“Holy shit, Celina, I still can’t believe your article made the second page,” my best friend, Akeira, says, yelling into my ear. “I’m so proud of you! I’m going to frame it and put it on my wall.”
I hold the phone slightly farther away and smile. She probably would too; she’s always been my biggest supporter. As a journalist, making the first few pages of the newspaper is a huge deal, especially considering it’s my first time to do so. “Thank you. I’m pretty thrilled about it. But you don’t need to put an article about the high crime rate among the homeless on your fridge. That’s kind of depressing.”
“I don’t care, you wrote it,” she huffs. “Next time, it will be the front page, I just know it.”
“That’s the plan,” I sigh dreamily before we say our good-byes. I’m more than determined to get my name on the front page one day; I just need to find a story worthy enough in my boss’s eyes to put me there. It’s not a matter of if but when. I will get there eventually. This is only the beginning of my career, and I’m determined to succeed and become the type of journalist who brings real issues to light.
“Well done, Celina,” Robert, my least favorite person and a senior editor, says as he wanders toward my desk.
“Thank you,” I reply, a little warily. Unlike my best friend, Robert isn’t one of my fans and is probably hating the fact that I’ve accomplished anything. “I’m really happy Tim chose to put it on page two,” I continue, rubbing it in a little. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
“Me either,” he admits, shrugging and sliding his hands into the pockets of his beige chinos. “Must’ve been a slow week. Don’t think you’ll get that lucky again. You’ll need something huge to break the cover, and I don’t think homelessness is going to do it. Keep dreaming though.”
He turns and leaves, too fast to hear me mutter the word asshole.
I do prefer to write about topics that can help our city, or at least let people know what is going on and how they can help, unlike Robert, who prefers celebrity gossip, or any kind of scandal. I know those kinds of things sell, but surely that isn’t all that everyone wants to read about with their morning coffee.
I pack up my desk, not letting my jerk of a colleague ruin my buzz, my mind wandering to tomorrow night for my cousin Erin’s birthday party. She’s chosen to have it at the Cursed Ravens MC clubhouse, where her boyfriend is a member. I haven’t met him yet, so I’m curious to see how that goes, and I have to admit, never in my life did I think I’d be walking through those infamous clubhouse doors. It actually is a dream opportunity. I’m going to walk into a place that not many will ever see the inside of, and those who will, will never disclose any information about it.
The public knows so little about the Cursed Ravens MC, and I know that if I wrote a story on them it would make the front page and leave Robert licking his wounds. I could find out about the parties they throw, what their clubhouse looks like, or even how many people belong to the MC. Whatever it was, people would eat it up. I wonder if they know they’re letting a journalist in?
I guess I will soon find out.
I slide out of my car, closing the door behind me and glancing around the busy parking lot. There are men standing out front near the gates, asking everyone for their names before they allow people to drive through. It seems like a bit of overkill. I don’t know how many people Erin invited, but I know our whole family is coming. Maybe the security is so no one tries to gate-crash? I don’t pretend to know how motorcycle clubs run, but I wasn’t expecting this.
I pull on the hem of my favorite little black dress, sliding the strap of my Givenchy Pandora bag, the one Akeira bought me for my twenty-first birthday, over my bare shoulder. I’m about to text Erin to tell her I’m here when she rushes out the entrance doors, a big smile on her face, her blue eyes sparkling. And then her arms are around me, and her warm presence has me suddenly feeling at home even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been a few months since I’ve seen her, but, as always, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I guess that’s what is so special about family—no matter what, the love never changes.
“You look beautiful,” she says, hands on my cheeks. “Wearing your signature red lipstick, I see.”
“Did you expect anything else?” I ask, smiling. I happen to be fond of a bloodred lip, and she knows it. As she lets go of my cheeks, I open my bag and pull out a red-wrapped present, a black bow stuck to it. “Happy birthday, Erin.”
“Thank you,” she replies, taking the gift and eyeing it greedily. “I told you not to get me anything.”
“I know, but I couldn’t not,” I tell her, looking toward the clubhouse, a nervous energy flowing through my body. “And I know you secretly love getting presents,” I continue, as she leads me toward the entrance.
