By J.R. Turner
Burly with long side-burns and longer hair, J.D. relaxed in the padded chair as the Rolling Stones hammered on about having sympathy for the devil. Jess added red to the inked flames climbing his shoulder. He sighed in obvious relief. “After that butcher, this feels like heaven.”
“Sorry, man.” Trash, the rookie grinned, sounding not a bit apologetic. He sounded proud he'd made the big biker squirm. “But you volunteered.”
“Not to be tortured.” J.D. scowled. “Your hand's heavier than your foot.”
Jess tossed her dark blonde ponytail back over her shoulder and leaned further to the right to give Trash a better view. She had given her first tattoo on her sixteenth birthday. Now, six and a half years later, she had earned her rep as the best tattooist in the parlor and often had to turn away work.
”You should be grateful I bombed out,” Trash said, his gaze fixed on her progress. “Jess don't do freebies.”
“You didn't bomb out,” Jess muttered, breathing carefully and moving her entire hand, not just her wrist, as she followed what remained of the transfer. J.D. was a bleeder and there wasn't much left of the pattern. “In fact, you can finish this.”
“Really?” Trash asked, surprised.
She blotted the tattoo with a paper towel and handed the gun back to him. “Yep. You saw how deep, right?” She stood, waiting for his nod as she stripped off the gloves and threw them in the garbage. “You got a steady hand. Go for it.”
Jess stopped at the door to the eight-stall garage, the second half of Tattoos and Tails. “I'll be back to see how it's going later. Holler if you need anything.”
“Yeah,” J.D. said. “How about a tourniquet?”
“Sorry, fresh out.” Jess chuckled. “Don't worry, if you lose too much blood, we can always squeeze some out of Trash.”
“I heard that.” Trash didn't turn. He was bent to his task, dark hair stuck to his sweaty, narrow forehead.
“Ouch, damn it, Trash.” J.D. gave Jess a pleading look. “How about some whiskey then?”
“No way. The city would pull my license if they caught you with booze. Besides, it'll only make you puke and you suck at mopping.”
Before they could trap her into another discussion on the finer points of pain management, she escaped into the shadowy garage where they rebuilt and serviced Harley-Davidson motorcycles. No rice grinders allowed, as her father, Dirty Dan Owen called the Japanese-made crotch-rockets.
One vehicle parked out there wasn't a motorcycle, and she had been dying to get to her baby all morning. The fully restored, midnight blue, balls to the wall '67 Mustang was her most prized possession. The day couldn't be more tempting. Clear sky, balmy breeze, no humidity-perfect for a drive by the lake and a quick dip before business picked up for the night.
Men's voices carried from the far end where a bay door stood open to the day. The gray in her dad's beard glinted white in the sunshine as he talked with a stranger, scrubbing a rag repeatedly over his rings. A nervous habit, something he did only when the city tried to dig up dirt on them or a routine investigation brought cops to their door.
Couldn't run a tattoo parlor and bike shop without the law thinking you were into everything from drugs to fencing stolen goods, which had been true before her father turned legit. Now, however, no thing or body could drag him back to that life.
After a closer look, she saw the stranger was far from a cop or a city inspector. Dirty Dan hit six feet and this guy had to be at least four inches taller. Large across the shoulders, narrow at the hips, he looked like one of those guys who pumped iron in the gym across from Rudy's Auto Parts. No beard, no mustache and his close-cropped hair covered a well-tanned scalp. Okay, so not a drifter-too clean-cut, too athletic.
She heard the deep vibrato of his voice, but not the words. Running a hand along the curving flank of the Mustang, she found a better angle. He must have muscles on top of muscles under that leather coat. Who was he? A knee-breaker for the mob?
Sunglasses hid his eyes, but not the strong jaw or the mouth that looked as hard as the rest of him. His nose wasn't quite as crooked as J.D.'s, but it could have been broken more than once. Maybe a bouncer for one of the downtown clubs?
He spotted her and she felt the intensity of his gaze behind those sunglasses. Startled to be caught staring, she lifted her chin and tried on a smile that felt as phony as Trash's old I.D. She joined them and gave her father a probing look. “Hey Dad, thought I'd come give you a hand.”
