This is a bad idea. Right?
I chewed at my bottom lip as I looked up at the facade of the low, brick building. An old rust mark on the outside wall in the shape of a shell — like some sort of battle wound from when the place had been gas station maybe. Under it hung a sign saying “Authorized Harley-Davidson Repair Shop”, and beneath that, a stack of old tires. The three wide-bay garage doors were rolled up, and from the darkened interior came the sound of Led Zeppelin. I jumped as the music was interrupted by this ear-screeching metallic sawing sound, like someone taking a drill to a piece of iron or something.
What on earth was I doing there? I could imagine my mother’s face going totally aghast at me even standing near a place like this. She’d say something about how it was beneath me and our family to “be seen” at “places like that.” My God, you’d have thought I was about to sell my body at a freaking opium den or something.
But then, that was one of the reasons I was there. It’s why I’d come, at the insistence of my favorite cousin, Katrina, to her neck of the woods. To Blackthorn Mountain. Out of the way, away from hustle and bustle, quiet, green, and honestly beautiful. Let’s just say the place was a far cry from my usual day-to-day city life. Which is exactly what I needed. After all, I’d come to Blackthorn for the summer to just sort of escape for a little bit. After, well, the incident.
A little country escape is just what I needed. I’d come to visit with my cousin, Katrina, and her husband Braun, who she’d met out here, for the summer. To get away from it all — away from my family, and away from my mother’s boyfriend-slash-soon-to-be-husband, Michael, specifically.
I swallowed the sour taste in my mouth and pushed that thought away.
The escape came with a few caveats, of course. For one, I needed a job. Me leaving the way I had... Well, I guess you could say it wasn’t exactly like my mother had sent me off with a hug, a tear, and a promise to call soon. Kinda the opposite actually. Which also meant my credit card had been cut off. The other caveat was that I needed a place to stay. Katrina had been furious when I’d told her this, calling me a lunatic for thinking there wasn’t a place for me at their house. But really, there wasn’t, even if I knew she wanted me there as family.
For one, because she and Braun were in the process of renovating what had once been a little old cabin into the house of their dreams. And the second reason?
Katrina was pregnant.
It’s not like she was due any day or anything like that, but I knew even if she was saying it — even if she was thinking it — me staying at their place was going to be more of a hassle than either of them would admit. Especially when the job I was going out for was at the base of Blackthorn, I didn’t have a car.
And top of all of that? I just needed some freedom after having spent all of college living in my mother’s 5th avenue penthouse. When I stepped off the bus in Blackthorn, I knew I needed a fresh start.
Luckily, the job and the place to stay came as a package deal. Well, maybe. I had to interview first. That’s why I was there, standing outside the little garage at the base of Blackthorn Mountain.
The metallic screeching sound came again, and I jumped out of my thoughts. My lip caught between my teeth again, and I nervously glanced at the murky darkness of the garage, even dimmer with how bright the afternoon was outside.
I can do this. I KNOW I can do this.
Math came easy to me, and I’d run the alumni committee’s budget while I was in college. This would be a breeze. Right? It was just a part time bookkeeping job. I could totally do that.
As luck would have it, Katrina wasn’t the only pregnant lady on Blackthorn. Larkin and Axe, two good friends of Katrina and Braun’s, were also expecting, and they were expecting soon.
Apparently, it’d happened pretty soon after, if not the night of their wedding. And they were having twins, at that. The job was with Axe’s bike shop and garage, which he ran alongside his friend Ryker. Larkin usually ran the office side of things, but with her being so pregnant, and on some doctor-stipulated bed rest, they needed a pinch hitter.
That would be me. And I knew I could do it, even if I was a little intimidated. It was this Ryker guy who was the wild card. Axe I’d met briefly my first night on Blackthorn when he’d swung by the house to say hi. But with his bride being on bedrest, he wasn’t going to be at the shop much. It was this mysterious Ryker who I’d be working with most of the time. And it was Ryker who was also letting me stay in the renovated studio apartment above his barn. The rent came free as part of the job, plus he lived just around the corner from the bike shop.
I mean, so what that my boss would also technically be my landlord. So what that my boss was apparently some big scary ex-biker-gang guy. So what that a girl like me in a place like that was like the living definition of fish out of water?
I squared my jaw, took a deep breath, and stepped into the shop.
It was louder once I walked in, the 70’s rock and roll music blaring over some tinny speakers. The screeching sound came again, and this time, a dark corner of the garage lit up like a flickering strobe light under the hiss and crackle of a welder’s torch. I gasped as it sparked to life again, my eyes suddenly landing on the form of a man hunched over a wheel-less motorcycle up on blocks. His back was turned to me, but as the welding torch lit up again, I could see the shadowy outline of huge shoulders, and big, muscled arms before it flickered out.
I shivered. Scary ex-biker. My boss. No big deal. I mean, Axe was also apparently some ex-biker too, and he’d been a freaking teddy bear when I’d met him.