“This is true,” she responds, laughing softly. “And you always give the best gifts.”
“Hey, Erin, who is this?” a man asks, coming over to us before we get inside. He’s dressed in all black and has brown eyes with short dark hair.
“This is my cousin Celina. Celina, this is Shack,” she says, nodding toward the man. “And, Shack, don’t even think about it.”
“Why not?” he asks, smirking. His eyes return to me. “Nice to meet you, Celina.”
“You too,” I call back as Erin drags me inside.
I eat the place up.
I take in every detail, unable to stop myself from going into journalist mode. We walk down a small hallway and into a spacious room that must be their living area. It’s been turned into a makeshift stage, dressed up with decorations, balloons, signs, and ribbons, and is filled with leather-clad men. It’s surprisingly . . . normal. It just looks like someone’s house. Not a place I would think bikers hang out and live.
“What do you think?” Erin asks, taking in the room with me just as a tall, handsome man approaches us. His eyes are zeroed in on my baby cousin.
“It’s perfect,” I tell her as the man stops in front of us, turning his attention to me.
“You must be Celina,” he murmurs, offering me his hand. “I’m Ace. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
I take his hand and smile up at him. “Nice to meet you too, Ace.”
While I’ve heard a lot about Ace during my phone call catch-ups with Erin, meeting him does not do Erin’s descriptions justice. With his light gray eyes and light hair, I can see why Erin is so taken. He’s extremely good-looking, but also has a Don’t fuck with me or you’ll regret it vibe that any woman would find appealing. But I can instantly see how much he adores Erin—the way he looks at her with such love and devotion. The two of them make a stunning couple.
“Isn’t he dreamy?” Erin asks, checking out her man. “Seriously, who knew they made them like this in real life?”
Ace chuckles and pulls Erin into his arms. “Can I get either of you a drink?”
“We’d love one,” Erin replies. Ace kisses the top of her head and heads to the bar.
“That was a bit cute,” I tell her, arching a brow. “I can see why you’re so smitten.”
Erin and I have always been close, and I consider her one of my favorite people in the world. I love seeing her so happy, especially after everything she’s been through recently. From finding out that her mother—my aunt Louise—never told her that Brock, the man who raised her as his own, wasn’t Erin’s real father, to the fact that her biological father is actually the president of a motorcycle club, she’s had a rough go of it this year. None of us knew the truth. At least I sure as hell didn’t. My father, Louise’s older brother, also denies knowing the truth. I can’t deny being shocked, finding out that straitlaced Aunt Louise once dated a badass biker guy—but hey, it’s always the ones you least suspect.
“You must be the cousin,” a man with blond hair and blue eyes interrupts as he appears next to us. “I see beauty runs in the family.”
“The cousin has a name,” I reply, my hand going to my hip, a smirk playing on my lips.
Erin nudges me with her arm. “Celina, this is Rogue. Rogue, Celina.”
“She does have a name. And a beautiful one at that. About time I officially meet you, Celina,” he says, shaking my hand, blue eyes pinned on me. “Erin’s been going on about you all day.”
“It’s not every day you bring your family to a biker clubhouse.” She shrugs, not ashamed by the fact. “I’ve been excited all month, counting down.”
“I know,” Rogue replies in a dry tone. He looks at me. “She sends out email notifications reminding us, and with a checklist of shit we have to do. Do you get those too? Or are we the only unlucky ones?”
“Oh, I get them all right,” I tell him with a short laugh. “I’ve been getting them since she got her first phone when she was twelve. I believe the first one I received was a wish list for her birthday, and the number one thing she wanted was a puppy.”
He winces, but I don’t miss the amusement in his gaze. He cares about Erin, and to be honest it’s kind of hard not to. She’s just one of those people you instantly adore.
“Ahh, shit. I’m gonna go save Erin’s mom from Shack,” he murmurs, touching my shoulder briefly and saying, “It was nice to meet you.”
