TANK WICKED PLANTED his boots on the pavement, took off his helmet, and cut the engine on his motorcycle. The faint sound of music pulsed in the air. He raked a hand through his thick black hair and gazed up at the Salty Hog, his family’s two-story restaurant and bar overlooking the harbor. The parking lot was full of motorcycles, trucks, and cars, many of which belonged to other members of the Dark Knights motorcycle club. After the shift he’d had at the fire station where he volunteered a few times a month, he craved the comfort of the familiar.
A cool September breeze swept off the water. He turned toward the scents of the sea, and as usual, fond memories rolled in. He’d spent years watching over his two younger brothers, his sister, and their many cousins there at the Salty Hog. They’d eat dinner downstairs in the restaurant with their families, and then the kids would play outside on the grounds while their parents handled business and hung out upstairs in the bar, dancing and socializing with other Dark Knight families. He could still see his siblings and cousins running around on the docks and in the sand and grass as he and Blaine, his eldest cousin, tried to keep tabs on everyone. A bittersweet memory of his late younger sister, Ashley, trickled in. She’d been ten years old, smiling as bright as the morning sun, laughing hysterically, her long, always-tangled strawberry-blond hair flying over her shoulders as she and their cousin Madigan, an energetic brunette who was a few months younger than Ashley, chased their brothers with squirt guns. When all the boys had turned on them, the girls had run behind Tank in fits of giggles, hiding from the others. Tank had been six feet tall by the time he was fourteen and had hit his full height of six four two years later. He’d fended off the gaggle of rambunctious boys that night as if Ashley’s and Madigan’s lives had depended on it. He’d always been protective of his siblings and cousins, saving them from fights and getting them out of trouble, until the night he hadn’t been there when Ashley had needed him most.
He gritted his teeth against the images impaling him, but there was no softening the crushing pain he’d carried since the night he’d lost the brightest light he’d ever known.
A couple of motorcycles rumbled into the parking lot, drawing him from his thoughts. He climbed off his bike as his brother Baz and their cousin Blaine climbed off theirs. Like Tank, they wore their black leather vests with Dark Knights patches over T-shirts. Tank and Baz’s father, Conroy, and Blaine’s father, their uncle Rob, who went by the road name Preacher, had founded the Bayside chapter of the Dark Knights about thirty years ago. Tank’s other brother, Dwayne, who went by the road name Gunner, and their male cousins were also members. The club was as much a part of their lives as the air they breathed.
“Hey, man,” Baz called over as they locked their helmets to their bikes. The brawny veterinarian was known as the Lower Cape’s most eligible bachelor. He flicked his chin, sending his longish dirty-blond hair out of his eyes. “You just get here, or are you leaving?”
Tank strode over to them. “Just got here.”
Blaine, a James Marsden lookalike with wavy dark hair, shocking blue eyes, and a playful nature, clapped a hand on Tank’s shoulder. “Good, you can hang with us and we can give you shit about losing at pool last night.”
As they headed for the stairs that led up to the bar, Tank scanned the lot for waitress Leah Yates’s blue Honda Civic and spotted it beneath an umbrella of trees, kicking his protective instincts into overdrive. He’d spent the summer wondering about the mysterious girl who moved with the silence of a still summer’s day, as if she’d like to be invisible. He had enough resources to find out everything there was to know about her with a few phone calls. But while he’d done that in other situations when people were in trouble, Leah hadn’t given any indication that she needed anyone’s help, and it felt wrong to invade her privacy just to satisfy his curiosity.
“It’s by the trees.” Baz nodded in the direction of Leah’s car as they climbed the steps. “Passed it on my way in.”
“Don’t tell me you’re still trying to figure out whether Leah is a loner or running from something.” Blaine stepped onto the second-story deck. “Listen, man, your parents keep a close eye on the girls who work for them. They’d know if Leah was in trouble by now.”
Maybe he was right. Tank’s parents treated all their employees like family, just as Tank did with his employees at Wicked Ink, the tattoo shop he owned. His mother had recently told him that although Leah had warmed toward customers in the few months she’d worked there, she remained tight-lipped about her personal life, and she assumed Leah was just a quiet, single girl who was new to the area and liked her privacy.
He followed the guys into the rustic bar, taking in the mass of black vests with Dark Knights patches among a plethora of other customers. His gaze moved over the women who were checking him out. He was used to the attention. Tank had female friends, but usually women either wanted to drop to their knees for him or run for the hills from him. There was rarely an in-between.
His eyes locked on Leah as she helped customers at a table across the room. She was definitely a run-for-the-hills girl, rarely making eye contact. Her features looked as though they’d been picked from a handful of people and puzzled together to create a woman as uniquely beautiful as the Mona Lisa. She had a mass of brownish-red corkscrew curls as wild as a lion’s mane, thick brows over cautious hazel eyes, a slightly flat nose, and heavily freckled skin the color of sweet cream. Her lips were the most intriguing he’d ever seen, plump, almost perfectly bowed, and slightly too big for her face. She was thin, with slight but alluring curves, and when she spoke, her Southern drawl exuded sensuality and innocence with an edge of please don’t hit on me. He’d seen her work her quiet magic, pulling off that invisibility cloak, slipping in to take drink orders, then gliding away, rarely capturing the attention of men the way other, more flirtatious waitresses did. But to Tank, who got feelings about people like sailors did about impending storms, she brought the roar and thunder of a five-alarm fire.
