. I wonder if she ever came and got them?” “Was her sister hot?” Jess grinned. “Looked just like Angela does now, but without the tats.” Before Scott could figure out how to answer that and not make Jess mad, a white Nissan Sentra turned the corner and slowed as it approached the curb in front of them. “That her?” “That’s her car,” Jess confirmed, her face breaking into a big smile. Damn, it feels good to smile again! Angela bounded out of her car with a squeal, running toward Jess, her blonde flying behind her, and Scott was, again, surprised at the speed and grace with which the woman could move. He would have never guessed anyone so soft and round could move so well. “Jess! Thank God you’re okay! I know you said you were, but…” Angela said, taking Jess into her arms and holding her tight. “I’ve been so worried!”

“I’m fine,” Jess said, hugging her friend. “You bring my clothes?” “In the car,” Angela said, stepping back. “I can’t believe how good you look! You look like you’re glowing! Jesus, he must be treating you right.” “Did you come alone?” Scott asked, forcing his presence into their little reunion. Angela gave him a scowl. “Of course I came alone. Ed is off on club business and while Kat was busy in the diner, I slipped up stairs, grabbed a few things, and scooted out.” She turned her attention to Jess. “Your mother looked like hell. I’m not sure she even knew I came in. You need to call her and tell her you’re okay.” Jess sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know. I talked to her yesterday. She wanted me to come home, but I can’t. Especially not now.” “Yeah,” she said and then stared at Scott as if looking for something. “What?” he asked as she continued to stare at his forehead. “They did a good job hiding the stitches where they took your brains out. Are you fucking crazy?” “Maybe,” Scott said with a grin. “This is some seriously bad shit,” Angela muttered, turning back to Jess. “What are you going to do?” “I don’t know. Give Val time to cool off to start with,” Jess said. “Then after that? I don’t know. Maybe leave Detroit.” Angela stared at Jess a moment then pinned Scott with her glare. “Do you know what you’ve done? The Angels will never stop until they track you down. You’ve ruined not only your life, but hers, as well. You may be pretty, but you’re not very bright.” “Hey!” Jess said. “It’s not his fault! Val was going to make me come in, by force if necessary. He lied to me, Angela. He said he just wanted to talk, but when we met him, and I told him I wanted to stay with Scott, he called out the goons.”

“He’s the President, Jess! What he says goes!” “Then he shouldn’t have promised me we were just going to talk! If I can’t trust him on this, how can I trust him on anything?” “He just wants to protect you! Can’t you see that? You’re part of the club, and his niece, and he is just trying to make sure you don’t get hurt again!” “That’s just it! I’m not part of the club. I’m nothing, a nobody. He and my mother want to keep me locked in that damn café for the rest of my life.” Angela softened. “No, that’s not true. They love you, Jess. We all do. We just want what is best for you.” “Yeah. They love me so much that they don’t want me to have a life.” Angela’s lips pulled into a pout. “I don’t want that.” Jess smiled sadly. “I know. You were the only one who tried to help me. I would still be locked away in my ivory tower if it weren’t for you.” Jess stepped in close and gave the woman a hug, closing her eyes as she remembered all their good times together. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” Angela said as she stepped back. “You’ve done enough. You got me out of the tower and brought me some clothes. You’re a—” Jess heard the rumble of approaching Harley’s just as Scott’s head snapped up. “You sold us out, you bitch!” he snarled, grabbing Jess and dragging her toward his bike. “No! No! I didn’t!” Angela wailed, her hands coming up in defense as her face twisted into a mask of anguish. A red Dodge Dakota, its powerful V8 bellowing in anger, charged around the corner, bearing down on them like a mad elephant. “Run!” Angela screamed before turning

and running toward the approaching SUV. “Stop! Stop!” she cried as she ran, waving her hands as if she were going to try to stop the charging car on her own. “Fuck!” Scott snarled as he dragged Jess along in his wake. He heard the pops of gunfire but kept moving, knowing how hard it was to hit a moving target, especially from a hard charging vehicle. Jess heard the cracks and turned to look over her shoulder as she ran. She knew it was slowing her down, but she had to see. Angela was running toward the SUV, trying to get it to stop. There were a couple more cracks and Angela stumbled, then went to the ground in a tumbling roll. “No!” Jess screamed, trying to stop and go to her friend, but Scott kept dragging her along. “Keep moving!” he snarled. “Angela! They shot her!” He didn’t even hesitate at his hog. There was no escape on that. “You can’t help her now!” He dragged her through the missing door into the abandoned drug store and shoved her down behind the low brick wall that would have formed the bottom of the plate window then turned his back to the pillar beside the door. “Stay there!” He took two quick puffing breaths as he pulled his weapon and then pivoted through the door. Their only chance was to take the Durango before the rest of the Angels arrived. The Durango was still rocking on its springs at the curb when he pulled the trigger, his gun barking twice in quick succession. The driver side door glass shattered and the horn began to blow as the driver slumped forward into the steering wheel. “Jess! Come on!” Scott screamed as he began to run for the SUV. He saw the other man step out of the passenger side an instant too late, but fortune favored the bold. If Jess were coming behind him, he had to eliminate the threat before he could get a shot off. He continued to charge toward the SUV as the man ducked behind the front, aiming over the hood. Scott dropped into a roll, bounded up in a shooting stance, and fired off two quick shots. Only one bullet found its mark, but it was enough, and the man went down.

He whirled, looking for Jess, taking a precious second to spot her running toward Angela. “Jess!” Jess heard Scott’s scream, but she had to check on her friend. She knew Angela hadn’t sold them out and she had to make sure she was okay. Angela was just rolling over as Jess skidded to a stop beside her. “I didn’t know,” Angela grunted as Jess leaned over her, Angela pressing her hand to her side where she was bleeding heavily. “I know,” Jess gasped as she saw the blood, a rich red circle spreading out on Angela’s right side, the smell cloying. She felt herself go light-headed for a moment with the sight and smell, then her head cleared. “Get up!” Jess yelled, taking Angela by the arm and pulling her to her feet. Fueled by fear and adrenaline, Jess pulled Angela up as if lifting a baby. Angela shrieked as Jess hauled her to her feet, her cry of pain almost drowning out the squeal of tires as the SUV lurched to halt beside them. “We have to help her!” Jess cried as she dragged Angela toward the truck. Scott didn’t hesitate. It would be quicker to help than to argue with her. “Move your fat ass!” he bellowed as he helped stuff Angela into the back seat of the truck, Jess piling in behind her. The slamming of the door didn’t drown out the bellow of the six Harleys as they rounded the corner and bore down on them like a swarm of angry bees.

Chapter Twenty-Two Scott jumped back into the driver’s seat, twisted the knob to Drive as he buried the throttle. The SUV leapt forward on a wave of acceleration causing Angela to cry out from the backseat. “I didn’t know,” she said again. “I swear to God, I didn’t know.” “She’s bleeding badly, Scott!” Jess cried, her hands already red with Angela’s blood as she tried to stop the bleeding. Don’t pass out, don’t pass out, don’t pass out she chanted to herself, her head beginning to spin again and the edges of her vision darkening. “Take your shirt off and press it over the wound!” he snarled from the front just before breaking hard and muscling the SUV around a corner. The Durango was surprisingly quick and, with its bulk, it would be difficult to stop. But it was still six to one odds, and hyenas can take down a lion given enough time. He kept the accelerator hard down, the truck giving its all for their escape as he snapped his seatbelt. “Hang on!” He braked hard and wrenched the wheel hard to the right, the SUV bounding over the curb before he floored it again. They blasted across open lots where houses or business were once located, the SUV banging and thumping as they roared across the rough ground in a cloud of dust before bounding over the curb again and back onto the street. The bikes couldn’t cross the lots as easily and had to take the longer way around. He had put almost a block on their pursuers and he began to breathe a little easier. He skidded around another corner and raced down another empty street, the speedometer twisting rapidly around the dial. One thing about Detroit, there wasn’t a lot of traffic to worry about. He saw the Angels round the corner and he had put another half block on them. The SUV and bikes were evenly matched on the straights, but he was faster through the turns. He glanced in the mirror and saw Jess’s terrified eyes looking at him. “We’re going to make it. Just hang on a little longer,” he said, worried over her reaction to all the blood, before standing on the brakes, the anti-locks growling in anger as he flung the SUV around a corner. He tried to carry too much speed through the corner and nearly lost control, the truck sliding sideways until it kissed off the curb with a jolt that made Angela cry out again. “You’re going to kill us!” Jess yelled as Scott quickly spun the wheel, trying to catch the skidding truck and prevent from spinning out of control, while her heart tried to climb out of her chest. “If we don’t get away, we’re dead anyway!” Scott looked into the mirror, watching until the bikes

round the corner, now almost two blocks back and falling rapidly behind. “They’ve given up,” he said more calmly. “Thank God!” Jess said. “How’s she doing?” “She’s still bleeding a lot, Scott. I don’t know what I’m doing!” “She still conscious?” “Yes,” Angela gasped. “No thanks to your driving. You’re crazy as shit, you know that?” “We should have left your ass behind!” “I didn’t sell you out! I don’t care what she did; I wouldn’t sell her out like that. Not to anyone.” Scott pursed his lips. No, she probably wouldn’t, not after the way she went after that woman at that party. “All right, fine, you didn’t rat us out. But now what are we going to do with you? We can’t take you to the hospital. They have to report gunshot wounds.” “I know a place. There’s a nurse and she does some work for the Angels. You can drop me there.” “I’m not leaving you,” Jess said firmly. “Can you trust her?” Scott asked. Angela hissed as she pushed herself more upright in the seat. “She’s on the payroll, and yes you are,” she said turning her attention to Jess. “You’re going to drop me off and then you are going to get your skinny ass away. I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but they were shooting at you.” “We noticed,” Scott said from the front. Angela ignored him. “They must have tailed me, hoping that I would lead them to you. And I did.” Angela pouted a moment then bared her teeth as an invisible hand twisted an invisible knife in her side. “I’m sorry, Jess. I fuck everything up.” Jess pulled the blood soaked shirt back and looked at where she had it pressed. There was blood everywhere, but the bleeding seemed to be slowing. “It’s okay. I shouldn’t have asked you to bring clothes. Scott tried to warn me but I wouldn’t listen.” Angela swallowed hard and grimaced as another wave of pain rolled over her. “Listen to him the next time. Getting shot sucks.” “Where are we going?” Scott asked.

“This thing have a GPS?” “Yeah.” “Tell me when you’re ready for the address,” Angela said, and then looked at Jess. “Thank you for coming back for me,” she said softly so Scott wouldn’t hear. “I couldn’t leave you behind.” “But now you have to, right?” Jess stared into Angela eyes. “I don’t want to.” “I need you to. I need you to do this for me, okay? I’ll be okay. Glendal will sew me up then I will call Ed and he will come get me. We’ll compare scars.” “Angela, I—” “Shhh. You have to. I’m no shape to kick your ass, but Glendal makes me look like you. Don’t make me sic her on you.” “Ready,” Scott said. *** “You think she’ll be okay?” Jess asked as they stepped out of the Urgent Care where Glendal worked. She had on a pale green scrub the staff had found for her since her shirt was ruined. “She’s fine. I’m sure it hurts like hell, but it’s a clean in and out. Another two inches and they would have missed her completely.” Scott pulled her to a stop. “How’re you doing?” She had spent a long time in the bathroom scrubbing the blood off her hands, far longer than necessary, but she couldn’t stop. She shivered at the remembered sight of the red tainted water running down the drain. “Okay, I think.” He opened the passenger door for her, holding it open a moment after she settled into the seat. “You did good, Jess. Real good. You held it together when you had to.” Jess shuddered again as he slammed the door. “I almost passed out when I saw her bleeding. And the smell…” she said as he crawled behind the wheel. She could still detect a hint of the smell of blood, but the alcohol smell from when Scott cleaned the back seat was far stronger. “But you didn’t; that’s the important thing.”

“Why did they shoot her? She didn’t do anything.” “It wasn’t her. It was me. She just got in the way.” “Then they’re lousy fucking shots.” “Which is why we are alive now. Would you prefer they were better shots?” “No, but I don’t understand why they were shooting at us at all. There were eight of them and only two of us. Three if you count Angela.” “I guess after yesterday they weren’t taking any chances. It’s personal now.” “For who? You?” “Val.” “Shit,” Jess mumbled as she looked out of her side window. “Yeah, you’re probably right. What are we going to do now?” “First? First we are going to go see if my bike is still there. I’m still making payments on that bitch. Plus this rig is white hot. Bike there or not, we’re going to have to ditch this turd.” “Then what?” “Then…I don’t know. Val and I are going to have to settle this, somehow.” Jess pursed her lips to contain her frustration. “How?” “I don’t know. Your mom is his sister, right?” “Yeah. So?” “Maybe she can talk some sense into him. The way we are going, this can only end one way.” Jess didn’t like the way that sounded at all. “Maybe.” She looked out her window, watching the dilapidated houses and stores pass by. Maybe I should just leave. Maybe I should just ride away with Scott, if he will have me, and leave this all behind. “Shit!” Scott spat as soon as they turned onto the street with Jess’s no longer so super-secret hideout. His bike was gone. They creeped by the abandoned drug store but didn’t stop. “The fuckers took my bike. Or it has been stolen.” “What are we going to do now?”

“Damned if I know. But we are going to have to dump this rig somewhere as far from the motel as possible. This shit just keeps getting worse and worse.” Jess wanted to cry. This is all my fault! He told me it was dangerous but I wouldn’t listen! Now his Harley has been taken and we have no way to leave. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, trying hard to not cry. He wasn’t happy about the loss of his bike, but Jess looked so miserable that he couldn’t lash out at her. He took her hand into his own and held it, glancing between the road and her eyes until she looked up at him. “We’ll get it back, okay? You know this city. Where can we abandon this thing so it will get stolen and still catch a cab?” Jess thought a moment, trying to help him figure a way out of the mess she had created. “I have a better idea,” she said as she drew her phone from her pocket. She flipped through her contacts until she found the name she wanted. “Dad?” she asked when Ron Nebbles answered the phone. “It’s Jessica. I’m in trouble, bad trouble. I need your help.”

Chapter Twenty-Three Scott and Jess watched as the wheezy shit brown Toyota pulled to a stop in the parking lot. They had seen the Toyota pass by twice already as Ron made a big loop around several blocks, twice, so they could check for a tail. When none appeared Jess called him and told him to circle back and pick them up. They had ditched the Durango a few blocks away. With the window broken and the keys in the seat, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see the SUV pass by as they watched for Ron. With one more quick check, they dashed from the CVS Pharmacy and piled into the car, Ron barely waiting for the doors to close before moving again. “Are you okay?” he asked Jess as she jumped into the passenger seat. “I am now. Thank you so much for doing this for me.” Ron made a quick check of traffic before pulling out. “Anything for you, kiddo.” He looked over his shoulder to Scott scrunched up in the back seat. “You must be Scott.” “Yes, sir,” Scott said politely. The man was risking a lot for them and deserved to be treated with respect. “You part of that motorcycle gang?” Ron asked. “Not anymore.” Ron thought a moment then nodded. “Jess, what’s going on?” “It’s a long story.” “It’s a forty minute ride back to the house.” Jess licked her lips, a lead weight forming in the pit of her stomach. “It all started a couple of years ago. You remember Luke?” *** Ron turned the car off after stopping in his drive. He lived in an older home with a detached one-car garage tucked in behind, the drive running alongside the house. The house was small, but well kept, with ruddy red brick, pale yellow trim, black shutters and roof, and a small but tidy yard. The entire neighborhood, filled with similar homes, was the first part of Detroit Scott had seen that looked…

normal…without an empty lot or abandoned house in sight. Jess had just finished her tale and sat silent, her hands together between her knees as she stared at the floor. She hadn’t cried as she spoke, but it was only Scott’s comforting hand on her shoulder as she laid it all out that had prevented it. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Ron asked softly. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell anyone. The Angels, they only know that I killed him. But I couldn’t tell anyone how I…” Her voice trailed off as she once again remembered that night, how they had fought and how she had driven the knife into him again and again, mindless with terror, even after he had stopped moving. She hadn’t spoken to anyone about that night until Scott… and now Ron. She smiled slightly. With each telling, it became a little easier, the memories a little less terrible. Final sharing her ordeal somehow made her burden a bit lighter. “Jessica…” he said, drawing her name out. “I love you. You know you can tell me anything.” Jess gasped as she tried to not cry. “I know. And I wanted to. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell anyone. Not you, not Mom, not anyone. Nobody knows exactly what happened that night except for you and Scott. The Angels didn’t even know he was dead until the next day, and they didn’t know who did it until they found me and put two and two together.” “You need to go to the police with this.” “I can’t. I killed a man.” “That was self-defense!” “I know. But not reporting it for a year, and then the disposal of the body afterwards by the Angels? By the time they found me, Luke had been…taken care of. It’s too late to go to the cops now.” Ron adjusted his glasses, as if doing so would help him see a way out. “What are your plans? What can I do?” he finally asked. “I don’t know,” Jess murmured. “I didn’t know who else to call.” “We just need a place to crash for a day or two, if that’s okay?” Scott asked, the first words he had spoken since Jess began speaking. “That will give me time to sort some stuff out.” “What stuff?” “Transportation, mostly.” Ron pulled the keys from the ignition and handed them to Scott. “That’s one problem solved. What else?”

“I can’t take your car!” Scott exclaimed. Ron chuckled. “I paid eight hundred dollars for it. If you get it back to me, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. I have a car I can drive until I can find another one.” He pressed the door opener on the visor above his head and the garage door started up. “Is that a ‘V’?” Scott yelped as the door crawled up and the front of the car began to reveal itself. He wouldn’t have guessed anyone that drove a piece of shit like this rusted out Toyota would own something like a Cadillac CTS-V. Ron chuckled again as he opened his door. “Surprised?” The squawk of Ron’s door opening set Scott’s nerves of edge, but he couldn’t help but chuckle himself as he wormed his way out of the back. “A little,” he admitted. “I drive cars like these because they’re cheap to buy and own, and I don’t have to worry about them. Plus I don’t care what anyone thinks about me. But the problem with driving a car like this is they will sometimes fail catastrophically and I won’t have time to find another. That’s my backup car.” Scott beamed as he coasted to a stop beside the gleaming black machine, admiring the car’s presence and peaking in the window. “A wagon with a stick?” “More practical.” Scott woofed out a laugh as he looked at Ron. “Are you kidding me? Really?” “No, really,” Ron replied with a lopsided grin. “Doesn’t everyone need a six hundred horsepower grocery getter? Actually I bought the car as an investment. A friend of mine thinks these are future collectables. I needed a new car at the times, so…The car is three years old, but it only has about a thousand miles on it. I never drive it.” Scott stepped out of the garage and grinned at Ron. There was obviously more to the man than met the eye. “I’ll make you a deal. Jess and I will take the Caddy and you can keep the Toyota.” “I bet you would,” Ron said with a grin as he reached into the Toyota and started the garage door down again. “Seriously, what else do you need? How are you fixed for cash?” “We’re okay there. What I need are some clothes. Jess, too.” Ron slammed the door on the car, causing a fine powder of rust to dribble out, not even bothering to lock it. “I don’t have anything to fit you. But if you want you can take the car and go shopping later.” “Okay, thanks. It’s not worth the risk going back to Ann Arbor for the one change of clothes we have.”

Ron held out his hand to Scott, and it took Scott a moment to realize he had the man’s door keys in his pocket, still attached to the Toyota key. He fished them out and handed them to Ron. Ron opened the door, stepped inside and, with deft touches on the keypad, disabled the alarm system, silencing its warning squeal. “It’s not much, but its home,” he said as he shut the door behind them. Jess immediately moved deeper into the house, but Scott took a moment to admire the kitchen. It had been updated and modernized and, unlike Val’s, this house exuded a certain restrained classiness. The cabinets, counters, and appliances were all of good quality but without the flash of someone trying to impress. As he moved into the living part of the house, he could see the rest of the home was the same way. “Sit down, please,” Ron said as Scott followed him into the comfortable living room. Jess was just sitting down on the dark brown leather couch, curling her legs under her as she tucked into the corner, obviously at home here. Looking around the room he could see where she got her class. “You have a beautiful home, Mr. Nebbles,” Scott said, sitting down next to Jess. “Mr. Nebbles was my father. I’m Ron. And thank you.” “Did you do the work yourself?” Ron laughed. “Hardly. No, handyman isn’t my thing. I have owned the place for about twenty years and I’ve been steadily upgrading it over the years.” “Anything left?” “A few things,” Ron replied. “I think the next project is to build a cover over the drive at the back door so I can park the car under it not get wet getting in and out of the car. Would you like a tour?” “I would love one,” Scott said. “Jessica? You want to show Scott around? I need to get back to work.” “Sure. Thanks, again, for coming and getting us,” Jess said as she rose. “You’re a life saver. Maybe literally.” “You know if you ever need anything, you can count on me,” the man said softly. “I know.” She watched Ron for a moment, once again wondering how her life would have been different had she made other choices, but then turned to Scott. “Come on, we’ll start with my room.” “Excellent,” Scott said. “You two keep it down in there, okay? I have to work, ya know.”

With a giggle Jess took Scott’s hand and tugged him down the hall. The three bedrooms were arrayed on one end of the house, the master bedroom and her room separated by small room that had been converted into an office. It was Scott’s understanding that most parents left their kids rooms as a shrine to them after they moved out, but this room had none of the typical young girl items. Like the rest of the house, her room had a restrained and simple elegance that seemed to fit Jess. “This was my room.” He looked around the room, admiring the molding and tasteful artwork on the walls. “Did it always look like this?” Jess smiled as she looked around. “No. A couple of years ago, Ron asked me to help him redecorate it. He had enlarged the closet, taking some space from the closet of the other bedroom, and this is what I picked. What do you think?” “I like it. Simple, yet beautiful. Classy. Kind of like you.” “Flirt,” Jess said, but she smiled and gave him a quick kiss before pulling him out of the room by the hand. They finished the tour in less than ten minutes. The entire house had the same stylish understatement, so unlike Val’s home, and was pin neat, unlike the apartment Jess shared with her mother. “What do you think?” Jess asked as they finished the tour in the kitchen. “I think I like your dad’s taste. In fact, I like your dad.” “Stepdad, but yeah, he’s a great guy.” “I can see where you get your sense of style from.” “Is that a compliment?” “Very much so,” he said as he pressed her against the counter and then leaned in for a kiss. Jess let him come in, wrapping her hands around his neck as their lips touched. The kiss didn’t last long, Scott very aware he was kissing the man’s stepdaughter in his house. “You know what I’ve never done?” Jess whispered, holding his lips close to hers. “What?” he responded just as quietly. “I’ve never fucked anyone in this house. That’s going to change tonight. When we go out for clothes

later, we have to stop at a drug store.” “Are you sure?” “Very.” “But your dad—” “—is not invited,” she murmured, completing his sentence for him. Scott began to chuckle and pull back but then darted in for one last quick kiss before standing up straight. “That’s good to know because that would really cramp my style.”

Chapter Twenty-Four “I don’t like that you’re buying my clothes,” Jess muttered as they moved through TJ Maxx. “If you want to wear the same clothes all the time, be my guest,” Scott replied. “Me, I prefer to not have my clothes stand up by themselves, but it’s up to you.” “I’ll pay you back, okay?” He waved his hand in dismissal. They were only buying a few items each and the prices were relatively low. They were getting just what they needed to tide them over until they got themselves sorted out. “If it makes you feel better.” Jess looked down at the three shirts in her hands. “No, not really. I just hate this out of control feeling that I have, like the world is spinning away from me. Everything I knew, and loved, is crashing down around me, and the only person that seems to understand is a guy I just met.” “And Ron,” Scott suggested softly. Jess smiled slightly. “And Ron.” Before she could say anything else, she started slightly as her phone vibrated against her ass in her back pocket. She pulled the phone, looked at the screen a moment and then pressed the button. “Hello Mom.” “Jess! Are you okay? I heard what happened!” “Which part? The part where your brother’s goons were shooting at me or the part where they shot Angela?” “Jess, this has all been a terrible misunderstanding! You need to come home, now, so we can sort this out. Please.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” Jess hissed into her phone, bending over while covering the mouthpiece with her hand so prying ears couldn’t hear. “Why would I do that, especially now? Val sent men to kill either me, or Scott, or both of us! They didn’t even try to bring us in alive! They were shooting as they drove up!” “Scott killed two men, Jess!” “To protect me! You don’t get it, Mother! When we heard them coming, we tried to run, but we couldn’t. The two guys in the SUV were blazing away at us the whole time. Angela tried to stop them, so they shot her. Was it on purpose? I don’t know, but they shot her nevertheless. How were we supposed to know that they weren’t going to shoot us, too?” Jess looked around. Nobody was looking

at her yet. “What were we supposed to do? Huh? Answer me that.” “Jess, look, I know it looks bad right now. Hell, it is bad. But the longer you stay out, the longer you and Scott defy the club, the worse it will be. You have to see that!” “What I see, Mother, is that you care more about the Angels than you do me. Aren’t you the least bit worried what will happen to me?” “No! Nothing is going to happen to you, Jessica. Val would never hurt you, and he won’t let anyone else hurt you either!” “No? You could have fooled me by the way people were shooting at me!” “That was a mistake! There’s no way Val would have ordered that!” “Even if you are right, he’s just going to lock me up in that fucking café for the rest of my life. I’d rather die first than go back to that.” “You don’t mean that,” Kat said, her voice completely devoid of emotion. “I do mean it. I had forgotten what it was like to be wanted, to get up in the morning and not dread every moment of the day. Is that what you want for me, Mom?” “Jess, I just worry about you, baby. You’re my little girl and I love you. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” “I’m not a little girl anymore Mom. I’m—” “You’ll always be my little girl,” Kat said softly. “—a grown woman,” Jess continued as if her mother hadn’t spoken. “I want to have a life, my own life. I want to choose what I do with my life, who I want be with. Is that asking too much?” “No. But, Jess—” “But, what?” Jess asked, cutting Kat off. “But I’m not old enough to know what I want? I’m not smart enough? What?” “Why are you being like this?” “Like what, Mom? Trying to be free to live my own life and not have it controlled by my mother and uncle?” “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Jess said. “It’s clear that we can’t stay here. Maybe Scott and I will leave and never come back.” “You just met him!” “Yeah. And it may not last out the month. But as least I will be free of you, Val, and the Grim Angels. I’ll be free to make my own way, or fail trying.” “Jess. Don’t go, okay? Just give me a day or two to talk some sense into Val. I warned him that we couldn’t protect you forever. Surely he must see that now. And if he doesn’t, I’ll make him see. Can you give me just until the weekend? Please, Jess. Just give me until Saturday morning. That’s only two days away. You can wait that long, right?” Jess heard Kat stifle a sob and she thought it over. It was a risk, but she really didn’t want to abandon the life and leave the only family she knew. “I want something first.” “Anything!” “I want Scott’s bike back.” “What? What are you talking about?” “The Angels took Scott’s hog. I want it back.” “I don’t know anything about that!” “Then I guess you better figure something out. That’s the deal. I want his bike back, tomorrow, and I’ll give you until Saturday. Otherwise, we’re gone.” “How will you leave?” “We’ve got wheels.” She thought a moment. “We found a pile of crap car for sale and bought it. It may not get us far, but it will get us out of Detroit,” she continued to try to deflect any retribution toward Ron. “I’ll try to find out about Scott’s hog. But, Jess, don’t do anything you’ll regret later, okay?” “Just find his bike. Call me when you have it and we’ll tell you where to leave it.” Jess punched the button on her phone ending the call as she seemed to sag a little. “You okay?” Scott asked softly. “No. This is so messed up.” “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, Jess.”

