Looking for a walk on the wild side, Annabel Percy, the daughter of a powerful politician, gives in to an attraction to a sexy biker she meets one night. But she finds herself living a nightmare when she’s kidnapped and transported into a hell on earth she never could have imagined.
Born and bred into the Hells Raiders MC, Nathaniel “Reverend” Malloy lives and dies for his brothers. But when he becomes the unexpected savior of a rival club’s captive, Rev makes it his personal mission to nurse Annabel back to health—and to shelter her from the nightmares that torment her.
Once Annabel heals, she’s stunned to realize she is falling for the seductive man who saved her. Faced with their impossible attraction, can she accept the life he leads, or will Rev walk away from the only life he’s ever known for the woman he was never supposed to love?
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The whirring sound of his mother’s ancient hand mixer drew Nathaniel’s attention away from his homework. He sniffed the chocolate-scented air appreciatively. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched as his younger brother, Benjamin, leaned on the counter, eyeing the mixture and waiting for just the right moment to stick his finger in and get a taste of the icing.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” his mother said, with an amused smile.
“But you said we could lick the spoon,” Ben protested.
“That’s if you get your homework done.”
With an exasperated sigh, Benjamin trudged across the worn linoleum floor and back to his chair next to Nathaniel. After he flopped down, he reluctantly took up his pencil.
“There. This one is done,” his mother announced. She had just put the final touches on one of the chocolate cakes she had spent the better part of the afternoon baking. He and Benjamin would have to wait until she was completely finished to devour the remaining icing.
His mother glanced over at Nathaniel. “Honey, would you do me a huge favor and run this down to Miss Mae’s?”
“Sure.” He rose from his chair and went over to the counter. “But you better save some of the icing for me.”
Smiling, she reached over and ruffled his hair. “Of course I will.” After putting the cake into a container, she thrust it into Nathaniel’s arms. “Thanks, sweetheart.”
He headed out the kitchen door and down the back steps. Mae Sanders lived three houses up the road from them on the right. All twelve of the houses in the semicircular lane, or compound, as people called it, belonged to members of his father’s church. At the top of the hill sat the old cotton mill office that now housed Soul Harbor, the church where his father was the pastor.
Carefully balancing the cake tray in his hands, Nathaniel made his way up Miss Mae’s flower-lined front walk and then up the three steps onto the porch. After he pounded on the door, it swung open. But it wasn’t the blue-haired, grandmotherly Miss Mae standing there. Instead, it was the tall, lanky figure of Kurt Miller, one of the homeless men from his father’s church whom Miss Mae had taken on to help her with work around the house. She had a soft spot for the less fortunate and always had one or two people living with her.
“Well, if it isn’t Nate the Great,” Kurt said, with a wide smile.
Nathaniel felt his cheeks warm under the attention. No one at church ever paid much attention to him. Compared to his two rambunctious brothers, he was quiet, the well-behaved and obedient one. But since Kurt had arrived two weeks ago, he had gone out of his way to make Nathaniel feel special.
Amusement flickered in Kurt’s dark eyes. “You brought me a cake? But it isn’t even my birthday.”
Shaking his head, Nathaniel replied, “No, my mama sent it to Miss Mae to take to the VFW for bingo night.”
Kurt stroked his chin. “That’s right. Tonight is bingo night.” Stretching his arms wide, he motioned for Nathaniel to come in. “She just left for the beauty shop and won’t be back for an hour. But you can leave the cake for her so you don’t have to make two trips.”
“Okay, thanks,” Nathaniel replied as he stepped over the threshold. All the houses in the compound were alike, so he knew the way to the kitchen. They had once been part of the row houses belonging to the cotton mill before it had gone out of business.
After setting the cake on the counter, Nathaniel turned to go, but Kurt stopped him. “What’s your rush?”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Just need to get back to my homework.”
“Ah, it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Why don’t you sit down for a minute?”
Even though he knew a spoonful of chocolate icing was awaiting him at home, Nathaniel felt it would be rude if he refused to sit for just a minute. Or at least his mama would think it was rude, and the last thing he wanted was to disappoint her.
After easing down into one of the straight-backed kitchen chairs, he looked expectantly at Kurt.
“How about something to drink?” Kurt asked.
“Um, okay. Sure.”
“How’s school?” Kurt asked as his footsteps creaked along the worn floorboards.
“It’s fine. Got all As,” Nathaniel replied.
“Good for you.” With his back to Nathaniel, Kurt glanced at him over his shoulder. “Got a girlfriend?”
Fiery embarrassment filled Nathaniel’s cheeks. “N-No, I—I don’t,” he stammered in reply.
“Don’t worry about it. With your looks, in a few years the girls will be all over you.”
“I hope. I mean, I guess I want them to be,” Nathaniel murmured. He couldn’t imagine a girl ever being interested in him, and he was too shy to talk to them. He wished he could be more like his older brother, David. At fourteen, he always had a steady girlfriend, with others waiting in the wings.
Kurt set a mug down in front of Nathaniel. “Here’s some coffee to warm you up before you have to head back out into the cold.”