He watched Leah making her way to the bar, where his mother, Ginger, was serving drinks. His mother caught him watching her. She pushed her tortoiseshell glasses to the bridge of her nose, her eyes brightening. Her strawberry-blond hair cascaded in gentle waves over her shoulders. Tank lifted his chin in acknowledgment to the strongest, most loving woman he knew. She was everything a biker’s wife needed to be, tough, fair, and able to handle—and sometimes mother—an army of belligerent bikers. Even so, he had no idea how his parents had survived Ashley’s death, but they’d managed to carry on and help the rest of them figure out how to as well.
His mother pointed to a table in the corner, where Gunner was sitting with their cousins Zeke and Zander, two of Blaine’s younger brothers. A brunette stood to Gunner’s right, a blonde to his left, both with their hands on him, and another blonde was leaning over the table near Zeke and Zander, showing all kinds of cleavage.
Tank nudged Baz and Blaine, and as they headed to the table, he watched his youngest brother soaking in the attention. Gunner, a stocky ex-marine with short blond hair and tattoos from neck to fingers, was twenty-eight to Tank’s thirty-two, and he owned Wicked Animal Rescue. Gunner said something to the girls, and the three beauties walked away, eyeing Tank, Baz, and Blaine.
“What kind of trouble are you stirring up?” Tank asked as they all sat down.
“Just deciding who I want to take home tonight.” Gunner was as much of a woman whisperer as he was an animal whisperer.
“I’m thinking the brunette.” Zander smirked. “Did you see the rack on her? Give me one hour, and…Mm-mm.” He had the same short dark hair and blue eyes as all of his brothers, but that’s as far as the similarities went. Zander had no filter and enjoyed riling people up. “Or maybe I’ll go for the blonde.”
“Why choose?” Baz chuckled.
“Do not egg him on.” Zeke shook his head. He’d been Zander’s wrangler since they were kids. Zander had learned early on that joking around and getting into trouble could deflect attention from his learning disability. Zeke had taken it upon himself to try to keep him in line. Zeke pointed to Baz. “And women call you husband material?” He scoffed. “You should probably set them straight.”
Baz splayed his hands, flashing his dimples. “Who am I to kill their fantasies?”
Blaine laughed. “You’re about as likely to settle down as Tank is to hold a real conversation.”
“Some of us have better uses for our mouths.” Tank smirked.
“Speaking of which.” Baz turned his attention to Gunner and Zander. “I’m always amazed at how many women you two pick up with the shit you say.”
“That makes two of us,” Zeke said under his breath.
“Hey, man, I keep it real. They know what they’re getting because of the shit I say. When we hook up, I won’t need to speak.” Zander flashed a cocky grin. “My body will do all the talking.”
Baz looked across the table at Gunner. “You do that shit, too, Gun?”
“Hell no. I’m as smooth as butter. But not everyone can be a catch like me.” Gunner pushed to his feet, arrogantly showing off his heavily muscled biceps. “Six-plus feet of hard-bodied, talented-tongued business owner.” He made a lude gesture with his tongue.
“Sit your ass down.” Tank yanked him down to his seat. “Jesus. You’re animals. I need a drink.” He liked giving them hell, but the truth was, every guy around that table would give their lives for each other.
“Like you’re a saint?” Gunner said sarcastically.
“I never said I was, but I’m not an asshole.” Tank had his share of women, but he didn’t make a public game of it the way some of the younger guys did. He turned to flag down a waitress, but Leah was already on her way to the table, her slim hips swaying in curve-hugging jeans, her Salty Hog T-shirt straining across her perky breasts, and her eyes pointedly avoiding him.
She turned to Baz and Blaine. “What can I get y’all?”
Her Southern drawl drew Tank in every time he heard it. He watched her as the others ordered. Her expression morphed to a more serious one as she studied Zander’s face the way she always did, like she was trying to figure him out. “Would you like a refill?”
“I’d like your number,” Zander said with a wink.
Tank glowered at him.
Leah wrinkled her nose. “I’m not on the menu, but I’m happy to get you a drink.”
Everyone chuckled as he asked for a refill and tried again to get her number. She turned toward Tank with her gaze trained on the order pad. “And for you?”
“Whiskey, neat,” Tank said.
Her eyes flicked up to his, and in the space of a second everything else failed to exist except that thunderous roar, and just as quickly, the little color Leah had drained from her face.
“You okay, darlin’?” Tank touched her hand.
She pulled it away, stumbling backward, and scurried off toward the bar.
“Dude, are you sure something didn’t happen between you two that we should know about?” Blaine asked.
Tank leveled him with a dark stare.
As his brothers and cousins joked about him scaring Leah off every time she looked at him, he watched her heading for the bar, eyes downcast, as though she wished she were invisible again. Maybe she was just a quiet girl who liked her privacy, but that didn’t explain her reaction to him. He’d missed signs of trouble with Ashley, and he wasn’t about to let that happen again. Not to her or anyone else.
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