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She looked for a well-lit parking spot near the door of the buffet steakhouse, but after circling the bikes three times, she finally squeezed her car into the last space at the rear of the dark lot. Motorcycles flanked both sides of her car. Flames embellished the tank of the bike immediately to her left and razors decorated the one to her right.
She was trapped.
Trapped like she had been in her father’s car the night he’d accidentally hit a motorcycle—the night the dead man’s “pack” had surrounded them like wolves. And here she was again, encircled by bikes. She looked toward the building. In that steakhouse were the same kind of people who had left her father with a limp, bound to a cane for the rest of his life.
Why on Earth did she tell Mr. Houseman that she’d go to the meeting? Well, for many reasons, but the most important was Ben. He was special. Every time he saw her, he gave her a hug. Started out when she first helped him learn to climb a tree when the Humanity Project volunteers built his home. When he dropped down from that tree and into her arms, he also dropped into her heart. Ever since that day, he drew pictures of trees and gave them to her as gifts. Yep. He was special, and she had to do something to help the little boy’s parents with the mounting medical bills. Mr. Houseman was her mentor at the Humanity Project, and she owed him, too. She also thought about Miss Adree, the sweet, elderly lady in her condo building who taught Ben music lessons every Thursday evening. April loved picking up the little guy and remembered Miss Adree doing the same for her when she was a child. It was time to return favors.
Taking a deep breath, she gingerly opened the car door. But before she got the chance to put her foot on the asphalt, the painted flames on the motorcycle next to her pitched—almost imperceptibly at first. Or perhaps she was simply denying what was happening.
Down it went. The mirrors tilted and flashed the light of a distant streetlamp over the body of the beast. Stop! Somehow, it appeared to have picked up momentum on its way to its death. And then it crashed against the pavement, the clang grating up her spine as it hit. No! She couldn’t have touched that bike. She had been so careful.
As she stepped outside the car, a shiver iced down her spine in a cold gust of March air. The motorcycle lay there like a fallen soldier. The crash had amputated its rearview mirror, which was now in the middle of the lane. She looked all around her.
For a brief moment, she thought about bolting. But she’d never do that. She worked at a local insurance company as a risk assessment manager. Assessing her own risk, she determined that she was in real trouble.
She knew she could analyze her way out of this. Maybe she could set the bike upright again and no one would notice. That might work.
Fighting some awful thing inside that wanted to paralyze her, she drew up every bit of her strength, bent down, and grabbed the handlebars. With her eyes closed, she strained and jerked with all her might. But the beast wouldn’t budge.
She could call the police. But it wasn’t a traffic accident. She still didn’t believe that she’d touched the bike. No matter. What could she do but try to find the owner and tell him? Dread rose up in her. She would offer the biker her insurance information, and she could let her company argue the claim later. And if the bike’s owner grew angry with her here, she assumed the bystanders in the steakhouse would provide some protection.
Glancing around the dark lot, she noticed several other bikes with flames on their tanks. Great. Now she’d have a band of angry bikers come after her when she would announce that she’d knocked over a motorcycle festooned with flames.
Shaking her head, she tried to rid herself of the images of that night so long ago. But this was very different. No one had died. And she would accept complete responsibility, unlike her father, who’d blamed and angered the drunken bikers from Rebel Angels the night they’d played chicken with him.
Still holding the metal thing, she had an idea. The mirror was a totally different shape from the others around her, and it had a sticker with flames on the back. That would help. She’d find Mr. Morrow and a few of the people there for the fundraiser, and with their assistance, she’d approach the bikers with the mirror.
So she summoned all of her courage and bravely walked toward the entrance where a giant fake cow stood with an ominous look in his eyes. It watched her every step.
When finally inside, the scent of old coffee and burned grease assailed her. A gap-toothed hostess greeted April. “Welcome to Carolina
Not immediately seeing the people from the Summerbrook Civic Club, she turned to the waitress. “Umm, I’m supposed to meet a group here.”