“You too,” I reply, watching him rush over to Aunt Louise, who looks extremely uncomfortable with Shack next to her. I almost want to laugh, but I don’t, because if she sees me she will probably kick my butt. I bring my attention back to Erin, who has a wide smile on her face, looking at a man onstage who is setting up a microphone.
“That’s Gage. My father,” she says with pride, pointing to him.
I’ve never seen her so content, and she truly looks like this is where she belongs. She’s so comfortable around everyone here, and she can’t stop beaming, happiness just radiates out of her.
Home is where your heart is, I guess.
“I can’t believe your mom actually came,” I say, eyes still on her, Shack, and Rogue. “And where is Brock?”
“He’s getting a drink,” Erin replies, bringing her eyes back to me. “And I’m surprised too, but she’s really trying to mend things between us.”
“I don’t know about that,” she mutters, threading her arm through mine. “But I’m trying. I want everyone to get along, you know? Everyone has played a role in my life, which got me where I am today and made me who I am.”
“Me included?” I tease.
“You especially,” she exclaims, nudging my shoulder. “You’ve always been there, Celina, and even better than that, you’ve always been on my side. Loyal. Trustworthy. Honest. You can’t ask for more than that. The men here go on about loyalty, but I’ve already had that my whole life, from you.”
“Ahh, come on, don’t make me get all emotional,” I tell her, softening. “This is meant to be a party.”
She rolls her eyes at me. “Pretend to be a hard-ass all you want, Celina, but I know you. You’re kind, generous, loving, and, inside, soft as a motherfucking marshmallow, although for some reason, you pretend not to be.”
I tilt my head to the side and flash her an unimpressed look.
“But you know what? That’s a good thing, because not everyone deserves your sweet side. I know why you protect yourself; I understand it, and I don’t want to see you hurt either, so I’m glad that wall is there,” she continues, glancing up at me with a gentle look in her blue eyes. “I’m so happy you came tonight.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I tell her honestly. “Even if it comes with a deep and meaningful explanation about why I’m so closed off.”
“There you are,” she says to the bearded man fondly. “I was looking for you.”
“I was doing a boundary check,” he informs her.
“Celina, this is my bestie, Knuckles,” she introduces us, and as soon as I lock eyes with the man in front of me, I can’t seem to look away. He’s tall, much taller than my five foot six, and I have to lift my face to see his brown eyes.
“Bestie?” I ask with an arched brow, amused at Erin calling such a big, burly man something so girly, but the man before me nods.
“I’ve claimed that title apparently. And you’re Erin’s cousin? I’ve heard about you,” he murmurs, offering me his hand, which I take while eyeing the tattoo of a Viking’s face on his thumb before bringing my gaze back to his eyes, which are locked on me. I take in his shaved head, scruffy beard, and full lips and realize why I’ve never dated a man like this before.
He has heartbreaker written all over him.
“I am, yes,” I say, glancing down at my baby cousin. “And I can only imagine the things she’s said about me.”
Erin starts to laugh. “Don’t worry, I haven’t told them all our secrets.”
I smile and shake my head, pulling my hand from his. The way he gently held mine in his rough one sent a weird feeling through my body, and I have the sudden urge to step away from him and clear my head.
Ace returns with our drinks, which I greedily accept, suddenly feeling a little overwhelmed with all these huge bikers around me. It’s a lot to take in.
They are a lot to take in.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get another drink,” I tell them all. I’m about to step away when Knuckles stops me with a barely there touch on my arm, sending a shiver up my spine.
“I’ll get it. What do you want?” Knuckles asks me in that deep tone of his, the silver in his ears catching my eyes. In any other situation, I’d have taken him up on the offer, but this drink is my escape plan. Besides, no good decisions are made after a good-looking man offers to get you a drink. Men rarely do it out of common courtesy. Maybe he wants to talk to me, I don’t know, or maybe he’s just looking for a little action after the party. No matter his reasoning, I’m not going to engage.
“It’s okay; I can get it,” I tell him, offering him a small smile. That smile hopefully says, I’m fine, no hard feelings, but I can get my own damn drink. I look to Erin. “Do you want anything else, birthday girl?”
