I woke before Jakob the next morning. Soft, golden light filtered in through the curtains, and I knew it must be early. The air conditioner whirred gently overhead, stirring the air in the room. Its chill didn’t reach me. I was warm all over because Jakob, in his sleep, had edged over to my side of the bed again, his head on my pillow, one heavy arm banded around my waist. His soft exhalations heated the side of my neck.
He slipped into the room late last night, well past midnight, having stayed up with his father plotting world domination. His movements were careful, furtive, as if he didn’t want to rouse me, but I had trouble sleeping and was already awake. I turned toward him when he slid beneath the covers, my hands roaming up his arms and then over his broad chest. I wanted to touch as much of him as I could, while I could. He rolled toward me and started touching me back. Our hands fell, and we teased, kneaded, and stroked each other to completion.
We’d fallen asleep naked, with only our arms pressed together beneath the sheets. It was kind of endearing that he kept snuggling up to me like this, as if his unconscious mind wanted to close the distance between us.
I sighed. If everything went to plan today, his conscious mind would want to put as much space between us as possible.
Sounds of life came from further inside the house. Liam and Jennifer were early risers, which was good because so was Gran. I gave up on getting any more shuteye and carefully disentangled myself from Jakob. He rolled onto his back but didn’t wake. I stood next to the bed for a moment, watching him, feeling conflicted. Sure, this was kind of creepy, but it might be my last chance to see him completely at ease, hair tussled, features softened by sleep. I drank in the beauty of his tattoos, the intricacy of their overlocking patterns, my gaze moving to the heavy muscles of his chest before dipping lower. The sheets had fallen to his hips, revealing the full expanse of his stomach. I lifted my gaze back to his face and studied his features, memorizing the sight of his full, soft lips, that aquiline nose, the hard line of his jaw, and those sharp cheekbones.
Please forgive me for what I’m about to do, I pleaded. Because I didn’t want this to be the last time. Jennifer was right; I went this far because I did care about him. I didn’t want him hurt. I didn’t want him to risk his life just to assuage his father’s stupid ego or help him clean up a mess that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
It had only been a few days, but a few days was enough to make it clear that I wanted a few more days, a few more weeks, hell, a few more months with this man. He was mercurial, guarded, and sure, even a bit moody. His temper sometimes got the better of him. When he thought he knew best, he could be a pushy bastard. But he also knew how to apologize. He trusted me to take the lead, even in dangerous situations. And he was funny, when he let himself be, that dry, slightly macabre, and sometimes even goofy sense of humor peeking through when it was just the two of us. I wanted time to coax that side of him out. I wanted more mornings like this one, endless nights of exploration and pleasure.
He shifted in his sleep again, head turning toward me, and I moved away before he cracked his eyes open and saw me looming over him in the semi-darkness like someone wondering what his bone marrow tasted like.
I got dressed quickly and slipped out the door. Gran, Jennifer, and Liam were in the kitchen, standing around the island, drinking coffee. My gaze went to my grandmother, and I studied her features, trying to read her like Jennifer read me last night. Was today a good day? Had she woken up confused and alone and scared? Jennifer had the good sense to put her in a room right next to theirs. She said she was a light sleeper, and if Gran woke and called out, she would hear her and be close by to help.
Gran’s posture was relaxed. She smiled good-naturedly at something Liam said and then turned to Jennifer, catching sight of me standing at the mouth of the hallway. “You’re up early,” she said. “There’s coffee.”
The tension eased from my shoulders. She seemed okay. Lucid. Like she remembered who these people were and maybe even why we were here. Thank God. Her confusion had cut like a knife yesterday, and even though I knew I did the right thing bringing her here, guilt still gnawed at me.
I plastered a smile on my face and strode forward, telling myself that yes, I might lose Jakob over this, but my actions could also ensure Gran’s safety and allow her to return to the nursing home as soon as tomorrow.
“Morning,” I said, pausing to give her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Liam moved to the fridge. “How do you take it?” he asked.
I nearly burst out laughing, remembering his son asking me that same question and the completely inappropriate comment I’d almost blurted. “Just cream,” I managed. “Thanks.”
“You’re in a good mood,” Gran said, picking up on my humor.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I told her.
She shot me a sly grin. “Yes, I’m sure it’s that. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the tall drink of water you – oof!”
I’d elbowed her.
Liam chuckled as he poured my coffee. Jennifer did a better job, turning away before Gran could see her grin.
“You two are only encouraging her,” I said.