I swallowed thickly, thinking to the previous night up at Katrina and Braun’s house, over dinner.
* * *
“So what’s his name again?”
“Ryker.” Braun looks up from the stove where he’s been grilling river trout for dinner.
“What’s he like?”
Katrina glances at Braun who just grins and raises his brows before looking away.
“It’s— Well, it’s just him and his daughter.”
I blink in surprise. This is the first I’m hearing about the scary biker guy having a kid.
“He’s newer to the area, but he and Axe know each other from a long time ago.”
“That’s why they have the shop together?”
“It’s all a front for their motorcycle gang.”
My eyes go wide, but Katrina rolls hers, turning to scowl at her grinning husband. “You stop that!” She turns back to me. “It’s just a garage, hon, I promise. They could really use the help with Larkin not able to work, and I know you’ll be great at it.”
“Just make sure they don’t try and traffic you for weapons or anything like—”
Braun hoots a laugh, ducking the kitchen towel Katrina chucks his way. He grabs a beer from the fridge and looks up, offering it my way.
He grins at his wife. “What, she’s twenty-one!” He frowns as his eyes drag back to me. “Wait, you’re twenty-one, right?”
“In a month?”
“Yeah, so NO beers,” Katrina mumbles. “Anyways, you’ll be fine.”
“So…” She still hasn’t answered my question. “What's he like? Ryker I mean?”
They glance at each other.
“He’s— he’s nice!” My cousin smiles at me.
“Oh, yeah.” Braun rolls his eyes as he takes a big pull from his beer and turns back to the stove. “A fuckin’ charmer.”
* * *
“Hello?” My voice sounded like it was coming from far away, like I was whispering even if I knew I said it loudly. The man didn’t turn though, the torch flickering again, illuminating glistening, bare muscles covered in tattoo ink. I swallowed again, biting my lip before I forced the courage into my heart.
His head raised slightly.
“Hey, hello? Hi, I’m here for the interview?”
He slowly stood upright, his full, large frame uncoiling as he reached up with one muscled arm and pulled the welding mask from his face. He stretched, running a hand through thick, dark hair as he sets the welding torch down. He reached over to a work bench, and suddenly the rock music lowered to a background sound.
Slowly, he turned, and suddenly, it was like a wave of heat washed right over my entire body.
“He’s— he’s nice!”
I realized right there, as that man stepped out of the shadows and into the light, that there were much better, much more accurate words Katrina could have used to describe him. Nice? Uh, no. Try rough-looking. Try hardened. Try intense, and smoldering, and God help me, try gorgeous. The huge, broad-shouldered, tattooed, bearded man who turned to face me was hot. Like, feel it in your toes, feel it in places you know you shouldn’t hot. In like, a scary biker kinda way, of course, but there was no escaping it.
I’d stepped in wearing my pleated navy blue J. Crew skirt, a cute nautical sweater top, and freaking Sperrys. Fucking boat shoes, in that neck of the woods, in that garage. And the man who stood from the half-deconstructed motorcycle he’d been tinkering with was the literal exact opposite of that look and the look of any man I’d ever met in my entire life.
The men I knew from the city, and from private school, and Worthmire College wore Dockers, and tailored polos. They wore sweaters over their shoulder in a completely non-ironic way. They golfed on the weekends. They wore their hair perfectly swept to one side with practiced politician smiles across clean shaven soft jaws.
Ryker James was none of those things.
The man who turned to greet me wore ripped, filthy dark denim jeans, leather boots, and a dirty, torn, smudged undershirt. He was streaked with dirt and engine grease, his rippling muscles glistening in the light through the open garage doors and the ink swirling over his sun-bronzed skin rippling as he flexed. Thick hair, a beard, and dark, smoldering eyes — eyes that burned right into me, leaving me trying to figure out how to breathe, or talk.
Nice. That’s the word she’d used? Really?
His eyes landed on me, and I swear I felt my knees go weak. I shivered, and swallowed the lump in my throat, and tightened my hands into fists at my sides, willing myself to keep breathing.
…Willing my body to stop reacting the way it was to this rough, hardened, gorgeous, beast of a man.
My name positively purred from his lips, like some sort of jungle cat. His voice was rough, and honeyed — like whiskey and wood. I breathed again, trying to will the heat from my face.
“Uh, Mr. James?”
His brow furrowed. “Just Ryker.”
His eyes slid over me, and not in some creepy way, like with Michael, but in this way that made me fucking melt. In a way that brought a fresh heat to my face and in a way that brought that same heat to all sorts of other places I knew it shouldn’t be going.
“Come,” he growled, nodding his head towards the back of the shop. “The office is back here. We’ll talk there.”
He turned without another word and stepped back into the shadows. I took a shaky breath, my fingers toying together before I set my resolution and took a step to follow. I stepped in, toeing around a pile of dirty oil rags, following him deeper into the garage.
Into his lair, it felt like. Like I was a lamb stepping into the wolf’s den.
…But I’m pretty sure lambs weren’t supposed to be that excited.