Marcie lifted the long-necked bottle to her lips and drank a sip of the warm, stale beer she’d been nursing for the past forty-five minutes. As the tepid liquid filled her mouth, she cringed and forced herself to swallow. The desire to finish the beverage had long fled, but she needed something to keep her hands and mind occupied. With a small grunt of disgust, she set it down on the table and let her gaze wander around the smoke-filled bar.
She couldn’t imagine any place she would rather be less than she wanted to be in this bar, back in her hometown of Crystal Rock, Arizona, sitting next to the boyfriend she desired about as much as the lukewarm beer. It wasn’t his fault. Timing sucked. They’d only been dating for two weeks when her mother passed. Really, she hadn’t been all that interested in him, but it was nice to have something to do a few nights a week. Ugh, that sure sounded shallow. Poor Tanner had tried to coax her onto his lap, but that would have made her look dependent on him for comfort. And she wasn’t. She barely knew the guy.
For the first time in ten years, Marcie had made the trip back to Arizona. She’d returned to bury her mother, a miserable woman who spent the majority of Marcie’s childhood stoned and in bed with one random man or another. They hadn’t spoken in almost five years, and while she wasn’t surprised to learn of her mother’s passing, Marcie was truly shocked to discover what little the woman possessed was left to her only child.
A second shock came when her new boyfriend—if she could even give him the strong label—Tanner, offered to accompany her from Seattle to the unassuming town of Crystal Rock, claiming he wanted to assist in settling her mother’s affairs. The show of support touched her, and in a weak moment she caved to his request. Had she been in her right mind, she’d have turned him down. His help wasn’t necessary. She could handle the trip and her mother’s meager affairs on her own, as she handled everything else life threw at her. Independently. Alone. Lonely.
But Tanner insisted, and for the first time in years, she relented and allowed someone the possibility to take care of her. And she’d been secretly relieved by the knowledge that she wouldn’t have to make the journey alone. That was until he invited two of his friends, and turned the trip into a bro’s trip complete with a two-night stop in Vegas.
From the moment Tanner hit the gas and left Seattle in the dust, aspects of his personality she hadn’t yet been introduced to began to emerge. Unfortunately, he transformed into an overgrown frat boy would couldn’t see past his next drink. Even his buddies Cameron and Billy seemed surprised by his slide back to his college days. What did she expect? This is what she got for giving a man she just met some control over her life.
His party mentality wasn’t impressive and she wasn’t they type to overlook poor behavior on the off chance it would improve with time. Nope, she was done with him.
The kind thing would probably be to just inform him tonight that they were through, but her brain was fried and she’d much rather do it back in Seattle, and not in a town where more bad than good memories lurked around every corner.
So, she’d end it as soon as they returned, and she’d be on her own once again. And wasn’t that just how she liked it? It wasn’t the eighteen hundreds. She could and would take care of herself. Too much of her childhood was spent afraid and cowering behind the protection and care of two very special friends. Now, she lived how she wanted without depending on anyone for anything.
Fatigue weighed heavy on Marcie’s shoulders. She’d spent eight hours, today, sifting through a run-down trailer full of tragic childhood memories, and that was after a very simple and unattended burial service. Spending another night with three men who were happiest when in whichever bar was closest was about as appealing as a trip to the gynecologist.
Glancing down at her lap, she smoothed the front of the simple, yet elegant, black skirt she’d worn with a black blouse to the lonely burial. Marcie had been the only person in attendance, unable to wake a hung-over Tanner before she had to leave. Her prostitute mother hadn’t had true friends, and alienated her family, so Marcie was it.
Tanner downed his own drink then grabbed her abandoned beer to polish that off as well. He clanked her beer bottle on the table and she jolted, lost in her own melancholy thoughts. “Damnit, Marcie, this is piss warm. Go grab me a new one from the bar.” As he spoke he gave an unaffectionate tug on her short blonde hair. “I gotta take a piss. Where the hell’s the john?” He glanced around the crowded bar. “Jesus, there’s so many people here it’s gonna take me a year to get to the damn can.”
Marcie shot him a death look, but refused to allow him the satisfaction of seeing her rub the sore spot on her head. Tanner had been in a rotten mood all day, complaining about being stuck in Crystal Rock with nothing to do while Marie dealt with her mother’s personal effects. God forbid he offered to help. Not that she need it. She handled it without him. If she had enough energy to deal with the fallout, she’d just walk away tonight, but she couldn’t handle a confrontation right now.
Relief was almost immediate as she left the three men at the table. The one and only reason she followed his command to grab a beer was to get away from them a few minutes. Tanner was right about one thing. The bar was jam packed. It took quite a bit of fancy maneuvering to work her way to the bar without rubbing up on every body in the place.
With a heavy sigh, she took a seat at the bar in no rush to grab the attention of the cute bartender.
A commotion from the opposite side of the dimly lit bar caught her attention, and she turned in time to see a group of large, gruff bikers enter the establishment. Growing up in Crystal Rock, there was no way to escape knowledge of the No Prisoners motorcycle club. They ran the town, and had always patronized Black’s as their bar of choice.
