Jakob Larson was going to be the death of me.
Beneath the dim amber lighting in the bar, he was six feet of sin draped in darkness. The sleeves of his leather jacket hit him at his wrists. A pair of sinuous tattoos slithered out from them like twin snakes, black ink whorling over the back of his hands. He turned his head to the left, and another tantalizing hint of tattoo peeked out above his collar.
I stared at his wide back like I had x-ray vision, wondering how much of his skin was covered. Whoever needled all of that ink into him was one lucky bastard. To be bent over him for hours on end, his big body laid out beneath me…
God, it’s hot in the bar tonight, I thought, wondering how conspicuous it would be if I started fanning myself.
I lifted my gaze, taking in the rest of Jakob. His dark blond hair was cropped close at the sides but long enough on top that you could dig your fingers into it. A beard obscured the lower half of his face. I’d never been a massive fan of facial hair, but he kept his trimmed and neat, which made me wonder if the rest of him was just as well-groomed.
No one would ever call him a pretty boy; his features were too stark for that. He looked like the by-blow of some cruel Norse god. With cheekbones cut at sharp angles, lips set in a hard line, and heavy brows forever pulled down in a scowl, he had what I liked to call resting “Fuck You” face.
Still, he held a kind of carnal appeal. He moved with the intrinsic grace of an athlete, like someone who had pushed his body to the limit, learned just what it was capable of, and now it performed for him in a way that was damn near preternatural compared to the rest of us. Except he wasn’t an athlete; he was a fighter. There was a notch halfway down his nose from a past break. His knuckles bore the scars of a man who liked to hit things with his fists. Larger bikers gave him a wide berth as they moved through the crowd, parting around him like a tide for Moses. Even standing still, he projected an aura of something barely contained and half-feral.
I read somewhere that women know within five minutes of meeting someone whether or not they’ll sleep with them. With Jakob, you needed all five of those minutes to decide if the risk of fucking him was worth the reward. I couldn’t even look at him without picturing him naked, biceps straining as he rose above me, abs contracting as he thrust inside. I usually didn’t go for the whole alpha male vibe – too many guys who projected that aura were possessive, borderline abusive douchenozzles – but Jakob seemed to be the exception to my rule. I blamed my inner cavewoman. He was the kind of man that made her sit up and take notice.
Him big. Make strong babies. Protect cave.
It made me feel marginally better that I wasn’t the only one staring. Three women about my age at a nearby table kept cutting glances at him. A few more on the dance floor sent him come-hither looks.
The sound of an angry voice rose above the bar’s music. I forced my gaze away from Jakob, searching it out. In the far corner, two men faced off over a pool table. Like the rest of our patrons, they were members of the local biker gang, The Kings of Kearny. Both of them were older, one a dark-skinned black man, the other a red-headed white dude wearing sleeveless leathers that left his prison tattoos on full display. It was too loud in here to catch their words, but their body language told me they were about a heartbeat away from coming to blows.
Nina, my fellow bartender and good friend, stepped beside me and stood on her tiptoes, trying to get a better look. At five-foot-nothing, it wasn’t going to happen. She swayed a little to the left, searching for a different angle. Her dark hair was loose tonight, and it fell in a cascade over her shoulder with the movement. Like me, she wore all black: the standard uniform here at Charley’s Bar and Grill.
Because it hid the bloodstains, we joked.
“Who’s yelling?” Nina asked. It was a testament to her looks that even while frowning, she was stunning. With a whip-sharp sense of humor, light brown skin, cheekbones I would kill for, and full lips that seemed forever on the verge of a smile, it was no wonder she was the highest tip earner on staff.
I laced my fingers together and bent over. “Here, I’ll give you a boost, and you can see for yourself.”
Anyone else would have told me to shut up or that I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was, but Nina grinned and lifted her foot toward my hands, calling my bluff. I unlaced my fingers and took a step back. No way in hell was I actually going to touch the bottom of her shoe. It was past midnight, and the floor behind the bar was sticky with spilled liquor and covered with tiny shards of glass, some of which must have lodged into the soles of her high tops.
“Coward,” she said.
I opened my mouth to fire an insult back at her, but a deep voice tolled out from behind me.
