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Heart of a Bad Boy
By Sugar Jamison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Sugar Jamison
All rights reserved.
At work today, one of my students told me that her daddy kept a dead-body freezer in the garage. I probably should have called the police, but I called up her daddy (brave, I know) and asked him about it. Turns out the dead-body freezer is where they put their cow. That's right, they bought a cow, named it Bruce-Bruce, had it offed, and now keep it in their freezer.
I'm not sure if that's better than what I originally thought.
Levi King stared at the half-eaten BLT on his plate. It used to be one of his favorite things. Beautifully toasted sourdough bread. Thick, crispy strips of bacon. The mayo-to-lettuce-to-tomato ratio was just right. But now after ordering it for the hundredth time, he realized that he was bored with it. Or maybe he was just bored with this place in general. It had been his hangout for years. A sports bar that catered to the car crowd of former and current racers. Stock car, karting, Formula One, anyone who ever had the need for speed. It wasn't a pretty place, not shiny and new like a lot of the big sports bars on the Strip. It was dark and a little shabby. The same people hung out there each day. The same groupies. The same talk about the same things.
He had been feeling this way for a while, and yet he came back here nearly every day. Maybe he was just bored with life. He was starting to feel ... unsatisfied. Like something was missing. He wiped his mouth and threw down his napkin. Just as he was reaching for his wallet, his manager Fitz strolled up to him.
Manager might be the wrong word for what Fitz was to him. Former manager? Current full-time pain in his ass.
Levi kept his mouth shut as Fitz eased down into the chair across from him. He could only describe Fitz as glitzy. Alligator boots, distressed jeans, gray hair that was slicker than rat shit, and an affinity for gold jewelry. Fitz looked like a guy who had made some money. Levi knew from experience that he was always looking for more.
"Levi, baby. How are you?"
"Same as I was the last time we spoke two days ago. How are you? Got a new diamond earring, I see. That one is fancy. I didn't know they made diamond hoops for men."
"You're in a shitty mood today." Fitz touched his ear. "I thought you appreciated my debonair sense of style."
Levi laughed. "I just like your Texas longhorn earrings better."
"Those are beauties." He nodded sincerely. "And speaking of beauties, have you thought about that beauty of a deal I can get you?"
"What deal? The one to endorse that Japanese energy drink? Or the one to be the face of those male enhancement pills?"
"That's a great deal. You could put the entire state of Wyoming through community college with that paycheck."
"And spend the rest of my life having people thinking my manhood is not up to speed."
"What do you care what the world thinks? You wink at a girl and her skirt rises."
Levi never had trouble finding a woman to pass the time with, but he shook his head. "I'm not doing it."
"I know. But I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about going back to racing."
Ah, racing. His first love. The only thing that had ever gotten his heart to thump in his chest. Just the thought of being behind the wheel of a race car, seeing the fans in the stands, hearing the deafening roar around him was enough to get his motor running.
But he had almost died doing it. His car had bounced, flown, crashed, and exploded into tiny pieces that littered the track. He should have died that day. He was sure his time was up as soon as he felt the extreme heat of the fire.
But he had been on a wild path to destruction even before he stepped foot onto a track. The choices he had been making had him spinning out of control faster than any car he had ever driven. Still, crashing so epically did something to him. Seeing his entire life flash before his eyes and not being satisfied with any of it, not being proud of the man he was becoming, did something to him. It shocked his system, rocked his core. He hadn't been back behind the wheel of a race car since then.
"The fact that you're not flatly refusing to go back encourages me."
"It's been over a year. I haven't kept up. I haven't trained. What team is going to want me?" He had been winning races, but he was reckless off the track. He drank too much, kept company with the wrong kind of women, was a little too fast with his fists.
He had been dubbed the Bad Boy of Racing. He had never been short of endorsement deals, but over time he had seen the offers change. No more family-friendly deals. Booze companies, strip club appearances; there was even one offer to be the ribbon cutter at a brothel.
His last team's owners were growing increasingly unhappy with his image and normally he wouldn't have given a shit, but he hadn't been too happy with it himself. Especially when a kid came up to him and told him how cool it was when he got into a fight with another driver after a race.
He hated to be that guy. That asshole whom kids thought was cool for all the wrong reasons.
"I'm wounded." Fitz clutched his chest, and it brought Levi out of those memories. "Would I come to you with anything that wasn't a sure thing?"
Levi shook his head. Fitz looked like he was full of shit, but he never bullshitted him. "Talk."
"You were tearing up the scene in Europe. You were on your way to legendary status before the crash. I've got multiple teams interested. I'm talking about millions and millions of dollars. They want to tell the story of your comeback, like a documentary. Everybody loves a good comeback kid, plus your backstory: world-class brawler, alcoholic father, brother who was sent to prison for attempted murder, another brother who went from trailer trash to Harvard MBA and turned a single custom car shop into an empire. People are interested. They want to see you make good on all that potential."