“I’m okay, thanks,” she says, looking between the two of us. “I’m going to go check on Eden. I can see Rogue talking to her, and I think she’s about to faint.”
“I’ll come with you,” Ace chimes in.
Eden is Erin’s younger sister but she has a more modest, gentle aura about her. I can just imagine how overwhelmed she must be talking to a man like Rogue.
I grin, nod, and quickly make my exit, heading to the bar and taking a long, deep breath. “Can I have a vodka, lemon and lime, please?” I ask the young gentleman manning the bar. I glance behind me and see Knuckles approaching. I turn back to the man and say, “Make it a double.”
The man smirks and ducks his head, getting to the business of making my much-needed drink.
“So what’s your deal?” Knuckles asks, studying me thoughtfully. “Every time Erin talks about you, she says she admires how independent you are.”
I smile at the way Erin thinks about me. If that is what comes to mind first for her, I can’t be doing such a bad job as an older cousin.
“I don’t know how to reply to that,” I tell him honestly. “Is being independent a bad thing?” Because for me, it’s something I’ve strived to be. I don’t like to rely on anyone, and I’ve made it so I never have to.
“No,” he replies instantly. “It’s admirable.”
“But?” I ask, pursing my lips, knowing there’s more to come.
I’ve heard it all before. The truth is, some men are intimidated by me. I know that sounds egotistical, but they’ve actually said that to me before. Some men don’t want a woman who is too strong, too capable. They want to be needed, wanted, and they like being in charge. I can’t change who I am though, and I won’t. I’m sure there’s a man out there for me who will be proud of the woman I am and not want to tone me down to make themselves feel more like a man.
He laughs, a deep, rich sound. “But . . . I don’t think it’s the main adjective people should use when trying to describe someone. Being independent is what you do and how you act, not who you are as a person.”
I must admit, his comment surprises me. I hate those kinds of comments that are down on feminism. What he said actually had some depth, even if I don’t necessarily agree with him. I sigh and deflect, since I don’t know how to respond. It works every time. “Is this you being drunk and trying to have a deep and meaningful conversation?”
“I’ve only had one drink,” he shoots back, nodding to the bar. “And yours is waiting for you. Jasper makes some fuckin’ good drinks.”
I pick up my glass, taking a long sip. “Thanks, Jasper!” I call out to my hero, who has already moved on and is making someone else’s glass of salvation. He lifts his head and flashes me a charming, very amused smile.
“So you only like men who bring you alcohol? I’ll have to remember that.”
I bring my attention back to the delicious, completely infuriating man before me. “Are you insinuating I don’t like men who don’t?”
Because it sounds like he is.
And if that’s true, I don’t know how he’s gotten this impression that I don’t like men, but he’s not the first to think this. On the contrary, I love men. From their smell to the power in their touch, there’s no feeling better than when you have that chemistry and connection with a good man.
“You didn’t seem to like the idea of me offering to get you a drink. Don’t like chivalry either?”
Okay, now he’s just being an asshole.
“Because I wanted to get my own drink?” I ask him in a dry tone. “Well, aren’t you a charmer. If you must know, I don’t let strangers—especially strange men—get my drinks. We live in a time where people can put drugs in a drink. If I recall, I think something like that happened to my cousin here. So excuse me for being cautious about my drinks, especially within these walls.”
Does he think I’m an idiot? These are modern times and women have to be cautious nowadays. Besides, I heard Erin’s crazy story about being poisoned. I’m not taking any chances.
And I know his type.
He’s an alpha male, used to getting his way, and assumes his word is law and will be listened to at all times. He’s demanding and in control. Used to taking charge. Has a woman ever told him no? I sincerely doubt it. He’s a dangerous mix of confident and good-looking in a rough way, and let’s not forget his place here in the MC.
He’s the fucking trifecta of the male race.
And he knows it.
“Whoa,” he replies with his hands in the air. “Just trying to understand you,” he adds with a casual shrug. “Don’t mean any offense.”
“And why would you want to try to understand a woman you’ve just met, Knuckles?” I ask, putting emphasis on his name. I can only imagine how he got the road name, and as I run my gaze over his scarred hands, I know I’m right.