“It’s not your fault. It’s my fucking family’s fault. I just don’t know what I’m going to do about it.” “We should leave. Forget the bike. I’ll report it stolen. We can go back to Atlanta, pack my shit, and go somewhere to get away from all this.” Jess tugged on Scott’s arm to start him walking toward the cash registers. She didn’t like him buying her clothes before, but any mood she may have been in to shop had been ruined by her mother’s call. “You’d do that? You’d just walk away from the Grim Angels?” “Yes. This backstabbing isn’t what I signed up for. It isn’t supposed to be like this. It didn’t used to be like this.” They held their conversation while they stood in line to check out. What they were talking about was not for outsiders. Once their purchases were bagged and they were out of the store, Jess picked up the thread again. “Where would we go?” she asked. She didn’t want to depend on Scott, but she had never done anything other than flip burgers, and the thought of having to make ends meet on minimum wage scared her a little. “I don’t know,” he said, tugging the door open on the Toyota so Jess could slip inside. “Not Atlanta, for sure. Somewhere there are no Grim Angels, that much is certain.” Scott nursed the wheezy Toyota to life, grimacing as a belt squealed when he revved the engine to keep it running. “This car is a piece of shit. We’ll be lucky to make it out of Michigan in this thing.” Jess grinned at Scott’s obvious embarrassment. Ron had been driving heaps like this for so long she didn’t think twice about them anymore. “Why do you think I demanded your bike back?” “How’s that going to work? The moment we arrive to pick up the bike, they’ve got us.” “I don’t know. I just wanted Mom to know she can’t push me around anymore. I wanted something from her, and getting your bike back seemed like a good idea. Look at it as a test of her resolve. We’ll see how much she really wants me come home.” Jess and Scott rode back to her stepfather’s house, speaking little, partially because they were lost in their own thoughts and partially because they had to shout to be heard over the wind and laboring engine. Scott wheeled the Toyota into the drive and stopped, but didn’t open his door. Jess could tell he was thinking so she kept her seat, as well, letting him sort it out. “We should just go,” he said suddenly. “You and me. Take your dad’s car and just get the hell out of Dodge. The longer we stay here, the more danger we’re in. If the Angels come here looking for us, your dad could get hurt.”

“Do you care?” “Of course I care! He hasn’t done anything to me. He’s gone out of his way to help us when he could have left us twisting in the wind. Why would I want to see him hurt?” Jess smiled slightly. “Just checking. You’re not like most of the Angels. They don’t go out of their way to hurt someone, but they don’t exactly go out of their way to prevent it either.” “Didn’t you know that already?” “That you’re different? Yeah, but I’m still learning just how different. How did you get mixed up in this anyway?” “The club?” “Yeah. To be honest, you look like an Angel, sort of, but you don’t act like one at all.” “Nothing to tell. I like bikes and I hung around the Angels clubhouse. The President, the president before that asshole Jason, I should say, kind of took me under his wing. I worked around the clubhouse, sweeping, washing bikes, mowing the grass, whatever, for spending money. Mom did okay working for Delta, but there wasn’t a lot of extra money. I wanted a bike so bad I couldn’t stand it, so I did whatever I could to earn money toward that. Then I kind of became the mascot, and the rest, as they say, is history. I showed up one day with a barely running pile of junk, kind of like this car actually, and the guys all pitched in and helped me fix it up. It was funny how all these new parts kept being found in the back of the clubhouse, parts that just happened to fit my bike. For every part I bought, four or five more would get found.” Jess smiled at Scott’s jab at her dad’s car, but also at the slight smile and faraway look on his face. “You liked it back then?” “Yeah. A lot. But then things began to change. Jason, he’s a hard charger. Sergeant at Arms, then VicePresident, then, finally President. He was never satisfied, always pushing to grow the club, to make more money, to have more power and influence. It stopped being about enjoying the company of brothers and dealing a few guns on the side for spending money and more about the next score.” “But you stayed? Why?” “I don’t know. Stupid? Loyalty? I’ve known some of those guys for more than fifteen years. Even though I’m part of the,” Scott made tic marks in the air with his finger, “‘new generation,’ I feel closer to the old guys, the ones who have been around a long time.” “You would really give up the Angels for me?” “Yes. I can find another club. I can’t find another you.”

“Aren’t you just the sweetheart,” Jess said jovially as she quickly opened the door and got out of the car so Scott wouldn’t see her eyes fill with tears.

Chapter Twenty-Five “Did you find everything you needed?” Ron asked as Scott and Jess stepped into the house. He was bent over the sink, washing a head of lettuce, the kitchen full of delicious smells. It had taken only a moment for Jess to recover from Scott’s confession in the car and get her sudden tears under control. “Yeah. Mom called while we were out,” Jess said and Scott watched as Ron froze over right in front of him. His hands never stopped moving, but he went stiff, the looseness leaving his body in a flash. “And?” Ron asked, his voice cool. “And she wants me to come home.” “Are you going?” he asked, his hands still busy tearing leaves from the head and placing the pieces in three bowls. “Maybe. But not until—” “Jessica,” Ron said, cutting her off. “You’re a grown woman, and you can make your own decisions. I won’t try to stop you, but you need to think about what’s important. I know you love the motorcycle gang…sorry…club life, but do you really want to live like that? The drugs and booze and parties, they may be fun now, but look what happened to Kathryn. I don’t want to see you go down that path. You have a bright future if you just choose to grab it.” Scott held his tongue, not knowing if he should step into the other room so they could speak in private. “I know,” Jess said quietly. “But it’s too late for anything else now.” “It’s not too late!” Ron barked, giving the leaves in his hand a hard shake to remove the water and accentuate his point. “That’s your mother talking, not you! Listen to me, Jessica. You’re bright and determined. You can do anything you set your mind to. You just have to take the step.” He paused and looked at Scott as if taking the measure of the man. “You’re out of the gang, right?” “It appears so, yes.” “Appears?” “Let’s just say I have recently made some career-limiting moves.” “He pulled a gun on Val and then later shot two Angels. That’s how we ended up in this mess,” Jess

supplied. Ron’s eyes flicked back and forth between Jess and Scott. “You were kind of vague about why the club was looking for you,” he said to Jess. “That’s a little more than a ‘falling out,’ I should think. I’m surprised you’re alive so we can have this conversation. I met Val a couple of times while I was married to Kat. He’s not someone I would want to cross. Does he know you’re here? Do I need to get my gun?” “You have a gun?” Jess exclaimed. She couldn’t be more shocked if Ron had said he had a unicorn shitting rainbows in his garage. “Of course I have a gun. This is Detroit, after all.” Scott couldn’t help but smile at Jess’s open mouth stupefaction. “You know how to use it?” “It’s just a Beretta Pico. I’m no crack shot, but if you get close enough, you wouldn’t want me shooting at you. I go to the range once a month or so.” “I can’t believe you have a gun!” Jess finally said. “How long have you had it?” “Since before I married your mother. Why does that surprise you?” “I don’t know. I just…” “Just what, Jess? You can tell me.” “I just…never thought you had it in you. You’re always so nice, quiet and kind.” “You don’t have to be thug to carry a gun,” Scott said softly. Ron smiled, nodded, and jerked a thumb toward Scott in agreement. “That’s not what I meant. I’m just surprised, that’s all.” Jess leaned her butt against the counter. Her world was changing too fast for her to keep up and she was reeling. Her idea of the Angels was shattering, the club doing things she would have sworn impossible only two weeks ago. Then there was Scott. He was every bit the badass his demeanor suggested he was, but he was also thoughtful, kind, and rock solid, letting her make her choices then backing them to the hilt. He was clearly his own man, but he didn’t feel he had to prove it by trying to run her life. Then there was Ron. She didn’t know what to make of her step-dad. He was the same as always, but different somehow. It was like she was seeing a new side of him she hadn’t noticed before, and she was still trying to get her mind around the fact that he carried a gun! “I don’t know what to do,” she finally said, her emotions in complete turmoil.

“You need to do what is right,” Scott said. “What’s right? I don’t even know anymore.” “Let’s wait until Saturday,” Scott suggested. “Maybe your mom can talk some sense into your uncle. But if she can’t, we should just go.” “Go where?” Jess cried, raising her hands beseechingly. “Where are we going to go that the Grim Angels can’t reach us?” “I don’t know. But Detroit isn’t the place, and you know it,” Scott said calmly. “How will we live?” “We’ll find jobs. Somebody is always looking for a cook. Maybe I can find a job in a body shop or something. We just have to get settled someplace then we can figure out our long-term plan.” “He’s making sense, Jess. You should listen,” Ron said softly before turning his back to them as he tended a pan on the stove. Scott didn’t know what Ron was cooking, but it smelled wonderful. Jess nodded slowly. “I know, but this is my home. It’s where I grew up and where my family lives. I don’t want to leave.” “I can understand that.” Ron said slowly. “But you haven’t been anywhere. There is a whole wide world out there you haven’t seen. Think about it. You have always been interested in history. Go, find some history in the old west, or New England. There is more to this country than Detroit, Michigan.” “Sounds like you are trying to get rid of me,” Jess mumbled as she thought about his words. Ron snorted. “Hardly. I just want you to get out and experience life. There is so much to see and do. But if you do leave, you have to stay in touch, okay, kiddo? If I don’t hear from you occasionally, I’m coming and taking my car back.” “Yeah…about that. I’m trying to get Scott’s bike back. If I can, we won’t need your car. But thanks for letting us borrow it.” “How do you plan on getting it back? Isn’t that going to be, well, to be blunt, dangerous?” “Yeah, probably. If Mom actually agrees to get his bike, I’ll worry about it then. It’s kind of like a test, to see if I can trust her and Val.” “And how will you know if you can trust her until it’s too late?” Ron asked as he dried his hands and returned to the stove. “I don’t know. Scott and I will put our heads together and figure something out.”

Ron began to scoop half-moon shaped globs onto a paper-towel draped plate as he spoke. “I won’t be involved in anything illegal, but if I can help in any way…” “Nothing illegal,” Scott agreed. “I’m not sure this is even a good idea. What are those? They smell great?” he asked, changing the subject. “Pierogi.” “Pierogi? What’s that?” “You’ve never had a Pierogi?” Ron asked, his surprise clear in his voice. “Oh boy, you’re in for a treat then,” Jess added as she took the plate from Ron. *** Jess and Scott moved about the kitchen, loading the dishwasher after dinner. Jess had insisted that she would clean up since Ron cooked. When Ron finally agreed, Scott offered to help, not because he enjoyed washing dishes, but because he wanted to be alone with Jess for a few minutes. “I don’t know how we’re going to work getting the bike back,” he said as he rinsed plates and handed them to Jess to put in the dishwasher. “Me neither. But since Mom hasn’t called back, it’s probably moot anyway. I’m sorry. I thought she could get it back for you.” “It’s okay. It’s insured, but thanks for trying.” “Yeah,” Jess said quietly. “I bet you wish you had never come to Detroit.” Scott thought about it. While it was true Detroit had been nothing but a pain in the ass since he arrived, there was one thing that made him glad he came. “I have to admit that I’ve had better weeks. But there is this one thing that has made it all worthwhile.” Jess looked at him from under her bangs and smiled slightly. She was just leaning in to meet his lips when her phone buzzed, making her jump. She aborted the kiss and pulled her phone. “It’s Angela,” she said as she pushed the button to put the call on speaker. “How’re you feeling?” “Like I’ve been shot, but other than that, fine. Glendal gave me some good shit. I assume since you answered the phone you got away okay?” “Yeah, but they took Scott’s bike.” “I heard. Where are you now?”

“I don’t think I should say,” Jess said as Scott shook his head. “Okay, I understand. Listen, we need to talk. This whole thing with you and Scott is fucked up. The club is beginning to split. Half the brothers think Val is losing it and the other half wants to kill Scott on sight as an example. Which is part of the reason why I called. Your mother wants me to bring you Scott’s bike.” “What?” Jess asked in confusion. “Didn’t you tell Kat she had to get Scott’s bike back for him? Val won’t give it up, but she wants me to steal the bike for you.” “Angela…I can’t ask you to do that.” “You’re not asking. Ed is on the side of Val is losing it and you need some wheels. Val has everyone looking for the Durango. You’re not still using it are you? If you are, you need to dump it, and pronto, before they find it.” “No. We abandoned it right after we dropped you off. Why are you doing this?” “Because you need to get away until things calm down. Jason, he’s stirring up the shit. He’s the one filling Val’s head with the idea that he can’t back down or he will look weak. It’s like he has a giant chip on his shoulder or something, the little prick. And Val is swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.” “That’s Jason,” Scott said. “Always forward, and damn the consequences.” “Yeah,” Angela agreed, “and Val is lapping it up. He’s supremely pissed at me for trying to bring you some clothes and not telling him we were meeting, and his attitude has pissed Ed off. The whole fucking club is coming apart over this.” “What about the guys Scott shot? What does the club think about that?” “They’re not happy about it, of course, but I don’t think anyone really blames Scott. I made sure everyone knew Jack and Greg started shooting first and that one of them was the one who shot me. To be honest, I think some of the guys are impressed that Scott stood up to Val, managed to get you two out of a very tight situation, and didn’t leave me behind. I heard one of the guys say they could probably track you down by looking for where Scott’s dick was dragging in the dirt.” “How did they find us?” Scott asked while Jess giggled. “I don’t know for sure, but Ed thinks they were tailing me, Kat, Rick, and anyone else they thought you might contact, hoping one of us would lead them to you. I drew the short straw. Once they saw the meet up, Greg or Jack called in the troops. I guess when they saw that you were getting ready to bolt, they tried to stop you. It didn’t work out so well for them.”

“How can we trust you?” Scott asked. “I know how it looks,” Angela answered. “And I don’t blame you for being suspicious, but I would never do anything to hurt Jess. Ever. We’ll play it however you like. Just understand that Ed is putting it all on the line for you, Jess. If he gets caught delivering Scott’s bike to him, it won’t go well for him. I hope you know that.” “I do,” Jess agreed. “Why is he doing it, then?” “Because I want him to and because he knows it’s the right thing to do. You Atlanta boys haven’t done shit to us, but Val has put out the hit on you Scott, and for what? For daring to want to give Jess her life back? For not letting Val run your personal life? If Val gets away with this, what’s next? Is he going to start dictating who can hookup with who? What if he decides that Ed and I aren’t right for each other? Well fuck that. I sleep with who I want to and Val can just go fuck himself. Ed feels the same way.” Jess looked at Scott, waiting for him to decide what he wanted to do. “Okay. How do you plan to get the bike away from Val? Do you even know where it is?” “Yeah. It’s at the garage. Leave getting the bike to Ed and me. We’ll get the bike. How are we going to get it to you? That’s the hard part.” “We need a big open space, like a parking lot or something. Someplace where nobody can hide.” Scott said. Jess thought a moment. “How about the Fairlane Mall? They have a huge parking lot. You could park out at the end somewhere, away from the mall. Just leave it parked there. There are never any cars out there. Would that work?” she asked looking to Scott. “Yeah, probably,” Scott agreed. “Is that what we’re doing then?” Angela asked. “Yeah. Fairlane Mall. On the Macy’s side. Park out in the middle somewhere, away from all the cars. We’ll find it. Call us when you get the bike and we’ll come pick it up,” Jess explained. “It’s got to be in the middle of the day,” Scott added. “Tomorrow, then,” Angela said. “Around noon, okay? But Jess, your mom wants to be there. She wants to talk to you and make sure you’re okay. That was the deal, Jess. She will help get the bike by distracting the brothers at the garage, but she wants to be there when you pick up it up.” “No. Too much risk. I don’t a repeat of today,” Scott said.

“Scott…” Jess said softly. “If we’re leaving, I need to talk to her. I have to tell her goodbye. Please.” “She’s Val’s sister, Jess. You know she’s loyal to Val and the club.” “She’s also my mother. She won’t sell me out. Please, Scott. I have to do this. You can hang back if you need to, but I have to do this.” Scott fumed a moment. “Fuck. Okay. I don’t like it, but okay.” This is just like the last time with the clothes! I should just walk away! But even as he thought it, he knew he wouldn’t.

Chapter Twenty-Six “You don’t have to go,” Jess said softly as they prepared for bed. Scott had been cool and aloof for the last few hours, ever since their conversation with Angela, and she was fretting that she was pushing him too far. “No, I’ll be there. If they snatch you back then this all would have been for nothing. But you know we’re taking a huge risk here, right? What if your mother thinks it’s for the best that you come home with her. Do you put it past her to not call on the Angels to make that happen?” Scott asked. He knew he was being pissy, but his mind was spinning with all the ways this meet could go wrong, and he couldn’t think of a counter for even half of them. Jess stared at her toothbrush, the paste tube hovering over it unsqueezed. “I know. But I can’t just leave, Scott. I can’t! I have to see her this one last time. I have to try to make her understand. I owe her that, if nothing else.” She squeezed the paste onto the brush and set to work. “You’re willing to risk your freedom for this? You know if you go back, Val and your mother will make sure you are never free and will run your life forever.” Jess didn’t answer, scrubbing her teeth to give her a chance to think. Scott was right, and she knew he was right, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was something she had to do, and if she didn’t, she would regret it for the rest of her life. She had enough regrets already and she didn’t need any more. After a moment of furious brushing she spat the foam into the sink then rinsed her mouth and the toothbrush, delaying her response as long as possible. “I know, but it’s something I have to do. If I don’t I will always wonder if I did the right thing.” He nodded once before turning on his toe and striding out of the bathroom. It was obvious her mind was made up and there was no changing it. He could understand her wanting to say goodbye, but he wasn’t sure the risk was worth it. Hell, I’m not even sure getting the bike back is worth the risk. I wouldn’t put it past Val to gun me down in the parking lot just to make a point. He shucked his pants, leaving his underwear on out of respect to Ron, and crawled into bed. A few minutes later Jess appeared wearing the shirt they had purchased earlier, a long light-blue sleep-shirt with the words “To Do List: Absolutely Nothing” emblazoned on the front. “Are you upset?” she asked as she snuggled in close. It was amazing how cold an air-conditioned house felt after sleeping for years in a hot apartment. “No. But this could go badly in so many ways, Jess. We’re going to be exposed in a big way. If your mother double-crosses us, we’re going to be fucked.”

“You’re the one who wanted to meet out in the open,” she protested. “Yeah. That makes it tougher to ambush us, but it still leaves us with our dicks hanging out. What if your mother pulls a gun and gut shoots me? The Angels will be on you before you can do anything.” “She wouldn’t do that!” “Are you sure? Are you really sure? You’ve made it pretty clear you don’t intend to go back to the way things were. Do you think your mom is ready to let you go? What about your uncle? You think he’s going to just let me walk away now? How much pressure can he put on your mom?” Jess’s first reaction was to protest that he didn’t know what he was talking about, but so much had happened in the last three days she was no longer sure. Her mother was one tough bitch, that much was certain, but would she go so far as to kill to keep her close? Jess didn’t think so, but she was no longer certain. “What do you suggest?” she finally asked. “I suggest we don’t do this. But failing that, you stay in the car until I pat your mother down. Then we take the bike and go someplace else. Your mother follows in the car. If we aren’t tailed, then you can have the meet…otherwise, we bolt. When you’re done, we take the car and leave.” “And my mother?” “We’ll leave her cell. She can call a cab, or Val, or somebody. But we take the car so she can’t follow us.” Jess thought it over. She didn’t like leaving her mother alone, but if they picked someplace safe to leave her, she guessed she could live with Scott’s plan. “Okay. We’ll do it your way. I hope this isn’t all for nothing.” “Me, too,” Scott replied, and he meant it. He just wanted to get this shit behind him and move on with his life. They lay quietly for a time, Jess’s hand drawing lazy patterns on Scott’s chest as his hand caressed her back, her fingers tracing the peaks and valleys of his body as a low level warmth spread through her. She wanted him, not only for the way he made her feel physically, but emotionally, as well. While the brain melting orgasms he gave her were unlike anything she had experienced before, the way she felt after the love-making was just as new. She felt connected and cherished in a way she never had before. Like all the men before him, Scott controlled her, but the way he did it was completely different. He took charge of their love-making, not to ensure his own pleasure, but to ensure hers. She didn’t know if it was the release of oxytocin that made her feel safe or the fact that she was so

mellow from having her brains fucked out, but she hadn’t been bothered with dreams since she and Scott had started doing the horizontal mambo. She wanted, no, not wanted, needed that feeling again tonight. She needed to know everything was still okay between them. She allowed her hand to drift lower in degrees until she began to slide her fingers under the elastic waistband of his boxers. He didn’t move or react to her teasing and she worried that her insistence on meeting her mom was cooling his fire toward her. She touched his member, her fingers lightly caressing his manhood. He was only semi-hard, causing her anxiety to increase. Every time she had touched him in the past he was already steel hard. She didn’t want to ask, but she had to know. “Are we okay? Is there something wrong?” she murmured, her hand becoming still. “No, nothing’s wrong,” he whispered. “I’m just worried about tomorrow.” Desperately wanting to believe him she rose up slightly to offer her lips and found his waiting. The kiss instantly began to deepen as they responded to the touch of the other, the flames of passion leaping higher. As their lips parted he looked into Jess’s enormous eyes, her expression a mixture of fear and doubt that was just discernable in the dim light of the bedroom. “What’s wrong?” “I’m worried.” “It’ll be okay. We’ll just have to be careful.” “No. Not about tomorrow, about us. I was afraid…afraid that you were tired of me or something.” “Tired of you? I hardly know you.” “I know, and that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that you will ‘get tired of my shit’ as Luke used to say. I know that I’m asking—” Scott gave his hips a firm twist, cutting her off as he dumped her on the bed, rolling them over and pinning her down as he stared into her eyes, losing himself in their infinite depths. “Maybe someday…but not today. For now, I’m much more interested in learning all about your shit.” He watched her eyes and could still see the uncertainty there. “And your lips,” he whispered as he lowered his lips to hers. Jess threw everything she had into the kiss, wanting to show Scott that if he would believe in her, she would never disappoint him. She held him to her, their tongues probing as he straddled her leg and then leaned into her pussy, the press of his thigh in her “V” promising much pleasure to come and causing desire to pour through her, making her feel hot and itchy. “And your neck,” he whispered, pulling back from the kiss, his lips slowly caressing their way down

her jaw and under her ear, making her want to squirm. As he nuzzled her he began walking her shirt up her body in slow measure, making her want to moan in anticipation. As she bit her lower lip, he slid her covering over her breast, the coolness of the room making the nipple come erect. “Your breasts,” he rumbled as the shocking warmth of his mouth covered her nipple, her hand going to the back of his head to indicate her approval as she continued to twist and move in delight. She was certain he was going to make her come as his tongue flicked and nursed her, his free hand gently stroking her most intimate area, teasing her with anticipation. He was setting her on edge, winding her tight as he nudged her toward an explosive orgasm. “Your—” “Stop, stop,” she begged softly as he began to move lower, each touch of his lips a flare of pleasure. “I want you inside of me. Please, I want to feel you inside of me.” All thoughts of tomorrow were gone, replaced with his need for this woman. She continued to call to him at a deep level, her breathy begging for him making his heart pound and his blood roar hot in his veins. Just like the first time in her overheated apartment, he could feel his need to possess him like no woman before her. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was damn sure something. In a flurry of motion they removed their coverings, tossing the clothing haphazardly onto the floor. Scott wanted to plunge deep into her, to fuck her long and slow, but they had to be smart. Jess was already opening the condom as he moved between her legs, pausing long enough for her to sheath him. “As soon as I’m able, I’m going back on the pill because this sucks,” she murmured as she fiddled with the packaging then unrolled the condom over his cock. He couldn’t help but snort in amusement, the intensity of the moment broken by her comment. It had been years since he hadn’t used a condom, except for that one encounter in her bedroom when he had been so blinded by lust he wasn’t thinking straight. Her task finished, she pulled him down to her as she slowly fell back, taking his lips again as they aligned. He entered her slowly, exhaling softly into her mouth as pleasure washed over him. He pushed in deep and held himself there, luxuriating in the warmth and tightness of her as their tongues danced. He began to move, a slow thrusting motion that caused pleasure to flow through her, radiating out from the point of their joining like a warm wave. He pulled back from their kiss, bracing on his elbows as his hands slid up her arms, his gaze holding her until his finger interlaced with hers. He pinned her hands loosely above her head, his eyes never leaving hers as they moved together. She was helpless in his grip, held in place by his hands, but she had never felt safer, and she turned herself over to him, knowing he would never hurt her. He moved, slowly, gently, drawing out their pleasure, watching her face as she relaxed under his soft

