Heavy metal music blasted through the speakers of the sweet, cherry red Ford Mustang as Tals took the ramp to the parkway in a swift motion and then really let her loose on the open road.
It was nearly one in the morning. Maddie wouldn’t notice the car was missing. She might see that the odometer was higher and her gas tank was almost empty, but he had a feeling she didn’t notice things like that. She was surrounded by people who did things for her.
He was mostly pissed she wouldn’t let him in to be one of those people. But at sixteen, he knew he was too young to feel that strongly about any girl—though that didn’t stop him from knowing something about him and Maddie was just “right.”
Obviously he was thinking about Maddie too much to notice the police car silently trailing him. He did notice when the lights flashed and the sirens wailed, and instinctively, he sped the hell up… but there was a cop waiting at the next mile marker, blocking the road.
His heart was still racing hours later when Maddie came into the police station, alone. She made eye contact with him while he was handcuffed to the bench with a few drunk and disorderlies.
He smirked. Because hey, she’d definitely noticed him, and she’d been working damned hard to pretend she hadn’t.
Long dark hair. Hazel eyes. A perfect body for the flowing hippie shirts she always wore with ripped-up jeans. It was summertime, and her flip-flops showed her toenails, which were painted with blue polish.
She was so fucking perfect, it made him ache. It was worse when she looked at him, and she did look at him, all the time, when he was supposed to not notice. But it was the oldest story in the book—bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks falls for rich girl who can’t be with him.
But she wanted to. And who said the story had to end badly?
“Are you pressing charges?” one of the policemen asked Maddie, and she had the damned nerve to consider it. That was the flaw in his plan—he’d never figured she’d make that move.
She shook her head no, a tight expression on her face. She had to sign some papers, and she kept her back to him while she was at the desk. When she walked out, she didn’t make eye contact.
She hadn’t sent in her grandmother—or her father. It could’ve been worse. Way worse. Not that getting arrested was ever good.
Dad would be proud, though.
“Christ,” he muttered out loud as he waited for his ride home.
His one phone call had, of course, been to Tenn, who’d been at work and unable to get any messages—or leave the job—until he was finished filming. So Tals had hung out outside the police station, sitting on another bench, watching the faces of the men and women who entered. Prisoners were brought around the back, so these people were here to see loved ones—they had that frazzled look, because they were justifiably worried and had no clue what they’d find beyond those doors. He was familiar with being on both sides, thanks to his father, who regularly put him, his mother and his brother through nights like this.
Tals had managed to stay clean until now. That wasn’t to say he hadn’t done things to warrant being inside, but he’d been really good about not getting caught.
Tals looked up at his brother. They were fraternal twins, although there was no denying they were brothers. Tenn was a little taller, and his eyes were brown instead of blue like Tals’s were. But they had the same facial features that garnered plenty of attention. “Yeah, seriously.”
Tenn sighed and together they walked across the parking lot to their mom’s car, an ancient station wagon that she was convinced was too unsafe to drive. She took cabs back and forth to work, and Tals was convinced she had no clue that he and Tenn drove the thing on a regular basis.
She had no clue about a lot of things, but hell, talking about her was one of the few things that could get him and Tenn fighting. “Anyway, thanks for coming to get me.”
“No problem.” Tenn put the key in the ignition, and both said a silent prayer that the thing would start. After a tense few moments, it did, and they were headed through town, passing the exclusive community called Jessamine, where all the shit had started. “But all that over a girl?”
“Over a car,” Tals corrected.
“You can bullshit a lot of people, Talon. Pretty much everyone but me.”
Tals stewed over that for a minute. “She’s different, Tenn.”
It was Tenn’s turn to correct him. “She’s rich. She’s trouble.”
“You’re not wrong,” was all Tals could manage. “Don’t tell Preach.”
“All of it.”
Fifteen years later
Axl Rose’s screaming falsetto screeched through the speakers as Tals drove the rebuilt 1974 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD455 nose to nose with the equally hot-rodded 1968 Ford Mustang GT500KR. The cars were important, but the drivers were the real part of this race, and Tals had the lack of fear and love of speed that always gave him the advantage.
Miles from home, in a stolen car in an illegal street race was the perfect end to the year. Smoke billowed from his exhaust as the car roared under him. His hands gripped the wheel so tightly he knew they’d ache tomorrow, and the engine alternately purred and rumbled as he took the tight corners on this stretch of now-deserted road.
He was never as free as he was during these moments. Treating the streets like a racetrack. These illegal street races were run on a dime, with an eye toward protecting its participants.