"That's not just my story. It's my brothers' story, too, and if you've forgotten, I'm already on a TV show every week. I don't think people want to know any more about me."
"You host a show showcasing Duke's work, one that Colt created. You're just the pretty boy in front of the camera. That show is not about you. You're a tiny piece in your older brothers' empire. You were one of the best in the world. You've got star written all over you. What do you want your legacy to be? Employee of King's Customs? Someone who needed his brothers to get him a gig?"
"Fuck you, Fitz. I was racing long before King's Customs was a thing."
"I know that. You know that. But the world needs to know that. You've got to show everyone that you're not just the baby brother of two giants. You've got to show them that you are a giant of your own. You can be on top again. You can be better than before. Especially since you cleaned up your act a little. It will be the sports story of the century. I can see the headlines now. From Bad Boy to Golden Boy. Not little brother who was going to get kicked off his team if he hadn't crashed."
Levi was silent for a moment, feeling the hostility that he had always tried so hard to keep in check roll around in his belly. He hadn't felt that kind of emotion in a long time, not since he left racing, and that was telling him something. He couldn't say he was happy with his life lately. The show wasn't shooting right now. He had shot a few commercials between seasons, did some appearances, was the face of the King's Customs brand, but other than that he had nothing going on. Nothing to look forward to.
He had somehow cultivated this image of a carefree playboy, still a bit naughty, but not a complete degenerate. Little brother to two industry giants. But he was more than that. His brothers were impressive, sure, but he had just as much to offer the world. Sometimes he did miss racing, but he rarely thought about going back. Maybe this was just the thing he needed to break him out of his boredom, the rut he seemed to be stuck in.
"So should I start the negotiations?" Fitz asked him. Levi took his wallet out of his pocket and tossed cash on the table. "Let me think about it."
It was a big decision. And he wasn't sure what the hell he was going to do about it.
* * *
Levi walked up to King's Customs, the shop that had changed all of their lives with its extreme and quick success. He shouldn't have been surprised by it. But when his oldest brother told him that he wanted to open up a car customization shop on the Strip and staff it with ex-cons, he'd been supportive. He'd thought Duke could do pretty good business and not have to worry about his past as felon convicted of attempted murder interfering with his ability to get a job. He'd never thought that single shop would turn into a chain, and he'd never thought Duke would become a multimillionaire, with his name on everything from wiper fluid to spark plugs.
Duke was talented, an artist really. He could look at any piece-of-shit car and see a classic beauty. He had an eye for color and shapes that most professionally trained painters lacked. He was also a mean-looking, bearded, tattoo-covered high school dropout. Nobody thought he would turn into a businessman, least of all Duke. But that's where Colt came in. Their middle brother. Stanford grad, Harvard MBA, Wharton School of Business for something else. Colt could look at a dollar and turn it into a million by lunch. Duke and Colt didn't always get along, but when they got together it seemed as if they could take over the world.
And that's why the King's Customs empire was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Levi was impressed and proud of his brothers, who'd taken the shitty hand life had dealt them and beaten the odds, but he felt a little left out.
He loved hosting King's Customs Creates, the television show that documented the shop's process of turning rust buckets into perfectly pimped-out showpieces, but he wanted ... more.
"Hey, Dukey!" He walked up to his brother, taking a little joy out of seeing Duke's face harden at the sound of his nickname.
"What the hell do you want?"
"I think what you meant to say was Hello, Levi. How are you today? I hope you're well."
Levi grinned and shook his head. "I wonder how out of the three of us, I was the one who managed to get all the charm, manners, and looks."
Duke scowled at him, looking fierce. But what Levi knew that the rest of the world didn't was that even though he'd been sentenced to prison for ten years, Duke was probably one of the most thoughtful, considerate people on the planet. Duke would never be considered sweet or kind, but he was a good man to his core and he always stood up for what he thought was right, no matter the cost.
"What do you want, Levi?"
"I just wanted to know if you'd seen this yet." He pulled out his phone and showed the Duke the profile that had just been published about him: "From Prisoner to President." Over the years more and more stuff was being written about them, but by people who didn't really know them. Details were left out. The facts behind Duke's imprisonment were always completely wrong. Duke may have gotten into a fight behind a bar that ended up with a man in the hospital, but nobody knew why the fight had started, or why an assault charge had been blown up into attempted murder.
Levi thought about the documentary that Fitz had brought up. Levi wasn't sure if he wanted to go back to racing yet for sure, but the idea of them telling their story in their own words appealed to him. Colt and Duke would never be comfortable in front of the camera, but people needed to know the truth about them. And who best to tell it but them?