The hostess perked up and smiled. “Are you here for Ben Evans’s Leukemia Fundraiser, too?”
April nodded and glanced around again, still hiding the broken mirror behind her back. She spotted members of the motorcycle crew secluded away at a couple of tables in a shadowy corner. Oh, boy. In a few short moments, she’d have to face them and confess what she’d done. Well, at least they weren’t going to be a part of the civic club meeting. After she gave them the broken mirror and her insurance information, it would all be over.
“You’ll have to wait here a minute ’cause I’m moving everyone into the larger banquet room. Y’all have more people than we expected,” the hostess said as she grabbed a few more menus and walked away.
April backed up against the wall to better hide the crooked chrome she held. Of all the stupid things that could happen.
With her free hand, she brushed at the pleats on her skirt to straighten them. Then she switched the mirror into her right hand and smoothed out the other side. Everything was under control.
She snapped to attention like she was about to undergo a military inspection.
A handsome, muscular man in a black bomber jacket towered above her, larger than life. His shoulder-length hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail. Golden streaks highlighted his nut-brown mane. His indigo-colored eyes perused her face. “Is something wrong?”
She twisted the strand of pearls that draped from her neck between her fingers with her free hand. “No. Everything’s fine,” she said. It would be as soon as she could meet up with Mr. Morrow or some of the other members from the civic organizations.
“Then what are you hiding behind your back?”
He had seen. Oh, no. He had seen.
“Just a little mishap. I’m going to take care of it.”
“You ride?” The left corner of his mouth curled up. “In a skirt?”
“No.” She hoped her voice didn’t sound strained. “No, I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before,” she said calmly.
He narrowed his eyes. “Then why are you walking around with a Harley dome billit mirror?”
That was a good question. Why was she? She held out the broken piece of the bike in front of her. “I don’t know how it happened. I was
He took it from her, examined it, and gave it back. “Let me guess. It just fell.” He tilted his head, exposing a strong, angular jawline. “All by itself.”
“That’s right. It really did happen that way. Exactly.” He probably didn’t believe a word she said. And she couldn’t blame him. She heard unlikely stories like hers from claimants at the insurance company all the time.
“Ahhh, I see. Sure it did,” he said. But the left side of his grin inched upward again. His eyes radiated light like the mirror in her hands. “Believe I know who owns that. ’Cause of the sticker on the back there.” He nodded at the chrome and took a step toward her. “Won’t be too happy, though. You want me to take you to him?”
A spicy scent replaced the old coffee and burned grease in the air. She looked around, half expecting to see one of the men from the Summerbrook Chamber of Commerce or the hostess with a can of air freshener. But April hadn’t ever experienced anything like that fragrance—not on a businessman or from a can. “No, thank you. I’m meeting some people here for a fundraiser first. They’ll help me.”
“I know where they are, too. It’s where I’m headed.” He touched her elbow. A warm tingle ran up her arm.
“The hostess said to wait here.”
“We don’t have to wait.”
“But—” Before she could protest, he placed his hand on the small of her back and guided her through the large, open restaurant and around a corner. With each step she took, her pulse beat faster.
“You sure you don’t want me to handle that for you?” He arched his brow and glanced at the mirror.
“No, thank you. I’m going to ask Mr. Morrow to walk back with me. To tell those people in the corner of the main dining area.”
He opened the door. “Be my guest.”
As soon as she walked into the room, she knew she was in trouble. The large table in front was filled with people sporting leather fringes, rivets, Harley insignias, and long hair. Motorcycle people. But what kind of motorcycle people were they—the weekender kind who had regular day jobs, like the safe ones they insured at her company? Or some other kind?
A guy with a Z Z Top-looking beard stood up and said, “Hey, that’s my mirror.”
The packed room became silent.
April wanted to sink through the floor. “I’ll pay for it. I have insurance. I don’t really even know how it happened.”