He wasn’t supposed to be racing like this. Or stealing cars for Havoc. But now that Cage was back as the MC’s XO, the second in charge, Tals was freed up from some of the heavier MC responsibilities and had more free time on his hands. He was back to being enforcer of Vipers, something he excelled at. His rep preceded him, so not too many guys wanted to deal with him flexing his muscles.
A bored Tals was a really bad thing. Especially for all the people set to lose major money tonight when he won.
Which he would.
The course laid out for the race would take no more than ten minutes—ten minutes that would alternately feel like a lifetime and fly by, the last mile stretching straight out in front of him.
Although he could never shake off his status as an MC member—never wanted to, either, since he’d fought damned hard for it—tonight he wasn’t Tals from Vipers MC, an enforcer, repo man or ex-Army. Tonight he was completely free.
Tonight he was also winning the fucking race, which he accomplished with a heavy foot on the gas, a tight swerve into the final stretch and balls of steel to take on the residential street at 110 mph.
His body still shook from the adrenaline when he eased the car to a stop about a hundred feet past the actual finish line. He took a few deep breaths, head back, eyes closed, trying to convince himself the car had stopped moving.
It took about that long for the crowds to reach him. When he finally pushed out of the car, he found himself surrounded by the men and women who’d parked their cars along the sides of the finish line—at least forty cars and far more people, all feeling the vibe of the race and feeding off it. Music blasted, women danced on cars… and it would all continue until the police got wind of it.
Tals gave it twenty minutes and planned to be gone in fifteen. He headed to find Bear, pocketing his winnings along the way and handing the keys back to Mel, who’d been the one to steal the car Tals had raced.
“Good job, man.” Mel clapped him on the shoulder.
“Always a blast. You taking her back home?”
Mel sighed. “Maybe. I’m going to take her for another ride myself before I do, but I knew she’d like you better.”
Tals ran his hand along the nearest car’s bumper. “They always do.”
“Things good at home?” Mel asked.
Tals smiled. “Living the dream.”
Mel snorted. “Give my best to Preacher—don’t tell him about the car.”
Tals had no intention of doing that, although he didn’t doubt Preach would get wind of tonight’s race. Guy had radar for this shit, especially where Tals was involved.
Thankfully, though, things were back to normal at Vipers. And when things were this quiet, it meant more time for him to get into trouble, which was really the kind of shit he lived for. And that’s why he hadn’t been able to think of any better way to ring in the New Year than a fast car, fast cash and heading back to Vipers to share in the celebration.
He finally found his fellow MC member—and Bear was having a blast in that way only a red-blooded American male could—without reservations. Unabashed, with no limits.
Hell, Tals had been like that once.
No, he’d appeared to be like that, and probably most still saw him that way. Except for the MC members he was closest to. Preach, Cage, Rocco and Bear? They all saw through him like he was fucking paper.
And although he’d never discussed it with any of them, especially not Bear, the guy still knew. He took care of Tals as much as Tals took care of him. And Tals pretended not to notice… and Bear seemed to prefer it that way.
“Tals, you got a call from Sal,” Bear told him, handing him his phone. Tals never wanted any distractions while he drove, but now, with his adrenaline roaring, a little repo would work out just fine.
“Time to go to work.” But hell, work wasn’t really work to him, and he had several jobs, most of which fell under the Vipers MC umbrella. Repo’ing was one of them, although his main work for the club involved enforcing. Keeping order, imposing rules and justice.
He liked that role a lot.
“No one else will take this motherfucking job,” Sal was grousing in his ear. “You know anything about that?”
“Nope,” Tals said, not bothering to try for innocent—didn’t work, even when he was. “I’ll keep trying.”
“Hey, I’m better than nothing.”
“Not by much.” Sal hung up in his ear, and Tals sighed.
“Where’re we going?” Bear asked.
Tals looked down at the money roll, then over at Mel. “You stay and have fun. I’ll take this one—an easy job.”
“You sure?” Bear asked, even as he was allowing two women to pull him back into the street-side celebration.
Tals grinned, shook his head. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
* * * * *
The job was several hours outside his usual territory. He’d initially been tagged for it when he was doing a difficult repo close by. Sal said taking Cathy’s car would be an easy reward.
There was nothing easy about taking a single mother’s only mode of transportation. And so he’d warned her, had initially walked away from the job, reporting to Sal that the address he had was bad. He’d done that once more, buying her several months, but, like she’d told him, she couldn’t create money from air.
“Where the fuck’s your old man?” he’d asked, motioning to the three kids playing on the patch of grass outside the motel room.
She’d rolled her eyes. “Prison. Again. Sometimes I think he likes it better in there than out here. You know how that goes.”