Nathaniel fought the urge to protest that his mother didn’t allow him to drink coffee, as he was afraid of looking uncool in front of someone like Kurt. So he took the mug and blew ripples across the dark surface of the steaming liquid. When he thought it wouldn’t burn his tongue, he took a sip.
Wrinkling his nose, Nathaniel eased the mug away from his lips. He surveyed the contents curiously. “This sure doesn’t taste like coffee.”
“I put a little nip of Jack in there,” Kurt replied, with a wink.
Nathaniel widened his eyes. “You put . . . alcohol in my coffee?”
“Sure. Why not? I was your age when I had my first drink.”
As Nathaniel continued studying the mug, he could feel the familiar tug of his conscience that happened whenever the angel and the devil on his shoulder waged war against each other. He was pretty sure his mother would fall to her knees in prayer for him if she knew, and then his father would tan his hide. Even though he should’ve poured out the mug’s contents, he couldn’t help wanting to taste a little more. “You won’t tell, will you?” he questioned in a whisper.
Kurt flashed him a toothy smile. “’Course not.” He nodded at the mug. “Drink up. Make it count.”
Shrugging away his doubt, Nathaniel took several more hearty sips. The more he drank, the more terrible the mixture tasted. He didn’t want to have any more, but Kurt urged him on. Once he had finished it, he set the empty mug down on the table.
“How do you feel?” Kurt asked.
Furrowing his brow, Nathaniel tried to make sense of what was happening to him. His head felt like it might fly away from his body. Within seconds, the room started spinning like it had the time he’d been caged in on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair. He’d desperately wanted to get off, but he’d been forced to endure the entire ride. At the moment, he wanted to stop the way his body was feeling.
A cold hand on his cheek caused him to jump. “Nathaniel, how are you feeling?”
“I . . . I can’t make it stop,” he murmured, his eyelids fluttering closed.
“Don’t try to.”
The next thing he knew, his body was being lifted out of the chair. He was dragged into Miss Mae’s bedroom. After the door slammed and locked behind him, his face was forced down onto Miss Mae’s frilly pink comforter.
“What . . . are . . . you . . . doing?” he questioned. It was a struggle getting each word out.
When hands fumbled with the button of his jeans, he tried to push them away. “I’m going to make you feel good, Nathaniel.” Kurt’s voice came from behind him.
Nathaniel didn’t want to feel good. He just wanted to go home. He wanted to be in the safety of his kitchen, arguing with Benjamin over who got more icing.
As he faded in and out of a dark, shadowy consciousness, harsh hands roamed over his body. Just when he thought things couldn’t be any worse, pain like he had never experienced tore through him. Tears welled in his eyes, then streaked down his cheeks. His suffering seemed to go on and on, and he began to fear that it would never end.
But then, through the hellish haze, he heard someone come through the front door. From the loud clomp of the boots on the floorboard, he knew it was his father. His mother must’ve sent his dad to look for him. Just as he got the strength to raise his head to call for help, Kurt’s hand clamped over his mouth. His harsh whisper came at Nathaniel’s ear. “If you even think about screaming, I’ll cut your throat and all of your family’s. You got me?”
Nathaniel wanted desperately to scream. He wanted the nightmare, the pain, the humiliation to end. And yet even though he didn’t care whether he lived or died, he didn’t want anything to happen to his family.
But when his father didn’t appear at the door, Nathaniel let his hope die. He buried his face in the soft folds of Miss Mae’s comforter and wept. At the sound of a loud bang, he jerked his head up.
His father stood in the doorway. The unadulterated horror mixed with rage on his face caused Nathaniel to shudder with fear. He barely had time to brace himself for his father’s wrath before the gun came up and a blast came out of it so loud that the windows rattled.
And then, as his father called his name in a ragged breath, Nathaniel realized he had just traded one hell for another.
I came awake to find someone shaking the hell out of me. Flipping open my eyelids to escape my tormented unconsciousness, I stared up into the concerned blue eyes of my brother Bishop. His hands gripped my shoulders so tightly I figured there would be marks. “What the fuck, man?” I questioned, slinging him away.
He tumbled back on the mattress. “You were having one hell of a nightmare.”
I sighed and rubbed my shoulders where his hands had been. “Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean I want to wake up to your ugly mug with morning breath in my face,” I replied, trying to ease the palpable tension in the air.
Bishop didn’t laugh. He didn’t make a move to get off the bed, either. He continued staring at me like he hoped he could somehow will me into talking. He’d been giving me the same stare for the past few days while we’d been on the road. Whenever we’d stop for food or to gas up our bikes, I would find him staring at me, chewing his bottom lip like he wanted to say something. He had been desperate since three nights ago, when a personal tragedy within our club allowed him a tiny glimpse at my long-buried secret.
Breaking the silence between us, I asked, “What time is our meeting with the El Paso Raiders?”
I glanced over my shoulder at the glowing digital clock on the nightstand. “That doesn’t give us much time to make it across the state. Better get crackin’ and hit the road. You want the shower first?”
“Nah, you can have it.” As I rose off the mattress, Bishop said, “I’ll go grab us a quick breakfast.”