The whole room stared at her like she was a liar. Trapping the mirror between her arm and side, she fumbled in her purse to get one of the copies of her insurance card she’d made at work in case she might ever have the need for it.
“She was probably standing there and it just fell over,” said one of the bikers at the table.
All the people at the table laughed. She turned to see Mr. Morrow standing silently behind the lectern, looking at his notes. Why wasn’t he backing her up? Surely he recognized her. She wanted to say, “It’s me. April Church.” In case he didn’t remember. But he only stood there looking unconcerned.
The tall, handsome guy who’d walked her back took the broken mirror from her and tossed it toward the biker with the long beard. “Okay,
The group laughed more. Slug kept his eye on April as he inched around the table. She didn’t see anything funny. She’d known she hadn’t hit the motorcycle with her car door. But she’d been discombobulated all the same.
The man in the bomber jacket gave Slug a reprimanding look and then turned to her. “Slug here’s real sorry he hasn’t fixed that old kickstand. Even though we’ve been warning him about it for months. Right, Slug?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry and all,” said Slug. He reached out his tattoo-covered hand and snatched the mirror.
The two men left with the twisted chrome.
Slug didn’t sound very sorry. Even if the broken mirror wasn’t her fault, she didn’t want to face him alone in that dark parking lot. She was staying right where she was for the time being.
She wanted to do this for Ben. She’d have to stay no matter what.
Mr. Morrow said, “April, if you’ll take a seat, we can get started.”
So now he knew who she was.
Glancing across the room, she saw the ladies from the group she wanted to join all decked out in their Lilly Pulitzer sweaters and pearls, cozily talking around a couple of the round banquet tables they’d pulled together on the other side of the room. Shoot. All the other chairs were filled—except for two at the table with the bikers. The evening couldn’t possibly get any worse.
Things had just gotten worse. All she could do now was to sit. She clutched her purse tightly against her body and eased her way between the tables to one of the two empty seats.
Nothing was going to happen. Everything would be fine now that her little mirror emergency was over. These people had to be good people, right? They were here to help Ben, too. And Ben needed lots of help.
April fidgeted with the pearls at her neck. She knew there was no good reason for her insides to be so tense. These people weren’t the same rioters from Rebel Angels who’d burned down her father’s old hardware store for revenge. She straightened the pleats again on her skirt, trying to forget about the unfortunate event that had divided the town. But how could she possibly forget with all the reminders at the table? The earthy scent of leather hung all around her.
She wound her arms around her purse and sat up straight. If only she could leave. But she wouldn’t know what to tell Mr. Houseman. She had already promised him she was going to help.
She moved her seat closer to the empty chair, but as soon as she had, the man in the bomber jacket returned. Without Slug. And he’d spotted the empty seat.
Nothing she could do now. She scooted her chair back to its original position and closed her eyes. Take deep breaths. Take deep breaths. With her next inhalation, her senses were filled with the most heavenly fragrance. Spicy and aromatic.
She opened her eyes to find the striking stranger sitting next to her. She turned to look at the table behind her.
The hostess closed the door. April was simply going to have to make the best of the situation. For now. Maybe later she could somehow wiggle her way over to the Lilly Pulitzer table. April also had an ulterior motive to help with the fundraiser. This was going to be her magic ticket into the Summerbrook Ladies League—something she’d always wanted—and something her mother had always wanted for her.
Mr. Morrow, president of the Summerbrook Civic Club, tapped a butter knife on the wooden lectern at the front of the room. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I guess you know why we’re here.”
She heard some stirring, and she caught a glimpse of a woman near the lectern nodding, but April didn’t move. She stared ahead and hoped to blend in with the others at her table. But how her pleats and pearls were going to fit in with all the rivets and leather she didn’t know exactly.
Mr. Morrow looked down. “When Ben Evans’s grandfather came to me and told me about Ben’s leukemia and his medical bills at the Children’s Hospital, I knew that all the Summerbrook civic organizations had to get involved in a big way. We’re all going to work together like we haven’t before.”