Yeah, Tals knew that all too well. It was easier for most of them on the inside. And even though he got it, this time he would need to take the car back—she was too far behind in payments and he couldn’t keep other guys off her ass forever. Tals could only threaten so many of them before one of them would ignore him. He’d make them regret it, of course, but she’d be stuck.
He knocked on the door softly, because it was so late. And she opened it, in pajamas, her eyes tired. There’d been no New Year’s celebration for her.
He gave her credit for opening the door for him. “Gotta take it this time, Cathy.”
Her eyes watered, but she refused to let the tears fall. “You bought me a lot of time. I can’t be mad at you.” But she was—and he was on his way to becoming just another in a long line of men who’d disappointed her. She reached to the chair next to the door and handed him the keys. “I’m sure you know where it’s parked.”
“Show me. And you’ve got to empty it anyway.”
She sighed as she stepped out of the motel room, shutting the door behind her. “I never leave anything in it, since I’ve been waiting for this to happen.”
It was parked a few doors down. Tals looked it over, started it up easily and then got out.
“Are we all set?” Cathy asked, eyeing the door to the room where the kids slept.
“One more thing.” He handed her a set of keys and an envelope. And then he pointed to the car he’d released from the flatbed and parked right in front of her door. It was nothing special to look at, needed a paint job that Mel was supposed to do, but the engine purred like a baby. It was a good, strong car.
“Tals, I can’t afford—”
“It’s yours. First month’s insurance is paid—it’s registered under your name.”
“For the kids,” he said roughly. “Don’t fuck it up.”
She smiled gently, then touched his cheek like a mother would. Like his mother used to. “You’re a good boy, Tals. Now try to take your own advice.”
He couldn’t help it—he laughed.
* * * * *
He had another three-hour ride back to Skulls Creek—he’d miss the party at the clubhouse, but hell, he didn’t care. Every night could be a party for him, if he wanted it to be.
But it was a new year, and things felt different. He wasn’t really sure why. Maybe because Cage was back with Vipers, but nothing had changed within the South Carolina city itself.
He dialed his brother’s number now, then pulled the flatbed onto the highway as it rang.
He and Tenn had grown up on what was most definitely the wrong side of the tracks in Skulls. But now there really wasn’t a wrong side—just an MC side. Skulls was thriving. There wasn’t violence or squalor, in no small part due to Preacher taking over Vipers. Still, they worked hard to keep out of trouble, mainly in the form of drug-pushing MCs, and Tals knew most of the Skulls community didn’t fully understand or appreciate the Vipers’ role in that.
Preach always said he didn’t give a shit, but being treated like he was a criminal definitely got to him.
Tals had been looked on as one for as long as he could remember, but he’d also always gotten a lot of interest from the women of Skulls. And the Army. And Vipers. Havoc too. And Havoc allowed him to indulge in stealing and racing cars without bringing the law into Skulls or on Vipers.
Vipers relied on vigilante justice. Old-fashioned, but very effective.
“Happy New Year, brother.” Tenn’s voice sounded muffled… and slightly drunk. And Tenn rarely drank, so Tals wasn’t sure if this was a good sign or not. “You out celebrating?”
“I was. Then I caught a job.”
“Never ends, right?” Tenn went quiet, but there was obviously a party going on in the background.
“How’d you spend your night?”
“Threw a party for the guys who weren’t working,” Tenn said. “They invited some friends—it got bigger than I thought. Sometimes I forget how young these guys are.”
“Not too young for you,” Tals said.
“Yeah.” Tenn’s voice had that far-off quality to it, but true to form, he shook himself out of it before he got too maudlin. “Love you, bro. Be safe.”
“Love you, Tenn—be safe.”
It was the same every time. Just because they didn’t live in the same house anymore didn’t mean they weren’t as close. It’d been painful when Tenn moved away—Tals swore he felt it physically. Having Cage gone for months had left Tals hanging in the wind, and even though Bear had been there to steady him, it hadn’t been easy.
No matter how much he tried to fill the space, it never worked.
“I’ll change that this year.” He wasn’t sure how. Maybe he’d give more women a chance—fuck the one-night stands. Try to open his horizons and look for a real old lady.
The whole one-night-stand shit hadn’t ever been that easy for him—the mechanics were, because orgasms were never bad, as was finding willing women. But if he added up all the one-night stands—and fuck, that could take a long time—he’d realize something was missing.
Hell, he didn’t even have to add them up to know that. It was a space he’d never filled, a hole in his heart that never healed. As much as he tried to wall it up, compartmentalize it, he could never separate it for long.
New Year’s Eve always made him think of Maddie… no matter what he did since then, what country he was in, whether he was partying, stone-cold sober, in the desert, fighting another MC member or stealing a car, Tals could no more not think about Maddie on New Year’s Eve than he could stop breathing.