When I started across the threadbare carpet to the bathroom, Bishop’s words froze me. “Rev . . . you know it doesn’t matter to me what the fuck happened to you—it ain’t gonna change a damn thing about the way I feel about you. No matter what, you’re my big brother and my prez.”
Since I was both too emotionally conflicted and too stubborn to respond, I ignored him and pushed on into the bathroom. After locking the door behind me, I gazed at my reflection in the mirror. Two days of driving across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana with minimal sleep had taken its physical toll. That, coupled with emotional stress, had left dark circles under my eyes. We’d packed up to leave so abruptly, I hadn’t bothered with a razor, so my beard was growing in. I looked like the hell that raged inside me.
Turning on the water full blast, I stepped into the shower. I placed my palms flat on the tile and stood with my head under the stream. Rolling my shoulders, I tried to ease my tense muscles.
Two days ago felt like two years and another world ago. It was hard to imagine just forty-eight hours ago I’d been dancing and drinking at my brother Deacon and sister-in-law Alexandra’s wedding. Then one phone call from the Raiders’ unofficial doctor, Bob “Breakneck” Edgeway, had changed everything.
Whenever I closed my eyes, one of two faces would haunt me. It was either the sinister visage of my rapist or the fresh-faced, innocent countenance of Breakneck’s daughter. It had been five years since I had seen Sarah at any of the Raiders events. She’d been an awkward thirteen-year-old girl in braces who had spent most of the BBQ fawning over Eric, the teenage son of our then-president, Case. Now she was a freshman at Texas A&M. From the picture Breakneck had texted me, I could see she’d grown into an auburn-haired beauty with an innocent smile.
The kind of girl that low-life traffickers were always jonesing for.
The criminal profiling of the scum who bought these women indicated they didn’t want fake-breasted, slutty types. They could pay for those any day on the streets or at the strip clubs. No, they seemed to want the unattainable female—the one who would never give them the time of day, unless she was forced. And sadly, Sarah fit that bill.
We didn’t have much to go on other than that it was the Highway Henchmen who took her and were making financial demands on Breakneck to get her back. Apparently, she had spilled the beans that her old man was a biker. Usually, girls kidnapped for trafficking never got a chance of being ransomed back to their families. Instead, they were sold to the highest bidder, into a life of sexual slavery. The thought that Sarah now faced that future turned my stomach and enraged me.
After scrubbing off yesterday’s grit and grime with the hotel’s cheap soap, I made fast work of rinsing. The moment I turned the water off, I heard my phone ringing in the bedroom. Throwing a towel around my waist, I hurried out of the bathroom to grab it. When I saw who was calling, I grimaced. “Yeah?”
“Where the hell are you?” Deacon demanded without even a hello.
“I’m touched that you thought to call me while you’re on your honeymoon.”
Deacon’s low growl came in my ear. “Don’t fucking change the subject, asshole.”
“I was just trying to be nice.”
“Yeah, you’re just being a prick is what you’re doing. Now I want a fucking straight answer.”
“Last time I checked, big brother, I wore the president’s patch.” I knew my words were the equivalent of poking a rattlesnake ready to strike. Regardless of whether I was the president of the Hells Raiders, I still owed Deacon an explanation.
“Fine, motherfucker, then answer me as your newly patched vice president, why my two brothers bailed on my reception to hit the road and are now in Texas.”
Defeated, I leaned back against the counter. I knew I couldn’t evade his questions anymore. “It’s complicated.”
Slowly, I began unraveling the story of Sarah’s abduction, and how we were going to get her back from the Henchmen.
When I finished, Deacon merely muttered, “Fucking hell.”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”
Deacon exhaled a long sigh into the phone. “Man, I can’t believe you just left here without taking it to the table. You’re the president, for fuck’s sake. While it’s admirable of you to do this for Breakneck, this situation isn’t just about you. It involves the entire club.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. Just tell the guys I’ll deal with any repercussions when I get back.”
“I just hope it doesn’t get any worse.”
Pushing off the counter, I demanded, “Are you questioning my judgment?”
“Look, I know you and your code of honor. You’ll do whatever you have to do to get Sarah back.”
“You say that like it’s the wrong thing to do.”
“It is when the Raiders are trying to go legit.”
Even though he couldn’t see me, I shook my head in disbelief. “What the fuck is wrong with you? We’re talking about an innocent girl’s life here—one of our brother’s kids. Have you forgotten that Raiders protect their own regardless of the cost? You would do anything if someone had Willow or Alexandra. Hell, you have before.”
“Do not bring my wife and kid into this,” Deacon hissed.
“Don’t question me, and I won’t. Try for a moment to remember that Sarah is Breakneck’s kid, so for his sake, I’m willing to do anything to get her back. If that means some blowback on the club, then I’ll fucking deal with it.”
“No, we’ll all end up fucking dealing with it.”
I exhaled a frustrated breath. “I know you have a lot of pressure from Alexandra for the club to go legit. But I guarantee if you told her what was happening, she would be behind me all the way, regardless of what the repercussions might be on the club.”
When Deacon cursed under his breath, I knew I had finally gotten through to him. “You’re a stubborn motherfucker,” he grumbled.