He looked at the array of parts on the work bench, then raised a brow at her. “With spark plugs?”
She held back a groan. Like he needed help with spark plugs. “Well, y'know, whatever.”
In the following hellish seconds of uncomfortable silence, the stranger's shadow drained her brain like oil from a severely abused Harley. The weight of his presence felt…dangerous.
“Jess,” her father said, clearing his throat. “This is Mitch, a friend from back in the day. Just passing through.”
“Really.” It came out flat, disbelieving. As far as she knew, her dad didn't have any bodybuilding, Mafia knee-breakers for friends and anyone from his past was either in prison-or should be. This guy didn't look old enough to have ridden with her dad either. He was closer to her age.
Mitch stuck out a hand. “Been a good ten years since I saw your old man. You must have been twelve or so, right?”
“Must have.” The jolt from touching his hand, completely unexpected, left her less curious about how he knew her age or who he was, and more interested in the color of his eyes.
She tried to hide her reaction, no easy task under her dad's miss-nothing scrutiny. She could feel him scolding her. A lazy smile worked across Mitch's face before he let go of a hand she no longer knew what to do with.
Oh for Pete's sake, Jess. What are you gonna do, never wash it again?
She shoved it deep in the back pocket of her jeans. For all she knew, he might be up from Chicago or over from New York, setting up a drug connection or asking her father to fence stolen jewelry. If that was the case, good looking or not, he could go back to wherever he called home. Dirty Dan Owen had retired.
“What brings you here?” she asked.
“Just passin' through, like your old man said. Sold off what I owned back in L.A. and headed for greener pastures.” Mitch waved at the garage. His jacket spread, revealing the tail end of a black-work tattoo across one collarbone. “Looks like you're doin' okay for yourself.”
“Yep.” Her dad's blue eyes were sharp beneath a bandana tied pirate-style over his black and grey mane. “Can't complain.”
Something's wrong. Her father backslapped his pals, took them across the alley and into the yard behind their house. He'd give them a cold beer, maybe fire up the grill, but he hadn't even invited Mitch inside the garage.
Air brakes from a city bus hissed on the busy main street and those dark sunglasses turned to watch it rumble away. She cleared her throat, risking a foot in her mouth. “So, which way you headed?”
Okay, not too bad, casual, unless he thinks you're trying to get rid of him. She hadn't been exactly welcoming so far.
“Am I intruding?” That rich voice carried a hint of humor as it rumbled up from his chest.
“No, not at all.” Now she sounded like she wanted him to stay. She turned to her father. C'mon, Dad, don't leave me hangin' here. What do you want to do with this guy?
“Mitch's gonna stay with us a few days.” He sounded disgruntled and no smile lifted his beard as he turned to Mitch. “You can toss your stuff upstairs, clean up if you want, and join us for chow tonight.”
“Sounds good.” Mitch glanced past the fence and the “Beware of Dog” sign, to the two-story house shrouded by hundred-year-old oaks. He didn't move, and Jess didn't offer to take him. She knew better. Her dad would never allow her inside, alone, with a strange man. It was Dirty Dan's golden rule--if you want to live, don't even think of touching his daughter.
Made for a great dating life.
Then, aliens possessed him. “Give him a hand, Jess. Give 'im the drunk tank.”
Jess snapped her jaw shut on his don't-dare-argue-with-me look. She sent one back of her own. Wait until we're alone--I'll make your head spin with questions.
Mitch adjusted the pack on his shoulder. “Drunk tank?”
“You'll see.” Her father went into the garage, ending the conversation.
Jess hurried to get the chore done. At times like these, she really wished she had known her mother, learned a little about playing polite hostess, no matter what you thought of the guest. As it stood now, she didn't want to be alone with Mr. Hunk-o-rama and risk morphing into a drooling moron.
Duh . . . wanna be my boyfwend?
At the chain-linked gate, she threw the latch. Mitch followed close and she wondered if he could see the pulse throbbing on the side of her throat. She should have worn a turtleneck.