“It’s Micky and Rob.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Tiny, the third bartender on shift tonight, staring out into the crowd. Tiny was one of those ironic nicknames. He was a behemoth of a man. Well over six feet and broad as a barn door, he doubled as a bouncer when we needed him to. The overhead lights gleamed off the top of his bald head. His dark eyes were troubled. A slight flush appeared in his olive skin, but a stillness had settled into his limbs. He looked like a man bracing himself for a fight.
“Hey, man. Can I get another beer?” a woman called to him.
“Yeah,” he said, moving toward her, his eyes still on the crowd.
The good thing about our bar was that Charley, the owner, was a biker himself. The Kings of Kearny took care of their own. It was in their self-interest to keep the peace in here, and whenever a fight broke out, it was usually quashed before any lasting damage was done, to the combatants or the bar.
Tonight proved no different. The red-head, Micky, barely had time to shove Rob before three men intervened. Jakob was one of them. Unfortunately for him, Rob was already swinging for Micky, and he got in the way of the punch. I grimaced when the blow landed. It would have laid me out flat, but it only snapped Jakob’s head around to the side.
The crowd around me went still as everyone tensed against the threat of more violence.
Jakob’s resting Fuck You face turned murderous. He spat out a wad of blood and looked up at Rob. The bar had gone so quiet that I heard him clear across it. “I’ll give you that one for free.”
Rob had fifty pounds and several inches on Jakob, but he instantly backed down. “Shit. Sorry, man,” he said, hands up like Jakob held him at gunpoint.
“You two done here?” Jakob asked, looking between Rob and Micky.
The men nodded and made a show of going back to their pool game. It was only when Jakob turned away from them that the entire crowd let out the collective breath we’d been holding.
Nina elbowed me. “The Viking strikes again.”
“Why is everyone so afraid of him?” I asked.
A guy nearby hailed her, indicating a round of shots.
“One sec, Bill,” she said, grabbing glasses for him and his buddies. She sent me a look as she poured their whiskey. “I keep forgetting you’re new here.”
I frowned. “Three months is new?”
She barked a low, throaty laugh. Several patrons turned to stare at her. I couldn’t blame them. I was mostly heterosexual, but every time she laughed like that, a little shiver of awareness ran through me.
“Honey, three years is still new in this town,” she said. She finished pouring and handed the shots over to Bill with a megawatt smile. “Thanks for being patient, sweetie.”
The grizzled old biker went pink in the cheeks. “No problem, Nina.” He tipped her ten bucks for her trouble, and it made me wonder if maybe I should smile more.
“Can I get some ice?” someone asked from behind me.
I turned and saw Jakob settling his large frame onto one of my empty barstools. His left cheek was red and starting to swell. The scowl on his face made him look even less approachable than usual – not an easy feat. This was only the third time he’d spoken to me, and of course he had to be pissed off when it happened. So much for my hair-brained idea to hit on him tonight.
“Sure thing,” I said. We kept stacks of clean towels on a shelf beneath the bar. I snagged one, filled the middle with ice, and tied off the extra cloth. With one final tug on the knot, I handed it over to him. “Here you go.”
He reached out, but instead of taking it from me, he grabbed my wrist, so fast I barely registered the movement. I sucked in a sharp breath. His skin was warm, grip firm, fingers long enough to wrap all the way around my wrist. Yes, I wanted this man to touch me, but that desire was now warring with my irritation over him laying hands on me without asking first.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I said.
He pushed up the sleeve of my t-shirt with his other hand, callused fingers roughing over my skin, raising goosebumps in their wake, stopping only when he revealed the tattoo on my upper arm. It was a stylized AC-130 gunship flying in front of a skull.
“You’re ex-military?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. Demonstrating one of the skills I learned when I was in, I wrenched my arm up and around, breaking his hold on me. “And if you ever grab me like that again, I’ll call in a favor and have a Maverick dropped on your house.”
His pale blue eyes rose to mine, glinting like frost in the overhead light. “That’s a big ass bomb.”
“I don’t fuck around,” I said, a hint of warning in my tone. “You want your ice or what?”
In answer, he snagged it from me. “Air Force?”
I nodded. “Aerial gunner.”