With a laugh, I replied, “I learned from the best, brother.”
Deacon snorted. “Yeah, well, just be careful.”
Since I knew Deacon wasn’t an overly emotional guy, I couldn’t help feeling a little touched at his concern. “I will. But at the end of the day, this is something I have to do.”
“Trust me, I get it. I don’t have to like it, but I sure as hell get it.”
“We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Call me the minute you have her.”
After Deacon hung up without a good-bye, which was so his style, I went to get dressed. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling of dread crisscrossing its way over my skin. Although I would never have admitted my fears to him, I knew Deacon was right. Getting Sarah back was going to have blowback on the club.
At the time, I had no idea how severe.
• • •
Bishop returned with breakfast, and we were back on the road within half an hour. After a quick stop for lunch and gas, we pulled into the outskirts of El Paso a little before seven. We had been asked to meet our Texas brothers at a gentleman’s club they owned, which was located in one of the seedier areas of town.
When I pushed down the kickstand and eased off my bike, every muscle in my body screamed in agony. It had been a long time since I had done such an extensive run. The distance, coupled with the stress hanging over me, made me feel positively decrepit. I wanted nothing more than a hot meal and a cold beer. But as I gazed up at the blinking, half-naked woman on the Rising Phoenix sign, I realized I would be short on the hot meal, and in its place would be a lot of hot ass.
“Man, are we fucking lucky or what?” Bishop questioned as he slipped off his helmet.
I chuckled. “Only you, little brother, would find any luck in this situation.”
“Oh, come on. We’ve been on the road for three days. What better way to unwind than to have a lap dance and a cold one?”
“Do I have to remind you that we’re here on serious business?”
Bishop rolled his eyes. “Jesus, you’re always such a hard-ass.”
Ignoring him, I started across the gravel of the parking lot to the building. Two muscular men outfitted in Raiders cuts stood guard at the front door. At the sight of Bishop and me, smiles stretched across their hardened faces. The taller one stepped forward. “Prez said to be on the lookout for you guys.”
Returning his smile, I threw out my hand. “I’m Reverend Malloy, and this is my brother Bishop.”
“Snake, and that’s Weasel,” he replied, motioning to the other guy. “Great to meet you guys. Ya know, I slept over at your clubhouse a few years back after a run.” He winked at me. “You Georgia boys sure know how to show your brothers a good time.”
With a chuckle, I replied, “We sure as hell do.”
Stepping in front of us, Snake pushed the door open. “Let me take you to Prez.”
As we entered the club, it reminded me of the Lounge—the strip club the Raiders owned back home. While it had once been a favorite hangout of Deacon’s and it still remained one of Bishop’s, I had never been overly fond of it. Maybe it was because it harbored bad memories for me. When I should have been old enough to know better, I had gone there searching for love and companionship. What I found was a girl who didn’t just break my heart but shredded it with her claws. She saw me as her one-way ticket out of the stripping life and played me like a fool. It’s one thing to be told your girl is cheating on you, but to walk in on her being hammered by one of your brothers is a whole other level of fucked-up. She got fired from the club and fled town, the brother got sent to another chapter after I worked him over good, and I got left with a whole lot of pain. Almost three years had passed, but I still wondered if I would remain alone forever.
There was only so much that could be done to an already broken and battered sense of trust.
Among the other patrons sitting at the bar were three men in Raiders cuts. At the sight of us, they rose off their barstools and started our way. One man, not much older than myself but with a head of white hair, stepped away from the others. “This is our president, Ghost Phillips,” Snake said by way of introduction.
“Rev Malloy,” I replied.
Ghost pumped my hand up and down. “Good to see you, man. I sure as hell wish it was under better circumstances.”
“So do I.”
Jerking his thumb behind him, Ghost said, “That’s Undertaker and Chulo, our vice president and sergeant at arms.”
I nodded at them. Ghost motioned to a table. “Have a seat. Let me get you two set up with some drinks.”
Before I could argue that we didn’t have time for drinks, Ghost had waved over a waitress. Reluctantly, I eased down into one of the chairs. Within seconds, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I glanced up as a leggy blonde dropped onto my lap, pressing her ample cleavage into my cut. When she began to grind her core against my crotch, my breath involuntarily caught in my chest. She flashed a smile at me. “Hey, baby, you look good enough to eat,” she mused.
I jerked my gaze from her back up to Ghost. He winked at me. “We wanted to show you boys a little El Paso Raiders hospitality, so the girls are on the house. Besides, I figured you guys could use some unwinding after being on the road so long.”
“Hell yeah,” Bishop replied as he appreciatively took in the attention of the brunette girl rubbing against him.
I didn’t share in Bishop’s approval of the Raiders’ show of hospitality. It angered me that Ghost and his men couldn’t see the irony in the situation. Somewhere Sarah was being passed around to strange men for their enjoyment. Sure, the difference was these women were being paid and doing it of their own volition, and Sarah had no choice, but it still didn’t sit well with me.