The beware sign slapped metal as the gate closed and he asked, “You have a dog?”
“No. We've got an alarm on the shop that sounds like a rabid Doberman. The sign's mostly to warn people about my dad.”
She wound among picnic tables, folding lawn chairs, and the huge hand-welded grill, then up the back deck. The quiet house made his boots sound heavy, clumping in behind her. She sensed him looking at everything--every nook and cranny, every branch off the kitchen and the living room, as if casing the place.
Thief didn't feel quite right, though. What was his game? The hairs on the nape of her neck stirred as he followed too close. By the time she reached the staircase, her heart beat a rock-n-roll drum solo.
No part of this was normal. Aside from J.D. and Trash, her dad didn't trust any guy with his daughter. This was the first time she'd taken a man to the drunk tank by herself.
Trash's brother, Kooch, had designed the room as a punishment for anyone with guts enough to pass out at an Owen cookout. She only hoped Mitch would take the decor as a hint to get lost-like he wasn't taking the hint right now.
He crowded her intentionally. No one remained so close without meaning to. His heat burned into the bare skin above the back of her tank top. And damn it all, she liked his heat, even if his kind thought they were God's gift.
She whirled at the foot of the staircase, nearly burying her nose in the white of his t-shirt. She stepped back and up a riser, then another until they were eye level. Hands on hips, she glared at her reflection in his shades.
Angry that he supposedly remembered her, angry that she still hadn't gotten a good look at him, and angry that her father had been taken over by aliens, she huffed the bangs out of her eyes and asked, “What are you doing?”
He gave another crooked, lazy smile. “Following you.”
“I know that.” If he didn't take those sunglasses off, she would yank them off herself. “But why are you here at all?”
Then he removed the sunglasses and she wished he hadn't. Chocolate brown eyes stared into her. She swore that stare found her bellybutton and zapped it with a form of sexual telepathy. Knowledge of her reaction registered in his gaze and his grin widened.
Dangerous. Was she breathing yet?
“I came to see Dan.”
That might be the truth, but it wasn't all of it. As much as she knew he had sensed her attraction, she sensed him holding back. Secretive made him dishonest by omission. Bottom line, he couldn't be trusted.
Yet her traitorous body practically glowed.
It had to be something like that sensory deprivation thing she'd seen on cable. She rarely dated and when a healthy male showed up at her door, lust erupted with volcanic force and turned her brain to idiotic lava.
Forget the meltdown.
He wasn't being honest and he made Dirty Dan nervous. That was all she needed. He could take God's gift straight back to customer service and get a refund. She wasn't buying. “You can stay for a day or two, then I want you out, understand?”
Surprise hardened his grin. “Whatever you say, princess.”
Jess wanted to kick him in the shin. “Don't call me princess.”
Now that she could see the rest of him, she was positive they had never met before. At twelve, dolls were a thing of the past and boys had become more than fellow playground monkeys. No way would she have forgotten him-especially since most of the men in her life looked like Hell's version of Grizzly Adams. Testing, she asked, “Where do I know you from again?”
“We met once, at a rally in Sturgis.”
Liar. He would have stuck out like The Flying Nun.
He ran a hand over his head. “I was hairier back then.” Faltering, she wanted to believe him, though she knew better than to ignore her gut instincts. Even if he didn't frighten her, he damned well made her suspicious.
“Is this where I'm camping, or is there a bed up there?” He jerked his chin at the second floor. “No problem either way. Whatever keeps the rain off.”
Did he really think he would convince her to step aside and let him… What? What could he possibly want here, with her father? To blackmail him? What else could it be? Her dad would never, ever have let him stay in the house otherwise.
Knots sprang in her belly and twisted tighter. Normally, she kept the door open, gave people a chance, most times two. She didn't like being forced to lay down the law and hated confrontations even more.
Nothing and no one would hurt her family though and despite the hot prickle of nerves, she found the courage to sound stern. “I don't know why you're really here, or what you have on my dad, but if you get him in trouble, you'll be sorry.”
