I had plenty of time to stew over my plan after returning to Jakob’s parents’ house. He wanted to speak to them together, let his mom know what his dad had been up to because he thought she could help talk some sense into Liam. It seemed like a discussion that should be reserved for family. They didn’t need me there acting as an unwilling voyeur to their drama, and between everything I’d learned this morning, and the showdown with Daniel, my nerves were shot to hell. I needed a break.
Gran and I sat in the living room together, watching one of her favorite movies, Steel Magnolias. Jakob, Liam, and Jennifer were holed up together in Liam’s office, far across the house.
I knew things were bad when I heard Jennifer yell, “You did what?”
I snagged the remote from Gran and turned the volume up a couple of clicks.
Guess Jennifer hadn’t been in on Liam’s plans after all. I’d wondered on the drive back if she’d known what he was up to, but kept my thoughts to myself. Jakob had plenty of shit to deal with without me making him question his mom too, and I didn’t know Jennifer enough to make that assumption. The only reason I’d gone there was because after this morning, I questioned everyone around me but Gran. Who was telling the truth? Who was lying? Who was still trying to play us?
I even questioned what happened at Daniel’s house. Had he been serious about Redding holding a vendetta against him? Or had it just been more lies, meant to distract Jakob away from him and instead place the blame for everything on Liam?
Those questions unraveled when we walked in the door, and Jakob said to his father, “We need to talk about why Redding is really here.”
Liam’s shoulders had stiffened, regret and steely resolve apparent in his expression. If that wasn’t a look of guilt, I’d eat my shoe.
“Krista,” Gran said.
I turned toward her.
“That was your favorite line, and you didn’t even laugh. What’s going on?” she asked.
I sighed. “Just tired. It’s been a long day.”
She cocked a brow at me. “Honey, it ain’t even supper-time yet.”
I grinned. “I know, but it’s still been a long day.”
“You want to talk about it?”
Raised voices sounded from down the hall, and I shook my head. If we paused the movie, she might hear everything the Larsons said, and she didn’t need to be dragged back into this shitshow.
“You sure?” she asked. “You look like a woman who needs to talk.”
“I’m sure. Just tired, I promise.” The lie rankled, and something in my face must have betrayed my true feelings because worry creased Gran’s brow.
She patted the couch cushion beside her. “Why don’t you lie down next to me, like you used to,” she said, “and I’ll pet your hair.”
I must have looked as bad as I felt. When I was little, gran used to read to me every night before bed, running her fingers through my hair or lightly scratching my back until I fell asleep. It was a nighttime ritual that always made me feel safe and loved, at a time when there was so much instability in my life. She’d stopped when I got to middle school and proclaimed I was too “grown-up” to be read to like a baby. Only in times of extreme hardship did she offer to pet my hair now, her way of comforting me when there wasn’t much else she could do to help me out of whatever trouble I got myself into. The last time she’d done this, I’d been waking up from surgery. If I accepted her offer, she’d know things were really bad, but after the past few days, I desperately needed something familiar, needed to feel safe and loved, if only for a few stolen minutes.
I nodded and laid down, resting my head on a throw pillow next to her thigh. Her fingers slipped into my hair, combing through the long strands, and I closed my eyes and let my mind drift back to simpler times, when the only things I got worked up about were when she made me go to bed on time or limited my TV intake. She had a great one-liner about cartoons and brain rot that used to make me roll my eyes, but I was totally stealing it if I ever got around to having kids of my own.
I must have drifted off, the sleep deprivation of the last couple of nights finally catching up to me, because the next time I opened my eyes, darkness had fallen. Gran was gone. The sound of plates and the smell of sizzling meat drifted from the kitchen. Jakob strode into view and then crouched down in front of me. The lights were still off in the living room, no doubt because Gran wanted to let me sleep, and what little illumination graced Jakob’s body shone from the kitchen, bathing him half in light, half in darkness.
His eyes gleamed like quicksilver when they met mine, and he lifted a hand and pushed the hair back from my face, his fingers lingering, tracing the back of my ear, before falling away.
“How’d it go?” I whispered.
In answer, he frowned and shook his head. I knew from the yelling that it had started bad, but I’d hoped things had improved while I napped. Guess not.
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
“Me too,” he said.
Both of our words were heavy with meaning. I didn’t know what weighted Jakob’s, but mine were dragged down by what was coming. By what I felt I had to do, even if it meant that he’d never speak to me again.
After dinner, Liam and Jakob disappeared into Liam’s office, Jennifer watching them go with wary eyes. Gran had already gone to bed, and it was just the two of us in the kitchen now.
“Where are they off to?” I asked.
“Off to plan how best to get themselves killed, no doubt,” Jennifer answered, her tone bitter.