restraint. She tipped her face up, her lips opening slightly in invitation, and he took them for his own. They moved together, their soft sighs joining the sound of moving bodies. He smiled, watching as her face began to slowly twist, her breathing becoming harder as she fought to free her hands. She was going to come as Scott’s slow methodical stroking drove her crazy. In the past their hard, passionate, fucking had driven her headlong into orgasm, but this tender love-making was drawing her pleasure out, stretching her tight like a string. They needed to be quiet, but she could feel the approaching orgasm trying to give voice to the pleasure she felt. She tugged at her hands, trying to free them, but he continued to hold her. She pulled harder, the struggle ramping up her desire, making her back arch with pleasure and exertion as she strained to free her hands while holding her voice. Suddenly her hands were free and she grasped his head and pulled his lips to hers with desperate strength. Scott released her hands as she began to appear frantic and she pulled his mouth to hers, shivering as if cold as she moaned softly into his mouth. His hands free, he wrapped her up, holding her tight, as he began to pound into her furiously hard. She pulled back with a gasp, her arms going around him and her nails biting into his back as she clung to him, her whimpers almost silent. He had control of his orgasm while they moved in a slow easy rhythm, but having Jess orgasming in his arms as he drove into her hard and fast was overwhelming his control. Her orgasm washed out of her, leaving her breathless and panting in its wake. She held to him as he continued to drive into her hard and fast, sensing the strain within him, knowing he was close as he drove for his own release. “Come for me,” she cooed into his ear. Her words ripped his control from him as if he were but a kite in a hurricane and, with a deep grunt, he came in strong pulses. He wanted to keep thrusting, to plunge into her hard and fast until he was wrung dry of need, but he was afraid he would begin to roar his completion to the world if he did, so he pushed in deep and held himself there as he burned in orgasmic fire. She smiled as she felt him relax in her embrace. “Another item to check off my bucket list,” she murmured as he lay against her, panting softly. “What?” he whispered as he rose up so he could look into her eyes, those huge, beautiful, mesmerizing, eyes. “Fucking in my dad’s house, with him just down the hall.” Scott smiled and kissed her softly. “You think he heard?” “Ask me if I care.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven “There she is,” Jess said as they drove along the outer ring of the mall. Scott didn’t slow and continued past, just another rusted out heap hauling shoppers to the mall. Jess looked at him but said nothing. This was his show and she would follow his lead without question. Angela had called them an hour ago and said they had Scott’s bike and were leaving for Fairlane mall. They had waited until Angela called again and said the bike was delivered and that Kat was waiting, alone, for them. “When we stop, you move over into the driver’s seat. Keep the motor running. If I don’t give you the all clear, or if the shit hits the fan, you run like hell, got it?” “I will, but I still don’t like it.” “I will have a better chance of getting away if I don’t have to worry about you, so you run, understand?” “I said I would,” she snapped then pursed her lips in annoyance. Scott was radiating tension and it was starting to get to her. “Sorry.” After circling the mall, they returned to where his bike was parked, Kat’s car the only one sitting nearby. This time, instead of driving past, Scott turned down the aisle toward Kat. “Get ready.” Kat crushed her cigarette out under her toe as Ron’s battered Toyota pulled in beside the bike. She ground her teeth in annoyance as Scott stepped out of the car but kept the door open. She should have guessed Jess would turn to Ron for help. “You’re Scott?” she asked. This was the first time she had seen him, and she had to admit that her daughter had good taste in men. Tall and well built, he looked like someone who should be stepping out of a private jet instead of the piece of shit Toyota. “Hands on the car,” he said, his tone brooking no argument. Kat felt herself go red. Who did this punk think he was? “Fuck you.” “Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug as he made to get back into the car. “Wait a minute,” she snapped, then swallowed her pride and placed her hands on the hood of the car and spread her legs. Scott took another quick look around and then stepped around the front of the car as Jess jumped out

and ran around the back and got behind the wheel. “I’m going to pat you down. You carrying? Tell me now because if I find out you are holding out on me, we’re done here.” “Val’s right. You’re a cocky little shit. Right boot.” “Just being careful,” Scott said as he crouched down and pulled the Beretta Storm out of her boot and pocketed it. “Nice weapon. You’ll get it back.” Kat started to stand up but he pushed her back down onto the car. “Not yet.” He gave her a good pat down, taking his bike keys and her cellphone and car keys, not being shy about reaching between her legs or handling her tits. “Enjoying yourself?” she sneered as he felt her breasts. Despite Scott’s brusque manner, she approved of his quiet efficiency. “You can stand up now,” he said as he stepped back, and jerked his head for Jess to step out of the car. “Here’s how this is going to work: Jess and I are leaving on the bike. You follow in the car. If I even suspect we’re being followed, we’re gone. You follow us to where we’re going then you and Jess can have a nice long talk.” “Why can’t I take my car?” “Because I don’t know what’s in your car.” “And if I refuse?” Kat asked. “Then we leave. Simple as that.” “How do I know I can trust you?” “You don’t. But then life’s a bitch, isn’t it? Look, you have five seconds to make up your mind.” Scott waited ten and then shrugged. “You coming with me or staying?” he asked Jess. “With you,” she said, stepping past her mom. Scott watched as Kat’s eyes tracked Jess. “Goddamnit, Jessica. Fine. Fuck. I thought you would at least trust me.” “I thought I could trust Uncle Val, too, and look what happened.” “I’m not Val.” “No, you’re his sister. This is the way it has to be, Mom.” “Fine, goddamnit. We’ll do it your way.” Jess and Scott mounted his bike while Kat crawled behind the wheel of the Toyota. Once they were

set, Scott pulled away with Kat tailing along behind. They motored down Michigan Avenue for a ways, speeding up and slowing down, Scott watching for cars that always seemed to be there, but seeing nothing he picked one of the restaurants that littered the area because the name caught his fancy. They pulled into Potbelly Sandwich Shop and parked, Kat parking in a spot nearby. “I see Ron’s taste in cars hasn’t improved,” Kat sneered. For some reason, her sneering tone annoyed Jess. She was starting to see Ron in a different light and she didn’t like Kat running him down. “At least he doesn’t spend everything he makes on cheap-ass wine,” she snapped, both ashamed and pleased that Kat seemed stunned by the accusation and her tone. “I’ll wait out here,” Scott said as he opened the door for the ladies. When Jess started to follow Kat through the door, he took her by the arm and stopped her. “Here,” he said, pressing a twenty into Jess’s hand. “Do what you know is right and don’t let her bully you.” He gave her a quick kiss and hustled her through the door as Kat turned to glare at him. Potbelly was busy with the lunch crowd, but the line was moving quickly. “You want something?” Jess asked as she surveyed the menu stuck to the wall behind the registers. “I want you to come home.” “To eat. I’ll have A Wreck and a drink,” Jess said then looked at her mom. “Make it two.” “Two Wrecks and two drinks,” the man said punching in their order and handing her two cups. “$16.98.” They moved down the line, waiting for their sandwiches to be made and toasted. When their sandwiches hit the counter, Jess paid and took sandwiches while Kat carried the cups. After filling their cups they settled at a table tucked into the corner as far from prying ears as possible. “I’m listening,” Jess said after a moment of silence. “You need to come home, Jess,” Kat said, launching into her spiel. “You’ve proven your point and it’s time for you to come back to your family.” “That would be the family that was shooting at me.” “That was fucked up,” Kat admitted. “It’s probably just as well that Scott killed them or Val would have. They overstepped their bounds, Jess. Nobody was supposed to get hurt.” Jess thought about it a moment. It was all bullshit, and she knew it. Kat was just trying to manipulate her. “So, when Uncle Val brought out the goon squad at the restaurant, that was just a mistake, too?”

Kat sighed. “Yes. That was a mistake, and he knows it now.” “How?” “Because I told him. You need to have your own life and Val knows it, too. He just wants the best for you, honey. You know that.” Jess bit into her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “And if what is best for me is Scott?” “You don’t know him, Jess. How can you say he’s best for you?” “For now, he’s what’s best for me. He…quiets me. The dreams have stopped.” “I know. You told me,” Kat said. “I told him everything. Things I’ve told nobody else.” Kat looked at her daughter, stunned by the admission. “Everything?” “Everything…or at least, everything I can remember.” Kat felt herself flash hot, jealous of a man she met less than a half hour before. “So he’s your new confidant, is he?” she said, struggling but failing to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “He just rides into town one day and you decide he’s the one and you spill your guts to him? And for what? A hard cock and a quick fuck? A good looking guy—” Jess slapped her hands on the table. “We’re done here,” she said as she started to slide out. I should have listened to Scott! “Jess! Wait!” Kat cried softly, taking Jess by the hand. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I just don’t know what is going on. I don’t understand what has gotten into you.” Kat put her head in her hands as she rested her elbows on the table. “Jesus, I need a drink.” “No, what you need is to get your life together. That’s what I’m trying to do,” Jess said, scooting back into the booth. “I don’t know what it is about Scott, but I like him. I like him a lot. He treats me with respect and he doesn’t order me around like I don’t matter. He makes me feel…I don’t know… important. He makes me feel like I’m alive in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. Maybe ever. I won’t give that up, Mom. Not for you, not for Uncle Val, not for anybody.” “You can’t love him, Jess! You’ve just met him!” “Did I say I love him?” “No, but—”

“Then stop putting words in my mouth. I don’t love him, but I damn sure like him, and I would like to have the chance to fall in love with him. But you won’t give me that chance, will you? You or Val. You both you think you know better than I do what is best for me. I’m not a little kid anymore, Mom. I can make decisions for myself.” “I know, baby. But you have been hurt so much. Val and I, we just don’t want to see you make another mistake.” “Another mistake? Who was it that was pushing me toward Luke? Oh, wait, that was you and Val. As I recall, I wanted to break it off when he hit me the first time, but someone thought I should give him another chance, and another, and another. Who was that? Oh, that’s right, that was you, too!” Kat pouted. Jess was right, but Luke had fooled them all. “We didn’t know what he was capable of. If we had, we would have never…” Jess softened. “I know. But my point is, you and Val don’t exactly have a spotless record for knowing what is best. I told you Luke was dangerous, but you thought I was overreacting. Now I’m telling you Scott is right for me, and you are once again telling me I’m overreacting. Well, what if I’m not? What if Scott is yin to my yang?” “What?” Jess sighed. Her mother wasn’t the most widely read woman, but she thought everyone had heard of yin and yang. “That we complement each other, that we are meant to be together.” “Jess! You just met him!” “And if Val hadn’t tried to haul me away against my will, or kill me, by accident or not, we might have found out what was going to happen without it turning into this cluster fuck. But we’ll never know now, will we?” Kat fumed. Jess didn’t know what she was doing. The longer she defied Val, the harder it would be for her to come back, but then she went cold. What if Jess isn’t planning on coming back? What if she is planning on cutting her ties and leaving forever? “What are you saying, Jess?” “I’m not saying anything. I tried to do the right thing. We met with Val to try to work something out. But he tried to screw us. Then he sent a hit squad after Scott and me, and my best friend got shot because of it. The next move is his. But what isn’t up for discussion is Scott. I’m staying with him until he or I one decide it is time for us to go our separate ways, and neither you nor Val is going to have one damn thing to say about it. If you both can’t accept that, then we have nothing else to discuss.”

“You will throw away everything for a boy?” “Let me tell you something about Scott,” Jess said, leaning across the table. “He is more man than Val will ever be.” Kat’s eyes opened wide at Jess’s statement. “You can’t know that.” “I can, and do. He doesn’t send others to do his dirty work for him. He doesn’t feel the need to try to use intimidation and bluster. He doesn’t have to prove how big his dick is. How much of that can you say about Val?” “Jess! He’s your uncle!” “Yeah, I know. But until I met Scott, I didn’t know how real men behave. Val acts like a bully. You’ve seen how he acts. But Scott is the guy that doesn’t have anything to prove.” Jess began to tap her finger hard on the tabletop. “And you know who else is like that? Ron. I never realized it before, but Dad is like that, too, in some ways.” “He’s not your dad, Jess. He’s just some guy that—” “He’s not my father, but he’s the nearest thing I have to a dad. What is it with you? Ron tried to help you, tried to get you clean. And what did it get him? Nothing! Yet here you sit, running him down, just like you’re running down Scott. If nothing else, this has opened my eyes about things.” Kat stared at her daughter a moment. She couldn’t get her mind around the change in Jess. It was as if the woman sitting across from her was a completely different person. “So you’re too good for us now, is that it?” “No! Have you heard nothing I’ve said? You and Val started this, not me! I just want to live my life, but Val seems intent on running it for me. You, too. Rather than wishing me the best, rather than standing behind me, all you can do is tell me why I’m wrong, how Scott isn’t right for me, how I’m making a mistake. Well guess what? From now own, I’m doing what I think is best for me, and if you and Val don’t like it, you can just go fuck yourselves.” “You can’t talk to me like that!” Kat hissed through clinched teeth. “No? I think I just did. I’m sorry, Mom, I really am, but this is something I have to do, and if you won’t help me sort it out, then we’re done here and Scott and I will go our own way.” “And if it doesn’t work out?” “Then it doesn’t work out. But at least it is up to us and not up to you or Val.” Kat stared at her empty sandwich basket a moment. “I can’t believe you would leave after everything we have done for you.”

“Like locking me in the kitchen for the rest of my life? Like picking who I can and can’t be with? Like shooting my best friend? Yeah, you’ve done a lot for me, all right.” Kat’s face sagged. “That’s not fair, Jess.” Jess shrugged. “Life isn’t fair.” “What will I do if you leave?” “You’ll either get your life together or you won’t. That’s up to you. Ron tried to help you. I should have tried more than I did. But in the end, it’s up to you, Mom. What do you want to do with your life?” “So your mind is made up?” “Yes. I don’t want to go, but I can’t stay. Not under these conditions.” “And if I can get Val to back off?” “Then I will think about staying. But it has to be soon. Today. And I need to hear it from him. And if he double-crosses us again then I’m gone, forever. Think about it,” Jess said as she began to slide out of the booth again. Scott had been waiting long enough. “But don’t take too long.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight Jess gritted her teeth again, trying not to cry, but it was hard. After their meeting yesterday, they had dropped her mother on the opposite side of the mall from where she had parked her car. Scott had given her back her cell, after pulling out the battery, and her weapon, after removing the bullets, and left them in her car along with the keys. As they drove away, Jess in the Toyota and Scott on his Harley, Kat stood in the parking lot looking forlorn and alone. Jess had obsessively checked her phone the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, hoping beyond hope that Val would call, but he never did. Now they were in southern Michigan, rumbling south on Scott’s bike, headed back to Atlanta. It was a risk, but Scott wanted to try to salvage as much of his life as he could, and that meant returning to his apartment and packing a moving truck. Jess leaned in tighter, holding him and drawing on this strength. She knew this was the right decision, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t hurting. She had asked for nothing except for the right to live her own life, and her family couldn’t even give her that. She didn’t know if it was Kat or Val who wouldn’t budge, but it didn’t matter. What was done was done. As glad as he was to get out of Detroit, Scott couldn’t deny the toll it was taking on Jess. After leaving her mother yesterday, and through the night, she seemed to crave his touch. They had thanked Ron for his support and dropped off his car, then rode out of Detroit to wait for Val’s call, not wanting to endanger Ron. Two hours later Ron called. The Angels had paid him a visit, looking for them. Val wasn’t pleased, but hadn’t caused trouble when Ron met him at the door and explained they were no longer there and wouldn’t be returning because they had expected this visit. They hadn’t told Ron where they were going, but Scott’s respect for the man grew for not letting Val intimidate him. They hadn’t made love last night, but he had held her tight throughout the night. He didn’t think she slept much, and she had woken him once during the night with near silent sobs. He pretended to be asleep as he snuggled her in a little tighter, and eventually her tears stopped. He had wanted to comfort her, knowing she was being forced to give up everything important to her, but he didn’t know how and was unable to find the words. He reached down and caressed her knee and leg, trying to give her strength, before returning his hand to the handlebars. She had looked haggard but resolved this morning, but she continued to cling to him as if he were a lifeline. They had started early, trying to make miles before the heat of the day began to bear down on them, and Jess was being a trooper, not complaining about her perch. Scott checked the fuel gauge again, the needle just before touching the “E.” They had skipped breakfast, but now both he and the bike were hungry and Jess probably needed a break. Riding bitch wasn’t as comfortable as his seat was.

He pulled off the interstate in a Beaverdam, Ohio, rolling to a stop in a Denny’s. “Ready for some breakfast?” “I guess,” Jess said quietly as she dismounted. “Hey, it’ll be okay. Once Val comes to his senses, you can always go home.” “You’ll let me do that?” “Let you? Of course I will let you. I would prefer it be for a visit, but if you choose to stay in Detroit…” He shrugged. What kind of life has she led that she thought I wouldn’t let her return home if she wanted to? Jess smiled. She still hadn’t fully adjusted to Scott not trying to run every aspect of her life. She also liked the fact that he trusted her to return to him, his self-confidence shining through in so many quiet ways. “Sorry. I should have said you wouldn’t mind?” “Not so long as we have a clear understanding with the Angels that you are free to leave if and when you want to.” He grinned at her. “I don’t want to have to ride all the way to Detroit to rescue you again. I got better things to do than kick Val’s ass.” She returned his grin. He can probably do it, too. Scott opened the door for her, ushering her in with a wave and a bow, and she smiled again. Now that they were out of Detroit, he seemed more relaxed than any time she had seen him. She had to admit, being out of the decay of the city was beginning to buoy her spirits as well. She was going to miss her family and friends, but maybe this was just what she needed…a clean break. She could become a new person and leave all her baggage behind. As Scott stepped up beside her, she slipped her arm around his, leaned in close, and heaved a great sigh as they waited for a hostess to seat them. Yes, this is just what she needed. *** Jess groaned as she clambered off the back of the Harley one last time. Scott had given her plenty of chances to stop and stretch her legs, but she was road weary and sore after the long ride. They had been fourteen hours on the road and that was by far the longest ride she had ever made. The sun was still up, but setting, when Scott switched the hot and bug-splattered Harley off in his apartment complex. She knew Detroit was a city falling into despair, but nothing had prepared her for the sight of Atlanta, a bustling metropolis full of shiny new cars, shiny new buildings, and no sign of decay. It was like a wonderland compared to Detroit. “Which apartment is yours?” she asked as she stretched and twisted her hips and back, trying to get some feeling back into her ass and legs.

“Second floor, left side,” he said as he unhooked their bundle of clothes from the back. “God, I could use a shower. It is so hot down here.” Scott chuckled. “Hell, it’s probably only in the upper eighties. Wait until it gets really hot. They don’t call this place Hotlanta for nothing.” They trudged up the steps to his door and Scott had to smile when Rocky stood up from his nap on his doormat. “Did you miss me?” he cooed to the cat as he crouched down and scratched the animal behind the ears. He found out the hard way to not try to pick the cat up, but having Rocky rub against his knee as it purred filled him with joy. He was home. Jess watched in amazement as Scott crouched down and scratched the ears of a fat black cat. “You have a cat?” “Kind of. He’s a stray that likes to hang out here because I feed him.” “I never figured you for a cat person.” “Really? I love pussy,” he said as he stood up and unlocked his door. “Don’t I Rocky?” Jess barked out a short laugh then followed him inside. “Jesus, it’s stifling in here!” she said as she looked around. “Yeah, but it won’t be for long,” he said as he flipped the switch on the thermostat. There was a brief pause then a click and a whisper of moving air. “Make yourself at home.” Jess looked around the main room. Scott’s apartment was small, but the main room was larger and more open than the one she shared with her mother, considerably neater, and tastefully decorated, if a bit spare. What captured her eye immediately were two paintings in simple frames hanging on the wall. She moved closer and admired the detail of the work. She had always thought of southern rednecks with pictures of Elvis painted on black velvet, but these were nothing like that. While painted on velvet, the picture of the woman, possibly Mexican from her skin coloring, her head covered in a bright scarf and holding a basket of flowers, was amazing. Almost photographic in its realism, her eyes skipped from one detail to another as she took in the masterpiece. She moved to the other, a portrait of a straw blonde girl with large eyes that captured her. She couldn’t decide if the girl was happy or sad, and she wondered if she had a similar look on her face. “Who painted these? They’re amazing! DM?” she asked as she squinted at the tiny script in the corner. “Delores Murphy…my mother.” “Your mother painted these? Holy shit! Really?”

“Yeah, why?” “I don’t know. I just, well, they’re not exactly Elvis are they?” Scott couldn’t help but snicker. “Is your impression of southern life being challenged?” Jess flushed furiously at being caught out. “Yeah, I guess it is. You’re certainly not the stupid, redneck hick that is the stereotypical southerner.” “You know William Falkner, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and Tennessee Williams were all southerners.” “The others I recognize, but who is Harper Lee?” “To Kill a Mockingbird?” “Oh! Okay. That I recognize.” She turned her eyes toward the bookshelf against one wall. Later she would have to check out what populated the shelves and gain a little insight into the man that was her lover. Scott smiled. “We’re not as backwards as you think. I even have indoor plumbing.” Jess laughed. “And electricity, too.” “Yeah. That was installed just before I left for Detroit.” “So now that we’re here, what are we going to do?” “Before or after we make mad passionate love?” Jess flashed hot. “Oh, after, definitely.” Scott pulled her to him, holding her against him as his blood began to surge. “I’ll tell you when we’re finished.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The pounding on the apartment door dragged them from a deep sleep. They had made love long into the night, Scott’s desire for her nearly insatiable, as if being home had removed a darkness from him. Though they knew they needed to get an early start, they had kissed and touched after he slapped the alarm off until they fell back asleep. He leapt from the bed and peeked out of his bedroom window into the parking lot below. “Fuck!” he snarled. “What?” Jess asked, pulling the sheet around her, her eyes large. “Looks like Lance is here.” “Someone you know?” “Yeah. A brother,” he said as he pulled on a pair of boxers and removed his weapon from its holster. “What do you want, Lance?” he asked when he arrived at the door. “Open up man. We need to talk. What’s going on?” “Who’s with you?” “What?” the voice on the other side of the door asked. “Nobody. It’s just me.” Scott nodded at the door and then stepped to the side. Jess opened it, still holding the sheet over her naked body, and Scott placed his gun to Lance’s head as he stepped in. “Why are you here?” he asked as he shut the door. “Whoa! Take it easy, brother!” Lance said, his hands slowly coming up so that Scott could see them. “I just want to talk to you, that’s all. Find out what’s going on.” “Go get dressed,” Scott said to Jess as he reached under Lance’s Grim Angels jacket to pull his weapon from his belt. “There’s a hold out in my boot, too,” Lance said, making no moves. “I know,” Scott said stepping back, his gun still pointed at Lance. “Who sent you?” “Jason. He said you turned and we were supposed to watch your place in case you showed up.”

“Then what?” “Then take you down and hold you until someone from Detroit could get here. I couldn’t believe it. None of us could. When I saw your bike here, I wanted to talk to you to find out what the fuck is going on. And who was that?” Scott thought it over then handed Lance his weapon back. Lance was a fireplug of a man, heavily built and thickly muscled. He was older, in his sixties, but he radiated health and vitality despite his white, close-cropped hair. “Talk to me, Scott. What’s going on?” Scott sat down in his chair and laid his weapon in his lap. “It’s complicated.” Lance settled into his spot on the couch where he and Scott had shared many a beer. “It usually is. Does it have anything to do with her?” “It has everything to do with her.” “Who is she?” “Jessica Mitchell.” When Lance looked at him with blank eyes he continued. “Val Ingersson’s niece.” “The Val Ingersson? The president of the Detroit charter?” “The one and same.” “What the fuck did you do, Scott?” “Nothing,” Jess said as she entered the room dressed in the same clothes she had on yesterday. “He saved me from a life of misery.” Lance glanced back and forth between the two. “And?” “And my mother and uncle didn’t like it.” Lace stared at her a moment. “I think you need to start at the beginning.”

Lance sat quietly as Jess talked, his eyes flicking back and forth between hers and Scott’s, taking it all in but saying nothing. “So you really did pull a gun on Val?” he asked when she fell silent. “Yeah, I really did,” Scott replied.

Lance made a face. “I can’t say I blame you. That’s not quite the same story Jason told us over the phone. Oh, he didn’t outright lie, but he certainly left out a few key facts. Like the fact that he helped set you up or that the odds were eleven to two. Same with the shooting of the two brothers. Funny how he forgot to mention that they started shooting first.” Lance smiled at Scott. “You did good, boy.” For the first time since the pounding on the door, Jess relaxed. “You’re not going to cause us trouble?” “Turn over one of our own to a bunch of damn Yankees? Not fucking likely. No offense intended.” “None taken,” Jess said with a grin. “What I want to know is how the hell you got into so much trouble so fast? You’ve only been gone a week!” “Talent,” Scott said. “What are your plans?” Lance asked. “We’re getting the hell out of Dodge. I was hoping to be packed and gone before anyone noticed. Jason is a prick, but he isn’t stupid, I’ll give him that.” “Well, he isn’t that bright if he thought we were just going to turn you over to him no questions asked.” Lance pulled his phone from his pocket and Scott stiffened, his hand going to his weapon. “Relax,” Lance said as he dialed. “Do you want some help moving or don’t you?” *** Jess was kept busy making lemonade and sandwiches as the men worked. She and Scott hadn’t even returned with the moving van before the Grim Angels, Atlanta Chapter, had arrived and already had several pieces of furniture sitting in the parking lot, ready to load. As much as she liked all her “uncles” in Detroit, she fell in love with the Atlanta Angels. They each exhibited the same easy charm Scott did, though most were considerably more rowdy. Several old ladies had arrived, as well, and were busy wrapping and packing boxes. She found them easy to talk to and she had them oohing and aahing over their recent exploits. She wasn’t up for the telling of Luke, and glossed over those details as she had with Lance by saying Luke was driven out of the club for hitting her one too many times and the resulting shit storm is what started it all. Six hours later, Scott was putting his bike in the bed of his truck, and then drove the truck onto a trailer hooked to the back of the van. Most of the Angels had left, but Lance and his old lady, Becky, a charming woman probably the same age as her husband but looked twenty years younger, had remained behind. She had watched as she and Lance played a little grab-ass after the van was loaded, and wondered if that could be her and Scott in forty years.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Jess said, hugging the woman fiercely. Why couldn’t Mom be like this woman? she wondered as they hugged. “The Angels take care of their own,” Becky said as they parted. “Seems to me that is something they have forgotten up there in Detroit.” “It seems like it, yes,” Jess agreed. “Come on, you two,” Lance yelled. “The brothers are waiting already.” “Waiting?” Jess asked as she closed the door to the empty and cleaned apartment. “Yes. Didn’t anyone tell you? We’re meeting everyone at Fat Matt’s. You can’t leave on an empty stomach.” “Uh, Becky, you don’t have to do that. Everyone has done so much already.” “Oh, poo,” Becky said as they clomped down the steps. “It gives everyone a chance to say goodbye. Scott, he’s good people, and we hate to see him leave.” “He’s the best,” Jess said softly, then smiled. “You take good care of him, okay? I’m glad he has finally found someone. He reminds me a lot of my boy.” “Your son, is he an Angel?” “No,” Becky said with obvious pride. “He’s a pediatric surgeon here in Atlanta.” “Wow! You must be very proud.” “A little,” Becky admitted with a smile.

