Even ones with his buddies, beer, and plenty of food. Maybe it was the time of year, but Swagger had few reasons to celebrate. He’d been stood up. Again. This many failures made him wonder why he even bothered to make an effort.
Yeah, women came along every once in a while, everyone got their rocks off, and BAM
. No thank you, ma’am. He had secrets, sure. He had a hell of a lot of them. But, Christ, how long was he going to have to pay for the sins of his past?
Casual encounters had lost their appeal when he’d finally settled down on Oahu. Sex wasn’t just a means to get off. A way to relieve stress and tension. A bright spark in the darkness that consumed him. Since then, he’d searched for more stability in his life, but so far, he had come up empty-handed.
He wasn’t asking for much. Just a chance to have what everyone else around him had. He knew finding someone who accepted the raw and broken parts of him was next to impossible, but just once he’d like more.
Maybe he was too fucking caught up in the Valentine’s Day bullshit.
“And the ghost appears from the shadows. Haven’t seen you around since the New Year’s Eve party.”
Swagger tipped his face up from where he’d buried it in his arm and blinked. The club’s sergeant at arms, Shane Taggert, stood next to the picnic table. He tapped a beer bottle against his leg. “You know me, Boone. Free food. Cold beer. I’m there. Not chasing your latest piece?”
“Taking a break for a few minutes.” Boone swung his leg over the bench seat and straddled it. “Contemplating my choices for the night. You?”
Swagger frowned. Last thing he wanted to do was chat it up with the club’s resident sex machine. Or admit his most recent failure. Boone could have any woman he wanted with the snap of his fingers. Usually did, too. He made no claims to the women he bedded, which probably made him all the more attractive in their eyes.
“Just enjoying the atmosphere.” His gaze swept across the parking lot to the groups chatting. A handful of members from Dragonborne and Sureblood had come to the cookout. In addition to Riding Irish, the two clubs were having problems with one of the rival motorcycle clubs on the island. Camino de Santiago
was slowly expanding their reach and their vile brand of justice. Boone’s precious bar inside the Riding Irish clubhouse still bore the marks of the most recent display.
Swagger had no doubt there was some devious shit going on the rest of the club had no knowledge of. For the most part, the club, the people surrounding them, was solid. Swagger didn’t believe Garvey was corrupt. But saying the leadership of the club was mucking around in the gray water was an understatement.
Yeah, Garvey might not be dirty, but he was one twisted son of a bitch.
Low rumbles echoed from out on the main road. Swagger’s senses went on alert as he listened. Calculated. A ripple of unease spread through those present as the lively conversations died. He knew better. That noise wasn’t the enemy—at least one that he was familiar with. The Camino crew had a tendency to remove the mufflers on their rides so they had everyone’s attention when they rolled in.
Camino arrived, you knew it. So did everyone else.
Swagger remembered the line of fancy bikes they’d blown to bits last year. Fuckers had dolled up their rides like they were taking them out on dates and expected a blowjob afterward. Swagger kept his bike stock, like most of the other Irish membership. All that flashy, hyped-up bullshit made his head hurt.
As he turned back around, the air around Swagger constricted when his gaze landed on a group of people standing near the club’s front entrance. A petite woman with waist-length hair dyed various shades of blue stood with Garvey and Arden, talking and gesturing wildly. Her clothing selection was just as vibrant as her hair. Slender legs were encased in leggings colored every shade of the rainbow. Literally. Rainbows arced in whimsical relief around her thighs. Is that a unicorn pooping rainbow cupcakes?
The couple laughed at something she said and the arm motions continued. They were obviously well acquainted with the newcomer.
Swagger usually kept his distance from people. Mostly because he didn’t trust them. Or himself. His apprehension could be chalked up to his months of training in the armpit of America on Parris Island. Or the years at Camp Lejeune, where he’d been trained to exist on the fringe of society or blend in when necessary. To hide in the open. That kind of intense training paired with the heightened state of awareness he’d had to endure in order to survive meant he was just now inserting himself as a productive member of civilization.
But the spark emitting from this stranger made Swagger want to abandon the caution he normally lived his life with. Roused instincts that had long gone dormant. He had no idea who she was, and he already wanted to dust off the cobwebs on parts of himself he’d sworn had grown cold.
Boone glanced over his shoulder. “Olivia Woo. One of Garvey’s.”
Swagger’s stomach flipped. Should have figured. “Didn’t know he was into that.”
Boone swung around, eyes narrowed. “His techs at GKMTec, man. She works for him doing their geek mumbo jumbo shit I only pretend to pay attention to when Garvey drones on and on about it. What the fuck do you think I’m talking about?”
“Oh.” He wiggled his nearly empty cup. “Brain’s a little hazy from the beer.” Boone didn’t need to know Swagger had been nursing Avery’s non-alcoholic lemonade the entire night.
“I see that.”
Garvey’s body language changed as Kane and Avery approached. Tensions had been high inside the club’s leadership, and Swagger didn’t envy the threads they had to weave. The palms they had to grease. The internal dynamics straining against one another like shifting tectonic plates. The two men couldn’t agree how the club should be led. Those kinds of fractures could widen into a chasm and tear the club apart.