“Harassing children is half the fun of being a parental figure,” Liam said, handing me my coffee.
The comment made me want to punch him. His tone was completely offhand, casual, his face just as relaxed, as if he hadn’t completely fucked up the lives of everyone caught up in his scheming, including mine.
I nodded, my grin forced, and took my coffee before my mouth got away from me. If not for Gran’s presence, this would be a completely different discussion, and as I caught sight of Liam’s eyes before turning away, I think he knew it.
“Come sit with me outside,” Gran said, slipping her arm through mine. “You have to watch the sun rise over the mesa. It’s so beautiful.”
I let her lead me out of the slider.
“Mind if I join you?” Jennifer asked.
“The more, the merrier,” Gran said.
I saw Liam step forward out of the corner of my eye, like he wanted to come too, but Jennifer turned toward him with a look of warning, her expression openly hostile, and he thought better about it. Clearly, she wasn’t ready to forgive him yet either.
You reap what you sow, asshole.
If by some miracle Jakob did manage to forgive me, there would still be the issue of his father. My parents taught me some hard lessons early on, and I thought the phrase “Blood is thicker than water” was complete bullshit. Every time I heard someone say it, I wanted to set something on fire. Liam’s actions might be rooted in his love for his son, but they were so twisted that I knew I would never trust him again, even if I eventually found a way to forgive him.
I didn’t want to be around him, put myself in his path, but he was Jakob’s father, a big part of his life, which meant I’d probably have to find some way to deal with his presence. Why Jakob put up with him, I didn’t know. I had no problem cutting ties with family, knowing I was better off without their toxic presence in my life, and it was hard for me to wrap my mind around a man as strong-willed as Jakob exposing himself to this kind of abuse. But that wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his baggage; it was mine. I needed to be more empathetic, more understanding. The problem was, I had an overprotective streak a mile wide. Say whatever you want to me, but hurt someone I care about, and I will nuke you from the orbit.
After what Liam already put Gran and Jakob through, I needed a hell of a lot of plutonium for the bomb he deserved.
“So much for your good mood,” Gran said as she sat.
I blinked, coming back to myself. My face must have given away my homicidal thoughts. I plastered a grin on it and took the chair beside her. “Sun was in my eyes.”
She harrumphed. “Mmhmm, sure it was.”
I shoved my dark thoughts to the recesses of my mind and turned my attention to the view. Gran hadn’t been kidding. It was early enough that the sun had barely cleared the horizon. A storm passed through late last night, and the lingering clouds were set on fire by its rays, bathed in vibrant pinks, oranges, and purples. Beneath our feet, the slate pavers were still wet, water droplets glistening in the golden light like a thousand glass beads had been spilled across them.
It really was beautiful here.
A gentle whoosh sounded behind us: the slider opening. Jennifer turned in her seat with a hard look on her face, but it softened immediately. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Jakob ambling toward us. He wore a pair of sweats and a loose t-shirt. His hair was still mussed, and his long fingers wrapped around a mug. Steam rose from it. He slowed his steps and lifted it to his lips, blowing on it before taking a careful sip. Something about the simple domesticity of it made my stomach flutter.
His eyes met mine over the rim of the mug and darkened, and my mind went right back to last night, his fingers spearing into me, my hand pumping his thick cock, both of us panting with need. He must have seen the thoughts flitting over my features because he pulled the mug away from his mouth, and, my god, the grin that curled his lips was not fit for public consumption. Anyone looking at him would see the sex in his smile.
I quickly glanced toward Gran and Jennifer, but they’d already turned back around in their seats. I looked back at Jakob and saw him chuckling.
He leaned down when he reached me, whispering. “Your face always gives you away.” From his tone, he liked that it did.
My stomach fell, and I steeled my expression against letting my feelings show now. This was what I risked. The way he sent my pulse pounding with a look. The way he riled me up because he liked how I reacted. The way he somehow made me want him and want to throttle him at the same time.
“Good morning,” Jennifer said.
“Morning,” Jakob responded, dropping into the seat beside me. He took another careful sip of his coffee.
“I’m surprised you’re up so early,” Jennifer said. “You and your dad had a late night.”
Jakob shrugged. “I woke up, and Krista was gone.”
I shot him a look through my lashes, curious. I was gone, and he’d gotten up to what? Make sure I was okay? Check that I was still here? Or just because he wanted to see me?
Jennifer smiled, looking between me and her son, her expression a dead-ringer to the approval that lit her face last night when she said I must really care about Jakob. Apparently, she thought he really cared about me too.