He looked me over like he was trying to picture it. I prepared myself for a sexist comment.
“Sorry for grabbing you,” he said instead.
The tension in my shoulders eased a little. “Don’t do it again.”
“I won’t,” he said, holding my gaze.
Weirdly, I believed him.
Another biker in my section lifted her glass in the universal symbol for, “I’ll have another.” I left Jakob to refill it. My shoulder brushed Nina’s as I walked toward the draught beer station.
“You’ll have to show me that move,” she said.
“Soon as our shift is over,” I told her.
Working around rough men and women didn’t come without risk, and I’d been teaching her some basic self-defense. It looked like tonight’s lesson would be on how to break holds.
“Here you go,” I said, passing the beer to the woman who ordered it. “On your tab?”
“Yup. Thanks, Krista.” She left a dollar on the bar for me before turning away.
I scooped it up and went to the register. Because Charley was a King, he let his fellow bikers keep running tabs that they didn’t have to pay off until the end of each month. I didn’t see the wisdom in the practice. Some of our customers ran up astronomical bills, buying rounds of shots they couldn’t afford because they didn’t have to pay for them for another two weeks. Most had the mindset that they’d find the money before then, but they rarely did.
Part of me worried that was what Charley wanted. He was one of the founding members of The Kings, along with Daniel King, the president and man the club was named after. I’d seen Daniel pay off the tabs of his bikers when they couldn’t cover them, telling them he knew they’d find a way to settle their debt. It kept them loyal to him, beholden to him in a way that troubled me. I imagined them doing all sorts of illegal shit to pay him back.
I turned toward the sound of my name.
Jakob rested a leather-clad elbow on the bar top, the ice I’d given him pressed to his cheek. “Can I get an amber ale?”
“Sure.” I poured it out and set it in front of him, careful not to get too close this time.
“Why haven’t you applied to join The Kings?” he asked.
The Kings of Kearny Motorcycle Club only admitted members with prior military experience. Every single man and woman who wore their leathers had fought for this country. It was part of why the local cops gave them some leeway, and why a lot of people in town put up with their bullshit. Jakob wasn’t the first person to ask me this question, but he was one of the few I wanted to answer.
“I didn’t come to Kearny for the club,” I said. “My grandmother is in a nursing home in town.”
His eyes were steady on mine, that big body still on his barstool. Most people fidgeted when they sat down, but not him. He was like a wolf sighting a deer. This was one of the things that was so appealing about Jakob. When he spoke to you, it felt like you became his entire world. I could only imagine how well that focus might translate to sex.
“Magnolia Hills?” he asked.
“Let us know if you have any trouble with her there,” he said.
A frisson of unease slithered down my spine. “Why? Has there been trouble there?”
He nodded and cut his gaze to the right, away from me, and I swear to God, it felt like the temperature dropped. Like the sun had just disappeared behind a cloud.
“Uh…you care to elaborate on that?” I asked him.
His gaze came back around, and he shook his head. “What time do you get off?”
Beer in hand, he stood from his seat.
I blinked as he started to turn away. “Dude, seriously, you’re just going to -”
Yup, he was. Without a backward glance, he tossed some cash on the counter and disappeared into the crowd.
I shoved my irritation down and got back to work. My gran was the only person I had left in this world. Oh, my parents were still alive, but they were garbage human beings, and if I never saw them again, I’d count it as a blessing.
Gran was my paternal grandmother. She’d taken me in the first time my parents got busted for drugs – Dad for possession, Mom for driving under the influence, with me in the backseat – and never gave me back. After their first stint behind bars, my parents skipped town, and now the only time we heard from them was when they needed bail money or briefly attempted to sober up.
Not all addicts are assholes. I knew that many of them were good people with a disease that could lead to them doing terrible things, but my parents didn’t fall into that category. They were rotten even without the drugs or the booze. I’d learned that firsthand during one of Mom’s brushes with sobriety. She hit me for crying. Not a slap, or a smack, but a full-on punch to the gut. It worked. I stopped crying. Because I couldn’t breathe.
I was four at the time. Gran never left me alone with her again.
To say that my grandmother meant the world to me would be a massive understatement. And Jakob just told me that the cognitive care facility it took me months to get her into might be shady.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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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.