Shaking my head, I eased the blonde gently off my lap and onto her plastic heels. I took a few breaths to ensure that I could respond without alienating Ghost and his men. “That’s kind of you, Ghost, but when it comes to Breakneck’s daughter, I’m afraid we don’t have any time to waste.”
Ghost gave me a grim smile. “I get it, brother. I was just trying to make what I had to tell you a little easier to take.”
My brows rose in suspicion. “You mean the news about Sarah is worse than we thought?”
He nodded. “Come on, let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
After Bishop reluctantly released his girl, we fell in step behind Undertaker and Chulo and made our way through the tables to the back of the club. Another hulking biker stood guard at the door. He jerked his chin at Ghost, and then stepped aside for us.
We followed Ghost down the dimly lit hallway to the last door on the left. When we got inside, I found an impressive mahogany table with ten chairs that must have worked well for short-notice meetings. After taking a seat across from Ghost, I began rapping my knuckles anxiously on the table.
“After hearing from you the other day, I immediately put out some feelers for our informants with ties to the Henchmen.”
From inside his cut, Ghost produced a manila folder. He took out a glossy black-and-white picture and then shoved it across the table at me. I sucked in a breath. It was of Sarah. She was at some college bar, having drinks with friends. Across from her on a stool at the bar was a guy in a cut. I would’ve needed a magnifying glass to prove it for certain, but I was sure he was a Henchman. Apparently she had been on their radar if they had taken the time to photograph her.
After I flashed the picture at Bishop, he asked, “Can we use the picture to trace the guy?”
Ghost shook his head. “While it was one of the Henchmen who took her, she’s no longer with them.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “What do you mean she’s not with them? They’re demanding ransom money from Breakneck for her return.”
“The Henchmen don’t make it their usual business to deal in human trafficking. But they have been known to abduct a girl or two to sell when they get into a bind with a rival club.”
Ghost winced. “The Diablos.”
“Jesus Christ,” I spat. It was one thing for Sarah to have been taken by the Henchmen. Although they were dangerous, they were still a low-ranking club in membership and without many allies. The Diablos, however, were in a whole other fucking realm.
Out of the top five mega clubs in the world, the Diablos were up there in the ranks with the Hells Angels and the Mongols. They were considered dangerous, not just by the FBI and the ATF—the department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—but by other clubs as well. They drew their strength from their ties to some of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. They got off on the most extreme forms of torture, and they didn’t give a shit if they had to take out women or kids to get what they wanted.
This was a game changer of epic proportions. “Are you absolutely sure she’s with the Diablos?” I asked.
Undertaker nodded. “I have a contact at the border check. He confirmed that a girl matching Sarah’s description was taken into Juárez yesterday morning.”
Ghost took out another photograph and slid it across the table. “We received this photo earlier this afternoon.”
Once again, Sarah’s black-and-white image appeared before me. But this photo showed a shadow of the girl who had been talking and laughing in the other photo. Her eyes were cast down to her lap where her hands were clasped. Even through the photograph, her fear was palpable.
“But I thought the cartels were trafficking girls out of Mexico, not into it,” Bishop said.
“This is the part you’re not going to like,” Ghost answered.
I grunted before telling him, “There’s not one fucking thing about any of this that I like.”
Ghost nodded at Chulo.
“It appears that upper-class white girls have become a growing commodity with high-ranking cartel members. The Diablos’ El Paso chapter has been targeting college bars and campuses. Somewhere outside of Juárez, they have a camp where they house the girls before selling them to the highest bidder,” Chulo said.
“Who owns the camp?” Bishop asked.
Chulo took a long swig of beer before replying. “Guy named Mendoza. He’s one of the Rodriguez cartel’s lugartenientes.” At Bishop’s and my blank expressions, he winked. “That’s ‘lieutenant’ for you gringos.”
I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Wait—so he’s one of their soldiers?”
Shaking his head, Chulo explained, “Being lugarteniente makes him the second-highest position in the cartel. He supervises the lower levels like the hit men.”
My mind whirling with questions, I couldn’t help asking, “So if he’s some second-in-command in the drug world, where does selling girls come into this?”
“Because of the recent crackdowns on the narcotic trade, human trafficking has become an easy way to supplement their income,” Chulo replied.
As I digested this new information about Sarah’s capture, I momentarily had to cradle my head in my hands. This was way beyond anything I had ever experienced as a club member, least of all as president. Not even Preacher Man or Case had ever come up against one of the cartels. They’d rationalized that the risks outweighed the benefits and steered clear of anything involving drugs.
“So we’re pretty much fucked, huh?” Bishop said beside me.
Raising my head, I shot a hard glare at Bishop. “Maybe for the moment, but we’re not letting Breakneck down.”
“Glad to hear you say that,” Undertaker replied.
I cut my gaze over to him. “What do you mean?”
With a wicked gleam in his eyes, Undertaker replied, “I mean, we’re going to help you guys go in and get your girl.”
I cocked my brows at him. “You’re serious?”
Shaking my head, I replied, “While we appreciate it, we can’t ask you to do that.”
Chulo snorted. “And we’re not asking for your approval. Besides, we have our own reasons.”
“He’s right,” Ghost said before I could argue any further.
