Kearny was an old school kind of town, bisected by railroad tracks that split it into two sides, one good and one bad. The bags in the back of the minivan rattled as we passed over those tracks and headed into the bad side, where incomes were lower, homes were smaller, and nothing happened without The Kings knowing about it.
My mind worked on overdrive as Jakob took us deeper into club territory. Daniel or Liam? Liam or Daniel? Or someone else entirely? I’d been wrong about Liam once already. What if I was wrong again? About both of them?
I rubbed at the back of my neck, trying to stave off the headache that threatened. I felt like I didn’t know up from down anymore. Too much had happened in the past few days, and I was struggling to process it all. It didn’t help that this felt like trying to put together a puzzle with half of the pieces missing. Fricking Jakob and his refusal to tell me what was really going on. Even if he hadn’t intentionally seduced me just to get into Magnolia, I had a lot to be angry with him about. Like the fact that he’d kept so much from me. Things that only further endangered me.
Here, Krista, come play in my world. Oh, you want to know the rules of the game? Too bad!
I would never have been so at ease around Liam if I’d known that Jakob suspected him.
Oh, holy hell. What if that’s exactly why Jakob had kept me in the dark? We’d only really known each other for a few days. How could he trust that I’d keep my trap shut about his suspicions? Or be convincing enough to fool Liam into thinking I was comfortable around him?
The more I thought about it, the more I thought I understood Jakob’s behavior. A “good” man, a “decent” man, would have told me everything up front and let me decide for myself how involved I wanted to be. Jakob already confirmed that he was neither of those things. And if our roles were reversed, would I have trusted a strange man with all of that? I thought about it for less than a minute before I had to admit the answer was a resounding NOPE.
Was I still angry at Jakob? Yes. But I thought I understood his motivations, which made everything that much more complicated.
A few minutes later, Jakob eased the van to a stop in front of a grimy-looking tattoo parlor. Several motorcycles were parked at the curb, The Kings’ patch stamped proudly on the side of each gas tank. The windows of the shop were caked in dust. A few letters in the neon sign were out, and now instead of Brad’s Ink, it read Bad Ink. Fitting. This looked like a great place to contract Hepatitis C.
I glanced sideways at Jakob. “Please tell me you’ve never gotten a tattoo here.”
He took off his shades and shot me a piercing look. “No one gets tattoos here.”
I frowned and turned to the row of bikes beside us. If their owners weren’t inside getting tattoos, what were they doing here? Was Jakob being a smartass, or was he serious? Was this shop nothing but a cover for other, more nefarious Kings’ business?
I glanced back at the dirty windows and general neglect of the storefront. I wouldn’t want to get a tattoo here, and maybe that’s what The Kings were banking on. Maybe the dirt and decay weren’t from neglect but were intentional.
Before I could question Jakob about it, a large Latino man about my age strolled out of the front door and headed toward us. He wore a skintight black t-shirt with a sleeveless leather vest over it that had The Kings’ emblem on the right breast, similar to the one Jakob donned the other day. His head was shaved. Tattoos snaked up his arms. The brows that shaded his dark eyes were heavy, lending him a hard expression that was somewhat softened by his full lips. I’d never seen him before.
“Stay here,” Jakob said as he climbed out of the van.
Fine by me. I didn’t want any part of whatever exchange was about to happen. It was bad enough that I was already caught up in Kings’ business; no need to add accomplice to gunrunning to my list of crimes.
Jakob exchanged a few words with the other biker that were thankfully lost beneath the low hum of the van’s engine. With a curt nod at Jakob, the Latino man turned and motioned toward the shop front. The door swung open, and three more men poured out. I didn’t recognize any of them, even though they wore the club’s leathers. It wasn’t unusual. Not all of The Kings frequented Charley’s, and the club had over 200 members at last count.
With swift efficiency, they unloaded the bags from the back of the van. I kept my eyes forward and did my best to look like a woman minding her own business. Afterward, they headed back inside, the Latino man digging in his pocket and handing something to Jakob before they parted ways.
Jakob came back and opened the driver’s side door. He cut the engine and motioned for me to get out. I climbed down and went around to join him, and he led me toward the back of the shop. We were several hundred feet from the van before he spoke.
“We’re taking another car.”
I only nodded. I didn’t know how sensitive Liam’s bugging system was, and I didn’t want to say anything he might hear. With the van behind us, the spot between my shoulder blades itched like it was a sentient creature under Liam’s command, watching us even at this distance.
Jakob hit a button on the key fob his biker buddy had given him, and a chirping sound erupted from a flashy red BMW parked within the shadow of the building. Gunrunning must pay well.
I climbed into the passenger side and buckled myself in. “Is it safe to talk here?” I asked as Jakob slid in beside me.
“Yeah,” he said. He hit a button on the dash, and the engine roared to life, nearly as loud as the mustang.