The handsome biker with the blue eyes and hard, angular jawline leaned in his chair and closed the space between them. She clutched her purse even tighter to minimize her presence at the table. She turned her attention back to Mr. Morrow.
“We’re all going to undertake multiple projects as quickly as we can for Ben. Those medical bills aren’t going away after only one fundraiser. Each table or team will choose a date for their event and the type of project they want to sponsor,” Mr. Morrow explained.
When Mr. Morrow finished, an old, woolly-bearded man in leather chaps stood up. “Jim, most of you know that Ben is my grandson. Oh, for those of you who don’t know, I’m Patch Evans.”
She’d had no idea who the man was—even though she knew Ben’s family well. Ben’s dad, Purvis Evans, had recently been laid off at the local car dealership, and his mom worked at April’s bank as a teller. She wouldn’t have guessed that Ben had motorcycle riders in his background. Not that that was bad or anything. It’s just that people in small Southern towns usually shared similar interests with their
She broke away from her thoughts when the old man choked out a few more words. “My family is terribly grateful for all your help.”
The lean bomber-jacket guy beside her moved again in his seat and looked into his lap. She was careful not to let him see her glancing at him from the corner of her eye. All the emotion in the room and at her table caught her off guard. Maybe that was why she was so…so…twitchy.
“No problem, Patch.” Mr. Morrow checked his watch. “In about an hour, we’ll stop and discuss what each team has decided. In the meantime, I’ll walk around and make sure we’re talking about different dates for each of the events.” He turned as the door behind him opened. “Betsy here will take your drink orders if anyone’s thirsty. Her sweet tea is so good, you’ll think your tongue will slap your brains out.”
Betsy smiled hugely at the compliment. She didn’t seem to mind the crevice between her teeth. Or the unusual expression of praise. April wished she could be less uptight—like Betsy. But April worried about most everything, a trait she grew up recoiling from because of her own overprotective mother. And old-fashioned grandmother.
Betsy leaned over to take a drink order from the table beside her and April saw something Betsy would have minded. She had a small split in the seam of her trousers. April’s heart ached for her. Gapped teeth and pants.
Chairs grated on the tile floor as people settled down in their groups to talk. April glanced at the table to her left. No room to move her chair. She peered at the table behind her. If she turned her seat around, it would look bad. She eyed the door. But she couldn’t leave. For so many reasons.
At her table, a middle-aged man with a red bandana said, “How ’bout I start. I got some ideas you guys might like. Oh, excuse me. And ladies. I’m Crank Allman, by the way.”
What kind of ideas did these people have? Coming up with names like Crank and Patch—not to mention Slug. In all her twenty-six years,
She twirled the pearl ring on her left hand and noticed how much it looked like a wedding band when the pearl was on the palm side, so she left it that way. Wouldn’t hurt if anyone there thought she was married.
“I’m gonna need me a secretary, though.” Crank paused. “How ’bout you?”
She didn’t look up. He couldn’t possibly be talking to her. She was planning to move her chair to the sweater-and-pearls table as soon as it wouldn’t look so obvious. These people probably didn’t want her in their group anyway. She was merely waiting for the right moment to oblige.
The bomber-jacket guy next to her reached for her arm. “I think he’s talking to you.”
She startled at his touch. His strong hand was warm and almost electric. She tried to smile. “I don’t know that I’ll be here that much longer. Maybe someone else should volunteer.”
“I’ll take over if she has to leave early,” said the blue-eyed man sitting next to her. He smiled and handsome lines formed parentheses on each side of his mouth. The angles of his jawline and his perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth made him look like a male model in one of those Armani suit ads. Without the suit, of course. “The two of us can share being secretary.”