“What reason could you all possibly have for going up against the Diablos and the Rodriguez cartel?” I countered.
Ghost eased back in his seat. “For the last six months, the Diablos have been putting the heat on clubs throughout Texas and Louisiana to patch in with them.”
“I guess I can assume that you all don’t want to patch in,” I said.
Ghost’s blue eyes narrowed at me. “We would die first before we wore any other patch but the Raiders.”
“Trust me, I can understand. But at the same time, I have to remind you what you’re committing to.”
“We’re fucking aware,” Undertaker replied.
I surveyed the stalwart expressions on the faces of the three men, and I realized then there was nothing I could do or say that was going to change their minds. Finally, I smiled at them. “Then I have to say I’m very grateful for your help.”
Beside me, Bishop shifted in his chair. “Since Rev and I are fucking clueless about what to do, I sure as hell hope you guys have a plan as to how we’re going to get into Mexico and go up against some second-in-command cartel lord.”
Ghost chuckled. “Yeah, we have a plan.”
“It better be some old-school A-Team or SEAL type of shit,” Bishop countered, his expression saying he wasn’t convinced of the El Paso Raiders’ abilities.
Rising from his seat, Ghost narrowed his eyes at Bishop. “Trust us. We have a fucking plan.”
TWO MONTHS EARLIER
With a chart in my hand, I hurried down the hallway. As I opened the waiting room door, heads jerked up and anxious eyes met mine. “Herschel Greene?” I said after glancing once again at the chart.
An elderly woman in a faded pink polka-dot dress rose from her chair. At her feet, a pudgy American bulldog grumbled at being roused.
I smiled at the pair. “Come on back.”
Mrs. Greene returned my smile, and then she and Herschel followed me down the hallway to one of the examining rooms. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you here before. You must be new,” she stated as her heels clicked steadily on the tile.
It wasn’t the first time I had faced that question from one of the regulars since being hired at AMC (Animal Medical Center) in College Station. Each time I had to answer it, I felt a little more homesick. After all, I’d spent twenty-four years practically in the same place and among the same people. Mainly it was my group of friends I missed the most.
Back home in Virginia, I had never faced scrutiny for being a newcomer simply because everyone knew who I was. It’s almost inescapable when your face is plastered all over campaign literature from the time you’re a baby. Annabel Lee Percy, granddaughter of Hamilton Mullinax—former two-term governor, and daughter of Emmett Percy—current incumbent senator.
Pushing my homesickness aside, I replied, “You’re right. I am new. This is my third week. I’ve just moved here to attend veterinary school at Texas A&M.”
“Oh, how lovely.”
I closed the exam room door behind us. “And what seems to be the problem today?”
With her lips turning down in a frown, Mrs. Greene gazed adoringly at the bulldog. “My Hershie is terribly sick. He can’t seem to keep anything down.”
As I started to make a note in the dog’s chart, something caught my eye that made the rising apprehension fade and had me biting back a smile: “Mrs. Greene needs to be reminded that Herschel should not be fed high-fat treats like cake. Otherwise, no gastrointestinal problems can be found after extensive barium testing.”
Glancing up at Mrs. Greene, I nodded. “Let me get Herschel’s temperature and weight, and then one of the doctors will be in to see you.”
“Herschel sure does like that Dr. Jenkins.”
I smiled as I prepared the rectal thermometer. “Yes, Dr. Jenkins has a great bedside manner.” After I realized that I sounded partial, I quickly replied, “Of course, doctors Santini and Baldwin do as well.”
“Yes, but Dr. Jenkins is awfully handsome, isn’t he?”
Her words caused me to freeze just before I violated Herschel with the thermometer. When I looked up at her, she gave me a knowing smile and then a wink. “Um, yes, I do suppose he’s handsome.” I quickly focused my attention on taking Herschel’s temperature, which earned a yelp from the bulldog. Once the reading had been made, I said, “One hundred and one on the dot.” When I met Mrs. Greene’s apprehensive gaze, I smiled. “That’s absolutely perfect.”
She exhaled a relieved breath. “I’m glad to hear it.”
After getting a reluctant Herschel on the scales, I recorded his weight. “It’ll just be a moment for one of the doctors.”
“Thank you, Miss . . . ?”
“Percy. I’m Annabel Percy.”
“A lovely name for a lovely girl.”
Now it was my turn to say thanks. Then I told her, “Be right back.” Just as I started out the door, I literally ran into Dr. Jenkins. “Oomph,” he muttered as I slammed into his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
He chuckled. “It’s okay, Annabel. I was actually coming to look for you.”
My brows shot up in surprise. “You were?”
“I have a potential sedation case for vaccines. I was wondering if you could work your magic.”
“Um, I can try.”
“I would appreciate it, and I’m sure the owner would as well.”
As I followed him down the hallway, I couldn’t help feeling slightly empowered that Dr. Jenkins had sought me out. At the previous place where I’d worked, they jokingly called me the Pet Whisperer for my ability to calm animals down. Although I was often asked what my secret was, I wasn’t actually aware of anything special that I did. I just seemed to connect with them when they were afraid or in pain.