I looked away from her, my heart falling. I’d warned her that Jakob might not want anything to do with me after I made my move, but the truth was, neither would she. That thought hurt, because I liked Jennifer. Maybe that was because she reminded me of her son. Maybe it was because of how well she’d taken care of Gran. And yeah, maybe even a little bit because of how angry she was at Liam over what he’d done.
My phone buzzed in my hand, and I looked down to see a text from Nick.
Boarding a plane now. We’ll be ready by noon.
Roger that, I texted back, falling into military speak before I could catch myself.
Roger, Roger, Nick responded.
I checked the time before locking my screen. It was seven a.m. That meant I only had a few hours to get out of here without Jakob in tow. Nick and crew might not be ready to meet until noon, but there was work to do on my end before their plane touched down. I needed to call Magnolia Hills. I needed to find a coffee shop in Hermannsburg, the town in between Joker and King territory, and then I’d have to drive at least an hour to get there.
Nick and I talked for a long time last night, going over everything. The plan was simple enough, but we’d made several contingency plans for when shit went sideways. If the military had taught us anything, it was that shit always went sideways.
“What’s the nearest town?” I asked.
“Peterborough,” Jennifer answered.
“They have a drug store there?”
“They do,” she said.
“I’ll need to head over there sometime this morning.”
“I’ll drive,” Jakob said.
I cocked a brow at him. “You don’t think I can get to the store and back safely?”
He met my gaze head-on. “Not with your track record.”
“I’ve been doing just fine on my own these past twenty-six years,” I said.
Gran snorted. “Keep telling yourself that, kiddo.”
I leaned forward to look at her. “Don’t you start in too.”
Gran grinned, unrepentant.
“Let the woman go on her own,” Jennifer said, coming to my rescue. “She hasn’t had a minute to herself in days. She probably needs a break.”
Jakob looked to me in question.
“Some alone time would be nice,” I said. “It would let me clear my head a little.”
He eyed me. “You’ll call if anything happens?”
I feigned annoyance. “What could happen? I doubt The Jokers are posted up waiting for me.”
“You never know,” he said, his expression turning stubborn.
“Fine. I’ll call if anything happens,” I relented.
Five hours later, I sat in a tiny coffee shop in Hermannsburg. It was a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, geared more towards take-out than sitting in. I’d snagged the table closest to the window, paying a trio of high school girls to get up from it and move to one in the back. They sat there now, whispering together, throwing confused glances my way.
I did my best to ignore them, eyes trained on the street outside. Hermannsburg was a quaint little town. The original settlers were German, and like some of the bigger Germanic-founded Texas towns, the architecture looked more old-world European than modern-day American. Elaborate signs hung outside the stores, adding to the atmosphere. I sat in Hans ‘Kaffee. Across the way was a bar called Der Platz. Google told me that translated to “The Place”.
It was a cool, eclectic little town, one that I wanted to come back and visit once my life returned to normal.
If my life ever returns to normal, I thought. There was a good chance that our little plan might blow up in our faces. Daniel King said that Redding was a loose cannon. He’d gone so far as to call him a sociopath. I thought about the look Redding gave me in the police station – that cold expression, those flat eyes, dead of emotion. He’d assaulted a girl in Afghanistan and put an innocent woman in the hospital here. I didn’t think Daniel was wrong to call him a sociopath.
I relayed all of this to Nick last night, and most of our contingency plans revolved around how to react if Redding went off the rails. It was damn near impossible to predict the behavior of someone like him, and that worried me, especially because in less than half an hour, he would walk through the door of this coffee shop.
Another man entered it now. He wore a deep blue suit in a modern cut that was tailored to perfection. His black hair was artfully quaffed. Aviators hid his dark eyes. His head swiveled toward me, and he smiled, his teeth blindingly white against his tan skin. A chorus of sighs echoed from the table in the back. The high school girls must have caught sight of him.
I nearly turned to them and said, “All that, and a brain.” Nick was one of the smartest people I’d ever met. He’d gotten out of the military a few years before me and had his pick of job offers. CIA, NSA, a nice cushy desk job in D.C. – he could have done anything he wanted. In the end, he’d joined the FBI.
Nick had movie-star good looks and could charm the pants off of anyone if given enough time, which was why, after just a few years at the Bureau, his department head had started pushing him out in front of cameras. He wasn’t famous by any means. Not yet. He’d only made a few appearances on TV so far, for cases with low visibility at local levels. His boss wanted him to get his legs beneath him, get comfortable addressing reporters and speaking into a camera before he shoved him onto the national stage. Liam probably didn’t even know who he was, and we were betting that Redding wouldn’t recognize him either.