He had to be kidding. She tried to hide the concern from showing in her face. There wasn’t a pig’s chance at the Miss Summerbrook Fire Queen Pageant she was going to stick around—not with the cookbook clan merely feet away. She didn’t know a single one of the people at her table. But she couldn’t let on to them right now that she was uneasy. And had a completely different agenda. She had to go along for the time being.
Think, girl, think. There had to be a discreet way out of this. If there was, she was going to figure it out. She always did.
Crank tossed a spiral notebook onto the table. “You each need to write down your name, address, and phone number so our secretary—excuse me—secretaries can keep a record in case we need you for something before our next meeting.” When the good-looking man beside her received the list, she watched as he wrote, “Bull Clayton.”
Bull? The Ladies League gals would have boyfriends and husbands named Preston and Tillman and Hamilton. There was just no end to the crazy things bikers called themselves. Bull looked nothing like a thick male bovine as his name implied. A svelte stallion, maybe. When he finished writing his phone number, he pushed the notebook in front of her.
She glanced up at Bull, who still had his arm extended and hand on the spiral notebook. A feeling of fireflies fluttering in her lower
tummy warmed her in a way she’d never experienced. Her body wasn’t being careful at all.
This was all too difficult to absorb and she felt a twinge deep inside her head. Oh, no. Another of her stupid headaches was trying to settle in. The whole evening had been filled with tension. Of course, a migraine would follow.
She closed her eyes. The flashes of light came first, and then the old crash came rushing back. The screams. The sirens. The fire.
She opened her eyes and shook her head. If only she could erase what the Rebels had done. But that was impossible.
There had to be a way for her to deal with this problem. All she had to do was analyze it and sort it out. That might be hard to do at the table; however, all the bikers were busily talking to one another and weren’t paying any attention to her. Thank goodness.
Just then Betsy walked toward her. April took off her sweater, whispered in Betsy’s ear, and wrapped the sweater around Betsy’s waist. She gave April the most beautiful smile ever.
Great. The bikers were still debating something. No one had seen.
Her phone vibrated. Jenna. With the phone in her lap and hidden by the table, April texted back.
Can’t talk now.
April’s head tensed more. Another text from Jenna.
Long story. I’ll call when I’m out of here.
She really needed to pay more attention to what was going on at the table. Lucky for her, she was off their radar. Her cell vibrated again.
Out of where? I thought you were at league thing with the girls.
She wasn’t going to get rid of Jenna without an explanation so she texted where she was and what had happened.
…but this guy named Bull helped me out, so I’m okay.
April sucked in a deep breath. Little lights twinkled in her vision from the headache that was trying to get a foothold in her brain.
Maybe answering Jenna’s text wasn’t such a good idea. She had a tendency to be overly alarmist. And obviously April had a tendency to be overly stupid for telling Jenna anything. No imagining what she was going to do.
Maybe April should just leave. But what if Slug was still out there? He hadn’t come back to the banquet room, and his motorcycle had been parked beside her car. By now, he could have rounded up all his friends from the other corners of the restaurant.
She had to be reasonable, though. He shouldn’t be upset at her because he hadn’t fixed his own kickstand.
There was another problem with leaving, as well. What would she tell Mr. Houseman? And Ben? She couldn’t face letting him slip away. Then there was the league. Too much was at stake. Whatever it takes.
No matter what, she was going to stay. Tonight. She could always call Mr. Morrow next week and ask to be reassigned to another group—even if it wasn’t the league ladies—as long as she did something to help Ben. Bull pushed the notebook back in front of her. She stole another look at the handsome man. Humph. Nothing like Bull had ever ridden into Summerbrook before.
She needed to get her mind on the work at hand, though. As she read some of his words, she became confused.
With finality in his voice, Crank said, “So, the weekend of April 28th is the best date.”
Curiosity got the best of her. It sounded like they were planning to do something big the weekend of her birthday. She raised her hand again. “Excuse me.” She cleared her throat. “What exactly are you doing, and what does ‘Bikers for Ben’ and ‘Ride for a Reason’ mean?”