“Did you intentionally seduce me just to get into Magnolia?” I asked. Might as well get the hardest question out of the way and know once and for all how mad I should really be.
He cut me a glance before putting the car into first and shooting out of the parking spot. “Not exactly.”
My spine went rigid. “Explain.”
“You seemed like my best bet on getting into Magnolia,” he said. “And I’ve wanted to fuck you since your first shift at Charley’s. So yeah, I tempted you over to my place, hoping to kill two birds with one stone, but the two aren’t connected. If you’d turned me down, I still would have asked you to lie and say I was your boyfriend to get me in there.”
The breath I’d been holding came out sounding more like a hiss.
He glanced at me as we roared out of the parking lot, biceps flexing as he shifted through gears and the car gained speed. “You know you still would have gone along with it to keep your gran safe.”
Yes, I would have gone along with it, but I didn’t like this. It felt too much like manipulation, and it made me wonder if he was still lying to me, withholding some crucial bit of information.
I thought back to the look on his face after I walked out of the police station, when he told me that it would have been harder to break me out of there than Magnolia. He’d seemed dead serious. Like I was worth mounting an assault on a building full of armed men and women with the law on their side.
He glanced over at me again, just a quick flick of his eyes. “I get why you’re pissed,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to bring it up without making you question everything between us.”
“Well, congratulations on a job well done,” I said. “I’m now questioning everything between us.”
I let out a strangled gasp as he slammed on the breaks. We squealed to a stop on the side of the road. A car honked behind us, and the driver screamed “Asshole!” as they passed. I eased the seatbelt away from my chest and rubbed my breastbone. Ouch.
Jakob turned to me in his seat. “Everything between us is real. I’m not going to beg you to trust me, and I’m not going sit here and argue with you about it. You either believe me, or you don’t.” He reached down and grabbed his crotch, and I was shocked to see that he was rock hard. “Even now, I’d rather be holed up somewhere making you scream my name than dealing with this bullshit, and if you don’t believe anything else I’ve said to you, believe that.”
Shit. I was in way over my head with him, because even though I was pissed, the bulge in his pants made me want to crawl on top of him right here in the car. Maybe the fact that I was pissed was part of it. Maybe deep down, I’d known all along that the realest we’d been around each other was when we were both naked and slicked in sweat.
I exhaled, long and slow, letting his words sink in, remembering everything that had happened between us over the past few days.
“I believe you,” I said. Because I did. I might not know how I felt about anything else he’d done, but I knew that he wanted me, and I trusted him enough not to lie to me about this.
Jakob let out a breath. It was a harsh expulsion, like he’d been holding it in, like he was relieved, and that, more than anything, drove home the fact that I wasn’t the only one losing my head over whatever this was between us.
“Good,” he said.
And then his hands were on my cheeks, sliding into my hair, his grip tightening as he dragged me forward. My seatbelt locked up, and I could go no further. He did the rest of the work, closing the distance between us to kiss me with breathless intensity. His lips were bruising, tongue demanding, forcing me to meet him stroke for stroke. I was still mad at him, but it only drove my need for him higher, wound me tighter, made me want to strip his clothes off and see the honest, simple truth in his desire for me.
He broke away too soon, breathing hard, and rubbed his thumb over my lips. “We need to get to Daniel’s.”
I nodded up at him.
He continued to stare at my mouth like a man transfixed.
Despite myself, I grinned. “Which means you should probably let me go.”
The scowl returned to his face. “Yeah, I should.”
Instead, he leaned in and kissed me again, and this time he kept kissing me, fingers digging into my scalp, teeth nipping at my lips. It reminded me of our first night together in his apartment, the marble of his kitchen island cold beneath me, and him between my legs, burning like a fire, setting me aflame with his touch.
I was the one to break the kiss this time because if he kept it up, we’d never get to Daniel’s, and the entire world would implode around us before we let each other go. His grip on my neck eased as I pulled away, and he leaned back a little in his seat, enough that I felt like I could form rational thought again. The air between us still felt charged, heavy and electric, like lightning might strike at any second. We needed something to break the mood.
“How long have you suspected your father?” I asked.
Jakob let me go and straightened in his seat. A little thrill of vindication shot through me to see his cheeks were flushed. He shook his head like he was trying to clear it, then turned forward and shifted the car into first.
“Since I was twelve,” he said, checking his mirrors before pulling back onto the road.
I frowned. Maybe I’d misheard him because of the engine noise. “Since you were twelve?”
He nodded. “I eavesdropped on one of his phone calls to an enforcer and realized what a manipulative bastard he was. After that, I never fully trusted him again.”
Okay then. “I meant, how long have you suspected his involvement in what’s going on at Magnolia Hills?”
