Gran wasn’t doing so great today. As predicted, waking up in a strange place surrounded by strange people had thrown her. After Jakob and I emerged from our little sex den, we all had brunch together out on the back patio, Molly moving from one person to the next beneath the table, willing us with wide, soulful eyes to slip her table scraps. A breeze blew in off the pasture, driving back the Jurassic-sized mosquitoes that plagued this part of Texas and keeping the worst of the heat at bay.
As we ate, Jakob and his parents answered Gran’s questions about who they were, while I fielded the ones about what we were doing here with them. From the nonchalant way the Larsons handled it, you would never know something was wrong, and I felt a weird mix of gratitude and sorrow that they’d already been through this with Jakob’s grandmother.
“Thank you for lunch,” I told Jennifer as we cleaned up afterward.
“You’re welcome,” she said, glancing past me. “I’ll take those, hon.”
Liam handed her a stack of plates he’d cleared from the table and headed back for more.
Jakob stood at the sink, rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Motorcycle clubs and the people who joined them could be shockingly backward sometimes, and just because women were prevalent in both The Kings and The Specters, it didn’t mean they weren’t often shoved into traditional gender roles or treated as “lesser” members. I hadn’t known what the dynamic in the Larsons’ household would be coming into it, and seeing Liam and Jakob help cook and clean came as a nice surprise. Then again, maybe I should have expected something like this after spending the night in Jakob’s spotless apartment.
“What can I do?” I asked, glancing at the plates in Jennifer’s hands.
She looked out through the glass door, to where Gran sat in one of the comfy deck chairs. “Maybe just go sit with her for a while?”
I nodded and left them to their work. She was right. Gran probably needed a familiar face more than they did another set of helping hands. It wasn’t that I’d been avoiding being alone with her; I just felt so guilty that I didn’t know what to say right now. Her being here was my fault. If I’d just kept to myself and stayed out of Kings’ business, she might still be in her familiar apartment, having another good day.
I took a deep breath and headed out to sit with her, reminding myself that she wasn’t safe there. Gran having a bad day because she was in a new environment was better than her being at risk in a place that had been infiltrated by gang members who had already stolen one prescription from her and might have been getting ready to pilfer another. But it didn’t mean I had to like it. And it sure as shit didn’t do much to assuage my lingering guilt. She’d taken such great care of me for years on end, even when I was a shitty teenager who was always getting into trouble, and I felt like now that it was my turn to take care of her, I was failing.
“Hey there,” I said, sinking into the chair beside her.
She turned to me, her long hair floating a little in the breeze. Her grin was wide, and beneath the glow of the afternoon sun, she looked younger than her years and deceptively healthy.
Fucking Alzheimer’s, I thought, for the millionth time since her diagnosis.
“It’s so peaceful here,” she said.
I nodded and turned to take in the view. “It really is.” The breeze died back, and I heard water rushing along the banks far below, as if the river wasn’t as slow and lethargic as I’d first assumed.
“Your beau is handsome,” Gran said, a teasing edge to her tone that had me turning back to her.
“I sure think so,” I said. No point in arguing with the woman. I’d reintroduced her to Jakob before we sat down to lunch – she’d forgotten him overnight – and if the first time she met him was any indicator, trying to tell her we weren’t an item was a losing battle that I’d be stupid to fight a second time.
“His parents seem nice,” she added. “Especially under the circumstances. Not many people would take in two women who have drawn the attention of a criminal organization.”
I nodded but kept my mouth shut. Sometimes when Gran had bad days, she grew upset easily, and I didn’t think it wise to tell her that the people she had just called nice were also members of a criminal organization.
“How long do you think we’ll need to hide out here?” she asked.
“Not long, I hope. When I talked to the police yesterday, they said they were going to look into Magnolia.”
“Do you plan on trying to salvage your apartment once it’s safe to go home?” she asked. I’d given her a brief run-down of the past few days, excluding her involvement from a lot of the story so she didn’t feel bad or get upset over her missing memories.
I bit my lip as I contemplated her question. I’d been studiously ignoring the thought of my trashed apartment. That apartment had been my safe haven since moving here. I’d nested pretty hard, craving a place that finally felt like mine. Between how much we moved around when I was younger and spending my early adult years living in barracks or temporary military housing, home was a concept that was unfamiliar to me, and I’d wanted my apartment to be that home. Now I balked at the thought of going back to it. Someone had already violated it, and I didn’t think it would ever feel like the safe, inviting space I’d longed for.