Nick worked in Organized Crime, a section of the Criminal Investigative Division that handled violent groups like the mafia and outlaw motorcycle clubs. It was why he contacted me when I moved to Kearny. The FBI had been trying to slip someone into the area for years, with limited success. The deal he offered me was pretty sweet: work somewhere local, like Charley’s, and keep an eye on things. Every week I’d report to my commanding officer about what I heard and saw. That was it. I didn’t have to get my hands dirty, I didn’t have to do any skulking around or put myself in danger, and all this for a nice salary and a respectable benefits package.
I still turned him down. I’d gotten out of government work for a reason, and at that point, I’d already met several members of The Kings and didn’t want to risk my neck just to fuck over fellow veterans. Nick asked me to reach out if I changed my mind or landed myself in danger, and so here we were. Did I like that it had come to this? No. But I trusted Nick. I believed him last night when he said he was sick of his desk job and missed the thrill of the hunt. He wasn’t even here officially. The small crew of people he hand-selected to come with him knew that this was an unsanctified operation, and they were okay with it. Getting charges to stick to motorcycle clubs was difficult. The club members wouldn’t rat each other out, evidence was usually scarce, and clubs kept lawyers like Katherine Jenkins on payroll to bog down their investigations, bury them in legal fees, and then tear them apart in court.
It made agents angry, lose faith in the system, which was why Nick and his crew had no problem coming down here to help me fuck over Redding and The Jokers.
Nick being FBI was the reason I couldn’t tell Jennifer what I planned. She couldn’t know. None of them could. First off, they would have stopped me. Because you didn’t work with the feds. Not if you valued your life. Club members who struck deals with FBI agents had limited life spans. The second anyone found out about what you’d done, you were dead, and it didn’t matter whether you were a fresh recruit or a man with all the influence and power of Liam Larson.
This was why Jakob would end things when I told him what I’d done. Bringing Nick into the area was a monumental betrayal of his trust, and if it ever came to light that I’d called in the feds to fix his father’s fuckup, I’d be kicked out of Kearny faster than you could say “narc”.
I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Nick told me he’d do everything in his power to keep my involvement from coming to light, and I was trusting him to pull it off somehow.
He shut the café door behind him and came over to my table. “Hey there, stranger.”
“Hey yourself,” I said, rising from my seat. “It’s nice to see you.”
He pulled the shades from his eyes and wrapped me in a hug. “You too. You look good, Skywalker.”
Skywalker. I’d forgotten the nickname. Back when we’d been sleeping together, he heard a story from my crewmates about me hitting an impossible target and took it into his head that I would fit right into the Star Wars franchise.
We pulled away, and I smiled up at him. “You look good too. How’s Elena?”
“She’s good, thanks,” he said, taking the seat beside mine.
I dropped down next to him. “When is she due?”
“Two months,” he said, grinning so wide that his dark eyes crinkled at the corners. “How about you? How’s the leg?”
“Bugging me today. I missed my last PT appointment because of all this shit.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Everyone in place?”
He nodded. “We have three in the building across the street. There should be a van pulling up on the curb any minute.”
Right on cue, a non-descript white van parked perpendicular to us.
“I don’t want my face in any of the pictures,” I said.
He pulled the chair out on his other side. It would put my back to the window. “Move over here,” he said.
I switched seats. “Did you find out anything else about Redding?”
“Oh, yeah,” Nick said. “The man is a piece of work. They did a good job covering up the attempted court-martial, but his uncle wasn’t as successful burying some of his other crimes.”
It turned out his uncle was a state representative, not a senator.
I raised a brow in question. “His other crimes?”
“Let’s just say that no one will miss this bastard.”
“Not even his uncle?” I asked.
He shook his head. “At this point, I think he’ll be glad to be rid of Redding. He’s gearing up for a run at the Governor’s House, and if it ever comes to light that he’s been sweeping the crimes of his rapist nephew under the rug, his gubernatorial dreams will be shot to hell.”
My cheeks flushed with rage. One way or another, Redding wouldn’t see the end of the week. I’d take him out myself if I had to.
Nick turned away from me as a man passed by on the street. He wore jeans and a t-shirt and had one of those forgettable faces that would be hard to pick out in a lineup. He must have made some subtle movement, because once he was gone, Nick turned to me and said. “Get ready. Redding’s on his way in.”
Copyright © 2021 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.