The Atlanta chapter of the Grim Angels wasn’t as large as the mother chapter in Detroit, but there were still over thirty people in attendance by the time all the members and their old ladies had arrived. Jess found it amusing that as their story had circulated among the members, their exploits had grown until she and Scott had been involved in several running gun fights, she had single handily escaped from her deranged mother who had kept her locked in a roach infested kitchen, and Scott had killed two armed brothers with his bare hands in a street fight. She tried to correct the story several times, but had finally given up and basked in the attention. Rather than looking at her like damaged property, they saw her as strong, independent and powerful…and she liked it. She drank a few beers, stuffed herself on the best ribs she had ever tasted, and laughed, enjoying

herself more than any time she could remember. Jason had called several times, but none of the Atlanta members could be bothered to answer his call, keeping their secret. When the party was over, she was feeling more at home in Atlanta than she did in Detroit. Slightly tipsy and euphoric over the warmth of the Atlanta crew, she had felt like crying as the women hugged her and Scott and the men shook his hand and hugged her. “Where are you going?” Becky asked as they drove back to Scott’s apartment to get the moving truck. “I don’t know. Somewhere in North Carolina, I think. Scott and I don’t have any place to go, so it could be anywhere. But North Carolina puts us between Atlanta and Richmond, and about as far from a Grim Angels charter as we can be without driving all the way out West. It may come to that, but neither of us wants to do that until we have to.” Becky nodded in understanding. “You know Scott always has a home in Atlanta.” She paused and smiled softly at the lovely young woman sitting beside her, and she suspected there was a lot more to her story than she told. She wouldn’t pry, but she could see what attracted Scott to her. There was a keen intellect and a healthy dose of toughness packed into her small frame, and it didn’t hurt that she was drop-dead gorgeous. “You do, too. Just because Detroit wants you doesn’t mean we will give you up.” Once again Jess could feel the tears threaten, but she fought them back. “Thank you, Becky. That means a lot to me.” They rode in silence the last few miles to the truck, each lost in their own thoughts. As Lance came to a stop beside the truck, Jess found she didn’t want to leave this kind woman, but her new life was calling. They made their final goodbyes and Jess once again struggled with tears as the truck lurched away, Lance and Becky watching them leave. “Where are we going?” she asked as the truck whined out onto the street and began to pick up speed. “North Carolina. Greensboro, maybe.” “Know anyone there?” she asked. “Just one person.” “Oh? Who?” “She’s sitting beside me.” Jess smiled, and realized it didn’t matter where they went. Detroit, Atlanta, or Greensboro, North Carolina. Wherever Scott was, that was home…and that was enough for now. She looked into the large rearview mirror on her door and smiled as her troubled past began to recede into the distance, her future as bright as the sun settling on the horizon.

Chapter Thirty Jessica Mitchell handed the order across the counter to the older couple with a smile. She was in the doldrums of her shift at McDonald’s, the time when the lunch crush was past but before the dinner rush began, and her day was nearly over. She was on the opening crew, working her shift of fivethirty to two o’clock Tuesday through Saturday. Because she wasn’t in school, she was able to work until the high school students started arriving for the evening shift. It wasn’t glamorous work, but after moving to Greensboro, North Carolina, with Scott, she had to find something to start contributing. In the four weeks since they had arrived, they had finally gotten settled into a routine, and she liked the morning shift because it allowed her to be home with Scott in the evenings. After living in a motel for a couple of days, they found a small, but nice, one bedroom apartment they could afford in a decent neighborhood. After moving in they started looking for jobs and she had taken the first thing she could find. A week later, Scott had landed his job at an automobile paint dealer. She smiled to herself as she remembered them going to a hair stylist and pouting as the stylist cut off all of Scott’s beautiful long hair. He looked very handsome, in a preppy kind of way, and it may have helped him land a job, but she still missed being able to twist her hands up in his locks and hold his mouth to her womanly parts as he pleased her. They didn’t know a soul in Greensboro, and money was tight, but they were making it, and she didn’t know how she could be happier. Scott still kept in touch with a few of his friends from the Atlanta chapter of the Grim Angels, as she did with Angela from the Detroit chapter. She knew he missed his friends, as she did, but he never complained and she did everything she could to make him as happy as he made her. With no new customers arriving, she picked up a damp cloth and moved into the dining room and began to wipe down tables until she was needed at the register again. When the weather appeared on the twenty-four hour news channel playing on all the televisions, she glanced up and watched as she wiped. It was over ninety outside and she was so thankful for air conditioning, certain she would have died if she had to live in this heat without it. Summers in Michigan were bad enough, but it was nothing like the oppressive heat and humidity of North Carolina. As she quickly went about her task, she couldn’t believe how much her life had changed. When they had bolted from Detroit to be as far from the influence of her uncle as possible, she would have never believed she would be as happy as she was now. She still missed Detroit, and her mother, along with her few friends and all her “uncles” in the Angels, but that ache was fading fast and being replaced with feelings she had never felt before. She felt like she was blooming, finding out things about herself she never suspected. She was becoming more adventuresome and assertive in the bedroom as she and Scott become more comfortable with each other, and she had signed up for fall classes at the local community college in their history program. She felt like, for the first time in a very long time, her life was finally on track.

The only concern was she was late on her period, but she was pretty sure it was because she didn’t wait for her period to start before taking her birth control pills. She didn’t see how she could be pregnant considering that Scott has been her only lover in over a year, and they had been careful until she was back on the pill for two weeks, just to be sure. The only slip they had was when they first hooked up, in her apartment, a month ago. But she wasn’t ovulating at the time and he had pulled out before he came. So there is nothing to worry about, she said to herself. She paused in her wiping of tables as a commercial for a local gym came on. A good looking shirtless man was spotting an equally attractive woman as she worked out, smiling at the camera while the announcer extolled the benefits of attending a fitness center. As the commercial ended, the couple was wrapping around each other and in her imagination, they were getting ready to go to bed for a workout of another kind. It was all perfectly innocent on the television, but she found she had to tear her thoughts from the memories of Scott as he worked out on the compact fitness machine tucked into a corner of their bedroom. She smiled and went back to wiping tables, a pleasant moistness forming in her nether regions, and all thoughts of her missed period replaced by another preoccupation, one that kept her attention for the remainder of her shift. *** Scott Murphy was on the inclined bench taking a breather between sets of presses. He was no longer an enforcer for the Grim Angels, but he wanted to stay in shape, if only for Jess. She was the woman of his dreams and he wanted to look his best for her, the thought of her bringing the usual smile to his lips. Not only did he want to look good for her, but she was also damn near insatiable in bed, and he need to stay in shape to keep his stamina up. After Jess left Detroit she transformed, becoming alive and vibrant in a way she wasn’t before. He discovered she had a goofy sense of humor, loved old screwball comedies such My Man Godfrey, Topper, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and had a way of smiling at him that made him melt and run over her like butter. She was also a voracious reader and plowed through his bookshelf in short order, and as soon as they could get a little money ahead, he was going to surprise her with a Kindle and a Kindle Unlimited subscription so she could read all the books she wanted. The thought of her reaction to the gift brought another smile as grabbed the handles of the machine and took two deep puffing breaths before pressing up, gritting his teeth as he strained against the weight. Perfect, she purred to herself as she paused in the doorway to their bedroom. She had been itching all night, waiting on him to start his workout so she could act upon an idea she had at work. She wasn’t sure why she latched onto the idea, but she had, and she was going to scratch the itch, feeling deliciously naughty as she began to slowly strip out of her clothes. He was wearing only a loose set of gym shorts and dripping sweat, his soft grunts and heavy breathing as he strained to push his hands up sounding so much like passion. She was flooding with anticipation, her imagination having worked overtime all afternoon and evening. He hadn’t noticed her yet, but she would fix that soon enough. She was about halfway across the room when he noticed her, his hands banging down to the rest position as he stared at her in surprise.

“Looks to me like there is another muscle that needs a good workout,” she purred before he could speak, kneeling down beside the bench and pulling his shorts down to reveal his masculinity, tugging at them until he lifted his ass so she could remove them. “Don’t stop, show me what you can do…” “What?” He was totally confused by what she wanted, but he was damned eager to find out what it was and do it. “Keep pumping…I want to see how much you can take,” she breathed as she took his rapidly hardening cock into her mouth. He strained against the machine, groaning under the weight and distraction of her mouth surrounding his manhood. His arms shook as he tried to force the weight up, but he couldn’t hold it, his arms already tired and Jess’s tight lips and flicking tongue preventing him from focusing. “I can’t,” he panted. “It’s too heavy.” “Poor baby…let me help you.” She stood, dragging her nails across his scrotum and up his chest, and took fifty pounds off the machine before dropping to her knees again. “Now…” she breathed, “show me what you’ve got.” The handles felt light as feathers on the first push, and the second, but his already tired arms and chest began to burn again. Once again he groaned under the demands she was placing on him, but he had never wanted to succeed at anything as much as he did this…whatever this was. Watching Scott strain under the two hundred pounds of weight, his gasps and soft grunts as he worked were turning her on in a big way. She could feel the strain in his body, his hips rising, pushing himself deeper into her mouth as he levered the weights up, his chest and arms rippling with effort. She had intended to suck him to orgasm then take him in bed, but she decided she couldn’t wait that long. “Don’t stop,” she begged as she stood and swung a leg over him, taking his cock in her hand and steering it into her. “Don’t you fucking stop!” “I can’t!” he gasped as she began to move on him, bouncing up and down on his cock, her breasts moving in a way that made his blood rush hot. There was no bar, only a pair of cables that wrapped around pulleys, so she fell forward, pressing her chest into his, kissing him furiously as he pressed up again. He pulled back from the kiss, the muscles on his shoulders bunching as he cried out, his head tipping back, forcing his chest up as he pushed up once more. His arms fell back, and again he strained upwards as she kissed and bit gently at his neck, pounding him into her as she fucked him for all she was worth. Again his arms fell back, the machine vibrating with the force of the retraction. As he strained to push his arms upwards again, he erupted into her in a hot wet rush, crying out his effort, his entire body convulsing as he strained to extend his arms while his orgasm sapped his strength. He couldn’t get the

weight high enough to lock his elbows and his strength failed him, causing the machine to bang and lurch as the resistance bars crashed into their home position. She was burning, her orgasm bearing down on her with unimaginable power. “Don’t stop!” she cried, her voice drowning out his cry of agony as he twisted and turned, struggling to do as she asked, to push his arms up one more time, his chest muscles fluttering against her breasts while she pumped her hips furiously. “Fuck!” she cried out, long and loud as her orgasm washed over her. Scott was panting like a bellows as she ground down on him, trying to push him as deep into her as possible. She held to him, shaking with the power of her orgasm, as his arms crashed down beside her once more. He was on fire, every muscle in his body burning from his workout and the most mind-shredding orgasm of his life. Jess’s cry of orgasmic distress defeated him and he had to allow the weight to fall. He released the stirrup-like handles and wrapped his arms around her, holding her fast until she stopped shaking, his head falling back against the bench as he began to relax out of his orgasm. “Holy fuck, woman, what are you trying to do, kill me?” he panted after a time. She was so strung out from her orgasm she couldn’t speak for a moment, rising and falling gently on Scott’s chest as he tried to catch his breath. “Shit…” she finally gasped. “I don’t think I have ever come that hard before.” “Where the hell…?” “At work…I saw a commercial about a gym and that got me to thinking. I have been fantasizing about doing this all day.” She pushed herself up slightly and looked into his eyes before taking his lips and kissing him thoroughly. Her legs were still a little wobbly, but she forced herself to stand, gasping slightly as his hardness pulled from her. She staggered the two steps to the bed, falling across the top of it, dragging him with her by the hand. He lay across her before rolling over, holding her to him as he rolled until she came to rest on his chest. They kissed again, longer and deeper, as they got ready to start their second set.

Chapter Thirty-One Jess placed the truck in park and opened the door as she continued to hum along with a song about a pontoon that had been playing on the stereo a moment before. She wasn’t sure what a pontoon was, some sort of boat she imagined from the song’s lyrics, but she liked the song anyway. She smiled as she hopped down from the truck, thinking again how she was turning into a regular redneck southern girl. When she first started driving Scott’s brick red Ford F150, she was a little intimidated by the size of the beast, but after a month she found she liked the high driving position and the feeling of invincibility she had while behind the wheel of the thing. Add to the fact that she had decided she liked pickup trucks, she was developing a taste for swinging country songs from artists like Brookes & Dunn, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, and others, so now all she needed was a pair of boots and a cowboy hat to go with her jeans, and she would be set. She grinned as she approached the door to their apartment. I can do sexy cowgirl, she thought as she switched the small bag of groceries to her other hand so she could unlock the door to their apartment. “Hello Jessica,” Valdemar Ingersson rumbled as he and three other Grim Angels stepped around the corner. She didn’t drop the sack, but her heart froze at her uncle’s voice. “What are you doing here?” she hissed, backing away as he approached. “I’ve come to take you home.” “I’m not going anyplace with you!” “Yes you are. You’ve made your point and had your fun, but your mother has been worried about you. So have I.” She looked around, trying to decide what to do. If she saw anyone she would start screaming, but there was no one around. That was the problem living in a lower middle-class section of town: everyone worked. “You stay away from me or I’ll scream!” She had barely finished her sentence when Jake and Neil rushed past Val and grabbed her, manhandling her back to her door as the groceries fell to the ground. She tried to scream, tried to fight back, but the two men were far too strong for her to escape and one had his hand across her mouth, muffling her scream to almost inaudibility. Val sighed. “Why do you make everything so fucking difficult?” He took her keys and unlocked the door, the two men shoving her inside as Jason gathered up the spilled produce. “What are you going to do to me?” she demanded as she whirled to face Val, her heart thudding in her chest. Two months ago she would have bet her life that her Uncle Val would never hurt her, but she

wasn’t so sure any more. “Nothing. We’re just taking you home. You cooperate and it will be a pleasant drive. The less you cooperate, the less pleasant the drive will be. It’s up to you.” “This is my home now!” “No, your home is in Detroit, with your mother.” “I don’t want to fucking live with my mother!” “Fine. Get yourself an apartment then. But either way, you’re coming back to Detroit. I promised your old man I would take care of you, and that’s just what I’m going to do, whether you like it or not.” “If you really wanted to take care of me, you would want what’s best for me.” “I do. What’s best for you is to come back to Detroit. That way I can make sure nothing else happens to you. You’ll be safe there.” “I was safe here!” Val snorted. “Yeah, really safe. Where’s Scott? I don’t see him around here protecting you.” “Fucking loser,” Jason McGinnis, the rising President of the Detroit chapter muttered just loud enough for her to hear. “If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t need protecting,” she snapped at Val, her voice dripping venom. “And you, Jason, this is all your fault, you little shit. I’m going to watch Scott kill you and I’m going to spit in your face as you die.” “Yeah, whatever,” Val said waving his hand as he turned toward the door. “Let’s go.” “Can’t I at least pack a few things?” “What are you going to pack? All your clothes are still in Detroit.” “I need a few female…necessities, okay? Is that all right with you or do you want me bleeding all over your…how are we getting back to Detroit? I’m damn sure not riding a motorcycle the entire way again.” “We came in the club Suburban. Go pack,” Val rumbled. Jess thought frantically and then pulled her phone from her pocket. “No phone calls!” Val barked.

“I’m not calling anybody! Jesus, do you mind if I change out of my uniform first?” “Go with her,” Val ordered Jake. “Make sure she doesn’t do something stupid. Jason, put that stuff away while she packs.” As they moved toward the bedroom, Jess punched at her phone, hiding what she was doing from the man following. She quickly unlocked it and started the voice recorder, setting the phone on the dresser as she walked into the bedroom. “Get out. I’m going to change.” “Not going to happen,” Jake replied. “I’m damn sure not going to Detroit dressed in my McDonald’s uniform, so get out!” she said loudly, praying the app on the phone was picking up her voice. “Not happening. If you want to change, you’re going to have to do it in front of me. You heard Val.” “Fuck you!” “Yeah? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Jake said with a leer and then laughed when she gave him the middle finger. “Fine. Stand there then. I’ll change in the bathroom. I’ll leave the door open.” She rummaged in the closet and pulled out a pair of jeans and a top before marching into the bathroom. When she stepped out, Jake was watching the door, but had the decency to not move to where he could peek in and watch her change. “Look, Jake, you don’t want to do this,” she said when she returned. “I know Val is the president, but this is kidnapping. You don’t want to force me to leave for Detroit. Please, Jake, please don’t do this.” She could feel herself tearing up and she let them come. “You can turn off the water works, Jess. I’m immune. I like to make women cry. It turns me on.” “Asshole,” Jess sneered as she stomped past him while he laughed. *** “Jess? I’m home,” Scott said as he stepped into the apartment. She wasn’t visible in the combined living room, dining room, kitchen, so he moved to the back of the apartment, hoping to find her sleeping again. Two weeks ago he had found her napping when he got home, and when he woke her up with soft kisses, they had gone at it like bunnies. “Jess?” he said as he stepped into their bedroom, then looking in their bathroom, picking up her uniform from the floor and putting it in the hamper. His brow furrowing, he opened the blinds with his fingers as he checked to make sure the truck was parked outside.

I bet she’s at the pool, driving all the guys wild. He smiled as he thought of her poured into her black one piece bathing suit, and decided he wanted to see that himself. He strode out of the apartment, grinning as he thought of her laying on a chase, her skin the color of well-creamed coffee and glistening with lotion, the suit fitting her in all the right places. When I get there, if I can sneak up on her, I’m going to get her attention by spreading more lotion on her. Pleased with his plan, he slowly opened the gate to the pool, looking around for Jess, but she was nowhere to be seen. A lump formed in his stomach as he pulled his phone and dialed her number, listening to the ringing while walking back to their apartment. When his call went to voicemail, he pocketed his phone and quickened his pace. “Jess?” he called again as he reentered the apartment, glancing around the big room before moving back to the bedroom, praying they had just missed each other, looking on the floor between the bed and the wall, and then checking the bath, making sure she hadn’t fallen in the tub. Other than her uniform being left in the floor of the bathroom, the apartment looked just like he left it this morning. The lump in his stomach grew colder as he moved back to the front of the apartment, pulling out his phone to call her again. When heard her phone playing No One, he lowered his phone and followed the sound to their bedroom. He had first heard the ringtone not long after they had moved in when he had dialed her number to help her locate her misplaced phone. He had smiled then, but hearing it now filled him with dread. He killed the call and picked up her phone. Jess never went anyplace without her phone and his blood began to run cold. He unlocked it and squinting at the open voice recorder app that she used for reminders. He pushed the Stop button then pushed Play. “Get out. I’m going to change,” Jess said from the phone. “Not going to happen,” a man’s voice replied. “I’m damn sure not going to Detroit dressed in my McDonalds uniform, so get out!” Jess said, her voice loud. “Not happening. If you want to change, you’re going to have to do it in front of me. You heard Val.” “Fuck you!” “Yeah? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” the man said then laughed. Scott listened to the rest of the recording, his hand gripping the phone tighter and tighter as it played. When it ended, he played it again, unable to believe what he heard. How had they found us, and so soon? It didn’t matter how, the fact was they had, and now they had taken Jess. There was no time stamp on the message, but he had to assume they had at least a three-hour head start.

He went cold with rage. Without a second thought or moment’s hesitation, he moved to the closet and pulled down the plastic container where he kept his extra ammunition, pulling two boxes of ammo from the container and then sliding the rest back into place. He paused at the dresser for a moment and then dropped his Harley keys into the glass tray and picked up his truck keys. Easier to haul the dead bodies, he growled to himself as he turned and headed for the door. The Grim Angels were about to meet the angel of death. They were going to pay‌and pay dearly.

Chapter Thirty-Two “How did you find us?” Jess demanded from the middle set of seats of the Grim Angels’ SUV. “You should have known you couldn’t hide from me,” Val said from the front passenger seat. “I shouldn’t have to,” she countered, “but you didn’t answer the question.” “We looked at Kat’s phone bill. That told us, more or less, where you were. Then we greased a few palms to find out which cell tower the calls were coming from. Then it was just a matter of poking around. We found Scott’s bike in the parking lot yesterday.” Jess fumed. She should have known better than to call from home, but it never occurred to her that they could track her back to Greensboro, much less what part of town. “Why can’t you just leave us alone?” “Because, he’s not right for you. I want you out of the life.” “I was out of the life! Scott turned in his colors.” “You’re never out of the Angels, you know that. Once a Grim Angel, always a Grim Angel.” “You know he’s going to come for me.” “Oh, I’m counting on it.” “He’ll kill you.” Val smiled and lit another cigarette. “He can try. Oh, sure, he will probably guess what happened, but what’s he going to do? He doesn’t know the area, and we’ll pick him up the moment he arrives in Detroit, not to mention that you’ll be under guard until he’s dealt with. He may be a badass— according to Jason he is a badass—but nobody is badass enough to take on the entire club.” “You’re using me as bait!” Jess squawked. “No. I’m taking you home where you will be safe. But if he comes for you…” Val smiled, a nasty smile that didn’t touch his eyes, “We’ll be ready for him. Killing him is just a bonus.” Jess stared at him until he turned his attention back to the road, trying to fry his brain with her malice as she clammed up and refused to say another word. By the time they hit the West Virginia border, she was nodding, despite the stench of the men’s cigarettes. When they reached Charleston, West Virginia, she woke up, groggy and hung over from her fitful sleep, and having to pee in the worst way.

“I have to pee…bad,” she said. “Fucking women and their tiny little bladders,” Neil muttered from the driver’s seat. “Fine. I’ll just piss in the seat then,” she threatened. “Keep your panties up,” Val chuckled. “We need to stop for dinner anyway, and I’m out of cigarettes.” They found a McDonald’s attached to a convenience store just off the interstate where they could gas the SUV, eat and buy road food and cigarettes. Jess bailed out of the SUV, intent on getting to the restroom, but Neil caught her by the arm before she made it three steps. “Ah, ah, ah…” he clucked as he jerked her to a stop. “Look, I’m about to piss myself! So either let me go or come on!” “Go with her,” Val said. “Make sure she’s alone.” Neil guided her into the restaurant and to the restrooms. He walked into the women’s side without pause, dragging her in behind him. “Out!” he growled at a woman changing the diaper of her infant son. Jess couldn’t wait and jerked her arm free and hurried into a stall, barely getting her pants down and settled onto the toilet before the water began to flow. After peeing for what felt like hours, she finally finished. She was alone but she knew the inside of a McDonalds’ restroom well and knew there was nothing useful at hand. Her hands washed, she exited the bathroom to find Neil, his arms crossed over his chest, standing in front of the door with two women waiting to enter. “You’re such a prick,” she muttered as she stepped out from behind him. “Sorry…sorry,” she mumbled as she walked past the glaring women, her head down in embarrassment. *** Scott kept the hammer down on the Ford. He had no illusions about catching Jess and the Angels that had taken her and, even if he did, he would probably blow right past them without even noticing, but he kept pushing just the same. The truck was nearly full of gas when he left Greensboro, and he intended to make as much time as possible. He was doing over ninety when he passed a Virginia state cop going the other way on the interstate. He saw the brake lights illuminate in the rear view as the officer began to slow to turn and give chase. He didn’t have time to be stopped by some Dudley Doright, so he buried the throttle, the truck surging ahead. He kept the pedal on the floor, the truck vibrating slightly as it bludgeoned a massive hole in the air. He could see the blue lights flashing behind him, but they were well back and it would take a while for the cop to run him down with the lead he had. He passed the first exit, but took the second,

not touching the brakes until the very last moment, braking as hard as possible, but then running the stop sign at the bottom of the ramp and accelerating hard away from the interstate. He didn’t know where this road led, but he would worry about that after he shook the cop. *** Jess sat alone in the way-back seat of the Suburban. She felt like crying in anger and frustration, but she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing her tears. As they continued north in the growing darkness she wondered if Scott had found her phone, and more importantly, if the phone recorded their voices. She was confident he would come for her, if he knew what had happened. As the hour grew late she began to feel drowsy again and eventually leaned her head against the window and slept. *** Scott pulled into a service station, weary but still only half way into the ten-hour drive. He had finally navigated his way back to the interstate, but he had lost valuable time on backroads. He swiped his card in the pump to start the gas flowing and then, as the truck filled, he dashed into the attached minimart to empty his bladder. On the way back to the truck he grabbed a Gatorade and a nasty-looking sandwich from the cooler. He wasn’t hungry but he still had a long way to go and eating would help keep him awake. Items paid for, he hurried to the truck, hung up the nozzle, and turned back toward the interstate, the truck roaring up the onramp at full throttle. ***

Jess started awake as the SUV rocked and bumped as it turned onto a gravel drive. It took her a moment to wake up enough to realize where they were: Val’s farm. She yawned and stretched, trying to work the kinks out. As the truck eased to a stop, her mother stepped out of the house into a pool of light cast by one of the floods mounted on the house. “Val! What the hell are you doing?” Kat snapped. “Good to see you, too, Kat,” Val deadpanned as Jess climbed out of the truck. “Jessica! Are you okay? Val! How could you? You kidnapped your own niece? What’s the matter with you? Are you fucking stupid? You want the cops crawling all over this place?” “Just shut the fuck up,” Val snarled at his sister. “I’m in no mood for your shit. She never should have run off in the first place. All I did was bring her home.” Kat glanced between her brother and her daughter. “Val, for god’s sake! She’s a grown woman! You can’t just kidnap her!”