I glanced down the hall and then out into the darkness beyond the windows. “Can I talk to you for a minute, outside?” I asked. I didn’t know how paranoid Liam was, if he bugged his own house, and I needed to say a few things to Jennifer without him overhearing.
She watched me for a moment before answering, her eyes roving over my face as if searching for something. When you looked at Liam, you knew right away that Jakob was his son. It was there for all to see in the color of their eyes, their tall statures, their full mouths. With Jennifer, the resemblance was more subtle. It was how she took in an entire room at a glance, the quiet way she observed those around her, and the scarcity with which she spoke, choosing to say something only when there was something that really needed to be said.
After a small eternity, she nodded.
I exhaled, feeling like I’d just passed some kind of test, and then went to snag us a couple of beers from the fridge. I had a feeling the conversation to come would call for a drink.
I stepped through the sliding wall, carrying them, and out into the night air. It was nine o’clock, but it had to be at least 80 still, and I was thankful that I’d changed into a pair of shorts and a loose-fitting tank top before dinner.
“Here,” I said, handing Jennifer her beer.
She clinked her bottle against mine. “Thanks. Cheers.”
I said cheers back, and took a sip of my drink, wondering how to broach this conversation. “Jakob said it didn’t go well?” I hedged.
She shot a glance through the slider and then grabbed my elbow. “Not here,” she said, hauling me across the patio toward the screened-in summer house that sat right on the edge of the drop-off.
Jesus, was their place actually bugged?
We stepped from the slate pavers onto a brick-lined path, and as the lights of the house fell away behind us, the night sky opened up overhead. The land was so flat here that it felt like the stars danced just out of reach, almost close enough to touch, so bright they shone like diamonds on a bed of black velvet. Crickets called out from the grass. Fireflies danced over the lawn like a living carpet or fairy lights. A cow lowed in the nearby field. It was peaceful, bucolic, completely at odds with the stress and worry that raged through me.
I kept my mouth shut until we were safely ensconced in the summer house. I could barely see Jennifer in the darkness, but at least the mosquitoes couldn’t get to us.
“One second,” she said, fumbling around near one of the wooden beams. A second later, a string of lights flicked on overhead, the antique style bulbs bathing us in amber.
Jennifer let out a heavy breath and sank into one of the deck chairs.
I sat across from her and took another sip of my beer, waiting for her to speak.
“It didn’t go well,” she said. Her eyes were pinched, lips set in a hard line. “My husband, God bless him, thinks he’s smarter than everyone around him and can’t admit when he’s screwed up.”
I let out a shaky breath. So it was definitely Liam. But how much of it was him?
“He had my apartment trashed,” I said.
She grimaced. “Aye. I’m sorry for that. We’ll pay to replace everything.”
“It’s not about my stuff,” I said, my tone harder than I intended.
She sent me a sharp look. “I know. Maybe better than you might think. But it’s not me you should be angry at.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, rubbing a hand over my face. “I didn’t mean to sound like I was. I’m just angry, in general, at this whole situation.”
She snorted. “We’re fine company then.”
“What about that guy in the elevator?” I asked.
“Not Liam,” she said. “That little prick he brought in.”
“That was Redding too.”
Relief washed through me. Was I pissed at Liam? Yes, but it was the kind of angry I might be able to work through if given a heartfelt apology and time to forgive him – like, maybe a few years. Being attacked or putting an innocent woman in the hospital were two offenses that I would never forgive.
“Where did he even find Redding?” I asked.
“Through a friend of a friend,” she said.
“And let me guess, he hasn’t interacted with him much personally?”
She shook her head. “Not at all, from what he claimed.”
“Seems like an oversight,” I said. “No way to accurately gauge someone if you don’t meet them.”
Her green eyes gleamed in the soft light. “Right you are. No way to tell, say, if someone is a dangerous sociopath, one turn away from derailing the entire goddamn train.”
“So Redding went rogue, and Liam’s been trying to reel him in ever since?”
She pointed her beer at me. “Bingo.” She took a sip of her drink and then shook her head, her bright red curls brushing her shoulders. “The problem with power is that you become used to it, used to the way that people respond to you. In the MC world, Liam is a known commodity. The men and women he interacts with on a daily basis know him, know his reputation, respect his authority, and, for the most part, they do what he says. He’s accustomed to that. So when he deals with people outside of our world, he’s a bit…arrogant isn’t the right word.”
I nearly snorted. It sounded like a good enough word to me.
“Blind is more like it,” she amended. “His expectations are skewed by his experience. He expects them to follow orders, do what he wants. He’s becoming ill-equipped to deal with the unexpected. He didn’t foresee Redding acting out or breaking ranks, and even now, he’s treating him like he would a wayward biker, sending in Mike to straighten it out instead of cutting ties or fixing the fucking mess he’s dragged us into.” Her accent grew thicker as she talked, anger seeping into her words, and fucking came out sounding more like fecking.