He’s a brute.
And he’s standing here and judging me, trying to pass it off as curiosity.
You know what this man needs?
“Maybe because the woman in question is the first one who has caught my eye in years,” he admits, gaze unwavering, pinning me with its intensity. “And of course I’m fucking up my first impression.” He shakes his head as if he’s in a fog.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” I say, tone gentling.
I don’t know what else to say. I’m the first woman to catch his eye in years? I find that kind of hard to believe, but I guess I’ve been making assumptions about him all night, and we know that people aren’t always who we expect them to be.
“Why don’t you let me make it up to you by taking you out to dinner sometime this week?” he continues, leaning against the bar and scanning my eyes.
“Oh,” I blurt out. “I can’t,” I say, forehead furrowing as I think of an excuse to make. “I’m sorry.”
If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my self-control. I’ve always made sure to go for men who will be good for me. If they aren’t adding something to my already fulfilled life, then I don’t want them. I don’t want trouble, and I don’t want any kind of drama. And I sure as hell don’t want a bad boy.
Unfortunately, I can’t help whom I’m attracted to.
What I can do though is control who I allow to get close to me and which men I give a chance to.
An icy glass clasped in my hand, the condensation making my palm and fingers numb, I offer him an apologetic smile and make a quick exit, seeing Erin on the dance floor and heading straight for her.
“Did you save Eden from Rogue’s good looks?” I joke, casually glancing back at Knuckles, only to see him still standing alone in the same spot I left him, staring straight back at me.
“Yeah. She really needs to work on her game. She was just standing there, wide-eyed, not even replying to his questions because she was so distracted by his looks,” Erin says, amusement dancing in her eyes. “Although, I guess I can’t really blame her.”
I laugh and wrap my arm around her. “No, you can’t. You know, when you told me about this whole MC thing, this is not how I pictured it.”
I mean, I had all these misconceptions about Erin’s life here, and after meeting these people, I realize I’m wrong for judging so quickly. I thought the men wouldn’t be as nice and as welcoming, and I didn’t picture them going out of their way to decorate the place for Erin. They are a family, and I’m getting a glimpse of that. Don’t get me wrong, I imagine it’s not all parties and laughter, but I can just feel the bond between everyone and it’s contagious. The vibe here is something else.
“Me either,” she admits, holding on to my waist. “Thanks for being open-minded about it though.”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve always wondered what it looks like in here.” I grin, teasing her. “And you know that anywhere you go, I’ll follow. You’re one of my favorite people in the world, and I’m here for you if you need me.”
“I know,” she says with a soft smile. “I wanted to call you a few times when I was first here, but I don’t know, I guess it was something I needed to face on my own. I can’t always expect someone to bail me out; I’m not a teenager anymore.”
“No, you’re not, are you?” I mutter, squeezing her tighter. I might have only six years on her, but growing up, that felt like plenty. As we get older, the gap is closing though, and soon it won’t feel like she’s much younger than me at all. How time has flown. I remember Erin on her first day of high school and how she’d asked me to drop her off. Not her mom, or her dad, she wanted me. As we sat in the car, I could tell how nervous she was. So I’d said, “I’ll pick you up at three, okay? You have nothing to worry about. You’re beautiful and smart, and if anyone gives you any shit I’ll make their lives a living hell.”
She’d smiled, taken a deep breath, and nodded. “You’re right, I’ve got this.”
And now she’s in college.
This time though, she doesn’t need me to drop her off.
We’re all so busy in our own lives that sometimes we forget to stop and enjoy the present.
I look back at Knuckles, who is still watching me, and then turn to face the stage, where Rogue is about to sing.
I want to be in the present, not be reckless.
When I was invited to this party, I admit that it briefly crossed my mind that I could write a story about the Cursed Ravens. It would be a firsthand account, and I know my boss, Tim, would eat it up. And Erin never said anything about keeping what I see “off the record,” but ultimately, she didn’t have to. I love my career, but I love my family more. I’d never do anything to betray Erin, especially because of how much faith she has in me.
It’ll be like I wasn’t even here.