Val waved a dismissive hand at Kat and stomped away toward his house as Kat turned toward Jess. “Jess…I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?” “I’m fine, but I’m not staying here,” Jess said. She would have said more but Jake took her by the arm and started her walking toward the house. “Come on. You two can have your reunion after we get some sleep.” “Where are you taking her?” Kat demanded. “Don’t worry about it, Kat. Nobody is going to hurt her. She’s going to have the basement all to herself.” “No! Let her say at my place! Please! I’ll make sure she stays there. Come on, Jake, you know you can trust me!” “Can’t do it, Kat. Val’s orders. She is to stay here until he says otherwise. Go home, Kat, and get some sleep. You look like shit and I feel like shit. She’ll be fine until tomorrow.” Kat fumed, but she knew this was a battle she couldn’t win, not tonight. “Okay, fine. But I’ll be back later this morning, and if she has so much as a scratch on her…” “Yeah, yeah, I know…” Jake said not even slowing. *** “’lo…Jess?” Ron Nebbles’ sleepy voice came from Jess’s phone. “Mr. Nebbles, this is Scott Murphy. I met you about a month ago, with Jess. Remember me?” “What? Yeah…hang on a minute while I get myself together.” Scott heard some muttering and movement, but he couldn’t tell if it was Ron’s voice or someone else. He waited impatiently for Ron to come back on the line as the lights of Detroit approached. “Do you know what time it is?” Ron’s annoyed voice came back. “Yes, I know, almost four. I’m sorry for waking you, but Jess is in trouble. Val took her yesterday. I’m almost to Detroit and I need a place to crash for a few hours.” There was a long silence. “Did you say that Val took Jess? What do you mean took her? As in kidnapped her?” “Yeah.”

“Son of a bitch…Yeah, okay. You know how to get here?” “I think so.” “Okay. Coffee will be waiting.” *** In his exhausted state, Scott took several wrong turns in the dark, but he finally found a landmark he recognized, and pulled into Ron’s driveway just as the clock ticked over to 4:45. He parked behind the battered Toyota and crawled out of the truck. As much as he wanted to start the search for Jess immediately, he had been up almost twenty hours and knew he was in no shape to help anyone. Ron opened the door as Scott approached. “Did you drive all night? You look like hell,” he asked, handing him a mug of strong, aromatic coffee. “Yeah,” Scott said, taking the cup and nodding in appreciation as he stepped into Ron’s kitchen. “I’m sorry to wake you like this, but I didn’t know who else to call.” “No, I’m glad you did. Are you sure Val took her?” Scott pulled Jess’s phone from his pocket and played the recording for Ron. “That rat-bastard son-of-a-bitch,” Ron growled. “We need to call the cops.” “No. No cops.” “Why?” “Because, despite the recording, there is no solid proof of who performed the kidnapping, nor any indication of where she might be. The cops will show up, ask around, and Val will deny everything. We don’t know where they’ve taken her, and if they show up with a warrant, and she isn’t there, then we’ve tipped our hand. No…better that I find her first and then go to the cops if we have to. At least then we can point them in the right direction.” “Yeah, but this is what—” Ron began. “Ron, look, I’ve been thinking about this for over ten hours. This is the best way; trust me. Let me find her, so when the cops come busting in, they will actually find her and not give Val a chance to move her someplace else. If I can’t track her down in a couple of days, then we may have to go to the cops, but let’s give my idea a try first. I don’t want to give Val any excuse to hurt her. Hell, she may not even be in Michigan for all I know.” “She said Detroit,” Ron pointed out. “I know. But did she know that or did she just assume that since it was Val that was taking her? See the problem? We don’t have enough information yet. Just give me a chance, Ron. Please.”

Ron licked his lips. “Fuck! What can I do?” “Give me a place to crash for a few days. We’re pretty strapped for cash at the moment, after the move, and if I don’t have to stay at a—” “Done,” Ron interrupted. “What else?” “Nothing for the moment. I just need to catch a few hours’ sleep, then I’m heading to Val’s.” “You think she’s there?” “I have no idea. On the one hand, it’s out in the boonies, which is good for stashing someone. But on the other hand, that will be the first place someone would look. I have to start somewhere and that seems as good a place as any. I just need to pick up a whiff of her somewhere, and go from there.” Ron stared at Scott a moment. “If you get her out of this, you end it, once and for all.” Scott extended his hand, and Ron took it. “You have my word.”

Chapter Thirty-Three Jess blinked herself awake, slightly disoriented by her unfamiliar surroundings. Jake had escorted her into the basement and left her there seven hours ago. After he left, she tried the door at the top of the stairs. There was no lock, but when she eased it open she saw the Grim Angel sitting just outside in a chair, facing the door. When he smiled at her, she closed the door again without comment. The room was comfortable enough. There was an oversized couch that was perfect for sleeping, an antique Coke machine filled with beer and a bathroom, so she would be comfortable enough. There was also a large screen television, pool table, sauna, plenty of video games, and an antique pinball machine to keep herself entertained. What she really wanted, but didn’t have, was a phone, another door, or a window to wriggle out of. After helping herself to a beer to help calm her nerves, she had explored the room, but quickly realized that with Thomas on guard outside the only door, she might as well have been in a maximum security prison. With a yawn, Jess stretched and scratched herself awake, and then crept to the top of the stairs again where she opened the door slowly and peeked out. Thomas was gone, but now an alert looking Casey was sitting in the chair. “You need something?” Casey asked. “To use the bathroom.” Casey gave her a condescending look. “Nice try. Use the one in the basement.” “There’s one down here? Can you come show me?” “I think you can find it. Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Jess.” “Casey, please let me go. You know what Val is doing isn’t right. Please!” “I can’t do it, Jess. The orders came straight from Val.” “You can’t keep me locked in the basement forever!” “I don’t have to. My shift ends when they bring you breakfast.” “Asshole!” Casey grinned at her. “Be nice. You shouldn’t have run off with that redneck. Val just wants what’s

best for you, and if you would just stop and think about it for minute, you would realize that. Now, go back down there and be good. Your breakfast should be here soon.” “I hope you choke on yours!” “Would you give me mouth to mouth if I do?” Jess slammed the door, cutting off Casey’s chuckle. *** Jess was sitting on the couch, watching the news, hoping to see an item about a massive manhunt for a missing woman, when she heard the clomping of feet coming down the stairs. Kat appeared around the corner with a tray and a paper bag. Jess said nothing as her mother sat the wooden tray in the seat of the matching leather chair. “Here’s your breakfast,” Kat said solemnly. “I brought you some clothes.” Kat held the bag up then sat it in the floor. “Are you okay?” “Why do you care?” Jess asked. “Jess…I never wanted this. I didn’t ask Val to do this. I wanted you to come home, sure. And I think you made a big mistake by leaving…but kidnapping? No, that’s too much.” “Then help me!” Kat picked up the tray and handed it to Jess before sitting down beside her. “I’ve tried. Val and I had a fifteen-minute screaming match a few minutes ago. He’s not going to let you go until you agree to stay here in Detroit and Scott is out of the picture.” Jess looked at her mother. Kat looked like warmed over death and reeked of wine and cigarettes. “So he’s going to keep me locked in the basement for the rest of my life?” “No, but I don’t know what his plans are. He isn’t thinking beyond tomorrow. I think he really believes you will realize you made a mistake and agree to stay.” “What did you tell him?” “I told him he didn’t know you as well as he thought he did.” Jess looked at her plate of scrambled eggs with crisp bacon on the side. She didn’t want to eat it, just to spite her mother, but it smelled so damn good she finally picked up the fork and started eating. “And you still think I made a mistake in running away?” she asked around a mouth full of eggs. “I did,” Kat replied. “But now? Maybe not. I don’t know anymore. I can’t believe Val is doing this.”

“Then help me! Help me get out of here!” “I can’t! Jess, you don’t understand. The club has fractured over this. Half the members think Val is wrong, and he is shutting them out. Only those loyal to him are here. If I cross him, he will shut me out, too.” “Then call Scott and tell him where I am! You can do that, can’t you?” Kat wrung her hands and leaned forward onto her knees. “I can’t. You’re the only thing I have left. If Val were to prevent me from seeing you...I can’t bear to lose you, too. Just give me some time, Jess. I’ll make him see.” Jess dropped her fork on the plate in disgust. “Just like the last time you said you would make him see?” “What do you want from me, Jess? He’s the fucking President of the Grim Angels! He gets what he wants, and he doesn’t give a shit about anything else! I’m doing the best I can.” “Well that’s not fucking good enough! What if I’m actually pregnant?” Jess stared at her mother, hoping beyond hope that she could use the leverage of her late period to her advantage. Kat’s head snapped up and she looked at Jess. “You’re pregnant?” she hissed. “I’m late.” “Have you checked?” “No, not yet. I’m only a few days late.” Kat stared at Jess for a long moment. “Oh, baby, we have to know! How could this happen? Weren’t you being careful? Is it Scott’s?” “Goddamnit, Mother! How can you ask something like that? Of course it’s Scott’s, and yes, we were being careful!” Jess complained, selling the idea for all she was worth. “No mistakes?” “No!” Jess cried, but then paused to let the tension build. “Well, not after the first time,” she amended and looked away as if in shame. “Holy shit, Jess,” Kat said standing up. “This changes everything! I’m leaving right now to get a pregnancy test. We have to know!” “If I’m pregnant, will you help me?”

Kat looked at her daughter. “Let’s find out first, and then worry about what happens.” *** “But what if she is?” Kat asked, showing Val the test strip again. “I know it shows negative, but she said she was only a couple of days late. She may not be far enough along for a positive test. Val, this is so wrong! You can’t do this to her.” “Yeah, or she could be lying her ass off. But if she is knocked up, more than ever, she needs to be here. There is no fucking way she is getting back into the life, not if she is really pregnant.” “Val, it’s Scott’s baby she’s carrying if she is! Would you deny her baby a father? How can you be so cruel?” “I’ll not have her hooked up with a Grim Angel, especially if she is pregnant, so just fucking forget it. This discussion is closed!” When he moved to turn his back on her, Kat grabbed him by the arm and spun him back to face her. “She is my goddamn daughter, and you’re not keeping her locked up here, do you hear me?” she screamed. “I’ll call the fucking cops myself!” Val had Kat pinned to his office wall by her throat so fast that she didn’t even have time to react. “I don’t care if you are my fucking sister, don’t you ever threaten me!” he hissed, his face only inches from hers. “Do I make myself clear?” Kat couldn’t speak, both her hands around Val’s wrist as she struggled to break his grasp. She was a big, strong, woman, but she was no match for Val’s sheer size and power. “I said, do I make myself clear?” he growled, leaning into the hold. Kat began to kick, desperate to get free before he crushed her windpipe. She tried to nod, hoping she could move her head enough for him to see. He let her go and she sagged, coughing and gagging as she held her throat. “You bastard,” she croaked as she bent over, struggling to not vomit. “If I so much as smell a cop, I’ll kill her, Kat. I’ll fucking kill her and feed her to the pigs. Just remember that.” “You’d kill your own niece?” she wheezed, her voice a shadow of its normal strength. Val looked at Kat, sick at what he had done. Jess was fucking everything up. His club was coming apart, his own sister was turning against him, and all because she had a case of the hots for Scott fucking Murphy. He stared at Kat a moment then made his mind up. Once he took care of that little prick, everything would start getting back to normal. With no more Scott, Jess wouldn’t have a reason to leave. She could put the baby up for adoption, abort it, or find her a nice guy to settle down with,

and the kid would be too young to know the difference. But it all starts with getting that fucking redneck out of the picture. “Only if you do something stupid, like call the cops or start telling everyone she’s pregnant,” he snarled as he turned, but then turned back. “You want to keep her alive, you keep your fucking mouth shut! I fucking mean it, Kat. Not a fucking word, to anybody, that she’s here or that she’s pregnant. That stays between you and me, you got me? I’m taking Jodi and the kids to her parents for a couple of days for her mother’s birthday, like I promised her. When I get back, we’ll get this shit sorted out, so don’t do something stupid while I’m gone.” He waited until Kat nodded then he turned away again. I’m not going to kill Jess, but her boyfriend? Val smiled as he contemplated his revenge. *** It was late evening when Ron dropped Scott off a few hundred yards from the Ingersson farm, and then drove on to the nearby town of Ray Township to wait for his call. It looked just like it did the last time he was there, a month ago, when he found out that Jess was going to be off-limits to him. The same red barn, the same immaculate farmhouse and grounds, but there were a lot more motorcycles parked about and a lot more brothers outside, smoking, laughing and sipping beverages. He moved along the edge of the property, staying in the shadows of the landscaping. There appeared to be about a five Angels outside, one less than the number of motorcycles he counted parked out front. He circled the property again, but counted only the five men. He waited until near full darkness before moving in closer. As he watched, “Wildman” Rick Wilders stepped through a pool of light. Rick and Scott, along with Jason, had ridden up from Atlanta together when Jason had been tagged as the future President of the mother chapter of the Grim Angels. He was also the man who had saved his ass, putting it all on the line to warn Scott and Jess that Val was riding for them. He hadn’t spoken to Rick since that fateful night and wondered if Val had killed him for his treachery. The fact that Rick was still alive said a lot, but he seemed to keep his distance from the other men. Rick stepped around the corner of the house, and after a moment, Scott could detect the musty sweet smell of marijuana smoke. Scott moved farther around the house, keeping low and slow to blend in with the landscaping. The stupid fucks didn’t realize that standing near the lights screwed their night vision, so he felt pretty comfortable about not being seen so long as he stayed low and in the shadows. Scott watched Rick until he turned and started back toward the front of the house. It was now or never. Moving quickly, the thick grass silencing his footsteps, Scott approached Rick from behind. Rick sensed Scott’s approach and began to turn, but it was too little, too late. Scott ran the last two steps and grabbed Rick by the face, hauling him to the ground in a vicious flip, his hand over his mouth to mask his cry. When they hit the ground, Scott’s gun was against Rick’s forehead as he held him down.

“Make a sound and you’re fucking dead!” Scott hissed. Rick relaxed and his hands slowly fell from Scott’s face and shirt, his eyes wide in recognition as he nodded slowly. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Rick whispered harshly when Scott released his mouth. “I’m looking for Jess.” Rick looked to the side then back to Scott. “Is she here?” “Is she?” Scott countered, pressing the gun in a little harder. “Fuck. Let me go before we get caught,” Rick said as he tried to rise. He got to his feet then put a finger to his lips. “I’m going to take a piss,” he said loudly, then jerked his head away from the house. Rick and Scott moved to the edge of the yard where Rick stopped and unzipped, his back to the house, Scott on the other side of Rick so that Rick’ body masked his outline. “What the fuck, man?” Rick whispered as he pulled his cock out. Scott took a step back as Rick let go. “Is that who’s in the house?” “How the fuck should I know?” “Fuck, I don’t know. I just know that someone is here and we’re here to for protection. Why the fuck did she come back?” “She didn’t. Val took her yesterday.” “Son-of-a-bitch! So that’s where he’s been. He disappeared about a week ago and nobody knew where he went. Where did he find you?” “North Carolina.” “How?” “Beats the hell out of me. I have to get her out of there.” Rick looked around then zipped. “Let me see if I can find out for sure that she’s here first. It would suck to storm the place and find out it’s just Val getting some on the side.” “You would do that?” “Yeah. My name is shit around here. They know I tipped you, but have no proof. That fucking Jason is pissing me off. He let me get sold down the river without so much as a peep of protest, the little fucker. So, yeah, I’ll help. I’ll enjoy spitting in Jason and Val’s eye. The whole fucking club is coming

apart over what happened to you.” “Thanks, man. I owe you one.” “Fuck that. You owe me two,” Rick said. “And when we’re done with this shit, I’m going to collect, and big time.” Scott pursed his lips. “Anything you want man, anything you want.” Rick smiled into the darkness. “Was she worth it?” Scott smiled. “More than you know.” Rick nodded. “Get the fuck out of here. I’ll call you as soon as I know something. And, Scott, don’t be stupid, okay?” Scott wanted to hug Rick, feeling like a brother again, but if someone saw them, they would be in deep shit. “Thanks, Rick,” Rick heard the slight hitch in Scott’s whisper and nodded before pulling the smile off his face as Scott melted away into the darkness. Goddamn, it feels good to be appreciated again!

Chapter Thirty-Four

“I’m here to see Jess,” Angela said. “She’s not here,” the big bearded man said, not even bothering to rise from his chair. “Oh, come off of it, Chuck. I know she’s down there, and you know she’s down there. Just let me talk to her for a couple of minutes. You can even listen in if you want.” Angela smiled and leaned in close, her big sloshy breasts threatening to tumble out of her top. “I’ll even let you frisk me if you need to.” “And what would Road Kill say to that?” “You know I hate it when you call Ed that. I didn’t say I wanted you to frisk me. I said I would let you. For security and all. In case I was smuggling something to her.” Chuck licked his lips. Angela was a big girl, just like he liked them, and she had a confidence in her sexuality that made her radiate an animal like magnetism. She was a colossal flirt and wore clothes that made the best of her attributes, so she had her share of male admirers in the club, including himself. She was Ed’s old lady, though, and normally that placed her out of bounds, but he was tempted to take her up on her offer. He would love to feel the breasts that Ed got to play with every night, imagining what it must be like sliding his cock between them. But orders were orders. “Val gave strict orders that nobody was supposed to visit her.” “So she is down there!” Chuck turned red in embarrassment. “I didn’t say that.” “Charles Reddly, you look me in the eyes and tell me Jessica Mitchell isn’t in that basement.” “Jess isn’t in the basement,” Chuck said, staring into Angela’s eyes. “You lying sack of shit,” she said with a giggle. “Come on, Chuck, please? Just a quick visit. I haven’t seen her since she ran off with Scott.” Chuck grinned, knowing she was onto him, but kept up the lie. “I’m telling you, she isn’t down there.” “Uh-huh. A girl hears things. Come on, how about it?” “Angela, I can’t, okay? Val would kill me. Besides, if you were so anxious to see her, why were you helping her leave?”

Angela struck her best pose. She could see that Chuck was weakening. “Did you ever see Scott?” “No, why?” “Because, if you were a woman, and you saw him, you would know why she ran off with him. If it had been anybody else but Jess, I would have snatched him away and shown him what a real woman could do.” Angela grinned at Chuck. “Tell me, would it be murder or manslaughter if I fucked him to death?” Chuck chuckled. “Don’t know. I guess it would depend on if you did it on purpose or not.”

Jess could hear a man and a woman talking at the top of the stairs. She crept up the steps, and as she approached the door, she recognized Angela’s voice. She could tell that she was working on the man, trying to get him to allow her to talk to her. She kept quiet, giving Angela a chance. She could be quite persuasive when she wanted to be.

“Oh, it would definitely be on accident. Why would I want to break my favorite toy?” Angela giggled. “I think you’re full of it. If you were that hot to trot, why are you with Ed?” Chuck teased. Despite himself, she was turning him on. “Because, he knows how to please a woman. We can go for hours before he comes.” “Bullshit!” “Oh? You don’t think so? You should ask him yourself sometime. That’s why I like older men. They have staying power. What about you, Chuck? How long can you last?” “Long enough.” “Really?” Angela purred. “I’ll have to keep that in mind.” “You do that.” Angela stared at him, trying to lure him to her, but Chuck wasn’t budging. “You’re not going to let me see her?” “No.” Angela licked her lips, stumped over what to do. She was pretty certain she could get Chuck to let her

see Jess, but she didn’t want to pay that high of a price. She really did love Ed, and while she might flirt, but she would never actually carry through and do anything to hurt him. “Angela! It’s Jess! Call Scott! Tell him I’m here!” Angela stared at the door. “Jess? Are you all right?” “Just call Scott! Help me!” Angela looked at Chuck and started to move away, but Chuck rose from the chair and grabbed her arm. “Wait a minute. I don’t know if I should let you leave now.” “Angela?” Jess’s voice came through the door. “Hang on a minute, Jess,” Angela called. She saw the door start to open, but Chuck slammed it shut with a meaty paw. “Open that door again and I’ll kick your ass!” he snarled. Angela tried to jerk her arm free. “Let go of me, Chuck,” she said, her voice hard. Chuck was caught in a quandary. If he let Angela go, she would start blabbing about Jess being held in the basement of Val’s house. But if he were to leave to ask Marc to find out what to do with Angela, Jess would be able to escape since there was no lock on the door. He thought about stuffing Angela in the basement with her until someone came to relieve him, but Val had said nobody was to see Jess. “Shit. I wish you hadn’t heard that.” “Why? What are you going to do?” “Nothing, but I can’t let you leave until I clear it with Marc.” “Marc? Not Val?” “Val had to leave. He left Marc in charge.” “What about his golden boy Jason?” “Look, I don’t know, okay? Jason may be tapped to be the next President, but Marc is the VicePresident right now. All I know is Val said Marc was in charge. You get him to say it’s okay for you to see Jess, or to leave, then I got no beef with it. But I have to hear it from him. ” Angela fumed, trying to figure a way out. She might try to talk her way out of this with Jason, but she knew that Marc was as stubborn as Chuck. “And how are you going to stop me from leaving?”

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Angela,” Chuck growled, his friendly demeanor gone in a moment.

Jess listened as Angela and Chuck growled at each other, her blood running cold with fear. “Angela? You okay?” “Hang on, Jess. Chuck is being an asshole,” Angela said. “Chuck! Don’t hurt her! Please don’t hurt her!” “Shut up, both of you!” he bellowed. There was a moment of quiet, then the door thudded heavily an instant before Angela screamed. Jess tried to open the door to help her friend, but it opened barely an inch before slamming shut again. *** Angela shoved hard against Chuck, tearing her arm from his grasp as he was momentarily distracted by Jess. He bounced off the door, temporarily overbalanced by her shove as she turned to run, but before she could make it even a step, he grabbed her, yanking her back and grappled with her, his arms her around her waist. As his arm clamped down on her side, she shrieked in pain, her bullet wound healing nicely but still tender to the touch. The shock of pain caused her to twist from him, her system flooding with chemicals as her fight or flight instincts kicked in. Angela nearly tore his arm off at the shoulder as she wrenched herself free from his grasp, thudding heavily against the door as she twisted. She tried to run, but he grabbed her, hauling her down to the floor as he fell. He felt the door hit him in the side, and as he tried to hold the squirming, kicking, Angela, he kicked the door closed. Angela rolled to her ass and kicked at Chuck once, twice, three times, each kick connecting, but not effectively. She drew back, aimed and lashed out again, this time landing a solid hit to his head. He saw stars when Angel’s foot connected. “You bitch!” he roared, as he hauled her back to him. She tried to kick him again, but he grabbed her foot, deflecting it. She rolled over to her stomach to try to get to her feet, but when she did, he wrapped his arms around her legs and pinned her to the floor. “What the fuck is going on here?” Ed roared as he burst out of the kitchen, drawn by Angela’s scream of pain. “Help me!” Angela screamed, struggling to clear her legs so she could get away from Chuck.

Ed reached down and hauled Chuck off of Angela. “Ed! Wait!” Chuck cried just as Ed delivered a crushing punch to his face. Ed may look like five miles of bad road, but he was heavily muscled and had earned very scar. The first punch took all the fight out of Chuck, the second finished him and he went to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Angela leapt to her feet, but before she could open the door, Jason, Rick and Marc arrived. “What the fuck?” Jason asked, looking between the panting Ed and the bleeding Chuck lying on the floor. “He tried to rape me!” “What?” Ed roared, his eyes going wide as his fists clenched. “I was flirting with him. I didn’t mean anything by it, but he got the wrong idea! And then it got out of hand.” Ed reached down to pull Chuck up as he drew his arm back for another punch. “Ed! No!” Angela cried, grabbing his arm. “Just get me out of here!” The moment Angela released his arm, he hit Chuck again, then dropped him to the floor. “I’ll deal with that motherfucker later,” he said as he turned toward Angela. “You’re bleeding!” he cried, touching her side gently. “It’s okay. Just get me out of here,” Angela begged, frantic to get away before the other men discovered the truth.

Chapter Thirty-Five Jess listened to the commotion at the stop of the stairs and tried to open the door again, but something heavy was against it. “Angela?” she called, wanting to make sure her friend was okay. “Angela?” she called again when there was no answer. She heard some thumps and bangs, then the door opened and Jason was standing there. “Save your breath. She’s gone. What the fuck was going on, and why the fuck are you always in the middle of trouble? Val should kick your ass!” “Why don’t you come down here and try it, you little shit!” Jason started down the steps toward her and she went cold in fear, backing down an equal number of steps. Compared to most of the Grim Angels, Jason was a small man, but he was still bigger than she was, and probably stronger, too. Before she could decide how to react, he stopped, just two steps into the basement. “No. Val said you weren’t to be touched. But if that ever changes, maybe I will find out what made Scott turn his back on the club. It must be some good pussy.” He smiled nastily, then climbed the two steps back up and shut the door. Jess retreated back to the basement and stood, shaking with rage. She started by tipping over the video games then throwing pool balls at the television, pinball machine and beer cooler until she had smashed all the glass out of them. She ripped down all the paintings and used a large shard of glass from the pinball machine to cut open the couch, chair and the felt on the pool table. She then pulled all the beer out of the cooler and threw the bottles against the wall until they were all broken before taking a pool cue to the light above the pool table, smashing its brightly colored shade. By the time she was finished she was panting, sweating, and had broken everything she could find to break. Val might keep her locked in this fucking basement, but he was going to pay dearly for it. She heard the thump of boots on steps and she looked around for anything she could use as a weapon. I have to get out of here! She picked up the shard of glass she had used on the pool table and furniture and held it at her side, out of sight. “What the fuck!” Marc bellowed. “You stupid bitch! Val is going to kill you!” “Good! Anything beats staying locked in this basement!” Marc glared at her. “You’re going to have to clean this mess up.”

“Fuck you, fuck Val, and fuck all the Grim Angels,” she screamed, picking up a pool ball and throwing it at him. She had to throw it left-handed because she held the glass in her right, and she was surprised when it hit him. “Goddamnit, Jess!” he bellowed while stomping toward her as she picked up another ball. The second ball missed when he ducked, and he grabbed her hand as she drew back to throw a third. She swung the glass in a swishing downward arc, burying it deep in his left shoulder, feeling the glass glance off something hard as it penetrated. Marc roared as he stumbled back and she chased after him to bury the glass in his shoulder again. He screamed in pain, putting up his right hand as she pulled the glass out and tried to drive it in a third time. His hand deflected her strike, the glass cutting his right hand and left arm. She threw the glass down and charged for the steps, but she made it up less than halfway when Greg and Jason appeared and pounded down the steps into the basement. “What have you done?” Jason bellowed, chasing Jess down the steps. When they reached the bottom, he could see Marc standing there, stooped as he bled profusely from this left shoulder, the blood seeping out between his fingers as his left arm hung limp. “I can’t move my arm,” Marc said meekly. “You fucking bitch!” Greg snarled as he shoved past her to look at Marc. “Hang in there, Veep. We’re going to get you some help.” “I can’t feel my arm,” Marc repeated softly. “It’s going to be okay. Just hang in there,” Greg repeated. “Call an ambulance,” he barked to Jake when he appeared at the bottom of the steps. “Jess stabbed Marc.” “You’re going to pay for this,” Jason muttered under his breath. “I promise you that. The only reason you’re not dead right now is Val doesn’t want you hurt. But that may change when he and Jodi get back from Kalamazoo tomorrow.” Still jacked up on adrenaline, Jess sneered at him. “When you think you’re man enough.” Jason drew his hand back as if to strike, but held the blow when she cringed away. “That’s what I thought. Not as tough as you act.” *** “Don’t talk, listen!” Rick’s hushed voice came over Scott’s phone. “She’s here, in the basement. I’ll try to slip away and call you later.” And just like that, Rick was gone. “She’s at Val’s house,” Scott said, still staring at his phone. “We should go to the police,” Ron said.