Liam owed a lot of apologies to a lot of people over this. Hopefully, they came as easily to him as they did his son.
I looked away from Jennifer, out into the night beyond, the wheels in my mind spinning. “And now that we all know about Redding, time has run out for Liam to take care of this quietly.”
“Aye,” Jennifer answered. “At least Daniel had the good sense to keep this shit to himself. His silence is the only thing giving me hope that this situation is fixable.”
I turned to her, frowning. “How so?”
“If he’d told the club what Liam did, they would have turned on my husband. Daniel knows how ugly that would get, so he’s giving Liam one last chance to make it right before he mounts a full-scale insurrection.”
“He made a comment about the club being more loyal to him than Liam,” I said.
She nodded. “That’s what happens when you start your own club. Liam’s made a cockup of the whole situation. King members aren’t stupid. They see his microaggressions against their leader, and they don’t like it. If Daniel gives them marching orders, they’ll go to battle for him.”
I raked a hand through my hair, nails digging in, anger getting the better of me. “What a goddamn mess.”
She nodded. “I could have married a nice Catholic Irish boy, like me mam wanted. But no, I just haaad to have the tall, handsome American.”
That got a laugh out of me.
Her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled. “Not too late for you, you know.”
I smiled back. “I know that.”
“And yet you want to stick around?”
My smile fell, and I nodded.
“Then welcome to our world, sweetheart,” she said. “You sure you can handle it?”
“I can handle it,” I said. But would Jakob still want me in it after what I was about to do? I glanced toward the house, motioning toward it with my beer. “What do you think those two are planning?”
She followed the gesture, staring back toward their home, worry creasing her face. “Something violent. Something meant to send a message. Redding breaking ranks makes Liam look weak, and he’ll want to make an example out of him.”
“To who?” I asked. “The only people who know about this are us, Mike, Daniel, and whoever Daniel has told.”
Her answering smile was rueful. “That’s more than enough people, lass.”
I shook my head. “What if there was another way to fix things?”
Her eyes sharpened. “What do you mean?”
“What if there was a way to fuck over Redding and the Jokers without dragging the rest of us into it?”
“How?” she asked.
“I can’t tell you. You need plausible deniability in this. All of you do.”
Her frown deepened. “Liam wouldn’t get his chance for retaliation?”
I shook my head. “No one could ever think he was part of it. Or Jakob. Or anyone in either club.”
“He won’t thank you for stealing his revenge away from him,” she said.
“At least he’ll be alive to be pissed at me.”
She studied me for a moment, reading me like she had earlier. Finally, she nodded. “What do you need from me?”
“I need you to stall their planning for as long as you can, and help me get out of here when the time comes,” I told her.
She nodded. “I can do that. What else?”
“Will anyone overhear me if I make a phone call out here?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Then can you go back inside and give me a few minutes alone?”
In answer, she rose from her seat to leave. She paused when she reached me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I do, but you should know, Jakob won’t want anything to do with me afterward.”
She surprised me by grinning.
I frowned up at her.
“You must really like him to go this far.” She squeezed my shoulder and left.
I waited until she disappeared inside before picking up my phone and scrolling through my contact list until I landed on the name Nicholas Nguyen-Forrester, a Vietnamese American Air Force intelligence troop I’d flown with in Syria. With resources in short demand, our role could change from attack plane to reconnaissance in a heartbeat, and he and a few other intel spooks had hopped a couple of flights with us, strapping an antenna array to our rig to collect comms data from Russian ground vehicles in the area.
He was a six-foot-tall dreamboat, with wide shoulders, an incredible smile, and a body that just wouldn’t quit. Our flirtation had started the second we caught sight of each other, chemistry sparking between us in a way that couldn’t be ignored. We spent a couple of sleepless nights together back on the ground, and the sex was just as good as I hoped it would be. That was all it was, though, and we’d lost contact after he and his crew hopped a flight with another plane. We’d become Facebook friends a few years back, and now he was married, with a daughter still in diapers and another baby on the way.
He’d liked my status when I moved to Kearny, and reached out to me via Messenger. The fact that Jakob didn’t know about him meant that he hadn’t actually stalked me after all. Because if he’d known about Nick, I never would have been allowed into Charley’s.
Nick answered on the second ring, his voice sleep muddled. “Krista?” he said. “Everything okay?”
I pulled the phone from my ear and looked at the time. It was past ten. “Sorry for the late call,” I said. “But what if I told you I had a way for you to screw over a motorcycle club, and all you’d have to do is go to coffee with me?”
“Give me the time and the place, and I’ll be there,” he said.
Copyright © 2021 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.