“I don’t think I can salvage it,” I told Gran.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said, reaching out to grip my hand. “I’m so sorry.”
I nodded, fighting back the sting of tears. “I know you are. I’m sorry too.”
Her expression hardened. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about. None of this is your fault.”
I swallowed the lump forming in my throat and tried to let her words sink in. Tried to believe them.
A soft whoosh sounded from behind us, and we turned to see Jakob pushing open the slider.
“Good Lord, he’s striking,” Gran said, voice low enough that he wouldn’t hear – thank God. “Not traditionally handsome, maybe, but you just want to look and look at him, don’t you?”
I nodded. Yes. Yes, I did.
Gran caught sight of my face, laughed, and then stood from her seat. “I think I’ll go see if Jennifer needs any help inside.”
“She doesn’t,” I said, wanting to keep Gran out here. We’d barely had five minutes together.
“Yes, well,” Gran said, looking back and forth between Jakob and me, “I think I’ll just go on in anyhow.”
She patted Jakob’s arm as they passed each other, wearing a small, amused smile. “You be good to my baby now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She leaned in and stage whispered, “She can be stubborn as a mule sometimes. She needs a nice strong man like you to stand up to her.”
Jakob’s grin was a wicked thing as he turned to me, and I had a flashback to this same conversation from a few days ago.
I narrowed my eyes at him. Don’t you fucking dare, Jakob.
“Oh, I know all about how stubborn she can be,” he drawled.
I was going to murder him. It was bad enough that I had to hear this conversation twice. Gran at least had an excuse for repeating the words, but Jakob didn’t have to look so damn smug while he listened to them.
Gran laughed and went inside.
I shook my head at Jakob as he came over to me, but beneath my irritation, part of me was almost – thankful wasn’t really the right word – that Gran was meeting him like this and didn’t remember their earlier, more contentious introduction where Jakob and I were both shitty to each other.
Yeah, thankful definitely wasn’t the right word now that I thought about it because how could I be thankful for a disease that had stolen those memories from her? Maybe I’d already spent so long looking for silver linings with Alzheimer’s that my reactions to how it affected her were starting to skew as badly as my moral compass.
Before I could analyze that troubling thought, Jakob stepped in front of me. I lifted a hand to shield my eyes and look up at him.
“You’re cute when you’re irritated,” he said.
“Patronize me again. Go ahead,” I told him, dropping my gaze to his waist. His crotch was in striking distance, and I might not actually hit him in the dick, but if I faked a punch and he flinched, I would lord it over him forever.
As if he could read my thoughts, he dropped down into a crouch in front of me. He met my eyes, and the amusement faded from his face. “You were right,” he said, tone grim. “Dr. Perez isn’t in on it.”
Despite the heat of the day, goosebumps erupted over my skin. “What happened?”
“Dad just got a call from a friend. The cops in Mayville found her this morning.”
Mayville was the next town over, a little more upscale than Kearny, where someone with Dr. Perez’s income might live.
I gripped the arms of my chair. “Is she…?” Oh, God, I couldn’t say it.
“She’s alive,” Jakob told me.
I let out a heavy breath and folded forward in my seat.
His big hand landed on the back of my neck, massaging it a little as if trying to ease some of my anxiety. “She’s in critical condition in the hospital over there. We have a contact on staff, and they said they’ll call when she wakes up.”
“Is she in a coma?” I asked, staring down at his boots.
“A medically induced one. Someone beat her up pretty bad, and she had some swelling in her brain.”
My lingering guilt vanished. I’d done the right thing bringing Gran here. Between my wrecked apartment and now Dr. Perez, I couldn’t regret any of my decisions. Gran was at Jakob’s parents, and yeah, she was having a bad day, but she was safe, goddamn it, and that was all that mattered anymore.
Jakob gave the back of my neck one last squeeze and then moved his hand to my chin, tipping my head up so he could look at me. “I need to head down to Kearny. You still want in on this?”
I stared at him for a minute before answering. How did he manage to look dangerous even while crouching? Maybe it was his preference for dark clothing or had something to do with the way his muscles bunched like he was a heartbeat away from springing into action. Whatever it was, I was thankful for the reminder that the man I was sleeping could be both unforgiving and violent. It made me feel less fucked up about the fact that what he’d just told me hadn’t scared me away in the least. In fact, it made me want to go shoot something. Or more like several someones.