Again, he seemed surprised, but his smile finally dissolved.
About damned time.
He stepped onto the first riser, sliding one massive hand up the banister, the other along the wall. Corralled in the span of those big arms, she stood her ground. She wouldn't give in to the invasion of her space, no matter her heart beat a thousand times too fast.
“I'll be gone in a few days. Don't worry.”
“Good.” She jerked away from the heady scent of sun-hot leather, soap, and salty warm flesh. Ignoring the blissful tingly sensation in her gut, she spun and sprinted up the rest of the stairs, feeling his eyes on her backside the whole way.
She rushed past walls painted black and filled with gel-pen graffiti from the guests who'd stayed over the years. They used to write in anything handy on the '50s sea green paint. Tired of the look, she had repainted and hung neon pens from electrician's cord at intervals. Now it looked like Vegas at midnight.
Jess flung open the door of the last bedroom and turned to watch him come down the hall. He ducked to avoid the hanging chrome light and stopped once to read an especially hearty thanks scribbled to her father.
“Cool idea,” he said, then peered inside the bedroom. He threw back his head and laughed, a wonderfully raucous sound.
Jess retreated fast before her resolve could be damaged more than it already had. Down the stairs, through the house, and into the kitchen she ran. She banged out the screen door, rushing for the bright afternoon sunshine.
He would leave in a few days, like they all did. If she ever saw him again, he'd be sporting a big-breasted biker babe on his arm. Despite knowing this, there was no way she would go for her swim now. Whatever Mitch wanted with her father, he'd have to go through her first.
* * *
Mitch stepped into the room, still chuckling. The Owens had a very different approach to home decor. A painted, black-and-white checkerboard covered the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and the sparse furniture. Each section melded together at odd points. It played havoc on his depth perception and innate balance.
He walked to the window and his stomach flipped. No wonder they called it the drunk tank. Even sober he felt like he'd had a few too many.
Outside, Jess paused at a picnic table and yanked her thick caramel-colored ponytail tighter, as if angry. Maybe she had a right to be. She knew more was going on than they had told her. It was obvious in the way she'd threatened him. Loyal and tough.
Definitely Beth's daughter.
No need to compare the slightly darker green eyes, high cheekbones, or the matching pointed chin. They shared more than physical DNA.
The way Dirty Dan had gone on about his sensitive daughter being spared the truth, Mitch had expected her to be spoiled, a bit of a prima-donna. Instead, he'd met a woman ready to commit assault and battery if he tried to harm her family.
To make it worse, Dan had sworn him to secrecy. If he said one word about why he was really in town, he could kiss this crazy room goodbye. The thought may be appealing, but he couldn't do his job from anywhere else. How much simpler this would all be if she knew the truth. Apparently, Dan had told Jess nothing about her mother's side of the family. If they were lucky, that wouldn't turn out to be a fatal mistake.
As she disappeared into the garage, he used the height afforded by the second-story window to canvas the area. All appeared normal, at least for this rough neighborhood.
She'd been raised by protective bikers, surrounded by streetwise tough guys. Basically, his kind of people. It looked like luck would have a little more help than he'd first thought. Maybe, just maybe, the built-in security of bikers in residence would be enough.
Luck was a lady he didn't normally bet on, however, and it made him grind his teeth to do so now. For a decade he'd never once failed. He'd known it was possible, but deep down, he supposed it would never happen to him. Only the careless, the reckless failed, not those who were as methodical as he.
Why is this assignment so damned different?
He gripped the windowsill, breathing in the summer-heavy scent of exhaust, hot tar and the faint yeasty odor from the brewery. Jess might be a secret back in L.A., but she'd been too easy to trace.
Returning to the bed, he pulled his cell phone from inside the leather coat he hadn't worn since things got ugly in New York. It felt strange, but damn good to wear the battered jacket instead of the suits he'd worn since settling on the West Coast.
The phone picked up in midring. “Hello?”
“It's me, Mitch,” he said as he dug the spare Glock out of his pack and flicked the safety off. “I've got her.”