Scott thought about it, admitting to himself that Ron had a point. The cops could bring a lot more manpower to bear, and had the weight of law on their side. But on the other hand, when Val snatched her from their home, he made it personal. “Yeah, maybe,” Scott said slowly, still thinking it over. “What do you mean maybe?” “I’m just trying to think it through, Ron. Give me a minute. I know how these guys think and I’m trying to think of all the ways this could go wrong.” “How could it go wrong? The cops show up, find Jessica, and rescue her. Val and his gang go to jail for kidnapping. Simple.” “Ron, this isn’t television, okay? What if Val has a stooge with the police? We call the cops, he tips Val, cops show up, and no Jess. Then we will have lost her again.” “Does that really happen?” Ron asked, his disbelief clear in his voice. “Think about it. They sure as hell didn’t find us by accident. The Grim Angels have a lot of resources, and yes, it happens. We had a couple of officers that were…friendly…with the club in Atlanta. Would they cover for us on a kidnapping? No, probably not. But they could help with minor problems with the law. In exchange, we would sometimes help them.” “Help them…how?” “Let’s just say that we helped them, and they helped us and leave it at that, okay?” Ron thought for a moment. “You know, I hate this shit.” Scott smiled sadly. “Yeah, me, too. It’s not supposed to be like this. It didn’t used to be like this.” “So you think you can take on Val by yourself?” “I don’t know. I need to think about it. Maybe I will call some brothers up from Atlanta, then we can have a right good old-fashioned family get together.” “Scott, I like you, but I can’t be involved in a gang war.” “Don’t worry. You won’t be. Just let me think about—” He paused as Jess’s phone began to ring in the bedroom. He frowned as he rose from the couch, setting aside his beer, to go answer her phone. The last caller to her phone was the manager at McDonald’s, wanting to know why she hadn’t shown up for work. “Angela?” he asked when he saw the name on the screen.

“Scott? Is that you?” “Yeah.” “Thank god! Scott, Kat told me what happened and that Jess was here! She’s locked in the basement of Val’s house.” “Yeah, I know.” “You need to do something!” “Angela, I’m working on it, but I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants here.” “I talked to Ed. He wants to help.” “What? Why?” “Because this has gone too far. This isn’t what the Angels are about. Kidnapping the old ladies of members because the President doesn’t approve? That’s just fucked up. There are four others that feel the same way. We want to help Jess.” Scott though it over for a moment. “Can you send me the phone numbers of the brothers that want to help? I need to know what I have to work with.” “Two minutes,” Angela said and then she was gone. A moment later, Jess’s phone began to chime with the arrival of text messages. When the last of the texts arrived, there were five names and numbers. Counting himself and Rick, that gave him a total of seven brothers to work with, and he hoped that would be enough.

Chapter Thirty-Six The heavy sounds of feet on stairs woke Jess. With no windows, her sense of time was all messed up and she had no idea if it was morning or night. When Karen and Greg appeared at the bottom of the steps, Karen stepped farther into the room as Greg crossed his arms and stood on the last step, watching. “You severed the nerves in Marc’s arm, you cunt,” Karen snarled. “He may never have use of that arm again.” “Boo fucking hoo,” Jess sneered. Karen was Marc’s old lady, a rough and tumble bitch about her mother’s age, but not so heavily built. Jess liked Marc, or did until he helped keep her captive, but she never cared for Karen. There was just something about her bleach blonde hair, blood red lips and nails, cattiness and her slightly slutty ways that rubbed her wrong. “If he can’t ride for three months, he is going to lose the vice-presidency. I worked too hard to get where I am for some over privileged little bitch to take that away from me,” Karen said as she advanced on Jess. Jess began to back up, not wanting to tangle with Karen because she had the reputation of being one tough bitch who loved to fight, and she had beat the shit out of more than one woman in the club. “You touch me and Val will kill you.” Karen smiled. “Uh-uh. That shit won’t fly anymore. Jason called him last night and told him what you did. I can’t kill you, but Val won’t care if I take it out of your ass.” “Greg! You can’t let her—” “Let her, what?” he interrupted as Jess continued to back up. “Marc was my best friend. We drew straw to see who was going to kick your ass first. She won.” “Help!” Jess screamed. Greg smiled nastily. “Keep screaming. Everyone’s at the hospital with Marc. It’s just the three of us here now.” Jess turned and bolted for the bathroom, but she couldn’t get the door closed before Karen slammed into it with her shoulder, trying to force her way in. Jess held her own against Karen for a moment, but then she began to slowly lose the battle of strength. It was a full size bathroom and she couldn’t get her feet against anything to brace to prevent her shoes from slowly sliding backwards on the tile floor. The two women strained in silence for a moment before Jess suddenly gave up, stepping back quickly

and allowing the door to bang open, causing Karen to stumble into the room badly off balance by the sudden release in resistance. Jess grabbed her as she passed, adding to her momentum and shoving her toward the bathtub. The woman grabbed Jess as she passed, pulling her with her the last two steps before she crashed into the tub, tearing down the shower curtain as she partially fell in, dragging Jess down with her. Jess’s arm bounced painfully hard off the spout as she scrambled to hold her balance, trying to prevent Karen’s weight from dragging her down. Jess shoved at Karen, trying to get away, but the two women were tangled in the curtain as they grappled, each trying to not fall the rest of the way in the tub while at the same time preventing the other woman from gaining any advantage. After a moment of each woman trying to shove the other the rest of the way into the tub, Karen lost her footing and fell over the side. “You fucking bitch!” Karen screamed as she turned, still holding Jess by her shirt to prevent her from escaping. Jess was braced against the side of the tub with one hand to prevent herself from falling into the tub with Karen as she used her free hand to battle woman. When Karen realized what Jess was doing, she jerked Jess’s hand down, causing Jess to tumble into the tub on top of her. They twisted and turned, wrestling with each other, neither able to gain a clear advantage, the tub confining them and preventing them from escaping or inflicting significant damage upon their opponent as first one, then the other, was on top. Frantic to get free from the trap they had fallen into, they slipped and slid about in the bottom of the deep tub, grasping and holding, pushing and shoving, as they clawed at each other, their arms and legs tangled as they tumbled and fought to subdue their opponent, wrapping themselves ever tighter in the curtain. Jess cried out as Karen thrust up hard with her hips as she twisted, turning her and slamming her hard into the back of the tub, causing pain to radiate outwards from her shoulder in a white hot flash. She was desperate to escape the snarling, spitting wildcat in the tub with her, but they were hopelessly ensnarled in the curtain. When she felt hair in her hand, she tightened her grip and jerked Karen’s head sideways into the wall. Her hand was caught between the woman’s head and the wall of the tub, and she cried out in anguish once more, but Karen’s scream of pain was far louder. Karen’s struggles slowed slightly, giving Jess a momentary advantage and she twisted hard, rolling back on the top of the other woman. Karen still had her by the shirt, but she still had Karen by the hair, so she pulled Karen’s head up and slammed it hard into the bottom of the tub. The other woman shrieked again as she clawed at Jess, tearing her shirt, putting her hand under Jess’s chin and forcing her head back to prevent her from slamming her head down again. Jess felt like her neck was going to break, so she grabbed the woman’s arm with her free hand and tried to pull it away from her face. Karen released her hold on Jess’s chin and grabbed the hand still tangled in her hair and, in an amazing feat of strength and pain endurance, ripped Jess’s hand free. Her advantage lost, Jess struggled to break free from Karen’s grip, the enraged Karen clutching at her to keep her pinned in the tub with her to prevent her escape. Jess levered herself up and finally managed to break free of Karen’s grip enough to tumble over the side of the tub and to the floor. As she rose, Karen still clinging to her like a leach, she could hear Karen struggling to get the rest of the way out of the tub

while holding onto her prey. As Jess got to her feet, Karen found her own, and drove Jess to the floor again just outside the bathroom door. Jess felt the other woman’s grip loosen when they hit the hard wood floor, and she turned, kicking at Karen, but the other woman seemed to be immune to pain. Karen was bleeding from the side of her head and scratches on her cheek as she threw herself at Jess once more, each grabbing the other by the hair. The women screamed in pain as they tore at each other, their rage boiling over as instinct, the kill or be killed responses, flooded their bodies with hormones. As they grunted, strained and thrashed on the floor, they each realized there was no surrender, no quarter given or asked, and the fight would only end in the utter defeat of one of them. Something snapped in Jess. Karen became Luke and she was once again lying in the pool of the murdered woman’s blood as they fought for his knife. Her world seemed to slow as she looked into the snarling face of Karen, but not Karen, the woman’s blood matted hair replaced by the sneering face of the blood-covered Luke. Jess’s scream was more animal than human as she released Karen’s hair and began to scratch her face and chest, her nails opening up deep red gouges in Karen’s skin. Karen reared back while shrieking in pain, but didn’t release her grip on her opponent’s hair. Jess twisted, no longer concerned with pain, forcing Karen onto her back. She tried to drive a fist hard into Karen’s face, but with her head being held down, she couldn’t deliver her punch with any significant power. Jess powered herself to her feet, pulling Karen up with her by her shirt, the buttons flying like shrapnel as the fabric ripped. Still bent over at the waist, Jess drove Karen back, her legs pumping hard until Karen’s ass hit the pool table. Jess continued to drive forward, all rational thought gone as she fought for her life. Her back breaking as Jess bent her backwards over the table, Karen finally released Jess’s hair as she sought to relieve the pressure on her back. Finally free, Jess grabbed the other woman by the neck and head and spun her around in a half arc to throw her to the floor. The fight was going out of Karen, but she wasn’t out of it yet, and she tried to rally by holding onto Jess’s arm. Jess tried to jerk her arm free but only succeeded in only in pulling them both off balance. The two women crashed to the floor in a tangled mass where they kicked and ripped at each other, muscles straining to the breaking point as they each took the other into an awkward head lock. Locked together, unable to retreat, they grunted and kicked as they rolled and tumbled in near silence, unable to spare the strength or breath to scream or curse, each intent on destroying the other. Jess strained, grunting in effort as she tried to roll Karen over again to release the pressure on her neck when she felt Karen’s grip slip. Suddenly Jess’s head popped free of Karen’s hold and she was able to drive one, two, then three hard punches into Karen’s face as she held her. Karen grabbed at her, trying to stop the blows, but Jess dodged her grasping hand and fired another right into the woman’s face. Karen began to cower, covering her face with her hands. Jess hit her twice more before the red mist subsided, Karen’s sobs finally breaking through her frenzy. Panting hard, she rocked back onto her

heels, her knees to either side of Karen for a moment before staggering to her feet. She was covered in blood, both hers and Karen’s, and her shirt was ripped open at the shoulder and partially down the front, but compared to Karen, she was the picture of health. Karen rolled to her side, drawing her legs up into loose fetal position as she sobbed in pain and defeat, her shirt flopping open and exposing her breasts, the entire side of her head covered in blood as more leaked from her nose and mouth. Jess wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, tasting blood, as she took a step back and looked at Greg. She knew Karen was out of the fight, but there was still Greg to deal with. Still panting hard, shaking in fear and rage as she tried to decide what to do, she noticed his thundering erection creating a noticeable bulge in his pants. “Come fuck me,” she cooed while stepping away from the sobbing Karen, pulling open her shirt and throwing her ripped bra away, her hard breathing making her breasts heave. “What?” Greg asked, not knowing what to do. If he went to help Karen, Jess would be able to slip past him and escape. “I’m so fucking horny right now. I need a hard cock in me. Please…I need you to come fuck me long and hard,” she breathed as she sashayed up to him, exaggerating the swing in her hips. Greg licked his lips, unable to believe his luck. He had just spent the last five minutes watching two incredibly sexy women go at it hammer and tongs in the most brutal catfight he had ever witnessed, and now the winner wanted him! Hell, if I’m really lucky, it will turn into a threesome, he thought as he stepped off the bottom step, Jess smiling at him and opening her arms to him to, the shirt opening farther to reveal even more of her breasts. As he stepped in close, unbuckling his pants to fuck her like she had never been fucked before, he sensed her fast rising knee, but it was too late. Her knee connected solidly with Greg’s balls, and he went down with a grunt, first to his knees then to his side as he gripped himself with both hands. With a groan he puked onto the floor, but Jess didn’t notice as she was already at the top of the steps. *** Scott floored the pickup as it swung onto the gravel drive leading to the Ingersson home, the engine wailing as the truck fought for traction. Angela was in the seat beside him riding shotgun, the other six brothers in the back. It was late afternoon and, after a lot of discussion, it was decided that a frontal assault was their best bet. They had met ten minutes ago at the nearby mini-mart, where they had piled into Scott’s pickup to ride the last three or four miles to Val’s farm. As the Ford skidded to a stop, the men bailed out of the back, Rick running around to the back of the house, Randy taking up guard at the front, while Scott, Ed, and the other brothers banged through the door, weapons drawn. Val’s wife and four kids were sitting at the kitchen table, eating.

“What the fuck?” the woman cried, moving to protect her kids. “Ed, what the fuck are you doing?” “Don’t do anything stupid, Jodi. Just send the kids upstairs.” “I don’t want to, Momma. What’s going on?” the oldest boy, a fair-haired lad of about ten asked, his eyes wide and full of tears. Jodi turned toward her son. “Just go upstairs. Take your sisters with you. You four go up there and play. You can watch TV if you want. Just stay up there until I call you, okay? It’ll be all right,” she said, her voice calm and reassuring. The four kids nodded somberly then did as they were told. “We just want Jess,” Ed said as he jerked his head down the hall toward the basement door. “Jess isn’t here!” “Bullshit!” Scott spat. “She escaped! She’s not here!” “The basement is wrecked, and there is blood all over the place, but nobody is down there,” Will reported as the men poured back out of the basement. “Where is she?” Scott raged. “I told you! Val is going to kill you all when he gets back,” Jodi snarled. “Where’s Val?” Ed asked. “Fuck you, Ed, you backstabbing bastard.” Scott said nothing, but pointed his weapon at the woman’s head. “We won’t ask again.” Jodi went white. “You wouldn’t dare!” “Try me,” Scott growled. Jodi looked around at the men and saw there was no help there. “Everyone is out looking for Jess.” Scott lowered his weapon. “Can Angela handle a gun?” “Well enough,” Ed said. “Get her in here to watch her.”

Ed jerked his head and Peabody ran out, returning a moment later with Angela. “Sit,” Ed growled at Jodi as he kicked a chair back from the table then opened the drawer in the kitchen where he knew Val kept a gun. He quickly checked it before handing it to Angela. “If she moves, kill her.” “You bastards, after all the club has done for you,” Jodi muttered as she sat down. “Val has gone too far, Jodi,” Ed said quietly. “He’s the fucking President!” “He’s still gone too far. You got this?” Ed asked Angela. “Kill her if she moves. Got it.” Angela pulled a chair away from Jodi and sat down, the handgun pointing at her. “Go! Find Jess!” As the men piled out of the house, Jodi glared at Angela. “You, and that fucking Jess, always were trouble. I’ll kill you myself for this.” Angela smiled sweetly. “Maybe I should just kill you now, then, for my protection. What do you think?” Jodi glared at her but didn’t answer. “Why are you doing this?” “Doing this?” Angela asked in disbelief. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! Val kidnapped Jess and locked her in the fucking basement. After all she’s been through, you’re asking me why I’m doing this?” “It didn’t have to be this way.” “No, it didn’t. So why didn’t you stop it?” Jodi continued to glare at Angela. “That’s the problem with you…you’ve forgotten your place.” Angela nodded. “Maybe so, but I can sleep at night. Can you?”

Chapter Thirty-Seven Jess crouched low. That fucking Greg was a tough bastard, she had to give him that. She hadn’t even made it to the damn road before he burst out of the house, bellowing for her like a bull. She wished she had thought to search Karen for her keys, but she was in such a panic to get out of the house the thought hadn’t even occurred to her until it was too late. By then Greg had stumbled out of the house. He wasn’t moving well, but he had something she lacked: wheels. There was no way to outrun him to the mini-mart. She had changed her plans and doubled back, running across the field and plunging into the woods for cover, but being a city girl, it hadn’t taken her long to become turned around and lost. She knew the woods weren’t that big, and if she were to just walk, she would probably pop out somewhere. Then she could try to make her way to someplace for help. So she had gone to ground, waiting on nightfall to reduce her chances of being spotted. Sitting on a log, she had gone through the shakes and the tears once the immediate danger had passed, and she was fine now. Well, as fine as she could be while being lost in the woods with a man looking for her as he bellowed that when he found her, he was going to fuck her, kill her, then fuck her again. When Greg began to get close, she would slip away in another direction. It was relatively easy to avoid one man, but now there were a lot of men looking for her, and they were closing the noose on her. She looked at the sky through the trees. Evening was on the way, and she crossed her fingers that darkness would find her before Val and his men did. *** Scott and his men fanned out, heading into the woods. They had heard occasional shouted voices among the trees and assumed it was Val and his men looking for Jess. He knew the chances of finding her were small, but he would settle for picking off Val’s men, one by one, to reduce the chances of them finding her, as well. The voices were pretty deep into the woods and appeared to be in a line. Val’s men didn’t talk often, but they did speak enough for Scott and his men to keep tabs on them. *** Jess picked up the sound of movement. It was faint, but distinct. With a pout she stood and crouched as she began to move away from the noise. Val was driving her. She knew that now, herding her to where he wanted her to go. As she stepped, watching where she placed her feet to keep the noise as low as possible, she tried to think of a way out, but nothing she thought of seemed likely to work. She was exhausted. The fight with Karen a few hours earlier, along with the lack of food or water since yesterday sometime, combined with stress, was taking its toll on her. She knew she wasn’t in danger of passing out or anything as drastic as that, but she was beginning to get a headache and she

worried that her lack of focus would cause her to make a mistake. When she could no longer hear movement behind her, she turned and began to move at a right angle to the direction she was traveling, trying to get around the end of the men searching for her. She was no woodsman, but it made sense to her that if she could get the men to pass her, she could slip away in the opposite direction. Where she would exit the woods, she hadn’t the slightest idea, but that was the least of her concerns at the moment.

“Over here! She’s running!” a voice to Scott’s left bellowed. The voice was loud enough to hear clearly, but still distant. His first instinct was to run toward the voice, noise be damned, but he forced himself to stop and think. He could blunder about in the woods and miss his quarry completely or… Scott pulled his phone and typed furiously, sending out a group text, calling his men back. It was time to stop chasing Val, and let him come to them. *** Jess was crashing through the woods, Greg hot on her heels. For such a big man, he could move with surprising stealth. He was almost on top of her before she heard him, and as she tried to creep away, he had spotted her. “Over here! She’s running!” he bellowed as he gave chase. She turned, running around a thicket before bursting out onto an overgrown track. Without trees and branches to slow her down, she began to pound up the road. She had no idea where she was going but she didn’t care, so long as she wasn’t captured. She screamed, as Val stepped out of the woods in front of her. She tried to stop, but slipped in the grass and fell, and he was on her before she could even regain her feet. He reached down and hauled her roughly to her feet by the arm. She fought, kicking and struggling but she might has well have been tangling with a bull. “Stop it!” Val roared, wrapping her up in his bear like arms and holding her against his chest. Panting hard, Jess stopped struggling and Val put her down. “You have caused a lot of trouble, little girl.” She stared at him, not giving him the satisfaction of seeing her fear. “I tried to treat you right, and what do you do? You put my vice-president in the hospital; you break my stuff. So you want to be treated like every other club bitch? Well you’ve got it,” he snarled into her face. He turned to the panting Greg. “Round everyone else up and have them meet back at the house. We have some business to attend to.” Greg nodded and put his two pinky fingers in his mouth and blew a loud shrill whistle before stomping back into the woods. “Back to the farm!” he bellowed as he moved into the woods. “What are you going to do with me?” Jess demanded.

“What I should have done a long time ago,” Val sneered, giving her a push to start walking, but not turning loose of her arm. *** Scott heard the whistle and the shouted command and his heart sank. That could only mean one thing. This was going to be their last chance to grab Jess back from Val. He quickened his pace, wanting to get to the farm ahead of Val’s men and get ready. He was going to save her, or die trying. *** “Going somewhere?” Rick asked as he stepped out from behind a tree, his weapon pointed at Val’s head. “You motherfucker,” Val growled. “I knew I couldn’t trust you.” “Yeah, looks like you were right. You okay, Jess?” She nodded, unable to believe her change in fortune. “Let her go, Val.” “Or what?” “Or you’ll die in these woods.” Val drew himself up to his full height. “You haven’t got the balls.” Rick squeezed the trigger…and heard only a click. His eyes went wide in surprise as he quickly racked the gun and tried again with the same result. “You stupid fuck. Did you really think I would let you walk around me with a loaded gun after the stunt you pulled? You fucked Lisa, then she fucked you,” Val sneered as he reached for his own gun. Rick hit Val in a flying tackle, knocking all three of them to the ground. Jess scrambled away and bounded to her feet as the men struggled. With a roar, Val pinned Rick to the ground with his weight and threw a hard punch, the man dodging enough to deflect the bulk of the blow. With a heave, Rick threw Val off of him and tried to scramble to his feet. He was just turning to face Val when Val tackled him, the men going into the dirt again. Jess watched in horror as Val leaned on Rick, his massive hand on his face. Rick twisted, and kicked, and finally managed to get Val off balance enough to throw a punch. The punch was weak and Val shook off the blow with ease. Rick threw another punch, hitting Val in the cheek, and that one must have hurt, because he was able to topple Val off of him. Now on top, Rick threw two hard punches, both solid hits before Val grabbed Rick’s head with both hands, and with a bellow of defiance, jerked him down, smashing into his face with his forehead. Blood exploded from Rick’s nose, the blow stunning him. Val changed his grip and dug his thumbs

into Rick’s eyes as he rolled him over. When Rick began to scream in pain, his hands on Val’s wrists, his feet flailing as Val pressed into his eyes, Jess knew her rescuer was defeated so she turned and began to run. When she heard the gunshot, she turned and saw her uncle standing over Rick, his weapon pointed at his body. As she watched his gun barked again, then he stood there a moment before returning his weapon to the holster and looked in her direction. *** Scott jumped when he heard the two quick shots. He began to move from his cover, intent on killing every Angel he came across, but Ed took him by the arm and gently pulled him back with a shake of his head. “Don’t go off half-cocked, boy. Wait and see how it plays out. There will be plenty of time for killing later.” Scott stared at the grizzled man a moment then stepped back behind the pile of firewood with a nod.

Chapter Thirty-Eight “There she is!” Randy hissed, pointing toward an opening in the trees. Scott’s head snapped around to where Randy was looking and saw Jess as she ran across the field. She was running at an angle away from the house and toward the road. “Get Angela! Hurry!” Scott ordered as he burst from his hiding place, running for the truck. They could pick her up on the road and be away in minutes, but before he could reach the truck, he saw Val burst from the same cut in the trees, then farther away but closer to the road, another man. “Jess!” Scott shouted in warning. As he watched, she began to arc back toward the house, her arms and legs pumping furiously. Val changed course, as well, and he had the angle on her. Scott pulled his weapon and drew a careful bead on Val and fired, emptying his weapon, but Val was just too far away to hit. He ejected the magazine and slammed home his spare, but held his fire. This was his last load and he had to wait until Val was closer. *** Jess watched as Scott fired in her direction, but she didn’t slow, so relieved to see him nothing could stop her from reaching him. She snagged her toe on something in the tall grass and fell, but bound back to her feet immediately, barely slowing. She saw his pistol pop up again, then the rest of the men with him do the same as the air was split with the sounds of gunfire, their guns pointed in the same general direction. She was almost out of gas, but she forced her legs to move, refusing to slow, her side burning and her breath heaving in her chest. She stumbled again, but didn’t fall, gritting her teeth against the pain in her side. She heard several pops from guns behind her and the men with Scott scurried behind his truck and crouched down. She finally broke out of the knee-high grass in the field and onto the well-manicured lawn surrounding the house. There were several more pops and a couple of sharp pings as a couple of holes appeared in the side of the truck. She rounded the end of the truck and Scott was waiting for her, taking her into his arms, holding her tight and kissing her head frantically as she almost collapsed, breathing so hard she couldn’t even speak. *** Scott held her a moment then lowered her gently to the ground behind a wheel and propped her against the truck. “Sit there and don’t move,” he said as he let her go and turned to face the threat.

Val had slowed to a walk as ten, then twelve Angels, including Jason, appeared from the woods, but no Rick. “What are we doing here, Ed?” Randy asked. “This is Scott’s play. We back him,” Ed growled as he sat with his back the truck. “We’re going to try to get out of here,” Scott said. “Angela is still in the house,” Ed reminded him. He said it calmly, as if nothing more than a gentle reminder, but they weren’t leaving without her. “Yeah, I know. That’s our Ace in the hole,” Scott said, then glanced at Ed. “Don’t worry. We’re not trading Angela for Jess.” Jess stood up beside him and crouched low as he was, still breathing hard but not on the brink of collapse any more. “Why is she here?” “Have you forgotten how she is?” Ed asked with a grin. She still didn’t have the breath to laugh, but she understood what he meant. Angela did what Angela wanted, and if the world didn’t like it, it could fuck off. “We just want to leave, Val!” Scott shouted, loud enough for him to hear. “This doesn’t have to get any messier!” “You think you can get away? You have another think coming.” “I just want to take Jess and leave. That’s all.” “Not fucking likely!” All of them jumped when Val fired twice and Scott’s truck suddenly listed to the side as both tires on far side were shot out. “Just let me go! Please, Uncle Val!” “Oh, we’re way past that now, little girl! You’re going to have to pay for what you’ve done.” “Fuck!” Scott snarled quietly from behind the truck. “He’s lost it,” Ed said quietly. “Yeah,” Scott replied then raised his voice again. “Val! We have your wife and kids.” “Nice try!”