“From the beginning,” he said. “My default is to suspect him anytime anything happens in Kearny.”
“Because he hates Daniel and wants him out,” Jakob said.
I grinned. I’d unraveled at least part of what was going on for myself. Go me!
“When did you start suspecting my dad?” Jakob asked.
“Not until you told me the van was bugged.”
“And now you think he’s behind everything?”
I hesitated before answering. The way he said that made me wonder what he thought. He didn’t seem totally convinced that it was his dad, just like he didn’t suspect Daniel. Maybe Jakob was a hold-all-judgment-until-the-end kind of guy.
“I don’t know what to think,” I said. “It’s not like you’ve been very forthcoming with me.”
He nodded. “I haven’t. So, tell me your theories.”
My lingering desire for him was drowned beneath a fresh wave of frustration “Seriously? You’re still withholding, and you expect me to pour out all my half-assed guesses?”
“I don’t want to influence you,” he said. “It’s part of why I haven’t said shit to you about my suspicions.” He glanced over at me as we gained speed again. “I want to hear what you think. You’re smart, and Dad was right about your instincts; they’re good. You might have picked up on something I missed.”
Damn it. I must have been starved for affection before meeting him. That must be why his praise made my cheeks heat and my stomach do a stupid little flip.
“I have a few questions for you first,” I said, still hesitant.
“Are you actually going to answer me for once?”
A small, evil little grin lifted the corner of his lips. “Maybe.”
“You’re a real pain in the ass sometimes, you know that?”
“Only because I like what happens when I get you riled up like this,” he said, his grin widening into a full-blown smile.
I didn’t know whether to kiss him or punch him. Both seemed equally appealing. Instead, I decided to ask my questions while I had the chance.
“Do you think your dad would go so far as to have my apartment trashed and order someone to attack me in an elevator?”
Jakob didn’t look at me when he answered. All his focus was on the road as he tore out of The Kings’ stronghold like someone was chasing us. “The apartment, yes. By bringing you home, he’d assume things between us were serious and that wrecking your place was a good way to keep me where he wanted me.”
“Right beneath his thumb,” I said.
He nodded, downshifted, and hit the train tracks crossing back into the good side of town so fast it felt like we went airborne for a few seconds. My teeth rattled in my skull when we hit the other side, and my hip throbbed on impact.
“Mind slowing down a bit?” I ground out.
Jakob looked over, saw my pained expression, and immediately slowed the car to the speed limit.
“Sorry,” he said.
God bless men who aren’t afraid to apologize. That was twice in the span of a few minutes, and both times he sounded like he meant it.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Why did your dad want you home so badly? To keep you away from Magnolia?”
“But you don’t think he’d have me or Dr. Perez attacked.”
He shook his head.
“What about Daniel? Do you think he’s involved at all?”
“No,” he said. “If this shit implodes, Daniel will be fucked.”
“He’ll lose the loyalty of the club. You don’t work with The Jokers. Ever. They’re the enemy. If anyone else in The Kings knew what we did, he’d already be out.”
I thought about his words for a few minutes and realized that he hadn’t spoken to anyone but Liam about Redding. At least not in my company.
“You only told your dad about Redding to see his reaction, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Did he give anything away?”
“No,” he said. “But then he usually doesn’t.”
“And you haven’t told anyone else?”
Jakob shook his head.
“What about the bikers that came with you to Magnolia?” I asked.
“They think The Jokers are behind everything.”
“And the woman you have tailing Redding?”
“She has no idea who he is,” he said. “Only that we want him watched.”
“No one else knows about Redding but us and your dad?” I asked, just to clarify.
“I haven’t told anyone else about him.”
I watched him shift through the gears, his large, muscular upper body on full display, his movements quick and sure, almost graceful. It sounded like he’d chosen those words carefully. Jakob might not have told anyone else, but clearly, he thought other people knew about Redding.
When I first met Jakob, I thought he was just a large, violent man with irresistible sex appeal. Turned out there was a brain beneath all of that. I’d suspected it since our first night together, but now I was beginning to wonder just how sharp his mind was. He wanted to know my suspicions, see if I picked up on anything he’d missed, but I was willing to bet that Jakob Larson was a man who missed nothing.
“Who’s Mike?” I prodded, switching tactics. I remembered the name from that first run in between Jakob and Daniel. It had been lingering in the back of my mind, bugging me, like a mosquito hovering just on the edge of hearing.
This time Jakob’s grin was warm when he glanced over at me, softened by the approval in his expression. He picked up his phone, unlocked it, and passed it to me. On the screen was a picture of Redding and another man, a big white guy with sandy hair and Slavic features.
“That’s Mike,” Jakob said.
“He works for your father, doesn’t he?”
He cocked a brow and looked over at me. “What makes you say that?”
I shrugged and handed the phone back. “Just a gut feeling.”