“I still want in on this,” I told him.
His eyes flashed with approval, and he leaned in and pressed a quick, hard kiss to my lips. He pulled away just as swiftly and opened his mouth to say something more, but his gaze slipped past me, and I heard another whisk of air as the door opened behind us. I turned in my seat just as Liam stepped onto the patio. Behind him, Gran and Jennifer stood at the kitchen island, chatting. Liam glanced at them and then shut the door, his expression troubled as he headed over to us. Jakob rose from his crouch as he approached, and the two men towered over me.
“Let me send a few Specters with you,” Liam said, voice low. At that moment, he didn’t look like one of the most dangerous men in the state; he looked like any anxious father might when their kid was heading into trouble.
“And have someone say I can’t fight my own battles without my father backing me up? Pass,” Jakob said. “Plus, this is Kings’ business. Let us try to handle it first.”
Here again, was the reminder of past military experience. We’d been taught from day one of basic training to handle all of our problems at the lowest level possible. One of your fellow soldiers being an asshole to you? Find a way to get them to stop. Only if you can’t do that do you bother your sergeant with your bullshit.
Liam nodded, still tense. “You’ll keep me in the loop, though?”
Jakob shot him a sideways look. “As long as you promise to stay out of it until I ask for help.”
The tension finally broke as Liam grinned. “I promise.”
An hour later, Jakob and I climbed into a non-descript minivan that had been gathering dust in the Larsons’ oversized garage. The mustang was great if you wanted to get somewhere fast, but it had limited trunk space and no air conditioning, and today was supposed to top out near 100 degrees. While I’d spent more time with Gran, Jakob and Liam loaded up the van. Afterward, they switched out the license plates on it, and, miracle of miracles, I managed to keep my nosey mouth shut instead of asking why.
I tugged my seatbelt on and glanced into the rear of the van as Jakob drove us down his parents’ long dirt driveway. The back seats were folded into the floor, and a stack of oversized duffel bags full of God-knew-what sat behind us. I lifted my gaze to the side panels. Several circular metal patches stood out against the paint. The longer I stared at them, the more I began to suspect that they covered up bullet holes. Beneath them, a white spot smeared across the carpet in the way back. It looked like someone had dumped a gallon of bleach there to get rid of a bloodstain.
Please don’t let us get pulled over, I prayed. The only thing that could make this thing look more suspicious was a “free candy” sign plastered over the side of it.
“What’s with the bags?” I asked.
“Killing two birds with one stone,” Jakob said. “We’re going into Kearny. We might as well drop some shit off for my father.”
So, guns or drugs or some other illegal Specter/King business then. I turned back around and watched the flowing field of grass out my side of the window. Part of me had been worried that the duffels were full of weapons for us. I’d been with Gran and Jennifer while Jakob and Liam made a game plan for today, and I was still clueless as to what we’d be doing in Kearny. Spying on Magnolia Hills? Tracking down the assholes who put Dr. Perez in the hospital?
Jakob’s phone rang, and he lifted it from the cup holder between us and brought it to his ear. “Where is he?” he asked, not even bothering to say hi.
I could barely hear the muffled answer, let alone make out the words.
Jakob frowned. “We’ll be in Kearny in an hour. Let me know if he moves before then.” With that, he hung up.
“Let me guess, that was the King you have watching Magnolia?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. The person I put on Redding. He’s over in Weyhome now.”
I frowned, absorbing the news. “Isn’t Weyhome where The Jokers are from?”
“Yeah, and he just walked into their clubhouse. Motherfucker isn’t even trying to be circumspect.”
“Is the person you have tailing him going to be safe there?”
“She’s ex-HUMINT,” he said. “She’ll be fine.”
HUMINT was short for human intelligence, the military’s version of spies, people who went into enemy territory and blended in with the locals, all so they could feed information back to headquarters. Spying on a rival motorcycle gang would be a walk in the park for a woman with that kind of background, and I relaxed a little into my seat as we made our way up the drive.
“So, what are we going to do?” I asked.
“We’re going to go drop this shit off,” Jakob said, thumbing toward the duffels in the back. “And then we’ll wait to hear where Redding heads after he leaves Weyhome.”
“Are we going after him?” I asked.
Jakob shook his head. “Not yet.”