“We have a man inside with a gun on…” Scott paused as he tried to remember Val’s wife’s name. “Jodi,” Ed supplied. “Jodi! She and your kids are safe, but it’s up to you how safe they stay!” “I’m not falling for your stupid amateur hour tricks, boy.” “She’s wearing a light blue top and khaki shorts!” Scott lowered his voice. “Ed, call Angela! Have her give Jodi the phone and have her call Val.” “I still think you’re lying!” “Just wait! We’re contacting our man inside. She’s going to call you.” “Angela!” Ed said when she answered the phone. “Pass the phone to Jodi. Have her call Val! We’ve got a situation out here!” A moment later they heard a phone ring and Val muttering something before raising his voice. “Angela is your man inside?” “All it takes is one pull of the trigger!” Scott replied. “Are you willing to take that chance?” Val was quiet a moment. “No deal!” “Fuck!” Scott snarled. “What now?” Ed grimaced. “Damned if I know.” “Anybody?” Scott asked, looking at the men behind the truck with him, but none of them had an answer. “Val, this isn’t really about Jess. It’s about me!” Scott called, thinking furiously. “I’m the one that fucked everything up! You don’t want Jess. You want me.” “Scott! No!” Jess hissed. Scott put his fingers to his lips to hush her, waiting for Val to answer. “If I let Jess go, you’ll stay, is that it?” Scott handed Ed his weapon then stood up, hands up where Val could see them. All the Angels were spread out in a fan, peeking out from behind cover, with the exception of Val. He was standing in the middle of the yard, without cover, as if daring Scott to shoot him. “I believe you’re a sporting man. How about a wager? Just between you and me. You up for that?”

“Why shouldn’t I just kill you now?” “Because a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt or killed, including your wife and kids. But I’m offering you a chance to get what you want without all of that.” “I told you. No deal.” “I’ve broken your club, Val, all by myself. Your men are joining me because they know you’re wrong. Hell, over half your club is already on my side, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. You know why? Because I’m better than you.” Scott ducked behind the truck just as Val shot, a bullet hole appearing above his head as the bullet passed all the way through the bed. “That got him,” Scott said, looking at Ed with a grin. “What’s the matter, Val? Truth hurt?” Ed yelled. “Ed?” Val asked. “You’re part of this? What the fuck?” “Yeah! Me and a bunch more. You’re going to lose, Val.” “I never fucking lose!” “Then prove it!” Scott said, slowly standing up again. “Let’s see who the better man is. Mano a mano.” Scott watched as Val looked at his men. Scott couldn’t see them all from his vantage point, but the two he could see were looking at Val expectantly. “What do you want?” Val asked. “Simple. Me and you, winner take all. If I win, I leave with Jess and you leave us alone forever.” “And if I win?” “Then you’ll have the satisfaction of killing me with your bare hands.” “Scott! No!” Jess hissed again. She jumped to her feet beside him. “No! No deal!” Val looked at Jess, his eyes hard. He hadn’t planned on agreeing with to Scott’s demands. If it weren’t for Angela holding a gun on his wife and kids, especially his kids, Scott would be dead already. But if Jess didn’t want it to happen, that sweetened the deal a little. He was going to break that little bitch and show her who was boss, and killing her boyfriend in front of her would be a good first step. “Done.”

“No!” Jess yelled. The moment he agreed, Ed pushed send on his phone. A moment later, all the Angels phones announced the arrival of a text. The men cowering behind the truck looked at each other. “Insurance,” Ed said with a grin. “Done,” Scott agreed. Randy pulled his phone out and read the text aloud. “Val and Scott, tonight, at the farm. Winner take all fight… no weapons. All come.” “Scott, no…you don’t know Val! He’ll kill you!” Jess begged. “That’s the only way he wins,” he said softly. “You’re not leaving until this is settled.” Val said. “All of you, leave your weapons and step out from behind the truck. Scott took Jess by the waist and led her from behind the truck, the rest of the Angels laying down their guns before standing and following. “Kill them,” Val growled as the men stepped out from behind the Ford. He would deal with Angela next. When none of his men moved, Val shrugged and brought his gun up. “Fine. I’ll do it myself.” “Don’t do it Val,” Chuck said, his weapon coming up to point at Val. You agreed to settle it old school.” Val turned to look at his men, his eyes hard. “You would shoot me?” “I won’t follow anyone I can’t trust. You agreed to this. I expect you to follow through.” Val’s eyes roamed over his men. “That the way you all feel?” “Yeah, Val. That’s how I feel. If I can’t trust the President to keep his word, who can I trust?” Danny said, and the others nodded. Val glared at his men. “Fine. I’ll give you your fucking show. But after I break this fucker in half, there is going to be some changes.” “I suspect so,” Ed said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “They are not leaving, understood?” Val snarled, jabbing a thick finger in Scott’s direction. “Understood,” Greg said, tucking his weapon away. “If he tries to leave, I’ll kill him myself.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Scott said. “This ends here, tonight, one way or the other. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.” “Put them in the barn,” Val ordered then thought of all the expensive toys housed there and what happened to his basement. “No! On second thought, put them in the basement. There is nothing else for them to break down there…and somebody go get that asshole Rick and dispose of the body. You’ll find him on the old logging road.” Scott’s heart sank as Val spoke. That’s another one I owe you, you fucker, Scott thought to himself. “All of them?” Danny asked. “All of them and that bitch Angela, too.” As they were escorted toward the house, Chuck stepped up beside Ed. “When this is all over, you and I have a score to settle.” “Whenever you’re ready, Junior.” “When I kick your ass, I’m taking my winnings out of Angela.” Ed began to chuckle. “Son, she will break it off inside of her and then feed it to you.” When they approached the door to the kitchen, Val stopped them. “Call her off or you’re dead right here.” Scott nodded. “Angela, its Scott! Can you hear me?” he shouted loud enough for her to hear inside the house. “Yeah! Everything okay?” “More or less! We’re coming in! Don’t shoot!” He opened the door and stepped through, Jess right behind him. But when Val stepped through next, Angela’s smile disappeared in an instant. “It’s okay. Give Val the gun,” Ed said, stepping into the room behind Val. Angela hesitated, unsure of what to do. “It’s okay. Give him the gun,” Scott said. She looked back to Ed, and when he nodded, she handed the gun over. The moment the gun was out of her hand, Jodi grabbed her by the arm, turned her, and punched her right in the face. Angela staggered back a couple of steps, blood pouring from her busted lip. She paused a moment as she shook off the blow, then spat a red mass onto the tile floor and charged Jodi.

Ed grabbed her and held her back. “Save it!” Angela struggled against Ed a moment then stopped, spat again, and then wiped her mouth. “You’ll get yours,” she snarled. “Come on, bitch!” Jodi sneered, calling Angela to her with her fingers. “Knock it off!” Val bellowed. “Get them in the goddamn basement!”

Chapter Thirty-Nine After being herded into the basement, Scott took Jess’s chin in his hand and gently turned her face from side to side. The left side was swelling, her lip split and puffy, and her shirt in tatters, not to mention the fact that she was also dirty, had leaves and twigs in her hair, and was covered in faint bruises and welts. In short, she looked like hell, but to him, she had never been more beautiful. “I’ll kill Val for this.” Jess smiled, as everyone stood around her, waiting to hear the tail of her ordeal. “This?” she asked, with a dismissive wave at her face. “Val didn’t do this. This was Karen.” Scott looked to Ed, then Angela. “Karen Reaves. Marc Reaves’ wife,” Ed explained. Scott hadn’t been in Detroit long enough before the shit hit the fan to have met, much less remember, all the old ladies and who went with whom. “Your Vice President?” Scott asked and then he looked back to Jess. “I stabbed him with a piece of glass. She took exception to that.” “I hope you kicked her ass!” Angela crowed. “She was lying in the floor when I kneed Greg and escaped.” “Wait! There were two of them?” Angela asked, impressed in spite of herself. She knew Jess was a tough cookie, but she didn’t realize just how tough. To have taken down Karen was feat enough, but to have taken out Greg, as well… “Greg and Karen. The sick bastard just stood there with a hard-on and watched us try to kill each other.” Jess smiled as she remembers how much she enjoyed kneeing that asshole in the plums. “I told him I was horny from the fight and I wanted to fuck him. Then I kneed him and ran.” “And you broke all this stuff in the fight?” Randy asked incredulously. He would never admit it, but that must have been one a hell of a fight and he wouldn’t have minded seeing that himself. Jess smiled. “No. I did this all by myself. I was so pissed off I just went nuts.” “But you’re okay now?” Scott asked. She melted into his arms. “Better than okay,” she murmured as they held each other. All her aches and pains paled in comparison to the warmth she felt from being in Scott’s arms again. He had come to her rescue, once again, her eyes closing as she snuggled into his chest.

“I knew you would come for me,” she whispered, the rest of the Angels disappearing as his cheek rested against her head. “I will go anywhere, do anything, for you, Jess,” he murmured. They stood like that for many long moments, the rest of the Angels huddling together on the other side of the room to give them some privacy. “I love you, Jess.” She swallowed her tears. At that moment she realized that she was falling in love with him. He was everything she wanted in a man, kind, gentle, protective and understanding. “I love you, too,” she murmured, looking into his eyes until he brought his lips to hers to kiss her softly. Her lip hurt, but the discomfort was drowned out by the feelings of warmth and belonging that were pouring through her. *** “Do you think Scott can take him?” Angela asked after Ed explained what had happened outside. “I don’t know,” Ed admitted. “But we were really pinned in. We didn’t have a lot of options.” “Scott is a tough son-of-a-bitch.” “I know,” Ed agreed. “But Val is a brawler from way back. He fights dirty and has size and reach on him. I hope Scott can take him, but I don’t know.” “What happens to us?” “I don’t know that either,” Ed admitted. “If Val wins, it’s going to go hard for us, that much is certain. But even if Scott wins, I don’t know. But I had to do this, babe. This was wrong on so many levels.” Angela pulled her man to her for a slow, lingering kiss. “I know. Thank you.” Angela looked at Ed and smiled. If it was all going to end tonight, then there was something she had to take care of first. “Ed and I have some business, alone, in the sauna,” she said as she began to walk backwards toward the small wooden room tucked into the corner. “Ignore the noise.” The rest of the Angels laughed and ignored them as Angela led Ed into the room and closed the door. *** “Let’s get you cleaned up and changed,” Scott said after taking a deep breath, relaxing his embrace on his lover. “Do you have any extra clothes?” “Yeah. Mom brought me some.” “Where?” Scott asked, looking around the room.

Jess stepped out of his embrace and picked up a paper bag from beside the couch. She pulled the last pair of clean pants, shirt, and panties from the bag. She would have to continue to go braless because she didn’t have another one. “There’s a shower in the bathroom.” Even though there was no place for her to go, he didn’t want her out of his sight, even for a moment, so he followed her into the bathroom. It was irrational, and he knew it, but he had just gotten her back and he would be damned if he lost her again. “Jesus, you really wrecked the place,” he said dryly as she sat her clothes on the toilet seat and he closed the door behind them. “This? Karen and I did this. I ran in here and tried to lock the door, but I wasn’t fast enough.” She hissed in pain as she tried to get her shirt off. “I think I nearly broke my elbow when we were in the tub.” “Jesus…you two were in the tub? Fighting?” “Yeah. She was trying to kill me.” Jess paused a moment as she began to skin out of her pants. “Of course, to be fair, I was trying to kill her, too.” Scott picked up the curtain and looked at it, but then tossed it aside. The bracket was broken, but considering all the damage in the basement, a little water in the floor was going to be the least of the Val’s problems. “Jesus,” Scott muttered again as Jess continued to undress. She was covered in bruises and, though not dark yet, they were everywhere. “Are you sure you’re okay?” “To be honest…I’m starting to hurt. But, yeah, I’m okay now.” She stepped under the shower and let the water pour over her for several minutes, the warmth of it soothing the aches away. After a moment, Jess picked up the shampoo and, after squirting a healthy dollop into her hand, began to scrub her hair, her face twisting in discomfort as she did. “Here, let me help. Turn around,” Scott said, stepping up to the tub. She stepped out from under the water and put her hands down as he lathered her hair for her, picking bits of forest and trash out of it as he did. “Rinse,” he said when he had finished. Jess stepped under the nozzle, allowing the cascading water to sluice away the shampoo, but made a face when she reached for her hair again. She didn’t know what she did to her shoulder, but every time she reached over her head, it hurt. “Don’t,” Scott said softly. “Hand me the shampoo and I will wash your hair again, then I will help you rinse it out.” “You’ll get wet,” she said as she handed him the bottle.

“It’s all right.” When she stepped out from under the water, he lathered her hair again, still picking out the occasional bit of leaf. Saying nothing, he nudged her back under the water. The water was going everywhere, wetting him down as it splattered off his hands and ran down his arms, but he didn’t care. “There you go,” he said when he was confident all the soap was gone. “Do the rest of me?” “You want me to wash the rest of you?” “Do you mind?” “No, of course not. Hand me the soap.” She handed him the soap and stood still as his hands roamed her body, his touch gentle as he cleaned her. She was going to be sore as hell tomorrow, but for the moment, the warm water had eased her pains. “Did you hear that?” she asked as his hands slid slowly down her legs. “Hear what?” “Listen.” They were quiet for a moment, Scott straining to hear anything other than the hiss of the shower, then he heard it. A moan of a woman in great pleasure, followed by a man’s muttering voice. He couldn’t understand the words, but it had to be Ed and Angela in the sauna that shared a wall with the bathroom. Scott snickered as he returned to his task. “I would never have picked them as a couple.” “She loves him.” “I think he loves her, too. His face just lights up when she’s around. Did you notice?” “Yeah,” Jess murmured. “Rinse.” Jess stepped back under the water, thinking about everything that had happened to her as Scott’s hands glided over her body with soft touches. His coming for her, his willingness to risk his life for her, and, most especially, his admission of love had brought her feelings to the front. She now realized that she had been falling for him ever since they had settled into their new life, but her feelings for him before paled in comparison to the way she felt now. If it was all going to end tonight, if he was going to be ripped from her life forever, then she wanted to share her last moments with him in the most

intimate way possible. Angela had it right, and she wanted him make love to her while there was still time. She stepped out from under the shower and wiped her eyes. Scott was soaked, his shirt clinging to him like a second skin as she felt a warmth spreading over her, a warmth that warmed her at a much deeper level than the water ever could. “There’s another word that starts with ‘F’ that is much more fun to do in the tub than fight,” she said softly. “What?” he asked, his tone indicating his confusion. “Fuck.” Scott shook his head at her intentional misunderstanding. “No, I meant what are you talking about?” “That is what I’m talking about. I want you to make love to me. This may be our last chance.” “Jess, it’s going to be all right. We’re going to get out of this. I promise.” “I know, but I still want you. I need you. I need you to make me forget about what is about to happen, even if for only a little while.” His eyes roamed her body, cataloging all of her hurts. “Jess…are you sure you are up for it? I mean…” She pulled him close to her and began to unbutton his shirt. “I’m sure.”

Chapter Forty Scott allowed Jess to push his shirt from his shoulders as they kissed softly before he stepped back and removed the rest of his clothes. He stepped over the side of the tub and into her arms as she pulled him close, bending down to take her lips gently, mindful of hurting her. As they kissed they heard a thump from the sauna on the other side of the wall, then Angela cry out in orgasmic bliss, extoling Ed, begging for him to fuck her harder and faster. Jess pulled back from the kiss. Even though Scott was being very gentle with her, the kiss was still uncomfortable, and she was as ready for him as he was for her. She stepped back from him then turned, placing her hands against the wall, the water splashing on her back as she presented her ass to him. He entered her slowly, pushing in deep and holding himself there. After hearing her confession of love for him, they were done fucking. From this day forward, no matter how hard they may go at it, they were making love, but for today, he would take it slow and easy to not add to her discomfort or cause her additional pain. As he began to move, pushing in as deep as possible before pulling back and repeating the motion, Jess could feel her aches and pains being replaced by an ache of another kind as her passions began to roar. She pushed back into him, gasping softly at the most pleasant friction possible. Having him tell her he loved her changed their love-making at some indefinable, but very deep, level. Now there was more than just pleasure of the flesh, and she felt light and free as never before. He slid his hands slowly up her sides as he moved to begin caressing her breasts, dragging his fingertips slowly around the prickled flesh of her nipples as he kissed her back and shoulder. She had a nasty bruise forming on her shoulder and he kissed it, feather light, wishing he could take away her discomfort. He felt her shudder and move slightly, as if twisting away from his touch. “Am I hurting?” he asked, stilling his hands and hips. “God, no…don’t stop,” she breathed, pushing back into him. As he began to move again, she pulled one hand from the wall and pressed his hand harder to her breast, holding it there as she began to rock her hips in time with his motion. She could feel an orgasm trying to form, but she needed more speed and power to bring it to her. She pushed herself up from the wall, her hand still holding his to her breast, twisting her head around as she reached behind her and pulled his lips to hers. She kissed him lustily, her lip flaring with pain, but rather than pull back from the kiss, she embraced it, the pain reminding her she was alive. Jess began to rock her hips harder as they kissed. She had kissed him harder in the past, but the kiss had to be hurting her lip, but he gave her the kiss she wanted, letting her control their love-making. He began to thrust harder, faster, fondling her breast more firmly under her hand.

“Harder,” she gasped as she broke away, wanting him to drive her into her orgasm. She had beaten Karen, a brawler bitch if there ever was one, and she had killed Luke before he could kill her. As Scott began to thrust into her harder still, her orgasm rising within her and making her glow with erotic energy, she felt strong and powerful. She was no longer some weak waif that would let people control her. She was Jessica fucking Mitchell, and nobody was going to push her around anymore! “Oh god!” she groaned, sagging slightly as her orgasm took her, her legs feeling weak as she was ravaged by her climax. If it weren’t for Scott gripping her tight, holding her snuggly against him, she wasn’t sure she would have been able to keep her footing. “You okay?” he asked, the concern in his voice touching. It took her a moment to find her voice. “Yes…oh God, yes.” She pulled away from him, taking a sharp breath as she pulled him from within her, then turned to face him. She kissed him as hard as she could stand, pulling him down into the tub. He sat down in the bottom, resting against the back with his feet against the front and his knees slightly bent. She moved over him, steering him back inside as she lowered herself onto him, their positions so like the last time they made love. Jess placed her hands on his chest as she settled on him, her eyes bright despite the puffiness of her face and lip. He wanted to take her by the back of the head and pull her lips to his so he could kiss her hard and deep, but he let her control what they did. She began to move, slowly at first but picking up speed, thrusting herself upon him, her eyes locked on his. Her knees where hurting already, tender from the last time she had been in this tub, so she slowed her thrusts and adjusted her position. The pressure off her knees, she began to move again, thrusting hard, rocking her hips in the way she knew he liked and felt so fucking good. She kept her eyes locked on his, the pleasure building again. After a moment she went back to her knees, needing more, moving up and down, ignoring the pain as he moved within her. He was going to come, that much was certain, as Jess began bouncing on him like he was a trampoline, the pleasure beginning to overwhelm his control. He gritted his teeth in a silent snarl as he resolved to hang on as he pushed against his approaching release. Jess watched Scott, his teeth bared, his nostril flaring and his eyes intense as he took her by the hips and began to thrust against her. She was building up to another orgasm and it was going to be a big one. “Oh…fuck!” Angela shouted from the room next door, her voice clear and loud even over the sound of the shower. “Oh…goddamn…shit…fuck the shit out of me!” she wailed. Hearing Angela coming so hard next her, Scott pushing his hips up as his back arched, pushed Jess over the edge into a raging orgasm. With a shuddering grunt she fell forward, clinging to Scott as she quivered in rapture, unable to silence her moan of pleasure.

Scott groaned, teetering on the edge orgasm, every muscle tense, until he relaxed with a long exhale as his impending release faded away. He had been so close to coming when Jess stopped thrusting, the sounds of Ed and Angela fucking their brains out next door almost pushing him over the edge. He held her as she lay against him, panting. “I love you,” she whispered, not moving, enjoying the profound sense of closeness she felt with Scott. “I love you, too,” he whispered back, holding her snuggly as she lay against him, one hand holding her head to his shoulder. As she came down from her orgasm she sat up, looking into his eyes, and smiled. He returned her smile, but there was an intensity still in his eyes, and her smiled broadened slightly. “Want to go again?” “Only if you do,” he said, willing to take one for the team this time. “Shit…” she snarled as she struggled to her feet, her knees reminding her of their recent abuse. After a moment the pain faded and she stepped in close to Scott. No more on the floor! She backed up against the wall and offered herself to him. “I do.” He bent down and slowly inserted himself into her again. He thought having a few moments of respite would have taken the edge off, but as his cock slid into her, he could feel his orgasm begin to spool up again. He began to move, slowly at first, but then faster and harder. He leaned into her, desperate to kiss her but not wanting to hurt her. He reached under her ass and lifted her, sliding her up the slick wet wall, leaning in harder against her as his lips found the spot on her neck that she liked so well. She held tight as Scott drove into her in long, hard thrusts. She wrapped her legs around his ass, her arms around his shoulders and neck, as they made love in a clench, the sound of their wet bodies slapping together, the sight of water pouring off his head, the feel of his muscled body pinning her to the wall as his cock plumbed her depths, was ramping her up again. They had made love in the shower before, but it had never been like this. She began to mewl, another orgasm forming already. Being pinned to the wall by Scott, she once again thought of her battle with Karen in this very tub and how that pain was being replaced with this pleasure. She had fucking totally kicked that bitch’s ass and the feeling of power returned. Scott began to burn in erotic torture as he started to tip into his climax. Unable to control himself he began to thrust harder, growling as he drove himself to the peak of pleasure, the orgasm once denied twisting him up with its power. With a hard barking grunt, he spilled into her as he continued to thrust hard and deep, his entire body shaking with the power of his release. And still he couldn’t stop, thrusting deep as he burned in orgasmic fire, before pulling back and thrusting in hard once more, holding himself deep, each thrust accompanied by a soft cry from pleasure so intense it bordered on pain. Suddenly she tightened her grip, holding him to her, clinging to him as if she would never let him go. Finally he stopped and held her tight as he panted, never wanting to be without her touch.

As Scott began to come, she tightened her grip, straining for her own release, electrified by how he made her feel. He began to cry out softly, his sounds of pleasure pushing her ever closer to own release, until her orgasm washed over her again. She held him as he shook, warmed by her own climax while thrilling in the pleasure she gave him. They washed out of their orgasms at nearly the same time, sagging into each other. They stood, the water pouring over them until Scott found the strength to move. He slowly released his hold on Jess as she lowered her legs, then stepped in close again, her lips finding his. They kissed gently, the connection growing stronger with each touch of their lips, their words of love given form. “I love you, Jessica Mitchell,” he whispered softly, caressing her cheek with a finger, almost tingling as the word fell so easily from his lips. “I love you, Scott Murphy,” she replied in kind, her hand coming to his face, the words wrapping her like a warm blanket and making her feel snug and secure. Nothing could touch her so long as Scott loved her. “We should go.” “Yeah,” he agreed, though he would be content to stand her and hold her forever. Jess turned off the water and Scott carefully patted her dry. He then dried himself and dressed, wringing his shirt out before putting it on. They emerged from the bathroom, acting like nothing had happened, and the rest of the Angels had the decency to pretend they didn’t know what had gone one…except one. “How was your shower? Feeling better?” Angela asked, her face and voice the picture of innocence. Jess flushed in embarrassment despite herself. “It was fine.” “Scott helped?” Angela pressed with a mischievous grin. Jess looked away, knowing they had been caught out, but she refused to give in to Angela’s teasing. “Yes. My shoulder was hurting so he washed my hair. That’s why he’s wet.” “I see,” Angela said, grinning at Scott as she sauntered over to them lazily. “That’s all?” “That’s it,” Jess said firmly, daring Angela to contradict her. Angela nodded once, holding Jess’s eyes with her own as she grinned. “If you say so, but Val needs to have his plumbing checked. I thought the wall was going to fall in on Ed and me just as we were finishing up.” Jess tried to hold Angela’s gaze, but she couldn’t keep a straight face and began to giggle. “Yeah. Maybe so,” she said softly. “I’m surprised you could hear over the noise you were making.”

Angela grinned at her crookedly. “Well, like I said, we were done. I wanted to feel his touch one more time, just in case.” Jess nodded. “Yeah…me, too,” she whispered then looked to Scott standing beside her, his arm loosely around her waist. Now that the fog of passion had been satiated, she was starting to worry about him again. He was a bit taller than average, perhaps six-foot two, and he was fit and muscular, but Val was a bear of a man. He may not be in as good a shape as Scott, but he was taller and more heavily built. She knew Scott could take care of himself; he had proven that already, but she still worried that he was overmatched. Scott let her go. “Don’t worry. Either of you. It’s going to be okay.” Angela nodded, but didn’t look convinced. “Just be careful. Jess needs you.” Scott nodded. “I know,” he said as he smiled at Jess. “And I intend to be there.” Jess nodded as his smile touched her heart. “See that you are.” He reached down and tipped her chin up, his lips just brushing hers. “Don’t worry. I will be.”

Chapter Forty-One He had talked a big game, trying to alleviate Jess’s fears, but if Scott were to tell the truth, he was worried. He could take care of himself, but Val was huge. As his group was marched out of the house and into the field, he was still trying to figure out how to take Val down. He had a plan, but he couldn’t figure out where to get a tank on such short notice. “He likes to go to his left,” Ed said softly, stepping up beside Scott. “He also likes to stand off and punch.” Scott nodded at Ed’s advice. It made sense that Val would want to use his greater reach to his advantage. But getting inside was dangerous, as well. Val may have been going soft with age, but he was still a big man and undoubtedly strong as hell. “What do you suggest?” “Ground and pound.” Scott gave Ed a dramatic eye roll. “Swell. Any suggestions on how I do that?” Ed shook his head. “No.” “Fuck,” Scott muttered. “And watch him. He fights dirty.” “Yeah? Well so can I.” “Then do it. You have a lot to live for.” Scott nodded as they were hustled through the people standing among the bikes that were arranged facing inwards in a large circle perhaps thirty feet in diameter. As he stepped through into the center, he looked around. There was a full moon and could make out perhaps a hundred men and women that made up the crowd, with a gap separating them into two groups. As he watched, Jess, and the rest of his party, joined the group on the far side. He nodded to himself. Now he knew where he friends were. Jason stepped out of the group on the other side. “You really fucked up, Scott. I brought you with me to Detroit and offered you a chance of a lifetime. You fucked it up and now you’re going to die.” “I’ll deal with you later, you little prick.”