No surprise, the tattooed men in leather were accompanied by a gaggle of women with tiny skirts and even smaller tops, leaving less than nothing to the imagination.
“What’ll it be, darlin’?” the young, thin man slinging bar asked with a flirty smile, most likely hoping to garner a larger tip. A bull ring ran through his septum and his hands resting on the surface of the bar had the words game over tattooed across the knuckles.
“Another please,” she said, indicating the bottle she’d returned to the bar.
“Sure thing, sweetness. Be right back.” He winked as he turned to grab her beer. Shaggy dark hair stuck out from under a backwards baseball cap and his tan was nicely on display around his dark grey wife beater. Obviously, this was a casual establishment.
She smiled, charmed by his friendly nature. Crystal Rock boasted an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life. A few seconds later, he returned with the uncapped beer and another flirty wink. Marcie paid and swiveled on the stool. Looks like she’d stalled long enough. Time to rejoin the bromance at her table.
“Holy shit! Marcie? Marcie Barringer?” The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.
Her head snapped around, and she came face-to-face, well face to chest—the man was tall as a building—with Dylan Parker.
“Dylan?” she asked, unable to keep the delight from her voice. Without thinking, she launched herself off the stool, landed against his hard chest with a grunt, and wrapped her arms tight around the body that was no longer that of a young boy, but a full-grown man. And a hot one at that.
He seemed just as elated to have run into her, and returned the embrace with gusto. “I can’t believe it, Marce,” he said, gripping her arms and holding her away from his body. He raked her up and down with his eyes. “Damn girl you grew up into something gorgeous. I like that pixie haircut. Fits you.”
Marcie blushed, but couldn’t remove the giant grin from her face. She’d known Dylan for as long as she could remember. Without him, she may not have survived her childhood, at least not in one piece. Neither had any siblings, and, being six years older, Dylan had appointed himself her surrogate older brother and protector.
He was the one person from the childhood that she could remember truly caring about her. It was a sibling kind of love, and she hadn’t seen him since the day she left Crystal Rock almost ten years prior. The boy grew up in to one hell of a sexy man, and apparently was now a member of the motorcycle club, if the leather cut he wore was any indication.
She could barely believe he was here, in front of her. Time melted away at being near her surrogate big brother and she felt like the past ten years had never occurred. He was tall, muscular, and deadly looking, with dark, almost black hair and chiseled features that made him look every bit the dangerous man he probably was now. The thought made her laugh. She knew way too much about him to ever consider him a danger, at least not to her.
Damn it was good to see him.
“I can’t believe I ran into you, Dylan,” she said, giving him another quick squeeze.
“It’s Striker now, babe.” An arrogant smirk played across his lips.
“Handle given to me by the club, on account of my impressive skills.” A teasing glint lit his eyes and he bounced on the balls of his feet, fists up in a boxer’s stance. He was forever getting into fights as a kid. As he grew into his teens, he put that energy to good use learning to box, and becoming quite proficient in the sport.
“Striker it is then,” Marcie returned.
“What are you doing here, hon? How long are you in town?” he asked, genuine concern filling his voice.
That concern was so familiar, a warmth she hadn’t experienced in far too long bloomed in Marcie’s chest. As long as he’d known her, he’d been concerned about her wellbeing, and at the time she’d been too young to appreciate the rarity of a man who wanted nothing more from her than her happiness. Marcie shrugged. “My mom passed. I’m here for a few days dealing with the details.”
Striker grimaced. He’d had a front row seat to the shit show that was Marcie’s childhood, and knew full well what a deadbeat her mother had been. “Shit, Marce. I wish I’d known. I’d have offered to help you. Is there anything I can do now?”
“No, Striker, there isn’t much left and I can handle it.”
He slung an arm around her shoulders and steered her back to the bar. “Well then, we at least need to have a drink or ten, while you’re here. Wait until Hook sees you here. He’s gonna flip his shit.”
She raked her memory but came up with nothing. “Hook?”
Striker laughed. “My bad, honey. Man, I forget how long you’ve been away. Remind me to yell at you about that later.” He gave her a playful scowl. “TJ.”
Every last drop of saliva dried up until her mouth could rival the arid desert. TJ and Dylan, Striker, had been inseparable as teenagers and if she’d loved Striker as a brother, her tender young heart and innocent body had loved TJ in a very different way.
“Oh, there he is.” Striker gestured toward the end of the bar. “Hey, Hook,” he hollered over the music and loud chatter, getting the other man’s attention. “Get your ass over here. Bet you a lap dance you won’t’ believe who’s here!”
Marcie was not in any way prepared for the punch to the gut she experienced when she got her first look at Hook in ten years.
Holy hotness. The man was the sexiest thing she’d ever laid eyes on. The boy had been every teenage girl’s fantasy, but the man, the man was more than she’d dared to fantasize about.
Every feeling she’d ever had for the bad boy she lusted after as a teen came rushing back full force when that sinful mouth lifted in a wide, genuine smile.