Crank said, “Well, we decided that we’d do a charity bike ride, gettin’ sponsors to donate money for each mile we ride from Summerbrook to the Charleston Battery and then on to the Children’s Hospital.”
She lowered her head and tapped her pencil. In a low voice she said, “What about a bake sale or a charity auction or something?”
A burley man with a handlebar mustache and muttonchops spoke up after everyone chuckled. “We don’t know nothin’ ’bout no bakin’ or no auctionin’. All’s we know is bikes.”
Bull had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and she could see muscular definition in his forearms. Was he ever fit. “What Chops means is that rides are what we know best to raise money. We’ve done it before. It’s what we do well.” He smiled that same Hollywood smile that she’d noticed before—the one that kept taking her off guard.
“But I thought—” April stopped midsentence. She’d be home soon and the whole thing could be their little kettle of fish. “I’m sorry. A biker-rider thingy is fine. Just fine,” she said as she leaned back in her chair.
“Good,” said Bull. “Because you and I are in charge of permits and advertising.” He smiled again, the left side inching up more than the right. No, it wasn’t quite a smile. It was more of a grin.
With his perfectly straight teeth. If someone would turn him in on one of those makeover shows and cut and style his hair, he’d be downright dangerous. But he didn’t know what he was talking about because she wasn’t about to help with any of their far-fetched ideas.
She couldn’t. With her aging father’s cardiac condition, it would absolutely kill him if he ever found out.
The man named Crank explained all about what they had decided. She sat there biding her time and tried to blend in with the furniture. Then her cell rang. So much for trying to look inconspicuous.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She pressed the phone to her head as tightly as she could and bent down toward the table. Everyone in the group grew silent as Jenna’s voice barreled through the little cell phone.
“I called Mr. Houseman. He said he can’t help you right now. April, I think you could be in a lot of danger. I asked around about that Bull guy and found out he had been involved with Rebel Angels. Those people might have chains or knives—or even guns.”
Jenna’s voice grew even louder, if that were possible. “Be careful. Stay away from the bikers and get your butt home.”
“Jenna, don’t be ridiculous. I’ll talk to you later.” April quickly ended the call and looked up at Bull. He raised his eyebrow, and a strange expression covered his handsome face. It was almost another smile. Wait. No. It was a smirk. She knew it. He’d heard everything Jenna had said—about the chains, the knives…and Rebel Angels.
How dare he be snarky with her? She sat up, glanced around, and realized by the looks on their faces that the others had heard Jenna, too.
Before, she was merely being paranoid, but now she had a real reason to worry. That phone call would have insulted anyone. In Jenna’s effort to be a mother hen, she’d actually made the situation worse.
She had two options. She could stand, run, and take her chances in the parking lot with the chains and knives Jenna had mentioned, or she could prove them all wrong. Being the chicken that she was, she said, “Well, people. When do we get started?”
Excerpt from Bikers and Pearls ©2013 by Vicki Wilkerson. All rights reserved.
Get Your Own Copy: Kindle | Nook | Kobo | ARe
Series: Summerbrook #1
Length: 183 pages
Publisher: Entangled Bliss (August 12, 2013)
Who said tempting a sweet Southern belle would be easy?
When rebel biker Bullworth Clayton gets tangled up with pastel-and-pearls-clad April Church, sparks fly. Sure, April would clearly rather work with anyone else, but if teaming up with Bull means a successful charity event for a sick little boy they both care about, then so be it.
April is baffled at how drawn she is to the leather-wearing, tattooed Bull—he just doesn’t fit with her simple, safe, country-club life. And as much as the handsomely rugged man tempts her, she still can’t shake the images of the tragic motorcycle accident from her past, which left her scarred and her father broken.
Bull tempts her to don a pair of leather pants and go for a ride with him, while April desperately tries to resist her attraction to the wild side and keep her exploits hidden from her small town. Will they be able to navigate their differences and find a middle road to love?
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