“You should be more worried about tonight. I’m going to pat you down, just in case,” Jason said as he efficiently checked him for weapons. “He’s clean,” Jason said as he stepped back into the crowd. Val stepped into the circle. “Now you’re going to pay for what you did.” Ed stepped out of the crowd. “I think someone should pat you down, Val. After all, this is supposed to be fair fight.” Val stared at Ed a moment. “Jason!” “No! Ed barked. “I’ll do it.” Val raised his arms. “Fine. But when this is over—” “Yeah, I know,” Ed muttered, interrupting him. He checked Val over carefully then stepped back. “He’s clean.” Scott began removing his shirt so Val couldn’t hold him by it, not wanting to give him any advantage. The headlights on the bikes popped on and he blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the sudden glare. Jess stepped out and took his shirt and then kissed him softly on the lips. “Beat the shit out of him… kill him if you have to,” she said softly before stepping away and disappearing into the light. *** Jess watched as the two men began to circle each other. Val was in a slight crouch, making feints and taunting Scott with what he was going to do to her. “Jess is going to pay, Scott. I’m going to break her so she will never defy me again, and there is nothing you can do to stop it,” Val growled as he slowly followed Scott around the circle. She couldn’t see Scott’s eyes, but she knew they had the same deadness in them she had witnessed before when violence was imminent. Scott stood upright and tall, his fists hanging loosely at his side, wasting no energy as he waited for Val to make his move. Val rushed in and Scott danced to his left at the last second, throwing a hard right into Val’s kidneys as he passed. He grunted and grabbed his side as he turned to face Scott again. *** Scott held himself back from rushing in to capitalize on the solid blow delivered as Val passed. He was going to have to depend on speed and endurance to wear Val down a little, and he smiled slightly as he began to back up again. A couple more solid punches like that and Val will be pissing blood for a week. He dropped his guard in a calculated ploy to goad him, still slowly backing away, looking for another opportunity to strike.

It didn’t take long. Val waded in, throwing a hard left, right combination. Scott ducked the first swing, taking the second on his shoulder as he ducked inside. The blow felt like he had been hit by a baseball bat, but he kept coming, throwing a right into Val’s stomach. He tried to follow up with a left, but Val was backing away with a whoosh of air. Scott saw the blow coming but it was too late avoid. He tried to duck under swing but wasn’t fast enough and took the punch as a glancing blow on the top of his head. *** Jess’s heart nearly stopped when Scott when down, Val’s hard roundhouse punch to his head stopping him cold. Before she could react, Scott was bounding up and driving into Val like a football player. Val was a bear, but Scott took him to the ground, lifting him from his feet by the force of his impact, the two men tumbling over each other in a tangle of arms and legs. Scott was first to his feet again, turning toward Val and kicking him savagely in the stomach as he tried to rise. Val jerked his arm down at the last moment, blocking the brunt of the kick, but the force knocked him back to down to his knees. Scott waded in, taking Val in a headlock, and threw a left into his face. He was pulling back his bloody hand for another blow when Val roared like an enraged elephant, gabbing Scott by a leg and lifting him as he rose. *** The moment Val grabbed him around the leg Scott knew he was in trouble and he tried to throw another punch to Val’s face to stop him, but his feet left the ground just as he threw the punch. He connected with something, but the punch was weak. Val lifted him like a child but he was overbalanced, and they crashed back to the hard Michigan soil. Try as he might, Scott couldn’t hold the headlock when he hit the ground, his air escaping from his lungs in an explosive rush. He forced himself to move, knowing that if he didn’t get up, Val would tear him apart. *** “Get up! Please get up!” Jess begged softly, clutching his shirt tightly in her fists as Scott slowly rolled over. At least he was moving. He staggered to his feet, and took an unsteady step back, watching as Val finally began to move. “Hit him! Hit him!” she whimpered, urging her champion on before his opponent could recover. *** He was beginning to get his wind back as Val got to his feet, blood streaming from his shattered nose. “You fucking punk! I’m going tear your head off and fuck your skull!” Val snarled, charging him. Scott waited for Val to come, then threw his best punch, a right cross, straight into his face. It connected solidly, snapping Val’s head back, but didn’t stop him and they went down in a rolling tumble. Scott balled up on Val, keeping his arms in tight to deflect any blows, once again tucking Val’s head under his arm. He grabbed Val by the shirt and hauled with all his might, turning them over. The punching was over. Now it was ground and pound.

Scott adjusted his grip, pulling Val’s head down as he bound his right arm by encircling it with his left, locking it tight in his elbow. Val roared in rage and pain as Scott began to apply pressure. Reaching across is body, Val got his hand around Scott’s face and began to force his head back. He fought to keep his head down, but Val was just too strong. Scott released his hold on Val’s arm and rolled away, spinning around to face his opponent as he scrambled to his feet, and then launched himself at Val again. *** Jess couldn’t breathe as she watch the two men as they rolled over each other, grunting, snarling, and crying out in pain before freezing for a moment, then tumbling over each other again. With another roar, Val slipped from Scott’s grip and reached up, placing his meaty hands around Scott’s face. She saw his thumbs searching for Scott’s eyes and her blood ran cold as she remembered Rick. Scott punched Val in the throat before slapping his hands away from his face, and then grabbed the front of Val’s colors, rising up on his knees while he held him as he prepared to throw a left. Val grabbed the wrist holding him and ripped it free, using the leverage and momentum to force Scott off him and to his back. Scott kicked at Val as the bigger man drove in, his foot impacting him squarely in the chest and sending him staggering back. Scott bounded to his feet and scrambled away before turning to face Val again. Both men were covered in blood, though Val seemed to be the worst off by far, his right eye swelling closed and his nose a pulpy mess. She heard screaming and looked to her right just in time to see Jodi and Angela go to the ground, snarling and spitting as they ripped into each other. Their fight lasted only a moment before a group of men pulled them apart, holding them as they lunged at each other and shouted obscenities. Angela could take care of herself, and she turned her attention back to Scott. *** Scott panted as the two sides roared in excitement, trying to catch his breath as Val began to remove his colors and shirt, apparently tired of Scott using his clothes to his advantage. Val threw his clothes aside, standing naked to the waist as Scott was, but with a gaping hole in his crotch and down one leg where his pants had split. Val should be out of the fight by now, but he was so fucking strong! He needed an advantage or Val was going to wear him down. Scott looked around for anything to use, a stick or rock, anything at all, but saw nothing. Then he had a moment of inspiration and quickly unbuckled his belt and tore it from the loops. His pants felt disturbingly loose, but he needed the belt. As it whipped clear of his pants, he caught the end and formed it into a loop. “You going to spank me now?” Val sneered, wiping at his face to try to clear his vision. “Let’s just finish this.” Scott charged at him, using the belt to extend his reach, and with a flick of the wrist, whipped the belt around Val’s forearm. Scott hauled on the belt, pulling Val’s arm down to immobilize his devastating punch, then stepped in and threw a hard left. Val was tangled in the belt, but he was far from helpless and blocked the punch before grabbing Scott by the back of the head and

pulling him forward and down. Scott knew he was in trouble again the moment Val’s hand closed around the back of his neck. He strained back with every fiber of his being in a desperate attempt to keep his head up. If Val got his head down, it was over. Being able to use the strength in his entire body, Scott was able to power out of Val’s grip, but fell when Val suddenly lost his grip, the belt dragging Val down upon him. Once again they wrapped up, grunting and straining. They were sweating profusely and were covered in dirt and grass, making it difficult to hold onto each other. Scott could feel his pants slipping down as he wrapped his legs around Val’s waist. Val threw a left into his side that felt like a horse’s kick, then another. Scott shoved his hand out, stiff-arming Val under the chin to force his head back and prevent another blow. Val began to growl as he took Scott by the wrist and, by slow degrees, pulled his hand away from his face. If Val got his hand pinned down, the fight was over. Scott released his grip on him with his other arm and grabbed him by the back of his head and began pulling with all his strength to the side as he tried to twist his hips. *** Jess watched as the two men lay on one another, Val between Scott’s legs, their clench as intimate as lovers. She began to gasp, unable to catch her breath as Val began to overpower Scott. She sensed from the way their muscles bulged, both putting everything they had into this one final duel, they were near the end game. She felt a touch on her wrist and her head snapped around, her breath and heart stopping in sudden panic. It was her mother, her hand going softly around Jess’s wrist, offering her silent support as her lover fought for his life on the ground in front of her. *** Val finally pulled Scott’s arm away from his face, almost tearing his arm from his shoulder as Scott lost his leverage, but the sudden movement added just enough shift in his weight that Scott was able to tip Val to the side and off of him. Relieved of his weight, Scott slipped free, stumbling as his pants bound his thighs. He fell and quickly rolled to his back. As expected, Val was there, charging in like an enraged bull, and he fired a hard right foot into Val’s face. The blow connected and Val staggered back and fell, but the kick didn’t have the knockout power it should have because of the pants binding his legs. As Val slowly struggled to his feet, Scott kicked his jeans off to clear his legs, losing his shoes in the process. Now was not the time for modesty. His side was killing him, as well as his right arm, and he knew he would be throwing no more punches with it tonight. Val was up, but he seemed dazed and he weaved slightly as he stood there, his hands up but out of position. Wanting to take advantage while he could, Scott charged back into Val, driving them, once again, into the dirt. Time to ground and pound. Val’s movements were weak and sluggish, but he was still in the fight. His massive arms went around Scott’s back before he could set up to begin throwing punches and held him, pinning him to his chest like a lover. Scott struggled, his face twisting in pain as Val tried to break his back while

roaring in rage, pain and effort. Scott got his left hand against Val’s face and pushed with all the strength he could muster. *** “Please, please, please…” Jess muttered as the men became still, once again, their muscles standing out in stark relief as they strained. She saw Val’s hands slip, unable to maintain his grip on his own blood and sweat slickened wrist. Suddenly Scott threw his head forward, smashing it into the back of his own hand and bellowing in pain. *** He was losing and he knew it. Val was holding him down, giving himself time for his head to clear, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was barely holding his own as it was, and he could sense Val getting back into the fight. In desperation, he drove his head downward, not daring to release Val’s head, using his own hand to transfer the energy of the impact to Val’s nose. No longer able to press down with his left hand, the pain incredible, certain he had broken the bones, he cried out his pain to the world. He knew at that moment he had made a mistake and he was finished. With both arms injured, he was defenseless and Val would now kill him easily. Then he realized that Val’s grip on his back was almost non-existent, and he threw himself off the man and Val rose groggily to follow, blood flowing in a torrent from his ruined nose and lips. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Scott scrambled behind the semi-conscious Val, and wrapped his left arm around his throat. Taking his left wrist in his still functioning right hand, Scott clamped down and pulled with every ounce of strength he had left. Val’s arms came up as he suddenly came to life, reaching for his face, but Scott ignored his grasping hands, focusing on maintaining the pressure. *** The crowd was roaring for blood, knowing the spectacle was nearly over, but Jess heard none of it as she watched Val’s fingers claw at Scott’s face, Scott jerking his face back each time Val’s sausagelike fingers found it. “Finish him…” she whispered, praying it was over. Both men were covered in blood and sweat, their skin glowing in the light of the motorcycle headlights like a scene from a horror movie. Val roared again, driving back with his legs, forcing Scott onto his back as Val thrust his hips into the air, trying to break the hold, but Scott grimly held on, wrapping his legs around Val while Val clawed at his arms, opening bleeding wounds as he tried to break the choke hold. “Give up!” Scott snarled, as Val again thrust his hips into the air, pulling Scott’s hips up with him and driving his shoulders down, trying to crush the will from Scott, refusing to yield. ***

“Please, please, please…” Jess began to chant softly again, unable to stay quiet, grasping her mother’s comforting hand with desperate strength, as Scott and Val snarled and growled, their teeth bared in feral sneers, blood flowing from Scott’s arm as Val continued to thrust and buck. “Please, please, please…” As she watched, Val’s struggles began to slow, his attempts at escape less desperate, and she didn’t know if it was because he had broken Scott’s grip or Scott had finally beaten him. “Please, please, please…” Scott rolled over, forcing Val face down into the grass, but still he held on, lying on his back with Val’s neck in bend of his elbow, his face still a mask of rage, his teeth bared in effort. “Please, please, please…” *** Scott released Val and, in a final act of defiance, shoved his face hard into the dirt as he stood and staggered back from Val. When Val didn’t move, Jess released her mother’s hand and ran across the circle, throwing herself into Scott’s arms. They tumbled to the ground as she began to cover him in rapid kisses, her heart threatening to burst from her chest in relief. She began to cry as his arms went slowly around her, holding her, his right hand stroking her hair softly. “I won…” he whispered, lacking the strength to do more. “I know,” she blubbered. “I told you I would,” he said slowly, still stroking her hair. “You did,” she whimpered as she wiped her tears from his face. The crowd was beginning to mill around, several members bending down to check on Val. “He’s still breathing,” she heard a man say, but she only had eyes for Scott. He had saved her again. “I love you,” she said softly, sniffing and trying to stop her tears. “I love you,” he whispered. “Shhh… don’t cry… it’ll be all right.” Then he heard the sound of a gun being cocked.

Chapter Forty-Two “Jason! What the fuck are you doing?” Ed roared as Jason pointed the gun at Scott and Jess as they lay on the ground. “Just following orders.” “What orders?” Chuck asked, his voice diamond hard. “We all agreed to leave our weapons in the house; you know that.” “These came straight from Val. Scott isn’t leaving here alive.” “Whoa! Hold up there,” Greg said. “Val agreed to settle this old school. We all heard him.” “Yeah, well, he changed his mind.” All the Grim Angels began looking at each other. “Kill him!” Jodi screamed. “Don’t do it, Jason,” Greg warned. Jason looked at the crowd around him. “What the fuck is wrong with you? He defied the club. He shot two of our brothers. He has to pay for what he did. We can’t let him walk or we’ll look weak!” “This is bullshit!” Chuck spat. “I never liked this idea of kidnapping Jess in the first place, but I went along with it because Val’s the President, but now this shit? No, no way in hell. I’m out of it!” Chuck threw up his arms and moved to join one of the knots of brothers who hadn’t support Val’s actions. Scott eased Jess off of him and slowly got to his feet, pushing Jess behind him as she rose to her own feet. “You little prick!” he snarled. “I’ll kill you for this!” Jess watched as Jason smiled, the smile not touching his eyes, just like Val’s. “How? You’ll be dead.” “Jason, I’m warning you, don’t do it,” Greg snarled, stepping between Jason and Scott. “Scott took Val down old school. He gets to leave and we won’t bother him. That was the deal.” Jason looked around at the gathering of men and women again, now seeing only a few friendly faces. “What a bunch of pus—” His eyes went wide at the same instant as the group heard the gunshot, and he staggered sideways then fell to the ground, holding his side. He looked up and to his left, his mouth hanging open in shock, to see Kat standing there, her Beretta Storm still in her hand. Every face turned toward her, stunned into immobility by her action.

“You fucking shot me!” Jason yelled as the pain began. “Yeah, I did,” Kat replied, pulling the trigger again, the bullet hitting Jason in the chest this time. Greg and Paul, the two closest Angels, grabbed Kat’s arm and wrenched the weapon from her grip. She let it go without struggle as Angels crowded around Jason. “What the fuck, Kat?” Greg asked, safing the weapon before someone else got hurt, or killed. “It’s bad,” Phillip said, looking up from Jason. “This had to end. Jess has suffered enough. No more, not while I’m alive,” she said. A murmur rippled through the brothers and old ladies. Greg looked at Jason, then to Val. “Yeah. Enough is enough.” Ed stepped forward and placed his hand on Greg’s shoulder. “Anyone got any problems with this ending, here and now?” Even the die-hard supporters of Val shook their head in agreement. “It’s done, then.” Phillip stood up, his hand covered in blood. “He’s dead.” “Good riddance,” Ed muttered. “I never liked that little prick anyway. Anyone who would shoot a brother like that is no brother of mine.” Greg nodded in agreement. “Mine either.” The phrase rippled through the crowd as the Grim Angels, Detroit Chapter, closed ranks. “Chuck, Greg,” Ed said, calling a couple of Val’s closest Lieutenants to him. “Val said there was going to be some changes. What do you say we go make some?” “Phillip,” Greg said. “Take charge of this mess. Get Val and Jodi back to their house and deal with… him,” he said as he waved a hand dismissively toward Jason. “You can’t fucking do this!” Jodi screamed in defiance, sensing the change happening around her. “Val’s the fucking President! You can’t—” “And somebody gag that bitch,” Greg barked, causing Alex to step up to her, his face hard. Jodi fell silent, glaring at him with hate in her eyes. “How you doing, boy?” Ed asked Scott. He felt ridiculous standing there almost bare-assed naked but he didn’t even know where his pants, belt and shoes were anymore. “I think he broke a couple of ribs, and maybe dislocated my shoulder.

I’m pretty sure my hand is broken.” Ed chuckled. “Yeah, but you should see the other guy,” he said glancing at Val. “To be honest, I didn’t think you could do it. Val is a hell of brawler.” He paused as he looked him over, then turned his eyes to Jess. “You two made quiet the pair. I wouldn’t have thought Jess here could take Karen, either. Karen has kicked more ass than any old lady in the club.” “I had a lot to fight for,” Scott said, grimacing slightly as he pulled Jess in close. “Me, too,” Jess added. Ed nodded. “You both need to go get checked out. I’ll have someone drive you.” “Okay, thanks,” Scott said, too tired to argue. Ed smiled and took a long obvious look at Scott, his eyes traveling the length of his near naked body. “But for god’s sake, show some respect and put your pants back on. You can’t go to the doctor wearing only your underwear.” Scott began to laugh, then cringed as he bent ever farther over his battered ribs. *** “How are you feeling this morning?” Ron asked as he entered the bedroom Jess and Scott were sharing. Ed had called Ron and asked him if he could pick Scott and Jess at the Village Heath Urgent Care facility, in Washington, and put them up for a couple of days. Scott and Jess had worked out their story on the way to the clinic, and had spun a tale of being involved in a fight with another couple in a bar parking lot to explain their injuries. If the doctor suspected anything different, she didn’t mention it. After they were both thoroughly checked out by the doctor, the only real damage was to Scott’s hand. He had fractured couple of bones when he smashed his head into it, but the doctor assured him it would heal cleanly and he would have full use of it in no time. The rest of their aches and pains were just that, and would heal on their own without medical intervention. Scott groaned long, hard and deep as he set up in the bed, a sound Jess thought was kind of sexy, until she repeated the sound as she sat up. “I hurt everywhere,” he groaned. “Same here,” Jess agreed. Ron presented her with a bottle of Advil and a glass of water. “I figured as much,” he said, handing the items over. “Ed Buehler called. He wanted to know if it was okay to stop by later today.”

“Ed Buehler?” Scott asked as Jess downed four of the Advil. “That’s him,” Jess nodded as she handed the glass to Scott. “Did he say what he wanted?” she asked as Scott swallowed his pills. “No. He only said he wanted to talk to you both. But he also said he would respect your wishes if you said no.” Scott and Jess looked at each other a moment. “What do you think?” he asked Jess. “I think Ed is a good guy.” “Okay. We’ll meet him. But later, this afternoon sometime. I need some time to work the kinks out.” “God…damn! Even my hair hurts,” Jess snarled as she hobbled out of the bed, causing her step-dad to chuckle. “Still like the motorcycle club life?” “Not so much right now,” she groused as she stiffly made her way down the hall to the bathroom. Scott eased out of bed, walking hunched over and listing, causing Ron to chuckle again. “Yep. I can sure see the appeal of a motorcycle club.” Scott bared his teeth briefly as a flash of pain passed over him. “And here I thought you were a nice guy.” Ron snickered as he turned. “I’ll call Ed and tell him you’ll meet him here at about three, okay?” he said as he walked away to give the kids some privacy to freshen up. “Can you help me take a shower?” Jess asked softly. “Jess…I’m too sore to—” Scott began. “No,” she interrupted. “Really. I need some help. Please. If you’ll help me, I’ll help you.” Scott began to laugh. “Jesus, don’t make me laugh,” he said, holding tight to his side. “Is this how we’re going to be when we’re a hundred?” “God I hope not! I don’t want to get that old if it is.” Jess started the shower, adjusting the water to as hot as she could stand. They carefully stepped into the shower, grateful for not having to step over a tub wall, and stood under the water, allowing the heat to leach the soreness from their bodies. They carefully washed, allowing the other to wash them in places too painful to reach on their own, and giggling at their predicament. By the time they were

done washing, the warm water and Advil had begun to work and they held each other under the shower, allowing the love between them balm their aches. *** “I hope you two feel better than you look,” Ed said as he sat down at the table in Ron’s kitchen, nodding his head in thanks as Ron sat a beer in front of him. “Ron, you may want to stay and hear this, too.” Ron paused, then pulled out the fourth chair and sat down. “Pretty sore, Ed,” Scott said. “But I want to thank you for what you did for me, for us.” Ed smiled and nodded his head. “Well, now I’m hoping you can do something for me.” “If I can,” Scott said. “There have been come changes with the Angels,” Ed began after taking a sip from the bottle. “Val and Marc are out. Several others have turned in their colors.” “What happened to Val?” Jess asked. “We pulled his colors. He wasn’t happy about it, but there was nothing he could do. Marc, he’s probably not going to be able to ride again.” Jess looked at the table, her fingers twisting around one another. “I wish I hadn’t done that. I never meant for that to happen.” Ed took her hands in his and stilled them. “Don’t worry about it. You did what you had to do. He’s bitter, but he’ll get over it. You dance with the devil and all that. I spoke with him and he told me the doctors think he will get partial use of his arm back, but it’s going to be a long haul for him.” “What does this have to do with me?” Scott asked. “We’re electing new officers. Those who supported Val…they can stay in the club, but I don’t want them in positions of authority, at least not right away.” Scott’s ears perked up at Ed’s words. “Who’s the President?” he asked, though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer. “I am.” “And the Vice-President?” Jess asked. “That’s where Scott comes in. I would like him to be my VP.”

“Why me?” “Because everyone in the club respects you. They appreciate your toughness and your willingness to say, and do, what you think is right. And to be honest, they like the fact that you went all in to protect Jess. But it’s more than that. I liked the fact that you were willing to walk away for her. That tells me you are thinking beyond the club.” “What do you mean?” Scott asked. “I knew your dad, Jess. I know he didn’t agree with the drugs, and he told me how if he ever became President, he was going to try to get the Angels out of the underground. I agree with him. The fact that Scott could walk away from the money tells me something and I want him to help me do just that. I want to take the Grim Angels legit.” “How?” Jess asked. “I don’t know yet. That’s what I want him to help me figure out. Security maybe? We might begin to expand the garage and try to make a go of that rather than just using it to launder our dirty money.” “And the rest of the club?” Scott asked. “The brothers that are left are onboard, to one degree or another, with the idea. Those who couldn’t get onboard, who couldn’t let go of the money, are part of the group that turned in their colors. We lost about a quarter of our members, and we may lose a few more before it’s over. But we’re letting them walk away if they choose to.” Scott paused as he thought it over. It would mean moving to Detroit, a place he still hated, but then he looked at Jess and could see the hope in her eyes. He smiled softly at her, taking her hand. Atlanta, Greensboro or Detroit, Michigan, where ever Jess was, that was home…and that was enough for now. THE END

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BJORN I saved her and doomed my club. In this world, the club comes first, the women second. But Peyton is different. From the moment I had her curves in my hand, I knew she was going to be mine. She set my world ablaze, and I won’t stop until I’ve tamed that fire and put my ring on her finger. She’s running from a bastard who wants to wreck her in the worst way possible. There’s no way I’m giving her up And if the demons want to drag her back to hell. They’ll have to go through me.


I DIDN’T ASK HIM TO SAVE ME. DANI At least, that’s what I thought. But Ash taught me what it’s like to be owned. And consumed. His chiseled, tattooed body is matched only by his ruthlessness and loyalty. And when he stares at me… He’s like a volcano about to erupt. I feel his rough hands heating my curves. His scarred, battle-tested body pinned against my own. And even if I could forget those words he growled at me—”You’re mine, forever”—I don't think I would. ASH A lifetime of riding with the Devil’s Crucifix is about to come to an end and I’m looking to get out before it all comes crashing down. I didn’t expect her to come along for a ride. Innocent but tough, women like her are always drawn to the flames. She’s getting too closed and we both risk getting burned. She brings out the animal in me. The locked up monster about to explode. She may have lit the match. But I’m going to blow her world apart. PLAYER

MONEY TALKS, AND WHEN RIP PETERSON TALKS IT, I’M HYPNOTIZED. ALEX I had a good thing going… until he showed up, six feet of leather and steel, a tempting smile, and a downright dangerous offer that left me breathless and ready. But once ours fingers were in the honeypot, we got a taste of the adrenaline and wanted more. He wanted more. Me.

RIP My only rule in life? Don’t get caught. Call it what you like, I’m the one who walks away on top every single time, and I f*cking love it that way. But Alex is something else: smart and sexy--a spitfire and one hell of a natural for cheating a card table. I knew I could take her and make her into something great. And when we walk out with our first winnings, I know we’ve got a good thing going. There’s just one flaw in this plan… my lies are about to catch up with me. And just maybe my stupid f*cking heart, too. DARE

I’ve spent my whole life fighting: from the mountains of Afghanistan to the bloodied octagon DARE Backing down is never an option. I bury my opponents, no matter who they are. I’ve had my share of women, broke more hearts than I can count. But that’s life when every day could be my last. Then Holly came into my life, and everything changed. I can’t get her out of my head. I want her in my bed. I need to hear her scream my name. I’ve spent my entire life winning fights. I’m not about to lose this one. HOLLY I’m fragile. I’ve been hurt. But I’m not made of glass. I want to be loved, I want to be touched, I want to be made love to. Hard. I never thought it’d be from him. He made me cry. He made me scream. He made me forget everything that I’d been. But now he wants more… He wants to make me HIS.

Carmen faye taken by the outlaw, desert huns mc  
Carmen faye taken by the outlaw, desert huns mc