When I entered the exam room, a kind-looking golden retriever was backed into the corner. At the sight of Dr. Jenkins and me, he bared his teeth and growled. Without another word from Dr. Jenkins, I went over to the dog and crouched down on his level. When I met his wary but aggressive gaze, I held it. Silently, I willed him to be calm, to relax, and to trust the doctor.
As the dog continued holding my stare, Dr. Jenkins picked up the syringes on the exam table and then slowly walked around to the dog’s back flank. He was able to administer the shots without a growl or even a whimper from the animal. When the doctor was done, the dog backed away.
Tentatively, I reached out my hand. After the dog sniffed it, I started to pat the top of his head. His tail wagged appreciatively. “There. You’re all done.”
“That’s amazing,” the owner said, wide-eyed.
Dr. Jenkins smiled. “It certainly is. I’ve never seen anyone with such a gift.”
Like a true redhead, I wore my embarrassment on my cheeks. “I’m just glad I could help.”
• • •
After seeing a handful of four-legged patients, it was time to leave for the day. Grabbing my purse, I headed to the door, only to find Dr. Jenkins blocking my exit.
He gave me a genuine smile. “Annabel, I just wanted to say thank you again for today. You have become such an asset to this practice.”
I fought hard not to start blushing again. “Thank you, Dr. Jenkins. It means a lot to hear you say that.”
“Josh,” he said. “You can call me Josh.”
With a smile, I replied, “Thank you, Josh.”
We stood in an awkward silence as we seemed to tiptoe along the line of whether to continue being professional or shift into more personal territory. It had been this way almost since the day I first met Josh Jenkins. He didn’t look at me the same way the other doctors did, and to be truthful, I looked at him differently, too.
Dr. Jenkins finally cleared his throat and stepped aside. “Well, uh, have a good evening.”
“Thank you. Same to you.”
Once I escaped through the door, I had to fight the urge to skip out to my car. All my life I had dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, much to the disapproval of my parents. Coming from a political family, they didn’t see how being a vet could benefit my father’s career or my future husband’s. It went without saying that said future husband would come from one of the finest social circles. My parents would have found my interest in Dr. Jenkins appalling.
I hadn’t been groomed for future political office like my older sister, Lenore. After graduating top of her class from Harvard Law, she would be the next senator or political representative from our family. Conversely, I was the pretty face whose soft-spoken charm was considered far more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton. In my parents’ eyes, my one goal in life should have been to marry well and offer support to my future husband’s political career.
But while they had always underestimated my talents, I had silently pursued them. After graduating with a 4.0 in biology from the University of Virginia, I shocked my parents by going through with graduate school applications in veterinary medicine. While I had originally been accepted and begun coursework at the University of Virginia, I found myself itching to spread my wings and be independent. At first my parents would hear nothing of the sort. The only way I had finally convinced them to pay for my continued education away from home was to appease them by going to Texas A&M. Their choice had nothing to do with the fact that it was one of the top ten veterinary schools in the country. No, it was about what a politically important state Texas was.
As I slid into my car, my phone began to ring. Glancing at the caller ID, I groaned. “Speak of the devil,” I muttered. It was the one person sure to kill the happy buzz I was feeling. “Hi, Mother,” I said, forcing myself to sound pleased to talk to her.
“Hello, darling. I just wanted to call and check in. Daddy and I were wondering how Texas was treating you.” Regardless of the miles and miles between us, I could still register the fake concern in my mother’s voice. Considering that she had yet to call me to see how I was doing after the move, I knew there was a more self-serving purpose for her call—one that involved my plans for the evening.
“You mean you just wanted to call to make sure Preston Bradford and I were still going out tonight.”
My mother’s trill of a laugh grated on my last nerve. “Okay, fine, you caught me. I was dying to know if it was still on.”
My parents, along with their close friends the Bradfords, who lived in Houston, relished the fantasy that Preston and I were going to get married, not only uniting two political powerhouse families but also producing the marriage of the future president and first lady. I’m not sure how they had made the quantum leap from Preston and me merely talking to wedding bells, but if it kept them off my back for any length of time, I was willing to indulge them.
“Yes. He’s picking me up at seven.”
“That’s absolutely wonderful. I knew there was a spark between you two at the Bradfords’ Fourth of July party.”
I snorted. “The only spark between us at the party was when he accidentally caught my bathing suit cover-up on fire.” If Preston were ever elected president, he would probably outdo Gerald Ford in the clumsy department. It had been far too early in the party for him to use the excuse of being drunk. Instead, he could only blame himself for tripping over a chair and collapsing on a table, which knocked off a candle that hit the hem of my caftan. The only reason I hadn’t entirely written him off that day was because of how sincere he was when he apologized and how kind he was by looking after me for the rest of the party.
“For goodness’ sake, don’t mention that tonight. He gets enough teasing from his family about his clumsiness. The last thing he needs is to hear it from a date.”
Rolling my eyes, I said, “I wouldn’t dream of it, Mother. You know, I do know how to carry on a meaningful conversation with a man. You do remember sending me to summer finishing school, don’t you?”