I turned back toward the window, mulling everything over. Something about this whole situation felt just a little…off, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. My mind kept circling back around to Daniel King. Why was Jakob so focused on Redding instead of him? I hated enigmas, and Daniel King was a giant one dressed up in leather. One minute he breaks into Jakob’s apartment and makes cryptic comments, and the next, he’s slapping him on the back at the bar. Then he’s bitching Jakob out over the phone, and just a few hours later, he’s acting all buddy-buddy at a party. His abrupt shifts in behavior were bizarre. Unsettling. Jakob said nothing the man did ever made sense to anyone else, and now I wondered why. Was Daniel King just paranoid? A mastermind? Or a fucking whack job?
Even with the mounting evidence against him, Jakob hesitated to condemn the man last night, and God only knew what he’d told Liam while I’d been with Gran. I couldn’t wrap my head around Jakob’s reactions. It seemed so obvious to me that Daniel King was involved. The man served with Redding, and now here Redding was, working for The Jokers to destabilize Kearny.
Daniel King had to be working with him. Maybe he was sick of heading a subchapter of The Specters, beholden to Liam. Maybe he wanted to lead his gang without any oversight. Of course he wouldn’t tell Jakob about what he was up to; Liam was his dad. Of course he’d bitch Jakob out for getting involved; he was probably scared Liam was going to find out about his treachery. So why was Jakob giving him the benefit of the doubt? Why was he so goddamn loyal to a man who treated him like absolute shit?
I wanted to turn to him and demand answers, but if my past inquiries had taught me anything, it was that Jakob clammed right up every time I mentioned his evil overlord.
Jakob’s phone chimed from between us. He picked it up and glanced at the screen, slowing the van down so he could get a better look at it. His jaw clenched, and he threw it back down.
“God damn it,” he ground out.
“What’s up?” I asked, not liking the look on his face.
“Change of plans,” he said, pulling out onto the main road. “We need to go talk to someone after we drop this shit off.”
“Who?” I asked.
In answer, he just shook his head.
I stared at his profile, fighting back the urge to scream. “If you ever call me stubborn again, so help me God, Jakob.”
He reached out and grabbed my hand, drawing it toward him so he could plant a kiss on my knuckles. His eyes met mine over the top of them, briefly, holding both a promise and a warning. A promise that he would answer me soon? A warning to stop asking questions?
Why did I feel like I never really knew what was going on with this man? Why did I constantly feel off-balance and in over my head?
I tried to pull my hand from his, but he held on tight, his thumb stroking over my skin as he drove.
“Let me go,” I said, sounding angrier than I was. I needed to think, try and sift through my thoughts about what was going on and my ever-changing, ever-conflicted feelings for this impossible man, and I couldn’t seem to do either of those things with him touching me.
He glanced over again and caught sight of my expression. A scowl crept across his face, and he dropped my hand and flicked on his blinker, pulling off to the side of the road.
I looked around us – cornfields to the left, cornfields to the right.
Jakob put the van in park and came over to my side of the vehicle. Before I could ask him what the hell he was doing, he wrenched open my door, unbuckled my seatbelt, and hauled me out of it.
“Jakob!” I yelled, grabbing onto his neck as he strode into the cornfield.
The van was still on, and both of the doors were wide open, like we’d been abducted. If anyone drove past, they’d be so overcome with Children of the Corn vibes that they’d either take the fuck off or call the cops.
“You drive me crazy sometimes,” he growled.
“Ditto, buddy,” I said, poking his meaty chest for emphasis.
“Why couldn’t you have trusted that I would answer you when I could?”
“I didn’t know that’s what you were asking me to do!” I shot back. “Why didn’t you just say that to me?”
He made a frustrated sound and then hauled me forward so he could seal his mouth over mine. My head spun as he kissed me, hard and fierce, and I did that stupid thing where I forgot to breathe again. By the time he pulled back, I was lightheaded and thankful he was holding me up.
“We’re going to see Daniel King,” he said.
Just like that, the lightheadedness vanished. “Um, what?”
“And I didn’t say anything in the van because my father might have bugged it.”
“Now we need to quit wasting time and get back on the road before he looks at the GPS tracker on it and wonders why the hell we’re parked here.”
With that, he turned on his heel and headed out of the cornfield.
I clung to him, dumbstruck, looking back over the past few days and beginning to realize that the reason I had felt like I never knew what was going on was because I hadn’t.
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.