“Your gut is good,” he said, setting the phone in a cupholder between us. “He works for my dad. Not many people know who he is. Dad sends him in when he needs something handled and doesn’t want it traced back to the club.”
“Why did Daniel tell you that the thing with him didn’t pan out?” I pressed.
“I have no fucking idea,” Jakob said, frustration creeping into his tone. “Like I said, nothing Daniel King does makes any sense to anyone besides Daniel King.”
“But you have a guess, don’t you?”
He nodded. “I didn’t know Daniel knew who Mike was until that night. Now I think he might have known about Magnolia longer than I have and has been trying to pin it on Dad all along. I think he mentioned Mike because he wanted to see my reaction.”
My brows crept up my forehead. “He thought you were in on it with your father?”
“Does he still?” I asked.
“No idea,” he said.
I watched him for a few minutes, mulling everything over. “Those were my biggest questions,” I said. “Now, will you tell me what you think is happening?”
“I think my dad has some involvement in it, but I’m not sure how much,” he said. “This is too messy for him to be behind everything. It’s too big, too volatile. If shit pops off between The Jokers and us, the bigger clubs will get involved, and it will start a war between them. Dad would never want that.”
“And he wouldn’t intentionally put you in this kind of danger,” I said, remembering the concern on Liam’s face earlier.
“No, he wouldn’t,” Jakob said.
“So what happened?”
“I think shit got away from Dad somehow, and we need to find out who the fuck Redding really is before I start making assumptions about anything else.”
“Which is why you want to talk to Daniel.”
Jakob nodded. “We need to get this out in the open. Daniel might have the missing piece of information we need, and if we don’t figure this out soon, he and Dad might try to get rid of each other.”
“Get rid of each other,” I said, “like…”
He glanced over at me as we slowed to a stop at a red light. We were back in the nicer part of town, only a few miles from Daniel and Eva’s house. “You know exactly what I mean,” he said.
“Yikes,” was all I managed to squeak out. No wonder Jakob was wound so tight. His gang leader and father had been about a heartbeat away from trying to kill each other this whole time.
He reached out and tipped my chin up, pulling me from my dark thoughts. “We should go somewhere when this is all over.”
“What?” I asked, fighting the urge to lean into his touch.
“Get out of town for a long weekend. Unwind.”
I arched a brow at him. “You mean fuck each other for three uninterrupted days.”
His gaze dropped to my lips. “Yeah, that.”
I grinned, but a heartbeat later, it fell. “I’m still mad at you for keeping me in the dark about everything.”
He stroked his thumb over my lips, gaze drifting down to watch the movement. “I didn’t know how long you’d stick around. No point in telling you anything if you only wanted a one-night stand, helped me get into Magnolia, and then bounced.”
Okay, when he put it that way, his initial silence made sense, but not his continued evasions.
“What about later?” I asked. “Like, anytime since you brought me home.”
“I don’t have a good reason for that. At least not one that doesn’t make me look like an asshole, so I’m sorry.”
That made three apologies in five minutes. He must have set a new world record for men.
“Be open with me going forward, and I’ll work on forgiving you.”
“Deal,” he said.
The light turned green in my periphery, but I couldn’t pull my eyes from him. The way he stared at my mouth, the ease with which he’d apologized, the fact that every moment I spent with him, I saw some new side of him, it was turning me into an addict. I never wanted to look away from him. Because it meant I might not see the way the ice in his eyes melted when he turned to me, or I might miss out on another hint of the dark humor I’d glimpsed the other day, or the goofiness of this morning when he’d crashed down on top of me and started snoring.
Someone behind us honked.
Jakob gave my cheek a slow, lingering stroke like he had all the time in the world.
The honking grew more persistent.
“Jakob,” I said, staring up at him.
Finally, he let me go.
A few minutes later, we pulled into Daniel and Eva King’s long driveway. The house looked different in the light of day, smaller, a bit grungier. The beer cans on the front lawn didn’t help. A small army of people milled around outside, cleaning up. The front door stood open, young men and women moving in and out of it carrying trash bags stuffed to bursting.
“New recruits?” I asked.
“Yeah, the poor bastards,” Jakob said.
I shuddered, feeling bad for whoever pulled vomit duty. They’d need industrial carpet cleaner and a stronger stomach than I had to face that dining room.
Jakob parked the car right outside the garage and then turned to me in his seat. “Daniel’s not like my dad. His temper gets the better of him sometimes.”
“You’re not going to try to provoke him, are you?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, but his back is against the wall. And if he already thinks I’m in on it with my dad, anything might set him off.”
“Sounds like an injured animal,” I said.
“He is one. Let me take the lead?”
“And try not to get between us if shit goes down.”
“I’ll try not to,” I said.
Jakob pushed open his door. “Let’s get this over with.”
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.