“Yes, yes, of course. I just don’t want you saying or doing anything to turn him off. He’s already so accepting of the fact you plan to have a career.”
“I will have a career,” I corrected.
My mother’s exasperated sigh told me she was maxed out with me being “petulant,” as she called it. “Yes, well, just have fun. Okay?”
“Thank you. I’ll try.”
“And let Daddy and me know how it went as soon as you can.”
“Mother, I’m twenty-four, not sixteen.”
“Annabel”— my mother’s voice rose an octave—“just humor us, okay?”
“Fine, fine,” I muttered, feeling the onset of the usual headache that accompanied talking to my mother.
“Good-bye.” I hung up and tossed the phone onto the seat.
I battled rush-hour traffic across town to my apartment, then hurried inside to get ready. After a quick shower, I stood in front of my closet, trying to decide what to wear. Normally a first date called for something sexy, but in this case I didn’t figure Preston and his overly conservative background would appreciate it. I decided on a pair of jeans, a dressy green top, and heels, and had just finished with my makeup and hair when the doorbell rang.
When I threw open the door, Preston, looking preppie and polished in a polo shirt and khakis, gave me a beaming smile. “Annabel, it’s so good to see you again.”
Returning his smile, I said, “It’s good seeing you again, too.”
His blue eyes surveyed me apprehensively. “You know, after our first disastrous meeting at my parents’, I was afraid you might not want to ever be seen with me again.”
I groaned inwardly but managed to wave my hand dismissively. I had to wonder how socially inept he was to even bring that up. “That was nothing. I’m glad to have a chance to get to know you better.”
Preston seemed to appreciate my well-thought-out answer. “Let’s go to dinner, then. I was thinking Pacey’s.”
I was a little surprised at his choice, but I didn’t let my expression reflect it. Pacey’s was a college bar and hot spot right off campus. It didn’t exactly scream romance, but I guess it was a safe bet for a first date. He knew his way around campus since he was a political science major.
Once we got to Pacey’s, a waitress led us to a somewhat secluded booth. Just as I picked up my menu, I felt a prickly sensation run up my spine that someone was looking at me. When I glanced up at the bar, I locked eyes with a drop-dead good-looking guy. His jet-black hair was cut short, highlighting his chiseled jaw, covered in scruff, along with a pair of full, highly kissable lips. Even though he was sitting down, I could tell he was impossibly tall by the way his legs folded on the barstool. His chest muscles bulged under the white T-shirt he wore.
Over the shirt was a leather vest of some kind. I think they were called cuts. I had seen them before on television but never in person. The cut, with its sewn-on patches, was something bikers wore. Before I could stop myself, I licked my lips. My reaction caused a sexy grin to stretch across his face. When he winked at me, I quickly ducked my head and went back to examining my menu.
“What sounds good?” Preston asked. And it was then that I had the reality check that I was ogling some strange man not five feet from the man I was out on a date with. I vowed then and there to keep my attention on my date.
But as soon as the appetizer came and conversation between us became stilted, I found my gaze returning to the stranger at the bar. Each time I looked at him, he was looking at me. The more I took in his bad-boy appearance, the more I couldn’t help thinking about what it would be like to kiss him.
When it came to men, I’d always played it safe. I’d dated the good guys—the future-husband types. But deep down, I’d never really been satisfied by those types. The number of sexual partners I’d had could be counted on one hand—and none of them had ever made me lose my mind in the bedroom. The one thing I fantasized about was having one uninhibited sexual experience so that in years to come, I could look back on it with a blush on my cheeks and a rush of warmth between my legs.
As dinner progressed, I realized Preston would never be the one to deliver that mind-altering sexual experience. So I was more than a little relieved when the waitress brought our check.
“Yo, Preston,” a booming voice called behind us.
Preston whirled around and his face broke into a wide grin. “Hey, guys.” He rose to do the manly hug/backslap thing with the three guys standing there. “Perfect timing. Annabel and I just finished dinner.”
My brows furrowed at his statement. “I’m sorry?”
A slight flush tinged Preston’s cheeks. “Oh, um, you don’t mind hanging out a little longer to watch the game, do you? The guys and I kinda have a Monday-night tradition.”
Nibbling on my lip, I fought the urge to either laugh maniacally or burst into tears at the situation I found myself in. Instead of having an actual date, I had been worked in to accommodate Preston’s schedule. If I had had any ideas about Preston’s and my romantic future, they would have fled in that moment.
Forcing a smile, I said, “Sure. That will be fine. As long as we’re not out too late. I have an eight o’clock class in the morning.” I held my tongue on the fact that I hated football with a fiery passion.
“Of course,” Preston replied.
“Okay. Sounds good.” As I rose from the booth, I once again caught the stranger’s gaze. Cocking his brow at me, he seemed to be issuing some sort of challenge. I cut my eyes away from his and looked at Preston. “Give me a few minutes. I’m going to run to the bathroom.”
“No problem.” He leaned in and bestowed a chaste kiss on my cheek before turning to follow the guys to the game room. With a sigh, I picked up my purse and started for the bathroom.
Excerpted from "Redemption Road"
Copyright © 2015 Katie Ashley.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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