“Think one of them is going to end up with a black eye soon?”
“They’ve been fighting like that for years. Been a while since they yanked the release valve. So they’re overdue.”
“Got a feeling that valve will come to blows.”
“They haven’t killed each other yet.” Boone shrugged as he tapped the patch on his uniform. “EMT on duty right here. I’ve mended them both enough before. I can’t fix it? Isla can clean up.”
Swagger’s gaze slid to where the attorney for Riding Irish stood bracketed by two club members. “When she’s not caught between Flint and Hatch.”
Boone watched the trio for a minute while Hatch flipped burgers on the massive grill. “Have to admit, they have one hell of an interesting story.”
A tale Swagger had witnessed firsthand thanks to his offer to volunteer as a dealer during the club’s New Year’s Eve fundraiser bash. He’d been right there at the table, dealing out cards, listening to the insults, and watching the pot grow. Which meant he’d been there when Flint and Hatch had bamboozled Isla out of a win.
He’d been looking forward to seeing two of the club members prance around the clubhouse in those hot pink lace boy shorts Isla had threatened the men with, if for nothing more than to have blackmail fodder somewhere down the line. Instead the club’s attorney and the two members had disappeared into the secret back room of the clubhouse.
They’d all emerged the next morning changed in more ways than one. Visual proof confirmed those alterations every time Swagger saw the triad and noticed they couldn’t keep their hands off one another. “Three-way sex sounds hot, but three-way fighting? Has to be a fucking nightmare.”
“Sure, but making up has to be insane. Isla is leaving in the morning so I don’t expect them to stick around too long tonight. Danny Conklin is stirring up trouble again at the jailhouse.” Swagger hadn’t been around for the events that lead to Danny’s incarceration, but he’d heard about the deadly night enough from the other members. Kidnap the wife of the club’s vice president and people still talked years afterward. Participate in a gunrunning sting that ripped off the US Marines, and Swagger remembered. “His sister is still trying to get visitation, but he’s refusing to see her. Claims she’s a traitor. Whatever the fuck that means.”
“She’s out, he’s in. Probably feels she should be working harder to free him? Don’t know what level of involvement Natalie had with the Dullahans and their schemes, but she probably knew enough she should be right beside Danny behind bars. Avery knew, and she paid the price.”
“Yeah, but Avery’s brothers ain’t around to be pissed if she did time or not.”
Swagger glanced around the assembled group. The wives. Kids. Sisters and brothers. He looked past the glint of chrome, the scrolls of ink and the smell of leather. Riding Irish wasn’t just a group of guys who hung out occasionally. They’d become family. A haven when times got rocky.
Lately Swagger had a lot of rough and not a lot of good. He’d hate to see it all fall apart. Steadiness wasn’t a trait that had played a big part in his life. But now that he had it, he hated to see everything crumble. “Anyone heard from Rawls?”
Boone watched a group of preteens kick a ball around for a few moments before answering. “Not since he was discharged from the hospital. House looked vacant when I last checked. Not so much as one of his kid’s toys littering the front lawn. All I ended up doing was collecting his Riding Irish patches. Pretty glaring sign he’s done with us.”
“Lot of shit I can take.” Lot of shit he had been through and managed to survive. “Not sure having my testicles forcefully removed is one of those things.”
“Ever since Camino hit Garvey’s fundraiser at the convention center last year Rawls was a little uneasy. Discussed starting up an Irish charter on the mainland to get away from the violence happening here. Can’t see that happening now.”
Swagger finished off the last of his lemonade. “Can’t see a lot of things happening now.”
Boone slapped the table. “Damn, Swagger, you’re a fucking miserable bastard.” He stood. Adjusted his vest, playing with the zipper fob. His expression softened as he leaned forward to close the distance between them. “Shit’ll be all right. Those two have been through a lot together. We all have. Going to take a lot more than a few bullets and a couple of missing testicles to break us down. To break this club down.” He winked, then his normal, unreadable expression returned. “Now, I’ve got to get me some pussy so I don’t get caught up in your sour mood. Maybe you should too.”
Swagger’s gaze swept over to the knot of the Irish’s leadership where the two men were still clenching their jaws from biting their tongues. Their women chatted, their body language totally at ease with the tension rolling through the air. Arden and Avery were godsends for Garvey and Kane. They both knew how to keep the bad blood between the men from festering.
And then there was the petite waif who’d caught his eye. She chatted with the two women, at ease despite the obvious strain in the atmosphere. Of course, working for Garvey meant she was used to dealing with the weight of intense pressure.
Swagger had heard about some of Garvey’s questionable work ethics.
Arden started waving over men and began introducing the newcomer to assorted single members. A muscle in Swagger’s jaw ticked. He had no right to feel so possessive. No right to want to tear off the head of every man who stepped up where he didn’t have the courage. Or feel the clench deep in his gut when her cheeks tinted an alluring shade of pink. When her eyes dropped away each time a man stepped up to introduce himself. They were all gentlemanly enough to give space to her obvious discomfort.
Swagger didn’t want to give her room. He wanted to invade it. Force her off balance. He wanted to know what limits he could push. Break. Destroy.