Duke pushed the phone away. "I don't need to see that. It's all bullshit anyway."
"It's not bullshit, Duke," Levi said seriously. "You've done good. It's time you realized that."
"Are you done with this inspirational speech yet? Because I have work to do."
Duke looked at him for a moment before he walked away. "Emilio," he called to the twenty-two-year-kid who looked more than a gangbanger than expert mechanic.
"What you need, boss?"
"Put this car on the lift so we can take a good look under it. I want her purring like a goddamn cat when you're done."
"I got you." The kid rushed away to do as he'd been told. He was another one of Duke's rescues, newly released from prison; he had spent a year behind bars for beating up his sister's abusive boyfriend. The kid may have looked like a gangbanger, but his baggy jeans and tattoos didn't mean he was one. He was working in a supermarket and rebuilding engines on the side when he went to jail. If Levi had learned anything by being at King's Customs, it was that it was stupid to judge people by how they looked or their pasts. You just never knew why or how they got there.
"You always have work to do." Levi followed as Duke surveyed the shop, making sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing, which was completely unnecessary. This was a dream job for all the employees, and Duke both treated and paid them well. Only a complete and total asshole would fuck up this opportunity.
"It's time you take some time off," he told Duke. "We could go on vacation. A brothers-only trip. We could rent a villa on the beach in Mexico. Maybe meet some of the beautiful local women. Drink some fruity shit with umbrellas in it. We could even invite Colt. I'm sure the stick would fall out of his ass once he got some." His brothers never took off from work. They never had any fun at all, and it was turning both of them into morose sons of bitches. Their problem was the exact opposite of his. He had spent the past few years having too much fun.
Lately all their emphasis seemed to be on growing the company. Even though Levi lived close by and worked with his brothers, he rarely spoke to them about anything that didn't have to do with work.
It wasn't always like this. They actually used to hang out and act like normal brothers. Money definitely changed shit.
"I don't have time for this, Levi."
He wanted to ask Duke if he had time to take his head out of his ass, but he didn't want to get into it with him in the middle of Duke's shop in front of all his employees. There were times he wanted to knock his older brothers on their asses, but he owed them both a lot. They'd protected him from their drunk of a father when he got violent, and after he left they'd gone without so he could have. And that meant he owed his older brothers his respect even when he wanted to bash their heads together for dismissing him all the time. He was the youngest, but he sure as hell wasn't a baby. When he was racing, the other drivers respected his wildness — maybe even feared it a little — but at home with his family a man could never stop playing the role he was born into.
"Billy," Duke called over to the guy with the shaved head and facial tattoo sitting behind the desk. "I need the drawings for the pinstriping we're going to do on the Ford in five minutes. We've got a customer coming in."
Billy looked up at him for a moment and let out a grunt before he bent his head and went back to work.
Levi wasn't sure Billy had a tongue because he had never heard him actually say any words. He knew the man used to be in a motorcycle club, but Levi didn't want to know any more about him than that. Sometimes the less he knew about Duke's employees, the better.
"Come on, Duke." He continued after his brother, refusing to be brushed off. "I can have the plane tickets in my hands by tomorrow. There's something I want to talk to you and Colt about."
He might as well just lay it all out on the table. If he was going to go through with this deal, things were going to have to change. They were going to have to shoot around his schedule or find somebody else to host the show.
"What?" Duke finally gave Levi his full attention. "Just tell me now. I don't have time for this shit." But there was a little more edge in his voice than before, and Levi could tell by the way his eyes narrowed on him that he knew that what Levi wanted to tell them was serious.
"I want to tell you and Colt together."
Colt. Colt was never one for sentiment — some people wondered if he felt anything at all — but Colt was the real reason Levi had stopped racing. Colt watched every race of his. Colt saw the moment he crashed and was on a plane immediately to the site of the race without knowing if Levi was alive or dead.
Colt had asked him to stop. Well, not formally. Colt never asked anyone for anything, but his words never left Levi's head.
"I don't want you to die, damn it. It would be bad for me if you did."
Levi knew Colt wasn't just referring to his racing. He wanted him to stop all of his bullshit because he was afraid Levi was going to die. And if that wasn't a sucker punch to the gut he didn't know what was.
"Why?" Duke asked bringing him into the present. "You'd have a better chance of escape if you told us individually."
Levi looked at his oldest brother for a long moment. "For someone who went to prison for attempted murder, you sure as hell threaten to kill me a lot."
"Stop pissing me off and I won't threaten to kill you."
"Yo, Duke," Tyrell called to him from the front office. "Phone."
Excerpted from Heart of a Bad Boy by Sugar Jamison. Copyright © 2016 Sugar Jamison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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